Written by Sam Vaknin
Pierre is terrified. Not hard to tell. The bald patches on his egg-shaped skull exude pearly sweat from sooty pores, a salty path down to his darkening collar. He thrusts two alcohol-swollen fingers and loosens his shabby necktie. His bloodshot eyes dart from one grimy corner of the restaurant to another, avoiding Eli's.
The three of us are seated awkwardly on the porch of an unfashionable eatery, crinkling the paper menus. Pierre orders an espresso. Eli and I dismiss the hovering waiter impatiently. So now, Pierre sips his lukewarm swill as we observe him closely. He coughs, expelling coffee grounds all over. We don't recoil. He chokes.
Only the day before it was my turn to writhe. I landed in the minuscule and gleaming airport, picked up my battered suitcase, and tailed the passport control procession. Throughout it all, I couldn't stop shivering.
A uniformed officer of the Border Police leafed gravely through my documents, comparing them to a neatly printed list. He picked up the receiver of an antiquated phone and tugged at its snaky cord. I strained to overhear the words that may condemn me.
But the inevitable cannot be hastened. I stood there, a rabbit caught in legal headlights on time's highway, awaiting the terminal collision with my life. I watched mayhem unfold, as each official summoned others to consult.
At last I was approached and asked with firm civility to accompany a prim official to a cubicle. He placed himself behind a rickety table but offered me no seat. I remained standing. He then proceeded to inaudibly recite the questions printed on a faded form and I responded.
He leaned back and demanded to know in which hotel I had reserved a room. I told him. It was a small establishment proffering basic services. He nodded approvingly: I must be a solid, thrifty person to have chosen such accommodation. It sort of placed us both, despite his social inferiority, on equal footing.
He solemnly informed me, in ominously florid phraseology, that I am the subject of a full investigation whose gravity cannot be overestimated. He asked me not to leave town - or even my hotel - till it is over. Do I fully understand, he queried. I nodded brusquely and noted the gleeful smirk with which he handed back my passport, duly stamped.
I hailed a yellow cab and helped its driver stow my baggage in the trunk. Around a flowery mound, we headed straight to town and to my lodgings.
The first thing I did was place a call to Eli. Surprisingly, it was he who picked up the phone.
He heard my convoluted tale - I felt his gathering gloom - asked several questions and concluded:
"Your place, tonight"
Still listening to the dial tone, I lay across the bed and contemplated the blotchy ceiling, projecting overflowing fears into the aqueous blots.
Eli will be here, I could count on him, he loved me as a son, a twin, a soul mate. We were complementary: I only knew about things that he experienced. I couldn't capture him in words like "streetwise". Eli was life itself: innocuously cruel, indifferently relentless, single-mindedly propagative, amoral, steeped in gallows humor.
My employer insisted that Pierre admitted to a conspiracy to pass on weighty secrets - commercial and political - to the press. He swept aside my vehement protestations and railed at me for wanting to destroy his business empire, his life's achievement. Pierre confessed in the police interrogation, he seethed.
It was now up to an investigating magistrate to decide whether to indict us both.
I knotted my tie the way Eli taught me and donned a jacket. Bathed in a springtime sun, I headed towards the flower clock near the marina by the lake. It ticked away its scented, multicolored time in pensive melancholy. I felt forlornly relieved. Whatever the outcome of the proceedings, I knew this chapter ends.
I recalled myself facing this timepiece on my first day in town - diminutive and lost, clad in a cut-price suit of itchy blue with golden stripes. I had it custom-made in the West Bank. I enviously sneaked furtive glances at the ubiquitous tall, well-tailored, Aryan men who roamed the streets.
In time, I, too, improved attire. My climb was meteoric: department head, division chief, then two divisions, vice president. I became a welcome guest in the hoary mountaintops and charmed castles of the world's affluent and mighty.
I mulled four years of images while genteelly strolling down the promenade, unfastening my necktie and nibbling at a colossal ice cream cone. At last, I flung my reefer on one shoulder, stuffing the stifling tie in an inside pocket. Unshackled, though officially confined, I hummed a tune and drifted aimlessly.
Back at the hotel, Eli, submerged in a strategically-situated lounger, leafed through the oversized pages of a local rag. He rose with difficulty from his seat and embraced me warmly. Disengaging, he scrutinized me, his two hands on my shoulders. And then another hug.
Sipping Campari orange, Eli attentively listened to my story. His fleshy palms wriggled involuntarily in the more stirring passages, as if to illustrate his mental notes. When I was through, he sighed: "We will extricate you from this mess."
I handed over Pierre's phone number and we went up to my room. Eli surveyed it critically: "Could be worse, I guess." He proceeded to sprawl on the only bed, fully clothed. Waving his legs and matching toes to heels he shed his shoes, displaying threadbare socks.
He shoved a sausagey finger at the phone's rotary dial and pressed it down. It clanged into position. Eli's French was guttural and splintered. His conversation over, he gathered his discarded shoes and muttered: "Let us go."
