The Harvard Skull Fiasco, Chapter 1 | by Kris St.Gabriel

Chapter 1

It Was All a Great Misunderstanding

When the skull of Phineas Gage vanished from its cabinet on the fifth floor of the library at Harvard Medical School all my colleagues looked at me with suspicion.

It was annoying. Sure, technically it was me who had stolen that skull, but they didn’t know that, did they? There was no forensic evidence left at the scene of the crime because I had worn gloves. Nobody had seen me either, because I had taken the precaution of looking around furtively, just in case. What I’m saying is that - apart from the incidental fact that I was the culprit behind the theft, everybody was being completely irrational.

I was disappointed in them, of course. The world’s most famous skull was missing and my colleagues in the library were circling me like sharks in the water - if sharks had the nerve to go about in tweed jackets and sweater-vests, that is. But why had they decided to circle me? Me, of all people? Well, I suppose it’s true that, in the course of planning the heist, I had told approximately thirty-seven of my fellow Harvard employees what I was up, but I did take the precaution of swearing each of them to secrecy so I don’t know. A lesser man might have wondered if one of them was a stool pigeon, as we of the criminal element say, but, though I have my flaws, I refuse to let cynicism be one.

The most troubling explanation for their behavior is that I am Australian, a nationality which certain ignorant, prejudiced Americans sometimes regard as a signifier for all sorts of latent criminal tendencies. It’s discouraging; it hurt my feelings a little. In my lowest moments I even wondered if I should give up on the Americans altogether, leave them to their petty little world of over-generalizations about us Australians, and clear off home to Thargomindah. In the end, I think that I only stayed because, in my heart of hearts, I’m optimistic about Americans. And besides, going back to Thargomindah would require me to have a tedious conversation with the local constabulary in my home town about a missing forklift. (Why can’t they just let the matter go, I will never understand).

Now, if I remember correctly, I stole the skull of Phineas Gage on the Monday before Christmas. I don’t remember what I did on Tuesday - I think I was in meetings around the campus and somehow managed to avoid the library altogether. It wasn’t until Wednesday the 23rd of December that I finally sauntered back to the scene of the crime. I remember that vividly. At ten in the morning exactly I swept into the foyer looking bored and a little preoccupied about some work-related thing or other.

I recall feeling vaguely impressed by my performance; if they handed out awards for the most perfect impersonation of a man who had not two days earlier stolen a skull from a museum in the same building, then my portrayal was an act for the ages.

Tragically, all my efforts to seem innocent were wasted: the library foyer was empty. When I reached the middle of the atrium I paused and looked about. My heart was hammering treacherously in my chest, so loudly it might have echoed off the dull beige walls.

To my relief and surprise, I was not arrested. Police didn’t run in my direction. A swarm of fanatically violent paramilitary police didn’t even smash through the skylight above and the foyer did not rain with shattered glass and bullets. I stared upwards into the silent atrium waiting for a dozen gendarmes to descend like corpulent beetles on a string, but I waited in vain.

Then I looked over at the Circulation Desk. Nobody burst out from behind it brandishing guns and rocket launchers in that overzealous and discouraging manner that makes American law enforcement seem exactly like the sort of headache that any right-thinking criminal would seek to avoid.

In short, everything was stillness and tranquility, and were it not for the fact that I was in a large concrete building in the middle of winter then crickets would certainly be chirping. Trust me, this was precisely the sort of situation for which crickets practically live.

I turned around slowly, prepared to sink to my knees with my hands on my head, which is a gesture that has been known to make some American police slightly less inclined to shoot people in the head. It was all very eerie, really. The security guard over by the entrance stared at his crossword and muttered curse words in Estonian. I could hear a distant vacuum cleaner and someone coughing in an office somewhere. Otherwise, apart from my moment of panic, not a lot was going on in the foyer of the Countway Library of Medicine.

Ha, I thought to myself after a long pause. I am totally going to get away with this.

