A fire-side chat between 2 thriller scribes.
An interview between me and “Limitless” author Alan Glynn. A free-wheeling, sit-down summit about the state-of-the-world via literature, geo-politics, and surveillance.
In Conversation with Nicholas Mennuti and Alan Glynn
The wide-ranging conversation below between Nicholas Mennuti, one of the authors ofWeaponized, and Alan Glynn, whose novel The Dark Fieldswas adapted for the film Limitless,covers such topics as globalization, espionage fiction, Cambodia, literary influences, and film influences—a veritable “arterial spray” of allusions (their words, not ours!). You’ll definitely want to make time to dive into this fascinating exchange.
Alan Glynn: Nick, I thoroughly enjoyed readingWeaponized and was struck by several things in it. One is the fact that it is packed—action-packed and packed with ideas, which is pretty unusual, I think, and unlike anything I’ve read in recent memory. The highest compliment I can pay it is to say that the book feels like North by Northwest meetsApocalypse Now. Anyone who reads the book will know immediately what I mean: the Cambodian setting, the existential end-of-American-empire angst, the assuming and trading of identities, the espionage, the cat-and-mousing around, the playfulness, the darkness, the betrayals, the reversals, the fun and the horror (x2). Perhaps those movie references betray my age, because the thing is Weaponized is also bang up-to-date in its concerns. In a way, it’s like a primer on globalization. You leave nothing out: resource wars, pipelines, corporations, big data-driven surveillance, private security firms, the outsourcing land grab, the Chinese, the Russians, and you also debate, or pose questions about, the individual’s place and responsibility in all of this. But despite packing these themes into the novel, you don’t ram them down the reader’s throat—it’s not a didactic or polemical book. Instead, you deflect and entertain with car chases and explosions, with tense checkpoint confrontations and with the occasional spurting artery. I suppose my first question is, how important was this balance for you, and how conscious were you during the writing process of trying to strike it?
Nicholas Mennuti: First off, I’m thrilled you enjoyed the book. Means a ton coming from you. I’ve been “borrowing/inspired” by you for a while. That’s one of those jokes-not jokes.
Your question is kind of a bouillabaisse of interesting things to talk about, so if I get a bit circular I hope that’s okay.
I’m kind of an espionage thriller binger and had come to the conclusion that the model hadn’t really changed in years. You either had the sort of fussy-frilly Le Carré model (that of course started with Greene and Buchan) that Olen Steinhauer, Jeremy Duns, David Ignatius, and Charles Cumming have dragged into the 21st century. Or you get the military-jingoistic version of it with Brad Thor, Andy McNab, Lee Child. And I just felt neither of these styles felt like the right way to deal with the chaos of the 21st century.
The world had changed, but espionage fiction still felt very 1989. All of those authors (many of whom I do like) still seemed locked into talking about a world that has kind of ceased to exist. A unipolar world that one man can save from destruction. So I really wanted to talk about topics/places that I felt were being underserved/underutilized by contemporary espionage fiction. Which of course leads you into privatized spying and the third-world. Now, that’s all analytical, and I probably became more aware of that as I went through writing/editing the book. But this desire to break the paradigm was there all along.
But where Weaponizedreally started was with my enduring obsession with Antonioni’s The Passenger. Do you know that one? It’s with Jack Nicholson. It’s all about identity switching and existential ennui in the guise of a thriller. Only problem is that it’s Antonioni—who had no interest in making a thriller. So I started thinking: what if you made an actual thriller out of this art-movie?
North by Northwest and Apocalypse Now have been obsessions of mine since I was a teenager, so they’re just part of my creative DNA at this point. I’m sure they’re going to be present in whatever I write. If I were writing a romantic comedy, I’m sure there’d be at least one spy and one third-world setting.
Apocalypse Now in particular fascinated me. It reminded me of Graham Greene’s fiction in that the topography of the novel seemed like the perfect literal manifestation of the lead character’s interior. With Apocalypse, I’ve never been sure whether Vietnam looked that crazy, or if it just looked that crazy to Martin Sheen. And that subjectivity runs through Weaponized. I wanted people to feel Cambodia through Kyle. Just like how you feel Vietnam through Willard. That’s also something you got a lot of mileage out of in Dark Fields (Limitless). Just how subjective/expressionistic can I get with this narrator without pulling this out of genre territory. Would you agree?
And what both North by Northwest and Apocalypse Now have in common is that they’re genre movies of the highest order that managed to pack a ton of subtext into the genre without weighing it down.
I mean I could write a page just on how fascinating it is in North by Northwest that Cary Grant’s middle initial “O” literally stands for NOTHING. It’s zero as a place-holder. Is that why he could be mistaken for Kaplan on a metaphysical level in the first place—there’s no one there to start with. It’s no mistake I think that Hitchcock had him working in advertising.
In terms of what I’ll refer to “ideas balanced with mayhem,” I was definitely conscious of it. I wasn’t interested in writing a deconstructivist thriller, where I hollow out all the genre gambits, and turn it into a formal-polemicist kind of thing. The Europeans do that really well, but I don’t.
I set a rule for myself early on that any ideas, either political or philosophical, have to come out of a character, or be on the action line. For example, if I want to talk about French colonialism, it’s going to be during a chase scene at Robinson’s hotel. Or if I want to talk about Russian oligarchy, it’s going to be in a scene where Kyle’s got to pick up a gun.
I have a lot of love for the genre, particularly when it’s really working, so I wanted (and David Guggenheim was so crucial in helping me getting a frame for it) to make sure the book worked as a thriller first, and then go about layering this other stuff in. That said, even before we had the story I knew I wanted Weaponized to feel like the 21st century: fractured, neon, lonely, and set in a series of geographical non-places. I wanted to write a thriller that didn’t feel embalmed.
Glynn: Yes, I can see that, and I think that updating the Cold War espionage paradigm is a great idea, and long overdue. I guess that Le Carré has done it to some extent by moving into the area of corporate shenanigans, but my impression (I haven’t read him post-The Constant Gardener) is that he has become very polemical, even preachy. To be honest, I haven’t read most of the espionage guys you mention, but I have read Greene (he’s in the DNA as much as Hitchcock and Coppola) and he can’t be bettered in terms of exploring a tortured soul that is defined by, and interacting with, a very specific geographical location. Incidentally, just to let readers know, Nick and I have only met once (over lunch more than a year ago with the great John Schoenfelder), so my referencing North by Northwest and Apocalyspe Now wasn’t due to any familiarity I have with Nick; these are connections that jump right off the pages of his and David’s book. Given a little more space, I feel I would also have come up with Greene and The Passenger, and for the same reason.
A bit like the arterial spray, there are so many directions this conversation could go in (Roger O. Thornhill as a proto-Don Draper anyone?) but to rein things in a bit, let me ask you about something specific: Cambodia. In your recent Huffington Post piece, you say that Phnom Penh is a more secure location for your leaker-in-exile protagonist, Kyle West, to end up in than Hong Kong is for Edward Snowden. There is the historical backdrop: Nixon and Kissinger’s incursions. There is the Khmer Rouge legacy. There are the echoes from Coppola (and indirectly, Conrad). You also describe the city incredibly well—the smells, the sounds, the architectural layering. So. Nick Mennuti: Cambodia. Discuss.
Mennuti: I imagine you must have felt the same about the Cold War paradigm, too. Your recent trilogy (Bloodland, Winterland, and Graveland), although not about “espionage” per se, seems to be like Weaponized—one of those trying-to-figure-out-where-we’re-going books, using genre as the vehicle. And you do way more globe-hopping than I do: Congo, Ireland, New York…
Le Carré has gone global, but he’s still fighting the good fight for the British empire. It’s always one heroic lone Brit against the system. And I think that’s done because the system isn’t identifiable anymore. It’s too diffuse for one man to take on. That said, I will forgive him even the worst of The Little Drummer Girl because it gave us a movie starring Klaus Kinski as a MOSSAD agent. That takes some creative casting.
Now Why Cambodia? A couple of reasons: I basically looked at the most reliable non-extradition countries for fugitives (and Thailand was out because they had just handed over Viktor Bout). David and I were sort of on the fence, because we knew the setting was going to be a huge part of this story.
Then I went to the wedding of a close family friend. She had spent years living in Cambodia as an ethnomusicologist. And half her wedding party was Cambodian. I spent a long time talking to them, and by the end of the reception I told David, “It’s Cambodia.” Kyle’s hiding in Cambodia. There was such a sense of hope, wounded history, and grandeur in the way they spoke about the country that it just seemed right emotionally. And when they showed me pics, videos, etc, I knew it was physically right, too.
