Stan didn’t get why they were driving rather than flying, but the man in the driver’s seat seemed to come from a world where all was in order and everything made sense. So why argue?
Adam, if that was his real name — you never knew with these spooks — was a polite, handsome, upbeat guy, and Stan had come to trust him even at this early point in their acquaintance. Stan could hardly imagine someone better suited to help ease him into his life as a witness under official protection. He guessed Adam had a weapon hidden away somewhere in his nondescript outdoor clothes and could casually eliminate any threat to Stan’s person. Adam’s presence negated danger. At times he found himself wishing Adam would be more communicative, but Stan didn’t want to come off like a kid in constant need of reassurance.
Twenty minutes after they’d set out in the Nissan Primera from the facility, heading north, Stan asked the question he felt Maitland, the agent overseeing his case, should have answered.
“So, why are we driving?”
Adam looked at him with an indulgent smile.
“You have no idea?”
“I did think two plane tickets were within the government’s means.”
“Well, as you could have guessed, certain people are watching passengers get on and off flights. They don’t want you to slip past them, Stan. They’d like nothing more than to take you to a secret locale and torture you before they dump your body in a swamp.”
Stan considered this.
“A helicopter couldn’t have taken me?”
“It’s a little far. Anyway, you don’t want to fly on one of those. They’re dangerous.”
Stan didn’t know what to believe. He lay back in his seat and looked out at the billboards, the rest stops, and the malls that would soon give way to rolling green, and dozed off.
When he woke it was near dark and the highway cut through dense green, broken here and there by filling stations and golden arches and, further off, barns and silos. Adam gazed straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, as calm as ever.
Stan could barely see through the windows of other cars out there in the evening. For all he could make out, they might have been those newfangled driverless cars. He looked at Adam, who could protect him from everything and everyone.
Adam turned to him in the faint light from the dash.
“Do you think I’m cute, Stan?”
“You make me feel safe.”
“I’m your bulwark against all the danger in the world.”
Stan laughed again, knowing it was partly in recognition of his own childlike awe for the handler beside him.
He hadn’t been paying much attention to the multifarious noises in the dark roaring world outside the car, but at this moment one sound was too near and loud to ignore. Even with his spotty knowledge of pop culture, Stan quickly recognized the song coming from one of the other sleek metal shapes speeding through the night somewhere behind them.
The strong baritone voice belonged to Johnny Cash and the song was an anthem about futile flight and inevitable retribution. The dirge warned that you can run for a long time, but in the end God’s justice is inevitable. How very funny that he should hear this song right now.
“We’re gonna pull in here for a brief spell,” Adam said, indicating a rest stop up ahead on the right.
The Nissan swung onto a concrete ramp and eased along until it reached the gas pumps.
“I’ll be right back, Adam.”
“I’m never supposed to let you out of my sight. Make it quick.”
Stan sensed that even when Adam departed slightly from protocol, Adam was in charge and knew about every little thing that happened on his watch. Even when Adam couldn’t see or hear him, Stan was safe.
As he walked through the little loggia of the squat gray building behind the gas station, Stan noticed that all the cars parked right outside it had local plates, save for one. A deep green Mercury, parked two spots from the northern end of the loggia, had Arizona plates. This rest stop was a long way from Arizona. Stan entered the squat building, turned right into the men’s room, moved through the dank space, used one of the urinals, and went to the grimy sink and dusty mirror. The face that appeared now unnerved him. He looked haggard and worried, a nobody, a fugitive with no place in the world’s bright official spaces.
Just as he made for the exit, he spotted a heavy-set middle-aged man using the same urinal he’d used. The man had stubby sleet-gray hair and wore a faded brown leather jacket and baggy jeans.
“Hey, buddy. D’you know how far it is to St. Paul?”
The man didn’t reply, and it felt like a studied insult. Stan turned and nearly ran back to the Nissan. He felt ready to lie down under clean fragrant sheets, but the evening had really just begun.
Five minutes out from the rest stop, Stan heard it again. That same Johnny Cash dirge, threatening, promising retribution.
Stan turned to Adam.
“Think it’s a coincidence we’re hearing that again tonight?”
