Monday, March 12, 2012

Curved horns and crooked lies

Two O’clock is my least favorite hour of the day.

In summer the mid day sun has long since roared to life with a merciless siege on the high ramparts of basic existence. Relentlessly churning and gaining ground behind its fearsome engines of war and driving all living things great, small, and the indifferent in-between, into a scurrying and frantic retreat. The leaden weight of the mid day humidity crushes everything flatter than an Iowa horizon and leaves pools of sweat deeper than the darkest reaches of Poseidon’s realm.  Six months later you find yourself languidly tracing the sky for the outline of a familiar shape hoping to bribe, curse, or cajole it into chasing away the burning freeze caught somewhere between your teeth and lungs. Willing your ice bound limbs into action takes more effort than seems possible and knowing that the day won’t get any warmer is makes the wind extra sharp as it slices into your flesh.

Even worse, two o’clock is too early for getting any serious drinking or skirt chasing done within the confines of polite society. Thankfully I’ve never been much welcomed in such circles so I pass the time in my own way, usually in the back room of a gentlemen’s social club where they keep the lights, like the expectations, set modestly low. It was right around this time of day that I heard a loud voice calling out my name from the front room in a tone mixed with equal parts amusement, curiosity, and rotgut.

“Oi, Arch, what’s this then?”

“No idea, love. Bit hard to say without having any idea what you’re talking about” I replied without bothering to sit up any more than absolutely necessary.  A bucket of ice water sat next to me with my right hand submerged to the wrist in rose colored slush and my left resting on a tarnished Winchester belt buckle. My eyes stayed open only wide enough to register general shapes and colors without focusing too sharply on the wallpaper, a purple and black jacquard pattern with  mosaic border. To be honest I don’t know what “jacquard” or “mosaic” mean, but Kate said them with a vaguely French accent so I took that to mean it was expensive, classy, or both. I had just resolved to head back upstairs to bed for the rest of the week when Kate sauntered through the faded velvet curtain and into the back room holding an expensive looking leather and canvas satchel in her hands.

“It’s got your name on it” she said casually as the satchel was lowered slowly on to the table in front of me, “there, written on the tag like a Christmas present. Whoever sent it must not know you too well Arch, since I’d bet my last buffalo nickel that you never got anything but coal in your stocking.”

“Getting coal would imply that I got anything at all. Believe it or not Christmas wasn’t a time of much joy at St. Michael’s School for Wayward Boys. We were happy enough to just keep our heads down and be ignored for a few days while the staff slowly sank into a holiday cheer stupor” I said while I ran my left hand over the bag lightly tracing the outline of the leather pieces up the curved side to just where it sloped in before flaring out again. It was a strange thing to suddenly show up in Kate’s rundown burlesque hall, sitting wedged in-between a canning factory and a boarded up second hand shoe store.
Despite the surroundings Kate always managed to look a lot fresher and pulled together than she had any right to be. I always considered it a victory of manners if I was able to get dressed by noon and was wearing two socks of approximately the same color. Anything more than that was simply a bonus and had little to nothing to do with work. In fact, of all the jobs I’ve ever done in my life I couldn’t think of more than one or two where my fashion sense played any part whatsoever. No matter how nice the fabric of your shirt it’s hard to tell when it’s been torn apart by a gorgon’s claws or saturated with blood. Luckily for me I fell into the kind of life where people are more worried about your ability to do unpleasant things on their behalf than whether or not your pants clash with your shoes. Kate, on the other hand, managed to walk knee deep in the fetid waters of the bar business and still not look like she got dressed while blindfolded. No matter how busy the bar got, what stage act got sick, or which waitresses didn’t show up for work, she was not only presentable but borderline respectable as well. Tonight was no different with her long dark brown hair neatly fixed into place and her knee length dress the same shade of red her face got when her Irish was up. In fact, the first time I met Kate she had just stuck a pickle fork clean through a man’s hand after he had put it on one of Kate’s waitresses where it didn’t belong. Although I never got the impression Kate enjoyed violence she certainly had a knack for knowing when it was needed and when to farm that kind of work out to a specialist. Besides, with all the other roles she had to juggle it made sense to use outside talent from time to time. Whenever the bar was open Kate was on stage one way or another, playing the role of charming hostess, bartender, confessor, working class coquette, or steely eyed businesswoman all within the span of a single evening and sometimes a single hour. It was enough to make my head hurt, even when I wasn’t hungover like a teenage boy who found the spare key to dad’s liquor cabinet the night before.     

