Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 8

Question and Answer

That night I became the first guy from The Washington Street to take Roxy Brandt on a date. Given everything I had to go through to get there, I doubt anyone else would have begrudged me the honors.

We had to dress up so as not to draw attention, so we took a cab downtown where the department stores were still open. There was no time to get a suit tailored, but anything off the rack was better than what I had. A tux would have been nice, but all I really needed was a black suit and tie, a black hat, and shoes. Roxy sprung for it; I was going to owe her big time.

“What’s this place called again?” she asked from the store’s changing room.

Di Godere,” I said while adjusting my tie in a mirror next to the women’s blouses. “It was one of Leslie’s hang outs. The proprietor set me on the trail to Bordani.”

“What do you think?”

Framed in the dressing room door, the backlight gave her a warm, golden halo. She posed like a model, with one arm stretched above her. Her red chiffon cocktail dress had a halter top sprinkled with rhinestones, and her shoes looked like something Dorothy would wear to dance out of Oz. Long, red gloves came up past her elbows, a tiara held back her hair, and her necklace and earrings, though simple, displayed deep red rubies. Her cheeks were a natural blush, but her eyes were dark enough to pull you in forever. Her lips were as red as the devil himself.

She smiled. “I’ll take your silence as approval.”

I sighed and remembered that our plans for the evening didn’t include enjoying ourselves. “You know that comment you made that I should drop everything and start a normal life somewhere? I’ll do it right now if you swear to come with me.”

“Ease up, tiger,” she said with a smile. “We’ve got to conquer the world first.”

“I’m serious,” I said. “Well, mostly. You’ve helped me out so much. I don’t want you in harm’s way.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” she said. “I’ve been in harm’s way since you broke in here. Hell, I’ve been in harm’s way since since I took that first message from your friend in L.A.” She walked towards me. In heels she was almost as tall as I was. “I’ve lost people too, you know. Tim was a good friend. He deserved better.”

“Well, that’s the card we’re playing tonight.” I wanted to kiss her, but it would mess up her makeup. “Call a cab?”

“I’ve got to do everything, don’t I?” The teasing grin never left her face. “Do guys even know how to work a phone?”

I should have felt on top of the world, waiting at the curb with a lady as glittering as Roxy was. Instead I felt like a kid with his date for the prom. The cab picked us up and I gave him directions as best as I could remember. When I mentioned Di Godere, he smiled and told me not to worry.

It was only when we pulled into the driveway that I remembered the doorman’s name.

“Sam,” I said, “good to see you again.”

He froze for a moment before responding. “It’s a surprise to see you, Mr. Jones. Are you expected?”

“Actually, I hope not.”

Sam helped Roxy out of the cab. “Good evening, miss, and welcome to Di Godere.”

“Good evening to you,” she said. “I’ve heard such wonderful things.”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself, miss. Mr. Jones, should I notify Mr. DiFranco of your visit?”

“Please.” Sam wasn’t stupid; he would have reported me anyway. I was glad he was being polite about it.

The mood inside was more subdued than the first time I’d come. The band played something slower, sadder, not anything you could dance to. The place was no less crowded for being Thursday night, but conversations were muted and contained to small tables and a crowd at the bar. Roxy and I took a table next to the empty dance floor. A waiter presented us with two martinis and the words “compliments of the house.”

“So, Mr. Jones,” said Roxy after a tentative sip. “What do you do for a living?” The quiver in her voice matched how I felt.

“Oh, not much. This and that.” I slid my drink’s olive off its spear with my teeth. “I’d kind of like to be a writer someday.”

“Really? What kind of writer?”

A hand tapped gently on my shoulder.

“My apologies, sir,” said its owner. “Mr. DiFranco would like a word. The lady is welcome to entertain herself as she wishes.”

I nodded. The stage was set. Time for my entrance.

Uncle Pepe welcomed me to the kitchen with a hug.

“Jones, my friend,” he said, “so good to see that not everything in the paper is true.”

“What was it Mark Twain said? By the way, in addition to not being dead, I’m also not a commie spy.”

