Skrubly Blender Submission, CLOWNS / INVESTIGATING / FILM NOIR
We cant stress enough how important discretion is in this matter he said,
even before I had sat down.
I would say in my line of work that discretion is the coin of the land, but
its actually cash... I replied, with half a joke. He did not laugh. But I
want to know what you actually need from me, Mr. Pagliacci.
Id received his call yesterday, and he insisted on meeting in person. The
name matched with the address, and Id left a written note on my desk in
case things went sideways, but I already knew he wasnt a setup. Im a
fixer, Im a finder, and Id survived twenty years in this godawful valley.
My name is Hector Booth.
We have lost one of our houses. Every member, gone. Nowhere to be found on
the entire campus. Thirty students that have not been seen for an entire
day. Mr. Pagliacci removed his spectacles, rubbed the bridge of his nose.
I dont mean to be insensitive, but one day doesnt seem like any time at
all for filing a report on missing college students. Maybe they went on a
late spring break trip. I said, trying to see if I was wrong about a setup.
This is not a regular college - this is the Universita Commedia, and
graduation is in one week! Pagliacci said, stiffening. They have been
working continuously on their final project, the culmination of four years
of work. Each house presents a group project just before graduation there
is no possible way thirty students decided to simultaneously blow up their
entire education together. I suspect play most foul. ... which was a bit
dramatic, but considering he was the dean of a theater university, probably
to be expected.
I finally brought out my notebook, Ok, what was the project?
That is one of the problems. Each house maintains strict secrecy during
their project work - we only find out on opening night. The competition is
fierce, but always respectful.
How many houses, and where are they? I asked, because the insistence on
respectful competition meant the other houses were at the top of my list of
suspects. Fierce competition in academia is the norm because, as they say,
the stakes are so low.
There are, of course, four: The Generals, The Masters, The Romantics, and
The Servants. Pagliacci said. The Servants have disappeared, and opening
night is in one week. Please, Mr. Booth, we cannot involve the police. The
reputation of our entire institution is at stake
With a map of the campus and the names of each head of house, I first wanted
to see the Servants house. It was still early, but the sun was already
relentless, the sky cloudless but tinged with orange from brief billows of
dust sweeping across the valley floor. The grass on the quad was wilting,
and there was no one in sight, presumably all diligent in their work.
The Servants house was a two-story box which was at one point white but was
now dust beige. Not shabby at all, given the name of the house, the facade
was well-kept with a large red door. I opened the door and went directly
inside. It had already been unlocked by the custodian who had alerted the
Dean to the Servants absence.
Inside was cool and dark, a wide staircase immediately in the foyer. Walking
through showed the opposite of a frat house in almost every way -
furnishings that were unstained, bookshelves packed with large art volumes,
many clearly over a hundred years old.
The dining room table showed where they did their actual work - rolls of
blueprints with dozens of structures laid out, crossed out, and amended.
Were the Servants actually a group of mechanical engineers? None of this
made sense - unless they were actually back of house, the A/V crew and
gaffers for production.
I could find nothing to go on from any of their bedrooms, either - but I did
find a barrel in the basement half full of ashes, clearly from paper.
Yeah, its a burn barrel said the head of house of the Generals. After Id
explained who I was and was authorized by the Dean, he had let me sit a
few minutes on the porch of the Generals nearly identical house. We sat in
his small office just off the foyer, more like a large coat closet. We all
have them. Necessary for operational security. We go through a lot of ideas,
a lot of paper, and every night we burn what isnt going to be used. The
other houses will go through your trash to find out what youre doing. After
that theyll either steal your idea or sabotage your production. he
hesitated, realizing he may have said too much.
Ah. So, respectful competition, as the Dean says? I said
He smiled, Well, we take this seriously. Our entire time here is on the
line - this is an extremely selective institution as Im sure you know. He
added, But we havent even been outside in the last three days, so I
couldnt tell you what the Servants or anyone else was doing. And because we
are still working around the clock, Im going to have to show you out - I
have to get back downstairs, he said, and then I was again alone looking out
onto the desolate quadrangle.
I wish I could break that stereotype for you, the security guard said,
tearing into another donut from the pink dozen box Id brought with me, but
there really isnt much to do, especially around this time of the year.
