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The Palm Court Cellist

To her the room was empty

The Palm Court Cellist

If you are to assassinate a notable personage, be sure to bring along fresh underwear. You will be noticed and remembered.

“Yello...”

“Uh, I thought.”

“You thought you would be talking to a machine. Well, yes. Usually.”

“You are tape recorder? An answering machine?”

“No. Not today. I am a person. Machines are... well... they are better than us, you and I, if you get what I mean. It is quite a compliment to be mistaken for an answering machine.”

“I mean... you are? This is where I call to make an apology? I hadn’t, didn’t...”

“I am who I am; names are so top-heavy, irrelevant. But you are...? First things first, after all. No names, please.”

“My name is not... relevant?”

“You are a celebrity? You are a basketball player or a Kardashian boyfriend. How very modern. You thought this would be like a solo confessional, the Higher Power and you, no intermediary, and you fear I might know you. You called this number; you must have read the flyer. Those flyers I stick up all over town are the only places this unlisted number is listed. Hmm... strange—I mean a listed unlisted—un-advertised number, if you get my drift. Do you have your flyer with you? Rattle it off so I can tell if you are the real thing. Sort of a Turing test on the telephone... you know, like the Internet thingy? To find out if you are a living, breathing human being instead of some lines of code on a phishing expedition.”

“You mean read it to you.”

“Well, yes. The Internet has been a true blessing, but with the Internet comes impersonality and the disappearance of payphones.”

The caller reads:

“Attention criminals—amateurs, professionals, blue collar, white collar. YOU THINK YOU HAVE DONE SOMETHING NAUGHTY. Not to the state, not to God—just squashed a bug, perhaps. And this is bothering you. When you call you will be alone with a tape recorder.”

*  *  *

Cindy Maxwell wakes to a placid dripping sound; she is inside a Lost World waterfall. A secret vacation getaway for her alone says a soothing announcer, to be revealed as Tarzan, who strides through the cascading water. She must have won something, the lottery, a TV game show. A groan; it is her voice, glottal and frightened. “Help,” softly, in case she is heard by unfriendly ears. A tiny echo and the mild odor of urine with scented toilet cakes.

This is not a dream. Things are conical. An open-ended funnel sucks elongated rooms and their inhabitants—her, frequently naked along with nameless shadow people—into a waiting chasm at the far end of... everything. She views early memories—not in the womb, surely, for she is grown-up and in situations in places and with people where only an adult would be welcome. Like the powder room of an upscale bar. The Carlyle, uptown on the East Side. Perhaps.

I have been drugged. She remembers a kindly policeman who visited her sixth grade classroom with flash cards and a video on the horrors of addiction. He tells the class what they will later discover to be lies and hands out lollipops. There is a banging on the door. She squints through clenched eyelids.

Rohypnol. Propofol. Milk of amnesia in a syringe. “I have been asleep.” Not like booze or benzodiazepines, not really worn out and hungover. Propofol was the stuff that killed Michael Jackson. “I am awake and feel great. Huh, I’m not dead then.” And not hungover. I have been locked in the ladies’ room. The door is barricaded with ruined plumbing fixtures. She has blocked the door. “Push!” Men’s voices on the other side with the plush cushions and the velvet ropes.

*  *  *

Albemarle Truant wondered who chose the decor for these meetings. The place had the look of a post-apocalyptic ice cream parlor. A little scrap of monumental architecture had been left standing, behind them and slightly to their left—alone as if there had once been a larger structure overshadowing it. The overstanding presence had been removed, leaving a blank wall of exposed brickwork empty of windows. A Palm Court cellist noodled away in a corner, empty-eyed as she sawed off discrete neo-classical embellishments. The cellist had been engaged especially for the evening’s assassination. Truant leaned back in his authentically re-created twisted wire chair and smiled at the Asian face across the table from him. “Inscrutable are we?” he asked. A striped awning extended to the pavement’s edge, where more twisted wire chairs clustered around small marble-topped tables.

“Not today, Mr. Truant,” said Xian.

“What do you think of my world so far?”

“Quaint, stark, gruesome.”

“That from you. You are in a prison camp.”

“Yes, but it is my home.” Xian faded in and out like a mirage of fruit and olives in the Taklamakan (a desert of Central Asia, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China). The mirage flickered.

Truant felt the slightest touch at his neck over the left carotid artery. “Is that you?” Xian became translucent in shades of chartreuse, then “You would kill me if you could. How’d you do that? Fiber optics?”

Xian appeared puzzled. “Me? You think that I...?” His voice trembled. “My dear chap, I have been out of circulation too long; the solitude is getting to me. You have nothing to fear. I shall respect our agreement.”

