Martin Hill Ortiz, A Predatory Mind
A Predatory Mind
Publisher: Loose Leaves, Oct. 5, 2013
Length: 286 pp.
ISBN: 1624320104; 978-1624320101
The deep ruts in the mud of Passyunk Road seized the wheels of the hansom cab, pitching the vehicle side to side as though veering along twisted rails. The drawing horse struggled to keep up with the demands of its master’s whip, its hooves splashing the cabin with sludge. A pattering rain washed the carriage, rivulets dribbling down in trails of grime.
Its occupant paid no mind. On foot, Nikola Tesla stood a head taller than his peers. Now, folded into the cabin with his head bowed low, his legs buckled up, he propped a book of Verlaine’s latest poetry between his knees. The poems consumed him as he consumed the poems, his memory retaining the words with photographic crispness.
After a quarter hour’s ride, the carriage jolted to a stop. From his seat, the driver cranked a lever to open the passenger’s door. Tesla snapped shut his book and slid it inside his vest. He swung his legs out, shucking himself from the shell of the cab. The fare totaled six bits. He passed the driver a silver dollar.
The rain, now no more than a mist, sprouted droplets on his cape. He deemed it light enough to keep his umbrella folded. He pinched the knees of his pants, restoring their crease, then took hold of his lone piece of luggage, a medical bag.
“You a doctor?” the cabbie asked.
“No, I am not.” Even this short phrase betrayed his Serbian accent.
“So, what you keep in there?”
“An artificial brain.” He gave the driver a civil nod then trudged off toward the prison gate.
A monstrosity of conflicting architecture, Moyamensing Penitentiary was part crenellated English castle, part Egyptian City of the Dead. Gun towers filled its turrets; a trapezoidal arch formed its entryway. An old gibbet remained atop its front gate from the days when the prison presented the executed as a warning to the public.
Tesla inspected his pocket watch. Two minutes to seven. His timepiece displayed the lunar cycle: a new moon. He wound the stem completing three precise rotations. Shutting his eyes, he measured out three spaced breaths. This ritual complete, he opened his eyes to see Superintendent Taylor trotting up to meet him. Tesla bowed.
“Mr. Tesla.” Taylor clamped both hands around his. “Welcome to Philadelphia, sir. Your visit is a great honor.”
“The honor is mine.” He directed his piercing eyes down at his much shorter host. Tesla projected the steady confidence of a man who deigned to race alongside you because he had already passed one lap ahead.
“My apologies for scheduling this so late in the day,” Taylor said. “The yellow press never leaves Dr. Holmes alone until dusk.”
With Tesla towering over and looking down on him, the superintendent self-consciously combed his fingers through his sparse hair. He walked double-pace to keep up with the long strides of the giant. A sentry swung open a massive iron gate. They proceeded into a small forecourt, then passed a second gate entering a vast exercise yard. Empty this time of day, they plodded through jagged mud, the jumbled impressions of hundreds of shoes. They headed toward a long cellblock.
A blanket of grey clouds hovered over the floodlit yard like a domed ceiling. The mist of rain refracted halos around the arc lamps. An electric generator rumbled.
“We’re fully electric here,” Taylor said. “I suppose we have you to thank for that. Except for executions. We use the gallows, not the chair.”
“The execution chair is Edison’s profanation of electric power,” said Tesla.
“Perhaps I brought up a sore subject?” The superintendent smacked his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. “They say you’re smarter than Edison, you’re the greater inventor.”
“Edison solves problems by banging his skull against them,” Tesla replied. “It’s a thick skull so he enjoys considerable success. I employ what’s inside my head.”
Guards parted the doors to the cellblock. Although lights illuminated its long corridor, the chambers on both sides remained in darkness. Prisoners crowded against the bars watching the superintendent and his guest pass.
The cells reeked of bleach, the warden obsessed with the connection between cleanliness and godliness. The prisoners’ looks of desperation could not be scrubbed.
Taylor said, “Dr. Holmes occupies a private cell. He wears his own clothes. He pays for these privileges. And for his catering. And to keep the next door cell empty.”
