Nothin’ But the Hits Vol. 2

An excerpt from a story about a discontented rock star who becomes a hitman.

—————————————————————

 

It’s 2010. I’m adored. I’m surrounded by women. I’m the lead singer in a hugely successful rock band. I’m a Sagittarius. I’m the savior of rock ‘n’ roll, according to Rolling Stone. I’m the self-proclaimed Devourer of Pussy. I’m a vagrant. I’m bored. I’m writing songs. I’m playing Madison Square Garden. I’m the recipient of four Grammy awards. I’m in recording studios. I’m partial to drugs. I’m jaded. I’ve been singing in a band since I was fourteen. I’ve been touring with that band since I was twenty. Seven years up on stage. Seven years travelling, sweating, drinking, puking, fucking. Seven years having a good time. Seven years. I’m bored. Did I mention I’m bored? I met Pauly recently. Pauly. Yeah, Pauly. Me ‘n’ Pauly. All right. Seven years. Now Pauly.

   I’m gonna kill.

 

The merciless present

                                _

I’d grown a beard, and to my surprise it worked as a deterrent; people didn’t seem to recognize me. It added at least ten years. Two weeks earlier I’d been approached by a chubby sonuva bitch who introduced himself as Pauly. Pauly, who spoke with a New York accent and sounded like he was suffering from indefinite indigestion, told me that he worked for important people, whatever the hell that meant. He wouldn’t disclose who his employers were. He said they weren’t bad guys, but they weren’t necessarily good, neither. But I didn’t care. He asked me to kill. I told him I’d been killing all my life. He told me to cut the shit, that he meant really kill. I asked him who he wanted dead, and he told me it didn’t matter, and whether or not I was interested. I told him I’d sleep on it. That night, before sleeping on it, I drank, like most nights. The beard resulted in the absence of attention. I liked it. Maybe I’d keep the facial hair. One of my songs played in the bar. I sang along.

   I watched the drunks. I smoked a cigarette. I’d considered quitting because, while I loved it, my lungs were hurting. Constantly. I felt like I was on the verge of death. But the doc checked me out, said I was good. Told me I was healthy as a beautiful butterfly fluttering around in the sunshine. Another doctor once told me that if there were something really wrong, my body would tell me. The problem was my body had been telling me for so long that I could no longer believe it. My body was a god damn liar.

   The next morning I phoned Pauly and told him I’d kill, but that it would have to wait a couple of weeks while the band finished working our latest record. He told me he was proud of me. I told him to cut the shit and that I’d speak to him in two weeks.

   Did I agree to this because I was bored? Was I out of my mind? When wasn’t I out of my mind? I’d always been out of my mind. What harm was there in disposing of a few fuckheads, anyway?

 

♠♠♠♠

 

   It was to be more intricate than I had anticipated. Pauly caught up with me and informed me that the person I was to kill was, like me, in the public eye somewhat. I had never heard of him. He was a politician. Politics never really interested me – politics gets in the way of progress.

   We were sat in a bar near the Garden. It was daytime, and the bar was gloomy and stank of something stale. There were only about a dozen people there, and Pauly sat by a window with a drink in front of him.

   Pauly was tired. Not only on that day; he was simply tired. His defeated brown eyes offered no hope or expectations. They were done, disinterested. Why he kept going I did not know, but, then again, what’s the alternative, heaven? He was in his fifties and had a mass of untidy, flaxen hair. His belly always cried for food, it seemed. Every time I saw him his shirt was unbuttoned in some place. He always wore stubble. I couldn’t understand why he played the role of arranging for people to be murdered; it all seemed too macabre for him. He looked like someone who had let things get to him, a thinker, and surely that meant he was in the wrong business. Maybe he’d be murdered himself if he didn’t cooperate. I didn’t really wanna know, anyway.

   I just wanted something else.

   Something new.

   ‘You’ve sold a lot of records,’ said Pauly, sipping his scotch.

   ‘I know,’ I replied.

   ‘You wanna know why it was you who I approached, not some ordinary, everyday lowlife. Some schmuck?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘You looked tired, fed up.’

   ‘So do you.’

   ‘That’s why I got in the game.’

   ‘You were so fed up that you decided to get involved in executions?’

   ‘Isn’t that why you’re here right now?’

   ‘I’m a little bored, sure.’

   Pauly turned and faced the bar that was to my right, then sighed and looked at me.

   ‘There’s no reason to most things. Even though the people I work for see a reason in doing what we do, it’s all bullshit at the end of the day. It’s just something to keep me ticking over, I guess. Something to keep me from . . well, it’s something.’

