The Last Project

The person on the train kept saying, “I believe,” over and over and over. The train, a Railjet Express 165, left Vienna for Innsbruck punctually at 9:30 on this first Sunday of April and there was only one other person in the third compartment behind the dining car, an elderly lady in a green tweed suit, her purse and a manila envelope the only pieces of luggage either one of them had. The two didn’t know each other and never spoke. As the train eased into Linz central station, the old lady stood up, picked up her purse, looked at her travel companion, and said “Good luck”. Then she was gone and all that was left in the compartment was silence, a pounding heart, an unwavering belief against all odds, and a manila envelope.

* * *

Jašar reached for the knob on his car stereo and soon the melancholic gypsy sounds filled the automobile. Of course, his name wasn’t Jašar anymore, for Jašar was killed by a landmine just outside of Sarajevo 14 years ago. There was nothing in his new life tying him to the person he was before, not a name, not his documents, not a single possession, not anybody he knew back then, save for one man. He was various people, right now a German entrepreneur on a business trip to Austria, yet in none of his many lives was there room for nostalgia. It was in the rare moments like this one, when nearing the end of one of his projects, that he would allow himself a little treat and would dive into the sounds of his childhood.

The man Jašar was waiting for was still in the house and if everything was as expected, it would be another few hours before he came out, making it likely that the deal would be closed tonight. Jašar spent months preparing for this meeting, both in Vienna and here, in the outskirts of Klagenfurt. He met the politician just once, at the party thrown by the British Embassy in Vienna to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, but he has never been far away from him since. He knew where he lived, his favorite restaurants and meals, which car he drove, and when he drove it by himself, what time he woke up, where his lover lived, what roads he took for every of his trips. He was visiting his lover right now, a young man who sang in a church choir, volunteered in the local fire brigade and lived in a small house with thickly nested red geraniums hanging over the dark oak balcony slabs, the one he inherited from his grandmother. In stark contrast to the modest abode stood the black government issued Volkswagen Phaeton parked in front of it, with its 12-cylinder and 6-liter motor announcing not only its own power wherever it went, but also of the man in it, the man who many believed would be the next Austrian Chancellor.

A few decades, or perhaps even a few years ago, the fact that a prominent political figure had a same-sex lover would have been enough to ruin their chances of a rise to power. But this was 2008 and Austria didn’t care anymore. Well, Austria didn’t know, either, but Sir Nigel contracted Jašar to deal with this, which meant that after careful calculations, communications and considerations, the conclusion they all came to was that Austria wouldn’t care, or at least wouldn’t care enough. They wanted this dealt with discreetly and permanently. Who exactly they all were, Jašar didn’t know and he didn’t care. He knew Sir Nigel Douglas, and more importantly Sir Nigel knew him, the only person to do so.

They met during the war in Bosnia, the one that cost Jašar his family and his innocence, during the two years that followed directly the two he had spent studying at MIT, making the contrast of the never-ending bloodshed that he immersed into even more unfathomable to him. He came back too late, too late to even see his sisters one more time, much less save them, and he never forgave himself, nor the world. It made no difference that his family never wanted him to come back, that they wanted him to stay in the promised land and make a name for himself, for them all, to be the one who became something. He came back and immediately reverted to being nothing instead, a lost soul in a lost world, his grasp on life and his boundaries disappearing as fast as the last people he knew. At first, he found some refuge and some relief in aimless killing, justifying every time he gave into his rage as just another righteous revenge. But the more it went on, the emptier he felt, and soon he realized he was as dead inside as any of the men he had killed and forgotten. He decided it was enough and that what he needed was money, enough money to get away from it all. Everything was for sale back then, firearms, ammunition, cigarettes, alcohol, women. Jašar entered the market from another side and created a niche in which he translated for the peacekeeping forces, pimped their radio stations, hacked into their cryptography units and then sold them better ones he made himself. He also settled family revenges against wrongdoing parties, no matter the constellation, as long as the money was right. He accepted any currency, but it had to be fiscal; flags, Gods and Great Leaders counted nothing to him, no matter what flag, God or Great Leader of the day would greatly appreciate his allegiances.

