The scent of pao de quejo dough frying in peanut oil was a welcomed if overwhelming sensation. Having just flown through the idling exhaust of a hundred cheap combustion engines, the fly was desperate to get the toxic taste of diesel particles out of its hair. It scrubbed legs over compound claret eyes then fixated on finding a quick pick-me-up to cleanse hexapod palate. Shimmying over the chemically-treated counter top before buzzing by the bland pages of the Rio Grande do Sol Times, it landed on a sugared but chipped porcelain lip, unfurled its proboscis and enjoyed a thirsty suckle. The respite proved fruitful, even when meticulously trimmed cuticles eventually grew wise and shooed it away. With renewed zest the pest resumed course to the pluvial Arroio flood circulating sewage around the ancestral city of Porto Alegre.
Lester took an ignorant sip from his now tainted noon cup. The dark roast of the locally cultivated Santos bean funneled through the stained gaps of his dentures to dance notes of cinnamon and bitter chocolate over his tongue. Reacquainted with an old friend, Lester savored the radiating waste of caffeinated entropy as he scanned over Sunday’s bric-a-brac and their weekly cacophonic flea market.
A pair human instruments spun discord as their desperate shouts attracted a gilded polícia, his willingness to play contraband depending on a corrupted watch or two. Silver tongued merchants peddled weighty promises of totally legitimate telescopic cameras and genuine flip phones at get-them-while-they-were-hot prices. Towards the back were the seasonal rainforest poachers unloading exotic animal pelts while their indentured wives barked tree leaves as cure-alls. A stone’s throw over were the salt-of-the-earth hocking unknowingly endangered street meat on a spit for the sake of a little wine and twine. Sure enough, tucked under the colorful shade of stretched patchwork tents sat cushioned flesh for hire, sacrificing their moaning church for the take of monetary refuge. Around the corner bled addled castaways, bleaching in the park like paper in a bonfire, the scorched light from on high drenching their pockmarked skin until their gloom was etched in anonymous stone.
This was an asylum for lunatics familiar with bedlam, and from Lester’s vantage point the lines of moral delineation blurred into a vibrant human bacchanal a few pangs away from anarchy. Yet the fumes from this boiling pot of depravity extolled a delirium mixing equal parts inane and potent, and its alchemy breathed torrents of triviality at its finest. Lester’s nostrils inhaled the potion, tasting the air’s char and petal and velvet and tang, the grit silky with hints of cinder and dew.
The pollen, however, was another story. Lester’s dormant issues with the Brazilian flora resurfaced as thousands of airborne plant spores hit his olfactory nerves. The foreign scores prompted his immune system’s involuntary response, the invading pathogens inflaming antibodies which led to histamines dilating capillaries, contractions tightening muscles and eventually his heart pumping Immunoglobulin E to the point of contact. His nasal cavity gushed forth unnecessary protection, the mucus secretion puckering his face and reddening his eyes. He reached into his white linen pocket for a rosy handkerchief and blew his nose. In the same motion Lester gesticulated to the waiter wading his way through the standing café for another dose.
“Obrigado,” Lester said, gladly injecting his poured prescription of expresso. He gulped down the remedy and patiently awaited of the psychoactive side effects. As he waited for the stimulant blockade to deaden polemic symptoms, his curiosity uncovered a woman’s stiletto having an amorous rendezvous with her beau’s brogue. Lester’s inquisitive gaze met the smoky eyes of the brunette, her smile setting over her current man’s mesh tanked back. Her lover rubbed his face to her shoulder like a cat marking its scent, but she ignored the attained attention for a wanton roll of the eyes followed by a wicked smirk directed at Lester. He knew that look—another heartbreak in the wings—and thought of the things he would do to play that game proper again.
Before the thought could mine too deeply morose, Lester spotted the person he had been stalking since he had arrived. Poking out of one of the tents from across the boulevard was a barefooted workhand. He sported a calloused disease over his arms and legs that caused his epidermis to bubble shingles of copper and black like tar on the tarmac. His hulking figure rolled through the crowd like a whispered jinx, a boulder churning downstream.
Unwilling to lose him yet again, Lester wrestled thirty Brazilian Real from his wallet and tapped it to the table. He then carefully secured his briefcase with both hands and lugged after the mark, forgetting that he was wearing abnormally heavy shoes. Tripping past the coy flirt, Lester mercifully caught himself before kick-starting a ruckus then snaked after his target, venturing farther inland to the dilapidated parts of the city.
