The Thin Man was sitting in the back when The Writer walked through the glass doors, his fingers leaving oily fingerprints as a memento, a sign of his entry. He took off his sunglasses and looked back in disdain at his appointment, the stalk of a human being sticking up like a tree in a field. The Writer moved instead to the bar on his left, eyeing the top shelf and knowing that before the night was done he would be doing more than flirting with it. A vivacious ginger strode down the line to him, a smile plastered to her face and bags under her weary eyes.
“What are ya havin’ honey?” she asked, her over-familiarity comforting.
“Just a neat whiskey, whatever is in the well,” he said, a thin smile in return, “and water.”
“Comin’ right up,” she replied, the smile fading before she had even finished turning away. He stood on his heels, the fullness of his satchel first on his mind as he rocked back and forth waiting for his drink. He had come to empty it and would refuse to leave disappointed.
A clack at his side and he turned to find a glass, the thin brown liquid inside looking empty and uninviting but cheap and affordable.He took it in his hand to swirl around in hopes of activating some buried flavor, a pinch of woods or of caramels, but as he knocked back a sip he felt the unpleasant burning of what could only have been half gasoline. He grimaced as he swallowed. Another clack and the water he had asked for was at his side. He took a sip and swished it around in his mouth before swallowing it, mentally crossing his fingers in the hope that it would remove the singing flavors. It did.
“Thank you,” he said. She nodded, already wrapped up in the task of chopping citrus fruits for the evening. She was more concerned with preparing for a busy Friday night than whether or not he was satisfied and that was just fine with The Writer. More for her to catch up on meant more privacy for him and the spindly figure to discuss business.
Casually he took another sip of the whiskey and forced himself to hide his discomfort. The Thin Man was waiting for him, patiently unoffended at The Writer’s insistence on ordering a drink first and prolonging this encounter beyond what either of them had wanted. “Ah well, worth a shot,” The Writer thought. He had been hoping to annoy The Thin Man, to set him off-guard with the momentary annoyance, but as he had heard one did not pull the wool over the eyes of this one, the blunt stupidity of the attempt already bringing a flush to his cheeks. Another sip and he strode to his intended.
“Thanks for waiting,” The Writer said as he extended his hand.
“Not at all, we’ve nothing but time,” replied The Thin Man, clasping the offered hand.
“Christ, his hands are witch-titty cold,” thought The Writer. “I’m glad you were willing to meet,” he said aloud, “since not many are in the trade you are at this point.” He sat in the seat opposite the man and set his whiskey on the table. “To tell you the truth,” he continued, shrugging his satchel from his shoulder as he spoke and setting it on the chair next to him, “I’m still not sure I believe in all this but I figured….why not?” The Thin Man sat in silence, letting The Writer speak, so he continued to. “I had heard of this. Bigger names using bits and pieces here and there, fluffing up their ideas and their prose with it, and just writing stronger work in general.”
“It’s not cheating,” The Thin Man said.
“Of course not!” exclaimed The Writer, “It’s nothing of the sort. It’s a tool with which to get the job done, a way to get it all out on the page. That’s all I’ve ever thought it was.”
“Just letting you know,” The Thin Man said, examining his fingernails as though this conversation was an unimportant stop on a much larger journey. “It’s true that many have used it before, the ‘bigger names’ you mentioned almost all have a little bit in them. Helps them do what they do and continue to sleep at night, to have time for their children and families.”
“Good thing I’m single and I shell out for condoms,” The Writer chuckled. The Thin Man rolled his eyes and sat back in the chair.
“Can we get this over with, I have other appointments.”
“Sure,” The Writer said. “Sure, we can get moving on this.”
“Fine,” The Thin Man replied. Reaching down beside him he brought up a black briefcase, a standard hinged affair with the small combination locks on it, and positioned it in front of The Writer. With his bony fingers he sprung the catches and the latches popped open. Slowly he raised the lid, displaying the contents to The Writer as the latter gazed down, greed evident on his face.
“And now all that remains is to choose and determine price,” The Thin Man said. “Tell me, what tickles your fancy? Is it poetry you wish to master? Then again your arrogance suggests a historical leaning, a mind that thinks it has already learned the cycle that is doomed to repeat. There’s also the musical love songs, the components to write as a scientist, or even one to master the religions of the world and understand their mysteries. Well, the mysteries or lack thereof,” he said, a suppressed smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. “Tell me, young man, what do you write?”
