Firefly was on her bed, gracefully meditating. The Spartan room had a faint Asian ambience from the Chinese lamp and some posters with Mandarin script. She liked atmosphere and had various coloured bulbs which she lit at night, as if recreating the neon-drenched streets of Hong Kong.
One point was apparent; this was a one-person apartment.
Firefly had just completed another ‘identification’ for which she was well paid and now she was free. There would be more work, that was guaranteed, and it would come to her. No time to get bored.
She merely had to go to one of her known hang-outs and if anyone wanted her and followed the accepted protocol, she was for hire.
So it gave her a shock when, on that warm, summer morning, there were four thundering knocks on her door.
She jumped up, then slowed her breathing to regain composure. She let out an exclamation sounding like “waaayyyyy!”
She moved to the door, keeping one hand free to take a knife that was inconspicuously hanging behind a leather coat. Then she opened the door. The light from the large windows almost blinded her, but she could see a large figure, all in black, the face hidden by a Chinese mask depicting a dragon, standing in front of her. He appeared to be clenching something up high, but before Firefly could act, he dropped his hand and there was a loud crack and a cloud of thick, slightly perfumed smoke.
Firefly coughed and wiped her eyes, the knife in hand, but the man had vanished. There was the faint sound of steps, then the street door closing.
On the floor, a large envelope. Slowly, Firefly picked it up and took it inside.
“Waaayyyyy!” She was intrigued.
As she guessed, it was a new commission. Normally, she would have been too suspicious of any deviation or unorthodox approach, but this was different, different in a way she couldn’t define.
The envelope contained just two items. A photo and money.
She picked up the head shot and studied it. No one she recognised. She would start immediately.
She hit play on her small cassette player and a piece of bubble-gum Asian pop filled the room. Firefly danced around, changing into a new black top and fixing her make-up, putting on small boots with heels. Before leaving, a look at herself in a mirror, fixing the one hair out of place. Then, photo in her small, shoulder bag, to work.
The first dive-bars proved fruitless, but it was still early and Firefly hadn’t expected much. It served to eliminate some options and to kill time until The Fatman could be reached.
She toured the cafés of Kreutzberg on the look-out, allowing herself to be seen. The word would filter through the disparate strata of her world. Firefly was onto someone and that someone had better watch out. His time was up.
By the time she could visit The Casbah Club, the sun long set over the Europa Center, she knew she would be expected. Nevertheless, she approached the bar, hips swinging in her tight skirt and asked for a meeting. The large barman made the merest gesture of acknowledgement, a hint of a raised eyebrow, a barely perceptible flick of his index finger and without the slightest urgency, disappeared behind a doorway.
Firefly sensed she was being watched, not officially, that she took for granted, information being as deadly as weapons, but by a man out for a good time.
She could hear him walking up to her. He was probably some minor crook, or drug runner, or wannabe. He dangled a cigarette out of the side of his mouth, even when he spoke. He asked Firefly if she wanted a drink. Without looking at him, she gave a short but definite shake of her head. The man asked again, then again, before making his mistake. He put his arm around her.
Suddenly, his head was smashed down on the bar, his nose loudly snapping as Firefly with a swift motion, drove her elbow into it. The man fell to the floor, blood streaming through the fingers he covered his nose with, making an unearthly, high-pitch wine.
The barman stood in the doorway and beckoned Firefly. She stepped over and swayed through. The barman looked at her as she passed, then picked up the man with one hand and showed him the back exit.
The Fatman already knew about this.
“Making friends ?” he casually asked, with a flick of a fly-swatter.
“I don’t need friends. Here.” Firefly threw down the photo. The Fatman didn’t move his eyes away from her.
“Oh, really, everybody needs friends. Even you, my dear. All those hot, lonely nights …”
“Fatman. Do you know him ?”
It was only then that he deigned to stretch out his fat fingers and lift the photo, an effort that seemed to cause him some effort. His stifling office was decorated in a mixture of Middle-Eastern styles, heavy rugs, tiled walls, a fug of sweat and sweet odours from the various hookah pipes and cigarettes.
