Death Rat! An excerpt from the new novel

by Mike Nelson

CHAPTER ONE

Given his advancing age and his current stature in the business community, Pontius Feeb knew that it was unseemly for him to be driving giddily through town at midday, whistling and thinking fondly of spit-roasted chicken and buttered fingerling potatoes. Ponty sensed that a vehemently antilunch prejudice had infected many in the Minneapolis trade-magazine community. “You can eat on your own time” was the unspoken rule. Would it change matters if they knew that he was to lunch at Beret, the hot new downtown bistro that had been visited by none other than former Good Morning America host David Hartman shortly after its grand opening? No, sadly, it probably wouldn’t. The people in his industry were notoriously inflexible in their attitudes. But Ponty would not let them dampen his spirits.

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

As he fed the meter, he scanned the faces sitting at the half dozen tables that Beret had set out on the sidewalk and called their patio, seeing if perhaps he couldn’t gloat a little over his parking spot. if anyone was impressed, they did not give him the satisfaction.
Ponty had entered, secured a table by the window, and was already nibbling a sourdough roll when his lunch partner arrived several minutes later, trying his best to look harried and important. To Ponty be simply looked thin and fey.

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

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

“No, no. Waited for you.”

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

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

“Actually, we don’t have the smoked trout hot dish on the menu anymore. I’m sorry about — ”
“I know, but they’ll make it for me. They’ve done it before.”

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

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

The waitress answered flatly, “It’s in small whitish bags.” She gestured with her thumb and forefinger.

“We brew it and then chill it by pouring it over ice.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” said Craig, regarding him suspiciously.

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

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

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

Could you just let me have this one thing? thought Ponty as he looked at the side of Craig’s tanned head. It was never like this with Craig’s father, Ponty’s former boss at Jack Pine Publications. Tom Thurston was a man of principle, a man who used hair fixatives sparingly, if at all. He and Ponty had virtually grown up in the publishing business together, and in twentyfour years Tom Thurston had never ordered water by a brand name. But Tom had died suddenly, tragically, when a trailer loaded with sod had jumped its ball bitch, sped down the hill near his home, and hit Tom full on as he stood in black socks and sandals, smoking a cigar and watering his wife’s hostas…

Mike Nelson is the author of several books, including Mike Nelson’s Megacheese and Mind Over Matters, and is the former host and head writer of Mystery Science Theater 3000. He is a columnist for TV Guide and hosts a radio show on KCTE-AM in Kansas City.
 
(The foregoing is excerpted from Mike Nelson’s Death Rat! by Michael J. Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022)

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