The sun fell down on California. Inside a large beach villa, lights flared. The place belonged to Pete Dagger, all‐star American writer.
Dagger was among the biggest of the writers, perhaps the largest of the era. He was a top multi‐millionaire popular artist who was loved by the critics. He was huge with the academics, who sucked from his marrow, and also with the cynics in the underground, who were hot and bothered by his slashing, ripping style and bottomless defiance.
Like many of the greats, Dagger was no genius‐come‐lately. He had been recognized only after years and years of surviving on ketchup soup and kool‐aid, after years and years of struggle up mountains of scorn and indifference. He had survived the painful years of short‐story writing; the dabbling in “journalism”; the job stints as dishwasher, data‐input man, and motel clerk. He had overcome the harrowing years of hostility and suspicion from friends, colleagues and family. He had prevailed despite his stabbing bouts of doubt; his frightening drunk sprees; a general case of self‐loathing.
Few critics had initially discerned Dagger’s particular epochalness. His first book, Copper’s Gold, had received vague, if somewhat polite, notices in the small number of journals that chose to review it (many a career was in fact badly tarnished by the early failure of critics and editors to identify the breadth of Dagger and his achievement). The public response to this sterling volume was similarly rather sluggish, and initial hardback sales of Copper’s Gold petered out at about 910,000 copies.
However, Dagger’s second book, the cutting, bittersweet masterpiece The Sun, Hey, Strawberries, was an instant global paperback best‐seller, prompting a renewed wave of interest in Copper’s Gold. The first book had then mounted a keen comeback, soon overtaking the second on the sales charts – and to the amazement of Dagger and many others, Pete Dagger had become the proverbial worldwide rage. With critics from Maine to Madagascar suddenly struggling to say enough good things about these two textual jewels, Dagger was inexorably propelled to the summit of literary regard, a position he maintained to the present day.
In the years since its publication, Copper’s Gold had lost none of its legendary luster, remaining among the most preeminent of Dagger’s classic texts. The 329‐page standard American paperback version was now in its twenty‐eighth printing. At last count, it had been translated into 71 languages (in editions of varying page‐lengths). It was taught in all but the very most pious high school districts of the U.S.A., as well as in most of the modernleaning universities of Europe, Canada, Asia and the former Soviet Union. And it had made Dagger millions and millions of dollars, with no sign of slowing down.
Dagger’s latest, the glam‐stained sci‐fi satire Is He In Pain, Queenie?, was his ninth book. The most recent figures, fresh from the conglomerate head‐office, showed it had sold 41 million copies so far worldwide. And it was still on the upcline. The rights had been sold in Malaysia, and a publisher in Santiago, Chile had just put in what was believed to be a record bid for Latin America.
The book, indeed, was quite universally loved, and had added another coating of shine to Dagger’s literary reputation (which was already glisteningly formidable, save for his mostly forgotten fourth book, the semi‐autobiographical Dromedary, which had initially been published in a limited, premium‐priced first edition of seven damask‐covered octavo volumes) as the most ruthlessly brilliant author of his generation. Indeed, the consensus was starting to move beyond even that: Dagger’s name had started to crop up now and then among the ranks of some of the more major Russian, French and Portuguese giants.
History, of course, would be the ultimate judge. Yet there could be no denying that Pete Dagger had the essential vitals – the question was simply no longer open to dispute by serious people. Because Pete Dagger was the actual thing itself – the real, the pure, the absolute, no‐bars item. He was a visionary, a shaman, a revolutionary, a humanist, a misanthrope, a true pro, and pretty tough stuff. He just had it. He God to earnest had it. His books were treasures, straight and unbidden.
There was, of course, next to no competition. Dagger had seen to that. His singing, stamping excavations, his drench‐filled revelations, his crushingly excellent stories, death‐defying prose gambits, witheringly incisive dissection of the political situation – his lightness, his darkness – his faith, humor and melancholy – hope, despair, joy – dread and wit – the scathing opprobrium – his allusions to the Biblical Christ, his enraged assault on the organized Church – his meditations re: man v. machine – that little bit of unnamable insatiable – had basically killed off and rendered unusable all challengers. By that we refer to: The pallid sardonics waving their flags; the clever card‐sellers; the panting word‐women; the thriller tripemeisters and the horror turds; the university‐learned phlegmatists; the technophile doughboys; the cruddy computer crumbs; zhivagoing doctors; panoramic piepushers; moody revanchists; dullardly ethnicians; foolish and mistaken A‐students; pea‐brained peace prize candidates; the tired Jews; gin‐slapped country‐club stemwinders; bungling zeitgeist‐sniffers; the hordes of goshing girls; provincial dreckkings; sports dopes; media‐mooing mindtwerps; science‐loving schlong‐necks; Godly gabbling goonies; flatulizing financial finnanegans; ironicizing trash‐truckers; crime‐crazed schtickmen; screenplay‐flogging schlock‐jacks; plastic‐fingered sex‐phonies; the corporate‐vetted dingbat dimwits; the shoddily fallaciously shabbily drearily – Dagger had shot and smashed them all down, to the cheers of a delighted, word‐wary world.
