I first met him in the Black Russian, a tawdry excuse of a bar tucked away in the narrow backstreets of Singapore. The opium had kicked in, and the slowly rotating disco ball fought for my attention with a couple of pelacurs who stretched languorously, hoping to appeal to my fantasies while the jukebox poured out the incongruous rockabilly stylings of Conway Twitty. The beer on the table in front of me represented the last of my fiscal reserves, and I didn’t care.
Into that scene, he glazed, looking like a Hollywood movie star in a brilliant white Bogart suit and Panama hat. On his arm hung the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. He spoke a few words to Hashim then approached my table, leaving his woman at the bar.
Without waiting for an invitation, he sat down across from me. “Mr. Johnson? Wesley Johnson?”
“Don’t know him. Can’t help you.”
He produced an envelope and placed it on the table between us. I paid no attention and refocused on the spinning globe.
“Take it,” he urged. “I’ll be in touch.”
My eyes didn’t drift from the ball. “Might forget,” I murmured.
He picked up the envelope and stuffed it into my shirt pocket. “I won’t.”
When I looked down, he had vanished. I ran my finger along an edge of the envelope to confirm his existence, then sank into a sublime appreciation of Conway Twitty. I don’t remember returning to my room at Zarina’s house that night.
I arose from bed in the late afternoon of the following day. At least, I supposed it was the following day. Devising a scheme for avoiding Zarina’s demands for the overdue rent claimed my attention until I recalled the envelope. It took a few minutes to locate it wedged between the bed and wall. Nine crisp one hundred Singaporean-dollar bills spilled out. I searched the crevice and found another. Not as good as American dollars or euros, but I couldn’t be choosy.
Downstairs, I shoved one of the bills into Zarina’s hands and hustled off to meet Faisal. The humid air and darkening sky portended rain. Dryness in my throat called for hydration, but my psyche demanded immediate gratification.
Faisal operated a café of sorts. He did the cooking under an awning out front. Behind him, his narrow business stood, sandwiched between two similar establishments.
“Six grams,” I said across the steaming grill.
He casually poked at the fried meats. “Show the money.” Faisal’s English had been perfected by decades of providing contraband for Western ex-pats.
I flashed a handful of cash. “How much?”
He glanced thoughtfully at the awning and adjusted his turban. “Um … three hundred.”
I winced but quickly agreed. He accepted the cash and motioned to his fat wife, who led me inside, past a tiny dining area, and through a curtain to the back room. She measured out my allotment and handed me the packet.
“Feels a little light,” I said.
She shrugged and turned away.
Rain had begun to fall. Lacking an umbrella, I turned up the collar of my coat and made the best of it. When I returned, Zarina’s soulful singing filled the house. The money had cheered her. The hundred I pressed upon her would discharge my debts and provide advance payment for a while. She had a good heart, and I was happy for her. She often apologized for the spareness of the room, furnished only with a single bed, a small desk with a wooden chair, and a dresser far too large for my limited wardrobe. That was okay. I didn’t need an extravagant living space, and it kept the rent reasonable. I stripped off my wet clothes, lit the pipe, and quickly drifted into bliss, lying naked on the bed.
When I came down, my stomach reminded me I had not eaten since the previous day. Out in the streets, food stalls beckoned, their myriad aromas hanging heavily in the damp evening air. I settled on a bowl of laksa at a popular lunch spot. The vendor examined the hundred, rubbing his fingers over its surface. Finally, he put it away and doled out my change.
Back in my room, I pulled out the fifty pages of my unfinished novel and pondered the next scenes. My former colleagues at the International News Bureau would be jealous when it got published. Mackenzie had called me a washed-up journalist. I’d show him.
The old-fashioned typewriter sat inert on my desk. I fingered the keys, but sustained concentration eluded me. My protagonist had traveled to Angkor Wat in search of spiritual enlightenment but discovered the site overrun with tourists. Disillusioned, he lacked direction. The plot had stalled, and inspiration failed me. With a sigh, I pushed it aside, took a hit from my pipe, and made my way to the Black Russian.
I considered paying one of the pelacurs for a quick servicing, but the last encounter left me unsatisfied. Once the opium took effect, I had no other needs. I bought a beer so Hashim wouldn’t kick me out. The ball spun, the jukebox played, and the night evaporated.
I awoke to find them standing in my room. With the clarity of sobriety, I saw them as they were—he, a short, swarthy man in a soiled white suit and she, a dumpy, unappealing woman with crooked teeth. I dragged myself out of bed, still dressed in yesterday’s clothes.
“Been spending your advance, Mr. Johnson? May I call you Wesley?”
“Whatever pleases you.” I blinked and rubbed my eyes. “What shall I call you?”
