With a genius IQ, a past career as a circus acrobat, and a black belt in karate, criminology professor Dr. Robert Frederickson—better known as “Mongo the Magnificent”—has a decidedly unusual background for a private investigator. He also just so happens to be a dwarf.
When his friend, FBI agent Michael Burana, suspiciously drowns in the small town of Cairn, New York, Mongo’s pursuit of the truth takes him up the Hudson River to the scene of the crime. Long known as a village populated by artists, intellectuals, and writers, Cairn has recently become home to ultraconservative political commentator Elysius Culhane, whose autobiography title, If You’re Not Right You’re Wrong, is less a pun than a personal manifesto.
Mongo couldn’t care less about politics, but there’s something about Culhane that just isn’t right. And as Mongo and his brother, Garth, attempt to discern the real reason for Agent Burana’s death, they will uncover a conspiracy that could leave them both swimming with the fishes . . .
The Language of Cannibals is the 8th book in the Mongo Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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In the purple distance neatly scripted alphabet vultures with Zs for eyes soared in the thermals swirling over and around an alphabet volcano spewing what appeared to be incomplete, fractured sentences and clustered gobs of words that were half submerged in a river of blood red lava. Block-letter trees formed an oppressive jungle that appeared like a great fungus growth that was an infection on, rather than a part of, the land. The exhausted, hapless soldier who had wandered into this eerie and alien landscape was hopelessly entangled in a web of punctuation-mark vines. His boyish features twisted in anguish and horror as crablike creatures — rendered, like everything else in the landscape except the soldier, of a profusion of single letters and half-formed words or sentences — dined on his left leg. The foot had already been consumed, and a gleaming white shaft of bone protruded from the ragged flesh of his ankle, which was spewing blood of red and blue. I looked for some pattern, complete sentences or phrases, in the maelstrom of letters and words but couldn't find any; in this haunted place, the twenty-six letters of the alphabet were just the skeletal matter of mindless creatures that existed to rend, consume, and infect, not make sense. The painting, titled The Language of Cannibals, was by a man named Jack Trex, and I rather liked it. I found the notion of these flesh-eating letter-creatures food for thought.
The hand-printed placard taped to the wall beneath the painting identified Trex as the commander of the Cairn chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, whose members were the sole contributors to the exhibit of art and crafts.
For some time, I'd been reading and hearing good things about Cairn, a small town on the banks of the Hudson River a few miles north of New York City. Noted for its many art galleries, antique shops, and fine restaurants, as well as its thriving community of artists, Cairn is a mixed society of very rich, some poor blue-collar families, and assorted celebrities who like their yachts close at hand but have tired of Connecticut and the Hamptons. Bed-and-board establishments, most of them operated by the blue-collar families who once supplied manpower for the now-defunct stone quarry on a mountain at the edge of town, have proliferated, and of late tour buses operating out of New York City bring weekend day-trippers to Cairn to enjoy street fairs, antiquing, or simply the bucolic atmosphere, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the occasional rock or movie stars who eat, shop, or stroll on the narrow streets of the small business district. For longer than a year I'd been meaning to spend a weekend checking out Cairn with some lady friend, or maybe my brother, but simply had never gotten around to it. Now I was in Cairn, but definitely not under circumstances I would have chosen.
Four days before, a troubled friend of mine died in this area. Certain specifics in the news reports of his death, most of which focused primarily on his notoriety and disgrace of the past year, did not square with the Michael Burana I had known. I was in Cairn to supply information and ask a few questions, not necessarily in that order.
It was a Friday evening in early August, and it had been oppressively hot for more than two weeks. Since March, Garth and I had been working on a particularly Byzantine case of industrial espionage, commuting at least once a week to Silicon Valley, and using our weekends to try to deal with Frederickson and Frederickson's mounting mass of paperwork, mostly detailed reports that had to be filed with our client. We were still at it, and I had no time for an outing, but I'd figured that the business I had to take care of in Cairn should take no more than one or two hours, a morning at most, and I'd planned to drive up early Saturday. But when the air conditioner in my apartment in our brownstone on West Fifty-sixth Street broke down in late afternoon, I'd decided to immediately head for cooler climes, namely someplace with air-conditioning in or near Cairn. I'd left a message for Garth, who was out meeting with our client's battalion of attorneys as they prepared for the impending court trial, had hopped into my modified Volkswagen Rabbit, Beloved Too, and headed for the George Washington Bridge. Assuming that all the bed-and-board places in town would be full, I'd checked into a motel on Route 9W, which forms the western boundary of Cairn. I'd immediately turned the air conditioner on full blast, showered and changed into fresh clothes, then gone out to get something to eat and poke around town.
