3 – The High Priest

After submitting a more expansive appeal for a monetary archive Diogenes received a memo from Grabmaler inviting him to a light-hearted fête, a “Meet you at the top ” dress ball for Internationale brass.  It seemed, as Diogenes maniacally re-read the card, a common perk for the elite.  Ms. Duykinck spruced him up, tied his tie, tailored his suit and cropped his collar.  He appeared healthier now, as he stood before the mirror.  His sallow skin had firmed up, his bowlegs filled out, and his neck, often craned forward, eased back.

Bernard kidded him about the women he’d find: the executive’s wives, their daughters.  Grant nodded forlornly after Diogenes tacked up instructions for an exhaustive inspection of circuitry.  Diogenes relaxed through the afternoon, having his hair and nails trimmed, sampling new cologne, showering, spending hours to groom, and to hope.

Since the bash began at midnight, Diogenes undressed at six and tried to nap, as it began past his bedtime.  He kept leaping up however, dredging up old jokes, rehearsing quips, repartees, polite witticisms, determined to prove himself to the VIP’s who run Tombstone.

Finally, a special key arrived at five past one and he bolted up to the penthouse, adjusting his tie, dizzily steadying himself, following the skyscraper diagram.  When he lurched out, however, the glass partition between the elevator platform and the penthouse refused to budge.  He finally began to tap then pound anxiously on the glass, finally with his shoe.  Eventually, a servant keyed Diogenes in and as he tripped on the hallway rug he profusely thanked her.

As he snatched up a few black olives and brie he searched unrequitedly for Rupert, Undine or Grabmaler.  He couldn’t spot one friend from his first party, even Basarov.  He balanced a drinking tray to a couch then slumped down by himself intentionally near a couple he overheard last time: the art-critic and his nymphette, he sporting a black beret, she sprawling in black tights.

“Hi!”  Diogenes started, lifting his glass to the girl who had idly watched him arrive as the older man massaged her knee.

“Let’s go Beuve!” She pouted, bursting a gum bubble.

“Are you getting bored, Eva?  Ma pépette?”   He purred,  “What do you need?”

“Not this square, let’s split.”

They vacated the chairs besides Diogenes’ couch so he plopped back with his tray, studying the open briefcase beside him on the couch. The rag that the New York Times poked out from under long lists of names so he slipped it out and scanned the usual headlines until he noticed the date: he spent six months underground.  This offered a revelation to him since there were clocks but no calendars in the printing room, and though he was clearly trapped, time flew.  A second story caught his eye:  “Disturbing Evidence Found Among Plague Victims”.

He skimmed headlines concerning victories by Federal forces against gang fiefdoms, hygienic instructions, collaborationist charges indicting Federal bureaucrats, the “progress” of African famines. And, as he flipped back to the front page: denunciations of Pure Land or Utopian prophets, isolated acts of heroism on the American People’s behalf, calls for a new Martial Constitution.  He relaxed to read the “Disturbing Evidence” but as he began the article, a gruff hand grasped his shoulder.  It was Grabmaler.  Undine and Rupert hovered behind him.  Diogenes twisted himself around, drunk, to greet them, stashing the paper and the stranger’s briefcase behind his back.

“You’re reading someone else’s Times.  Did you find any jobs advertised?”  Grabmaler asked, still grasping his shoulder.

Diogenes dissembled like a child caught stealing candy or cigarettes from a supermarket, yet replied candidly: “It’s been six months since you’ve imprisoned me in the printing room and newspapers are … spellbinding.”

“That’s a confidential briefcase.  I know who owns it and he might well think it rude.”

“I’m sorry.  It’s been six months.”  Diogenes repeated.

Diogenes looked up directly at Grabmaler examining his face as a physiologist might, judging him, while, inside Grabmaler’s pupils, Diogenes thought he spotted a tiny tornado in progress.

Rupert interrupted.  “Hey Diogenes!  Father told me you’ve done fine work in the printing room.  You’re planning an archive?”

Sure, that’s true!”  Diogenes slurred, dabbing his lip.

Grabmaler broke off coldly, and excused himself, warning, “Watch your step, Diogenes.”

“Hey, why not quaff a few blonde frauleins with me?”  Rupert asked, cheerfully titling his glass toward Undine.

