Born Out of Due Time: The Think Tank Murders, Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Some things that happen for the first time

Seem to be happening again.

When Shawn Borowski finished his story and pulled back out into traffic, Anterus Smith, as he slowly returned to himself, tried to sort out the impressions that had formed in his mind.  The kid’s dream was somewhat like his own visions but more alien and artificial, more like a cartoon than an historical narrative or piece of fiction.  Shawn seemed anything but the imaginative type, and it seemed wildly improbable that he should take an interest in anything that happened before the invention of the iPhone, much less in the Aztecs.

“Did you say this is the only dream or does something like this happen frequently?”

Shawn explained that he had experienced not just one dream, but a recurring narrative of the Aztec village and the violence of Cortez and his men.  It was not so much the dream itself that disturbed him as the fear and rage he felt when he saw himself in the mirror. It was his wife who had suggested that he visit the “paramoral investigator.”

“So that’s why I’m here.  Corey says you like know a lot about a lot of things.  At least you can help me figure out where this Aztec stuff is coming from and whether it is accurate or means something.  He says you are a sage on a hilltop, looking down at the rest of the world.” 

Nadir was very flat, and, because it lay at the bottom of a depression that stretched along the river that emptied into the Great Lake, an early settler started calling it Nadir.  The pioneer, who had a limited education and owned a very simple dictionary, did not realize the implications.  In later years, the city fathers claimed it was named after a German peddler, Georg Näder, who had in fact set up a trading post at Howler’s Point, where Sinister Creek ran into the Big Lake.  The name, even with improved etymology, had turned out to be a kind of destiny for a city doomed to fade and rot on the vine before it ever bloomed.  Searching the online references to Nadir, Smith had found references to a curling championship and a reference by Mel Torme to a forgotten performance.  

On the face of it, Shawn had no good reason for going to consult the paramoral investigator, but he was obviously bewildered by what was happening to him.  Smith realized he was not getting the entire story and probed him for a few details about the setting and textures of the dream-stories—what his house looked like, what language(s) he spoke and heard (just English, though a bit old-fashioned), and how people dressed.  The response was disappointingly banal.

“It almost sounds like some kind of memory implant—if such a thing were possible outside of science fiction.  It’s probably just the result of watching too much television.  You like science fiction, don’t you?  Yes, you would.  I thought so.  Anyway, pull over here and park. I need to get some money.”

Whenever Smith needed money, he took some collectibles he had picked up over the years and either pawned or sold them.  On this occasion he took five silver half dollars from the early 20th century, somewhere between extremely fine and uncirculated quality.  For coins he usually went to Bonny’s Barn, part pawnshop, part junk store.  Most of the stuff should have been thrown away by the original owners—badly veneered end-tables, cute ash trays and salt and pepper shakers commemorating Florida Vacations—Cypress Gardens and the Bok Singing Tower, a dusty and crumbling replica of the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and a variety of disheveled stuffed animals in varying stages of disintegration.  To be perfect, all the collection needed was the skeleton of a mermaid.

There were occasionally a few surprises, bargains on books or curios that no one in Nadir would ever want or even know what they were.  A few months back, Smith had come across a very ancient Baedeker’s—the 1867 English guide to Central Italy and Rome.  Bonny had given it to him for nothing, saying, “Who’s going to buy this in Nadir?  Except for a few Sicilians, these people don’t even know that Rome is in Italy.”

Smith took out a cotton corduroy sack, fished out the coins, each in a box with an anti-tarnish wrapping, and laid them on the counter.  Bonny—who is actually not a blooming farm lass who lies over the ocean but a wizened redneck from the Carolinas (his mother was a Bonneau and claimed to be related to the wife of John C. Calhoun)—opened with an optimistic offer:  

“I’ll give you fifty bucks for the lot.”  

Smith laughed and pointed out that the best of them would go for over $400.

“I already checked it out on three websites.  You’re living in the past, Bonny, if you think you can still cheat people as in the old days.  If you can’t afford to buy the best one, give me $550 for the other four or $800 for the lot.  I can afford to wait for the prices to go up—I’ve got all the time in the world.”  They compromised on $750, which Smith needed for groceries and better whiskey than he had been drinking the past week.  Evan Williams is all right, but not in the quantities that Smith drank.

Smith and his new client walked out of Bonny’s and went down the street and stepped into the Icehole—one of those bars where retired factory workers get drunk before noon.  In Nadir, where most of the factories had shut down, the supply of unemployed drunks was practically endless.  The bar had once had a Winter theme.  There was an old poster with Willy the Penguin advertising Kool cigarettes.  On the wall there were pictures of smiling eskimos standing in front of their igloos, happy, apparently, to be one half step away from freezing and starving to death.  There were also a few mounted fish that had been caught in another lifetime and were now dying of eczema, a pair of ancient snowshoes, and a battered ice chisel dissolving into rust.  There was also a scale model of a polar bear pointing his rump into the room.  Looking happy but out of place, a couple of young secretaries were enjoying their third pre-cocktail-hour drink.  Shawn did not even try not to stare at them. 

