Washington Square, playground of NYU,
and you are in the grass, your shoes and socks
like sloughed snakeskin around you. Speed-chess players
at concrete tables cuss and slap their clocks
as cops with nothing nine-one-one to do
roust dormant derelicts from greenhouse layers
of coats and trash. Nearby, a cherry tree,
and under it a blonde in horn-rimmed glasses
eating up The Stranger by Camus.
  
You almost feel at home in this milieu.
For five years now you have been skipping classes,
tipping beers and averaging a ‘C’
to mask your hazardous identity,
the awesome one, known only to a few
code-numbered codgers in the F.B.I.
Somewhere at Quantico a dossier
redacts your selfless service as a fly
collecting wide-eyed snapshots for Defense,
a freak inferno burning evidence,
a ricin prick, a ‘beddy-bye’ bouquet,
and all too often the unlucky guy 
sent in the final seconds of suspense
to snip the ticker and defuse a war. 

Who knows? Someday it might be nice to play
one person, but for now you live as two:
student and agent, Mr. Either/Or.

Your cell starts bellowing as if on cue,
and the ringtone, the theme to Peter Gunn,
can only mean Director “Uh Oh” One,
your handler since you signed for Covert Ops.   

“Talk to me, mio maestro. What’s the word?”

“Tarnation!, kid, this latest caper tops
even that Roswell mess. You ever heard
of Wan-Li?”                                                    
                    “Nope.”
                                    “The Dragon’s Claw?”
                                                                          “Duh . . . no.”

A pause ensues; a cough. Here comes the pitch:
 
“Welp, long about four hundred years ago
Gaspar Van Raadsel, this absurdly rich
nut of a Dutchman, sailed from port Manhattan  
(old New Amsterdam) to port Peking.
Then, after trading cotton socks for satin,
porcelain, oolong tea, that sort of thing,
he paid respects at the Forbidden City,
kowtowed a quick farewell and shipped at dawn.

The mess he left behind, though, wasn’t pretty:
Emperor Wan-li raised a foofaraw   
because some voodoo called the Dragon’s Claw,
some power in a carved jade box, had gone 
missing. (You’d think the stuff was devil-spawn,
fire and brimstone, lightning, shock and awe,
the way their Book of Scourges rambles on.)
Welp, when a culprit never came to light,
the Ming were sure as shit that blatherskite
Gaspar had up and run some Dutchy con,
swiped it from under the Imperial nose
and sailed for Gotham.
                                     So the legend goes,
and that was all it was until last night
I get this call—Heinrik Van Raadsel, heir
to old Van Raadsel’s fortune, telling me
he’s got the damn thing at his pied-à-terre  
on Hellgate Hill. Seems Heinie and his noble
forebears never mustered nads enough
to pop the padlock. There’s a curse, you see,
a label on the lid that warns of global   
destruction, Armageddon. One big bluff,      
but what’s inside? If not the end of days,
some mildewed bio-weapon? 
                                              Anyways,
he wants us Feds to take it off his hands.
There have been threatening phone-calls, gruff demands
he cough it up and pay some silly fee.
We traced the calls back to a Maoist gang
known as the Righteous Fists of Harmony,
big boys in Chinatown. They make their money
off cocaine and this cathouse called The T’ang. . .     
you know it? Yeah, well, don’t get any funny
idears.
           Listen, all you gotta do
is march ol’ Heinrik and the merchandise  
downtown to Warehouse Delta. Ninety blocks.
And, kid, do NOT go rooting for the prize
hidden in this particular cereal box—
whatever might be in there ain’t for you.

Course, our already strained and fraying ties
to China mean this little interview
did not occur. Have fun. You’re on your own.”
The twang has twangled, so you close the phone.