An Unexpected Guest

Gabriel Noel | Fiction

At 8:30, Chris pushed through his apartment door, blocked halfway by cardboard boxes, and went straight for the bathroom. The boxes were crammed with books. He wasn’t planning on moving anywhere, at least not in the immediate future, but he wanted to carve out a silent space in his bedroom to keep his brain waves as level as possible. The majority of his research was done online, but even now some of the best fragments would turn up on flaky brown pages abandoned both by history and human memory. He trusted paper because it was harder to manipulate; web pages could be altered or wiped completely, but old books forgotten in dusty airless corners of local libraries or little shops were unlikely—not impossible—to be tampered with. He pissed for what seemed like five straight minutes, washed his hands, and turned into his room without drying them, just kind of jerking them around like he was shooing away flies.

Chris was what most people called a conspiracy theorist. Unlike many others searching for the uncorrupted truth, hidden under innumerable layers of malevolence, he was fine with the label. He didn’t exactly wear it with pride, but since it seemed to him that nearly anything that went against authority (what he called the ‘control system’, and very rarely, the Matrix) was labeled a conspiracy theory now, it was useless to use up precious energy fighting over vocabulary. It was exactly what the controllers wanted, anyway. Fight over semantics, and idiot shit like the whole flat earth debacle, and attention was diverted away from what he considered the big players: CIA black budget, royal lineages, alien infiltration, Atlantean remnants.

For the past several years he considered his energy well expended. It was split between the sun hours—spent hauling around and stocking tvs, vacuums, concert speakers, and other consumer electronic toys for a big retailer— and the moon hours, where he took the spare folded boxes lying around the warehouse and filled them with books and files of anything and everything that had to do with secret histories, occult organizations, and backroom government deals, officially acknowledged or not.

He sat down at his small wooden desk and by force of habit opened his laptop and went to the latest tab on his open window. The tab count had reached 74. It must have been some sort of record, and it embarrassed him a bit—he could usually stay down in the 40s. He clicked through the most recently opened tabs, felt disgusted with himself, and slammed the laptop shut, listening to the growl of the garbage truck pulling back out onto Broadway. Hearing the machine gear up to pick up and devour the next batch of trash gave him a perverse sense of comfort. Staring beyond the wobbling desk and cloudy bedroom window out into the glare of the streetlights, he knew that even in a world of unhinged chaos, he could still trust the trash collectors to come on time. No medicine for the working sick, and only the appearance of freedom, but at least last week’s dinner wouldn’t ferment on the sidewalk.


Chris only realized the man was in his apartment thirty minutes later, when he went to go get some French brandy and an obscure book about the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis. He would later rack his brain and shudder at the thought that not only did the man break in silently, but might have been there before Chris had gotten back, and that in fact he had passed into his bedroom and sat staring at street lights for half an hour without knowing another man was there watching him.

The man was sitting in the dark. When Chris turned on the living room light to get the book, his body flinched automatically and the bottle slid out of his hand, bouncing off of a thigh, and hit the floor. The man, short, with a huge, mountainous uncombed afro that partly hid his face, was looking toward the wall, away from Chris. He didn’t even seem to notice that the light had been turned on, much less the echo of glass against hardwood.

Chris looked down at the bottle before any squeeze of panic or fear had seeped in. It was intact. He immediately looked back up at the man, who was still sitting with his back straight, still looking at the wall, not even seeming to breathe. Chris didn’t move either.

His first thought was that this was a burglar, but quickly tossed it out since he had nothing worth burglarizing; the second theory was homelessness, which the hair seemed to indicate, but the stillness and lack of noise went against that. And how the fuck did he get into his apartment in the first place? Chris knew he had double-locked the door behind him when he came in, and would have definitely heard the boxes tumble over if someone attempted to force the door. He looked over; the door was locked, the boxes filled with books just as he had left them, in the same disheveled position he had left them.

The branching thoughts of conspiracy proliferated: was this an agent? CIA, maybe, or FBI? Reptilian ambassador? Had they been monitoring his web traffic?

Chris slowly, slowly, without an exhalation, bent down onto his knees and picked up the bottle. His knees cracked on the way back up— the remnant of an ACL tear in junior year of high school, playing basketball. He tried to see what the man was staring at, and took a few short steps forward, his eyes on him the whole time, waiting for the explosion. As he moved he saw beyond the shield of hair to the profile. It was beautiful; the man had a smooth-skinned, sharply etched face, with a slanting forehead, rounded nose, and strong chin at the end of a hard jaw. From the side, at least, everything seemed to be in perfect proportion, set down in just the right positions. The expression on his face was one of utter serenity. He was wearing a lush black peacoat, buttoned, with the collar up, that must have cost thousands of dollars.

