The Saint Boniface Maximum Security Prison. What a shithole.
"Hello, I would like to meet warden Titus Riccitelli", I said. The guard was a thin, old man that looked very bored. I gave him my business card.
"Miroslav...", he read it, paused, and said "Like the car?"
"No. Like the boat, but with a double T."
"A boat with a double what?"
"Is warden Riccitelli on premises? I have an appointment, I think."
After waiting for a long time and crossing a myriad of corridors and annoying check points I finally got to the warden office.
"So you are Miroslav Corbett", said the warden, a bald, sweaty man with a ridiculous mustache. "I got a message from an angry bureaucrat from the government that you were about to come here. You have very important friends up there."
"Oh, I don't think so."
"Do you want a drink?"
"I don't do alcohol."
He looked at me with disdain in his face.
"Listen to me, young man. We are very busy here. I'm sure you don't understand the very important job that we..."
I interrupted him.
"I'm sorry, warden Riccitelli. I'm here for a very specific thing. I'd rather not be here, believe me. I don't want to waste your time. I'm only interested in one of your inmates. Just a short interview in her cell."
"As it says on my business card, I document things."
"What kind of things?"
"I keep a log of out-of-place happenings, reality distortions, unexpected presences and such. The duty of my department is to document the bizarre things that happen since the Great Anomaly..."
"Oh don't talk me about the Great Fucking Anomaly."
"I don't want to talk about it neither. I just need to meet a person that is incarcerated here. I just want to talk to Desdemona Dunkelmorgen."
He looked very upset or surprised or whatever.
"What? No way", he said. "She is the most dangerous person here. She is the most dangerous person in the whole fucking world. And I won't risk my resources by putting anyone of them near that damned bitch from hell."
"Do your employees know that you call them 'resources'?"
Warden Riccitelli took a ceramic ashtray from his table and launched it onto the wall. It exploded into pieces.
"Listen to me, little bastard..."
"Mr. Riccitelli," I interrupted him while browsing my papers, "I know everything. Desdemona Dunkelmorgen, aka the Queen of Deception, aka the Mistress of Disguise, aka One-Trouble-On-Two-Legs. Born in Madrid, Spain. Who would say, bearing that name? Con artist, mischievous robber, ruthless blackmailer, despicable criminal, drinks while driving. Previous warden report: 'Handle with special care. Do NOT listen to her lies. She could be anywhere, anyone. She could be me or she could be you and you will not notice.' I'm not sure to understand what this last quote means."
"Damn. Holy Christ. I won't send my men to her cell because she will trick those dickheads and everything will go to hell again. I don't want another prison break from that motherfucking vixen. I will go there with you personally."
"I'm sure that is a very intelligent decision on your part."
"Come on, let's do it once for all."
He grabbed his own copy of the keys and we went down the belly of the prison. While on our way, I asked:
"Is it true what they say about her?"
"What do they say?"
"That she looks like no other woman in the world."
He took some time to answer. "To be honest, I don't know how she looks like."
"Haven't you seen her?"
Not personally, I repeated to myself. What a douchebag.
We crossed the threshold to the hyper-ultra-high security block or whatever they called it and finally got to her cell's door.
"Ok, here we are", he said, "Be extremely careful."
He unlocked the gate and we entered the cell. A small, barred window almost by the ceiling. Grey and dull walls. A dirty toilet. A chair and a table, no features. And nobody to be seen.
"What the fuck...?", he yelled, "But where...?"
He searched for her like crazy while swearing like a sailor: under the table, under the bed, as if she was as small as a mouse. Then he got back at me, his face red and swollen and sweaty:
"Why are you so calm? What the hell is happening here?"
"Have you heard the adage that the highest achievement of the devil was convincing men that he doesn't exist? Well, they don't call Desdemona Dunkelmorgen the Queen of Deception for nothing. She tricked you, all of you, into believing that she was here. She made you believe that you were able to catch her. In fact, it's a little more complicated; the highest achievement of Desdemona Dunkelmorgen was convincing men that she DOES exist. She is a trick of the mind. She is a glitch, a mirage. She is something that isn't and that shouldn't be."
Warden Riccitelli dropped to the floor, crying like a child.
"Oh my. I'm finished. Everybody will laugh at me for years."
"They'll do", said I, "but don't be too mean to yourself. Everybody was mislead. These illogical issues are overwhelming. All we can do is write about how this unfaithful reality is playing with us."
He jumped up in an explosion of rage, ran to the passage and started yelling at everybody.
