The Aarspeth Imbroglio
By Nicholas Rombes
It’s true that I worked for them during the second purge. It’s not my intention to excuse what I’ve done, though God knows my crimes, if crimes is even the proper word, are far less grievous than those committed by others, the ones now called patriots. As for those maimed by our activities, they will have to speak, if they are still capable of speaking, for themselves. I’m responsible for my actions, and my actions alone. I’ve been promised immunity. But from what? And by whom? I don’t even know who my captors are, only that they have instructed me to commit to writing a true and faithful account of my role in the second purge.
I suppose I should start with the Aarspeth case. Upon first glance, the file seemed typical, Aarspeth having taken certain actions which, in the eyes of the Messiah Detectives, deemed him suspect and unreliable. I was to follow him, trace his communications, and take all due and proper precautionary action should I deem him about to divulge information that would force the agency to reveal, in the process of recovering that information, its existence. For it was true that at this point the agency was still a shadow operation, whose power derived not from visible action but rather from, as they claimed in white paper after white paper, strategic abstinence.
Like I said, there was, upon first reading, nothing atypical about the Aarspeth file. As customary, it was delivered beneath my door during the night. As usual, stamped in blue ink with a time code indicating precisely when it should be opened. A little heftier than previous envelopes, perhaps, which only whetted my curiosity, even as I felt a noose tightening around my neck, invisible, its rope threading out through my window, down the street, into the sewers, and up again though the vents into the offices of the Messiah Detective Agency where, tied to a heavy iron handle emerging from the floor (much like I imagine an old train switch lever might look) it awaits the yank that will snap my neck.
But all this is speculation. About the rope, the noose. The facts are much less melodramatic. I opened the file at the time indicated by the time code, and began to read. As usual, I jotted down the major points on my notepad and mapped out, roughly, my plan of action. The file was sparsely written, in the minimalist corporate style fashionable during that time. I put the file back in the envelope, poured myself a drink, flipped through the sports pages of the local newspaper, and went to bed. It was only later, sometime deep into the night after being awoken by a sharp noise that seemed to come from within the apartment itself, that I realized what it was that bothered me about the file.
The second purge, unlike the first, was less joyous. The public hangings and beheadings were glorious the first time through, accompanied as they were with the high rhetoric and the music. They were spectacles that meant something, confirming a certain iron-fisted tendency of thought that had crept into the minds of even the most liberatory of our thinkers. And yet, clearly, the first purge had not done its duty. Five years of gagging violence had still not rooted out the primal attachment to wrong ideas. The second purge would need to purge the purgers, and that’s where it began. All the architects and heroes of the initial purge—Maria, Sergio, Tomás, Annabel, Toni, and the others—were of course disposed of first, their bruised faces the last image-memory any of us have of them. I remember (and even disclosing this is a risk, but I am already doomed) walking along the riverbank with Sergio several days before he disappeared, sharing a cigarette, when, in passing, he mentioned a name to me, which I at first thought (mistakenly) to the be the title of a book: Aarspeth. I remember that the cherry trees were in bloom, so it must have been spring, even though we tightened our collars against a cold wind.
“Aarspeth, yes,” I said to Sergio, “but it is you for whom I fear. What about you?”
“Oh, there’s no hope for me!” he said, brightly as if saying it might protect him, putting his hand upon my shoulder as he always did to indicate that our conversation had reached a point beyond which it could go no further. I suppose that’s why we had remained friends for so long: we knew when to draw the line, and when not to cross the line, while others drew lines only to cross them.
I was the one to cut down Sergio’s body, days later, hanging from a cord not much thicker than a shoelace, from a lamppost at the edge of the city park. His trousers were bunched down around his ankles, his hands tied behind with his own bandanna behind his back. There were scuff marks on the rusted lamppost pole where his heels had kicked. Tomás and I carried his body to Maria’s apartment (that smelled of lemons) nearby, and then onto the hospital in the backseat of her car, the air conditioning on full force, him laying there like the flesh that he was.