   ‘You have a family?’ I asked.

   ‘I did. I don’t see ‘em no more. Couldn’t stand being a family man, to be honest. Too much noise. I like a quiet house.’

   Just then, as Pauly’s tired eyes looked down at his pathetic, bulbous belly, a brilliant ray of sunshine invaded the bar, shedding light on us all, and for that brief moment I felt a sense of elation. A reminder that space was still there.

   And space made sense.

♠♠♠♠

 

   Over the next few days (in between recording) I made some lists. The first list I made was apt: ‘Reasons for Killing’. Another list I made was a ‘Favorite Drinks’ list, one a ’Top Five Live Concerts’ list, and the last list was ‘Women Whose Pussies I’ve Devoured’.

   I ran out of paper.

Nothin’ But the Hits

 

An excerpt from a story about a discontented rock star who becomes a hitman.

—————————————————————

 

Preamble
                                _

Most of you who pick up this—what is this?—this ramble, will know me as the lead singer of one of the biggest bands in the world—This Week’s New Release. You’ll know me as the guy on stage who shouts and swaggers and swears and sings, who has written rock songs that topped charts in countries all over the world, who’s played the biggest venues, who’s been voted Sexiest Man In Rock ‘n’ Roll on two separate occasions. You’ll know me as the man who was labeled the savior of the music industry: the Second Coming.

   What you don’t know is what I’ve been involved in behind the veil of rock stardom. This is something I’ve wrestled with for a long time, and only now do I feel I’m ready to share this side of my story that has been known about by only a handful of individuals, most of whom are no longer with us—many of whom chocked on their own puke, or drowned in a swimming pool alone at 4am high on Valium and cocaine.

   I don’t crave attention; I’ve had enough of that over the years. What I crave is clarity—it’s what I’ve always craved, but it had always seemed elusive. At the end of this confession you will understand that I’ve found something which I hope is close to clarity.

   This does not change who I am. The words written here are probably true to what you think you know about me: The Dylan Reed onstage is the Dylan Reed offstage.

   This is merely an addition to the story.

   An encore, so to speak.

                                                                        —Dylan Reed, Berlin – May 1st, 2018

♠♠♠♠

 

I grew up in a sunny, blue-collar neighborhood. A quiet American town the likes of which seem like they’ve been lost to the past, but which still exist—you just have to look for them. My neighborhood was near a bunch of lakes and housed residents who smiled and cared about each other and who were just regular, nice people. Sure they had their secrets, but didn’t everyone?

   I’d spent days in school bored outta my mind and days after school down by the lake listening to music on my battery-powered radio: Nothin’ But The Hits was the name of the show I’d listen to day after day. The disc-jockey’s name was “Madman” Maurice McGonagall and his show would start at 3pm every day and run for two hours. On most days I’d catch the last hour but on Wednesdays and Fridays school finished early and I’d listen to it all the way through. The Stones, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, The Clash, The Band, The Smiths, The Jam, The Fall, The Beatles—all the legendary “THEs”, and then there was Dylan and Hendrix and Bowie and Iggy and all these hits would play, one after another, with some brief intervals from Maurice talking in his smooth voice like he was an MC at a dark, smoke-filled jazz club, painting a picture of himself in the studio—legs up, sunglasses on, cigarette in mouth, maybe one hand down his pants. Maybe he’d jerk off while he listened to the music along with the rest of us—climaxing during the epic guitar solo.

   I did.

   Sometimes.

   Down by the lake.

   It was my own place, surrounded by a wall of trees, the sun glistening on the dead-still water. I’d breathe in the air through my nose and it was like life invading me, telling me everything was good; everything was as it should be. And because I was alone and because I was a teenage boy I’d get hard-ons and sometimes I’d stand there among the trees, by the lake, in the quiet, and I’d work myself until I jolted and a part of me became a part of the earth. Yeah, I was one with nature and the sonic waves that surrounded me.

   Sometimes I’d bring literature to the lake. I didn’t read all that much but my old man had a few books on the chipped wooden shelf in the living room, and every now and then I’d snatch one, drop it into my backpack and take it out once school was done and I was down by the lake. One of those books was a short story collection by a guy called Ford, and I enjoyed dropping in and out of these people’s lives, just catching a glimpse of what was going on with them, learning about their struggles and their flaws and their dramas in a few thousand words or less. I liked that. It made me more empathetic. It helped me understand the long-ass wrestling match that life is for some people; and some of em don’t even have a tag-team partner.

