Born Out of Due Time, by Ched P. Rayson, Chapter Ten
En parlant du ciel bleu, on dira qu’elle est morte.
Le convoie qui l’escorte ne l’entendait qu’un peu.
Robert de Montesquiou
It was only first light when Anterus was awakened from a dead sleep by the the doorbell. 6:35. It was Caterina. Her face was drawn, but even well-scrubbed without a drop of makeup, it was a strong and beautiful face that hinted at what historians of ancient art called “the severe style.” She might have been a Greek virgin taking part in a procession to the temple of Athena or Persephone. The expression on her face, however, would have better fit Demeter.
“Mr. Smith, something terrible has happened. Dr. Ross was taken to the hospital last night—diabetic shock.”
She was barely maintaining control, and Anterus, though he knew he should try to comfort her if only in words, realized this was no time to crack any ice. They were back to square one. He waited for more.
“I would have called,” she explained with more than a hint of irritation, “but apparently you don’t have a telephone.”
Anterus wanted details, and Caterina told him all she knew. Ross and his wife Penelope had gone out to dinner with Justin Wright. They’d had something of a high old time—Justin had uncharacteristically wanted to make the evening a celebration, and they had drunk a lot of champagne and finished off with pastries and then glasses of Port. Mrs. Ross said Ross was in a strange mood, almost desperate to have a good time. She had tried to slow him down, but he told her he would test his blood sugar and take extra insulin before going to bed. When he got home, he tested and found he was high—about 170—and took a higher than usual dose of the fast acting insulin—Novolog. Ross started acting funny about fifteen minutes later, and, when he took his reading, his blood sugar had shot up. It was then Penny administered a second dose of Novolog. Ross went into a coma and Penny called the emergency room. They said he had gone into hypoglycemic shock, which seemed impossible.
“I should have known.”
“Known what? These things happen to diabetics. I know you’re some kind of polymath, but you’re not a doctor.”
“Nor much of an investigator, either. Where is he now?”
“He’s still in the hospital, doing fine apparently, but the doctors said he had a narrow escape. We can go see him now, if you like. I know he wants to speak with you.”
“How come they called you and not Shawn?”
“Shawn didn’t answer his phone.“
“That’s hard to believe—he is constantly checking it.”
“Except when he and his wife are watching TV. It’s like they have gone to another world. Mrs. Ross didn’t want to contact Wright—she doesn’t know Justin very well, and what she knows does know does not inspire confidence. I’m the staff member they usually turn to for help. I look after her plants when they are away, and we occasionally go out to lunch.”
“Is she home now?”
“Can we see her first?”
“Surely, but what for?”
Anterus explained that he wanted to check out an idea. Caterina telephoned to make sure Mrs. Ross had not returned to the hospital. Meanwhile, Anterus dressed in a few minutes. Caterina arched an eyebrow, as if to say, “You put on a suit?”
They arrived, some ten minutes later, at a two-story brick house—vaguely Georgian—on a hill overlooking the lake. Despite the cold climate, the Rosses had done their best to create an English garden that looked downhearted under the drab and sullen September sky and the fog blowing in from the lake. Penelope Ross was waiting for them at the door. Like the house and furniture, Mrs. Ross seemed out of place in Nadir. In her sixties, she had what was left of a regal beauty, set off by a simple dress and curling grey hair, Anterus thought of a great wine a bit past its time but still worth drinking as the ghost of better days.
“Come in, come in, Katie. And this is Mr. Smith about whom I’ve been hearing such nice things?”
Anterus doubted the appropriateness of the adjective. They were shown into a pleasant morning room with what looked like 18th century English furniture. It looked authentic enough, but he was no judge of English furniture. Anterus wondered why it seemed warm and sunny and realized it was the effect of multi-colored grow lights discretely encouraging the plantings of herbs and flowers in the window ledges. They declined the offered coffee, and Anterus asked for the precise details—times especially—of the incident. Mrs. Ross confirmed that her husband had eaten and drunk a bit more than was good for him, but, she explained, he did this perhaps once a month and had never suffered ill effects. He was quite careful with this diabetes regimen, normally, and when he misbehaved, he monitored the situation carefully.
“I’ve told him repeatedly this is no way to manage his condition, but you know Ross—well, perhaps you don’t yet, Mr. Smith, but when you get to know him better you’ll discover that he is only an absent-minded don on the surface. Underneath, he is as stubborn as a fanatical Calvinist who knows he is one of the elect.”
“Mrs. Ross, apart from going into shock, was there anything strange about your husband?”
“Not really, though I did notice that he did seem more like he was suffering from low blood sugar. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference, but he seemed to be irrational and on the edge of hysteria. But he’d been in a strange mood all night, as if he was on the verge of a crisis. He rarely looked directly at Justin and kept me between the two of them. Do you know anything that might have upset him?”
Had he been moving too quickly, he wondered, and had Justin or whoever it was accelerated the pace? What a fool he had been to encourage Ross to keep the date with Justin. Without responding to her question, Anterus asked to see the bottle of of Novolog she had used and his blood sugar monitor.
