Onto the high tower’s highest balcony trod three ill-fated men. The old priest came first, then the priest’s young lover, and, trailing those two by a few feet, a tall, fat banker in a three-piece suit. As they crossed the balcony, none knew that one of these men would shortly be dead. But his murderer—treacherous, cold-blooded, evil—was already there.
“The view is superb, isn’t it, Ravi?” said the banker to the priest’s lover. “This is one of the finest penthouses in the country. Not the biggest, certainly, but one of the loveliest. I expect you haven’t been about many places like this, Ravi. Have you?”
Ravi grinned shyly and shook his head. He did not speak. Though beautiful (long eyelashes, skin rich and dark, lips and chin and cheekbones of a prince), Ravi was barely out of his teens.
The priest moved to his lover’s flank, the two men standing side by side at the balustrade, shoulders almost—but not quite—touching. They looked out over the city-state’s old harbor and new finance district (so prim, so smug) as if they were captain and first mate of a proud ship, its mission vital, its cargo precious, the two seagoers assuredly eyeing things over as the vessel readies to set out.
“My goodness,” said the priest. “This is all fresh pastures for young Ravi. We old folk will have to go gently on him.” The priest was more than twice, much closer to three times, Ravi’s age. He was slight, especially about his shoulders, and tended to stoop. Though many men of his race (southern Chinese whose forebears huddled down to the equator before air-conditioning and today’s antimalarials) were this way, it was still unexpected in one so successful. For the priest had done very well by selling God to a soulless land.
Ravi grinned again. He turned from the view over their tiny country (it covered less ground than New York City; to drive across took less than an hour) and found the priest’s gaze. Ravi blinked; his eyes sparkled like diamonds flung into the sky.
The priest stared and gaped, enamored, enraptured, ensnared. He stood perfectly still, immobile, as if the poison of a sly viper had set in. Then his face clouded, his head dropped, and he drifted backward, away from Ravi, away from the balustrade and its view, toward the wall of glass doors and glass windows slashing down the balcony, a glistening threshold between the wide world out here and the boxy cavern, pastel and airtight, that was the penthouse’s living room.
His wife stood there—in the living room, there on the glass wall’s other side—soaked in the rattling din of a cocktail party, a colorless drink in one hand, the other extended with its palm downward, like a soldier marching forward. She was slightly younger than the priest; she stood even shorter. Smiling joyfully, the priest’s wife seemed to be showing a cooing clutch of guests something on her wrist
The wife and the other partygoers kept together on their side of the glass, crowding into the living room where the air was deliciously chilled. Though late in the afternoon and just a week before Christmas (in strict terms, it should have been the start of winter), things were as they mostly were on this tropical island: far too hot—almost ninety degrees—to be comfortably outside. In the living room, amid the party, no one took notice of the balcony; there the three men could be quite alone.
As the priest peered through the glass at his wife, a hangdog look, coiling furrows of shame and regret, crossed the old man’s face. Sinking lower and lower, tottering, failing, he grabbed with one hand at the balustrade.
This was it. The fat banker would seize his chance. “We need something to drink, Ravi. Kindly track down a couple of beers for Pastor Frank and myself. Nothing local, thank you. You can do that, can’t you, Ravi?” said the banker. He glared at Ravi; the lover flinched.
“My young ladies will prepare anything you ask,” added the banker. “The smoothies they make are positively world famous.” He jerked his head in the direction of the seven young women, a troop of pale-skinned northern Europeans, who, through the glass, could be seen threading among the guests, bearing platters of drink and food, their seven faces all oddly blank, as though drained of something essential.
“They take a few minutes at least, even if it’s just one smoothie,” said the banker. “People serve under me, they’ve got to do things properly. But we’ve got time. Pastor Frank and I can wait for you. Ravi? Ravi?” Impatient already, the banker again twitched toward the partygoers in the living room, his shudder urging Ravi inside, as if Ravi were a sheepdog working a flock of sheep.
Ravi slid open a heavy glass door and went in. The banker went and stood beside the priest. Now it was just the two of them, two rich men whispering into the wind.
“Now, tell me, Frank,” demanded the banker. “You and that queer-looking boy. What happened?”
“It’s the Devil. The Devil did it, Sam. The red beast, he’s got to me again,” said the priest, his brow furrowing. “It’s impossible, Sam, there’s no way out. Not this time, it’s gone too far.” Hardly anyone called the banker by his first name. But Frank and Sam went back a long way.
