David A. Schwinghammer
· Soldier's Gap
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 8
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer, Chapter Eight
· Mengele's Double, Chapter Eight
· Bereavement Blues
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 7
· Speed Dating With 'Janeane Garofalo'
· The Cynic
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer - Chapter Seven
· Mengele's Double, Chapter 7
· Mengele's Double, Chapter Six
· The Nuclear Option
· Empty Mansions, book review
· Pilgrim's Wilderness, book review
· WWII Cartoonist, book review
· Write Yourself Into a Corner, book review
· Roanoke Island, book review
· Billboard Theology
· Baghdad Without a Map, book review
· Into the Wild, book review
· The Zookeeper's Wife (review)
· Alumni Game
· Girls Who Wear Glasses
· The Do Drop Inn
· Ode to Neve Campbell
· Jacks or Better 101
· Never My Love
· 3 O'Clock
David A. Schwinghammer, click here
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The God of poetry seeks retribution.
George Willard paused outside the Martha Atreus Literary Agency. A published author at the Tucson Writers’ Workshop had told him to hand-deliver his manuscript. "Harder to turn you down eyeball to eyeball," the man had said.
Through the frosted glass he could hear that song that played in the background when they showed the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Enya’s "Only Time," he thought it was.
A young woman was running a manuscript at the copy machine when he finally worked up the courage to enter. "Can I help you?" she said.
"Does Ms. Atreus have a moment?" he said.
The woman glanced at his package. "Just leave that with me," she said. "I screen everything before she bothers with it."
"Okay," he said, "but I need to mention a few things to her about this." He shifted uncomfortably. "In person, if possible."
She flashed a sympathetic smile. She was pretty, in an underfed waif kind of way, with Nefertiti eyes and a hairstyle you might see on the wall of an Egyptian tomb. Under different circumstances, he would have asked her if she wanted to show him around New York. "Suit yourself," she said. "It may be awhile, though. This is her reading time and she’ll pitch a fit if I disturb her before her coffee break. She likes to go out for that; if she’s in a good mood, she might let you tag along."
"Is she nice?" he said. "I’ve been to three agents already and two of them wouldn’t even let me leave a copy of my book."
"Most want a query first, maybe a couple of chapters. No unsolicited manuscripts. You’re kinda cute, though. She might make an exception for you."
He grinned sheepishly, sat down on the Naugahyde couch, and for what seemed like the thousandth time, began proofing his novel in accompaniment to shush-pock rhythm of the Xerox machine.
In the inner office, Martha Atreus was arranging the laundry baskets she used to sort manuscripts, red for rejection, yellow for maybe, and blue for "gaga over it." She was having trouble getting going this morning. Rodney Billingsgate had sent over a five-pound box of chocolates, a thank you for the five-figure advance she’d gotten him for his latest Clancy rip-off. If she gave in . . . more likely when she gave in . . . she’d pay dearly with increased time at the gym doing gut-busters. She was already twenty pounds overweight.
What the hell, she told herself, consider it aroma therapy. Mondays were always so hard! She ripped the cellophane off and sniffed. The smell was orgasmic. Hadn’t had one of those since she didn’t know when. Had to have been with Rodney, the last over-the-transom she’d accepted. She hadn’t thought that military drek had a chance in a million, but it had sold and sold and stayed at the top of the Amazon list for three months.
She arranged the chocolates in a row on the edge of her green blotter. For each chapter she read, she’d reward herself with a toffee- or cherry- or coconut-centered piece of ambrosia. She cheated midway through the first. Spelling errors galore and the author, if you could call him that, hadn’t used courier font as she’d directed in her LITERARY MARKETPLACE listing. To top it off, he’d used copy paper instead of bond. That was a sin she couldn’t forgive. After three pages, she plopped it into the red basket.
She’d finished a quarter of the chocolates by the time she finished the second submission, a mystery with a female lead detective. It wasn’t bad but lady P.I.’s were so passe. She wrote, "Get an original idea" on the cover letter, folded it, inserted it into the SASE, and tossed it in her out box.