“I can get you the Novolog bottle and there are several used needles in the special trash basket we keep for needles and test strips. When she brought them in, Anterus sniffed the needles and examined them. He touched several needles to his finger and tasted it.
“Insulin usually smells of carbolic acid—phenol, they call it now. This smells like the real thing.”
With a doubtful look on his face, he took the blood monitoring kit, pricked his finger, and waited for the reading. “It says my blood sugar level is 400. I am never over 110.”
“Good Lord. It must be a defective monitor. Should we call the company…?”
“Maybe, but first let’s think. The bottle is half empty. I take it it wasn’t opened for the first time last night? No? And your husband had no adverse reaction to previous doses? No? From what I understand, the amount of Novolog he took should not have sent him into a coma. What I am suspecting is that the insulin in this bottle is either U-500 or something like it. In other words, it is five times the strength of what he normally takes. This might have been an accident, except for the fact that he had no previous trouble with the same bottle of Novolog.”
“How do you know so much about insulin? Are you also diabetic?”
“I? No, but I used to have a good friend. She was very brittle, and I had to watch her carefully. She gave me a crash course on insulin. ” He was telling the truth, though he could not recall who the diabetic friend was, and he did not bother to explain that his experience with a diabetic predated the introduction of the glucometer, and that he had only recently looked up information on diabetics as part of his effort to restore his memory.
“Shouldn’t we call the police?”
“Yes, probably. Before you do, I want you to consider one obvious fact. Someone has apparently tried to kill your husband. He—or they—failed. They are pretty clever. Instead of poisoning him, they simply used his own medical condition as a poison. If they could get access to his blood monitor and Novolog, they also counted on being able to come in and switch bottles and monitor. They did not think anyone would suspect what happened, but they will be back to remove the evidence.”
“Then what should we do?”
“I won’t presume to advise you what to do, only to consider this. They may be planning to try again, and, depending on how eager they are to get rid of your husband, they will let nothing get in their way. If we are going to find out who they are, it is better if they don’t know what we have discovered.”
“Then we call in the police?”
“You and your husband have lived here a long time, and as college president he was a kind of pillar of this community, prominent in the arts, well regarded. Do you know anyone working with the police or the district attorney?”
“Yes, of course, we know the police chief, Johnny San Paola, and the District Attorney.”
“Which one of them is more discrete?”
“The District Attorney, Vincent Sottili. So far as we know, he has no political ambitions and wants to retire to private practice. The chief is up for reelection and might just want to gain some publicity, which we definitely do not want. But, if we really need discretion, perhaps this is something you could look into? My husband told me you were some kind of investigator.”
“Mrs. Ross, this is not the sort of job you’d want to intrust to a private detective, much less to someone who jokingly calls himself a paramoral investigator.”
“Oh, please call me Penny. I know it’s a silly-sounding name. My parents, who loved the Odyssey, thought Penelope was the model of a resourceful lady, though I’m not feeling very resourceful this evening. Tell me what I should do.”
“What I recommend is that you ask for a meeting with the DA, as soon as possible. Ask him to send out someone to pick up all the insulin bottles and the blood monitor. They’ll want to have them tested. I don’t think you have to worry about fingerprints—ours are all over these bottles, and, besides, they are sure to have worn gloves. Until he returns home, I don’t think you should inform your husband about what we suspect, but make sure the District Attorney stations an officer to watch his room. We simply don’t know who these people are or what they might do. But we don’t want to give Dr. Ross one more thing to worry about. One more question before you call the DA: Where was the Novolog bottle while you were having dinner?”
“We keep an emergency kit in the car, but his regular supply is kept in the nightstand next to our bed.”
“Well now we understand.”
“Understand what, Mr. Smith?”
“Understand the break-in the other night. They were testing their access and making sure of the location of the insulin—to insure a quick in-and-out last night. They’ll be back, probably this evening. To make sure they don’t come in while you are downtown, Katie can stay here, with her car parked conspicuously in the driveway.
“As you are leaving, be sure to give her instructions about answering the telephone—just in case anyone is watching the house. Because the neighborhood is isolated and rather private, it would be difficult to keep the house under surveillance without our finding out. When you return, close all the blinds and drapes in the house. Take your time about it so that no one would notice. I’ll be back when it gets dark, so be on the lookout for me.”
“I will. Do you expect trouble?”
“Frankly, I do. That’s why I want you to ask the DA to have another man on duty here tonight. Be sure to get his number. Memorize it and have it on paper with you all night.”
Smith called a taxi and walked outside to wait for him. Caterina walked out after him. He was slightly puzzled.
“Are you leaving so soon?”
“In fact, no, but I don’t know why you’re asking. You seem to have taken charge of everything. I thought you were different. But you’re just a man after all. Next you’ll be telling me how to wear my hair.”
“Your hair is lovely…”
“Right, now comes the usual bullsh-t. You’re no better than Shawn—or Dyson.”
“What did Dyson do?”
“Nothing overt, if that’s what you’re thinking, but women know when men are hitting on them. Sometimes, working here, it’s like being in a harem or a Bosnian rape camp.”
