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CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX: PeaceZone/WarZone 2008 (excerpt from MENTAL SHRAPNEL, by Phillip O’Neil)

Chris Mahler was a top psychologist, but that was before the war in Bosnia. Something happened to him during that war – it left him too traumatised to remember. Jasmina was the love of his life. She was killed in the siege of Sarajevo and his ability to live and love again died with her. Or so he believes.

Now a shell-shocked survivor, he is the patient, strapped to a bed under the care of the mysterious Dr Steinfelder. To Mahler, the war meant losing the love of his life and his sanity. To Dr Steinfelder, it meant developing a radical new psychotherapy – a treatment so extreme that even the UN has declared it ‘Above Top Secret’. Mahler’s trauma and amnesia can be cured. But what will he remember if it is? Is Mahler the perfect Guinea Pig the doctors have been hoping to find? Or is it a case of kill or cure? Mahler wants to uncover all that lies hidden in his brain. Powerful men want it to stay buried.

The Orwellian tyrant known as ‘The Censor’ has his secrets too, but what does he want from Mahler? Once colleagues, Steinfelder and ‘The Censor’ are now arch-enemies. Mahler must go to war once more and this time the stakes are higher than ever before, discovering that in the twenty-first century, psychiatry is the newest and deadliest weapon of war.

MENTAL SHRAPNEL is forthcoming in 2020.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

PeaceZone/WarZone 2008

‘Take another look at that picture I took of Kate,’ said Spoiler.

I did so and the face was now flayed – neatly as if it were lifted out of Gray’s Anatomy. The picture was surrounded by street names which corresponded to the musculature of Mortsel’s face: Cranial quarter, Auricular quarter, Palpebral Canal, Super Maxillary Avenue, Masseter Square and so on. Some of the names were in other languages such as the street we were on leading to Green Plaza – Schuttershofstraat.

Spoiler found The Holiday Inn nearest to Green Plaza. When we got there he said he had to sleep. I needed sleep but I was still too wired. Kate had sucked the energy out of me. We pitched up at the hotel’s balcony table looking out over the blocks looking with my mind’s eye beyond. Beyond was so close you can smell it. Beyond was just over there. But beyond was out of reach until I exited the other side of that tunnel. So, for the moment it was just me, a silent Spoiler as though bored of the journey, a Pissing Girl fountain and a couple of pots of geraniums. Idyll.

These moments just work out of nowhere: when you can let the past slip into the fog of the present, hear the voices dissipate and blend all the highlights of past and future cavort. All for the price of a few Duvels and some kind of illusion of letting things go. I was thinking to learn to let things go but the reason I was here was to get things back. And it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a Hotel Paradox around the corner which would serve my needs like bamboo for a Panda. It was a tactical decision. Maintain the brief high of a couple of devilish beers spreading themselves inside like a siren’s nightgown or rise to the challenge. A table, a foggy chill night with a chill Duvel… a conversation with the stars. My phone buzzed. I picked up. It was Cyn checking on status. The overture was short and sweet. I was half-listening to her questions and half listening into the all but impenetrable import-export French of the Africans speaking with tetanic-jaws. I was thinking they could maybe export their talents for projection to a drama school as Cyn talked impatiently. I could watch the skyline, the beyond, the pissing girl fountain and hear it all like incoming milkshake. 

‘You want to know the state of play. Sorry, I apologise for not getting myself to call earlier but my phone’s not been working. No signal. I guessed they’ve blocked phones around here. Anyway, I’m down in the WarZone and got a kid, a guy, to do that for me. Told the boy what I wanted and I guessed I’d find him now, soon. I managed to get into the WarZone capital…’ Then I caught myself. She’s not interested in deeds done, just progression on the path. I told her what I was doing. That Green Plaza’s the place I was bound to meet up with him and she took this as fine.

‘Only, call me more often. I wasn’t talking about daily updates but a week of no-calls was a little disturbing.’

‘Only something I had heard a million times before…’

The phone was projecting echoes and crackled before it died on me.

The call led me into a quandary. I missed her. I missed her voice. Somewhere in my heart and mind I still loved Cyn – the lengths she’d gone to help me. Yet, here I was, risking life and limb for Jazz.

Tram from our hotel stopped right outside The Café Medusa. It was a grunge bar sandwiched between a Laundromat and cinema that I walked into. Spoiler saw me from the inside and signed to me to wait outside. It was getting chilly, lampless bicycles seemed to be playing me for a skittle. Not your usual saddleless hoodie sidewalk arrogance but the stubbornness of locals pedalling florally printed low-slungs which the kid informs me were de rigeur on the hip-hop scene; couldn’t see it myself. The kid rapped on the window and beckoned me in. The receptionist – all tie-dye, face-piercings and wispy bearded looked at me with an expression that could have been cool aloofness or barely concealed disdain. Made me feel even more out of place than I already was: a catholic priest in an abortion clinic. Felt out of place not just because I was wearing brogues and a suit but because I would have been just as much a sore thumb twenty years before. I followed the kid through the cafe, up across a dais where loud voices were gesticulating over pyramids of pasta and through to a courtyard where Spoiler used a card key to get us into the toilet block. We entered the gents and now I was feeling that he was luring me into a honey trap. 

‘Come on.’

‘Whaddya mean? I’ll wait outside.’

‘Don’t be stupid. Just come in and close the door behind you.’ 

I looked around. Paranoia. I had just got out of the habit of being with kids his age. I do OK with ghosts. I wouldn’t say I was adept but I was used to them hanging around. We were in one of the cubicles. Spoiler pulled on a belt chain, looking for another key, at the same time flushing the toilet muttering ‘dirty bastards’ as the contents bubbled and vortexed out of sight but not out of olfactory range. He turned the key in the flush handle and a panel slid back into a pygmy-sized tunnel.

‘This really necessary?’

‘It’s OK. Once you’re in, you’re in and safe. There’ll be military all over town looking for you now they know you’re here. They know by now you’re looking for Jazz and they’ve been after her for years.’ 

