The Capital of Latecomers
A thriller by Nina Nenova. Excerpt

 

Physical theory in its present stage strongly suggests the indestructibility of Mind by Time.
Erwin Schrödinger, Nobel Prize recipient in physics

The very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is an ultimate reality.
Eugene Wigner, Nobel Prize recipient in physics

Elucidating the mysterious flux [of time] would, more than anything else, help unravel the deepest of all scientific enigmas – the nature of the human self. Until we have a firm understanding of the flow of time, or incontrovertible evidence that it is indeed an illusion, then we will not know who we are, or what part we are playing in the great cosmic drama.
Paul Davies, professor of theoretical physics and cosmology

 

The wide shimmering river spread its flat surface, before abruptly plummeting down towards the rocks, breaking into sprays of white, killing everything in the water, even the fish, in its fall. It then continued its flow – a darkened mass, slow liquid again, entering a narrowing tunnel. It descended along the tunnel, farther and farther, so deep into the rock that those who walked with inaudible footsteps above could neither feel it, nor imagine it was there. People passed over the rock-hidden river, each on his or her way, while down here the river roared and raged against the darkness. For the river remembered that before the hollowed rock and the concrete tunnel restricted its passage, it was as wide and bright under the sky as ever. It knew it was not an underground river.

 

1.

RHEIN, RHEIN… Remember, Rhein, that this river is your godmother. You were conceived in it, and if you could go back thirty years, you would see the small boat, with its oars tucked inside. You would see the sun up there, and the tiny white clouds in the sky – like other boats, carrying other lovers down another blue river. They too drift with the current, but only this boat will fall…

It will fall, unless you could keep it from falling! Otherwise, you will become nonexistent, conceived into life and dead at the same time. And the thirty years of your life would have been possible, but unlived.

“Wonderful,” I whispered to myself. “I don’t want my life.”

Come on, hold the boat, Rhein!

I don’t want my life. Besides, how could I hold it? I hadn’t been born yet. Still… if I’m here now, my mother must have survived.

My thoughts appeared logical to me and this made me bitter. The river darkened, disappearing into the past, and I stayed here, stripped of the illusion that I could change anything. Now I couldn’t help it; I had to say it:

“What stupidity. Stupidity!” I repeated, my voice loud and clear.

Lately this had become my trigger word: as soon as I heard myself saying it, I knew I was finally out of the trance. I opened my eyes, and as always, first I looked at my hands. I wasn’t holding a brush or a palette, yet both my hands were covered in paint of different colours. I had been painting, then. And probably everything had gone as usual.

I turn slowly to face the painting: dragons, lotuses, tiny Japanese women with enormous fans – the screen, that is. The painting is behind it. It has to be there, but what does it look like? I don’t know. For a long time, I have been only an executioner: blind and deaf, I have no memory, while the other one does his paintings with my hands, studies them, judges them, approvingly or not, through my eyes. He decides what they would be like, and when he’s done, he simply locks them away in the warehouse. He has somehow made me belive that if I see them, I would destroy them. This is his revenge, his relentless punishment for my trying to kill myself, and so kill him, too, the Artist, whose self has not been one with mine ever since.

Today, however, I had decided to finally uncover the truth about these paintings. All I had to do was wait for Kort’s arrival. “Get them from the warehouse and see for yourself”, I would tell him before heading off somewhere. When I came back he would say… What would he say? WHAT could he say?

I left the studio and after dropping off my overalls in the laundry room, I made for the bathroom. I stopped in front of the mirror there. For almost a year I had seen no one besides myself, and now it seemed that I hadn’t seen myself, either. Who was this guy in front of me? With hair down to the shoulders and a chest-length beard. With the body of an athlete, but pale and flabby. And these eyes? Supposedly blue, but so desolate their blue had almost disappeared – as if someone had meant to repaint them and then had forgotten about them.

I took a shower, put on clean clothes, drank a cup of coffee, and went outside. Because I had chosen full isolation, no one was taking of the park, which now looked ragged and wild, just like its tenant. I made for the meadow, whose grass had grown overly tall since I first stepped on it, full of hope that here, in the heart of this oasis, my spirit would heal and soar again. And here I was a year later – my spirit obviously hadn’t healed, but did it soar again? The answer was to be provided by Kort, because I couldn’t tell, I didn’t know.