“Caterina, something’s happened. Is it Dyson, or did you have another ugly game session.”
“All right, it’s irrelevant, but what game did you play?”
“It was something based on a Mozart libretto about a Christian woman bought by a Turk. In the game scenario, she gets rescued by a Byronic hero, who immediately tries to seduce her.”
“And the Sleepdown?”
“Things got a lot more graphic. I kept on hearing myself say, ‘Relax and enjoy it.’ That only made it worse.”
“Listen Caterina. I think you should take a vacation from the games.”
“You think, you want. Who gave you the right to give me orders?” She rubbed the back of her head, as if she had an old tick bite
“I’m not giving you orders, but I am suggesting that these people are working on you to turn you into something you’re not. If you’ll listen to a friend’s advice..”
“Friend? I just met you the other day…”
“Yes, friend. Every time you start to have these alien thought, remember they have been implanted by a process stronger than hypnosis. Then think about your father, Doctor Ross, and all the decent men you have known.”
She seemed ready to cry but stared at him, holding her breath, as if she were paralyzed. Finally, she exhaled.
“I'm sorry, Anterus. Part of me knows you’re right, but something inside also is telling me not to listen, to hate you, even hate Doctor Mac.” Again, she touched the back of her head.
“Is there something wrong. Did you bump your head on something.”
“No,” she flared up again, “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. You’re trying to convince me I’m crazy and I’m not.”
“No, I don’t think you’re crazy, but it’s just possible they injected or implanted something. May I look?”
“Maybe, but keep your hands to yourself. I can’t stand to be touched.”
She parted her hair and he saw nothing at first, but he took out a pair of reading glasses and held it close to her scalp and saw a slight redness.”
“Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it’s a bug bite, but it’s something to check up on. I’ll do a little checking and find a doctor who can settle this. If I make an appointment, will you go?”
“It’s ridiculous but if it will make my self-appointed protector happy--and get him off my back, I’ll do it. Then perhaps you’ll quit bugging me—pun intended.” For a split second, she gave him one of her half-smiles and went back into the house.
The taxi picked him up and dropped him off at a greasy spoon not far from Veritas. After a poached egg and toast with two cups of weak coffee with a rancid oil floating on the surface, he walked to the office. Walking down the hall, he saw Dyson coming from the direction of Wright’s office. It probably meant nothing, but he remembered that he wanted to find out something about Eric Dyson. He was about to plunge into his search, when he found a note from Shawn on his desk, informing him about the infestation of ants that had spread to Smith’s office. He thought for a moment and called Shawn and thanked him for the warning. He asked if he had found termites along with the ants.
“No termites anywhere near your computer.” Shawn chuckled. It was clearly a mistake to have trusted to his discretion.
“Try to have my room pest-free before tomorrow morning. It could get inconvenient. I am running short on time for lunch and would like to keep a little food in here. There are some other things we should talk about. I know you don’t agree with me, but I am beginning to suspect some chicanery on the part of Freeman, perhaps in collusion with Dyson. This could end up causing real trouble.”
Shawn started to say something but thought better of it. After a pause, he said only,
“I think you must be wrong, but, yeah. Let’s talk about it.”
“I’m tied up for a little bit, but I am going to walk out for a smoke about 9:30. Why don’t you join me.”
“You can die from smoking cigarettes, you know.”
“You can also die from giving unsolicited advice to the wrong person. Tobacco gives me a buzz, you know, a sense of joy.”
“Oh, right. It’s your funeral. See you. 9:30.”
With that little bit of chicanery out of the way, Smith decided to concentrate on Dyson. He started by simply Googling his name plus “telephone.” He got a deluge of telephone numbers. He then added a series of states: California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah. After a few pages, he got references to a Michael Eric Dyson, a black author who seemed to specialize in sending messages to white America. He then tried to find buyouts of local digital telephone companies in the West—most of which had taken place too many years before. On a whim, he tried Anterus Smith and found one reference to a college football player. Good. He searched for an address for Dyson in Nadir. Nothing. He went to Shawn’s office and asked him for Dyson’s address and telephone number. While Shawn was printing out the information, he scribbled out ‘Resume?’
Back in his office, with the information, he discovered the mobile number Shawn had given him belonged indeed to one Eric Dyson, while the address was an apartment building not far from the lake front. Wright also lived in an apartment on the lake. Were they in the same building, and was that significant? The other information—B.S. in mathematics from Northwestern University, an ECS (computer science) from MIT, six years in the army, senior executive with Idaho Mobile Telephone bought up by ConCom—all checked out, but he could not get past the bare facts.
He decided to try calling ConCom. He reached the switchboard and claimed to be an insurance adjustor trying to get in touch with Eric Dyson to arrange a payout. He was put through to a smooth-voiced man in authority. “This is Mr. Franklin. And who am I speaking with?”
“Ornstein, Nathan Ornstein. Call me Nate. I’m with Southwest Nebraska Casualty. I’m trying to locate Eric Dyson whose company was bought up by ConCom. Do you have him in your records.”
