The Far Side of the Real
Posthumously Published from the Manuscript Files of Paul Cain
- V -
The Guilty Alibi
I exited the Student Union Building at noon and went straight to the office. I handed Tusklo the writ and watched him blanch: “So that’s it then.” He gave Guido a wake-up call telling him he was off stake-out duty and to sleep in. I spent the rest of the day writing up my report, one version for Tusklo, a second a creatively crafted nullity for Pressny's eyes, and the next day went in to work at 9:00; Guido and Vinnie were already there. Tusklo locked the office door and gave us our instructions.
The four of us converged on Gautier’s house in mid-afternoon. I knocked and when no one answered set Guido and Vinnie to locksmithery. After we entered, we went back to Gautier’s study. I looked around with great care while the other three found roosts to perch on. After a while Guido started humming. Tusklo said, “Guido, I never knew you liked the Beatles.”
He stared at us for a second and said, “What?”
Tusklo sang, “Hey, Bungalow Bill, what did you kill, Bungalow Bill?”
Guido said, “Wrong lyrics, Chief.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“It goes like this, Chief: ‘Oops, I did it again, I played with your heart...’ ” Given Guido’s musical abilities, the melody could have been either song or perhaps neither.
Tusklo interrupted. “Stop. Now. Be silent.”
After a couple of minutes Vinnie started humming. As Tusklo glared at him, he stopped, frowned, and said, “Damn you, Guido.” Ten seconds later, he grimaced and added, “Uugh! Just damn you to hell” and shook his head like a wet puppy. Guido looked at him like a smugly innocent child.
Forty-five minutes later we heard the front door open. After a few minutes Gautier strode in and came up short when he saw me leaning against his desk. I said, “Hello, Dr. Gautier, you are under arrest for murder. You have one minute to prepare for trial.” Vinnie shut the door behind him and Guido drew himself up straight.
He interrupted, “This isn’t a legal proceeding! Get out of my house at once or burglary will be an additional charge when I call the police on you.”
“No,” I said, “this house belongs to the university, and as faculty you are under the jurisdiction of the Legal Office.”
“Don’t I get a lawyer?” He sneered.
“We have provided you with legal counsel,” I replied. “Mr. Scialbo?” Guido came over and put his hand on his shoulder and pressed down: “I’ll counsel you to stay put, or else Vinnie’ll have to give you some closed chamber counsel.”
“This is outrageous! I have the right to a trial by a jury of my peers!” We looked at each other with smiles at the corners of our lips and shook our heads wearily at the long-since stale theatrics.
“Come now,” I said, “don’t play the fool. You helped amend the university speech code. You know as well as any of us that the common law has been dead in academia for many decades, so cut out the nostalgia trip. You have only the rights accorded you by the university civil code.”
He scoffed, “Not the university’s code of civility too?”
I replied, “You stand a better chance with the civil code. It at least offers the accused some protections.”
“And who the hell are you, the judge?”
Guido slammed him back in his seat as Vinnie put a hand on his other shoulder and said, “I’d counsel ya to shut up and stop disrespectin’ His Honor Judge Tusklo. But if ya’d like ta continya, I’d like that too,” and popped the knuckles of his other hand on Gautier’s neck with catlike leisure.
Tusklo nodded at Vinnie and fixed Gautier with a glare. “Certainly not. I am the judge. Mr. Guntersied is the examining magistrate. You have Noël Vindry on your shelves, so you know how matters will proceed.”
I interjected, “Your Honor, the pages are all uncut.”
Tusklo grimaced with distaste and after a brief pause pronounced, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Mr Guntersied, you may proceed.”
I turned to Gautier. “Dr. Gautier, I charge you with the murder of José de Deus Ramos by means of unidentified poison on the night of...”
He shouted, “I didn’t do it.”
I took a statement out of my folder and said, “You told us you had never been to José’s apartment. Whoever murdered José took along a six-pack and slammed down quite a lot of it over the space of an hour or two. While that person wiped all the bottles clean and left no fingerprints elsewhere, we did find your fingerprints on the refrigerator door handle in the kitchen where he died. A man of your general appearance was witnessed by a neighbor entering his apartment, and your picture was caught on cameras at his apartment building coming away from his apartment around the time he died. Sloppy, Doctor, very sloppy indeed.”
“There are no cameras there!” He suddenly stopped.
I said, “True. How did you know that? Besides murdering him, of course.”
He said nothing. I continued, “The question now is why you murdered him. Dr. Gautier, when did you first meet José de Deus Ramos?”