It was just the perfect topographical expression of the underlying themes of the book. Plus, I’m mildly addicted to describing neon. And finally, yeah, I just can’t seem to get away from Conrad, Greene, and Apocalypse Now,and I wanted in a purely mise-en-scenesense to have a little bit of their magic rub off on the story.
And to possibly circumvent a question I know I’ll be getting: Have I spent time in Cambodia? No. I thankfully had plentiful resources in making sure the book was accurate. I wanted the audience to “feel” Cambodia more than believe I had spent time there. The setting was chosen as much for emotional and stylistic reasons as it was for accuracy.
Glynn: That’s really interesting. I had a similar feeling and instinct about the Democratic Republic of Congo, which features in Bloodland. My imagination was initially fired by Michela Wrong’s brilliant book about Mobutu, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurz, and literally for years I wanted to write something set there, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be doing firsthand research. I have small children, and I’m a coward, and Congo, especially the parts I was interested in, seems to be a pretty dangerous place. I met and spoke to a couple of Congolese people in Ireland and got some small sense of the place, plus I did a ton of research, about one-percent of which I’d say ended up in the book. But narratively the Congo sections in Bloodland are filtered through the p.o.v. of a non-local, a visitor, and I felt that in that way I could get around the problem. Clark Rundle was like my little traveling webcam.
We’ve mentioned Kyle West a few times. How about Julian Robinson? He’s a fascinating character, like the lovechild of William Burroughs and John Milius. I’d be interested to know something about how he was formed.
Mennuti: Can we just take a second to discuss how much research gets left on the cutting room floor? You said you used about 1% of it, which although I’m certain is an exaggeration, is probably not all that far off. David and I joke about how we need a “director’s cut” for all the great locations and characters that we were never able to use.
My rule on researching a place is simple: If a goodly chunk of the population is trying to flee it, I don’t need to go there! And I don’t even have kids. I’m not Sebastian Junger.
On to Robinson. Well first of all, I have to give a tip of my hat to Céline. I stole the name Robinson from him. He’s the narrator’s doppelganger in Journey to the End of the Night. So the name already had a fine doppelganger tradition I wanted to tap into.
The inspiration for Robinson was this question: Once the traditional power structures collapse and globalize, what would someone with Robinson’s skill-set do? He’s not going to take a course and learn how to write Java. He’s got to adapt.
Then I started thinking about Highsmith’s Ripley—who to me is the ultimate protean identity shifter. And it’s no surprise then that the set-up ofWeaponized mirrors Strangers on A Train in certain ways. When you’re talking Highsmith, you’re also going to run back into Hitchcock. They operated on parallel lines of ambiguous sexuality and ambiguous bargains.
To me, Robinson has become as fluid as the world he lives in. Sexually, politically, morally…that’s why his scenes with Kyle have this erotic undercurrent. Robinson’s first goal with everyone is submission. That can be through either talk, sexual energy, or if necessary, violence. Like the unstoppable march of global capital that can seemingly adjust to any wrench you throw in the system, Robinson can, too.
I don’t want to make him sound like a metaphor come to life. I think he’s pretty fleshed out for the amount of time he gets—but his genesis started more with questions I asked myself than with a particular character sketch. I don’t even know Robinson’s biography 100% myself. I hint at it here and there. I didn’t want to know. I’m not sure even he could tell you. I could tell you what happened to either Kyle or Lara when they were six. But Robinson couldn’t be thought out on those terms.
In terms of you finding him a mix of Burroughs and Milius, that’s high praise, because I think both those gentlemen are total maverick geniuses. That said, does that mean you feel Robinson could be a gay gun-nut with pronounced fascist sympathies? If given some time and a laptop, could Robinson have come up with a better take on the Red Dawn remake, Alan?
Glynn: Have to confess, I didn’t pick up on the Céline reference. I’ve gone way beyond the age where I need to fake having read certain books, so there it is: I haven’t read Journey to the End of the Night. Nor have I seen Red Dawn, by the way—not the 1984 version, and certainly not the remake. But I think I get Robinson, especially when he says that he exists in a world where laws, nations, treaties and stockholders just don’t matter. He’s a terrifyingly 21st-century creation, sort of a mirror image of the modern ideologically or religiously-driven fundamentalist—an extremist from the void. Perhaps Fowler is closer to the Milius school of the gun-toting, fun-lovin’ fascist. If Robinson is post-Empire, Fowler is very much Empire, an interesting dinosaur figure that links back to the Hunt and Liddy era.
On research, yes, the temptation is to try and pack it all in because you did the work, but less is definitely more. Often you’re better off trusting your imagination and then using research post factoas a sort of verification process. It’s a confidence trick you play on yourself and on the reader. I did a hell of a lot of financial research for The Dark Fields, but don’t ask me about it now.
We’re getting a good look at your DNA here: Hitchcock, Greene, Coppola, Highsmith, Celine, Burroughs, Milius. Who else is in there, sluicing around your double helices?
Mennuti: Alan, I may have to press you to read Céline. You can skip the rest of his oeuvre if you like, but Journey is, for lack of a better word, essential.
Ironically, I came to Céline through part of the DNA strand: Burroughs. I was reading an interview with him where he talked about his love for Céline and Genet. Genet’s also part of the DNA. I’d never seen crime written about with such voluptuousness until him. He’s like the literary form of Cammell and Roeg’s Performance. Another part of the DNA, more doppelgangers and crime.
The key to Fowler is in the line: “He liked the orders he was given.” There’s a great quote from a CIA officer who said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I was paid to rob, rape, and steal all in the name of a higher power. It was fun, fun, fun!” Fowler’s of that school. I’m sure he went into the CIA because he wanted to kill someone and not go to jail. So yes, I think they’ve definitely stopped making Fowler’s model. Robinson is the new prototype—although admittedly a particularly virulent model.
I always wondered via Dark Fields if you had a background at all in finance. This is before I met you, of course, and had just read the book.
My favorite book ever is Under The Volcano. It’s so wedged in the DNA that it’s in everything I write (I mean it’s all over Weaponized in spirit, if not in content). Other authors that meant a ton and still do are J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, Robert Stone, Michel Houellebecq, Nelson Algren, Bret Easton Ellis (the only American author I’d actually identify as transgressive), DeSade, Bataille, Jonathan Littell. And then, of course, there’s the literary monuments that you can’t help but be influenced by: Flaubert, Joyce, Hemingway, Mann, Doestoevsky, Nabokov. They’ve influenced so much of what we love today that you’re almost reading them by default.
But film has also been incredibly important to me, so in addition to Hitchcock and Coppola, the big ones are Paul Schrader (screenplays and movies), Donald Cammell, Godard (until 1967, then he lost me), Fritz Lang, Michael Mann (huge influence), Antonioni (of course), Visconti (the German trilogy), Friedkin, De Palma, Cronenberg, Peckinpah, Soderbergh, Bunuel, Pasolini (the later works), Paul Greengrass, those great Adam Curits BBC docs—and fuck it, I still love Oliver Stone even though he’s done more to disappoint me in the past decade than any other filmmaker. I love his early work so much, I’ll wipe the slate. What a run he had from 1986-1995.
And at this point, David would be infuriated if I didn’t mention some of his great influences, because they’re all over Weaponized: Lawrence Kasdan, William Goldman, 3 Days of the Condor, Parallax View (even with its flaws), and Ian Fleming.
And shit, not to turn this into a love-fest, but Winterland and Bloodland are part of the DNA now, too. As much as I love Dark Fields, I don’t think I’d know what to do with something that high-concept. That’s a compliment, by the way!
Glynn: The arterial spray has now become a torrent. Where to begin? First off, I guess, that “fun, fun, fun” quote was George Hunter White, who said of the CIA, “Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?” He’s quoted in H. P. Albarelli’s amazing book A Fatal Mistake about the murder of Frank Olsen (and about so much else besides).
Our DNA profiles would be quite similar, though I do have some fairly big gaps in my reading. The Céline’s Journey issue will be addressed very soon, I promise. For me, Ballard is essential (High-Rise), as is Pynchon—and going back, Chandler, Fitzgerald, and Melville. I’ve said this elsewhere, but perhaps the greatest books I’ve ever read are the second and third volumes of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography—they transcend everything in their narrative scope and power. In terms of movies, check check check, and add in Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole), Kubrick, Pakula (All the President’s Men is my ideal thriller, no action, no violence), Kieslowski’sThree Colors trilogy, Fellini’s Amarcord, Haneke’s Hidden, Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and of course, the ur-text as far as I’m concerned, Chinatown. I saw it first when I was 14, in its first run, and I haven’t been the same since.
