Born Out of Due Time, The Think-Tank Murders Chapter Three, by Ched P., Rayson
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past…
Precisely at 8:55 Anterus Smith arrived at the offices of The Veritas Center for Humane Studies. He was wearing what might have been the same black suit, though it looked almost new and had been freshly cleaned and pressed. He had thought about putting on a white shirt but in the end settled on light blue-gray and a black and bronze necktie with diagonal stripes of abstract irises or lilies. It wouldn’t do, he reflected as he tied his tie, to convey an impression of the loyal corporate employee. Although he had given up his early affection for Kenneth Patchen and Jack Kerouac, he had never embraced conformity, which was reason enough for hating the entire counter-culture of jeans, sweatshirts, and ball caps that had become the uniform of the American middle class.
The Veritas offices occupied a small, three-story commercial building put up between the two World Wars. It had at one time housed a printing company that put out weekly newspapers in Swedish, Finnish, and Yiddish, but nobody spoke those languages after the Second War, and no one in Nadir read much of anything in any language. There was a bookstore, but, as Smith had learned when he had first come to Nadir, it mostly sold coffee and sticky pastries to people wolfing down the latest Clive Cussler confection or some non-fiction product about the private life of Hitler or Hillary Clinton. “Non-fiction.” The histories and biographies they sold were more fantastic than the science fiction.
For a while, the building had rented out space to small outfitters for the fishing boats, but that part of the lake had been fished out, even before the lamprey had come to finish off the industry. Falling on hard times, it had been used as a warehouse, while there was still anything to store in Nadir. Small as it was, the building was still too big for the Center, which leased out space to a down-at-heels attorney and a chiropractor who nearly electrified his patients, trying to get his equipment to work.
The building was located not too far from the docks, which were hardly used anymore, though the city of Nadir was making a halfhearted effort to redevelop the shoreline for pleasure boats and sport fishing. The brick building must have looked like a prison, when it was built, but after decades of weathering and rot, the place had come to look picturesque, especially compared with the steel buildings, slapped up in the 1960’s and 70’s, which dominated the postindustrial lakeshore.
When he entered the building, he was met by a security guard, dressed snappily in a uniform that an Eagle Scout or SS corporal might have worn with pride. The guard snapped to and, checking his logbook, verified that someone named A. Smith had an appointment with Mr. Borowski. On the way to the kid’s office, Anterus tried to chat up the guard but struck out on both Baden-Powell and Heinrich Himmler.
“Never met either of ‘em,” said the scout without a smile, as he opened the door and showed the guest into the office.
“Borowski must have stepped out for a minute. He got in about 8:30.”
The kid was not in his office except in spirit: The untidy room was dominated by an iMac with a gigantic screen and a smaller backup screen, all stationed on a high desk behind a tall stool. Every surface was cluttered with piles of wires, discs and drives, gimcracks and gizmos, stacks of reports and official forms, and brightly colored photographs of the Borowski wedding. Here and there lay half-empty bottles of energy drinks and half-consumed packages of “nutrition” bars. The only attempt to decorate the room were some unframed posters of superhero comic books. Apparently, meek little Shawn, with his incongruous military buzzcut, saw himself as a ravening beast with metal claws.
When the kid showed up, he was dressed in his usual regulation grunge, but he went into the bathroom and changed into what he called his “work uniform.” He vented his resentment, as he he explained why he had to change clothes. Dr. Ross repeatedly reminded the staff that they were scientists and scholars and should dress accordingly. The boss usually wore either a rumpled charcoal suit or a navy blazer with grey trousers. Shawn opted for the blazer, which he had bought at Penny’s across the bay in Zenith, though he did rebel to the point of wearing a broad tie with a flashy pattern instead of a conservative rep tie indicating the elite regiment in which the wearer had not served or the English public school or college he had not attended.
Before even saying “hello,” much less “welcome,” Shawn took hold of Smith’s tie and asked in a Southern accent he must have got from watching reruns of Hee Haw,
“Are those flewer de lee? You a French royalist or somethin’?” Disentangling the tie from Shawn’s stubby fingers, Smith said only “fleur de lys. This final ’s’ is not silent.” He did not add the information that the flowers, which included the stamens, were in fact Florentine, not French.
“I told you there were bizarro things happening here. Yesterday morning I had to come in early to have time to go see you. Anyway, as I told you, I found Dyson—coming out of my office. He said he’d got lost but he was, what’s the word? Sort of cocky? Too self-assured?”
“Yes, you told me all this.”
“Did I? Anyway, I went to see Justin, who says he chewed him out, but that’s probably just Justin playing tough to impress me. Dyson has too much pull with the board for Justine to tell him anything. Dyson claimed he had wandered into the wrong office, but Justin’s story was that he had sent him to pick up a report. I don’t know what Justin was doing in the office at 8—he is not due until 9 and is late almost every day.”
“What did you tell Mr. Wright about hiring me?”
“Only that you were very smart and—here I laid it on thick—a kind of forensic historical investigator.”
