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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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Jack removed the stick from in front of Ponty's face. “What? Ponty, I read it. It was really, really good.” Ponty stared at him. “I leafed here and there, might have missed some of the subtler character shading. Perhaps the smaller subplots escaped me. Why?”

“Give me a rough outline of
Death Rat
, Jack.”

“True-life adventure of . . . oh, what's his name . . . falls into a mine. A gold mine. Minnesota had a gold rush—1865. That's the gist of it anyway. I'm sure I missed something.” Ponty stared at him. He was trembling. Jack set down his cue. “Look, Ponty,” he said, “don't be hurt—I'm not much of a reader. When I'm in a play, it's everything I can do to read the thing.”

“What happens when he falls into the mine, Jack?” Ponty asked, his voice quiet and scratchy.

Jack made vague gestures with his left hand. “He battles the odds. He fights a cruel, indifferent nature and eventually triumphs.”

“Yeah, yeah, Jack. It's something like that. Actually, he's attacked by a giant, intelligent rat.”

“Really? How big?”

“Six feet.” Ponty now had his head in his hands and was pressing on his skull.

“Rats can't get that big, can they?” Jack asked himself, leaning
on his cue stick. “Well, now, capybaras can get to be pretty good-sized, can't they? But in Minnesota, with its short growing seasons, I wouldn't think—”

“No, they can't get that big, you idiot!” he shrieked. His mustache rustled in rhythm with his labored breathing. The man playing at a table by himself stopped and looked over at them.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you,” said Jack, giving him a friendly wave. “Just practicing for a play, thanks.”

Ponty charged on. “They can't get to be giant and intelligent and malevolent like my rat either.”

“Yeah, I know. So how do you explain how one got up there in Holey anyway?”

“It didn't! It didn't happen, okay? I made it up.”

Jack put his hands on his hips. His face blanched.


Death Rat
is a novel, Jack,” Ponty said quietly. “A silly novel about a giant rat.”

Jack paced back and forth for a second as Ponty buried his head in his hands and shifted around to relieve the itchiness of his new jeans.

“We're ruined,” Ponty said.

Jack stopped pacing. “You're sure it's not true?” he asked.

“Yes I'm sure it's not true, you moron! I wrote it.”

“Please, I get very uncomfortable when I'm called a moron. I don't know what it is. You notice the idiot thing didn't bother me? There's something about ‘moron.'”

“Why didn't you read the book? You told me you read it, you, you . . .” He trailed off.

Jack pointed at him accusingly. “You know, if anyone here
has cause to blame, it's me. You don't write novels, Ponty. You should have told me this was a novel.
I
should be yelling at
you.

“Oh, oh, oh! We're ruined,” Ponty said again, softly.

Jack lowered his pointed finger and relaxed his stance.

“Well, we can't really be ruined, 'cause we don't have much. Except all this money.”

Ponty looked up at him, eyes rimmed with tears. “Why didn't you just read the book?”

“I kind of got busy with other things.” Jack tried to be cheerful. “Well, not a big deal, but what happens after he battles the rat anyway?”

Ponty sat up with a spasm and sighed deliberately. “He—” Involuntarily, a strangled cry interrupted his words. “Oh,” he said with bottomless misery.

“You don't have to tell me,” Jack offered.

“He's cornered by the rat. It's closing in. It's going to kill him. He says a prayer. He passes out. He wakes up—oh!” Tears fell from his eyes. He covered his face.

“Ponty, really. I can read it later.”

Ponty rubbed his face, shook his head, and went on. “He wakes up and he's outside the mine. Someone or something saved him. He thinks it's God.” He delivered every point automatically, but with great apparent strain. “He goes into town, to the local tavern, he tells his story, how God saved him. They think he's crazy. Suddenly the rat itself busts open the tavern door. Lynch battles it, kills it. Skins it in the street. He and the preacher reconcile. Lynch becomes a town legend. The rat pelt hangs there to this very day— Look, what did you tell Fetters when he asked you about the book?”

“Well, we didn't talk much about it. We kind of started talking about squash.” Jack made half a motion to line up another shot but apparently thought better of it and instead sat on the edge of the table.

“Squash? What—what does squash have to do with anything?”

“The game. He plays squash, and so do I. It was fun. Anyway, he didn't ask. I just told him it was an amazing story, and when he asked if it was nonfiction I said yes, and then I handed him the manuscript. He said he'd have Petra read it and give him a summary. Then we talked a little about boast shots and nick-kills. He called me later in the week and said he'd read it—I thought he meant the book. Hm, he must have meant Petra's summary. Anyway, he said it was fantastic and that he'd sent it on to a friend of his at P. Dingman Press, and he loved it—must have meant the summary again. I guess he played it off a few of his contacts and they all loved it, and I guess P. Dingman won the auction, and here we are.”