Room 27 – wouldya credit it – one of the rooms at the turret-top up an iron staircase that spiralled up with a nod to ‘The Haunting’: seemed to lap-dance around the central pole. Two potbellies passing in opposite directions would’ve grounded it. 

‘Come on ol’ man!’

‘You go up kid. I don’t trust this to take the weight.’

‘Lame.’

‘Lame yourself. Go on and…’

Tiny access to three rooms. 

Everyone I passed was young enough to be my son or daughter. Kind of worried about booking a room with a teenager. Paedophile or rent-boy taunts. Jeez! How come that was one of the first things to come into my head. I was not supposed to be hanging out with kids that age. Glad my cap was hiding the grey but I was conscious of the saddlebags under my eyes reflected in a beer ad mirror. Three flabby half-moon croissants under each eye. Spoiler opened the door into the four-bunk room with four lockers, a sink and two wooden chairs. Who were the other two guests? Two black and yellow banded lines run from the door diagonally across the floor to the door leading to the fire escape. Written on the floor ‘Do not leave any items here’. 

‘What’s that?’

‘A split between PeaceZone and WarZone. The beds are on our side.’ I checked the fire escape stairs and they were as reassuring as the spiral. Panicked kids in nightdress falling from the fire onto the asphalt roof. Shooting stars or meteor showers? Must be quite a sight. Across from the hotel a guy staring into a screen. World of Weirdcraft player? Newshound? Porn artist? 

‘You sure this is the right place?’

‘This isn’t the first time you know.’

‘That’s not what I meant. I mean this doesn’t look like a four star to me. And what if some of Arkadžić’s men come trolling along on the other side of this precious yellow line?’

‘D’you trust me or not ol’man?’

‘Less of the ol’ man and I hardly think that trust is an issue…?’

‘This is a mega-place ol’ man. If you want four-star accommodation you go around to the south exit. That’s if you want to get arrested now. I’m starving. Let’s go eat.’

‘Yeah, in a bit. I’d like to rest up a bit.’

‘As you like.’ The kid climbed up to one of the top bunks.

‘You have a name or do I just call you ‘Spoiler’?’ Billy or something?’

‘Billy?!’

‘You do have a name.’

‘Sure, I have a name. Spoiler.’

‘Yeah, right.’

‘Yeah right what? Like you’re real name’s Mahler. It was Spoiler. My aunt called me an immaculate conception.’

‘Big words for such a little boy.’

‘Who’s little? Anyway, I may as well have been.’

‘Meaning?’

‘I don’t know who my father was.’

‘Oh. Sorry.’

‘Nah, don’t worry. I got round to thinking that whoever my father was, if he hung around my Mom, well, he could not have been, you know, all there. Yeaarrgh, fuck! That’s disgusting!’

‘Now what?’

‘There’s a pubic hair on the sheet. I’m not fucking sleeping in this!’

‘Let’s go four star and get arrested then.’

‘And this pillow’s fucking foul.’

‘Like your mouth, Spoiler. Less of the ‘fucks’ eh? OK, OK? Give me ten. I want to close my eyes and orientate.’

Spoiler was listening to his iPod and staring up at the ceiling. I was trying to collect myself but found I was being converted back into the past. There was nothing so heart-wrenching for the traveller in high dudgeon than to recognise a place that makes him sicken for home: a sandy path like the one I walked as a child, a park which smelt just as it did when I played tag as a minor. The room set me back to thinking back to the days when me and my own kid camped out in places like this. Night talk after lights out, a nostalgic pull back to my own childhood telling scare stories, riddles and gossipy jokes. 

One night my son, Saša, was looking from his bed half a decade back and started with a voice from The Twilight Zone tracing the descent of a star across the night sky. Plane or shooting star? Meteorite or firefly? He didn’t need to actually say UFO, instead giving me ten-second updates on this celestial debris. I defused his trip into the phenomenal by telling him he was staring at the smoke detector and the laughter from the both of us stopping and starting as he repeated my idiocy over and again to himself. The boy laughed open-mouthed from the throat, me through my nose. Auguries of innocence. That’s how I remember him. This was the kid who was barely walking when he looked at the night sky in his pyjamas and dreamily told me that ‘the moon was going round the earth and it was time to sleep.’ No-one I knew had inducted him into the post-Copernican solar system or the necessity to battery check smoke detectors and fire alarms.

As a parent I’d endowed him with paranormal powers of perception and wearing the reincarnated genes of the Taoist sage Mi-Lo who saw the world as observable through its motions before Heraclitus stepped into his river and Heisenberg principled uncertainty. You do that as a father and you do it more if they die, as they begin their ascent into an unknown potential quantity capable of so many extraordinary things. No-one contradicts you in grief. People nod and say ‘Give time, time.’ It was a given, like the wreath you bring back home and the wallet of photos of nothing if not potential – the trailer of a favourite film you lost track of. The incident does to the psyche what a knuckleduster does to the face. Any recognizable framework underneath the mask was shattered into a mosaic that’ll take the palsied spirit years to make sense of. You try and learn to act out in new broom-sweep-clean ways and hope beliefs will accommodate. They call it cognitive dissonance and you call it getting by.

I was thinking these thoughts. I was turning teary-eyed and blaming it on a couple of stinging gusts from the open fire-escape door only there was not a whisper of a breeze out there. Closed my eyes to focus. I talked inside myself with my mouth closed rooting around for anything that would build up that brick wall hiding the emotions. Thought back to details of the day. I went on a nightwalk inside my head, halogen beams turning everything into silver-nitrate photographic plates. I was at home with my grief when Spoiler shook my shoulder and woke me. 

‘Like that was ten minutes.’

‘I was miles away.’ When I was anything but. I was precisely where I always was. 

So we went for pizza. Quattro Stagionies. I slugged down a double bourbon and allowed myself to purr as it knitted its internal pullover. Spoiler looked at me quizzically.

 ‘You coulda ordered one for me.’