   That’s around the time I started writing. Some would call it poetry, but I didn’t because I didn’t know poetry apart from what we had to read at school. And I hated that shit. All I really knew was my family, my street, my school, the lake, my body and my songs, because though they played through the radio and were written by all those different people, they were my songs. I reached out and grabbed them as they made their waves from the speakers and I made them mine. And so I wrote about all those things I knew and I put them on paper like songs. I was writing songs without the music. Words with rhythm but without a beat, a hook.

   I met Daniel that summer. Daniel was a scrawny thirteen-year-old, like me. He had the beginnings of a pubescent moustache, and he said he was never gonna shave it. Daniel moved into the neighborhood with his family; his mom, dad, and older sister, Maggie, and we met while I was cycling my bike, and he was cycling his, and I noticed his Clash t-shirt and without a word I nodded and he followed me and we rode together to the lake and listened to Nothin’ But The Hits together, and so we were best friends in the space of a few hours.

   Daniel and me asked for music instruments that Christmas. We both wanted electric guitars, but we argued because someone would have to either play drums or pick up the bass. Neither one of us was willing to concede the guitar so we settled it with a fight by the lake late one autumn afternoon. The sun was hanging low but the air was crisp and it was still warm. The argument reared its head again as Maurice spazzed out about a new band that was making its mark on the industry, right before he signed off for the day and ended the show with their new single. Daniel said if we ever wanted Maurice talking about us like that we’d need to hurry up and get a band started. But still we couldn’t agree on who would get the guitar, so it began with a push, and then we were rolling around on the soft grass, staining our music t-shirts, wrestling for the upper-hand, holding each other’s shoulders when one got on top, punching each other’s gut when we were balled in a brawl. After about ten minutes we both fell to the grass, exhausted; blood on our faces, aching bones and limbs. I’d tapped out after Daniel had worked my arm behind my back and threatened to break it. He had me by the wrist and elbow and pushed my arm further and further towards my neck, and as the bone threatened to snap like a twig I screamed and said OKAY! OKAY! FINE, YOU FUCK!

   So it was decided—Daniel would get the guitar that Christmas. And after he did and he practiced and I used a half-empty cardboard box to provide beats, and as spring arrived and we’d spend our days down by the lake again, I found the courage to mention my songs. Daniel asked me to sing them to him . . . I’d had some trouble with girls at school and I had gotten in trouble with the principle and with my parents for different reasons, but Daniel asking me to sing for him was the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to me. But we’d bonded and I trusted him and we loved each other in a way, and so I sang one of my music-free songs, only my voice was the instrument and Daniel listened and looked at me and I think in a way kinda fell in love with me. He didn’t say anything for a minute or two, just looked at me and at the towering trees that surrounded the lake, and he looked at flies hovering above the water—who were oblivious to how close to death they were, like some of us—and he just stared. Eventually he asked me to sing the song again, and so I did, this time with more confidence, and he began playing something on his guitar and before we knew it we’d written our first song together. Little did we realize we’d write a thousand more.

   We looked at the rest of my lyrics and we worked on more songs and we wrestled and we jerked off and we listened to Nothin’ But The Hits by the lake and we were happy.

   And that’s how I spent my teenage years.

American. Porn Star. President.

The first two chapters from a work-in-progress satirical novel.

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us flag 1

American. Porn Star. President.

 

“Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”

                                                – Calvin Coolidge

 

 

“. . . The first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.”

                                                – George Bernard Shaw

 

 

“You can’t talk about fucking in America; people say you’re dirty. But if you talk about killing somebody, that’s cool.”

                                                – Richard Pryor

 

 

“Having sex with beautiful women for money? My God. I want to shoot myself every night when I get home.”

                                                – Porn Star

 

 

