Born Out of Due Time, by Ched P. Rayson, I: The Think Tank Murders, Chapter Thirteen

Herakles] stepped into the golden cup

of Helius, god of the sun and son of Hyperion

until after crossing the Ocean he arrived

to the depths of holy and dark night

to the god’s mother and spouse and their dear children.

but he the son of Zeus walked on foot

into the grove shadowed by by laurels…

Stesichorus, Geryoneis

Sunday AM

Anterus got to the cathedral in time for mass.  He caught a glimpse of Caterina in a pew near the front but decided not to disturb her.  He sat in the back and tried to follow the modern liturgy with its clumsy English, maudlin sentimentality, and bizarre ritual gestures—the Irish priest liked to wave his arms, swishing his flowing chasuble as if it were a magician’s cape.  

He shifted his attention away from the trifling annoyances and forced himself to concentrate on the Latin version of the Novus Ordo he had brought with him.  Who was he to condemn even the silliest of priests?  He had no vocation for anything, and he wondered if his own “experiments in time” were not a form of sorcery, though he was hardly a Simon Magus.  He did not do anything much for money.  He did make a few dollars here and there, but in his position, he could not take the risk of working a regular job.  He wondered what his friend Pico—the repentant magus—would say about his experiences.  Not regarding himself as worthy even to pray on his own, he recited an old prayer of St. Thomas

Creator ineffabilis, qui de thesauris sapientiae tuae tres Angelorum hierarchias designasti et eas super caelum empyreum miro ordine collocasti atque universi partes elegantissime distribuisti: Tu, inquam, qui verus fons luminis et sapientiae diceris ac supereminens principium, infundere digneris super intellectus mei tenebras tuae radium claritatis, duplices, in quibus natus sum, a me removens tenebras, peccatum scilicet et ignorantiam.

During the homily—the priest said a lot about the need for raising taxes and improving social services, punctuating every other sentence with “All right?  OK?”—he reread the gospel text.  It was the story of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18, which was followed by Jesus’ condemnation of divorce—not a subject most priests preferred to ignore.  Anterus was sure he had never been married, and, so it was beginning to seem, he probably never would be.  He recalled a song he had heard on the radio in his childhood, the Carter family singing 

This world is not my home, I'm just passing through

My treasures and my hopes are all beyond the blue

Where many many friends and kindred have gone on before

And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.

A Communist folksinger had turned it into political propaganda, 

O the police make it hard all around the cabin door

And I ain’t got ho home in this world anymore..

much as the Irish priest was doing with the Gospel.  Anterus concentrated on the remnants of the mass that had not been swept out with the rest of the trash of two wasted millennia.  By not thinking, he began to feel better until they got to the Pater Noster.  When the faithful held out their uplifted palms during the, he felt as if he were in the Hitchcock movie about a sun cult.   The very ancient prayer that followed—“Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days—first brought to mind the much-maligned Neville Chamberlain and then reminded him of what was missing.

He left before communion.  He could not recall how long it had been since he had been to confession—that depended on how one counted.  How could he make a good confession, if he could not remember everything he had done?   There was a question for the Jesuits:  Was an amnesiac still responsible for his sins?  He stood on the steps and waited for Caterina.  She looked very trim in a light wool pants suit of navy blue with a sweater vest and scarf.  It would take only a moment to go from dressed up for church to dressed down for a fete champetre.  Anterus seemed very quiet, and, as they walked toward her car, she teased slightly:

“Father O’Brien’s not much of a homilist.”

“Who is these days?  I really can’t blame priests his age or, rather, priests of this age.  All they learned, first in school and then in seminary, is how evil the Church had been for centuries and how lucky they were not to have to study Latin or traditional theology or church history or anything but the watered-down “ologies” taught by ignorant cynics.  Many of them seem to mean well, but they mean well the way I would mean well trying to be a good Japanese Buddhist monk.  I don’t know the language or much of anything about Buddhism.  It was a brilliant move.”

“What was?”

“Keeping everyone so ignorant they would swallow anything they were fed.”

As she started the car, Caterina asked, “Where are we going.”

“Out highway 31…  Don’t let me spoil the day for you.  I’ve never got used to these new-fangled things, and I don’t think I ever will.”

When Caterina pointed out that he had been born well over ten years after the closing of the Second Vatican Council, he shrugged his shoulders.  

“I live in the past, not my past but other people’s.”

