The Man in the Homburg Hat

The slender, box-shaped outline of a man appeared from behind a glass partition, and Faber recognised at once the figure of Marius Eichert. He did not know where the German had been waiting—the platform was a crush of asymmetric window panes and mobile flesh which had hidden him from view—but Faber’s attempt at raising his eyebrows in an ironic greeting only resulted in emphasising the creases in his forehead.

Marius extended his hand and Faber’s completed the handshake. “You arrived, Harry,” said the German with a grin. “Or was it Henry?” he added. Marius had clearly mastered sarcasm.

“You can call me Heinrich if you must,” replied Faber, reddening a little and marvelling at Marius’ easy manner. “But I probably won’t answer you.”

This inside joke was enough to relax the Englishman’s muscles. Marius, to no avail, persisted in harrying Faber about his reluctance to reveal his Christian name. The German affected a broad, vowel-heavy English accent as he led them between tourists, shoppers and the occasional punks with bright shocks of hair. “My dear Faber!” he said. He followed Marius past a staircase thronging with people and to an elevator that stood at the centre of the platform.

Faber had known Marius for two years. While still a first-year graduate student, Faber had been sitting at the library cafe when a tall, stubble-afflicted man in a leather bomber jacket and a Homburg hat approached him incautiously. Tipping the crumpled, bobble-covered felt from his head, the stranger had said in an accent almost Slavic: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth!” He had then tapped a long finger against the illustration in front of Faber and asked, “Sherlock Holmes, or…?” The accent, it transpired, had been German; the man in the Homburg hat had been Marius Eichert.

Without a hint of compunction he had tossed his hat aside and joined Faber. Effusing in broken sentences, he explained that his English had been sharpened by reading Conan Doyle’s stories, that he had fallen in love with the exotic Victorian milieu and with Holmes and Watson’s adventures, and that, finally, he had won a grant from his university in Germany allowing him to study in the UK. He regretted that he had not been accepted to a university in London—“the fog of Baker Street,” Faber had muttered at this juncture—but was glad that the detective story was of some interest even to Warwickshire’s academics.

Faber had shut the book and given the usual perfunctory explanation of his project. “Which writer?” Marius had asked.

“Charles Thornton,” Faber had replied, sealing their acquaintance and guaranteeing their friendship.

The elevator shunted more badly than the train. Descending towards the subways buried beneath the glass and steel station, Marius said: “We’ll take the U8 to my place. Kottbusser Tor is the station.” His English was now a hop away from perfect. In the two years since they had first met he had become increasingly more fluent and proportionally more garrulous when he spoke English; in his native tongue Marius was even harder to shut up. These were purely symptoms of confidence, and Faber envied them.

Exiting onto the U-Bahn platform, a subway car to their right was rolling to a stop. Marius gestured towards it and they stepped into the train only to be crushed against the opposite doorwell by a mismatched cadre of Berliners. Faber soon began to feel uncomfortable when Marius quizzed him in English.

“Well,” Faber replied. “Thornton doesn’t have an archive, as such. He left his belongings—letters, stories (if there are any), perhaps some recordings— .” He paused, assessing Marius’ reaction. Besides Stephen and Faber, few people knew about Thornton’s penchant for dictation. Even Denford Scholes hadn’t mentioned this goldmine in his biography. When Marius didn’t flinch, Faber continued: “He left his things in the hands of friends or relatives here in Germany. Hopefully—after a few German lessons—I’ll be able to make some headway on tracking them down.”

“German lessons? I’ll try,” Marius said wryly. “But I think teaching English is my strong suit.” Faber contemplated a reply but the train car had begun to shunt mechanically against the tracks and to bubble with the sound of an unfamiliar language.

At Kottbusser Tor they exited. The underground platforms were cheerless and poorly cared for but the turnover was greater at this station than at any they had passed through. A father and son tried to cram past Faber and his suitcase onto the subway car, while two doors down and with a guitar slung across his back, a short, Turkish Johnny Cash boarded and began his street performer spiel. Faber caught only a few words before the doors kissed shut and cut the performance short.

They took an escalator then a second set of stairs before emerging above ground. They were anonymous against the summer morning, and Faber found himself vaguely troubled by the small group of men (and the occasional woman) congregating around the U-Bahn who looked decidedly like homeless, drunk ex-punks. Marius reassured him and launched into an invective in perfectly-crafted English sentences (and, indeed, paragraphs) on Berlin’s ability to publicly confess to and reveal its seedy underbelly, unlike most urban sprawls.

Faber did not reply. He followed Marius beneath train tracks that ran overhead, then crossed the street and angled left onto Reichenberger Strasse. As they came to a door marked only by a series of buzzers on its left hand jamb, the German ended his monologue: “these people—alcoholics, drug addicts, punks, the homeless—they live on the surface of this city like a tattoo.”

₰    ₰    ₰

The gurgle of the coffee machine filled the apartment as though the kitchen were crying out in hunger. Verbose as he was, Marius had never been prone to small talk. As soon as Faber had set his luggage down in Marius’ office—Faber’s makeshift room for the duration—the German had dispensed with pleasantries by calling questions to him across the apartment—how long was he staying? How was his graduate project going? What were his plans in Berlin?—and following them up with a miniature monologue. He had finished a teaching qualification and was working at a school in Potsdam, he told Faber, teaching English classes and reading Conan Doyle with his students.

“So my dear Faber,” Marius said, taking a seat on the futon next to him. He smiled and handed Faber a cup of dark, murky brew. “What on earth can you be planning that requires an indefinite stay in Berlin?” He pronounced the word elaborately. “Mr. Thornton died in the ‘90s, right?”

