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Smackdown: The Zoetrope Blues

"Well, Jeff, looks like you got out of that HE Wells novel."

"Yeah, it's good to be back among the non-fictional, Dean. Whaddya want?"

"How'd you get sprung? Punctuation?"

"Better. A misused gerund and a run-on sentence left an opening, and I slid down a rope I made by tying together some of his passive voice sentences. He left them all over the place."

"Great. Cooper and Clemens still in there?"

"For all I know, they are, although I could have sworn I heard a guy stepping on a twig as I walked out of Wells' house."

"That doesn't sound too good, Jeff."

"Don't worry, man. It's all good. Even if Cooper did get out, he's no threat without Clemens."

"I hope you're right, Jeff. I hope to high heaven you're right."

"Why do you gotta hassle me like this all the time?"

"A lot of trouble comes from your way, Jeff. I got my eye on you, that's all."

It was another boring day at work and all I had to keep my sanity was cruising the message boards at Zoetrope. I'm a creative person and I commune with my muses there. I was hanging out over in the novellas section when 5-foot-5-inches of brunette knockout muse walked in. It was Tonya Judy, a writer of some note and no mean talent. Her literature was as hot as her kissing.

"Dean. I got a job for you."

"Nice to see you, too, Tonya. What happened to manners?" I poured myself a shot of straight bottled water, over the rocks.

"Why should I have manners when stuff like this goes on?" She dropped a folded-back newspaper in front of me. "Read it, Dean, and tell me what I want to hear."

What I read turned my stomach and made me wish I had a twist of Tagamet in my bottled water. It was a discordant symphony of cheap shots, and I don't mean the kind Frank Coppola pours for his customers. Insults. Dirty tricks. Rabbit punches. Hitting below the belt. It broke every rule: I thought I was at a Mike Tyson fight.

"He didn't even read your story, did he? This is the worst review I've seen in a month of Sundays." I knocked back my bottled water and signaled the bartender for something stronger.

"He gave it all poors, too, Dean. He slagged my story, and I know it's not that bad. I know my show from tell, don't I?"

She sure did know her show from tell. What she showed me when we were an item, she'll never tell anyone else and I reciprocate the favor. "Sure you know your craft, your grammar, your punctuation. I've seen your characterization. It's strong. You got good plots. This guy's a moron, but worse. He's a moron who thinks he knows this business like nobody's business." The bartender set me up with a lemon-lime/root beer suicide. I signaled for him to keep 'em coming.

"I know I write well, Dean. Tell me those words I want to hear. Say, that's an awful lot of pop you're drinking..."

"I can hold my soda, toots. You want to hear the words? You got them. I'm taking the case." She gave me a smile I hadn't seen since our last little show and tell session. "Of course, I gotta say the words you don't wanna hear."

"What are those, Dean?"

"Four hundred bucks a day, plus expenses. Starting with this tab."

"You're expensive, but I'll pay you gladly. I don't care if I have to sell a novel or blood plasma, I want you to get this guy, but good."

"Don't you worry your pretty little head, Tonya. You'll get every penny's worth, and I'll correct his grammar in a condescending fashion, no extra charge."

"You're the best Dean. The best. One more thing, though..."

"What's that?"

"Make sure you do something creative to this bum."

I took a long, cool pull on my soda pop suicide. "Tonya," I said, "I always get creative when my muse inspires me." I didn't even let her ask. "Yes, you still do, doll." I kissed her on her cheek as I left her with the bill.

Outside, it was a cold day in the Zoetrope studio. I pulled up my collar as I lit out on the trail of the raunchy reviewer. The first place to see would be the short story lot, where the bad review went down.

The place was wild when I got there. If you put a hundred lions in hot air balloons and took them to 5000 feet, it still wouldn't be a bigger uproar than what greeted me on the short story lot. In the mill of the crowd, I saw another of my old flames. Jo.

Jo's normally quiet and dark beauty was clouded by outrage and anger. She was on the warpath, that was for sure. She almost took my scalp off when I tapped her on the shoulder.

"Nice to see you, too, Jo. Is that how you greet all your old boyfriends?"

"Sorry, Dean. I didn't know who you were. A bunch of people got spammed with bad reviews and everyone's accusing everyone else. We're all on edge, here."

"A bunch of bad reviews, you say?"

"Yeah. A bunch." We both ducked as a typewriter flew overhead. It was a war of words in this place.

"Hey, Jo, I got a great idea. Let's go talk somewhere a little more quiet."

"You're right. That is a great idea. Let's jet. Lead the way." Not a moment too soon, either. The hapless writers were dipping their typewriters in napalm. It would be a flame war before long and we wanted to clear out before the Zoetrope security put out the fires and put us all in the slammer.

We headed over to the costume design chat room. It was a quiet little place where talk was more of tape measures and fabric than bad reviews and blazing typewriters. I ordered up a glass of Dr. Pepper with a twist of grape Kool-Aid before we started up a thread of conversation.

"Say, Dean, isn't it a little early for soda pop?"

"It's never too early for sodas in my line of work, hon." I slammed it back and ordered another. "Now tell me about the reviews."

"They were all short, terrible. Nothing but 'poor' for the scores. All from the same guy, but everyone said the reviewer had a fake name and they're accusing each other of being the bad guy."

"What was the name the reviewer used?"

"Benimore Booper."

That was the same name as the author of Tonya's poison pen letter. At first, I thought it was some 12-year-old who was ticked off because her story didn't have enough cheap sex in it, but no 12-year-old these days has the attention span to hit 10 short stories, let alone the 50 or more that got whacked by this Booper character.

Then it hit me. Booper. Character. I had a hunch, and it was time to act on it. "Jo, this Booper guy post any stories?"

"I don't know, Dean. Nobody's reading, everyone's too busy pointing fingers."

