Monthly Archives: July 2020

Review: Dead Girl Blues

Cautiously, tentatively. I’d ask one woman out to dinner, take another to the movies. I took pains to appear at ease on such occasions, and to a certain extent I was, but a part of my mind was always busy taking my emotional temperature. Did I like this woman? Did I find her attractive? Was conversation with her difficult or easy? Interesting or tedious? Did I want to see her again?

More to the point, did I want to fuck her? Did I want to kill her first and then fuck her?

Sometimes I asked myself what the hell I thought I was doing. My life in Lima was pleasant enough. I was making decent money, and my prospects were good. I had a growing circle of acquaintances with whom I could contrive to spend as much or as little time as I wanted.

I wouldn’t say that I had any friends. But then I had never had a friend, and how could I be expected to make one now?

I’d seen this bit of doggerel in a souvenir shop, burned into a wooden plaque:

A friend is not a fellow who is taken in by sham
A friend is one who knows our faults and doesn’t give a damn

So there you have it. My acquaintances could only be fellows taken in by sham, as I did not dare to let anyone know who I really was. Because they’d certainly give a damn. How could they not?

Lawrence Block.  Was ever a scribe less aptly named?  (At least his first name isn’t Ryder.)  82 years old, still churning out fiction (and nonfiction) at a staggering rate.  Self-publishing quite a bit now (works better when you’re a name), but also gets the odd gig with Hard Case Crime.  Like his buddy Don, he has no concept of retirement.

Back in 2016, I reviewed his novella Resume Speed, which you see up top.  Liked it very much indeed.  I still consider it some of the best work he’s ever done (not that I’ve read all the work he’s done–few could say they had).  A spare penetrating look into one chapter in the life of a drifter. A talented likable man with a troubled past he can’t come to terms with–even the third person narrator seems unsure exactly what happened to make his protagonist move from one small town to another, settling down for a spell, then abruptly pulling up stakes, leaving thriving businesses and broken hearts behind.  We never even learn his original name.

The clues are few and contradictory.  Did he murder someone?  Is someone trying to murder him?  Is he genuinely in trouble, or is that just an excuse to keep moving?  I wouldn’t expect a sequel to clear that up.  Some stories you only ruin by finishing them.

But this is, you might say, a companion piece to the earlier story, which in turn hearks back to work like the Keller series, where the hitman hero yearns to settle down in some small community, never does.  It also bears some points in common with Random Walk, another recent self-published novel of his I tried to read, gave up on.  When I like Block, I like him very much indeed.  When I don’t, he’s got plenty of other readers to keep him company.  This current book I like pretty well, but let’s get the ground rules clear.

I normally do very thorough plot synopses on this blog.  Reviews meant for people who have already read the work in question, which has in the main been available for decades.  But when I’m reviewing a newly published work, I feel a bit more reticence is called for.  I also use a lot less quotes.  I’ll mainly stick to that here, but I can’t explain what I like or dislike about this one without at least half-revealing some plot twists, so bear that in mind.

So to cut to the chase, if you’re reading this review to decide whether this novel is worth the ten bucks it costs to download–it is, and then some.  If you like Block, and if you like stories that get into the minds of killers–for example, a story about a man who without malice aforethought murdered and raped a young woman–in that order–and tells us in some detail how that came to happen, and what happened afterwards.  Not everything that happened, because this is another story you might ruin by finishing.

This is a story about a drifter with an unequivocally murderous past, who finally stops drifting, puts down permanent roots, meets a woman, starts a family–and then has to learn to deal with the consequences of those choices.  He is, in fact, a sympathetic character.  He is the highly rational first-person narrator of his own story, and we see everything through his eyes, are forced to understand his point of view, have to make up our own minds how we feel about it.

And you might argue this forms a genre of its own in crime fiction.  “I murdered someone, this is how it felt, this is how I reacted, and [usually] this is how I got caught and punished.”  The earliest classic example might be Poe’s The Telltale Heart, (he published The Black Cat the same year) but even he probably didn’t invent it.  And Poe wrote about killers who were clearly incapable of telling reality from fantasy.  Madmen, not sociopaths.

Skipping over a century ahead, we come to Jim Thompson–who Block wrote critically about in several articles I mentioned here some time back.  Thompson almost specialized in first-person narrators who were killers, and they never get away with it, but neither can we really get away from them, so haunting are their twisted insights.  Even after death, they may still be telling someone (we never know who, or what) of their crimes–the Exit Interview in Hell, I like to call it.

The novel you see up top is perhaps his most notorious effort in this vein.  But not even Lou Ford beats a woman to death and then has sex with her corpse–and his psychopathy is explained by his having been sexually abused by his father’s housekeeper (and mistress) as a child.

The narrator of Block’s novel can’t give us any explanation of what he did–his childhood was almost offensively normal.  Though his parents neglected him a bit, due to his being one of ten children–there were no deep emotional bonds formed, leading to an outwardly affable man who has a hard time feeling anything towards other people, besides idle curiosity, and residual wariness.