Truant sighed and indicated their surroundings with a flutter of his fingers. “One of us is real, perhaps both. Have you thought about that?” Xian blinked out. Somewhere over the signal’s 10000 km path a repeater had failed. A dip in scan frequency announced a repair, and as Xian’s image was shunted around the trouble spot he flashed back with the exaggeratedly healthy flesh tones of a Hollywood leading man. Too good to be true, thought Truant. He wondered what Xian really looked like. “They are feeding you well, then?”

“Liquid nutrients through a tube leave one easily persuaded. I am suicide prone, they say.” The corners of Xian’s thin lips sketched the beginnings of a smile. “One misses taste. With a plastic hose, flavor and bouquet cease to exist.” His two-dimensional double rippled at the edges, green again.

Rather like a jellyfish, thought Truant.

“The surroundings are flawless, all the touches of home. Your cellist is lovely. Is she prepared?” asked the distant prisoner.

“Lovely... I hadn’t noticed. Prepared? Yes, as well as any of us may be.” Cindy is indeed lovely in a Manhattan-ish, Upper East Side sort of way, thought Truant. Cindy Maxwell performed naked professionally, wrapped in low-density polyethylene cling wrap. There was a much-visited photo gallery linked to her website, with encrypted email as a contact option. Athletic but of an age, Cindy attracted an older clientele. Truant, in fact, had met her online where she used the name Miss Viridian.

Today she wore a classic little black dress that accented her sculpted clavicle. The cling wrap would not have hidden the tiny polycarbonate derringer that arrived by bonded messenger that morning. He was a familiar face, a client who tipped well, so there were no misgivings—an errand, that was all—when he delivered a sealed envelope with the floor plan of that evening’s rendezvous and two .22 magnum cartridges. He showed her how to fasten the weapon in a Velcro sling, high and tight against her thigh, then advised Cindy to forget about it, which she did.

“We’ll be in touch with you. And pearls,” he had said. “Don’t forget to wear pearls. De rigueur, I’m afraid, although they do tend to get in the way. Forget me,” said Albemarle Truant, “My face. Everything.”

*  *  *

As was the way of schoolchildren, the class were slipping notes. This was unremarkable. An October day and new notes appeared, different in an indefinable way. These notes were scribbly and hard to read. They did not say... “Dear so-and-so.” They did say “I am going to hurt you...”

One note was passed on by Clarissa Moore, a girl who sometimes sat with her at lunch. A strip scissored from an official document said, “Pretty but something of a loner. A good kid, good student. Stays on task and not in the least mean.” The typing had been glued, stapled, and highlighted in yellow. Her student profile—supposedly sealed and locked away with the other girls’ in a green metal filing cabinet in the registrar’s office—said this about her, said the sender. Cindy mouthed a “Who?” at Clarissa; it was answered with a shrug.

A loud whisper. “You?”

A rapid shaking of the head. Clarissa leaned close. “It was in my locker.” The girls’ lockers were side by side in a long row of identical gym lockers. The head teacher sent home a letter to parents. There was a school policy on harassment that pertained to notes and teasing. Consequences: suspension, expulsion and/or contacting the appropriate authorities.

The anonymous sender was jealous of her—another outsider? Cindy was a threat. The rest of the class were also jealous of their tightly-knit cliques into which Cindy was forbidden entry. The notes continued as Halloween approached. Out there, beyond the safe haven of the Maxwell hearth and hedge, savage children shared secret jokes, tattling, gossiping. Past privet and mailbox, there is a close circle of friends to which Cindy does not belong. They play at each other’s houses and have for years. Not Cindy; she is shunned.

The notes do not target Cindy alone.

When did the first threats about Janice Blakey’s soldier father start? The Blakey girl’s father was not a soldier which was confusing, but the writer of the notes had no way of knowing this.

*  *  *

Cindy has lain very still, very long, flat on the tessellated tile floor, of—a lavatory, yes. “You OK in there?” The voice is female, confused and in a hurry, a waitress rattling at the locked door of the ladies’ room. And I am blind. Her eyes. She had kept her eyes closed tightly as though not seeing, not knowing, would create a protective curtain between her and any intrusion. At a tickle, a brush against one eyelid, she opened the eye. A great golden eye stared back. A dragonfly. Instinctively she brushed it away.

A horizon. There is a horizon. Strange, she is indoors and lying between the shattered partitions of a row of slate toilet stalls. Oh, God, not the boys’ locker-room. Please. I have passed out drunk and been gang raped and don’t remember anything.

