Friday, November 22, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 7

Play It Again

I hitchhiked back to D.C. It was after midnight when I left Baltimore, and before I did I verified that it was, in fact, now Wednesday. Just as I’d jumped backward six hours on Tuesday morning, I’d skipped ahead another twelve after the shooting. I had no money, and it took me a while to find someone willing to give me a lift for free. I ended up riding in the back of a produce truck, and the driver only took me as far as Eckington. I hoofed it the rest of the way downtown, and by sunrise I was strolling (and shivering) on the world-famous Mall.

I had a lot of time to think. I’d always felt that I’d wasted most of my life and that I had to do something big to make up for that. But in my lust for recognition, for that one big scoop, I’d done far worse that mess myself up, I’d ruined –in some cases ended – how many others? If not for chasing this story, my neighbor wouldn’t have burned to death. Those Secret Service men wouldn’t have been blown up. Maybe JANUS wouldn’t have fired on all those people just to get to Aranjuez.

Who could say? If I hadn’t stuck my nose in, maybe they would have carried out the hit with a minimum of fuss and only one corpse. I wasn’t sure. Though I was willing to blame myself, JANUS’s response to my investigation felt like overkill. Seriously, what was the point of all that carnage? Maybe that much chaos was what they’d intended all along. But to what end?

And why was I still thinking about it? I couldn’t write the story now. I was dead. As long as I stayed that way maybe my few remaining friends would no longer be targets. Leslie – Jesus Christ, Leslie. It wasn’t the first time I’d known someone who died; everyone came back from Korea with a list. But I’d never been that close before. Everything Tim had dreamed of, everything he’d hoped for, blown away in an instant by scumbags who didn’t care.

That’s why I was still on the case. It was as clear as the sun coming up over the Capitol. It wasn’t about the story, or recognition, or proving myself. I couldn’t let it go because someone had to pay, and as long as I was dead they’d never see me coming.

Rage felt good, but it wasn’t much to go on. I was hungry, homeless, and broke, and I couldn’t think of where to turn because of what the consequences might be. If I went back to the Street, all hell would surely descend. If I went to the FBI, they’d have me locked in a cell faster than you could say twelve hour interrogation. I had to turn somewhere no one would expect, seek help from someone that JANUS wouldn’t even notice.

A thought popped into my head like the answer on a quiz show. I pushed it aside. No way. It presented itself again, and I told it to screw off. It caught my attention again, and I told it I was not going to put that person in danger. It told me that was a fine sentiment, but pointed out that no one else on this earth gave two shits about me or would stick their neck out to help.

Roxy lived in Georgetown at a boarding house for unmarried, working women, if I remembered correctly. I slogged toward the nearest public library to look up her address, stopping on the way at a kitchen for the homeless for a breakfast of toast and powdered eggs. I hadn’t had a smoke in days, and that on top of the hunger, tiredness, and pressure in my head was about to kill me.

I found where she lived in a city directory and walked all the way on foot. Halfway there I stopped to rest on a public bench and fell asleep sitting up. It was after noon when a cop shoved me awake and told me to beat it.

I was half delirious from exhaustion when I finally found her place on 34th Street, not far from the university. Somewhere along the way I’d considered that her boarding house might have a matron who wouldn’t react well to an unannounced male caller. I couldn’t think clearly enough to come up with a decent solution. I hoped I’d be able to play it by ear and not make too much of a scene.

The house was a two-story affair divided into several apartments. The front door was white, but the building was dark green. I climbed the steps, raised my hand to knock, then changed my mind and turned the knob as quietly as I could. It wasn’t locked, and the door swung open on well-oiled hinges.

Roxy’s apartment was ‘F.’ The doors on the ground floor were labeled A through D, so I crept up the stairs – or at least that was the plan. The first step groaned like an elephant under my weight. I froze and waited for a horde of unpleasant women to storm from their rooms and toss me out. When nothing happened, I realized that the residents were probably still at work. So as not to press my luck, I climbed the stairs as quickly as I could.

There was a wooden heart hanging from a nail on Roxy’s door. I knocked, but there was no answer. Of course, she would still be at the Street. I risked a second knock, again with no response, and tried the knob. It turned, but not all the way.

