Chiaroscuro
rating: +58+x

noir

It felt like the fog would never end.

It spread across the continent, dull and ordinary. It was part of a pace of life that people assumed would go on forever, even as they picked up the pieces of their shattered world. In a village in Sweden, people took in the drying clothes, feeling a pleasant kind of winter chill as they trudged back to their homes. Thin lights spread out from coastal villages, blurring and blending with the grey beyond.

It spread over the ocean, with bells pealing through the air, muffled and distant. Little ships plied their way across the seas, fearing the cold below. It was a life spent dwelling in these shades of grey, hoping that something solid would appear on the horizon.

South, across the forests and repopulating towns, was a city. It was a broken city, in a kind of stasis where it could not be put back together. But it still had streetlights, gaunt townhouses, bonfires in empty streets. There was order, of a kind, as the soldiery of four nations gathered to squabble over its remains.

In this moment, at this time and place, its citizens looked to the sky for their salvation. The Soviets were blasting propaganda across the three zones, and they'd tried a putsch in the West only a few weeks before. The buildings were half-collapsed in their own rubble. It was a city surviving on string and wire.

Stalin was starving half the city in order to put pressure on the West. And the Americans were too stubborn to concede, so they were running the blockade in planes, tiny planes, rickety engines that could travel hundreds of miles through the air but not touch down in a little winter mist. In their apartment blocks and houses, in the wreckages of houses and mausoleums, the Berliners listened to the whine of the engines as they circled, over and over, looking for a way through.


In another part of the city, in a little pool of light, a man was sitting on a bench. He wore a long, dark coat but possessed few other describable features. The impression you'd be left with was with someone grim and unshaven, even though you wouldn't be able to say why. A lamp shone down upon him. No-one noticed him as they walked by.

Trying to see was pointless, but he could still hear through the mist. There were two people near him that he was interested in. He was listening to one right now: an American serviceman, off duty, laughing with his friends and chatting up a girl. He tried to chat up a lot of girls. Today, though, he was more interested in having fun, in camraderie, in the business of friendship. He was wonderfully vacuous.

The other was, by and large, an irrelevance. He was following the man in the long coat, and doing this badly. This one was nervous and twitchy, making every effort to appear surreptitious and, in doing so, entirely failing. He had so many complexities that it felt like he had none, so much noise that you couldn't hear anything else.

This one would be easy to dispatch. The man in the long coat had a trap that he would spring directly. First, though, he needed a little time to listen. The conversation of the American was full of baseball, the Big Apple, Minnesota in the spring. It was useful, useful stuff. The man in the long coat wanted to know everything about him, listening while he scribbled and scribbled in his little notebook. The spine was beginning to break.


Hours later, the irrelevance entered a sparsely-lit room.

The apartment was not unadorned - that would have been too obvious. Instead, it was pleasant and idiosyncratic. A picture of a smiling couple. A rare Uzbek rug, bought in Belgrade, now fading slightly. Some tasteful novels piled neatly by a window.

Hans sniffed and flicked his hair. He ran a gloved finger along the top of the wardrobe. Not especially dusty. Someone had been here recently.

He was careful. No fingerprints. He opened the doors and drawers quietly, naturally. He prided himself on his precision. He liked the process of something, the careful orders and patterns that accomplished a task. He needed that kind of stability - after the things he'd seen, it helped him to focus.

He was twenty-seven now. His story was unremarkable. He'd been an Ostfront conscript, and like all Ostfont conscripts had seen things he didn't want to. He would claim that he'd never participated, he'd never done anything like that himself. He'd just been there.

Hans could, with difficulty, preserve a narrative in his head about his life. He had suffered, he had endured, he had witnessed. Yes, that was it, he was a witness; not one of them. And now, having spent some time seeing the depths to which men could sink, he would Fight for Right, for a new democratic Germany, for an end to the inhuman doctrine of communism and some measure of, well, something.