I sighed, resigning myself to yet another absurdity, and raised my head toward the sky, waiting.

The helicopter appeared from the southern side of the complex, entering my sector without passing over any of the other nine, and landed on the meadow just when the two hands of my watch merged, striking the twelfth hour. Good! I smiled vaguely. The agency, bearing the funereal name Guaranteed Peace, was fulfilling its commitments to a tee.

A moment later, though, I blinked in disbelief: instead of the pudgy and bald Kort, a female stranger came out of the helicopter. She was young and slender, and had very long hair. She walked towards me, stumbling in the grass.

“Oh, Rhein, you’re crazy!” were her first words.

A stab with a knife would have been less uncomfortable. What a swift and precise diagnosis!

“But I think I could have gone crazy, too”, she continued as she stepped closer and clutched at my arm. “Alone for hours over the desert! What if that contraption got mixed up and dropped me off somewhere out there?”

“Contraption… in what sense?”

“Well, in the sense that it doesn’t have a pilot! No one’s flying the thing. There’s no pilot!” She laughed hysterically.

I laughed, too, probably as hysterically as she did. The helicopter was remote-controlled, no mystery there. But who, in God’s name, was she?

“I see”, I mumbled, “but I…”

“You’re a total freak, you know that? How could you live here? And for how long now? A year, right?”

I looked at her, more calmly: Kort’s daughter, most probably. I rummaged through my mind, trying to remember her name, but it was nowhere to be found.

“Hurry up!” she yelled, wrinkling her forehead and then trying to explain: “My luggage, go get it before it takes off again!”

I rushed for the helicopter and dragged out two voluminous bags, and a smaller one with a shoulder strap. I was horrified. There could be no question about her intention to stay for a long visit. I was lugging the bags with me, and she was already mincing towards the villa in her high heels.

I followed her into the vestibule, put the luggage on the floor and smoothed my beard a little. It had gotten curlier after the shower, the damned thing, and it seemed to keep getting curlier under this uninvited lady’s critical gaze.

“If we were in the outside world,” she began, “I would’ve never recognized you.”

“Same with you”, I could have replied, but she probably wouldn’t have believed me. Girls like her could stand before a blind man and still think they are unforgettable, irresistible and so on.

“How’s your father?” I asked her dryly. “I was expecting him, actually.”

“Well, obviously he’s forgotten to tell you,” she said with a casual wave of her hand. “He’s been so busy recently, what with Hosepha’s exhibition and all.”

“Who the hell’s she?” I wondered.

“She? I’m talking about Marcian Hosepha himself, man! Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of him!”

“I’m sorry, I haven’t.”

“There. See what this isolation has done to you? You’re losing tempo, Rhein, losing tempo! And how could you not be? If you don’t even know who you’re up against.”

“I am not a horse,” I sighed, “or a hound.”

“Oh, yes, you are a horse”, she patted me on the shoulder. “You are my first racing horse. That’s why I’m here. I will take you out of the “stable” and spur you on so hard that this fancy Hosepha guy will be staring at your tail and eating your dust. While I make faces at my father from the grandstand.”

She half-closed her eyes, drifting off into some reverie, while the helicopter outside began humming quietly. I turned and saw it gaining height. It floated up into the sky and flew away.

“Now listen, lady.”

“Vanda,” she cut me off. She took off her shoes and started walking about the vestibule in her socks. “Just keep calling me Vanda. Despite my new position, I insist that we remain friends.”

Vanda, Vanda, I began repeating to myself with the unpleasant feeling that her name might slip from my chaos-ridden memory again.

“And what’s this new position of yours?” I asked, closing the front door.

“Oh, you don’t know about that either! My father and I, we’re business partners now, Rhein. On equal footing, but the truth is he’s severely underestimating me. And he’s become so bumptious recently because of Hosepha – his discovery. Well, never mind! I will rediscover you. You’ve been at the top and you’ll get back there again. Because you are my favorite!”

I smiled at her. Only youth could have such insolent yet somewhat charming spirits. Especially when it lack self-confidence. Or when it’s afraid of something.

