Book of the Festival
"Technical Hitches" by Leif Davidsen
Translated from the Danish by Tim Davies
Jack Bellmann had been christened nothing less common than Lars Jensen, but even early on in his career he found that name too run-of-the-mill for a guy of his sort. Jack realized early on that he was a man with potential, and a man with potential required a name with a bit of swing to it, that was hot and stayed trendy. He had been born twenty odd years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He never knew his father, and his mother had married another man that he had always just called the Russian. Jack had just turned eleven then. It’s an impressionable age, and Sergei was a man after Jack’s own heart. He was tall, and slim to begin with. He thought steady jobs were for idiots and crime paid, and early on he taught Jack to sail the big speedboat from Poland to Lolland-Falster in the south of Denmark with fags and booze. Sergei may have been Russian, but he had been born and bred in Vilnius in Lithuania, which was why he had made his own way to this recently independent country in the early nineties. The Russian may have wed Jack’s mother in order to obtain an exit visa from the Soviet Union, but Jack liked the fact that the man loved and honoured his mother till his dying day, even though, just like Sergei, she grew fatter and fatter, because they loved to sit in the garden knocking back beer and vodka and eating crisps and pickled gherkins.
The Russian had died of drink just after the collapse of Communism but had managed to teach Jack that it was a dog-eat-dog world, with every man for himself, looking out for number one, so it was all about screwing others before they screwed you. Sergei had eeled his way into the shadowlands between the final, corrupt throes of the planned economy and the challenges of the new age ahead, until his liver told him to stop, just as things were about to take a really entertaining turn.
Taking Sergei’s lifelong wisdom as his benchmark, Jack Bellmann, as it said on the elegantly printed business card, had embarked on building the new pirate-capitalist East and made his first money flogging young Baltic women to the Scandinavian market. Jack didn’t care about politics and social systems, but he did feel that the collapse of Communism was the biggest and best thing that had happened during his lifetime, as it was good for business. First the ladies financed a restaurant in Vilnius, then a nightclub; and only an idiot could fail to make money on the booming construction market that mushroomed once privatization got off the ground properly.
They had been good years in the nineties, but times were not what they had been. Rules and laws, order and system, everything required by the bureaucrats in Brussels, was ruining business openings for hard-working men. That was Jack’s excuse to explain why things had gone downhill for him. He wasn’t too keen to admit his mistakes, and only when he had had too much vodka would he whinge about the abortive investments he had made over the past couple of years. He would barely admit to himself, let alone others, that he was frightened out of his wits because the debt he owed to the nameless in the organized underworld was now so great that the interest was ticking away inexorably and, not to put too fine a point on it, he had no idea how he was going to extricate himself with his life in one piece. He had been trucking with the Devil, and now the Devil was demanding payment. Who the heck could have envisaged that the bottom would fall out of the lucrative scrap market just because there were all manner of rules and ministerial regulations to be complied with if the Baltic countries wanted to be members of the EU? He had been stupid enough to put all his monetary eggs in one basket, borrowing too much instead of pulling out in time.
He had invested the money he borrowed in thirty kilos of hash and blow me down if his men hadn’t run into a raid when a border security police patrol stopped them near Tønder over in Jutland, just north of the German frontier. They had scarpered, leaving the hash in the VW bus. He didn’t touch drugs otherwise; the purchase price had been good, so the mark-up would be high. Selling it on the Scandinavian market was not only supposed to have rescued Jack from his debts but also get him off the hook on which the guys pulling the strings had caught him. Instead, he was up to his neck in more shit than a fly on an old kolkhoz manure heap.
It was September. The weather was still warm in Vilnius. Jack Bellmann was sitting in his favourite café in the centre and had taken the first swig of his second large draught beer. That day he felt even more out of sorts. It was the damned money, of course, but also because the first thing he had thought about this morning was having long since rounded the thirty mark. He wasn’t a tall man, but compensated by always being smartly dressed in a stylish suit by Sand of Denmark, clean shirts and highly polished shoes with medium-height heels. His hair had thinned far too prematurely, but with the aid of some spray and some meticulous combing he could still conceal the bald spot. The fact that women no longer found their way quite so willingly to his bed was not due to how he looked, he felt, but to the regrettable shortage of loose change rattling round in his pockets. As he gazed down sadly into his Baltica draught beer and breathed through the fourteenth cigarette of the day, Jack Bellmann acknowledged that on this sunny September day in 2001 he was broke; and, come to think of it, he looked like someone who was forty, fat and finished, as the Danes say. It was time to bury Jack Bellmann from Vilnius and revive the Lars Jensen born in Hvidovre, Copenhagen. It was time to turn over a new leaf. The Baltic adventure was over, but life was not. It just needed to be lived on pastures new and greener.