He paused. A creak on the stair - he froze - the sound of a couple laughing. He relaxed. The man in the long coat had gone on a train to Potsdam just this morning. He was fine. He wiped his sweaty head on a glove, and opened another drawer.

There! His black notebook! Hans grinned widely, picking it up. The fool had left it behind! He'd be able, finally, to confirm his suspicions. The man was always near that group of Americans, always writing notes in his little diary. He opened it greedily. There must be evidence here, something of significance -

The book was filled with pictures of Hans.

Detailed, careful sketches. Pictures of Hans in his Wehrmacht uniform. Pictures of Hans in the suit he wore on his wedding day, bending over in the garden before he was called up, standing sombre at his wife's funeral. Pictures of Hans in the dirty coat that he followed the man in.

Pictures of Hans in the snow, with something indistinct behind him.

Hans dropped the notebook. He stuttered. He reached the door and ran.


Nobody saw him leave.

The man who wasn't there stared from behind his binoculars. A quick visit to Hans' house while the man shopped for groceries had provided him with suitable photographs to copy. It had been necessary to him to string the German along, to disturb his sense of place.

He felt little guilt. Was it breaking the rules? Well, it couldn't have been, or he wouldn't have been able to do it. No direct interference in events. It was his personal notebook, left as a trap for someone who'd been tailing him personally. Hopefully that was the last obstacle on this occasion.

Nobody snapped the binoculars shut and leant back. Everything was coming together perfectly. He admired the dust as it floated through the sunbeams. He contemplated the thin light that filtered through the mist.

The American boy was 24, maybe 25. He wandered the city like a smiling vacuity, perfectly pleasant, perfectly nothing. He flirted and smiled and smoked, a dumb bull trying to seduce a china shop. He had a certain Yankee charm, but ultimately he was just another one in a crowd.

He had known for a long time that Europe was over. The nexus of power were altering, and a change was necessary. He was quite at peace with that. It was inevitable. He didn't want to think about what he'd be afterwards, of course, but that paled in comparison to what had to be done. The image of a man in a grey suit, sauntering down a neoclassical facade on Main Street - it had a certain sense, a weight to it.

Nobody wasn't much given to contemplation. He never had been. The guns of Flanders had beaten that out of him. The one thing that gave him pleasure was the task at hand, never stopping, never ceasing. The eternal clicking engine that pushed him on. He had a job to do. What else was there?


Bars, now, bars were useful. It's an old truism that it's easier to be seen in a deserted place than a crowded one. Nobody enjoyed them very much - especially since the boy also liked to frequent them.

He still wasn't entirely certain, of course. Nobody didn't want a dullard. He needed someone intelligent, just not… introspective. He needed observational skills, tact, a capacity for slyness and intrigue. Just not anyone who could be made to doubt. There was a new kind of peace in the air, one full of death and machinery, and the last thing that would be needed was someone who saw the world in shades of grey.

It was a dark, crowded room. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, curling around the walls. It was clearer than the outside, though; walking in made it feel like the weather was turning. The electricity flickered and was unstable, so lanterns had been hung from the ceiling. GIs chatted up German girls in shaded corners, while young couples danced across the floor, free and happy to be alive. It was the kind of place enlarged by its cramped nature, where each corner and cavity was like another blackened room.

People needed those places. They needed a hundred escapes, a thousand paths through the maze, anything to keep them away from the cold and the rubble and the butt of a gun. The world was broken and there were no more stories left. So they got drunk with black market whisky in wooden buildings, listening to the roar of the aircraft go by.

And the Americans served the same purpose. Glamour! Power! The conquering army with cigarettes and flash, a future returning to save them. Never mind what they did in the dark, never mind the looks some men would give them - for some among the disaffected youth, their skin seemed to glow with the luminescence of a simple, comprehensible future.

Nobody sat at his table, looking at the GI. The boy hadn't noticed him, but he'd seen… something. More than the others had. That was exactly what was required. The lantern jaw swung into a smile, white teeth flashing. The bloom of youth.

And so Nobody didn't see the man in white until he was already sitting down.