“Very well. What happened, Frank?” said Sam again, his tone searching and urgent. He drew himself high, towering over Frank (Sam was tall as well as fat), and tugged at the lapels of his linen jacket. He was lavishly overdressed for the tropical heat.
Even so, Sam did not sweat; his coppery skin shone dully under the sun’s rays, as if it were an infernal mirror that repelled every fleck of unwanted light and still never returned any image. For Sam was different from Ravi and Frank. His ancestors came not from India or China but from hot places much closer to this prissy island and from cooler realms much further away: the Malay Peninsula, on the maternal side, and the dead empires of Europe—Holland, England, Portugal—on the male side.
Frank sighed loudly, restarting his hard-working engines of self-pity, girding himself to reply to his benefactor. “You know what I’ve been through,” said Frank. “You know the trauma I’ve had, it’s been almost twelve months now, but it’s not getting easier. Sam, I can still see her body. I know she was a slut, but …” He stopped and sighed again. “Look, I had to have an outlet, somewhere I could just be me. Ravi’s in a line of business where he can help with that. A little pick-me-up, letting off steam, he has the stuff for that. Just pills, of course. Well, sometimes powders as well, you take a snort or two, the world changes.”
Sam glowered like a cloud so black, so despondent and hateful, that it’d destroy the sun with its very first peal of anger. “I see. Ravi’s a drug-dealer. Just as well, then, that you have the Attorney-General for a brother-in-law. We should thank the heavens for all of your connections. You’re going to need them.” Testy, frustrated, using his meaty left palm like a bludgeon, Sam batted the balustrade’s uppermost rail. His eyes narrowed. “But Ravi’s not just a drug-dealer, is he? He’s a whore, too.”
Frank recoiled in horror. “No! Not at all! It’s nothing like that.”
“He does it for free, does he, Frank?” Sam looked disgusted.
“Of course, the drugs, yes, I pay for those, naturally, that’s what you ... yes, well, it’s …” said Frank, his sentence spiraling away into wordlessness. He looked over to the city’s downtown skyscrapers, as if something there might marshal his response. Sam waited coolly. One or two seconds of stiff delay went by; then Frank turned to face the banker again. “We started taking the stuff together. He doesn’t normally do that with clients. But he did it for me. I opened up to him, I shared a lot of my history with him, it was very intimate. We started holding hands, cuddling each other. I’ve never had that kind of intimacy, not with anyone, certainly not with either of the wives. Pretty soon it became … well … more intimate. Things got sexual. Not just sexual, though, almost spiritual, really, more than sex, yes, much more than sex. It was intense, so intense, unbelievably intense. We were seeing each other every day. That’s when I hired him as my chauffeur, had him coming to church, sitting there in the front row, I wanted people to see that this was a young man I was trying to help, a lost soul I was introducing to Christ.”
Sam was horrified. “Frank! Frank!” he spat. “Didn’t you look at him? Didn’t you see him?” Roughly, with the back of his hand, Sam wiped his lips, cleaning away excess spit. “Couldn’t you tell how black his skin is, Frank? Turn off the light and, poof, you wouldn’t know where he was. You’d have to put a bell round his neck. I bet the grinning pickaninny hasn’t graduated high school, probably still mouths the words when he reads.” Anger contorting his large face, Sam shook his head bitterly. “You’re a pastor, for goodness sake. Cavorting like that, abusing yourself, violating the order of nature—sick, just sick! And with an Indian mouth-breather besides, as if you couldn’t find one of your own kind. What were you thinking? Frank? Huh?”
Frank began to cry. Tears ran lightly down his cheeks; he blinked madly, snorting, whimpering, blubbing; his chin puckered. “Oh, please. I know. It’s the Devil, he’s forced me, he’s made me do it. All the good work I do, sharing God’s love, that’s the reason, that’s why. The darkness hates light. Of course, choosing Ravi, using someone like him, Satan knows where I’m at my weakest. He’s as crafty as he’s evil. Lost souls, I’m drawn to them, I’m driven to share with them God’s grace. But this time, Sam, the Devil got to Ravi, got to him before I could.”
“You’re right, Frank,” said Sam. “Satanic forces are at work—certainly. They’ve taken over that mincing little curry muncher. Degenerates, perverts, sickos like him, their souls are born twisted. He’s already corrupted, rotten through and through, all the way. He came out that way. What’s happened, what the Devil’s done, it’s inevitable.” Pursing his lips, Sam gazed directly, fixedly at the priest. “Now, tell me, Frank. Look me in the eye and tell me. What would you have me do to help?”