“I never doubted,” said Pepe. “I don’t suppose my Timmy will also make a miraculous recovery.”

“Unfortunately, no. That’s why I’m here.”

“Ah. Are we going to be doing each other favors again? As friends?”

“As friends. I’ve got an angle to get back at the bastards behind all this, but I need help. For Tim’s sake.”

“Say no more. You were his friend as well, so I believe we are in agreement. Tell me what you propose.”

Before I could, a thin man in pinstripes let himself into the kitchen and DiFranco held up a hand for me to wait. The pinstripe man whispered in DiFranco’s ear, and the owner of Di Godere scowled.

“Excuse my rudeness, Mr. Jones, but our talk will have to wait a moment. Perhaps you will follow while I tend to some business? This is not unrelated to our conversation, I think.”

Intrigued, but a little scared, I walked behind Pepe and his associate through the back of the kitchen, across a slightly damp lawn, towards a free-standing guest house shrouded by tall bushes. The blinds were shuttered, but a light was on inside. Before we entered, DiFranco put a hand on my chest.

“Everything you see here is in the strictest confidence. Do you understand?”

I nodded, gulped, and went in.

The sitting room was modestly furnished, too modest for any guests DiFranco might genuinely want to entertain. A plain, round table, nondescript chairs, and the well-used sofa did seem to suit the rough gentlemen who all stood to attention when Mr. DiFranco entered. There was a single door to what I guessed was a bedroom on the far side. DiFranco gave the slightest of waves to acknowledge his men and crossed to the other side. I and the thin man kept with him.

In the next room sat a man in a chair. The rest of the furniture, a collection of antique chairs, a dresser, and an old bedframe, had been shifted carelessly against one wall. The man himself had been stripped down to nothing but boxers and a sleeveless undershirt. His head slumped, and there were bruises on his face and arms. One foot had swollen to the size of a football.

“Mr. Jones,” said DiFranco, “permit me to introduce Mr. Bordani. Unlike most whom I welcome into my home, Mr. Bordani is not my friend.”

So here he was. During this whole affair, the man had been nothing but a voice and a name. For all practical purposes he may as well have been a fiction, a boogey man hiding in my closet, an unseen monster under my bed. In the flesh he was somewhat pathetic. But then, who wouldn’t be after this kind of work-over?

“It will not surprise you,” said DiFranco, “that my associate has been asking Mr. Bordani questions. Thanks to you, I know he was involved in the so-called ‘airport massacre,’ and that he is in the employ of some other person. However, he has been surprisingly reluctant to cooperate, even when the consequences of not doing so have been… ah… demonstrated.”

“Ask him about Canton Marlston,” I said. Bordani jerked when I mentioned the name.

“Marlston?” said DiFranco. “I know this man. He’s a member of my club. Are you saying he’s behind all this?”

I nodded. “He’s Bordani’s contact in a group called JANUS. He may be their leader, I don’t know. But he’s definitely in the middle of this whole airport shooting.”

“Is this what you came here to discuss with me?”

I nodded. DiFranco looked at the pinstripe man and made a sign of closing his fist. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but the skinny man nodded. DiFranco took me back to the living room and closed the door. To the other men he said, “Give us two beers and a moment alone.”

I sat at the table while DiFranco opened the bottles. No noise came from the other room, and I tried not to imagine what might be happening in there. I was unsuccessful.

“You know I like to be square with my friends,” said DiFranco. “How might I repay this gift of information?”

“I want to break into Marlston’s mansion. There’s a reception there tomorrow night, before Aranjuez goes back to San Magin. I want to warn him he’s being played, and I want evidence against Marlston. I want to ruin the bastard.”

“Why not just kill him?”

It made me dizzy that he would ask that so up front.

“Killing him won’t expose the conspiracy. In fact, it would bury it deeper.”

DiFranco nodded sagely. “And you believe I can make all this happen?”

I shrugged. “Can I ask a question?”

“By all means.”

“Why do you care about any of this?”

“For Tim. His death must not go unanswered.”

“What was he to you?”

“The son of a man to whom I owe a debt.” The look he gave me closed my line of questioning.

