M. Comes in from the Night
The stranger paused on the threshold of the diner, blinking and shading his eyes with his hand. He stood six foot five, a big boned man with broad shoulders and brawny arms. His skin was pale, as if seldom touched by sunlight. His hair was the color of ripe wheat. The dirt caked, faded denims which he wore were a shade or two darker than his eyes, which were heavy lidded but watchful. Wary. He reminded Manuela of a wolf which has stumbled by accident into the world of men.
Surreptitiously, she reached for the pistol which she kept under the counter. "'Evening," she said.
The stranger's blue eyes widened, then narrowed. The scars which crisscrossed his neck and face tightened, as his mouth twisted into a grin. "Good evening." He had a faint accent, which she could not place, but his English was flawless. "Is it too late to purchase a cup of coffee?"
"Sign outside says we're open until nine. It's only half past seven. You want anything to go with that coffee?"
He eased his bulk onto one of the stools at the counter. He was not fat, just big. His hands were almost as broad as the iron skillet Manuela used for frying eggs. They swallowed up the white ceramic mug in which she served thick, black Mexican coffee.
"Careful," she warned him "It's hot."
"The warmth feels good after the cold." As he sipped the steaming liquid, his arctic blue eyes watched her over the rim of his mug, no longer wary but still alert.
"Don't you have a coat?"
"I haven't been able to find one big enough to fit me."
"I can sell you a blanket. Navaho wool. Antique," she added quickly. "I don't sell black market. Or buy it, either."
"Wise of you. And you're wise to keep a handgun, too."
She started. "How did you---?"
"I can smell the gunpowder."
"I haven't fired it in years." The truth was, she had never fired it. She was not sure that she would know what to do with it, should an emergency arise, but she felt safer knowing it was there.
His upper lip twitched, tugging at a scar that ran from his temple to his chin. "I have a very keen sense of smell. This is delicious coffee. Not like the usual watered-down dishwater which Americans drink"
So, her first impression was right. He was a foreigner. "It's Mexican."
"Like you. What's your name?"
"Manuela." Was he flirting with her? Did he think she was so desperate for a man that she would spread her legs for someone like him? She pretended to busy herself wiping down the counter. Under her eyelashes, she examined the complex web of scars which covered his face and neck. They looked too old to be the result of a battlefield injury from a war that was only four years old. Had he been hurt in an industrial accident? Maybe he had other injuries, which were not apparent. That would explain why a big, strong looking man was dressed in civilian clothes when every able bodied man in America between the ages of 18 and 40 had gone off the battle the Germans and Japs.
She twisted her gold wedding band. Her Hank had been gone for almost three years, with only one brief shore leave. Three years. It seemed longer. Especially at night.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Frank." He set down his empty mug and stood up. "Do you have a public restroom?"
"It's around back." She handed him the key attached to a block of wood. "Be sure to turn off the light and lock the door when you're done."
She watched his back as he left the diner and disappeared into the darkness of the desert night. Did he intend to skip out on paying his bill? She hoped not. Though he was ugly, he was soft spoken and polite, and it was nice to have company on a cold, lonely night.
The stranger made his way through the darkness without difficulty, avoiding the cluster of prickly pear cactus and the bleached cow's skull propped up beside a tree stump. The sky was now sprinkled with stars. The mountains to the east formed a heavy, looming shadow, while the more distant peaks to west were faintly illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun.
He took a deep breath of cold, mountain air, which smelled of snow and pinion. He loved this land. The desert had room enough for everyone, even one such as him. Here, he was not a freak or a monster. Here he was a man.
He found the restroom unlocked. He pushed the door open cautiously, all senses alert for any sign of danger. The smells of sweat and urine were old. Nothing stirred within the tiny room.
Letting out a small, silent sigh of relief, he stepped into the restroom and closed and locked the door. He washed his hands. Then, without drying them, he switched on the light. A single bulb dangled from an insulated cord. Carefully, he removed the glass bulb and placed it on the soap holder at the edge of the sink, then he stuck his right index finger into the empty, live socket.
A powerful surge of electricity shot through his body, making his hair stand on end. The muscles of his arms and thighs swelled, straining the fabric of his clothes. His pale skin began to glow. The lattice of scars on his face, neck and wrists stood out darkly against the living tissue. His pupils filled with cold, blue fire.
Revitalized, he withdrew his fingers from the socket. After replacing the bulb, switching off the light and locking the door behind him, he retraced his steps to the diner. His skin glowed, very faintly, in the darkness.
