*Not your average publishing company


Ashton Brentworth emerged from the room, the color drained from his face, running a finger under the stiff collar of his shirt to help him catch his breath.
“My God,” he muttered to Dr. Reginald Gilmour, who had been awaiting him.
“Shocking, is it not, Professor?” Dr. Gilmour said.
“In the extreme,” came the reply.
“Shall we repair to my office?” Dr. Gilmour continued. “I will endeavor to present to you the fullest picture of his case.”
When Professor Brentworth had settled into a deep leather chair, his host proferred a humidor containing an array of pungent cigars.  Brentworth, silver-haired, with a neatly trimmed van dyke beard to match, selected one of the coronas. Gilmour followed suit, and both men cut and lit their cigars.
“I had thought to offer tea, Professor,” said Dr. Gilmour, “but I believe you might welcome a brandy instead.”
“It would be most welcome. Thank you.” Gilmour saw to their refreshments and then took a seat behind his large desk. At fifty-six, Reginald Gilmour had been director of the St. Regis Sanitarium in London’s Outer Borough of Sutton for five years. Considered among the very finest institutions of its kind, as much for its discretion as for the efficacy of its treatments, St. Regis catered to the families of the notable and the well-to-do. Doctor Gilmour puffed on his cigar meditatively for a long moment.
“How long have you known Professor Carstairs?” he inquired.  Ashton Brentworth gently swirled the rich amber liquid in its snifter.
“Our association is quite lengthy,” the older man began, “dating to the days when we both joined the faculty at he University — he in physics, I in mathematics. That would be 1883, ’84.”
“So, more than twenty years then?”
“From what I gather, he was quite brilliant,” said Dr. Gilmour.
“Oh, quite,” Professor Brentworth replied animatedly. “From the very start, he displayed an astonishing acumen. I fervently believed he was destined to do groundbreaking work.”
“I confess I regard his specialty as esoterica.”
“You are hardly alone, doctor. I myself have only a limited grasp of its scope, but I can tell you Professor Carstairs was engaged in uncovering very profound knowledge. He was on the brink of a breakthrough that would have etched his name amid the pantheon of history’s most distinguished men of science.”
“But . . .” began Dr. Gilmour.
“But then came the papers from that Jewish fellow at the Swiss Patent Office,” said Brentworth ruefully.
“Einstein, yes.” Professor Brentworth sipped from his brandy and drew on his cigar. “The effect of those papers was devastating. Professor Carstairs felt his world had been upended. With but a few more months he would have been able to publish the fruits of his research — conclusions very similar to those of Einstein — and he would have been hailed as the first to achieve such insights.”
“Then came his collapse,” said Dr. Gilmour, “and he was brought to us.”
“I had been on a lengthy holiday in Greece and, therefore, not in contact with him. I had no idea how serious it was. Not until today.”
“And how did you find him this afternoon?” Professor Brentworth sighed heavily.
“Ahh,” he said, his tone reflecting deep sadness. “Where do I begin?” He paused, thinking, as he drew on his cigar several times. At length:  “When I entered the room, he was seated, rather hunched forward over his desk, rocking back and forth and muttering to himself.  I called out to him softly, ‘Frederick? Frederick?’ but he seemed not to notice and made no reply. I moved toward him, reaching my hand forth and touched him lightly on his shoulder. This produced an immediate reaction. He gave a violent start and cried out, turning upon me with a countenance that will haunt me all the rest of my days. Rather than the open, placid face of my learned friend, I beheld features that were very nearly unrecognizable, twisted, almost bestial. I sought immediately to reassure him. ‘Frederick, it is I, Ashton.’  He stared, uncomprehending, his eyes darting and flashing wildly. I repeated my name, slowly, softly.  This seemed to have a salutary effect. His face relaxed by degrees.
“‘So, it’s you,’  he cried. I was relieved at what I took to be his recognition of me. But, alas, it was not so as he quickly barked, ‘Have you brought my tea and scones? Teaandscones…teaandscones.  Darjeeling…darjeeling…darjeeling. And two sugars. Neither one nor three. Two. And milk, tepid. Hot? Too hot. Cold? Too cold. Tepid? Just right. Justright…justright…justright.”  ‘No, Frederick,’ I answered. ‘I have no tea and scones.  I’ve come to visit you, old friend.’  This declaration, however, seemed not to make the slightest impression on him. He waved a dismissive hand as a look of consternation swept across his countenance. He turned his unruly, grizzled head heavenward and shouted ‘Stop, will you?  Just stop, for the love of God! I can only deal with one of you at a time!’
“You can imagine my alarm at this initial encounter; but there was more.
“‘How are you, Frederick?’ I ventured. He did not answer, only continued to stare at me with growing agitation. ‘Are you going to stand there all day?’ he said with obvious annoyance. ‘Sit down here at the desk. We have work to do!’ There was a chair at hand, so I obliged him by taking a seat.
