Marcel found himself surrounded by a familiar beige, save for the small dried bloodstain on his corduroy slacks. This was his first visit to the consulate since he moved abroad, but the officially sanctioned decor of the small office surrounded him with eery familiarity.
The room was windowless and silent, aside from the persistent ticking of a plastic wall clock. Marcel had yet to feel the adrenaline subside from his system, despite having been waiting for what had felt like nearly half an hour. A young and disinterested aide had assured him that Ciril would be joining him shortly. He peered impatiently at the clock.
Marcel had known Ciril for nearly two decades, and had been pleasantly surprised at the recent news of his assignment to the consulate. He was a good bit younger than Marcel, but his ambition had apparently propelled him to an impressive post as Assistant Minister of Regional Affairs. If there was anyone in this sterile colorless building that could be trusted with a sensitive matter, it would be Ciril.
A small potted pothos on the desk caught Marcel’s eye. He could have sworn for a moment that it was the same that had once brought some semblance of life to his own workspace back at the ministry. He remembered dumping it unceremoniously into a bin as he left on his final day, root rot having finally shriveled the yellowing leaves past the point of saving. Best to travel light anyway when embarking for a quiet island retirement.
The fluorescent lights flickered, jolting Marcel abruptly back to the present. This little plant was doing surprisingly well, he noted, given the total lack natural light in the room. He leaned in for a closer look, and felt somewhat foolish as soon as he saw the telltale seams along the edges of the obviously plastic leaves.
Moving his overstuffed duffel bag from his lap to the floor, Marcel stood and began pacing nervously. His eyes darted throughout the room, desperately seeking a distraction from his whirling thoughts. An image of broken glass flashed in his mind. He winced and looked at the solitary photo behind the desk, at once new and familiar. The gilded frame was the same as he had seen every day for his entire career, and this stoic oligarch in the photo may as well have been the same as the one who had watched sternly and silently over Marcel’s shoulder for so many years. It was still “His Excellence”, whether or not he had a new mole on his cheek, or perhaps his hair was parted on the right rather than the left.
He continued to pace until he could swear the linoleum beneath his feet was beginning to wear away. He pictured the bright blue sky that must, presumably, exist on the other side of one of the walls. Or was there a tropical storm rolling in? He struggled to remember what the sleepy paradise outside had looked like on his panicked drive over from his cousin’s villa. And where was Ciril? At this point he worried that he could be heading out for lunch — or perhaps out even for the end of the day? He glanced at the clock.
Images of shattered dishes and upended furniture crashed violently over his mind.
“Have you really been here that long already? I almost didn’t recognize you with such a tan.”
Marcel spun around, no longer alone in the room. Ciril stood in the doorway emanating an unmistakable aura of calm.
“It’s been too long!” Marcel responded, wishing he had prepared some clever greeting. He became acutely aware of the sweat pooling on his palms and wiped them quickly on his pant leg before extending his arm to shake his compatriots hand. Ciril’s voice had been immediately familiar, but something about his face felt subtly different to Marcel. Age will do that, he told himself. It had after all been nearly a decade since he had last seen those distinctly round and unblinking eyes. The bags underneath seemed deeper and more pronounced, as if he had been straining for all these years to keep his lids pried open, afraid that some little secret would go unseen. His lips were thin and tightly pursed, though Marcel recognized the slight upturn at the corners of his mouth as Ciril’s personal equivalent of joviality.
“It’s a considerable surprise — albeit a pleasant one of course — to see you here, Marcel. You should be sipping a rum concoction on the beach on a day like this, why come all this way to spend your time in this den of bureaucrats?”
Marcel rebutted with what he hoped came off as a sincere chuckle. “I guess I got tired of sand in my shorts. And how could I pass up the opportunity when I heard you were here?”
Ciril took a seat behind his desk, rested his elbows on the faux-wood surface and gestured to the bag by Marcel’s feet. “You must have really missed the work, you look like you’re about ready to move in. It makes sense, I have a hard time picturing you as a man of leisure to tell you the truth.”
“I was just admiring your plant,” Marcel sidestepped, “I used to have the same kind, but it never looked quite so healthy”.
“Yes, my predecessor’s selection. And a good choice for the environment, it’s clearly been thriving. The Ministry of Health, you may not have heard, has been encouraging the use of gardening as a means of maintaining one’s mental wellbeing. I was skeptical at first, but I have to admit it works wonders.”
Ciril beamed at the glossy, uniform foliage. He made no acknowledgment as the lights flickered once more.
“It’s been busy these last few years, even beyond health policy — have you heard the 41b-3 is now printed on salmon rather than pink?” Ciril quipped with all the ease of a joke one its fifth telling.