As night fell down on California in early spring, Pete Dagger sat before his electric typewriter and crafted, with his bare hands, another masterpiece. He looked like a normal man of fifty‐seven, about six feet tall, 195 pounds, except for his face, which was creased like a De Kooning, and his eyes, which looked like a pair of little blue fish freshly plucked from the Pacific. As Dagger typed, passages of stunning luminosity took shape. It was as though his fingers themselves were wired to the hot, burbling, frothing cone of humanity – or anti‐humanity, as the case would have it. The words spilled forth, providing another piercing, rending glimpse at the secret whispered soul of existence. The new book had the working title Too Many Vikings. Well, perhaps the title would need a little work, come to think of it.
Dagger’s beachside villa was a conventional‐enough looking place, as such places go. Of multiple split‐level design, it featured a pool‐Jacuzzi‐sauna complex, with direct beach access and special fog lights; an expansive French‐Italian kitchen; a collection of functional Finnish‐Dutch furniture, representative of several design moments; five bedrooms, six bathrooms, two studies, three dinettes, and one library; artworks, among them several pieces by Chinese, Arabian and Salvadoran dissidents; a combined billiards room/satellite theatre/bar‐disco/championship‐regulation Scrabble sanctum; a six‐car garage, filled with six cars, two bicycles and three motorcycles; and detached servant’s hut (unoccupied for several years now). Dagger didn’t care so much for all the stuff, but it had just piled up over the years. After all, one had to do something with one’s money; one couldn’t just let it sit there.
Perhaps Dagger’s only “unusual” possession was a handmade stone pornographic chess set, which occupied a place of prominence in the main sitting room. This had been sent to him by a fan from Scotland.
The phone rang. Dagger’s hand snapped at the black receiver, seizing it in mid‐jangle.
“Hello?… Well hello, Jack,” Dagger said with a thin chuckle. “Hello to you, too… Well of course, of course… Absolutely, why not… send her right over… Oh, fine… Yep, another one, you got it… Two hundred thou or so? Sure, shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll have it sent over first thing… Twenties and fifties only? You betcha, buddy… Okay, be seeing you… You bet, we certainly, certainly should… Toodle‐oo to you too.”
Dagger hung up. He sat there, calmly, and stroked his brief beard. Then Pete Dagger began to softly cry. His heart almost seemed to crack open.
Yes, it was that time again. Another girl was coming.
It was as basic as that, yet also more. So, so much, much more. It was the most beautiful thing he could think of, in fact. A pretty girl. Well, now – a pretty young woman. A pretty woman‐girl.
Dagger shut off his typewriter and sat in his chair, drowning inside.
Dagger never knew where, exactly, the girls came from nor, exactly, why. He only knew his friend Jack would send them, by car or by bus, and they would stay until they left. It might be a few hours, a day, a week, but rarely much longer than a month. Dagger gathered that the girls were employees of Jack’s – or if not outright employees, most certainly “associates” of some kind. Something. It was all very unclear to Dagger. Yet he never inquired of the details. It seemed he never quite wanted to know all that much.
Well, Dagger knew Jack was involved in what loosely could be called “entertainment” – principally films and modeling and so forth, and also the dancing industry perhaps, and perhaps also what might be called the courier business. Dagger had gathered that – indeed, he was well aware of it. He had, after all, bankrolled a goodly number of Jack’s projects over the years. These had been far from profitable, at least financially, at least from Dagger’s perspective – Dagger had never seen a single return off any of his investments. But as I say, Dagger never properly inquired. He never missed the money, and he just never inquired.
Dagger didn’t mind. Hardly. Pete Dagger had more money than he rightly knew what to do with. Indeed, small armies of men and women toiled around the globe to ensure that his money was being constantly turned into more. Because the system worked to Pete Dagger’s benefit now. He had crossed a certain fiduciary threshold, and there would be no turning back. There could not be any turning back – not the way the system worked today, so long as you had crossed the threshold. And Dagger had crossed that threshold – lord, but he had.
He therefore donated to Jack whatever the other man requested, and whenever he requested it. Gladly. In fact, joyously. It was the least Dagger could do. He liked to think of it as his little unique role in the necessary redistribution of wealth. Because Dagger was of the belief that the money he gave Jack eventually, somehow, wound up in the hands of people who could really use it – working people, struggling people. An utterly indistinct conclave of poor souls, doomed dreamers and generally irresponsible laggards – in any case, people to whom it might somehow make a difference.
Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly like that, all things considered – perhaps it was a bit more complicated. Perhaps indeed. But Dagger chose not to dwell on it, at least not for very long. One couldn’t worry about everything, after all. One couldn’t avoid one’s responsibility, certainly, but one couldn’t worry about everything – though one did, of course, have to draw a line somewhere. Yes – at about murder and torture and nuclear war, Dagger supposed. Terrorism, too.
Pete Dagger had met Jack several years ago – around the time of Dagger’s now legendary Hollywood spree that had followed the premiere of Sasquatch Plutarch, his seventh book for which he’d written the screenplay in four days. The country music had been playing rather loudly the one night, and Jack had rather astutely meshed himself into Dagger’s circle of a groggy midnight, weaving in with deep pockets of good cheer, jokes – and, as it happened, a sultry passel of airy young beauties.
Now, years later, the beauties had not stopped coming – the cavalcade had not ceased. Certainly not.
