Thursday, January 31, 2008

Providence

Constance182 began every song with an apology. “I know this is cheesy,” she’d say (or something like it), “but I’ve been humming it all day and I’ll never be rid of it if I don’t let it out.”

That was Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller’s cue to relax, to fit the headphones snugly over his ears and ease back into the desk chair. To let the world dissolve for a few minutes. The woman’s voice was breathy, but clear in the high notes. Whenever he heard her he was reminded of the bells his mother kept on the top shelf of her china cabinet. It wasn’t so much the sound as the forbidden pleasure of holding something so fragile and beautiful.

Not that he’d held Constance. He’d never met her. Never even seen her, except for the grainy userpic on SingIn – the one he’d used the unit’s equipment to enlarge until her photo evoked something almost grotesque – a fractured, pixilated puzzle of a woman. He slid the computer’s mouse aside and flipped over its pad. As usual, the portrait taped to the underside left him unsatisfied. He wondered for the hundredth time how he might justify a surveillance order. And for the hundredth time he sighed, turned the pad over, replaced the mouse and vowed to be content with just her voice – for a few days more.

Officer Stiller wasn’t looking for love when he’d logged onto the virtual karaoke site three months ago. His intentions were rather closer to its opposite. At 48 years old, with a bum knee and an iffy ticker, he was about to be discarded. ‘Reassigned’ was the official term – but that didn’t fool anyone. The Grenzschutzgruppe 9 was a young man’s game. Wegener himself had told him that once. And yes, it was plain that he could no longer perform the more physical aspects of the job. He would likely never again storm a building or wrestle a weapon from a gunman -- but there was more to a man’s worth than that. He could still shoot a pimple off a gnat’s ass. And there were situations that required more subtlety than brute force.

Situations like the one that had brought him to SingIn. The tip had fallen to him as if out of the sky. Earlier in his career he might have been suspicious of the ease with which it had all come together, might have thought it was a trap. But years in the field had taught him that providence was real, and that being in the right place at the right time (or the wrong one) had far more to do with success than anyone but God might imagine.

The transmission that started it all was otherwise unremarkable: “Gehen sie zur karaoke nachtklub heute abend?” “Nein. Wenn arbeitend ich bin, schränken sie mein singen auf den computer.” ‘Are you going to the karaoke club tonight?’ ‘No, when I am working I restrict my singing to the computer.’

A younger man might not have thought twice about it. But then, most of the younger men in the unit wouldn’t think twice about anyone who didn’t speak with an accent, or sport a turban and a beard. So many of them had yet to learn that terrorism employed without regard to race, creed, gender or national origin. Even for the few who understood, a behind-the-scenes man like Jakob Richter wasn’t glamorous enough to merit study. That Richter enjoyed singing, or was partial to 80’s pop songs? Officer Stiller shook his head. He doubted any of them would grasp the significance of the transmission even if he’d taken the time to make a formal report.

Notice of his impending reassignment and the Richter tip arrived, providentially, on the same day. It was the punk, Mueller, who dropped both packets on his desk. “Sorry old man,” he’d said, then frowned as if to prove his apology was genuine.

Karl fingered both envelopes and chose the bulkier one. Bad news traveled in slim packages – that was another thing years in the field had taught him. He’d slipped the disc into the player and started the machine. Eighty-three minutes later, he was fighting drowsiness as one staccato conversation after another yielded nothing of interest. And then a familiar voice, though he couldn’t place where he’d heard it. He stopped the disc, reversed, and listened again. He was hearing it for the fourth time, or maybe the fifth, when he absentmindedly opened the second envelope.

The memo started benignly enough: the storied history of the GSG9, acknowledgement of past achievements and Officer Stiller’s exemplary contributions, blah, blah, blah … Something about assessments and insuring optimal use of resources, and then the kick in the teeth: Infolgedessen werden sie zur Anweisung Einheit am 30 April übertragen. As a result, you will be transferred to the Instruction Unit on April 30th.

He had logged off the computer. Signed out at the desk. Zipped his regulation jacket against the January chill and left without a word to anyone.

