Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat> by Andrez Bergen

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Andrez Bergen is an expat Aussie journalist/musician (from Melbourne) who's been ensconced in Tokyo these past 10 years. This extract from his debut novel, Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat, is a sci-fi/noir/post-apocalyptic tones set in Melbourne, Australia as the last city in the world. Melbourne, after all, is his home town. But he's also heavily influenced by Japan, a country he's lived in for the past 10 years, and the novel also owes about 60% of its content to classic noir cinema. Enjoy!

 

Fear of that misplaced black cat


I never really knew the old Melbourne before the Wall, with its
sundry pub music, its boutique club glamour, and vaguely dissident
art, a not-so-contaminated Yarra River, all-night warehouse rave
parties, superlative eateries, and its easy multicultural charm—I was
still only a kid then.

What I really got to know was the xenophobic, rotting hulk of
a city it became in the epoch after the shuttering of the place to
an outside world on its last legs. Now, the city is divided into a
dozen culturally cut-up and socioeconomically distinct districts,
you know, each occupied by swarms of police and trigger-thrilled
security types, and separated from one another with blockades and
fences, along with a shocking case of paranoia. The centre of the
city—that’s the Dome—is a play area reserved for the rich. !en
there’s the subterranean Hospital zone, but let’s not get into that
here.

Melbourne may look a little worse for wear, a little bombed out even,
but it’s nothing compared to the ghastly ruins of the other cities out
there. Our city suffers from a chronic case of overpopulation, it’s
true, but the rest of the lot are devoid of us riffraff altogether.
Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about this
guy, goes by the name of Floyd Maquina. Now, Floyd was broke
and had medical bills to pay to support his ailing spouse, so the
government offered him some sort—I don’t know—some sort of
a job.

Anyway, there he was, poor chap, unhappy as a lark, without a cent,
and soaked through to the bone.

THIS IS HOW the dream unravels in my plagiaristic mind—a
preemptive attempt at a spot of streetwise narration plundered
from the opening monologue for the 1949 classic, The Third Man,
read with either the cynical edge of Carol Reed’s racketeer, or the
more inanely optimistic offering from Joseph Cotten’s protagonist
in the Americanized version. Your choice. !e words are smeared
just a bit into a ramshackle riot that attempts (badly, I must say) to
correlate with the mood, the alternative locale, and the entirely crap
circumstances of the here and now.

Hell, I don’t know if you’ve ever copped a screening of The Third
Man, but if you have it’d put you in solid with me—and would
certainly help out with all that descriptive nonsense we otherwise
have to indulge in to set the scene hereabouts. Whether or not you’ve
seen the flick, or even if you just need a few friendly slaps to remind
you, there’s a pivotal scene over an hour into it that perfectly captures
my predicament: cue a transient form, a man maybe, skulking in a
darkened alcove of the side of a nighttime Viennese plaza. There’s
a cat seated at the figure’s feet, preening itself. A light claps on in an
overhead window and you get a glimpse of the man’s face, replete
with a flirtatious, mocking expression—it’s Orson Welles as the
iconic Harry Lime, a character we’ve previously assumed to have
been measured up for a concrete kimono. He’s resurrected himself,
shades of Lazarus, and—ah, forget it. Who am I kidding?

I’ve nowhere near the smug self-assurance, let alone panache, of
Orson Welles when he takes that first visual splash in The Third
Man. I’ve more the personality of his co-star Joseph Cotten’s Holly
Martins in my B-movie attempt at an opening reel. Besides, the
contemporary location shoot—in Melbourne—isn’t quite as safe,
orderly, or classy as Reed’s post-World War II bombed-out Vienna.
I apologize for all the confusion—chalk it up to a delusion that
should be excised and dumped on the floor of the editing suite to be
swept out with the rest of the trash.

So, quickly pull back to a wide shot of the street in an attempt
to resuscitate this narrative. Keep it simple—no out-of-focus fadeins
like they employed in the old black-and-whites, or the Salvador
Dalí bender in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Simply diffuse the colour
and crinkle-cut the edges of the frame as heavy rain begins to fall.
Someone—that’s me—is leaning against a wall on some second rate
street. Cut to my aged, scuffed, and soaked-through shoe, then
pan to where our absent "lm noir cat is supposed to be. Damn.
!ere’s not, it seems, an available tabby or tortoiseshell to be found
anywhere within this dream.

Mind you, this all backed by the crackle of a single-channel
soundtrack: maybe some guy twanging away on a zither, or a
shamisen. Or wait, perhaps Irving Berlin could rise from the grave
to conduct a bunch of dusted-down tuxedos and cocktail-dressed
dames. I could go still more self-consciously future schlock here like
Cabaret Voltaire and !robbing Gristle did back in the 1970s, say
something into a mic, splice ‘n’ loop the tape, sprinkle in some of my
dad’s tortured guitar strumming from when I was little, and then
have the sheer audacity to call it this dream’s musical score.