The Fatman himself wore a fez and a suit that may, at one time, have fitted him perfectly, but now it appeared ready to burst its seams. The white shirt was clearly and grotesquely oily and soiled. Rumour, (because people here liked to keep all personal information to a minimum while allowing any stories, the more colourful the better, to swell to fanciful heights), had it that The Fatman made his fortune with girls and drugs in Morocco, then moved on to selling information to interested parties all over the Arab world. How he came to be in West Berlin was never satisfactorily explained, the most common rationale being that he had murdered a very minor member of the Arabian monarchy and suddenly found himself persona non grata in the Levant.
His appearance did lend itself to the idea of a once noble life turned seedy, but there was no sloppiness in his work. He studied the photo with the utmost care.
Firefly gestured behind her. She knew that there would be someone sucking on a pipe out of her view, one of The Fatman’s assassins.
The Fatman chuckled to himself.
“My dear, if only I could impress upon you the benefits of a merger, a combining of our resources. Why, Berlin would be ours. My contacts, your irrefutable charms … Ahmed.”
From the shadows, a dark, swarthy man, dressed in Bedouin attire stepped out. He looked at Firefly, who returned his gaze, then looked at the picture. Without a word, he shook his head, once, but with real vigour, then faded back into the darkened recesses of the room.
“Come on Fatman, name your price.”
“Ah, no, no … why such crassness ? It would be a pleasure for me to be of service to you, in any way … “
“Who is he ?”
“That, I can’t tell you. What I can say is that he doesn’t gamble, do drugs or have any particular sexual peccadillo. If he did, I would know of it and I can tell you, this man doesn’t move in those circles.”
“Waaayyyyy.” Firefly knew what to believe and believed The Fatman. She turned to leave.
“Oh, wait. Won’t you stay ? I have couscous ?”
But Firefly had already disappeared.
There were other contacts and sources of information, but Firefly was a little disturbed that The Fatman couldn’t place him. He may not know where, but generally what the subject was involved in, and therefore which areas to search.
Firefly tried other bars and dives, from high end villas to the lowest, junkie streets around Zoo, she spent time at private members clubs talking to those involved in politics and economics, and time at other kinds of clubs catering to any depravity that could be paid for. The same response. Person unknown.
Firefly scouted The KittyKatt bar, recognising some high-level politicians and industrialists who favoured the golden shower approach to relaxation, as well as several informants who could barely contain their good fortune at having stumbled over some valuable blackmail material.
She placed the photo in front of the eyes of one she knew, a particularly unpleasant character who seemed to be enjoying one performance a little too much in the suspected privacy of his booth. Firefly warned him not to touch the photo and he knew her well enough to comply. But no clues.
She left the bar, standing in the quiet street that showed no evidence of any bar, let alone sex club in its leafy respectability. She decided that the night was over. She would have to rethink. It would be a challenge and she had yet to fail any assignment.
Logic: The face was ‘normal’, it showed no scars or signs of an underworld lifestyle. The skin was smooth, eyes bright. Hair neat but not pampered. From this she concluded that he wasn’t a drug user or heavy drinker. No debauchery. Not a high level job. A hit man ? possible. Those guys are chosen for their invisibility, neither too tall or small, no distinguishing marks and so forth. But there is always a give-away coldness in the eyes, which the photo didn’t show. If anything, he appeared pleasant looking.
A political ? Could be. An idealist wanting to cause trouble ? The situation in Berlin may be far from ideal, but it creating a good lifestyle for many people, people who were happy with the way things stood and would resist any change.
As Firefly pondered these, she walked into a large, underground series of tunnels connecting with U-Bahn platforms and stores. She was alone, her boots echoing against the tiles. Then, somewhere ahead, more footsteps, a beat after hers. Firefly kept walking, straining to see in the sickly, artificial light. The figure got closer, walking straight, the steps, a determined pulse. Firefly already had a hand on her gun, inside her jacket pocket and ready for action. She showed no emotion, nor adjusted her pace. A figure could be discerned. A man. Smartly dressed, arms by the side, walking, looking ahead, past Firefly.
He got closer, never taking his eyes away from some fixed point in the distance.
Then they passed. He walked on, and away. Firefly stood, mouth open , turning to watch him, barely suppressing a “waaayyyyy,” as his footsteps got fainter and fainter. She couldn’t believe her luck. It was the man in the photo.
