We should have realized that something was dangerously wrong during our Tuesday Morning Group while Russell lied about garroting the Serb colonel.
“Get this,” said Russell as sunshine streamed past the jail bars over our windows and drew parallel shadows on the Day Room’s lemon wood floor. “That whole scene was like a flipped coin spinning in the air, one side ordinary, one side surreal.”
Like us then: five men and one woman perched on circled metal folding chairs.
“There I was,” said Russell, “walking another patrol in the Balkan slaughterhouse. Main Street buildings were smeared smoke black. Busted windows. Rubble littered the road. We tramped past a fire-bombed Toyota. Every step, something crunched under your boot. A laptop computer. A woman’s purse. Three ropes dangled from a street lamp, but they were cut empty, so the rumors about a cleanup were probably true.”
“What isn’t true?” said Dr. Friedman.
Dr. Leon Friedman had brown hair. Emerald eyes inside gold metal glasses. As he had for each of the fourteen days he’d spent with us, he wore a tweed sports jacket. That last day, he had on a blue shirt, no tie.
“Place like that,” said Russell, “everything is true, nothing is true.”
“I see,” said Dr. Friedman.
“No you don’t,” I said. “Not if you’re lucky.”
“’Xactly,” said Zane, who looked like an albino Jesus.
“We’re listening to Russell now,” said Dr. Friedman.
Russell was fronting his rock star look: midnight lens aviator shades, a black leather sports jacket over an indigo T-shirt emblazoned wilco for the band, not the military response he’d been taught. He wore blue jeans, retro black-and-white sneakers.
“Make it late May 1992,” said Russell. “We were jazzed to get somewhere safe.”
Hailey picked scabs into her ebony-skinned arm, mumbled: “No such place.”
Russell ignored her. “That once-was-Yugoslavia town smelled like gunpowder and burned wood. Rotten garbage and rats, man, I can still see badass rats with red eyes.
“The restaurant had cardboard over two windows but a sign that read open. When the Colonel swung the door in, a bell tinkled. He turns to us nine guys, says: ‘We take turns.’ Then he beckons me and his two favorite goons, a couple of thrill-kill boys Milosovic sprang from prison and made ‘militia.’ We go in. The place has a handful of customers, all true Serbs like us, and fuck everybody else.”
The white Styrofoam cup trembled as Russell raised it to his lips. “Where was I?”
Dr. Friedman said: “You just said, ‘Fuck everybody else.’”
Russell swallowed more coffee. “I mean, where was I in my story?”
“Ahh,” said the therapist: “Your story. Of your spy mission.”
“Got it,” said Russell. “The maître d’ glides through the restaurant like he’s skating on ice. He’s hairless. Pale as a bone. Milky eyes. Stone cold. Four werewolves in army fatigues with AK-47s walk in and ding his bell but he doesn’t blink. He’s wearing a black bow tie, a white shirt, blue jeans, a black tuxedo tails coat like Dracula. Plus, one hand ballerina waitress style, he’s balancing an empty tray.”
“Sounds like an LSD trip,” said Dr. Friedman.
“Doc!” Russell grinned. “Who knew you’re such a rebel!”
“I have an interesting father. What about you?”
“Nah,” said Russell, “Dad never did nothing that could get him in trouble. He never had to. And he isn’t in the story—in the restaurant, that was just me, all me.”
“And who else?” asked Dr. Friedman.
“I told you: Colonel Herzgl, the fat fuck. Smelled like garlic and vodka. They claim vodka doesn’t smell, that’s another lie. Believe me, it smells, and I . . . I . . .”
“You’re in the restaurant,” said Dr. F. “With Colonel Herzgl, his men.”
“And the maître d’. Who glides up to us through the tables holding his empty tray, Nazi pin on his lapel, man, he lets us fall into his milk eyes.
“Colonel Herzgl glares at him, says: ‘You got crap on for music.’
“Tunes are coming from a boom box on the bar, and the Colonel is dead-on right: it’s crap. Some accordion flute zither ethnic bullshit. Colonel Herzgl is an Elvis freak. He’s carrying a torch for a bloated icon who bought it in a . . . ah . . . in a bathroom—”
Dr. Friedman blinked. And I caught him.
“—who bought it in a bathroom while Herzgl was still a Commie punk in Belgrade. Now he’s got this one lousy tape, the soundtrack from Viva Las Vegas! Not the worst Elvis movie, not even his worst bunch of songs, but man: after the first forty times you hear it and get ordered to translate it and teach the Colonel to sing along . . . !