The sound from the television was nearly deafening when he opened the door to the dim apartment. He took off his shoes but before he removed his coat, he stepped into the livingroom. “Mutter?” he said. When his mother didn’t answer, he crossed to the hospital bed in the middle of the room and switched on the bedside light. Medicine bottles lined the table under the lamp and the young nurse had left a note about admitting his mother to the pflegeheim.

Something that teetered between rage and despair rose up in him but he pushed it back down, used one remote to drop the volume on the tv, another to lower the head of his mother’s bed. “Mutter, it’s me, Karl. I’m home.” He watched her eyelids flutter and thought about how small she had become when once she loomed so large in his life. He opened the glass door to the china cabinet and lifted the lid to the keysafe. He reached into his pockets – and discovered the disc. Never, in 24 years, had he been so careless with his employer’s property. Maybe Mueller and his bunch were right. Maybe he was slipping.

Or maybe it was providence. Perhaps he was meant to be there, in that room, with the disc in his hand. It became harder to argue against this line of thought when the music channel on the television offered up the 80’s classic, Jungen Schreien Nicht, Boys Don’t Cry. Suddenly, Officer Stiller remembered who the voice on the disc reminded him of. And no, not a member of The Cure. It was Richter. Yes, that was it!

From there it was a matter of logging in to online karaoke sites until he found him. Once he did, he thought excitedly, he’d pinpoint the location, hand it off to his superiors and prove that he still had value to the unit. Even a sniffling pup like Mueller would respect him if Richter was brought in and made to reveal who he was working for, or what he was working on. What if it was something big?

Officer Stiller could not recall whom he had stumbled upon first. Was it Richter, or the woman that had caused him to give more than a cursory search to the SingIn site? To be sure, Richter had been easy to spot. Almost too easy. Wansemann? He’d chosen Bug Man as a screen name? Maybe Herr Richter was getting old too.

It didn’t matter how he arrived, Stiller told himself. He was there now, and his comfortable banter with Constance182 had actually aided his efforts. It leant him credibility. He was surprised at how simple it was to “talk” to her. Women had always been difficult for Karl. For all his bravery in the line of duty, he’d usually start to shake, stutter and sweat when a pretty girl expected him to speak. He guessed it was the anonymity of the internet that stemmed his nerves. Or maybe it was just Constance.

She had a way about her. The self-effacing apologies at the beginning of each song. The graciousness with which she accepted compliments on her singing. The genuine interest she’d established right from the start of their relationship. It made this private man hunger to tell her the most intimate things. After just a few weeks, he’d found himself spilling the details of his mother’s illness. (His co-workers at the unit didn’t even know she was sick.) And if he was a little too open, so what? These were just words on a screen, attached to nameless, faceless entities.

At least until he could verify that Wansemann was indeed Jakob Richter, and until he could isolate his location. The advent of laptops and Wi-Fi had made that task more difficult, but not impossible. Each time Richter’s icon appeared online, Officer Stiller halted his other actions and moved through the process of tracking the coordinates. He kept a log of these in his desk drawer, slipped between the pages of an espionage novel.

Besides, it wasn’t just anyone he was sharing with. Constance knew what it was to watch a loved one die. Her husband had succumbed to the very same disease that was now stealing his mother from him. The hand of providence -- again? Years of trained mistrust bristled at the coincidence.

He couldn’t point to one thing that he had said, something though, he was sure. He could tell she sensed a change in him, and that it had stung her. “If I’ve been too personal with you,” Constance typed, “I’m sorry. I’ll back away now and you can forget you ever met me.”

Sorry? No! He was the one who should be sorry. He apologized promptly and begged for another chance for their friendship to grow.

Seven days of silence followed until her icon came to life again. “Vern?” she typed.

Officer Stiller smiled at the sight of his screen name under her hand. He’d chosen it with a nod toward Richter’s brand of cleverness – Vern Ichter – the exterminator, but when Constance typed it the name took on a different bent.

“I tried to stay away, but I’ve missed you,” Constance’s words spilled across the screen. “And I’ve been wondering why you visit a karaoke site but you never sing? Sing for me, VernIchter, sing.”

