:: Article

Dead Heat, A Work of Fiction

By Jonathan Woods.
 

1.

 
​One hundred and thirty-three days before the October announcement date of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and against all odds, the eighteen backbiting, hypocritical, priggish, opinionated and grandiosely pompous members of the Swedish Academy agreed upon the short list of five eminent writers in competition for the world’s most famous literary prize. The undertakings to maintain the secrecy of the Academy’s deliberations and its list of finalists were as complex and impenetrable as the convolutions and contortions of the ancient Gordian Knot.

2.

On a June Monday a week later, a businessman named Zeg presented a credit card and an Italian driver’s license at the offices of EuroRental in downtown Zurich.  

The license was a cheap forgery. The credit card stolen from a seventy-one year old retired notary residing in an eldercare facility in a Milan suburb. The oldster was in the late middle stage of Alzheimer’s and had no recollection of his name, let alone the fact of possessing a credit card. Sometimes he remembered his wife’s name, Clea, and that over a wild weekend before they were married, they had had great sex aboard a gondola plying the Venetian canals in the blue-green light of aperitivo time. Throughout their humping the gondolier had crooned a medley of Puccini arias.

The EuroRental agent held up the driver’s license, his eyes moving between it’s out of focus image and Zeg, standing there, head turned sideways, watching the cute Chinese girl renting a car at the next counter space.  

“You sure this is you?” asked the clerk.

Zeg frowned, extracted his wallet and dropped two fifty-euro banknotes onto the surface of the clerk’s workspace. Instantly they disappeared under a scree of paperwork.    

“It’s an old photo,” said Zeg.

Without further conversation the clerk completed the rental contract, ran the credit card and handed Zeg the ignition key to a Prussian-gray Peugeot sedan.  

The next morning Zeg arose before dawn, drank a cup of black coffee and smoked a cigarette. Then he went to work, stuffing a very large sum of money in non-sequential twenty-Euro banknotes into two counterfeit Louis Vuitton waterproof travel bags purchased from a Nigerian street vendor. Zeg’s hairy hands hefted the bags into the trunk of the Peugeot stashed in a garage in a low and venal district of Zurich.  

As the light of day spread over the Swiss city, a rodent-mustached laborer and petty criminal, known to his scumbag pals as Shorty, slid behind the wheel of the Peugeot. His nicotine-stained fingers turned the ignition key, cranking the Peugeot to life. After Shorty left, Zeg went back to bed, where his girlfriend, naked and licentious, lay on her stomach breathing softly. When his cock entered her from behind, she gasped like a swimmer coming up for air.

At a steady speed Shorty drove through a maze of empty and circuitous byways and turnings of the city, arriving finally at Zurich International Airport at 7:05 a.m. He parked the Peugeot in space #214 on the second floor of a multi-level airport garage and walked away, leaving the key in the ignition.

At fifteen minutes past the hour of 7:00 a.m., a man with thinning, mid-brown hair and a face as nondescript as a public urinal jump cut his way along a row of parked cars on the second floor of that same parking garage. The man was called Gunther, after his paternal grandfather, now deceased. When he reached space #214, he stopped and looked around. The garage was deserted. After confirming the contents of the trunk, he dialed a Stockholm number using a disposable cell phone purchased for cash at a convenience store and snack bar in Zurich’s Arab quarter.  

At the other end of the line, soft, female breathing confirmed that a connection had been made. “Everything eez okay,” said Gunther.  Not waiting for a response, he deep-sixed the call and drove the Peugeot out of the airport and onto the A3 heading for Basel and the French border.

A tick after the cell phone call ended, from a laptop resting on the zinc bar of an all-night Stockholm club called Trix, the tap of a manicured female finger launched an e-mail into the ether to an address on a Paris server. The finger belonged to a bodacious receptionist and part-time prostitute named Sasha. The e-mail contained the names of five world-renowned writers. How Sasha came by the list is not hard to imagine based on her secondary profession.  

The Gordian Knot was severed.

3.​

Like smooth quartz stones tossed into a well, fat glossy raindrops pattered down on the broad leaves of a cluster of elephant ear plants. Fifteen seconds later, a relentless downpour burst over the jungle landscape. Giant toads chiggaroomped with wild abandon. A black cat, its eyes crazed by the sudden flood, fled like a wraith into the shelter of the crawlspace of a Balinese frame house set in a verdant garden. In a short while the tropical cloudburst tapered to a drizzle, then stopped dead. It was mid-August, the rainy season. A sliding door shucked open and a slight, bare-chested Asian man in white gym shorts and blue running shoes appeared. The internationally known Japanese surrealist Haruki Murakami stood momentarily still, surveying the sodden garden. He sniffed the pungent tropical air. Neuralgia and world-weariness had etched elliptical lines around his eyes and deep grooves below his cheeks.