The handler’s placid face broke into a smile.
“You okay there, Stan?”
“I asked you a question, Adam. About that song. The one we’re hearing right now.”
“Oh, the Johnny Cash song. What about it?”
“It’s like someone’s threatening us. I want to believe you’re a good fighter, Adam.”
“I know a thing or two. There are points on the body where a blow could kill you before you knew what was happening. But it’s an academic point because things will never come to such a pass while you’re in my care. Never. So, as they say in the multiplexes, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.”
Stan tried to do as the handler advised. Even with that music playing and the threat conveyed in those lyrics, it wasn’t as hard as he imagined. He thought that all the creeps and cretins in the world were no match for the boldly handsome man in the seat beside him.
On what he’d expected to be one of the tensest, most grueling evenings of his life, Stan Walters slept. As he dozed off, memories came of his dear colleague at the pharma firm where he’d thrived and made heaps of money. The colleague was Jimmy Uwano, a short, intense scientist from Fresno. Jimmy lived flamboyantly. He loved porn and hookers. The thought of either made Stan feel ill. Obviously some men have no problem with it, but Stan knew he could never pay for sex, and it was the last thing he wanted to discuss. The first time Jimmy urged Stan to come out and have a few drinks after work, Stan warily obliged. As they talked over beers, Jimmy’s eyes flickered with energy whether the topic was basketball or movies or the stock market. Stan found the little man oddly diverting if a bit crass. They went out a second, a third, a fourth time.
Then came the night when Jimmy shared the news of a coming merger of their firm with a big Swedish rival. Stan, who thought he knew the market pretty well, nearly spat up his beer. The discussions must have been, as they say, ultra top-secret, but Jimmy was privy to them.
“How’d you hear about this, Jimmy?” Stan said, his eyes darting around the tavern.
Jimmy’s response was a polite smile, as if Stan should know better than to pose such a question.
“What do we do with this knowledge?” Stan pressed.
His eyes as intense as ever, Jimmy’s smile turned to a grin.
“Have you read T.S. Eliot, Stan?”
“Jimmy, what kind of non sequitur —”
“Yes. No. Not since I was an undergrad, in what feels like a different life now.”
“Well, neither had I until recently — I really don’t read much at all, to be honest — but I was hanging out with Frank Ryan, whom you’ll meet, and he quoted the poet: After such knowledge what forgiveness? You know, I think you know, that by virtue of sitting here discussing this, we’re in a place, technically speaking, where we have no legal or moral right to be. None at all.”
Stan nodded, unsure where Jimmy was going.
“We can’t retreat from where we are, Stan, so the question is where we go from here.”
Jimmy outlined his plan. When you stripped away all the high-sounding claptrap, everyone was in this business to get rich but some were a lot smarter about it than others. Jimmy and Stan were much, much too smart to use the material non-public information about the coming merger themselves, but Jimmy thought Stan could surely find an acquaintance whose ties to Stan, much less Jimmy, would be hard to prove in court. That person would turn bullish on the firm’s stock in the weeks before the merger. After the merger, he or she would sell and all three of them would be fabulously rich.
“It can’t be one of your friends, Jimmy?”
“Come on, Stan. You have an IQ above 90.”
Jimmy’s proximity to the secret talks was maybe not as mist-like as Stan hoped, but the plan, as set forth here in the tavern, sounded promising. Stan went home and slept in his room in a big nearly empty house with the windows open, listening to the chirping outside, the rhythms of creatures that entered this world for a fleeting time, and brooded about his life.
He opened his eyes. Adam looked as alert as ever. Cars sped past in the other lane, fast but not always quite fast enough to be sure that one or more of their occupants hadn’t taken a prurient interest in the Nissan. Stan knew that he’d betrayed an acquaintance whom it was insane to cross and he’d be lucky to see another sun rise. Adam’s presence was still reassuring, but Adam was, after all, only a man, as mortal as the next, no matter how central to Stan’s mental and emotional life the process of Freudian transference might make him.
As he drifted in and out of sleep over the next couple of hours, he brooded once again about his former colleague, Jimmy.