He’d hatched some story about the poor quality of his microphone when, in fact, the equipment in his bedroom (microphone included) was state of the art. He’d “borrowed” most of it from the unit, smuggling each component out one piece at a time. They wouldn’t miss it, he reasoned. And when he delivered Jakob Richter’s address, all would be forgiven anyway.

Just then, Wansemann/Richter broke into their textual conversation. “I’ll sing for you, Con,” he typed. And had the nerve to add one of those ridiculous winking faces to the message.

“Jimmy, stop. I’m talking to Vern now,” Constance replied.

Anger bubbled through Stiller’s body at the familiarity between the two. It was quickly replaced by fear. He had to do something to keep the monster Richter from this beautiful bell of a woman. But what? The answer came almost immediately.

“A few of us have been talking offline about setting up a meeting. Come. We’ll sing a duet.” Constance paused in her writing while the invitation snaked its way into Stiller’s brain.

Go to America? It wasn’t such an outlandish idea. Not really. He had the money. He had plenty of vacation time accumulated. A passport under Vern Ichter’s identity wouldn’t pose too great a problem – not with the unit’s capabilities. He could fly to the United States, finally see Constance with his own eyes … and he could take out Richter/Wanseman/Jimmy all in the same trip. If things went well, he would return home triumphant, not only with a notch in his holster, but with a beautiful woman on his arm. No one would dare consider him old and used up then.

Just as the plan took form, it stalled. As if she could read his mind, Constance typed, “Oh Vern, I’m so very sorry. You couldn’t possibly come now. Not with your mother …”

His mother. She’d grown steadily more frail in his weeks online.

“Well, Con, I guess you’ll just have to be satisfied with my company,” Richter typed.

“NO,” Karl responded. “I’m sure there is a way.”

Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller overslept the next morning, for the first time in more years than he cared to count. He dragged a razor across his chin and opened a cut. He wondered if Mueller would turn his lapse of punctuality into further evidence that he was no longer fit for the job.

But what seemed to be a misstep, soon turned to another bit of luck. The moment of his leaving coincided perfectly with the home nurse’s arrival. “Ahh, gut,” she said, as she flipped her long hair and removed a pair of iPod earbuds. “Habe ich sie treffen gewünscht, um über ihre mutter zu sprechen. Sie benötigt mehr, als irgendein von uns jetzt anfassen kann. Wirklich ist die Zeit gekommen, sie in das pflegeheim zu legen.” I've been wanting to meet with you to talk about your mother. She needs more than either of us can handle now. Really, the time has come to place her in the hospice home.

Just that easily, the last piece fell into place. By the end of the day he had made arrangements for the hospice, procured a passport that would fool all but the most observant airport official, purchased a ticket for his flight and had begun packing. Once he’d filled his own bag, he set to work on his mother’s.

More than a twinge of guilt assailed him as he did so. His mother was dying. How could he think of leaving -- but how could he not? There was little he could do for his mother now, other than to make sure she was comfortable. He would pack a few mementos, the bells perhaps, to ease her days during his short absence. If she was alert while he was gone (and truly, those periods of lucidness had grown few) the sight of her treasures would let her know he was thinking of her.

If he could do nothing to save his mother, he could still save Constance. So affable and open, she would be easy prey for a man like Richter. This sustained him as he wrapped each of his mother’s bells in tissue and placed them lovingly in a box. He fitted the lid once, then removed it. He took out one bell, the porcelain one, with the robin painted on it – his mother’s favorite, and laid it aside.

“Was tun sie, Karl-Heinzie?” What are you doing? His mother’s voice was barely a whisper.

How could he explain? “Das beste kann ich,” he answered. The best I can.

Five days later he was seated on a plane, crossing the Atlantic Ocean. He wished the flight wasn’t so long. There was too much time to think. His co-workers had taken the news of his vacation strangely. All but Mueller and the Commander had greeted his freshly dyed hair and his travel plans with amused surprise.

