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Nemo and Kafka Balance the Books

by Gary Inbinder

Mortality Square is the hub of Los Diábolos, capital of Peredia. The main approach to the square is on Front Street where a black iron spider-web bridge spans the Acheron, the river and canal system that separates the city’s north and south sides. There is also the Back Street entrance, where the subway runs through an underwater tunnel that terminates at Dead End station.

A massive, forty-story structure of opaque glass and steel rests on the square like an inverted birdcage. The building houses the Bureau of Mortality. For most of his adult life, Mr. Nemo worked in the Division of Timely Mortality occupying a cubicle on the twenty-first floor where he scrupulously performed the job of Assistant Supervising Mortality Clerk.

One morning Mr. Nemo sat at his desk monitoring reports on his computer screen. An important part of his job was to ensure that reported deaths equaled actuarially anticipated deaths according to National Health guidelines. Thus far, the workday had proceeded well — that is to say, everyone was pegging out on schedule — when Kafka the Bureaucrat, a Mortality Clerk, Nemo’s friend and subordinate, poked his pointy red-shocked head into Nemo’s cubicle:

“Have you a minute, Mr. Nemo? Something extraordinary has come up.”

Nemo had been sipping coffee and munching on a blueberry scone. He wiped crumbs from his chin and put down his breakfast with a sigh; like all bureaucrats, he dreaded the irregular. “Nemo always has a minute for his friend, but he is surprised. As you know, the extraordinary rarely happens, and when it does, it is most disconcerting.”

Kafka the Bureaucrat entered the cubicle gingerly; his pointed ears twitched and his misaligned left eye — the result of strabismus — darted from side to side. He cleared his throat and began his bureaucratic lament. “Oh, Mr. Nemo, something awful has happened and I need your advice. Los Diábolos Senior Hospice patient 879-56632 ought to have died at 6:30 this morning. When he failed to do so, I followed our Standard Operating Procedure and requested termination by the Hospice Termination Unit. I have just received an e-mail from the Unit flagged ‘Urgent High Priority.’ The procedure has failed and they have requested further instructions.”

Nemo stared at his friend in disbelief, for in his twenty-five years experience at the Bureau, such a thing had never happened. “There must be a mistake. Do you have a copy of the e-mail?”

Kafka delivered the hardcopy to Nemo with shaking hands. Mr. Nemo adjusted his bifocals and scrutinized the message. It did indeed say that patient 879-56632, Mr. Herbert Hogswallow, aged seventy-five, a resident of Lower Styx, Los Diábolos County having failed to expire in a timely manner had survived two routine efforts at termination by lethal injection. The missive ended with a terse, “Please advise re: next steps.”

“Oh, dear, oh dear,” Nemo groaned. He opened a desk drawer, retrieved a form and handed it to Kafka. “You must e-mail the Supervisor of the Termination Division at once, and follow your e-mail with a hard-copy distribution of this completed ‘Timely Termination Irregularity’ form with internal copies to the Termination Division, our Supervisor, the Untimely Mortality Division and Records Administration and external copies to the Hospice Administrator and the Bureau of Sorting Things Out. In addition, copy all parties on your e-mail with an info-copy to me.” Mr. Nemo did not know what the e-mail and form would accomplish, but, under the circumstances, it seemed like the right thing to do.

Kafka took the form, thanked Nemo and returned to his desk. Satisfied that he had handled the matter properly, Nemo returned to his report-checking, scone-nibbling and coffee-sipping routine. A very agitated-looking Kafka once again popped his head into Nemo’s cubicle presently and interrupted him. “Have you checked your e-mail, Mr. Nemo?”

Kafka’s ominous tone made Nemo wince. “Come in,” he muttered as he closed his reports and opened his e-mail. Kafka shivered nervously in a small, cold metal chair while Nemo scanned the message. He blanched as he read his summons to a meeting in Director Hatchett’s office. For a moment, his dry lips quivered without emitting a sound. Then, he licked his lips, cleared his throat and declared solemnly, “Nemo and our supervisor will meet with the Director in fifteen minutes. It appears that this matter transcends the S.O.P.”

