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Bookstore Proprietor Ends Conspiracy

Column by Anders Hove
Executive Editor

A few weeks ago, as some readers may recall, I stopped by for a visit to my old hang-out, the Balkan Subversive and Revolutionary Bookstore. I had come for a reason, but the proprietor of the establishment, the wizened Radovan Icic, had interrupted my train of thought by launching a stream of invective against yet another group of fictional conspirators. I had to spend the better part of an hour disabusing him of the theory, proving conclusively that I did not subscribe to any backwards, reactionary, syndicalist society. At that point, Radovan noticed the object I was carrying: a tattered, black umbrella, which was carefully folded, and caked in dust.

"Mr. Hove," Radovan grunted, twisting the features of his contorted physiognomy. His shock of white hair stood in stark contrast to the dark, soot-caked interior of the store. His face, though tired, was lit with a sort of ethereal glow. "What is this umbrella for?"

"You don't recognize it, do you?" I asked, knowing full well he could hardly see. I lifted the umbrella closer to Radovan's face, nearly giggling with anticipation. Would my old friend from the underground recognize the historic find I had made?

As my old friend bent over a little to give the object a closer look, his eyes widened. "Of course," he sighed, "this is the very umbrella used by - well, a friend of mine - to knock off Georgi Markov! I'd recognize the KGB design anywhere, not to mention the Zhivkov crest on the handle. Georgi's loss is our gain. Where did you come across this treasure, Mr. Hove?"

"State secret, old boy," I said with a smirk.

"Heh," he grunted, "you probably picked it up at a cheap bookstore in New York last week. Here, let me take a closer look."

Radovan gingerly grasped the umbrella handle with his shaking, grey hand. I let my grip loosen, but his hold was not yet firm. The umbrella slipped from our hands.

"Ah!" shrieked my old friend, his face wrenched with pain. There was a clatter on the floor. Radovan bent over, clutching his foot.

"I'm slain," he said. "The poison tip pricked me in the shin. How could you do this to me, Hove?"

I was aghast. The man who had outsmarted Stepinac's fascists and evaded Mihailovic's nationalist thugs stood dying before me, the victim of a tragic accident.

"Radovan, it's not my fault. Tell me you'll pull through!"

"You've had it out for me all along, you conniving conspirator. As the author of these columns, you are ultimately responsible for my fate."

I turned toward the nearest bookshelf, cursing my cruel thoughts. I felt overcome by a wave of bitterness.

"It's true, Rado. You and I have failed. This newspaper has been printing columns about our conspiratorial gossip for three years now. In spite of that record, there is not a student on campus who understands what we are trying to do. The motif is too artsy, too abstract. It's an arrogant thing to say, Rado, but maybe MIT isn't ready to mix black humor with real issues."

"I understand how you feel, Hove," Radovan said. He stood up and put his grisly hand on my shoulder. "You think you're misunderstood, try running a bookstore that specializes in revolutionary and subversive literature. I took up shop here nearly 20 years ago, thinking that Cambridge would be the one place in America savvy enough to develop a taste in the underworld."

"I couldn't have been more mistaken," continued Radovan. "conspiracy-mongers around here only care about John Kennedy. The international set only cares about high-powered conferences attended by washed-up diplomats. No wonder they know nothing of the underground. For 20 years, then, I've had a mere shadow of clientele. I've survived off the charity of backward Communist states."

My old friend hobbled to an oak captain's chair in a dark corner of the shop, easing himself into a sitting posture.

"Even my loyal brothers, Milovan and Ratko, have deserted me," he said. "They are back in Banja Luka, making another go of it with General Mladic. But I was too old for that. To think I might have lived had I returned to the mountains near my home."

"Radovan, what will I do without you?" I asked.

"I suppose you'll have to go back to writing real columns," he said. "You'll have to go back to the conventional way of bashing people. You'll have to attack a real fraternity for abusing alcohol and passing around women like dog chew toys."

I wanted to find out more. I wanted to plug Radovan for more insider information about Cambridge, students, and administrators. I wanted to uncover his sources, get the combination to his vault, and find out how to contact his brothers. I wanted to take my old friend to some small cafe in Belgrade where we could sip some coffee and discuss the collected works of Milovan Djilas.

But it was too late for that. Radovan's eyes were closed. I imagined that the poison had already turned his limbs cold. The room was growing dimmer - so dim I could hardly see the books, the door, or even Radovan himself. I began to my way to the door, pressing my hands against it and pulling it slowly open.

Glancing back through the crack, I saw that Radovan's head had slumped down on his chest. I pulled my body into the alley and walked a few paces. Feeling a sudden pang of remorse, I turned around to take one last look at the vine-covered basement door, and the flickering "Balkan" neon light. But it had all disappeared in a mysterious Harvard fog. I could make out nothing, not even the row of brownstones from which I had just emerged.

Something told me there would be little point in notifying the authorities.