“That’s a bit too close to the truth. It may be better to say nothing more along those lines. We don’t want to arouse any curiosity. You told me about your dream, and you suggested there is at least one volunteer who has begun to act strangely. Is there anyone else?”
“Yeah, maybe. There’s Steffie. Stephanie Diamond. She’s a young research assistant? She’s started taking an interest in the Third Reich, can’t quit talking about it? She buys Nazi memorabilia on Ebay? She says it’s just a joke, but I don’t know?”
“Why are you asking me questions about someone I have never met…. These are strange times, and a lot of people fall for anything extreme…”
“Yeah, but Steffie is Jewish.”
“I see your point. What about you? Did you have another dream last night?”
Plunging ahead, Shawn recounted the latest episode. This time, he was an Aztechie [sic] guerrilla, killing Spanish soldiers who wandered into the jungle. They were all blue-eyed blonds wearing fancy clothes. Some of them were “dons,” so he felt good about killing them. Smith asked him how much he knew about the Aztecs.
“I watched a History Channel program…”
“What did they say about human sacrifice and cannibalism..”
“They said it was, you know, some kind of religious thing, like Christian communion.”
“They didn’t talk about the mass slaughter of children and adolescents who made up a standard part of the Aztec diet?”
“That’s been pretty much debunked as Catholic propaganda…”
“Has it? Fly to Mexico City some time and go to the Museum of Meso-American antiquities in Chapultepec Park. They don’t pull any punches. I had real nightmares for several days after seeing the so-called ‘Aztec Calendar.’ It was actually a sacrificial stone depicting their sun god. His tongue is shaped into an obsidian knife that was used to cut the beating heart of the victims who were still alive.”
“Why did they do that?”
“Maybe they thought it tasted better that way. The biggest food fad in China these days is to eat live animals while they are still squirming in the mouth. You, young man, are the victim of American education, which teaches the absurd lie that people are pretty much the same, wherever you go. That is an insult to the human race.”
“Hey, I went to parochial schools.”
“The difference being exactly what?”
Shawn had obviously had enough Aztec cultural enrichment for one morning and was ready to change the subject, but Smith had to point out the conspicuous flaw in any conspiracy theory to explain the dreams.
“It seems to me that whatever or whoever is behind these dreams has found his way into the darker corners of your mind. The obvious culprit is you. At this stage in your life, you may be getting cold feet about your commitments. At the very least, you have to be a collaborator, witting or not, in this plot, since no one else knows you as well as you do.”
“Look, Smith. I know you’re supposed to be a smart guy with a lot of insights, but until a few weeks ago, I was pretty happy. I loved my wife: Hell, I even liked her a lot. I never thought much about minorities—my family brought me up Republican. Now, all I can think of is Wounded Knee, the Little Big Horn, Chief Joseph. It’s like someone’s being practicing voodoo.”
“You’ve never heard that the devil cannot enter your house without an invitation?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Smith said nothing: There was no point in repeating himself. Shawn took advantage of the pause to get down to business.
“We’re going to start you in VSET—‘the virtual sensory enhancement training’ program that was designed to increase olfactory, auditory, visual, and tactile, imagination.”
“Every man can now be Marcel Proust?”
“Yeah, whatever, something like that.”
Shawn outlined the basic approach and commented, “The first step is memory training. As Ross likes to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what you learn or experience, if you cannot remember it.”
“So he really is a Platonist…”
“Is that something like Plotinus?”
Smith let it pass. The problem was getting interesting, too interesting for the usual banter.
The first step in the instruction program was to be a series of tests on the subject’s recall. First, the subject was to listen to a recording of a short narrative and then answer questions. Then he would read the same narrative and answer the same questions. In the next step he would first read the narrative, do the test, and then do the test again after it the same narrative was played.
There was some problem initially, since the narratives they were using were mostly too familiar to be useful: Stories by Maupassant and Hemingway, tales from Livy and Herodotus. Finally, Shawn settled on contemporary fiction—a story by someone named Jane Smiley. Obviously a made-up name. In any event, Smith drew a blank, and after listening to a story about a family Christmas, he knew why the author wanted to conceal her identity.
There were also news accounts, which had to be read aloud, since there were no recordings. He had a good recall of the narratives that were read aloud and a better memory for the stories he had to read by himself. The results were fed into a computer, and various scores were computed—none of which interested the subject at all, though he did make the mistake of commenting on the silliness of the fiction and the incompetence of the news reporting.
The last text, the Declaration of Independence, was more difficult because so much of it consisted of abstractions. He did fine with the Preamble, which he had memorized as a schoolboy (Didn’t everybody?), but he only managed to recall about 40% of the abuses alleged against the King’s government.
When the initial tests had been completed, the subject was fitted out with headphones and goggles that were something like Google glasses. Ordinarily, Shawn explained, he would be put into a specially designed booth, but all the booths were currently occupied by other subjects. The headphones and goggles were the original outfit designed for the games, and they were still used when they took the experiments out of the office, as they were going to do for the upcoming retreat. When he was later asked what the experience was like, Smith used to say it was like having your mind turned into a computer screen. In other words, a near-death experience for the brain.