“Oh come on, you can’t tell me you never got anything at all. Even a naughty boy like you must have gotten something.” Her voice jerked me back out of my thoughts like an angler reeling in the day’s catch and I could espy a grin spreading across her face as she exaggerated the last word of the sentence for comedic effect.

“Now that I think about it” I replied as I thought back to the perpetually cold hallways of the school “we did get something. Itchy grey wool socks that made your feet sweat and a pocket knife with genuine imitation deer antler handle. Not sure whose brilliant idea it was to give a bunch of juvies weapons but God bless their lack of foresight.”

Kate had slid just out of my line of sight and was busying herself arranging the already orderly shelf of booze sitting behind the bar. She sold only the very finest alcohol, like imported whiskey from Brian Reilly’s basement still two miles down the road or Herr Schmelling’s authentic German pilsner brewed in a garage in Cincinnati’s gaslight district. Not that I minded much, once you’ve spent two weeks pinned down in a shelled out Chilean warehouse at the height of a sweltering heat wave with nothing to drink but prison grade Pisco and the sweat off three village girls you don’t tend to worry too much about the label on the bottle.

“So are you going to open the bloody bag or are we supposed to just admire its fine stitching all day?” Kate asked in a sudden rush spraying out like buckshot. Her patience had held out longer than normal by her standards. I was something of a special case when it came to her temper because I managed to lend a hand around the bar from time to time. Or, to put it more correctly, I managed to lend my fists around the bar to rowdy patrons who needed help finding their way out the back door bloodied face first. I reached across the table and took hold of the satchel with my good hand and dragged it towards me causing the uneven table to shake more than one of Kate’s girls doing the hoochie coo during the ten o’clock show. After making sure that the table wasn’t about to collapse and the candle wouldn’t set anything on fire, I started on the latches one handed while holding the leather strap with my teeth.

“Nice Arch, nice” Kate said with a laugh as she pulled up a chair to the table under the pretense of wiping down the table top and seat cushions while keeping an eye on the canvas and leather wrapped mystery that had appeared in the middle of her bar. As I finally got the satchel to open completely I peered inside and saw a large cream colored envelope sitting on top with some kind of strange symbol inscribed on the front in blood red and gold. I pulled the envelope out of the satchel and moved the candle a little closer. 

“What is that, some kind of chicken wearing a hat? Who the hell would put a hat on a chicken? If there’s one thing I know about chickens you aren’t putting any damn hat on them without getting pecked bloody.” I said as I turned the envelope towards Kate who just clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes so hard I could almost hear her eyeballs clanging around like the back of a ten pin alley.

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s not a hat Arch, it’s a crown! See?” she said jabbing her finger at the top of the symbol.

“Ah, yeah, so it is. Well that explains everything then. I mean a hat on a chicken is ridiculous, but a crown? Very reasonable for such a noble animal.” I had the good sense to flash a Cheshire cat smile while unfastening the envelope and drawing out a thick folder. I handed the envelope to Kate who held it carefully and continued to peer at it as if some great secret would present itself if she just stared intently enough. The folder opened to reveal a letter, written in perfect crisp penmanship on paper that felt heavy and stiff, as well as a number of pictures, drawings, reports, and documents neatly organized and tucked into place.

“Who’s that German girl you’ve got working now? You know, the one who sings and juggles beer steins at the same time.” I asked Kate who had drawn closer and was practically standing on top of me.

