Born Out of Due Time, Chapter 11

Thomas Fleming

By

October 19, 2018

τοῖς πτωχοῖς χρονὸς ἐστὶ θεός.

Time is a poor man's  god.

Philodemus

It was getting dark already, as he came out of the hospital entrance.  He saw the faithful cabbie waiting for him, engrossed in a crossword puzzle.  “What’s a five letter word ending in ‘r’ meaning coffee headgear?”

“Coffee?”

“Yeah, spelled capital C-o-f-capital E.”

“Miter”

“It fits.  You’re a genius.”

“Don’t you want to know what a miter is?”

“Hell no.  I finished the puzzle.  Where to now?”

“It’s complicated.  First I am going to the nearest discount electronic store or chain drug store, somewhere they sell phone accessories.”  

“There’s a Walgreen's at the corner of 21st St Street and Castle Avenue.  How about that?” 

The chainstore was located in what had once been a lively uptown shopping district.  It was now a wasteland of name-brand fast food, fast clothes, fast junk no one in his right mind would ever use.  Smith went into the Walgreen's and wandered around the store looking for the electronics section.  When he found the section, he had no idea of most of the things they were selling. 

Once upon a time, Walgreen’s had been a drugstore, a pharmacy, a place where they sold drugs and a few “sundries.”  Now it sold everything from bags of cheese popcorn to polyester socks to overpriced cheap wine.  He took in the crowd of fellow-shoppers, picking up prescriptions and virility enhancements on the way home from work.  How had people got so obese—and so angry with the world?  Men and women in their 40’s, crippled with the fat they exposed in thick rolls between their t-shirts and the brightly covered shorts several sizes too small, who used their shopping carts as offensive weapons as they blocked aisles and ran into anyone who got in their way.  Were they angry because they had crippled themselves or had they eaten themselves over halfway to death because they were angry?  It was one of those chicken and egg dilemmas—or rather capon and the egg problems--we are not supposed to solve.

Smith found his way to the aisle where telephones and accessories were on sale and bought a trakfone with his debit card.  The clerk showed him how to set up the phone and activate the account.  When he got outside,, he tested the phone by calling Shawn to give him his number.  “Congratulations,” he quipped,  “You’ve finally entered the 1990’s.” 

Back in the taxi, he gave instructions to the driver:

“I want you to take a roundabout route out to Lakeview Drive.  I am headed to number 635, just off Buttes Road, but I want you to drop me off a few blocks away, preferably some place from which I can cut through the woods.”

“You mean you don’t want to be seen?  Cops and robbers stuff?”

“Exactly.  Raymond Chandler.”

“Which was he—cop or robber?”

The driver drove down a curving street that ran a drunken parallel to Buttes Road and stopped at the edge of an undeveloped stretch of scrub woods and underbrush that lay behind the Ross’s house.  Smith walked quickly through the brush to the back door and rapped on the glass.  Penelope Ross opened the door and led him into the study, where a small light plugged into the socket shed a lighter shade of darkness that barely permitted them to see each other.  

“Don’t turn on the light until you have closed the blinds and curtains. I’ll sit over in the corner.”

  He opened his briefcase and took out out Joey’s canvas bag which he opened, exposing the well-polished .38 revolver with a dozen cartridges.  He loaded the revolver and put the gun in the right flap pocket of his jacket and the extra bullets in the left.  

“Mr. Smith, I assume you know how to handle one of those?”

“I suppose I do, thought it’s been a long time—rather like getting back on a bicycle after twenty years.”

He asked Penelope Ross about her meeting with the DA.

“He was quite helpful, and he’s having tests done on the monitor and the Novolog.  He wants you to come by and see him tomorrow.”

“I was afraid of that, but I’ll go see him, perhaps some time tomorrow morning.  Did he agree to make a man available?”

“Yes, but he said he and the agent would work out the best place to position him.  I got the feeling he didn’t want us to know where he would be.”

