Tonight's Feature

Cast—Part 3

As the car approached her house, Kane remembered that Harry had set all this in motion, had funded this fact-finding mission, and there’d been an unexpected result. She did not know how she would ever tell him the truth.

Harry hadn’t heard from Kane about the meeting with Ulmer, which was unlike her. He texted her the old Jewish expression “Nu?” meaning “So?”, got back a question mark, then sent the word “So?” and received the single word, “Fine,” with the subsequent message, “See you tonight.” Harry assumed this meant at that night’s premiere, for there was yet another one for yet another movie. Soon all this might not matter, Harry hoped, trying to ignore the stubborn qualms he had about Kane’s answers or lack of them.

It wasn’t like him: he never made assumptions about silence; every good agent knew not to act like normal people whom silence made expect the worst. Was it because he would not be an agent much longer? Maybe.

The car carrying Ulmer showed up twenty minutes late, which was a first; the star was always painfully precise. In the backseat, Ulmer was huddled in the corner, his knees raised nearly to his face. He wore a burlap sack dress over jeans; one of his shoes was a strappy high heel, the other a man’s work boot with a heel the same height. He had on a floppy jester’s hat, complete with bell. All in all, he seemed especially shielded, remote, and unavailable, which concerned Harry. Then he reminded himself again not to make interpretations from insecurity. He addressed Ulmer casually.

“Ready?” he asked, but Ulmer didn’t answer.

They rode in silence for several blocks. Then the driver slammed on his brakes.

“What’s the problem?” Harry asked, as he heard a sifting release of air from Ulmer’s mouth.

The driver pointed ahead, and Harry saw a long line of unmoving vehicles. Among them were spinning ambulance lights, their sirens muted by the limo’s triple glass.

Ulmer peered at his window as if he could actually see past his reflection to the outside. Harry sat back, even more antsy.

“How did it go with Kane?” he blurted out, his voice deafening in the sealed car.

Ulmer winced, as he would from a whole crowd crowing at him. “Fine,” he said, almost inaudibly, and his shrug shrank him further where he sat.

“Fine? What does that mean?” Harry heard his own shrillness but he couldn’t help it.

“What do you think?” And Ulmer’s response had grown contemptuous as well as quiet.

“Maybe you don’t want to know what I think,” Harry said, shakily threatening him, like an employee with another job offer of which he still wasn’t sure.

“Well, that’s true. I don’t.”

There was more silence, and the limo still didn’t move. Harry felt he was suffocating, despite the consummately controlled air. “What do you—”

“I’m in love with her. All right? Jesus!” The “J” in “Jesus” was sprayed out with saliva intercepted at the last second by the polymeric moat in Ulmer’s mouth.

Harry stared at the star as Ulmer directed his attention back to his image, finished with Harry, with the whole subject. He knew that Ulmer could see him in the background of the one-way glass, so he kept foolishly staring, hoping this might force Ulmer to return, to stay involved, conceding that he needed Ulmer more at that moment than vice-versa, another position of weakness. At last, desperate, he reached out and took hold of the star’s shoulder, something he had never done without permission.

“Elaborate,” Harry said, the word absurd. “Elaborate.”

Ulmer snorted at what Harry said. Then he shook the hand away with both shoulders like a seabird soaked by rain. He turned and broadened his chest and offered himself as a target, as if the experience of this one emotion—love—now protected him more than any scientifically concocted mask. Harry felt furious and afraid of him at the same time.

Harry couldn’t help but see the driver’s eyes bore into his own in the mirror, like the close-ups in gunfights in Italian Westerns. He wanted to throttle Ulmer, to kill him—all of him, every one—to beat and beat him until he was nothing but a bloody puddle in an indestructible container. But he attacked him in another way.