“None of your business.”
Guido made it our business. “When he first arrived at the university two years ago.”
“When did you first realize his language was a threat to the entire edifice of your work?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“No need, just answer the question.”
“I will do no such thing.”
“Very well then. I read your book on Vaklamindi. It is clearly a close relative of Periminho. We have Boileau’s files. There is close agreement between his data and the shapes of Vaklamindi utterances in your book—many of which are essentially the same sentences, in fact. It is only the glossing that is different—wildly different. Vaklamindi is practically Standard European in its grammatical categories and syntactic phenomena; Periminho is deeply bizarre to western theory. I found three basic violations of the most widely attested island constraints in Boileau’s data; indeed, it appears to be the only language known to western linguists to violate the Coordinate Structure Constraint. Several of his example sentences occur in your data almost word for word, but, as I stated, the glossing is vastly different. It’s a sloppy job, however.”
I handed him and Tusklo a 43-page handout complete with full quotes and detailed citations showing my case. Gautier blanched; Tusklo looked puzzled and asked, “What is the gist of this?”
“Your Honor, in English, say you have a sentence like ‘I like apples.’ One question corresponding to it is ‘What do I like?’ ”
“Now say you have a sentence, ‘I like apples and pears.’ You can’t form a question like ‘What do I like apples and?’ ”
“Of course not!”
“But why not? You form a question corresponding to such a sentence by moving the question word to the beginning of the sentence, correct? Why not in that sentence?”
“Because it’s wrong.”
“Because it just is, that’s why.”
“Indeed, but the claim of linguists like Gautier is that it’s because it breaks up a particular type of phrase if you move the question word that cannot in fact be broken up. They claim this is universal, built into the basic structure of any human language, and inherent to the human mind.”
I turned back to Gautier. “And Boileau had discovered a language that violated your most basic model of what a human language must be like.”
“I had no contact with him on that score. Even if his claim is correct, which I seriously doubt, he never told me about it.”
“Be that as it may, you were familiar with Periminho because of your knowledge of Vaklamindi. You knew from what he had presented in departmental seminars that it was a very similar language, and recently you realized from his article in Speculative Grammarian that he knew full well exactly what the theoretical significance of those sentences was. He also must have known eventually that you had grossly misinterpreted your data in your book, and so you destroyed his reputation in an effort to make sure that no one would ever be likely to find out. But it’s far more serious than a matter of linguistic theory.”
Gautier said nothing, but his breathing was rapid. I continued, “In your acknowledgements you praised the work of Henry Billington, which was ‘unfortunately lost’ when he died in Amazonia. There’s little trace of Billington in the records now, but I managed to learn enough about him. He was an anthropological linguist who worked in the same area as you did at the same time. He was the recipient of a fellowship from the Vern Filbert Institute of Humane Studies to study Vaklamindi as well. He disappeared in the Amazon in 1972 and was soon forgotten. According to the Brazilian police records, in fact he was found partially, um, consumed on the shore of the Amazon River just downstream of Manaus, which was a nice bit of misdirection after you told American authorities on your return he had died in Pará. Pará authorities, of course, have no record of his death or disappearance, not even a complaint he had disappeared. It is fortunate for the peace of all of our minds that at least he seems to have died of poisoning before immersion. The police were unable to identify him, as he had no papers on him and his corpse was too, um, disfigured to permit visual identification, but they did have his fingerprints, well, some of them, and dental records on file, and Billington’s were still on file here thanks to a bankruptcy case involving his old doctor that’s still dragging on.
“More than that, Billington knew what was up, didn’t he? You two worked together; after you two left the village, you went to Manaus to wait for passage to the coast, and you killed him when he refused to recant and follow your line. However, you killed him after he had mailed a detailed report to the Filbert Institute. Did you know that? Unfortunately, they went bankrupt right about the time the parcel arrived, and it was stowed away in a filing case and left there when they reopened with a complete change of staff as the Scruffy Chumblebum Evangelical Mission Society—fortunately for you, they were never big on funding clerical staff.”
I pulled a yellowing sheaf out of my case. “This is one of the three copies he sent to the Filbert Institute. The others have been secured as evidence and a copy submitted to a series of leading journals, going down the list until someone publishes it. He thanks you in the acknowledgements for your invaluable if heated discussions of the language. Much of his data is identical to that in your book, except again for the glosses.