But back to business. In your Huffington Post piece, you talk about the thriller as a mirror to events. Earlier we casually mentioned Kyle West and Edward Snowden, but that is an astonishing parallel. In my latest novel, Graveland, there are parallels with recent events in Boston. In some ways, Winterlandpredicted the bursting of the real estate bubble. I think if you’re observant and writing about the current scene, you’re bound to hit a nerve now and again (equally, you could get it very wrong). In general, how do you feel about hot-wiring the zeitgeist like this?
Mennuti: Don’t worry about the arterial spray, I already warned Mulholland that it could be a distinct possibility!
Before we get to the zeitgeist—and I will control the bleeding—I am so excited that someone else read A Fatal Mistake. I had no idea that book even existed. I was wandering around Barnes & Noble and just happened upon it. First, because of the nifty swirly lettering on the cover, and second, the fact that it was a doorstop—both qualities I look for in any historical novel. But, good God, it was not only a confirmation of all that you feared about the CIA and drug-testing, but as you said, a veritable trip down the rabbit-hole of intelligence agency abuses.
Pynchon. I can’t believe I left him out of the DNA (because certainly almost everyone else made it).Gravity’s Rainbow is up there with Under The Volcano for me. Just seminal.
I have to just say check, check, check to all your films, too (especially All The President’s Men, and of Kieslowski’s Three Colors, Red is the one that has the hardest hold on me. I’m still haunted by scenes from it today). But I’m going to quibble (for the first time in our thus far seamless conversation) with Haneke’s Hidden, which I didn’t love at all. I actually dislike Haneke intensely. But Hidden in particular rubbed me the wrong way. WARNING: SPOILERS.
I just didn’t feel that the sin committed by Daniel Auteil’s character deserved the terrible existential wringer than Haneke put him through. I felt Haneke was just getting off on torturing this bourgeouis couple for no other reason than they were bourgeois. I wouldn’t call the Auteil character likeable per se—but he was a child when he committed his sin. I’m certain he was supposed to be some kind of metaphor for France’s attitude towards its immigrants (particularly the Algerians), which is chiefly one of critical indifference. But I just couldn’t get behind it. I think it also felt like too much of a riff on Lynch’s Lost Highway for the first half hour.
That said, the formal qualities of the film are exceptional and so are the performances. Haneke is clearly a master craftsman. In fact, I feel similarly about him as I do Lars Von Trier, but Haneke lacks Von Trier’s sense of playfulness that comes out at times. Albeit very rarely lately.
Now about the zeitgeist. Here are my thoughts on it: I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much politically agnostic. People tend to think Weaponized has a leftish feel to it, but I think that’s just them bring their own particular bent to it. It’s not right or left; it’s my particular view of the world.
I think you and I can hit a nerve at times because we don’t come at politics or current events from a particular dogmatic angle. We leave ourselves open. I know sometimes Tom Clancy (or his type) can call a war in Georgia, but it’s only because it’s a fulfillment of his random military-porn fantasies that happened to come true. That’s not “hitting the zeitgeist” to me. That’s just luck. There’s more than luck involved in what we do. I don’t believe in any theories of history. I don’t believe in any ideologies either. I just try to look at the facts on the ground. And if you can examine the facts on the ground bloodlessly enough, you may end up hitting the zeitgeist since you’re not tied down to a firm set of beliefs.
I hate to use the example of Obama here, but I’m going to. I was never enthralled with him. I always felt he was a blank slate that the nation projected all its post-Bush aspirations onto, instead of actually listening to what he was saying. Which turned out to a boon for Obama, because he wasn’t saying anything. He was selling the same bathwater the Democrats had been selling with McGovern and then abandoned to win elections. My views caused a lot of consternation among my friends because they loved the guy. But I didn’t see it. And his terms have basically borne out my initial thoughts to a large extent. This is a guy more interested in the concept of governance than governance itself. And I was able to see it, I think, because I wasn’t looking for a savior in the first place. To me Obama is basically America’s answer to Tony Blair, who arrived after whatever luster Thatcher had given the old Empire had worn off.
I tend to think judging from the “Lands” that you’re pretty politically agnostic as well. I think we have our own moral compass, but it doesn’t lead us politically. The way you write about Congo, or about Ireland, or about the United States, or high finance—you have a certain way of looking at things, but I don’t think it’s political per se. I think it’s your particular authorial voice.
The Huffington article has been interesting because most people got my point loud and clear. But a few really thought I was arguing against any sort of state security or surveillance, which isn’t the case. I’m saying we’ve got far too much of both, and they’re not serving any kind of verifiable point. The bloat has gotten out of control. We need to discuss what kind of a world we want to live in. The point of that article was to make people think about the sheer size of the security state. Even after Snowden, people still don’t get just how much information is being stored.
I’d also like to point out that Dark Fields—and feel free to correct me—kind of predicted the designer pharmaceutical craze and nascent penchant for self-experimentation. It was published in 2001, right? Back in 2001 I didn’t see TV ads for drugs for ADHD, restless leg syndrome, and other various myriad disorders if not created, then nursed to prominence by the pharma industry.
Now I’m not saying you called Lexapro or Zyprexa. But you did nail that people are more willing these days to take pills to enhance their natural abilities, be it their memories, their sex drives, their attention span, etc. You really called the fact that people were going to literally experiment on themselves. And now in 2013, when you start getting into genetic engineering and nanotechnology,Dark Fields doesn’t seem too far off, does it? A real version of Eddie may come around sooner than you predicted.
Glynn: Yes, I agree largely with what you say. I think it’s a combination of paying close attention to what’s going on and then of being politically agnostic about it. Writing with an explicit political agenda is certain death to a story. It can’t be where the impulse to tell the story comes from, and it can’t be where the story leads the reader to. I think it’s fairly clear from my stuff that I have a certain viewpoint when it comes to the dominance of the financial-corporate complex, but what ignites the stories for me is an interest in the psychology of the people involved. What’s it like to be a billionaire plutocrat? If I’m even going to attempt to answer that question, there’s no way I can be judgmental about it. It just wouldn’t work. It quite clearly has to be an act of the imagination. And I think you’re right about The Dark Fields (Limitless). Since the book first came out, the “pharmaceuticalization” and “DSM-ification” of modern life has mushroomed. I was just looking at the facts on the ground, as you phrase it, and here we are over a decade later.
On Haneke and Hidden, I don’t think you can make a naturalistic connection between what the kid did and what the adult is made to suffer—I think it’s a masterful study of guilt and angst in the modern world. The Algerian/colonial context can make it seem like a politically-driven film with an agenda, but I don’t think that’s what Haneke was trying to do. I think it’s a more impressionistic, atmospheric and self-consciously artistic work than that. Oh God, listen to me. Time for another question.
Talk us through the title, Weaponized. It’s certainly a heavily-loaded word. One of the most striking and chilling uses of it I’ve ever seen, coincidentally, was in Albarelli’s A Fatal Mistake, when he talks about the CIA’s attempts to “weaponise LSD.”
Mennuti: You’re absolutely right. You can’t start with thinking, I want to hit the zeitgeist. It has to come from a particular desire to tell a particular story or to enter the thoughts of a particular character.
You nailed the upcoming “DSM-ification” (to quote you) with Dark Fields (Limitless). But I assume you really wanted to write about Eddie. Can I ask a question—the one all writers hate—what came first, Eddie or the story? Did you just want to write about him and the rest came from that initial desire? I’m sure the stock market analysis you had in that novel (extremely accurate I might add) came from thinking things through the eyes of that character. If you suddenly had Eddie’s abilities, why not make money? So then you’ve got to talk about the markets. Because of Eddie you suddenly had the key to go into all these other worlds.
It was like that for me with Kyle in Weaponized. I’ve always related to literary exiles. And it was through my desire to do that that I was led to eavesdropping.
Your concerns with the global financial complex are pretty simpatico with my own—clearly Neil inWeaponized is saying some things I agree with. But what I find most depressing is that no one has any alternative to the system. It’s all about adding a safeguard here, or closing that loophole. We need to think about this. I’m no Marxist. I am a genuine capitalist. And as a capitalist, I can say quite honestly that the current global financial system doesn’t resemble capitalism at all. In fact, it’s quite possibly the furthest thing from it. And calling it “socialism for the rich” doesn’t even begin to do justice to it either.
