The Far Side of the Real
Posthumously Published from the Manuscript Files of Paul Cain
- IV -
The Hammer or Anvil Blues
The Student Union Building stands in the middle of campus like a beached luxury cruise liner, only more ornately decorated and even cushier on the inside. I walked up the sidewalk through the garden to the entrance terrace and entered the 1st floor foyer. Opposite me was a grand staircase rising twelve stories; students were lounging on it and scraping their initials in the marble pillars around it. I looked at my watch. Having a little time to kill, I started past Rusty Spokes’ Tattoo Parlor and Metal Outlet with its neon sign, You Think It We Ink It, You Pick It We Stick It, and looked in at a young man being tattooed with the most popular of their offerings, 無孝之淫魔. The customers who didn’t know Chinese thought it cool, while the ones who did thought it even cooler. I strolled on past the motorcycle store, the jewelry store, the pet rental shop with its new shipment of sea cucumbers, and the dental coloring and mechanization store to the university bookstore.
I walked past the comic book display filling the left wall to the audio book section along the back wall, then around to the shelf of new faculty publications taking up half a shelf in the middle of the wall of mass-market serialized novels. There was nothing new, so I glanced through two bookcases filled entirely with the fifth installment of a popular series of genre-smashing cross-over novels in which an interplanetary vampire Mafia has taken over the chief space station in the Solar System of the interstellar empire of the giant extraterrestrial mummified soul-sucking slugs and fallen into internal discord. I gather that in the latest volume the capo di capi of the Sardinian undead families was done in by the Corsicans’ carefully planned accident with the rotating solar screen of the space station, but in a sudden expansion of epic scope the Catalan vampire Mafia of Majorca, having destroyed the vacationing leadership of the English vampire Mafia with a massive explosion at a neighboring holy water treatment plant, managed to get several tons of garlic powder to materialize throughout the space station, rendering it uninhabitable except by Sicilian vampire ghosts (yes, the concept of ghosts of vampires was a major advance in modern vampire studies pioneered by the author) just as hordes of Yetis riding armored enhanced-intelligence yaks began rampaging towards the Caspian Sea and the competing interstellar empire of highly intelligent were-gerbils entered the Solar System to block the return of the giant extraterrestrial mummified soul-sucking slugs. I think. I didn’t pay much attention to it when earlier volumes came up for rave reviews in the New York Times Review of Books and I doggedly shut out as much as I could of what Vinnie said about it, so I probably missed some of the important subplots that the projected 27th volume will presumably tie up in a pretty bow.
I walked on past the other hit offerings and glanced to my right at aisle upon aisle of coffee mugs, sweaters, caps, elaborate intimates, prophylactics, and kitty litter scoops all emblazoned with the university emblem. At the sales counter I picked out a chocolate bar, which disturbed and perturbed the hell out of the clerk. She put down her book with a humph and a harrumph and rang me up. I noticed she was reading The Year’s Best Goofus and Gallant Slash Fiction, so I asked her if it was any good. “It’s for my master’s thesis, dumbass,” she said importantly, and I decided not to return the extra change she had given me in her haste or innumeracy. I said, “Have a nice day,” and she shot back, “Get bent, square.” I gave her a thumbs-up and she gave me a look that could maim: “I’m trying to read! Leave! Now!” I nodded at her and walked out as she screeched in frustration and lifted her book to throw at me. Past the bookstore two corridors intersected, the cross-corridor leading to bathrooms on one end and a pottery studio and a darkroom on the other, both largely unused by the student artists they had been installed for. I continued along the main corridor, which had grown much narrower and emptier past the intersection, and passed a series of portraits of former student center managers, a clear sign that there was nothing of interest to students any further in that direction.
At the next intersection I turned left and walked down an empty side corridor past the old assembly hall, since converted into a now unused space where student merchants used to be able to rent kiosk space. I turned into a shabby hallway on the left and then hung a quick right five yards to an unmarked door that opened on a gray-blue stairwell. I went down the three flights of stairs to the bottom, each landing more darkly lit. If I had exited at the first floor down, there could still have been moderate student traffic and any number of outsider interlopers, and on the second floor down only staff and the occasional slumming undergrad; but I exited on the third floor into an austere, simply-lit foyer of institutional white from which several doors led to the infrastructure of the building and the haunts of the underground men who service it. I went left and passed through a drab gray windowless door.
