The Front Row district of Print City is notoriously rough, but lately the obituaries have been longer than a director's cut of a Bertolucci film. While the average lifespan is criminally low -- most people don't survive to see their third anniversary -- recently a few heavyweights have gone belly-up before their time. Looking for reading material at the Corner Store (makes for good conversation in the coat-check line), I found some of my favorite racks were gathering dust. Jeb behind the counter is tight with his information, so I paid double for my usual pickled egg. His scoop was that the guy next door left for big-light dreams, one of the few friendly faces Downtown was recently locked out, and another veteran put up the "closed" sign abruptly. Jeb's news didn't surprise me -- if you let things catch you off guard in Front Row, you won't last long -- but the nugget he gave me while I bit into my pickled egg (Jeb's never been one for timing) elevated my right eyebrow, like that elevator at the department store that always stops on the second floor (ladies casual), no matter how many times you hit the button for the fourth (intimates).
"...and Larry's gone."
"He'll be back."
"Not this time..."
I knew any further prodding of Jeb would necessitate a second pickled egg purchase, and I could tell it wasn't one of his better batches. So I walked it alone under the flickering neon light, and even though my new superior at the home office probably had an urgent matter to see me about (probably something about a diaper), instincts told me to stop at my Front Row haunt to take a deeper look into these recent departures. Larry's abrupt disappearance was troubling, as he was a daily read for me -- but the bigger question was who's next? Four's a trend where I come from, and I don't mean a trend like the flavored cigarettes I smelled at the bar last night. With my nose for justice, I felt it was my obligation to find the root of this problem and stop it before another publication was rubbed out.
Just as this thought entered my head, a comment was slipped under my door. I raced to open my door, but the person's shadow had just escaped into the street. The comment was from "Anonymous," and it read "this isn't your game, give up before it's you who gets deleted." Now I knew I was waist-deep in this mess -- and I'm not talking about my garbage disposal disaster from last month. It was time to scare up my sources, namely someone who keeps his ear close to the ground. Moviezzz is just such a source, and he's low to the ground because he shines shoes -- but for an extra large tip he'll give me more than what makes front page news. I hand him the anonymous comment as he cracked open a new can of Kiwi.
"Looks like trouble, but whoever wrote it may have accidentally left you a clue."
"How do you figure?"
"Don't you know someone who's fond of games?"
Moviezzz was right, as usual, and I flipped him an extra dime. Yes, games, as in trivia, as in ol' Johnny Lapper and his famous trivia games. If it wasn't for a generous helping of the shakes, I might have triumphed in Lapper's latest game, but he was wiley enough to fool me. Not this time. It would make sense that someone with such a devious need for attention would resort to knocking off other publishers, but knowing him he won't go down easy. Unlucky for me, Johnny's place was dark -- but I did find an invitation to a dance sticking out of his mailbox.
Classy Marilyn was staging a dance the week away affair, and her place was hopping. It was easy to find Johnny on the dance floor, he might as well have had a custom banner above his head.
"You like games, Johnny boy?"
"Ross, you lost -- that doesn't mean you have to like it. And it also doesn't mean you have to mess up my steps."
"I ain't talkin' mere trivia games, seems you like to dabble in more bloody affairs. Know anything about Larry?"
"Yeah, he disappeared, it happens in this city."
"Strange that you were the first one to report on his absence, how is it that you got the scoop?"
"I don't reveal my sources," Johnny said, poking at his neat J&B. "And I don't let mugs like you waste precious minutes of my evening. Larry was an odd duck -- he never archived, he once went a whole month just talking about the same actor, who does that? Nobody."
"Correction -- now nobody does it, why were you so eager to see him go?"
"I don't have anything to hide, I was here dancing before Larry's last update -- ask anyone here," Johnny said, glancing to a gathering crowd of displeased onlookers. "I'll tell you this: Larry didn't finish his last update, but supposedly the title was 'There Will Be Blood,' and sure enough the garbage men were scrubbing it off the sidewalk the next day. Maybe he knew trouble was coming..."
A juicy answer, but it only meant more questions, good thing I didn't plan on sleeping (until I got tired, anyway). On my way out I saw Marilyn holding a tray of gin gimlets. I grabbed one for the road, and she gave me a glance that said "did you get my dance invitation in the mail?" and I responded with a nod that told her "I got it, but I couldn't find my dance shoes."
Leaving the dance hall, I could feel a break in the case rolling at me like that ball that someone just threw at me from a passing hardtop. Ouch! Who threw that? Picking up the ball ready to throw it back, I noticed it was no ordinary ball. It was a baseball autographed by ... Lee Van Cleef? This peculiar combination could have only come from one place: Dennis Cazzalio's baseball-themed drive-in on the West end of town.