Which brings me to you saying Blair was a true believer—what do you think he believed in exactly? Do you think his team-building exercise with Bush was to get England back on the global stage again? Or do you think he really believed in the war on terror? When I look at Obama and Blair, here’s what I see and why I juxtaposed them: they are both the last breaths of the Janus-faces of contemporary liberalism trying to adapt to the 21st century. Blair adopted the Clintonian variety, but it was too late. That time had passed. And Obama went back to the more traditional welfare liberalism. And that time has passed too.
You’re probably right about Hidden. You’re not the first person whose opinions I respect who has told me that I’m just fucking wrong about my analysis/opinion on that film. I think I’m just scarred by all the prior bourgeois bashing in Haneke’s movies and dragged my own baggage over to Hidden. I’ve got to give it another try.
I’d love to say I was inspired by Albarelli with the title of Weaponized, but I can’t. The book was originally titled Exile. However, Mulholland Books felt that too many books already had that title and that it wasn’t evocative enough for what the book was doing.
The title was actually the work of the aforementioned John Schoenfelder, who kind of pulled it out of thin air and fell in love with it. Initially David and I were on the fence about calling it Weaponized. We were worried that it was just too hard a genre sell for the book. But the publisher loved it.
As I was working through the rewrite, I started thinking, There must have been a reason John wanted to call it Weaponized—outside of the fact that it’s one strong word, and he loves a good one-word title. And I realized that it was actually the right title. Because it does summarize what the book is about:
Any information in our day and age can be weaponized. Your phone number, even. Since Kyle and Robinson are part of this “new” world and have been weaponized by it, they’re able to survive it. Whereas Fowler and Lara, who are more traditionally weaponized (which is to say, their bodies are weapons), they get lost and suffer. So really the title for me meant “this is the current mind/body schism we’re looking at now.” Where we’re all mind and no body. Which could lead us right into a conversation about someone like Kurzweil if we’re not careful…
Glynn: What you say about the current global financial system is right: it’s not capitalism, just as Soviet communism wasn’t communism. But they’re both big, ugly, elaborate flowerings of human nature’s baser side, and that’s pretty depressing. Tony Blair was and is a true believer in God, and he believed that in pushing for war in Iraq, he was doing God’s work. I think with Bush and the gang, despite a religious patina, it was New American Century ideology all the way, but with Blair it was—unusually for a modern western leader—an almost fundamentalist (and therefore dangerous) religious zeal.
To answer your questions about which came first in The Dark Fields, Eddie or the story, the truthful answer is I don’t know, I don’t remember—the start of a novel is always a sort of primordial soup as far as I’m concerned, with lots of different things going on at the same time. But once I got going, yes, Eddie’s p.o.v. led me into some really interesting areas that I as the writer had to run pretty hard to keep on top of if I wanted Eddie’s experience to feel authentic. As for the parallels between me and Eddie, I’ve said before that The Dark Fields was largely autobiographical—up until the point where Eddie comes across the drug. This is where I’d insert a smiley emoticon.
I think John did very well to suggest Weaponized as a title because it describes the book thematically in so many ways, but it also describes what happens to its protagonist over the arc of the story.
So, to finish up—and this has been a lot of fun—I have two more questions. One, what in your opinion is the enduring appeal of the doppelgänger? I can’t get away from it. I have an unpublisheddoppelgänger novel, and I’m currently working on a new idea. What is it?
And can you tell us something about the process of collaborating on the book with David? Thanks, Nick. Next time with martinis, okay?
Mennuti: This has been a ton of fun! You are a great, benevolent interrogator, Alan, and yes, next time with martinis. Please write a book that has more New York locations so you can visit again sooner rather than later, because I’m not planning any Irish-based fiction at the moment!
I’d like to go back to Bush/Blair for a moment. I agree with you that for most of his cabinet, the religious invocations for war were purely decorative; however, with Dubya, I think it was genuine. He’d been an alcoholic (or at least heavy drinker) until 40, at which point he exchanged—as many Americans do—Gin for Jesus. So I think his love and need for Jesus was in a direct relationship to how badly he wanted to relapse. I think both he and Blair were genuinely religious men. I’m just not sure which one scared me more. The one (Blair) who genuinely believed—or the other (Dubya) who believed to keep himself clean.
Maybe that was the perfect lead-in to discuss doppelgangers, because we’ve got a pair of them right there.
There’s like six or seven different ways we could go with the enduring appeal of the doppelganger. I could go back to the historical/psychological roots of it, which pre-dates Freud. But I think I’ll just tell you personally why it got its hooks into me:
Lolita. I read it when I was still in college, and Nabokov was one of the great doppelganger dealers in literary history. The relationship between Quilty and Humbert fascinated me almost as much as the love story between Humbert and Lolita. And I always loved the notion of ending a novel like Lolita, a love story, with two doppelgangers facing off against each other in a surreal attempt to find sovereignty. In fact, I stole it for Weaponized—that’s how much I liked it!
I think it’s stayed around as a literary creation for so long because it’s amorphous. You can physicalize the doppelganger and make him the antagonist, like Nabokov. You can make him an obscene embodiment of wish fulfillment—Nabokov again, or Highsmith. You can make him stand-in for what a repressive society does to someone who can’t fit in—e.g. Burroughs. Or you can make him an object of satire of terror, like Doestoevsky. You can use him to explore the schism in one person, like Stevenson. Or you can do a mix of all of those, which is kind of what Borges did. So I think the mutability of the doppelganger has a lot to do with why we keep coming back to them.
I’d love to see you take on a doppelganger novel after what you did with Eddie’s altered states of consciousness in Dark Fields (Limitless). That boggles the mind.
I’d also like to point out that I don’t think Alan linked these questions to insinuate that David and I are somehow each other’s doppelgangers!
Collaboration with David is something that’s been going on since we first met at Tisch. We’ve always shown each other our work. It’s just an instrumental part of my process and his. We’re each other’s first readers.
David is an absolute master structuralist. He has some instinctive story gene that lets him see narrative moves seven steps in advance. Listening to David crack a story is akin to watching great chess players—or at the other end of the spectrum, an ace grifter.
The reason I think our collaborations are fruitful is that we don’t attack a story in the same way. I tend to work from the inside-out, and the story isn’t necessarily what I start with. It can be a character, or a location, or a subject that fascinates me. After I’ve isolated what interests me, I’ll start with the story. David doesn’t work that way.
So in addition to whatever creative fusion you get from our different processes, you also get some good creative friction, because we force each other to look at our material from different angles. I’m prone to digression, and David forces me to be linear. I hate him for it at times—but he’s right.
The last thing you should look for in a collaborator is someone who agrees with you all the time. And David sure doesn’t. And I don’t agree with him all the time either. I think that’s what makesWeaponized interesting: we dragged some provocative stuff out of each other in the process that I don’t think we would have found without each other.
FIRST DAY OF FREEDOM
“She’s here…Its Elizabeth…That’s the father’s jet…The one with her name on the side in pink bubble letters…”
With those words, the tightly huddled swarm of reporters, local, national and international, who were standing on the private landing strip, and broiling in the merciless Texas sun, turned into an avalanche, throwing elbows, knocking each other over, and trampling the fallen.
But why the frenzy?
Because they were all on the same desperate mission, get the first candid photos of Elizabeth Sunderland, as she descended the metal steps of Daddy’s Boeing 757, all sleek like a swan with spread wings.
The jet trafficked to a stop. The reporters parted down the middle, stood on either side of the plane, and were joined by a gaggle of Elizabeth’s fans and naysayers, who although they moved at half the speed of the press corps, never missed an opportunity to pledge their undying love and loyalty, or toss caustic barbs. Sometimes the haters didn’t stop with insults; there was the unfortunate incident of the pint of blood that got hurled at her on a busy street-corner, a grisly unsubtle metaphor of her romantic entanglements.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Suffice to say, the Bahranian ambassador’s son Elizabeth was showing around town had a most memorable evening in the States, one that climaxed with a screening panel for STD’s.
The Boeing’s clamshell door opened with a vacuum release of air, the staircase unfolded, armed security sporting Bluetooths and bulletproof suits went down first, and then she emerged:
Her Louboutin stilettos dangled from her wrist, which was covered up to her elbow in chunky, blinding bracelets, not an inch of skin visible between the dazzling gold and silver.
She descended the first few steps, looked up, and was blinded by the sun hanging there like a pat of sizzling butter, so hot it had burned the clouds from the sky, and surrounded on all sides by towering rock formations that had been blasted rust-red from the arid desert air.