1. THE JAM

­SITTING IN TRAFFIC—is there a better metaphor for life?
   Coldcut City has the worst traffic congestion in North America. This isn’t statistically true, but it’s what I was thinking as I sat next to my wife of three years, Karen, in the back of a cab which crawled along 99th Street at a pace more appropriate for an escalator.
   We were flanked by skyscrapers, and I watched as people passed by on the pavement, moseying, hurrying, trudging to their respective destinations; handbags strewn over shoulders, heads bowed consuming information from their cell phone Gods; rucksacks straddling backs. A few of them would glance in the direction of the cab, one or two catching my stare.
   I checked my watch: 6:45pm.
   I turned to Karen, who was looking out the window.
   “I read somewhere that we spend at least three months of our lives stuck in traffic,” I said, to no response. “Approximately thirty-eight hours a year.”
   “Fascinating,” she eventually returned tenuously.
   ‘But think of what you could do with that time,” I said aloud, which was greeted with silence.
   I looked out the window again: Autumn had set in. The sidewalk was littered with crinkled bronzed leaves, and the evening sky in the distance looked as if it were a canvas on which a frustrated painter had lashed out with aggressive streaks of blues, pinks, reds.
   “We’re going to be late,” Karen said, checking her pallid reflection in her pocket mirror. Sometimes when she spoke she would close her eyes and her eyeballs would engage in some kind of scanning activity, reducing her appearance to that of the woman possessed. This is how she looked as she clamped the pocket mirror shut in the palm of her hand.
   I sat up and leaned forward to address the cab driver. “Why don’t you get off 99th at the next turn? We’ll be here all night.”
   The turban-wearing, bearded driver looked at me in the rear-view mirror.
   “That is what I plan on doing. You know there’s bin a crash, yis? You know traffic is more congested now going north ‘cause of the crash, yis? Do you think I like sitting here like a slug?”
   “Hey, padre, I’m just asking—”
   Karen wrapped her fingers around my arm. “Please don’t get into a fight with the cab driver.”
   “I’m not trying to get into a fight, I—” but I wasn’t interested in explaining myself, so I sat back in my seat and looked out the window once again.
   More people: man, woman, child. American, Chinese, Zimbabwean, Irish, Polish, Afghan, Canadian, Scottish, Japanese, Mexican, Russian, English, Indian. Multiculturalism — love it or hate it — at its finest. All of these passers-by were possibly mocking the two idiots sitting in a cab that moved a few yards every couple of minutes.
   I was tempted to get out and walk, but then I’d just be another person on the pavement.
   “That meter works on distance covered, right?” I asked.
   “Yis, yis. Don’t worry; the foreign man isn’t trying to rob you,” the driver replied with a jerk of the head and a roll of the eyes.
   I turned to Karen, raised my eyebrows: What’s with this guy?
   “I wasn’t implying that you were trying to rip us off, hombre” I said. “Not everyone who gets into your cab is racist, OK?”
   “Just leave it,” said Karen.
   The driver made some kind of frustrated noise — a wide-open-mouthed yahh! — and waved a dismissive hand before muttering something in his mother tongue. I rested myself against the backseat, fingered my phone from my trouser pocket and opened the browser. I’d forgotten to clear the browsing history, and I was greeted by a thumbnail featuring a supine couple nude and engaged in a not-so-subtle sexual exercise. ‘Alfie B. Lee/Raspberry Rose in The 2nd Annual Fuckathon’ was the title of the video. I experienced a momentary snippet of recollection: me furiously masturbating as I watched the video earlier that day, in the en suite bathroom before I took a shower — one hand gripping the sink as I looked at the video, the other hand wrapped around my chafing stiffy — while Karen did her make-up in the bedroom.
  I quickly swiped the window closed, not before checking to see if Karen had noticed, but she was busy staring out the window people-watching as the cab picked up the pace — finally — only for the driver to brake a few seconds later resulting in deeply felt desolation for the two passengers.
   I tapped my way to the settings menu on the phone and selected Clear History and Website Data.
   I thought to myself: Who knows about my internet history? Who was aware that I was watching two porn stars fuck like bunnies only a couple of hours earlier? Who’s monitoring me? When will I be exposed?
   “Will you text Steph and tell her that we’re going to be a little late?”
   I looked at Karen as if she’d asked me to undress for the driver.
   “It would be good for you if you tried to engage with her,” Karen elucidated.
   “That’s what I’ll be doing at dinner, sweetie. Dinner is one thing. Texting, that’s a whole other level of interaction. That could almost be misconstrued as amiability.”
   “Could you just try? For once?”
   “She’s the one who holds grudges, Karen. She’s the nutcase.”
   Karen shook her head and sighed as she leaned forward and fished her bag for her cell phone. I watched her as she typed; her manicured fingernails glossed with a deep red polish ferociously tapped against the screen.
   I took in her facial features, because there had been times recently when I had closed my eyes and ordered my brain to present to me an image of my wife, but the result wouldn’t be entirely accurate; the visage presented to me in my mind’s eye was mostly made up of Karen, but some of her — minute details like a fleck of color in her eye, or a slight variation in the angulations of her eyebrows, or a more obvious structural misrepresentation — would be made up of previous lovers. Lately in my mind Karen was an amalgamation of almost every individual I had met underneath the cover of bed sheets.
   There, in the cab, I registered her firm, confident expression, an expression that rarely changed and which communicated determination. I observed her bold blue eyes which were garlanded by unnaturally long eyelashes. Her blonde hair, which she had recently trimmed, fell obediently around her boney shoulders. Her exterior was both sexy and cold, and her interior could be both frosty and warm, depending on her mood.
   “Just try, please,” she looked at me with those blue eyes. “Just make an effort.”
   I nodded: Sure.
   “Don’t forget your appointment with Dr. Lillard tomorrow.”
   “Great, let’s talk about our personal problems in front of our cab-driver friend here.”
   Unexpectedly, the driver looked at me in the rear-view: “I don’t give a shit about your personal life, yis?” he said before turning his attention back to the road.
   I raised my eyebrows: Fair.
   I looked at Karen, who ignored the driver’s comment.
   “Maybe you should consider talking to him about Evan.”
   “What good would that do?”
   “Because it’s an important issue, Lukas.”
   “It has nothing to do with why I see Dr. Lillard.”
   “It’s important.”
   “I know it’s important. But we’re his parents. We’ll deal with it.”
   “It’s un-parentable.”
   “Is that a word?”
   Karen, not amused, sighed.
   I reached for her hand and squeezed it reassuringly.
   “It’s something every parent has to deal with, I’m sure. Maybe we should talk to Stephanie and William about it.”
   Karen withdrew her hand.
   “God, no. I don’t want Stephanie knowing about this.”
   “Well, how about Janice and Elliot?”
   Karen considered this proposal.
   “Maybe Jan and El.”
   I didn’t respond; I was in no mood to further discuss the recent revelation about our only son; a disclosure he didn’t know his parents were aware of.
   The cab fell into silence yet again, the traffic surrounding us — the impatient honks and frustrated engine revs being the only source of conversation.
   Eventually Karen said, “Maybe we should see Dr. Lillard together.”
   “No,” I said immediately. “No way.”
   “My father recommended him to you — I’d seen him before you began your sessions. It could be good for us. To talk about Evan . . . and us.”
   “Karen, no.”
   “We need to address these things.”
   “And we will,” I said. “And now I’d prefer if we stopped discussing all of this in front of a stranger.”
   This time the driver didn’t look at me. Karen pulled on her seatbelt absently as she stared out the window again. There was a deep sadness about her that I hadn’t observed in a while.
   “That poor kid,” she whispered.
   “Who?” I asked. “Evan?”
   But she didn’t respond.
   Then, a hint of success: The car moved a little faster, picked up the pace. The asphalt below us became the running belt of a treadmill, and eventually the driver accelerated hard as he turned off 99th, and now I could enjoy looking out the window at the pavement walkers who drifted behind and out of my life, like a memory unworthy of preservation.