He commited that murder, and that posthumous rape, because it seemed like the only thing to do when a random bar hook-up went wrong, and he never stopped thinking about it afterwards, because it felt so unexpectedly right.  He spends a lot of time getting to know the killer inside him, running little thought experiments, trying various scenarios out in his mind, even scoping out potential victims (but never following through), because he knows he was lucky not to get caught the first time, is afraid to push his luck.  He tells us he’s a sociopath, but he’s an exceptionally self-analytical one.  Is this a good thing?  For him, yes.  For the story?  I’m a bit less sure.  But fiction is the ultimate thought experiment, no?

Mr. Block is well aware of his many outstanding debts to past writers in this highly jugular vein–and pays one off by having his protagonist (whose real name we do learn), settle down under the assumed name of John James Thompson.  Methinks he was more impressed than he let on in those critical essays–part of that perhaps came from feeling that the critics had overrated Thompson after his death, while underrating others, himself included.  (But Mr. Block, you can’t very well expect to be posthumously lionized before your posterior is down in the humous, can you now?  First things first.)

It should go without saying that he was also influenced by his lifelong friend, Donald E. Westlake–who rarely wrote first-person narratives about murderers (never about rapists).  Westlake admired Thompson very much, but had reservations about The Killer Inside Me–I think because he felt that even for Thompson, it was going too far.  Making an outlaw hero out of a misogynist monster–who the unfortunate women in his life can’t help but keep crawling back to.  (Westlake perhaps sometimes worried he was doing that with Parker, at least in The Hunter, but of course it was Stark telling the story, not Parker himself–there’s that bit of narrative distance.  Parker would never think of confessing his crimes to anyone, even in Hell’s antechamber, and wolves don’t go to Hell.)

So while there are many models he might have drawn upon, from the work of others, and from his own past efforts, it’s that last book up top that gives us the biggest hint to the puzzle of what he’s attempting here.  He’s trying a variation on The Ax.  The basic narrative form is almost identical, in that ‘Thompson’ is telling us his story in fits and starts, and when he begins, he still doesn’t know where he’s going with it.  (The difference is, we’re told he’s typing this into his computer–and wondering as he does it if he will eventually have to destroy the hard drive to make sure nobody but him ever reads what he’s writing–there’s a bit of Adios Scheherazade here as well, a neglected Westlake masterpiece that Block has made his admiration for known).

But he’s trying to rationalize the process of becoming that Westlake depicted so effectively in that novel.  His family man (whose livelihood is never at serious risk) is going to find a way to keep the killer inside him under wraps, and he’s going to find a way to honestly share who he is with his family, as Burke DeVore never did.  A major part of this story is him deciding what secrets need to be shared with those he somehow has come to love, in order to be kept secret from the world at large.

And (spoiler alert) they not only forgive him, the adoptive son whose actions inadvertently led to a legitimate fear of ‘Thompson’ being brought to justice at last apologizes profusely to him.  And his wife, once he clues her in, goes on wanting to have sex with him in the manner to which they have become accustomed–with her lying limp as a corpse, satisfying his necrophiliac fetish–she prefers it that way.

Yeah.

Reading a recent Matt Scudder short Block self-published recently, I was struck by the way Scudder really didn’t feel like Scudder anymore.  Now I haven’t read most of those novels, just the first few.  I know the character got past his guilt, his alcohol addiction, and I’m happy he and his hooker galpal Elaine eventually became a contented married couple.

But see, my feeling is that Westlake was right to stop writing the oddly similar (and earlier) Mitch Tobin novels after Tobin finally got over his guilt issues, because those issues were what made the books worth reading.  There is no story without them.  Just a franchise, which isn’t the same thing.  Block disagreed, and kept right on turning out Scudders, sometimes as prequels (a form Westlake clearly didn’t care for and neither do I).

While every fictional protagonist is probably, to some extent, a mask his or her creator hides behind, that mask still matters, and a writer is ill advised to ever let it slip too much.  My sense was that in this story, the writer had completely given up on pretending Matt Scudder was anybody other than Lawrence Block.  Even basically the same age as Lawrence Block, leading a very similar Gothamite lifestyle, and enjoying many of the same sexual fantasies as Mr. Block.  (Which I can’t say I ever noted in the earlier books.)

So when the story ended with the pretty young blonde girl Elaine knows from a sort of Twelve Step group for reformed/reforming working girls,  who the aging Scudder just rescued from a creepy stalker, happily volunteers to join him and the missus in a three-way, just to express her gratitude (isn’t she supposed to be reforming?), and they all adjourn to the bedroom–let’s just say I wasn’t shocked.  Or turned on.  I mean, I’m all for people doing whatever they like so long as nobody gets hurt and no horses are frightened, but–ew.

So I’m a square, like Huey Lewis, without the sunglasses.  My hang-ups notwithstanding, it struck me more as wish fulfillment than a legit Scudder story–like everything was just an elaborate build-up to the threesome, which Scudder spends some time dreaming about during the course of the story.  And then his dream comes true.