"Well, I ain't pointing, so I guess I should do some reading."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm getting to the bottom of this business and thank you very much for putting me on what I think will be the right track."

"I'd say 'you're welcome' if I knew what it was I did."

"You did plenty, doll. Plenty. Have a drink on me and put it on my tab. I'm gonna go read me some bad literature."

"Why on earth would you want to do that?"

"You know what, Jo? You're a nice kid, but you sure ask a lot of questions. I'm reading them because I gotta make that Booper guy answer for what he did." I kissed her on the cheek and went back to the short story building.

The short story place was cleared out when I got back. Zoetrope goons were everywhere. As I walked over to the reading area, I started counting down from 10.

The hassle started when I got to zero. Bingo. "Hey, buddy, no reviewing right now."

It was Mike Hudin, a sysop. "Nice to see you, too, Mike. Just comin' in to read."

"Sorry, Dean. Didn't see your face. Thought you were somebody else."

"Hey, no problem. You were just doing your job, like I'm doing mine. Real mess you had here a little while ago."

"Yeah, we did. What do you know about it?"

"Enough to know my answer's gonna come out of that reading place." Even though he knew where it was, I pointed at it for dramatic effect. If I ever wrote this story down and got it optioned as a made-for-teevee movie, this would be the perfect time to cut to a commercial.

I dug around through all the short stories. This was the place where dreams were made and broken on 7000 words or less. Every wordslinger fresh out of a creative writing adult education class came here to try his luck. There were hundreds of stories, most from people Tonya had no quarrel with and I had no interest in for now.

Then I hit paydirt. "Dances with Porcupines" with a by-line from none other than Benimore Booper. And this story was just the smoke. The fire was the other eleven submissions Booper turned in, all around the same time. I put them all in the same pile and went to find Hudin so I could put myself in his debt.

"You say you want to take Booper's submissions for your investigation?"

Mike's office was typical sysop chic. Monitors, switch boxes, computers with their covers off, network cards, hard drives, and cables everywhere. And just one chair: the one he was sitting in. It made it easier to stand up for myself. "Yeah, Mike, if you could see your way. I'll return them."

"That's highly irregular, Dean. We don't let them just get up and walk."

"These are irregular times, Mike. This Booper guy's got all your short story writers in a tizzy after racking up a bunch of bogus reviews so he could plaster the site with a dozen of his tales. This stinks like the egg salad in the back of your fridge."

"How'd you know about the egg salad?"

"Just playing a hunch. You know it's only a matter of time before he makes his move into screenplays. And you know how riled up they can get over there if someone hurts their little babies."

"Aw, jeez, not the screenwriters! But Dean, you're bustin' my chops! I can't let them short stories off of this site. If Mr. Coppola found out, he'd skin me alive and use my head in the sequel for Apocalypse Now!"

"That ain't gonna happen, neither one of them. I'll move fast. Just give me 48 hours and they'll be back here."

"You got 24. I'll have an 'outage' and then we gotta have them back so we can go live."

I only needed 8 hours, so this was great. "Thanks, Mike, I owe ya big on this one."

"Yeah, I'll call in that marker after I call in the other 20 you owe me. Good luck catching this guy. Do me a favor and say hello for me when you see him."

"Consider it done. The first comma splice of his I comment on will be for you, Mike."

"Hey, great. See ya, Dean."

I almost kissed him on the cheek, but remembered he wasn't an old flame just in time to keep from embarrassing myself. I went back to the short story stack I made. I discreetly put Booper's stories under my jacket and walked on out of there back to my private office home page.

I walked in to see my assistant, Victor, doing a little network benchmarking test. "How's your Quake game going there, Victor?"

"Huh? What? OH NO!!! Damn it, mister, you messed me up!"

"Nice to see you, too, Victor. Glad I could help. It's time to work, anyway."

"Aw, Mr. Webb, I got a headache."

"It's from staring at that screen. This'll do you some good and take your mind off your worries." I shoved a pile of paper in the middle of my desk to the left, displacing the left pile to the floor. I know my filing system needed a little work, but I didn't have time to sort papers. I was on a case. I dropped down Booper's stories on the clean spot. "Start counting words, Victor. We got an author to track down."

"Man, you always got me counting words."

"Hey, I made you a character in one of my stories. I even re-wrote it and gave you more lines." I reached into my desk and pulled out the 2-liter bottle of cream soda I keep to steady my nerves.

"Yeah, one pinche part and you still gotta give it one more rewrite. Say, you're not gonna start drinking that old rotteeth, are you?"

"Cut me some slack, I was learning my craft. This kind of work is what pays the bills. And mind your own business about what I drink."

"I don't know... If you're drinking the cheap stuff, I gotta worry about where my next paycheck is coming from..."

"Tell you what, Victor." I leaned forward and poured him a glass of cream soda for rhetorical effect, thinking to myself this would make a great tight shot for that made-for-teevee movie. "You count the words in these 12 short stories and tell me what else you find in them, and I'll make sure you're included in the story I write about all this, and we'll be drinking the good stuff."

"I hear Patsy Covington's working on another novel. Her stuff sells."

"All right, all right, you get the story here plus the re-write like I promised you, and I'll throw in a sequel where you get the girl. You know those stories are gonna be big, buddy. No more store brand colas after this one. It's gonna be big, I tell you."

Big as his eyes and mouth, I hoped. They were wide open. "A short and two novellas?"

"You got it, Victor. Now how about counting me some words?"

Before you could say "statistical analysis", Victor was all over those stories like a donkey on a waffle. He was one of the fastest word counters in the business. He'd be twice as fast if he could read. What he lacked in formal education, he made up for in determination to get his name in lights so he'd be on easy street and not have to work again. It was the same dream I had for myself, so how could I fault him?

"Hey, mister, what are you gonna do?"

"Me? I gotta make a trip to the library."

"That place with all the books?"

