The Humility that Flesh Inherits

More or less for Stephen

He was a thin, beaky man, with a long hooked nose and heavy-lidded, fleshless eyes that he kept hidden behind a pair of reflective peepers. The light, dim and uncertain as it was in the plane, hurt his eyes. He had hair like a bottle-brush, black and wiry and thinning at the temples. He ran his hands through it and sighed.

“Can’t sleep either?” said the man sitting next to him. He was wearing a bright purple t-shirt with the name of a college in white across the chest.

“What?”

“I said, can’t you sleep? I can never sleep on planes. Makes these overnight flights awful, I know. Nothing seems to help, not pills, not booze, not anything. Hey, I don’t suppose you have any cards, do you? We could play couple of hands of something.”

“No, sorry.”

“Oh, too bad. What’s your name? Mine’s Sextus, Tertullian Sextus. Kind of a strange name, I know.”

“David Brown.”

“Have you been to Europe before?” Sextus said Europe like it was all one place.

“No, this was my first time.”

“Yeah, mine too. You go with anybody? A tour group or anything? I didn’t. I mean, they say it’s better if you don’t, and I thought, well, I’ve never really wanted to listen to other people tell me about history, I’d rather just wander around and find things for myself, anyway. You miss a lot of things that way, but you see a lot of things you wouldn’t see if you were stuck with a bunch of other Americans. Why were you there, if… if it’s not impolite?”

“It’s all right. For my health. I was trying to… recuperate.”

“Doesn’t look like it did you much good. No offense, but you look pretty strung out.”

“No. Things were… less restful than I’d hoped.” Mountain air, peaks against the sky like calligraphy, blood on the snow. “It ended up being too much of a working vacation.” The small cabin at the top of the hill, Dr. Sarsefield’s gun, talking, talking, talking, trying to buy time…

“That’s too bad. What do you do? I’m in college, but you probably guessed that.”

He smiled wanly. “I’m a police detective. Homicide.”

“No shit, really? Oh, sorry. So you were doing paperwork or…?” So tactful in the big things, so clumsy in the little things.

“No. There… No.” When Sextus opened his mouth, he raised a limp hand to forestall the flood of talk. “Excuse me. I get tired so easily. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll try to sleep.”

“Oh! Sure, sure. Sorry, I shouldn’t have kept you awake. Take her easy, mister.”

Brown turned his face to the window but behind the glasses he kept seeing the murder play out as he’d figured it must have. When the doctor lay bleeding out into the snow he’d give an internal little cough and the scene would play over again. Sordid dreams of money, high above the Atlantic.

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