The next piece was magical. It was printed on creamy vellum, and the poet, for the writer was apparently trying to write an epic poem, had used a calligraphic font. No, on second perusal, she was sure it was hand-crafted. She lost herself in the cadence and wonderful word play; she heard music, lyres and flutes as well as the annoying jew’s harp she heard when she concentrated too hard. The subject was pretty brutal; it was about the war between Zeus and the Titans, but the meter was perfect, and the imagery transported her to a different world of wood nymphs, flute playing goat-men and flying horses.
When she finally came to her senses, her face was smeared like a six-year-old who’d overdosed on Halloween candy and she had a stomachache. Where could she sell this thing? A literary house, surely, but what could she possibly get for it? Five thousand tops, her cut a paltry seven-fifty. Who did she know who would take this off her hands? Somebody at Aaron Priest? She doubted even they would risk it. She found one of her standard rejection slips and wrote, "This is wonderful, but it’s not our kind of thing," scrawling her initials with a bold flair under the inscription.
Ready for her coffee break, she looked at her watch but couldn’t see the face because of the blinding glare of the sun coming through the window. When she tried to get up to draw the shades, her legs felt elephantine and she could hear her pulse pounding in her ears. When she tried to press the intercom to summon Yvonne, her hand remained frozen at her side. The next thing she knew her head grew too heavy for her neck and the facing of her desk came rushing toward her forehead. The last sound she heard was a thud as her body rolled off the chair onto the floor.
Yvonne had gotten to know the boy during the time it took her to run two copies of Gloria Oread’s new romance. He was from Oklahoma City and his novel was about the impact of the Murrah Building bombing on five different survivors; it sounded fresh and she was going to make damn sure Martha gave it a fair read. He was kind of a rube; his cuffs were frayed and his trousers ended before they touched the tip of his shoes. "Floods" her friends had called pants like that back in junior high. He was asking her if she’d like to show him around town after work, when the phone buzzed and she ran across the room to answer it. It was Rodney Billingsgate, wanting to know how Martha had liked his Valentine’s Day present. She told him to hold on, she’d put him through. But there was no answer. Ordinarily she’d never dare to barge right in, but Martha had specifically told her to interrupt anytime Mr. Billingsgate called.
She had screamed until her voice gave out. A moment later, George burst into the room and saw her kneeling next to what looked like a statue. He took her in his arms and patted her back until her breathing evened out and the tears wetting the front of his jacket lessened some. "There, there," he said. "I’m sure there’s a rational explanation for this. People don’t just turn to stone."
"No, it’s her; I know it’s her. She was in here this morning, and there’s no other way out. You can’t open the windows, either, and even if you could, we’re thirty flights up!"
He took a closer look. "I have to say, if that’s a statue it’s the most detailed one I’ve ever seen. You can see the tiny hairs on her eyelashes."
"Look at her nails. Have you ever seen nails like that on a statue? We better call the police."
"They’re never gonna believe this."
The first officer on the scene asked if they’d touched anything. Yvonne told him she’d touched Martha’s neck to see if she had a pulse, but that was all.
Soon, some detectives arrived. "I’ve heard of hardening of the arteries, but this is ridiculous," said the one wearing a snap-brimmed gray fedora with a rumpled Columbo raincoat. The other guy, his hair styled in that boy-band fashion, snickered and said, "Are those stone-washed jeans?" They both cracked up, then put on plastic booties and hairnets and did a grid of Martha’s office. When the medical examiner arrived, he chewed them out for starting before he’d pronounced the alleged victim dead, then he put a stamp on the matter by showing everyone Martha’s fingerprints. "Damnedest thing I’ve seen since I was called to a case of spontaneous combustion," the ME said.
"That actually happened?" Snap-brim said. "Thought that was a myth."
"You know what," Boy-band said. "This is the third literary agent in the last month who’s ended up in a real bad way. There was one on Staten Island found hanging from a light fixture with his pants down. They tagged that one autoerotic suicide since there wasn’t any forensic evidence. The other one was a definite murder. Guy was found tied face-to-face with a corpse that had been dug up a couple of weeks before."
