The following is an INovella produced by myself in collaboration with a part-time contributor to this blog, Scott McCain. Scott is the Federal Custodian of the Normal Chronvoxilator, and a former colleague of mine from
When the custodian left the storage closet, his dulled olfactory did not detect the strong, fetid stench emanating from the ground. Some of the others passing by pluged their noses and actually bent towards the smell. Sage produced a lighter--one of those classic Zippo affairs, only his had a skull and crossbones emblazoned on one side--and lit it. When he held the flame near one of the cracks, his suspicions were confirmed as a low blue flame inginted just above the crack and danced steadily as if a stove top burner.
Two of the others looked on and shifted their weight, wating for Sage to say something. Then, one of them spoke. "What's the deal with that?"
"The deal? What are we, in Vegas?" Sage said.
"No, it's just that, well, what is it?" asked the taller of the other two.
"What do you think it is?"
"Sage, stop with the twenty-fucking-questions," the shorter one said.
Sage stood, fixed his shirt, and returned the lighter to his pocket. He then leaned on his heels, a controlled reel, looking at each of the other two, they returning the gaze intently.
"Do you remember hearing of a teacher here a few years back that supposedly took kids into the basement and tunnels here?"
"That's bullshit," the tall one said.
"Okay, Lucien, if you want to doubt it, then find your own goddamn explanation."
"All right, I've heard of him."
The short one took from his pocket a bag of sunflower seeds and popped a handful into his mouth. "I've heard of him," he said.
"Thank you, Hippo, I'll continue," Sage said. "I think his lab is still active down there."
"Come on, you serious?" asked Lucien.
He turned and shuffled towards what he thought to be an entrance to a stairwell. Lucien and Hippo stood, watching him, Hippo cracking seeds and spitting the shells, Lucien, looked at his watch.
"Come on, let's go," Lucien said.
"To get Cheese Nips. What do you think?"
"Shit, man. I can't cut homeroom. Kransky will have my ass."
Lucien proceeded, disregarding Hippo's remarks as if they were a fart in the wind. He had already decided, irrevocably and immediately upon seeing the blue lick of the flame initiated by his lucky Zippo, that this was a place he had to explore. He was impelled by the draw of the unknown, the small shiver that quickened in his loins. He was Hillary, and Hippo his sherpa.
"Aw fuckit," intoned Hippo meekly. Lucien tried the handle of the door. The stripes of Lucien's Newcastle United football jersey shone iridescently in the neon lights of the public school hallway. "Kransky's a tool, anyway."
Lionel Spieziak, the school's lifelong custodial engineer, watched through a small, secret peephole as the two misfits opened the heavy door. He picked up the receiver to a rotary dial phone, and turned the disc furtively, dialing a number he knew by rote.
The receiving side of the doorway was surprisingly well lit for what had initially appeared to be an eerie and dank passageway. Lining the walls were several outdated lamps, like the ones that appeared on the tables of a
"What do you think this place is?" asked Hippo. Lucien didn't answer, but carried forth into the womb of
Above the surface, at the threshold of the passageway, Happy Porcine adjusted his night-view lens and checked the battery of his camera. He had spied the two miscreants as they examined the door, and had seen them plummet the depths of the doorsill. He now had a choice.
* * *
Somewhere in the city, a phone rang and Lionel Spieziak shifted his weight from his right foot to his left. His left hand held the phone to his ear, the pre-digital ring of the phone droned.
“There’s at least two of ‘em going in now,” Lionel said.
“Dunno, teenagers, anyway,” he said.
“Hold back. Give it a few, then the usually.”
“Call back?” Lionel asked.
“Only if you need to.”
“Got it,” he said and returned the phone to its cradle.
Further down the dank hallway, Hippo said, “Hey, fool?” His voice echoed. Lucien ambled close to the dim, yellowish light, taking a drag from the cigarette.
“Sage?” He called out.
Nobody replied. Hippo stopped abruptly and Lucien bumped into him. “What are you doing?” He asked.
For a moment, Hippo stood stock still, eyes locked on something. Lucien said, “What the hell, what is it?”
Hippo said nothing, but held up a hand to silence Lucien. “You’re tripping,” he said.
