Henry & Biggs:
Adventure Blog of a Literary Agent and His Beagle
Chapter 11: A Plague of Electric Squirrels
Date: February 16
Time: 4:50 p.m
Tink is dreaming. She is curled up in the chair in Melissa’s office twitching. Every now and then there is a ripple along her shaggy white muzzle, like her skin is the surface of a lake and something large and powerful is swimming just beneath.
I cannot help but wonder if that large, powerful thing swimming beneath her skin is her English Mastiff. He was out in the park this morning, kicking up the wet, snowy slop. Tink used up all of the oxygen in the office trying to get his attention. Once, and only once, he actually looked over in our direction, cocking his enormous head a little. Tink fell silent, little pink tongue out and quivering, all respiratory function completely suspended. I think she didn’t know what to do with herself. In a matter of seconds the Mastiff had turned away and loped off out of view. It was not until he was gone that Tink’s presence of mind returned, upon which the volume and intensity of her agitation greatly increased. Melissa had to put her out in the car until she calmed down.
Now, as the workday burns to a close, all of the excitement has completely worn her out. Neither Melissa’s tussle with her digital clock, nor the CSPAN tussle between a Congresswoman from New York and a Congressman from California is keeping her conscious, although they are both annoying the hell out of me. Were it not for Melissa’s exceptionally free and easy attitude about snacks today, I would have been gone long ago. Unfortunately, her recent preoccupation with her uncooperative clock has interrupted the abundant flow of liver-flavored cookies that had started as a way of keeping Tinkles pacified and away from the window.
So now I am left to lay on the floor by the wall watching Tink sleep and listening to politicians argue over contraceptive coverage for religious schools. I yawn mightily and lay my head between my paws.
The voice of the Congressman from California tightens an octave. I glance up at the screen. The CSPAN camera swings back and forth between the bickering politicians like a metronome, passing the array of committee members between them. With two exceptions, they are all self-consciously stone-faced, waiting for the storm of words to stop. The representative from Maryland looks increasingly irritated. His expressive black baldpate wrinkles impatiently, like it is reaching out for a microphone.
And then there is Thomas Clifford, whose expression is rather the opposite of Cummings’. He looks hollowed out. Vacant. His mouth is open slightly and his eyes are darkened sockets fixed up into space, or out into the hearing room beyond. His head, every bit as bald and expressive as Cummings’, shows nary a wrinkle. His suit, shirt and tie – which, whenever the congressman sits down, normally serve a girth containment function – now seem to hang limply on his frame, as though someone had dressed a darkened lamp. Congressman Clifford’s body is warming a chair as a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, but his mind is clearly elsewhere. If he is looking at anything in particular, it is difficult to tell because the camera is not interested in Thomas Clifford, who is merely a human fencepost between his combative colleagues.
“What on earth are you doing?”
Lewis Glume is in the doorway, coat on, shoes stuffed into his galoshes, and ready to leave for the day. Agatha is in her carrier, dangling above the floor, looking sour as usual. Melissa looks up, tossing the clock on the pile of manuscripts.
“I’m trying to stop this… fucking clock… from flashing the wrong time. It thinks its 3:17 in the morning, and while it certainly feels like it’s 3:17 in the morning…”
Lewis seems to consider his options silently for a moment, then enters the room with some deliberation, holding Agatha up at shoulder level so that I will abandon all hope of mischief, and proceeds to the desk. I can see Agatha tense as the room with its lowly canine inhabitants flows beneath her like a river of sewage.
As Lewis passes, I calculate a leap at the bottom of the carrier just so I can imagine Agatha’s reaction. I look over at Tink who is now awake and blinking. She looks at me for a decision. I lay my head back down. We let the opportunity pass.
Lewis picks up the clock and hands Melissa the little kitty prison. Melissa coos at Agatha, brushing her haunch with the back of a finger as Lewis fiddles with buttons.
“You need a new clock,” he says.
“It’s fine as long as I don’t have to set it. The minute button is, like, stuck. Whenever the power goes out I have this problem.”
“Our power went out?”
“At precisely 3:17 this morning.”
“I lost power last night too,” says Lewis. “Only it was closer to eleven. Do you have a letter opener? Something pointed?”
Melissa opens her top drawer and he retrieves a small silver dagger that he proceeds to stab into the back of the clock.