I took two steps in the direction of the stairs before I realized that a battalion of cops was probably parked outside my office upstairs, armed to the tusks with clubs and pistols, ready to riddle me with justice the moment I appeared around the corner.

I paused again to think. Where should I go? Back through the glass doors outside? Not to sound paranoid but a few days ago I had walked away with one of Harvard’s most prized possessions. I’m not saying they had snipers on the roof of Gordon Hall – I hadn’t seen any on my way into the building, at least – but why chance it? And besides that, why do anything that my adversaries would expect?

Then I had an idea. Turning right, I proceeded past the Circulation Desk and through the little gate marked ‘Staff Only’. Nobody could possibly expect me to stop by Wendell’s office, of course; that would be so reckless it verged on lunacy. After all, it was Wendell who was co-ordinating the library’s so-called ‘Recovery Committee’, a secret task force charged with retrieving the skull from my possession. I wasn’t supposed to know about that, of course, but then again, there are lots of things I’m not supposed to know - Wendell’s email password being only one.

This is probably the most relevant moment to reveal that, among other things, I happen to be the library’s ‘IT Guy’. It is probably also the most appropriate time to wonder, as an aside, what kind of librarian chooses ‘Library01’ to be their password, anyway?

The answer to this question lay on the other side of a door. And, of all the doors at Harvard Medical School, this was the door on which the man behind the theft of the Skull of Phineas Gage should not, under any circumstances, knock. Still, the look on his face when he pulled open the door made the whole lark worthwhile.

“Hullo Shea,” he said, wide-eyed and dumbstruck.

“I don’t like you,” I told him as I pushed past. Settling contentedly into one of the arm chairs in front of his desk, I gave him my best innocent look.

“Why don’t you like me?” he wondered, matching my innocent expression with remarkable expertise.

Now, look - it’s a bit embarrassing but the fact is that I suffer from pathological problems with authority. I can’t explain that to Wendell, of course; Wendell is a middle-manager, and my disorder more or less prevents me from conveying any sort of useful information to middle-managers.

“I can’t explain it to you,” I said with a shrug. “All I can say is that my reasons are very complex and nuanced. Though it might be because I have pathological problems with authority and you’re a manager.”

Then I pressed my fingers to my temples and winced in spite of myself.

Nobody knows why but Wendell wears horned-rim glasses which make him look like an undergraduate in the 1940s. There was nothing wrong with his eyesight; the lenses had no refraction and he often forgot to put them on, but he wore them just the same. Even if I didn’t have pathological problems with authority I am pretty sure those glasses would still annoy me.

Wendell is a thirty-ish year-old African-American with the genial but slightly harried air of a man far busier than he really is. I have never seen the Circulation Desk manager occupied with anything that you or I might consider actual work. I suppose this is why he feels compelled to turn up in a suit every day or, at the very least, a collared shirt and woolen vest. In short, everything about Wendell is so sensible and pro-establishment that some days I can’t even look at him without feeling itchy.

“I know you have authority issues,” he said. “Look, how long have you worked here now?”

“Eight months, give or take.”

“And we’ve been having lunch together almost every single day for eight months.”

“So? I enjoy our conversations,” I replied cagily. “Just because you’re middle-management scum doesn’t mean we can’t be pleasant to one another.”

“Oh, I just realized,” he observed, untucking his necktie from his vest and squinting at it. “You always get tense at me whenever I wear a tie.”

I shook my head in vigorous denial.

“Yes,” I added, then flinched and massaged my temple lightly. “Look, the reason for that is simple -”

“My neckties,” Wendell recited, “implicate me in your deepest suspicions that I am an unsound person to be either avoided at worse, or at best, antagonized.”

I gazed at him, feeling a little itchy. “Wendell if I’ve ever repeated myself it’s only because I like to be consistent in what I say.”

“Well I happen to like my ties,” he grumbled obstinately. “The ladies at the second-hand store where I buy them all say I have impeccable taste.”

I offered what I hoped was a polite grimace.

“Face facts, man. Everything that is wrong with the world has been wrought by men wearing neckties. It is the uniform of oppression.”