“Etta? Little…timid for you isn’t she? She had eyes the size of saucers when I picked her up at the train station and I thought she might faint before her first show. Not to mention she weighs, what, ninety pounds with a lead pipe stuck up her….”

I cut Kate off in mid sentence as I turned in my chair towards her with an expression of feigned shock. I let go with a long, low, whistle and started to turn back to the table before I paused, picked up one of the reports off the table, and handed it to her.

“Diese Papiere sind auf Deutsch. German. Most of this is in German and my head hurts enough as is right now without adding to the pain by trying to read that. It would be a lot faster to get a native to translate even if she does only weigh ninety pounds with, or without, the lead pipe.” 

Kate looked curiously at the report turning it fruitlessly from one angle to another, and leafed through several of the pages before dropping it back on the table top. “Well we wouldn’t want you to burn out that talented tongue of yours muttering through a pile of musty German reports.” She said while pinning her hair back up into place and walking towards the wooden staircase in the corner. “Etta” she called up the stairs, “can you come down here for a minute….dear?” That final word seemed to cause a momentary throb of pain to run through her body.  She turned towards me with a slight grimace and holding the hem of her dress with an exaggerated air of grace. It was the kind of refinement seldom, if ever, seen in a club that hosted high brow fare like Billy O’shea and his dirty limerick reciting dummy Tiny Todd, not to mention Irena Sokolov the famed contortionist from the Royal Russian Circus. Of course Billy’s mouth never stopped moving and Irena was really Esther Gillberg from nowhere New Jersey who had never been to Moscow, Idaho much less Moscow, Russia. Still, Billy’s dirty jokes sold tickets and Esther’s Russian accent was good enough to fool drunken workers who weren’t really interested in peering too far behind the curtain to begin with. Besides, the less Esther/Irena wore during her act the less it mattered where she was from or that the Royal Russian Circus didn’t exist outside of Kate’s imagination.

A few moments after Kate’s summons the sound of softly creaking wood drifted across the room as a pair of dusky pink and gray woolen slippers came bounding down the staircase. The slippers were soon joined by the rest of Etta who had apparently been reading judging by the small glasses perched on her nose that I had never seen before. The rest of her clothes were an odd mix of hand crafted Germany and Henry Ford America; passably new and unquestionably old, a little too spacious and a little too cozy. She was wearing a simple white cotton shirt with embroidered roses shadowing the neck line and in a size just big enough to hide in. Her tobacco brown herringbone pants tenaciously gripped the slender frame of her lower body, stopping just below the knee. They looked as though they had already lived a full life judging by the frayed knees and back pocket flaps that jutted out at a right angle. Etta paused for a moment on the landing to talk to Kate, only coming up to her shoulders. After a short exchange Etta looked over towards me and quickly removed her glasses and slid them in her front pocket, shyly smiling until she had walked close enough to see me clearly and stopped dead in her tracks.

“Arksibald” she said quietly, still unable to pronounce my name right despite her rapidly improving English, “your hand it is still...ich vergesse das wort…injured?”

I followed the path of her sight down and realized that I had been massaging the muscles in my right hand trying to get them to loosen up after having spent the last hour in an ice bucket.  Even in the low light I could see a large bruise starting to take shape in a patchwork of colors more garish than a French Quarter hooker, on Bourbon Street, wearing a harlequin costume, during Mardi Gras.

I smiled broadly at her and shrugged my shoulders dismissively. “This? No trouble at all, just a souvenir. I’ll be back playing the piano by nightfall.”

A dismissive snort sounded from the far corner as Kate started to stir and I decided to move things along before she got a full head of steam going. “Etta, I’ve got a bunch of papers written in German and I’m hoping you can translate them for me so I don’t have to wear my brain to the nub.”

“Yes, God knows we can’t stand to waste an ounce of that precious, precious, resource. Humanity, not to mention future generations, would never forgive us for it.” Kate muttered under her breath but just loud enough for me to hear as she circled behind. “Go ahead and show her your chicken, Arch” she now said in a louder voice.

