The Seagulls (NaNoWriMo 2022 #22)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Old Habits)

The seagulls dived upon the Myrtle Beach tourists and liberally scooped up bites of their corn dogs and churros faster than you could say “There’s a leopard taking a nap in the foyer.” While few people in Myrtle Beach had ever seen a leopard — much less a panther taking an afternoon snooze (a rare though not entirely unprecedented act in South Carolina) — they remained surprised and affronted by these impressive descents, which recalled the nimble gullshaped Stuka bombers from nine decades before. The Germans had, of course, built six thousand of these deadly planes, which had gleefully dropped bombs on thousands of people with that uniquely destructive gusto that white supremacy tends to bring out in its deranged acolytes.

But this wave of destruction had been largely forgotten by most South Carolinans, who were more interested in memorizing statistics associated with the Clemson Tigers and condemning Dabo Swinney for any perceived solecism in coaching — both foolproof methods of initiating conversations with strangers in bars.

And even if the largely uneducated clusters who gathered upon the beach during the summer months had known a few basic details about one of the most abominable wars in human history, the Third Reich’s mass military production was no match against the ferocious commitment of seagulls, who openly copulated under docks and on seaside rooftops with a randy glee that outdid Giacomo Casanova at the peak of his fuccboi prowess. Moreover, the seagulls were at least decent enough, despite their primitive animal minds, to not target Jewish people. For them, all humans were fair game. Which made the seagulls superior to ape-descended life forms on at least one front.

Every spring, the seagulls mated and popped out eggs and built nests. And by May, there were thousands upon thousands of new seagulls ready to harass helpless humans on the Eastern Seaboard. And these natural instinctive acts of gull lust and fledgling mayhem were decidedly more remarkable (and certainly less pernicious) than anything that an evil and hideously overpraised Nazi pilot like Hans-Ulrich Rudel had accomplished in his sixty-six years.

What nobody knew, however, was that seagulls could see the dead.

* * *

Ali Breslin first started to get the inkling that she might be dead when people didn’t acknowledge her friendly hellos or give her darting supercilious glances because of her sherpa beanies. She had been told by her agent to develop a fashion style to stand out and Ali had settled upon a rotating set of pastel hats — all lined in a soft jersey knit. And the people of Myrtle Beach, who already had to contend with the obscenely rich sneering down on them from their Dune Coves McMansions, had cultivated a natural antipathy to anyone wearing a sherpa beanie.

Granted, many Americans — with their incessant ghosting of lovers and job applicants and their distressing refusal to recognize people who work in retail as actual human beings — could be reasonably categorized as the living dead. Late-stage capitalism had made it evermore easier to become something of a zombie. But when Ali approached a snack bar set up on the boardwalk and tried to order a cheeseburger, she was stunned when the man behind the counter could neither see nor hear her. And she really knew something was wrong when she scooped out her phone from her purse to check on her current Amazon ranking (like most authors, she checked this no less than sixteen times a day) and text a few friends. Her fingers melted through the phone in a fine mist. She was incapable of summoning so much as emoji. On the other hand, this also meant that she wouldn’t have to sext anymore with that cute guy she had met on Bumble.

“What the fuck?” she screamed.

But nobody heard her. Families walked past her. No creepy men catcalled her. She waved her arms frantically, but none of these people saw her.

There had been moments in Ali Breslin’s life where she resolutely wanted to have nothing to do with people. Which was something that made practicing journalism a bit of a catch-22. You needed people to talk to you in order to write a story. On the other hand, you often loathed making a cold call to a potential source. Because the idea of interacting with these people in any way filled you with the type of dread that most regular people apply to filing their taxes or wondering if your former spouse’s divorce attorney would uncover some sordid embarrassment during the vicious rounds of discovery. And you complained about it because, well, writers are the biggest and most annoying complainers on the planet. Not even pampered billionaires complain as much as writers do. While other people quietly went about the unpleasant duties of their day with a quiet grace and a buttoned-down humility, writers were unapologetic and often wildly exhibitionistic victims, often when there was nothing particularly significant to worry about. And this incurable self-absorption is one major reason why so many non-writers secretly detest writers with the combined BTU heat of a thousand habanero peppers. It is also why certain bald Brooklynites engaging in fun but incredibly insane online creative experiments during the month of November feel the need to parody them in the most scathing manner imaginable. If writers could learn to shut the fuck up and abandon the foolish geocentric model that they still live by and maybe develop a smidgen of interest in other people, then literature would not be considered the least of all arts in the early 21st century.

Now that Ali no longer had the option to court or avoid people, she started to miss their vagaries and vacillations. And she even regretted choosing the writer life when she had lived.

She hadn’t quite recalled what had brought her to the boardwalk in the first place. She had still been committed to carrying on with her investigation to publish new material in magazines and write new chapters for the paperback edition so the saps would be forced to buy her book twice. She had some dim memory of arranging an interview with Benjamen Stroller, that seedy master operator who had resisted her requests for an on-record chat for years, but who had somehow changed his mind when her book started taking off and gaining considerable media attention. But after that, it was all a blur, as it often is for people who die.

When people die, there’s usually about a twelve hour fog, which includes the final two hours of their lives. You never remember how you died or what the exact circumstances were behind the death. And this is particularly useful if you died in an especially embarrassing manner. The soul — if there is anything left of it — usually needs time to acclimate to the ridiculous inconvenience of being dead. Your newly dead corporeal form, decidedly more ghostly and more abstract than its living fleshy counterpart, also needs time to readjust into something that is a bit more aesthetically pleasing — particularly if you have died in an especially gruesome way.

“Hello! Does anybody see me?”

Nobody responded.

Now if a newly dead person is especially arrogant, she will often shout like this a great deal longer than those who are humbler and more accepting of this regrettable state of affairs. And because there is no actual handbook — no Being Dead for Dummies that you can purchase at the River Styx Bookstore — it is often a great shock for newly dead narcissists when they no longer realize they are the center of attention and they can’t easily manipulate people anymore. When the once famous writer David Fitzroy had passed into the undiscovered country, he was such a supercilious and insufferable blowhard that he spent six weeks screaming at people until he finally accepted his rightly deserved irrelevance. Fitzroy became so desperate for attention that he spent several decades haunting the Space Mountain ride at the Magic Kingdom, but the thousands of kids were too dazzled by the strobe tunnel with the constantly flashing blue lights to care. And it was so depressing that Fitzroy wondered if he could off himself again. But he couldn’t. Because he was already dead.

Ali Breslin was not as arrogant as Fitzroy, but, because she as a writer, she was still smug enough to attract the swarm of seagulls who were now spiraling in the air above her. Their eyes bulged as they saw her and they began to squawk very loudly. (85% of the time, seagulls are squawking because they have just seen a newly dead human.)

“Would you shut up?” said Ali.

The seagulls responded with more squawking and they begin to swoop down on her, making passes right through her spectral body. Which was incredibly annoying to say the least. When she held her arms up and made feverish gestures at the birds to knock it off, this only galvanized the seagulls, who flew within her and made increasingly impressive arcs where her lungs and liver used to be. They seemed to very much enjoy this.

“Recently dead?” said a very familiar shadow to her left, somehow managing to lean on the boardwalk rail.

“Wait, do I know you?”

“It took me about a year to learn how to lean like this, you know. More difficult than learning how to ballroom dance. Because you don’t actually have any physical weight anymore.”

“You’re so familiar.”

“Oh, I get that a lot. You may know me because you may have read it.”

“You’re a writer. A writer I know! I’m a writer.”

“Well, I regret to inform you that the dead don’t read. You see, the dead trees are very upset about their corpses being used for paper. Oh look! There’s a few of them right now!”

The shadow pointed to a ghostly group of conifers walking along the edge of the surf. It reminded her of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Trees — true to their nature — lumbering forward in a slow undulating pattern. Their uprooted tendrils trailed behind them, casting rakes in the sand that only the dead could see and that would be quickly smoothed over by the waves.

“You see, the trees can actually move here. The dead have less weight. And the trees understand this better than anyone. And they torture the Chinese.”

“The Chinese? The trees are racist?”

“No. But they invented paper. Cai Lun — the guy who invented paper — is actually in a witness relocation program right now. Poor bastard. It’s not as if he could anticipate the human appetite for reading over the next several centuries. Although I don’t know why the trees still care. People are reading far less than they used to.”

Another seagull flew through Ali.

“This is so annoying.”

“Don’t worry. It only happens during the first week. It’s almost as if the seagulls came up with their own answer to sitting shiva. But instead of the dead getting an opportunity to heal, we’re pestered by these little bastards.”

“One week?”

“Seagulls stop seeing you eventually. But, for now, you’re their main focus of attention. That is, until they see some food dropped by a tourist.”

“What happens when the seagulls die?”

“Nobody knows. Dead gulls don’t seem to make it to purgatory. Nobody knows why.”

“Maybe we should leave.”

“You know, I could show you a few leaning basics. You’re going to need a lot of new hobbies, you know. Because from what I understand — and I’ve only been dead for about five years — you’re apparently dead for all eternity. At least that’s what the other dead people tell me.”

“How the hell did I die?”

“You see, all spirits have a bit of natural buoyancy. It was Orv Wright who taught me that. He was the first serious dead leaner. And you know what they say? If it’s time to lean, it’s time to clean. But since we dead don’t make messes, we can lean all we like. It’s actually quite relaxing!”

“Orville Wright? You mean, of the Wright Brothers?”

“He lived longer than his brother Wilbur, you know. But if you ask me, Wilbur’s a bit of a prick. The guy never comes down to earth anymore. All that whining about dying young of typhoid fever. Well, my death was far more embarrassing!”

“I’m sorry, but you look so…”

“Familiar? Yes, you just said that. And I think I know who you are.”

“Oh?”

“You’re the silly woman who wrote that book about me.”

“Wait. You can’t be…”

“I was a writer, yes. These days, I’m a leaner. Quite frankly, I find leaning far more rewarding.”

And then it suddenly hit her. And she felt so stupid about only now recalling the voice that had appeared in those creepy videos. But the dead do have a lot of brain fog in the first twenty-four hours.

“You’re Paul Van Kleason!”

“Well, that used to be my name. These days, I got by Aelius.”

“Aelius?”

“Named after the sun. That’s something that Pontius Pilate suggested. Also an asshole, by the way. But then you’d have to be to crucify Jesus, wouldn’t you?”

“Does Jesus exist?”

Ali had never been especially religious. More of an agnostic than anything else. But if there was one singular faith that ruled the world of the dead and that humanity had invented countless insane rituals to explain, she wanted to know about it.

“You see, that’s the funny thing. Nobody has been able to find Christ in the afterlife. If you ask me, I think they made him up. Though Pontius swears that the guy did actually exist and was apparently very good at parties — you know, the whole water to wine act. But he was not the hero he was painted as. More of an insufferable blowhard. Believe it or not, I once ran into Bartholomew.”

“The Apostle?”

“Yes. Utterly hated Jesus. Regretted having anything to do with him. He sounded like some roadie who was stuck on a bad concert tour and had to finish the job. Never meet your heroes, I suppose. And unfortunately you’re probably going to run into many of them. Me? I haven’t run into Jesus yet. I don’t know anyone who has.”

“So this is the afterlife?”

“Honestly, the Jewish people had it right about Christ. If you ask me, Jesus had more in common with P.T. Barnum than Gandhi. John Lennon has some funny ideas about Jesus. But at least he’s free to say anything he wants in the afterlife. He’s in North Dakota if you want to meet him. Apparently, he insists on inhabiting places that involve Dakota. He’s also weirdly obsessed with the number nine.”

“Is there a god?”

“None that I’ve seen. Nobody seems to be in charge. It’s just a rampant free-for-all. There’s no heaven or hell. Though there are certain communities, which is where most of the dead end up.”

“Gated communities?”

“Yeah, a little bit like that. People like to socialize. It gets lonely wandering around the earth and not being acknowledged. But I honestly prefer to be down here. It’s fun to check up on other writers. Particularly the ones who thumbed their noses at me at book parties. And you learn a lot about people. How often they pick their noses. How often they masturbate. Man, you’d be surprised by how nasty people get when they believe that nobody is watching. And the porn they watch! It’s pretty disgusting. Everyone seems to have a weird kink! Sometimes it’s good to be dead.”

“I was never quite able to figure out how you died.”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure myself. Those last two hours of your life, you know.”

“What?”

“Always fuzzy. And it didn’t help that they doctored the autopsy report.”

They?

“Ben Stroller, Bill Flogaast, all those people.”

“But I tied the connections directly to DC.”

Dead Paul laughed.

“Oh dear. Washington had nothing to do with it.”

“But Senator Rollins.”

“Oh, sure, he trained my wife and her best friend. But he’s merely an opportunistic numbskull.”

“He’s considered one of the most promising figures on the right.”

“So you bought into Stroller’s con.”

“What?”

“He hooked me into his ring for a good six years. I was ready to go public. But then I ended up here.”

“You were murdered?”

“Probably. I don’t know for sure. But I honestly haven’t cared. I’m more interested in leaning.”

Paul then leaned with great subtlety against a live tree just off the boardwalk.

“Should you be doing that given them?” asked Ali, pointing to the three conifers continuing their great saunter along the beach.

“If the trees see me, they’ll consider this a form of camaraderie. Trees actually enjoyed providing shade to us. They didn’t mind it when we built houses on their branches. Even when we used the wood from other trees. Because every treehouse is a mortuary of sorts. And the sap that runs down branches? That’s tree grief.”

“How did you learn so much about trees?”

“A guy by the name of Alex Shigo. He’s considered a hero among the trees because he spent so much of his life trying to understand them. He’s sometimes called in to mediate disputes between the trees and the Chinese. Oh, and that’s one other amazing thing about the afterlife. You can understand everyone.”

“Well, that’s too bad.”

“Why?”

“I put in hundreds of hours into Duolingo. I guess it was all for nothing.”

“Your name is Ali Breslin, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I hate to break it to you, Ali, but most people — even the greatest figures in history — live pointless lives. Their achievements are usually forgotten within ten years. And we’re all left to watch ourselves become increasingly irrelevant for eternity.”

“That’s a lot to take in.”

“It’s not even the most depressing part of being dead.”

“Well, what is the most depressing part of being dead?”

“Learning who Sophie truly was. That’s why I don’t visit her anymore. She was a bigger part of the ring than anybody knows. Oh sure, they tried to pin my apparent murder on Ezmerelda. But Ezmerelda was innocent. Innocent of murder, that is.”

“She walked away from OnlyFans.”

“Do you want to know why?”

“It was that last video she made.”

“True. But did you ever find out the guy she was blowing on camera?”

“I had experts analyze the video. We did models of body types, but we couldn’t find him.”

“That’s because the guy had enough money to cover it up.”

“Wait a minute. You’re not insinuating what I think you are.”

“I am. You see, the guy was Ben Stroller.”

(Word count: 46,305/50,000)

Old Habits (NaNoWriMo 2022 #21)

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the last new chapter I will offer until Sunday, as I am quite exhausted from writing 43,000 words in three weeks while working a full-time job and living a jam-packed life. I also have a great deal of Thanksgiving cooking to do. Many thanks to all of the kind emails and messages. I’ve been stunned and deeply honored by the positive reception to this insane endeavor, which I wrote in a bubble, without any plan, and simply to have fun. Happy Thanksgiving to all!]

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The White Savior Problem)

Nick Carraway (real name: ________________) was lying in bed with an obscene number of pillows, wearing nothing more than a robe he had purloined from the Cheval Blanc St-Tropez during his six month stay in the French Riviera. He sipped a tamarind mojito with measured leisure as the gentle water roared outside and the two women wrapped their arms around his neck, purring sweet Spanish into his ears that he could only half-comprehend but that had an infallible restorative effect on what little remained of his soul. One of the women had tied one of his burgundy ties around her neck and was wearing nothing else. The other dangled the brim of his fedora around her tousled brown bangs and laughed, thinking of the vast fortune she was making that morning, and she also wasn’t wearing anything else. He’d purchased this modest but cozy Puerto Plata bungalow — which was situated next to a large manse owned by an obscenely rich medical instrument titan fond of throwing obscenely opulent parties — through the shell company he’d set up four years before: the paperwork thoroughly vetted and steamed by the legal cleaners in Chicago. And while he had once possessed a formidable work ethic that still bubbled up from time to time when he worked on his garden, he was enjoying this new life. When you didn’t spend a large chunk of your week burying bodies, you tended to be a tad more relaxed.

That’s when the phone rang.

He picked up the phone, the old habit not quite capable of dying.

“Oh, chulo!” cried fedora. “Papi proxeneta, put teléfono down.”

And he was planning to do just that. Only a few of his old contacts knew this number.

But the name on the phone was Bill Flogaast. Shit.

“Yeah,” he answered.

“Nick!”

“I’m retired.”

“You don’t understand.”

Burgundy climbed his neck and planted several rapturous kisses upon his nape.

“I do understand. I’m retired. Find somebody else.”

Fedora scolded Nick with her wagging finger. “No teléfono! No, no, no!”

“Who’s with you?”

“That’s my business. Not yours. Goodbye.”

And just as Nick was about to hang up and engage in round four with the two ladies, Flogaast said four words that swiftly altered his priorities.

“It’s the Big Guy.”

His lust quickly left him.

“Is this a secure line?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Your name flashed on my phone. So clearly it isn’t. Call me back at the right number in five minutes.”

“Okay.”

He clutched the phone like Gollum refusing to capitulate the ring. He’d have to wipe it again. Contacts, texts, the lot. Just in case. And he liked this model. Bill Fucking Flogaast. Not as slick as he believed himself to be.

Nick darted out of bed, all business. He grabbed the pastel billfold of pesos and doled out a liberal sum to each of the two women.

“Oh, Nick!” cried fedora.

“Nick!” murmured burgundy.

“You two bonitas don’t make this easy. Lo siento. Business.”

“Nick,” hummed fedora. She put her scolding finger into her succulent mouth and lightly pulled it in and out to convey to Nick just what he was giving up, her beautiful almond eyes never leaving Nick’s gaze. Then burgundy grabbed fedora’s delicate hands in hers and the two started making out, moving closer, their palms flattening against the contours of their backs and tracing shoulders and curves, enjoying the spectacle of being watched, the thrill of trying to persuade this gringo to give them more money.

Dominican women. Worse than Portuguese women. At times like this, he resented having self-control.

He gave them more money.

“You have to go.”

“Nick!”

“We can pick this up later. Ir ahora.”

Burgundy pouted. But fedora collected their thongs, their microscopic skirts, and their halter tops.

He walked into the study and shut the door. He sat down on the vintage swivel chair next to the old rolltop desk. He opened his laptop and activated the surveillance cameras (there were twenty-four of them in the bungalow), watching the two women get dressed and collect their things. You couldn’t be too careful. Then he heard the ancient chime of one of his no-frills Nokias. He slid open the drawer containing the twenty-three burner phones before seeing the word “Private” glisten on one of these in an early noughties typeface. Another look at the cameras. The two women walked out the front door, laughing and counting their pesos. Reasonably secure.

He answered the phone.

“Yeah,” he said again. “Yeah” was the way he answered all calls. He had honed his “Yeah” over time to make it as gruff and as peremptory as possible. You wanted a “Yeah” that could scare the living bejesus out of some cold caller misdialing from the Third World or cause some anxious stranger to take up therapy again.

“It’s me.”

“The Big Guy. He’s been dead for five years. I thought we cleaned everything up.”

“We didn’t. Two journalists were nosing around.”

“Who?”

“I took care of one of them.”

Who?” he repeated.

“A loser by the name of Herbert Budruck.”

How did you take care of him?”

“Well, I wasn’t the one to take care of him.”

“Okay, who did?”

“David Leich.”

“Leich? Oh no.”

“Well, what was I supposed to do?”

“You should have called me first.”

“You’re retired.”

“And let me guess. He screwed it up.”

“Yes. He called the vacuum guys per the protocol.”

Nick heard the telltale sound of a car passing in the background.

“Are you driving right now?”

“Yes.”

“To where?”

“A sitting Senator, as it so happens. He’s also involved in this.”

“Bill, how many times have I told you? Low profile. No politicians.”

He recalled the botched job in Kansas City. The dossier hadn’t said anything about the target being a mayoral candidate. And that guy ended up surviving the attack, becoming a socialist hero, and winning the election. He’d been forced to lie low for two years before resurfacing. That had cost him a considerable sum of money and he spent the time in Italy learning how to make pasta from scratch. The Kansas City contretemps hadn’t impacted his reputation. Everybody knew that Nick was a consummate pro and there was always some Factor X outside of your control.

“You said there two journalists,” said Nick. “Who’s the other? I presume this one’s still alive?”

“You haven’t been paying attention to the news, have you?”

“And why should I? I’m retired.”

“Her name is Ali Breslin. I tried to stop her! Really, I did. And not everything came out.”

“Came out? How big is this?”

“She’s written a book about Van Kleason.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. Stroller had to flee to Groningen.”

Nick had always been suspicious of Stroller. Of course, he’d seen far worse over the years. Humans were capable of anything, especially when they were entangled with the criminal element. But you learned not to judge people for being monstrous. The money certainly helped to keep the unspeakable out of sight and out of mind. But the trafficking ring, connected to so many prominent people, was a bad idea. Bill had been immune to his logic, reminding him that Stroller had offered many of his authors a deal they couldn’t refuse and that he knew the right people. But knowing the right people didn’t excuse incompetence. He’d seen so many who “knew the right people” disappear. In the regular world, you were called into some human resources office and given a severance package. And maybe you’d cry and complain to your wife. But in the underworld, you didn’t have that middle-class luxury. If you bungled a job, there was a good chance you’d get a bullet to the head.

“How big is this book?”

“Huge. Breslin’s been doing media appearances.”

Goddammit, the mess was even bigger than he could have imagined.

“Bill, you assured me that people don’t read anymore.”

“Well, apparently, they’re reading Ali’s book!”

“Goddammit.”

“So I hope you can understand why I called you.”

“I do. But I think I’m going to sit this one out.”

There was a gulp on the other end.

“WHAT?”

“I’m retired, Bill.”

“But this isn’t over. You’re still involved!”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“They’ll get you.”

“Let them try. I’m fifteen moves ahead.”

“Why did you leave the business, Nick? You were so good.”

“Do you want the honest answer? Or do you want the sweet lie that will help you sleep better at night?”

“You know what I want.”

“Give me two minutes.”

He placed the burner phone into the cradle next to his laptop and an enormous WAV file, an audio display of this connection, popped up on the screen. The software scraped the frequency. No taps. Nothing untoward in the peaks. Not a single tone revealing that somebody else was listening in.

“Good. You’re clean.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’d be surprised. Henry’s finishing up four years for vehicular assault. He should have killed Sophie, but he didn’t. And he hates himself for that. Really hates himself. It was an affront to his work ethic. And he’s loyal, Bill. Very loyal. One of the best men I ever had under my wing. Never talked. Even when the Feds tried to sweeten the pot with an immunity deal and get him in a witness relocation program if he named names. But he didn’t.

“He knew the risks.”

“But he didn’t talk. Other men have, but he didn’t talk. And because he didn’t talk, his husband left him. And he had a good thing going on with his marriage.”

“I know something about that. My wife left me last year.”

“I’m not sure you do. You never killed anyone.”

There was a pause. A pause he often heard from the squeaky clean with one toe in the sordid pool.

“Are you still there?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Bill, you have the privilege of being yourself. Sure, you have to keep track of the lies that you tell your authors, the media people, your coworkers, and all that. And you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘Fuck me. This is stressful.’ And I don’t want to gainsay your stress. I’m sure it’s something you unload to a shrink. But you’re small time, Bill. Just small time.”

“Come on, Nick.”

“Bill, I’m not finished. You’re a publicist, one of the smartest publicists in the publishing industry, and you haven’t learned how to shut up when someone is trying to unload a bit of wisdom.”

“I’m sorry. Continue.

“Imagine a set of lies that becomes a second identity. Or even a third identity. That’s a little trickier. That’s not something that everyone can do. That’s what separates the soft men from the hard men. That’s what distinguishes the professional from the amateur. And let me assure you, Bill, that I am a fucking professional. That’s why you called me, right?”

“Right.”

“Because you couldn’t find someone else.”

“You’re the only man who can do this.”

“Oh, I know that. But I don’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“Because, you needlessly persistent son of a bitch, I’m retired. Capisce?”

“Understood.”

“So when I hear you beg me to clean up your mess — and I honestly don’t give a flying fuck about how bad it is because, as I’ve told you, I’m retired and I know this game better than you do — I hear a man who isn’t much of a man at all. I hear a man who probably made a big mistake and left his career far too soon. I hear a man who is riding on his laurels. Who lives in the past. There’s a reason I go by Nick Carraway. It is quite straightforward. You can’t relive the past, old sport.”

“Understood. I won’t bother you again.”

“Good. And Bill?”

“Yes.”

“If you call me again, I’ll make sure that you sink to the bottom of the Hudson River, chained to a concrete block, wondering in your final moments why everything went so wrong.”

“Okay.”

“And one last thing. Don’t call the guys at Coca-Cola. I worked with them to humor you. I did make some concessions with all my clients. But they’re not professional and they lack discipline. And they’re not going to help you out of this.”

“Who should I call then?”

“Oh, you’re a big boy. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go on my afternoon swim.”

“Okay.”

“It was a pleasure doing business with you, Bill.”

Nick hung up. Then he looked out the window and wondered if he could retrieve his fedora and burgundy tie in the next fifteen minutes.

(Next: The Seagulls)

(Word count: 43,196/50,000)

The White Savior Problem (NaNoWriMo 2022 #20)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Talk)

The deli was located on Block 1263, Lot 26, assigned for rental by Rotaine Realty to an equity company run by bloodless money-hording men. They had learned in their formative years at Wharton and Kellogg that having either an active imagination or a human heart was a financial liability.

Many of the equity men had not laughed for at least a decade. They feared that possessing a sense of humor might loosen their vise-like grip on several Midtown buildings in the area. And on a nice autumn day, you could usually find many of them standing on the top of buildings practicing new ways to be more callous and considering the best method of plotting world domination. Which was absurd. Because they were merely intermediaries. They had as much of a shot at changing the world as a Green Bay Packers fan, his delirious face painted in the ritualistic paint of white and green, has in willing Aaron Rodgers to throw the right spiral to a wide receiver.

They kept a close eye on property appraisals and how much those bastards in Albany wanted to tax them and how much these heightened taxes could be used by Rotaine to alter preexisting agreements. They had to ensure that the millions they borrowed could be significantly offset by the exorbitant rents they charged to business owners operating with a dicey profit margin. And this was not always easy. These feverish and often cruel capitalists, who got excited about wealth acquisition in much the same way that the rest of us stare in wonder at cloud formations, had signed and notarized security instruments that were decidedly unfavorable to them. So they passed along this spirit of unfairness to renters, who had even less leverage than they did. Sure, the equity men had their own high-priced attorneys — men who had also not laughed for at least a decade but who were too timid and passive-aggressive to stand on the tops of buildings — look over the documents and try to negotiate with Rotaine. But the only point that Rotaine would concede involved the chalky strip of cornices lining the edge of the building’s roof, which the equity company hoped to upgrade and repair so that, collectively, Rotaine and the equity company could boost the property value and avoid pecuniary surprises.

Everyone in real estate knew that the insurance men had a weird fetish for cornices. Nobody really knew why cornices mattered so much, but they did. And when an insurance appraiser inspected a property to determine the next year’s premium rate, cornices were a very big deal. If even one of your cavettos flailed against the mathematical ideal or you couldn’t remove that flock of pigeons settling upon one of your eaves, you were basically fucked. You’d get dinged and reamed and the realtors remained unsympathetic about this state of affairs. The cornice problem had allowed engineers and contractors to make very good money preserving and replacing cornices. And this is why you see so many well-maintained cornices in Manhattan. It is not so much that these men wish to uphold architectural beauty. It really comes down to people in real estate having the joyless temperament of tight and cutthroat cheapskates.

It is safe to say that none of the parties assembled in the deli behind imposing steel gates had considered the role of cornices in their paycheck-to-paycheck lives. They were too busy trying to survive, scanning supermarket circulars for sales and finding inventive ways to pinch pennies as inflation reared its ugly head. Certainly Ezmerelda had never thought about cornices. But she was thinking about the creepy signs and Black Messiah incantations she had briefly witnessed in the scuffle outside right before the nice man had let her in.

She walked up the stairs and saw dozens of dewey-eyed refugees sitting at the tables on the second floor. Some of them made valiant efforts to join domino games, which were spearheaded by cheerful men who looked at the bones below them with a fierce intensity that more sheltered types devoted to studying the Voynich manuscript. Some of them whimpered in corners. One woman took advantage of this improvised lockdown and was practicing her twerking moves in time to the thumping bossa nova beats booming loud over the speakers. Blue collars and white collars were forced to console each other as the submachine guns roared and rattled outside, punctuating the apocalyptic aura much like a plate of tiramisu served after a nice Italian meal. But this was New York, a city where you yawned as some rando screamed obscenities on the subway. And they quickly grew accustomed to the fix they were in. And the deli was started to feel more like a happening block party before some affluent homeowner calls the police to break up the fun — largely because he is too miserable and mirthless to land party invites and he feels an overwhelming need to extinguish other people’s felicity.

A large flatscreen TV played CNN on mute, with the closed captions and the news crawl offering variations on the same theme that had already been swiftly established: this was the beginning of a civil war. And New York was not the only city where insurrections had breaking out. Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles. Firebombed buildings steamed with thin onyx teems of smoke as anchors offered the usual inappropriate cheerfulness and halfassed analysis, although this time they weren’t embellishing their reporting with a farrago of F-bombs.

They said that the long-standing tension between red and blue had simmered to a boil. Nobody knew who had assassinated Tucker Carlson. The Lee County Police, unaccustomed to doing little else on their shifts other than eating donuts and straining their brains with the latest Wordle puzzle, were not especially equipped or perspicacious enough to solve the mystery. And when the police chief appeared on camera to deliver a statement to the press, he had the look of a man who squinted with hopeless incomprehension when you cited Plato. And because the newsmen and the people in power were so inept when it came to informing the public, everyone was relying on Reddit conspiracy theories. Political leaders, who could not rectify their inveterate habit of doing fuck all to prevent such disasters, offered their thoughts and prayers.

Ezmerelda stood near the wall taking in the scene: a strange amalgam of people surrendering to the grief of an endgame they could not control or trying to make the best of it by throwing a party. The biggest surprise was that nobody was fucking each other out in the open. It was almost as if impending developments on a massive scale had caused people to reevaluate what was socially appropriate. Not unlike the way that people, shortly after 9/11, had for a brief time actually been there for each other.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. She spun around, prepared to deck a menacing stranger. But it was the same unassuming man who had ushered her into his deli.

“You eat,” he said, pointing at the open-air view that revealed a line of people gathered on the first floor, scooping soup from four very large tureens. “Sushi and soup. All free.”

“Free?”

“I take loss anyway. All free. You eat, rest up.”

“Thank you.”

The man didn’t tell Ezmerelda (or anyone else) that he was going to throw out the soup anyway and that, had not the excitement happened outside, he would be trying to sell off the remaining sushi that he’d have to toss at the end of the day by placing a 50% off sign next to all the plastic containers.

She didn’t know how long she was going to be here. Would the police be able to stop the two factions from murdering each other? She already knew the answer. She remembered her Carnarsie days, that ugly afternoon when she and her mother walked home with groceries and two cops stood outside a police car, arms crossed and staring into space as some gangbanger shot a brotha right in the head. They knew that they needed to walk right past them and not give them any eye contact. A pig always found any pretext to arrest you. There was a white gentrifier openly screaming at the two cops. “Aren’t you going to do anything about this?” he screeched in an adenoidal voice that Ezmerelda laughed about later. “Not our responsibility,” said one of the cops. “If you have a problem, call 911.”

The only way that you could get the pork chops to do anything was if unruly crowds directly threatened the financial interests of property owners. Only then would the police summon the nerve to serve and protect.

She scooped up a plastic container of spicy tuna rolls in brown rice and settled down at one of the tables, breaking apart the tiny wasabi mass with her chopsticks after pouring a penny-thin pouch of soy sauce over it.

That’s when the two white women approached her: one standing six feet tall and casting a strangely proprietary shadow on the table, the other a blue-haired riot grrrl with several studs in her nose.

“Excuse me,” said the tall one. “Are you?”

“I’m trying to eat,” replied Ezmerelda.

“You see?” said the riot grrrl. “It’s her!”

“Who?” said an old dude in a sad Sears suit sitting by himself.

“Nobody asked you,” sneered the tall one. “You’re part of the patriarchy.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, cupping his hand to his face to hide and returning to desperate pokes at his phone.

“You’re a hero, you know,” said the riot grrrl.

“I’m no hero.”

“You’re going to save us!” said the tall one.

Ezmerelda dropped her chopsticks onto her paper napkin.

“Bitch, I’m not here to save anyone. Can you just leave me alone?”

The riot grrrl laughed. “She’s so funny.”

“That wasn’t a joke.”

“She is the Messiah!” shrieked the tall one.

“The Messiah?”

“I saw a TED Talk from Brie Attenberg,” said the riot grrrl, “in which she said that Black people are the Messiah.”

“I’m not Christ. I don’t believe in a fictitious deity.”

“The Messiah is always humble,” beamed the tall one.

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not the fucking Messiah. Now can you please let me eat my sushi in peace?”

“Bev, I don’t think we’re being mindful,” said the riot grrrl.

“Oh right, Lydia,” said Bev. “We forgot to check our privilege.”

Bev and Lydia locked arms.

“Everyone!” shouted Lydia. “We have something that we want to share.”

“Oh no,” said Ezmerelda.

The men looked up from their domino games, half of them shaking their heads. Then they returned to slapping down bones. The only real audience these two women had was the friendless man who they’d berated only a few minutes before.

“My name is Beverly. And I’m ashamed to a colonialist!”

“My name is Lydia. And I hate being white.”

“We are here to save this woman!”

“Stop it,” said Ezmerelda.

“We are guilty.”

“Guilty of being white.”

“This is Ezmerelda Gibbons. A Black victim in the war against women.”

The friendless man pointed his phone to this scene and began to live stream it.

