Snowballs of Acid
It was before six o'clock when Inspector Joseph Tyrone arrived at the Cecil Rhodes Art Gallery. He got out of his car with a 49-Gersh/Ajax 26 Wubba Wubba Handgun that he had requisitioned with considerable difficulty from the station and entered the building. The Art Gallery was at the exact centre of the Compass, so Tyrone had to find out who was supposed to be there next Thursday. Just as closing time approached, Tyrone greeted the director, an extremely shy woman in her mid-forties, and browbeated her into allowing him to make an investigation of the premises. This was good for Tyrone because the chief of police had refused out of hand any application he might make for a warrant.
The director was extremely accommodating and eagerly agreed to Tyrone's proposal that he be allowed to anything he pleased. She gave him the codes needed to activate the electronic surveillance system and she gave him a set of keys so that he could look through the assorted records. By a strange coincidence she was the sister of the assistant funeral director who was in charge of ensuring the burial of Oliver Corpse, and at this moment he was wondering how to expedite the inquest that was preventing him from being buried, and worrying about whether he would fit in his coffin. But Tyrone did not know this fact and he never would.
After she left Tyrone took out his notebook that contained the names of the members of the Philhellenon club. He then took out the visitor's book and looked at the names. No people connected to the Philhellenon club were among the frequent visitors: Corpse, Manzoni, Chelmnickon, and Hermann had never come here at all. Veniot had been here five times in the past year, his remarks showing that he was less impressed every time. Seinkewicz senior had come here twice, and so had Giles. Adrian Verrall had come here once, and had a priceless painting by Alex Colville smashed on his head when he tried to pick up one of the gallery assistants. There was a special note by one of the board of governors to invite him back the next time they had a Colville exhibition. Tyrone started to write out all the people who had come to the gallery more than seven times in the past year, and then opened the notebook to compare it to the forty-nine members of the Philhellenon club. Much to his surprise Tyrone found he could no longer read the abbreviations he used for the names. It took considerable concentration for him to remember what the initials stood for, and to conclude that none of them were connected to the frequent visitors. Nervously, Tyrone closed the notebook and looked at the appointment schedule. On Thursday, there was to be a private visit by Althusser Amsterdam, of the firm Amsterdam, Bertrand, Calvino and Dramsheet, who would look at an exhibition of his daughter's work that was to be presented to the public the following week. It was very possible that Dramsheet and the other partners would be joining him.
Tyrone got up to look around the gallery. The building consisted of the front desk, four rooms that actually exhibited the art, a pair of washrooms, a back room in the basement for storing pictures, complete with an actual basement, and a large number of offices filled with telephones. The gallery was entirely air-conditioned; except for the washrooms and the front desk there were no windows in the entire building. Tyrone moved to the special box that kept the alarm system and activated it. Even as he insured that no one would be able to enter the building a disturbing thought occurred to him. Every victim had died at a special point of the compass, every victim was of a different ethnicity. And every victim had been murdered in a different way: Veniot had been pushed down an elevator shaft, Manzoni had been drowned, Hermann had been poisoned, and Corpse had been hanged. So how would "they" kill Dramsheet, and moreover how would "they" do it in such a way that it would look like a suicide? Electrocution was a possibility, so Tyrone looked for all the plug ins; they existed only in the offices where they were used for the coffee makers. Dramsheet could also be stabbed to death, but it would be tricky, as the only knives in the building were the plastic knives used for biscuits. But the glass in the washrooms could be broken and used to slash his throat or his wrists. As he considered that possibility Tyrone remembered the case of M. Savoir, whose wrists had also been slashed in an attempt to make it appear that he had not been murdered. Then, for some unknown reason, he remembered Giles's comment after the murderer had been discovered. "So that's how M. Savoir committed suicide!"
But he was still nervous. Six days from now he might not be on the police force. Unlikely, to be sure, but the chief had a special interest in sabotaging his career. Certainly the case would be dropped if he could not find anything to counter the evidence of Franz Wilentz. If that happened there would be no way to protect Dramsheet from his murderer. Tyrone continued to search for ways Dramsheet could be murdered while making it look like suicide. Since Dramsheet did not own a firearm it would be senseless to have him shot. But what if the murderer no longer wanted to make it look like a suicide? If Dramsheet already knew the truth why not kill him in any old manner? There were two ways to kill a person in the middle of a crowded art gallery and have a reasonable chance of escaping. One way would be to use poison gas through the ventilation system. But the system was linked to the security system, so it would be difficult to tamper with. The other way would be with a bomb. Where could it be hidden? For the past few years the gallery had shown only paintings and sketches, so it would be impossible to bring in a blob of plastic explosive and claim it was a new art form. A bomb could be hidden in a coffeepot and in a desk drawer. But the coffeepots would only be in the offices, since there were no electric plugs in the galleries. And a bomb hidden in the heavy and cumbersome office desks would be of only limited success. A bomb could be placed in a toilet, but it would be too complicated to ensure that Dramsheet used it. So there seemed no place left to put it. But since the compass must have been drawn up weeks before, the murderer must have a thorough knowledge of the Art Gallery. So he (or she) could have created a hiding place large enough to conceal a bomb. If, as was possible, the bomb was not actually here six days before the attempt on Dramsheet's life, the hollow space could be detected by sounding on the walls.