To his credit, he made no move. He sat, rigid, as the man smirked and pulled out a cigarette case.

"Got a match?"

Nobody nodded, and took out a little box. He lit them both up, and sat back, still tense. The man in white considered him for a long while, letting the smoke coil around his face.

"New coat?"

"Old one. Spain."

The man in white chuckled. "Spain? Really? I guessed Japan. You could have done your work so much better there."

"It was the warm-up. Have you seen what happened to Guernica?"

The man nodded. "And now you're here. A little late for the harvest, don't you think?"

Nobody sighed, and took a deep draw. A woman was downing a pint while the servicemen cheered her on. She finished, and tilted her head back, laughing. "There are more important things than a single life."

Another smirk. "You mean you still don't regret it? No, I suppose not. You're just a Nobody, after all. You don't deserve another name. Even the ones who see you in the cracks think that you're a conduit for something else, a vessel of a greater purpose. They don't know how pathetic your kind is."

"Would you let them all die?" Nobody stared at the whisky glass. "I give them a free choice. They want to come to me."

"They don't know what it means." The man put on a little sneering smile. Nobody noticed that he hadn't aged; the same rubbery cheeks, the same self-satisfied plumpness that he'd been wearing for years. "But neither do you. It's only when you've finished your task that you'll realise. When you're neither nobody nor somebody. Stuck in the middle. Will you thank him, or me?"

Nobody glanced up. The American had gone. "Not much good at small talk, are you?"

"Neither are you. Now listen closely. I've been following you for days, with those little amateur theatrics you've been playing. The spy is clearly not your mark, so it must be the American. Well, you may have had your fun torturing poor Hans, but the soldier is not yours. You're not going to turn him into your successor. He is under my protection, and if you try to take him, I will stop you, and I will kill you."

The man got up. "Be seeing you, old friend. Try not to break anything else."

And then he was gone, and it was hours later, and Nobody was all alone as the bar closed up. The barman was aware a lantern was still on, aware a figure was beneath it, but it somehow didn't feature as something to think about. So Nobody sat, in the same place, holding his glass. The smoke was clearing fast, and things were coming into focus.

He - or the American - had to be in Moscow in a week. He couldn't afford this. It was a distraction, a crucial one, at exactly the wrong moment. There was so much to do, and he was so tired. The man in white didn't understand what it was to be old. The smirking bore was the same as he had been in the trenches - louche, slick-tongued, feckless. To be Nobody, to take on that identity, was a necessity - what you'd become afterwards scarcely mattered.

He examined the whisky glass. The light refracted from it in so many patterns, playing around each other. The red-and-white of the tablecloth scattered through a thousand shades, a bitter fugue that danced in strange lanterns.

A snarl twisted around his face as he threw it to the floor. He paid his bill and left.


Hans' own rooms were shabby and cobwebbed. A collection of romance novels spilled across the floor. They were almost an addiction for him. A picture of a woman, faded and old, stood on his dresser.

He was twenty-seven now. His story was unremarkable. He'd been an Ostfront conscript, and like all Ostfont conscripts had seen things he didn't want to - but no, that wasn't right, was it? He hadn't been conscripted. He'd joined up. It was for food, of course, for bread and something to keep himself alive, but that didn't make it right.

And the things he'd seen, in Byelorussia, in the forest…

Hans shook his head. He hadn't shot them. It hadn't been his finger on the trigger. And he would never forget the sight of their faces, their faces in the snow. He'd never forget. He clung to that like a lifeboat, or an anchor.

He sat down, and glanced out of the window. A plane could be seen in the distance, little blinking lights through the fog. The lifeline was so tenuous. So many went hungry. So many went over the line, into the East, where they'd give food for free. He didn't hate them, that was the funny thing, even though he'd been taught to. Even though he should, he knew, somewhere deep inside.

There was a knock at the door. Hans jumped, desperate and flailing. He grabbed the first thing to hand - the picture frame - and held it aloft. "Go away," he said. "Not today. I've paid my rent."