"You got it, Victor. Not much gets past you. I'm going to use my library card today."

"Good luck. Hope you find the right book you need."

"I think I will. I've got an idea I'm sure is gonna pay off." We toasted our glasses and drained them in one go.

I left my office and hit the bricks to the city book jail. There were a couple of inmates there I wanted to check out. It was a revolving door for most of them. They'd get out, but they'd be right back, usually in three weeks or less. I was counting on the ones I needed to see still being in there. This particular author was not known for his popularity.

I hadn't even gotten past the biography section when trouble found me there. "Hey, you're not welcome around here." The hand on my shoulder turned me around to face a six-foot-tall wall of muscle that didn't look very happy at all.

"Nice to see you, too, Avi. I see you're still working library security. I thought you were bigger than this branch library." Avi Drader was one of the top library cops in the world. He wasn't someone I wanted to see at the moment.

"I am bigger than branches. I eat a lot." I made it a point to butter him up by laughing at his lame joke. "Seriously, Webb. We got word you were headed this way and I got sent here to send you home."

"It's a free country. I can browse these shelves. I pay my taxes."

"You don't pay your overdue fines. That's why you gotta go, buddy." He reminded me why I didn't want to see him at the moment.

"Actually, I'm ready to pay up today. Thought I'd celebrate by checking out a few old classics of American literature."

"Don't give me that cock-and-bull story. If you want to see the books, you gotta balance ours." He hinted he wanted me to go to the front desk by almost ripping my arm out of its socket.

"Get your meat hooks off me, I know where the desk is."

"Nothing doing, buddy. I got my orders." My arm was overjoyed to hear that.

At the desk, the librarian was ready for action. "Well, well, Mr. Webb. We've been expecting you. If you pay your fine, we can start work on the new wing."

"Nice to see you, too, Vera. Yeah, I'm ready to pay my debt to library society." Vera Fine was the top librarian in the whole city system. Vera and Avi being in the same place didn't add up. Nobody else knew I was coming here besides Victor, and he was dead loyal. No, I was being watched. This case was personal, now.

Personal or not, I was still getting per diem and expenses and it was time to tap my benefactor. "I get one phone call in these situations, don't I?"

Ms. Fine looked disappointed. "Yeah, I guess so. Here you go. No long distance."

She handed me the phone, an old rotary-dial number they kept handy for scoffbooks like me. I thanked her and dialed for dollars and hoped they would answer.

"Hello?" Money talked.

"It's me, Dean. I'm at the library. How are you doing, Tonya?"

"Fine. Why? What's going on?"

"Like you said. Fine."

"How much?"

"Enough for them to give me my one phone call. Consider this an expense. How soon can you get down here?"

"Give me some time to finish writing this paragraph and I'll be right over."

"Thanks a load, babe. If it wasn't for my daily rate, I'd owe you big."

"Yeah, yeah. I love it when you talk sweet to me. I'll be there in a while."

"OK, Tonya. Hasta la vista."

I hung up the phone and handed it back to Ms. Fine. Of all my old flames, she was the oldest. If she didn't look so much like Bea Arthur, I would've never lived life in the fast lane with her riding shotgun. We didn't part on the best of terms, and I could sense a little personal payback was involved in this accounting. "An associate of mine is on her way over to pay the fine. OK if I cruise the stacks until then?"

"Dean, Dean, Dean, Dean, Dean. How stupid do you think I am? I know the crowd you hang out with. Most of them are writers. They couldn't rub two dimes together."

"Does the name Tonya Judy mean anything to you?"

"The blood plasma queen who dabbles in writing? Sure, I know her."

"She's paying the fine, Vera."

She seemed surprised such a classy dame would stick up for a guy like me. "I'm impressed, Dean. You've moved up in the world. Have you started dating her already?"

"Yeah, and I've broken up with her already. Same story, different woman."

"Well, Dean, some things never change. I can read you like a book. You're working a case and figured some flimsy excuse to swing by here and get her to cover your fine."

"You always did judge a book by its cover, Vera. I'm actually here to follow up on a lead."

"Well, you're not going anywhere, so you might as well tell me the whole story."

"She got a bad review and I'm after the reviewer."

"Lots of people get bad reviews, usually because they deserve them."

"Not Tonya. She's a good writer. It was a great story. This guy didn't even read it. He just posted a crap review so he would be that much closer to posting another one of his literary anti-gems."

"You don't say..."

"I do. He slammed about 50 or 60, then posted 12 stories. His modus operandi appears to be spamming."

"Damn!" She slammed her fists on the desk. "Was his name Benimore Booper?"

"Yeah. How'd you know?"

"I post my stuff at the Zoetrope site, too. He ripped my short story up one side and down the other. I thought his review was unfair, but what could I do about it? I'm just a nobody writer. I work with books all day, but I never got a deal to publish one." She started to show signs of rage born of frustration. "He had no right to do what he did. Probably the only audience I'll ever get is at that site, and he ruined it for me. He robbed me of my enjoyment."

"You and a lot of other people, Vera. That's why I'm gonna throw the book at him. Let me ask you something, now. Did you know I was coming or was my arrival announced?"

"We were tipped off. Anonymous caller."

"That's probably the Booper fellow or one of his gang. I think I'm being followed. They don't want to be seen, so they got others to do their dirty work for them. This whole thing was a set up."

"And we played along..."

"Perfectly." The conversation ended and Vera took time to think about how bad she'd been had.

"Go ahead and search the stacks, you big lug. I'll be here to check you out." Vera waved me over to the card catalogs. I already knew who I was looking for, and hit the fiction shelves and went straight to the C's. I found exactly the ones I was after and took them down so I could take them on home with me and get the information I needed out of them.

When I got back to the main desk, Tonya was there. She had just squared my arrears and was ready to box my ears, from the look on her face. "They tell me the new wing will be named after you."