‘How would I know what you… hang on. How old are you?’

‘Eighteen’

‘Yeah, right.’

‘I’ve always looked younger than I am’

‘Yeah? What you look like when you were born? Sperm?’ 

‘LOL.’

‘OK, OK. So tell me. I was not doing the in loco parentis thing but how come you’re doing this kind of thing at your age? Dangerous, no?’

‘Never really thought of it that way. I had been guiding people over for years. Under rather.’

‘What’s your Mom thought about it? C’mon, open up a bit.’

‘Like, why?’

‘Like I’m interested.’

‘Like I’m interested in telling you.’

‘Oh, cut the crap, please, just for a little while. I’d like to know what a boy like you is doing in a place like this.’

‘Fixing.’

‘Yeah, we’ve been through that. So, just told me where you came from, who’s your mum…’

‘OK, she’s not exactly my Mom.’

‘S’cuse me. How can a Mom, Mum be not exactly… that…’

‘Like that’s important?’

‘Well, for me, yes. So, what? You’re adopted?’

 I was getting really irked by his attitude

‘In a way.’

‘Jeez! Please be straight. I’ve already got enough twisted guides. Sorry, I’m not calling you twisted. It was just that I had been through a lot of charades lately.’

‘She’s my aunt.’

‘Your aunt’s looking after you?’

‘She doesn’t do a whole lot of that. Why I work the Metro. Look, my mom was killed in Sarajevo in ‘93 and my aunt took me in. I don’t have a whole lot of memory of that stuff…’

‘When?’

‘After my mother died.’

‘Spoiler, c’mon I was just asking… ‘

‘Straight up.’

‘She died giving birth to you?’

‘No.’

‘I give up.’

‘They killed my mom during the war which was going on at the time. Dunno the whole story, just that the guy who did it took me out of Sarajevo later and well, later my mom’s sister found me and I was living with her.’

‘When were you born?’

‘1993, I just said.’

And what’s your aunt’s name?’

‘Jeez, give me the third degree. You a cop?’

‘No,’

‘So, why all the interest?’

‘Well, I thought I might know your aunt and I was trying to find her.’

‘What’s she done?’

‘You really are a suspicious little sod. What’s your aunt’s name?’

‘Jasmine. Well everyone calls her Jazz.’

‘That wouldn’t be Jazz Krstić, would it?’

‘That’d be her.’

‘Where’s she now?’

‘She’s a fixer too. Around.’

‘Where… around?’

‘Wherever whoever needs her help.’

‘Was your real mum a lawyer? I mean before the war.’

‘Think so. I mean my Aunt doesn’t really like to talk about it. She keeps away from that stuff, all the shit that happened. Anyway, that was all years ago. I know when because I was born then. OK? Enough?’

‘Well, not quite. I need, I mean I need to find your mum, aunt. That’s the reason I’m down here. I knew your aunt. I mean I know your aunt. Now that is.’ Jesus, I couldn’t help myself. I had stumbled into Jazz’s nephew. I was really on my way to find her.

‘Why?’

‘Because I used to know her…’

‘OK. First we need to get the latest postcards.’

‘Postcards?’

‘Maps. Into the WarZone, Catharsis central. They change all the time ‘cause of the bollocks way the country was split up. And that’s where my aunt lives. She thinks living on the dark side is kinda like camouflage. That that’s the one place she wouldn’t go.’

‘Let’s go.’

‘Might help if you paid the bill.’

‘Thanks Spoiler. You’re already being a great help. Hang on… if you’re both fixers how come it was so difficult to… you work it together? You split it up between. One in and one out.

‘Wow, Mr Mahler, you sure are quick.’

‘Let’s go. We need to head up to the park.’

A half-hour train ride away (if there were trains linking War and PeaceZones all this was all happening for real. Not the people pretending to be models. Just people pretending or actually dead. Without the laughter). Down in the museum shop Memento Mori there were shelves upon shelves of postcards for sales. 3-D girlie viewfinders, battle-scarred towns, public monuments and thousands of others for sale. Give a man a drink or a drug and a girl or a child to impress and he’ll be buying war memorabilia like children buy candy. Candy coloured barber poles, and all their Sweeney Todd candour. Spoiler raised his eyebrows looking on impatiently as I flicked through the cards.

‘This looked like the street I used to live in,’ the kid said in a cooing infant voice.

‘It was! But it isn’t. It was half destroyed.’

War tourists talking more bullshit than you will hear at gallery previews. They hypnotise themselves with thousand-yard-stares. Not saying they’re not privy to things you and I avoid but, face it, if you channel your energies into voyeurism and get addicted, well it is kinda like feeling sorry for a live fuck-show regular who has trouble getting it on back home. Short cuts to emotional hiatuses mean that you’re going to have a harder time with the nuts and bolts of a regular day. Sombre-faced false memories impregnated by the same kind of enema given our ladies of the night in the installation, only spurting out of foundations and lipsticked mouths.

‘Sombre-faced false memories impregnated by the same kind of enema given out by ladies of the night…’

‘What did you just say?’

‘Hmmm?’ said the kid.

‘You just repeated word for word what I was thinking… how did you do that?’

‘Easy.’

‘You can read my mind now. What a talent.’

‘Duh! It was written up there. Look!’

I looked up. The words were written across a poster for an A.I. band.

‘I didn’t even see that.’

‘Course you did. When you came in. Means you’re assimilating. It’s a good thing.’

‘Spoiler?’

‘S’like, you know, going up Everest or something. You get used to thin air or you die. Usually why they make you wait. That’s the thing about going over into WarZone central. If you’d gone straight in you’d be dead by now. You have to get used to it. It was like, well, you start interacting with what’s around you. It’s OK. Really. You’re doing really well.’

I shook my head and one of the shop assistants came up to me, winking at the boy.