Stepping carefully over the sliding door threshold, he crossed the water-darkened deck and descended into the garden.  

A difficult scene in his new book had drawn him outside. And with all the publicity and speculation in the sixty days leading up to the Academy’s declaration of the winner of the ultimate literary prize, it was impossible to focus on his work. His mind replayed the shifting frenzy of odds that always preceded the apotheosis.    

Ladbrokes was still giving only 8-1 odds on Haruki’s chances of capturing the world’s most coveted literary prize. Three other writers were favored ahead of him in the bookmaker’s score, including that asshole from Somalia. And the Academy was notoriously unpredictable. They could easily fixate on someone out in left field. Under the circumstances it was absurd to even attempt to write a coherent sentence.  

Haruki’s forehead scrunched into a scowl. He walked fiercely down a gravel path that disappeared into the hothouse bowels of the Balinese rain forest.  

As soon as he was out of view of the house, he extricated a slightly bent cigarette and a pack of matches from the pocket of his running shorts. The matches bore the logo of a local sushi bar. A match flared. He puffed greedily.

As he walked down the winding footpath smoking, the frogs stilled their songs of lust. Fairy mist twisted silently through the labyrinthine jungle. A primordial hush reigned.

Abruptly an alien sound entered Haruki’s consciousness. He held the partially consumed cigarette in stasis, suspended halfway to his lips as he tried to make it out. It was like a fist striking over and over into an open gunnysack of rice. The repetitive sound came from up head around a bend. Murakami cocked his head, listening.

It’s someone running! Running on my trail!  

The real estate agent had promised absolute privacy. Seven acres of virgin rain forest surrounded by an eight-foot high, electrified, chain-link fence. “You and your guests will be completely undisturbed,” he had said, bowing respectfully.  

So who the fuck is this trespasser?

Whoever the runner was, they were coming up the path in a full sprint. Preparing to issue a firm rebuke, Haruki dropped the still burning butt of his unfiltered cigarette to the ground and pulverized it with the heel of his running shoe.

When the intruder came into view from around the curve, Haruki gaped in surprise. The runner was a woman, her athletic figure outlined from lithe shoulders to shapely ankles in red body tights. But more astonishing than her provocative sexuality or the audacity of her presence on his path was the grotesque carnival mask that hid her face from view. A blood-red skull leered at Haruki, its contours decorated in outlandish swirls, curlicues and geometric repetitions. Twin rows of perfect white teeth grinned demonically from ear to ear. Black holes had been punched in the skull for the wearer to see out.  As the devil figure came on with unrelenting speed, a feeling of dread suddenly descended on Haruki, causing him to falter backwards to the side of the path. He raised a hand to ward off this fearful akuma. Just as the runner came abreast of him, a beam of sunlight broke through an opening in the jungle canopy and flashed upon the lustrous blade of a samurai sword that she had drawn from the scabbard strapped across her back. The blade whistled through the air. Before Haruki could cry out or turn to flee, the sword’s razor edge karoomed through flesh and sinew and bone, decapitating the famous writer in an instant. The headless body swayed this way and that, before toppling backwards into a cluster of giant ferns. The head remained momentarily suspended in midair by the updraft of the blade’s progress, then fell with a thud to the gravel.

They don’t award the Nobel Prize to dead writers was the final thought that passed through Haruki’s short-circuiting brain.  

By the time Haruki’s head hit the ground, the masked assassin had disappeared around the next turning of the trail.

4.

​Leif Cederberg, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, a cup of espresso suspended halfway to his lips, stared in disbelief at the headline emblazoned across the front page of the daily Dagens Hyheter that his secretary had just dropped on his desk Renowned Japanese Writer Haruki Murakami Beheaded. The espresso cup fell from his stunned fingers and clattered to the desktop. Black, bitter coffee splashed irredeemably across the face of the newspaper and the morning mail.

The article, when Leif recovered sufficiently to read it, described the crime scene in gruesome detail and went on to speculate that the atrocity was the work of an Islamic terrorist cell.  

Only Leif and the other seventeen Academy members knew that Haruki Murakami was one of five names on that year’s list of finalists for the most grandiloquent literary prize.

5.

​On a hot late-August evening on the sidewalk outside the 92nd Street Y in New York City, a group of well-wishers surrounded a slim, eccentric and somewhat frail-appearing, middle aged woman, who had just finished reading from her latest novel to a sold out house at the Y. Fellow travelers in the world of contemporary American letters would have instantly recognized the woman beneath her broad-brimmed straw hat and behind her goggle-sized eyeglasses as none other than Joyce Carol Oates, mistress of gothic chills and psychological transgressions. In due course the crowd thinned until only a small coterie of a half dozen close friends remained. A cab waited impatiently at the curb as Joyce’s small, heart-shaped mouth puckered in a final kiss.