“Yeah, mine went out too about five this morning when Gary was leaving. All the other clocks in my life work. But this one… I should just throw it out. Why don’t we bury our utility lines in this country? I mean, this is third-world shit. A little bit of snow or ice or wind…”
Suddenly Biggs is in the doorway. My leash hangs from his hand. I am up and wagging at his feet before anyone has a chance to respond. Tink stands but, knowing better, doesn’t leave the chair.
“Squirrel?” asks Melissa.
“Blew the transformer outside my house yesterday.”
“Well that’s bizarre,” she says.
“It happens,” says Biggs. “Sit still, Henry.”
“No, I mean… all of us losing our power. And here at work too. It wasn’t citywide. What are the odds?”
“Better than the odds of me repairing this thing,” says Lewis. He hands the broken clock back to her, exchanging it for Agatha, a trade which is as poor a commentary on Lewis Glume’s taste and judgment as I can imagine.
“Time to go, pussycat,” he says. “See you in the morning Mel. Walk you out Peter?”
“Go on ahead,” says Biggs. “I forgot something in my office.”
Biggs leads me down the hall to his office as Lewis and Agatha are leaving. He stops just inside the doorway and stands motionless in the dark. I sit and look up at him for some explanation of what is supposed to happen next.
Nothing, apparently, is supposed to happen next. He just stands there. He looks at his watch and waits.
A minute passes.
“Okay,” he says, turning on his heels. “Let’s go.”
We walk briskly down the hall and out the front door, Biggs bidding Melissa a good evening without breaking stride. Outside, Lewis’ car is just now hissing its way up the road. I stop and wait for Biggs at the car, but he keeps walking. The leash tightens and pops me up out of my tracks.
“Not yet,” he says.
We cross the street to the park. I try to stop and take in several new markings left since this afternoon, but Biggs is impatient. The leash tightens, pulling me forward before I can do more than a basic screening. Someone is getting vitamins. Someone ate some bad eggs. And Murphy is on the loose again. But that is all I get before my neck lengthens.
We walk the sidewalk to the far end of the park where a trail leads inland, snaking around some hardwoods and then curving in to the far side of the dormant rose garden. The park sulks in its crepuscular gloom, its frozen ground covered in a thin layer of old, greying snow. Beneath us, the kingdom of voles listens and waits.
Even through the failing light at five hundred yards, I recognize the woman on the bench immediately. Her legs are crossed at the knees. Her hands are folded patiently in her lap. The long, dark hooded coat is the same familiar cloak, obscuring all of her body except the bloodless white oval of her face.
“Hello Lucia,” says Biggs.
“Good evening Mr. Bigelow,” she says, not looking at him but glancing down at me. I keep my distance but cannot help but pull some of the air around her into my olfactory wonder. She has no body scent. None. I am amazed all over again.
Biggs sits next to her on the bench, unzipping the satchel over his shoulder. He hands her the journal. Lucia simultaneously slips a gloved hand into the folds of her coat and extracts a different journal, identical to the first, and hands it to Biggs who puts it in his satchel and zips it closed again.
“Interesting reading?” Lucia asks as she slips the first journal out of sight.
“To say the very least,” says Biggs.
“I thought you might find it intriguing.”
“I find it perplexing.”
“I don’t know whether Clifford has written a journal that he knows is fictional or if he’s clinically insane.”
“He is as sane as you or me, I assure you.”
“So then… the vampire stuff… he knows… I mean he is deliberately writing something fictional here.”
“Do you believe in vampires, Mr. Bigelow?”
“Neither do I. Neither does Thomas Clifford.”
“Okay. I just needed some confirmation that, well… you know.”
“That he is not crazy.”
“What other assurances do you need?”
Biggs is silent, fiddling with my leash. I lay down in the snow. I have to pee but I’m not about to leave my post, which is out of Lucia’s reach but which still leaves her within lunging distance if that turns out the be necessary.
“I need to meet with him,” says Biggs at last.
“That is not going to happen,” she says coolly.
“Why not? He’s a United States congressman. Meeting with people is his business. He does it all day long. I think he should meet with the person who has taken his money and who is about to write his memoirs. That’s a reasonable request.”
“Oh, it’s a perfectly reasonable request. But it is not going to happen.”
“Because we believe that meeting him too early in this process would be a mistake.”
“Before you have read all of the journals. All you need for this assignment should be in the journals.”
“Lucia, I need some confirmation that the journals are actually his.”
“I have told you…”
“Yeah, you have, but I don’t even know who you are. I can’t just take your word for it. You could be…”
Lucia turns towards him on the bench, bringing her face close to his.
