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A boy with a parrot on his shoulder was walkingalong the railway tracks. His gait was dreamyand he swung a daisy as he went. With eachstep the boy dragged his toes in the rail bed, asif measuring out his journey with careful ruled marks of hisshoetops in the gravel. It was midsummer, and there wassomething about the black hair and pale face of the boyagainst the green unfurling flag of the downs beyond, therolling white eye of the daisy, the knobby knees in theirshort pants, the self-important air of the handsome grayparrot with its savage red tail feather, that charmed the oldman as he watched them go by. Charmed him, or arousedhis sense -- a faculty at one time renowned throughout Europe-- of promising anomaly.
The old man lowered the latest number of The British Bee Journal to the rug of Shetland wool that was spreadacross his own knobby but far from charming knees, andbrought the long bones of his face closer to the windowpane.The tracks -- a spur of the Brighton-Eastbourne line,electrified in the late twenties with the consolidation of theSouthern Railway routes -- ran along an embankment a hundredyards to the north of the cottage, between the concreteposts of a wire fence. It was ancient glass the old man peeredthrough, rich with ripples and bubbles that twisted andtoyed with the world outside. Yet even through this distortingpane it seemed to the old man that he had never beforeglimpsed two beings more intimate in their parsimonioussharing of a sunny summer afternoon than these.
He was struck, as well, by their apparent silence. Itseemed probable to him that in any given grouping of anAfrican gray parrot -- a notoriously prolix species -- and aboy of nine or ten, at any given moment, one or the other ofthem ought to be talking. Here was another anomaly. As forwhat it promised, this the old man -- though he had oncemade his fortune and his reputation through a long and brilliantseries of extrapolations from unlikely groupings offacts -- could not, could never, have begun to foretell.
As he came nearly in line with the old man's window,some one hundred yards away, the boy stopped. He turnedhis narrow back to the old man as if he could feel the latter'sgaze upon him. The parrot glanced first to the east, then tothe west, with a strangely furtive air. The boy was up to something. A hunching of the shoulders, an anticipatoryflexing of the knees. It was some mysterious business -- distantin time but deeply familiar -- yes --
-- the toothless clockwork engaged; the unstrung Steinwaysounded: the conductor rail.
Even on a sultry afternoon like this one, when cold anddamp did not trouble the hinges of his skeleton, it could bea lengthy undertaking, done properly, to rise from his chair,negotiate the shifting piles of ancient-bachelor clutter -- newspapers both cheap and of quality, trousers, bottles ofsalve and liver pills, learned annals and quarterlies, plates ofcrumbs -- that made treacherous the crossing of his parlor,and open his front door to the world. Indeed the dauntingprospect of the journey from armchair to doorstep wasamong the reasons for his lack of commerce with the world,on the rare occasions when the world, gingerly taking holdof the brass door-knocker wrought in the hostile form of agiant Apis dorsata, came calling. Nine visitors out of ten hewould sit, listening to the bemused mutterings and fumblingsat the door, reminding himself that there were fewnow living for whom he would willingly risk catching the toeof his slipper in the hearth rug and spilling the scant remainderof his life across the cold stone floor. But as the boywith the parrot on his shoulder prepared to link his ownmodest puddle of electrons to the torrent of them beingpumped along the conductor, or third, rail from the SouthernRailway power plant on the Ouse outside of Lewes, the old man hoisted himself from his chair with such unaccustomedalacrity that the bones of his left hip produced a disturbingscrape. Lap rug and journal slid to the floor.
He wavered a moment, groping already for the doorlatch, though he still had to cross the entire room to reach it.His failing arterial system labored to supply his suddenlyskybound brain with useful blood. His ears rang and hisknees ached and his feet were plagued with stinging. Helurched, with a haste that struck him as positively giddy,toward the door, and jerked it open, somehow injuring, as hedid so, the nail of his right forefinger.
"You, boy!" he called, and even to his own ears his voicesounded querulous, wheezy, even a touch demented. "Stopthat at once!"
The boy turned. With one hand he clutched at the fly ofhis trousers. With the other he cast aside the daisy. The parrotsidestepped across the boy's shoulders to the back of hishead, as if taking shelter there.
"Why, do you imagine, is there a fence?" the old mansaid, aware that the barrier fences had not been maintainedsince the war began and were in poor condition for ten milesin either direction. "For pity's sake, you'd be fried like asmelt!" As he hobbled across his dooryard toward the boyon the tracks, he took no note of the savage pounding of hisheart. Or rather he noted it with anxiety and then coveredthe anxiety with a hard remark. "One can only imagine thestench."
Flower discarded, valuables restored with a zip to theirlodging, the boy stood motionless. He held out to the oldman a face as wan and empty as the bottom of a beggar's tincup ...final so
Excerpted from Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon
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