The book landed heavily upon the sturdily constructed steel desk, not by virtue of its weight but from the vehemence with which it had been thrown. The desk lamp shone upwards into his eyes. It seemed too “Hollywood.” Maybe the cops in this station had been watching the same movies.
It only added another level of surreality to the situation. He wasn’t the type to be hauled away by unsmiling policemen, definitely not in public and in broad daylight.
This had to be some sort of mistake. Identity, intention, whatever.
“Is this yours?” barked the voice on the other side of the lamp.
The book was a well-worn mass-market paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice. A librarian would refer to it as “slightly foxed”; it had survived a few tours of duty in his cavernous yet junk-filled backpack.
“Yes, it’s mine.” He was still calm, mostly bemused by the seemingly nonsensical inquiry.
“So, you admit it!” Grim satisfaction. “Next question. Have you read it? Or are you one of those people who just carries this stuff around to impress people?”
“Of course I’ve read it!” What was this, a bunch of offended literati policemen with a chip on their collective shoulder? Indignant. “I read it in school. Everyone in my class did as well. Nothing unusual about that.”
“Damned subversives in the education system. Don’t you worry, we’ve got their number now. But that’s no excuse. That won’t save YOU. Next question. You’re a bit old for high school – why do you still have a copy?”
“I was reading it again. I’ve read it a fair few times. It’s a classic. Great book. Great author.”
“You’re just digging your own grave even deeper, boyo. Multiple reads and possession. Since you brought it up, what are your feelings towards the author? What are your thoughts about ‘Jane Austen’?”
You could almost hear the quotes, the growling cop spat out the famous 18th century writer’s name as if it was some sleazy alias like “Fast Eddy” or “Snake”.
“As I said before, she’s a great author. Had a keen insight into human nature and social interaction.”
“Sounds like you admire her.” The voice had turned smug and predatory, a thin veneer cracked and seeping menace.
He was sick of being pushed around over such an absurd matter. He never got angry, he got sarcastic instead.
“Yeah, I love her with all my heart. She rocks my world. She’s the best thing since sliced bread. She’s the Messiah. What else?”
A sharp gasp, incredulous. “Never seen one of your kind be so blatant before. A death wish. Makes my mind up. Send him to the gulag with the other subversives.”
He only had a vague idea of what a gulag was, but he knew it was something unpleasant. Something perhaps involving Russia. Somewhere cold or extremely hot – it was confusing – but in any case, a one-way trip to a certain drawn-out doom.
It was that sinking feeling you get when you realize you’ve taken a step and have one foot hanging over the abyss.
“Hey, it was a joke, officer.” He tried not to sound too desperate. “Who in their right mind would think that of Jane Austen?”
“Boyo, who is in their right mind these days? Let me cite historical precedent. You’ve heard that rumour about Hitler and the Spear of Longinius? The spear that stabbed Christ in the side? Supposedly the secret of the Third Reich’s success.”
A more subdued intake of breath coupled with a noisy exhalation, the pungent odour of cigar smoke drifting across the darkened room.
“False, of course. Complete hogwash. Just a smokescreen for what the Thule Society, Hitler’s pack of pet occultists and spiritualists, were actually working on. Using numerology, specifically Qaballah, upon Jane Austen’s works revealed arcane precepts and principles that resulted in direct temporal power. The only reason that he failed was, in his arrogance he used German translations which altered the word order and corrupted the occult formulae.”
“But now -” the growl had returned – “as you are well aware, the Cult of Austen, the Austenites, are attempting to divine the secrets from her work. Some say they’ve already had success in deciphering the mystic phrases with the resurgent popularity in numerology. Then again, you’d know more about their progress than we would. Take him away.”
He protested but it was futile. Two large and hulking boys in blue man-handled him out of the dark room and through the station, bundled into a squad car.
He was being taken somewhere – in transit to the anonymous gulag he’d been assigned to. Traffic was terrible – car-to-car gridlock, the sea of vehicles frozen in stasis.
Minutes passed and his two cop buddies muttered in consternation. “Need to get this guy to Processing quickly. Not through this damned traffic.”
“Have to take him by foot.”
The squad car parked, the two cops again manhandled him out of the vehicle. They pushed him through the human traffic of sidewalks, thoroughfares and mini-malls to be stymied by a veritable Sargasso of individuals. Brownian motion within the crush deposited him far away from the frustrated cops, impotently attempting to exert their authority over the passively resistant mass.
Even having escaped from the cop’s ham-handed grasp, he was well aware this was no accident as the close crush pushed him into the confines of a small café. The door locked and bolted as he entered.
That sinking feeling of here we go again … as one of his “benefactors” carefully placed a black sack over his head.”
Blindly directed further into mystery, the sack was eventually removed. He found himself in a shrine, but not a shrine dedicated to Christ, Buddha or Allah, but a conservatively dressed Caucasian woman bearing a benevolent countenance. The artist had cleverly surrounded her with a subtle golden glow. It didn’t draw attention to itself but instead enshrouded her in an aura of divinity.
That sinking feeling intensified. Clearly there were to be no coincidences today for him.
Distinct lack of glaring desk lamps and the like. This time, his interrogator was a smiling, rotund older man in some sort of robe, maybe a cassock? It definitely made him look like Friar Tuck, in any case.
“We apologize for your rough treatment, brother, but our secrecy is so much more important in our time of persecution.”