"What are you doing there? Do something! Find her! Nuke this fucking place from above! It's the only way to be sure!"
"I'm afraid I have to leave", I said, but he was no longer listening to me.
It was a quiet evening out there. The parking lot at Saint Boniface was almost empty. There was only one thing left: to make a telephone call to say that everything worked as planned.
"Tell me...", babbled Skips, "tell me one thing, Frenchie."
"Stop that Frenchie shit, Skips. What do you want me to tell you?"
"Tell me that I will be able to forget about this."
"I won't tell you such thing."
"Oh, please, Frenchie. I... I will feel this sorrow for the rest of my life."
"Oh, you won't do that, either."
"I can't..." He really seemed to mean it.
"I will not lie to you and say it will be easy, man. Not even remotely easy. You will wake up in the middle of the night, Skips. You'll swim in a sea of sweat. Many times. You will feel a ghost whispering in one of your funny little ears. Whispering ugly things to you, Skips. You will cry a river, like Julie London sang. But one day, I cannot say if it will be next week or next month or in your sister's wedding, as I say, one day, you will wake up, you will start having your eggs or your cereal or whatever the fuck you use to have for breakfast, and you will realize that you had not remembered this mess for a couple of days. And then you'll be over it. And the next time it won't be a couple days, but four days, or four weeks, or whatever measure of time you can name. Putain, one day you won't even remember the details, or your father's writing, or the fucking dirty money, or all those pieces of shit. So just do it. Do it fucking now."
Skips shot the poor scumbag in the head. His face exploded like in a seedy B movie.
"Oh, Skips, sure you've made a pretty cute dish of Chicken Korma here. Now let's run as fast as we can."
Tires screeched nearby.
Classical poet Ovid once asked each one of his friends to choose, from a poem of him, three verses they considered the worst and that were to be deleted; also, he told them that he also had chosen three verses himself that were not to be deleted, no matter what. When they finally met, it was found that everyone, even Ovid himself, had selected the same three verses. Seneca the Elder tells this story to explain that authors know the problems about their own works, but that they don't bother to fix them. He does not explain further if this is because creators know better or because they are arrogant boneheads.
There is a different telling of this story that says that, when everybody met, nobody had chosen the same verses; because of this, after deletion, the poem was left with only three lines, the ones chosen by Ovid. He was not upset, though, because he saw it coming: the slaughtered text showed Latin words for "My friends are a bunch of hateful motherfuckers".
I refused to take the elevator. Personal preferences.
A pale, thin woman opened the door. She was in his forties. Long, dark hair. Watery eyes.
"Hello, I have an appointment with Mr. Brown", said I, showing my business card.
She took a look at the small cardboard piece and read: "Miroslav Corbett — Documentalist". She seemed sleepy and out of focus. "I... I thought it was Corbet with only one T."
"It's a common mistake", said I. "Are you Mrs. Brown?".
"Yes. Oh, please, come in."
She invited me to a wooden chair by a table. On it there were some cups, a coffee jar and a small dish with cookies. An old record turntable was playing some awful trumpet jazz tune.
A man in a worn sweater entered the room. He also looked tired, a red stubble, his skin like old paper.
"Mr. Brown, I suppose", said I. "This is Miroslav Corbett. I came to speak about your son."
"Oh", he said, "which one? Are they in trouble?". His face looked sincerely concerned.
"Not yet as far as I know", said I, "Are they at home?"
"Oh yes. Do you want me to... eh... bring them here?"
"If you please", said I while taking a cookie. It tasted like dust.
"Mr. Corbett,", she said, "in your card says that you are a documentalist. What are the matters you usually document?".
"I document... oddities. You know, during the Great Anomaly, many fissures happened in the reality fabric. Some of them were not totally fixed and sometimes creatures and inaccuracies still permeate to our world. My work is to write about them."
"Oh", she said, "do you suspect that...?"
The man entered back into the room surrounded by two boys. I immediately saw the problem.
One of the boys was unclean, brunette and sleepy like his parents. The other one looked very different: milky-skinned, the black and deep eyes of a hunter, quiet but alert, definitely an otherworldly look.
"These are Cletus Jr. and Tusk", said Mr. Brown, "say hello to Mr. Corbett."
"So your name is Tusk, eh?", I said to the out-of-place kid, "What things do you like?"
"I like human activities,", he said, "for I am an ordinary boy."
Ordinary boy my ass, I thought.
"What kind of activities?"
"Like, listening to jazz and going to the school and breathing."