For two tiring hours Lester lagged twenty meters behind, warily treading on the opposite end of the rugged road. The object of his pursuit finally stopped in front of the fenced entrance of a rundown building. The oppressive humidity had peeled swathes of the lime green paint from its exterior adobe walls, the resulting pattern helping the structure camouflage into the plush hills of the Morro Santana behind it. A silver sign with the washed stenciled words “CLINICA” and the rusty corrugated roof that supported it were the only features keeping the two story from completely fading into the scenery. After lingering a look over his blistered shoulder, the man buzzed the intercom with a stabbing push of his thumb. The gate clicked open and he sidestepped under a torn awning, disappearing into the confines within.
Sweating through his collared shirt, Lester delicately set down his briefcase. Relieved of the item’s weight, he began stretching out the ill-fitting thick clown shoes that had calloused his Achilles, sticking his index fingers to bend the hard plastic from digging deeper into his heels. Unsuccessful, he then leaned against the concrete wall of the adega behind him. Above hung the bundled hive of gato connections, the twisted ball of wire illegally stealing electricity from the main power line heading into the shop.
Lester contemplated pausing his surveillance to venture in for some cold refreshment, but then his parched throat coughed at the thought. The movement dislodged a spittle of collected pollution and the irritation drove Lester to put his hands on his knees and hock it out. His momentary lapse allowed a pair of yellowed sandals from a favela thug to get the drop.
“Hey Playboy, you lost your way?” said a muffled Portuguese accent ignoring the discharge oozing between his toes. Lester raised his eyes past cutoff cargo pants and a grey cotton t-shirt to see the muzzle of an AR-15 pointed to his head.
“Give me everything or I’ll make your brain fly with the wind,” the masked mugger said.
Lester slowly raised his arms and stood tall, using his left hand to retrieve his wallet. He gave it to the robber, who snatched it before prodding at Lester’s chest with the assault weapon.
“Everything. Clothes. And the case.”
Gathering that this was not going to end well, Lester began unbuttoning his shirt. He took it off his torso and offered it to the thief. The moment the bandit reached and grabbed, Lester stepped diagonally to avoid the line of fire while simultaneously using his left hand to deflect and grip the barrel. The metal firmly in grasp, Lester then shifted his weight to allow his right arm to shoot forward, the pivoting palm crumpling the pimpled nose of his attacker. Forced back, the adolescent assailant was then kneed in the gut, losing his rifle as the air pushed out of his lungs. Lester levered the buttstock into the youth’s chin then took seven paces backward, pointing the front sight at the boy.
“Wallet, shirt,” Lester asked.
Tears in his eyes, the kid dropped both.
The child ran off. Lester waited until he was out of sight then checked the cartridge. Empty of bullets, Lester let out a sigh. He placed the defenseless deterrent against the wall then picked up his shirt and began buttoning up.
“I believe you’re your cover has been blown, my friend,” a voice called out from above.
Lester looked up to see a bare chested old man in nylon shorts and an open lab coat, his hefty ninety year-old paunch jutting over the railing from the clinic’s second floor balcony.
“Even after all these years, your—what do they call it?—Krav Maga can still impress,” he said, gesturing his hands in a mocking fashion.
“Herr Doktor Mangel,” Lester said. “Have you been expecting me?”
“Lester, I’ve been expecting you for decades.”
Lester heard the clank of the gate and the click of a handgun. He looked across the street to a .38-caliber held by the man he had followed.
“This time, I assure you, it is loaded,” Mangel said.
Lester raised his arms and slid his plastic sole to his briefcase, carefully attempting a slick repositioning. Then he heard the shop door ring. A strike from the back connected with his right kidney and the flashing glint of a scalpel rested on his left lapel. Lester turned a ginger peek to see who had snuck behind him. The culprit was identical to the one in front of him, only this man’s skin had eaten off his profile and replaced with a thick grey scar of diseased flesh.
“Come now Lester, enough of this unnecessary drama,” Mangel said. “You must be thirsty, what with all of your walking through our neighborhood. How about we all go inside for ein bier like the old times, ja?”
Lester weighed his options. They were limited.
“Would someone be so kind as to carry in my luggage?” he asked.
The doctor laughed.
“Consider it arranged.”
The man who Lester had followed now pushed him onward from the smart end of the revolver. His twin covered behind, holding Lester’s briefcase with one arm as if it were a bag of onions while dragging the rifle like a toy with the other. The trio moved under the old fluorescent bulbs, the flickering illumination seeping over the hallway of the clinic. A shuttered waiting room was passed on the left, its festering odor of mildew populated by plastic plants gathering dust beside stacks of moldy soap opera magazines. An antiquated checkup room was ignored on the right, the leather protection of its examination table ripped to reveal discolored foam padding and the imprint of some long cached rat. Finally they pushed open a door to a convivial if pale living area replete with bright windows, worn couches and a tube television shakily receiving the broadcasting of a local soccer match.
