Below is an excerpt from an exciting instalment of the adventures of our busker Alex Fraser
THE VIEW FROM the Ambassador Hotel’s window could have been a recruiting poster; the huge stars and stripes flag, rippling slowly in just the right amount of breeze, the vapour trails emerging from behind it at exactly the right angle, the distant dome, brooding, portentous with power, its whiteness intensifying as the surrounding sky’s blue hardened into darkness.
“Yessir, sure can’t complain about the view. Land of the free. I expect you’ll be glad to leave it, though, Mister Fraser, get back to Scotland.”
I said nothing. The voice’s determined optimism ploughed on.
“I’m of Scottish descent myself. They tell me it’s beautiful this time of year. Not like here—can’t believe it’s only April, doesn’t usually get this muggy till the end of summer.”
“I don’t live in Scotland.”
I regretted the bluntness as soon as it came out, but the only reaction was a leisurely consultation of the Rolex. The movement segued smoothly into the attaché case’s arc up onto the cheap bedspread. The double click of the catch sounded oiled, expensive.
“Let’s see... Itinerary, return ticket, Homeland Security departure clearance, transcript of your evidence. That’s about it, I guess.”
The four brown envelopes went down on the table in a precise line, as though symmetry could compensate for the chipped surface. I sat down beside the open case, pulled off the tie they’d so pointedly given me to wear and tossed it away. It landed on the air conditioner. The vent’s draught lifted the fat end into a futile tweed wave.
“And then there’s this, of course.”
I turned, catalogued him—razor-parted short blond hair, dark blue suit, immaculate white shirt with a button down collar, striped tie with a gold pin. Twenty-four? Twenty-five? In jeans and t-shirt I’d have said younger, just a boy, really... Did it matter? I watched the signet-ringed hand make a fan of three crisp new twenty dollar bills beside the line of envelopes. The smile became even more self-satisfied; a novice, pulling off the winning flush in a poker game...
“Cab fare. And a little extra, in case you want a beer or something, a sandwich. Before the plane.”
Yes, it did matter. Tipped. By a child…
“Rank’s outside, I suggest you leave no later than seven-thirty,” he went on, “they like you there early for transatlantic, security’s no cakewalk at Dulles. Oh, and in case you run into any difficulties...”
The cream-coloured card went down beside the envelopes and the cash. It bore a stern government eagle perched on a Stars and Stripes shield, circled by the words Department Of Justice and a Latin motto. His name, F. Carlton MacDonald, was embossed along the bottom beside a phone number. I watched the sight of it sober him; the proof of his power, the icon of his authority. Its appearance signalled the end of informality.
“Mister Fraser, on behalf of the DOJ, I’d like to express our thanks for your help in this matter. When we couldn’t trace you in Europe, we found ourselves in serious difficulties—after Mr. Eve’s unfortunate demise last month, we were even considering dropping the whole case. If you hadn’t co-operated when the Italian police located you...”
I looked away. I knew how rude I was being, but it didn’t stop me. Behind me I heard his voice ignore the snub and cling stubbornly to its gravitas.
“The testimony you gave today could be decisive. Add that to the evidence you’ve agreed to give the German authorities and the prosecution looks unassailable. My superiors want you to know we’re grateful.”
I turned back to face him. “Grateful enough to help with my other request?”
He averted his eyes, closed the attaché case as camouflage. The recital came out rehearsed; polished, buffed smooth with polite regret.
“I wish we could help, but I’m afraid that would be handled by—”
“—a different department,” I cut in. “Frankly, Mister MacDonald, I would have thought that you might show a little more initiative, especially in the light of what I’m doing for you at the moment. Make your gratitude practical, then I might believe in it.”
Finally, a dent in the bulletproof smile. A flush of embarrassment captured him. Suddenly he really was just a boy, suddenly the briefcase and the clothes looked awkward, wrong. The trappings of the up-and-coming had been devalued, and he didn’t like it. He spun round, ready to retreat—and then, hand on the door handle, he stopped. I watched training reassert itself.
“OK, Mister Fraser, have it your own way. You might be on the right side of the dock this once, but let me remind you of one fact—one legal fact. Your temporary visa runs out at midnight tonight, April 22nd. If you’re not on that plane to Glasgow at 9pm, inside three hours you will be in breach of its terms.” Defiance stripped away the manicured voice and gave him boldness. “And therefore subject to arrest—though I expect you’re used to that, given your record. You better realise that in this country we don’t hand immigration waivers around like candy, especially to convicted murderers.” He nodded at the flag outside the window. “Land of the free, like I said. Don’t confuse it with a free lunch.”
The door gave the punchline as much of a slam as the thin plywood could muster. I listened to the receding footsteps, then let myself fall backwards onto the sagging bed. I stared up at the ceiling. Wonderful, I thought, a boy made into an enemy. Exactly where does that get you?
I lay there, sweating, letting my annoyance simmer. Most of it was directed at myself—my behaviour had been pointless as well as rude. Tipped, by a child… Yes, but if I’d been on the street, busking, I’d have been happy enough to take his money... What was wrong with me? My life was getting angrier, I knew. Why? Was it age? I thrust away the questions, pulled myself up onto my elbows and looked at my fiddle case.
Unopened. Since I got here, three days ago...
Should I take her out, at least try to play a tune? Had I brought her all the way to Washington DC just to ignore her? What would my friend Luther Eve have said about that?
No, it was wrong, I decided—and Luther would have agreed. Maybe later, maybe somewhere in the open, once I had these pitiless people and this hellish room behind me. Now, I just didn’t have the heart. I forced myself up, wiped the sweat from the back of my neck and turned to the window.
It was almost dark. The vapour trails were gone, the flag hung limp, showing a forest of aerials behind. Their grimy geometry was thrown into sudden relief as Capitol Hill’s battery of floodlights came on. The white dome seemed to expand in their glare. As I stared, I gradually became aware of sounds—engines, sirens, the squeal of brakes... Voices, running feet, honking horns, the distant rumble of aircraft...
A city. A real place with real life, not just a symbol—the conjunction of a million stories, messy, intertwined, complicated…
As though in response, canned laughter came from a TV set through the wall.
As the unintended irony died away, it was replaced by a harder sound, the arthritic roar of the air conditioner, cranking itself up a protesting gear.
I watched the blast of refrigerated air reanimate the awful tie. It kept trying to reach my leg, flickering like a tartan serpent’s tongue.