Who's the Girl?
"Who's the girl?"
There was a grunt from the large pile of shit on the bed. This was progress. I pulled up a chair to the bedside, bent down to what I thought might have been the head, and repeated the question.
"Who's the girl?"
"That would be telling," rumbled a voice from under the blanket.
"That's the idea," I told him. "I'm sure you thought when you got a free pass out of that other hell-hole that we'd figured out who you were and sprung you."
Was that a chuckle? It quickly became a cough. Whatever it was, it was a response.
"But no, you just came here. To me. What did you do, Cobb?"
The bed squeaked a little as he turned over and pawed the blanket out of his face. It was not unlike the rising of Cthulu, or the beaching of a great whale. The blue eyes held both contempt and amusement.
"You taught me everything I know about this," I told him. "And I paid attention."
Another cough. No, two. Or three.
"From the top, then. Who's the girl?"
"There's a girl?" he asked.
"Smart guy. I'm asking the questions here."
"Who's the girl?"
Well, it was different. It showed he was at least thinking about what we were asking him. Perhaps something would twitch when we hit the right combination of questions. Like a key, opening tumblers one by one. "You tell me."
"That's not how it works, and you know it."
I suppose I should have kicked him or something. That's how he would have conducted this interview. As it was, I just grunted. So much information can be conveyed by half a syllable.
"Here's this big guy, in the middle of what we'll euphemistically call a very dynamic situation. When the dust settles and the smoke clears away, he's wading out of the fray, carrying a young woman, or what's left of her, by the collar. He ends up in custody because nobody knows what he's doing, what he could be doing, how he could be doing what he's doing when everybody else either ran away or died trying. Except him and the girl."
"And so we ask around. And somebody from very high up on the other side of the pond comes and whisks you away. And a few of us, just for good measure."
Grunt. "Whisk is a nice word," he adds.
"But that leaves the problem of what to do with the girl."
"It does," Cobb admitted. "For you. My heart bleeds."
"For me." Sometimes people will tell me things if I just repeat whatever it was they said.
"And your little friends at the agency."
"I try not to make friends through agencies."
"Good for you," he said. It was like being patted on the head, except Cobb was lying down and I was standing over him. And, I happened to know, he was in no shape to go anywhere. Though it might be amusing to leave his door open and watch him try.
"Jim. It's not going to work, you know."
"What? Asking you questions? I'm in no hurry."
"No. The operation."
"What operation?" I wasn't sure if he was talking about some caper, or a medical procedure. He needed a deal of patching up.
"Which clears up nothing," I pointed out.
"Oh, good," he said, with a sigh. "I was beginning to think I'd lost my touch."
"I'll take creative ambiguity for four hundred, Alex," I said.
He laughed. "Jeopardy. It's where we live, you and I."
"I think I'm duty-bound to protest that I'm nothing like you," I said.
"Noted," said Cobb.
"You couldn't stay where you belonged."
"And that would be on the inside, would it?"
"I seem to remember an oath."
"Against all enemies, foreign and domestic," he quoted. "My italics."
"Well, you wouldn't be the first who thought that. Or the first to lose his head over treason. It makes me tired."
"You think you're tired?" He began to chuckle. Gently, so as to avoid exciting the cough he still had. "There's a pain in my back that's precisely the shape of Idaho," he said. "Blunt and square on one end, and big and flat on the other, but with a little corner digging into Yellowstone."
"Now he begins to talk, and it's about kidney stones," I said.
His chuckle became a cough again. "Well, I've been shot before, and I think that was more fun," he admitted.
"We saw the scars, yes," I said. "What have you been up to, Danny Cobb?"
"Rescuing girls," he said. "Apparently girls with no names."
"And why would Big Danny Cobb be wanting to do that?" I asked.
"Why does anybody want a girl?"
"I'm asking the questions here," I said, with a sigh.
"Some of them," Cobb said. "And most of those are not the right ones."
"So suppose you tell me what the right questions are."
"I could do that."
And a second one...
Mr. Forshay has a Bad Day
"Mister…" there was a pause while he consulted his notes. "Mister Forshay."
"That's me," I said. It's hard to know how to behave when you're standing in a line of men in their underwear.
"John Robert Forshay?"
"Of Sweetwater, Kansas."
"Right. The last few years I've lived in Topeka."
He ignored this last piece of information. "Come with me." So unlike my fellow inductees, I went with the man, out of the line of nearly naked men, off to a side room he showed me. "Sit down," he said, and left, locking the door behind him.
There's something about conducting business in your underwear that leaves your identity feeling mutilated. Even when the business consists of an induction physical for the armed forces.
I waited there in the air conditioning under the neon light without a clock for what seemed an hour. Might have been longer. The next time I saw a window it was dark outside.
Finally the door opened, and whatever it was I had planned for my life vanished when I heard the heavy tread and saw the big shadow that darkened the door. Razed, even. Like the splendid monolithic edifice you've spent your life constructing, pulled down and smashed, just like that. Shards glinting in the dawn. I was going to join the Army, see the world, make something of my sorry life. "Was going to." Past tense.
Danny fucking Cobb. The ideal gentleman, who nevertheless made things happen. He was holding in his huge hand a little book, a girly shade of pink, with a strap holding the cover shut. One of those with a tiny lock whose generic key the diarist lost after writing six pages.
He sat down, opened the lock easily with a paperclip, and flipped it open. The diary had spent enough time open on desks that it stayed that way. This girl had apparently managed to keep track of her key, because she had written many pages in several colors of ink. Some were smudged, but as Mr. Cobb turned the pages, as if looking for something, the handwriting ceased to be child-like and became that of a young woman.
"Mmmph," he grunted. He'd never been a man of many words, when a monosyllable would do. He turned the book around to face me.
I was shot once, in a barroom brawl in an ouzerie in the port district of Corinth. I remember being told in Sunday School that Corinth was the cesspool of the Roman world, which is why the Apostle Paul found it necessary to write not one, but two, strongly worded letters to the church he'd founded there.
This was like that. The impact took my breath away, as if Danny Cobb had picked me up and slammed me against the wall, pushing his big hand flatwise halfway through my chest in the process. If I'd been wearing pants I would have wet them.
"Is that your name?" he asked, pointing.
"Thought so." He sighed. "The samples we took earlier will be analyzed. Confirming what we both know already."
"And if they don't?" I asked. "Is this where I demand a lawyer?"
"That won't be necessary," he said. "You belong to us, now."
That is all. Discuss. Or not. Your choice. It's not like Danny Cobb is going to make you.
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