“You might think about living in the present, at least every once in a while.”

Anterus directed her to drive toward the lake, turn right on US 20, and then go several miles till they picked up state route 31 that meandered south through neglected and abandoned dairy farms.  When they caught sight of the lake, encumbered though it was by decommissioned factories and train yards, the sight was still majestic.  The sky was the frozen blue the north woods have even in Summer. 

“You seem to know your way around.”

“To some extent I do.”  Anterus thought a moment and added, as if it were a novel thought,  “I lived here a while when I was a boy. That was a long time ago, and things have changed.”

“Here?  You must be joking.  My dad, who has visited several times, calls it “the town that time forgot.”

“You’re fond of your father, aren’t you?”

Caterina looked away and took some time to answer.

“Yes, I am, but recently I’ve been thinking back.  Maybe I was too fond of me—or he of me…?”

“Did you ever have reason to think anything like this until the past few weeks.”

“No,” she drawled it out, “But the press is full of stories of women who suppressed ugly things in their childhood until they underwent therapy.”

“How many of them have been verified?  Practically none.  It is much easier to implant false memories than it is to uncover something you have managed to suppress.  I only wish I could recover my entire past instead of just fragments.   Until we get the report from Dr. Hilding, we can’t be certain, but you have to do what you can to resist these feelings.  They have the power to influence you, but you can fight back.  You’re not Trilby, and they’re not a pack of Svengalis.  When you feel youself falling into the abyss, think about something decent your father did and say a 'Hail Mary.'  I know it sounds stupid, but the secret behind all forms of meditation is that it shuts down the conscious mind and allows something better to sneak in unannounced.”

They rode for a long while, saying nothing and staring into the face of the bright sun and the red and golden leaves on the trees that rolled past the windows.  Anterus forgot to think about the problems at Veritas—and his own more serious worries.  Up here so close to the Arctic Circle, Fall was a brief breathing space before Winter narrowed all human interest to a restricted cycle of hunting, skating, curling, and staying drunk.  What do people do where the hot summer fades into a long mellow autumn and a mild winter?  Where they did not have to drink to stay alive?  He had almost forgotten what it was like. 

Apart from a few farm trucks, there was no traffic on the old state route, which climbed and dipped around hillsides pointed with birches and maples.  For a few miles, the steep hills made it seem a little like Kentucky or New Hampshire.  Caterina pulled the car over on a hill overlooking the newly repainted windmill, and they got out to walk.  She changed her Italian sandals for comfortable leather walking shoes and took a small wicker food basket out of the trunk,  

They walked down a pathway to the mill.  It had been built by a Finnish farmer early in the 20th century, probably to grind the grain he was able to grow in the short space of weeks the locals optimistically referred to as summer.  She carried her little basket, and Anterus took his large canvas bag with a small blanket, two bottles of chilled Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and two stemless bistro glasses that were virtually unbreakable.  In case of the conversational emergency he frequently encountered (or created), he brought a volume of Leopardi’s poems.  

The sun was warm—Naderites would have called it hot—but the breeze off the lake, only a few miles away, carried an admonition more urgent than “Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may.”  Pointing north he joked, “Greetings from Canada.”

“Yes, it won’t be long now.  This is not my climate, but it does make you appreciate the fine days when you have them.”

“You could say that about life up here in general.”

He found a smooth place on which he spread out the blanket.  It was just thick enough to smooth out the rough grass and pebbles.  The soil was already thin this close to the lake, where the red clay was yielding to sand, and some of the trees near the top of the low but rugged hill had been unmistakably twisted by the storms that periodically tore down entire lake bluffs with the houses on them.  He decided he could finally pop the question he had been wanting to ask.

“Tell me something, if you don’t object to talking about yourself.  Is Oriundi your complete last name or was it ever hyphenated?”

“You are really something else.  Yes, I am sure you figured out somehow that the family name is Paleologo-Oriundi.”

“I thought so.  Should I call you principessa or would you prefer vasilissa?”

“Don’t be silly.  Our branch of the family lost all their pretensions to nobility a long time ago.”

“Did your people trace descent directly from the last Roman Emperor, Constantine Dragases?”

“No, he died without heirs.  We descend from Andronikos II, whose son Theodore became Marquess of Montferrat in the 14th century.”

“That’s right.  But like Constantine XI’s father, who married a Dragash, there’s also Serbian nobility.  A Brankovic, if I remember.”

