Read Mike Nelson's Death Rat! Online

Authors: Michael J. Nelson

Mike Nelson's Death Rat!

CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1

G
iven his advancing age and his current stature in the business community, Pontius Feeb knew that it was unseemly for him to be driving giddily through town at midday, whistling and thinking fondly of spit-roasted chicken and buttered fingerling potatoes. Ponty sensed that a vehemently antilunch prejudice had infected many in the Minneapolis trade-magazine community. “You can eat on your own time” was the unspoken rule.

Would it change matters if they knew that he was to lunch at Beret, the hot new downtown bistro that had been visited by none other than former
Good Morning America
host David Hartman shortly after its grand opening? No, sadly, it probably wouldn't. The people in his industry were notoriously inflexible in their attitudes. But Ponty would not let them dampen his spirits.

He weaved his way through Minneapolis's light noon-time traffic and pulled onto Fourth Street, fully expecting to have to make the long ascent up the ConFac Building's massive parking ramp. But this lunch bestowed an unforeseen blessing in the
form of a metered parking space directly in front of Beret's entrance.

As he fed the meter, he scanned the faces sitting at the half dozen tables that Beret had set out on the sidewalk and called their patio, seeing if perhaps he couldn't gloat a little over his parking spot. If anyone was impressed, they did not give him the satisfaction.

Ponty had entered, secured a table by the window, and was already nibbling a sourdough roll when his lunch partner arrived several minutes later, trying his best to look harried and important. To Ponty he simply looked thin and fey.

Here was the only downside to a repast at Beret: his lunch companion, Craig Thurston. In Ponty's opinion, the midday meal was too good for Craig, who he felt strongly was a weenie. But he was also Ponty's boss. And he did occasionally buy lunch, a rare positive trait. Ponty tried not to stare at Craig's hair, which challenged conventional notions of male dignity. It was a limp, gray-blond, windblown mess, dully supported here and there by light spritzings of some cheap fixative, and his shiny scalp showed through at various locations across his skull. Craig was a man who wore a collar pin, a sign of deep moral failing. That his collar was often a different color from his shirt only cemented Ponty's opinion regarding his character.

“Whew,” said Craig, apparently winded by the effort of driving to Beret. “Did you order?”

“No, no. Waited for you.”

“Good, good,” said Craig, sighing again, smoothing the hair on the sides of his head and looking about the dining room as though he suspected he might be missing other lunch meetings at some of the other Beret tables. A waitress appeared.

“Hey, there you are,” said Craig, and without letting her
reply, he continued, “Why don't you give me the smoked trout hot dish and an Egret Springs water, can you? Oh, and bring the Egret Springs in the bottle.”

“Actually, we don't have the smoked trout hot dish on the menu anymore. I'm sorry about—”

“I know, but they'll make it for me. They've done it before.”

The young woman scribbled on her pad. “You know what? We're out of the Egret Springs. Will Anoka Creek Flowage do?”

“Hmm. No. No. I've been to Anoka, no thanks. What kind of iced tea do you have?”

The waitress answered flatly, “It's in small whitish bags.” She gestured with her thumb and forefinger. “We brew it and then chill it by pouring it over ice.”

“No, no, no—what
kind
of tea?” Craig pushed.

“As far as I know, it comes in bulk from a food service. It's called Allied Grocer Groups brand,” she said wearily.

“Oh, no. That won't do,” said Craig, as though she had just offered him a glass of room-temperature egg whites. “Bring me some apricot-blackberry Assam blend, a pot of hot water, and a huge glass of ice.”

Ponty ordered his meal as efficiently as possible, trying not to cause the waitress further distress. Time dragged on as he waited for Craig to get to the point of their meeting, but Craig seemed content to nurture the pained silence between them. So Ponty had to search for a topic of conversation among Craig's nonwork-based interests. So far as he knew, they included his car, a BMW 7-something, and ordering effete iced teas at upscale lunch places. Since Ponty's knowledge of cars was limited to the cockpit of his own Tempo, he tried for a more general topic.

“The Twins are in town today,” Ponty offered.