And there was something, or rather, someone, to be afraid of now: here, in the desert, in this unfamiliar complex in a small oasis hundreds of miles away from the nearest city, Vanda was alone… with me in this computerized villa.

She stood there, silent, as if reading my mind, watching me with feline shrewdness through half-closed eyelids. Her eyes were bright green, elongated and slightly slanted, emphasized by her jet black eyebrows with their parallel curve. She had a beautiful, though unusual, face – almost triangular because of the wide forehead, the sharp cheekbones and chin. Her skin was smooth and amazingly white against her shiny black hair, which fell, perfectly straight, down to her shoulders. Her nose was narrow, with miniature nostrils, and her mouth was small and aggressive at the same time.

“Well?” she said.

I shrugged. If this most succinct of all questions was meant to evoke a response to her babble about the stable, the spurring, and so on, I had no idea how to reply – with a joke, or with irony, or simply by taking her to task with something like “Just get back to civilization, little lady, and find yourself another favorite horse.”

I picked up her bags and carried them through the vestibule, then up the stairs. I climbed the stairway in silence, straining my ears, expecting to follow me. I couldn’t hear any noise, but this meant nothing, as she was probably walking behind me in her socks, and her clothes… What were her clothes? I couldn’t remember! I started to panic: what kind of artist could I be? I, who used pride myself on my keen ability to observe.

I reached the second floor and walked along the corridor, struggling to recall her image and her clothes in particular. Instead, I “saw” her, not even socks on her feet, completely naked. And, worth mentioning, sporting curves much more voluptuous than she could show in reality.

Well, that’s the way it is. Imagination is always better than reality and human sight – these are only the frame and the canvas, whereas It…

“… is the father of art!” I blurted out loud.

I stopped and turned around, embarrassed. Vanda had been following me so close that she almost bumped into me. We both took a step back.

“I meant your father,” I “explained” to her. “Sometimes he thinks he is…”

“What? The father of art?” she laughed. “You’re right. I will tell him about that as soon as I get the chance.”

Her clothing was simply a dress, cream-colored, sleeveless, knee-high: it was nothing worth noticing. She had her shoes back on. And with them on, there was no way she could have walked silently on the marble floor. Yes, she had been clacking with her high heels behind my back and I hadn’t heard a thing. It was as if I had been somewhere else all this time…

“Oh, it’s fantastic here!” she announced in excitement, looking around.

I looked around, too. We were in the guest room, and I had somehow missed the moment of our entrance. I dropped her bags on the carpet and spread my arms.

“Make yourself at home, take a rest,” I started mumbling, “while I prepare lunch.”

“Oh, no, no! I am still sick from that horrible journey. I’ll just take a shower and then a nap.”

“Perfect! I mean, I’ll see you no earlier than the evening, right?” I swiftly withdrew into the corridor, closing the door behind me.

What am I going to do? What will happen now? I asked myself in vain, hopping down the stairs. I had just discovered that I had become even more idiotic than I thought. And that it was going to be really hard, if not impossible, trying to cover that fact.

 

 

2.

That afternoon, I managed to refrain from doing many things. I didn’t call Kort, I didn’t shave my beard, I didn’t talk to myself, I didn’t lock the studio door. I didn’t write a single word in my diary – as if nothing interesting had happened. And I didn’t search for information on Marsian Hosepha online, although it was almost irresistible. Right now, however, I had no other option. It was the only way to preserve my dignity, at least in my own eyes.

You’ve been at the top… What if I am still there, eh, Kort? You’d be so sorry for writing me off, and in such an offhand manner – leaving me to your ignorant little daughter, so she could learn through me. To rediscover me! By her, a girl who obviously could neither tell a painting from a photograph, nor an artist… an ARTIST from a horse. Nor a horse from a stallion.

I kept fuming about that until I realized that my fuming itself was getting somewhat interesting. Apparently, after spending such a long time in isolation, one stopped being picky when it came to forms of entertainment: whatever happened to be at hand was welcome, as long as it was new. So in that sense, whoever she was, miss Vanda Kortez was a welcome addition here.

I didn’t have to wait for her till after sundown. She made her appearance considerably earlier. She was wearing sandals, shorts and a short t-shirt revealing her perfect waist. Her legs, however, were skinny, and she had tied her hair back, so I wasn’t likely to have erotic reveries about her. I’ve never been one for underdeveloped girls and right now she looked like just that.

