The first two chapters of the 1st Walter Balducci Mystery.
Drip . . . drip . . . drip. The water from Ctesibius’ clepsydra slowly reached its appointed mark. Polyeidos looked up from the scrolls he was studying and shivered. It was not a cold shiver, nor the shiver of age that often ripples through the frail bones of time, but rather a shiver of nervousness and anticipation. Even dread. In fact, it was a rare feeling for Polyeidos who hadn’t felt this way in ages; he was an old scholar who had weathered a lifetime of abrupt changes with Stoic composure and passive self-control, but this time it was different, he was slightly afraid, wondering if he would be able to face the truth. The truth, at his age, could be something extremely difficult to contend with . . . it could even be deadly.
Polyeidos sighed. There was no time for death, not today. He captured a glint of his reflection in the water of the clepsydra, and all he could see was his long, white, hirsute beard. He could not make out the countless wrinkles that marked his face, or the cataract that covered his entire left eye like some miniature Underworld mist that was gradually taking over his vision. His right eye, however, glinted back; it was keen and intense, and it whisked around with temperament, burrowing deep into the soul of everything like a shaft of piercing sunlight. All his life was concentrated in that eye, all his memories, all his passions.
As he stood up, the scrolls rolled together as if they were embracing themselves or praying for some miracle. He still couldn’t believe what they contained. So many years of study and research and finally it all began to make sense; the words and numbers had harmoniously come together, and, in between the lines, he had read a spellbinding revelation that had shattered his years of introspective tranquility.
Today he would find out if there was some truth to the revelation. He would find out if the translations of the ancient Ugaritic tablets were not the invention of some demented Greek historian. If this revelation proved true, today he would come face to face with the Creation that was written in those tablets, face to face with God!
Nonetheless, he was still not sure what God he was dealing with. There were so many Gods in his world — a large number of Gods that formed part of the Ptolomeiac cults, the Jewish Gods, the ancient Gods, and the Gods from afar that swept into the market when the camel caravans arrived or when the merchant ships docked in the Great harbor. But this God, the God of the revelation was unique for He was trapped inside His creation, inside a human body, never manifesting Himself in any way. He just appeared . . . and disappeared like an apparition in the heat of the desert. A silent and divine mystery hidden within life.
He gathered the scrolls and a small water gourd and put them inside of his leather-skin bag. He looked around the room for something that was not there, deeply breathing in the frankincense that drifted up from the small stone altar by the door, then he crept out of his two-story house that was cached in a side street several blocks from the theatre in the Brucheion district.
It was late in the morning and the streets were practically empty because of the festivities of the winter solstice that had been celebrated the day before. The celebrations had continued into the night, gradually transforming themselves from a ritual of seasonal transition into a Dyonisiac feast of lust and intoxication.
Halfway down his street he could make out a solitary drunkard, crouched in the shade of the marble columns of a small portico. The drunkard was singing an old love song that reminded Polyeidos of an epigram from Callimachus: “I still have half my soul here breathing; half I don’t know whether Love or Death has snatched away, but it has vanished . . . .”
As he turned a corner, Polyeidos bumped into a young man of the privileged class who reeked of zythos beer. The young man mumbled something incoherent and continued on his way. Polyeidos shook his head; it didn’t surprise him to witness the true nature of man prevailing over ritual. What had been a tradition to honor the cycles of nature became a tradition to honor the weaknesses of one’s own nature.
Before reaching the market, a saline breeze made him glance to his right and catch sight of the enormous lighthouse on the island of Pharos; he barely could make out the statue of Poseidon that crowned the top. Beyond the mighty Poseidon stretched the Mediterranean like a shimmering blanket of blue. The blue expanse brought back distant memories, reminding him of his home town on the pine-scented island of Thasos, off the coast of Macedonia. Long ago, when he was young, he promised himself he would return to live his last days on the island; but with time, his promise turned to nostalgia, and the island gradually became an abandoned memory that he would never relive.
The silence of his thoughts was taken over by the throbbing sound of the approaching market. Soon he was surrounded by the smells and sounds of the four corners of the world — myrrh, incense, resins, balsams, and spices from different regions of the world, all of these mixed with the sweet scent of exotic perfumes, the fragrance of different fruits, and the pungent odors of leather, human sweat, garum, and animal dung. Beyond these smells, his hearing picked up the cries of panthers, exotic birds, and frantic monkeys in their small cages, all these sounds mingled with the blares of camels, the brays of donkeys, and the continuous cries of pushy vendors, trying to sell their wares to the passing crowd: pearls from the Persian Gulf, wine from Massilia, ivory from Central Africa, silk from China, pepper from India, silphium from Cyrenaica, ostrich plumes from Mauritania, cinnabar and silver from Hispalia, precious stones from Parthia, and tortoiseshells from Nubia.
Once past the market square, he felt better, relieved. At his age, the hubbub of humanity wore heavily on his nerves. In the last nine years, ever since his wife had died, he had spent most of his time by himself, in the silence of his thoughts. He had no family to share his secrets; no family to share his last days. Fortunately, he had his scholarly work to ease the pain and divert his attention from that lonely and sad feeling of abandonment that occasionally would grip his soul with anxiety.
The sun beat down heavily on the street. The shadow of a palm tree that crossed his path made him think and calculate how much time he had left. About an hour and half, he surmised, but he would arrive an hour early. That would give him enough time to wait and prepare for something he was not really prepared for.
With faltering steps, he crossed the Canopic way and entered the small alleyways of Rhakotis, the Egyptian sector. He made his way up and up until he reached a small square not far from the Serapeium. Here he stopped and sat down in the shade of a nearby fig tree, exhausted. His heart was beating against his chest like someone banging on a door, screaming to be let out. It was his age; his age was screaming for him to stop. He shook his head — he would not stop, not now.
He took out his gourd, poured some water into his cupped hand and splashed it on his face; the drops dried rapidly against his parched and wrinkled skin. Feeling better, he leaned back and waited. A stray dog appeared and also plopped himself in the shade of the fig tree. They exchanged a curious look. He tried a feeble smile at the dog who, panting back, seemed to be happy no matter what the outcome of his miserable life. He wondered if the dog believed in Gods and rituals. Gods, Gods, Gods. Last night he had dreamt of Gods and they had whispered to him:
“We are caught in your vision until your darkness will make us free.”
The dog pricked his ears. Polyeidos turned to look to his right and saw a group of Isis priests in their white linen tunics, shaking their sistrums before disappearing around a corner; a tense moment of silence ensued, then he heard the rattle and squeak of an ox-driven cart as it appeared from a side street and slowly crossed the square. His heart jumped and the dog leaped up and ran away. This was it, God was driving that cart, it was written in the scrolls!
He got up and approached the cart. The driver, a young man with shaggy brown hair, a big nose, and a broad friendly smile looked down at him. Around his chest, the young man carried a hedgehog amulet.
“Elder, do you need a ride?” the young man inquired.
Polyeidos nodded and the young man stopped the cart and helped the old man up. Then he bellowed out to the sleepy-eyed oxen and the cart lurched forward. Polyeidos stared at the young man and wondered. Could this be Him? The young man flashed him another grin, puffed, and wiped the sweat from his brow.
Polyeidos nodded. But he wasn’t feeling the heat; he was trying to understand something beyond his means, and the only conclusion he could come up with was filled with doubt.
“Are you from these parts?” he asked the young man. Maybe the young man had some clue to the miracle that was about to happen.
“I’m from a small village on the other side of Lake Mareotis.”
Polyeidos glanced at the back of the cart which was full of acrid smelling fertilizer. “You’re a farmer?”
The young man nodded and yelled at his oxen. It was obvious to Polyeidos that the young farmer was not aware that inside of his soul there lay the mystery to all of creation.
“Do you know who you are?” he finally asked the young man.
The young man threw him a puzzled and innocent look. “Of course I do,” he replied, slowly nodding his head. “I’m Kenos, son of Kalotychos of Alexandria and Thisbe of Lagash.”
With his right eye, Polyeidos stared intently at the young lad. He was trying to uproot something that was hidden behind that curious look. “No . . . no, you’re actually somebody else. You will be somebody else . . . somebody is inside of you and you’re not aware of it. Don’t you feel it? Don’t you feel something deep and powerful inside of your soul?”
Kenos replied with a silent blank look.
“You must feel it,” Polyeidos insisted, “it’s there . . . it must be there.”
Now it was a frightened look. “What kind of witchcraft are you talking about, elder?”
Polyeidos kept staring at the lad. The lad stopped the cart. Then Polyeidos slowly uttered the words, the secret enchantment, that would spark the young man’s soul and release all of eternity into the open world.
The young man was about to express his discomfort when suddenly his face indicated that something was happening to him deep inside; he frowned, something was not right; then a spasm shook his whole body and he gaped at Polyeidos in astonishment; another spasm brought wave upon wave of chills that he couldn’t control and that made him shiver and shiver until his eyes burst with tears. His breathing accelerated, he was utterly frightened.
“What is happening to me? What is happening to me?” he croaked.
Unable to control himself, he wrapped himself in a ball, every muscle tense and knotted, as if he were about to explode. One last spasm, then a calm slowly came over him, the muscles relaxed, the shivers stopped, he unwrapped himself like a morning rose, and he stared intensely at Polyeidos.
All Polyeidos noticed were his eyes. There was a special shine to them, an intensity so profound and breathtaking that Polyeidos felt his vision, his mind, his soul burning. God, God, God! It was too much for him, too much for his old body; his heart jumped up into his throat and stopped altogether. Kenos stared at him and said something, but Polyeidos could not hear him. All he could hear was the wind that was coming to take him away, the wind from behind that look, the spirit of God, the gust from eternity. Slowly he fell back and stared up at the Lord of the Skies, then he puffed out his last breath of life and was whisked away into the world of eternal darkness, eternal light, eternal God.
(Geneva, Switzerland — The Present)
Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. Like a time bomb. Time was ticking away, silently ticking away with its relentless and characteristic precision. Besides it was ticking everywhere, ticking without hesitation, knocking off the seconds as if there were no tomorrow. Time, time, time, ticking time, so elusive, so abstract, an element of the past that advanced relentlessly towards the future, never stopping in the present, never acknowledging a moment of eternity.
Time, bloody time. But what time was it?
Walter Balducci stared at the clock in the glass case and sighed. He hated to wait. He should go home, he thought, call it a day, sip a dry martini, and eat some leftover gnocchi al pesto. Unfortunately, he couldn’t, for he was sure the switch was to take place here, in Geneva’s famous Watchmaking Museum, a museum in honor of time.
Walter grunted, unbuttoned the buttons to his Brooks Brothers sports jacket, and moved his lean, medium-sized frame in front of an imitation Egyptian clepsydra made out of a 1964 Gamay wine bottle. Time mixed with water to produce a strange looking water clock, like many of the other strange clocks that were in the room. Walter shook his head in dismay and moved on to the next room. He didn’t particularly like time, but in his line of work time was of the essence, and often there was no other alternative but to succumb to its continuous demands. Ever since his youth, his father — one of Rome’s most notorious cat-burglars — had taught him to make use of time and exploit its precision. Walter eventually followed his father’s advice, but not by using time in the art of thievery, but in the role of a detective. Detective work, after all, required precise timing. Which made him wonder about his present contradiction: not knowing at what bloody time the switch was to take place!
He moved to another part of the museum where there was a display of singing bird snuff boxes made out of gold, silver and pearl enamel. In the main room, the man he was shadowing, a pale, little bespectacled man who worked as a laboratory assistant for a Swiss genetic research laboratory, was nervously looking at his watch. Walter smiled his half smile on one side of his mouth, finding it ironic that someone in a Swiss clock museum had to look at his watch to make sure that his rendezvous would arrive on time. Then he glanced to his right and saw the two wingers entering: two thin wiry men, plainly dressed, with shifty, calculating, dark eyes. They slunk into the museum with slow, exacting steps, like cats in virgin territory. At first glance, they looked like twins, two sinister twins who were checking out the grounds, clearing the way for the switch. Professionally, they clocked everybody in the room with machine-like movements. Walter immediately turned his back to them.