“Have a seat,” Mangel yelled from an adjacent staircase. “I’ll be right down.”
The man with the facial scar thudded the briefcase upon a dining table, a movement that caused Lester to flinch. Unable to decipher a digital combination lock from a sealed wireless detonator, he took a seat at one end of the sofa. His frustrated twin jabbed the firearm into Lester, guiding him to the middle seat before plopping himself down.
Lester sat squished between the two massive kin. The coffee table in front of them was replete with Brazil nuts, and he watched as the two goliaths snatched the indigenous chestnuts with their appendages and crush the hard shells between their index and thumb before eating the fruit within. They scattered the discards around them and stared at the screen, entranced by the tiny distorted image of sport.
“It’s the Porto Alegre Futebol Clube, they were renamed earlier this month,” the doctor said, entering with two thirds of a six-pack dangling from his index finger. He helped himself to one before offering the rest to his guests. Lester refused to partake. “I never cared much for the game, but the gaúchos are crazy about having team to support.”
“Gaúchos?” Lester glanced to the gargantuan duo clicking open their beer cans at opposite ends of the couch. “You mean Tiny Tim and his handsome brother Pee-wee?”
“Lucas, the bub you met on the street, is a gaúcho— a local,” the doctor replied. “Joao and Guilhereme are from Candido Gadoi, but they’ll watch anything.”
“You mean they’re from Sao Pedro,” Lester realized.
“Two of my last, I’m afraid. I had to stop after the reports.”
“Are you responsible for the—” Lester stopped himself, waving his fingers over his skin to describe their unseemly rash.
“You can speak freely, they barely understand Portuguese let alone English. You believe I would do this to them?”
“I believe your work is an insult to life itself.”
“Touché, Lester, touché. No, nature was at play here. It’s called Chromoblastomycosis, an incurable fungal infection. It disgraced them when they were young. Their mother brought them back to me after their bodies had deteriorated to this sordid state. I stopped its advancement but Joao still got the worst of it,” the doctor said, gesturing to the one with the disfiguration.
“Their mother held me responsible, expecting me to handle the arrangements of their death. Instead, once they were returned, I realized it was easier to raise help than breed it.”
Mangel walked to the window and stared at the shadows of the midday forest, then giggled to himself.
“How is Bruna, by the way?” he said, turning to Lester with a malevolent grin. “Still as truculent as always?”
Lester’s eyes widened with apoplectic ferocity.
“Do you ever stop stealing from others?” Lester seethed.
“I could say the same about you,” Mangel countered. “Your mere existence is killjoy.”
“She was a child. You waited until I was gone to take her voice and then left her to die, to be torn apart from the inside. I’ve seen evil before but you are of the worst kind.”
“You mean the kind that survives?” the doctor replied. “An important lesson to learn. But you can thank yourself for that. Tell me, how did it feel becoming less than a man?”
Lester lunged forward but the brusque movement was seized by Guilherme. Joao pistol whipped Lester across his face and forced compliance by digging the metal into an enraged rib cage.
Mangel turned his back to Lester to open small wooden cabinet, removing a brown one hundred milliliter bottle labeled methyltrichloride.
“To be honest, Lester, I take pity on you. I learned of your story from our benefactors. You remind me of so many of my fallen brothers—tried and executed for simply following orders.”
Mangel brought the contents to the table and removed the cap, keeping his head turned from breathing the fumes as he began administering the colorless liquid to a tattered napkin. The doctor then turned off the television, took the revolver from Joao and addressed the twins.
“Segurem-no,” the doctor commanded, “e trazê-lo aqui.”
The two brothers snagged Lester and brought him over to Mangel.
“As for our mutual acquaintances, they do have the foresight to respect me for what I am.”
“A sadistic madman with a human cookbook?” Lester spat.
“I believe the words used were, ‘a noble gamble.’ See, I could have shot you in the street or had Joao and Guilhereme here butcher you alive. But how would that make for a specimen?”
The doctor smothered the dripping rag over his captive’s nose and mouth, twisting it over Lester’s face with glee. Lester held the air in his lungs but his skin nonetheless absorbed the compound. His pulse slowed, his vision blurred, and his nerve functions loosened until he was forced to inhale the sweet numbing aroma. Nausea and stupor swirled in his head, writhing his mind as he squirmed. The two brothers tightened their grip and kept Lester’s elbows pinned, closing him off from escape.