‘Everyone trawls through these collections looking for images of their former homes you see,’ she said. ‘We’ve got photographs, engravings, gouaches and watercolours of neighbouring streets and even neighbouring houses for the lucky, but they’re all just tantalising near misses. Quite how it works that no-one ever finds their own homes has never been worked out. It was some hyper-sensitivity thing. Like picking up the lyrics up there. You might swear blind you never saw it but peripherally you must have. That’s just a focus shift. It was something that’s come about in the WarZone. You know, like night vision, only you need scouts who look for anything but what’s in front of them. Some attribute this to cold-reading conjurors realising addresses on the faces of customers, others see the reason closer to home in that customers are all blind to their own cards and flick back and forth when hitting on a neighbourhood file passing searching for a non-bookmarked quote. So all frustrated browsers buy in bulk in reaction to missing the singular as if overcompensating for their oversight. Serial compromise of the second besters. He your kid?’

‘No.’

‘Really? Looks a lot like you.’

‘You think?’

I was distracted by a warm red trickle down the back of my thumb.

‘Shit,’ there was blood on the postcard in my hand. ‘Sorry, I don’t know how I did that.’

‘Here.’ She dug out a tissue. 

‘Strange, I can’t even see the cut.’

‘Because you don’t have one. You’re not bleeding. The card is.’ 

The woman was leaning against a pillar covered in fliers raised her eyebrows and nodded her head at the card.

‘Shit!’ I dropped the card on the floor.

‘Yeah, the cards bleed. Freaks some people out. The religious ones mainly. It’s what most of the tourists want. Only they all get disappointed as they only bleed near where they were taken. Like those weeping statues of the Virgin Mary’. 

I looked down at the card, picked it up.

‘What was it?’

‘Oh, haven’t you been? It was from the church round the corner. They’ve got the heart of the guy who was supposed to have first thought up the idea of dividing the USDM into Peace and WarZones.

‘I thought that was Professor Steinfelder.’

‘It was. His successors just take the name. Thought he was crazy at first. Well, not just at first really. Of course when they did engage, his plan he was left out of the picture and never got the credit. There was a fairly hardcore group who’ve made this place a bit of a pilgrimage destination. Easily our bestseller.’

‘I was treated, in a way, by Steinfelder.’

‘Then it makes sense of you being here.’

‘How can a piece of paper bleed?’

‘Some kind of oxygenation. I’m not an expert. Anyhow, most people aren’t really interested in how it works. It’s a shrine not a laboratory. Some guy told me something about it but, as I said, that kind of thing went…’ she passed her hand over her gelled hair, ‘… right over my head. Think he said that they’re sprinkled with some powder. It was anti-war-protest-art-installation thing.’ 

She pushed herself away from the wall with the small of her back, arms still crossed and with her right hand picked a card.

‘You see? He’s written some kind of statement here. She read out loud.

‘When you pick up the postcards of houses in the zone they bleed into the cobbled gutters, draining into the network of canals, once the lifeblood of the region, until the channels silted up and huge harbours – scenes of epic sea battles – fell into disuse and lived on like old kilns. The giant kilns were of huge symbolic importance for alchemists, fired by the cremating bodies of the civil war dead.’

‘Bit messy?’

‘Nah. It evaporates eventually. Otherwise we’d look like some kind of military triage unit wouldn’t we?’

Spoiler was sitting on the floor against a huge purple and black ‘CRONOS’ concert poster listening to his ipod, knocking the back of his head gently against the wall.

‘Down here on holiday are you? Didn’t think it was half-term?’ asked the girl.

‘No… no… you’re right. It’s a sort of a school project thing.’

‘Oh. You want that?’ she said the girl, nodding at the card.

‘Sure.’

I bought the card, kicked Spoiler, gently, in the rump and we walked out. The shop assistant jerked her head as we left, pursed her lips and tapped out a number on her mobile.

‘Looks like he’s here. What d’you want me to do?’ she said.

‘Nothing. As yet.’ Then the voice hung up.

‘She was hot!’ said Spoiler.

‘Freak more like.’

‘Nah. A hot chick.’

‘A hot chick? Jeez.’

As we walked up from the Memento Mori store towards one of the canals belting the city I noticed flashes in the sky. One of the night raids, since the peace talks broke down. True, just about everyone knew the times and had ample time to run to the basements after the warnings but the utter predictability of the raids means that a fair number of people just could not be bothered anymore. Times when the raid and ordnance dumping went on night after night and young folk just sat on their balconies and watched with a Don Equis Beer in one hand and a joint in the other. What else? Head for the bunkers every night and stay underground for half their lives? Even if they were going to be relieved as civilians and rostered back to the PeaceZone, basement-cowering was for the older generation. It was worth the risk. The longer the war went on the more spectacular the air shows. The aggressors knew this perfectly well of course and engineered ever stagier and more incandescent displays. Most ignored them, like northern lights no longer novelty for your average Inuit mushing back to the homestead and no longer scrutinised by anyone save the tourist. 

It was sunset as we headed in the direction of the shell of a village with the shell of a cathedral, rays spoking out of the sky egg-slicing the ochre dust. We walked for about a half-hour. We sat down by one of the trashed bridges and I took out the other postcards. I flicked through them with a polite smile, thinking them nothing other than the gift of an addled eccentric. I had seen enough bonkers offerings, seen them all: life-proof white pullovers from clairvoyants on the hotline to Greek philosophers and baroque musicians, rocks from Almagodoro, Megido and Masala, lead slugs from ancient Greek funerary mounds, prophetic canaries and cure-all potions from the tanks of discarded foetuses, hypnotic chants that rendered the listener invisible, incense that conjured up previous lives. And don’t even start me on the library I’d amassed, and never read. The list went on. I had got a goddam basement full of the things. Never could find it in me to throw any away. With such a horde there was always a chance that something in there might have some value. 

‘I’m tired. Let’s rest a bit, eh?’

‘OK, ol’ man.’

‘Would you fucking stop that! I had had about twenty minutes sleep in the last week.’ 

Spoiler held an invisible miniature violin in his left hand, played an imaginary bow with his right. I moved myself to a tree stump. The boy asked me if he I’d brought the postcards.