If only I’d been a burglar, I could have sprung that ancient lock in no time. As it was, I’d have to find somewhere to wait. The street outside was too open. Someone in the neighborhood would be sure to get suspicious if I lurked about for too long.

But there was a door at the end of the hallway with daylight bleeding around the edges. I went to look, and it opened on a rear patio above an alley. It was surely a good place to wait for Roxy, but even better: one of Roxy’s windows faced the narrow porch. I checked if the window would open.

Lo and behold, it did.

I can’t state strongly enough that I was so tired I was out of my mind. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have crawled inside Roxy’s apartment while she was away.

The furnishings were spare. She didn’t have any of the frilly knickknacks I would have expected from a girl her age. Her kitchen was spotless and her living room looked comfy but clean. Her couch was only big enough for two if they were friendly. Her only extravagance was her television, which looked like one of the latest models.

The walls were decorated with movie posters. It was almost like a producer’s office back in L.A. I liked her taste; she seemed to have a thing for crime dramas. There was Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum, and Otto Preminger’s Laura. The Maltese Falcon, of course, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. I sat on her sofa and enjoyed the moment’s quiet. This was so much better than the dump I’d lived in, even before it burned down.

I woke to the sound of a gun being cocked. My eyes blinked open, but I didn’t move except to sit up.

Roxy stood in the door. She’d dropped her bag and held a revolver two-handed to steady it. She was shaking, and looked about to cry.

“Allan?”

“Hey, sweetie,” I said. “It’s me.”

She stepped forward and pointed the gun between my eyes.

“Bullshit. Allan’s dead. Who the hell are you?”

I raised my palms and spoke as slowly as I could. I’d suspected this might be a problem. There’s no telling what she’d heard.

“I’m not dead. It’s really me. I promise. No ghost.”

“Don’t fuck with me.” Her voice shook with fury. “Allan Jones is dead. I saw the body. Who are you?”

That took me back. “What do you mean you saw a body? You weren’t… You didn’t drive to Baltimore, did you?”

“Of course I did,” she said. “I dragged Farnsworth off his ass and made him come too. Allan was in trouble.”

“I told you to call Farnsworth, then call the FBI. I didn’t say anything about coming to get me. I told you the NSA was taking me in.”

The gun lowered an inch. “Allan? But that’s not possible.”

“Tell me what you saw.”

“We got there and the police had the whole airport blocked off. We saw them putting bodies in ambulances. George identified Tim, and then you… I can’t believe it.”

“I don’t either. I can tell you what happened, but I can’t explain it. It’s got to be some kind of miracle.”

“Oh, Allan.” She lowered the gun and rushed to hug me. She didn’t put down the gun or ease the cocked hammer, so I gently pushed the weapon away while holding her with my other arm.

“Too bad a miracle couldn’t save Tim or Aranjuez.”

“But don’t you know?” she said. “Aranjuez is alive.”

***

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***

Roxy boiled spaghetti and I made the meat sauce. It turned out she wasn’t much of a cook, but what the hell. At least she had the basics in her fridge and a few decent spices on her spice rack, even if it looked like she’d never used them. That’s the great thing about living on the edge of the South: people are aware that there are more things to put on food than salt and pepper.

Over dinner, I told her the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Bless her, she never once looked like she doubted me. Then again, after seeing a dead man come back to life in her living room, her disbelief was probably suspended indefinitely.

I started with the car chase. Her eyebrows lifted when I brought up the invisible man. She smiled when I first called him ‘The Whisper,’ but it was the smile of a fan of Detective Story Hour hearing that their fantasies had come to life. She grew more serious as I detailed my encounters with Bordani’s thugs and the FBI, and she barely even blinked when I laid out what went down (the first time) at the airport.

I described how the Whisper killed me. She went white.

“No. You’ve got it wrong. That can’t be. It doesn’t make sense.”

“I’m not trying to make sense. I’m just saying what happened.”

“But it can’t be the same person. It had to be someone else.”

I’d thought of that, actually. “The Whisper told me he was the only one with an invisibility device. The other JANUS hit men could only walk through walls.”