“That’s right, Stefan the blind, the son of Despot George.  To know all this, you’d have to be be some kind of fanatical royalist..”

“Not at all, but Constantine Dragases is a personal hero of mine.  Gibbon calls him the last and best of the Caesars.  I visited what I think is his grave, but the Turks don’t admit to it.”

“Well, you know a lot about my family, probably more than I do, but I know very little about you, Anterus Smith.  Who are you really?”

“I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.”

“Says Popeye the sailorman.”

Anterus blew a toot-toot across the top of the bottle.  She looked at him seriously:

“You actually grew up around here?”

“When I was very young, yes.  I don’t recall much.  Then we moved around.”

“Where—to Italy?”

“Not with my family, no.  We moved various places, wherever my father’s work took him.  He was a Coast Guard officer and then a port official.  We moved around.”

“You don’t give much away, do you?  

“I’m sorry.  It’s become a habit of mine.  We spent some time in Mobile and then New Orleans, and ended up in California, the Bay area.”

“Why in the world did you come back to this place after so many years. It isn’t really home.”

“No, but it’s one of the few places I have strong memories of, maybe not memories but mental pictures—a woman, who must have been my mother, hanging clothes in the line in a stiff breeze, going out fishing in a rowboat and being afraid of how deep the water was, the sound of a train I heard through the woods.  I thought it was a monster.  Little things that mean nothing….  Caterina, we once had a Manx cat.  She was very strong-willed and independent, though in her own snooty way, fond of the family.  She disappeared once for what must have been eight or ten days.  Then one morning we found her whimpering softly in the garden.  Both her back legs had been ripped out of the sockets.”

“How terrible.  Had she been caught in a trap?”

“That’s what we thought at first, but the veterinarian said it was impossible.  He said it could only have been done deliberately by a human being, who either jerked the legs out of the joints or else had spun her around, testing the old expression, ‘room enough to swing a cat.’  My only point in telling you this is that, though we never thought she cared all that much about us, but, when she was wounded so badly and on the point of death, she only thought of getting back to where came from, even though it must have taken a tremendous effort over a period of several days….”

Anterus took out the volume of Leopardi and flipped slowly through the pages, looking at the book, as he thought of what to say next.  Caterina stared at him.

“So you are saying that you are a wounded animal like that cat, and some instinct drove you to return to your childhood?”

“There are things it may be better not to talk about.”

“You don’t have to tell me anything.  We all have things we don’t want to talk about.  I know I do.”

“Hail, Mary!  ....It’s not that so much.  But I have had some strange experiences. I don’t recall them all, at least not very well.”

“——“

“It’s not all that exciting, really.  You know there are quite ordinary people who occasionally experience a temporary fugue state during which they forget who they are.  In a mild way, I’m the opposite.  I have only the haziest recollection of large parts of my life, but I also have an imagination that’s like a live wire, and I frequently experience vivid dream episodes, sometimes even when I am awake, that seem realer than the everyday world.”

“Like an Old Testament prophet?”

“More like a novelist.  Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the people and places I study.  I spend months concentrating on an historical period, like England in the time of Charles I or the last century of the Byzantine Empire, or Florence in the time of Dante.  I read the history and poetry, study the art and music, and after a while, it seems to me sometimes that I am actually in Florence or Rome.”

“You mean, in your mind you go back to places in Italy you’ve visited?”
“Yes, sometimes, but I visit those places as everyone else does.  In these episodes, however, it is as if I am actually there, at least as a kind of spectator—or maybe specter.  Lately, my mind is half the time in the late 13th century.”

“How long do these episodes last?

“Sometimes a few minutes, sometimes hours.  Sometimes it’s “a day, a week, a month a year.”

“Or far or near or far or near..”   She sang.

“Life’s eventide comes much too soon,” he added in a slightly husky baritone.  She dropped into an alto range,

“You’ll live at least a honeymoon,” and laughed.

“My parents grew up on Italian opera, and when they came to the States, they became Gilbert and Sullivan fans and often played the Mikado in the evening before moving on to Bellini and Donizetti.”

He took out a bottle of the Vernaccia, opened it, and poured two glasses.  

Cento di questi giorni! 

Cent’ anni!  But you aren’t serious about days and weeks.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.  I’ve probably said too much already.”

“Can you control when it happens and for how long?”