“So no one read it? They bought a book they didn't even read?” Ponty's voice was shrill.

“Well, in fairness, these are busy people. I know that—”

“We've got to give the money back,” Ponty said. “And then I suppose we should turn ourselves in.”

“Wha—? To who? The Library of Congress? We don't know if what we've done is illegal, Ponty.” He got up off the pool table and sat down next to Ponty. “Yes, I should have read ‘my own' book, but I didn't. Next time I will.” Jack thought for a moment while Ponty mourned. “Here's what I think we ought to do: I think we ought to just wait until someone actually reads the book—which is bound to happen—P. Dingman
will be so embarrassed about the whole thing that they won't want it to get out. So we just offer them the money back. Actually,
I
offer them the money back. No harm done. They never even have to know that you were involved.”

“The money. I really could have used that money.”

Jack put a hand on Ponty's back. “I'm sorry.”

“It's my fault. I pushed you into it.”

“I know,” Jack said tenderly. “But I'll fix it for you.”

CHAPTER 7

F
rom the pungent acridity of the burned coffee, Timm Leint guessed that it was about 9:45
P.M.
On any normal day he could have gone home at a reasonable 8:30, but the scuttlebutt was that
she
was prowling the halls at P. Dingman, and he didn't want her to see his empty office. He wanted to appear as eager and productive as he could, so at 4:30, when he had finished his work for the day, he stayed at his desk and began the first of what would end up to be more than 226 games of Minesweeper. He had just resolved to shut down his computer and go home when something materialized in his doorway.

“Leint?” said Kay Dingman-Mulch.

“Indeed,” he said, springing up from his desk with the least amount of alarm he could manage.

“I just had lunch with Bob Poston.” Leint was about to look at his watch and thought better of it. “He told me that Williamson-Funk just secured a property about a safari
where several people were mauled by hippopotami. Is this true?”

“Um, yes, ma'am, I do believe I heard that, too.”

“Why wasn't I told about this?”

“I was waiting for the right time.”

“My door is always open,” she said accusingly.

Leint mentally noted that though this was technically true, Kay Dingman-Mulch hadn't been
in
the office for fourteen weeks.

“What's happening with that rat manuscript, the one by that large man from Kansas?” she asked, looking over the top of her glasses at him.

“Ummmm . . . oh, you mean the one from that fellow in Minneapolis. I . . . um—”

“I signed the check for that one, Leint. I think I know from where my rat-attack stories are coming, don't you?”

“Of course, ma'am. I think that one is in line to be fact-checked.”

“What's to check? There are rats. They attack. Some guy from Kansas writes it down. Rush it along, Leint. Get a piece on the author in one of the entertainment rags. He's handsome, right? Rugged, well spoken?”

Again Leint demurred. “Ruggedness is so subjective.” Dingman-Mulch frowned at him. “But, yes, I think he is rather on the rugged side, in a kind of long-limbed, midwestern way.”

“Then what in the name of Samuel Taylor Coleridge are we waiting for? I want a big first run, and I want it out before the hippopotamus story hits. Frankly, I don't believe for a minute that a bunch of goofy-looking zoo animals mauled anyone, but I'm not taking any chances. I want those hippos buried up to their ears in rats, okay?”

J
ACK WAS FIDDLING
the radio knob as Ponty drove, the dented grill of his Tempo pointed north, toward Holey, Minnesota, population thirty-eight.

“Yes, I'm disturbed by the radio stations in northern Minnesota,” Jack declared, though he and Ponty had not been discussing it. He locked in a station playing Boz Scaggs's “Lido Shuffle.” “There. Boz Scaggs. When was the last time you heard that song? Nothing at all wrong with it, it just isn't played in the real world anymore. Next there'll be a farm report, and then they'll play, oh, say, ‘Bluer Than Blue' by Michael Johnson. This is not normal behavior, playing Michael Johnson songs for others to hear. People got together a long time ago and agreed to stop doing that. Ponty, I'll make you a bet that we hear ‘Wildfire,' by . . . um, that guy who sang ‘Wildfire,' at least three times on the way up and on the way back. Is it a bet? Ponty? ‘Wildfire'? Which side of the bet do you want?”

Ponty grunted.

