BY LIZ McADAMS
Copyright is held by the author.
FRANK LOOKED up and nodded as I walked into the diner. From behind the breakfast bar the waitress smiled at me and picked up a stack of dishes, swiping at a table with a greasy rag. The breakfast rush was nearly over; the place slowly emptied as cabbies and cops dropped a couple quarters on the counter and turned to leave. Across the diner two business suits sat in the corner, both of them scanning the stock pages of the newspaper.
Busy, but not too busy. I saw why he’d want to meet here.
Sitting down beside Frank at the breakfast bar, I smiled at the waitress as she set a cup of coffee in front of me. “You know what you want, hon?”
I glanced over at Frank’s plate, toast and eggs, now half eaten. “I’ll take the special.”
“You got it, hon.”
As she walked away, Frank nodded at me. “You remember what happened with Kennedy?”
“Yeah, who could forget that shit.” I glanced down at my cup of coffee. “Wasn’t Jimmy supposed to be on him?”
He shrugged. “Had to miss. His wife went into the hospital, some kind of emergency appendix job.”
He shrugged again. “Was fine when he went to work. Got the call before lunch.”
“Jesus — you mean —”
“Don’t know what they’ve got on you, Bob, but —” he stopped as the waitress wandered back down to our end of the breakfast bar, and he held out his cup. “Thanks.”
“Anytime, sugar,” and she wandered back, coffee pot still in hand.
Turned toward him, my voice lowered, “You mean they got stuff on me too.”
He held up his coffee cup, in the classic cheers motion.
“Oh shit. Irene and the boys.” My stomach dropped. “What do I do?”
“Whatever they tell you.” He stared down into his cup, his voice just a mumble. “Word is there’s gonna be some big shot coming through. Ambassador or something from some foreign country.”
“The Albania detail.”
“Yeah, wherever.” Staring down at his cup, he shifted in his seat. “Our guys can’t figure out where he came from, seemed to come out of nothing. No family, no people back in Albania.”
Sipping his coffee, Frank nodded.
“So this nobody’s coming through, no big deal, right?”
“It’s a big deal.” He frowned, “Folks really seem to like him. Say he has a message of some kind.”
“Jeeze — there’s gonna be another one.”
Frank tipped his head, nodding slightly, and kept staring at his coffee.
“If this guy gets it — could be the start of a war. His people’d be all over it.”
Looking up, Frank’s eyes met mine. I never noticed the colour before, green-blue. Aqua. Irene’d say that colour’s aqua.
“What do I do?”
He shrugged. “Whatever the hell they want you to.”
Frank was right. I was assigned to that detail, and I wasn’t happy about it. Big political talk in a local park, a bandshell of all places; at the ambassador’s request, and impossible to secure. Even with extra men along the perimeter, guys in deep cover, it still wasn’t enough. Over the past couple weeks most of our guys were a little on edge, twitchy, even. There’d been a lot of talk in the papers. Folks seemed to love this ambassador, said he had great things to say, told the truth and would change everything. All that crap.
I was stationed right up by the stage.
Frank stood on the opposite side, and he nodded at me, once, then kept his eyes on the crowd. Watching for any sudden movement. Standing there in his sunglasses and suit with his magnum holstered beneath his jacket, he looked all business; but I could see the trickle of sweat run down the back of his neck.
I guess I looked the same. Tugging at my jacket in the heat of the day, I wiped the sweat from my brow. Sun was nearly straight over head. Gonna be a scorcher.
Both of us zeroed in on an old lady lurching toward the stage, she hobbled along, leaning hard on her cane with a huge bag flapping along behind her. The crowd pushed her around a little, and then suddenly parted and she sank into a seat. Front row.
Frank glanced over at me. Gotta watch her.
That oversized purse could be carrying anything, and she gripped a couple leaflets in her hand, her eyes wild with frenzy. As I watched, she cracked open the bag and pulled out a tin of mints, popping a couple in her mouth, her eyes still glued to the stage.
When the governor stepped out on stage the crowd stood up, straining forward. As I tried to keep my eye on the crowd, bodies shifted and moved together, like watching waves on the ocean; it was nearly impossible to see what was going on.
Details around this gig were hushed, and I knew our guys were out there in the middle of it, but there was no seeing them anywhere. The boys along the perimeter were buried out there too.
As the governor approached the microphone, a short bust of feedback squealed, and he stepped back, startled, and then started talking, his voice cracking a little under the strain. “Welcome, I — I’m very p-p-pleased to pleasant, uh, er, present our guest to our great nation . . .”
