Planes of washed-out light were dissecting and probing the street at edges of buildings, threatening to expose a crime yet to be committed. The world was weary with the day though, and there was little energy left in the light, when the man appeared on the street. A Magritte muse in long black overcoat and bowler-hat, he seemed slightly hollow. In his left hand he carried a heavy calico laundry sack, in his right a worn, brown brief case, thick with paper. On his feet, black shoes glistened like the damp bitumen as he walked softly down the road. Inky black clouds blotted the sky, grey like an old blackboard that had been scrawled with strange fantasies, wiped out by the stubborn landscape. Shortly after the man began his journey, his bags bobbing to his rhythmic walk, two other figures appeared on the street in the distance behind him. Mere splices of shadow, they came surging down the footpath with an oppressive saunter.
Fluorescent lights began spluttering on in the few shops that sprouted amidst the factories. A small, portable newsstand was parked on a corner, the man behind it mildly concentrating on his business behind the counter. Bowler-hat stopped and surveyed the magazines on display, his eyes tirelessly wandering back and forth as if they were suddenly lost.
“Can I help yuh? I’m just about to close up,” was the newsagent’s distracted request.
The man looked up slightly startled.
The newsagent pushed up his glasses, a spark of warmth illuminating his voice,
“Been havin’ one of those days, eh?”
Bowler-hat gave a little sigh of relief at the discovery of this temporary confidant.
“Like you wouldn’t believe… I’ll just take today’s paper if you don’t mind,” he replied, and gave a small but genuine smile.
“Must be startin’ to look up then, cos I’ve just got the one left,”
The newsagent handed him the paper in return for a few coins, which he rubbed on his smock until they were shiny, then deposited in his money tin.
“Have a good night,” he called as Bowler-hat returned to his journey down the melancholic and mysterious street.
The two figures had gained ground during this interlude with the newsagent, and they surged closer, the trudge of their feet falling on his immune ears. As he walked, awkwardly reading his newspaper and carrying his bags, he quite suddenly found himself surrounded by a wall of flesh. Their hot presence and their angry muttering muffled by the wind, they jostled him aggressively as they passed. He fumbled with his paper and his bags, dropping them as the briefcase clasps burst with a pop. White pages came gushing out onto the sidewalk. To his left he heard hurried footsteps, as a soft breeze wafted under his coat and over his finely tailored suit. Looking up he saw an old woman coming out of a fluorescent laundromat. The men had disappeared.
“Are you alright?” she asked, her concern disconcerting. She grinned at him with a face like warm, mashed potato.
“Er, I’m ok,” said Bowler-hat looking down at his scattered papers. Brilliantly white in the glow of the laundromat, they looked like little patches of the world that someone had forgotten to paint in. He bent down to start picking them up. So did the old woman. At that proximity it was clear to see the pages were full of strange modern runes, an electric language of numbers, letters and shapes.
“Oh, these are complicated aren’t they?” she said.
“Yes… You don’t need to do that, it’s fine really. I’m ok.” He tried to scoop up the papers before she could. Her hair smelt like musk lollies. Some of the pages were slightly damp from the ground, but he shuffled them together and shoved them into his brief case. Picking up his newspaper too, he stood up, the old woman doing the same like a slower inversion of himself.
“Thank you,” he said meekly.
“That’s alright, dear. I could see what was going to happen. You didn’t notice those men at all, did you? That sort never pays attention to other people on the street. You just watch where you’re going.” Smiling, she walked back to the laundromat.
“The world needs more people like you!” Bowler-hat called to her. She had her back to him, but he heard her laugh.
“I doubt it,” she answered, her words sprinkled with the door chimes as she returned to the laundromat’s neon shell.
His briefcase, tucked under his arm, laundry bag in hand, and with his newspaper set to a specific article, Bowler-hat moved on. Soon he had disappeared into his thoughts and everything was blank again. The night was spilling faster and in the long distance there was the white noise whir of a peak hour motorway. Striding onwards, head down in his paper, he seemed severed from the world. He reached a kerb. His mind nuzzling the news, his ears determined the silence of the street sufficient, and he crossed with barely a pause or a glance. Ahead, a forgotten black alleyway had the look of something that tries to hide, a split in the giant, taut facade of factories. Bowler-hat walked toward it with a determined gait, head still in his paper, his true intentions lost in the surreal twilight as he entered the charcoal crevice of the alley.
