“What you need,” he said, “is spicy food. That is exactly what you need.”
“You’re probably right.”
“We will go to a place I know,” he said, “and we will drink beer and eat dog. How does that sound?”
“Uh,” I said.
“And then we will drink whiskey,” he said, “and then we will have some girls. But not children!”
“Certainly not,” I said.
“I know just the place,” he said. “The girls are twelve years old, possibly as much as fourteen. We won’t be robbing the cradle, and we won’t have the U.N. on our backs.”
“What about the SPCA?”
He laughed, got to his feet, left some baht on the table to cover the bill. “An inner chill,” he said. “My friend, after a plate of dog, a glass of scotch, and an hour with a pretty girl, you’ll be as warm inside as out.”
I wouldn’t bet on it.
It all started… well, who knows when it started? When I was born, maybe, or when I was conceived, or somewhere in the dim dark past when my great-great-grandfather met my great-great-grandmother and decided he liked the way she combed her hair. Maybe it started on a numbered hill in Korea, where a shard of shrapnel from an incoming artillery round embedded itself in my skull, forever relieving me of the need to sleep. (No one knows exactly how the sleep center works, or why we need to sleep, but mine doesn’t, and I don’t.)
Maybe it started when I got home from Korea and started to make a life for myself. I found a way to earn a living, supplementing the monthly disability check I got from the government. And I found a way to fill up twenty-four wide-awake hours a day, and learned, too, to live out the fantasies other people use up in dreams. I studied languages, and I joined political movements, and I supported lost causes. I had adventures. Somewhere along the way I stonewalled my jailers in Washington by insisting I worked for a government agency and refusing to tell them which one. Then a guy showed up to claim me, evidently believing I worked for him. And, as the years went by, maybe I did. It’s not always easy to tell.
Enough. It all started on a Tuesday afternoon in October, in the pine-paneled basement recreation room of a house in Union City, New Jersey, where a man named Harald Engstrom poured me a glass of brandy.
“The trouble with Scandinavia,” Harald Engstrom said, “is we’re too bloody civilized. We used to be Vikings, for God’s sake! We were the scourge of Europe, more to be feared than the Black Death. We’d raid your coastal villages. We’d butcher your cattle and rape your daughters – or was it the other way around?”
“Well, either way,” I said.
“Exactly. We were a dangerous lot, Evan. And now we never go to war. We are peaceable and prosperous. All our citizens get medical care and education and a government that takes care of them from the cradle to the grave. Even the downtrodden, even those of us in southern Sweden, live a life the rest of the world would envy.”
We were speaking Danish. Harald was from Lund, in southern Sweden, but he did not consider himself a Swede, nor did he consider his homeland to be a part of Sweden. It had once been Danish – most of each of the Scandinavian countries had once belonged to or been a part of one or more of the others – and, as far as Harald was concerned, he and his neighbors and kinsmen were Danes still, and all that remained was for them to wrest control of their benighted province from the damnable (if benevolent) Stockholm government.
“It is difficult to stir up a rebellion against a welfare state,” he said with a sigh. “If we are successful, what happens to our pensions? Evan, I ask you. Would a Viking ask such a question?”
“It’s a problem,” I agreed. “You’ve got to get people to realize they’re oppressed before you can get them to revolt.”
“But you have some ideas.”
I did, and I began to run through them for him. For several years I’d been a member of SKOAL, an acronymic organization committed to restoring lost areas of Sweden and Norway to Danish control. (A fraction of SKOAL claimed Danish hegemony for all of Sweden and Norway, and for part of Finland as well, but I felt their claims were unjustified, and not terribly realistic.) I’d had some correspondence with members in Denmark and Sweden, but Harald was the first SKOALer I’d met face to face.
He nodded as I spoke. “You are truly committed,” he said.
“And you believe you can get assistance from these other groups? The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization? The League for the Restoration of Cilician Armenia? The Pan-Hellenic Friendship Society?”
He named some other outfits of which I’m proud to be a member, including one or two I couldn’t recall having mentioned to him. That might have made me suspicious, but who would be suspicious of a Danish Swede (or a Swedish Dane) in the basement of a suburban house in Union City, New Jersey?
“Evan,” he said, “there’s some better brandy, and I insist you try a glass.”
I’d had enough for that hour of the day, but it would have been impolite to refuse. Harald, a blond giant with guileless blue eyes, lumbered into the other room and came back with two glasses of a liquid a little darker than amber. He very deliberately set one in front of me and raised the other in a toast.
“To necessity,” he said.
He nodded. “To it we must always bend our will. Skoal!”