“I just need to get in the mansion,” I said.

A warm smile brightened DiFranco’s face. “This much I believe I can arrange.”

***

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It was the oldest trick in the book. In addition to Bordani’s sideline as a leader of thugs, he was first and foremost a caterer. Canton Marlston’s caterer, as a matter of fact, though he hadn’t been actively involved in that aspect of his business while pursuing his criminal ambitions. Therefore, when DiFranco quietly removed Bordani from the game board, he quietly assumed control – not of Bordani’s security firm, but of his hospitality business.

Long story short, it was no problem for DiFranco to insert me into the catering staff hosting Marlston’s reception. Short story complicated, Roxy insisted on coming with me.

It was five in the afternoon of the following day. The party wouldn’t start for another two hours, but clean linens, bottles of alcohol, and fresh ingredients for the hors d’oeuvres arrived by the minute. Roxy and I rode to the house and unloaded a long crate of individually packaged champagne flutes from the back of a white van. We’d arrived with the liquor but wouldn’t be leaving.

“I’m starting to wonder if this was a good idea,” I said.

“Shut up,” said Roxy. “Stay in character.”

Like all the wait staff, I wore a white jacket, black slacks, and black tie. Roxy wore a sleeveless black blouse with a white skirt and white pillbox hat. The pearls on her wrists and necklace were fake, but added to the overall effect of elegant subservience. There was nothing to disguise either of our faces. I’d wanted to wear glasses, but Roxy thought they looked silly.

We carried the champagne flutes to the kitchen, and that’s where the plan started getting fuzzy. At some point, we were going to cross a line beyond which was nothing but the word “improvise.” But first, our job was reconnaissance.  There were parts of Marlston’s mansion that our uniforms gave us access to, and areas we would draw attention to ourselves. We would explore the safer areas, then when the moment presented itself we would branch out further. My main goal was to locate Aranjuez, but I wouldn’t mind finding out where Marlston hid his secrets.

The estate was enormous. The grounds encompassed at least four acres, with several outbuildings, a rose garden, a kennel, and a hedge maze. The main house had three wings, the eastern dedicated to servants, kitchens, cleaning, and maintenance. The central wing was given over to entertaining visitors up to, and including, royalty. Its Grand Ballroom was bracketed on one end by a honeycomb of studies, libraries, and sitting rooms, and on the other by an indoor pool. The west wing had to be where Marlston actually lived and where he kept his guests close and under his thumb.

This much, at least, we deduced from the building plans in the probate records that Roxy was able to pull that morning. The house had been built in the 1920s by a man who made his fortune in speculation and lost it in the crash. It then sat in receivership for years until Marlston bought it in 1945. Of where Marlston came from, or where he got his money, there wasn’t a mention. Having met the man, I’d assumed all his wealth was inherited. Now I suspected that the truth was less savory.

Roxy and I kept in the flow of traffic all the way to the ballroom. The chandeliers had been lit, but gold evening sunlight still poured through the upper windows  and chased odd shadows in every direction. A row of buffet tables were laid along the north end of the room with dining tables encircling the rest of the chamber. Roxy and I grabbed loose tablecloths and took them to a far corner, spread them on two randomly chosen tables, and slipped out of the room when no one was looking.

We found ourselves in the hall from the ballroom to the main foyer. The corridor was lined with tasteful paintings and narrow lamp tables wide. The doors (on the floorplan, at least) led to sitting rooms and smoking rooms, while immediately to our right was a staircase up to the studies and down to a winecellar. I suddenly felt too exposed in this main corridor, so I signaled to Roxy that I was going upstairs.

The carpet runner kept our footfalls silent. On the second floor the landing opened on a much more subdued hallway. Portraits of famous authors broke up the wallpaper, and dim light fixtures made it feel much later in the evening than it was. I had a fantasy of opening one of the doors to find Diego Aranjuez reclining in a lounge chair and reading the latest Washington Street. I’d introduce myself, explain what I’d been through, and warn him that he was being used. He’d be outraged but grateful, and we’d both take a cab to the State Department where he would declare to anyone who’d listen what a total fucking scumbag Canton Marlston was.