Frank sobbed louder, air harshly jerking from his lungs, ragged wheezes and gasps of self-pity. “Yes! Please, please! I need you, Sam. I need you to help me, more than ever. I always thought that what happened last time, with the girl, was bad. But this is worse. It’s much worse.” Frank looked up, imploring, desperate, into the red sky of late afternoon. “Lord, please, what have I done to deserve this?”
Sam waved at Frank impatiently, the fingers of his right hand jolting through the air like fretful butterflies, spasmodic and dismissive. “Calm down, Frank. The girl was different. That was a major problem! True, usually no one cares much about missing housemaids, least of all the glassy-eyed Indonesian variety. I give you that. But she was pregnant—thanks to you—and some goody-two-shoes pathologist might have decided it wasn’t the sleeping pills that finished her off. Who knows, perhaps a couple of feathers from the pillow got stuck in her windpipe? Worst case scenario, an investigation starts and your idiot brother-in-law can’t get it closed down. Then it’d be over for you, the church, all of us. Everything we’ve built destroyed, all our good work wasted. That’s what I’d consider a disaster.” Sam frowned dourly and, as if to punctuate this dark expression, twisted his head from side to side and gruffly tut-tutted.
Then his frown faded and he began to smile. “But we got lucky. I had my camera. Hiding the body was a cinch. And now,” said Sam, his smile wider and brighter, “they all think she scuttled back to Indonesia with your wife’s jewelry. This time, though”—the smile was fading—“if we have to get rid of a body, I won’t be able to use my camera, Frank. It’s no longer in my possession. I’ve lent it to a colleague. Sorry.”
Frank went goggle-eyed. “A body? The camera?” he cried. “No, no! Not to Ravi. I couldn’t stomach that. Sam, we’re in love. We love each other!”
“Two men? In love?” said Sam, grimacing sourly, rolling his eyes. “You sicken me, Frank. But don’t fret. I know where the line must be drawn. What about your side of the bargain, eh? Do you have any leads on that other matter? I need my sustenance, remember.” His eyes flickered over to the living room on the glass wall’s opposing side, where Sam’s guests still picked at food and drink delivered up by young, smooth-skinned, slightly sullen European women. “Those ladies, their tour of duty is almost over. Time for a fresh cycle.”
“Oh!” replied Frank, taken aback by the conversation’s sudden turn. “Yes, actually, I do have something, well, someone—I should say—in mind.” From his trouser pocket, the priest produced a cell phone. He prodded the screen and gawkily flipped the device around, offering it to Sam like a student submitting an essay late. The fat banker took the phone with both hands. “That’s him,” said Frank, wagging bony fingers at the image on the screen. “That’s the one.”
Pursing his lips, Sam squinted at the image. “Mmm. Name?”
“He goes by Kino.”
“Looks like he’s Chinese,” said Sam, leaning down, getting closer. “Kino’s not a Chinese name, though, is it?”
“No, not at all, no. Kino is his first name, his Christian name. He’s Chinese, though, the family name is Lim.”
“Ah,” said Sam. “Lim. Trailer trash, I expect. What’s his story?”
“Young Kino joined our flock at the start of the year. The poor boy was lost—truly, truly lost. I personally took him under my wing, showed him the way to the Lord. Now he’s one of our most reliable members. He’s a true inspiration, just the kind of young man religion was built for.” The priest paused, coughing modestly. “What you asked for, Sam, was someone who’s still struggling, who’s constantly being tested. I’m sorry to say this, but Kino’s like that. He wants to come to the light, to be pure and holy, but he’s constantly tempted by sin, he can’t shake it off. In my opinion, he’s always going to want the church. And, naturally, we’ll always be there for him.”
Sam smacked his lips. “Delightful! What a treat! This boy could be the answer to all our prayers. Can’t have me running out of steam, can we? What a morsel. Now, Frank, when is this Kino Lim available? It’s got to be sooner rather than later. Otherwise no point wasting our time with him.”
“Uh … look, in fact, he’s currently abroad, he headed overseas to brush up his Mandarin, says that might help with his job. But he’s planning to—actually, I believe he’s confirmed to, it’s locked in—come back before Easter. You’ll be able to take him then.”