Dagger trembled, just thinking about it. Gosh, it was horrible – yet he could think of nothing better.
These girls – what in silky blue heaven were they doing? Well, okay – they were modeling and dancing and starring in film projects – this Dagger had gathered. And he’d gathered that the films and other projects were not being produced by the major Hollywood studios – at least not the ones that churned out the movies and television programs based on his books. But that was about all Dagger knew.
Well, Dagger knew – he was almost positively certain – that other men, perhaps many other men, were involved. On some level, Dagger knew they most certainly were.
He cringed and trembled anew at the notion, at the idea of what might be happening. Gosh, these were girls gone bad! Bad, bad, filthy little cheapies! But so wonderful, too. Wonderful! So young and good smelling. So pretty. So delightful. So quivering with life. So to be cherished. But so bad! Bad! So very bad!
The doorbell rang. Dagger shuddered. She was there, she had come. Dagger’s heart swished like an eyeball in solution. Thank God he’d already gotten everything ready. Her room was prepared, he’d double‐checked it just seconds ago. The kitchen was fully stocked, he’d checked. The bathrooms were spotless. The boy had come earlier that afternoon to clean the pools.
Dagger jogged to the entryway and put his hand on the console. Would he use the surveillance video monitor? No. Dear no! The first look‐see was always best in the flesh.
Dagger bent himself and peered through the front door fisheye. There she was! Standing under the bright and glimmery porch bulbs. Ah, and pretty as could be. Blue backpack over a shoulder. Auburn‐colored hair, rolled up in front, wavy on the sides. Snapping gum. Hooped earrings, the size of half‐dollars. A cute little – what was that? – yes, a little glittery stud, stuck there in the nose, above the right nostril. The eyes – approximately turquoise, it appeared. And those full lips, he was looking at them now – so hideously full! Well, she may have been a bit on the short side, legwise, considered Dagger – oh, but it didn’t matter, not that much.
Dagger’s heart raced and flipped. It somersaulted, darted, backstroked, butterflied and chicken‐winged.
He drew open the door, a curious, expectant beam across his bearded visage.
“Well hello there,” he said in a fell swoop.
Her head cocked to a side. A hand raised itself in a tentative signal of greeting.
“Yes,” said Dagger, “Jack said you would be here, and here you are.” He laughed lightly. “It’s Sandra, isn’t it, yes? Sandra?”
She smiled. “That’s me.”
“Well come in, come in,” Dagger said, showing her the way.
After Dagger had hung her coat, he disappeared into the kitchen. He called out, “May I get you something? A ginger ale, perhaps?”
Dagger’s shaking hands fumbled. A block of ice pitched to the imported pink stones of the kitchen floor, shattering in a crack of sliding crystal.
“Just another minute,” he called out. “I’m afraid I’ve spilled.”
Dagger at last returned to the sitting room. On his right palm he balanced a chrome tray with two small bottles of ginger ale, glass tumblers, one bowl of broken ice and another of macadamia nuts.
Sandra was seated on the white velvet couch, her legs crossed.
“That’s a interesting chess set,” she said, pointing. “Never seen one like that before.”
Dagger’s knees buckled. Ice clinked. He set the tray on the coffee table and slumped next to her, heart beating, air fluttering about his nostrils.
“Yes,” he said weakly, “I suppose it is rather somewhat rare.”
“Can I smoke in here?” she said, leaning forward suddenly.
“Do you mind?”
“Oh, please do,” Dagger said. “I’ll run and get you an ashtray.”
He sprang up and walked briskly to the hallway closet.
“Wow, Time magazine,” he heard Sandra say.
She rose from the couch to inspect the framed object on the wall. It was a layout of Dagger from several years ago. He was on his strip of beach, hair whipping in the breeze, staring straight into the camera. He was wearing a black and red silk samurai costume. In his hands he held a huge, decorative, curving sword, of the kind one might possibly find in a movie about pirates. “He Writes The Books,” text said in large yellow type. Below that, in somewhat smaller type, it said: “Pete Dagger Cuts to the Bone.”
“Wow, that’s you on the cover of Time!”
Dagger was returning with the ashtray.
“Yes,” he said, grinning and setting down the ashtray.
There was a soft clunking noise.
It was morning, a little before five a.m. Pete Dagger rose in his bed chamber, electrically awake. He went to the toilet, had a rub of his beard and a drink of water from the sink. He walked blinkingly down the hall to his study, hesitated a moment in the doorway, and finally set the lights a‐burning. He sat before his computer/typewriter and inhaled. He flipped on the machine and began to labor once more upon the latest masterpiece.
Pete Dagger trained his concentration and worked. A diamond of a word was quickly followed by a sapphire. Next came a ruby of a verb, a platinum participle, a perfect pearl of punctuation. The resulting combination was pure Peter K. Dagger – pure radiance.
And so the day began.
The clock was a strike or two past eight when Dagger paused. Was that a noise? Indeed, it appeared to have been. Dagger froze, poised over his keyboard. Now another noise. Noises. A door opening. A toilet’s muffled groan. And now the muted spraying splay of shower jets.
Fingers stuttering, Dagger shut down his machine. Knees jerking, the back of his neck squirming, he scuttled past the bathroom in question and descended the stairs to the kitchen.