“But if he stole that device, they could have built another one.” She sounded eager to exonerate the bastard. I guess I’d built him up too much as a superhero.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. But this person was familiar. How he stood, how he acted. This person knew me, came gunning for me personally. No, I think the Whisper didn’t need me any more for his schemes. Maybe he didn’t want me working with the Feds since he’s so close to JANUS himself. I was just another loose end to tie up.”

Roxy opened her mouth to speak, but held back whatever she meant to say. She slid down in her chair and I went on about how I woke up at sunrise on the same day. As I brought the story to my second arrival at the hangar, she grew a crease on her forehead like someone working out a complicated train schedule. When I got to the part about time slowing down and speeding back up, she looked like a professor – or maybe a psychiatrist – in deep thought.

“What do you think happened?” she finally said.

“Haven’t the foggiest. Not unless the Whisper shot me with a magic bullet that knocked me backwards in time, but then why’d I leave a corpse? You said you saw my body.”

She nodded.

“I’m sure the Whisper is close to JANUS. Someone on the inside. At first I thought he was an outcast or a renegade, trying to get back at his old partners in crime, but what if that’s not it? What if he’s still on the inside, but is working against some other faction?”

“But why?” Roxy asked. “And what does it have to do with some pea-sized Caribbean banking country?”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to get on the inside myself to find out.”

“Get on the inside? You’re not still going after this.”

“You bet I am. This is all I have left.”

“You can start over. Get a new name, find a normal life somewhere.”

“What, after everything I’ve already seen? I wouldn’t be able to sleep. No, I need answers, and I’ve already died once for them. The universe owes me.”

“If you can live twice, you can die twice.” Roxy rubbed her eyes. “Mother Mary, I sound like a bad movie. I need sleep. You need it more than me.”

“I’ll take the couch.”

“Damn right you will. The bedroom is off limits. I’ll bring you a toothbrush.”

***

She woke me on her way out the next morning and told me not to leave the apartment. Also, not to answer the door. There was jelly and bread for toast, and I could help myself to some milk. No coffee, sorry. She instructed me not to turn on the T.V. until after everyone else had left the building, usually around 9:00, and to keep it turned down.

Yes, mom.

It was about 9:00 when I started going stir crazy. Television wasn’t going to cut it, and hard as it was to believe, Roxy’s apartment didn’t have anything to read. What I really wanted was a newspaper, but by ten in the morning I would have settled for anything from a journal on mathematics to a Victorian bodice ripper.

Well, damn the torpedoes. I had to get outside. I didn’t have a key, so I left Roxy’s door unlocked and hurried down the steps as fast as I could. I’d borrowed a nickel from a dish on her kitchen counter. I’d find a paper as quickly as possible, then head back and barricade the door. There was a sandwich place just down the street that hadn’t opened for lunch, but the bus boy let me inside to grab a Post from the stack by the door. Sanity saved, I made it back to Roxy’s without being accosted by the FBI, NSA, CIA, IRS, or the Mafia.

I latched the deadbolt and slipped off my shoes. I could imagine the screaming fit Roxy would beat me with if she found out what I’d done, but what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me.

Christ, you’re a cocky son of a bitch.”

“Jesus!” I shouted. The vague outline of the Whisper reclined on Roxy’s couch, his legs crossed and his arms spread out along the back.

Keep it down, asshole. This house is supposed to be for women only.

“Keep away from me, you bastard,” I said. “What, are you here to shoot me again?”

No. Once was enough.”

“So you admit it?”

No time to lie. In fact, time’s running out on your next move.”

“So I’m just a pawn to you. I thought as much.”

You’re more like a golf ball. Every time you land somewhere, I’ve got to whack you in the right direction.”

“Look, why don’t we cut the shit and you just tell me what you want.”

Because that’s not how it happens. I’ve got to be very careful here. And you need to piece together your story as much as possible on your own. I can only help a little.”

“Yeah? And who makes all these rules. JANUS? Is that who I’m working for?”

The Whisper laughed. There was a bitter edge to his voice I hadn’t noticed before. “You’ll figure it out. Me, I’m trying to pull a ‘Bill and Ted’ here. If we’re lucky… extremely lucky… it’ll settle things for the both of us.