He glanced over towards two young women. They were scarcely a day over twenty. They leant in over the table, chirping away secretively and girlishly in that incomprehensible Lithuanian language of theirs. He looked at their long legs and short tops, and the breasts that flopped down over the cappuccino cups, the slender fingers, playing with the cigarettes, remembering back to the time in the not so distant past when a snap of the fingers and the wave of a green dollar bill had been a meal-ticket to those kinds of delights. Now they didn’t even deign to look at him. He was too old, or perhaps they could smell the poverty that was beginning to cling to him? A glimpse of defeat and incipient decay, which he himself thought he could see when he shaved in the mornings in the apartment that he no longer owned because, like everything else, it had been mortgaged for far more than it was worth.
Jack was so preoccupied with the two young wenches that he failed to see Georgi before the bulk of his heavy body leant in across the table and shaded out the sun. Georgi went under the name of The Disposal Man, because he was said to have once crushed the head of a rival in a waste disposal unit. He was almost six foot six inches tall, with a big paunch and long black hairs on his arms and legs.
“Hi, Jack,” said Georgi.” I thought I’d find you here.”
The Disposal Man was wearing a tight black tee-shirt and a pair of black trousers, with his paunch cascading out over the wide leather belt. He was always sweating. In his young days he had been a wrestler for Spartak in Moscow. His Russian was guttural and harsh. Jack began to sweat too. The Disposal Man cut no ice with the Organization, Jack knew, but they always sent him when they meant business. Jack looked past the massive head and out onto the street. A blue BMW was parked near the kerb with another bull-neck behind the wheel. It looked like The Disposal Man’s regular sidekick, who went under the name of Boris Screwdriver, that particular tool being his favourite weapon for settling debt-collecting jobs for The Boss. Just a couple of years ago it would have been perfectly natural for him to have sent them both into town for cigarettes, so despite everything there was no reason to be too subservient. He was Jack Bellmann, wonderkid of Vilnius, as the mayor had called him when he was inaugurating the new shopping centre.
“How’s things, Georgi? How’s business?”
“The Boss wants a word with you.”
“I don’t ask the Boss about that. I just come to fetch you.”
“I’m guessing it might be now, seeing as I’m here now, Jack.”
“Yes, I guess so. I’ll just finish my drink, then I’m ready.”
Jack reached for the large draught beer, the glass covered with enticingly cool streaks. At this point sparkling cold beer was the only thing that could console him. Georgi took the glass and tipped out the beer among tables and chairs. The two women looked across at them, but then looked away again quickly. The waiter, who was standing in the door to the actual café, also looked up in astonishment when he heard the beer sloshing around but suddenly busied himself by entering the bar and polishing a couple of glasses.
“The Boss meant now,” said Georgi. ”Now means now, not presently.”
Sitting in the back as they drove through Vilnius, Jack thought how the changed city had evolved since he had first come there in 1991. During the past ten years it had altered character completely. Like another phoenix, it had risen from the grey Soviet ashes. It had burst forth like a seductive and, fortunately, often vulgar woman, he thought. Buildings had shot up, others had been refurbished; there were cars and women, cafés and shops, Internet and satellite dishes, and shops. Jack had watched the city grow richer and had grown rich with it, but now it had left him out in the cold. He became depressed at the thought that he was no longer one of the players, those who were something, who paraded through the streets swinging their arms and heads high; instead he belonged to the impoverished wretches that would never manage to board the moving train, but had been left standing on their dreary Soviet station platform. As yet he bore no resemblance to the lushes that begged near the churches, but that was all show, because he owned little more than them. And before long his swanky designer clothes would be smelling of cheap vodka and stale pee unless he got out of the bear-pit of a hole he was trapped in.
