Removing, ever so momentarily, my personal narration hat in exchange for the one glorious omniscient, I now turn to the scene, several hours prior to the previous chapter, wherein Argus is introduced to Milo. If one will recall in chapters previous, while Gaffney and I were liberating Argus from his oubliette, due notice was made regarding our mutual reticence and due deligence in avoiding Milo’s office, situated nearby to the oubliette. Further, one noticed a prosaic reference to Argus’ subsistence solely upon the fungi growing on the walls of his cell, and, perhaps, this may be of some immediate relevance to the plot. How right and clever you are, dear reader, to have pointed this triviality out. Slap thyself upon your back most heartily.
Gaffney kept Argus in a second floor parlor in his own personal home. It was a large, concrete, tomb-like structure with few walls several blocks away from the main Greeves Institute complex, and had originally been used as a bunker for the Mercenaries. Finding it necessary to create space from his brother, as well as one that could withstand the screams and bellows of potential victims, it was the most convenient spot. Gaffney had decorated it as best he could with soft linens and flocked wallpaper, but, unfortunately, he had yet to overcome the grimness of it. The third floor, dominated by a large, round, window, out of which Gaffney could sneer out at the surrounding Zanzibarbarian populace was appropriately melodramatic, and had the duel advantage of being in direct sightline of the Greeves Institute’s front gate. He could know at a glance when his brother left his safe haven. He could generally be seen glaring out of it and rubbing his hands together with a lugubrious combination of intensity and intimidation.
Argus took to his new cell rather like his previous one, being rather dim. “One cell is as good as another,” he thought. He tried to lick the walls but discovered they were inedible. The door was politely closed and Gaffney was at a loss as to what to do with him.
The next morning, Gaffney’s maid, Mrs. Yunt, shuffled a breakfast to Argus, and provided the oaf with some new garments Gaffney had procured to alleviate the smell of the oubliette from mouldering up the bedroom. Mrs. Yunt had, some time previously, ripped her own tongue out upon the insistence of Gaffney. She agreed it was the best idea considering otherwise he’d fire her. She kept it, mummified in seasalt, in a small silver box she wore on a chain dangling from an undergarter under her waist. In Gaffney’s credit, he paid for it, sparing no expense. Argus never knew exactly what the jangling noise was when she opened the door, but he took it as a sign that Mrs. Yunt was nearby, noting it as rather pleasant.
Proud of his minor victory, Gaffney decided he was owed a promenade. He placed a straw boater upon his head, replaced his mundane walking stick with a polished sperm whale ivory swagger stick, and set out to ponder the possibilities of what to do with his liberated brother. The day, as it had risen, was clear and brisk. Gaffney noted that it didn’t quite feel right. He could not quite place why. Perhaps, if I may propose a theory, the hurdy-gurdy had not been tuning that day. Zanzibar had, for so long, ignored the noise that it was now quite eerie to not have it. He put on his finest lavender leather gloves and prepared to saunter the city.
“What a wonderful thing I’ve done,” he thought to himself, stepping out. “It’s all so very clever. The Argus will now be obligated to vote on my side, as I freed him from the hole, and once I get it established that he is my pet, all of Zanzibar will have to pay attention to him.”
The streets of Zanzibar, at 9 am in the morning, were already bustling with the unemployed and the lazy. The Opportunists were strutting around in the various liveries of their posts, the Mercenaries were stumbling out of the lodging houses a’grog, and the Carnies were not so much walking as wafting about, flopping onto convenient stoops and leaning on posts. Unlike Gibney, who never left the Institute without his entourage, Gaffney was considered one of the mass. They all knew who he was, and they all tipped they their hats as he passed, averted their eyes from his glance, and mumbled greetings. The eager ones, the Opportunists who were of the smarter sort, would hurl a “Morning Mr. Greeves” at him, and he would smile, as he always did.
The curious thing about Zanzibar, and a fact that I was never entirely aware of, was that the sheer mass of Zanzibarbarians were flaneurs of some sort, a sort of strange communal wasted quality. They existed to stare at each other. Those who worked were keenly aware of those who didn’t, and those who didn’t were particularly suspicious of anything out of the ordinary among themselves. An eccentric hat, worn by an Opportunist, would be mocked mercilessly by those inside his caste, but never from without. A Mercenary who took airs and wore a feather in his lapel when off-duty, similarly, would be in danger of a swift slash from a peer’s knife, if he was insufficiently graceful in carrying it off, but for the Opportunist who stared at the Mercenary’s feather, it was a source of enormous wonderment. Said Mercenary’s Feather would be seen on the lapels of every Opportunist the next day, despite the outrage the Mercenary may have felt from within his own circle. Even more outrageously, to my senses as one of the original Party Members and existing in a superior state from this rubbish, if the Mercenary was successful in his step, and was able to convince his peers of his fashionable affectation, he would then be thrown into a special class of Zanzibarbarians: the seen. It kept everyone interested in each other’s boutonnières and away from the soulcrushing misery of it all. If I, for instance, tried to wear a feather in my bonnet, it would simply be considered a right I had earned. It kept the Party Members boring, in fact. Nothing we did was ever taken as novelty.