Calm down, Allan. Nothing’s that easy.

I opened the first door on the right. As I’d guessed from the blueprints, the room was a library. Built-in shelves lined all four of the walls. Two wide windows let in the last of the evening’s light, and an open arch gave a glimpse of the next room beyond. Many of the books had leather bindings, and all of them looked old and solid with the weight of important words. No pulp thrillers on these shelves, I suspected. There were two long study tables on either side of a display case with several volumes protected under glass. I went for a closer look.

“What do you think?” I asked Roxy. “First editions?”

There was The Histories of Herodotus translated by A. D. Godley. Next was The Outline of History by H. G. Wells. There was The Prince by Machiavellli and The Art of War by Sun Tsu. There were others as well that all displayed certain interests of the collector: that of history and manipulation. There was a small metal plate at the center of the display with a tiny, cursive inscription. I had to lean close to read it.

Presented With Gratitude to the Families of
Jungen, Arnholt, Nilsson, Ulrich, and Smythe

Oh my holy God. I had suspected, though I wasn’t sure of what I would find. But here was proof. I had no idea who these people were or what they were after, aside from wealth and power, but without a doubt I was in the house of JANUS.

“Shit,” Roxy whispered. I turned in time to see her slip out through the door we’d come in. I looked the other way, and Lane Young entered from the next room.

Lane Young. I hadn’t thought about her. I’d avoided it, in fact. Once I knew that Marlston was part of JANUS, I should have wondered how deep Lane was in. She had to know something, a great investigative reporter like her. That she was close to Marlston was unmistakable, but was she a conspirator too, or just caught up in events? I didn’t for a moment consider that someone who’d reported with so much passion on the sufferings of American soldiers in war would be party to acts of inhumanity and slaughter, but still I was on very shaky ground.

I pulled a napkin out of my pocket and pretended to dust the glass case.

“Excuse me,” she said. “What are you doing in here? The catering service is restricted to the kitchen and ballroom.”

“Um.” Dammit, why didn’t I have a lie ready in case I was caught? I couldn’t not look up at her, and when I did she went pale.

“God,” she said. “Jones.”

She ran. I ran after her, tangling for a moment on a table leg, then grabbing her arm when she reached the study next door. I tried to shush her, but before I could she screamed, “Help! He’s here!”

Damn it. I reached back and punched her in the jaw just below her ear. Her head smacked the wall and she crumpled to the floor with a bang.

***

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First, I checked to make sure she wasn’t dead. Having to knock out my one of my personal heroes was bad enough. Either way, so much for sharing that byline. I was about to creep through the study and into the hall, but the thunder of footsteps back towards the library spurred me on. The study was an obstacle course of antique sofas and cabinets, but I weaved around them and dove through the exit to the main hall just as whomever answered Lane’s call for help threw open the library door.

Of course, there were even more guys in the hall. Five to be exact, running out of a room on the other side. Two on the far end had Roxy in their clutches, arms pinned and one meaty hand over her mouth. She twisted but couldn’t get away. The other three pulled guns out faster than I could blink.

“Wait!” Canton Marlston stepped into the hall behind his men. His tux was so black I could practically see my reflection. His voice stopped his men from shooting, but they kept their guns trained on my face. This was the part, I expected, where they’d drag me off to someplace like DiFranco’s guest house and give me the same treatment he gave Bordani. I expected wrong.

“Bastard’s mine,” was all Marlston said. He pulled out a gun of his own with a long, black silencer.

“Wait!” I said, and he shot me.

But that’s not what happened at all.

Rewind sixty seconds. I checked to make sure that Lane wasn’t dead, then heard footsteps running toward the library. I lunged for the other door out of the room, but before I got there someone grabbed my ankle and yanked me through the floor.

My breath blew out into vacuum, and I clamped my mouth shut to keep more from escaping. I fell through the room below, where I caught a glimpse of artful flower arrangements and a fishbowl. Then I was through the floor again into darkness. My rescuer let go of my ankles, and this time I went limp before hitting the ground. Some kind of short, metal pipe fell into my hand a moment later.