“She took to OnlyFans because the white imperialists oppressed her!”

“White imperialists like us.”

Ezmerelda hurled her chopsticks into the dark basin of the half-eaten sushi container.

“Bitch, are you trying to speak for me?”

“Wh — what? No!”

“Because it sounds like you are.”

The two women immediately shut up and waved their hands desperately to appear deferential.

“We didn’t mean it like that.”

“How you meant it,” said Ezmerelda, “isn’t how I experienced it. Let me ask you something. Do you know who Tyler Perry is?”

“Is he the guy on Friends?”

“Or how about jerk chicken? Ever had it for dinner?”

“What’s jerk chicken?” whispered Lydia.

“Yeah, I thought so,” said Ezmerelda with a smile. “Y’all trying to take my life and make it yours. But you don’t have a goddamn clue how I’ve lived. I’m not a victim. Maybe you are. But I’m not.”

“But you’re…you’re…”

“An OnlyFans girl? Yes, I was. But I wasn’t oppressed by imperialists! Girl, where’d you get that crazy white shit from? Y’all just looking for a reason to take my life and make it yours. White fucking saviors going around calling me the Messiah and shit.” She looked into the camera. “Can you believe this? Black people aren’t your collectible dolls. I got a mind and a life. And I’m damned happy with how things turned out. So you can take your Karen crusading bullshit and stick it up your bony, clueless, calorie-denying ass. Black people don’t need you.”

The domino guys began applauding.

“Holy shit,” said the friendless man.

“What?” replied Ezmerelda.

“This, uh, live stream is going viral. I’ve got fifty — no, sixty thousand people watching it.”

“Then maybe you should shut it off.”

“Okay,” said the friendless man.

Bev and Lydia slinked to the back of the room in embarrassment.

“What’s your name?” said Ezmerelda.

“Donald Moore,” said the man, offering his hand. “And I can’t get in touch with my wife Ginny.”

(Next: Old Habits)

(Word count: 41,096/50,000)

The Talk (NaNoWriMo 2022 #19)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Dark Soul)

She held Clark’s hand. Not with the dutiful cadences of a dying relationship on autopilot, but with a faith emerging from an unknown recess. A hope hard to pinpoint. An instinct she couldn’t explain.

She actually wanted to salvage this, whatever this was. And it was something.

He wiped the corners of his small mouth with the damp washcloth. His breath still pushed the malodorous zephyr of half-regurgitated blueberry-bannana mush into the intimate air between them. He was still there. Just as he always had been. Just as he had picked her out of the chair and helped her when she needed to relieve herself. Just as he cooked for her and made her believe that she still had a life even when she could not walk. And all this atoned for the stink veering into the space they shared.

And that was new for Sophie. Very, very new. The big draw that she had hoped to strike with Paul, but it had been she who had stayed, not him.

Clark had stayed. Even after she confessed to him about her previous kinky life. Even after she had shown her the video of long dead Paul being forced at gunpoint to perform fellatio on that child — that poor, poor child. And how many men would stay after seeing that? Knowing that this was the kind of creep that she had actually chosen to marry and somehow summoned the nerve to stick with.

“He wanted to go public,” said Sophie. “It started off as a way to woo new readers. Because he really wanted a bigger audience. And people in that circle knew people in power.”

“When did you know?”

“Three months before he died.”

“And you still carried on with your…”

“Subs. With my subs, yes.”

“And you…you bruised them?”

“Flogged them. Impact play. Much different from anything Paul was involved in.”

“But that’s…that’s…”

“More common than you know, Clark. These men all wanted me to hurt them. And that was the difference between Paul and me. I never did anything that they didn’t want me to do. We were very careful with consent, Clark. It’s the cornerstone of that type of life. But Paul? His sick world? He got used to it.”

She remembered that night when she had found the videos on Paul’s phone when he was in the shower. The two of them screamed at each other with more bitter ferocity than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had managed in the entirety of their famously fractious relationship. Several glasses — many of them wedding gifts from twelve years before — were hurled against the wall. She’d almost walked out and moved back in with her mother. The man she had married was a monster.

But then she saw the remorse in his eyes. Not enough for her to forgive him, but enough for her to see that he had nobody else to turn to. If she didn’t listen to him that night, then he wouldn’t find the right way out. And while she hated the fact that he needed to rely on her and that he had gone much further than anything she could ever imagined, she knew that sticking it out — he still carrying on his fixation on Ezmerelda Gibbons, she still carrying on with her revolving door of malleable beef — was the only way to save those kids and to expose the villainous media-industry complex that had kept this evil trafficking operation going. They called the FBI the next morning. A temporary immunity agreement was granted, though it was not a piece of paper that would exculpate Van Kleason from criminal charges. It was simply a stopgap. Three months later, Paul was dead.

“Who was involved?” asked Clark.

“Three Academy Award winners. Four Pulitzer winners. Two MacArthur Fellows. At least one former President. And that’s only a small sample, Clark. Really, you don’t want to know. There’s a strong chance that you’ve been a huge fan of at least one of these cultural figures. These people were bad, Clark. Very bad. They had no problem looking the other way while Benjamen Stroller…”

“Wait a minute. Benjamen Stroller? The podcaster?”

“How do you know Ben? You’ve never believed in conspiracy theories.”

“I listened to his shows on the drive into work. When you work for city government, it’s useful to study the fringe element. To unpack the lunatic mind. They show up to the office more frequently than you might expect. And if you know how they think, you can usually find a way to defuse them.”

“That’s very, very…”

“Strategic of me? Yes. But you know I don’t like conflict.”

“Then why are you still here?” she said.

He paused, temporarily releasing his hand from hers. His eyes misted up.

“What? Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’re not put off by everything I’ve just told you?”

“Were you involved in the sex ring?”

“No. But I had my own little thing going on.”

“Yes, but you did nothing illegal.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“You think I didn’t go through an exploration phase.”

She laughed. “What? You?”

“Yeah. In my thirties. After my divorce. I was a hopeless slut, Sophie. I was what the kids now call a fuccboi. Tinder was new and I was lonely. And suddenly the very faults that Jill had condemned me for were pluses. I slept with dozens of women. I didn’t know I had it in me.”

“You?”

“Me.”

She found it hard to believe. He had never been especially adventurous in the sack. Missionary, an occasional 69, that was about it. He had never picked her up and fucked her in the kitchen. Even when she asked him to after the accident. He felt that anything that transformed her into a fetish was too gauche. But that was the strangest thing. After years of tinkering with men and being a fearsome top, she felt that it was her turn to play bottom. And she didn’t know how to tell him this. He had never asked to bind her in restraints or to be tied up. He had remained relatively incurious and he frequently disparaged the couples copulating in public places.

“If you had this in you, why didn’t you try any of this with me?”

“Because I wanted to be…”

“Normal?”

“Yeah.”

“None of us are normal, Clark. Deep down, we’re all fucked up inside.”

“But not as fucked up as Benjamen Stroller. Where did he get the money to finance this operation?”

“He worked for WNYC and his career went nowhere. Few people listened to his show. Then he met up with some Dutch people with money and he struck out on his own. As a podcaster. With the Dutch money behind him. And he realized that he was likely to gain more listeners if he courted the disinformation demographic. He wanted to be an edgier and angrier Art Bell.”

“Oh, he is.”

“And he needed big names as guests. So he started to blackmail prestigious names with Bill Flogaast.”

“Who’s Bill Flogaast?”

“He was a huge publicist at the house that published Paul’s books. Connections to the underworld. Paul called him the ‘Cleanup Man.’ He took many midlist authors under his wing.”

“Midlist authors?”

“Authors who sold well enough to keep in-house, but not well enough to hit the New York Times bestseller list. And he would turn them into overnight successes. Near the end of his run, he was handling all the literary Daves.”

“Literary Daves?”

“There are a lot of literary writers named Dave. Don’t ask me why that is. Maybe Davids are more inclined to write. Anyway, he steered them onto Stroller, whose blackmail operation was turning into a bonanza.”

“But why would Stroller and Flogaast single out authors?”

“Because social media tends to overlook their bad behavior. Do you know that author Zen Tang?”

“Didn’t he make a viral video years ago in which he said ‘the next morning we ate spinach’ over and over again?”

“That’s the guy. Well, Tang raped his partner and even stole her story for his bestselling novel, Stephen Dixon. And the literary people simply pretended that none of that ever happened. And he’s still very popular. Bill and Benjamen realized that, because most book people were incredibly gullible, the midlisters could be used as recruiters for the sex trafficking ring.”

“Jesus. And nobody looked into this?”

“Nobody reads anymore, Clark.”

“I do.”

“I mean, most regular people. Authors can be monsters, but literary people — who are, for the most part, incredibly sheltered and introverted — somehow overlook this. They believe in staying relentlessly cheery and positive. I mean, there was one guy, a website editor named Isiah Gatsby who was heavily involved with this creep in Los Angeles named Jason Prufrock, who established a ‘No haters’ policy that quickly spread to every outlet still reviewing books. Sure, there was the Shitty Media Men list, but none of those men ever got canceled. Most of them still have careers.”

“You’re going to have to slow down. I don’t know any of these people.”

“Sorry. An old habit. Paul was incredibly obsessed by all these names. One of the reasons I don’t read much anymore is because I know what a lot of these authors have done. And I just can’t stomach it.”

“So why is Senator Rollins so important?”

“I don’t know. Bill Flogaast usually kept away from politics. But after Paul died, Bill left the business. Something to do with an executive editor named Gingrich Moore, who I was regrettably friendly with.”

“How friendly?”

“She handled an author named Butch Wheel, who was also her boytoy.”

“Do you mean Gingrich was fucking Wheel?”

“Yes. And Paul attended some book party and got drunk and spilled something about my kinky life to her. And Gingrich swooped in and wanted me to coach her.”

“You couldn’t say no?”

“She had something on Paul, something that she wouldn’t elaborate on. Much of which I’ve already told you. And you have to understand something about Ginny Moore. She’s not someone you can easily say no to. Plus, Paul was thinking about jumping to another house and Ginny suggested that, if I helped her, she could help Paul. So sometimes she would be at the Atlantis with me. She seemed to have a natural instinct for beating the shit out of men.”

“Was Ginny involved in the sex trafficking?”

“No. But I’m pretty sure she knew about it.”

“How much of an open secret was it?”

“That I don’t know.”

There was a knock at the front door.

“I’ll get that,” said Clark.

Clark opened the door. It was Debbie Ballard. She was holding a large paper shopping bag.

Sophie rolled her chair over to the doorway.

“Debbie? What are you doing here?”

“I didn’t know who else to go to.”

“Well,” snapped Sophie. “We’re a little busy. And we’re no longer friends.”

“Sophie, please. Give me ten minutes. I’m in a pickle and I can’t even tell Gabrielle about this.”

“Sophie,” said Clark, “we’re a little busy right now.”

Debbie took a book from her bag. It was the Ali Breslin volume.

“How did you get a copy of that?” cried Sophie. “I thought there was an embargo.”

“I have my sources. But I’ve read the whole thing. You’re going to want to listen very carefully to what I have to say.”

(Next: The White Savior Problem)

(Word count: 38,907/50,000)

The Dark Soul (NaNoWriMo 2022 #18)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previous: The Scandal of Unfettered Speech)

David Leich nailed the third mouse that he had caught that morning to the bookcase in the foyer. The blood of these increasingly stinky rodent corpses spilled onto a flattened and slightly yellowed newspaper clipping from years ago — one of many copies he bought on the day Mike Harvest had savaged his third novel, Wake Up Little Sassoon. Harvest had ridiculed Leich’s long passages describing Siegfried Sasson’s nose, which had come from Leich’s keen interest in rhinology. Goddammit, they had never complained before! He was the nose guy. And it was one of the reasons why his work had resonated with the people who handed out the literary awards. But Harvest resented the fact that Leich had concentrated on the least interesting part of that World War I hero’s life: namely, his privileged boyhood and a thirty-page chapter in which young Siegfried carried on a dialogue with a horse about whether or not eating lots of carrots signaled that you were a closeted vegetarian.

So Leich had bought as many copies of the newspaper he could, particularly in his neighborhood. The last thing he wanted was for people in his neighborhood to slag him off, although he was often so unbearable that New Yorkers didn’t need to know that he was an author to tell him to fuck off. Leich was part of the last analog generation: someone old enough to remember the smell of mimeograph, that halcyon age in which you could walk down the street without bumping into some twentysomething staring down at her phone. As such, he had failed to anticipate that Harvest’s hatchet job was also online and that there was a great zeal to share it.

Leich knew that Harvest was a cowardly man who avoided authors he had trashed in print, which sadly precluded Leich from running into Harvest at a book party and socking him in the face. So he tried to take him out through his connections. Flogaast had said that he hated Harvest too, but that he was too big to take out. “Wait it out,” said Flogaast. And so he did. And that’s when the Jakester thing came up, which Leich believed that Flogaast had a bit of a hand in. And while Leich had popped open the champagne upon learning that Harvest had been shitcanned from his long-held perch, the sting of Harvest’s words still resonated years later. He was an artist, dammit!

Leich laughed as the drops of blood stained Harvest’s printed words from 2002.

“How do you like that, you little fuck?” he shouted at the newspaper, failing to understand in his derangement that newspapers were not sentient and did not talk back. In fact, the printed word was more futile than cats and dogs, who tolerated human monologues only because they were angling for treats. The domesticated animals knew — as so did many of the furry bodega mascots and the savvy street cats — that simply letting these very tall and strange creatures who fed and groomed them ramble in incomprehensible gibberish was an easy way to survive. All they had to do was wag their tails or meow from time to time, sometimes performing tricks as they held up thin rectangular objects, and these highly gullible ape-descended marks would give them anything they wanted.

The rodents that scampered through Leich’s apartment, however, were not so lucky. Sure, in highly contained and sterile environments, they could be cute. But they were much smaller, moved too fast, and carried disease. Thus, they become emboldened and fearless and feasted on the large heaps of trash bags regularly left on the streets that afforded them a veritable buffet. The humans were dirty and careless and often dropped wrappers and half-eaten sandwiches onto the street. And they had the nerve to bait them with peanut butter?

It was a pity that the rats couldn’t let their sons and daughters know about David Leich, who, with his multifarious traps, was one of the most dangerous of these giant executioners. Even when they squeaked to each other in hypersonic frequencies beyond the spectrum of the human ear, they still couldn’t telegraph to each other just how diabolical certain people were. You were minding your own business, innocently following a trail in the wall that had been scraped out over the course of several centuries by your grandfathers and your great great grandfathers, and then you felt this painful blade at the back of your skull from one of those enormous quadrangles that was offering you a free meal.

The foyer bookcase had contained the books of David Leich’s enemies, which he read over and over when he was feeling particularly masochistic. He wished that the books, simply by being close to the rodent corpses, could somehow open a telepathic link to the authors who wrote them, so they could see the full horrorshow of how we was handling the pestilence in his apartment right now. They’d be frightened out of their minds! He had considered burning the books, but realized that the Nazis had done this. And for all of his sociopathic faults, for all the qualities that gave so many people people several reasons to punch him in the face, David Leich was not a Nazi.

There was a scree from his phone, echoed by the high-pitched alerts from all other phones in adjacent apartments and the streets below. An Amber Alert perhaps?

He picked up the phone and read the text:

EMERGENCY! Riots have broken out in Midtown Manhattan. All subway lines have been shut down. The area between 34th Street and 59th Street has been closed off. The rioters are armed. NYC residents are urged to shelter in place. Remain in your residence. Residents in all five boroughs will be arrested if they are found walking outside.

Leich yawned.

The world had threatened to destroy itself so many times, but he was still quite alive. And living in a high-target city where he would be vaporized immediately if the Russians fired nukes. Which would be a better fate than slowly dying of starvation and radiation poisoning. If millions had to die, it was far more pragmatic to get your inevitable death out of the way rather than sob in a countryside dacha.

There was a buzz from down below.

Shit. Budruck. That insignificant little peon who had phoned him an hour before. Why had he said yes when he was so busy building a mouse mortuary?

“Give me five minutes and I’ll buzz you in,” he barked into the speaker.

“Come on! Let me in! It’s a war zone out here.”

“You can tough it out for five minutes.”

He got the mop bucket from the kitchen and did his best to pull out the nails with the back of his hammer. Two of the three mouse corpses plopped into the pail. The other one was more stubborn.

Budruck buzzed again.

“That contemptuous little man,” said Leich.

He grabbed the set of shears that he used for the private garden that he had a key to. His Angllophilia had turned him into a gardener. He actually enjoyed pruning the hedges, per his deal with the building. Then he snipped the tail.

He opened the window — the one at the back of the building that Budruck would not see — and tossed out the 2.98 rat corpses, watching them tumble down four stories. He heard the scream of some hapless pedestrian down below and then shut the window. He grabbed a comforter and nailed this over the foyer bookcase to disguise the tail. Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a stink anymore.

Then he buzzed Budruck in.

He undid the three deadbolts and opened the door, being careful to stand with his back to the bookcase so that Budruck would not notice. But Budruck was in his own head, frantically waving his hands and talking a mile a minute. He rushed past Leich and headed straight to the settee in the living room.

“…and these fuckers bumped me! Me! The guy who had all the real dirt on Van Kleason!”

Leich locked the three deadbolts.

“You know, you never told me.”

“Told you what?”

“What dirt you had?”

“The Van Kleason death was a coverup!”

“Oh? I thought he died from a broken heart.”

“That’s not what someone who works at the Myrtle Beach coroner’s office told me. Apparently, the autopsy report was forged! Someone paid a lot of money to cover it up.”

Leich cleared his throat.

“And who do you think that might be?”

“I have reason to believe that Paul Van Kleason was murdered. Much like Epstein’s mysterious death in jail. Ali Breslin, that bitch, has already pointed to Van Kleason’s involvement with a sex trafficking operation.”

There was gunfire outside.

“Herbert, have you taken a look at the world outside? I think there we have bigger problems.”

“Oh, fuck civil unrest. It’s going to die down! It always does. This story has real legs! And I was meant to tell it.”

Budruck’s brown eyes fidgeted like two the two last beer nuts you find at the bottom of a dingy bowl at a dive. Nobody ever takes those last two nuts.

“Won’t the public grow bored?” said Leich. “They’re more interested in Ezmerelda Gibbons. If Paul Van Kleason was murdered, maybe she did it?”

“She’s not the type.”

“Why not?”

“She just isn’t, okay? And besides I talked with her former neighbor, who confirmed that she was blasting Doughbelly Stray at the estimated time of death! In fact, her neighbor has video with a time-stamp. Some long-standing beef over the noise she made that she was going to submit to the property manager, but never did.”

“Well, maybe Ezmeredlda hired someone to kill Van Kleason.”

“Why would she do that? He paid her generously for her private services. She had a good thing going on. You don’t kill the guy who’s serving up the gravy train.”

“Well, who do you think did it?”

“I believe this is connected to certain publicists in the publishing industry. Do you know Bill Flogaast?”

Leich began to sweat. While Budruck was looking out the window, he reached for the hammer and concealed it behind his back.

“I’m…somewhat acquainted with him.”

“Well, Flogaast is connected to some real creeps.”

Budruck busted out his phone, feverishly swiping with his twitchy finger before settling upon something, and then held up a grainy black-and-white photo for Leich to examine on the display. It was Flogaast alright. And he was shaking that man with the burgundy tie’s hand on what looked like the East Village. Flogaast had an attache case in his other hand.

“What’s this?”

“A still from security camera footage that I bought off a line cook. You see? That’s Flogaast. There’s clearly something going on here. I’m still trying to determine the identity of this man with the burgundy tie.”

“And why doesn’t the police have a copy of this?”

“Because the surveillance footage was conveniently erased. Although it actually wasn’t. And somehow this line cook, who has something on the restaurant owner, was able to get a copy of this. To the best of my knowledge, the police don’t have a copy of it. And neither does Ali Breslin.”

A gleam of hope rushed across Budruck’s face.

“Don’t you see, Dave? This is my big story. My scoop! I’ve always had this in me.”

Leich paced along the edge of the living room, his right arm still carrying the hammer behind his back. His left hand fingered the spotless surface of one of the living room bookshelves. Then he sat down on the Morris chair directly across from the settee and crossed his legs, his left foot twitching with celerity.

“What do you really know about people?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You have some interesting ideas. But what do you really know about people?”

“These are more than ideas, Dave! Don’t you see? With what I’ve been able to piece together, the two of us can get our revenge against these publishing assholes! Van Kleason was going to go public! I think he was going to cut a deal with the Feds because they tied him to the sex trafficking ring. He was going to be a friendly witness for a reduced sentence!”

“Come on, Herbert. Think this thing through. Why would he bite the hand that feeds him? His last novel had an enormous print run.”

“Because he wanted to save his marriage.”

“What?”

“Sophie Van Kleason carried on several affairs. I know this because I bribed a bellboy who used to work at the Atlantis Hotel, where Sophie was a regular. In fact, this bellboy even saw Mike Harvest enter a room with her!”

“Mike Harvest.”

“Yeah, I know he doesn’t like your books. But think clearly. This bellboy saw Sophie and Mike Harvest leaving a hotel room on the very afternoon of the murder. And guess who was with them?”

“Who?”

“The man in the burgundy tie!”

He pulled up another photo on his phone.

“Don’t you see? This is the same guy who met up with Flogaast!”

Leich studied the two photos.

“I’ll admit that there are certain similarities. But you never answered my question.”

“What question?”

“How well do you know people?”

“Fairly well.”

“But not well enough to be taken seriously as a journalist.”

“What?”

“Do you believe that everyone has something dark within them?”

“Probably.”

“That everyone has the capacity for evil? Oh sure, it spills out in chunks. You use your contacts to prevent your enemy from landing a prestigious job. You cut off some asshole on the road. But that’s just small time, Herbert. Just small time.”

“What I have here is big time.”

“I don’t think it is,” said Leich. His voice grew increasingly chillier. “What do you know about me?”

“Well, you’re the last literary Dave. You’ve won a bunch of awards.”

“That’s all true. But what kind of dark unfettered qualities do you think I possess?”

“That’s your business.”

Leich laughed.

“Let me phrase it another way. What’s the worst thing that you think I’ve ever done?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re not even going to hazard a guess?”

“Well, a lot of people think you’re an asshole.”

“Oh, but I am. But I’m more than a mere asshole. Do you want to know what happened to the last person who sat on that couch?”

“She ended up in your bedroom,” laughed Budruck with the greatest naivete that Leich had seen in five years.

“No,” laughed Leich. “Not at all. It was a man.”

“Hey, I’m not going to judge. However you swing is your business.”

“I didn’t fuck him,” said Leich. “I killed him.”

Leich lodged the hammer into Budruck’s skull. Budruck was too surprised to scream. Then he swung again and again, the blood shooting in geysers and mottling Leich’s face, until the mediocre journalist was dead.

He picked up his burner phone and dialed the number.

“Yeah,” said the gruff voice on the other end.

“The situation has been contained.”

“Do you need us to come by?”

“No, I’ve got this.”

“Are you sure? I can call six of my vacuum cleaning guys.”

“I kind of want to try this myself. My Shark Navigator Lift-Away Deluxe really could use a good workout.”

“But we’re professionals. I think you’ll find that the mess in your apartment is harder to clean than you think.”

“I’ll give you a call if my vacuum gets clogged.”

Leich hung up the phone and, as he was considering how to get rid of the body, he heard the squeal of another rat caught in a trap.

(Next: The Talk)

(Word count: 37,011/50,000)

The Scandal of Unfettered Speech (NaNoWriMo 2022 #17)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Public Eye)

Brad Carmody (1977-2027) was a lot of formers. He was a former reporter at Advertising Age, a former editor at Medium, a former senior writer at Wired, and a former regular contributor to Vox before starting this Substack newsletter in desperation after he experienced great difficulties landing work as a freelance writer. Yes, it’s true that Brad was difficult at times and felt the need to obsess a little too much over other media figures on social media, but he was one of the most vital conservative voices in American letters. Nobody knew if he was on track to becoming the next William Buckley or the next Alex Jones, but his vitriolic columns were always must-reads. He was often angry, but in the right way. On the rare occasions when he calmed himself down, he was an accomplished blueberry waffle king in the kitchen. Say what you like about Brad (and many of the people he publicly attacked will certainly have their opinions), but he really knew how to use a waffle maker! So this is a huge and deeply tragic loss — not just for Brad’s family, but also for men with middling breakfast-making skills.

His widow graciously permitted us to publish this final essay from Brad. It was found on the tablet next to his dead body. Please consider contributing to the Brad Carmody GoFundMe, as the Carmody family experienced great financial difficulties in Brad’s final years due to his regrettable OnlyFans addiction — particularly his fixation on Ezmerelda Gibbons.

In addition to his wife and his fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent son, Brad is survived by his brother, Killian, who is now the proud manager of a Burger King in Erie, Pennsylvania, finding a new life after experiencing an unfortunate mental collapse because he couldn’t finish his dissertation on narrative tropes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We offer our thoughts and prayers.

And, remember, if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline. You are loved by more people than you know!

The Scandal of Unfettered Speech
by Brad Carmody
The JCPenney Chronicles, October 17, 2027

Last May, noted intellectual Martin Slabak appeared at the 92nd Street Y and used a term so infamous that it caused members of the audience to walk out “in a state of fear.” The word he used was “stupid.”

Now the origin of “stupid” goes back to the 1540s. It comes from the Latin stupidus, meaning “amazed, confused; dull, foolish.” It literally translates into “struck senseless.” From there, the French picked it up and all the other Indo-European languages followed. As any sensible person knows, “stupid” has had a long and glorious run.

On stage, Slabak called his ex-wife Emma Silverburg “stupid.” He called Senator Rob Rollins “stupid.” He was even courageous enough to call himself “stupid” for fathering two children with a stupid woman. And he condemned the epidemic of stupidity that has, even as I write these words, become so ubiquitous in our culture that numerous people are now openly copulating in public places and our now unregulated airwaves prominently feature once thoughtful anchors engaging in variations of “The Aristocrats” routine on-air.

But now the word is apparently offensive. And at a McNally Jackson appearance just a few weeks later, a group called Intellectuals Raise A Tedious Egofest (“IRATE” for short) disrupted a party for the latest issue of x+1 by pelting Slabak with dozens of eggs (which, given inflation, surely cost them a fortune) and told Slabak that he was the one who was insensitive.

I think we can all agree that IRATE is a domestic terrorism group — no different from the epidemic of ugly, childless, and unmarried cat ladies who continue to vote Democrat after getting their monthly payments from George Soros. It’s on the same level of al Qaeda, but with a different list of moral objections. IRATE represents the same unattractive mix of quavering personal sensitivity and totalitarian demands for ideological conformity.

As the most brilliant man on this planet, I’ve had my own unpleasant dust-ups with these unruly socialists. A professor at George Washington University once called me a “cockroach” after I flew to Greenland on my own dime to see if climate change was, in fact, a real thing. During a fierce rainstorm in Tasiilaq, where I had to buy boots and a poncho at the last minute, I still stuck to my guns and insisted, even as the town was five feet underwater, that climate change was one of those crazy liberal conspiracies. I put myself out there. And, for this, I was called a “cockroach.”

So I telephoned this professor and screamed at him for ten minutes. And this professor, who actually believes that critical race theory should be taught in classrooms, wasn’t man enough to shout back at me! Can you believe that this Marxist son of a bitch, this deplorable metrosexual who believes that it’s just peachy keen for men to get pedicures and for children to change their pronouns, never once raised his voice? I called him “stupid, oh so fucking stupid,” slammed down the phone, and proceeded to binge-eat a large box of White Castle sliders that my wife had the foresight to pick up for those occasions in which I get very angry reading things online.

I’m feeling nostalgic for the old days in which you could use the word “stupid.” Personally, I blame uppity women for this new age of hypersensitivity. We rightfully took away their reproductive rights and cited 17th century legal precedents to put them in their place. And they still called us stupid. We helpfully informed women with PhDs in English Literature that Virginia Woolf was the author of Mrs. Dalloway and they called us mansplainers!

I’m misting up right now remembering the good old days when your wife would make you a sandwich and never speak up while you watched a football game. You could slap your wife on the ass like James Bond and tell her to go away when a friend showed up for a “man talk” session. 1964, which was before my time, was the last time in American history in which you could be a real man and call people stupid. And if I lived back then, I’d probably get more action in the bedroom instead of the yearly ten minute ceremony my wife and I perform on our wedding anniversary.

But there was a time, a brief time sometime around the early 21st century, when you could still call people “stupid” on the old social media platform Twitter. You could even tell anyone who was smarter than you to fuck off forever. While it lasted, Twitter was a sewer. It brought out the worst in humanity. I again sincerely apologize for any part I played it making it worse, although I greatly enjoyed hurting people and allowing my unmedicated indignation to fly its freak flag.

But now we can’t call people “stupid” anymore. And if we can’t do that, then I have no real reason to live.

So this is my final Substack column. I want to thank everyone who has encouraged me to own the libs over the years. We came very close to overthrowing the capital on January 6th, but, in the end, the Democrats continued to steal all the elections. And now the burden of being me is simply too much to bear. There’s no place for me in the zeitgeist anymore. And I’ve grown tired of busting out the Adorime pump from the closet two times a day.

And while I may not have the will to live, you do, my fellow patriots! There is a place for you out there, somewhere, where you can be truly free! You can still buy guns and walk around states with open-carry laws. You can still invite that annoying neighbor onto your property, shoot him in the head, and hire a good defense attorney to uphold the castle doctrine. You can still count on a Supreme Court — even with two of the Justices recently assassinated — that will uphold the old ways. The only ways.

Brad Carmody, not a cockroach, logging off.

(Next: The Dark Soul)

(Word count: 34,405/50,000)

This chapter is dedicated to noted media asshole Tim Carmody, who fucked around and found out. (The coward even deleted the below tweet. I’m not on Twitter anymore and am quite delighted to see that toxic site bite the dust under Elon Musk’s disastrous watch, but a friend had forwarded this to me.)

The Public Eye (NaNoWriMo 2022 #16)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Mountain Retreat)

She had not expected the piercing Xenon lights of the ever-voracious public eye to cast more invasive lambency upon her hard-won life. Sure, the THC-friendly webseries had kept her a public figure, but her audience there had known nothing of her OnlyFans past or the ignoble circumstances — the line that Ezmerelda said she would not cross and did — that led her to surrender that lucrative arc and try something else. Thankfully, they were too incurious. Google was freely available on their phones to look up any goddamned thing in the world and yet they couldn’t even do this. Nobody could, other than the rare outliers who still summoned the now untaught skills of critical thinking and having a heart.

Empathy had become increasingly politicized since the pandemic, which now seemed like a century ago. How much you genuinely cared and connected with other people now determined your political allegiance. And the people who still honed their emotional intimacy were more ostracized, much like the sideshow freaks had been cruelly ridiculed only decades before simply because they looked different. No more than that. If you were canceled in any way, well, you could never come back. Or if you could, your every move would be monitored. And with the Samsung Surrounder selling a million units, the panopticonal police, a well-regulated militia that not even James Madison could have imagined, had additional tools to observe and accuse in the unpredictable court of public opinion. The deep fake epidemic, with its increasingly manipulated media and its machine learning lies, had further muddied the waters. These teeming teardown trogolodytes would scan your social media for any small solecism to impugn you, reminding you of the mistake that you were already painfully aware of. They claimed to stand against fascism, but were they truly not aware of how authoritarian they were when it came to unsubstantiated gossip and judgment?

Sven understood this. It was why he rarely said a word to anyone anymore, why he was so committed to memorializing his thoughts by text because he could always pull up the record of what he had actually said rather than how his words had been hideously distorted. He was a Silent Bob type, though not by choice. When Ezmerelda heard the story of how the filmmaking community had expelled him after he had stuck up for a friend accused of groping a film critic, she hired him on the spot. Few people had that integrity anymore. These lonely online avengers never seemed to comprehend the virtues of loyalty, of giving someone another shot, of commending them for rebuilding their lives and doing the proper work of atonement. Sure, the nation was more illiterate and more sociopathic than it had ever been in its two hundred and fifty-one year run (the 2026 semiquincentennial had been a loud jingoistic shitshow), but could they not remember Forster’s words about having the guts to betray your country? If they couldn’t heed the pithy wisdom of some crusty and long-dead British dude that nobody read anymore, then the American experiment was hopeless, wasn’t it?

But now that Ali Breslin chick had blown the lid on an episode that she had thought long settled. She read the chapters that prominently featured her: not from a position of narcissism, but as a way to anticipate damage control. Breslin had somehow captured every moment of their meeting along Kings Highway five years before, contorting the truths into an admittedly admirable can’t-put-down volume of sensationalism, but she had left out the details about her involvement with Ted Gustoff, that Myrtle Beach cop buddy who she had benefited from off and on and a man who had likely tampered with the evidence. And why wasn’t that the real thrust of the book? No, Breslin had needed a patriarchal variation of the hooker with the heart of gold to sell her story and Ezmerelda Gibbons had served as the unlikely actor pulled from Central Casting. Breslin had clearly studied the Maggie Haberman playbook: reveal your big scoop in book form years after the world had moved on, serve as an ignoble and ethically compromised Goebbels type in your media appearances, and write your largely unedited copy as fast as possible to ensure that your competitors couldn’t beat you to the finish line. Those five disgraceful words “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” appeared in a bright gilded font under Breslin’s name on the front cover. Like Haberman, Breslin had even won a Pulitzer Prize. Sure, she could tell the world about how Breslin had seduced her into spilling. On the other hand, maybe Breslin had been lying about her college summer working as a stripper. But if she did that, she’d probably be accused of jealous mud-slinging, of rigging the narrative. But Ezmerelda had lived the events that Breslin had merely reported.

