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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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CHAPTER 22

S
andi Knutson was furiously rearranging her cat figurines. She hadn't spoken to Ponty since he'd stood her up for their date more than a week ago. It made her angry, even though she knew he had a good excuse. (He was unconscious.) Still, a date was a date, she thought. He could have called and made other arrangements.

She was moving Alistair Q. Kitty, the yellow tabby, off the shelf by the recliner and into the growing window next to the plants when she was startled to see a famous author's head suddenly appear before her.

“Ah! Gus Bromstad?” she said to the head that was currently hovering outside in her yard.

Now the head was joined by a hand, waving at her. It really was Gus Bromstad, standing on her lawn, looking mightily
overdressed for such a warm day in his Greek fisherman's cap and his Irish sweater.

She pointed him around to the side door and met him there.

“As I live and breathe. Gus Bromstad. What are you doing at my home?” she asked him.

“Are you Mayor Sandi Knutson?”

“Yes, I am she.”

“May I be so forward as to ask if I might have a few moments of your time? I know you're busy, what with the bar and the mayoral duties and King Leo's popular new religion.”

“Oh, please. Do come in,” she said cordially, if a bit stiffly.

She led him into the living room and showed him a seat among the bric-a-brac. He smiled warmly at it all.

“Is that Purressa White Boots?” said Bromstad, pointing to a black-and-white ceramic cat on an overcrowded end table.

“Why, yes that is. How did you know that?” she asked.

“Oh, I've signed so many of them. They're very popular with mid—” and he was able to stop himself, redirecting the word “miss—miss—misses. With the misses. And the men, of course. Ladies and men. I've noticed that everyone seems to enjoy the whole Pretty Kitty line.”

He finished stammering his cover, and she fetched them both some weak coffee that Bromstad was able to fortify with sugar and generic white creamer powder and pretend to enjoy. She told him how much she loved his books, and he pretended not to be impressed with himself. When that was over, he got down to business.

“The reason I'm here is the same reason so many are. I'm fascinated with the history of this town, what happened with those two men, and, of course, that giant rat. So big.”

“Yes.”

“Big, big rat.”

“Very, yes.”

“Massive. Very, very, very, unusual.”

“Yes.”

“His ears must have been the size of milk cartons.”

“That big, do you think?”

“I'm thinking half-gallon size.”

“Oh, right. I suppose they could have been. I would have thought about the size of a . . . well, like the size of my coffee cup,” she said, holding it up for him to see how big a coffee cup is.

“Well, no matter. We could speculate on rat ear sizes all day and not get to the bottom of it. What I was wondering is, as the mayor, Ms. Knutson, I'm sure—”


Mrs.
Knutson, actually.”

“Oh. But they said you, you—”

“My husband is dead.”

He seemed relieved. “Oh, well, too bad. Anyway, I'm sure you have all the documentation of the Holey rat event. The newspaper clippings. Court records of any transactions the men might have made, that type of thing? I mean, I could go to the courthouse and get them, but I took a guess that you might be safe-holding them here in Holey.”

“I . . . uh, I don't believe we have them here in Holey,” she said, doing a very unconvincing “thinking” face.

“Really? Well, lash me to a pig and roll me in the mud. I thought sure they would be. So when that Ryback fellow was doing his research, where was he getting his information, do you happen to know?”

“I suppose he must have gotten it from the courthouse in New Sligo.”

“Really? But you've seen the materials, haven't you?” Bromstad asked.

“Oh. Seen the materials? The clippings and things that he used?”

“Yes.”

“That's what you're talking about? Like that kind of thing?”

“Yes, yes. The research material.”

“Oh, yes. I've seen it.”

“No kidding. What kind of stuff was it? What did it look like?”

“Oh, well, it was old,” she volunteered.

“I'll bet.”

“It was about this big,” she said, holding up her hands.

“Newspaper stories? Pictures? What kind of stuff was it?”

“I don't remember. I just remember being very convinced that the story was true.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Quite. Very convinced.”

“But you don't remember what the material consisted of?”

“No, I'm sorry. I wish I could be more specific.”

“So someone showed you a scrapbook full of giant-rat memorabilia and reportage, and you swiftly forgot it?” he said, his voice gaining an edge of incredulity. “But you retain the thorough belief in the story you don't remember? Is that correct?”

“Well, I guess,” said Sandi nervously.