On either side of Bowler-hat walls scarred with soot and fungal graffiti lurched high into the sky. Once he realised it was too dark to continue reading his paper, he had gone far into the alley. He slowed as he looked up to see the two figures standing in front of him. The men, one of whom was leaning against the wall, seemed to have been talking, but were now watching him closely. The tallest, who was lean and had large brown eyes that looked black in the gloom, furrowed his brow,
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said, with resonating menace.
Bowler-hat’s eyes twitched over each of them, his lips parted slightly, but he remained silent.
“You aint meant to be here,” growled the heavyset man as he folded his hairy forearms.
The tall man cracked all of his fingers simultaneously.
“Um…” said Bowler-hat, his voice quiet, “Please, I don’t want any trouble.”
“We’ll see,” replied tall man, “Just hand over your money.”
“Er, well you see,” Bowler-hat was almost mumbling as he set his bags down onto the ground, and put his hands into his pockets, “I don’t actually have very much money on me.” Out of his pocket he took two small crumpled notes and a few coins.
“You wasted our fuckin’ time for that!” boomed the heavyset man with rising anger, a thin sheen growing on his bald head.
The heavyset thug walked around Bowler-hat, so that he had to turn his back to the wall to face them both. They seemed so very close now.
“Reckon he’s lying…” said the chunky thug.
“No, please, I’m not, I swear, this is all I have!”
“Maybe,” said the tall one.
“I got a new deal for you,” said the big thug, stepping closer to Bowler-hat so that his presence could envelope him, “I’m going to beat the shit out of you, and take all your clothes, even your shoes. Then I’ll know how much money you got.”
Bowler-hat’s mouth went dry, and he shrunk back.
“Oh God no. Please, please don’t. I beg you. I’ll give you whatever you want.”
The big thug laughed at him.
“Don’t…”said the tall man.
The big thug ignored him, and grabbed Bowler-hat’s arm.
“Thrasher, don’t!” roared the tall man. Thrasher let go, angrily, and glared at him.
“What’s this?” he said, reaching down and pulling something from Bowler-hat’s pocket.
“It’s a…” but his voice trailed off. Thrasher was already examining the little smoking pipe in his huge hands. He dropped it to the ground, cracking it under his heavy booted heel.
“Just get lost, before I change my mind,” said the tall man.
There was a pause of realization, as Bowler-hat stared blankly at them. He picked up his bags slowly, and turned to leave.
“Thanks,” he said quietly, almost under his breath, “I knew you wouldn’t hurt me.”
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” yelled the tall man, his words a sudden barrier in the alley. Bowler-hat stopped dead.
“I…” he said.
“WHAT THE HELL DID YOU MEAN BY THAT?!”
“Nothing,” he answered. He turned around to face them, and the tall man was already there, on him, inches from his face. He had ignited. His muscles writhed like flame beneath his black T-shirt, his eyes were wide with passion. He stank of fury.
“Lie to me as well, will you? I know what you said and what you meant. You’re all the same.” Bowler-hat was shuffling backwards, until he was pressed up against the wall, but the tall man remained ranting inches from his face, fire still in his voice,
“What makes you think you can judge me? You think you can just take one look at me and you know all you need to know. You think you know what’s going on inside my head.” His fist slammed down into Bowler-hat’s stomach, making him splutter and gasp for breath as his back memorized the wall.
“You assume in just two minutes you know what sort of man I am? That you can tell what I’m thinking? How do you know what sort of life I’ve had, where I’ve been, what I’ve done? You think you know what I want and I don’t want? You think you know what I’m capable of?”
He raised his fist again.
“Jeez, Max, how come you get to…” grumbled Thrasher.
“Shut Up!” Max said, with absolute assurance of his authority. Max now had Bowler-hat pinned to the wall, his fingers fanned across his chest. His hand reached into his back pocket, and he noticed Bowler-hat’s eyes follow it intently.
“This is not a pipe,” Max growled, and his arm swung back through the air towards Bowler-hat. Click, clack, click, click. His fingers seemed to tap dance in the air as the flick-knife appeared with a flourish in his hand. Bowler-hat’s white knuckles still clenched his bags, his arms stiff at his sides.
