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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter VIII

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he is well past the 32,000 word mark, and can speak in one word sentences, such as "Hurts!" and "Sleep!")

Chapter 8
Where Much Is Revealed but Little Resolved


We both continued to stand and gape as Nuffy ambled into the office and sat down.

“You guys have made a lot of changes to my desk,” he observed. “I appreciate the little Tiger Woods desk calendar as a gesture, but quite frankly, I’m not into the golf.”

“Actually, that’s my desk,” Stew managed to blurt out.

“Oops!” Nuffy responded and got up, looked around and then wandered over to his own desk, which was immaculately clean except for large, slightly ruffled piles of blank printer paper and a fairly think layer of dust. It had been just over six months since Nuffy had last physically been in the office.

He blew off a bit of the dust and wiped what wouldn’t come up with the cashmere blanket.

“Ah, just like I left it,” he sighed, and sat down. He turned on the PC, logged on, and sat back in the chair as Windows went through six months of security updates.

“Don’t let it download Internet Explorer 7, if it tries,” I suggested, but Nuffy had already distractedly pulled a piece of blank paper from a pile on the desk and began scribbling away. This was one of his admittedly varied ways of working, we had discovered, and once he was on to an idea and writing or typing, he could be most difficult to engage in conversation.

Stew and I made our way back to our desks, albeit a bit more slowly than usual, still trying to work in the rare presence of Nuffy into our sense of the office environment.

“So,” I ventured, “You’ve been to Nepal recently?”

“Nepal, Barcelona, Nairobi, Astana, Mar del Plata, and a few other places,” Nuffy said without looking up.

“When you’ve called, you’ve always said it was from home,” I replied. “What’s with all the secrecy then?”

“Home is where the heart is,” responded Nuffy, continuing to scribble.

“So,” I continued, rather gingerly, “The wife and child have been traveling with you?”

“Of course,” he said, without breaking stride. “Oh, I almost forgot!” he suddenly added, sitting bolt upright.

He stood up and walked over to my desk.

“This is for you and your family,” he said, handing me the cashmere blanket. I thanked him, as I shook the dust out of it. He smiled and walked over to Stew’s desk.

“And this is for you,” he said, handing Stew the ornamental wood carving.

“Thanks,” said Stew, adding,” Umm…what is it.”

“Well,” said Nuffy, scratching his head, “The woodcarver said it was a symbol of steadfastness and patience, but the old woman who ran the hostel I stayed at claimed it was the ancient symbol for the spirit of a perturbed yak.”

“I’ll treasure it always,” Stew said, but the friendly sarcasm was lost on Nuffy, who had made his way back to his desk and began scribbling again.

After a long silence, in which Stew and I alternately watched Nuffy’s furiously robust work and glanced at the carving trying to determine, which, if any, of the various sweeping lines and edges made up the yak, I finally decided to ask a question which intrigued me for the last few days.

“So, Nuffy,” I asked in a somewhat intrigued voice, “How did that job opportunity you were looking into work out?”

Nuffy stopped scribbling and looked up with a smile of immense satisfaction. “It turned out perfectly,” he replied. “You are now looking at the new contributing travel writer for the magazine Ombudsman Monthly!” He pulled out a pair of cigars and tossed them to Stew and me. “Don’t actually light them,” he said, “because the smoke makes me nauseous.” He pulled a third cigar out and chomped on it, returning to his writing. With the cigar, he rather looked like what a Sherpa news editor of the 1930’s might have resembled, only without the ancient manual typewriter that almost certainly completed the kit.

I sat my cigar on my desk. I adjusted it a few times, as I thought it might as well have a place of relative honour given the significance of the occasion. This adjustment period lasted for about twenty seconds until a perplexing thought crossed my brain.

“Nuffy,” I said, which to my surprise brought him out of his scribbling reverie, “I’ve never actually heard of Ombudsman Monthly.”

Nuffy shrugged his shoulders and gave a look that indicated he was not surprised more or less.

“…And, as an ombudsman is a rather specialised profession, can such a magazine actually develop a subscription base large enough to survive in the long run?” I cautiously added.
“Probably not, but we’ll see” he said thickly, through the cigar chomping. He finally spit it into the wastebin beside his desk, on top of several crumpled up pieces of printer paper with writing all over them. “Man, those things are nasty,” he sputtered. “In any case, they’re paying me $3,000 per story, plus expenses,” he added, which was so surprising that Stew spit his cigar out of his mouth as well.