When Sandra at last appeared, Dagger had the table miraculously set. It contained a small silver decanter of steaming coffee; tea in a sturdy porcelain crock; a pitcher of chilled grapefruit juice; lightly toasted bagels, still warm; cream cheese, lox, margarine and apricot jam; muesli, in tandem with fresh goat’s milk; ham slices and honey; and basketed fruit, still watersplendored from Dagger’s focused rinsing the moment before.
Sandra damply crossed the ingress of the breakfast dinette, a candy‐striped towel about her head.
“Well good morning, Sandra,” Dagger said.
The young woman was barefoot. In addition to the towel, she wore a large mint‐green T‐shirt, torn in one spot at the collar, with the large inscription VISUALIZE WHIRLED PEAS emblazoned in blue on the front. Sandra glanced at Dagger, smiled from one side of her mouth, and sat down at the table.
Dagger heard the tweet of birds, flutting and scruffing in the trees beyond the window. Golden sunshine poured between the venetian window slats. Dagger observed that Sandra did not appear to be wearing anything beneath her T‐shirt.
“Wow, thank you for breakfast,” she said. “You didn’t have to, you know.”
“Oh, come now,” said Dagger. “It’s my pleasure. Sleep well, did you?”
“Yes, very well,” she said, offering a smile. “Really, thanks a lot for letting me stay here.”
“Oh, no problem. Quite seriously, it’s not a problem at all. That’s a funny T‐shirt, by the way.”
“Yeah,” Sandra said. A glint of blue‐gold jumped from her nose bauble, surprising Dagger as it veered. “It’s a joke on world peace. Get it? Whirled peas?”
“I do, I do.”
Sandra lifted a toasted bagel‐half to her plate and picked up a knife. With her other hand she lifted the pot of honey. Dagger poured himself a steaming black dash of coffee. He gazed at Sandra and felt his blood racing. His heart galloped, churned, leaped, and broke into thousands and thousands of individually bruised and crumpled pieces. In his ears, an inconcise roaring mixed with bird tweets.
“So you’re a writer, huh?” Sandra said. “Mmm, this is good honey.”
“Thank you,” Dagger said. “Yes, that’s quite right, I do write. Or type, rather. It’s just a lot of typing, to be honest.”
He shrugged, smiled and brought a hand to his beard. “It’s a job, I guess. And I’m lucky to have it.” He shrugged again. “Anyway. The honey’s from Oregon, if you’re wondering. A friend sent it.”
Sandra ingested another bite and swallowed. “Did you ever write anything for Jack? I mean, for the things he does?”
“Ho, dear no,” said Dagger, tacking on a light laugh. “But maybe that’s not a bad idea, though, now that you mention it.”
He chuckled, smiled, then swept his hand once more to his chin. He plunged into a swirl of brief thoughtfulness.
Sandra grinned. “I didn’t think so. I mean, because you’re kind of famous, right? Cover of Time magazine, right? I think I remember them talking about you once in school. I don’t remember what they said, but – well, they were talking about you.” She smiled for a moment before biting her lower lip. “I’m sorry. I guess I should have paid more attention.” She hunched her shoulders and shrugged.
“Oh, no,” said Dagger, “dear no. It’s quite all right, Sandra. I don’t know what they say myself, and would probably frankly rather not hear it, to be honest. Some fool foolishness, I would imagine, neither quite here nor there, as they say. Most likely. Where did you go to school, by the way?”
“Well, I went to high school in Tucson.” Her face and neck pinkening, Sandra’s eyes darted to a colorful, prison‐flavored Salvadoran wall print. “I haven’t started college yet, if that’s what you mean. But I want to. As soon as I’m ready – I mean, when I have my money saved and stuff.”
“Tucson,” said Dagger, “in Arizona?”
“That’s a pretty place, isn’t it? Deserts and everything. All those empty skies. Cacti.”
“Are you kidding?” said Sandra, her eyes widening. “It’s super‐shitty to the max. Excuse my French, but it is. Jesus Christ. Why do you think I came all the way out here?”
“Okay, okay, point taken,” said Dagger, raising his hands in an “I surrender” posture. “I was just there once. It did seem very pleasant, I must say – but you’re far more of an expert than I could ever be. More tea?”
The both of them ate their fill, or close to it. At which point Sandra announced Jack was sending a car to pick her up in the early afternoon.
Pete Dagger and Sandra together cleared the dishes to the kitchen and set them inside the dishwasher. Dagger suggested a swim on the beach.
“Oh, really?” said Sandra. “Let me just run up and get my swimsuit.”
Dagger, sitting down, brought up his beard hand.
“Well,” he said, gazing up at her, “only if you want to, Sandra. It’s a private beach access, you know. You can do whatever you want down there. No one’s going to be spying or anything.”
Sandra lowered her eyes. Her nose and lips tremored infinitesimally.
“Okay, I guess.”
“Fine, then,” said Dagger, gesturing at the sliding glass which led to the beach. “By all means, do as you please. Feel free, as they say.”
Sandra quickly turned. As she did, Dagger caught a glimpse of a tattoo on the outer flank of her right thigh. What the – was that a flower? motorcycle? Sheesh. Some kind of death’s head?