It was so dark that Smith pushed his shades up to his forehead and lodged them in the thick red hair he always combed back.  In the second it took for the eyes to adjust, he caught sight of a businessman in a blazer who was taking a good look at Shawn before walking out the door.  He filed away the glimpse under Shawn Borowski.  Waiting to order a drink, he asked Shawn what sort of a man his boss was, but Shawn was too absorbed in looking the girls over. 

“‘The Youth today’—as they used to say—are even more tedious than the youth yesterday. It’s none of my business, and even if it were, I would not much car one way or another, but take a piece of advice in the spirit of complete indifference with which it is offered: Kid, you’re a married man.  You obviously did not get it out of your system before you took the plunge.  What were you, an acolyte in your Polish church?  Anyway, it’s too late now.  Concentrate on your wife and leave the girls alone.  Besides, you’d never have the guts to approach one of them, and they would just laugh at you if you did.  A life of ‘look but don’t touch’ only leads to frustration.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.  Not that she’d care, probably.  What you’re saying, I guess, is ’If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with ”  

Smith ignored the invitation to hear his confession.

“I don’t do divorce work—or marriage problems, and no, that is not at all what I meant.  You need to pay closer attention, and not just to what I say but to what you have said.  I repeat myself: You’re married, you made a decision for good or ill.  If you can’t keep your word, you’re not a man, and I don’t care what kind of atheist you are.”

“I’m Catholic.”

“Fine, Catholic, then you know better.  I’m not your confessor.  I don’t even like priests, but your word is about the only thing people will know you by, certainly not your wit.”

“So, you don’t like priests, but you feel free to lay down your own ten commandments.  Who made you the moral sheriff?”

“Sorry if I am too blunt.  I don’t have a lot of time.  You say you are Catholic but then you commit adultery every time you look at a woman, and you are not even ashamed of it.  But that’s not what you came to see me about.” 

  Smith asked about the kid’s boss, but before Shawn could answer, he ordered a beer and a double bump with one ice cube from Darlene.  She was the barmaid who had smiled, when she saw them come in, and called out 

“The man in black is back!”  

Darlene had probably been a cheerleader ten years ago, cute as a button, but she had got just a bit out of shape—not “thick,” as a generation of unashamed gluttons would say, only a little tired.  She’d had a tough time, like any girl these days who likes men and trusts them.  She was much too nice to be a survivor, at least in this millennium—and she enjoyed talking to “the man in black,” as she liked to call him, or after a few drinks, just “Andy.”  He was a regular but not so regular as to be taken for granted.  He tried not to feel sorry for the people he met in the Icehole, but he did not always succeed. 

The kid asked for a diet coke, and, when Smith made no sign of reaching for his restocked wallet, he fumbled for money and paid.  As they carried their drinks over to a booth, Shawn asked. 

“Why is this place called “The Icehole?”

“It’s a pretty obvious paronomasia.  Besides, what do men do when they go ice fishing?”

“I don’t know.  Catch fish?”

“They stare into a hole, eat red hot sausages, and get drunk and stink.  Here the hole is the emptiness of their lives, and they get just as drunk and stink almost as bad.  Perhaps I’m being unfair.  Maybe they are contemplating eternity.”

  As they went to sit down, Shawn took out a large handkerchief and checked the seat for anything sticky.  Maybe it was that kind of joint, but Smith felt that Shawn would be doing the same thing in an immaculate operating room.  As Smith lifted the shotglass with the right hand, Shawn took his eyes off the girls long enough to notice the large ring he was wearing on his right hand.

“What’s that image supposed to be?  Some kind of boat?”

“It is a boat, but it is also a two-headed asp, with stairs that go to the sun.  It’s Egyptian.” 

“I guess it’s one of those things you can buy in a museum gift shop like in the Twins or something.”

“Or something…I actually got it in Alexandria.”

“Virginia?”  

Smith ignored the question and repeated his inquiry about Shawn’s boss.

“Macmillan Ross?  Doctor Ross?  He’s the founder of the company.  It’s a kind of research think tank.  They’ve done a lot of different things over the years, really whatever interested Dr. Ross.  These days, basically, we are working on a personnel analysis system that will allow companies to predict the behavior and performance of potential employees.  You know, how creative they are, how reliable, whether they’ll steal or betray secrets, cause trouble in the work place, hit on the girls, steal from the till..”

“How does it work—some computerized variation on the old intelligence and preference tests they used to administer in school?”  

“Partly, but we’ve gone way beyond that, combining everything from role-playing scenarios to retinal scans to the latest stuff in EEG testing and mood control.  We can now create a numerical index and a taxonomic system that come very close to classifying the so-called human individual.  Nothing’s perfect, but the system has an estimated accuracy of about 91.53%.”