All Tyrone needed was a long straight object that he could tap with. But surprisingly enough, none could be found. The pencil he had used to write the notations from the visitor's books was far too short, and in order to keep the Art Gallery costs down all the pencils and pens had to be collected at the end of the day and returned to a special locked compartment, the key to which Tyrone realized he did not have. Much to his chagrin, Tyrone found he had to take out the 49-Geresh/Ajax 26 Wubba Wubba Handgun, and use it to tap the walls. He started with the gallery that was going to show the paintings of Miss Amsterdam. He started tapping conscientiously until he noticed a portrait of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden with his wife. Looking at it, Tyrone considered it the most boring painting he had ever seen. So was the boring watercolor of the cloudy autumn afternoon with the curlews, and so was the other painting about the crucifixion where the man faced the cross so he could push the nails from the other side into his hands. But the next painting was very different, and Tyrone suddenly found he had to stare at it.
The painting shouldn't have been in the Cecil Rhodes Art Center at all, there was no reason for its existence, it was here only by a complete accident. The painter wasn't even a Canadian at all, it was supposed to go to some gallery in Alberquerque or Toledo or Austin, but some moron had sent it to the Center, and it would have been thrown away, and it would be next week, but the director noticed that it was just the right size for the space on the wall, and so it would have just a few days of life before its timely destruction. The curators couldn't spell the name of the painter, so they didn't bother, and they lost the slip as well, so they decided that the painting had been created by one of the Center's richest contributors. The title, however, could not be disposed off, and Tyrone could read it very clearly on the frame, which was not leaden at all: "M.A. Asturias." The painting was in flames of orange and red, but at the bottom was a man, reaching for salvation from out of this hell, dressed in the exquisitely tailored black suit of a fine diplomat with just a touch of Jew-baiting from a shoddy country where the passports had typos, and which were printed on cheap paper, that looked a little like sandpaper and felt a little like flypaper, so they often got stuck especially in the heat in the cholera cities where the whores were so evil and stupid they actually wanted children, and where the milk gave you dysentery, and it was the colour of blood, but that could be forgiven as it had been checked and as the man looked above the flames of orange and red, up to the top of the painting for salvation from unforgiving Gods, Tyrone thought he could see in the heavens of those Gods John Stuart Mill tea cups, which clashed with the fine plates where you could eat Sirgeorgeloinorwell steak, besides the Adam Smith curtains, and the Montesquieu vacuum cleaner, and the Edmund Burke milk carafes, and the Andrew Jackson slippers and Tyrone could hear the jingles of the Darwin-Hume-Gibbon jugband, near the John Locke nickers, and he could see the Matthew Arnold diet book, which the unforgiving Gods used to reduce their weight and he could see the Arthurschlesignersidneyhookirvingkristol milk inspectors who said there was nothing wrong with the fact that the dysentery milk was the colour of blood, and as Tyrone saw the flames spiral out of the flame and out of the buildings and up to the sky and into heaven and passing the Aron windows and the Hayek clouds, as they consumed the blood of the guilty and the people who had to be guilty and the people who of course were guilty because the innocent said they had to die murdered butchered slaughtered, Tyrone suddenly looked at something else.
Tyrone went around tapping the gallery mechanically with the handgun, but as he did so, he thought he heard a strange echo. He ignored it, and continued tapping, but after a few minutes the echo began again. As he continued, the echo went along with him, not becoming louder or more dominating, but just the same volume. But as it did so it became softer, sweeter, and Tyrone thought he was listening to some sort of music. But this couldn't be the case, because the sound was like nothing he had ever heard before, and even more, the music went out of its way to remind him that it was nothing like Ireland. As he had turned around so that he could see the first four paintings, and continued his pounding he saw himself looking at the sentimental watercolor, and to his surprise, he thought he saw one of the curlews in the upper right hand corner actually fly out of the border and up to the ceiling. But that was absurd. Why would he be attracted by a badly-drawn curlew in a boring unoriginal watercolor? So the curlew stayed put, and then Tyrone realized that his tapping had stopped, or rather he was still hitting the handgun against the wall, but there was no sound coming out. And at the same moment he recognized that the echo, or the music, had stopped and that he had already forgotten what it was.
then he heard something very different. For in one of the offices the
telephone was ringing.
Charles Harding was sitting in his apartment, waiting for the meeting he had scheduled to begin. It had been two weeks since the party where he had first heard of the Flannery O'Connor Brigade, and so much had happened! He had gotten married, two more Catholics had died, and some crazy fanatic had come sneaking around his apartment last night, (but he had shown her alright). There were also the four incidents; the insurance agents in Medicine Hat, the butterflies in Dr. Corpse's office, the fascists in poor Constantine's apartment, and the megalomaniac pianos. Clearly, these otherwise unrelated incidents were symptoms of something much bigger, but this did not worry him as he had the vague sense that he had always known that.
Perhaps, he thought, as he sat in the luxurious brown chair and sat in the darkness of his already ornate apartment, he should have warned Mrs. Chelmnickon about the piano that was to crush her to death. It was the kind and decent thing to do, and it did bother him, but what advantage was there to prophecy if you revealed everything you knew before hand? And besides he had read enough science fiction stories to know that you could not willfully alter the preordained. So he let it rest, and his conscience was at peace.
There was music playing in the room, though a casual observer would have trouble finding out where it came from. For that matter, even a very careful observer would have had problems, and indeed a very careful observer could have been very confused by the music. That it was pleasurable could not be denied, but it seemed foreign, seemed unearthly and unreal and unprecedented. For it was a special kind of sweet music, a music that no longer made intellectual demands on its listeners, but served them willingly and only gave them pleasure. This sort of music pleased Charles very much.