We sat in his cave in front of a wall of monitors. The Dean had told him Id
be visiting, but bringing donuts has never hurt. Hed been doing regular
patrols, but mostly sat in front of the camera wall.
Can we go over the Servants footage for the past few days? I asked, and
then he rotated to a single large screen. He spun a jogwheel and pulled up a
view of the front of the Servants house.
Sure. There isnt much to see, like I said - everyone is inside. We watched
the front door brighten and darken as day cycled into night, the grass
twitching in the fast-forwarded wind. Wait - go back? I said, when I
noticed a flicker at the front door.
He slowly wound back the tape, and then let it play at regular speed. Oh
damn the guard said, as we watched thirty people dressed in black walk
quickly, single-file, out of the Servants house.
Can we get some other cameras up at the same timestamp? I asked and he
pivoted back to the wall of monitors, setting each individual camera to the
same timestamp. We saw them all walk like a snake across the quad, around
the Deans office, and out of the front gate, disappearing into the night.
We dont really associate with the other Houses the head of the Romantics
told me. She wore a silk dress, a dramatic jewel-encrusted necklace, and a
dismissive face. Everyone is working on final productions, anyways.
Did any of you have any contact with the Servants in, say, the last week? I
She sighed. I dont know why we would. What on earth would we need from
them, anyways?
Well, maybe it was something they needed from you? I speculated, hoping
that I could get her to at least give me some other lead to look into.
She snorted. Well, what on earth would we give them? Ill ask my people,
but I dont imagine they will have anything for you.
Meeting with the head of the Masters followed the pattern of insistence on
working feverishly for the upcoming deadline and the lack of contact with
the other houses. What about in the past month? When would anyone have
talked to the Servants? The Master began to shake his head and paused
Well, one of the Servants came to the door a few weeks ago to speak with
Meccanico. Let me see where he is. He got up and closed the door behind
him. The Masters office was the same size as all the others, a large coat
closet, but furnished with an explosion of rococo, which some would label
quite distinctive but most people would consider tacky. When the frame is
bigger than the picture inside it, someone has lost the plot.
But to be fair, thats where I was myself. No clues except thirty people
filing out of their house. The system of secrecy is working as designed -
you dont have to hide what you dont even know.
The head of house returned with Mecannico, who was somehow better dressed
than the Master. After introductions, I asked about the visit from the
Oh, yes. He was interested in buying a car, but Im afraid all of the ones
that I had available were beyond his budget he said with a smug giggle.
I gave him the number of my cousin in town.
I found the cousin at a car lot near the outskirts, and while it was a lot
that had cars in it, any passerby would assume that it was a junkyard.
Yeah, I remember one of those guys. He came looking for a car for him and
his college buddies, and I showed him a Le Baron and he said it was too
big! he laughed. I said it gets good gas and he said thats not the point,
the car was just too damned big.
What was he looking for, then? I asked.
Well, he ended up buying an old Bug. It was rough, really rough, but he
said it didnt matter. It didnt even have an engine! He had to get it
towed. And he didnt even tow it to a shop.
Whered it go?
Said he wanted it at a storage unit. I guess maybe they were going to part
it out? No clue. Guy was weird.
There was no lock on the roll-up door of the storage unit. Ive seen a lot of
things in this business, but the thing that you are never really prepared
for is the smell. Its so primal, it activates the lizard brain inside us
that says to leave this place, this is the danger and the fear and
everything that compels us to run. I pulled the door up, and the low light
from the evening sun wobbled from the stench. My knees buckled and the wave
of death swept over me and I closed my eyes.
The Dean was in shock, so I went over everything again as delicately as I
could. But how on earth can you say it was an accident?
The papers and photographs I took at the storage unit were across his desk.
Again, there was no lock on the storage unit - they were working inside it.
None of the other House members had left that night. Plus, I pointed at
their diagrams, this matched the layout of how they were found almost
exactly. And yes, there were signs of a struggle, but it was just the last
person at the door.
Im so sorry, Dean, but this was an accident. But really, they actually
managed to pull it off. It would have been a world record.
The Dean was still dumbstruck, and I cant blame him. After opening the
unit and got to my feet, I had stood there for I dont know how long.
Ive seen a lot of things over the years, but nothing prepared me for seeing