​“No, no, Harold. There’s no need for you to ride all the way up to Harlem with me. I’ve caught the train to Poughkeepsie from the 125th Street Station a zillion times and it’s totally safe. Scads of people day and night.”

​She gave the ancient critic and roué a meaningful squeeze to the cojones.

​“I’ll be just fine.”

​With that Joyce picked up the pet carrier in which her beloved pussycat crouched in terror and climbed into the back seat of the waiting taxi. The cab sped into the lurid New York night.

​In no time Joyce stood, cat carrier and suitcase at her feet, at a ticket window in the wood-paneled main hall of the 125th Street Train Station in the heart of Harlem. On the other side of the double storied room built in the 1930s, stood a dusky-complexioned man of Jamaican origin. Dejohn Lafayette, outfitted in a purple shirt, tight black pants and cheap knockoffs of expensive Italian shoes, stared at Ms. Oates’ profile, then squinted down at a photograph he had pulled from his pocket. The photograph was a publisher’s promotional headshot of the author Joyce Carol Oates.  

Satisfied that the woman at the ticket counter was the same person as in the photo, Dejohn leaned back against the wood paneling and lit a cigarette. A passing cop tapped the Jamaican forcefully on the shoulder.

“No smoking in here, pal.”

Dejohn fumbled the cigarette and it tumbled to the floor.

“Hey, sorry maahn. Ma mind be elsewhere, yaa know. Thinking bout my sweet lovin’ girlfriend.”

“Yeah, well, don’t think too hard. Just put out the fuckin’ smoke.”

Dejohn’s pointed shoe ground the cigarette to pulp, as he backed away obsequiously, his eyes shifting to follow Joyce who, burdened with cat carrier and suitcase, had headed for the exit leading to the elevated tracks above.

Standing on the nearly empty northbound platform, Joyce couldn’t put out of her mind the fact that Ladbrokes was only giving 15 to 1 odds that she would take the Nobel this year. There were only seven women in the top twenty-five contenders, and of them, she was the star. On the other hand there was still more than a month before the Swedish Academy’s announcement of the winner. Anything could happen.

Mollified, Joyce leaned down to scratch at the mesh screen of the carrier. The rattle and roar of a northbound train not scheduled to stop at 125th Street filled her ears. At that moment Dejohn, lurking in the shadow thrown by a cast iron pillar holding up the platform’s all-weather roof, rushed forward and deftly pitched the woman in the photograph directly in front of the oncoming train, then bolted for the stairs.

Too late, a tremendous squeal of train brakes tore open the night.

A suitcase and a cat carrier sat abandoned on the platform.

 

6.

An early September cold front whipped rain through the gaudy neon lit streets of Paris. Night like a black negligee had long since settled over the city of love.  

In a warm corner of his favorite bistro, Adonis, the Arab poet of exile, sipped from a glass of excellent Merlot. His thick, silver-gray hair hung nearly shoulder length. A red scarf wound around his neck like a tropical viper, its color in brilliant contrast to his black wool suit.  His ancient eyes, that had seen more than 80 years of travail, crinkled in a concupiscent smile. He set down the wine glass and, reaching across the table, laid his gnarled fingers on the finely-wrought hand of the young woman opposite, whose name was Isabelle.

“You must come to my readings more often,” he said.

“Yes,” said the young French poet to Adonis’ right, “You might breathe some new life into him. These days all he does is complain that all the good lines of poesy have already been written.”

Isabelle, somewhere in her twenties, with short-cropped blond hair a la Jean Seberg in Breathless, returned Adonis’ smile. But hers was a warmth-less, calculating smile cast by hardboiled lips and noir eyes ripped from the silver screen of 1940s Hollywood.

“Perhaps next time in a more intimate setting than a drafty auditorium at the Sorbonne,” she said.  

“Give us an impromptu love poem inspired by this very moment,” suggested the critic from Le Monde seated at Adonis’ left. The critic winked.

“Another day,” said Adonis wearily. “It’s past my bedtime.”

“I see that Ladbrokes is giving 10-1 odds you’ll win the Swedish prize,” said the French poet.  

“Fuck the Nobel and the rest of the literary prizes,” said Adonis, angrily thumping his fingers on the edge of the table. “Such pig offal only demeans poetry and its mystical inspiration.”

The critic tossed back the dregs of Scotch in his glass and stood up. “I’m off,” he said, putting his hand on Adonis’ shoulder. “Don’t catch a cold in this awful weather, Ali. I’ll call you for dinner one day next week.”

Soon after, the French poet also excused himself.

The wine had made Adonis drowsy, but he roused himself in the presence of the scrumptious, devourable young woman. Isabelle insisted upon paying her portion of the bill. At the door they stood staring out at the hard-falling rain, Adonis in a trench coat, Isabelle coatless.