Welcome back to the end of the Earth, she thought, this is what it looks like. Huntsville. Fucking. Texas. No clouds, nothing’s stopping that sun. And this heat. I don’t care if they tell me it’s dry. It still takes your breath away, makes you see double. She slid on her Cartier sunglasses with the diamond-encrusted frames to shield her eyes. A few of Daddy’s skyscrapers would do the trick. People of a certain ilk always say he ruined Manhattan, but I think he just gave everyone shade. And what thanks does he get?
She looked at the size and energy of the crowd. It was like nothing she’d ever seen before. Sure, the media followed her around, but her celebrity was manageable, and had largely peaked in her enfant terrible years, climaxing with a month of house arrest at twenty-six. She was thirty now, the sell-by date for insanely rich, drop-dead gorgeous heiresses, and coverage had slowed to a trickle.
Until, a month ago, when Elizabeth was given renewed cultural relevance.
She reached the bottom step, and before her toes had a chance to hit the asphalt, the questions and photos began:
“Elizabeth…How does it feel to be bringing home a serial killer?”
Charlie Gillis looked in a mirror for the first time in five years and thought:
Death Row rode me hard.
There was no glass allowed. If you asked for a reflective surface, the guards would give you a wedge of dull, stainless steel, nothing a weapon could be fashioned from, and that smeared and stretched your features into a funhouse image. Worthless for personal upkeep, but Charlie felt there was a totally unintended mercy in not forcing prisoners to glimpse their disintegration.
He examined his face in the mirror. His dirty-blonde hair had started to gray at the temples, but the rest remained thick, lustrous, and ran down his neck. He had begun to grow stubble to hide the serrated knife scar on his cheek. The black circles under his green eyes weren’t from fatigue, but knowledge, learning Charlie’s life lessons wore you out, made it hard to sleep.
He ran the glass down his nude body. Even though he’d lost some weight, unavoidable given the circumstances, he’d managed to maintain his thick, vascular muscularity with push-ups, isometrics, and sit-ups. Fourteen jagged stab wounds to his chest, neck, and abdomen had left behind scars, and messed-up his more ornate tattoos, slicing some of them in halves and thirds.
He laid the mirror on the edge of the sink, slid on the clothes he’d arrived wearing, back in 2012. A pair of ripped blue Levi’s, a black t-shirt he’d gotten at a Stone Temple Pilots concert, and a pair of leather cowboy boots with the state of Texas embroidered on the sides in red, white, and blue.
He took a final look over his surroundings, the eleven by nine cell, not much bigger than a parking space, and furnished by a metal cot with three storage compartments underneath, one of them housing a rolled-up rubber mattress. A dinner tray-desk had been mounted to the wall, and there was a steel sink and adjoining toilet. This room had been his home for twenty-three hours a day, except for the thirty minutes of exercise, consisting of walking around the parking lot at machine gun point courtesy of a turret gun in the guard tower, and exhaustive cell inspections before lights out.
He knelt down, grabbed a slim volume of Baudelaire’s poetry and his Dad’s annotated Bible from a storage bin, and whipped his head around, when he heard the familiar sound of the guards shoes scuffing the floor, then saw Kavanaugh and Wurlitzer, the black matte sheen of their truncheons and guns sparkling in the fluorescent light.
Wurlitzer, the comically smaller of the two, sucked in his gut to try and gain an inch or two of height, and raised his truncheon before entering the cell, incase Charlie got any big ideas on his last day:
“You’re free, killer. Processed and ready to walk. You got a ride? If not, state will pay for bus fare to town.”
Charlie met Wurlitzer’s eyes. “I got a ride.”
“Elizabeth…Did you bring a gun…?”
“Elizabeth…Over here…Charlie killed four women, stabbed them over forty times…”
“…And those are only the one’s we know about…”
The security guards cleared a path, so she could reach her Porsche 911 Turbo, painted a shade of specially ordered neon-green, and parked on the tarmac, waiting for her.
“Elizabeth…Any new sex tapes coming out?”
She remembered Daddy’s first rule, don’t answer until they give you the question you want, make them work for your attention. The less you talk, the more it’s like heavenly light pouring out from the back of your throat, when you deign to respond. And besides, she thought, there were only two sex tapes, and one of them was largely shot in night vision, and left a lot to the imagination.
“Elizabeth…Will you be dropping another album soon? You signed to Cash Money records last year…”
After possession charges, an ankle bracelet, and being crowned an “heirhead” by the tabloids, Elizabeth moved into the one industry in which those seeming black marks weren’t necessarily a negative: music. She provided backing vocals to an EDM album, and a Lil’ Wayne single about blowjobs, both of which sold huge in Japan, and led to her newest endeavor, an electro-minimalist ballad, that she sung in phonetic Japanese.
“Elizabeth…When does your new lingerie line hit?”
That one she wanted to answer. “The show for the new season is in eleven days.”
“Elizabeth…What’s it like to not be the superstar this time?”
There was some truth in the question.
Elizabeth knew fame, but Charlie Gillis was a superstar. A man with television specials hyping his menace, a man with websites and podcasts devoted to dissecting his run of terror in minute detail, a man whose image graced clothing lines, a man with twelve unauthorized autobiographies and counting, a man who generated a fresh-faced ensemble of cops and lawyers who could be called in when true crime shows needed commentators to explain ultimate evil. He had built a new industry off his brand, or in the parlance of Elizabeth’s father, Charlie was a jobs creator.
He was the first serial killer to blaze through our perpetually connected, social media age, where celebrity was currency. There was no Facebook when Ted Bundy said goodbye to civilized society and went on a spree, no Instagram when Manson’s “Family” decided to knock on that door on Cielo Drive, hell, now they could have posted a live video of the slaughter, no Twitter when the D.C. sniper turned the highways red, no Snapchat, when Richard Ramirez stalked the night like a vampire looking for victims.
She opened the driver’s side of the Porsche, and slid on a pair on Chanel ballet flats, better for driving.
A journalist waved his arms wildly, like an electric current ran through him, settling at the base of his spine: “Elizabeth…I have a check from my network…Five million for the first nude photos of Charlie…”
And that was the other reason Charlie had been a media obsession since his initial arrest: His looks. And Elizabeth wasn’t immune:
The first time I saw him on television, she thought, reliving the memory, he looked like a cowboy, but not the dusty kind who rustles cattle, the one on the covers of romance novels with titles like “Cowboys Have Always Been My Weakness”, which in all honesty means, not an actual cowboy, but the way you envision it when you want to fuck one.
And that body. Formed from his teen years in and out of juvy labor camps. Those gaudy, stacked muscles and tattoos. That voice. A breathy Texas drawl, like the secretive mumble of a ten-year-old sent to the principal’s office for smoking cigarettes behind the school. But they’d all be nothing without the eyes, a scared deer unsure how he ended up accused of serial murder. But also undressing you at the same time.
A journalist cluster photo’d her and popped another question:
“Elizabeth…Even with your fame for fake’s sake philosophy, isn’t the Charlie Gillis business a dirty one…?”
How dare she? Elizabeth thought. How dare anyone think I’m the dirty one? That I’m the one with fucked-up fantasies. You all wrote to him. He showed me the letters. You’d send him locks of hair, marriage proposals with matching rings, awful poetry, confess your most scandalous needs and lusts accompanied by nude photos. You all wanted to fuck him. You hypocrites. And his harem was damn inclusive. From nurses and librarians, from housewives to retirees, from strippers to Satanists, even judges, lawyers, and CEO’s.
I did what you all didn’t have the guts to do.
She slid into the Porsche’s driver’s seat, a leather cocoon, and turned to the security guards: “I want to drive myself. I need time to process this alone. It’s a big day for me.” She gave them her million-dollar smile:
“You can follow behind. Make sure I’m safe.”
The media realized she was hitting the road, made a mad dash to their white and beige vans, ready to follow her to Death Row:
“She’s on the move…”
Charlie followed Kavanaugh and Wurtlizer down the corridor of infamy, while looking through a manila envelope holding the effects he arrived at Death Row carrying. They didn’t amount to much: a Velcro wallet on a chain, a digital watch, a silver hoop earring, a red asthma inhaler, and a flip-phone that had been filled with pre-paid minutes right before he’d been arrested. Those five objects, plus the actual clothes on his back, were all he had to show for his life at the age of thirty-five.
He looked to his right, into the cells; there was Johnny Pallenberg performing a yoga headstand against the wall. Johnny was infamous for tossing hookers into a barbeque pit on his backyard property. When the cops discovered his hideaway, they unearthed the bones of forty-seven women. Upon getting locked up, Johnny scrawled that number in the center of his forehead using a razor blade and filling it in with ink.