After that, it was easy. She followed him, on foot, then by taxi, to his house, even more surprised to find that he lived very near her, a street or two away. She remembered all the clichés about looking too hard when the object is under one’s nose.
She noted the house number, and could see from outside, what floor and which door the man entered. After a few days, she could predict the man’s routine, what time he left, how long he stayed out, when he came home.
All she had to do was wait for the masked man to return, then give him the address. But she was curious. Who was he ? What had he done that made someone hire her in such a fashion ? And why was he completely off the radar as far as Berlin was concerned ?
She decided to find out. After all, she had been given no directive one way or the other, and surely the more information, the better.
The next day, watching the man leave and thinking that he would be away some time, if his previous habits were continued, she broke into his flat.
Nothing special, at first glance. A little drab; faded paint, dour colours. A TV, music centre, some books. In the bedroom, enough clothes to suggest that he had been here some time, or that he was here on a permanent basis. Enough bits around to show that it was a lived-in flat, but still, nothing exceptional. She searched the cupboards and drawers, looking for files, weapons, drugs, books of contacts, photos. Nothing. Until she opened a bedroom cupboard and looked into a box. Inside, neatly folded, was a black, Chinese-style shirt, with matching trousers and on top on those, staring straight back at her, was a mask of a dragon.
“Waaayyyyy.” Firefly barely had time to process this information, when she heard the key in the door. She sprang up, looking for a place to hide, until she was stopped by a voice from the hallway.
“Firefly … ?”
Tony had occasionally thought about going up to the prostitutes and offering to pay just to talk to them, but then he saw how such a proposition would pan out. His innocent albeit desperate attempt to connect with another human, or more specifically, a woman, would be interpreted as a specific desire from the girl’s list of services.
A persuasive pimp would appear and Tony would have to extricate himself from a situation even he could barely explain.
He thought one or two of the girls, all of whom seemed to be dressed in low-cut tops and short pants of bright-coloured imitation leather, no matter the season, recognized him, but dismissed even that idea. He was just a figure who was only of interest as a potential John.
One dark-haired woman followed him with her eyes, taking him for one of the men too morale or scared to actually take a girl, but enjoyed looking, all the same. Why else would he be here ?
Tony kept walking. Why was he here, two o’clock on a Wednesday
morning ? The answer was as simple as it was painful for him to articulate: loneliness.
Loneliness compounded by insomnia. Despite the office job, the regular hours, the full work-load and its accompanying boredom, Tony was unable to sleep more than an hour or two at a time. He would wake and start thinking; how he was always alone, how, it seemed, he would always be alone. He knew it was futile to try to sleep after those thoughts and rather than fight it, he would get up and walk around the city, hoping to tire himself that way.
This proved to be the most satisfactory way. He had previously tried reading, then watching T.V. but it was all in German, and he couldn’t follow it, not that it ever appeared to be worth following. The radio was little better, either Radio-Free, or The World Service. So he dressed and prowled the early hour streets.
He had to admit, he liked the atmosphere. It was certainly different from his native Ohio. There was life here, maybe seedy and edgy, but people were living. Bars were open, groups drank and laughed, couple found convenient doorways, police cars took sharp bends and screeched away, buses swept stops clean of leather punks, and suited business men hailed glowing taxis, off into the Berlin night. Yes, it was life, but for Tony, he would always be a viewer. It was no more real or accessible to him than a movie. No matter where, at his American office with English-speaking staff, or in the middle of this city’s incredible nightlife, he would always be an observer, never a participant. He even called his lifeless flat ‘the waiting room’ as he was waiting for his life to start.
And while he was waiting, something happened. Without knowing quite when or how, that spring Tony became obsessed with a girl.
He had seen her several times, on his nightly excursions. He hadn’t thought about her one way or another. Maybe subconsciously, he knew, despite her provocative outfit, she was no working girl, probably a girl going clubbing, maybe employed at a bar, either way, no one with whom he could have any contact.
One time he saw her up close and her perfect features only reinforced his admittance that here was another beautiful girl out of his reach. And she was breathtakingly beautiful.
He forgot all about her until one evening, on the way home from work, he saw her. It seemed so out of context, seeing her at this time that he began following her. When he found out that she lived only a few streets from him, he found himself strangely happy.