Faber had grown weary and wary of expounding on his project at Warwickshire. Freed now from the constraints of teaching and the bane of research—they were not his strong suit—he felt renewed and sensed a new lightness to his voice. “He died here in 1997, of renal failure combined with a fatal bout of hypothermia. Little to nothing is known about those last few years, though. The years since reunification, since the Wall came down.”

“Yes. Well, it will take you all of a couple of hours to see the remains of the Berlin Wall,” Marius said, “but significantly longer to notice what was left behind after tearing it down.”

Faber sensed the beginning of another invective and turned quickly back to Thornton. “But his death isn’t what interests me most, Marius,” said Faber. “Berlin had been his home since the early ‘60s. He had been a success in America, had written two novels and countless short stories, even edited a handful of screenplays for MGM. So why, of all places, did he move to Germany? Why did he choose a city torn apart from war—a war he fought in—for his new home?”

Marius did what Faber couldn’t and contorted his face into a wry grin. Faber was aware of his tendency to speak in extended sentences, for parentheses to go on for so long that the point was lost amongst tangents, but the German clearly recognised and appreciated his investigative spirit. “It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.”

As he pulled apart his luggage over the next half hour, Faber realised that Marius was right. From his suitcase he had picked out fresh clothes, deliberately setting the trunk of the bag against a wall so that he had a makeshift closet; delving into the pockets on the outside of the case he had removed and neatly stacked the cassette tapes beside the futon and then strewn his books across the couch itself, beneath the window looking onto Reichenberger Strasse. In this den, a foreign protectorate of Charles DeForest Thornton and of the past, of smoky rooms and conversations, Faber felt secure. He considered for a moment removing his laptop from its case, but he knew he could not bring himself to type out Stephen’s email address.

₰    ₰    ₰

 

Marius’ cigarillo twisted its ash into the air as they stood on the balcony. “Really you should be wearing the hat too, if you’re going to go all Bogart on me,” Faber said. The German smirked sideways, crooked teeth appearing beneath the filter in his mouth.

“I always preferred Cary Grant, actually,” he said. “So have you listened to the tapes yet?”

He was caught off guard. “Actually… no. I brought an old cassette player with me, but tuning out airports, planes and trains to listen to the old guy seemed like…”

“Sacrilege?” suggested Marius.

Faber nodded and wished that he knew more than ten words of German. In signs and speech he could find sufficient similarities with English to allow for some understanding, but when called upon to read any extended passages in his newly adopted language, he was lost among unfamiliar characters, confusion compounded by umlauts and deceptively long sentences.

Embers left a trace of the cigarillo’s descent as Marius let it drop to the grass below. After a moment of silence, he told Faber to wait right there and went back into the apartment. In thirty seconds he reappeared with two bottles of beer in one hand and a book in the other.

He passed one bottle to Faber before handing him the book. “C.D. Thornton?”

“For some reason either he or his publisher didn’t want to use the name Charles.” Marius pointed to the cover. “Das Mädchen Ohne LächelnThe Girl Who Lost Her Smile. Though it actually means ‘The Girl Without a Smile’.” A smirk floated back onto his lips. “We Germans love to be literal.”

Faber turned the book over. The back cover was empty but for the publisher’s logo. At the bottom of the page a stylised hand bearing a torch was set over words printed in small caps—Lichttrager Verlag. The German publishing house had snatched Thornton up as soon as it had become public knowledge that he had settled in Berlin. Denford Scholes had taken pains to present testimony from Lichttrager that supported this theory, supported it so avidly that Faber suspected that they had wished, retrospectively, to exaggerate their lucky catch.

“I thought you might like some bedtime reading,” Marius said, lighting another cigarillo. “You have tapes to listen to and books to read, my dear Faber. So I leave you to it.”

In the balmy summer air Faber felt obliged to finish his bottle of beer before retreating to his room. Marius’ balcony looked out onto a street filled with bicycles and boxes, trees shading the pavement and exterior walls of peeling paint and splashes of graffiti. A stretch of water which must, he thought, be a canal sparkled through the leaves of the treetops across the street. It was a peculiar juxtaposition, as though the greenery poked and curled up into the light in spite of the urban decay surrounding it.

As the glint of the water faded, he closed the balcony door and tossed the dregs of beer into the sink. Marius had deconstructed the couch into a bed and had fanned out Faber’s books across the flattened futon so carefully that Faber sensed sarcasm in the arc of pages and bindings. Beneath Scholes’ biography, a tome on detective fiction and his cheap, afterthought travel guide for Berlin were Thornton’s novels. He picked out The Girl Who Lost Her Smile and laid it open on the bed, setting beside it Das Mädchen Ohne Lächeln. Reading page for page and line by line, eventually, softly, like honey smearing from the end of a spoon, his eyes began to close.

* * * * *

“The Man in the Homburg Hat” is an excerpt from a novel in progress.

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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Describing Circles

.
ut of the front door
and down a landscaped path that is a mere spoke in the wheel of Causton, Massachusetts, Audrey steps lightly until she reaches Main Street. The road is puffs of exhaust and grainy tarmac. It winds down a soft slope towards the center of town, then curls in first one, then two concentric circles which, from above, resemble a snail-shell spiral. Soft and snug in the middle of the spiral is Audrey’s school.

Her lunchbox rattles its daily soundtrack inside her rucksack. In her hands she carries a big cloth bag, almost half as high as she is, that contains her class project. She is careful not to press too firmly on the sides of the bag with her fingertips.

Finally, weeks into April, the snow that stood taller than her has melted at the edge of the sidewalk, although Spring rain has yet to wash away the dirt, twigs, and salt that were buried beneath it. She treads lightly and feels the soft edges of stones and soil underneath the soles of her tennis shoes. The slope is long and wide up here, but soon it dips swiftly into Causton proper, and soon after that it begins its first wide arc into the beginning of the spiral. Audrey leans against the contours of the hill as she reaches the dip in the sidewalk.