I'd enjoyed a fine, inexpensive meal in an exquisite Thai restaurant housed in a converted diner next to an old-fashioned ice cream parlor that really is old, then gone out and started down Cairn's Main Street toward the river. I'd passed through the business district without attracting more than a moderate number of stares from people standing outside the various rock and jazz bars, then angled off onto a side street to investigate what appeared to be some fine old houses that probably date back to the turn of the century. I'd gone about a block and a half when I saw something across the street that caught my attention and brought me to a stop. A modest frame house that, according to the bronze sign planted in the front yard, had been the childhood home of one of America's finest artists had been converted into an art gallery, and the red, white, and blue banner hanging across the front read Art of Vietnam Veterans. According to another sign on the lawn, this was the first day of the exhibition, and it looked to me like the doors had just opened. People were starting to go in, the majority of them pointedly ignoring the three young men who stood at the edge of the sidewalk in front of the gallery trying to pass out literature. The men, all of whom looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties, had longish hair and wore robin's-egg-blue T-shirts with the words COMMUNITY OF CONCILIATION: GIVE PEACE A CHANCE emblazoned in crimson across the front and back. Since the organization that called itself the Community of Conciliation was one of the reasons I was in Cairn, the presence of the three men on the sidewalk in front of the gallery had more than served to pique my curiosity.
I'd crossed the street, debating whether or not to try to engage the men in conversation. I'd taken a mimeographed flier from one of the men, then stepped back off the sidewalk to read it. The sheet, single-spaced, outlined the basic goals of the Community of Conciliation, a pacifist and environmental organization, and listed its activities, both worldwide and local. One of the local activities was crossed out, thus making it impossible for a reader's attention not to be drawn to it; a thin line had been drawn through the item, but the text beneath the ink was clearly visible. The deleted item, almost certainly meant to be noticed, read: "Wednesday night fellowship and counseling sessions with Vietnam Veterans of America."
It appeared that the Community of Conciliation was attempting to send a message to the people entering the exhibit, or the veterans themselves, but it hadn't seemed the proper time or place for me to try to pinpoint just what that message was. I'd folded the flier, put it in the back pocket of my jeans, and gone into the house — to almost immediately be confronted, surprised, and pleased by The Language of Cannibals.
I went looking for Jack Trex, to tell him how much I liked his painting. He wasn't hard to find. In the main viewing area, in what had been the house's living room, five men wearing flag-emblazoned name tags were standing in a tight circle near a fireplace filled with freshly cut flowers. The tallest of them was about Garth's size, six feet three or four, and solid. The man, dressed in khaki slacks, plaid shirt, and running shoes, seemed to be doing more listening than talking. When he stepped back to reach for his drink on a small table behind him he swung his left leg stiffly, moving in the slightly listing manner of someone who has either suffered a severe leg injury or is wearing an artificial limb. I walked closer, and a glimpse at the man's name tag confirmed that he was Jack Trex.
Standing near Trex's left elbow, just outside the circle, I waited patiently for someone to take polite notice of me. When nobody did I cleared my throat, twice. The second throat-clearing did the trick; the men stopped talking, loosened their circle slightly, and began looking around to see who was making all the guttural noises. I found myself looking up into five faces that reflected not so much hostility as irritation. Although the occasion was a celebration of their art and craft work, and thus they might be expected to act as unofficial hosts to the public, it was clear that they were not interested in talking to "civilians."
Jack Trex had thinning black hair that was graying at the temples, and a full mustache that was all gray. His pale green eyes shone with an intelligence and sensitivity that belied the rather vacant, remote expression on his face. Two of the other veterans wore camouflage vests over gray T-shirts; one of the men had hostile, mud-brown eyes, and wore his long, yellow hair in a ponytail held in place by a leather thong. The men in the camouflage vests were staring at me as if they'd never seen a dwarf before. The man directly to my left, a Hispanic, wore a heavy flannel shirt despite the heat. Directly across the circle was a spindly, emaciated-looking veteran who wore a blue polyester suit that was baggy on him and which only served to highlight the network of red, alcohol-ruptured veins in his nose and cheeks. Although they'd been carrying on an animated conversation before I came over, all the men were now silent, their expressions wooden as they stared at me.
"Excuse me," I said, addressing all of them, "I didn't mean to interrupt."
The emaciated man with the blue polyester suit and broken veins giggled nervously, an abrupt and grating sound. "I ain't seen anyone as small as this guy since I left 'Nam," he said in a high-pitched voice and giggled again. "Who let the VC in here?" Under other circumstances his remark might have called for a razor-sharp rejoinder from my vast repertory of counterputdowns, but I decided from the look of him that he already had enough problems; there was pain in his nervous giggle, the soul-ache of a man who must struggle at all times to try to speak and behave normally or risk falling into the scream I suspected was always lurking at the back of his throat, like the tickle of a cough. Certainly, a disproportionate number of our Vietnam veterans seemed to have more than their share of emotional and physical problems, and I hadn't come over to trade barbs with one of the nation's walking wounded.
