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4 9 R T A M Á M S H U D ; O R , S E C R E T S I N T H E S A N D A U S T I N A L L E N Australia’s most famous cold case is the mystery of ‘‘Somerton Man,’’ found dead on Somerton Beach, Adelaide, in 1948. Coroners could not identify the toxin that killed him, police could not prove or rule out foul play, and cryptographers could not solve the code that surfaced in connection with the case. The man’s name and origins remain unknown. ‘‘wrgoababd / mliao / wtbimpanetp / mliaboaiaqc / ittmtsamstgab’’ I. The Write-Up It’s done. The tide is calm. The coast is clear for miles around the man the dawn finds here, back to a wall, feet pointing toward the sea. The first inquiring fly crawls in his ear. * * * Items in his possession: used bus ticket, unused rail ticket, matches, cigarette packet (labeled a di√erent brand than what’s inside), chewing gum, comb – and in a hidden pocket, found four months afterward, a sort of note torn from a book. The words the poet wrote to close The Rubáiyát: a Persian phrase ineptly typing fingers soon misquote, for some newspaper write-up, as Taman Shud. The word’s Tamám. Errors will spawn errors: the standard label for the case becomes Taman Shud and the case goes on. 5 0 Y No solid leads. Some theories disproved, but none confirmed. No name, no one he loved or hated, no o≈cial cause of death. No wallet. Labels on his clothes removed. * * * November thirtieth, 1948: a man runs toward his train, which doesn’t wait. He checks his bag and takes a bus instead, finds the address, knocks on the door – too late. She’s gone. He shivers, wanders toward the sand. En route he marks the slim book in his hand with her unlisted number and a code, carries it past the glare of parked cars, and, spying a rolled-down window, stops to throw it onto the seat. Someone will find it, show it to the police – not right away, of course. . . The book’s The Rubáiyát, but he’s no poet. The code – well, it’s a sort of inside joke. Down at the shore he strolls, a fortyish bloke, hair graying. Buys a pasty. Hurls some stones. Leans on the seawall and lights up a smoke. The poison, mingling with the cigarette’s familiar poisons, fills his lungs. He lets himself relax, experiencing – what? A touch of dizziness, but no regrets. No one he knows will genuinely grieve. He carries, like a last trick up his sleeve, the torn-out fragment of The Rubáiyát in his fob pocket. He does not believe in prayer – prays anyway, to all the gods. A man in his profession plays the odds. He’s heard of Pascal’s wager, bets on Yes, but knows that No awaits him when he nods. 5 1 R II. The Agent No one can place him, so he’s quickly cast as national myth, a creature of this vast unlikely island-country-continent proud of its oddball fauna, outlaw past, and shining harbors: Sydney, Melbourne, Perth. For any misfit dreaming of rebirth into a pleasant anonymity or interested in falling o√ the earth, Australia holds a certain fascination . . . The bag the man left at the railway station contains mislabeled clothes, some tools, a knife. Theorists whisper spy – but for which nation? The Cold War’s under way. The town lies near a missile test site, built the previous year. When rumor has it that the world might end, even the world’s edge feels the thrill of fear. Anyone, everyone might be a spy – your pleasant-looking neighbors, you and I, chain-smoking strangers who give up the ghost at night, on lonely shores, and who knows why? * * * He has time to consider what he’s done. This, then – this beach, this wall at Somerton – this was the plan? Will she be satisfied? Down from the foothills in the straggling sun a perfume drifts: astringent, eucalyptic. And was...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1467-9736
Print ISSN
0044-0124
Pages
pp. 49-54
Launched on MUSE
2021-06-08
Open Access
No
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