His set of skills and his ideological flexibility soon caught the eye of Sir Nigel, who was embedded with the British forces and was always on the lookout for recruitable talent. What exactly Sir Nigel’s role was, Jašar never knew, but he soon came to realize that he was a man of considerable influence and autonomy, the one who could provide him not only with the money to start a new life, but with a new life itself.

Jašar was pronounced dead on a cold December morning, and on the same day a young man flew to Germany, carrying with himself a mint British passport, an invitation for a research fellowship at the Munich Technical University, and a brand-new Nokia 2146 that would only ring when Sir Nigel needed him.

The politician closed the door behind him and walked towards his Phaeton. His steps through the cold October night were brisk, and Jašar wondered whether the man would have preferred to know it was a goodbye, rather than a see you later. Was it better to know when you are seeing a loved one for the last time? Or was he doing him a favor, sparing him of looking into the eyes full of despair, without anything to do or say that would change anything?

Until recently, Jašar never had to make that choice himself, for there was nobody to say goodbye to in the first place. There had been women briefly passing through his life, flight attendants and waitresses, but he mostly stuck to escorts, high end escorts who knew better than to ask, and whom he paid generously not for sex, but for sparing him from clumsy compliments and vague hints of next dates afterwards. Women who came loudly and left quietly, engaging him in perfectly orchestrated choreographies of pretense, in carnal transactions from which they wanted just as little real intimacy as he did. He welcomed the relief that came to him every time the door would close, when he could stop pretending he cares and go back to pretending he’s alive.

And then he met her, during the Embassy party, and against all reason he kept seeing her. They would spend evenings at her place, an 18th century flat with high ceilings and even higher rent, drinking red wine, solving crossword puzzles and reading stories she would bring home from work. Josephine worked as a cultural attaché in the British Embassy and screened the works sent for a literary contest organized by the Crown before sending the worthy ones to London. To Jašar they were all great. He liked reading, even writing, but the stories gave them more, much more, they gave them both a safe place to be and imagine, a place in which they could be bank robbers on a wild car chase for a day, or young parents leaving their baby with a babysitter for the first time, or disgruntled post office employees plotting against their mean boss, anything but Jašar and Josephine of here and now. The stories were surrogates for their own, sparing them from thinking about, not to mention planning, anything that could be called future. Josephine never pushed him, and he never pushed her, and the more room they left to each other, more they started to feel at ease to fill it with something real. He couldn’t talk about his past, nor his real line of work, but he could talk, and he wanted to, not carefully planned and rehearsed cover stories, but just about things. His thoughts, his opinions, even some of his feelings.

He knew it was all nonsensical though, that every step they made was a step that will have to be retraced and then deleted. He would soon not only live somewhere else, but also be someone else, a journey he could only make alone. The finality of their own story was hovering over them as they escaped into one essay after another. She knew it would end soon, he knew why, and the only thing left for him to decide was how to end it.

He probably should have made a clean cut and disappeared without saying that last farewell. But we hurt most when we love, and Jašar thought she deserved it, deserved to know when there would be no more. In a dimly lit hallway he stopped before grabbing the door handle and hugged her from behind, their bodies reflecting in the gold-leafed mirror next to the door he would exit for the last time. They stood there for a while, silently looking at each other, trying to engrave the moment in their memories. Then he told her to close her eyes and to believe. Just believe. And not to open them until she hears the door closing.