Talk, he had to find somebody to talk to, or those two would pick him out — a lone person comes under closer scrutiny. He smiled at an elegant, attractive lady in her mid-forties, dressed in white and gold Chanel, who was standing next to him; he pointed to an 1840 gold pocket watch that was on display in front of them. The pocket watch had, on its back, a colorful depiction of Cupid-like angels playfully forging their arrows of love.
“Amazing the way these clocks and watches evolve, while time remains the same,” he said.
The attractive lady smiled pleasantly as she adjusted her red velvet cloche. “What makes you say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Just something that ticktocked through my mind.”
“Well how do you know time doesn’t evolve? Aren’t we all getting old as the minutes tick by?”
“Sure we are, but time isn’t. It doesn’t get old, it doesn’t get young, it just repeats itself, over and over again,” Walter explained.
The lady looked at the clock and reflected on Walter’s last remark. A light frown on her face indicated that she had reached the conclusion that maybe Walter was slightly off his rocker, some sort of a cuckoo bird . . . but a handsome one at that.
Walter, in the meantime, shot a quick glance at the wingers and the bespectacled man. The wingers seemed more relaxed, they had checked out the museum and apparently there was nothing suspicious, nothing to fear. No undercover agents, no surprises. Everything was under control, all was set, this was it, the contact was about to arrive and the switch was ready to take place.
The elderly lady smiled again at Walter. “Interesting,” she said, then she drifted off to another room, leaving behind in her wake a sweet-scented film of Boucheron perfume. Perhaps she expected Walter to follow her with philandering intents, but Walter remained in the same room, in front of a 1700 French lantern mural clock, wondering what to do once the switch was made.
Gradually, his impatience was beginning to wear on his nerves. Tension was making his stomach rumble and he felt his bowels burbling in protest. This kind of operation was not his racket — he was a detective specialized in finding lost people and objects, not in industrial espionage. Yet he had agreed to take on the assignment when a friend of his, who worked in the Swiss biochemical genetic research laboratory, asked Walter to be the backup man in case something should go wrong. They needed to find out who was stealing their formulae and who was behind the whole operation.
The Police Federale in charge of the operation had not been too keen to the idea, they didn’t need any extra help, they could easily take care of shadowing the pale, little Swiss man by themselves. Unfortunately, the contrary proved to be true and things did go wrong. The little Swiss man turned out to be extremely slippery and remarkably ingenious. Being a cautious man, he took extra care he wasn’t being followed, thus switching cars, buildings, commercial galleries, shopping centers, and in and out of passageways all the way from the St-Gervais district to the Watchmaking and Enamel Work museum on the Route du Malagnou. Eventually, he craftily shook off all the Police Federale tails he had on his back. All the tails, except one: Walter. Now it was up to Walter to find out to whom the little Swiss man would be passing on the small USB drive that contained all the formulae. And then what?
He cursed. Why the hell did he have to take on this job? Why did he always have to say yes when there was less trouble in saying no? He knew why. He needed a shot of excitement, a change from the usual routine, from his boring business of trying to find lost people and lost objects. He was fed up with it all, with spending the last fifteen years of his life searching for people who never wanted to be found and finding objects that were worthless. Occasionally he was paid to spy on a number of unfaithful husbands and wives who were far better off with their lovers than with their spouses. But these cases also resulted boring, if not somewhat demeaning, and they added to his cynical attitude towards human relationships and life in general. In the end, it was all quite disconcerting and depressing, and he realized that he found little pleasure in his work. But then, what else could he do? He could retire, he had enough money, and dedicate himself to becoming an artistic photographer. Sure, why not? For some time he had been playing around with the idea of buying himself a new camera and seeing the world through a combination of different lenses and filters. He’d expose his mind to a new perspective. Realistic photography in the line of Ansel Adams, Werner Bischof and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The search and capture for that “decisive moment” that flickers through the shutter.
“How about a cocktail at Le Francis?”
“Uh?” He turned to face the elegant lady with the red cloche. She was now eyeing him with seductive interest. This was her decisive moment.
“I say, a cocktail at Le Francis where we could discuss your theory on time,” she said, her voice a shade sexier than before.
Walter twitched nervously. He knew it was important to be tactful when rejecting middle-aged sex-starved women. They were liable to become surprisingly nasty. “I think it’s a wonderful idea and I’d be delighted. I can meet you there in fifteen minutes. I have some business to attend to first.”
“Fifteen minutes then?” she said, naughtily.
“Fifteen. Order a bottle of 1981 Charles Heidsieck champagne, and put it on my tab. Tell them it’s for Monsieur Ricardo von Habsburg. I’ll be there shortly.”
“Von Habsburg,” she whispered, enthusiastically. “Yes, I’ll wait for you there.” She kissed him on the cheek, threw him a meek smile, spun around, and left the museum.
Walter sighed. What a loss. She wasn’t all that bad and he would have enjoyed a little sexual spin with her, but he had to concentrate on the switch.
He moved to another room where he could still observe the players. They were ready. Damn! Somehow, he had to find a way to warn those dolts of the Police Federale that the switch was about to take place here in the museum – he had his cell phone, but it had run out of batteries the moment he started following the little Swiss man. Something told him, however, that it would be too late to warn anybody.
He was right, for suddenly the contact arrived — a woman dressed in a dark blue short-sleeve Rodier suit. A brunette in her late twenties, with a pudgy, friendly face, black-rimmed glasses, broad hips, and an air of simple demeanor about her. As she entered the museum, she barely glanced at the two wingers, and then she approached the little Swiss man with a broad grin on her face. They kissed the air on each other’s cheeks while they exchanged greetings like long-time friends. Nobody was paying attention to them; it was a normal chance encounter. Then they made the switch. It was swiftly done. Two envelopes were interchanged in the blink of an eye. They looked at their watches, it was getting late, they had appointments, a few words of farewell, promises to meet up for dinner, and they parted. The two wingers led the way out, the brunette disappeared behind them, and the pale, little Swiss man was left alone observing an 18th century large Swiss Astronomic clock.
Leaving time behind, Walter followed the brunette out.
The brunette and her two wingers crossed the street and got into a black Mercedes. The Mercedes did an illegal U-turn and headed downtown.
In a situation like this, a few steps ahead of the game made things turn out smoother. Walter already had a taxi waiting for him in the parking lot. He had asked the Sikh driver, who was sporting a pale blue Siropa turban, to wait for him before entering the museum. Sometimes, anticipation helps prevent the unexpected.
The Mercedes stopped at the red light on the corner of Malagnou and Villereuse. Walter jumped into the taxi.
“See that black Mercedes?”
The Sikh driver grunted what could be interpreted as a “yes.”
“Could you follow it, please.”
“Of course,” the driver said as he slammed on the accelerator and screeched out of the curb.
“Thank you, but not too close, okay?”
Fortunately, they didn’t have far to go. They drove down Rue Ferdinand-Hodler, then continued down Rue d’Italie, until Rue du Rhône where they turned left and dropped the brunette off at the Metropole Hotel.
Walter asked the driver to go around to the other side of the hotel and drop him off in a small lot in front of the Swiss Touring Agency. The driver seemed a little disheartened that the chase was so short, but Walter compensated his disillusionment with a generous tip. Then he walked across the street and entered the Metropole Hotel through the revolving door of the Général-Guisan entrance. He was tempted to check his appearance in the lobby mirror, but held back. This was no moment for vanity, no reason why he should stare at himself. His sad, handsome face with those tender, yet piercing dark eyes could do without a reflection. He had more important matters to attend to.
“Are you ready to tackle the unknown?” he suddenly asked himself, not really certain of the answer or why he was posing himself the question. He was always posing himself questions that had no answers. Maybe it was his way of reassuring himself that he was not all that knowledgeable and there was yet more to learn in life . . . there was yet more to question. Like whether he should warn those clods of the Police Federale of his whereabouts. No time for that, he thought, as he made his way up a short flight of stairs to the mezzanine floor.
The Metropole Hotel was an old traditional and luxurious hotel, built in 1854, that catered to a clientele of stodgy businessmen, wealthy tourists, the occasional aristocrat, and a few rich Eastern European and Red Chinese ex-cloak-and-dagger agents who remembered the Cold War days with nostalgia and greed. Especially greed, given the pay-offs they used to receive when they controlled the supply of information that would benefit one side over the other. The pay-off days had passed, but the hotel remained the same, a structure of noble bearing that welcomed past and future investors to an atmosphere of old money and stately décor.
Geneva, likewise, had not changed much since those Cold War days. Occasionally, one could still find a number of glitzy parties, international intrigues, the usual financial conspiracies, unceasing diplomatic confrontations, and plentiful of twisted manipulators who were constantly lusting for more power. Mostly, though, it was a quiet and clean city with a healthy urban life, a progressive attitude, a conventional business spirit, and special cultural events that exemplified its international character.
Walter scanned the reception lobby, turned to his right and immediately spotted the brunette shuffling up to a large blond man in his mid-forties with bushy, dark brown eyebrows and a neatly trimmed beard over his slim, angular, pale face. He looked like those philandering men in the parks of Paris, which Renoir used to paint. The man was sitting alone in a faded orange club chair, in the salon, reading The Financial Times. She handed him the envelope, exchanged a few words with him, then left.
An uneasy feeling of dislike immediately came over Walter as he observed the blond man from the other end of the salon. This was no ordinary man, this was the main man, the number one gangster, he had to be it, there was no doubt about it. Other than being impeccably dressed — black Gucci shoes, dark Armani suit, and a red Cartier tie — he radiated power, an uneasy air of power that denoted a ruthless, cast-iron ambition. It was apparent in the cold and subtle sneer that momentarily wrinkled his thin lips as he stared at the envelope. He had what he wanted — he always got what he wanted.
The man smoothly tucked the envelope in the inside pocket of his jacket and got up. He walked towards the elevator with an air of authority, his jaws firmly clenched, and his fiery, little blue eyes raking his surroundings with supercilious indifference. On the way, next to the reception counter, he stopped to talk to an elderly lady of aristocratic bearing and his cold expression immediately took on a charming and friendly mien. Impressive. He was an excellent actor. What few words Walter could catch from their conversation, told him whom he was dealing with: Count Constantin Petrovich Cheremetiev, a Russian. And to be more precise, Russian Mob.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and its eventual transition into a “democratic” society, had brought about, other than certain liberties that few people could afford, the rise of organized crime. Mobsters were the order of the day, the modern honchos of a new world order. Count Constantin Petrovich Cheremetiev was no exception. Walter, being a good judge of character, knew the type: a racketeer who had bought his title of nobility so as to be accepted in high society, attending all the plush parties, and distinguishing himself for being a rough-mannered, intelligent man with an acute and witty sense of humor and a charm that made the ladies blush and the men chummy up to him.
Charming indeed, but he was still a criminal, and he was going to get away. Walter had little time left, he had to think fast and find some way to retrieve that envelope with the USB drive full of genetic mind-conditioning formulae. One glance at the bar gave him the solution. He rapidly walked into the bar and stopped over at a table where an elderly gentleman was trying to impress a young executive-looking blonde with a Barbie hairdo and an expression as flat as a beer coaster.
“You see, our Union Carbide profits in this quarter have fallen slightly, gross income looked good but inordinate commissions and returns knocked our NIFS to the floor. That’s when I decided to consolidate our capital gains to cover our gross margins and pre-tax income, controlling the level of interest rates by reversing our 10% premium percentage in a debiting fund that balanced our cash flow, our minimum convertible assets, and our short and long-term liabilities.”
The blonde nodded and smiled nervously. It was clear that she only understood the first two words while the rest was Mandingo to her.
