The New Republic
The New Republic
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
The Borough Press
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2012
Copyright © Lionel Shriver 2012
Lionel Shriver asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Source ISBN: 9780007459919
Ebook Edition © June 2012 ISBN: 9780007459926
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books
To Sarowitz, of course—
a solo dedication being long overdue
My experiences with journalists authorize me to recordthat a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy,opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequatelysupervised … They have huge power, and many ofthem are extremely reckless.
— CONRAD BLACK
Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
— GEORGE ORWELL
Whisking into his apartment house on West Eighty-Ninth Street, Edgar Kellogg skulked, eager to avoid eye contact with a doorman who at least got a regular paycheck. His steps were quick and tight, his shoulders rounded. Unable to cover next month’s rent, he peered anxiously at the elevator indication light stuck on twelve, as if any moment he might be arrested. Maxing out the credit cards came next. This place used to give him such a kick. Now that he couldn’t afford it, the kick was in the teeth, and tapping cordovans literally down at the heel, he calculated morosely that for every day in this fatuous dive he was out ninety bucks. Waiting on a $175 check from the Amoco Traveler was like trying to bail out a rowboat with an eyedropper while the cold, briny deep gushed through a hole the size of a rubber boot.
Up on the nineteenth floor, Edgar shot a look around at what, underneath it all, was a plushly appointed one-bedroom, but the management’s cleaning service had been one of the first luxuries to go. At only ten a.m., Edgar found himself already eyeing the Doritos on the counter. One thing he hadn’t anticipated about the “home office” was Snack Syndrome; lately his mental energies divided evenly between his new calling (worrying about money, which substituted neatly for earning it) and not stuffing his face. God, he was turning into a girl, and in no time would find himself helplessly contriving sassy Ryvita open-faces with cherry tomatoes (only twenty-five calories!). The thought came at him with a thud: This isn’t working out. Quick on its heels, I’ve made a terrible mistake. And, since Edgar was never one to put too fine a point on it, I’m an ass.
This was not the positive thinking that the how-tos commended in the run-up to a job interview, in preparation for which Edgar cleared off the beer cans and spread out the National Record. Hours in advance, his concentration was already shaky. Picking out single words in strobe, his eyes skittered across an article about terrorism: these days it was news that there wasn’t any. Further down: some correspondent had gone missing three months ago. The gist: he was still missing. If it weren’t a reporter who’d vanished, this “story” would never have run, much less on the front page. After all, if Edgar Kellogg disappeared tomorrow, the Record was unlikely to run frantic updates on the ongoing search for a prematurely retired attorney turned nobody freelancer. In the argot of his new trade, “freelance” was apparently insider jargon for “unemployed,” and when he mumbled the word to acquaintances they smirked.
Yet instead of getting up to speed on current events, Edgar found himself once again compulsively scanning for a Tobias Falconer byline. Funny thing was, when he found one, he wouldn’t read the article. And this was typical. For years he’d snagged this oppressively earnest, tiny-print newspaper—one of the last austere holdouts that refused to go color—solely to locate Falconer’s pieces, but he could seldom submit to reading them. Edgar had never tried to identify what he feared.
Collapsing into the deep corduroy sofa, Edgar surrendered to the free-floating reflection that ten frenzied years on Wall Street had so mercifully forestalled. For all that time, Toby Falconer’s supercharged byline had given Edgar a jolt, its alternating current of envy and wistfulness confusing but addictive. These little zaps made his scalp tingle, but reading whole features would be like sticking his fingers into a light socket. In that event, why buy the paper at all? Why monitor the career of a man whom Edgar hadn’t seen in twenty years, and of a traitor to boot, whose very surname made him wince?
But then, Falconer’s fortunes had been easy to follow. A foreign correspondent first for U.S. News and World Report, then, seminally, for the NationalRecord, he filed peripatetically from Beirut to Belfast to Sarajevo. More than once he’d won a prize for covering a story that was especially risky or previously neglected, and these awards filled Edgar with a baffling mixture of irritation and pride. Of course, Edgar had chosen the far more lucrative occupation. Yet he’d learned to his despair how little money was worth if it couldn’t buy you out of slogging at seven a.m. into a law firm you reviled. “Well compensated” was an apt turn of phrase, though in the end he couldn’t imagine any sum so vast that it could truly offset flushing twelve, thirteen hours of every waking day down the toilet.
When Edgar ditched his “promising” career in corporate law (though what it promised, of course, was more corporate law) in order to try his hand at journalism six months ago, he’d been reluctant to examine in what measure this impetuous and financially suicidal reinvention might have been influenced by his old high school running buddy—who, having always obtained the funnier friends, the prettier girls, and the sexier summer jobs, had naturally secured the jazzier vocation. If Toby Falconer and Edgar Kellogg were both drawn to journalism in the fullness of time, maybe the convergence merely indicated that the two boys had had more in common at Yardley Prep than Edgar had ever dared believe as a kid.
Dream on. To imagine that he bore any resemblance to Falconer in adolescence was so vain as to be fanciful. Toby Falconer was a specimen. No doubt every high school had one, though the singular was incongruous as a type; presumably there was no one else like him.
A Falconer was the kind of guy about whom other people couldn’t stop talking. He managed to be the center of attention when he wasn’t even there. He always got girls, but more to the point he got the girl. Whichever dish you yourself envisioned with the bathroom door closed, she’d be smitten with our hero instead. Some cachet would rub off, of course, but if you hung with a Falconer you’d spend most of your dates fielding questions about his troubled childhood. A Falconer’s liberty was almost perfectly unfettered, because he was never punished for his sins. Anyway, a Falconer’s sins wouldn’t seem depraved but merely naughty, waggish, or rather enchanting really, part of the package without which a Falconer wouldn’t be the endearing rogue whom we know and love and infinitely forgive. Besides, who would risk his displeasure by bringing him to book? He did everything with flair, not only because he was socially adroit, but because the definition of flair in his circle was however the Falconer did whatever the Falconer did. To what extent a Falconer’s magnetism could be ascribed to physical beauty was impossible to determine. Good looks couldn’t have hurt; still, if a Falconer had any deviant feature—a lumpy nose, or a single continuous eyebrow—that feature would simply serve to reconfigure the beautiful as archetype. A Falconer set the standard, so by his very nature could not appear unattractive, make a plainly stupid remark, or do anything awkward at which others would laugh, save in an ardent, collusive, or sycophantic spirit.
Hitherto Edgar had been the Falconer’s counterpart, that symbiotic creature without which a Falconer could not exist. The much admired required the admirer, and to his own dismay Edgar had more than once applied for the position. While he’d have far preferred the role of BMOC if the post were going begging, he was eternally trapped by a Catch-22: in yearning to be admired himself, he was bound to admire other people who were admirable. Which made him, necessarily, a fan.
To date, the only weapon that had overthrown a Falconer’s tyranny was cruel, disciplined disillusionment. Sometimes a Falconer turned out to be a fraud. Lo and behold, he could be clumsy, if you kept watch. At length it proved thoroughly possible, if you forced yourself, to laugh at his foibles in a fashion that was less than flattering. Wising up was painful at first, but a relief, and when all was said and done Edgar would be lonely but free. Yet taking the anointed down a peg or two was a puzzling, even depressing exercise, in consequence of which he reserved his most scathing denunciations for the very people with whom he had once been most powerfully entranced.
Edgar’s public manner—gruff, tough, wary, and deadpan—was wildly discrepant with his secret weakness for becoming captivated by passing Falconers, and he worried privately that the whole purpose of his crusty exterior was to contain an inside full of goo. He couldn’t bear to conceive of himself as a sidekick. Having ever been slavishly enthralled to an idol of any sort shamed him almost as much as having once been fat. Hence of Edgar’s several ambitions at thirty-seven the most dominant was never to succumb to the enchantment of a Falconer again.
It was in the grip of precisely this resolution that Edgar Kellogg had marched out of Lee & Thole six months ago, determined to cast off the dreary Burberry of the overpaid schmo. At last he would grow into the grander mantle of standard-bearer, trendsetter, and cultural icon. It was in the grip of this same resolution that Edgar set off for his four p.m. job interview with the National Record. He’d had it with being The Fan. He wanted to be The Man.
“Win, that you? Guy Wallasek at the Record. I know it’s been three months, so this is a formality—I’m way past the mother-hen stage. But Saddler hasn’t deigned to show his face in Barba, has he? … Here? At this point, he wouldn’t dare … I stand corrected. Whatever Saddler lacks in consideration, he makes up in gall.” The lardy editor covered the receiver’s mouthpiece and murmured to his four p.m. appointment, “Be right with you.”
Edgar squinted at framed Pulitzers, nodding, pretending to be impressed. These props exhausted, from the lamp table he picked up a rectangular coaster, laminated with a reduced front page from the National Record, RED ARMY OVERTHROWS GORBACHEV GOVERNMENT. The byline, hard to make out, began with a B. He’d change places with that reporter in a New York minute. Chasing tanks with a microcassette beat the dickens out of filing another prospectus for public offering. The window behind Guy Wallasek afforded an uninspiring view of solid green glass; soon Edgar would run out of ostensible fascinations. He didn’t want to seem to lose himself in the copy of today’s Record, implying that he hadn’t read it.
The desk chair squealed as Wallasek leaned back. “I’d sure like to give him a piece of my …” The big man chuckled. “Yeah, I’m kidding myself. I’d probably fix our prodigal a cup of tea. I’m only his boss, right? … Me? At first I assumed it was a stunt. Another one. But what would Saddler do with more attention? Keep it in jars? And that peninsula of yours is such a snake pit …”
Edgar’s face was stiff from keeping an unnaturally pleasant I’m-in-no-hurry expression in place for ten minutes. Wallasek could easily have made this call before their appointment. And why bother with the power play? Edgar would have stripped to his boxers and danced the cha-cha for a chance to write for Wallasek’s foreign desk.
The editor guffawed, shooting Edgar a glance to make sure he felt left out of the joke. “You do see him,” Wallasek went on, “tell Barrington next time he takes a vacation maybe he could send a postcard. Lucky for the Record the story’s gone into deep freeze. The SOB hasn’t claimed so much as a faulty Chinese firework since Saddler went AWOL, right?
“… Rich, isn’t it? That bastard has drawn slack-jawed adulation by the drool bucket—not to mention apoplectic rage. But worry is new. Must be the odd champagne glass raised in his absence, yeah? … Cer-ve-ja de puka pera?” Wallasek pronounced with difficulty. “Sounds revolting. Thank the Lord for you brave foreign correspondents and your sacrifice for the world’s hungry need to know … Sarcastic, moi?” Chortle-chortle. “Yeah, they don’t make nemeses like they used to, Win. Ciao.”
Edgar’s amiable grin had, he feared, slid to a grimace. His girlfriend Angela always ragged on him for slouching, and his erect I’m-just-the-man-you’re-looking-for posture in the director’s chair was hurting his back. Meanwhile, Wallasek fussed with papers on a desk that was every job applicant’s nightmare: crumpled piles doubtless dating back two presidential administrations, grease-stained with Danish crumbs. You’d never get away with a desk like that at Lee & Thole.
“So!” Wallasek exhaled, locating Edgar’s clips and CV. Their binder was missing, the photocopies disheveled. An uncomprehending gaze betrayed that Wallasek hadn’t read a paragraph of Edgar’s articles. Next time he wouldn’t bother with the color photocopying, which looked nifty but cost a buck a page. Edgar squirmed. Maybe clued-up hacks never sent color clips. The bright borders beaming from the editor’s hands looked overeager. Edgar welcomed the common charge that he was a wiseass—rude, surly, and insubordinate—but the prospect of appearing a rookie was mortifying.
“Mr.—Kellogg!” Wallasek exclaimed, with the same sense of discovery with which he’d looked up to find that a stranger had been sitting in his office for the last fifteen minutes. “No trouble finding the place?”
“The Equitable Building is bigger than a breadbox.” Edgar chafed at pre-interview chitchat and its artifice of relax-we-haven’t-started-yet, when empty schmooze was really one more test to pass. He had to stop himself from fast-forwarding, this summer has sure been a hot one and that’s a mighty fine wife in your desk photo there and you don’t have to ask where I live since the address is on my résumé and no I don’t want a cup of coffee.
“Can I get you—?”
“Nothing, thanks.” To encourage a cut to the chase, Edgar shot a pointed glance at his chunky gold-plated diving watch. In the context of Edgar’s current average income of $300/month, its gratuitous dials spun with a dizzying exorbitance that until this spring he’d taken for granted.
“Second in your class,” Wallasek muttered, running a finger down the CV. “Vice president … Honorable mention … Salutatorian … Second prize … Second-chair … Say, you’ve almost snagged a lot of things.”
“I’m one of life’s runners-up.” Having failed to keep the edge from his voice, Edgar moderated pleasantly, “We try harder.”
Wallasek pulled back the arm on a pair of nail clippers and stuck the end in his ear, digging for wax. “A book review for Newsday,” he ruminated, spreading the photocopies. “The Village Voice—that’s a freebie now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” Edgar said stonily.
“Washington Times … The Moonie paper.”
Since the early eighties the Washington Times had been owned by a fat Korean evangelist. “The staff does maintain independent editorial control.”
“Yes—or so they claim. Still, it’s not the Post, is it?”
“No, sirree,” Edgar agreed, clicking his eyeteeth, “it ain’t the Washington Post.”
“Columbia Alumni Magazine, Amtrak Express.” Examining his nail clipper arm, the editor removed a sulfurous chunk from its tip before returning to Edgar’s fledgling journalism, none of which seemed to generate the intense fascination of the gunk from Wallasek’s ear.
“And the New Republic,” Edgar pointed out.
“The rest of these seem to be law review. How much do you know about the National Record?”
“I’m a regular reader,” Edgar lied; once he’d scanned for Falconer’s byline he generally tossed the rag, since its sports section sucked. “I appreciate that the Record filled a void. For this country’s only national newspaper to have remained USA Today would have been a scandal.”
Wallasek still looked expectant; Edgar hadn’t yet laid it on thick enough. “The Record also embraces America’s post–Cold War global leadership. Your international coverage is at least as thorough as the New York Times. In assuming that readers care about the rest of the world, you don’t condescend to your subscribers.” Edgar had to stop; his inflection had developed the lilt of implausible enthusiasm employed to retail panty shields.
“Of course we condescend to our subscribers,” Wallasek dismissed with a wave. “International coverage is a sop to their vanity. Only a handful read that stuff. With one exception: when our American everyman tucks the Record under one arm and trundles into a seven-forty-seven and one of those filthy little foreigners blows it up. Those articles get read, my friend. Every column inch.”
Edgar found railing against terrorists the height of tedium. The issue invited over-obvious moralizing, since who’s going to contend that wasting those two kids with a trashcan bomb in a D.C. shopping mall in April was a profound political statement? Presumably Edgar was now obliged to chime in with hearty indignation over the Soldatsies Oozhatsies, or whatever those sorry-ass crackpots called themselves, clenching his fist in we-shall-not-be-moved solidarity with his fellow Americans, who will never capitulate to terrorism. Or maybe he should small-talk about how amazing it was that the FBI hadn’t collared a single one of these dirtbags, to demonstrate that he was on top of the story. But this interview wasn’t going well, the application had been a long shot to begin with, and Edgar passed.
“You aware of how the Record managed to establish a reputation for quality journalism in so few years?” asked Wallasek.
“Astute editing, a clearly defined remit—”
“Balls,” Wallasek cut him off. “By paying better than any paper in the country.”
Edgar smiled despite himself. “I know.”
“What I’m getting at here is that, well, you’ve got a few nice clips—”
“Those are only samples, of course.”
They both knew that Edgar had furnished every semicolon he’d ever published.
“Still, Mr. Kellogg, aren’t you aiming a little high?”
“I explained in my cover letter—”
“Yes—you ‘quit the law to become a freelance journalist.’ That caught my eye.”
“I left a top Wall Street firm where I was about to make partner,” said Edgar. “Until a few months ago I was making two hundred grand a year and rising. The Record may pay well, but that well? Seems to me that, however you slice it, I’m not ‘aiming high,’ but asking for a whopping cut in salary.”
“So I should hire you because you’re nuts?”
Edgar laughed. “Or what’s the latest prissy buzz phrase? Learning-delayed.”
Wallasek squinted. “What possessed you?”
Edgar paused. He’d rehearsed his explanation in the taxi on the way here, the cab itself an extravagance left over from the Lee & Thole days—a habit he’d have to break. Despite his designer slouch, Edgar must have been nervous; the glib rationale fled. Only overwrought snippets from college D. H. Lawrence classes flitted back to him, like “inchoate yearning.” He could not emote to some bovine newspaperman about “inchoate yearning” any more than he could assert to Toby’s own boss that he was driven to become “a Falconer.”
Lately he’d had to wonder, was he crazy? Papaya King again for lunch, when six months ago he might have dined on a client’s tab at The Cub Room. Had he been asked to go to Syracuse on short notice, he could have charged the firm for a new shirt and sent a messenger to pick it up. If he stayed past 7:30 p.m. (like, until 7:31), a Dial-car would drive him home. How could he ever explain to Guy Wallasek that privilege might have enticed an overworked paralegal, but that when Edgar was finally able to overbill clients himself the practice had seemed abruptly low-rent? Or that for no self-evident reason Edgar was meant for something finer than drafting turgid briefs? Or that he wanted to “say something,” when the very ache to say “something” and not something in particular must have put Edgar in the same boat as every other flailing schmuck in the country?