The Phaeton was on the move. Jašar had found a perfect place, a rocky ravine to the right of a left-hand curve, after a long straight stretch. A place where drivers must slow down to 70 km/h to safely stay within the road, a place where one might have an accident if they came in too fast. He flicked open his laptop and clicked twice. Two stop lights turned red. It was 2 AM, but he didn’t want anyone else on the road. He was long connected to the Phaeton’s rSAP communication system and through it to the hacked control center of the car. On his laptop screen he could read out all the vitals from the dashboard and track the car’s position along the road. As soon as the car entered what would literally be its final stretch, Jašar clicked on the button titled “Disable all manual input”, and from that point on the Phaeton’s steering wheel and the pedals were as useless as those of a car on a Merry-Go-Round. He reached for the joystick and pushed it hard, making the 450-horsepower rev angrily, thrusting the car forward. On Jašar’s screen the number circled in red went from 90 to 110, from 110 to 140. The man who would never become Austrian Chancellor was hurtling towards the stony precipice with close to hundred miles per hour and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Just before the tires left the ground, Jašar moved the joystick slightly to the left and then jerked it back hard, causing the brakes to lock the wheels and sending the two-and-a-half-ton vehicle and its only passenger spinning into the abyss. The skid marks stretched for twenty meters, marking a place where flowers would later be laid to commemorate what could have only been an accident, a tragic accident that took a life of a man who rose to prominence by uniting Austrian and even European far-right scene, but who also, unfortunately, liked to drink a little too much and drive a little too fast.

* * *

Jašar slid the door to the side and stepped on the wooden veranda. The air was humid and salty, and the warm evening wind was starting to pick up, flicking sand grains into his scarred torso. He just came back from a run with his new friend Spirit, a Golden Retriever pup who was the first being he had shared a home with in a long time. It was probably Spirit who made it feel like home, and not just a house or a flat, like all of them before. This one didn’t have an expiry date, and Jašar had a feeling this was the place he would be coming back to until there would be no place to come back to.

He had a new name and a new story, not that anyone around here was keen on asking. As fate will have it, the German entrepreneur had a fatal car accident himself, only a few days after the politician died, his body so badly burned that they needed to compare dental records on file to make sure it was him. It was necessary, not only out of change of scene purposes, but also out of self-preservation ones. He had worked for Sir Nigel for years and completed numerous highly sensitive projects for him, but this was of a whole new magnitude. One just doesn’t get to eliminate one of the future heads of state and live to talk about it. They were surely looking to tie up all the loose ends, and there was no end looser than Jašar. Not for one second did he think that Sir Nigel bought into his death, but he thought that the old man was indeed fond of him and hoped that the cover would give him excuse to tone down the search. It’s been almost half a year now and from what he could gather, the efforts to find him were slowly dying down. They were still monitoring the places he lived before, and they still had the phones and the emails of the few of his closest contacts from his last life bugged, Josephine’s ones probably topping the list.

Did she think he was dead? Did she still believe? He could picture Sir Nigel calling her into his office in the OSCE wing of the Jaurèsgasse 12 Embassy building and telling her the news. He probably said something like “I’m terribly sorry my dear, I know you were quite fond of him. Bloody automobiles.” And he probably meant it, too, the old sentimental fool. Jašar missed her, but there was no way of going back. He knew she was still working in the embassy, still sifting through other people’s stories, and perhaps even still thinking about him. But he also knew he couldn’t call her or write to her, without giving his continued existence away.

He came in and slid the door shut. He poured himself a good tumbler, sipped on the whisky and kept looking through four large window panes, each one filled with the setting sun and the ocean, never-tiring ocean greeting the shore with a white foamy kiss, one rhythmic wave after another. The sun was long gone when he realized he wasn’t thinking about if anymore, but about how, that he had made a decision. There would be a last project after what has been the last project, but this time it will be on his terms, it will be his own. He would need documents, two or three passports at least. A whole load of travel arrangements. And he would need someone on the ground to do a hand-off. Karla, it will have to be Karla, good old Karla who always loved working for him and who would probably do it even for free, just to mix some excitement into her now retired, flower-growing life, but who he would pay enough for a lifetime. She had a good sense of humor, and she would surely laugh when she realizes that the part of the job is buying clothes, boring old people’s clothes she so detested.

