DANA NEACȘU este doctor în filosofie, lector de drept la COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL, din New York, profesor adjunct la BARNARD COLLEGE – Columbia University, dar și dâmbovițeană de pe malurile Ialomiței…
Something Went Really Wrong
By Jordan Muncz
Instead of Forward
If you’re afraid of what you might learn, stop reading now – this isn’t for you. Furthermore, I have no proof. It was quick and mostly quiet and by 5AM all that was left was the sound of helicopters leaving the city. Anyone that might have heard anything, gunshots, screams, sirens, wouldn’t have gotten very far into it – internet searches yielded error messages, and there was nothing on TV but the usual: gang shootouts, potheads causing traffic jams on the GWB and Columbia University sprucing up their campus for graduation.
I’m here to tell you, the military dumped sick people into the Hudson River. Call the Pentagon and they’ll reassure you, they’ve heard the rumors, but isn’t it ridiculous? And they’re not in the business of spreading crazy rumors. The newspapers will do the same, exactly the same…
After you read what I’ve written, you…, well you might think I’m crazy, or jealous, trying to take down academia because I’m not Ivy League. I have my opinions, but that’s not what this is about. It’s just where it happened.
What this is about: people disappeared that night. I did what research I could. I called the NYPD but when I told them I had a blog, and it wasn’t the New York Times, they could neither confirm nor deny “the rumors”.
Like I told you, I can’t prove anything, but there are facts. Ollie Kun-He is missing. His father is owner of The Founding Father’s Burger Joint, where the explosion at the center of the mayhem took place. I tried contacting his parents but Ms. Kun-He’s answering machine says she’s travelling in Korea indefinitely.
So, a day that won’t live in history. The few media outlets that heard about what might have been happening didn’t run the story. Then there’s the floating head. „American Beauty” on Instagram and the story is that ISIS is claiming it. Right. They infiltrated NYC to put a hit on one guy, if you want to believe those opportunists…
Of course my book has a hero. He’s a security guard. I know his family, well, I used to know them. After what happened, when I asked for news about „Tony,” his job, his new girlfriend, my friend, his uncle, replied „Tony who.”
Finally, don’t try to find me because I’m in hiding. Anyway, it will be hard to find me because you don’t know my gender, age, not much of anything. At least I hope, because there are people looking for me who know how to look.
In my book you’ll meet an assassin. I’ve called him John Rambo, nice name, no? Doesn’t matter, what does matter is that he’s real and at large. General Pistone has a clear interest in him, as does Congresswoman Calder. This should be enough for you to understand what’s at stake for me or my future family, if I live long enough to have one.
So, how does that sound to you? A crazy person with no evidence telling you the world you live in is worse than you thought. Still, I’m writing so I have to imagine there are readers curious enough. But if that’s you, please consider this a coming of age book. Your own coming of age.
The noise was minimal. The tick, tock of the clock. The temperature was just right, and the General had finally fallen asleep with the glass in one hand and a cigar in the other, when the cell phone woke him up. Unfazed, Pistone put the cigar in the ashtray next to the picture of him flanked by his dead wife and son, and hissed “Mexican bitch,” before picking up the phone.
“General, can we talk?”
“Congresswoman Calder,” Pistone answered the unexpected call. “Isn’t this past your bedtime?”
“I’ve read the hearing transcript.”
“The first page? Me too.”
“The House does not seem taken by the President’s drone wars.”
“Celeste, you did a marvelous job.”
“So, why aren’t they relenting?”
“Oh, who knows? Election time? The bottom line is that the House and the Senate like wars more than the Pentagon does. We execute what you legislate, my dear Congresswoman.”
“I don’t know Matt, that is wishful thinking. I fear that when the drones are gone for lack of funding, then your Rambo project comes under scrutiny.”
“I would not call John a project. It sounds so belittling.”
“Psychopath? Is that better?”
“Celeste, you trust the man otherwise you would not request him all the time.”
“General, I worry about our projects. This never ending hearing is a bad sign.”
“You worry too much.”
“How are you doing Matt?”
“What can I say?”
“Thank you for letting me have John, though I would prefer to know his real name. John Rambo sounds so pompous and artificial.”
“He’s as real as they get.”
“I know. I will never forget my first trip abroad. How he squashed those thieves’ heads until their eyes came out of their sockets.”
“Luckily you have avoided the Old City since that first unlucky visit in the Arab Quarters.”
“I like rugs.”
“I know. You like a lot of things. You liked Golda Meir’s Mercedes. A valuable antiquity others liked too.”
“Matthew, I am not that materialistic.”
