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Chapter 09

Saturday I get up late, usually, and this one is no exception. I was up until at least 2:00am tossing and turning the night before, mostly in my head. I have the uncanny ability to be really persistent in focusing on things that I need to think about during the times when I have the weakest ability to think effectively. The weird stuff happening to Scott and Ned and a bunch of others on campus doesn’t seem to apply to me at all. I barely even know these people, yet I’m all wrapped up into some sort of murder mystery involving a squid and a bizarre religious cult that disappeared from this area long ago. And there are so many pieces to this puzzle, my mind keeps telling me. There’s the math professor and the electrical engineering professor with their disorienting and macabre new projects. I toss this stuff around all night long, even while I’m sleeping. And then I suddenly realize, just as I’m taking a shower and getting ready to go in to the library. These aren’t pieces to a puzzle. Puzzles make some sort of picture. And this is simply a bunch of disconnected crazy stuff that has nothing to do with anything else. It’s not going to make a picture; it’s going to make a pile of weird, lumpy pieces that can safely be thrown away. In fact, leaving them around will simply frustrate people. They have to be swept away. I resolve to do just that when I am done getting Scott’s crazy books to him.As I’m stepping out of a steamy bathroom the phone rings. I run to get it, knowing that my wife is out shopping already with the boy. Both have been up for about three hours already.“Hello,” I say, thinking to myself that it’s a wrong number, because we had decided to cut down on the number of students able to call us by not listing our phone number.“Is this Neal Slater?” an unfamiliar but scratchy voice asks.

“Yes, it is. To whom am I speaking?” Thinking by now that it must be someone from the University who knows us, but I have no idea who.

“Your brake lines have been severed,” this person says and then hangs up.

I’m going a little nuts, then. I quickly dial our cell phone line and wait breathlessly for Molly to answer.

“Yeah, Neal?”

“Hey, yeah, it’s me. Everything okay?”

“Pretty much. They don’t seem to make any clothing his size. Surely all kids are this size at some point in their lives. I don’t see how come they can’t make clothes for them. I mean, they don’t just go from 25 pounds directly to 50 or something, do they?”

I try to chuckle for her but my mouth is all dry and I’m trying to think of what to say without spooking her.

“Molly, look, some spook just called me and told me our brakes had been cut. It was probably some sort of prank, but . . . but this guy knew my name.”

“They seemed fine to me. Jesus, Neal. I’m at the mall. Should I wait here for you?”

“I haven’t checked the other car out. I just got the call. So could you call somebody to pick you up?”

“How about this. I could get ask people at the Toyota place to come and check it out. They’re only just a couple of miles away, right?”

“Do they work on Saturdays?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call Jess and ask if she’ll pick us up. She’s usually home this time on weekends.”

“Okay. I’ll get this one checked out and let you know what’s up.”

“Look, Neal, this could have happened anywhere, you know.”

“I know,” I say, but really I’m convinced that it couldn’t have.

We have security at the apartment complex. It is the ridiculous fake kind of security that you see in the suburbs sometimes, where every pizza delivery person knows the combination to the gate, which is only in good repair about a third of the time anyway. There are some cameras in the hallways, but none in the parking lot, which has assigned parking spaces. Nobody ever really parks in your spot, but they will park a running car behind you to block you in at the drop of a hat. It would have been easy to cut our brake lines, so I hurriedly dress and walk out to the lot.

There is a little line of oily red fluid leaking out from under the front of my car, which I can see before I get very close at all. I duck to look under the thing and I can’t tell if it is the brake line or the power steering or the radiator or an oil leak, for that matter. But it wasn’t there the previous night.

I call the wife to let her know that the whole matter is serious and then try to call the police. This doesn’t seem like an occasion for 911, but I simply cannot get through to the police on their regular number. Surely they have more than a couple of lines. Shouldn’t it go to voice mail or something at least?

So I’m stuck for a minute thinking about what to do. I call a couple of auto repair places until I can get somebody to look at it. The first two say they are too busy with emergencies to handle it. “Isn’t a cut brake line an emergency?” I ask one of them.

“Yeah, it is if it’s on an ambulance, fire truck or a police car, or some sort of critical delivery vehicle. You got one of them?”

“No,” I admit. “Have there been a lot of those?”

“Youah reporta?”

“No, just curious.”

“We got lots of vandalism down here near campus. You should try some place out in the surrounding communities.” He gives me a couple of names of places to try and I eventually get one to come out and look at it. As it turns out there’s a place just down the street. I just had never been out that direction.