“Um … Gomez will do.” Obviously, no Hispanic blood ran through his veins, but I accepted his choice. He indicated his woman. “Mia.”
I made a slight bow, and she seated herself at my desk.
“I’ve instructions for you, Wesley.”
“I might refuse.”
“Not an option. I dare say you’ve exhausted a considerable percentage of your advance.”
“It was given without obligation.”
“Come, sir, you don’t really believe no conditions were attached, do you?” His tone remained unemotional yet direct. “It’s not as if you won the lottery.”
Damn him. He was right. Spending the money confirmed a tacit agreement—as ironclad as a fine-print contract. How evil of him to wait until I had blown through a big chunk of it. “Okay, okay. What’s the deal … Gomez?” I tried to bend his name into a slur.
He ignored my intent. “A trip. A kind of vacation. How long’s it been since you had a vacation?”
“Go to hell. Just tell me what you want.” I ached to flee into a pain-free world.
“I’ll send a plane ticket tomorrow. On Friday, you’ll fly to Canberra. A room is reserved for you
at the Hyatt. That’s all. Oh, and don’t take any luggage. It’s a ten-hour flight. And you’ll have to keep off the ah-pen-yen.”
“Ten hours? No luggage? Just me?” I stroked my chin to give an appearance of thought and glanced at Mia, who surveyed my living conditions with bored eyes. “I can do it. It was an advance, you said. When do I get the rest?”
“Set your mind at ease, Wesley. You won’t be cheated. You will receive an item at the airport to carry.”
He snorted. “Nothing quite so obvious.”
“A bomb? State secrets?”
He shook his head. “Trust me. It’s best for you not to ask.”
I agreed to his terms, pretending I had a choice, and hustled the two of them out. Within minutes I lay on my bed, drifting into pleasant, carefree dreams to the sweet sounds of Zarina’s singing.
I stared at the typewriter. Got to get a computer. Then it would be easier to write. Had to save up for that sort of thing. Shouldn’t have spent so much at Faisal’s. Maybe Mackenzie would consider rehiring me. Tomorrow … tomorrow, I might drop by and see him. If I could just get the next chapter going, I wouldn’t need anyone. Perhaps a hit from my pipe would stimulate my creativity. Just a little one.
As I reached for the pipe, a knock on the door froze me. A big bruiser of a man with a jagged scar carved into his left cheek stood there, an envelope in his hand. He waited silently while I unfastened the clasp. In addition to the plane ticket, it contained a hundred Australian dollars in small bills. I gave a nod and dismissed the courier. He departed, treading heavily on the stairs. He probably frightened Zarina. I hoped the recent flurry of unsavory traffic wouldn’t prompt her to evict me.
On Friday, I showered, shaved, and took a taxi to the airport while fighting the urge to stay home and indulge my vices. I mopped the sweat from my brow and paid off the cabbie with a generous tip. Taking slow, deep breaths, I entered the terminal and showed my ticket. The TSA agent examined it closely, and for a moment, I feared he might bar me from boarding. But he waved me through the metal detector.
On the other side, a security officer put his hand on my shoulder. “Your bag, sir.” He held a small leather briefcase.
“No, it’s not mine. Oh … I’m sorry. You’re right. Uh, thank you.”
What an idiot I was. How clever of my … uh, sponsors to give me the item after passing the security checkpoint.
I clung to the briefcase and fidgeted throughout the flight, drawing an annoying series of sighs from the middle-aged woman in the seat beside me. She tried to sleep, and so did I. Neither succeeded. By the time we landed, a mix of desperation and relief clashed within me. The taxi to the hotel slogged through heavy traffic. I kept looking out the back window. Was I being followed?
My hand trembled as I checked in at the Hyatt. The clerk eyed me with suspicion but handed over the room key. Stopping by the necessities kiosk, I purchased a tiny, overpriced packet containing two sleeping pills. At the register, the young female cashier recoiled. I may have frightened her. The elevator made its painstaking ascent to my floor. Finally, in my room, I swallowed the pills, stashed the briefcase in the closet, and spread gratefully on the bed.
As drowsiness began to ease my anxiety, a knock on the door drew me back to the real world. I forced myself to rise. A uniformed steward stood there with a package. I accepted it and handed over a tip with no idea of the value of the bill I surrendered. Then sleep, blissful sleep, came.
The phone awoke me. I fumbled in the dark to answer it. Through the window, the nighttime lights of Canberra blinked like stars.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah.”
“I’ve been trying to reach you. Did you receive the package?”
“I think so. I mean, yeah. It’s here somewhere. Oh, I see it now.”
“I hope it meets your approval.”
“I have some instructions. Meet me at the bar downstairs in a half-hour with the…um…commodity.”