“Of course not. Thank your lucky stars there are not many Jews in your district.”
“Matt, you’ve always been so crude.”
“Direct. In the military we like to be direct.”
“Okay. I will be direct too. I worry about the survival of our pet project.”
“Congress will never cut military funding. Our coffers are full and every year they get bigger. Congress loves drones! They will cut every penny from schools and hospitals before they touch us.”
“What about martif?”
“M.A.R.T.F., Celeste? The Military Advanced Research Task Force?”
“Yes. And what about that scientist?”
“Yes, why do you trust her, Matt, isn’t she an immigrant?”
“I’m not a fan of hers, but at least she’s not a fecund Mexican.” Pistone laughed at his strained joke.
“She promised us Rambos. Many Rambos. I don’t think she ever made any. Can’t you make her give us Rambos? You can make anybody do anything you want, Matt.”
“Celeste, she gave us John. You remember, John Rambo who killed my son with his bare hands and anybody he thought crossed him.”
“John still does that.”
“For us, now.”
“We need more, Matt.”
“She is working on Aaron. The first one made-in-the-USA.”
“I cannot tell. She does not use kitchen aids.”
“I thought that she studies the walking dead to make us the human drone?”
“Celeste, what an inspiring name. ‘The human drone.’ Excellent. Maybe you should work with Dr. Vodă.”
“Why are you talking nonsense? Why can’t we lobotomize our best violent criminals and make them into submissive criminals? Why can’t she continue with the lobotomy?”
“Because lobotomy produces vegetables. It cures criminals of their violent behavior.”
“Then we should have better surgeons. They should be more careful with the brain they cut.”
“I fear that it is more complicated, my dearest Congresswoman. Vodă discovered the premise for the perfect human drone. You need to be born with a lobe atrophied very peculiarly. It needs to trigger the type of lack of empathy which is the basis of a perfect criminal. And from a perfect criminal to a human drone is a long way. You see, it is very complicated.”
“Matt, I have not anybody in Congress with empathy. Can’t she make them into perfect soldiers?”
“Aren’t they already perfect soldiers?” The General added chuckling in delight.
“Matt, it’s all flying over my head. I’m just worried that when there are no drones we have nothing to replace them.”
“Celeste, Congress will never close the drone project. Moreover, M.A.R.T.F. has been well funded forever and the drones are in no danger of losing their funding. Go to bed. Are you in the City already?”
“Yes, I just checked in the hotel.”
“Okay, John will be there when you wake up.”
“Thank you Matt. You’ve always been so good to me, and …daddy.”
“Good night Congresswoman,” Pistone ended the conversation before she could make a fool of herself. Last time he saw “her daddy,” the old Congressman was peeing his pants asking forgiveness for his parental skills. It took a nod of the head for John to start squishing the old graying head. By the time John was done with it there were no Lolita images of Celeste to inebriate his sorry life. Celeste identified his burned body due to a terrible car accident.
The memories Celeste brought up made him aware of the world he was forced to live in, so alien and so chaotic.
“Damn it woman. Why do I still care about you?” All that bourbon sharpened his senses. Throwing the glass against the wall he takes his unfinished cigar and goes outside. Climbing down the marble stairs he avoids slipping by flexibly repositioning his center of gravity. His nimbleness takes him down effortlessly. The moonlight darkened the oak where his ex stood still in the summer day. He went under the same branch and looked at it: so beautiful in its ignorance. He caressed the bark thanking it for canceling his marital status and with his mind clear he remembered the call he had to make.
The thought of Dr. Vodă irritated him, and that was disconcerting. Why did he care so much about that female cockroach? He could destroy her in a second. John could squash her had the General instructed him to do so.
Then he remembered that coffee took his edge off. He needed a cup of coffee.
He went to the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee. He looked around and could not locate anything. Where was his coffee? Where were his cups? He saw the coffee machine, but he realized he did not know how to get it started.
“What a mess,” he mumbled. Upset he walked to the curtain where he saw the cord he could pull to ring the bell in the Mexican’s room. He pulled it.
“Help, come up. Mexican …woman, I need you.” He waited for a moment inhaling more tobacco. No movement. No sound.
“Por favor, I don’t know your name.” Pistone was trying to wake up his maid, Rosita, the live-in Mexican emigrant occupying the basement apartment, more like a laundry room loft.
Maria, a petite woman in her 50s, wearing a waitress outfit with her name, “Maria,” sewn on her left breast pocket, eventually appeared minutes later. The general was pacing up and down the museum-like, spotless, kitchen. When he saw her he saw loud and clear:
“Un café …huh.. Por favor.”