“I must say that as disheveled as my poor friend was, his workspace was far worse — the desk and the immediate floor around it were positively buried in mounds of foolscap, the sheets bearing a series of scrawled numbers. I thought I might be able to re-establish a link with him to our shared past, so I asked if he was engaged in any new work.  Again, he stared at me as if struggling to grasp the question and why I would be asking it.
“‘What do you know of my research?’ he said at last, now viewing me with deep suspicion. ‘Are you one of his spies, intent on stealing what rightfully belongs to me? Are you?  Are you!?!’ Of course, I understood his reference straightaway, and urged him to calm himself.
“‘I am your friend Ashton Brentworth, Frederick, and most definitely not a clandestine agent of Dr. Einstein’s’, I said. This seemed to assuage his suspicions but for a moment before a fresh look of turmoil gripped his features and he again began inveighing against some invisible voice tormenting him.
‘Will you not leave off?’ he begged. ‘Can you not grant me a moment’s peace?’”
“Yes, the voices,” said Dr. Gilmour, striking a match and relighting his cigar. “The voices have been a most nettlesome problem from the beginning.”
“Have you determined their origin?”
“I regret to say we have not. They spring from some as yet impenetrable shadow of his mind. We only know that he gains little respite from them, even during the long hours of the night. But, pray, continue, Professor.”
Ashton Brentworth drained what remained of the brandy and resumed his story.
“After a time, his colloquy with the voices stopped and he implored me to take up a pen and begin writing. ‘What would you like me to write?’ I asked. ‘What I dictate,’ he replied quite imperiously. He then closed his eyes, bent forward, placed his elbows upon the desk and took his head into both his hands. There he sat for a long moment before he burst out:  ‘Nine, four, nine, three, eight, one, seven, seven, three, zero, one. Did you get that?” What, Frederick?’ I asked. ‘The numbers, man, the numbers! Write! Write! Nine, four, nine, three, eight, one, seven, seven, three, zero, one.’ At that point I felt my only recourse was to comply, so I scribbled down the torrent of numbers as quickly as they spewed from his mouth. Mercifully, this went on for only a matter of a minute or two before he fell exhausted upon the desk, muttering about Einstein’s treachery.
“I did not tarry long after that. It was clear that the man I once knew had been completely overwhelmed by his demons.”
The two men spent a long moment smoking in silence before Professor Brentworth cleared his throat.
“Am I to conclude there is no hope, doctor?”
“The only real hope is that we can keep Professor Carstairs as comfortable as possible. Recovery? I’m afraid it is out of the question.”
“And the recitation of the numbers? Of what significance are they?”
“Not long after his arrival, Professor Carstairs embarked on a quest to decipher the square root of pi to the ten thousandth place.”
“Are you serious, sir?” said his astonished companion.
“Quite. He fervently believes that having done so he will unlock deep mathematical secrets that will give lie to the work of Einstein.”
“But surely it is a quixotic — ” Professor Brentworth began before Dr. Gilmour’s raised hand cut him short.
“Yes. Of course. The workings of a deranged mind. Utterly tragic.”  Again, the two men lapsed into silence. Outside, a gust of wind-driven rain peppered the office window pane.”  And that was all, Professor, the numbers? Nothing else?”
“Well, yes, there was. Passing curious, yet . . .  in light of his overall state, perhaps not so. As I was leaving, he implored me to have you return his collection of rare — let me see if I have this correctly — pancrustacean hexapod invertebrates,” Brentworth said with a look of bewilderment. “I’m sorry to say I am at a total loss.”
“Ah, you needn’t apologize,” Dr. Gilmour replied, smiling broadly.  “These ‘pancrustacean hexapod invertebrates’ are insects, Professor.”
“Professor Carstairs has a collection of insects?”
“In a manner of speaking. When he became obsessed with the square root of pi, he also began to fixate on entomology. He declared that in some fashion known only to him, it was a vital adjunct to his mathematical preoccupation.” Professor Brentworth shook his head in dismay. “Yes, like the rest of his case, it is very sad,” Dr. Gilmour continued. “We would find him in his room standing on a chair swiping at the air, trying to snatch a fly or, perhaps, a moth. Or, he would crawl about the floor to capture whatever he could find — an ant here, a spider there.” The professor’s eyes closed for a moment and he shook his head.
“Well, doctor,” he said, “I will make this a perfunctory request, an obligation to an old friend. He was insistent  I urge — no, demand — that you to return his insect collection to him.” A thin smile crossed Dr. Gilmour’s face.
“Ah, but there is no collection, Professor.”
“No? And what has become of it?”
“It never existed.  You see, the insects he gathered? He ate them all.”

Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than two dozen publications including the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Unconventional Courier, Fiction on the Web, Bookends Review, the Nonconformist Magazine, Sandpiper, the San Antonio Review, Flyover Magazine, Pigeon Review, Fiction Junkies, Typeslash Review, The Best of CaféLit 11 and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies. He lives outside Chicago.


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