Surely this man was an agent, sent to intimidate or assassinate. But why toy with Chris like this—why pretend like he was still in the dark? Chris had no idea that he was important enough to have someone assigned to him. He rarely posted on forums, almost never communicated with online people about his theories. Every wild serpentine hypothesis that could have gotten him flagged was said in person, usually when half drunk, and almost always to work buddies or cousins, who would consistently brush it off and politely change the subject. One of them was an informant? Had he been that blind? Had he, by accident, hit on something the control system needed to snuff out?

“Can I help you?”

Chris’s voice squeaked out of his throat, the absolute opposite of the impression he had hoped to make on the man, who still didn’t respond, and in fact seemed to exist in a transparent bubble of spacetime, exclusive to him and his jagged hair. He took another step forward and saw the man’s feet.

They were bare and cracked by the cold, with no shoes or slippers or socks in sight. The silver lines against the brown skin looked like a desert floor in miniature, seen high from a passing jet or satellite.

So he is homeless, he thought. His body remained tense but the mind loosened. The brandy swished under his tight grip, and he kept a distance from the man.

“Excuse me, sir. Sir, excuse me—I’m sorry, maybe you were cold,” he waved his hand with the brandy in it, “but you gotta go.” He sort of vibrated his head and raised his shoulders. “You gotta go.”

He took another step closer to the line of sight connecting the man and the invisible point on the wall that had magnetized him like some metallic doll. The man had on dark blue jeans that were slightly worn at the knees, and lively, bright gray eyes that said this was not a mentally disturbed or drugged man. Or—Chris thought—so disturbed and intoxicated that he had broken through and reached a higher lucidity, one that allowed him to occupy his spacetime bubble and serenely observe something on or through the wall that was completely invisible to general humanity.

He wasn’t big on magic, but he had heard of Eastern and African spiritual masters who had basically transcended the material realm, but hung around from time to time to give visions to the initiated. He also knew New York was full to bursting with the most outrageously unhinged human beings one could find in the Western Hemisphere, and maybe this was one of those people. The feet would have suggested that—but that jacket? It would have taken months of paychecks for Chris to get one of those. Maybe he’d stolen it. Yet his face, completely soft and healthy, soaked through with goodwill, expressed something completely different.

The man still hadn’t made eye contact, or even shifted his body in any way that would have suggested he acknowledged or cared about Chris’s presence, or the fact that he was in his apartment, with his mountain hair, his beautiful face and coat, his decaying jeans, and gray-lined desert floor feet. This man was like an amalgamation of conflicting social signifiers, each canceling out the other, rendering Chris’s well-developed sense of pattern recognition useless. Maybe he really was an agent— just an odd, maverick one who liked to take his targets down barefoot.

Chris positioned himself just slightly to the man’s right, a few steps away from where he sat, under the yellowish electric light filling the living room. He tried again.

“Hey, sir.” He stuck out the bottle of brandy, then whistled hard with his other hand. “Sir!”

The sound seemed to do the trick. The spacetime bubble burst, and the man’s face went from full satisfaction to pure curiosity, turning his eyes to Chris and smiling, as if he knew him— as if Chris was an old friend not seen in years, decades. His voice was low, without a trace of gravel or roughness.

“Yes. How are you—” he raised his left hand and brought it to his chest. Chris opened his mouth, but it took a few seconds.

“I—I’m fine. Listen, you need to—”

The man brought his hand down to his leg, softly rubbing against the jeans.

“Been waiting for you.”

Chris took a step back. There wasn’t much time for reflection, but he had hoped to have at least a child or two before death. The image of Angelica, the Catholic girl with coiled hair the color of mahogany, stuck in his mind: the gap in her teeth that she always tried to hide, the way she would push his shoulder with both hands when making an off-color joke. He hadn’t spoken to her in a year and five months.

“If you—if you have to do it, at least tell me what I did wrong,” he said. He nervously unscrewed the cap and took a quick swig, grimacing against the burn slacking down the throat and settling on top of the chest. “How did you—how’d I get flagged?”

The man looked amused. “Flagged?”

“How did you find me?” Chris said.

“Your door was open.”

Chris looked behind him to confirm again. The door was still double-bolted. This was a figure of speech, then. They must have accessed an IP server or something.

“I see.”

