Publish or Perish

Finally, after hours of waiting, you see the editor drive up to his curb. Your hands start to shake as adrenaline pumps through your veins. A voice inside you tells you that you’re making a terrible mistake, that you should forget this stupid idea and go home. But you ignore the voice. You didn’t come this far to chicken out. Reaching down, you finger the revolver in your waistband. It strengthens your resolve.

You get out of your car and approach the editor. The editor doesn’t see you, his back is turned. He’s out of his car now, walking towards his house. You walk faster, catching up. When you are at arm’s length away, you glance around. Seeing that the coast is clear, you withdraw the pistol and press the muzzle against the back of his neck.

“Freeze,” you say in a menacing voice.

The editor freezes.

“Now turn around,” you say. “Slow.”

The editor does as he is told. Now he is facing you. His expression is quizzical, afraid. You point to your car, the faded blue sedan partway down the block. “See that car?” you say. “Get in.”

The editor asks you which car, why are you doing this, what’s going on? You tell him to shut up and get moving. You walk him over to your car. Opening the passenger door, you gesture for him to get in.

After the editor is seated, you reach in and grab the free end of a pair of handcuffs. The other end is attached to the right armrest. You order the editor to give you his hand, the left one. He reaches across his body. You snap the handcuff around his left wrist. You are surprised at how cooperative he is. A feeling of empowerment creeps over you.

You close the door, lower your weapon, hurry to the driver’s side. You look around to determine if you’ve been seen. You don’t think so; it’s nighttime, and the street is dark. As you open the driver’s side door you begin to relax a little. So far your plan is working very well.

You get behind the wheel and start the engine. You are still holding the gun, but now it is in your left hand. You don’t want it too close to the editor even though he’s secured to the door. You look at him. It is obvious he is very frightened. That makes you feel good.

As you drive away you realize that you are leaving the scene of a crime. A chill comes over you. Relax, you tell yourself, it’s too late to turn back now.

You look over at the editor. His back is mostly to you due to the handcuffs, but he keeps glancing over his shoulder. You notice that his face is sweaty, but has lost its frightened look. He appears more angry than afraid. He makes eye contact. Your eyes shift back to the road.

The editor demands an explanation. “What the hell is going on here?” he says. You are surprised by the tone of his voice. It reminds you of your father’s voice. Suddenly you feel very small. Then you remember that you are the one with the gun.

“Shut up,” you say.

Driving in silence, you are acutely aware that these first few minutes are critical. If anybody had witnessed the abduction, they would have undoubtedly notified the police. You keep expecting to hear sirens. You nearly jump out of your skin when the editor coughs.

A few more minutes pass. You begin to feel a little better. Turning on the radio, you are surprised to hear your favorite song, and take it as a sign. By the end of the song you’re congratulating yourself on a clean getaway.

Your eyes begin shifting between the road and your victim. You are trying to think of something to say, something witty.

“Hi, remember me?” you say.

The editor stares at you over his shoulder. “No,” he says.

“You sure you don’t remember me?” you say. You are playing with the editor now, messing with his mind.

The editor says, “I swear to God, I’ve never seen you before in my life. You’re making a terrible mistake.”

“I’ll give you a hint,” you say. “How about: The Man Who Ate Babies?”

“What?” says the editor. “What are you talking about?”

“The Guy Who Stole the Mona Lisa? Rat Fink?”

The editor is shaking his head. “Please,” he says. “Please.”

“What’s wrong with you?” you say, getting angry. You wonder what kind of game the editor is playing. How can he not remember these titles?

“Look mister,” the editor says, rattling the handcuffs. “You’ve got me mixed up with somebody else. Really. Just let me out here and we’ll forget the whole thing. I swear.”

You pull over to the side of the road. It is a deserted access road that leads to the highway. “Gee, that’s funny,” you say. “You want out as bad as I want in.”

The editor gives you a puzzled look. You reach into your back pocket and produce a crumpled piece of paper. It is a page from a crime fiction magazine. You smooth the page and throw it at the editor. It lands in his lap. You turn on the interior light. The editor picks up the page with his free right hand and studies it.

“That’s you, isn’t it?” you ask, pointing to a person in a photograph printed on the page. “And this is a page from your magazine, right?”

“Well, yes,” says the editor, sounding deflated. “It’s my magazine. So what?”

“So I’ll ask you again,” you say, feeling triumphant. “Remember me?”

“No, dammit!” explodes the editor. “No! No! No!” He is struggling now, but to no avail, the handcuffs are secure. Eventually he calms down. He starts rubbing his left shoulder. “Please,” he says, “you’re hurting my arm.”

