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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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“Could you do me a favor? Just come around and open my door.”

“What are you up to?”

“I'm not up to anything. Look, just come around—”

“I'll go get someone,” he said pausing briefly to stare at Ponty with vague distaste as though his predicament were a personal insult.

“No! Wait, please!” Ponty was just about to add “You
are
someone!” but he was gone. Ponty felt reasonably sure that his “someone” meant someone official in some capacity—possibly the police—and this notion hastened his sense of urgency. Police officers made him nervous, and when he got nervous, he would involuntarily smirk. In his experience no officer while dutifully enforcing the community's laws liked to be smirked at by a short, chubby man. Inevitably they would say something like “Am I making you laugh, funny man?” or “Glad I could
give you a chuckle there, Gallagher.” He wanted to avoid this, especially in his vulnerable, freshly fired state.

Ponty made his move. He thrust his right shoulder upward, his abdominals working harder than they had in some time, and attempted to reach his seat-adjustment bar. While that maneuver was an utter failure, it was spectacularly successful at pulling his left foot off the clutch and allowing his right foot to depress the accelerator. The Tempo shot forward more smoothly than it had in some time. Ponty screamed, clutched the right side of the steering wheel, and pulled himself up, at the same time steering himself over the curb. His left hand was still quite pinned.

The Tempo shot toward Beret's outdoor bus stand, missing it by inches. Ponty did not have time to celebrate. His potential death car was heading for the patio tables, and the few lingering diners screamed as Ponty raced toward them. Using his free right hand, he jerked the wheel hard and steered it successfully away from them. Emboldened by this, he made a quick decision to try to steer back onto the road. But his control was only marginal, and for twenty yards or so he cruised straight down the mostly empty sidewalk.

Of the two people between himself and the sweet freedom of Fourth Street, one was a bike cop. Until the Tempo began its odd journey around Beret's patio and bore down upon him, the officer had been perched on his leaning bike talking with the old man in the running outfit. The old man was using huge, grandiloquent hand gestures, apparently in an attempt to describe to the cop how Ponty was lying down in his car. Now both of them stopped and stared. Ponty's eyes and the cop's locked.

In that moment Ponty's confidence in his plan, such as it was, evaporated, as memories of past humiliations rushed in and invaded his senses: the look on the face of a date's father after he'd backed his car over the family dog. The shattered sense of betrayal in the eyes of Mr. Blanding, his favorite high school teacher when on a dare, Ponty had attempted to trap the old man in the boys' bathroom by tipping a bank of lockers against the door—but the door was hinged the wrong way, and poor Mr. Blanding had stepped out and caught him easily. The bottomless disappointment in his father's voice upon taking the splitting maul from Ponty's young hands after Ponty had cleanly missed a sizable chunk of elm eight times in a row. “Just . . . son, just—give me that thing,” he'd said sadly.

Now the old man threw up his arms like a music-hall actor and ran. The cop made a confused attempt to mount his bike but couldn't find the right pedal position, so he held up a hand toward Ponty in a “stop” gesture. The Tempo's radio projected the tinny cheers of the hometown Twins crowd, seeming almost to be nightmarishly urging him on.

Ponty knew that if he stopped, he would most assuredly see that look in the eyes of the cop, the old guy, the representative members of the attractive Beret lunch crowd, that look that said, “You, more than any other person I've yet known, more than any other person could be, are a failure.” He could not bear that.

So he stuck with his plan and kept going, immediately running over the cop.

CHAPTER 2

G
us Bromstad was the first non–team member to be featured as a bobble-head doll and given away to ten thousand fans at a Minnesota Twins game. He wasn't so sure he liked it. Ross Barnier, his agent, had talked him into allowing it, not knowing that Bromstad nurtured a secret fear that his real head was conspicuously outsize when compared with the heads of most other people. The bobble-head dolls would highlight this feature, make it inescapably noticeable on the real version of himself. Within weeks of the dolls' release, he'd be known predominantly for having a big head, as was always the case with Lee Marvin. However, Gus was reluctant to confess in public just how much he'd thought about his head size. So he simply pouted to Ross:

“I'll look silly.”