“And after you killed him, you thought you were safe... or did you? The Vaklamindi were still there, all 53 of them, ripe for the next linguist to come along. So you decided to make sure that your book was the only source for a soon-to-be-dead language, did you not? All we know for certain is that much of the village was burned and the inhabitants slaughtered at some point before your next reported trip to Brazil; there were a few survivors, but they can no longer be found. Some went to neighboring villages, at least three; the ilkta’avind claimed them during the next two years, as well as any of their friends in their new homes who might have known something about you. At least two others moved to Rio de Janeiro or to Manaus, and they died from poisoning over the next seven years. There must be a couple of others, but if so, they have disappeared in the favelas like drops in the sea and pose no threat to you.
“Billington also mailed off a letter to a friend, who had died a few months before, after Billington left for Brazil. His mother saved the letter for a while, then forwarded it to Billington’s mother after she had contacted her to tell her son that he had disappeared. It was in her personal effects when she herself died a year later; she had contacted you in the meantime since you were supposedly his last friend on earth, and according to family legend you were quite cruel to her—you immediately slandered Billington, so of course she hung up on you without telling you much about the letter. But at least in her case she died peacefully in her sleep; you were in Brazil at the time, according to your files, so at least that’s one crime you ducked. What happened? Did she catch you just as you were about to leave, so you didn’t have a chance to dispatch her? Had it all planned out to do her in on your return? No, I suspect you’d have burned her old house down then to make sure the letter disappeared, so most likely she didn’t get to telling you about the letter before you insulted her lost son.”
I pulled a copy out of my case. “It’s an interesting letter. He fit in with the Vaklamindi quite well, didn’t he? You on the other hand were a target of fun. All men had private given names and public recognition names, to use his terms. What was their nickname for you? On the third page he says they nicknamed you ‘pee-guzzler,’ or ilkta’avind in Vaklamindi, because of your fondness for American pilsners. Interestingly, in your book you glossed ilkta’ as the agentive noun formed from the verb ‘to balance’ and avind as ‘affairs.’ An avenging angel of righteousness, are you? He adds that you doused yourself every morning with coconut-scented sun screen and wore sandalwood-scented cologne when you shaved. That’s hardly the smell of death in our culture, but you’ve certainly contributed in your own unique way to the collective folklore of mankind, haven’t you?”
He looked back at me with a haunted look but said nothing. I pressed on: “When did you realize Boileau and Ramos were a threat? Probably not until recently, else they’d both be long dead. You must have had an inkling at his first presentation on the language a year ago, I’ll warrant, but it would have been just a suspicion too risky to act on with murderous intent. Defamation, however, would be subtler and much easier to deny. That was fine until it blew up in your face, right? A stolen laptop could draw a great deal of unwanted attention, then when you heard José telling me about the ilkta’avind you decided to act more decisively.”
He stared at me angrily: “This is insane. I do not slink around slandering people like some skulking coward.”
“No, you just slink around murdering them in the night. Do you admit that at least?”
He licked his lips and closed his eyes. “Yes, I admit it.”
“Why did you have to kill Billington?”
“He was a thorough-going Bloomfieldian. He seriously believed in and worked by the principle that any given language might be indefinitely variable in an infinite number of ways. Such a belief undercuts the very possibility of a fixed idea of human nature and of a truly scientific investigation of language and the mind. It marks the reversion to pre-scientific mystical obscurantism and is simply a threat to intellectual progress.”
“And island constraints are an essential part of human nature?”
“Of course. We proved that in the early 70s.”
“You posited that.”
“We proved that. I had read enough of that mystical, anti-intellectual claptrap Joos spewed when I was a grad student. I knew exactly what it meant, and I knew from Postal and Lakoff just how important it was to fight it at every opportunity with every weapon at hand. They were my idols, back before they turned to the dark side. If Vaklamindi got out, the damage could have been immense.”
“To science? Or to your career?”
“Science is my career.”
“And of every other linguist deserving the name.”
“Which is precious few of them. Any other approach is treason to science.”
“So in the name of truth you killed an entire tribe and suppressed the facts of their language.”
“Violation of such basic constraints meant it was not a fully human language.”
I turned to Tusklo. “Your honor, I rest my case.”
Tusklo stared at Gautier for a very long time. Finally he said quietly, “I see no extenuating circumstances. I find the defendant, Harold Gautier, guilty of the murder of José de Deus Ramos. The other murders are not on trial here and are not within the jurisdiction of this court. I shall deliver the court record to the Brazilian authorities in order to render justice where else we may.”
I turned again to Gautier and asked him, “What poison do you use?”
“It is a processed extract of raw tapioca. I learned it during the field work for my dissertation.”
