Halsed

by Arthur Kehler
 

The Apartment

Halsed finished his second gin and put the folio back in its leather case next to the bottle resting on the faded oak of the office shelf built over a century ago.  The empty barbecue foam box was wrapped in the plastic garbage bag he would take to the city dumpster before sunrise.  He had been living like this, on the floor between the closed stacks and the library basement, for more than seven years, undisturbed.  

The floor covered the northwest corner of the library building, cool in summer, cold in the winter, overlooking the river to the west and C. Street to the north.  The floor had been permanently sealed off to save maintenance costs more than fifteen years ago.   It was as if it were done spontaneously, vacated in a hurry, in the process sealing-in office furniture, presumably no longer needed, and even old, and in some cases, rare and valuable books that Halsed had found hidden below rafters, in bureaus and secret compartments. 

Before he found these quarters, Halsed had been surreptitiously sleeping nights in the library stacks, on again – off again, for numerous months.  This is when he found his way to the north side of the building, through the vacant nighttime stacks, and through an opening in the floor, noticed only by a faint light coming through a crack in the ceiling - the floorboard in that spot only having been partially covered by wooden boards and drywall -  there, the hidden wing of the hidden floor of the library.  The crack, a mistake, and nothing less than a miracle.

By now, Halsed had completely repaired the mistake, completely sealing up the crack and light.  His entrance and exit was now not through the library but from outside, through a series of tunnels.  No one would now think that there was any breach in the concealment of the now vanished section of the library.  He had also, very carefully, constructed an entrance-way into the office from the floor under the north side of the room, that followed a hidden ladder into a dark hole only six feet by six feet, dug by hand, and that allowed him access, through another secret series of steps and trap doors, into the abandoned aqueduct on the other side of the street facing the library.  This primary entrance and exit was continuously dark, the series of dry tunnels now used by drug addicts, homeless and adventure seekers.  But Halsed had devised such an ingenious series of turns, bends and openings made out of the decaying brick and dirt, that even when he was spotted halfway out of the route, there was no simple way for the origin of his journey to be found.  And he was careful.  Each turn in each bend had a sort of built-in lookout.  He could see a shadow coming from a considerable distance and sounds echoed through the abandoned tunnels, often betraying the presence of a trespass more than 150  yards before the person would be visible.

He turned from the shelf where he had placed the folio and removed a wooden shutter covering a small window he had created by removing some of the library’s mortar - an embrasure set deep enough back into the room that it was impossible to see inside from across the river or from the bridge on C. Street.  Did not everyone borne into this modern world need their castle?  Are we not borne under attack and the most cowardly attack at that?  Where the system befriends you and at then rapes you with a smile, in a nice suit, educated.  

Halsed had tested his theory, even placing a light near the front of the window and looking back from across the river and from the surface of the bridge.  It was impossible to see.  The lack of windows may have been one reason this section of the library had been deemed unsatisfactory.  Halsed had come to believe the area was used to house rare books and manuscripts, and he indeed found a bureau full of such books and documents pressed against a corner of the room, buried by discarded desks, filing cabinets and chairs.  Someone had thought the bureau useless or that it had been checked by someone else and it was evidently pushed into the corner and discarded.  He had also found books stored above the ground in a false ceiling, a compartment built along one of the ceiling’s joists; either for safekeeping or possibly for embezzling certain texts and documents.  Halsed wasn’t sure.  Either way, they were masterfully built but with newer pine instead of oak, an addition evidently not part of the original building design.

From inside the room he could hear the river rushing north, where in six miles it would empty into a freshwater sea.  The pace of the river depended on rainfall and how many sluices of the dam were opened at the time, day or night.  Sometimes, they would open the sluices days in advance of coming storms to lower water levels in preparation.  Halsed had listened and observed the changes the river made, the river now being used for hydroelectric power but once used for commerce and transportation.  As Halsed saw it, humankind would manipulate all, hungry, but through this lust and hunger for use, humankind was was being used as well, being played.  Our desires have a way to get back at us.  Technology, as Halsed saw it, was not neutral.

He heard faint footsteps coming from the east side of the floor above.  The maintenance office was near that end, it was approaching 10pm, when the last of the maintenance crew would be leaving for the night.  He listened for the predictable footfalls, the sound of the river muffling the quieter steps, now the turn to the other side of the room where the key box must be, then to the closet for the overcoat and the final steps towards the door, the door now creaking slightly and then shut hard, the steps now completely fading-out as they moved south down the long service hallway to the back of the building and the employee entrance.  Halsed was now alone for the night, barring any security or fire alarms that would bring the fire department and the police, who would then have to check the perimeter of the building and look inside on each of the floors before leaving.  This happened infrequently.  Halsed looked out through the embrasure and could see the lights of the maintenance man’s pickup truck pull away, across the bridge on B. Street that ran parallel to the bridge further north on C. Street, the truck disappearing slowly down the small hill, Halsed’s vision then blocked by the group of buildings directly across the river.  He gathered his cigarettes and keys.  Tonight, he was to meet the man from the publishing house interested in the rough draft of the book Halsed had written.
 
