Highbrow Magazine will be on a publishing break during Thanksgiving. New articles will be published on November 30.
New Fiction: Death Threat
Until recently, our sovereign nation was little more than a joke in the halls of the General Assembly: “Keshnev? Like Albania, but without a sense of humor.” This changed last year upon our election to a revolving, two-year-term on the Security Council. For the first time in UN history, the chief delegate of this hitherto forgotten country sat at the same table as emissaries of the Permanent Five—China, France, Great Britain, the US and USSR—imperialist running dogs and glorious Communist allies alike. Now when the time came to be heard, no one rose to the floor of the Council Chamber with more declamatory wrath than me. Perm 5 delegates who’d previously snubbed me were obliged to listen. Against all odds, I’d become a force to reckon with.
“Ambassador Ash, how good to see you.”
Alfred Lundquist, one among many of the S-G’s deputies, greeted me at the elevator on the 38th floor. Blond hair, darting blue eyes, and though of only medium height seeming by his imperious manner and bespoke jacket to fill a much larger space. Walking together down a fluorescent corridor we crossed paths with a trio of delegates in business suits and flowing white robes. The men greeted me warmly—me, not my escort, to whom they seemed notably indifferent.
“I see your influence has widened among our Third World colleagues.”
“What influence I have,” I pronounced, “is due to the will of the People’s Republic.”
Lundquist opened the plate-glass door to the S-G’s office with the tiniest snort of disgust. “Please have a seat, Ambassador. The Secretary will see you shortly.”
On the far wall of the reception area were photographs of past Secretaries-General, noble visionaries like Hammarskjold and U Thant, as well as their less-gifted successors. Last in the series, our current leader, the pursed lips and dull eyes behind owlish glasses suggesting a man with at best a fragile grasp on world events. I glanced at my watch; twenty minutes spent waiting so far. It was commonly known the S-G had little use for me, especially since Keshnev joined the Security Council. He didn’t like my politics or my status among non-aligned nations or, it was said, my “wanton ways.”
Four months ago, a long-simmering feud over scrap metal rights in the South Atlantic suddenly erupted in a shoot-out between a once-proud global empire and a tin-pot dictator in Argentina. Before anyone in our august world body could call a halt to it, the scrappy upstart Argentine Navy swooped in on a pair of mountainous, fogbound islands—Las Malvinas to the aggrieved conquerors, to the rest of us known as the Falklands – islands which no one in the civilized world previously gave a damn about. Overnight, the scant populace of farmers and shepherds, generations-old subjects of the British Commonwealth, woke to find themselves under foreign occupation. Never mind that everyone knew General Leopoldo Galtieri was a power-hungry thug intent on distracting his own disgruntled citizens from his creaky regime. Never mind that now, at the butt-end of the twentieth century, a former superpower could ill afford the cost of another colonial misadventure. Roused from her slumber, Great Britain had sent forth an armada of warships and submarines to punish the regime with a force roughly equal to the wrath of God.
Ten minutes later, a door finally opened; to my deep disappointment it was Lundquist again, preening and smug in his three-piece suit. “My apologies, Ambassador. The Secretary is unavoidably detained. He asked me to speak with you in his place.”
I reminded him today was Sunday.
“Yes. Quite regrettable.”
He led me into a long, narrow conference room. Ten chairs were set around a kidney-shaped table, a potted plant and vintage Mercator globe in the far corners. But it was the view from the floor-to-ceiling window that grabbed your attention, a great vista of high-rise office buildings as might be seen by angels. Lundquist plucked a handkerchief from his breast pocket and used it to punch buttons on the telephone as quickly as possible. “Send her up right away,” he ordered to whomever answered. “The place is a terrible mess.”
Mess? Where? All the table settings—water goblet, fountain pen, black UN brief book—looked perfect.
Lundquist sat opposite me, his back to the spectacular, as if such things were trivial distractions. “I’ve been asked to review your portfolio. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” Of course I did.
He opened a thick manila folder, began leafing through documents. “Do your new friends know much about your background, Ambassador?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re American by birth, anyone knows this just by talking to you. So how does a man like you come to represent a Communist regime thousands of miles away?”
I was too annoyed by the impudent Swede to form an answer. The conference room doors suddenly swung open and in walked a young Hispanic woman wearing a trim gray business suit and straps high on her ankles. Cuban, I guessed, from her red lips, raven-black hair and slightly flattened nose. Maybe Venezuelan. “Miss Alvarez, Ambassador Gabriel Ash.” She offered a chilly handshake before setting off to inspect the table’s lapidary surface.