“Mr. Ornstein? Let me see. I’ll see if I can pull it up. It should only take a minute.” Seconds turned into minutes, and the voice came back:
“Oh yes, he was vice president in charge of engineering for IMT. The last address we have for him is in a place called Nadir. Just hold the line for a minute, and I’ll give it to you.”
Smith listened carefully for any sound that might indicate his call was being traced or recorded. For reasons of personal security, he did not possess a mobile phone; in fact, he had never used one. Instead, he was using a landline through a switchboard, which meant he could not try any of the usual tricks he had read about for finding out if a line was bugged. Of course, if Dyson was working for the government, he could have fixed up a bogus reference in advance, which meant that Anterus could have been nailed already.
“Hello, Mr. Ornstein. Could you please verify your number and your position with—what company did you say?” He hung up the phone. The small office seemed to be shrinking, and the ugly florescent light seemed to swell into a brilliance on the verge of exploding. It was too soon to panic. He had no reason not to trust Dyson, and the rigmarole from ConCom could all be perfectly explicable routine. Still, he had to be careful. It was just possible that they were checking up on him.
The game session was scheduled for 10:00, and he had just enough time to go outside to smoke a small cigar. As he was lighting up, Shawn came out the door and the walked a block or so down the street.
“Weren’t you taking a big chance, talking about Freeman that way?”
“That’s the point. I want to smoke him out. They’ve already made the first move.”
“What, you mean Ross’s diabetic episode?”
“Maybe, who knows? There is a lot going on. So, you have the joybuzzer?”
Shawn showed him what looked like a thin and elongated cigarette lighter and explained,
“Put it in your back pocket, behind your wallet, so it fits tight against your butt.”
“How do I set it.”
“I made it so simple even you can use it. The Sleepdown sessions last about 30 minutes. They count on the subjects falling asleep between minute eight and minute 12. They probably figure on wake-up at about minute 25 to 30, so, when you activate it by moving this switch, it will wake you up with a bang at about minute 18. If you’re right about what they’re doing, you’ll only have a split second or two, before the sound cuts off. Understand?”
Smith nodded very slowly once.
“You know you’re running a pretty big risk. If they are on to you—and you’ve figured out what they’re doing—they could take the opportunity to mess up your mind.”
“Maybe, but, frankly, I think they’d regard such a move as premature.
“Yeah, we’ll see. Your biggest problem, Smith, is that you think you’re so much smarter than everyone else—and maybe you are—that you underrate your adversaries. Freeman’s nothing short of brilliant, and I’m beginning to think Dyson is a lot deeper than I gave him credit for. You’d better watch yourself. See you in the lab in a few minutes. Good luck.”
As they started walking back to the Veritas building, Smith asked:
“What’s the game today?”
“Orestes. Doc Freeman picked it out himself.”
“Orestes making up his mind to kill his mother?”
“No, we’re still working on that one, and I think you’ll be taking it over. No, this one was originally Dr. Ross’s idea, but Freeman has recently been tinkering with it. I didn’t know it was ready.”
“So what’s the premise? Whether or not to kill his sweet aunt Helen? Or his meeting with sister Iphigenia among the Taurians?”
“Neither. This one’s a sort of weird story I don’t really understand. Orestes is on the run, after killing his mother. He’s being chased by the Furies across Arcadia—that’s a mountainous part of the Peloponnese.”
“I’ve been to Arcadia. Et ego in Arcadia….”
“Fine, well, the Furies have caught up with him, finally, and succeeded in driving him so crazy he cannot even see or recognize reality. In a last desperate move, he cuts off a finger and offers it to them. Up till now, they have been black, but now at least some of them turn white and help him. He recovers his sight and his senses, and makes one offering to propitiate the black goddesses and another to thank the white ones for their help. Doc Mac says that one interpretation of the story is that the Furies who turn white are really the Graces, who bring joy to our lives.”
“Are you sure you’re describing this correctly? Where does it come from or did they make it up?”
“I don’t know, but we never just make up a story.”
“What does Ross say about it?”
“The last I heard, he said he was having trouble boiling down the story—those are his words, ‘boiling down’—to get to the essence…”
“Orestes is always running away from himself, and he is finally driven so crazy he cannot see himself or the world he is in. So restoring sanity to someone escaping from reality—that is the main object.”
“And Freeman, does he say anything?”
“Yeah, what interests him is the sacrifice: To become sane again, Orestes has to sacrifice something of himself—his finger—and he has to acknowledge that the demons pursuing them have a real case against him. When he does that, his vision is restored, and he knows he has to show the Black Furies that he’s sorry for what he did, when he killed his mom, and he has to show some gratitude to the White Furies, who have become the graces who teach him art and literature, at least for him.”
“It’s pretty murky, but I suppose I see the point.”
“Glad somebody does. I have got a kind of script I’m not supposed to tell anyone about.”
Since Shawn would be taking a part, Frank Asbury was going to oversee the test.
“Doctor Freeman will be in the monitoring room, following the experiment.”
Smith was too preoccupied to concentrate his mind on the test, which left him wide open and blind on all sides.