I picked up the cream colored envelope and handed it to Etta who immediately let out a small giggle and looked at Kate with a sparkle in her eyes bright enough to light the dark room. “Chicken? Don’t be silly is not a chicken, it is like your American bird, an Eagle, see? See the talons?” Kate pointed at the bottom of the crest and then made a claw shape with her hand to Kate. “The eagle and crown on head means imperial city and part of Holy Roman Empire. This is the crest of Frankfurt. My mother used to speak of Frankfurt; she said it was beautiful along the river.”

At this last moment I saw a bit of the sparkle in her eyes softly flicker and die away like a campfire being put out at the end of a long night when the embers give one last pulse before turning dull and grey. The rest of her face still held the same expression but something in my chest registered the shift in temperature. Kate must have sensed the subtle change as well and quieted her nervous hands by fixing the lines of her dress. After a brief and slightly awkward pause Etta handed Kate the envelope and craned her head slightly to the side to look at a blurry photograph seemingly taken somewhere in Germany’s black forest.
I picked up the contents of the folder that were sitting on top of the table and handed them to Etta while keeping the letter for myself. Etta took the bundle of reports, pictures, and journals and started to sort through them while her brow furrowed and lips pursed slightly. To the sound of rustling paper and the floorboard squeaking faintly as Etta shifted her weight from one foot to the other, I turned my attention to the letter.

The author had done me the favor of writing in English but it was the kind of starched collar language that gave me immediate flashbacks of my, admittedly brief, schoolboy days. Sitting ramrod straight, thanks to chairs so uncomfortable I swear they were designed by Mr. Splitfoot himself, copying out tedious and boring poems written by tedious and boring dead men. Line by line by line it went until my hand was gnarled like the Frankfurt eagle. I blinked my eyes several times to try and get my brain to refocus and I started to read the letter again only to feel my attention start to stroll away faster than a crooked preacher caught with his hand in the collection plate. After several more attempts I had managed to fight my way through to the end of letter but felt no closer to the Minotaur and couldn’t remember what I did with the ball of twine I was supposed to be unraveling behind me.

“Arksibald” Etta said, holding what looked to be a journal entry in her hand while Kate examined a series of grainy photographs, “I think someone is having a joke. They sent you parts of a kinderbuch. A märchen…ehh….fairy tale or children’s book.” I put the letter down for a moment thankful for the interruption and turned towards Etta and Kate fully.

Etta laughed and mumbled something in German while looking through the pages. “Here, I think someone wants you to ihn finden” she said while shaking her head and  holding out a large sketch done in a dark brownish ink on the back of a Germany military map. She held the map at arm’s length in front of her, turning it back and forth making it look like the sketch was moving and making little cartoonish growling sounds. I took the map and held it up so Kate could see it clearly for the first time.

“Wow….I’m not quite sure if that’s a really ugly drawing or a really good drawing of something really ugly. It’s like something out of a nightmare” Kate said as she made the sign of the cross and drew her arms close to her body as if a cold breeze had suddenly blown through the windowless room. “and what is that drawn in, it doesn’t look like pencil…charcoal maybe?” Kate bent over to look more closely at the sketch and her face kept inching closer until I reached out to grab her just before her nose touched the map.

“It’s blood.” I informed her in a serious tone. I saw Etta recoil as a look of disgust drew across her face, suddenly finding the whole situation less funny. Kate had brains enough not to touch the map but she was more fascinated by the oddity than she was repulsed by dried blood, something she was intimately familiar with. I spread out the map on the table as Kate and I stood shoulder to shoulder, with Etta a half-step behind as if she wanted to keep a physical barrier between herself and the drawing. The sketch was rough and incomplete but my brain was already filling in the gaps with what I had learned in the last few minutes. I knew exactly what I was looking at.