But before anything else, he needed a story. He hadn’t written in ages, but the time came where his pen would have to be as mighty as the swords of his sorry life have ever been. He needed a good story Karla would mail for him, a story that would set this project and the rest of his life in motion. He thought of her and of their reflection in the mirror. He wanted a life, a real life, and for the first time he thought he could have one. He took another sip and cracked his fingers. And then he let them fly over the keyboard, watching how the low, clicking sounds made his screen fill up with words, words that he hoped would be the one story he really lived, a story that started like this:

“The person on the train kept saying, “I believe,” over and over and over. The train, a Railjet Express 165, left Vienna for Innsbruck punctually at 9:30 on this first Sunday of April and there was only one other person in the third compartment behind the dining car, an elderly lady in a green tweed suit, her purse and a manila envelope the only pieces of luggage either one of them had. The two didn’t know each other and never spoke. As the train eased into Linz central station, the old lady stood up, picked up her purse, looked at her travel companion, and said “Good luck”. Then she was gone and all that was left in the compartment was silence, a pounding heart, an unwavering belief against all odds and a manila envelope.”

 

Not tonight, Son

As he strode to the plate, his bat leisurely resting on his shoulder, Karl knew this was it. This was the moment to settle it, once and for all. While there would perhaps be another chance, this was the first time, that one encounter that will remain etched in the collective memory the longest. And, frankly, he knew this was also his best shot, as time was not necessarily on his side.

He felt good. He got a clean single in the second, put up a good at bat in the fourth before lining out sharply to right field and then walked in the seventh. He was not the same menacing presence in the box he was ten, or even five years ago, but he was still someone you’d rather not face in the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on first base.

They had a new kid on the mound, a young and cocky fireballer, like so many others sprouting around the league these days. He was just like so many Karl has faced over the years, and yet he was like no one before. For this tall and broad-shouldered lefty was his son.

* * *

Since his first steps on the sandlot, Sebastian was a prodigy. He could run faster than the other kids, he could hit further, he could field cleaner. But what really set him apart was the way he could throw. Smooth and sleek, as only lefthanders tend to be, he would hit his target time after time, throwing faster each time, much faster than a kid of his age had any business throwing.

By the time he was 12, he was hitting 65 on the radar gun. When he was 14, he broke 80 for the first time, striking out 13 in a high school varsity game. By the time he turned 17, he was sitting in the mid-nineties and, that June, went 19th overall to the Oakland A’s.

No one ever called him Sebastian. To his family and close friends he was Basti and to almost everyone else he was Karl’s Kid. So, here he was, Karl’s Kid, just fourteen months after turning pro, in the middle of the playoff race, needing just one more out to close it out.

* * *

Karl’s path to the majors was nowhere as smooth as his son’s was. His nothing was smooth, and he prided himself for owing nothing to nobody, for having earned every last bit of what he had in life. He wasn’t drafted out of high school, and for two years after that he barely played at all. He worked shifts at the meat-packing factory and attended community college, and if it weren’t for that Mets scout who got lost on the dusty roads of Iowa, trying to get to a high-school game and settling for a pick-up game of softball and a cold lemonade instead, neither Karl nor his kid would be in the Majors today. Had he not hit the scout’s car, parked in what he thought was a safe distance, not once, but twice, Karl would have probably gotten his degree in American History and went on to teach in that same godforsaken high school not even scouts could find.

He signed for a $5,000 bonus and spent the next seven years in the minors, getting traded from the Mets to the Brewers, then to the White Sox, then back to the Mets, then to those same A’s he was facing now. They all disliked his lack of pedigree, the awkward hitch in his swing, his ever advancing age. Yet, those meat-packing arms kept hitting and kept hitting hard, and by the time he turned 26, he had 207 minor league home runs. He would not hit another one. On his birthday he was pulled out of the River Cats game in the second inning and on the next day he was the starting right fielder for the Oakland Athletics, who finally decided to give him a chance.

