The Far Side of the Real, Part I—Trouble like Nobody’s Business—Paul Cain SpecGram Vol CLXVII, No μ Contents The Far Side of the Real, Part III—Libellers Don’t Shoot—Paul Cain

The Far Side of the Real

Post­humously Published from the Manuscript Files of Paul Cain

- II -
The Ragged Way Some People Live

By 3:30 I had finished reading the papers. Somebody had done a nasty job but good on Boileau. On just the first page of the first article published by Linguistic Enquiry the same sentence appeared three times broken down and glossed as “I shot your dog and hung it from her ceiling,” “I too wish weasels could fly above the clouds,” and something baroquely, obscurely obscene about the reader’s mother, uncle, and dead grandfather. The morph fanŋʷɔ was glossed 28 different ways by my count: ‘cat,’ ‘thief speaking with a carioca accent,’ ‘thick vomit of a deep red hue,’ ‘soil enriched by mass burials of plague-stricken weasels,’ ‘polite term of address for a Paraguayan prostitute,’ ‘the second day of the lunar month,’ ‘a northerly wind bearing the stench of fetid mango rinds,’ ‘the duodenum of the ocelot,’ ‘pustulating sores on the buttocks of a lemur,’ singular, dual, trial, paucal, and plural, indefinite specific, ergative case, accusative case, proximal, obviative, optative, distal past, causative voice, pluractional, inchoative, semelfactive, different-subject marker, subordinative converb, and perfect participle. Similarly, the morph glossed ‘polite term of address for a Bolivian prostitute’ took 47 forms, including two distinct zero morphs (Ø17 and Ø32), that if genuine would constitute the most spectacular case of suppletion yet attested. More generally, the author’s obsessive fixation on disease, decay, excretion, sexual acts, and lemurs, combined with a violently misolusitanian sentiment bespoke a troubled and troubling series of informant sessions. The obvious first question was how such a shoddy paper came to be published without the reviewers calling for thorough revision, but then I remembered the journal. I glanced down at my lunch, which I had pushed aside in nausea after reaching the middle of the second page, and weighed whether to finish it; no, I’d need another couple of hours to let the effects of the paper wear off before I could trust my stomach to handle it.

After running basic searches on the Legal Office’s network I had an objective view of Boileau’s career. He had finished his PhD eight years before at one of our university’s most hated rivals for a description of a previously unstudied language spoken near Culabá, and had moved on to the region near the northern edge of the border with Paraguay. This was his second major field language; he had institutional connections with institutes in Manaus and Belém, where he had taught off and on for a while; he had just finished research on a generous private grant; and he had been teaching at our university for three years. He had one book and four major papers, as well as over a dozen smaller papers, none of which, at least before his recent fit of creativity, had been published in either Speculative Grammarian or Linguistic Enquiry. He had no grants administered by his department and was supervising only one dissertation, which concerned a presumably fascinating pattern of alternations in three neighboring languages of Guyana.

I then checked the records for other professors in the department. There were three who might be interested in wrecking Boileau for distinctly Brazilian reasons: Harold Gautier, Albert Riquier, and Vladimir Sumarokov, oldest to youngest. Gautier had worked in Brazil beginning in 1966, Riquier in 1981, and Sumarokov in 1989, and all three had worked in several parts of Amazonia and Guyana. I then looked through citation indices to get an idea of the extent of their field in America. It was unlikely any of Boileau’s peers at another university would have had the means of sabotaging him given the simple matter of access to his data and writings, but thoroughness is a necessity in any occupation worth its snuff. Finally, I looked through graduate student records until the barista motioned to me that they were closing.

