10 June 2011

"Oliver Comes Home"

By Curtis C. Chen

The apartment was cold and dark. Oliver almost called out when he closed the door, and had to remind himself that there was nobody waiting for him at home anymore. He wondered how long it would be before the habit faded.

"Welcome home, Doctor Graves," said a gravelly voice with a British accent.

Oliver yanked open the drawer of the table by the door and reached inside. The pistol was missing. He grabbed the letter opener instead and slapped at the light switch on the wall.

The living room lights came on, revealing a dark-haired man, graying at the temples, wearing a tweed three-piece suit. He sat in Oliver's armchair. His hands were raised next to his shoulders. One hand held Oliver's pistol, slide locked back to show it was not loaded. The other hand held the empty magazine.

"Who the bloody hell are you?" Oliver said. He couldn't decide whether he should advance toward the stranger, or duck into the kitchen and look for a better weapon, or reach for his phone to make an emergency call.

"Just a fellow handgun enthusiast," the stranger said, nodding at the pistol in his right hand. Oliver couldn't quite place the accent—Oxford, maybe. "Tell me, why is a man with an advanced physics degree so interested in keeping and modifying his own small arms?"

"I like working with my hands," Oliver said.

"You could build ships in bottles."

"I also enjoy loud noises."

"You used to go hunting with your family. Isn't that right?"

Oliver gripped the letter opener. "I want to know who you are and what you're doing in my flat."

"I work for the United States government." The stranger slowly lowered his arms and put the empty pistol and magazine on the coffee table.

"You don't sound American," Oliver said.

"Well, that makes two of us," said the stranger. "As I was saying, I work for a federal agency, and I'm in need of some technical expertise." He sat down in the armchair.

"You're a spy," Oliver said.

The stranger's mouth twitched. "Not exactly."

"And I'm not exactly looking for a job."

"You resigned from Berkshire Macro-Composites this morning," the stranger said. "I understand the circumstances were rather unfavorable. You won't receive any severance pay, and more importantly, if you spend too much time alone in this apartment, you will go mad with grief."

Oliver felt the emptiness in the pit of his stomach yawning open. The wall behind the stranger displayed the default screensaver, a vacant beach at sunset overlaid with a clock and calendar. Had it really been only two months since Robbie's death? It felt so much longer. Oliver couldn't summon a memory of the last day he'd felt in the least bit happy.

The stranger was right. An arrogant, presumptuous scofflaw, maybe, but still right.

"What do I call you?" Oliver asked.

"I'm Paul Tarkington," the stranger said. "I work for the State Department."

"And what are you offering?"

Paul smiled.


Photo: Welcome to the Sanitarium by Chris Roberge, March, 2007