‘Yeah I was just looking at them.’ Spoiler pointed at a sign covered with graffiti by the bridge. ‘Notice anything?’

‘Yes, there was a sign covered in graffiti.’

‘Read them.’

‘I can’t pronounce them. What the fuck what language was that?’

‘It’s Dutch.’

I shone my torch at the drawings until I found one, the digestive system, which had the same names written and pointing to various organs: Speren van het hold, and Spiljsverteringskanaal. Both were perfectly adequate descriptions of the drawing they’re describing. It occurred to me that the girl at the shop had given me maps of these towns. Now the war was back on track it was lucky we’d found Mortsel’s face/map to get us this far. Everything so prosaically named: Sluis, Damme, MondholteBlinde Darmand Kringspier were names I heard him pronounce. Not surprising at all that The Holiday Inn 27 stood in the Blinde Darmdistrict. Just odd that almost everything was named after a body part.

‘Not so odd,’ said Spoiler. ‘It was how they were built. The whole region was designed on two bodies.

‘So, where were we now?’

‘In English we call this Femoral.’

‘Well, that would be the femoral artery in the groin.’ 

Spoiler slow-clapped. ‘Yeah, we all did biology.’

‘Hang on, you said that the hotel we were staying in was the… the… errr.’

‘Hospital, I mean Hotel, Anterior.’ 

‘Well, smart-ass. That’s in the neck.’

‘Duh! Who said the body was lying flat!’

‘I just supposed that it would be.’

‘Well, you supposed wrong. It was more huddled and there was two of them. One man and one woman.’

‘Now, next you’ll be telling me that they’re arranged like the sign for cancer.’

‘They’re doing the 69, stupid.’

 ‘You know,’ I said, ‘I’ve got this feeling I know which part links the two halves.’

Spoiler skimmed a stone over the water and I allowed myself to think I was getting somewhere. 

I imagined myself back into the hotel lobby with the melting stone dome and the suspended sphinxes leading to a cavernous stomach topped and tailed with sphincters. Sphincters, sphinxes… jeez, it was the product of a punning designer. Inevitably, I guessed I was going to have to figure out trying to cajole the place into providing me with a riddle to solve. And the face of the Sphinx I guessed to be the features of the elusive Cathar. It had a closed-eyed restful smile all over it. I want to run back to the place feeling like I had googled a long-lost childish fantasy and came up trumps. I turned back and as I did so, ran into the next problem. I found signs to Mondholte and Blinde Darm. Passing them I looked back over my shoulder kind of thanking them that I had discovered that the exact same names and distances appeared on the reverse.

‘That,’ said Spoiler ‘is a map into the heart of the WarZone’s Green Plaza. You should go there and find a guy called Mack the Naif. He hangs out at De Ultieme Hallucinatie. You’ll recognise him when you see him. He’ll be able to tell you how to find Jazz. It’s too dangerous for me to go in there. So, you’re own from now.

‘Where can I find you then?’

‘Back at the station or at main station’s Holiday Inn.’

‘You got a phone I can call?’

‘It changed. Ask my aunt when you find her.’

‘Gracias,’ I said.

I headed for the redline into Catharsis Central. Wary of the odd tube firing through the system I walked to the end of a platform decorated with red and green panels that looked like pushed-through pill foil. Vavavavoom! Took a service tunnel formerly used for mail and munitions shuttles which paralleled the main tunnels, supplying one more parallel map of the street plan above ground. Beneath was the sewer network, and beneath that were the nuclear shelters. The mail tunnels were low. I had to bend my six-foot-two frame and mindset into that of a coal miner. After a half hour I reached the sandstone stairway which leads up to De Ultieme Hallucinatie pub on Green Plaza. It was a wonder that with all the effort expended on the ruthless control of access to and from the square which had been a frontline location for years, this simple access point had been overlooked. The simple trick had succeeded where ultra-covert methods have failed. This tunnel was back-accessed through one of 500 litre barrels stored in the De Ultieme Hallucinatie cellar which formed part of a guided tour for tourists craving a piece of the past. Day in day out, locals became tourists to admire the artisan’s hand of the cooper and smell the must of old oak and wine offered from the false front of the access barrel. I scanned the room from the judas hole inside the barrel giving fish-eye view. 

Green Plaza was at the heart of the quarter. Built at the bottom of the 171 steps which fanned up the hill from the west end widening steadily to a stadium sized plinth supporting the Palais De Justice. The structure’s architect was another wannabe cathedral designer who based his vision on a cathedral’s nave. This interior would comfortably contain Notre Dame: courtrooms and chambers very much in the styles of Escher teasers. Red, pink and white marble left whole quarries spent in satellite states. Enough to build a wall six three metres high and wide all the way from John O’Groats to the Côte d’Azur. Built on the site of the main city gallows (itself built on an old solar temple) it sat over the quarter like an obese triple-chinned Sphinx, chin between its paws – a vast maw open with stalactites and stalagmites for teeth swallowing up the last score steps. You entered an unlit vestibule where the theatre circle balconies were worked as teeth. Three aisles cut through plush purple velveteen of the tongue-sloped floor. This Belly of the Beast was the brief and work of the chief designer Michel Poelaert who was given free rein and open coffers. Arkadžić wanted a building which would invoke terror into the heart of criminals, deserters, drug-dealers and insurgents. That intention was blown away after it became just another big building in the continual building site of the resurgent Catharsis. What light there was to be seen from the Plaza dripped down in the phosphorescent gelatine from the balcony teeth. It was the scale of the project that allowed it to work better than the fairground entrance to a Ghost Train. So it became not just another big building but a laughable one at that. Most of the tourists who came to Green Plaza came to see this sphinx. Directly behind the head loomed the onion dome that added a dash of orthodox panache to the enterprise. Plinthed on a howdah, the onion was designed as one might expect: offices were banded in layers on a panoptical principal with administrators on the outside and the more senior management structures consequentially closer to the heart of the glass onion. Plum in the centre was the infrequently used presidential booth of Arkadžić with his supreme court judges and legislators in the next epithelial layer. 

