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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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CHAPTER 25

M
ost mines of the era were constructed with something called an adit, a horizontal opening through which to enter the mine without falling tens of feet and hurting oneself. The Holey Mine had been constructed hurriedly in the race to find the richest lode, so sacrifices were made. It was given only a vertical shaft, out from which levels, or horizontal tunnels, were cut, and it was entered by standing in a kibble, or
Cornish bucket, and being lowered by winch. Months after his fall Ponty would curse the Holey Mine's lack of a good, quality, horizontal adit, but at this point he did not know it lacked one. He fell into the mine painfully, without even giving the shoddy mine construction a thought.

“Oof!” was the sound he made when he landed, for Bromstad had fallen on top of him. Once he'd pushed Bromstad off, he felt a strong desire to lie there on his back, moaning for at least a minute or two, but there was no time. Bromstad almost immediately began choking him.

“You rotten usurper! You ruined my life!” Bromstad said as he squeezed Ponty's neck. That it was Bromstad choking him Ponty established by deductive reasoning only, for he could see nothing but utter blackness. He arched his body, pushed Bromstad off his chest, stood up, and ran, smashing his head into the low ceiling of the level running off the main shaft. Feeling in front of him, he discovered just how low the level was and, crouching, made his way down it, his pace understandably slow.

“Where are you? Usurper! Lying, thieving usurper! Did I make it clear that I wanted to kill you? Where are you, usurper?” Bromstad yelled.

Ponty chose not to tell him. Because he heard Bromstad's rat cloak rustling, a growling noise issuing from his mouth, and also an indiscreet drinking burp, he knew that the author was in pursuit. He widened the distance from Bromstad, which was not difficult given Ponty's sobriety and his motivation not to be choked to death. He had no idea how far down into the level he had traveled when he finally stopped and, hearing nothing, sat on the cold, damp ground.

Though he was shivering, fatigued, and hurt in places he could not immediately identify, and despite the fact that he was
being pursued through a deserted mine by a drunken rival author intent on his death, and setting aside the detail that he might just have implicated his friend—a woman he quite liked—and an entire town in what could turn out to be criminal charges and countless lawsuits, Ponty felt pretty good for the first time in a long time.

I
F THE CROWD
of people that had gathered at the Holey Mine for King Leo's revival were shocked by the sudden and oftchanging rush of events, they were not calmed by the appearance overhead of a Bell 206L-4 helicopter training its powerful spotlight on the stage. Nor did the voice that issued from its loudspeaker soothe their jangled nerves:

“All right, you monstrous perversions of nature, break it up down there, or I'll have no choice but to open fire on your freaky love-in!”

Screams and panic were the result as the crowd did indeed disperse. After all that had transpired, they were inclined to believe only those who threatened them with violence.

Once he saw an appropriate amount of fear and running, Governor Herzog rappelled from out of the hovering chopper and dropped down onto the stage. He then signaled for the chopper to land, making those next to him wonder why he didn't just land with the chopper.

“All right,” he asked of a group made up of King Leo, Jack, Sandi, King Leo's band, and a naked Stig Stou-Thorup, “just what in the double-jointed Jack Dempsey is going on here?” Then, noticing Stig and his lack of appropriate attire, he added, “A pasty Dane in a towel! Can you think of any reason at all that I shouldn't pop you on the button and drop you like a plumb bob?”

“It's Gus Bromstad. He and Ponty Feeb have fallen down into the mine,” said Stig, either misinterpreting or ignoring the governor's question.

“All right, well stand back, give 'em some air. Everyone spread out,” said the governor, even though they were ten feet up on the stage looking down at the mine entrance and couldn't possibly be crowding either Bromstad or Ponty. The governor leaped off the stage, taking reasonable care not to land in the mine, and surveyed things.

“Hm. I'd say they fell through here, is that right?”

“Yes, sir,” said Stig.

A television camera pressed in on the governor.

“All right, all right, all right, people,” he shouted to unseen people around him. “Here are the problems as I see them, and the events that are going to transpire in an attempt to right these problems: Number one, we've got Gus Bromstad trapped down in that mine. Number two, we've got . . . some other guy down there with him, doing who-knows-what to our beloved author.”

“Governor,” said Jack, “it's another author, a Mr. Pontius Feeb. Bromstad attacked him, and they fell into the mine. Bromstad was trying to murder him.”