At the end of the corridor, the last cell was lit. Other privileges: Holmes possessed a writing desk with lamp, fountain pen and inkwell.
Holmes sat bent over his journal. Even in prison, he dressed sharply, his tie crisply knotted, his jacket pressed. He had tiny warped ears. His eyes gleamed like polished buttons. They seemed crowded together, separated by the slender wedge of his nose. His heavy mustache sloped down over the corners of his mouth.
Tesla considered what he’d read. If newspaper accounts spoke the truth, Holmes was a methodical fiend. At this moment, the police busily assembled skeletons from the bones found in his cellar to puzzle out how many bodies he had secreted in the basement beneath the hotel he had built. The press christened his place “The Torture Castle.”
The superintendent cleared his throat. Holmes looked up at Taylor, dismissing him with a sneer. Then he held Tesla in a steady gaze.
“Blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein,” Tesla whispered.
Holmes broke out in a grin, small kernels of teeth slightly parted. “Mr. Tesla,” he said, “so splendid to have you visit. So many feeble-witted gawkers stalk my cage. I’m thrilled to encounter an equal.”
Tesla fought against responding with fake pleasantries or sincere insults. “You received my correspondence?”
“Oh, yes,” Holmes said. “How intriguing you should be drawn to visit me.”
“Yes, intriguing,” echoed Tesla in his polite Serbian accent.
“But then again, why shouldn’t you call on me? I am more famous than you.”
“For now,” Tesla said. “When the pandemonium dies, the public will soon forget your name.”
After loosening the leather straps on his medical bag, Tesla tugged on its tension-spring clamps, cleaving it open. He sank his hands inside, extracting a glass skull.
“She’s Olivia Sorrell, two Rs, two Ls,” Jeff told the university guard who punched the name on his keyboard.
“Let me take a look,” the guard said.
Jeff cocked the metal handle and swung open the door panel. The transport van held one occupant. Olivia, twenty years old, sat in a wheelchair, her wrists bound to the arm rests, her body contorted, her posture twisted. Her knobby knees clasped together, pointing an odd direction from her torso. Her face was drawn out, elongated in a spasm of anguish, its muscles frozen, mouth locked open in a deformed sideways oval. Her chin rested on a towel on her chest. Her lips leaked a drool. She wore a tie-on frock and green hospital pants with an elastic waist band, her rear puffed up by adult diapers.
Her eyes flitted, darting in constant alarm, leaping between Jeff and the guard and, in the distance, McAuliffe Hall. Those eyes watered over, her occasional blinks long swats.
“Just one of my vegetables,” Jeff said to the guard.
“You call them that?”
“The vegetables don’t mind.”
“Where’re you taking her?”
“Psych Building, room 105.”
“Dr. Rickert’s class? Figures. Yesterday it was a cage of lemurs.”
The guard filled out a one-day pass to place on the dashboard and presented a handicap tag to hang from the rearview mirror. “Psych building, top of the hill. Welcome to Schuyler U.”
Schuyler University was part of the “plastic” Ivy League. It radiated the feeling of a venerable institution. Set in northeast Pennsylvania, snuggled up against the Poconos, it occupied a series of nineteenth century buildings which once gave life to a mill town. Twenty years back, a corporation transformed the abandoned structures into a for-profit school, one that feigned exclusivity while admitting any student whose parents could pay. The moss remained unscrubbed from the brick walls, the dormitories were maintained underheated: all part of the atmosphere.
The wheelchair ramp carved a zig-zag scar up the face of the hill. At the far end of the pilgrimage, McAuliffe Hall, the Psych Building. Those who could, took the banks of cement steps; students trudging up to class and those quickly clattering down to escape into the unnaturally warm and humid autumn day. Jeff wheeled his charge up the long crooked path. Some students glanced over at the woman in the chair. Her face a fright mask, her stringy blonde hair matted, her eyes stabbed at them.
Jeff wrestled with the lime green door to the Psych Building, wedging it open with his shoulder while backing the wheelchair inside. He panted, gulping air, trying to catch his breath. His cotton shirt budded sweat rings under his armpits. Diane Ludwick, a hefty female graduate assistant, intercepted him.
“You’re late,” she said.