By that time it was time, so I got a box for my lunch and walked off to the Legal Department’s toolshed, a small titanium-reinforced concrete box covered with wood to look like a shed in the garden of the university’s chancellor’s house. I put my lunch in the fridge, packed a few tools in a belt bag, and strode over to the humanities building. It was 10:30. I looked up at the roof 14 stories above me and sighed; I hate heights. I walked over to the secluded entrance door leading most directly to the basement and slipped quietly down the stairs. Once in the basement I went down a side corridor to the well-disguised door leading to the little known sub-basement and walked over to the express elevator running to the roof. I exited in the middle of the ventilation outlet complex and choked on the thick cloud of ganja smoke issuing from two of the vents. I thought for a second and figured out they led out from the floors housing the comparative literature and cultural studies departments. They had tests coming up, so clearly the professors were burning the midnight hemp. I set up the loops and hooks on one of the vent housings, walked to the edge of the roof, and rappelled down to Boileau’s window on the eighth floor, all without looking down. I opened his window and slipped inside; light came in through the frosted glass window in the door to his office. I looked around his office with a great deal of attention and found nothing out of the ordinary. I grabbed his laptop and attached a large rubber suction cup fronting a quaint and curious device to the window of his door. When I climbed back out the window, I pushed a button and the box at the bottom of the suction cup created a near-vacuum and shot a heavy metal ball at the end of a piston against the glass. The vacuum sucked the glass fragments into the cup, which in turn fell away from the window to scatter the glass all over the floor. While there was a risk someone might hear the noise, I could leave unseen. I wound up the cord to the suction cup, closed the window, and damned the heights as I scaled the wall to the roof. Onlookers might have wondered why the lights on the side of the building had gone out twice in fifteen minutes, but they were unlikely to wonder why someone was visible on the side of the building. On the roof I packed up, stowed the laptop, and scampered to the elevator and off to the tool shed, where I replaced the tools and picked up my lunch and the laptop.

I called it a day and went home. I stowed the laptop securely in a safe in a hidden closet in my basement. I took out my lunch and thought of heating it up, but the revived trauma on seeing hollandaise sauce twisted my stomach and I quickly averted my eyes from the fried yams. It went in the refrigerator next to two pot pies I had left there to thaw; those I put in the oven. Fortunately, the putative Periminhos did not seem to cultivate chickens. As my dinner cooked, I turned on the TV to Show Us Your Wounds!, a combination talk show and game show that was the latest rage. As the camera zoomed in on a young man unwrapping a bandage to show a gaping slash on his knee incurred in rescuing his dog from a rabid badger, one of the judges shouted “Boring!” and banged a gong. In complete agreement, I turned to the special the Natural History Channel had been ballyhooing for the last two weeks, “Marmots: Nature’s Roving Napalm Canisters.” A man whose accent drew attention to its many and varied places of origin intoned in a reverent hush, “Not only were marmots the source of the Black Death that devastated... many places [mumble mumble] centuries ago, they are highly flammable from storing fat during the summer. As they cannot be placed over open fire due to their great risk of exploding, their carcasses must be cooked with heated stones. Indeed, it is this combination of factors that has led several young historians to a completely new understanding of their role in steppe warfare.”

The camera cut to a pale soft-shelled creature in seedy tweeds: “Although it is not explicitly stated in the extant records, it appears quite likely, based on archeological conjecture, that the Mongols would trick their enemies by leaving infected marmots cooking on spits when they knew a sneak attack was coming. When the enemy guard entered their camp, the marmots would explode all over them. Not only would the enemy soldiers be splattered with frying fat that would burn them like napalm, the survivors would be infected by the Black Death and carry it back to their base.” As they started a re-enactment with what appeared to be a band of Vikings who shopped at a 16th century English army surplus store wandering into a Wyoming cowboy camp in the late 19th century, I fetched my dinner. I finished my dinner as the re-enactment reached its 20-minute mark; sighing at the fifth slow-mo repeat of a plastic bag of blood wrapped in a moth-eaten fur stole exploding in the face of someone whose expression suggested he’d realized yet again he was wasting his life, I turned to the next channel up.

