The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 2, No. 2

Thinning the Herd

by Peter Lefcourt

"He kept spewing them out. Like rabbit turds. Who did he think he was--Trollope? They should give me a medal instead of locking me up. Don't you think?"
      I nodded imperceptibly, anxious not to inflame him further. They had warned me he was prone to sudden fits of rage. That morning he had been given new medication in an attempt to stabilize his mood swings.
      We were sitting in the sun-splattered visitor's room at Camarillo State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, face-to-face across a green Formica table under the vacant eyes of an armed guard. The room reeked of Mr. Clean and Haldol. I had been there for forty minutes and had already filled two microcassettes on my Panasonic tape recorder.
      It was his doctor, a psychopathologist named Rayna Midori, recently arrived from Bombay, who had decided that talking to a writer might be therapeutic. His court-appointed lawyer gave permission with the proviso that I wouldn't publish anything until all the appeals were exhausted.
      "That could be twenty years," I pointed out.
      "I sincerely doubt it," the lawyer replied, in a tone of voice that indicated just how much confidence he had in his case.
      In any event, I was not rushing into print. I had no deadline. I didn't even have an assignment. What I had was a curiosity to learn what motivated a forty-six-year-old Culver City computer programmer to murder five writers on five successive Tuesdays in the late summer and early autumn of 1993.
      Warren David Warren, dubbed "The Scribe Slayer," "Son of Shakespeare," etc., by the tabloids, had chosen me to tell his story from a large pool of applicants for the job. It was never explained to me, or to anyone else for that matter, why he picked me, and when I asked Warren the question during our first interview, he simply replied, "you were far enough down the line."
      Just how far down the line I would never know, but I found myself wondering about it. Was I before or after Updike? What about John Irving? Anne Tyler? Certainly those people deserved it more than I did, given the basic premise that Warren David Warren articulated to me during our very first interview.
      "I was merely thinning the herd," he said.
      He took a sip of coffee from a Styrofoam cup and settled as comfortably as he could in the uncomfortable molded-plastic chair.
      "It was a question of ecology. Do you understand?"
      I nodded. Carefully. Gingerly.
      "Everywhere you go," he continued, in a measured voice that, for the moment, was devoid of emotion, "someone's writing something. Your sister-in-law, your accountant, even your gardener. They're all taking writing classes, working on novels, sending outlines and sample chapters to publishers. Every day the herd gets bigger and bigger, chewing up all the grazing land, denuding the landscape. Soon it'll be dried up entirely. And then what?"
      He stopped and looked at me for confirmation. I gave him a perfunctory nod. It wasn't until that evening, however, when I was home transcribing the interview, that I was able to admit to myself that Warren David Warren had articulated feelings that were not entirely foreign to me.
      The following day he described a vision that was eerily close to one of my own recurring nightmares.
      "It's like somewhere in a warehouse in Palmdale," he said. "You've chained two thousand monkeys to computers, and each time they type a page you give them a banana, and then you take these pages and rearrange them in random samples, which you send out indiscriminately to publishers."
      In my own particular nightmare you had students from all the writing schools everywhere hot-wired to an on-line brain scanner, and at night, while they slept, the contents of their brains were downloaded directly onto the hard disks of publishing houses. In the morning, the publishing houses remitted checks into the liquid money-market accounts of the writing-school graduates.
      "As far as I was concerned," warren explained, "Jamison was the head monkey. His books were on the bestseller list for forty, fifty weeks at a shot. You couldn't even go to the supermarket without seeing twenty different-colored copies of his latest book staring at you from the checkout stand next to the Enquirer."
      Murray Jamison had been garroted with the interface cable that ran between his computer and his printer on August 31, 1993, while working on the galleys of his fifteenth novel, published posthumously and now in its eighty-fourth paperback printing.
      It was reported that the killer had broken into Jamison's San Clemente house from the beach side, using the mandated public access to the beach to get inside the compound. This revelation revived the controversy about public access to beaches in California. Jamison's widow went on television claiming that her husband would be alive today if there hadn't been public access.
      "She didn't know what she was talking about," Warren claimed. "I went right in the front. There was a eucalyptus tree next to the wall. They showed his house on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I freeze-framed on my VCR, magnified the image through the digital scanning device, and read the number.
      "While I was disconnecting the cable I told him what I thought of The Furrier. The Times actually gave it a good review. They said it was vintage Jamison. It was vintage monkey drivel was what it was. I read the book standing up in Barnes and Noble."
