Excerpt from ‘Outcast’

New Work

By Darren Greer

We got evicted from our apartment in February, because Randy had one too many parties and the downstairs neighbors complained one too many times to the landlord. We knew it was going to happen. We had been warned. But Randy was an iconoclast—the best artist of the entire school and he didn’t care what anyone thought, especially the elderly Asian man named Xin who owned our building and ran the Chinese grocery on the ground floor on Spadina Avenue. He told Randy: “You out. Pack your bags.”

Randy said to him, “Me protected by rent laws.”

Xin said, “No give shit about laws. You out. Pack your bags.”

And so Randy acted like nothing happened. But I started checking the on-line classifieds and the bulletin boards at school for something to rent. I should have snagged a studio and left Randy to his parties, but I couldn’t. He was my best friend, and even though his personality was forceful and he did what he wanted he didn’t really know how to take care of himself. He’d never eat unless I cooked. All he did was make art.

I made art too, but on a smaller scale. I mostly painted. Randy created mixed medias and weird installations that took up most of the spare room in our apartment. Once he painted a giant tongue with a city growing on it. Another time he found a cast-off toilet and painted a perfect full-body portrait of Hitler on the seat cover. When you lifted the cover up you found a portrait of Auschwitz painted on the inside of the bowl. Randy called this Genocide/Fountain #2. It created a small sensation at school, where it was displayed in the school gallery for almost a year until bought by a private collector. Randy’s imagination knew no bounds. He always had something on the go, and I marveled at how he could come home with two old VCRs and a rusted bicycle and end up with a cool robot. Even the city commissioned a piece from him. Everyone thought Randy was going to be famous. We were both in our early thirties. Artists grow into themselves late. I was gay and Randy was straight, so our friendship was not complicated by romance or sex. I told Randy if we got a new apartment he had to stop inviting half the wackos on campus over to drink and go “Dada!”

Randy said he’d try.

He wouldn’t, but this was the best I could get from him. Xin gave us a month, which was generous of him I thought. So each day between classes I went to the Student Union Building and checked the bulletin boards. The biggest was a cork board, a double-sided monstrosity on floor-to-ceiling struts in the center of the student lounge, with flyers and announcements and “For Rent” signs plastered over it. I took a pen and jotted down the number of anything that looked hopeful. I ignored the party and dance club invitations, the student rallies, the radical lectures—libertarians and communists and militant atheists—and just looked for places to let. But I got to know the boards pretty well. Which is why my eye was drawn to this one image I was sure hadn’t been there the day before.

Underneath was typed in capital letters: “WHO KNOWS THE EXACT LOCATION? ONLY SJ.”

When I met Randy he told me some bulletin boards in the city contained weird notices he called Alberti Code, after some long dead Italian who liked to write hidden messages. The idea was if you came across one of these messages on a board and it intrigued you, you copied it down and started communicating with the person who posted the flyer in the same kind of associative, obscure, symbolic language it was posted in until you understood the meaning of the code. If you didn’t use the proper language, or your emails were too direct, you “busted” and the person would send you notice and never respond to you again. If you kept with it you could eventually “solve” the message. Each code was marked with a small capital A in the right hand bottom corner to distinguish it from your average esoterica on the board.

“Everyone plays,” said Randy. “Scientists. Computer programmers. Cryptologists. It’s the smartest game in the country, and the best kept secret.” Randy, he claimed, had Alberti notices on bulletin boards all over the city. But though Randy talked about them a lot, and I now noticed them on the boards at school, I was rarely tempted by them. Until now. The image and the words “THE EXACT LOCATION” on this code were meaningless to me. But those initials? An email address graced the bottom of the notice.

[email protected]

Without asking myself why I was doing it I tore the flyer from the board and went back to looking for an apartment.

 

Xin did end up kicking us out, and we did end up moving to a small one bedroom on Gerrard Street across from Allan Gardens. It was on the second floor of an old Victorian walk-up and Randy and I shared a bedroom as we had on Spadina, though it was a smaller place and Randy had to disassemble one of his sculptures so we’d have room to breathe.

This made him unhappy.

“Why couldn’t you have gotten us an upgrade instead of a down?”

“Why couldn’t you have invited half a dozen less people and we’d still be in our old place?”

“I don’t invite people to my parties,” Randy said. “They just show up.”

“Well no more parties for a while, dude. I’d like to stay in this one for more than six months.”

“Just a house-warming,” said Randy.

I figured we be booted out by April.

 

I forgot about the bulletin board, until one afternoon at school I was digging in my jacket pocket for some change for the vending machine and found the flyer. That night, making dinner while Randy was sketching at the table, I showed it to him. Randy examined it with interest while I cooked.

“The exact location eh?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You know what that means?”

“No clue,” I said.

He asked me to bring out the laptop. I watched as he typed a few words into the search bar. “Look,” he said. He showed me a photograph of a corroded bronze sculpture with symbols swarming over it outside of a plain green glass office building.

“So?” I said.

“You don’t recognize that?”

