Friday, February 8, 2013

Quietus - Chapter One

by William Van Poyck


The loneliest moment in life is when you have just accomplished what you thought would deliver the ultimate and it has let you down. No longer lashed by obscurity or shadowed by fear, I know I should feel better. Rocking lazily in the easy swell of Curaçao’s Willemstad harbor, the seafoam-green Caribbean lapping my steel-hulled ketch, I should feel more sanguine, feel a deeper sense of fulfillment. My first novel, The Third Pillar of Wisdom, its glossy cover reflecting the soft equatorial moonlight, occupies my desk and bookstore shelves across the USA, inhabiting a modest niche on the bestsellers list. My agent dutifully mails me the generally favorable reviews along with sales statements and royalty checks, while urging me to undertake the obligatory book-signing tours. He doesn’t understand that there would be questions—too many questions—I won’t be able to answer. Still, I should feel better. But the past never leaves you alone and all I feel is that pebble in my shoe, that achingly familiar restlessness that has perpetually defined the contours of my life. Like Gilgamesh’s relentless quest for eternal life I am forever treading unbeaten paths, still searching for answers, still seeking a measure of grace.

“It’s a good story.” I speak aloud, defensively, as if my book is accusing me. Through the starboard porthole, past my own refection, below a carpet of twinkling stars, I casually inspect the glimmering necklace of lights arcing around the harbor like a gleaming scimitar, illuminating ranks of quaint Dutch Colonial architecture fronting cobblestone streets, a scene so sublime it could be a dream. Impossibly cute storybook buildings with distinctive red clay roofs—a mélange of saltwater taffy blues, greens and pinks—hug the shoreline like pastel wedding cakes. Across the water wafts the clinking glasses and drunken laughter of cruise ship tourists enjoying their Love and Champagne package tours. “It’s a good story,” I repeat, and Spanky lifts his head, tail wagging hopefully. I scratch his ear and his tail thumps softly against the teak deck while I settle back to reflect. Two years earlier I’d been sailing the islands, prodded by nostalgic yearnings, an ex-Miami Herald reporter turned wannabe novelist, seeking my literary El Dorado. Slowly, inexorably, like a cheap pulp fiction plot, I’d eased into the embrace of rum and gin as my means of excoriating my chronic writer’s block until I was finally caught up in the deadly laugh of terminal stage alcoholism. And not just any alcohol, but island-brewed absinthe straight out of Haiti, that hypnotic, opalescent-green, wormwood-flavored liqueur promising mystical inspiration but delivering only hallucinations, convulsions, insanity and death, turning my psyche inside out like a discarded glove. In the end it was like walking around inside the head of a madman.

How to explain that my inspiration—hell, the source of my story—was an enigmatic, peripatetic ex-convict named Earl, a man on the lam who rescued me and my unraveling life from a squalid Mexican nightclub and the wretched death in a Third World mental hospital that inevitably lay ahead? “You’re on your own hegira,” Earl had counseled me, “your own journey of escape. I once knew a man like you. My best friend. It ended badly for him.”

Earl, a man in love with knowledge, gulping life like others inhale air. Earl, flush with astounding true stories that he dealt out like cards at a poker table, described with an unerring scalpel, told with his panoramic vocabulary and an immutable certitude that seemingly rose up from his very marrow. The words resided deep within him, an inexhaustible supply of sharp, vivid words carrying such weight and import it was as if they were cut out with a razor, so heartbreakingly nuanced, so shining, pure and right that you could feel their power, measure their strength. Earl spoke the way I wanted to write, clear, succinct and true, and he freely shared his tales—provided I didn’t drink.

“It’s a fine story,” I assure Spanky, my fingers brushing across the book cover. Yet I know I can do better. I have my sea legs now and I can do much better. But, now I need Earl and the magic of his stories like I’d once needed that voodoo, glow-in-the-dark liqueur. The boat suddenly rocks unnaturally and Spanky’s tail stops wagging. My hand falls to the pistol in the half-open drawer.

An imposing, tensile figure fills the doorway bathed in slanting moonlight, a man not tall but sturdily built, with the thick hands of a stonemason, quick, powerful hands now hanging loosely at his sides.

“Let me know if that dog ever answers you.”

The voice is like a stretch of badly paved road, authoritative, compelling, with a hint of menace. But his face is where his power lies—square and true, with weathered, rawhide skin the color and texture of unfired clay pottery, a sinewy tangle of shifting lines and planes topped by thick brown-to-silver hair cut short in a vaguely military fashion. His nose has been broken and an angry scar runs through one eyebrow. Cornflower-blue eyes, alert and watchful, shine like opals in the clear, pale light.