When he enters into Arcadia, he is accompanied by his faithful friend Pylades. Orestes has been running from some time, and the revenge-fiends are hunting him down for the murder of his mother. It doesn’t matter that she and her lover murdered his father the king, Agamemnon, and ruled the kingdom as tyrants. Pylades tells him he has to be purified, but Orestes reminds him he has gone around the world slaughtering pigs and offering their blood to his mother’s ghost. Revenge really is sweet—to the dead. Some day, Pylades assures him, they will make it to Delphi, where the god Apollo will help him.
It is rough walking in the mountains, and, out of breath, they stop to rest in a clearing, where they are surrounded by the black-robed Furies. Orestes finds himself going mad, unable to distinguish the swirling mass of impressions into which the world has dissolved itself. He feels his very self, his soul, being rent in a thousand pieces flying in different directions, and in his last echo of lucidity he hears a voice telling him to cut off his finger or, if he has to, cut his own throat or suck a bullet. His mind goes black, and when he comes to, the Furies have retreated a few feet. Some remain black and have threatening looks on their faces, but others have turned white and quite beautiful. He vows a sacrifice to the Black Furies, who slowly fade away, and begins to sing a song to the White Furies who dance gracefully around him.
Smith found himself being stripped of the testing gear. Asbury asked him if he had any conclusions.
“I’m a little confused. I feel like I’ve been dancing in a ballet, rather than experiencing an ethical crisis.”
“Yes, sorry. We haven’t really fine-tuned it. That’s the main reason we’re starting with you.”
“We are emailing you an informal questionnaire we hope you will fill out and help us improve the narrative.”
Asbury sounded perfectly sincere, but he was a minister, and faking sincerity was his professional duty. Still, the set-up was unconvincing. Smith was a novice at VSET. Anyone else could provide a more useful critique. What were they getting at?
They prepared him for the Sleepdown, but Smith, while pretending to drink the tasteless colorless Koolaid, turned aside to take off his necktie and managed to pour most of it down the inside of his undershirt. Asbury didn’t seem to notice.
He lay down on the cot, and, as soon as Russell left the cubicle, he pressed the start button on the Joybuzzer. With only half a night’s sleep, he had no trouble nodding off.
At first he dreamed he was back in a house he felt somehow was home, though the details did not at first seem familiar. He was sleeping in an attic room, but he got up and went through a door into a long storage room filled with boxes and trunks. He opened a trunk in which he found a Coast Guard uniform. It was his father’s. He closed the trunk and went to a chest and pulled out a drawer. There was a .45 automatic with a clip full of ammunition. He popped in the clip and stuffed the gun into his pajama bottoms.
Still in his pajamas, he was back in Italy, not in Florence but in Ravenna, where Dante, after many wanderings, had found refuge. The poet greeted him, not as a long-lost friend but as a companion. He was, if anything, more bitter than he had been in the first days of his exile. He was particularly disgusted with the Emperor, who had failed to restore order to Italy or punish Florence.
They were walking in a garden near the church of San Giovanni Evangelista. The poet, who was not resigned to his exile, was brooding on revenge. Nonetheless, he seemed more concerned for Andrea’s troubles than for his own.
“Andrea, you are a wanderer by choice—though what you get out of it, I shall never know—but I have been forced into this life, a Ulysses without deceit or treachery.”
“Yes, but you are finishing the Commedia.”
“I live for nothing else these days. I have nothing else. But Andrea, you should think of returning to your own place, while there is still time. Are you in trouble with the King?”
“Young Edward? No, but the Despensers are riding roughshod over the country, and unluckily, I know too much about them to be safe. The King is a fool and infatuated with young Despenser.”
“You do not care for the Sodomites, then? We have them here too—my teacher Brunetto. They are Epicureans, who despise the Church.”
“I do not care for them, no. And that entire Despenser family is accursed, and will bring nothing but grief to England. God help the English if one of them ever sits on the throne.”
“Andrea, none of that is your doing, and, surely, with a few intermediaries—I could ask Cangrande to intercede for you. You could go to Verona. You’d be safe there. Why do you have that gun stuffed in your pajamas?”
Smith looked down, but there was no gun in his waistband.”
“You’re going to need it Andrea. You are in real trouble. You are being deceived by people you trust. The lord you are protecting is your enemy, and he will kill you if he can. You need a real friend, a doctor perhaps. Maybe you should be looking for your father. Why not tell me what you know? Tell me what you know. You have enemies everywhere. Tell me what you know.”
One of his many enemies had sneaked up behind him and stabbed him in the right buttock, though he hardly felt any pain.
Anterus sat bolt upright with his eyes open, and for a second he continued to hear the voice in his ears, “Tell me what you know.”
The Reverend Asbury burst in the room.
“Smith, what happened? According to the monitors, something woke you up in a fright. Anything wrong? Did you have a nightmare”
“No, absolutely nothing. Nothing to speak of, at any rate. I think it was leg cramp—a charley horse. I’m fine now. Have you got any magnesium solution I can spray on my leg? No, I don’t need it now, the kink is gone.”
He waited for Asbury to leave before checking on the joybuzzer. It was still there. Reassured he got up and prepared to leave.