And now her phone was blowing up. Texts, emails, voicemails, DMs. Dozens of journalists from outlets, equally legitimate and shady, insisted that they were the ones who she had to talk to. She blocked all their numbers and social media accounts. The Toking with Elders channel had gained 500,000 followers in the last 24 hours, but with the burden of rubes flooding the comments with painful reminders of that final video, the one in which she’d gone down on that Wall Street dudebro who flaunted a folding fan of Frankllins, that she’d posted on OnlyFans and that caused her to permanently close her account and never do anything like that again. Which, of course, had made its way onto EverybodyFucks.com and was now being broadcast over and over on the TV news channels. Only a few years before, you’d get hit by an FCC fine if you aired anything like this. But the airwaves were now unregulated and FOX News and One America had been particularly malicious with their segments. Tucker Carlson did an entire twelve minute bit in which he stood up from his chair and ordered a production assistant to get on her knees and mime the actions. And that too had gone viral. Carlson’s boorish misogyny had resulted in a few white women holding Ezmerelda up as a feminist icon: the 2020s answer to Monica Lewinsky.

Why were the white people so obsessed with her? Even with all this happening, they still viewed her as a superficial token, a vessel with which to summon their strident and oh-so-predictable liberal anger. Even when white people claimed to sympathize her, they humiliated her and dictated how she should act. They were clueless about their tone policing and they couldn’t seem to understand the harm they were doing. But Black people? They were all on her side. Because they knew that any of them would face the same fate if one of their worst moments had been disseminated on the Internet.

So she’d have to contend — again — with the beady supercilious eyes of the knee-jerk throngs. Covertly racist rods and cones beaming from dull pork chop husks who refused to step foot outside of their affluent neighborhoods and talked loudly of real estate and avocado toast when they weren’t bragging about the one Black friend they knew that suddenly made them self-declared experts on centuries of racism and oppression. White heat had seared her soul from day one. Their privilege robbed her of dignity and cast doubt upon her identity. You were theoretically supposed to tough it out by growing a Teflon skin. But Ezmerelda couldn’t. And she had wept as she turned the pages of Breslin’s awful book, a tome that had been written to propel Breslin like a rocket into the media stratosphere. CNN was now in talks to hire Breslin as a rotating pundit.

What killed her was that Paul Van Kleason had been the one who had inveigled teenage girls and corralled animals for his depraved operation. Shouldn’t the focus on the literary Daves who had openly abused these victims rather than her?

She walked past the News Corp Building on Sixth Avenue with its ugly red news crawl splaying the headlines for all to see. Midtown was usually a place where you could walk with anonymity — no matter how well-known you were. It was why so many celebrities still lived in Manhattan. This was the only place in the world where only the superstars would be mobbed and anyone who ranked just below A-list could walk in relative peace. But she was getting looks. “Why do I know that woman?” was the question mark contained inside their eyes. She was about to hail a cab, knowing damned well that most would pass her by because of the color of her skin, when her jaw dropped at the latest headline.

TUCKER CARLSON, 58, ASSASSINATED AT HIS GASPARILLA ISLAND HOME BY FRINGE ACTIVISTS.

What the fuck? Sure, she hated this cruel demagogue with all her heart, but that didn’t mean she wanted him dead. Although she couldn’t deny the instant calm: the great relief and giddy elation that took hold of her in the same way that some struggling blue-collar type learned that he had won the lottery.

That’s when she noticed the hundreds of people angrily gathering at West 50th Street. Some held placards with her photo.

LEAVE GIBBONS ALONE!
TUCKKKER KKKARLSON IS DEAD! GOOD RIDDANCE!
BURN FOX NEWS TO THE GROUND!
BLACK LIVES STILL MATTER!
SEX WORKERS UNITE!

That’s when someone threw a Molotov. There was a fierce ear-piercing explosion. She dived to the sidewalk and looked up to see a police car in flames. No cars on Sixth. NYPD stormtroopers with mirrored faceshields and batons marched in a phalanx towards the protesters.

“Look!” cried one of the activists. “It’s her.”

She tossed off her heels and began running east through the Diamond District, with only the nylon protecting the bottom of her feet from the filthy concrete, passing a few Orthodox men in fuzzy shtreimels looking agape while desperately pulling down their steel gates to protect their shops from potential looting.

She stopped running when she saw the convoy of monster trucks: white men in flannel shirts crowded in ample cargo beds, all shaking their submachine guns and baseball bats into the air. Large American flags spiring and fluttering into the air. Their hateful threnodies were soon punctuated by bullets. More rounds per minute and much louder than anything she had ever seen as a Canarsie kid.

“Miss,” screamed a frightened man beckoning her with his hand and speaking in broken English. “You come in here.”

He was standing outside one of the many 24/7 two story delis in Midtown where blue-collar types secretly congregated at night to drink bottles of beer, blast Latin music at deafening levels, and slap down dominoes on tables that, only a few hours before, had been occupied by administrative assistants and receptionists on their lunch hour, quietly stewing over what had gone so horribly wrong with their lives.

“What?”

“It not safe. I close gate soon. You come!”

And she scurried through the door as the steel covering rolled down with a peremptory thud behind her.

(Next: The Scandal of Unfettered Speech)

(Word count: 33,057/50,000)

The Mountain Retreat (NaNoWriMo 2022 #15)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previous: The Green Room)

He fled to his secret cabin in the northwestern corner of the state — only a few miles away from Sassafras, near the rugged tree-lined fringe of Pickens County where only a handful of locals owned a Samsung Surrounder. Nobody there was interested in the latest tech and, due to the dormant evangelical plurality, most were deeply offended by all the carnal exhibitionism, which was largely practiced in huge cities: places more ideal for total strangers to fuck in public places and disappear. But could he disappear in the mountains? He had rented a Subaru Forester, a fugly compact SUV that had somehow eluded the eco-friendly legislative avengers curtailing damn near anything contributing to carbon emission largesse. With its dumpy angles and gaudy grays, the Subaru Forester was a car so aesthetically hideous that nobody on the road could bring themselves to look at it. Even the gun-loving snipers hiding in the mountains couldn’t summon the desire to fire off shots while slamming back tallboys. Anyone with even a partial vista of the road pitied any sad bastard was driving this car of all cars. The overworked Subaru engineers had so badly botched the design (conspiracy theorists in online car forums had suggested that this eyesore was a deliberate inside job) that it didn’t surprise anyone when the University of Missouri published a study in 2026 concluding that the car owners doling out monthly payments on Foresters were the ones most likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

Rob Rollins wasn’t depressed exactly. Most people lost their will to live after three days of driving a Forester. But he was greatly unnerved. He drove up the winding potholed two-lane highway of US-178 (why hadn’t the road reform pork that he helped to get passed been consummated yet?) with a pit in his washboard chest. And he knew that he wouldn’t be found because the Subaru Forester was a vehicle he wouldn’t be caught dead in. Now he was being murdered by the press — though not in the more decisive and corporeal way that the Cherokees had been brutally slaughtered by British and American colonialists in this region only centuries before. He hoped that some reckless yahoo wouldn’t collide into him on US-178. In some ways, it was more painful imagining that he could be discovered driving this car rather than the vicious rumors of his involvement with Van Kleason.

The one thing he couldn’t let anyone see was how much all this hurt him. The onslaught of think pieces and media dissections and fledgling investigations had been merciless. Videos of Rollins berating his clients had bubbled up on YouTube and TikTok. He had mended these fences before with discreet hush money and the ruthless enforcement of NDAs, but now the degree to which a gym authority tortured his underlings had become a hot topic at cocktail parties. And those who stood against tough luck aligned themselves with those who protested fat shaming. And then the disabled community, the voting bloc that he and Debbie had so smartly cultivated, turned against him. Not even the Republican National Committee would support him. “Tough it up, Rob,” they said. “It’s not like you’re Dennis Hastert. It will pass.” But he didn’t think it would. Now he was on the cusp of getting canceled, his political career (and possibly his stature as a fitness guru) barreling forward in a car with bad brakes towards a dead end sign at the edge of that cliff signaling reality.

He had come to the “cabin” — the one he co-owened with his brother, who also wasn’t talking with him — to wait it out. It seemed unwise to pop up in the public eye in any way.

Would this go away? He had only been hustling on the Beltway for five years and, even though he wasn’t very bright, he was cognizant enough to understand that the public had an attention span shorter than an Alzheimer’s patient trying to recall why he had wanted to strangle the nurse who stopped him from sprinkling salt on his baked potato. The throngs would surely move onto fresher meat. The next main character. Real villains. Celebrities rather than politicians. But they hadn’t. His notifications blew up. And he turned his phone off. But not before one last call.

He asked Debbie for the latest Quinnipiac poll numbers and the results were decidedly not in his favor. He had three years left to serve in the Senate. And he wasn’t sure if he was going to be forced to resign over this. After years of extremist rhetoric, the red waves weren’t arriving. And so the GOP was cleaning house even as many of their baleful brand ambassadors openly fucked in the cloakrooms in the House.

Ali Breslin had linked this junior Senator from South Carolina to a sinister sex trafficking ring that involved some writer named Paul Van Kleason and many prominent authors. But he had never known Paul. He had only trained Sophie. He deeply regretted the texts he had sent to those who skipped their training appointments, the bills he had demanded Sophie pay to the Rollins Institute after she became paralyzed. But a contract was a contract, right?

During the first two chilly nights in the cabin, Rollins shivered beneath a three thousand thread count comforter on a feather bed — even after the twelve mile runs and the three hour calisthentics workouts that he had hoped would calm him. But no amount of burpees or pull exercises could untrouble his mind. He was implicated. Breslin had somehow pieced together his client roster from 2022 and discovered that half of his acolytes had some connection with Sophie. It didn’t help that five-year-old videos were resurfacing on EveryoneFucks.com and that Redditors were putting together intricate spreadsheets. And somehow it all lead back to him. But, unlike that dead creepy writer David Fitzroy, he hadn’t fucked any goats and he had no desire to. He certainly hadn’t been involved in sex trafficking. Had not the anti-trafficking bills that he co-sponsored proved his bona-fides?

And because of Ali Breslin — who had managed to get enough right for a persuasive book, but who was also an expert at insinuating something without inviting libel suits — sixteen women claimed that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Rollins. They had only their stories, not hard evidence. And they were believed. This was, however, quite impossible for deeply personal reasons. Several political strategists (and even a few sleazy lobbyists) had cornered him in the Russell Building, asking Rollins why he wasn’t married. And he had laughed off their inquiries with some harmless locker room humor about how much a woman stood in the way of being a self-made success. Which put a target on his back and unleashed the indignation of febrile Jezebel readers. But why him? Sure, he had been gruff at times, but his closest advisor was a woman and he had tried to walk the tightrope by upholding with the GOP’s regressive values without coming across as a misogynistic asshole. He was one of the few Republicans who had voted with the Democrats to codify Roe v. Wade. Sure, it was a calculated move to appeal to independents and secure his Senatorial victory. But didn’t that count for something? Especially when the vote happened not long after Steve Scalise had fired a gun in the House chamber during an unhinged stump speech for the Second Amendment?

He had become obsessed with the physical ideal because of one deep secret that only Debbie Ballard and his brother knew about. As a fitness instructor, he had adopted his fiery tyranny because he didn’t want anyone to know the truth. If you scared them, they wouldn’t ask questions. They’d be too paralyzed by fear to poke into your private life. If they held you up as a god, the hero worship would guarantee their incuriousity. That was the other part of the ideal he liked. Not so much the hubris, but the insulation from scrutiny. And Debbie had told him that staying closeted was ridiculous because there were so many openly gay Republicans these days. Sexuality had become so translucent that public sex was now respectable, with kinky activity once confined to sex clubs now regularly practiced at tony townhouses.

But he couldn’t allow this to be out in the open. It was a matter of principle. It was a matter of pride. It was ultimately what kept him a conservative. And it was also the quality that kept Debbie around far longer than he had anticipated. A pitiful quality that had inspired her to discover herself and find true love with another woman.

And it was why he had cut loose Atticus just before running for Congress. Atticus. Such a beautiful and patient man. His hands were so graceful in the way they flattened homemade Phyllo dough into razor-thin squares and the slow and delicate way that he raised a cup of chamomile tea to his rich beautiful lips. Atticus was the only person whom he could be himself with. And he had been cruel, so cruel, in the way that he had sent all of his stray knick-knacks to his apartment with a peremptory note telling him to never contact him again. Because Atticus had never raised his voice. Atticus knew how to calm him down. Atticus, much like his literary namesake, was too honorable to go public. And he wondered what Atticus was thinking right now as the media machine still roared loud and long to distract everyone from the dying dregs of America.

The mountain air spilled from the open door into the cabin’s modest living room and Rollins felt a goosebump tremor upon his bronzed biceps as he stared at the empty wicker chair where Atticus had once sat and laughed. A chair that nobody had been allowed to sit in for the last five years and that he ordered the cleaning lady to pay extra attention to. He closed his eyes and thought of their schoolboy makeout sessions, Atticus’s reliable gentleness, the limber arm Atticus placed so lovingly around his shoulder when he opened himself up to him and told him, and only him, about the cruel kids who had singled him out for the modest flab on his belly in seventh grade and had made him so determined to never have so much as an ounce of fat on his body so long as he walked this mortal earth.

Maybe the Van Kleason scandal was the best thing that could have happened to him. Maybe he needed to be humbled. Maybe he could start over. He truly had not expected to build an empire or to rise up as rapidly as he had. But here in the cabin, he was anonymous, invisible. It was here, and only here, that he found the greatest peace.

There was a knock.

Rollins opened his eyes and abandoned his reverie.

Bill Flogaast stood in the open doorway, the great amber flood of the setting sun casting a piercing backlight against this shadow from the past.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” said Flogaast.

“How did you know about this place?”

“Come on, Rob. I know everything. I know shit about people that would truly surprise you.”

“I haven’t seen you in a while. I thought you were retired. Rhode Island, right?”

“From time to time, I am summoned out of my forced retirement.”

Flogaast sauntered slowly into the room, studying the print of Riding Bikes hanging on the rustic wall.

“Rauschenberg! Well, that’s a bit wild for a Republican.”

“What can I say? I like bicycles.”

“But, Rob, I know you’re a gym rat, but I’ve somehow never seen you on a bike.”

Rollins recalled the Sunday afternoons with Atticus. The joyful bike rides to Sassafras.

“It’s only up here. I have three mountain bikes in the shed.”

“You know, I met him once.”

“Oh?”

“Bob Rauschenberg. I’ve met quite a lot of people. That’s what happens when you’re in publicity.”

Flogaast walked to the wicker chair and began to sit down.

Rollins stood up.

“Don’t!” he squeaked. “Don’t sit there.”

Flogaast laughed.

“Well, why not?”

“That chair has, uh, sentimental value.”

“That’s fine. I should probably stand anyway. The drive was thirteen hours, all told. I tried you in DC. But you weren’t there for some reason.”

“So you came here.”

“It wasn’t too much trouble. You see, when someone you hold dear leaves you, you’re left with an empty place that you need to fill. It takes years, sometimes half a lifetime, to learn how to live with yourself.”

“Patricia left you?”

“Yes. And a long road trip usually gives you time to ruminate. To summon gratitude. To fill in gaps. Gaps reflected by the territory filled in by the rest areas and the roadside diners that remind you that everything that is on the map is populated. But I don’t know if you’d know anything about that. I’ve, uh, never seen you with a special someone.”

“That’s my business, not yours.”

Flogaast stretched out his arms and yawned.

“So sorry. I’m not a young man anymore and these long drives, as useful as they are, tucker me out sometimes.”

Flogaast walked to a small shelf of books that was mounted on the wall right next to the fireplace.

“I didn’t know you were a reader,” he said with genuine surprise.

“I’m not.”

Flogaast rubbed the spines with his index fingers.

“He was one of my authors. She was one of my authors. And oh! What’s this?”

He pulled the paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from the shelf.

“Harper Lee,” said Flogaast. “I’ve read this four times. Are you more of a Scout man? Or an Atticus man?”

Rollins gulped.

“An Atticus man! I thought so!”

“Why the hell did you come here?”

“Because, my dear Senator, you are in a lot of trouble. And I know that you can easily get out of this trouble. In fact, you’d be easily exonerated. But you chose not to. Which is a bit strange from a man who Time Magazine once called a rising star in the Republican Party.”

“I have my reasons.”

“I have a hunch that it has something to do with this book and maybe even this wicker chair that you won’t let me sit in. I think you’re a secret reader, if you catch my drift.”

“What are you implying?”

Flogaast sat on the couch and leaned in very close to the Senator.

“Rob, I want to help you. But you’re going to have to help me first.”

(Next: The Public Eye)

(Word count: 31,219/50,000)

The Green Room (NaNoWriMo 2022 #14)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Italian Restaurant)

Herbert Budruck was sitting in the green room. He was too joyless to reach for the complimentary party mix placed at the center of the glass table for guests.

He despised himself. Despised the way that he had fallen so hard in the last five years. He hadn’t once broken a significant news story, although he had come close. But the other journalists were always quicker and scooped him in the same way that guys at the bodega effortlessly slipped in front of him as he vacillated for fifteen minutes over what kind of hero sandwich he wanted. This was largely because he didn’t have the time or the discipline or the work ethic to do the legwork. But mostly because he was absolutely terrible at his job.

He despised the way that his DC editor — a decent man who didn’t want to fire anyone, but who knew he had a problem with Herbert Budruck, who hadn’t so much reported anything as he had typed random sentences into a CMS at the bump-charged pace of seventeen posts each day, but who also knew that Budruck had a family to support and probably wouldn’t land another job because of his hopeless mediocrity — never let him have a single byline anymore and usually saddled him as second banana (often with a woman as the lead writer) on the increasingly incoherent and fact-challenged articles he regurgitated out of his feeble soul with careless cuckolded ineptitude. He particularly despised that personality he had cyberstalked for seven years, that fuckhead who had won nearly a million followers on TikTok. How had that happened? He put in eighteen hours each day on social media, hadn’t he? More time than he actually spent writing — that is, if his desperate grinding and woeful grammatical disasters could be called writing — or even learning how to call multiple sources and secure an airtight fact in the way that seasoned journalists had facilely mastered. He’d put in the work, responded to everyone, including the lowlifes with 48 followers. But somehow he couldn’t land the influence that this far more talented son of a bitch had garnered without apparent effort.

Not even his old friend Mike Harvest, who had long abdicated his duties at a book critic to publish more never-selling books that were merely collection of old tweets, famous quotes, and Vine transcripts, was taking his calls anymore. Although David Leich did. And it was Leich, after screaming over the phone for twenty minutes about some mouse he had killed in his apartment, who had taken the time to listen and who had called an old producer contact. Leich and Budruck had gone way back. All the way back to the big Myrtle Beach story five years before that should have been his, but that had been plucked into a hot journalism bestseller from the horribly pleasant Ali Breslin (some mere puffed up blogger!). Well, he was in the green room now! And he would tell the real truth!

Deep down, Herbert Budruck knew he was a hack. He had been at the content farm racket far too long. He wasn’t very good at it. But what else was he going to fucking do? Journos at other outlets had spoken about him in private group chats on journalism servers with increasing pity, but he was more of a footnote, a cautionary tale of a sad sack that any of them could turn into:

@LVossUSAToday he’s at it again
@DataRockstarNYT does he even sleep?
@YaelWaPo guys, just ignore him
@LVossUSAToday I can’t!!! 😂 Did you see his latest? Carville born in 1964 and married to Marlee Matlin. And THIS got past the fact checkers.
@DataRockstarNYT they don’t have fact checkers at politico
@YaelWaPo come on leave him be

So Herbert Budruck was tolerated.

Herbert Budruck cosplayed as a “nice” person. He boasted about how he would never name this hopelessly cheerful and witty TikTok personality (his name was Teddy Winner) who he had spent so much time harassing, the happy-go-lucky figure who was still killing it without succumbing to the national trend of unfettered free speech, profanity-spouting news anchors, and public carnality, a trend that he also despised. But he especially despised the way that Teddy Winner had found a way to appeal to his audience without being cheap about it. And he tendered variations of this disingenuous “I’m a nice guy!” lie even as he named and defamed Teddy Winner in the replies with half-baked rumors and libelous conjecture. He despised that Teddy Winner had not taken his bait and had not proven as “unhinged” as he had anticipated. Then one afternoon, he had become unhinged, firing off dozens of defamatory toots in under two hours. The instance admin had caught wind of this and Herbert was forced to beg the admin to restore his Fediverse account, even slipping the admin a $500 CashApp donation. And it worked, largely because the noble people who ran instances were always running at a loss for the greater good of open-source democracy and were always hard-up. God, things had been so much easier before Twitter went belly up! He longed for the days when rage and hits were the currency.

But the admin wasn’t the only fire he had to put out. Herbert’s editor had caught wind of Herbert’s latest manic episode and had called him at home, speaking to him in the gentle manner of a father addressing a small child about how this obsessive fixation on other media people was unhealthy and how he would be forced to forward the screenshots to human resources if he kept this up. And so Herbert Budruck stopped, though not without spending the next two weeks seething.

Herbert despised the way his wife had put on one hundred pounds in just eighteen months and how she had evicted him from their bed. She had often stuffed her face with high-carb meals rather than look at his increasingly aging and increasingly uglier face. He despised the rapid manner in which his hate was aging him. Despised the way that he had fantasized about beating his kids, even though there was good reason to. His two boys had grown up to be awful little bastards, far more likely to jump on the serial criminal existential trajectory than he ever could have anticipated. Constantly whining for snacks on a full stomach and putting on weight just like mom, always demanding the latest video game console, burning down the kitchen not once, but twice. It didn’t help that his children had taken on more of their mother’s physical features than his. It was almost as if genetics instinctively knew not to pass on Herbert’s characteristics down the line. Nature protecting what remained of humanity from those who contributed nothing. Or maybe his wife had fucked a few other men under his nose. He would never know for sure. His marriage was now on such thin ice that he was in no position to ask for a paternity test.

Herbert Budruck wanted to be a real man. He deluded himself into thinking that he was a real man by posting pictures of himself on social media and passive-aggressively begging his followers to confirm his worth. And they did. Because they had all bought into his big con and they were lonely. Tell an insignificant online nobody that their crude and uninformed thoughts actually matter, even when you don’t actually believe this, and they will sign up to join your army of trolls. It had worked for the Republicans in the mid-2010s, hadn’t it? And the 15k followers he sustained remained a benchmark that he could whip up every time his employer threatened job cuts. He had survived many purges not because he was particularly remarkable (he wasn’t), but because he was feverishly devoted to false metrics.

And now, as he sat on the green room couch and steepled his fingers, contemplating how he he could take the story away from Ali Breslin much like a fierce Bristol seagull swooping down on a hot dog and climbing back up into the sky while gnawing on newly liberated brat, a twentysomething, who looked as if she was the production assistant, waved hello.

“Excuse me, Mr. Budruck?”

“Yes. Am I next?”

“No. I hate to do this to you, but you’re getting bumped.”

“Bumped?” boomed Budruck.

“Bumped. And we won’t have a slot for you for another three weeks.”

He looked at the flatscreen above him on mute. According to the closed captions, a devastatingly gorgeous influencer was rambling on about how three chocolate milk enemas a day could reduce your chances of catching cancer.

“But…”

“We will, of course, pay you for your time.”

“But do you know who I am?”

“Yes. Herbert Budruck. But you just don’t have the pull we need.”

“But I’m sitting on a major news story! What I have to say is going to significantly dispute the claims in Ali Breslin’s book!”

“Yeah,” said the production assistant, twirling her highlighted strands, “but nobody wants to hear that.”

“What? This is the biggest book of 2027! And you’re telling me that this floozy rates more than me.”

“Yes, Mr. Budruck, I am.”

“I want to speak to the producer.”

“Well, she’s quite busy.”

She?

The producer that Leich had hooked him up with was definitely a dude.

“Yes, she. But if you’re going to be so condescending…”

“Now wait a minute, I didn’t mean it like that. I was told that Hank Sheffield was running the show.”

“Oh,” laughed the production assistant. “He’s only the booker.”

Only the booker? But Hank Sheffield was at NBC News for decades! Didn’t you see his Emmy-winning segment on the Fentanyl epidemic?”

“He’s just the booker. In fact, I outrank him.”

“But you’re only…”

“Twenty-three? Yes. So you’re ageist as well as sexist.”

“No!” cried Budruck. “Not at all!”

“Do I have to call security?”

“You don’t.”

“Maybe you can be more like Teddy Winner. I mean, he’s so funny. And he’s your age. He knows how to speak to people like me.”

Hearing Winner’s name was too much for Budruck, who became beet-red with rage and shoved the bowl of party mix off the table.

“Teddy Winner!” he screamed. “Teddy Fucking Winner!”

The junior producer pushed the bud of her headset closer to her lips and calmly called for security.

Two large men showed up in less than a minute.

“Do we have a problem here?” said one of them.

“No,” said Budruck. “No, not at all.”

“We’re sorry to have inconvenienced you,” said the producer. “Can I offer you a little piece of advice?”

Budruck grunted.

“Adjust with the times.”

These four words sent a shudder through his body. Adjust with the times? What the hell did they think that he was doing?

Fifteen minutes later, as Budruck tried to calm himself down with a Midtown saunter, passing two couples who were freely copulating against walls, it occurred to Budruck that “the times,” such as they were, would have to adjust to him! He began to conjure up great plans. Fuck Teddy Winner. Budruck wasn’t going to play nice anymore. He was going to take down Ali Breslin.

He called Leich on his cell.

“Herb!” said Leich. “How did the appearance go?”

“It didn’t happen.”

“What?”

“Are you doing anything right now?”

“Not really.”

“Good. I’m coming over. You’re going to want to listen very carefully to what I have to say.”

(Next: The Mountain Retreat)

(Word count: 28,782/50,000)

The Italian Restaurant (NaNoWriMo 2022 #13)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Last Literary Dave)

Sophie Van Kleason sat in her wheelchair as Clark, hopelessly dull and unambitious Clark, made eggs and sausage in the kitchen. She’d kept the surname because it was good for the estate and it aggravated Clark, who puled incessantly about how he could not live up. He’d done it again last night and they’d had a fight. There hadn’t even been post-fight sex. So this didn’t augur well for the immediate future, not that she even knew if she even wanted one with this bespectacled, middle-aged, smoothie-drinking mollycoddle. But Clark was one of those easily malleable men, the kind of rube who still seeks approval over the age of forty instead of summoning any initiative from within, who believed in sticking around and keeping the peace. A predictable routine not unlike the way in which a dog futilely chases the mailman because he doesn’t have anything else to do other than to shit and eat and look adorable and perform treat-punctuated acrobatics for the human marks. But with Clark, there was no mailman. He had no new tricks. There was, in fact, nothing in his rudderless life to chase. His career as an urban planner had floundered. Sure, he still collected a biweekly paycheck, but he was also still sitting in the same cubicle he toiled in during his twenties, a time in which he still had the kernel of big dreams before the crushing tyranny of bureaucracy hammered out the bridge projects and the traffic corridor ideas that he had hoped to improve Myrtle Beach with. He never fought for a salary increase that matched his years of experience. He didn’t have the temperament to rock boats unless there was something to prove. And Clark Mannix couldn’t summon that hunger anymore. Sophie wasn’t sure if he had ever had it, which was another source of their dispute. Still, Clark had been the first normal man she’d been with since the milquetoast she’d shacked up with before Paul. And even when she had so many boytoys on the side, she still needed an anchor. Even a middling one.

When Paul had died, Sophie had been forced to reign in her kinky escapades. That’s what the publicity men had agreed upon. And Nick, after reluctantly plunging a sizable hunk of cheese into his mouth and soldiering his way through an allergic reaction, had invoked the fear of a fictitious deity to cajole her into cleaning up her act. It wasn’t necessary. Those disturbing videos, which Flogaast had somehow muzzled from public consumption, had scared her straight or, at least, momentarily hindered her from any further experimentation. She didn’t have the stomach to crush a man’s face with her feet after learning about Paul’s secret sordid life. He’d somehow exceeded her debauchery under her very nose. And so she was forced to close down her Fetlife account and circle the wagons. She had only been reflecting and reappraising her existence for six months when that car plowed into and threw her silk-smooth mass into the a roadside gorse bush and punctured her spine, paralyzing her from the waist down. And it seemed that her sex life was done. (She tried taking up with two of her remaining subs, but she dropped them after they fetished her wheelchair.)

While she was relieved to learn that she could still come despite not being able to move her legs, she hated the way her disability had curtailed her speed and her mobility when it came to applying nipple clamps or carrying out impact play. It turned out that she needed the running start of her legs to flog a lover with any significant marks. And it was absurd to be at their eye level when she was in the wheelchair, barking at her subs to call her “Ma’am” or “Mistress.” The power exchange relied a great deal on how much higher she stood above her subjects. And, yes, she supposed she could ask them to crawl on the ground. And she did. But that didn’t satisfy her.

So she gave it up. She allowed her once immaculate body to atrophy and grow flab in places she hadn’t seen enlarge since that binge-eating phase in college. Chris or Jim had learned about the drunk driver who had felled her on Kings Highway and, while Sophie never found out if his name was Chris or Jim (he had hoped that he would mention it again casually, but he never did, even when the two of them hung out with one of his close friends, who never once said his name), he was the only man who never mentioned the wheelchair or her dramatic corporeal decline. Somehow, he had remained starry-eyed, even if he was still terrified about their little arrangement going public, which was the main reason he had scurried away. Lose command of your legs and somehow the men who show up are weaker. It was just as well. The thrill was gone. She had never loved any of these men and they, in turn, were merely infatuated with her.

And then there was Rob Rollins, who had improbably and cruelly tried to uphold the membership contract — this as the Van Kleason fortune, such as it was, was tied up in a vicious estate battle between Van Kleason’s repugnant sister (a doctor: what the hell did that six-figure bitch need the money for?) and an equally unsettling FOX News-watching uncle who arrogantly and risibly believed that he was the next Steve Jobs at the age of sixty-two, but who had never closed the deal on any of the dusty go-nowhere projects in his garage — before Debbie Ballard had moved in with some hush money and another NDA for her to sign. And the transfer of bundled Franklins in a taped paper bag had significantly eroded their friendship, turning it into something seedy and transactional. Debbie had been a liberal, hadn’t she? Sophie laughed when Debbie insisted she still was. And the two former best friends kept each other at a distance. Then, sometime after this Ballard early morning meeting with the bills, Rollins was a Congressman. And then, just as Sophie was taking in this fatalistic twist of the knife, he was Senator. And she wondered if she should go public about what Rollins had done despite the NDA. Especially since Rollins had campaigned as a champion of disability rights, one of the main reasons he had won a narrow 800 vote victory (after a runoff and a recount) to secure his first Senate term in office. He (or, more likely, Debbie) had taken a page from Fetterman and revived “compassionate conservatism” as an alternative to Trump extremism. And when Debbie realized that the disabled represented a sizable bloc, she adjusted his campaign. And the warm-hearted images of Rollins hugging a woman with cerebral palsy had somehow stopped the journalists from looking into the dicey financing and stories of abuse from his fitness empire. It had been the right move. Show that you are not a eugenicist meathead by spending time with the people with afflictions. And people would focus on that rather than his actual policies. There was, of course, nothing “compassionate” about kicking low-income tenants out of a housing project in the dead of winter, but the constituents he had hoped to woo didn’t care about that and believed in him. Voters now only responded to cartoonish appeals to their feelings. And if Sophie hadn’t stayed silent, then Rollins would never have landed his win. There were 1.2 million disabled people in South Carolina. If she blew the lid open, she was confident that they would have showed up to the polls for that far smarter Filipino woman. And yet she hadn’t. Because she remained stupidly loyal to Debbie, who had, after all, spent so much time with her after Paul passed.

God, she hated that word. Disabled. As if she wasn’t able in other ways.

That’s when she met Clark on Hinge. He showed up to their first date at a seemingly unpretentious Italian restaurant near the water wearing aviator glasses and a bomber jacket, but there was nothing Top Gun about him. If anything, he had turned out to be the antithesis of Maverick. Needy, without confidence, a silent victim who didn’t even have the guts to declare victimhood in the same way that financially irresponsible titans manned up and declared bankruptcy after they shit the bed.

What Clark had was mindfulness, a quality significantly lacking in the other men she had tried dating, who all out to be wheelchair fetishists who wanted to check “Fuck a disabled chick” off their bucket list. But not Clark. He helped her get into her chair after she parked. He was intuitive to know that she liked to roll herself. He held the door open for her at the restaurant. That’s when she eyed the three short steps leading to the oak host station, with its smiling vapid twentysomething pressing square buttons on an LCD. Well, for Sophie, the steps may as well have been Kangchenjunga. There was no outdoor dining because the owner was an anti-vaxxer who believed in a 5G conspiracy. So this was the only way in. Three steps that she could confidently rush up only a year before. And Clark, feeling guilt over his role in selecting the venue, couldn’t stay silent.

“We want a table.”

The chipper twentysomething host, busy texting some equally vapid friend on his phone, laughed. He looked up.

“I’m so sorry. We don’t have a ramp. But I can tell you about our lobster bisque special!”

“You’re not getting it, pal,” said Clark. “You see that woman over there?”

The host waved a limp hello.

“Why yes! She’s very beautiful! Good for you!”

“Well, she’s going to sit at a table here. Right now.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but we simply don’t have one!”

Clark looked at the numerous empty tables on the mezzanine.

“Then what are those?”

“I’m sorry, but that section’s closed.”

“Open it. There’s enough space for a wheelchair.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Son, I work for the Myrtle Beach Planning & Zoning Department. So I know the law better than you can tie your shoes.”

Clark pointed to the host’s Payless Shoesource faux leather lace-ups. The host blushed at the Euclidean mess that he had somehow not tripped over. He swiftly kneeled to rectify it.

“Clark,” said Sophie from her wheelchair three steps below, “it’s okay.”

But this mild-mannered man, who was no superman, was steaming from the ears.

“I have a friends in the Health Department. I can shut this place down faster than an F-35C Lightning II hitting Mach 1.”

“Oh,” said the host, noticing the bomber jacket. “Are you some kind of pilot?”

“No,” snapped Clark. “I’m just an enthusiast. Open the section. And install a ramp by next week. Because if you don’t, I’ll also sue your ass for ADA non-compliance.”

And the host opened the section. Clark scooped up Sophie from her chair and carried her to the table, as if he had been waiting for years to lift up and carry some unknown future bride across the aisle. The need to marry was strong in this one. And, well, Sophie couldn’t deny that this was incredibly hot. And she allowed him to take her home. It was the best sex she’d had since before the accident.