Smith instructed her to leave the house, as if she were going out to supper, turning out all the lights except for one in the hall.  At his request, she gave him the number of the DA’s man as well as her own number.  After he had sent Mrs. Ross out for her supper, he left the house by the back door, and returned to the waiting taxi.  

“Go back to Buttes and drive slowly down the street till we reach the curve.  Pull over and park where we can see the house, and douse the lights.”  (Was this an air raid drill?)  The driver pulled over to a little drive-off two houses before the Rosses’ house.  They had a clear view, but because of the curve they were relatively inconspicuous.

Smith settled back in the seat and kept his right hand on the .38.  He was careful not to nod off.   Tonight, dreaming could be dangerous.  The night was dark.  The moon had not risen yet, and the wind off the lake was blowing a fog through the low hills rising above the shore.  About 7:45 he heard some rustling in the Ross’s yard and soft footsteps shuffling up to the door.  He could sense the front door being gently rattled by someone who seemed to have a key.  He waited, and for a few seconds all he could hear was his own breathing.  Then a spotlight lit up the windows of the house.

“Put your hands up.  Police! Turn around slowly and then stand still.”  Smith stuck his head out of the car window.  It was the DA’s man with his gun on a burly man in a leather jacket.  A scuffle erupted, punctured by inarticulate yelling in which Smith could detect the phrase, “Sarge, what the hell?”

and

“Back off, Swenson, or you’re in the biggest trouble of your life.”

The shouting died into whispers, and the DA’s man escorted the burglar into the front seat of his unmarked car and returned to the house and rang the bell.  Anterus called Mrs. Ross, who was only a few minutes away, and walked closer to the house and called out to the cop.

“You have him?”

“Who the hell are you, buddy?”

“A friend of the family.  I work for Dr. Ross.”

“Show me some ID.”

Smith pulled out a wallet and handed him his New Jersey driver’s license. 

“Oh yeah, Smith.  The DA told me.  Where’s Mrs. Ross?"

“She is on the way.”  In fact, Penelope Ross was already pulling into the driveway.  As they waited for her to come to the door, Anterus asked:

“So you caught him?”

“I guess so. Maybe.  I don’t know.  This guy used to be on the force—he’s a retired sergeant who’s been working for a private security firm.  He says he was hired to keep an eye on the Ross’s house after the break-in.  He works for a local branch of a national company with a big reputation.  They do some contract work for the government—in Iraq.  Duckburg isn’t important enough even to have an FBI agent.  Hell, we don’t even have any ducks, and if we did the Finlanders would eat them.  The nearest FBI office is in the Twins.”

Mrs. Ross arrived in time to hear the explanation, and she asked who hired him.

“I don’t know.  He says it is confidential.”

“What happens next?  I assume he’ll be searched and investigated?”

“Of course.  Wait just a minute and I’ll call Sottili.”

The uniform walked away a few paces, took out his phone, and made a call.  He spoke in a voice too low for them to hear anything.  When he returned, he seemed confused, even embarrassed, but his voice sounded hard.

“I’m taking him downtown to the station—I just called the DA.  Mr. Smith, he says he wants to see you in his office at 10 o’clock.”

The cop—without the usual formalities—escorted his prisoner to the car, and Smith followed Penny Ross into the house and made sure she was all right.  

“Don’t worry about me I’ll be fine.  I just need a decent night’s sleep.  I won’t even try to thank you for all the help you’ve given us.”

Smith walked around the corner and told the driver to take him to the Icehole.

“You got high-class taste, buddy.” 

“And where do you regale yourself in your spare hours?

Regale?  Yeah. I don’t hang around downtown.  There’s a nice lounge out in the mall.”

“Nadir has a mall?”

“Sure,  Seafarer Mall.  A lot a stores closed but there’s a great bar—WTF?!—with live bands on the weekends.  You should try it.  Sure beats the dump you’re going to.  They got a scary bartender here—fat as hell but dangerous.  Don’t cause any trouble.  Coupla weeks ago, he broke some guy’s arm for trying to grab the barmaid.”