Sirens arrived—NYFD had been called. “Over here.” The voices were not angry with her, but the idea of her and their interrupted sleep, card game, tryst, whatever. They pounded at the door. The startled dragonfly flew away through the frosted glass of a transom, toward the firemen. There was the tangle of an indecipherable reply—indeterminate, shallow, fearful. The dragonfly returned to her eyelid and they listened together to the racing of her pulse. A throng of buried memories hammered at the edges of consciousness. Anger she had faced in all its flavors and shapes. Angry men had hit her. Confused men had hurt her, taken her money. Over the transom, which somehow flexed to allow his passage, came a man. He carried a respirator—no, an oxygen tank—from which a mask dangled free, swinging loosely by its corrugated hose. His face was Asian, but he was impatient and lacking in tranquility. Not a fireman, a hallucination, perhaps. He will kill me. I must kill him first. He wavered and became vaporously green. A warning touch with the tenuousness of a virgin kiss, dreamlike, distant. Tendrils.

A jellyfish, she thinks.

“Hello. You are wondering if this is real.” He smiled, not angry. “And your jellyfish analogy is not inappropriate. Mr. Truant has said this.” A chuckle. Cindy recalled a snick of Velcro, a sudden awareness of herself, all the life forces within the room, all the Hui meeting points, the emanations Zang, Fu and Qi that shimmered around her.

The Palm Court Cellist attempts to stand. She looks for who might have destroyed the fixtures, torn them from the floor. Pain in her shoulders and a focused agony from her lower back force her to the floor. I did this. I have locked myself in the ladies’ room.

The Asian-looking man smiles down at her, compassionate, merciful. “Look at me. Trust me and you will be all right.”

She must have struggled; her hips are now wedged under a fallen porcelain washstand. And soon I too, will be dead. But why?

*  *  *

A spoken comment on the bus, “I hope your father steps on a land mine.” This was said in an otherwise unexceptional moment. Just being the puke that he was, Jerome St. Pierre had taunted the wrong victim, fired at Janice Blakey and connected with Cindy Maxwell. “How would you feel if it were your father?” said Cindy.

“I don’t care—I hate my father.” said the St. Pierre child, but then everyone hated their fathers at his age. No disciplinary action was taken. Clarissa Moore, her body language giving her away when the class was confronted by their teacher, said to Cindy, “How’s your dad?”

Cindy, surprised, “Oh, he’s doing great.” There was no dad, only an aunt and her parakeet.

“No he’s not; he was in combat and he got wounded.”

The notes were then directed toward Clarissa. New notes were found in the morning under the hinged top of the other girl’s wooden desk, one of a precise row of similar wooden desks. There were in all four notes in pen or pencil. One written in yellow marker. Words misspelled. Characteristic, very recognizable, with floral print edges, a child’s graphic, purple ink. Spiral bound notebook 5x7, a girly diary-like journal. Cindy had bought one at the book fair, so had five other girls; they couldn’t tell who it was. She was ashamed now, but the class and the claques did not taunt her for sending mean, teasing notes. They believe I did it—I sent the cruel notes. She hadn’t. Still, she was sorry, for the girl’s father had been killed the next week, his bicycle run off the road by a dry cleaner’s van.

They are afraid of me.

*  *  *

“Wha...?” The bare-armed cellist stopped playing, lifting the bow from the strings in mid-stroke. She had heard a call, a withering wail from a passing universe built on nonstandard mathematics. There were insect messages from the spinning of a radio dial, static, a heterodyning squeal. Voices interrupted in mid-syllable, gone to be assembled for later study.

Skiers in stocking caps, a whole team of downhillers, piling, plummeting, accelerating in full rut right at her, sending billows of fine white powder snow flying behind their frenzied passage. Their heads looked like the cone heads on Saturday Night Live. Or condoms. As seen on TV, thought Cindy. Call the number across the bottom of your screen. Batteries not included. Not available in stores. Cindy giggled in her chemical dysphoria, then reached for a remote control. There was none; this was reality, somehow. She started to run.

ZOO-ung, THI-yow, zoop! Echoed passing traffic from an invisible thruway on the other side of a pile of shattered plumbing fixtures.

Zoop! A bidet went flying by.

Jesus, that was a close one! Cindy ducked reflexively. She recalled the punch line of a fireside joke from teenage summers at an all-girl camp.

Zrr-IT! Things that go bump in the night. Ho-ho, that’s rich.