“Shut up, fool,” Hippo said in a whisper.
Lucian tossed his cigarette, looked closely at Hippo’s face, and then looked in the same direction. It was then that he saw what Hippo saw, and his voice was gone.
Where is that motherfucker, Sage? Lucien thought. He had disappeared as soon as the door opened up into the bowels of the public school. Could this be his revenge for me fingering his girlfriend at the school dance? Lucien was cool, though, and stared the effigy down as if it were a testament to his manhood.
"What the fuck IS that thing?" Hippo howled. Lucien continued to stare. It looked like Sage, but its eyes had been gouged out to the point where the face was semi-unrecognizable.
"It's your homie, Sage," whispered Lucien, and he flicked the tip of his personal defense mechanism out in an unhurried, workman-like efficiency. He used the Bowie knife to prick the two pennies out from his former rival's eyes with a sudden necessity, much like the manner in which his father used to scrape rodentia from a rusty garden hoe. "He's dead. He's a dead motherfucker."
Lucien had never seen a dead body, at least in person, but he was untroubled by this current discovery. It was as if he had half-expected it. Foreseen it in some warped dream. Hippo became unraveled.
"Holy shit, man. Holy fucking shit!" Hippo was now beside himself. Lucien was cool.
"Shut up, Hippo. Be quiet. Be still and quiet." Lucien knew what was before him, and had chosen this route long ago. Sage was just a pawn in his game, and now he had been sacrificed, reduced like a simple fraction in a mid-level math class. He ripped the skull and crossbones Zippo from Sage's dead hands. The lamps from the sidewall dripped gloomily onto the two figures, as another shadow from above began to descend upon the duo. The shadow filtered along the cement partition between the schoolhouse and the basement with alacrity, and before he knew it, the crucial moment was upon him.
Above, Happy Porcine sat perched filming the entire episode from the third stair. His night-vision camera was astute, and captured every waking moment of the scene below. Suddenly, he too was felled by a severe blow to his cranium. He died instantly, but the camera marched on to capture the feat below, although at a somewhat unfavorable angle. The loud screams were muffled by the thick, concrete walls, and several sprays of deep, sanguine blood clouded the lens.
Footsteps echoed with a diphthongous quality—part step, part shuffle, the two combining in a sonorous unison. Lionel Spieziak came to a halt and held what looked like an ordinary stethoscope. He placed a listening end into each of his ears and held the metal medallion end to the brick wall. The bricks—not a normal object for the purpose of auscultation—were the sole point of his concentration. It was apparent that this was not an ordinary stethoscope because a thick wire attached the metal listening device to a box attached to a strap slung over Lionel’s shoulder. The muffled bleep, zip, and pfzzt, intensified each time he listened to a new area on the wall. He was standing in the area that Lucien and Hippos had stood moments before.
The night vision camera took on a new angle as someone resumed filming with a steady hand, and the zoom and focus were not accidental. Still, the hand wipe of the blood off the lens created a muted almost hazed gel effect, and nobody could say for sure what he saw.
Happy Porcine lay prone, his head turned to one side. The thick non-prescription glasses were tangled across his face. Both eyes were open and his tongue jutted from the side of his mouth. He never knew what hit him.
Hippo and Lucien inched slowly past what that thought as the corpse of their acquaintance Sage. Lucien knew they were nearing the deepest points of the tunnels as the graffiti grew scarce and the few spray painted markings that existed were a graffito of a 1970s slogan and a crude drawing of a marijuana leaf.
“Damn, it’s getting hot,” Hippo said.
“Shut up, you’re just fat,” Lucien whispered.
“No, I’m serious,” Hippo said.
Lucien noticed the beads of sweat that dripped from Hippos brow and realized that it grew not warmer, but hotter with every step they took. That is when he noticed the five-inch pipe that ran along the wall.
“It’s an old school heating system or something,” he said.
“How the hell do you know?” Hippo asked.
“Just keep walking.”
Lucien took the lead and in an epiphany made the connection between his current experience and the whole cetological conundrum of Ahab, Starbuck, et al. What he didn’t know was that what he thought to be the dead body of Sage was an ersatz version of said nemesis and his false belief allowed him to lower his guard.