Turning to Trex, I said evenly, "I just wanted to tell you that I admire your painting."
The big man's features softened somewhat, and he was obviously pleased. He nodded slightly and opened his mouth to speak, but he was interrupted by the braying laughter of the man with the hostile, mud-brown eyes and pony tail.
"Jesus, Jack," the man with the ponytail said, "you finally found somebody who likes the smell of all that shit in your head. That painting of yours is the creepiest fucking thing I've ever seen. It doesn't make any fucking sense."
Trex glanced sharply at the man with the ponytail, and then at the man in the polyester suit. They both abruptly fell silent, and the ponytailed man looked down at the floor.
"Thanks," Trex said simply as he glanced back down at me, "I appreciate the kind words."
I didn't much care for this crew; there was too much alienation, too much insularity, too much thinly veiled hostility radiating from the men like body odor. But I also knew that such feelings were by no means unique to this small group. I tried to make some small talk, in a manner of speaking, and my conversational gambits were met with a modicum of polite, mumbled answers. The tension in the air remained. I felt like the cop who had accidentally wandered into the local gambling den; everyone was covering his hands and chips and waiting for me to go away.
After complimenting Jack Trex once again on his painting, I went away.
I fortified myself with a glass of white wine and some Jarlsberg cheese from a buffet that had been set up, then wandered through the rest of the rooms on the ground floor, examining the rest of the display of crafts and artwork. I saw nothing else that interested me. Jack Trex, with his primitive technique and sketchy command of material, was in no danger of becoming a professional artist, but there was real passion radiating from his canvas, feeling that belied the wooden, remote manner he displayed when I had tried to talk to him. I saw no comparable display of emotion in any of the other paintings, wood carvings, macramé, and pottery that constituted the rest of the show; it all seemed to me rather institutional, like baskets woven by mental patients during art therapy. There were lots of land- and seascapes, but they all lacked depth and feeling, like paintings of paintings or works executed by artists whose minds were on other things — which, I thought, was quite likely the case with some of them. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, it was called. There was no group that suffered more stress-related emotional and physical problems than America's Vietnam veterans, but with the obvious exception of Jack Trex's painting, none of that inner conflict was reflected in the work I viewed.
A close friend of mine to whom I owed my life, a very mysterious and multigifted man by the name of Veil Kendry, was not only a Vietnam veteran but a world-class artist whose works now hung in private collections and museums all over the world. From Veil I had learned not only a great deal about the catastrophically rending effect the Vietnam War had had upon the men who fought there but also about the pain and potential in the human heart in general; from Veil I had learned of, and witnessed, the power of art to transcend — and, finally, to heal — that pain, sublimating rage, violence, and vague hurt. But the artist first had to be willing to communicate, to try to describe the shapes and colors of the maelstrom within. Again with the sole exception of Jack Trex, I saw no one in this place making such an effort — not judging by the flat, emotionless quality of the work I examined.
I decided that there was a great deal of emotional repression in the Cairn chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. It depressed me.
Before leaving I decided to view The Language of Cannibals once more. I left the main viewing area, turned down the corridor where Trex's painting was hanging in its out-of-the-way, dimly lighted setting. I stopped a quarter of the way down the corridor and studied the man who was studying the painting. He was about five feet nine or ten, with the compact frame and erect bearing of a former athlete who was fastidious about remaining in good shape. He had a full head of chestnut-brown hair, razor-cut in a short, conservative style. He was wearing a finely tailored, brown seersucker suit, light blue shirt and brown tie, pale brown loafers with tassels. Seen in profile, he had small ears, high, pronounced cheekbones, a strong mouth and chin. I felt I'd seen him somewhere before and that I should know who he was.
The solid man in the seersucker suit seemed totally absorbed in the painting, unaware that I was studying him. I watched as he leaned forward, peering closely at individual sections, apparently trying, as I had done, to find some meaning in the strings and clots of the letters themselves. After a few moments he backed away a step, leaned to one side and then the other in order to view the painting from different angles.
He wasn't a movie or rock star; I was certain of that. And he wasn't a celebrity in the usual sense.
He was ... the confidant of, an aide to, a celebrity.
The man's name was Jay Acton, and I had seen him — very briefly, in an unguarded moment when he was unaware that he was being photographed — in a PBS documentary on extreme right-wing influences in America.
Jay Acton was an aide to — and, the documentary had strongly hinted, the intellect and strategist behind — a curious fellow by the name of Elysius Culhane, the self-styled "last of the conservative purists." Culhane's words in his syndicated newspaper column and over the air on the political television talk shows he regularly hosted or appeared on were sometimes insightful, but always abrasive, and were raptly absorbed by millions of Americans.
Excerpted from "The Language of Cannibals"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
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