Not the New Messiah (NaNoWriMo 2022 #25)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Believers)

Nine months after the civil unrest in sixteen cities had been stubbed out (historians would later call this period the 2027 Pancake Riots because many of the protesters had doused bankers and Wall Street men in pancake batter, spawning an unanticipated costume trend the following Halloween in which kids bought third-hand business suits, dressed up as the rich, and trick-or-treated with gallons of pancake batter dumped over their heads), the Democrats — who controlled both the House and the Senate by a mere thread — had finally figured out, twenty years too late, that business-as-usual lip service and squeaky-clean centrism were probably not enough to hold the country together. They began welcoming more progressives into their wings, largely out of conceptual desperation rather than any genuine respect for a more left-leaning view, and the people elected them.

Sure, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Republicans landing the Presidency in 2032. But even the right-wing demagogues, whose veins popped out of their furious necks in much the same way that the Aztecs were drawn to ritual sacrifice, couldn’t gainsay that actually paying people a living wage and accounting for their heightened productivity had curbed both inflation and crime. The public copulation trend had fizzled out, replaced by a new self-love meme in which people became more encouraged to build off of the conceptual masturbation video framework initiated by Beautiful Agony and upload videos of themselves happily engaged in self-pleasure, which had the additional benefit of quelling the dangerous alt-right incel movement that had flourished for a good fifteen years. Somehow, the left and the right could find something to agree on. Everyone liked sex. Self-pleasure was also something that those who believed in abstinence before marriage could be included in. And while the more fundamentalist strains of Christianity thought this was all a moral catastrophe, several progressive-minded pastors had pointed out that this was better than people openly fucking in parks, cafes, and restaurants. And while dating apps had toppled on the verge of bankruptcy for the last few years (to say nothing of dating, which had become more cost-prohibitive during the 2026 recession), when the tech companies began encouraging people to include videos of themselves masturbating from the neck up, the strange honesty of being able to see how someone looked during an orgasm resulted not only in heightened sex, but healthier relationships. There were more enduring marriages (many of them rooted in the rising trend of ethical non-monogamy) and fewer divorces.

Celebrity scandals became less scandalous. When your spouse had an affair, there was more honest talk. And because people were a lot happier, more peaceful, and more comfortable with expressing their sexuality, the religious right swiftly descended in popularity. I mean, who wanted to get out of bed on a Sunday morning, put on a constricting necktie or a dress with a constraining undercarriage and listen to some pompous pastor expatiate about the professed virtues of the Holy Bible? Some churches were so desperate to stay afloat that they constructed glory hole rooms next to the confession booths. And when releasing your tensions — often to a frustrated housewife or a man who had stayed closeted for most of his life, both thrilled by the sudden acceptance — proved more popular than revealing your sins, even staid and humorless organizations like the Catholic League had to confess that they had lost the culture wars. They formed postmortem committees and tried to figure out new ways to court their declining constituencies. But it was all for naught.

And because people knew that there were all these new private and nonjudgmental venues to explore their kinks, there was a return to the enticing mysteries of meeting people without judging them solely on their social media footprint. The revenge porn problem was nipped in the bud. How could you humiliate an ex by despicably posting an old sex video if she had already beaten you to the punch?

After had gone bankrupt — in large part due to the erratic insanity of a billionaire CEO who burned through VC money faster than Elon Musk had — a new open source movement had arrived — one similar to the Fediverse — where a code of conduct was practiced and people were no longer publicly shamed for the spicy videos they posted. And this proved so paradigm-shifting that not even an obnoxious British writer named Ron Johnswain could find a conceptual hook for his facile Gladwellian books anymore — in large part because Johnswain had constructed his flimsy self-help premises without considering anyone other than damsels in distress. Johnswain was revealed as the knee-jerk huckster he had been all along and not even his annoying high-pitched British accent could win him an audience. He returned to Britain in shame to manage a Tesco supermarket.