A huge head stared out from the map with two large spiral shaped horns rising from the forehead. Two completely solid orbs served as eyes set above a nose and a large mouth with a set of fangs curving down on either side of an obscenely long tongue, muscular and thick as a length of rope, tapering down to a sharp, cruel, point. The rest of the body consisted of a roughly hewn muscular frame seemingly covered in dark fur of some kind, and a pair of animal like legs. Despite the lack of scale the drawing told me that the artist meant to convey that it was immense. Immense and terrifying.

I moved the map off of the table and set it on a chair nearby, and kept it facing the opposite direction of Etta as much as possible. I caught Kate’s eye for a brief moment and she picked up my intention and immediately sought to lighten the mood.

“What is it with you and crackpots Arch? Are you on some kind of special list I should know about where every lunatic in the world has your address? Next thing you know they’ll be sending you a package of bottle rockets, a large box of tinfoil, long underwear, and a deep sea helmet so you can blast off and fight the man in the moon.” Kate delivered her lines with the deft skill of a woman accustomed to performing in front of an audience and coaxing out the right emotion at just the right time. With an exaggerated roll of her eyes and dismissive wave of her hand she had managed to get Etta smiling again and thinking that this was nothing more than the weird joke she thought it was a few minutes earlier. “I mean honestly, who sends someone a stained old map with some creepy drawing on it of a….a….what the hell is that supposed to be anyway?”

“Krampus” Etta answered, a little more assured with each passing moment. “It is the Krampus.”
Realizing that Kate was still lost in the forest Etta continued. “Listen” Etta said, while translating from one of the pages that looked to had been torn from a book “Children beware, children be ready. He comes for you if you don’t behave. He comes with his Virgacs…ehh…willow switch…to punish wicked boys and girls. He comes with sharp teeth, he comes with black eyes, he comes with great horns, he comes on cloven foot. Sometimes at dusk, sometimes the dead of night, but he always comes. Pray children, pray. Pray that he is merciful, pray that he... believes…you are good. Pray that he does not snatch you up and put you in the sac. Your parents told you to be good, now we see if you listened. Now we see if you behaved. The Krampus knows….the Krampus always knows…”

“Well that’s certainly a charming story. So basically he’s supposed to be a giant demon that spanks kids if they don’t listen to mom and dad?” Kate asked, looking first at Etta and then at me.

“That’s the long and the short of it, yes” I replied with a smile, keeping up the air of good humor. “I guess you could say he is St. Nic’s enforcer or his darker half. If you’re good Nic brings you presents and if you’re bad you get a visit from the Krampus. The stories change a bit from region to region of course. In some he travels around with Nic and they visit the kids together. In the older versions he is a bit rougher around the edges. He comes the night before St. Nic makes his rounds and if you see him, you’re in trouble. How much trouble depends on how naughty you’ve been and how hard you pray for forgiveness. Sometimes he just puts a little scare into you, sometimes he uses his trusty switch, and sometimes….well, you know how those German fairy tales go” I said skipping over the final parts.

“But these days villages make a festival out of the Krampus and his visits, don’t they Etta?” I asked.

“Yes, the Krampusnacht. It is a big party in many parts of Germany and Austria. The boys make Krampus costumes and run around the village drinking schnapps, frightening children and giving them little birchings. All in fun of course.” She said as I noticed her fidget with her hair.

“Don’t the Krampuses also focus their attention on the young ladies of the village?” I teasingly asked while feigning interest in one of the travel journal pages.

“Well…errmmm jein…. sometimes they might….I guess….just part of the festival. Depends on how…ehh…rowdy the party gets and the girls, if they…struggle.” As Etta spoke I noticed that she stammered a bit and seemed to strain more than usual to find the right words in English. Her face was more flushed than I had ever seen it, turning her cheeks an intense pink. She was also fidgeting again, rocking subtly back and forth in place.  When Kate had turned her attention away she stopped playing with the end of one of her braids and ran her hands along the sides of her body, over her hips and finally her rear end.

