Guess who’s fucked?
You’d be right. Me.
Half the building had gone up in flames by the time the fire fighters put out the blaze. I act like it’s news, as supposedly I wasn’t there.
‘What’s this about?’
I smile like I don’t know they’re after me. Although it’s my third time asking, the FBI Agents don’t reply. My brow is hot, my palms sweat, and I’ve larvae on my mind. Yes, maggots! I remember bluebottles fizzing about like an electric current in the air. My nose twitches. I smelled their death - Fatso and his son - and the stench of cooked meat.
I force myself to take in the Ambassador’s living room. Framed paintings hang on the high walls of the colonial mansion. In a corner, the Stars and Stripes dangle from a flagpole. Heavy curtains are draped either side of French doors. The walls are wood-panelled. A fan from a bygone world spins overhead. Sunlight glitters off the mahogany table and causes me to squint. Outside, I hear a gardener mowing what must be The Island’s only lawn.
The US Ambassador’s high-walled residence on a remote Caribbean island is an unusual place for a grilling by the FBI.
I’ve been over the story. They burned to death. It’s online. Time of death 22:04. They call it bad luck. It’s why I don’t get it. There’s nothing fishy.
‘Calvin, do you have any idea what that’s like?’
I saw how it was. I remember it perfectly. I was looking up at the seventh floor. I heard screams. The balcony window exploded and flames burst into the night. A man on fire sailed through the air. Bluebottles zipped about as the sound of a fire truck drew nearer.
‘It sounds insane!’
The Feds are wasting their time. Then I put my foot in it.
‘The dad was overweight!’
‘Calvin, it wasn’t a heart attack.’
‘Some people lose the survival instinct…’
‘He didn’t. But he didn’t have much choice!’
‘A top-heavy guy can trip up. Maybe he stumbled?’
‘Calvin, he didn’t fall over.’
‘Know what I think?’
Special Agent Miller nods, go on, what?
‘Accidentally-on-purpose… Really, I’d do it if I was him.’
The officer considers it, then frowns, then he throws his head back and laughs.
‘I’m serious. You don’t think he had the brains to end it? Was drink involved?’
‘A bottle of champagne gifted by a stranger. He had a few beers too.’
It’s my turn to nod, making like the facts explain themselves.
‘Calvin, you had a brother.’
‘I have two.’
‘If you’ll let me finish! You had three brothers. One died in an accident. Flint. Didn’t he die by falling?’
Agent Miller wants to go back to the beginning. It’s a cheap shot. I take it on the chin but spell out the difference.
‘That was on a boat.’
It’s true that other things happened. Things I’m not ready to talk about. The FBI man lifts his chin. What am I going to do?Sit tight and supress the Surge, that’s what! Agent Miller has lank grey hair, wrinkly skin, and peas for eyes. He looks shot. At sixty-something, he won’t see the next decade. I turn to the younger of the two. Agent Garcia. He has a neutral look and chews a stick of gum. He’s a stocky Latino in his mid-forties, with a terrific mop of black hair and barely a grey root showing.
1, 2, 3.
4, 5, 6.
I force a smile. I still have it. The nerve. The neck. Nice try, but I’m not buying it!They’ve nothing on me; this’ll blow over. And as for the other thing: Flint is gone and this isn’t about him. My dead brother’s story isn’t poking its head in!
Getting the call wasn’t unexpected. I’d been to the American Embassy once, to His Excellency’s private residence three times. I imagined the Ambassador was after my advice or wanted to invite me to a social occasion.
An hour earlier…
I watch the limousine pull up under the shade of a palm tree on the seafront. A short while later and we’re at a standstill. On the outskirts of the Capital there’s a traffic jam. Horns honk. A donkey crosses the road. Life in the Caribbean! The chauffeur invites me to smoke and I surprise myself by accepting a cigarette. Inhale. 1, 2, 3. Exhale. 4, 5, 6. The smoke hangs in the air like I’m entering a mystery. Suddenly my window rolls down and the spell is gone. I ignore the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror and puff out of the window, carefree and godlike.
As the electric gates draw back I’m thinking hors d’oeuvres and posh chocolates. A stitch-up is far from my mind! His Excellency greets me in the courtyard of the Ambassador’s residence, shaking my hand with both of his. Ambassador Mulrooney leads me inside by an elbow, spouting something about being obliged to or being obliging. I’m confused by his obligations when he deposits me in a living-room where the Feds are seated behind a dining table. I’m introduced to Special Agents so-and-so before the Ambassador backs out of the room, drawing the double-doors behind him. I feel late to the party. What went on before I was landed here? How is such a meeting planned? Is this the norm?My eyes dart around the room. Inside my head I’m screaming. Run? … But wait! There are no handcuffs.