  
Halsed had not sent this man, Mr. Schwartzmann, his document.  He had originally sent the work to another publisher in New York, on the East Side, in Midtown, off Madison.  That publisher had said he had never received it and a few months later Halsed was contacted by Mr. Schwartzmann from the West Side of Manhattan, on 9th Avenue, not far from Columbus Circle. Mr. Schwartzmann was from Schwartzmann and Sons, leading New York Publishers of serious literature, literature in translation, poetry, opaque anomalies and marginalia with a catalog as obscure as it was impressive.  The truth was that this small, established house, representing four generations of proud, educated New York Schwartzmanns, was going slowly out of business.  Gerald Schwartzmann`s job, as he now saw it, was to prevent this from happening and he thought Halsed might have something that would directly or indirectly help his bottom line and that would, at least momentarily, keep the business going.  It was not that Halsed’s work represented anything like a bestseller, but it was of such a singular quality that Gerald thought it would be of interest to other publishers and that Schwartzmann and Sons did not publish it themselves they could act as Mr. Halsed’s agents and drive the price upwards.
 
Halsed removed the thick plywood cut into the floorboard that covered another section of wood that Halsed used as the trapdoor leading to the first ladder in the first series of tunnels.  He set the plywood and lifted the piece of wood used as a lock over the trapdoor and then lifted the door itself which rested upright on hinges.  As he did this, a rush of cool, damp, sour air from underground hit his nostrils, making his head go back for an instant.  It was like this every time.  He never got used to the rush of air though he knew it was coming, there was something both primordial and preternatural in its bombardment..
 

Evening Out

Halsed was to meet Gerald at 11pm at a late-night restaurant on M. Avenue called Fracocereti’s.  The old-time establishment, with its red awning and chalkboard menu was far enough from the library to be safe.  The owner and namesake was often there morning to night, he and his wife lived in the apartment above the ground floor restaurant.  He had been something of a radical in Italy before moving to the United States forty-plus years ago.  He and Halsed saw things differently but respected each other.  Fracocereti, always intrigued by the comings and goings of the strange, little man.  Halsed had learned to do most of his shopping outside the central district of the city, this way he would not be followed home on foot or would easily recognize if he was being tailed.  He would also enter and exit the tunnels at the furthest points from the library building when clear. 
 
Gerald could not believe he had to travel all the way to R. to meet with this man, the author.  He had two connecting flights from New York and was intentionally under-dressed for his standards, wearing a tweed jacket without a tie, brown slacks and black leather dress shoes with laces.  He ordered his second glass of wine from the waitress who was missing her right, upper cuspid, but was otherwise. extremely attractive - the dental abnormality in some way adding to her beauty; with her jet black hair cut to her shoulders and shocking, bright-clear blue eyes.  As clear as the bleb of an icicle, he thought.  The wine was too warm, was sharp to the smell and without flavor, but in general, it was surprisingly passable for such an establishment as this, Gerald noticing how clean and manicured her hands were, as she placed the glass in front of him on the table.
 
‘Anything more?’  She asked.  She said this with enough sincerity for Gerald to think she was either good at her job, a nice person, or both.  Her accent was American lower-class, speaking slightly from the back of her throat, afraid of projecting, the face slightly contorting while speaking, as if a mask was being stretched across it, and at the same time speaking with more inhibition out of the side of the mouth, with her head tilted a little to the right and with an expression in her eyes confessing she wasn’t sure what would be said next and uneasy with this, instinctively and defensively smiling, displaying the empty cuspid in the upper jaw, the mouth otherwise healthy looking, the empty space possibly being congenital, he thought and also thinking he was over thinking and being wrong.  Gerald smiled back and then quickly shot his head to the right, looking across the aisle to booths and the people sitting in them on the other side of the restaurant.  

Halsed was 10 minutes late.  It was now 11:10pm as Gerald looked up from glancing at his European-made watch.  On his way here, Halsed believed he had been seen coming out of the west end of the tunnels.  Drug addicts and the homeless used that end all the time but Halsed never liked being spotted coming or going.  He had to go the long way at A. Avenue, down P., west on M. Street and then south on M. Avenue to the front of Fracocereti’s, the large wooden door sitting under the distinctive red awning.  He gave one last glance behind him before going in.

Gerald immediately spotted Halsed entering and waved.  He was wearing the wide-brimmed top hat he said he would be wearing, moving slower than his middle age, diminutive, with a sparse, reddish-brown beard and a long coat that fell below the waist.  He looked like Disraeli, or the older Bob Dylan, Gerald thought.  He looked intense, small but confident and imposing.  Gerald slid from the booth and stood up to greet him, quickly sitting back down, their height difference uncomfortable and something Gerald did not want to accentuate.

‘Wonderful to meet you.’ Gerald said, smiling slightly and looking Halsed in the eye.  He noticed Halsed’s ring on his right middle finger and the strange insignia on it and then quickly looked away.

‘Thank you for meeting me at this strange hour.’  Halsed said, and laughed.
  
‘Would you like a glass of wine or beer?’

‘Beer is good.’ 

Gerald waved to the waitress.

‘I’ll have a Heineken.’  Halsed said.  They knew each other, not overly friendly, but acknowledging each other in a pleasant way.  

‘She’s quite pretty.’  Gerald said.

‘Yes, and a nice person, a kind person.  They all get messed-up in such trivialities but she is kind at heart, like most of the young kids you meet.  Life screws with them as much as the other way around, don’t you think?’  Halsed smiled again, he was much more pleasant in person than Gerald had expected.