The guy comes out with a tow truck but when he opens the hood he sees the problem right away. “Looks like somebody was mad at you,” he says. He pulls at a couple of loose tubes. “They didn’t want to kill you, though. They cut everything in here made of rubber, everything they could reach from underneath, anyways. Probably wouldn’t even have been able to start the car.”

I silently thank whatever passes for gods out here and ask him if he can get it going again.

“Oh, sure. I just gotta get some pahts from the shop.”

I give him my credit card number and an extra key, because I’m feeling a little more urgent about getting to the library to resolve this thing with Scott and all of the other crazies on campus.

“Just drop it in the mailbox when you’re done,” I say, knowing that the typical method for doing such things out here is to leave it on the front seat, or then ignition, with the window open.

So I call Ned first, because he’s the only one I can think of who might be able to give me a ride to town. Seemed to me he lived in one of these towns nearby. He doesn’t answer but calls right back and he and Marisa, yeah, they’re apparently an item or something, give me a ride in.

While I’m waiting Molly calls back and the Toyota place has checked the entire brake system and there’s nothing wrong with it or any other part of the car that they can find. So she says she’s going to over to Jessica’s place to put the kid down for his nap.

“I should be back home by the time you get back. Make sure you lock the car up good.”

“Was yours locked?”

“Yes.”

“Then what does it matter?”

“Well. Okay, it doesn’t. But so what do we do?”

“I don’t know, Neal. But you need to relax a little. Whoever did it obviously felt bad enough about it to call and warn us.”

“But they didn’t do it in time. You had already gone.”

“Didn’t you say they asked for you, specifically?”

“I think that’s what I said.”

“Is there anybody at the office who might have done something like this?”

“You mean besides my boss?”

“Really, Neal. I can’t see Paul crawling under your car with some wire cutters or something. Can you?”

“Well, I can imagine it. But it seems pretty unlikely, I guess.”

“Did you call the police yet?”

“I haven’t been able to get through to them.”

“Keep trying. I’ll see you this afternoon. I’ll call home before I come.”

I hang up and try the police a couple of times with no better results. Maybe I should go to the station. I’ll try again from the library where Scott’s office is.

About then, Ned arrives. Ned is one of those people who is able to carry on a conversation with somebody inside a car and several people outside a car without hindering either to any degree that I could notice. He drives fast, talks fast, gestures fast, but I never get the sense on the drive in that he is putting us in any danger.

Marisa lets me ride shotgun because I’m a little taller than her.

“So they just cut a bunch of tubes?” she asks from the back.

“Yeah, guy said it was anything they could reach. But the person on the phone claimed that he cut the brakes specifically.”

“Coulda been worse,” she says. I look over at Ned and he’s nodding. I turn my head around and give her a mock glare. “What?”

“I don’t know. I mean, sure, it could’ve been worse, but. I don’t know.”

I sit there and sulk for a little bit, but they resume the animated conversation they were having when I got in the car and even though I have no idea what they are talking about the cheerful conversation, when not aimed directly at me, seems to improve my mood.

Ned parks close to the library at a metered space on the street, open because it is the weekend and so many of the kids are going home to party with their high-school friends. “You want us to come up with you?”

“No, I’m fine. You just going to sit here?”

“I thought we’d play some hacky. I brought my footbag.”

I look over at Marisa and she is looking at him like she has no idea what hacky-sack is. But she doesn’t seem unwilling. I get out of the car and see that it is a pleasant-looking day. A few small clouds scoot by under the sun, but they don’t stick around long enough to make it feel cool out.

I walk up the hill to the library, turning around once to look. They have gotten out of the car by then and Ned is kicking the hacky to her. She tries to kick it back but ends up knocking it into the street to his left and he goes to retrieve it.

When I get near Scott’s office I can see that something is not as it should be. There is some sort of film over the windowed part that looks out on the moveable stacks, for one. And when I get closer I see that there is someone inside. I steel myself for some sort of confrontation. I turn the corner on the stacks and see that it is Nolan, the painter. And he is scraping something on one of the walls.

“Hey, Nolan, what’s . . . what’s that smell?”

“Perfesser, fancy seein you here.”

“Neal.”

“Neal, what brings you here on a Saturday? Come to see some of my work?”