“To some extent, especially as I have gained more experience.”  Caterina looked unsure of whether she should ask any further questions.

“But what happens?  You are in your house or in a hotel room, and then in your mind you go away for days.  Aren’t people alarmed, when they see you unconscious?”

“I don’t know.  So far as I know, that has never happened. I have only a dim recollection of the few years before I came to Nadir, and since them I haven’t really known anyone who might get concerned.  It almost always happens at home or while I am taking a nap somewhere.  In either case, all anyone would see is a sleeping man, perhaps speaking Italian or Greek in his sleep.  For all I know, that’s all there is to it.”

“But for all you know, you are actually disappearing into another time?  That would make you a sort of time-traveler.”

“There is no such thing,” he declared emphatically.

“But if you don’t fly off into another time, where is ‘the real you’ for the days and weeks that you go away?”

“I’ve told you I don’t know.  For all I know, I only have short-term visions that I misremember as long periods of time.   Time is a strange thing.  Catholics used to worry about the years and centuries they would spend in Purgatory.  The Orthodox laugh at them, but they too have a belief—it’s not official, of course, but the Orthodox aren’t dogmatic like Catholics—that they spend a few days going before the Toll House where they are judged.  I point out to them that in eternity, there is no real time.  In the mind of God, time is close to being an illusion.”

“What does this have to do with your episodes?”

“Just as in Purgatory, you can have a complicated dream that seems to take a long time, but, when these things are timed, the dream may have lasted only a few seconds or minutes.” 

“So, while your dream narrative may take months, your mind might have been away for only a few minutes.”

“Something like that.”

“Then you are like a shaman or the philosopher Empedocles, whose soul wandered abroad.  He claimed to remember his previous incarnations.  Perhaps you are Empedocles, only you have drunk the waters of Lethe.”

“I wish I were.”  

“Do you really expect me to accept a notion that is so fantastic?”

“Not really. I don’t really accept it myself.  I simply don’t have another explanation.  Look, you’re Catholic, and with Italian parents you are familiar with the Old Mass.  Right? Well, after the Our Father, what comes next—though of course, like so many key parts the wreckers have eliminated it?

Libera nos, quaesumus Domine, ab omnibus malis, præteritis, præsentibus et futuris.

Have you over wondered, if time is real, how someone can be freed from evils that are already past?  Obviously during the Mass, time is annihilated, and we are one with all Christians who take communion, both here and now and everywhere and every now, but we are all at one with our Maker who exists before and outside of time:

A thousand ages in thy sight 

Are like an evening gone;

Short as the watch that ends the night 

Before the rising sun. "

“I’d never thought about it.  I guess I’m, just a dumb Catholic who accepts what the Church tells me.”

“That’s the way it should be.  No one should have to second-guess the Church.”

“But you do.”

“Yes, but it’s a curse.  If Popes were really infallible the way good Catholics used to think they were, then either the Church has been wrong for 2000 years, and if that is not the case, a reasonable man would have to conclude that one or another of these jokers in Rome is not the real Pope.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  I wish it could be, but I’m only an amateur Christian and not a very good one at that.  Forgive me, I am being a boor.  Let’s eat something.  The real purpose of food is to make wine taste better.”

Caterina got out some decent bread, a slab of local cheddar, and a salame alla cacciatore that Anterus proceeded to cut up with the razor sharp knife he kept suspended from the cord around his neck.  After they ate and finished the first bottle, Caterina looked pensive.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“I hadn’t planned to.  I suppose I shouldn’t have.  I am afraid my ‘condition’ might cause some difficulties.”

“As in…?”

“First off, it rather complicates my participation in VSET.  I’m already been having visions that are more convincing than anything Veritas has cooked up.”

“Do you want to quit?”

“Far from it.  In fact, I am getting hints that VSET’s induced hallucinations are bringing some things back to my mind.  There is one episode in my past I have been trying to recall.  At some point, I don’t know exactly when, I signed up as a volunteer test subject at a university in Chicago, where they were investigating ESP, PSI, intuition….  I thought they could help me understand what was happening to me.  Frankly, I was afraid I was going insane.  When I started to get glimpses of those days in my dreams, I wasn’t sure what happened or even if any of it happened.  In the past few days, it us getting clear.  The program turned out to be a cover for a government intelligence agency doing research on how to use psychic powers for intelligence-gathering and maybe in warfare.”