Because the literary Daves had proven to be so monstrous during the Stroller trial (deemed the “trial of the century”), which had exposed the sex trafficking ring in all of its cruel depravity and caused Sophie Van Kleason, Clark Mannix, Bill Flogaast and numerous others to land long prison sentences, it took a good nine years before the publishers would buy a manuscript from anyone named David ever again. A few distinguished MFA workshops had even declined entry to anyone named David. Because Davids could no longer be trusted. Which wasn’t entirely fair to the more innocuous Davids out there. And when the David Oppression Movement emerged at Zuccotti Park in 2038, with numerous Davids descending on New York and declaring that they had the right to write novels, there was not only a new David Renaissance, but an unexpected rise in literacy. Numerous articles had declared the novel dead, but it was still quite alive — in large part because anyone with even a vague command of spelling and grammar simply didn’t know how to shut the fuck up.

And Ezmerelda Gibbons had emerged as the hero, even making the cover of the New York Times Magazine in a splashy profile. When Benjamen Stroller had been revealed as the man she had performed oral sex on in her final OnlyFans video, and the disturbing coercive measures he had used to silence her had at long last been released to the public, she wrote a memoir, which sold three times as much as Ali Breslin’s volume had. The film rights had been optioned for $4 million, though not without Ezmerelda exacting a contractual condition for Sven to serve as director of photography. Ezmerelda stopped production on Toking for Elders, but the backlist episodes proved insanely profitable. Because everyone wanted to know every detail about Ezmerelda’s story.

And on a spring day in 2031, Ezmerelda and Sven were sitting in Velseka at 2 AM after attending the film premiere of Not the New Messiah at the Paris Theatre and attending a ridiculous after party in which many Hollywood people had offered the two of them dubious promises of creative freedom and financial lucre. New York City was the last place on earth that even the quasi-famous could sit down and enjoy a meal without being mobbed. Sven spooned his borscht and Ezmerelda laughed when not eating her stuffed cabbage.

“How did you come up with that final shot?”

Sven picked up his phone and texted her. He still refused to talk.

The director had no idea what to do. John Ford seemed a good fit.

“John Ford?”

Sven delicately set down his spoon and held up his finger, urging her to watch. He picked up one of the paper menus and formed it into an improvised cowboy hat. And then he walked slowly towards the door. He looked back to see if Ezmerelda had figured it out.

“Oh! The Searchers!”

Sven returned to the table and excitedly nodded his head.

“But I’m not a racist.”

It was a joke.

“A joke?”

None of the film critics have figured it out yet.


And once they do, they’re going to be pissed off.

It was certainly true. They’d been crazy about Not the New Messiah and there was early Oscar buzz.

“They mythologized me. They turned me into some paragon of virtue. Me! Of all people!”

Sven nodded.

“Sven, are you ever going to talk with me? We’ve known each other long enough to move past the Harpo act. Besides, the New York Times called me the ‘new Oprah.'”

“Okay,” said Sven.

Ezmerelda spit out her holubtsi. His voice was beautiful: dulcet, bright, and — she couldn’t deny — sexy as hell.

“Sven! Your voice is gorgeous.”

“It doesn’t matter.”


“If I talk, they’ll find a reason to hate me.”

“But you’re hot, man! Teflon proof! For fuck’s sake, Paul Thomas Anderson wants you to shoot his next movie!”

“They canceled me when I spoke up.”

“But, dude, we’re winning! Look around us. People are actually enjoying themselves.”

And it was true. A couple swiftly falling in love with each other held hands. A group of twentysomethings laughed over their disastrous failure at the Rumpus Room. And a man who had looked very sad and lonely and friendless when they had walked in was now starting to smile after two guys had the decency to introduce themselves. And the three of them were now picking away at their beef stroganoff and making funny airplane sounds.

“Come on Sven. It hasn’t been this peaceful since Obama was President.”

“It will pass.”


“Everything passes,” said Sven. “Ups and downs. It’s part of the human cycle.”

“You want to know something, Sven?”


She placed her thumb and her forefinger to her lips and zipped it. Then she picked up her phone and started texting Sven.

Do you think I can last a week like this?

Sven laughed.

“They’re going to hound you.”


“The media.”