*

On her right and across the street is the Harrison Theater, proud of its age, stucco crumbling at the corners where once there were faux turrets. The crenellation is still visible, though, and it is these red-brick right angles that she has always pointed out to her mother, mostly on long weekend walks through town.

“It’s even older than I am,” Mom would say.

The shops become more densely packed after she crosses the intersection of Maple Street and Main Street, and Audrey peers into the windows on her left. There is a cafe, usually frequented by adults whose occupations require reflective vests. The antique shop next door to it is run by Mrs. Kingsley, a friend of her mother’s. And then there are the places she can’t see into: windows obscured by creepy mannequins wearing dresses and sun-hats, or by a series of rectangular images of houses with meaningless dollar amounts hanging over them.

The street is now curving more sharply to the left. In the summers there’s a festival on this part of Main Street. They move the cars and motorcycles that are now parked in the morning light, and stalls along the sides of the street rest in the shade of large oak trees. She has a bumblebee necklace at home that her parents bought her last summer at just such a stall. Audrey preferred the stalls to the obscure stores up and down the middle of Main Street.

*

From above, she is a mere speck moving along the spiral. The first soft curl of the road finishes, and as the second circle begins, it nearly meets the large dip in the landscape that Audrey just crossed. If she had wanted to, she could have slid between buildings and across parking spots to this exact point as she came down the hill and into town.

The second circle in the spiral is different. There are some houses, mostly timber beams that lead up to the upside-down V of a roof, but also some more with red bricks and flat tops. If she had her own house, she would build crenellated turrets on top, flat roof or no.

She speeds up as she passes the church. Across the street, the clock face on its spire tells her that she will soon be late for school. Next to it is a park, empty but with patches of ice still lying in shaded spots; it is the negative space that makes up for the Catholic grandeur next door. Audrey has never been into to the church—they are not Catholic—but she wonders what the planes and spikes that pepper the outside of the building might look like from the inside.

“There are lots of different things people believe,” her father had always told her. “Some people like churches. Some people like to climb mountains or play music instead.” She still doesn’t really know what this means.

*

This second arc is narrower and shorter. Audrey is nearing her destination. Some of her friends live down here. There are shorter, newer houses, and shop-fronts selling services. The dry-cleaner always smells like fabric softener, and Audrey takes in a deep breath and holds it, her eyes closed, until she has passed the store two doors down, Causton’s butcher. She has seen the gristly carcasses that dangle behind its glass windows, and would rather not see them again.

Eventually, she comes to the center of the spiral. The baseball field is to one side of the school buildings, which are set back into a large green field. Taking the path all the way through the field until she reaches the playground, she spots a few stragglers playing catch. Holding tight onto her bag, Audrey climbs the stone steps, and goes inside.

In room 27C, Audrey reaches her seat and slips her rucksack off her back, letting it clatter quickly into silence beneath her desk. She places the cloth bag on the wooden table top and pulls out a neat construction made of plastic, wire, wood, paint, and tiny figurines held in place by expertly placed drops of glue. Its rectangular base is painted green and labeled Causton, Massachusetts. At its center, a coil of grey that winds in two concentric circles like a snail-shell spiral, is labeled with the words Main St.

There are flat roofs and pointed ones, die-cast metal cars pilfered from her brother’s old toy box, and trees that, in a previous life, were pipe cleaners and glossy green plastic. The contours are right, for she measured them and her mother used complicated math to figure out how deep the dip in the street ought to be for this miniature diorama. Painted expertly by Audrey and her father, the tiny people are stiff, still, but perfect.

At the top of the spiral is the only inaccuracy Audrey permitted. Set back from Main Street and along the spoke that led from the tarmac world back to the warmth and quiet of her parents, is her house, and at each corner, proud and solid, a series of right-angled crenellations that formed miniature, perfect turrets.

* * * * *

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.

No Man is an Island

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t all started at home, like everything does. As a child, he surveyed the edges of the land and, eventually, came to the conclusion that it was finite. The rocks that peppered the edge of the grass behind their garden; the stones that ran in sequences of two, then five, then hundreds and more, laying idle on the beaches to the west; the old stone towers, fissures wrinkling their surfaces with age, standing desolate on the northernmost promontories. All of these signs pointed to one thing: his was an island home.

At first, he left his circumscribed world by boat. Though his home had been made on Sarnia, he had plans, and he had to start somewhere. Nestled alongside Sarnia were its sister islands; several larger and two smaller. First, he set his sights on the bigger though more sparsely populated Angia, whose cliffs of limestone rose jagged and tall out of the English Channel. After a week on Angia, he rowed to the other islands, each in turn, making notes in his journal on the features and topography of each: outlines of coast and untouched beaches he had the fortune to christen, the types of stone that lay underneath the grass and the fish that jumped across the water’s surface.

On the beaches of the smallest of these islands, Herm, he made camp for several months. The sheer quality of the island’s light burned premature crow’s feet into his face, but he was happy, for a time.

At the age of 16, he made the decision to visit all of them. When he explained his plan to a Herm native, the man laughed and turned the sides of his mouth up in disbelief.

“Ludicrous,” the man said. “Visit every island in the world?”

“All two hundred and seventy three,” he replied.

At dawn the following day, he swam out to a small canoe that he had purchased from the old Hermer, and rowed until he hit the shipping lanes of the Channel. Like so much salmon, he was hauled aboard and tossed beneath deck. Several days later, he disembarked at a small outpost in the center of the Atlantic.

The Northern Hemisphere was his favorite, at least for the first twenty years. When Iceland grew dark, he took a biplane south to Uguntu, and marveled at the temperate climate this close to the equator. Greenland intrigued him, and he spent a year investigating its cities and glaciers, learning four types of Greenlandic in the north of the island and falling in love with the snowfall that kept the ice sheets from melting apart. It was so different to the other islands that he had visited.