“And I look good in ties. That’s what bothers you, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s the fact that you are wearing that travesty when it’s not even required by Harvard’s dress-code.”

“Let us pause for a moment and enjoy the pleasant irony of you, Shea, lecturing anybody about the Harvard dress-code.”

Exasperating, isn’t he? For some perverse reason or other Wendell had never understood that dress codes don’t apply to me. I think he might have been harboring some resentfulness, actually. You see, I was a member of a caste that was expected to dress shabbily. It’s a tradition that symbolizes our exceptional importance.

“I work in IT,” I reminded him for the thousandth time. “This is our uniform.”

“Your cargo pants have grease stains on them,” he observed dispassionately. “And that t-shirt under your sweater? I know for a fact you were wearing that t-shirt yesterday.”

“I like this t-shirt,” I justified reasonably.

“And as for the gray sweater itself, I also happen to know that you removed it from Lost Property two months ago. I was there, I watched you do it.”

“It got cold two months ago. We Australians feel the cold, Wendell. Do you think I would have stolen this sweater from Lost Property if it wasn’t cold?”

“It looks like it was a summer home for an entire generations of moths. Happy, well-nourished moths.”

Admittedly, I had shaken the occasional moth out of the sweater, never with malice but more a sense of camaraderie for the little creatures. I liked the thing. My people call them jumpers, not sweaters, and this was not merely first I’d ever owned but the first I’d ever needed!

But Wendell was wrong to imply I dressed carelessly. I was an employee of Harvard Medical School’s Central IT department, and we had a good reason for everything we did. We liked to show up to work a little unkempt because it implied that we were too preoccupied with the esoteric to bother with the sartorial.

Dressing shabbily offered the additional advantage of reminding others of our respective importance. Or, to put it another way, my ‘sweater’ implied a threateningly high level of technical competence that encapsulated an unspoken threat: everybody had better be nice to me. Or else.

“People like me,” I said to him,“don’t believe in dress codes.”

“But you still enforce one on me.”

“It’s completely different. There are principles at stake. For generations, men dreamed of not being required to wear ties. Men once stood and died on blood-stained barricades for the right not to wear a tie, and here you are, brazenly spitting on their legacy.

“And for what? For the chance that some higher-up spots you in the elevator and makes a note of it in some large leather-bound ledger.

“Thursday,” I said, pantomiming the writing in a diary. “Rain storms. Tea with U.S. Attorney General. Young Wendell wore a tie again. Clearly a serious-minded individual. Let’s promote him to senior management at our earliest convenience…”

Wendell received my mockery with wry smile. “Oh come on, you know Harvard only awards promotions based on merit.”

I know it is wrong to snicker but we snickered anyway. And for the record he snickered first. He’s a snickerer, that Wendell. Take it from me - I am sufficiently comfortable in myself to be able to admit other people’s flaws.

“Well, this has been nice,” he said, moving around his desk and settling into his office chair. “But I’m going to have to excuse myself. I’m very busy today.”

I stared at him for a little while expectantly.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said at last. “You were being serious.”

“Yes. What’s wrong with that?”

“I’m trying to imagine what you being busy would look like.”

“I’m often busy!”

“Don’t do that. Don’t spoil a successful joke with hyperbole.”

“I am being serious, Shea,” he said, eyeing me closely. “I’m not authorized to talk about this with you but there’s a kerfluffle that needs dealing with.”

“You mean that business with the skull?” I asked, doing my innocence routine. “Word around the library is that it’s a hullabaloo.”

He raised an eyebrow at me.

“Is that what they’re saying now? What a lot of nonsense,” he muttered disgustedly. “The librarians wouldn’t know a ruckus from a fracas.”

“Still, a hullabaloo is no laughing matter…”

“As I said before,” he responded, a little tersely, “it’s only a kerfluffle, and we’re keeping it contained.” Staring at me over the tops of his glasses, he added, “Fortunately, the Director has stayed out of it so far. I don’t know how much longer that will be the case. If the Director gets involved, it’ll be a rumpus by nightfall. Or even worse, a brouhaha.”