Oddly enough, he was not at all disturbed at the absence of his wife. And why should he be? Granted there was the possibility that she might go to the police, or even worse, she would go to Vanessa, who couldn't be trusted to keep a secret. But what was there to worry about? What had he done that was so wrong? If she hadn't tripped while running out of the bathroom so that she hit herself on the coffee table, she wouldn't have been bruised at all. He had only smacked her for her smug and pompous tone she should have known better not to whine about his affairs it was perfectly natural for him to desire more than one woman and it was not as if he cared for Aquilla Rogers or that he loved her at all. And as for Vanessa, well that was simply a lapse in taste, and he was only curious about Lucian. And Ms. Van P--- and her stupid maid deserved what they got for being so nosy. It wasn't as if he would be so rigid about Elizabeth's affairs. He would be perfectly understanding. Admittedly, Constantine and Adrian were hardly men who could compete with him. And even if they could, he did, after all, have something that they would never have. And if she did sleep with them, he would have to straighten her out for such patently bad taste. So Constantine thought he was a pimp: that wasn't merely unfair, it was also a sign of clichéd thinking. Prostitutes were very polite once you promised to pay them, and the efficient ones were very responsible about venereal disease. Economists were irritated by the expense, but should that be the final judgment? Anyway, Elizabeth really should be viewing this more as an opportunity, as a chance for personal growth. But how could she doubt that he loved her? As soon as she came back he would reward her pains with just as much pleasure. No, ten times more, a hundred times more, and it wasn't as if he was just going to persuade her to sleep with him. It would be something much more special, much more beautiful and much more convincing.
He looked around his apartment, in the dark with the lights off. There was no moon tonight, or at least it was covered by clouds, and everything should be quite black by now. But the room gave off a special luminance, a special sort of light, not at all like phosphorescence, but a sort of light that let you see what objects looked like without interfering with the beauty of the dark. Charles was quite impressed at his new possessions. What had previously been just another apartment of another newlywed couple now had a decidedly proper feel, as it was filled with fine objects of the last century. And they were all natural objects, as if they had actually been lived in, not at all the shoddy acquisitions of a nouveau riche. Granted, they were a little too dark, but many of them had their own cheerful colours. Charles was especially proud of the Renoir, or what should have been a Renoir, it was a scene from Madame Bovary and it hung over the living room. Of course, one day they were going to get a house, not just a cramped apartment. But everything looked very well actually, and he was very fond of the brilliant leaden frames that surrounded the paintings, that topped the fine desks, and which made perfect paperweights in the firmly crafted bookcases. And it all cleaned up after itself: Elizabeth should be very pleased indeed, she would never have to clean up again. In the meantime Charles could look forward to his meeting.
True, not much progress had been made in the past five days, and others might
think that things were slipping out of control. But there was no reason
to think that, for there was every reason for confidence. He couldn't
wait in fact for the meeting to begin so that he could tell them about it, and
how he could use it to guarantee the complete defeat of the Brigade. Here
was an utterly evil group, planning some hideous conspiracy, but against
what? Against Canadian Democracy? Against the world? Against
tolerance? Regardless, he would know its plans and defeat them. For
he knew it all, he knew the special role the Wallace Stevenites played, the
reason behind the Italian fascists, the logic behind the deadly grand
pianos. And as he sat in his chair, which was a priceless Chippendale,
but was perfectly soft and fine for his posture, he knew all about the
marigolds, the mermaid soap, the rose-attar gum, the anniversary in the
elevator of the Castlereagh hotel, he knew about Roget's prehensile ears, about
Giles' infinite plans to find his wife, about the key used in the death of M.
Savoir, he knew about the bouncing ball, and the silly Christian bookstore and
his shampoo drinking mother in law, and Marx's Balzac, and Shakespeare's
Alcibiades, he knew about the koala writers, and the lethal watermelons, and
the paraquat pumping accountant, and the story of the grove of thorns, and he
knew about the fake jewelry that the clerks only bought when they found they
had to get married, and the grave of the woman had condemned herself to hell
out of love, and about the post-modernist parables, and he knew about the war
of omelets and the brothels of chastity and the anonymous letters that Vanessa
received, he knew it all and it all made perfect sense, and best of all he knew
about the conspiracy to kill someone who was already dead. He smiled as
he took out a fine South African champagne, complete with a special handwritten
note from Nelson Mandela saying that it was all right to drink it, and poured
himself another quite harmless drink. As he slowly indulged himself he
gradually remembered that perhaps he should have told the others about the acid
Vanessa was thinking. She was sitting at her desk looking over the essay
for Professor Chelmnickon that she was supposed to have handed in today.
She thought about Constantine, and that led her to turn to see if Elizabeth was
sleeping in her room. She then tapped her pencil neurotically and for
some reason she felt she had to stay here in the apartment for the entire
night, and so she got up and turned off all the lights so that the others would
think she wasn't here when they came to pick her up to go to
Giles Seinkewicz was leaving the hospital, having conducted his affairs in such a way as to miss all the attempts of Ignatius Wilentz to contact him, having mislaid all the papers of all the consular officials in Europe and having been almost pushed out by his parents. He ran towards Adrian in the parking lot. "Constantine can't come tonight; he's come down with the flu." The two got into a taxi and went off to get Lucian and Aquilla, while the bouncing blue ball happily hopped up and down with them in the back seat. "Do you know that Dr. Roget wanted Vanessa to have a baby?" it said. "What do you mean?" "Apparently it had something to do with taking a shower and Constantine." and the ball told them all about the war of the omelets.