After he paid off the driver, he had less than $50, and he was happy to see Bonny waiting for him at the bar.  At this time of a chilly night, even the Icehole seemed inviting.  He saluted Willy the Penguin for luck and came up behind the pawnbroker.   Smith had an 1861 Golden Eagle $20 piece minted in Philadelphia in very-fine condition.  This time the sparring took longer than usual, because of the amount involved.  He opened by asking $2,400, and Bonny countered with $1,500.”

“I could do better on E-Bay.”

“E-Bay isn’t standing next to you with a wallet full of $100 bills.”  

They settled on $1,900, and Bonny bought drinks for the two of them and included Doreen and Joey in the round.  After Smith had knocked back his first Makers Mark, Bonny turned to him:

“You ought to know, there’s some guy been asking about you at the pawnshops and dealers.  Says he’s a Treasury agent and looks and sounds official, but he doesn’t show ID.  Says it’s not a criminal investigation, just a routine look into patterns of buying and selling.”

“What did he want to know?”

“Pretty routine stuff—telephone number, credit cards—I told him you didn’t have neither.  He also wanted to know how long you been in town.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him the truth, that I don’t know when you came to town, and I don’t actually recall when you started coming into the shop—maybe two years ago, maybe more.  He also wanted to know if I knew where you come from, if you had any friends here, if you hung out in any bars.”

“And?”

“I told him nothing.  I don’t know if he’s for real.  It would make a difference if he had me in his office, sweating it out and threatening to have my state broker’s license pulled.  I figure I owe the somvabitch nothing.”

“Thanks, Bonny.  You’re a prince.  Your aunt Floride would be proud of you.”

“What’s going on, Smith?”

“I don’t know.  One thing I can guarantee you.  There is nothing wrong with the coins…”

“I know that much…”

“Or with the way I got them.  It’s all completely legit.  I have never come close to crossing the line, though there are people who tried to involve me in one con or another—smuggling antiquities out of Italy—and when I refused, they got mad.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some crook is in trouble now and trying to shift the blame.  What does surprise me is that anyone knows I am here in Nadir.  This is the anus of the civilized world.”

“You can say that again, bo.”

Bonny drank up and left.  It was Friday evening, but Smith was alone at the bar.  At this rate, Joey must be losing money.  The big man came out from the back.

“You still here?”

“No, I’m in Sicily fighting the Arabs.”

“Well, someone ought to.”

“Is it always this quiet on Friday?”

“Not always, but there’s a big game on, and I don’t play much TV in the joint.”

“Isn’t that illogical?”

“What’s logic got to do with this joint?”

“You are a sports hero.  Why not spruce the place up with publicity stills of you in the old days, signed pictures from great fighters?   You could install satellite TV with boxing matches, rassling, hockey, even football.  Everyone else has gambling machines.  You could make a thousand or two a month.”

“Sure, I’d increase business and make some money. Would you wanna come?”

“No.“

“Me neither.”  Anterus raised his glass:

“Here’s to nobility without ideals and poverty without dignity.”

“Screw the rich.  They’re all bastards.”

“And screw the poor for laying down to the rich.  They're all cowards.”

“Professor, glad to hear you say that.  All those books have not ruined you the way it did those eggheads—whaddya call an egg when it’s spoiled?”

“Addled..”

“Whatsat mean, really?

“Putrid as piss.”

“Sounds right—those addled egghead pissbrain professors  from Northwood who come in here when they want to to pretend to be normal—they’d say they’re slumming it.  That’s why I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

“Like what, Joey?”

“Like what happened to Dr. Ross.  I don’t know what you think, but that was no accident.”

“How do you know anything about it?”

“Guys on the force.  I give some of ‘em boxing lessons, free.  They keep an eye on the joint and sometimes tell me things.  They tell me you been trying to help the Rosses.  That’s probably a good thing, but watch out for Sottili.  He’s as honest as you can get these days, but sometimes in his position has to do favors.  He is Sicilian, you know."

"Aren't you being just a little prejudiced?"