“Colonel Herzgl gives the Elvis tape to the maître d’, who leads us to a table and on it is a bottle of that plum brandy. Rakija. No glasses. We sit, pass around the bottle.”
“Please say you didn’t put your lips where theirs were!” said Hailey.
“Shit, yes! You think I’d bust cover by playing the snob?” said Russell. “So the maître d’ says: ‘Potato soup,’ which is all this war zone cafe; has, except for rakija. Off he goes. A few swigs later, and boom box Elvis blasts out ‘Viva Las Vegas’!”
The Ward Room door swung open, pushed inward by a rolling mirror metal box.
The meds cart rolled across the sun-swept floor. I checked out the nurse driving it who, like Dr. F, had rotated in while the regular staff were on furlough.
The substitute nurse was a pretty woman who’d walked miles of hospital corridors. She wore the uniform white slacks and top with a black cardigan sweater. Wore her brown hair pinned in a bun. She unlocked the meds cart, stacked tiny paper cups on the metal top, checked her clipboard.
Dr. Friedman said: “What did it smell like?”
“Why do you want to know that?” said Russell.
“We know what outside the cafe; smelled like—gunpowder, burned wood, smoke, rubble. What did it smell like at that table?”
“What difference . . . There’s that rakija plum brandy. Plus us four unshowered army fatigue guys. And kind of a salty smell. Potato soup from the kitchen, the—”
“What kind of salty smell?” asked Dr. Friedman. “Like . . . tears?”
“‘Like tears,’ what the hell difference does that make, it’s all about what I do. And now, with Elvis blasting ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ I finally got my chance to do.”
The nurse shook pills into a paper cup.
Dr. Friedman said: “You finally got your chance to do what?”
“To kill Colonel Herzgl.”
“But that wasn’t your mission. You weren’t an assassin.”
“Don’t you tell me who I wasn’t!” yelled Russell. “I was who I was and I did it!”
Dr. Friedman stared at the trained warrior. “Tell us about your official mission.”
“My official mission was, like, over, man! None of the factions—not the Moslems, not the Croats, for sure not those damn Serbs, none of them got squat from the caches Uncle Sam’s bad boys had snuck into Yugoslavia during the Cold War. None of them had the missing suitcase nukes. Don’t you think they’d have used them? They all wanted total annihilation, and there’s no better way to go total than nuclear.”
“So why were you still there?” said Dr. Friedman.
“How could I leave?” Russell shrank on his chair. “That place went from skirmishes to slaughterhouse in a blink. What was going on outside that restaurant, what I’d had to see and play along with as the rock ’n’ roll Serbian-American kid come back to find his roots and help his heroes . . . Over there, being crazy was the rule. If you weren’t when it started . . . How do you think I ended up here?”
“You tell us.”
“I killed the Colonel.”
“Because I could. I couldn’t stop anything big, but if I iced that one fat fuck monster who I’d latched onto when I still had a sane mission . . . Before I bugged out, I could put him down for . . . for all the horror he did. Was going to keep doing.
“When Elvis kicked in with ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ Herzgl said, ‘I not wait.’ He tells me, ‘You next,’ and walks through the dining room to the bathroom.”
“Did he go alone?”
“What do you mean, ‘Did he go alone’? Of course he went alone! What do you think, that we were a bunch of Kansas schoolgirls on prom night?”
Russell shook his head. “They wouldn’t listen to me. Didn’t believe me. Phones worked. Not everywhere, but . . . I’d reported to my case officer in Prague. Hell, I called Langley direct! They insisted I was ‘off mission.’ Or ‘overloaded.’ I was to ex-filtrate stat. Good job. Mission over. Come home and . . . They wouldn’t believe me.”
“That was only at first,” said Dr. F. “Then satellite photos, other sources—”
“‘At first’ is where you start. You gotta get to ‘at last.’”
“So you stayed.”
“I went into that bathroom.” Russell blinked. “That was my chance.
“I told the two goons fuck the Colonel, I had to go now. They laughed.
“Nobody looked at me as I walked through the dining room. The bathroom was through a set of swinging doors, down a hall. The bulb in that hall was burned out, so it was a long dark tunnel. Stank. Urine, rats, rakija—I know you want to know how it smells, Doc, no need to thank me.”