      When on the following Tuesday a second writer was found dead in Century City, the police had not drawn any immediate connection with Jamison. Vera Vruma was defenestrated from her penthouse condo, splattered on the roof of the building's heating and air-conditioning unit off Pico Boulevard. It wasn't a pretty sight. A reporter for one of the eleven o'clock news remote teams tossed her cookies in the van before doing a stand-up, white-faced and shaky, beside the blood-stained chalk outline of the body. Though there was no note, the initial assumption was suicide.
      Vruma wrote erotic thrillers about complex women with vaguely bisexual longings. Two of her books had been turned into high-grossing movies and a third was under option.
      "She was nothing more than a literary pornographer," Warren David Warren said. "Just because she used semicolons, people thought she was Anaïs Nin."
      The police still didn't think Vera Vruma was murdered until Lorenzo LaCivita's body bobbed up from the bottom of the Lake Hollywood Reservoir on a Friday night ten days later. The medical examiner put the murder three days earlier, on a Tuesday night--exactly a week, as it happened, after Vera Vruma took her involuntary swan dive and two weeks after Murray Jamison's air supply was shut off in his San Clemente study.
      Actually, it wasn't the police but a reporter from Hard Copy, a young almond-eyed Asian woman by the name of Lilian Wong, who first speculated in public about the connection among the three dead writers. She went on the air with a special report called "Writer Killer on the Loose: Terror at the Typewriter."
      "I had been wondering what was taking them so long," Warren David Warren told me. "The whole point was being lost. There are so many random murders in Los Angeles that it takes a while for people to see the connection. The fact was, until that Hard Copy reporter went on TV with her story I couldn't get arrested.
      "LaCivita could have been top on my list, but I saved him for third because he wasn't taken seriously. The Times didn't even review his books. Did you know that The Windless Journey of the Soul was on the hardcover nonfiction list for 196 consecutive weeks? I mean, have you ever read it?"
      I shook my head.
      "That man should have been declared a public health nuisance years before I killed him. I got him jogging around the lake at dusk. Bludgeoned him with a cement garden sculpture, then tied him to it and sent him off to the bottom of the lake. I read somewhere it's a hundred feet deep. If I had tied him better he wouldn't have come up for years. Talk about a windless journey. . . ."
      To be perfectly honest, I hadn't mourned for Lorenzo LaCivita. I'm sure I wasn't the only writer who breathed a furtive sigh of satisfaction in anticipation of the additional bookstore window space that would be freed up by his retirement from the field.
      But I admit that I felt a frisson of anxiety nonetheless when the Hard Copy reporter did her "Son of Shakespeare" story. Three murders. Three successful writers. Three Tuesdays in a row. Though we were still perhaps a murder or two short of a full-blown serial killer, things were looking trendy.
      I remember waking up the following Tuesday with a tight little spot of anxiety in my gut. I remember thinking about the fact that it was Tuesday. I remember trying to calm myself down with the thought that I was not a bestselling author. Far from it.
      I did my morning exercises and allowed the routine of the day to reassure me. I was calm, benumbed in the quotidian. I wrote my five pages, had a martini with lunch, took a nap, then made the mistake of turning on the TV.
      Barb Papilla, the ebullient Latina anchorwoman on the Channel 9 Early Evening News, announced that a fourth writer had bought the ranch.
      Anticipating my false sense of security, Warren David Warren had chosen a mid-list writer this time. Xavier Dionne, a French Canadian novelist, had written a thriller about the murder of a noted separatist politician in Rimouski. Cul de Sac, or Dead End as it was called in its English translation, had been dismissed by the critics, and his American publisher was trying to counteract the lukewarm press with a twelve-city book tour.
      "I got Dionne right after he did Good Morning, L.A.," Warren told me, by now less guarded if not completely forthcoming with me.
      "They had him in the Holiday Inn on Highland. Cheap publisher. They wouldn't put Joyce Carol Oates in the Holiday Inn. I got his room number off the house phone and then slipped in and hid in the closet while the chamber maid was getting more towels.
      "When he walked in the door and saw me sitting there with a copy of his book in my hands, he said, 'I'm sorry. The signing is at Brentanos at eleven.' When I didn't answer, he asked me who I was.
      "What I should have said was that I was the angel of death come to dispatch him. But I didn't think of it at the moment. L'esprit de l'escalier.
      "Instead I read him a passage from his book--a long, redundant, turgidly written paragraph, one of many--and asked him how he could possibly have written that.
      "For a moment he didn't say anything. He just stood there looking hurt. And then, and this really takes the cake, he started to defend himself. He said it was a bad translation. The man had less than a minute to live and he was blaming things on the translator.
      "I used a 9mm Beretta with a silencer. Got him right in the larynx. Then I took the copy of Dead End, underlined the egregious paragraph, and left it beside him, open to that page."