"Oh, that really sounded like what an ordinary boy would say.", said I.
The woman, who seemed to realize that something odd was happening, asked me: "What is the problem?"
"The problem is", said I, "that you don't have two children, but one."
"What?", said the man.
"I have the papers here. Cletus Zebulon and Brandine Sue Brown, respectable suburban hillbillies. One kid, Cletus Jr., 7 years old, mediocre student, awful football player."
"What do you mean?", said the woman, visible disturbed. "We have two boys... Cletus and... Tusk."
"Oh, come on. Tusk is not even a name for a boy", said I.
"I am a real boy", said the odd child. His face already looked somewhat bizarre and his voice sounded like filtered through a reverb effect from a cheap movie.
"Look at him,", I said to her, "he looks, like, six or seven? That is not possible. He wasn't even here last week. He's an anomaly, a creature from another plane. He is manipulating your minds into thinking he is your son. But it's not."
And then to the kid: "Are you listening to me? This is not your family. You should go. You don't belong here."
The kid was having difficulties to look even human, as his contour started to look diffuse. His putative parents were utterly confused and in horror.
"Ok,", said I, "it has been a pleasure. I have to go. Mr. Brown, Mrs. Brown, thank you very much for your attention."
"What?", said the woman, "Are you leaving now? Are you leaving us like this?"
The boy didn't look like a boy anymore: I know better not looking directly at abominations while they are transforming into their real shape, but sure he was pretty hideous.
"I'm afraid I'll do.", said I, "I don't fix anomalies or oddities, nor kill runaway creatures, soul sickers nor mind hunters. I only document the facts. Goodbye."
I left and closed the apartment door, leaving horrid sounds and awful smells behind me.
1212 AD was a year of tribulation and pain. Faith was an instrument of manipulation on the unwary; sometimes hunger, cold and sadness left no option that to fall prey to the darkest side of human nature.
Some unholy man from Köln (or from Cloyes, who can ascertain) had an idea; all those children needed a reason to live or die. That reason must not be ignored, as they need it and I may benefit from it. So he lured a boy and talked him about a dream he should have. A pious, nefarious dream; an army of boys and girls, marching over the Mediterranean Sea, to convert the Muslims to Christianity.
The boy finally had the dream. They managed to be up to 30 thousand; a sea of young flesh, an unstoppable stream of naïveté and blind hope, a river of mercy and love of God. Damned be the man, for he fed on misery and need.
The middle sea did not part on their arrival, nor they saw Holy Land, nor a single unfaithful were converted to the true faith. Some say their bones can still be found in Tunisia, or in Brindisi, or in Siracusa, crumbled into the soil, whispering a sad song of slaves.
Lotte's boyfriend died while they were having a day in Berlin. He had a birth heart defect that nobody knew about; he had an arrest and dropped down by a traffic light in Friedrichstraße. Nothing could be done: he was gone the moment he touched the floor.
Lotte sat on a grey chair for a couple of hours in a waiting room full of confused and nervous people. It was a busy day there, not as usual, said someone. She felt cold and empty. Finally they took her to him: he was laid over a shiny metal table, almost naked, stiff like a table. What's the point of this, she thought for herself, of course it's him. His belongings were given to her in a plastic bag, some papers were signed and she was out of that awful building.
She wandered the streets while her mind was whirling. Of course phoning mama wasn't an option: Lotte would end up buried under a pile of tears, empty words and useless religious references. She met comfort sitting by concrete walls. The night fell and brought a thin rain.
Young people gathered here and there and there were laughter, kisses and chatter and that was great. By a night club, the lovely voice of a girl sang "It's a fine day / people open windows / they leave the house / just for a short while" and Lotte cried for a long time. She remembered her own life and it seemed like an old photograph, static and gone.
The sun was already there when she opened her eyes. Her clothes were wet and her soul broken apart. She remembered something he was talking about all the day; a homage to his grandparents, somewhat puerile, but probably meditated for a long time. So she walked down the Unter den Linden, crossed the Branderburger Tor and entered the Tiergarten; the air was full of petrichor and the somewhat out of tune singing of birds. The place was not hard to find.
A greenish metal soldier in a long coat, helmet, rifle, bayonet and all, looked at Lotte from upon a square column covered by a somewhat bombastic golden inscription. My granma died the day before they arrived here, he said. My granpa made us swear it: go there and read it.
Lotte took the piece of paper that belonged to him. A somewhat melodramatic wind started to blow. The paper, worn and old, was written in Russian: Спасибо, това́рищ. She could not read it, but somewhat felt it.