“Hello, Earl,” I say, my hand relaxing. I see him glance, as he habitually does, at the dusty, still-unopened bottle of absinthe kept in plain view on the shelf, my constant reminder, motivator and disciplinary tool to daily test and strengthen my resolve. That was Earl’s idea.

“I need another one,” I croak, grimacing as my words tumble out, nakedly eager. Earl cocks his head, saying nothing, that Cheshire Cat grin flashing like a slice of the moon. I again consider Earl’s striking watchfulness. Despite a perpetual crooked smile suggesting delight, Earl wears a carapace of wariness. There is something distant about Earl, even as he shares his stories, as if the most important part of himself is held in reserve.

“Another story,” I quickly add, regretting my tone of urgency. Moving like a sorcerer Earl silently slides into a chair, eyeing the stacks of scribbled story drafts that litter my desk, seemingly standing sentinel over my unrealized dreams. Even seated Earl appears coiled, as if perpetually ready to spring into action. Being on escape does that to a man. “I need something really good, something heavy—.” I pause, my mind suddenly racing. “Earl, do you recall once telling me how you had a real good friend, your best friend—”

“—Danny Sullivan.”

“—Yeah. Danny Sullivan. You once told me that I reminded you of him. You said something really heavy happened with him. Those were your exact words. Remember?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Yes. Yes, I will. Sure I will. Everything you’ve told me has checked out. Everything.” Silence fills the small cabin, pressing into every shadowy corner.

“Okay,” Earl finally replies, his voice carefully measured. “I’ll tell you the story.”

I feel the rush of pleasure as adrenaline surges through my body, every fiber of my being screaming that this will be good, very good. This might be the big one. Even Spanky looks up at Earl with bright, expectant eyes, tail motionless in anticipation. Snapping on a sconce light I turn on my tape recorder and begin scribbling furiously on a legal pad as Earl calmly speaks, his eyes distantly focused on forever.

“His name was Danny Sullivan,” Earl continued, his words painting a quiet, evocative portrait, “and this is what happened. . . .”

PART ONE      

This life’s dim windows of the soul,
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole,
And goads you to believe a lie,
When you see with and not through the eye.
– William Blake

Chapter One

You never forget the taste of your own spinal fluid. The unbidden refrain scrolled through Danny Sullivan’s mind with unconscious subtlety, a gentle reproach navigating the margins of his perception. Danny nosed the big GMC Yukon through a soft, quiet summer night rain, his quick hands, sure in their movements, guiding the vehicle with a surgeon’s precision through the rain-slicked streets of West Palm Beach. Through windshield wipers swinging like a chrome-and-rubber metronome, Danny’s roaming glances drew in the smallest details, his candid green eyes alertly skipping left and right, fore and aft, seemingly in cadence with the wiper’s hypnotic meter. You never forget the taste. . . A throwaway comment he’d once heard from Petey’s lips—an old friend, paralyzed by a police bullet following a burglary gone bad—Danny long ago appropriated it as his own shibboleth, his test word invoked in time of high danger to reinforce the need for vigilance, conjured up to guard against that fatal flaw, complacency, that implacable enemy, overconfidence. Having repeatedly proven its worth, now indelibly etched into his psyche, the mantra possessed the comfortable, well worn patina of an old, trusted talisman. Danny savored the words as he silently mouthed them, gaining confidence from the mere act of repetition. Focusing on the moment at hand, Danny’s resolute scrutiny took in everything offered—the shiny pavement stretching away like silky ribbons of gleaming anthracite; the occasional headlights, fractured and suffused by the rain-streaked windshield, reflecting the iridescent rainbow colors streaking the oil-speckled puddles; the ruby taillights glistening in the diffused light, winking as sudden and bright as blood on snow; the spectral shadows huddled together down dark side streets. And, no police.

Danny appreciated rain when working. Fewer people venturing out meant fewer prying eyes, fewer nosey neighbors. Every edge was important. He glanced at his wristwatch: 8:45. Right on schedule. He maneuvered the Yukon carefully, staying precisely within the speed limits, obeying all traffic laws. The Yukon was not registered in his true name—one of Danny’s inviolable rules was to never use or carry anything while working that was traceable back to him—but instead, as a vehicle bought expressly for such purposes, was registered under one of his “throw-away” identities. The name, like that on his driver’s license, was Jackson Benson, born thirty-eight years earlier in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but dying two years later in a California plane crash. A solid I.D., which would thoroughly check out, with a legitimately assigned Social Security number that, like the license, Danny had obtained himself. Both license and registration listed the same innocuous address, a private mail box store in Miami, a business Danny had set up for Petey after he emerged from jail in a wheelchair. It was an easy, quiet business; Petey would never get rich, but it paid the bills, and it beat catching bullets. Danny, in turn, had perpetual use of the address.