Manuela poured Frank another cup of coffee. She was dying to ask what kind of business brought a man like him to this part of New Mexico. He did not look like the usual artist or naturalist, but he did not have the wind burned, sun-browned complexion of a laborer or cowboy, either. Did he have anything to do with the government encampment to the west? The one which no one, not even locals who had lived here
their whole lives was allowed to enter.
She had a frightening thought. Maybe he was an escaped prisoner. However, not all men who went to prison were dangerous. Her own younger brother was serving time for stealing a car, and Rodrigo would never harm a fly.
"Is your husband in the service?" Frank asked. He had noticed the ring.
He stared into his coffee, brooding. "I've never cared much for the sea. It holds unpleasant memories for me."
She held her tongue, hoping that her silence would encourage him to confide in her. Despite the disfiguring scars and his extreme pallor, there was something radiant about him. The shadows seemed a little lighter around him. The night seemed less frightening. When she refilled his coffee mug, and her hand brushed his, she felt tingly all over.
She was trying to think of a way to ask Frank what he did without sounding nosy, when a vehicle pulled into the dirt parking lot in front of the diner. She checked the clock. A quarter past eight. Late for travelers.
The front door opened, admitting a blast of cold air. Five men entered the small diner. Four of them were young, muscular men
with clean-shaven, sunburned faces. The fifth man was middle aged, with a thin, pinched face and a narrow mustache. The younger men were dressed in heavy slacks and brightly colored ski sweaters. The older one looked out of place in a wrinkled suit and an overcoat a couple of sizes too large for his spindly frame. He wore a pair of thick glasses that made his eyes seem ridiculously large. A leather satchel
was clutched to his chest.
"You can sit where ever you like," Manuela called. She started to pick up her pencil and pad, but Frank caught her hand.
"Wait in the kitchen," he murmured.
"The kitchen," he insisted, his voice quiet but firm.
Her heart began to thud against her breast bone. What was happening? The five men had chosen the table nearest the door. One of them was staring at Frank's back, while the rest looked expectantly towards the diner entrance.
Her instinct was to run. However, if trouble was brewing, that would only make things worse. She took a deep breath to calm herself.
"I have to go back to the kitchen for some more coffee," she called across the diner to the travelers. "There are menus on the table. I'll be back to take your orders in a few minutes."
The men at the table gave no sign that they heard her.
Heart racing, she grabbed the pistol from under the counter and slipped in into the pocket of her apron, before turning her back on the dining room. The area between her shoulder blades itched, as if someone was aiming a gun or a knife at it. The five steps from the counter to the kitchen door were the longest five steps she ever took. Sweat beaded on her brow and soaked the underarms of her blouse. She desperately wanted to run, but she kept her pace slow and even, until she reached the kitchen and the door swung closed behind her. Then, she slumped against the wall.
Frank waited until Manuela was in the kitchen, then he turned on his stool and let the men at the table get a good look at his face. Four of them were strangers. The fifth recognized him immediately.
"It's a trap!" the middle aged man hissed to his young companions. "Get him!"
Four pistols appeared in four hands. Three managed to get off shots in the time it took for Frank to cross the room. One bullet went wild, smashing a glass on the counter. Two of the bullets found their target. The big man did not even flinch as he was struck in the chest and shoulder. He grabbed two of the bodyguards by their necks and crushed their cervical vertebrae with his bare hands. The third died
under his foot, his skull crushed like an eggshell. He snatched up a fallen weapon and shot the fourth in the back of the head, as he was attempting to flee through the front door.
When the shooting started, Manuela dropped to her hands and knees and began crawling towards the back door. When the sound of gunshots, breaking glass and furniture gave way to silence, she paused.
A familar voice spoke. It was Frank.
She could not make out the words, but he did not seemed to be injured. Minutes passed, and the only sounds she heard were the voices of two men talking. Curiosity overcame caution. She turned and headed back the way she had come.
The scarred, blonde giant and the skinny, middle aged man in the oversized coat watched each other warily.
"Where is it?" Frank asked in German.
"Why are you doing this?" This also in German. "Why are you helping the enemies of the Fatherland?"
"Fatherland?" Frank's eyes filled with cold, blue fire. "The Fatherland tried to kill me. So did my father, the Baron who created me. Pardon me if I don't feel filial devotion towards either. Where is it, Fritz?"
The skinny man clutched the satchel to his chest. A note of panic crept into his voice. "Over a century has passed. Germany is different now. If you come home, you will not be hated or feared. You will be respected for your strength, your superhuman abilities. You are the Ubermensch."