I dug the letter out from under an avalanche of papers and scanned it one more time, grinning to no one in particular but myself. This time I managed to get through the entire thing without feeling like I had just gone ten rounds with Gentleman Jim Corbett. I set the letter aside where it only rested for a moment before Kate picked it up, and pulled the satchel over while ignoring the persistent ache in my right hand. As the letter had described, in a hundred or two words more than necessary, there was a second bundle in the bottom of the bag that I quickly fished out and began to unwrap. Inside were several of the items mentioned including an open ended plane ticket, extra travel documents, letters of introduction to various people and offices in Europe, and the one thing I was most interested in. I could feel a pulse of electricity surge through my entire body, like I had grabbed the top wire of an electrified fence with my tongue, when I felt the thick stack of paper.  Even with hands battered by a life time of abuse,

some by my choosing and some by what many, or most, would view as the obvious results of my choices, I knew the feeling immediately. It was money. It was a lot of money to be precise, with the promise of more once I finished the job. Despite my sudden lightheadedness I set the securely wrapped stack aside for the moment and was starting to gather all of the loose papers when Kate suddenly spoke up.

“Who is Oskar Henning?” she asked holding up the letter up to the light, “Besides the obvious answer of some German guy with fancy writing paper.”   

“No idea. I’ve never heard the name before” I replied truthfully while standing up straighter “but it sounds like he has a very serious problem. The letter says someone, or something, viciously attacked his young son. He reckons it was some kind of lunatic in a Krampus costume.”

“I’m jealous of you getting a paid vacation and everything but it seems like overkill to fetch you all the way across the pond. Other than the weirdness of someone dressing up in a costume, how is this not a police problem?”

“Come on, Kate. Do you know a lot of important people who are just dying to get the police involved in their private business? If there’s anybody in the world who loves gossip more than bartenders it’s idle rich folk. Nothing like a little scandal to keep things interesting in high society especially once the alcohol starts flowing like the Rhone. If that’s not it, or not it alone, I’d guess his pride was wounded because it was his son targeted.”

“Lovely. So he wants to send you out into the wooded mountains on a mission to recover his manhood. Couldn’t find anyone in Germany, or all of Europe, to do it instead?” 

“Well, according to the letter he already gave that a go.” I replied.

“So if the search party is already tracking down some random psychotic, why do they need you? Your charming personality?” she asked.

“Well, I’m sure that’s part of it. The other piece is that the search party has disappeared.” I said, hoping not to get too deep into the details I pieced together from a quick scan of the last frantic reports included in the folder.

“Disappeared? An entire search party, well equipped by our friend I’m guessing, traipses off into the German forest, vanishes, and now they want you to go over and play Sherlock Holmes is that about it?” she said in a way only achievable by someone with a long track record in watching people make terrible decisions right in front of them.

“I don’t know about the Sherlock Holmes bit but otherwise yes. Just your standard search and rescue job, I’ll probably be back in a week after finding out the search party got snowed in at some quaint German village and got too drunk to call home. Besides, Oskar sounds like an upstanding gentleman with a unique and serious problem that needs my attention.” 

“He sent money” came the dead pan response from Kate without a moment’s delay.

“Yes. Yes, he did” I answered immediately, seeing no reason to delay the incoming storm. Once the wind started to pick up and the tide swelled it was best to simply point the prow into the oncoming wave and hold fast.

“A crackpot with money is still a crackpot, Arch! In fact those are the kind of people who get other people into trouble, usually by paying them to do something insanely dangerous and stupid. Let’s be honest you’ve been known to stick your neck, and other body parts, out based on money…or your temper….or a nice pair of…”

“Yes, yes, thank you for your concern.” I interrupted, finding the temperature in the room rising quickly.

“Plus let’s not forget your last trip to Germany. Where was it that you ended up in jail, Berlin? Dresden? Or was that the trip where you went to Munich and broke your arm in a barroom brawl with some soldiers over the right way to shine boots?” She asked, in a tone sharp enough to cut frog hair.

