2 – The Announcement

THE ANNOUNCEMENT

They slipped out from the hut, avoided a ring of rusted bulldozers surrounding a huge burial pit, passed the oily carcasses of helicopters, unexploded bomb casings, and seagull-pecked garbage mounds oozing into the Hudson.  Across the Hudson’s black waves New York smoldered, echoing with gunshots and sirens.  Lights were blacked out except for a few bonfires on roofs.  The skyscrapers towered darkly, smoking into the starless night.  By contrast, the tip of the Grabmaler’s inverted skyscraper glowed from its ground floor penthouse protected by incandescent lamps.  From behind its security fence a faint whiff of canned music filtered through the thick air two hundred meters away.  The corporate Inferno, Tombstone Internationale, sunk below ground in Hoboken had lost its founder, and now they would step inside its barbed wire, and his heir announce to everyone that he took his life.

As they neared the fence the same copter flapped across the Hudson hovering briefly over Aloysius’ box.  The pilot leaned out.  They were all three visible now in the light and sighed relief when the pilot buzzed beyond them.  Rupert, however, felt disheartened by an object he spotted in the pilot’s hand, and followed the circular flight by a red beacon on its tail.  The pilot swung back in a tight arc, dropping a shadow over the hut.  An orange fireball thundered skyward, pluming black smoke, a bomb devouring his cardboard hut instantly in flame.  Aloysius watched his shelter and his few belongings vanish, the nest in which he slept, collecting, pasting his squatter’s life together for years.

The flames subsided.  The smoke thinned, leaving a mere smoldering lump of ash.  Aloysius shrank away, moaning: “My costumes!” Rupert dragged him on.

He was propping up Aloysius when they reached just outside the range of gunscopes manned by the infrared binocular’d guards who stood inside the complex surrounded by cement turrets. Trotsky long considered Grabmaler’s operation as one more place to “fence” black market goods.  Now he considered the vacuum of power and money Grabmaler left behind, which he had assumed would employ his crew forever.  Aloysius slumped, studying his feet.  He always ignored counterfeiting or the dynamics of greed through which Grabmaler built his underground empire.  He lost his Maytag box.  And now he faced the light, fearing a chill reception and wondered, if let inside, he’d survive the homecoming a dead Grabmaler planned for his assassin’s return.  “I have a pass.”  Trotsky sweated, ” … I know it works.”

“What about Aloysius?”  Rupert whispered, still trying to retrieve the name of the guard who stood post Friday nights.

“Your right!  The cook’s ID won’t get him in.  Aloysius doesn’t even look like him.  But if he had a security pass …  arriving with you … “

Meanwhile, Aloysius turned, fascinated by an approaching swirl of cinder.  The gathering cloud gave way to a rough form of a dog dragging, as they recognized the soiled apron and Aloysius’ coat, the cook.

“What is it?”  Trotsky cried, terrified at the muscular pace of the beast, and the dangling body.

“It’s Virgil!”  Rupert replied, following the dog’s progress.

Virgil dropped the body at their feet, his coat shining black from sweat despite his dusty run.

“No second helpings.”  Aloysius remarked the body which lay face down wrapped in his old jacket.

The dog began routing through the pockets with his nose and frothing jowls.

“He’s going to eat the corpse before our eyes!”  Trotsky cried, scandalized.

Virgil, instead, nosed through a few stolen silver utensils then bit into a plastic security card from the cook’s broad apron.  Rupert extracted the card from the dog’s teeth, wiped the saliva on his pantleg, and fondly petted Virgil.

“What is this?”  Trotsky grimaced.

“It’s Aloysius’ ticket in … “  Rupert replied, still stroking Virgil.

“Do you know this dog?”  Trotsky asked.

“Ah, of course.”  Rupert said soothingly, stroking his coat with firm pats, before the dog turned over the body to drag it back.

“He’s only a dog in disguise.”  Aloysius smiled, accepting the card from Rupert.  Virgil trotted away, dragging the cook out of sight.

They approached the complex and the guard recognized Rupert.  They waited, blinded by phosphorescent lamps.