“Fuck your money and fuck you.” Max said, and brought the dark point of the knife up to Bowler-hat’s throat.
“WAIT!” cried the man in the Bowler-hat in a pained voice, and in the moment’s pause this bought him, he stepped gingerly to one side.
“Before you do this there is something you should know…” he said.
“What!” snapped Max.
With his face down, Bowler-hat paused, a silence that stretched like a rubber band. A black felt oval hovering above a suit. Then, slowly and clearly his voice emerged from beneath the brim,
“I have a severed head in this bag.”
The words struck at Max, who couldn’t react. He looked down at the calico laundry bag. It was big enough. Then he just laughed. The man in the Bowler-hat raised his head, and gave Max a steady uncompromising stare.
“No you don’t.”
“Really? You have looked at me and assumed you know what sort of man I am, what sort of life I have led, the very same act you accused me of. However, it is you who does not know what I am capable of.”
Max glared at him,
“Show me this head then.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Cos it’s bullshit,” growled Thrasher.
“That is an understandable point of view, one that I have used to my advantage, but it is not accurate. If you saw it, I’d have to kill you… both of you. I’d prefer not to.”
“Hah! You couldn’t,” answered Max, but he didn’t move any closer.
“You know as well as I that size is not a reliable indication of who would come out the victor. You would easily beat Thrasher in fight, though he is physically larger then you,” Thrasher growled petulantly, but stood his ground, “It is all a matter of skill and attitude. Tenacity. I have severed someone’s head. What sort of attitude do you think I would bring to a fight? You are naïve to think that I am only carrying a pipe.”
“You didn’t give me much of a fight before…”
The Bowler-hat man sighed.
“I had hoped this little interaction would play itself out simply, that we could stick to our assigned roles, so that I might finish my business. Perhaps if I had brought my wallet, this could have happened, but it is never wise to bring identification when you are carrying a severed head.”
“You don’t really think I believe you?”
“Your belief is unnecessary. I could reveal to you the gruesome evidence to convince you of my actions, but once you become party to the evidence, then you become a loose end that I must deal with. That is why I would kill you. It would be best if we went our separate ways with your uncertainty intact. No, I am banking on the fact that you are an intelligent man, and will clearly see the varying risks that face you in this situation.”
Both men stood perfectly still. Max assessed the Bowler-hat man, staring into his unflinching eyes. Neither could be certain whose heart it was throbbing in their ears.
“There’s no risk. I can just take that bag off you, and look for myself,” Max finally replied.
“A nice attempt at bluffing, but you are no longer certain that you could best me. You have the objectivity to see that we are both absolutely confident in our abilities, and, wisely, that makes you reassess you own strengths. I can assure you though, that if you try to see the contents of this bag, I will kill you. You will have to kill me if you wish to see the head.”
“If you’re some killer though, I can’t just let you get away. I have to take that risk.”
“Do you? And what if you win and you kill me and find my bag to be empty? Once all the rage is gone, are you willing to have the blood of an innocent man on your hands?”
“See, you admit it, you don’t have a head in your bag!”
“Not so. My point is this. If you attack me, and I’m lying, you will kill an innocent. If I am telling the truth, then you will die. However, I assure you, the outcome would most certainly be your death.”
Silence, again. The air had no temperature, it just lay thick between them. Max played with the stud in his tongue along the back of his teeth, then his mouth turned to a grimace.
“I will kill you,” he said.
Bowler-hat man dropped the calico bag. It hit the ground with a weighty thunk, and his hand disappeared inside his coat, gripping something firmly.
“Do you really think so?” he said, “I concede that there is always the possibility, no matter how small, that you could kill me, and learn that I have told the truth. Then what? You may momentarily believe you have brought some justice to me. Who would believe you though? You do not know how or even if the original owner of this head is connected to me. To the outside world, you would be responsible for two deaths. And your perception of my social standing was correct, I am not the sort of person whose death society quickly forgets. You would be caught. Your act of heroism would never be acknowledged. Do you really wish to suffer such needless consequences to prove to yourself whether I tell the truth?”
“YES! Show me the bag, I mean it, I’ll kill you, I don’t care!”