I walked down increasingly dim hallways painted in antiseptic gray up to the elbow and septic green above, choosing hallways that always sloped gently downwards. After five minutes I came to a sterner door of stouter stuff and entered a code. Inside was the pump room and processing plant for the tepidarium of the undergrad men’s sauna, a marvelous complex of pipes, tanks, gauges, panels and steps smoothly humming in a clean, well-lit space visited perhaps thrice weekly by technicians. I strode quickly behind the large tank on the right and sauntered to a barely visible door halfway down the wall shaded from light and view by two massive pipes. Despite my thorough familiarity with work schedules, I still paused to listen and look both ways before inserting my key, then ducked inside a drab gray concrete box with a bare light bulb four yards above me. I walked up four steps to a metal platform under a round grill about eight feet across that I swung open. I then entered a steam tunnel that went straight for a couple hundred yards, then turned a bit left and ran straight for another five hundred yards.
All universities have extensive infrastructures; some students are fascinated by them, and among them there’s always a subset taken with steam tunnels. Whether you buy either the Freudian or the Jungian explanation (which come down to much the same thing in the end) or neither, you have to guard against these kids nonetheless. Some universities take a more traditional approach of stationing ROTC cadets (whether the most decorated as an honor or the most slackerly as punishment) to make regular patrols through the steam tunnels armed with live ammunition and no questions asked, but this merely gave the tunnels the allure of the forbidden. Our university took a much more successful approach of misdirection. Dark rumors of dark steam tunnels infested with radioactive glow-in-the-dark flying scorpions the length of a man’s arm, hellish passages debouching into horribly horrid horrors, though of what kind no one knew because no one ever returned from them, and other suchlike Chinese whispers scared away many of the underground kids, and the rest were distracted by the mock steam tunnels that were guarded just enough to make an adolescent mind think there was something there to discover—pipes easily enough discovered by snooping around dorm basements or basements of classroom buildings in the obvious places to look, and only once (in the mock steam tunnel running from the genetics labs to the econ building, and rest assured heads rolled for that little accident) actually occupied by radioactive, glow-in-the-dark flying arm-length scorpions. Meanwhile, those of us with serious university business to transact go unnoticed about our tasks in the much more surreptitious and inaccessible real steam tunnels running unnoticed deep in the earth. To hide a golden needle best, just coat it over to the color of straw and bury it deep in a haystack, then scatter gold-plated nails casually in the top layers of the hay; underground kids seeking adventure will choose the cunning plan and thrill of the slightly naughty sneaky skulk in their own neighborhood over the tedious random walk through the business district in its off hours every time.
At the end of the tunnel was another grill opening onto a vast tank of water. While serving a useful purpose for the university water supply, it also serves as a convenient decoy just in case any uninvited guests somehow make it that far; naturally they would be drawn to look inside, and the last five yards before the grill are rigged to close off and anesthetize the unwanted. It is at the seven-yard mark that one must fumble around in a peculiarly dark stretch of tunnel to find the button on the left wall that opens the door flush with the wall that I passed through. The door slid closed behind me and I shuffled slowly in the perfect darkness seventeen yards straight ahead to another wall with a hidden door; the panel next to it is in fact a palm print reader that opens either the door or a valve to a tank of rather unpleasant gas.
I passed into a well-lit reception room with several plump chairs and a coffee stand. Lights hung in shining brass sconces along the walls and artificial sunlight shone through a translucent glass ceiling. The receptionist, a plain, competent, and perilously if unobtrusively well-armed blonde, looked blankly at me.
“Hello, Jane, you’re looking quite drab today.”
“Ah, Studd, you put the age in beige.”
“Not so anyone would notice.”
“As it should be. You’re here to see Ventadorn, I believe.”
“Yes, there’s a ripple in the soothing regularity of the flow of events.”
“Oh, how tedious. You’re expected. You know the way.”
