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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 4

Men are men. Neither country nor era make a significant difference.

I considered this as I sat on the roof of a quaint bistro whose greasy fumes spilled from a battery of pipes beside my folding chair. In my lap I cradled a Hasselblad view camera whose over-sized lens was, in fact, the dish of a parabolic microphone. Fine-wired headphones ran from the back of the Hasselblad and plugged into my ears, my line to the curiously detached world of focused sound.

The dish was oriented toward a tavern across the street where Franco Fiorio was taking lunch with his pals Luigi and Marcello. The clink of their cutlery was a crisp and well-defined foreground, sounding as if the plates were right beside my ears. "Come on, Franco," implored Luigi, "we haven't been out for fun in a dog's age."

"I have to work, I'm sorry my friends," replied Franco, crunching a piece of bruschetta.

"Franco, it's Sunday."

"Uncle is preparing to receive guests. Everyone has extra duties. There's nothing to be done about it. I'll come next time, I promise."

From previous conversations it was already clear to me that Uncle was the master of the estate at which Franco served, though the epithet did not seem to connote a blood relation -- when the maids and drivers came into town on errands they also referred to the boss as simply "Zio."

"Uncle should give you a raise," noted Marcello. "You work too hard, Franco."

Franco chortled. "My friend -- when you love it, it's not work. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to be getting back to the estate. There's so much to do, and I mustn't keep Uncle waiting."

"Uncle, Uncle, Uncle," muttered Luigi. "Is he your boss or your wife?"

"Quiet!" hissed Marcello. "The game's back on."

"What's the score?"

"Quiet!"

At that point I was obliged to remove my headphones as the owner of the bistro climbed up the groaning iron fire-escape and sauntered across the loose gravel to join me. He wiped his hands on his apron and then planted them on his hips, sucking his teeth absently as he looked down at me. "So, you're taking good pictures, ha?"

"Oh yes," I told him with a polite smile. "I can see the whole town from here. I'm getting some wonderful exposures."

The owner nodded as he pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and tapped one free. After sticking it in his mouth he bent the pack toward me and raised his brow. I shook my head. He lit his cigarette and drew on it fiercely, his cheeks caving in. "You should take pictures of my bistro. Make me famous."

"I'd be happy to. It has great atmosphere."

"I'll give you a free coffee, ha?"

So I trundled down the fire-escape with him and pointed my microphone around the bistro, pretending to take pictures. I waived my light meter around and fussed over the composition. The free coffee was an excellent blend.

My mind, meanwhile, was racing: if Franco was working at the estate this afternoon instead of making his usual rounds about town, I would be free to take his place to test the strength of my disguise. As I put away my apparatus and finished off the last drops of the coffee I made my plan to drop by the bookseller Franco usually visited on Sundays in search of rare editions and new acquisitions.

I rushed back to my hotel.

An hour later I emerged from my room as Franco Fiorio. I buried myself behind a newspaper as I crossed the lobby, avoiding the front desk. As I stepped out the front doors I folded the paper under my arm and gave my attention to imitating Franco's stride. I nodded and smiled to the passersby on the street, as Franco was a genial sort.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Fiorio!"

"And a good afternoon to you."

The bookseller plied his wares from a cramped room beside the church. There was no sign. A small bell on the door jingled as I passed inside. The proprietor looked up and grinned. "Franco! I didn't think I'd see you today."

"I always have time for books," I said. "And for you, Bernardo."

"You should be especially glad of that today, my friend."

"Oh?"

"Your order has come in, at long last!"

I did an impeccable job of looking delighted rather than confused. "Splendid!" I crooned, rubbing my hands together.

Bernardo, who was fat, bald and smelled strongly of yeast, bustled out from behind his desk to plunder a pile of boxes by the back door, which he propped open to keep the air moving and ventilate his pipe smoke. In triumph he produced a plastic-wrapped hardcover that looked at least a century old, and placed it gingerly on the desk before me.

I withdrew a pair of spectacles from my breast pocket, perched them on my nose, and leaned forward in Franco's distinctive manner. Carefully I peeled back the plastic and read aloud the French title, "On Castor & Pollux, Their Influences & Roots in Popular Legend & Historical Fact."