"I'm not here about the rent, Hans. I believe you were looking for me."

Hans blood ran cold. He dropped the picture, and backed up on his bed, staring at the door. "No. No, I'm - I'm sorry, I - "

The doorhandle turned. Hans winced. He'd forgotten to lock it. The door opened, and the man in the long coat stood there, head tilted, examining his quarry.

"The pictures were a cheap trick. I'm sorry. Is that what you want to hear? I'm not a Russian spy, or a Nazi, or anyone else. I needed to scare you and now I need your help. No-one else has seen me in months, or I wouldn't be asking."

Hans relaxed, slightly. "What?"

"I'm not a spy, Hans. Honest." He extended a hand and attempted a smile. "My name is Nobody, and I can help."

"Who are you? What are you?"

"I'm here to make sure - well, to make sure everything runs as it should. I can't tell you more than that. What I can tell you is that, in 1943, your battalion slaughtered an entire village, and you are the only one who didn't participate. You, in a moment of choice between life and death, chose life. I chose life too, and I'm here to help, Hans."

Hans stared at him. "How did - "

"Because I'm the man with all the answers." Nobody's face lit up with a grin, or a grimace. "I have a purpose greater than what you, or your American handlers, or the Russians can understand. The entire world is spinning on a knife-edge, and it must not be allowed to slip. You want a new purpose, one free of Soviets and soldiers and occupations. You want to be the good guy. So come with me."

Hans stared some more, his mouth open. Then he shook his head, slowly. "I don't understand, I don't - "

Nobody cursed inwardly. "Then I'll explain."

And he did. He carried on as he started, full of lies, tricks and omissions of the truth. He'd appropriated the story Hans had told his superiors and used it to play on his guilt and pride. He added in rousing moments, little speeches that cast the world in black and white, a little flattery for Hans' beliefs and need for atonement. This kind of thing used to sicken him, but he'd long stopped caring.

When he'd finished, Hans believed him entirely. There was a cosmic purpose, a torch and duty that needed to be carried on, and he, Hans, was the special one. He needed to help Nobody- he had to help Nobody. He would facilitate the transference of that name onto the next generation, and would keep freedom alive forever.

"But why me?", Hans asked. "Why do I - "

"Because you saw me when no others could. You're special, Hans. You can see where nobody else can. You cast a light in the dark."

It was a stupid line, but in the end Hans was a stupid person. He'd only been able to see Nobody because he was a twitchy paranoid wreck, and while there were enough of those wherever he went, Hans just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Nobody had chosen him because he needed someone, or else he'd be breaking the rules.

He waited, patiently, as Hans tapped out a code to his American handler, as he ran to two telegraph offices and back, as he shone a light from the window. Stupid, amateur stuff, but it got results. "He's gone out of town," the spy said breathlessly. "He's gone to a church, up in the woods west of Potsdam. Something about a pilgrimage."

That was something Nobody did not expect. Why? Why go to a church in the middle of nowhere? It was something internal, something complex. He started to think, very hard and fast.

Eventually, he smiled at Hans, warm and encouraging. "Then come on. There's not a moment to lose."


moon

He may have been functionally invisible, but his car wasn't. It was sleek, and stylish - the kind of car that was waved into places others weren't. It sped upon the Berlin night, shifting and twisting down country roads.

The woods were pine, and suffocated the sky. A thin moon wound its way through, a thin slash on the road ahead. The fog had gone now. Cold stars occasionally glittered above.

"I still don't understand why we're doing this."

"Because the man in white doesn't expect it. He thinks he's thrown me off, like he did in our last encounter. That I'll play it safe, and regroup, and come at the problem from a new angle. What he doesn't expect is for me to recruit you, track the boy down tonight, use you to kidnap him and then, in the comfort of a locked room, persuade him. It would never occur to him."