2. THE DINNER

AS I EXITED the taxi, having paid the driver and providing him with an obscenely generous tip — an ironic fuck you of sorts for his unwarranted hostility — I breathed in the crisp autumn evening air which was diluted with exhaust gas from vehicles passing through the busy street, a vague odor of sewerage (the result of nearby construction work — there was always something being built in this city), and the jarring cigarette smoke which came from the direction of a group of suit-wearing gentlemen puffing away as they stood by the front entrance of The McDonald Hotel. The natural grace and splendor of autumn could be spectacular in this city if you kept your distance from downtown.
   I thumbed the waistband of my flat front trousers, ensured my shirt was neatly tucked in, and fixed my suit jacket with a single, synchronous tug from both hands. Following chivalrous tradition, I took Karen’s hand and guided her out of the cab. She took the lead while I slammed the cab door shut, maintaining my pose for a moment as if I’d just launched a bowling ball down the slick, lustrous wooden lane.
   After I turned and scratched the two-day-old stubble on my face, I took in the spot-lit visage of the hotel where I’d be conducting my next interview — possibly my final exposé — in a little over a months’ time: The seven-storey hotel’s distinctive, elegant châteauesque style belonged to a European vision of old; that of the 16th-century French castles.
   I pocketed my hands as the taxi pulled away. Looking up at the Salem limestone-covered exterior I regarded each window with squinted eyes as I considered the innumerable potential scenarios taking place behind the expensive, luxury curtains that hung from the equally expensive rails which were mounted above each expensively glassed window.
   I thought to myself: Plenty of fucking.
   I, too, would be in one of the executive suites in less than six weeks’ time at the expense of my employer. And while the thought of the upcoming interview excited me, it also sent my stomach into an anxious knot.
   “Lukas!” Karen’s widened eyes reprimanded me. I slowly withdrew my hands from my pockets and approached the entrance, before waving cigarette smoke out of my way as Karen and I entered the hotel.