“Bobble-head dolls are supposed to look silly, Gus. Do you think Bert Blyleven or . . . or Christian Guzman or Doug
Mientkiewicz
worried about that?”

“. . . I don't know.” He recognized only one name out of Ross's three examples, Bert Blyleven, and that only vaguely. He had never really been able to come to grips with sports, and they tended to confound and irritate him as a whole.

“No, they didn't. It's an honor, Gus. You're an icon.”

Bromstad couldn't argue with that. At fifty-two, he had silver-haired, squinchy-eyed, trim, Roger Whittaker–like good looks that were as recognizable as any author's; even more so, Gus was proud to note, than those of prolific military thriller writer Bunt Casey. The elements were an omnipresent fisherman's sweater and Greek fisherman's cap, a look he'd decided
on for the dust-jacket photo of his second book,
Dogwood Downs
. His first book,
Letters from Jenny,
had featured a drab jacket photo, which he always thought made him look like an uninspired junior high school principal. It did not sell well at all, and though a Dwee Award winner, it still had received largely tepid reviews. Gus blamed the photo and planned on someday releasing a special edition of
Letters,
each copy personally autographed (by machine).

But
Dogwood Downs
, featuring his new look, was an absolute sensation, remaining on the bestseller list for 148 weeks, far longer than Bunt Casey's
Go Skyward, Missile.
Since that time, some fifteen years ago, a supremely superstitious Bromstad had doggedly kept his “look” intact, donning the sweater and cap at all events, even throughout the humid Minnesota summers. Once he even wore them to a pool party where the mercury hit 103 and the humidity 90 percent. The navy blue of his cap had made his head an extremely effective solar collector, and despite the alleged “breathability” of wool, he'd become woozy from heat exhaustion and pitched clumsily over a chaise longue before passing out. Ross had carted him home, explaining to the other guests that he'd “probably eaten some bad shrimp,” in order to dodge questions about why he didn't just take off his sweater and cap. Despite the heat-related danger and his staggeringly high dry-cleaning bills, he remained unswervingly loyal to his look.

Though Bromstad had verbally agreed to the bobble-head doll, he had not come to terms with it in his own heart. He'd bullied everyone involved, and late one night he'd even called the subcontractor in charge of manufacturing the thing, after browbeating a young man from the answering service into giving him the number.

“This . . . doll? I understand it will have a big head?” he'd asked accusingly, after introducing himself.

The man laughed.

“Is this funny to you?” Bromstad thundered into the phone.

“What? Oh, you're not kidding. Well, yes, yes, it will have a big head.”

“How big will it be, exactly?”

“Um, I don't keep my doll specs here at home, but it'll be about six inches.”

“The head? The head will be six inches? The head?” Bromstad asked in a nearly hysterical voice.

“No, um, sorry, the doll will be about six. Sorry, it's late; I'm a little confused. The head—I-I don't have the specs with me—but it should be about two-and-a-half inches.”

“And the body?” Bromstad pressed.

“Well, that should be about three inches, with a small base, um, about half an inch. Making six inches, total.”

“That's an unacceptably huge head. I'm sorry.”

“Now remember, the doll is six inches. The head, as I said, is gonna run just two-and-a-half inches.”

“Who has a head that big? Who? Why is it so important that the head be disproportionate? Why?”

“It's just been that way for as long as I've been in the bobble-head game. I'm telling you, Mr. Bromstad, you make the thing realistic and to scale and all that—it's gonna look mighty disturbing. It's a funny thing about dolls.”

“So the answer is to make the head long and . . . and . . . and swollen? No, I won't have it. That head will have to be smaller. It just has to be.”

The man whistled through his teeth. “If you want to shrink
that head down, you're talking about new plans, new molds, and retooling. The molds are all . . .”