Diogenes rose unsteadily.  Rupert helped him up and Undine offered him an arm as Diogenes uncapped the foamy beer.

“You know, a scholar owns that briefcase. His name is Benedict.  Grabmaler respects him immensely.  We should introduce you to him,”  Rupert smiled, clinking Diogenes’ glass.

“Undine shook her head, “Why?  He’s a megalomaniacal bore!”

“No, he isn’t.  He’s a scholar.  He’s multilingual!  That’s scarce these days.”  Rupert shot back, defensively.

Diogenes felt warmed by their voices, glad to bathe in any controversy if it led to a full conversation.  He glanced over at the man who just sat down on the same couch he had left, however, and found himself agreeing with Undine.  The man’s parchment white skin, supercilious mouth, Jesuitical severity of brow and bald head looked extremely unsettling.  Further, he was wearing a tuxedo.

“Diogenes,”  Rupert said confidentially, “Let’s really talk.”

“What?  Oh, of course.”

They dragged a few chairs with them beyond the man’s eavesdropping distance while he bent over, inspecting his briefcase.

“Undine,”  Diogenes turned to her, “I hope it isn’t rude to say but I’m thankful you wish to confide in me.”

“Rupert wants to. To prove me wrong.  With all respect to you, Diogenes, I really don’t want this issue leaked.  If it’s false it shouldn’t be spoken aloud … and if it’s true it shouldn’t be … either.”  She stopped abruptly, nervously lighting a cigarette.

“You see, Undine has a theory that Grabmaler’s wealth, his manufacturing and financial interests, are directly connected with the Collapse, the suffering … “

“You don’t seem to be suffering.”  Diogenes chuckled, leaning toward them over his armrest.

“No, listen. Undine and I have heard conversations at these parties directly related to art theft, counterfeiting, drug shipments.  I’ve read memos on Grabmaler’s desk which are very chilling … “  Rupert trailed off.

Diogenes watched Undine knit her brow.  She was more shrewd than he had supposed, and more mature than Rupert.

“You’ve probably noticed that Grabmaler is grooming Rupert to inherit his role at Internationale.  He often commands Rupert, in his deep voice: ‘You’ll be replacing me someday, Rupert.’  You heard him call him ‘father’?  But then we sneak into New York, though, I suspect Grabmaler let’s us go … and we make these suspicious connections … “

“Undine needs to draw conclusions.  I prefer to live here than out there. These clients, though, do drop remarks about paramilitary police, about a so-called Morality Squad.  I twice heard this complex itself is where they’re based.  And, the guests all seem wealthy — without ever saying what they do.  They’re secretive too, stuffy, casting glances.  Paranoiac. They almost all have nothing but praise for Grabmaler, his parties, for me, Undine.  And they don’t even know us.”

“You remember the Russian you spoke to at the last party?”  Undine interjected.

“How do you know I spoke to him?  You left the party before I met him.”

“Grabmaler told us.  He claims to respect your work but he was furious when he discovered Basarov with you.  He called him a ‘sentimental pervert’ and a ‘chronic liar’.  And he’s, well, disappeared!” Undine whispered, staring into Diogenes’ eyes.

“Well, he was a sentimental pervert!”  Diogenes replied.

“He was more than that!  When he first arrived he was the Executive or Grand Acquisitor!  Then he fell apart.”  She breathed, rubbing out her cigarette.

“After that night we never saw Basarov again.”  Rupert added.  “We overheard a guy named Trepov and his Russian friends last week and they refused to respond when we mentioned Basarov’s name.”

“Then we heard them murmuring his name to each other. They pronounced it just as he did.”  Undine said.

“And whispered secretly in Russian.”

“Of course, they were all Russian!  This is all so naïve!”  Diogenes laughed, lifting up his hands.

“Diogenes, what is it that you do?  Grabmaler told us you reprint classic books.”

“I counterfeit money!  Why do you ask?”

When they paused they could hear breathing, Grabmaler had been listening in.  They all froze staring at his ashen face, when he slipped a shiny black revolver from within his vest pocket and tossed it onto Rupert’s lap.  Rupert caught it, with a shiver, weighing the cold steel in his sweaty palm.