‘Flying the flag abroad, is it Mister Loch? Mind if we call you Calvin, I mean, that’s who you are now, right? Or should we call you the Joker?’
‘What’s this about?’
It’s the first time I ask it, getting a smirk for a reply. Silence is a tactic; it helps folk blub! Out the veranda window I spy the swimming pool. Clear blue water and then there’s a ripple as a duck swims into view. It’s strange. A rainbow-coloured duck! Its colours aside, it’s ominous. Birds and me, we’ve history.
‘I feel like I’m in a movie!’
‘You’re not. But pinch yourself if you like, I won’t stop you.’
It’s the older of the two who says it, but Agent Garcia interrupts, keen to dissipate any tension.
‘Calvin, we’d like a chat if we may.’
Alberto Garcia is easy to size up. Back home, the black-haired FBI Agent was clearly a football player. Probably did steroids given his hammy thighs and chubby brown cheeks. We’re polar opposites.While I’m not exactly tiny, I’m whippet thin and don’t weigh much. I’m happiest when seated, then there’s no height issue.I look around the room, high and low, lest there be any obvious recording equipment. Nope. None.
‘It’s a strange way to talk. A call from the Embassy. I arrive at the Ambassador’s house and you two go boo! What’s the meaning of this?’
‘Agent Miller and I would like a few words.’
‘Off. It’s a routine matter, a box we must tick.’
‘I’m a tick-box on the radar of American law enforcement?’
The younger agent smiles as he touches his suit. Police issue two-pieces? When they stood to shake hands I noticed that the jacket of Agent Garcia was shapeless like a sack while the suit pants of Agent Miller needed taking up. They could be mistaken for shoe salesmen. Couldn’t the FBI have sent a classier bunch? No matter the disguise, out on the street this pair will always be pegged for cops. My turn to smile!
‘We thought you’d left The Island.’
‘I’m back… How did you find me?’
‘Where were you?’
I’d been asked to bring my passport, which Agent Garcia opens and closes like he’s checking to see if it’s real. He shakes his head while talking to himself. How did you manage this? You don’t officially exist! Garcia looks up at me, but my face is a blank.
‘How many different people have you been? Some would say that makes you a pro.’
A pro at what?
‘This isn’t your first name-change.’
‘It’s not illegal!’
‘Nobody is saying it’s fraud. I get it. Nowadays everyone has an infinite number of selves in them so why not explore the possibilities. Hey presto and be reinvented! Be anybody; be free! A name says nothing, but how the heck do you remember who you are?’
Silence. He shakes his head, studies my photograph again and smiles like he finally recognises me. He jots down my legal name, passport number, DOB, place of birth. Special Agent Miller steps in.
‘What do you get up to down here? With all that free time, I’d go crazy.’
‘It’s not because Banana Republics don’t extradite?’
‘I wasn’t aware.’
The haggard old fool gives a disbelieving look. Agent Miller thinks I sit in the sun to plan the perfect murder.
‘What do you do for a living?’
‘That’s a story I can’t tell... Confidentiality agreements!’
‘No regular hours. No work colleagues. I’d go cuckoo.’
‘I believe you.’
‘So what do you do, Calvin?’
‘You’re the Feds, you tell me!’
‘Where did you get the cut?’
‘The nasty scar on your forehead.’
‘It’s nothing. Just a scratch.’
‘But you still haven’t told me how you got it.’
‘It’s not from shaving!’
‘You need a few scars to show that you’ve lived!... I took a tumble.’
‘Christ, everyone around you takes a fall!’
‘Miller! Simon, stop it!’
Agent Simon Miller is eager to get stuck in but has dashed Agent Garcia’s play for fake friends. I look at my manicured fingernails. We’re classes apart! Where did they sleep last night? The five star or two star?
It occurs to me that the FBI agents may hold different opinions of me. Not necessarily a good-cop/bad-cop routine but more a case of Miller, nearing retirement, has a chip and would love to beat it out of me, whereas Alberto Garcia, who is still working his way up, is on the fence.
There’s nothing about reading me my rights. It’s how they want it, a simple chat before it turns serious. I remind myself: I’m no fugitive; I’m not on the run. Instead, these guys hope I’ll slip up and implicate myself. How they’d love to use my words against me. How they really would.
Did I really do all of it? Yes, I did. All of it. But there’s no telling. Not straight up. I’d get thirty-to-life. No question. What I’ve done isn’t on the menu. Shit happened but nobody knows for sure how. It’s why I’m not behind bars. Know what? Maybe the FBI stumbling upon me is the impetus I need to write my life’s story because if I’m not in my right mind, I’ll make it so on the page. I’ll write my way out of this. Cover over the cracks. Make things doubtful. Grey.