Stan didn’t know anyone who could help them get rich off the merger, but Jimmy had other schemes. When they went out again to the tavern one night, Jimmy introduced Stan to Frank Ryan, a tall man with glittering silver hair like a shredded blade. Ryan came across as a genial, fatherly figure.
“So what do you do?” Stan asked.
“I’m an entrepreneur.”
Jimmy chuckled. “I was waiting for that. An entrepreneur. And you paint houses, right?”
They all laughed, Stan not without some nervousness. Who was this stranger? Jimmy appeared to act on the belief that just by discussing MNPI on an earlier occasion, Stan had joined hands and skipped right along with Jimmy to a place where it was pointless, not to say impossible, to raise moral objections to anything.
“Jimmy here wouldn’t make a good entrepreneur. He always goes on about all the crap that he’s buying. A new stereo, a new car, a new entertainment center. He has no intellectual interest in the dynamics of business. I have a master’s degree in economics, and I studied philosophy for a time, and I think you’ll find I’m the best kind of entrepreneur. The kind who spots opportunities and makes them available to guys with ambition. But who, more importantly, has ethical and philosophical principles. You know, if you want to work with me, you really do have to have a certain ethos,” Frank said.
“What d’you mean?” Jimmy replied, downing more beer.
“You’re both smart guys. But I wonder whether you’ve ever tried to think about things from a philosophical standpoint. If you understood life as Pascal did, as a tiny, brief flicker between two infinities, I can assure you that your attitude toward time would be radically different. Unrecognizably different. You wouldn’t waste a second on hate or anger or regret or any of the things that clutter people’s minds like unflushed waste.”
Jimmy looked impressed. Frank went on.
“But more importantly, you’d understand that, in plain terms, there’s no room for fucking around or betraying those who offer to set you on the path you need to be on. I can assure you that, if you really did think about your life that way, you’d jump at a chance to change the terms on which you live. Not many people in the world ever come face-to-face with Frank Ryan, ever talk casually with him in a pub as you’re doing now, because they’d be wasting their time and mine.”
“I wonder if we’ve had the same professor somewhere. I think my ethical sense is in line with yours,” Stan said.
Frank studied Stan with a sly intelligence in his deep brown eyes, seemingly expecting a commitment to an offer he hadn’t yet put forth. Jimmy was having a great time, but now something in Stan’s look challenged Jimmy’s complacency.
“Hey, guys, awkward moment. It’s my fault. Frank here assumed that I already explained the proposal to Stan in detail and all that was pending was Stan’s approval.”
Frank looked mildly perturbed.
“You haven’t talked this over with your colleague?”
There was no charm at all in Jimmy’s half-inebriated grin.
“So, look, Stan. Frank here had an idea.”
The pharma firm’s most jealously guarded secret consisted of its formula for Pranyx, an immensely popular antidepressant, the process of isolating its elements, and the specially modified lab gear needed to produce it. Jimmy and Frank had talked at length about a lend-lease plan, so to speak, under which Jimmy and Stan would provide expertise and help Frank and his associates duplicate the lab gear. Stan’s mastery of the chemical processes was utterly invaluable.
When Frank named a sum, Stan found it hard to resent Jimmy for roping him into this business.
“Fuck Pascal, I wanna get laid!” Jimmy said, looking around at the young women in the place.
When he opened his eyes, Adam was driving with the same placid look, not seeming the least bit tired.
“Ohhhhh. What day is it?”
“Stan, you were just out for a couple of hours.”
“Why does it feel like much longer?”
“I’m no R.D. Laing, but I think your internal reality is the only universe you ever inhabit.”
This was kind of harsh, but at least they weren’t hearing that accursed Johnny Cash song. Soon, the car left the freeway and glided onto a ramp leading to a concrete pavilion where the neon lights in a restaurant’s windows reflected off dozens of windshields. The restaurant, Arlene’s, was doing brisk business all right.
A server with eerily pale skin and dark hair led them to a table in the middle of a huge room. All around them sat families whose normalcy, and gaiety, inspired Stan to imagine lives whose parts fit together perfectly, whose routines made sense in a way Stan’s never had.