They both ordered salad and cheeseburgers, medium rare, with fries.  Gerald noticed Halsed had a slight cough, and breathed heavily.  He was overweight, his fingernails dirty, his hair below his hat greasy, teeth stained, but his brown eyes were intelligent and clear, his head large, with large ears, and his broad for a short man.  He kept his black overcoat on.  It was well made but old and now torn at the elbows.  Gerald had noticed a smell of faded cologne, alcohol and mustiness that was now overpowered by cheeseburger, onions and fries.  He must have been drinking before he came, thought Gerald, and again looked at his face, his eyes, and cheeks that were slightly reddened.  He ate like a bachelor, Gerald also thought.  He kept his elbows on the table and when he was done with a paper napkin he threw it down onto the table next to him where the table met the wall of the booth.  He also wiped is nose with the back of his hand and took large, ravenous bites, speaking with his mouth full.

‘You weren’t the publisher I originally sent my work to.’  Halsed didn’t look up from his plate while speaking and took a swig of beer.

Gerald was expecting to have to explain this situation but the suddenness and directness of the question caught him off guard.  It was interesting, the directness coming from such a diminutive little man.  Halsed’s torso barely raised above the table and his elbows were at a slight downturn as he ate.

‘No.  No, I wasn’t.’  Gerald replied.  The sound and vibration of a city bus could be heard and felt as it passed the restaurant.  At the same moment Fracocereti walked in the opposite direction of the large front windows, with the red velvet curtains drawn half way down, enough to see the glare of the sidewalk across the street and the lights of passing traffic.  Inside, the lighting was gentle and it gave one a comfortable and cozy feeling.  The red carpeting was soft ad helped to muffle the noise.  There was classical music playing in the background from the local station, the city having a history with an established and respected conservatory and orchestra.  He crossed the front of the restaurant and went around the side to an office he opened with a key and the door could be heard shutting behind him.  There was a faint smell of sandalwood that brushed through the room as the door closed.

‘I received your work from an agent I know, who got it from the original publisher you sent it to.  With your permission of course, we have offered to publish it, or at least to buy the rights.’  Gerald cleared his throat and took a sip of his wine attempting to come off as docile and accommodating as possible.  

Halsed raised his top hat slightly and brushed his hair off of his forehead to the side.  Gerald was surprised how much hair he still had.  Halsed then wiped his nose quickly with the back of the same hand and took a large swig of beer, finishing the glass and then pouring the rest of the bottle into the same glass and quickly finishing the entire beer with another large swig.  He burped quietly and took a bite of the cheeseburger.
  
He looked quickly in the direction of Fracocereti’s office and then quickly back at Gerald. ‘Well, that’s the stickler.’ He said.  ‘To be or not to be.  To publish or not to publish.  And to buy the rights for such a large sum and then not publish?’  Halsed looked up from under the brim of his hat at Gerald, watching Gerlad’s reaction, looking at the expression in his eyes and then looking back down.

‘You’re a curious man, Mr. Halsed.  Very curious.  And it is a curious work you have written, that I know people will be interested in...the right people, that is.  People that I know, if not personally then professionally.  I know who they are and how they can be reached, and I assure you I will make a profit from this, not large, maybe I will get twenty percent more than I am offering you.  But I was given your work because I, and I do not want to sound conceited, I am just the man, just the publisher and in charge of just the right publishing house to find the best home for this work.  I am, I guess, the special agent for your work.’  As he finished, he smiled at Halsed.
 
‘If you don’t mind?’  Halsed raised his empty beer bottle and Gerald waved for the waitress.  

The pretty waitress arrived at the table.  ‘We will have another beer and another glass of wine.  Thank you very much.’

‘You said you walked here?  How far away do you live?  Is it safe to be walking at this hour?’

‘I am not too far away, by the river, in the central district.  Only a 10 minute walk and I know which streets to avoid.’ Halsed replied.  His black shirt sleeve was partially covering his hand as he reached for fries and then started on his salad.  They had both finished their burgers.

‘The burgers were really quite good.’  Gerald said after a moment, as the waitress moved back towards their table and placed the drinks down.  ‘Thank you.’ Gerald said.

‘Yes, thank you.’ Halsed said.  And the waitress gave him a look of suspicion, as if she wasn’t used to him being so polite or that she sensed an air of sarcasm in her voice.  As she walked away both men noticed at the same time how well built she was, how attractive her body was, her black jeans fitting snugly to her butt.

‘The food is good here.’  Halsed said this as if feeling embattled and defending himself and the city and its food.

Gerald smelled again a hint of stale cologne and the same mustiness coming off of Halsed.  Maybe it was his shoes he thought or from the dampness carried from the river.

‘How long will you be staying?’  Halsed asked.

‘Until we reach an agreement and you accept the offer that is still negotiable, or until you give me a final no, Mr. Halsed.  One or the other.’  He was feeling relaxed from the wine that he was now convinced was also surprisingly good for the price.  He was enjoying this ‘business trip’ so to say, so far away from the larger city, away from his wife and children, and meeting such an interesting character, who had written such an interesting work, in what was proving to be a rather interesting city.  He deserved this break, he thought, this change in routine.  He had been under such stress.  His family, the history of his family was being challenged.  He held the glass of wine to his nose and was now again convinced the wine was of a much better quality, origin, vintage and terroir than he had previously thought.  He was sure someone had made a mistake in the price and marketing or that the owner, Mr. Fracocereti, knew wine as well as anyone could and had found an unbelievably good wine for the price.

‘You like the wine.’  Halsed looked at Gerald.  ‘‘People like the wine here.’  Halsed smiled and for a moment bared more of his upper teeth than Gerald was expecting.