First a light appeared and began winking hypnotically to the rhythm of tones he was hearing through the headphones. He entered into a semi-trance and saw the outline of a house appear on his mind screen. The house had a sign that read: Declaration of Independence, and, as the familiar words were heard through the headphones, they appeared on the screen, and the topics were popped into the different rooms. In the entryway appeared the word Preamble, followed by short phrases: human events, dissolve political bands, assume from among powers, self-evident truths, created equal… The different parts of the house were given similar treatment, often pointed with images like a picture of a train in the list of the King’s train of abuses, a crowned figure tearing up laws, Indians attacking a cabin. he was given five minutes to study the house before the words and images disappeared. Then, staring at the outline, he was told to conjure up the topics of the argument. This time when he took the test, he scored 80%.
“Not bad for someone your age, not bad at all.”
“What’s the best anyone has done?”
“A mentally retarded eight year old got 100% of the topics and could repeat the text almost letter perfect. But then he had advantages.”
“What kind of advantages?”
“Being what they used to call ‘simple,’ he was not confused by any anxiety about what anything meant. The retard’s brain took in everything as if it was a disc being burned. People without his advantages really need the house. It helps in several ways, for example, by imposing a structure, but it also short-circuits the subject’s thinking, which can be fatal to good memory. In thinking visually, you partly revert to the pre-literate mind.”
Smith did not explain that the memory game went back to the Renaissance and from there back to ancient teachers of rhetoric. Ancient politicians had to speak without notes, which meant they needed to develop very high level memory skills. Someone—probably Ross himself—must know what he was doing. Smith did not bring any of this up, because it would have led inevitably to a discussion of the occultists who had developed memory systems. Shawn would not understand the implications, nor, probably, did Macmillan Ross, but someone undoubtedly did.
“OK, now one more. This will be what Ross calls IMP— “identity memory probing”—which is mostly to tease out stereotypes and clichés lurking below the surface. It’s better I don’t say too much about it. You’ll recognize the situation immediately. You’re Socrates in jail, awaiting execution.”
“A replay of Plato’s Crito?”
“Only partly. We’ll do two takes. The first one is basically the version that most of us learned in school. By the way, don’t worry about what I’m saying now: It won’t really affect your thinking during the session. Once you’re ‘in,’ I’ll disappear, and you will scarcely remember what I’ve said.”
“Where will you be?”
“Not where, but who? (Or is it whom?) Anyway, I’ll be Crito. By the way, do you prefer the pronunciation Creeto?”
“Greek would be Kreeton, but I assume we’ll be speaking English, so Creye-toe.”
Smith put back on the goggles and headphones. He was sitting on a palette of some kind with several people seated around him dressed in what looked like hotel bathrobes. They move and nod, but only one of them speaks, and that is Crito, who is urging him to make a break for it. He is explaining how important Socrates’ work is to the world, especially to future generations. He has been unjustly convicted in a rigged trial, which proves that the regime is unjust and illegitimate. The jailers have been bribed, and friends are waiting outside to spirit him out of Athens and to the North, where he will be able to continue his preaching without molestation. Or would he rather go to Sparta?
Socrates counters with an argument about the importance of law and order, but Crito shuts it down by insisting that there can be no real law that is not rooted in eternal justice, which gives all legitimacy to human law. It is not only right but necessary to defy tyranny in the cause of justice, even if it means deliberately unlawful acts up to and including violent revolution.
Socrates is convinced, and his friends smuggle him out of prison. It is night and the streets are dark, as he is ridden in a farm wagon out into the Attic countryside and into Boeotian territory, where he will stay with his disciples Simmias and Cebes, who live in Thebes. Simmias, in fact, is driving the wagon, and when they stop to rest the horses, Socrates seems confused.
“What were they doing to me back there?”
Simmias remains mute, but Crito appears again, as out of a heavy fog.
“What do you mean, Socrates. Anything wrong?”
“I don’t know. Did I take some of the hemlock? This is all like a dream I had once. There were doctors. These earphones. I can’t seem to remember.”
“You’re just tired. We need to concentrate on the mission at hand. Once you are free in Thebes, we’ll either set up a school there or in Thessaly with Meno. He’s someone you can trust. Don’t worry about anything. Your teaching is going to transform the world. Nothing can be allowed to stand in your way.”
Socrates realizes he has to be cagey, as he was with the doctors. Where’s Anderson, anyway? He recalls his father, who had been a sailor once. Had he been to Greece? No, but Socrates had. Yes, he’d been to Athens to see the ruins and before that, Mike Pope had met Sophocles and Euripides. Euripides had copies of old poems he was reading. A long one by Stesichorus. Or did he just read about that. The fog became thicker.
“Socrates, what are you doing? Are you asleep?”
“No, Crito. I’m thinking about the mission,” he says in a flat non-committal tone of voice.
“This was absolutely the right thing to do. There is a higher law we must obey and ignore the petty human regulations devised by bigoted men without understanding. They were going to kill you tonight, and all the good you can do would end.”
“But where’s, Xanthippe. We didn’t leave her behind, did we?”
“She’ll be taken care of, nothing to worry about.”