“I got bored,” Edgar telescoped lamely.
“Writing for Amtrak Express amuses you more?”
“Gotta start somewhere. And the law felt, I don’t know, passive. We’re parasites.”
“Journalists are parasites,” Wallasek countered, “on everyone else’s events. Plenty of scribblers spend their workdays merely recording what you just walked away from: mergers and acquisitions, transfers of money and power. The worst thing that can happen to a correspondent is to start thinking of himself as a player. The hack who fancies himself a mover-and-shaker gets slipshod—thinks he’s covering his own story. Reporting is a humble profession, Mr. Kellogg. Journalists—” Wallasek shrugged—“are History’s secretaries.”
“Better History’s secretary than Philip Morris’s lawyer,” Edgar ventured. “At least hacks get bylines. Law’s an anonymous profession, behind the scenes. Attorneys are paid so much because the work is drab and thankless. A predictable calling for runners-up. But I don’t want honorable mentions anymore, Mr. Wallasek. I’d like to distinguish myself.”
“You want to see your name in print,” said Wallasek skeptically.
“I want to see anything in print that isn’t solely composed to help some suit who already has more money than he knows what to do with make a little more.” Edgar pressed on with a willful geekiness refreshingly unlike him, “I want to get at the truth.”
“The ‘truth’ most reporters get at is pretty pedestrian: the secretary of state left the White House at five forty p.m. and not at six o’clock. As for the big-picture sort …” Wallasek seemed to take a moment to reflect, and ran a dirty nail along the stitching of his jacket. “I didn’t used to camp behind a desk, Mr. Kellogg. Funny, I don’t miss pounding the pavement much as I might have expected. I cut my teeth in Vietnam, hung up my hat after Grenada. I can’t say for sure if I’ve a better understanding, of anything, than the folks who stayed in bed. Damnedest thing, but you can be right there in the middle, two armies tearing each other apart, and afterwards have not one thing to say about it. Not one thing. Way it should be. A reporter’s not supposed to chip in his two cents. But this—failure to achieve perspective. It can be personally discouraging. There’s no overarching ‘truth’ out there. Only a bunch of menial, dissociated little facts. And the facts don’t often add up to much. Lotta trees; not much forest. Oh, once in a rare while you trip over an All the President’s Men, and get to play the hero. But for the most part you just find out what happened, and what happened is depressing.”
“No more depressing than Lee & Thole.”
“I only wonder if your expectations aren’t a mite steep. Not only of getting a staff job at this newspaper, but of what the job would entail if I were rash enough to offer a post to an inexperienced, middle-aged cub.”
Edgar could skip the fatherly advice, as well as being classed at only thirty-seven as “middle-aged.” Before he could stop it, his hand was tracing his forehead, as if his hairline might have receded another half-inch since he checked it this morning. On the way back to his lap, Edgar’s fingertips traced the deep V-shaped runnels of a scowl so habitual that Angela claimed he frowned in his sleep.
“You’re the one who asked me for an interview,” Edgar grunted. “You could’ve flipped my CV in the trash.” Edgar reached for his briefcase.
Wallasek raised his palm. “Hold your horses. Toby Falconer recommended you, and he’s the most solid, levelheaded staffer here. Toby said you were ‘persevering, thorough, and single-minded’ once you’d set your sights on something.”
Edgar was quietly embarrassed. Making last month’s tremulous phone call to Falconer (to whom the adjectives “solid” and “levelheaded” would never have been applied at Yardley) had been so difficult that it made him physically ill. Although Falconer had been dumbfoundingly decent, Edgar had a queasy feeling that on his end the call hadn’t gone well. He’d felt ashamed of himself—tapping Toby for connections, after all those years without so much as a how-do-you-do. Chagrin had made him resentful, maybe even truculent. This was hardly the circumstance in which he’d fantasized about contacting the guy, and he’d never have pushed his luck like that if his level of desperation hadn’t gone through the roof. But by then, the night sweats had begun. In his dreams, Edgar implored Richard Stokes Thole to take him back without health coverage while wearing nothing but lime-green socks; the imposing senior partner scolded that the firm had gone casual on Fridays but it was Thursday and his socks ought really to be brown or black.
As for that “single-minded” jazz? Edgar’s shedding a hundred pounds in his junior year at Yardley must have left a lasting impression.
“Toby figured your law skills would transfer to journalism: interviewing, library research, writing up cases. Besides,” Wallasek got to the point at last, “I have a problem.”
Edgar’s eyebrows shot up before they plowed into a more agreeable scowl. Once resumed, his slouch cut a jauntier slant.
“You up to speed on the Barban conflict?” asked Wallasek.
Though Edgar had scanned his share of headlines (who could miss them when they were two inches high?), the SOB’s cause had sounded so tiresome when the fringe group surfaced a few years ago that Edgar had happily added Barba to the growing list of too-complicated-and-who-gives-a-fuck shit holes about which Edgar refused to read—along with Bosnia, Angola, Algeria, and Azerbaijan. Before cramming current events to prepare for this interview, Edgar couldn’t have pinpointed the jerkwater within a thousand miles on a map.
“Never been there,” said Edgar. “But of course I’ve followed the story closely.”
“Wouldn’t speak any Portuguese, would you?”
“I went to prep school in Stonington, Connecticut, settled by Portuguese immigrants. I’m not fluent, but I get by.” In truth, his total Portuguese vocabulary came down to three words, filho da puta, and “son of a whore” had limited application. Still, something was opening up here, and Edgar had no desire to go home and draft a proposal for American’s in-flight magazine.
Wallasek rose and stretched; his thigh splayed as he perched chummily on the desk. “The SOB has been lying low, and the story may be played out. But some folks are convinced that this is an undeclared cessation not because they’re giving up, but because they’re gearing up for something big. Thomas Friedman wrote in the Times last week that canny terrorists vary the pace of their campaign. For a while there, the Sobs were blowing up a subway or an airplane like clockwork, every six weeks or so. People can get used to anything. Pretty soon, you’ve got these miscreants going to all that trouble blowing stuff up, only to maintain the impression that nothing’s new. Tom was ostensibly urging we not get complacent about security, but I wasn’t sure about that column myself. Almost like Friedman giving those maniacs good tactical advice.”
It was Pavlovian: Wallasek mentions Barba, and Edgar’s mind wanders. In fact, Edgar had been musing how when the “SOB” first emerged in the news everyone had thought the name of the group was a laugh. Nowadays even management types like Wallasek here cited the acronym with a straight face. You actually had to remind yourself that in olden times it meant son of a bitch.
“Point is,” Wallasek continued, “any day now we could have another horror show splattered across the front page, and the Record could be caught with its pants down.”
Wallasek sucked his cheeks between his molars and chewed. He stood up. He jammed his hands in his pockets and jingled his keys. He glowered piercingly at his toes, as if trying to burn extra holes in his wingtips.
He didn’t ask, “Have you heard of—?” or introduce, “There’s this fellow called—” The editor simply plunked the name in the room like a heavy object he’d been lugging around and was relieved to chuck on the floor. Wallasek himself gazed at a midpoint in the office as if some large physical presence would manifest itself.
Sure, Edgar had caught references to some bombastic-sounding buffoon while he was waiting for Wallasek to get off the phone. But that didn’t altogether explain Edgar’s nagging impression of having heard the name before.
In any event, the name put Edgar off from the start. The “Barrington” bit was overblown and beefy, and anyone who didn’t have the wit to shorten the pretentious appellation down to “Barry” was a pompous ass. The tag evoked adjectives like overbearing and unbearable, and New Englanders would experience an irksome impulse to place the word “Great” in front of it.
“Barrington Saddler was sent to earth to try my personal patience,” Wallasek had resumed. “Maybe it’s because I’m still trying valiantly to pass God’s test of my character that I haven’t fired the man. That and because Saddler is supposedly one of our star reporters. I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty unless someday you appear in need of a cautionary tale, but Barrington was posted to Russia, where Barrington was bad. I could’ve axed him then, but his boosters would’ve put up a stink, and I do have this indefensible fondness for the lout.
“So I decided to exile him instead. I spread out a map of Europe and located the most far-flung, poorest, dullest corner of the Continent. This worthless jut of Portugal hadn’t rated passing mention in the American press for two hundred years. I figured, here was the perfect place for Saddler to contemplate the error of his ways. Here was the one place he’d never draw a crowd—another protective, gossipy clique that goads him into mischief. Because no one went there. No tourists, no expats, much less any of his journo buddies on assignment, because there was jack to cover, just a bunch of Iberian crackers babbling a language he’d be too lazy to learn and good Catholic girls who’d keep their bodices buttoned. I’d keep him on salary until he’d learned his lesson, and he’d come back from this sandbox having got nothing in the paper all year, suitably chastened and ready to play by the rules as one more humble steno in History’s secretarial pool.
“And where is this Podunk across the pond?” Wallasek charged ferociously.
“Barba,” Edgar guessed.
“BARBA! Which within months of Saddler’s arrival sprouts the single most lethal terrorist organization of the twentieth century. Ever, I reckon. And there’s Saddler, happy as a pig in shit, in the very center of the story, firing off front-page leads on the ultimatums of the SOB. A predictable cadre descends on the dump—the Times, the Post, and the Guardian now have permanent staffers in the provincial capital, Cinzeiro. Even the London Independent, which is terminally broke, keeps a string. Presto, Saddler’s leading a hack pack again. I’d say the man is charmed, except that lately I’ve wondered if this cat is finally on life number ten.”
“Saddler’s in trouble?” Once again, Edgar felt a weird familiarity with this preposterous character, a shared exasperation.
“Maybe he cozied up to those murderous douchebags too close, I don’t know. He’s reckless; he thinks danger is funny. Anyway, three months ago he disappeared. Vanished, poof, gone. Practically left his coffee cooling and his Camel burning. Which is where you come in.”
“I was a lawyer, not a PI.”
“I don’t expect you to look for him. That’s the cops’ job, which they’ve already done, badly if you ask me. This Cinzeiro police chief Lieutenant Car-ho-ho, or whoever, claims to have left no stone unturned. He’s one of those parochial rubes crazed with petty power who’s very possessive about his patch. I’ve talked to him. Try to suggest maybe he hasn’t tried all the angles, and he gets snippy and defensive and patriotic on you. You’ll see—Barbans are all like that. Touchy. And all roads lead to their cloverleaf politics. Mention the flipping weather—which I gather stinks—and you’ve insulted their precious national pride. Anyway, the guy came up with diddly. No leads. Left me to believe Saddler must have been abducted by aliens or something.”
“So what’s the gig?” Edgar pressed, forcing his leg to stop jittering.
Wallasek clapped his hands. “I need a correspondent in Barba. I’ve given up waiting for Saddler to send flowers. So I’m offering you a string. There is a retainer, which technically makes you a ‘super-stringer,’ but don’t let the heroic title go to your head; our monthly gratuity will keep your tape recorder in fresh batteries, and that’s about it. Flat-rate four hundred bucks an article, plus expenses, but only for the pieces we print. We’ll pay your initial freight. No benefits. You can set yourself up in Barrington’s digs; I gather he even left his car.
“But this arrangement would be provisional,” Wallasek barreled on before Edgar had a chance to say yes or no. “Barrington’s been on board this paper from its inception. He’s an institution, if you like. If he shows up with an explanation I can even pretend to swallow, the posting’s his again. He knows this story, been on it from the ground up. So Saddler shows up next week, your string is for one week.”
“The retainer, how much …?”
“You’re embarrassing me,” Wallasek cut him off. “Three-fifty a month, which is as appalling as it is nonnegotiable. Furthermore, you gotta be prepared for plenty of computer solitaire. It’s possible the SOB has called it quits, or maybe they’ve clawed each other’s eyes out; these hot-blooded paramilitary outfits often self-destruct. In that case, the story’s dead, and you’re on your own. I can’t guarantee another posting, either. This is a one-time offer. On the other hand, the story heats up, Saddler’s still among the disappeared? You could spin this into a big break. Think you could handle that?” In brandishing disclaimers, the editor clearly read Edgar as so hard-up that he couldn’t afford to be choosy. Wallasek was right.
This was indeed a big break, so Edgar’s hesitation was absurd. The offer far exceeded his expectations, the very expectations that Wallasek had mocked for being set so high. Edgar had figured that at best he’d get the go-ahead to submit a feature on spec, or a promise to keep his CV “on file”—that is, incinerated only after he walked out and not before his eyes. This “super-string” paid peanuts, but had a spicy ring to it, and was a foot in the door. Maybe sometime soon 245 civilians would make him a lucky man: DEATH TOLL IN HUNDREDS AS SOB CLAIMS SABOTAGE OF UNITED FLIGHT 169, by Edgar Kellogg, Barba Correspondent.
Still, something in the setup oppressed him. Whoever Saddler was, sight-unseen the guy clearly belonged to the elite Exception to Every Rule Club, whose members cast the sort of shadow in which Edgar had lived all his life: the eponymous Falconer, of course, but Edgar’s super-jock older brother as well; the suffocatingly august Richard Stokes Thole; Angela’s affected ex-lover on whom she was secretly still stuck; all those valedictorians, first-chairs, first-prize winners, and presidents.
Furthermore, Edgar was leery of substituting for a minor-league celeb who could show up unannounced any time to reclaim his home, his car, his beat, his half-smoked Camel, and his cold coffee. The very name “Saddler” sounded burdensome. Edgar imagined himself trudging a bleak landscape mounded with his predecessor’s baggage, like a loose burro too dumb and biddable to buck the chattel off his back.
“I guess I’m game,” said Edgar uncertainly. “How soon should I go?”
“ASAP. And here …” Wallasek scribbled an address, which he apparently knew by heart. “Saddler’s digs.” He held out a sheet of paper, adding obscurely, “You won’t suffer.”
Edgar accepted the paper. “So how do I …?”
“Book a flight, submit a receipt, we’ll reimburse,” Wallasek yadda-yadda-ed. “Oh, and one more thing.” The editor thumbed a furry leather contact book on his desk, then snatched the paper back to scrawl a number. “You might get a key to the house from Nicola.” Returning the page with a teasing shimmy, Wallasek leered. “One of Saddler’s friends. His very best friend, from all reports. I’ve never met her, but it’s funny how often Saddler’s numerous friends turn out to be good-looking women.”
A red flag went up: after spending ten seconds on the logistics of Edgar’s whole new life and forty-five minutes on this feckless cad playing hooky, Wallasek still couldn’t stop talking about Saddler.
Edgar folded the paper, stalling. He was sure there were dozens of questions he should be asking, equally sure that they wouldn’t occur to him until he was on the plane. “So, um. What’s my first assignment?”
“The strange and terrible fate of Barrington Saddler, what else?”
Long Time, No See
It may have been almost twenty years since they’d nodded stiffly at each other across a throng of parents at Yardley’s graduation, but Edgar didn’t anticipate having any trouble recognizing Toby Falconer when they met for a post-interview drink. Toby was one of those golden boys. His hair was so blond it was almost white, confirming for Edgar, whose own mop was mouse-brown, that the chosen people weren’t self-made but genetically marked. Vertical as a mast, Toby’s Nordic frame and sea-green eyes called out for bearskins and a javelin. It was unlikely he’d kept that smooth, narrow chest into manhood, but Falconer was vain enough by sixteen that he’d probably become one of those Nautilus obsessives who poured rice milk on his muesli. Besides, Edgar’s paltry efforts to update his mental mock-up of Toby Falconer—to bulge the muscular wavelets of his stomach into a paunchy swell, to dull the sublime adolescent promise of that platinum blond down to pewter—felt juvenile, like drawing zits on a GQ model with a ballpoint.
He was a little surprised that Falconer’s choice of venue didn’t show more panache. The Red Shoe had once been a chic Flatiron watering hole, but that was years back. Since, the crimson velvet cushions had faded to sickly pink, their plush nap flattened like a cat’s fur in the sink. The varnish on the dark banquettes had worn to expose stained pine. Its waiters were old enough to no longer describe their shifts as “day jobs.” Even Wall Street knew The Red Shoe was déclassé. Maybe it was sufficiently out of fashion to qualify for a tongue-in-cheek reprise, and Toby, as usual, was setting the pace.
Edgar paused in The Red Shoe’s foyer, preparing himself for his old friend—or whatever it was that Toby had become by senior year. After mussing his hair, releasing his top shirt button, and yanking the Windsor knot to the side the way he once wrenched his school tie, Edgar ditched his suit jacket on the coat rack. Edgar’s image at Yardley had been hostile, unkempt, and seditious; an intact chalk-stripe might give Falconer a shock.
Edgar turned and heard a plop. The hanger arm had flipped upside-down and dumped his jacket on the floor. Stripped screw. Flustered, Edgar scooped up the jacket, hastily brushing the lapels. Damn. Especially in these in-between moments—tossing a coat on a rack, swinging from a bucket seat—Toby Falconer had been infuriatingly graceful.