My hopes rose when I saw Adam Sandler playing in a well-stocked chemical laboratory with warning stickers everywhere; alas, he soon said, “Meh, it’s just fluorine. What’s the worst that could happen?” As the very existence of the film meant it wasn’t fluorine at all, I groaned and turned off the television, hopes dashed. I dug out an old report of an industrial accident involving the spill of a ton of chlorine trifluoride and fell asleep in my armchair to happy thoughts of what might have been and yet still could be. That night I dreamt of a large crater growing in the concrete floor of a movie studio, around which film cameras perished in metal-fluorine explosions; clouds of hydrofluoric acid belched up as the sprinklers poured out water into a satanic industrial fire they were not designed to fight. In a corner under a ventilation system suffering its last throes before corrosive collapse, a band of special learners who had been socially promoted into movie making crowded together and crumbled under the attack of a shock troop of exploding marmots softening the way for badgers who exhaled fluorine gas as they sang a victory song that needed more cowbell. Although my neck was stiff, I awoke oddly refreshed and hummed “Gaseous F2, it do a body bad, skeletal fluorosis can make a body sad” to myself as my coffee perked.

❦ ❦ ❦

I washed up, dressed down, loaded up, and headed out. I proceeded south until I hit a larger street fronted by a mix of houses and small businesses and went east until I came close to the police station. I turned south again and passed in front of Kropotkin’s Crackpots, an anarchist bookstore that had opened across the street from the police station, presumably so they could keep an eye on each other. I had examined their wares a few times; the beard in their portrait of Karl Marx was the only thing warm and fuzzy in the entire store. I continued south through an old industrial district spotted here and there with renovations and gardens, and after four blocks came to a half-decrepit old shoe storeor so the inscription above the entranceway had sworn since 1923. Inside was a local cable service subcontractor, well, among other things, but the public knew it as the place they complained to when their TV took a cigarette break. Inside the main office was a counter facing the door with two desks behind it on the right, and on the left several metal shelves of electronic equipment, some of which actually pertained to public tele­commu­nica­tions.

The man at the desk near the far wall was the boss, Leo Rose. He was reading The War of Art by Fletcher Purvis, which had won several awards a couple of years before. A shambolical novel of the trials and tribulations of the modern art world that began as hackneyed as it was omphaloskeptic, its second half climbed modest foothills as Petty van Dahl, a well-fed artist with a lean and hungry look, marched into a modern art gallery with a shotgun and put a hole in each painting by his former teacher, Hector D. Ross; when he was arrested, he announced it was a piece of performance art called Crap Shoot. The scandal rocked and wracked the art world with heated conflict over artistic principles: All true art needs to extend its middle fingers to what has gone before, but all true art must be worshipped as the closest the modern age can accept to the sacred. Indeed, there was room in this part for rather more biting satire than Purvis allowed himself, but he wouldn’t have won any of his awards had he done so. After van Dahl was sentenced to prison, the art studio advertised a two-for-one sale: Buy one painting and get a piece of performance art into the bargain. Because the vision of an artist suffering for his art, however trivial or antisocial, is catnip to the art world, the paintings he had touched up quadrupled in value overnight. The novel ended with a flash mob of copy-cat art students dancing for joy in the embers of an art museum they had burned down in a performance piece called Straight Flush. As they chanted “The art world united will never be defeated,” the museum management could be seen in the distance dancing a jig after they realized that in addition to the insurance money they would collect, they could sell the ashes for a C-spot on the ounce without having to worry about the thorny legal procedures for deaccession. So yes, it was a moderately effective ending to a predictably mainstream, middlebrow work that compromised its artistic vision to flatter its audience without making it think too deeply, forwent esthetic integrity for scandal and titillation, served the same old musty wine in pretty much the same bottles it had gone half to vinegar in, and only made a big splash in literary circles because it wasn’t genre fiction.

Rose’s assistant, George Kern, was on the phone on behalf of a customer slouching against the counter. “But we contacted you and told you he was moving out of the country, so you should have sent the return package to us. [Pause.] I just told you that I called your office at the time and told you he returned his equipment to us. [Pause.] So why did you send it to his old address? [Pause.] Just a moment.” He put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, “Listen to this guy.” He then turned on the speaker to the phone and said, “Could you repeat what you just said?”