In the hospital lobby, which stank of formaldehyde and burnt rubber, two men dressed as orderlies grabbed Maria and quickly taped-over her mouth and dragged her away down a fluorescent hallway. Tomás and I fled through the smeared glass doors back out into the parking lot, but as we ran (past the very car that held Sergio’s body) they overtook Tomás, as well, and would have taken me but for his fighting, which delayed them until I disappeared into the darkness, the night offering its own strange sort of bindings, the harsh hospital lights receding in the distance, the cool blank fields smelling of night dirt.
The next night Toni doesn’t answer his phone at first, and then later he does, except it’s not him, and I wonder if it’s true like the rumors suggest that a call can be traced so quickly through the heavy wire lines.
Which is to come back to what gave me pause about the Aarpseth file: it was, as I noted right away, a little heftier than the others, something I first attributed to the stock of the paper, which felt slightly heavier in my hands.
In other words, a forgery.
As the principal architect of the second purge, Aarspeth was a despised (if largely unseen except for the fact of his name) man, widely known to be the author of the so-called “Gutter Articles,” slang for not only where the executions took place, but how. Despite the blood that flowed and splashed in the streets as a result of these orders, Aarspeth, it was suggested, was really more of an idea man than a man of action. He was not associated with the original junta, but was recruited later from university, where prior to the purges his published critiques of how power is rooted primarily in language and subtle but persistent linguistic “codes” earned him wide acclaim among the very intelligentsia his policies would eventually exterminate.
“What does it mean for one to be a prophet of his own fate?” Aarspeth had asked in one of his rare post-Gutter public appearances, as if seeking the answer for himself. “With modernity, we enter the age of the production of ourselves as the Other, do we not? All the endless commentaries about the rights of the Self are thus mere folly.” This brief clip (he seemed to be speaking at a soccer stadium at night, harshly lit, his glasses speckled with rain, the sound of explosions or thunder cracking through his words) circulated briefly, and then disappeared, and returned as an extended version that was so over-copied and degraded that Aarspeth’s face (if it even was Aarspeth at this point) appeared as a Cubist, pixilated thing. And then, enigmatically: “As for hate speech, all speech is hate,” or something like that, as an explosion so powerful it rocks the camera and interrupts his last few words before the screen goes static and then black.
And so yes: it’s true that beginning sometime during the second purge there was no “good” side anymore, nor “bad” side. All sides were equally bad, with the difference being that the more powerful side exacted a more crippling, terrible form of badness upon the less powerful. As I’ve said, at that point the Messiah Detectives were just becoming what came to be known as the Messiah Detectives; two words that did not yet carry the weight or burden of history. They had no context. It was just another shadowy name, mistaken by the resistance as opposed to the junta and mistaken by the junta as opposed to the resistance.
In truth, my fate was sealed as soon as I opened the envelope, and saw his name. Whether or not the papers were forged was, I came to realize in the following weeks, immaterial.
The envelope contained an invitation to a small, private party where Aarspeth would be in attendance. Taped to the card was a simple silver ring that I was to wear on my right hand, with instructions to present the invitation card to the doorman with my ringed hand, making sure that my left hand remain gloved and to my side. The ring, apparently, would allow my entry without being searched. I was to seek out Aarspeth quickly, shoot him dead, allow myself to be swarmed and captured, confess that I, acting as the long arm of the Messiah Detectives, had murdered Aarspeth for no other reason than to demonstrate that it could be done, and await my rescue by another person, whom the instructions referred to as an “inside” man.
The plan went . . . according to plan, as they say. I was ushered into an elegant home, down a long narrow hallway that spilled open to a large ballroom lit by chandeliers that cast everything in a gold hue. On the walls hung enormous red paintings that looked to have been made out of splashed blood. Women in dresses and men in tuxedos drank champagne and marveled at what appeared to be a mummy in a glass box near the middle of the room. One entire wall, floor to ceiling, appeared to be an aquarium, but it turned out to contain no fish but rather a wooden chair with leather straps placed on a short ledge near the top of the tank, just above the water line.