Now that we have that sorted, jump cut, in godawfully hopeful
Jean-Luc Godard style, to my own perspective. !is is where it all
starts, really, with this recurring dream—and I wish to blazes the
truth had more pizzazz.

As it turns out, the dream is, in fact, a bit of a self-deluding
nightmare. For starters, let me tell you that the torrential rain is drip,
drip, dripping on my head through a hole in the overhead awning
and it’s bloody annoying.

I prop up a Hylax plastic-sheathed newspaper above me in a futile
attempt to fend o$ the spray. These days nobody’s quite sure what
extra bonuses this filthy downpour will impart upon the recipient.
At least the paper makes for a better brolly than it did reading
material—its printed content is guaranteed only to depress me more
than I presently am, which is a coup of some standing.
!e climate reminds me of that segment in the Ray Bradbury
anthology, The Illustrated Man, when the astronauts land on Venus
and are driven suicidal by the incessant rain. Again, I’m talking up
the 1969 movie by Jack Smight, starring Rod Steiger and Robert
Drivas—not Bradbury’s actual tome. In case you’re not so bright and
haven’t nutted this out yet, I’m a movie buff way more than a booktoting
literature affcionado. I’ll try to keep down the references, but
who am I kidding?

Don’t go thinking that I’m out here in this dismal weather by
choice. I told you it’s my job, though I could argue that it’s my prison
sentence. I’ll be doing this for the rest of my working life, however
long or (more likely) abridged that stretch might happen to be.
The assignment I was employed to undertake this day was
deceptively simple—unearth, tail, then rustle-up and knuckle-down
on somebody I hadn’t even seen yet, let alone been introduced to.
Fuck misgivings. Screw conscience. I slink back into the shadows of
the doorway, still feeling like a faux Harry Lime.

I look up towards the meagre strip of sky hiding between the
towering buildings, crisscrossed power lines, and bundled cables. It’s
a drab stew of burnt umber, grotesque pink, and ill-looking beige,
where once it would’ve been a more vivid combination of red and
orange at this time of evening, especially in summer. Maybe it was
the thick pall of polluted drizzle that diffused its intensity, and
maybe the sky really was the same as it used to be way, way up there.
Yeah, right. Whatever. Gene Kelly and his trusted umbrella wouldn’t
be caught dead in this place.

I flick my gaze back down to the deserted road spread out before
me. Vienna this most certainly is not. I scan the area, from the
starting block that is a half-obliterated sign on the door beside me
that reads 15 Stiftgasse, then out onto the street itself, searching
amidst rusted industrial waste containers, the stripped-down shells
of ransacked cars, boarded-up shop fronts, and tottering, derelict
housing set back from the twisted corpses of long-dead elm trees
that line each side of the wide street.

I could make this much simpler: deposit the conscience in a locker
somewhere, go get a lobotomy and do the job in ignorant bliss.
But, on the plus side, at least it’s still pretty early on in the evening.
Once I finish Activities here there’s a whole night ahead in which
to uncover and covet bliss—head home, drink a shit-load to tank
myself further into oblivion, pop a few back-up pills—blue ones, of
course, not the red—and collapse in a pile on the couch.

Activities can take place at any hour and I have to be ready (oh
yeah, and did I mention willing?) with my professional Seeker
accoutrement and a glimmering brushed-teeth smile, to clock-on
immediately and get down to it with my nose to the ground, blood
hounding around grimy, rain-blasted city streets, avoiding the lousy
elements—watching, waiting, sniffing, sniffing, yawning, and
procrastinating profusely.

They had me over a barrel the moment my wife got sick—which, in
light of recent world events, meant forced Relocation to a Hospital
for her and a force-fed diet of excessive medical bills for me. !at’s
when they sullied my doorstep with a wad of brochures in hand and
dazzled me with medico-speak, nattering on about the blue ribbon
care of something called the ‘Level A package’, while inferring the
worst about basic coverage—it was all a pill easy enough to swallow,
given the grim rumours circulating about what Hospitalization
actually entailed.

They got me wound up in knots and all uptight, right where the
pricks wanted me I guess, and then they snapped the bear trap—
told me that the only chance Veronica had to qualify for, and for me
to be able to afford, Level A treatment would be for me to accept
their offer of employment. Turns out they were Seeker Branch
reps and were recruiting me because of my experience as a private
investigator (I don’t know why—I was a hack—but that’s a long
story for another day and another book). They framed it all up as
an offer I couldn’t refuse—the promises that Veronica would get the
best treatment possible intercut with vague threats about my own
possible Relocation should I decide to bow out on their generosity.