“Sir, I said we sent the return package to the address we had on file.”

“But I had told you that he had just moved.”

“That was the address we had on file.”

“You have our address on file too.”

“But not under his name.”

“So basically, you sent it to a place where you had been told it would not do any good, because that’s what you had on file.”

He replied smartly, “Yes, sir, that is correct.”

“So when you lose your keys in the alley, you just keep jamming your hand in your pocket because that’s where they should be, right? Or do you just immediately go to the nearest streetlamp?”

After a long pause, “Um, I don’t understand.”

“Never mind, let me speak to your supervisor.” He then turned off the speaker phone and shook his head. The next person kept him on the phone for three minutes and remedied the situation. After he hung up, George said to Leo, “Good guy. He knows what’s what and does it right away. He’ll be fired inside of three months, mark my words. He doesn’t fit in with their corporate culture at all.” He turned to the customer and said, “I’m really sorry about that, but it’s straightened out now. You no longer owe $752 in late fees, and Interpol is no longer ordered to shoot you on sight.” When the young man goggled at him he said, “Just joking. About the guns, I mean. Your account is clear. Sorry you had to come in on your vacation.”


“No problem.”

After he left, George asked me, “How may I help you, sir? We have a special package this month in which you may choose any 50 of the countries of the world and receive service from the lowest-rated TV station in each of them for a mere $49.95 a month.”

“I already get that package, remember? It’s your service provider’s premium package and it only costs me $29.95 a month as it is, and all it’s good for is finding out which language David Hasselhoff sounds the funniest in.”


“No, Nepalese.”

“Ah well, you can’t cheat an honest man, not that that cripples our bottom line any.” Behind him Leo snorted and returned to his book. “So Studd, how ya doin’?”

“More or less. Is Dumas in?”

“Yeah, he’s in like Flynn.” We all snickered. “He’s downstairs.”

Fred Flynn was one of any number of shadowy figures lurking around the edges of any university. He had his uses, and so he was allowed to share space with Leo and George. It was not an easy relationship: Once in the middle of a long spell without work, he railed against being surrounded by men who were nothing more than veggie burgers on the Information Superhighway. George replied that Fred put the “lump” in the lumpen­proletariat, and in payback Fred had started taunting George with an old jingle, “Oh, our butthead has a first name, it’s G-E-O-R-G-E; our butthead has a second name, it’s D-U-M-A-S.” George asked him, “What does that mean, Fred?”

“It spells ‘dumbass,’ dumbass.”

“No, it spells ‘Dumas,’ dumbass,” and after that it was only on rare occasions he was addressed as Flynn by anyone but me.

I walked over to the door on the left and went down to the basement. I knocked on a door with a sign reading ‘Talk to the hand’ under a picture of a Vulcan salute and said, “Mr. Flynn, are you free?”

He opened the door and glared out at me. “This better be interesting.”

“It’s raw meat.”

He brightened right up and let me in. I pulled out Boileau’s laptop and handed it to him. “I want a full report on everything in it. I’m sure most of it is password protected, and possibly pretty well; have fun but cover your tracks. Write up the usual index for me with links to the files. I’m especially interested in anything having to do with Brazil, but don’t let that constrain your curiosity. I need it in a week. Give me a progress report every other day starting tonight.”

He grinned. “This is a lot more interesting than catching idiots fishing for morons,” he said absent-mindedly as he looked at his new opponent. I said, “Thanks, Fred,” and closed the door. As I left, George asked, “So, will Dumas be tolerable the next few days?”

“Most likely he’ll be almost normal, yes.”

“So, no phishing scams for morons?” Two months before, the university had been attacked by a group of cyber thieves who sent emails to their victims offering to tell their fortunes and examine their personalities based on their passwords; after they had obtained the passwords of over two thousand students in two days and wreaked massive havoc through their accounts, Flynn had been tasked with catching and punishing them, which he did in four hours. In return, a grateful administration paid him the usual $7.50 an hour and included the bonus of a $10 gift certificate to a defunct coffee shop, after which he made our lives extraordinarily unpleasant for a couple of days. Curiously, he then smiled beatifically for three weeks; we suspected people in the higher reaches of the administration were patting their pockets and wondering where their wallets had gone, figuratively speaking, but we preferred not to find out.