The Boss lived in one of the new mansions that had sprouted up on the outskirts of the city, giant houses with tall stone walls and surveillance cameras, but it was another man who was waiting for Jack as he was led around the house and into the garden. Three topless girls were paddling in the green water of the pool. The Boss, who was Lithuanian and never called anything other than The Boss, was standing next to a trolley bar, pouring water into a glass full of ice cubes. He had slender, white legs in a pair of blue shorts and thin arms in a light, short-sleeved shirt. His eyes were hidden behind black sunglasses. Georgi crossed into the shade and plumped down heavily into a wicker chair that groaned beneath his weight. He stared uninhibitedly at the three women splashing around in the water.
Jack did not know the second man. He looked at Jack, who drew himself up. Well, there was no need to look like the gutter you happened to be in, was there? The man was slim and well-proportioned in a pair of light-coloured trousers and an elegant striped shirt. On his unstockinged feet he wore expensive sandals. Both toe and finger nails looked as if they benefited from frequent manicures. He was nicely suntanned and despite the heat his handshake was firm and dry. His age was hard to gauge. He could be anything from forty to sixty. The Boss himself brought a beer with him to the garden table with the new, high-back wicker chairs and in a friendly tone asked Jack to be seated. It was just like the old days. There was respect and courteousness, as there ought to be among equals. Jack raised his glass, nodded and took a swig. Excellent, Czech beer. It might turn out to be a good day all round. This was a fairly cosy set-up, enjoying a drink and the sound of giggly females in a pool in a private, screened-off garden on a hot late-summer’s day, with gentlemen talking over business politely and professionally. Nevertheless Jack was surprised or, as he had to admit to himself, caught off his guard, for the gent of indeterminate age spoke Danish when he said:
“Good afternoon, Lars Jensen. Or shall we stick to Jack Bellmann?”
Jack sensed a sinking feeling, but he had not made piles of money during the good years by being slow on the uptake or easily ruffled, so he put on a great smile and said:
“Call me Jack. And your name was …?”
“I guess we may as well be on first-name terms.... Jack. You can call me Jens. It makes no odds. We’re both Danish, after all. There’s no reason to play the others’ game.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Jens.”
Jack held out his hand, slightly too quickly—he had proffered it once—and discovering that it was not going to be taken, rescued the situation by grasping the slender neck of the cool beer and hiding the initial warmth in his face with a slurp from the bottle. Not the best opening move. Half-full, the glass stood there, oddly accusing, as he raised the bottle to his dry lips. It came as rather a blow, too, when the kind, slightly drawling Danish voice said:
“How’s business going? You hit the big time… once, I understand?”
“I gather there are certain problems?”
“I’ve hit a bit of a bumpy patch, a slight setback. You know, business cycles go up, come down, level off; and before you know it you’re back flying with the leaders of the pack. A minor setback, nothing that can’t be ironed out. These countries are the place to be if you want to succeed in business. Will be for many a year to come. Clever of you to move in. It’s not too late. I know that. I’ve been here for ages.”
It sounded good, but Jack’s hands were sweating, and the cool beer bottle could not stem the sweat on the palms of his hands. The Boss glanced with a faint smile on his narrow lips and appeared neither surprised nor offended to hear Danish being spoken. Jack realized that the Dane who called himself Jens was top-dog in this game, and it scared him, because he knew no bigger he-dog in Vilnius than The Boss. The Dane showed it by saying:
“My partner here, Vytalis ...."
“Is that his name?”
“Vytalis here tells me you owe him a good deal of money?”
“We have an account to settle, that much is true.”
“’A fairly large one?”
“Sizable, but manageable if the market perks up a bit.”
“Right now, sort of thing?”
“That may be a tad difficult. Paying up, I mean. It’ll probably take a bit of time.”
“But that’s one thing you don’t have, nor does Vytalis. You do know that, don’t you?”
Jack reached for his glass and emptied it. He felt like taking his jacket off, but didn’t bother, even though he could feel the sweat drenching his shirt in the shade of the parasol. He imagined the large blotches growing under his arms. But he had never been daft. So he pulled himself together and admitted defeat and forgot the short-lived dream about this being a new start:
“You making me an offer?”