“I can’t just abandon her…”
Yes, it was Mike Pope, who came to Athens in the middle of the war with Sparta. Or was it Anderson? Or Andrea Ferrero? He was tired of running, always running. But he had to run, anywhere any time. If they got him again, there would be no second chance. They would own his mind. He tries to think who “they” are, but all he can recall are young men dressed as doctors, generic lay figures in the mist, rather like his disciples in jail.
A bright light came on and the screen was blank, as Shawn helped him out of the gadgetry.
“You must have fallen asleep. It happens a lot. I think you got enough of the storyline to get the picture?”
“We could postpone the second take, but it would be better to do it when everything is fresh in your mind. OK?”
Smith nodded yes, and they went on to replay the scene along the lines of Plato’s Crito, in which Socrates refuses to escape and makes his classic argument against civil disobedience. Smith did not need to be convinced. He already knew his Plato and was strongly opposed to civil disobedience, but he also knew enough to appear shocked by the novelty of the argument.
It was an uneventful episode until it was time to drink the hemlock. As he sipped the drink and felt his extremities going numb, his memory started to come alive. The phantom faces around him began to take on the familiar features of people he could almost recognize, but as he died, the screen went blank.
Shawn was again helping him out of the goggles and earphones.
“You look confused, Smith. I guess you have never died before.“
“Only in dreams.”
“I thought experts claimed that no one ever dies in a dream.”
“That’s what I’ve heard, as well, but you’re how old, Shawn, late 20’s? It’s time you learned that the experts are almost always wrong.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they lie. Especially the so-called social so-called scientists.”
Shawn, who seemed to take the observation personally, changed the subject.”
“So, were you convinced this time around?” Yes, one had to be cagey.
“I suppose there is nearly always another side to the argument. But if Socrates is right this time, it would mean we’d have to treat people like Gandhi, King, and half a century of dumb kids protesting war, inequality, fascism, and guns as criminals, even traitors.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, Smith.” Shawn was again clearly uneasy with any firmly stated principle.
“The point (he said as if by rote) is not to come to a resolution but to begin to doubt what you have always thought. That’s what the Monsignor always says.”
From what Smith had heard of Macmillan Ross, he felt sure either that Shawn was misinterpreting Villanova or that Ross was harboring a traitor. Shawn started putting away the test materials.
“We’ve done enough for one day. There are several other tests, but, to get good results, we have to string them out. Tomorrow you’ll get a full medical exam—height, weight, vital signs. You know. But now we should put you to work on a project.”
Shawn opened several files on his giant screen. “Truman and the Bomb is virtually done, and so is the Robert E. Lee project. Here’s a WW II storyline, ‘Lost Patrol’ but it is pretty far along. What about this one, ‘Blacks and Whites’
“Reconstruction in the postwar South or Black Guelphs and White Guelphs in early 14th century Florence?”
“Know anything about Florence?”
“I’ve been there..”
“I mean late Medieval Florence.”
“We need more than a little. We need real stories and gritty stuff about personalities and everyday life.”
Shawn explained that their decision to develop had a game on Medieval Florence was Msgr. Villanova’s idea.
“He’s is crazy about Renaissance Florence, but he has also read up on the 14th century. Unfortunately, he’s too busy to do very much for the project. Besides, he couldn’t write a good sentence, much less tell a story, even if his life depended on it.”
“Very well, your spiritual guru likes Florence, but what does he say he expects to accomplish with a game?”
“It’s a lot like what Dr. Ross says about the importance of escaping ideological and religious bigotry, but the monsignor goes farther.
“More mystical, perhaps, more religious?”
“Not really. Villanova wants to end global conflict by destroying the little tribal identities of clan and neighborhood that kept the pot boiling in Florence and keep busting out in Africa and the Balkans.”
“What’s his inspiration for his dream of world peace? The Pope?”
“Partly, and of course he talks a lot about Saint Francis. He’s always quoting Dante, but it’s usually with that superior smile he puts on around us Americans.”
“What’s the connection between Dante and Americans?”
“I guess he finds Dante a little primitive. He says the Florentines are like us—passionate, judgmental, prone to violence. You know, “Wild West” kind of stuff. Anyway, he won’t have much to do with the project. Doesn’t have time—too busy with the Medici, and he’s still teaching. So, I’ve been working on it with one of our researchers, Katie Oriundi. Her family’s Italian, and she’s done graduate work on Italian literature. I’ll get her. She’s been briefed on you joining the team.”
Smith could not help wincing. He had never joined any team since he had run track in the eighth grade, when he had never finished better than third. Shawn punched a button on the phone. In a few minutes the door opened, and a young woman with untidy reddish-blond hair came in. She was slender, in her mid 20’s, and dressed in an ill-fitting wool suit—good material but rather bulky, as if it had been cut down from something her grandmother might have worn. She had eyes of a color somewhere between blue and green and well-chiseled features that might have made a fashion model’s career, but with no makeup to disguise the look on her face—both shy and aloof—she was almost unattractive. With that air of disapproval she was not going to break any hearts or gain a big following on Instagram.