In the glass, I saw a reflection of Aarspeth behind me, wearing a red vest as I had been told he would. He too was looking at the tank, at the chair. Without hesitation—before he could speak to me—I took out my gun, turned to him, and shot him twice in the neck. He stepped back, fixed his fox eyes on me, both hands at his own throat, and collapsed in a sputter and gurgle of blood and bone. Within seconds the pistol had been knocked from my hand, skittering like a spin-the-bottle across the wood floor and coming to rest beneath a chair. I was seized by two men, then three, one of whom (wearing black gloves that smelled strongly of chemicals) pulled out a handful my hair. Another put his palm on my face and pushed my head back with violence. They wrestled me to a small paneled door that I hadn’t noticed before, punched me through it, and then really began to lay into me until I was on my back on the floor. One of them took me by the ankles and dragged me further down the hall and through another doorway into a small room lit by candles.
“The chair,” the one with the gloves said to another.
“The chair,” the other replied.
My accounting of the Aarspeth imbroglio now catches up to the present time. I remain in the room with candles, writing this on my knees, the open notebook before me on the floor. For some reason, I feel that I should use my remaining words not to speculate about the meaning of the chair, or my fate in it above the blue aquarium, if that is indeed what awaits me, but rather on Aarspeth himself, whose life I took. My mind goes back to that degraded video tape of Aarspeth speaking at the stadium laying out in modernist abstractions his structuralist vision for the total control of our society, and the hints that he gave regarding the coming “third purge” which would be so annihilating that it would usher in a new Enlightenment.
I struggle to recall the frames in question from that short video and what I remember most—as Aarspeth spoke with surprising force in the heavy rain—was the bright lights, lights that reminded me of a soccer stadium at night. But even at the time of original broadcast I felt there was something about those lights, something terribly familiar. Now, in the clarity of forced isolation, I understand that the lights had been added in later, post-filming, and that Aarspeth had delivered his speech in the rain in complete and utter darkness, as if the absence of light itself prefigured the barren hopelessness of our land. I imagined the rain itself coming down so heavily as to choke Aarspeth’s words in his throat, and that his colleagues at the university whom he had betrayed, whose carpeted living rooms he had sat in before it all went bad, trading flirting jokes with the flirting daughters who, were they fortunate, had not been raped before being flayed and murdered in the abandoned gymnasium, and how even then, before the purges, he understood this about himself: that he was the sort of man to betray those closest to him for the chance to be a part of history.
If Aarspeth had indeed given his speech in the dark (the bright lights added later, perhaps to give the moment the thrust and force of an epochal “event”) then how had his face been illuminated, post-production? It seems to me now, as I realize that the Messiah Detectives have betrayed me and that there will be no inside man to rescue me, that somehow everything hinges on this question. For if those who made the videotape were truly able to manufacture light—enough wattage to illuminate the black-hole darkness of Aarspeth—then what else might they be capable of making, both of this world and not-of this world?
* * *
Hours have passed. One of the men who dragged me here—the one who pulled my hair—enters the room and sits in the empty chair across the table. His left eye droops. His hands are large. He seems all undercurrent, and no current. There’s a pull of gravity around him and I’m sure that were he to remain seated for hours eventually the objects in the room would all end up closer to him.
Perhaps he is, after all, a fellow Messiah Detective, the so-called inside man. He seems to be waiting for me to speak first, but what to say? These thoughts only last a moment, and are quickly replaced with more disturbing ones.
For I come to suspect—and then at last to understand with certainty—that the man across from me is, in fact, the one whom I was sent to kill. Writing this, as I am, in his very presence, I can hardly bring myself to print his name. There he sits, his hands now clasped together resting on the table as if to signal that he is about to make or has already made a decision.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Rombes writes for The Rumpus, The Oxford American, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor and writes the Blue Velvet Project. His work has appeared in The Believer, Wigleaf, Exquisite Corpse, and other places. He teaches in Detroit, Michigan, and can be found here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 17th, 2013.