“Excuse me,” Walter said, grabbing the gentleman’s dry Martini, drinking half of it in one swig and pouring the other half over his sports jacket and khaki slacks. The gentleman and the blonde gaped at him in disbelief. Walter shot them a thankful grin, mumbled a “Pwhew, I needed that, my capital gains were dry,” and then walked back to the salon.
The Russian kissed the lady’s hand good-bye and headed for the elevator where he was joined by the two wingers from the Clock museum, obviously his henchmen.
“Yuri, Yakov, let’s go,” he ordered them.
Walter rapidly crossed the reception hall and also waited for the elevator with the Russian thugs and a short, stocky Englishman who reeked of Highland Park 18 whisky. The situation was perfect for Walter’s designs.
“Great party,” Walter said, slapping the Englishman on the back.
Walter was a little worried at first, because the Englishman looked stunned. He thought he might react differently. Then the Englishman reacted accordingly, he grinned and nodded. “Aye, great party,” he slurred.
“I’d a great time,” Walter said, his voice loud and raucous.
“Aye, aye . . .” After a short pause, the Englishman frowned. “Say, mate, whot party are you talking about?”
Walter laughed. “Ah, that’s pretty good.”
The Englishman laughed and didn’t know what else to say.
The elevator doors opened and he furtively tripped the Englishman as they got in. The Englishman stumbled forward and Walter stumbled after him, both of them against the Russian thugs. If it took one quick move to make the switch at the museum, it took another quick move to craftily snatch the envelope from the inside pocket of Constantin’s jacket. The thugs growled and pushed the puzzled Englishman and the stupid grinning Walter off. Walter mumbled his apologies and turned his back to them.
He had it, he had the envelope. On rare occasions Walter thanked his father for teaching him the secrets of stealing and pickpocketing. A trade that Walter had never been keen on following, but that occasionally proved useful in his line of work. Walter smiled to himself. If his father could see him now, he would be proud of his son. His mother, on the other hand, would not approve. Raised in a middle-class, conservative Ohio family, she was an innocent and beautiful American student who, in 1954, had won a scholarship to travel to Italy to study Renaissance Art. During the eclipse of June of that year, she had met his father at an art auction and they immediately fell madly in love with each other. Not wanting to lose her, his father lied, telling her that he was a wealthy Italian baron and a patron of the arts. By the time she found out that the only art he knew about was the art of stealing, it was too late, she was already married and pregnant. Her romantic dream of a small Ohio country girl falling in love and marrying a rich and noble Italian baron had never come true; it was all an Audrey Hepburn cinematic myth that lay forgotten on some neorealist cutting room floor.
The elevator continued upwards. In the next stop, Walter would walk out of the elevator without arousing the least suspicion and then . . . then he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. Get the hell out of the hotel was more like it. Nevertheless, he had the uneasy feeling that the two henchmen were eyeing him suspiciously. He had his back to them and avoided any kind of eye contact with them because he was sure it would give him away. But as much as he tried, he realized he couldn’t resist the temptation to land at least one solid look into Constantin’s eyes. He had to do it, it was sort of a fatal attraction, a dare he had to overcome and conquer, a curiosity he had to satisfy. He knew he shouldn’t or else . . . or else . . . but he couldn’t resist; no, he couldn’t, and he foolishly turned around and shot Constantin Petrovich Cheremetiev a piercing glance. Constantin returned his stare with a vicious scowl. Walter looked away and cursed himself for being such a dope — now the mobster was sure to know. Thugs always know when somebody has their number. They have an extremely acute instinct of preservation . . . like coyotes.
Smiling nonchalantly, Walter stumbled out of the lift on the second floor, right behind the Englishman who was muttering something about stock quotations from the textile market. Walter’s intention was to turn right and immediately descend the stairs and get out, fast. But something must have clicked with the thugs for the two henchmen also stepped out of the elevator while Constantin continued upwards. Realizing that a false move might blow his cover, Walter turned left, down the hall, and followed the drunk Englishman. What else could he do? When they got to the Englishman’s door, the Englishman turned and threw Walter a puzzled look.
“Whot do you want?” the Englishman spat. He was now in a foul mood. The alcohol in his brain had washed away his joyful giddiness.
“Exactly. Dry Martini. You ordered a dry Martini, right?”
The Englishman was still puzzled and he searched Walter for the dry Martini. Then he shook his head and blurted out: “Dry Martini? I drink scotch!”
“I see. I’ll have to call the bar and cancel the order. May I use your phone?”
“Wait a minute . . . whot in the blazes you talkin’ about? I ‘aven’t ordered anything, I don’t wont ‘nother drink.”
Walter smiled and nodded his head. “Please open the door,” he whispered urgently.
“You’re out of your friggin’ mind! Get out of ‘ere, leave me alone!” the Englishman exclaimed. He then stumbled and took his time finding his key and opening the door. Walter nervously glanced back and saw the two henchmen staring at him from down the hall. They obviously were wondering what was happening. To them, somehow all this didn’t make sense. Then the elevator door opened and Constantin burst out and Walter knew he was in for a pickle.
Constantin yelled something to his two henchmen in Russian. They immediately went for their guns. Walter didn’t need to know Russian to understand what was going on, and he shoved the Englishman into his room, stumbling close behind. He then locked the door.
“Hey, whot’s the big idea!” the Englishman grunted in protest. “Whot kind of room service is this?”
“This is what you call a continental welcome,” Walter explained, grabbing him and pushing him into the clothes closet. “Now you stay put in there or else you might find yourself face to face with a gun barrel up your nose, understand?”
“Just shut-up and stay put! You’re in deep shit if you move from this closet.”
“I protest, aye. I find this kind of service inexcusable!”
Walter walked over to the small bar, took out a load of liquor bottles which he then threw at the Englishman in the closet. “Now keep quiet or you’re dead,” Walter urged. The Englishman must have gotten the hint from Walter’s look; he said nothing and started opening a small liquor bottle as Walter shut the closet doors.
The thugs out in the hall started banging on the door. Walter rushed over to the window, opened it, and looked down over the ledge. There was quite a drop. A drop into another reality which Walter didn’t want to experience.
He ran to the bathroom and turned on all the hot water faucets. The bathroom immediately steamed up like a Turkish hot bath.
The Russians crashed the door open. They rolled and ducked into the room, swinging their guns in all directions. A noise from the clothes closet made Yuri stealthily move towards it. He motioned to Yakov and Constantin to keep quiet and cover the closet. He then swiftly opened the closet doors and pointed his gun inside.
The Englishman stared up at Yuri and choked on the small bottle of Stolishnaya vodka he was drinking. “Bloody hell, whot in the blazes . . .? Whot’s going on?! Whot is this?! Next time I’m staying at the Intercontinental!”
Constantin shoved his way up to the closet and snarled at the Englishman. “Where is he?” he demanded,
“Where is who?”
“Don’t piss around with me, you fool. Where is the man who entered this room with you?”
“That sorry bugger. I don’t know. He threw me in this closet and told me to keep me mouth shut.”
Constantin cursed in Russian and slammed the closet shut. The Englishman, locked in darkness, returned to his bottle of liquor.
The thugs carefully inspected the room, then moved towards the bathroom. They stood behind the bathroom door, staring at each other silently, their muscles tight. They were ready to burst into the bathroom. However, something was not right. The steam that was coming out of the bathroom made them nervous. They knew that Walter was up to something. He was sly enough to steal the envelope; he’d be sly enough to try some nifty maneuver in the bathroom. After a moment of hesitation, Yuri inhaled and dived into the bathroom.
Walter realized there was only one way to deal with the thugs. Fight back, but he had no weapon to defend himself. He never carried a weapon because his business never demanded one; there was rarely any danger that required a weapon while finding lost people and objects, rarely any bloodthirsty Russian thugs breathing down your neck. Besides, Walter loathed weapons to begin with. Sure, he had a toy gun when he was a kid; but fortunately, common sense took hold of his later years and he substituted his toy gun for a glass of brandy and a good solid read. Lot of good the brandy glass and the book would do to him now. Hell, if he had a gun he would blast his way out of this nasty bind. But all he had was a heavy wooden bath stool and a modern telephone shower, and that would have to do.
Yuri rolled into the bathroom and swung his gun to and fro. Walter figured that much, and he had poured all the bottles of shampoo and conditioning on the wet floor. The steam was dense and there was poor visibility. As the thug turned, he slipped and lost his balance. Walter expertly sprayed him with a steaming hot jet of water into his face. The thug let out a muffled scream that barely travelled in the bathroom.
He was in absolute pain, he could not see, but was able to fire a few shots that went astray. Another jet of steaming water was followed by the heavy wooden stool smashing on Yuri’s head, knocking him out cold. He never saw it coming.
“Yuri?” Yakov shouted from the bedroom.
The door flew open and Yakov stepped in, his arm extended, gun in hand. Walter had quickly lifted Yuri and was using him as a shield. Walter had put on a white bathrobe with a shower cap on his head to camouflage himself. Yakov looked confused, he could not see Yuri’s eyes, and in that short moment of hesitation, Walter, using Yuri’s arm, sprayed the other thug’s face with boiling shower water. Yakov screamed, dropped the gun, and Walter followed through with another solid bathroom stool on his head. The Russian crashed to the floor, grunted and blacked out. Walter threw Yuri on top of him, gathered their guns, and slithered out of the bathroom.
In the bedroom, he watched his step for there was still the Count to contend with. He crouched behind a small armchair and scanned the room. There was nobody around. He wondered where Constantin had gone. His eyes darted left and right, expecting him to pop up at any time and blast him with a shower of lead. But nothing happened. He had to move fast because the two thugs in the bathroom would soon react and they’d come out of the bathroom with the serious intention of seeking painful revenge. If they’d catch him, who knows what macabre tortures they would practice on him. He recalled reading Alexandre Solzhenitsyn’s stories of human deprivation, moral annihilation, violence, repression, and the industry of slowly torturing a man. Bloody hell, these Russians were famous for skinning a human alive! No time for that. He ran across the bedroom, heading swiftly for the exit. He was about to step out of the room when the clothes closet opened. He rapidly turned, expecting to see the drunk Englishman, but instead he came face to face with a .45 caliber pistol that Constantin Petrovich Cheremetiev was pointing at him.
“Drop them, now!”
Walter slowly dropped the guns he was holding. They thudded on the beige carpeted floor with hardly a sound. Constantin kicked them both under a nearby sideboard. Then he growled: “You have my envelope. Give it to me.”
“You’ll never find it.” Walter said, staring hard at Constantin’s eyes. In fact, all Constantin had to do was reach into Walter’s pocket and retrieve the envelope. But Constantin didn’t know this.
“You’re in no position to play the hero. Not when I’m tempted to burn a hole right through your head, “Constantin threatened, slowly cocking the hammer of his gun.
“Then you can forget about the envelope,” Walter whispered, hoarsely.
Constantin growled as his eyes rapidly skimmed the room.
“Forget it. It’s well hidden. You don’t have time to find it.”
“I don’t believe you; you had no time to hide it.”
Constantin cold eyes stared into Walter’s, sizing him up, trying to figure out, with that ingrained instinctive knowledge that many criminals possess, what kind of a character he was dealing with. And what his instinct told him, he didn’t like. “I’m losing my patience here.”
Walter shrugged, looking stupid. Was he pushing his luck? The mobster was liable to blow up and blast him apart.
“You must be a complete imbecile to be playing that game with me. This is the real life here, and if you fuck with me you’ll end up eyeball to eyeball with some fucking little fish at the bottom of the lake.”
“What makes you think I’m by myself?”
“I hear no cavalry.”
“They might be waiting outside. I might’ve called them on my cell phone.”
Constantin squinted, shook his head with a slight crinkle of doubt, and then shot Walter a shrewd look. “So what? What counts is now.” He put the gun up to Walter’s head. “Where is the envelope?”
“How do I know you won’t shoot me once I tell you where the envelope is?”