‘I do.  It is rather good.  The owner must know his wine.’

‘He knows lots of things.’  With this Halsed let out a rather large and inappropriate burst of laughter.

‘Good wine.  Good burgers.  A beautiful waitress.  And you, Mr. Halsed.  What a great city!’

‘What is not to like or to take too seriously with any place that is not your home and that you are not tied down to?  Isn’t this the point of travel, of the tourist?’

‘True.  But maybe people only enjoy places with the comparison to where they are from or with the idea that it might be a better place to live?  And can’t you enjoy your home in a similar way?’

‘As a flaneur?’  Halsed looked up as he said this.

‘Precisely.  And I have a feeling you have more than a bit of the flaneur in you.’

‘Well, it is not that bad of a place.  I have stayed here, for whatever attractions it holds.’

Gerald reached into his well made tweed jacket and pulled out a letter sized envelope and placed it on the table.  It had the Schwartzman and Sons insignia on it.  Halsed recognized the distinctive type.  ‘It’s not a business dinner without the business I guess.’  Gerald said.

‘No, I guess it’s not.’  Halsed replied.

‘You don’t have to read it here.  You know the general offer but read over the details tomorrow or in the next couple days and we can meet again for another late night dinner or if you want we can meet earlier in the day.  It is up to you Mr. Halsed.  I have invaded your world.’  

Halsed noticed how well-made his clothes were.  He had earlier noticed the watch.  The jacket had a certain sheen to it.  It must have silk in it, Halsed thought.  Imagine that.  And his hair was perfectly cut and he still had much of it for his age.  Halsed looked down at his hands and noticed how much the skin on the back of his hands had aged and how warn his shirt and jacket cuffs were.  He is a tall man from an old and successful family, Halsed thought.  And he has come here to make an offer, to also make a profit, to be able to buy clothes like that, to send their children to good schools, to marry well, to eventually run the business for another generation and a generation beyond that with their children, who would wear similarly fine clothing and speak intelligently and now how to conduct themselves, even in front of such a strange man as myself who had written such strange but enticing things.  It really got the attention of this crowd of publishers didn’t it.

‘Imagine what?’ Gerald looked confused.

‘I’ll read it now.’  Halsed said. ‘They have an excellent sambuca.’

‘Let’s make it two then.’  

Halsed reached into the chest pocket of his overcoat and pulled out a small, black leather case and opened it.  He pulled out a small, blue cloth bag with a gold insignia on it, opened the bag and took out a silver framed monocle and put it over his right eye and began reading.  He looked like he belonged in the 19th century, the lines of his face, his clothing, his demeanor, the faded overcoat and now, the monocle, thought Gerald.

It was approaching midnight.  Fracocereti’s office door opened and his tall, slim frame could be seen exiting.  The office walls were lined with books and memorabilia, art work, candelabras, and like the restaurant, deep red wallpaper, red velvet curtains and plush red carpeting.  The smell of sweet tobacco came out of the room as he exited.  He made his way towards the front of the restaurant and saw that the waitress was bringing two glasses of sambuca to the men’s table.  He offered to take the tray with the glasses and as he took the tray he went behind the bar, took another small glass from the mirrored shelf and also placed the bottle of sambuca on the tray.  He was, evidently, going to join the two men for a drink.

‘Mr. Halsed.’  Your sambuca.

‘Thank you Fraco.’  Halsed said.  ‘Please, join us.’

‘If you insist.’  Fracocereti smiled and sat down next to Halsed as Halsed slid down the booth to the wall.  Gerald sat in the middle on the opposite side.

‘And your friend?’ 

‘Gerald. From New York.  Visiting Mr. Halsed on business.’

‘The publisher?’  Fracocereti looked at Halsed as he asked this.

‘Yes.  I am one of those, I am afraid.  There are good ones still left though.’ 
 
‘Well, it is nice to meet you.’  Fracocereti shook Gerlad’s hand from across the table.

Fracocereti placed the glasses in front of both men and himself, opened the sambuca and poured out a portion in each.  There was also a small glass with coffee beans in it and he placed three beans in each glass using a small sugar spoon that Gerlad noticed had the letter F engraved on the end, he then noticed all the silverware had the Fracocereti F with the same design as the typeface on the red awning.  He reached across the aisle and placed the empty tray on the table of the empty booth.  Gerald was struck by both Fracocereti’s appearance and his demeanor, the way he moved and how he carried his tall frame, smoothly maneuvering the booth made for much smaller men.  He wore a neatly trimmed English style mustache with short sideburns; he had on a well-trimmed, if not older burgundy, single breasted notch lapel suit jacket with a red striped woolen tie and a gold pin attached to a white dress shirt.  He was overdressed but seemed so comfortable in his behaviour and manner that it seemed natural and the way it should be.  Fracocereti still had a good head of mostly black hair with hints of grey on the side, combed back and slicked with pomade.  He had a long, pointy, and slightly aquiline nose and a strong jaw and chin that protruded just beyond the line of the nose.  His eyes were a dark brown and intelligent below a rather large forehead.  He was a handsome man who had kept his looks as he aged.  He looked like a man who enjoyed life but not too much, remaining fit for his age, controlling how much he ate and drank; a man, who for better or for worse had other interests, as they say, thought Gerald.

‘I enjoyed your restaurant.’   Gerald said and raised his glass.

