Monday. Staring at the numbers lighting up in their horizontal column. Turning my eyes to watch a sliver of the city rise up beneath me through the slitted window that runs all the way up the tower shaft. The name, written in pink, lines the rim of the lift, lit up in familiar fluorescent splendour. I breathe out slowly and shift my briefcase from hand to hand. Gravity gives way where I am going. The Bell End, as far as I have gathered, is something akin to a sovereign state. No one knows you are going up there, and no one knows if you ever come back down.
The lift doors open, and all I am greeted with is another door adorned with a simple rainbow. The Sign of Stefan, says an awed voice in my head. As I have been told, I press my palm against the rainbow and it lights up, one rung at a time—green yellow blue pink—and I feel a slight warmth through my skin. The door slides away, and I come face-to-face, unbelievably, with the man himself.
Stefan smiles at me, his dark eyes softening like juicy raisins. His teeth are brilliantly white and perfectly uniform; they are reams of freshly opened paper. He wears a simple black tracksuit, his body creating unusually square shapes from within its velour confines. Looking closer, I realise his body is actually impossibly boxlike, and that instead of feet, little casters roll hummingly on the pink carpet. The square Stefan moves his mouth, and a recorded voice comes from it: Welcome to The Bell End. Please step this way. Then Square Stefan’s right arm extends in a whirring “greetings and kindly proceed in the direction I am offering” motion and I step past him, my nose curling with the acrid waft of computer hardware slightly overheating. His face, closer up, is obviously prosthetic, but believable nonetheless.
Square Stefan shows me through yet another door, and it opens into a huge round room covered in wood-finish wallpaper, mood-lit in places with orange wall lights shaped like upturned seashells. The centre of the room is engulfed with the virtuosic shimmer of an illuminated lap-pool, complete with bejewelled lane markers and a golden childproof gate all around its edge. My eyes, accustomed as they are to the dark lift-ride up the shaft, feel almost violated by this assault of colour and pattern.
“It is half-Olympic,” says a voice behind me, smooth like a Siamese cat being guided the right way through satin.
I turn around to see what I assume must be the real Stefan, his eyes and teeth do the same raisin/paper trick, but this time, his body is definitely human; I am made almost painfully aware of this by the generous expanse of humanity exposed by Stefan’s loosely gathered kimono. He walks towards me, and I have to avert my eyes from the indistinct fleshy forms that appear from behind swaying silk hemlines.
“The pool, I mean,” says Stefan. “It is exactly half the official Olympic size.”
“I see,” I say.
Stefan turns to Square Stefan and claps his hands, quickly and up beside his shoulder like a Flamenco dancer. “Halstef, bring us some refreshments!”
Halstef turns on his tiny wheels and exits the room. I am left with the real Stefan, and the sound of a water filter ticking over somewhere above me.
“Halstef is my personal assistant,” explains Stefan, spreading his stance unnecessarily wide. “He was made in my image so as not to frighten any guests.”
I nod my head. The heat from the pool begins to make sweat prickle in my collar. I notice a laminated list of rules pinned to the side of the pool fence. One is No Hair Below the Waterline.
“But enough idleness,” says Stefan, finally wrapping the kimono back around himself. “You have been asked here for a reason, and that reason should wait no longer. This way, please.” Stefan motions towards a pair of extended reclining pool seats positioned against the opposite wall. I follow him and attempt to sit down in the chair, but as soon as I have leant my weight down on it, I slip involuntarily into a lying down position, my legs splayed out on the footrest and my eyes staring straight at the ceiling. Worryingly, a reflected image of myself looks back down at me. The ceiling of the room is one large mirror.
Stefan makes a satisfied noise as I watch his reflection ease into his chair. “So much more relaxing than a boardroom,” he observes, “don’t you think?”
“Must be,” I say, struggling to sit upright.
“Had them made especially.” Stefan taps a small plaque at the side of his chair. A modern purple font proclaims Another Quality ProstGreat™ Product. Stefan turns on his side and his face suddenly adopts a more serious timbre. “I must ask, Mr Whitman, that we enjoy ourselves, but also that we attend the very serious matter at hand.” The loose pact between physics and decency governing Stefan’s kimono collapses again, and I look away, mentally adding industrial strength eye-drops to an emergency shopping list. “Mr Whitman,” says Stefan. “I was wondering if you’d be kind enough to hold out your hand.”
I do so, hesitantly.