”No. Should I?

“You are looking at one of the greatest works of art of the modern age. By a man who was at least as intelligent as da Vinci.”

“Randy,” I said. “I’m an art student. If this were the greatest work of the modern age I think I would know about it.”

“Not necessarily,” said Randy. “The building in the background is the CIA in Langley Virginia. This piece was commissioned from the American artist Jim Sanborn and installed in 1990, just like you see it here.”

“What’s with all the letters?”

“Sanborn created four encrypted messages for the piece. Three of them have been decoded but the fourth has not. It is one of the most famous unsolved puzzles in the world.”

“So? What does this have to do with the message on the board?”

“The second message,” Randy said. “Part of the deciphered text read “Who knows the exact location? Only WW.”

“Who’s WW?”

“William Webster. He was the director of the CIA when Sanborn did the piece. Once decrypted, this solution was found to be a series of coordinates that locate somewhere on the Langley property. The first message is a poem, and the third is a description of the opening of King Tut’s tomb on November 26, 1922. Still doesn’t explain why you took it down.”

I shrugged. “I felt like it.”

“You didn’t even know what it meant,” Randy said. “You never find these things interesting. Before me you didn’t know they existed. This looks like it would be a fun Alberti. Not everybody knows the Sanborn codes. It’s a highly abstruse message. Even for a college bulletin board.”

“But…” I said. With Randy there was always a “but.”

“But you didn’t take this down out of an interest in codes.”

“I didn’t?” Randy had me now, but I wanted him to go the whole way.

“No,” he said. “You didn’t.”

He picked up the flyer with the message. “SJ,” he said. “You think that is who?”

“Coincidence,” I said. “Just a weird fugue, that somehow this guy Riley got my brother’s initials in his dumb code. I don’t plan on doing anything about it. My brother has been missing for twenty five years.”

I was only seven when Shawn disappeared. He was blonde and fair like me, but where I was an introvert Shawn was outgoing and popular. There were always kids at the house, and Shawn was in a band from his school that practiced in the garage. He played the guitar and at night when he was in his room you could hear his soft sweet voice carry all through the house. I was never allowed in the garage when they practiced, but he sometimes let me into his room to sit on the floor and watch him play.

After he disappeared, it was his voice I missed most. I could sometimes imagine I could hear it again, and perhaps my mother did too. My father rarely mentioned Shawn and my sister never did. The only time I saw my father cry was at the dinner table a week after he disappeared. He laid down his fork beside a plate of roast chicken and mashed potatoes and peas, lowered his head, and began to sob. My mother got up, went around to his side of the table, pulled his head into her blouse and just held him.

I had never cried over my brother. I had the optimism of the extremely young; I expected him to come back to the house any day and pick up his guitar. Even after twenty-five years I couldn’t get used to him being gone. Every blond-headed man I saw on the street in Toronto I would think, “There! That’s him.”

It never was. I always assumed I would know my brother even after all these years. I always assumed he was alive, though the truth of missing twelve-year-old boys is that they rarely are.

 

 

Every once in a while Randy told me he was going to visit “the family” and he’d disappear for a day. I didn’t know much about Randy’s family. They were rich, he said, and lived in a great house in Forest Hill. They had his whole life planned out for him. Business school. MBA or law. Short apprenticeship in one of his father’s companies and then a take-over—CEO or Chair or Head of the Legal Department.

When Randy informed them he wasn’t going to do any of this and be an artist instead they thought they were being quite reasonable when they gave him a choice between a career in the arts or the family dynasty.

He held no resentments. He still visited. That was all I knew. Sometimes I got the feeling Randy was evasive about his family for a reason; that there was more to it than he let on. But I could never get anything out of him. A couple of days after I told him about the Alberti thing Randy left for one his family visits, and I stayed at home.

Both Randy and I had ignored the image on the flyer and just focused on the words. It occurred to me that the Tyler Riley in the email might be the local author who had written a book Randy and I had read and loved a few years back called Outcast. After Randy left, I pulled down Riley’s book from the shelf. All the men in the book are infected with a sexually transmitted virus that turns them into zombies.

Not weird-acting, vacuous Zombies. Just handsome young men who can read each other’s minds and protect each other and teach each other to do things they could not normally do, like draw and solve math equations and play the piano. They all, in effect, become geniuses connected by a hive mind.

It was creepy book, but it wasn’t a horror story. You began to envy the Zombies. The absolute exposure and surrender to each other and united in a common cause. In the end, one man figures out what is going on and is distraught by the loss of individualism, and by the fact that these men are infecting other people.

A ridiculous premise, but strangely affecting.

I was heartsick for days after reading it the first time. Randy said there was no reason to think the Tyler Riley in the Alberti code was the same, but for some reason I thought so. The first thing Randy did when he got home is question me as to why I was reading Riley at all.

“I don’t know,” I lied. “I was just curious.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“Are you going to try the Code?”

“No,” I said.