‘To Fraco’s.’ Said Halsed, raising his glass.

‘And to your relationship, that your trip is a success!’  Fracocereti said to both of them, and all three drank from their glasses.

Gerald learned that Fracocereti had come to R. from Italy a few years after World War II, as a very young child.  His father had been a well-known artist but his reputation did not survive the politics he had found himself engulfed by.  When the father came to the United States he started a new life, dropped his artistic career and eventually became a successful salesman for different local companies. His mother never worked but was an accomplished pianist and played locally with different ensembles, as an accompanist in recitals, at churches and for weddings.  She used to play in this restaurant years ago.  Fracocereti himself, moved back to Europe, to France when he was in his 20s, studied anthropology, ended up back in Italy working for the Italian government and when his parents became older moved back to R. and opened this restaurant.

They were now the only people left in the restaurant.  The waitress had asked if they wanted anything else and Fracocereti said he could take care of it and to have a good night.  She smiled, gathered her things and went through the back and left.

Fracocereti topped off everyone’s glasses.  ‘I find Halsed’s book personally fascinating, don’t you Mr. Schwartzmann?’

‘I do,’ said Gerald.  He was feeling especially fine.  The food had been good, the wine was excellent and now the sambuca had taken everything to the next level.  

‘I also told Mr. Halsed that though our house may not be the eventual publisher, our house will find the best publisher at the best price for his work.  I feel that I am in a position…’ Gerald was being rather loquacious after the lubrications, and leaned back against the red leather booth, putting one arm over the headboard, smiling. …’I feel that I am in a position, knowing publishers and buyers that are specialists in Mr. Halsed’s subject matter and who have already expressed keen interest.’

When he said ‘keen,’ Halsed again noticed Gerlad’s looks.  He had become more handsome it seemed as he had become more relaxed with drink.  He stretched his mouth ever so slightly revealing perfectly lined and whitened teeth with a slight under-bite.  His well made Oxford shirt shined in the little light that was falling near the table.  He had a large forehead and still had thick black hair combed to the side.  He had pulled the sleeves of his well made tweed jacket slightly toward the elbows.

‘If I sell the rights, If.’  Halsed said to both of them giving a wry smile and then almost shyly looking down towards the table.  Gerald again noticed how dirty Halsed’s fingernails were and how tattered the cuffs of his jacket appeared.  He wasn’t used to being in such company.  He looked across to Francocereti and thought of the circus.  A bum and a gypsy, he thought, and laughed to himself.

‘What?’  Halsed asked looking across the booth to Gerald.

‘Nothing.’  

They wrapped up the evening.  Francocereti said goodbye as he locked the doors and turned down the lights.  Gerald caught a car back to his hotel and Halsed began the walk back to the library.  They planned to meet again the next day and Francocereti had invited them to a private dinner in his family’s apartment above the restaurant. The evening went well, but neither Gerald, nor Halsed knew quite where they stood.  The details and any agreement awaited.  They would start the preliminary discussions tomorrow before their dinner.  It was getting cold, Halsed raised the color on his jacket and lit a cigarette.  He pulled out a hip flask of gin and took a big pull.  He breathed in the night air.  He could smell the dampness from the river.  He still didn’t know if Gerald could be trusted.


The Spring

Halsed came up through the tunnels and opened the trap door with the key he kept in his wallet.  The tunnel smelled of must and it permeated the ladder-way leading to his room.  He climbed up, stood up, pulled the wooden ladder in and rested it against the plaster wall, put the false floor back over the trap door and locked it from the inside.  He took off his jacket and hung it on the rack facing north next to where the bookcases were.  He walked along the north wall and peered out of the north slit, there was no one on the streets and only a rare car.  It had to be close to 2am.  He moved further along the wall coming to the corner and reaching into one of the shelves, pulled out his bottle of gin and poured himself a full glass.  He sat down on a leather chair in the corner facing into the center of the room with a nightstand next to it, a lamp with low light and with a view of the western embrasure that was open with the sound of the river racing below.  He picked up a black leather briefcase next to the chair and opened the numbered lock.  He pulled out a hard copy of his manuscript kept in a cloth folder and next to it he opened a felt bag containing one of three of the primary documents he used to write his book. He had found the book in the room he didn’t use, with all of the furniture pushed against the wall. He stood up and reached into the bookcase behind him and brought another book down.  He looked at both.  Nova Methodus pro Maximis et Minimis, by Leibniz and,  A Logique  de  Leibniz, by Couturat.  He stood up, went across the room to a small refrigerator that was plugged into the wall and took out an ice tray and a bottle of tonic.  He placed three cubes in the glass of gin and topped it off with tonic, stirring with his finger.  He looked at the title of his book.  In bold letters it read, Absentis Axioma: the Missing Axiom, and beneath it was a drawing of a sextant.  
Was he to trust Gerald?  Was it worth the money?  Halsed had been without money for decades, why did he need it now and what a ransom to pay, he thought.  He took a sip of the gin and put his head back against the chair.  He could hear the river rushing and the faint noise of traffic.  The gin warmed his stomach and then warmed his head.  He couldn’t relax at dinner.  There was something fishy about the New Yorker.  He couldn’t completely relax but he could now.  He looked at his wrist and the top of his hand.  He stood up and on the table across from him he turned on his computer and the portable wifi.  He paid for a monthly service so as not to be detected on the library’s network.  It was bad enough he was burning electricity from their grid.  He sat down at the table and took a sip of gin.  He opened his email.  There was a new email from a friend in the city who had helped him with some of the research and translations he needed.  He opened it.  It read:

“Hello Halsed.  Thank you for the check.  I don’t know if you should give the work to people you don’t know well.  You said that you only sent them excerpts and not the conclusion of the work but i think if it gets into the wrong hands it would not be good.  I may be a little paranoid but strange things have been happening to me lately.  I don’t know if i am being followed but my computer and phone have been acting weird.  I also think that i have been followed and not even followed but strange people seem to know where i will be before i get there, as if they were awaiting my arrival.  This has happened too many times to be coincidental.  Stay safe Halsed.  - Jonas.”