“Really?” said Craig, regarding him suspiciously.

Ponty, who was not in the habit of inventing major sporting events and certainly could not see how anything could be gained by it, nevertheless grew doubtful under Craig's skeptical stare.

“They're not in Detroit?”

“They just finished a three-game series there,” Ponty said, feeling his confidence flagging.

“I think they have one more in Detroit,” said Craig, craning his neck to look at a table across the dining room.

Could you just let me have this one thing?
thought Ponty as he looked at the side of Craig's tanned head. It was never like this with Craig's father, Ponty's former boss at Jack Pine Publications. Tom Thurston was a man of principle, a man who used hair fixatives sparingly, if at all. He and Ponty had virtually grown up in the publishing business together, and in twenty-four years Tom Thurston had never ordered water by a brand name. But Tom had died suddenly, tragically, when a trailer loaded with sod had jumped its ball hitch, sped down the hill near his home, and hit Tom full on as he stood in black socks and sandals, smoking a cigar and watering his wife's hostas. Craig had then “taken over,” if that term could properly be applied to his thin-legged managerial style.

When the food finally came, Craig got down to business. “Ponty,” he said, “Jack Pine Publications is in for some changes.”

Ponty cleared his throat and dabbed his mouth with a napkin. “Well, good. High time. I'd start with those cheap green partitions of ours, but I'm sure everyone has his two cents to—”

“Adapt or die, that's the new business model.”

“It is?” asked Ponty. “How is the hot dish? Enough smoked trout in there?”

“There's a vibrant young market out there, and we're missing it.”

“But,” Ponty struggled, “vibrant young markets require mature, experienced people to—”

“You and I, we're not getting any younger.”

Ponty nearly dropped his buttered roll. “Well, I would like to point out that that's true of most people.”

“This is a strange—I don't know—almost mysterious business,” Craig said. He was gazing off into the middle distance as though recalling fantastical things.

“It is?” said Ponty, turning to look at the same spot as Craig was.

“Ponty, I'm getting ready to sell the company.”

Ponty froze momentarily, then looked with scorn at his chicken. All that morning just the thought of it had filled him with bright promise. But now, because he knew with certainty that he was to be fired and that his entrée had played even a tangential role in the dirty business, he hated it bitterly.

“Well,” said Ponty shakily, “that's a lot of work. I'll need new stationery, of course. But let's roll up our sleeves and—”

“You're an anachronism, Ponty. You're sixty years old. You're not integral to the magazines, and, let's face it, your books don't sell worth beans. The last one sold seventy-eight copies, you'll recall.”

“And I for one was encouraged by those numbers.”

“I can't have you there as a wrench in the works.”

Ponty grasped for rebuttals. “Now, Craig, remember when you were shaping that deal with—what's it?—
Extrusion Die Journal
? I was no wrench there, Craig. I was deal lubricant.”

“You got Bill Muncie some nondairy creamer from the supply room. I don't think that's what sealed the deal.”

“It certainly didn't hurt. A fresh jar of creamer delivered politely and in a timely manner can—”

“Look, I don't want to argue, Ponty. I'm letting you go.”

“But I don't want to go, Craig, so you don't have to
let
me.”

“Ponty? You're fired.”

“Fired? I'm fired?” said Ponty, as though trying to grasp the meaning of the word.

“Yes. Let's not make a big deal of it, shall we? Hey, look, take a second with this. I got to go tap a kidney,” said Craig, and he left the table.

Though he fought them viciously, tears pooled in Ponty's eyes until Beret's dining room became a haze of indistinct designer colors. Finally the tears spilled over, and Ponty reached numbly for his napkin, grabbing the tablecloth by mistake, causing a loud jangle of flatware, and upsetting the remainder of Craig's apricot-blackberry Assam iced tea. A busboy quickly materialized and began soaking up the spill. By the time Craig returned, a new tea had been delivered and Ponty was nearly composed again.

“Whew,” said Craig, again seeming winded from the journey, “there's some lookers in here.” After a moment he pulled his gaze away from a “looker” and directed it at Ponty. “So anyway,” he continued, “as I said, you're fired. Now, if you don't mind, I'm shaping up this deal quickly, so if you could clear out your stuff in the next couple of days and haul away those dirty old bookcases in your office, that'd be great.”