Then, after living among the Kalaallit for eight years, he moved on.

His youth was spent swimming, flying, sailing from icy sheets that passed for islands to small tropical Edens where he laid his head for months. He spent a year marveling at rock pools on the shores of Hokkaido, talking with the marine biologists whose mission it was to save the native mussels that were so mysteriously important to their electronics industry.

But his final and favorite stop in the north was Attilan.

The Attiliac jungles lay in valleys between the hills, and multicolored birds drifted out and surveyed the land as the bright Pacific kissed the coastline. The heat strengthened his bones and the sun, not sheer like Herm’s, but warm and glowing, made his skin tan and taut. He felt that he would live forever.

The biplane that bore him south into new territory was rusty but comfortingly solid. At the age of 38, his skin had wrinkled some but his mind was as sharp as ever. Crossing the equator felt like a betrayal, but the list in his journal still had 139 names left unchecked.

The Southern Hemisphere was different; blue like the blood behind his skin. The plane landed in Madagascar and he decamped to the forests that infringed upon the beaches. But the weather didn’t suit him, the humidity keeping his skin—like the broad leaves of the jungle—constantly bedewed with sweat.

After a year in the mercifully dry heat of Tasmania, he took a week to hop from one Micronesian island to another, finally resting up for six months under the wide Tungan trees in the Indian Ocean. As his notes grew longer, his list became shorter. One by one, he was scratching small check marks next to the remaining insular destinations: Christmas Island; Falls Rock; each of the Balleny Islands; Jødhut.

He cooled for several months in the Antarctic waters, and, during his second week in the Wyatt Earp Islands, frostbite set in. Helicopter blades whipped the tundra into a frenzy as the medics from the Australian base across the border treated his blackened hand.

“For a man of 57, you’re lucky not to lose these fingers,” they told him. He smiled—after all, what did fingers matter?—and waved as the rotors floated them away, back toward their glacial territory.

At 78, he was weaker and slower, but no less determined. In twenty years, he had visited more than half of the rocks in the southern oceans, and settled in the abandoned harbor lighthouse in Port Vila. He loved Vanuatu. The Polynesians were laid back, and he had slackened his pace to match.

But in the small journal, there was one name left unchecked. He sent for maps, picking them up at the post office, and purchased a small husk of a boat from a trader who owed him a favor. From the giant, incomprehensible maps, he tore a single square—the only square he needed—and climbed into the boat with a creak in his bones.

The final island. It took hours, but he made it. Pulling the map out of his jacket, he switched the motor off, letting the boat drift forward with the current. A constellation of points and rounded edges signified No Man’s Island, the smallest in the Pacific, and two hundred seventy third of two hundred and seventy three. But scanning the ocean around him, all that he could see was water, flowing idly to the back of the boat and pushing him on.

He lay back against the stern and stretched his arms out so that they balanced on the wooden hull to either side of him. The tides lilted back and forth, unsure which way they wanted to send him. In the sky, a single cloud. Wisps at either edge broke off and disappeared into nothingness.

He may have lain there for minutes or months. He wasn’t sure. Eventually, his hands grew numb, and he felt a huge weight pressing down on his torso. To either side, the boat had calcified into rock that now held steady and unperturbed against the waters of the Pacific.

Above, the sky was growing bluer, then white, then as clear as the waters of Herm. Around him—though he could no longer see anything—sand and stone coalesced and drove the waters back. Following the outline of his prone form, the stones increased his size by two times, then five, then hundreds and more.

Soon, all that remained was a rough approximation of a person, surrounded by rock and stone, grains of sand the size of pinheads, and the finite lines of No Man’s Island.

* * * * *

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

Floating in a Most Peculiar Way

.
he stars were invisible
, blanched out by the towering neons and the lights that shone indifferently into every corner of Show City.

She turned her gaze down again, wary of being noticed. The day had finished at 8pm, and offices were disgorging men and women whose dour faces and regularity of step turned the sidewalks into little more than conveyor belts. Across the street there were a few outsiders—their hair long or their faces dark—but on the whole, there was little to tell one from the other.

Natasha took every stride as though she were in a Western. ‘Flinty’ was the adjective she was trying to embody. She thought verbally; always had. So it was inevitable that she used words as her armor, that she projected them outward to hold the lights and the glass and the people at bay.

They moved in near-silence until a small group of them peeled off toward the right. Fog lights burned in the alleys between the towers, and blinded Natasha as they neared the elevator. There was no way she could know if he was here. The faces of her companions were whited out in a halogen glow. The elevator, waiting stoically, swallowed them and took them to the shuttle above.

She did as instructed and held back while the others crowded in. Still no sign…

Then, as the shuttle doors kissed shut, a man’s face peered from the other end of the platform and caught her gaze. He turned away from the shuttle so that the people inside could not see his face. Deep wrinkles contrasted with pitch black hair, and Natasha realized why they had christened him ‘Reagan’.

In two steps he had looped his arm around hers and drawn her away from the shuttle. Some of the faces inside fizzled into life, and fingers pressed against the glass as they noticed the couple who had remained on the platform.

They had already pushed through an emergency exit, were listening to their footsteps echo against the concrete stairwell, when he said: “Natasha?”

“Yes”, she replied, and fumbled the piece of paper out of her pants pocket. Reagan glanced at it and released her. He said something; something her brain interpreted as ‘hurry‘.

Soon, the regulated air of Show City hit their cheeks, and they began pushing their way against the tide of people on the sidewalk.  The neons blurred, and crowds parted. A low, rumbling siren summoned black-clad security officers, but Natasha focused only on Reagan’s box-shaped outline. They reached a sign that read ‘South Station’, and he helped her vault a rusted gate. Descending toward a half-buried turnstile, they climbed further away from the blinding lights above. They were underground. Beneath the city.