With an audience in the room, Lundquist grew more animated in his account of the Ambassador’s life—education, diplomatic training, years spent at consular posts in Warsaw, Belgrade, East Berlin. Appointed to Keshnev’s UN delegation, 1956, appointed Permanent Representative, 1972. “A position you have held,” Lundquist said, teeth pinching off every word, “with great distinction.”
I watched Miss Alvarez work her way down the length of the table, making tiny changes in the placement of pens and briefing books. When she leaned over, her short skirt hiked up the back of her long, olive-skinned legs.
“Tell me, sir, what sort of enemies do you have?”
An odd question. Just as an exercise, I ticked off possibilities in my head—husbands of past lovers, a gentleman of Mediterranean origin to whom I was sometimes slow in repaying a loan, even the little band of white-haired Keshnevite émigrés in Flatbush with an age-old grudge against the world. I looked again at the deputy, this minion.
“The truth is less interesting than that. I’m universally loved, or at least liked—all right, tolerated.” I indulged in the sin of self-mockery. “No enemies.”
The telephone rang by Lundquist’s elbow; he waited for his assistant to cross the room and pick up. She turned away, a hand covering her mouth.
“No enemies after twenty years of distinguished service?”
I heard Miss Alvarez’s dulcet sotto voce, imagined her lips parting to make words, her breath falling softly on the mouthpiece. Damn Lundquist and his ceaseless blather.
“And since January, a rotating member of—“
“Enough!” My outburst seemed to startle him. “Again I tell you—it’s Sunday. You say the S-G wants to see me, but the S-G’s not here. You bore me with this vitae of my life yet somehow can’t get to the point.”
“Death threat,” Lundquist squeaked.
Miss Alvarez paused in her conversation to listen to ours.
“UN Security informed us only this morning. An anonymous call. Said to come in late last night.”
“This is why I’m here? The Secretary-General wants to warn me of a death threat but can’t find time to do it himself?”
Justified or not, criticism of his boss caused Lundquist to sputter and fume. Behind him, Miss Alvarez quietly replaced the receiver.
The notion of a death threat was so ludicrous I dismissed it immediately. What truly rankled me was being pulled away from Meiko on a lazy weekend morning. “This is harassment,” I said, “punishing a junior Council member for daring to oppose 502.”
He touched a fingertip to his lips, an oddly child-like gesture. “Ambassador, we are concerned for your safety – “
“When the Secretary wants an actual meeting, tell him I’m happy to oblige.” I stood abruptly, startling him, and looked to his beautiful assistant. “Do you not find this harassment, Miss Alvarez?”
“Ms. Alvarez. And no,” she said, her words lightly accented. “It is concern for your well-being as Mr. Lundquist says. Especially during the present crisis.”
The telephone began ringing again, a wave of faceless clerical staff rushing in for signatures and consultation. I gathered the S-G was on his way back, and in no mood to deal with the likes of me. “Please, Ambassador …” Lundquist tried ushering me out without touching me, wishing he could apply his handkerchief to my germ-riddled shoulder. “We must make room.”
At the door, I offered Ms. Alvarez my most winning smile. “Are you free for dinner tonight?” I asked. No answer, beyond a hint of interest in her pouting lips.
Death threat? That would be the least of my worries.
A sort of apathy came over me in the weeks that followed, prompted by several unfortunate incidents. I was snubbed in the Delegates Lounge by a French colleague whom I’d assumed was an old friend. My favorite restaurant, an Italian place on Fourth Avenue, closed without warning. I succumbed to a springtime cold, not severe enough to incapacitate, only leave me run-down, congested and irritated by everything in general. By choice I sequestered myself for the weekend, even declining Meiko’s offer to drop by. This was a time of gloom and I wallowed in it, aided and abetted by Zubrowka vodka, an old stand-by. In this state, I rightly decided, there was no call for human contact.
On Monday morning, however, I woke with a completely different outlook. The air was clean and sharp, barely a hint of the smell of dead fish and diesel fuel rising from the river. Clouds
seemed whiter, the sky a deep effortless blue. Forget the snub, I told myself, forget the common cold. Sometimes, when I think things can’t get any worse, a spring returns to my step. My spirits lift out of all proportion to reality. Truly, I hadn’t felt better in weeks.