Let them. I’m done being their Messiah.

“They’ll offer you lots of money.”

I have everything I need.

“They’ll want your thoughts on everything.”

They should learn to think for themselves.

A young woman approached the table.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you…?”

“I think you have the wrong person,” said Sven.

“But she’s…she’s Ezmerelda Gibbons! Oh my god! I loved your memoir. It changed my life!”

Ezmerelda pointed to her mouth and held her hands up in the air.

“Oh! You’re mute! I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Sven. “She gets that a lot. Have a good night.”

The young woman curtsied and returned to her friends.

“You see,” said Sven. “Staying silent is a choice. And it’s very empowering.”

I get it now.

“I knew you would.”

But why are you talking now?

“Because now it’s time.”

Sven paid the bill and the two walked out of Veselka. They hugged and said goodbye. The Lyft driver was one of those mercifully silent types. And in the back of the car, Ezmerelda deleted her YouTube channel, her TikTok account, her Instagram account, and pulled the plug on her website. Let them find somebody else to speak for them. Let her audience speculate about why she had done this or what she was now doing. They would forget about her, just as they forgot about anyone who had landed fifteen minutes of fame.

She stayed up to watch the sun rise. She was too excited to sleep. There was a lambent blaze upon the glistening streets. And Brooklyn looked more beautiful, more gravid with exciting possibilities. She looked out the window and watched the people walking to the subway, the kids laughing on their way to school, the old school dude beatboxing on the corner, and a woman dancing as she cleaned her car. And she laughed. Everything was going to be all right. She finally knew what real life was. All she had needed to do was to cede the stage.

Edward Champion
Brooklyn, New York
November 1-30, 2022

(Word count: 52,702/50,000)

The Believers (NaNoWriMo 2022 #24)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Dead Journalist)

“I don’t need your help,” said Senator Rob Rollins, who had been in Washington long enough to know not to be intimidated by even the first-rate big shots. Even the big shots who were smarter than he was. After all, he was Senator, wasn’t he? But it was now clear that, for all of his bluster, Bill Flogaast was no longer a king. Bill Flogaast had violated the sanctity of his mountain retreat and he was now little more than a larval grifter. In fact, ever since Flogaast had left his perch as head publicist, he had looked more and more like an insect. There was now a strange buzzing quality to his voice: an emphysema-like rasp to his sentences. His hair had receded after his wife had left him and the thinning thatch had revealed the slithering chalky sheen of a spotted forehead: the kind of ugly and unsightly dome that only constant spite for others managed to bring out in bitter people afflicted by male pattern baldness. At least white supremacist opportunists like Tim Pool had the decency to cover up their hideous hate-riddled heads with a beanie.

“Don’t you want to preserve your political career?”

“At this point, I really don’t care. Bill, I have a few years left in my term. I came up here for some inner peace so that I could figure out how best to serve the South Carolinan people. Particularly with all the riots now going on.”

“Aha,” said Flogaast. “You want people to believe in you.”

“They can believe whatever they want about me.”

“But the videos, Rob.”

“It’s Senator to you, Bill. Yeah, my people are aware of this and they are on it.”

“I mopped it all up for you five years ago. Ask yourself, Senator, how much more your loyal constituents can handle images of their golden boy screaming at his flabby acolytes?”

“Debbie Ballard has been handling all issues related to my campaign. She’s handling my public image. Not you. You can take this up with her.”

“Oh, but I already did,” said Flogaast through a sinister smile that he had practiced after laughing over the way that a slimy former editor of the New York Times Book Review — a closeted misogynist who could never finish his book on a conservative “titan” — had somehow won over book nerds with his sleazy middle-aged teeth.

Flogaast flashed Rollins that smile. And it reminded Rollins of the skeeze lobbyists who had tried to bribe him in his first year in office.

“Debbie Ballard,” said Flogaast. “What if I told you that she was no longer around?”

“Are you threatening her?”

“Now, Senator,” said Flogaast, who now took a seat in the sacred wicker chair. “You and I both know that I don’t kill people.”

“You’re getting sloppy, Bill.”