Halsed looked at the glass of water on the table.  It was what had gotten him to this point, at least in part, finding that spring on the other side of the river, where the Indians had their camp, older than the Indians, people building by the rivers of the interior of America.  Was this special water part of their culture?  A homeless man, Edward, with a large beer belly and white beard stained with orange tobacco had told him about the water one day when they were drinking together near the falls.  He and Edward had known each other and drank together for years in the city.  Edward later took him to the spot.  

“It works better if you have a beer before.”  He said, as they sat by the riverbank and watched herons land in the shallows to catch fish.  

Cormorants, ducks and egrets flew back and forth across the river, hungry and patient, all of them looking for bass, pike, catfish, suckers and trout, hiding in the shaded spots, knowing at what angle with the sun to attack the fish at.  The wind blew the oak leaves above them, sound mixing with light, the sun glistening off the surface of the water, long languid herons gliding like prehistoric creatures in front of them, jerking their knees and feet up like some type of military craft as they landed gently on the water’s surface.  Halsed looked into the trees, autumn had arrived and he saw the most beautiful green and yellow bird he had ever seen.  It was larger than a crow and looked like a parrot but with a woodpecker’s tuft of hair.  It flew off east over the river and then quickly turned south and towards the other bank.
 
They got up after finishing the beer and started walking in the direction opposite the bank.  There were new-growth woods there and they left the dirt path for a grass one, crudely matted down, not often traversed and within moments they were no longer visible from the main walking trail.  

“I have never shown anyone this.  Someone showed it to me years ago.  You are allowed to tell one person.  That is the superstition.  Tell more than one and bad things happen.  And it’s true, I know someone who told multiple people about this spot and bad things happened to him.  Never saw him again soon after that.”  He laughed and then stopped.  “I`m serious Halsed.”

After moving west for five minutes in between shrub and under locust, maple and oak trees in mostly silence Edward stopped and spoke again, pointing with his finger.  

“Here we go along that ridge, climbing that steep slope, go around to the south along the edge of the hill and come back down over there, toward the north.  This is to make sure no one sees where you are going.  That far side is obscured by tall trees from far away and you can't be seen from below up there.”  Edward was breathing heavily, his face flushed, but as usual was happy, excited to show this to Halsed.  

They came down the north side of the hill that was covered in low brush and some older oaks, not far from where they started the circumambulation.  There was sumac and ash bordering most of the clearing that was around the hill.  The wood had strangely opened in this section as if it had once been cleared for farming.  Edward moved to the right as they descended the hill and began lifting branches and brush on the ground beneath him.  This revealed stone steps leading down into the ground, winding down to the left then turning back down to the right. 

“Be careful of your step.” Edward said, and started laughing again.  

They descended.  They had probably gone twenty feet down when they reached the landing and a stone floor carefully cut to the dimensions of the cavern.  You could hear the spring and where the light from the opening at the top shone-in, you could see a running pool of water that disappeared as quickly as it began, moving from one under one side of the stone wall to the other and disappearing in the direction of the hill above them.  The place was ancient Halsed thought.  There were two modern camping chairs set against the stone wall behind them. 

“Prehistoric.” Edward said.  

It was nearing six o`clock and would soon be getting dark.  Edward showed Halsed a flashlight, opened his jacket and took out a flask of whisky and a small wooden bowl for water with two plastic cups.  He showed the light quickly on the spring.  It was black and cold but there was a fresh, almost piney scent to the cavern even though they were so far below. 

“A sip of water and a sip of whisky.”  Edward said and laughed.  He stood up and carefully knelt by the spring, pulling up the sleeve of his jacket, and dunk the small bowl like an aspersory quickly into the water, deeply, below the surface, and quickly out.  He sat back down again letting out a large sigh.  He poured a little bit of the water into two plastic cups and handed one to Halsed. 
 
“Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

Halsed drank the small amount of water, it had a slightly metallic taste.

“And a whisky to relax with this magic.”  Edward stressed the word magic and poured whisky into their glasses and they both took a sip.

Edward sat back and again let out a relaxed sigh.  “I didn't tell you, but you not only can only tell one person about this spring, but you also have to tell one person you trust with carrying on its secrets.”  He looked at Halsed and laughed.

Halsed could barely make out his face in the growing darkness. ”I supposed I am at once appreciative and spiteful.”  They both laughed, both reclining, both feeling as one with everything.

Edward shone the light upward out of the spring toward the southwest.  “From where I am sitting you can see the top of the hill.  In December three or four of us will be here, you will come, and Orion will be straight above that hill as it starts to set below the horizon.  The hill is the perfect height and so is the depth of the spring.”

“So it is Native American.”

“I think before them.  But they must have known what they were doing because this spring and its opening is aligned to certain stars in the year.”  Edward showed the light on the wall on the other side of the water.  