XXX

   “Immigration,” drawled William, pointing his fork which proffered a piece of medium rare steak; the bloody juice dripping into the small pool on his plate next to the cut of meat and assortment of in-season vegetables. He was a rotund man who perspired almost incessantly, and when he spoke he regularly elongated syllables, and would sometimes jitter like a car attempting to start as he emphasized a point or a vowel. His grey hair was neatly combed back (as always) and the elasticity of his face had waned in recent years, causing the skin to sag under the cheekbones and below his chin and jaw.
   I thought to myself: Gravity and Time always win.
 He was beginning to look every bit of his sixty-four years, and then some. Originally from the United Kingdom, and still possessing a sonorous, haughty accent, he had been living in the United States for more than thirty years, and considered himself an Anglo-American. “This country was built by immigrants. We’re all immigrants. Every last one of us. Immigration. That’s your next piece.”
   “Immigration?”
   “Yes, yes. Immigration,” he said impatiently. “I want you to interview the everyday man who came to this country, or whose parents or grandparents came to this land. I want you to tell a linear story through a dozen or so immigrants. I know what this country stands for.”
   “It’s quite a shift from the Alfie B. Lee article—”
   “It’s important, Lukas, boy,’ he interrupted, jittering. “It’s relevant, with the current administration . . . And, well . . .” William paused, as if something had struck him there and then, his expression melancholy for a beat, but he shook it away before repeating softly, sadly: “It’s important, Lukas.”
   “With the greatest respect, Bill,” I began. “Immigration. It’s a little stale. I know with everything that’s going on in Syria and Europe and even here with the wall it’s been talked about, but right now . . . I don’t know. It feels like it isn’t the right move. People are getting tired of it . . . And, again with the greatest respect, you don’t assign me my jobs.”
   “That I don’t, but I do pay your salary, along with that of your editor-in-chief.” He leaned forward and pointed his fork at me again, smiling wryly. “And if I tell Melissa that I want you to write a story on immigration, you’ll write a damn story on immigration.”
   “Are you boys discussing work at dinner?” Karen asked cheekily and cheerfully (always the perfect actress when in the presence of family and friends) as she checked her cell phone; I noticed her “like” a picture posted by a friend on Instagram. She kept touching her nose, and for a moment I wondered if she was using again, and whether that was the source of her sadness that was so palpable in the cab.
   “Your wife has spoken,” smiled William.
   “What took you two so long, anyway?” asked Stephanie. She was wearing an outfit that I would call sexy if I could bring myself to compliment her. It was an Alexander McQueen sheer stripe dress that Karen had first noticed while watching Milan Fashion Week, after which she had called Stephanie to inform her of its existence: These days she used her sister to vicariously live out her sartorial fantasies having made a vow to herself that she would no longer frivolously indulge in her penchant for expensive fashion. The final straw was the January 1st 2016 purchase of a Dior dress along with a pair of Prada ankle boots, topped off with a Karl Lagerfeld suede bucket bag. That night she had dressed in each item she’d purchased and sobbed openly and uncontrollably on our king-sized bed.
   “Racist cab driver,” Karen said.
   “There was a crash, traffic was terrible,” I explained. “And yes, the driver appeared to be racist towards anyone he considered to be potentially racist, i.e. the white male.”
   “Ah, the white man: the oppressor. The privileged,” said William before he released a brattling cough, after which he patted his mouth with his napkin.
   I thought to myself: He’ll be dead in a few years, if not sooner.
   “Maybe he just didn’t like you,” Stephanie offered.
   “He wouldn’t be the first,” I replied with a sardonic smile.
   “Well,” said Stephanie, ignoring my retort with well-rehearsed apathy. “Karen, guess what I’m having shipped in next week.”
   At this William rolled his eyes and jerked his head in a single upward motion.
   “What?” asked Karen.
   Stephanie sat forward and placed both hands on the table, each side of her dinner plate which housed a half-eaten Cajun chicken salad.
   “A miniature camel.”
   “A what?!” replied Karen.
   “A what?” I repeated.
   William shook his head, remaining silent.
   “A miniature camel,” Stephanie beamed. “All the celebrities are getting them; they’re the latest trend.”
   “Jesus Christ,” I said involuntarily, another response that was ignored by Stephanie.
   “Caitlyn Jenner is rumored to have two, although People had no pictures to accompany the article, so I’m a little skeptical. But I’ve seen them. They’re genetically engineered, or something. Or inbred — like the micro dogs. They. Are. The. Cutest little fuckers. You have got to get one.”