Inhaling, Edgar launched through the double doors, his coat hooked over a shoulder. He was flattering himself to picture his old buddy, waiting expectantly in a corner by himself. Falconer was always mobbed. Forget homing in on the beacon of hair. Just locate the social goat-fuck in the very center of this dive, its biggest table, the one crammed with extra chairs—one more of which Edgar would be obliged to fetch and wedge in somewhere. Falconer would be braying, those mighty fluoride-fortified teeth arrayed to the smoky tin ceiling, arms spread and palms lifted like Jesus, the rest of the rabble wheezing, flopping, wiping tears.
But the bar was quiet. Edgar scanned the large round middle tables: one subdued party, workmates, glancing at watches, looking for an excuse to scram. A couple of loners sagging in booths—one wrung-out dishrag, quietly sobbing (that made three weeping women that he’d happened across today; the daily New York average was five or six), and some balding nondescript.
But then, why would Toby Falconer be prompt? Edgar would stew here for an hour, knocking back beers and refurbishing a resentment that two decades had failed to anodize into indifference. Finally, when Edgar was requesting his check, Toby would sashay in, double doors swinging with his dozen disciples, all drunk, loud, and dashingly dressed, infusing this old-man’s-bathrobe of a bar with its original camp, smoking-jacket flash. For now refusing to consider the higher likelihood that Falconer had blown off their appointment altogether, Edgar assumed a chair at the center-most table and signaled for a waiter.
Edgar twisted at the finger on his arm, and experienced one of those blank moments induced by headlines about Barba or Montenegro. It was the balding nondescript. His eyes were mild and dilute, their lids puffy; his face was broad and bland, his figure padded. The man’s skin was pallid, in contrast to the lustrous walnut glow of a thrill-seeker who hot-dogged the winter slopes and sailed at the head of his regatta. But between the gray straggles across his scalp gleamed a few nostalgic streaks of platinum.
“Falconer!” Edgar pumped the stranger’s hand.
“I don’t know what football team you’re expecting. Let’s sit over here. Listen, I’m sorry about The Red Shoe. Last time I was here it was hopping, but I don’t get out much. Christ, you look the same! A little more pissed off, maybe … If that’s possible. But you sure kept that weight off.”
“You, too, you look—terrific!”
Falconer guffawed, a more muffled version of the old clarion bray, recognizable but rounder, less piercing. “Never thought I’d see the day Edgar Kellogg was polite. I look like dog shit! Dog shit with three hyperactive kids and a depressive wife. What’ll you have?”
Edgar liked to think of himself as a Wild Turkey man. “Amstel Light.”
“Never lose the fear, do you?” Falconer smiled, his teeth no longer blinding, though that was unfair; everybody’s teeth yellowed a bit with age. But the smile also seemed physically smaller, and that was impossible.
“Not quite,” Edgar admitted, telling himself not to stare. “Inside this runt there’s always a fat slob struggling to get out.”
“A lot of Yardley’s a blur now, but one thing I remember clear as a Dialing for Dollars rerun is our very own Incredible Shrinking Man: Edgar Kellogg, dropping a size a week. I could track the calendar by the notches cinched on your belt. Night after night in the dining hall, chomping through a barricade of celery sticks. Amazing.”
“I’d read somewhere that you burn more energy eating celery than you ingest. Still, I don’t remember inspiring much amazement. More like hilarity.”
“Only for the first fifty pounds.”
“Fifty pounds’ worth of ridicule could last a lifetime.”
“Seems so. Look at you. You’re still mad!”
Edgar emitted a derisive puh and looked away, signaling once more, fruitlessly, for the waiter. He cracked a half-smile, and tore at a cuticle. “Maybe.”
Toby biffed him softly on the arm. “You knocked my socks off. Never seen such determination, before or since.”
“Yeah, I did get the feeling at the time that’s what earned me—”
“Earned you what?”
“Admission. To your—” it was hard to put this tactfully—“demanding circle.”
“I don’t remember admitting you to anything,” Toby dismissed. “You just stopped keeping to yourself for a while. A short while, come to think of it. Hey, service stinks here. Better get us drinks from the bar.”
Edgar welcomed the interruption, since Falconer’s rewrite of history was outlandish.
Accepting the Amstel, he tried to restore an easy humor. “I order this cow piss compulsively. But I’ve no idea how I’ll ever get to be a larger-than-life character drinking candy-ass beer.”
“You’re a character.” Falconer reared back in the booth with some of his Yardley authority and took a slug of his microbrew draft. “That’s enough. No such thing as larger-than-life, Kellogg. There’s only life-size, and any magnification is just other people’s bullshit. So how’d the interview go?”
Dazed by his good fortune, Edgar was only beginning to apprehend that the interview had gone staggeringly well. Much as he might have liked to conclude that he’d cut an impressive figure, chances were that Falconer had given him a recommendation far more enthusiastic than Edgar’s virtual-stranger status merited, and that Falconer had stroke.
“Swell, I guess. Wallasek gave me a super-string. In Barba.”
Toby made a face. “I should have warned you that’s what he had in mind. Better than nothing, I hope. But I’ve done a couple of features out of there. It ain’t Club Med.”
“You think it’s dangerous?” asked Edgar hopefully.
“Well, as you know the Sobs have never set off anything in their own territory. I guess the logic runs, don’t shit in your own bed. But that could change. And what makes for a dangerous place is dangerous people. Or that’s the line Saddler used to squeeze a hardship allowance out of Wallasek. I don’t know why his lordship bothered to be so creative. Wallasek would have handed Saddler his firstborn son swaddled in C-notes, no questions asked.”
Already any reference to Barrington Saddler threw Edgar lurching nauseously between opposing inclinations, as if he were careering up switchbacks in a bus. He both longed to discuss this preposterous fellow and to avoid all mention of the man with the same degree of urgency. When he gave in and pursued the subject, he instantly regretted it, the way you curse yourself for having picked a scab. “What is so wonderful about the little prick?”
“Saddler’s not little. I’ve only met him a handful of times. Bit scary, frankly.”
Even in this bewilderingly modest an incarnation, Edgar couldn’t fathom Tobias Falconer being frightened by anybody. “That name for starters. What kind of a blowhard goes by ‘Barrington’?”
“You obviously haven’t met the guy. Weird, but it suits him. He’s English, you know. And large. He almost requires three syllables.”
“So he’s fat,” Edgar pounced upon victoriously.
Falconer frowned. “Nnno-o. Just big. Big, big, big. In every sense.”
“Why’s he scary? I get the impression you don’t like the guy much.”
“That’s just it: I shouldn’t. He’s got my own editor wrapped around his pinky. He gets away with murder—like, for .01 percent of the shit he’s pulled any mere mortal would have been canned. He has this tut-tut, frightfully-frightfully accent that makes Americans feel crass and Coca-Cola by comparison. So whenever I’ve thought about it—and I’ve thought about it, which is one thing that’s scary—everything about the man grates. But Saddler only gets on my nerves when he’s not there. He never rubs me the wrong way in person. Face-to-face Barrington Saddler is inexpressibly charming, and I spend the entire time frantically trying to get him to like me.”
“That is scary,” said Edgar, thinking: money down, no one had ever described Edgar Kellogg behind his back as “inexpressibly charming.”
“How’d you find Wallasek?” Falconer asked.
“Paternalistic for my taste.” Absent any encouragement in Toby’s expression, Edgar exercised his proclivity for putting his foot in it. “And awfully in the know. Wallasek thinks he has a window into the mind of the SOB because of Saddler—when what are the chances that both of them know dick?
“Also,” Edgar plunged recklessly on, “Wallasek talks a humble line, about ‘history’s secretaries,’ but you can tell he thinks journalism is a lofty calling fraught with daunting tests of fire. As opposed to being mostly about the ability to write a sentence. Which I can, but I don’t think he was impressed by my clips. I’ve only been at this a few months, and Wallasek didn’t care what the articles said—typical name-brand mentality. I didn’t walk in with the New York Times and The Atlantic plastered to my forehead … What’s so funny?”
“You really haven’t changed, have you?”
“How’s that?” asked Edgar warily.
“Guy Wallasek gave you an interview on the basis of a pretty slight clip file, and what’s more gave you a job. Which, though Barba’s not Hawaii, I assume you want. Doesn’t that make you grateful?”
Edgar folded his arms and bunched into the corner, scowling to beat the band. It was a hatches-battened position he’d often assumed when he was fat. “Wallasek offered me a temporary post that could be ripped out from under me by your big, big, big friend any time he cares to show his face, an arrangement that would be intolerable to staffers. A string will pay squat. I was a sharp lawyer and I can write. I’ll do an ace job, and he’s getting a bargain. Why should I be grateful?”
Falconer shook his head. “So hard on people, Kellogg. You that hard on yourself?”
An honest answer was too complicated: that he hacked on other people as a substitute for hacking on himself, and it didn’t work. That he rushed to dislike others before they could dislike him; that Edgar’s hasty dislike veritably ensured they would indeed dislike him; that, alas, beating acquaintances to the antagonistic punch had never protected him from the ensuing sense of injury that he had apparently brought on himself. A simpler answer—that Edgar perceived himself as an island of underrated promise in a sea of undeserving incompetence—would sound iffy in the open air. “I call them as I see them. You said yourself that Wallasek’s relationship to this Barrington guy is fucked up.”
“I didn’t say that. Wallasek’s a good editor, and a decent man. He claims he doesn’t, but he misses the fray—being so smack in the middle when some corner of the world goes up in flames that the hairs singe off your arm. So he has a weakness for the inside track; any journalist does. As for Saddler? Wallasek nine-to-fives it, he’s bored, feels left out. Saddler blasts into town and they go out until all hours and get slammed and meet kooky people and get kicked out of bars and Wallasek feels plugged in again. A minor failing, if it’s a failing at all. Why not give him a chance? It’s not a bad policy. You’re a smart guy, Kellogg, but you can be so—savage.”
Edgar felt chastened. He didn’t like feeling chastened. “Good God, Falconer. You’ve gone and got sincere on me.”
Toby was rolling the bottom of his empty beer mug in contemplative circles. “I was actually surprised to hear from you. Not sorry, mind you. But surprised.”
Edgar wasn’t about to admit that he rang Falconer over his own dead body. “It had been a long time,” he submitted neutrally.
Falconer laughed. “It’s been nineteen years! And when I finally hear from you, it’s not because you want to invite me to your wedding, or talk about old times. You want a favor! That takes balls, boyo.”
To Edgar’s undying relief the gamble had paid off in spades, but the odds had been a hundred-to-one that Falconer would put in a good word for him. Most hacks would see Edgar as a wet-nosed neophyte, his designs on their vocation impertinent. The uncanny cordiality should have been a red flag: this was not the Toby Falconer of yore.
“Didn’t beat around the bush, either,” Falconer recalled wryly. “No small-talk.”
Edgar squirmed. “I hate that how’re-the-kids shit. No offense, but why should I care if your youngest is in the choir? You’d figure out that I was hitting you up for a contact soon enough.”
“Since Yardley, I haven’t even been on your Christmas card list. Weren’t you worried I’d brush you off?”
“Worried? I expected it. But I figured, what’s to lose? A little pride. Maybe when I was still raking in the bucks at Lee & Thole, losing face would have seemed like a big deal. In my newly influential career as a commentator on world affairs, I’ve sold my car, let my health-club membership lapse, and forgone the firm’s box at Yankee Stadium. What’s next? Among a host of other luxuries, dignity is expendable.”
Falconer shot a wry glance at Edgar’s wrist. “I see you’ll sell off your dignity before you’ll pawn your watch.”
Parting with the $1,500 diving watch would have amounted to the ultimate admission of defeat. “A present for passing the bar, from my mother. Call me a sap.”
“Sentimentality from you, Kellogg, is a relief.”
Pushing himself, Edgar opened his mouth, and it gaped before the words came out—if strangely difficult to say, wildly important, and he was mortified that he’d almost skipped them altogether: “Anyway, um. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
“I’d never have given you the thumbs-up with Wallasek if I didn’t expect you were capable,” Falconer said good-naturedly. “The one thing I never doubted at Yardley was that you were smart, even if I wasn’t always too thrilled about what you applied your intelligence to—like, to locating people’s weak spots. Besides, I admit I had an agenda. I’ve got some rusty curiosity to satisfy. If I snagged you an interview with my editor, even the surly Edgar Kellogg might feel beholden enough to have this drink.”
Edgar sat up in surprise. “I wasn’t sure you’d remember me.”
“How could I forget? Some of the things you said about me senior year. They got back. Maybe they were meant to.”
Edgar had contempt for New Age confessionalism, and wasn’t going to enjoy this. He shrugged. “Kids can be mean.”
“You’re not a kid. You’re still—”
“You think I’m mean? That’s rich.”
They looked at one another squarely for a beat. “I don’t get it,” said Falconer.
“How do you think I was treated, as a two-hundred-forty-pound punching bag?”
“You ever going to let that go? I thought junior year at least we treated you all right.”
“Like with Wallasek. I’m supposed to be grateful.”
Falconer threw up his hands. “It’s just—what happened? One minute you were hanging out with us twenty-four-seven, and the next, bang, opposite side of the dining room. You passed me in the hall like a parking sign. And then all this stuff starts filtering back, that I’m on a ‘power-trip,’ that I’m a fag, that I get other guys to write my papers—”
“We all did! And that I dyed my hair.”
“I never said that.”
“You might as well have! What got into you?”
“I liked you,” Edgar said with difficulty. “I was disappointed.”
“I overheard you, okay?” Edgar’s raised voice carried over the dead bar and drew a glance from the sniffling Miss Loneliheart, who looked relieved that other people had troubles, too. “I overheard you,” he continued quietly. “In the locker room, you and that crowd, you didn’t realize I was in the shower. I turned off the water and stayed behind the wall. I hadn’t been aware that my nickname was ‘Special K’—”
“Come on, we were always razzing somebody—”
“This was different! You mimicked me, like, ‘Oh, no, I can’t have that chocolate chip, it has a whole eleven calories! A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips!’” Edgar twisted in his seat. “And you made fun of my stretch marks.”
“Edgar, if anything, a little teasing only meant you were included. It was the zeros we didn’t talk about you should have felt sorry for.”
Edgar looked up sharply; this was the Toby Falconer he remembered. “It got worse. You said I was always hanging around you with goo-goo eyes. That it was like having some girl on your hands, or a lost puppy. That every time you turned around I was yapping at your heels—wanting to know where you were going so I could go, too, or what club you were joining so I could join, too, and what albums you liked so I could go out and buy them. You all cackled at how I’d started wearing a red baseball jacket just like yours, and how I’d applied to switch into your English section. Clingy. You used the word clingy. So I let go.”
Thumbs pressed into his temples, Falconer kneaded his forehead with his fingertips, eyes closed. “God, Kellogg, I’m so sorry. I promise, it wasn’t you, or only you. It was all of them. I was tired. I was only seventeen years old, and I was already tired.”
Having held in that story for two decades like a breath, now that he’d exhaled it Edgar relaxed, looking on his companion with uncharacteristic tenderness. “Hey, water under the bridge. Anyway, you’ve changed. I mean, you’ve grown up and all, and you seem a lot more—forgiving.” Edgar thought that was a nicer way of putting the fact that Falconer had no edge anymore and had turned into a soft touch for the likes of Wallasek. “But there’s something else. Something, I don’t know—missing.”
Falconer didn’t take offense, but smiled wanly and smoothed his palms down his face to rest them flat on the table. “You mean I’m not surrounded by adoring fans? I’m not tap-dancing on the ceiling with a hat rack?”
Edgar tore a wet shred slowly off his Amstel label. “Whatever.”
“Senior year—you heard my father died?”
“You weren’t speaking to me at the time. Anyway, it hit me hard. All the gang were consoling, for about five minutes. Maybe that made me lucky. Maybe less, well, less prominent kids whose parents died got consoled for only two or three minutes. But after my five minutes were over I was supposed to go back to thinking up pranks to play on our Spanish teacher, leading sneaks off campus after curfew, and inventing new ways to propel our pineapple upside-down cake at lunch. I couldn’t do it. I had more ‘friends’ than anyone at Yardley and I was so lonely I could scream. They all wanted their emcee back, but meanwhile, who was going to lighten things up for me?
“So my mom was a mess without my dad, and I felt bad for being away at school. My sister had started sleeping around at the age of twelve. You were spreading rumors that I led circle-jerks, and I was badgered by volunteers who wanted to join in. I was depressed and couldn’t concentrate on exams. All I got from my buddies was snap out of it. I was sick of the phone ringing in my hall and it was always for me. I was sick of people whispering and all their little theories about what made me tick. I was sick of brown-nosers who liked me a lot more than I liked them.
“This is going to sound a little out there, so cut me some slack. That ‘something missing’ you mentioned: it was all that crew wanted and it had nothing to do with me. It was some weird power that wasn’t to my credit because I didn’t invent it, and it was totally beyond my comprehension. I had no idea why if I said jump in the lake, you guys would jump in the lake. If you told me to jump, I wouldn’t do it. And I looked at myself, I saw a regular high school senior with problems, and you people saw, what—truth is, I have no idea what you saw. This gift, it was like a magic lantern. But it was also a curse.