Hans stared ahead for a while. "And you can't - "

"No, because I can't interfere with the real world. Not really, anyway. Things to do with me - like being watched - or things that only affect me, sure. Self-defence, for instance. Little and unobstrusive things. But I can't kidnap someone, or assassinate someone, or drive three hundred miles with so specific a purpose. That's where you come in. Do you like the car?"

Hans shrugged. "I never noticed cars."

They continued in silence. The trees shot past. No-one else was on the road tonight. Nobody thought about music, and constructed an engine in his head. An engine of time and evolution. Development unfolding over the course of decades. An elegy of perfect poise, of counterpoint, of -

"It's the Church of St. Helena."

Nobody blinked. "What?"

Hans didn't seem to notice his question. "The church, the one he's going to. St. Helena. She was King Constantine's mother. Recovered a piece of the True Cross."

Nobody turned and looked at his companion. He'd never really noticed his features. Thinning hair, slicked down with sweat. A too-round face, with a little cherry of a chin. Cheeks that were once merry and now stuck out, frail and gaunt.

"I went there, once." The spy was in a daze. "My friends and I were on a - a school trip, I think. In the early 30s, just as it was all starting up. We had a good time, I guess. But I got lost and ended up in the woods. They looked for me for hours."

Hans was blinking hard. He licked his lips and adjusted his glasses.

"And I walked through the woods, and it was so quiet. But it was a complex kind of quiet, you know? Not nothing there, more like - more like everything, working so well they didn't need to make a noise. I climbed the hill, cold, alone, and there was a little church there. A little metal cross on the top."

The car was climbing a hill, too, but Nobody didn't think it could be the same one. The wood was thinning here, and metal slats lined the edges of the road. This wasn't a romantic place.

"I went into the church, and there was a light there. An ancient pastor. He was holding a service, and nobody was there. He didn't seem to notice. So I went and sat as he went through the motions. He saw me then, but continued on. We reached communion, and I knelt before the altar, and he - he was weeping. I don't know why. The service finished and he went through a door to the back, and then - "

Hans stopped, and slowed the car down. "Never mind. We're here."


The church was wooden. It looked like it hadn't been used in years, but a flickering light was coming from inside. Hans felt nervous. It was so different, now, with so many years on it, on him. He'd been lost then, and there wasn't any snow.

Nobody gestured for him to enter first. Hans did. A row of candles illuminated the apse, and there was a man there, praying. He was wearing a military uniform. He didn't look up. He was kneeling at the altar, his hair cut close.

Hans crept forward, taking out his revolver. He held it by the barrel. One short, swift strike would save a hell of a lot of trouble. The pews seemed to crowd in on him preaching to his waist and legs, but Hans was too focused on the task at hand to let it bother him.

But maybe he didn't have to think like that. Maybe he could be a hero. Maybe he could be redeemed after all. Maybe he didn't need to lie about -

The man at the altar slid sideways, collapsing to the floor. Hans ran to him, and saw the wide, staring eyes, the gunshot wound in the chest. He looked around, and the man in white rose from behind a pew, holding a hunting rifle.

Hans froze. He raised his hands slowly. The man in white's grin was sad, almost wistful.

"You know, Hans, it really disappoints me when people fall for his lines. The old hero routine, was it? In the time I've known him, he's manipulated hundreds of people into doing things like this. Not as bad as his predecessor, in many ways, but the bottom line still dominates his thoughts."

Hans licked his lips. He couldn't see Nobody, but this was a cramped and shadowy church. Any number of hiding spots. Could he distract the man? Reason with him? He just needed a moment, any moment, to grab the revolver's handle and fire.

"He doesn't see what you and I see, Hans. I heard you were the only man in your unit who didn't murder civilians. You can see life, Hans. You see places like this and don't just see wood and fire, but a place where men's lives are played out, where identity is forged and made. I didn't want to kill the boy, but I had no choice. Nobody doesn't stop, you see. Sooner or later, he'd have got him."