“This James Bond villain monologue. I thought it was beneath you. If you’re saying that you know about Atticus and me, well, tell it to the world. I don’t fucking care.”

The Senator walked to the minibar and overturned a tumbler, pouring himself two jiggers of bourbon. He rarely drank these days, but there were some times when you needed succor.

“Thanks,” said Flogaast.


“I mean, thanks for offering me one,” said Flogaast, holding up his empty palm.

And the parallel to Ricky Gervais being brutally humiliated by Garry Shandling was too much for the Senator. He heartily chortled.

“Wow, Bill,” said Rollins. “You’ve become a walking cliche. Do you steal all your moves from stale memes?”

“70% of them, if you must know. Debbie Ballard is dead. Or at least she should be dead by now.”


“As is Ali Breslin. And another not very bright journalist by the name of Herbert Budruck. Who knows, Senator? Maybe you might be next.”

“You know, threatening a government official is a felony under federal law. Up to five years of imprisonment. Do you want to go to prison, Bill? I mean, if you’re confessing to me that you’re an accessory to multiple murders, it sounds like you do.”

The Senator took a swig from his glass.

“Maybe,” said Flogaast. “Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t really care.”

He stood up, walked to the minibar, and poured himself twice as much bourbon into his tumbler as the Senator.

“What do you believe in, Senator?”

“Many things.”

“Do you believe in a god? I mean, I know you make appearances at churches to woo the Catholics and those middling and gullible Presbyterians. But you’re not really a religious man, are you? What do you believe in?”

“The human ideal. Or, rather, what people can make of themselves. Nobody’s perfect.”

“The physical body?”

“It started there.”

“How Leni Riefenstahl of you.”

“I’m not a Nazi, Bill. They can criticize my voting record or the bills I’ve had my people draft, but the one thing they can’t say about me is that I’m a Nazi.”

“No, they can’t,” said Flogaast, who took a big swig. “You’re something worse.”


“You’re a covert believer, Senator. Someone who props up the sham narrative that everyone gets a piece of the pie. I mean, do you think it’s an accident that we punctuate our Thanksgiving meals with pumpkin pie? Which we never eat any other time of the year?”

“What are you getting at?”

“Belief, Senator. Everybody wants to believe in something. Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, democracy. You name it. They used to have the Church. But practicing the teachings of Christ meant that they actually had to read books. That they had to be good. And they didn’t want to be good, Senator. No, not at all. I’ve seen it. I’ve covered up misbehaving authors and true reprobates. I tried coaching them, but they didn’t listen. Just as most people don’t want to listen. Because being good is too difficult, Senator. It requires effort. It requires thinking outside of yourself. And most people don’t want to do this because they are inherently selfish. Do you think it was an accident that empathy became politicized after the pandemic seven years ago? That helping people became a partisan issue? I’ve also been in publishing long enough to know that people don’t read as much as they used to. But here’s the big surprise. They are reading Ali Breslin’s book and they will learn about you.”

“So I trained the woman — what was her name?”

“Ezmerelda Gibbons.”

“Ezmerelda Gibbons, that’s right. So I had an appointment with Ezmerelda Gibbons on the day that Paul Van Kleason died. Big deal.”

“But Ezmerelda told you about the ring, didn’t she?”

“The ring?”