“You know, if you’re not careful, Wendell, you might have a fiasco on your hands.”

“It won’t become a fiasco! Trust me, we’ve got this well-and-truly in hand. Besides, the skull isn’t even officially missing as of yet. Which is good thing, really, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to talk about it openly.”

Of course Harvard hadn’t formally acknowledged the theft. Wendell had probably assumed that the Dean’s Office was being unnecessarily vague about the entire affair, but it was more likely that they were trying limit communications with the library for as long as possible.

Let’s be clear. The Dean’s Office at Harvard Medical School has never, in any official capacity, described its relationship with the library as vexed. And it has never publicly described the librarians themselves as a bunch of wild-eyed agitators who will one-day get their just-desserts, oh just you wait and see.

On a complete different topic, it’s funny that way so many people assume we IT guys are too busy working on that computer in the background to pay any attention the conversations going on around them. It’s also remarkable how people assume we’re not passing interesting information among each other.

Poor Wendell here was well connected at Harvard in some respects but he could only ever see as far as the windows of the library. My situation was very different.

Even though my office was here in the library officially I was an employee of the illustrious Central IT department on the far side of the campus. I had been embedded here as library’s resident ‘IT Specialist’ – a vague title that carried with it an air of mystical interpretation that could be very useful at times. As a member of Central IT I was connected to a spy network of other ‘IT specialists’ that spanned the length and breadth of the school.

As a result I knew all sorts of things that Wendell didn’t. For instance, I knew that that - even though they’re a few yards away - the Dean’s Office and the Countway Library of Medicine are barely on speaking terms. Their respective outlooks are just so different, I suppose.

To appreciate the differences between them, all you have to do is contrast each organization’s attitude towards ghosts. Let me explain.

When the skull of Phineas Gage disappeared nobody knew until the next morning because the security guards had not patrolled the upper floors of the library the previous evening. In fact, they hadn’t patrolled the library after hours in years, on account of all the ‘weird ju-jus’ up there.

The librarians had never minded; they knew all about the ‘weird ju-jus’ but took the view that all this supernatural wildlife provided the building with an intriguing and enjoyable ambiance. They are fair-minded folk, the librarians, and it didn’t sit well with them that the security guards had to wander about upstairs, late at night, dealing with all that creepiness.

The Dean’s Office, on the other hand, took a different view of the matter. Harvard Medical School’s library has no ghosts, they claimed, because there is no such thing as ghosts. And besides, this is the premier leading medical research university in the world, so the library had better get its act together. Those security guards have a job to do; there is nothing in their union negotiations excusing their patrols owing to - what did they call it, again? Yes, here it is. ‘Nebulous feelings of preternatural dread’…

In any case, and regardless of their disagreement over the supernatural, the fact is that nobody knew that the skull was missing until Tuesday morning. There was a day or so to reflect on the matter, and after that it must have seemed expedient to become reticent about the whole matter.

Faced with any awkwardness, Harvard always becomes reticent. What do I mean by awkwardness? I mean the possibility of hypothetical headlines in international newspapers like: ‘Harvard Loses its Skull’. That kind of awkwardness.

“If the skull isn’t officially missing, yet,” I wondered, “what is there to talk openly about?”

“Well, we can discuss the rumors of your involvement,” he replied, like some sort of amateur Sherlock Holmes.

I sighed wearily. “The rumors of my involvement in the case of the skull that is not officially missing from the museum?”

He nodded emphatically. “It sounds like a zen koan, doesn’t it? But alas, many of our colleagues seem to recall overhearing you saying that the skull might become not officially missing one day.”

I looked at him with pity. “Wendell can you imagine me ever telling anyone that the skull might become not officially missing? Have I ever been that fluent in Harvard political speak?

“And what is all this talk of people overhearing things that I may or may not have said? It sounds like there are a lot of very vague eavesdroppers in this building.”