"Sounds like a nice excuse." Just shake, him somehow, shake him -

"Oh? And what's yours?" It came out as a hiss, and the man tightened his grip on the rifle. "What's yours? Did you never kill? Have you not known war? I do what has to be done. Death is better than being nobo-"

Hans hurled the revolver at the man's face and ran, bolting for the side door. He remembered the pastor, walking slowly, almost reverently towards the door, his old head bowed. But Hans leapt, grabbing the doorhandle -

The shot rang out across the night. Hans slumped towards the floor, limp and useless. His head was all over the stone.

The man sighed, and closed Hans' eyes. He hated this. He wanted it over. That was the important thing. It was like - like an anchor, keeping him secure. Nobody wanted it to continue, and he wanted it over. They weren't the same at all.

He gently walked forward and picked up the revolver. Strange. Only one bullet in it, and that wasn't loaded.

He was still looking at it when the wooden beam smashed across his head.


Darkness. No, not quite - moonlight. The sound of a shovel on dirt.

The man in white groaned and tried to sit up. His hands and feet were fastened tight. He looked around, woozily, and saw nothing but trees. He swore quietly.

The shovelling sound continued. It was almost soothing. Who had hit him? Where had - no, no, he didn't want to answer that now. He stared at the moon. So many craters.

The sound stopped. A figure walked over and stared at him. It smiled.

"It's funny, isn't it, what you can justify as self-defence."

The man in white spat. "Fuck you."

Nobody laughed, a rasping, choking sneer. "It all went so perfectly, you know. You thought you'd laid a trap. You have so much to learn. You're worse than Hans was."

"I… stopped you…"

"Once I heard that he'd travelled mile upon mile in a country he didn't know, all to find a decaying church in the middle of the woods - what kind of person is that? Not one suitable for my purposes. I'll find another. There are always more. I knew you'd try something stupid, but I didn't expect a disaster as perfect as this one."

Nobody pulled out his cigarette case. Only a few left - he'd have to get more before Moscow. They just weren't the same in Russia. He watched as the man in white tried to sit up and failed.

"I killed Hans. You lost your little helper."

"So? I'll find another. You know what he was, right? What he did? He murdered a dozen villagers with his unit in Byelorussia. Convinced his handlers, and himself, that he was a bystander. Had some kind of mental break during denazification. The guilt got to him. I won't be shedding any tears. Finding your peace over the bodies of the dead is a hellish way to live."

The man in white moaned, and glanced over. There was a grave there, deep and thick. It was starting to snow.

Nobody lit a cigarette. "That's the thing. You people, you're all the same. You all spin your little narratives, rewriting your lives so you can sleep at night. You've tried to stop me so many times, swanning around with the self-righteousness of a two-bit morality. You try to make yourself into a real person. But you're not. You're nothing. A collection of nerves and dust who thinks himself so much bigger than the rest of us. You know nothing about what it is to serve."

He started to drag the man in white towards the grave. "This won't keep you down for long, of course, even after I shoot you in the kneecaps. I know it's not that easy. But I hope this time in the dirt with Hans will keep you off my case for a while. It'll be a long time before you can track me down again, old friend."

The man thrashed and swore. His suit was filthy. "You're murdering them! You take it all away! You'll see. Nobody will move on, and you'll be what's left, and you won't even have a name - "

"I don't care. I'll have kept it all in order. All running. Do you know what things would be like if it wasn't for Nobody?"

He threw the man into the grave. Below him, Hans was already starting to smell. "You know the little rat told me a story on the way here? He visited that very church once, years ago. There was a pastor in there. It was a story of such specificity, the kind of thing you recite years later and imagine to be profound. He seemed to gain meaning from it. It marked him out as a person. And then he murdered twelve people in cold blood. You think I want to cling to an - an identity? I gave that up in the trenches. What matters is the task at hand, not the hand itself."

Two gunshots, then screams. Then the sound grew more and more distant, and only the shovel remained. At some point, a man in a long coat could be seen walking through a forest. Then day, then night, then the roar of planes. Then the weather turned again.

It felt like the fog would never end.


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