“Look how polished that must have been and how precisely it was cut and placed into the earth.”

They were both quiet for a moment as the water took effect.  For the next hour they sat calmly chatting but were in neither of each other's worlds.  They were both in a dreamlike state and Halsed was being instructed to find certain books in the library, some of them in the very rooms he was living in.  It was like a vivid dream and someone needed something from him.  There were no great visions, no vibrant hallucinations, but time itself seemed to split.  They were at once there, together, sipping whisky twenty feet below the woods, and also in the company of something and someone in another place and in another time.  All Halsed could think of was to not forget what they were telling him and they repeatedly warned him of this and worrying like this made it hard for him to figure out what was happening.  He could hear the spring slowly flowing into the opening and things turned blue and with a rush of warm air he slowly came back completely to the present time.    


Halsed looked at the cover of the document.  It was getting late.  He would wait and take the garbage out tomorrow, he thought.  It had been an eventful night and an eventful year.  The year was winding down but somehow Halsed knew things were just beginning to heat up.

Halsed had called Gerald and told them they could decide business matters at Fracocereti’s, or at least work toward some type of agreement.  But Halsed wasn’t as eager as he had been.  That morning Jonas had sent Halsed another concerning email:

“Halsed, I am leaving the city for a little bit, going to visit family in the country.  I was followed home the other night and as I was approaching my front step a man in a dark jacket and sunglasses walked up behind me.  He said that I should be careful and that I shouldn’t be getting involved in things I knew nothing about.  He opened his jacket and showed a gun in a shoulder vest.  He pointed in my face and said do the right thing.  And then said something I think was in Latin.  It was very frightening.  He easily could have killed me.  I am a translator, not a secret agent, and yes, a coward who no longer wants anything to do with this.  You are going to have to find someone else for the rest of the German translations, if you need them done.  I am sorry.  I have enjoyed working with you but had no idea what you were getting me involved in.  I will let you know when I return to the city but I think you need to be very careful.  They know I know very little of the subject matter, that I only translated part of what you were working on.  But whatever Leibniz was implying in his works and to connect that to whatever you have connected it to, has angered someone or some group very much.  All the best, be careful, Jonas.”


Fracocereti’s Apartment

It was getting cold.  Halsed pulled the collar up on his jacket and put his hands into his pockets.  He played with the cigarette lighter as he crossed A_Street moving southeast.  The three bright planets could be seen low in the southern night sky.  He hadn’t had a thing to eat all day and it was now 7:30pm.  He was late.  He reached inside his jacket to make sure the flask was still there.  He looked back over his right shoulder and across the street.  Sure enough, the man in the dark jacket was still following him.  Jonas’ emails were disturbing and Halsed was now having trouble not spooking himself, not to make something out of nothing but he also had to be careful.  So he has stayed the same distance behind me, he thought.  So what?  Could be anyone.
The book had brought wonder, the possibility of money, but it was also starting to trouble.  Halsed had lived a simple life and now things were getting complex.  He had also endangered Jonas, not what he wanted nor what he was expecting.  The water, he thought.  The damn water.
Halsed stopped on the side of Fracocereti’s restaurant, at the door leading to the stairs to the apartment above.  He rang the buzzer and heard Fraocereti’s voice: 

“I see you on the camera Halsed, I will ring you up.”  

The iron gate unlocked and Halsed pulled it open and then closed it behind him, climbing the rather steep steps to the second floor.  There was another door at the top and this was opened by Fracocereti.

“Come in.  Should I take your jacket?”

“No.  That is fine.”  There was a rush of fresh, warm air in the apartment, it felt good.

“I knew you wouldn’t part with it.”

“Gerald is already here.  We are in the den, having a drink.  What would you like?”

Halsed was almost blinded by the brightness of the chandelier hanging between the entrance-way and the den and couldn’t make out Fracocereti’s face.  He looked away and then back toward Fracocereti, the shaded figure towering over him even as he stood a few feet back in the hall toward the kitchen and living room.

“Gin and tonic.”  

Halsed rubbed his hands together to warm them and then breathed into them quickly.  He was suddenly uncomfortable thinking of having to meet with Gerald but that quickly passed and he walked into the den, looked around and took a seat across from Gerald, on a soft sofa.  The apartment was also covered in soft fabrics, but the color scheme was more varied, there were dark blues and greens mixed with the reds.  The wallpaper was a crimson color, velvet like downstairs, but of a finer quality.  Fracocereti’s wife was not to be seen.  Fracocereti mixed the drink at the wet bar in the corner of the den away from the street, on the wall behind the entrance stairs.  He handed the drink to Halsed.

“Cheers.”  Fracocerti said.  And they all raised their glasses.  

Halsed sat in the middle of the blue couch with a floral pattern toward the entrance wall.  Gerald was across from him on a green couch with another floral patter on the side of the room toward M. Avenue.  Fracocereti sat in a large red leather chair in between the two on the side towards the kitchen.  He faced the fire place which was now burning.  They could smell rosemary from the steak and potatoes cooking in the oven.  Both Fracocereti and Halsed lit cigarettes after Gerlad said, ‘feel free’, when asked.

Halsed could not remember the last time he felt as comfortable.  He looked around the room, at Fracocereti’s paintings and antique furniture.  It was going to be easy to let his guard down, he thought.  He took a sip of his drink noticing the finer quality of gin than he was used to.  

