The Magic Asterisk
John Aaron Rosen
Man either counts all of his blessings or curses all of his misfortunes, rarely both. Maurice Pando, having just been dismissed from the junior staff of the most prestigious Institute in the nation, could undertake neither.
With a marginally inverted pelvis, he scuttled as if a heavy load had formerly occupied his back, through the furious revolving doors out of his favorite building – the lounge. The termination of his employment status was no reason for him not to show up on campus again. Obviously he was barred from the premises of the Institute, yet the Institute, a sprawling complex, appeared diminutive in comparison to the University of which it was part. The University had an open campus, like a nation without borders. Here one could experience all the benefits of the Institute: several cafes, a drugstore, a bookstore, a library with an extensive periodical collection, photocopiers, peace and quiet, good heating and central air-conditioning, comfortable sofas, clean bathrooms, and security.
Pando had pale skin, slightly jaundiced, like dough in the oven just beginning to brown. His eyes, murky blue, like a viscous serum, were less noteworthy than the lines around them. Maurice Pando kept his hair cut close to his skull and on most occasions fitted a tight cover over it. Above his lip some dirty dishwater blond whiskers had collected. His voice was not so much a whine as dry and uneven, as if it were seldom used correctly. A recent drizzle caused his crepe-soled shoes to make a sucking noise on the pavement.
His rapid-fire thoughts left his brow furrowed. Besides a good reference, what Pando had also failed to secure from his tenure at the Institute was a respectable title and a rare specialised skill. He could not recollect having learned anything while on staff. Not even a greater sensitivity to the complex nature of matters, which one would expect to come with the territory. Although he was never promoted into the ranks of the senior staffers, from what he could gather, when explanations were fairly cut and dry, they had to be presented as dizzyingly complex, and when matters were difficult and complex, it was important to put them in the simplest possible terms, even if they failed to capture the true state of affairs.
Pando especially wanted a copy of his file, and Human Resources was dragging its feet. They gave him a hundred different explanations on the status. One told him he was entitled to a copy once it had been reviewed by an Institute administration case worker. Another told him this was not the case but that he could review the file for five minutes with an Institute security member present. A secretary told him it had been “misfiled,” while her boss said it was classified and he was not permitted to review the original or copy. He figured the file might be lying open on his former boss’s desk and could be recovered.
Pando was looking for information about a certain Asterisk in his file. He recalled when he first heard about it. Initially it was perplexing, annoying; and then it began to cause unbearable curiosity and increasing tension, bringing on terror followed by unspeakable horror. In the midst of a quarrel with a colleague, the adversary had said something to the effect of “At least I don’t have a Magic Asterisk in my file”. It was as if a capsule had been broken and cold vapours spread over his body. Demanding proof, Pando was shown the Asterisk, dubbed magical, beside his name and work number in a vinyl-bound edition of the department’s budget, but when he flipped to the back page of this weighty document where the key lay, the glossary made no mention of it. How could that be? What does it portend? Whom does one consult: a scientist, a budget expert, a historian? If a good witch doctor were recommended, in all likelihood the shaman could be of help with the Magic part but claim to be stumped by the Asterisk, and vice versa with the budget specialist. To see the term Magic on its own didn’t cause Pando undue concern and was even a little silly; however, once placed beside Asterisk, it sent chills down his spine.
The important question is the one you forget to ask thought Pando. He should have shouted out, as security, one on each arm, dragged him kicking from the Institute: “What are the boundaries of the Magic Asterisk? Does it have a shape? Can it be described in a mathematical theorem? Could this all result in a worse symbol? Would he look back wistfully on the days when he only had a Magic Asterisk? That brief moment of confusion, as he slapped the dust off his overalls and recovered from the manhandling by security, would be the last moment he could think of himself without the Magic Asterisk.
As the recovery of his file took shape in his mind, Pando enlisted help from two acquaintances – M. Phinounce, who had a dark past involving theft, and Leopold, his roommate. M. Phinounce’s phlegmatic nature was enhanced by his features: a long thin nose stretching down his face like a graceful aqueduct and blue eyes that encouraged strangers to discourse without expectation of a response, below dark brows divided by a narrow isthmus. Leopold was medium height. His head was a sphere with hair the colour and consistency of a spent match tip and a neatly trimmed goatee around his thin dry lips. The eye-glasses he wore slightly magnified the size of his ebony eyes.
Pando didn’t tell them that he was looking for information about a certain Asterisk. He said he had to claim some personal belongings from his former boss’s office. If he told them about the Asterisk, then he would be compelled to tell them it was magical, and this would frighten them unduly. It was his burden and his burden alone to bear.
As their midday meal was taken in the park, the topic of discussion was the expedition and access to the office. Pando made a diagram in the pebbled stone path of probable points of entry to the Institute, alternate routes, danger zones, and security patrols. In his years there he had become friendly with the guards, who spoke of shift coordination and other details of their occupation. At the time, most of it went in one of Pando’s ears and out the other, but some of it he could recall.