As Vinnie and Guido relaxed preparatory to chaining him up, Gautier leapt up and with a spry athleticism unexpected in an old man left the two on the floor clutching air. He ran into the bathroom, which provoked a banging on the window as the lock turned; a voice outside shouted, “Stop right there!” Guido threw himself against the door as the window shattered inwards, and on his second throw the door opened. Gautier was seated on the floor with a sickly rictus on his face and the middle finger of his right hand extended, and as we tried to save him, not that we had any idea how, he died.
Tusklo mused, “We weren’t able to get his signature on the confession. The recording we made is probably not quite good enough for the highers-up. All in all then we’ll have to keep silent on the case—without a signed confession, if he has any connections in the university administration we’ll be their dogs’ lunch. Unfortunately, Dr. Boileau’s reputation is dead now. It’s gone. Probably utterly unsalvageable.” He walked out to reprimand Guido and Vinnie for their sloppiness, then looked back at Gautier’s corpse and simply said, “Eggheads.” It sounded like a curse. I looked down at Gautier for a few seconds more and shook my head. I muttered “Lexicalists” and turned away.
❦ ❦ ❦
As Tusklo surmised, our fait accompli still wasn’t enough. The next day a drably invisible man knocked on my door and waited as I packed lightly, then drove me to the airport for a cheap plane trip to Montana, where I worked weeding the fields at a botany research station. I had at least had the foresight to bring my binoculars, so the trip passed smoothly enough day and night. I suspected Tusklo was put in a university storage freezer somewhere as well, but I was wise or uninterested enough not to bother asking my driver. A month later Ventadorn sent a message to return, complete with the date and time of my appointment, shirking which was indicated as not an option.
I was sitting in a reception room as Tusklo came out. “Hello, Chief.”
“Ah, Guntersied, glad to see you.”
“What’s the skinny?”
“While you and I were on vacation, Ventadorn raised herself a few levels higher. She’s in the upper atmosphere now. Anyway, she’s filling gaps.”
“Did she rake you over the coals, Chief?”
“Oh, it was horrible. I’m lucky I won’t end up in the bottom of the river.”
I looked at him closely and decided he was joking. “Are you still the Chief?”
“No, I’m the Director.”
“So Pressny’s gone?”
“What happened at the office?”
Tusklo gave me a look of disgust and hatred and said, “Pressny’s gang killed Guido and Vinnie as they were looking for any information they could get on our whereabouts. She used them as bait to get Pressny isolated. Here, you can look through it.” He handed me a folder. I looked through the report and stared a long time at the pictures inside in deepening disgust then returned it with a sigh. Guido and Vinnie had at least managed to halve Pressny’s contingent before perishing. Fittingly, Guido died with his teeth deep in his killer’s left ankle, while Vinnie left three men dead and two incapacitated using moves he had picked up from the Sports Illustrated Guide to Competitive Origami that made them fold right up like paper.
I finally asked, “What about Boileau?”
“He’s dead meat. Pressny got enough of a case together tying Boileau to José’s murder that the police went all out for him. They killed him too, supposedly, in a shoot-out a week ago. The official coroner’s report is that Gautier died of a heart attack, by the way. It was probably a set-up Pressny made to discredit Boileau without tying him to Gautier in any way. Clever enough—Boileau’s supposedly dead, so he’d be a fool to pop his head up under his real name ever again, and then Pressny could hunt him down like a furry animal at his leisure. No wonder he was such friends with Gautier. They were a matching pair of shoes, really. Well, Boileau’s Marot now, so forget Boileau from now on. It’s too much trouble to try to set everything right that Pressny mucked up.” He saw my look and interrupted me in advance, “I said it’s too much trouble, capisc’? Too much trouble for me and for our friends, so it’s too much trouble for you and for Boileau. Got it?”
I took a deep breath, swallowed necessity, and nodded.
As Tusklo was about to leave, he said, “Where did you go to Montana and? Yeah, that just doesn’t work, does it? Strange, you’d think it should.” He shook his head, “Eggheads, always mixing everything up for us.”
“But if it were just nonsense you wouldn’t still be thinking about it, would you?”
“No, and that’s the problem. Damn eggheads.” He left in a surly dark study.
I was called into Ventadorn’s office five minutes later.
“Mr. Guntersied, it’s a pleasure to see you again. You look well rested and fit. Montana suits you.”
“It was a fine change of pace, yes. No undergrads chalking subversive messages on the administration building’s front steps, for one thing.”