“Sure gonna miss your homecoming.”  The guard grinned familiarly before he nodded at Trotsky’s and Aloysius’ security passes: “They say there’s real women up there … from all over!”

“I brought the real women with me.”  Trotsky joked nervously.

The guard grew somber, surveying Rupert’s guilty expression and Aloysius’ hodgepodge nationalities pullover after Trotsky’s stilborn joke. Aloysius slid back, glancing over his shoulder quickly to where Virgil vanished with the body.

“What’s this you wearing?  You got this in Paris?”  The guard shook his head, puzzled.

Rupert pulled out Aloysius’ patchwork, completely at a loss.  “It’s a joke!  You see, it’s really a world-map of civil war insignia.”

“He’s been running around in the Paris underground!” Trotsky whispered confidentially to the guard with whiskey on his breath.  The guard skeptically re-examined them.  Yet he had to stamp them through. He checked their ID’s and it was Rupert’s party.

They strolled up the security macadam and ramp in earshot of the crowd.  Rupert keyed through the bulletproof glass door.  After a short pause, with rows of swinging heads revealing forced surprise, a cheer greeted him.  There were scattered attempts at “For he’s a jolly good fellow”.  Older businessmen raised their glasses with frozen smiles.  Their wives and a few children clinked spoons against brandy snifters.  Trotsky slinked off to the corner to negotiate for better music.  Rupert and Aloysius tried to evaporate into a group of networking sophomoric clerks when they were jostled by two young women exquisitely dressed, chatting in Russian.  The women pressed close to them, excusing themselves, one soft cone of a breast brushing against Aloysius’ elbow.  Another crushed her shoulders and kissed Rupert on the cheek before allowing him to pass.  Leaving the two Russian women, Rupert tugged on Aloysius’ sleeve until he spotted a retiring gray hair dressed in a wrinkled brown suit.

The old man was sipping coffee, shuffling to a corner as Rupert caught up with him.  “You recognize me, don’t you?”  Rupert asked, sensing the old man jump slightly.

“Of course I recognize you!” The old man whispered, nodding to the crowd: “And it’s only a matter of time before they recognize you — for what you’ve done.  But I haven’t noticed anything which provided me evidence they know.”

“I’m not so sure … “  Rupert whispered back in his ear,  “We discovered the body of Grabmaler’s cook with a note on how badly the room smelled.”

“I thought it would be only a matter of time.”  The old man sighed.

“Where’s Undine?”

“Oh she’s here. Listen, there’s another group involved.  They call themselves Last Social Revolutionaries.  Don’t say anything crazy.”

“Do you think it’s inevitable that the news has spread?”

“Naturally.   Bodies decay quickly.  Even with the secrecy with which we surrounded Grabmaler’s death the corruption crept through the cracks: paneling, ventilation, patio doors … There were two untended corpses up there.  His girlfriend, what was her name?”

“Imke.”

“They were both drying on the carpet before we dragged them from his bedroom.”  Lazarus coughed into a handkerchief then studied it.

Rupert began to sway, his vision funneling around the two bodies.  He had made love to the same girl as Grabmaler, the same corpse.  He had been inside a dead girl.

“Rupert!”  Lazarus cried softly, watching him turn chalk-pale.

Aloysius walked closer to support him.

“Rupert,”  Lazarus whispered with sudden gravity: “I have here the ashes of Grabmaler and the girl.  They are separated.”  The old man handed Rupert two small mahogany boxes, two small urns.

“Thank you, Lazarus.”

“Want some advice, Rupert?”

“You mean there’s more?”

“Oh, there’s going to be a great deal more.”

“What?”

“Here are the dead, they will never rise. Consider your friend …”  Aloysius was staring at the two Russian women as if he had never seen a woman decently fed nor indecently dressed before.  “He’s right.  Meet some girls.  Start a new life. Escape.  Save yourself before it’s too late!  Save me.“  Lazarus scanned him wearily.

Rupert nodded, planning to object to Lazarus’ advice about women — he felt loyal to Undine — when a corpulent gentleman, sporting silver epaulettes and a full chest of questionable medals, stood him a toast.  Everyone rose with the gentleman, then swung around.  The music stopped.  He waved his hand and toasted Rupert in a commanding bass bellow:

“Everyone rise!  To Rupert! May your return to Tombstone bring you real pleasure, and power!” The Security Chief stomped his white leather boots with bronze cleats for applause.