I look around and see that there has been some sort of a fire or something. All of the windows have been darkened by a film of soot, except for the one that looks out on the quad, which has been pried out of its frame and set on the floor. Nolan or somebody else has cleaned the walls a little and he is clearly patching them to paint. There are a couple of canvas drop cloths on the floor and over the desks and other furniture.

“What happened?”

“Some kids, they think. Broke in last night early in the evening and had a little party. Maybe they got cold or something, ‘cause they burned a couple of books.”

My eyes go immediately to the spot on the bookshelves where Scott told me the books he needed would be. I walk over and check and they are not there.

“Just a couple of books?”

“They made a lot of soot and smoke. But there wasn’t anywhere else for the smoke to go. This room is separate from the HVAC of the rest of the building, I guess because they want to make sure that it stays dry. But come to think of it the place really should have some de-humidifier or something. Maybe they were going to put one in later. Anyway, there is just a little fan that takes some of the air and pushes it out of the building, like you’d see in a bathroom.”

“So the smoke alarm didn’t go off?”

“No, the fire alarm neither. That’s lucky, in a way, because it would have destroyed a lot of nice books.” He waves one arm around the room. “As it is it looks like they burnt two of the oldest ones in the place.”

“What makes you say that?” I ask, looking back over at where the books should have been.

“I got here before they cleaned up all the ashes. Parts of some of the pages were left around. Not much, but, . . .” He reached into the back pocket of his painters’ pants. “Here. Look.”

I look at the scraps and they look old, but most books would look old if they were burnt on an edge and were in the same room with a bunch of other books that were being burnt.

“You know a lot about old books?” I ask him, because now I’m starting to get suspicious of everybody.

“Not books. No. Ink, though. I know a lot about ink and paint. I just do this as a day job, you know. It keeps me in Scotch, but I’m an artist.”

“So what’s old about the ink? Looks like regular ink to me.”

“Well, you can still find some of this around, sepia, at artist supply places, mostly. Most of them not in the states, but you can find it. Most people wouldn’t use it to write a journal, or whatever this thing was. Mostly people just use it for something really fancy in the way of calligraphy or maybe pen and ink work. Only seen it once or twice before even then.”

“Sepia. That’s squid’s ink, right?”

“Yeah, or cuttlefish, sometimes.”

“Any chance this was new?” I ask, because I can’t remember the exact timing, and I’m thinking that it’s just too much of a coincidence that a squid died on the other side of campus just a day ago and today I’m looking at ink that is pretty rare and they are not connected in any way.

“Well, I don’t know. Paper looked old, too. But no way to tell for sure. Why?”

“I don’t know,” I say, and my head is spinning a little. “Nolan, what else can you tell me about sepia? What’s so great about it, why is it so rare?”

“Think it’s rare because we have so many types of ink that are better now. Despite what people say. There are lots of paints you can’t get that were much better back in the old days, but ink has actually come a long way.”

“What do you mean ‘the old days’?”

“Well, you know. Back in the Seventies, before the EPA and OSHA and all that. You could get paints made from all kinds of stuff that will kill you. That’s why people used to think painters were crazy, you know. Most of ‘em licked the points of their brushes for fine work.” He makes like he’s licking a pencil he suddenly has in his hand. “Titanium white was the one that people still resent having to do without. I buy mine from this bootlegger who has a source in the Czech Republic somewhere. It’s not even legal there, but at least you can find it. Here in the states there’s not even an illicit source.” He shakes his head. “Most of the other stuff was made of heavy metals, too, it helped so much with opacity. Lead paints covered really, really well.”

“But not inks?”

“No. Most of the really good ones were made from lampblack or squid ink, cuttlefish. But there’s lots better today. They got carbon black they use to make tires black. With inks you aren’t usually looking for opacity. You’re looking for the ability of the ink to dye.”

That syllable just hangs in the air while I look around the library. “Nolan, the guy who takes care of this library is really concerned about the books. He’s in Idaho right now and he’s going to call me later on today. He’ll want to know exactly what happened.”

Nolan just looks at me and nods, waits.

“If he has any questions I can’t answer, could I give you a call?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what it would be. But I could give you my cell number.”

“Thanks, Nolan. I’d appreciate it.”

He writes it down and hands it to me. “Are you locking up when you finish?” I ask.

“Yup, I am. But it may take a while, because I’m getting double time today, just like those guys on the hill, unless they’re getting triple.”

“What guys on the hill?”

“Them roughnecks,” he says, “buildin’ on that derrick or whatever.”

Take me to Chapter X

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