“Haul away my bookcases?” Ponty asked incredulously.

“Fine,” said Craig, slapping the table. “If you're gonna make trouble about this, I'll hire someone to take them out. I'd have thought, given your history at Jack Pine, that you could
do me that little favor, but hey!” he said and took a sip of tea. “What is this crap?” he exclaimed, spitting it back into his glass.

“Allied Grocer Groups brand. I spilled your Assam,” Ponty confessed miserably.

“I suppose I had that coming.” Craig sighed. “Well, I got to get going. I'll pay on my way out.” He left quickly, tossing “Take it easy, Ponty” over his shoulder as he did.

Leaving his half chicken nearly intact, Ponty made his way zombielike to his car and sat for a moment staring straight ahead before absently starting it and putting it in first. He let his eyes go out of focus and a moment later realized that something other than the loss of his job was troubling him. He blamed this new discomfiture on the position of his driver's seat and with sudden, violent anger, reached for its adjustment lever, pushing with his legs and slamming his back against the seat at the same time. With a horrible gear-grinding noise, the internal mechanics of the seat completely gave out, causing it to fly down and backward with tremendous speed and force to its maximally reclined position.

“Ow,” Ponty moaned, trying to keep his voice down so that passersby would not become alarmed.

When the initial shock of the seat's collapse had passed, Ponty noticed that his left hand was quite stuck between the seat base and the doorpost. What a mistake it had been to start his car and put it in gear before breaking his seat. For now it was impossible to keep the clutch depressed and still reach the shift knob to get the car out of first gear.

An athletic man might have been able to pull off some move that simultaneously extracted his hand and raised him to a driving position without even stalling the Tempo. Ponty was not
such a man. Yes, he'd been a wrestler at Coulberry High, but not the kind of wrestler who wins his matches. He ended his career with a dismal 2–34 record (one of those wins a forfeit). Knowing what he did about his own abilities, he decided to lie there thinking it over for a minute while listening to the Twins game that he just now realized was playing on his radio.

As the starter for Baltimore attempted to pitch out of a jam in the sixth (he'd been right about the blasted Twins—they
were
at home!), Ponty thought bitterly about how pleased he'd been to find parking directly in front of Beret. Now it looked as though his “rock star” position would contribute greatly to a nadir of his personal dignity, as there was no way to extricate himself without a humiliating display in front of Beret's clientele. He wondered how it must have looked to the patrons at the sidewalk tables to see an obviously agitated man of sixty climb into his white Tempo, start it, and then shake violently for several seconds before disappearing under the level of the windows.

He tugged on his left hand, testing it for resistance. It was stuck, and it hurt. In a moment of clarity Ponty decided he must try to thrust his torso up, attempt to reach the forward/backward seat-adjustment bar beneath his legs, pull it up, and move the seat to free his hand. The Tempo would probably stall without lurching into the car in front of him, he reasoned, because it was a Tempo and it stalled often.

“Okay. Here we go, Ponty,” he said to himself out loud, and then he was shocked by a dark object at his passenger-seat window. Ponty shrieked in a manner a good deal less manly than he would have liked.

The dark object that had frightened him was an older man wearing a colorful, wispy, sleeveless running shirt. He'd encircled his face with his hands and had the whole business pushed
directly against the Tempo's window. His brow was severely furrowed, his top lip drawn up, presumably to aid his vision.

“Y'all right?” he asked, scanning the backseat with a look of aggressive confusion. With some embarrassment, Ponty thought of the unopened hot-dog steamer that he'd received as a gift and thrown in his backseat with the intention of exchanging it at Target. It had been there now for over a year.

“Yes, I'm al—”

“You hurt?”

“No, I'm not hurt. Could you—”

“'S that a hot-dog steamer?”

“Yes,” said Ponty impatiently. “Yes, it is.”

“What are you doing with it?”

“Nothing. I got my hand stuck. Could you—”

“Shall I get someone?”

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