Dagger wasn’t sure. Darn it, so many of these girls had tattoos.
Between seventy and eighty percent, at least, all with at least one tattoo, somewhere. All kinds of tattoos. Navel rings, too. Nipple rings.
Dagger and Sandra strode over the warm expanse of redwood planking that led to the ocean. Hot sunlight dabbled upon their heads, the heat however made deceptive by the cool sea winds which ruffled the adjoining arrangement of palm trees and bougainvillea Birds tweeted.
Surf could be heard, pounding muffledly.
Sandra suddenly said, “You’re probably going to want me to suck you off, yeah?”
Dagger gulped. His breath caught. His heart skipped, tripped, shattered, came together, fell and splintered once more. He lowered his head and walked, one step after the other. He looked up and sniffed the breeze.
“No, actually,” he said, looking at her and scowling somewhat. “It hadn’t crossed my mind. What makes you say that? Jack didn’t say anything, did he? God, I hope not. He better not have. What a terrible thing to say to a woman.”
Dagger cast a grim, beardful look at Sandra. He lowered his head and shook it.
“No, he didn’t,” Sandra said. “But I just figured. A girl learns a few things pretty quick out here in California.”
Dagger walked. His bare toes pushed the sand. He was hearing her voice, but the words were disappearing, disappearing in the thickening salt‐haze. Dagger’s toes twinged against the scalding sand, the sun pestered his long, lightly‐haired brown arms. The air throbbed with the ancient incense of rotting seaweed, tar and foaming froth.
These girls. Oh, these girls! Nothing but little casseroles of sugar and water, dirt and mucous, proteins and pulpy things.
Little squiggly things.
Pete Dagger walked, but slowly now, vaguely, drowsy from the heat. He stood and stared at the sun‐struck waves, at the geyser of brilliant white on the horizon. Sandra had flipped off her sleeper and was jogging with dancing steps toward the ocean.
Well, Pete Dagger thought, things were pretty much squared away. The New York trip was all arranged. There would be the awards ceremony and poultry‐fish banquet, followed by any number of parties. The usual routine. It wouldn’t be so bad. New York was still a hell of a town, after all, plenty of people were still promoting it. And Dagger guessed he had to see those people, sooner or later. Business was business, after all. The system was still intact. Yep – the same old unjust system, corrupt to the core, rigged to help “the rich” and enslave the rest, or a lot of them. Yes, and it probably wouldn’t be changing any time soon.
Well – and so what was to be done? The answer, reflected Dagger, was not much. Unless, you mean, maybe blow it up? Burn it down? How about a new revolution of some sort? Or – perhaps a quantity of strategic tinkering, and a tiny spot of heavy lifting, to make things, uh, a little more humane and equitable, locally and globally? Dagger chuckled. Bring it on, baby, yeah yeah, mix it up if you’ve got the juice. Two steps forward and one step back, and vice versa, and so on, depending of course on which side ended up with more key ideological booty after what war, and how disruptive were the technologies during which political hegemonic blah‐blah, and whose scales of economy were more terrific at what big moment of convergence. And importantly, who did the analysis at which particular time, after everyone was dead and no longer bothered… let the historians sort it out later. Fine, just fine. Because about the only thing Pete Dagger was certain of was that some people kept dirty asses, while others worked to stay clean. And quite a large number, in fact the majority, tended to fluctuate. And therefore, i.e., human beings were born to suffer, and art was the only thing one could or should have any confidence in, tee‐hee…
Dagger did not necessarily believe in “throwing away” one’s money, as such. But one was, after all, obligated to do something with one’s funds. It was a basic obligation, in Dagger’s view – or did you have something else in mind? Dagger chuckled. It was good, for example, to be able to hand out checks, such as the one he’d given Sandra when she finally left – for $50,000. If it didn’t buy her all the way into college, thought Dagger, well, maybe it would keep her in cigarettes and pantyhose and bus tickets for a few months. Lord – well, and he’d taken her at her word about that crystal meth problem that had revealed itself. But what else could he have done? He wasn’t about to have another woman around the house full‐time. Dear no – how could he ever get to work with something like that going on?
Well, Dagger didn’t care too much – but he did, he did. He actually did care. He sincerely loved to write those checks. And he’d keep writing them until – well, he supposed, until, for whatever reason, he no longer could.
Dagger was in the kitchen preparing a tray of drinks and nuts when the phone rang. He snapped the hand‐held unit out of its cradle on the wall.
“Hello?” Dagger said again.
“I said, Hello? Who is this?… Hello? Is anybody there?… I said, Hello?”
Silence. Perhaps a slight hissing.
“Well,” he said, “if that’s the way you feel, fine.” His face drew itself into a tight grin. “Hello‐hello, yoo‐hoo… Okay, whatever… Nice talking to you, whoop‐de‐whoo. No, serious, really nice, heck of a darn time. Oh yeah, sure, sure, pleasure’s mine, all mine, forget it…”
Dagger suddenly grew angry. “I hope this isn’t some damn game.”
He slammed down the receiver. He exhaled, blinked, and turned to face his drinks.
The phone rang. He whisked the receiver off its hook.