“Max, you should care,” the Bowler-hat replied, his voice slightly softer, “Irrespective of my innocence or guilt, you do not want to take another human life. It stains your soul irrevocably. The acts I have committed, the…” his voice trailed off, “…they cannot be undone. It changes who you are, the most fundamental you, for the very worse. Believe me I know.”
“AAAAhhhh!!” Thrasher screamed, and slammed his fist into the wall, “He doesn’t scare me, I’ll do the smartarse in!”
“No!” yelled Max, “That’s what he wants! Then we’re the same as him, and he’s won!”
“Stop! I can beat him.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Don’t you dare touch him, I’ll figure this out.”
“Think you’re gonna stop me?”
“I’ll show you who should be calling the shots,” yelled Thrasher.
Max shoved Thrasher back.
“Don’t you fuckin’ touch me,” Thrasher roared, and a fist flew, and then another. The words degenerated more violently then they had been uttered. Max lunged at Thrasher, and they became a heaving mass of thrashing flesh and profanity. Somewhere, amongst the exchange of punches to heads and torsos, Max’s knife sliced Thrasher’s cheekbone. Then they held nothing back. All of Thrasher’s weight and Max’s rage came to bear. Then Thrasher was wheezing and stumbling back, and Max saw that he had stabbed Thrasher deep in the chest, the knife in his hand bloody like an extracted organ. Thrasher lunged at him one last time, but missed, his big, childlike eyes pleading at Max as he fell to the ground in front of him. His wheezing grew fainter, but Max couldn’t hear over the pounding in his ears. There was a loud bang, like a slammed door. Max swivelled around. The man in the Bowler-hat and his bags, were gone.
Max ran madly down the darkness of the alley, in pursuit of the sound. He turned a small corner, and in front of him he found a back door, swinging open. He raced into it. As he did an albino pigeon flew at his face, obscuring his view, then escaped into the night. His vision returned him to an old, abandoned factory. Blue moonlight fell through the cracks in the ceiling, and a purple glow came through the dirty windows on the far side of the building. The scene was cluttered with rubbish and strange objects and machines of abstract purpose, a forlorn Tanguy landscape. Max was desperate, he had to find him, find the bag, or he could never really know. Thrasher’s weight slumped over his mind. He rushed about the dark cavernous factory, looking everywhere, but he could find nothing. There were too many places to hide a bag or a head or even a man wearing a bowler hat. The silence, the lack of coherence was burning him. The spindly forms and shifting crevices both beckoned and frightened him. Then he heard the door bang again, and he sprinted back to it, hearing footsteps in the alley.
Running around the corner, he saw the man in the Bowler-hat leaning over a large, industrial bin. Max lunged at him from behind, tackling him to the ground. No matter what, he could not let him escape. Bowler-hat struggled wildly to free himself. A neon light somewhere etched their outlines in bright red.
“SHOW ME!” screamed Max, but Bowler-hat didn’t answer, he just kicked and punched and bit with desperate ferocity. Max had him in a rigid grip, and he slammed his fist into his back over and over again, screaming at him. As the man in the Bowler-hat’s body went limp, Max realized he still had his knife in his hand. He was shuddering with disbelief. Could he have made everything in that man vanish so quickly? He jumped up and threw open the lid of the bin. A cloud of smoke flew into his face. He peered down and saw it, next to the briefcase, the calico bag. He wrenched it from the bin, but the smouldering, empty bag fell apart in his heavy hands, an abstraction of ash. He grabbed the briefcase as well, flipped it open and found strange pages burning angrily, tongues of flame licking at the leather. The smoke scorched his eyes, and tears began to shine his face. There was no trace of what had really been in that laundry bag, there never would be. The blood from the body next to him was starting to seep into his trousers. His own arrogant blood pulsed in him, his hands vibrating. He looked around desperately for some vestige of the reality he remembered. The albino pigeon looked down on him from high atop the factory wall then flew off in disgust. All he could see with clarity was the precision of that instant, and its inevitable persistence of memory. Everything else was melting, time slowing to a languid drip, like the crimson fluid draped across his fingers. He pushed the body with his bloody hands, and it rolled over. The bland, twisted face staring at him, reflecting nothing.
Warren Veljanovski, 2002