“Three…$3,000 an article?” he stammered. “How many stories do they plan for you to turn in each issue?”

“No idea,” replied Nuffy, “but they liked my tryout and paid for that and an advance on the next story.”

“So, they publish monthly then?” I asked, though it seemed a rather obvious question, given the title of the magazine.

“Quarterly, but I figure I could get as many as three or four articles in an issue and make it all work out.”

“Why is it called Ombudsman Monthly, then?” Stew added, with nearly as much confusion in his voice as I was feeling at Nuffy’s answer.

“They hope to work up to a monthly issue, but they wanted to get the title out there before anyone else came along and beat them to it. Let’s face it, who’d want to buy a subscription to Ombudsman Quarterly if there was an Ombudsman Monthly out there competing? Anyway, I should be able to contribute a few articles to the blog before I’m off again.”

His logic was impeccable, even if the story itself was as peculiar as a yak smoking a Rothschild cigar. He began to write again, and this time Stew and I let him continue uninterrupted. The story of a magazine called Ombudsman Monthly may have been odd, even suspicious, but given the events of the past week, in perspective it seemed positively calming to know that somewhere, someone was giving the government and corporate outside mediator news and information that they could use, even if the travel recommendations were going to be a trifle exotic.

Also, it was nice to know he would be posting again soon. As Nuffy was a contributing writer and not officially an editor for the blog, he didn’t receive the regular, if insubstantial salary that we received from a local business magazine in exchange for the odd article or restaurant review. As it was only the grace of the business magazine’s associate publisher that kept us employed, we usually had a number of articles and reviews prepared in advance. We found out later that the associate publisher was actually Heath’s brother-in-law Miles Fortuyn. Miles was as consistently annoyed by Heath’s insistently peculiar manner of doing business as we were, and thus there was a shared feeling of pity and impatience that led him to have a great deal of sympathy for our cause. He was more than a bit frustrated that his sister Portia had fallen in love with a literary agent, particularly one with Heath’s limited sense of marketing, instead of the various stockbrokers, bankers, and advertisers he had introduced to her. He accepted however that his sister was, well, more than a bit eccentric and even unpleasant, despite being quite attractive physically. His only outward response to this though was to constantly refer to Heath by his full name. I thought this amusing and appropriate enough, as I’d only known two people named Heath in my life, and the other was a decent bloke in the grocery business, who was as far from a “Heathcliff” as could be.

Miles also liked the humour in the blog enough to consider it a worthwhile and potentially profitable enterprise, and he made a point of regularly sending a bit of advertising our way to justify the bookkeeping, even if the desperately low hit tally didn’t currently merit the response. We tried to convince Miles to add Nuffy as a fully salaried employee, but there simply wasn’t enough money to charitably spare for a regular salary, though he did pay a small contributor’s fee anytime Nuffy strung together more that tem posts in a month.

We spent the next hour or so working on bits for the blog. Nuffy’s scribbling turned out to be another one for the wastebin, after about thirty minutes or so. Stew and I never looked in the wastebin or even touched it, except to empty it when it filled up, which given Nuffy’s infrequent attendance, was never. We often wondered what was in it, but fearing the temptation of plagiarism, we never looked. After a few months of this though, we began to develop several theories as to what the contents might be. This was a very difficult process, given that Nuffy almost never left any paper with writing on it on or in his desk, preferring to either wad them up and toss them in the bin, or stuff them in his pockets and take them with him.

Stew at one point was convinced that Nuffy was attempting to develop a unified field theory, based on the fact that Nuffy had brought in and left on his desk a small collection of calculators of various types, including some quite complex ones that had symbols on them that neither of us had ever seen before. The calculators stayed on his desk until one day he came in and stuffed them all into his coat pockets, muttered the word “Rubbish!” and set off again out the door.

I was for a time of the suspicion that he was writing an epic poem. Uncharacteristically, he had left a sheet of paper on his desk for a full month that contained the words “Thus began this epic tale.” The visit prior to that he had made a number of furiously busy efforts at notes, all of which wound up in the wastebin. This one piece of paper seemed to be the source of all that work and he had left it on his desk, as if for inspiration when he returned.