Unfortunately, these dashing qualities, which had largely atoned for Clark’s dependably male mediocrity, had dwindled hard and fast after they had moved in together after a year. But Clark, a man hopelessly enslaved to his narcissistic mother, started to take on fawning qualities that she had recalled in her subs. And while he had spent one morning sobbing after a regrettable candle wax brouhaha, which also resulted in an emergency room trip for second-degree burns because he had not listened to her, the sex remained largely vanilla and she had only the emotional control left to keep her satisfied.

Clark placed the plate of eggs and bacon onto the table. She dug in with a fork.

There was no plate for him.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” asked Sophie.

“I’m not hungry. I already had a smoothie.”

Clark cleared his throat.

“I’m tired of living in his shadow.”

“Whose shadow, darling?”

“You know damned well what I’m talking about.”

“Oh, do you mean Paul? Well, he’s been dead for five years.”

“I know that. But I’ll never be him.”

She reached out for his cheek and pinched it.

“But, baby, you’re Clark Mannix.”

And the sour look on his face revealed that she had not been convincing enough. On the other hand, who in the hell could talk up Clark Mannix and keep a straight face? It would be like seriously suggesting that Emma Silverburg, the former Big Brother contestant who had turned to novel writing and who was now in the news for seducing underage kids, was a talented writer.

“Why don’t we turn on the news, darling? Maybe it will put all this into perspective.”

Clark picked up the remote, aimed it at the dining room flatscreen (one of three in the house), and fired up CNN.

…believed to be part of a sinister fucking ring worse than Jeffrey Fucking Epstein.

“They’ve started swearing on CNN too?” asked Clark.

“Declining ratings,” said Sophie.

“Yeah, but this is CNN. I thought Jake Tapper was better than this.”

The Senator refused to fucking address the new motherfucking claims made in Breslin’s book, which will hit bookstores tomorrow.

Sophie dropped her fork.

“Wait, is that…”

“Yes,” said Clark.

The cunts and cocksuckers in the Senate Select Committee on Ethics have made no fucking formal statement on whether they will be fucking censuring Senator Rollins for his involvement. But the list of involved parties is really fucking long. They include several prominent members of the literary fucking world.

“Oh no,” said Sophie.

The recently deceased author David Fitzroy, who took his own life after sales of his trilogy A Codex to All Legends were lackluster — because, let’s face the facts, viewers, his work was fucking shitty — is reportedly in one of these newly resurfaced videos. And get this! He’s fucking a goat.

Sophie grabbed the remote and shut off Tapper’s trap.

“Hey, I was watching that,” said Clark.

“Clark, I have to tell you something.”

Clark put his hand on hers.

“What’s the matter, baby?”

“There’s a very good reason why I still think about Paul.”

And he pulled out the outdated tablet and she typed in the password. And after he watched the horrible video featuring her husband, he was in the bathroom puking his smoothie up.

(Next: The Green Room)

(Word count: 26,875/50,000)

The Last Literary Dave (NaNoWriMo 2022 #12)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Dolly Parton is Not Dead)

Outside his window, the patter of soft rain landed upon the streets with a fine susurration reminiscent of a gentle grain silo spilling a hairline flow. Despite the stertorous roars and clamorous claptrap of the human-fueled apocalypse, the rain remained one of the most beatific and humbling sounds that you could hear in November. The earth, with its many promising elements, would long outlast the feeble lunges of ape-descended jackanapes: their feral stabs at relevance, the relentless envelope-pushing that amounted to nothing, the boisterous boasting that was increasingly dubious, the inevitable drift to ephemerality and ultimately being remembered by no one. The rain was truer than any red state bleat or scolding liberal finger. Humans would come and go and live and die, but the rain would always remain. An awe-inspiring autumn foreshadowing of the roaring snow to come. A warmup for the main meterological act. A tremendously pleasing sound that, had these silly humans possessed greater humility, openly invited you to stay in bed on a Sunday and be grateful for all the unseen wonders around you. The rain would drown out the pain and the grief and the collective trauma that had accrued too fast and that had been allowed to fester and that had pushed the humans into more exhibitionistic strains of depravity that were shaving more seconds off the Doomsday Clock.

David Leich didn’t care about the rain.

He also hated it when people mispronounced his name. It was “like,” goddammit, not “leech.” He had screamed at the telemarketers and the Democrat volunteers over the phone whenever this happened.

Unfortunately for David, nobody really liked him. Not the baristas who served him his $40 custom beverages — drinks so ridiculously bespoke that it clogged up the line. Not the landlord who knocked on his door to collect the monthly rent. His father had disinherited him a decade before and this had motivated him to become as rich as possible. And David Leich was so stubborn that he truly believed he could do this by writing books.

The only thing he cared about was whether his work was read. And it increasingly wasn’t. Just like all the other literary Daves. And it looked likely that posterity was going to be denied to him as well. He had tried to pitch himself as a Nordmaka candidate: one of those lucky writers drafting manuscripts that would be published in a hundred years once the trees grew in. Goddammit, he was better than Mitchell (a British literary Dave who was decidedly kinder and more generous to his readers than any of the American Daves and thus not excluded from the epithet of being a true literary Dave) and Atwood (where the fuck was his TV deal?)! But despite his numerous awards, the Oslo people gently told him to buzz off. The Norwegians were actually very good at this without offending the unwelcome party.

The only writer who was more insufferable than Leich was the Tory vulgarian teaching at Bath Spa University who had a raging hard-on for Arnold Bennett and who inhaled poppers like a giraffe wolfing down acacia thorns once he taught another class futilely trying to persuade young people to read the writer that Virginia Woolf had rightly destroyed.

David Leich wasn’t that Tory vulgarian. Nobody in America could be as awful as him.

But he was still strongly detested. And the invites to book parties grew less frequent.

Someone had planted a rumor that Leich was up for the Nobel Prize, but Bill Flogaast had told them that it was a joke and he walked into bookstores and raged at friendly minimum wage booksellers, who swiftly removed his volumes from their shelves.

He sat miserably in his East Village apartment and stared at the blinking cursor on the white screen. And he had nothing. Not a single paragraph. Not even a facile declarative sentence.

What he did have with an inexhaustible supply of white-hot rage, which accelerated the deepening crow’s feet swiftly staggering the sides of his bloodthirsty eyes. Other writers had tried to befriend him and calm him down. David Fitzroy, who shared a lot of Leich’s snobbish indignation towawrds the rabble, had tried to set him up with a friend. “Maybe a woman might calm you down.” And Alice had been smart. So smart. So kind. So patient. More patient than a Stepford wife tolerating an abusive mansplainer. And he had run her out. And there was nobody else. Not even his considerable wealth (thank you, MacArthur people!) could persuade a woman to stick around for longer than two months. It didn’t help when Patricia Vacation — a twentysomething whom he had improbably seduced at Central Park — wrote that bestselling roman à clef, Narwhal’s Tusk, which sent the whisper network on high alert when it came to having anything to do with David Leich and guaranteed that David Leich would be feverishly jerking off to porn until his junk became a chronically detumescent pig in a blanket, little more than an embarassing mechanism for constant peeing.

The rain carried on outside. Leich hated it. He opened the window and scowled at the glistening mirror that had replaced the teeming streets. He watched one poor man race through the showers without an umbrella. “Moron!” he screamed. And then he saw a sight that made him angrier. A man schtupping a woman against the brick wall directly across from his building, her legs impressively arched around his waist. Even from the sixth floor, he could see the whites of her eyes tilting like a pinball machine. And they were making noise. Constant moans that ricocheted against the dead air of other buildings with unrented units and that stabbed the depths of his ears. He had tried to avoid the heightened exhibitionism by not leaving his apartment and it had never seemed to spill into his relatively quiet patch on East 7th Street. He had been grateful to be so insulated from the steadfast salacity in Tompkins Square Park, where they seemed to be at it at all hours. But on his block? No, there were standards of decency to uphold.

He opened the closet and reached for his Louisville Slugger. He was quite prepared to unclick the three deadbolts on his door and bash in their brains, but he was precluded from his homicidal improv bit by the flash of a mouse scurrying across his living room floor.

“Motherfucker!” he screamed.

The rat problem had grown out of control in the early 2020s under the disastrous administration of one-term Mayor Eric Adams, who was so incompetent that he had improbably proven to be worse than Dinkins and De Blasio combined. Much like any public works project hindered by blundering bureaucracy, Adams had made the mistake — and this was the least of his errors — of unrolling his rodent extermination plan — which he had cluelessly named “the Final Solution,” seemingly oblivious to history and earning him the wrath of the Orthodox communities in Williamsburg and Sunset Park, both of which had protested his insensitivity at City Hall before Adams reluctantly renamed this “Operation Bobcat” — in six months instead of six weeks. And in those six months, the rats grew far bolder, making public inspections of restaurants impossible. And they spilled into nearly every residential domicile in the five boroughs, causing more New Yorkers to flee to Florida. But for the hardened New Yorkers who stayed — and, for all of his faults, David Leich was one of them — they grew used to the critters. This when there far more of them running around that at any other point in New York history.

But David Leich was not the kind of man who would accept any form of pestilence scampering around his apartment. If he heard a scrape in the walls at 2 AM, he would call his super. And the phone would ring and ring. And the super soon avoided him in the halls. And who could blame him? Every apartment had rats. David Leich was nobody special.

You couldn’t hire a private exterminator because they were now charging $500/hour and they all had a nine month appointment backlog. And even when he had tapped one of the rare contacts who would still talk with him to get an exterminator in his apartment inside of a week, the rats had returned two months after all the crevices and points of entry had been packed with steel wool.

So he placed a concatenation of traps at every corner of his apartment. Snap traps. Glue traps. Electric traps. He liked the electric traps best because he wanted the rats to suffer. There was also a helpful little green light, not unlike the hue of the Samsung Surrounder, that appeared any time one of the rats became trapped inside the lengthy carriage, attracted to the peanut butter bait and instantly electrified.

But despite the fact that his apartment had become a veritable minefield for rodents, one goddamned rat had somehow figured out how to tip-toe around the traps. And the rat emerged from beneath his couch and stared at him. Was the little fucker smiling? He couldn’t know for sure. But he took a big lunge with his bat as the rat sprinted away from him and he somehow stumbled and the trajectory of his swing destroyed the glass case containing the autographed Mets baseball on his coffee table.

“Motherfucker! Come here!”

The carnal groans of the couple outside grew louder.

The rat darted to one of his bookcases and squeezed itself between two volumes of his Graham Greene collection. He pulled out The Power and the Glory and pushed the bat into the crevice almost as if he was pumping butter.

No sign of the rat.

“Come on!”

Then he heard a snap and a painful squeak. And he walked over to the trap, towering over the invasive little beast and began to laugh with the cruelty of a feudal lord who had just watched two of the peasants beat each other to death.

“That’s what I thought,” said David Leich, who grew tranquil with this triumph.

Then he remembered the fucking couple outside.

He returned to the open window. And they were gone.

He pulled out his toolbox from the closet and took out a ball-peen hammer and began to smash the rat’s skull in, laughing with each monomaniacal swing. The blood from the rat shot up upward in parabolic geysers. And this made Leich laugh even harder. It had been years since he had felt this way. Five years, in fact. When he had received the happy news that Paul Van Kleason had died. Van Kleason. That hopeless sci-fi hack who was merely one of his many nemeses, but whom he hated the most. He summoned the glee of a man who had kept a dark secret that he could not share, a man who would rise to the top again because of what he knew — that is, if he could get the vast illiterate throngs to care.

He slid open the file cabinet — kept neat and tidy like all of his wildly obsessive records of his numerous enemies — and he found the safety deposit box and unlocked it, still laughing heartily. And he took out the photos that the man in the fedora and the bland burgundy tie had given him. And he laughed again as he read the autopsy report, the one that had been carefully buried, the one that Bill Flogaast had given to him as a holiday gift.

Did anybody even care about Van Kleason anymore? He didn’t know. But he had this. And as the rat in the other room twitched its final and quite painful spasm, David Leich started to make rand plans about how he could rewrite the narrative so that the literary people (including the Norwegians) would never laugh at him again. He would have his revenge. And no rat, no rainstorm, and no public copulator was going to stop him.

(Next: The Italian Restaurant)

(Word count: 24,434/50,000)

Dolly Parton is Not Dead (NaNoWriMo 2022 #11)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Junior Senator from South Carolina)

“Are we rolling?”

Sven, always the silent type, offered the thumbs up.

Ezmerelda Gibbons raised the Rode. There was a Rycote square flag clipped just beneath the diaphragm: a marijuana leaf logo printed against a bright emerald green expanse.

“Welcome back to Toking with Elders!” said Ezmerelda in the purr she had perfected during her two year stint on OnlyFans. Funny how the same sexy trill that galvanized lonely men to choke their chickens was indistinguishable from that of a roving reporter who had to appear “friendly” and “accessible” to her viewers.

“Jake, my man, has it kicked in yet?”

“I’m feeling good,” said Jake, the eighty-two year old smiling man who held the joint in his shaky arthritic hand. “Real good.”

“And I should remind our viewers that this is a new strain of Humboldt Kush that you can order online from our sponsor, Toking and Joking. And for our viewers in Tennessee, we can help you get around the law. Don’t worry.” Sven moved in with the camera. Ezmerelda winked. “It’s all perfectly legal!”

Then Sven ran backwards. A Steadicam move pilfered from Kubrick with a Raimiesque tilt to a Dutch angle.

“Say what’s with the big fella? He’s running all over the place like a man dodging an alimony payment.”

“You mean Sven?”

Sven waved hello.

“He don’t talk much.”

“We only communicate by text.”

Jake took another tug on his joint.

“Is he a mute or something?”

“No, he just doesn’t like to talk.”

“Yeah,” he croaked after breathing in the smoke. “This is real good shit. Back in the old days…”

“When?”

“You know the Free Love movement?”

“You were in Haight-Ashbury?”

“Yeah, I even knew Manson for a little bit. Before he started moving in on those teenagers and making a mess of his life. Nobody liked him, you know. And honestly I didn’t like the scene. So I moved back to Tennessee.”

“You know, Sven’s from Tennessee too.”

“Tennessee?” said Jake. “Well, holy Jehoshaphat, I lived in Knoxville for a good stretch.”

“Oh?”

“There used to be this big bar with a giant photo of Cormac McCarthy. You know who Cormac McCarthy was?”

“Yes.”

“Best goddamned writer I ever read. I read Suttree three times. There was a bar named after that book, you know. Because the book takes place in Knoxville. But that ain’t the bar I’m talking about. I knew ’em all, but this bar had fireball shots you could get for two dollars a piece. And that would spice up your insides and get you shaking in the knees. You didn’t want to cut the rug after a few Fireballs because you’d topple over. I saw one fellow fall a-plunder into the biggest pair you ever saw. And she slapped him. Guy never showed his face in the place again.”

“Did you dance?”

“No, but I drank. And I was good at it. Talk to any old timer and they too will teach you the moves. God, I miss it. Never had a bad night there. Well, wait a minute, that ain’t exactly true.”

“Oh?”

“One night, there was this guy named Fitzjoy — some big shot writer who came in from New York.”

“Fitzjoy? The writer? You mean, David Fitzjoy”

“That’s the one.”

“The duck-feeding bestselling author of The Rectifications who killed himself when he stopped getting press?”

“Well, I don’t know if he fed ducks or not. But if he did, he didn’t have the hands for it. Soft short hands that hadn’t seen a tomato slicing machine or a gas pump. He was all high and mighty and he made several trips to the bathroom. And every time he came back, his hands were wet and smelled like someone’s asshole. We didn’t know what he was doing in there, but we let our imagination sit silent. We asked him about it, of course. Some idea he had about a wedding ring. A big scene for his novel. You say that the fellow killed himself?”

“He was one of two Daves who committed suicide, though he was the Dave who was better known. This was his third attempt. But he got it right on the third try.”

“Yeah, that’s often the case with city slickers. You ain’t a city slicker, are you?”

“I grew up in Canarsie.”

“Oh, Brooklyn? Well, that’s a little different.”

“Did you bounce around New York?”

“I never had the stomach for the place. And any time I see Manhattan on the teevee, I say to myself, ‘Jake Johnson, sometimes you made the right choices in life.'”

“I wish I could say the same.”

“You see, back in Tennessee, we knew how to do the job right the first time. But this Fitzjoy fellow? Stickier than a bowl of molasses. A big-talking fellow. Not very bright though of course he thought he was. He scolded Good Ol’ Jack Barron for reading B.C. in the funny pages. Imagine that. You’re sitting by yourself trying to have a little moment and then some big-talking out-of-town stranger who thinks he’s got swagger but really don’t — well, he’s the one who tells you how to live and how to think.”

“If it’s any consolation, only two people attended his funeral in Santa Cruz.”

“Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised. This Fitzroy guy was insufferable. His mind was all soiled up like a possum eating a persimmon. He felt that he was the ultimate authority on the Dookie Bird.”

“Yes, I read that essay he wrote on Johnny Hart.”

“Oh, he wrote an essay now, did he?”

Jake loosened a hearty chortle.

“It ended with him describing how he sobbed into a blanket each night after reading the newspaper with a flashlight.”

“Yeah, well, you could tell straight up that he wasn’t much of a man. But that was the only trouble we ever had at that place — oh, shitsters, what was the name of it? Well, a man could find all the pussy he’d ever need.”

Ezmerelda laughed with convincing nervousness. She’d seen so many horrific things on OnlyFans — so much so that she truly knew what men were capable of and she was hardly surprised anymore. But she had to keep up appearances. For that was the draw of her show. And that was the problem with old people. They were still set in their throwback ways and refused to adapt to the new ones. They’d be dead in a few years. What the hell did they care? Even so, it was good for the views whenever her guests grew crotchety or deranged. The episode in which she was toking up with a man who revealed himself to be a grand wizard went ridiculously viral and Toking and Joking swooped in with an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“Now, Jake, we don’t speak that way about women anymore.”

“What way?”

“Pussy. It’s disrespectful.”

Jake began to laugh long and hard. The phlegmatic laugh of a man who had smoked for at least twenty years. He nearly fell over in his chair.

“Honey, have you seen the trash they now show on the teevee? Disgraceful!”

“I don’t disagree, Jake. Tell us more about your life.”

“Well, I was born and raised in Pigeon Forge. That’s where Dollywood is, see? And everybody loved Dolly, may she rest in peace.”

“Dolly’s not dead.”

“What? But I saw it on the news.”

“You’re thinking of Amy Lee.”

“Amy who?”

“Amy Lee? Also had, uh, ample anatomy.:

Jake look baffled.

“Evanescence?” continued Ezmerelda. “‘Bring Me to Live.’ I’d sing it for you, but we’d have to pay royalties.”

“Well, I don’t know nothin’ bout any Amy Lee. What were her tatas like?”

“Jake. Remember. Respect.”

“Oh yeah. Right. Can I call you honey at least? Don’t worry, dearie, it’s a Southern form of endearment.”

“I know. I lived in Myrtle Beach for a while. I’ll tolerate that.”

“You’re a decent girl, you know. And not just because of the weed. Anyhow, Dolly was — is the most beautiful woman who graced this planet. She made Pigeon Forge proud, see. The women dressed like Dolly. And they were all gorgeous, just like you.”

“Awww. Thanks!”

“And when I came back to Tennessee again in the 1980s, I noticed that all the fellahs were marrying women who looked like Dolly.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. If you wanted to find yourself a man and you didn’t look like Dolly, then you’d be an old maid. And they sure wouldn’t hire you at Dollywood.”

“Old maid?” asked Ezmerelda.

“A spinster.

“Why did you go out west?”

“I was twenty years old and heard that all the girls had moved out there.”

“The Summer of Love.”

“Well, it was a bust for me. I had better luck smooth-talking the ladies when I came back home.”

Sven was frantically waving his arms.

“Not now, Sven.”

Sven reached for his phone and began typing something. Ezmerelda’s phone pinged. She read Sven’s text and looked back at him. He nodded.

“Jake, you’ve been a pleasure to chat with. But we have to wrap this up.”

“So soon? I was just getting started.”

“But we’d like to offer you a complimentary bag of Humboldt Kush from our good friends Toking and Joking.”

“Aw thanks.”

“And offer a shoutout to our other sponsor, the AARP, for making this webseries possible.”

“Say, can I get a Blu-Ray of this?”

“You can stream it online. We’ll send you the link.”

“That won’t do. I can’t seem to remember the wi-fi password.”

Sven had packed his gear in record time and was now snapping, pointing to his wrist to signal a watch.

“We’ll sort it out later, Jake.”

“Okay. And if you’re going to bring shit like this, you’re welcome back anytime!”

But by that time, Ezmerelda and Sven had rushed for the door. Jake was so happily stoned that he kept talking for a good five minutes before realizing that the duo had departed.

“Wait,” he said to himself, “when did they leave?”

Then he passed out and took a long nap.

(Next: The Last Literary Dave)

(Word count: 22,439/50,000)

The Junior Senator from South Carolina (NaNoWriMo 2022 #10)

(Start Reading from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Soldiers with Broken Arms)

Debbie Ballard had not expected to stay with the Rollins campaign, much less move to Washington. Her mother had succumbed to cancer three years before. Her student loans had been paid off. She now owned a second home in Georgetown, which she closed on just before the housing crisis and which had somehow appreciated in value despite all the economic volatility. There were certain Beltway bars occupied by politicos in which she was actually feared. She had fallen in love and married Gabrielle Jenkins and hadn’t expected that to happen. Gabrielle, in addition to atoning for the directionally impaired tongue lashings of mediocre men with her exquisite scissoring (Debbie would never go back, even if Gabrielle left her), also understood her in ways that so many others had not. Gabrielle commended the qualities that others had deemed risible. The way that Debbie would hold half of a bagel above her neckline just before spreading cream cheese, which the people she had dated before Gabrielle had ridiculed, was evidence of an instinctive divinity, a quirk that only confirmed Gabrielle’s faith in Debbie’s alacrity. Gabrielle helped her pick out the right sleeveless sheath to wear to a summer soiree and even coached her on ladyboss body language that would always put a dull man trying to challenge her in his rightfully undistinguished place. In many ways, Debbie felt as if she was still pretending, but she did have a knack for sheltering the endless flow of campaign contributions from Rollins’s many fans. She did know how to manipulate sleazy lobbyists. She did have a way of fielding calls from desperate Democrats trying to cut a deal with Rollins. And while Rollins was stupider than anyone truly knew — including the Slate reporter who had tried to take him out after uncovering secret recordings of his bimonthly seminars, along with the quietly settled lawsuits — Debbie knew how to make him seem as if he knew more than he let on. Never mind that she had closely studied Jared Kushner back when the media people had hilariously suggested that he was a calming force who would assuage the unpredictable jerks of the orange menace and had simply pilfered the best bits and ensured that there was no financial trail that deep-dive document searchers would find. If it hadn’t been for Debbie Ballard, Rob Rollins would not now, during the most apocalyptic time in American history, be the junior senator from South Carolina.

The thinktanks all knew that Debbie was the force behind Rollins’s rapid rise. Herschel Walker had tried to hire her. Mitch McConnell. Lady G. She had turned them all down. If only they knew how liberal she’d once been, though not liberal in the ways that countless heathens were now unleashing in public places. She’d truly been shocked by the rise of rampant exhibitionism. Even now, as she jogged on G Street waiting for the blocks of hideous buildings to recede for the promising vista of the Capitol dome, she was still astonished to find a woman going down on a man just outside of Burger King. He was actually shouting “I’m having it my way! I’m having it my way!” And that was the weirdest thing about it. If the new fad of public sex could be compared to an act of revolution, it was decidedly incoherent. On one hand, these anarchist fornicators were desecrating what remained of the franchises by carrying on with their copulation. On the other hand, they adopted the very corporate mantras that were anathema to their professed cause. So you could ascribe a certain passive aggression to the two feral protesters who she saw 69ing in the perfume aisle at Nordstrom Rack. The security guards were too underpaid to remove them. The police were too busy with all the murders to be bothered. And so everyone grew to tolerate all the public sex, much as they turned the other way when some new maniac shot up a school.

She knew she was taking a risk jogging out in the open like this. As the streets became more dangerous and crime hit an unprecedented high, the President had urged women to walk in groups for their own safety. But Debbie Ballard was not someone who wanted to be a victim. She was still in shape. She had to be if she wanted to stay on as the chief of staff for a prominent physical fitness instructor who was now serving on four Senate Committees. She’d taken kickboxing classes and had dabbled in mixed martial arts. Besides, she had one of the new Samsung Surrounders that had become a big hit for the flailing tech giant once the data experts had run the numbers and concluded that one out of every four Americans was likely to commit rape or murder in this new nightmarish epoch. You put contact lenses equipped with an AR interface into your eyes. And you were always aware of the red and green dots of people who surrounded you. The green dots were people without a criminal record. The red dots were those who had some trouble attached — whether it be a reckless tweet from their college days or a scandalous video they had posted to EveryoneFucks.com. Some people actually used the Surrounder to score dates. Because with the Surrounder, you could call up a drop-down menu in the chilly air and check out the social media profiles for every walking and talking dot of ape-descended meat who you might ran into. The Surrounder had been a hit with introverts, although the introverts were more inclined to stay home. It was also useful for those parties in which you forgot the name of someone who you had run into six months before. Debbie and Gabrielle had tried going bareback without the Surrounder one night in which they had to attend a party, but it became clear within ten minutes that their organic brains were no match for the advantages of the overlay. The transhumanists had been right all along. Humans were fated to be enslaved to technology. And maybe you could hole up in the country and allow this state of affairs to pass you by. But you couldn’t stop people from gossiping about each other and looking for any dirt to believe that they were superior.

Debbie had frowned upon the way that some of the Surrounder power users had employed the new tech to geocache the worst people in the world. People who had served long prison terms and who were trying to build new lives were shocked when these public shaming cultists knocked on their door and filmed them with their phones for all the Internet to see. So people weren’t as free to live their lives as they had before. Samsung lobbyists had flooded the Senate with money (even Rollins had taken some of it) to ensure that there would be no legislation outlawing the use of the Surrounder.

Unemployed nobodies who styled themselves “journalists” had once doxxed criminals on Reddit threads, but the Surrounder had turned the game into a hunt. Years before, they had spent long afternoons hunting avatars with Pokémon Go. But finding human lowlifes out in the real world was far more fun, although the suicide rate had quadrupled in the last five years because some of the victims didn’t have a sense of humor.

This was one of the reasons why the masonry business had taken off and why gated communities were now more ubiquitous. The idyllic suburban rows with open front laws had been replaced with ugly brick walls fortified with barbed wire and motion-sensitive machine guns. And when Debbie jogged through a residential area, she still winced at the sinister whirs of 50 caliber HMGs, the barrels that followed her along the sidewalk. Her old friend Sophie had been paralyzed from the waist down because one of the surveillance weapons had malfunctioning when she went for a run. And even Gabrielle had urged Debbie to jog in Montrose Park rather than the downtown sprawl. The park did, after all, have its own set of rules and was only open to Georgetown residents and was regularly patroled by men who didn’t think twice about mowing down a troublemaker. And nobody fucked there.

But Debbie had always been a people person. And her jogs and wanderings in DC, however sketchy, was what helped her to understand human psychology. And with the constituents who regularly pestered Rollins, she needed to be able to anticipate what they might say or do. Admittedly, this was becoming easier. Because everyone was more scared. The repertoire of social moves had drastically attenuated, particularly since the green dots feared that they would turn into red dots. The Surrounder algorithm was, like all algorithms, driven by machine learning so that the tech moguls wouldn’t have to pay human eyes to correct the mistakes. Even the Supreme Court — with its seven staunch conservatives and the two open slots that needed to be filled after the recent assassinations — sided with Samsung, pointing out that the Constitution contained no express right to privacy. Sure, you could still watch porn and you could still fuck out in the open. (In a move that caused a veteran SCOTUSblog reporter to lose his gasket, the Court had used the Fourteenth Amendment to point out that prohibiting people from fucking in public deprived them of their constitutionally protected liberty.) But decency was more of a theoretical idea rather than the accepted practice.

“WARNING!” said the Surrounder’s overfriendly voice, “TWO REDS APPROACHING FROM THE SOUTH!”

Maybe she was being overly cautious with her warning settings, but she recalled how three yahoos — one of them was the father of one of his teenage victims — had murdered Matt Gaetz on a live stream back in 2025.

She spun around and adopted an orthodox stance. Two men, both gaunt and dressed in threadbare coats, approached her.

“Whoa, lady!” said the first man.

“Stand back!” boomed Debbie.

“Can’t we even say hello?” asked the second man.

“If you try anything, I will fuck you up. Surrounder, display profiles.”

“RONALD COLSON. FORMER CONTRIBUTOR FOR THE RED GAZETTE. FIRED AFTER SEXUAL ASSAULT ALLEGATIONS SURFACED ON TIKTOK. PRESENT STATUS: UNEMPLOYED. PRESENT NET WORTH: NONEXISTENT.”

“Hey, man, I was innocent,” said Ronald.

“GARY BOYLE. DARK WEB PROVOCATEUR, KNOWN DOXXER, BANNED FROM FEDIVERSE, OKCUPID, AND DOORDASH.”

“Wow,” said Debbie. “How do you get banned from Doordash? They deliver to everyone.”

“Dude,” said Ronald. “I didn’t know you were banned from Doordash.”

“Shut up!” said Gary. “So I can’t get a pizza delivery. Who cares? It’s not like anyone can afford takeout these days.”

“What do you two creeps want?”

“We want to help,” said Gary.

“You stalked me?”

“We know you work for Rollins,” said Ronald. “Is it okay if I grab something under my coat?”

“Surrounder,” said Debbie, “are these men armed?”

“NEGATIVE,” replied the Surrounder. “BUT BOTH MEN SCORE HIGH ON THE PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION INDEX.”

“Psychological manipulation index?” asked Gary. “Wow, they track that too?”

“Apparently you didn’t get the latest update,” said Debbie.

“You know,” said Ronald, who moved in a slow and belabored way, “I miss the old days. Before the Surrounder. You didn’t have to second-guess people.”

“It’s a dangerous time to live,” said Debbie. “What do you want?”

“Hang on,” said Ronald. He extracted a book and tossed it to Debbie. Debbie’s reflexes were heightened. So she caught it.

“You’re going to want to read this,” said Gary. “Particularly the two chapters on Rollins.”

Debbie looked at the cover. There was a picture of Paul Van Kleason on the cover. His fingers were steepled as he surveyed two pairs of bare legs that had been swiftly Photoshopped in by some underpaid book designer. Paul Van Kleason. The writer who had died five years ago, The book’s author was Ali Breslin. Ali Breslin? That crazy chick who wrote for The Myrtleist way back when? She was still bouncing around.

Debbie laughed.

“This looks like sensationalistic trash.”

“It’s not,” said Ronald.

“Ali Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago.”

“Bullshit.”

“Google it if you don’t believe us.”

She did. And, well, holy shit, these two dudes were right. She also conducted a provenance scan on the book. And, yes, it too was legit.

“Why would anyone care about a dead writer?”

“Trust me,” said Gary. “They’re going to care.”

“Why? Have you noticed the world around you? More sex and violence. More depravity. America is a joke. Most people have given up.”

“No, they haven’t,” said Ronald. “They’re just waiting for a savior to get us back to normal.”

“And the junior Senator fro South Carolina is well-positioned to be that savior.”

“This book hasn’t been published.”

“It hits bookstores next Tuesday.”

“And how did you get a copy?”

“Well, I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy…”

“What do you want?”

“We haven’t eaten in three days.”

“So you want me to buy you two creeps a meal.”

“Well, a little more than that.”

“I’m not going to fuck you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Debbie. She held up her hand and flashed her ring. “You see? Happily married.”

“That hasn’t stopped people before,” laughed Gary.

“We don’t want to fuck you,” said Ronald.

“I’m confidently asexual,” said Gary.

“And so am I.”

The Surrounder confirmed that neither Ronald nor Gary had fucked anyone in the last three years. Dating history was still a little buggy, but the algorithm was getting better on the sexual partner flowcharts with each new update.

“Okay,” said Debbie, “but we have to meet somewhere where we can’t be tracked by Surrounders.”

“You’d willingly take us to a frozen zone?” asked Gary, who was incredulous.

“It seems I have no choice.”

(Next: Dolly Parton is Not Dead)

(Word count: 20,764/50,000)

Soldiers with Broken Arms (NaNoWriMo 2022 #9)

(Start Reading from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Yakety Sax)

Five years after Paul Van Kleason’s death, the world was still reliably sociopathic and full of unpleasant soul-destroying surprises. Inflation had reached 23%. More people carried tasers on subways. There were more fights and more hate fucking. Rather than group together, people found knew ways to detest each other. The divorce rate grew to an all-time historical high. More Thanksgivings — at least among those who could still afford to buy a turkey — ended in vicious screaming matches. And while the more optimistic types found comfort in the many cat videos that continued to flourish online, living in America had become so dystopian that there were many who longed for the pandemic days under the Orange Tyrant. The new tyrant was more dangerous and more calculating. More marginalized groups were singled out. And the white people did their best to hold onto their power, but they were greatly outmatched by the fierce resistance of Gen Zers. They were the first generation to finally start beating the shit out of the greedy Wall Street men on the streets and the aging Gen Xers now in their fifties regretted that they had not had the foresight or the courage to viciously maim the right people.

Prisons were overcrowded. Drugs became more frequently shared and even more ubiquitously abused. More people worked from home because it was now clear that staying in your bedroom was safer than going into the office. Mass shootings had drastically increased and everybody knew a guy who knew a guy — and, by 2026, simply knew a guy — who had been hit with a stray bullet. The politicians continued to offer their thoughts and prayers, which continued to be a futile response in solving a systemic problem. And many of them were, at long last, voted out. One was even felled in Foggy Bottom by a neo-Trotsky gang that was running around the Beltway with an ordnance of hammers. Elon Musk had declared bankruptcy after killing Twitter with an increasingly deranged set of policies that made as much sense as the once popular practice of paying more than ten George Washingtons to have someone slather avocado on a piece of toast and most of the smarter people were now flourishing on Mastodon.