"Gross," Yvonne said.
"I’d say that’s enough of a tie-in," Snap-brim said. "What was she doing before you found her body?"
"Reading manuscripts," Yvonne said. She explained Martha’s system.
"Looks like she only got through a couple," Snap-brim said.
"Holy Cow," George said, referring to the pages lying next to the body. "That’s vellum; do you know how much that stuff costs?"
"Here’s the rejection slip," Boy-band said, plucking it out of the out box with the tips of his plastic-encased fingers. "What kind of a name is Calliope?"
"Sounds like that organ thing they play at the circus," Snap-brim said.
"Calliope was one of the muses," George said. "The goddess of epic poetry."
"I’d say this is a case of poetic justice," Boy-band said.
Nobody laughed; everyone’s eyes were glued to the vellum.
The print seemed to dance on the page, glimmering like the lettering on an old-time computer monitor. Snap-brim could swear some of the words changed places. "Did you see what I just saw?" he said.
"Could be some sort of eavesdropping device," Boy-band said. "Let’s go see if those other two agents knew this guy Calliope."
"She’s a woman," George said.
"We’re gettin’ more of those all the time," Snap-brim said. "Pretty soon they’ll catch up to us in heart attacks and serial murderers."
Snap-brim and Boy-band found Julian Ott’s office still open. His assistant, a young blond woman named Charlene, was boxing his files for storage.
"Can I help you with something?" she said, as she finished strapping one of the boxes with mailing tape.
"We’re with the police," Snap-brim said, showing her his gold shield. "I’m Detective McNair, he’s Wolfe; we’d like to ask you a few questions. Your boss’s case may have been a homicide."
She lit a Kent. "I been trying to quit but the patch doesn’t seem to do any good," she said.
"Know what you mean," Snap-brim said. "I’ve tried to give them up maybe twenty or thirty times; the best I was able to do was three weeks."
"Those other cops couldn’t find any evidence anyone else had been in the room with Julian. No fingerprints, no fibers. How could his death have been a murder?"
"Can’t tell you that," Boy-band said. "Did Julian receive any threats before he died?"
"Hundreds. Nobody likes to spend five years slaving over a hot keyboard, only to have some pompous ass return their novel unopened. It’s like somebody saying your baby is ugly. I tried to talk to Julian about that but he said it was SOP, as if that was an excuse. When I start my agency, I’m gonna read every submission personally."
"Sure you will," Snap-brim said. "You keep any of those letters?"
"Oh yeah. Just in case one of them follows through on the threat. You’re in luck, I haven’t boxed the file yet."
Boy-band said. "We’re looking for an unusual name we came across at the Atreus scene. Does Calliope ring a bell?"
"Actually . . . yeah. The epic poetry guy. Julian sent his pages back with a note telling him he was impressed with the writing, but that his work was outdated to say the least. We found Julian hanging from the light fixture in his office the next morning."
"With his pants down."
She snuffed out her cigarette. "That too. The policeman said they get a lot of that."
"You’ve been very helpful, Miss. We’ll be back later to check on those crank letters if our theory doesn’t pan out."
"I’m afraid we’re going to have to seal the office," Boy-band said. "This is a crime scene now."
"Okay by me," she said. "I’m not exactly being paid for this, you know."
Alistair Weeks, the third agent, the one who’d been bound face-to-face with the dead body and died from the effluvium, had a partner named Darci Boston. She’d wanted to represent Calliope’s epic poem, but had been overruled by the senior agent. She’d kept the vellum.
"He’s the most talented writer I’ve ever read," Darci said. "I’m talking Homer here or Aeschylus. I’ve read a lot of those Greek myths and I always thought they were a little lame, but this guy’s got enough violence and sex to satisfy HBO. He put in the part where Cronus cut the balls off Uranus and Aphrodite was formed from his sperm. Calls her ‘The Cock Lover’."