“I could be what, Mr. Bigelow?” she asked. “What could I be?”
A still moment passes. Then two. Five. Biggs swallows.
“I… don’t know. You could be someone looking to make Clifford look crazy. This could all be some kind of weird political sabotage.”
“I’ve thought a lot about it. I’m not trying to offend. But I’m not going any further with this until I talk to him. So I’m going to call him if you won’t set it up for me. He might not know anything about any of this.”
Lucia lays her gloved hand along the side of his cheek. There is a glint in her eyes, as if from a thin shard of metal.
“You know that’s not true,” she nearly whispers. “Don’t you Peter.”
Biggs falters. His mouth is open and his eyes, suddenly unblinking, seem to loosen a little in their sockets.
“Yes,” he says.
“Yes,” repeats Lucia. “You can wait to meet Congressman Clifford. Can’t you?”
“Yes. Of course you can. And you don’t need to be calling him.”
“No. I don’t need…”
“And from here on you will trust that what I tell you is the truth, won’t you?”
“Yes. Of course you will.”
Lucia removes her hand from the side of his face and returns it to her lap. She turns her gaze back out into the darkening park as Biggs remains frozen, looking at the side of her head as though she were still facing him.
I stand and pull against the leash, yanking his arm towards me. His eyelids flutter. He looks at me as if not comprehending. And then I can see him return.
“Henry. Sit. Just a minute. Sit.”
I do as I’m told. Slowly.
“Lucia,” he says, as if addressing her for the first time, “I hope you know that I trust everything you are telling me about Thomas Clifford. I don’t want you to think otherwise.”
“I would not dream of thinking otherwise.”
“But I think we should have a contract.”
“A contract? Whatever for?”
“A contract that sets out my assignment. That establishes that you and the Congressman are entrusting me with his journals. That confirms my fee. And…”
“Yes? You can speak freely Mr. Bigelow. Name your terms.”
“And that assigns me a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the book. I know that sounds greedy especially on top of the fee, but when you think of what this book could make I think it’s fair…”
“I see. And what percentage would you like?”
The air changes almost imperceptibly. I can tell Biggs is nervous. He clenches his jaw, presumably anticipating her objection, as do I.
“You’re selling yourself short,” she says.
Biggs obviously has no place for her response. For a moment he appears neutralized by confusion and I wonder if he will actually respond at all.
“Yes. You should always ask for what you want, not what you think is reasonable. The negotiation itself will sniff out what is reasonable.”
Biggs looks at her dumbfounded and then lets slip an incredulous laugh.
“Oh, well, in that case… sheesh. ”
“In that case what?” asks Lucia.
“In that case… I want a hundred percent of the net proceeds.”
Lucia stands. Biggs makes a reaching gesture.
“No, wait. I was just…”
“Then a hundred percent of the net it is,” she says, stepping away from the bench.
“Wait. What? You’re giving me a hundred percent of the net? In addition to the fee?”
“Isn’t that what you asked for?”
“Yeah… But that’s… ridiculous. That means Clifford gets nothing for his own…fake…memoir? Why is he even doing this?”
“Did you think it was for the money?”
“Of course. Why else?”
“Some things are more important that money, Mr. Bigelow. We will give you the net proceeds. In exchange, we want your undivided attention. I, acting on behalf of Congressman Clifford, want to be your exclusive client.”
“I do have other clients. I can’t just…”
Lucia’s mouth creeps into what I interpret as a pale smile. She turns and lowers herself so that she is looking directly into his face.
“Yes, Peter, you can. Fire them. Give them away to Melissa and Lewis. I’m now your exclusive client.”
“You’re my exclusive client,” says Biggs softly, adding: “We need a contract.”
Lucia extends a finger and strokes him under the chin like he was a dog. Biggs, staring at her like she was a long ways off, doesn’t even flinch.
“Contracts are for people who don’t trust each other,” she says. “But you trust me. Don’t you Peter?”
“Yes. I trust you.”
“Yes, I thought as much. Perhaps it would be best if you waited here a few minutes until I’m gone.”
“I’m going to wait here a few minutes,” says Biggs, as if the idea is his. “Just until your gone.”
“And Henry needs a bath.”
“Tonight I’m giving Henry a bath.”
Lucia resumes her full height, glances down at me and then glides off into the dark with long, slow strides. The creepy broad does know how to smile after all.