“Which is exactly what Ross is afraid is going to happen with VSET.  You think fate brought you to Veritas?”

“No, but it’s a little eery.  There were two or three of us—I’m not sure how many—who had extraordinary abilities.  The investigators became interested, and before long we discovered we were being held more or less captive.  Though they pretended we were free to go, there was somehow always a problem, sort of like that Bunuel movie, Exterminating Angel.  I can’t recall very well, but I believe they used drugs and then shock treatments at least on me, and, when I got away, I had only the vaguest memory of the whole experience.  When I try to recall the laboratory or even some of my earlier visions, it is as if there is a blank spot on the memory tapes.  To this day, I don’t know who they were or what they did, but I have been on the run ever since.”

“How long ago did that happen?”

“I don’t know.  A day, a week, a month, a year.”  This time she did not sing or laugh.

“So you are saying these are simply hallucinations, the result of an oversensitive imagination that is focused on one particular period.”

“Perhaps.”

“What else could they be?”

“I don’t know what to think, but I do know that in these episodes I find out things I have never studied and am later able to verify.”

“Such as…?”

“Some lines of the Greek poet Stesichorus…”

“I though almost all his work was lost—excvept for some brief quotations.”

“But I remember some phrases and the basic story of his poem on Heracles and the monster Geryon.  The monster is treated sympathetically and faces death for the sake of honor.”

“You could have read about this somewhere.  My mother, who likes Greek poetry, told me once some new fragment had been found.”

“You’re probably right.  I probably came across some article in a journal, but my memory being what it is, I don’t recall.”  He decided to leave out the mint-condition Attic drachmas he was keeping, wrapped in a jeweler’s protective cloth, in his iron box in the coal cellar.

“One of us is certainly crazy, Anterus:  You for telling me this or I for almost believing it.  What I don’t understand is how, with all this going on in your head, you appear not only normal, but more calm and collected then anyone I have ever met.”

“Let’s drop if for today, but maybe it is a good thing I told you.  I don’t ask you to believe my explanation of what happens to me, but I do want you to trust me that these things do happen.  

“We are going into that retreat this coming week, and I intend to do what I can to help Dr. Ross.  I know that sounds absurd, coming from someone in my confused mental state, but I was brought up to be loyal to those who deserve loyalty.  There will be times when you might agree with the others that I have lost my reason, but I want you to know in advance, that I have only one goal in mind and that is saving Ross, even if it means being found out and turned back into a laboratory rat.”

“Why would you risk this?”

“Partly because it is one of the few things I can do.  Ross has created something, and he has selflessly devoted himself to his creation and what he hopes it can do for other people.  I don’t think I entirely believe in his project. In fact, I think it may turn out to be be quite dangerous.  But, I have been living too long only for myself… I may be the only person who can help him.  When I created my fictitious career as “paramoral investigator,” it must have been a kind of recognition that the time had come for me to get outside myself.”

“But, if you are serious in what you’ve been saying, you could get caught.”

“Yes, indeed, but it will hardly make much difference.  I have a strong feeling that I really don’t belong in this place and time.  In one sense, neither do you and Ross, but the two of you have done the best you can in the here and now, while I have been talking, at least in my imagination, with Dante and Guido and Corso in Florence.  It has been most enlightening, but I have been missing in action in the here-and-now.  Funny.  We call a soldier missing in action an MIA—that’s the same acronym for the Military Intelligence Agency that I believe has been looking for me.  I have come to see, just in the past day or two, that there is something I can still do.”

She looked at him sadly, a bit, so he thought, the way a teenage girl looks at the priest she has fallen in love with and has to convince herself it is impossible.  Neither said anything for a long time.  To break the ice, Anterus went to the poem of Leopardi he had found and read the beginning:

Era il mattino, e tra le chiuse imposte

Per lo balcone insinuava il sole

Nella mia cieca stanza il primo albore;

Quando in sul tempo che più leve il sonno

E più soave le pupille adombra, 

Stettemi allato e riguardommi in viso

Il simulacro di colei che amore

Prima insegnommi, e poi lasciommi in pianto.

Morta non mi parea, ma trista, e quale

Degl'infelici è la sembianza. Al capo

Appressommi la destra, e sospirando,

Vivi, mi disse, e ricordanza alcuna

Serbi di noi? *

Caterina looked long at him and asked:

“Does the poem have some special significance for you?