Adam sat directly across from Stan, with that look of calm, faintly amused assurance. They ordered dinner from a thin, smiling girl with chestnut-hued hair. Stan knew that in a public place they must trade in banalities, never letting slip anything pregnant with implications. He wondered what common ground he and Adam Palmer might find.
The conversation went briskly enough, touching on the NFL and the NBA and movies and politics, until Stan began to fear he was maybe a bit too much at ease. Then Adam got up to head for the restroom. Looking around the vast room, Stan felt really alone despite or maybe because of all the bright chattering company. All around were nine- and ten-year-olds whose parents had taken proper care with their hair and attire, and teens and young men and women, all moving through time in channels, in ways that would never invite contempt or scorn from other ordinary folk.
The server passed by the table a few times without making eye contact with Stan, and he began to wonder what was taking Adam so long. He guessed his handler needed to talk to certain people, relay updates. All right, then. But he could expect better service. With growing anxiety, he looked around for the server and felt like a baby needing its mother.
In a booth far off in a corner of the vast room, a pair of middle-aged men with thick beards had put their heads together and trained their gaze on Stan. To Stan it appeared they were sharing impressions, poking fun at an awkward stranger. Now one of them rotated his torso a bit until he faced outward from the booth, toward Stan, and with his fingers traced the outline of a little rectangle in the air, as if to say, that guy, that weirdo, captures everything about a certain segment of our society.
Stan thought, I’ll kill them both. Plunge a knife in their necks and watch the blood come spurting out all over the room.
Stan wished he could ignore them. They lived and breathed the NASCAR culture, they owned guns and knew all about models and calibers and feet per second and standard deviation and cleaning and fire-lapping; they were fighters, they were so tough that the thought of a physical altercation with another person made them laugh. Now they’d found their fun for the evening. Stan figured they probably always sat at the same spot and it had taken just seconds for their eyes to alight on the nervous interloper.
He objected to being an object of fun, more than that, to the notion of strangers taking advantage of his need to avoid attention. These yahoos weren’t getting away with it. He thought he might ultimately draw more attention if he didn’t react as a normal person would. Stan eyed the knife beside his plate.
The leers and mocking comments continued. Stan’s eyes flitted anxiously around the big room. His blood was like a sentient liquid that wanted to show how vocally it could protest, how sharply it could leap and surge in his veins.
Stan rose, his fingers quivering, his breaths heavy. His chair tilted and fell over. Clenching his fists to stop the twitching, he gazed across the room at the two strangers and tried to imagine the content of the exchange they were about to have.
A firm hand fell on his shoulder.
“Let’s go, Stan. Right now. No dessert for a naughty boy,” said Adam.
“Those guys over there.”
“Come on. I’ve already paid the check.”
The Nissan sped away from the restaurant and off into the night.
Stan thought he was in for a big rebuke, but Adam simply said, “You still imagine there’s some long process or ceremony you have to go through before you die. Do one more stupid thing, Stan.”
The Nissan streaked up the road in the unquiet night. Adam never seemed to tire or lose his studied professionalism even a bit. As Stan lolled in the passenger seat, he soon felt so weary he found himself wondering how you even tell reality from a dream. He opened his eyes and shut them repeatedly.
Entering a semiconscious state, he had a vision of himself and Adam sitting at a table whose marble surface was as white as the floor and the neoclassical columns of the loggia ten yards away. On the other side of where they sat, far off in the distance, a city was in flames, explosions boomed and echoed through the cobalt blue, copters whirred and hovered ineffectually above the Boschian scene. Far below them on this beautiful morning, people screamed and ran and fell and died, but Stan knew there was nowhere he’d rather be than here at this table on this terrace, raising a glass of Tuscan red to his lips, remembering Handel’s “Sarabande” played in D Minor chords, gazing into the eyes of the young handler. Even so, he couldn’t help noticing a quality about the smoke in the distance. It rose into the blue in columns that unfurled slowly and insidiously throughout the air, seeming to hint that it could get anywhere in the calm day eventually.
When he woke, he thought he heard the chords of the Johnny Cash song again, far behind them in the dark. But when he tried to listen a bit more carefully, Adam preempted him with a question.