Miss Oriundi, who seemed to dislike the very sight of any male animal, viewed Smith with particular distaste. Anterus wondered if misandry was a recent development, as the very slight frown lines in her face might indicate, or an engrained hostility. He knew better than to speculate. He’d start by asking himself questions, and, before long, he’d end up caring whether she lived or died. That was not his concern.
“Katie, this is Anterus Smith. I sent you a message saying he would be working with us. I’ve got to go see Doc Mack for a few minutes. Why don’t you find out if Mr. Smith would be right for the Florentine story line.”
As Shawn left, Katie took a seat in his chair. She looked inquiringly as if she were sizing up her new colleague as she waited for his opening. Anterus said nothing.
“You seem to have impressed Shawn,” she drawled in a voice that sounded like she’d been gargling with quinine, “Are you actually interested in Florence or do you just need a job?”
“I don’t really want a job—if by job you mean something disagreeable that you have to do to earn a living. I’ve had very few jobs. I suppose I am a little bit interested. Medieval Florence is not my specialty, but it is among my interests.”
“Parla italiano, Lei?”
“Macché! A chi lo dice? Preferisce parlarlo?”
“No, we can speak English. Just checking. Not many Americans know Italian, and, no matter how much history you have studied, it would be hard to take on this project without a pretty sound foundation in the language. What primary sources would you follow?”
“I’d start with Dante. Why? (Answering her unspoken question) Because, not only is he the best surviving witness of the period, but he was also a player in the events. Besides, we simply have more information by and about him than about all the other people together. If you dig into the Commedia, he tells dozens of anecdotes and tidbits.”
“OK, Dante. Who else?
“Well, of course there are the chronicles of Dino Compagni and Giovanni Villani before getting into more obscure documents. I can’t say I’ve dug terribly deep. Of course, later Florentine historians like Machiavelli and Guiccardini are still valuable..”
They briefly discussed the different modern historians, academic and popular. Popular historians, Smith suggested, were mostly reading their own biases into the 14th century, and the academics—who were hardly innocent of the same biases—seemed interested in petty details and overarching theories but rarely in making sense of the story.
“For a storyline, I think Dante’s relations with the Donati would make a good tale of friendship and betrayal. Corso Donati was quite a boy—not perhaps as magnificent as Guido Cavalcanti’s father-in-law..”
“Yes, Farinata degli Uberti, who preserved his disdain for lesser breeds even in Hell, and of course there is Corso’s brother—Dante’s friend Forese Donati…in reading about Dante, Guido, Forese and Corso, you begin to feel you know them. They were all such good haters, especially Dante.”
“What about Dante’s wife Gemma? Gemma Donati? She was pretty drab, wasn’t she? Beaten down by her overbearing husband, though of course he was a genius.”
“Not at all. Her marriage wasn’t a love match—Florentine marriages hardly ever were. She did her best to be a good wife and mother, and when her husband got exiled, she ran the household and played both parts, mother and father, with no help from Dante who had too many other things on his mind.”
“More important things, undoubtedly! So she was the good little wife, denying herself and submitting herself to her husband, as St. Paul tells us?”
“Maybe, but that is not the point I am making. Italian women even today make great sacrifices for their families, and in Medieval Tuscany, loyalty to kith and kin was the foundation of their moral and social order, for men as much as for women. Gemma rose to the emergency. All her husband’s property had been confiscated, and this included even her own dowry. Instead of complaining, she did her duty and even seemed to enjoy the hard work she had not been brought up to endure. I don’t think Dante ever came close to appreciating what a gem—pun intended—he had in his wife. She was quite pretty even after she had born several children, and, although she hardly ever talked about it, she admired his poetry, and in her own quiet way she loved him.”
“Where did you dig all that out? Or did you dream it up by yourself?”
“Oh, here and there, stray references in letters, bits from Boccaccio, who of course thought no one was good enough for the great poet. Maybe I have s spirit guide from another world. After all, ’Even a dream may come from Zeus.’ They’re all awesome people—literally—even the bad ones like Corso. It’s hard to believe that so much arrogance and hate could be in a man who was otherwise honorable and really quite competent. He was an impressive man… But, as I said, I don’t pretend to expertise.”
Almost smiling—and it was a beautiful ghost of a smile—she nodded agreement. He wondered how she got on with the ecumenical monsignor who wanted to abolish local loyalties and rivalries.
Katie modestly conceded it was not her period either—her studies were mostly in 19th century poetry—but, since they were not working on an academic monograph, they could probably come up with a scenario in short order. Anterus was on the verge of committing an indiscretion by asking her if she had a middle name, when Shawn returned, just in time to observe Katie bestowing another one of her rare half-smiles. He seemed reassured, as if maybe this guy—half pedant and half BSer--was the perfect man for the project?
If there was still going to be a project. When Katie had shut the door and clicked on down the hall, Shawn told him that Ross was more worried than ever. Just today, he’d had a call from the vice chairman, who was pressuring him to get more involved in politics. Shawn repeated what he had told Ross about the new consultant and explained that Ross actively wanted his help. This was significant, because, if anything was going to be done, not just about Shawn’s dreams but with the looming crisis at Veritas, nothing much could be accomplished without Ross’s ‘input.’