Mueller acted as if he hadn’t noticed. The Commander drew him aside. “Wir gehen sprechen zwischen diese tage, meinen alter freund zu lang,” he said. We go too long between talks these days, my old friend. When the Commander asked him to step into his office, Stiller politely declined. “Ich nehme an, daß es bis ihre rückkehr warten kann,” the Commander had said. I suppose it can wait until your return. But when Karl turned toward his cubicle, the Commander laid a hand on his arm.

“Ja?” Karl asked.

“Nichts.” Nothing.

But on the plane it didn’t feel like ‘nothing’. Officer Stiller wondered if the Commander suspected him of wrongdoing. Perhaps the equipment he’d borrowed had indeed been missed, along with the transmission discs that carried Richter’s voice. Perhaps the passport and other papers he’d produced had been discovered.

If all of this weighed heavily on Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller, elder member of the famed GSG9 German Anti-terrorist Unit, none of it felt as heavy as Constance’s unnatural quiet. He had barely “spoken” to her since he’d announced his trip. Busy making arrangements, she’d claimed. She’d make it up to him once he arrived.

He had planned to take a taxi directly from the airport to an apartment building in Virginia where a handgun waited for him. Instead, certain he was being followed, he ordered the driver to take him to his hotel. After checking in and inspecting his room, he used the stairs to reach a side entrance and walked three blocks before hailing another cab.

It was nearly 8:30 before he finally stepped into the Coyote Café. He recognized Constance immediately but he held back, stood just inside the bar and watched. She was at least as lovely as he had imagined. Petite and fair-haired, with a sprinkle of freckles across her cheek that surprised him. As soon as she turned in his direction, she was up and making her way toward him.

“Vern?” she called. “Vern Ichter? Is that you?”

He smiled at the sound of that other name, that other person, the one who had created this other existence. He nodded and she flew into his arms.

“I was afraid you wouldn’t really come,” she said.

He wanted to tell her something clever but his mind was too full of the way she felt in his arms. She pulled back and placed both of her hands on his face. And then she kissed him.

It wasn’t so much a kiss of passion, at least not at first. But then she’d relaxed her lips and accepted his tongue and something stirred in him that he had never known existed. Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller was a man who loved his country. He had believed it was something worth dying for. But in all his years he had never, until this moment, found something worth living for.

“Come on,” Constance said. “Let me introduce you to our friends.”

Apprehension gripped him again. It had been a decade since his last meeting with Richter and even then, Karl had been disguised. Still, it was possible that the terrorist had access to information that would identify him. He glanced over the top of Constance’s head toward the table. No Richter. Maybe he was late.

Constance moved through the introductions, pausing long enough at each new person to give both their user id and their ‘real life’ name. When she’d completed the table she pointed to the stage. “And that’s Jimmy,” she said.

The man under the lights was finishing a rendition of Karma Chameleon but other than his choice in music, he couldn’t be more unlike the terrorist, Richter. Short, where the other was tall. Round, where the other was fit. Bald, where the other still sported a luxurious head of graying hair.

Karl/Vern laughed so hard that he doubled over with the effort.

“What’s so funny?” Constance asked.

“A private joke,” Karl/Vern answered. “I’ll tell you about it one day.” At once he started revising not just his plans for the evening, but his goals for the rest of his life. Maybe the training unit wouldn’t be so bad, he thought. He could picture himself leaving for the office each morning, arriving home to Constance every evening. They would invite friends to dinner, he would have friends. They would laugh together, just like this. Was there a karaoke bar in Sankt Augustin? He made a mental note to check and sat down to begin this new life.

The evening was growing long and the cold American beer had made him feel loose when Constance rose and made her way to the stage. “I don’t know if you’ll like this one,” she said. “I haven’t had much time to practice it and, well, here I go anyway.” At her first notes, Karl/Vern eased back into the chair and closed his eyes. Her voice was even lovelier in person – just like a bell. He was reminded of the package he’d brought for her.

His hand brushed the gun as he reached into his jacket pocket. The feel of it repulsed him in this setting. He removed the coat and placed it carefully on the back of his chair. He laid the wrapped gift before Constance’s empty spot at the table. Applause erupted at the end of her song; no one clapped longer or louder than he. She kissed him again when she returned, then grasped his hands.