“You couldn’t just say ‘over 90%,’ because you have to try to impress me with bogus precision.  But the system—with its 91.53% accuracy—still let in you and Corey Todd.  Credat Apella Judaeus.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Tell that to the Marines.”

“What does that mean?”

“There is not enough time left in the day to explain it to you. Instead of wasting my time, why don’t you get me another one of these,” he said, jiggling the rocks in the whiskey glass.  Smith went over to the jukebox and inserted several dollars worth of quarters.  More Frank Sinatra, from 1955.  

In the wee small hours of the morning

While the whole wide world is fast asleep.

Anterus Smith stared blankly into space, thinking of nothing, nowhere, notime.  When Shawn returned, Smith asked the kid who was trying to oust his boss and why.

“Could be anyone.  His VP, some staff members, but most likely it comes from the board of directors.”

“Is this just an advisory board or the actual directors of the corporation that owns the organization?”

  “Yeah, real corporate owners.  Some of them he appointed because he thinks they’re his friends.  Some are donors—businessmen mostly and professionals—and there is usually at least one “distinguished man of letters,” as he always describes them.  There is talk of some of them wanting selling to sell out…”

“Sell out what and to whom?”

“Who to?  Maybe the government or maybe just a political think tank controlled by one or the other party.  Either would pay very big, but Ross won’t have it.”

  “I don’t understand what you have to sell.  It’s just a personal evaluation system, isn’t it?”

“Yes, and no.  Ross says—and here I think he is right—that the system is too powerful to let it fall into the hands of criminals, much less politicians.  Ross wants to maintain control over the system and make sure that it can only be used on voluntary subjects.  He talks about government experiments that have exposed servicemen to radiation and diseases.”

“Surely, he doesn’t imagine that this system is comparable with nuclear weapons or bubonic plague?”

“Of course not, but it’s still in an early stage of development.  Down the line, it could easily be turned into something that makes computer spyware as primitive as a private detective tailing a suspect.  Ross thinks it is much too dangerous.”

“It’s his project.  He got the idea and developed the program.  Why is he losing it?  Is he some kind of fool or just an incompetent manager?”

“Not really.  It’s just that he has too many interests.  He doesn’t always stay focussed on building the foundation or even holding onto it.  He plays the recorder in an early music ensemble, for example, and has a small boat he likes to sail in the bay, when the weather is good.  He reads poetry..”

“What kind of poetry?”

“I don’t know, a lot of it is French stuff he quotes—boring and pointless with lines about violins and sighing—shit like that.”

Les sanglots longs des violons, perhaps?”

“Whatever.”

Smith wondered how someone who read French poetry could end up in a place like Nadir.  It was the question people always put to him, and, to cut short inquiries, he had developed a pat answer.

Ross, as Shawn told the story, had been president of the liberal arts college—Northwood—which was the town’s only remaining cultural asset.  When the college decided to give up its devotion to the humanities and to compete with the utilitarian branches of the state university, he had left and set up what he called a “study center devoted to truly humane learning,” by which he meant the learning that makes people truly human beings.

“But you think he is losing his grip?”

“Maybe, a bit. He’s getting old.  He doesn’t look it but he is in his late 70’s.  He’s pretty vigorous, but he should lose weight—he’s seriously diabetic and takes a ton of drugs for hypertension.  The board thinks he is long overdue for retirement.  Some of the staff think the same thing.  OK, the man’s a genius, but Veritas no longer needs a genius.  It needs technocrats, and that’s something he has never been.”

“But he doesn’t agree?”

“Ross pretty much makes up his own mind about everything, and, while he often listens to the people who work for him, he does not take instruction from anyone.

“So he’s proud?  Arrogant?”

“I wouldn’t say arrogant.  Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes his ironic remarks make me uncomfortable, like  he thinks I’m a kid or something.  It’s ok for the staff, I guess, but board members hold real power, and most of them are pretty high on themselves though I don’t know why.  Most of them, all they’ve ever done is make money.”

“And kept it, apparently.  Don’t discount such a talent until you have learned how to exercise it.  I can tell, after talking to you only a short time, that you would not object to giving your wife diaphanous gowns and regular meals.”

  “Whatever.  It’s pretty clear, though, he looks on most of his board members as a classroom of adolescents who are constantly making the mistake of thinking they can outsmart their teacher.  Even his friends are sometimes irritated by his attitude, at least a little, and one or two board members are getting hostile.  They all say he is a great man, but their respect comes close to resentment.  I don’t think they quite know how to dump him, but when they figure out how to do it—and make some money at the same time—they’ll do it.  He doesn’t see it coming because he has been through these crises many times before and he’s always come out on top.  He seems otherworldly but the truth is he is—or used to be—one step ahead of everyone else.  This time it’s different: These days he doesn’t seem to care all that much.”

“What do you mean ‘otherworldly’?  Like a mathematician or a philosopher with his head in the clouds?”