Giles nodded. Seeing his parents together again made him want to know where his wife was all the more. So just before his parents had pushed him out of the hospital, he had had a long and rather pointless conversation with Dramsheet. He talked about the letters that he gave to Dramsheet to send to his wife. When he had returned from his honeymoon he had sent one once a week, and of course he had to read each letter to Dramsheet before the latter would send it. And of course there could be no threats, no impoliteness, no vulgarity, no dyslexia, no passion, no obscenity, no insults about Dramsheet, no insults against any of Dramsheet's friends, no split infinitives, no double negatives, no solecisms, sophistries or sonorities. And of course, Dramsheet checked the letters physically, to ensure that Giles hadn't left any drawings, hadn't written some rude sentiment in the acrostics down the side of the page, hadn't written some sexy anagram. And of course he found the impoliteness, the vulgarity, the solecisms, and the naughty acrostics, and when he did Dramsheet would tear the letter into a hundred pieces. And he would tear the letters even when they were perfectly innocent, just to be on the safe side, just as a random check against any naughtiness Giles could have covertly slipped in, just as punishment for having written the naughty letters. And so this went on, but as it did, Dramsheet complained that there was no need to send the letters, they had too much in common, they all shared the same message, and so it would be a waste of everyone's time to keep sending the same letter over and over again. And so Dramsheet cut the sendings from once a week, to once a fortnight, to once a month, to once every two months, to once every three months, until he abruptly stopped once and for all, saying that he should be paid for having conducted his client's correspondence with her husband, and had sent Natasha Wilentz a letter requesting payment, but none ever came, so he was forthwith refusing to send any more letters. And he refused to let Giles pay for the letters, since he could use the amounts paid as a clue to the location of the man who knew the location of Natasha Wilentz. And he was not moved in the slightest by Giles' pleas that he should resume the correspondence, tell Giles the address of Natasha Wilentz, help Giles obtain a divorce or an annulment or a financial settlement or anything else. And when Giles got down on his hands on knees, (which Dramsheet, of course, could not see over the telephone), and begged Dramsheet that he had never loved any woman like his wife, that he dreamed about her every night, that he could not live any longer with the two of them apart, and that he begged Dramsheet in the name of God to tell him how he could find his wife, Dramsheet hung up, and turned to more important matters. And he did the same thing when Giles had called him that afternoon.
Once the two cousins reached Lucian's the taxi was dismissed, and they were all supposed to walk the next few blocks to Charles' apartment. The distance was, in case the reader has forgotten, about ten blocks and just before the apartment was a large field of snow in front of the buildings of the Medical faculty, dotted only by a few groves of trees, and the snowed in remains of a fountain. The snow was very deep and there was only one well-trod path across it, so naturally Lucian immediately strayed away from it and rushed across the field. To the protests of the others, she started laughing and zig-zagging madly across the field, before dropping to her knees and rolling over and smothering over the snow as if she were in the effusions of some mad, passionate embrace. The ball was all too happy to follow her and the others had no choice but to follow them. Adrian found the deep snow surprisingly difficult to stumble through, it was almost a metre high in places and all he could do was waddle unconvincingly. But although he was completely useless in waddling over the snow he could still duck the snowball that Lucian threw at him and which hit Aquilla right in the face. As he looked at the absurd figure sputtering with snow in her mouth, Adrian regretted that the snowball hadn't hit him after all. But then Aquilla began to scream.
Giles, who was the farthest behind, reached Aquilla, who was in a state of genuine hysteria. "It's burning it ripping off my face it's tearing off all my skin I'm dying." "What do you mean?" "Acid, a whole batch of acid just flung in my face!" Giles peered into her face. "Your face isn't hurt at all." He wiped off the face and looked at her more closely. "There is something very strange about your face though." Giles had paid little attention to the woman he did not recognize as his first cousin on the few times he had visited her, and indeed there was little about Aquilla Rogers' face that immediately attracted attention. But there was a small birthmark right beside her right nostril that Giles had noticed on past visits because Aquilla had made every effort to cover it up. But now looking at her more closely he could see no sign of it at all.
Aquilla had stopped screaming. Indeed she was so silent that the blue bouncing ball was a little concerned and it asked her who she was. "I am Aquilla Rogers. Once upon a time I was Aquilla Vovelle. I had a father who was a mathematician and he married my mother Madame Catherine Jeannette Roget. I had an aunt named Avare Roget, and she married a handsome young man named John Seinkewicz whom my mother hit on the back with a croquet mallet. They had a son named Giles Seinkewicz, and he tried to get the snow off my face."
"Aquilla? Cousin Aquilla? But that means you've been talking to the Brigade behind our backs. Oh no."
"Why is she talking in the past tense?" asked Adrian.
"Because I don't have any parents any more. I don't have any cousins and sisters any more. I used to have a sister, her name was Pandora Vovelle, but she changed it after she assassinated a politician. The sister I used to have loved me very much and she lived in the apartment above Elizabeth Concrete because Elizabeth Concrete also used to be my cousin, and she was born from a virgin. But I don't have a sister any more."
"What do you have?"