“He wants to see you after lunch. You should know that his house was broken into last night. Nothing was actually taken or disturbed. It’s a little goofy. Anyway, at his office at 1:30? I’ll take you up there. It’s now almost noon, I’ll meet you here about 1:15. So how’d’ you get along with Katie?”
“Well enough. Has she always been like this?”
“You mean how long has she hated men? She was always aloof—-I think her family must have been somebodies once, and she comes from the East, Virginia I think. She’s always snobbish, but that mean-mugging business, when she’s around men is something new. She hides a beautiful body behind those clunky clothes.”
“I thought you were a good Catholic boy.”
“A guy can dream, can’t he? You can’t control your imagination. Besides, she’s untouchable. It’s as if she wants revenge on the male sex for everything she thinks we’ve done to women. She’s probably ready to start screaming, ‘Me Too.’”
Shawn ignored Smith’s allusion to Turandot and offered to take the investigator-turned-consultant out to lunch. Anterus knew the lunch options in that part of Nadir and preferred to walk the mile to the Ice House. Besides, he needed to think, and being around Shawn seemed to drain down his the mind like a portable radio run on alkali batteries.
It was a chilly day in the low 50’s, but, wearing a light trench coat, Smith enjoyed the unseasonable warmth. As he walked the bleak almost deserted streets of dying Nadir, Smith concentrated on one question: What could possibly be so dangerous in the VSET project that a political party—much less the Feds—would want to get their hands on it? And, if there was such a potential source of power, how did an obvious loser like Justin Wright fit in? He could only be a pawn for someone else. Who? Monsignor Villanova? The board chairman? Maybe the bigger puzzle was Macmillan Ross himself. How did an aging and out-of-shape gentleman—a lover of French poetry who wasted his time on little boats—how did such a person develop a project that would attract attention from men only interested in money and power? Was there more to Ross than met the eye?
The joint, as he walked in through the door, seemed empty except for a man seated at the end of the bar closest to the door. Anterus could only see the back of his blazer but from the corner of the eye he caught the man turning his head as the newcomer passed by. Darlene, who had just opening up the joint, gave him her usual greeting:
“The man in black! New suit?”
“That case of wine Joey ordered for you is here. Want him to drop it by like before?”
“If it’s not too much trouble. Otherwise, I’ll come and get it it.”
He put a few quarters in the juke box and tried to answer the musical question: “Who stole the kishka from the butcher shop?” He took a seat at the end of the bar, drinking a Leinenkugel Export Special.
“Darlene, where could they export a beer like this?” “I don’t know. Minnesota? I see it’s the other Frankie today. You must be happy.”
Anterus fiddled with lunch, a plate of Swiss cheese, stale rye bread, and lurid yellow mustard that tasted like sweetened battery acid. Darlene squirted some soda water into a glass and sat down on her chair across the bar.
“How can you eat that slop? I make it, but even I won’t actually eat it. You like Italy, don’t you? I hear the new Olive Garden is fantastic.”
“I hope you mean that literally—that the Olive Garden does not actually exist but is only a bad dream.”
“Don’t always be such a wet blanket! Everyone is excited. Hey, someone in here the other night called people like you oboe-players. I don’t get it.”
“Probably because playing the oboe is so intense that oboists supposedly go mad.”
“What’s an oboe—no don’t tell me. Gee, you’re all slicked up today. Going somewhere? A new job?” She went on talking, not expecting an answer. “Most times you’re working you go out of town. I envy you. I wish I could go places.”
“Where would you go, if you had the opportunity?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Anywhere but here. When I was a kid, of course, I wanted to go to Disney World, and later it was Vegas or maybe New Orleans during Mardi Gras. You know, the places everyone wants to go. Now, I don’t know. Maybe some place like Paris or, yah, Rome.”
“Why Rome? For the food? Now you’ve got the Olive Garden.”
“Not just the food. I saw an old movie on the TV the other night. It had Audrey Hepburn—I wish I was as thin as she was—she played a runaway princess—and Gregory Peck, too. They were in Rome in the early 50’s, when people were as poor as we are here, and the city was even more rundown than Nadir. But everything seemed real. You turn a corner and there’s a whole history in a building or statue. And the people, they were poor, but they seemed glad to be alive. Maybe it was just a movie, but no one in this town is happy, except maybe you. Maybe you’re not happy, but you’re content, even if you don’t smile a lot, and, when you drink, you don’t drink to get drunk.”
“It’s because I do what I want every day. That way I don’t have to get drunk on weekends.”
“But what do you do with all your time?”
“I read, take walks, listen to music.”
“Old-timey music—like that Frankie Yankovic on the jukebox?”
“Even older. The two Franks are a pre-emptive strike against what they call music these days.”
“What do you like, then?”
“Oh, many different things. Sometimes I listen to jazz. More often it’s Haydn or Bach.”
“I hear that kind of music—classical?—makes you smart and even the chickens lay more eggs.”