Mangel removed the drying rag and tabled the gun to hastily administer another dose.
“Tell me, have you met him?”
“Who?” a disoriented Lester slurred.
“The new one, the one who practices veterinary medicine, puts down dogs and plays with rats but still has the gall to call himself doctor,” Mangel laughed. “He is a businessman, I’ll give him that. Very willing to lie and ruin whatever is necessary to make himself superior. Just like his father, Dennis Warren.”
“Henry? You’ve met Henry?”
“My lieber Lester,” Mangel sighed. “That was always your problem: you trusted but never knew who to fear. Say what you will about my vices, at least I believed in that higher power. A man who does not will never accept his limitations. Until it’s too late.”
The doctor then wadded the soaked cloth into Lester’s mouth with perverse elation.
“He and his project think I made you this way. In fact they’re so convinced of my macabre ability for unlocking human potential that they’re willing to spare me from hanging before a tribunal. I should be thanking you. You’ve allowed me to play God once again. So here is my gift of appreciation Lester: a relaxed heart, a pair of paralyzed lungs, and a painless passing. Auf wiedersehen.”
Rapidly fading into a senseless dark, Lester shot a desperate glance to the suitcase across the room. Wincing in anticipation, he lifted his right leg before dropping the back heel against the floor, stomping the foot in the same manner again. And again. And again.
Mangel tightened his grip on Lester’s jaw, chalking up the disjointed movement to a body’s last gasp. Only by the fifth attempt, when the thick plastic bottom of Lester’s shoe finally cracked, did the doctor realize his mistake. As the slam triggered the contact switch hidden inside the customized loafer, Mangel turned just in time to be blinded by the blast from the suitcase bomb.
The pitch and catch of the motor lapped up against the soft waves of the lagoon. It caused the doctor’s body to rock along the bow. Strips shredded from his tattered lab coat kept his ankles and wrists tied behind his back. One more was knotted around his mouth in an attempt to keep him mute. Addled with a concussion, the ringing gloss of his headache had subsided enough to let a healthy sneeze from Lester stir him from his slumber.
Noticing that the doctor was no longer inert, Lester closed the engine, letting it spurt to a stop. He paused from his sniffy coastal cruising and marched over to Mangel, swiftly kicking the doctor in his stomach before removing the gag from his mouth. Mangel promptly spewed the acidic backwash of his digested hefeweizen along the deck. Lester placed his busted boot on the doctor’s head, rubbing his face in the vile stew.
“Wach auf Herr Doktor,” Lester shouted.
Still woozy, Mangel sputtered linguistic nonsense and the amalgam of languages accumulated frothy bubbles along his orifice. Lester stepped off, filled a pail and dumped the bucket of brackish Southern Atlantic on his hostage.
Mangel swiveled his neck to see a sunset closing over deep waters, his head aching from the tonal pain of a bruised brain.
“Did you enjoy the present I got you? Nothing says fick dich like a suitcase packed with M84’s, am I right?”
“How did you—where’s Joao and Guilhereme?”
“After two dozen stun grenades burnt off we were all in pretty bad shape,” Lester explained. “The rude one started strangling me with his walnut-crushing fingers, so I smacked him in the temple a couple of times before caving his nose in.
“Then the other guy with the shitty face tried puncturing me with his little knife,” Lester said, showcasing the scalpel before returning the blade to his back pocket. “So I snapped his wrists.”
“Really?” Mangel asked.
“No, of course not,” Lester said, pulling out the loaded caliber from his waistband. “I shot them. Or rather, I shot at them. Missed. But I did get to the gun first. Had to tie them up back in the clinic. Took forever. But you, well, I couldn’t leave the body of a Nazi war criminal just there. That kind of publicity is nada bom for me. So instead we’re at the center of Lagoa dos patos, roughly 35 kilometers from the shore.”
Lester stood, the and got some air. The wind was fresh, whisking the heat of the day off of Lester’s skin. He breathed it in through his nose, letting the environment fester in before sneezing it back out.