And since the women are fine with it–well, in a Block story, they always are.  Just like it wasn’t statutory rape for the hero of Block’s much earlier Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (whose name, you should know, is Larry) to enjoy frequent coitus with no fewer than five beautiful Catholic school girls under the age of 17 (one of them is 15), because it was all their idea.  (I will not for one moment pretend that didn’t turn me on.  I am, after all, only human.)

In a work of fiction, there is no problem with consent, unless the author puts it in there.  So perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that at some point in the course of this new novel, Mr. Thompson’s long-ago victim (who gave consent while drunk, then withdrew it, then got murdered and raped) appears to him in a vision and says she forgives him.  To his credit, it never occurs to him to present this as a legal defense if the law ever catches up to him via DNA evidence he left inside her all those years ago.

It’s an effectively written book.  It has some interesting points to make, and it does quietly keep the reader in suspense, because it is, let’s face it, not your typical story told from the perspective of a psychopathic killer.  I appreciate moral ambiguity in fiction, and especially crime fiction.  But this isn’t all that ambiguous.  We’re clearly supposed to say “This is a good guy, he made a mistake, he worked on his issues, he’s got a nice business, a nice family, the girl forgave him from the spirit realm or the fifth dimension or whatever”–and reading it, I have to admit, I didn’t want him to get caught and sent off to the pokey.

Block does a rather superlative job making us fear the machinations of the law, the wheels grinding fine, the obsession with cold cases, unsolved mysteries, and the everpresent threat of DNA evidence, freeing some, imprisoning others.   But like Westlake, he’s also skeptical of how good the cops really are.

He makes a very persuasive argument towards the end.  You see, Thompson really has kept his nose clean all this time, suppressed his murderous impulses–though he was frequently on the edge of giving in to them, and even considered wiping out his family because he couldn’t bear the thought of them ever finding out who he really was.  He wanted to spare them that pain.

But he never gave in to any of these violent impulses.  Never broke any laws.  Never got so much as a speeding ticket.  Never reached out to his birth family, either.  So even though the law knows now it was him, or rather the him that used to be, they have no way of figuring out where or who he is now.  And in an echo from the Parker novels, the simulations of how he’d look in the present day just don’t match up to reality all that well.

Investigators looking into that old case would ultimately conclude that the scumbag who did this must have died years ago.  He would have killed again with the same MO, he would have gotten into trouble with the law, he would have contacted members of his birth family for help, he would have tripped up somehow.  Because they always do.  Do they?  I have no idea.  They found the Green River Killer.  Zodiac might still be out there.  Or not.  Pretty sure Jack the Ripper is gone, though Robert Bloch (no relation to Lawrence) might dissent.

But I’m damn sure none of them turned into decent family men who owned their actions, confided in their loved ones, became armchair philosophers of psychopathy, and had spirit visions of their victims forgiving them–and that’s what happens with Block’s non-serial killer.  Is this a believable conclusion?  You tell me.  It’s an interesting story, I’ll tell you that.

I think the point is, we all have problems, things we’ve done in our past, or wanted to do, that we’re unhappy about, and we should deal with that baggage, be as open about it as possible without scaring everyone away.  You need to know yourself in your entirety, not just the good stuff.  That’s a mora both Jim Thompson and Donald E. Westlake would heartily endorse (I couldn’t say about Poe).

But if Westlake didn’t like The Killer Inside Me (which is a bloody good book) I find it hard to believe he would have liked this one.  He knew his friend’s faults very well, I believe, and didn’t give a damn.  I know I still like Resume Speed very much.   And many other books and stories by Lawrence Block.  I’m not sorry I read this one.  I won’t be reading it again.

Nor will I tell you which idea I have toyed with for a story indirectly showed up in it.  Which worried me a bit.  Great minds…..?

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Pastiche: Mysterious Ways, Part 3–Strained Interlude–Epistle II (yes it’s getting convoluted)

(Disclaimer: Turns out disclaimers aren’t legally required, and who would ever believe I could come up with characters this good?  Not for nothing, but I’ve yet to shoehorn a single Mary Sue into this thing.  If I ever did, her name would be Mary Fred, and that’s been done.)

Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o’er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flowers promiscuous shoot;
Or garden tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights, explore
Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
Eye Nature’s walks, shoot Folly as it flies,
And catch the manners living as they rise;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to man.

From Essay on Man, Epistle I, by Alexander Pope.

MUCH AS DORTMUNDER HAD ALWAYS AND WOULD ALWAYS LOVE NEW YORK, his devotion was not of the sightless kind.  He knew very well the bellicose burg he had chosen as his lifelong abode must test the constancy of her myriad suitors, by periodically attempting to kill them.  If you can’t put up with the odd attempt on your life, her reasoning ran, maybe city life isn’t for you.  For Dortmunder there was only the one city, so he learned to duck early and often.

Multifarous are Manhattan’s murderous methods, and it was a chore keeping up with them all.  Dortmunder read the papers, knew there was some new kind of flu bug or whatever going around, but since the primary means of avoiding it was staying far as you could from the madding crowd (which he did as a matter of course) he figured it wouldn’t be a problem.