A train waited; one Natasha remembered from her childhood. As she and Reagan tumbled inside, she finally exhaled.


he pool was still full
, and a handful of the underwater lights still burned, backlighting the water so that it glowed invitingly.

Reagan and the others were inside, but she felt alone. Comparatively, she was. Close to seven million people lived within the walls of Show City, but here, on the outskirts, there were mere hundreds. She gazed into the water and wondered why there were no pools in the city. No lakes or oceans, no bathtubs even.

The small house he had brought her to was a constellation of rotten wooden beams and red bricks. Pipes had tumbled from the ceilings, but the hearth that been built in one corner of the first floor kept them warm with tree branches and old newspapers. Soon she would have to relocate but for now, at least, she was free.

‘Free’, Natasha thought. She projected the word outward.

Stepping closer, she pulled her shirt over her head and slipped her shoes and pants off, tossing them to the ground. The aquamarine glow, interrupted only by the occasional leaf, was too hard to resist. She crouched and slipped easily into the pool, a rush of water cocooning her.

The stars looked very different out here. Their light shone brilliantly. Light from thousands, even millions of years ago, still visible in the dark charcoal sky. Closing her eyes, she sculled softly with her hands, staying afloat by instinct .

* * * * *

This week, we’re featuring a new collaboration between photographer Naama Sarid, whose work we’ve featured in the past. Naama has been kind enough to share her work with some of our other contributors, and they have been writing and creating based on her wonderful photography. This piece is inspired by Exposure № 070: Floating Memories. See Naama Sarid’s other Snake-Oil Cure contrubutions here.

The Detectives’ Book Club

.
he second time I saw Sam Hammett, he strode toward me with an unwarranted rancor, crumpled with a surly air into the chair opposite me, and dropped onto the table a hardback book. The sound of it striking the rosewood made a wizened crone browsing the non-fiction splash coffee on the carpet tiles.

Hammett was greying. With the occasional stripe of black reaching back across the bristles, his hair was the half-used eraser to his pencil-thin body. His mustache draped his upper lip in a great arc. He seemed nonetheless to be sneering.

“This,” he said, stabbing the book’s dust cover with a narrrow finger, “is not what I asked for, Mr. Archer.”

The Second Murderer is a classic work of detective fiction, Mr. Hammett.” I paused, under the illusion that silence might be the solution. But he leaned forward, opened the book to the first chapter and proceeded to read:

Ray Delaney’s coffee smelt like the underside of a bus. As the heat dissipated into the early morning sky, he could hear the counterpoint of city wildlife bubbling just beneath the veneer of civilisation. Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky Californian soil.

The ice in Hammett’s stare burned my face. “Like the underside of a BUS?” he said. “What the hell kind of writing is that?”

“That is, Mr. Hammett, one of the most famous opening paragraphs in detective fiction. Charles Thornton is not quite our best-selling author here at the Mysterious Bibliophile, but we certainly make a healthy profit on this novel alone.”

“It’s about as elegant as as…” He fumbled at the air between us. “As a… tarantula choking down a piece of dog food!”

A cough hybridised with a burst of chuckling escaped from a figure seated in the far corner of the store. He stood, reached with a glabrous hand a black wooden pipe to his mouth, and stepped toward us around a tower of Erle Stanley Gardners. His suit was better upholstered than my couch.

“Good to see you in such festive spirits, Sam.”  In spite of the pipe he enunciated each syllable with an Ivy League exactitude. His jacket and vest were of a heavy tweed, and though his chin was weak he concealed it with copious puffs of smoke. He seemed to have punctured Hammett’s pomposity.

Hammett stood. “Ray,” he said. “I didn’t realize you frequented this place. Is this where they keep your poetry these days?”

Chandler smirked, his eyes watery but keen behind round, thin-rimmed glasses. He said: “I’ve circumvented the need to demean myself in the world of poetry, Sam, and so have you. In fact, much like Mr. Thornton—I’m terribly surprised you’re not a fan—we can bask in the glory of popular success without the expectation of  critical praise.”

Still seated, I watched this Homeric struggle. Hammett’s gaze seemed to soften in the face of this raffishness, while Chandler—quieter, smaller and trying his best not to seem flustered in spite of it all—puffed a perfectly-twisting curl of oak-flavored smoke into the air.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “Please take a seat, I’m sure I can find something to both Mr. Hammett’s and Mr. Chandler’s taste.” I rose and went to the back of the store. A stack of titles as yet unsorted teetered between two leather armchairs. I removed a soft cover and returned to my seat, perched my glasses on my nose and turned to the opening paragraph:

Her features, soft like wax, are half-hidden in the darkness. I wait until the train crossing the bridge screams into a corner and fades before I ask her why she is here. She speaks in riddles, fractal sentences, misappropriated phrases and English half-wrapped in her native tongue. I sputter in German, consonants and vowels spill beneath the underpass and flicker for a moment in the midnight air before obscurity snatches them. We talk like broken glass before, finally, her face leans toward mine and I see a wisp of warmth on her lips vaporise between us.

I could neither gauge their reaction nor draw a deep, well-earned breath before Hammett sprang to his feet and said: “Wonderful, that IS more like it, Mr. Archer—The Laconic German, correct?”

“Yes, one of J. Ford Hadley’s more pop…”

“Good God, Sam!” crowed Chandler, pulling the pipe from his mouth and swinging it in an arc as though dispensing incense. “He just spat at the alphabet and hoped for the best. There’s nothing there that one would be unable to express in a single sentence.”

“What sentence would you suggest, exactly, my dear Raymond?” he said, arching a bushy black eyebrow.

Chandler, now twisted in his chair the better to address Hammett, replaced his pipe and said: “I kissed her,” he paused. “Like she was my last drink of the night.”