That’s pretty much how the buggers snare you—by cutting out all
the other choices. And once you cave in and sign on that dotted line,
you’re in for keeps. Or else. It was all a sham, too, because nowadays
I’m dead certain she gets the same ‘treatment’ everyone else gets, but
I didn’t know that then. I was desperate and I clutched at straws,
just like the bastards knew I would. At least they made a big fat cash
deposit into my bank account on a fortnightly basis and sent me a
cute floral-pattern pay receipt via internal mail.

If the profession itself wasn’t enough to do your head in, there were
the humdrum technical details in the job description guaranteed
to bore you senseless—if they didn’t have such a disturbing
undercurrent.

The “preferred methods of performance” were set out in our own
private beige-coloured bible—the Guide to Deviant Apprehension
& Containment—in nice, orderly fashion from Procedure (1)
through to Procedure (28)(e).

The guide was slim enough to slip in our pants pocket, though it
was filled chock-a-block with small type. !ere are a whole bunch
of other Procedures and Amendments listed in the Guide beyond
(28)(e)—it’s just that it got tossed somewhere in my apartment and
I never made an effort to finish reading the thing.

My own duties, in those first twenty-eight procedures, were
unsavoury enough—I didn’t need to know more. Four recurrent
words best captured its spirit: Seek, Locate, Apprehend, and
Contain, along with a fifth oft-appearing declaration that I did my
best to forget—Terminate—always accompanied by the bracketed
disclaimer, ‘[if necessary]’.

You’ve just gotta love that chilly, mechanical, yet viciously formal
approach.

She—the subject of my Activities—was probably somewhere
nearby, though Branch wasn’t always spot on with the details. The
briefing material for said Activities was brevity at its best—I knew
there was a female Dev, and they’d given me an approximate time
and place to find her, but zip else.

I hadn’t really thought it over before, but it could be downright
frustrating to some to go through this routine, get drenched, and
exhale hours of your life—only to find out it’s a blow-over. Me? I
preferred when I got to return to Branch empty-handed. It’s not easy
to keep tabs on a person in this trash heap of a city, but an Activities
would rarely take place unless they were seventy-odd percent sure.
Meaning, I could expect to get o$ easy thirty percent of the time.

I pray to an empty mead-hall of Norse gods that this particular
Dev has the smarts to stay hidden—at least until my own Activities
session is over. !en it’ll be somebody else’s problem.
I eyeball the rows of blackened, twisted, somewhat greasy-looking
elm stumps and wonder why the local council hasn’t ripped them up
yet. Leaving them here proffers up only another dismal reminder of
that better yesterday I mentioned somewhere else. More appropriate
if they were razed and disposed of, like the other organic waste in
this increasingly stagnant urban shit-hole.

Time to quit stalling, which is what I’m really doing here, and get
on with it. !e fact is that once it’s over I can go home—and have a
nice cold one, or three. !e newspaper is starting to come apart in
my hands—in spite of the plastic that had formerly sheathed it. Acid
rain. I toss the rag behind me, then lean forward from the alcove and
enter the biting, bitter-tasting downpour.

There’s a bent and rusted old sign that reads ‘Bush Street’. It’s
suspended beneath the one streetlight that still works—albeit
blinking in a way that’d be unhealthy for any epileptics in the
neighbourhood. I glance behind me, my hands over my eyes to
shield them as much as I can from the spray, but it still stings. I’m
wondering how long my hair will last. The Stetson I’m sporting,
which I bought only the week before, is already threadbare.

It could be that the target client was sweating me out inside one
of the condemned stores here—and I mean, literally, sweating, as it’s
so fucking humid right now—or, alternatively, hiding down one of
these narrow alleyways along with all the other flotsam and jetsam,
crap, garbage, refuse, and what not. Maybe, just maybe, she was
wading through the flooded storm-drains beneath my feet. A death
wish, sure, but it’d been done once before that I’d heard about.

And that’s when I see her, or at least see someone that fits the
description. More importantly, she sees me, and immediately turns
around. I tear off down the street towards her, but the camera starts
to pull back, and I’m trying to stay in focus. That’s when the rather
knotty dream ends, this time around.


***

 For more information see: http://tobaccostainedmountaingoat.weebly.com/

 

The Australian book launch for new novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat is all sewn up for Wednesday August 10th @ the Miss Libertine gallery For Walls in the heart of Melbourne's CBD:
http://www.misslibertine.com.au/