Unfortunately, this theory was completely destroyed when he wandered in again, took one glance at the paper with the phrase on it, laughed bitterly, and threw it in the bin. When I asked him about it later he said that it was a phone message from his credit card company.

The only theory Stew and I ever agreed on was the idea that he was perhaps writing his memoirs, in between posts on the blog. This happened to be our working theory at present, but it was more or less a placeholder, because had anyone asked us what we really thought was on the paper and had offered money for our best answer, it would be, “No idea whatsoever.”

Nuffy began working on something else. In the meantime, Stew had written and posted a rather nice follow-up to his annual post on Halloween costumes, which theorised what might have happened, had the particularly American holidays of Halloween and Thanksgiving gotten mixed up together, and contained at least one picture of a large turkey dressed as Batman.

I on the other hand was drawing blanks. I kept going back in forth in my mind over what to do about the novel and especially what to do about Mr. Wang, who was especially present in my thoughts, given his phone call mere moments earlier.

Suddenly, almost as if by telepathy, Nuffy sat up again.

“Why were you guys holding those golf clubs when I came in?” he asked, with more than a touch of confusion in his voice.

“Erm… it’s a long story,” I began, and then attempted to tell it. I explained how the strange package had arrived almost a week before, just as I was starting to attempt this novel.

“You’re writing a novel?” Nuffy happily interjected, “Good for you!”

“It’s not really the main thing here though,” Stew observed. “Tell him about the trip to Phoenix, Earl.”

“You went to Arizona?” Nuffy asked.

Stew shushed him and I continued to tell about the strange contents of the DVD and how I went to Phoenix because I thought it might be connected with my “business” work there. Neither Stew nor Nuffy knew the real purpose or nature of Phoenix, and so I had to work around that bit of information as I went. Nuffy was fascinated to hear of how the Corporation grounds were completely empty and of the amazing number of video cameras on the grounds. After asking what models they were and being shushed again by Stew, I told him about the strange encounter with Mr. Wang and Mr. Dong in the restaurant and finally the phone call this afternoon, just prior to his arrival.

Nuffy evinced a look of deep concern at this final bit of news, particularly upon hearing that they were armed. He sat for a long while in a thoughtful pose with his hand underneath his chin. He finally looked up again.

“Can I see the DVD?” he asked.

I picked up the DVD off my desk and put it in the player, turning up my computer speakers so Nuffy would get the full, jarring effect. He and Stew pulled up their chairs around my desk and watched as the strange, masked figure appeared again and began to go through his bizarre routine of shouting. I shuddered from the very first word, but Nuffy listened quite intently, even closing his eyes at one point. After a few moments, about halfway through the clip, and as if hearing something that completely eluded Stew and I, much in the way dogs hear high-pitched whistles or smell bacon a full kilometer before human noses latch onto it, he smiled in a way that had a light bulb been over his head it would have not only lit up but would have completely exploded.

“Back it up to the beginning,” he said, suddenly getting up and going over to his desk for a pencil and a sheet of blank printer paper.

I dutifully hit stop on the DVD player software and reset the slider to the beginning of the clip, even as my stomach was screaming at me not to play the tape again.

Nuffy sat back down and pulled up his chair to where he could write on my desk.

“Start it again,” he implored eagerly.

The clip began again and from the very first few words of the seemingly literally barking mad, masked figure Nuffy began writing on the paper. He wrote in fits and starts, seemingly in rhythm to the strange figure on the screen. Stew and I looked at each other after a few moments of this and shook our heads, unsure of what to think.

Finally, the clip ended and Nuffy stopped writing.

“What in bloody blazes was that about?” I asked.

Nuffy smiled again.

“It’s a message,” he said, holding up the paper with a quiet look of triumph.

“A message?” Stew and I blurted out together.

“Well, I admit it’s a pretty vague way of sending one,” Nuffy said, “and I’m a little rusty as well… actually, I’m a lot rusty.”

“Rusty about what?” Stew asked.

Nuffy held his palms up and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders as though it should be obvious.

“Morse Code, of course,” he said.

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