“So I tossed it. I didn’t apply to Yale or Harvard, but Haverford. And at college I wore pastel button-downs and plain slacks. I didn’t talk in class and I didn’t go to keg parties. I stayed in my dorm room and studied. I was a bore and nobody ever talked about me behind my back any more than they’d mention the wallpaper.”
“And then you lost your hair.” Edgar was being undiplomatic again, but he almost wondered if Toby’s metallic locks had been yanked as punishment. The notion of willingly giving up whatever it was that Falconer had in high school was reprehensible.
“Like Samson.” Toby grinned. “I wonder if it’s just as well. Maybe it all came down to my hair to begin with, huh? My sister has the same coloring, and I swear that half her admirers only wanted to sink their fingers into that waist-long corn silk. Deborah got so pissed off with one guy that she cut it off and gave it to him in a box.”
“It wasn’t the hair.”
“I don’t even care. Whatever you guys were so hot for, I couldn’t see it myself. I’m sorry I called you ‘clingy.’ I don’t remember saying it, but I’m not surprised I did. Honestly, Kellogg, you did get to be a pain. You were always dogging me, but never wanted to really talk. That part of you that I was drawn to, that lost a hundred pounds in six months? That part never seemed to speak up. And on the one hand you acted so hard-ass, but on the other, you, I don’t know, seemed to idolize me or something. Made me feel creepy, like a fake. I’d no idea what you saw in me, what about me was so great.”
“I guess I did try to impress you,” Edgar admitted. “Maybe I tried too hard. But you had such style, Falconer.” Edgar couldn’t help the past tense. “It’s rare.”
“I may be kidding myself that I gave it up,” Toby mused. “It could have just got away from me.”
“I’ve watched out for your byline for years: from Belfast, Somalia, the Gulf War. I always pictured your life as exotic, edgy. One reason I quit law. Thought I’d join you.”
The confidence got out before Edgar realized that it sounded like more of the same: searching a dozen vintage clothing shops for a fifties baseball jacket, and the one that fit the best and had the coolest logo on the back just happened to be the same cardinal-red as Toby Falconer’s. Edgar’s biggest concern about his own character was that he wasn’t original. He didn’t know how to become original except by imitating other people who were.
“I do my job, and pretty well,” said Falconer. “It’s more ordinary than it seems, though. Like you said, to do with sentences—plodding, workaday. I am, anyway. I’m quiet. I’ve got to the point I don’t much like being on the road, and I’ve encouraged Guy to give the firefighting assignments to younger reporters who’re still hot to trot. I like going home to Linda, sourdough pretzels, and the Mets on TV. You put your finger on it: I’m sincere. I don’t have a lot of friends, but they’re real.”
Edgar raised his empty Amstel and clinked it against Falconer’s mug. “Just got yourself one more, then.” Edgar’s inability to complete the toast with a swig seemed apt. If idolatry made a poor basis for a friendship, pity wasn’t much of an improvement. Falconer seemed like a dead nice guy, and Edgar felt robbed.
“When you off to Barba?”
“Soon as I can pack.”
“Good luck with Saddler, anyway.”
“I don’t expect to have good or bad luck with Saddler,” Edgar protested. “He disappeared, remember? Abracadabra. Hell, the guy probably just fell in a ditch.”
“The likes of Saddler don’t just fall in ditches. Or if they do, there’s plenty more to the story, and nine times out of ten they crawl out again. I got a gut sense says the legendary Barrington belongs in your life.”
Edgar found himself obscurely cheered up. Much as he might resist the prospect of some bombastic and unaccountably fawned-over scoundrel bursting unannounced through his front door, suddenly he felt he had a future, and its vista widened into the big, big, big—big as life; bigger, even. As Falconer settled the bill at the bar, having waved off a half-heartedly proffered ten-spot, Edgar studied the plain, kindly face, searching its prematurely haggard lines scored by “three hyperactive kids and a depressive wife,” too many red-eyes out of Addis and tight connections in Rome. Though he thought he was scanning for some flicker of the sly, playful Adonis at whom he’d marveled at Yardley, Edgar recognized in his failure to see any resemblance at all that he didn’t want to see a resemblance.
Out on the street, they shook hands. Edgar clapped Toby’s shoulder for good measure. Neither made a feint toward meeting again. “Take care of yourself, Falconer.”
“You know, there didn’t used to be an airport in Cinzeiro, only a bus from Lisbon. Now there are two planes a day. Presumably to make it that much easier for the SOB to blow them up. Watch your back, Kellogg.”
Instead Edgar watched Toby Falconer’s. In no time the beige knit shirt and gray slacks blended with the bland attire of other pedestrians, helping to form the backdrop against which strange or striking New Yorkers would stand out.
Hanging on the subway strap, Edgar considered Toby Falconer, Joe Average. Certainly senior year at Yardley Edgar had caught a harried look in Falconer’s eyes, the submerged panic of a boy who couldn’t swim sinking below the surface. Edgar had worked hard at the time at foreshortening his former icon into another small-pond egotist.
From a distance, Edgar had discovered everything that had captivated him about Falconer could be slyly inverted: confidence transposed to arrogance, grace to effeminacy, popularity to shallowness. That famous sense of humor upended into flippancy, powers of persuasion into slimier powers of manipulation. Apparently the most sterling quality could be turned upside-down, like a reversible placemat. Courage flipped to irresponsibility, passion to mawkishness. The self-sacrificial were dupes, and the loyal? Were clingy. Now Falconer had gone and inverted himself. It should have been satisfying.
Childhood obesity having put his own flaws on such flagrant display, in self-defense Edgar had developed an eagle eye for the faults of other people. Though the facility gave him a deadliness it didn’t make him happy and it probably didn’t make him attractive. Nor did it save him from practicing the craft of inversion on himself. Resigning from Lee & Thole, for instance: heads, the move was bold. Tails? It was retarded.
Fearing a failure of nerve, Edgar had rung the Portuguese airline TAP from a pay phone in front of The Red Shoe to make a reservation for Barba via Lisbon three days hence. That would give him just enough time to wrap up loose ends—like Angela—and not enough time to back out.
The process of inverting Angela was almost complete. He had yet to get over wanting to fuck her, but everything else that had first drawn him to her had capsized. Her far-flung general knowledge, for instance, translated neatly into superficiality: she could discuss anything for five minutes and nothing for half an hour. When she professed strong views about new Freud biographies at parties, she’d only read the reviews. She subscribed to all the right magazines but only skimmed the pull-quotes, and in movies concentrated primarily on the credits. That she remembered names, exact addresses, and which restaurants had changed hands had once made her repartee seem zippy, but nowadays when Edgar pictured her mind all he saw was the Yellow Pages.
More to the heart of the matter, that enigmatic quality of hers had revealed itself in time as garden-variety duplicity. For everything Angela said there was something else she omitted. At first the gaps had been scintillating. But after living with her for two years Edgar put his gift of inversion to proper use for once and concluded that Angela wasn’t elusive. She was a liar. She wasn’t mysterious or complicated. She was, and always had been, in love with someone else.
As Edgar slipped his key in the apartment door, he could hear Angela chattering on the phone, and before he’d pushed inside he knew she’d be on her feet.
Pacing, fidgeting from one piece of furniture to another, sure enough Angela was picking and poking at faxes and fountain pens; she couldn’t stand still. Edgar’s entrance earned him a distracted nod. As usual, she’d wedged the receiver between her ear and shoulder so that she could use her hands when she talked. He used to find it charming.
Now Edgar could only picture what Angela doubtless looked like when she was talking on the phone to him. Perhaps she languished on the sofa with her eyes shut, the cord slack, one arm tossed limply midair. In any event, she definitely didn’t use this voice—plosives pipping, aspirates rushing, and fricatives fizzing with the effervescence of Perrier:
“You should have seen him—that’s exactly! Then naturally after—HAH! ha-ha-ha-hahhhhhh …”
As for content, there wouldn’t be any that was discernible on this end. He’d heard her go on like this for an hour without planting enough substantive key words in a row for him to determine whether the conversation was about toenail fungus or Senate hearings on the Waco siege. Of only one thing could Edgar be certain: she was talking to Jamesie—an affectionate private nickname that Edgar had only recently started using aloud.
This glib, gray-templed geeze in his fifties had kept Angela on the side for years. James pre-dated Edgar, who had come to suspect that he wasn’t the first to fill in for James when the old fart was nailing someone else. Angela was forthright about having once been gaga for this big-spending silk importer, but that was all over and now, officially, James and Angela were just “veryveryveryvery good friends.” After two patient years of observation, Edgar had concluded that those two should probably spring for an extra very.
Edgar’s initial tolerance of this “friendship” had won him credit with Angela for being a sophisticated man who realized that all adults in their thirties had pasts. Edgar didn’t go funny when she announced that she was meeting James for dinner, and he didn’t wait up. He didn’t replay Angela’s messages, rifle her mail, or sniff her panties; he didn’t third-degree and he didn’t stage scenes. All of which made him a secure,mature,respectful partner, a.k.a.—Inversion 101—a chump.
“Bye—I can’t now, you know why—later! Bye-bye.” She hung up tenderly. “You wouldn’t believe what—oh, I forgot.” Angela’s bubbly cadence sloshed a bit and then went stagnant. “No more stories about James. You’ve got touchy.”
“You were sent some more rejections. They’re on the counter.”
The flaps were sealed. “How can you be sure they’re rejections?”
Angela tossed her hair impatiently, and Edgar finally noticed that it was the same color as the adolescent Toby Falconer’s. “These days, only bad news comes in the mail. That’s what it’s for: to blow you off with as little personal contact as possible. Good news comes in phone calls, or for the last year or two e-mail, if the opposite party is the slightest bit hip. Christ, they should start dyeing all envelopes black.”
“You sure seem torn up about my disappointments.”
“I don’t mean to sound callous, Edgar, but if I stroked your head every time one of those letters arrived, you’d go bald. This journalism gambit sounded good at first, ’cause I thought we’d go somewhere exciting. Even James—” her spine straightened in a refusal to apologize—“James travels everywhere, like, China, Hong Kong. So far your ‘freelancing’ has landed us mostly in this apartment. Night after night, I might add.”
“I’m happy as a clam to eat out,” Edgar said flintily. “You just have to pay for it.”
“I’m a publicist, for Christ’s sake. The Garden swamps me with comps but they pay crumbs, and you can’t satisfy AmEx with free tickets.” She flounced theatrically into the kitchen, to retrieve a lone can of Bartlett pears.
Edgar’s heart wasn’t in an argument, and he cast his eye around his living room with the generosity of nostalgia. Even quotidian quarters achieved an Edward Hopper glow when you were leaving them forever. So did women. Contemplating his girlfriend—her lithe legs, impetuous gold hair, and close breasts that didn’t need a bra but still had an alluring quiver—Edgar despaired that there was one attribute he had never successfully inverted. Good taste boomeranged to snobbery, self-respect to self-regard. But he was at a loss to hold against any woman the fact that she was beautiful.
“Have you ever considered how it might go, living with Jamesie?” Throwing Angela on her new future felt almost as delicious as embracing his own.
“Certainly not, not for years,” she growled, managing to make opening that can look like hard work. “We’re just—”
“Friends,” Edgar completed with a smile; funny, all the old sourness had fled. “You might think twice. Shadowy characters don’t always function in the foreground. If nothing else, Jamesie needs me around to make himself look good.”
“Honestly, Edgar, you’re getting to be impossible!”
Edgar collapsed onto the corduroy sofa with his feet up, feeling dozy, relaxed. You couldn’t say that he didn’t warn her.
Three days later, Edgar withdrew his key from the same lock, and for good measure worked the key off its ring to slip it through the letterbox. He didn’t want to be misunderstood. Shouldering his baggage, Edgar turned his back on the apartment that Angela couldn’t afford, either.
At the elevator, however, he felt a twinge of loss. It wasn’t Angela. It was stuff. All the furniture was his, and he’d not stinted. His suitcase had been too small to accommodate most of his favorite shirts, a closetful of costly suits, or his extensive collection of grunge CDs. He would need, he thought wryly, Replacements.
But then, the alternative course entailed all the recriminatory scenes he’d so elegantly finessed: a tawdry separation of Angela’s Alanis Morissette from his Gin Blossoms, hiring movers and renting storage and breaking the lease—all odious and time-consuming and totally lacking in class. Style required sacrifice. So in lieu of a hasty note, he’d left a cup of coffee cooling and a Camel burning. Leave Angela disconcerted, Edgar figured. He didn’t smoke.
Stashing his boarding card, Edgar flopped into a seat at his Kennedy gate and discarded the unread Wall Street Journal that he’d snagged out of reflex. Though almost as expensive as a round-trip, the one-way ticket tucked in his battered leather bomber jacket had a more intrepid touch and feel.
Repudiation seemed to agree with him. Why, he could acquire a taste for renouncing entire lives like this, and for the present viewed the acquisition of new ones—new friends, new jobs, new lovers—as merely a laborious prerequisite to gleefully forsaking the works. The airport itself, in its all-white nowhere-in-particular-ness, its duty-free replication of dozens of like non-places, offered up a seductive vision of pure departure, a cleanly and permanently wiped slate.
Yet once the flight was called and the plane penetrated the enveloping black vacuum, Edgar’s stomach lurched with the dread certainty that there was only one perfectly negative experience in life, and you got to pull that number only once. Unless he was rescued by an SOB bomb in the cargo hold, the thrill of departure would be inevitably corrupted by arrival somewhere else.
Worse, arrival in a country about which Edgar knew zip, whose politics were notoriously tortuous, where he was supposed to be a reporter. Edgar didn’t know how to be a reporter. Hazily he pictured a journalist dialing up “contacts,” but he’d no idea whom he was meant to phone or what he should ask. In a moment of weakness, Edgar wished faintly that the big, big, big bag of hot air would indeed show up and take his beat back.
The flight attendant was a cow, and her cart was out of light beer. Defiantly, Edgar ordered bourbon, and wolfed down his smoked almonds.
Groping into his carry-on, Edgar lugged out his portable library. The previous afternoon he had ravaged Barnes & Noble’s burgeoning Barba section, scarfing up academic analyses (The Moorish Presence in Barba After the Siege of Lisbon), the odd political treatise (When Democratic Protest Fails: Resort to International Incident as a Consciousness-Raising Tool), recent histories (The Evolution of SOB Strategy and the Rise of O Creme de Barbear), special-interest titles (An Ill Wind: The Role of Weather in Social Defiance), and sensationalist paperbacks (I Was an SOB!—an anonymous memoir by a “reformed Barban bomber” whose authenticity had been hotly contested). His checked bags were lined with general texts on terrorism, most of which said it was bad.
Between sips of JD, Edgar plowed into the book on top, whose first iteration of theright to national self-determination was more soporific than his drink. The author had heavily quoted Tomás Verdade, president of the SOB’s reputed political wing, O Creme de Barbear. Verdade’s verbiage was long-winded and dry, laden with references to dead Barban heroes like Duarte o Estupendo and Teodósio o Terrível, dense with insistence on “defending the integrity of the predominant indigenous culture and the rights of the operative majority within the context of respect for the multiple traditions on a richly varied peninsula”—which, when Edgar applied himself, reduced to xenophobic claptrap.
Three pages and ten national self-determinations later Edgar was ready for another JD. What had he done? The narcolepsy that this Iberian slagheap had always induced in Edgar wasn’t letting up but was growing more intense. In comparison to Tomás Verdade’s prolix patriotismo, briefs on whether water company mergers violated antitrust laws ranked with Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. The only bearable aspect of this story was violent boy-stuff. Over dinner Edgar put aside The Barban Peninsula: A Test Case in Immigration Saturation and devoured Forced Landing!, a breathless account of British Airways’ infamous Flight 321 that bulged with gory photographs.
Meanwhile, the cabin hummed with the susurrant murmur of what Edgar could only assume was Portuguese. Though a soothing drone, it raised a light sweat across the back of his neck. Zhshchaoshzhgoshshdgeshzhye … He’d hoped a year of high school Spanish would help, but this mishmash of consonant blends sounded more like Russian.
“You are a glutton for punishment.”
Edgar glanced over at the bearded, fifty-ish man in the window seat. “You mean, eating airline fettuccini?”
The man chuckled. “The books. Not by any chance headed for beautiful Barba, are you?” he asked sardonically, in-joke.
“I’m covering the province for the National Record.” The claim sounded convincing; at least Edgar’s seatmate didn’t laugh.
Rather, the man’s eyes lit like Christmas. “Why, I’m not graced by the presence of Barrington Saddler, am I? I’d read, to my dismay, that for a time you went missing!” Before Edgar could correct him, the fusty-looking character had wiped his hand on a napkin before extending it across the empty middle seat. “Dr. Ansel P. Henwood, delighted!”
Edgar didn’t know what else to do but to take Henwood’s hand. “Edgar Kellogg.”
Henwood’s fierce clasp went limp.
“Saddler’s still taking his impromptu sabbatical,” Edgar explained.