   “A miniature camel?” asked Karen incredulously, mouth agape, as she swirled the cocktail pick in her dry martini.
   “They are so adorable!” said Stephanie as she unlocked her phone and presented a picture to Karen of what to me looked like a retarded monkey.
   “But . . . they’re camels,” Karen reasoned, or attempted to.
   “Miniature, Karen,” replied Stephanie. “Miniature camels. They’re teeny. They’re so cute with their two little humps and their dopey expressions. And they’d be great in the event of a drought; you know how dry it can get here in the summer.”
   William looked at me; his face had turned a deeper shade of red.
   “Camel’s humps are mounds of fat, Stephanie,” he said, exasperated. “They’re not filled with bloody water.”
    He turned to me once again and took a deep breath.
   “Anyway, I was thinking about something else for you to sink your teeth into. You know, Venezuela,” he said, and I felt a flurry of butterflies in my stomach as soon as he mentioned the state which had recently descended into chaos. This was followed by a flood of intense heat permeating my body and draping my skin.
   I quickly rose from my chair and excused myself.
   “Sorry, Bill. I’ve to . . . run to the little boy’s room.”
   William looked surprised, but as he did the math — considering that I had just eaten and my sense of urgency — his expression morphed into one of concession, followed by a look of empathy which was solidified with successive, approving nods of his head and raised hands.
   I exited the restaurant hurriedly and in the lobby I leaned against the wall, loosened my tie and released a long exhale as I attempted to banish the thoughts of the socialist state from my mind. Sweating, I removed my phone from my pocket, looking around the foyer to check if anyone had noticed my rather obvious mental disintegration, but thankfully nobody was staring at me.
   I immediately dialed the Friedman Hotline.
   As usual it clicked after a single ring, and I held my breath as I was greeted by a sage voice which said:
   “Nobody spends somebody else’s money as carefully as he spends his own. Nobody uses somebody else’s resources as carefully as he uses his own. So if you want efficiency and effectiveness, if you want knowledge to be properly utilized, you have to do it through the means of private property.”
   When the voice ceased a prolonged beeeep followed, and I ended the call with an unintentionally loud exhale framed by circled lips as I reached into my trouser pocket and fished out two loose Ativan I’d stuffed in there earlier, before our taxi arrived. I placed them in my mouth, fixed my tie, re-entered the busy restaurant, and as I returned to the table I raised my eyebrows and smiled apologetically, before reaching for my glass of Nebbiolo and washing down both pills.
   “All okay?” asked William, concerned probably not for me but for the mere idea of a fellow diner shitting his pants and returning to a table afterwards.
   I smiled, still a little choked. I managed to force out a couple of labored words: “Okay. Good,” I nodded, mildly red-faced. “Great.”
   “Now,” William resumed. “Where was I?”
   “We were talking about immigration,” I said as, surprisingly, I found myself returning to a calm state almost immediately after ingesting the pills.
   “Well,” began William, before hesitating. “No, I wanted to talk about something else, uh, Venu—”
   “I think an article on immigration is a great idea, actually,” I said as quickly as possible.
   “You do?” asked William, surprised by my calculated U-turn.
   “Yes, yes,’ I nodded enthusiastically.
   “But I don’t want an opinion piece,” William replied. “I’m fed up with the unholy bombardment of opinion pieces adding to the nonsensical Sturm und Drang we’re constantly experiencing these days. It’s all identity politics, self-obsession, political correctness, lazy journalism. And it’s not only blogs on the internet; the heavyweights, they all resort to it now. They’re using emojis on the BBC. Emojis, Lukas.  I don’t know what’s happened to journalism. It’s dead, in the reportage of Western issues. Foreign Correspondents, more of them are — they’re still well-versed in the art of old-fashioned reportage. But pick up any paper, click on any US newspaper’s website covering national news, click on a link on Facebook and you’re guaranteed to find overwrought and melodramatic, often factually scant articles laced with ‘I, ME, ME, I, ME, WE.’ It’s a shambolic state of affairs.”
   I shuffled in my chair uncomfortably as I took another sip of my wine.
   “You do know that my next interview—”
   “With the porn star,” interjected William curtly.
   “Yes, with Alfie B. Lee . . . it is something of an opinion piece.”
   “Well,” said William, shrugging his shoulders and looking down at his dinner plate. “It’s a popcorn article, isn’t it?”
   “Is it?”
   “Yes,” he nodded firmly before looking me in the eye. “It’s a popcorn article, Lukas. It’ll entertain — it’ll help boost sales. It’ll please the shareholders. He’s a big name. He’ll grace the cover of The Cutter. But we’ll have you back to real journalism once it’s wrapped up.”
   I thought to myself: Ouch.
   And then I thought to myself: Miniature fucking camels.