The counterfeiters, art assessors, money launderers and their accountants obliged, patting each others’ backs, clapping and shouting.  Younger, lower echelon celebrants raised a cheer and tapped their cups.  Rupert endured the toast, holding the two urns.  Then he poured the German prostitute’s ashes into the fireplace, yet continued holding Grabmaler’s urn. Cries for a “speech” grew to shouts, especially from the toast-master General, still lifting his glass and lowing his head like an overstuffed ox.

When the applause withered the Security Chief stood erect, and demanded: “A Speech!  We require a few words, Rupert!  Where is Grabmaler?  I’m sure he’d bust his jewels to hear you, ha, giving a speech. Yes Sir!”

Rupert groped for a half minute before recovering his wits, then stuttered:  “Y … Y … You know, there’s nothing like coming home … “  This evoked scattered applause.  Trotsky, on his left, shrunk back cautiously, after rifling through the CD library, searching for jazz.  Aloysius blandly inspected a croissant.

“You know it’s good to return …  because there are so many of us in the world without homes!”  Lazarus slinked further to the back of the hall as he heard this tentative opening:  “Diogenes, my friend, once said the homeless have inherited the world.  In a sense, we are all homeless and what’s more, orphans.  Yes, and, there’s nothing worse, more wrenching than losing a parent.  I know.  I lost my real father, my mother and my sister ten years ago.”

“My real father was already dead when Grabmaler adopted me.  What is it, nine years ago?   I was an orphan.  But is that a big deal?  We grow up relying on chance, or scrape for ourselves, glad to accept a bed, a hot meal, a friend, an adoptive parent.  By chance we survive the kindness of our few benefactors who either reproduce in us their values, or dis-adopt us.  But by choice we are reborn as orphans if we refuse to adopt their values … or the lack of them.”

“Get to the point, Rupert!” The epauletted Security Chief stomped.

“Thank you General Trepov.  The point is … we are an orphaned race. I mean, I know this sounds grandiose, but our catastrophe was determined not by an Omniscient God who chose to humiliate us with a Grand Finale or Apocalypse — with Avenging Angels enthroned astride Immortals of Justice.  But  by the inevitable fall of a world economic market, after a squandering of natural resources and an unmanaged global population, it fell — finally — encouraged by profiteering, by speculating against The Collapse, by making money off it, and now we are all orphaned.  Cut off from our ancestor’s prosperity, their learning, their science, their art.  So we live and pursue business, hoarding remnants of old prosperity, here, in our underground, our inverted skyscraper, and call our underground corporation Tombstone Internationale.”

This inspired a general commotion, but Rupert strengthened his voice and plunged on:  “And wouldn’t we expect with any decline … grave robbers, plunderers, to follow the fall of a people?  Be they Egyptian Pharaohs whose graves were pilfered, or entombed Emperors of a Chinese dynasty?  Weren’t there plunderers of Rome after it crushed under the weight of its corruption and history?  I don’t know, really, as I never had a formal education.  But, wouldn’t we, then, expect gold-diggers and spelunkers after a global Collapse?”

“Hold your filthy tongue!  You ingrate little shit!”   Trepov’s wife burst out.

“And wouldn’t we be … guilty … if we were sheltered by those who profited from The Collapse?  And if, by chance, we also knew the plunderers intimately, and understood, even shared their human failings, wouldn’t it be a crime to orphan our memories by forgetting both their kindness and their crimes?”

“What is this?”  Trepov thundered, much louder than Rupert could shout, let alone speak.