Spoiler had told me the economy of The Old Town was almost entirely dependent on black and grey markets. The UN-mediated truce was significantly motivated by the cost of food and medical supplies, so the Mafiosi who set up their profitable businesses during previous conflicts had now been recognised as crucial cogs in the financial system and the completion between rival gangs, though involving dozens of deaths every month, worked because price-fixing cartels have no reason or means to control anything in the economic centre. Public servants were the exact opposite and paid individually for their services by the inhabitants of the quarter enshrining the rules of bribery, blackmail and payoffs into the unspoken constitution. The system worked well, apart from Friday nights when chaos reigned on the streets as police and refuse-collectors raked in money for the weekend. To meet this weekly migraine, most cars carried with them bootlegged cassettes of tribute bands and injectable nostalgics. The privatised police forces lurked in cafes and restaurants fronting all roads in and out of the quarter for miscreants picked up by security cameras which were hidden in mannequins leaning against walls dressed in zoot suits, golf shoes and spats. They tagged targets by spitting out tiny gobs of SmartWater; worked like tracers, and picked up on police handsets. This enabled the majority of officers to sit out the greater part of their shifts drinking and eating at their favourite hostelry. Petty criminals were served on-the-spot fines or sentences to serve in the shops and restaurants or restoration teams wherever needed. Half-life of the tracer gobs counted out the sentence. The concept of escape or cutting shifts was managed by allowing cons to drum up funds from large tips given out by recreationalists and tourists. Giant plasma screens hung over the square suspended from leather observation balloons flashing encouragements to live, breathe and dream. Retro analysts and soothists used hypnotherapist calm. ‘Imagination kills’, warned one sign.

I noticed Mack at the bottom of the Justice steps on the wooden deck of De Ultieme Hallucinatie. He was drinking hu-hu and smoking a cigarette. All red face, big gut and sloppy hemp suit with an old leather satchel on the wicker chair next to him. He was wearing bifocal shades to shield his eyes from the halogen lights that turned all the streets into film sets. 

‘Mack? 

‘Sure. Mahler?’

‘Yeah, d’you mind if I join you?’

‘Sure, I’ve been waiting for you.’

‘Then you know that I need some help tracking down Jasmine Krstić.’

Pause.

‘Mack? ’

‘You, er, buying? I’m a little short and I…’

‘Where’s Jazz then?’

‘How the hell should I know. I was just off the plane and I…’

‘Mack!?’

‘Guess Spoiler still got my number from The Facility. I was a patient there. Long time back.’

‘Couldn’t be that long if they still have your number.’

‘Well I go back there, you know, occasionally. Check-in sort of thing. COT MOT.’

One of Mack’s recreational outlets found its expression in The WarZone’s capital re-enactments. Arkadžić’s committee idea. He was in the mood for displaying his knowledge. 

Executions were held up the stairs to the Palais De Justice along with dramatised tableaux. For the generalist there were pot-pourri weeks with gas chambers, Old Sparkies, scaffolds, garrottes. Method of execution also determined by package tourists’ requests. Mack’s favourite was impalement. Re-enactors were expected to carry-out legitimate executions when prevailed upon. Tableau speciality drew its inspiration from a 15th century German woodcut of Vlad The Impaler sitting at a table covered in amputated limbs, bowls of blood and butchered remains issuing orders to henchmen in a sea of staked victims. Skill was in honing the point enough to penetrate the flesh but also not too sharp as to hurt vital organs for maximum duration. The pole could also be used as a spit so the victim was also roasted alive. Also to arrange voices and injuries to create an organic sound garden of wails, cries and whimpers for a choral dirge and lament accompanied by sound and light show. Soundtracks, available at all good outlets, were also mixed with recordings made by microphones inserted in the victims’ chests and guts. Pirated recordings existed but they had nothing on the official sound-desk feeds. Some victims were tied to St Andrew’s crosses while the team leader greased a stake and corkscrewed it up the anus. While still alive the victim might also be castrated and fed his own genitals. Some executioners used metal telescopic batons heated and inserted through metal funnels, burning and cauterising as they went. Executioners, according to tradition, claimed position through birthright. Family tree stretches so far back, skills were part of the genetic imprint. Executioners since the beginning of the USDM. Perfectionism was an obsessive trait and the highly competitive nature of the job meant each new executioner did his best to improve on the last. Impaling record stood at three weeks, now that rules were relaxed to allow for artificial stimulation and feeding via stomach tube. Capital crimes varied from week to week depending on demand supplied by tourist numbers and survivor numbers. Essentially, what you had was a variety act take on the endgame of the Spartacist uprising corridor: crucified on the Appian Way. Light was also provided by human torches, obese adults and children fuelled by benzine injections and animal fat. Refreshment for executioners provided by swans and mandarin ducks decapitated and blood sucked from the stumps. At the end of a typical night the avian corpses were sucked up by vacuum trucks into transparent containers that looked like the aftermath of an angelic massacre. Bloodstained feathers left with the mud and gristle, popcorn boxes, tin cans, sweet and ice-cream wrappers and ticket stubs hosed down after the last group has returned through the Sphinx’s maw by the miniature yellow train taking you back through Green Plaza to The Holiday Inn or Megido Motel.

The linen bucket was on a roll and I bought him more Sinequanon shots to re-address his concentration but all I seemed to be doing was encouraging his blood lust, harnessing his inner mental tics to share with me his latest sound story which he had based on the recordings of a recording of the domino hanging, drawing and quartering of twenty-seven midwives rigged up as a tribute to an Arkadžić spokesman, who was giving a speech on delivering the right stuff at the conclusion of The Westfailure Agreement (TWA) talks, selling his rap like war bonds, to drum up support for a PeaceZone and WarZone short-lived combined project known as The War Against Terror (TWAT). 