Turning off of Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, Danny scanned for cops, keen not to be pulled over. Even if his tools and peculiar equipment were not discovered in a routine traffic stop, it was sloppy to have your face officially noticed prior to working, to possibly end up in a stack of field reports that some tenacious detective might later comb through and pursue. You could never be too careful; in his line of work the police could make reams of mistakes, but Danny could afford not one. As the rain ceased Danny checked his watch again.

His tires hummed on wet pavement as Danny, resolutely hugging his secret, turned again, heading northeast toward the shoreline. The city lights gradually receded. After several more turns even the houses faded into occasional dark smudges before yielding completely to dense walls of dark vegetation. Danny slowed, squinted, then turned, his tires settling into wet dirt with a soft sigh. The white, sandy trail was a tree-root-lumpy gash winding through secluded palmetto scrubland and patches of stunted cypress trees, a de facto dump strewn with car batteries, wet newspapers, empty paint cans, discarded furniture, battered automobile hulks and bullet-ridden appliances overgrown with weeds, forlorn in abandonment. Countless spent shotgun shells—red, yellow, green—and shiny brass cartridge cases, littered the ground like confetti. Danny eased the Yukon forward, listening to the faint rasp of tires moving over wet naked dirt, until coming upon the water’s edge amid a rough tangle of mangrove hammocks. Cutting off the engine he sat in silence, patiently attentive to the night sounds, inhaling the aromatic softness of old, wet leaves. Satisfied, he stepped out, straining to see through assorted shades of darkness. Standing still as a heron, dressed entirely in black, Danny listened to the water lapping against mangrove roots and the soft whisper of Australian pines swaying in the gentle breeze. The murmur of serenading crickets highlighted the silence and the occasional splash told Danny that the mullets were running. Heavy with moisture, the warm night air filled Danny’s lungs with the primeval smell of oozing mud and salt marsh. The moonless night swarmed with twinkling stars, a vast luminous carpet stretching away, suspended in a velvety sky.

Danny quietly paced a hundred yards up the trail, alert for others. Satisfied, he returned to his vehicle, checked his watch, then perched on an overturned 55-gallon drum. It was still too early. Melting into the dark landscape Danny listened to the stealthy scuffling of blue land crabs scuttling in and out of muddy burrows, their claws clicking softly like castanets. Silhouetted against the white sand a fat raccoon suddenly waddled by, then disappeared into a sea grape thicket. Stretching his legs, Danny settled back, reflecting on the work ahead. Directly across the dark water from him, glowing in the distance stretched the long, narrow island of Palm Beach, an exceptionally wealthy enclave. Separated from West Palm Beach, its poorer mainland cousin, by the Intracoastal Waterway, there were only a handful of bridges connecting the two. Palm Beach was an old-money town of gated communities and guarded palatial compounds, with access tightly controlled. Strange cars were viewed suspiciously, strangers even more so. Following major crimes the police were known to raise the drawbridges to isolate the island, then conduct car-to-car searches. Yet Danny, who’d inherited the extreme gene, entertained no fear. As a youth, in some odd cosmic shift in consciousness, Danny had suddenly recognized death as a foregone conclusion—not in the abstract but as an unconditional fact, something that, somewhere in the gradient of time, had already occurred and already resided somewhere within him—and thereby gained his sure sense of invulnerability, his fearless certitude that in those heightened moments when he imposed his will, he could not be threatened by the possibility of death or harm. It was a matter of relinquishing fear and doubt, a matter of superseding death. Fear was the enemy. This perception gave Danny complete confidence in the power of his sheer force of will and bestowed upon him an exhilarating sense of freedom—an absolute freedom from fear. So far it had proven true. Now, convinced he had fate in his hip pocket, Danny stared intently at the incandescent island, seeing beyond the superficial—the verdant landscaping, luxurious cars, posh shops and opulent estates; what he saw, with a singular clarity, was a sweeping panorama of vast and tangled possibilities, as dangerous as a combat zone, as promising as Ali Baba’s cave. He was alive to its dangers large and small, but more alive to its opportunities.

Standing up, Danny considered his subject. Frederick Helmuth Von Scharnhorst was a wealthy businessman who’d made Palm Beach his home decades ago, an intensely private, enigmatic old man about whom much was assumed but little was known. His money came from his privately held company, Inkster-Braun Industrial Corporation, renowned for its ultra high quality, precision-made ball bearings and exotic specialty metal alloys. Born in Königsberg—then the capital of East Prussia—he was reputedly related to a long line of Prussian kings and princes, stretching back to the Teutonic Knights of the thirteenth century. Just prior to World War II, he fled to Switzerland, making his way to America in 1946.

