Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Shadow Warriors and Berlin

Not a pretty courtyard, but an awful place to be trapped at night
The novel is "set up" in Asia, moves to Cambridge, MA for a few scenes and then shoots off to Germany where the bulk of the story is set.  Emma drives to Berlin (the book is set in 1989 before the wall comes down) with Peter Weber, an intriguing man who has been off-handed courting her.  She is waiting for Peter late at night  in a seedy pub in Kruezberg.  Yikes!  Glad it was her and not me. 

I walked past the kitchen down a dark little hallway. 
            Damen. The amenities lacking. Naturally no toilet paper, but instead a wet floor littered with coarse brown paper towels and a toilet that shrieked for the tidy bowl man. The room smelled as badly as it looked. I rinsed my hands in cold water, wiped them on the back of my jeans, and lunged out the door.
            While I paused in the dark hallway to let my eyes get used to the dim light, I saw that the hacker now had a companion. Famine and pestilence together again. Georgi Balakov, AKA the Disco Whisperer, was taking a careful look around the room, examining every face. Balakov, the last man in the world I wanted to encounter tonight! His guarded thoughtful eyes rested on the Eurasian girl. Was he smiling?  Now I remembered her. Luby's pretty friend from Singapore.
            What had Peter gotten me into?
            I made a hard right turn through the swinging doors and into the brightly lit kitchen. The cook, in an apron that looked like he used it to swab the bathroom floor, sat on the chopping block, cleaning his toenails with a paring knife.
"Excuse me," I blurted in English, and charged through the kitchen and out the open back door where I ran smack into a box of garbage.
            I shrank back from the slimy smell of rottenness. Somewhere in the darkness, belly dance music whined from a radio. Barely able to see, I stumbled again. Standing still, I tried to get my bearings, but the bile rose in my throat, and engulfed in a surging wave of nausea, with my hands pressed against a stone wall, I vomited the sweet beer and the dinner.
            I dried my eyes with a corner of my shirt, and wiped my mouth. The music wailed, sinuous and throbbing. Peering around, I realized that I wasn't in an alley, but a courtyard. What if I was locked in? Groping along the stone wall in the darkness, I almost fell over a bike rack. A tenement stood facing the courtyard, but only a few windows on the upper floors were lighted. A banner with a skull and crossbones hung over a window. I picked my way across the rubble and ducked around a dumpster. The screech and scream of alley cats, fighting or mating, caused a dog to respond with a deep savage bark. Not the kind of neighborhood where strangers would open their doors at night. When I hit my shin against a crate, I sobbed in frustration. How was I going to get out of here? Finally I sat on the crate and tried to gather my wits. Nearby I could hear people walking, and the noise of cars in the street. Like the sounds were coming right through a wall! My eyes were finally adjusting to the darkness. I stood up and walked around more crates until I faced a black passage. The voices were close by. I could hear footsteps, even laughter. And I could see a neon glow at the end of the tunnel. Threading my way through the clutter, I plunged into the passage and stumbled my way toward the light.
            I came out onto the sidewalk, crossed the street with a party of punk rockers, and moments later, ducked into the door of our lodgings. They had some bizarre money-saving arrangement with the light switch where you had to turn on the hall light and then run like hell up the stairs before it switched off and left you stranded in the dark.
I ran like hell. 

Part of this story was inspired by a tale of my father's, said to be true.  He was somewhere long ago in Texas and had stopped into a cafe and ordered a steak.  When he came out of the men's room, he glanced into the kitchen.  There, indeed sat the cook paring his toenails with a kitchen knife.  A cat jumped on the counter and the cook picked up a steak (my dad's steak?) and slapped the cat with it.  My father said he walked through the hallway, out the door and just kept walking.  A good story has "legs."   Writers love good stories.  Kreuzberg used to be a kind of East Village place in the old days but I hear it has become rather upscale.  It sure as hell wasn't when Emma was there. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Incident at Stanley Market: The Shadow Warriors

Stanley Market Hong Kong

Our driver promised to pick us up in thirty minutes. I bought a frozen coconut bar from a vendor's cart, and looked around while I slurped it down. The market was a bazaar, just a warren of alleyways filled with booths all jammed with cheap-looking junk: sneakers, T-shirts, kimonos, lime green warm up-suits and gewgaws of international bad taste.  
             I lost Roger and Franz when they wandered into a shop selling tennis clothes, and I went on to paw through some hideous lingerie. Waste of time. When I beat it back to the tennis store, they were gone. It was definitely time for a fur fix, and I made friends with a calico cat lying between two big wicker baskets in a food stall.   
            Wandering through the market,  I killed time by taking photographs and watching people. Otherwise, I wouldn't have even noticed the two men in the shoe stall. My god, they were the same pair Peter and I had seen on the Singapore bus and then at Sentosa beach! The older, dark-eyed one was talking to his sidekick, who was examining the sneakers with so much concentration I expected him to whip out tags saying, “inspected by number 12,” and stick them onto the shoes. Dark Eyes spoke a mile a minute in a language I didn’t recognize. Then he stopped talking, and cast a quick glance all around the booth. Those hard eyes and that face with a permanent five o'clock shadow gave me the creeps, so much so that I ducked out of sight. I peered around the corner at them again. One inspecting, one gabbing, just like before. 
I aimed my little Olympus at them, pushed the zoom button, and snapped their picture, which was really stupid in retrospect, because I hadn’t calculated that the dim light in the recess of  stall would activate the camera's flash. A few people looked up, and then returned to their shopping. No such luck with this pair. For an instant they both froze, and then Dark Eyes glared at me. His mouth was all twisted, and before I could react, he charged around the corner of the display table toward me. His buddy hadn’t moved.
            The strap around my neck saved the camera from crashing to the ground, as he grabbed my arm.
            "What are you doing? What is the idea of taking my photograph?” He had a rough foreign voice, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the little polo player on his blue shirt.
             I said something really snappy, like,  "Not you. I'm...I’m taking pictures of everything. "   
            "I will have your film,” he said under his breath.
            I said, "Leave me alone." My heart pounded and I just wanted to get out of there.
            A Chinese man came up and asked, "Is there problem?"
            Dark Eyes dropped my arm and backed off. 
            "I was just taking some photographs of the market. Is that all right?"
I didn’t know if he understood me or not. He said, "If problem, I call police."
Dark Eyes said "No problem.” His companion stood and stared at us along with the other customers. The Chinese man strode behind the counter. He must have been the proprietor, and he obviously wanted us to leave.
            Like in a movie, I took off doing a panicky dodge through the maze of shops. I found the hideous lingerie shop again, grabbed a nightgown and charged into a dressing room about the size of a toilet stall. I cowered in there for what seemed like a long time. When I peered through the curtain, I didn’t see them. Again, just like in a chase scene, I heard some indignant shouts in Chinese as I hustled through the storeroom and out the back door.