“Don’t be naive with me, Senator. The ring! The little getaway to Amsterdam that Stroller had cooked up, where anyone — including a lot of award-winning authors who I handled, including all of the literary Daves — could engage in the most vile depravity imaginable and suffer no consequences. No questions asked. They fucked children, Senator. Children who were groomed through alt-right websites and smuggled to Europe in airplanes. They had so much money — and, with inflation, money has talked more than it ever has in American history — to bribe families and anybody else who wanted to look into this. I mean, did you ever wonder why so many Republicans — your party, by the way — are so obsessed with pedophilia? That Pizzagate conspiracy theory from way back when. That was mere projection. They were the ones who were running the ring in plain sight. And they would never acknowledge this because they wanted to believe they were good. Even when they were spouting homophobia, transphobia, and anti-Semitism on social media. They had Elon Musk and Kanye West under their finger, right when these wildly mediocre men were losing their fortunes, and that made the expression of hate and nastiness — under the guise of being good, under their twisted virtue of ‘free speech’ — so much easier before Twitter went down. But then they started fucking each other in public. And some of the more prominent figures — like Brad Carmody and David Fitzroy — had to kill themselves. And some of them — like David Leich — became murderers. And if they couldn’t outright kill people, they’d find someone who could. Because they couldn’t live with this contradiction. The idea of being good when they really weren’t. The impossible ideal of living up to perfection, easily punctured by some troglodyte in his basement dredging up tweets from twelve years ago to cancel them. They started tracking everyone around them with the Samsung Surrounder and ascribing a new and completely manufactured currency of goodness through online reputation.”

“What does this have to do with me? I’ve never been to the Netherlands.”

“Oh, sure, I know you weren’t directly involved, but you withheld knowledge.”

“I was never questioned.”

“Your name was in Stroller’s black book.”

“He had a lot of names. I never visited him in the Netherlands.”

“But you know people who did. And Ezmerelda confided in you to name these names. Just as Paul Van Kleason was about to do before — well, before, certain people — maybe some man fond of wearing burgundy ties who fled to the Dominican Republic, one of those guys who never stays loyal, that asshole! — took care of him. But Ezmerelda? Well, they couldn’t kill her. Because it would look very suspicious if the person who discovered Van Kleason’s body was also dead.”

“And then Ali Breslin came along.”

“And made Ezmerelda a hero. You see, she was in a rough spot with that last Onlyfans video she made, which she didn’t want to make. And you knew her. And what will the American people have to say about that?”

“I never talked with Stroller.”

“No, but your association with Ezemerlda speaks for itself. And Stroller did have your number. And a lot more than that. You had Atticus.”

“Bill, I work with colleagues who have done far worse than I have and who have been far more reckless. I mean, they’re so flagrant that they don’t even try to disguise their Cash App transactions anymore. And you know what? Nobody cares. Unless you’re a Democrat. And then you step down from office like Al Franken.”

Flogaast returned to the wicker chair.

“Nobody cares, huh?” he said. “Oh, but they will care. Because it’s very easy to make people believe. Let me tell you a story. Have you heard of Peter Reilly?”


“September 29, 1973. He was an eighteen-year-old kid. His mother was killed the previous night in their Connecticut home. Her throat was slashed. Her legs were broken. There had been evidence that she had been raped, Senator. A grisly sight. And Peter came home from a meeting at the teen center and he saw his mother bleeding on the floor, unable to breathe. Oh, he had found his mother alive. But of course she soon died. And that last little detail raised the heckles of the local police. Sure, there was no blood on his clothes. Why, Peter was in the clear! But it was that tiny discrepancy that did it. He was held overnight by the police. And they interrogated him for six hours. Didn’t get a wink of sleep. And he finally cracked under the pressure of losing his mother, the lack of sleep, and the constant questioning by the police. And even though he was innocent, the police kept at it. It didn’t take all that much. They told him that he was confused, that he had somehow blocked the event from his memory, and that he must be mistaken in his account. Peter even refused the right to an attorney. Well, he signed a confession and he went to prison for manslaughter, still insisting that he had killed his mother. But he hadn’t. And really, Senator, that’s all it take to get people to believe. And as a publicist, I’ve been in the business of getting people to believe things that never actually happened. So that’s who you’re dealing with right now.”

“I’m not an eighteen-year-old kid.”

“Neither was Fitzroy, Carmody, Leich, or any of these guys. People want to believe, Senator. Orwell was significantly understating things. You don’t have to torture anyone with the rats to get people to believe that two plus two equals five. All you have to do is gaslight them. But you don’t even have to do that. If someone in a position of social media influence says something is so, it simply is. Forget Edward Bernays. It’s Goebbels who was right all along.”

“Get the fuck out of my house.”

“Or what?”

“Bill, you made the mistake of not remembering that South Carolina is a one party consent state.”