Kafka gazed at Nemo with eyes like the boarded-up windows of a vacant house. What in the world, he wondered, could possibly transcend the S.O.P.? Finally, he stammered, “Mr. Nemo, we... we seem to be in a bit of a pickle.”

Nemo grunted his assent. Kafka returned to his duties and Nemo prepared to meet Madame Director.

* * *

Madame Director Olympia Hatchett loomed spectrally behind an immense, file-strewn oak desk in the midst of a cavernous, windowless office. Her light blue eyes, partially obscured by bottle-thick glasses, stared menacingly at Mr. Nemo and his supervisor Mr. Blancmange. “What to do gentlemen — what to do?” Her sudden breach of a sepulchral silence and the rough, demanding edge to her query made them flinch as though they were miscreant pupils facing a ferule-wielding schoolmistress.

Mr. Blancmange, a sweaty, corpulent man in his early sixties on the cusp of retirement, stammered, “Madame Director, I, that is to say Mr. Nemo and I... that is to say we, uh, we....”

The skull-faced Madame Director spat verbal icicles from her bloodless lips. “You’re dithering, Blancmange. I cannot abide ditherers. What say you, Nemo?”

Mr. Nemo had done what protocol demanded, but his bureaucratic intuition sensed that the situation required something more. “Madame Director, Nemo has followed the S.O.P; however he believes that this matter is unprecedented. May Nemo be so bold as to suggest that this is now a job for the Bureau of Sorting Things Out?”

Madame Director’s lips twitched into what might have been a smile. She liked Nemo’s idea of shifting responsibility to another Bureau, even though that tactic had already been tried and found wanting. Her glare skewered the trembling supervisor like an insect on a pin. “You see, Blancmange, we still have a bureaucrat who can think outside the box.”

Blancmange mumbled, “Yes, Madame Director.” His piggy eyes darted furtively in the direction of his subordinate. He tried to smile while thinking, “All right Nemo — I retire next month. You may have my damned job, and welcome to it.”

Madame Director continued. “The Bureau of Sorting Things Out has already suggested a solution, which has been approved and implemented by our Termination Unit. The first stage involved the surgical amputation of Mr. Hogswallow’s head and the burning and atomization of his body. Unfortunately, the head remained sentient and actually inquired why it had not yet been served breakfast. Can you imagine, a bodiless head wanting its breakfast?”

Mr. Blancmange’s pasty face turned a peculiar shade of green and his right hand rose to his mouth, stifling a nauseous eructation.

Madame Director snapped, “If you’re going to be sick, Blancmange, go elsewhere.”

Blancmange burped, “Please excuse me,” and ran from the office as rapidly as his stubby, arthritic legs could carry him.

Madame Director waited until Blancmange was out of earshot. “Time for Blancmange to retire, and you seem to be his logical successor.” She intertwined her bony fingers in the form of a steeple and smiled her cadaverous smile while awaiting an answer.

Mr. Nemo’s response was a bureaucratic reflex. “Nemo would be honored to be a supervisor.”

“Of course you would, Nemo, and to prove your worthiness I’m assigning you the Hogswallow case.”

Nemo gazed into Director Hatchett’s gimlet eyes. How much happier he had been at his desk, checking reports, sipping coffee and munching his blueberry scone. “Thank you, Madame Director,” he squeaked with as much conviction as he could muster — which was very little indeed.

“Very well, Nemo. Now, you shall know the full extent of our problem. After Mr. Hogswallow’s head stubbornly refused to die, the Termination Unit removed the brain and dissolved it in a vat of acid. Then, they picked the skull clean, burned the flesh, pulverized and atomized the bony structure. In short, the terminators have obliterated all matter that was once Mr. Herbert Hogswallow.”

She paused a moment, drawing Nemo’s attention with a perverse charm, as though she were a smirking butcher and he a credulous lamb about to be carved into lamb chops.

Nemo smiled vacuously; he almost bleated an innocent little bureaucratic “bah.”

