Born Out of Due Time, Chapter Seventeen

Thomas Fleming

By

February 4, 2019

Time, like an ever-rolling stream, 

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten, as a dream 

Dies at the opening day. 

When Smith got back to Veritas, he remembered he had more or less promised to reassure Caterina.  He checked his watch:  3:10.  By now she should be back from her appointment with the neurologist.  He buzzed her office and asked her to join him for a few minutes.

A lot had changed since he had met the sullen young feminist less than a week earlier, and Smith looked at her with different eyes.  What to do?  He was beginning to have a clearer idea of who he was, but that had not uncomplicated his life.  She had question marks in her eyes, but he diverted the conversation.

“How did the appointment go?”

“I wouldn’t know.  You know how doctors are.  If they suspect something, they don’t tell the patient until they have all the test results—x rays, blood tests, all the usual—in addition to some special imaging of my head and neck.  He said it would take a day or two.  When I told him we’d be out of town for the rest of the week, he said he’d text me a message to call him on his private line.”

“Did he ask you any questions?”

“Just the usual.  Was I feeling all right?  Did I have anxieties or fatigue?  How was I sleeping?”

“What did you say?”

“I told him I was basically fine, but I was concerned about things at the office—which is true.  I did say that, while I was sleeping well, I am always a little tired.  He seemed very accommodating, perhaps too accommodating.  What do you have on him?  There’s something you’re not telling me.”

“You are right.  How are the Rosses holding up?”

“Better than I expected.  Neither of them had ever met Jackson, and Ross does not share your suspicions that his going off the deep end had anything to do with VSET.  Still, they’re upset, naturally.”

“Has anyone tried to contact them?  The police?  The press? Jackson’s parents.  No?  Anyone here?”

“Shawn called the house, but Penny told him to hold off.”

She stared at his face and his inconspicuously bandaged head wounds.

“I’ve been meaning to ask: What happened to you?”

“Nothing much.  Sal Nicosia—“

“The ex-cop who was trying to break into the Rosses?”

“The same.  He somewhere got the idea that I was hurting his reputation and decided to teach me a lesson.”

“And did he?”

“Oh, yes, but it was not the lesson he intended.  I am now pretty sure that he was working for Lieutenant Caruana, who was blackmailing Dr. Yunis.”

“Did you call the police?”

“These police?  Hell no.  Fortunately, a federal officer had been tracking Nicosia.  He interrupted the lesson and took the teacher into custody.”

“Thank goodness.  You certainly manage to get yourself in trouble.  Shawn sort of hinted that he’d seen you beat up a thug in some low dive where you and Shawn were drinking, and the DA told the Rosses that you had taken care of an adolescent hoodlum.  Then there was that cop yelling at you from the lounge we stopped to get water.  To say nothing of what they put you through today.  I thought you were trapped in the game and were never going to get out of it. Anything you care to talk about?”

“Not yet, not here.  But I want you to believe me, I don’t go around looking for trouble.  It’s all tied in with the attempt on Dr. Ross.”

“But you have that all tied up now, right?”

“Not exactly.  We have picked some low-hanging fruit.  The big apples are higher up on the tree.”

“Then Yunis, at least, is under arrest.”

“No, and he doesn’t even know he is under suspicion.  Nor does Caruana—though he ought to be worried, unless he is really stupid.”

“But why?  If the doctor is involved in an attempted murder…”

“I’m not sure.  He may be more innocent than it seems.  Besides, he’ll be at the retreat, where we should be able to put it all together.”

“Who is this ‘we’?  You and the Rosses?  What can I do.”

“We’ll have to play it by ear, like Erroll Garner.”

“—?”

“A jazz pianist and composer who never learned to read music.  He had near-perfect recall of what he heard.  Whenever someone asked him why he never learned to read a score, he’d answer, “No one can hear you read.”  There’s no script to follow for what we’re doing.”

“Did he write anything I’d have heard of?”

“Sure, everyone knows his song ‘Misty’”. Caterina looked dubious..

  “…which pretty much describes this entire situation and me in particular.  Right now, your job is to say nothing to anyone, not even the Rosses.  I don’t want them worrying more than they have to.”

“And Justin—you think he’s behind all this?”

“He’s probably only a middle man, and he may not know as much as we think he does.  I did want to ask you one thing.  Did you know his predecessor?”

“Karl Johann?  Yes, what about him?”

“What sort of man was he?”

“Fairly tall, soft. Nice guy.  The blond German type that Sicilians call a Polentone, Big Polenta, because they’re blond, bland, and boring.”

