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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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“What I mean is, we're interested in the history of this town, and we're wondering who we might talk to about that?”

“You're interested in this town?”

“Yes, right.”

“You're in Holey, you know?”

“Yes.”

“Minnesota.”

“Right.”

“And you're still interested?”

“Yes. Yes, we are.”

“Well,” she said, crossing her arms, “I guess I know about as much as anyone. Ask away.”

Ponty leaned into the bar. “Well, actually, we were wondering if there's a historical society or something like that.”

“The Holey Historical Society? Something along those lines?”

“Yes, yes. Exactly.”

“There isn't one.” Seeing Ponty's look of profound disappointment, she quickly added, “But the mayor is in charge of what few historical documents there are in Holey, and I'm the mayor.”

Ponty returned her smile. “Really?”

“Yes. Name is Sandi Knutson,” she said, offering her hand.

“Ponty Feeb. And this is Jack Ryback. Can you imagine that, Jack? She's the mayor,” Ponty said, slapping the back of his hand on Jack's shoulder.

“I'm pleased to meet you both,” she said. “Why don't you hang around till four, when Ralph comes in, and I'll be able to take you to my office and answer your questions.”

“Oh, terrific,” Ponty said, using a word he had not used in this manner for some twenty-eight years.

“All right,” Sandi said, leaning back against the bar, there being really no place she needed to go. Because of this, the conversation was left in a state of limbo, having not been fully severed by her leaving, yet practically hampered by the fact that their business was concluded for the moment. Ponty looked self-consciously up at the television, not really seeing it. Jack drummed lightly on the bar and stared at the walls.

“How are your cheeks?” he asked suddenly.

“I'm sorry?” Sandi asked.

“I noticed you had walleye cheeks on the menu there,” he said, pointing to the hand-lettered menu above the bar. “I'm thinking I need a little something to munch on.”

“Oh, they're fine. Ralph, my partner, he caught 'em this last summer, so they're frozen. Ralph doesn't ice-fish.” Ponty surprised himself by feeling disappointed that Sandi had a partner. “Been a bad year anyway, hasn't it, Chet?” she said to the man with Sonny's jacket.

“ 'S that?” Chet said, looking up from his paper.

“Been a bad year for walleye, hasn't it?”

“Oh, yah. Lots of eelpout, but the walleyes are being coy.”

“Eelpout, huh?” said Jack, as though he had fished for them his whole life.

“Yup.”

“What are they?”

“Well, they're freshwater cod—little bearded things. Kind of slimy. Ain't you never caught an eelpout?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, you usually hook 'em when you're going after walleye, but some like to fish 'em 'cause they're good fighters.”

“Are they?”

“Yah. Don't listen to those guys who go after 'em with leeches, though,” Chet said, shaking his head and putting on a look of extreme censure.

“I won't.”

“You just take a Lindy rig and jig it off the bottom, real slow-like.”

“I'll do that,” Jack promised.

“Yup,” he said with finality and went back to his paper.

“You got any eelpout on the menu?” Jack asked.

“Oh, gosh, no,” said Sandi.

“Well, could you give me the cheeks and some of those deep-fried mini-tacos? Ponty, I'm buying the deep-fried minitacos?”

“No, no thanks.”

When Jack's food arrived, Ponty decided that in the interest of their relationship, he would look away as Jack ate. He had been traumatized by Jack's snack consumption on the trip up and needed time to heal. He spun around on his barstool and gazed about the Taconite Saloon. On the far wall, past a pool table and just above the table of a young couple holding hands and drinking Budweisers with their free hands, he saw several dioramas featuring dead animals. In one, a large muskellunge pursued a “buck tail” lure, its mouth opened wide in preparation for chomping down. Ponty immediately thought of Jack, tearing into his plate of batter-coated walleye cheeks, and shuddered. Another diorama featured a stuffed bobcat poised on hind legs near a crystalline lake, batting at a butterfly. Next to it a largemouth bass broke the water's surface, again, mouth wide. It was very nicely done, but Ponty got stuck thinking about the poor bass, having been necessarily sawed off at an angle just behind the head, in order to make it appear to be rising out of the lake that had been painted on the bottom of the display case.