Constantin grinned, wickedly. Walter never liked it when the bad guy grinned. It reminded him of the stereotype reactions of those B-grade bad-guy characters who were about to do the unpredictable when the predictable was already bad enough. “You’ll have to trust me,” Constantin said. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“I’m a detective.”
“I see. That’s why we’re playing this stupid game. You’re into those detective books where the dick plays the tough guy. Well, let’s just see how tough you are.” Constantin rapidly swung his gun and brought the butt down on Walter’s head. Walter grunted and buckled over; immediately Constantin lifted his knee and smashed him in the face. Walter fell to the floor, his nose bleeding, his lips bashed, his skull cracked, and his pride falling apart on the floor.
Walter, dazed, couldn’t believe what was going on. Hell, this was serious! If he ended up in the morgue, it would be his stupid fault for wanting to change the monotony of his life for something more exciting. This was not exactly what he envisioned.
“So, Mr. Detective,” Constantin continued, “are we coming to grips with reality here?”
Walter slowly got up and mumbled something unintelligible.
Constantin took this as a sign of assent. “Good, now how about telling me where the envelope is.”
“And you won’t kill me?” Walter croaked, wiping the blood from his nose on the sleeve of his jacket.
“You’ll have to trust me. What choice do you have?”
Walter shrugged with one shoulder. “Not much, eh?”
“I guess not,” Constantin said. “So, where is it?”
Walter was sweating profusely. Whatever happened to the laws of constant change? He either told Constantin the truth, or it would be his demise. However, not knowing why, he started crying, pointed to the bathroom and blurted: “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I flushed it down the toilet.”
Constantin gaped at him, then clenched his jaws. This was it. He was ready to blast Walter to the hereafter when suddenly the cloak closet door burst opened and out came the drunk Englishman cursing about the inexcusable service of the hotel and the lack of liquor. Then, all of a sudden, he threw up all over Constantin. A short, acid jet of vomit, the stench unbearable. Constantin roared in anger, turned, and pointed the gun at the drunk Englishman who stumbled back into the closet, fear-stricken, as if he had suddenly bumped into a pink hippopotamus with a bad case of bad breath.
Walter reacted with lightning speed. He pounced on Constantin, managing to tightly grasp the wrist where the Russian held the gun. They swayed and crashed on top of a small coffee table, then they tumbled to the floor, and the gun went off, the stray bullet shattering one of the windows. They wrestled, rolled, grappled, grunted, and swore. Walter was able to yank the gun out of Constantin’s hand and send it sliding under the bed. Panting and wheezing, they scrambled to their feet and faced each other.
They circled around the room, feinting, shying away, calculating the other’s strength. Walter knew he could take the Russian on. The Russian figured as much for suddenly he charged. They clashed like two wild rams, exchanging a hail of crunching blows, pounding into each other with brutal wrath. They were in another world, a world where blood boils out of the eyes and the only goal is to kill, kill, kill . . . and survive.
At one point, it seemed that Walter would lose out. He had underrated Constantin’s strength and ability — the Russian proved to be an excellent fighter, and he slammed his fists and feet into Walter who tumbled all over the bedroom. But then, the tide changed, and Walter came back with another volley of blows that sent Constantin reeling across the room and against the small bar. Walter followed through and leaped on him, but Constantin kicked him back from the floor with both feet.
They slowly got up, sucked in the air, and regained their strength.
Constantin eyes darted to the small bar. He snatched a bottle of Vichy water that was on top and smashed it on the side of the bar. Now he would cut Walter to shreds. Walter took his jacket off and wrapped it around his left arm for protection. His eyes searched for something else to defend himself, but there was no time. Constantin sprung, flashing the cut glass like a pirate with his sword. This time, instead of meeting him full on, Walter deftly ducked to one side and swung a standing lamp at Constantin’s legs, throwing him off balance. Constantin, surprised, fell smack on the floor and the bottle flew out of his hand, smashing against the clothes closet. From inside, the Englishman protested and hiccupped.
Walter spun rapidly and, before Constantin could get up, he kicked him in the groin with one of those soccer kicks one uses when you have a barrier in front of you and you believe you can slug that ball with such a force that it will rip through the barrier, through the goalie, through the net, through the neurotic screaming soccer fans in the background. What it did was rip through Constantin’s entire nervous system like a bolt of painful lightning. Constantin groaned; he turned blue, then white, and was about to faint. Walter thought that maybe another kick would do the trick and finish Constantin off. But that was his big mistake. He should have left him there and dashed out of the room, but he wanted to add one more kick in honor of all those fallen under the abuse of arrogant bastards like Constantin. A noble intention, but a bad move.
Bad move, indeed, for suddenly Yuri and Yakov came out of the bathroom, grabbed Walter, and gave him a serious working over. Just what Walter feared. He didn’t even have time to tell them where the envelope was so they would stop beating up on him. Not that it would’ve made much difference, because they seemed to be enjoying their sweet moment of revenge. A jet of boiling water on their ugly faces was a painfully low trick. So, they hammered and clobbered and booted him non-stop, reducing him to a wailing, pathetic lump of a man. A little more and they would have killed him. Fortunately, they stopped when they heard the sirens and the rumble of rushing steps down the corridor.
Walter heard it too. The commotion outside, a distant commotion that had come to save him. Distant, very distant, like everything surrounding him. He barely could open his eyes; they were swollen like puffball mushrooms. All was a haze, all was far away, like that recurrent dream of his where he wanders through a dimly lit tunnel trying to find the opening that will lead him to a better world. But he never reached that opening. He winced …the pain was intense. He never reached the better world, it was never there when he needed it; there was only this world, this black and white world covered in cobwebs and past memories that faded into a pit in the middle of his mind. Whatever happened to that world beyond? Bah, malarkey! Just a bunch of idealistic bullshit. This was the world, this was reality, nothing else existed. Only this. Only Constantin’s voice that whispered in his ear:
“You got lucky now, you son of a bitch. But I won’t forget this. I’ll be back for you and when I get you, I’ll skin you like a Cossack skins a hare in the steppes of Kuban.”
Walter mumbled something about never reading again the fatalistic works of sullen Russians like Solzhenitsyn. Then all went black and he fainted.
It took one solid week to mend Walter, like piecing together some sort of a battered human jigsaw puzzle; one week in which Walter cursed himself for having accepted the job when the end result was that nothing happened. Sure, they were able to save the genetic mind-conditioning formulae from falling into the hands of the Russian Mob, but Walter knew it would only be a matter of time before Constantin would try again and those formulae would pass hands like candy in a kindergarten recess. Worst of all was that Constantin got away. There was nothing against him. The only witness who could testify against him was the drunk Englishman, but he didn’t remember a thing, apart from the brands of liquor he soaked up during his prolonged stay in the closet and the number of pink hippopotamuses that tiptoed through his mind.
Constantin, moreover, had given the police his version: he was walking down the hall when he heard the commotion. He heard threats in Bulgarian and thought that maybe somebody might be in trouble; the door was slightly ajar so he peeked into the room and saw Walter being clobbered by two Bulgarian thugs. Being an honorable man, he stepped in and tried to stop them, but that was a grave mistake for the two thugs suddenly went to work on him. It was a traumatic experience which he would never forget for the rest of his life. Constantin then appealed to the police, asking them to keep all this business under wraps, although his was an act of bravery to save a man, he didn’t want publicity, he was a discreet man who had a reputation to maintain. The police understood and thanked him for his cooperation.
So, Constantin and his henchmen had gotten away, clean; the sallow, bespectacled man had disappeared and was probably at the bottom of Lake Léman; and the case was closed with a reprimand from the Police Federale to Walter for trying to tackle the thugs on his own. In the end, it turned out that Walter was to blame for the failure of the operation, he was labeled an incompetent, and he was ordered to stay away from Constantin. Depressing.
A week later, Walter was finally released from the Clinique de la Grangette. He thought that perhaps the best way to battle his depression, or hide it in some manner, was to get back to work. Back to his proper little office and his thriving detective business. But he was mistaken for when he arrived at his office in the Rue du Cheval Blanc, in the old part of Geneva, he suddenly realized that he had no desire to continue in the detective business. He was drained of energy, not only because of all the experiences he had lived through in the past week, but also by a deep feeling of anxiety and futility that abruptly overpowered him. It was like sailing into a mist that suddenly seeped into his soul, caving him in, sinking him into a lost world where nothing mattered. He felt there was no direction in his life, no meaning; and he didn’t want to fall again under the spell of the same daily routine, incessantly repeating the same tick-tocks, the same repetitive search for people that were barely lost and things that didn’t belong to him, that were beyond his universe, his interests.
His secretary, Mrs. Geraldine Lacroix, was happy to see him back, but she must have noticed his state of mind for she immediately asked him if he was feeling all right.
Walter shot her a sad smile.
Mrs. Geraldine Lacroix was an attractive, plump, elderly woman with a perky personality. She was a bit on the eccentric side for she didn’t need the job. She was a rich, upper class woman who lived in a superb mansion in Vézenaz, on the outskirts of Geneva, with her husband, a retired Swiss Guard who had served in the Vatican during the reign of Pope John XXIII. But unlike other women of similar social status who favored spending their husband’s fortune in fashion shops and fancy restaurants, Geraldine preferred to work at a job that enabled her to remain active and involved in human affairs. That was why she quickly agreed to join the detective agency. It was a pleasant job and, above all, it offered innumerable tidbits of gossip that she shared with her ladies club when they met to play bridge every Monday afternoon at the Villa Rigot, near the Palais des Nations.
“I’m not feeling, Geraldine, that’s the problem, I’m not feeling a thing.”
“What is this talk?”
“I don’t know. I’m just tired of this business. I think it’s time I quit and find myself something else to do.”
“Nonsense. You’re a good detective and you have a respectable and prosperous business. What more do you want?”
Walter shrugged and walked into his office. She was right. What more could he ask for? Or was she wrong? There was more to want out there; more to look for that was altogether difficult to find. But was it there? Or was it not?
Geraldine followed him into his office. She put a cup of coffee in his hands. The smell of roasted Colombian beans mixed well with the smell of the leather chairs in his office. It was a smart office, richly furnished, with an impressive library of books, small sculptures by Max Bill and several neo-impressionist paintings that Geraldine had bought in the galleries of the Grand-Rue.
Walter sat in his leather arm chair behind his large mahogany desk and exhaled. He put his feet up on the desk, next to his old monochrome Tandy computer that served as a mechanical adornment, and stared up at the ceiling as he sipped his coffee.
“I don’t know what I want, Geraldine . . .”
“Have you been reading the paper?”
“Because you always get into these funny moods when you read the paper.”
“This is not a funny mood, it’s a depression. And it’s not because of the stupidity that goes on in that outer world, but because of something confusing that is going on inside of me. I feel I have to change, find something else to do, break the routine of my life, buy a new camera and take black and white pictures, drink herbal tea instead of coffee in the morning, read poetry by Yeats instead of watching TV at night, change my Haines underwear for Felix the Cat boxer shorts; you know, do those sorts of things.” Walter finished his coffee and shrugged in a doubtful way. “I don’t know, I need a new life.”
“Why, for Heaven’s sake?”
“Because I spend my time looking for people and objects I haven’t lost when I should spend my time looking for what I’ve lost a long time ago — my life.”
“Your life isn’t lost; your life is just beginning. You’re young–”
“I was young, Geraldine, until I began thinking how old I really was. Thirty-nine years is a lot of years to do nothing . . .”
“This must be all because of that scuffle you had at the Metropole. Who told you to get involved in something that was way above your head?”
“It was something different, although the consequences were not to my liking. But I had to do it. It was a favor for a friend and it was exciting. Though I wouldn’t repeat it again.”
Geraldine shook her head in disapproval. “You’re just going through a rough time. Maybe you should take a short vacation.”
“A vacation won’t change anything. It will only momentarily hide the truth about my life.”
“Come on, you can’t be serious,” Geraldine said.
“I’m very serious.”