I am a Jew. I have suffered, as all Jews have suffered, under the banner of oppression, hatred and most of all, circumcision. I am half a man because of my Jewishness.
My father was born in
This made my parents pretty rotten creatures. They somehow blamed me for their misgivings, and forced me to toil, day and night, on their manuscripts, all of which were in Yiddish, and needed translating into Swiss-German, a language which I alone spoke among my direct parentage. The days were hard, spent mostly at the local school for boys. The nights were worse, diddled over foreign texts, translating what were to be meaningless dross into common language. I was only seven. I eventually finished high school and entered college. There, I became what is know as the "Meuchelmörder", or hit man. I translated for years before I was able to enter graduate school, where I took classes in morphology and orthography. I was an assassin of words. Nothing escaped my erudite scrutiny, save for a few damsels and fraulines. I also learned to take lives, sometimes brutally, sometimes fastidiously.
I received my doctorate degree in 1970, and continued my studies in
Nutshell—this is the version of the interim I offer, nothing more nothing less—truncated sans detail.
The Stasi had details about my dealings in the underground art market. But, I had my details as well. The difference between them tossing me into the mud and me staining their white table cloth with ink is that we both get dirty. And, although what they had on me was far more damaging that what I had on them, my wrench was far too big a headache to rid with a simple aspirin.
Our agreement was to move on. They demanded I cut all my ties with my previous work. They would assist with the transition, calling it a case of nervous breakdown—a need for a change of scenery.
A cousin of a cousin, or something like that, got me into the gig. Once I was no longer under the aegis of the Stasi, the old ways, my knowledge and skills were useless—I could not afford to put myself back on the radar. Any move in the art or historical artifacts world would surely land me to, as they say, wallow in the mire.
It was in the basement of the school I clean that I developed the thing that would get them all—the thing that would allow me to push them into the mud. I call it the chronovoxilator—a device that can hear conversations of the past stored in the bricks and motor of buildings.
Numerous and violent staccato clicks shook the small metallic box. One might think the thing had a life of its own. It did not. It had the monopolistic power of Feynoord Electric Company, and Lionel Spieziak. Lionel eyed the machine cautiously, turning a knob here, a dial there. His fingers glossed over the membrane of the memory machine like silk gloves on a debutante's wrist. He pranced around the small table making callibrations. His gazelle-like movements were memories of their own. He turned the machine to the off position, scribbled some notes in an unintelligible Swiss-German script, put his notebook in a battered breast pocket, and alighted from his stool. The hour was nearing six, and he had loads of work to do.
Lucien and Hippo approached a cul de sac at the end of a narrow tunnel. Both had been silent for some time, neither wanting to speak about what they had seen, or thought they had seen. Hippo was first.
"What do we do now?"
Lucien gripped the incandescing device tightly in his paw.
"We go back."
"I'm all for that. I never thought I'd say this, but I wish I was in class right now."
"Classes are over, dummy. We're going back to the stairs. I thought I saw a small door back there somewhere. C'mon, sissy."
The pair made a synchronized pirouette, only to be confronted by a large, human shadow.
"That's far enough boys. Give me the lighter." Lucien tensed—the kind of tightening of spine and bowels a warrior makes just before mortal combat. Hippo shrunk to half his size.
In the distance, just out of eyesight of the two boys and assailant, a video camera candidly recorded the transpirings of the man-boy encounter.
Lionel Spieziak was awake now. He had been dormant, in a near catatonic state for what seemed like decades. Life pulsed in his veins now, and he was young and alive. The tiny pitter-pat of his loafers echoed in a dark passageway in the distance. The last message from the phone call:
Nimm den lebendigen Mann. Take the man alive.
Lucien held the lighter in his hand, the Zippo, a talisman of veneration, and flicked the flint wheel with his thumb. All he could see was the black silhouette of a man, oscillating in the corona of flame.
Spieziak held out a leathery hand, palm up. Lucien closed the Zippo. Somewhere a switch flipped and lights the shapes of half-basketballs gave off a dull illumination in the corridor.
“Hey, wait a minute,” a voice said.