Silence. Then a voice, grainy, but unmistakable: “Hello? Hello? I said, Hello? Who is this?…”
Dagger’s neck went erect. His eyelids flapped. The hand holding the phone lost some of its power.
“… serious, really nice, heck of a darn time… Oh yeah, sure, sure, pleasure’s mine, all mine forget it… I hope this isn’t some damn game.”
The line clicked. Dagger stood there. The phone was beeping.
Well, he thought.
He returned the receiver to its hook.
Well, so they were after him. They were coming for him. It was pretty clear now. If it wasn’t clear before, it was now. Okay, so – they were coming.
What did they want? What did they already have? What did they know? What was their program?
Well, Dagger thought, he didn’t care. Let them come. If that was the way they wanted it, let them come. Let them take him down. Whatever the hell they pleased. If it was going to happen, then let it. Just let it. The hell with it. Let them come. Whatever they wanted. Let them take it. Let them have it, if they wanted it so bad. What did he have to hide? Nothing. Just nothing. Everything was in the open. It was there for the taking. Let them have it if they wanted it so bad. Let them have it. They couldn’t take anything from Pete Dagger. He was giving it to them for free. They couldn’t take what he was already giving them, could they? So let them come. All of them, each and every one. Damn it, let them come. Come!
Dagger inhaled purposely and clapped himself on the chest. He positioned his lips in a composed posture. He walked into the sitting room. He placed the chrome tray on the coffee table and sat himself on the couch.
“That’s some chess set,” said his guest.
Dagger grinned. “Why thank you, Robyn, thank you very much. Yes, you’re quite right about that, it is a bit unique. You’re not going to find something like that down at the mall, I suppose. Certainly not every day you won’t.”
New York lazed across the horizon like a dominoes game gone berserk. On the 25th floor penthouse of a West 53d Street highrise, Pete Dagger laughed.
It was the evening post‐awards party, one of several. The room shined goldenly, smelling of professionally aged cheese, toothpicks and leather. It tinkled with the sound of jazz piano and softly clashing crystal. Pete Dagger’s face was dark, a touch swollen.
A woman in her latterly thirties joined the circle, grabbing for Dagger’s hand. Dagger gave it over. She spoke in a rush for perhaps 30 seconds, introducing herself and so on. She was a literary editor, as it turned out, employed by the conglomerate that ultimately owned Dagger’s works, but at a slightly different imprint. Shortly it was discovered she was in possession of a question she’d always wanted to ask Pete Dagger. It concerned a character in one of his early mid‐period books, the buoyant, effervescent, yet oddly elusive Picabo Street, which had sold 39 million at latest count.
“I’m really frankly much more interested in what you think,” Dagger told the woman. “That’s really what counts, you know. I just wrote the darn thing. The damn thing, excuse me.”
The woman laughed, taking Dagger’s remark as an invitation to elucidate her position.
“Yes, yes, perhaps so,” Dagger said, nodding his head. He hoisted his wine bottle and ingested a swallow. “Yes,” he went on, “now I see what you’re getting at. I’d never thought about it quite that way, to be honest, but I can see you do have a point. Quite a point, actually.”
Dagger rocked his head vigorously, taking in more of the wine, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
The woman nodded, smiled, retreated a step, and studied her toes on the carpet of creamed corn.
Dagger gazed about, lazily. Quite a crowd of luminaries had shown up for the reception, he’d shaken most of their hands: Tina O’Weishaupt and L.M. Narda, Sandy Chuck and her husband Rolf, Clarence Dumanouga, Jean‐Pierre Pochon, Kris Scarver and Feuilleton Hospoda, Bennett Mor‐Morgentaler and Jasmine Hovnova. Not far away stood Koch Sauerlander, Edie Guillermostein, Mondrian Finefrock, Tacoma Hopps‐DeGoey and Youssef Prout.
Aha, and yes, there: Robert Benko, Paula Wild, Abdelaziz Herrera, Geoff Raynoch; and Peter Fnolegh, Uragan C. Smerch, Anna Blantag, Dieter Johns, Alice Sheets Boyne, Jane Hutfless, Lester Tunbs, Claude‐Ellen Robbins and her notable son, Niall. Oh yes, and to the left: Padraig Solana, Tim Tuttle, Thom Twyford, Ashtone Steavens, Vivian Rottnier, Lars Halford, certainly. And over there, oh yes, in a row – Danny O. Hulka, Pietrefesa Tillinghast, Laurence Bonaqua, Megan Pinckney‐Gund, Nicola Shandybin, Tuck and Randall Potes. And Porzo Vlak, James Shamkhani, Plaxico Sachs, Appolonia Freund, Jean‐Francois Silliere, Edgar Rabbani, Carlos Hongwu. Ah, lord – the redoubtable Goerner Majlis himself, chatting with none the other than Wellmax Knippers.