He did note with professional interest the normalization of wearing masks in public, but was skeptical of their efficacy.  Cops could probably still recognize you from just the top of your face.  He was looking for something with more coverage.  And then something found him.

Sitting at the dinner table one evening, looking down with satisfaction at a steaming portion of May’s famed tuna casserole, he leaned down to savor a prefatory whiff–and whiffed again.  The anticipated aroma was not detected.  He forked some into his mouth–not only had the salt lost its flavor, but all the other ingredients as well.  Come to think of it, he wasn’t hungry, though he’d skipped lunch to knock over a jewelry store (conveniently closed for the duration).

He asked May if she’d left anything out of the casserole–tuna, perhaps–she gave him a narrow look.  Out came the thermometer (oral, thankfully).  Into her eyes came something he didn’t often see there.  And upon him dawned the realization he’d ducked one time too few.

Dortmunder’s profession had its perks, but health insurance didn’t number among them.     No doctors, no hospitals.  May vetoed any notion of his finding another place to stay. Not like she could go work at the supermarket now, anyway.  She did lay in a large supply of necessities, prior to announcing her leave of absence–even paid for some of them.  They had shared everything else, after all.  He tried to object, but was already too weak to put up much of a fight.

Her symptoms, when they came, were mild.  Dortmunder’s, predictably, were not.

The thing he most objected to was breathing, something you tend to take for granted, until you realize you shouldn’t have done that.  Not since that wretched reservoir in Putkin’s Corners had he felt so in danger of going down for the last time, but this time he was drowning on dry land, which was somehow worse, though not so muddy.

Just as May told Dortmunder she was going to call 911 whether he liked it or not, in waltzed Kelp, his arms loaded with boodle from a medical supplies warehouse, including this boxy gizmo. (Kelp and his goddam gizmos).  He said it was a Nebulatizer, Nebu-louser, something like that.  (It was all pretty nebulous for Dortmunder by that point).

Kelp showed May how to hook it up, told her to stay out of the bedroom when it was on, so she wouldn’t be further beladen with bug.  Dortmunder just had to wear this mask thing (bit late now, wouldn’t you say?) and respire.  Oxygenation got easier.  Kelp’s gizmo had worked.  Just one more thing for Dortmunder to feel sore about.  But he had pills for that.

In one moment of near-delirium, the Nebu-louser droning away in the background, he thought he saw God again, bald and bespectacled, leaning over him with a look of what might have been concern, but was probably more like annoyance.  “Sorry, John.  No early parole for you.  You still have time to serve.”  Well didn’t that just figure?

Finally well enough to watch TV in the living room, he saw President Fairbanks, telling the entire planet this was no big deal, minor hiccup, definitely not his fault (no one had asked him if it was).  Just go about your business, it’ll all be fine, if you catch it spread it around, herd insanity.  You can wear a mask if you like, but they’re so out of fashion.  He spoke as if he was literally The Boss of Everybody, and had caught them all lallygagging at the water cooler–back to work, layabouts!  Then he went golfing.

Dortmunder was good with getting back to work.  Sooner the better.  He began to feel stronger.  Unresolved vengeance issues had that effect on him.

So he started making calls.  On the landline.  Touchingly archaic as that might be.   (He’d have used a payphone, but forget that now–if they weren’t already gone, the powers that be would have probably ripped them up to avoid further spread).  A meet at the OJ was clearly called for, but as Rollo dolefully informed him, that wasn’t an option for the near future.

Then Kelp proposed this video chat thingy, which Dortmunder begged Kelp not to tell him about, but Kelp went blithely on regardless, until Dortmunder conceded the point, just to stop the explication.  Equipment was installed, by Kelp, at no charge naturally (if Dortmunder had only realized Kelp would have paid him for the sheer delight of bringing the cyber domain into Dortmunder’s, at long last–ah, what a tangled web we weave….).

An (appropriately) illegal connection to some unfortunate neighbor’s WiFi was devised with Wally Knurr’s assistance.  They assured Dortmunder that measures had been taken to prevent their private communications from becoming public. Dortmunder didn’t believe one word of it, but if this was the only way to move the Fairbanks Agenda forward, he was willing to pretend he did.

So when the meet began, he was there, however grudgingly, a laptop atop his lap (if  you’re not supposed to put them there, why are they called that?), and he had witnessed the distracted proceedings with the firm and unastonished conviction that this was even worse than all the previous communications advances Kelp had stubbornly insisted on informing him of.  He endeavored to say this, only to find himself unable to join in the audiovisual melee, until something Wally did loosed the digital logjam, and now it was his turn to expound at some length.

“What are any of you talking about?  How are we ever going to get the the point of anything, if you keep dancing around it?  Stan is jacking a car, Tiny is making everyone wear a mask, Herman is leading another revolution, Wally is still waiting for Myrtle, and that’s all dandy, but Quid lucrum istic mihi est, you know?  The issue at hand is how do we take down Fairbanks while making bank? We did it before, we can do it again.  Am I right?”

A long embarasssed silence.

