In a room near the front of the complex, tucked away amid the folds and passageways of the salient offices where most of the department’s executive functions were taken care of, William Waverly sat at the rickety conference table, waving the hovering cigar smoke away with one hand and covering his mouth with the other. In the dim light of the single hanging bulb that lit this particular meeting room, the wispy entrails of smoke drifted and swayed amid his coughing and swiping—without ever going away.
“Christ, Madison! Put that damn thing out.” William ordered. “Stop smoking and start writing. We’ve got a damn deadline coming.”
Madison, last name Streetwise, sat immediately to William’s left. The craggy, bony excuse for a man raised a thin arm without looking up from the papers in front of him, palm to William’s face. “Piss off, Bill.”
Madison in his raggedy clothing and sporting an equally disreputable beard continued scribbling away, the offending cigar resting atop a recently emptied tumbler for whisky. William, dressed in slacks and a clean, white, button-down shirt, glared at the dirty man.
“You know, Madison. You could at least clean yourself up for this.”
Madison looked up, even as his right hand continued to scrawl words all over a fresh sheet of paper. Without stopping, he glanced down at himself, looked at the rest of the people at the table, and then at William. “Piss off, Bill.”
Madison resumed his rabid scribblings as William threw his hands up in exasperation. William had been trying to clean Madison up for years, pleading at every opportunity, to no avail. The man, brilliant as he was, wealthy as he was, simply had no interest in dressing himself as anything other than a dumpster-diving rat. That Madison would smell like such a creature if the group stayed in this rank little room much longer was cause for serious contemplation.
William decided to press on with the meeting’s purpose, relegating the fight over Madison’s personal hygiene to another day. He glanced at the four people seated in front of him and took a breath.
“Okay folks. We’re up against a deadline here. What have we got?”
To William’s right sat Carrie Greer. She was a rough, fit woman with an eye for constructive arrangements and the physical constitution of someone who maintained an intimate relationship with manual labor. She sipped at her third beer of the night and, through the smoke announced. “Nothing. We got nothing.”
William’s head snapped around. “Nothing? How?”
“Simple,” answered Archibald Kemp, an older, balding man who bore a passing resemblance to Carl Reiner. “Madison over there hasn’t finished his part of the project. We’ve gotten nothing from that sorry sonofabitch for weeks. I can’t put the ideas in order. Carrie can’t build on them. And Jules here can’t tell us we’re all fucking idiots.”
“Piss off, Archie,” grumbled Madison, again, without looking up.
“Madison? Is that true?” Inquired William. “You were supposed to hand over your parts of the project three weeks ago.”
Madison ignored the question and just kept scribbling, pausing only occasionally to take a long drag on the hefty cigar and exhale more of the noxious smoke into the room’s already saturated air.
“Of course, it’s true, old boy,” announced the fifth member of the team. “Mister Streetwise refuses to share his work with the rest of us mere mortals.”
William looked at the speaker, one Julian Aloysius Carver III, who sat to Madison’s left. He wished the man wouldn’t be so formal all the time, “sir-ing” and “ma’am-ing” everyone to death and, in general, speaking like he’d appeared straight from Edwardian England. Hell, William thought, he even dresses like it, with the high collars and fancy-cut suits. Like he’s trying to make sure we know he’s better than us. William shook the thoughts off and again turned to Madison.
For his part, Madison responded in two ways. He announced, again, a curt “Piss off” that William assumed was directed at himself before reaching out his non-writing arm and pulling all of his loose papers back to him, guarding them like some mangy, wild animal with a severe case of food jealousy.
“This is ridiculous, Madison.” William reached out to grab the nearest loose paper and was nearly impaled for the effort. With lighting reflexes, the gaunt scribbler slashed at William’s outstretched hand. William withdrew his appendage immediately and Madison resumed his feverish jotting.
“Madison!” William exclaimed. “What the hell?”
“Told ya,” Archibald pointed out. “He’s nuts.”
“I agree, Mr. Kemp.” Julian pronounced. “He really is quite mad.”
“Piss off. Both of you.” Madison said, without taking his pencil from the paper.
William watched him. The man really did look like a rabid animal guarding its food. “So, he hasn’t given the rest of you anything? Nothing at all?”
“Nothing,” confirmed Carrie.
“Nada,” announced Archibald.
“I have not received even the smallest scrap of work from Mr. Streetwise.” Julian reflected, rather pompously, William thought. “The man will not hand over his ideas.”
“Madison?” William tried to adopt the tone of a disappointed-but-caring father.
It worked. Sort of. Madison stopped his doodling and leaned back. He looked at everyone at the table and took a deep drag on the offensive stogie before speaking.
Madison pointed at William. “You want to know why?”
“Fine.” He jerked a crooked thumb at Archibald and practically screamed. “This asshole discards about ninety-percent of what I write for no reason at all and then hands it off to Carrie over here who puts everything together in the wrong goddamned order because it makes sense to her that way. She never asks me how I feel about it, by the way. She just does it. Screw what I want. Right? They know writing, they say. Madison, your writing is incoherent and disconnected gibberish, they say. Well, to hell with them, I say.” Madison began pointing at the targets of his tirade, both of whom looked on impassively and continued nursing their beverages. “These two jerks screw up more of my work than anyone else. Seriously. These idiots are about as useless as a one-legged-man in an ass-kicking contest.”
“Okay,” William tried diplomacy. “Why not let Julian see it, then?”
Madison’s eyes nearly bulged. Through the flickering light of the single, swinging bulb and hazy cigar-smoke, William was repulsed by the look of the man’s face. Madison’s voice got louder. He began to screech even more, if that was possible.
“Jules? Jules?” Madison rose from his seat and leaned towards William while jerking his thumb over his shoulder at Julian. “Fuck Jules. This is the most pompous asshole I’ve ever worked with. This asshole won’t even let me get a word written down before he’s all up in my shit telling me how to fix it.”
Madison leaned away from William and adopted a fake British accent, mocking Julian with his tone and a series of overly dainty gestures. “Oh my, Mr. Streetwise. I do say. Your ‘s’ there doesn’t look like an ‘s’ at all. How dreadful. This is the way dear boy. Do it just like this. Oh. And this ‘j’ really does look like an ‘i’. You know that, old sport? This is the way. Doesn’t that look much better, my boy. My dear Mr. Streetwise, you really are a hapless lubberwort, aren’t you my boy?” Madison turned to Julian and grabbed his own crotch. “Suck on this you fuckin’ gobermouch.”
Madison turned back to William, eyes flaring in anger, spittle dribbling from one corner of his mouth. For his part Julian’s own mouth flapped open and shut.
After a few seconds, Julian rose and set his spectacles on the filthy, dented table. He pulled off one of his gloves and, when Madison turned to shout him down, smacked the gaunt, deranged-looking man across the face with it.
“Mr. Streetwise. You are an uncouth and ungrateful beast.”
Archibald watched in amusement and Carrie rolled her eyes. She finished off her third beer and cracked the top off of a fourth bottle before mock-cheering in monotone. “Go Jules. That’ll show ‘im. Rah. Rah.”
William stood and tried to make peace. “Madison. Jules.”
“My name is Julian Aloysius Carver III. Please use my proper name.” Jules pointed out, huffily.
“Fine,” William conceded. “Mr. Carver. Mr. Streetwise. Sit down. Knock off this foolishness.”
Madison sat down immediately, his eyes growing crazily large. “Foolishness! I can use that.” He went back to scribbling, the scuffle all-but-forgotten.
Julian wasn’t so easily appeased. “Foolishness! Foolishness? Foolishness, Mr. Waverly? I have been insulted, my dear sir. Insulted, I say. I demand satisfaction.”
“What, in God’s name are you talking about?” Asked Archibald, trying very much to stay out of the fight, get the issue settled, and get back to work.
“Insults, Mr. Kemp, impune the honor of the insulted. I demand satisfaction.”
Carrie, who was leaning back, with one arm on the table and the other holding a frosty bohemian-style beer, belched. “Excuse me. Jules, I do believe you’re talking out of your ass.”
Julian turned to Carrie. “Well,” he huffed. “I never expected such things from you Miss Greer.”
“Yeah,” Carrie belched again. “Cuz I’m soooo lady-like.” She started laughing.
William tried to gain control of the meeting again, standing out of his seat and trying to keep his voice level and calm. “Gentlemen, please.”
Carrie snorted. “Gentlemen?”
“And lady,” William continued. “We have a story due and, from what I understand, we don’t even have an idea on paper. We need to focus.”
“Ooh. Focus!” Madison cackled to himself as he leaned into his papers and sent the pencil racing again. “Perfect. I can use that too.”
“What about my honor?” Whined Julian. He pointed at Madison. “That man besmirched my heretofore untrammeled honor. I will have satisfaction!”
“Julian,” started William.
“Mr. Carver, if you please.” Corrected the offended Julian, rather forcefully.
“Fine. Mr. Carver.” William allowed. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Tis a matter of honor and matters of honor,” Julian explained, “must be resolved.”
Carrie placed her forehead on the cheap table. “What’re you gonna do Jules? Challenge him to a duel.” She began laughing again.
“An excellent idea.” Julian announced.
Archibald looked up from mixing a fresh Old Fashioned from the alcohol in front of him. “What the hell?”
William dropped his glance to meet Julian’s, his voice lapsing into pure, unadulterated sarcasm. “Seriously? A duel?”
Madison kept scribbling and clawing his papers, oblivious to the events around him.
“Yes, Mr. Waverly.” Answered Julian, extending one of his corpulent index fingers into the air. “A duel is just the thing.”
Carrie was rolling in her chair, clutching her sides and trying not to laugh hysterically in the man’s face. “Jules, baby. I was kidding. What’re you gonna do? Adverbs at sundown on main street?”
“Don’t be silly, my dear girl,” explained Julian. “One does not fight duels with words. Words cause duels.”
“Then what are you planning on dueling Madison with,” Carrie laughed, forming air quotes with her calloused fingers at the word ‘dueling’.
Julian reached down and produced an ornate wooden box which he placed on the table and flipped open. He reached into the box and, smiling broadly, withdrew two, handmade, flint-lock pistols. “Why, with these of course. What else would one use?”
The room went quiet, except for the almost silent giggling of Madison as the scrawling continued.
“Mr. Carver.” William said, alarmed and nervous. “Where in the hell did you get those?”
Julian looked confused. He looked at the pistols and back as his inquisitor. “I-I-I always have them.” He looked at each of the others. “Doesn’t everyone maintain dueling pistols for just such an occasion?”
Carrie, now not laughing, shook her head. Archibald, startled, just stared wide-eyed.
“Are those loaded, Mr. Carver?” William asked nervously.
“Now they wouldn’t be of much use otherwise, now would they my good sir?”
“Can you put them away?” Pleaded William.
“Not until I have my satisfaction. Remember, sir. It is my honor that has been tarnished. This, this,” he gestured at Madison, who still hadn’t looked up, “this cretin has defamed me and I will be satisfied.”
“But what about the story?” Archibald tried reasoning.
“What about it?” Julian asked. “Mr. Streetwise and I will settle our dispute and then, the story will get written.”
“What dispute?” William begged.
“Why sir. He called me names, foul ones mind you. He insinuated that I should engage in intimate relations with him.” Julian explained. “That infringement cannot stand unanswered.”
“But you just called him a cretin,” Carrie pointed out, the beer forgotten.
“So I did.” Julian acknowledged. “But as you see, he does not take offense to the insult. Therefore, an insult it isn’t and I remain the only wronged party. As the wronged party, I demand satisfaction.”
“Can I see one of those?” Madison asked, without looking up from his papers. He held one hand out while still scribbling away with the other.
“But of course, sir.” Julian explained. “Inspecting the pistols is part of the tradition of dueling. Which one would you prefer?”
“Don’t care,” stated Madison, still without looking.
Carrie looked to William. “Aren’t you going to do something?”
“Like what?” William asked as Julian placed a pistol in Madison’s outstretched hand.
“Hell, man!” Archibald shouted. “Do something!”
“My good people,” Julian started. “Calm yourselves. Mr. Streetwise and I will settle this and then, we can get on with our business.” He turned to Madison. “Isn’t that correct, my good…”
In a split second, before Julian could finish the thought, Madison twirled the pistol around, cocked the hammer, and pulled the trigger.
An enormous flash and deafening bang filled the tiny room as the ball ammunition shrieked out of the mouth of the weapon and crashed into Julian’s sternum at near point-blank range.
Julian went limp with the impact and was thrown off of his seat like a rag doll. He landed in a heap on the filthy floor, limbs askew in a manner that no living human could attain.
Madison, who still hadn’t looked up from his scribblings, set the weapon on the table and, giggling, went back to hoarding his work. No one said a word for almost three minutes, the only sound in the room was the near-manic scritching and scratching of lead on paper.
Finally, Julian picked himself up off of the floor and stood there, dusting himself off and glaring at the still-writing Madison.
“You, sir, are an incorrigible arse!”
Madison shrugged and kept writing.
Archibald finally breathed.
Carrie picked up another beer.
William stood up. “Now, if you two are quite finished, I have a story due in two hours and I haven’t written a lick of it because I can’t get this group to work together.”