(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.
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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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!”
“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?”
“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.”
“How well do you know people?”
“But not well enough to be taken seriously as a journalist.”
“Do you believe that everyone has something dark within them?”
“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.”
“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)