The manager let the candidate in. He was an ordinary man with no remarkable looks.
"Welcome. Please, sit down. Do you know what do we do in this department?"
"No, sir. I have no remote idea."
"Do you care about what we do?"
"Oh. Do you have any previous experience on similar positions?"
"Positions, you say? I'm not sure I understand you fully. Are you insinuating yourself into me?"
"Absolutely not. What I mean is, if you have had any similar jobs in other companies."
"Oh, in other companies. You bet I do. I have worked for many people, you know, here and there. Yes, many companies and enterprises and the like."
"Can you elaborate?"
"Sure I can."
"Ok, please do."
"I was production manager at Diffuse and Shady Enterprises."
"And many others."
"Yes? Which others?"
"I was chief technical officer at Tedium Entertainment."
"Oh, it was not that great."
"Do you understand the implications of the job you would develop here?"
"Is that another sexual proposal from you? You are a dirty horny man."
"Oh, please. That didn't sound remotely like a sexual proposal at all."
"I think you are a somewhat creepy executive, you know. Ok, just wanted to have your intentions clear."
"I think you behave like a real asshole."
"Oh, thank you very much."
"That was not a compliment."
"I have an expertise on the matter you mention thanks to my previous employers. Like, for example, at ARVG Inc., where I was technical counselor."
"Did you work at Annoyingly Repetitive Video Games?"
"Oh yes I did."
"I'm starting to think that you are overqualified for this job."
"Is that 'job' word you keep using an euphemism for 'blowjob' or 'handjob'?"
"Of course not."
"Not sure about that."
"Do you think you'll like to do my... er... to do what I do here?"
"Like, boring interviewees to death?"
"Oh, I don't think so."
"Ok, you're hired now. Welcome aboard."
"I'm starting to hate this fucking company."
He felt bored one day and decided to go see a movie, no matter which one. So he walked down Martín de los Heros street, entered a cinema and chose a random French film. This was the most important decision in his life: almost instantly, he fell in love with the actress. She was young, pale-skinned, hair black as night, eyes like a universe. When the film ended he already felt a missing piece inside his heart.
He realized he was unable to express that love in words; so big, so overwhelming, so eerie. He had no alternative that to keep living his life: lost some friends, met new others, found a job in number crunching, as he liked to say.
Years passed and he missed no new movie featuring her; he saw great stories, mediocre films and crappy flicks just because she was there. Every time the screen showed her face he felt like a delightful rendez-vous: how is you life, are you doing well, missed you so much. And every time he felt his heart breaking into pieces. Sometimes he even cried, his face covered by his hands, warm tears in the dark theater, always surrounded by strangers. Because love hurts, love is like a sickness, love is a strange and silent death.
One day, on one of those occasions when disappointments pile over each other, he decided to travel to Paris. Once there he felt he also loved the streets, the corners, the chimneys; it was a world that was a bit like her, a bit part her. He also felt the sadness of loving something that is almost not there, a mirage, a trompe-l'oeil. The bittersweet feeling of a life wasted loving a ghost.
And then he saw her. It happened on those tiring stairs in Montmartre, no less; he was sweating and panting while she moved almost like having the wind in her sails. He recognized the crow-black hair, the pale face, the glittering eyes now surrounded by little wrinkles, more beautiful than ever. Twenty-five years ago he saw her playing the grieving spouse of the great composer Patrice de Courcy and that day he started living. He smiled her and she smiled back.
Jean-Loup Lamarc was no moron: he knew very well who were his bosses. He was the manager of a small hotel in the lakes; as he used to joke to himself, the manager of the only hotel owned by the mafia that was not used for money laundering. Everything was clear as a summer day in his business; no tricks, no cheating, no nothing. He slept well and loved the flavor of a good cigar in the evening.
But one night someone knocked at his door. Lamarc was still wiping the sleep from his eyes while he let his visitor in; Elijah Blumenthal, the accountant, a bug-eyed, lizard-thin guy from Boston, was pale as if he just had seen a ghost.
"We're screwed, Frenchie. Yes, man, we're screwed.", said in a trembling voice.
Lamarc didn't like to be called 'Frenchie', but that time he let it go. "Sit down. What's the matter?"
"The numbers, Frenchie. The numbers. They are false. And they will know."
"What are you saying? The numbers are fine. Nobody takes a buck. Everything is clean as my mother's kitchen."