“Okay, I'll give you the pro-‘Wildfire' side of it. You're right, it's a sure winner.” He fished around for a blister pack full of beef jerky, zipped it open, and held it out toward Ponty. “Ponty, can I offer you some jerky?”

Ponty shook his head distastefully. With great difficulty, Jack snapped a piece off and began chewing laboriously.

“Man,” he said with emphasis, through a mouthful of meat, “sometimes I wonder if they should have just left it as steak. That is to say, I'm sure it wasn't the greatest cut of meat ever, but it had to be more tender than this is.” He chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “Course, I suppose you can't go around eating pieces of room-temperature steak from a plastic bag, can you?”

They drove on in silence, but not for long.

“It must be nice to have your license back, huh?” Jack asked.

Ponty grunted a noncommittal response.

“I would not feel like a complete man if I had my license revoked. It had to be hard on you.” Jack snapped off another piece of jerky. “Ow, I'm getting hurt by my own food over here,” he said, then chewed for another moment, before picking up a newspaper off the floor mat. “Did you read about this? They found some new carvings right in the area where the Kensington Rune Stone was found? It got me thinking, Ponty, and I have a proposal for you. Don't say no before you hear the whole thing. Well, you know about the Kensington Rune Stone, right? Found on a farm, years ago. The writings indicate that the Vikings got to central Minnesota in 1392? What am I saying—the man's a historian. Of course he knows about it! Anyway. You remember what it says on the stone? Here, it's right here in the paper: ‘Eight Swedes and twenty-two Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two rocky islets one day's journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home, we found ten men red with blood and dead.' That's pretty good stuff, Ponty. Almost too good to pass up. My proposal is, if this book works out well for us, we write another about this, maybe plant another rune stone. We assert that the Vikings did battle with some strange creature. We can brainstorm about the creature later. The sky's the limit though, really. What do you think? Hey, I just realized something: If that farmer, the one who supposedly found the stone, if he forged it, we owe him a hearty tip of our caps, don't we? That's a good one. I wonder what he got out of it? He didn't write a book, I know that. Can you make good money forging stones about Viking expeditions?”

Ponty ignored the steady stream of rhetorical questions. In fact, he did not really hear them. He was busy thinking, wondering if St. Cloud State Penitentiary was really as damp and drafty as it was rumored to be. And could the prison kitchen accommodate his slight case of lactose intolerance?

L
AKE VERMILION IS
a large one: 40,000 acres, with 1,200 miles of coastline and 365 islands. It stretches 35 miles, tipped diagonally northwest to southeast, across Minnesota's arrowhead region. The town of Holey is not nearly so big. Its “downtown” area is anchored by ten buildings, five interconnected buildings on either side of County Road II, just one mile from the southeast edge of the lake. Various small buildings and homes scattered outward from the center of town, but those ten were really where anything of note took place.

Jack and Ponty pulled into the main drag just after lunch and went in search of the town's tavern. It was not difficult to find. A cluster of diagonally parked American sedans, all at least ten years old, led them to the Taconite Saloon. They disembarked from the Tempo, Jack brushing off crumbs and detritus from the various snacks he'd consumed, and walked cautiously toward the bar's entrance. Ponty was disposing of some spent coffee cups into a sidewalk trash can, when Jack, with no subtlety at all, pressed his face against the window of the bar, squinting to shut out some of the day's bright, cold sunlight.

A small outburst of surprise escaped him, as he was greeted by a face on the other side of the glass, not two inches from his own, staring back. It was the rugged, unshaven face of man wearing a blaze orange hunting cap and a look of mild hostility. Jack pulled back quickly and offered an apologetic wave.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Can we just get inside, please?” Ponty urged. “And let's try not to stick out too much.”

They pushed open the door, and the sunlight stabbed into the bar's dark interior. Every head in the place swiveled to look, amounting to about twelve heads. Jack, turning to his left, understood why the man in the hunting cap had been so close to the window: There was a pinball machine positioned along the front wall. The man was just disengaging from it, so Jack offered another apology.

“Sorry,” he said. “Didn't mean to alarm you with my face there.” The man simply nodded at him, took a sip of his longneck, and sat down at a tall bar table to work on a half-finished plate of nachos.