"Nice to see you, too, Tonya, especially considering since I found the guy."

"You got him for sure?"

"Not exactly, but he's just one word count away from getting what he's got coming. Thanks for everything, though, Tonya."

"Ah, don't mention it, Dean. Vera here's been telling me all about her bad review."

"Is that all you two have been comparing notes on?"

They both did a terrible job of covering up laughter. "No, but we were going to wait until you left before we got too deep into that."

"Thanks for the chivalry, ladies. I'll oblige you by getting on out of here." I checked out the books and kissed both Vera and Tonya on the cheek. "Good thing I'm not dating either one of you now, or that would have been an exceptionally awkward moment." They suppressed more laughter and saw me on my way. I didn't mind knowing they were gonna gossip about me behind my back. The only thing worse than being gossiped about by former girlfriends is to be gossiped about by angry former girlfriends.

I got back to my office and Victor had just finished his word counts on the stories. I plopped down the books I checked out in front of him.

"Aw, mister, I can't count all the words in these books! These are novels, not short stories!"

"Nice to see you, too, Victor, and good job on the counting. If you can find already-existing word counts on these, you don't have to count them yourself."

Before you could say "standard deviation", Victor was all over looking up wordcounts for those books like an Eeyore on an Eggo. I looked over his other work as he pulled counts for Last of the Mohicans off the Internet. Once I had those numbers, we put the two sets of figures together and hit paydirt.

"Mister, they're the same guy. Those percentages of "the" and "at" don't lie."

"Absolutely, Victor. Absolutely. Everything lines up and is too close to be coincidence. Benimore Booper is none other than Fenimore Cooper himself."

"But I thought he was dead?"

"The author, yes. But that's not the only Fenimore Cooper out there."

"Whaddya mean, mister?"

"I have to go see an old acquaintance. Keep an eye on things around here while I'm out."

"Sure thing, mister." As soon as I stepped out, I heard his multimedia capacity testing start up. As long as my home page was still there when I got back, I didn't care.

Just a few blocks away from my homepage was Jeff Rose's. He had first hung his shingle at Zoetrope with a story featuring two characters so bad, they deserved to be shot. Clemens and Cooper. They had made trouble for him before, and one was making trouble for my client now. After I paid a visit to Mike Hudin to return the materials I had borrowed from him, I paid a visit to Mr. Rose.

"Dammit to hell, Dean, haven't you heard of knocking?"

"Nice to see you, too, Jeff. What's that you got there?"

Jeff was busy closing magazines, browser windows, and chat sessions. "Nothing. Nothing that's any of your business. Speaking of which, what business do you got with me?"

I took the liberty of pulling up a chair and sitting down on the opposite side of his desk. "Business my clients pay me to conduct. Tell me more about Fenimore Cooper."

"What's there to say? He's still in the HE Wells stories." Jeff nervously poured a drink all over his tumbler and keyboard.

"So you say. What about that twig you say you heard snap when you got out of HE's books?"

"That was Cooper, all right." Jeff nervously tried to drink, but looked more like a Sid Ceaser comedy routine.

"So how is he still in the HE Wells stuff if he's on the loose?"

"He's not on the loose, that's how. He hated it outside. He didn't have Clemens as his mentor and nobody liked his writing style."

"I'll say nobody liked his writing style. I got 60 people ticked off at his reviews, one of which was driven to distraction enough to hire me to track him down and give him what for."

"Impossible. He's in those Wells books. He hated it here, like I said, and begged to be let back in."

"Except he got out again. Those Wells novels give him the perfect alibi. Why don't you take one of your browser windows off whatever it is you gotta keep me from seeing and send it over Zoetrope way. I got some short stories to show you."

"But that part of the site is down--"

"Not now, it ain't." Jeff was surprised to see how right I was. "Now look up the stuff written by Benimore Booper. Read any one of them and tell me what you notice."

He read several of the shorter pieces, then opted out of reviewing them. "OK, Dean, you got him on two counts. First, it's lousy writing. Second, it sure fits his writing style. But, I could clear him on two more counts."

"Whaddya mean?" Just then, there was a knock on his door.

Jeff said, "Come in?"

A short Japanese fellow in a great suit and a short haircut stepped in. Each one of his fingers was operating at 50% of capacity. It was "Nubs" Nagoya, infamously inept Yakuza, with the diminished digits to prove it. He took one look at me and it wasn't an approving one. "What's Dean doing here? Trying to shake you down for characters?"

"Nice to see you, too, Nubs. What's your point?" I don't like being treated like a third person when second will do.

"Point? Why, I oughta--"

"Easy, Nubs." Jeff gave a tug on the leash and Nubs left his gat in his coat pocket. "He was just about to leave, weren't you Dean?" I nodded. What choice did I have? "Why don't you go freshen up and we'll get to our meeting in a few minutes."

Nubs nodded and headed down the hall to the bathroom. "All right, Jeff, how is it not Cooper?"

"He may have the same word count, but he doesn't have the length. These pieces are way too short, even for most short story writers. To top it off, they are full of irony. It's not even the good stuff, like Bradbury or O'Henry. This stuff's the lowest of the low. My Cooper isn't able to write his way out of a paper bag, let alone use irony. He can't even spell it."

Jeff was right. Ironically, these stories had too much irony to be genuine Cooper. The word frequency count was a ringer for Cooper's, but the heavy, cheap irony put the stories right out of his class of literature. "Sorry to trouble you, Jeff, but at least you helped keep an innocent man out of trouble."

"Innocent, hell! Why do you think I'm talking to Nubs? It ain't no picnic we're planning! Cooper owes me money, big money, and I'm getting it out of him somehow. I didn't want you to get him because it would deny me my satisfaction of a revenge job well done."

