A Man with a Lot of Explaining to Do

Mary Dorn was six when she picked up a globe watch with letters etched into its back from the dusty junk in the attic rooms. When she was drawn to open it, metal dirt fell out. Some years later, a Russian dictionary revealed those letters to her, spelling out X-E-R-S-O-N. Time meant nothing to her, and it was probably some years farther on that she discovered that her great grandfather’s brother Emmett Dorn probably acquired the watch in the town of Kherson in a place called Ukraine. That was how the stories began, Mary started to realize, from wanting to put vagueness into words that could be recited: one yarn had Emmett winning the watch in a card game, another pictured him stealing it from an inattentive dandy or a dying soldier; the romantic one said he was given it by some love-eyed countess.

She understood that her great grand uncle Emmett liked acquiring things. She understood too that he had a fondness for telling stories. In another few years, it became clear that what Emmett Dorn liked most was observing people, messing with them, and then killing them.

He was born in eighteen seventy six. His motto, embossed onto business cards, was, Be bold, or stay home. And he was, and he didn’t. He became a professional loose cannon, answering to no government, system, or family. His deeds may have included impregnating a concubine of Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid in Istanbul, and murdering a eunuch in the process. He may have finagled sponsorship from the Greek War Ministry for agitating in favor of Greek independence in Turkish territories, then spent the money on travel, wine, women and casinos. He may have assassinated a Prussian official in Paris, fixing it so that a wine merchant from Herzegovina got the blame, leaving a good-looking and well-off widow, freeing her to marry into the unbeheaded remnant of the French aristocracy. He may have exposed a plan laid out by spymaster Sidney Reilly to steal French naval defence plans from an office in Marseilles, nearly getting Reilly killed in the process. There was also evidence that he supplied Serbian nationalists with guns, possibly including the one that may well have started the First World War when the Austrian archduke and his archduchess got shot in Sarajevo, on St Vitus’ Day, nineteen fourteen.

Emmett Dorn wrote a book, which survived as part manuscript and part typescript, pompously entitled An Emerging History of the Balkan States at the Start of the Twentieth Century. Mary thought a more accurate title would have been Foreign Women I Liaised With, and Their Relatives who Wanted to Dismember Me Until I Shot Their Faces Off. It began promisingly, Mary thought, with the words, ‘The Balkan peninsula is named after the Turkish word for honey, which is bal, and the Turkish word for blood, which is kan, but how I figure it is the way its people seem intent on destroying one another and the civilised world, it should have been called Kankan’. Emmett soon eschewed the politics and concentrated on the can-can in music halls, the chasing of women, and in turn the chasing of Emmett by various husbands, fathers, brothers and enraged villagers. Mary was shocked, and entertained, by his deeds. In service to the privileged position of being Emmett’s book’s only reader, she sometimes kidded herself that she believed a single word of it.

Despite his qualifications, nobody saw him as fit to head the Dorn family. He was too arrogant for diplomacy, and did not see the need to explain himself to anybody. For a man with such a lot of explaining to do, this was a genuine flaw.

Emmett’s gift for improvisation deserted him when he followed another man not seen fit for anything, the Turkish general Enver Pasha, who, by the time Emmett ran into him, was wanted by European powers for the genocide of Armenians in Turkey. His own people also wanted to talk to him about his careless loss of the entire Ottoman Empire. The last anybody heard of Emmett Dorn was that he accompanied Enver and his ragtag army in a suicidal assault on a Soviet force in Bukhara, in Central Asia. Everybody assumed Emmett’s luck ran out right then, along with Enver’s, though there were rumors, even when Mary’s dad was young, that he had lived on somehow, someplace, keeping a low profile. The idea of Emmett Dorn keeping a low anything made Mary laugh, though a part of her wished he had survived and, his face as old as time, walked up to the house and pulled on the bell to ask for a glass of something in exchange for a tall tale. Mary would have welcomed him in, though she would have kept another of her attic finds close at hand – her Makarov pistol – and made sure she saw him off the premises before it got dark.

“A Man with a Lot of Explaining to Do” is an excerpt adapted from Nick Sweeney’s unpublished novel, The Fortune Teller’s Factotum.

Nick Sweeney’s stories are scattered around the web and in print. Laikonik Express, his Poland-set novel, came out with Unthank Books. His novella A Blue Coast Mystery, about the swingin’ sixties and genocide, will be published in November by Histria Books. He is a freelance writer and musician, and lives on the English coast. More than any sane person could want to know about him can be found at http://www.nicksweeneywriting.com