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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

Mike Nelson's Death Rat! (22 page)

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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Ponty saw Ralph's face materialize in front of his own, a bit blurry, but, Ponty noticed through his delirium, it was almost preferable that way.

“You all right, Ponty?”

“I've got to hurry to make my date,” Ponty said, and then he passed out.

CHAPTER 18

I
n the newly cleared area near the entrance to the Holey Mine, tourists and townsfolk alike sat on blankets having picnics under the scorching sun, or wandered in small groups browsing the trinket and concession stands, or stopping by the official King Leo booth, which was selling T-shirts, his entire oeuvre of CDs—including rare bootlegs—a few choice pieces from his clothing line, and his pheromone-rich fragrance for men or women, called DewMe. Over all the proceedings an excited, carnival-like atmosphere prevailed. Everywhere, that is, but at Gerry Iverson's makeshift concession stand, where Walter Kuhnet, manager of the local grain cooperative, took strong issue with the percentage of Iverson's retail markup.

“Iverson, you fruitcake,” Kuhnet began, “I ain't gonna pay three-fifty for a bottle of water.”

“Clear spring water,” Gerry corrected. “And, hey, I've got labor costs
and
I just put in a new drive point.”

“And what in the holy Hector is comfrey?”

“Comfrey is pure deliciousness, Walter. And when you drink it like tea, it encourages the secretion of pepsin.”

“Keep it clean, you hippy freak!” Walter shouted.

“Walter, take it easy, okay? I'll tell you what, why don't you have a tempeh hoagie on me.”

Walter was somewhat calmed by Gerry's expansive hoagie offer. “I'll need water to choke down this longhair food,” he said testily.

“Okay, okay. Have a spring water, too.”

“Okay,” said Walter, sounding mollified. “Thanks, Gerry.”

A tall, salt-and-pepper-handsome-type man was next in line at Gerry's booth. Despite the unseasonable heat, the man looked quite natty and comfortable in a yellow pima-cotton polo shirt and sensible slacks, which appeared to have a touch of elastic for an easy feel.

“Hey, fella,” the man said with advanced smarm. “How's the biz?”

“Can't complain. You?” asked Gerry pleasantly.

Daniel Turnbow was taken aback, as it was clear that Gerry Iverson did not recognize him or his famous hair.

“Good. Good. Daniel Turnbow . . . ?” he said, trying to get some recognition.

Gerry shook his head. “Don't know the fella. He from around here, or is he from up Tokesburg way?”

“No, no.
I'm
Daniel Turnbow. KMSR News?”

“Oh, okay. You work out of Duluth?”

Gerry could not possibly have insulted Daniel Turnbow more had he called him a big, water-added ham with bad hair and a lisp.

“N-ho, no, no, no, no. Out of the Twin Cities. Been there for years. Don't get down that way much?”

“Been off the grid since '84,” Gerry said proudly.

Daniel Turnbow didn't know what this meant but assumed it was some sort of scary north woods hillbilly speak, so he did not pursue it. “So listen, pal. What's King Leo cooking up here anyway?”

“Revival, I'm told.”

“Revival of what?”

“Well, I'm not altogether clear on that. The Funkalicious Spirit Mother or something like— Hang on.” He leaned out the front of the booth and yelled at Ralph, who was putting a trash liner into a large garbage can. “Hey, Ralph. What's King Leo reviving again?”

“The Funka-Lovely-Creative-Spirit-Being, I believe, Gerry.”

“Yeah, the Funka-Lovely-Creative-Spirit-Being,” Gerry repeated to Turnbow.

“Yeah, I got that. What is it, this Funka-Lovely-Creative-Spirit-Being anyway, buddy?”

“Well, it's got something to do with the rat. You know about the rat?”

“Yeah, yeah. The rat. Read the book, sporto. Know all about the rat. But is the rat the Funka-Lovely-Creative-Spirit-Being?”

“I'm not sure. I always thought it was just a rat. Big rat, though. Seen the skin?”

“Skin?”

“The ratskin . . . pelt, hide—whatever they call it when it comes off a giant rat. The town gave it to King Leo in a big ceremony just the other day.”

“Hey, move it along there, will ya? The revival's about to start,” said a voice from behind Turnbow.

“Oh, yeah. I got customers stacking up. Can I get you something?”

“No, no. Perhaps I can interview you later, mi amigo?”

“Once I close the booth, sure.”