"Wow," Boy-band said.
"I never heard that in school," Snap-brim said.
The return address was a post office box and the postmaster wouldn’t tell them Calliope’s address without a warrant, so they decided to try office supply stores who sold vellum. Not a lot of demand for that sort of thing, even in the Big Apple. There were only four stores and one of them was able to provide the address of a little man who’d made a purchase a few weeks before the murders.
"Right down the block," the clerk said. "He’s the proprietor of the Delphi Oracle Book Store. Weirdest dude I’ve ever met."
"Is that a man or a woman?" Snap-brim said. Calliope had a smooth, hairless face. Not a trace of a whisker.
"He’s dressed like a man," Boy-band said. Calliope was a little person who combed his silver-gray hair with a part in the middle and wore a polka-dot bow tie. His ears, rather like poplar leaves, were too big for his head.
A cockatoo, a snow-white bird with a yellow crest, was perched on the funny little person’s shoulder. "Stick ‘em up, flatfoot," it screeched. Boy-band started to raise his hands until Snap-brim jabbed him in the ribs, gesturing toward the loquacious bird. Boy-band turned beet red.
"Please excuse Dexter," the little fellow said with a lisp. "I haven’t been able to teach him manners."
When Calliope learned they were detectives, his face broke out in a huge smile; he shook their hands heartily and made them sit in the most comfortable chairs in the place. He then brought them each a cup of tea and a cinnamon scone. "Made them myself. I have to tell you two sirs that I’m so proud of the NYPD after that horrible debacle at the World Trade Center. I made a rather sizable donation to the orphans fund, not that there’s much demand for antique books these days."
Snap-brim sipped his tea, which he’d thought was going to taste like hot water but actually had a kind of apple-honey taste, said, "We’re here about a curious coincidence. These murders that’ve been happening, the literary agents, you
"Julian Opp and Alistair Weeks, and now Martha Atreus," said Boy-band. "We found your poem in all three offices."
"Atreus, now where have I heard that name before? I have it! The House of Atreus. Do you know what he did? His brother had an affair with his wife and so he boiled his brother’s children in a cauldron and served them to the adulterer for dinner. The whole family was cursed for generations."
Boy-band choked on a mouthful of scone. When he’d cleared his throat, he said, "We’ve been led to believe Julian Opp sent you a rather nasty rejection letter."
"Called my poem archaic. Hard to fathom, since our entire culture is based on Greek philosophy. Why, do you realize that all of the so-called Christian tenets were first broached in Greek mythology. Cain and Abel, the flood, Nimrod’s attempt to bring down heaven."
"Did you kill Julian Opp?" Boy-band said.
"I swear by the River Styx I never touched him. It’s my understanding he strangled himself during some kind of sexual perversion."
Boy-band swallowed the last of scone and licked his fingers. "You say you never touched him. Let me rephrase the question; did you have anything to do with his death?"
"Tell you what I’ll do; I’ll take one of those polygraph tests if it’ll convince you I was never in that room when Julian died."
"These are unusual murders. When we found Martha Atreus’s body, she’d been turned to stone. No one in the room there either."
Snap-brim asked Calliope to excuse him for a moment, then motioned for Boy-band to join him outside. They walked down to the corner newsstand where Snap-brim took up a PLAYBOY and began riffling through it. "This guy’s slipperier than Slick Willie. Got any ideas?"
"How’d he know about Julian Opp croaking slapping his monkey? It wasn’t in the papers. He’s either the real deal or he’s a delusional maniac with some heavy-duty fire power."
"Shouldn’t we call in a SWAT team? That there Glock ain’t gonna measure up against a lightning bolt."
"If he’s who I think he is, he’d turn them to stone, too. Think of it this way; your wife won’t need to buy a monument for your grave."
"A thousand comedians out of work . . ."
"Besides, he loves the NYPD. I’ve got an idea; just follow my lead."
"Be my guest; the little twerp gives me the creeps."