‘They want visceral, Arkadžić gives them visceral!’ Mack startled me. ‘Y’know down in Oceania the aborigines compose ritual music by playing didgeridoos which they use like bong pipes and mead straws. They can adapt their continual loop breathing skills using an oboe mouthpiece. It went right through them through the intestines and out again. Kind of looked like introspective Toby Jugs.’

Mack was talking and drinking at the same time, splashing hu-hu and Delirium Tremens over his scuffed linen jacket and trousers and adding more stains to a roseate ‘Keatsake’ silk tie that looked like a nineteen fifties poppy dress with tuberculose cough-up. I was guessing from the amount he was drinking and the fact he hadn’t got up to piss he must have the catheter he’d had inserted on the Micronesian tour still in. I looked down at the floor and saw the little piss-flap open by his foot. This was Mack and he was feeding me shit.

‘You eaten?’ he asked. ‘They do a mean special here.’ 

I was not exactly feeling like spending more time with Mack, only to watch him get drunker, while I got nervous and fucked-off with the whole runaround.

‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’

‘That’s the spirit,’ said Mack

‘What’sthe special?’ I asked.

‘You could say it was a half-baked idea. How does that grab you? No, really it’s tasty. Spit-roasted boar.’

‘Whatever. What else do they do?’

‘Here? Nothing. Just the special.’

‘Well, that doesn’t make it very “special” then does it?’

‘You wait and see. It’s a delight.’

‘Like any other. O.K. Bring it on.’

‘If you could see your way to…’

‘Don’t worry Mack. I got it covered.’

We were interrupted by one of the tourist board photographers, who, alongside video artists, provided 24/7 coverage of outlets for individually tailored websites. Dressed in black fatigues they carried reflector shields on their backs to bounce light. The white screens spread open from backpacks. Live feeds for punters outside of the former USDM used recognition software to test ambience by picking up tone and character patterns or on the odd occasion to meet someone they know. This however was rare. Most were on an instant gratification kick and look for ego masseuses who offered their services up and down the quarter. Mostly Japanese and Filipinos with cunts that can close so tight you’d need a knitting needle to impale them.

The light dimmed as human torches burned out, so phosphorescent gelatine from the Sphinx maw poured in greater quantities down the steps hardening the light provided from pissing angels and gargoyle fountains ranged on the Flemish gabling of the gold and black roofs round the square. Arcs of bright yellow pulsed out of the infant cocks and demons’ bared arses to the rhythmic music chosen via touch-screen jukeboxes providing world music from Anatolian guitars, ney flutes and Tibetan pipes. All the fluids arched over the arcades into a Trebuchet Fountain filled with rare mint coins from early presses. Worth thousands. But the whirlpool was so strong, diving money-grabbers found themselves dragged under and pressed to the carpet of coins part drowned and part crushed. Fountain now looked more like cannibal soup. Dyslexic, analphabetic retch.

Each outlet on Green Plaza provided its own microbrewery and musée insolite as part of its sell. Thus there were several hundred beers provided. Much like The Atlas complex, strength of beer was sumped according to blood alcohol levels of customers. Lowest was two per cent proof and highest was eighteen – BushJudas beers with the consistency of creosote had a direct and quite unique style of hitting the drinker where he was unawares. Whereas the spirit drinker anticipates the effect, a novice beer drinker will most likely be stunned and practically legless after a half-dozen bottles. Menus were laminated prints of stained-glass memorial panels from the permanent round of conflict. Parents, siblings and friends of the military dead sponsored menus to champion the faces, immortalised in lead and glass in one of the increasing number of religious monuments. These were generally split between the two main faiths of Fundamentalists and Ecumenicals (although there were less of the latter due to suicide bombers who targeted the more colourful creations for their idolatrous concerns. The dead, they argued, should be commemorated by single two-inch black marks drawn in the manner of picket fencing and beer tabs).

I ordered the ‘Speshuls’ and another glass of De Ultieme Hallucinatie’s own Forbidden Fruit for the label: a design of Adam and Eve as played by a Spanish soap opera star and a seventeen-year-old lover gently spanking his monkey, while Eve flickered her tongue over his engorged tip. The action played for as long as there was enough beer in the glass. I was laughing to myself at the symbolism that decorated The Quarter and half-expected a flippered Breughel cripple to wheel himself under the table and try to fellate me with toothless gums.

Old Timers were card identified on entry to De Ultieme Hallucinatie with a similar menu but this differed from the other only in the nature of the stained glass representations. Instead of the usual glass panels these were made out of smashed bottles of the PeaceZone’s mainstay drinks. These were named after the planets; brews growing in strength according to relative distance from the sun. Mercury light, Venus 3.4 per cent, Mars and Jupiter and so on. Libido stimulants and taboo screens disabled by ‘moons’ – additives. Typical descriptions of all additives were brought with each drink. Written in all major languages (with information for accessing minor dialects) presented in booklets. Eg: The Moon rises above the certainty of black holes sucking in ejaculations pulsed out by comet spurts. The sinuous rille of the vas deferens marked earlier trickles of earlier whack-offs forming a congealed crust around the scrotal spheres. Bright streaks of imperfect fusions of desire and object radiated around dripping cunts and ejaculating cocks. Wrinkle-ridges formed over weeks of instant gratifications. Spunk and lubricant solidified and puckered. Fault lines appeared where one crust has slipped apart. Tiny cinder cones appearing like war cemeteries suggested earlier stabs at old turn-ons and adolescent desires. From on high, isometrics of bodies left unwashed since first nocturnal emission provided an exhaustive relief map’. Shit, you needed a drink after reading that. Only, tourists generally went for the one fusion drink which guaranteed you’ll talk and fuck with anyone who sat next to you. Eros and Thanatos downed with a view of the Palais De Justice steps was a bring-together like no other. These cafés had half as many toilets as the maximum number of clients.