“My mistake.” Henwood drew back and distractedly wiped his hand on the napkin again. “I’d presumed that such a prominent man of letters must have turned back up, or the mystery of his tragic disappearance would have dominated the news. How quickly we forget! True, I haven’t seen his byline for a while, but then Barba’s been quiet—ominously so, some might say. I’m sure you’ll do a fine job—sir.”
Dr. Henwood seemed already to have forgotten Edgar’s name. Between withering glances thrown Edgar’s way, the man’s expression warped from crestfallen to victorious. He should have known, spoke the scornful gaze. Five-eight and dressed with festive slovenliness, Edgar mustn’t have conformed to Henwood’s preconception of his imposing predecessor.
“Fascinating assignment, of course,” Henwood allowed. “Been there yourself?”
Pushing back his tray, the man reared in his seat, adjusting his tweed lapels. Lacking a pipe and snifter, Henwood settled for brandy in a plastic glass. “This is my third trip. Very difficult place to come to grips with. Hard nut to crack.”
Apparently Edgar’s stony silence was misread as encouragement.
“I’m director of the University of Texas Conflict Studies Department,” Henwood preened. “We’re establishing a PhD program that focuses on Cinzeiro, among other trouble spots. Of course, in Austin we’re confronting a lot of the same complicated issues entailed in massive Mexican immigration, so there’s, shall we say—” a puckish grin—“generous grant money at hand.”
“In the last five years the SOB has killed over two thousand civilians. So they’re assholes. What’s so complicated?”
“Of course, no one endorses their methods—”
“You say that as if being cutthroat is incidental.”
“It can be a distraction. After all, throughout human history numerous causes have merited resort to violence—”
“So if you don’t give me more leg room—” Edgar gestured to a bawling infant in the middle seats—“I shoot the kid.”
“It’s simplifying,” Edgar differed, noting that Henwood had instinctively pulled his knees back. “Hell of a way to run your affairs, isn’t it?”
“You’ll have to develop a little more sophistication for the likes of the National Record,” the academic declared haughtily. “Your predecessor has an unparalleled sensitivity to the nuances—”
“No one ever warned me when I took this job that I’d have to write horseshit.”
“A lucid argument can be made that the distinction between state and extra-state violence is artificial,” Henwood lectured, unwrapping his dinner mint. “Especially in the creation of new states. Most nations come into being through what could be perceived at the time, from an establishmentarian’s outlook, as ‘atrocities’—including our own US of A. Once a nation is founded, the violence of nation-building is elevated to heroism. The ‘terrorists’ of today are the town-square monuments of tomorrow.”
Edgar had finished off two wine miniatures with dinner, on top of the JDs. His speech was unimpaired, but then he was usually alerted to a growing buzz by the fact that he’d become obnoxious. “So the assholes have always won, the assholes are still winning, and you’d like to see the assholes keep coming out on top.”
“That’s just the sort of reductionist demonization of one party in a divided conflict that only forestalls reconciliation,” the professor chided. “The Barban situation is sufficiently polarized that it’s hardly helpful to heap on more hatred.”
Edgar pressed a button for the flight attendant; this conversation was going to require a lot more booze. “I don’t recall trying to be helpful.”
“To contribute to debate, a journalist is obliged to appreciate the legitimacy of more than one point of view. O C-r-r-reme de Bar-r-rbear-r-r,” Henwood rolled the Rs, “is justifiably alarmed that Barba’s predominantly Catholic culture is being engulfed by container ships full of Muslims emigrating from North Africa. Now, Lisbon’s budget for immigration enforcement is indeed puny, and the government’s approach to this ethnically and religiously charged matter is look-the-other-way. So Verdade makes a credible case that Barba can only get control of its borders through sovereignty.”
“You don’t say,” said Edgar sourly. Even for his own C-minus grasp of the subject, this lowdown was condescending.
“Of course, the logic runs that if the SOB makes life unpleasant enough for Lisbon’s allies and neighbors, powerful friends like the U.S.—with no strategic investment in the integrity of Portugal—will persuade Lisbon to jettison the Barban peninsula. So understandably, Lisbon is torn. Portugal is loath to encourage terrorism. Moreover, the Moroccan and Algerian immigrants, if they’re not fleeing persecution, are simply seeking to better themselves, and there is some reason to worry about mass expulsions and widespread human rights abuses should Barbans be given free rein in their own state—which, unless it applied for admission separately, would also lie outside the mollifying influences of the EU. Yet Portugal is under enormous international pressure to halt the SOB campaign, and the most obvious expedient is to grant Barban independence—”
“How do you ‘contribute to debate’ by getting so lost in mushy sympathy for every side that you sacrifice any perspective whatsoever?” Edgar intruded, reminded once again why as a rule he kept his trap shut on airplanes.
“In turn,” the professor barreled on as if hugging a podium, “opinion polls in Barba do not document majority support for independence—”
“Back up,” Edgar cut him off. “National self-determination for Barba not only has zero support in Portugal as a whole, but minority backing in Barba? So the SOB is bombing the fuck out of the whole world to win independence for a people that don’t want it.”
“Once again, you oversimplify. Amongst native Barban Latinos, there’s a broad-based sympathy with the SOB cause, but discomfort with the armed struggle dilutes—”
“So the fact that the poor fucks don’t even want independence is another distraction, just like the fact that SOB guerrillas are murdering scumbags?”
Other passengers trying to sleep glared over their blankets.
“You have a great deal of reading to do before you’re ready to assume the mantle of someone of Mr. Saddler’s stature. Perhaps I should leave you to it.” Henwood pointed. “May I suggest you begin with that one. I use it in my introductory courses. It’s only a crude overview. But crudeness might appeal to your sensibility at that.” Henwood raised the book in his lap, Comparative Demographic Projections of Citizenship With and Without the Grandfather Clause in Barba, so that the hardback blocked his face.
The prof had gestured to Out of Impasse, authored by, lo and behold, Dr. Ansel P. Henwood. The picture on the back was twenty years old if a day, the weak chin revealing why Henwood had grown a beard. The text did prove useful. Edgar was desperate to grab some shut-eye, and required only three or four lines to fall fast asleep.
Thanks to the edifications of Dr. Henwood, Edgar copped only a few Zs. Bleariness sapped any incipient curiosity about Portugal. Drained and weaving, Edgar was at a loss as to why anyone ever went anywhere besides to bed. He was equally at a loss to explain the purpose of sending passengers through a security check right off the plane, when they’d been through security right before boarding. What were they frisking for, stolen headsets?
At immigration, the dark, petite woman at the desk was brisk but polite, affording Edgar a flickered smile. But once she’d examined his ticket, her cordiality iced over. “You are flying on to Barb-a?” she asked frostily, planting a hook in the word.
Edgar nodded feebly. Immigration always made him feel sneaky.
She stabbed at her computer, attacking keys as if mashing an invasion of ants. “What is the purpose of your visit, please?”
“I’m covering Barba for the National Record.” Hitherto Edgar had enjoyed repeating this assertion in the hopes that it would begin to resonate plausibly to himself, but just now it sounded like a transparent cover for unspeakable wickedness.
“You have documents of this position?”
Edgar rubbed his moist forehead. “I—might, my assignment was last-minute, just—let me check.” Stooping, Edgar scrambled through his carry-on. He should have asked Wallasek for a letter of introduction. Maybe Guy had at least scrawled Saddler’s address on letterhead stationery. Meanwhile, at the next desk, Henwood was flourishing such a snowstorm of papers that the immigration clerk raised a hand to make him stop.
“What is so interesting to Americans about Barb-a?” Edgar’s inquisitor asked stiffly as he splayed books with incriminating titles on the floor. “Much of Portugal is beautiful—Lisboa, O Porto, Algarve. Your newspapers never send reporters to these places. Barb-a is ugly and poor and the people are ungrateful … ressentidos.”
Edgar found the paper; no letterhead. “What can I say? Americans like to read about folks who are—” frantic to ingratiate himself, Edgar grabbed the dictionary from the floor—“mau.”
She didn’t seem impressed with his Portuguese. “You have no documents? Wait one moment, please.” The woman marched off behind a partition, heels hitting the polished floor as if shooting rivets, her ass switching the tight navy skirt. By the time she returned he’d at least scrounged a copy of his prized New Republic article.
“See?” Edgar fingered the byline. “That’s me.”
She squinted. “This is not about Barb-a.”
“I’ve never written about Barba in my life.”
She melted a degree, but rejoined, “Then why you start now?”
“This was the only job I could get!”
Barba-as-desperation-move won him one degree more, but the slight thaw only loosened a floe of tremulous emotion. “I would not put my foot in that latrina for the last job on earth!”
Passengers in line grumbled; only three stations were open.
Recovering herself, the official grilled Edgar about where he planned to reside, entering his new address on Rua da Evaporação into the computer, but making no move to stamp his passport. You have friends in Cinzeiro? You have contacts in the SOB? Edgar fell all over himself denying any such unpalatable acquaintances, adding gratuitously, “Creeps. Dirtbags. No sympathy whatsoever.” The lady eyed him with jaundice; terrorists probably shoveled this shit all the time.
“How long you are planning to stay, Senhor—” she checked his passport—“Kellogg?” Nobody ever seemed to remember Edgar’s name.
“I can’t say. I’m filling in for someone else. He disappeared. He might come back. Barrington Saddler.”
Bingo. Thus far Edgar had been flicking a Bic at this woman’s glacial demeanor, and finally he’d blasted her with a blowtorch. Her eyes went gooey, her head assumed a fetching tilt, and her smile was positively human.
“Yes,” said Edgar. “Yes, indeed. Bear and I go way back. Whenever he’s in New York, we do the town. ’Til five a.m., getting kicked out of bars. We’re thick as thieves. Couldn’t be tighter. See?” He shoved the scrap scribbled with Saddler forward. “Bear’s address.”
The functionary touched the paper with a kleptomaniacal expression, as if having to restrain herself from jotting down the phone number. “Disappeared … Is true, I hear something of this months ago.” Her olive brow rumpled; her lips pouted with worry. The woman’s transformation recalled the sitcom spinster who unpins her hair and removes her horn-rims: voilà, a pretty dishy broad. “I am concern. Barrington come through here many times. Sometimes,” she admitted shyly, “he let others go first so he pass through my station. We always have joke. I hope nothing bad happen to him, sim?”
“That’s my first assignment: find out what happened to our friend Barrington. Make sure he’s all right.”
Bam. The stamp.
“Adeus. You find Barrington, tell him Isabel say hallo. Be very careful, senhor.” She even waved.
Because he’d been headed for Barba, Edgar hadn’t been allowed to check his luggage through to his destination, unlike passengers headed anywhere else in continental Europe. Immigration had taken so long that at least his bag was already bumping around the belt, but re-entry into the airport after customs mandated another security check, and yet another at the entrance to Departures. X-rays, hand-frisk, ticket-check, every time.
At the gate itself, Edgar was consternated to confront another queue for another security check. This time, they took his luggage apart piece by piece—riffling every book, unwinding ten feet of dental floss, squeezing the toothpaste up and down and insisting he dab Cool Mint Crest on his tongue. They depressed the PLAY button on his microcassette, and Edgar’s test recording echoed down the corridor: “This is Edgar Kellogg, your caped correspondent in Big Bad Barba, interviewing yet another SOB freedom-fighter in shit-hot shades.” Oh, swell.
After that, they were naturally suspicious when his portable printer wouldn’t light up, and just try explaining that an appliance doesn’t have a battery and needs a converter to work on European current to troglodytes whose entire English vocabulary comprised “open please” and “turn on.” By the time he’d hooked up the converter with lots of hand-signals, the security staff had poked and pried at his Bubblejet until they broke the tabs off his paper feeder.
His flight was already boarding, and all his remaining worldly possessions were spread out over three square yards of table. Stuffing and muttering, Edgar didn’t have time for all the ingenious wedging that had taken him an hour on West Eighty-Ninth Street, and he had to ask for a plastic bag for the overflow.
Beyond security, another interview: had he accepted any packages, had his luggage been out of his sight at any time, did he pack his own bag? Edgar had answered these same questions half a dozen times already and his replies were getting testy. Any minute boarding would close. Meanwhile the same cautions about tending to your luggage crackled incessantly over the intercom. Posters plastered around the gate gaily advertised the Telefone Confidencial, just in case en route to Cinzeiro after peanuts you had a larkish impulse to rat out your SOB buddies on the credit-card phone.
But when Edgar wheeled from the desk to board he couldn’t stop himself from shrieking, “You cannot be serious!” Right before the Jetway was another security check.
Edgar hurled his carry-on, laptop, and plastic bag onto the belt.
“Turn on, please.”
“Look!” Edgar shouted. “I have booted up my computer ten times on this trip and the goddamned battery’s running out! Now just shove the fucking stuff through, because my fucking plane is taking off!”
Another official oozed up from the shadows, and his better English was ominous. “There is some problem, sir?”
“Fuck yeah, there’s a problem!” Edgar knew he shouldn’t curse, but toadying at immigration had left him determined to reestablish his manhood. “You just searched my luggage down to the skid marks on my boxers. What’s next, a particle separator? How could I possibly have slipped a Stinger missile in my carry-on in the last twenty feet?”
“Sir, you have just threatened the airline. You will have to come this way, please.”
They did a full body-cavity search, and he missed the plane.
One of Edgar’s contacts at US Air, a Lee & Thole client, had shared confidentially that much of modern airline security was theater, often a front for jaw-dropping laxity behind the scenes. They made you sample your toothpaste with everyone watching, but postal freight was routinely loaded unscreened. Despite showy pawing of passengers’ Tampax and Trojans, any sleazebag with the wit to wear a brown technician’s coverall could waltz on and off airplanes as he pleased, and most security violations were arranged through corrupt caterers or bribable baggage handlers. Trying to think with the nimble opportunism of his new occupation, Edgar wondered if he might get an exposé out of today’s fiasco.
For now this wasn’t good copy but bad life, though the two seemed often to go hand in hand. Edgar had nine hours to kill before the evening flight, and sitting was uncomfortable; his asshole was sore. Edgar hoped idly that staging scenes in airports signaled that his apprenticeship to the larger-than-life was getting off to a smashing start. Yet a little voice murmured in the back of Edgar’s head that Barrington Saddler would never have arranged matters so that some sadistic joker was shoving a Latexed index finger up his backside. More likely that crowd would be refolding Saddler’s slacks so the creases aligned while scrambling to arrange his free upgrade to first class.
That little voice. It had a British accent.
Grateful for a task with so much time to kill in the Lisbon airport, Edgar cashed a traveler’s check and got change for the pay phone. To smooth logistics, he really should have contacted this Nicola person from New York, but he’d put the call off. It was a bit embarrassing, acting on Wallasek’s assumption that she must have a key to Saddler’s house because she was one of his known floozies.
“I see,” said the woman, once Edgar had haltingly explained his business; her accent vaguely English, at least it wasn’t the ram-it-down-your-throat variety. “So you’re Barrington’s replacement.” She sounded both mournful and bemused.
“I’m supposed to move into—” Edgar scrambled to avoid Saddler’s name, whose mention from the first had seemed to constitute a torment—“the house on Rua da Evaporação. No one at the Record had a key. I can always stay in a hotel tonight and bring in a locksmith tomorrow. But my editor thought maybe …”
“I do have a key,” she admitted gravely. “When do you arrive?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, and she did sound incredibly sorry, though perhaps most of all that the phone had rung and it was just another visiting journalist. Nicola had answered, Hello? with breathy anticipation; her subsequent downshift of timbre recalled Angela’s, on realizing it was only Edgar. “I’d have liked to have met your plane. But a few odds and sods are coming over this evening, and leaving my guests would be rude. Not that I won’t be tempted.” A small laugh, minor key. “After all, the members of our incestuous set run into each other every day—”
The call was interrupted by an unintelligible recording. Edgar felt an irrational urgency to keep this melodious voice on the phone, and shoveled more escudos in the slot. “Please,” he pressed. “You were saying?”
“It’s just the local hacks. But this is the first time we’ve gathered socially since Barrington left.” She said the name firmly, as if granting Edgar permission to employ it at will. Equally firm was the word left—not vanished, not was kidnapped, not even fled, much less was assassinated. The verb wasn’t merely descriptive; it was a verdict. “You’d be welcome to join us, Mr. Kellogg.”
She remembered his name! “Edgar,” he corrected. “I wouldn’t presume—”
“Please, you’d not impose. Everyone will be terribly interested to meet you.” She refrained from asserting that her guests would be glad to meet him, but the interest might be real enough.
“I’m afraid I’ll be just off the plane—”
“We’ll try not to detain you. And I’ll make every allowance for the fact that you’re exhausted.” After dictating her address, Nicola reduced her volume another notch. “There’s only one thing, Edgar. That I have that key? If you’d please not call it to anyone’s attention. Simply say you’re calling by to meet your new colleagues. Which you will be.”
“I’ll be discreet,” Edgar promised.
“God knows what you must think of me,” Nicola whispered.
“Hey, it’s none of my business,” Edgar protested.
“You can’t think any worse than I think of myself.” Without saying good-bye, she hung up.