He held up his hands to represent the material. “Remember the
result
of the stuff; don't remember the
stuff
, is that it?”

“I suppose so.”

“Okay. Okay. Let's pretend I'm a guy. I walk up to you and say, ‘Hey, lady, want to see some stuff I have that proves there was a guy a long time ago who killed an impossibly large animal?'
I ask. And you say, ‘Sure.' So I show you the material, and you're looking at it and saying, ‘My goodness, that story sure was true. I can see it right here in these newspaper clippings and eyewitness reports.' Then I take them away from you and ask you, ‘So, you're convinced, then, eh, lady?' and you say, ‘Oh, yes. Very convinced.' And I say, ‘What was it that really got you?' and you say, ‘Oh, I don't remember.'
You know why?
” Bromstad's voice rose. “‘'Cause I just forgot what kind of things you just showed me. Did you show me an antique sock? A picture of your Aunt Frieda? I don't remember, you see. I know it was old. And I know it was about this big. But I'll be darned if I can recall whether it was an old piece of scrimshaw or Danny Kaye's hat. Gosh, I sure do believe unquestionably in all the stories about that large animal, though.' Is that it? Is that pretty much what went down? That's what you're asking me to believe?”

She gave him a hard look and after a pause said, “Yes. You described it to a tee just now.”

“Well.” Bromstad considered this for a long while. “Yes. That is something. When you think you've heard everything. Yes. I wonder if you could do me a small favor?”

“What?” she said coldly.

“Could you possibly
cut the crap, lady
? Do I look like I just fell off the turnip truck to you?”

“A little.”

“Where is he, lady? Where's Pontius Feeb? Is he in here? Is he hiding? Hello? Rat-book author? Treacherous rat-book author? The jig is up, my friend!” he yelled in the direction of the back of the house. It occurred to Bromstad that perhaps he wasn't adhering as closely to his plan to charm her as he might have liked.

“Could you please leave now, Mr. Bromstad?”

“Not until I give you all the facts, Little Miss Ratty Pants,” said Bromstad, veering unexpectedly off into the puerile. “This Feeb character is in a lot of trouble. Think huge, gigantic piles of trouble—and then double them. That's how much trouble he's in. My friend the governor is fully prepared to try him on the charge of cultural sedition, and if you're in this thing as thick as I think you are, you'll be having steamed burritos at the Shakopee woman's prison every Tuesday for the next thirty years.”

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” she said.

Bromstad, knowing that it would be a tough sell, tried to switch to charm anyway.

“Sandi,” he said with sudden softness. “Sandi, my dear, dear, lady. This Pontius Feeb is a dangerous, hair-trigger, criminal possessing a total disregard for the law and an unnatural obsession with other people's underwear. You don't want to get mixed up with a man like that, no matter how much money he's paying you. And unattractive? Goodness! He looks like an artist's rendering of a crazy uncle.”

“I don't know about that,” said Sandi.

“Sandi, Sandi, Sandi. You don't want to spin out your retirement years in a room with striped sunlight. I know how it is with these men from the big cities. They come into a town like this, drag their spotty little abdomens around, and begin spinning webs of bitter, bitter deceit. They imagine that the ‘innocents' in this wee burg aren't smart enough to see what they're up to, but if there's anything that my writing about small towns has taught me, it's that you are smarter than that. You can see a Ponty Feeb for what he is. A poisonous, silver-tongued mountebank. Now, if you—”

“What the heck's a mountebank?”

“I beg your pardon. Perhaps I should have said a . . . a Janus-faced bamboozler.” He was losing her, and he knew it. “A swindler. A cheater.”

“Now, look, Bromstad, I told you, I don't know anything about it. I thank you for stopping by but I want you out of my house,” Sandi said firmly.

“How much? How much is he paying you?”

“Leave.”

“I'll double it. I'll triple it. Just give up the goods on this Feeb. I'll quadruple it.”

“I have nothing more to say to you.”

“I'll quintuple it.”

“Out.”

“I'll septuple it!”

A ceramic cat parted the air next to his ear and crashed into the wall behind him.

Bromstad's eyes widened. “Your Pretty Kitties! Are you insane?”

“Get out.”

An unidentified knickknack hit him sharply in the shoulder.

