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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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“Then that's for us,” said Ponty. “Sounds nice.”

“Their breakfasts are famous.”

“I look forward to them,” said Ponty. They were about to leave when Ponty stopped and put a finger in the air. “Oh,” he said, “one more thing. As the mayor, do you think you could do us a favor and just tell everyone else in town to cover for us, too?”

L
ATER THAT EVENING
Jack, wearing a red union suit, leaned against the wall and stared out the sliding glass door of cabin number three at the Bugling Moose Lodge.

“Wish we would have gotten a better lake view,” he said wistfully. “The one with the better lake view wasn't winterized.”

“This is never going to work. We're going to jail,” Ponty said from a cocoon of quilts and wool blankets lumped atop his cot.

“Are you kidding? I now have a high degree of confidence in our plan,” said Jack. He turned to look back out the window. “I want to drag me an eelpout out of that ice before we go back home.”

“It's not going to work,” said Ponty.

“If we can get leeches, I don't see why not.”

“Not the—the
plan
. The plan isn't going to work. We're going to get caught,” Ponty said miserably. “And I'm going to freeze to death. Which is probably for the best,” he added.

“No, no. You heard what Sandi said, right?” Jack turned to look at Ponty, but he was buried beneath his bedding and did not respond. “Ponty? Sandi, you know, your sweetheart?” He saw Ponty's eyes peek out from under his quilt. “She got us the town meeting. We pitch it to the rest of this burg and see what happens. She thinks it'll work.”

“She smells the money,” Ponty's muffled voice said.

“Well, so will the rest of the town,” said Jack, turning away from the window and adjusting the seat of his union suit.

“They'll run us out on a rail. After they've tarred and feathered us. And I'm going to freeze to death tonight. Which is probably for the best,” Ponty added.

“Just make it through till breakfast. They're famous for their breakfasts,” said Jack, still looking out the window and thinking of eelpout.

P
ONTY AND JACK
sat in straight-backed chairs on the dais of the Holey Town Hall, feeling every bit like schoolboys about to do a recitation of “The Village Blacksmith” before the faculty. Jack was trying to disguise the fact that he was a bit logy, having consumed a four-egg venison omelette and a towering stack of buckwheat pancakes with wild blueberry syrup for breakfast. Standing at the podium, Sandi addressed nearly the entire town of Holey, most of whom had walked over to their mayor's emergency meeting directly from church.

“Thank you, everyone, let's come to order. Bob,” she said to
a man in the front row of folding chairs, “do we have a quorum?”

Bob, a thin, nervous-looking man in his forties, stood up, his hat literally in hand. “Oh, yes, Mayor. There's thirty-six of us here. Betty Leustek is visiting her daughter in Coon Rapids and . . . um, Gerry Iverson, I don't think he got the message.” He shuffled even more nervously at having to report the news on Gerry Iverson. The crowd exchanged knowing glances.

Jack leaned over to Ponty. “Gerry must be an alkie or something,” he said.

“Shh.”

Sandy continued. “As you all know, I haven't called an emergency meeting for some time—in fact, when was that?” she asked, mostly to herself. An elderly woman near the back stood up.

“It was year before last. The mayfly problem.”

“Right,” said Sandi. “Well, the reason—”

“Got so bad we needed to use money from the next year's snowplowing budget to get 'em off the roads.”

“Exactly. Thank you, Rose.”

“Yup.”

“The reason I called this one will become clear very shortly. I'm going to turn it over now to a writer from Minneapolis. He's written, among other things, a book called—what is it called?” she said, turning away from the microphone and looking at Ponty.

“Oh . . . um,
Worse than Her Bite: The FBI's Vilification of Ma Barker
,” he answered.


Worse than Her Bite. The
—what?” she stage-whispered to him.

Ponty, who lately had had diminishing confidence in speaking his book titles out loud, now had none at all.

“It doesn't matter,” he said, smiling nervously at the town of Holey.

“No, I want to get it right.
Worse than Her Bite. Ma Barker's Vilification
.”

“The FBI's Vilification of Ma Barker,”
he whispered frantically.