      On Wednesday night Lilian Wong had a camera crew in the room at the Holiday Inn. The underlined paragraph was printed as a graphic on the screen over footage of the crime scene. It caused a sensation. There were debates on the literary merits of the paragraph and discussions of whether writers should pay the supreme price for bad writing.
      But mostly there was fear. We all wondered where "The Scribe Slayer" would strike next. Writers took precautions. They hired security guards. Some writers even left town.
      "You were certainly getting press after Dionne," I said to Warren.
      "It was about time. But they still weren't talking about the issue. Nobody was talking about the need to cut back the herd. That's why I sent the letter to the Times."
      Warren's letter to the editor was studied by forensic experts at the LAPD before being printed in the Monday edition of the Los Angeles Times. In it he spoke about the "ecological imbalance" caused by the "exponential increase" in the number of writers in the world. He explained that he had nothing personal against writers, that he himself was a writer, albeit unrecognized, but that in the absence of self-discipline or the appropriate Darwinian forces coming into play, the problem was only getting worse. He blamed computers, writing schools--which he called a "nefarious cottage industry"--and the poor taste of the publishing industry. It will not be long, he predicted, before a Grisham's Law of Literature will take over, with bad writing driving good writing out of the market.
      "It really pissed me off," said Warren, "when those idiot psychologists started showing up on Larry King with my letter and spouting off that serial-killer garbage. They thought I was just some sort of crackpot whacking writers because I had nothing better to do.
      "And then when they started to say that I chose Tuesday because it was the day on which something traumatic must have happened to me . . . I mean, really . . ."
      "Why did you choose Tuesday?"
      He looked at me the way a schoolteacher looks at a star pupil who asks a question to which he would have known the answer if he had been paying attention.
      "I thought you got it."
      "I really do get it. The whole ecological thing. Neo-Malthusian theory, and so forth. But I don't know why you couldn't thin the herd on Monday or on Wednesday."
      He smiled. It was not a particularly pretty smile. He had been undergoing extensive work in the prison dental clinic and was flashing a lot of amalgamated silver. Then he leaned forward, out of earshot of the guard, and whispered something that sounded to me like "Egg McMuffin."
      My face must have registered a blank because he started to raise his voice, "The thing that it's about but it isn't. Don't you see? Like the Maltese Falcon. That movie's not about a stuffed bird. It's about human greed. For Christ's sake."
      When he started shouting and spitting, the guard had him removed by orderlies wearing protective clothing, even though I protested that he was not going to harm me.
      I woke up at four that morning, wide awake, and realized that the word he was trying to tell me was "McGuffin." So Tuesday was a McGuffin. Great. I got the answer that no one else was able to get during the trial and afterward. But it didn't make me any happier.
      You see, I desperately needed to believe that Warren David Warren was a lunatic and not a revisionist literary Darwinian, as he claimed to be. The implications of the latter theory were unthinkable for someone whose last book sold 1,124 copies. Frankly, I'm surprised I wasn't higher up on Warren's hit list, considering the fact that there were 3,876 unsold copies of my book that were considered too worthless to be recycled on the remainder tables. I was an ecological menace.
      Number five, as it happened, was even less successful than I was. She had only one thin volume of abstruse poetry, which had been published by a Midwestern university press with a print run of 500 copies.
      "She reviewed a book of poems for The New York Times Book Review," Warren explained. "Interstices or Interlinear or something. I don't remember. I hadn't read the book. But the review was so pretentious I almost threw up. She used the word ineluctable three times. After I read that review, she moved right up to the top of the list."
      Joanna Taubman-Lully presumably never saw it coming. She had not been grazing on a lot of prime land. On the contrary. You couldn't even find her book, Birdsong, in a bookstore, let alone in the window. You had to order it from the university mail-order catalogue.
      It was perhaps fitting, then, that her end came through the mail. Warren sent her a fan letter with an autograph sticker and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. She was to sign the sticker and mail it back to him. The letter arrived on a Tuesday, of course, and she signed the sticker, put it in the envelope, and licked the flap without knowing that the flap had been treated with a tasteless and odorless compound that became a slow-acting poison when combined with saliva.
      According to Lilian Wong on Hard Copy, Taubman-Lully, 47, was dead seven hours after licking the envelope and dropping it into the mailbox on the corner of Ocean Park and 17th Street in Santa Monica, where she shared a small rented house with her lover, Jocelyn Brautman, 29, who found her on the kitchen floor when she came home from work--by which time the evidence had already been picked up and sorted in the Santa Monica post office for next-day delivery to Warren David Warren.
      "They said I wanted to get caught. All those TV shrinks with their theories of unconscious guilt and self-hatred. That's not why they caught me. They were lucky.
