Molecule Men

“Molecule Men” is an excerpt from a novel in progress. Faber, a British graduate student, is investigating the life and death of expat detective author Charles Thornton in Berlin, Germany.

The canal was directionless, its still waters reflecting the arcing sun. Faber suspected that this route would bring him back to Reichenberger Strasse and to Marius’ apartment, and at that moment he preferred not to retrace his steps along Degarmo Strasse. Thornton’s apartment, a large, grey concrete cipher, was something that he would have to return to after he had learned more about the writer and his life in Berlin.

In the back of his mind, tape reels turned relentlessly clockwise, and he thought of the contraband recordings stowed in the pocket of his suitcase. He really ought to have thanked Stephen, should at least have sent him an e-mail. Pulling out his phone, his mind flashed forward and he saw himself scrolling through the contacts to Stephen L, but he soon recalled that his mobile had become nothing more than a hi-tech timepiece since leaving Gatwick yesterday morning.

After ten minutes, he saw Marius’ balcony above him, casting a shadow on the pavement below. Just past the balcony was the turning onto Reichenberger Strasse. The bare floorboards and light, wooden furniture of his friend’s apartment seemed a little cold as Faber made his way through the living room and back to the office. There was a note stuck to the outside of the door that he hadn’t noticed earlier. Scrawled quickly and almost illegibly in Marius’ hand were the words: Back by 9! M.

What he needed now was direction, purpose. Slumping onto the futon, he picked up the cheap Berlin travel guide that he had bought yesterday at the airport. The front cover was divided into two strips: on the left a vertical stripe of red with the word Berlin printed along it: to the left was a photograph of a tall, silvered steel or aluminium sculpture that formed the two-dimensional outline of a man. The figure, one arm and one leg extended in profile, was punctuated with holes of different sizes from its watery feet to the sunspot at the top of its head.

He jumped to the contents page and then on to directions to the sculpture, which appeared to be called the Molecule Man, a 100 foot high piece of modern art in a borough named Friedrichshain. The back cover told him that he could take the U1 there if he travelled several stops further away from Marius’s apartment and on past Thornton’s. Faber scooped a handful of the tapes into his satchel, letting them fall between the books that were already stowed inside it.

He then went back to the suitcase where, nestled between the neatly folded clothes, there was a pea-green Sony Walkman. A remnant of his childhood, it had been stashed in the back of a closet at his parents’ home with a pair of 1980s headphones tangled around it. He could never have suspected that it would come in this useful nearly twenty years later. Though he had substituted the worn-down headphones for a spare pair of iPod ear buds, it still reminded him of the small, warm home in Kent where he had grown up, and of evenings spent listening to 1960s rock n’ roll on hand-me-down cassette tapes.

The satchel was bulging, but he needed one more thing. In the living room, Marius’ laptop was open on the coffee table. Faber swiped the mouse pad and typed “the second murderer thornton” into the search bar. He pulled up a copy of the short story and hit Print.

Stories, he knew, had a tendency to begin. And Thornton’s was no exception. Published in 19__, “The Second Murderer” had been the author’s debut, and as lost as Faber felt, he knew that this was somewhere to begin.

He picked up his bag and promised himself, for the thousandth time, that he would switch to an altogether less heavy career.

₰   ₰   ₰

As he stepped into the U-Bahn for the second time that morning, a trio of middle-aged Germans entered at the other end of the carriage. Two were wearing dark sunglasses, one carrying a guitar and the other a clarinet; the third had a saxophone slung across his chest and a trilby jauntily balanced on his head. Faber sat down and pulled out the Thornton story, but as the train rolled away from the platform, they began to perform.

A syncopated beat on the guitar underscored a familiar melody. It took a few bars for their soft-jazz “When the Saints Go Marching In” to worm its way into Faber’s brain. The melody moved from sax to clarinet, and the saxophonist stepped forward, negotiating with expert balance the aisle of the moving train car, and holding out his hat in search of spare change.

Most eyes remained fixed on the floor as he passed, but by the time his pepper-grey stubble reached Faber, tourist’s guilt had set in and the Englishman was digging in his jeans pocket for some coins. His hand came out with a five Euro note as the sax player reached his end of the train.

“Sorry,” Faber said, directing a wan smile at the old man and so sealing the fate of the five Euros in his hand. “I don’t have anything smaller.”

A gleam in the busker’s eye turned into a grin, and he bowed deeply, trilby extended carefully under Faber’s chin. The note fell into the hat, the saxophonist straightened, and he said: “Thank you. We collect for the Imaginary Manufacture.”

Faber wondered if he’d misheard the old man, suspected that he had heard English words where there had been only German.

“The Imaginary Manufacture?” he repeated.

“Yes. For the blind.”

He turned and gestured back to his accompanists, who, Faber realised, were sightless behind their dark glasses. This seemed to be all the explanation the saxophonist would offer, so he bowed, turned and muttered: “Again, thank you.”