“That’s some hike.”
“There’s a delivery lane round back.”
Jeff winced. “Of course there is.”
“She seems fossilized,” Diane said. “Does she move at all?”
“Does she need these restraints?”
“Only to keep her from slipping out during transport.” Jeff unbuckled the wool-lined straps.
* * *
Dr. Gordon Rickert didn’t care whether his “exhibit” arrived late. A showman with enough hot air to exhale for an hour, it didn’t matter if today’s titillation never appeared. Thin, in his late forties, his hair maintained the same silver-gray from his days as a doctoral student, twenty years past. His eyebrows, jet-black, jumped independently, his eyes dancing when he spoke. His hands drew pictures in the air, fingers pinching then splaying in hallelujah. Even though his experiments never involved chemicals, he wore a starched lab coat.
His class, A History of the Mind, was packed full. The auditorium held sixty in a series of five elevated rows. Rickert promised himself next semester he would fill the campus theater.
His lips stretched and twisted from pursed to a devil’s-horned grin. Showtime. He said, “The great battle of nineteenth century psychology raged between the somaticists, who believed all disease, including those of the mind, stemmed from physical ailments, and the moralists, who believed mental illness was the product of sin.”
“Or demonic possession,” a student called out.
“Or demonic possession,” the professor agreed. “And the somaticists were right. Syphilis could cause dementia. And the moralists were right. Sin could cause syphilis.” Someone in the crowd snickered. “Throughout this period, a minority in the medical profession believed, just maybe, the mind could have its own psychic illnesses, separate from physical or moral afflictions.
“But can we separate mind from body, body from psyche? The brain is a witch’s brew of chemical reactions - nerves spark with electricity with consciousness the result. The spiritualists of the nineteenth century, those pseudo-scientific scoundrels, may have been the most correct of the lot. They believed in a dynamic force of energy produced by the human brain. Regardless of what you call it - aura, brainwaves, mind, spirit-these represent the different manifestations, different descriptions of the same phenomenon.” He glanced at the partly open door where his assistant Diane looked in. He signaled for her to enter.
“I promise today’s demonstration will be memorable.” He opened his satchel and took out five handkerchiefs sealed in plastic bags labeled A through E, each with a yellow tag reading “Crime Scene Exhibit.” He spaced them out along a table. “I’ve asserted that the scientists, the moralists and the spiritualists are all correct.” His eyes danced. “And now, I will prove it.”
Murmurs became gasps as Diane wheeled the twisted figure of Olivia Sorrell on to the speaker’s platform. The only part of Olivia’s body that moved, her eyes, stayed tightly shut as Diane turned the chair to face the audience. Tears blossomed from beneath her lids.
Under normal circumstances, Professor Rickert never needed to fake confidence. This pained creature beside him unnerved him. He drew his lips back, gritting a smile. “The woman you see before you is Miss Olivia Sorrell. For the past nine years, since she was a child, she has existed in a state of schizophrenic catatonia. Some of you may have heard of her case. She was the lone survivor of the Knox murders.”
The audience hushed. One student in the back row scooted back his chair and exited. Cell phones popped open and began recording.
Rickert continued, “A decade back, in Virginia, Terry and Emma Knox believed their newly bought home was haunted. They called in a psychic who informed them that their house was possessed by three evil ghosts. The Knoxes concluded the only way to balance out those malevolent forces involved collecting three good ghosts. To do that they invited over an innocent family to slaughter. Although they butchered her parents, eleven-year-old Olivia managed to escape into the nearby woods where she hid for three days before rescue. The police found her in the condition in which you see her now.”
A single cough resounded like gunfire in the strangled silence.
Rickert swallowed the knot in his throat. “The wattage of the brain is very low. Not an insult, merely a fact of human existence. The aura which psychics claim to read is extremely faint. However, in cases of extreme emotion, such as those encountered by the survivors of acts of violence, the psychic force becomes amplified. In the case of Miss Sorrell, with whom I have not worked, and other victims of lesser trauma, who have been part of my research, their bodies become a charged receptacle, a sensitive antenna to the residual auras of violence, much the same way psychics once called themselves ‘sensitives.’”