“I think it does.  I think I used to know someone who loved the poem.  I believe she’s dead, and for the life of me I cannot bring her to mind.” 

Caterina looked at him as if she loved him for his sorrow.  They packed up, returned to the car, and drove up to the lakeshore and parked on a little pull-off overlooking the mouth of the Wissakodie River.  They walked along the bluff.  Caterina shivered in the wind and leaned against Anterus, who opened his bag, took out the blanket, and the second bottle of Vernaccia, which he opened.  He poured two glasses.

“Drink some.  It is chilled, but it will still warm you up.”  They stared out at the vast expanse of cold blue water, with only one small fishing boat crawling slowly along the coast, like an old woman looking for the spectacles she had misplaced.  Caterina looked dubiously at the wine, but drank it down.

“Trying to get me drunk?  I don’t suppose you’re going to take advantage of me.  But you probably already know how I’d respond.”  She laughed and took another sip, and Anterus asked himself what he was getting himself into.  Caterina sighed and shivered.

“The lake is so blue and cold, like something on a dead planet.  It never rises above about 39 degrees in the center, even on the surface.  I’m told that if a ship goes down, even in the summer, a man has only 10 or 15 minutes before he freezes to death.  The sea is awe-inspiring but full of life.  I love to swim anywhere in the Mediterranean, but this lake is like death.”

“Only to us.  It is home to hundreds of species of fish, and not just lake trout and white fish.  At least there are no sharks or poisonous snakes.  It’s a case of “nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

“Isn’t that moral relativism?
“It would be in the case of moral questions, but I don’t think that’s how Hamlet—or Shakespeare—meant it.  We’re only human, we may be lords of creation and stewards of the earth, but we have to avoid imposing our small minds on everything in creation.  When I listen to Shawn or Justin Wright, the world becomes as tiny as their own little vanities and petty ambitions.”

“What about Dr. Ben Freeman?  He has a lofty dream, doesn’t he?”

“So he says, but he is even more deluded.  He thinks he and his allies are gods who can remake humanity in their own image.  I prefer Shawn’s nasty little mind.  At least he thinks about having children some day—which is enough immortality on this earth as anyone can hope for.”

Caterina leaned over and kissed him on the cheek and looked into his eyes.

“They’re the same color as the lake.”

“Caterina, you’re a very nice girl.”

“I’m a woman, Anterus, a grown woman.”

“Yes, a woman.  But you don’t know me, and I bring trouble to people who do get to know me.  I don’t want you hurt.”

“You don’t want me hurt?  Or is it yourself you are afraid for?” 

“Both, maybe.” 

They stood, staring at the lake, and finished the bottle of wine.  Anterus recited in a sing-song chant:

Blue were the skies,

And blue were your eyes,

Just like the blue skirt you wore.

 As they made their way back to the car, she stumbled in a pot hole and took Anterus’ arm.  Putting his arm around her shoulder to give her support, he looked up and saw someone standing on a hill looking out with binoculars.  People up this far North are not birdwatchers or the sort to go out walking to take in the scenery.  Probably nothing.  Smith had good eyes and could see just enough to know the “birdwatcher” was not anyone he knew—certainly not Nicosia the ex-cop.  He was much too dapper, like Caesar Romero in the movies, only shorter.  When he turned back a second later, Caterina was staring up into his face and kissed him on the side of the mouth.  For another split second he yielded and started to kiss her in earnest and drew back.

“What’s wrong?”

“I can’t do this to you.”

“You’re not telling me you’re gay?”

“No, nothing remotely like that.  It’s only that I’m something of a mess, and I have to sort myself out.”

“I’ll say you’re a mess.  You barge into people’s lives and then want to keep to yourself like a hermit.  I almost wish I had never met you.”

They got back in the car, and she drove slowly up the dirt track.  As they got back onto the main road, Smith looked up toward the hill and spotted a dusty black sedan, boxy like a BMW.  From the cloud of exhaust, he could tell the car was running, but it did not appear to be following them.  At his request, she pulled off to a little side road.  The BMW did not turn off, and they got lost in the national forest on a logging trail where the trees were planted almost to the edge of the road.  Suddenly the car scared up a half dozen eagles that could not get very high off the ground but flew on either side and just above the car, flapping desperately for nearly a half mile to rise aloft into the upper air where they belonged until the road entered a clearing and the soared into the sky.  