The joke from a fifteen-year-old counselor evoked nervous glances—at one another, at the surrounding dark. It was a diversion from the almost scary night sounds of unidentifiable wild life. Cindy had just started having her periods and was ill at ease with the mechanics of her maturing body. She sensed the sexual innuendo and thought it gross. Gross but faintly exciting.

The thruway mocked her with a distant Doppler zing of tire tread noise sliding always down, and another, the whine of tires passing at high speed and just out of sight. Does a Doppler ever slide up? Sure, when you are dead in the path of a head-on collision. The rising Doppler is the last thing you hear. Before the splat.

Cindy woke up.

*  *  *

Cindy Maxwell, Miss Viridian, screamed for help but no help came. To her, the room was empty. She dropped her cello and fled the tiny dais to barricade herself in the women’s lavatory. She carried a Bloomingdale’s recycled cotton canvas tote with a change of clothes. Sound thinking, thought Truant. There is a lesson for us hereif you are to assassinate a notable personage, be sure to bring along fresh underwear, and check your spaghetti straps for slippage: one breast riding high is an anomaly. You will be noticed and remembered.

Sounds of understated demolition filtered out to the terrace. Any would-be rescuer would have to smash his way through a mountain of porcelain fixtures wrenched from the wall and piled against the door. Truant’s apprentice assassin was demonstrating a profound fear of enclosed spaces, interesting albeit unfortunate. He would leave her in there to mellow, to steady her hand. An attentive wait staff hovered anxiously at the snap of his fingers. An absinthe frappe appeared at Cindy’s table to await her return. She remained locked inside the washroom for an excess of thirty-six minutes. The woman was strong―she might well decide to strangle him. He hoped she was a good shot.

“Xian?” The ice cream chair opposite him was empty. The connection had been terminated. His pet assassin and/or his keepers grown weary, Xian had been herded back to latrine cleaning.

*  *  *

“Are you there?”

“Yes.”

“I thought. I mean your flyer said...”

“Ahh... I see. I don’t get many callers—being housebound, you understand. But I have ordered an answering machine from a catalog, and someone should be coming soon wearing a snappy brown uniform with gold piping and a sharp crease in the trousers, not unlike a meter maid. These are my visitors. It is thus we meet people. This is important with us stay-at-homes, shut-ins. The humble phone booth used to flourish like the prairie dogs of the wild Western plains. Where are they now, I ask you? Shot by Cowboys. Well, no pain no gain, caller. I gather you have been a naughty boy, ahh, Mr... Mr...”

“Truant. Albemarle Truant. Should you really be asking my name? I thought this... I mean your literature says...”

“Literature? You are talking of mimeographed sheets which I mimeographed myself on a hand cranked home mimeo machine. Which machine is now broken. Notice the word home, however. I have a life, too, albeit broken. Ahh… But we are supposed to be talking about your problems, are we not?”

“My problem. I have been recently speaking with an assassin who at one time handled all my... adjustments. Balancing the success of his mission against the certainty of being caught or killed himself, he chose the former, a man of duty. A sheltered trust will maintain his extended family—this was our agreement. He is alone in a cold lightless cell where a smaller man would swallow broken glass and die. He is urging me to spare myself; I have, however, hired a woman to kill me. I do not in the usual way of things employ women, but I strongly feel that within some short seconds, she will do just that. The killing that is. I am sorry for that. I am sorry for her.”

“And you wish to make an act of contrition. This you have now done. Thank you for calling. Once in print, always in print, they say; but there is nothing as impermanent as a mimeograph once cranked off its matrix. It has become paper and therefore ephemeral. But God has made a whole whack of numbers—reaching to perhaps infinity—and you have dialed one of them. God owes you one. Alas, there are many more callers to go and I’m afraid, Mr. Truant, that our time is up. Mr. Truant. Mr. Truant? Well, thank you for your call. I do not have call forwarding, but I do have many telephones and the next one is ringing.”

*  *  *

Cindy crouched, and with a single fluid motion turned, aimed and fired her derringer. Albemarle Truant had half-risen from his twisted wire ice cream chair. The two small, quick bullets struck a millimeter apart—gently, in the center of his forehead. His corpse sat down again. He had been talking with someone, Cindy noticed. His handheld fell to the tile floor and bounced once. The man was not dead when she first saw him, but now it seems he is.

A woman shrieks. Big teeth, bouffant hairdo—bouffant with a flip like Katy Perry, or Miss America with too-red lipstick. The woman is middle-aged and having lunch with her lawyer—something about alimony. She has only fainted. Cindy is not sorry, for she has done nothing wrong. The dead man would be sorry, but he has difficulty retrieving his phone. The dead man would be sorry if he were not dead.

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