I noticed the woman on Jeff's wall calendar was an old flame of mine, so I kissed her on the cheek and said goodbye to Jeff. As I stood outside his door, I couldn't help but wonder how a fingerless guy with a short temper and a gun would fare in the bathroom.

Ten seconds and six gunshots later, I had my answer. Now it was time to go back to my place and get an answer of a different kind.

Back at my office, Victor was putting the cybermoves on some hapless netizen femme that could have been a 45-year-old male FBI agent with a bad attitude and the arrest record to match, for all he knew. "I'll be ready to get back to work in a minute, mister."

"Nice to see you, too, Victor. The guy I thought was the guy isn't the guy but is the cover for another guy who is the guy."

"Huh?" Victor was distracted long enough for me to click the "x" on his chat session and make the distractions go cyber-bye-bye. "Hey! What? You! Aw, fuhget you, Mr. Webb!"

"Come on, Victor, no time to lose. We gotta think and do some research. Cooper isn't Booper. Booper's actually--"

"Slow down, mister. I can only hear so fast. Booper I know. Who's Cooper?"

"The guy what I thought was Booper."

"So Cooper's not Booper?"

"Cooper's not Booper."


Victor was a real trooper. Now that he understood what was going on, we both racked our brains to figure out who would be capable of such irony. Not only in writing, but in creating the situation we faced. Not knowing as much about literature as I did, Victor tended to knot his forehead and act like he was thinking really really hard. This helped me focus, so I tolerated his expression in lieu of his effort.

I drank a little cream soda straight from the 2-liter bottle for a little more focus. We started to play a little strategy game to sharpen our minds.

Two hours, an emptied bottle of pop, and four games of Age of Empires later, I had the answer. "Frank R. Stockton. That's our Booper."

"I was just about to suggest him, mister. Who the hell is Frank R. Stockton?"

"First of all, he's the reason this short story's going to be a full-blown novella."

"That's nice, mister, but who is he?"

"Stockton was actually quite a good writer in his day, worked as an illustrator, as well. He was a very popular humorist, but regretted always being associated with 'The Lady or the Tiger', arguably the cheapest of the literary cheap shots."

"What was that in English?"

"You remember that story I assigned you in Freshman English about the guy who had to pick the door with the lady or the tiger?"

"You mean when I was a real person and not a fictional character?"

"Yeah, around 1994. Remember? The guy's in trouble..."

"Oh yeah, he was scopin' the honeys and got an eyeful of the king's daughter. The king went like all hell no!! and dropped him in the ring like in that gladiator movie with all the gladiators and all."

"That's the one. And he had to choose one of two doors..."

"Yeah, the lady or the tiger. He got the, uh..."

"Neither one. Stockton ended the story before the guy opened the door and left you wondering."

"OH YEAH! Man, that was weak! I remember freakin' on that one! I actually read it, too."

I was always happy to discover Victor had actually done homework while in my English class. This time, my joy was double in that it had relevance to the case at hand. "That story had a very ironic ending."

"But it was good writing, I remember. You said this Booper guy was awful."

"True, but it's entirely possible whatever drove him over the edge also made him a terrible writer."

"Isn't he also dead, mister?"

"That he is, Victor, so he's obviously someone's fictional character."

But who would want this guy as a character? Unless... it wasn't intentional...

"Victor, get me the collected works of HE Wells on CD-ROM." In situations such as this, that was the best thing to search. Just because Cooper wasn't an escapee from his turgid prose didn't mean HE Wells wasn't completely out of the picture. I ran a search for "stockton", hoping to hit typographical paydirt.

A few seconds later, and my grub stake was right there on the screen in the middle of the text of Ingots Along the Monongahela. The word "stockton" was part of a larger passage. Where Wells had meant to write, "Let me be frank. Our stockade won't survive the battle," he had written a one-two combo that brought our man Stockton up from his dirt nap to turn on the literary community that only remembered him for his bit about the lady and the tiger: "Let me be frank. R stockton won't survive the batle."

I called Victor over. "Do you see that, Victor?"


"Well's mistake."

"Which one?"

"Isn't it obvious?"

"So he mispelled 'battle.' Big whoop, mister."

"No, the other errors. Besides, you misspelled 'misspell.' Be more careful."

"How could you check my spelling when I'm talking?"

"I could sense the spelling in the way you said it. Anyway, forget that and tell me what you see besides 'battle' being spelled wrong."

Victor leaned real close to the screen and squinted. "Uhh... got me, mister."

"Right there! Frank R. Stockton!"

"Who's that guy? I thought we were looking for Booper."

"We are. This guy's Booper."

"No, he's-- OHHH, he's using a fake name!"

"Nothing gets past you, does it, Victor? I bet having that period come right before his name really messed him up. No capitals on his first or last name probably infuriated him further. No wonder he's so antisocial."

"So how are we gonna catch him, mister?"

"They say set a thief to catch a thief. Stockton's an author and a reviewer, so we need a guy who can handle both."

"Know anybody like that?"

I thought for a while, then I had the perfect thought. I leaned back in my chair and laughed. "Victor, I know just the guy. Best news is, he's free!"

"Who, mister? Who?"

"Let me write a little story, and then we'll have our author." Victor reached to turn on his computer, probably to play another round of Diablo II. "Victor, before you do that, call Tonya and tell her to get over here. We'll need her, too. Then there's one more thing."

"What's that?"

"Get me some more pop. I'm all out."

"You want me to get the good stuff this time?"

I mulled that over. Were my chances that good, I could start affording to spend more than a dollar for a 2-liter bottle? I summed up my chances. "Yeah, Victor. Get the good stuff."

"You got it, mister!"

I had the short story ready to go by the time Tonya showed up. I must have roused her from her beauty sleep, because she sure was in an ugly mood. "This better be good, Dean. I was on a roll with my writing just then. What you have better be worth blowing my creative streak."