“Maybe, but I don’t lay eggs and I don’t even particularly want to be intelligent. I just live every day. I don’t have to have an agenda. I don’t make lists, and I don’t have a plan for getting rich or achieving world peace. The world will have to survive without my help. The best I can do is to live as well as I can. The only real question I have to ask myself is, ‘What do I mean by live?’”
“Like in that book you loaned me. Meditations? Reading that guy makes me want to do something better with my life. I could go on a diet, get more exercise, maybe learn something instead of watching TV. That’s probably dumb. I don’t know. What do you think, seriously?”
“‘Throw away everything else and hold onto just these few things. Bear in mind that each of us lives only in the present, just a moment. All the rest has either been lived before or is invisible to us.’ This,” raising his arms and twirling his barstool 360 degrees to take in the whole bar, “is all we have. We may as well make the best of it.”
“What about friends? Who’s your best friend?
“It depends on what you mean by “best”—the person I am closest to or the best person who is a friend. I’ve outlived all my best friends,” he said truthfully, silencing her protest that he was too young to say such a thing, “and the best man I know is an Italian named Dante.”
“But that’s the poet you’re always talking about, and he’s been dead for centuries. You can’t really know him just by reading his book.”
“You’d be surprised. Anyway, friendship doesn’t mean much in this new millennium of yours. It meant a good deal more 700 years ago or even when I was born. That’s why I prefer spending my time there.” Darlene put on one of those wise looks that simple people use when they think they are being had, the way an Italian taps his nose with his index finger.
“Thanks for the sermon, Andy. When you talk this way, it’s as if you’re closing out other people. Anyway, I’d better go see if the Whiskey and Soda at the other end of the bar wants to make the most of a refill.”
As Anterus made his way to the door, Whiskey and Soda in a well-cut blazer, coming back from the jukebox, turned his head and smiled:
“You’re the new consultant they took on at Veritas, aren’t you? Smith? I’m Dyson, Eric Dyson. I’m one of their guinea pigs.”
“I’ll be joining you, they tell me.” The jukebox, which had run out of polka music, made an unpleasant leap forward.
The dream police, they live inside of my head
The dream police, they come to me in my bed.
The dream police, they’re coming to arrest me, oh no.
“So,” Smith asked, “Whisky and soda, rock and roll?”
“You know: Renato Carasone from Naples, ‘Tu vuo fa l’americano.”
“No, Cheap Trick. Rockford, Illinois. ‘The Dream Police.’ Seriously, though. I heard a little about your ‘vast erudition’ and ‘awesome memory.’ The elegant diction is obviously from Shawn. Looking forward to working with you.”
“Can I buy you a drink? What’s your pleasure?”
“Too early for pleasure. I’ll just have another Leinie—it’s better not to drink alcohol before 5.”
He was puzzled—and on his guard. Was Dyson up to something? In this part of the country, strangers did not often try to seem pleasant.
“I’m very happy to meet you, Smith. Since coming to Nadir, I’ve found very few people to talk to. Justin Wright’s something of a stuffed shirt, not to mention ignoramus, and the geeks he has working for him—Shawn and Corey—are textbook cases of arrested development. Doesn’t anybody grow up these days? Katie Oriundi is a serious person, but she took an instantaneous dislike to me.”
“It’s nothing to do with you—probably just a passing phase. She seems too decent a person to turn feminist—but it’s too soon for me to judge. For some reason, a lot of people at Veritas seem to be under a good deal of stress.”
“Not you, as anyone can see. You appear—and I hope you don’t object to a personal observation from a complete stranger—comfortable in your own skin.
“I don’t try to be anything.”
“That’s what I mean…. I hear you’re a collector?”
“From whom did you hear that?”
“I don’t know, maybe Shawn. He tells me you pick up old coins and historical oddities and make a profit off them. I wish I had the kind of knowledge to be able to do that. It makes you independent. I am a sort of collector, too, though in a small way.”
“What do you collect?”
“I’ve always been interested in myths and legends, ever since my parents read me The Arabian Nights and stories of Greek mythology. Over the years I have collect anything associated with my favorite myths—books, illustrations, souvenirs..”
”What sorts of legends?”
“In my teens, I was drawn to the virgin goddesses who helped great warriors—the Norse Valkyrie and the Serbian Vilas. And Athena who helped Odysseus in his wanderings. From Odysseus, I got fascinated by tales of haunted wanderers, men driven by a curse like Odysseus or The Flying Dutchmen and the Wandering Jew. They crop up in every culture, and many of them seem to live almost forever, appearing from generation to generation in different places. There are also the stories of sleeping heroes, who will awaken only when their people really need them. I guess my favorite is the Wandering Jew—my father had a Hungarian-Jewish grandmother. Did any of those stories ever interest you?”
Even more on his guard, Smith answered carefully: ”Only the tale of Odysseus, and he lived a normal life-span. I’m afraid my collecting is on a more mundane level. I buy and sell old coins and small objets d’art I pick up in my travels. As they say of the academic life, it beat’s working for a living.”
“Anything does, I suppose.”