The Friar Tuck wannabe gestured and two other people entered the shrine to take seats either sides of him. One was a much younger man, eyes bright with eager idealism, dressed like the older man. The woman who entered was undeniably beautiful but gave the impression of pleasant unapproachability. Perhaps it was the severe, conservative dress, perhaps it was her cool and detached demeanour.
“No worries on the rough treatment, sir. This reception beats the hell out of the last one I had. I’m half expecting you to offer me a cup of tea and a biscuit.”
The older man smiled and the younger one scooted off, presumably to acquire some tea and biscuits for their “guest”.
He was definitely being made to feel at home. The older man introduced himself as Brother Francis, the younger acolyte as Brother Scott and the composed woman as Sister Sharon.
The tea came and it was good. He ate without suspicion or hesitation because if they’d wanted to poison or drug him, they’d had ample opportunity before already.
He was very settled when Brother Francis leaned forward and started to explain the situation. “I’m sure you are wondering why you are here, brother.”
He nodded. “Sure, but it’s all good. It beats the gulag!”
The older brother turned grey, the younger brother flinched and the sister’s porcelain composure cracked for just a moment. He’d said the wrong thing. All of this persecuted group had the Damoclean sword of the gulag hanging over their heads.
He was immediately sorry. “Look, I’m sorry I mentioned it. I’m really thankful for your intervention; without it, I would be there. I guess you’ve all lost friends to that place.” Slow, solemn nods in response.
Still looking pained, Brother Francis assured him, “It is not your fault, brother, that we live in an intolerant world. Perhaps, with your help, we can change that. Perhaps that is why the Holy Jane has delivered you unto us, why She prophesised your coming.”
The term “shock” didn’t come close to describing what he experienced. “My coming? Me? Why me? I’m not some world leader, not some business tycoon or influential senator. I think you might have the wrong guy.”
Friendly dissent with a shake of Brother Francis’s head. “Using the Qaballah as a tool, referencing today’s date in context with the Book of Emma, your name appears. Your full name, including your middle name.” The brother showed him an intricate calculation involving a partial dissection of the classic piece of literature. His name was clearly spelled out at the bottom with intense mathematical equations explaining every letter.
“This is crazy. Sure, I like her work, but how would Jane Austen know about me? Or consider me significant? It doesn’t make any sense!”
Brother Francis smiled beatifically. “It is not up to us to ask why, brother. Jane works in mysterious ways. You have been Chosen” – you could hear the capital C on the word – “it is now up to us to divine your purpose.”
The “chosen one” almost knocked over the little coffee table as he abruptly stood up. “Hey, not that it’s my place to criticize anyone else’s religion, but if you think that I’m your next ‘messiah’ or something, you’re all on crack. Due to your courtesy, I don’t think you’d oppose me leaving if I promise to keep your secrets safe. It’s not like I want to talk to the cops anyway. In any case – crazy or not – you people don’t deserve the gulag and I don’t condone what the authorities are doing. Prevent me from leaving and I will fight you tooth and nail and I will expose you. Got it?” This insane situation had gone on long enough; first dealing with crazy cops and then crazy Jane Austen worshipping cultists, friendly as they may have been.
“Do whatever you want, good luck to you, all hail the Holy Jane but leave alone. Is there going to be a problem?” Fists clenched, he was ready to make a fight out of it.
Brother Francis sadly shook his head. “No, brother. We will not detain you against your will. Perhaps this was also seen by the Holy Jane.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Where’s the exit?”
There were no complications. The Austenites were as good as their word. He was released onto the street, bereft of police escort; all he needed to do now was to disappear. It was possible – he had a few acquaintances that could help him obscure his identity until this silliness died down. Strange days. Why him? Why, through that funky Qaballah thing, had Jane Austen singled him out? Had the cigar-smoking man done a similar analysis on Emma to discover his name? What of the coincidence of him reading Pride and Prejudice again?
Strange days indeed.
The three Austenites were still somewhat stunned by their guest’s abrupt exit.
Brother Scott was the first to speak. “But the Holy Jane cannot be wrong! Could it be our imperfect calculation of the Scripture?”
Brother Francis shook his head. “No, Brother Scott, the calculations are flawless. It is our interpretation of his purpose that is flawed. What are your thoughts, Archdeacon?”
A hidden speaker crackled to life. “It is clear that his purpose is not to join us. He shall serve the Church of Austen in another way.”
“A martyr to the cause,” breathed Brother Francis.
“Indeed.” confirmed the Archdeacon. “Sister Sharon, do you accept this assignment, in the name of Jane Austen?”
“Of course, Archdeacon. Austen’s will be done.”
The ritualistic chorus resounded. “Austen’s will be done.”
It had to be her. It had to be: that cool composure, unapproachable perfection.
Sister Sharon, shorn of her conservative, button-down dress and sensible shoes, was more in context with modern life and current fashion. Medium black skirt with black pumps and a bright patterned top for contrast. But it was definitely her, right next to him on the crowded subway train. Why was she here? Was she trying to bring him back to the Cult of Austen?
Her hand extended towards him, something in her hand glinted in the half-light of the carriage. A sharp, stabbing pain and her image wavered, shifted and faded to black. What he remembered was her small, sad smile. It seemed so incongruous on her perfect face.
“… mysterious death on the 5:18 South East line train. He has been linked with the proscribed Cult of Austen and this alleged ‘silencing’ of this known member has incensed the community and garnered public sympathy for the Austenites. Many community action groups are lobbying for the persecution of the Cult to stop and that the government recognize the religious organization as a legitimate church. In other news, here’s Brent Buckenall with the latest on the nuclear meltdown scare at the Emery facility …”