“Partly, but there’s other things.  Veritas has gone from being a sort of club for essayists and become a research facility, but Ross is still way too interested in literature and theology.  Did I tell you he’s got advanced degrees in French and philosophy?  Also, I don’t think Ross really cares very much about corporate security, which is really the only thing that will keep the place afloat.  This project has attracted some grant money that keeps us going, but, sometimes, when he’s thinking out loud, he  starts talking about spiritual enlightenment, as if he really wants to help the human mind to ascend to a higher plane.”

“You mean like Scientology?”

“No, more like some traditional theology.  Scientology is nuts, but at least the basic idea—that you can use math and science to find solutions to moral and spiritual problems—is more or less right.  Butt Ross is stuck in the Dark Ages.  After a few drinks he starts talking about Saint Dionysius the something-or-other and some philosopher he likes named Plotinus.  When he really gets going, it sounds like something from Harry Potter.  Plotinus is the good energy but something that’s maybe German—sounds like Yamblich—turns it to evil.”

“I think you mean Iamblichus.”

“What, you know about this stuff?”

“Only a little.  It’s ancient Neoplatonism—that’s all Greek to you.  I don’t think it has any application to your company’s projects.  It must be just one of your boss’s hobbyhorses, like Verlaine…the French poet?  Anyway, it doesn’t seem that I can be of much assistance.  I know absolutely nothing about technology, and, besides, it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind to throw this spiritual genius to the wolves, though with all the due respect that is owed a mentor.  Dante has a place for people like you.”

“Dante?  Like Dante’s Inferno?  What does that have to do with anything?”

“Dante reserved the lowest place in Hell for men who betrayed their leaders—-Brutus and Cassius who assassinated Julius Caesar.  Below them he put Judas Iscariot.”

“I don’t think you’re being fair.  I am not as big a 

coward as you seem to think I am.  Before I make a decision, I want to know if he’s got a chance to survive the coup they’re planning, and I also want to figure out how bad it would really be to give this system to the government—or the Republican Party.”

The jukebox had ground through several Sinatra songs unnoticed, until:

It seems we stood and talked like this before

We looked at each other in the same way then

But I can't remember where or when

Smith muttered, “You and me both, Larry,” and turning back to Shawn,

“Aren’t you getting a little hysterical?  What could you possibly do here in Nadir that would attract the attention of a political party, much less the FBI or CIA?”

“Don’t sell our system short.  I think the RNC—or the DNC— if they knew what we had developed, would quite literally kill to have a chance to weaponize our system.  So would George Soros and some very bad guys—mercs, rent-a-spy operators.”  There are, he said leaning over the table and whispering, “Wheels within wheels.”  

“Real James Bond stuff..”

“More Dean Koontz or Len Wein…”

  “As you would say, ‘Whatever.’  All right, then, let us start from the beginning with some basic facts…”

Smith took out a long thin notebook, the kind that fits into the breast pocket of a jacket. 

“Computers make you stupid and destroy your memory,” he observed, pointing to the phone the kid was consulting, “Obviously.”  Shawn put the phone down but not away in a pocket.

“Let’s start from the beginning.  You said you came to see me principally because a recurring sequence of dreams, but you are also worried about your boss.  To complicate matters further, you suspect that your bad dreams may be caused by the problems at work?  By the way, what exactly is it that you do for…?”

“Veritas.  Mostly, math and computer stuff, but more recently they’ve given me administrative responsibilities.  Now I manage day-to-day operations of the game-playing research.  Ross trusts me, maybe because he thinks techies are harmless—-you know, too focussed on what they do to make any trouble.  In many ways, I am his real second-in-command, and if the board had any sense, I’d be his natural replacement.  If there is a problem, he and his wife come to me, not to the VP.  As I have got more and more into the project, I am beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, the whole project is too risky for anyone to handle, especially if a dope like Justin Wright has anything to do with it.”

“Tell me about this Wright.”  

The kid explained that Justin Wright was Macmillan Ross’s vice president, hand-picked to turn the company over to when he got tired of playing entrepreneur.  Shawn had a bad feeling about Wright, but he had trouble putting it into words other than “space alien” and “Asbergerish.” Wright seemed blissfully unaware of how he struck other people and always spoke of himself as “just an average guy” with an MBA.  

Apart from taking over the administration of Veritas, Wright was in charge of developing the role-playing game component and the scenario simulations.  As an adolescent he had been “addicted” to Dungeons and Dragons and dozens of later sword-and-sorcery games.  What they were working on now was a way of playing out the games completely in the mind, without board or paper or written instructions.  This meant the development of memory skills beyond what most people thought they could ever acquire.  

“In fact, one of the important side-benefits of the program was its tremendous potential for memory-enhancement.  You, for example, seem to have a good memory and remember what you have read.  With this program, the rest of us could easily overtake you and be just as smart.”  Anterus had nothing to say but in his mind he filed away “envy” along with “conspiracy theory” in his file on Borowski.