Back in the Delphi Oracle, Boy-band confronted Calliope with his slipup. "I’ve read a little Greek mythology," Boy-band said. "It says in Edith Hamilton’s book that one of the worst things you could do was to tell a lie. Swear by the River Styx that you’re not the real Calliope."
"Aack! You’ll never take us alive, Copper," the cockatoo said. "Aack!" Snap-brim gave the bird a dirty look, and it tried to bury its head in its feathers.
The little person reached up and stroked the bird’s feathers. "If I’m Calliope, one of the most important gods on Mount Olympus, what’s to stop me from turning you two into a couple of squalling little piglets with the runs?"
Boy-band gulped, then said. "Edith Hamilton also said that Greeks couldn’t refuse hospitality to a stranger. Zeus would get very angry if you harmed us. You served us nectar-like tea and scones as good as ambrosia on your best China; you’d never violate the terms of hospitality. You didn’t touch Jason Opp or Martha Atreus because you didn’t have to. What I don’t understand is why you weren’t more subtle about it."
The little fellow exhaled so long and hard his body looked deflated. "I have such a nasty temper," he finally said. "But you’re right; I’d never harm a police officer. You have to sympathize, though. I’m the muse of heroic poetry. Without me there would have been no Shakespeare, no Milton, no Jane Austin even, or that new one, what’s her name. Oh yes, Virginia Woolf, rather depressing if my opinion is worth anything. And then, what do they do? The conglomerates take over and make it practically impossible for a writer with even a glimmer of talent to succeed. They’re even too lazy to find new writers themselves. They let those glorified used-car salesmen do it for them. You can’t get an agent unless you’re published and you can’t get published unless you have an agent. How insane is that?"
"You have the right to remain silent--"
"This is a waste of time, officers. How long can you put me away for? Life? I’m immortal. Futile is what it is. And while I’m gone things will only get worse."
"Can’t get much worse when Tom Clancy is on the best-seller list," Snap-brim said.
"You’ll have to promise us not to try to escape," Boy-band said.
"Couldn’t if I wanted to; the Fates have spoken. Did you know Apollo himself spent nine years in slavery for violating Ge’s cave?" Calliope coughed, wiped his/her lips with a napkin. "Maybe it won’t be so bad. I’ve been watching "Oz" on HBO, and those prisoners are so butch!"
"Book ‘em, Danno," the bird said.
Boy-band and Snap-brim returned to Martha Atreus Literary Agency to tell Yvonne and George about the arrest of the funny little person; they said he would most likely serve out his sentence in Bellevue, god of the muses or no.
After the two detectives left, Yvonne and George sat shoulder to shoulder, trying to make sense of the situation.
"If he did it, how did he turn Martha into stone?" George said.
"Coulda had Medusa’s head in a bowling bag, careful not to look at her of course. I wouldn’t’ve seen him because he was wearing the Cap of Invisibility."
George chuckled at her sly sense of humor. "Maybe he didn’t really have anything to do with Martha’s death; maybe he was just taking credit for it. I’ve heard people do that sometimes. They say the Boston Strangler was probably innocent. Martha could have died from some awful African disease like the Ebola Virus. Who knows what’s out there."
"Yeah, who knows. Maybe this happened so you could write about it."
"I don’t think anybody would believe it."
When Yvonne and George ran out of things to say about Calliope and the stone-dead literary agent, they returned to discussing his book, George more captivated by Yvonne’s short mini than the possibility of being accepted for representation.
"I read it cover to cover last night," she said, "and I think it’s wonderful, especially the part where the Murrah Building survivor starts a pen pal relationship with Timothy McVeigh. Shows McVeigh as a human being, not just some monster."
"I wasn’t even sure I could do that, make up dialogue from people who actually exist, I mean."
"I don’t know why not; Capote did when he wrote IN COLD BLOOD. We can always get it vetted by Martha’s lawyers just in case."
"Does this mean you’re going to take me on?"
"It needs a good line-edit, but I think I can handle that myself. How about RISING FROM THE ASHES for a title?" She was sure she could get it published. It would be a cornerstone for her new agency.
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