From the shower, I heard my tiny Yorkie barking, which was definitely out of the ordinary. Snippy knew better. Our morning routine never changed: alarm, tongue bath, shower, dress, and breakfast. Then we walked to our spot, Perk Noir, the neighborhood coffee house where he was treated like an A-list celeb.
I was more curious than worried. Snip’s yip said that he didn’t consider our visitor dangerous. As my best friend in the world, we could almost finish each other’s sentences, though that was harder on the pooch given his limited vocabulary. Even so, talking with the Snipster was infinitely preferable to hearing Mom drone on about my failures. She never took my side and Snippy always did. “Easy, boy,” I yelled out. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
I toweled off, threw on my jeans and an old Browns jersey, and headed downstairs where Snippy was hopping around on his hind legs like a kangaroo. I tossed my notes and laptop into my backpack, stuffed a handful of Milk Bones into my jacket pocket, and snapped the leash onto his collar, not that he needed it. Snippy could make the walk to the Perk in his sleep. The little guy was pretty damned smart and the Perk was his favorite place.
Why wouldn’t it be? Perkheads (those are Perk Noir regulars) and Perkmeisters (employees) slipped him biscotti and other treats all the time. The Perk was good for his love life too. He had a crush on HVAC Hal’s Black Labrador, Aretha. He tried, Lord he tried, but was too old and too short for the romance to work.
I pulled the curtain aside and inhaled sharply. A small-headed, gnomish figure holding a cane in one hand and a leash attached to a Golden Retriever in the other stood on my front walk. I cracked the door open. “What the hell are you doing here?” Bancroft was so far down my list of favorite people that I was shocked he knew where I lived.
“Great news, old chap, simply marvelous news. I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather share it with first,” he said in a faux British accent cultivated in Youngstown, Ohio. Who did the pretentious snot think he was fooling? No one from England said “warsh”. He thought he was better than me because of that doctorate hanging on the wall of his office at Case Western Reserve University. Big deal, it was a doctorate in history, not a real one. The schmuck even sucked on a Sherlock Holmes pipe, just for effect. He didn’t even light the damned thing.
“Like I care.” I was every bit as smart as he was, whether I looked it or not. People need to stop making assumptions based upon looks. It’s not fair to us giants and it’s even worse for us big-headed giants. I was born with an over-sized head and I’ve always been sensitive about it. I mean, it’s not Elephant Man big, think more Danny Glover or Merlin Olsen, but still, it’s a bigger noggin than anyone ought to have. Do you know how hard it is for me to find a hat that fits?
Bancroft fingered his salt and pepper goatee. “Oh, I imagine you’ll care a great deal about this, Barnes. Let’s take a jaunt to the Perk. I’ll tell you all about my latest literary triumph on the way over.”
Perk Noir was where I and, unfortunately, Bancroft did our writing. It was my second home. Hell, it was my first home. I spent more time there than my bungalow on Milford. I shouldn’t let the little gnome get under my skin so much, but he did. Latest literary triumph, my ass. Bancroft knew exactly how to push my buttons.
He and I were as different as two men could be. Ali vs. Frazier, but we made the Thrilla in Manilla look like Rockem Sockem Robots duking it out. Bancroft was my opposite in every way, a clear-cut winner of the “most unlike Mason Barnes” contest. At six foot ten, a solid three fifty, and a head too big for even my large body, I was a giant next to the small-headed gnome. The hunchbacked professor stood a hair over five feet and even if you stretched him out on a rack, I doubted he’d hit five six. With my mop of red hair and freckles, I was most often mistaken for a giant Ronald McDonald. Bancroft wore his thin wreath like a Caesar’s laurel. I dressed in jeans and a jersey or a t-shirt. The snob wore English hounds tooth jackets and pince-nez glasses, as if anyone would believe he came from London. He was an academic, lording his diploma like a club and me; I was an ex-jock with an NFL pedigree.
Bancroft and I had one thing in common – our love of the written word. After that, our similarities ended. Bancroft wrote historical fiction and I wrote spy novels, some called them trashy, starring my naughty Bond girl, Mia Killjoy. She’s a half-Asian, half-native American assassin trained by Yeti-worshipping Tibetan monks and employed by ANW, the licensed to kill, secret arm of the CIA. Her claim to fame was her preternaturally strong vagina, which could rip off a man’s pride. That tagline, by the way, was meant strictly in the comedic sense. If you’re imagining something vulgar then … cut it out! Seriously, don’t try to picture it. I don’t. I’ve written nineteen penile separations and have yet to think about, let alone visualize, the gory particulars. As they say, some things are best left to the imagination, except in Japan where they make anime porn flicks (they call it hentai), covering Mia’s sordid tales of emasculation in wayyyy more detail than I ever intended.
“Hurry up old, chap. I’m bursting to tell you the news.” Bancroft smiled like Heisenberg cooking a new batch of blue meth.
A terrible thought made me shudder. What if the whole professor gig was an act, a sham to cover shady business affairs? Did Bancroft have a secret, underground meth lab too? My thoughts drifted …
Fearing nothing so small, I stooped low and followed the gnome into the burrow beneath the garden. A hundred candles burned in the dank chamber, illuminating moss covered walls and a kettle suspended over a fire, from which a terrible odor issued.
“Breathe in the vapors,” the gnome commanded.
I did. My chest tightened and my eyes started to swim. Within seconds, my legs were too weak to stand and I started to topple. Damn, the little fur ball double crossed me! I hoped I fell on him and squashed him like a pixie …
Snippy’s bark brought me back to a waking state. Proudly, I daydreamed often. It was the hallmark of a great writer.
“Hold your horses, you little gnome. We’re coming.” Snippy ran ahead to Rhonda as I closed the door behind me. Unlike Bancroft and me, our dogs got along well. I tossed each a Milk Bone, but Snippy jumped in front and stole Rhonda’s.
Bancroft, the dogs and I headed to the Perk, which lay just across the traffic circle at the end of the street. “So, what’s this great news?” I growled.
“I say, had I mentioned submitting my recent book for the NWHF?” The gnome leaned on his cane.
I scowled. It was just like Bancroft to rub his literary prowess in my face. “You ever hear of the NWHF, Snip?”
Two quick, low snarls from Snippy made his opinion clear.
I’d never heard of it either. “Nope. Neither of us has.”
Rhonda cocked her head, as if admonishing Snip and me for our uncultured ignorance.
“Well, tis not unexpected.” Bancroft twisted. His crooked arm lurched up to pat my shoulder. To a casual observer, it might appear an act of consolation, but I knew a setup when I saw one. “The New World Historical Fiction award is a rather sophisticated one, well beyond the reach of someone with your … large head.”
There it was. Knowing how self-conscious I was about my big head, Bancroft could never resist taking a jab. Small headed people always thought big headed people slow on the uptake. I’d been putting up with their jibes ever since I could remember. In school, the other kids came up with gems like ‘Hey Barnes, do you use a mattress for a pillow?’ or ‘Yo, Barnes, does your head have its own zip code?’ Bancroft’s head wasn’t big enough to fill out a baseball cap. “At least I have a one. What’s that on your shoulders, little gnome, a door knob?”
Bancroft’s dirty look told me I’d gotten to him. Good, he deserved every bit of it. The light turned green and we crossed the street. I strode briskly, not caring that the hunchback had difficulty keeping up. By the time we reached the other side, he was puffing. “As I was saying, before your poor attempt at humor, the NWHF is a very prestigious award and you’re looking at the 2012 winner, Barnes. They considered my work a ‘delectable literary treat’”.
His accent was off. More proof my doorknob comment unsettled him. “What’s the matter, Bancroft? John Goodman sounded more British in King Ralph than you just did.” I picked on him one, because he deserved it and two, because I was jealous of the gnome’s success. I’ve had some commercially, but literary acclaim, which I coveted most in the world, escaped me. I wanted to win a Pulitzer so bad I could taste it. I already had a spot reserved on my mantle for the trophy. “Besides, who cares about that award? No one’s ever heard of the NHFZ.”
Bancroft slammed his cane against the ground. “That’s the NWHF, you big headed lout.”
“Whatever.” I wanted to wipe the smirk off the little gnome and plant him in a garden. “Which book are we talking about, anyways?”
“The buffalo book.” He brushed off his sleeves, as if mere proximity to me had sullied him.
“Are you kidding? They gave you an award for that?” Shit, if that piece of trash could win, why weren’t Mia’s adventures required high school reading?
Bancroft’s laugh was shrill and tinny. “They were practically tripping over themselves to give it to me. If you stop writing gutter trash, maybe you’ll win an award someday.”
That bastard. So smug, so cocky, a goddamned picture of professorial perfection. I read I Herd a Stampede, Bancroft’s book set in the pioneer days about the declining buffalo population in the Ohio River Valley. Apparently the critics loved it, but I didn’t get all the fuss. What was so touching about a deaf girl raised in the wilderness by hairy four-legged beasts? It must be the diplomas on his wall. Obviously, they impressed the literary crowd more than the cleats hanging from mine, and his small head didn’t hurt either. Critics believed that good things did indeed come in small packages. Me, I’d been fighting the dumb giant stereotype my entire life and had the bruises to prove it. Did anyone ever question Bancroft’s authenticity? Perish the thought!
“Congratulations, Bancroft. Thanks for sharing,” I cracked. It’s not like I was a complete failure as an author. I’d written five novels and was working on my sixth. The first book, Mia Killjoy, was barely noticed upon its release by TOR in March of 2006. The one critic that did take notice described me as the Tim Tebow of pulp fiction. Screw him! As if anyone cared what the NY Times said? Now, if it had been the New Yorker or The Atlantic, I might have gone home and cried. That’s my dream, to have my work, my serious work, published someplace … you know, serious.
Mia Killjoy didn’t do well here in the States, but it was a surprise hit in Japan. The anime children’s series didn’t work out, but like I hinted before, Mia scored big in hentai. Now Japanese manga porn wasn’t the future I had in mind while taking Professor Coopers-Clarke’s lit classes at Iowa State, but the checks were gold as the NFL’s, so I cashed them, every last one.
After Mia Killjoy, I wrote Such a Killjoy and You’re a Killjoy? So am I! The hentai fans went nuts over the third yarn in the series. Twins. Gets them every time. I was working on my sixth Mia Killjoy book. Mia had a huge following. Horny teenage fanboys from 42 countries texted, sexted and messaged her at handles advertised on MiaKilljoyVaginalPride.com (my agent, Myron Wolshevski, picked the URL, not me). Cosplayers (those crazy people dressing up at Comic-con) loved her to death. Lionsgate was talking about making a real movie. I’d been down that road before, with New Line Cinema, Eon Productions and Paramount and been let down. Nothing ever materialized, despite many promises, so I didn’t get my hopes. I just kept my fingers crossed knowing all the while that movie deals, forays into hentai and Cosplayers didn’t impress the literary critics. Even after five moderately successful Mia books, they still slaughtered me while praising Bancroft at every chance.
“Think nothing of it, Barnes old chap. Like I said, I wanted you to hear it first.” His lips curved up in a cruel smile.
God, I can’t stand the little gnome! “You’re so thoughtful, Bancroft.”
We reached the intersection of North Park, Shelburne, and Chesterton, which is where you run smack into Perk Noir. You can’t miss it. It’s a big building, the only one on the large corner lot. Built back in 1918, it was named Hunt Manor after the building’s original owner, Trevor Hunt III. During the Prohibition, the Treasury Department seized the property and then turned it over to the city of Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.
Perk Noir was a great example of the Tudor Revival style so popular in the teens and twenties, when Shaker was booming. The ground floor exterior was brick and cottage stones pilfered from the English countryside. The upper floors, one plus an attic, were half-timbered with stucco and featured dormer windows overgrown with ivy. They angled to a steeply pitched grey slate roof. I’d never been to the attic, but I had visited the basement, which was a huge, sprawling place like Buffalo Bill’s basement in Silence of the Lambs. Mullioned windows sat to either side of the front door, which was painted burnt red and shiny from many coats of varnish. A cottage stone chimney climbed up the left side of the Perk and a round brick tower rose on the right. Viewed from the sidewalk, the asymmetry struck you like a dissonant chord.
“See you inside?” Bancroft asked while turning up the walk.
“Doubt it.” I headed around to the back, like I always did with Snippy, which was pretty much all the time. The little pup didn’t like the red front door. He didn’t like fire engines either.