She laughed. “Please sit down. The question has come up of what to do with you. Tusklo and I agreed you’re singularly unlikely to want to go back to your old office, even as chief.” I nodded vigorously. “There will be reports of hauntings there over the next century or two, I have no doubt.” She looked at the wall distractedly for a few moments. “Anyway, we have a wide range of openings for a, well, not so young man of your obvious talents and, shall we say, particular ambitions.”
I was offered my choice of several positions. She smiled when I chose independent university physical safety investigator. “I thought you had reached the point of disgust with your old job, especially in light of... current events. Most do; the ones who don’t, like Pressny, need a close eye kept on them. Yes, that goes doubly so for Tusklo. And I assume you’d like a vacation too, a real one, not several weeks hoeing a field for minimum wage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I did it a few times myself. In any case, you’re now free to go wherever you want, but I do ask a favor. How would you like to go to Arizona first?” I nodded and breathed a sigh of relief.
She handed over a large case with documents in it and said as she shook my hand, “Good job. It’s been a pleasure working over you. Gombaud’s a good boss. She runs a tight, clean ship. You’ll enjoy it there. You start in two months. Until then, enjoy the open road.”
I went to the office to pick up my personal effects and stayed just long enough to greet the new men and to email Flynn to expect me in an hour. I walked slowly and relaxedly through campus south past the civil strife still in full swing after the shakeup downstairs. On grounds of academic freedom and the political advantages of letting the children blow off steam, but probably in reality mostly from boredom, the Directorate was letting the turf warfare go on as long as there was a grievance left uncelebrated. A group of English professors was protesting outside the humanities building, from whence they had been ejected by Women’s Studies on the grounds that all male authors worth reading and fit to be taught in the modern university were actually lesbians trapped in men’s bodies; what seemed to bother the boys most was having their favorite pick-up line turned against them.
Next to them a group of cultural studies graduate students was protesting the university policy of allowing Chomskyan linguists on campus—after several years of ignorance, they had learned that Chomsky insisted on strictly binary-branching, rigidly hierarchical trees, which constituted a reactionary excrescence of Enlightenment patriarchy and fascism of the sort not to be tolerated in polite company. I had selected “Binary Branching is Heteronormative” as my favorite of the protest signs when a troop of Boy Scouts was hustled past to the glares and insults of the protesters. The university was hosting a regional Boy Scout conference, and in protest against 7,000 Boy Scouts crowding onto campus in a smutlike infestation of wholesomeness, the members of 71 distinct campus organizations had dyed their hair blue and egged the administration building. The day before they had started with a planned ambush at the parking lot, but as some of the Boy Scouts had slingshots trouble had soon subsided into a wary cold war between two groups of children, one prepared, the other petulant.
I went south past the Gestalt Failure, which was advertising a massive concert this Friday for Blitherbot’s new CD, Aphasic Logorrhea. I was impressed by the rare honesty in advertising that displayed, and that reminded me to duck in to buy a present for Fred Flynn since he doesn’t get out much. I had gotten him interested in the music of a local band, Scrotal Elephantiasis, and I picked him out a CD of their first album, Pimpin’ My Cheezy Noodelz, which they only made available through the club. Feeling generous, I went back to the used CD store and added Bilgewater’s Horizontal Disintegration and the recent album by The Criminous Clerks, The Flaming Flamen’s Flehmen Response, to the pile, and walked to the old shoe store.
“Hello, George,” I said. “Still taking wooden nickels?”
“Hi, Studd, still chiseling the poor for fun and profit?”
“What’s the matter, afraid of competitors?”
“I, sir, am a consummate professional.”
“Yeah, I saw you playing kazoo in a park. You’re a professional except for the part where you get paid.”
“But I am a kazooist. A casuist, too.”
“Yes, positively jesuitical.”
“If not Talmudical.”
“And piratical. And heretical.”
“But not hieratical.”
“Not to say farcical.”
Leo snorted and returned to his newspaper. I said, “I’ll be on a long vacation. Be sure to turn off my service for a couple of months.”
“Sure, no problem, and then we can spend the next three years straightening out your records at the company. Just a heads-up, just so you know.” I then went downstairs to get the laptop from Flynn.
“Mr. Guntersied, how ya doin’?”
“Great. Thank you for your work. I doubt we’ll be professional partners again. It’s been a pleasure working with you. Here, a present for you.” I handed him the CDs. “Did your payment arrive?”
“Yes. Thank you especially for the bonus.”
I assumed Ventadorn had gone above my suggestion, considering how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed he was, and said, “You’re welcome.”