“Grabmaler adopted me.”  Rupert forged on.  “For this I thank him.  But I found another mentor on my travel to Paris, my dear friend Diogenes, who was rejected by you all as a vagrant and petty counterfeiter.  He taught my girlfriend Undine about honesty, and she, in turn, taught me how to aspire to live honestly.  Despite it all.  But if we could choose our parents, which no one ever has, we would have no need for mentors.  But Grabmaler was not your typical step-father.  He felt the human race was beyond repair, even though he had shrewdly saved the tools, he used them to sabotage it.  And instead of passing things on to the world, he, out of monetary chaos and civil disorder, extracted the last things of value which money could buy. He borrowed, as I understand it, an immense amount of money, then speculated in paramilitary terror, in profiting from traffic in heroine, and morphine, and through counterfeiting, and high-stakes buy-outs, and so became instrumental as head of this international Cartel, in engineering the final, world Economic Collapse.  He used what he had borrowed to end our future.  And, out of respect for Grabmaler, he was successful.  But out of honesty, we all paid a little fee, and dropped our consciences into the Grand Collection Box which he sunk — in International Style — here — just as he drilled into our inner ears, his counterfeit shame! Burying us here.”

Fear rippled through the crowd which began herding toward the exits, or pushing away from under ceiling nozzles from which gas could spew in a crisis, and away from video cameras which could identify them later if The Morality Squad was called up.  But Rupert’s tone remained steadfast, and his expression bland.

“To take another’s life … is inhuman.  To end the breath, the pulse, the activity of a mind is — frightening!   No mind can ever be replaced.  But Grabmaler had no such qualms.  We all knew he took lives.  I’ve personally seen him take one. The meaning of one’s life, one’s happiness is permanently compromised when one kills.  I see that now!  Yet you, we who profited with Grabmaler may well take what I’ve done as a sacrifice.  Of my conscience and spiritual health, for which alone I must suffer.  For even if the machine, gentlewomen and men, through which he extorted, is still running … the driver … is no longer behind the wheel.”

The crowd, edging into panic, stopped for a moment for Rupert to make his confession, for he spoke now in an even, deliberative whisper:  “I … entered his apartment with a gun.  Perhaps that was my first mistake.  He was engaged in sex with the same girl whom he hired to destroy my relation with my girlfriend, Undine.  He knew Undine hated him.  He hired this girl to have sex with me in Paris.  When I returned with him on his jet to Hoboken, here, I chanced in upon him with this same woman … and reproached him for it.  He then killed her on the spot.  Shot her.  And he said, and I quote:  ‘Now nothing will come between us.’  Then I swung toward the door and he fired at me, at my back.  If it wasn’t for Undine, who was at the door, her warning, her scream, it would be Grabmaler standing before you tonight, announcing, or lying, about my death.  He missed.  I fired in self-defense — and — I killed him! I shot Grabmaler dead!”

A bearded man rolled forward suddenly in a wheel chair, and without warning hysterically exclaimed: Grabmaler tied me to a wheelbarrow for twenty years and released me — after I turned insane!”

Then, as mayhem mounted, Trepov, who toasted Rupert, shouted with his foghorn voice, lunging forward, shoving Rupert aside, and demanded justice: “Stop!  Stop!  Stop this outrage!” He pounded his fist on the mantle sending Grabmaler’s urn which Rupert had carefully balanced there, spilling into the fireplace.

“This boy talks about crimes but he has killed his adoptive father!  He claims he entered Grabmaler’s private bedroom with a gun – and killed in self-defense!  The criminal, the plunderer stands before us! He is an orphan because he killed, his and our father!  He spilled patrimonial blood!  He’s a parricide!”

The crowd’s sympathies wildly shifted at Trepov’s deafening speech.  Noting this he quickly capitalized on his outburst:  “He says it’s wrong to take another’s life? But that’s precisely what he did!  He knows nothing about our operation and nothing about how to make a living! We could be taken over now by the Atavists!  He has been raised under Grabmaler’s protection as his heir! Do we need a crystal ball or tea leaves or an astrologer to understand his motive, his murderous greed, which moved him to kill?  I say he should be tried, and executed! I call an Emergency Council of the Morality Squad on how to re-organize while paying respects to the memory of our generous father, our dear Grabmaler, while ensuring that this pale ingrate … ”

Then, with a flash and a loud retort, Trepov’s slammed against the fireplace.  His mouth tightened.  His teeth slowly bared.  His eyes rolled back into his forehead, nearly to his now singed eyebrows.  Trepov, leader of the  paramilitary Blunts, had been shot cleanly in the middle of his mammoth forehead.