Jane buzzed me through the door. I entered a lushly appointed hall with small potted trees amid semicircles of armchairs; a bright lamp near each grouping of chairs held speakers near ear height. After business hours there would often be a few people sitting here and there reading or thinking, but at this time of day the hall was empty. I stopped near a set of speakers and listened: Joachim Raff’s Piano Quintet. It seemed like each of the five times I’d been there they were playing Raff’s Quintet as I passed through, though come to think of it, once it was Josef Rheinberger’s Second Piano Trio. I walked on past the pool in the middle of the hall as I glanced at the portraits of former university chancellors and presidents on the walls. Near the other end of the hall I looked up at the pleasantly blue vaulted roof, then picked up my pace and went through the second of five doors.
I was currently a hundred yards or so under the lower basement of the university’s Alumni Association offices, a forbidding fortress of bronze, burnished wood, limestone and glass surrounded by a thick spur of the university’s northern outlying forest. However imposingly the offices looked out on their domain, they were only the outer trappings of the Association, whose Directorate was housed where I was walking. Members of the university board served terms of one year; if deemed sufficiently reliable, they were steered into service to the Association and the administration over the next five years in increasingly less accessible offices. By that time they would have passed into oblivion from the institutional memory of the regular run of offices, and they would start to move downstairs. After another ten years on average, they would take up residence in a richly appointed suite amid the most loyal and steadfast of rich alums and attend to those tasks necessary to maintaining the university as a going financial concern, and to protecting and advancing the interests of the Association’s members.
I walked down a wide hall in marble and teak and turned into one of the larger doors on the right. Vivian Ventadorn was waiting for me and motioned for me to sit down. She had no taste for pleasantries and immediately began wringing my brain dry. After an hour and a half, she was satisfied. “Yes, that makes sense. You will have use of a vacant office off in a side wing, a very very side wing, and we’ll give you a cot. I have made a short list of the officials in Mato Grosso do Sul and Pará who can help you, and I’ll think about your new information and see if there’s anyone else who might be of help. In particular, contact this man, Sergio Meireles. He is fairly highly placed in Manaus and is a major figure in the alumni association of one of our rivals. Ordinarily this would cause a good deal of trouble since we’re currently at war, but that school was Dr. Boileau’s alma mater, so he’ll be happy to help us destroy one of our own. But again, whatever you do, don’t talk about the war. It makes him very angry when we’re trouncing their team, and this season the championship’s definitely ours.”
I was shown to my temporary office. I called Meireles and followed Ventadorn’s strictures. I introduced myself and asked, “O Senhor fala inglês?”
He chuckled and replied, “Sim, você fala brasileiro?”
“Only in Portugal.”
“How may I help you, Senhor?”
“I am working with Vivian Ventadorn. We would like you to arrange to obtain some information for us, if possible.”
“I see. And why should I help your... gang?”
“It is to clear the name of an alumnus of your school.”
He warmed a tad to me at that and said, “This might be... feasible. May I ask the details?”
I gave him a brief overview of the information we were looking for and the people involved, and he said, “Senhor, this is certainly possible. It would be my pleasure to help you within the authority of my office.”
I said, “We thank you very much, and we are quite happy to help you out in the future in return, strictly within the authorities of our offices, of course.” He agreed to run a thorough check of police records for unsolved cases for several periods going back over several years, and to have coroners’ records checked in addition. I received a call from Ventadorn giving me another contact and asking for a report on my call to Meireles. “Good, I think that will be enough.” I made similar progress with three other officials in other parts of Brazil and settled down to read Flynn’s progress reports. While there was nothing unexpected to be found, several of my hunches were confirmed.
❦ ❦ ❦
That evening, as the business day ended in both Brazil and the US, an efficiently unobtrusive young man delivered an invitation from Ventadorn to join her and two of her colleagues for dinner. I followed him to a dining hall stretching before and above me like a small cathedral. A stained glass window in art deco style opposite the entrance portrayed the seven liberal arts staring spellbound at the unbound Prometheus lighting the world; this was flanked by a rendering of the nine Muses holding court in Arcadia on the left and of bright-eyed Athena addressing Odysseus on the right. I was led to a sheltered side alcove where Ventadorn was waiting. I stood for another minute looking at the windows before I went in. She said, “Pretty antiquated now. Most people never notice them any more. Most of the time they don’t bother to illuminate them.”