I was sitting in my favorite chaise longue on the terrace and it took her a while to notice me. As she did, her face showed such rapture that my heart skipped: she had gone to the studio, she had seen them.

“Oh, Rhein!” she rushed to me as if to embrace me. “This is… I’m lost for words! This is truly fantastic, all around! It’s as if I’m in the residence of some maharaja!”

I said nothing.

“Or of a prince?” she smiled slyly and sat across from me. “God! This entire villa is a piece of art. The splendor of the Middle Ages and the electronics of the future combined in such a superb and… hmm… balanced way. It must have cost you at least a million!”

“I took a two-year lease on it and it cost me everything I had. But I didn’t do it because of the medieval splendor and the electronics. The isolation of the place raises the price.”

I thought my hint was obvious enough, but apparently I had to be blunt with Vanda: maybe I had to ask her directly if she wanted me to get her a helicopter for tomorrow, or whether she would prefer to leave the day after, which was already kind of late.

“When are the servants coming?” she asked.

“They’re not. I have no servants.”

“Yeah, right! Every corner is so clean, everything’s tidy. Don’t tell me you’re doing it all by yourself!”

“I only use the kitchen, the bedroom and… the studio. By the way, did you take a look at the studio?”

“Yes, I peeked in there too. It’s spacious and bright, but to be honest, I was a bit disappointed. It’s the only thing that doesn’t really fit the overall design. It’s much too plain. Also, I think I saw a screen in there that was downright kitschy.”

“You’re right,” I nodded. “I’ll get rid of it first thing tomorrow. And you… Would you like some coffee?”

“I already had some,” she suddenly laughed. “Wow, I’d never seen a thing like that before. A fully automated kitchen! And the freezers, the fridges… I found champagne, black caviar, strawberries, whipped cream. I wonder if there are any candles around.”

“If you’re worried about a power cut…”

“Oh, come on, Rhein! Candle light is more romantic. We’ll also light the fireplace. It’s going to be an evening to remember!”

She stood up, too briskly again, and took me by the hand. She pulled me up and led me along the terrace. We entered the living room, but we didn’t stop. As it turned out, we were headed for the second floor and, ultimately, for my own bathroom.

I stopped at the door.

“Come on!” entering the room, Vanda pulled me after her.

I was dumbstruck: she had been rummaging in here as well. On the table by the mirror were lined all the shaving and hair-cutting accessories that I had discarded in one of the drawers, along with my intention of ever using them again.

This girl was definitely going too far. But what was I to do? If I started arguing with her or if I became rude, what with me looking like a gorilla and all, I would end up in an even more awkward position.

Smiling dumbly, I sat before the mirror and she immediately spread a large white towel over my chest. She tied it behind my neck.

“To rent such a luxurious villa,” she murmur, reproachfully, “and not make good use of it…”

I interrupted her:

“I had no other choice. There are only ten villas in the complex and this one is the simplest and smallest of them all.”

“You don’t say?!”

“It’s true. The Agency counts on quality, and not quantity, and on its special services of utter seclusion.”

“I see. So all the other clients are like you.”

“You mean crazy?”

“Well, no, but…”

“I have no idea what they’re like, Vanda. I’m not even sure if there are any.”

“Oh, I bet there are! At least nine. All of them eccentric, all of them millionaires!” She grabbed the scissors and excitedly waved them above my head. “Oh, I can’t wait to meet them!”

“No, no, that’s impossible,” I cowered in the chair. “That’s out of the question.”

“We’ll see.”

“We’ll see nothing and no one!” I finally burst out. “And you should follow the rules or…”

Or you can go to hell! I tried to stand up but she pushed me back down with surprising strength. The scissors in her hand stopped a mere inch from my temple. I took a quick glance at her reflection in the mirror. I was surprised again: she looked helpless and frightened.

“Please, Rhein,” she said softly, “don’t… don’t get mad… like that.”

Like what, for God’s sake? Yes, I had raised my voice, but that was hardly reason to cower. And she was even shaking. I took my eyes off her reflection and fixed them upon mine: there was nothing frightening in it. Not any more in any case, but there might have been. Who knew, maybe I had glared at her?