“Ow! You're crazy! He's going to drag you down with him! You're in a deep quagmire, lady. This Feeb is no good!” He saw a Snow Baby tumbling through the air toward him and, pausing to decide whether to dodge left or right, he was caught flatfooted. It smacked him on the bridge of his nose. “Ow!” He retreated toward the exit. “I'm going to see that two-bit hoaxer take a fall, with or without you! Ouch!” he added, for a Lilliput Lane cottage had just caught him in the small of the back. “Have it your way, harridan! But if you think they allow bric-abrac in prison cells, you've got another think coming!”

He turned to see Sandi reaching for another impromptu missile, so he said quickly, “You've got one day to give him up! Then I go to the governor, and I'm going to advise him to put you in a cell so deep they'll have to pump daylight to you! And forget about Pontius Feeb. He'll die in prison!” He saw her propel what appeared to be an Emmett Kelly Jr. clown statuette, so he quickly exited, and it shattered in the spot where he'd been.

CHAPTER 23

S
andi waited till darkness covered Holey and then slipped out her back door. No stranger to the art of camouflage, having had so many hunters pass through her bar, she'd chosen black slacks, a navy blue sweatshirt with a lighter-colored teddy bear on the front that she had taped over with black cloth tape, a black stocking cap, and black face paint. She avoided the wide pool of illumination thrown off by the “scaredy” light on the pole in her yard and slunk through the woods the quarter mile to her neighbors', Lindy and Bette's. They were just pulling up in their Saturn SL1 when Sandi arrived.

“Sandi? Got a minstrel show tonight?” Lindy asked.

“Shhh. Come on inside.”

“Oh, thank you. I
will
go into my house,” he said.

“Oh, Dad. Quiet now. It must be important,” Bette scolded. Though married with four grown children, they still called each
other Ma and Dad in the event that if a child would stop in unexpectedly, they wouldn't be caught accidentally displaying affection for one another. “We just got back from the revival. Looks like it's going to go all night. You, come on inside now, honey,” she said, taking Sandi's arm.

“I think I'm being watched. Can I borrow your car?” she said once they were in the Lindburgs' kitchen.

“You runnin' bathtub gin to the next county again?” said Lindy.

“Dad. Stop it. It sounds serious.”

“Oh, it's nothing,” said Sandi. Bette looked pointedly at the perimeter of Sandi's painted face, then at her taped sweatshirt. “Well, it's something, but it's not that bad,” Sandi added.

“Of course, dear. You take it,” said Bette, handing her the keys, as Bette was always the one who drove.

“Careful, though. It's got impact-
resistant
panels. That don't mean you can roll it or crash into other cars,” said Lindy, who had just made himself a brandy and water.

Checking to make sure she wasn't being followed, Sandi drove at once to the Bugling Moose.

P
ONTY WAS SO
used to oddities that when he heard the sound of fingernails dragging eerily over the pane of his cabin window, he assumed it was some undead creature of the night who'd had trouble shape-shifting into a bat and been unable to fly through the chimney. Or, he reasoned, it might be a timid bear, shyly trying to lure him to the window for an easy meal. Or, more remotely, it could be Eartha Kitt kindly scraping bugs off his window for reasons only Eartha Kitt could fathom. Whatever the case, Ponty didn't really care. He wasn't interested
in whatever the window's eerie scratcher was trying to sell.

When the scratching sounds changed and became a tapping at the window, ruining his concentration so that Ponty had to stop writing, he became annoyed, but still not enough to get up and get to the bottom of it. When the tapping changed fully into knocking, accompanied by a voice saying, “Ponty? Ponty, it's Sandi. Please open up,” Ponty finally was forced to consider alternative theories about its source. He opened the sash.

“Ponty, didn't you hear me?” Sandi asked.

“Um, I was otherwise engaged.”

“I saw you sitting right there. Well, never mind. May I come in?”

“Oh, certainly,” said Ponty, grasping her arm and helping her through. The procedure of actually getting her through the window hit a snag when Ponty failed to support her and she fell on the floor. “Sorry,” he said numbly. “I do have to ask, though I think I know the answer, why do you feel it necessary to crawl through my window as opposed to walking in the front door?”

“Because I didn't want to be seen,” she said, pulling closed the drapes.

“Yes! I was right! That's what I thought.” He noticed the tape on the front of her sweatshirt. “What is that covering? Something dirty?”

“No, it's just for camouflage. Are you all right, Ponty? You seem a bit poleaxed.”

“Oh, yes. I was just doing some writing,” he said. “Um, getting back to my question, whom didn't you want to see you just now?”