Innocently whitewashed and cheerfully lit, the tiny square building of the Aeroporto Internacional de Cinzeiro was roofed in scalloped terra-cotta like an Arizona community center. While ESTÁ A ENTRAR NA BARBA OCUPADA! was boldly spray-painted across an outside wall, the graffiti’s red lettering was neatly outlined in green, the second B painstakingly extended to make it as tall as the first, its exclamation mark dotted with a daisy. The slogan less resembled the threatening defacement of a terrorist insurgency than a day-camp crafts project.
Deplaning onto the tarmac struck Edgar as quaintly retro-chic until he emerged from the cabin to be broadsided, foom, by a gale wind, which threw him so violently against the portable staircase rail that he nearly pitched over it. As another gust slapped his face in reproof that he’d ever considered air the same as nothing, Edgar clutched the railing hand-over-hand to the runway—skin tightening, eyes tearing, ears roaring. Once he exited through baggage claim’s revolving door, whose flaps swish-swished without aid of electricity, he was again blindsided by a solid atmospheric wall. After stumbling to the taxi stand, using his bags as ballast, Edgar clutched a post while the cabby loaded the trunk. Eyes shielded by protective plastic goggles, the heavyset cabby hunched with a widely planted stance, tilting into the wind and lifting his feet as little as possible. The maneuver looked practiced.
Edgar slumped into the rattletrap taxi, glad that darkness spared him gaping out the window. He didn’t have the energy to be fascinated, and wanted to appraise his new home with a fresh eye. Edgar had already formed a nascent affection for Barba, if only because Lisboners seemed to hate it so much. A kicked cur as a kid, Edgar identified with outcasts more than most of his countrymen, whose reputation for sympathy with underdogs was in his view highly exaggerated.
Such a piercing whistle sang through window cracks that Edgar’s headache was immediate. As the hump-fendered sedan galumphed down the road, it swayed in and out of lane, though the driver wrestled manfully with the wheel. Now and again a thud sounded against the doors as if a linebacker had assaulted the cab with a running tackle.
“Is it always this windy?” Edgar shouted over the teakettle shrill.
“Windy? Is no so windy,” the cabby yelled cheerfully back.
Fighting nausea as the taxi threw him from door to door, Edgar kicked himself for promising to stop by Nicola’s little soirée tonight. Better to have picked up the key tomorrow and sprung for a hotel. He vowed to get in, then get out. So far his “fellow” journalists had hardly constituted a mutually supportive intellectual fraternity, and one carelessly ignorant remark about the SOB could take him months to live down; Edgar admonished himself, Keep your pie hole shut. This Nicola broad sounded all right, but Edgar had minimal taste for socializing at the best of times. The truth was he didn’t like people much, even if he was never sure whether a misanthrope was allowed to deduct himself, like taking a standard personal exemption on a 1040.
Most of all, after a half day in Portugal he’d already had it up to the eyeballs with Barrington Fucking Saddler. Edgar had to write that mop-up article on what might have befallen his predecessor, bringing the story, for the paper, to a close. But the last thing he planned to blather in his free time was, “Gee whiz, guys, whadda ya think mighta happened to lovable old Bear?” Were Edgar to solicit any more gushy hog slop about Saddler, he would have to be paid.
The taxi drew up to a villa whose flat left-hand side loomed three stories high, unperforated by a single window. From this sheer blank edifice, a frivolous hodgepodge of turrets, porticos, and balconies with curlicued grillwork tumbled off to the right. From its fanciful leeward end, the villa resembled a set for Carmen; from the windward side, a nuclear power plant.
Foom. Edgar had trouble getting the taxi door shut. Doubled over, he dragged his luggage toward the entrance, his heavy leather bomber jacket flying horizontally to the right. Grains of sand stung his left cheek like acupuncture. Once he lunged onto the porch and tucked behind that mammoth wall, the roar ceased, the jacket dropped, and Edgar staggered from no longer having to lean into the squall to stay upright. Leonard Cohen dirged from inside.
The door opened only wide enough for Edgar to see in the porch light that the young man’s face presented the same impenetrable façade of the villa’s windbreak.
“Barrington the Second, right?” the boyish-looking Englishman said joylessly. “Surprised they sent someone else. Thought we’d all spend the rest of our poxy lives moping about and waiting for stigmata proof that Our Redeemer liveth.”
This was well too much for two hours’ sleep and a six-hour time difference. “I was looking for Nicola—”
“Naturally,” said the young man savagely.
“Henry, please,” whispered from inside. “If you have to, take it out on me. That poor bloke never did a thing to you.”
“In your version, you done bugger-all to me yourself, remember? I’m ‘paranoid,’ so I’m acting my part.” Henry turned heel, and retreated.
“Edgar! Do come in.”
Edgar thunked his luggage in the candlelit foyer. The taxi was still within hailing distance; after Henry’s warm reception, Edgar was considering a curt request for the key, so he could scram right away. But that was before he got a good look at Nicola.
She was a pre-Raphaelite vision. Tall, narrow, and delicate, the woman’s figure echoed the precision of her speech, the sharply articulated wrists, clavicle, and cheekbones as exactingly wrought as haiku. Tressing in wavelets to her waist, her hair reflected a range of hues from blond to red. She was draped in an assemblage of scarves and shawls that Edgar would have found cockamamie on most women, but Nicola could get away with as much flourish as she liked. She belonged in a tower, weaving by a shattered looking-glass, or banished eternally from Camelot in a longboat drifting downstream.
The crimsons and cobalts of her fabrics set off a shocking pallor. Nicola’s pained expression captured the very inchoate yearning that Edgar had been too embarrassed to express to Wallasek, and echoed the ruinous cycle of desire and disappointment tyrannizing his own life. How many times had Edgar confronted the mirror ball of a sparkling new acquaintance, only to reach for the facets and cut his hand—to complete another soul-sickening inversion as in the cold light of day the bauble revealed itself as a cheap disco trick? How many times had he met the likes of Nicola and vowed to see through the gaudy gypsy get-up as tacky theatrics, to remember that behind every pretty face lurked yet another grasping, lying, scheming, petty, faithless shrew? And how many times had these warnings to himself successfully protected him from heartbreak?
Not once. Taking the slim white hand, Edgar had to stop himself from kissing it.
Edgar burst out, “That sounds like a movie star!”
She must have thought him a complete rube. “Thanks. I’ve felt selfish keeping the Tremaine, but Nicola Durham simply sounded too prosaic. I’m afraid Henry was rather offended.”
“You’re an aesthete,” said Edgar, hoping that in candlelight it wasn’t too obvious his countenance was crestfallen.
“Almost nothing but,” she confessed easily, leading him around a bend and down a few stone steps. “I care mostly about names with a ring, juniper berries in jasmine rice, or soup bowls and dinner plates from different sets that uncannily go together. Grace, taste, appearances. You’ll soon learn that I’m a shamefully superficial person.”
Edgar reflected that if his own surfaces were as pleasing as hers he’d have no motivation to probe beneath them himself, but didn’t know how to say as much without sounding oily. So he trotted after her fringed train as it shivered down the stairs, mouth open like a dog’s. God-fucking-damn it. She would have to be married.
The moment Edgar entered Nicola’s living room he felt the collective resentment of her guests so forcefully that he came physically to a halt. It wasn’t as if he had gatecrashed a genuine ho-down; a mere desultory murmur ceased when he walked in. Yet the dozen people scattered around the room turned to greet the National Record’s fill-in stringer with one long synchronized sneer. Meanwhile, “Famous Blue Raincoat” droned its tuneless, depressive best: Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair … Real party music.
Nicola’s eyes darted the room; if she was deciding to whom it was safest to introduce him, she was having a hard time. Stranded by the table of booze and eats—intricate open-faced sandwiches, individually assembled into one-of-a-kind Miros—Edgar was keenly aware that his shirt was crumpled, his jeans smelled stale, his teeth were furry, and the gale had tossed his hair to salad.
“You can always go local.” A rangy fellow gestured at the bottles, having eased off his stool and gimped to Edgar’s side.
“What constitutes going local?” asked Edgar warily.
“Try it,” the weathered American dared him, uncapping a brown bottle labeled CHOQUE.
Though alerted by a sadistic twitch in the older man’s face, Edgar felt eyes on him and swigged. Before the beer was down his gullet, Edgar’s oral membrane had constricted into a dry pucker, like mouth eczema. Slamming down the bottle, he scrubbed his lips with a napkin, then stuffed down a sandwich. Edgar was reminded of the time he sneaked into his parents’ bathroom to swill what he thought was codeine-laced cough syrup, and instead chugged his father’s prescription anesthetic for rectal itch.
“Cerveja de pera peluda,” the man explained. “Choque means what it sounds like, ‘shock,’ but you get used to it.”
“What the hell’s a putrid pera?” Edgar gasped, still scouring his lips.
“Barba’s only thriving native fruit: the hairy pear,” said his new acquaintance. “It grows in such abundance that it would provide a cash crop, only no one else wants it—so they export terrorism instead. There’s more of a market. Meanwhile, they put peras peludas in everything. The fruit ferments like a bastard. Some of us old-timers have acquired a sick addiction to hairy-pear beer. Speaking of which—Durham! Did the Independent run your fluff piece?”
“They spiked it,” said Henry. “With Barba dropped out of the news and that, the foreign desk didn’t think a feature was timely.”
“Curious,” the tough old hand observed, “the way Saddler took the party with him—like the Grinch that stole Christmas. Not an incident since he dearly departed. Hardly thoughtful. The rest of us have to make a living. Reuters just e-mailed that they’ll close the bureau in three months if nothing blows up.”
“I thought Henry’s feature was better than fluff,” Nicola intervened. “Barbans’ taste for peras peludas made a trenchant metaphor. The way a bitterness runs in their blood—”
“Nick, nobody gives a rat’s ass about the cultural niceties of this toilet bowl if the Soldados Ousados aren’t releasing nerve gas in Paris metros,” the Reuters man overrode. “If the Sobs slaughter enough innocents, Henry can sell a feature on how Barbans tweeze their nose hairs.”
“I thought the piece provided good color,” Nicola maintained staunchly.
“So your husband doesn’t get his hundred quid,” the leathery wire-service man noted with a cynical squint. “The rent will be late?”
Nicola hung her head. Henry’s face remained impassive. Whatever this razzing was about, Henry was used to it.
“Win Pyre.” The man extended a hand, its palm callused, his veined metacarpus tinged the gray-brown of a cancerous tan. “Where you last posted, Kellogg?”
“The States—freelancing.” Freelancing prompted the usual smirk. Not wanting to be taken for a complete loser, Edgar added, “I’m a lawyer. Or was a lawyer. Actually, I’m still a lawyer.” Made a hash of that bio. But is, was—tense was tricky. The fact that Edgar remained a member of the New York bar in good standing was surprisingly important to him.
“Criminal law?” Pyre fished.
“Corporate,” said Edgar defiantly.
“I see.” The smirk curled into a pitying simper. “So you’re taking a break from the drones to see the world.”
If Edgar had just branded himself an unimaginative robot, that’s just how Edgar perceived his own legal persona by the time he quit. Still the dismissal smarted, just as any outsider would raise hackles criticizing a family that you yourself detest. Besides, suits in high-rises ran “the world” that Pyre seemed to think Edgar was glimpsing for the first time; they paid this cowboy’s salary. The footfall of the financial colossus shook the ground a reporter walked, and if Pyre discounted the fee-fi-fo-fum of corporate giants as humdrum, then Pyre was incompetent, and Pyre was the one to be pitied.
“How enterprising,” Pyre added archly. He meant how impudent. He meant, I can’t wait to watch you fall flat on your face, you presumptuous dullard. He meant, You may be accustomed to throwing wads around with your drab business cronies, but around here all that counts is copy and you just demoted yourself to boot camp, buddy.
Edgar buried his right fist in his left palm, and changed the subject. “So is the wind often this howling? In ten seconds off the plane, it had ripped open my nostrils, torn down my throat, and whistled out my ass. Free rolphing.”
“You’re on your maiden assignment to a notorious cradle of international terrorism,” Pyre said incredulously, “and you want to talk about the weather?”
“Why not?” said Nicola. “Gauging ovento insano is a local preoccupation. There’s an unstable high-to-low-pressure interface between the Med and the Atlantic that creates a near-permanent sirocco across the Barban peninsula. And no, it’s not always this bad, Edgar; it’s generally much worse. Some days advisories are issued not to leave your house. Most natives learn to protect themselves, but others give over. There’s a certain stupefied idiocy you’ll find around here that results from gross exposure to the atmosphere. Vento-heads extend their arms to let the gale keep them aloft. Their eyes glaze and dry out. Sometimes they fall asleep, since the wind props them up. Ovento insano can get into your head. Like tinnitus.”
“Or like Creamie propaganda,” said Pyre. “It’s incessant, it never varies except in decibel level, and subjection to enough of it turns you into a moron.”
“Sweetheart?” Nicola looked about rapidly, her long hair flailing, before she located her husband. It wasn’t such a large room that she should worry about losing him, physically at least. “Would you like another Diamond White?”
Henry ignored her, and collapsed indolently into an armchair. Surprisingly, on close examination Nicola’s husband was probably about thirty-five. Slight and gangly with a cowlick and freckles, in charitable light Henry might have passed for a kid, except for a telltale hardening of his adolescent features, as if a seventeen-year-old had been sculpted in wax. If he looked a little careworn, his Happy Days face appeared frozen in perpetual distress that he didn’t have a prom date. By contrast, ever since the Celery Wars Edgar’s brow had been plowed with mature furrows, the grooves from his nose to the corners of his mouth scored with the gravity of a stock-market crash.
One aspect of the Madame Tussauds teenager was intriguing. Money has an eye for money, and Edgar not long ago had a lot of it. That watch on Henry’s wrist was gold, and not plate. Clean lines, sweet dial: classy, and three thousand bucks if it was ten cents. Someone had taste, and Edgar bet it wasn’t Henry. Yet the clasp was fastened carelessly loose, and the face dropped around his hand. Likewise that salmon raw-silk shirt was Yves Saint Laurent, the blond suede vest Gucci, but the sleeves were crudely bunched above his elbows, and the suede was filthy. Whoever had spent a lot of dough on that gear, it now roused only Henry’s indifference.
“Henry? Sweetie? Let me get you a cold one.” Nicola scurried to the kitchen.
Pyre tsked at her back. “Poor Nick and Henry. They used to be so repulsively happy. Now they just seem that way, like everyone else.”
“What happened?” asked Edgar.
“With couples, it’s more often who.”
“Let me guess,” said Edgar.
“You’re quick,” Pyre conceded. “You’ll need to be. Those aren’t easy boots to fill.”
“Another devoted fan?” asked Edgar dryly.
“I deplore the man,” said Pyre, and for the first time Edgar warmed to the veteran hack. “He’s everything that gives journalists a bad name: arrogant, irresponsible, inaccurate. He thinks he’s bigger than his story. Barba, well, he thinks he owns Barba, as if he made the place up. He’s unserious. Saddler’s seen a lot of the world, and at its worst. But I have, too—Lebanon, Somalia—and it’s the dickens not to simply turn nasty. But Saddler, Saddler’s reaction has been hysterical. I mean he finds everything funny. Me, I’m not amused. Saddler covers terrorist incidents as if they’re practical jokes. But I’ve had one pulled on me.” Pyre patted his bad leg. “In eighty-three, I was conducting an interview near that Marine barracks car bomb in Beirut. Though I got off light, I’ll never play tennis again. Saddler thinks that’s a hah-hah. But I liked playing tennis.”
“You still talk about him in the present tense.”
“Barrington Saddler would never submit to anything melodramatic without an audience. I doubt he takes a dump without someone watching.”
“Even flamboyant fatheads get run over by buses,” Edgar countered.
“Saddler would more likely run over the bus himself.”
“He’s that much of a load?”
“He’s that determined that nothing get in his way. Now, can I introduce you to a few of your colleagues? Though don’t expect overnight fast friends.”
“How did I manage to step on toes from twenty feet?”
“By not being Merry Barry. Since Saddler jumped ship, the pulse of this town has slowed to hibernation levels. Truth is, I kinda miss hating the guy.”
Edgar Meets His New Little Friends
“Are we still playing, or not?” asked the blonde, whose face had that clear-eyed, clear-skinned symmetry used to sell moisturizing cream, but that for the life of him Edgar could never find sexy.
Win Pyre thumped his cane on the carpet and made introductions.
“Am I interrupting something?” asked Edgar.
“Yes, thank God. Party games.” The reporter for the London Guardian, Roland Ordway, spewed a thin stream of smoke. His spiky black hair sprayed at the cleverly balanced Katzenjammer angles of a pricey designer cut. Young and sleazily good-looking, Ordway kept the arms of his sports jacket jammed above his elbows, and his jeans were ironed with a crease. As for the cowboy boots, Ordway was the sort of Brit who thought Americana was hip so long as Americans didn’t come with it.
“What’s the game?” Edgar bounced onto the balls of his feet, literally on his toes.
“To name the game is to lose it.” Sucking his ciggie, Ordway pinched the butt from underneath.