But Friedman said nothing to interrupt. He sensed the roll. Knew it was coming.
“I put my right hand in my fatigue jacket pocket,” said Russell. “My knife and AK-47 were back at the table, but two days before, the day they burned up the schoolhouse full of kids, I found a steel wire about a yard long, stuck it in my pocket. Figured I could rig a grenade trip to get the Colonel and his whole squad. But that was me being optimistic, not practical. Walking to the bathroom, I was the zen of practical.
“I had one end of the wire cinched around my right grip before I hit the swinging doors. Ten steps down that long dark tunnel to the closed men’s room door, Viva Las Vegas, and by the time I get there, the other end is cinched around my left grip.
“Two ways to go in for a whack,” Russell told us. “Blitz or sly—sly ninja or sly bold like Skorzeny, march in banners flying.
“I’ve always been a Skorzeny man. I burst into the bathroom singing Elvis over the tape of Elvis, and Herzgl, why he loved it. He was at the mirror. The stall with . . . The stall with, um . . . He was boogying with his back to me as I sang and then wham!”
Russell twisted in his seat as he pantomimed flipping the wire loop around the Colonel’s neck from behind and garroting the trashing Colonel.
“He was tough and it was hard. For you, Doc, I could smell his garlic and sweat. The flesh on his neck burned like acid on my hands.”
Whoa! I thought:“The flesh . . . burned like acid.” That was a new detail. A key sensory memory. Bravo Dr. Friedman! In two weeks, you’d moved Russell off the same-old-same-old to the reveal of a touch of flesh.
“Of course I left the wire,” said Russell. “Walked out to find out I’d fucked up.”
“How?” said Dr. Friedman.
“The fire exit was locked! Nowhere to go but back to those two Serb militia pricks—who, luckily for me, had pulled the big joke and eaten my bowl of potato soup.”
Nurse coughed: “Time for their meds.”
Fuck her, I thought. Maybe Russell is on the edge of a breakthrough.
Dr. F’s negative wave to the nurse agreed with me.
So I asked: “Did anybody say anything when you came out of the bathroom?”
Giving Russell a chance to bust the lie himself. To see it himself.
“Yeah. They all laughed at me ’cause I wasn’t going to eat.”
White-haired Zane picked up on my riff: “What did they say about you?”
But Russell just shrugged. “They said, ‘Tough luck, American!’ Them eating my soup gave me an excuse to get pissed off, grab my gear, and storm out of the restaurant. I got outside, marched right through the other six guys, turned the corner—and ran like hell for three days. Rode a black ops Navy carrier chopper out. Told the Agency what I did, and now here I am.”
Zane looked at me. We could have busted Russell. But that was Friedman’s job. Besides, if you don’t bust somebody else’s lies, maybe nobody will bust yours.
Russell said: “The funny thing is, I don’t feel anything about killing him. Just . . . nothing. Of course, I won’t listen to Elvis anymore. I guess that’s why I’m here.”
“I don’t think so,” said Dr. Friedman.
Russell arched his eyebrows above the black lenses of his sunglasses. Grinned. “Doesn’t really matter what you think, now does it, Doc? You’re leaving us.”
Nurse said: “Dr. Friedman? Our schedule.”
He nodded. She passed out water cups and our meds like candy for the movie: uppers, downers, smoother-outers, sugar pills in Hailey’s cup, a rainbow of pebbles geared to Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome with icings of schizophrenic disorders.
“We’ve got one last Group this afternoon,” said Dr. Friedman. “I’ll see some of you individually before then, but I’m leaving here before dinner.”
Eric raised his hand to blurt out that it was meatloaf night, but didn’t get the nod.
“There’s something we need to talk about this afternoon,” continued Dr. Friedman, “and we should all look forward to that. Have a nice lunch.”
He smiled as he left the Ward. The nurse collected our empty pill cups. I watched her thick brown hair in its pinned bun, watched her round hips in white slacks as she pushed the cart out of our Ward. Russell and Zane, even Hailey and Eric watched her: the substitute nurse was new and thus interesting, though she’d kept a professional distance from us. Then the Ward door closed. Locked. We drifted to our private rooms not knowing that we had less than five hours of safe time left before.
We should have known.
The tell was there for us to see.
We had the training. The experience. But we missed it, each and every one of us.
What the hell. We were crazy.
Copyright © 2006 by James Grady