“And why the palsy? What is that supposed to be?”

“Palsy? Oh, you mean the bobbling? Well, I don't know. I guess, whimsy, if I had to take a guess. Maybe it's supposed to be amusing.”

“I don't find that funny! And the head's just too big! It'll have to be smaller,” Bromstad nearly shrieked. “As it is, it's nearly fifty-percent head. Is that what you people think I look like? A Brobdingnagian head floating above a tiny, shrimp body?”

“Brob—?”

“You're going to have to scale it back, or my skull will be—” And then his voice abruptly cut out and was replaced by some dull thuds and then some minor crashing sounds.

“Mr. Bromstad?” But that was the end of the call.

Alarmed, the man had thought about calling the police and had just resolved to do so when he fell asleep. Ross had called him early the next morning, the second time a representative of the Bromstad camp had awoken him in seven hours, to apologize. He left out the detail that Bromstad often prowled his Victorian mansion in St. Paul late into the night, making abusive phone calls to those he considered underlings.

After much wheedling on Ross's part and a great deal of expert whining on Bromstad's—including a tense week before the actual giveaway when Bromstad had become convinced that recipients of the doll would assume they were being handed a small likeness of Pete Seeger—it was finally game day: officially the Gus Bromstad PederCo Bobble-head Doll Giveaway Day.

Bromstad, the honored guest of PederCo—a local hospitality conglomerate with substantial travel agency, hotel, and restaurant holdings—and its owner, Darlene Pedersen, stood in her moderately luxurious skybox picking through a pile of steaming chicken wings.

“Are there any drummies?” he said to no one in particular.

Of the fifteen or so other people in the room, sitting in the row seats watching the game or hanging about the beverage table, not one seemed to have any idea to whom or about what he was talking. Ms. Pedersen's assistant, a pleasantly bland woman of twenty-eight whose ID badge read
JENNIFER
, moved efficiently over to Bromstad, placed a hand lightly on his shoulder, and said, “Mr. Bromstad, can I get you something?”

“Drummies? There are usually a couple of 'em floating around in here. Somebody already pick 'em out and got 'em rat-holed somewhere?” he asked accusingly.

“I . . . I'm afraid—” Jennifer stammered.

“Is this hard?” he asked, his hat trembling ever so slightly.

“Oh . . . um,” said Jennifer, not wanting to respond honestly.

Ms. Pedersen, with her extensive knowledge of appetizers, tried to clarify matters, voicing gently but firmly from across the suite, “Chicken legs are also known as drumsticks, Jennifer. Mr. Bromstad would like some of those.”

“Oh. I'll go talk to catering.” Jennifer bustled out of the room on the hunt for the desired chicken parts.

Human interaction often went this way for Gus Bromstad: unpleasant, coming in fits and starts, leading to blunt tension and, often, tears. It used to concern him, his inability to communicate with people in any meaningful way, other than to
make them cry. But then success had come, and he hadn't worried about it since. It was perhaps most troubling in the area of romance. He'd had four dates in the last fifteen years (coincidentally, all of them had been with local television news anchors), and none of them had gone very well. For an hour or so during one of them, he held hope for a relationship with Rebecca Sparks, the coanchor of the ABC affiliate. She was attractive, meticulously groomed, bright, flirty. Bromstad had felt himself becoming interested, but then, when he'd tried to act flirty in return, not his specialty, he'd bungled it and come off as menacing. She cooled on him; he blamed her and became sullen. They parted on chilly terms. For several months afterward he'd watch her broadcasts, eat pizza rolls, and wonder if she was thinking of him.

Years ago there had been his common-law wife, Marion, but that had been a match of convenience; they'd remained a couple mainly because after college, on a whim, they'd purchased a duplex together. They'd met in the St. Odo the Good marching band, and the first time he'd kissed her, they were both wearing three-foot-tall white, fur-covered hats. Later he wondered if that wasn't perhaps the first of many, bright, legible signs that theirs wasn't exactly a romance for the ages.