Wendell became solemn. “It’s a troubling situation for many of the staff. Right now the skull of Phineas Gage is neither within its cabinet nor without. You know, we librarians do not enjoy this amount of unease about matters. We like reality to be firm and steady. Until the university administration can confirm the skull’s situation, we are all suffering the skull’s crisis of existence as best we know how.”

“This is all my fault,” I said, sympathetically.

Wendell gave me a startled glance.

“Yes, I should never have prognosticated,” I continued. “All I did was predict that the skull would one day go missing. It wasn’t so difficult to do, and is hardly a sign that I had anything to do with it.”

He squinted at me skeptically. “Of course, of course. But it’s not as simple as that, is it? You know more than you’re suggesting, perhaps?”

“I have to admit I’m enjoying this situation. I get the strongest feeling right now, Wendell, that you’re listening very closely to everything I have to say. Trust me, speaking as someone who works in IT this is quite the novelty.”

Eight months into the job and the staff of Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine were still writing their passwords on sticky-notes attached to the sides of their computer monitors. Nothing I had said concerning information security had had any lasting effect on the librarians. At some point I think I just stopped caring what I said to anyone.

By August I could be heard around the library chattering freely about the race of alien lizards who had covertly seized control of the US Government. Nobody had batted an eyelash.

Today, on the other hand, I was a person of interest. Some among the upper-echelons of Harvard University were treating anything I’d ever said or typed in an email as unholy gospel. While Wendell and I sat here talking, certain individuals were poring over my emails with great curiosity. It felt strange to know I was being studied from afar, and nice, in an odd sort of way, and also a little remorseful. After all, I had barely mentioned the alien lizard menace in any of my workplace emails. In hindsight, this seemed like such a wasted opportunity.

“I imagine you must feel you’re in a tricky situation,” said Wendell.

“Would you like me to tell you my side of the story?”

“That would depend on the story’s genre,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

Wendell liked many kinds of stories, apparently, but he had never been partial to certain genres. He could not abide westerns, for example, or historical non-fiction. I assured him that there was no elements of either in my tale and besides, how could there be? And why couldn’t he use his brain?

“This is a heist story,” I explained patiently, “with elements of mystery and a dash of the supernatural.”

“I also like stories that wrap up nicely at end. I don’t want to be left in the dark about anything. I hate that.”

I looked at him nonplussed. “Can I begin?”

He nodded eagerly.

“Right,” I began. “It was all a great misunderstanding. One day -”

“Wait a moment - is this a love story?”

“What?! What are you talking about?”

“You said it was a great misunderstanding. And that sounds like a love story to me.”

“It’s not a …” I broke off distractedly. “Well, you know there is a – but look here, I don’t know where that particular arc is going - and besides, I haven’t had time to consider the matter too closely. I’ve been too caught up in events, I suppose.”

“I was caught up in events, once,” he remarked wistfully.

“I could leave,” I suggested, standing up.

Wendell leaped to his feet and waved his hands about as if to suggest the opposite, so I returned to my chair.

“Where was I?”

“We were establishing the genre. Elements of romance, shall we say.”

“If you like,” I said with exasperation. “In truth, being the suspect of a crime is lot like being in a love story. People hang on your every word, but all they really want to do is take away your freedom.”

“Or perhaps you haven’t stolen any hearts,” mused Wendell. “Just a priceless skull.”

I’ll admit it. I did, in that moment, consider taking my chances with the battalion of heavily beweaponed law-enforcement thugs waiting outside my office; at least they wouldn’t be as bloody-minded as Wendell.

“It was all a great misunderstanding,” I repeated.

“I hear you,” he said. “You’re saying you only stole the skull by accident.”

“I predicted the skull would be stolen,” I continued, ignoring his nonsense, “because it seemed to me that it was bound to happen one of these days. And after a while I began wondering how such a thing would be done. Skip ahead in the story and one day I found myself planning the theft of Phineas Gage’s skull.”

He nodded. “This is widely-remembered.”

“But there are certain facets to this story that are not widely-remembered, Wendell. For instance…”

chapter 2 continues …