“Gus Bromstad,” she said, as the pair moved over to the living area, Ponty choosing the threadbare armchair and Sandi the threadbare couch.

“I suppose I can see that. He's not a pleasant man. But, really, is there much danger of that?” he asked.

“He's here in Holey.”

“I mean, he lives in St. Paul and really doesn't know you—I beg your pardon?”

“Here in Holey. He came to see me.”

“Are you even a fan of his work?” Ponty asked listlessly.

“No. And after his visit I'm even less of one. He's a horrible man. And his head is so big.”

“I could have told you that. You didn't have to have him to your house to find that out.”

“How do you . . . ? Never mind. I'll tell you all about it in a minute. Let's back up. Why didn't you call me after your . . . your accident? Ralph told me you fell in the tub, which I completely understand—most injuries are tub-related, I know. But after that it was like you seemed to just fall off the face of the earth.”

“Well, Sandi, I didn't fall in the tub. It was thugs. They hit me with—I don't know—hard things.”

“Oh, that's horrible. Did they hit you while you were in the shower, or did they drag you out of there?” she said, craning to look at his injury.

“No, no. I wasn't in the shower. I told a lie because I was too cowardly to let everyone—well, you, really—know how dicey this whole thing had become.”

“You think the men who hit you had something to do with the book? You don't think they just wanted to hit you? You know, for money or whatever?”

“No. No, I'm positive it was because of this . . . business. And I guess I pulled away because I was ashamed of myself. I didn't want you to have to spend time with such a miserable, cowardly, wormy . . . coward like me.”

“Ponty!”

“It's true. That's another reason I've been out of sight. I've been writing my confession.”

“Confession?”

“Yes. What I've done is wrong. I know right from wrong, and yet I talked myself into ignoring it—for what? For this? Everything, from the start, I'm the one, the one who did everything: wrote the book—a cynical act to begin with—talked Jack into pretending he wrote it. Being too cowardly to confess my mistake when things went wrong. Talking you and these good people of Holey into lying for us. Despicable. You want to know another thing about it? I couldn't even tell the truth to the people who were going to lie for us. It wasn't our publishers who made the mistake with the book. Jack didn't write any of it. He didn't ‘punch up' the text. He said that because I was doing a bad job of convincing you all to lie. From the very start it was me who made up everything, because I was too cowardly to face my old age like a man and, I don't know, too insecure to admit that I really haven't made much of my sixty years here on earth.”

“Ponty,” said Sandi quietly.

“Well, I'm going to fix things as best as I can. There's a couple of small lies in my confession, but I feel good about them. I've absolved Jack. I've confessed that I fed him the idea for the story, that I showed him forged documentation, but otherwise he did write it. I've said that my motivation was revenge for having seen him act in
Strindberg's Wallet
. I think that should
do the trick. And that he paid me for the material and the research—there's nothing unusual about that. As for the town of Holey, it works the same way. I showed you the proof. Everything else, of course, is all true. The players are all real—Lynch, Fuller. None of you had any reason to doubt me. When I turn this in, you're all free and clear,” he said, holding up his notebook. Though his eyes were cast down, Sandi could see that they were about to spill over with tears.

She was making a motion to touch his face when Ponty's door was flung open and two naked men with guns burst in.

“Well, isn't this cozy?” said Bromstad.

The other man just stood there dangling.

G
US BROMSTAD, WHETHER
he knew it or not, lived in a continual state of mild irritability. This was his baseline, and he never fell below it; circumstances caused it to rise by varying degrees, but catch Bromstad at his best and you still had a man who was moderately prickly.

After his visit with Sandi, upon returning to the Bugling Moose, Gus Bromstad had added to his baseline considerably, and the irritability needle was spiked into the red.

“Morons, all!” he'd announced to Stig as he flopped onto their couch.

“Who are all morons?” asked Stig, looking up from his book,
Man One, Mountain Zero.

“Everyone! Everyone I've ever met since first I drew breath upon this earth.” Stig looked at him questioningly. “The jury's still out on you. But this Knutson woman, bah. She didn't give me anything, and she threw a cat at me! No one's ever thrown a cat at me!”

“Was the cat seriously hurt?” Stig asked.

“A ceramic cat, you jackass! And a clown statue.”

“You have a cut on the bridge of your nose.”