“Was he good at his job?”

“Not especially. He was indecisive.  He spent his spare time reading 20th century American fiction, and he used to waste time talking about it.  He really had nothing interesting to say about literature or anything else.”

“Did you know that he was covering up the fundraising shortfall?”

“Was there really an actual cover-up?  The Rosses told me he had been naive, too optimistic.  That’s not exactly a cover-up, is it?”

“I suppose not.  I’m still curious.  Dr. Ross spoke of making arrangements.  What arrangements, exactly?”

“Well, I suppose it’s all right.  Mac managed to cover the difference—it was quite a lot, about $150,000.”

“He had that much cash available?”

“I don’t know, but I doubt it.  I think he got some kind of signature loan that he he has to pay back with interest.”

“How long did that take?”

“I don’t know exactly.  Several months at least, maybe longer.”

“Where could he get that amount of money so quickly, without security?”

“I think Sottili set it up with some rich business people in Zenith.”

“And why would they do this for Sottili?”

“They’re family friends with interests over here in Nadir.   For some, I think it’s more a question of local pride than anything concrete.  Veritas could put Nadir on the map, they imagine—a sort of Cape Canaveral or Silicon Valley.  But, everyone seems to have heard that the government has become interested in VSET, and some of them see Veritas as a potential goldmine.  At least one of them was invited to join the board.”

“How do they propose to profit from Veritas?”

“Believe me, for some of these people—and I don’t think I have to spell it out—the two words “government contract” make the sound of a ringing cash register.  That’s why there is more concrete poured per capita in Sicily than anywhere in the world.  At this point, they don’t know how they’ll do it, but they do know they will.”

“Was Ross able to recoup his loss?”

“I don’t know, but I doubt it.  Of course, with one grant and another, the foundation is in good shape now.  But what does this have to do with the attempt to kill Mac Ross?”

“Maybe nothing, this sort of thing is a possible opportunity for extortion.”

“But what could an extortionist know to use against someone as decent as Doctor Ross.”

“As a Catholic, you must know none of us is perfect.”

“Of course, but I don’t know anyone who is as selfless and upright.”

“That is the problem.  You can’t see soot, when it is on on a pile of coal, but when it lands on new fallen snow, you can see it from a distance.  The swindler, because he is is used to getting caught, is shameless and hard to blackmail, but a good man who has made a mistake—he is more vulnerable.  If someone like Justin or even Sottili did find out something that Ross would rather keep to himself, he might not hesitate to put the squeeze on.”

“You talk like a policeman.  It must be awful to harbor such suspicions about a good man.”

“I’m not a cop and probably never have been.  It’s not Ross I am suspicious of.  If he did anything irregular, he had a good reason for it.  Someone like Justin would find a way of taking advantage of even a selfless act.”

“What about the prime suspects—Dyson and Dr. Freeman?”

“Freeman is in deep, but I have no idea what he might have in mind.  With Dyson—I can’t be sure.  He claims to be helping us, and maybe he is.  That doesn’t mean we can entirely trust him. I don’t have to tell you not to give any sign that you suspect either of them.”

She flared up for a moment.  “Naturally, you can’t trust a woman.”

“Caterina, we’re not back to that, are we?  It’s only that I don’t want you getting any deeper into this mess.  It’s getting sticky—and dangerous.  I’m starting to suspect that they’ve got more going on than drug-enhanced virtual reality.

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, possibly some sort of chip that has been inserted into some of the subjects.  That’s why I sent you to the neurologist.  I thought I knew Corey pretty well, but he’s been turned into something very nasty.  Maybe Jackson too.  Who knows?  When we get the results of your examination, there are several who will probably need to get checked out, including Jackson.”

“How can you do that?”  

“There are people who can get it done, but in Jackson’s condition, nothing can be done for several days.”

“How badly is he injured?”  

“He took several bullets in the body cavity, and one in the back of the neck.  At this point, no exploration is possible.  They have to concentrate on keeping him alive.  Anyway, right now, the less you know, the better for you and the better for me, because I won’t have to worry so much about you, if no-one suspects you know anything.”

“Then you are worrying about me?”

Anterus, who did not trust himself to say anything at this moment, just nodded.  “There’s a lot to do before we leave for the retreat.”  His life was a confused mess, and he had no right to get Caterina involved, and if did straighten out who and what he was….well, what then?

When Caterina left, he tried to settle down to the work he was allegedly hired to perform, but he soon nodded off.  This he seemed to be seeing vivid images of his childhood in Nadir.  

