A television was playing.
Quentin’s television, and his apartment door was ajar. The burglar had jimmied the lock, invaded his home, and from the sound of it, was watching a classic movie.
Too stunned and tired and far too surprised to formulate any kind of reaction, Quentin stood on the landing.
From inside, a familiar voice said, “Mr. Maurus. Come join me.”
She sat on his brown sofa, exactly where Quentin sat while watching television. Tiny feet wanted to touch the carpet and couldn’t, and one tiny hand was draped on the unyielding armrest, her head barely reaching the top of the cushion. She didn’t look comfortable. Madam Stains wasn’t as confident as she seemed in her office. Yet the lady smiled at him as her left hand lifted, two fingers gesturing as she said, “Sit, Mr. Maurus.”
“I need the bathroom.”
She seemed doubtful. “Go on then.”
Alone, Quentin sniffed his hand before using hot water and soap, scrubbing until the skin was raw. Then he sniffed again and washed the hand once more before flushing the empty toilet and returning to whatever this was.
“I’m not sitting,” he told her.
His rebellion brought laughter. Leaning against the armrest, the woman stared at the little black-and-white screen. “Do you know this film?”
“‘The Beast’, it’s called.”
“The lady’s a detective,” he said. “She’s going to hit that man with a phone book.”
“Mr. Maurus,” she said with a grin. “I believe you have an exceptional visual memory.”
“But otherwise, you seem miserably short of talents.”
She shook her head. “You were invited to a very important event.”
“The Kurosh. And you should make the effort.”
He breathed once, in pain. “Why?”
“It would be helpful,” Madam Stains said.
Quentin sat on the soft edge of his reading chair.
The lady glanced at the television. After a moment, she said, “The son’s guilty.”
“I haven’t seen the movie, and god knows, I’m no detective. But our national mindset insists that dangerous young males always do the killing. Have you noticed?”
Quentin stared at the television.
The burglar waited.
“Does she know you’re here?” Quentin asked.
The question deserved silence. Nothing else.
“Or do you listen to our conversations?”
Quentin wanted to feel like a dangerous young man.
“I’m curious,” she said. “Why do you think I care about the Kurosh?”
“You’re infiltrating the Persian community.”
She gave no reaction.
“You’re watching Farah, or she’s helping you spy on the others.”
With a skeptical tone, Madam Stains repeated one word. “Community.”
“A few dozen immigrants scattered across an obscure province. They hardly constitute a community.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“And you won’t know, because I don’t intend to explain anything to you.” The woman shrugged, sighed. “Except to point out that this rare opportunity. Your chance to cooperate with your noble but deeply paranoid government.”
Quentin’s wiped his palms against one another.
“Nobody needs to threaten,” she said. And having delivered that threat, the visitor stood and walked to the door. “Your wife will call you. Tomorrow. The next day. She’ll ask again for one small favor, and you need to sound enthusiastic. Tell her of course you’ll accompany her to this very important gathering.”
“What if I can’t?” Quentin asked.
The door was still ajar. She looked at the empty landing, saying, “Nobody knows the future. You should be old enough to appreciate that by now.”