The Writer sat back at this, his eyes still on the contents of the case. He had been asked that same question constantly, the people who did not quite understand always asking “What sort of things do you write?” It was as though he could boil his interests, the things that had a draw on him, down to one thing that he could put into words. It was not so simple most of the time, but here it was called for. What he needed now was to dig down and answer this question, the most unanswerable of them all, and deliver an answer.
The Writer thought back on his earliest work, or at least the first thing he considered a real piece. He had been thirteen years old, just a kid, and wrote a poem for a girl in the grade ahead of him, a silly little ditty that told her she was just so very pretty, and had read it to her between classes. This, of course, had resulted in not only being stuffed in one of the taller lockers by her boyfriend but also having to deal with a cold mess in his pants as they stuffed the leftover lasagna he had brought for lunch that day down there before closing the lock. It had taken nearly half an hour for him to be found, despite occasionally shouting for help, and he had felt ridiculous.
He was, however, still very proud of that poem.
The Writer let his mind wander to the first story he had published, a mean little thing that talked of love and loss and other things he had no full experience with. It talked of violence and pain, of the murder of a husband by his wife, and her attempts to hide the body. He had come home from a showing of Rope, an old Hitchcock film, and immediately sat at his desk to let his ego pour out on the page as he thought to himself “I can do that.” The school paper had printed it and to his amazement no one had called him out on the ripoff, the homage that he had hammered out in one sitting. He had gotten away with it.
But The Writer landed on the one success he had truly had, his crown jewel. Three years prior he had written a ghost story. Nothing spectacular, just a haunted house that was possessed by the soul of a little boy that was tormenting the remaining occupants of the house, but the way he handled it had been a particularly clever little bit of trickery and he had managed to hit all the major points of mimetic fiction while still writing a blatant horror story. He had published it in a literary magazine in college and that had been the proudest moment of his life.
“Horror,” he told The Thin Man, “I want to be able to handle horror.”
A toothy, vicious little smile spread over the still visible over the lid of the briefcase and the eyes of The Thin Man narrowed to slits. “That,” he said, “is something I can do. But first I want one thing.”
“I have the money,” The Writer said. “I heard about that so I swung by the bank.”
The Thin Man held up his hand as The Writer reached for his satchel, the bills inside in neat little stacks that rustled against one another. The last three months-worth of his savings was in that bag.
“I don’t want that, not for this,” The Thin Man said, reaching out to grasp The Writer’s wrist and push the satchel back down to the table. “This is a more unique transaction.”
“Why?” asked The Writer. “I heard you did this all the time.”
“I do,” The Thin Man assured him. “I make these sales frequently, but usually to the damn poets. Always looking to make their couplets stronger, to spice up their stanzas, and always longing for the perfect word to convey their souls. Yes, I do this quite frequently with them and with musicians, always longing to sing sweeter words. Lords, the prog-rockers are killing me. They want enough Calliope to reconstruct her, or so it seems.”
“So what do you want from me?” The Writer asked.
“I want to know why,” The Thin Man answered. “I want to know why scary prose instead of poetry or the dramas, the family interactions, the romance that sells so well. You could be respected, praised, even marketable. So why take what will make you one more name in a world full of horror writers with their torture porn, their painfully serious references to alternate worlds where unimaginable horrors that are lazily thought-up await, and their teen sex and violence. Why associate yourself with the perverts who write of necrophiliacs and staggering corpses, the writers who want dead things back so they can make them sexy. Why this? I get it, everyone wants to be Stephen King, but most who buy from me come for more practical reasons.”
The Writer quieted for a moment, thinking. He had never discussed his strange obsessions with anyone else before, his penchant for the macabre remaining merely a mild talent in the eyes of those who knew him. So much had been internalized, so much gold mined from that hidden deposit, that he had to dig it back out so that it could be articulated for this ghoulish transaction. As the words came to him he still hesitated. He looked up at The Thin Man.
“Not to sound greedy…”
“Power through it,” The Thin Man sighed.
“Do I keep my cash then?” The Writer asked.
“If what you say is worth my time. If your reasons have spark, have something frightening of their own in them, then maybe I’ll have you turn that spark into a fire. If you’re pretentious and obnoxious, belligerent even, I still may decide to give you what you ask. I only ask that you avoid being boring. If you want to keep your dollars, that is.”
The Writer took a deep breath, held it, then let it all out.