I hardened up my Forbidden Fruit with a Miranda so I could better establish whether Mack was playing wiseacre, or a man exhausted by his own very narrow field of enquiry. Mack’s concept of his role was based purely on the information others want to pump him for – always a sucker for introjection. He was a go-between ennui who would slowly fade like one of the fog-people who became totally subsumed by their desires to the point their corporeal presence was almost extinguished and they became floating clouds of pure desire incapable of satisfaction. The Law of Turmoil Return.

‘I did run a check on the number,’ said Mack, e-fuckin’ventually. ‘Between her and the hermeticists and Spoiler, my lingo and your maps. I thought we were pretty much near to getting you out of here. Catharsis ain’t everyone’s cup of tea.’

‘Oh, Christ! Mack I thought you’d have a trace on Jazz.’

‘When, eh? Thanks for that vote of confidence.’

‘If, yes, if. I thought the Sinequanon was getting to my head.’

‘Alright, give me the number.’

‘It’ll take a while. I can’t get a hold of her just like that.’

‘I’ll come back in half an hour,’ I said, bored and twisted by his alcoholic shit.

Standing up, I looked over at the Palais De Justice, the silhouettes of dying criminals flickering with lava light. I looked at Mack’s oxidised copper sheen and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of enforced empathy. Flashbacks to the zone of chloroform and edge of sleep. How all the linen-basket wanted was a few hours sleep, dreamless sleep. And that’s as likely as…

‘Here,’ I said to Mack, unpeeling another note. ‘Have another on me. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. I’ll be back.’ 

The air was heavy with the smell of beer, boiled dogs’ livers, cigarette ash, garlic and charred flesh. Sounds of locks, chains as bodies were gibbeted. Live feeds fed to hotels pay view with bee-hived presenters anchoring phone-ins, bets on death timing and requests. Micronesian and Japanese schoolgirls spread like searched drivers fucked by tourists grunting and moaning in sync with the prolonged sighs of the impaled – swearing as ad breaks for cereals, car insurance and slimming aids interrupted every seven minutes for four. 

‘Goud for me,’ said one of the girls. ‘You cum slower. Make me more excited big boy.’ 

In two-for-the-price-of-one off-season deals another student boy or girl turns on a freeview loop of material just watched, and fingers or wanks himself to keep himself hard. 

I walked off down the glass gallery taking in the luxury for sale. Soap manufactured from sweatshops, leather goods from executed criminals, with certificates of authenticity, EEG ipods reconfiguring sleep-deprived hallucinations, gash-ports synchronisable with relief-booths studded around The Square. Hypnagogic tablets fused masturbation and taboo fixations: powerful aphrodisiac of hologrammed courtesans; genetic configurations of ancestral couplings; nostalgic archetypes of primal rapes and harems; room 101 retro-sexual fear-based foreplay; prolonged release suppositories in his ‘n’ her heart-shaped Palekh boxes – compounds of henbane, belladonna, mandrake, psilocybin and ‘secret’ ingredients that exist only in the imaginations of users. 

Bookshops filled with medical volumes of inherited deformities: from cleft-palates, syphilitic teeth to twisted genitalia. Old maps of PeaceZone and WarZone and town maps revealed themselves as drawings from anatomy textbooks and the dissections of artist-surgeons from Galen to Da Vinci. All towns I now recognised as maps of internal organs. WarZone towns based on military minds defined by ingenuity, prowess and endurance: Iskenderun, Stalingrad, Zhukovia, Hitlopolis and Caesarea. All towns and surrounding countryside written up in dozens of tour guides based on budget and criminal record. Old Town gift books in presentation packs shot and written by the photographers with the peacock reflectors and edited by the O.T. Board – a bunch of dementia cases tied to commodes, the contents of which were used by gypsy fortune-tellers to pass-on the likelihood of imitation behaviour likelihoods. Shop assistants with eyes of coal, hair sculpted with black Lulu Brooks bobs, twinsets with shoulder pads and precise movements from mascara lash flutters to infinitesimal lip quivers. All models groomed according to Hollywood sirens in a LA Confidential inspired acting classes. All on methadone, all the way down to their flat shoes designed ‘From Russia With Love’.

The red and white striped signs of anatomical architects each specialised in one or other body-part design. Kidney-shaped swimming pools to triple-bypassed heart homes (Heart Was Where The Home Is). Other commissions based on schools of psychiatry and literature (The Palais De Justice with its Onion Dome being the most significant project to date). 

Looking at one of the more inspired brothel blueprints I looked at the card.

Theatre de Complicité was improvising along a middle tier of balconies. Legs dangling through leather harnesses and rubber lunettes they were delivering roaches and trilobites over the cobbled streets on umbilical cords bungee bouncing the newly born chimera. I was beginning to feel queasy like I’d just wolfed down deep fried peanut butter and a jug of sour milk. Why was I wasting my first hours in the WarZone with Mack who forwent the imagination beef, preferring to live long and lobotomised? I went back to De Ultieme Hallucinatcie.

‘Ah, they still care, do they?’

‘I’m not leaving until I find Jazz.’

‘Be at the Café Europa at 11 am on Thursday. You’ll find Jazz there. I’ll be hanging around. Now I’ve found you I ain’t gonna lose sight of you. Don’t, and I don’t need to, but do not tell anyone about your meeting her there.’

‘And there was someone who wants to see you tonight at The Atlas Suites,’

‘Oh, really? And who’s that?’

‘Cathar aka Kate Mortsel. Said she wanted to say goodbye.’

‘How do you know Cathar?’

‘What? Thought she was your private soulmate? She got me down here. Only she was Kit at the time. I got here the legal way. And it was a fucking awful trip.’

‘Like mine was a bed of roses,’ I said.

‘Your choice mate. But it’ll tie up some loose ends.’

‘You’re going?’

‘That was the general idea. It’s not going to be comfortable for you. And seeing as I was your ticket out of here…’

‘Back to that, I told you…’

‘Yeah, yeah… you’re not leaving until Jazz agrees.’

‘And Spoiler.’

‘Of course. So you can tell them I’m fine and go on back home. Phone them now.’

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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