He returned the laptop and I went home, packed, and set out immediately for southeastern Arizona.
❦ ❦ ❦
I walked into the bar and looked around. Boileau was at a booth in the back corner facing the air conditioner on the back wall. I went to the bar, ordered a double scotch, and took my drink to the back. He looked up in surprise as I greeted him, “Hello, Dr. Marot.”
“Mr. Guntersied, what are you doing here?” He motioned to the seat across from him and I sat down. He grinned: “Can I buy you a drink? Would you like a pilsner, by any chance?”
I pointed to my scotch. “I prefer not to rent my drinks, thank you. Nature made me a well-honed chemical reactor, so why should I waste my natural talents as a mere shunt?”
He lifted his own whiskey in salute and took a sip. “Surely you’re not just passing through. That would be too much of a risk, given the circumstances under which I left.”
“The case is closed. Gautier is dead. You’re not at risk anymore, but legally you’re a non-person. Dead, in name at least, and dead in fact if you press the issue. Dead dead, as in six feet under salted and scorched earth without a headstone. I thought I’d come by to give you the news.”
He scowled. “Couldn’t you have just called?”
“I wanted to return your laptop. After you answer some questions though.”
He smiled bitterly, “What would you like to know?”
“Why did you libel yourself?”
“Why, whatever do you mean, Mr. Guntersied?”
“Gautier didn’t publish any of those papers. Even if he had had access to your data, there is no way he would have done anything to draw attention to Periminho or to Vaklamindi, simply out of self-preservation. Best for him to do all he could to let them die out with a little help from his tapioca surprise.”
“On the other hand, it could be to your benefit to publish them widely, and your publishing them in such a wild form that no linguist could pull his eyes away from the sick mess that made of things was a massive threat in Gautier’s direction. No doubt he was furious when he read them, but at the time he probably thought his best move was to wait it out quietly for a while to see the reaction. If it simply blew up in your face and then blew over, he could take his time polishing you off, but if it snowballed, he might be in immediate trouble. I don’t think he took the possibility seriously that you were setting him up until I started investigating the loss of your laptop; then he panicked. It wasn’t just insanity involving him indirectly, but the possibility had to be taken seriously that you knew something about him—faking data, anyway. He heard the talk about the ilkta’avind and it spurred him on to end things there and then. I assume you arranged for that to happen.”
He winked at me and said, “One never knows, does one?”
“One knows more than one might at first suspect, Marot. I had an interesting talk with Caroline Molinet. She told me she left her textbook in your office by accident after she went by to look at her final grade. The marginalia were yours, intended to gild the lily against Gautier. They were too far over the top not to be believed. The outline of events is clear, so cut to the chase here. I know to a moral certainty that you knew Gautier was a mass murderer, and the only way you could see to bring him to justice was through bringing attention to his scholarly malfeasance. You also knew that if you made any indication at all that you knew he was a murderer you’d be ignored; your whole case would be dropped as the ravings of a man who had snapped after some professional slight—it had to be the person investigating the libel discovering on his own that Gautier was a murderer. Quite a game, I must say. There’s no crime we can or want to charge you with; really, if a man wants to destroy himself to bring a crime to light, we salute him. You libeled yourself—that’s no crime. You got your brother-in-law killed—that’s tragic but you weren’t legally at fault. I’m just curious.”
“All right, yes, I set Gautier up. He was a stone cold mass murderer, at least once he drank himself into the fit state of mind.”
“I received an interesting report from Brazil, by the way. Your wife did not die of malaria at all, but from an unknown toxin. When did you realize it was Gautier?”
“Oh, not at all at the time. We were in Manaus. She was friends with one of the few surviving Vaklamindi women, who told her about the destruction of their village. It was a rainy night, very dark, and many of them were killed in their huts. The village was burned a day or two later, probably. She survived with two other women; all three of them had heard enough noises from the rest of the village that they knew they had to leave, and the three of them suspected the culprit, for Gautier had made quite a reputation for himself as easily turning viciously angry; he showed a complete social maladjustment and a rather nasty violent streak by the end of his stay. Doubtless others survived too, she thought, but they would have fled in other directions; in fact, Lucinda had met a couple of them in her village. One disappeared one night and the other decamped immediately and swore everyone to secrecy. Celia remembered them. Both were good hunters. Anyway, back to Celia and her friends, they made their way north, then went up river to Manaus, but the police rejected their story. Her two friends were picked off during the next two summers, and she was killed a few months after she became friends with Lucinda. I don’t know how much Gautier knew or suspected that she knew, but he was taking no chances, especially after he somehow found another survivor so many years later. Clearly he didn’t know she was married to me, otherwise I would have been killed long ago. In fact, he probably never suspected it, but it was the simple coincidence that Lucinda became Celia’s friend that caused all of this.”