Soon two men joined us. They were graying, drably formidable men with names so forgettable I promptly forgot them, and about as well-placed, I gathered from their manners with each other, as Ventadorn. They asked me questions about this, that, and the other out of politeness as dinner prepared. We were soon served salad and talked of music. Over steak they spoke of matters of high university policy and I kept my mouth shut and listened—auf Klippen und Wolken muß man sich vorsehen and all that.
After dinner we retired to a well-appointed private room for drinks. Over the next hour the two men asked me about the case in detail and finally said to Ventadorn after some minutes of silent thought, “Yes, this could well be trouble.”
She turned to me and asked, “Mr. Guntersied, how much do you know about the politics in our university?”
“I know Tusklo is on tenterhooks. Total silence around Pressny.”
“Good. Pressny is the main conduit in your agency for the major faction opposed to ours.”
“What does that faction stand for?”
Everyone smiled sadly, “They stand against us.”
“And your goals?”
“To stand against them.”
“What does either of you stand for beyond that?”
“Nothing. The university has been drained of an overarching vision for decades now, and all we want beyond the usual pieties of enlightenment and disinterested knowledge is access to the udder of the most bounteous and most sacred cash cow in town. The factions are held together by patronage, pique, and guff. All of the fads sweeping academia—they’re potent brew to powerless children playing grown-up, but they’re just ripples on the surface.”
“What do your factions call each other?”
She shrugged, “Us and them. Call us the Greens and Blues if you like, or a little more flattering: Guelphs and Ghibellines, at least towards the end of their days when they stood for nothing much any more, just so’s to avoid misapprehensions. But that’s nothing important.”
I said, “So how does that affect me? I’m just a foot soldier.”
“You’re our foot soldier, or at least you’ll be viewed as one, and the steps you’ll have to take will destroy a major academic with ties of loyalty and patronage to our opponents. We want to make sure we want to stand behind you if you proceed. And we want you to know what you’re getting into if you do. Tusklo has not exaggerated: you’re at some risk. Your actions can only be seen as a legal action directed specifically against them, and that will immediately provoke legal action against us and especially against you. And what is law but the regular lineaments of the power of the state?”
I pondered. “So, incarceration?”
“Or death. Academic politics is so vicious, they say, because the stakes are so small. Our politics is more brutal than vicious, and that because the stakes are so ignoble. Control of a self-perpetuating system that has degenerated into soaking in the riches accruing to the curator minorum standing in loco parentis to a country club of spoiled children who fear life beyond the walls like a sleeper who hates to wake from a dream, and the most childlike of whom re-up for grad school to get chewed up and molded by a system that selects the ones most committed to the ideal of the unreal and the impractical on principle. Who cares? What’s the point, right? But threaten their control and they’ll swat you hard, not from malice but because you’re a threat to a system they have drifted into from a mixture of crass profit and high-sounding ideals.”
“That’s quite a sentence you’ve passed on yourself,” I said, and she laughed, “Yes, it is indeed. But, Mr. Guntersied, let me ask you, what ideals motivate you?”
I had nothing to say.
She continued, “I know your history, as much as you’ve let on to anyone. You don’t want to be bothered, for one thing. You live your life and adhere to a broad ideal of fair play. All of this is perfectly admirable and fundamental to a humane civil society. But it is not suited to academia, I ask you now, is it? Not to education or enlightenment, I mean, but specifically to academia. The old aristocracy preached noblesse oblige, gentilesse, courtly love, and the other ideals and sometimes some few of its members delivered, but you know full well what happened to those commoners who threatened their privileges.”
“And, nothing much. We want you to do your job by the book. Render justice, that is all. We will have your back. We will appreciate the opportunity it will afford us and be properly grateful.”
“Silver words with silver chains.”
“Only if you so choose. What we ask demands no such choice.”
I thought about it from every angle I could see and nodded. “I thank you for the warning. I signed up to do what I could for justice, and that is what I plan to do. You can count on me to do precisely and only that.”
She said “Agreed” and we shook hands. We took dessert and coffee and soon I took my leave.