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. “Sometimes I can’t control my facial expressions. I’ll be more careful from now on.”

She nodded, then leaned over me and began trimming my beard. Her hand moved with the precision of a surgeon. No more shaking, no more fear. Damn! She had tricked me.

“You’re doing well,” I noted ambiguously.

“Yes,” she agreed. After a brief pause, filled only with the clicking of the scissors, she added: “My grandma used to run a beauty shop. She was a wonderful woman.”

The view in the mirror was constantly changing, growing increasingly unsettling. Her reflection would come closer to and merge with mine, or it would cut through it, taking away the ear, the cheek, the eyebrow, the eye; then it would retreat, leaving my face changed, more exposed. The tiny hand with the swift thin fingers held the two glinting blades that looked like its extensions… ready to stab.

“Enough!” I said to myself. I leaned back against the chair, as if to make myself more comfortable, and got the mirror out of my view.

After a little while, however, I sensed that something strange was happening to me again. I had fixed my gaze upon the medicine cabinet, and the fact that it stood above the table now struck me as something of enormous importance. It seemed to hold some fateful secret that I was supposed to have uncovered a long time ago… because it was connected to that morning. And because the table was white.

Vanda substituted the hair clipper for the scissors and turned it on. I drifted away under its quiet buzz. White, white… yes, this table was white!

“But what of it?” I asked myself and saw in Vanda’s eyes that I had made another blunder. “I meant the situation in the complex,” I hurriedly explained. “Or rather the fact that… there’s no situation to speak of. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so peaceful, and that’s the whole point: one shouldn’t expect anything extraordinary, shouldn’t be anxious wondering what would happen tomorrow, or in an hour.”

“Utter boredom,” Vanda decided. “And you don’t look that calm at all. Stand still, please! You’re getting in my way.”

I locked my fingers together and only then remembered the scar. Good thing my shirt had long sleeves. I’ll wear only long-sleeved shirts while she is around, I decided, but then it occurred to me that it would be more convincing if I put a bandage around my wrist. “Tendovaginitis, you see

“I’ve been working a lot lately.”

“I am happy to hear that,” Vanda smiled at me.

She turned the clipper off, put it down on the table and released me from the towel’s grip. She threw it in the disintegrator, along with my beard which stuck to it in pathetic blondish tufts.

“But perhaps we’re meant to live under pressure,” I resumed my babbling. “And when everything around you is calm and quiet, your mind starts producing pressure of its own, and it often goes too far. And so we at this paradoxical situation: the calmer your surroundings, the more frantic and chaotic you become inside. As if you’re under a lid, and with no valve to let out the steam.”

Standing next to me with another white towel in her hand, Vanda was still smiling. I had to smile back.

“Poor thing,” she whispered.

She leaned and kissed me lightly on the forehead. It felt so nice I almost fainted.

“Vanda, I…”

“Hush,” her fingers barely touched my lips. “Come on, Rhein, you’ve been avoiding looking at yourself for a while now. What are you expecting to see? That I’ve turned you into a vampire?”

She was quite perceptive, I realized bitterly and reluctantly turned my eyes to the mirror. It seemed as if I had also turned them to the past, once again finding myself as I was that haunting morning. My face was the same: beardless, pale, bloodless. Yes, but back then, my blood had been drained from me, while now… The Artist! He had sucked it all from me. He, he is a vampire.

“I can tell you haven’t been out much,” Vanda said with some concern. “Look at you, your complexion’s practically colourless. If one can speak about complexion at all in your case.”

“I agree!” I exclaimed. “That’s why I look like… like I was sucked dry!”

“Nonsense. You seem perfectly healthy to me. A bit of sun is all you need, and I’ll take care of that, tomorrow. I’ll take care of everything.”

She wrapped the towel around my shoulders and took a comb. She began to comb my hair leisurely, her movements tender as kisses, gentle and relaxing. And now neither my face, nor anything else looked like it did before. Because back then, it had been death that stood beside me, and now – life itself, embodied in this beautiful, vivid girl with ruby lips and sparkling emerald eyes. A true jewel! She was going to take care of me, she had said that loud and clear. She was going to take care of everything.