He watched her nodding and going to the coffee machine. His eyes were lingering on her body. He liked her behind. It was nicely round and firm.
Maria poured water in the single mug coffee maker. Her gestures were a replica of his as they talked. Like an idiot. She put the coffee capsule inside the machine, took a mug from a cabinet and put it in its place. Then she pressed on. Within seconds the coffee filled in the cup.
“General ¿Sería esto todo?”
Maria did not correct him. She nodded and hurried away. She did not wait for the General’s hand to fondle her. Still rattled up by the events of the night, the General forgot to molest her, but the night was young. He took his coffee and went to his office.
He sat down in front of his computer and opened the “Military Advanced Research Task Force” folder. There, he stored all the reports Dr. Vodă emailed him as well as information the Pentagon had on her, and his own list of questions she had never answered.
- “How does she stay alive surrounded by all that plague?”
John was not contagious, and neither was Aaron. He discovered that on his own after having John around as an auxiliary, but John tested positive to the plague. She explained that because John was infected as a fetus, the plague had been stabilized in utero. Okay, but what about those adults bitten by a plague carrier and who took weeks to die? They were contagious. How did they survive?
- “Is Ana one of them?”
She remained a mystery to him from the first day. Twenty years ago M.A.R.T.F. needed a scientist and she topped the list. Her work with the walking dead at the Municipal Hospital in Bucharest had been a remarkable success. She was able to control her patients behavior and delay the cognitive atrophy. On TV she credited her father, the history professor as inspiring her, especially his theory about the crusades as the result of pestis epidemics. Pistone needed someone of her caliber. He would have liked the old man too, but he died from the poison they used when trying to abduct them.
Pistone clicked on a clip showing two helicopters hovering above the ruins of Poienari castle somewhere in Romania. It was dated “July 14, 1995.”
Three people were lying down on the bare ground: A woman in her 20s, an older man in his 60s, and a child, a girl, about 5 years old. Three NATO soldiers equipped against the poisonous spray the helicopters had spread over the ruins picked up the civilians. The woman opened her eyes and looked around. It was Dr. Ana Vodă, in her 20s. She looked concerned rather than agitated as she was being separated from the other two. She was brought to a different helicopter than the little girl and the older man, both momentarily unconscious. The old man, her father, looked dead in his stillness. The little girl woke up and started screaming. “Mama, mama, come back.”
Dr. Vodă turned her head away from the girl.
The General zoomed in. Ana was facing the camera. Her eyes were dry and menacing. She was mumbling something. He was happy he did not speak Romanian.
Tony rushed back into the street and was almost run over by an ambulance. He jumped scared and lost his glasses. Bent over looking for them he missed the light change and was nearly clipped by a Mercedes.
“Idiot. Do you have a death wish?” an angry driver yelled.
“No, sir, to the contrary. I feel alive and tonight I’ll be a knight.” Tony could not stop himself and suddenly felt ready for whatever came next.
“The clothes don’t make the knight,” the driver laughed as he drove away. Tony was stunned but fortified by the taunt. He walked faster and faster until he was running up the 29 stairs to Earl Hall. But his mind was calm, thinking, as he thought about how parents – how they’d told him about the happy, privileged life they’d provided for him – how they were afraid he might throw it away.
It took Tony years to understand what they meant and what they wanted from him, and for him: nothing out of the ordinary, whether too ambitious or too uncouth. With each step Tony came to understand the value of those words, and how they never meant anything to him but boredom.
“To live a quiet death or die from a quiet life, that is the question,” Tony mumbled and pushed through the door inside Earl Hall.
He looked up instinctively to search for a camera. There was none at the entrance and he made a mental note to tell his boss to install one. He touched his pockets for his phone. He hesitated aware of his pounding heart. Perhaps the adventure he was after was more than he could handle and the life he had something he wasn’t ready to lose.
“Tonino,” his inner good son could hear his mother’s voice. He had hated that appellative for as long he could remember. It kept both potential friends and bullies at bay. It told them he was no regular Anthony. He was the little Italian African American boy who belonged to the Math teacher.
“Mamma,” Tony heard his thoughts refusing to rebel, and his hand clutched the door handle but didn’t open it. He had a sudden desire to return to his post before his boss checked on him or worse, his mother checked and then called the boss. Actually, he only wanted to do for Vlad what Michel Beheim, the minnesinger had done, only in reverse.