The train was slowing as the man ambled back to join his companions, and when the doors shunted open at Görlitzer Bahnhof, they exited. Faber watched them disappear behind accelerating train windows, then pulled out a ballpoint pen and scribbled at the top of the Thornton story the words “Imaginary Manufacture” and an oversized question mark.

Finally, he let his eyes wander to the first paragraphs of the story, let them skim forward as the U-Bahn did the same.

“The Second Murderer”
by Charles Thornton

Most cases begin with a bang. This one was no exception.

It had been the usual damp and lonely Wednesday afternoon before the dame in the red dress drifted into his office. She was tall and slender, the curves of a bowling pin and then some. Drawing on a cigarette, rich smoke rose like a curlicue into the room, and Delaney tried to infer the brand from the small twists that she was puffing toward his face. Gauloises, maybe?

She was wealthy, or at least prided herself on appearing so. The shiny silk hugged her figure and then disappeared under a powder-blue bolero jacket that clashed with the scarlet dress. Don’t mention the jacket, Delaney said to himself.

“Nice jacket,” Delaney said. “You’re late.”

But he was interrupted by a THUD. From out of her clutch a package wrapped in parcel paper and twine dropped onto the rosewood table top. Delaney almost spilled his coffee. Then he pulled himself together and tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, tilted his head approximately 45 degrees to the left, and asked—

 

A voice sounded over the train car’s PA system. Looking up, Faber saw the movement of people and realised that they had reached the last stop. Crumpling “The Second Murderer” into his bag, he stepped onto the platform and followed the stream of people moving towards exit onto Warschauer Strasse.

Moving into the sunlight, he turned right and headed for the canal waters that were glistening below. Berlin’s veins, he thought.

Though his reading had been cut short, he didn’t much care. Like many writerly debuts, Thornton’s first piece of fiction was formulaic, although it showed more of a literary bent than some of his contemporaries’ stories. Faber didn’t need to read it again. In the end, the dame wasn’t the killer. Her boyfriend, a gangster named Lyons who was the eponymous Second Murderer, had roped her into something, and in the end he made her choose between shooting the victim or being killed herself.

Compared to The Girl Who Lost Her Smile, it was a plot piece with little characterisation—Faber had admitted as much in the opening chapters of his dissertation—but it had been the first case solved by P.I Ray Delaney, and for that reason if no other, it was always noted in detective fiction and often reproduced in anthologies on Thornton and the pulp magazines of his time. The year it was published, 19__, Thornton had just returned from his army service, and more likely than not, he was trying only to earn some money by selling knock-off detectives to eager magazines.

Its literary merit aside, the story had served Faber well. Whenever he felt as though his dissertation was nothing more than a feeble attempt at building castles on cobwebs, he had turned back to “The Second Murderer” for its ludicrous similes and cardboard cut-out characters.

He made a left onto a street running parallel with the water, and there it was. A mile or so away, the Molecule Man towered out of the water and reflected sunlight back into the canal below. But he wasn’t alone. The photograph used on the guidebook’s cover showed only one figure, his hands extended outward as though in defence, and one leg pushed forward to form a giant step. Now Faber saw, as he moved closer, that there were three such figures, identically posed, and joined together at the hands and feet. They were surreally still in the summer afternoon.

They must have come after Thornton’s time, Faber thought. Shapes cut out of aluminium and then punctured with holes from head to toe. He wasn’t sure whether that said something about Berlin, or about Thornton, or if it said anything to anyone about anything.

He told himself to stop analysing, and as the Molecule Men grew closer, he placed his palms on the wall to his right and vaulted on to it, then sat, dangling his legs over the edge and above the sodden grass and sand that led to the canal.

Around half of the tapes were in his bag. Some were labelled with years, some with years and months, and others not at all, but he picked them out and lay them in what he could make of chronological order. He needed a timeline, needed to use the tapes to fill in the gaps that existed in Thornton’s biography, from his childhood in England to his move to Boston, from his war service to his move to Berlin. Most importantly, Faber had to discover why he chosen Berlin.

The first cassette buzzed in his ears as he pressed Play on the side of the Walkman. Charles Thornton’s voice was prefaced by a throat clearance and the squeak of new cotton on old leather. Faber glanced at the cassette sleeve again, printed on it the date “19__”. And then Thornton began to speak, and suddenly Faber saw the creases and folds of his skin move in tandem with the words, and the apartment block on Degarmo Strasse didn’t feel so empty any longer.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. He is editor and cofounder of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure, and his other Snake-Oil can be found here.

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1 Comment

  1. jlj

     /  February 18, 2013

    I’m behind in my Snake Oil, and just reading this. It’s marvelous. Love the Imaginary Manufacture, and I want to read all of Thornton’s ouevre…

    Reply

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