“Damn,” the old man muttered. “Never saw that coming.”
Nigel Christian sat in an over-stuffed easy chair, the fabric worn from use, sipping coffee, early morning light falling gently over his aging, blade-like body. The sunlight also touched sprigs of blond hair surrounding a sea of baldness crowning Christian’s head.
A color television set—a vacuum tube dinosaur enclosed in an oak cabinet—sat against the far wall of the living room: a small, cramped space, one of three rooms the old man occupied above Tanner’s Bar, a speakeasy crammed into a corner lot of downtown Biwabik, Minnesota. Smoking wasn’t allowed in the apartments above the bar. Despite this prohibition, a glowing Camel straight balanced on the rim of a crystal ashtray on an end table next to the old man. Smoke curled against advancing dawn and migrated towards the slender crack of an open window. Christian smoked because he could. He owned the building. In fact, he owned the entire block of the little town the tavern and apartments occupied. The rest of the buildings under Christian’s control had, like Tanner’s Bar and Rooming House, been reconditioned with government money—federal dollars pumped into Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range by its longstanding champion and native son, Congressman Jim Oberstar. It was Oberstar’s electoral demise that had caused the old man’s outcry.
“Oberstar and Blatnik were good men,” Christian said softly, his weary gray eyes following the tabulation of votes from the election across the twitching screen of the Sylvania. Long serving Eighth District Congressman Jim Oberstar and his predecessor John Blatnik were Democrats, the party the old man usually preferred. “Maybe stayed too long, I’ll grant you that. But he’s a good man.”
Oberstar’s challenger, a young Tea Party upstart named Craavack, had outworked the veteran lawmaker and, in the process, had captured at least two years in Congress, returning the seat to conservative control for the first time since 1948—the year Nigel Christian immigrated to the United States.
Christian stood up, mashed his cigarette into the bottom of the ashtray, picked up his coffee mug, the tri-color flag of his native country displayed on white porcelain, and despite being eighty-seven years old, moved with agility towards the kitchenette to refill his cup with coffee.
The apartment was painted white. The room’s maple trim was varnished and revealed the burl of the wood. Christian’s stocking feet padded softly against maple flooring: the thin strips of wood protected by identical varnish—the flooring original to the building, which had once housed a dry goods shop on the cavernous main floor but had always featured a hotel or boarding house above street level.
The old man’s eyes adjusted to light entering the kitchenette through a window over the sink.
Not much of a view, Christian thought as he lifted a dented aluminum coffee pot off a glowing burner of a tiny range.
Across the street, the town’s only undertaker polished chrome on the town’s only hearse.
Sonofabitch Abernathy won’t get me today. Hell of a way to make a living; taking money from grieving widows, widowers, children, and the like. Sonofabitch probably thinks I’m good for one of his ten thousand dollar vaults. Ha! More like a puff of smoke, a few nice words from the priest, and I’m gone. That’s the way to do it. No need to waste money on ceremony.
Christian watched the middle-aged funeral director—Abernathy’s fat belly jiggling with each swipe of the rag held in his smallish hand—shine rims of silver around the Lincoln’s headlamps. The undertaker was dressed for business; a black suit, a white dress shirt with button down collar, and a prim blue necktie announced he was, despite the fact the clothing was at least a size too small, ready to receive the grieving. A smile crept over the old man’s face as he watched a passing beer truck nearly take Abernathy out.
Who makes ready the funeral for the town’s only mortician?
“Slow down, asshole!” Abernathy shouted as he executed an ungainly pirouette in the slipstream of the departing Leinenkugel’s truck.
Christian diverted his attention to a plate littered with toast crumbs and a glass harboring residual orange juice pulp on its rim. He turned on the hot water spigot of the sink and rinsed the plate and glass thoroughly before placing them upside down on a dishtowel on the Formica counter. The old man picked up his coffee cup, wandered back to the living room, reclaimed his favorite chair, sat down with a grace usually lost to age, and studied the headlines scrolling across the bottom of the television screen. He was a news junkie. He rarely watched suspense or comedy shows. He was a man of the world: curious and always interested in understanding the status of things in far distant places.
“In Darfur, efforts by the African Union forces to calm recent unrest seem destined to fail...”
He remembered when his homeland seethed and teetered on the brink of destruction. There had been inordinate periods of time after his beloved country was invaded, not once, not twice, but three times in a five year period, when, like Darfur, all hope seemed lost. He had been a young man when he donned a uniform and took up arms in defense of his country.
It was complicated.
Indeed. Christian’s homeland was distinguished by a nearly indecipherable history, a past where horrific events and incalculable loss had cannibalized Nigel Christian’s youth and very nearly his soul.
Tires rolled over pavement. A car pulled to a stop in front of the tavern. A buzzer sounded. Someone was demanding admittance. Christian cleared razor sharp memories from his mind, placed his cup on its saucer, rose from the sagging chair, and approached the apartment’s front door.
“Can I help you?” the old man asked through an intercom speaker.
There was a slight pause before a scratchy voice replied. “Mr. Christian, Chief Eddelstrom here. Mind if I come up? There’s a matter we need to discuss.”
Why in the devil’s name would the chief of police need to see me? The delinquents who broke into the tavern last month to steal cigarettes and booze were caught. Maybe that’s it. Maybe he wants my take on what their punishment should be.
The old man pushed another button to unlock the security door. A mechanical click was followed by footsteps. Eddelstrom wasn’t alone.
What the hell is going on?
A knock. The old man opened the door. Dusty light illumed four men. The chief of police and three strangers wearing black trench coats, black wingtips, smartly knotted neckties, and business suits, stood outside Apartment 2A.
Bud Eddelstrom, fifteen years the chief of the three-officer Biwabik Police Department, thirty years with the force, five years past retirement, stood patiently in the hallway without speaking. The delay allowed the old man to get his bearings.
Eddelstrom was a compact man of average height dressed in a blue uniform. His sidearm was holstered and his utility belt was crammed with police gear. Age hadn’t yet infiltrated the chief’s alert brown eyes, though it had touched his cropped blond hair, leaving wisps of light gray around the temples and ears. The cop’s face was ruddy from effort.
“Nigel,” Eddelstrom said softly, “we’re here to talk to you about something that’s come up. These two fellows, Stano and Hobbs,” the chief continued, gesturing to the two men furthest behind him, their tall, athletic bodies nearly equal to Nigel Christian’s physique in his prime, “are with the FBI. And Agent Jones, here,” Eddelstrom concluded, “is with Homeland Security in the immigration division.”
“What’s this about?”
“Mind if we come in?” Jones asked.
The old man moved aside and the officers entered the apartment.
“Have a seat.”
“No thanks,” Eddelstrom replied. “This shouldn’t take too long. Just a few questions and we’ll be out of here.”
Nigel Christian shifted nervously on the balls of his stocking covered feet.
“How can I help you?”
“Does the name ‘Aleksander Laak’ mean anything to you?” Jones asked.
Chief Eddelstrom watched the old man reach for his coffee, grasp the cup’s handle with a steady hand, and sip gingerly.
Agent Hobbs spoke as he moved towards a large window in the living room, his attention drawn to the antics of the undertaker still polishing the hearse.
Nigel Christian nodded, put his cup back on its saucer, and looked directly at the FBI agent. “I know the name.”