Hammett raised a hand to his forehead and his blazer ballooned out from his sides. If he were any thinner he would disappear, I thought. He began to pace like a tiger enclosed, vivacious yet centered, appropriating with embracing gestures of his arms words from the book-dust around him. “All you’re interested in, Ray: Adjectives and nouns. Try some verbs some day.”

“Nouns and adjectives are all that this country is interested in, Sam,” said Chandler.

The words bounced off Hammett as he paced toward the non-fiction. The old woman, now sipping lukewarm dregs from a Mysterious Bibliophile coffee mug, squinted up at Hammett, blind to the author’s stare.

Chandler creased back to face me in his chair and placed his hand on the dust cover of The Second Murderer. He said: “Do you know, Mr. Archer, that Charles DeForest Thornton appropriated this title from me.” It was not a question. “My first novel was, in the original draft, going to be called The Second Murderer. But the agents, second only to actors in their finite wisdom, did not appreciate the reference.”

“Sometimes reference is all we have left,” I said. Chandler nodded sourly, eyes obscured in the glint of his lenses, chin hidden in a wreath of smoke. He rose slowly and traipsed past me toward his corner, and toward his miniature stack of books.

I looked back to Hammett. He was stood in a shaft of light at the front of the store, eyeing the shelves despondently. The sun—creeping in from the steps that led to the curb outside—shone onto the white streaks in his hair to form an afternoon halo. Behind me, Chandler was puffing like an irregular steam train and making notations on a battered copy of Eliot’s Waste Land.

I picked up The Second Murderer.

Cats mewed to a symphony of scratches and overturned trashcans, birds querulously warbled and – in the distance, unheard – larger creatures prowled the rocky red Californian soil.

Delaney was focused intently on the sunlight catching the right-angles of his filing cabinet. It was a dry, stubborn heat that had been many times his savior. Heat always drew from others an unexpected candor.

Delaney did not know it, but today was the first time he would see Sylvia Munroe…

Dead Men Prefer Blondes

.
usty Deutsch’s name
was, much like her hair colour, pure fabrication.

Her red ringlets glowed against the dark wood of the pub’s interior like embers in a fireplace. Bruen watched her approach from his customary corner, and with each step her face aged a year. Close-up, she was fifty, maybe fifty-five, and visibly tired of life. He counted

the rings under her eyes
the creases at her mouth
the broken fingernails

as she pulled out the chair and took a seat.

Ken Bruen?” Her eyes were wider than they ought to be.

Bruen nodded. “Nice to see you, Rusty. Congratulations on winning.”

There was almost a blush. A shade darker and it would have matched the dye in her hair. “I’ve read all the Jack Taylor books. When they announced the contest, I entered straight away.” She smiled. Her teeth were crooked. “I had no idea you lived in London. Well… I know you and Jack Taylor aren’t one and the same, but…”

“You thought Galway?” Bruen smirked playfully. “It’s a well-known fact that all the best Irishmen don’t live in Ireland. I also don’t get through quite as many of these as Jack does.” He held up his glass and peered through it at Rusty. She was trapped in amber for a moment.

Rusty’s features mellowed with the evening, until she approached the colour of the faux marble statues standing on the bar. She told Bruen about her job, her ailing mother, thanked him profusely for the chance to meet him. After her third gin and tonic, the whites around her eyes had turned pink.

“Do you know why I read your books?’ she asked.

“No. And I don’t care as long as you pay for ‘em.” Bruen smiled.

“My husband was in the Gardaí, he was a policeman, like Jack Taylor.”

Bruen swilled his beer and wondered: Is she a

widow
a divorcée
a madwoman?

When she brushed the red out of her face self-consciously, Bruen asked whether they should go.

.
utside, droplets of rain spattered
as from a paintbrush. Bruen flipped his collar and held the door for Rusty, who exited and then stood, bouncing on the heels of her feet, beneath the illuminated pub sign.

“Sure, let me give you a lift home,” he said. Two beers were as many as he would allow into the driver’s seat of his Volvo. Rusty climbed into the passenger side, and after the hollow thunk of door-metal, they made their way onto the slick street.

Second gear.

“He died a few years ago. In the line of duty is the phrase they use, I suppose.”

“Your man? Sorry to hear it.”

Third gear.

They passed under a low-set bridge and graffiti glared at them.

“Were you in the Gardaí?” she asked.

Bruen spun the wheel gently and shifted back into second.

“Me? No, never. There’s three things you can be as a son of Ireland:

priest
teacher
or doctor.

I took option two and disappointed both the Holy Mother and my own holy ma.”

They climbed a ramp onto the motorway.

Third gear
Fourth gear

“Well, my other half ran with the bad crowd; that’s what he used to say. That’s what did him in, I s’pose.” Rusty glanced over at Bruen. “Sort of like Jack.”

“Jack’s not a nice fella, Rusty.”

Bruen imagined Jack Taylor’s face, the face he saw when he sat down at his laptop to write. Caved in and pock-marked, thinning white hair like the dying stroke of a paintbrush. Always a pint of beer in his hand.

“Jack’s only in it for himself,” he added. “Wouldn’t make a good husband.”

Rusty Deutsch laughed.

They were close to Finchley Park and not far from the address that Rusty had given him. They pulled off the motorway and the lanes merged into one, trees sprouting up by the side of the road.

“What happened?” Bruen said it quietly, as though the words were tiptoeing past him as he spoke. “Was he shot? Or stabbed. Stabbing is more likely, in Ireland.”

“He drowned.” Twitching his head sideways, Bruen saw that Rusty had turned away from him. In the dim light of the streetlamps,

light
dark
light
dark,

her hair seemed to writhe with Medusa-like movements. Bruen fixed his eyes on the white lines of the road ahead.