Back in his office, Smith was still numb from the dreaming, but he remembered his father’s uniform. He decided to check out some dates. He was a little hazy on the chronology of Medieval England. Yes, Edward II would have been king, during the period when Dante was in Ravenna, and Cangrande della Sala was still ruling Verona, one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe. Funny that he should have dreamt something he did not really know, but there was nothing supernatural in knowing dates and facts he could look up on Wikipedia and find the usual misinformation. It wasn’t one of his visions—they were clear and bathed in an unearthly radiant light, while everything in Ravenna had been vague and gloomy. Nonetheless, some (certainly not all) of what Dante had said rang true, at least the historical details. So they either knew he had a gun or wanted him to have one, and they were planting the notion that he would have to protect himself from Ross.
While he was still at the computer, he checked out visiting hours at the hospital and buzzed Heather the receptionist to let her know he was leaving and would not return until later in the afternoon. He needed a ride and remembered there was a taxi stand downtown, in front of the World News. It was now a dilapidated Hallmark cards and gift shop that had once done a big business in newspapers and magazines, when such things still existed in Middle America. The Nadir Evening Bulletin now came out only twice a week, and it was more a shopper than a newspaper. He went into the store, where he also recalled there was still an ancient pay telephone he sometimes used. He’d be needing money soon, and he called Bonny and arranged to meet him at the Icehole after 8 o’clock.
He walked out to the taxi stand. Most of the cabs were were empty, but in one he saw a young driver taking a catnap. He was a curly-haired kid with a flannel shirt and the usual grunge outfit. He looked exhausted.
“Not too bad. I was doing shots at the bar, trying to make time with a girl, but I got so wasted I didn’t notice when she left with another guy. I should have known better. I’m married. Maybe I got wasted to avoid making a big mistake.”
Smith directed the driver to his own house, where he told him to wait, while he went inside and found a book for Ross, the first volume of the Comte de Montesquiou’s memoirs. He had picked it up, he now recalled, a long time ago at one of those bouquinistes in Paris along the Seine. He also picked up his old leather borsa and took the cloth sack out from under the bed and put it into the bag. He asked the cabbie how much it would cost to have him on call when he needed him. The driver handed him a grimy card.
“Here’s my cell number. Just buzz me on your cellphone. With a heads-up, I can be anywhere in this burg in a few minutes. It’s not like I get a lotta business. How ‘bout if I charge you ten bucks an hour for hanging around waiting?”
Getting out of the taxi at the hospital, Smith told the cabbie to pick him up in less than thirty minutes. Instead of just walking up to the room, he checked in at the desk and asked the clerk to report him to the ward, where, he was sure, a policeman would be checking on visitors. Penny Ross had put him on the list of people to be admitted to the room.
He knocked and entered. Ross seemed relaxed, if a little dazed. He was happy to see Smith and put aside the laptop, on which he had been drawing up the agenda for the retreat, and seized upon the book. He said he knew little of Montesquiou and disliked what little he knew—“Friend of Proust wasn’t he? Complete degenerate”—but he seemed interested in reading anything that would take him away from his drudgery. He was eager for distraction, even though he was impatient to get back to the office during what was shaping up to be the biggest crisis he had faced since founding Veritas.
“Tell me, Mr. Smith. What is going on?”
“I wish I knew. I have some suspicions, but it would not be fair to the people involved, if I voiced them before finding out if there is any substance.”
“Have you learned anything you can tell me?” The tone was plaintive, on the verge of exasperation.
“I hadn’t planned to say much until you were out of this place. As I explained yesterday, I have discovered that someone has bugged many of the rooms at Veritas, not just your own office.”
“Do you know still think it was Justin?”
“I’m not sure, and at this point I’d rather not speculate. His office was also wired, and whether he did that himself, just to cover up, or some rival did it and gave Justin the information to set him up, I simply don’t know. It’s a break, though. Now we have gone beyond your anxieties and Shawn’s paranoia. Somebody is up to something. Did Wright say anything last night, something that might have given you a hint of what his intentions are?”
“We mostly talked about the retreat. He was not entirely happy that you were coming. He thinks, or says he thinks, that you are too inclined to believe some of Shawn’s paranoiac—that’s the word he used—Shawn’s paranoiac theories.”
“Did he bring up your retirement?”
“Not in so many words, but he did say that some board members were pressing for a succession strategy, and he obviously thinks he is the logical choice.”
“That much I can believe.”
“Only one thing disturbs me. Justin does not ordinarily drink more than a glass or two of white wine, but last night he seemed uncharacteristically festive, as if he were determined to show he could drink.”
“Or perhaps encourage you to drink too much.”
“By the end of the evening, we had both had had a bit too much, and he seemed in very high spirits about the future. He said things like—what was it?—yes, that while I might not believe it, he had ideas, too. Those were his very words. ‘I have ideas too.’”
“Perhaps Alcaeus was right, that wine is a peep-hole into the soul.”