“You said most of Lucinda and José’s family had died. Did Gautier have anything to do with that?”
“No. Their village was close to the Vaklamindi village, and as I said a couple of survivors went there and tried to live there. More than that, they too soon had the legend of the ilkta’avind. Gautier was a stealthy man, but they often knew when he was about and stayed indoors until morning. No, Lucinda’s parents were killed in a bus crash two years before I met her and José. Gautier was long gone from those parts by then, and ilkta’avind had passed from living fear to cautionary tale. I first learned the tale from them, actually, during my time in the village. The fate of Vaklamindi was a bit of a mystery that intrigued me at the time; I figured some European disease had swept through and the real events had been distorted by oral transmission.”
“How did Gautier kill Lucinda?”
“After Celia was found in a dark alley, Lucinda said he hunted her over the next couple of weeks—17 days, to be precise. She called me nearly hysterical the first night; I was in Belém teaching for a semester and couldn’t just pack up and leave. She heard and smelled him several times after dark, and she and José had moved to a hotel and were getting ready to join me in Belém the next day when he attacked her during the day. Pretty brave for that miserable coward. She had gone into a store to buy some clothes and was killed while the clerk was in the back—locked in the back, it turned out, before the attack to give him time to escape.”
“It’s a bit odd Gautier didn’t recognize José immediately when he came to the university.”
“Yes, I know. I suspect he simply didn’t see him clearly in Manaus. José only arrived to protect Lucinda a week before her death, and they stayed inside except for one hour a day at high noon, save for the last day when she decided to risk going out in the early morning to finish up preparations for their trip. Gautier was probably asleep around noon, and the rest of the time would have been paying attention solely to Lucinda. But yes, if so, it was sheer luck.”
“So how did you realize Gautier was Lucinda’s murderer?”
“Another odd little feature of the ilkta’avind is that it makes a high-pitched sort of inbreathed keen in the excitement of the hunt, partaking slightly of a laugh and partly of delirium. A couple of people escaped to tell of that, and Lucinda heard it one dusk and reproduced it very well for José. At a departmental picnic one evening, Gautier was tanked to the gills with that fetid brew he loved and started making that sound as he told a story of a nighttime adventure during his dissertation days: His ever so charming story about getting smashed and peeing on the corner of a girls’ school at midnight while intoning, ‘I hereby christen this monument to female chastity.’ Quite the wit he had, and sharing his exquisite naughtiness with others made him so excited he started a piercing wheeze every time he breathed in. José heard it and did his best to move away without noticing and told me. I had been reading his book on Vaklamindi and was wondering just what the hell had happened to his brains in Brazil in the 70s, so I was in such a frame of mind that I didn’t reject the idea of Gautier being ilkta’avind out of hand. I told José I’d look into it, and we swore that if it was him we would make him pay. It took six months of lurking around several places you’ve probably gone recently to get enough evidence to convince me enough to act. And, as you say, drawing attention to him indirectly seemed the safest course of action, since insanity is unpredictable. We needed the most fog of war we could produce. And it worked. We didn’t get the justice for Lucinda we’d hoped, much less the Vaklamindi, but we got revenge without dirtying ourselves into Gautiers of our own, and that will do fine for now. At least José knew the risks going in. He swore it would be Gautier’s death or his own.”
After a minute, I simply said, “Well played.” We sat quietly looking through our drinks at our own thoughts. After several songs had played themselves out on the jukebox he asked, “How did Anne take it?”
“He cared for her very much.”
“What happened with Gautier?”
I told him briefly the story of his death, and he asked, “What did the department think?”
“They got the college of arts and sciences to rename the humanities building Gautier Memorial Hall. They started a multi-million dollar fellowship for linguistic fieldwork, and the LSA passed a resolution in his memory. You’d almost think he was a good man after all that.”
He scoffed and nodded, “So what should I do now?”
“I stuck my fingers down some gullets. Have you ever been to Alaska?”
“Oh God, no.”
“Hear me out. Gwich’in. Koyukon. Tanana. Holikachuk. Ahtna. Eyak. Tlingit. Haida. Inupiak...”
He was smiling. “All right, you convinced me.”
“Good. Here’s your laptop.”
“Find anything fun to read on it?”