“Mind if I breach professional etiquette for just a minute here, Stan?”
“Technically, I’m just ferrying you from one place to another, and what you did and who’s after you aren’t my business. But for all my demeanor I’m as human as you, Stan. I’d be lying if I said I don’t wonder why this son of a bitch you ratted on, this gangster, scares you so bad you’re like a little kid whose hand I’ve got to hold.”
Stan leaned back in his seat, not trying anymore to hear the music, almost content in the feeling that the music’s dolor and menace had established a clear simple dynamic, hunter and hunted, which Adam’s presence nullified and the only thing left to Stan now was to be eloquent in this Nabokovian exercise. Speak, memory.
He spoke at length, telling Adam all about the time Stan and Jimmy had to come up with a recommendation for a pair of runners who could bring a prototype of the cloned drug to the streets and see how much they could get for it. Here was a duty for which Frank would pay handsomely, and who knew, maybe it could lead to more opportunities. Stan fumbled but Jimmy quickly came up with a couple of names. They were kids, early twenties, who worked as bouncers at a club where Jimmy liked to get ripped and hold out fistfuls of cash to get girls to do lap dances. For bouncers, neither of them looked too tough. They were wiry and haggard like those self-identified veterans who sit begging on the street. The two guys accepted Frank’s offer with a show of gratitude and then promptly made off with the drugs and the cash Frank had given them to get around.
Not a week later, Stan saw them in person again when he entered the basement of a warehouse in a remote part of town. You had to give Frank credit for a certain broadness of vision. He didn’t kneecap them, nor did they sleep with the fishes. Nothing so banal. Two heads peered at Stan over the tops of the barrels filled with acid into which Frank’s men had stuck the bouncers. Their silence was eloquent.
Frank Ryan strode up under the light from a solitary bulb, a broad grin on his wizened face.
“This is more for your amusement than for any didactic purpose, Stan. I know you have personal ethics and you’d never betray me.”
These words came back to him with total clarity as the Nissan sped up the road in the night. The emphasis in that last line was really on one word, one pronoun. Frank Ryan knew Stan would be fastidiously loyal no matter what.
The car surged along for another hour before, to his horror and disbelief, he heard that Johnny Cash dirge, threatening, promising retribution, punishment, God’s justice.
“Adam! Can you believe it?”
The handler didn’t turn to him this time.
“Has it occurred to you that that might just be some guy on the same route as us?”
“You don’t have to talk nonsense to keep me calm.”
“Oh, if I thought you were in danger, I’d be pretty candid about it.”
The sound faded again. They drove on in the night for another hour before Adam announced a unilateral decision. The Nissan swerved onto a ramp and entered the parking lot of a plain, two-story motel with lights on in about five of its more than thirty windows.
“Walk fast and don’t talk to anyone,” Adam said as they moved up the concrete path from the lot to the lobby.
Stan waited on a couch positioned perpendicular to another couch in a dimly lit room adjoining the lobby while Adam talked to the clerk. Then Adam, for all his professed devotion to closely guarding Stan, went through a door leading to the stairs. Stan guessed that Adam had to check out the room and the approaches to it.
He sat there fidgeting and looking at the painting of a verdant valley hanging on the wall in the dim light. In his strange anxious state, the painting in a vague way seemed to mock him. The absence of a hunter with a pack of wolves, or some other horror trope speaking directly to his condition, felt like a fake or facetious kind of reassurance. He thought that if he dozed off and opened his eyes again here, he’d see a different image. He fought to keep his eyes open.
Adam didn’t come back.
Glancing through the room’s open door at the front desk, he saw the clerk gazing at a screen with an expression so bland it too seemed a provocation. He kept waiting anxiously, wondering where Adam could have gone. In his exhausted state, the room seemed dimmer now. He waited, and waited, and waited some more.
A man came into the room and sat down on the other couch. He didn’t face Stan, but gazed out through one of the front windows. The stranger was in his forties, but his dark hair hadn’t thinned. To Stan, he kind of resembled Hugh Jackman, but with a hard, working-class aura. There was nothing glamorous about the man or whatever it was he did for a living, Stan thought.