"I have nothing at all. The only relatives I have are the world. I don't have to worry about my silly little relatives, because now the whole world loves me, and I can ignore all the realities behind the unimportant lives of my fake relatives. My real parents are Nicholas Rogers, and Nora, from Andorra, Rogers, and they live right here in Ottawa. Why don't we go there; we can all watch only the most mediocre American sitcoms, because they're the best, and we'll all be served watercress sandwiches."
"But I don't like watercress sandwiches!"
"Shut up Adrian." hissed Giles. "I think she's completely cracked. But I don't understand why."
"Hey guys." said Lucian, finally catching up with them. "Is Aquilla hurt?"
"No, I don't think so..." replied Giles.
"Good." And she hit Giles right in the face with another snowball.
Giles was so completely astonished that Adrian and the ball and even Aquilla
had started returning fire by the time he remembered to scream. The agony
was intense and he could even smell the searing of his flesh, but this time
what he felt was all the memories of being served chamomile tea in bed by his
mother with a special tenderness that was completely left aside when his father
returned home from Parliament. It was a really silly memory, he thought,
but he was alarmed as she saw his mother being erased in his mind, leaving only
the hands while his favorite blanket was no longer to be seen. Then
another snowball hit him, and then another one, and he saw Adrian's face being
erased in his mind, and all his mother's special wrinkles being diluted away,
and the few times he saw Natasha Wilentz, and all the incense and flags and
ledgers no longer meant anything in his mind. After all, he thought, as
he comfortably began to hallucinate, was not his childhood somewhat
ridiculous? And what a silly name, Giles Seinkewicz, William Simon was a
much more sensible version, except that Simon was a Jewish name, so he should
change it to Smith, and change his first name to John, just to be on the safe
side. John Smith, formerly un Giles Seinkewicz was comfortably sitting in
his chair, the sole descendant of a line of history that had nothing to do with
rutting clerics in fourteenth century Poland. He put a fine cigar in his
mouth, but decided that since tobacco was bad for you it would be better if it
was chewing gum and so it was. As he relaxed in his perfect plastic copy
of a fine Chippendale chair reached out for a book of great literature, and he
smiled to himself as he opened it and found how fluffy-puffy Milton's poetry
was. He settled himself in his plastic chair, while his imaginary
friends, who he vaguely remembered had the names of Adrian and Lucian, wondered
why he was sitting upside down with his face in the snow, which did not prevent
them from still hitting him with snowballs. He absently mindedly reached
for his Rudyard Kipling squeeze toy and congratulated himself on the
opportunity he had to stop and smell the roses and listen to the giggling of
Turner's paintings. John Smith, formerly un Giles Seinkewicz, relaxed
before the failsafe fire and the mass produced antiques sitting tactfully on
the Quasar-Quasax mantlepiece. Milton was such a nice poet, he never
disturbed anyone, it was nice to have a poet who obligingly told everyone how
nasty people could be, and Smith thought wouldn't it be nice to give the entire
leadership of the Communist Party of the United States of America medals for
being such loyal citizens. He reached for his constitution in a can, for
his Wittgenstein in a can, which was always so sweet-smelling and pleasant, and
had just the right undertone of pessimism, and John Smith squeezed his squeeze
toy just right to remind himself of how lucky he was, to be so rich in happy in
the best of all possible worlds, where all the world's history could be served
in the cream puffs, just enough to give it that bitter aftertaste, reminding
him that all men were mortal, but that all Smiths were innocent. And as
he read another happy book on why most of humanity would be damned, and how
pleasant that was, the reality seemed to change. John Smith was quite
angry, quite annoyed at the way this Giles Seinkewicz fantasy was trying to
whine his way back into his mind, trying to remind him of stupid French-Poles
and their inability to have children, trying to remind him of strange beautiful
Jewish women, and about blue bouncing balls, when he had more important things
to do, like play the wonderful game of calculation, where he could figure out
how much the infant mortality of some country of stupid lazy blacks would go up
as they attacked the national debt. And as he joined all the other John
Smiths and the sing-song music of Wagner could be heard in the background and
as the doughnuts and creampuffs and the statistics on diphtheria were all
devoured, this strange image of a world where immature children were throwing
snowballs at each other kept interrupting his thought. He concentrated
very hard, very hard indeed, and listened to the other John Smiths say that if
the infant mortality went up very high it would reduce the population growth
and so everyone else would be better off in the long run, and as they all
congratulated each other on their courage and risk tasking for saying that so
and so many poor and dirty and rather ugly children would have to die, and
having the courage to do this, and not only did they have the courage, and
anyway they could also be sure that any excess infant mortality were just lies
spread by Keynesian swine, John Smith, formerly un Giles Seinkewicz, could
happily dismiss the last image in his mind, of Lucian Rudman reaching the
apartment of Charles Harding and opening the door, which had to be an illusion,
because the real unreal Lucian Rudman was still throwing
Inspector Tyrone got up from where he had been sounding, and walked over to the telephone. There was something mad in all this he thought as he strode at a steady calm unenthusiastic and yet endless pace. Surely it must be a wrong number, everyone knew that the Cecil Rhodes Gallery wasn't open this late in the evening. Besides the ringing telephone was from an office, and the offices had different numbers from the front desk telephone. If someone was trying to call the Gallery, he would have called the front desk, the office numbers were the unlisted numbers of the employees, none of whom ever stayed this late in the evening. So most likely it was a wrong number, and he should not bother answering it. Besides, what if it was the chief, and he was trying to follow him? If he found out that Tyrone had badgered someone into letting him rifle the premises at will, it would be just another nail in his coffin. He should ignore it entirely, the call was utterly purposeless, and yet the phone kept ringing again and again, as if it wouldn't stop until someone picked up the line. Tyrone entered the office, strode slowly to the desk and placed the handgun by the rolodex as he picked up the receiver.