"It's a first edition," said Bernardo, rocking back and forth proudly on his heels with his meaty hands clasped behind his back. "Rosalita found it at an estate auction in Avignon. She...well, my friend, she had to bid high."

"Whatever the cost..." I whispered reverently, "I'll pay it."

Bernardo smiled. "You never change, Franco. It's your addiction, books."

"Yes," I agreed, opening the tome's creaking leather cover. The title page gave the year of publication as 1802.

"But tell me -- why the sudden interest in twins? First Romulus and Remus, now Castor and Pollux. Do you have a long-lost brother you've never told me about?"

I looked up from the book and hesitated.

Bernardo began to nod, holding up his hands. "I know, I know: don't bother to lecture me again. When it comes to Uncle, your lips are sealed."

"I'm only trying to protect you, Bernardo," I claimed.

"I know, I know," he said again. "I can't help it. I'm a curious man, like you."

Satisfaction warmed me as I walked back to the hotel. I had interacted face to face with someone familiar with Franco and aroused no detectable suspicious: a clean performance through and through.

In a rare indulgence I elected to reward myself for a job well done, so I stopped for supper at the tavern for hot mushroom linguini and cold white wine. As I ate I leafed carefully through the ancient book, touching the pages only with the corner of my napkin -- this was not a precaution to avoid leaving fingerprints (since I haven't any) but rather to avoid tainting the paper with my skin's destructive oils. I read:

It is the contention of this author that Castor & Pollux were not merely the heroes of myth but represent actual historical personages who lived contemporaneously or pre-contemporaneously to the events ascribed with their involvement, a temporal conundrum whose plausible resolution shall become apparent upon the complete presentation of the author's theories.
And, loath as I am to admit it, I allowed myself to be lulled by the book such that the sun set behind the town before I noticed how many hours had gone, lost in the winding byways of history, mythology and inspired supposition knitted by the long-dead Frenchman.

So, like a rank amateur, I was caught unawares.

"Franco!" cried Luigi, slapping me drunkenly on the back.

"Franco!" echoed Marcello, plopping into the chair opposite me.

"Oh!" I said lamely.

"I thought you were working, Franco."

"I'm taking a break."

"In town?"

"Well --"

Luigi waved his hands and shook his head. "Who cares? Now you can't escape your friends, Franco. Come -- we're going to the cabaret."

"Oh, well now, I really ought to get back to the estate. Uncle --"

"Uncle, Uncle, Uncle!" mocked Marcello. "Come on, pay your bill. Let's go."

We took a taxi south into Portogruaro. My companions farted garlic and belched beer, tittering and joshing with me, regaling me with an inarticulate and meandering description of the end of the football game. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be celebrating or indignant, so I changed the subject. "Who's performing tonight?"

"When does the programme ever change?"

"Right," I agreed and then laughed as if I'd made a joke. Luigi and Marcello were drunk -- they laughed right along with me.

"I see what you did there," claimed Luigi.

"I don't get it," admitted Marcello, still chuckling.

The taxi left us in a winding laneway in a sorry district. We crossed the narrow road between puttering cars to approach a dim doorway beneath a bank of indecipherable neon twists. A beggar sat in their buzzing shadow, a cup in his gnarled hand, his face lost under a ragged hood. I didn't know if Franco would give a beggar a coin so I drifted slower, stepping behind behind Luigi to ask Marcello an empty question as he sauntered along.

Luigi tossed the beggar a coin, so I did too.

The cabaret was very small -- a close theatre packed with round tables, the chairs glutted to the rear of each to afford an unobstructed view of a humble stage fringed by faded velvet. Braces and trios of old farmers with weather-hard features and dirt-stained fingers nursed drinks in grimy glasses, ashtrays overflowing, cackling and bellowing at each other about football and Rome.

The girl from the front desk of Locanda al Fiume had their eyes. In her costume she looked curvaceous rather than chubby. As I glanced over she unravelled a feather boa from around her freckled shoulders and tossed it into the audience. The old men cheered.

