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Plight of the Transformer
A sequel novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8
ALTERNATIVE FORMATS KINDLE E-BOOK | PRINTED ANTHOLOGY
Plight of the Transformer, a fantastical novelette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 3

Ports are ports are ports; borders are borders -- travel is travel.

This is the new century, and the roads and waystations have eyes. Thus it was that I made the flight to the Veneto under an assumed face, one of a dozen generic personas I employ for general movement among the public while on assignment. Though disguised it was still my habit to play coy with any closed circuit camera. One never knows to where its vision may be networked.

The customs officer gave me a longer look than I would have preferred, but don't they always? He blinked his cow-like eyes and mumbled, "Business or pleasure?"

"Business, signore."

"What is the nature of your business?"

"I have been engaged to write a travel book."

"What is the planned duration of your stay?"

"Six weeks, signore."

The stamp came down. He folded closed my passport and slid it across the counter, into my waiting hand. I used to get nervous at borders, but any anxiety can be dulled by routine: I've crossed too many countries now to keep count or care.

I loitered by the baggage carousel for want of suitcases, listening to the conversations around me. I noted the particular vowels of the region's dialect and waited for the weather report to loop on the arrivals screen...

Airports are airports are airports.

On the shuttle to the train station I found a copy of yesterday's La Tribuna di Treviso under my seat. I chatted to a robust, country fellow about the football scores. I gave him the newspaper. Outside the windows we could see the steeples and domes of Venice blue on the horizon, and when we passed between cars we could smell the city's funk.

In the lavatory I effected a rearrangement of my disguise. I changed my tie. I shaved off my mustache with an electric razor, then rinsed the colour from my eyebrows. I exchanged contact lenses, altering the appearance of my irises from blue to brown. I moved the inserts in my mouth from my lower cheeks to my upper cheeks, and dropped my shoulders from their previous affection of tension. I relaxed my jaw and my hands, then stretched them out to find their new pose.

And, because I am a man like any other, I also took a moment to pass water.

I moved on through the train. I could no longer smell Venice in the whistling wind between the cars. Lush green countryside flashed by on the right side; the Adriatic glittered, drawing away behind the horizon to my left. The train swayed and roared as it passed through a hill. In the tavern I found a man to play cards with, and engaged him in idle conversations in order to exercise my new accent.

I let him win. He bought me a drink.

On the open-air platform at Portogruaro Station the man to whom I'd given my copy of La Tribuna caught me eying it as he prepared to toss it into a trash bin. "You want it?" he said.

"Thank you," I replied. "I would like to see the score."

"Take it. Some guy gave it to me on the train."

We nodded to each other and he went on his way. I folded the paper and threw it into the bin. I smiled invisibly, smiling on the inside. This is how I stay in shape, this is a jog in the park -- encountering the same man within an hour and having him look me in the eye without a glimmer of recognition.

A black taxi with bad shocks took me north out of Portogruaro to Pontevecchio in the countryside, leaving me within walking distance of a small hotel called Locanda al Fiume at which I had my lodging reservation. "Signore Lorenzoni?" said the plump girl when I set down my suitcases at the counter.

"Yes, that's me. How did you guess?"

She squinted shyly. "You just look like a Lorenzoni, I think."

"Fair enough. I'd like to check in, if you please."

My room had a view of a dry channel through which a river had once flowed. There were deposits of soda pop cans and Orangina bottles cluttering the grass-choked edges. While I watched a rabbit crossed the basin, stopping to sniff the air at halfway.

Out the window and into the mud would be my emergency escape route, should the unforeseen unfold. With that decision made to I set to unpacking and arranging my things...

I first saw my target the very next morning.

The beginning of any assignment is a quiet, meditative time. It is a romance between the subject and I, a slow courtship that begins with binoculars and parabolic microphones. I become acquainted, then consumed. The details dance in a cloud in my mind, flitting to and fro freely until snatched by my growing understanding to be locked into a pattern that will form the basis of the simulacrum.

Piece by piece, a virtual Doppelganger is woven: my toy, my puppet, my pet -- and then, eventually, my self.