Marcel laughed politely.
“But in all seriousness,” Ciril continued, “you must have heard that things have changed since you left. We have been extremely fortunate to benefit from fresh and capable leadership.” He nodded slightly backwards towards the portrait glaring over his head. “And problems which we once took for granted are finally being addressed with swiftness and compassion.” The portrait leered.
Marcel could feel the opening refrains of a speech creeping over the horizon. Now was as good a time as any to interject. “Ciril, I need your help”.
“I take it this isn’t a social visit then. What’s troubling you?” If he was disappointed it didn’t show.
Marcel raced through the whirlwind of thoughts that rushed to his mind, frantically pulling a word here, discarding one there, deciding just how much would be appropriate to share. He inhaled deeply.
Summoning a modicum of peace to his voice, “I’m afraid my cousin is in trouble.” He paused as Ciril squinted very slightly, and blinked for what must have been the first time since he entered. “Dimitri. In fact I’m afraid some harm might have come to him.”
“I remember him. Lively, outspoken. He struck me as a man on his own path. Where has that taken him lately?”
“Here, actually.” Marcel noticed the sweat pooling again on his palms. He could walk out now, say goodbye, and disappear into the throngs of tourists. He had said nothing of consequence, he could still reclaim peace and insignificance. He took a breath. “I was going to visit him today. This morning. “ He felt for a moment as if his voice were echoing against the walls. “But he wasn’t there when I arrived.”
Ciril spoke reassuringly, “I have a strong feeling that your concern will prove to be unfounded. What brought Dimitri here? He always seemed to care so deeply about the homeland; I can’t imagine why he would have left.”
Wiping his palms against his trousers once again, Marcel looked upwards as if the right words to speak might be printed conveniently for him on the tiled ceiling. “I think he just needed a change. He found that back home…”, the words hung just out of reach, “that the weather was oppressive.”
A lump formed in Marcel’s throat, and he immediately regretted his verbiage. Frantically, “The storms after all! The storms were just too much for him I suppose. And with his constitution being what it is, I think his doctor prescribed a change of climate.”
“I get the impression that you’re not here to discuss his health. Why are you so worried that he wasn’t home?”
Ciril folded his hands on his lap and stared earnestly at Marcel, his eyebrows arched upward with visible concern.
“Well it didn’t — it didn’t line up is all.”
“I can only imagine that he stepped outside. And on a beautiful day like this,” Ciril gestured as if there was some window through which they could see the tropical sunshine, “who could blame him?”
Marcel bent over and began rummaging through his bag. “Yes, of course, but still,” he pulled out a creased piece of paper, “he sounded quite insistent that he would be present.” He handed the letter across the desk. “He invited me very specifically to come this morning, and, to be frank, he came across as rather desperate.”
Ciril looked carefully over the letter. A knowing smile began to emerge across his inscrutable face. He looked up and asked Marcel, “How long were you in the ministry before your retirement? Four decades?”
Marcel was puzzled, but answered, “Five actually. Why?”
“That’s a long time to be living in a world of rules and order, old friend. You’ve forgotten how the real world works and how real people work. They’re unpredictable creatures and no promise is a guarantee, I’m afraid. I would bet on my life that your cousin simply forgot about the invitation, or had to step out to the store for an errand.”
“There was a man.” The statement dropped abruptly from Marcel’s mouth and landed awkwardly between the two.
“Pardon?” Ciril lowered the letter.
“When I arrived at the villa. There was a man. He was leaving, in a hurry I should add, as soon as I drove up towards the house.”
“Let’s pause and think for a moment here. You look as if you saw death himself slip out scythe in hand. This could have been a plumber, or a tax collector, or an exterminator. Did those years of form filling really do such a number on your imagination? Can you think of only the worst possible explanation?”
Marcel became acutely aware of his racing pulse. Ciril was right to question his concern, from what he had shared there was no reason for alarm. He elaborated, “He had no uniform, and he drove an unmarked van. And I’ve never seen a tax collector with a build like that.’
Ciril was unperturbed. “Marcel. Let me tell you my observation about this little nation. When I first arrived here, I noticed something right away. I exited the airport, if you could call it that, and found my driver waiting for me eager and polite. And you know what he was wearing? Sandals.”
Ciril leaned back into his chair, waiting as if for an apology, as if this anecdote had evaporated all possible worries. Marcel stared blankly back. Ciril shrugged and explained, as if he were having to drain the humor from a great joke, “There are no uniforms in this place. I’m fairly certain I couldn’t tell the difference between a policeman and vagrant if you were to stand them in front of me.”
“He wasn’t a local. He had blond hair, and blue eyes. Have you seen any local here with blue eyes?”