"Nice to see you, too, Tonya. Have a seat, here." I showed her to the chair in my office I keep ready just such a purpose. She sat down and made that huffing sound women make when they want a guy to ask, "What's wrong?" so they can say "Nothing" in that tone of voice that lets the guy know he's dead meat if he so much as thinks the wrong thing. I was wise to her ways and ignored her noises.

"Here, Tonya, read this and tell me what you think of the characters."

"You called me over to critique your short story? Why of all the lousy, no-good--" She started to get up.

"Easy, Tonya, easy. You'll read it and like it, if you wanna catch Booper." She sat down and grudingly started reading.

Her initial disgust soon turned to eager page-turning. She was reading my story and falling in love with it. It's always nice whenever I find out I still got a way with words. She read the last page and couldn't wipe the silly grin off her face. "It's great, Dean."

"And the characters?"

"They really came alive."

"Any in particular?

"That Howard guy really jumped off the page. He was so real, I wouldn't be surprised if he walked into your office right now."

A shadow fell across the frosted glass on my office door. Someone knocked. Tonya jumped in her chair. "I thought you said you wouldn't be surprised if he walked in?"

"I didn't expect him to knock. He didn't seem all that polite."

"You gotta read on many levels to get the full impact of my characters." I loved to brag. "Victor, let the guy in."

Victor paused his game of Ultimate Pinball and opened the door. Standing there was a stately figure, impeccably dressed in a conservative suit, with a piercing gaze that shot out accurately from above a long, aquiline nose. His lips met in an awkward line, but his forehead made a perfect front to the staggering intellect behind it. One didn't even have to hear him speak to know this guy was brilliant. He exuded genius.

"Come on in, Howard. Tonya, this is Howard. Thanks to your review, he's here to help us catch Booper. Howard, meet Tonya. She's the one who called you up from my story."

Victor got out of his chair and offered it to Howard, who accepted it graciously and silently. He sat down with a cat-like grace and drank in his surroundings. I could tell he was impressed with the antiquity of my office building, and thrilled at the musty effluvium emanating from dark, unwanted objects far beneath my filing cabinets. His eyes made silent remarks of praise when they lighted on my collection of macabre paintings and statues, his lips forming an eldritch smile in response to the information his eyes brought in. He finally spoke when he saw a certain figurine made of green soapstone. The figure was one most people found repulsive. I admit it troubled me, as well, for it hearkened back to antediluvian horrors that themselves were decendents of prehuman terrors that once walked abroad on the earth, ruling it with blood, horror, and terrible alien majesty. The figure did not repulse the man. Rather, it brought these words to his lips: "You're a fan, eh?"

"Yes, sir. That I am."

"Excellent. What can I do to help you?"

"Hey, mister... who is this guy? He walks in and all of a sudden your prose style changes. You got a lot more of them big words in there..."

"Victor, I want you to meet H.P. Lovecraft, master of horror, celebrated reviewer, and noted literary critic. He's going to help us nab Booper."

"Yeah, but does he know irony?"

The elegant stranger spoke in tones that were strangely answered from unseen dimensions in voices full of booming, sub-bass tones. "I've been known to dabble in irony in my day, young sir." His chilling laugh brought me comfort, although it obviously disturbed the others, less familiar with his work, in a most profound manner.

"Enough of the small talk. H.P., we got a certain situation, here..." Tonya and I spilled our guts about the situation Booper created, about how HE Wells had started it all with his bad writing, and about how we needed his skill in bringing Booper to bay.

He relished the arrangements and his new-found life. "Well, Dean, looks like my strange aeons have come. My death just died, and I'm in your debt. I'll be happy to help."

"He's followed me, so he's probably wise to your being here."

"Yes, but Stockton died well before I became published as an author. He doesn't know me or my reputation. He will certainly be underestimating the gravity of his situation."

Tonya wasn't buying it. "How can you be so sure?"

"It fits in quite well with the tale I'm going to spin." As Lovecraft spoke, a chill breeze pushed through my open window. I felt something brush through my skin, although I saw nothing unusual at all. The others must have been subject to the same demonstration, as they had a look best described as the onset of fear on their faces. "And when I spin a tale, I spin it well, as you can see."

"Trust me guys, this guy's good." Tonya and Victor nodded while Lovecraft leaned back in his chair and dreamed up a gleeful scenario with which to beset Mr. Stockton nee Booper.

"I gotta read some of his stuff after this." Tonya sounded like a convert. I was pretty sure she was gonna hit the "L" shelves in the horror book section at the used book store when this caper was all wrapped up.

"Me too." Victor sounded sincere, but I knew he would be searching in vain for a copy of the Cliff's Notes version of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" at that same used book store Tonya was going to hit.

"OK, folks, let's get quiet and let the man think." We hushed ourselves as the colors and phantasms began to swirl around Lovecraft. He smiled wickedly as his chair rose and rotated gently in the maelstrom of extradimensional activity surrounding him. I knew Lovecraft would be able to deliver the goods.

And now it was time for action. I dashed out of my office and yelled back to those still inside, "Wells is the key! I can fix it all with a quick trip there! Booper will be history!" I then flew down the stairs and ran to my car.

I drove my brownish-yellow Pontiac Firebird convertible out of my building's parking garage and noticed a brand-new BMW 3 Series compact following me. That Stockton may be tailing me in style, but he had no idea my car was as near a replica to the set of wheels James Garner drove in "The Rockford Files" as one could get without infringing on a copyright. Stockton could drive whatever he wanted, he couldn't touch me for coolness.

Besides, I wasn't going to do any high-speed stuff. It was gonna be pretty much bumper-to-bumper all the way to Wells' place. Lots of slow driving and plenty of stops. The Firebird could take it, but that pretentious little Beemer of his was gonna have one gunked-up engine after today's trip. That poor sap Stockton would have terrible trade-in value on that car, but he had it coming.