Kelp spoke in the low humble tones he used when Dortmunder required placating.  “John, we were just waiting on you.  It’s a new thing, this video-meet, we needed some practice anyway.  And we always used to socialize a bit at the OJ before getting down to business.”

“Okay, so the greet part of the meet is now concluded.  Unless there’s somebody else who hasn’t gotten to tell us what he did on his vacation?”  Dortmunder knew he’d regret those words the moment they left his mouth, but it being impossible to recall them, he waited fatalistically, and not long.

“Um, guys, it’s me.  Victor.”  Said Victor.  Kelp’s Nephew.  Who worked for the FBI.  Hard to be confused about that, since they could all see him clearly on their screens.  Based on the official-looking photograph of President Fairbanks visible on the wall behind him, he was sitting at his desk, at the Bureau, as he spoke. Either that or he was a fan.

“Why is there a Fed at our meet?”  Rumbled Tiny, who reached up to make sure his mask was still on tight.

“Victor, I said I’d fill you in later.”  Mumbled Kelp, who was starting to see the flaws in this mode of communication.

“You said what!?” Exclaimed Herman, who remembered Victor very well and not fondly from a previous job that had not gone well, but Victor hadn’t been an active-duty cop at the time.

“Victor, you know, I was only kidding about this car being stolen.”  Explained Murch, now parked at Maximilian’s Used Cars, conveniently near the city line, not that it mattered if this was going to be a Federal rap.  Maybe as long as he didn’t drive it over a state line?

“You’re Victor?  I’ve always wanted to meet you!  I’ve heard great things!” Enthused Wally Knurr, who knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.

“Victor, it’s fine.  You can join in.  Why the hell not?”  Philosophized Dortmunder, who wondered idly to himself what else could go wrong, but didn’t ask that question out loud, because you really do need to learn from your mistakes.

“I shouldn’t be here, I know, but–”

How are you here?” Inquired Kelp, with a befuddled look.  “I didn’t give you the number to call.”

“You gave me your PMI, Uncle Andy–for that one-on-one conference we had the other day.  You mentioned what time you were holding it.  Not hard at all–it’s just that I needed to reach you right away, and….”

(As Victor went on, Dortmunder thought nostalgically of the days he would have been stupid enough to ask what ‘PMI’ stood for.  Pure Mad Idiocy?)

“Listen, you guys don’t have to worry.”   Reassured Victor, with a worried look on his face.  “The Bureau isn’t going to find out about any of this.  That’s really what I needed you to know.  My office is terminating its involvement. Budget cuts. And there’s too few people left here who can be trusted to keep quiet.”

“And this is why you’re talking to us from your office?” Interjected somebody. (It doesn’t matter who, since they were all thinking it).

“I’m supposed to be on desk duty today.   I don’t have good enough internet at home, anyhow.” Excused Victor, threadbarely.

“Victor, I’d be happy to help you out with that.”  Volunteered Wally, always eager to make a new connection, both digital and personal.

“Hey, would you?” Importuned Victor, whose nerdishness was of a different order than Wally’s.  “I keep meaning to upgrade my personal equipment, it’s just that I was never very good at that kind of—”

ENOUGH!!!!!” Concluded Dortmunder.  “We are here to discuss a job.  Victor, are you in or out?  You can do it off the books if you like.

Victor wrestled with his conscience, but that was never a lengthy match–early filler, well before the Main Event, which would presumably involve The Undertaker.  “Sure, I’d love to.  I can take a leave of absence.  There have been hints about that from upstairs, anyway.”

“Good to have you aboard.  Now if there’s nothing else, we can–what’s that?”

Looking down at the laptop screen, Dortmunder had suddenly discerned what appeared to be text messages (Kelp had also insisted on telling him about those) flashing across the bottom of it.  Disconcertingly, it appeared to be a free-ranging discussion of their discussion, with numerous asides.  A sort of virtual peanut gallery.  Perhaps with actual peanuts.  Maybe a few beers.  The style of discourse seemed oddly familar…….

Dortmundweiser is giving ’em hell!

That ain’t his name, it’s Dortmiller.

I thought it was Coorsmunder?

I hear he had Covid-19.

How did we miss the other 18, is what I want to know.  

I think it was in beta before now.  

Is there a VHS version?

What do they have against Fairbanks?  He made America great again!

Grate again, maybe.

I don’t see how he can be President. Isn’t he from Alaska?

You’re thinking of Gnomes.  Gnomes are from Alaska.  That’s why they always wear those hats.

Alaska is America, moron!

You have to drive across Canada to reach it.  That means you need a passport to get there.  Therefore, not America.  QDE!

What’s QDE mean?

Quite Definitely Explained.  It’s Latin.

No lousy Brazilian can tell me what’s America or not!

Don’t Brazilians speak Brazilese?

Only at home.  So the children don’t forget their mother tongue.

Nobody got an earful from my ma ever forgot her tongue, I’m tellin’ ya.