He was a little boy watching his mother iron clothes while she listened to Gene Autry and Roy Acuff on the radio…  Then she was hanging out clothes that flapped in the cold Spring wind blowing out of a blue sky. The scene shifted, and he was perhaps eleven of twelve, fishing the Wisakoodie downstream fifty feet from his old man who saw him as he slipped on a rock and with his man-sized waders filling with water got swept downstream into rapids that would break every bone in his body before it drowned him.. 

The scene shifts again to a small furnished room, where he is trying to learn Italian.  He’s in his very early 20’s, and, when he goes out on the street, it is Rome, but not Rome of the new millennium but the Rome of early Fellini movies.  He meets an American pal on the street and tells him he is running out of money and has to return to the States.  The friend, who is returning to San Francisco, where he is from, asks why doesn’t Anterus join him there?  They can both mooch off his parents until they find work.  The friend asks what Anterus would like to do.  Get a PhD in Italian?  

“I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree.  No, I’ll never teach.”

“What then?”

“I’ve thought about becoming a cop.”

“What about all that Italian you’ve been learning—and the Greek and Latin?”

“There’s always the CIA or military intelligence.”

“You—in the military?  Don’t make me laugh.  A wise guy like you’d be insubordinate 24 hours a day.  But why any kind of cop?”

“I don’t know.  It’s just a thought.  I like solving puzzles and I’ve always been a sucker for helping people.”

“Like that teenage hoodlum you hired a few weeks ago?  You can barely feed yourself but you were paying him to take you places you had no business going to.”

“I told you.  I like to figure things out, and those black-black-marketeers may be crooks, but they know a thing or two about this town.  GianPaolo is a good kid.  Besides, he taught me a lot of street Italian.  You never know when it will come in handy.”

“You might not know, but I do.  Anyway, think about San Francisco.  It’s loaded with vice and crime and all the lowlifes you will ever want to meet.”

Shift to Ravenna about 1300.  He is dining with Dante, who tells him of his life in Verona at the Court of Can Grande della Scala.  In the beginning, the Florentine poet was welcomed and loaded with gifts and honors, but little by little Can Grande’s coarse sense of humor began to wear on the poet, who began to grow weary of the ruler’s apparent resentment of Dante’s independence and seriousness.  

It’s a bad idea, he explains, for writers to mix with wealthy and powerful who look upon poets and philosophers as entertainers.  At least in Florence he was with fellow-citizens.  Andrea asks him where he wants to be buried.  Here in Ravenna, where he had been given refuge.  What about returning to  Florence?  Andrea predicts Florentines will repent and want their son to return.  Dante, with no knowledge of the future can see, nonetheless, that hedonists and rabble rousers will take over and befoul city.  He ridicules the pretensions of wealthy families like the Medici and the Adinari—who claim descent from one of Charlemagne’s knights.  When good men trust thugs and schemers, they undo themselves and the city with them.  The desire for power inevitably drives politicians, who need money to bribe rivals and finance their wars, to go into debt and end up in hock to the money-lenders.

Pulling himself out of his dreams, Anterus wonders which, if any of them, were real.  Logically speaking, the answer should be all or none.  The early memories seemed to awaken something in his mind, and he even recognized the desire to be a detective.  But if they were real, then the Dante episode was in some sense real—which made not sense.  He shook his head.  It was time to confront Ross.

“Doctor Ross, I am going to ask you a few embarrassing questions.  If you don’t want to answer, simply tell me it is none of my business.”

“Mr. Smith, I am afraid that everything here is part of your business.”

“I understand that a few years back your vice president  engaged in a little creative bookkeeping to conceal his failure at fund-raising.”

“Yes, I’m afraid glad-handing the rich did not come easily to poor Karl.  What you call his “creative book-keeping” did not involve any law-breaking or even any real dishonestly.  He was convinced that with a little time, at least one or two of the gifts that had been more or less promised would come through.  He really only deceived himself.  When I discovered the shortfall, of course he had to go, but I didn’t want him to leave under a cloud that would follow him for the rest of his life, whatever career he pursued.”

“So you covered for him—but how?”

“I was able to raise some of the money myself, but I turned to Vince Sottili for help in getting the rest.”

“Who knows about this, other than Sottili and the creditors?”

“Actually, they weren’t or aren’t creditors.  They made a gift—as I did.  I am not a rich man, but I did come into some money.”

“What would happen if your board found out?”

“Really nothing, probably.  I’m sure the chairman would understand and so would most of them.  For some, I suppose it could be the last straw.”