“Yet something of Hogswallow still exists,” she continued, “and it has the effrontery to demand its breakfast, not to mention its lunch, dinner and continuing coverage under the National Health Plan. And this ‘existence’ remains on our books like a festering boil on the Bureau’s buttocks.” Madame Director emphasized her simile by jabbing at the Hogswallow file with her letter opener as though she were a surgeon lancing the offending carbuncle.

Nemo wondered, for a moment, whether it was too late to decline respectfully the honor of promotion. At any rate, he screwed up enough courage to ask, “If it is not impertinent of Nemo to inquire, would Madame Director be so kind as to let Nemo know what is left of Mr. Hogswallow to terminate?”

“That is your job to find out, but I will tell you this. If you can’t devise a means to eradicate Hogswallow within twenty-four hours, our auditing rules require that someone scheduled for timely mortality in the future will meet an untimely end within a day from now. The audit is approaching, Nemo; we must balance the books. Moreover, you should know whom our computer has chosen to die if you fail in your assignment.”

Madame Director opened a file and handed a photograph to Mr. Nemo. “This is little Timmy Crotchet, aged eighteen months. If you don’t clear up this Hogswallow mess, in twenty-four hours little Timmy’s mother will lose control of his stroller, which, along with little Timmy, will roll down the esplanade and over the embankment into the cold, black waters of the Acheron.”

Mr. Nemo gazed at the picture of a smiling, rosy-cheeked, chubby little boy. “Oh, how awful!” he cried.

“Yes, it will be awful if you do not give us your best effort.” Madame Director rose from her chair and walked to Nemo. She extended a skeletal hand and he shook it with some trepidation. “I have confidence in you, soon to be Supervising Mortality Clerk Nemo. Now, for our beloved Bureau and the greater good of Peredia, I challenge you to erase the insidious cipher 879-56632. Balance our accounts and save little Timmy!”

* * *

Nemo leaned on the pedestrian deck railing of the black iron spider-web bridge, watching the sunset over the Acheron. Burnt orange rays saturated cotton-ball clouds like bloody pus seeping into a surgical dressing. He squinted and lifted a hand to shade his eyes from the glare. Then, he looked down to where, a hundred feet beneath the walkway, the waters gurgled around oak piles and concrete starlings. In his mind’s eye, he saw little Timmy struggling on the turbid surface before the current dragged him under.

“Look at the slimy little rat. Let’s chuck him into the canal!” The sound of rough young male voices startled Nemo. His eyes widened and his gut tensed, fearing that he was about to be hurled over the railing. The pounding of boots on the metal walkway, rude laughter and shouted obscenities rushed behind him; he turned his head warily and saw the boys chasing their quarry — a fat, gray rodent. The harried prey scampered down a girder out of the gang’s reach. The boys glared at the rat for a moment, threw empty beer bottles at it, cursed and walked on.

“Humans are pathetic ratters,” mewed Kafka the Cat. “I’d have had his neck in my jaws by now.” The feline sauntered up to Nemo, meowed a friendly greeting and rubbed against his leg.

Nemo reached down and stroked the tabby-cat’s back fur. “Nemo is happy to see his friend, even in such wretched circumstances.”

“What is so wretched? It’s a fine evening.” Kafka paused a moment and gazed up into Nemo’s troubled eyes, before meowing, “Surely you don’t care about that miserable rodent?”

“A moment ago, Nemo thought that he was the rat about to be pitched into the canal.” Nemo sighed, and turned his head toward the last glimmer of twilight. Purple shadows enveloped the bridge and the bright white glare of electric lamps displaced the sun’s fading orange glow.

Kafka the Cat climbed the railing so he could look his friend in the eye. “Things can’t be that bad. Is there some problem in our bureaucracy? If that is the case, I will do my best to help.”

“That is very kind of you, Kafka, but Nemo fears that even you can’t resolve this quandary.” Nemo went on to explain his predicament, including a detailed account of a meeting he had had with the disembodied Mr. Hogswallow. Hogswallow was cooperative; he was a good citizen and quite willing to die for the greater good of Peredia, if only he could. His continued existence appeared to be something beyond his control; the best Hogswallow could do was to stop demanding meals and treatment by the National Health system.