This isn’t happening, Dortmunder thought to himself.  I’m still delirious, hooked up to the Nebu-louser, and maybe they put the wrong meds in this time.  Or May really did send me to the hospital, and I’m being ventilated.  Or I’m dead, and this is Hell.  That would explain why God showed up.

Unable to persuade himself of these happier alternatives, Dortmunder was forced to conclude that these were in fact the OJ Bar and Grill regulars. Watching their meet.  Online. Commenting on it. Possibly tweeting about it. Yes, he knew about that now as well.  Damn Kelp anyway. Not that this explained anything. The OJ was closed. That’s why they were doing this, right? There had to be some reason.

“Rollo?  Are you here?  Everybody else is.  Olly olly oxen free.”  Dortmunder waited patiently, and in a sconce, the balding bluejawed bartender himself appeared on everyone’s screen, wearing an apologetic look under his face mask (which had the letters ‘OJ’ stenciled upon it, along with the image of a brimming beer mug.  If you care.)

“The other bourbon shared his PMI thing with me too.  I figured I’d be the bug on the wall.  Gets boring here.”

“Imagine my surprise,”  Dortmunder said drily.  “Did he ask you to cater the event?”

(Kelp was being very quiet now.)

“Nah, just wanted to gab.  Said he missed the place.  I forgot to tell him we’re doing takeout now.  Anyway, some of the guys were picking up eats when we were chatting, I guess one of them recognized him, took a pic of the PMI thing with his phone from where I wrote it down, shared it with the others.  They’ve stayed in touch, you know–online–keep the home fires burning and all.  Thing is, they were always curious what you guys were doing in the back room.  They used to talk about eavesdropping, but they were too scared of the Vodka and Red Wine.”

“If they think they’re scared now–”  Tiny didn’t finish his thought.  The text messages had abruptly ceased appearing.  One could imagine the regulars now discussing the price of a one way ticket to Brazil.  And how hard could it be to learn Latin?  It’s a lingua franca.

“So you’re doing takeout now.”  Dortmunder observed.

“Yeah, it’s working out better than I thought.  Nobody can go to the bar, so everybody wants to order from the bar.  Next best thing to being there.  Worked it out with Otto in Florida.  You wouldn’t believe what we get away with charging, it’s–”

“So people are allowed inside now.”  Dortmunder persisted.

“We talked about curbside pick-up, but some of the regulars kept saying that meant they had to be standing out in the street, and the others said they didn’t feel like buying a car, so–”

“So you can let us use the back room now.”  Dortmunder stated.

“I’m not sure that’s legal.”  Rollo objected.

“So when has this been an issue?”  Dortmunder riposted.

“I know, but–”  Rollo wavered.

“So no food.  No drinks.  We’ll mask.  And distance.”  Dortmunder insisted. More distance the better, he was thinking, but you can’t do a job like this without a string, more’s the pity.

“Yeah, okay.”  Rollo relented.  “We close 7pm now.  Come in around then, and I’ll pretend your orders are delayed until everybody else is gone.  What day do you want to do it?”

“Why don’t we discuss that over the phone?”  Dortmunder switched off the laptop, placed it in a nearby wastebasket, and went to heat up some tuna casserole.

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Pastiche : Mysterious Ways, Part 3–Strained Interlude

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(Disclaimer–I really thought I was done with this travesty, but seems like it’s not done with me yet.  Or at least something isn’t.  All these august personages belong to the Westlake Estate, wherever it be, yet somehow they belong to all humankind, a most ingenious paradox indeed.  Perhaps this will shake me from my torpor.  Or deeper into it.  One way to find out…..come on and Zoom Zoom Zoom a Zoom…..)

IN A DARKENED ROOM, SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK, a digital screen flickered to life–emblazoned upon it was the narrow-nosed visage of Andrew Kelp, looking even more pleased with himself than usual.  He spoke as though he addressed the multitude, having just supplied it with loaves and fishes, presumably not half-baked or raw.

“Hey guys!  Can you all see me?  It’s time we started the meet.  Since we’ve never done this before, I’m gonna call the roll, make sure we’re up to speed.  Remember to keep your mikes turned off until it’s your turn to speak.  John?  You there?”

Nothing happened.  Kelp waited as long as courtesy required, then changed tack–“Okay, John will be with us soon, I’m sure.  Stan?”

As though invoked through arcane incantations, there appeared the cheerful countenance of Stan Murch.  His hands were gripping a steering wheel, and his eyes were switching back and forth, as if his attention was divided.  A light hum that could be interpreted as a running engine was audible in the background. Kelp, his face taking up half of the now-split screen, asked the logical follow-up.

“Stan, are you driving now?”

“Just nicked this brand-new Enorma with superfast connectivity and a high-def display.  I’m on the way to Max’s.  If I get there before the meeting’s over, I can idle in the parking lot before going in.  I may watch an online movie release before I hand over the keys.  This screen is huge!  I think there’s a popcorn machine in here somewhere.”

Now returned to full screen status, with a dubious expression, Andy tried to regain control of the online colloquy.  “Stan, I don’t know as you should be working the same time you’re attending our meet.  We have important planning to do here, right John?”