“Maybe if you get back to work, you’ll see things in a brighter light. Hard work will get your mind off these outlandish thoughts. It’ll set you back on track, back into the spirit of things. We have several cases that–”
“No, no, no. I don’t want any more cases. I want . . .” Walter looked around his office searching for something that was not there. “Oh, hell, I don’t know what I want!”
They exchanged a long, silent stare. Finally, Geraldine said: “You know, we all go through the same crisis in life, wondering whether or not we have made the right choices, or whether we should change and go in a new direction. The irony is that the end is always the same, no matter what direction we take, we all end up in the same place. So, the best thing to do is to be happy with what we have and make the most out of life.”
“I try, but . . .”
“But you feel lonely, I know. What you should do is find yourself a pretty young lass and get married, have children, pay a mortgage.”
Walter laughed. “I do that and I’ll really be in a crisis.”
“Maybe it’s the answer to all your questions?”
“Nah, I don’t believe it. Marriage answers no questions, it rather hides a lot of them.”
“Don’t be so cynical. Remember you’re a detective. You might find all the answers if you snoop around and try to understand what marriage is all about.”
“Yeah, and then I’ll find myself stuck to a woman for the rest of my life.”
“You make it sound so terrible. Maybe you’ll enjoy being stuck to a woman for the rest of your life.”
Walter shook his head and grinned. “I enjoy being stuck to a woman for only short periods of time, preferably at night after a bottle of champagne and some strawberries with Crème Chantilly.” He was willing to commit only so much; he didn’t want to lose the freedom of his bachelor life. He was a hopeless romantic when it came to courting women, and a helpless romantic when it came to forgetting them.
Geraldine smirked. “You’ll never get married. You’re too involved with yourself.”
“No, I’m not,” Walter responded, defensively. “I’m . . . well . . . maybe you’re right. But what’s wrong with that? It’s a learning process — that’s what life is all about, no?”
Geraldine nodded and smiled wisely. She enjoyed playing the mother psychiatrist. And Walter enjoyed being her patient and her token son. In a way, they complemented each other — she had no children of her own; he had no mother.
“You know,” Walter continued. “There are so many things about my life that I still don’t understand that it would be ridiculous to marry a woman and begin to try to understand so many things about her life. I would surely lose interest and our marriage would go down the drain. That’s why we have so many cases of unfaithful spouses. Marriage is an art that is difficult to dominate and most human beings have no artistic flare. I include myself in this last group.”
“I’ve been married for over forty years!”
“I know, you’re an artist. Either that, or you’ve been exceedingly unfaithful to your husband.”
“Hush, you clown! That is none of your business!”
Walter chuckled. “What I do have, however, is a knack for romance. I’m a dreamer, I’m always looking for a relationship that begins with a crescendo of violins, like in those classic black and white movies. That’s the only thing I like about relationships: the beginning and the end.”
“The end in most classic movies is a marriage where they live happily ever after.”
“Yeah, I know. Let’s just say that I like the Western end, with the cowboy riding into the sunset like Lucky Luke,” Walter said, a sad smile on his lips.
“Ah, mon Dieu, what nonsense!”
“Nonsense is the only thing that makes sense in this world.”
“That’s your way of justifying yourself. Come back to reality, for heaven’s sake. Get back to work, find a decent girl, get married, have children. And if you don’t want to get married, fine. Maybe you’ll end up in a monastery.”
“Can I have sex with the local nuns in the monastery cells?”
“Don’t blaspheme, you cheeky lecher! Like most men your male hormones do the talking for you.”
“They’re the only ones who know what to say.”
The doorbell rang. Geraldine immediately headed for the outer office to answer the door. Walter called out to her: “Geraldine.”
She stopped and turned. “Yes, Walter.”
“No more cases, please. The office is closed for the time being until I rearrange my life.”
“Oh, Walter,” Geraldine protested. “This is not right!”
“I need time, Geraldine. I need time to think things out.”
Geraldine was about to say something, then stopped as the doorbell rang again. She nodded sullenly and walked out of his office. This was the first time she had seen him so down and it pained her; not only did she care for him, but she also didn’t want this job to end. She enjoyed working with him, discovering the weaknesses of other human beings and being abreast of the techniques and all the new paraphernalia that came with the spying and detective business. It had given her a load of ideas that she would eventually include in a book she was planning on writing.
Walter picked the hairs on his bushy his eyebrows, looked around, and wondered. Could he give it all up? Unlike the stereotype notion one has of detectives — always scrapping for work — Walter was well off. He had a prestigious firm, a list of wealthy clients who were always misplacing things or loosing somebody, and a healthy savings account in a Swiss bank.
He looked around the office and breathed it all in — the books, the paintings, the memories. Undeniably, it was a good business. He had inherited it from an old associate of his father’s. A Monsieur Émile Spielmann, a detective who was always chasing after those precious items his father stole. In a way, one could say that his father had provided Monsieur Spielmann with a number of affluent clients.
Walter and his father had moved to Geneva from Rome after his mother had died. His father needed new grounds to display his art and Geneva was ripe for the picking. Moreover, it was also a good place to raise his son and, above all, it was the best place to forget the tragic death of his wife, a woman whom he had dearly loved, regardless of their opposing views concerning his means of support.
So began a new life in a new country. Walter was enrolled in a small public school not far from his home, while his father continued with his light-fingered career, stealing valuable objects and precious jewels from the rich. Walter’s father never kept the objects he stole — they were rapidly disposed of in the black market, sometimes even before they were stolen.
One day in May, Monsieur Spielmann showed up in their small flat in the rue St-Joseph, in Carouge. Walter remembered first seeing him — a medium height, chubby man with big, fish eyes, a pug nose, and a rosy complexion. He had a charming, open personality and seemed the type who rarely got excited. He was even soft spoken when he told Walter’s father that he knew he was the burglar behind the recent string of major thefts in Geneva.
“You don’t say?” Walter’s father had responded. “You must be confusing me with somebody else. The only thing I’ve stolen in my life is a bicycle, but you must’ve seen the movie.”
Monsieur Spielmann smiled, amused. “I’m a professional just like you, Mr. Balducci. I know you’re the thief.”
“Then why do you come to tell me this?”
“Because I like to get to know my adversaries.”
“Well, I think you’re mistaken there. I’m not one of your adversaries.”
“And I’m no fool, Mr. Balducci.” Monsieur Spielmann then took out a small beige notebook from his pocket and ranted off a list of burglaries: “On December 10th you stole a number of Seraglio clips and rings from the Adler jewelry shop in the Noga Hilton. These were later sold to a Turkish businessman.” Monsieur Spielmann looked up and shot Walter’s father a questioning look. Walter’s father shrugged innocently. Monsieur Spielmann continued: “On February 28 or 29, I’m still not sure when, but it was in the middle of the night, you slipped through the roof of the Musée Ariana and stole a priceless ceramic vase from the T’ang Dynasty that was later purchased by a Hong Kong triad. On March 15th, you broke into Patek Phillipe and stole a collection of gold case thin watches with crocodile wristbands. It took me weeks to recover these. In April you were quite busy: you stole two dozen boxes of Montecristo cigars and twenty gold and silver lighters from the Davidoff store in Rue de Rive; several days later you broke into Sheikh Ibn al-Hayyan’s home in Cologny and stole two of his Matisse’s and a small 6th century carved ivory Diptych; and finally, at the end of the month, you entered the French ambassador’s house, in full daylight, and stole his entire collection of antique medals and decorations, all of his wife’s mink coats, and one of her platinum wigs.”
Monsieur Spielmann put his notebook back in his pocket and looked squarely at Walter’s father. “With the exception of the mink coats, and the wig, you have very good taste, Mister Balducci.”
“Thank you, Monsieur, though I don’t deserve the compliment ’cause I’m not the thief you’re looking for.”
“Hmm, we’re going to play that game, I see.”
“If you’re so sure I’ve committed these thefts, why don’t you have me arrested?”
“For one, I’m usually paid to find the stolen objects and to return these to their rightful owners. It’s not up to me to arrest the thief. That, I leave to the police, though sometimes I do get involved and help the police out. In your case, I don’t have enough evidence that points you out as the culprit. All I have is my instinct and a few loose clues that tell me you’re the one.”
“So, what you’re trying to tell me is that if I mess up the next time, you’ll have me arrested.”
Monsieur Spielmann thought this one over. “If I have enough evidence, I might, yet. . .” He stopped and frowned.
“Yet . . .?”
“Yet, I’m more interested in what you have to offer — professionally that is. I want to analyze your methods.”
“To do so, I — assuming that I am the thief — would have to steal again.”
“Not necessarily. You can begin by showing me how you would steal, without stealing.”
“And what would like me to steal without stealing so you can analyze without capturing?”
“How about Paul Cezanne’s Baigneurs au repos at the Rath Museum.”
Walter’s father chuckled and his eyes twinkled. “Sure, sure, anything you say. Sometimes in life, a thief is necessary to take away the self-importance that some people transfer to their material things. It’s a favor that he does to those who are richer than him, though not richer inside.”
“From that kind of perspective, I couldn’t agree with you more. But tell me, why did you steal the wig?”
Walter’s father had burst out laughing. “What do you say to a good plate of spaghetti a le vongole and a chilled bottled of Orvieto wine? And then I’ll tell you all about the wig.”
“I’ll pick up the tab.”
“Fantastic. But I’ll invite the grappa and the Montecristo cigars.”
Monsieur eyed him shrewdly and smiled conspiratorially. “Done,” he finally said.
They ended up eating in La Piccata where they got drunk on several bottles of Orvieto wine and who knows how many shots of grappa. Before long, they became good friends, and when Walter finished high school, his father had asked Monsieur Spielmann to take Walter in as an apprentice. Walter’s father wanted his son to follow a respectable career. Monsieur Spielmann was more than willing; he was a lonely widower who was getting old and he needed someone to take over the business — a business that had been in his family since the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Social Contract. Moreover, the deal was perfect because, with Walter bringing home the means, his father promised he would stop stealing, and Monsieur Spielmann could then tend to other matters, such as working on his extensive collection of rare books.
In the years that followed, Walter grew fond of Monsieur Spielmann. After his father died of a stroke in a film theatre while watching a Nino Manfredi comedy, Monsieur Spielmann took him in and sort of became his second father. He taught Walter all he knew, not only concerning matters that pertained to the detective trade, but also concerning the fine points in life, like choosing the right wine, choosing the right tie, and choosing the right woman. Eventually, Walter learnt the rules, the fickle rules that govern society and the even more fickle rules that govern women. He also earned a scholarship to study criminology at the University of Phoenix, where he graduated with a Masters in Criminal Psychology and degrees in Scoping Technology, Detective Science and Fine Arts. When he returned to Geneva, he had finely developed his talent for the detective trade; he had also matured into a handsome, intelligent man with a wry sense of humor and a noble disposition.
Walter stared at a painting by Carl Liner and shook his head. But being a good detective, an honorable citizen, and an accomplished lover was not enough. Not now. He needed new answers to an old life, or maybe a new life to fill in the old answers. Whatever it was he needed, he was not going to find it sitting in this office resolving day to day trivialities. Walter turned and stared out of the window, down at Flanagan’s, the Irish pub across the street. Perhaps he would find the answer there, after a few good pints of Irish pale ale.
Geraldine knocked and entered his office. “Walter,” she said, “there’s somebody here whom I think you should see.”
“Who is it?”
“It sounds like an interesting case–”
“Geraldine, Geraldine. I said no more cases. I’m finished with this business.”
“Is that what you’ve decided?” she asked, her voice slightly irritated.
“Yes . . . I think it’s best to stop right now.” he replied, not thoroughly convinced.
“Walter, I think this will interest you.”
“At this point in my life, nothing interests me.”
“Trust me on this.”
Walter spread his hands over his face and slowly drew them down, contorting his visage into a mask of uncertain despair. “No, no, I quit. I quit . . .”