I smile to myself like a man who knows he’ll get away with it. I take in the room once again, this time noticing a framed painting of a great blue heron. It feels deliberate, although the agents can’t possibly know it, or can they? No. They can’t know about my crossing paths with the lanky bird when I was barely a teenager. My stomach churns. A blue crane was the cause of it, the beginning of the Surge, my inner rage. My virgin crime is back in mind as a two-bit watercolour hanging on the wall triggers a dark episode from my complicated youth.
I blink hard. The truth is that I often avoid the truth! Allow yourself a chance to discover who you might turn out to be! They’re Mum’s words. Of all her children, I was the one who found it difficult to be myself. In our family, I didn’t belong and it caused much trauma. Back then, the thing about the bird, well, Mum was in hospital back in Canada after the fall and Dad was keeping house, which meant leaving us to our own devices.
We boys were down at Loch Champlain, my three brothers and I, trying to catch something with our rods. We were having no luck with fish so I took off into the long grass, using a stick to beat a path. I thought Flint hadn’t seen me, believing that I was under cover of the reeds. Alone in the marsh and a huge bird fanned its wings at me. It’s when the Surge caught me off-guard and it was a bloody mess.
The next day things took a turn. Officer Johnson came knocking and asked to have a private word with Dad. Flint was summoned and joined them in Dad’s study. A couple of long, long minutes later, Flint emerged and grinned when I gave him narrow slits for eyes.The little shit; I know what he did! He landed me in it.Bidding the trooper farewell, I overheard Dad saying ‘It’s always the middle child!’ That night, when Dad did the rounds to tuck us in he couldn’t meet my eye as it was Mum’s job to reprimand us.
‘Animals are sacred, K.’
‘But we eat them!’
‘Some animals are in abundance. It’s one thing stamping on an insect but it’s a crime to kill a protected species. It was a rookery, a breeding colony for Kingbirds. It was a mother protecting her young.’
When Mum returned I caught wind of the word ‘hospital’ but that notion was dropped and no more was said. But I held a grudge. I wanted to be one of the boys and Flint couldn’t be trusted. It took another two years before I got even and that was the end of him. As his coffin was lowered into the grave, I said to myself: remember his name.
Jump cut to now and here I am: a free man living in the sun. Agent Garcia turns around in his chair but doesn’t know what he’s looking for. It’s his job to notice things yet he can’t explain my life in a wall painting. Agent Miller taps a finger on the file. I tune back in and Garcia gives the go-ahead with his eyes. The folder is opened and pushed towards me. Photographs are spread out with one photograph turned around so that it faces me. I show no reaction as I take the photo in my hand. I turn it this way and that, appreciating it like it’s a work of art. I’m holding the charred remains of the boy up to the light. At least I assume it’s a kid as it’s a small skull that’s cooked black.
‘Calvin, this is strictly confidential, okay?’
Oh, I understand just fine!I understand that I’m supposed to lose my shit, break-down and confess. I’m also supposed to place a hand over my mouth, look away, and go: oh, my god, is that what I think it is?Instead, I stare at the photo. No fingerprints of mine here! In hushed tones, Special Agent Garcia gives me the lowdown on what it takes to throw oneself off a 7thfloor balcony. Apparently a 375ºF furnace will do it.
‘They’re hard to solve. Evidence burns up; DNA is scorched, untraceable. Witnesses aren’t much help as it was night-time. Difficult to see colours! Wood burns yellow but black smoke is a worrying sign. It means hydrocarbons were present. Gasoline. Oil. Paint thinner. Ignitable liquids!’
He stops to let it sink in. The night comes back to me. From my vantage point I could feel the heat from the flames. I crack a smile, reminded of the Mister Respectable that I once was. The old me is long long gone. It’s why I’ve been strong in my replies. If this does somehow turn into a scandal, I’m far from home and its effects will be muted.
‘Folk can’t say about the smell. Acrid or not? Suspicious or natural? Arson-cum-murder, who knows? But guess what we found?’
My eyes widen. My heart thumps in my chest. Did he find a missing glove or is he bluffing? Only 20% of arson cases are solved. There’s an 80% chance the perpetrator goes free. Garcia reads my mind and blinks at me a certain way. He places a hand on the table and I remove mine so he can’t guess my hand size. He smiles while keeping his eyes on me. I wonder about him. What he’s really after.
Lots of people kill lots of people. It’s the ones who remain at large we don’t hear about. They’re the smart ones, the killers who win at their sport.