Veritas did not have a large staff.  There was a secretary/receptionist and several research/admin assistants, and a variety of technical personnel, but the most important players, in addition to Ross and Wright, were Shawn and Corey, and also Katie Oriundi, who covered Romance languages. A good deal of the space in their building was devoted to the laboratory testing rooms and an auditorium for the public meetings they sometimes held.  

“Katie’s a true believer, a real disciple and acts like the Rosses’ adopted child.  We’ve also recruited consultants just for the experiments.  The most important are Dr. Benedict Freeman and Eric Dyson.  Freeman’s been at Veritas for about six months.  He’s a psychiatrist, in his sixties maybe.  He had retired after a heart attack, but he looks pretty fit.  He’s a cold-blooded bastard and even more arrogant than Ross.  In his practice Doc Freeman used a variety of methods, including hypnosis and drugs, and his participation has rapidly increased the results we’ve been getting.  

“Dyson has a good background in computers and was a high level executive in some communications company.  He had been trained as a programmer and software designer and knows a lot more than either me or Corey, who are supposed to be the resident geeks.  Just out of college, he’d also done a stint in the army, something to do with military intelligence, and not just a file clerk either.  I’ve heard something about working on techniques for interrogating terrorists, not torture so much as psy ops stuff.” 

Shawn thought there was something strange about Freeman and Dyson.  They claimed not to know each other, and Freeman appeared to dislike his colleague.  Shawn was not so sure and suspected they either had known each other somewhere else or at least were developing some rapport.  He had checked up on both of them.  Freeman was easy, because doctors leave a paper trail.  He had his M.D. from Columbia and had done a stint in the army.  He was a member of several medical associations and had had a big practice in Milwaukee and taken several fellowships and research positions at major institutions.  About Dyson, he had found out next to nothing, though that probably meant very little.  Even in the age of Wikipedia, few people make much of an imprint.

“Are there other volunteers of the standard type?  Students who need money for beer?”
“Yes, we have several kids from Northwood College.  We don’t take psych majors, because their heads are full of garbage.  We prefer science majors and students doing foreign languages.  The kids only come in once or twice a week, and no one of them is essential to the program.  There’s one weird thing I have noticed about them, though.  Some of them seem to take Justin Wright seriously as some sort of father-figure.  I can’t imagine why.  It must be something like those geese that got imprinted on the scientist and followed him around as if he were their mother or the leader of the flock.”

“Anything else unusual about them?”

“Not much, though one or two of them seemed to change some of their attitudes after a few weeks at Veritas.  

“What sort of changes?”

“You know, there’s a real macho type, a jock from Tennessee who thinks everything he doesn’t like to do is queer?  Lately, he’s been dressing up a bit and talking about a wine club he’s joined.  It’s definitely weird.  Corey thinks the kid is coming on to him, but that’s just Corey.  This guy is also imprinted on Justin.  Asks him questions like the guy’s got the answers to anything.”

“So how does this Wright get along with the boss?”

“On the surface he idolizes him.  Ross trusts Wright because he thinks he’s too dumb to represent any kind of threat. The board members trust him because he seems solid and with his MBA he knows how to talk to them, but I think he resents Ross and is planning to take his place sooner rather than later.”

“It’s the same old story—the man from Seriphos.  You don’t recall?  One day the great Themistocles was walking down the street in Athens, and a man from the insignificant island of Seriphos shouted at him:  ‘You would’t be such a big shot if you came from Seriphos,’ to which Themistocles answered: ‘Nor you, had you come from Athens.’  It is bad enough to be a little man, but when little men have Napoleonic delusions, they would betray their own mothers.  Anyone else important on the staff?” 

“I should have mentioned Monsignor Villanova.  He’s director of the program on religion, a Catholic priest—Italian background but born and raised in South America.  I didn’t think of him at first because he is rarely in the office.  He still teaches at Northwood, but this year he’s on sabbatical in Italy.  He’s coming back, though, for the annual Veritas retreat.  He’s not like most Catholic priests, not dogmatic at all.  He says it is important to appreciate all the highest aspirations of the different Christian faiths and he talks a lot about convergence with Judaism and Buddhism.”

“Sounds like every Catholic priest you hear of these days, including the Pope.  I’d love to run into some two-fisted Irish cleric who condemns all Protestants to Hell.  At least their hatred would show they believed in something.”

“Anyway, I’m not sure I completely trust Villanova.  He has a way of making people respect him—even Corey, who’s an anti-Catholic Evangelical, sucks up to him.  I’m beginning to wonder what Corey might be up to as well.  He may be in cahoots with either Villanova or Justin.  He says he despises the guy, but that could just be cover.”

  “I’d hate to have you as my confessor.  Everyone has a secret motive according to you—except you.  What’s your angle, kid?”

“Don’t call me kid, and I don’t have any angle.  I’m too straight with people, that’s my biggest problem.”