“Bastard, I’m not settling anything for your sake.”

Whatever you say, Chief. Enjoy your paper.”

What little there was of the Whisper faded from sight completely. For all I knew he was still hanging around, but it was only when he disappeared that I noticed the two reels he’d left on the coffee table. One was a seven inch just like Hugo sent me. The other was smaller, the size of the one I’d made for the FBI. Unlike the one that Tyler had kept, this one had dried, brown flecks on the wheel.

“Enjoy your paper,” he’d said. I flipped the front page over. There was a headline about Abbott suing Costello, of all things. Just below that was a column lead by the line “New Details in Airport Massacre.”

I read the first paragraph and said “What?” I kept reading further and said “What?!”

***

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***

When Roxy came home that evening, I took it from the top.

“The Whisper was here.”

She dropped her bag of groceries. “Who what?”

“The Whisper. Was here. On this couch.”

“But… when?”

“About ten, ten thirty. He slipped in when I went out for a paper.”

“Excuse me?”

“Roxy.” All the mothering was cute, but we needed to stay focused. “He already knew where to find me, so it’s not like I led him here. Anyway, the good news is he didn’t kill me. The bad news, if you want to call it that, is that he’s not even pretending any more that I’m anything but a Judas goat.”

Roxy looked shaken. She picked up her groceries, set them on the counter, and sat down at her little dining table. I took the seat across from her. For an independent woman trying to make it on her own, one strange man breaking into her apartment was probably enough. Two was definitely over the line.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing much. Just something about time running out, whatever that means. He left a present, though.” I showed her the two tape reels.

“Not much good those’ll do us here,” she said.

“Could we sneak back into the Street and use the player there? I’m sure there’s nothing on these I haven’t heard already, but Mystery Man is obviously waiting for me to figure something out.”

“The Street’s too dangerous.” Roxy sounded exhausted. Once again I felt guilty for pulling her into the center of things. “I might know someone at Georgetown U. who can set us up. Jill across the hall is studying in the Journalism department.”

“Speaking of journalism, by the way,” I said, “why didn’t you tell me what they were saying about the airport shooting?”

“Oh, God.” She pulled a piece of bubblegum out of her purse and popped it in her mouth. “Because I didn’t want you to go charging off on a big white horse to right all the wrongs of the modern world.”

“It says here…” I flipped the day’s paper open with a dramatic crinkle. “…that the attack was the work of Communist agents in league with rebel insurgents from San Magin. It says that these Communists, and I quote, ‘have been traced back to known Red sympathizers in the Hollywood movie industry.’ It also says that one of their conspirators may have even been working for a local Washington news magazine, having previously been employed for a tabloid known for stockpiling compromising information on influential citizens.”

I slapped the paper down. “So now I’m a Communist and a blackmailer? What does it say in my obituary, that I’m Adolf Hitler’s nephew?”

“That was just some freelance hack who got a story in the A.P. for being in the right place and not getting shot in the head.” She said it as if it was a skill I had yet to master. “I think he got the bits about you from those airport cops who arrested you.”

“Fantastic.”

“Hey, at least they didn’t mention you by name.”  She gave me a smirk, then blew a round, pink bubble that smelled like licorice.

***

Jill From Across The Hall was tall, about twenty-one, with long, curly hair a dark shade of red that probably came out of a bottle. Roxy introduced me as her brother from Cleveland, but I know Jill didn’t believe it, not from the conspiratorial smile she aimed at Roxy every time she thought I wasn’t looking. She brought us to the journalism school at Georgetown, specifically to the equipment room. When Roxy told her we needed recording equipment, she’d blushed and puckered her lips. I don’t know what sort of late night antics she thought we were up to, but at one time I’d have been keen to find out.

Not tonight, though. I had a crazy theory, but it had to wait until Jill left us alone. She gave me a leer on her way out that, had she been a guy and I’d been a woman, would have encouraged me to buy a gun.

“Okay,” I said, “hear me out. What if this whole thing is some kind of ‘false flag’ operation?”

“A what?”

“It’s like this. Suppose I want to attack China, but I don’t want China to know it’s me. So I sneak into North Korea and launch a missile from there. World War III starts in the Far East, and my hands are as clean as a whistle.”