He turned to the table. “On this table, set before me, you see five handkerchiefs. Four of them are ‘innocent.’ One, provided by the Scranton police, was used to chloroform a young lady prior to her murder. I, myself, do not know which of these is the genuine article. Let’s see if Miss Sorrell can identify the correct item.”
It seemed as though the clock hands froze and the crowd stopped breathing, their thumping hearts the only measure of life. “Fucking sadist,” a student muttered, loud enough to fill the hushed room.
Rickert feared losing his audience. He had never lost an audience. “Imagine the forensic applications. Let’s say the police gather items from a murder suspect. They can then present that evidence to a sensitive, such as Ms. Sorrell, as part of a line-up. If the suspect is guilty and the article maintains a residuum of violence, the sensitive will react. I’m not claiming such evidence will hold up in court, only that it can direct the investigation towards the true killer.”
Olivia’s eyes shot open. The spectators tensed to match her paralytic figure.
Rickert waved the first handkerchief in front of his audience and then brought it to Olivia. No reaction. Rickert said, “I asked that the genuine article not be the first one. I wanted to be certain she was not merely responding to the initiation of the procedure.”
Rickert flapped the second handkerchief in front of Olivia. No movement. He began to wonder if her petrified figure possessed the ability to react.
Diane leaned against the door, gripping its knob, tottering with a sudden wooziness. Although Olivia maintained the same rigid position she seemed like a cobra poised to strike.
Rickert shook the third handkerchief in front of his test subject. Nothing. Some of the students shuffled in their seats, others put down their pens, still tense, but now uncertain whether anything would happen. Rickert’s forehead beaded with sweat. He wished he could use the handkerchief to mop his brow.
He brought the fourth one toward Olivia. Her arm flinched, a movement so startling it caused Rickert to step back. She slowly twisted her neck his way. Her eyes spoke of abject hatred. After a long, frozen moment, Rickert resummoned his courage and took one long stride forward.
Olivia bounded from her chair, took several stumbling steps, then pitched herself from the dais, crashing against a desk. She began clawing at its occupant, who scrambled to get free, dropping and shattering his iPad. Some students screamed, others clambered to their feet, rushing for the door.
Rickert lost any semblance of confidence. He backed up until he pressed against the chalkboard.
Olivia writhed on the floor.
“She’s bleeding,” a student cried out. “Someone call a doctor. Someone call a doctor.”
The cell phone videos appeared crude and shaky. Hands flinched at the moment of Sorrell’s dramatic dive. As to what exactly happened, the review board members had to use their imaginations. That much probably saved Dr. Rickert his job.
Speaking against Rickert was Rickert. Unrepentant and insulting, he presented an offensive defense, decrying the inquisition, proclaiming the administration epitomized hypocrisy, perfectly happy when his other demonstrations brought the school publicity. Furthermore, the board of regents did not appreciate academic freedom or the role provocateurs played in the annals of intellectual progress.
The judgment fell hard. They enjoined Rickert to write a letter attesting that Sorrell had reacted to the wrong item, and how his other findings had been rigged. They suspended him for three months, demoted him a rank and stripped him of tenure. No tenure meant they peeled off his armor and marked him with a target that read, “Next Time.”
His laboratory closed shop. They reassigned his graduate student. They instructed him to spend time with his family. Family. He dreaded the thought. His father dead, his mother married to a blowhard evangelist. His wife estranged. His teenaged son visited only during the summer months. The one thing they had in common: a fondness of exchanging shouts of “No, fuck you!” Gordon liked his sister - or at least he tried to - but she steered every conversation to real estate.
He holed up in his office, its door shut, the lights off, a computer screen illuminating his grim face.
He considered finding a new job but his two doctoral degrees, one in history from the University of Oregon preceded by one in “General Sciences” from a Tennessee divinity school, wouldn’t overcome his notoriety and middle age.
He vowed to catch up on correspondences, to read the latest articles and to write up his work. He sat behind a desk smothered by mounds of papers. He leaned back in his chair counting the pits in the pocked ceiling panels. He would have described himself as someone who liked to keep busy. He didn’t know he could do so much nothing. Shuffling through a pile of unreturned messages, he searched for someone he could endure talking to. As he took hold of the phone, someone knocked on his door.