“Can you believe it?  One of our guards just found this in the coat room.”  Grabmaler said, in dull monotone.

“We were just going to get more beer.  Want one?”  Rupert asked Grabmaler cautiously, as he handed the gun to Diogenes, who held it upside down with his fingertips, returning it to Grabmaler.

Grabmaler, angrily lowered his head, pocketed the gun, then walked over to confer with the scholar.

They stood up when Grabmaler finished consulting with him then drifted to the next room.  Rupert, gathering nerve, and hoping to sound out Grabmaler’s mood, dragged them both over to the scholar who was again sifting papers.  Undine balked, and Rupert had to hold her elbow.

The scholar ran his fingers across his papers, his birdlike eyes darting over the print.  His fussy, mercurial mouth moved incessantly, pink lips slavering.  He looked up at Rupert and exclaimed:

“O Rupert! Where have you been? You have Undine with you!” rising, offering his hand to Undine.

“Benedict, this is Diogenes.  You’ve met Undine.”

“Nice to meet you.”  Diogenes said awkwardly as they sat down, and as he nearly smothered a sleeping cat which had nested on the couch.

“Rupert tells me you’re a scholar.”  Diogenes said, introducing himself:  “I hope you don’t mind if I’m a teeny bit drunk, by-the-way.  That is, unless you are too.”

“I only drink sherry.  Tonight they’re serving brandy.  I’ve sampled it.  It’s tasty, of course.  But what do you expect?  No — I’m not drunk.”

“Diogenes works in the printing room!” Rupert said, with manufactured glee.  Undine meanwhile fidgeted with her silk belt and whispered into Rupert’s ear.

“Did you hear Grabmaler bought a new parrot?  A real chatterbox!” Benedict beamed at Rupert.

“Excuse me Benedict, Undine need to dance.  Don’t be offended.  She gets these moods … and simply must dance.. I’m sorry, excuse us.”  Undine jogged to the terrace door beating Rupert’s excuse.

Rupert! I wished to bless your marksmanship!”  Benedict protested as Rupert strode away.

“He’s a fine marksman, you know.”  Benedict said, miserably.

“I … I’m planning an archive on the history of printing,” Diogenes proposed.  “Since it would include foreign language texts and I’m a novice at French and German — perhaps you might help?”

“I know French and German. I attended classes in Tübingen and won my doctorate from the Sorbonne.  I studied Latin since seven grade at Boston Latin School, yet work to maintain my Greek — which, I believe, necessary after Latin.  Latin was the language of the Church.”

“You’re the man I need to know,”  Diogenes mumbled into his beer while examining Benedict’s skin which shed scabby white flakes, the same Diogenes filtered from the press when Grant, the addict, slaved over it all night.

“Maybeee.”  Benedict drawled, evasively.

“Perhaps we can coax funds from Grabmaler?”  Diogenes ventured.

Let me confess to you, Monsieur Diogenes, besides my casual linguistic research, I write textbooks and that requires my full attention.”

Diogenes said as he reached for Benedict’s unfinished brandy. “You don’t mind do you?”

“Go ahead, lap it up.”  Benedict winced.

“What are the school kids learning now, anyway?”

In whose schools?”

“Well, anyone’s.  I assume you give texts away free since the schools are broke and will accept any supplies you offer them.  Right?”

I respond to ‘the fracturing of idioms’, accept the pronunciation and spelling errors, the splayed varieties of diction — and incorporate them into the ‘new grammar’. An act of mercy, really.  There are no rules anymore to what they speak, or grunt, chirp, bark …”  He sighed.  “I act as a missionary and cultural zoologist, recording the drumbeats of the human jungle!”  Benedict laughed at his own elitist and possibly racist joke and waited for Diogenes to join in.

“Oh!”  Diogenes gurgled through gulped sherry.

“Oh yes! Oxford English, you can forget it.  Without real syntax English has fallen into a wild kingdom of twaddle.  Soon no one will understand anything anyone is saying!  It’s the death-rattle of human animals killing their own consciousness.”

“Aren’t you furthering the damage by chiseling these ‘grunts’ into grammar?  Then issuing them in texts?”  Diogenes retorted.

