(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?”
“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, 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?”
“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.”
“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, EveryoneFucks.com 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)