The Senator set down his drink on the table.

“Alexa,” he shouted to the ceiling, “play back the part about Amsterdam.”

The little getaway to Amsterdam that Stroller had cooked up, where anyone — including a lot of award-winning authors who I handled, including all of the literary Daves — could engage in the most vile depravity imaginable and suffer no consequences.

“Alexa, stop. I think that’s enough for the Feds, don’t you?”

Flogaast polished off the last of his bourbon and set his empty tumbler next to the Senator’s very full one.

“You’re making a mistake, Rob.”

“It’s Senator Rollins.”

That’s when Flogaast busted out his pistol. The Senator dived and Flogaast fired off a shot just six inches above his head, the bullet casting a hole in the Riding Bikes print. Flogaast was no match for the Senator, who had stayed in shape. The Senator tackled Flogaast with a fierce run directed at his waist, knocking the gun from Flogaast’s hand. They rolled on the floor, knocking over a vase on the credenza, which splintered into shards. But the Senator had Flogaast’s hands pinned behind his back in less than two minutes.

“You thought you were so smart, Bill. But you made one mistake. Every house is now smart.”

“Is there anything I can help you with?” said Alexa.

“No. Thank you, Alexa.”

“You’re very welcome, Senator. Estimated time of police arrival: two minutes and twenty-two seconds.”

But Flogaast didn’t need the countdown clock. Because the police sirens were now piercing through the peace.

Six months later, after the protests had died down, went belly up, and people had returned to the innocent practice of sharing cat videos on the Internet, the video of the Rollins/Flogaast struggle went viral and the Senator had publicly come out, Atticus took him back. They were married one year later. And in the 2032 presidential election, Rollins swiftly became the Republican frontrunner, roundly defeating Ron DeSantis and a wheelchair-bound orange menace in the primary debates. And it all happened because the people simply wanted to believe in something. That something became President-Elect Rob Rollins.

(Next: Not the New Messiah)

(Word count: 50,752/50,000)

The Dead Journalist (NaNoWriMo 2022 #23)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Seagulls)

Contrary to what most people have seen in movies or listened to on true crime podcasts, it is actually quite difficult to get rid of a dead body — as David Leich was swiftly learning. For one thing, a dead body is extremely messy and disgusting and, even if you are the most prodigious deep cleaner in the world, it will take hours to dispose of it properly. There are also DNA samples to worry about, the potential witnesses who can testify against you later, and, most annoyingly, settling upon a proper place to ditch the corpse. Which is a lot more complicated than trying to find a decent fusion restaurant in the Lower East Side for that promising date from Bumble.

Leich had believed he could simply dump Budruck into the East River, a tried and true venue that was used by many mobster and where it is estimated that at least one freshly dead body sinks to the bottom every week. The most courageous deep divers rarely talk about all the skeletons that have seen at the bottom, largely because it is quite embarrassing to be aware of the full extent of human depravity, but mostly because they are too busy worrying about whether or not the toxic water will cause their hair to fall out or shorten their life span in some way. But somehow Nature has accommodated the vast influx of homicides over the centuries. Which is quite impressive, given that the East River runs a mere sixteen miles and has a maximum depth of 108 feet. Escalated climate change in the 2020s had caused some of these human remains to wash up on the shores of Brooklyn and Manhattan more and more. And even the gangsters had to confess that the East River was not as reliable as it had once had been.

But Leich, for all of his self-professed smarts, was not a professional on this front. He had taken on the disposal of Budruck’s body himself, much like sheltered affluent types believe that they can hang drywall. And he was realizing that the stink and mess of Budruck, complete with the dripping geyser still spilling from Budruck’s recently hammered skull, was a lot tougher to scour than a wine stain from his couch.

Should he chop the body into several bits? Well, that would create a bloodier mess. He had busted out a large burlap rucksack he had used back in his upstate hiking days. But there was no way that Budruck was going to fit into it. And then there was Budruck’s weight to factor in. 170 pounds perhaps? He had once been able to bench-press 300 pounds, but was not in the best shape these days. Why had he allowed pride to overwhelm him when the vacuum guys had called? You needed at least one other guy for a job like this. And Leich had somehow managed to alienate everyone. Even the sociopathic writers who shared his hatred of Mike Harvest didn’t come around for dinner and drinks anymore.