“The poor eagles,” Caterina sighed.  They were meant to fly, but they found themselves trapped down here with us poor creatures that crawl upon the earth.  Even with our car, we could not outrun them.”

They drove back into town, and as they were stopped at a light beside the shopping center, he spotted the WTF!? lounge.  Now that he had his bearings, he realized the cabbie’s favorite hangout was not far from the apartment building where Justin Wright was staying.  As he peered into the parking lot, he thought he saw a dusty black BMW.  

He asked Caterina to drive into the lot and park in front of the lounge.

“The wine has made me thirsty.  I’m going to buy some bottled water.  Would you like something?”

“Yes, water sounds great.  Would you like me to come in?”

“No need, I won’t be a minute.  This not your sort of place—or mine.”

Smith got out the car slowly and made a point of walking carelessly by the BMW and noting the license number.  He also noticed a shield and number on the windshield and, looking briefly into the car, he saw a large radio and a pair of handcuffs on the seat.  He walked into the bar.  

A very loud band was warming up on what he thought was 1970’s rock music.  It was too much even for him to tune out.  Walking up to the formica-topped bar with back-lit flashing neon, he ordered the waters from a grungy bartender who looked far too old to have so many tattoos.  As he was paying, he looked up and down the bar and spotted Justin Wright with a nattily dressed little man with graying black hair and a trimmed mustache.  The little man was wearing a cinched in jacket with large checks and a narrow-brimmed straw fedora with a feather.  A dapper gent, no doubt about it, even if he did not know enough to remove his hat.  They were engrossed in conversation and did not notice Smith taking his place at the bar, just close enough to hear bits of the conversation interspersed with the static of bar talk. 

“…doesn’t realized it, but I’ve got some ideas of my own on how to run the place, new ideas that would put us on the map.”

“..so I f—ing says to him you’re supposed to be my f—-ing friend and what the f—do you go and do?..”

“…fourth down and two yard to go, and the f—-ing quarterback decides to pass, and the mother-f——er is intercepted—“

“…but every time I suggest something to Mac, he gets that look on his face like he’s patiently dealing with a retarded kid dying of cancer…”

“…man, I’m dying here.  What to I have to do to get a…”

“…the votes lined up on the board?… We’ll have a few guys there to back your play whatever it is…“  

  Smith, still waiting for the waters, tried to catch the bartender’s eye, but Wright caught sight go him in the mirror and called out.

“Smith, hey, Anterus Smith.  Come on over and have a drink with us.”

“I really can’t,” he said walking toward the pair, “Someone’s waiting for me in the car.”

“Guy, this is Smith—a man who obviously works fast.  I heard you had a date with Katie, the beautiful snow queen.  Anterus, this is Detective Lieutenant Caruana, one of Nadir’s finest.”

Smith, who had told no one about the date with Caterina, said nothing.  The detective did not smile but without moving his head looked him up and down.

“I’ve heard of you, Smith.”

“Really, what?”

“That you’re pretty good in a tight spot, maybe too good.”

Wright was getting nervous.

“Cut it out, Guy.  Smith’s all right.  You can’t blame him for protecting himself.”

“I guess not.  Besides the DA don’t like him, and that ought to be good enough for anyone on the force.” 

Smith smiled:  “There’s always friction in government, isn’t there?  Do you work any special detail, lieutenant?  Juvenile?  Bunko?  Or are you just a birdwatcher?”

“What’s that crack s’pposta mean?”  

“Nothing whatsoever.  So, do you have a special assignment.  I know some nice boys who would like to meet a tough cop working juvenile.”

  “We don’t go in for special details.  Town’s too small, and these days we’re shorthanded, as we always are, and everyone has to pitch in.  Lately, they stuck me with looking into terrorist crap.”

“You have terrorists in Nadir?”

“Not really, but down in the Twins, they got problems with Somalis and some Hamas recruiters.  Some of these guys end up here on a job or looking for one, so someone has to check em out, and lately that someone is me.  How about you, Smith?  I hear you’re working for Veritas with Justin here.  He says you’re some kind of genius.  I never met a genius before, what’s it like?”

“It’s wonderful.  I always know what the normals and subnormals all are going to say before they say it.”

“Yeah?  What am I going to say?”

“You’re about to ask what a smart boy like me is doing in a place like this.  Then you’re going to ask if I am missing anything, and perhaps volunteer to come over and do a search to verify the robbery.  If you are really smart, you’ll ask about the last time I was in Sicily, if maybe I know the Sanpoala’s in Catania.”
Caruana did not flinch.