Geraldine exhaled in exasperation. “You can’t quit just like that,” she scolded. “What makes you think that the answers you seek are going to pop up after you quit? The answers are here, in this very moment, in everything you do. So do me the favor of seeing this person just this once, and if you think you have no guts to take on what destiny throws your way, then quit and God bless you!”
Walter gaped at Geraldine in utter disbelief. Never had Geraldine spoken to him like that. He was embarrassed. Finally, after pulling himself together, he consented with a wave of his hand. “Okay, Geraldine, show this person in.”
Walter sighed. Another case, another grinding day at the office listening to same sing-song over and over again, like listening to those mechanical parrots that sell sweets at the supermarket’s entrance. Over and over again–
Walter looked up and was taken aback. A monk! A monk wrapped in a white cotton robe and a black scapular! He was a tall, stout Cistercian monk with a healthy complexion, a bulbous nose that resembled a Peruvian potato, thinning gray, curly hair, and slightly skewed mild, brown eyes that expressed years of seclusion in search of inner peace. The inner peace was there, the occasional look of mystical contentment, but there was also a hint of fear, a slight apprehension with the new surroundings. He was probably in his mid-sixties, although it was difficult to tell because most monks age well, primarily due to those herbal liqueurs that they were always drinking.
“Mr. Balducci, I’m Brother Bernabé Attis form the Cistercian Abbey of Notre-Dame of Tamié,” the monk said, his voice a soft crackle that resemble the rustling of dry autumn leaves.
Walter nodded and got a whiff of the Monk’s smell — like moist moss on age-old granite stones. He motioned Brother Bernabé Attis to sit down in one of the leather chairs in front of his desk.
“What can I do for you . . .?”
“Brother, or Brother Bernabé, as you like,” the monk said, sitting down.
“Yes, ehm, what can I do for you, Brother Bernabé?”
“This is not easy for me to explain. I wasn’t counting on a detective to help me solve my problem, but I think it’s the best solution. The only solution.”
“The solution to what, Brother Bernabé?”
“Mr. Balducci, do I have your word that what will be said here today will kept between us?”
“Absolutely;” Walter said, wondering what his word would conceal. “But I want to be honest with you and warn you that I might not accept your case. In fact, before you arrived, I was thinking of retiring from this business.”
“You might change your mind once I give you the details.”
“We’ll see about that. Now . . . now what is it you need?”
“I need you to help me find someone.”
“Yes. . ?”
“The person I am looking for is not aware of his true identity.”
Walter frowned, puzzled. Another amnesiac? “And who is this person?”
Brother Bernabé shot Walter a piercing look. He was sizing Walter up, wondering if Walter would understand. Then the friar whispered one word that meant everything to him.
Walter didn’t catch the word and he cocked his head in Brother Bernabé’s direction. He thought he heard something unfamiliar, if not downright odd. “Whom did you say?”
Brother Bernabé smiled and gazed up at the ceiling, as if in prayer. Walter, bewildered, followed his gaze. Then he heard it clearly, so clearly, in fact, that his ears popped:
“God . . .
Constantin Petrovich Cheremetiev burst out laughing and cheered, downing his vodka martini in one swig. Excellent critique, funny and to the point . . . although it didn’t make sense. He enjoyed art critics, they came up with the most bizarre and irrelevant concepts on art. Probably because of their distorted vision of reality where nothing seemed like it should seem or like they would like it to seem, and if it did, it seemingly wouldn’t seem at all.
Jacques Kupferschmid, the art critic, felt elated by Constantin’s candid laughter and added another witty remark which Constantin ignored because the Mayor had stepped in to greet him.
“Count Cheremetiev, a pleasure seeing you here,” the Mayor greeted, shaking his hand. “I see you’re interested in our contemporary artists.”
“Yes, quite,” Constantin lied. Actually, he found the paintings absolutely horrible, an insult to the eye, the mind and the lower intestines. They resembled Tàpies-style abstractions; that is, they resembled a dirty breakfast table full of coffee stains and crumbs. Constantin had a hard time looking at them, finding them as stimulating as wallpaper in a public toilet. He was sure Yuri and Yakov could express themselves better than the sham painter who was exhibiting these horrors.
The Mayor smiled at him and turned to observe a painting that was in front of them. Constantin glanced at his Rolex watch and frowned. It was too early in the day to look at these horrors; maybe in the evening they would look better — especially in the dark, with no lights.
“Maybe you could help me choose one of these paintings for my private collection,” the Mayor said. Constantin then realized why the Mayor was a good politician — he had absolutely no taste. Constantin, if he could vote, would never vote for a Mayor with such bad taste.
Constantin pointed to one large painting that reminded him of a Moscow sidewalk full of splattered dog droppings. “This one,” he said. “I would choose this one.”
The Mayor folded his left arm over his belly and put his right hand over his mouth. He stood there for a short moment, silently contemplating the painting and deciding whether or not he should buy it. Then he nodded his head and said: “You’re right, it’s a good painting. It expresses a metaphorical inclination to grasp that hidden dimension of conceptuality that is nestled below the surface.”
Oh, brother, Constantin thought. Another pseudo-intellectual buffoon. He needed a vodka martini. “I wouldn’t have said it better myself,” he said, holding back his sneer.
“You’re a man who knows his art, my dear Count,” the Mayor congratulated him.
“It’s my passion,” Constantin said. His taste, however, was primarily influenced by a practical and social conception of art. Art not for art’s sake, but for the sake of business and acquiring a status in society.
The art critic, feeling somewhat left out, drifted off in another direction. A new group joined them: a flirtatious, rich old dowager, a fat German industrialist, and a pretty American photographer. They politely greeted each other with bows, nods, and handshakes.
“So, Count Cheremetiev, are you planning to buy one of these monstrosities?” the dowager asked.
Constantin grinned. “Not if I can help it, but the Mayor here has his eye on this wonderful painting.”
The Mayor swelled with pride as he pointed to the painting of the Moscow dog droppings. “So what do you think?” he said. They all turned to study it.
“Divine,” the dowager remarked, with a grimace of disgust on her face. Then she threw Constantin a shrewd, coy look and added: “I could find better ways to waste my money.”
“I think it’s a wonderful painting,” the German said, serious and convinced. “It has . . . it has . . . ach, how do you say?”
“It has an alluring appeal to our hidden senses,” the Mayor contributed.
“Ja, that is it!”
“You feel it too, then?” the Mayor queried.
“Ja, I do.”
On the side, Constantin, holding back a sarcastic smile, turned to the pretty blonde American photographer and asked her with all his charm: “What’s your opinion? Does it appeal to your hidden senses?
“I don’t know . . . what is it?”
“Well, let’s see . . .” he said, carefully studying the painting in mock fashion. “I’d say it’s a profound moment of sexual abstinence.”
“How terrible,” she said, looking at the painting with a shaken expression. For a moment there, Constantin was disconcerted, thinking that maybe she had taken him seriously. Then she turned and shot him an enticing, amused look. “If that’s what is, it sure as hell doesn’t appeal to my senses.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Constantin said, grinning with all his charm.
She laughed, a short playful laugh. “I need a drink.”
As if by magic, a waiter appeared with a tray full of glasses of champagne. Constantin grabbed two glasses and handed one over to the pretty blonde.
“What should we cheer about?” she asked him, mesmerized by his powerful look.
Then they heard the Mayor saying: “the principle of abstraction is the inevitable collusion of dreams with our symbolic past.”
“Ja, of course.”
Constantin and the pretty blonde exchanged funny, bewildered looks, then they burst out laughing and clinked their glasses. Constantin felt the first hint of sexual excitement. He enjoyed young American girls, they seemed so fresh, so rosy, so pure on the outside, but in the inside, he knew, they were like wild animals, sexually irrepressible. This one seemed to be more than willing to play all the keyboards and he wagered he would pull down her panties before lunch time.
He chuckled smugly. On second thought, it was a good idea to come here to this midday vernissage, out in the open, in society, with no qualms, no fears, projecting a confident image of himself, the respectable man of wealth and power who assumes his responsibilities, his role in society, his contribution to culture, and who is here to eradicate any sordid rumors that people may have heard about his private affairs.
Especially after the mess at the Metropole. He was lucky it was immediately silenced, with no publicity. At any rate, there was no evidence against him, other than the ravings of a half-conscious, half-drunk detective who couldn’t distinguish one East European from another. Constantin smirked. Fortunately for him, the detective had realized it was useless, it was his word against Constantin’s, and he finally quieted down — he had nothing solid against Constantin. Nothing.
But the story didn’t end there. He had to be careful. That son of a bitch could be vengeful and cause him trouble in the future. To assure himself, he had sent his flunkies out to find out all they could about this detective. They had bugged his office and were now observing him. Soon, he would know all there was to know about that son of a bitch, and the first thing he would do is hit him where it hurts — he would destroy his business, his detective agency. With this, he would destroy his pride and reputation. Then, with time, when the affair of the Metropole lay forgotten inside some rusty, old police filing-cabinet, he would destroy the detective . . . slowly . . . with pain, as much pain as possible.
Constantin winced at a slight pain in his groin. That son of a bitch had really hurt him. That son of a bitch was going to suffer. That son of a bitch was going to go through Hell!
Walter raised a skeptical eyebrow at Brother Bernabé. God? Was Brother Bernabé some sort of a religious crackpot? If not, what was this all about? About God? Besides, Walter was an atheist, he didn’t believe in God. He had grown up in a modern environment where God was an item of luxury that belonged to the higher echelons of the church. A church that was far from anything sacred, rather it seemed an ostentatious excuse to hide a fundamental thirst for wealth and political power. God, for this cause, was power, a total manipulation of the Holy faith to exercise control over the souls of the weak and ignorant laymen. God was an obstacle to total freedom, a superstitious illusion that limited man’s vision of reality. God was an instrument of the Church, and the Church was a pathetic body of wily reactionaries who rarely practiced what they preached. If God existed, it was difficult to believe that He would let himself be manipulated in this way.
No, Walter thought, if God existed, God wouldn’t belong to any church. In fact, God wouldn’t belong anywhere because he rarely, if ever, participated in the march of human events. So what was the use of God? What was the use of believing in something that was everywhere, but was never there when you needed it? Besides, trying to understand God was absolutely impossible. How could any human being, limited by a brain that was full of primeval fears, Jungian archetypes, and Freudian slips, comprehend the totality of a concept that was eternally everywhere and nowhere at the same time? Impossible. You cannot believe in the impossible because it doesn’t exist. God didn’t exist. No, Walter didn’t believe in God.
Furthermore, considering the way he was feeling lately, he didn’t believe in anything. He wondered how he should disclose to Brother Bernabé that he was an atheist. He always felt nervous around religious people — he believed them to be particularly sensitive to those who didn’t share in their beliefs.
“God, uh?” was all he could say. It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning.
Brother Bernabé smiled pleasantly. “Do you believe in God?” he asked Walter.
Walter glanced at a small Mochica fertility idol that was lying on his desk, then answered with a frank, “No . . . I can’t say I do.”
“You’re an agnostic?”
“No, I’m an atheist.”
“Perfect,” Brother Bernabé said. “An atheist detective is exactly what I need.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I need help in looking for a person who is God, and who better to help me look for this person than someone who doesn’t believe in God.”
Walter gave Brother Bernabé a blank look. Brother Bernabé explained further:
“You see, if you were a believer you wouldn’t look for the person, you would only look for God, and chances are you would never find him because you’d be blinded by your religious zeal.” He then added a quote to illustrate his point: “‘There is no man blinder than one who sees God in everything except in man.'”
“It doesn’t make sense. If someone were to find God it would have to be a believer.”
“Not necessarily, because what’s involved here is not belief or unbelief — which, in fact, are two different perspectives of the same reality — but in finding a normal every day person. Someone whom no one would believe to be God. Not even this person knows it is God!”