“I suppose,” Gerlad started, “we could discuss business at dinner, ease into it.”

“That’s a good idea.”  Halsed said, wiping the side of his mouth with the back of his hand and then putting ashes into the ashtray set on the coffee table in front of him.  “Why do today what can be done tomorrow.”  They laughed.  

“It’s a beautiful apartment.”  Halsed said.

“It is.”  Gerald seconded.  “Are those maps from Europe?”  

“They are.”  Fracocereti tapped his cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and took a sip of his drink.  

“The one on the far side of the wall is from the 1500s and it is of the Danube.”  He coughed for a moment and then took another sip of his drink followed by a puff on his cigarette.

The doorbell rang and Fracocereti excused himself and went into the hallway.
“Another comfortable night here.”  Gerald said.  “I am not going to want to go back.”

“You could open an office here.”  Halsed said and they both laughed.

Halsed held his drink to his nose, leaned back on the sofa, resting his head against the cushions and looked across the room, beyond Gerald, to the window overlooking the street.  If he took the money he could get a place like this, he thought.  Warm, private, without having to sneak in and out.  He liked being above the street.  He had spent so many years banging his feet on the pavement.  He was getting tired.  And if he sold it, it was no longer his problem, it was Gerald’s problem, or whoever Gerald sells it to.  But part of Halsed knew he couldn’t do this easily.  What he had found was possibly too important.  And he was making newer discoveries every day.  And they would want more.  They would want access to the entire collection.  And God knows what they would do with it.

They could hear a loud voice entering the main door.  The male voice was youthful and full of energy.  Loud and laughing.  He rounded the corner and stopped as he entered the living room.

“Halsed, buddy!”  He said.  He must have been thirty, tops.  Was wearing a wool coat that went below the waist with a leather collar.  He looked a bit drunk, his face was flushed and his hair a bit messed up.

“John.”  Halsed said, sardonically but with familiarity and warmth.  “You’ve invited yourself to another dinner?”  Halsed laughed.

“Very funny.  Very funny.  Let’s just say I got a whisper of something going on at the diplomat’s house, and you know me, I like food and I like intrigue.”
John turned around to see what Fracocereti was up to.

“You know where the bar is.”  Fracocereti said.

John walked over to the bar and poured himself a glass of bourbon on ice with a splash of water.  He walked past Halsed and sat in the high backed and upholstered chair next to him, facing the street, a slight snow starting, the lights from the cars and buses reflecting off the street into street signs and the buildings opposite the apartment, causing glare.

“It's happening boys.”  John was handsome, moved with confidence, was bright and equitable, a cool guy.  But there was also an edge, and if you went down that edge it led to darker places, places that would question your worldview, your status, your identity.

Halsed laughed, knowing John.  Gerald took the bait.

“What is happening?”  Gerald asks.

“The shit.”  John took a big pull on his bourbon, a pull that meant he needed to get to the business quickly and be done with it, no matter how trashed he might get, depending on how many naive questions there would be.

Fracocereti made no response.  

Gerald looked at John's expensive boots - warn, dirty and old.

“End of the economy?”  Halsed asked, looking to his left at John and reaching for the cheese plate that was on the coffee table in front of him.

“Bingo”.  John took another pull.  He seemed intoxicated now, his demeanor becoming more serious and excited..  “They are going to crash it all.  Seriously”  

Fracocereti`s apartment had a large skylight at the top of the living room.  It was large, with wrought-iron window panes.  The crescent moon came into view through the skylight, the passing clouds illuminated, making the moon and the room seem to be in motion.  The light landed on John`s face for a moment before a new cloud obscured the reflection.  The men noticed the shadow without identifying it.

“This whole plague, this whole pandemic, all of it” John was animated.  “All of it, all to cover the end of the debt system.  They have been printing and printing money to cover the casino, to cover the house.  So much money, so many loans, and nothing with any meaning because the house owns everything and is just buying itself out.  And it's all coming down, all the cards.”

Halsed took a quick glance at Gerald.  Gerald looked quickly at Fracocereti.  John tended to scare people.  He had been a freshman at Harvard and dropped out.  “Idiots and infantile and i don't mean just the student body,” he would say.  He left, came home and started a clothing company.  They made embroidered sweatshirts, tshirts and jeans.  It was eventually bought out by a bigger clothing company from the midwest.  He had money and he had time to use the money he had in the strange ways he liked.  He started building his own computers.  He designed a lightweight bicycle.  He lived for four yeas in Varanasi and became fluent in Bhojpuri.

John continued, standing by this time.  “We need to protect our assets.”  As he said this his face cringed, the windows lit in a flash of orange and red, then an enormous explosion was heard, followed by the shaking of the apartment.  All at once everyone got to the floor.

“Holy shit.”  John said.  He was the only one speaking.

Fracocereti crawled to the window facing the street and west.  Another fireball lit up the night sky and then another aftershock shook the apartment.  The glasses on the coffee table rattled and a painting on the wall behind them fell to the ground.

“Russia?”  “China?”  John asked.

“I doubt it.”  Fracoereti answered. 
 
“I doubt it too.”  Said Halsed.  

Halsed turned and sat on the floor with his back leaned on the couch.  He reached for his drink on the coffee table and sat in silence.  Sirens could be heard from the fire station a couple blocks away.  “Am I going to be able to make it back to the library?” He thought to himself.  


to be continued...







Arthur Kehler lives and writes in Rochester.