Monday 23 April 2007

Plight of the Transformer - Part One

Plight of the Transformer is a story told in eight episodes, posted serially by me, your camouflaged host, Cheeseburger Brown. Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8

"At any time, I am any man."

Let's begin:


Banks are banks are banks; tellers are tellers are tellers.

Unless, of course, one has a special relationship. It's at this point that we require a modicum of guile, craft and -- yes, even -- art. Where there's a special relationship it can be difficult to judge which details have become fixed in the client's mind: a habitually chewed fingernail, a particular flick of the eyes, a predictable lilt when speaking certain phrases, standing out against others dulled by repetition...

"Can I help the next customer in line, please?"

I was in Geneva. The weather was unseasonably brisk, a coolness that seemed to be intensified by the cold marble columns and intricately tiled, ice shiny floor of the opulent old bank on Rue de Montbrillant.

The frescoes were eighteenth century, Baroque revival. Gorgeous.

Swiss reserve contained the clientele, keeping them as aloof and cool as the ancient fixtures and the faces in the friezes. They did not chat amongst themselves. The prim dotards clutched their handbags, the slick executives held their a la mode briefcases, the servants and secretaries on their masters' business stood as still and lifeless as robots. There were no children.

Someone quietly coughed. It echoed.

Today it was my habit to hang my hat at a sixty degree angle from the left-most hook on the stand. Today it was my habit to fold my overcoat in quarters before tucking it under the counter. Today it was my habit to scratch the side of my nose whenever I felt that anyone was looking directly at me.

I rolled open the interlocked mesh of steel foil that curtained my telling window, then turned over the three-faced sign that advertised my availability. One of my oldest and most trusted customers approached immediately, ducking around the shuffling ancients. I smiled, and scratched at my nose.

"Goodmorning, Monsieur Beyda. How does the day find you?"

"Excellent, Monsieur Camenzind, thank you very much. How are your children?"

"Splendid," I told him. "Quite splendid indeed, Monsieur."

"Good, good, good," he replied with a polite chuckle. He placed a black leather attache case on the counter and dialed in the combination to release the catches. "I'd like to move some funds around today, as we discussed. Have the proper forms come in?"

"Yes, Monsieur, I have everything ready."

"There were no difficulties?"

"None at all, Monsieur."


I watched him as he arranged his papers behind the shield of the case's lid. His face was lined by laughter, crinkled about the corners of the eyes and mouth, etchings of jokes past. Though serious in an appropriately Swiss manner he struck me as a light-hearted man -- friendly, genial, quick to forgive. He was perhaps a few years older than myself, just beginning to go grey at the temples. His nails were clipped close, groomed smooth. His clothes were fine, designed by well-known names and fitted by well-known tailors.

There was nothing about him that would cause one to suspect the blood on his hands. There was no single detail that gave him away as a mass-murderer, a crazed political zealot, an ideological monster.

He seemed nice.

"I'll need your signature here, Monsieur, and here," I said, sliding a form across the counter and indicating the lines for autography. He held the pen in his right hand, but was obviously left-handed -- the product of a classical education. Private tutoring in his home kingdom, no doubt.

"There," he pronounced, sliding the paper back at me.

I swiveled my computer monitor toward me and tapped at the keys. "Yes, yes," I said, affecting a pensive frown. "And now the destination passcodes, if you will, Monsieur."

"Of course."

He unfolded a slip of crisp, off-white paper and pushed it toward me. I looked at it over the top of my bifocals as I entered the numbered strings into the system, stabbing the Enter key with a flourish at the end of each line. "Will you be visiting Syria this winter?" I asked carelessly.

"Naturally. And you, Giles -- you'll be taking the family to Aix-en-Provence?"

I nodded. "Quite so, Monsieur. For my daughters it is the highlight of the Christmas holiday. They clamour for the lime springs. You've not been, Monsieur, have you?"

"No, I have never been."

"Fair enough, Monsieur, for I have never come to Syria."

"If you did, you would have my hospitality."

"You're very gracious, Monsieur."

Similar conversations flowed through the other windows: the courteous banter of false friendship, the pleasantries of familiar strangers. This was the background bedding to the muttered formalities necessitated by the business to be done -- money to be wired to irresponsible sons at university, money shifted to satisfy the demands of taxation or the evasion thereof, money to refurbish the home or repair an automobile, money locked in travelers' cheques for travel, money funneled through a network of holding companies to finance the unspeakably merciless work of ideologue-butchers...

"It is done, Monsieur," I said, looking up. "Would you care for a paper receipt?"

"Yes, please."

