The Little Stinker

Human+WingwalkerOf course, part of my job as her agent was to keep her at least within hailing distance of reality. Her aide de camp, she called me, with bitchy emphasis on the third word. And I believed in loyalty. Still do. Well, you have to, don’t you. Patrick taught me that. Normality had never been her strong suit. But it was a bizarre idea even by her standards.

Sunday lunchtime, it must have been, because when I arrived the hallway was filled with the smell of cooking from the other apartments. I can’t bear the stink of roasting lamb. I’ve been vegetarian ever since Patrick. Right up to the end he thought soy milk and puréed organic carrots would save him. And once I’d got into the habit I couldn’t get out of it again. Loyal to a cause lost long ago. That’s me to a T. Helps a lot in my line of business.

Above the marble fireplace the framed photo of the Little Stinker dominated the room. She said it had been taken by Snowdon and I think she actually came to believe it. We all tell ourselves stories. I know I do. Even about Patrick. Especially about Patrick.

“Kenneth, I need Buddy Biddle,” she said, and laughed the kind of laugh you’d hear in a gentleman’s club. Steeped in cigar smoke. Churchillian.

“Bringing back the dead is not in my contract, Lysabetta.”

Buddy’s recent demise had been singularly public. High point of the show, that two-thousand foot fall into an Iowa cornfield. A once-in-a-lifetime sight. Spectators recorded it on video phones and it spread around the world in seconds, popping up everywhere at once like time-lapse film of seeds sprouting. Shanghai sent it to Grenoble, Dubai to Burkina Fasso. Many must have done the math. I know I did. And toyed with a hypothetical choice: eleven seconds of terror or weeks in a hospice? I know what Patrick would have chosen. But that’s actors for you. Always on. Do anything for the smell of the crowd and the roar of the greasepaint.

“But you can manipulate the living. Fix things. Set things up. That’s what I pay you for, no?”

She was seated on the chesterfield in a lilac kimono, legs tucked under like a cat. She hadn’t made up her face, which was startling in itself. The cropped hair made her look like Judy Dench in Notes on a Scandal, only older, and her eyes were black buttons sewn on the face of a cloth doll. But sharp as an eagle’s. She even billed herself as Hawkeye Warburton. Had to, really, since the name she’d been born with was a thicket of Polish consonants, all c’s and y’s and z’s. But it began with W, and when she’d come across Warburton’s Jackhammer Ale during a boozy night with a whippet-thin girl from the Royal Ballet School she’d decided to do the brewery a favor by adopting its name as her own. Taking it under her wing, you might say.

“What do you want me to fix, Lysabetta? There’s only so much I can do. Especially in the merry merry month of February.”

She reached for the vodka. Always a big player in her life, the sauce. She knew better than to offer me a drink–another change to thank Patrick for, and don’t think I’m not grateful. The label bore an image of some misanthropic buffalo. She jerked the cork out with her teeth and topped up her glass. Straight. Bad sign. Usually she drank a Polish Kiss, vodka mixed with blackcurrant, although tinted would be a better word. If she was at it by midday God knows what she’d be like by evening. Frankly, I just didn’t feel I could handle it. I’d been up past the crack of sparrow fart with Dawn Chorus, née Percy Beckley, who was on the verge of nervous collapse over the fall in demand for bird impersonators. And that’s not to mention my own little problem.

“Pictures. I want new ones.” She took a gulp and gestured at the phone. “Get a photographer.”

“You mean, now? I don’t think Snowdon works Sundays.” You’re not the only bitch in the room, my dear.

“When do you think I mean, Kenneth? Next year?”

Remember Patrick’s maxim, don’t get in a pissing match with a skunk. She wants something and thinks you can get it, which gives you the upper hand.

“Alright. I’m here to help. But what’s the hurry?”

“Memory is short. This time next week …” She shrugged. “He will be forgotten.”

“Who will?”

She furrowed her brow, such a dolt, God knows how the English ever won the war, Germans were so much quicker on the uptake.

“Buddy Biddle.”

“I don’t see how …”

“A wingwalker, Kenneth. Hawkeye Warburton and her fearless wingwalker. To tie in with a circus. Overhead. Before they open the doors.”

I almost said circuses don’t have doors, but thought better of it. “And where will you find a wingwalker?”

Her gaze rested on the Little Stinker, rolling out of a Cuban Eight above a patchwork of fields. “Kenneth, I fly the plane. You find the talent.”

“Circuses are dying, Lysabetta. Nobody would want to cut the cake into even smaller pieces. Unless there was something really special to draw the crowd. And wingwalkers …” I spread my upturned palms. “Not a dime a dozen, true. But not that unusual.”

Gimlet-like, her black-eyed stare bored into me. “Why do people watch wingwalkers? To see if they fall. Increase the chance they’ll fall, show gets more popular, yes?”

I didn’t like the way this was going at all. “So you want me to put Astroglide on the wings?”

“Internet. Everything happens on Internet now.” She leaned forward, transfixing me with those sloe-black eyes. “Rumors spread on Internet. Like cancer.”

I was surprised she’d even heard of it. She didn’t have a computer or a smartphone. Yet she spoke of it with an undertone of religious awe, as if invoking some numinous power whose divine agency would pay the Little Stinker’s next fuel bill and the month-before-last’s rent. Preferably in that order. My own fee wasn’t even in the running.

“What kind of rumor?”

“About an accident going to happen.”

“Come on, Lysabetta, who’s going to start …”

I stopped. I felt myself become a field mouse to her hawk. Only instead of circling unnoticed she was right in front of me. Inescapable. “That’s ridiculous. No way I could do that.”

“Why not?”

I gesticulated. “Lots of reasons. For one thing, it just wouldn’t be possible. Even if I could reach enough people by Twitter or something …” careful, don’t go giving her ideas … “why would they believe me? Your agent?”

“Get a new name. I did. Kenneth is dead. Long live …” She paused in vodka-propelled thought, glass raised for the toast. “Binky Montgomery!”

Binky Montgomery? Binky? Jesus Christ. “Look, even if I passed myself off as Snow White and the seven dwarves they still wouldn’t believe me. Why should they? It’s not as if you have a track record in shedding wingwalkers.”

She waved the bottle back and forward in front of my eyes. It was three-quarters empty. “Not yet. But that might change. Oh, yes. Most definitely it might.” She leaned forward and seized my wrist in her non-bottle-waving talon. “What do you think, Kenneth? Photographer takes pictures of me now and people see them on Internet what would they think?”

“Lysabetta. Let go of my arm. Please.” She did not. “It’s a ridiculous idea. Completely crazy.”

“Patrick would have helped me.”

Yes, probably he would. Patrick could never say no to anybody. Or anything. And look where that got him. And me.

I jerked my arm away, harder than I’d intended. “Alright. Suppose you do this. Make people think you’re drinking too much. That wouldn’t be difficult.” This time I was the wrist-grabber. “Then how the fuck are you going to get anybody in their right mind to even go up with you, let alone take a walk?”

Her face crumpled. She aged ten years in moments.

As I let myself out I thought about Buddy Biddle. Without warning, quiet as a snake, the choice had moved beyond being just hypothetical.