Smith did not yawn or roll his eyes.  “What’s going on at Veritas that religion and spiritual values are such an issue?  This place sounds like a conspiracy of necromancers.”

By now Shawn knew better than to ask what a necromancer was.  

“Hardly.”

“Now then, you tell me your dreams and I won’t tell you mine.  Fair enough?”

Shawn was happy to return to his favorite topic, and, as he ran through the various versions of his Aztec dream, he remarked on the bad effect it was having on him and on his marriage.  “It’s getting so I am afraid to go to sleep but I also hate waking up to my life in Nadir.  That other world is so much more real, and my Aztec wife is so much more woman than Ashley.  I doubt I can make you understand, but dreams can be more powerful reality.”

Anterus leaned over the table a bit and dropped his voice.

“I do understand, in fact.  But we’re talking about your dreams, not mine.”

Shawn explained he had to get moving if he was going to get home in time to take his wife out to the Olive Garden that had just opened up to brighten Nadir’s restaurant scene.  Taking her out to dinner meant he would miss his favorite TV show: a new Joss Wheedon saga in which vampire prostitutes from outer space take over the Las Vegas strip from which they launch their campaign to destroy marriage, the family, and all life on earth as we know it.  In the next episode, he was sure, they were going to seduce the President, a former hotel and resort magnate, and use his empire as springboard for their war against humanity.  Fortunately, he was the proud possessor of two TiVo’s and could stay up and watch it after his wife went to bed…”

Smith tried not to look bored, but he couldn’t help asking Shawn if TV fantasies were also more powerful than dreams.

“You are what you eat, as the Germans say, but it is even truer that you are what you allow to be put into your head.  It’s small wonder you are haunted by dreams and have so many suspicions, when you open the door to someone else’s commercial daydreams.  Life is not a TV show or a movie or even a novel.  My first piece of advice is to avoid television and to stay off the internet as much as possible”.

“Smith, you talk like my grampa.  If you can believe him, the world’s been headed downhill since they invented TV or the automobile or since the Reformation.  Jeeze, Smith.  By the same token, the world’s been going downhill since we climbed down out of the trees and threw away the bananas.  Well, that part anyway may be right.  Anyway, every generation has its own fantasies and forms of entertainment.  Once upon a time people had to play the lute or the spinet.  Now we’ve got Satellite Radio and YouTube and monster-headphones that can blast the bass.  Our toys are better, that’s the only difference, and we don’t even have to learn how to play an instrument.”

“You think TV shows are as human as say a John Ford movie and that a John Ford movie has the same power as Treasure Island, or that Treasure Island teaches us about who we are as much as Macbeth?  You only think that because your mind has never trained itself.”

“So you’re an example of a well-trained mind?  You live in a dump and come here to drink and listen to crappy old songs that even your parents never listened to?  It was in those good old days you seem to like that they genocided the Native Americans and polluted the entire planet.  Even 100 years ago, mankind was living in a Dark Age.  Do you realize that technological progress is being made at something like a thousand times the normal rate?  99% of what we know, we have learned in the past 50 years.”    

“Let me ask you what an evil man once asked himself, Que sais-je?  What do I know?  More to the point, what do you know, about anything?  How many days could you survive in the woods?  If I set you down in France with nothing—no phone, no money, no computer—what could you possibly do?  More to the point, if the power ever goes out for a week, you’d first suffer from withdrawal and then go mad.  You only know enough to do as you are told.  You are part of the new proletariat—the college-indoctrinated serf.”

Seeing he was making no headway—and probably never would— Smith asked Shawn if he thought his dreams had anything to do with the role-playing games he’d been working on?”

“That’s just it.  We don’t have a game on Cortez and the Aztecs, but we’ve talked about it.  Justin wants it—so does Msgr. Villanova—-but, with these dreams I don’t know if I should get involved.”

“Why not opt out of taking part in the games, if only for a while?”

Shawn explained that regular participation in the testing and games was a necessary part of his job.  Smith stared vacantly into space for over a minute—perhaps thinking about the next question—and Shawn asked if something was wrong. 

“Nothing wronger than usual.  Tell me, did you ever have the Aztec dream before taking part in the games?”

“Not really, though as a kid I was crazy about Indians—I mean Native Americans—and a few months ago I saw the movie Cheyenne Autumn, about the retreat of the Nez Percé Indians.  I think I may have had a dream or two in which some scenes of the movie were included.”  

Smith sent Shawn to the bar for one last round.  He walked over to the jukebox and, as he stuffed it with coins, a timid looking young man was hitting a small jackpot on the gambling machine.  Lights flashed and bells started ringing like the exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park.  He had been strapped into a chair and wired up to a machine that sent shocks into different parts of his brain.  

“What’s your name?”

More blinding lights and a shot in his arm multiplied his confusion a hundred fold. 

“Where are you now?”

He smelled blood and saw the world in diffraction patterns breaking up the visual field in rhythms laid down by the piercing screams of a table saw.  Smith froze.  He couldn’t answer any of the questions.  He looked around wildly, his head swaying to the bells coming from the machine.  He did not know where he was or who any of the people were.  