“This is all very troubling. I’ve been through something like this before. As a college president, I had to deal with endless brushfire conspiracies from disgruntled faculty members, self-seeking board members, self-righteous alumni, and interfering parents. Sometimes even the students got involved.”
“What were the complaints?”
“Mostly childish notions. Students complained to their parents that our very relaxed dress code was too authoritarian; some alumni and board members wanted at least one successful sports team; and there were board members who wanted less emphasis on humane education and much more on job training. It was a never-ending struggle, not so much over principles as over petty vanities. You would be amazed at how seriously some successful people take themselves, especially on subjects they have never taken the trouble to study. A prominent surgeon or a wealthy industrialist will read a magazine article or see a television program on ancient Greece or the American Revolution and take the notion that not only do they actually know something, but they think the ideas they are parroting are really their own.”
“What did you do to counter the conspiracies?”
“From week to week, I simply survived by muddling through and mostly holding my tongue. Sometimes I unwisely pointed out that I did not pretend to tell them how to make widgets or cut out tumors, and I would take it as a kindness if they would extend the same courtesy to me and my staff. Not that the faculty were particularly loyal. College professors are an amazing breed. They fall into academic life because they don’t have anything better to do—by better I mean of course more lucrative—and then most of them spend their careers squabbling over small grants, choice office space, and reduced course loads. The smaller the turf, the more intense is the struggle. They’re a lot like squabbling hummingbirds—though without the charm.”
“Did you have some kind of long-range strategy?”
“I did, though I don’t believe it worked very well. I was convinced that if I could make board members and alumni understand that our business was to put the finishing touches on child-rearing, to shape and refine the barbarian clay of the athletes, fraternity boys, and cheerleaders who would some day have to become responsible parents and citizens, they would try to do the right thing. I used to say our job was to Christianize the pagans and civilize the Christians. This did not go over well with either group. Even then, I must have known how naive I was being. I suppose it is a petty case of “credo quia absurdum.”
“And so you left, why?”
“The issue was retaining a classics requirement for all humanities degrees, but, really, I had become tired and bored by the whole business. I wanted to do something positive to promote humane learning, and I finally learned that so-called institutions of higher education were the last place where that could be done. I left under my own steam, resigned before they realized how much they wanted to fire me, and I was more or less honored for several years after I left. They invited me to speak at events and give a few lectures, but, after accepting a few invitations, I realized in all honesty I could not stand the sight of any of them. Now it’s happening again, and I am too tired to fight, especially from a hospital bed.”
“Perhaps you should repeat yourself and quit before you have to. They’d probably have to arrange a comfortable retreat.”
“Perhaps, though I’m no longer sure. There are one or two board members who would love to see me as a Walmart greeter.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because it’s true. Sometimes, when I am thinking about other things, I am entirely too dismissive of their infatuations—tax plans to save the economy, citizenship education to turn Chinese immigrants into Jeffersonian Americans, all-Beethoven concerts at the orchestra, ultra-Catholic private schools to turn out kids who can say the rosary but end up living like everyone else. There’s nothing wrong with cutting taxes, educating immigrants, playing Beethoven, or saying the rosary, but none is a magic talisman.”
“I can’t disagree with you because I don’t know any of these people. I joined the Boy Scouts as a kid, and that was enough ‘joining’ for my one lifetime. I was supposed to earn merit badges for helping around the house, but none of the leaders had a drop of woodcraft. I learned everything I know about fishing, hunting, and surviving in the woods from my father and his friends.”
“My wife tells me you have been extraordinarily kind and helpful, but she refuses to say exactly how. She insists I should just rest and forget about everything. I suppose she’s right, but it is hard to sit here on the sidelines. I pushed the doctors, today, and they say they will let me check out perhaps tomorrow afternoon. I feel a bit worn thin, but apart from that I’m ready to return to work.”
“I’d still try to take it easy for a few days. I’ll do the best I can, looking around. I’d like to know a little bit more about your presence in this town.”
Ross looked puzzled.
“Local board members, donors, people of influence…”
“There’s not much to tell. We have a board member up in the Taconite Belt, a doctor. He’s a bit eccentric, but a good businessman who has developed a chain of clinics and medical labs. Dr. Yunis. Steven Yunis.”
“Isn’t that Arabic for Jonah?
“I don’t know. Steve is an Evangelical, but I believe his people were Maronite Christians from Syria. He’s pretty ecumenical, and he has some Muslim in-laws over in Michigan.”
“How did he get interested in Veritas?”
“He came down for some of our lecture programs. As I said, he’s ecumenical and believes more or less that what he calls the World’s Great Religions have shared the same revelation that each of them has to some extent distorted.”
“The district attorney, Vincent Sottili. He’s been very helpful locally. He’s brought in several local businessmen as donors—mostly Italians—and two of them are now on the board…Angelo Buscemi owns a supermarket chain and John Greco has a frozen pizza company over in Zenith.”
“What’s their interest in Veritas?”
“I think it’s mainly that they like the respect we have for Italian culture. It’s something they grew up being ashamed of and like to hear me talk about the age of the Medici.”