The stranger didn’t look at him, but given the arrangement of the couches, it was impossible for Stan to return the courtesy.
Stan leapt up.
“Are you God?” he shouted at the man, who turned to him, not with alarm, but with a curious look.
“Sorry, sir. He’s had a terrible day,” said someone behind Stan.
Adam pulled Stan by the elbow and led him into the lobby and then upstairs and down a hall to a nondescript chamber.
“I’m so sorry —”
“Shut up, Stan,” Adam said and pushed him inside.
Here was a room with two beds and a desk and a night table with a Bible inside it, as utterly without character as any in the 80,000 hotels and motels in America, and Stan had to control his terror enough to stay put here for six hours. Stan lay down on one of the beds and fell asleep looking out the window at the moon. Just before falling asleep, he thought how little anyone acknowledged the truth of what the metaphysical poets said, about how spatial and temporal boundaries are so utterly arbitrary and lull people into a sense of safety.
The morning found him alive. He showered, dressed, and had a quick breakfast in the room before Adam led him outside, clutching his elbow tighter than he would have liked, though he knew he was in debt to Adam for every breath he took.
The morning was painfully brilliant. The car was right where it had been.
“Hey Stan, there’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Adam said, letting go of his charge’s elbow.
Adam popped the trunk. As it opened, Stan saw a curled-up man in his early thirties, trim and blond, with a rag stuffed in his mouth and cords joining his wrists and ankles behind his back. The man was bleeding from both eyes and looked barely alive. If not for his wounds, you could easily mistake him for Adam.
“Jesus Christ, who is that?”
Adam’s reply was a grin. The consummate professional was gone. Adam mocked him.
And now Stan was aware of yet another presence in the lot. A figure concealed nearly from head to foot inside a dark green trench coat stood a few yards off to their right. With bandages all over his face, except for the eyes and mouth, he looked like the Invisible Man, but there was unmistakably a presence behind the bandages that would be stunningly vivid if it chose to reveal itself.
“Hi, Stan,” Jimmy Uwano said.
Stan couldn’t speak.
“Adam here tells me you were a cool customer for most of the trip, and then your terror came on so hard we might have to rethink a century of Freudian psychology. The transfer worked but the transference, in the end, did not.”
Stan found his voice.
“You sound so smart, Jimmy. Did you discover the joys of reading?”
The bandaged figure laughed.
“Well, I’ve had to find some way to pass the hours. I haven’t followed quite as social a lifestyle since Frank’s men dunked me in sulfuric acid. It doesn’t feel so good, Stan. They were so confident it would kill me that they didn’t even stick around to be sure.”
“That may or may not be true,” Adam replied.
“Jimmy. I don’t follow. You were nothing but loyal to Frank. It’s me he wants dead,” Stan said.
“If that were true, do you think you’d be standing here? He always trusted you and your heavily footnoted ethics. He was coming to love you like a son. But he couldn’t stand me and my stupid crassness. Look, it doesn’t matter. I did get rich after that merger, Stan. Rich enough to woo Maitland after you gave him my name and he reached out to me. Much of the bureau was already busy investigating Frank Ryan, but Maitland shared all kinds of things. And now I’ve got you and we’re going to have a bit of fun.”
Sick with fear, Stan looked at the man in the trunk.
“Who in God’s name is that?”
Jimmy and Adam laughed. It was Adam who deigned to reply.
“Meet your handler.”
Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer. He has worked in both publishing and journalism over the past two decades, with a concentration in financial and legal reporting. He is the author of an acclaimed cover story in the Philadelphia City Paper entitled “Home & Abroad: Haunting Memories Aside, Local Vietnamese Refugees Refuse to Forget the Country They Fled.”
Washburn’s short fiction has appeared in Rosebud, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Concho River Review, New Orphic Review, Stand, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Weird Fiction Review, Weirdbook, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Nomadic Sojourns, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and many other publications. His books include The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We’re Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). His short story “Confessions of a Spook” won Causeway Lit’s 2018 fiction contest, and his story “My Role in the Rise of Julian Assange” won the Adelaide Books fiction award for 2019.