"Hello?" said the voice on the other end of the line.
"Who is this?"
"Ahh," said the voice knowingly.
"Who is this?"
"Ah, Inspector Tyrone." said the voice. At first Tyrone thought there was something sinister about the voice, though he had no reason at all to think so. By the end of the evening he would realize there was nothing wrong about the voice at all. Tyrone could not place the voice. It certainly wasn't that of the chief, nor was it that of any of his flunkies or assistants though as he thought about it, it had occurred to him that throughout his fifteen years on the police force he had only listened to what they had to say, and that he had never listened to their voices. The more he thought about it, the more strange he realized it was. He could remember Vice-Inspector Monagham's sentence structure, use of idiom, general inflection, but he had no idea what she actually sounded like. Come to think of it, he could not remember Dramsheet's voice, or Vanessa Wilentz's, or even the voices of his younger siblings whose voices had changed after he concluded that there was no more future in English. He was barely able to deal with this memory as he asked "Were you expecting me?"
"Oh yes. Well not exactly. I thought that someone would be here Friday night, but it wasn't you I was looking for."
"Dramsheet. You knew Dramsheet would be here next Thursday. You're behind the compass of death."
"I deny that categorically. Even now you still don't understand. However, I will say that I hoped Dramsheet would be here next Thursday. But now that you're here, I'll talk to you. Granted you haven't written any anonymous letters, but that was more of an individual pathology. And I'm practical enough to avoid that."
"I've been here for more than an hour. You can either electrocute Dramsheet, slit his wrists, or blow him up with a bomb. Once I give him my memorandum he'll take precautions."
"As I said previously, I am not behind the Compass of Death. You think I am a murderer? I am not a murderer. If people have died I can say that is not my responsibility. I do not desire the death of sinners. Nor do I claim not to be one myself. My dear fellow, do you think that was what I was going to do to him? I would never want to harm one of my fellow creatures. And surely Dramsheet would have told you that's not how I go about things."
"But you are behind the compass."
"You assume that. You assume incorrectly."
"That voice! I actually recognize it."
"Well of course you do. I'm not that obscure."
Tyrone reached for the telephone book that was in the drawer on the opposite side of the desk so he could look up the instructions for 'call trace.' "How did you kill these people?"
"Once again, I am not a murderer. Anyway, 'Kill' is such an
emotional word. It's most inaccurate in my circumstances.
However, I do have something very important to tell you." But
as all the other characters of this novel, save one, will learn the complete
truth about the compass of death in no more than thirty-six hours in the
future, the revelation and the identity of our anonymous caller will have to
wait until then.
Charles Harding was still resting in his armchair listening to his special music, as he looked outside his window and saw his friends running around mindlessly in the snow. As he wondered what he should do, there was a knock on the door. Charles got up and when he opened he saw a person whose fine dress pants and perfectly tailored dress suit could not conceal her obviously feminine manner and appearance.
Charles smiled. "Come in. I've been expecting you."
And in his hands he carried a strange box, with a metal surface that kept
shimmering in a strange series of unknown patterns.
Just when John Smith thought he could get back to enjoying his polyester alabaster statues, he kept being bothered by things that weren't real. It was very annoying, here he was about to start a hard day's work of patting poor people on the head, even though they didn't deserve it, and the name Giles Seinkewicz kept flashing through his mind. How very odd, perhaps he should go over and gather up all his Polish friends and they could talk about it. Naturally there was always the risk that they would break out into spontaneous acclaim of what a wonderful person he was, and naturally he would try to refuse but would let them praise him anyway because it would have been rude to insist on the matter. As he got out he took some Hardy to read, the books with all the happy endings in them, where Hardy apologized and groveled for having disturbed the thoughts of good people like John Smith. He also took some books and things that the poor people had created. They weren't very good of course, they were so trivial, after all; being entirely about their unimportant and meaningless lives, but he liked to show what an open-minded and tolerant person he was, and he liked to see how the poor people rolled over and panted happily after he praised them. But he could not keep these imaginary things out of his mind, and it made him cross and irritable. Everyone was criticizing suburbia, when everyone knew that suburbia was much more generous and complex and subtle and cosmopolitan. Tolstoy lived in suburbia, Shakespeare lived in suburbia, why God Himself lived in suburbia: that was the whole point of Paul's letter to the Galatians. And suburbs were models of ideological, religious, social and ethnic diversity. And if there were suburbs where less than 1% of the population was black, well that was entirely a coincidence. Or because they were all in Maine. Or it was the fault of the liberals. Communists like Gaylord Nelson. It was all quite unjust actually. Almost like that imaginary Giles Seinkewicz was when he kept whining about his wife and with his idiotic dyslexia. Why he could almost hear the imaginary Giles now praising Butter, Bun and Holy Toast...
For the past five minutes the blue bouncing ball had tried to sing Giles into some sort of consciousness. When that didn't work it tried bumping against him, and as that was useless as well, and he was still upside down as well, the ball had no choice but to take a good running bounce and flop him out of the snow. "Good grief" said the upright John/Giles staring at the ball for the first time. "It's a large fat Jewish woman. It's probably some sort of horrible feminist. If only I had another large fat Jewish woman to tell her to go away."