Traffic was terrible, just the way I liked it. Took a whole hour just to go the 12 miles to Wells' house. That gave me plenty of time to knock back a six-pack of RC Cola. I usually drink and drive when joggers pass me by. I figure I'm close enough to being parked to relax a little.

We pulled up to Wells' place and got out. I headed up the walk to his house and Stockton called me out. "Webb!"

"Nice to see you, too, Stockton." I answered without turning to look at him. Criminals always hate it when I do that. It's very disrespectful to them and fun for me. Maybe I shouldn't have pushed my luck like that, but the cola did the thinking for me.

"You won't live if you take another step."

I turned around, slowly, to see the business end of a .357 Magnum. I'd seen bigger, so I stayed calm enough to play it cool. "Yeah?"









"Y- Hey! Cut that out! Nobody wants to read a string of 'yeahs'!"


"Yea- Dangit! Stop that!"

"So what do you want, Stockton? Your game is up, the way I see it. I notify Hudin at Zoetrope and you're off the site."

"Get your hands up!" I obliged, but looked him in the eye, deadpan and unpreturbed. Criminals hate when I do that, too. "You're not telling Hudin anything, Webb! You're dead where you stand."




"Y--" His face turned red and he lifted his gun in frustration for a moment. That's when I made my move and dove into Wells' topiaries. Stockton tried to steady his aim and fire, but a shadow fell across him and gave him opportunity to change that course of action.

The next thing he heard was a booming, sub-bass voice resonating somewhere deep within the hippocampus region of his brain. I know it because I heard it, too.

Stockton... look up.

He looked up and saw it was too late. Standing over him, dripping gray-green ooze all over the place was a 17-story-tall planet-crushing deity most folks run away from in a screaming panic if they don't die of fright at the instant they see it. Him. Whatever. I know the guy, though, and knew him well enough not to need an introduction.

His name's Cthulhu, but don't wear it out by repeating it. His name can't be properly said with human vocal systems. The two things he hates most are people misspelling his name and people mispronouncing his name. I know how to spell it and I wasn't about to tempt fate by saying it.

Stockton just dropped everything and freaked. This was normal.

Pretty soon, the thick prose would hit and Stockton would be done for. H.P. Lovecraft liked to finish his victims off with a slathering of verbosity, and I wasn't going to stop him. Not in the least.

Stockton stood frozen on Wells' front lawn. The air turned green and electricity shot through it. My skin tingled with the current. I felt like I had to clutch tightly to the bushes to keep from falling upward. It was dangerous enough for me, but nothing like what Stockton was about to get.

A monstrous claw swooped down, plucking the hapless author from the face of the sane earth. The sub-bass voice roared within my mind with emotions I could not comprehend, but found terrifying and alien. Stockton met his doom, of that I have little doubt, for I saw him drawn upward in the polypheme paw, upward to that dizzying height where the colossal, writhing head of the god-thing moved in ways perceptible to more than just my mortal eyes. Whether it was entirely in this space of three dimensions and time or another, I could not honestly say. I feel as though I beheld spaces not of this universe, but the language to describe them does not exist, so I don't know how to express to you, my reader, what exactly I saw.

I say Stockton met his doom, but I cannot say what that doom precisely was. It was awful, of that I am sure. I saw him sucked from the paw into the god-thing's tentacled head. It was not all at once. It was through a slow, laborious, painful-looking process - although I daresay I heard no scream from Stockton's mouth to confirm my observation - reminiscent of how I have heard some physicists describe the means by which matter enters a black hole.

On that note, I should also comment about the distortions I sensed in the time it took for me to witness the scene. Had I not been in a fictional world where time was subject to my own rules as an author, I fear I would have spent a near-eternity watching that relativistic horror run its course. Mercifully, I was in a novella and could turn away from the terrors of the scene and stagger over to Wells' house as Cthulhu finished off the mortal remains of Stockton. What became of his soul, I shudder to imagine, for there is no possible way anything connected with what got drawn into that cyclopean mass of tentacled matter could ever find rest in this cosmos, if such rest is to be had.

As I clambered out of the bushes, Lovecraft was there to meet me. "You like the deus ex machina, Dean?"

"Nice to see you, too, H.P. I don't normally cater to shameless self-promoters other than myself, but in your case I'll make an exception. Genius, Howard, genius. I especially enjoyed the black hole bit."

"Glad you like it, Dean. Thanks again for bringing me up. It's good to get back to writing again."

"Anytime, Howard, but I think it's time we went inside before your creation there decides we're the next course."

"Well, he could always eat the house-"

"Not while I'm writing the rest of this story, he won't. Now let's get inside until the big guy heads back to wherever he came from."

H.P. and I went into Wells' house and watched the show on the front lawn. Then it hit me. "H.P.! I still gotta correct his grammar in a condescending fashion!"

"Well, Dean, what he's getting now is far, far worse than a malevolent editing session."

"Yeah, but I made some promises."

"But look at him, Dean! You think he's going to be reading email up... there?"

"Well, his head's not quite been annihilated yet. Is he still alive?"

Lovecraft nodded. It wasn't a happy nod, but he nodded. We still had time, then.

"Well, H.P., let's get to editing."

"I guess so. You better call The Biggest Guy and let him know we need to stretch this thing out. No pun intended."

"Call him?"

"Uh, yeah. Use my cell phone. He's in my phone list."

"You know, for an antiquarian, you sure are embracing modern technology."

"Well, I may be an antiquarian, but I also wrote science fiction."

I had to hand it to the good Mr. Lovecraft. He sure was versatile. Now I had to call his most terrifying creation. Versatility can be a double-edged sword.