He tapped Jack. “I'm gonna look around,” he said.

“Sure, sure,” said Jack, mouth full.

Picking up his coffee, Ponty got out of his chair to see if there were any more dioramas on the far wall of the tavern, which was obscured from his view by a half wall. He took a few steps to see and stopped up short, nearly choking on a sip of coffee. There, hanging on the far wall, was the pelt that he had written about, the huge, gray-black pelt of the death rat itself.
He took several steps toward it and then stood, gape-mouthed, his heartbeat quickening.

Good gravy,
he thought,
it's true! But it can't be.
His eyes went out of focus, his mind raced.
Did I make it up? Or did I read it?
He stepped beneath it now, reached up slowly, and touched the bristly hair. He gasped and took a step back. Off to his left, he heard a small giggle.

“Hey there. You all right?” He turned to see the couple who'd been holding hands looking at him with amused smiles. She was turned fully around in her chair to get a good look at him.

“Yeah,” Ponty mumbled. “Yeah, I'm fine.”

“Don't be afraid of it. It's dead,” said the girl, and they both laughed.

Ponty hurried back across the bar and jumped onto the stool next to Jack.

“Jack,” he whispered loudly, “the pelt. The pelt of the death rat. It's over there on the wall.
The
death rat! How can that be, Jack? It's not true, is it?”

Jack looked at Ponty in disbelief. “Ponty, did you take a pool cue to the noggin? No, it can't be. There's no such thing as a six-foot rat, remember? Heck, I learned that the hard way.”

“But it's over there. It's right over there.”

“Okay, Ponty, honey,” Jack said with mock condescension. “I'll just go take a look.”

Jack wiped his mouth, stood up, and crossed the bar, out of Ponty's sight for a moment, then returned. Nonplussed, he sat back down.

“Well?” Ponty said. “Isn't that bizarre? It's just like I wrote it, don't you think?”

“Did you?” said Jack with a guilty look.

Ponty studied his face for a moment. “Oh, my—I thought you said you'd read it?” he accused, his voice incredulous.

“I did. I did read it. I just didn't remember that part. Anyway, Ponty, that's a bearskin. So you can calm down and stop accusing people of not reading your book.” He bent over his appetizers again.

“That's a bearskin? A bear—are there bears around here?”

“Ponty, how long have you lived in this state? Yes, there are bears around here. Black bears.”

“Well, how come he looks gray?”

“He didn't use Grecian Formula—I don't know.”

“Well, I think it's odd. I don't know. It just seems like it must be a sign,” said Ponty, affecting a look of intense, almost rapturous depth.

Jack finished, or rather half finished, chewing. “Ponty, there's a bearskin on the wall of every tavern from here to Mankato,” he said as chunks of congealed taco meat rolled down the back of his hand, leaving red-brown slug trails of grease. “It's a sign that you don't get out much, is all it is.”

“Maybe,” said Ponty, disappearing into his own thoughts.

W
HEN RALPH ARRIVED
and took over bartending duties, Sandi led Jack and Ponty back to her office, the storeroom of the bar. They pulled up two gray metal office chairs in front of her gray metal desk, and, amid #10 cans of wax beans and plastic pails of dill pickles—sliced—they got to their official business.

“I understand there was a gold mine here at one time, is that correct?” asked Ponty.

“Yes, it's still there, just outside of town,” Sandi answered.

Ponty scribbled silly unintelligible lines into a notebook. “Mmm-hmm, mm-hmm, still there, I see,” he said. “And, and . . . did it yield a lot of gold?”

“I don't believe so, no. I think the rock they were trying to extract it from was too hard.” She shifted forward. “Say, what is this for anyway? Why are you writing about Holey?”

“Well, I think it has a fascinating history,” Ponty said, and, out of nervousness, he pretended to write another note on his pad. “The discovery of gold right here in Minnesota.”

“Yes, but there sure wasn't much to it. The way I understand it, they were here in 1865 and by the next year the whole thing was kaput. All they had to show for it was some broken mining equipment.”

“Kaput. You used the word ‘kaput.' Are you German?”