Conversations had been halted. The jukebox was playing something just below the threshold of comprehension, possibly country rock. The attention was too much for Ponty, and he became quite aware of the shockingly loud hue of Jack's very new puffy yellow coat, one of his first purchases after they'd cashed the check for their book advance. It was enormous, and thoroughly overstuffed. On the ride up, Jack had presented a spirited apologia of it, claiming that with Minnesota winters' being so life-threateningly severe, there was no room for fashion. In defense of its intense hue, he offered a parade of illustrative scenarios, many including imagined head injuries, stranded cars, and animal attacks, all ending with rescue squads or search helicopters spotting his colorful jacket. Ponty had listened to his defense and, while not disagreeing, told Jack that he looked like the Michelin Man with severe jaundice. He feared he'd hurt Jack's feelings.

While their eyes adjusted to the dark, Ponty and Jack stood uncomfortably near the door, rubbing their hands and unzipping
their coats. Ponty scoped out the long bar to his right and the game room/dining area to his left and decided it would be easier to blend in if they simply bellied up to the bar. He was just about to nudge Jack and motion in that direction when Jack took off on his own, striding confidently toward the bartender.

“Whoa,” he said to no one and everyone, ignoring Ponty's instructions to lie low and let him do the talking, “it's so cold the dogs are sticking to the fire hydrants out there.”

Because Jack's joke had come from an outsider, it had little chance of hitting its mark to begin with. But it was hampered even more by the fact that it had been heard and repeated by the twelve people in the bar hundreds of times before. Jack, hearing no laughter, provided some of his own.

“Ah, well, what are you going to do?” he said as he mounted a stool. “Barkeep, what have you that will warm these chilly gizzards?” Ponty, giving Jack's banter an internal grimace, took a seat next to him.

“What do you want?” asked the bartender, a tall, pleasant-looking blonde in her mid-fifties wearing a sweatshirt whose front featured an embroidered loon.

“How 'bout a Woodpecker Cider? You got a bottle of that floating around?”

“Nope.”

“Whatever hard cider you have, I'll take that.”

“Don't have hard cider.”

“Okay. Well, I'll take a Smokehouse Nut Brown Ale,” Jack said, rubbing his hands together vigorously.

“Hm, don't have that.”

“Do you have the Smokehouse Pale Ale?”

“No.”

“Well, then just give me your Samuel Taddy India Pale Ale.”

“We've got Grain Belt, Grain Belt Premium, Bud Light, and Leinenkugel's.”

“Grain Belt. Premium Grain Belt. That sounds good.”

“You?” she asked, looking at the red-faced Ponty.

“Coffee, please,” he said.

Ponty was leaning over to whisper discreetly in Jack's ear when Jack leaned in the other direction to speak to a middle-aged man two barstools to his left.

“Hi there, Sonny, is it?” he said, making a gesture toward the name stitched on the breast pocket of the man's corduroy work coat. The man did not look up from his paper. “Sonny, how are you today?” he asked again, but there was no response. Jack looked around for assistance, and the man, sensing something, looked over at Jack.

“Pardon?” he said.

“Sonny, right?”

The man looked thoroughly mystified for a moment. Then he shook his head in understanding. “Oh! The coat. No, no, I'm not Sonny. Got this down at a secondhand store in the Cities last year.” He did not offer his name.

“The name's Jack,” Jack said.

The man, who had already looked back down at his paper, raised his head again. “You ought to get that stitched on your coat,” he said. The bartender laughed as she set down their drinks.

“Say, Jack,” Ponty whispered when she had withdrawn, “be cool, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. I'm just trying to be friendly.”

“Well, maybe it's the coat or something, but right now I think you're scaring everyone.”

“Well, your coat isn't exactly a paragon of good taste,” Jack
said, casting a critical eye over Ponty's blue parka. “Should I call you Nanook? How would you like that?”

“Jack, please. Why don't we take off our coats and just get comfortable. Try to blend in.”

They settled in and began silently watching the television that sat in a corner over the bar. It was tuned to a medical program that was showcasing a hernia operation. A few minutes went by. A short, stocky older man with a camouflage coat and a battered baseball cap that read
DEKALB
on its front approached the bar to pay his check. Ponty noticed Jack eyeing him up, itching to say something to him as he stood waiting for his change, so he tapped Jack's leg as a warning.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Jack whispered impatiently. “I got you.”

They went back to watching the muted television. After about ten minutes, just as the surgeon had begun stapling a synthetic fabric to the patient's abdominal wall, Jack asked Ponty, “Have we blended in enough yet?”

“All right, fine. Let me do the talking,” he said, smoothing down his hair. “Excuse me,” he said to the bartender, and she approached. “We're . . . um, we're both writers from the Twin Cities,” he said, and swallowed.

“Well, good,” she said, smiling.

BOOK: Mike Nelson's Death Rat!
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