Dagger, gently rubbing his wine bottle, took a long look at Giga Meist, whose red and white dress tonight was quite remarkable, as many had remarked. And indeed, yes – Otak Omarska, Bryan Bergfriedhof, Joe Bocker, Theresa Maria Aasenlich, Shigeru G. Schliem, Yoshi “Jay” Graham, T.P. Ajax, Alec Scandalios, Ferden Vell, Richard Lee Ben Jackson Burton, Maxine Hurtado y Baker, Danielle Piraino, Kirby Shelby, Bruno Hamenyakataa, Egon Lansky, Scott Rondale, Vladimir Gonzalez, Andi Pugach…
To say nothing of the assembled assorted etcetera who always attended, the faceless clutches of tenured professors, apprentice critics, Oxford‐educated athletes, actors, hosts, models, promoters of Internet sites, the industry operators and the other various other lit‐liking people, so many of whom had been so kind to Dagger over the years, though not always, and certainly not always on time, and with little risk to their career or whatever damn fool thing…
Dagger swiveled his head, drank from his wine. They were all periodically glancing at him, weren’t they – their lips crumbly from crackers and dried fish – glasses refilling, nostrils flaring, lips writhing, fingers twisting. Lord, Dagger thought – and so many of them from Harvard or Yale, Princeton and what have you. Quite a number of them, here in this room – gone on from Yale and Brown and Princeton and so on, to make quite an impact on the world – just as the universities themselves had advertised they would.
Dagger chuckled, suckling from his wine. He was removing the bottle from his mouth when he observed his agent, Frick, darting into the hallway that he understood to contain the bathroom.
Well, he considered – now was a good time. Dagger set down the bottle of wine. It was almost finished anyway.
“You’ll have to excuse me, folks,” Dagger announced, none tooloudly. He shrugged, grinned, and began walking.
He strode purposefully past the host and hostess, waving jovially. He breached the double door of the suite, ambled down to the elevator and hit the button. The lift doors swept open at street level. He exited and maneuvered through the revolving building entrance.
He was on the street, the lights of the New York night whirling and whipping past him. Streetlamps and neon, traffic signals and headlights, satellites and star glow bathed Dagger, disclosing and re‐cosseting him in multifarious shades of darkness. He stood there, inhaling mightily.
Dagger wandered, roughly in the direction of Wall Street. He loosened his tie and began unbuttoning his shirt. Whew, holy. It was time to relax.
He’d almost completed the unbuttoning job, and was at the midway point of jaywalking across a boulevard, when he saw a woman – a woman who appeared to be his ex‐wife. She was walking arm in arm with a tall, black‐haired, thick and rather Mediterranean‐seeming man.
Was it his wife? Dagger couldn’t precisely say. It was quite possible she would be in New York, perhaps vacationing, perhaps even living here now. Why not? Dagger had made certain she’d received a generous settlement – 51 percent of everything. He had demanded it of his attorneys – insisted.
Gosh but Pete Dagger hoped it was her. He watched the couple, shuffling up the street, pausing to inspect the wares in a window. God, did he hope it was Maggie. Indeed – and he hoped her date was a Greek or a Turk. Why not? A strapping Greek or Turk, even an Italian, who was kind and told funny stories and happened to know a great deal about cheese‐making and wine and gardening and so on, who knew about stained glass and Buddhism and great places to go in Canada. A fellow like that. Why not? God to hell – Dagger hoped it was. She deserved it. Damn it, but she did.
Dagger swooned, watching them amble down the sidewalk. He’d made it to the other side of the street but found it difficult to stand suddenly. His eyes scanned for a bench or something, somewhere to sit, but none appeared. He cringed all over. His heart gurgled and writhed and choked and squirmed. What he’d done to the poor woman – what he’d made her do.
Pete Dagger stood there, crying.
Things had just happened. Everything had been so confusing, so difficult, and then it had happened. He didn’t know, he still couldn’t explain – it wasn’t what he’d meant, what he meant to do. No, he hadn’t understood properly what it was really all about. He’d been so wrapped up in his “plan” – believing there were such things as plans and that his was good. And it had happened. He had done it, it had happened, it couldn’t be reversed.
He and his wife had gone on, they’d had children. But it had happened.
He watched the woman and her companion go, disappearing down the avenue. No, he supposed. It wasn’t her after all. He sighed.
Dagger continued in the direction of Wall Street. He finished unbuttoning his shirt, then took off his black tux jacket and set it atop an overflowing wire metal trashcan. A pair of nearby bums noticed, but did not immediately rush over, being otherwise occupied.
It was just so horrible. Dagger was going to rot in hell for what happened. And he deserved to. His wife didn’t share in the blame – he had made it happen. Him alone. He’d been the bully, anyone would say so. Lord, it was true. God, it was so long ago, but as near to him as last minute.
And he would burn for it. There was no justice in this world or universe, not a chance of it, but if there ever were, Pete Dagger would fry forever, deep in the bowels of the nethermost craters of hell. It was that simple – it was not at all complex. The rest of it be damned. The hell with all of it. All fucking all of it.
Dagger was not far from Wall Street now. It was still humid out, but the warm breeze was soothing against his chest. He felt his sparse nest of chest hairs, the sensation of some of the hairs wiggling individually.
Things were very bad. The breeze could not make up for the fact that things were not right.
Dagger couldn’t walk any longer. He came to a small public park. It was dark there, many lamps broken, one slowly blinking. He sat hunched on a bench and sobbed, wiping the tears from his cheeks and eyes with the back of a hand.
Some time passed. Dagger got up and began to walk once more. He didn’t have an idea where he was going, what time it was…
He came to an underground subway entrance and stood, gazing at the dim yellow light seeping out.