I showered and shaved, selected a robin’s-egg blue shirt and gray pinstripe suit, a Hermes tie with Mondrian blocks of color. I locked the apartment door and walked to the elevator which, operating sporadically in recent days, arrived less than ten seconds after I pressed DOWN. In the lobby, a congenial figure waited to greet me—Javier, doorman of distinction, a tiny replica of his stateless colony’s flag pinned to his uniform lapel. Grinning as if he had not a care in the world.
“Embajador! Como esta hoy?”
“Never better, Javier, and you?”
“Si, si. Nothing better.”
On Seventy-second Street, everyday surroundings seemed crisper, more sharply defined—specks of peeling paint on lamp-posts, gleaming hubcaps on a Maserati convertible double-parked on the curb, the splotchy green bench across the street where old men and nursing students waited for the bus. A pair of schoolgirls giggled at the headless dummy in the tailor-shop window, naked but for a tuxedo jacket.
The Bentley was parked and idling at the curb. As always, my driver Emil Vaka stood by the
open rear door, his own uniform of ancient Habsburg design garlanded with regal epaulets. I already pictured myself settling in the backseat as we sped downtown; but as I tugged my camel-hair coat against the morning chill, a woman crossed my path, walking a black-and-tan spaniel on a jewel-encrusted leash. She was tall, dark-haired, no older than forty, wearing a fur stole and the air of Old World wealth. As we exchanged a cordial smile, new purpose suddenly entered my life.
The spaniel yanked her down the block, its snout raised to sniff out any rivals in the area; at the corner of Second Avenue she stopped to fumble a cigarette and lighter out of her rhinestone purse. But between the spaniel’s twitchy movements and the burrowing Manhattan wind, there was little she could do with them. I strolled over and took gentle control of her bronze lighter.
“Thanks,” she said, surrendering with a grateful smile. “It’s a lot to do all at once.”
“Going somewhere special?” I asked.
“Manicure. It’s a weekly thing.”
“Well, I—“The willful dog’s leash had become entangled around her ankle, causing her to stumble.
“Have lunch with me. I know a great place by the Frick.”
“Lunch.” She seemed to ponder this like a life-and-death decision. Emil stood a half-block away by the Bentley’s open rear door, joined now by Javier, a head taller and many years younger than him; the sight of driver and doorman in their complementary uniforms was oddly soothing. I shrugged at them and offered a sheepish half-smile, as if to say, What can I do?
“Yes,” the woman said. “Lunch would be nice.”
“Wonderful. My name is Gabriel. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“I’m Sofia.” She struggled to restrain the spaniel’s assault on a fire hydrant. “And this frisky fellow is named—“
A wave of concussive sound washed over the street, seemed to slam into the brownstone behind us. I felt myself lifted off the ground and flung backwards, my head colliding with some unyielding surface as I sank to the ground. Heat rippled across my face. I touched the back of my head and came away with blood-streaked fingers. Although things were happening around me—vehicles in flames, a gushing, uprooted fire hydrant—it was all without sound, just a fierce hum in my ears. One of the school-girls stood on the smoldering curb, both scorched and gashed hands held up in the air. The shop-window dummy was covered in someone’s blood. A ten-speed bicycle lay in a tangled knot of steel and rubber; a foot in a racing shoe was pressed to the pedal, but nothing else remained.
Sound came roaring back—car-horns, alarm systems, children screaming and moaning, sirens in all directions. The Bentley sat in the street like an upturned turtle. Flames swarmed within, the air thick with acrid smoke and burning rubber. People were running everywhere, to no clear purpose. Newly arrived onlookers took in the scene with expressions of mute horror.
I struggled to an upright position and saw, near the Bentley’s blackened exoskeleton, two bodies in shrapnel-laced uniforms, one face-down in the street, the other curled in a ball. Slowly I understood I was sitting in a puddle, a noxious rising tide of sewage, municipal water and bodily fluids. Powerless to move I looked to my right where, moments earlier and in a much gentler world, I stood lighting Sofia’s cigarette. There she was, kneeling by a bombed-out storefront, and screaming from one side of her mouth, great chunks of her lips and tongue ripped away from the other. Wailing toward the sky, the unnamed spaniel a mass of bloody fur and bones in her arms.
“Death Threat” is excerpted from Lee Polevoi’s novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash. He is also the author of The Moon in Deep Winter.