"Hi there!" said the ball.
"Good lord! It actually talks. If I don't watch out I might actually be trapped into a conversation."
"Giles, are you all right?"
"Why do you call me that name? That's not my name."
"But of course is it. I couldn't forget a name like that."
"But Giles is an imaginary name. It can't be real."
"But of course it's your name. You're Giles Seinkewicz, and your father is..." and as the ball started to chatter meaninglessly away John Smith realized that his existence was far more circumstantial than he had hoped. He felt forbidden concepts coming into his mind, like the cold he shouldn't be feeling, and on his hands, now that his gloves that he wasn't supposed to be wearing had fallen off, and as he rubbed his hands together to ward off the imaginary cold he felt himself feeling a wedding ring that John Smith shouldn't be having. And then John Smith had to face the very real possibility that he didn't exist at all. Naturally he faced this fact with the appropriate stoicism and courage and dignity, and he started to make the necessary plans to either confirm or deny his own existence when, very abruptly, he no longer existed, and there was only Giles Seinkewicz shivering in the snow.
"Adrian, you have to find Adrian."
The ball happily bounced over to Adrian who was thrashing around in the snow. But to the ball's considerable worry Adrian was under the illusion that he was a woman named Clara and that she made her living polishing candlestick holders. He (or she) was in even worse shape than Giles, because he (or she) could see nothing of the outside world at all, except for the brief moment a few seconds ago when he (or she) saw Lucian Rudman enter the apartments. Otherwise Clara had no idea of an Adrian Verrall, no idea that when she washed the umbrellas, sorted the spatulas, filed the pencils, chopped up the pokers, mailed away the fishing rods, and set fire to the brooms she was somehow reflecting the life of a man she could not conceive of, whose existence was completely unthinkable and unthought. As the ball tried to remind Clara of her life as a man, Clara had no idea of Sampson Verrall, or Adrian's mother, or his uncle, or the towns in the riding of Chelmnitsky Crowfoot where he had lived all his life. This was because Clara was in the throes of a grand passion; to be precise a grand passion knocked on the door every Wednesday morning at 10:15 and would shake her up and down very energetically for five minutes. As a consequence of this Clara was infatuated with Lucian Rudman, who seemed to her to be the model of a real man. Moreover she was pregnant, or would be, or had already been, and had already given birth to a large turtle that kept wandering off to join its father (or mother?) in the apartment of Charles Harding.
But right now Adrian/Clara was talking, an activity the ball thoroughly encouraged. "Do you remember the fifties?" he/she said. Adrian wasn't actually talking to the ball, for one of the greatest benefits of his transformation into Clara was that she could now talk to anyone at all. In the bad old days women actually had to talk to other women, who might do horrible things like actually respond, or talk about their own problems. But now, in this new dispensation, Clara could talk and chatter anyway, and she could have meaningful conversations in complete solitude from the rest of the world. There would only be silent voices giving the correct conversational pointers, a voice of great timbre and authority and warmth saying "Oh really?" and "I didn't know that." and "How very clever of you." "Do you remember the late fifties?" asked Adrian. "No," said the ball. "There were many nasty things that took place in the late fifties. The Great Leap Forward, the crushing of the Hungarian revolution, the censoring of Pasternak, the liquidation of liberty in Guatemala, the invasion of Lebanon, Suez, the partition of Vietnam, dirty tricks in Laos, the whole Congo problem. But now I realize that they didn't take place at all. Imagine, a whole generation of people thinking that there should be a country in the center of Africa called Zaire. What could be a more preposterous notion? Just because there clearly isn't a large lake in the center of Africa, or a large crater or an impassable desert, people think that there has to be a country in the center of Africa. But how could there be such a thing? I don't recall seeing it the last time I was there, and there's no solid evidence that such a country could ever take place."
"What about Heart of Darkness?"
"That's the key, the proof that a place like Zaire could never take place. I mean, why would a great author waste his time running around in Zaire when he could be writing about something much more important? Why concern himself with the concerns of non-existent people, when there are so many real people to worry about? Everyone knows that it's just a prelude to Under Western Eyes. But it's a masterpiece all the same. Remember the passage where Marlow talks about the incredible fear that his Zairian employees might actually be human? What could be a greater sign of empathy that to sympathize with people who don't actually exist?"
"So there's no more Zaire, anymore?"
"Not only is there no more Zaire, there are no more East Timors, or Salakhine Islands, or a country called Cameroon. No more Cameroon to have to worry about. Isn't that such a relief?"
"Adrian, could you tell me who you are?"
"Oh, I'd love to. I'd love to make you noodles, except that you don't exist, so I don't have to, but it is nice that I can pretend to be so generous to non-existent people. I know, I'll order a synthetic pizza, properly knitted in the oven, filled with great slabs of rancid fat, and hot pepper, and if you don't like it, well I'll just have to eat it so it doesn't get cold. But I have to keep polishing the candlesticks."
By this time Giles had recovered enough to go trudging in the snow up to Adrian. Adrian was still rambling on, and Giles was so frustrated that he kicked him in the shins. "Is it time for my pain shot? It's so nice that we're allowed the opportunity to be unhappy, we need just enough unhappiness and vice to sneer at the utopians. Why we already have a big nice comfy company that sneers at them, the Antuopsne, which has shares on that great big stock market in the sky. And the stock always goes up, it will never go down, it's the hallmark of human hope, that there will always be a utopian to sneer at. I buy shares regularly and they've made me so rich that I can afford all these pain shots and be told how lucky I am that I live in a society that appreciates the value of misery."