“No, it should be nothing like’s to get up his nose like that.”

“Thanks. See you soon.”

I walked a block further east and turned north toward campus. This street was home to several small stores, such as a thrift store, a book store, a used CD store, and several maintenance and service shops, as well as a dance club, Gestalt Failure. Their latest flyer was up: A passel of up-and-comers, Stinky Pinky and the Rinky-Dinks, were opening for two popular local acts, Zucchini Sheath and Krochkrach, at 8 p.m. on the 17th. The former were a notorious grrrly-grrrl power quartet most famous round our parts for their hit from three years before, “[Ʌkmijθ],” which consisted of the title repeated at rapid tempo over samples of Barry White and Chopin. I remembered their stellar promise back when the arts reporter for the local paper, the Star-Telegram (or as we usually called it, the Startlegram), started their boost to a higher orbit. In his review of their first large concert, Varlet Vervet blithered on about their “certain oomph,” “real pizazz,” “well-rounded accomplish­ments,” and “talent popping out everywhere,” and added that they were “just bursting with promise,” which didn’t mean much, being his usual boiler plate for any female singer showing more than an inch of cleavage; then, telling about their new hit song, he announced the return of the spirit of the young Liz Phair. This made his readers sit up and take notice, the male ones anyway. Their future was almost secured with the follow-up interview a week later:

Vervet: Now, let me ask you about your new song, “[Ʌkmijθ].” There are some who’d say that’s a bit provocative.

Tawdry Audrey: Oh, it’s not English. It’s an Indian word. You know, American Indian.

Vervet: I see. Indian. Which language?

Tawdry Audrey: Uh, Lushootseed.

The group giggled at this; it was all I could do to get the interview back on track.

Vervet: And what does it mean?

Lewd Trude: “Let’s all dance.”

Then two pages and ten minutes later:

Vervet: Wait, who’s Lou?

At this point all four laughed.

Dirty Bertie: A lucky, lucky guy our Lou, that’s who.

Many of the readers were quite impressedthat quick repartee showed the girls also had it going on above the neck, and it boosted Vervet’s stock as a newsman as well, never mind the fact that he’d only gotten the job after being run out of upper New York state for a public failure to distinguish Mohican from Mohawk and an even more public dismissal of the importance of doing so.

At the time the interview ran, I was just about the only one outside the linguistics department shaking his head, for I’d been the university’s consultant on the quartet’s cheating case a few years before. Near the end of my time learning the ropes at the desk job, I received a call about four sociology students (at the time simply known as Audrey, Gertrude, Constance, and Bertha) who had blatantly cheated on their linguistics final. “No,” I said, “You can’t actually accuse them of cheating. That would open the university to serious criminal liability. And the university won’t allow that. And if you proceed along those lines contrary to my friendly advice, the university would make sure that it’s not the party bearing criminal liability, capisc’?” After a few more minutes clarifying the issues at hand, I had the instructor calmed down and considering more constructive solutions: “Now, I see that Bertha has failed the class twice already and the others once. As the grades currently stand, they’re all set to repeat their sterling performance this time too, and remember, they can take the class again and yet again until they make a passing grade, which will expunge the previous failures. The usual practice in such a case is to make sure to stop counting errors on the final once the course grade would reach D-. We like to think of it as a gracious act of charity. [Pause.] Why, charity for all, of course. But mostly for those teaching the class.”

Just to make sure everything proceeded as agreed, I sat in on the final grading session. As the instructor and two TAs read out the points taken off, I entered them in a spreadsheet and identified the point at which the class grade passed below 62.0%; natch, all four reached 61.897 simultaneously. After I said, “Pens down, stop your grading, that’s enough,” I looked up to see the three of them giggling. “What?” On the sheet to which the test they handed me was opened was a morphology problem for Lushootseed. The instructor told me, “When I first mentioned the language in class, three of them started laughing out loud. It interrupted my lecture and took me three minutes to get everyone quiet again. Then after they stopped, Audrey said, ‘Oh, I get it! But who’s Lou?’ ” She laughed, the TAs grinned, I nodded.