There were five hundred new subgenres of EDM, but literacy had declined and, as the literary Daves began to understand that nobody was reading their volumes anymore, two of them had committed suicide rather than face a bleak future of not being the center of attention. Nobody had the money to drive a car because oil prices were out of control and a third of all gas stations had been forced to shutter. You couldn’t keep track of all the new hate groups listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center website, which was filling up like a Rolodex jammed with too many three-by-five cards. There seemed to be some new paramilitary gang of Nazis every week. Some of the hate groups were even given television shows. Under the reckless eye of an aging Dean Baquet, the New York Times continued to publish “Nazis! They’re just like us!” articles that, depending upon your political allegiance, either entertained or infuriated you. A dozen yahoos who had lost their jobs at a chicken processing plant decided to burn down Fenway Park to express their dissatisfaction with the way that America was heading. The horror of seeing such a beautiful stadium reduced to an onyx cinder had radicalized half of the Sox fans against these extremists, causing an unlikely blue wave to hit the nation in 2026 and Boston to emerge as a promising counterpart to the increasingly baleful metropolis of New York. The 2026 blue wave had been enough to save the two houses from the fascists. Everyone was now calling the Republicans fascists and not always disparagingly. Tucker Carlson was now proudly announcing to his vastly growing audience that there was no shame in being a fascist and the white supremacist bile that poured from his vacuous mouth became more meme-sticky. If you tuned into CSPAN during the late 2020s, the screaming matches and brawls of Senators and the grunts of Representatives fucking in the cloakrooms had turned the American experiment into one of the most depraved reality TV shows imaginable. Decorum meant nothing anymore. America remained divided, but the liberals had become more hedonistic, especially after TikTok had removed its prohibition against adult content in a desperate bid to keep its rapidly fleeing user base, and the conservatives had become hardened fundamentalists, scolding the liberals for their free love, which was increasingly spilling into parks and fancy restaurants, but only in cities that preserved birth control and reproductive rights. If you were one of the poor bastards lived in an impoverished red state, then you busted out your ratty lawn chair from the garage and sat on the sidewalk and stared miserably into the hopeless horizon with a “fuck my life” look permanently etched on your face.

This was not an easy time to live in America, but it wasn’t without its fun.

There was an uptick in people walking around urban landscapes in stilts. Some of them wore clown suits, but it became a way of warning people about the violent gangs gathering in the distance. Unfortunately the stilt fad died out after a group of wokesters vociferously denounced their “stilt privilege.” How dare you stand seven feet above everyone else? Didn’t you check your height privilege? One stilt anarchist named Guido Osmond tried to push back against this, but the wokesters of the late 2020s were far different than who they were at the beginning of the decade and they chopped Guido down with axes as he was walking along Palisade Avenue on a sunny December day in Hoboken. “Thank you, climate change,” beamed Guido during a live stream. But the wokesters got him and he lost consciousness and woke up in a hospital with a concussion, a broken arm, and a $47,632 hospital bill. And the stilt movement fizzled out, although there was a disastrous attempt to revive it called Stilt Lives Matter.

If you were sitting in a French bistro on the Upper East Side during the late 2020s, it was not uncommon to see Tinder dates skip over the Netflix part or even the “Would you like to come back to my place?” part, openly spill their clothes onto the floor, and “chill” with thrusts and undulations that no longer shocked people. When the tech entrepreneur Norah Gogarty started the hit website EveryoneFucks.com, she had not expected so many active users to be so exhibitionistic. But after years of anxiety and escalating income inequality, people had simply stopped giving a damn. They became ever more determined to push the envelope. And they still angled for attention, which was now the only pathway to success. It was now difficult to find an apartment rental in New York for under $9,000/month. If you were “comfortably middle-class” during this bleak time in American history, it meant that you only had one or two roommates that you shared your bedroom with.

Many still wondered if they were living their lives to be noticed or noticing that their lives were unlived. And even the seemingly pristine minds grew louder and more cartoonish in their rhetoric. No one had expected Harry Styles to drop an album that was somehow more experimental and committed to noise than Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Metal Music. And then there were all the literary people who were increasingly going to seed. Emma Silverburg had partially funded her divorce through GoFundMe and, after three years of paying back her attorney and living like a pauper for the first time in twelve years, she was now seducing twentysomething writers from her cabin in Maine, a former dacha that she won in her divorce from prominent Russian intellectual Martin Slabak. These young hunks had all made the long bus trip up to Bangor and signed an agreement where they pledged to worship her — and only her — and not sleep with anyone else until the age of thirty. But she had neglected to verify the ages of all her carnal conquests and, when a fifteen-year-old boy and her mother sued her for statutory rape, she was dropped by her agent and her publisher and seemed to disappear into the forest, the home abandoned. One person on Mastodon reported that they had seen her begging for change outside of a Burger King. Brie Attenberg had decided to run for Congress out of boredom. Politics seemed more exciting than writing fiction. And while she lost, she started dating that sad sack Kyle Rittenhouse (practicing celibacy after facing online criticism about whether their relatoinship was age-appropriate: when the literary people turned against her, she began to notice that the Christian nuts would not only listen to her dull and relentless blathering, but that they would pay good money for her merch and that she could make more money this way than with her books) and she became a prominent talking head on right-wing television and she was somehow more obnoxious with her gun-toting and her gasbagging than Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene combined. She was arrested for her involvement in the May 22nd Freedom Uprising in which two Supreme Court Justices had been assassinated. And after the insurrectionists had marched once again into the Senate Chamber (no QAnon Shaman this time) and even some moderate Republicans conceded that yes, this extremism was not what they had signed on for.

Bill Flogaast’s wife had left him a year after the Van Kleason scenario. And he had resigned from the publishing house, settling in his heavily barricaded Rhode Island bunker and awaiting the inevitable zombie apocalypse, which he had also planned for. He was doing more pickling and trying to ignore the increasingly cartoonish news anchors screaming louder these days on his teevee. Subtlety had once been something that people understood, but Flogaast couldn’t believe that he lived in a world in which punching yourself in the face for online laughs was considered an understatement. He kept his television on because he was waiting for someone he knew — a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who had not reported what she had learned about Van Kleason five years before, but who his contacts had informed him was about to publish a barnbuster of an expose. Not even his old pals at the house could get him a galley.

“Coming up next — Fuck! Shit!”

The FCC’s relaxation of broadcasting standards in 2025 had caused most news anchors to become more profane on air. And nearly every newscast now had a studio audience to hoot and holler along. Some investigative stories were actually voted on by the audience. The people were no longer interested in hearing what they needed to hear, but what they didn’t really want to know. You had to subscribe to email newsletters these days to get a true understanding of how America was and, even then, you had to suffer through innumerable spelling mistakes. The innocent days in which Marjorie Taylor Greene had published “quacking” rather than “quaking” on Twitter were long gone.

“Fuck yes!”

The camera rushed fast through the studio audience and settled onto a familiar woman dressed in a red seamed flare skirt and a matching cutaway blazer.

“Everybody give it up for Ali Fucking Breslin!”

The applause was more thunderous than a throng of Roman circusgoers watching two gladiators murder each other while munching on freshly baked bread.

“I understand you have a new fucking book!” said the anchor.

“Yes.”

“You actually believe that people are going to read a 500 page book?”

Laughter.

“Well, they’ll read this one.”

“Is there lots of sex in it?”

“Well…”

“How often did you use the word ‘fuck’?”

“You’ll find variations on ‘fuck’ on every page.”

Applause.

“But,” said Ali, “that’s not why I wrote it.”

“What? What other reason is there to write books?”

“I think you’re going to be shocked by what I reported on. It all happened five years ago, but it’s one of the reasons why everything is so fucked up today.”

“Oh shit,” said Blogaast.

“It involves a writer by the name of Paul Van Kleason.”

“Fuck,” said Blogaast, who placed his half-pickled jar onto the basin and rushed into his study. He had some calls to make.

(Next: The Junior Senator from South Carolina)

(Word count: 18,468/50,000)

Yakety Sax (NaNoWriMo 2022 #8)

(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Shepherd’s Pie)

Ezmerelda Gibbons was hungry and phoneless. The sun drifted beneath luxury building blocks and strip malls and gaudy fast food signs competing for roadside attention while the ocean sift roared in the darkening blanket of water just southwest. And she walked in her short skirt, enduring a few loutish horn honks and gruesome woos along the edge of Kings Highway. Her heels clacked faster. Cabs had passed her by when she hailed them. So she walked. She could walk four miles in her heels if she had to, although anything more than that would blister her feet, which were already on thin suppurating ice (hence, the pedicure appointment, long ago canceled). And she needed her feet for the fetishists. Well, they’d have to wait. They’d all have to wait. Hopefully, they’d keep. And maybe even weep over small-minded fantasies that were not now on demand.

Because one of her needs was directly related to her ability to pay rent, she persuaded herself — as the roars of the passing cars striated and impaired her ruminations — that she would rather starve than miss out on an opportunity to send a scandalous photo to one of her clients. Sure, she had the webcam and the desktop at home. And she had backups of everything and a one week storehouse of unpublished poses in case anything happened. She was no fool. But this meant that she would be tied to her bedroom, not that she hadn’t tied herself up before to placate her kinkier regulars.

It was the freedom that Ezmerelda lamented. Although what did “freedom” actually mean? Her credit card had the word “Freedom” on it, but how were you free when you were so easily persuaded to plunge further into debt? Her people had escaped slavery a century and a half before. And now they wanted to enslave everyone. If white people understood that, maybe they wouldn’t be so fucking racist. Maybe the Karens would stop calling the cops on Black people. Maybe the Kanyes and the Kyries wouldn’t lose their goddamned minds? Or maybe not. It was far easier for white people to buy into the illusion that everyone was middle-class rather than be honest about their personal spending problems and the fact that they were always short-changed when they tried to buy VIP passes that would untie the velvet rope.

She had two years of savings and it was because she refused to gyrate naked for peanuts. She had too much dignity and self-respect not to name her price. If a lonely man in Topeka wanted to see her hoochie moves, well, he’d have to pay her bare minimum, not minimum wage like the others. And he’d have to wait to hear back from her by DM. He’d have to pay for Snapchat access, where she often posted stories in which she was topless and contorted, rounding the outline of her mouth with her tongue, a move that was always good to keep these easily seduced men (and some women) hanging onto every carnal cadence.

The cops would surely crack her phone’s keycode. Four digits gave you no more than ten thousand possible combinations. And she knew that the more well-funded branches of the fuzz had software that could speed through all the four-digit options and bypass the “too many attempts” lockscreen. There, they would have access to her photos, her videos, and her contacts — that is, if they could crack the additional passwords she had put on there.

The police regularly underestimated the tech savvy of sex workers. This was one of the underlying reasons why there were so many brutal crackdowns: when you combined ignorance, entitlement, and male resentment and it came from dull specimens who looked like pork chops when they squeezed their heavy pinkish bodies into blue uniforms, you couldn’t very well elude the frustrations from those who remained in denial about their true mediocrity.

But dodging this toxic authoritarian temperament — the societal degradation of her smarts — was nothing new for Ezmerelda. Back in Canarsie, she had taken the subway to affluent neighborhoods to examine what white people had left on the sidewalks. This was how she had built up a surprisingly choice collection of classic mass market paperbacks that weren’t even available in her local library. She walked past brothers who mocked her for reading and propositioned her for illiterate acts in the dark. But after she gave one of these cat-calling assclowns a black eye, they left her alone and even showered her with respect. (“I never liked that nigga anyway,” laughed a prominent gang member two weeks after she clocked that brotha. “Thought he was a hustlah, but that ass-beating from you made my boy wack.”

White people were cavalier about what they threw away. Sometimes, they’d toss out their flashy Xmas gifts before summer. And these were often the latest electronic models. Expensive. Extra features that the white people never learned about because they were so fond of junking their unread manuals. They even disposed of their fully functioning high-def sets and sometimes Ezmerelda would call her friend with the pickup to liberate it from its junkyard fate, cutting him in for a piece of the pie when she unloaded these second-hand goods on Craigslist. And because she became so accomplished at scavenging, she was able to put together a desktop in her bedroom, gutting beige cases for their components and trading up with a skeeze stringy-haired dude at the flea market who always showed up with six bulging buckets of computer parts. She even found a functioning printer, although it took her another week to collect the dimes for the pricey toner. And Ezmerelda was not someone who learned things halfway.

So she became a power user, hitting IRC channels and sometimes pretending to be a white guy, where she noticed that she got more attention and more replies to her tech questions than under her real identity. And she became so knowledgeable about dip switches and PCI slots and the ideal DIMM sticks for an overclocked mobo that she was starting to get invites for pizza parties in small Connecticut towns, which she politely declined while quoting from the Grant Morrison comics that these honkies were so enamored with. Drop a line from The Invisibles onto an oh-so-white screen of upwardly scrolling text and these slavish geeks would believe that you were delivering a sermon from the mount.

And because her side hustle had ushered in a modest income, she registered a domain, paid for web hosting, and started a password-protected site where Black people, and only Black people, could share their stories (after a verification process) without having their narratives hijacked or appropriated by white liberal do-gooders. She hooked up her people with the new tech. And everyone realized that this was a place where they could be welcomed online as heartily as they were for a real-life block party.

Then she decided to go public. And that’s when everything went south. Quite literally. The hayseeds found her and graffitied the message boards with Confederate flags and Nazi symbols. And she had to shut it all down. You gave white people an inch and they somehow misinterpreted your invite as a Homestead Act stampede no different from the white supremacists who had could claim their 160 surveyed government acres when you only had forty.

She heard the idle of a car drifting beside her. And was that the music from Benny Hill playing?

She looked back. A dusty Ford Escort with a blue stripe running along the side. The car was in need of a wash. And behind the wheel? That woman who had talked her way into the Van Kleason manse.

“Yoo hoo!” said Ali Breslin, who was craning her head as far as she could to the passenger side and sustaining a frightening level of intense eye contact.

“Go away.”

“But I want to talk with you.”

“Subscribe to my OnlyFans page.”

“I already did.”

She stopped. Ali flashed her a smile and held up her phone, where a video of Ezmerelda twerking to Big K.R.I.T. was playing.

“Great moves. Did you ever learn tap?”

She had, in fact, taken tap dancing lessons at the age of sixteen. Along with flamenco and sneaker jazz. Until her white instructor took a shine to her that was too close for comfort and only a smidgen short of filing a police report.

“I did take tap.”

“So did I! I was really impressed with your one-legged wing. It took me months to get that down with a shuffle.”

“Nobody else noticed.”

“Maybe they were busy with their hands.”

“They were,” said Ezmerelda, who loosened the beginnings of a laugh before remembering that this white woman was trying to inveigle her.

“Didn’t you get what you needed back at the crime scene?” asked Ezmerelda, returning to business.

“No, I didn’t. Where are you heading? I’ll give you a lift.”

“If I wanted a Lyft, I’d summon one from my phone. Oh, but I don’t have my phone, do I?”

“I can help you with that,” said Ali.

“Oh? How?”

“I have some pull with Teddy. You may have seen our little Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan act.”

“Why you be fucking a cop?”

“He’s actually not bad in bed, although cops are a little rough in the sack. As are lawyers. That’s the funny thing about law and order types. They always seem to like it hard and rough.”

“Yeah,” said Ezmerelda, “tell me something I don’t know.”

“I’m not your enemy.”

“I don’t know if you are.”

“The police will be dropping their investigation tomorrow.”

“Why?”

“There’s something else going on. That’s why I need to talk with you.”

“I don’t have a lot to say. I was a topless maid for Paul. If you pay me the right price, you too can see me shake my titties while I clean your toilet.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I know the business I’m in. Do you?”

“Actually, I do.”

“How?”

“I spent one summer in college dancing at a strip club.”

“What?”

“Not too many people know this, but I did. And I’m telling you because I’m an ally.”

“Right. Just like Rachel Dolezal. No thanks.”

Ezmerelda started walking faster up the sidewalk.

“I want to help.”

“Because you want a story.”

“Not going to deny it. Paul Van Kleason was a semi-prominent figure. And I’m the only journalist who is going to tell you that I’m hoping to crack the iron gates for my own gain.”

“Yeah, I thought so.”

“There’s a lot more to this.”

“Look, I cleaned his house. He never tried to fuck me, but he liked having me around. Just like many white men go to the store and buy a pint of chocolate fudge brownie. End of story.”

“Actually, it’s just the beginning of the story. Did you know about his wife?”

“What Paul and Sophie did was none of my business.”

“Did you know about the videos?”

Ezmerelda stopped in her tracks.

“What videos?”

“Let me give you a lift and I’ll tell you.”

Ezmerelda stopped.

“Okay, but you’ve got to turn that Benny Hill shit off.”

“Fair enough. I was just trying to lighten the mood.”

“White people always do. That’s part of the problem.”

“When you see what I have, you’ll understand why. Come on. It will only take fifteen minutes.”

Ezmerelda opened the door and got in the car.

(Next: Soldiers with Broken Arms)

(Word count: 16,415/50,000)

The War Room (NaNoWriMo 2022 #7)

(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Shepherd’s Pie)

It was Tuesday night and the MBPD hadn’t yet conducted the promised press conference. The investigation was ongoing. No news was good news, although Paul Van Kleason had spent much of the afternoon as a trending topic on Twitter.

They set up the war room at the Easy Breeze Resort: a towering high-rise serving as hotel and business center (a real business center, not one of those windowless rooms you find in Westin joints with stale complimentary croissants and slow desktops running Windows 98) just southeast of Kings Highway and only a few blocks away from the ocean. Three publicity men from Atlanta — all of them on retainer with Coca-Cola, but with contracts that allowed them to freelance for other clients — had made the six hour drive that morning. One of them — a well-groomed thirtysomething with an aquiline nose and a purple bowtie — had somehow prepared a PowerPoint presentation along the way. Or maybe he had had his assistant do it by way of fierce dictation on the road. Nobody knew for sure. They only knew that Chris Wilde was once again in charge of this reputation management campaign. That is, until the New York people flew in.

The two other men were chain-smoking luxury Canadian cigarettes and blowing out smoke through the open window. Despite the Italian cuts of their immaculate suits, they still had the telltale racoon eyes and numb noses of men who had been summoned out of bed after a 3AM coke bender. The rampant drug use among Coca-Cola men was an open secret. Many of them hoovered up lines from ruddy placemats reading “Enjoy Coke!” and “Things go better with big, big Coke!” They had ideas, but they were not known for their subtlety, which is why Chris Wilde, whose primary addiction was stress-eating vast quantities of expensive cheese after midnight, was running the show.

The man in the fedora and the bland burgundy tie stood near the door: a solitary figure who blended in anywhere by keeping his trap shut. He had introduced himself to Sophie as Nick. No last name. When she wasn’t catatonic over the vile truths that the videos had revealed, Sophie had tried Googling Nick. She needed something to do other than sob over the disturbing possibility of becoming publishing’s answer to Ghislaine Maxwell. But there was no online trace of Nick anywhere. He was the human answer to the dark web. A conseigneur who clearly existed, possibly in a quasi-criminal capacity, and whose very presence suggested decades of experience cleaning up big messes — quagmires that Sophie could not have imagined at her most perverse — but who couldn’t be found anywhere other than here. Nick had said only a dozen words since the men in Atlanta had arrived. And she didn’t know if he would say anything more. He had dressed her down back at the Atlantis. Fiercely and indefatigably. Peremptory. Fuck around and find out. Even when she was shaking over the news of her husband’s death and the secret Epsteinian life that she had somehow not known about. The behavior made her kinky escapades look like a G-rated movie.

“I have to see my wife!” whimpered Mike Harvest in the corner. Nick had paid off Chris or Jim with a cool two thousand back at the Atlantis and had persuaded him to sign an NDA so that he would never shoot his mouth off about what he had just heard, but the puling book critic was a different story. As a parasitical media figure of some influence within the publishing industry complex, Harvest was compromised — not only by the waning news of his involvement with the Jakester, but also because he had been directly involved with Sophie. Moreover, he was still in a position to persuade people about how Paul Van Kleason was a true American original and a bona-fide innocent. But Christ, he was such a whiny little fuck.

“You’ll see her again,” said Nick.

“When?”

“This guy?” asked Chris. “Really?”

“I was once considered for the Pulitzer!” shrieked Harvest

“Did you win it?” said Nick.

“No.”

“So you’re just a book critic then.”

“Yes,” whispered Harvest. “But I have written one book!”

Chris dropped a hardcover with a blinding typeface on the oak table before Harvest.

“This one?” he said. “Harvest’s Photographs?”

“You found it!”

“Let me ask you something, Mr. Harvest. Did you take these photographs?”

“No.”

“Then how can they be your photographs?”

“What?”

“If I stole a loaf of bread that you baked, would it be my bread?”

“Maybe.”

“God, you’re an arrogant fuck! This guy? Really? This? Fucking? Guy?”

Mike walked up to Chris and placed his palm on his shoulder.

“Chris,” said Mike. “He’s important.”

“He’s a dope!”

“Chris,” repeated Mike. “We’re professionals.”

“I’m important!” beamed Harvest. “I’m important!”

Nick spun around and aimed a Stoeger STR-9F at Harvest’s head. Harvest raised his hands up in the air and begin to whimper. The pistol had emerged in his hand much like an expert magician pulling a long line of scarves from an unlikely crevice.

Sophie screamed. Yes, Harvest was annoying, but even annoying people deserve to live. Well, most of the time.

“Please don’t kill me! Please don’t kill me!”

“Relax,” said Nick. “I just wanted to test your reflexes.”

There was a telltale splotch of burgeoning urine soaking the front of his pants.

“You’re important, but only for this operation. Not important enough to murder. Remember that.”

Nick snapped his fingers at one of the smokers near the window.

“Get him cleaned up.”

One of the associates stubbed out his cigarette in a Myrtle Beach mug that was now serving as an ashtray, walked up to Harvest, offered his hand, and ushered Harvest out of the room like a teacher escorting a ninth-grader to the principal’s office shortly after he had been caught tugging the pigtails of the homecoming queen.

“Okay,” said Chris. “Are we done with the theatrics?”

“Yeah,” said Mike, who returned to his stance near the door.

“Okay,” said Chris. “Okay.”

“Do you have to say okay all the time?” asked Sophie. “It’s not fucking okay.”

“It’s the way he talks,” said the remaining smoker. “I don’t like it either.”

“Okay,” said Chris, who believed deep down that saying “okay” and “right” all the time meant that everything would turn out okay and right, evidence to the contrary. “So let’s look at the three scenarios.”

“Just three,” said the smoker.

“Okay, there are obviously more scenarios than three, okay? But these are the three likeliest scenarios, right? Okay, we have Scenario A, where all the Van Kleason videos are publicly released, right? Van Kleason’s latest book tanks. There’s a boycott campaign directed towards the house, okay. Because no one will want to do business with them — especially when they find out what he did with the eight-year-old, okay? Authors pull their books, right? And, okay, this could be pretty financially devastating.”

“Why would they blame the house rather than Van Kleason?” asked the smoker.

Chris clicked to the next PowerPoint slide.

“Because of her.”

There was a photo of a Malaysian woman just beneath a Powerpoint heading that read “The Attention Economy.” A supercilious smile, irrepressible smugness in her eyes, and, most preposterously, the knuckle arrogantly arched just under her chin. The telltale pose of someone who had pretended to be important for years, hoping that people would eventually buckle under her indefatigable presence. An influencer type who falsely believed that she was a deep thinker, an essential figure, a woman who moved mountains and who still wouldn’t be satisfied.

“And who is she?” said the smoker, puffing blue smoke out the window.

“Aayizah Cravemour, okay? The author of six books, right? None of them sold very well, okay. She was recently dropped by her agent — right? — after she sent a deranged email to Emma Silverburg, okay? But she’s the one who is likeliest to go after Van Kleason, right? She posts at least two hundred Instagram stories a day. She never stops, okay? She’s led smear campaigns before. She paints herself as a victim, right? This is one of the reasons why she has thirty-two thousand followers on Twitter. People relish in these character assassination campaigns, right, and they want to see what she’s going to do next, okay? There are long Reddit threads about her. Although with Elon’s recent takeover, and with many writers fleeing to Mastodon, there’s a good chance that people are exhausted from all this shit, right?”

“But why her?”

“Our algorithm has scraped the tweets of the top five hundred writers on Twitter, right? And her name shot to the top of the list, okay?”

There was a knock at the door.

Chris flipped off the monitor.

“Come in!”

Food service had arrived. The attendant dressed in white livery removed domed lids that revealed giant platters of cheese. Roquefort, Colby Jack, Asiago, stinky blue cheese, goat’s milk, Fontina, Camembart. It was all there. And crackers. Endless squares in every shape that seemed to consider every known cheese and cracker combination devised by humankind. More crackers than you would find in all the mental health clinics in America.

Chris began to jump up and down.

“Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy!” he said.

Mike grunted.

“I did warn you,” said the smoker.

“Yeah, but I thought he was bluffing.”

“When it comes to cheese, Chris Wilde never bluffs.”

Sophie watched this strange man — this guy who was apparently enlisted to guide her back to normalcy — moonwalk across the room like Michael Jackson before spinning in a piruoette and placing forty dollars into the food service guy’s hand.

“Thank you!” shrieked Chris. “Oh, thank you!”

He began to kiss the poor bastard profusely on the cheeks.

“I love you!” said Chris. “I love you so much.”

The cheese man left and he had the look of someone who had significantly undervalued his worth and was seriously considering returning the next day to shoot up the place.

“Now,” said Chris, “we can really begin, okay?”

“What the fuck is this?” said Nick.

“Why, it’s cheese! Lots of cheese! Fuel for the mind!”

“I’m lactose intolerant,” said Nick. “Get this shit out of here.”

“You can’t,” said the smoker.

“Why not?”

“It’s written into his rider.”

“It most certainly is!” cried Nick, who begin to stuff vast gobs of cheese into his mouth.

“Excuse me,” said Sophie.

“I’m eating, okay?”

Sophie stood up from her chair, walked over to Nick, and smacked him across the face, causing half-bitten wads of Jarlsberg to flutter onto the floor, along with a sticky remnant that landed on his purple bowtie.

“Listen, you flippant motherfucker,” said Sophie. “You may be hot shit at Coca-Cola, but my husband is dead and I’ve just learned that he was making snuff films with kids and animals while we were married. Now if you think that’s the kind of thing that should turn everyone in this room into voracious cheese freaks, then I don’t want you here, okay?”

She hated how contagious Chris’s “okays” were and took a deep breath. She noticed that Nick was smiling. The smoker indifferently fired up another cigarette.

“Now I want an actual fucking plan here.”

“I’ve got one, right?”

“Well, what is it?”

The phone positioned at the middle of one of the tables began to ring. Chris swallowed the rest of the cheese in his mouth — it took six rings altogether for him to do this — and picked up.

“Chris Wilde,” he said.

“Bill Flogaast. Boys, we’re going to have to speed up the timetable.”

“Why?”

“There’s been…a development.”

(Next: Yakety Sax)

(Word count: 14,508/50,000)

Shepherd’s Pie (NaNoWriMo 2022 #6)

(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Physical Trainer)

It was nine o’clock on a Tuesday and the regular crowd shuffled in. Bill Flogaast hadn’t eaten a single thing all day and there was an old man sitting next to him, stabbing his fork into a plate of bangers and mash. He said, “Bill, I believe this is killing me,” but he ate the grub anyway as the smile ran away from his face. There was, unfortunately, no piano for him to play on. The proprietor of Joel’s Place — who was not Joel (1946-2003) — had removed the small upright shortly after a few hipsters from Bushwick had pulled a post-flash mob viral stunt for Improv Everywhere and tortured the tired cortege of old timers. Why couldn’t these obnoxious kids just ride the fucking subway without pants and let the Joel’s mainstays settle their sorrows in peace?

The old man wiped the crumbs that had settled like clueless gentrifiers into his mustache and he bid his allies adieu, leaving Bill Flogaast to await his long-delayed dinner.

The day had been long and grueling, not unlike the Battle of Bataan if you took away the weapons and the casualties and the history-changing geopolitical stakes. And he still hadn’t put out all the fires. He had anticipated several of them. The calls from Hollywood. His nimble parries against the press. The shocking news that one million copies of Van Kleason’s new novel were now sitting in a Detroit warehouse ahead of pub date. The guarantee that 98% of these would be remaindered if the truth of Van Kleason’s death became public.

But they had made the announcement and it had been received with reliably shallow thoughts and prayers, along with the usual hangers-on who claimed to be Van Kleason’s friends once they spotted a potential meme to win likes and comments (and, of course, the predictable sympathy from those who hadn’t investigated the truth of the “friendship,” which was pretty much everyone on social media).

Henry — the gaunt septuagenarian who tended bar and who was somehow slimmer than an Auschwitz survivor — deposited the white fish-shaped deep dish onto the thin green placemat and reinforced the meal’s arrival with a second pint of Guinness.

“On the house,” said Henry. “You look like you need it.”

“I probably do,” said Bill, “but I’m not finished with the first pint.”

And he wouldn’t be for a while.

“But she’s here.”

“She?”

“Do I really have to tell you?”

He was too hungry and exhausted to consider who this might be. She could be any number of people. Publishing people often spilled into Joel’s at unanticipated hours, but Joel’s was hardly Max’s Kansas City. It was a bar that was waiting to die, as so many others had during the pandemic. There were no live bands. Just a bunch of old men sitting on fraying barstools. The men were so sad that the prorpietor had removed the mirror behind the bottles after one regular had left his car running in his garage and never returned. Sure, the place was kept tidy, but it had not been remodeled for a good twenty years out of “respect for Joel’s vision.” But Bill Flogaast was one of the only ones still alive who could recall talking regularly to that tight-fisted tyrant, who used to kick people out of his bar if they ordered a martini with vodka instead of gin. Joel believed that he was running a classy place, but Joel’s was really no different from any other West Village dive Which was why it was so appealing. You wouldn’t be hassled by young louts, although they sometimes rolled into this funereal venue out of curiosity.

Bill picked up the spoon that had arrived with his shepherd’s pie and, as the waft of mashed potato crust whirled into his nostrils, he angled the utensil against the feeble amber light to see who she was.

Bill Flogaast had long ago mastered the art of peripheral hearing and peripheral seeing. This wasn’t just a technique used by private investigators. It was invaluable in publicity. He always had one eye scanning a mirror or a reflective surface so that he would notice if an unruly author with a grudge arrived at a book party. He’d swoop in and usher any nemesis to the other side of the room.

Dev Rawman, who always took offense whenever anyone pronounced his name like a package of noodles, was one such author. Five vitriolic outbursts at the last seven literary soirees he’d attended and all of these because he was a grownass man who was still angered and embarrassed by his debut novel, which was very bad and elided from his credits in future volumes. Never mind that his novels were still very bad and that his sentences were so awful that not even a very patient junior editor who diagrammed his sentences could get Dev to clean up his potboiler prose. Never mind that Dev had somehow found a ride on the cash cow with a lucrative TV deal from three of those novels (all of these books had the word “fantastic” in their titles and, after a while, people simply assumed that the work was fantastic because people weren’t reading as much anymore). Dev didn’t have a sense of humor. In fact, Dev was so humorless that he had once written an entire column about a blogger who had scorched him. Dev hadn’t counted on his readers siding with the blogger rather than him. And this infuriated him further. Then Dev got obsessed with this blogger and Googled around and found a YouTube video in which the blogger’s grandmother said that she was so proud of him, giving the blogger a huge hug over the triumph of embarrassing a talentless blowhard and being named in a major magazine. And because Dev had no one in his family who loved him (even Dev’s twin brother, whose shirt was stuffed tighter than Dev’s, had cut ties), he longed to know why some online troll in San Francisco would receive the kind of love that he, as a Successful AuthorTM was rightly entitled to.

Bill knew that this was the case with most authors. They were largely children who longed for attention and who spent more time bullshitting on Twitter than honing their latest novel.

Henry, eyeing Bill’s surveillance from behind the bar, nudged his head to the left to give him a hint. Bill flattened a piece of the pie into a manageable matchbox and shoveled it into his mouth — Jesus Christ, no rosemary or thyme with the beef broth? — before delicately dropping the yellowy mass from maw into his napkin. Then he turned his head and saw her.

Gingrich Moore. Ginny if you hadn’t pissed her off in a while. But Moore was easily offended and fiercely protective of her authors, whom she often risibly compared with the 1920s modernists. She was particularly keen on Butch Wheel and his literary debut many years ago, which had been written in pretentious first person plural. Nobody read that book anymore, much less Wheel’s followups, and the gaps between Wheel’s books had stretched from three to seven years. Even Dev Rawman had raved about Wheel, perhaps secretly longing to fuck him as much as the KGB Bar groupies did. But if you were some sad bastard who suggested to Moore that Wheel wasn’t all that, Moore would disinvite you from parties and make your life difficult. Fortunately Flogaast had won over Moore through scandalous serendipity. He had spotted Moore and Wheel leaving a hotel, both looking surprisingly disheveled. Moore saw Flogaast and sprinted away and, based on the way that she had really gone out of her way to accommodate Flogaast after that, you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the two were boning each other and that this was the real reason for Moore’s feverish advocacy. Wheel was hardly the first author to use his dick as much as his pen when it came to “negotiating” contracts. But Moore had never struck Flogaast as the kind of editor who would fuck her authors. People were full of surprises.

“Hello, Bill,” said Moore, who was now towering over Flogaast’s table. “I saw you looking at me.”

“Howdy Ginny.”

“I heard about Paul Van Kleason.”

“Yeah, he was only 48. I’ve been working the phones all day.”

“You must be exhausted. And it’s Gingrich, not Ginny.”

Moore’s mouth contorted into a cruel smile.

“What?”

“Gin-grich. That’s how you will refer to me.”

Flogaast laughed. “Did I do something to piss you off?”

“No,” said Moore. “Of course not.”

“Then why the sudden formality?”

“Because I know what really happened to Paul Van Kleason.”

“Alright, you tell me, hotshot. What really happened to Paul Van Kleason?”

“You don’t need to be coy with me, Bill. I also know about Sophie. This is really going to be quite embarrassing for you. Once everything comes out.”

Moore slid the chair from its resting place beneath the wobbly table and sat down.

“Gingrich, you and I have never had an issue with each other. Never. I respect you. I’ve never said a word about your…your extracurricular activities. What you do is your own business.”

“And I appreciate that. But Butch isn’t one of my authors anymore.”

“What? He went to another house?”