He calls it Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. A strange name, but probably better than my suggestion: Paradise by the Dashboard Light. On the subway ride over, it occurred to me that Johnny wasn't the only one with early news of Larry's departure -- Dennis had also penned a going-away note that read strangely like a eulogy. An effective ploy to draw the blame away from himself, much like how I brought an oversized wreath to the funeral for my brother's hamster. The lot at Dennis' was packed as usual, and tonight he was showing some perverse mishmash of movie and television clips that seemed to require a college kid's attention span to keep up with.
"Not your style, stranger?" Dennis quizzed.
"No, I'm in the mood for something more serious, I've been having trouble focusing ever since someone hit me with a changeup on the Avenue," I said while paging through some newspaper clippings near the snack bar. "How does it feel to sit behind that snack bar?"
"Almost like holding a gun ... only much more powerful."
"Your friends have a high mortality rate, Dennis."
"I've never killed anything -- and especially never a writer. It would be like killing a priest -- a Catholic priest. What do you want? Who are you?"
"Matt Zoller Seitz," I said, trying to catch him off guard.
"What's your name? Glenn's gone too!"
"You should know Dennis, better than anyone," I said, in an attempt to bluff the man into a confession. "They were writing until they met you."
"Don't talk about what you don't know," Dennis said as he put his hands on the snack bar and leaned toward me. "I knew Matt, I knew Glenn, and I definitely knew Larry. They're gone now, and someday you and I will be gone as well."
"Larry once told me I could never be like him," I said, facing the facts that I may never solve this case. "Now I understand why."
"So, you found out you're not a shamus after all," Dennis asked.
"Just a writer."
"An ancient race. And other publishers from Downtown will be along, and they'll kill off Front Row."
"The future don't matter to us," I lamented. "Nothing matters now -- not the comments, not the visitors, not the women. I came here to see you. 'Cause I know that now, you'll tell me who's going to be next."
"Not till the point of dying," Dennis said as he slinked into the projection booth to put on the final reel of The Movie Orgy.
I don't think I'll ever know if Dennis was serious with that line. Maybe I don't want to know. Whatever his intentions were, I didn't want to kill the man for the information I needed. At this point it didn't matter, because all I was thinking about was getting home to my new boss. My phone was buzzing with the kind of grunts that only come from a 5-month-old child about to wake up, so I had precious remaining minutes to finish whatever investigation I was still pursuing.
Ahead of me on the street I saw Chris Stangl painting on a fresh canvas. Chris has the rare ability to reproduce his dreams with colors, and perhaps they had something to say about my pursuit.
"Roll the bones, Chris. What do they say tonight? I'm desperate for answers."
"The door to your answer is right in front of you," Chris said without removing his eyes from his art. "Sometimes a name is everything."
I was out of money so I dropped the Lee Van Cleef ball in Chris' collection plate. The advice sounded genuine, so I raced through my mental rolodex of names: Piper (is he tooting a tune leading all the writers out of town?), Ted Pigeon (is the culprit waiting for me by the fountain like so many birds?), Arbogast (is this the reason he hides his identity?) -- all of them seemed suspicious but none deserved a shake down at this time of night. This case was getting cold, but I couldn't help the feeling that I needed to take a final l -- wait, that's it! Final ... Final Girl! The motives were all clear: Stacie Ponder's obsession with the last remaining horror movie heroines had clouded her judgment, and now she must become the literal Final Girl of Front Row. Approaching her digs on Descent Drive, I just hoped I wasn't too late.
Seeing the pile of unopened comments at her door, I knew my fears were real -- it was Wednesday so Stacie was at her new place Downtown for the day. Just my luck, looks like one man is powerless in this city to stop a greater evil. But as I turned down the street heading for my place, an illuminated cat in a doorway caught my eye -- were those shoes sitting next to it? Great, am I going to be the next one to bite the dust?
"What kind of a spy do you think you are, satchel-foot? What are you tailing me for? Cat got your tongue?"
My outbursts are greeted by silence from the doorway, and only succeed in waking up one of Stacie's neighbors.
"Come out, come out, whoever you are. Step out in the light. Let's have a look at ya. (The cat licks its paw.) Who's your boss?"
Just as I was about to turn and run for it, Stacie's irate neighbor turned on her bedroom light, flashing a beam of light into the dark doorway. The light revealed a face unfamiliar to me, but the look on it told me everything I needed to know.
He flashed a coy smile, but before I could cross the street and find out his story, a taxi raced in front of me. And like that, he was gone. Leaping over to where the missing publisher once stood, I saw a single white card was now in his place. There was writing on it ... and it told me exactly what I had been looking for all night. Larry's safe, but there's a lot of publishers who aren't, and one in particular who may be gone by morning. That fight would have to wait for someone else, as the crying I could hear down the street could only be coming from one crib.
There are thousands of stories in Print City, this was one of them ....