Unfortunately for the quartet, a month later they were interviewed for the Tricounty Record by my friend Bill Sx̌ǝlpqidǝb Baggett, to whom I had mailed a copy of Vervet’s interview. A week later he emailed me a sound file of the interview with a simple “Thanks.” When I played it, I nearly grinned.

Bill: ʔi, kwuy. ʔəsx̌id čəxw?

Tawdry Audrey: Huh? What?

Bill: ʔəsx̌id čəxw?

Lewd Trude: Okay... uhskid... chuckwuh?

Bill: ʔəsƛ’ubil čəd.

Dirty Bertie: Uh, hi?

Bill: ʔi, kwuy. gwat kwi adsda?

Tawdry Audrey: What the hell?

Bill: xwadðəxɛɭ, ʔəsx̌id šadsyayaya?

And so on, for fifteen minutes. A week later Bill’s article was published, and even scourging by flying radioactive glow-in-the-dark arm-length scorpions would have hurt the quartet’s pride and hindquarters less, never mind their career. Alas, their booster rocket had misfired and they were stuck in geosynchronous orbit until friction dragged them down to the inevitable burn-up. I emailed Bill a quick “Congrats.”

He replied with unwonted verbosity, “New job at the Upcountry Farm and Field Gazette. Coffee?”

“My dime,” I replied. Turns out his editor had balked at running the piece like a horse scenting a pack of coyotes: “But Bill, they’re really juicy, and musically almost adequate as well. The boys in the audience’ll eat ’em up. We have to give our people what they want.”

“What about my people?”

“What the hell do I care about a bunch of Canucks? I’ve told you before, our Canadian circulation is zero.”

After a call from Bill’s lawyer, however, the article was set to run, and then upon the mutual agreement of all concerned Bill took a new job a week after it ran. Last I heard he’s a major player in the British Columbian media; similarly, Varlet Vervet had tumbled upwards to become girl-group features editor for Rolling Stone, where his proclivities continue their fine tradition of laid-back reporting that lets it all hang out with a nudge and a wink for frat boys of all ages.

As for Krochkrach... yeah, they’re about what you’d expect.

❦ ❦ ❦

I got to the office a bit earlier than usual. Vinnie was popping his knuckles and reading a magazine. I sat down at my desk and started looking through the routine paperwork on my desk. I saw Tusklo had given me Guido’s report, likely without even looking through it. On the first page Guido reported the suspicious activities of three stray dogs that had resisted arrest. On the second page he reported that a chipmunk had run across his foot and evaded arrest. The rest of his report would be of interest to sexologists for two reasons: Data for an accurate survey of modern college students’ sexual habits, and the unsolicited testimony of a voyeur. I initialed it and put it in the file for Guido’s reports, whose contents were culled and by far the greater part shredded monthly. Next in the pile was a report of another unlicensed sidewalk chalking calling for the dismissal of the chancellor for being much too uncool for the modern university. It had been scrawled on the steps of the building next to the one Guido was staking out. The campus police took a picture of it, looked for shoeprints, and supervised hosing it down. Third in the pile was a picture of Guido scrubbing the steps; Tusklo’s shoes were visible in the corner and he was probably holding a water hoseeither that or the hoseman was so far inside Tusklo’s generously annexed and jealously guarded personal space that he should have been eviscerated by then. Attached to it was a sticky from the campus police thanking us for the assistance of our office in such a routine matter. It went in Guido’s personal file, from which it was unlikely to be culled.

A call came for Tusklo at 11, and he called me into his office. “There’s been a break-in in the linguistics department. At least one computer has been stolen. It looks like an inside job. It’s your assignment.”