“Do you know who she is?” he asked. “Do you know who she works for?” Harry felt he had the upper hand now, even if he intended to lie, which was a form of subservience. Forget it, just go ahead, he thought, pull the trigger and fire the blanks. “She works for…” And he told the untruth, put Kane in his own position, said she worked for Muth, made it her idea to steal and sell Ulmer’s DNA. His hand had been forced. Never give anything away before you have to, any good agent knows. “I’ll be firing her at the premiere. She’s lucky I haven’t called the police.”

There was silence again for a second. Then slowly Ulmer backed up farther, sank even deeper into his seat, not from revulsion or shock, but a sense of having been defeated. The story clearly made so much sense to him he couldn’t contest it, confirmed a terrible suspicion he harbored about Kane, about anyone who had ever expressed an interest in him—that no one would ever love him for his selves, that he would be lonely the rest of his life, that he had been invented just to suffer, like an animal bred for eating that collapses under the weight of what others are meant to enjoy, use, and discard. Harry sympathized, but he also thought: bullseye.

This was his cue to get out while the getting was good, to reach the premiere and confront Kane (why hadn’t she responded to him? Now he knew—or feared he did). So he unlocked and opened the door of the idling car—at the same second the bottleneck was broken and the limo lurched forward (or had the driver done this on purpose to punish him? Whose side was anybody on?). It propelled Harry out, his fingers slipping from the handle, his feet skidding on the street, falling face down into asphalt on which other cars were now advancing and swerving not to strike him.

Harry rose, smarting all over—his palms felt peeled of skin. He ran in and out of autos, vans and bikes, looking—he assumed—ludicrous in his fancy suit, the front pocket of the jacket of which had been ripped and flapped from him like a gray, severed breast. He ran until he reached the theater, surrounded by klieg lights and swarming paparazzi. Harry felt he was re-entering the high-security prison from which he had wished to escape.

He was allowed in, past private police who stared and stifled laughs at his weird appearance, his hands shaking as he pressed his head into their soft tablets for a full facial scan. Collecting himself, straightening his tie like the proper gent he had been until minutes ago, Harry emerged into the giant arena.

He studied the massive crowd, and saw Kane immediately, rows and rows away, sparkling like a sun in the puddle of those people. She was standing in the center, looking up the endless aisle at him—or through him? Harry wasn’t sure, for she gave no sign of having seen him raise his hand. Soon, though, Kane’s eyes landed on him, as if she could no longer avoid it, and she started in his direction, solemnly, summoned to be sanctioned.

When she reached him, Harry could see her glance over his shoulder, as if seeking someone else.

“What happened to you?” she asked, more with curiosity than concern.

“I could ask you the same thing.”

Kane looked caught, then shaken and contrite. She licked a first finger and rubbed away some blood from beneath his right eyebrow.

“Hurt?” she asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

Kane nodded. Harry had never given up a deal without a fight, and he would not do so now. He indicated the exit with a nod, and Kane followed him out.

The theater doors closed definitively behind them. They stood in the narrow alley where Harry knew Ulmer’s car would come as soon as it could. Maybe he wanted the tension of a time limit; it had always worked for him before.

“Look,” he said, and went on in a rush, expressing himself without self-consciousness, trying sincerely to cajole and convince her. He told her of his plans for them both, his need to lead the rest of his life differently, to be wholly himself, to be finally free.

He told her the truth about the Muth Co., his own duplicity, and how the money he would make from it would furnish their future. He apologized for making her his unwitting accomplice. He could not believe that Ulmer’s feelings for her were mutual and, if they were, that she didn’t know Ulmer as he did, didn’t know there was none of him to know, that he was, regardless or because of his many identities, utterly empty. He ended as he heard faint music start behind the theater’s doors.

Kane was silent after Harry finished. Yet he could tell—an expert at reading people’s expressions—that she felt like someone receiving a gift she didn’t want or already had, a gift in bad taste to begin with and so one she felt no guilt in rejecting. In fact, Kane seemed angry.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and her words became indistinct, were lost in the acrid air of the alley and the quiet applause and cheers coming from inside. As if she, too, were a silent film star, Harry could tell from her eyes that she loved Ulmer and couldn’t be talked out of it with an appeal to common sense or any revelation about the star’s soul. It was his very vagueness that had brought her into relief. What could he say to that? Harry had made it all possible in the first place.