"Against Dagos?  Don't make me laugh.  Me and Willie Pastrano were great pals.  Listen, anyways, whatever you do, don’t rile this guy.  He a real gentleman in public, but when he’s off camera, he’s about as gentle as a wolverine”

“And in this case?”  

Joey ignored the question.  

“I hear one of them rent-a-cops was caught tonight.  They can be bad news, worse than the real thing.  Somuvum’s  got connections—FBI, CIA.  I also hear some Treasury dicks are sniffing around after you.  I know the guy the cops caught tonight—big fellow, used to fight amachur.  I trained him for a while.  He’s not the worst of those guys.  He’s not really vicious, but he’s tough.  I don’t even know what side he’s on in this one, but he can be big trouble.”

Smith thanked him.

“And speaking of trouble, Andy, a cute little piece of jailbait come in looking for you today.  Jeeze, I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“She tried to pick me up, and I sent her home to mama.  What did she want?”

“She wants to see you outside the parking garage—you know what she’s talking about?—tomorrow morning around 9.  Says she’s scared.” 

“She ought to be.”

Anterus had called his cabbie, who was waiting as he walked out of the Icehouse. 

“If you’re going to be driving me on a regular basis, I ought to know your name.

“Billy.”

“Billy what?  You’re from around here so it’s Olson?  Anderson?  Erickson?”

“Does it matter?  Names don’t matter, except to the government, and after the army, I don’t f—- with the government.”

“How do you manage that.  It’s a trick I could probably use.”

“I don’t bother them, and they don’t bother me—and if they did, they’d have to look awful hard for my deercamp.  Anyway, it’s Erickson.”

Smith sized him up—short and on the swarthy side with curly dark hair.”

“You look more like a Nicolet or Saint-Pierre.”

“My mom was Ojibwa with a little French—you know those Jesuits.  Dad was half Greek.  I’m an all-American mutt.”

“I’m Smith.”

“Sure, Smith.  That’s even more original than Erickson.

“Anterus Smith.”

“OK, Anterus, or do you have to be Mr. Smith or maybe Professor Smith?”

“Anterus will do.” 

When Billy dropped him off at his house, he got out his keys, but when he got to the door, he found it was cracked open.  When he entered, he saw that his house had been pretty thoroughly ransacked, this time with no attempt made to conceal the job.  It looked as if they had loaded everything in the bedroom and study into a mortar and shot it at the living room.

They had gone down into the basement furnace room but had not dug under the layer of old coal in the unused coal cellar or found the blackened iron box, sunk beneath the pavement, where he kept his notebooks and old documents.  

Smith owned so few belongings, it only took a half hour or so to put the rooms back into some kind of order, where he could find things he needed.  At least they had not drunk his whiskey, he thought, as he poured out three fingers into a juice glass.  He called Shawn Borowski and told him of the break-in, leaving out any reference to the iron box and the documents.  Shawn was nervous and on the verge of breaking down.  Anterus kept his voice calm and slow.

“I told you things were getting serious, and they are.”

“Anything I can do?  I mean what’s next?  They could come to my place and do something to Ashley.”

“I don’t think they’re after you, kid.  I do expect they’re getting tired of fooling around with me.  There are more direct methods for getting what they want.”

“Try to be careful, man.”

“I don’t have to try.  Caution is my nature.”

It had been a long day with few results.  His briefly shining reputation was already tarnished.  Shawn was ready to turn tail, Joey thought he was a chump, and the confidence that Ross and Caterina had initially placed in his abilities was rapidly fading.  On the plus side, they had caught the Rosses’ burglar, and he had not only figured out the trick with the insulin but managed to wake up from the Sleepdown in time to hear the message they were trying to implant in him.  But whom did they want him to kill, and who were the they?  Freeman and Asbury?  Why?  Was it just an experiment to find out what they could induce, or was it part of an overall plan to take over Veritas? 