“Let Trudy explain, then,” said the frump on the loveseat, a correspondent for the Washington Post whose name was Martha Hulbert. “She adores losing.”
Martha was one of those women who look terrible on purpose. Her shapeless dress was scalloped with chintzy gold-painted plastic chain at the waist, its fabric the corrupted green of aged broccoli florets; imagining any woman walking into a store and choosing this spoilage-colored sack boggled the mind. Martha might have looked presentable if she lost twenty pounds, but Edgar knew the sort: all her life she’d hug those twenty pounds like a kid with a stuffed bunny.
“We’re timing ourselves,” said Ordway. “To see how long we can go without mentioning He Who Is No Longer With Us. There. A black mark for me.”
“It’s a stupid game,” said Trudy Sisson, the cover-girl blonde whom Pyre had introduced with a curdled lip as a “freelance photographer.” In this case “freelance” appeared to mean “bankrolled by Daddy,” and in Pyre’s mind Trudy Sisson’s bowling-pin calves and syrupy Southern accent must have dropped her IQ thirty points. Edgar had ridiculed his share of secretarial bimbos at the firm, but like the smell of your own armpits prejudice is less obnoxious when it’s yours, and for the moment he felt sorry for her. He’d get over it.
“Leastways when Barrington comes up it’s a little like he’s still here,” Trudy went on. “For a few seconds we have some energy. And I wanted to hear about the twins.”
“I gather they’re still not speaking,” said Martha.
“Lucky us,” said Ordway. “Remember what they said?”
“Sorry.” Martha glanced dutifully at Edgar. “Bear had an affair—”
Ordway began to singsong, “Bear had an affair with two twins—”
“A team, once upon a time,” Martha persevered.
“And shimmied all four shapely shins—”
“Roland, if you don’t mind, I’m trying to be polite!” said Martha sharply. “They wrote and photographed for Esquire. Very successful duo—”
“’Til one bim said, ‘Mister! You’re shagging my sister! Confess your identical sins.’”
“Behold the Bard of Barba,” said Martha, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, each found out about the other—how would they not? And you’ve never seen such a falling out. It would have made more sense to turn on Barrington, but they went for each other instead. Operating on the ridiculous premise that the one who tore the most hair would win the two-timing trophy.”
“I’ve never thought he cared fuck-all for either one of them,” said Ordway. “He just wanted to watch the cat fight.”
“It was malicious,” said Martha primly. “He saw how close they were. Just like—” Martha glanced furtively around the room, then lowered her voice—“you know. Anyway, they wore each other’s clothes, finished each other’s sentences. Erin told me once that they sometimes had the same dreams. Now they despise each other, and Mary’s defected to Vanity Fair. It was tragic and he did it on purpose. Emotional vandalism, if you ask me.”
“Oh, don’t be so moralistic,” said Trudy. “Barrington got bored so Barrington slept around.”
“You should know,” said Ordway.
Trudy raised her chin. “But can you blame him? I wake up the day after he disappeared—or whatever, I’m too scared to think about it. I look around and think, I’m living in a dump. The food stinks, the beer stinks, you can’t even lie on the beach ’cause it’s too cold, not to mention the wind. I think, one more blast up my skirt, one more whoosh wrecking my hair and I’m booking for the States. Well, it didn’t seem that way before. With Barrington, Barba was exciting. Y’all feel the same way but won’t admit it.”
“Another beer, Kellogg?” asked Pyre.
“You just want to watch me commit hairy-peary again,” said Edgar.
The awful pun cast a pall.
“Barrington already used that line,” said Trudy, glaring.
“Definitely going to need that beer,” said Edgar, turning to fetch it himself. Jesus. Saddler had even beaten him to the jokes.
Edgar lingered by the drinks to look around. As if rendered freehand, everything in the room was subtly imperfect. The cushions’ needlework was lumped with tufty bits. The throw rug beneath Edgar’s feet included one aberrant purple stripe that, while it looked like a mistake, also electrified the pattern and was the sole reason the rug drew his eye. None of the picture frames was quite rectangular, and the original watercolors within were fraught with charming little errors in perspective. The ceramic tiles around the fireplace were crookedly inlaid. The pitcher on the drinks table canted to the left. Spearing a pickled onion, he noticed that the handles of the wooden hors d’oeuvre forks were whittled into animals, and it was impossible to tell if this one was a lion or a sheepdog.
At first Edgar assumed that Nicola was a boutiquey sort who shopped at import outlets, except these objects exhibited neither the soullessness of mass production nor the shoddiness of some arthritic Third Worlder hacking out cocktail forks for ten cents an hour. Rather, every curtain, upholstery job, and one-of-a-kind dessert plate bore the indelible imprimatur of the same gently perverse sensibility. Like Martha Hulbert’s frumpiness, the living room’s appointments were flawed on purpose.
When Nicola rearranged the sandwiches, Edgar commended, “You’re quite a cook.”
She sighed. “I’m afraid no one has much appetite tonight.”
“So—you a journalist yourself?”
“Gracious, no. I’m a housewife.” The admission was cheerful.
So rarely had Edgar met women in New York who confessed to doing nothing that he floundered for lack of follow-up. “To support you, and this house—which is big …”
“Not as big as yours.”
“It’s just, Henry must be doing okay.”
“I wouldn’t say that Henry’s okay.”
“Financially, I mean.” Instead of nosing into their bank statement he should have asked if she had kids, but he too badly didn’t want her to have any.
“Even financially,” Nicola reflected, “I’d not describe Henry as okay. In fact, Henry’s financial situation is woeful. That is, full of woe.”
Edgar was determined not to drop another clangor like, So you weave your own rugs because you can’t afford commercial ones. He held up the dog-lion end of his fork. “Is there anything in this house you didn’t make?”
Nicola scrutinized the room. “Of course. The wine glasses—I haven’t learned to blow glass yet, but I’d love to … And I didn’t make nearly all the furniture, because Henry put his foot down. It takes too long, and he didn’t want to eat off the floor.”
“This handicrafting. It’s some kind of policy, then?”
“I don’t have policies. I have whims. I’m a total child, Edgar. All I do is play. In adult terms, I’m a dabbler. I can’t explain, but there’s something about scooping lettuce from a salad bowl that you carved yourself. Preferably lettuce from your own garden, but nothing grows in this godforsaken province other than peras peludas.
“In our case, these whims of mine have proved a funny antidote. Henry has a closetful of designer silk and Italian suede, but he’s much safer walking around in hand-sewn cotton. If I had the time he’d wear cloth I wove as well—from thread I spun, from cotton I ginned, but obviously there are limits. A homemade shirt might not hang quite right, but it’s a kind of protection.” She hung her head. “The last few months he’s gone back to the Calvin Kleins. I don’t blame him, but I think it’s dangerous.”
“Why’s that?” Edgar was completely out of his depth.
“I’m talking about the conservation of meaning,” she said passionately. “When you’re young, you take significance for granted. In childhood, every silly clockwork donkey, or your first garish pink lipstick, is important. Then the problem is the opposite: you’re overpowered by meaning, drowning in it. But later … Well, I can’t go buy Henry a present, can I?”
Edgar could only intuit vaguely that they had money troubles.
“Barrington understood,” she added sadly. “But Barrington collected meaning like lint. Like that Peanuts character: it followed him in a cloud.”
“You’re the only one I’ve met so far who mentions him in the past tense.”
“It’s a discipline.”
“I hope your, um, circumstances don’t mean you’ll have to clear out of this house,” said Edgar. “It’s cool.”
“I’m sorry, I’ve misled you. You’re new here, you must be knackered after your long journey, and here I’m being coy. Don’t worry about our being evicted, Edgar. We own this house and five others all over Europe. But I’m a little tired myself. If you don’t mind, we won’t get into it now.”
Dismissed and disconcerted, Edgar drifted back to the knot of gossips in the corner, his gate a bit unsteady. He’d switched to Heineken but eyed the brown bottles of Choque, curiously magnetic. The stuff was awful, punishing, but, much like the subject of Mr. Saddler, inexplicably difficult to leave alone.
At least when Edgar rejoined the group they’d moved on, which was probably the work of the visiting German from Der Spiegel. In his fidgety silence, Reinhold Glück had seemed impatient with ceaseless scuttlebutt on someone he didn’t know. Serious and bespectacled, Glück was doing a feature comparing O Creme de Barbear with German neo-Nazis. Edgar recognized the tone before penetrating the German accent; liberal indignation whiffled with the same strident huffiness all over the world.
“It is nothing but racism!” said Glück.
“We’re not talking about a handful of funny-sounding visitors,” said Trudy, crossing her legs. “What about all those Turks in Germany? What if there were more Turks than Germans? If they could vote your prime minister out of office—”
“Chancellor,” said Martha.
“Whatever. And you walk down the street and everyone’s talking Turkish? And it’s hard to find a Pilsner anymore, like, all you can find is, I don’t know, mead, or whatever Turkish people drink. Know what a place like that’s called? Turkey. There wouldn’t even be a Germany anymore. Wouldn’t that tee you off? Where’s your national pride?”
“The whole world has suffered for Germany’s national pride,” said Glück. “I have a different kind of pride.”
“Well, I have American pride,” said Trudy. “Us Floridians have Cubans, Haitians, and Mexicans up the wazoo. When I grab a cab, if I don’t know Spanish for ‘airport’ the cabby looks at me like I’m the nitwit. In Miami, I feel like a foreigner in my own country.”
“In a truly pluralistic society, all people feel equally foreign and equally at home. You are not talking about being American, but about being white and in control. It is the same in Barba. The fascists in O Creme only want to stay in power—”
“I’m with you in theory, Reinhold,” said Martha. “Still, nobody in crappy little Barba has power of any description to hang on to.”
“They do now,” said Ordway. “Whole bloody Western world is up in arms about immigration in crappy little Barba. That’s power. Look at us: we live here, we file from here, we’re consumed with local politics. And we’d never have considered so much as a bargain package holiday to this filthy bog five years ago.”
“That impresses you?” said Edgar.
“It is impressive, innit?” Ordway’s standard middle-class London accent was decorated with lowbrow touches. Translate: white geeks from Long Island lacing their conversation with yo! and I hear dat! like the brothers in the ’hood.
“The Sobs having murdered over two thousand people—that impresses you, too?” The journalistic penchant for calling members of the SOB the Sobs and their political counterparts in O Creme de Barbear Creamies had first jarred as swaggeringly familiar, but Edgar got a charge out of tossing off the jargon himself.
“Kellogg, don’t be so earnest!” said Ordway. “There must be some bloke side of you that fancies their flash. The Sobs have Interpol, the FBI, the CIA, the Portuguese Army, and the local coppers combing every pera peluda peel of Barban rubbish, and nobody can find a trace of them. Even Creamies keep their hands clean. They get lifted, but the next week they’re back on the street when nothing sticks. Other than the author of that sodding autobiography, I Was an SOB—a load of bollocks, in my view—no one’s dug up a single bona fide member of that lot in five years. That’s impressive, mate.”
“Only to little boys,” said Martha.
“Already, half the schoolchildren in the States are Spanish-speaking,” Trudy was preaching fervently to Reinhold. “And kids grow up. They’re taking over!”
“Majority status is no people’s right,” Glück insisted. “It is an accident, a lucky advantage. Like any advantage you want to hold on to it. But it is typical reasoning of privileged people to assume that just because you have something, ipso facto you deserve it. In truth, this ‘defense of borders’ is naked defense of self-interest—not of justice.”
“I still think Verdade has a point,” said Trudy sulkily. “If I were Barban, I’d sure get peeved with hordes of North African Muslims overrunning my home. These immigrants don’t have any money—”
“From what I have read, the Moroccans are much more industrious than the lazy native Iberians,” said Glück. “And Moroccans don’t blow up airplanes, either.”
“Okay, the Creamies are extreme,” said Trudy. Recrossing her legs, she added slyly, “But you gotta admit: Tomás Verdade is pretty sexy.”
“Violence puts an issue on the map,” Ordway was lecturing Edgar. “Sob tactics may not be pretty, but they’re sussed. No casualties, we’re not even having this conversation.”
“I’d concede that targeting world powers is smart,” said Edgar, beginning to get in the swing. “Terrorizing has-been Portugal wouldn’t work. No one would give a shit.”
“Yes,” Ordway droned wearily. “That observation has been made before.”
Edgar flagged the jaded response. By nature he had both a good feel for the trite and a special aversion to it. He could pinpoint the exact instant when having a “bad hair day” was no longer funny.
“Anyway,” said Ordway, “you’ll soon clue that your new profession is dull as ditch water unless someone gets hurt. I covered the Quebec referendum on secession: few punch-ups, a bit o’ shouting. Even my mum used the paper to line her kitty-litter box.”
“News isn’t entertainment,” said Edgar.
“News is exclusively entertainment,” said Martha, “according to Barrington.”
“Ten minutes, girls and boyos!” Ordway exclaimed, checking his watch. “A record.”
Ninety-Nine Push-Ups and Cloudberry Shampoo
At a pat on his shoulder, Edgar jolted upright. Nicola laughed. “You look like a vento head!” she teased. “Can I drive you home?”
Unchivalrously, he accepted the lift. After Nicola went up to fetch her car keys, she met Edgar in the foyer with a significant glance. “Before I forget.” From the folds of her cloak, she withdrew an oversize brass skeleton key, its head cast with runes, as if it might open a chest of gold doubloons or a secret medieval torture chamber. The key was heavy, with a smaller, modern key attached, and so made quite a clatter when she dropped it on the flagstones. As she dived to scoop it up, Henry was walking up the stairs.
“No, let me,” said Edgar, lunging for the set. “My keys,” he said to Henry, “from the Record. Dropped them. Clumsy of me. Must be tired.”
Henry blinked. The key was distinctive. Something didn’t quite compute. Still Nicola looked, though whiter by a shade, relieved.
“That was quick thinking, in the foyer,” said Nicola, as they pulled off in her Land Rover. “Thanks.”
“You may be a dandy rug weaver,” said Edgar. “But when it comes to the art of deception, you suck.”
She smiled, tightly. “I’m not sure if I should be offended by that, or not.”
Edgar delivered a few slash-slash assessments of her other guests, but Nicola didn’t pick up, and Edgar feared that he’d just queered the goodwill of one of those if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice types.
“I’m sorry that your new home won’t have been tidied,” she said. “It was left more or less au naturel. Not that Barrington was a slob—I mean, he was, but after these big, impromptu dos of his a few guests were always eager to stay and clear up. Some nights—mornings, rather—they actually fought over the Hoover. I dare say there were certain young ladies who’d have scoured his toilet bowl with their own toothbrushes.”
“No, the real test,” Edgar mumbled, “is whether they’d use them after.”
“Funny, some people go missing for weeks, and no one notices until a frightful smell starts leaking from their flats. But the alarm went out about Barrington in a matter of hours. He was meant to dine at Trudy’s that night. She’d made beef Wellington, of all things, an all-day-in-the-kitchen affair that Barrington had once mentioned in passing that he fancied. Foie gras, wild mushrooms, goodness knows what else. She insisted on making the puff pastry from scratch; the leaves came out a bit thick. Me, I find it’s often the simplest … Oh, never mind.
“He was always late, of course, but he’d usually make an appearance. I’m afraid that Trudy’s having gone to so much bother would count for all too little, but there’s not that much to do here, and the rest of us were all at Trudy’s.”
“More to the point, you were at Trudy’s.”
Nicola ignored the insinuation. “By two a.m. she was hysterical. We all thought she was overreacting, upset about having made rather a hash of the beef (not to be unkind, but it came out a tad well-done, and there was no disguising that cutting the crust was hard work). We thought she was hurt that after all her talking up the dish he’d made other plans. The dear girl has made great capital since from her intuition that something ghastly was wrong. How she felt ‘a wash of cold air’ and ‘suddenly Cinzeiro felt empty.’ She claims she’ll never again eat beef Wellington—which she insists on calling ‘beef Barrington’ in tribute. Well. Not much danger, in Barba.
“I’ve only been back to Barrington’s once,” she continued. “And please don’t mention it to Henry. But I simply couldn’t bear the idea of the police smashing that lovely cedar door with a battering ram. So when Barrington became an official missing person, I rang the chief inspector and arranged to let him in.
“The detectives went through everything,” she explained. “All they found was some gibberish on Barrington’s computer disks. Nonsense, according to Lieutenant de Carvalho. There was only one part of the house I steered the police away from. A small tower; they never noticed the door. You’ve the key to its padlock. But Barrington told me not to go up there. So I haven’t.”
“Even Bluebeard’s wives didn’t play along with that shit,” Edgar slurred. “You always so obedient?”
“When I make a promise.”
Including to your husband? “What do you think’s up there, then? Bodies?”
“Maybe one. That’s the only place we haven’t checked for Barrington. But on the off chance … I guess I didn’t want to know.”
She pulled up to a long dark hulk and sat, with the Land Rover idling, hands in her lap. Though the villa was virtually invisible, she closed her eyes, as if for good measure. “It does light up,” she said dismally, all but spelling out: Though only when a certain someone was inside.
Edgar fumbled his good-byes and trundled with his bags to the dim front porch. The lock responded gladly to his skeleton key. Pushed by the Barban gale, the thick cedar door opened by itself, as if Edgar were expected.