Walter frowned. Either he didn’t understand clearly what was involved here or this Brother Bernabé had more bats in the belfry than an abandoned Roman church. “I still don’t get it. Who is this person who is God?”
“Let me explain from the beginning,” Brother Bernabé said, playing with the beads of his wooden rosary. His voice slowly began to linger in the past; it’s hypnotic and droning sound muffling all the surrounding noises like some distant cotton dream. “This story begins years ago, between the 15th and 13th century B.C., on the Syrian coast. It was a period in humanity that was riddled with Gods, Gods abounded everywhere, there were Gods for everything, for every different manifestation of human life, for every wonder of nature, for every mystery unresolved. It was also a period of trade and wars, and different Gods from different tribes were often syncretized with established Gods or imposed by theocratic rule. Suddenly, out of all this blending of different belief systems and cults, out of all these Gods and Daemons, there sprang the idea of one God. One Universal God that was the only “true” sole God of all of Creation. How this first started, this awakening, this phenomenal belief in only one omniscient and eternal God, is a holy mystery. Some attribute it to a group of erudite priests and scholars, others to shamans from the East, and yet others, like myself, to a divine revelation, to God Himself.”
Instinctively, Brother Bernabé crossed himself. “As time passed, this belief in one God began to spread and germinate in different cultures: Akhenaton, the Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, introduced the worship of the sole God Aton; then there followed a surge of monotheistic cults in Sumer and Babylon, cults that would later influence a number of mystery religions and even touch on the Indian Vedas, Zoroastrianism, Mazdaism, and even inspire the thoughts of Greek and Roman philosophers like Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and others. Eventually, all these prior manifestations paved the way for the foundation of the three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”
Walter frowned and emitted a short puff of contempt.
Brother Bernabé paid no attention to Walter’s interjection and continued: “It’s curious to note that in all this process God slowly evolved from a recognizable and tangible God which everybody could see and relate to — like Aton, the Sun God — to something more abstract, a God, an absolute being that was everywhere, but could not be seen, could not be touched, could not be named. This was a strange and unprecedented transformation and it gave rise to the problem of believing in something that materially was not there; to believing in an all-embracing concept, imbued with eternal truth, that transcended human experience and thought. Naturally, this also gave rise to doubts and the doubts gave rise to disbelief, to the negation of God’s existence.” Here, Brother Bernabé threw Walter a piercing glance. “To prove God existed, then, became of prime importance. It was not enough to explain God in words that lacked the sufficient power to grasp the entire essence of God. For man to have faith in God, God had to prove He existed; He had to have contact with man. It was like going back to where it all started from, having to rely once again on an external physical contact with God. On a physical, symbolic image that one could have faith in. And this contact, in part, was provided by myth, myths that had been around for ages, like the eternal myths of the Second Coming, the Savior, the Messiah, the God-incarnate King.”
“So much for the truth,” Walter said, sullenly.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve always believed myths to glorify the lie, to mask the truth.”
“Far from it. To believe in myths is to have faith in our past.”
“But they’re not true.”
“The truth is everywhere, no matter what you believe in,” Brother Bernabé said.
“Even in the heresies?” Walter prodded with a mischievous glint in his eye.
Brother Bernabé hesitated, and then smiled knowingly. “Even in the heresies,” he finally said.
“Now that sounds like a heresy. It sure as hell doesn’t sound like your everyday Christian dogma.”
“Nobody has a monopoly on truth or on God. Those who think they do are far from it.”
Walter arched one eyebrow in surprise. “You know, you don’t sound like your everyday Christian monk,” he said, amused. Not that he knew what an everyday Christian monk was supposed to be like. The only reference he had to the clergy were the black-and-white movies of Don Camilo with Fernandel that he once used to see on the television. He was always in favor of Peppone, the Communist mayor, but he couldn’t deny some sympathy for Don Camilo when the priest showed his mischievous side.
“On the contrary,” the monk replied, good-naturedly. “I’m very much a Christian monk, and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
Walter stared at Brother Bernabé and tried imagining him in his monastery: living in a little cell, in a world of dwindling candlelight, the feet always frozen, and searching for a God that Walter didn’t believe in. He shuddered.
“Why? What made you become a monk?”
Brother Bernabé smiled sadly. “The silence, the peaceful and natural silence that penetrates the soul; and silence is wisdom, it is eternity, it is God . . .”
A short moment of silence passed as Walter wondered if he too would have the guts to abandon everything and conform to a monastic life. It would be extremely difficult, especially having to do without the comforts of modern life. On the other hand, he’d find peace, he’d enjoy the sound of the church bells echoing through the cloister, and occasionally he’d get drunk with the other monks and sing lecherous songs in Latin.
“You should try it sometime,” Brother Bernabé said. “It’s a beautiful experience.”
“Yes, ehm, maybe someday, but for now I prefer this world.”
Brother Bernabé nodded understandingly and continued with his account: “As I was saying, in trying to understand God and prove his existence, different myths developed. One of these being the descent of God unto earth, the incarnation of God into a human being. There were many myths, but . . ..” As he trailed off he rubbed his fingers against his thumb.
“But no absolute certainty. No actual contact,” Walter added keenly.
Smiling, Brother Bernabé nodded slowly. “Right, no contact, or so it seemed, until the Niqmadu Dynasty when an unknown scholar and priest from the city-state of Ugarit chanced upon the most amazing find, a hidden cache of clay tablets from Uruk that dated back to the Sargon Dynasty of Akkad. He translated these tablets from their logo syllabic cuneiform script into his own Ugaritic text, writing down every detail in a small collection of jars which he kept hidden in a secret chamber in the temple of Baal. Apparently, the scholar-priest spent many years studying the incredible story of divine incarnation which was written in the clay tablets of Uruk. Finally, one special day, he was able to verify their authenticity when he crossed paths with the person who had God hidden inside of his soul. He whispered to this stranger the words that would awaken the God inside of him.”
“Wait a minute, what words, what are you talking about?” Walter queried. His attempts to recall his classroom years of history were vague and distant, and now this matter about magical words had completely thrown him off.
“The tablets lay claim to a special order of words that have to be whispered to awaken the God within. It’s sort of like an incantation, a chant.”
An uneasy feeling brushed against Walter. Words, like swollen silence bursting with surprising revelations, with a voice that shatters the quiescent vintage of reality. Did he want to hear this?
He did. “What are these words?” he asked.
“They mean nothing to you. They’re nonsense.” Brother Bernabé chuckled. “You see, in the beginning was the Word. But you’ve probably heard this phrase repeated a thousand times by people who preach the scriptures, specifically John’s Gospel in this case.”
Walter nodded, although he knew nothing of John’s Gospel. Not that it really mattered — as an atheist he had always ignored most words guised in pious veneration.
“Nevertheless, it does cling to a belief that comes from ancestral times,” Brother Bernabé continued. “In the beginning the word. Vedic verses, for example, are precise intonations that stem from one single sound, one single word or syllable from whence the entire Universe was created. From there come the mantras, words repeated in a particular manner that probe the profound levels of consciousness and reveal the luminous essence of the human spirit. If you think about it, the word has been at the core of most creative and spiritual manifestations and, in these cases, it completely transcends conceptualization. The word has been God since forever, since before silence. Vedic verses, the Aum of the Mandukya Upanishad, the nonsensical parables of Chuang Tzu, the Zen koans, Jewish Kabbala, Gregorian chants, African rites, American Indian Shaman incantations, Sufi poetry, Blake, Wittgenstein, Eliot, Unamuno, Calvino and Yeats, they all display the essence of the Divine by the way they structure and display their words. They overcome the obstacles of language while at the same time use its form to reach enlightenment. Like Saint John of the Cross said:
‘One word has been spoken by the Father:
This is His Son.
He speaks this Word forever in eternal silence,
And it should be heard in silence by the soul.‘”
Walter was not sure what to say. Maybe silence was most appropriate in a moment like this.
“But going back to our little story,” Brother Bernabé said. “The priest-scholar whispered the words to the stranger whose soul suddenly blossomed with the flower of all eternity, with God. From here on, there are no more records of what transpired. Years later, during the invasion of the Achaean “Sea Peoples” the temple was destroyed and the clay jars disappeared. For years nobody knew their whereabouts. Then, sometime between the 6th and 5th century B.C., a Greek historian and geographer called Hecataeus of Miletus found the jars and, with the help of an old Semitic scholar, he was able to translate their Ugaritic text into Greek. Oddly enough, Hecataeus never verified the text contained in the jars, probably because he believed them to refer to yet another recurrent myth of incarnation. There were so many in those days. The jars eventually disappeared, or were destroyed, and the scrolls of the translations were lost when Hecataeus travelled to Alexandria. Nothing is known of the old Semitic scholar. Years later, the scrolls appear again; this time they are cited in one of the missing books of the De Dis collection, written by one Nigidius Figulus, a Roman writer and wise man often thought to be a mystic and magician. He tried to verify the scrolls, but died in Egypt of typhoid fever before he could find out if their contents spoke the truth. Since then, little is known of the scrolls. They seem to have influenced the writing of numerous scholars of antiquity, such as Simon Magus, Menander, Basilides, Valentius, Origen, Plotinus, Ibn al-Arabi and even Rabbi Yochanan ben Uziel. And there’s the strong possibility that they also influenced the basis of Manichaeism and the foundation of the Kabbala and Merkabah mysticism.”
“I finally came into possession of the scrolls a year ago. They were discovered by a young lay brother — whom I had been teaching — while he was visiting his family in the Valley of Manigod. One of his brothers told him about a tomb that had been uncovered under the main nave of an old ruined Roman chapel. He investigated the tomb and, among the dusty remains, he found a clay jar full of thin parchment scrolls. He didn’t know what to do and was afraid to report his find to the Dioceses. You see, he realized that he had opened the tomb without permission and could be seriously reprimanded. So, he brought the scrolls to me. Among the parchments he found, other than the Greek scrolls we have been talking about, was a bound volume which resembled a diary. It was written in Latin and belonged to a Christian Theban legionnaire called Stremonius who died in the year 300 A.D. He relates how he had befriended an old Greek Neoplatonic scholar during his days in Thebes, and how the scholar, on his deathbed, had given him the scrolls and made him promise that he would protect them with his life. Shortly after the death of the Greek scholar, Stremonius was recruited in the Legion and sent to Rome as a cavalry man under the orders of Maximian, co-emperor with Diocletian of the Roman Empire. In the year 286, Maximian was sent to the Alpine region to suppress the rebellion of the Bagaudians, a group of desperate peasants and local tribes that were resisting the crushing imperial taxation and the pillage of the wealthy families. One of Maximian’s legions, the Christian legion from Thebes, of which Stremonius formed part, refused to massacre the Bagaudian Christian peasants. Enraged, Maximian ordered all his vexillationes to decimate the Theban Legion. 6,600 men were massacred in what is now St-Maurice-en-Valais. Stremonius and two other Theban legionnaires, Victor and Ursus, were able to escape. Victor and Ursus were caught and killed in Solothurn. Stremonius was never found. Apparently, he died in the valley of Manigod and the scrolls were buried with him.”
History was revolving around Walter’s brain in a swirl of confusion that made Walter think his mind was caught in some sort of chronological milkshake. “So much for history, but where does this lead us?”
“It leads us to this. Working with a combination of specific cryptic words and numbers, and using them to interpret different esoteric symbols, and astronomical and telluric signs, the Ugaritic scholar-priest came to the amazing discovery that God, the sole and Universal God of all of eternity, reincarnated in a living being every so many years!”
A skeptic smirk twisted Walter’s mouth.
“Yes, it sounds impossible, but, believe me, it’s true,” Brother Bernabé added, earnestly.
“True? It’s impossible,” Walter replied. “Let’s just suppose that if God does exist, that He is in everything, in all of creation, in all of eternity, then why an incarnation? It doesn’t make sense, especially for a limited period of time?”