To Charlie’s left, was Angel Trejo, wearing prison whites, reclined on his cot, and reading the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”. Charlie wondered if Angel trying to figure out the odds of encountering one of the more than twenty men, women, and pets that he’d skinned and sacrificed, in the afterlife.
These men had been Charlie’s neighbors for the past four and half years, and thankfully, he barely had to interact with them. Death Row wasn’t like basic jail; there’s no mingling between prisoners, no communal dining, no group television time, and although the isolation was crippling, Charlie imagined it beat spending quality time with guys like Johnny and Angel.
The hallway stretched on and on, far longer than Charlie remembered. It never hit him, until he was free, just how many prisoners the state had earmarked to die. And trust me, the state would have killed each of them already, had it not been for pesky things like courts of appeal, an occasional liberal governor’s pardons, and a growing societal revulsion against capital punishment. So you ended up with something far sadder, lots of men waiting twenty-five years to die, or passing on from natural causes before the state got it’s shot, which is a form of death in itself.
“Gillis. You fuckin’ chickenhawk”, screamed out Brett Frost, who had used his career as a birthday party magician, to come back after the festivities, and wipe out whole families. “Come back and let me give you a goodbye kiss.”
Charlie turned around. Frost had his face pressed between the bars and his lips puckered. Wurtlizer and Kavanaugh stopped dead; fingers teasing their holstered triggers; mace at the ready; knowing this could get ugly.
“Hey,” they shouted in sync. “Back away from him, Gillis.”
Charlie approached the bars. “I’m ready.”
Frost licked his lips. “Know the difference between you and me?”
“I wasn’t a birthday clown.”
Frost wagged his tattooed index finger. “Magician.” He laughed, dark and deep, his mouth open so wide Charlie could see how many fillings he needed. “I could give that blonde bitch who comes to visit you what she really wants. I satisfied lots of ice bitches in heat looking for the master’s bone. That’s what they all are.”
Charlie moved closer to Frost. “The fuck you say about her?”
“Your Daddy knew how to take care of those bitches too. Like when he shot your Momma in the brains. Only mistake, he did himself too, overcommitted to the act.”
Charlie was about to reach through, grab Frost and throttle him, when Kavanaugh, built like a linebacker gone to utter seed, swung his truncheon against the bars, forcing Frost to scramble into the corner like a cockroach when you turn the kitchen lights on. Next, he put his burly ham-hock of a hand around Charlie’s waist to lead him away, back to Wurlitzer, who tried to avoid physical altercation at all costs:
“Killer, it’d behoove you not to be a such a fuckin’ hothead…”
“…You hear what he said…”
“…There’s a buncha people past the gates looking to get a piece of you. You gonna take them all on too?”
Charlie raised an eyebrow.
“Lotsa folks aren’t thrilled you’re out,” Kavanaugh continued. “And they’re gonna put you down before you get a chance to go rabid again. Fix the mistake the law couldn’t. And they’re right and justified in the lord’s eyes to do it.” He turned and glared at Charlie. “Hell, I may even help them.”
Charlie fell silent, then. “You got no beef with me. I didn’t do anything. Why I’m walkin’ outta here today.”
“Right,” said Kavanaugh. “Your prints just happened to be on the weapon, which you were found holding. And all the victim’s DNA happened to be on it too. Some coincidence, killer.”
Charlie had to admit, what Kavanaugh said was true, and made freedom a sticky proposition. Charlie’s prints and the victims DNA were, and would always be, on the murder weapon, and even he’d been unable to explain it, outside of conspiracy theories about being framed by the real killer, who coincidentally, appeared not to have racked up any new victims since Charlie went inside. These unavoidable facts caused Charlie to ask, for the thousandth time:
Who did this to me and why’d they frame me?
And more importantly, one that had only recently begun to bubble in his brain:
Now that I’m out, which one of us is going to find the other first?
Elizabeth banged on the steering wheel in frustration at the fuzzy cell service. Her iPhone had no bars, causing the playlist she’d specially curated for today’s event to get trapped in an endless buffering loop, and right in the middle of “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles, a selection that raised an eternal question the world had about Elizabeth:
Is she fucking serious? How much of her presentation is ironic, a show to keep people talking, and how much of it is actually what she thinks? And then the inevitable follow-up:
Does she even think?
The bars weren’t recovering. She was stuck with the radio in Huntsville. She scanned the radio for a station not riddled with static:
“We’re talking about Charlie Gillis, because what else is there to talk about. Let’s scroll through the news and read some more quotes about his release. Here’s a good one: It’s from Kelly Brunt, who obviously needs no introduction. We’ve all seen her infamous Death Row interview with Gillis. Or maybe I should call it Kelly’s smackdown…”
Elizabeth pointed at the radio, yelled. “You smug fucking bitch.”
“Kelly says: “I hope Charlie will return for a follow-up. Just like all of the country, I’ve got a lot more unanswered questions…”
Elizabeth turned off the station in revulsion:
Kelly motherfucking Brunt. That Bougie bitch who built her name on my Charlie’s corpse. They should call her career “Before Charlie” and “After Charlie”. “Before Charlie” she was a local news personality, a blonde, former beauty-pageant announcer, who had gone to county law school – at night –, used too much bronzer, and had traces of body glitter on her tits, like she stepped off the pole and into the anchor chair. “After Charlie” she was a serious news personality who had faced down the beast of Texas, went brunette, lost the spray-on sheen, got an honorary doctorate, and ended up moderating presidential debates, and handing out peace prizes at the U.N. And I think she either had a boob reduction or a butt implant, because she leans over funky now, like a Jenga block with a jelly spine wearing Michael Kors.
All that said I owe her possibly plastic ass one thing.
If she hadn’t ambushed Charlie on her Dateline special, hadn’t grilled him, hadn’t cemented his guilt in society’s eyes, he and I would never have met, because when she was done running the metaphorical stake through him, he had my eternal empathy. Since I was old enough to remember, the media had been doing the same thing to my family and I. Charlie had just walked through the same crucible of fire.
I knew he’d get me. And I was tired of waiting for the men around me to finally step up to the plate and embrace all the things that made me – me. And it’s not like I had a lot of options.
I’m not kidding.
Here’s a lesson on dating in the one percent. When you climb up that high in the social echelon, you’re down to about fifty men and women forming an available dating pool, making it highly incestuous and shallow. I’m not saying woe is me; poor little rich girl. I’m trying to explain that it may seem odd to some, going to a serial killer to be understood on your own terms, but I’d argue many in my class, or your own, have made far worse compromises.
Some relationships may not make sense, may seem downright baffling to the outside eye, but I can explain them, save everyone a lot of time and money in therapy.
It’s not always your first choice that gets you in their gut.
Not always the rich one, the handsome one, the stable one, who can see your worst self, see how far off the rails you can go, and not run. Not always the one you bring home to your parents who can provide closure to what haunts you, who gives you what you need when the lights are off. Sometimes that gift comes from a far more offbeat path. Sometimes a man in a suit isn’t up to the task.
Sometimes it’s the serial killer.
She passed a road sign: The Huntsville Death Row unit was less than four miles away. In response, she slammed her ballet flat suited foot on the gas.
She couldn’t wait any longer to touch Charlie for the first time without a glass partition, to hold his strong hands without clanking chains, to kiss him without armed guards skulking around, to hear that voice that drove her wild without the filter of a Lysol-scented prison phone, and finally get to see what that body looked like not sheathed in a white jumpsuit. Sensory delirium felt so close.
In her rear-view mirror, she spied the caravan of reporters speeding up in response, inching up to her bumper, praying the lane would verge in two, so they could pull up along the side of her car and snap a photo. From above, she heard the slice of news helicopter blades flying low. She rolled down the window, freaked out by how close the chops sounded, and saw cameramen dangling from ladders trying to get low enough to sneak a shot of her. Suddenly, “Helter Skelter” started back up, as if to power the rest of her ride.
But her trip hit a snag about a mile from the prison.
Two police officers, one of them holding a leashed German Shepherd, appeared in the middle of the road, held up their hands for Elizabeth to stop, and then came to the driver’s side window.
“License and identification,” the Officer said.
Elizabeth dug in her purse. “What’s the problem, officer?”
“The state’s letting some shitheel off Death Row and the whole town’s about to burn down,” the Officer said. “There’s been bomb threats.”
Elizabeth handed the Officer her license and papers. He looked them over, evinced a cocky smile, and then knelt down slightly to meet her eyes.
“Miss Sunderland,” he said, sneering. “I don’t think I need to search your car. You’re not smuggling a bomb into my city. You’re bringing it home with you.”
Elizabeth smiled back, offering ice instead of anger to his snide commentary. “I am.”