“I’m not doing anything,” you reply. “Here’s some more clues for you: The Man Who Robbed a Bank, The Heist of Diamonds.” Then emphatically: Cereal Killer?”

“Okay, I think I get it,” the editor says. “You’re a writer, right? These were submissions that were rejected. Is that it?”

“Very good,” you say. You are glad to see he has dropped the charade. You knew he recognized these works. You’d poured your heart and soul into every one of them.

“Tell you what,” the editor says. “If you let me go now–drive me back to my house–I’ll publish all your stories in a special edition. How’s that sound?”

You are smarter than that. “Don’t patronize me,” you say.

“I’m not, I swear. Geez, what is it you want?”

Still holding the gun, you open your door and exit the vehicle. You hear the editor pleading now. “What are you doing?” he pleads. “You’re not going to kill me, are you? Please don’t kill me. Please!”

You are standing outside the car, smelling the crisp night air. You let the editor wait, let the suspense build. Hell, he’d made you wait weeks on end before responding to your submissions. Now the tables are turned.

After awhile you put the pistol into your waistband and get back in the car, into the back seat. There are several rags back there. You pick up one of the rags and slide over to the passenger side, directly behind the editor. Holding the rag with both hands, you loop it over his head.

The editor screams. He begins to fight. He grabs the rag with his free hand and flings it away. He reaches behind his head, flailing wildly. A finger pokes you in the eye. You shrink back violently, out of his reach, your eye burning and watery.

The editor will not shut up. He’s still hollering, still flailing away. You are angry now, very angry. You grab his right wrist with both hands. Planting your feet against the back of the seat, you yank his arm towards you. The editor screams in pain.

“Shut up!” you yell as you tug on his arm. “Shut the hell up!”

“Stop!” the editor cries. “You’re breaking my arm!”

You remember the gun. Letting go of the editor’s wrist, you grab the pistol from your waistband and jam the muzzle against the back of the editor’s head. He leans forward. “Oh God, no,” he says. “Don’t.”

“Make another move and I’ll blow your head off,” you warn. You sit back, drop the gun on the seat and rub your eye. It hurts, but you can see out of it. You hear the editor whimpering.

“Don’t worry,” you tell him. “I’m not going to kill you unless you make me.” You pick up a rag. “Now put your head back so I can blindfold you.”

The editor complies. He offers no resistance as you cover his eyes with the rag. You retrieve another rag and gag him. You make him scrunch down in his seat so he will not be seen by passing motorists. Then you pick up your weapon, tuck it into your belt and return to the front seat. You turn out the interior light and drive away.

It is well past midnight when you arrive at your destination, a tiny ramshackle house on a dead end street. You exit the car, go to the passenger door and open it. As you dig in your pocket for the handcuff key, you notice that the editor appears limp, that his spirit seems to have been broken. Good, you tell yourself, now he knows what it feels like.

You unlock the handcuff that’s attached to the door. “Get out of the car,” you say.

Due to the blindfold, the editor is slow and clumsy in exiting. You assist him. Once he is standing outside the vehicle he raises his left arm. You flinch at the swinging handcuff until you realize the editor is only stretching, trying to get his circulation back. You take hold of his left arm and bring it around his back. You do the same with his right. You feel like a police officer making an arrest. You like that feeling.

Once his hands are cuffed together you walk him to your front door. You extract your house key, and then you and your prisoner enter the premises.

A feeling of relief envelops you now that you are home. You are proud of yourself, proud of your accomplishment.

“No place like home,” you tell the editor as you sit him down on a hard wood chair.

You tie his legs together with rope. Wrapping another length of rope around his ankles, you string it around the chain between the handcuffs in a crude hog-tie fashion. Now he is secure. You remove the gag and blindfold.

Your eyes meet. The editor does not speak. He doesn’t look so good. Too bad, you think.

Feeling thirsty, you go into the kitchen, fill a glass with tap water and drink it down. After refilling the glass you go back into the living room.

You see the editor watching you. “Water?” you ask.

“Please,” the editor says. You hold the glass to his lips as he drinks. He finishes the entire glass. “Thank you,” he says.

“You’re welcome.”

“Listen,” the editor says. “Whatever it is you want, I’ll get it for you. If it’s a matter of publishing your stories, no problem. If it’s money, I’ve got plenty of money. Please. Just tell me.”

You walk over to a cardboard box in a corner of the room. You pick up the box and return to the editor. You turn the box upside down, spilling its contents. Hundreds of sheets of paper fall from the box, making a pile at the editor’s feet.

“Know what this is?” you ask, pointing to the pile. “Ten years of my life. Ten years wasted, thanks to you.”

The editor shakes his head. “Wait a second,” he says.

“No, you wait,” you say. “That’s the problem, you’re a know-it-all. You have no idea of what it means for a guy like me to get published, none at all.”

A lump forms in your throat as you continue. “I’m a very talented writer, okay? I know that. And I deserve at least one published story. Just one. A few thousand words in your precious little magazine. Something to show people. Is that so much to ask?”

You kick at the mound of paper. “Here are my stories. My life’s work. And every single one of them is unpublished. You know how discouraging that is?”

“Every writer gets rejected,” says the editor. “You can’t give up.”

“I didn’t give up,” you say. “I always kept the faith, kept practicing, kept trying to think positive. Then came Cereal Killer. Man, this story had it all. It was by far the best thing I ever wrote, the best I could ever hope to write. I was so sure it was going to be my breakthrough, so damned sure. But what happened? Same as always. You rejected me.”

“Stop right there,” the editor says. “I didn’t reject you. I can’t. The only thing I can reject is words on a page, nothing more. Besides, getting a rejection notice from a particular magazine doesn’t mean that a different one won’t buy it. Have you tried sending your manuscripts someplace else?”

You wonder if the editor thinks you’re stupid. “Of course I have,” you tell him. “At first. But when I started getting rejections from all the magazines, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on. I know I’m being blackballed. You think I’m stupid?”

“Not at all,” the editor says. “I swear.”

A moment passes in silence. You are watching the editor closely. He appears lost in thought. Finally he says, “You know something? I think I know what the problem is. See, I have a staff of associate editors. They’re the ones who accept or reject submissions. Hell, I’m so busy running the office I don’t even have time to think, let alone read. To be honest with you, I haven’t been happy with their work for a long time now. I’m sure a lot of good manuscripts have been unnecessarily rejected.”

Your eyes narrow. You are suspicious. “What are you saying?” you ask.

“I’m saying it was stupid of me to not personally read the submissions. I trusted someone else’s judgment, and that was a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I would love your work, but at least it would have been up to me to decide.”

You mull this over. You still don’t trust the editor, but if what he says is true…

Kneeling down at the pile of papers, you sift through until you find the manuscript you’re looking for. “Did you read this one?” you ask, getting back on your feet and holding it up to the editor’s face. He tells you to hold it further back, his vision is not what it used to be. Once you find the right distance, the editor begins to read.

He immediately looks up from the page. “I can tell you right now I didn’t read this story,” he says. “Just from the title. Cereal Killer. With a C. When you mentioned it before, I thought it was serial, with an S. But this is with a C. Very clever.”

Damn right, you think. “Read it now,” you tell him.

“No problem,” the editor says. “Can you untie me first?”

You shake your head. “Read.”

The editor reads. You watch his eyes as he does so, just to make sure. When he reaches the bottom of the page he asks you for the next one. After he is finished reading he looks you in the eye. “Are you sure you submitted this story to my magazine?” he asks.

“Positive,” you say. “I got the rejection less than a month ago.”

“I need to fire someone,” the editor says. “Because this story is excellent. Really. I mean, a killer who calls himself Captain Crunch…” He chuckles. “…murders prostitutes by force-feeding them oatmeal. That’s classic. I certainly would have bought it.”

You are staring at the editor now, wondering what is he laughing at. You wonder if he’s laughing at you.

“What’s so funny?” you demand.

The editor looks bewildered. “The story,” he says. “It’s funny…you know, good funny.”

“Good funny?”

“Very good funny,” the editor says. “Damn good funny.”

“Good enough funny for the ‘special edition,’ you lying piece of shit?”

You watch as the editor’s face turns beet red. “Oh for crying out loud!” he erupts. “What do you want! What the hell do you want!”

You take a step towards the editor. “I want the truth,” you say, and slap him in the face.

The editor’s head snaps to the side at the blow. “Don’t you hit me!” he bawls.

“The truth!” you shout, and slap him again, backhanded.

“Stop it!” he screams.

“The truth!” you scream right back. Your anger is taking over now, your frustration. You ball your hand into a fist and punch the editor in the mouth.

The editor explodes in pain and fury. “You jackass!” he bellows. “You want the truth? Here’s the truth! You suck! Your stories suck! Okay?! You’ll never be a writer! You don’t have what it takes! You don’t have the stuff!”

“Bullshit!” you say. “I’ve got the stuff. Tons of it.” You’ve got the editor by collar now, throttling him.

Things are beginning to get out of hand, but you can’t help yourself. Letting go of the editor’s collar, you haul off and punch him in the nose. Your knuckles come away red with his blood. You don’t care. You punch him again. And again.

The editor is shrieking now. He’s not saying anything intelligible, just shrieking. You’re shrieking too. “Shut up!” you shriek. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

Suddenly your rage takes a murderous turn. You look around wildly for the gun. Upon retrieving it, you stick the muzzle against the editor’s forehead and cock the hammer. The editor is quiet now. He’s looking you in the eye. You expect to see fear in his eyes, but instead you see defiance. “Go ahead,” he says. “Shoot.”

There is a moment of pristine silence. You are waiting to hear the gunshot. It does not come.

You un-cock the hammer and put the gun down. You are drained now, exhausted. Picking up a rag, you walk behind the editor. Neither one of you says a word. You re-gag him, then go into the bathroom. After letting the water run a long time, you wash your hands and face. Then you go to bed.

You sleep fitfully, tossing and turning, dreaming of the “stuff” you don’t have. When you awake at daybreak you feel more tired than when you went to bed.

You drag yourself into the shower. In the hot, steamy water it dawns on you that you made a big mistake. You ask yourself what you had hoped to accomplish by kidnapping the editor, but the answer eludes you. Although you wish you’d never gone through with your idiotic plan, you tell yourself that what’s done is done. Now is not the time for self-recrimination. You must first find a way out of this mess. Thinking about it, you come to the conclusion that you have no choice but to leave the editor tied up all day. You decide to drop him off at the access road late tonight, and let him walk home. He should feel lucky, you think, that you don’t have the courage to kill him.

You exit the shower, get dressed and go into the living room. You see the editor slumped in his chair. At first you think he is asleep, but on closer inspection you realize–to your utmost horror–that he is dead.

You cannot believe it. Oh my God, you think, what have I done? You examine the editor to determine what happened. When you see his nostrils caked with dried blood, you have your answer. Gagged and unable to breathe through his nose, the editor obviously suffocated.

Panic gathers in your gut. You start pacing the room. A thousand thoughts run jumbled through your mind. You suppress the urge to flee the scene, to run away, to keep running like Forrest Gump. But you know this is no movie. The editor’s corpse is proof of that.

And it’s already starting to stink.

How can that be? you wonder. The editor’s only been dead for a few hours. The stench is undeniable, however, and growing stronger by the second. It’s a sweet, high smell and it’s making you nauseous and lightheaded.

You go into the kitchen and splash some cold water on your face. When you return, the rancid, intoxicating odor is even stronger. It’s overwhelming. You panic at the thought of the smell leaking from your house, alerting the neighbors. You expect to hear police sirens any second. The powerful odor grows and grows until you can’t take it anymore. You fall to your knees. You gag. You puke. You pass out.

You awake with a start. At first you don’t know where you are. Then you see the editor, still tied to the chair, still dead, and you realize that you are at home. You slowly get to your feet.

Timidly, you sniff the air. You are relieved to find that the smell is now gone. Rubbing your eyes, you tell yourself that the stench was never there, that it could not have been there. You surmise that the shock of finding the editor dead caused you to faint. While you where unconscious, you had a nightmare. Understandable, you think, given the circumstances.

You take a deep breath. Remarkably, the panic you felt before is gone. You look at the dead body, but now it doesn’t frighten you. In fact, just the opposite. You feel powerful. In control. Godlike. It’s a feeling you are unaccustomed to, but one you like. You’re a new man.

After several minutes of basking in this new sensation, you decide that it’s time to get busy. You untie the editor, remove the handcuffs and wrap the body in plastic bags. You secure the bags with rope and lug the editor down to the basement. You devise a plan to leave the editor down here for a few days before burying him in your backyard.

You go back upstairs to the living room. Gathering together the scattered papers, you begin putting them back into the box. When you come to Cereal Killer, the manuscript that started this whole crazy mess, you re-read it. When you’re done you crumple it up, toss it into the box, and remark to yourself that the editor was right, the story really is funny. Not good funny, though. Stupid funny. Un-publishable funny.

You pull a chair up to your computer, sit down and write a new story. Afterwards, you send the manuscript to a crime fiction magazine. Not the editor’s magazine, of course, you doubt they’ll be reading for awhile.

You are not even surprised when, three weeks later, you receive your first acceptance.



Originally published in Mystery Weekly Magazine. Available at Amazon.

The Beach Make it Hum
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