All three turned to look at the source. A sinewy young man, dried blood alongside his neck, thick glasses, and a mop of head like steel wool, stood holding what appeared to be an 8mm camera.
Hippo broke into a dead sprint. Not towards an exit, but further into the recess of the cave. He was not in control of his bladder. Lucien turned towards Hippo, but turned back towards Lionel as the old man held the chronvoxilator, slung over a shoulder, headphones on, and the stethoscope devices sliding on the walls. Lights flashed and blinked. The machine blipped and beeped.
The camera boy held steady. It was silent.
“This is it,” said Spieziak. “Listen.”
He depressed a button on the machine. The entire of Hippo and Lucien’s conversation played. Lucien looked befuddled and the camera lens zoomed on his face.
“How did you…?” he asked.
“It’s called the chronvoxilator. Latin for ‘time voice machine’,” he said. “You see, whenever humans speak, the sounds don’t disappear. They actually embed themselves into walls and trees and other solids in the vicinity of conversation.”
“How?” Lucien asked.
“Not ‘how’, my boy, but ‘why’,” Lionel said.
By a miracle of metaphysics, Lucien was hearing his and Hippo's voice on a strange machine. The man holding the machine was no stranger. He was the disinterested janitor from the school. Now, he seemed to be in control of the entire situation. Sage was not far off, with a small, video recording device in hand.
"My father was your father. We're brothers," ejaculated Sage, while looking directly into Lucien's eyes, his nemesis. For years the two had done social and at times, physical battle. No wonder they had been attracted to one another.
"Listen to this," said Lionel. He flipped a switch on the small box affixed above his shoulder:
"Hello boys, it's me, your father."
"Who is that?" asked Lucien.
"He sounds familiar," said Sage.
"It's me," said the box, "I am your father. I am probably speaking from the grave, but don't despair, I am home now. Lionel is here to lead you the rest of the way." Speziak clicked off the machine with a torreador's gusto and faced his newly reunited audience.
"That's right, you little fuckers. And my uppance has come." He removed a small revolver from his janitorial bib and aimed it towards the two siblings. Hippo still cowered in the darkness, the wetness climbing his trousers like a snake on Sunday. Could anybody see him? All eyes were on the boys and Lionel. "Now don't make a fucking move." His accent suddenly more German, more desperate. "You will both take me to it. Take off your shirts."
The two newly-found brothers looked askance, and made the same desperate lunge. A small blast of gunfire rang out in the solemn cavern. One man screamed in agony.
The man in the black leather chair stared at the rotary dial phone, askance as to whether or not it would ring. Had he done the right thing? The thought repeated itself in his mind, an endless Xerox copy, staring hard at him in courier bold—the viscera of the serif fonts. And just what, he mused, would the boys make of the chronvoxilator? Several secret histories unfolded with the push of a button, walls, brick and mortar, conversations captured and distilled a la the 23-year-old single malt scotch. He reached for the door to his office liquor cabinet and retrieved the bottle of Glenlivet. Two fingers-worth and two rocks from the freezer tray. He sipped and let the cool burn take its effect and his mind on to things at hand. If it went wrong he would never forgive that jack-ass-hole Speziak. Never.
It was his uncle’s cuete. They never gave Hippo his due; the eternal hanger-on to Sage and Lucien’s A-group status. And, now, in their most desperate moment he was the hardest of them all. He pulled the trigger. There would never be the same spreading in the groin, the need to micturate out of fear, gone in the new found heroism. That he would weep that night in front of the police and almost sound sissy-like, would not diminish the newfound status. After all, said uncle was in la pinta doing hard time for some accumulation of illegal tomfoolery. Now, the three sat in the waiting area. The detectives finished the interviews and called home, pondering the spin for the papers and morning news. And, Sage, thinking of the chronvoxilator sitting on his lap. His mind took flight to various locations and Lucien looked at him with a wicked gleam. And, in their secret silence they thought of the girls bathroom, the principal’s office, and then the connection reached its apex as the words “grassy knoll” escaped Sage’s mouth. Then, suddenly, the three looked at each other, a myopic triumvirate, knowing this one could not be shared, could not be boasted or bragged about. With subtle nods it was agreed upon, this death of their own mordant ballyhoo.