“Hope it doesn’t blow up in your hands,” the Officer said, motioning his partner to move on to the next car. “I’d hate to read about you in the newspapers.” He handed Elizabeth back her things:
“Go ahead and meet your welcoming party,” he said, then whispered under his breath: “Sick city bitch.”
Elizabeth knew enough not to get into it with a cop, she’d been there already. You don’t get a month of lo-jack house arrest for being cooperative. So she rolled up her window, pressed down on the gas, and within a few hundred feet, knew exactly what Sergeant Shithead was talking about.
On either side of the street, penned in by waist-high orange barricades, were a thousand plus protestors, all forming a gauntlet of writhing bodies, and screaming in uniform ecstasy:
“Lock him back up…Lock him back up…It’s not too late…The evil is loose…”
Some of the protestors held huge placards displaying Charlie’s face dripping blood, or framed by a pentagram, symbolizing how demonic the general public considered him. Others held mounted posters with the victim’s faces and shouted so loud Elizabeth’s car nearly shook:
“…Justice for April…Justice for Christine…Justice for Jenny…Justice for Lauren…Justice for all Texans…”
She kept driving, passed a church group scattered on both sides of the street, and presided over by a pastor in a shiny gold suit, who held a megaphone. He was barking out commands in a style equally martial and holy for his flock to raise their candles up high, to pray for forgiveness from the dead women’s souls, and for God to find it in his heart to strike Charlie and boil him in Hell.
Elizabeth shook her head. Fuck me, she thought, this is what backwoods WASPs look like when they’ve gone mad on the Scofield Bible and crystal meth.
She shrunk behind the wheel, watched protestors attempt to scale the barricades:
These people are really pissed. I hope they don’t recognize me. I think they’ll kill me just to release their tension about Charlie’s release. Shit, I don’t want to die from irony. I just like it in my playlist.
I’m beginning to think we were all being naïve, assuming society’s mistrust of the cops and the legal system, would allow Charlie a smooth entrance back in. But he sure knew better. I’ll never forget his reaction when he found out about his release, because it paradoxically prompted our first real fight. I felt he was being cynical and misanthropic; when he said:
“Great. Now I’m fuckin’ O.J. Simpson.”
And he explained further:
“The knife and DNA they used to toss me in here aren’t getting booted because they incorrectly convicted me. The sample was contaminated. That shit doesn’t exonerate me; it means they lost the evidence for trial. Trust me. I wanna get outta here more than anyone, but it ain’t gonna be clean. I’m the new Juice. And they’re gonna tear me limb from limb. Buckle up, boys and girls.”
And watching these protestors frothing in rage, Elizabeth finally understood what Charlie meant. He was going to learn what it was like to be free, but still haunted and hissed at, just like O.J, also supposedly “free”, who got the pleasure of every lower court trying to throw him in jail or bankrupt him for the most minor infraction, so the legal system could try and atone for its past sins. They’d lie in wait for Charlie, like hungry wolves, until he had his Las Vegas armed-robbery trophy moment like the Juice. Then they could overcharge the shit out of him, lock him up, throw away the key, and flush him back down the system.
I actually met the Juice once, Elizabeth thought, shortly after his trial, when Daddy was trying to sell him a natural light drenched loft in a new SoHo building, and convince him to relocate. O.J. was friendly, didn’t seem worse for the wear, and had great shoes.
But appearances can always be deceiving. Maybe he was crumbling inside.
Kavanaugh was the first to notice Elizabeth’s Porsche pull into the lot. She stopped at the security post, reached over to show her credentials, and was clearly told to exit the car for further inspection:
“Think your ride’s here, Gillis.”
“Yup, that’s a fuckin’ Porsche 911,” Wurlitzer said. “You really went and hooked yourself up, Charlie boy. The lady is loa-ded.”
Charlie waited outside his former home, a squat, stone-faced, barbed wire rimmed tomb with blacked out windows. Wurtlizer and Kavanaugh stood on either side of him, sweat roping down from their armpits.
Charlie’s eyes, weakened by years of indoor confinement, sought sanctuary in a tight squint to guard against the sun. He wished it hadn’t been raining the day he’d gotten arrested; then he’d have his shades.
Wurlitzer whistled at Elizabeth’s car. “Shit. Maybe I need to go hack up some housewives my damn self…”
“…They weren’t housewives,” Kavanaugh cut-in and corrected, slowly reeling off the charges against Charlie to shame him. “Killer here, hacked up Lauren Francois, a grade-school teacher, April Pallant, a nurse with two kids, Jenny Wilner, a paralegal, and Christine Conte, a marketing director at the local network.”
“Yeah,” Wurlitzer said, readjusting his belt. “Well I think Elizabeth Sunderland can take care of herself. And if she can’t, her father definitely can. She tell you about him, killer? Daddy’s a heavy kind of dude.”
Charlie shielded his eyes, watched the security guard finish inspecting Elizabeth’s car: Hurry up, baby. I’m done with these two assholes. It’s been five years too long. All I want to do is touch you in the real world. Slam on the gas. I nearly died in here, and if death’s coming, I want it to be in your arms.
“She’s a real Daddy’s Girl,” Kavanaugh said, working in tandem with Wurlitzer. “That’s all I’ll say.”
Wurlitzer and Kavanaugh were an absurdist prison guard buddy act, and needling Charlie about Elizabeth and her father, showed them working at the height of their powers. They liked to hone in on an uncomfortable fact, really burrow in, and force their inmates to examine pieces of their lives they’d never given prior thought to, like:
How Charlie didn’t know a fucking thing about Elizabeth, outside of what she told him.
Wurlitzer kept pushing. “What exactly has she told you about anything, killer?”
Charlie stood firm, although he was in free-fall. “I know all I need to know.”
Wurlitzer giggled, looked over and shared the joke with Kavanaugh. “He doesn’t know shit. Maybe we should let these bastards have Internet access. Educate themselves on their female admirers.”
Charlie saw Elizabeth drive past the security post, start circling the lot on her way to him: Faster, babe, faster. Drive.
Kavanaugh chimed in with his own joke. “Google as a public fuckin’ service.”
Charlie didn’t need Google. He knew all about the type of women who wanted Death Row inmates, hell, he had the fan mail to prove it, but his wake-up call had been when he realized prisons considered those same women so unstable that they felt compelled to educate and warn convicts, about the pitfalls of that dating pool. Going so far as holding a special session headed by a psychiatrist, who explained that women drawn to inmates were usually motivated by a combination of desiring absolute control over a man — it’s not like a convict can leave you, lose the mortgage payment, piss off your parents, shake the baby, or fuck your best friend — melded to the tingle of meeting sexualized evil behind glass where the danger can’t touch you, like watching panthers at a zoo.
Kavanaugh laughed. “For real though, killer. You and I both know all she wants to do is tell the world she fucked a serial killer and lived. You give her one long hard ride on that criminal cock and she’s gonna sell your sex tape to the tabloids, then toss your ass to the wind, and you’ll be right back to us.” He pointed to the building behind them. “Where you belong.”
The shadow of the Porsche across their torsos announced Elizabeth’s arrival:
“Here she is, killer,” Wurlitzer said. “Have fun dumpin’ five years of criminal back-up into her hole. Tell her to get lots of towels.”
All of them, even Wurtlizer, cringed at that mental image, his final parting gift to Charlie.
Charlie turned around to face the guards, the Death Row edifice, and flipped up both his middle fingers: “Fuck you both and fuck this place. Cause while you go inside and spend the rest of the day wiping Frost’s ass and then go home to jerk off and eat a fuckin’ pot pie, I’m gonna be with my wife.”
Then he sprinted to the Porsche as it slowed to a crawl, ripped open the driver’s side door, hopped inside the car, and didn’t say a word, just started kissing Elizabeth for what seemed like five minutes, kissing her with all the life, love, and lust he’d been storing up, kissing her with the exhilaration of doing what everyone said he’d never do again, and he didn’t stop kissing, until she broke it with a gentle nibble on his lower lip, and said, sporting a feline grin:
“I’ve got to breathe babe.” She gave him one last peck, held up her ring finger hugged by a gold band, and put the car in motion. “Let’s get outta here and get busy being married.”
“Best words I’ve ever heard.” He smiled. “Elizabeth Sunderland-Gillis.”
She piloted through the prison lot, passing huddled law-enforcement sedans and correction facility buses, and then slammed down on the gas when she reached the exit back onto the highway.
“Oh no. Daddy would never allow it. I’ll always be a Sunderland.” She said, finding a quaint charm in his lack of understanding about the power of family names in her world. Although delusional, it was still a welcome change of pace. Can you imagine the scandal that would erupt if one of the most powerful men in New York’s daughter took the last name of an accused serial killer?