“It’s pretty damn cold out there,” the man said. “I mean, look at ‘em!” He motioned down to his feet, raising them on their heels and turning them side to side. They looked like they would break apart at any moment.

“How did that happen? Some kind of training style?”

The man’s face changed for the first time into confusion.

“The cold. It’s fucking freezing.”

“Of course, but I—” Chris stopped. It wasn’t clear whether this was an assassination anymore. Maybe he’d get a chance to call Angelica after all. He didn’t know the CIA to play with their food like this.

“Why did you come here?”

“It was cold. I told you.” He smiled.

“But what’s your assignment?”

“I have no assignment.”

Chris paused. “So you weren’t sent?” Angelica’s face dissolved from his mind’s screen.

“Nobody sent me.”

“So what, like, this is a personal mission? You have something against me?” Chris was beginning to tremble. “Whatever I did, can promise you—”

The man looked down and rubbed his palms against his jeans again.



“Water—can I get some?” the man repeated. He looked up at Chris.

Chris’s anxiety was bordering on the strange exhilaration he sometimes felt in high stress situations.

“Yeah. Yeah—of course.” He started walking away, then turned sharply. “I’ll be right back,” he said, as if the man would evaporate into the night if he hadn’t.


He got the water from the kitchen tap. Letting the water run, he pulled out his phone, switched it to silent, and dialed 911. If the man was really working alone, there would be no comms team tapping the phone line, and if he was just out of his mind, who knows what would happen.

The operator asked what Chris’s emergency was. He realized he couldn’t speak without the man hearing. And what was he going to say, anyway—a government agent with frostbitten feet had tracked him down to chat in his living room? He put the phone up to his mouth and cleared his throat dramatically into the receiver, waited a few seconds, then hung up.

The man was humming some tune when he went back, tapping on his thighs. His huge hair shook lightly in time with his head nodding.

“Here you go.”

“Ah, thank you.” He smiled and took the glass. He drank it in one breath, no stops, eyeing Chris as he drank. He did an exaggerated exhale, wiped his mouth with his peacoat sleeve, and handed the glass back.

“I needed that. Appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it.” Chris put the glass on the floor with his brandy.

The man breathed in deeply. “Cold, isn’t it.”

“Pretty chilly.”

“Very cold.” The man looked off into space, as if he was reforming his bubble. Maybe he really was just insane.

“You mind me asking your name?”

The man raised his eyebrows. “What was that?”

“I asked if I could know your name.”

“My name. Yeah, my name—I’ve had many names, you know.”

Like codenames?

“I understand if you can’t say.”

“No, no, I can say. I can say.” He rubbed his hands on his jeans again, and paused. “My father called me Gene, but… my IDs always said Jacques. The French way—you know, with the ‘Q’.”


“But my classmates, they used to call me ‘The Professor’, ‘cause I was always in one fucking book or another,” he laughed. “Even back in third grade—reading the social studies textbooks for fun. It’s a miracle I don’t need glasses.” He gently lay two fingers over his left eye, and stared, smiling, at Chris with the right eye. “But maybe I should see an eye doctor.”

“Maybe so.” Chris wasn’t sure how to approach any of this anymore, and thought that if he kept the man in a good enough mood, he would be able to stall for time until the police arrived. If they were as smart as he hoped.

There was a gap of silence. Chris wanted to swallow his saliva, but left it there.

“What are they called, again?” Gene, known as Jacques, and sometimes The Professor, asked.

“Sorry? What are what called?”

“You know, people who deal with eyes. The eye doctor. There’s a specialist name. Orthodontist, I think.”

“Optometrist,” Chris said, swallowing, bending down and picking up the brandy, his knees cracking again.

“Optometrist, orthopedist, orthodontist, ophthalmologist… way too many to remember, son. Way too many. Too many O-O-O-Os—”

He watched Chris take another swig of the brandy, and smiled with a full set of flawlessly, obscenely white teeth. There was no conceivable world in which a crazed, homeless person could possess such teeth, and this made Chris’s hand tremble even more noticeably, which he was afraid would set off the man, agent, angel of death—whatever he was.

“You’re thirsty tonight, huh?” the Professor said. “Good liquor does warm you up.”

“Oh.” Chris looked down at the label. “I just—think it has a good taste.”

Gene laughed. “Exactly what my pops would say. ‘Gene, let me be. It’s just the taste I’m after. The taste, Gene, that’s all.’ ”

He now felt embarrassed to have the bottle in his grip like that. “I guess he drank too much, huh.”

“You could say that.” Jacques cracked his neck from side to side, the pops filling the air. “But I never saw him drunk. Just smiling from the taste, you see.”