The psychological arc is always the same and despite my wealth of experience with the process I am never able to pinpoint the moment when I stop thinking of the target as him and begin using me. An analytical part of myself retires in favour of a being driven by inspiration and instinct, drawing on a new set of reflexes now adopted as my own.

I call the transition the moment of thespian fluidity.

The romance is broken for spells, of course. At a certain stage it becomes necessary to make contact with the subject in order to observe him up close and test his reactions in response to specific prods. During this island I must unbecome what I have been becoming -- I must insert a wedge of distance and see him again as a stranger.

My librarian took a daily espresso over checkers each morning between eight o'clock and nine at a particular cafe on a particular street. I recognized him as soon as he came in, and I tracked him through the rising steam of my cup as he greeted the proprietor and lingered over the pastries under glass.

His name was Franco Alphonso Fiorio. He was fify-two years old, balding. His build was tall and slight but falling to fat in the belly, under the chin, over the kidneys, between the thighs. The weight had come on in recent years -- I could see it in the awkwardness of his walk, a gait in transition.

When he turned away from the counter with his espresso and danish I rustled my newspaper over the checker board on the table, then crossed my legs while clearing my throat.

"Signore," said Franco brightly. "Are you open for a game?"

"Absolutely," I said. "Sit down, friend."

We sipped and played. I studied him. He lit up a cigarette after his danish was gone and I invisibly frowned -- tobacco disgusts me, especially when I am obliged to smoke it myself. Betraying nothing I watched the way he smoked, cataloguing every mannerism of the important habit that would colour much of his physicality. For instance, whenever he ran his fingers over his head to tuck the tufts back behind his ears he always avoided using his index and middle fingers, so as not to leave yellow nicotine stains on his pale skin or white hair. The splayed shape he used as a hand-comb was particular, and I flexed my own hand in imitation of it under the table.

"I'm Franco," he said after he had won the game.

"I'm Paolo," I told him. "Good game."

"Are you Pontevecchian?"

"I'm originally from Florence. I've been living in England, however, for my work."

"What do you do?"

"I write travel books. What about you, Franco?"

"I'm a librarian."

"How wonderful -- we're both in the book business, in a manner of speaking."

"Yes," he smiled. "Books are my passion."

I did not spelunk after details of his employment. To adopt a life one is obliged to first build a firm foundation: before I could go about his ways as a librarian I first had to know how he went about as man. How often did he clip his fingernails? How did he hide a spontaneous erection? What distinguished his social laugh for actual mirth? How long was his attention span? How did he choose his wardrobe according to the weather? Where did he look when he was embarrassed?

After we'd finished our drinks we went our separate ways. Franco Fiorio would never see me again -- at least, not as he'd seen me that day.

Back in my hotel room I made my notes, memorized them, shredded them. I began cutting molds for the cheek and nose pieces I'd need, whistling as I whittled. Having observed the labels on his clothes I would go out the next morning to shop for a costume, stay in the next afternoon to apply spots of wear according to Franco's kinesthetics.

While I worked my Underwood did, too. It is a special Underwood, of course -- capable of typing away without my having to pay it any mind at all. This meant that from my room came the uninterrupted rattle and ding of a busy writer, leaving me to work and revise in peace. Every now and again I leaned over the cranked the thing up again.

"How's the book coming along, Mr. Underwood?" I asked in Franco's voice.

The typewriter had no discernible reply beyond more typing, the keys depressing and springing back in a soothingly random sequence...

After supper I had the chubby girl at the front desk send up a bottle of wine, then I sat by the window and practiced smoking Franco's brand of cigarettes. The sun was setting over Pontevecchio, the dry river-bed crawling into purple darkness. The smoke I exhaled turned golden when it floated far enough from the building to catch the last rays of the day, swirling and undulating, drifting and fading away.

I thought of Bess. I felt like Franco. For some reason, I remembered my mother.

Twilight came. I stabbed out the last cigarette and cleaned my throat with wine. Soon, this peace would end and exhilaration would come. Soon, I would transform and deploy.

I slept like a baby.



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