“You can hyphenate,” she said. “Charlie Gillis-Sunderland.”
The reappearance of her rather inconspicuous car signaled the media convoy to start up their engines, and tag along in pursuit, since they’d all been denied access at the Death Row gate, where only visitors approved by the Warden were granted admittance to enter.
Charlie turned his head, looked back at the endless trail of uninvited guests following them down the single-lane street, like the world’s longest tailgating party:
“Jesus Christ.” He looked to Elizabeth. “How famous are you?”
She laughed. “This is all for you. I don’t draw crowds like this.”
He took a minute to process the carnival, but was still overwhelmed, especially by the sound of whirling blades above. “Are those helicopters?”
She smacked her lips. “Yup.”
“All for me?”
“All for you.”
“I feel like I’m living in the last day of Vietnam, when everyone hid on the Embassy roof waiting to get rescued from above.”
“Charlie,” she said, baffled. “How do you know how Vietnam ended? Was it in one of the books I sent you?”
“It might have been.” Charlie started to roll down the window to get a closer look at the media chaos he was dragging along in his wake.
“Don’t,” Elizabeth shouted, stopping him. “Don’t open that. It’s not safe.”
“Shit. Even dogs get to drive with their head out a window.”
“You’re not a dog in Texas. You’re Charlie Gillis. Dogs have freedom.”
“Is it going to be like this everywhere?”
“Not like this,” she said. “This is where the murders happened. People have strong opinions about you here.”
“Tell me about it. The fuckin’ guard told me he’s going to join a head-hunting party to take me out.”
Charlie threw his hands up, exasperated. “Does it matter?”
“You know I like all the details,” she said, smiling. “It helps make a story feel more real to me. That’s my communication style, we discussed this…”
“…Kavanaugh,” Charlie said, indulging her. “It was Kavanaugh,”
“Is he the one who sold our wedding photos to the tabloids and had to return the money, when the Warden found out?”
“No. That’s Wurlitzer…”
“…I should have thanked him. I looked fucking amazing in that dress. Everyone around me was jealous…”
“…Kavanaugh’s the fat one.”
“Right,” Elizabeth said. “He’s such an asshole. He used to stare at my tits the entire time when I came to visit.”
Charlie smirked. “Well you pushed the Death Row visitor dress code pretty far.”
“I push everything pretty far.”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh you’ll find out.”
He laughed, seduced by her charm that traveled in oblique paths. “How do you manage to always make everything about you, and not have me notice? It’s a gift. I’m telling you citizens want to kill me, and we end up on your tits, and I have no idea how we got there.”
“Honestly, Charlie, ask yourself: which is more interesting?”
“I’m serious. It’s not bad enough I got the fucker who framed me to worry about…”
Elizabeth was taken aback, practically slammed on the brake in surprise. “…What would he want with you?”
“What do you mean?” Charlie couldn’t understand how this never crossed her mind. “I’m out. His frame-job got burned. You think he’s just going to let me walk around? I wouldn’t.”
“But you didn’t see him that night.”
“Well yeah,” Charlie said. “I wouldn’t have ended up on Death Row if I saw him.”
“Then what’s he got to worry about? Your release didn’t hurt him.”
It was Charlie’s turn to be taken aback. “How do you figure that?”
“Everyone still thinks you did it,” she said. “The real killer’s safe. If the State found you not guilty, wanted to open up your case again, then he’d be screwed.” She turned to him, gave him a little grin. “It just looks like I bought justice for you by hiring every specialist not nailed down to poke holes in their case, until one of them finally gave way, and they had to let you out.“
“So pretty much everyone thinks I’m guilty?”
“Not everyone.” She blew him a kiss. “I don’t.”
“That sounds pretty grim for me.”
“You asshole,” she said. “Don’t I count?”
He smiled. “You know what I meant.”
“I do. That’s why we’re going to Manhattan.” She grabbed his knee and held it tight. “Eight million people. And no one gives a shit about anyone else’s business.” She ran her hand up his thigh, inching higher and higher:
“Except if you smoke cigarettes or drink soda. Both really bad. But alleged killers can just waltz around with impunity.”
“They should put that on a brochure.” He held her hand, helped it travel up his leg. “I don’t care where we go, as long we’re together. It’s how I survived Death Row. I forgave it. Because it brought me you.”
Their hands intertwined, as they got closer to the zipper on his jeans.
“All we need to do is keep you alive long enough to get to Daddy’s jet,” she said.
“Sure you’re up to it…”
Her hands caressed the fabric around the top button his pants. “…I’m more than up to it.”
Suddenly, Elizabeth’s cell phone, which she had connected to the car, rang. She pulled her hand away, hit down speaker, and said:
“This is Elizabeth.”
“Miss Sunderland,” said Eddie, one of her security guards. “We just got word the trajectory of Tropical Storm Irma shifted, and will be making landfall in Manhattan in four hours. We’re grounded here for the evening. They won’t let us take off.”
“Even if we leave in half an hour?” She said, practically pleading. “We’re only thirty miles from the fucking landing strip, Eddie.”
“No dice,” Eddie said. “This comes down from the FAA.”
“But I don’t want to spend the night here,” Elizabeth said, partly whining. “I don’t get a good feeling from Huntsville.”
“I got a fuckin’ killer after me, man,” Charlie said. “We gotta keep moving.”
“That was Charlie,” Elizabeth said, frowning. “I’d have preferred to introduce you two properly.”
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Gillis,” Eddie said. “I look forward to working with you. But no, Miss Sunderland. We’re officially grounded. Can’t do it. You and your pilot would be in violation of federal…”
“…Whatever, Eddie. Explanations don’t help.” Elizabeth hung up the phone, pissed. “Looks like we’re stuck.” She eyed Charlie, looked out the windows, and sighed. “This is your town. What should we do?”
“This isn’t my town. I was just gonna die here. I grew up in Galveston.”
“See that’s just big-city ignorance and elitism,” Charlie said. “Galveston is a beach town. Tourists go there.”
She laughed. “You’re right, okay. Get to the point and give me an activity.”
“Point is. I don’t know what to do here.”
She turned to him, lips slightly puckered. “We could find a hotel, consummate our marriage.”
He laughed. “You’re not going to find a hotel here. Just a motel.”
She was genuinely intrigued. “What’s a motel?”
“Your room faces your parking space. They’re usually right off the highway.”
She scrunched up her nose. “I’ll pass.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Have you ever stayed in one?”
“I wish. I lived in trailers most of my life.”
She looked over to him and noticed that his erection was pressing against the fabric of his jeans. “Even if we’re not sure, seems like someone knows what he wants.”
“Well you warmed him up before,” he said. “I’ve wanted this from the first moment I saw you. I jerk off to you every night.”
Elizabeth wasn’t entirely sure how to take that. “Thanks.”
Charlie hadn’t picked up that this line of conversation wasn’t exactly doing it for her. “You think about me when you jerk off?”
She seemed slightly offended. “I don’t jerk off, Charlie. I celebrate myself. Don’t belittle it. I’m not just some grunting animal…”
“…Fine,” he said. “Do you think about me when celebrating?”
She slapped his knee. “You’re in my rotation. Way in front though.”
He laughed. “So it’s like a celebratory mix tape.” He slapped his hands together. “Hell, now I’m a little worried I might lose my headline spot. I’m not sure about the length of my upcoming performance.”
She eyed his erection again. “The length looks fine to me.”
“No. I’m gonna get off in thirty seconds. I haven’t had sex for five years.” He laughed. “I think I need to rub one out before I get to you.”
“That can be arranged.” She jangled the bracelets on her wrist. “Show it to me.”
“Are you serious?”
“I can drive with one hand.”
“Take off some of the bracelets though. They might weigh you down. I like some speed and tug to it.”
She smiled. “It won’t be a problem. I’ve done this plenty of times.”
“Okay,” Charlie said. “Don’t need to know that.” He unzipped his fly, reached inside to pull his dick out into her welcoming hand, when the car violently jerked forward.
“Fuck,” Elizabeth screeched.
Smoke began to rise from the back. The force of the blow had sent them out of the lane and careening to the side of the road. Someone had rammed right into the car, and both Elizabeth and Charlie thought the same thing:
Someone found Charlie already and was going to kill him.
The only difference was their guess on the culprit. Elizabeth thought it was a Texan hell-bent on vengeance. Charlie imagined it was the killer himself, the man who stabbed him fourteen times and left him for dead to rot for his crimes.