“Even though your contribution helped to save the organization?”

“I’m afraid they already regard me as high-handed, and this might be all they needed to prove I have no head for business.”

“How difficult would it be to uncover these transactions?”

“Not difficult at all.  I did nothing illegal or dishonorable, and any effort at concealment would be an indication of a guilty conscience.  Any accountant with a suspicious mind could go back over the books and figure out what happened.”

Has anyone ever hinted that he knew something?”  Ross started to answer “No” but stopped.”

“I don’t know, probably not, but once or twice Justin has made oblique allusions to the sudden good fortune that put us in the black—that might have indicated something.”

“How well do you know Guy Caruana?”

“The lieutenant?  I met him one or twice at Justin’s.  I did not care for him much.”

“Why?”

“Seemed too familiar.  He’s forever offering to do me a favor, and just the other day, he called to invite me to lunch.  I told him I was too busy, getting ready for the retreat, but he asked to see me for a few minutes on business.”

“Here at your office?

“No, at the bar in the Hotel Nadir.  It’s a bit run down these days, like the rest of the town, but still respectable.”

“When are you going to meet?”

“At four, and it’s almost four now.  I’m afraid I had better be going.”

“Would you mind if I tag along?”

“Not at all, you are my chief counselor these days.”

“I should warn you.  The lieutenant and I are not on the best of terms.”

Ross smiled: “Yes, I rather gathered that.”

It was nearly ten after four, when they entered the bar and walked over two the booth where Lieutenant Caruana was sipping a brandy old fashioned.  He greeted them with a finely cast smile that sagged a little, when he noticed Smith walking behind Ross, but Caruana was quick to repair the damage. Smith smiled quizzically:

“A Brown Mumbler this early, lieutenant?  You must be off duty.”

“That’s right, Smith.  In fact I’m more or less on leave this week, though the boys always know where they can reach me.  Glad you could join Doc Ross.  I know how he values your opinion.  What’s your pleasure, gentlemen?”  Smith, who shuddered at the expression “gentlemen” said he’d join the lieutenant, while Ross asked for a glass of red wine, explaining, “I’d prefer sherry, but the stuff here is abominable.” 

Ross was at his affable best, and Caruana, who was trying too hard to seem relaxed, called the waiter over to take the order, saying in a low voice,

“This is on my tab.”  Turning to Ross, he explained, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you, doctor, for some time. It’s nothing pressing, but I might be able to help you in some things.  That business with the break-in and the insulin that got tampered with, that was shocking. I want to assure you that we are working round the clock.”

Smith, still smiling, asked “Wasn’t the burglar—what was his name—Nicosia?—hadn’t he worked at the department, under the lieutenant?”  If Smith thought Caruana could be trapped into defending Sal, he was mistaken.

“Yes, sir.  That makes it worse, much worse.  To think that a guy I helped train and then got him a job with a high-class private outfit.  I’ll tell you God’s own truth.  We was pals, I thought, but friendship does not extend to covering up a crime, not in my book. From what we already know, he should have the book thrown at him, good and hard.”

Ross appeared convinced, “I know you will, lieutenant, and I appreciate everything you and your men are doing.”

“Naturally, everyone in Nadir is entitled to protection, but an important outfit like Veritas, that’s something special here.  This burg does not have much to brag about, and something like you’ve got goin here, it’s a real ray of hope, light at the end of the tunnel.…”

“The golden dawn that follows the darkness of night?” Interjected Smith.  Caruana, who did not know if he was being kidded, continued in the same vein, declaring that Ross and his associates were too important to be subjected to harassment from thugs and criminals.  He wanted to pledge his full support even to the point of offering free body guards when we needed them.  Ross thanked him but assured him that none of that would necessary.

Caruana altered his tone, noticeably and his part of the obsequious loyal retainer to that of the wise advisor, with the sovereign’s best interest at heart.  Speaking very carefully, he warned of dangers of which Ross might not be entirely aware.  

“I know you have influential friends in and out of government, but in this town you should always be asking your self the big question of “why?”  Rumors are going around that you may be in line for some big government investments, and I wouldn’t want to say anything negative about anyone here working in law enforcement, but some of the help you are getting could be part of somebody’s attempt to get leverage over Veritas.  Ya gotta be real careful about who you hire, who you put on your board because some of these guys will be getting access to the books.”

Ross, looking more than ever like a college dean, said coldly: “There is nothing in the books that could possibly interest anyone.”