“Lots. You’ll find I put some interesting reading on it too. Strictly for your eyes, understand.” I then pulled out a folder from my case. “Here are the documents for your trip to Alaska.”
“McGrath? Where the hell is that?”
“Once you finish the program here, you’ll be free to go to Alaska. The university movers will pack up your stuff and deliver it to a storage unit in Seattle in three months. Three months after that, instructions and papers will arrive to allow you to take possession of the contents as an estate agent. The university has taken possession of your house and disposed of it; the proceeds of the sale are in a bank account whose information is in the folder there. Your old bank account has been closed and your savings transferred there too, as well as your accumulated pension. The Alaskan real estate market’s a buyer’s dream right now. We hope you enjoy your new home.”
We ordered another whiskey each. After a few minutes he started singing softly, and when he reached “Vamos faturar um milhão / Quando vendermos todas as almas / Dos nossos índios num leilão” I joined in, a bit to his surprise, then sang in return, “Apesar de tudo existe, uma fonte de água pura / Quem beber daquela água, não terá mais amargura.” He shrugged, “Talvez seja assim.”
I finished my scotch and said, “I have a long trip tomorrow. Would you like to meet me for breakfast before I go?”
“I plan to be ready to go by 8:00 and leave at 9:30, so 8:15 at the Clean Mean Bean across the way?”
“One question: How did it get that name?”
“Nothing special. The owner’s named Bean and he likes to get in bar fights but always fights fair. That’s probably the most interesting fact about this whole burg.”
I rose and said, “My treat.” I settled the bill and went to my motel room. I soon fell asleep and dreamt I was at the edge of a state park with great hiking trails. I started out, but just inside the park the trail ran between a wooded patch and a sharp rise up to a small cliff, within which a bunch of Civil War enthusiasts were recreating a battle. However, their regular ammo had run out. The soldiers were using whatever was at hand as catapults were being brought up. One private shot me with a spitball. I turned around and said, “Hey, I’m a non-combatant.”
“That’s not patriotic,” he said as he reloaded, but just then a comrade behind him hit him with a Nerf ball. “Oh, sorry, Joe.”
“Just call me a medic, will you?” he replied, then ducked to avoid a wiffle ball. Just then a catapult shot off a load of ping pong balls and all the soldiers around me except Joe scattered—a whole rain of ping pong balls landed within a foot of him, but he wasn’t hit. I walked to the edge of the field and looked back to see another catapult being readied to fire off a pile of large rocks, so I ducked into the valley ahead of me and hiked on.
At the other end of the park I came to a public bathroom, so I went in and saw to my delight that there was a shower. When I got out, a grizzly bear was sitting on my clothes. I ducked through the door next to me and found myself in the women’s room. A couple of women glared at me with raised eyebrows until I ducked into the nearest stall. Then I looked up to see a woman watching me warily. She was dressed in a park ranger’s uniform but sported a Texas Ranger’s hat and sunglasses, so I opened the stall and said, “There’s a bear in there,” pointing to the men’s room.
“Am I in trouble?”
I noticed she was hefting a night stick, so I asked, “Are you going to beat me?” She grinned, nodded, and murmured, “Mm-hmm.” Then I woke up and thought to myself, “Studd, your dreams are getting more boring by the night.” I soon slept again and dreamt nothing worth remembering.
The next morning, as I sipped unhappily at a ghastly cup of coffee, Marot came in to the Clean Mean Bean and goggled at me as he stopped short. He came over and pointed at my shirt, “A Hawaiian shirt? Parrots?!? What is this, an undercover assignment?”
“I’m on vacation.”
“Seeing you like that, I figured I was the one taking a trip. Where are you going?”
“Wherever the spirit moves me.”
We ordered breakfast and grimaced at our coffee. He said, “The rumor is most mornings Rose loses count when she’s spooning out the coffee, so she just starts over counting.”
“I like my coffee with most of the volatiles driven off, like, say, water, but even I don’t like this.”
After breakfast we walked to my car. Something had been bothering me all morning, and I finally placed it. “Last night you said you had gotten revenge, and that was fine for now. What did you mean, ‘for now’?”
“It’s too soon now, but eventually I’ll get the truth printed. If worse comes to worst, I’ll leave a manuscript with my lawyer for publication after I die. I’ll get the rest of my data together and have it ready for publication as well. I have the evidence for most of it at hand; you’ve managed to secure the rest. My name is mud right now, but that will pass. It will be published eventually, somewhere, no matter where, and the truth will out.”
“Talvez seja assim,” I said. We wished each other luck and I drove off under a cloudless sky.