The screen buzzed and fizzled a moment, as if someone was trying to contribute something, but hadn’t quite figured out how, what, or possibly why.  Then silence once more.

“John, we’ll come back to you in a jiff.  Maybe ask May to help you out there.  So Stan, I respect your enterprise and all, but I think you should chime in once you’re parked somewhere.  You wouldn’t want to have an accident and the cops show up.  They are not in a good mood lately.  By the way–does it have MD plates?”

“Yep!  Vanity plate says “I Doctor” so opthalmologist, I guess–I see what you mean, Andy–super comfortable.  I may steal one of these every time we have a meeting.”

“I’m happy you found a nice score, but I still think…..”

“I can multi-task here, no problem at all–better than a home office.  And you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get around now.  Nobody on the roads! Every creampuff in the city just sitting there waiting for me!  This eye doc won’t notice his ride is gone for weeks, and I can make it across town faster than you could walk to the corner store and back.  I won’t even tell you what route I’m taking, because it doesn’t matter anymore!  Clear sailing everywhere!  It’s The Golden Age of New York Driving.  I’m blessed to have lived to see it.”

Stan’s eyes grew misty, contemplating the limitless vistas of near-empty asphalt ahead, like a movie cowpoke surveying the open prairie from his trusty cayuse, while yodeling softly to himself.  Fenced in no longer under starry skies above.

Great, but just to be safe, turn off your mike until you’re parked, and focus on the road.  You are present, let’s move on.  Tiny?”

The monitor flickered once more, and a head roughly the size and shape of a now-defunct rock formation that once served as a pretext for tourism in New Hampshire, loomed across it, albeit incompletely.  Only Cinerama could have encompassed both the face and the ominous black mask covering much of it. Zorro crossed with Pantagruel, only without a trace of rakish good humor.

A voice sounding much like the ill-fated rockslide that put an end to the Old Man (Not to worry, New Hampshire, you still have autumn foliage and maple syrup–although those are under siege as well) rumbled through, muffled somewhat by the mask.  “Why am I seeing your nude face, Kelp?  Do I have to chastise you as well?”

“Tiny, you don’t mask at a video chat.  That’s the point of a video chat.  Nobody catches anything from anybody.  That’s why I went to the trouble of setting this up.”  Kelp  looked more hurt than intimidated, though he was both.

Even behind the dark mask, Tiny’s darkening scowl was made manifest.

“You think I’m scared of your germs, Kelp?  They wouldn’t last two minutes in here.  It’s a matter of principle.  If I have to wear one, so does everyone else.  It’s just good manners.  I’m out walking yesterday, Upper West, this guy goes right past me, inches away, mask hanging down around his neck, gabbing away on his phone, his droplets spewing all over.”  Tiny’s voice dropped dramatically–“You want to guess where that phone is now, Kelp?”

“I get it, Tiny.”  Andy’s tone was notably meeker, but he still had a rebuttal.  “Obviously he should have been wearing it out there on the street, but we’re not on–”

“Oh that reminds me, this other guy, at the OJ, who was ahead of me to pick-up  takeout–”

“–The OJ is doing takeout?–”

“Are you interrupting me now, Kelp?  As I was saying, he was there ahead of me, chatting up this broad ahead of him, and he had no mask on at all, not even around his skinny neck.  I asked him, very courteous-like, to please get it out, and he says he forgot it, big deal, what business was it of mine anyhow, we should let the virus run free, survival of the fittest, and then we’ll all have horde inanity, something like that.”

“I have a hard time imagining anyone saying that to you, Tiny.”

“He was caught up in the dame, who I will say was cute, even behind her mask, so he didn’t look back to see whom he was talking back to.”

Ohhhhhh…..

“You get the picture.”  Tiny allowed a pregnant pause, before continuing.  “So the long short of it is, I found a way to solve his problem.  You’ve heard of the wedgie, right?  Regular and atomic?”

“You mean…..”

“That’s right,” Tiny concluded, with grim satisfaction.  “Even though he didn’t think he had a mask, he did anyway.  Lucky for him he wasn’t going commando.  The skirt looked relieved he’d stopped chatting her up.  Pretty sure I saw her wink at me.”

Kelp had been fumbling around for something, and all of a sudden there was a camo-patterned mask on his face–the type with valves on it.  Made him look like something out of an old war movie, with gas, barbed-wire, trenches, etc.

The masked marauder was not propitiated.  “You know those valve things only protect you, right Kelp?  I think that may be ruder than not wearing one at all…..”

“I did not know that, Tiny.  This was a freebie from MyUncle, after I dropped off some flatscreens there.  I’ll get one without valves. ASAP.  As soon as the meet is over.  We good?”

A noncommittal grunt being his only response, Andy felt at liberty to unmask and proceed.  “Herman?  How’s tricks?”

There then appeared the suave sentient silhoutte of Herman X (he had brought back the ‘X’ due to popular demand), their lockman on the job they were perhaps someday going to get around to discussing.  “Yo, Andy.  Been a while.”