“Easter?” exclaimed Sam. “You’re pushing it. You’re really pushing it. I suppose, though, if I apply myself, work hard to conserve my energies, I could wait it out. But no longer than Easter, Frank. After that, it’s a total no-can-do. Absolutely not.” Sam shook his head briskly, like a dog shaking water from sodden fur, as if the very act finished the issue. “Now, my friend. Do tell me. Where’s Kino Lim studying? Beijing, is it? And what’s his line of business?”
Frank answered these questions in a quiet, even, modest tone, as though he knew the answers would provoke Sam but there was, in the end, no way around it.
“Ugh!” spluttered Sam. “Disgusting place. And Mandarin’s useless for a low-end salaryman like that. No wonder the boy’s all lost. Kino doesn’t know what he wants. Hah—whatever it is, he can’t have it! Really, though, what makes him so delicious is—and this is the nub of it—he doesn’t know who he is. Now you’ve shown him to me, of course, he’s never going to find out.” Sam carefully drew the phone and its image of Kino Lim close to his coppery face, near enough, in fact, that a moderate extension of the tongue would have had him licking the screen. “He’s perfect for me.”
Frank smiled proudly, his shoulders lifting, his face smoothing, eyes squarely meeting Sam’s gaze.
“Let’s seal the deal,” said Sam. Gripping the phone with his left hand, Sam reached out with the other; Frank placidly slid his own hand across Sam’s; the two hands clasped and, in the usual way of their desiccated, self-centered clique, the men made their agreement. Whether a trick of the afternoon’s dying light or some other power, it was hard to say; but, as Sam released his grip, his coppery, leathery, hard-worn skin somehow emanated a dark, bloody red.
The glass door that connected the balcony to the living room heaved open. Ravi appeared in the doorway and, delicately clutching two slim-necked bottles of beer, stepped onto the balcony. Squalls of frigid air and banal music—festive, upbeat, born-again—tumbled out through the open door. Acting quickly, blushing like some embarrassed schoolboy, Ravi pushed it closed. The air stilled. The lonely balcony was, once more, quiet.
Passing the beers to Frank and Sam, Ravi said that his smoothie (mango with special Russian ice cream) was still being made up. But it was hot outside and he thought the two men on the balcony, who even though so busy and so important had still been very kind to him, shouldn’t be left to wait for their cold drinks.
Frank smiled warmly and thanked his lover, the young man’s guileless ease soothing the old priest’s guilt and shame. Sam absentmindedly tapped the neck of his bottle, frowning into the distance, glancing with furrowed brow over the balustrade, where almost a thousand feet below tiny cars drove along tiny roads and tiny humans, almost unseeable with the naked eye, stepped along tiny paths.
“Ah!” said Sam, his face unclouding, speaking to no one in particular. “Quid pro quo. It’s time.” He handed his bottle (he hadn’t had a single sip) to Frank and, as if the thing were a drum, pounded the balustrade with his open hand. “Ravi! Come and look. Enjoy the view. Enjoy it!”
Ravi laid his fingers across the chrome railing and craned forward. Looking downward, his face sank until its profile became horizontal, the invisible line that slanted from his nose down to his chin now parallel with the earth. In a light tone of polite amazement, he said that so far down everything looked really small.
And now Sam was ready to return Frank’s favor. He stepped away from the balustrade, planted his feet leadenly, and, hands by his sides, clenched his fists tight enough to make the knuckles turn the color of ash and bone, milky sick and deathly faint. He grunted over and over, each time louder and harsher and sadder. On his last grunt, so loud and sharp that it was just about a shriek, Frank and Ravi both swung around, turning to him, the priest and his lover now perturbed, unnerved, almost alarmed.
The world was silent. From the other side of the balcony, where the wall of glass doors and glass windows held back the living room and its babbling party, came no sound. From below, from the streets and parks and office buildings of the city, it all lay still and soundless. Even the wind, occasionally ruffling treetops and flags and freshly washed clothes at this time of day, had receded into void silence.
“Look!” cried Sam. “The birds, Ravi. See the birds!” He pointed toward a small flock of starlings. Suspended in the air a few hundred feet from the high balcony, the birds were motionless. Their wings did not beat; their claws and beaks did not draw up or strike down; their lungs and throats gave no sound. It was as if, mid-flight, by force of magic, time had been frozen and, the laws of physics no longer any concern, some devilish power had left the starlings hanging in the air, hopelessly stuck.
“The party, Ravi. What about the party?” asked Sam, spinning around and pointing to the living room inside its wall of glass. The guests, the waitstaff, everyone within, stood frozen in place, rigid and lifeless like shop floor mannequins or broken-down automatons.