He slipped it into his attache case and then snapped closed the lid. "I cannot thank you enough for your assistance in this matter, Giles," he said. "The brothership is grateful."

"I am only too glad to help, Monsieur. Is there anything else I can do for you this morning?"

"No, no, thank you. I have other matters that require my attention." He inclined his head in a slight bow. "Do take care, Monsieur Camenzind."

I bowed my head in turn. "And you, Monsieur Beyda. Until the next time."

"Until then."

As he pushed through the doors into the bright autumn day I rotated my sign to indicate my non-availability, then drew down the curtain on my window. The teller to my right frowned. "Is there something wrong, Giles?"

"Not at all," I replied with a wan smile. "I simply have...matters that require my attention."

"But you cannot close your window now. There are clients."

"Yes, of course," I said, putting on my hat and draping my coat over my arm. "I shall return presently."

"Monsieur Richelieu will be furious."

I stepped out from behind the counter and nodded in a friendly way to the queue of customers as I crossed the polished floor. I opened the door and stepped out into the street, a breezy mix of exhaust, perfume and autumnal rot. I crossed the street and boarded a tram, then watched the bank slide away behind me forever.

As the tram jostled along, dinging its bell and shrieking on the turns, I gradually began to relax. I allowed Giles Camenzind's characteristic posture to ebb from my shoulders as I stood up straighter, stretching my arms beneath my suit. I loosened my tie and took a deep breath.

Idly, I wondered how long it would be before the bank received word of the whereabouts of the real Giles Camenzind. Indeed, M. Richelieu would be furious -- and bewildered, to be sure.

As should be clear to you by now, I am not Giles Camenzind.

I am a craftsman, a professional. I am an artist, my services for hire. I follow a hallowed tradition informed and augmented by modern tools in order to do my duty for the Crown. At any time, I am any man. My trade is deceit.

I am a transformer.


Simon said...

I love that this is going to be a longer story. The pain of leaving the characters at the end is always more poignant, but the love built up to that point is similarly stronger.

I didn't pick up on any hints that we should know who this person is or what seems to be going on, but it is only the first chapter. And unless I miss my guess, that leftmost character in the header graphic seems a lot like how our Long Man ought to look. I've been missing him since the Barrington House.

Anonymous said...

More than meets the eye!

Fascinating already. CBB, have you ever read Heinlein's Double Star? This fellow reminds me of Lorenzo, as well as Kevin Spacey's performance in The Usual Suspects.

I echo the hope for some Lallo time; that picture said the same thing to me, though perhaps we're both just too eager for a familiar face.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon and Sheik,

Well, I usually try to keep the illustrations a bit cryptic so as not to give away too much of the plot -- but in this case, I opted to let you guess from the start: yes, indeed, the man on the left of the picture is our old, old friend Lallo.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

It goes to show how wonderfully descriptive your writing is. I too, envisioned Lallo to look exactly like that and picked him out even before I started the read. Good hook on this one, CBB

THE Danimal

Orick of Toronto said...

a lot of suspence for such a calm beginning.

I envisioned Lallo to be more square faced but that nose and brow is what I focused on. So I thought it was him too.

Mark said...

Fun so far.

Go, Lallo (which, for me as a kid learning to speak, was the way I pronounced "yellow.") So, I'm regressing to an earlier, more innocent phase of life every time I read that name.

Teddy said...

Didn't even notice the drawing before I snarfed the story, but still - interesting.

I half-heartedly hoped for a story about Optimus Prime, but that wouldn't have fit with the style of things. I much like this one. A spy story! Yay! Love those.

Notably, this customer guy is a Syrian, just like Zoran. So - when are we? It seems the primary question in the BurgerVerse is not so much where but when, which is interesting - there's always something going on, but he challenge is fitting it all in together, pieces to the puzzle like.

I still don't know quite where Sandy fits into the equation at large though. Mike has something to do with the war at least, and I KNOW that there's a story about him being shot down over enemy territory. Sandy almost seems extraneous at this point, but I solidly believe that Extraneous only means not yet tied in here.


Anonymous said...

Zoran was Serbian (Eastern Europe), not Syrian (MidEast/Africa).

As for Sandy, I had to wonder if she'd be involved in this given the type of dealings, but figured it was my overactive imagination... acting... again.

I still can't wait for S.Miss, Lallo, Zhang, and Zoran to come together. So I'm learning to be patient... a little bit at a time...

Mark said...

I would liken CBB to a drug dealer, doling out just enough to keep us hooked, but he hasn't started charging us for it yet, so that's not quite the right comparison.