He hit a home run in that first game and quickly became a crowd favorite. He had a good three-year run for the A’s, but right after he made his first All-Star team, he was traded to the Dodgers for three pitching prospects. None of them panned out, and Karl really took off once he went to LA, crowning his career with the NL MVP honors in 2009.

* * *

He was taking the first pitch. He almost always did and everybody knew it, none more so than his son, who for all his life tried to soak as much baseball knowledge from his dad as he could. Still, even now, nobody dared put one right down the pipe. Franky, Sebastian’s battery mate, armed with a good heart and bad knees, set up on the outside corner and barely had to move his glove. Knee high, on the black – strike one.

Well, the game is starting now, both Karl and his kid thought to themselves.

Franky called for a slider. He loved sliders, even against the right-handed batters. And Basti could throw them wherever you asked him to. Franky opted for the back-door one and squatted in the same place as the pitch before. The youngster recoiled and let it fly, starting a good foot off the plate and then whiffing back, as if pulled by some enormous sideways gravitational force.

It was a good pitch, no, a great pitch, just brushing the low and outside corner as it crossed the plate. Yet Karl knew it would be a ball, he knew that Supreme-Justice-Thomas, in his 23rd season as a Major League umpire would not give that pitch, not to a kid in the fifth game of his career, not against someone who has hit 200 home runs in the minors and another 300 in the big leagues, against someone who has paid his dues.

When Thomas remained predictably silent, Karl moved his head in a barely visible nod towards the mound. You have to earn it, Son. You have to earn it.

* * *

Karl did his best to make his son earn it all his life. Even though he made his family financially independent many times over, he made sure Sebastian earned his own allowance, working odd jobs at the local stores. He made him volunteer at the pet shelter. And he made absolutely sure he would never influence any of his youth coaches, all eager to please Karl the Great.

On the other hand he did all he could to teach his kid baseball, helping him with his swing and his throwing every time he had a chance. He stepped outside of the batter’s box, picked some dirt, rubbed it on his hands and smiled. What was it, he thought, ten thousand pitches he threw to his son over the years? Hundred thousand? And now here they were, his kid throwing to him for the first time in his life.

* * *

Franky called for another slider, of course he did. Front office guys were raving about the kid’s spin rate or something, but Franky couldn’t care less about this yuppie blabber. He had played for San Diego for years and had seen Karl deposit more than enough fastballs into Chavez Ravine bleachers. They got a freebie on the first pitch, he’ll take his chances with the sliders on the corner from now on.

Basti shook him off. He always had this air of self-assurance, maturation beyond his years and to him it seemed only natural that he, the rookie, should shake off the 8-year veteran. Yes he had a great slider, but he loved his fastball more. He had faced 17 batters since he was promoted and he struck out 11 of them, and if you asked him he would tell you he could have done it without a secondary pitch.

It is not wise for a backup catcher to get into a feud with the bonus baby wunderkind, not when he doesn’t have a contract for next year, Franky thought, so he reluctantly stretched just one finger. Sebastian quickly confirmed and came to the set.

Karl knew, of course he did. He would have known even without the shaking off, he knew that his kid wanted to prove himself to him, that he wanted to get out of his shadow. That he wanted to overpower his dad, not trick him. He knew and he was ready.

The ball left the mound at 97 miles per hour, headed for that spot just under the hands. It was a beautiful pitch, a celebration of youth and might. On another night, Karl would have watched it in appreciation, realizing just how lucky he was and how far his baby son has made it. But not tonight. There was just too much muscle memory in him, it was just too deep in him not to react.

He saw the pitch, wildly spinning towards him. But he also saw his kid on the mound, he saw him in the nursery, on his first day of school, in his first tee-ball game. He smiled again and murmured. Not yet, Son. Not tonight. And then he started his swing.