“Okay,” he said, cutting her off, with the voice he used when a negotiator wasn’t serious and Harry could burn the bridge, it would be all right. He veered immediately into another mode, an impatient inquiry into whether an order had been followed.

“May I have what you got,” he said, “from him?”

Kane started, actually did a little double take, which Harry liked, for it meant he was meaner than she, and this was the only success he had left to have. She went into her purse with what seemed great reluctance and pulled out the small plastic shampoo bottle, the kind you used to carry through customs to travel with toothpaste back when people felt safe enough to fly.  She had wrapped it additionally in a sandwich bag, which had its own imitation lock you pressed to close, as cosseted as Ulmer was.

Seeing it encouraged Harry to go further, which he knew was a risk—maybe he should have counted to ten—but gave him the thrill of falling over an edge into oblivion.

He revealed the lie that he’d told Ulmer, that he’d blamed it all on her. He saw what he wanted to see in Kane’s face, which was not just astonishment but revulsion, that Kane hated him now, and she never had before. Harry laughed—to hide his feeling of horror about himself. What could she do now, quit? Who cared?

But Kane did something else. She yanked open the sides that served as the baggie’s lock and took the bottle in her hand, tenderly, as she might have someone’s, Ulmer’s, sex. Expertly, with her first two fingers, she spun the top, freed it, and let it fall. Then she brought the bottle to her lips and emptied it into her mouth.

Harry just stood there, too stunned to move. Kane turned and walked toward the mouth of the alley and entered it, exiting at the same time. He remained alone, with rats scattering and paper bags blowing about him.

A minute or an hour later, the ground rumbled and lights searched the same opening to the alley. The limo carrying Ulmer drove toward Harry, blinding him, but he didn’t back away.

Then the lights went off, pitching him into darkness. The engine was killed, and faint chase music and shouted curses from the movie were the only sounds. The driver’s door opened and the man staggered out, his mouth open, his eyes bugged. Had the traffic been that bad? Harry wondered, getting back his distance and dryness, the way pain crept back into a body that’s been anesthetized. If he couldn’t sell Ulmer to the highest bidder, at least he could keep collecting money from what the star made. Unable to speak, the driver grabbed Harry’s hand like a child and pulled him to the back door, which with his free hand he yanked open.

Across the backseat, Ulmer sat slumped at an abnormal angle. The indestructible glass of the window had been dented, as if by bullets. The star’s mask was merged with his destroyed features, like a plastic wrapping sunk onto a melted, swirling sundae.

“He just kept banging and banging his head,” the driver said, spitting out his own snot and tears. “I couldn’t stop him.”

Harry sighed. Of course you couldn’t, he thought: the process of Ulmer ridding himself of his selves would never end with him alive. Harry had made this happen, too.

Suddenly, panicked, Harry turned and ran, fleeing through the alley’s opening. It seemed strangely too narrow now for any car to have crossed, as if it were contracting and he was making it out just in time. On the street, the film was letting out—how long had it lasted? It felt like minutes. He slid to a stop, but it was too late. Pouring out was a crowd of more people than could ever be counted. They crushed and erased Harry at the very moment he knew exactly who he was and had always been: the agent only of his own demise.

 

 

 

Laurence Klavan has had short work published in more than forty literary magazines, and a collection, "'The Family Unit' and Other Fantasies," was published in 2014 by Chizine. His novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” were published by Ballantine. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, "City of Spies" and "Brain Camp," co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their Young Adult fiction series, "Wasteland," was published by Harper Collins. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London in 2011. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included in Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act, "The Show Must Go On," was the most produced short play in American high schools in 2015.