“I am.” He smiled. It was an inane smile; his accent sucked and was all wrong, as he added, in English:” I will make you an offer you cannot refuse.”
Jack knew that a day that had got off to a hellish start was now turning quite clearly from bad to worse.
The Dane took a swig of his mineral water. Jack lit a cigarette and was proud of how little his hand was shaking. The Boss looked, and a loud squeal from the pool made The Boss shout something or other in Lithuanian, which Jack could never be bothered to learn. He got by with English and Russian. The Dane put his glass down and said:
“You’re up shit creek, actually, Jack. You know it, I know it. Vytalis there knows it. But you’re one lucky beggar, because I can dig you out of the hole you’re in, seeing as Vytalis owes me a favour as well as money. You owe him, he owes me. You pay him, and in so doing he pays me. He mentioned your name during our negotiations, and a solution emerged that can make everyone happy.”
“What do I need to do?” It sounded more resigned than he had imagined.
“Wise move. A man has to acknowledge defeat when it’s unavoidable. There’s always time to win a new victory on a new battlefield. You’ll be taking a package to Denmark. In Copenhagen you’ll exchange the packet for another one, which you’ll deliver to me here in town, and part of your debt will have been paid.”
“Why is The Boss over there agreeing to this?”
“He owes me one. It’s a way of eliminating his debt, fast.”
“It’s drugs? I loathe drugs.”
The man who called himself Jens looked at him calmly. He had narrow, grey eyes. They were not really unfriendly, just business-like. He resembled a personal banking adviser briefing a client on the potential risks of taking out another loan.
“I’m against junkies, too. If they came anywhere near my kid, they’d be dead on the spot, but if they want the stuff, someone has to supply it. Vytalis is sitting on two kilos of the best Afghan heroin number four. He wanted to sit on it a bit longer actually, but he’s realized that if he gives it to me, the score between me and him will have been settled once and for all.”
A harshness now came over the Danish voice. Danish was a friendly language otherwise, Jack thought, now that he was not using it on a daily basis. Now things were getting dangerous:
“None of your business, Jack. You just do what I ask you to.”
“I loathe drugs. Specially the hard stuff. I’ve always kept off them. I’m no mule, for Pete’s sake. Drugs lead straight to damnation, that’s what my stepfather always used to say.”
“I’d be happy to hear your reminiscences some other day, but you have to take that consignment to Denmark.”
Jack shook the bottle. It was empty. The Dane looked over at The Boss, who raised his eyebrows, but walked across to fetch a fresh beer from the bar. He plonked it down hard on the table in front of Jack, hissing in Russian: ”You’re mine, you faggot! And don’t you forget it. Now drink your beer, and mind you don’t choke to death on it!”
Jack felt his heart beating, but he pulled himself together as he refilled the glass and asked:
“Okay. What’s in it for me?”
“Vytalis will dock the accrued interest and reset the principal for three months.”
“Fuck. That’s nothing. I stand to get ten years if I’m caught—more if they nab me in Vilnius or Poland. Fuck! That’s sod all.”
“That’s what you’re getting. I think it’s generous. You have to pay what you owe other people. With interest. We’re not Communists after all. And incidentally, you don’t have any choice, as well you know.”
He did know. One glance over to The Boss and on to The Disposal Man. That was enough. In the pool the girls were squealing. The pool was where life was. Dry ground was the territory of death, so looking Jens straight in the eye he said:
“Okay. Give me the low-down."
They were not hard to understand, he thought when he was back in the centre of town. He was carrying the sportsbag containing the drugs in his right hand and felt as if there was fire in it. He was nothing to them. A fucking drug mule, expendable. That’s how they viewed him. The Dane had said, and The Boss nodded, that he would have to find his own way of getting the stuff to Denmark. He had an address in Amager, just outside Copenhagen, and a deadline, so what was he waiting for? The interest would be ticking until another sportsbag had been handed over safely in Vilnius. If he were caught and ended up in clink, he knew what blabbing would mean. Knew that the interest would tick and tick and tick. So what was he waiting for? And he had stood up, and The Disposal Man and Boris had driven him into town. The only extenuating circumstance was that they had given him a thousand dollars for expenses and promised him he could keep what was left if everything went smoothly.