So he had moved around a lot of furniture. And he heard the thumps from downstairs: the neighbors complaining with loud booming collisions against the ceiling at the worst possible time. And he shouted obscenities through the floor. And they stopped. And he tried to mop up the mess, doing better than most people in the situation. And the repugnant smell caused him to puke several times in the bathroom. But he kept at. Leich kept at it. Only succeeding in making a bigger mess, particularly when he had unwisely tried to saw the body in half.

More bangs on the floor from downstairs.

Those goddamned neighbors. Would he have to kill them too? That seemed a bit ridiculous. There were five people who lived downstairs. An entire family. Yes, they were annoying, but that seemed like too much work. And then he would have six bodies to dispose of instead of one. The criminal answer to running a triathlon.

Just as he was about to swallow his pride and call back the vacuum guys, there was a knock on his door.

“Mr. Leich?”

He looked through the eyehole. Two cops. One doughy, one in shape.

They knocked again in that hard masculine way that cops tend to rap on doors. It is a knock that usually fails to consider that the person on the other side may be a PTSD victim.


He grabbed a bedsheet and a comforter from the closet and tossed it over the dead body. Even beneath this, Budruck still clearly resembled a human.

Knock knock knock.

“Mr. Leich, we just want to have a word with you.”

He raced to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, hoping that nothing of Budruck’s blood or skull fleck was there. Then he hastily put on a new shirt as the cops still knocked and opened the door.


“We’re responding to a noise complaint.”

“Uh, don’t you have bigger problems?”

There was more gunfire outside.

“What?” said the doughy cop.

“The riots?”

“Oh,” said the fit cop. “We’ve got our guys on that.”

More gunfire. Someone screamed.

“For fuck’s sake, did you hear that?”

“We did,” said the doughy cop. “But we don’t make the rules.”

“The dispatcher sent us here,” said the fit cop.

The screaming in the streets continued.

“Wouldn’t you say that that is a bigger problem than a noise complaint?” said Leich, genuinely astonished.

“That’s not for us to say,” said the doughy cop.

“We don’t make the rules,” said the fit cop.

“Okay, I’ll keep it down,” said Leich.

The fit cop glanced behind Leich and saw the hasty job that Leich had made covering up Budruck, who appeared to be sitting on the settee.

“Are you alone, sir?”

“No,” said Leich.

“Do you mind if we come in?” said the doughy cop.

“Yes,” said Leich. “Come on, boys, don’t you have bigger fish to fry?”

“There’s a protocol in place,” said the fit cop.

“We don’t make the rules,” said the doughy cop.

“What’s that smell?” said the fit cop.

“Dinner gone bad,” said Leich.

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step aside,” said the doughy cop, punctuated by radio crackle.

And that’s when the fear gripped Leich. He rushed out of his apartment. But the two cops had anticipated this. And by the time Leich had hit the floor below, the doughy cop — that hideous mass of high carbs and too many trips to Dunkin Donuts, of all people, had pinned him to the marble surface and had his hands manacled behind his back. They read him his Miranda rights and Leich’s frightened head darted left at the sound of a door opening. The apartment below him. A woman who was in her early fifties looked at Leich with contempt.

“Ma’am,” said the fit cop, “please return to your residence. It’s not safe.”

“I knew there was something wrong with this white man. Racket at all hours. Clomping this. Clomping that.”

“Oh, fuck you,” said Leich.

“Ma’am,” said the doughy cop. “Please.”

But the woman refused. There was a guttural hem from her throat and she unleashed an impressively phlegm of spit onto Leich’s graying head. It was, after all, important to mark your territory.

“Ma’am,” said the fit cop, “there will be plenty of time for that later. Please return to your residence.”

And the woman silently closed the door. She had a huge smile on her face and she slept very well that night, even as the rolls of gunfire showed no signs of waning.