“Super.” Turnbow spun around and flashed a look at the impatient man behind him, a shorter, older fellow with a mustache. The man's head was bandaged substantially in the rear, and the dressing was held in place by one loop of gauze tape encircling his head like a sweatband. “It's all yours, there, Bobby Riggs,” Turnbow said, and he took a step before stopping himself to give the man another look. “Have we met?”

Ponty started upon recognizing the man as Daniel Turnbow, who, if he was any kind of newsman at all, would know Ponty either from their brief encounter at Fetters's office or from his mug shot. Ponty half turned his face away as he answered, “Hm. No.”

“Did I meet you at the Western Cable Show in Anaheim?”

“No. But I get that a lot,” said Ponty, pretending to wave at someone in the distance.

“I don't know . . . ?” Turnbow said doubtfully, cocking an eyebrow.

“Not me,” said Ponty with an apologetic shrug.

“Hm, have it your way,” Turnbow said, and left with some irritation, seemingly over the fact that Ponty refused to be a person he'd met at the Western Cable Show in Anaheim.

Ponty stepped up to Gerry's concession. “Gerry, can I have a water?”

“Whoa. What happened, Ponty?” Gerry asked, grimacing at Ponty's bandages.

“Hey, careful. I'm Earl today.”

“Oh, right. The mustache is the key, isn't it? Well, what happened, Earl?”

“I slipped in the tub.”

“Man! What were you doing in there?”

“I was—”

“Hey! No. Never mind. None of my business.”

“No, look—”

“Stop! Not another word. Don't want to know. That's three-fifty for the water.”

“What?”

“I just put in a new drive point.”

“But I just gave you all that money for the— And what the heck is a drive point? Oh, fine. Here.” He thrust a five at Gerry.

“I don't have change yet.”

“Well, neither do I.”

“I'll catch you next time, Earl,” he said. “Okay, who's next!?”

Ponty hurried to get a spot near the stage (on the way dumping his water into a trash can, unable to get used to the strong notes of sulfur and a flavor suggesting several parts per million of dissolved fish). On the instruction of King Leo, the stage itself was situated in a semicircle around the boarded-up opening of the mine, in the event that if the Funka-Lovely-Creative-Spirit-Being made another appearance, he'd be in a position to “meld with it, in a cosmic embrace.” Unfortunately, had it been constructed in such a manner as to accommodate this cosmic embrace, the stage would have violated the building code. A railing with a latched gate was built, so that King Leo could be safe but still have access to the Spirit-Being.

After a series of mike checks, in which Billy Moonbeam
nearly drove Ponty mad with the odd and incessant rhythm of it (“Check TEST, check, check, check, HEY, hey, HEY, hey, HEY, CHECK! SIBILANCE! SIBILANCE! Sibilance, CHECK!” over and over and over), King Leo's band came rushing out and laid down a thick bed of funk. A PA announcer then introduced King Leo, in what turned out to be a six-minute introduction that unfortunately led listeners to believe that it was over some fifteen times before it actually was. This was particularly hard on Ponty, what with his fresh head injury and a low threshold of tolerance for King Leo in the first place. Finally the Sovereign Ruler of Groove himself bounded onto the stage with a high-pitched scream.

Pontius Feeb did not often have flashbacks, and his ordered mind rarely indulged in free association, but now, as King Leo appeared before him wearing rainbow-colored silk pants that flared outward at the ankle a ridiculous amount—fringed with a great deal of frilly lace—a yellow peasant top, and a shockingly red kerchief tied around his head Aunt Jemima style, Ponty found himself remembering an incident that had occurred in 1978, at a small county fair in St. Charles, Illinois. Ponty, who was going to fetch his wallet from the car, was mooned by two clowns in a station wagon filled with clowns. He desperately hoped that the memory of seeing King Leo dressed as a kind of Mardi Gras hooker would not end up to be as indelible as the clown mooning.

“Yooooooouuuuuuu look like candy, baby/Ooooooooh, I want to unwrap you, baby,” King Leo sang, then grabbed a guitar off its stand and began a long, savage solo that made Ponty's head wound throb. When it was finished, he shucked off the guitar and threw it across the stage, and most of the frugal people
of Holey were distracted by the action, wondering how much an item like that costs and what the repair bills might be.