I nodded and headed over to the humanities building. When the elevator opened on the 8th floor, I immediately noticed a campus policeman standing at Boileau’s door looking in my direction. A look of relief swept his face as I walked toward him. He gave me all the details he had discovered, not that I really needed them, but it was good to confirm I had made no slip-ups, at least not ones so crude the police would have caught them. I then asked to be shown the office, which I again examined closely, and then was ushered into the chairman’s office to meet Boileau. He did a good job of feigning barely controlled frustration with my questions.

I then asked the chairman the standard list of questions and was handed no surprises, and then asked his leave to question other members of the department, to which he of course acceded. I got a list of professors and graduate students currently on campus, and noted with interest that Sumarokov had been on leave in Brazil for much of the preceding year. I went through the rest of the professors present by tedious rote until I got to the two I was curious about.

I went to Gautier’s office, which was typical of a tenured professor of his age. He sat behind a desk in a leather armchair holding court over three grad students on dunce stools. “Come in.”

“Dr. Gautier, I am Studd Guntersied with the Legal Office. I am investigating the theft of Dr. Boileau’s laptop.”

“Ah yes, the wonder baby lost his toy.”

The grad students snickered until Gautier stared at them balefully. He had a shining dome fringed with bright silver hair and a gaunt, tanned look. His steel blue eyes looked at the world challengingly and gave the impression of always being disappointed by what they found. Clearly, he had been supervising dissertations for several decades.

“May I ask you a few questions?”

“Certainly, I can spare ten minutes for that.”

“How long have you known Dr. Boileau?”

“By reputation, ever since he entered graduate school. Personally, four years now.”

“What do you think of his work?”

“It was good a few years ago. He was a solid field linguist. However, he has gone off the rails since then. I have been increasingly disappointed in him, and even worried. After his last papers I think he has gone beyond help. Probably he destroyed his laptop himself to cover his tracks. It is always a shame to see a reasonable degree of talent go to waste so, but it is not my job to hold hands or hand out pills.”

“How are your relations with Dr. Boileau?”

“As correct as I can keep them. We were never close.”

“Can you think of any reason someone else would steal his laptop?”

“Resale value, presumably. Certainly it would not be for the value of his data, unless one has a grotesque sense of the absurd.”

“Can you think of anyone else in the department who might have a grudge against him or have another reason for damaging his reputation?”

He suddenly looked piercingly at me and said, “Is that his game now?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Is he suggesting that someone is trying to set him up?”

“We must consider all possibilities, Dr. Gautier.”

He thought. “No, I cannot think of anyone who would have such strength of emotion about him of any kind.”

“Including other researchers in his field, not just at this university?”

“I cannot speak to the matter of his relations with his Brazilian colleagues, but among Americans he is... there in the background. Nothing spectacular, competent, at least until recently, no political wrangling or jockeying for or against any grand patron, no. No strong theoretical commitments either,” the last said with a sniff of disdain.

“Any wrangling over funding?”


“What is your general impression of his research?”

“It used to be solid. He is, in his increasingly brief and rare periods of lucidity, able to describe a language well. He has no theoretical commitments, as I have said, which is a discredit to the man’s standing as a true scholar of language, but if we restrict ourselves to mere taxonomy, he is, or was, a fine specimen of the standard issue, bog-common American Americanist.”

“What is his view of theory then?”

“Agnostic,” a word Gautier filled with such a sneer that the graduate students in attendance snickered again until cowed by his scowl.

“Have you discussed his work in progress with him much?”

“I have seen his presentations and read two of his working papers. He does not work on languages I have had much experience with recently, and he did not offer anything worth sinking my teeth into.”

“One last set of questions, Dr. Gautier. When did you leave your office last night?”

He scowled a tad in my direction as well. “Six in the evening. I was at the concert last night and went to drinks with my colleagues afterwards.”

“Did you see or hear anything suspicious yesterday? Have you noticed any people out of place hanging around the department recently?”

“No, and no.”

“Thank you for your time. If you think of anything you think might be of use to our investigation, please contact me. Here is my card.”