Roxy popped her gum. “You want to blow up China.” She had one tape player set up on a workbench and was now threading ribbon through a second.

“Who doesn’t? But that’s not my point. This whole ‘commie infiltrator’ thing looks pretty obvious that JANUS is pointing the finger somewhere else. You do that if you assassinate someone. But the point is, they didn’t kill him.”

“So?” She stopped what she was doing.

“So there’s no way Aranjuez should be alive if JANUS wanted him dead. Not without the hardware they were using, and not if he didn’t have an invisible mystery man to jump out and save his ass. No, there’s no way he’s alive except that JANUS wants him alive.”

“Then,” she said, “this whole assassination plot was just to make him think that Communists were out to get him?”

“Exactly. He’s a brand new president of a brand new country. Prime pickings for Marxists. If he wasn’t paranoid already, he sure as hell is now. Then here come a bunch of wealthy bankers and businessmen. Hell, throw in a congressman or two for icing. They say, ‘We’ll save you from those Reds. All you have to do is scratch our back and we’ll scratch yours.’”

Roxy nodded. “Instead of killing a head of state and replacing him with someone whose legitimacy will be questioned…”

“You make the guy who’s already in office believe he owes you his life. God bless America.”

“So what’s on the tapes?”

“That one…” I pointed at the seven inch reel. “… is the one Hugo sent me, or I’ll eat my hat. The smaller one is the tape from the wire I was wearing at the airport. The Whisper must have swiped them both from the FBI.”

“I thought the second tape was with the NSA.”

“That was from Knocked Back In Time Me. From the stains on the reel on this one, I presume this copy was found on my corpse. The recorder must have leaked a little.”

“Lovely thought.” Roxy spat out her gum into a wrapper and tossed it at a garbage can. “But that means this reel is in two places at the same time.”

“So am I. Makes the brain hurt, doesn’t it?”

“Okay,” she said. “Which do we listen to first?”

We started with Hugo’s tape. It wasn’t any different from the first time around. Two men caught in the middle of a conversation talking about murder as if they were discussing a football game. I hadn’t heard it since the first night of this mess. Hugo’s appeal hit me as hard this time, but in a different way. The first time, all this was to me was a scoop. This time, it sounded like a call to arms, to find meaning in life so that your death didn’t count for nothing.

The second tape was just gruesome. How many times should someone have to listen to their own death? I closed my eyes and resisted the urge to plug my ears when those final shots brought an end to my previous existence.

But this time the tape kept going.

More shots popped in the distance, then came the sound of police sirens. An explosion, then a voice on a bullhorn. Something that sounded like a shotgun, then silence.

A voice spoke with an unusual accent.

“Are any of you gentlemen hurt?”

“Only my pride. I never cowered under a plane like this in the War.”

The second speaker’s drawl belonged to Crawthorn. He never passed up a chance to mention his service in World War II. The next voice was older, and had to be Congressman Abberline.

“The indignity of this is insufferable. Heads are going to roll at the Secret Service, I can tell you that.”

“Slow down there, Ace. Some of these Secret Service boys have laid down their lives. It’s not good P.R. to smear someone who took a bullet for you.”

“Mr. Marlston, that’s hardly an appropriate way to address—”

“Stop,” I said. “Play it again.”

Roxy rewound a few inches and started it going.

“Slow down there, Ace. Some of these Secret Service boys—”

“Stop,” I said again. “Go back to the other one.”

On Hugo’s tape, it took us a moment to find the spot I wanted. Bordani spoke first:

“So when do we whack him?”

“Slow down there, Ace. You may be in JANUS’s good graces, but you’re not all the way in.”

“Son of a bitch,” I said. “Did you hear that?”

Roxy nodded. The words were the same. The voice was the same.

“Have you heard where they’re keeping Aranjuez?” I asked.

“Canton Marlston has him locked away at his mansion up near Rock Creek. They put off his reception until tomorrow night.”

Canton Marlston. The same on both tapes. The goddamn ringleader, he had to be. Canton Marlston was JANUS, and he damn sure thought he was untouchable.

Time to prove the bastard wrong.

To Be Continued

***

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 ***

The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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