Smith had trouble falling asleep but he refused to take any of the pills he kept for emergencies.  Better to be tired the next day than to have a clouded mind.  He tried reciting poetry, but it failed to distract his brooding.  He went through the American presidents, kings of England, and the Roman emperors down to Constans II, but the effort of recollection only kept his mind alert.  He looked for a place to hide, but everywhere he went, he’d turn a corner and run into Orestes, the man who had killed his own mother and been pursued by demons.  

When he finally fell into a black hole of sleep, he seemed to see vague shapes everywhere, darting in and out of invisible holes. 

They were Furies, he realized, that brought to mind the people he had failed.  He could feel himself reaching out to Jane, but, when he went to hold her, she turned and walked, fading away as in a darkening twilight, with Farley Anderson.  The air grew blacker and thicker, and the swelling numbers of demonic faces were swirling in accreting masses that began to coalesce in a glowing red mass of evil that took the shape of a face with glowing eyes that stared into his soul.  The face did not move its lips but in his mind Anterus could hear the words pouring in, but they were not words, only images of him doing what the face commanded.  The message, when it did form itself into thoughts was starkly clear:  

“You must get up to defend yourself.  They are plotting to take your soul before they kill you.  If you wish to save your soul, they must all die.  They murdered Jane, and they almost stole your soul.  This time they will succeed if you do not act.  Get up.  They must die, first Caterina, then Erik, and then Ross.  Go, kill Caterina.  Kill Ross.  Kill Eric.  Kill Caterina.  Kill Ross.”

Though he knew it was only a dream, he felt horror as he watched himself getting up like an automaton and getting dressed, checking for addresses in the Veritas directory on the table.  He found one that he was looking for, wrote it down, and without putting on a jacket went out the door.  It was the worst kind of nightmare, where he was powerless to get away.  He wanted to scream out, like teenagers in the movie theater, “Don’t go out that door!  Don’t walk down that street,” but though he moved his mouth, no sound came out.  He was walking through the night for what seemed a very long time, and, when he got to a duplex, he stared at the building and checked the number he had written down.  He saw himself standing at the door of Caterina’s apartment, with the gun in his right hand and ringing the doorbell with his left.  A thick fog billowed around him as he waited, and, when the door opened, it was still latched for security on the chain. He put his gun hand into the pocket of his jacket.

“Anterus, is that you?  What are you doing here?  It’s nearly three AM.  I was reading.  I couldn’t sleep, come in.”

He saw himself following her into her apartment.  He knew it was a dream, but he knew he could never harm her and would do anything to keep her from harm, even if it meant never seeing her again. 

The fog lifted and his eyes were open, but he was still there, fully awake.

“I had a terrible dream in which you were in trouble and needed help.”

“You came to give me help in the middle of the night?  What kind of help—the kind that men usually offer girls who live alone?”  The look on her face was hard and knowing but also very sad, as if she had learned something she did not wish to know.”

“No, I’m sorry.  I know I shouldn’t have come, but I get visions in dreams, intuitions, and they often turn out to be significant. I was wrong.  I shouldn’t have come here, and you shouldn’t have let me in.  I’ll go immediately.”

He turned, but she put her hand on the his right hand. 

“No, stay for a little while.  You’re soaking wet.  Didn’t your mother tell you to wear a raincoat and carry an umbrella.  How in the world do boys survive long enough to become men?”

She turned away, saying, “I’ll bring you some towels,” and, when she returned with the towels, she looked at him with sympathy.  “You are a mess.  We probably should talk.  Have you heard anything about Mac Ross?  Has he taken a turn for the worse?  Do they know any more about the burglar?”

“No, nothing of that sort.  Caterina, I shouldn’t be here, but I seem to have come here in a dream.  I am very worried that these games are ensnaring the players—it’s almost like voodoo.  I know you and the others are beginning to develop attitudes you did not come by naturally, and the same thing is happening to me.  The difference is that, I am highly sensitive to dreams and even apparitions.  I am therefore aware of any  alien intrusions into my thoughts.  They don’t know this.  At least, I don’t think they do.  So while they are spying on my thoughts and planting their suggestions, I can observe what they’re doing.”

“What do you think’s going on?”

