I make things disappear," Jonathan Quinn said.
I think we'd known each other about six months at that point. We'd met in Germany when I was working there on a project for a visitor center presentation that would live at a new Volkswagen plant in Dresden. The job itself wasn't in Dresden, though. It was in Berlin, a town Quinn knows well.
I thought at the time he was just another one of the wanderers I tend to collect, this one a fellow American working overseas. I think I first met him on the U-bahn (the Berlin train system) heading across town from the Mitte toward Ku'damm. I'm not 100% on that, though. The genesis of a character is often a drawn out process, and my memory of Quinn's birth is murky.
By the time this particular conversation happened, we were both back in Los Angeles, where, it turns out, we both lived—Quinn much more comfortably than I. We were having dinner at a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
At the time it was my favorite place to eat. In the past year and a half, they've changed the decor to some sort of 90s disco theme and I haven't gone back.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
As he took a sip of his Singha beer, I thought maybe he was just going to leave it at that. After all, this was the most I'd ever got out of him about what he did for a living. But then he said, "Sometimes things don't go as planned. When that happens I'm the one who makes it all look pretty again."
"Tell me about Berlin," I said. I had sensed from the beginning that something had happened there, something I wanted to know about.
"Nothing to tell." He didn't even try to hide the fact that he was lying.
That's about as far as I got that night. What exactly the 'things' were that didn't go as planned, I wasn't completely sure, but I did have my ideas.
I could have just let him die right then. He was forcing me to work pretty hard to get to know him. I'd dismissed more talkative characters sooner than this.
But there was something about him, something that made me want to know more.
He was interesting and mysterious. And I'd be damned if there wasn't something that had happened in Berlin I wanted to hear about.
A week later as we rode in my car, I said, "You're not killing people, but you do deal with the dead, right?"
"You're talking in black and whites. You, as much as anyone, know the world is made up of grays."
This answer stung me a little bit. He was right. One of my biggest pet peeves is people who only think in black and white, yet here I was trying to put him in a neat little black and white box.
"Let's just say I don't kill if I don't have to," he went on. "But you're right about dealing with the dead. It's a big part of what I do."
"You dispose of them?"
"Exactly." He smiled as if I was a student and he was a proud teacher. "Disposal is one of the services I provide."
"How does that work?"
"That I'm not going to tell you."
"But you will eventually."
"These other things you do, what are they?"
He looked out the window into the L.A. night. "I think that was your exit," he said.
He was right.
I moved over to the right lane, so I could get off at the next ramp and double back.
"Just getting rid of a body isn't enough. You've got to make it look like whatever went wrong never happened. Blood, fingerprints, spent shells, things out of place. These are all problems I have to deal with.
"I can't imagine you went to school for this. How did you get in and learn about the business?"
"I was recruited."
"Out of college?"
He shook his head. "I was a cop."
For some reason, that surprised me. "Who recruited you?"
"Doesn't matter. He's dead now."
"Did he teach you a lot?"
As I eased my car off the freeway, I decided to press my luck. "And Berlin?"
I was greeted with only silence. When I looked over at the passenger seat, Quinn was gone.
As time passed, bits of his story started coming to me. Not from anything Quinn said, but somehow I was sensing it, I guess. Even when he wasn't around, I'd pick up on things. I would be at work or getting into bed or even watching TV and a name or a place or a situation would pop into my mind. Immediately I'd know it was part of Quinn's story. Still, the problem was I had a lot of parts, but I didn't have the whole.
The only way I was going to get that was to have Quinn tell it to me himself.
"Tell me about Orlando," I said one morning.
"Leave her out of it."
"Then let's talk about Berlin."
The next day: "Is she a friend?"
"You don't listen very well, do you?"
"She's a friend." I could tell he was holding something back.
"Was she with you in Berlin?"
If she was, he didn't hang around to tell me.
Each day I kept pressing, harder and harder, using the bit of information that had seeped into my mind.
"What did you learn about the fire in Colorado?" I would ask. "How long did you work for Peter?" "Why do you hate the cold?"
And finally, "Tell me what happened in Berlin."
Finally one afternoon, he looked at me for a good long time before answering.
"Okay," he said. "If you think you're ready."
"You'd better write this down."
So I did.