Something was up.
The governor continued. “Uh, yes, and present to you a man with, er, bringing words and wisdom . . .”
The noise of the crowd swallowed up his words.
I glanced over at the governor, and he looked ashen, like a performer forced into a part, and as the ambassador stepped out on stage he clapped politely, standing back from a distance. No handshake. No posing for the press, the governor just got the hell off that stage fast.
As the ambassador approached the microphone, the crowd went wild, everybody rushing toward the stage. Even the old lady was on her feet, yelling something about God’s will.
I lost sight of Frank for a minute, and then as the ambassador started talking the crowd settled down. The ambassador’s voice was oddly quiet, and calm.
I couldn’t see what the big deal was about, he wasn’t one of those speakers that whipped the crowds into a frenzy, like the revival minsters speaking in tongues and handling serpents.
As I scanned the crowd, most of them were sitting on folding chairs, leaning forward and listening like they were school kids following the teacher at story time.
His words drifted around me, and they sounded kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“You have developed speed, but shut yourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left you in want. Your knowledge has made you cynical. Your cleverness, hard and unkind.” He kept droning in a flat tone, reminding me of a radio news announcer, with transmissions travelling over the airwaves.
As I scanned the crowd, the old lady was fanning herself with the leaflets, tears in her eyes. Most other folks looked about the same, like they were listening to something really important.
“You think too much and feel too little. More than machinery you need humanity. More than cleverness you need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”
The ambassador paused, and I glanced up at him. Thin guy with long arms and legs, bulging forehead and big ears. His suit just hung off his skinny frame, but, as I looked back over the crowd, the ladies seemed to like him. Most of them were standing around, with tears in their eyes, staring up at him like he was a big-time movie star.
He continued, talking in the quiet voice of his, just as calm as he was reading the newspaper, and droning on.
“I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile — black man — white. We all want to help one another. Living beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but you have lost the way.”
Folks were sitting stock still, listening, real quiet-like; so still, you coulda heard a penny drop. It reminded me of a movie about a hypnotist, putting everyone under a spell, and then a sharp crack rang out.
Startled, my head swivelled to the side of the stage. A cloud of smoke hung in the air, and I caught a glimpse of Frank as he reholstered his gun, and stepped away from the crowd, cutting behind the bandshell.
I stood frozen, for a second and by the time I pulled out my gun, he looked over at me. Mouthed the words, “See ya,” and disappeared.
I lowered my gun and stared after him.
“Get him outta here — Now!”
I jerked back to reality as voices swam around me, the crowd twisted upon itself. Half of them tried to push toward the stage, the others tried to turn and run and everyone was caught up in the confusion and noise; women were screaming and men were swearing and yelling.
To avoid the crowd, I hopped up on the stage behind me. A couple of our guys were bent over the ambassador, Regent was trying to cover him with a jacket. In rolled up shirt sleeves, a new recruit, just a kid, was pressing onto the ambassador’s chest, doing compressions, while the chief barked into his walkie talkie. “Medic — stat.”
“Get him outta here,” the chief jerked at the back of the stage. “Move him. Get him out.”
“Uh — gotta problem here guys.” The kid looked down at the body, and then held up his hands, palms out. They were covered in some kind of greenish goop.
“What the . . . ?” the chief leaned forward. Scattered droplets of red blood soaked through the ambassador’s shirt, and green stuff oozed out of a deeper wound.
“What’s that green shit?”
“He was bleeding, and then this started coming out of him.” The kid stared down at his palms.
“Hey, guys, we’re losing him,” Regent looked up at us. The ambassador choked, making deep sucking sounds of wetness rattling his lungs, and then arched backward. His arms and legs seemed to grow longer, thinner, stretching right out of his suit.
“What’s going on?” the chief stared down at the body.
“I . . . I don’t know.” The kid gaped, as the ambassador’s forehead bulged even more, swelling to the point of bursting.
A sudden burst of light struck the stage.
“Oh my fucking god,” the kid jumped back.
“Get down,” the chief yelled, all of us darting to the back of the stage, weapons at ready, we stared out. The crowd still pressed against the stage, voices and bodies caught in confusion, but where the ambassador was lying, there was nothing left but an empty jacket.
“What the hell just happened?” the kid glanced down at his hands, still covered in greenish crap. “Where’s the ambassador?”
We all stared at each other.
His words suddenly floated inside my head, “Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.”
The ambassador’s speech is from Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1940 film, The Great Dictator, a political satire comedy-drama film about the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany.