I was sitting in my office sipping a fresh cup of coffee. My feet were propped on the windowsill. My attention wandered between the people on the street and the scuffed tennis ball I was bouncing off the wall. It had been a slow week. Maybe someone would spill some toxic waste in a graveyard and I could get some work.
The outer door of my office opened and two smallish linebackers entered. My receptionist said nothing. She’d gone out for bagels fourteen months ago. I still held out hope.
The linebackers came into my office. I turned toward them. I didn’t smell anything appetizing.
I said, “Make yourself at home, why don’t you? Cup of coffee?”
The one in the blue suit stopped near the door and said, “No, thank you.” The gray pinstripe came right up to the desk, glaring at me.
Blue suit said, “Are you Paul Krendler?”
“That’s the name on the door.” I’d just had it re-painted. Gold leaf with black edging. A shotgun and a machete like crossed swords beneath it. Stylish.
He flashed a badge at me. “I’m Special Agent Bill Preston. This is my partner, Agent Logan.”
I looked at gray suit. “Ted Logan?”
“I prefer Theodore,” he said. He sat down on my ancient leather couch. The cushions hissed under his weight.
I grinned. “Of course you do. So what can I do for you gentlemen?”
Preston said “Do you mind if we ask you a few questions?”
“Not at all. Do you mind if I don’t answer?” It was company policy not to cooperate with the feds. They were, in general, idiots, and I was never a go-along guy.
“Do you know a man named Parkinson Williams?” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Is your middle initial ‘S?’” I said.
Preston blinked. “How did you know?”
I spread my hands. “I’m a zombie detective. That’s my job.”
It was on the credentials he’d shown me. He’d been carrying them so long he had probably forgotten.
“So you don’t know him?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“But you’ve heard of him,” said Ted (Theodore) Logan from the couch.
“Heard of him? Sure.”
“Tell me more.”
“Because I’m not in business to volunteer information. You have a question, ask.”
Preston said, “How did you hear of Williams?”
I said, “Why do you want to know?”
“Just answer the question, flatfoot,” said Logan.
“Fine.” I drank some more coffee. It needed a shot of the whiskey I keep in the bottom drawer. “Just about anyone with an internet connection knows who Williams is. He’s built himself a sterling reputation, though not in the way he thinks. He’s the kind of guy who wins awards for lack of self-awareness, then builds a trophy case to show them off. He’s a keyboard cowboy, an internet bully who’s been getting a taste of what he’s been dishing out for years. Instead of taking his medicine like a grown-up, he cries and whines and plays the victim. He’s the biggest mangina in all of cyberspace, as far as I’m concerned.”
Preston gave me a flat smile. “And you said you didn’t know him.”
“I don’t know Bill Gates. I don’t know Peyton Manning. I don’t know Angelina Jolie. But I know who they are. There’s a difference.”
“You say so. Sounds like you’re familiar with his work,” said Preston.
“I am. Though I wouldn’t call it work, exactly,” I said. “More like self-immolation. It’s pretty obvious the guy is just a prime internet jerkwad looking to crank someone up tightly enough to come put him out of his misery.”
Logan leaned forward. Uh-oh. Time for the bad cop. “And you’re one of the guys dedicated to making his life miserable.”
“His life was already miserable when I came along. I’m just a guru, helping him along the path to enlightenment.”
“By sending him toxic materials in the mail.” Again with the glare.
“You can prove that?” I said.
Logan said, “Not yet. But we will.”
No, they wouldn’t.
“Toxic materials, huh? What was it?”
Logan said, “A tub of horseshit from Saskatchewan.”
“That’s hilarious,” I said. “I grew up on a horse farm back in Kentucky. Toxic materials. That’s a good one.”
“A horse farm? Got friends back there, guys who would collect it up and fill a Tupperware for you?”
“Sure I do, but why bother? If I was going to play a harmless prank on someone like him, I’d have Costco ship him a fifty-five gallon drum of mayonnaise and bratwurst. Shit in the mail? Anyone can do that.”
“What about John Schmidt, the blogger. Do you know who he is?” he said. Logan was an ugly, sneering man who should have exercised more. He looked a lot like Parkie Williams, in fact. Take the gun off his hip, and he’s probably just as tough and brave, too. I knew a lot of cops like Logan. Cowards with a little power. I didn’t like any of them. They left a bad taste in my mouth.
“Blogger and quantum mechanic. Don’t sell him short. Williams’ self-created mortal enemy? I know who he is.”
“Ever met him?”
I shook my head.
“Spoken to him on the phone?”
I smiled. “Which agency did you say you were with again?”
Logan’s face went pink. He looked at the floor.
Preston said, “The Postal Service.”
I laughed out loud. “Postal Service? You’re fucking with me.”
Logan looked up again. He started to struggle up from the couch.
“Oh, sit down, Theodore,” I said. “Don’t come begging for trouble.”
Preston said, “Sit down, Ted.”
I said, “This is all you have to do, huh? Track down pranksters who send poop through the mail? Nobody’s cooking up ricin or sarin anymore? You want to search my place for castor beans? What’s next? Calling the fire department for a flaming bag of dogshit on your porch?”
“Let’s get back on topic, Mr. Krendler,” Preston said. “What did you and Mr. Schmidt email about?”
“The outrageous cost of first class postage. We would have written letters, but, well, you know.”
“Very funny. Weren’t you exchanging emails about copyright protections and infringement?”
The clock said it was past three o’clock. I didn’t see any clients in the outer office. My workday was done. I opened the bottom drawer and pulled out the bottle of Bushmills. I poured a couple fingers in my mug and topped it off with coffee. I gestured at the bottle. “Gentlemen?”
They both shook their heads. Logan wasn’t so sure. They were both youngsters, probably both hoping to move over to the Bureau or the Secret Service, where the real action was, before they turned thirty-five. Logan would be night security in less than ten years, I thought. Probably shuffling around a Walmart in an untucked blue polo shirt, carrying fifty more pounds than he did now. And the bottle would be a big reason why. Preston, still standing near the door, was the braaaaains of this outfit. I could smell it on him. He had a shot to make the big time. Provided I didn’t catch and make a snack of him first.
“Did you get that information from Williams?” I said. “The great internet investigator and law professor?”
“How did you know?” Preston said.
“Because if it wasn’t him, you would already know what you want to know. And since you’re here, then you must not. Because he doesn’t know.”
“You received a check from John Schmidt,” Preston said.
“Okay, let’s go with that,” I said.
“Where did he send it?”
“Did you ask him?”
“Yes. He doesn’t remember. He says he deleted your email.”
“What email?” I knew what was coming next.
“The email you sent him directing payment for your blog post.”
I said, “Do you mean the document we ginned up to look like an email to send him on a wild goose chase?”
“What?” said Logan from the couch.
“Have you been taking Parkie at his word? Let me educate you. He’s about the most gullible and easy to manipulate – ” and I actually threw up air quotes “ – ‘investigative journalist’ you could hope to find. His capacity for believing his own bullshit is practically limitless, but it is positively dwarfed by his ability to make up bullshit. And the moment he believes something to be true, for him it actually is the truth. I assume that you started at the top of the list of people he was sure mailed him horseshit, and are just now getting down to me? Or have you been going alphabetically? How many others has he proclaimed guilty, and how many of them actually are?
“John Schmidt, myself, Howard Earl and a dozen or so others have been batting him around like cats with a mouse for months. Years, some of us. John never paid me a dime for that copyright. We just wanted Parkie to think that. Oh, he paid sure enough. He just didn’t pay me. He made an anonymous donation to charity. If I had known the entertainment value of what would follow, I probably would have asked for more. Or more likely given it away for free.
“So you see, John Schmidt never mailed me anything. Not to a house, not to a P.O. Box, not to a remailing service in Slovenia. It’s all a scam created for the mark of all marks, a fool among fools, a dimwit, wrapped in an idiot inside a moron. You’re here looking for a guy behind me, but there’s no one behind me to find.”
I pointed again at the bottle. “Now, are you sure you don’t want a shot to make up for all your wasted time before I toss you Wyld Stallyns out of my office?”
UPDATE – based on the response, I have updated the tags on this post.