“Now that’s a mixed metaphor!” Benedict sniffed, irritably.

Answer the question!”  Diogenes insisted, grabbing his sleeve.

“Let go! What are you doing?“  Benedict jerked his sleeve free.  “I know what you are!  A counterfeiter.  Grabmaler gave you a break. Yes?  Now you enjoy the only estate on the East Coast with any aristocratic taste, guzzle priceless sherry, wolf down fine food, soil new clothes and a priceless rug!  Do you know this white Persian rug, my gift to Grabmaler, used to grace the library of the conductor for the old New York philharmonic?”  Benedict suddenly leaned in, beady pupils contracting, then spit out viciously: “You belong with them!”

“You mean the animals! “  Diogenes snapped back.

A genetic regression.“  Benedict smirked.

Grabmaler respects you, for this?”

“I’m second in command.”  Benedict glared proudly,  “I protect against enemies, traitors, any miscreant who threatens security.  The rigors of science, the memorization of languages, are fine training so that one will not end up –well, like you.  No plan.  No direction.  You don’t know your own past, do you? No personal history.  You’re a nothing  Nobody. Zero.”

“Wait! What’s your title, what are you called here?”

“Chair of Executive Security … “

Diogenes slipped and knocked the empty sherry glass onto the carpet.

“You idiot!” Benedict hissed, kicking him.

“There wasn’t anything in the glass!”  Diogenes protested.

Look at you!”  Benedict shouted.

Diogenes was crawling on the floor to retrieve the glass after it had rolled under a table.  When he got up he faced Benedict:

“You mean the Morality Squad?  Don’t you?”

“That’s not its proper name!”  Benedict huffed, “Yes, I am its chairman, but by that name. I am entrusted to enforce law, ‘morality’, since people no longer police themselves.  There is no government.  No relief agencies nor any religious organizations with the power to resist doomsday prophets.  Look at you!  Why do I bother to answer you?  Yes, I chair that organization.  My, this is dreadful!

Moral and legal order needs discipline as much as a mad dog needs a leash.  That’s why we kenneled you to the printing room.”

“What?”  Diogenes, gasped, amazed.  He was seated with the most hated man in New York.

Why did Grabmaler bring you here? You’re but an orphaned bitch, a mutt devouring a free lunch.  Is this your life?  You’re need a tag around your neck!  A collar!  Well beg at someone else’s table!  The Squad spanks you with newspaper on your wet, excremental nose!”

Diogenes stood up, livid, and peed on the white Persian rug close to Benedict’s leg, “Here’s to your fucking pride High Priest! A little yellow mirror for your vanity …  Here priest!  Kneel. Holy water!”

And how proud you are to do it!”  Benedict jumped up, seething.

The other guests jostled nervously from the room while Diogenes finished urinating and pulled up his fly.

Grabmaler stopped Diogenes as he left and forced him into the hallway: “My ! We are making an ass of ourselves tonight!”

“No — I just blessed your High Priest.”

“It’s time we talked, Diogenes.  Come here!  Into this room on our left … “

It was the same theater employed for the hologram and Grabmaler didn’t bother to flick on the lights.

“I intended to reward you for counterfeiting tonight.  I intended to approve your archive proposal.  But you just pissed on my carpet!  You also discuss your work.  Did you ever tell anyone you were counterfeiting, when you worked for Lazarus?”

“No.  I thought Rupert your protégé.  I assumed everyone here is … inside.”

Rupert as an adolescent should not be privy, nor forced to understand business. Have you ever grown up?  Rupert can act like an adolescent.  He is one!   But you! Shall I carve it into your forehead?  You must be as covert here as when you worked for Lazarus.  There! Any questions?” Grabmaler ended, exasperated.

Diogenes heard rustling in the darkness of the theater.  Perhaps guards were waiting to pounce on him, camped in front row seats, or lining the aisles.  Diogenes marked Grabmaler, yet his pupils gave no clue.  Diogenes decided to act as if he hadn’t heard — to counterfeit.  Grabmaler scratched his head angrily, then lit a smoke.

“You speak as if nothing, Tombstone, my eviction, how I got to your tent, the pit, that dog … that nothing was an accident.”  Diogenes remarked nervously.