“I don’t know much, if anything, about organized crime, but some of the Italian names around here have a familiar ring. I’ve spent a little time in Sicily, and, despite my general curiosity, I’ve made a point of not knowing much about the organization that does not exist.”
“What I don’t understand, Mr. Smith, is how or why you came to be here in Nadir. You have lived in Europe for extended periods and seem to have picked up a good deal of French and Italian in addition to the classics. Why choose Nadir?”
“I didn’t so much choose Nadir as it chose me. The last time I came back to the States, I landed in New York. I stayed in the desert canyons of Manhattan for nearly a week before catching a plane for Los Angeles. I tried San Diego, Santa Barbara…They are all as wretched as New York.”
“At least the climate was better?”
“I don’t think much about the weather. I simply accept it.”
“What was so wrong with New York and California?”
“It was mostly the people that bothered me. The people, especially the most affluent and better educated, are the masses of dead souls that filled Dante’s Hell, except they are far less interesting. I sometimes wonder if they were ever alive, even as children.”
“You are referring to their immorality? Abortion, drugs, suicide, and their sex-and-gender antics?”
“Partly, but only partly. From what I see of the children in high school and college, they have hardly ever had a minute to themselves. They are always under the control of some high-minded institution teaching them soccer or advanced computer skills and, when they are not being bullied or tutored by adults, their souls are glued to the screens of laptops, iPads, and mobile telephones.”
“I suppose every age has its vices, Mr. Smith. I try not to be too censorious.”
“True enough, but men and women used to be free to sin on their own, falling in love and going off on mad adventures. These kids start their lives as automata and grow up to be zombies. What I find most alarming is their smug stupidity. They are the most obtuse people known to history, at least to the history I know, but they are convinced they have solved all the problems humanity has ever faced. They laugh at ignorant Fundamentalists, but if someone told them the world was flat, they would not know how to respond—apart from being shocked—anymore than they would know how to construct a syllogism or live in the woods for three days without relying on thousands of dollars worth of gear from Orvis.”
“To be fair, some of them begin to have a glimmer of what they have missed and want to improve themselves. They listen to lectures from “the great teachers” and take courses on fly fishing and wilderness survival.”
“Lectures and courses. You’ve made my point for me. They are entirely helpless, dependent on manufactured food, manufactured housing, manufactured opinions.”
“There have always been dependent people, Mr. Smith. Like the poor, they are always with us.”
“Yes, but in any decent place, there are also perceptive people, particularly in the ruling class. In America, it is the rich and powerful who understand the least. It is as if all their attempts to extend their human capabilities through machines and computers have resulted in shrinking the very qualities that make us most human. Florence in the 1300’s was filled with illiterates and noblemen as wild as cowboys, but nearly all of them were smarter, more human, more capable of living well than celebrity billionaires like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.
“Perhaps you are only acquainted with the Florentine elite, It’s hardly to fair to compare Dante with Bill Gates.”
“You may be right, but they are the American elite. I prefer Nadir. The people may be no better than they are in Washington or San Diego, but at least they are not convinced they are at the apex of human development. In their own crude and brutish way, most of them still take pleasure in going fishing with their children or eating Sunday dinner. As a friend of mine likes to say, ‘I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, poor is better.’”
“I suppose there is something in what you say. Nadir may not be as low as it seems. My wife and I have been here for over 20 years, and we are used to it. We have our own little world at home and a small group of friends.”
“How does that popular song go?
‘You can count your friends
On the fingers of your hand.
If you’re lucky,
You have two.’
“I haven’t listened to the radio for years. Is that something recent? It’s a wise observation. Perhaps I should pay more attention to popular songs.”
Smith made no response and began to get ready to leave.
“This is a difficult time for us, and I hope you’re not getting a bad impression of the staff. Ben Freeman says you remind him of a cynical gunfighter in a Western movie. You’ve seen too much to believe in anyone or anything. I hope that is not the case.”
“Perhaps he’s correct. I am not the best judge.”
"Tell me one thing. Do you think it’s possible that in your investigations you might have alarmed whoever it is that wants to take over Veritas. I’ve wracked my brain and wonder if perhaps they’re not right. I’ve been demanding and impractical. Do you think, perhaps, we ought to give up the investigation and move forward in good faith and see what happens?”
“You may be right. It’s up to you to decide.”
“Yes, I suppose it is, and right now I am too muddled to think seriously. Let’s move ahead, but more cautiously, Mr. Smith.” Lifting his arms to point at the monitors and the IV in his arm, he said ruefully, “I don’t know that I can take much more of this.”
As Smith walked out of the hospital room, he felt something like a man setting off on a long walk into a deepening twilight, knowing, as gloomy as it is, that he will not see the world any brighter until long after he has finished his walk. Up to this point, he had done virtually nothing but talk. Talk with Shawn and Corey, talk with Ross, talk with Dyson and Freeman, and talk with Caterina. Talk, even, with a bar-owner and a pizza-maker, and none of the talk had brought him one inch closer to a solution. Solution? He was not even sure what the problem was. This, he reflected bitterly, is what happens when problems are put into the hands of a man who reads too much. By the shape of things, as they were developing, he was only making matters worse.