He took my card and nodded. “I wish you success, or luck, or at least an interesting time.” I nodded in turn and turned to the door. As I left I looked at the stand by his door. A signed picture of Noam Chomsky was not so uncommon in linguists’ offices. A censer with incense burning was much rarer, andI glanced downa prayer rug was quite extraordinary. Gautier was clearly a man who took his theory straight, and straight from the cask.

I then walked down the hall and introduced myself and my business to Albert Riquier. He was a short bulldog of a man, if bulldogs have handlebar moustaches and bald spots, and he looked ready to give any man who sneered at him a swift uppercut to the jaw, a baseball bat to each kneecap, and a shiv ’twixt the ribs; I suspected any woman who tried a taunt would suffer an equally violent verbal assault.

“Ah, so our much-vaunted Legal Office is on the case. Good, good!” he grinned, rubbing his hands.

As the Legal Office made it a point to fade into the woodworks this perturbed me slightly, and he added, “Theft in the night! It’s even reaching the eighth floor. Never would have happened in my student days, but then I guess times change in thirty years, don’t they?”

I smiled perfunctorily at his sally of wit and replied, “Indeed, Dr. Riquier. I need to ask you some questions about the whole matter.”

“Oh, most certainly, be my guest.”

“How long have you known Dr. Boileau?”

“Since the day he came to our fine institution for his job talk. Impressive enough.”

“What do you think of his work?”

“Solid, not spectacular.”

“How are your relations with Dr. Boileau?”

“We have the occasional beer after work. We trade stories about our experiences in Brazil, practice our Portuguese, and learn nothing either of us didn’t already know. Phatic communication is important in society, after all.”

“Can you think of any reason someone else would steal his laptop?”

“Good question. No, I don’t think so. His presentations were interesting, but after his recent papers I suspect no one would want to get that close to his work.”

“Can you think of anyone else in the department who might have a grudge against him or some other reason for blackening his reputation? Including other researchers in his field, not just at this university?”

“No, not really. It hardly seems that would be the most convenient way of ruining him, you know, when you could devote all that energy to your own work.”

“Any wrangling over funding?”

“No, not even over office space. He has a slight tendency to spinal deliquescence in staff meetings, which I might put down to bucking for chairman if he were just active in advertising his research.”

“What is your general impression of his research?”

“Overall? Until recently? Competent work, but as a rule he gives fairly minimal presentations. Not minimalisthe’s certainly not likely to step in that minefield with old-fashioned throwbacks like Gautier and Banville in attendance. The only complaint they would ever make about Chomsky is that everything from Principles and Parameters on is a major step down from the high point of the mid-1970s.”

“Have you discussed his work in progress with him much?”

“Some, but he’s been tight-lipped about it, especially since his last string of papers. It’s rather as if he’s been playing things quite close to his chest.”

“One last set of questions, Dr. Riquier. When did you leave your office last night?”

“I left about eight. I had to meet a lady for dinner. Shall I tell you the rest of the evening’s events?”

“Thank you but no. I insist.”

He grinned. “Good, I wasn’t going to anyway.”

For once his words rang false, but I gladly skipped it. “Did you see or hear anything suspicious yesterday? Have you noticed any people out of place hanging around the department recently?”

“I saw a couple of undergrads yesterday who were reading their textbooks. If that’s not out of place round these parts, we might as well just cut down the campus gates and let anyone in.”

I paused and asked, “Okay, did you see anyone not quite so out of place? Say, actually not reading yet suspicious all the same? Thinking independently, perhaps?”

He laughed like a grateful seal and said, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Thank you for your time. If you think of anything you think might be of use to our investigation, please contact me. Here is my card.”

As he took my card he gave me a sardonic salute and said, “Will do, Sergeant.” Stifling a tired sigh, I nodded and said goodbye.

The Far Side of the Real, Part ITrouble like Nobody’s BusinessPaul Cain
The Far Side of the Real, Part IIILibellers Don’t ShootPaul Cain
SpecGram Vol CLXVII, No μ Contents