“Do you want to see Virgil?  He’s downstairs ... dining.”  Grabmaler smiled. “Diogenes, real competence uses accident.  Competence transforms accident.  It refines the talent of those who can highly perform … whether it be for good or evil  Don’t tell me you believe in incompetence?”

“Now you’re lying.”

I don’t have to tell the truth.  Our issue is your competence.  You could have networked my clients.  Instead, you pissed on my carpet.  In public!  Is that an accident?  You insulted Benedict.  Was that an accident?”

“Was it his suitcase?”  Diogenes asked, wary after another rustling near the theater’s front aisle.

“Why bring that up?“  Grabmaler grimaced, crushing the cigarette with his shoe.

“Do you … like him?”  Diogenes asked, fishing for a way out.

“Benedict?  It’s not his real name.  He’s an asshole.  So are most people in business.  How should I say it … ?  I … collect puppets, he choreographs them.  He attaches strings, I tug them.  Who knows what tune our clients would dance to … if we didn’t sell them an … afterlife?”

Diogenes watched him enjoy his bizarre joke with relief.  Perhaps he could escape punishment?  “You’re speaking in riddles!  What is Tombstone about, anyway?”

Grabmaler grimaced, deciding whether it was worth explaining. “Power.   Power is ‘about’ competence.   No one is ever more powerful than the process through which they incarnate, and so find their competence.  The wider the process — the deeper the influence.  Power comes when we identify with an inhuman process and it ressurects the individual who commands it.”

What  The whole operation — you own it?”

“I’m identified with it.”  Grabmaler answered, weary of the discussion.

This is doubletalk!  If you aren’t human, choosing, intending, then you’re free to enslave ‘through the process’. Free to murder!  Benedict is chief or ‘priest’ of your secret police!  Right? Morality Squad?”

Grabmaler shuddered, casting a withering look Diogenes’ way, a dwarf questioning his grand design, protected by his wealth, feeding at his table, siphoning off his time.  Diogenes again listened for rustling in the theater as he watched rage knit Grabmaler’s brow.  It occurred to Diogenes that he was quite drunk, and though buried by his own compulsive struggle, he rose to an executioner’s height, as tension built in his sweaty hands.  Grabmaler seemed to be controlling a willful, deadly energy, so as not to use kill.

Grabmaler reconsidered, then spit back:  “The Morality Squad, whatever you call it, is on my payroll!  So are the Blunts.  Shall I spell it out for you?  To explain it to you?  We brought it down!  The economic shithouse blew because we, and you, dear bland-faced Diogenes, myself and nearly a hundred international financiers, many now dead, after years of credit card fraud, inside trading, electronic bank thefts, printed enough counterfeit money and dumped it so what they used to call the global economy collapsed!   You never connected the dots?  We borrowed an unprecedented sum, spent it, brought what you see around you and much more, then printed technologically perfect replicas of each major currency, after they reverted from electronic money, then gave it away, dumped it, so that the idol called the universal free market, imploded!  After a swift kick in the balls!  Do you think we were going to just wait for it to happen?  And lose out?”

You charlatan!”  Grabmaler went on louder, “You think you were the only counterfeiter?  Hundreds like you operate just in Times Square alone, in London, Tokyo. Hundreds of other cities.  We hired you because you were a born counterfeiter.  A born liar!”

“Was it by mealy-mouthed cupidity or cowardice that you hid from the truth — spending six months down there?  Benedict’s men described to us your cane, your miserable office squat, your pathetic savior-act!  Did you look at that crowd?  The phony street-preacher?  It’s astonishing the airs a hypocrite, a petty counterfeiter assumes once he gets a raise!  You mean it never occurred to you what billions of little indecencies and shopkeeper secrets amount to in the larger picture?”

Grabmaler thundered: “AND YOU KNOW THOSE BODIES IN THE PIT?  THEY WERE LEAVING THIS COMPLEX! THE SAME WAY YOU CAME IN, ONLY DIFFERENT!”

The air-conditioning in the little theater had made the air frigid.  There was a slight echo following Grabmaler’s blast. In the darkness, only the entrance light illumined the two men standing in their suits, facing each other.