"Ubermensch!" Frank spat the word. "I never wanted to be the ubermensch. That was my father's idea. All I ever wanted was to be a man. Where are the plans?"
"What plans? I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't lie. We captured your courier. He told us everything. Cooperate, and you might escape with your life."
Fritz lifted his chin defiantly. "I'll die before I give them to you!"
"You'll give them to me, and then you will die." Frank grabbed him by the collar and began to twist the fabric. Fritz's face went from white to red to blue, but he did not relax his grip on the satchel.
"Is it in there?" Frank asked. He reached for the leather bag.
Manuela, who was peering through a crack in the kitchen door, saw a gleam of metal in Fritz's hand. He must have been holding a knife all along. "Frank!" she called. "Watch out!"
Her warning came too late. The blade sliced through Frank's fourth and fifth fingers, which fell to the floor. Blood spurted from the stumps. He used his powerful jaws to clamp down on the wounds. With his free hand, he ripped Fritz's head from his shoulders. A fountain of blood splattered the walls of the diner. The headless corpse swayed for a moment, then fell to the floor. Frank set the head, still
wearing glasses, down on the nearest table and knelt to retrieve the satchel.
Manuela should have fainted. She saw everything. The severed fingers, the severed head, and red blood everywhere, all over the tile floor she had polished just that morning and the tables Hank had helped her pick out and the lace curtains in the front window.
Any other woman would have fainted. Manuela did the opposite. She became very, very calm. With one hand in the pocket of her apron, she pushed open the kitchen door and walked into the dining room.
"What are you looking for?" she asked. Her own coolness amazed her.
"Plans," Frank replied without looking at her. "Top secret plans for a very special weapon. One that could turn the tide of the war in favor of whatever side controls it." He frowned. "It's not here. I wonder...." He tossed the satchel aside and knelt beside Fritz's body. A quick search of the dead man's clothing revealed the documents which had been sewn into the lining of his overcoat. "Found it!" When he looked up, his smile faded, for he found himself staring down the barrel of Manuela's pistol.
"Drop it!" she ordered. Her voice was steady, however her hands were shaking. She had not realized how heavy the pistol was.
"You don't understand."
"Yes, I do. I heard you talking German to that man. You're a spy."
"No, he's a spy. It's true I was born in Germany, but I'm working for Washington. I hate the Nazis. They represent everything I despise about the country which created me." He cocked his head to the side. In the distance, a siren could be heard. "That
will be military police. They'll be here in a few minutes. If they see you aiming a weapon at me, they will assume that you are working with Fritz. Here, give me that." Moving as fast as a rattlesnake, he snatched the pistol from her hand. "It isn't even loaded!" he exclaimed after checking the barrel. "Get some bullets and have someone show you how to use it." He placed it back under the counter.
Manuela flushed with embarrassment. "I thought...."
"I know what you thought. You are not the first person to assume that I'm a villain, because of the way I look." He touched his scarred face.
Now, she felt ashamed. She was about to apologize, when she noticed the two holes in his shirt. She touched the one on his chest over his heart. Her fingertip came away covered with blood. "That's a bullet wound! You've been shot!"
"Twice? And then that man cut you." Her eyes dropped to his injured hand. Thanks to his miraculous powers of healing, the stumps
had already stopped bleeding. "You ought to be dead!" Her dark eyes widened. "Who are you?"
"That's a good question, one that I've spent a long time trying to answer for myself." Frank reached into the pocket of his denims and fished out a business card. On it was printed a single letter, "M." "Give this to the military police. Tell them that M. has the merchandise. They'll understand. When they debrief you, tell them everything you saw and heard. I will mention you in my report. Who knows? You might get a medal." Ruefully, he surveyed the damage to the diner. "Better yet, I'll have the army send you a check to cover the cost of repairs."
Manuela did not know what to say. Thank you seemed inadequate. "Do you have to go?"
"Sorry, yes. Fritz isn't the only spy working late, tonight."
On his way towards the door, he stooped to retrieve his severed fingers. The army surgeons could replace the missing digits with others harvested from bodies in the military morgue, but he liked having a matched set.
"Wait!" Manuela called. "You said your name was Frank, but the card says 'M.' What does the M stand for?"
He paused with his good hand on the door knob, debating how he should answer.
"Oh. I get it. The M stands for 'Man'. You're like that guy in the comic books, the one that can't be killed by bullets. Superman."
Softly, Frank said, "Not Superman. Just a man." With that, he disappeared into the night from which he had come.
Copyright © 2002 by McCamy Taylor
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