At one of the newly restored hotels in Cathedral Square he spotted a coach. It was Danish. It had stopped with the engine still running, no doubt to cool down the cab. There was a large banner in the rear window: Danish National Symphony Orchestra. Alongside the coach, suitcases and instrument cases were lined up. He had always been quick to make a decision. There was no taking that ability away from him, even though for the time being he was a little down. With the sportsbag in his hand, he entered the lobby. The musicians were coming down the stairs and out of the lifts, chatting about just having time for a quick one in the bar before they were due for the off. Jack turned on the smiles and the charm:
“Well, well,” he said in Danish. ”Danish culture in Vilnius. Well I never. Is there time to hear you play Carl Nielsen?” And they smiled, because he had a nice smile, and they enjoyed being noticed and praised, but had to tell him that, unfortunately, it was too late. The coach would be leaving very soon. Via Poland, it would be heading home to Denmark. A night ferry, then they would be back at “Broadcasting House” in Copenhagen tomorrow afternoon to round off a really good tour. The Lithuanians appreciated good classical music, as did their affable compatriot, so they understood. Jack finished his drink, wished them Bon Voyage and sauntered out together with two elderly musicians, who seemed to be making slightly heavy weather of carrying their instruments and pulling their suitcases at the same time. Might he offer the artistes a helping hand? Yes, thank you so much. They were not exactly spoiled for polite young men. Please, don’t mention it. It was the least he could do. He placed the heavy suitcase next to a double bass and another case and a couple of sportsbags similar to his own, which was loaded onto the inside of the coach together with all the others, like the most natural thing in the world.
Jack Bellmann was quite thrilled about his plan and the speed with which he had executed it. He was definitely going to land on his feet again. The doubt and uncertainty only set in when he landed in Copenhagen late that afternoon. He went straight through Customs. No one accosted him and he fancied that he could have carried the stuff straight through. It was now on a coach, if it hadn’t already been rifled at the Lithuanian-Polish frontier; if it hadn’t been found and an entire symphony orchestra detained. He checked in to a smallish hotel in Istedgade, paying cash up front. He could not get room service, so he ordered a pizza, not daring to leave the room and not wishing to miss a single news bulletin on radio or TV. He felt sure that if the Danish National Symphony Orchestra had been detained with two kilos of neat heroin, the event would be big enough to make the headlines. What’s more, it was not late summer in Denmark. September had produced rain and wind that howled around the corners in Copenhagen, which seemed cold and drab to him. He slept poorly and was up early to listen to the news on the radio and buy the papers. There was nothing.
The weather cleared up but was still cold. He dared not take any chances and was already at Broadcasting House by eleven. He walked around the big yellow building. There were two gates where a coach might foreseeably drive in. There was no way he could keep an eye on both of them simultaneously, but it occurred to him that the coach was bound to stop outside the Concert Hall to make it easy for the individual musicians to carry in the things they did not need to take home. He grabbed a quick beer at a restaurant opposite the Concert Hall. He was far too keyed-up to eat, but then got hungry after all and ate a hotdog at the stand in front of Broadcasting House, so that he could still observe the entrance to the courtyard and the Concert Hall. The trees were dripping where the leaves hung so despondently in the autumnal light. The sausage left him feeling less than full, making him feel sick instead, and he felt a smarting pain in the stomach and had an anxiety attack. He visualized The Disposal Man. It was all to easy for him to imagine what would happen to him if the coach failed to turn up. He began to entertain a glimmer of hope as he saw people starting to arrive in cars. They looked like people who had turned out to welcome the returning musicians, women and children mostly. And his hopes were confirmed when he heard a boy of eight or so say: ”Will Dad’s coach be coming soon?”