XXX

Later, the four of us sat at the hotel bar. The elegant glass bar countertop underlit by neon-blue light gave the place a false vibrancy, because this was countered by the lazy jazz playing low, emitted from multiple wall-mounted speakers, and with the bar being only half full the atmosphere was unquestionably relaxed.
   Right before Stephanie brought up the recent murder which had happened not far from our house on Rutherford Drive, and which I’d learned was connected to the most famous porn star on the planet — the man I was scheduled to interview in December — Alfie B. Lee . . .
   I had immediately thought to myself: Will he still make porno videos?
   After that, I’d thought to myself: Will this affect our interview?
   I flashed back to earlier that day in the bathroom, and the momentary reminder of the pornographic video I watched gave rise to a mild erection, and I hunched slightly so as to ensure it wouldn’t be noticeable; my elbow rested clumsily, but not ostentatiously, across my thigh, as Stephanie opened with:
   “It’s scary as hell. To think that it happened not far from where you guys live. Seriously. It’s, like, how many blocks from your place?”
   “It’s five or six blocks away,” Karen said with what I thought was an affectation of concern. But she followed this with “They’re saying he was just a kid,” with sadness in her voice, which led me to believe that her worry was genuine. And which also led me to believe that this is who she was referring to in the cab on the way over.
   To be precise, they were saying he was Leighton Le Ché, an up-and-coming pornographic actor who was hot property within the industry, having only starred in a handful of videos which had quickly become some of the most popular on major porn sites. He’d been found in his downtown Coldcut apartment which overlooked the Dalloway River — which was seen as the divider between the north and south sides of the city — with multiple stab wounds to his cherubic face. His well-toned torso was gashed and sliced, and on his left wrist (which bore the tattoo Forever Young — how prescient he was) were what appeared to be two puncture wounds; deep bite marks, although this last detail was mere conjecture. A quick Google search would lead you to graphic images which had been taken by the cleaner who’d found the teenager’s blood-spattered and eviscerated body. The revelation that he was in fact seventeen — ergo underage — was causing a stir, as expected.
   As tempted as I was to share the Alfie B. Lee revelation — which had been passed on to me by a producer contact at PleasureVille Studios, Jay Jay Bonch, during a post-dinner bathroom trip — I felt it was best to keep it to myself for now; I couldn’t be sure that Bill wouldn’t pull the plug on the entire piece, and it had taken me months to persuade Maggie — the editor-in-chief of The Cutter magazine, the periodical for which I wrote, and which Bill owned — to give the article the green light, and I wasn’t going to lose it now.
   “It’s the viciousness that I don’t understand,” said Karen as she rested her elbows on the countertop and sipped her fifth martini of the night. “The poor kid suffered a terrible death.”
   “Rent boys are always at risk of meeting such an end,” said William as he sipped his scotch.
   “He wasn’t a rent boy,” I corrected. “He was an adult performer.”
   “And the difference is?” asked William rhetorically.
   “Don’t be so heartless,” said Stephanie, who was the only one of the party of four who wasn’t drinking alcohol. “He was some mother’s son.”
   “She’s right,” said Karen, her face still draped with concern, sadness.
   “And what was with those bite marks?”
   “Bite marks?” asked William.
   Stephanie rested her elbow on her husband’s shoulder.
   “There were two holes on his wrist.”
   “Bullshit,” I said.
   “Oh yeah? Why so, detective?”
   “Those photographs are blurry as hell, and even if there were puncture holes on his wrist, I doubt they’re the result of a bite.”
   “Well we live in fucked up times. Who’s to know?” replied Stephanie. “Karen, you’ve read about the elite and all that Satanism — the sacrifices, the pedophilia, right? I sent you articles, lots of them.”
   “I never got around to those,” said Karen.
   “There’s some fucked up people out there. Powerful people.”
   Stephanie removed her cell from her handbag and proceeded to show us all what she referred to as a ‘video on the occult,’ but which in fact was a mix of scenes from the movies Eyes Wide Shut, The Hunger and The Brotherhood of Satan. Afterwards she moved on to a video called Dogs Do Funny Things, and as Karen and Stephanie made thrilled noises like puppies whimpering as they watched the cute canines, and while William sat in solemn thought, I sipped my whiskey silently and willed the end of the evening.
   I thought to myself: Bill’s a powerful person.
   And then I thought to myself: This is your life, Lukas Lazaruk.

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