“You sound just like Saint Augustine at the beginning of his confessions. That’s good. I like that thinking. One could say that God does not believe in time and every second, like every minute, like every hour, day or week represent an eternity for Him. That is one of the mysteries of Divinity.”
“That doesn’t sound too convincing.” Again, the incessant tick tock of a nothing that represented a reality so intangible that it synchronized with all of the absurd.
“I know. I must admit that at first I also had my doubts, but when I started studying this amazing revelation in more depth, when I at last was able to grasp the mystic elements of non-existent time, I realized it was true.”
True? Again that word that made Walter think immediately of the opposite. “Why would you believe in something that predates the Christian era?”
“God does not predate anything, He is eternal, remember?”
“Sure, but this scholar-priest–”
“This scholar-priest,” Brother Bernabé overrode, “is of course human and he could’ve been wrong. I know. But there’s no doubt that the evidence that is expounded in the scrolls, and which I have carefully corroborated, give irrefutable proof that God reincarnates in different living beings every so often.”
There was a long silence. Walter scratched his head. It still wasn’t clear . . . why the awe? “Okay, fine. The scrolls were obviously talking about the advent of Jesus Christ or one of those many God-incarnated prophets of the old days. So what’s the big deal?”
The rosary in the monk’s hand shook. There was a short embarrassing silence. “No, no, you don’t understand. According to the scrolls, God reincarnates every so many years and Jesus Christ does not form part of one of these reincarnations.”
Walter was stunned. “If I get this right, these scrolls are saying that Jesus Christ was not one of the reincarnations? Are you telling me then that someone like you, a Christian monk, does not believe that Christ was the Son of God?”
“No, no, not at all. My belief, in any case, is not supported by facts but by faith, and faith is a spiritual guide to understanding that which is incomprehensible,” Brother Bernabé explained, patiently. “It’s a bridge to eternity.”
“Right,” Walter said. He didn’t want to start talking about faith — it would muddle things up and lead them to even more speculations about the existence of God. So he switched to the opposite and asked: “So what does the Church think about all this?”
“The Church doesn’t know,” Brother Bernabé replied briskly.
“I see . . .”
In the background, the church bells of St-Germain church were clanging languidly. Walter was about to pronounce an acid remark on the Church, but he thought it best to keep his opinion to himself. At least for the time being.
“You don’t seem too convinced,” the monk observed.
“I don’t know. I told you I was an atheist and it’s hard for me to accept all this.” Even though, with this revelation, there existed the remote possibility that God’s existence could be proved empirically, Walter was still swayed by his atheistic convictions that to be human one had to forego the idea of God and accept freedom, nature, instinct, the present, the tangible material world, the subjective experience as the ultimate states of reality. God, in this frame, could be considered just another exegesis, another angle, in a world of constant dynamic change.
“It was hard for me too, at the beginning. More so because I believed. But through the years I’ve studied these incarnations, or as Catholic theologians call it, the Hypostatic Union, and I’ve been able to prove that some of the men in these scrolls did exist at the time they were dated, they were there, and they could have been God-incarnate if there had been someone to chant the words.”
“But if there were no words chanted, there was no God. God never appeared. God did not exist. God did not control his Union with Man, which makes him into a conjecture, a figment of religious imagination, a myth, something not finite enough to be infinite.”
“We don’t know that,” the monk said defensively.
“How can we, when time is so inconclusive and God so inaccessible?”
Brother Bernabé winced, then chortled. “I see you have a logic that is as sharp as a demon’s wit. I like that.”
“I have my days.”
“Okay, I’ll go by that. But let us leave aside the logic that stands between Man and Divinity. Let us say that something will happen if this chant is whispered; that some kind of mystical manifestation will occur. Can we work on this?”
“I’m all ears.”
“Splendid. Then what is going to happen is that one of God’s reincarnations will be taking place right now!” He exhaled and looked out of the window. It was clear that he was not looking at the building in front, but back to past, remembering the discovery, remembering the chill.
Walter, however, was still muddled and he felt a little bit adamant. “But do these reincarnated beings live a normal life and then die, or do they live for all of eternity? And why would God reincarnate again if He is eternal? It doesn’t make sense.”
“As an atheist, you should know better that God does not make sense; which makes nonsense easier to explain.”
“What are you, a Buddhist monk?”
“I’m a Christian monk that is ready to meet the Lord.”
Walter didn’t know what to think. This was too farfetched. Then again, how many mysteries like this popped up in the news every day? Thousands. One only had to look at the tabloid papers to find out that Jesus Christ was back walking the waters, or that the Virgin appeared weeping to some hysterical pious old maid, or that Elvis was seen somewhere boogying to the beat of a rock-and-roll tune.
“I still find this whole business hard to believe. How can you be so sure?”
“Because it’s written in the scrolls.”
The scrolls, the scrolls, the scrolls. It was back to the blasted scrolls. Walter didn’t trust the written word, he didn’t trust the Bible, he didn’t even trust the newspaper he read each day or those warning signs they put on the tobacco packs. “What if they’re mistaken?”
“There’s only one way to find out.”
“Right . . . and you want me to help you find Him.”
“Why do you need me? If you’ve read and deciphered the scrolls, you should know by now who this person is and where to find him?”
“I still haven’t finished deciphering all the text. I’ve only been able to come up with the last name and the initial to the first name.”
“That isn’t much help.”
“It’s as far as I could go. But with your help I can come up with some more information that will help us find this person. That is, the time, the place and the date.”
“I’m not a theological scholar or a cryptographer.”
“I know that. I’m aware of your limitations, no offense intended. But I have a contact that could help us. With his assistance, we’ll gather the data that we’re missing; I’ll eventually need your keen bloodhound instincts and field expertise to find this person.”
Walter frowned. He hoped the monk wasn’t getting the idea that he would help him. Nothing was decided yet. “Why do you want to find Him?” he finally asked.
Brother Bernabé looked puzzled. Obviously, he wasn’t expecting that sort of question and it caught him off guard. “Why? Because . . . because . . . if you knew that God was out there, here, now, at this moment, wouldn’t you try to find Him?”
Walter shrugged. “I don’t know . . . to begin with, I don’t believe in God so I don’t think he would be out there. But if I did believe in Him and I knew He was out there, I might be afraid to find Him . . . to face Him and discover He is not what I’ve always made Him out to be. Maybe I’d prefer just knowing He was out there or inside of me. It would be enough. Then again, maybe He doesn’t want to be found.”
Brother Bernabé nodded, but he wasn’t agreeing, he was considering Walter’s point, a point well made. Finally, he said: “I have to find Him. He is everything in my life.”
“But you said, before, you had faith. That was enough. Or is it not enough?”
Brother smiled. “Of course, it’s enough, but like everybody, including an atheist like you, I also have a strong sense of curiosity and an innate tendency to add experience to my faith; it’s a metaphysical commitment with my inner belief and a desire to partake and become part of the Hypostatic Union.”
“Fine. But why did you come to me?” Walter queried.
“A contributor to our monastery whom you helped in a previous case referred me to you.”
“Splendid,” Walter remarked with a sour smile. He wasn’t curious to know who the contributor might be. “What I don’t understand is why you don’t go to the church with all this? Isn’t it more like their job?”
A shadow spread over Brother Bernabé’s face. “I’m not too sure that would be safe. You see, the only other person who knew about this was my Abbot. After I told him, he got in touch with Rome and was ordered to suspend all further investigation until they sent a team of experts. The discovery was to remain a complete secret. A few days later my Abbot had a fatal accident in a nearby village where he had gone to buy some supplies — he was run over by a milk truck. They say it was an accident, but the driver of the truck disappeared mysteriously. That night, someone quietly slipped into the monastery and ransacked my Abbot’s office and his cell. The next day, while I was in the library, there was a fire and many of our precious manuscripts were burnt. I was fortunate to escape alive with the scrolls that still had to be deciphered; unfortunately, the ones that were still in the library, were either burnt or had mysteriously disappeared in the confusion. When I returned to my cell, I saw a shadow running out of my room and disappear towards the cloister. That’s when I decided it would be best that I leave the monastery and find some help here in the city.”
“Where are the scrolls now?”
“They’re locked in the safe of the hotel room were I’m staying.”
“Why don’t you go the police?”
“No, this has to remain secret. It’s not something you can advertise around. There are too many religious fanatics out there.”
Walter wondered if Brother Bernabé was one of them. He didn’t seem the type, but one could never be too sure. Then Brother Bernabé posed him the big question: “So what do you think? Are you going to take the case?”
Should he? Walter thought it over as his eyes remained fixed on Brother Bernabé’s steel cross. To begin with, he was in no mood to continue with his detective work. Furthermore, this case was not really up his alley. Searching for God . . . ridiculous. Besides, he didn’t believe in God and he would be searching for something that didn’t exist, searching for nothing, searching for his own disbelief. It was all too vague, too surreal, too absurd. Then there was Brother Bernabé who seemed to be a gentle, simple person devoted to his faith and his little world of hidden and archaic meanings. The monk probably didn’t realize that reality was far from the recurrent archetypical myths that supported his belief system. Reality was a cruel reminder of man’s dependence on his material surroundings. Moreover, believing that there exists a person who is God, but doesn’t know he is God is like believing that life’s paradoxes are false because they say the truth. No, it didn’t make sense. No . . .
Brother Bernabé must have sensed his feelings. “Listen,” he said, interrupting Walter’s thoughts. “Take your time and think it over. It’s not an easy decision to make because I know it sounds a little bit bizarre. I’m not staying at the Cenacle, but at the Astoria Hotel in the Place Cornavin. I’ll wait for your answer.”
Walter hesitated, then blurted: “No, I’m not going to do it. I’m quitting my business.”
Brother Bernabé got up from his seat and paced around the room, deep in thought. He stopped in front of the library and glanced over the titles of the books. He picked one out and leafed through the pages. It was “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff. The book was a gift from an American woman whom Walter had helped in a previous case — finding her lost husband who had suffered amnesia and ended up wandering off in the high Alps in search of the edelweiss flower. Brother Bernabé suddenly read a verse from the book where Pooh explains Inner Nature:
“How can you get very far,
If you don’t know Who You Are?
How can you do what you ought,
If you don’t know What You’ve Got?
And if you don’t know Which To Do
Of all the things in front of you,
Then what you’ll have when you are through
Is just a mess without a clue
Of all the best that can come true
If you know What and Which and Who.”
Brother Bernabé closed the book and smiled. He looked at Walter who had no words, just thoughts without a clue. “It’s curious how you find answers in the most unimaginable places . . . that’s how you find God,” Brother Bernabé said. Then he softly bade farewell and was gone, swiftly and silently, like a spirit that is whisked away in the middle of the night.
Walter turned and looked out of the window. He felt sadder and worse off than before. This story about God had pulled him down, making him reflect on his disbelief and his muddled inner turmoil. It was all because he lacked a clear goal in life, a purpose. Maybe he would feel better if he believed . . . No, that was not the solution, he was being stupid and childish. He couldn’t feel better believing in something that did not exist. Yet children believed in cartoon characters like Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd, and they did feel better. But God was not Elmer Fudd . . . or was He? God, if He existed, could be anything and everything in the Universe, from Elmer Fudd to a neutrino zipping through Andromeda to a plate of spinach enchiladas. Which made him wonder, what if this person who is God was in fact God, a true God, the Almighty, the real Manitou? Walter eradicated the thought, the little glint of hope, by staring, through his curled hand, at the rooftop of the building in front of him. It was like looking through a camera lens, a whole new perspective. He wished he could see the lake from his office; see the jetty of water, and the swans, the numerous white swans that didn’t believe in anything, they just drifted over the lake like enchanted billows of feathered white mist.
Geraldine entered his office, her curiosity killing her. “Well?” she queried.
Walter swiveled on his chair and faced her. He looked sad, lost, defeated. “Well what?” he mumbled.
“Well, are you going to take on the case?”
Walter’s eyes drooped. “No, Geraldine,” he said. “It’s over. I quit.”