That is how we came to face Pierre in this cafe. He compulsively passes a venous hand over his blushing baldness, to fend off the breeze.
"You and Shmuel were friends" - Eli implores. Pierre nods eagerly, stealthily peeking at me beneath his furled eyebrows. "This is no way to treat a friend" - Eli hectors him, bending forward, his face skirting his interlocutor's, a burly arm cast casually on creaking armrests.
"What is it that you want?" - Pierre stammers and strokes a lumpy throat. His body petrified, only his hands are squirming on the table, like rodents in a maze.
Eli eyes his discomfiture, amused.
"I want you to tell the truth and only the truth" - he reassures Pierre nonchalantly even as he mutilates a plastic straw and chucks it at Pierre's face. The latter's spectral pallor alternates with crimson.
"We don't want you testify to anything that is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Follow the wording of the courtroom oath tomorrow morning." - Eli lunges at Pierre, a breathing distance from his startled face. I couldn't help admiring the bestial move, Eli's proficiency in this survival game, the managed tension between his bulk and supple muscles.
He recoils abruptly, the quintessence of indifferent equanimity.
"But Shmuel gave me the documents." - Pierre says, attempting to resist - "I got the documents from him! How else could I have obtained this highly classified material that's locked in safes?"
Eli nods understandingly. He moistens a corpulent finger and uses it to haul some cigarette residues to Pierre's overflowing ashtray.
"I wonder," - Eli, dreamily - "did he also tell you to sell these crucial data to the local paper with the biggest circulation - and for pennies?"
Pierre swallows hard. Then, ejecting all the air he hoarded since the beginning of our chat, he shakes his head: "No, this was my invention."
Eli glowers at him with feigned astonishment.
"Invention?" - he echoes - "Invention ..."
Pierre pounds the soggy butt of his mutilated cigarette under heel.
"I will stick to the truth in court" - he obstinately reiterates. Eli's angelic smile.
"But I will tell them that Shmuel was the source of these cursed documents."
"Only the truth, I told you." - Eli eggs him on solemnly - "Don't stray either left or right. If Shmuel was enough of a fool to give the files to unauthorized personnel, that is his problem, not yours." - a pause - "In any case, I understand that he didn't touch a centime from the fee the magazine paid you."
Pierre looks intently at the river.
"No" - he admits - "Shmuel didn't even know I'm going to do it, my liaison with the paper." - reanimated - "I didn't share with him because he never was my partner!"
"Superb, superb!" - Eli enthuses - "It is such a pleasure to hold a fruitful conversation with someone as intelligent as you. By the way, what are you doing now that you've been fired? You got a job? Perhaps a hobby?"
Pierre's lips uncurl bitterly. He straightens his battered spectacles on shiny nose and passes an amnesiac hand on long-gone hair.
"Nothing" - he exclaims, examining Eli with hurtful slyness - "The boss dumped me like that, no severance fee, no nothing, simply because he caught me drinking on the job."
Eli snaps calloused fingers. He orders a glass of the finest whiskey for his guest. Pierre smiles gratefully.
"We do a lot of business in Europe, Shmuel and I" - Eli expounds - "We need faithful, quick-witted collaborators. I promise you, we don't throw people to the street after years of dedicated service without enough to buy a drink on such a lovely day."
Pierre moans as he consumes the amber potion. His eyes flit between Eli and myself. His cheekbones drip perspiring beads into his beverage. He doesn't wipe them. His nostrils flare. He gulps again.
"Settled then." - Eli concludes - "I am delighted to have met you. We now have friends in common. We will keep in touch. We shan't forget you." - but he stays put.
Shocked into action by this brusque farewell, Pierre dries his lips with greasy sleeve and begs:
"Just let me give you my details ...'
Eli's entire face implodes into a thin-lipped leer. He taps Pierre's stooping shoulder and pronounces:
"We will find you, worry not. We always find our friends. Your address is (it was). Your phone, though currently unlisted, is (the number). You share apartment with (her name). Your only child lives with his mother in this address (true )."
We turn our backs on a confounded Pierre and down the steps that lead into the street. I watch him slumped, staring ahead, the glass half raised and tilted.
Eli commands: "Let's take a cab, I am bushed. But first, go back there and pay for all the drinks. Surely you don't expect me to pick up the tab as well?"
I leave him standing in the middle of the thoroughfare and return to Pierre, the catatonic. I place a note of a hundred francs in front of him but do not say a word. He waves his hand in feeble, interrupted, protest.
Eli catnaps on the back seat of a waiting cab.
"To the hotel" - I tell the driver. Eli wakes.
"It is the last time I am here to save your ass, you hear me?"
Standing at the entrance of our plain hotel, he grabs my shoulders and turns me around ferociously to face him.
He stares at me the way he did at Pierre:
"This is the last time, you hear me? There will be no more"
I nod, he smiles, and we embrace.
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He is the the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.