Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Lotus (Part I)

This is a slightly revised first part of a short story draft that was posted in an earlier form in 2005. The other two parts will follow.

I had known of Fyodor Rozanov for most of my adult life, but before the event in this story I had met him only once. It was at an Embassy dinner in London. He was standing in the midst of a small crowd of attentive listeners, the edges of the crowd curling like mist around him, as he animatedly told some story; but on seeing me, he stopped in the middle of a sentence and bowed slightly.

"You are not as tall as pictures make you seem," he said. "I have wanted to meet you for a very long time."

"And I you," I replied.

He returned to his story and I was soon called away to meet someone else. We might never have talked again, had I not later slipped away from the party to catch a bit of night air in the garden.

I saw him standing near a fountain. In a party attending mostly by small, scrawny diplomats his tall, athletic frame was unmistakable. As I approached, he threw away a cigarette and said without looking at me, "I thought I might be fortunate enough to meet you out here." Then, after a moment: "You and I are not like them at all."

"By which you mean...."

He turned toward me with an impatient gesture. "You and I are men of the moment. They are paralyzed by their own self-consciousness. But you and I form the world with our hands."

"I doubt the difference is so very great," I replied. "People are, I imagine, much the same everywhere. And self-consciousness has more than a few uses."

He made a noise that I think was a word of contempt in a dialect I do not know. "No," he said. "You are wrong. The difference is that those who build the world deserve immortality."

"And that would mean that the rest deserve death?"

He did not answer, but instead lit another cigarette and regarded me a moment. "You know, I almost met you once in Brussels. I was told you were my competition. I am glad we did not actually meet. I might have had to kill you, and you have done so many great things since."

I shrugged. "You are presuming a bit in thinking that you could kill me."

A puff of smoke and an appraising look. "True. For men like us, presumption is the only sin. It is death itself."

We talked for a long time afterwards, comparing lives. We knew more about each other than either of us had realized, since our lives often paralleled without our knowledge. For instance, we had once been in the same village near the Congo River within a week of each other, looking for the same thing; Rozanov had found it first. Rozanov usually found things first; he was usually hired first, and so always had a narrow lead. In our trade, when people want something found that they are willing to make public, they call it an "inestimable service." Both Rozanov and I had performed many inestimable services. When people want something found that they are not willing to make public, they do not call it anything at all. Rozanov had performed many more of these than I, having cultivated more of a reputation for discreet ruthlessness. All in all, I think we each were surprised at what we learned from the other. Rozanov found I was much more bookish and phlegmatic than he expected; I learned that he was surprisingly moody and morbid. It was inevitable that we would each gain something of a feeling of superiority from the encounter; but Rozanov was right about the danger of presumption, and I thrust the feeling aside, as I am sure he also did.

Up to that night our lives had been entangled largely without our knowledge. After that night it was clear they continued to be entangled. Sometimes I was a step ahead, more often he was a step ahead, but every major event in my life was interlinked in some way with every major event in his. However, we had never met again. Sometimes we deliberately made sure of it.

And now I was tangled with him again as I sat in a long, gray room (the rooms are always long and gray) facing a row of gray men in tailored suits (the men are always gray and the suits are always tailored) with Rozanov, unseen and absent, around me like the air I breathed.

"What do you want me to find?" I had asked.

"Fyodor Rozanov," they had said.

I had to get them to repeat the answer.

After a moment in thought, I asked, "What did you hire Rozanov to find?"

There was a flickering of fingers. "Mr. Tremontaine," one of the gray men said, "we do not at present feel that this information is such that you would require it for the task for which you would be hired. The task is not to find what Mr. Rozanov was seeking, but to find Mr. Rozanov."

"What do you want me to do when you find him?"

More flickering fingers, this time with a few exchanged glances. Another gray man, or perhaps it was the same one, said, clearing his throat, "We require the information Mr. Rozanov was sent to gather, if it can be obtained by any means. By any means." He paused and went on (or was it another?). "Mr. Rozanov has failed to meet his contractual obligations. We are sure" - he, or perhaps it was someone else, cleared his throat - "we are sure that something terrible has happened to him, and thus need you to find him. The information is of very great importance."

"What did you send Rozanov to find?"

Fingers flickered. "Mr. Tremontaine," one of the men said, "as we have already said, it does not appear to us necessary--"

"The question is simple," I replied impatiently. "You sent Rozanov for something, and you are certain he has taken whatever it is for his own purposes. What is it?"

No one said anything for a moment. Then one of the men replied, "Suffice it to say, Mr. Tremontaine, that we sent Mr. Rozanov out to verify a rumor. We do not, however, require you to verify the rumor, but to find Mr. Rozanov and, if possible, to bring him to us in order to clear up this unfortunate misunderstanding; or, if that is not possible" - he paused a moment, or else stopped while someone else went on - "if that is not possible, to bring us any information he may have gathered before his demise. We hope that will not be necessary, but the information, if it is at all possible to retrieve, must be retrieved by any means. By any means whatsoever. We think you understand. The payment we offered you is twice what we agreed to pay Mr. Rozanov."

"How do you expect me to find him if I don't know what he was looking for?"

"We know the place he was last seen, and know the general area of the world where he would have been looking to find...to verify the rumor."

One of the men held out a map, on which were several red marks. I took it and examined it a moment, then sat back. I knew the area, and it would give me a chance to see Quin again. I handed the map back.
"It may be difficult to fetch Rozanov," I said. "He would be difficult to find if he does not wish to be found."

"We are sure that the means can be provided to make this a feasible venture for you. We consider this a reasonable investment."

"Double the offer on the table."

Fingers flickered, glances were exchanged, and there was a nod.

I left the building, which overlooked a gleaming white city, and considered my course of action. They say you can tell what a man truly loves about civilization by how he says goodbye to it. If this is true, then the common consensus of mankind seems to be that the best parts of civilization are beer and loose women. I have never been one for either, and never one for goodbyes. I went down to the harbor to catch the first ship out. As I boarded the ship, there was one thought on my mind. Whatever it was that they had sent Rozanov to find, it was disturbing how much they wanted it.

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