The Institute, with its smooth white curving surface and blue-grey windows, was an impressive sight. There was a break in the continuation of campus buildings, accomplished by a great swath of green called the East Lawn and crisscrossing cement walks like the rings of Saturn that did not so much lead to the Institute as around it. The great lawn continued until it reached a mile long concrete border with a column of gigantic lions! A great ridge of limestone stairs bordered a congested highway. One of its lanes separated itself before the toll booths and followed an underground tunnel beneath the East Lawn directly under the Institute. You would have to be an ex-Institute hand to know that behind the arterial building was a duck pond, a two-storey dormitory of yellow cubes, a black blister-like auditorium, a parking lot with two rows subdivided into four, a power plant with a small truck park for maintenance and security personnel, and a chain link fence surrounding an antenna and satellite dish. There were the underground facilities for parking, archival storage, an experimental pre-school under the jurisdiction of the education facility, special fully equipped laboratories, supplies, and back-up generators.
On the night of the break-in, Pando, code named Ladyfinger, and his accomplices, code named Shortbread and Gingerbread, made last minute equipment checks and went over contingency plans around the kitchen table. They arrived at their destination and crossed the wide grassy concourse in order to enter the Institute at the basement level where the kindergarten was. All other locks had failed to recognise Pando’s old key card. Gingerbread was the lookout and would shout “red potato” in case they were in danger.
“It looks like rain…good luck,” were his final comments.
A hitch in their plans occurred when they had gained entrance to the Institute. The field had been so soggy, their steel-toed shoes were coated with mud. Sneaking around the Institute late at night was out of the question if they were going to wear foot gear. The security force would hardly need bloodhounds to trace them, so the shoes were left neatly aligned before a row of lockers containing tiny mittens and sneakers of the Institute’s experimental pre-school.
They were just about to break and enter the ex-boss’s office when they heard a muffled voice from within. This caused them both to shudder as if the water from a pleasantly hot shower suddenly ran cold. Pando tried to make a break, but in his stocking feet he could not muster sufficient thrust. They had been drilled in the event the door lock beeped or an alarm sounded, but this was a surprise. Upon entry they made their flashlight beams dance over the ceiling and across various objects. In the corner of the room hung a cage containing a talking bird, like a grey unripened banana with a beak and two shiny button-like eyes. Pando remembered that it had been delivered all the way from western Africa. The area surrounding the eye was pale white, as if a powder had been applied, and it was further decorated with thin black lines, like eye-liner. Pando even remembered the first words he heard it speak.
“Squawk…my mistake, your fault…coo…my mistake, your fault…”
Pando thought having a Pissitacus erythacus in one’s office was highly unorthodox. However it was common knowledge that once one acquired wealth and power, their eccentric side was frequently revealed. A touch of colour on the bland face of power. Pando assumed that the biographer who could get a chapter’s worth out of the parrot would lay claim to “the definitive biography” designation of his boss.
Pando barely had time to rifle through some folders, his eyes scanning for any combination of PA…, …DO, P….O, …AN…, M…P…, or …AURI…PA when the faint cry “red potato” was heard from outside.
“Red potato…red potato, squawk,” the parrot responded.
With high expectations of finding answers in his boss’s office, Pando was crushed. How realistic were his hopes to see his file resting on the desk, open, with an explanation of his Magic Asterisk? Not very. Now he might never know.
Gingerbread had been squatting in the mud when a black auto pulled into the small driveway, which led to the Institute kindergarten. He was most visible when the lighting flashed over the great lawn. Several unidentified men got out of the car. These weren’t rent-a-cops from the Institute. A small black van followed and the two exchanged hand signals before both parties quickly pulled away. It was another two minutes before campus security arrived.
Ladyfinger and Shortbread escaped through the front doors at full speed, forgetting their shoes in the process. The cold wet mire oozed between their toes as they ran. Gingerbread joined them. A piercing whistle blast echoed over the soggy plain of the East Lawn and another followed. Plan two was in effect, so Pando broke off, effectively making it difficult to pursue them. Running along the shoulder of the highway, he kept a look out for Institute cruisers. Eventually he was able to stop beneath an overpass, gasping for breath. Once he determined he wasn’t being tailed, he took the train to the apartment of his friends. Pushing the buzzer he said, “The moon is responsible for the waves” and they unlocked the door.
John Rosen currently lives and works in Chicago. His short fiction has appeared in the print publications Watchword Press, (Berkeley, California); NauSea SeaSick, an anthology of six short stories about the sea from Four Corners Books, London; The Delinquent (UK); The London Journal of Fiction; and Hoosier Lit, a literary magazine by The Geeky Press.