And I didn’t either. For almost a week. I occasionally walked past the board to look for another flyer but there was none. Eventually I sat down at my computer and prepared a message to Tyler Riley. I simply wanted to say, “Know about Sanborn. Now what about Shawn?”

But Randy had said enough about Alberti Codes for me to know I likely wouldn’t get a response that way. I tried to think like Randy. I went back to the Sanborn page on Wikipedia, and got the translation of the first message. Its decryption was Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion.

It was a poem Sanborn made up, and the last four words of the poem struck me: the nuance of iqlusion. It was sufficiently short and sufficiently enigmatic to convince Riley I was playing his game. I was about to send it, when doubt seized me. What if I “busted” first try, like Randy said? Then I would never know what he meant by SJ. I considered, and left the email on the screen unsent. I sat the table and waited for Randy to come home.

 

As soon as he did he took one look at me sitting with my hands folded on the table in front of me like I was praying and said, “You emailed him.”

That was the thing about Randy. He knew me as well as anyone in the world, except my parents. “Almost,” I said. “I was about to.” Randy took off his coat and shoes and sat across from me. “You realize you can’t just ask him anything. That would be considered a bust.”

“I know,” I said.

I told him about the first message, and the poem.

“Good thing you stopped,” said Randy. “You would have busted for sure and got a termination email.”

Randy had experience with these things, but that didn’t stop me from getting offended. I said, “It can’t be that complicated.”

“It’s not.” Randy said. “Riley only gave you part of the message. Where is the exact location? Ask WW. Or SJ. But the next line in the Sanborn sequence says ‘It was his last message.’ I bet you any money you are supposed to send him the last message, not the first.”

“But you said the last is unsolved.”

“It is, but in 2006 Sanborn wrote in an online group attempting to decode the last message that they should think about clocks. Specifically Berlin Clocks. So my guess if you typed ‘Berlin Clocks’ you’d get a response.”

“Well,” I said, peeved, “that sounds as vague as the nuance of iqlusion.”

“It’s not though,” Randy said. “I’ve been playing these games for a long time. They rely on non-linear associative thinking. Trust me.”

The next day Randy went to school for a class.

Portraits and nudes.

I stayed home and researched Tyler Riley. His Wikipedia entry was barely more than a stub and had no photo. Thirty-eight years old. Published the one novel. Absolutely nothing about his personal life. Gay or straight, family or no family. I had to assume Randy was right. I sent an email to Riley that said “Berlin Clocks” and nothing else. The next morning I got an email back. It read:

JF WLOJU VJF WROJ QH VJI ZBWGT

I showed it to Randy. “It’s in code,” he said.

“I figured that. How do we solve it?”

“You’ve got to have the key. Did he send you anything else?”

“No. Just this.”

Randy stared intently at the screen. He worked his mouth silently, as he always did when he was thinking hard about something. “It’s a date shift cipher,” he said finally.

“A what?”

“Date shift,” Randy said. “You write out all the numbers of the numerical date the day it was received underneath the encryption. Then you go back in the alphabet the number of times it says to with the corresponding number. I’ll show you.”

Randy wrote down the encryption on a piece of paper, underneath each letter wrote a number from the date, and quickly solved the code:

He sings the song of the water.

I wonder who he means by ‘he?’” Randy said.

“Shawn, of course,” I said. “Shawn used to sing, and on the day he disappeared I always go to the water. It’s obvious.”

“Not so fast,” Randy said. “I warned you about taking this too literally, especially where it concerns your brother. Hold on a sec.”

Randy disappeared from the kitchen. In a moment he came out holding a book. It was The Call of the Wild by Jack London. Randy flipped to the last page.

“Here,” he said. “I thought so. Listen to the last line. ‘He sings the song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.’”

“That was Shawn’s favorite novel,” I said. “How did he know?”

“He didn’t,” Randy said. “Coincidence.”

But I wondered. “What do we send back?”

“Simple,” said Randy. “He sends you a reference to the last line of the book. You send him a reference to the first.”

“So what’s the first line?”

“’Buck did not read newspapers,’” Randy said.

I entered it, but instead of typing “Buck” I said “He.”

“Why?” Randy said.

“He altered the text. Why shouldn’t we?”

“You’re getting the hang of this,” Randy said. “And we should date shift it too, using the same date.”

In the end, we had:

JF HLEQV TGBH QFZURBRFU

We sent off the message, and waited.

One Comment

  1. Kim
    Posted September 29, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    I like it. Can’t wait to read more.

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Contributor

Darren Greer


Darren Greer grew up in several towns in Nova Scotia, including Greenfield and Liverpool. He studied literature at the University of King's College, Halifax, as well as Carleton University, Ottawa. His first novel, Tyler’s Cape, was published in March 2001 to critical acclaim and was on the bestseller list of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Still Life with June was nominated for the Pearson Readers’ Choice Award at The Word On The Street, Toronto, in 2003 and is the Winner of the 2004 ReLit Award. His novel Just Beneath My Skin was nominated for the Dartmouth Book Award and won the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize.