Henry & Biggs:
Adventure Blog of a Literary Agent and His Beagle
Chapter 2: The Great Taboo
Date: February 2
Time: 11:15 a.m.
“I don’t understand,” said Biggs, glancing down at me at the end of the leash as though I might be a source of clarification.
“Of course you don’t,” said the woman. “How could you possibly understand?” She gave him something like a smile. Her lips were almost as pale as her face. I can see sprigs of very short blonde hair inside the black hood of her coat. “But you will.”
“Yes. Probably more than you want to.”
“Are you a writer?”
“I have been many things.”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“I am not a writer like you are a writer, Mr. Bigelow.”
“I’m an agent, not a writer. I represent writers.”
“You have written three novels, all of them out of print, none of them well-received, all of them… how should I say it… superb. Especially the last two. A Breed Apart was particularly compelling. I never suspected natural causes to be the killer. I was betting on the assistant dog trainer until the last page.”
Biggs is staring at the odorless woman in open-faced shock.
And so am I.
For she has broached… The Great Taboo. She has resurrected the thing long dead. One does not so casually mention the stillborn writing career of Peter Bigelow. It is simply not done. Odor or no odor, I am ready to do my worst to this woman. I wrinkle up my lip and give her a flash of fang.
“Henry!” Biggs’ voice is stern with irritation. “Stop it. Sorry,” he says to her giving me a yank. “How did you know… You mean you’ve actually read…”
“You sound surprised. They are published works.”
“Right, but the only people who have actually read them are me, my agent, my editor and my mother. And only two of those people thought they were worth a damn. Please don’t ask which two.”
“You sell yourself short. I found them all quite wonderful.”
“Would you like to go for a drink, Mr. Bigelow?”
It takes him a second to make the pivot with her.
“A drink? Now?”
“I would like to discuss a business proposition. This is hardly the place I think.”
She opened her flat white palms slowly to encompass the street to Biggs’ left and the white desolation of park to his right.
“I… have appointments. I can’t just…”
“This evening then.”
“I’m already meeting someone.”
This I know to be an outright lie. The only thing Biggs is doing tonight is eating a malodorous pizza – delivered by the same stringy haired punk who thinks enough patchouli will somehow neutralize the sweet top notes of marijuana – as he watches the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Again.
“I understand, of course,” she said without any hint of disappointment.
“I can call you… I… do you have a card? Or a number I can…”
“I think not. After we part, you will decide that this is all too bizarre and you will decide not to call and arrange for a drink. You will throw away whatever number I give to you.”
“What? No I won’t. If I say I’ll do something then I do it.”
“No. You won’t. You will talk to your colleagues, Mr. Glume and Ms. Lang. And they will convince you that I am a waste of your valuable time. They will advise you to tell me to submit a query letter. And a synopsis.”
Biggs begins to respond, probably something about standard submission requirements, but the woman cuts him off with a single slender finger.
“I am not,” she lingered on the pause, “submitting a query letter, Mr. Bigelow. Or a synopsis. To you or to anyone. Instead, I will call on you again. Tomorrow. Or next week. Or a year from now. The uncertainty will sharpen your curiosity. When I ask you again, you will say yes, if only to put me out of your mind. Then we will talk.”
“That’s really not necessary.”
“I think it is.”
“Because beginnings are important, Mr. Bigelow. Your… enthusiasm… is important.”
“Hey. I’m enthusiastic. I’m very enthusiastic.”
“No, you’re defensive. There is a rather big difference.”
“I don’t even know what this is all about. Why do I have to be enthusiastic? I don’t even know…”
“Because your enthusiasm for the… opportunity, is the only reason that will ever convince you to tolerate the risk.”
The woman does something with her mouth that might have been the beginnings of a smile.
“Well, death, of course. What other risk is there?”
“Until we meet again, Mr. Bigelow.”
She gives me a parting glance and I am ready for anything. It only looks like I am cringing. But then she pushes past Biggs up the sidewalk as silently as she had appeared.