“Skoal,” I agreed, although I wasn’t all that sure about the rest of it. But I drank, all the same.
We talked of other things, though I can’t say I remember what they were. What I do remember is that a curious drowsiness began to come over me. My mind wandered. I yawned, and apologized for it.
“You must be tired,” Harald said. “Would you care to lie down for a few minutes, Evan?”
“No, thank you. It’s not necessary.”
“Just for a little while. A nap, eh? I think it’s a good idea. Look at you, you can’t keep your eyes open!”
He was right. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. But that didn’t make sense. If there was one thing I could always do, it was keep my eyes open. I did close them now and then – to rest them, to go into a yogic relaxation mode – but it was always entirely voluntary. I closed them because I decided to, not because they decided to close of their own accord.
But that’s what they were doing. Closing, all by themselves. And I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. I couldn’t even remember to try…
The next thing I knew, I was lying flat on my back. I had the sense of coming up from some cold dark place far beneath the earth’s surface. That was true, I realized, only in a symbolic sense. I hadn’t actually gone anywhere, let alone some dungeon in the bowels of the earth. I was still in Harald Engstrom’s house in Union City. I might be in the basement, which was technically below the earth’s surface, though probably not below sea level. And I might not be in the basement after all, because I seemed to be lying on a bed, and I didn’t recall seeing any beds in his basement.
I’d evidently passed out, I thought, and maybe Harald had carried me upstairs to a bedroom. The brandy, I thought – and at once it occurred to me (as it will long since have occurred to you) that there was something in that brandy more to be reckoned with than mere ethyl alcohol.
For God’s sake, he’d slipped me a mickey! I’d been drugged!
“Coming out of it,” someone was saying. Not in Danish, or Swedish either. In English.
“He almost surfaced the last time,” a second voice said, this one female. I noted this, and noted in retrospect that the first voice had been a man’s. “Maybe he’ll make it this time,” she said.
“Don’t say any more,” the man said. “He can hear you.”
Indeed I could, but from that point on there was nothing more to hear.
No words, anyway. I could hear them breathing, if I put my mind to it, and distantly I could hear the hum of machinery and the muted sounds of human activity. I was beginning to get the feeling that I was not in Harald Engstrom’s house after all, but I couldn’t think how or where I might have been moved. I certainly didn’t remember any movement, though I probably wouldn’t if I’d been deeply comatose as a result of whatever had been in that last glass of brandy.
How long had I been out? I was lying on my back with my arms at my sides, and I hadn’t moved a muscle except to breathe, but I moved now, lifting a hand and bringing it to my face.
A sharp intake of breath from one or both of them greeted this move of mine. So they were watching me closely, whoever they were. And they were impressed that I could move.
What was going on here?
I touched my chin, ran my hand up along my cheek. I had shaved that morning, I remembered. Sometimes I skip a day, if all I’m going to do is stay home and write somebody’s thesis and answer my mail, but I’d definitely shaved before my visit to Harald’s house, and my beard had scarcely grown since then. There was a little stubble against the grain, but at worst I’d look like Richard Nixon ten minutes after he left the barber’s chair. So I couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a dozen hours, a whole day at the absolute outside.
They still hadn’t said anything. They’d seen me move, and they’d since watched me trying to tell time by my five o’clock shadow, but they hadn’t been willing to comment.
Up to me, evidently.
First I took a quick inventory. I wiggled my toes to make sure I still had them. I tensed muscles here and there, just to assure myself that everything still worked.
Then I opened my eyes.
There were two of them, the man a stocky fellow about my age, the woman a sallow blonde a good deal younger. They were both dressed in white, and the room I was in looked to be a hospital room, and what the hell was I doing there?
I decided to ask them. “Where am I?” I said. “And what am I doing here?”
They exchanged glances. The man – the doctor, I suppose – ignored my question and asked one of his own. What was my name?
I hesitated, not because I didn’t know it but because I wondered if there was any reason to keep it to myself. None I could think of, I decided.
“Evan Tanner,” I said.
“Good,” he said. Not that my name was Evan Tanner, I gathered, but that I was able to supply it. For God’s sake, what did they think was wrong with me?
“How do you feel, Mr. Tanner?”
“I feel fine,” I said.
“Any pain? Dizziness? Anything of the sort?”
“No, I’m fine,” I said. I was still lying flat on my back, and it somehow had not occurred to me to sit up. It did now. I sat up a little creakily – you’d have thought I’d been lying down forever – and the woman’s eyes widened. I’m just sitting up in bed, I wanted to tell her. Don’t act like I’m Lazarus, takething up his bed and walkething.
“Still no dizziness, Mr. Tanner?”
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