The fact that nothing Gaffney could ever do would ever impress the hoi polloi annoyed him. He craved their attention and their acceptance, but he did so only half-heartedly externally. The one person who he could consistently impress, other than Mrs. Yunt and on extremely rare occasions, myself, was his half-brother, Milo. While he did not intend to set out to meet Milo, he found himself winding toward the Institute anyway, subconsciously desiring to annoy the shit out of his older brother.
Milo, meanwhile, was impressed by everything. It couldn’t be helped. He had the spine of a unicellular organism and the humility of an Anchorite on “Let’s Be Humble Day”. He kept to himself, largely out of the limpness of his entire being, and busied himself with various hobbies, none of which were enormously unique or valuable, and all of which were deeply undercut by his constant and persistent addiction to everything, ever. While he himself was the milkiest of milquetoasts, his personal stamina was almost superhuman in scope. His current addiction at the moment was injecting a substance called “Vint” (a combination of certain pituitary hormones excreted when a dolphin is bludgeoned with a wooden facsimile of a codfish and common household solvents, placed in a brown glass vial and allowed to mellow with spirits of ether) into the space between his toes. It provided a sense of vagueness. That was it. “Vagueness”. “Neither here nor there,” Milo would describe it. To a normal human, Vint was lethal five times over. You’d actually die, momentarily come back to life, and die a subsequent four times before finally dying; not for Milo, the attraction to Vint for him was that it not only did nothing of the sort but made him feel like those to whom it would and probably had dozens of times.
Procuring Vint was a relatively easy matter for a Greeves, even an ancillary one like Milo, although the process of bludgeoning the dolphin was generally left to the Squanch family, themselves somewhere on the food chain between the Mercenaries and the Party Members. The Squanches occupied roughly the same social space as Milo himself, and thus he was able to do business with them. Hieronymous Squanch, the leader of the clan, and the fat, toad-like man I would later see at the fete, dealt with Milo with the same sneering sort of tolerance one would usually show to a slug that, while not devouring your prized tomato and nearly four miles from the garden, could still be quite dangerous in a long enough time frame.
Coming down from a Vint medium (it never really gave highs) was relatively calm due to the short step involved in doing so. Milo was doing exactly that when Gaffney enterered his office/apartment, unannounced.
“Good and gracious morning, Milo, dear brother. Whatever is it you’ve accomplished this week?”
“I was not expecting you!” Milo sputtered.
“Quite the accomplishment, if I say so myself, it takes an enormous degree of effort to not expect one such as I.” Gaffney collapsed into Milo’s favorite wasting chair and daintily removed his gloves.
“Can I offer you some tea? I have some lovely moss leavings from the seaside rocks, it brews up not entirely unlike something delicious.”
Gaffney waved it away with his swagger stick. “Sit, my flesh and blood, sit.”
Milo did as he was told.
“Now, Milo,” Gaffney began unhesitatingly, “In a few days time, Gibney is hosting a reception for his little giant.”
Milo’s little eyes looked askance. “Oh? I was not informed.”
“Of course you weren’t, as he didn’t invite you. However, I am inviting you, as my guest. Can you waddle out of your coma long enough to attend? I’d appreciate it.”
Nods. Stupid, blank eyed nods. Stupid, fat, blank eyed, easily manipulated, little nods.
“It seems, brother dearest, that the prisoner in the oubliette down the hall, near to your little door, has escaped.”
“Oh yes, Milo. Oh yes. And on your watch, no less.”
“I can’t imagine how.”
“You’ve never been terribly imaginative, Miloscz.”
“This is true.” And it was.
“Regardless,” Gaffney feigned magnanimity, “as it turns out, hallelujah, he was actually our own brother the whole time! Fancy that. Just down the hall, you had a potential chum, somebody to await your every phase, was waiting and you failed to free him.”
“Not to worry, Milocz, most dear to my breast, he doesn’t blame you one bit. He knows how hard it is down here for you.”
“It’s just so lonely, Gaffney. Every day is an abyss of misery, just a bottomless Hell. And for that poor man to be so close and be my own brother...” Milo began to cry.
Rising, and bringing Milo to meet him, Gaffney began to lead Milo out the door. “Not to worry, not to worry. People are trapped in oubliettes for decades all the time. Say, I have a new treat for you.”
Milo’s eyes jumped up to Gaffney, who removed a small vial from his vest pocket. “A little treasure harvested from the salt mines, I’m sure you’ll know what to do with it.” He threw the bottle into Milo’s open hands. Milo accepted it and calmly followed Gaffney into the streets, still wearing his morning robe.