From the moment he arrived in the United States, Von Scharnhorst began making real money. Buying up surplus steel mills—redundant in the post-war era—he focused on high-precision fabrication and specialty alloys. The Korean War made him seriously wealthy when the War Department awarded him a series of exclusive contracts. Importing a steady stream of well trained engineers from war-torn Germany, Von Scharnhorst maintained a constant technical edge in the narrow industrial niche he dominated. A shrewd businessman, as secretive as he was rich, his privately held company had no public shareholders to answer to; the extent of his wealth could only be estimated. Nevertheless, Forbes magazine routinely listed him among the nation’s top 400 wealthiest people. It was through reading Forbes, Fortune, Barron’s and Business Week that Danny had first learned of Von Scharnhorst’s existence.

Yet it wasn’t simply the German’s wealth that intrigued Danny—the country was flush with rich folks—but rather the persistent rumors of a fabulous coin collection. Professionally, Danny was concerned only with cash, jewelry, gems and precious metals. Paintings, art work, furs, firearms, electronic devices—anything inherently traceable—did not interest him. Coin collections occupied a vague middle ground; with a strong connection for fencing rare coins, Danny occasionally targeted them. Now, based upon what Danny had unequivocally confirmed, he knew Von Scharnhorst’s collection was literally priceless. Danny conservatively estimated his end at five million dollars—enough to make this his last score.

Von Scharnhorst occupied a sprawling, multi-level, Addison Mizner-designed Mediterranean-style villa—Spanish Eclectic style, to be architecturally precise—a broad, wedding-cake swath of creamy stucco, large round Roman-arched windows and doors, pointed Moorish archways, bell towers, decorative parapets, columned balconies and low-pitched red tile roofs; eighteen rooms, twenty-one bathrooms, two pools, a tennis court and an immense greenhouse where he cultured the rarest of orchids. Along with a detached guest house and servants’ quarters, the mansion sat in a lushly landscaped ten-acre walled compound on the island’s east side, fronting the Atlantic Ocean. Stretching south to north lay a thousand feet of porcelain-white beach—Danny’s immediate goal. He’d spent months reconnoitering the compound, utilizing county maps, land plats and aerial photos from a rented Cessna 210, before cruising up the coast in a power boat to snap pictures with a telephoto lens. The estate now awaited him, as familiar as a lover’s body.

Yet Danny’s most crucial source of information was local attorney Howard Yancy, a wisecracking urban dandy, long on greed and short on scruples. He’d visited the villa numerous times, initially to broker the estate sale of several rare coins, but eventually becoming friends, of a sort, with The German, based upon Yancy’s ability to deliver more sordid goods. On rare occasions Yancy secretly worked with a select crew of thieves, selling valuable inside details concerning wealthy clients. From experience Danny knew Yancy’s information was invariably solid—uncommon in Danny’s line of work—so he’d paid Yancy the requested $10,000 for the sketches and notes delivered six months ago.

Danny checked his watch. It was time. Opening the tailgate he dragged out a deflated rubber dinghy, then plugged a portable air pump into the Yukon’s cigarette lighter. Kneeling in the dirt, working earnestly, he quickly inflated the boat, ignoring the clammy sweat drenching his shirt. Danny wrestled with the small gasoline motor, with its oversized, custom fabricated ultra-quiet muffler, attaching it to the aft motor mount. He slid the large, heavy-duty black nylon flight bag containing his tools into a plastic garbage bag, tied it closed, then dropped it into the boat with a muffled metallic clank. Inside the Yukon he flipped a hidden toggle switch, disconnecting the electrical system. He gave the interior one final wipedown, then locked the door. Dropping his wallet and keys into a ziplock bag he jammed them in the wet weeds beneath the 55-gallon drum. Tugging the boat across the mud he slid it into the water, where it bobbed in the darkness, gleaming faintly. It was graveyard quiet, as if the whole world had paused, holding its breath. Looking up, Danny saw a shooting star suddenly crease the sky like a burning fuse, and an acute apprehension came over him like a sudden fever. He paused, then steeled himself, corralling his emotions, and with one final look around he stepped into the boat and pushed off from the shore.

Bill Van Poyck

William Van Poyck  #034071
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street, 
Raiford, FL 32026-1160

If you enjoyed reading this first chapter of Bill's book, you can purchase Quietus HERE

And you can read more from Bill at his blog HERE

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