Still, after she moved out, he was morose. He had a night job at a low-wattage radio station at the time, and when he wasn't working, he padded around the duplex wearing flannel pajamas and mixing himself strawberry daiquiris, sometimes as early as nine-thirty in the morning. When the renters on the other side of the duplex moved away, he didn't bother renting it out again; he simply moved over to that side, leaving the newly vacant portion nearly condemnable.

But he did find love again, a far deeper love than Marion could ever have given him. With Marion, even had it lasted, there would always have been her stinky herbal teas, her cut-off military pants, her belief that
Watership Down
was one of the greatest novels of the century. His true love had none of these rather serious blemishes. No, his love was perfect and pure, unchanging.

His public. That was his true love. They understood him, they did not judge or condemn; they simply adored him. And in return he loved them—or rather loved their love of him. Not as individuals and not in person, however. To him that was horrible. It was too close. Like trying to see your lover by examining her scalp with a microscope or by looking under her toenails. No, his lover was best loved from afar, and as a whole. Not as each separate, lumpy, often unattractive sub-unit.

His love was here today, ringing a field of green beneath him. When they'd introduced him before the game, the roar from the crowd was their declaration of love, and it satisfied him deeply. They cheered loudly when he threw out the first pitch, despite the fact that it was a good thirty-five feet short and half again as many wide of the plate. Love was like that, always forgiving and supportive. It was a glorious display of their love and a glorious day, despite the strong smell of beer, which he detested. In fact, he avoided alcohol altogether, mainly because the first time he'd tried it, he felt out of control the whole time, and when he woke up, he discovered that he had wet the bed.

“Mr. Bromstad, I think today's event can be classified as a great success, don't you?” asked Darlene Pedersen, eager to get past the unpleasantness with the chicken legs.

“Well, I have very little experience with bobble-head doll
promotions,” he said without a hint of humor. Most of the people in the suite laughed, but he was able to shrug off the jocularity and continue to be prickly. “But, yes, I suppose it's going as well as one would hope.”

Bromstad, snackless but with drink in hand, sat down again next to his hostess in what he imagined was supposed to be the seat of honor. Since the suite had three rows of identical purple plastic stadium seats, the only clue that he was being feted was that he was positioned roughly in the middle of the row next to the stately Ms. Pedersen. As he fumbled to his chair, struggling to keep his Mr. Pibb upright, she smiled understandingly, dispensing a benevolence that made him resent her without even having to register it consciously. Roughly his same age, pinched but pretty, with graying blond hair, she possessed an easy grace, a dignified mien that made Bromstad feel quite large and clumsy in comparison, which indeed he was.

Flanking Ms. Pedersen were PederCo's high-ranking officers. Bromstad had been introduced to them all but was unable to recall anyone's name—or rather he recalled one name, Carlos, but had applied it to the wrong person twice already.

“Isn't it wonderful how Minnesota embraces her own?” Ms. Pedersen asked, her tone low and pleasant.

“Yes. Yes it is,” Bromstad answered, assuming she meant him.

“Yes, you are a true Minnesota original, Mr. Bromstad. We're lucky to have you.” Bromstad nodded, ostensibly in thorough agreement, during the lengthy pause that followed. “As you might know, we, too—PederCo, that is—originated right here in Minnesota, back in 1921, when my grandfather, August—”

“Who's that guy?” Bromstad asked with sudden, jarring
energy. Darlene stopped short, obviously annoyed that she was unable to complete what she thought was a better-than-average corporate history.

“I'm sorry. Who?” she asked reasonably, for Bromstad was not pointing at anyone. “Ron? Our business-affairs manager?” she attempted, smiling wanly at a slender fellow in khakis and a light blue shirt leaning against the side wall eating a piece of deep-fried ravioli.

“No, down there.” Now Bromstad gestured down toward the field. “The guy in the mask.”

“Well,” Ms. Pedersen explained patiently, “that's the catcher.”

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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