“He’s filed for divorce.”

“That’s too bad.”

“It is too bad, Bill,” said Gingrich. There was a luster in her eyes that made Flogaast uneasy. Flogaast downed the rest of his first pint and wrapped his hand around the second pint.

“He stopped seeing you?”

“You have averred correctly.”

“Gingrich, come on. I haven’t had a bite to eat all day and this hopeless shepherd’s pie is the only thing keeping me going. Why does Paul Van Kleason even matter to you?”

“Oh, he doesn’t. He was a terrible writer. An asshole really. At least that’s what I hear from one of your defectors.”

His former associate Ginny Romano. A tireless ebooks booster who had a knack for finding influencers before they even knew they were influencers. She used every trick in the book to keep them close. Including an aggressive booty call or three. She and Moore were well-matched, given that they shared a common rage directed at any man who had spurned their advances.

“Ginny is a good publicist, but she wasn’t privy to everything.”

“She was privy to enough. Van Kleason sells and he’s been a big hit on several Comic-Con panels. But it’s this image of woke purity that he’s cultivated — that’s what interests me. All of it could collapse like a delicate house of cards. And you, Bill, would be the one they’d blame for it.”

Flogaast nearly choked on a half-eaten pea that had nestled in his throat.

“What do you want, Gingrich?”

“Your resignation.”

“You’re not my boss.”

“You’re right. I’m not. But I knew you would be here. You’re getting more predictable in your old age.”

Moore pulled a thumb drive from her purse and gave it to him.

“What’s this?”

“Just watch the videos, Bill. Nothing’s on the Internet yet, but it will be. Probably by early next week.”

Flogaast looked ashen. He knew what she had found, what he had taken great liberties to cover up. The leak had to come from Romano. She was still friendly with a lot of her former coworkers.

“Who else knows about this?”

“Oh, Bill, come on! I’ve always been a professional.”

“Except with Wheel.”

“Don’t be vulgar, Bill. Just admit that you’ve lost the upper hand and that there was an angle here that you couldn’t anticipate.”

“Who else knows about this?”

“Let’s just say that a small group of people at the top, people who are your competitors, are apprised of what I have.”

“I’m going to need some time.”

“You have a week, Bill. That’s it.”

“That’s not enough time.”

“Well, I guess you’ll have to face the music then.”

“What did I ever do to you, Gingrich?”

“It’s not personal. It’s just business. You’ve covered up smaller things than this.”

“Yeah, but it’s really bad.”

“Well, tell you what, Bill. I’ll give you two weeks.”

“That’s still not enough time.”

“Then get back to me once you understand just what kind of ladyboss you’re dealing with.” She leaned in. “Because, you see, Bill, I’ve always played hardball. You just haven’t seen it. How do you think we keep so many authors? But you? You’re just a softie from another time.”

She stood up and Henry, oblivious to the finer details of this sinister exchange, offered a hearty wave to both of them.

“Choose wisely, Bill. I know the Germans are counting on you.”

(Next: The War Room)

(Word count: 12,576/50,000)

The Physical Trainer (NaNoWriMo 2022 #5)

(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: All the Ugly Horses)

Like many who had the misfortune of working the Pallof press under Rob Rollins’s despotic watch, Debbie Ballard resembled a marionette getting scuffed up during a Punch and Judy show.

“Again!” screamed Rollins.

Debbie pushed and pulled the resistance band with all her might, stretching her glutes and testing her torso and feeling the fatigue that would require an double Americano to elude an afternoon nap.

“One more!”

She had always given Rollins two more when he asked for one. If you gave him just one flex of the pecs, he would grunt and then surprise you hours later with predawn text shaming. Rollins was a man who didn’t seem to sleep. Or, at least, nobody could pin down the exact hours he slept. But that was his brand. Professional tyrant. Heartless dictator. Merciless Messiah for better bodies. You always felt as if Rollins was standing behind your neck, even when he was standing right in front of you. Rollins somehow exuded the presence of six men slowly pacing around you as you sweated during a set. And the Myrtle Beach gym rats, at a far higher proportion than fitness nuts in other cities, tended to need an extra smidgen of fear to sustain their discipline. Rollins, as he liked to remind his many clients, was their salvation, their ticket to a healthy heaven. And the mandatory bimonthly seminars at the Carolina Opry (all two thousand seats filled by present and former clients, an additional $400 charge) would bring anyone who doubted his credentials on stage and order the hecklers to strip off their clothes and reveal the fatty deficiencies of their bodies. Or he would single out a client who didn’t live up to his exacting standards and humiliate the poor grunt by taking four Franklins out of his wallet (“Here’s your refund. I can’t teach you anything. So get the fuck out of here!”) and, after the vicious verbal beatdown, stretch his arms like Christ on a cross while the audience showered the failure with caterwauls and applause.

There was at least one support group for those who had flunked out of Rollins’s program, where quavering innocents described their PTSD. Three people had tried to sue Rollins for intentional inflection of emotional distress. And that’s when Rollins pulled out the redwell in his gym bag and reminded that you had signed an NDA. You had to commit to a yearly contract if you wanted to work with Rollins, but Rollins reserved the right to dismiss you. He didn’t accept no shows. He’d find you if you skipped an appointment or moved out of Myrtle Beach. And everyone tolerated this tyranny because nobody could quibble with the physical results.

Debbie’s body buckled from the tension.

“Oh, you’re only going to give me one more?”

Ninety-six minutes of this. Would she survive the last fifteen minutes of her session? Rollins prescribed exercise regimens punctuated by his trademark berating. He was fond of screaming words like “loser” and “disappointment.” And he earned two hundred dollars an hour for doing this. As he liked to remind his clients, it was Rollins who chose you, not the other way around.

When Sophie had slipped Rollins’ contact info to Debbie, she had been dubious. “Really?” she said to her best friend. “This guy?”

“Well, you can’t argue with this,” said Sophie, who slipped off her robe to reveal her sculpted curves protruding from a ravishing leopard skin bikini.

And Debbie couldn’t. She felt a surprising desire to fuck her friend, but she didn’t. She knew Sophie had something going on with a few of the locals, as did everybody else in Myrtle Beach. It was a city small enough for people to talk. But you kept your judgments to yourself. Everyone has their own reasons for living the way they do.

Debbie collapsed on the mat.

“Ballard, what are you doing?”

“I’m exhausted.”

“‘I’m exhausted, sir!’ You are supposed to address me as ‘Sir!'”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Don’t be sorry. Get back on the Pallof!”

“I can’t, sir.”

“Do you want your core to turn to flab?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you want to be like all the other sad assholes who stuff McDonald’s into their faces and hate themselves?”

“No, sir.”

He clapped his hands and flourished his arms much like a conductor hitting the trickiest part of Mahler.

“Then get at it! Chop chop!”

And although she was sore, Rollins had been right. She did have a little still left in the tank. But she didn’t know how much. Finally, as she was about to collapse, Rollins said, “Session’s over. Nice work, Ballard. You’ve come a long way in six weeks.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“We’re done. You can call me Rob.”

“Okay.”

She grabbed a towel to wipe off the sweat that had poured down her neck. Rollins, for all of his running around, hadn’t revealed so much as a bead.

“You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Debbie…”

Debbie? Rollins had never referred to her by her first name before.

“Is it all right if I call you Debbie?”

“Of course.”

“Do you know anything about politics?”

“Why are you asking?”

“You may have noticed the billboards and the TV ads.”

Who hadn’t? There had even been an article in the Myrtleist by that Ali Breslin woman about it. WHAT IS ROLLINS’S NEXT MOVE?

“I have.”

Rollins flashed Debbie a bright smile. Immaculate teeth. Whiter than the output from a soap factory.

“Can I let you in on a little secret?”

“I couldn’t talk even if I wanted to. I did read the NDA before signing it.”

“You were the only one who asked for revisions.”

“And I appreciate you making them.”

“I rarely make concessions for anyone. But you, Debbie?” He put his hand on her shoulder and she couldn’t deny that it felt good. “You’re different. You seemed like someone I could make an exception for.”

“Why?”

“Because I need you.”

“For what? Politics?”

“I’ll be holding a press conference this afternoon and I want you to be there.”

“But my work. I have to get back.”

“To Dixon, Joyce and Markson? What do they have you doing over there?”

“Real estate law.”

“That doesn’t sound sexy.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.”

“What do they have you do?”

“Construction financing, zoning disputes.”

“Well, what if I were to retain you?”

“You’d have to speak with Mr. Dixon. He’s the partner who supervises me.”

“No. I want to retain you independently.”

“I have a noncompete.”

“Oh, I think Mr. Dixon will budge. He’s an old friend. And I’m a frog who can leap across any interstate.”

“I don’t think it’s possible.”

“Impossible?” screamed Rollins. He had shifted so fast from gentle confidante to aggressive megalomaniac. “What is the second rule of The Rollins Way?”

“‘Impossibility is an illusion perpetuated by the weak.'”

“Exactly!”

He was so proud to have his words quoted back to him. Never mind that this tenet had been devised by a ghost writer. But he had paid for it. So the words were now his!

“Mr. Dixon isn’t weak. What about the Collier case? A $225 million verdict!”

“Every man has his weak spot.” He stepped closer. “Every woman too.”

“Mr. Rollins, is this your way of asking me on a date?”

“I never date my clients. No, Debbie. It’s your services I want.”

“Well, I’m flattered, but I really need to hit the shower and get back to work.”

“What if I were to offer you $30,000 for one month of work?”

Thirty thousand dollars. It wasn’t fuck you money, but it was still quite a lot. She thought of her crushing student loan debt, the mortgage payments, the money she needed to keep her mother alive in the cancer ward.

“What kind of work do you want me to do?”

“I want you to manage a campaign.”

“A campaign for what?”

“For the House of Representatives.”

“You’re running for Congress?”

“I’ve thought about it for a while. It’s about time. And that’s s why I’m calling the press conference.”

“And what political experience do you have?”

“None! That’s the beauty of it! I’m an outsider.”

“And, uh, what party are you running with?”

“Republican! Of course!”

Republicans. God, she hated them. Reptilian, devoid of empathy, stripping away her rights as a woman.

“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

“Oh, I’m not a Trumper. If that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Well, you’re going to have to align yourself with the MAGA crowd and the Christians if you want to do this. If you’re really serious.”

“You see, that’s exactly why I need you to run my campaign.”

“Where do you stand on Israel?”

“I’m for them.”

“And Palestine?”

“I’m for them.”

“Rob, you can’t support Israel and Palestine at the same time.”

“Why not?”

Was he fucking serious? Did he not pay even the most cursory attention to foreign affairs in the last three decades?

“You like it when we parrot back your words to you, don’t you?”

“Of course I do! It means you’re learning something!”

“Well, I’ll reiterate what you say to the flunkees. Rob, I can’t teach you anything.”

She walked away, trying to get as much of the sweat off her neck as she could. Rollins followed her.

“Come on, Debbie.”

“Nope.”

“Okay, what if I made it sixty thousand?”

She stopped in her tracks. Sixty thousand. Well, that would kill the debt interest alone. And since the Fed couldn’t refrain from raising interest rates, she was very keen on pecking away at the principal.

She turned to Rollins.

“Sixty thousand for one month’s work?”

“A preliminary phase. And we could keep this in place on an ongoing basis.”

Nine months away from the next election. If she stuck around, that would be $540,000. A lot more than the $140K she made each year at Dixon, Joyce and Markson.

“You’re really that loaded?”

“Yeah. I’ve got a guy who helps me with my investments. And there have been quiet fundraisers.”

She’d have to closely examine the books to make sure that none of this was dirty money. If Rollins didn’t know about Arafat, there was a good chance he didn’t know about opensecrets.org.

“You realize I’m a Democrat.”

“I don’t care. It’s your mind I want.”

Blood money for a temporary stint. But she supposed she could arrange for a leave of absence. Dixon knew about her mother. And while he was a tough man, he was also fair. And she knew that he didn’t want to lose one of his top associates.

She held out her hand to Rollins.

“Okay, Mr. Rollins. You’ve got yourself a handshake deal.”

(Next: Shepherd’s Pie)

(Word count: 10,462/50,000)

All the Ugly Horses (NaNoWriMo 2022 #4)

(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Atlantis Hotel)

They made Ezmerelda wait in the dining room without even offering her a cup of coffee or even a few words of commiseration. She had been there for hours, listening to the distant sift of the Atlantic surf striking against the sands. She kept mental note of the glacial downward crawl that the shadows of the blinds had cast upon a wall with a horrific painting with clashing colors of a horse galloping in front of a rainbow — the kind of grotesque and wildly overvalued art that bumpkins usually pay big money for at an estate sale. She presumed the painting had been Sophie’s choice rather than Paul’s.

“What a sad son of a bitch,” said one of the detectives.

“Not the way I’d want to go,” said another.

“How do you know? Barney found a sizable semen sample under his left thigh.”

“I saw. Hope the family tips the sad son of a bitch who has to clean that sticky mess up before the funeral.”

“The guy was a horse.”

“Yeah, but he wasn’t hung like a horse.”

His colleague grunted.

“Ted, how many times do I have to tell you?” His voice became gentle, matching the tenor of a father telling his son about the birds and the bees for the first time. “You don’t want to kink-shame the dead. Show some respect.”

“He didn’t have a smile on his face.”

“Buddy, they never die with a smile on their face. Cadaveric spasms? Rigor mortis? Come on, I thought you got your MFS at Stevenson.”

“It was just a joke.”

“Work on your material.”

The trabeation between the living room and the dining room was, like most of the house, excessively high and wide. And it afforded Ezmerelda a vista of Van Kleason’s bare dead ass, the numbered placards gradually placed upon the floor, and the many men hunkered around the corpse measuring distances and collecting surrounding items into evidence bags.

“Hey Barney! Check this out!”

One smiling cop had lifted up Van Kleason’s dead head with one hand and had angled his phone for a selfie.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Come on, Barney. I’m just having a little bit of fun.”

“You’re contaminating the scene!”

“I’ve got gloves on, man!”

The horse motif was in full display throughout the dining room. A small shelf of Jane Smiley novels — the ones with the horses — was neatly installed just above the silverware drawer. There were metal pony figurines melting into onyx napkin holder bases. Salt and pepper shakers with horse head tops that could be screwed off. She recalled the disturbing morning when Van Kleason had torn off all of his clothes and followed her around the house on all fours while she cleaned, neighing and eerily resembling a Shetland pony from certain angles. She had never asked Van Kleason what his love of horses meant. She figured the answer would be worse than anything she could possibly imagine.

“She’s the only witness?”

“Yeah.”

She was losing potential income by the minute. And she certainly wasn’t going to demonstrate the physiognomical advantages of being alive. And if they didn’t question her and let her leave soon, she wouldn’t have time to prepare herself for peak daytime jerkoff hour on OnlyFans. The stay-at-home dads who wanted to stroke their jokes away just before they picked up their kids from school.

If these creepy cops were that committed to memorializing their desecration of the dead, maybe there was an untapped audience here. Take the idea behind that old website rotten.com and put a personal spin on it.

Barney slapped the camera-happy officer across the cheek.

“Ow!”

“Never again, Clark. One more selfie and I’m filing an internal affairs report.”

The police had sealed off the living room with yellow tape and the flashes of the forensic team’s cameras were so frequent and blinding that Ezmerelda regretted not packing a pair of sunglasses. She didn’t have a book. She didn’t have much in the way of distractions. They had taken away her phone. They had pressed her for her password, but she didn’t spill the four numbers. And she presumed this was the biggest reason why the detectives kept her waiting. But she wasn’t going to betray her online johns. Now two cops who were humanity’s answer to walking ground chuck (the three-day stubble of one of the junior detectives reminded her of Beef Stroganoff) were studying the lock screen from several corners, trying to figure out how to penetrate it.

“Do we have to call Oscar?” said Beef Stroganoff.

“He’s good.”

“He’s the only guy, but he’s a little prickly.”

“Even if she budges,” said his more confident and more sleep-deprived colleague, “we’ll need a court order.”

She hated it when people referred to her in the third person. Many white people did this. It was a subtle form of racism. Don’t address the Black woman, but don’t pretend that she isn’t there.

“Hey,” said Ezmerelda.

“Foul play?” said Beef Stroganoff.

“It’s going to take a day for the toxicology report to clear,” said Sleep-Deprived.

“I said, hey!” said Ezmerelda.

“Do you think she killed him?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’m right here,” said Ezmerelda.

Beef Stroganoff loosened an exasperated sigh. He glanced at Ezmerelda, his eyes darting to her ass before returning to his colleague.

“Mike, I don’t want to call Oscar,” said Beef Stroganoff.

“Don’t you read comic books, Ted?”

“Not really,” said Ted, who knew that he had perhaps one day left of not shaving before someone would call HR and complain. Because Ted always looked repugnant with facial hair. He had once grown a moustache for Movember in his early days as a traffic cop and everyone in the precinct had given him hell. So he had shaved it off. But that hadn’t swayed him from seeing November as the month devoted to massive endeavors. I mean, total strangers on the Internet were spending the weeks before Thanksgiving writing hack novels, weren’t they?

“Well, summon a bit of that knowledge. You know the techies. Get them talking about the Annie Nocenti run on Daredevil and they’ll do anything you want.”

“Maybe you should call them.”

“I’m more of a DC guy.”

“Wonder Woman and her golden lasso?”

“Barry Allen, motherfucker. Better than Gilpetperdon any day.”

“Elders of the Universe? That was some of the worst shit imaginable.”

Mike rolled up his gloves and tossed them onto the floor. “You want to get into it right now, brother? Because I will fuck you up right now if you talk any more shit about The Flash.”

Ted laughed and slapped Mike on the shoulder. “Relax, Mike. I’m just busting your balls.” He turned away, darting a quick glance at Ezmerelda’s legs before returning to Oscar. “Although that Final Crisis shit? They should have stuck with Grant Morrison. That never would have happened at Marvel.”

“Why, you fucking asshole…”

Mike’s face turned beet-red with fury. He was prepared to jump Ted right then and there, but two of the guys held him back. They told Mike that if he would calm down and concentrate on the investigation that there would be nachos and margaritas awaiting him at the end of a long day.

“Yo! I’ve got places I need to be,” said Ezmerelda.

Ted walked to the long refectory table where Ezmerelda was sitting: the footfalls of his Cole Haan patents echoing against the high ceiling. Van Kleason had told her that she was never to sit there. It was a fantasy he developed after reading about how Jeff Bezos had prohibited his cleaning staff from using his bathroom or eating lunch anywhere in the house. And while Paul Van Kleason had often pretended to be a sensitive leftist, he was — like many of Ezmerelda’s clients — an aspiring tyrant bucking the belabored Leo Buscalgia sensitivity he had practiced online. Most men who longed to be tops were bottoms in their regular lives. When he had been alive, Van Kleason had told Ezmerelda that his marriage had been on thin ice and that he had not fucked his wife in years. But so long as they entered their credit card numbers into Stripe, Ezmerelda would pretend that their aloof alpha pretense was persuasive.

“When do I get to leave?” said Ezmerelda.

“You’ll leave when we say you leave. This isn’t a fast food joint. It’s a crime scene.”

“My phone.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s evidence.”

“It’s my livelihood.”

“Yes, your livelihood. What is it you do exactly? Dressed like that?”

Ezmerelda stretched the very short hem of her miniskirt as far down as it could go.

“What I do is perfectly legal.”

“Was the deceased one of your clients?”

“Yes.”

“How many times did you meet with him?”

“Once or twice a week. It all depended on whether he was alone.”

“He still lived with his wife?”

“Yes, but she’s often away during the day.”

“Did you know his wife?”

“No.”

“And where were you before you discovered his body?”

“I was getting ready to come here.”

“Do you have an alibi?”

“Are you serious?”

“We have to consider every possibility. You live alone?”

“Yes.”

“Did you harbor any jealousy towards Mr. Van Kleason?”

She laughed. “Jealousy? Are you serious? He was a client. He had nothing. Nothing more.”

“But a prominent one. An author of twenty-two books.”

“What kind of books?”

“Fantasy, speculative fiction. Really, just Google the dude.”

“Did you read any of his books?”

“No, they were impenetrable.”

“Did you know anyone closely related to Mr. Van Kleason?”

“No.”

“His friends? His family?”

“No, I was just the maid.”

“But more than a maid? Did you and Mr. Van Kleason have sexual relations?”

“That wasn’t our arrangement.”

“It’s a simple yes or no question, Miss Gibbons.”

“No then.”

At that point, Ezmerelda noticed a smiling woman in her mid-thirties just outside the French doors leading to the backyard. She was taking pictures of her and seemed to be having a blast. A reporter’s notepad dropped out of her coat. She picked it up, fluttered the pad to the right page, jotted something down with a pen, loosened a chortle, and then carried on taking pictures.

Ted’s eyes tightened into a vicious squint. He snapped his fingers and the two men who had held down Mike raced over.

“Looks like we have a press problem.”

The two cops opened the doors. And the ocean breeze was so cold that Ezmerelda shivered in her seat.

“Hi there, Ted!” said the woman, saluting him with a ironically deferential flourish of the hand.

“Ali.”

“Aren’t you going to invite me in? I brought a bag of bear claws for the boys.”

Ezmerelda had skipped breakfast. Her belly rumbled at the thought of a donut, although she knew Rollins would chew her out if she didn’t stick to her paleo diet.

“It’s a crime scene. We’ll be issuing a public statement later today.”

“Oh, Ted,” said the woman. “You’re no fun these days. Remember the Lish murders? Didn’t we have a lot of fun with that? That picture with you holding the axe? Well, it won you a lot of points in Yaupon Circle.”

“I’m sorry,” said Ezmerelda. “Who are you?”

“Ali Breslin. Crime reporter for The Myrtleist!”

The Myrtleist?”

“It’s an online rag that gets a lot of eyeballs. And speaking of eyeballs, Ted, what’s the story with the stiff?”

“He died with a smile on his face,” shouted Mike from the living room. He had calmed down quite a bit.

“Shut the fuck up, Mike.”

“Hi Ali!” cried Mike.

“Hi Mike! Is Ted giving you shit about Barry Allen again?”

“Yup.”

“Ted, you’ve got to give The Flash another chance! I mean, we all know that Ezra Miller is such a disappointment off-camera.” Ali turned to Ezmerelda and whispered to her. “I wrote a little #metoo story about Miller that went viral.” She unzipped her bomber jacket, revealing a bright T-shirt with a Francis Manapul panel. “But fuck the TV show! The Carmine Infantino run? You’re really going to shit on that?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him, Ali!” cried Mike, who was newly galvanized by the appearance of his comic book ally.

“You know I can’t tell you.”

“You know I can’t go away.”

“Excuse me,” said Ezmerelda. “Can I go now?”

“Not yet,” said Ted.

“You’re Ezmerelda Gibbons, aren’t you?” asked Ali.

“How do you know about me?”

Ali held up her phone. “TinEye is your friend. Well, TinEye and a few other tools.”

“Ali,” said Ted gently. “We still haven’t determined the cause of death. And because the deceased is a public figure, we’d appreciate it if you kept this out of the headlines.”

“Oh, you’d appreciate it,” said Ali. Her voice shifted to a flirtatious murmur. “Well, Teddy, you should have thought about that before you ghosted me.”

“Wait,” cried Mike. “You two are fucking?”

Ted cleared his throat. “Not anymore!”

Mike laughed. “Wait until the boys here about this.”

Ezmerelda slammed her fist onto the refectory table.

“You’ve kept me here long enough,” she boomed. “I’m getting the fuck out of here.”

“Now, ma’am, you can’t do that.”

“The hell I can’t!”

Ted was prepared to put Ezmerelda into her face. That’s when he noticed Ali filming him with her camera. Fuck. The last thing the MBPD needed was another Ali Breslin hot take.

He cleared his throat and made the greatest possible effort to swallow his natural gruffness.

“Uh, thank you, Miss Gibbons.”

“My phone?”

“You’ll get it later.”

“Fuck.”

He handed Ezmerelda his card.

“You can contact us if you remember anything.”

“And how the hell am I supposed to call you if you have my phone?”

“You’ll figure something out.”

“That’s it?” said Ezmerelda.

“For now.” He turned to Ali’s camera. “You see, Myrtleist viewers? Consummate professionalism.” Then he put his hand up in front of the lens.

Ezmerelda picked up her purse and walked past the corpse to the front door. Ali followed her.

“Yoo hoo,” said Ali. “Miss Gibbons?”

Ezmerelda walked faster. The clicks of her heels dwarfed the bleak small talk that buzzed through the room like a hornet’s nest newly destroyed by a baseball bat.

“Miss Gibbons!”

(Next: The Physical Trainer)

(Word count: 8,691/50,000)

The Atlantis Hotel (NaNoWriMo 2022 #3)

(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Coat Basket)

By Tuesday morning, most of the Grande Dunes weekend revelers had checked out of the Atlantis Hotel. It was an unremarkable seven-story concrete eyesore with inexplicably Euclidean gables and gilded veneers constructed without thought or care in 1996 by failed Reform Party candidate Harold Triton at the beginning of his midlife crisis, which had been reported on by one of Ezmerelda’s former Iowa classmates decades later in a glossy Conde Nasty magazine that carried the telltale stink of a perfume sample that had been so potently redolent that at least three dozen readers canceled their subscription after developing a severe and life-threatening skin rash — a potential class action lawsuit that had been halted and hushed up with Newhouse money and that had inspired a veteran advertising executive to give up his morally bankrupt career for a far more purposeful but comparatively thankless life feeding the starving hordes in Sri Lanka.

The investigative article had somehow landed this boisterous rollerblader a coveted ASME for no other reason other than that the classmate (who was more of a skater than a writer, truth be told; the dude still kept at his Salchows and spins even as the fearful middle-aged demarcation point of forty was escalating ever closer) had simply said what everyone in Myrtle Beach already knew: namely, that most of the tony and tone-deaf golfers in this affluent development were fond of building whatever the fuck they wanted to. That was the way you won writing awards in the 2020s. Spell out the bleeding obvious with a Capotesque flair for sensationalism and land a lucrative book deal and then realize that you really had nothing particularly earth-shattering to say once you signed the contract and spent all day playing Elden Ring on your PlayStation 5 and dodged those weekly calls from your agent who demanded to know why a bad haiku about Jeremy Strong had been your only output in the last six months.

It was not so much that these hopelessly dull developers had big dreams or essential passions. They simply had vast sums of inheritance money to spend and family lines to live up to. They couldn’t very well let all those elocution and ballroom dance classes go to waste, could they? They couldn’t allow their surnames to not be mentioned regularly in the social register or the newspapers or, more recently, the remarkably virulent gossip blogs that flourished online much like anthracnose decimating a beautiful hardwood forest. No, they needed to matter. And they didn’t know how.

And so they built edifices. Ugly towers that would never grace the pages of Architectural Digest with walls that were frequently pissed on by those who were born and raised in Dirty Myrtle and who didn’t have money.

While their great great great grandfathers had built vast fortunes from the indigo trade, these very rich and very uncultured ciphers lamented their impotency and their wrinkles and their more frequent need to pee and the wagging fingers of doctors who told them that they should exercise more and that they should not sprinkle so much salt on their dinner plates. They often stared at their limp and increasingly useless chorizos in the bathroom mirror after taking their showers, feeling nostalgic for the youthful days in which they could summon a chubby without poppping a Vardenafil.

The Atlantis Hotel was one of many such dubious monuments that had emerged from this craven desperation. It had never quite conjured up an aquatic theme to suit its name, which had been randomly selected by Triton on a bourbon-soaked night when Triton and his friends carried on a vivacious and increasingly deranged philosophical conversation speculating about how mermaids fucked. The only decorative allegiance to the underwater city that Plato had so eloquently described in Critias was a series of oblong aquariums that had been placed at random points in the hotel lobby. The fish often died because the staff were overworked and underpaid and were often screamed at by the guests for perceived failings. And the manager had the unpleasant duty of regularly inspecting these fish tanks for some diamond blue discus that had expired and floated to the edge after spending the last week desperately waiting for Tetra Color Bits. Que Sera Sera. It was truly a miracle that nobody had thought to contact the ASPCA, but then animal rights were the least of Myrtle Beach’s worries.

But because the hotel was so mediocre and poorly run, it became a venue where you could hole up in plain sight. No self-respecting Myrtle Beach resident would ever be caught dead there. At least that was the working theory. And when the locals did frequent the place for salacious afternoon delights, they would often adopt strange disguises. Overcoats, sunglasses, wigs, even a prosthetic nose if they had any aspirations to run for political office. One bellboy with a photographic memory had kept a running list in his head of the regulars he could gouge for sizable tips by mentioning their real names when he unlocked their rooms and sustained a lucrative six figure sideline in gratuities that he would never have to report on his tax returns. (He was later audited by the IRS and arrested for tax evasion once they questioned how a minimum wage employee could afford a flashy pool house. The impulse to build in Myrtle Beach was hardly confined to those in the top tax brackets.) And while there was grumbling and grousing among the hotel regulars, the high cost of schtupping your secretary during a long lunch hour was more than atoned for by the fact that nobody who checked into the Atlantis was ever discovered.

Because of these circumstances, Sophie Van Kleason was happily flogging two of her subs in Room 312 on Tuesday morning. One was new and being initiated into her den of play. The other had cadged his way into her graces after six months of increasingly desperate texts. They were both quite naked and both quite sad, kneeling on the puke-green carpet to escape their miserable go-nowhere lives and serve their mistress. All was going very well until the new one made a rookie mistake.

“Can you sit on my face, Mistress?”

“Slave,” shrieked Sophie, “did I give you permission to speak?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Do not make that mistake again! You will do what I say when I say it!”

“Yes, Ma’am!”

“Do you not worship me?”

“Yes, Mistress!”

She tugged at the three-inch leash attached to the greenhorn’s ball stretcher. The insubordinate’s scrotum grew pinker and more ridiculous and his balls bulged larger beneath the tightly bound leather ring, but his cock stayed hard and hungry. And he started to whimper. This was a good scene. And if she kept up the tension, she knew she’d have the two fellating each other in the next fifteen minutes.

“Will you obey?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I’m sorry, Mistress.”

“Now prepare yourself.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

This unruly sub — the freshest acquisition among her rotating base of seventeen — was swiftly disciplined with a hard blow to his solar plexus. Her daily workouts with Rollins had not been for nothing. She hit him with a two-by-four freshly cut at Home Depot over the weekend, discreetly packed among the other implements in her ever-growing larder of toys. The hunky twentysomething who had scaled her lumber had well-toned biceps and a taut and delicious ass that she wanted to adorn with bright blue bruises. If only her husband would make a modicum of effort with her instead of going out to film his Nature Walks, she wouldn’t have to live this way!

This guy had been so nice to her! Naively nice. The kind of nice she liked because it was so easy to manipulate. So nice that they had exchanged numbers and he had called in sick that very day after accepting her invite to join her at the Atlantis for some fun, little realizing the full extent of what he had signed on for. She still didn’t know if his name was Chris or Jim. But that didn’t matter. Because anyone who came into her lair was addressed as “slave.” Now this worthless and quite handsome man was actually sobbing, the snot dribbling in rivulets beneath his fine fleshy nose. And this made her very happy.

She turned to the other sub: the tubby middle-aged bitch with the long graying beard who was soon going to learn his place. This was Mike Harvest, the daily book critic of a prominent newspaper who had unfavorably reviewed three of her husband’s books with a belabored snark that had outworn its welcome ten years ago. Harvest had never amounted to much. He had only managed to publish one book during his twenty years as a book critic. That is, if you could call a collection of photographs that other people had snapped a book. He had made the four hour drive to the Atlantis from his home in Savannah. He was trying to buy time. Two Slate reporters had recently uncovered an incident that had occurred seven years before at his old Connecticut home that involved a prominent publishing executive and his close friend, the Jakester, whom he had been forced to cut ties with. Being dominated by Sophie was his idea of lying low.

She slowly leaned into Mike’s ear and purred her most seductive whisper.

“Do you wish to be insolent?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Good. Now if I unfasten your hands, will you stay obedient?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

It was a consensual non-consent setup, which meant that Sophie could do anything she wanted with these two men. She slid the smooth leather masks over their skulls, tightening the straps as much as possible, and the two subs made stertorous attempts to breath. She smiled as their four suffering eyes bulged with horror and pleasure beneath the thin slats of the masks.

There was a knock on the door.

“Banana,” she said.

“Banana?” asked Chris or Jim.

There was no greater turnoff than a newly broken Chad who couldn’t remember the safeword.

“For fuck’s sake, scene’s over. Didn’t you listen?”

More knocking. Louder. More persistent.

She pulled off the masks.

“No bullshit. Did either of you tell anyone you were here? Mike, did you tell your wife?”

“No!” cried Mike. “I didn’t!”

BAM! BAM! BAM!

“Are you going to answer the door?” squeaked Chris/Jim.

“Look, I can’t have any more trouble,” said Mike. “I had to beg the editor to keep me on staff after that Slate story.”

Sophie slipped on the hotel bathrobe. She could feel the lustful eyes of the two men studying her meticulously sculpted body. That was the funny thing about men. Even when they were in a tight spot and needed to use their minds, they still abdicated to their dicks.

“Just wait.”

“Can you at least untie us?” shrieked Chris/Jim.

She opened the door.

An unsmiling man in a weather-worn fedora, a wool twill suit, and the blandest burgundy tie you could find in Topeka stared at her. He had a manila envelope beneath his arm.

“Mrs. Van Kleason.”

“Who are you?”

“My name isn’t important, but my clients are.”

“You’re not the bellboy, are you?”

“No.”

“I gave him $200.”

“I gave him more.”

“How do you know who I am?”

“Easier than you might think. Mrs. Van Kleason, I have some news about your husband. You may want to put something on. We’re going to be very busy.”

(Next: All the Ugly Horses)

(Word count: 6,345/50,000)

The Coat Basket (NaNoWriMo 2022 #2)

(Previously: The Dead Writer)

Seven hundred miles away, in an inexact north by northeast line that can be reached by jumbo jet in about one hour and forty-two minutes, there was a man who was decidedly more alive, far more important, more physically fit, much smarter, and somehow more anonymous in his business dealings than Paul Van Kleason.

His name was Bill Flogaast and he had far more power that any of the neighing infants who feigned “publishing insider” status could ever imagine.