“How will I know you?”
“I’ll know you, Mr. Johnson.”
After hanging up, I tore open the package and found a small amount of opium and a pipe, along with an airline ticket for a flight to Singapore the next day. They, whoever they were, did not believe in wasting time. Summoning a herculean effort, I set the drug aside and counted on a few rounds of stiff drinks to get me through the evening.
At the bar, I knocked down a couple of whiskeys and motioned for a third. I perched one foot on the briefcase, which sat on the floor beneath my barstool. Would my connection be able to find me among the chattering tourists?
A heavyset man on the next stool leaned toward me. “Got a wife, mister?”
“Lucky son of a bitch. Nothing but trouble, they are.”
I considered moving to a table, but the bar offered better visibility. Only five minutes until the appointed time. I decided to humor the drunken man. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“How the hell do you know if you don’t have one.”
Oh, God. How could I escape? “Well, I had one about a decade ago.”
“Good riddance, huh?”
“Right.” I signaled for another whiskey. Where was my connection? He should appear any moment. I scanned the barroom for a possible candidate. They all looked like tourists to me.
The drunk grabbed my arm. “Hey, buddy, I’m talking to you.”
Damn. Was he spoiling for a fight? I pulled free of his grasp. All I could think about was the pipe in my room. I hurriedly drained my third whiskey and decided to give up on the meeting.
A sharp, sudden pop broke through the babble. Another pop. And another. Panicked screeches ricocheted across the room. A stampede of humanity rushed by. Someone’s elbow knocked me from my seat. Another pushed me to the floor and stepped on my leg. I fought to rise, but a large body rammed into me. By the time I righted myself, most of the crowd had dispersed. The complaining man still occupied his stool, oblivious to the chaos, but my briefcase had vanished.
“Hey, man, did you see my briefcase?”
“I don’t give a good goddamn about your briefcase. Keep track of your own shit.”
I scrambled under nearby tables, searching for it, even checking behind the bar, which had been abandoned. No trace of it. It was as if it never existed. The cops began to arrive. I beat a path to the elevators and up to my room and where paradise awaited.
The room phone rang the following morning, providing a wake-up call I did not request. Hanging around Canberra waiting for something unpleasant to happen seemed a bad idea. Besides, I had a plane ticket in hand. At the front desk, the clerk said my bill had been paid.
I endured the flight in a state of anxiety. The beefy man beside me slept soundly despite my agitated restlessness. The commodity, as the voice on the phone called it, had been lost. Though I saw myself as blameless, someone, somewhere, would likely cast doubt on my story. Might they come after me? Could I explain my way out of it?
I had no plan, so I returned to Zarina’s and discovered an envelope had been slipped under my door. I felt it to be a bad omen, announcing a threat or a summons, but it contained a bank book in my name. The balance astounded me. What the hell? Was the shooting at the hotel bar a ruse to pass the commodity on to the next link in the chain so I couldn’t identify the connection? Had I been simply a pawn? Of course, I had, but did the scheme work as planned? Could I be in the clear? Surely the answer would come soon, or not at all.
I resumed work on my novel, but the plot had become confused. One afternoon while returning from Faisal’s, I spotted Mackenzie getting out of a taxi in front of the International News Bureau. I waved to him, but he didn’t see me. I was the best writer he had. He would jump at the chance to rehire me. I should give him a little more time. He’d soon realize that he needed me.
A week or so after getting back, Gomez’s picture appeared in the newspapers, now identified as Ibrahim. He had been arrested, though the charges were vague. A few days later, the word went around that he had been found dead in his cell. When I asked Hashim about it, he just shrugged.
Mia materialized on a dreary evening, flashing her crooked teeth and projecting a desperate hopefulness in her weary eyes. She latched onto me and became my constant companion. We spent our days together and our nights sleeping separately in the same bed, much to Zarina’s displeasure. She had not bargained for two tenants. Mia spoke little English but seemed comfortable in my company. We squandered our evenings at the Black Russian, where Conway Twitty’s greatest hits played endlessly. I watched the disco ball spin and the pelacurs strut, glancing occasionally at Mia through an opiated haze. God, she was beautiful. How lucky I was.
About the Author
Ken Wetherington lives in Durham, North Carolina. His stories have appeared in Ginosko Literary Journal, The Fable Online, Borrowed Solace: A Journal of Literary Ramblings, The Remington Review, Waymark Literary Magazine, and others. His first collection, Santa Abella and Other Stories was awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion from the Book Readers Appreciation Group in the literary fiction category. When not writing, he is an avid film buff and has taught film courses for the OLLI program at Duke University. He may be reached through his website: https://kenwetherington.com or on Twitter: @KenWetherington