“You look good, Herman.  We appreciate you coming in on this–it kind of links up to your other thing, anyway.”

“Oh, you might say that, Andy.”  In what might be considered an implicit pun, Herman had dropped into an exaggerated Amos&Andy drawl only he could have gotten away with at the present time.  “Massa Fairbanks and me, we just don’t see eye to eye, sho-nuff.”  (He smiled in a way that would have made the erstwhile progenitors of Amos&Andy look for the nearest available exit, hoping their feet would not fail them now.)

“How’s all that going, anyway?  You’re with that BLT gang, or whatever?”

“Close enough.  Like the song says, Everything Old is New Again.  I came out of retirement to give these kids the benefit of experience.  And trust me, they need it.  Oh, they have some good ideas, don’t get me wrong.  Great spirit, can’t fault them for that.  They just need to learn how to know how to tell the good ideas from the stupidass ones.”

“Oh yeah?  How so?”  Noting the failure of their string leader to materialize thus far, Andy figured he’d stall for time.  Anyway, he always liked hearing what Herman had to say.

“Just to name one particular–this ‘Karen’ thing–it’s getting out of hand.  Karen this, Karen that–it started as a way to tell off snooty white chicks–don’t ask me why they couldn’t pick a man’s name, since that’s where most of the really bad shit comes from–and now basically anybody on the fence about this or that plan of action– say there’s some folks questioning the wisdom of pulling down statues of the half-dozen or so white people from the 19th century who weren’t racist–as a protest against racism–Karens!”

“That does sound a bit random…..”

“It’s become a catch-all, and the thing about catch-alls is that they get repurposed. They like it as a way of shutting folks up, so they can go on doing what they like–like some bored brother is setting off M-80’s in the middle of the night because why not, some Dominican nurse yells from the fourth floor she has to work tomorrow–in a ward full of sick people–Karen!”

“But if it’s about privilege why would he call her…”

“Translation–“My life sucks, so I don’t have to care about your problems.” Works pretty much the same way as all the shit folks call us, though I suppose a genuine Karen wouldn’t use that word–just think it.  While calling the cops on her cell.  Cops don’t need to call anyone names to get their points across.”

“Why did they pick ‘Karen’?”  Kelp was fascinated.  There was a growing danger of him forgetting what they were virtually gathered to discuss, which the renewed buzzing and fizzling from the screen might have been trying to get across to him, but he ignored it in favor of becoming still more woke.

“The etymology is obscure, which is pretty much always the way. The basic idea is sound–make whitey finally feel what it’s like to have an effective slur directed at him.  One with teeth, since ‘honky’ never worked.  Not over-specific, like ‘guinea,’ ‘kike’, ‘taig’–at this point, we’re all so assimilated, melanin content is all anyone sees, unless you’ve got some kind of religious garb on.

“And that would mainly be the people you don’t want to piss off.”

“You got it.  We need something relating to content of character, but still strictly for the ofays. However, since ‘Karen’ is really more about hating on women, the execution is half-assed, all the more since misogynists like using it as well–possible that’s where it started, which would be ironic.  Well, we’ve had so much less practice than you with this shit. We’ll catch up.  My question is, why not try ‘Fairbanks’?  Unisex, and that sure has teeth now.  Nobody wants to be a goddam Fairbanks.  Except him, naturally.”

Deeply moved by Herman sharing all this with him, Kelp felt an expression of professional solidarity was called for.  “The cops have been pretty tough on you guys lately.”

Herman’s shrug was eloquent.  “Sure. They’re cops.”

There being nothing to say to that, Andy opted to move on in the queue.  Dortmunder had still not made his entrance.  Time to call in tech support.

“Wally?  We can’t seem to get John.  Could you maybe look into that?”

As a djinn from a bottle emerged the plump bearded countenance of Wally Knurr, whose informal position within the gang was roughly homonymous with his name.

“Already on it, Andy!  I think there’s a problem with the…” (technobabble ensued, which Kelp pretended to follow–interested as he invariably was in gadgets of all kinds, he never worried overmuch about terminology).

“Great, Wally!  I’m sure you’ll have John up to speed in no time.  There were bound to be a few hiccups the first time, right John?  (Buzzing.  Fizzling.  It didn’t sound happy, but then, how could it?)

Kelp made a valiant attempt at condolence, not normally his strong suit.  “Wally, how’s Myrtle doing?  I heard about her mom…..”

“Still pretty sad, Andy, thanks for asking.  I proposed marriage, and somehow that didn’t cheer her up, but I got a hug, anyway.”  Wally looked pensive a moment, then went back to pecking at his laptop.  A sconce later–“There!  That ought to do it.  John, could you try again?”

The display changed once more, and this time it was indeed the saturnine sad sack visage all had been awaiting.  Andy Kelp cried out, in unparalleled delight, “John!  At last!  Welcome to the Digital Age!”

John Dortmunder gazed upon all virtually assembled, with a mixture of scorn, exasperation, and incredulity.  “What is any of this crap supposed to accomplish?”

A question he was not alone in asking, but the answers to these and other questions would have to wait a while longer.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

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