Giles tried brushing off the remaining snow off Adrian's face and off his chattering mouth. "I could be such a good mother, I can imagine all my twenty-seven baby teapots, all sitting nicely in a row, and they never cry you know. Why give birth to babies when you can give birth to teapots or magazines or economists who always clean up after themselves, or can provide such a good excuse for not doing so that it doesn't matter." "Adrian! I want you to remember your parents. Describe your parents." Giles was very disturbed; not only was Adrian thoroughly deluded, but the snow on his face had done something to his face: it was all smooth and unreal; it was a beautiful masterpiece of sensuous averageness. And closer reflection revealed that the same thing had happened to Adrian's voice, which still kept talking. "My parents were such wonderful people, they loved each other very much. Or perhaps they didn't. Or perhaps they never existed. I'm sure they existed, because I have shares in the Lovepar corporation and every month I get a statement of my dividends, giving me a set of parents I can abase myself to. And I get a brand new set of parents every month, Lovepar always ensure variety for its stockholders. And it's so cheap, not like having to make sure that real parents don't die or live miserably or watch them go senile. Every fourteenth of the month I get to go the Lovepar corporation headquarters and go to the special room that's on the Lovepar dividend report floor and go up to the parents and tell them of all sorts of wonderful deferential things, and in case I can't think of any, the wonderful company hands out free scripts so I can get my feelings down right. You can always trust the private sector to do everything for you."
"Ball, this is hopeless. Adrian, do you remember anything? Do you remember Uncle John, do you remember Constantine, or your apartment, or the time you were in Edmonton the first time the Oilers won the Stanley Cup?" There was no response: Adrian/Clara was too busy reciting the application form you had to fill out before Lovepar corporation would give you your free script. "Do you remember graduation? Do you remember Lucian?"
"Of course I remember Lucian. Lucian's my husband. I just gave birth to his favorite pet turtle."
"OK, we're making progress. If only we had Lucian here, perhaps we could talk some sense into him. Unfortunately she went into the apartment ahead of us."
"What are you talking about? I've never left the field."
Giles turned around and was shocked to find Lucian standing right behind him. Just like the other two she had been hallucinating, and had been rolling around in the snow. Indeed her winter coat, her suit coat, her dress shirt, and her pants were either undone or in a state of general disarray. "I thought I saw you...shouldn't you be getting dressed?"
"Never mind that. What's the matter with Adrian?"
"He thinks he's a woman and that you're her husband."
"Have you told him that he certainly isn't."
"Umm, well no."
"Yo! Adrian! Wake up!" but there was no response from Adrian who had now gotten down to reciting the bottom of the application form and the clause offering Lovepar complete legal immunity if the applicant did anything stupid like fall in love with his or her monthly parents.
"Don't worry, I've got a plan." Lucian put her hands behind her back and kissed Adrian on the cheek. He did not notice this, but she didn't expect him to. She brushed her face against his, then his neck against hers, then she embraced him and started rubbing herself against him. So far the only result of all this was that Adrian couldn't be heard signing the declaration at the bottom. But now Lucian started using both hands to stroke his hair, to smooth his back, and then she began licking him all over his face, until she finally managed to pry his tongue out of his mouth, whereupon she bit it as hard as she could.
Adrian woke up immediately. He was stunned by the abrupt change of identity while Lucian buttoned up her clothing. It was at this point that Giles noticed that Aquilla was missing.
"She must have recovered from the snowballs earlier than we did. She's probably fled somewhere and gone to warn the Flannery O'Connor Brigade." Momentarily confused as what they should do, Giles noticed a telephone booth at the end of the field. He waddled his way back to the path and raced over to it, and dialed Charles to tell them why they were late, what had happened to them, and who Aquilla Rogers really was. But there was no answer on the other line. Giles waited and waited, and he waited long enough for the other three to catch up with him, but there was still no answer. He hung up and the four of them walked the final two blocks across another field until they reached the actual apartment. They ran Harding's buzzer, but there was still no response. For the first time in years Lucian's teeth began to chatter, and they chattered uncontrollably. She announced that if Charles wasn't here, she wasn't going to waste time looking for him and she was going to take the first bus back to her apartment. And so she left, and Adrian followed her, and the ball followed Adrian, and that left Giles to sit there for the next twenty minutes until he too saw it was pointless and caught a taxi to take him back to the hospital.
Lucian did not return to her own apartment, but instead announced herself at
Constantine's. She said that it wasn't safe to share the same building
with Aquilla, so she and Adrian were going to stay the night here until they
could meet the police here in the morning. Constantine was in the grips
of another fever and he did not want to be disturbed, so he contacted the
police himself. But when he called them there was a great agitation at
the central station (among other things there was this woman who couldn't stop
sneezing, who kept being directed to him.) There was a perfectly logical
reason for this: there was just too much chaos in the police force
because they had just learned the shocking fact that within fifteen minutes of
each other Inspector Joseph Tyrone had been shot through the head with his own
handgun, and that Charles Harding had been stabbed through the heart with the
dagger of Saint Francis of Assisi.
next: Book Five: The Apotheosis of the Saints: The Vespers of Blood
previous: A Gathering of Forces