In his thirty-four years in the biz, Flogaast was one of the last men still standing. He had survived numerous mergers and downsizing campaigns. He had inveigled tempestuous authors and bribed humorless book editors. He had methodically turned one book critic with a sizable Beanie Babies collection into his personal stenographer, persuading a bestselling horror writer to declare her his “friend” on pre-Elon Twitter, and this lonely and pathetic and heavily Botoxed woman had the sad naivete to believe that she still formed her own opinions about books. He had personally ensured that a Tory vulgarian who taught creative writing at Bath Spa University would never get his novels published in America. He sent fruit baskets and slipped Franklins to the right people. He silenced attention-seeking troublemakers by having his publicity army of ten send thick packages in the mail stuffed with galleys that were perfectly tailored to their sensibilities. Give these dumb and obnoxious kids all the books they could ever want and they would usually shut the fuck up. They would even photograph themselves on Instagram holding the galleys above their heads, as if these volumes were elephant skulls sawed off after a six month African safari. And it was he who had managed to persuade six media outlets to adopt a “No haters” policy for their review coverage, bringing an end to the literary takedowns that had caused several authors to sob for hours on the phone to him. It wasn’t that he was against tough criticism. He just wanted to spend more time in the Hamptons and this was strictly a time-saving measure.

He had covered up nine physical assaults, twenty-two incidents of sexual harassment, one fatal stabbing, and he had even managed to get some Nobel-obsessed jackanape who freelanced for The New Republic to spin an author’s ugly heroin overdose as a quiet death from natural causes. He kept an Excel spreadsheet tracking bad behavior from eighty-two authors (half of them had been on the Shitty Media Men list) who still had ongoing deals. Under Flogaast’s watch, their notorious deportment had never reached the newspapers. He had outsmarted the whisper network and orchestrated omertàs to ensure that any gadfly who could make a significant dent in sales with some lengthy online jeremiad would never be taken seriously. You could never get them on the work, but you could shred their character into confetti that was finer than anything you could ever buy at a party supplies store. Bill Flogaast knew that these gullible rubes were more interested in yukking it up about personality rather than discussing the merits of an award-winning backlist title. Before his career had been cruelly destroyed, Oscar Wilde had declared that great minds discuss ideas and small minds discuss people. And Bill Flogaast knew that the publishing world was no different from any other microcosm: a collection of small minds. Just look at the way these insects got stirred up on social media over a Slate hot take or the way they wasted time trying to dissect flash-in-the-pan “movements” such as Dimes Square. Sure, they held up Cormac McCarthy, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Thomas Pynchon as rightful geniuses, but these literary people clearly preferred to discuss who was fucking whom rather than what the S-Gerät symbolized in Gravity’s Rainbow.

And the best thing about all this was that he could persuade these media people that they were the ones who landed the stories. What they didn’t seem to understand, even when he provided flagrant clues, was that Flogaast had been pulling the strings all along.

Flogaast had stared down cutthroat German capitalists who were fully prepared to sodomize his livelihood for the greatest possible financial gain, winning them over with plentiful whiskey poured at predawn hours in East Village speakeasies. He spilled juicy dirt on famous writers as the Germans became increasingly inebriated while he nursed his drink, leaving a tiny tumbler half-full over the course of several hours. The Germans were too busy singing Marlene Dietrich songs at the most loutish and deafening levels to notice Flogaast’s modest alcohol intake.

Flogaast was the only man in publishing who remained on a first-name basis with the many Daves of the literary world. Every other publicist who had attempted the ambitious goal of Dave unification had either developed a $200/day coke habit or had gone nuts and checked into Bellevue. The literary Daves were truly that toxic, that insalubrious, that soul-destroying. One publicist had tried to warm up to the notoriously difficult David Rosemary Bier — author of a manifesto that made an undeniably hypnotic argument for eating red meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. This sad bastard, who had started off so optimistic, had leaped over the guardrails of a Midtown rooftop bar to his death shortly after Bier had vowed to “destroy” him with the help of his Hollywood friends.

But Bill Flogaast was made of sterner stuff. David Fitzjoy, author of the bestselling novel The Rectifications, was widely known to be an insufferable pain in the ass. A chronic mansplainer who scoffed over having his large and vastly overrated novels edited and who wasn’t nearly as perspicacious as he thought he was and who didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut and who wrote a self-serving New Yorker profile about the late Jonathan Coaster Wells, the long-suffering, long-haired, beanie cap-wearing author who had frequently used water as a metaphor in his viral commencement speeches and who had deforested 70% of the world’s trees with his 2,400 page epic, Inexhaustible Laughs. But it had been Flogaast who had coached Fitzjoy over many months to be more palatable and who had secured the splashy Sunday profile in the New York Times that caused everyone to give Fitzroy another chance. Just as he had reinvented David Lithium as a neglected treasure who was far more than the forgotten MacArthur Fellowship-winning author of Fatherless Manhattan. Dozens of publicists has unsuccessfully tried to persuade Lithium to stop name searching himself on Twitter and sending deranged emails to total strangers who didn’t care for his books, but only Bill Flogaast had the finesse to convince this admittedly aggravating author to find the inner peace he needed.

This nimble éclat bought him additional years in the industry. Flogaast had perfected the art of sleeping no more than four hours every night and only sleeping with his wife. Unlike the vast majority of men in the publishing industry, Flogaast understood that dick discipline was a significant factor in securing your career longevity. He had seen so many promising talents self-destruct over the years because they didn’t have the control that he had. He had politely declined all scandalous rendezvouses and enticing afternoon delights. Let weaker men get their rocks off and pay the hard price of alimony for a reckless tryst.

Besides, he did love his wife. Well, mostly. It had been some years since he last felt the full frisson that had first drawn them together at a Newport News barbeque festival, although she would probably say the same thing if you could somehow persuade her to spill a small morsel about her life. And she never did. Only three people in the building knew her first name and the only thing that this dull trio had in common was that they were the ones the shareholders listened to during quarterly earnings calls.

He would tell any author going through a divorce that most marriages are little more than economic partnerships — good for reducing taxes, buying homes, keeping down costs, and having a dedicated plus one for social soirees to insulate yourself from relentless speculation over what kind of unbearable asshole you had to be to never find someone who could tolerate your close company longer than six months. The sooner you understood this, the more successful you would be in work and life. He hadn’t sold his soul exactly, although nobody at the publishing house really knew about his private life. And because Flogaast exercised such exquisite self-control while speaking his mind, several skeptics came to understand that he could be trusted, even though he revealed nothing about himself at all and sat back and smiled while others flapped their traps. It was difficult to know who Flogaast’s closest friends were. Because they never factored into his public image. Yes, he had confidantes. But he never advertised who they were. Bill Flogaast one of the rare people in the early 21st century who never posted daily pictures of his lunch on Instagram. If you asked all the tech companies to share their collected data and assemble a dossier on Bill Flogaast, they wouldn’t be able to tell you a goddamned thing.

And when he wasn’t doing all this, he was fond of pickling vegetables in the four homes he owned in various parts of the Northeast. A suitable metaphor for the PR racket. Take those slimy cucumbers and contain the problem before the motherfuckers on social media used a third-hand rumor to cancel some wildly intoxicated bestselling author who had merely made the mistake of believing he was still twenty-five, sliding his liverspotted hand onto the wrong ass.

In his early sixties, Flogaast had more energy than most of the unpaid interns and a formidable understanding of human psychology. He had learned early on that, if you knew where the bodies were buried, you would get very far and stay very high. (In Flogaast’s case, he was sitting twenty-three stories above the growing throngs of homeless people berating random strangers at subway stations, knowing that he had the capital and the privilege to never waltz with the Midtown minions, thus decreasing the likelihood of getting randomly stabbed by some unmedicated basket case that the disastrous mayoral administration of Eric Adams has never once considered helping.)

On Tuesday morning, Bill Flogaast sat in a Herman Miller chair listening to the soothing clacks of a Newton’s cradle perched on the rightward corner of his massive executive desk. The desk had once belonged to Ronny Monson and was gifted to Flogaast after this energetic executive editor had dropped dead of pneumonia at the age of seventy-six. He knew that Jimmy Compton, the mediocre soyboy from the California Central Valley who had replaced Monson, had it in for him. That hopeless fuck couldn’t write to save his life. He’d actually attended the same high school as that disgraced podcasting jackass in Brooklyn who had made a big stir in the literary world ten years before and who didn’t even have the guts to go through with his suicide attempt. Nobody paid attention to that loser anymore. And maybe that was Compton’s fate too — that is, if he didn’t fail upward. It was a small world. People were connected in ways they didn’t realize. And maybe this was what fueled all the Sun Tzu hijinks in publishing. But that’s the way it was in business. You had your time. Some Machiavellian careerist would eventually get you in the end. And he knew Jimmy Compton would strike. He just didn’t know when. Maybe Flogaast could branch out on his own and start an indie publicity firm. He had the contacts. He had the moves. He’d make more cash.

The phone rang.

“Bill,” said the quavering voice.

“Yes?”

“I think we have a problem in Myrtle Beach.”

Flogaast smoothed the fine strands of his graying auburn Van Dyke and steepled his fingers.

“Tell me everything you know.”

Next: The Atlantis Hotel

(Word count: 4,451/50,000)

The Dead Writer (NaNoWriMo 2022 #1)

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I never had any intention of participating in NaNoWriMo, that annual occasion where writers all around the world cobble together a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. But in three hours, the following 2,500 word chapter spilled out of me. I became driven by the mischievous glee of writing a novel that not a single house would ever have the stones to publish and I had a lot of fun putting together this story. I may carry on with this experiment. I may not. But I thought it would be fun to offer a glimpse of my weird and iconoclastic creative mind. I suspect I will offend some people, particularly wildly obnoxious white middle-class people and those fragile mediocrities presently installed in the literary world, but honestly who gives a fuck? That’s what being creative is all about, ain’t it?]

It was a cool Tuesday morning when the topless maid found Paul Van Kleason’s naked corpse in his dusty book-lined living room.

Ezmerelda Gibbons felt the prickly shudder of gooseflesh, although the source of this unsettling chill was not Van Kleason’s pathetic and chalky-white dead body, but the unceasing breeze rolling in from the Atlantic.

Horripilation was an occupational hazard in sex work, which she supposed this was, although Ezmerelda had never done the nasty with a client. She counted her lucky stars that she possessed enough dignity not to fuck Van Kleason despite his feeble one-note bleats into the ether, his steadfast pledges to redistribute some of the large bills he had secured from a shady film deal eight years before.

If only these braying men really knew how little their lustful lunges mattered, how infrequently their advances were reciprocated.

But she was in the business of serving up fantasies. And the more you kept these desperate dudes hungering, the more you could bank on these losers lining your coffers. This seemed a reasonable tradeoff after centuries of patriarchal oppression.

Van Kleason’s body was lumpy and ass-up. Arguably one of the most undignified ways you could meet your maker. The only part of his porcine body with anything faintly resembling muscle were his legs, questionably toned from the “Nature Walks” that he had live-streamed on social media to persuade people that he was woke and eco-aware. But Van Kleason told Ezmeralda privately that he had to hawk his shitty novels. He would even show her his royalty statements while she was bent over, scrubbing away at one of the thick onyx smudges that always seemed to line his kitchen basin. She did this as the jangle of his loosened belt buckle chimed into her ears, followed by the deep-throated horrors of Van Kleason relieving himself. At least he had enough presence of mind to do this when she wasn’t looking.

Van Kleason had been quite industrious in his final moments of life. His left hand grasped his iPhone 14 Pro, where an OnlyFans PPV of Ezmerelda bumping and grinding to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” — a power ballad she thoroughly loathed — played on auto-repeat before the phone mercifully expired from a dead battery. Disturbing. His last cognizant thought had been of her. Ezmerelda was creeped out further when she noticed his right hand near his buttery thigh, dangling like a five-fingered answer to a lifeless pigeon, limply and listlessly reaching for his spotty STD-bedecked garter snake. A minuscule reptile that would grow no more.

How had Van Kleason died? Coronary thrombosis? A broken heart? The deep hate he secretly harbored for his readers finally catching up to him?

Ezmerelda stepped closer to the body, the footfalls from her teetering high heels reverberating against the high ceiling of this dubious manse. This sad and lonely palace to “success.”

She called the local police.

“I’d like to report a dead body,” she said to the folksy Caucasian cadet answering the phones.

“A dead body?” he said.

He was still green enough to express sincere horror, but Ezmeralda knew that this would be hammered out of him in six months, where he would likely become a gun-toting yahoo with a voracious appetency for racial profiling.

“Now, ma’am,” he said, “that’s an emergency. You really should call 911.”

“Oh, I didn’t kill him. Do you think that’s why I called?”

There was an awkward pause from the cadet as it suddenly dawned on him just what type of woman he was talking with.

“Uh, I’m sorry. Why are you calling us?”

“They have bigger things to take care of, don’t they?”

“Ma’am, stay right there. We’re sending over three units right now. We’ll need to question you.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“I’m afraid that it is.”

“I think some…discretion may be necessary here.”

“Ma’am, there’s a clear protocol.”

“I understand this, but this man is…I’m sorry, was…a somewhat prominent figure.”

“A prominent figure?”

“Do you read?”

“No.”

“Well then you probably don’t know him.”

“I have your address at 63rd Avenue North. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Stay there.”

“Will the questioning take long?”

She had a manicure appointment, a hard-won slot with the best pedicurist in town, and a daily berating from her personal trainer scheduled that afternoon. These local bumpkins truly had no idea how much upkeep was required to secure your place within the top 10% on OnlyFans. Not quite what Du Bois had in mind.

“That’s not for me to say. I’m sorry to inconvenience you, ma’am, but you’re going to have stay on the scene. Are you experiencing any shock or trauma?”

“No.”

“Then everything will be as ripe as roses.”

Ripe. A peculiar adjective to use for comfort when a quasi-famous man was lying dead only ten feet away from you and the pigs might somehow find a way to pin this on you.

“We’ll have someone there in ten minutes.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

She canceled her appointments by text. She knew that her personal trainer would scream at her the next time she saw him for “betraying” their pledge. Rollins’s toxic masculinity had been freshly liberated after that annoying guy had gone viral on TikTok. The long-haired dude who walked with a coffee mug in verdant splendor and screamed at total strangers to go to the gym while ducking his head like some wispy salamander in search of a worm for breakfast.

She didn’t have any feeling one way or the other for Van Kleason. Sure, he was a human being, but not a particularly good one, even though he had made considerable ado over what a “good guy” he was. So there was little to mourn other than how his death had inconvenienced her. And how she would have to find another client who had been so devoted to fiercely chronic masturbation. Van Kleason had been good for at least two thousand dollars a week. Money that she had been forced to transfer to the volatile realm of Ethereum because some of the fuddy-duddy banks had closed her accounts for “moral reasons.” Or maybe because they became easily unsettled because of the way she looked. Never mind that she had carefully followed the law.

Ezmerelda had become accustomed to death. Aside from a nine month stint at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office ten years before, where she had grown a Teflon skin in response to the stink and grime of newly dead people and the constant aroma of Formaldehyde, there had also been the pandemic. Three of the last people in the world who truly understood and accepted her had passed away. And this despite their hardcore hygiene protocols, which rivaled Howard Hughes at his most germophobic.

She was only thirty-five years old, but her understanding of mortality matched those who were two decades older. And even before this terrible Tuesday morning, during her hard days growing up in Canarsie, there hadn’t been a single week in which she didn’t hear some grisly news about one of the jovial neighborhood locals gunned down as the gangs and the drug dealers carved up turf when they weren’t looking for a new shorty among her sistas. The murders that flourished under Dinkins. The unbroken rattle of gunfire that kept her hiding under blankets as a child. It was a wonder that there was anybody still alive to rent another unit in her housing development.

But that was the funny thing about Brooklyn. Avaricious landlords in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens ensured that there were always be new people moving into her neighborhood, claiming it as theirs and not bothering to bone up on previous history. Some of them were naive. Some of them were fearless. One clueless and newly married white couple had knocked on her family’s door with a homemade fruitcake and had made awkward attempts to befriend her mother, but their unit was vacant inside of six months. And it steeled her determination to escape. To find some sanctuary on earth where she would never have to apologize for being who she was. She had tried to convey her truth and her life story to white people, but they never seemed to comprehend it, even when you explained it to them as if they were small children. White people were more keen on complaining about the barista who had bungled their pumpkin spice latte that morning or their uncertainty in ordering jerk chicken from the nice place next to the liquor store. “Is it appropriate?” they would ask. “I don’t want to appear insensitive!” But white people had this way of bungling interracial camaraderie, even after reading several volumes of Black history. Fear of Black people was permanently baked into their DNA. So she smiled and nodded and made white people feel a little better about their privilege and their simplistic liberalism. And she sometimes hated herself for it. She knew damned well that these same white people, these hopeless fucks who would boast to other white people about having one Black friend, would call the police on her if she looked at them the wrong way or blasted The Pharcyde too loud.

Most of her OnlyFans subscribers were white. But she wasn’t going to be their fetish or their special chocolate sundae. She took their money, blocked anyone who was racist, and quietly redistributed half of her earnings to her own people.

Van Kleason, for all of his faults, walked on the right side of the delicate line. She knew that she had been something of an exotic curiosity to him — largely because she was considerably more schooled than some ghettoass jabroni hopelessly smitten by Tyler Perry’s oeuvre — but she had never been his mammy. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to cosplay as Hattie McDaniel. Not to him or anyone. If any of her clients read, she would examine their bookshelves. And if she saw a volume from that racist white bitch Kathryn Stockett, she’d get the hell out of there faster than a cheetah sprinting around a David Attenborough-narrated landscape for lunch.

Years before, she had won a scholarship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’d hoped to write the Great American Novel, but suspected that none of the white people had bothered to read her work and that she had been selected more out of tokenism. This was confirmed as she worked hard to land her MFA. Several has-been white male writers, bankrolled by the tendentious largesse of slightly older white male has-beens who could be found on social media laying down platitudes about why cancel culture was bad, tore her short stories to shreds and condemned her for not conveying what they deemed to be the “female experience,” which they were apparently inexplicable experts about.

So she largely gave up the writing, especially after her OnlyFans began to take off during the pandemic. She had never intended to stick around there for long, figuring that it was a temporary form of survival. She had prided herself in always paying her rent on time, even when she had to exhume her couch for spare change. But when the job market had “rebounded” (at least according to economic “experts”), she made another stab at working in New York media, learning that every door had been closed to her. That’s when she discovered that she had been targeted with a vicious smear campaign on social media initiated by Emma Silveburg, a former Big Brother contestant who had somehow rebranded herself as a mediocre novelist and was now begging her 90,000 Twitter followers to finance her divorce, Brie Attenberg, a narcissist prone to fits of rage who had made viral TikToks demanding that aspiring and talentless creatives write five thousand words a day at gunpoint (only one of Attenbeg’s wildly popular videos had resulted in some imitative jackass accidentally shooting his student during a live stream death, causing Attenberg to ditch the Luger P08 and become a dubious poster girl for gun safety, which the thoughtless throngs ate up, of course), and Van Kleason, a largely incoherent and inexplicably bestselling speculative fiction writer who slid into her DMs one lonely night and told her that the only reason he had amplified the online vitriol was because he had the hots for her. Could she come three times a week to his Myrtle Beach home and clean for her? Could she wear nothing but an apron and slowly reveal her tits? If that wasn’t acceptable, maybe Ezmerelda could dress up as a Waccamaw cottonpicker from 1893 and talk demurely like some hopelessly deferential squaw.

She wasn’t going to be some colonial plaything for anyone. She came very close to blocking Van Kleason. But then he came back with an offer she couldn’t refuse. Van Kleason promised her referrals.

It was an unlikely side hustle, with several other aspiring sugar daddies had expressed desires to “sculpt her in their image,” a curious phrase and a vaguely ecclesiastic kink that involved talking dirty while sustaining a Peter Falk impression. Some of these sad middle-aged men were in unhappy marriages and they toiled in go-nowhere middle-class McJobs that they clearly despised, but they all somehow found spare hours during day and night and they all seemed to be big fans of crime shows like Columbo and Baretta. She watched what she could find of these ancient crime dramas on YouTube and she became an expert mimic. She stripteased and talked dirty in private video chats and timed her “Just one more thing” purr to hit just before the very moment they climaxed off-camera. (She would charge $400 extra if they insisted on jisming on camera, rightfully counting on most of them being cheapskates.) While many of her former classmates, all master networkers tight with her former teachers, were trying to dig their way out of the credit card avalanches instigated by rising inflation, Ezmerelda watched her savings account burgeon into two years of living expenses. She was ignored by them, of course. The damage done by Silverburg, Attenberg, and Van Kleason was significant. But she didn’t worry too much about that because, unlike them, she had made it. Meanwhile, her old “friends” at Iowa wrote longass blog posts decrying the evils of capitalism, but never actually doing anything about it. So it became increasingly easier to not allow them to live inside her head rent-free.

Still, there had to be a better way to get by than this.

There was a knock on the door. The whirling red and blue of sirens spilled through the French window, casting a lambent glow on Van Kleason’s bare lily-white ass, which was beginning to look faintly green. Ten seconds later, her phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Miss Gibbons, we’re here. Would you mind opening the door?”

(Word count: 2,465/50,000 words.)

(Next: The Coat Basket)

The Limits of Moral Depravity (NaNoWriMo #9)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: The Intake (Chapter 8)

Six years before, Dottie and I were sitting on the black leather couch as the television blared and the anchors tried to make incantatory sense of the madness the world was welcoming. There had been another mass shooting. The worst in American history. Just like the others had been the worst in American history. 426 people had been shot in Atlanta over the course of three hours. It had been three white men this time. The lone gunmen were learning that they didn’t have to be so alone. Even after this, and many other deadly sprees, the calls for gun control had fallen upon deaf opportunistic ears. Atlanta had seemed the tipping point, the one awful tragedy that would finally get America to wake up. This was all before the Virginia Massacre turned such discussions into reductio ad absurdum.

“Even children,” she said. “Innocent children.”

“We have to stop this.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Electing the right people. Holding them accountable.”

“That didn’t work. We tried. And they won. And they will go on winning.”

“Don’t be so cynical. It won’t continue like this. People have limits.”

“Do they?”

“Maybe there’s a certain point where people will put their feet down. I mean, you couldn’t kill anyone, right?”

“No. And neither could you.”

“Or could we?”

“What?”

“Under certain circumstances, we could kill.”

“But neither of us believe in the death penalty.”

“When a soldier returns from war, he is considered a hero. Nobody asks him how many men he’s killed. His service is honored, even though he has committed murder that most people would overlook. Because the murder occurs beneath the shadow of warfare.”

“That’s different. Most soldiers know what they sign on for. They die. They sacrifice their bodies for us if they’re lucky to live.”

“Yes, and we leave the vets in the cold. But let’s say every vet had a number attached to his name. A number that reflected just how many men that he killed in battle.”

“Come on. That could never happen.”

“Just hear me out. I mean, we are shifting to a more quantified world. Would a number appended to the name of a vet change your opinion about him? Would you give Joseph Richter 4 a more preferential treatment than Herbert West 17?”

“But that could never happen.”

“Let’s say that it did.”

“I’d probably be bothered a little by it. Or maybe I’d do my best to ignore the number.”

“But you can’t. Let’s say that the vets have to walk around with the number affixed to their foreheads. So you would see just how many men they have killed. It would be a little bit like The Scarlet Letter, but you’d have to see these men buy their groceries, work out in the gym, or on the subway.”

“It would be unnerving at first. But maybe I could get used to it. Even though I’d try to stay away from the vets with the largest number.”

“But could you actually visualize these deaths? It’s not unlike going to the meat market. You walk into the store. You get your meat wrapped up in plastic. But you have no idea how the animals were slaughtered or what their pain might have been because you’re too busy marinating the meat for a tasty dinner.”

“Come on, Alex. My rack of lamb was pretty damn good.”

“And so was the taste for blood among some of these men. They might have butchered children for all you know. Is a child’s death worse than a man’s?”

She turned off the television just as two pundits were screaming at the top of their lungs, very close to getting into a fistfight.

“Yes.”

“But it’s still a whole number. A child’s death is tallied without weight onto the vet’s forehead.”

“You know, I’ve had about enough of this. I know that Atlanta is depressing and I know that we need to watch just to stay informed. But can’t we just switch off?”

“What if one of the men that a vet killed was your brother? Or the love of your life?”

“Alex.”

“And you ran into the vet with the number on his forehead. It would be more than a whole number, wouldn’t it?”

“But this would never happen.”

“Don’t you think a few people might have said that right before the Middle Ages?”

“It’s not over, Alex. We could still get them to listen.”

“Or maybe we could move to Canada or New Zealand.”

“We have to fight this. We must fight this. I mean, we’re never going to turn into animals, are we?”

“No.”

14002 / 50000 words. 28% done!

The Intake (NaNoWriMo #8)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: Elevator Romp (Chapter 7)

It was bad form to mutter the first name of a new intake. I had neither seen nor heard from Denise in two weeks and had thought she had merely needed a backgammon break. It turned out that she needed a hiatus from New Amagaca.

She could still spill about us. I knew that she had been a former Black Lives Matter activist, which I admired, although the will to resist had been knocked out of both of us long before. If she fessed the deets of our faux hookups to the thugs who had taken her in, then the department would not have assigned me to conduct the preinquest. There were no cuts or bruises on her face, which typically happened when an intake slandered an abrogator even with solid proof. The volunteers rounding up anti-pleasure detractors were quite sensitive to anyone who besmirched the Ruler’s good name and proud cockamamie principles.

It was my role to lay out the deets of her fail, to learn why she sidestepped the daily seven and why the algorithm had somehow believed in her by not choosing her and why she had been transferred to the Abrogation Department as a candidate for reentry into society. My review be the first word on whether she would be sent to the camps or executed in the wastelands. And regardless of how I felt about her, I would have to be tough and follow the law to the letter.

“I’m sorry that I didn’t meet you yesterday.”

I wished she would stop. I didn’t want to use the implements, all cleaned and delicately arranged on the silver salver prepped at my cedar station.

“Be quiet. I have never seen you before in my life.”

“Alex.”

“If you want to live, you must abide by protocol.”

She tried to reach out to me with her hands, but the manacles mired her arms to the cold swampy surface of the stainless steel table. She was shivering on the stool. New intakes were not allowed garb. They had to earn it by showing that they could change. Ben had cranked up the air to help get her changing and the goosebumps shot across every inch of her naked body.

“I’m cold. Please, please stop it, Alex.”

I paced across Chamber 22, which was somewhat smaller than the others on our expansive floor, took the seat across from her, deposited the dossier upon the blotting paper and began poring through the file. The file said that she had been picked up the previous night for crying. I took out a fresh intake form and the inkwell and began filling it out with my quill.

“Alex.”

“You will refer to me as Abrogator Schuld. How did you know my first name? Are you an augment? A double agent? Protocol dictates that you must confess your allegiance, if you have any.”

She sniffed. And she stopped crying.

“Good. That’s a start.”

“Oh. I get it.”

“You don’t. You were crying in public.”

“And I’m trying not to cry now. Can I…can I have a tissue?”

“No. Crying is forbidden. You will have to live with the tears that you sow. Haven’t you been able to find pleasure?”

It was tough playing the stern pedant, but I knew they were watching. Every intake was taped and all the data was fed into the computers, cross-referenced against other behavior so that we would all become better pleasure seekers and offering tips to abrogators on how to correct pleasure apathy in those who rejected it.

“Alex. Please. Come on. I’m sorry.”

Abrogator Schuld. That is how you will refer to me if you wish to reform.”

I can’t say that I was enjoying this. The booming fans grew louder. There was the sizzle of static from the speaker system above us.

“Is everything all right in there, Alex?”

“Fine, Ben.”

“How does she know your name?”

“I don’t know yet. Give me time.”

“No problem, Captain.”

The fuzz faded out.

“You know how I know your name.”

I leaned up to her ear and whispered, “Do you want to live? You’d better stop knowing me.”

“I don’t care!” she screamed.

Later I would wonder if it was Ben who sold me out. It was easy to latch onto an abrogator’s feed, to put one’s eyes into another for as long as you needed to. This was how they got Harris two months before. He was a good abrogator, but he refused to hook up and had made the mistake of going a month without a fuck. His success rate with the intakes had not been enough to overturn his disappearance. Unlike other municipal positions, abrogators were required to wear networked contacts, although this was not so tightly enforced because the saline supply was short and it seemed too much of a burden to pound the iron fist so long as the abrogators could ensure that the government could save lives and resources. My contacts were still in my billet, which I hadn’t seen in two days. It was wise to put on the contacts intermittently. You were supposed to work hard and play harder. You were supposed to find time for pleasure even when the paperwork was tall and vertiginous. So the eyes in the sky looked the other way provided they could track your GPS location and the ratings continued to pour in from the citizens.

“Why are you here?” I asked Denise.

“I didn’t come here willingly.”

“You made the choice to cry.”

“I didn’t, Al…er…Abrogator Schuld.”

“Why did you cry then?”

“Because I’m pregnant!”

There was a pause. And she continued to sob some more.

I looked at the places in the wall where they had hidden the cameras. You didn’t get too many pregnant intakes. So I knew that Denise’s tale was being captured and streamed for the highlights reel projected during Friday happy hour. Pregnancy was supposed to be reported upon discovery. You didn’t have to report the hookup who knocked you up, but the government did need to know you were expecting so that it could provide fertility measures for a new citizen building a better tomorrow. The data was always reliable in anticipating who was pregnant. Morning sickness, mood swings, and faintness before detecting a missed period were always discoverable in the reviews and what you confessed to the social networks.

“I don’t want it. I don’t want a child. Even if I did want a child, I can’t have a child grow up in a world like this.”

“Then why didn’t you honor Scott Baio’s memory and go to a designated suicide zone?”

Before Baio had sacrificed himself at the Virginia Massacre, he had gone off the deep end and said that he would personally go to Virginia and deal with the troublemakers. In a desperate bid for attention, Baio had spouted a tirade on what was then known as Twitter about how women needed to shut up and listen to men and reproduce without question. And then came his sacrifice and his disgraceful lionization. The Ruler believed in television and nostalgia and he had whimsically renamed a prominent bridge in his name to “be down with the kids,” who often shambled down the streets of Williamsburg wearing ironic Napoleon Dynamite T-shirts and not really understanding what was going on, even with the rise of riverfront monstrosities, until it was too late. They had once been called hipsters and their detached attitude proved instrumental in helping to make the Great Turnover happen.

Denise looked at me with desperation. I wanted to save her. But I also needed to save myself.

“Fuck you, Alex. I will tell them EVERYTHING!”

“Wh…what are you talking about?”

“Our backgammon games. Our fake hookups.”

There was the rustle of static.

“Alex?” boomed Ben. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t make us send you to the camps. You can be a citizen!”

“I’ve run out of fucks to give. Execute me. Execute this kid growing up in my stomach. You told me you cared.”

More static.

“Alex, is this true?”

“Denise, don’t.”

“Or you’ll do what? Don’t paint yourself as a hero. You’re just as bad as all the other men. And I will NOT be silenced.”

“I understand that you are under duress.”

“I never liked backgammon. And I never liked you. I was lonely and I was tired of hooking up. But I had to anyway. And now I have this….this wretched thing kicking inside me.”

As an abrogator, you could never let an intake belittle your authority. Sure enough, there were beeps on my phone. Downvotes from Ben and the abrogators who were watching.

“You have one minute to retract.”

“No.”

My rating had dipped to 4.1. I couldn’t go back to being a three.

I grabbed the gun on the implement tray and shot her in the head. Denise’s blood stained my beige coat. I didn’t look at her. I didn’t want to see the dead look in her eyes, even though the dead look was quite present in everyone who was alive. This was an unorthodox move, given that abrogators were supposed to preserve lives. I didn’t know how this would play out. Applause erupted over the speaker system.

“Niiiiiiiiiiiice.”

I knocked on the chamber entrance. My rating had climbed back up to 4.2. A cleanup team arrived to remove Denise’s corpse.

Ben was the first to congratulate me in the hall, slapping me on the shoulder.

“Dude, we didn’t know you had it in you!”

Samantha was there with him. She was beaming. But I think she was more flush from her romp with Huld.

“That was great, Alex! She really seemed to think she knew you.”

My stomach had twisted into nauseating knots. I had never killed anyone before. This was against everything that I stood for. I had become just as bloodthirsty, just as willing to save my own skin, as the starving mobs who gathered outside the death house every day at seven o’clock. Maybe Dottie had known me better than I realized. Maybe she really did remember the five years we had together and knew how I’d change if the world went mad. In hindsight, it had been naive to think that I would not be violent when killing had become the new norm.

“I need to take the rest of the day off,” I said.

“Dude, you earned it!”

“I hope you’re not feeling sick.”

“No,” i said, thinking of the ward where I would have to fuck six people each day. “Not sick. Personal time.”

“Wow, Alex, you never take personal time.”

“Well,” said Samantha, “if you ask me, it’s long overdue! Alexander Schuld is one of the best abrogators we have in this department. And if you’d like to go somewhere right now…”

It was rare to be asked to hookup outside of the digital. And you couldn’t turn down a Vice President without suffering severe downranking.

“Sure.”

The office cheered Samantha grabbed my hand and took me into her office, where I performed as well as I could under the circumstances.

Next: The Limits of Moral Depravity (Chapter 9)

13220 / 50000 words. 26% done!

Elevator Romp (NaNoWriMo #7)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: Bumper to Bumper (Chapter 6)
(Image: Daniel Lin)

“Car…three…to your right.”

The grating automatic voice burrowed into my skull like a hand drill boring into wood. I was still wrapping my head around what Dottie had become, repulsed by how casually she had stubbed out lives for my convenience and nearly forgetting that I had a twelve hour day ahead of me. But I had to do it. Even if I didn’t know if I could take up my perch across from the death house at seven o’clock. But I would still it. Bigger men than me had turned with the Ruler and I wondered if my number would ever come up. Bearing witness to our nightmare was the only way to figure out how to fight it. It kept what was left of my heart alive, although I felt like the most frivolous impostor for playing backgammon, for daring to connect, for finding my own entertainment outside the hookups and the violence. In some ways, I was just as culpable as the murderous rabble.