“That would be the Snow Baby,” said Gus, touching his injury lightly. “Idiot! She'd rather take a fall. Well, that's fine with me. Someone in this Podunk little bulge in the road is going to talk, and when that happens, then they're all going to the big house,” Bromstad raged, poking his forefinger into the air for extra emphasis.

“You allow events to influence you too much, Mr. Bromstad. Evenness is the key. We Danish have long understood that. In fact, there is an oft-cited Danish proverb,
Ingen ko på isen,
which means “No cow on the ice.” He shook his head meaningfully.

“‘No cow on the ice'?”

“Ja. Ingen ko pÃ¥ isen,”
Stig repeated.

The men looked at each other. “Perhaps you hadn't noticed that I was waiting for you to explain that,” said Bromstad.

“It means that there is no problem. If one of our cows was out on the ice, that would be something to worry about. As it is, our cows are safe on land. No problems. Do not become agitated until your cows are out on the ice.”

“That's what you Danish people worry about, is it? Cows out on the ice? That's the ultimate tragedy for you?”

“Within the internal logic of that one saying, yes. I don't think you can generalize all Danes through the lens of that one proverb, however. If that were the case, I would judge all Americans by any number of sayings. Take, for instance, ‘Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle' or, more comparably, ‘Why buy the cow when you are able to enjoy the milk for free?' I certainly
could
judge Americans by those, but I have taken care not to, and—”

“All right, all right. Lay off. I think we should go into town,
check out that bar. Maybe poke one of the locals and see if he howls.”

“I'll get my shoes.”

In the car Bromstad mulled over Stig's adage. “Let me tell you something: I got plenty of cows on the ice, you square-headed simpleton Dane! They think it's their pasture right now. The ice is cracking, and there are hooves poking through into the water.”

“Oh, I don't think it's all that—Um, please, watch the road, Gus Bromstad. You nearly hit a rabbit.”

“Good,” said Bromstad. They angle-parked in front of the Taconite Saloon, and as they climbed out of Bromstad's Acura, Stig advised, “Mr. Bromstad, you are agitated. Why don't you let me cast about to see what I can find out. In your state you might rile them.”

“Oh, I shall rile, my friend. Let the riling begin,” said Bromstad, a hard look in his eyes.

“Have it your way.”

They pushed open the door and entered a fairly lively saloon. The pinball machine, pool table, and video games all were occupied, and the sound of Molly Hatchet from the jukebox only added to the mood of rowdy festivity. Stig and Gus helped themselves to the last remaining vacant stools at the bar. Stig, recognizing the barkeep as Ralph Wrobleski, tilted his head and mouthed the words, “It's him,” to Bromstad.

“What's your problem?” said Bromstad, looking down at the front of his sweater and then wiping his mouth. “What? What?”

“Nnnn,” said Stig out of the side of his mouth as Ralph approached and leaned his mass toward them.

“Hey,” he said suspiciously.

“Hello, stout fellow,” said Stig, who was still learning the language. “May I have some vodka on the rocks, and my friend will have . . . ?”

“Same.”

Ralph withdrew with a backward glance toward the pair, and Stig leaned in to Bromstad. “That's the one from the photo, the one with the head,” he said, making a gesture with his hand that was supposed to represent an asymmetrical skull.

Gus, however, was not at his best and could not pick up Stig's gist. “The one with the head? Have you gone mad, you fish-creaming freak?”

Ralph returned before Stig could clarify. Stig broke off and asked Ralph in honeyed tones, “So why, may I be so bold as to ask, is it this busy?”

“Revival,” said Ralph impatiently.

“Oh, the King Leo–sponsored event at the mine, is it?”

“Yeah. He's going 'round the clock now. People take their breaks here, I guess.”

“I see, thank you. I wonder if I might—”

“So listen, buddy, just what the heck is this flimflam about the rat anyway? I happen to know it's not true, and I've got the goods—” Bromstad began, but he was interrupted when Ralph pulled him halfway over the bar by the front of his sweater, taking dozens of Bromstad's chest hairs out in the process.

“IT'S TRUE, YOU GOT IT, PAL?” bellowed Ralph as he shook Bromstad like a can of paint. “I will not be answering any more questions about that. That rat was real, okay? As real as you or me.”

Bromstad, who had first sounded off with a high-pitched
shriek at the shock of being manhandled by this publican, now made gruff vocalizations each time the air was forced out of his chest.

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