“I wasn’t planning on a deluge when I left my apartment this morning,” she said. “Shall we share a cab?” She leaned against the aged poet. His blood quickened.

“Why not.”

As if by some miracle, at that moment an empty taxi splashed down the cobblestone street and pulled to a halt at Isabelle’s wave. Adonis gazed with wonder at Isabelle’s long, ripe legs and miscreant buttocks beneath a black suede mini skirt, as she climbed into the cab. He followed her in.

The taxi pulled away. Inside, with the heater on and all the moisture on their clothes from the driving rain, it was like a Turkish bath. Adonis let his head fall back against the seat. His eyes closed. Then her lips were on his, her body sprawling over him. Next instant his scarf tightened around his neck, making it hard to breathe. He reached up, struggling to relieve the pressure. But the constriction only grew stronger.  

Adonis lurched from his half doze. His many years as a survivor in a dangerous, quicksilver world had set off an alarm clanging in his head. It wasn’t some accidental circumstance of their spontaneous lovemaking that was binding the scarf around his throat. It was Isabelle’s hands, purposefully drawing the scarf tighter and tighter like a hangman’s noose. In a panic his hands clawed at hers. His body bucked wildly trying to break free. But age had sapped his strength.

He convulsed onto his back, Isabelle climbing over him like some she-devil or succubus, the scarf choking off his last breath. Dark malevolent things from out of the night land of his mind flew toward him in waves of rustling leathery wings.  

Blackness deluged his mind as he lost consciousness. Seconds later, death took dominion of his body and soul.  

At a dark and deserted intersection the taxi paused. Isabelle pushed and the cab driver tugged until Adonis’ corpse tumbled through the open passenger door and rolled onto the wet pavement, arms thrown wide like a cruciform, eyes drained of light, mouth open in a breathless scream.

 

7.

Leif Cederberg, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, sat alone in his office, blinds drawn, a migraine raging in his head. In desperation he washed down a second dose of Rizatriptan.

All hell had broken loose. Three finalists for the literature prize murdered in the last sixty days. Way too much of a coincidence. Something was rotten in Denmark.  

The Academy was deadlocked on selecting either of the two remaining finalists as the winner.

And now this personal threat of bodily harm.

​Through blurred vision Leif stared again at the unattributed text message that had arrived on his cell phone a half-hour ago, precipitating the migraine: To stop the carnage before it’s your turn, seek your fortune at Big Wong’s Noodle Bowl.
 
​Twenty minutes later, Leif alighted from a taxi in front of the drear, flyblown premises of Big Wong’s on the edge of Stockholm’s Chinatown, near the old Haymarket. At two o’clock in the afternoon, the restaurant was empty. A waiter, who appeared by his slit-like eyes and sluggish movements to be seriously opiated, motioned for Leif to sit at a table near the back. From the kitchen area a high-pitched female voice sang a monotonous Chinese pop tune. ​In due course the waiter, moving in slow motion, delivered a series of small steaming dishes of various unidentifiable meats, gravy-covered noodles and slimy, slightly fishy-smelling vegetables. By some miracle Leif’s migraine had dissipated. He ate ravenously. ​After the decimated dishes were cleared away, the waiter brought a pot of oolong tea and a fortune cookie. Leif cracked the cookie into jagged shards and retrieved the paper fortune within. It bore the name of an American writer.

 

8.

​Hours before the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, at gambling establishments and bookie joints around the world, the agents of an anonymous client placed very large bets that a certain American writer would be anointed by the Academy. The seasoned handicappers scoffed. The odds of this writer capturing the prize were beyond remote. Ladbrokes placed them at 1,000 to 1.

 

9.

​The winner of the premier literary prize on the planet was, of course, the author named in the fortune cookie at Big Wong’s, and the very same scribbler whose chances Ladbrokes had tallied at a thousand to one. It had been a tough sell, but as Leif had put it to the other members of the Academy: ​“Up to now we have been hopelessly deadlocked on the choice of the winner of this year’s literary prize. I want to propose a radical shift in our deliberations. As you know, several years ago my predecessor stuck it to the arrogant Americans by suggesting that their literary scene is too insular to produce writers of sufficient depth and vision to merit a Nobel Prize. The American empire has been on our asses ever since to disavow those remarks. Well, I say fuck ‘em; let’s give the prize to an American writer that will throw their literary establishment into a tailspin. I propose we give the prize to their greatest living genre writer, the crime fiction novelist Elmore Leonard.”

​Wild applause broke out.

jonathanwoods

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Woods divides his time between Key West Florida and Dallas Texas. His collection of noir crime stories Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem was a featured book at the Texas Book Festival and won an indie 2011 Spinetingler Award for Best Crime Short Story Collection. His crime novel A Death in Mexico will be published by New Pulp Press in May, 2012.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 2nd, 2012.