I was deeply uncomfortable. Testing my disguise against an acquaintance like the bookseller was one thing -- spending an evening with the man's two best friends was another matter altogether.

Luigi found us a table and ordered a round of drinks. Cigarettes were lit, and I was obliged to follow suit. I grimaced internally -- bloody tobacco.

Now, there is an art and a science to remaining discretely sober while your companions imbibe. The key is simply a matter of timing: assuring that you drink out of step with others and subverting the process of ordering fresh rounds. One must always call for a new drinks before anyone is ready -- in this way it is you who scrutinizes the others' glasses to check their level and not the other way around. The best moment of cover comes when a man ends up with two drinks in front of him: as he polishes off the first in an effort to make way for the second he is thoroughly distracted, and your own drink can be quietly disposed of in a potted plant or even on the floor if need be.

"Another round, gentlemen?" I called.

"Already? You're a fish tonight, Franco!"

I helped to pile the empty glasses on the waitress' tray, including my own full glass. The chubby girl on stage wound up her routine with a flash of her round bottom and then slipped away into the wings. A new girl took her place, a dyed blonde with cigarette smoke skin and no hips.

In fairly short order my companions were irretrievably intoxicated. "I have to go," I told them.

"No, no -- stay!" they clamored. "It's early."

Through the fleece and gauze of another round they blinked at the stage, laughing at nothing. I excused myself to visit the lavatory, quietly scooping up my book and my jacket as I pretended to lurch drunkenly against the table, staggering into my chair. Luigi and Marcello cracked up laughing. I waved it off and stumbled toward the exit.

I walked right past the washroom, pulling on my jacket. I nodded to the doorman and pushed out into the cool night, raising my arm to hail a taxi from a line of them lying in wait beneath a streetlamp. A car drew up and I pulled open the door.

"Signore," wheezed the beggar, rattling his cup.

"I've already given you a coin," I muttered, putting the book into the back seat.

"Signore, I'm hungry."

The sky rumbled with distant thunder, and the air smelled wet. The poor fellow was in for a miserable night. With a frown I reached into my pocket and extracted another lira, then tossed it. It glanced off the edge of the cup and landed on the sidewalk. The beggar leaned over to retrieve it, his eyes on me. As the stuttering neon lights illuminated his face beneath the hood I could not help but make a little gasp: his ugliness was truly mediaeval.

"A thousand thanks," said the beggar, still watching me with a strange kind of intensity that unnerved me. He dropped the coin into his cup.

"Good night," I said. I slipped into the taxi and pulled the door after me. "Pontevecchio, please."

"Si, signore."

The rain started as we drove, clattering on the roof and running down the windows in streams that bent the headlights of the other cars.

Back at the hotel I carefully unpeeled Franco Fiorio from my body and face, shedding his clothes, his eyes, his nose, his hair. The day had been a mixed success: while I had managed to fool the target's friends I had done so at great risk, and allowed myself to be taken unawares. To myself I murmured, "Maybe I'm getting too old for this."

Having put down a firm foundation of Franco, the next phase of my mission would be to learn about the estate itself, to be assured that I would be able to penetrate each of the barriers to entry. There were only days left, and then my hour would come -- in and out in sixty minutes, then a train back to Venice.

The period of romance had ended, and period of action was near.

Before I climbed into bed I stood by the window and looked out over the rain-washed river-bed, its edges drooling, its middle pooling. Lightning flashed and I thought I saw something; I frowned and squinted at the dark, leaning out through the open frame for a clearer view. A moment later I had almost dismissed the notion as imaginary until lightning flashed again and I was able to discern a figure hobbling among the tall grasses, his passage bending the stalks and squelching in the mud.

The hooded figure looked up at me and I down at him. It was the beggar. My breath caught.

Lightning flashed once more. When the afterimages faded from my vision I searched the river-bed, but saw nothing. The rain became heavier, falling in opaque, scintillating sheets. I reluctantly pulled back into my room and cranked closed the glass against the spray.

I sat on the bed and furrowed my brow, deeply uneasy.




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