* * *

Seven hundred miles south of David Leich’s apartment, Sophie Van Kleason had listened to Debbie Ballard. And she was relieved that Ali Breslin had managed to get many of the details wrong, but she still knew enough truths about the past. Enough truths to be a serious problem. At least that’s what Stroller had told her yesterday on the phone. Stroller said that he was on it and that anyone looking into the ring was going to be taken care of. She shuddered at the coldblooded tone of his voice. She knew what he had meant. She also knew what he had meant when he said that there would come a time in which she would have to make a big move herself. She wouldn’t be surprised if Ali Breslin was dead by now.

“So you can see that this is very serious,” said Debbie. “Your former husband was part of the trafficking ring and Gingrich Moore was the main contact in the publishing world.”

“Gingrich Moore,” laughed Sophie. She wondered what Bill Flogaast thought about all this. Yes, Ginny had been his rival and had ruined his career. But even this publicity spin, this revenge that Flogaast had so masterfully executed, was impressive. And that was the thing about Flogaast, wasn’t it? Everyone simply assumed that publicists were stupid. But if you were the king of the land, you not only knew where the bodies were buried, but how to make people believe that others had murdered them. I mean, look at how they had turned Teddy Winner into a pariah because they resented his smarts and his talent. Look at how they had made everyone in the media world — even Brad Carmody! — falsely believe that he was dangerous when he was merely a boisterous smartass.

“All the literary Daves were involved. And the Senator was too. And Ezmerelda Gibbons…”

Yes. No. And no, thought Sophie.

“What do you really know about Ezmerelda?” asked Sophie.

“I’m sorry.”

“She trained with the Senator too, didn’t she?”


“Then it stands to reason that she would have a motive to get rid of my husband.”

Clark looked at Sophie with that fawning romantic naivete that you often see in men who have spent half their lives being steamrolled.

“But Ezmerelda was innocent! Breslin talked with numerous witnesses. She has alibis! Lots of them who point out that she wasn’t anywhere near your old home at the time of the murder. If only we knew who the man was in the video.”

“The video?”

“The last OnlyFans video that Ezmerelda made before walking away!”

“But we don’t, do we?” said Sophie.


“So why did you come here?”

“Because you’re an old friend, Sophie,” said Debbie. “And I figured that you would have some answers.”

“You’re more interested in rehabilitating the Senator’s reputation.”

“Well, that I can’t gainsay.”

“Can you leave her alone?” snapped Clark. “Hasn’t she been through enough already?”

Sophie wheeled her chair around and looked Clark in the eye.

“Clark,” she said, “how much do you love me?”

“With every waking breath.”

God, she hated to do this to Clark. She had grown so fond of him. He had been so squeaky clean. So innocent. She actually wanted to love him. If Ali Breslin hadn’t poked her nose so indefatigably into her past, then she might have had a shot at a normal life. But she knew that was beyond her now. They’d find out soon enough that she had been another Ghislaine Maxwell.

And she did miss the old days. The men who begged to be hurt. The way that Paul sobbed when first learning the full extent of her many affairs. The way that he had begged him to stop. And the way that she had so nimbly manipulated him to be the fall guy for the ring.

“Would you do anything for me?” she said.

“Yes,” said Clark.

“You’re sure?” said Sophie.

“Yes,” replied Clark.

“Sophie,” said Debbie with the concern of someone who had somehow missed a dusty corner while cleaning the house, “what’s going on between you two?”

“Lock the doors,” said Sophie.

And Clark dutifully deadbolted the front door.

“Clark, I need you to kill Debbie.”

And the hell of it was that he did. In the end, all men guided by their dicks were the same.

(Next: The Believers)

(Word count: 48,295/50,000)

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.”


“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.”


“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.”


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


“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.”


“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.”


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

“Your name is Ali Breslin, 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.”

(Next: The Dead Journalist)

(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.


“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.


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


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.”


“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.”


“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?”


“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.”


“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!”


“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.


“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?”


“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?”


“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?”


“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?”


“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.”


“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.”


“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)