“No, my grandmother was. You?” she asked with a tilt of her head.

“My father. My mother was Irish, mostly,” he said, his fingers nearly twiddling.

“Ponty is such an unusual name. Is it short for something?”

“Yes, Pontius, as in Pilate. My father was always intrigued by Pilate's ambiguity, his helplessness. I guess when I was born, he saw that in me, so he named me Pontius.”

“Well, if there's any ambiguity to you, I'm sure the majority of it is on the good side,” she said, smiling. “What are some of the books you've written so far?”

Ponty sat up straight to look more important. “Well, perhaps you've heard of
Worse than Her Bite: The FBI's Vilification of Ma Barker
?”

“I haven't, but that sounds fascinating. Is your wife a writer as well?”

“I'm not married, actually. What about your partner, Ralph, is he a writer?”

“Well . . . no, he's a bartender.”

“Oh, right.”

“We own this place together. We're not . . .”

“Oooh. I'm sorry. In the Twin Cities, ‘partner' means . . . I'm sorry.” Ponty began fidgeting and blushing, so Jack threw in.

“Wasn't there some weird story about a guy who fell into a mine and was attacked by a giant rat?” he asked. Ponty stopped fidgeting and sat up straight, looking at Jack with alarm.

“I'm sorry, a giant rat?” Sandi asked.

“Yeah, we were doing some research and came upon the story of some guy—don't remember his name—was attacked by a rat in the gold mine.”

“Um, no, not that I ever heard,” she said, raising her eyebrows, looking uncertain as to whether he was having her on.

“Ah, but you don't know that this
didn't
happen, do you?”

“I'm pretty sure it didn't,” she said, laughing.

“Well, there are a lot of weird and unexplained things in this world. It would be pretty arrogant of us to rule out this giantrat thing just because—”

“Jack,” said Ponty.

“There is starting to be a lot of evidence about capybaras now that is blowing to smithereens basically everything that scientists had ever known about rodentia. Why do—”

“I think we ought to just go ahead and be straight with her,” Ponty said.

Jack considered this. “I thought we agreed
not
to be straight about this?”

“When?”

“In the Tempo,” Jack said in a stage whisper. “Look, can't we—you know,” he said, tossing his head toward Sandi.

“No. Whatever we said in the Tempo is water under the bridge. I just can't continue to lie anymore,” Ponty said, quickly adding, “to her, I mean.” He turned toward Sandi, who sat staring at them with a half-frightened, half-amused look, and told her everything about his writing, his decision to do a really stupid book, his inability to sell it, making his deal with Jack, and Jack's tremendous blunder with the sale. The only thing he left out was the embarrassing incident in which he ran over the police officer, so Jack told her that.

“Thank you, Jack,” Ponty said when he was done. “The upshot of all this—what we're asking is, please, if anyone should ask, publishers, reporters . . . lawyers, or what have you, could you possibly just go ahead and tell them—Well, here, I've written it down.”

He leafed through his notebook, found a typewritten sheet of paper, and handed it to her tentatively, as though she might slap his hand in the process. She studied the paper like a judge looking over a piece of evidence, read through it, mouthing a few words, saying a few out loud in a low voice: “. . . was named Lynch, and he . . . tracked the creature to a . . . eventually . . . battle with the giant rat . . .”

When she was finished, she handed it back to Ponty, braced both hands against her desk, pursed her lips, and stared as if in deep thought.

After a moment Jack shifted in his chair and asked her abruptly, “So? Will you do it?”

She broke her reverie. “Sure,” she said, slapping the desk with both hands for emphasis. “For ten percent of everything
the book makes.” She smiled pleasantly. Ponty and Jack stared at her for a moment. Then at each other. Then back at her.

“Done,” they said in unison.

“Good,” said Ponty, rising and handing her the sheet of paper. “You'll probably want to keep that.”

“Yes, thank you,” she said pleasantly.

“We'll get you a copy of the book contract and sort out the details tomorrow. How does that sound?”

“Perfect,” she said. “So where are you staying?”

“Can you recommend a place?”

“Yes. I would try the Bugling Moose Lodge. It's the only place in town.”

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
9.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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