Nemo ended his story with a sigh. “So you see, Kafka, Hogswallow will go on living — more or less — and little Timmy Crotchet must die to balance the books. Nemo is helpless in this case.”

Kafka mewed sympathetically, before questioning his friend. “Mr. Nemo, according to Bureau policy if someone continues to live beyond their actuarially calculated life span another person scheduled to die on time must meet a premature end to balance the books, is that not so?”

“Yes, Kafka, that is a correct statement of policy.”

“Hmmm, I see,” mewed Kafka. He rolled to one side and licked his privates, as he often did when faced with a thorny problem. Presently, he stopped grooming his genitalia and continued, “I put it to you that Mr. Hogswallow died on time and therefore little Timmy needn’t die prematurely.”

Mr. Nemo’s perplexed stare resembled “Crazy Eyes” bobbling at the end of a slinky. “Kafka, Nemo assures you that he spoke to Mr. Hogswallow not more than an hour ago. He is, in fact, quite alive, albeit in a disembodied state.”

“Exactly so, Mr. Nemo, except that you are wrong to say that he is ‘quite alive.’ In fact, Mr. Hogswallow is quite dead, but he still exists as an apparition.”

Mr. Nemo continued to gape in bewilderment. “You may be right, Kafka, but how does that solve our dilemma and save little Timmy?”

Kafka meowed patiently. “Elementary, Mr. Nemo; it’s all a matter of accounting. The Bureau can take Mr. Hogswallow off the books of the Timely Mortality Division by declaring him dead, and then transfer him to another set of books by setting up an account for the Division of Apparitions. Ghosts do not require food, clothing, lodging, medical care, and other maintenance expenses, so an offsetting death to relieve the state’s burden is unnecessary. Of course, there will be costs incurred in monitoring apparitions, but the Bureau ought to be able to work that into their budget.”

Nemo scratched his head and murmured, “I see.” He pondered a moment before continuing, “But Kafka, there is no Division of Apparitions.”

“Well then, you should suggest to your superiors that they create one, and time is of the essence if we are to save little Timmy.”

Mr. Nemo nodded his agreement. He took out his cell phone and called Madame Director at her emergency number. She answered and he explained Kafka’s scheme. Madame Director listened and remained silent for a painfully long time during which Nemo anticipated an eruption of invective referencing his immediate dismissal — or worse. Instead, she replied calmly. “I’m taking this up with the Bureau Chief. Meet me in my office one hour from now.”

Thus, an incident fraught with tragedy appeared to have the happiest of endings. Madame Director supported Nemo’s suggestion, the Chief found room in the budget to create a new Division of Apparitions with Nemo as its Director, and the Bureau passed its audit. Moreover, creating new jobs at the Bureau fit well within Peredia’s three-year economic recovery plan.

Nemo made Kafka the Cat his special assistant, brought in his friend, Kafka the Bureaucrat, as supervisor, and hired their friends Kafka the Insurance Adjustor and Kafka the Unemployed as Assistant Apparitions Clerks. The friends had coffee and blueberry scones every day while engaging in pleasant conversations with Mr. Hogswallow, who was a most affable ghost. Most importantly, Kafka the Cat’s brilliant solution had saved little Timmy — or so it seemed.

Alas, even in the most agreeable of dénouements a fly sometimes sticks in the ointment. Little Timmy had, in fact, been fated to die prematurely, just not quite as early as he might have done absent Kafka the Cat and Nemo’s intervention.

Unbeknownst to our two heroes, while awaiting a permanent solution to its ghost problem, the Bureau had “cooked the books” by temporarily shifting Timmy from the Untimely to the Timely Mortality ledger. Once the Bureau had its Apparitions division, Timmy reverted to the Untimely list. Thus, to balance the books and according to new deficit reduction guidelines, the following winter little Timmy succumbed to measles.

Copyright © 2012 by Gary Inbinder

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