Mouth gaping, slack-jawed and goggle-eyed, Ravi gawked at the scene behind the glass. He looked over to the birds suspended mid-air; then back again to the frozen partygoers; and once more to the birds. Awed and horror-struck, Frank threw his hands to his face and retreated away from Sam and Ravi.
“What do you think, Ravi?” asked Sam. “Eh?”
Though Ravi’s lips twitched and fluttered, he spoke no words. The magic trick had left him speechless.
“This is my power, Ravi,” said Sam. “This is it. You might say, I suppose, that I have a special—indeed, an extraordinary—connection with time. Stop time here, freeze time there, pull us outside the flow of time for a serious conversation, I can do all of that, Ravi. Right now, for the three of us, standing here on this balcony, the whole world has stopped.” Sam waved dismissively toward the furthest corner of the balcony. “See that security camera? Even the electricity powering its circuits, even that has stopped, Ravi. Incredible, don’t you think?”
Ravi nodded grimly. He looked over at Frank, whose head had flopped down, face cradled helplessly between thin hands, eyes fixed uselessly on the balcony’s tiled floor. Ravi opened his mouth, as if to ask something, and then turned back to Sam. “Are you …?” he stammered. “Are you … God?”
“My boy,” said Sam, “if I were God, I wouldn’t tell you, would I?” He smiled as if he were a doting uncle just arrived with a trove of Christmas gifts. “Look again, Ravi. Down below. What do you see?”
Ravi leaned over the balustrade for the second time that afternoon, peering down at the tiny cars and tiny people below, his slim frame edging further outward and further downward. Now his hands—smooth, fine, beautiful—barely touched the railing.
“Uh,” said Ravi, “I can’t really see anything very clearly, we’re too high up, everything’s so small down there.”
“Mmm,” said Sam. “Then, my boy, why don’t you get a bit closer?”
In the blink of an eye, in a fluid, single movement, Sam stepped toward Ravi, gripped the young man’s collar with one hand and his belt with the other, heaved him up into the air, and, as if the banker were throwing out a bundle of old shirts, tossed Ravi over the balustrade. As the priest’s young lover fell to his death, plummeting a thousand feet or so to the asphalt street below, he did not scream or shriek; there were no yelps or whimpers; there was only astonished silence.
Frank cried out and dropped down to his knees, his old, thin hands trembling, kneading and smoothing his face, its surface now bone-white and stretched taut as parchment. Bemused, Sam dusted himself off (though his clothes were still somehow starkly clean) and went to Frank. As the banker drew the old priest upright, sound and movement returned to the world. The starlings restarted their flight; again the wind blew lightly; once more could be heard the sounds of the party and seen, through the glass wall, guests speaking and drinking and smiling.
“What’s wrong with you, Frank?” said Sam. “This is what you wanted. It’s certainly—oh yes, most certainly—what you needed. A young homosexual jumping to his death, taking his own life just before Christmas, when you were trying your level best to minister to him, to steer a sad lost soul toward the Lord, it’s terribly unfortunate. But these things happen. And we’re all better off without him. You know that, Frank. You’ve had your fun. Time to move on.”
Frank wiped away his tears and peeped up at Sam, unsure, hesitant, weak as all those men who worship the wrong gods. “Will it seem like a suicide? Really?” inquired Frank. “I suppose … if the camera was stopped, if everything was frozen the way you usually do it, Sam, if no one in there at the party could see what was happening, well ... I suppose …” With Sam supporting him by the elbows, Frank dabbed with a handkerchief at his own nose. “But Sam … what does … how do I …?”
Grasping Sam’s forearm, the priest began to move away from the balustrade. The two men made their way side by side toward the glass wall. Frank looked straight ahead. “We’ll need to call an ambulance,” he said. “And the police too. But Ravi’s family, I think it’s best that I tell them myself, in person. In this business, the personal touch is everything.”
They were almost at the door, several guests already staring out through the glass—they squinted, they frowned, they could tell something had happened—when Frank stopped suddenly. “Sam, I don’t know. I can’t say,” he said, still looking ahead, into the living room and its cocktail party. “What do you think? Why is this? Why is it?” Holding his breath, Frank spotted his wife; she looked at him fixedly; he blinked and looked away. The priest sighed. “Sam, can you tell me,” he said, mumbling, almost inaudible, “who am I?”
Pained, caustic, Sam rolled his eyes. “Pfft! None of that matters,” he said. “Just do what you’re supposed to.”
And the two men went inside.