“Follow our lead,” Ardanuy had told me just before we infiltrated the underground conference. “And save any accusations for the Q and A no matter what slander they sling. Better to take it on the chin than come off as amateur.”
This advice seemed at odds with the example they set, Ardanuy and Dunn both leaping from their seats with canes brandished as soon as Tanzer issued her proclamation. Before I could, as Ardanuy had instructed, follow their lead, both men were swarmed by members of the audience packing truncheons of their own. I stood, resolute in that moment to save my mentors, when something bit my hand and I dropped the pistol Dunn had given me. Staring down in horror, I saw a fat weasel dangling from my palm, blood running down the beast’s greedy throat, and when I moved to tear it away with my free hand I felt tiny, sharp claws settle on my shoulder. I froze.
“Not so fast, Tonkatsu,” A woman’s voice breathed in my left ear, my right snuffled by the wet nose of a second polecat. “I’ve got two more where they came from. Now sit down and enjoy the panel. I think an apologist like you will find it…enlightening.”
I did as I was told, and as soon as I sat I heard a squeaking noise, like a dog’s toy, and the weasel hanging from my hand released me and scuttled away under the chair, pushing the dropped pistol in front of it. The ferret maiden had dragged a chair behind mine, and with her second weasel balanced on my shoulder it was all I could do to keep my scotch-inflated bladder in check. She had the drop on me, and as I watched both Ardanuy and Dunn fall under the onslaught I knew I had failed Grossbart Studies.
Soon Dunn and Ardanuy were tied to chairs and dragged to the front of the room, their faces bloodied, their mouths gagged with fake beards. They did not cry, so I cried for them. Of the thirty or forty revisionists it had taken to bring the two professors down only a dozen were able to walk, and these dragged out their fallen comrades so the moans of the injured and the dying would not disrupt the panel. Then we were reminded to turn off our cell phones, and Rahimi addressed the greatly diminished audience as Tanzer peeled off her false beard.
“Now that the absent members of our panel have joined us we may begin,” said Rahimi, leering at Ardanuy and Dunn. “I will open the discussion with an examination of the Brothers Grossbart’s occasional companion, Al-Gassur Abu-Yateem Thanni ibn Farees. It is, of course, impossible to address Al-Gassur without addressing the emperor Timur the Lame, and it is, of course, impossible to address Timur the Lame without addressing Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great—”
Even through his gag Dunn’s shriek of agony made me dry-heave, the sound one of a wife who has lost her husband, a photographer who has lost his sight, a dog who has lost his genitals, a sound, in short, of absolute suffering. Rahimi did not even flinch as he continued his assault. The pain it brought me paled beside the obvious agony Dunn and Ardanuy suffered, the latter periodically passing out in an attempt to end the misery only to have Rahimi’s revisionist theories slap him awake with their blasphemous stench.
Dewsack, returning from the bar, saw the empty seats beside me and came over. For once I was glad for the distraction of his company. As he sat down he nodded at the ferret maiden keeping me pinned in place with her trained hell-weasels.
“Hello, Dumas. Didn’t know you knew Jamie. He was the semester after you, wrote a wonderful little bit of erotic flash about the future of space, or space in the future, or something. Robots banging refrigerators, that sort of thing. Quite vivid.”
I had written nothing of the sort, but was desperate enough to play along.
“Dumas, is it?” I swallowed, the ferret on my shoulder digging its claws in deeper, teeth that could, given enough time, eviscerate a sofa cushion mere inches from my throat. “Well met. What say you take your marmot off me now? You’ve got the gun…”
“Yes, yes, let the poor boy go,” agreed Dewsack, wrinkling his nose at the creature. “We’re all here for a laugh, what?”
“A laugh,” Dumas said in a tone that was anything but affable, but then the weight of the ferret on my shoulder was lifted. “I’m watching you, Tonkatsu. You mess with Rahimi and Tanzer you mess with me and my carpet sharks.”
“Tonkatsu?” Dewsack licked his lips in a manner that only certain fat men can perfect, a silent prayer to the food gods. “That’s a Japanese pork cutlet, isn’t it?”
Without the deadly weasel at my neck I was able to focus on Rahimi’s lecture, and despite my convictions I found my Judas chin nodding at much of what he was saying. Orientalism was unavoidable in a field such as ours, and should be guarded against. Could we talk about the Brothers Grossbart and not talk about the East? I was no longer sure. When Rahimi concluded with a brilliant series of comparisons to Charlie Chan, Jackie Chan, and Cowboy Curtis from The Pee-Wee Herman Show I found myself on my feet and clapping as loudly as the rest of the revisionists.
Then Tanzer took the podium, her chin still pink from the adhesive she had used to keep her beard in place. I was eager to hear her thoughts but those shameful bare cheeks chafed me, and I found myself wondering if I was an inside beard, and if so, whose? Was I an apologist or a revisionist? Why must I choose?
“The Brothers Grossbart,” Tanzer began, “were sadistic, racist, xenophobic, sexist degenerates.”
A round of applause. I twitched. I could hear Dumas clapping behind me, which meant her hands weren’t on the gun. I twitched again.