“But there's the
Worse than Her Bite
part, right?” she asked. “I liked it. That's why I don't want to mess it up.” The crowd was growing restless. She turned back to speak into the mike. “Anyway, he's written a book called
Worse than Her Bite: The Vilification— The FBI's Vilification of Ma Barker
. Please welcome Ponty Feeb.”

The applause was at best light, the mood reserved.

“Um, thank you,” he said. “We, my friend Jack Ryback and I, are here to ask a favor of you, the town of Holey. We—” Ponty was thrown suddenly when the appearance of a man in the front row caught his eye: He was wearing jeans, soiled work boots, and an extraordinarily dirty and frayed baseball cap. But it was the slogan on his black T-shirt that most arrested Ponty's attention, and he took the time to read it. It read
BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE OF THE
BEER HOLDER and featured a cartoon drawing of a google-eyed man, gargantuan tongue hanging from a snaggletoothed mouth, looking lovingly at a stein of foamy beer. Ponty was amazed that this was the outfit he had chosen for a Sunday-morning meeting, and by the time he had finished reading the shirt and being amazed, he had completely taxed the slim reserves of patience the crowd had for him.

“Well, get on with it,” called a voice.

“Yes. Thank you. You see, I . . . we wrote a book about your town, Holey, and—”

“Yeah, we know where we live,” called the woman sitting next to the BEER HOLDER man.

“Of course,” he said as the crowd laughed halfheartedly. “Your town, as you well know, has a very old and fascinating history. Why, in 1865 there were more than two thousand people living in Holey, many of them in search of gold. Now, years later, there are thirty-eight of you—” Realizing how this might sound, he tried to tack on a more positive addendum. “Which is not a judgment. I'm sure you all had very good reasons for staying. Your families did, that is.” And again realizing he had not successfully patched it up, he tried again. “Or perhaps you or your families came long after that, and why not? It's a lovely place, and I understand the fishing's very good. Which leads me to the thrust of my speech,” he said quickly, abandoning a fair amount of prepared material to get to the thrust of his speech. “We, Jack and I”—he turned and gestured to Jack, who was slumped in his chair now, his eyes at half mast—“have written a book.”

“Well hoo-ray,” someone said, and no one even laughed.

“Yes, thank you. The book we wrote was a story about some citizens of your town, right after the gold rush. Anyway, there's a small inaccuracy in the story, a mistake—I don't want to say whose fault it is. What good is finger-pointing when it comes to minor mistakes of detail in history books, right?”

There was no reaction to this, so he plowed forward.

“But anyway, with a rather large first printing of the book about to come out, we'd like to pay you to back us up on this one little, really rather small inaccuracy in the text. If anyone should ask. And I can't imagine they would. But if they do.
That's about all there is to it. Thank you.” He gave a tiny, nearly imperceptible bow toward the crowd. “Questions?”

“What is it?”

“What is it? Yes, good question. It's a story about two men, essentially. A fellow named Edward Lynch and another named Isaiah Fuller—you know of them both, I would guess—well, it's about the elemental clash of these two strong-willed men. And the history of the gold rush, too.”

“I mean, what's the inaccuracy?”

Ponty inclined his head toward the crowd and put a cupped hand aside his ear in a theatrical gesture. “I'm sorry?”

“The mistake? What's the mistake you want us to lie about?” Ponty laughed nervously. “Well, it's not lying so much as it is, I don't know, covering up a mistake so that the true history of Holey can be told to the world.” He turned to look upstage. “Jack, wouldn't you say that's a good way of putting it?” Jack, arms crossed, long legs thrust straight out, gave Ponty an affirmative nod. “Yes, my partner agrees with me on that point.” Ponty swabbed his sweating forehead, which in the midday light looked fully and expertly greased, with the short sleeve of his pale yellow business shirt.

Now the crowd worked itself up into an irritable buzz. A man in the second row, who Ponty thought resembled Robert Shaw enough to be disturbing, leaned forward and spoke up.

“You still haven't told us what we're supposed to cover up for you,” he said, and the crowd murmured its approval of his analysis.