“Hey buddy, you all right?  Can I get you a cab?”

He recognized the timid young man at the gambling machine.

“No, sorry.  It’s a vertigo attack—some problem with the inner ear.”

“You had me worried for a minute.  You alright now?”

“Yes, fine thanks.”

Smith returned to the table, humming along with Johnny Mercer and Jo Stafford.

Take my word, the mockingbird

'll sing the saddest kind o' song 

He knows things are wrong, and he's right.

Borowski looked at Smith’s bewildered face for a moment, then  looked away.  Whatever was wrong, was not going involve him. Smith, coming back into focus, agreed to make a few inquiries but couldn’t promise much.  He helped people to moral clarity.  Computerized mind games have the opposite effect.  He belted the double shot

“I’m a little too preoccupied with my own concerns these days to have much time left over for other people’s problems, and even if I were willing to get involved. I shouldn’t know how to go about meeting anyone in the company.”

“That’s easy enough.  Part of my job is to recruit volunteers for the sensory enhancement experiments and historical researchers for the role-playing games.  You do know about history—it’s not all bullshit that stuff you keep saying?  You’re not just making it up?  After what Corey told me about you, I though you might come to work for us.  I already told both Ross and Wright that I was thinking about taking on a new historical researcher, so there will be no surprises.”

“What would I be doing, at least officially?”

“We are considering a couple of projects that you could help on the research with: One is about Greeks who refused to join the alliance against Persia.  Ross has mentioned something about a poet in Thebes.   We’re already testing one on the assassination of Julius Caesar—you brought that up today—and, now that I think of it, there’s a proposal for a game on factional politics in Florence.  You know that Dante stuff, right?”

“Yes, I know Dante.”

“Fantastic.  You’ll be perfect—and not just as cover.  We can really use someone like you, and it’s hard to get qualified people to move to this shithole.  I’m only here because I followed Ross from Northwood.  I brought with me the forms to fill out—you know, basic data, release forms guaranteeing us immunity from prosecution if something should happen.  Don’t worry.  There’s nothing that can possibly happen.  This is just standard procedure.”

“I don’t think so.  No government forms.  No bureaucracy.  I’d rather work for nothing or for that matter not work at all.”

“Working for nothing would be too suspicious.  How about we set you up as a private contractor.”

Smith thought for a moment.  The fewer people he got to know, the better he liked it, but he would soon be running short of cash and he had only a few items in his house that he could sell.  That would mean a trip out of town, which might waste more time than a consultancy at Veritas.  

“OK, let us say $1000 per week for part-time work and I name my own hours.  You can make out the paperwork and checks to ASP Consultants—it’s on the card. Anything else I need to know at this point?”

“Yeah, we’re having the annual staff retreat next week.  If you can get yourself invited, it would be a great opportunity to scope out the whole operation.  If anything is going to happen, it will happen at the retreat.  It always does.  Whoever’s got a plot, he’ll be hatching it there.  Happens every year.   It’s pretty amusing to watch, so long as you’re not the goat.”   

The light was beginning to fade, as Shawn drove back from downtown through the degenerating neighborhood.  The streets were beginning to fill up with afterwork shoppers, but they looked more like Hollywood zombies heading out to loot a shopping mall.  Smith’s house, when they returned, looked even crummier than it had in the bright sunlight: a two-story frame with peeling paint that had once been some Scandinavian factory-worker’s dream home.  Now it looked like the end of someone’s road.

“How can you live in this neighborhood?”  

“I feel safe here.”

“With those people? Cops don’t even come here.”

“Exactly.”

Smith got out of the car.  Shawn, hesitating a moment, said, “Make sure you don’t give yourself away tomorrow.  Strange things have been happening.  There have been a couple attempts to hack the computer server in the office.  Try to show up before 9.  Justin’s never on time, but he likes his people to be punctual.  The boss doesn’t really care, so long as you do your work.  The board keeps asking him to install a time-clock, but he refuses.  Anyway, before 9.”

As the kid drove away, he was shaking his head.  Smith could almost hear him whining to himself about the money they were about to waste on “a complete jerk who corrects your grammar and even ridicules your name.”  All fair enough, he thought. 

  Staring after the car disappearing down the hill, Smith wondered if he had made a mistake in getting involved in this mess.  The “paramoral investigator” routine was something between a Quixotic quest and a prank:  How could he pretend to figure out who other people were, if he was so unsure about who he was himself?  Now the prank seemed to be getting him into a situation he might not be able to control.  That would mean, a quick exit, but where to? 

He checked the door and went into the house and put a CD onto the external CD drive of his computer.  George Shearing, playing alone.  “Stella by Starlight.”  Who was he to give advice?  He used to play the piano and now he played the radio or, worse, his computer.  But a man who may have to move in a hurry cannot afford to buy a decent piano, and the beaters advertised in the newspaper Want Ads were usually unplayable.  Darlene, when he had asked her if there was a practice studio in Nadir, suggested an electronic keyboard.  One more machine to hook up to: a small step for man, a giant step for robotkind.