Diogenes mustered the will to keep questioning, if only to save him a few minutes from what or whoever was ready to pounce on him in the theater:

“And the Civil War?  You start that?  How did you get foreign financiers or traitors not to squeal on you?”

Civil war is real.”  Grabmaler scrutinized Diogenes with disdainful curiosity:  “We didn’t start it. We ripped what was left of depleted resources from a hemorrhaging world economy. We bought what we needed on borrowed money — I already said this — attacked with electronic monetary fraud, then printed phony money to destroy our debt through inflation.  Inflation skyrocketed, economies fell. Civil war is inevitable in any country without an economy, in one form or another.  But any group, any side, can be bought off.  Especially now.  Funny isn’t it?”

But this closes our little chat.  This is your last party. Carry on counterfeiting, we’ll reward your efforts. The archive makes sense.  It’ll keep you from going mad.  My generosity, my time, however, are spent.  You’re slow on the uptake, a risk, and I can’t be bothered with added surveillance nor your leaking information.  So there it is … Have fun.”

Grabmaler, as if to seal his fate, shook Diogenes’ hand, and seemed preoccupied by another issue when he abruptly left Diogenes alone in the theater.

Diogenes swayed at the entrance.  The larger picture was beginning to surface as a negative in silver oxide.  Expecting the worst, he scanned the theater and saw no one but heard another rustling in the seats, close to the stage.  With a fatalist’s impulse he switched on the lights.  He saw an auburn tuft of hair and a forefinger on the armrest between two seats.  Then he realized, after they sat up slightly, that it was Undine and Rupert hiding there.  Rupert gradually turned around and wore a look on his face as if someone had shot a hole in the bottom of his soul and his life was leaking out.  Undine glared at Diogenes resentfully,  confirmed in her conviction, with jaw stern as if she had resolved to leave.  Diogenes was relieved momentarily and then he realized that he was, regardless, condemned.

“We heard everything.”  Undine said, with a calculating and hardened ring to her voice.

You hear that?”  Rupert whispered plaintively, turning to Undine: “You were right all along!  This is beyond … forgiveness!”  He said, searching for a way to restore his self-respect.

What does forgiveness have to do with it?”  Undine cried.

“There’s a lot we don’t know.”  Diogenes muttered.

We going to wait around to find out?”  Undine pleaded, turning to Rupert, drowning in some distant, unweeded and moldy corner of himself.

“None of us knows the magnitude of Grabmaler’s business or his guilt.” Diogenes said cautiously. “He’s a murderer with an economic angle, I guess.  That’s clear.”

“That’s enough!”  Undine stated. “We leave now!”

“We should have left years ago.”  Rupert added feebly.

“How?”

“Rupert has a key.  It’s one of his privileges as Grabmaler’s protégé.  That’s how we are able to come and go.”  Undine said, obviously worried.

“A key? The gate, the guards, the dogs?”

“I train the dogs or lightly supervise their upkeep.  It’s an honorific chore Grabmaler assigned me.  The guards know and routinely let us out.  The dog’s exit lies outside the compound.  If we can slip out before Grabmaler notices us, it’s open field.”

“That’s an important ‘if’.”  Diogenes said, already committed, however, to attempting escape.

They wasted no time and left the room without trying to devise a motive or plan, ran three flights down to the kennel and the guard headquarters.  Through the window, the guards monitored screens and read tabloids, facing control panels, when one of them revolved in his swivel chair to acknowledge Rupert, he signaled in the direction of the kennel.  The guard thumb-up’d Rupert and they electronically opened a steel door.

As they eased themselves into the kennel, the dogs roused and began to sniff the night-intruders warily until Rupert gave a whistle and calmed them, adding placating murmurs.  Their sleek-muscled backs reflected amber as their white teeth glimmered.  Undine walked with Rupert who seemed wholly at ease.  Diogenes knew that to be and smell nervous aroused dogs’ suspicions as he strove to control his fear.  To Undine’s irritation, Rupert paused to pet and kiss Virgil, who ambled from the back of the kennel to greet Rupert.  Virgil seemed to know.  He stood on his sturdy legs and escorted them through the kennel, seeming to scent their escape, then help ferry them across a river of sleeping dogs.  Rupert thought he spotted sorrow on Virgil’s wrinkled brow.