Michel Beheim was one of the most resourceful people who ever lived: he killed his insignificance in 1462. After hearing a monk tell the story of Vlad III the Impaler’s run-ins with some Catholic messengers, Behem decided to recreate and embellish them. He put them to music and performed the final product for his benefactor, Emperor Frederich in the winter of 1463. The show was such a success, that Beheim’s story was printed months later when Gutenberg’s printing machine became available. It became an amazing horror story best seller, whose main character, Vlad, was still alive. Beheim’s fictionalized account recreated Vlad and established his fame forever. His defamation surpassed reality and Vlad became the Vampire in German, and “nospheratus” in Slavonic translations, a “zompire.”
Now, that fake history had to be destroyed, and Tony the Valiant was waking up inside Little Tony the Security Guard. Tony the Valiant, born to undo what Beheim had done. Vlad was a warrior. He was no vampire. In Tony’s history, Vlad wasn’t a zombie, he was the inventor of germ warfare – using the contagious sick as what Tony called “impalers.”
Tony was ready to return when Lena’s face erased the thought of Beheim, and he quickly resurfaced his most valiant inner self yet: Tony the Knight and All Mankind Savior. Yes, he was going to help the lost people in the Columbia heating tunnel system. He would start with Lena. His heart pounding he went inside, then stopped.
The air stuck to him. The heating pipes made it hot and sticky, hard to breath. He closed the door gingerly so as not to disturb the lost, innocent souls that might be lingering nearby. He would have locked it to prevent other intruders but he didn’t have a key. Better off unlocked, he thought. It would have prevented all escapes, his included.
With determination he attempted a step but his legs didn’t move. It would have been so much easier had he been drunk. His father drank. His uncle, too. Normally timid and shy, his uncle transformed each night into a stand-up routine.
“An Irishman came out of a bar,” was his favorite joke.
Tony should have kept a bottle of Scotch, or Rum, or Gin, or Vodka in one of his drawers. Maybe he should go now to buy a few of those tiny hotel bottles and come back later. There was no rush. He still had many hours before his shift ended.
He turned to exit and his head bumped a hanging light which flickered on. The bulb became a little star; dim yellow light flashing in his eyes. It woke him up and kept the shadows at bay. Tony smiled. Was that all it took to fix the light?
He looked around. It was a regular utility tunnel built to carry steam heat through heavy pipes. The tunnel started large enough to accommodate one person walking behind the other. The walls and floor were made of smooth cement or concrete.
He moved ahead carefully. After a few yards the tunnel turned left. Tony turned too and looked ahead. There were no bulbs and the light from behind faded quickly. The dank, heavy smell told Tony that he had reached his destination.
He turned on his lantern and looked around. The heavy heating pipes above his head dipped suddenly to eye level, making it hard for him to see the much talked about vestigial wall. He stepped in a puddle with a splash that announced his presence and soaked his foot.
He looked down lighting his shoes. He liked his Nikes. They gave him an air of temporal contentment. He was correct. Temporal contentment. He noticed his dirty Nike shoes and that brought back Tonino and the scolding he was likely to receive at home for making himself so dirty.
He pushed forward leaving the belittling memory behind. He walked until he touched a door, felt for the knob and turned it hopefully. It was locked. He tried again more forcefully. Same result: nothing.
“Shit-ake,” he whispered afraid that he might be overheard. And, unsure, he added: “mushrooms.”
Vulgarity never helped him. He closed his eyes and focused, trying to separate what was outside his head from what resided inside. He heard or thought he heard a walking noise. A steely clack, clack, clack. Hopeful he started walking toward the noise. He lifted his lantern and looked around. The lantern was good for creating shadows but not confidence. He stopped still and listened to the silence, and feared his pants won’t remain dry for long.
He was becoming hot and sweaty. He did not dare undo his jacket for fear of losing whatever protection his uniform provided. He started walking again. Slow and silent. Then a groan sounded painfully loud into his ear. A groan. Or something worse. Someone chewing? He imagined Vlad’s Impalers coming for him. He terrified himself with his imagining and waited. He’d always told himself that if misfortune brought him face to face with an Impaler, he wouldn’t look into its eyes. For now though, nothing. He’d forgotten that he, his imagination, was the real master of the Impalers.
The music and the driving did not do Ollie any good. Everything hurt. His nonexistent beard hurt. So he came up with a plan. He would go for a walk. Where? The campus was too foggy. He would go in the heating tunnels, and from there he would enter the History Library located in the basement of Low.
There was a big leather couch in the reading room and Ollie planned to spend the rest of the night there, waiting for Jones. He wanted to confront his father’s lover, to make him understand his father would never leave his family, not if he had to choose between a lover and a son. Ollie hated any public display of emotions, but this time he was not sure whether he would make a scene. He didn’t much care what would happen next. In fact, Ollie doubted there would be much “next” once his filial gift were discovered: a wrecked restaurant.