“Fear is the only true way to know another human,” he said. “We go on and on about the things we love; the families we grow up with, summer days, the first snowfall of the season, all of that kind of nonsense is common. All of that is standard. But we never, in our wildest dreams, think to consider fear instead. You really want to get to know someone, all you need to do is find out what really scares them, what makes them ache in terror down in their bones. The things we love are so impersonal, so basic. Fears, phobias, the things that give you that little twinge of dread behind your eyes, that stuff is so….intimate. Forget for a moment anything you know about your wife or your husband or your kids, whatever you have at home, and sit and think on their fears. Then think about why they’re scared of these things. Once you’ve done those things you’ll have a new understanding of them, some new way of reading them that you never had before.”
The Thin Man stared blankly at him, his expression a wall behind which stood his true reaction. The Writer sat anxiously, a cold sweat on his forehead. It had been a long time since he had been this honest with a human being, and he had never opened up like this. The Thin Man continued gazing at him with that dead look. Finally he spoke.
“What are you afraid of most,” he asked The Writer.
“Fuck that,” came the reply.
“That is my price,” The Thin Man Said. “Answer, explain, and you get what you want.”
The Writer hesitated for a moment, his eyes flicking back to the open briefcase and his prize inside. “All I have to do is tell you? That and explain why?”
“Aren’t you going to at least buy me a drink first?”
“You have one. You bought it when you came in.”
The Writer sighed and picked up his cheap whiskey. “Fair enough,” he muttered. “Here’s to bullshitting for money and back alley transactions.” With that he drew the glass to his lips and tossed it all back, choking down as much as he could before the taste and the fire of it set in. He winced, but held his ground, and he got it down. The Thin Man looked at him, patiently waiting for his response. The Writer took a deep breath, let it out, and answered.
“Isolation,” he said.
“That’s it?” The Thin Man asked.
“Yeah, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. I have this deep-seated fear that I’ll wake up one day and everyone else will just be…gone. Like they never were, or something like that.”
The Thin Man reached for one of the vials in his briefcase but stopped again, looked up at The Writer. “Why,” he said, “would someone like you be afraid of isolation? You’re misanthropic, you prefer your quiet and your solitude, so why are you scared of this theoretical world-wide rapture?”
The Writer once again sighed. He closed his eyes, took his fingers and gripped the bridge of his nose to combat what felt like an oncoming headache.
“Because,” he replied at last, “there’s already little enough point to me as I am. What would be the point if there was no one else?”
The Thin Man again sat staring, his mask-like expression once again in place. Slowly, his eyes never leaving those of The Writer, he reached down and pulled out a vial from the interior of the briefcase. The lid was lowered, the latches closed, and the whole thing vanished back to its’ place under the table once more. The vial was held up in front of The Writer, the little objects inside clinking around. After holding it there, letting his customer gaze at it in loving astonishment, The Thin Man held it out. He reached out, took The Writer’s trembling hand in his own and opened it to place the vial in. He closed the fingers around the object and retreated, reclining in his seat and a little smile sneaking onto his face.
“A little Melpomene for you then,” he said.
“Melpomene?” The Writer asked.
“The Muse of tragedy, of the things that break us,” replied The Thin Man.
“Sweet,” The Writer said, a grin spreading across his face. “That’s perfect.”
“Enjoy it.” The Thin Man stood with this last, his briefcase already in his hand and a bowler hat appearing on his head. He began walking away but The Writer reached out, grasped his wrist.
“What do I do with it?”
The Thin Man chuckled at this. “Those are the ear-bones of the Muse,” he said. “They’re the smallest but they’re all I have of her on me at the moment. Take them like you did that whiskey, one quick swallow, and it should be simple.”
“And….how long are they in me?” The Writer asked, worried.
“Until you are done with them and want them out. Could be days, could be decades. The Muse knows better than the man what he really wants. You’ll have them till you’re truly finished with them.”
At this The Thin Man once again headed towards the door. As he gripped the handle to push it open he paused, looked back. “What is the title?” he called back.
“Excuse me?” The Writer asked, distracted as he tried to once again place his satchel on his shoulder while he paid his tab.
“The title of what you’re writing,” The Thin Man said. “I’ll be on the lookout for it.”
“Oh,” The Writer said. “It’s currently called The Flatlands, but I might change that.”
“Fair enough,” The Thin Man replied, and just that quick he was gone.
The Writer stepped out into the sunshine. It was early, not yet five o’clock, and he had time. He had days, maybe decades, and he did not want to waste it. In his hand the vial clinked with the bones inside, calling to him. “Eh, fuck it,” he said. It was over quickly, the vial uncorked and the bones scraping down his throat. He immediately wished he had waited till he had gotten home so that he might have had some water to wash it down with, but it was too late. He gulped and swallowed and his eyes watered, but in the end they went down and he was able to relax at last.
“Okay then,” he wheezed, “time to get to work.”