“Remarkable—I see your immune system is still as strong as ever,” the doctor noticed. “I commiserate with its fight to keep you alive.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“Don’t take today personally Lester,” the doctor continued. “It’s just how people are. I read a story recently that reminded me of you. It was about a girl who was found in the Andes. She had been left out in the cold and had frozen solid. They had to thaw her out to conduct the autopsy to discover how she was murdered. But the forensics showed her organs were in perfect condition—the brain was completely undamaged, the heart could still function and her blood poured out fresh as if she were still alive—no poison or trauma of any kind. The only thing scientists found was a slight burn reminiscent of a lightning strike. Turns out she had been sacrificed as part of an Incan ritual five hundred years ago. The theory was that when she had survived the bolt unscathed, she was deemed worthy to be with the gods, left to die alone.”
“You’re saying I should be thankful,” Lester replied.
“People just want to share, Lester. Generosity is part of the human condition. After all, death is our most common symptom.”
Lester pointed the gun at the doctor.
“You had that chance, years ago. They wanted me dead but you kept me alive. Why?”
“Why do anything I suppose.”
Lester pressed the pistol against Mangel’s temple.
“Alright,” the doctor said. “Alright, stop being such a scheiße.”
Lester released his grip and Mangel shifted to a seated position.
“I was told to get rid of you, it’s true. And I planned to follow my orders. Then later that day I went in the bathroom to find a cricket in front of my mirror. It was looking at itself, chirping the way that they do, rubbing its wings in search for love. I stared at it. And then I stared at my reflection. And then I turned off the light. The next morning it was gone.
“I could have killed you. Instead I turned off the light. At the time the result was the same.”
“Time certainly does change things.”
“Time” the doctor sighed, “is a weight that crushes. It merely proves what can last. I am glad to see that you have.”
The sun’s rays petered out over the continent behind them. The dusk grew pregnant. Lester was impatient to deliver.
“I think that may be as good a cue as any other,” he said. He set up his aim and twitched his trigger finger.
“Wait!” cried the doctor. “Don’t kill me. I can help you.”
“No you can’t.”
“I can tell you things. Like, how did I know you were coming?”
“You told me already dummkopf,” Lester said. “Henry Warren. The little shit. But he was right about one thing—time to tie up loose ends.”
He pressed the muzzle to Mangel’s head.
“What about your other ghost who paid me a visit?”
“What other ghost?”
“Aha! If I tell you, you must promise not to kill me,” the doctor shivered.
Lester mulled it over, then raised the gun to the old man. He then tossed it over board. Mangel let out a sigh of relief.
“I don’t know how he found me but he had money. Lots of it. He was young looking, but pudgy with self-doubt, his hair dye fading so you could see the grey. He knew you. He knew me, knew what I was. He didn’t care. He just wanted to know more about you, about your secret. He wanted to know how you became this.”
“And he gave me money. So I told him a story. About a mission on Lake Maracaibo in northwest Venezuela.”
“I never had a mission in Venezuela.”
“Which he didn’t know. But it’s a good story, one that helped keep me alive. See, for centuries sailors would use the Maracaibo as a visual landmark since they could see it from hundreds of kilometers away. The jungle, the mountains and the ocean all converge at a spot that creates a never ending storm, a natural lighthouse.”
“It’s true. They have superstitions about what can happen there.”
“So I told him that one day you and I were running from the Mossad when we got lost on the river. We ended up stranded on the lake when I saw you get hit by the lightning of Catatumbo. Again and again your body was struck, burned beyond recognition. And then, when you recovered, that was when we discovered that you had become this.”
“What was the man’s name?”
“My memory is old. It is cold. Perhaps if we were back on land.”
Lester took the scalpel from his back pocket and dragged it over the folded creases of the doctor’s forehead. Dark crimson gushed out over his eyes.
“He said his name was Eddie,” the doctor screamed.
The blood drained from Lester’s face.
“Edgar? Where is he now” he shouted, shaking the old man. “In Venezuela?”
“No, there are easier ways to get what he’s looking for. More American ways.”
“What else did you tell him?”
“Only some advice,” Mangel said, staring up at Lester with maniacal beady eyes. “I told him you might not like the man that lightning turns you into.”
Lester could feel the adrenaline coursing through the shriveled war criminal, the feeble pulse of his withered heart pattering stolen beats long overdue. Lester’s hands hooked the restraints around Mangle’s legs and dragged him to back of the boat. Lester then stood him up and removed the blade from his back pocket.
Mangel began to cry, the coagulating gore from his gash running with the tears.
“You said you wouldn’t kill me,” he sobbed.
Cutting the cloth that had bound the doctor’s hands, Lester then pushed him into the water. Mangel’s weak wizened head sank under the shuddering cold as creatures crawled up from the current to inspect the commotion. With a peck and pull they soon quieted the flailing old man.
Lester started the motor and drifted away, moving on from the body in the sea.