I stepped across the long stretch of the chartreuse laminate floor that had just replaced the neon orange granite, which in turn had uprooted the gold-tinted limestone installed and drilled out only months before, and entered the elevator that every worker had downvoted in a rare act of passive-aggressive solidarity. The world had hardened so much that you had to be grateful for even the smallest acts of resistance. It was a minor affront to the myth of zero tolerance, a New Amagacan policy that could only be upheld when death was as cheap as flour. The rattling building was always under construction, always aflutter with relentless aesthetic tinkering to get closer to the Pure Pleasure ideal. We would spare no expense in erecting a pleasure friendly infrastructure. The government had deep pockets from the wealth it extracted from the daily seven victims, who were denied even basic inheritance rights as the death house growled for their lives. It was important for New Amagaca to be a sustainable nation, preserving and redistributing resources to any fine corrupted mind who was prepared to carry out the Ruler’s edicts. We had somehow enacted billet transfer programs for the widowed and the orphaned, but if these souls didn’t grieve within a month or display the appropriate gratitude for the many “thoughts and prayers” that the aldermen had announced on the social networks, they would be sent to the camps for emotional recalibration.

I had been able to justify most of my repeals simply by filing reports to the hard-hearted bean counters showing why and how it would be cheaper for my cases to use their talents for the world rather than getting trucked off to the camps. If I had to, I would painstakingly coach a near lost cause on how to act and eat at brunch. I wanted people to survive. If enough people lived, perhaps there would come a day in which the daily seven would stop.

The smart elevators were not as intuitive as the government believed. When the Ruler had banned all up and down buttons, he had believed, as many New Amagacans did, that tech was the infallible path forward. But in halting those accidental run-ins with people on different floors, the Ruler had deracinated the more natural connections between strangers. The jokes joking about the latest news. The friendly chatter about the weather. We were meant to hookup because it was vital for the government to log every social interaction. Even before the Great Turnover, we had surrendered all our personal information to the social networks, giving our most intimate feelings away for an opportunity to find love or to move animated bits of candy around on a pulsating screen. When you train a populace to surrender the tenderest knickers for nothing, it is easy to push them into behaving for much less.

The climb to the 427th floor was always a long one, but that had not stopped two hookups from going at it behind me. The elevator romps had grown more popular in recent months as people scrambled to preserve their status ratings. They had replaced the morning quickie as a fast way of earning an upvote. They were working us harder and some of us didn’t have the energy to hookup as much as we like. I straightened my tie as I noticed Samantha Lowry, Vice President of Claims Review, against the elevator wall, arching her legs around Cliff Huld’s alabaster torso. I didn’t like Huld very much. He was smug and pompous and always delivered these interminable and uninteresting tales whenever you replenished your coffee. He had a nurse named Leni who often followed him around as he moved from chamber to chamber leading his case load on, never granting repeal and always boasting about how he had become the ping-pong champion in Sector 52. But I didn’t downvote him. I tried not to downvote anybody, even the most deplorable souls screaming obscenities in the streets. But Huld really liked being a four and had to hookup more frequently than the rest of us to preserve his precarious status. That Samantha had taken pity on him was something of a surprise, given that she was less than a tenth away from being a five.

“Ohhhh, ugh, ohhhh — oh, hi, Alex — yes! yes, that’s it! Hit me right there — ugh, ugh — did you have a nice Thursday?”

Small talk was always difficult when you saw a colleague thrusting his hips into someone who you had delivered a report to only two days before, but it was not impossible.

“It was okay.”

Huld didn’t say hello at all. But Samantha was enjoying herself so much that this hardly mattered. She shrieked with want at the top of her lungs as the elevator dinged and the doors slid open.

“YESSSSSSSSSS!!! That’s great, Alex…oh yeah, keep going, Cliff! Ohhhh….see you at the lunch meeting?…oh, yes, yes, YESSSSSSSSS!! I think I’m going to come! Ohhhhhhhhh!”

“Yeah. See you there.”

I walked into the receptionist area. The elevator doors closed behind me. Ben was there with a big smile. He handed me the morning dispatches.

“You may want to call the building. It looks like they’re going to have a mess to clean up in the elevator.”

“I already have, Mister Schuld!”

“How many cases do I have today?”

“Just one this morning. I cleared up your schedule so you could finish your paperwork….or….get lucky. I’ve noticed your rating has taken a minor dip.”

“Thanks, Ben. I appreciate it.”

“You’re looking a little pale.”

“Rough morning commute, that’s all,” I said, flipping through the new reports.

“Well, if you want to get an early start, the attendants have prepared Chamber 22 for your intake.”

“Thanks.”

I skipped the morning coffee routine and passed up the Casual Friday bagels. People often got so excited about bagels that you would often see scenes that resembled something out of that old Pasolini film, Salo, as you spread your schmear. I decided to head to Chamber 22 and get the new case intake out of the way. I opened the doors and saw a woman handcuffed to the stainless steel table. She was crying.

“Alex?”

“Denise.”

Now I knew why she couldn’t meet me for backgammon.

Next: The Intake (Chapter 8)

11357 / 50000 words. 23% done!

Bumper to Bumper (NaNoWriMo #6)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: The Betrayal (Chapter 5)

The door closed with a sealed shudder and the air gelled to a creepy still. We had only the smooth purr of the town car’s motor and the gentle hiss of the air jockeying for some modal answer to white noise. I tossed my beige bulk onto the plush Corinthian leather seat across from Dottie. I could feel her breathing and beaming, her eyes on me like a lackadaisical meat inspector, but I didn’t want to look at her. I didn’t want to be reminded me that sitting before me was the residue of the woman I had once loved and lost. But I did glance up and I met her eyes and the joy was gone. She was one of those people who walked the earth with a dead sardonic look. But in New Amagaca, that was pretty much all of us.

“Are you here to ruin me again?”

She smiled. A smile that once flowed with natural charm, but that now steered you to look into her eyes even if you were glancing out the window.

“Show some gratitude for a lift, Alex.”

“How did you find me?”

“I was canvassing this sector for a retrofit and my phone blipped. It said you were in the neighborhood.”

“So I’m still bookmarked.”

“Oh, I didn’t bookmark you. That was an accident. But the matrix is automated to remind us of loved ones. Or former loved ones. Reconciliation is prized, although, in your case, I forgot to remove you from my contacts. But I figured that since you were probably still working in Midtown and we were both heading in the same direction…”

“Spare me your charity. You broke my heart.”

She smoothed her hands on her bright golden skirt and shifted upward in her seat.

“Now, Alex, we’re supposed to stick together. That’s the Amagacan way.”

“The way you sold out Sheila. The way you led a status downgrade campaign against me.”

“I could downrank you now if I wanted. Have you thought about that?”

I lowered my head. I looked out the window. We were rolling across what had once been called the Williamsburg Bridge, now christened the Scott Baio Memorial Bridge in honor of his service and sacrifice at the Virginia Massacre. The pedestrian walkways above us were still painted pink. That was one of the few parts of New York they still hadn’t painted over. Several people who couldn’t deal with a life of constant pleasure were leaping to their deaths in the designated suicide zone.

“I was about to call in sick.”

“Now that I would have liked to see. But you got in the car, Alex. It was your choice.” She leaned in. Only a few inches, but it felt like she was right next to me, the very inverse of five years of intimacy. “It was always your choice, Alex. That’s why I had to call the police.”

There was a striped leather portfolio on her lap. The Ruler’s crass insignia — an ankh crammed between the two Chinese symbols for joy — was stitched into the polyurethane.

“For what it’s worth,” she said, “I’m glad you’re still alive.”

“You certainly didn’t make it easy.”

I checked her profile on my phone. Not that I needed to.

“I see you’re a five now,” I said.

“And you’re still toiling in the Abrogation Department?”

“Yeah.”

“How many repeals?”

I was still gazing into the addictive light of my phone even though I didn’t need to, given that I knew that the government only distributed these bright spiffy portfolios to the fives. I guess I needed some statistical confirmation of just how much Dottie had changed. The data provided more comfort than the face in front of me. As a lawyer and now an abrogator, I had always been committed to the evidence. Facts always triangulated between the hurt you were feeling in your heart and the pain you were willing to bear in the future. There was only one conclusion that I could ever form from the supportive material: Dottie had once been the most compassionate soul that I ever knew. She’d stop and buy a sandwich if she ever saw a homeless man. She’d surprise me with dinner if I arrived home late after a long day of writing briefs, just to prove that she wasn’t the only one in our flat who knew how to dazzle in the kitch. We were going to honeymoon in Goa and spend part of our time building shelters in Bihar. Maybe we’d both fallen into that neoliberal middle-class trap of being globetrotting do-gooders. The kind that Thomas Friedman used to extol before he was assassinated during a pubic lecture when he claimed that the Virginia Massacre was just a passing phase of capitalism. They sliced the part of his skin where his mustache rested above his dead lips and the barbarians nailed it to a stick and paraded it along Broadway during the time that the anti-intellectual mobs had formed. When the Great Turnover came, the centrists were the first to surrender their principles to save their own skin, much as they’d severely underestimated the rabid American id that led to all the assassinations. And Dottie had been among the first to change.

“More than I’d care to report. How did you land the five star treatment?”

“I earned it. Just as you climbed back to four.”

“You didn’t help.”

“Sometimes we need to fall down to rise up.”

“Tell that to the folks we just passed on the Baio Bridge.”

“Bootstrap capitalism! It’s not as bad as you think. Here, let me show you something.”

She pulled out a tablet from her portfolio and spun the screen around so I can see the screen. It was an Excel spreadsheet:

You saw many good people shift to such a life, but to see her hookups tabulated like this was too much for me to bear.

“You were always a good data aggregator,” I croaked, fighting back tears. You really couldn’t cry in a climate devoted to pleasure. Crying was forbidden, although you could find a grief hookup if you were careful with the phrases you typed into the search engine.

“Come on, Alex. You asked the question.”

“You didn’t have to do it that way.”

“Are you trying to slut shame me?”

“No. Your life is your life.”

“I’m trying to help!” she said with a freakish enthusiasm. “I was only trying to encourage you! You’re a smart man and you deserve to be a success! I want you to be a five!”

The hell of it was that she really meant this. She really believed that the cold presentation of her dalliances somehow justified her life. It was almost as if she had no memory of the status downgrade. Even the best of us couldn’t always remember the past. We were doomed with the deficiency of our collective memory.

“I’d like to get out of the car.”

“But we’re only ten minutes away. You don’t want to get sick, do you?”

I didn’t, but my stomach was in torrid knots. I was doing everything in my power not to throw up. I didn’t want to fuck anyone after seeing that list. She had known every part of me for five years. We had shared words together that had been burned like the old NYPL catalog. Part of me wondered if my full tabulated essence was memorialized in some way on that tablet.

“Okay,” I said. “Just so long as I’m not cramping your style.”

“Not at all. You know I couldn’t see you when you were a three.”

“You couldn’t love me when the ratings matrix kicked in.”

“Now, Alex, do I have to downvote you? I’m giving you a ride so you can earn your credits! You know we can’t talk about the time before. You’re lucky I didn’t invoke my executive privilege when you started asking your questions. As the Ruler says, ‘Questions are a millstone to progress. Answers are no substitute for pleasure.'”

I was still feeling reckless. Why wasn’t I there with the hopeless cases on the Baio Bridge? Because I had lives to save, that’s why.

“Do you really like being a citizen of New Amagaca?”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, Alex, but, yes, it’s been treating me very well.”

“I’m sure.”

“Why can’t you have fun like everybody else? I’ve felt so liberated ever since I changed my focus!”

“What about love?”

“What about love?”

“What about what we had?”

“Alex,” she whispered in a very worried tone. “You know there’s a heavy status fine if you even consider romance.”

“Alright. Romance is dead. Revoked by Ruler decree. So what are you doing these days?”

“They now have me working on the new city grid. Speaking of which…”

She knocked on the window separating us from the driver in the peaked cap.

“Petey?” She turned to me. “You’re near the Citadel, yes?”

“Two blocks away. Near 48th.”

We were stuck in traffic. I was going to be late. The partition slid down.

“Petey, is there any way that we can speed things up?”

“I’m afraid not, Miss Farrell. Bumper to bumper.”

“Oh dear.”

“I’m going to be late.”

She opened her portfolio and took out a military-grade Toughbook. One of those rugged beasts designed to withstand an EMP.

“You’re not going to be late.”

“How?”

“Well, I shouldn’t be telling you this. On the other hand, I could sentence you to death if you spill. So here goes! The Ruler has been developing a new strategic defense grid in every Amagacan city. But we had an infrastructure in place before the Great Turnover. Do you remember the eye in the sky?”

“The elaborate surveillance system that the NYPD had put into effect. They had added audio sensors.”

“It was in the early stages of being weaponized! Watch this!”

I couldn’t really see what she was doing, but, from my vantage point, it looked like she was logging into a shell account. I looked out the window, watching two men paste a new poster of the Ruler onto a fraying billboard.

“This is like that Don DeLillo novel.”

“Don who?”

“Come on. I wasn’t the biggest fan and he wasn’t all that of a favorite. And this wasn’t one of his better novels. Cosmopolis. You remember that one?”

“I don’t know who Don DeLillo is.”

“The only thing missing in this limo is the floor of Carrara marble. And you know damn well who DeLillo is.”

“No, I don’t. Quiet. I’m concentrating.”

I had five minutes to get to the Abrogation Department. There was a chance I could get out and huff it. But as I was considering my plan to be timely, there was a giant rumble outside the car. A gray drone, roughly the size of a storefront, was hovering in the sky outside.

“Aha! It worked!”

“You summoned that?”

“Watch this!”

The drone flew in front of us. I looked ahead and saw that two trucks were tying up traffic.

“Let me check.”

The tapping of keys.

“Nope. Non-essential goods.”

“What do you me….?”

The drone fired a rapid burst of bright purple lasers into the two trucks, targeting the fuel tanks. There was an explosion. The trucks burst into flames. I watched one of the truckers dive out the melting frame of his door, howling at the top of his lungs as the flames charred his body. From one of the spires above us, a sniper locked his rifle on the trucker and put him down with a swift head shot.

“Jesus!”

“Don’t you love new technology? Now let’s see if this works!”

The drone then fired a white spray. The window was cracked and the air around us smelled antiseptic. Some of the cars pulled over, not wishing to be victims of the drone. The spray subsumed the ruined trucks with a fast foam. The drone then hovered above the truck. Two robotic impediments looking like outsize claws designed by a sociopathic MIT genius hopped up on one too many James Cameron movies pushed from the drone, rapidly flattened the truck into scrap metal, and proceeded to lift these resources with it up into the air, where the loud roar dissipated as it flew to who the hell knows where.

Petey put the pedal to the metal.

“It worked!” shrieked Dottie. “We’re going to get you to work on time!”

“You just killed two people.”

“Well, Alex, you’ll probably save two people today when you’re taking in your case load. So it all evens out! I can’t wait until the IT people hear about this.”

What the hell did death mean anymore if everyone was a potential experiment for new tech?

The limo rolled up to my building.

“Dottie, can you do me a favor?”

“Aren’t you going to say thank you?”

“Thank you. I say that only because I have to. Can you do me a favor?”

“Anything for you, four star Alex!”

“If you ever see me wandering around a sector you’re canvassing, please don’t contact me again.”

“Oh.”

“Yes, oh. It was nice knowing you, Dottie.”

I left the limo. I had two minutes to get to my office. As the limo rolled off, I stumbled into the alley where I smoked cigarettes and took deep pulls from my flask after learning that a repeal I had painstakingly tried to make happen did not go through. I threw up, found the polka dot handkerchief already soiled with Grace’s Thursday upset, straightened my tie, and scanned my retina at the security booth for another long day at work.

Next: Elevator Romp (Chapter 7)

10150 / 50000 words. 20% done!

The Daily Seven: A NaNoWriMo Novel — Table of Contents

I had absolutely no intention of writing a NaNoWriMo novel in real time. And yet, on the morning of November 1, 2017, I ended up imagining a death house in which seven people were selected by a computer algorithm to die each day in the near future, in which a fascist government named New Amagaca had replaced America. Four days later, I have now written 8,000 words of a crazy and hastily written novel that I am now calling The Daily Seven. I don’t know if I will go through with this or not, but here is a table of contents for readers wishing to follow along:

Chapter 1: The Daily Seven (November 1, 2017)
Chapter 2: A Pot of Tea (November 2, 2017)
Chapter 3: We’ll Always Have Brunch (November 3, 2017)
Chapter 4: Every Subject’s Soul is His Own (November 4, 2017)
Chapter 5: The Betrayal (November 4, 2017)
Chapter 6: Bumper to Bumper (November 5, 2017)
Chapter 7: Elevator Romp (November 6, 2017)
Chapter 8: The Intake (November 7, 2017)
Chapter 9: The Limits of Moral Depravity (November 7, 2017)

The Betrayal (NaNoWriMo #5)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: Every Subject’s Soul is His Own (Chapter 4)

“You,” I said.

Her name was Dottie Farrell and I had once loved her with all my heart. It was the kind of love where you made homemade chicken soup when she was sick, cooked three-course meals when she wasn’t, felt that you could share every skeleton kicking up dust in your closet, woke up every morning to ensure that the now luxurious whiff of coffee curled into every stray corner of our shared tome-lined apartment, held her in your arms when she had doubts about her career and America’s then waning legacy, negotiated detentes between pugnacious family members, and gave every bead of sweat and then some to hold onto a marvelous woman you only wanted to love deeper and grow old with.

When the Great Turnover had been more of a joke rather than a fearsome political reality, I had taken Dottie’s hand, sashayed the two of us into a cab as the racist driver yammered on about the Muslim ban (and we both gritted our then chattering progressive teeth), and escorted her up the steps near the edge of Fifth Avenue into the Met’s roomy, always reliable sanctuary. This had all gone down just six months before the new regime decided to incinerate this great museum (and all the art within it). But we could not know then that the jihad against art, which had then been little more than a deranged thought experiment from the far-right Republicans who were becoming the new normal, would actually be carried out. We could not possibly foresee that the idea of New York as the art capital of the world, with its free museum days and its eccentric tapestry trade, would so easily slip from our happy quotidian grasp. We sauntered past a bust of Alexander Pope and took the elevator to the rooftop garden, ignoring Adrián Villar Rojas’s ribald sculptures to take in the glorious green view of Central Park. It was a crisp day in early autumn, back in the days when we still had autumns and the earth hadn’t yet shifted to a stark two season year. The high winds lapped at Dottie’s blonde curls, pushing them into an intoxicating whirl, with the sun somehow brightening her eyes as if they were delicate porcelain in dire need of a fine light. Dottie and I had been together for five blissful years. There had been more ups than downs. Our friends said we were meant to be together as our hair turned gray and the crow’s feet crinkled against the corners of our lively eyes. The perfect couple that gave everybody hope as we all suffered through the hellish nonstop headlines.

We moved in together after nine months of dating, renting out a near palatial apartment in Jackson Heights. Two years later, we made the bold choice of wedding our books, somehow believing in the permanence of love as the world came closer to burning, selling off the remaining dupes to the now firebombed Strand and spending the loot on a lavish low-key dinner of pork rillettes and shimmering scallops and a bottle and a half of fine claret. A year passed and I took her to the same place again when it became more dangerous to leave the house and you needed fixers to get you from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The candles glowed and her olive cheeks deepened and the brisk beauty and sharp wit that I had known in the day and night of a more hopeful time somehow persuaded me, as all of us were then still struggling and then still polarized with disbelief, that love could indeed conquer all. I dropped to my knee and opened the case and asked her to marry me as a costly trio of violinists hired on short notice played Sara Bareilles’s “I Choose You.” Dottie said yes and we made love three times that night.

Six months later, as the court system was being dismantled and I was doing everything I could to preserve due process when the Ruler declared martial law, she had called the police to drag me out of our apartment. I escaped being cremated in the camps only because I had a few surprisingly loyal friends in high places that I knew from the weekend basketball game. People who still felt pity for a former civil liberties lawyer who was now down and out. People who somehow knew that even a cynical man like me might rise like a phoenix, if not to save the day then to at least preserve some small scrap of a world that had once prided itself on bonhomie and camaraderie.

Our phones were then being hooked up to the ratings matrix. We were being asked to turn over our driver’s licenses and burn our social security cards. It was impossible to walk through the streets of Brooklyn without smelling the burning corpses of people who had been shot by well-groomed thugs after daring to say no. The Great Turnover took us all by storm. We would no longer be able to vote, but we could make democratic choices against our neighbors. We no longer had the Fourth Estate, but we did have social networks, although anyone who dared to talk about politics quickly disappeared. As the world fell apart and the last of the resistance was marched to the camps, Dottie prioritized surviving over the enduring independent power of our love, as so many people did.

And now Dottie had somehow found me in a sector of the city that I might have recognized only four years before if the Ruler hadn’t razed the buildings and massacred entire neighborhoods. She was doing very well. She was looking very sharp. And the man in the peaked cap was malleable clay within her exacting fascist fingers. The limosuine’s door was open. I had thirty minutes to get to work. I had no other choice but to step inside the car. What other option did one have in New Amagaca?

Next: Bumper to Bumper (Chapter 6)

7874 / 50000 words. 16% done!

Every Subject’s Soul is His Own (NaNoWriMo #4)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: We’ll Always Have Brunch (Chapter 3)

Grace never told me where she worked or what she did or whether she liked her English muffin lightly toasted or extra crispy, but no one ever chased these harmless subjects anymore. “What do you do?” — once the darling question of small talk that tied the room together — had lost its meaning not long after the Virginia Massacre and the subsequent race riots and the purges and the Congressional assassinations had forced the government to roll into every city with humvees, assigning us our new vocational roles at gunpoint, the social contract extending into free-form fucking (even though most of us managed this quite well on our own before the Great Turnover). Grace and I agreed to meet again. She even reconsidered learning backgammon.

We exchanged numbers just before she clipped on her cubic zirconia earrings, smiling her finest Duchenne before the inspection camera to verify her singlehood, and we rated and reviewed each other for the quality assurance elite (“Five stars. Expert at reverse cowgirl. Attentive to cock. I’d do her again,” read my vulgar and now far too common lie). I left the singles housing unit wearing the previous day’s threads, wondering if my martinet manager would notice that my beige jacket was the same as yesterday’s. There was a good chance he wouldn’t. His paperwork never stopped.

I had taken a slight risk wearing beige to work. Beige wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it was mildly rebellious given that we had been asked to adorn our starved bodies with loud and bright hues to promote universal pleasure. Beige was my answer to the final movement in Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, not that any New Amagacan knew about classical music. Under the Ruler, you were lucky if you heard someone deliver an especially famous Shakespeare quote. The great secret of his autocratic success was to tire us out, insinuating that any work of art which stimulated the mind was akin to eating one’s cultural vegetables, so that, in our collective fatigue, we would never remember any significant artistic achievement from the time before. Culture had not been banned. The First Privilege had guaranteed us some remaining rights. But if you hoped to stop the population from caring or thinking about anything substantive, you had to create a climate in which the beauty of a baroque quatrain was as unappetizing during one’s spare time as a gratuitous backbreaking task.

I ambled along the sidewalk, which was being hosed down with exacting fury by two moribund men with hardscrabble cigarettes sticking from their lips like toxic lollipops. My phone revealed that they were both single and both twos and that neither had hooked up in quite some time (it was never easy for twos), which accounted for why they had been assigned to sweep the streets. One had to be careful with twos. They were more prone to crime, which could not be entirely eliminated by the Ruler even with his zero tolerance policy. But very often, a two’s infractions were never severe enough to warrant public execution. The expense of trucking away a two to a reeducation camp was too risky in a fragile economy. I suppose, if we had unlimited resources, the Ruler would have pushed harder. But it was also important to give every able mind a chance at redemption. Sometimes when you went out to brunch — and everyone went out to brunch, especially after the Ruler had reminded us — you would see a four obliging a two. (Giving spare credits to an under three was punishable by death under Protocol 47.) Then you would go to church and see the same four standing on the dais, without the two in sight, being extolled for being a good Amagacan. The next weekend, you would see the four with another two and the ritual would repeat and, very soon, the four would become a five, getting an item placed in the news feed and an assignment in charge of some vital municipal task. Meanwhile, the twos would disappear, sometimes becoming ones and leaving themselves vulnerable to a swifter daily seven selection. I knew that life as a two was difficult, but this was one of those problems that we never talked about. Status warfare was the cost of a greater New Amagaca, much as we had been blind about class warfare in the days before the Ruler. The last journalist who dared to write about this topic had been shot by the producer on the nightly news, with the bonanza ratings from the live stream rapidly superseding anything he had to say.

The two twos toodle-ooed me as I stared down at my malfunctioning GPS, hoping that the network would clear up so that I could find the swiftest subway to work. The street sweepers probably knew the city better than I did, but, when it came to consorting with citizens who were two stars beneath you, you really had to give rather than take. That was the way it worked. Ask only of others in your rank. If you dared to ask a favor of a two, you would have to hookup more frequently to sustain your four rating. Because talking with someone beneath you was considered an act of weakness, even when the propaganda dictated that everybody was worthy of a good pleasurable life under the Ruler.

Grace’s neighborhood was devoid of street signs and my GPS still didn’t work — even though I could make out the mile-high Burj Amagacana glistening in the distance. Which meant that I was very far away from work, unless I could find a subway that could take me there fast. I had thirty minutes to report to my auditor job or get downranked to a three. There had once been a time in which you could hail a shared vehicle, but such conveniences were now a month’s salary and largely belonged to the fives. Two years before, I had gone to a specialist to repair my status rating. And it had taken me a good year to climb to a four.

There was the option to use a sick day, but calling in sick would mean doctors taking me to a sybarite facility, where medical professionals would force me to hookup with six sick strangers a day until I got well. I would actually have to fuck these people — for there was no privacy for the infirm. The Ruler has bought into the anti-vaccination argument that had proven popular before the Great Turnover and believed only in hookups as the secret to good health. So you would have cancer patients locking lips with old citizens suffering from dementia. I often wondered if this had been a callous and crafty way of letting the sick die. This was the only healthcare we had. Bona-fide doctors were reserved for the fives. Still, a few popular pornographic stars had emerged from the sybarites. As the New Amagacan regime carried on, you learned that there was a kinky niche for everything.

There was also the matter of my caseload, which I really didn’t want to fall in the hands of Greta Zioto, an adjuster who was far more ruthless with my cases than I could ever be. Despite her very high deportation approval rate, she still found the time to plan fiestas for the office. It was almost as if the parties inspired Greta to be more heartless. The people who asked for our help always seemed to get in Greta’s way and she much preferred spending her afternoons going to the Consumer Center, justifying lavish budget allotments, and spending far too many government-issued credits on party supplies. Until Greta came along, our barebones office was a place where we all hung down our heads and did the best we could to save lives. But Greta, who was well connected with the fives, made parties happen twice a week. The abrogation unit, which had repealed many ones and twos and gave them a second chance, soon spent more of its time putting on a blindfold, growing cheerier as they swatted around at a swinging piñata, leaving Greta to reassign dozens of cases to the death camps. But some of us still took our duties quite seriously.

So I had to get to work. There was more on the line here than an unwanted fuckfest. If I got to work at a timely hour, there was a good chance that I could repeal a few cases and stop at least some of them from being selected for the daily seven. This was what I did twelve hours each day and why I couldn’t sleep. I ended my day at the cafe across from the daily seven because I needed to be reminded why I slept only four hours a night and how increasingly rare it was for anyone to weep.

“Mister Schuld?”

“That’s me.”

The voice came from a smiling man wearing a peaked cap.

“Did you go straying from your sector again?”

The man elbowed me on the side and winked.

“Yeah, you might say that.”

“Well, we don’t want you to be late for work! Do we?”

“Uh, I can’t pay for this.”

“It’s all taken care of, Mister Schuld. Don’t you worry!”

“By whom?”

“Me,” said a very familiar voice that I had not heard since the rough and tumble days rebuilding my status history. “Hello, Alex.”

Next: The Betrayal (Chapter 5)

6874 / 50000 words. 14% done!

We’ll Always Have Brunch (NaNoWriMo #3)

[Table of Contents]
Start at the Beginning: The Daily Seven (Chapter 1)
Previously: A Pot of Tea (Chapter 2)

If you opened your eyes early enough, just before the government blinded you with the glum flares of glammy displays roasting all walls to a patriotic crisp and the cheap sequenced trumpets picked your hopeful pockets with flat notes pricking deep into your weary ears like a blind acupuncturist who can’t find your back and the rah rah rahs presaging the stertorous Ruler’s calls for fervor and greatness and unity, you could sometimes hear the sounds of what the world was like before. The Ruler had besmirched nearly every human virtue, but he had no control over the birds cooing soothing threnodies just as the sun cracked the dark of a dim unpromising billet. He could not halt the white spill that lingered around for a small buoyant moment while all were asleep. The Ruler could not prevent the cats and dogs from curling into our beds and staring lovingly at us, even after we had devolved into violent sadistic obedients. The animals, of course, were blind to our indiscretions. But the dogs still fetched our papers (there was only one now) and listened to our sob stories with a wet panting tongue. The cats still sauntered around our quarters with an upward vee curling against the last fleshy dregs of our authentic intimacy. If you woke up early enough, you were reminded of the way that the earth could always trump any great man with its joy and its grandeur and its possibility. Sure, we could erect all the brutalist buildings and crass cathedrals and despotic domes we wanted, but we too would eventually be dust with the dinosaurs. Maybe we belonged in the wilderness too, running naked and feral with all other creatures, screaming primal hymns and ripping our rotting teeth into any meat that remained. But, for a brief moment, in that fleeting crepuscular period between dreams and the bitter real, you could remember that you were alive. We had slipped so swiftly from human grace, but I wondered if the reason that I still wept over the beaten boy had something to do with my knack for waking up early.

“Alex,” cooed Grace. “What time is it?”

“Before the Ruler’s stir.”

“But you have stirred me. Go back to sleep.”

“No. I want to enjoy this. You should too. It’s the magic hour. The time when we’re allowed to feel human.”

She loosened a quiet yawn.

“How many hours do you sleep?”

“Four hours each night.”

“That’s not enough.”

“I am often fatigued. But if I didn’t have the morning, I really couldn’t deal.”

She stretched her left arm and her soft hand briefly skirted against my bare shoulder. I glanced at her scar again and wished silently for the seventh time that I could track down the beast who made that.

“What have they assigned you to do?”

“I’m an auditor.”

“Oh.”

“A small time abrogator.”

She emerged from the duvet, rising up from bed and letting it spill to her legs. She had not covered herself. I looked away from her breasts.

“You could report me.”

“I won’t.”

“Look at me, Alexander Schuld.”

It was so easy for all of us to play these roles. But I wouldn’t.

“I can’t and I won’t. And I don’t report people. I don’t work in that department.”

“Why do you loiter around the cafe near the daily seven? A sense of guilt?”

“I just enjoy playing backgammon, that’s all.”

“Backgammon?”

“One of humanity’s oldest games. I could teach you how to play sometime. It goes as far back as 3,000 B.C.”

“I don’t play games.”

“Aren’t our lives games now?”

But before Grace could tell me more, the billet erupted in the wretched daily warble guaranteed to stir even the deepest sleeper, followed by the hiss of static, and the Ruler’s triumphant music polluting every square inch of space.

“We’ll have to pick this up later.”

The Ruler’s detestable presence was projected everywhere. Even if you closed his eyes, you would still see his fat face and his seedy corpulent presence. In the early days, the Ruler would appear on camera, speaking directly to the people much in the manner that the Presidents used to address the American people whenever the nation declared war for the most trifling and inconsequential reason. But these days, the Ruler was more of a bargain basement avatar: a large frozen head for the citizens to admire as it slowly rotated over New Age music like some poorly rendered polygon on an old screen saver.

RISE AND SHINE, NEW AMAGACA! IT’S TIME FOR ANOTHER PRODUCTIVE DAY! TODAY IS FRIDAY. AND YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS? IT MEANS ONE LAST DAY OF WORK FOR A BETTER TOMORROW! WE’RE GOING TO MAKE AMAGACA GREAT AGAIN! I HOPE THAT YOU HAVE BRUNCHES PLANNED FOR TOMORROW MORNING! BRUNCHES ARE BIG, VERY BIG. I HAVE BRUNCH EVERY DAY AND I AM THE HEALTHIEST MAN ALIVE! EGGS, PANCAKES, MIMOSAS. ALL PART OF THE AMAGACAN WAY. THIS IS WHAT I PROMISED. THIS IS HOW IT SHALL BE! DO NOT ACCEPT FAKE BRUNCH AND FAKE PLEASURE! IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO HOOKUP AND HAVE BRUNCHES! PLEASURE! UNITY! COMMUNITY! AMAGACA!

The words were accompanied by what sounded like canned applause, although we could hear our neighbors cheering the speech through the thin walls.

“God, I hate brunch.”

“We should at least have breakfast.”

NOW FOR THOSE WHO HAVE TO WORK TOMORROW AND WHO STILL DON’T BELIEVE ME, WE HAVE NOT LEFT YOU BEHIND! WE’RE DOING A GREAT JOB, A REALLY GREAT JOB, THE BEST JOB THIS NATION HAS EVER SEEN. WE’RE PUTTING EVERY RESOURCE IN PLACE TO ALLOW EVERY AMAGACAN TO HAVE BRUNCH. EXCEPT THE TRAITORS WHO DISMISS THE POWER OF BRUNCH. WE EXECUTE THE TRAITORS. AND WE DON’T EVEN GIVE THEM A LAST MEAL. BECAUSE IF THEY CAN’T LOVE BRUNCH, THEY HAVE NO RIGHT TO LIVE IN NEW AMAGACA! BUT YOU’RE NOT TRAITORS! YOU’RE ALL DOING GREAT. AMAGACA IS GREAT. WE ARE A GREAT NATION. A GREAT NATION OF BRUNCH EATERS!

The Ruler’s words trailed off at this point. He was never very good at endings.

“Come on,” said Grace, “you have to go to work.”

“And so do you.”

5296 / 50000 words. 11% done!

Next: Every Subject’s Soul is His Own (Chapter 4)