“The answer to all of your questions is yes. But in my defense the soldiers were very drunk, very loud, and very wrong. Plus, I may have broken my arm but I was the only one able to walk away that night. So…that’s something.”

Kate’s head whipped back so fast I was worried she would snap her neck as she let out a slow breath through her teeth like a train whistle slicing through the morning fog. She started rubbing her forehead with one hand and gesturing wildly with the other while talking to herself and pacing in circles.

“Look, let’s all just take a break and breathe the fire out a bit. Kate,” I said while digging in my pocket, “go buy us all something to eat and for the love of God please don’t go to that diner with the dirty floors, go to the one owned by that guy with a weak chin. You know the one I mean, looks like his lower jaw is trying to secede from the rest of his face.” I handed Kate the bills I finally managed to extract and she snatched them out of my hand and headed for the exit all in one fluid, angry, motion.

“Etta” I said while still watching Kate’s figure disappear through the curtain, and got no reply. “ETTA” I said louder and now turned to face her, only to notice that she was standing in the exact same place she was several minutes ago.

“Krampus?” She said in a dream like voice. I couldn’t entirely figure out if it was a question, a comment, or something in between.  Her eyes weren’t fixed on any one point and she was alternating between running her tongue over the top row of her teeth and biting her bottom lip. I stood up and quietly walked over towards her, and put a hand on the small of her back. The physical contact broke through whatever invisible field had enveloped her and she snapped back to life with a sudden start, her eyes widening for a moment.  She turned her heads towards me and blinked several times like she had just woken up.

“Back with us?” I asked, noticing that her face and neck were still several shades redder than her normal pale complexion. Etta smiled sheepishly and nodded her head without speaking or looking directly at me. She turned towards the table and quickly picked up several of the loose pages.

“You errmm…need the rest translated, ja?” she disjointedly asked over her shoulder while putting the various papers back into the folder in a haphazard way until they were bulging out at the seams in all directions. She was still bent over half way when she took a sudden step back and ran bottom first right into my hand. Instead of recoiling or jolting forward she stood stock still and made a valiant attempt to casually shuffle the papers despite the slight tremor of her hands. I saw her mouth open momentarily but no words, English, German, or otherwise came out. I took the folder from her and tossed it on the table before holding my hand out in front of her and gingerly flexing the swollen fingers.
“Good thing my other hand still works” I said with a wicked smile as I drew my hand off her bottom and swung it forward, making solid impact and lifting her up on her toes. A sound like a rifle crack reverberated through the room and a quick gasp escaped her throat telling me I had pitted the ace. I stepped almost directly behind her and slid her right foot out just past shoulder width with the instep of my worn boot. Just as she was starting to regain her balance I ran my left hand up to her waist, the small of her back, and just below her shoulder blades before pressing forward and bending her over a chair and on to the table face first. While watching her breathing pick up speed approaching a fast trot I took the hem of her shirt and folded it out of the way leaving an unobstructed view of the seat of her pants, stretched taut as a sloop’s spinnaker in full chase. 

I slid my left hand just inside the back waistband of her pants, the remaining ache nothing but a distant memory, and gripped them tight and hard holding her in place. My right hand quickly found its way from one of her rear pockets to the opposite, smoothing them out and taking the full measure of her curves. Just as I felt the tension in her body start to drop like the humidity after a midsummer Georgia thunderstorm I delivered five or six hard, sharp, stinging swats just above the Promontory Summit where the rail straight sinews of her upper thighs met the perfectly rounded wheel arches of her perfectly shaped caboose. As I followed through with the last volley Etta’s legs churned up and down as if she were running inside of a dream but not gaining any ground. I let my hand trail down the outer half of her leg to the knee before tracing the cuff with my fingers and sending it up the main track of her inner thigh. As my hand continued to wind its way along the course Etta’s knees began to buckle and chatter under the strain of the load. As my hand had just passed the mid-point of her thigh I heard a door open in the front of the bar trailed quickly by Kate’s hallmark ability to creatively join together multiple curse words into new and exciting additions to the English language. At the sound of Kate’s return Etta’s head and upper body popped up quickly though her lower half was still rooted firmly in place thanks to my grip. Etta’s squirming immediately reached new levels of desperation as she frantically tried to push any stray hair back into place, drop the hem of her shirt, and stand up all at the same time. It was like watching a giant squid attack the hull of your ship off the coast of Newfoundland with all tentacles called to action. I casually leaned over her body from behind and picked up the envelope with my unoccupied hand and stood back up before turning Etta around to face me, guided by my grip on her pants.