Chris moved to put the bottle down. “Maybe I should—”

“No, no—please. Enjoy. In fact—” The man motioned for the bottle with two quick fingers. “If you don’t mind, son.”

Chris kept still. There were too many variables in play, and the mass of them hitting at once sort of short-circuited his decision making. Right now the man was calm, but alcohol could easily tip the delicate calculus the wrong way. At the same time, Chris already felt the burn from the liquor reaching the base of his spinal cord, giving his head that warm fur feeling he enjoyed so much while doing his research, and began to entertain the idea that absolutely none of this was in his control. He remembered a grumpy old head from the forums—he had actually vanished a few months back, without so much as a ‘See ya later’—who claimed that given the level of runaway technological advancement the black budget guys had, it was probable that they had already developed a system which essentially canceled out free will altogether. Through some Faustian tinkering of reality, he claimed, the controllers had a device, or network of devices, that accounted for everything in their favor—even the old head, even Chris and the rest, assimilating them into an impossibly complex equation of reactions and counter-reactions that ensured the game was rigged in their favor before the first pawn was ever moved. All of this, in other words, was for show: and we didn’t even know it.

That theory was too schizoid for even the most battle-hardened members on the forum, and they roundly shouted him down. It was an ‘irresponsible, unproductive line of thinking,’ they said. But Chris heard a hint of anxiety in their repudiations. As if, somewhere deep in the back of the brain, if not in the heart, they were terrified that the old man might be right. That he had simply found technological proof of what philosophers worried over and brushed under the rug, tens of centuries ago.

Chris didn’t know about all that, but he did know that the alcohol and the man in his living room put him in a zone where the direction of the near future was out of his hands. He picked up the glass, the knees cracking again, poured two shot’s worth of brandy, and handed it to the Professor.


About twenty minutes later, Jacques was winding up a story about his time in Paris in the autumn of ‘87, falling in and out of love with a red-headed woman doing her Master’s at Sciences Po. He tenderly nursed the brandy in his glass, not wanting it to finish but unwilling to ask Chris for more. Chris listened as intently as he could given the liquor in his system, but even so the story the man told was hard to pin down. He always spoke in abstractions, about ‘flutterings of the heart’ and ‘secret glances’ that he gauged the relationship by. Every time something related to his work approached the narrative, he deftly sidestepped it with some change of place or scene, buying groceries in the 13th arrondissement at Porte D’Ivry only to teleport to the Latin Quarter, so by the end Chris still had no idea what he did. This could have been his way of hiding his intel connections, or it could have been his style of storytelling as an itinerant wanderer across Western Europe. It didn’t really matter anymore. He wouldn’t be able to stop him either way. Chris was tall, with some stamina from hauling merchandise, but not powerful, and had seen firsthand at fights in grimy subway cars how real and astonishing old-man strength was. Besides, Jacques—he’d decided to settle on that name—was smiling consistently, and seemed to be enjoying his audience.

“By the time I came back from the north, everything was different,” he said, swirling the glass. “I tried calling her apartment but she wouldn’t pick up. I went to the university and waited outside her lecture hall. When she got out, she took one look at me and walked off. Like she didn’t even know me. That glance was the last; the last one. The spell was broken, you see. She was back on earth, and wanted nothing to do with me.”

He swallowed the last of his brandy. “To this day I don’t know where I went wrong with her,” he said, shaking his head faintly and mouthing something.

“Maybe her feelings changed while you were gone. You know, up north.”

He shot Chris a weird look. “Why should that’ve changed anything? At all?”

Chris braced the handle of the bottle, then shrugged, picturing Angelica in place of the red-headed Parisian. “I dunno. It just does, sometimes. I’m not good with women anyway—God knows.”

Jacques leaned back into the chair and laughed, his teeth flashing, the jagged, snow-capped peaks of his afro larger than ever. “Yes—God. If only that asshole had anything to do with it.” He pointed the glass toward Chris, not to ask for more but to make his point. “God left us a long time ago. You see, he’s dormant somewhere in the Himalayas. Waiting for the right time. I mean, look around you: you think the world is in the fucked up, fucked up way it is by accident?”

Chris had no idea how to respond. He’d never heard of a theory like that. A sleeping deity, deep in the mountains.

“Where did you hear that? I never—”

Jacques put his free hand up, and smiled with no teeth. “Can’t say. I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”

Chris had to physically keep his jaw shut. So this man was an agent after all. Unbelievable. Of all the fucking—

“I understand. No problem.”