“I’m not sure, though I have some ideas.  All I really know is that their plans are deeper and far dirtier than the take-over of the Institute.  The attempt on Ross may not even have been altogether serious.”

“What was it then?”

“Perhaps a warning shot across the bow.  I only wish I knew.”

“Are the police mixed up in it?”

“Some are, but they are probably just pawns, who only know that there is money involved.”

“What else is there—the VSET project?”

“Exactly.”

“But Anterus, you suspect them of using drugs and even implanting some sort of device.  That’s technology, not voodoo.  They don’t need us for that.”

“No, you’re right, but what if the technology just serves to enhance or speed up the process?  What if Ross’s technique is, in itself, dangerous enough to be useful to them.”

“There we go again with “them."  If this business is really serious, you need some sleep.  Remember, you’ve got to see Sottili tomorrow, and you’re scheduled for another game.  Don’t you think you’d better cancel it?  You can’t afford to take too many risks.”

“But I can’t afford not to.  They are certainly dangerous, but I am beginning to think that they are as afraid of me, as I am of them.”

“Speaking of what you can afford, I’ve been wondering how you have managed to survive without working.”

“I’ve told you.  I’m a collector, and in my travels I’ve picked up some valuable things I sell from time to time.

“So I’ve heard.”

“Heard what and from whom?”

“Some Treasury agents stopped by and asked me some questions about you.  They seemed to imply that you were not only not paying taxes but had illegally obtained some pieces of ancient art from Greece and Italy.”

“Did they show you their ID’s?  What were their names.”

“They had some kind of government ID’s.  I didn’t actually catch their names.”

“If they were legitimate, they’d have made sure you got their names.”

“Are you claiming they don't actually work for the  government?”

“Oh, they’re government agents, all right, but they’re not T-men.”

“What are T-men—oh, I see.  Like in the old movies.  Then what are they?”

“They probably work for an intelligence agency that has been looking for me.  It’s also the agency that is more than likely seeking to acquire VSET.  They don’t really know who I am at this point.   Neither do I, for that matter.  At least I don’t think they know, but they’re checking up on anyone who might foul up their plans.  You’re the second person I know they’ve contacted with this phony story.” 

“I’m sorry I seemed to distrust you.”

“Seemed….?

“OK, I did distrust you.  You’re very proper, perhaps too proper, but you’re still a man.”

He looked at her face that needed sleep, her disheveled hair, and found her more beautiful than ever.

“All too true, just a man, who had better say good night.”

Once again, she put her hand on his arm to discourage him from leaving and moved closer, tilting her face upward to be kissed.  He kissed her lightly on the lips, and, when she kissed him back, it was with an intensity that took him by surprise.  After a few seconds, she jumped back and slapped him across the face.

"You're a pig.  I should have known better than to trust you.  I should call the police."

She turned away sobbing.  Before he could try to reassure her, she burst out again.

"I'm so sorry. I am so sorry.   Just go away."

The whole thing was as confusing as one of his dreams.  As he walked out, he realized he had no idea of where he was or how he had got there.  He found a street sign and called Billy.

“Jesus, Anterus.  That must be you.  Do you know what time it is?”

“Sorry, Billy.   I’m on highway 20 and East 21st--it's near a Lutheran church.  Just tell me how to get home, and I’ll walk home.”

“The hell you will.  Been out tomcatting?”

“No, sleep-walking.  Why is everyone here so obsessed with sex?”

“Look, man, you’re maybe three miles from your house.  I’m not far.  Don’t go anywhere.  Be there in ten.”

Anterus found an old pack of Luckies in his jacket.  He lit one and stared blankly at the red glow of his cigarette blinking into the darkness.   As he finished the cigarette, it seemed to grow into the fiery red face, but it was only the lights of the taxicab.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    The Manchurian Anterus – we are pulling for you, you can get through this. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

    Stay strong, Smith!

  2. Allen Wilson says:

    This is almost like a combination film noir and spy story. Great stuff!

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    So which is it? Walmart or Walgreens?