"No, no, no, Frenchie, they will know. They have people, you know, they will check the accounts and they will know."
"Stop that 'Frenchie' thing, Eli. And I swear that the fucking numbers are right. There is no dollar out. Everything is fine. What the fuck is wrong with you?" Lamarc draw a fist and the accountant acknowledged the threat by opening his hands.
"The numbers are tweaked, Jean. They do not obey Benford's law."
"WHAT? What do you mean? Who the fuck is Benford?" He shoved Blumenthal onto his chair; the accountant shouted, covered his head with his hands and said: "I... I don't know who he is. A mathematician, I guess. He wrote... a method. A method to check if a set of numbers are fabricated."
"WHAT?" Lamarc felt as if his head would explode. "Are you fucking kidding me?" he took a lamp from a nearby table with both hands and crashed it into the floor.
"Ah!", shouted Blumenthal, "Please! Please! Don't hurt me!"
"I'm gonna kill you fucking weasel if you don't stop all this bullshit."
"No! No! Frenchie, listen to me. Please. The numbers look fake. I checked them. They look fabricated. Believe me. Have you...?"
"No! No! I see. I see. They are for real, no trick. I believe it. I do. But they won't. They will apply the formulas and they will suspect we are cheating on them. And they will come after us. They will come, Frenchie. They just WON'T believe these numbers!"
Lamarc, who was no moron, calmed down and thought.
"So you say", he spoke to the accountant while scratching his head, "that these numbers, being real, look fake, am I right? AM I RIGHT?"
"Yes! Yes! You are right. The number 1 must appear as the leading significant digit about 30% of the time and..."
"STOP! I don't want to hear it, motherfucker. We will just... we will just make them look right."
"Are you deaf, dumb or both? We'll make them look right."
So they took a deep breath and sat down to rewrite the numbers so that they obey Benford's law. It was a very long night. Elijah Blumenthal looked like he was the survivor of a flood when he walked down the street in the morning lights.
"Putain..." said Lamarc, closing the safe box. "So we have this bag full of money, real money, clean money, that we must take from their real owners because some fucker wrote a formula... This is fucking crazy."
Days passed and everything went back to normal. One evening, while Jean-Loup Lamarc was delightfully tasting a glass of whiskey and remembering the stupid thing about the briefcase full of bills in his safe, somebody knocked at his door. It was an old man, iron-grey hair, in an old-fashioned suit.
"Who the fuck are you?" said Jean-Loup.
"Hi. My name is Benford. I'm here to take my money."
Ambrose Bierce used to say that the hardest decision for a honorable man was choosing between raisins and radishes. Ambrose Bierce said many more things; for example, that a cradle is a trough in which a human infant is agitated to keep it sweet, or that an opportunity is a favourable occasion for grasping a disappointment. We cannot guess what was the fact about the raisins or the radishes that kept him in displease, he probably found them terrible or somewhat (I don't personally find raisins terrible, but this story is not about me).
In the year 1913, the day after Christmas, Ambrose Bierce was heading SW when he met Nathaniel Ebenezer Hickox. He is long forgotten now, but he was a hard-boiled bandit and also a very bad tempered motherfucker.
"Stop there", said Hickox, drawing his gun. It was an impressive object.
Bierce obeyed silently. His horse, a somewhat old but still good-looking male, found Bierce's lack of words disquieting. Silence was not common in his presence.
"What are you doing this far, old man?", said the bandit, almost without opening his mouth.
"I'm going beyond the border to join Pancho Villa's army", said Bierce.
Hickox hummed. "And why would you do such a stupid thing?".
Bierce took a look at the bandit's animal: it was a strong stallion with a very singular white mark on its forehead.
"It's what I have to do", replied Bierce, arms crossed.
"Mmmmm. Do. Mmmmm. Do.", said Hickox, and then: "What do you have on that bag?".
The wind blew for a second and nothing was to be heard.
"Tell me, my friend", said Bierce, "If you had to pick one, what would you prefer, raisins or radishes?".
Hickox scratched his filthy beard with his free hand. Suddenly, he realized that he didn't want to answer stupid questions from a bizarre man, nor breathing dust from the plains, nor bearing the annoying pain in the back that was there for days, nor thinking about raisins nor radishes: he remembered a warm place in El Paso, a site full of music and señoritas and whiskey and with a delicious smell of recently made beef steak.
Then, without a word, he left, leaving Ambrose Bierce alone. The beloved writer and notable bigmouth observed the bandit's figure as he disappeared towards the horizon.