Herzog considered this new information. “All right, all right, all right, people. Here's what's going to transpire: I'm going to rappel down into that mine and try to stop our beloved Minnesota author from killing this . . . this—”

“Pontius Feeb, sir,” the naked Stig offered.


Pon
shius Feeb, yes, thank you, Mr. Stou-Thorup,” said the now-irritated governor.

“Um, I would be remiss in not pointing out that Mr. Bromstad
is naked save for King Leo's rat cloak, so a speedy rescue is essential,” added Stig.

“Noted,” said the governor. He yelled for some materials from the chopper, and after his pilot brought them over, he attached a fair amount of hardware to his beefy body and prepared for his descent. “All right,” he said, giving the thumbs-up to the television camera and flicking on his headlamp, “let's go rescue some authors.”

Probably because he was playing somewhat to the camera and not paying full military-style attention to the task at hand, the governor failed to attach some critical carabiner clips to his rope, so that when he let go of solid ground, he, too, plunged tens of feet straight down and hurt himself at the bottom.

Pontius had not been huddling in his corner for long when he heard a crash and then, inexplicably, the very gruff and recognizable voice of his governor.

“Uh-oh, son of a butter bean! I busted my darn fool leg!” his state's leader complained. “Bromstad? What in the name of Jim Kelly are you doin' down here? Bromstad? Help me!”

Ponty got on his hands and knees and, feeling ahead of him in the blackness, tried to find his way toward Herzog's voice, which continued steadily, complaining and chastising. After crawling for ten minutes or so, he came to a spot in the level where it seemed to continue straight ahead but also fed off to the right. He tried to concentrate as much as his strained and fading faculties would allow, but he simply could not remember which path he'd taken as he ran from the foaming Bromstad, nor could he determine with any certainty from which direction the yelling was originating.

“Hey, up there!” Herzog shrieked. “Tell that moron Adam to
send out the National Guard. You hear that? Tell him I can do that—I have the authority!”

“Hey!” Ponty yelled. “Mr. Governor, sir?”

“Who's that? Is that Feeb?”

“Yes, sir, sir.”

“Feeb, you've got us in a mell of a hess, you know that, man?”

“I'm very sorry, sir,” said Ponty, who was near to tears. “But right now I'm very lost, and it's very dark, and I don't know how to get to where you are.”

“That's what happens when you join up with a freak like King Leo,” Herzog admonished.

“Yes. Yes, I know that now, Governor. It was a huge mistake.”

“That ain't no bean dip, for sure, Feeb. Now, listen, we'll get you out of here. Follow my voice, man.”

“I'm trying, but it's very hard. Do you think you could just keep talking, and I'll try again to make my way to you?”

“Yeah, yeah. Heck, I'll go you one better. I'll just keep singing. You'll find me. And if you stumble across Bromstad, drag his carcass along, too, will you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay. Here goes, Feeb. Let's see. This is one from Billy Ray Cyrus's album
It Won't Be the Last
. It's called ‘Ain't Your Dog No More.'”

Ponty crawled wearily and blindly through the tunnel while the governor shouted out a few by Billy Ray Cyrus, half of a song by Styx that he couldn't remember all of, “Beth,” by Kiss, and two songs from
Paint Your Wagon.
But there was a maze of levels spreading out from the one down which he had initially traveled, and Herzog's voice was so diffuse that it was of little
help. While Herzog was belting out “Hand Me Down That Can o' Beans,” Ponty blacked out and collapsed facedown on the cold stone floor of the Holey Mine.

CHAPTER 26

P
onty regained consciousness three days later in the logy funk of the recently medicated. The room seemed unnaturally bright, the lights above him ringed with hazy coronas. He could not have been blamed if he had misidentified his room as heaven, and indeed he might have if Jack's large and very mortal body hadn't appeared suddenly above him.

“Hey, Ponty!” Jack said cheerfully.

“Jack?” Ponty croaked. “Am I in jail?”

“Jail? No, no. Food's the same, though. No, you're in the Fishville hospital. Took them a while to get you out of the mine, Ponty. You had us worried.”

“What happened? I remember Herzog singing from
Paint Your Wagon
, and then everything went black.”

“Well, that's probably for the best,” said Jack. “Let me ring for the nurse.”