.
he trees were red herrings
. Rusty’s mother lived in a concrete housing estate that towered above the borough, a long-lost symbol of Thatcher’s Britain. Perhaps he should set a novel in London after all, Bruen thought.

“My best to your mother,” he said.

Rusty clutched her purse and opened the door. As she climbed out, in her narrow, angular bones and the tumble of red on top of her head, there was something approaching art.

“And don’t get too hooked on Jack Taylor – he was never a good Guard, nor much of a gentleman.”

“I never said he was,” Rusty replied, and slammed the car door.

Bruen wound down the passenger window and called out: “But he reminds you of your man?”

“I hated my husband, Ken. And he hated me.” She was taking baby steps backwards in her plastic high heels. “He always preferred blondes, you see?”

Rusty pivoted and a shadow swallowed her, from head to toe, until just the clicking of her shoes

bounced
around
the breeze
block
building.

* * * * *

DLR likes writing for fun, and writing for money. He likes his dogs to have beards, and his bourbon to have poise. His other Snake-Oil contributions can be found here.

Return to Planet Alpha

The Cat's Eye Nebula Redux (click image for more info)

.
he flex of the glass always bothered him. It warped against the vacuum and threatened to collapse. He knew that, in reality, the screen was not a glass screen, and that he was safe behind it for several hundred years before there was any danger of fissures or implosion, but that didn’t rid him of the dreams that resurfaced before every tour. Dreams where the glass bubbles inwards until the front of the capsule brushes his body, and then a sudden force drags him out into the airlessness of space until…

Dexter snapped himself out of his daydream and pressed a gloved finger against the screen. It was solid enough. A mere three hundred light years ahead, so close that he almost felt like he could reach into the nearest planet’s core, was the Hadley System.

A static cough signaled a message from the Icarus.

“Dexter, what’s your status? Over.” It was Santos, the Icarus’ captain.

“I’m coming up close, Icarus. It’s a gorgeous thing,” Dexter replied. The nearest planet, observable only from the OC Capsule, shone a pink-hued blue. Codenamed Hadley Alpha, it showed greatest promise of life.

“Remember, Dexter, obs only, stay within 700 of the Icarus. Over.”

“Understood, over,” Dexter replied.

As the OC Capsule rolled steadily onward, Dexter saw a ring appear around Alpha. Not natural, not mineral, he decided. Distinctly artificial. He supposed that there must be some kind of life down there, if satellites and digital instruments were already circling the planet. But their slow orbit, like a destructive ballet, worried him.

Dexter guided the OC gently until it matched speed with several of the smaller satellites. One just up ahead was revolving slowly, counter to its planetary orbit, spinning aimlessly just feet away from where Dexter sat, buckled in place, trapped behind the warping glass. “Not good,” he muttered.

Between cloud cover, there was land below. It was rocky, mostly red, like the deserts in which he had trained back home. He ran the topography program and waited. Turning endlessly, over and over, the satellite up ahead spun. Dexter knew that it would continue, like Planet Alpha, spinning in the vacuum until it simply fell apart.

* * * * *

This post is part of our series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sonnet: On the modish movements of youthful folly

Are we not men, who wear our breeches tight,
With stripèd cardies, checkered shirts of plaid,
Our face adorned with spectacles that might
Repair our vision were they not a fad?

The city streets we ride with fixèd gears,
A mustache soft depending from our lip.
We like not what you like, but when appears
A draft of PBR we take a sip.

Where once we loved that beaut’ous lady dear
Whose corset forced her cleavings oh so high,
Yet now, we young men gaze back at the mirror
Like copiously-bearded Narcissi.

That beaut’ous lady? Fellows, we eclips’d her
When we birthed that ogre named the Hipster.

by Daniel F. Le Ray

* * * * *

This is part of a series of featured entries in our first-ever poetry contest.

Stay tuned for more and get ready to vote for your favorite!

Interview with a Detective

Softly, the patter. His eyelids opened. Above him the ceiling revealed a square of light, a bruised blue behind the raindrops falling against the glass. He gargled the sandpaper at the back of his throat and twisted his neck sideways to read the clock. The numbers were unfortunate. 11:16 a.m. He was due at the Idlewild at midday.

Crumpling to his feet he rolled from left to right. A convenience store polo shirt and a plastic badge reading Hi, my name is: SAM lay beside him on the floor. He kicked idly at the shirt and almost collapsed, seasick, back onto the bed.

Finding his feet proved both metaphorically and literally easier than it should have. This, he knew, was a bad sign. He shaved poorly, dabbed cologne onto his face and dressed in his only suit, a dark blue, shapeless cut of cloth, before exiting his apartment by 11:51.

*      *      *

The rain had let up. His skylight had been the victim of a passing shower. He parked across the street, slipped his car keys into an inside pocket and pushed open the door to the Idlewild.

An L-shaped bar greeted him. Shining glasses unironically, the bartender glanced in his direction; on the long upstroke of the bar sat a woman in her early forties, staring distantly at the glass in front of her. Neither of these was his subject.

His eyes finally came to rest on the short end of the bar. A man was perched on one of the tall barstools, vigilant but deeply settled, as though he did not want his presence to be noticed. Crossing the room, a forgotten scent emanated from the woman, who was now swinging a hand across her torso as though conducting some silent symphony.

He reached the end of the bar and his eyes locked on the stranger, his subject, the detective.

“My name is Sam Butler,” he said, proffering a hand.  “I’m here for the interview and—sorry I’m late—.“ The stranger completed his handshake.

“Yes, from Adventure & Intrigue magazine.” The detective crossed his legs in a manner almost feminine, tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, and tilted his head approximately forty-five degrees to the left.

“Dimmer than a thirty watt bulb at midnight,” he said, thumbing in the woman’s direction as he gestured for the bartender. The young man, close-shaven and handsome, placed a tumbler in front of Butler and moved away in slow motion.