They stayed quiet for a while. Cars screeched over on Broadway, and nearer to the apartment bunches of grasshoppers screamed in response. The yellow light from the bulb seemed brighter and softer than before. Neither the noise from the bug-like machines nor the machine-like bugs bothered him. He had entered Jacques’s bubble—he felt the euphoric warping of spacetime. No wonder the guy was so weird, he thought. Chris would be the same, if the world always felt like this.

He put the bottle down, leaned against the wall where Jacques had been staring at the invisible spot, and put his hands in his pockets. Jacques turned his head contemplatively, stuck out his jaw, tilted his head back and forth a few times, quickly exhaled, settled into his peacoat, slapped his hands on his jeans and looked up again.

“What the hell. It ain’t like he’s coming back anytime soon,” Jacques said. “You wanna know how I found out?”

Chris could hear his pulse through his temples. “Sure. I mean, if you—don’t mind.”

Jacques looked at his glass. “You mind if I get some more water? Talking so much gets you thirsty, if you know what I mean.”

He looked at the syrupy stains on the glass in Jacques’s hand. “Don’t worry, I’ll clean that up for you. One sec.”

Chris walked back to the kitchen in a daze. He guessed that his conversation had endeared him to Jacques, and so decided to call off the operation. But to get such behind the scenes intelligence—out of this world. He thought about the uproar this would erupt on the forums. They wouldn’t believe him, of course, but it didn’t matter. He’d seen an agent, albeit an unconventional one, up close and firsthand, and that was more than anyone else could say. Half an hour with the man in the luxury coat and Sahara feet was worth as much, if not more, than seven years of secondary research. Yes: much, much more. He took his time cleaning the glass, bringing it up to his nose four times to make sure the scent of alcohol had completely vanished.

Chris was wiping the insides bone dry with a rag when he heard the explosion of glass and a man’s scream. It didn’t sound like Jacques. He hadn’t heard the police knock on the door, but the moment he put the cup down and ran into view of the living room, he saw the glint of a thousand points like starlight on the hardwood floor, and looked up at Jacques wrestling on his feet with an officer much larger than him in the frame of the door, his pale bald head shining from the harsh hallway bulbs. The boxes of books had collapsed to the side, spilling the conspiracy tomes into jagged staircases. He immediately brought Jacques down, and struggled getting out ‘You piece—of fucking—shit—’ while jerking Jacques’s wrists behind his back. As the officer dropped, his partner in the hallway came into view, looking down at Jacques and then straight at Chris, who was frozen in space. The partner put his left hand in the air, his right hand on the handle of his gun.

“Stay right there! Stay right there—don’t move!”

Chris was in no danger of shifting a centimeter. He heard a wild chuckle, and saw Jacques wriggling like a fish under the officer’s bulging arms, his hair flinging about wildly. He was saying something, but Chris couldn’t make it out. He repeated the unknown phrase four times, then flipped his head over to Chris, his cheek pressed hard against the floor as the officer brought the cuffs out.

“Don’t worry son, don’t worry! I’ll get back to ya, don’t worry!” He smiled, his teeth blinding. “I won’t leave you hanging. Don’t worry about that. Just impossible to talk with these guests present, that’s all—” He wriggled around again, kicking out his bare feet like a child splashing in water. The officer bounced up swiftly and the partner pulled out his taser, aiming at Jacques’s back.

It was all slipping away. Chris yelled for them to wait, to hold on, but when the tape connected and the charge rushed through, Jacques went limp, and stayed that way. They pulled him up and dragged him into the hallway, barking at the spectators peeking their curious heads out to get back in your residence please, sir.

Chris tried to follow them out into the night, but they were more concerned with Jacques having assaulted a police officer by throwing a liquor bottle in their direction rather than having trespassed in a retail merchandiser’s one bedroom Bronx apartment.


Chris slipped on the spilled brandy from the smashed bottle on his way back in. He wiped up the mess with the rag he used for the glass, but decided to gingerly pick up the shards and put them into a little ziplock bag that he laid on his bedroom desk. He went to go fix the tumbled boxes and books and spotted a 70s style paperback with neon block lettering. It was the Younger Dryas book. He held it for a while under the light, shaking his head, then bent down, cracking, onto Jacques’s seat and read the first three pages over at least fifteen times, Angelica’s beautiful smile and gap teeth forming a thick veil over the words.

The next morning he went to three different precinct houses near his apartment. He went on about Jacques in detail, and tried all three names—even ‘The Professor’. No one had a record of an arrest for someone with that description.