“Wait,” said Ponty, shifting himself up in his bed.

“Careful,” said Jack, helping Ponty with his pillow.

“What happened after that?”

“Well, the rescue was not the smoothest ever. Herzog's a big man. He got wedged sideways in the main shaft as they were pulling him up. As you know, because of the rock there, it was
impractical to get in behind him, so basically they had to give him a good yank and he came free. Sad, though. He came up blubbering like a baby right in front of the TV cameras. Didn't do his image much good, in my opinion,” Jack poured a cup of water for Ponty, stabbed a straw into it, and held it up for him. “Here.”

“What about Bromstad?”

“Well, the trouble with him is, he didn't want to come up, apparently. Finally, though, they dragged his naked body out for the world to see. Ewww.” Jack shivered. “He got checked out medically and then went right to jail, along with Stig. I imagine they're sprung on bail now. But you— they had a tough time finding you. It was the next afternoon before they got you out. You were pretty dehydrated, and your core temperature was not where it needed to be.”

“See? I mess everything up. Can't even keep a decent body temperature going.”

“Enough now. I'm calling the nurse,” Jack said, thumbing the call button. “Then I want to give Sandi a call. She's been here all she could, but she had to go tend bar today.”

“No! No,” said Ponty. “Keep her away from me, will you, Jack?”

“What? Why?”

“Just do whatever it takes. I can't see her, okay?”

Jack shook his head. “All right, Ponty. Anything you say.”

Though pressure from the media was intense, Jack ably handled it, taking a lot of the scrutiny off the recovering Ponty. Consequently, Ponty's convalescence at the Fishville Community Hospital did not last more than a week. His brother flew in from Tucson and helped him get back to his home in Minneapolis.

“Come on, bro,” Thad pleaded. “What's here for you? Fly back with me to Tucson.”

But Ponty would not go, and Thad, shaking his head, left him in the charge of his roommates.

Two weeks later Sags, Phil, Beater, and Scotty found a new place, nearer to the university, and Ponty was not invited to join them.

“You probably want to be with your own kind anyway,” Sags had helpfully suggested.

Ponty had already packed his scant belongings and moved into a dingy walk-up with a shared bathroom when the subpoenas, forwarded from his old address, started showing up. He rang Jack.

“Yeah, it's raining lawsuits, isn't it?” said Jack with wonder in his voice. “Fetters is suing us, there's a class-action suit from the readers, and P. Dingman is hopping mad. They're bringing the big guns. I never saw it, but apparently it was right in the contract that the book was supposed to be true. Looks like the ride is over, Ponty. It's too bad, 'cause
Death Rat
is still selling like hotcakes—morbid curiosity, I guess—but I don't think we'll be seeing much of that moola.”

“Jack, I'm really sorry I dragged you into this.”

“Hey, enough of that. It was a good time. Ponty, I got to go. I'll see you in court.”

As the year wore on, Ponty would spend a fair amount of time in court. He appeared at the arraignment of Bromstad, Stig, and the others from Den Institut, but neither he nor Sandi, who only sent a deposition, wanted to press any charges against them. Bromstad was ordered to undergo therapy. While Stig's henchmen got off scot-free, he was not quite so lucky: He got three months, but after pressure from the Danish
consulate, he was shown leniency and allowed to serve it out in Copenhagen. Bromstad, who was responding well to therapy, was publicly contrite. At a press conference, tears in his eyes, he apologized and told his readers that his recovery process had made him realize how important it was to keep a promise. Because of that, his next book would not be a Dogwood after all.

“What's it going to be about?” a reporter asked.

“Beauty, truth, nobility . . .” he said with a faraway look, and then he trailed off, mumbling something that had the reporters looking at one another for help.

“‘Herring,' did he say?” they asked each other.

Bromstad went to work immediately on his thorny and impenetrable Danish historical epic
Gesta Danorum
, which would sell only eight thousand copies. Of those, more than 83 percent would be returned for a full refund. It sold far less even than Bart Herzog's disappointing account of the Holey incident,
Ain't Nowhere I Won't Go
.

Ponty took a job at a mall store, avoided Jack's phone calls, and after a time faded back into a thin but anonymous existence. There were days when he would not think about
Death Rat
at all. Pontius Feeb was Pontius Feeb again.

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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