❦ ❦ ❦
On my cot that night I dreamt I was in a dark basement whose decrepit walls were cracking. Small mounds of tumulus rose here and there on a concrete floor beneath the cracks. Ahead of me stretched a worn, dust-filled hallway with classrooms on each side as far as I could see. Along the walls were lockers, most dented and scuffed, locks missing, doors swinging open and rusting, thick sheaves of paper holding the unread accumulated wealth of uncounted generations of scholars mouldering and crumbling inside them and slowly turning to the dust pervading every corner. I started walking down the hall when a formidable woman came out of a room several doors down. She was attractively coiffed and wore a well-turned suit, and on her lapel was a gold Θ connected by chain to a silver Π.
She stopped and looked down at herself. “You chose a good outfit for me,” she said. “It flatters me.” She swivelled on her heels and regarded her right foot critically. “The shoes are terrible though. Men.”
“And if you dreamt of me, I wonder what outfit I would be wearing?”
“Why would I ever do that?”
“I don’t know why you ever should. I was merely entertaining the possibility and pondering the consequences.”
“You’ve taken my injunctions to heart, I see.” She looked around. “How can you bear working in a dingy place like this? I need a bit of fresh air without the dust of creeds outworn getting up my nose every time I breathe.”
She turned down the hallway and I followed her at a respectful distance. We came to a staircase and she started up. After she had turned onto the landing above, I followed. After a few more turns, I exited into a small enclosed garden. She was seated on a stone bench reading a book as I came out. She looked up and said, “Wherever did you find this claptrap?”
I looked at the cover; it was Simper de Buttox’s recent best-seller, The Analgesic of Philosophy. In an effort to make money and impress people, the author had rifled through the more idiosyncratic and shameful writings of several major thinkers for chewy nuggets he could reprint for an audience of attention-deficits. I peeked over her shoulder and saw she was reading the chapter in which de Buttox had repackaged Schopenhauer’s “On Women” for the lovelorn male. She pointed at one passage and chuckled: “Only a male intellect clouded by the sexual drive could call the stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged sex the fair sex: for it is with this drive that all its beauty is bound up.”
I looked at her quizzically and she said, “When most people dream of me, I end up appearing as a withered old crone with a ruler for rapping their knuckles. When I appeared to him one dream he had me dressed like a slut. How that boy’s hands do roam. I kneed him hard but there was nothing down there to harm, so I had to taser the fool. No wonder he would be drawn to Schopenhauer; their grapes are equally sour.”
I said, “I suppose it’s a curiosity to you the images we cast you in.”
She shrugged, “Your species does anthropomorphize its abstractions.” She looked around and said, “Quite an oddly stocked mind you have. I half expect to see cobwebs in the corners.”
“It’s a comfortable enough place, and it’s bought and paid for at least.”
“No landlord, simply an allodial title. It’s what you always wanted.”
“It’s a good living.”
“Is it a good life?”
“For me, yes.”
“So you like skulking about in the dark like a thief, or a fugitive.”
“Or a night watchman.”
“Perhaps you flatter yourself.”
“Perhaps it’s true.”
“Perhaps you’re more American than you realize. ‘ “The true”, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as “the right” is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course.’ Expedience, the great American substitute for truth, much like security, the great American substitute for love.”
She suddenly pointed behind me and said, “Look at the size of that cat!” When I turned back around she had disappeared.
❦ ❦ ❦
The next day I called Meireles at the appointed time. He briskly gave me the information I had asked for and told me to check my email for a large pile of scans. I thanked him profusely and thanked him even more so in absentia when I opened his email. Soon I received a call from Mato Grosso do Sul, and then another from Rio Grande do Sul, which together confirmed many of the inferences Tusklo and I had made. I reported to Ventadorn, and she nodded briskly and said, “You can make trial tomorrow night.”
“Trial. Is it that serious?”
“Yes. We have to be able to present a fait accompli, and even so all hell might well break loose, but I’ve been preparing for that for a while now. I need tonight to finish my preparations. You tell Tusklo and give him this; it’s his writ of authority. Above all, do not do anything to tip off Pressny that this is under way or he’ll probably have all of you killed, and then after I get rid of him I’d have no fun making a holy hell out of what precious little would remain of your lives.” The look on her face made it clear there was no levity involved. I swallowed a comment about absence of malice and just nodded.