“Smart ass, aren’t you?  I heard that too.  I bet you read all the books in the library.”

“The public library here only rents videos and books on sports.”

“I wouldn’t know.  Listen, Smith.  Cut the crap.  I heard some things.  You bin talkin to Mario and crazy Cheech, ’n so?  They’re nothin but trouble.  For Mr. Wright’s sake and the folks over at Veritas, I’m gonna pretend you weren’t assin aroun with me.  They’re doing important work there, it could put this town on the map. We don’t need a smart-mouthed stranger comin in to mess things up.  Capish?"

Sì, capito.  I’m just passing through.”

“Stayin long?”

“Just waiting for the next train.”

“We don’t get passenger trains any more.”

“Too bad.  I’ll just have to wait, then.” 

“Don’t wait too long.  We can still ship boxes out.”

“Did you come up with this patter all by yourself or did you read it in True Detective?”   

“Where you been, Smith.  That wasn’t a bad mag, but they ain’t published that one in 20 years. You must be retarded.  Don’t he seem retarded to you, Justin?”

Wright looked even more embarrassed than usual.

“I’m a little behind the times,” Smith replied, picking yup his bottles and walking away.  He stopped and half turned.

“Give my regards to your buddy Sal.  Better keep your eye on him.  He’s an authentic sapsucker—and yellow-bellied to boot.  Like all the cops in this town.”

Smith walked out the door and only just heard something Caruana was shouting after him in classic Sicilian-American as he followed him to the door.  It was as monotonously dirty as a high school locker room or a comedy club—or any place where f—k is used as the definite and indefinite article.  The only Italian word he could pick out was minchia.  He could still hear the shouting as he got in the car.

“What happened in there, Anterus?  The little I heard was a little raw.”

“Absolutely nothing.  I made a new Sicilian friend, and he wanted to practice his dialect on me.  Let’s go.  I don’t think you want the lieutenant to join us.”

Caterina drove in silence to the wrong side of the tracks and dropped him at his house.

“I thought I knew Nadir—not that there is much to know—but I’ve never been over in this delightful neighborhood.  Shall I pick you up at 5 to take you to the Rosses?”

“Better not.  I promised Billy the cabbie some steady business, and I’ve already overpaid him.  I’ll meet you there.”

He watched Caterina drive away, and as he was checking the door, he became aware he was not alone.  It was Josh the punk with two much larger friends.  One had a knife, and the other two had souvenir baseball bats.  He could see that they had been hollowed out and filled with lead—a timely reminder of what he had not forgotten this time.  He dropped the keys and reached into his bag.

“You boys want something?  You look like stray kittens looking for their mother.”

Josh pulled out his knife, and the three started to move in on Smith.  One of them was putting on his best Charles Bronson or was it Vin Diesel?  Smith put his back to the door and pulled the .38 just far enough out to let them see it, without exposing it to the full view of someone driving by.

“Look fellows, some other time.  I’ve got a date tonight, and I don’t have time to shoot baskets with you at the Y.”

At the sight of the revolver, they stopped and backed away.

“Yeah sure,” Josh spat out, “Some other time for sure.”

“I’ll tell the nice lieutenant you did your best. 
No one really wants to get hurt.”

Vin Diesel, who was rapidly dissolving into Elijah Wood or a young Woody Allen, jumped back.  “Watch it Josh, he’s psycho.  You didn’t tell me he was psycho.”

Smith watched them walking away, trying to preserve some scrap of dignity.  Dumb kids who had watched too many movies.  On the other hand, so had he.  

*****************************

*It was the morning; through the shutters closed,
Along the balcony, the earliest rays
Of sunlight my dark room were entering;
When, at the time that sleep upon our eyes
Its softest and most grateful shadows casts,
There stood beside me, looking in my face,
The image dear of her, who taught me first
To love, then left me to lament her loss.
To me she seemed not dead, but sad, with such
A countenance as the unhappy wear.
Her right hand near my head she sighing placed;
'Dost thou still live,' she said to me, 'and dost
Thou still remember what we were and are?'

2 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    Anterus should leave a trail of black & milds to a pit filled with admiral nelson cherry and xanax to keep Josh’s gang off his back.

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Excellent suggestion and how insightful to realized what Josh smokes!