The doorbell sounded. Pete Dagger was in his massive California villa. Not Nearly Enough Vikings was complete. He’d shipped it off to the publisher two days ago. The advance “buzz” was already starting to hit the newspapers and the chat shows, while the internet nuts had been foaming with speculation and anticipation for months. The movie‐people were howling at his agent’s door; Frick had been stoking the price for nearly a year, dangling a carrot here and there in the snouts of the top two or three music video directors. Several so‐called “A‐list” actresses were said to be spitefully cat‐fighting it out for the lead and supporting roles – to say nothing of the scads of script bumblers scrambling for a shot at the scripture. Over at the conglomerate, meanwhile, design and marketing plans had been launched for The Alligator Chalice and Other Typings, a five‐volume compilation of Dagger’s early stories, novellas, poetry, college and community newspaper articles, as well as a recently discovered cache of hundreds of guest registration carbons he’d personally filled out during the motel clerk days.
But now night had come again, and the front doorbell was ringing. Dagger closed down his computer, shut off the light in his office and sprinted down the stairs. He poked into the eye‐peep. He nodded and grinned.
There they were, as promised.
“Well hello, Jack,” Dagger said warmly, throwing open the door.
“Shakespeare!” said the other man.
Jack, bare chest framed in a blue jean vest, strode in. He wore a blond straw cowboy hat with a rainbow band, swimming shorts and tan cowboy boots. No less than five chirping, clean‐looking girl‐women were trailing him.
“So happy you all could come,” Dagger said, stepping back to avoid Jack’s oncoming cowboy brim. “Everything’s all ready, I hope.”
And somewhere a baseball whizzed. A monkey jumped. A Japanese ate, a wounded teen sat alone. A bunny rabbit sneezed. A tyrant traduced and a document yellowed. A presentiment was occluded. Waves lapped at Antarctica. Someone appreciated another’s concern. There was a no‐show at the landslide. Pollution rights were traded, missile launchers were lubricated, the sounds of seals were sequenced. The pontiff expressed shame, a porcupine screamed, Van Gogh was exonerated. A manual was consulted, an elbow lay on a tabletop. Cobblestones frothed in the rain. Extremists rallied, a paperclip dropped –
The moon seemed to cover everything with its bright breath.
Pete Dagger sat in the warm, track‐lit woodenness of one of the Jacuzzis out back. The enclosure flexed and shimmied, reflecting the innumerable refracting illuminations of pool splash. The chamber echoed with laughter, girlish laughter and the heartiness of men. Dagger brought a bottle to his lips and listened to the other man. It was hot in there, getting hotter now. Sweat slid from Pete Dagger, all‐star writer, mixing with the chemicals and water and bodies. He sucked from the bottle, excess dribbling down his beard.
“It’s bean curd, Shakes, that’s all,” said Jack. “You and I both know it is. It’s nice and all, we can enjoy it, but we got to call it what it is. Bean curd. Maybe somebody thinks it’s special. No, I don’t think you do. You know it’s just bean curd, right Pete?”
“Yeah,” Jack went on. “Beans. Beans and curd. Think about it. So why not, you know? If it ain’t you, Shakespeare, it’s me – right? Or some other guy. And vice versa – some other time, some other place, depending. Know what I’m saying? You don’t think so?”
Dagger looked up at the man in the cowboy hat. “Yes, I do. I do, Jack.”
Jack laughed. “Of course you do, Shakes, of course you do. See, it’s hard, but at the same time, it’s easy. It’s like, it’s only hard if you let it be like that – if you think too much, which I can see you doing, no offense intended. It’s easier just to think of it as bean curd. You see something – bean curd. You hear something – bean curd. You hear something else – another stripe of bean curd. Know what I mean? Don’t mean nothing. Just what it is. Got to keep it simple. Don’t get carried away. Keep all your furniture in all the right rooms. No mix‐ups. Don’t let yourself get confused. Hear me, Pete?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Good.” Jack nodded. “All right then. Fine. That’s what I like about you, Shakespeare. You can dig it, you can relate. You’re a natural, you got the natural‐built star power. It’ll look like you, it’ll seem like you, but no one will ever believe it. Never in a million, billion years. Not you, Shakespeare. That’s the fun, see? Everyone’ll think it’s a joke, special effects, digital hooey‐gooey and whatever. Except it won’t be. Me and her and her and her and her, and her, we’ll know. And you’ll know, of course. Hell, you’ll never forget it the rest of your life. And if you do forget, we can just show you the tape.”
Jack roared out a laugh, from deep in his belly, ending in a cough.
“Yes,” said Dagger.
“Oh, jeez,” said Jack, holding his side. “Oh, jeez. Okay, we’re ready then, I guess. Ready. Aim. Action.”
The blue‐green waters churned. Slippery legs and arms entwined. There was laughter, moaning, a grunt, a giggle.
“Can I do the dog now, Uncle Jack?” said Dagger. His voice was husky, somewhat breathless.
“I don’t care a damn what you do,” said the other man. “God damn it, I don’t care.”
He trained the camera at Dagger’s face. Dagger’s eyes were wide and unblinking, his mouth wet, slightly open.
by Thor Garcia