Ponty put a hand to his chest coyly. “Didn't I? Ah, well, it would probably do best for us to determine whether or not this was of interest to you, and what kind of fee you'd need, before we discussed what you would actually have to say.”

“Well, that ain't the way I see it!” the Robert Shaw simulacrum nearly shouted.

“I don't lie for authors unless I know what the lie is,” said a woman in the third row, stating a policy that seemed to be generally agreed upon by the crowd.

“Yeah!” shouted many, and someone threw a projectile without much force, but it clunked near Ponty and frightened him.

“Hey, now! Let's settle down,” said Ponty, backing up from the podium. Sandi stood up and looked disapprovingly at the assembly.

Ponty was surprised to see that something in this plea seemed to calm the crowd and was about to press this advantage to admonish them further when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Jack smiling benevolently at him.

“Why don't you grab a chair, there, Ponty,” he said smoothly. “Maybe I can explain it to them.”

Ponty moved to his seat without turning his back on the crowd, a hurt look on his face.

Jack began. “Now, you don't know me from a hole in the ground, and what you've seen of Ponty, I gather you haven't thought much of.”

The crowd seemed to agree quite emphatically to this statement.

“You know, that's one of the problems right there,” he said thoughtfully, and then he stepped down off the dais with one lanky stride and approached the man with the beer shirt in the front row, his hand extended. “How are you, friend? Jack Ryback's the name.” Ponty, who was slumped in his chair, breathing heavily from the emotion of his confrontation, now rolled his eyes at Jack's ham-fisted approach.

“Howdy,” the man said, and he shook Jack's hand, nodding
vague approval. Jack repeated the action with the rest of the front row before moving back to the second, shaking hands or just nodding his greeting to the people he couldn't reach, until he had worked the whole crowd. When he was done, he strode back up onstage and reclaimed the podium.

“That's a little more like it. A fella can't very well waltz into town and ask a favor of a stranger before he's even had a chance to shake his—or her—hand.” A few people smiled at this. “Now, Ponty, he's a nice enough guy once you get past all that bluster, and you won't find smarter in all the world, but sometimes he can't communicate worth sour owl guano, pardon my French,” Jack said, using the saltiest colloquialism he knew. “He's a history author—what can you say? Sorry, Ponty, you know I love you,” he said, shaping his hand into a “gun” and pointing it at Ponty. It got a few laughs. Ponty, unable to come up with anything better on such short notice, rolled his eyes again.

Jack slumped his shoulders to show that all the kidding and the good times were over—that it was time for honesty. “Here's what happened: Ponty come to me with this book, this history book about your gold rush.”

Ponty squinted with distaste, noting Jack's deliberately cornpone grammar and thinking he heard a previously absent twang reminiscent of Andy Griffith.

“It was good, but nap-inducing. You know what I mean—again, no offense, Ponty,” Jack continued. “So I suggested he let me take it and spice it up a little, you know. So I came up with this crazy story about—you're gonna laugh at me—but it was about a guy getting attacked by a giant rat.” The town of Holey laughed. “Sure, sure, dumbest thing you ever heard, but you know how sometimes dumb ideas can kind of rattle around
and come back to you and all of a sudden they're not so dumb anymore? Well, that's how the book turned out. And Jack agreed, so I took it to an agent, and he sold the dang thing, and you're never gonna guess what happened next.”

Jack let it hang in the air for a moment, till someone finally said, “What? What happened?”

“I'll tell you what happened: It got into the hands of a New York book publisher—you ever seen one of these guys? No? Well, you take yourself the slickest Philadelphia lawyer you've ever laid eyes on and you slap a tweed coat on his back and throw some leather patches on his elbows, set him in a Manhattan restaurant in front of a fifty-dollar lunch, and I'd have to think you're about as near to a New York book publisher as you could get.”

This incited laughter in most everyone but Ponty, who was convinced that Jack had breezed past Andy Griffith–level hominess and had his sights set on Will Rogers now.

“Well, this agent guy”—and here he turned to look at his partner—“Ponty, what was that poor dope's name? Todd, was that it?”

“Yes, I believe Todd was his name,” said Ponty, making it sound no more convincing than a confession coerced by KGB agents.

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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