No doubt an out-of-work actor, thought Butler, as the detective picked up a decanter and poured. The light was low but he could make out an autumnal copper stream tinkling and twirling into the glass. The detective’s eyes seemed to glow under the soft lamplight; the colour of his irises matched the background of heavy drapes.

“So what does your readership want to know?”

Butler paused, withdrawing from his pocket a small, black box. He made a May I? motion with his hands and the detective nodded. He pressed rec and said:

“Why do you come here? To the Idlewild?”

“For the atmosphere, Mr. Butler.” He made an expansive gesture and glanced at the conductress. “The smells and colours, the lights at midnight. People tell you what you want to hear by candlelight.”

“And what about real life?” asked Butler. “Pastimes, women—“ glancing at his left hand. “How does life square up to your career?”

The detective laughed. “I don’t go to the cinema or collect stamps. And I’m not married.” His face creased in the right spots. “I come to the Idlewild.”

He leaned in conspiratorially and said: “In subdued lighting the heartbeat slows to almost nothing. The Idlewild, by that reasoning, hardly exists at all.”

Leaning back he took up his glass to drink. Butler did the same, attempting to interpret the words now passing between the bartender and the woman. She was pouting, unpouting, blinking too slowly; he began to appreciate the detective’s assessment of her.

The detective unwound his legs, tied them in the other direction. He straightened and said towards the Dictaphone: “We are all actors in tiny cages, Mr. Butler. We have such a small arena in which to perform.” He paused for no reason. “We are small cogs in a large machine. It’s just that—I would rather be the oil.”

He leaned back for another sip. His aquiline nose and severe jaw were filmic, cast angular shadows on the deep green curtains. He wore his tie loose. Beneath his suit jacket Butler imagined the outline of a pistol like a poorly wrapped Christmas present.

They could hear the conductress’ voice simpering at the other end of the room, as though transmitted through a tin-can telephone. She was pretty in a leonine way, honey-coloured hair pulled back from her forehead, skin stretched tight over high cheekbones. I tipped the remaining whisky into my mouth.

“You’re trying to get to the centre of my philosophy, Mr. Butler.” It was not a question. “You are a poet? A newshound?”

“A writer.” He bobbed his head in agreement and poured again, first for his subject and then for himself. The stream of liquid caught the candlelight and made a perfect arc before coming to rest. A literal spirit level.

“All the great writers in the world, each great detective, they understand one thing: Every production of nature has had a history.” Butler didn’t argue. “Every complex structure is the summing up of many contrivances.”

“Is that what you do? Deconstruct? Decontrive?” He shrugged off the question, picked up his glass and leaned back into his seat.

“In my work I am turned into a sort of machine. A machine built for observing facts, extinguishing lies and grinding out conclusions.”

After some verbal arithmetic Butler said: “Well my job is to extinguish facts, grind out lies and observe conclusions.”

“Newshound…” murmured his companion.

Through the glass sides of his tumbler, the detective’s sharp lines were made bulbous and clownish. As he watched the man taking a drink, Butler imagined oil derricks dipping and rising. Small cogs in a large machine. He placed his glass on the formica counter. It cast a flickering candlelit shadow in one direction; in the other the bar lights produced a stiff, stark phantom.

The detective lifted his glass and made a small circle with his left hand. Half-hearted ice cubes chimed. “To the oil,” he said.

Butler raised his own glass and accepted the toast.

*      *      *

The moonlight shone into his room as he replaced the dark blue suit on its hanger and clawed the convenience store shirt from the carpet. His shift began at ten. Pulling on the shirt and pinning the badge to his chest, Butler lay down on the bed and looked up through the skylight. He was little more than shadows bent around corners.

After his shift, he sat between a shaft of sunrise and an off-white wall typing up the transcript of his interview. The editor at Adventure & Intrigue could hardly be expected to believe this David Lynch dialogue. At the top of the page, he added the title:

We Never Sleep: An Interview with Detective Allan Pinkerton.

Exposure № 033: Walls

I lived in Berlin for a year. Walking the streets of that huge city, you come to realise that you can’t piece it together, you can’t build from individual images a cohesive panorama, and that any definitive statement about the place amounts to little more than a truism.

It is a place of division, of course, and of dichotomies. Saying that Berlin is not a coherent, complete city is, however, as much as truism as anything else. Metres from the shining glass and metal beams of the Sony Center are 19th Century buildings housing offices and cheaply rented apartments full of expatriates. Between the new and the old at Potsdamer Platz, wide streets and plazas of space signify what is now missing: for nearly 30 years, the Wall ploughed through the city.

Bornholmer Str. station, from Norweger Str.

The East is gentrified and gentrifying. EEJ wrote about one part of East Berlin on Monday. At the end of that year, I lived in Prenzlauer Berg, another part of the former East which exists so that the artistic waifs and former punks can marry (or not), have children, and move to a nicer area of the city with cheap living costs.

Leaving my apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, I turned left and then right onto Norweger Straße to walk to the train. To my right, short, blocky houses, refurbished but old. On the left, a three-foot wall obscured the train tracks and Bornholmer Straße station. The street that I walked on had also been the path of the former Berlin Wall. But in 2008, you could peer through a hole in the wall, see the platform staring back, and snap a photo of the West.

Slow exposure of Rosenthaler Platz

Rosenthaler Platz, though not on the path of the infamous Wall, was once home to the walls that surrounded Berlin. A series of gates, including one at Rosenthaler Platz, admitted traders and visitors into the city, and over the course of centuries, this square became heavily built up, housing large department stores and small businesses alike. On a slow exposure, the camera traces car headlights, the laylines of post-Unification Berlin, and the 20th Century facades that survive. Ubiquitous language schools, shops and cafes, and residential buildings still surround the square.

Camera: Canon EOS 300. Film: Ilford HP5