      "There was no way I could have known that Gerry Kim was going to show up to clean Gavin Frobisher's pool on Tuesday, between four and five in the afternoon. I had scouted it out, and I knew that the pool man came on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This particular week he decides to come on Tuesday. He said on Geraldo that he couldn't come on Wednesday that week because his brother-in-law needed him to help carry lawn fertilizer in his truck because the brother-in-law's truck was getting new engine mounts.
      "Everything else I had covered. I had a way into the yard. I knew that Gavin Frobisher worked outside in the late afternoon. They said in Vanity Fair that he liked to work in the nude and jump in the pool every ten pages.
      "You can imagine the look on his face when I climbed over the tool shed, carrying a copy of The Bridge to Nowhere--that piece of shit they're making into a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer.
      "He grabs a towel and looks at me, figuring me for some sort of fan. Though he's not thrilled that I've snuck into his yard, he sees the book in my hand and smiles. Jesus. What an ego. His head is in the guillotine, and he's asking the executioner if he wants him to sign a copy of his book before he drops the blade?
      "'Look, I don't mind signing books,' he says, 'but you shouldn't have come in like that. It's an invasion of privacy.'
      "I hold his book up and I say, 'This . . . this is an invasion of privacy.'
      "Suddenly there's fear in the man's eyes. He figures he's dealing with a nutcase. He reaches for the portable phone, and I dropkick it into the pool.
      "When he gets up, his towel falls off, and he's standing there naked, his scrotum shriveled up like a dried apricot. He backs away toward the house, as I take the bindlestich out of my pocket. . . ."
      I sat there, fascinated, wrapped up in his story. Even though I knew how it ended, I was captivated. Warren David Warren was, as they say on the book jackets, a born storyteller. If only he had been given a little more grazing room, I found myself thinking as he told me that a bindlestich is a Swiss shoe-repairing tool, a sharp, two-pronged instrument used to pull the stitches out of leather.
      We never got to find out just how Warren was planning to use the bindlestich on Gavin Frobisher because Gerry Kim walked in the gate at that moment to clean the pool. The sound of the gate closing distracted Warren David Warren long enough for Gavin Frobisher to open the sliding glass door, run inside his house, and call 911.
      Gerry Kim told Geraldo that he just went about his business checking the chlorine-pH balance of the pool as Warren walked right past him out the gate, and Frobisher, looking out his front window, got the plate number off Warren's 1989 Honda Civic.
      They picked Warren David Warren up three hours later at his apartment in Culver City as he sat eating a burrito and watching a rerun of I Love Lucy. He surrendered without a struggle to the LAPD SWAT Squad, who had cordoned off the entire street and posted armed snipers on neighboring roofs.
      Lilian Wong was among the first on the scene. As they led Warren out of the building and the public got their first look at him, she told her viewers, "I am here on a quiet Culver City street where suspected writer-killer Warren David Warren is being led away by members of a combined LAPD-FBI task force. . . ."
      "If only the gardener's brother-in-law's truck didn't need engine mounts," Warren uttered wistfully, "I could have nailed Frobisher. . . ."
      It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was starting to drop behind the mountains. In a few minutes they would come and take him back to the ward. He would disappear behind the locked door, to be sedated and parked in front of the TV with the others, and I would never see him again.
      That afternoon when I arrived, I had been informed by Dr. Midori that this was to be my last interview with Warren David Warren.
      "Frankly, I believe these sessions are now contraindicated," she had said to me, sitting behind the gunmetal gray desk underneath her University of Bombay Medical School diploma. "I had hoped that by talking to you he would begin somehow to understand the wrongness of his acts, but we seem to be faced with the contrary. If anything, he appears more agitated after speaking with you than he is before."
      "Really?" I said, raising an eyebrow.
      "Yes. His dementia is such that he thinks that you somehow approve of what he did."
      So as I sat there that afternoon with Warren David Warren in the dwindling daylight, I tried to tie up one or two loose ends.
      "How were you going to use the bindlestich on Frobisher?" I asked him.
      The last flickering embers of Haldol lit the corners of his eyes.
      "How do you think?"
      "Down his throat?" I ventured.
      "All the way," he grinned. "As far as I could go."
      I looked at him and nodded. There was a moment of perfect understanding between us.
      "When you had gotten down the list as far as me," I said, "how would you have done it?"
      "Elegantly," he said.
      "I would have expected no less."
      "When I get out of here, I'm coming after you," he promised, with conviction.
      "Of course. I'll write fast."
      Just before the guard took him away, he whispered, "Get Frobisher."
      "No problem."
      A half hour later, as I was driving south on 101, I heard an interview on NPR with a TV star who had just written his third bestseller. There was a first printing of 500,000 copies, and they were going back to press. The bookstores couldn't keep the book in stock. I decided to move him up the list. Right after Frobisher.