“That said, they were products of their time and place, and in the chronicles we often find them voicing interesting views on any number of topics,” Tanzer looked from Ardanuy to Dunn, who had both gone still in their bonds, looking up at her with unabashed interest. “This is why my discussion tonight will focus solely on women in the Grossbart texts, and how gender studies—”
Ardanuy vomited, a foul scotch stew bubbling through the colander of fake beard blocking his mouth, and Dunn tipped his chair in a desperate attempt to headbutt Tanzer. As Rahimi and Tanzer tried to restore order, I twisted around in my seat to address Dewsack and Dumas. The ferret maiden held a weasel in each hand like some deranged zookeeper-turned-gunslinger and my former professor burped.
“Listen,” I said, more to Dumas than the ineffectual Dewsack. “Your camp makes a lot of good points. Really. But they’re killing Ardanuy and Dunn! One’s going to choke on his own puke and the other’s going to have embolism if we don’t get them out of here!”
“You want me to call them a wah-mbulance?” Dumas sneered. “You came here to assassinate Rahimi and Tanzer, plain and simple, and we got the upper hand. That’s how academia works, Tonkatsu—if the scholarship is outdated it gets dumped.”
“They never said anything about assassinating anyone,” I protested, leaving aside what they might have clearly implied. “They told me they wanted to debate, that’s all!”
“With canes and guns?” But Dumas hadn’t put her furs on me again, which was a good sign.
“They’re eccentric! And they know what you revisionists think of their theories, so they came prepared. And look at the result—two against fifty, or however many of you there are. Shouldn’t you let them slit their own throats in a scholarly fashion instead of torturing them to death?”
“Not three against fifty?” Dumas narrowed her eyes at me.
“I’m a research assistant,” I said, straightening my shoulders. “It’s what I do. But I won’t be one forever, and neither will you, if that’s all you are to them.”
She flinched. Dewsack burped again, clearly bored with the resumed lecture and hoping we would spice things up. I hurried on.
“Listen to me, please—if we want to be true scholars we need to hear all sides, we need to examine all the material, not just the scholarship we agree with. When the day comes when you’re doing your own research, writing your own books, don’t you want to look back on the Baton Rouge conference and say I was one of the scholars who heard both sides, who encouraged debate instead of stifling it. Isn’t that what you lot are on about, opening up the debate to include everyone? Please, just look at Dunn and Ardanuy.”
And she did, peering past me at the bound professors—Ardanuy was obviously suffocating, and I think Dunn might have been trying to bite off his own tongue to end it all. Dumas looked back at me and gave the slightest of nods. Then she set the two ferrets at her feet, a second pair emerged from the folds of the coat, and all four began war dancing toward the front of the room. Dewsack nudged me, and I saw he had retrieved Dunn and Ardanuy’s fallen canes. Taking one in each hand, I felt the power of the unbiased scholar course through me.
Dumas’ weasels had reached Dunn and Ardanuy, shimmying up the professors and gnawing at their bonds. I knew that at any moment a revisionist would notice the escape attempt and so it came to pass that I found myself leaping from chair to chair, from row to row, a cane flashing in each hand. I might concede the revisionists a point or two but cracking chins armored only with criminally dishonest fake beards was a rare treat as all eyes turned to me, Tanzer’s lecture trailing off as I bore down on her and Rahimi. The shock of finding an enemy in their midst had initially stayed the audience but now they were rising up to thwart my charge, brass knuckles and blackjacks and clubs falling upon me; at the front of the room Tanzer brandished a glaive and Rahimi a pair of long needles. Before the audience could bring me to earth I saw Ardanuy and Dunn stand, unleashed and spitting out fake beards, and I hurled their canes at them. Neither professor was looking at me yet both snatched their walking sticks out of the air and went to work.
In the ensuing debate I lost four teeth, a fingernail, and the sensation in my legs and left buttock. It was glorious. When Dunn beat the revisionist audience members off me I repaid his previous kindness by delivering a solid kick to the old man’s fruitstand, and when he doubled over I bashed him with a folding chair. Then Ardanuy tackled me, only to have Rahimi leap on his back and bite his ear. Tanzer and Dewsack were locked in mortal combat, Dumas and her hell-weasels were snapping at both sides, and even the rousebirds working the door of the bar entered the fray with bike chains swinging. It was a night of blood, and as the bartender, one John “Cash Money” Gove, hurled bottles of scotch into the melee it became a night of liquor in the ears and broken glass in the feet and few regrets.
The next morning I carpooled back to Tallahassee with Dewsack, my car having been set ablaze after the panel moved the debate outside to the parking lot. Dewsack could not see due to being sprayed in the eyes with ferret urine, and I could not use my legs after Dunn had finally caught up with me and resumed the assault he had begun upon first meeting me in Tallahassee. The result was that Dewsack manned the pedals while I worked the steering wheel and instructed the blinded man on when to brake.
Dunn and Ardanuy have sworn vengeance against me, as have Rahimi and Tanzer, but if we are to strive for objective scholarship we can no more give in to threats than we can to bribes. My detractors may dismiss my approach and methods, they may call me a “popular historian” or, as Rahimi recently put it in a rather tactless article in the Medieval History Journal, a “scholar for dollar,” but the facts speak for themselves, and I stand by my research. In this account, as in my novel, I have striven for accuracy, authenticity, and honesty, which is all a Grossbart could hope for, or, for that matter, a Grossbart scholar.