It came as a surprise to Ponty that King Leo would lie down and begin grinding his pelvis into the stage so soon into his revival. Ponty had never been to a revival, but he believed unquestionably that the presider did not normally do this to any portion of the stage or equipment at any time during the event. In that respect King Leo was certainly a maverick in the area of revivals. His theatrical grindings continued until they were just beginning to tax the patience of the crowd. Then they ended, the band kicked it down, and King Leo wailed out the rest of the highly suggestive lyrics of his opening song, comparing a woman to a wrapped confection.

As unusual an opening as it was, it seemed to please the crowd. They cheered him on for some time, and he acknowledged the applause gratefully, while simultaneously toweling off.

“I love you, Holey!” he bellowed out, as though he were playing a show at Budokan Arena. The crowd of fifty or so let him know in return that they were, all things considered, somewhat fond of him as well. Ponty could manage only a lackluster “Yay.”

“Before we continue with our revival, my friends, I've asked my guide, my guru, my leader in the ways of this mystic mine of yours, my friend Jack Ryback, to read an invocation. Jack!” he yelled and gestured offstage. Jack tramped up looking sheepish and stood in front of King Leo's microphone.

“Thank you, King Leo,” he began tremulously, then pulled a folded sheet of paper from the back pocket of his jeans. He unfolded it and read slowly and somewhat flatly. “‘We gather together as one before the thunderbolt path of pulsating rightness, in the divine hope that—'” He was interrupted by
King Leo, whose whispers could be heard over the microphone.

“‘Dee-vine.'”

“What's that?” Jack stage-whispered back.

“‘Dee-vine,' not ‘divine.' It's a different energy.”

“Is it?”

“Oh, yes, Jack.”

“All right, then.”

“Gotta get the right energy.”

“Understood.” Jack got back to his paper: “‘. . . in the deevine hope that forces, space, time, and matter align in a manner that allows for the transmutation of our beings to a level concomitant to the Funka-Lovely-Creative-Spirit-Being. That the Rodent of Divine'—dee-vine, sorry—‘Power, um . . .” He stopped, seeming even more uncomfortable. “‘. . . the Rodent of Dee-vine Power, um, suckles our beings with—'”

There was an involuntary moan of disgust from the crowd. Ponty let out a fairly loud “
What
the . . . ?” and even Wigs Jackson said quietly into his headset mike, “Oh, man.”

Jack shrugged almost imperceptibly at the crowd then turned to King Leo with a questioning look, but King Leo was wearing an expression of bliss and didn't seem to notice that anything was wrong.

“That's right, Jack. You're doing a great job.”

Jack coughed softly and looked back down at his paper. “‘. . . the Rodent of Dee-vine Power suckles our beings with—'”

A nearly identical moan of disgust was heard, with Wigs again voicing disapproval, this time by saying, “Ohhhhh, come oooonnnn.”

Jack kept going this time. “‘ . . . with,'” he repeated, “‘the
alchemical miracle of body energy.'” When he had finished, he continued to look at the paper for a moment before turning it over in his hands to check the other side. Satisfied that he'd read everything that was required of him, he waved, said, “Okay then,” and left the stage.

“Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack! Jack Ryback. His book,
Death Rat,
changed my life. And now we're going to change your life by funking it up, down, over the other side, and backward.”

As clumsy as King Leo's transition was, the funk that followed was undeniable. Ponty guessed that it would last a while, so he strolled around, looking for a friendly face. After a moment of wandering, he came upon Ralph, who was eating an unidentifiable, but large item from Gerry's concession.

Ponty inclined himself toward Ralph's ear. “Hey, Ralph.”

“Hey,” said Ralph, red lentils falling haphazardly out of his snack. There was a pause as Ralph chewed and looked up at the stage. “I've never been to one of these. What happens now?”

“I don't know.”

“It's loud.”

“Yeah.”

Another pause as Ralph chewed and watched King Leo gyrate suggestively.

“I'm not a huge fan of funk,” Ralph averred.

“No?”

“Not a fan at all, in fact.”

“I guess I'm not either,” agreed Ponty.

King Leo was now mock-spanking Tarzan Moe with the headstock of his guitar.

“Do I have to stay for the whole thing?” Ralph asked a bit pathetically.

“I think we'd better stay. Got to mollify King Leo, you know.”

Jack appeared next to them. “Wow, huh?” he said. “You don't hear something like that every day.”

“You did a nice job,” Ralph offered.

“I was little nervous. I'm not used to reading psychotic ramblings in front of a crowd.” He noticed the amorphous red lump of food in Ralph's hand. “Ralph, are you eating your own hand? What is that?”

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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