“Now it’s your turn. Sing for me, Vern. Sing. For me.”

Officer Karl-Heinz Stiller hadn’t sung in front of people since his confirmation days in the boys’ choir. He’d known this was inevitable though, so with the courage he’d once used in hostage situations, he rose and stepped briskly to the stage. He’d chosen his song days ago, or maybe it had been months. The tune was a favorite of his in his younger days and it was the only one he thought worthy of singing for Constance.

Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah cued up and he drew a breath. Out in the audience, he could see Constance finger the gift and pull at the ribbon. By the time he finished the second stanza she’d laid the wrapping paper aside and was pulling at the box lid between glances at him. Somewhere in the third stanza she lifted the bell from the box and he caught her smile. Mutter would have liked her, he thought, when the glint of a tear shone from her eye in the fourth stanza.

He watched her though the interlude, his gaze broken only when the door to the bar opened, letting in light from the street. The two figures at the door tripped the start of something in his memory but he pushed it aside and turned his eyes back to Constance. She rose from her chair and approached his spot on the stage. A red line of light drew through the smoke in the room, from the door to just above Constance’s head.

Karl/Vern began the fifth stanza, then stopped. He focused on the front of the bar again, at the figures near the entrance, the source of the light. The cock-sure stance of the smaller man, the silver gleem reflected in the taller man’s hair. In silhouette, they might have been anyone – but Officer Stiller knew better.

Constance was nearly to him now. In a few seconds, she’d mount the stage. There was no time to go for his gun. He’d be dead before he reached it, and Constance might be hit in the fire.

“Mueller, Richter” he said into the mic. "Wartezeit." And then, "Bitte. Das lied wird beendet fast." Wait. Please. The song is almost finished.

Constance stared from him to the front of the bar and back. He couldn’t tell if the significance of the laser registered with her. Probably not, her life was untouched by such things. And so it should remain.

There was a nod to the shorter man’s head and the beam was extinguished. Karl held a stiff arm and a hand out to Constance, bidding her to stop. He listened for a beat to find his place in the music, only a few lines left. He tried to sustain both her gaze and the final note as long as possible. The bullet pierced his chest at the exact moment the song ended.

The last sound he heard was the beautiful, fragile ring of a bell.



Apologies first to gunfighter, for taking such liberties with his excellent story ideas. Apologies to the rest of you for:
A. My Babel Fish German.
B. The incredible length of this piece. It's been years since I tried to write something short -- and it shows.
C. Accidentally deleting the e-mail that contained the original story starters. I'll list the ones I remember.

Story Idea: A love story from a man's point of view.
Characters: A member of German's famed GSG9 anti-terrorist unit who sees the hand of God in his work and has romantic ideas that he cannot show to his fellow unit-members.
A bored suburban housewife who longs for the lost days of her youth.
An affable Washington DC office worker named Jimmy who enjoys 80's pop music.
Conflict: Internet Addiction

Thank you Jen, for hosting this game! It was fun (in a torturous sort of way)!

9 comments:

Luisa Perkins said...

THIS is FANTASTIC. Unbelievable. Well done!

Wholly Burble said...

This was spell-binding from the word GO! You had me hooked through the entire story--my heart was breaking as my guts told me, this wasn't going to end well.

Great job!

Thalia's Child said...

Absolutely fantastic! Loved it!

Gunfighter said...

BRAVA!

BRAVA!

Brillig said...

So, so great. An excellent read! So thoughtful and imaginative, and it was fun reading it from the man's perspective.

(And the German was really very good-- I was surprised that it was Babel fish!)

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

Beautiful, just absolutely stunning story. The character was so fully drawn, and I'm guessing you captured exactly the tone that GF would have loved. (I'm purposely NOT reading his comment yet!)

This was just brilliant, my dear. Brilliant! I've so missed your wonderful writing.

Wooooohoooo!!!

anno said...

Heartbreaking. Amazing. GREAT story!

Charity said...

You already know how I feel about this, but I'll say it again. Incredible.

Gunfighter said...

It was perfect.

Absolutely perfect.