The next few hours remained his, and Ollie was looking forward to being alone. He would try to sleep until the morning and with his head clear, plan how he would eventually face his parents. Could he pretend he was as surprised as they must have been when they heard about the explosion in the basement of the Founding Father? His father was such a stickler for following regulations. “A leak of gas? No way. The annual inspection just passed,” His father would fight the accidental hypothesis. But he would never believe it was his son, either. Ollie was losing some of his righteousness. His father would never suspect him of wrecking the family business.
Ollie went down to the basement of Earl Hall determined to seek the isolation the heating tunnels supposedly offered. He found the door to the tunnel system easily. It had a label “Heating Tunnel Entrance,” affixed to it. It could have been locked, but it was not. Once inside Ollie was surprised to find it so clean. It looked like a regular underground passage to make the janitorial staff work easier. The light was dim and the signs barely visible, but the choice was minimal: ahead.
Ollie started walking intimidated by the weight of his thoughts and ignored the scary portion where light turned to darkness. His shoes protected his feet from the water leakage around. He became alert only when he could hear his heartbeat in his ears; the dull, persistent, quick sound of a muffled mechanical watch. His apprehension increased as he went, ever more conscious that he was the cause of his parents’ downfall.
Again, the first door blocking his way did not give him trouble. The knob on it turned easily. He opened it a sliver and squeezed through. He wished he had a light, not that it would have helped much.
The stench told him he’d made his way into the janitor’s closet. In the cramped space he searched carefully for the light switch, wanting to avoid knocking something over and alerting security.
Then he was still. He scarcely knew what he was doing there or why he thought this temporary flight from reality would help him.
In that cramped closet terror came to him as sound: a hellish atonal cacophony of notes like an army of children banging on keyboards.
Philip Glass’ music played in his head. It reminded him of the sagacity his friends admired in him. It temporarily calmed him down. He smiled and the smile stopped the sudden tremor in his hand.
He closed his eyes needlessly. It was dark everywhere, but it helped him recall dear moments when his friends played pranks on him, or so they thought, because they never met a musical prodigy in law school. Each time Ollie rose to the challenge. His friends would bring sheet music by famous composers like Beethoven and popular artists like Marvin Gray, and Ollie, the music prodigy who settled for an M&A attorney future, played them all flawlessly. He always gave them the choice of instrument: piano or the cello. He enjoyed all music. He bathed in sound. Rock ‘n roll, and punk, and Jazz and R&B. All. He used to believe he lived for music. Until that night when he mustered the courage to tell his family he could not take their arrangements any longer. His father living with a man and his mother playing happily married. To hell with all this nonsense he said when he saw the flames taking over the building. He watched from across the street. No injuries. No human injuries. Only his family business had been destroyed.
Kaput! He was going to make the rules as soon as he would graduate. His job was secure. He would make more than enough to take care of them and they had to stop playing like naughty kids, Ollie thought and his steady left hand moved up the wall to turn on the switch.
That was not an astute move.
His eyes immediately noticed a tall and gaunt figure. Its visage was concealed by long and dirty hair the color of the grave by nature or design. Ollie was not able to engage in close scrutiny. The creature was so close yet nothing touched Ollie. Its breath was moist and heavy with a lack of smell. Its eyes were sunken in the back of their sockets. Still their dull blue covered by a hideous veil made them look blind and further chilled Ollie’s marrow in his bones, shaking spasmodically. That fitful shake of his body caused him sharp pains and sudden dizziness. The figure was bending toward his face getting ready to kiss him. Or else.
Ollie stopped feeling. Or more accurately, what he would experience for the next few moments was beyond what emotions encompassed. His sensations became a profuse head ache which soon extended all over his bodily space. And as soon it took over his being it morphed into a vague perception of bleeding, which changed into a profuse bleeding with the speed of turning on a switch. And he became aware of the smallest particles of his body. The bleeding happened at the level of pores, inside every single cell in his body. Then he realized he could hear the bleeding. It was the most stunning concert he had ever attended. No, his body was the orchestra. He was every single musician. It was a concert he had heard before but he could not easily remember. Then it came to him. It was the first Shostakovich concert his parents took him to attend at the Alice Tully Hall. That was ringing in his ears. Getting louder and louder and each instrument was suddenly becoming more acute taking center stage in his hearing. Louder and more distinct. A steady increase in volume, accompanied not by violent gesticulation but by a sense of liberation. His body was getting rid of its shape and whatever other constraints it previously experienced. The pain was also dissipating. It was liquefying in a barely holding gelatin. His life became liquid atonal music. Finally he was at peace.