Biggs watches her go. When she is sufficiently out of hearing – or so I presume, since I really have no idea how well a woman with no scent can hear – Biggs turns and begins leading me the other direction.
“What the fuck was that? ” he asks.
Creepy is what that was, I think back to him, angling for a scarred wooden bench smelling of lab. She makes Lewis Glume look normal.
Death. That’s what the woman said. Death. She has no odor and she’s talking about death. What else do you need to know? Stop dragging your feet and get me to that trashcan.
“And who wants to go for a drink before noon?”
An odorless alcoholic talking about death. That’s even worse. Trashcan.
Slowly, my neck and my legs working as a team, I pull him forward. I feel like a St. Bernard pulling some poor bastard out of an avalanche. But eventually the muscle memory of walking seems to kick in and we are moving again.
He stops at the trashcan and lets me catch up on all of the news. Half the canine population of Great Neck has been by here in the past twenty-four hours. As always, I am rushed in my reconnaissance, anticipating a sharp tug on the leash any second.
Inexplicably, the leash remains slack. The extra time allows me to cut through days and weeks and months, peeling back the layers of scent and drilling down into the redolence of history. It’s a rich smell. I’m picking up the Ghost of Garbage Past down here. What is it with humans that they never finish their food? You could feed China with all the food that has passed through this single can. It’s disgraceful. If you’re going to order a large pizza, then eat a large pizza. Don’t order a quart of moo goo gai pan if you only want a pint. And if you are not going to finish what you started, then why on earth would you stuff the rest of it down a hole in a metal can where no one else can get to it? Do you not see all of the empty space on the ground around the can?
And shoes? Who walks to the park, takes off their shoes and throws them away?
And diapers? Really? Who changes their kids in the park? What is the world coming to?
The leash is still slack.
Something small and subversive edges its way into the chaos of odor. It finds a way in through the crack at the place where a canine’s sense of smell pushes up against the boundaries of extra-sensory perception. The trick is not in sniffing out the unknowable. Rather, the trick is in recognizing the scent of the unknowable as something utterly non-olfactory. The trick is to recognize an extra-sensory understanding – which, when you think about it, has but limited options in how it can introduce itself to the brain – when that understanding is disguised as a scent.
And what I smell now is as old and unctuous and as rotten as anything smeared up against the inside of this trashcan. The leash is still slack. There is no tension whatsoever. What is this smell? The leash is slack. The leash should not be slack. What… do… I… smell?
What I smell, I realize, is dread itself. I am frozen in my tracks, afraid to turn and look at my dear, sweet Biggs, the one person for whom I would gladly give my life. I am certain that when I do turn, for I must eventually, I will find him gone, vanished, with his end of the leash abandoned in the dirty snow. Or he will be there but lifeless, face down in the gutter, quietly bleeding out into the street. Or only his head will be there, pinning the leash to the ground with a vacant, ghoulish expression. The scenarios, giving color and shape to that which I know without really knowing, are all wildly different and yet all connected by one common thread. They are all terrible. Unspeakably terrible.
I turn slowly.
Biggs is standing, motionless, looking off down the sidewalk in the direction of the pale woman in the black coat. His leash hand is hanging, leaving the leather rope to coil limply in the snow. I follow his gaze, but she is long gone. I look back at Biggs. His mannish-boy features are pinched in silent query. I scratch at his shoe.
“She was so…” he mutters. I sit in the snow at his feet and wait for him to finish. “Fucking odd, ” he says. “Terrible. Beautiful. I should have said yes. Just to …watch her. Just to hear her.”
Biggs looks down at me and for the first time since the encounter our eyes actually meet. I give him a half-hearted wag just to try to reset the mood. I am so relieved I want to cry.
“Then again…” he scratches his head and looks away, back up the street. He doesn’t finish.
Then again… death, I think, finishing for him and wondering if it is possible to smell the future.