Pick it up. It’s a flashlight.”

I fumbled in the dark for the button and turned it on. I was in the wine cellar, and the flashlight beam shone through a ghost in a white suit.

“Bastard,” I said.

You’re welcome. This was a stupid plan, you know. What exactly did you hope to find?

“Answers.” I tried to slow my breathing, but it was difficult. Getting shot wasn’t getting any easier, even if, like before, it was only a memory.

People like JANUS don’t leave written notes lying around for reporters to find.”

“JANUS,” I said. “You mean the five families? Which one are you from?”

The Whisper waited before finally answering. “Jungen. I was born into Jungen. Marlston’s name is actually Arnholt. That’s pretty good, but it won’t take you any further.”

“I’d love to stay and chat,” I said, “but they’ve got Roxy. And what the hell happened up there, anyway?”

I saved your ass.”

“Before that. When Marlston shot me and everything rewrote itself.”

You remember that?” I’d never heard the Whisper so surprised before. “How can you remember that?

“Kind of hard to forget.” I walked straight through him toward the stairs. I wished the flashlight was heavier. It would have made a good club.

Wait.” The Whisper became solid enough to tug on my sleeve, then held out a belt with two knobs and a button. “Take this.” After I did, he passed me a breather. Unlike the filter I’d used days ago, this one had a strap to keep it attached to my face.

“Why?”

They won’t do anything to Roxy here. They’ll take her to the west wing before they work her over.”

“You got a gun for me too?”

Not this time. The first knob dials you immaterial. The second controls your frame of reference. Set in the middle, it keeps you from falling through the floor. All the way left and gravity takes over. All the way right and you’ll match the velocity of the nearest large object. Got it?

“Yeah. No. What?”

You won’t be invisible, but you can get her out with this.”

“And where are you going to be?”

Breaking a time machine.”

“What?” Forgive me, Roxy, but I couldn’t let that go. “They’ve got a time machine?” All of a sudden, things began to make sense. “All these gadgets, they come from the future, don’t they? And that’s how I got zapped back six hours at the airport. You shot me with some kind of time machine gun.”

Oh, for the love of God,” said the Whisper. “I did not shoot you with a time machine gun. There’s no such thing as a time machine gun. I don’t know what happened at the airport, sugar, but one thing I can promise is that I wasn’t there.”

“Bullshit.”

Truth. I don’t know who you saw, but it wasn’t me. You haven’t seen me since I tried to spring you from the FBI.”

“Then who was at Roxy’s? Who brought me those tapes?”

I don’t know. Honest, Allan, I’ve got no idea. Now move it. You’re wasting time.”

“You’re lying,” I said. “Is this all part of that ‘Bill and Ted’ thing you mentioned?”

Again, the Whisper paused. “What did you say?

“In the apartment, you said you were trying to ‘pull a Bill and Ted.’ What the hell was that about?”

I could see from the outline of his hat that the Whisper was shaking his head. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would I… Why would anyone say that?

“Beats me. Who are Bill and Ted anyway? More JANUS scumbags?”

The Whisper laughed. “If only. It’s from a stupid movie about two kids who use a time machine for a history project. But it doesn’t make any sense. Why would someone say that?

“I don’t know, you tell me.”

There’s no time. You need to save Roxy right now.”

Damn it. He was right. “Give me a gun.”

No. Get out.” The Whisper turned a dial and disappeared.

I put on my breather and hurriedly examined the belt he’d given me. It was too wide for my waist, so I slipped it over my head to wear it as the Whisper did, like a bandolier. The knobs weren’t labeled, and neither was the big, black button that the Whisper hadn’t explained. I started with the one to make myself immaterial and turned it halfway. My hand was able to pass through a wine rack, but it met with resistance like passing through water. I turned the dial all the way and tried to climb the stairs out, but my foot passed right through them. I turned the knob back one notch, and it gave me enough solidity to climb without sinking too quickly.

Time was out. I ran as fast as I could.