Stefan reaches into a pocket in his kimono and draws out a handful of crackly, brown matter, scrunching and breaking between his fingers like burnt paper. He transfers it to my hand, and I realise they are broken up old leaves.
“What would you say this is, Mr Whitman?”
“Broken up old leaves?”
“Precisely. I have to say, I had no idea you were as perceptive as you appear to be.”
I pondered Stefan’s statement for a moment, and studied more closely the leaf matter in my hand. It had been well broken-down; it smelt mulchy and honest.
“It arrived in my post office box almost one week ago,” says Stefan. “My private post office box, if you understand.” Stefan gives me a pronounced look. He knows I am not stupid. My position has certainly afforded me certain “sensitive” pieces of information over the years, some of which concerned the truth (or otherwise) about Stefan’s tower. Originally called The Night Companion, and now, officially, The Sky Needle, the tower had long been suspiciously regarded by certain powerful Conservatives as something of a “lighthouse” for illegal activities (due in no small part to the blinding light at the tower’s peak). While there was not a grain of truth among allegations that the tower served as a hub to certain imported substances and devious activities (the light was simply an accessory that did nothing more illegal than confuse incoming passenger planes), the existence of Bell End—and what went on inside it—was nonetheless a piece of information that only a handful shared. All I knew were partially confirmed reports of a “secret society” that met there to make, according to one source, “monumental decisions” for the city. Brisbane was a naturally suspicious place, and the constant presence of armed guards at the base of Stefan’s tower was certainly something that had never sat entirely right with the council, especially those in certain planning departments. Stefan was allowed to keep both his guards and his bulbous hideaway secret because—from the information myself and others had pieced together—this secret society evidently made decisions that those in very high positions of power valued immensely.
Stefan nervously smooths down his hair. I say smooths down, but really, despite a nervous hand passing through them, not one jet-black strand shifts out of place.
“I woke one morning and the package was here,” Stefan motions towards a drinks trolley beside his chair, “with these . . . leaves. Whoever delivered it would have had to have passed through the guards, the elevator, the rainbow access pad⎯even Halstef.”
“But why full of leaves?” I ask. “Why would someone go to all this trouble just to give you broken leaves?”
Stefan leans back in his chair, hands clasped behind his sculpted coif, body splayed open with scant kimono covering. “That, Mr Whitman, is a longer story. One I cannot, perhaps, convincingly convey.”
“What do you mean?” I say to a point well beyond Stefan’s freshly bared shoulder.
Stefan licks his lips uncertainly. “If I were to tell you the whole story,” he says, “I’m afraid you would not believe me. In fact, it is highly likely you would immediately get up and leave the poolside without enjoying any form of refreshment, and you would go back out that door, and as you are travelling back down my shaft, you would think to yourself: That Stefan, he is most probably crazy.”
“But you will begin to understand only by seeing it for yourself.” Stefan reaches enthusiastically into the confines of his kimono. I instinctively try to leap out of my chair, but the patented ProstGreat design only makes me fall back into a state of further prone-ness (I can see the billboards in my head: Even When a Swarthy Reclusive Millionaire Reaches Deep into His Personal Crevasses Right Next To You, You’ll Still Want to Lie Back in Comfort!). With my mind prepared for the worst sort of horror, I am relieved when Stefan’s hand emerges with nothing more than an expensive looking manila envelope.
“In this envelope is an address.” Stefan’s face darkens again, and I half expect TV-weather-report lightning to begin zigzagging from his storm cloud bouffant. “You will go to this address, and you will begin to understand why I am so deeply concerned, and why I have chosen you to help.”
I hear a whirring noise.
“Drinks?” says Stefan. “Nibbles?” His features have suddenly returned to those of a jovial host who always has his robot servant deliver his guests a silver platter piled with an artistically designed structure made of Pringles and pate de foie gras.
Halstef trundles towards us, holding the finger-food sculpture (it appears to be a comestibled recreation of the Temptation of Christ) with a specially designed suction attachment on his left hand, while somehow lancing four olives onto two toothpicks with his right.
“I assume you like martinis,” grins Stefan. “Shaken, not stirred, of course.” He laughs loudly at this joke, throwing his head back so fast that his crown of gravitationally independent hair appears, for a moment, to be existing in its own dimension. I suddenly picture him as a little boy in a sepia-toned family portrait, standing, sailor-suited, beneath the parental gaze of Rene Rifkin and Liberace.
This Stefan, I think to myself, he is most probably crazy.