“Truth is, Jack, I’m a spy.” I nodded as I wiped down the bar. “I can kill a man with just my thumb.”
“No, Jack, I’m serious. You want me to show you?” I wanted to say yes but since I was the only other guy in the bar I held off. “The nail on my right pinkie toe is two inches long. I can do more damage with that one toe than most men could do with a chainsaw.”
I said, “It must be tough buying shoes.” He laughed. “That’s funny, Jack. I like funny.” He reached for his drink. I took that as a sign that the conversation was finished and eased back into my hangover.
“The spy game is not for the weak of heart.” Oh boy. Once the word ‘game’ is used, unless we’re talking sports, a guy who has a long story to tell has taken the floor. The last thing I needed was a long story-telling guy anywhere near the floor.
Hoping to give the lip a zip I said, “I thought the whole point of being a spy was not to let anyone know you’re a spy.” He laughed again. “I’m not spying on you, Jack. Then again, wouldn’t a confession be the perfect way to gain your trust? I suppose you’re wondering how I got into the spy game.”
“Oh come on, Jack. Don’t tell me you’re not intrigued by espionage. It’s the plot of thousands of books, hundreds of movies.”
“So is romance and I have no interest in that either.”
It didn’t matter what I said. He was here to tell his story to someone. It could have been a fly on the wall but since I had just finished killing all the flies it was going to be me.
“Every spy has his or her signature mode of operation. But the one trait we all share is fearlessness. It has never been tested but my contention is that there is a metabolic distinction. I am impervious to cold and heat. I can lower my blood pressure at will. I can reduce my breathing to that of a cricket’s.”
As I imagined him down on all fours next to a cricket trying to time its breathing, the door opened.
Art shuffled in wearing his favorite black pinstripe. He sat on the stool next to the spy and extended his hand. “Arthur Somerville. People call me Art.” The spy took Art’s hand and said, “People call me when they want something done.” Art laughed. “That’s a long handle. I think I’ll just call you done.”
I said, “He’s a spy.” Art nodded. “You ever hear of Mata Hari?” Done replied, “Of course. Everyone knows Mata Hari.”
“Not like I did.” Art coughed up a snicker. “She left her husband for me. No one got divorced back then but we were in love. Her husband was a sore loser. He had me blacklisted. I couldn’t get any work. Even when I showed up for a job shoveling manure the foreman waved me off. Poor Margaretha, that was her real name, poor Margaretha had to dance and prostitute herself so we could live a life of intense passion. Mata Hari. I came up with that. It means ‘Sun’ or “‘Eye of the Dawn.’ It’s catchy, don’t you think?”
Done didn’t know what to think. He looked at me. I pretended to still be caught up with the cricket. He took a long drink then turned to Art. “Mata Hari was executed by a firing squad in 1917.”
“I know. Oct. 15. What a horrible day that was. I didn’t think I could go on. She was so brave, right to the end. Refused a blindfold. She winked at me as she blew out that last ring of smoke. She was only 41.”
Art wiped away a tear. Done laughed. “That’s right. And if you were the same age you would have to be 137 now.”
Art smirked. “Oh no, I was much younger than Mata.” Done started laughing again. “Even if you were thirty years younger, you would be 107.”
I had to agree the numbers didn’t seem to add up. But Art had a timeless quality to him. He still had a full head of hair. He never lost at poker. He could read the specials board from across the room. He never forgot an enemy but always forgave a friend. He never talked about what he did for a living but someone said he did the books for all the big casinos. A job like that, if it doesn’t get you killed, it’s gotta keep you sharp.
“We knew she needed a hook. I mean, she was really no beauty but she did have that Dutch accent. So we had her pose as a princess from Java. Nowadays you couldn’t get away with it. But back then there was no internet or any real way to check anything. She said she was a princess. Suddenly she’s exotic. The upper class Parisians ate it up.”
Done was starting to get a little flushed. I didn’t think that was a good trait for a spy. Kind of like a tell in poker. “There is no way you were Mata Hari’s lover.”
“Oh no, then how do I know her favorite color was purple?”
“There is no way to prove that.”
“Okay, so how do I know she slept on the right side of the bed?”
“Again, no way to prove that.”
“Okay, you want something you can prove. How about this? She had a small tattoo of a panda on her left hip.”
“I have seen every photo of Mata Hari in existence and not one shows a tattoo.”
“That’s because she always covered it with makeup.”
Done stood, grabbed his drink and moved to the other side of the bar. He yelled across to Art. “I am not continuing with this incredulous conversation. I would rather sit here in silence with my own thoughts than hear one more word from you, Art.”
Art shrugged. I refilled his drink. He took out a pen and started to sketch something on his cocktail napkin. When he was done he turned and showed it to me. It was Mata Hari wearing a panda tattoo. And nothing else. Done strained to see but he had positioned himself too far away. He eased back onto the stool but curiosity got the better of him. Another trait not ideal for a spy.
“What? What is it? What did he write?” Art folded the napkin and put it in his jacket pocket. He finished his drink, bid me farewell, and headed for the door. Done jumped up. “What is it, Art? What did you write?” Art smiled but kept shuffling.
As the door closed, Done fell back onto the stool. He looked like he had just seen a ghost. It was like he was running the numbers and the images in his head. He would shake it off for a minute, let out a little silly laugh and then go back to running those numbers and images again. Could Art really be over 100? Sure, makeup could cover a tattoo. Especially stage makeup. No, there is no way Mata Hari was dating an 11-year-old. Art couldn’t be 120.
Finally, he remembered. His face lit up. He called out, “Wait, wait, Jack, you saw what he wrote. You saw. What? What was it? What did he write?”
I walked over to him, slowly refilled his drink. and poured one for myself before whispering, “He has the head.”
Done jumped up and ran out. I got stiffed but I guess I deserved it. Turns out no family member, ex-lover, or friend claimed Mata Hari’s body. Her head was embalmed and kept in a Museum of Anatomy in Paris. But in 2000 it was discovered that her head had disappeared. They never did find that head. No one knows where it is.
I leaned up against the bar and sipped the hair of the dog. I don’t expect I’ll ever see Done again but if I do and if he asks I would say, “Maybe I read it in a book. Maybe Art and I have talked about his first love before.”
Kat O’Neill is an East Hampton writer of works for stage, screen, TV, and radio. “Uncle Jack’s Spy” is one of a series of stories.