It did come, just past two o’clock. It swept up in front of the Concert Hall, the great gate leading into the courtyard of Broadcasting House opened and the coach turned into the courtyard. He had gone really cold in the rawness of the Danish autumn but had a feeling of warmth when he heard the driver let the air out of the brakes and open the doors. The musicians emerged, stretching, chatting, glad to be home and happy to see their families, who were meting out hugs and asking about the trip. The two drivers fetched the luggage out from inside the coach. He remained on the sidelines slightly as people retrieved their suitcases, bags and instruments. He smiled and nodded to people he didn’t know, but who nodded back because they thought he was part of the reception committee. When he saw the musicians he had met in Vilnius disappear with relatives or on their own with their luggage, he went up to his sportsbag, said a friendly hello to the driver, who was taking out the last cases, picked up his bag, exited through the gate and without walking all too conspicuously fast, went down a side street. His heart was pounding and he was almost unable to breathe, but he was also damned proud of himself. Jack Bellmann might not be in fighting fit form just now perhaps, but there weren’t many guys who were better than him when push came to shove. He’d just proved that yet again, and those assholes in Vilnius could go take a running jump.
The euphoria lasted out in Amager. The address was out on the periphery of what, in his childhood, had been called Shit Island, before the island turned to countryside towards Dragør and other posh places like that. But Amager had become more trendy, he saw, although the flats out here in the old industrial district were small and grey, and caffè latte had not yet made its entry. There was beer on the table when Jack was sent into the low-ceilinged living room, where four rockers were sitting, staring at him through the grey mists of cigarette smoke. They offered no greeting, just sat there looking solid and sturdy in their leather jackets and tattoos and ponytails and big bellies, which bulged out over the wide belts in their bluejeans. In his natty Sand suit and the grey shirt with the purple tie he felt completely overdressed. One of the rockers got up. He was not that tall, but stocky and muscular. He took the sportsbag, unzipped it and looked down into it. He zipped it up again. Did he really not want to check it more thoroughly, Jack wondered. This was a line of business where agreements were kept. Punishment was not a lawyer, but death. The rocker went into a room and returned with a grey attaché case, which he placed on the floor in front of Jack. The other three just gawped at him. He was sweating down his spine.
“Open up, will you, mate?” the rocker in front of him said.
“I trust you.”
“Open it up and tell me and me mates here that you’ve seen the contents. The code is 007.”
“You reckon, mate?”
Jack bent down. The bag was not heavy. He set the combination and the hinges clicked open. He looked at the green dollar bills lying there in neat and tidy bundles. He did not want to show weakness. He picked up a couple of bundles and ran the bills between his fingers. They were bundled in twenties, fifties and hundred dollar bills, all used, none serially numbered. There had to be half a million at least. His mouth went dry and his voice quivered slightly, as he said:
“It looks right.”
“Course it’s right, mate; now shove off. Pleasure doing business with you. We’ll let ‘em know you’ve got the goods and you’ll be back tomorrow at the latest. They’ll be waiting for you tomorrow in Vilnius. Got it, mate?”
“Take care of the goods, alright?. You know where the door is.”
Maybe this was their contempt for the mule? Maybe it was just stupidity? Maybe it was just because it was in his nature to take chances? He could not pinpoint exactly how and when he took the decision, but perhaps it had been lurking the whole time, perhaps it came to him even as he was making his way down the clapped-out wooden staircase in that fetid stairway. Perhaps because he had always known that this would not rescue him from a spell in a Baltic prison? The principal would still be left. The interest would be ticking again. He would be The Boss’s slave for the remainder of his days on earth. And Jack Bellmann was not cut out for slavery, but for big business and, he gladly admitted, grand gestures.
Which is why, just an hour later, he was standing in his old bank branch, not far from the Central Station. There, in a safe-deposit box, he kept what he called his disaster fund, his emergency stash, his getaway money. And he thanked himself because during the good times, despite everything, he had put aside a little—albeit not enough—for a rainy day when the sun no longer shone from a cloudless sky.
He stood with the black case from the safe-deposit box and started to have second thoughts for a moment, but shook them off. There was nothing else for it if he was going to start afresh in a completely new country, far away from The Boss and the others. He had fifty thousand Danish kroner in the box and four small uncut diamonds and a mastercard. He took the Danish money, the credit card and the diamonds and twenty thousand dollars from the attaché case and stashed the rest away in the box. He felt like counting it, but that could wait until the day when he could safely return. Above all, the object of the exercise now was to get far away from Denmark and Lithuania. Jack Bellmann would vanish, and Lars Jensen would be resurrected in the land of opportunity—the USA. He didn’t need it all. He just needed seed money. The money would be safe here, he thought, as he pushed the black case into the void and locked up.