Without missing a beat, “There are thirty-three individuals currently residing on the island with blue eyes. Thirty-four if you include teal. It seems entirely possible he was a local. And why is that so important anyway?”
“Ciril I haven’t dealt with a single person here taller than myself and I’m barely five foot nine. This man was towering, he had to be well over six feet. I’m telling you, he wasn’t from here.” He looked around the room. “From this island, I mean.”
“What are you getting at, Marcel? Be direct.”
Marcel stood and began pacing the room.
“Dimitri was, well, not exactly popular in some circles. He had a way of rubbing people the wrong way. Especially with his political views. He’s always been, I guess against the grain.”
Ciril was losing his patience with the innuendo. “So what are you saying, you think he’s gotten on the wrong side of the government? That he’s in trouble for being some sort of dissident?”
Marcel declined to respond.
“Things have changed since you left, I’ll say it again because I don’t think you understand. This administration is extremely welcoming of dissenting viewpoints. All opinions are valued, even those that might be misguided or misinformed. His Excellence has been a great reformer in this regard, despite what you might assume.”
Marcel spoke up, “It looked like a break in.”
“You’re must know that you sound paranoid,” Ciril scoffed.
“There was broken glass everywhere. Chairs overturned. There was clearly a struggle.”
Ciril shrugged. “The animals here are nothing like home. I’ve seen them ransack more that one shack. Could even have been the stray dogs.”
“Then what was the man doing there?”
“Seems to me like a concerned neighbor checking in.”
“Then why did he flee the scene as soon as he saw me?” Marcel exclaimed.
Ciril’s voice remained dispassionate. “You’re making a story from nothing.”
“Ciril, dammit I think my cousin is dead.”
“Why are you so certain? Something is going on!” Marcel realized his volume had been climbing and glanced nervously to the cracked door. “Something serious.”
“You need to go home. Get some rest. You’re delirious, you’ve clearly worked yourself into a panic.”
Marcel strained to speak, every word seemed stuck with barbs in his mouth. He spoke slowly in a hoarse whisper, ‘I think one of the ministries is involved. I think they’ve done something to him. I don’t know who else to talk to.”
“With all due respect, Marcel, I need you to watch what you’re saying, there is only so much that over-stress can excuse.” Ciril’s eyes flitted, and he appeared to look just over Marcel’s shoulder.
Glancing backwards, Marcel caught the blinking light out of the corner of his eye. They didn’t used to keep security cameras in individual offices. All at once, every word he had spoken replayed in his head.
Ciril stood and walked over to the now morose Marcel, and placed a hand on his back. “I’m quite certain he’s fine. Go home, get some sleep. There’s nothing for you to be fretting about. I assure you Dimitri is alive and well and you will surely see him for yourself soon.”
Marcel looked into Ciril’s wide indecipherable eyes. He stood and looked again at the electronic observer mounted in the corner of the room. He picked up his bag.
Ciril looked relieved, “I do hope you’ll come back soon when you’ve had some rest, it’s terribly good to see you again.”
But Marcel didn’t move towards the door. Instead he began rummaging silently through his duffel, not acknowledging his old colleague’s words.
Finally retrieving a small object, he turned to Ciril, “I’m really quite sure something has happened to him.”
He placed the tissue wrapped item on the desk beside him. Ciril leaned in and eyed the object. Delicately he pulled the wrapping aside. After a moment that felt to Marcel like an eternity Cirli sighed and straightened.
Dimitri’s severed finger sat inert between them.
Marcel held his breath. Ciril’s expression was frighteningly unchanged. He looked into Marcel’s face, with a glimmer of what could only have been pity.
“Marcel, old friend.” He stepped away, and sat back at his desk. “I don’t care in the least how many fingers you’ve brought here.” He lifted his phone and dialed two numbers before hanging up again without so much as a word. “But you need to be careful where you point them.”
Marcel felt the beige walls closing in. He could hear heavy footsteps approaching. He attempted to speak, to plead, but the words caught on the back of his tongue and dissipated inaudibly into the void.
Ciril smiled an unfamiliar wide grin and Marcel realized he had never actually seen the man show his teeth. Pitch-dark fear dropped leaden into his gut. Ciril spoke gently and without a hint of irony, “Since you’ve come all this way to the consulate, you should really meet my colleague.”
He picked up a partially finished glass of water and tipped the remainder of its contents in the potted simulacrum basking in fluorescent glow. “He’s a fine fellow, been a real help in tending to my plants while I’m away. I’m sure you’ll get along swimmingly.” He gestured towards the other end of the room.
Marcel turned to see a hulking figure looming in the doorway.
He had the most brilliantly blue eyes Marcel had ever seen.