After groping for a light switch, he had a vague, cockeyed impression of having infiltrated a deserted sheikdom. He bumbled upstairs to a king-size four-poster. An ironing board would have sufficed. Having dragged off his clothes, he plunged into a small death.
Edgar woke between royal blue satin sheets, under billows of goose-down duvets. Pillows buttressed his every side, as if he were packed for overseas shipping. Opposite, lemony late-day sunlight filtered between shifting drapes of crimson velvet, and upper panes of leaded stained glass dolloped red and green lollipops onto the bed. A sole reminder of where he was, a high hissing whistle sang through the window cracks. Panes rattled as if o vento insano were rapping to get in, and a faint, low-pitched moan groaned outside.
According to his diving watch—in his freelance poverty so discordantly showy, yet in the context of his immediate surroundings a dime-store trinket—he’d slept fifteen hours.
Edgar propped on the springy pillows, which puffed cool air onto his cheek at every readjustment. This was indeed a master bedroom. Laid with overlapping Oriental carpets, the floor was elevated a step under the bed. Raising the four-poster into a throne of repose, the dais made fifteen hours’ sleep seem his due. Edgar could easily see settling here for days at a time amid splayed half-read books, occasionally granting an audience or tinkling a clear brass bell for breakfast service. The image of broad trays (carved camphor wood, Edgar decided, with ivory handles) hovered over both tall side tables. Spread with embroidered cloths, they’d be littered with goblets of guava juice, crumbs of honeyed pastries, ornate cups of thick, sweet coffee, and filigreed silver spoons.
Disquieted, Edgar disentangled himself. He disapproved of sloth, and had a positive horror of honeyed pastries. The bedding was contaminated with another man’s fantasy life.
Edgar padded gingerly around the room, as if afraid to wake someone up—like himself. More crimson velvet canopied the bed, and velvet drapes hung on rings from the frame’s upper rail. The curtains could be pulled all the way around the mattress to make a private tent. The fragrant dark cherries and rosewoods of the massive furniture were carved into busty prows of women or tumbles of ripe fruit; the bureau shimmered with mother-of-pearl inlays. A mosaic of colored glass beads framing the mirror threw highlights on Edgar’s naked figure, making his chest look more finely muscled than it was and his complexion lustier than he felt. The reflection likewise elongated his frame to tower beside the bedpost, and Edgar was only five-foot-eight. It was a mirror made for self-deceit. What it must have done for Saddler, a much larger man by all accounts, well—he must have looked leviathan.
Penetrating scents of cedar, sandalwood, and the residual haunt of a woman’s perfume intoxicated Edgar with the giddy notion of going back to bed. Rubbing his eyes, he ambled to the cavernous en suite bath to splash his face in the black alabaster sink. Drying, he plunged into a white towel plush as rabbit’s fur; the nap buried his fingers to the first knuckle. Scoping out the sunken tub—round, black marble, and wide enough for laps—he drew himself a bath.
Edgar treated himself to warm-up hot-water blasts and picked through an array of toiletries—saffron conditioner, mandarin-and-cloudberry shampoo, almond oil, truffle-and-musk mud-mask: effeminate frippery. Edgar inclined toward plain Ivory and timeless Head & Shoulders: man-stuff. Still. He tried the cloudberry shampoo.
The clothing he’d packed was clearly too summery, so Edgar was able to rationalize picking through rack upon rack of preposterous regalia in the walk-in closet: old-fashioned tails and cutaways, with magenta cummerbunds; kimonos whose dragons licked up the facing; quilted smoking jackets; flowing rayon shirts wide as kites, writhing with van Gogh sunflowers or flaming with foot-wide poinsettias; a charcoal woolen cape, lined with cream silk, fit for Bela Lugosi; some biblically voluminous caftans and togas; and a number of officers’ uniforms from foreign military outfits, whose appearance of authenticity was all the more reason not to prance around in them. None of the outlandish glad rags suited a man for writing, only for being written about. Although a smattering of standard Anglo fare—Burberrys, camelhairs, and tweeds from the finest London tailors—bespoke a journalist who occasionally did his job, the suspenders (braces, a voice whispered) marched with toy soldiers, and there wasn’t a tie to be found, just two dozen ascots.
Impetuously, Edgar slipped a dressing gown off its wooden hanger. The radiant golden robe faced with plum brocade might have costumed Apollo Creed.
Camp, sure. But somehow in their vastness all these garments stopped shy of kitsch. The lines of the finery were so drastic, their patterns so fantastic, their pretensions drafted on such a scale that they were rescued from ridiculousness by sheer audacity.
Except on Edgar. A foot too long, the nacreous dressing gown dragged like a wedding train. The shoulder pads drooped to his elbows, and the sleeves dangled inches beyond his fingertips. Even in the magic mirror, he looked like a Norman Rockwell: Junior Wears Father’s Bathrobe.
Fuck it. Edgar gathered the train and swirled out of the bedroom with a little transvestite flounce, assured that you could get away with anything so long as you did it with conviction.
Nicola was right: the house was enormous. Edgar’s disgust that the National Record would coddle any correspondent with such palatial accommodations failed to undermine exultation at his own good fortune. Aside from the one tiny round tower, the villa rose only two stories high, but spread across what must have amounted to half a New York City block. Its Moorish architecture expressed the clean, wide lines of Frank Lloyd Wright fare, without the iciness of modernity. Hanging tapestries and Oriental carpet softened the perpendiculars of mosaic tile and marble parquet. Downstairs was constructed on a variety of levels, the floors landscaped into benches cushioned with rotund pillows. The dining area’s table, like the bath, was sunken.
Though the western windows looked frosted, their panes were pitted irregularly: dulled by gale-borne sand. When the wind would poom a door against its frame, like a body slammed from the patio, it took practice not to jump.
Edgar’s favorite room at ground level was the atrium: open and Romanesque, lit by skylights slit around the ceiling, and organized around a rectangular pool whose fountain still plashed in Saddler’s absence. The atrium called out for scantily clad slave girls offering fleshy grapes, palm-leaf fans, and a flow of red wine as ceaseless as the fountain. While Edgar formed an instantaneous affection for the hall, it also made him nervous. Lassitude! Indiscipline! Sloth!
In fact, the entire villa was imbued with an indulgent sensibility to which Edgar was constitutionally hostile. The drinks cabinet clinked with a bonanza of top-shelf booze. Beckoning pillows plumping every room made Edgar’s head list and his eyelids heavy. Numerous guest bedrooms invited all-night social excess. The pantry, chock-full of absurd gift tins and jars—hazelnuts in Cointreau, glacé cherries, pickled quail eggs, smoked baby oysters—enticed three a.m. binges when no one was watching. Though the airy kitchen was fitted with every convenience, Edgar couldn’t picture Saddler chopping onions, and sure enough there was a Post-it note gummed to the Silver Palate Cookbook: “B, Could I leave this here for next time? See page 46—yum! —E.”
Since Edgar could no more envision Saddler plowing through The Peloponnesian Wars in original Greek than slicing zucchini, the upstairs study’s glassed-in leather-bound library—rows of erudite European histories and biographies in multiple languages from Flemish to Hungarian—was expensive paneling.
It was the study that showcased the got-the-T-shirt trinkets of a foreign correspondent, keepsakes that recalled the We Were There series that Edgar had devoured as a kid. In We Were There at Pearl Harbor … at Appomattox … at the Boston Tea Party, a pack of lucky brats always popped up at the right time and place. He should have told Wallasek that he quit being an attorney in order to jump between the covers of We Were There before it was too late, since no one was about to write a book about kids who serendipitously visit a corporate law firm in a season of hostile takeovers.
At any rate, Barrington Was There. The room overflowed with souvenir booty: a rifle slug, a rubber bullet, a melted metal bicycle pump, a human skull with a patch of scalp sun-dried to the bone. A U.S. Army C-ration kit gritty in the crevices may have commemorated the Gulf War or the invasion of Panama; a tin ladle cleverly fashioned from a can of potted beef, marked “Gift of Finland,” must have been saved in fond remembrance of a famine.
On the wide, curly maple desk sat a clear, catering-size mayonnaise jar, the sort coveted in primary school for terrariums. It brimmed with coins, from rands to bahts, including currencies, like the Zaire, that had become so devalued that its silver was no longer minted. Next to this cosmopolitan piggybank lay an unopened letter from Amnesty International addressed to Mohamed Siad Barre, a Spider-Man comic book in Russian, and a sheet of ghoulish “AIDS Has No Cure” postage stamps from Kenya. The left-hand desk drawer was brimming with electoral buttons: Vote for Marcos, Mengistu, Mobutu, Duvalier, Rabin … Mostly demagogues, plus Rabin had been assassinated: quite a cynical tribute to democracy. One file opened on the desk appeared to include every SOB atrocity claim and policy statement ever issued; another drawer rattled with microfloppies alluringly labeled SOB STORIES. The floppies could save Edgar some work.
A set of three-ringed notebooks lined one bookshelf, and Edgar pulled the first volume: Saddler’s clip files. Edgar scanned the initial feature, an impassioned exposé about Thai prostitution—the slave wages, diseases, indentured servitude. Touching, if overwritten. But reading is the ultimate submission. Edgar shoved the notebook back. Turning gruffly from his predecessor’s accomplishments, Edgar started as a pair of eyes met his own.
Well, well. The big, big, big man in the foreground of that black-and-white enlargement had to be none other than Himself. Saddler was seated on the downstairs ottoman, bulwarked by pillows. His barrel-chest burst with such self-satisfaction that it strained the rhinestone buttons of the tuxedo shirt. His eyes sparked with the sinister twinkle of Santa Claus paging kiddy porn. And his right arm was hooked in a virtual headlock around Nicola.
Edgar was consternated. Sure, he’d caught the wink-and-nod in Wallasek’s office, but that was before he’d met her and before he knew she was married. Edgar was mystified why such an elegant and estimable woman would muck in with a scumbag like Saddler.
Yet a second revelation rankled more considerably.
Edgar had verified in childhood what the New Testament only hints at. Yes, mobs will reprieve murderous hooligans before they acquit a babbling messianic head case; Barabbas was merely wicked, and Jesus was actually irritating. What the Bible failed to illustrate was Edgar’s personal Apocrypha: that people will exonerate sadists, braggarts, liars, and even slack-jawed morons before they’ll pardon eyesores. If you’re attractive, people need a reason to dislike you; if you’re ugly, people need a reason to like you. They don’t usually find one. In his tubby school days, Edgar had learned the hard way that every vulgar slob on the block was an aesthete.
Now along comes this absentee paragon, about whom no one from New York to Cinzeiro can stop talking for more than ten minutes even using a stopwatch, and guess what? Barrington Saddler wasn’t even handsome.
Saddler was built like a grain silo. Drawn practically into his lap, Nicola looked like a stick puppet in comparison. His eyelids were swollen, his cheeks loose; he had an infant double chin. Some great frames afforded no end of abuse, but in a few years’ time the likes of that full back-up case of Beefeaters in the pantry would begin to show. His lips had a faintly feminine fullness, and his neck was thick. His features were pinched, gathered too closely into the middle of his face, as if someone had laced a drawstring around its perimeter and pulled. Though shaggy around the ears, in front his hair was thin. This was no Romeo, but a sybaritic lout well on his way to a stout and gouty middle age. How did he do it?
Defiantly, Edgar tossed the golden robe onto an overstuffed leather armchair. He began his daily one hundred push-ups, keeping his back perfectly straight, lowering his nose fully to the floor. From overhead, Saddler seemed to find the hale-and-hearty exhibition bemusing. For no reason that Edgar could fathom, he stopped at ninety-nine.
Edgar’s topsy-turvy schedule gave the rest of the night the anarchic atmosphere of a school snow day, as the wind screamed wheeeee! like faraway kids on a sled. While the sun set through his own morning, Edgar discovered several bulbs out, maybe from having been left on when Barrington beat a hasty retreat. Vigorously finding spares and replacing the bulbs helped to offset the mesmerizing idleness that exuded from the plague of cushions. Unpacking took if anything too little time, though limping next to Saddler’s thick, satinate wardrobe Edgar’s wrinkled short-sleeves looked insipid.
Nicola’s warnings were warranted; the place was pretty disheveled. Everything was dusty, and the fridge hadn’t been cleaned for months. Inside, the smoked salmon was swimming, the caviar had hatched, and the liqueur-filled dark chocolates had turned fright-white. Numerous anonymous concoctions had grown branches of exotic molds the size of bonsais. Tautly cellophaned and lovingly garnished with desiccated sprigs, these rows of leftovers portrayed an unabating string of doting culinary benevolence.
Gagging, Edgar chucked the remnants of Saddler’s tête-à-têtes and washed the reeking bowls. As reward, he sank at the kitchen’s long middle table with a stiff shot of small-batch bourbon from his host’s ample cabinet. Where were Edgar’s adoring crumpets to scour the toilet bowls with their toothbrushes? The sensation might ebb, but for now he felt not only like a guest in what was presumably his own abode, but like the help. As if Barrington had suggested, be a good lad would you and do something about that dreadful ice box? Attaboy.
Edgar drained the shot resentfully and slammed down the glass, which rattled the lone cup of coffee and ashtray left at the far end. The black coffee had evaporated to leave a thin sediment of dried powder. The ashtray was a distinguished pewter affair, and offered up a single partially smoked cigarillo, which had burned half an inch of ash before extinguishing. Edgar reached for the butt, along with the classy brass lighter left graciously alongside. He tapped the ash, lit up, took a drag. The tobacco was stale, but underneath smoldered a more disturbing flavor—the tinge of a breath whose very foulness was arresting, like the unsettling allure of high French cheeses. The cigarillo was vile and Edgar didn’t even smoke fresh ones, yet after a second furtive drag Edgar had to force himself to stub it out.
By now it was five forty-five a.m. Disorientation set in, and loneliness. Angela would have found this place a hoot. She’d have extended naked on the cold marble parquet by the fountain, her keen ribs flickering in the flames of sconces, and Edgar might have figured out what that room and all its pillows were good for. As it was, the villa’s opulence mocked the paltriness of his imagination. Let loose in a palace, Edgar Kellogg dusted furniture and threw old salmon in the trash. This was a house you had to live not only in, but up to.
Scrounging for amusement worthy of his fanciful surroundings, Edgar returned to the study and stuck a SOB STORIES microfloppy into his laptop. Though the computer seemed to recognize the program code, the files were nonsensically titled:
2” Er;vp,r yp yjr <pmlru Jpidr
3” Nsttomhypm’d Gotdy Sytpvoyu
4” Dpm pg Nsttomhypm Od Nptm
5” Yrttptod, <sfr Rsdu
6” Nstns :ppld S;obr
When Edgar loaded in 2” Er;vp,r yp yjr <pmlru Jpidr, what came up on the screen was no more coherent:
Vpmhtsyi;syopmd@ Nu mpe upi, idy jsbr dryy;rf om’ O fp jp[r upi gomf yjr svvp,,pfsyopmd dioysn;r/ Niy im;rdd upi gp;;pe fotrvyopmd vstrgi;;u. mp mi,nrt pg syytsvyobr;u vtpvjryrf [o;;ped eo;; [tpyrvy upi gtp, yjr [ortvomh nptrfp, pg yjod fidy npe;. s diovofs;;u frno;oysyomh rmmio yjsy [rmrytsyrd upit rbrtu [ptr ;olr yjr htoy om yjsy dpffomh eomf/ Es;;sdrl vjpdr er;;/ Ypp er;;/ Jsf jr hobrm, r sy ;rsdy s g;pert djpe pt yep yp vpbrt. O, ohjym
y jsbr nrrm gptvrf yp hrmrtsyr, u pem mred/
Yjod kpitms; esd nrhim gpt, u pem rmyrtysom,rmy. niy upi eo;; gomf, ptr yjsm rmpihj omgpt,syopm eoyjom oy yp vsttu pm, u hppf eptl/ Yjrm., pdy kpitms;odyd str yo,of vtrsyitrd. ejp etoyr dyptord sd s dindyoyiyr gpt ;obomh yjr,. smf og upi str pmr pg yjsy ;py. upi, su n;pe yjr ejody;r pm pit ;oyy;r drvtry og upi ;olr/ Ury s;trsfu O djpi;f estm upi” kidy ytu/
Was Saddler out of his tree? Edgar and his brother Jeff had produced similar drivel playing with their father’s typewriter as kids, but a grown man mashing mindlessly at keys for paragraphs on end was unnervingly reminiscent of The Shining. Edgar fiddled around a little more, testing to see if the computer was malfunctioning, and his own files loaded fine. Yet each floppy in the drawer was all ypys; hpnn;rfuhppl … The words didn’t read backward, they suggested no simple pig-Latinate cognates and contained no systematically inserted syllables. Though a few shorter clumps were acronyms for real words, most of the longer ones were short of vowels.
Edgar wandered to the last part of the villa still unexplored. The entrance to the turret was on the second floor at the back, and Edgar found the little wooden door locked and thumbtacked with a printed sign that read, ABRAB WAS I ERE I SAW BARBA. I don’t know, buddy,
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