That night, when he woke up, he had her face in his thoughts and there the face stayed, night after night. He now began going out, not just on aimless walks, but in the hope of seeing her. It took some time, but one night, he saw her again. She was going into a bar. It looked pretty sleazy, some tough looking characters outside, but they stepped aside as she walked up. He walked past and heard the men speak. He had just enough German to make out what there were saying: the girl was known as Firefly.
After that, Tony began going to the bar. He would never have dreamt of being in such a bar, but now his obsession easily overcame his fear. Also, being American gave him a certain cache. He was seen as a source of dollars, and that made him welcome anywhere.
He talked to one or two drinkers, their defences let down by alcohol and learnt some things, adding to the information by listening every time he heard the word ‘Firefly’. He walked in certain areas where there was more possibility of her being and he always ended up on her street. She returned home once or twice while he held his vigil, always alone and that gave Tony a happiness he could barley contain.
Little by little, aided by alcohol and dollar bills, Tony knew all he needed to. All he had to do now was to contrive a way that they could meet. What would happen then was unknown, but Tony had to make himself as interesting to her as she was as captivating to him.
The sleepless night were now spent forming a plan, something that would hook her, appeal to her; romance and mystery.
Then he thought of the perfect plan. He executed it, now all he had to do was to return to ‘The waiting Room’ and wait.
But there was one miscalculation. His very ordinariness. He knew that he was invisible as far as most people, let alone beautiful girls, were concerned. The people in the bars he had briefly spoken to hadn’t thought too much about him, hadn’t committed him to memory. He followed Firefly’s progress, watched her show his photo to someone he had shared wine with some weeks past, only to see a genuine shake of the head.
“Then I knew that I had to present myself to you. When I saw you go into the tunnel, I ran to another entrance and hoped you wouldn’t turn off. I saw you in the distance, so I had a chance to get my breathe back. I didn’t look at you, that was so hard, and I felt my heart was going to burst. I went straight home. You would follow me, find out where I live. Then I thought I should establish a pattern of behaviour. I knew you would be curious. The Chinese mask would get your interest, as well as the fact that no one knew me. Not so flattering. I had spoken to several of your contacts. Anyway, it was only a question of time before you would come here and find the mask. Yes. It was I who hired you. And why ? Easy. I’m in love with you. This was the only way I could think of to get to talk to you.”
Tony didn’t know what to do now. He wasn’t sure whether or not to take her hand, to carry on speaking or let her respond. But Firefly was silent. She wasn’t looking at him, and was keeping her thought to herself. If Tony had looked closely, he would have seen her trying to control her breathing.
Slowly, Firefly stood up. She walked out of the room, into the hall and out of the front door, which she closed gently, but with a finality that wasn’t lost on Tony.
He had at least tried.
There was a small Chinese restaurant near Tony’s flat. He had seen Firefly go there once or twice, so now he took his lunch there every day. One afternoon, several weeks after the confession in his apartment, the autumn turning relentlessly into winter, two men were talking at a corner table. They had finished eating and were cleaning their mouths with toothpicks, in-between slurps of cheap beer from cans. Tony froze, his soup spoon halfway to his mouth when he heard one of them mention Firefly.
“Yeah. Not been seen. Dead, they say.”
“Bullshit. No way is she dead.”
“Well, where is she ? Her flat’s empty. Someone else living there now.”
Tony knew that was true. He had seen the middle-aged man moving in.
“Doesn’t mean she’s dead. Must have moved on.”
“I heard she was on a special mission. Asked too many questions. High up. If she moved, she would have cleared out the flat, taken her things with her. She just vanished and that sounds like a hit to me.”
“Yeah, you could be right.”
Tony couldn’t finish his lunch. He went back to work and gave notice, then booked a flight home.
Two weeks later, Tony waited for the taxi to take him to the airport on the pavement, with just one suitcase. When it arrived, he got in quickly, as if he couldn’t wait to leave, and looked straight ahead as the taxi pulled away.
If he had turned to take a final look at his old neighbourhood, he would have seen the entrance to a Hof opposite. If he had exceptional eyesight, he may have seen a small figure looking out.
The figure stretched to full height as the taxi sped away. It may have been the cold, but the beautiful young girl with perfect features had a tear slowly falling down her cheek. It was followed by a second and then a third.