In the past, he would greet the visitor by barking out an imperious, “Enter!” Instead, he thought it more hospitable and less deranged to illuminate his office before inviting someone in. He circled his desk, flipped on the ceiling lights, then opened the door to greet his visitor.
A woman entered: thirtyish, black, skin and bones. Her hair was ironed straight, parted and combed over in a wave. In this light, it placed the left half of her face in a shadow. She held her shoulders square and stiff as though she had left a clothes hanger beneath her blouse. Her face twitched. Her eyes bugged a bit. Rickert considered asking her to get her thyroid checked but, then, nobody wanted a diagnosis from a PhD.
“Come in,” he offered, “take a seat,” directing her to a chair not covered by a stack of papers.
“Thank you.” She smoothed her dress before sitting. Her bulging eyes fixed on Dr. Rickert, her head cocked and slight quaking.
Rickert broke the ice. “Dr. Gordon Rickert. Pleased to meet you. And you are?”
“I’m Cythia Hodges.”
“Cynthia. Have we met?”
“No. And it’s Cythia. No Cyn.”
Rickert fought back the urge. Not a moment for double-entendres, he told himself. And no one finds it funny to hear jokes about their names.
“I’m surprised to find you in your office,” she said.
“I’ve been suspended, not exiled.”
“Good. I represent Harlan Fischer. He’s heard of your work.”
“And I’ve heard of his money.” Fischer, the scion of a family who secured their wealth back in the days when Pennsylvania brimmed with iron. Generous donor to universities. Funder of pseudo-scientific research.
“Mr. Fischer heads the Tesla Restoration Society. Our mission is to return Tesla to his rightful place among history’s greats.”
A year ago Rickert had penned an article, “Why So Few Know Tesla and Why Those Who Do, Worship Him,” a piece comprised of pop history and opinionated fluff, hardly likely to impress Tesla devotees. Like most everything Rickert wrote or did, it was a bit condescending.
“We have a project for you,” she said. “You’re not afraid to infringe on the borders of what’s deemed supernatural.”
Her choice of words set off alarm bells. Those who gushed over Tesla went beyond sensible science geeks and historians to new-agers who deemed him a prophet and cultists who saw him as a sorcerer. This “Restoration Society” funded by a mystical millionaire was probably seeking Tesla miracles.
“I don’t believe in the supernatural,” Rickert said. “I despise that term. If something exists, by definition it abides as part of nature, is bound to physical laws. This principle represents the fundamental grounding of my work. Perhaps you seek...”
Cythia leaned forward. Her white lacquered nails clacked on the desktop like telegraph keys. “Between 1885 and 1893 Tesla filed sixty-four patents. For the years 1894 and 1895, zero. Then in 1896 he resumed a rate of nearly ten per year. Such a prominent interlude has intrigued Tesla enthusiasts for decades. Recently, we’ve come across one of his journals from this period.”
“So, as a historian, you want me to verify its authenticity?”
“We’re beyond that stage. We seek to follow its... implications, to replicate his findings. And you, Dr. Rickert, are the one to help us. We can’t promise you a blank check, but it will include a number with a lot of zeroes.”
Rickert considered what she said, trying to hold back his excitement. Beyond the money, she was offering the opportunity to review lost work by Tesla - the publications would be career making. Still - why choose him? Rickert recognized he was a huckster at a small school. Famous, yes, but not for the right reasons.
“You hold terminal degrees in both science and history. You’ve written about Tesla and possess expertise in nineteenth-century thought and invention.”
“Fine, true. But those are not the reasons. Others can give you that much along with the prestige of a major institution.”
Cythia nodded. “An excellent observation. Why you, Dr. Rickert? Real progress requires risk. When Magellan embarked on his journey intent on circling the world, he set sail with a crew of two hundred and seventy. Eighteen returned. When the space shuttle Columbia blew up, NASA didn’t halt the program. You’re not afraid to gamble. That’s why Mr. Fischer likes you. You don’t get scared off when things blow up.”
Copyright © 2013 by Martin Hill Ortiz