There it was on the speed-dial. CJ. That's what we called Cthulhu. Not only was it easier to spell, it was easier to say. The "J" was a little joke among the folks in his inner circle. We figured if Cthulhu were to have immigrated to America in the 1920's, the people at Ellis Island would have named him "Jones" and moved him on down the line after making sure he didn't have tuberculosis. Great Cthulhu Jones, master of the universe, shuffling through the gates of Ellis Island on his way to a new life in America. Cthulhu had a great appreciation of irony and let us keep the joke. Of course, it was ironic that we had found Stockton out because of his irony and now he was being destroyed by one who appreciated a good irony as much as CJ. Go figure. I hit the "dial" button and braced myself.

The eldritch approximation of a voice chilled my mind with the way it spoke. "Hello."

"Hey, uh, CJ..."

"Nice to see you, too, Dean. What can I do you for?"

I winced when I realized Cthulhu had gotten the drop on me with my tagline. Being a deity has its advantages, I suppose. "Yeah, uh, I got just a simple request, really."


"I promised some folks I'd correct Stockton's grammar in a condescending fashion. Could you hold off on completely annihilating him until we can review his works?"

"I got a better idea."

Of course he did. Every one of his ideas was better. That deity thing again. "I'm all ears, CJ."

"Just have H.P. get the corrections to me and I'll see that Stockton is tormented with them on the other side, Great Cthulhu style." Of course, he pronounced his own name impeccably.

"Works for me, CJ. By the way, how are you able to talk and get antediluvian on Stockton at the same time?"

"I got this thing on handsfree. Best accessory for this phone I ever got."

"Cool. OK, then, I'll be seeing ya, dude."

"Anytime, Dean. Hey, when you gonna finish that novel with me and that English guy?"

"Well, I still need to research it and re-do the opening..."

"Well, don't be a stranger. Gimmee a few pages every now and then and pretty soon, you got a book. All right?"

"Yeah, all right. I gotta run, now, CJ."

"Sure thing. Later."

I survived, so that was a sign I didn't make Cthulhu angry. Lovecraft was already editing Booper's work at Wells' computer. HE Wells had come into the room and stood over Lovecraft, looking like he was making sure Lovecraft didn't mess anything up. From the look of things, I figured Wells' computer was safer now than it had ever been while he was using it.

"Don't you go and make a habit of commandeering my home for your climaxes, Dean. I'm letting you have this one as a favor."

"Nice to see you, too, HE. No need to be a windbag about it. I don't want to make a habit of being seen near a writer as bad as you. Heck, you're someone else's character, anyway. As far as I care, he can have you back. Besides, it was your fault all this happened."

"What was that windbag crack? You punning off my name again? You know it's not easy, going through life named after an element."

"Sorry, HE. Nothing I can do about your crazy father. Your brother got named after mercury."

"If you say H.G. had a more fluid style of writing, so help me, I'll-"

"Easy, HE: H.G. just had one thing going for him. Talent. Without it, he'd be on the same level as you."

H.P. looked up from his editing. "Why don't you two take it outside. E and G both rhyme with P and I keep thinking you're talking about me. It's very distracting and in case you haven't noticed, I've got a deadline." He jerked his graceful thumb at the cyclopean terror that was going mad-dog on Stockton.

HE and I left the room. "Nice deflection of guilt, by the way. You really need to watch your spelling."

HE just kicked at his furniture.

"All you have to do is press 'F7' and it's done. Why don't you check your spelling?"

"Look, you write your way and I'll write mine. I'll trust you'll be along to fix any of my mistakes that grow legs and run around."

"I probably will. I hope they don't get to you before I get to them."

"You got anything else to say, or should you be on your way outta here?"

I didn't have much else to say, so I said it to HE and trusted H.P. to deliver the bad news to Stockton. Lovecraft hated every word of Stockton's new stuff and was eagerly awaiting the chance to pan him. Cthulhu had Stockton in a very tight squeeze, so I left him in CJ's very capable appendages. I was very happy to see the gray-green ooze hadn't dripped anywhere near the Pontiac. I got into my Rockford Files special and drove straight back to my office.

Too bad for me the traffic was still there. I could still drink another round of soda, but this time it was warm and almost flat. Ew.

I walked back into my office to see Victor wrapping up a successful game of solitaire. I opened the door just as he sent all the cards bouncing on the screen.

"Hey, mister, I solved it finally!"

"Nice to see you, too, Victor. Glad to see you finally licked that game."

"Well, Tonya helped me."

"That's nice. She around still?"

"She stepped out to donate some plasma, but she'll be back."

"Well, I've got some good news for her, Victor. Why don't you put that A&W on ice?"

"You got that guy?"

"Sure did. He didn't last long once I put the smackdown on him."

Just then, Tonya walked in. She had a little gauze taped to the inside of her elbow. I was happy to see that. It meant I'd get paid for sure.

"Hey, Dean, you're back! You get Booper?"

"Nice to see you, too, Tonya. Sure did. As I speak, he's getting a taste of utter destruction and harsh criticism. He'll suffer for an eternity for what he did."

"You're exaggerating."

"No, I'm not. Major fictional deities are involved. He ain't coming back, babe."

"That's wonderful, just wonderful. Thank you so much for all you did."

"Well, you paid me to do it all..."

"And I got every penny's worth. Really. I really do appreciate all this. You're the best, Dean, and I'm not just saying that because you're writing the dialogue."

"You better quit talking, Tonya, before we become an item again."

"Would that be such a bad thing?"

"As long as you don't set fire to my stereo again when we break up, I don't think so."

"Works for me." I loved that look she got in her eye and the way she moved closer to me.

"Hell-ooo? I'm still over here with the root beer..." Victor waved the 2-liter bottle over his monitor.

"Looks like we'll have to pick this up after the celebration, Dean."

We had our victory party and Tonya and I partied on without Victor later that night. Like I said at the start, what she shows me, I don't tell anyone else and she reciprocates the favor. Let's just say a good time was had by all and leave it at that.

And if you don't leave it at that, my boy CJ might be by for a visit. You have been warned...