It turned into a frightfully long 24 hours. He could not eat that much, nor did he dare drink, although he felt like torrents of beer that would eliminate or assuage the terrifying visions he was having of The Boss and The Disposal Man and Boris Screwdriver, and the things they would do to him. He moved to another, cheap hotel in the Vesterbro quarter. The day dragged on. He was conscious that the plane had landed in Vilnius, but he had not been on board. He deposited the Danish kroner in his account, which held a handsome sum of money to start with, and bought a ticket to Los Angeles with SAS. He knew the city and had an old childhood pal over there whom he e-mailed from an Internet café: ”Arriving by SAS on 11 September. Can you collect me from the airport? And are you still interested in a partner?”
Piotr was Russian, the son of his stepfather’s best friend, and now ran an agency for actors. He made good money in the advertising business and had previously suggested to Jack that they could join forces and do business together. That time had now come, and one day Piotr could retrieve the capital from Denmark. Piotr wrote back: ”Sure, man. Sweet girls and me are waiting and life is good in sunny California. Come to Los Angeles, city of dreams, city of hopes. And we will get rich together.”
That was enough. The e-mail raised his spirits and tempered the visions of The Disposal Man & Co., but he slept badly nevertheless. He packed half the dollar bills into his suitcase; some ended up in his hand luggage together with the diamonds, the rest in his wallet, and his tie was already knotted perfectly at five o’clock in the morning several hours prior to departure. He began to breathe more freely once he was through security and inside the transit hall at Copenhagen Airport, and even more freely when the large Airbus rose skywards and he was looking down onto the golfers defying the September rain before the plane was inside the clouds and on its way up into the blue sky. This was the life! The only thing missing was still being able to smoke on a plane, but otherwise everything was fine. Row two, window seat, drink in hand, flying Business Class to the USA and a fresh start. What was it his stepfather had always said? What was it the mad Russian always said when they were unloading the cigarettes on the flat Lolland coast: ”Luck’s not something you have, it’s something you grab. Something always appears to those who are not afraid of their own shadow.”
A doctor was sitting next to Jack. He was going to a convention in the USA. They spoke to one another politely, but each minded his own business. After the meal, Jack finally fell asleep. He slept for a couple of hours without dreaming, but awoke with some disquiet in his body, and when he looked out of the window, he both saw and felt that the plane was veering slowly in a wide arc.
“What’s happening?” he asked the passenger next to him, who had his nose buried in papers.
“Is something up?”
“The plane’s turning. Take a look. You can feel it as well.”
“It is. Well, that’s odd. I’ve flown to the USA many times. I’ve never experienced that before.”
When the turn was complete, the captain’s voice came through, first in Danish and then in English.
“Ladies and gentlemen. There are some technical hitches at Los Angeles Airport, so we’ve been asked to touch down at Keflavik in Iceland. We apologize for the delay involved, but we expect to be back on the wing again in no time, continuing our journey to LA.” Followed by the usual stuff about putting the seats back into the upright position and folding up the video players.
The stewardesses didn’t know any more, nor the purser. At any rate, they were keeping stumm. There was no cause for concern. The captain would certainly keep us posted, yet unease nevertheless spread down through the cabin and the length of the aircraft. Before landing, they were asked to remain seated during the stopover and refrain from turning on their mobile phones. Jack looked out as the plane taxied in. There was a touch of snow in the air. The landscape was barren and consisted of blobs of black lava, with snow in corners and hollows. That was not the weird thing. The weird thing was that he could see a variety of big transatlantic aircraft from a number of different European airlines parked up. And just before they turned, he could see a Lufthansa plane preparing for landing, as if a queue had suddenly formed in the airspace over the Atlantic and one plane after another was being diverted down onto Icelandic soil. The stewardess still refused to say anything. People simply had to be patient. They would soon be airborne again. While they were waiting, they were still able to watch a video film or other entertainment on the screens in front of their seats, and the stewardesses did a round with the drinks trolley. Jack had clammy hands again and a strong urge to smoke, which the nicotine chewing gum he had bought in the airport could not allay. After an hour, planes were still descending, but he could also see that there were planes beginning to line up for take-off. The captain briefly informed passengers that there were still certain technical hitches in connection with the approach to Los Angeles, but he expected them to be underway again soon. ”Thank you for your patience and I hope you will enjoy our service in the meantime. We’ll soon have you on your way again.”