He paused in his reflections.  What, after all, did he have to lose in this place and time?  Perhaps a great deal.  He needed this time to find out some things he had forgotten about himself. He was not amnesiac.  He knew who he was, basically.  He even knew his name, probably, and he recalled many of the places he had been, though not always how he had got there.  He had spent a good deal of time in Italy and Greece.  He had some idea of why and when he had come to Nadir, though he could not recall exactly how.  There were a few other blank spots he wanted to fill in, but the dream of being imprisoned was, on the face of it, too preposterous to be real.  He thought he had known a girl named Jane, Jane Somerville, but it had not been in some kind of laboratory.  In his mixed up state, he thought she was a long time ago.  Perhaps she was only a memory residue left behind by a movie he had watched.  The name Farley Anderson also rang a bell, but only the name.  He also remembered a few other names, but they tended to run together. 

Whenever he tried to force his memory, Anterus felt the walls of his house closing in on him.  To get some air, he opened the door and walked outside.  He stood in the sidewalk and looked up and down the block.  What had once been a Lutheran church, back about the time when he was a boy, was now a Buddhist temple for Cambodian “refugees,” and the neighborhood grocery down the block, where school kids had once bought yo-yos, kites, and penny candy, now specialized in single cigarettes, beer, and Lotto tickets.  It was advertising a breakfast special: a foil-wrapped package with two eggs, four strips of bacon, and an English muffin with two pats of butter.  In a pinch, an experienced bum could cook it over a junkpile fire in a vacant lot.  The neighborhood had vacant lots on nearly every block and a seemingly endless supply of vagrants and mental patients to fill them. 

Anterus could scarcely have cared less.  The house was rundown and therefore cheap.  He owned it free and clear and paid a real estate agent to manage it, pay the taxes, arrange repairs.  The agent was even authorized to rent it out, if he were to go away for extended periods.  He just didn’t know how far he could trust the agent and was thinking about turning it over to Joe “the Bear” Kerry, who owned the Icehouse.  The place had a quiet back bedroom with a firm new mattress, running water, a gas stove, and a high-speed internet connection to download the books he needed.  That was the one luxury he had installed.  They had tried to sell him a package with telephone and cable TV, but he had as many friends to call as there were good shows on television to watch.  He only watched television in order to study the dialect and attitudes of the people he had chosen to live among for the time being.  There was an amazing amount he did not know about sports, pop music, celebrities, and his ignorance often made him an object of suspicion.  

In his own mind these days, it was as if he were still living in Florence—but some time just before 1300, probably.  He hadn’t yet decided on the year he wanted to study—the time of Dante or the time of Lorenzo—or even picked the neighborhood he wanted to reside in.  He was torn between somewhere south of the Old Market, in the Sesto San Piero, or, maybe, in some more rustic spot across the Arno River, somewhere near the church the Dominicans were building—or rather had built—Santo Spirito.  It would depend.

Sitting down in his small living room, he tried to read Apollonius in the weak light of lamp made out of a heavy brass statuette of Atlas holding up the globe.   He found it difficult to concentrate and did not feel like looking up any words.  Maybe it was the the whiskey and the beer, but he found himself staring at the lamp, wondering what it would be like to hold up the world.  Hell, he couldn’t even hold himself up, but he was taking on the burden of other people’s worries.  

He fell asleep in the chair over his volume of the Argonautica, and, waking up thirsty at 2:30, he could only recall a vague dream in which he was Orpheus, playing his lyre to arouse Jason and his band of heroes.  He crawled off to bed and spent a fitful night in which he tried, over and over, to find a key that would unlock the window of his dormitory room.

4 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    Nadir is a poignant name for this town, situated in one place but truly existing in countless towns stretched along the rusted detritus of the American industrial collapse.

    Father Benson would be pleased to see that someone else is aware of the dangers of necromancy and its modern day offspring.

    Keep going “Ched,” I think this is developing well.

  2. Dot says:

    The fitful night wasn’t so fitful. The dormitory room was his mind and a metaphor that told him what he was incapable to admit. He was in his own Nadir and needed to get out.

  3. Ben says:

    I never stop learning with TFF. Tonight’s lesson was “Who Was George Shearing?” I consequently youTubed “Stella…” and listened as the full moon was rising. It was a turning point in my life in every way, almost completely indescribable.

  4. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    There is no jazz pianist with Shearing’s elegance. His later recordings with Mel Torme and Geryy Mulligan are indescribably wonderful, including their over-the-top rendition of “Blues in the Night.” Torme was a great lover of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics. I believe the arrangement goes back to an early arrangement he did himself–ripped off by
    Prairie Home Companion for the silly “Guy Noir” intro.