“Tell me, Mr. Dyson, you don’t seem like the kind of man who needs a minimum wage job as an experimental subject. How did you come come to take this position at Veritas?”
“Oh, I was a senior executive and junior partner in a digital phone company that got bought up. I came out with a pretty good chunk of change, and, since I’ve always been interested in high tech approaches to human memory and learning, I decided pretty much on a whim to come to Nadir and see what I could learn from Doctor Ross. I’d read some article in the Star Tribune”
“Fascinating. I don’t know much about anything high tech. Which phone company was it?”
“You wouldn’t have heard of it—just a little company out West, but ahead of the curve on increasing coverage. Anyway, now that I have the money I had always hoped to have, I am free to do some good in the world.”
“I admire Macmillan Ross and respect what he has done with few resources. I’d like to start a foundation to support ‘the permanent things.’”
“You could just contribute to his foundation.”
‘Yes, I intend to, and I am considering his request to join his board of directors. But I also have some plans of my own. I’d like to give grants to scholars and students, maybe publish important books that the commercial publishers won’t touch, because they can’t make big money on them, and the academic presses wouldn’t dream of considering because they challenge the orthodoxy of Marx and Freud—and Edward Said. Maybe even start a prep school. From what I hear, you could be a big help to me.”
“I’m not looking for a job.”
“OK, a consultancy then, something along the lines of what you’ve got here. You could bill me out at $100 an hour plus expenses for travel and research.”
Everyone wanted to give him money. “Sounds interesting. Where are you planning to locate your operation?”
“Somewhere beautiful and remote, maybe Montana, Idaho. You wouldn’t have to move, though. We could arrange regular meetings in some place like Minneapolis or Chicago.”
“It’s tempting, but right now I am due for a meeting with the boss.”
Momentarily forgetting that he was back in Middle America, Smith shook hands with Dyson and walked out into the sunlight. The fresh air was cold with the breath of coming Winter with just a hint of petroleum stink from the heating oil processing plant.
Anterus felt like a postmodern descendant of one of Homer’s heroes. He had eaten and drunk his fill, and he had gone the Greeks one better by getting his daily dose of the Slovenian Polka King. Revived in body and soul, he walked into a dilapidated little park—really, just a square of grass with some bedraggled trees—and sat down on a bench. Buttoned up in his coat, he soaked in the bit of warmth from the feeble northern sun. The birch and popple trees still had half their golden-yellow leaves that muted the cold indifference of the pale blue sky. The beer and food in his belly made him drowsy, and he thought about getting some coffee or lighting a cigar to wake up his mind. Instead, he pulled out a paperback copy of Guido Cavalcanti, and as he recited the lines he found himself slipping away into the land of dreams.
He was in a house, fortified like a castle, listening to Guido ranting about Corso, who had arranged to have him murdered on his pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela.
“The first time I see that gallant man in the street, I am going to kill him. I don’t care if I am sent into exile—or go to Hell for it.”
Andrea, thinking to mollify his anger, quoted Guido’s sonnet to his cousin Nerone, who had struck terror into the Buondelmonti—enemies of the Cavalcanti and close allies of Corso:
Novella ti so dire, odi Nerone,
Che i Buondelmonti trieman di paura…
It was a poem to strike fire in the belly of any honest Florentine who had not sold his soul to the Donati.
Guido smiled and thanked him for the recitation, even though he said that Andrea read it like a German, spitting out the consonants. He really should cover his mouth with a kerchief when he spoke Italian. Here was one point on which Corso and Guido were in agreement: Andrea’s ugly Italian accent.
“Listen, Andrea. I know you get on with Corso, and our friend the young poet is a friend of his brother. When you’ve been in Florence as long as I have been, you’ll understand that men like Corso or Geri Spini are not fighting for any principal or party. For that matter, neither am I. I am a friend of the Cerchi, and I am sick of all make-believe feuding. No sane person wants either the Pope or the Emperor to rule Florence, and the more we drag them into our quarrels, the more likely we are to be destroyed. Look at Corso’s eyes sometimes, and what do you see? Raw desire and the murders he is willing to commit to get what he wants. Wherever you are, in Italy or in that frozen wasteland you come from, where men dress in bearskins, beware of anyone with eyes like that. It’s the eyes of a moneychanger or a condottiere.
I met Roger de Flor once, near Genova. He was a knight of Malta who robbed the Christian refugees at Acre. He worships no god, loves neither woman nor poetry, and has no country. His father was a German barbarian. I love gold for what it will buy. These men want it for the power they have to enslave the rest of us. Remember the eyes.”
Guido was Florence’s greatest poet and a student of philosophy as well, but his literary interests had never tamed his hot blood. Like his cousin Nerone, he was a good man in a fight. Unfortunately, the dominant family of his faction—the Cerchi—were overly cautious, and people tended to blame Guido for the street fights and scuffles that broke out whenever the young men of both parties found themselves at the same wedding or festival. It was all Andrea could do—knowing as he did how this conflict must end—to maintain relations with both groups. But, then, he was only Andrea Ferrero, an Englishman, an outsider without loyalties who had no dog in the fight.