“If you could get these sussed out for me soon I’d appreciate it” I said in a casual tone of voice “otherwise my willow branch and I will have to stop by to discuss your tardiness” I watched Etta’s eyes widen suddenly and then retract when I gave her a wink. “Go and put those someplace safe for now” I told her with a nod of my head in the direction of the stairs as I finally let go. She clutched the folder tightly to her chest, turned quickly on the spot, and headed for the stairs that she took two at a time on her way up to her room. Just as her legs were disappearing, Kate’s made an entrance through the curtain and carrying two bags from the diner.

“Were those Etta’s feet I heard racing up the stairs?” Kate asked while digging through the bags and picking out one box after another, first weighing them and then giving each one a shake as if she could figure their contents like a kid beneath a Christmas tree. She would occasionally pause with a quizzical look on her face before setting it down in front of one chair then changing her mind, picking it back up, and rotating places.

“What the hell I’ll just go ahead and say it…why don’t you just open the box?” I asked.

Kate stopped in mid sort and looked up at me “What, and let the food get cold? It’s already mediocre and smells like the monkey cage at the circus so it getting cold isn’t going to help any” she replied while finally settling the internal debate over which box went in front of which three chairs. Now that Kate had assigned each box to its spot she turned her attention to cleaning off the remaining papers and map from the table and putting them inside the satchel that she then handed over with touch of reluctance.

“So when do you leave for your next adventure?” she asked with a strained smile.

“A couple of days. I need to get some supplies, make plans, wash my socks, all the usual” I said while watching her fetch glasses from the bar. 

For most people this would be the opportunity to repeatedly point out obvious facts like how dangerous and ill conceived the trip was and why it wasn’t worth the money, and how I should get a regular job and let these people solve their own damn problems for a change. Kate, though, wasn’t most people. She had been places and seen things that most people could only dream of, and others would dread. As long as I had known her there were always great chasms in her life that never quite got filled in with anything more than speculation re-enforced with guesswork. I never figured out where she got the money to open her club, how she had three passports from different countries all under different names, or what the initials tattooed on her hip meant. I suppose you could say it was professional courtesy that kept me from pressing for details and she was usually happy to return the favor. Kate knew well enough that she couldn’t keep me from going and in her heart that she didn’t want to anyway.

Kate turned and handed me a glass filled with a dark liquid and raised her own to just above eye level.
“To Germany and your success” she said with the closest thing to a real smile I had seen from her in the past few hours.

I simply nodded, drained the glass, and sat down at the table feeling at ease for the first time since the satchel made its sudden appearance in my life. Germany, and everything hidden behind its vast borders would be reality soon enough; there was no need to make the trip twice. I was smart enough to know that this journey would become even more dangerous than I already knew but foolish enough to go anyway. As Kate joined me at the table, and Etta’s feet filed another report from the staircase, I could hear the voice of my father reverberating through my head.

“Son, if you ever have the choice between doing something dumb for free and getting paid for it, choose the second. The world has plenty of men willing to be dumb and get nothing but hurt in return and we don’t need any more of their kind. Money may not be everything, but it sure as hell isn’t nothing and the people who say it’s the root of all evil are usually the kind who already have it and don’t want to share.”

With that last thought I had steeled myself for all the peril, intrigue, and adventure that waited on the other side of the world and in stranger realities than I could imagine.