“Doc, I didn’t mean to offend you.  I was just speaking in general terms.  Every organization I know anything about has its little problems, even the mayor’s office and police department.  That don’t make them dishonest, only it’s nobody’s business.  That’s all I meant.  They say ‘knowledge is power,’ and so the less people know about you the better.  That’s what my Sicilian nannu always said.  He owned a grocery store with a younger cousin, and he never let the cousin even see the books.  He didn’t have too much English, but his favorite expression was “Mind your own business.”

Anterus, who had been staring at the bottles on the back bar, interrupted Caruana’s childhood reminiscence: “How’s your friend Justin, lieutenant”

My friend?  You work with the guy.  I only see him around a few times.  I think he likes cops, you know, because he thinks we got power.  He’s all right, I guess, but I’d watch him, if I was you.”

Before Ross could say anything, Smith asked: “Watch Justin?  Why?  Don’t you trust him?”

“To be honest, I don’t trust too many people outside my own family.  I don’t know the guy well enough to trust him.  He’s friendly enough, sure.  Likes to buy me drinks—maybe because he thinks being seen with a cop is some kind of protection.  I don’t know.  I don’t like the way he sits there sort of smiling like he knows something you don’t know?  You know the type.  Think they’re deep when they’re not?  I’ve got nothing against him, nothing whatsoever.  But then, I don’t haffta trust him,” and added, “He’s probably OK.”

Ross got up to leave and started to take out his wallet until the lieutenant waved his hand.  As Ross started for the door, Caruana put his hand on Smith’s arm.

“Listen, Smith.  We got off to a bad start.  I’ve got a hot temper.  As a cop, I keep it under control, but as a Sicilian man—that’s another thing.  I deeply respect Ross, and if he trusts you, that’s good enough for me.  Shake?”

Anterus smiled and shook the lieutenant’s hand. 

“Don’t give it another thought, lieutenant. We both have jobs to do.”

“That’s right, Smith, and part of my job is to see that nothing bad happens to Veritas or Doc Ross.”

“Fortunately, they’re now on a sound financial footing.”

“That’s good to hear.”

“But you should know all about that from Justin Wright.”

“Just in general terms, of course.”

“But you know about that shortfall..”

“Just in…”

“General terms. Of course.  I understand you’re something of an expert at collecting information.”

“Yeah, it’s a big part of my job.  You never know when something you know might turn out to be useful.”

“Like Ross covering for Karl Johann’s shortfall.”

“So you collect information in addition to old coins?  Yeah, I know about that, and I’ll be honest with you.  I’ve heard a lot of screwy stories on this job, but that takes the prize.  I don’t understand intellectuals any better than I understand priests—less, because, to be honest, most priests I know are no better than you and me.  But Ross—he put himself and his money on the line for someone else.  My first thought was, “What a chump.  I almost bust a gut laughing.”

“And your second thought?”

“The guy’s some kind of a saint, a real credit to the community, but..”

“Still a chump.”

“You said it.  That’s in fact when I realized how much he needed my help.  I’ll let you in on a secret, Smith.”  And Caruana dropped the ingratiating tone, “I’m not a saint.  It would be a real mistake to cross me, thinking I'd forgive and forget.”  Then, practically cooing, “But we understand each other.”

“We certainly do and you know why?”

Caruana shook his head.  “Because I’m no saint either.  Glad you’re going to be working with us, lieutenant.”

Ross was waiting for him on the street. 

“What was all that about?”

“The lieutenant assured me of his undying respect.”

“Do you believe what he said about Justin?  Or that business about board members seeing the books?  He was clearly hinting at Sottili.”

“He may be playing his own game and trying to distance himself from Wright.  That would not be proof of sincerity but he could turn to be useful.  If it’s all an act, which it may be, he’s a better man than I took him for.”

“You think he could be even good?”

“No, not if you mean virtuous, just good at what he is doing.  I just took him for a thug looking out for what he Ould steal.  I hope I wasn’t wrong.  One thing.  Be very careful with him.  If he ever even hints at any intimidation, pretend you don’t know what he is talking about and treat the whole thing as a joke—in fact buy him a drink and agree to see him in the future.  Two can play this game—though that makes it more dangerous.”

“I don’t think I could even begin to play as a rank amateur.  ‘What tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive.’” 

When they reached the parking lot, Ross offered to drive Smith home.  

“I know it’s a bit early, but the doctors don’t think I should even be working a half day.  They’d rather I sat home, fretting.”

“Thanks, but I have a few things to straighten out back at the office.”  

A few things.

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