I surprised one of Marlston’s goons when I popped to the first floor. He fumbled his gun out and shot me, but the bullets passed right through and put a hole through a window. I laughed and ran through the window myself, barely feeling a twinge as I melted through the wall.

In between this wing and the next was a narrow courtyard filled with exotic pants and iron benches. It was dark but for light from windows on either side, so I don’t even know what I ran through crossing over.

Two maids were mopping the floor in a small dining room. I burst in on them so silently that one didn’t notice until the other screamed. I put a finger to my lips (well, my breather), but I they didn’t even see as they ran for the door.

Fantastic. As they would have said in Korea, I’d given away my position to the enemy. But where was Roxy? Where would they take her?

Where do thugs always go to beat someone up in private?

If the other wing had a basement, this one probably did too. I prayed that it was directly below me and turned the “frame of reference” dial. Gravity took over, as the Whisper said it would, and I fell feet-first to the unknown. For a heart-stopping moment, I imagined there was nothing under me but the earth itself, dragging me down to the center. When an open space appeared, I turned the dial back and stumbled when my feet hit the ground.

I landed in the middle of a table. Only the soles of my shoes were solid. Roxy sat in one of the chairs, and so far she looked unharmed, but her eyes bulged when she saw me. We were surrounded on all sides by well-dressed thugs and the king of them all, Canton Marlston.

“My, oh my,” he said. “Our mystery man makes his entrance. What was it you told the FBI, Jones? The Whisper? Clever to pretend you were two different men.”

I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I could barely understand my own voice through the breather.

“Oh, please. You’re a caveman playing with toys you can’t understand, but we both know where they come from, and we know them better than you. Right now the men around you are syncing with your phase so their bullets will tear you to pieces. Step out of the table slowly and dial back to normal, and maybe, maybe, I’ll think about letting you live.”

First, there was no way in hell that was going to happen, not after how casually he’d snuffed me in that ‘rewritten’ moment. Second, if this yahoo really thought I was the Whisper, then the Whisper himself was currently free to get up to all the mischief he wanted. Was this what I was? A distraction? The men around me donned breathers like mine and turned dials on their belts to join me as phantoms.

I felt a hot spasm where my waist intersected the table. I put my hand down and felt the wood. Was I turning solid? No, I realized, the table was ghosting out with me. Was this what happened if you stood inside an object too long? To hell with the real Whisper for not giving me an instruction manual. How was I supposed to handle an emergency?

“Allan,” said Roxy, water in her eyes, “I’m sorry. This is my fault.”

No it isn’t, babe,” I whispered. It was mine. The table slowly knifed into my gut. In a moment it would snap me in half, thugs or no thugs. What was I supposed to do, how does someone escape when a piece of equipment has you trapped? Was there some kind of emergency release?

Like a big, black button.

I slapped it as hard as I could and felt solidity rush into my body. The table blew apart. Its pieces passed through Roxy and Marlston, but blasted the rest of his men, intangible themselves, with the brunt of the explosion. Half of them vanished through the walls. Two more flew through the ceiling. One toppled over so that only his boots stuck out from the dirt.

And I still held the flashlight in my left hand. I swung it hard at Marlston’s jaw. The bulb shattered and Canton went down with a nasty gash. I pulled Roxy out of her chair. I’d never seen her so impressed.

“Jesus, Allan!”

“No time to talk, kid.” God, I felt like John Wayne. “Let’s get out of here.”

I ran up the stairs first. Hopefully all of Canton’s nearest heavies had been in the basement, but even if not we didn’t have to get far. Once back on the first floor, we could walk through the walls, find Aranjuez, call the FBI…

Wait. How did Marlston know what I’d told the FBI?

“Mr. Jones.”

At the top of the stairs was Lane Young. She had a shiner on her jaw and a bruise on her forehead. In her hand was an odd, square gun. I quickly dialed back to intangible, but nothing happened.

“I’m very disappointed.”

She pulled the trigger and two darts shot out, trailed by a wire. That’s all I remember before lightning shot through me and I slammed to the wall.

To Be Continued

***

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The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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