Finally, they were told to buckle their safety belts and turn off the video screens and all the other stuff that goes with take-off. He heaved a sigh of relief as he felt the captain release the brakes and slowly begin to taxi towards the runway. Progress was slow, with several stops. The captain announced that they were now number eight in the queue. They drove off again, then another stop and a slight jerk, and finally the liberation, as the impetus forced him gently back into the seat and the Icelandic darkness disappeared beneath him. They climbed in a wide arc and flattened out to reach their flying altitude, when his neighbour said:
“We really are flying the wrong way. I have a very good sense of direction, and we’re flying east now.”
Jack did not answer. He looked out into the black night. This could not be right. It was bound to be a boast on his neighbour’s part. Modern people had no idea of the points of the compass when they were sitting in a plane, but the captain’s voice sounded up again over the speakers:
“Ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain again. The technical hitches in the airspace and at US airports remain unresolved ...."
“They’re probably out on strike,” said the man next to Jack.
Jack shushed the man, as if he were a child, and carried on listening: ”… so we and other planes have been directed back to Europe. Unfortunately, our destination is not Copenhagen. The Airbus is a modern aircraft with a long range, and we’re being directed slightly further afield to make room for other aircraft in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo and Hamburg. Other planes will have to stay in Keflavik, but we’ve been diverted to Vilnius.”
He thought he was dreaming. He was no longer hearing what the captain was saying about hotels and Vilnius being a lovely city, where SAS would certainly take good care of its passengers until the technical hitches had been fixed, hopefully as early as tomorrow. He must be dreaming. It was a stupid nightmare, a natural reaction to his having escaped. In a short while he would wake up, because the speakers were telling him that they would soon be landing in Los Angeles, city of dreams, city of hope. But he did not wake up. And he could hear the other passengers clearly, couldn’t he? Their chatter about what was going on? What ever was happening? Their futile questions to the stewardesses and purser, who were smiling, serving drinks and unwilling or unable to say what was going on, and why they were being sent back to Europe together with all the other planes that were on their way to the States.
“You’re not feeling unwell, are you?” asked the man next to him. ”You’ve gone pale as a sheet, and I can see you’ve broken into a cold sweat.” The man took his hand cautiously. ”Your pulse is very fast. Recline your seat and breathe calmly.”
He allowed himself to be told what to do, passively, even though he couldn’t care less. It meant nothing any longer, but it helped. He felt how the fierce beating of his heart slowed down, how he got the warmth back in his face and how the sweat stopped gushing from him as if he were running a marathon. After a while he felt so much better that he was able to thank the man next to him and go to the toilet. He could not recognize his face in the mirror. It was no longer his own face. Not only was it an old man who was looking back at him in the mirror; the face in the glass was white, with large empty sockets for eyes. He thought his death mask would look like this. He splashed a little water on his face, but that didn’t help. It was as if the skin was being peeled off his face. He could not bear to look at it and marvelled at who was in the mirror. Nor did he understand that everyone was not staring at him when they had landed and deplaned. The man next to him even said he looked far better; that it was a good job he had recovered. No way was that true. He had his old body, but his face was a death’s head without skin and eyes.
Together with the others he entered the arrivals hall. The TV sets that were on were all showing the same film. It was a disaster film, in which two large passenger planes were flying into two skyscrapers in New York and exploding in a fireball. That’s what it looked like at least. It was no matter to him. The only thing he was thinking about was that The Disposal Man might not be able to recognize him. The Disposal Man and Boris Screwdriver would be on the lookout for Jack Bellmann, the wonderkid of Vilnius, not Lars Jensen, who had no face.
© Leif Davidsen. All Rights Reserved 2005.
Leif Davidsen made his literary debut with a poetry collection “Grains of Wheat” (Hvedekorn) as early as in 1976. His first novel “The Sardine Deception”...
2005. Nordic Council of Ministers Office in Lithuania. All rights reserved e-solution: gaumina