You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

A Stet in the Dark: A Grammar Noir Mystery, Part 3

The Baltimore Sun

Part 1: The Man with Pince-nez

Part 2: Albion Redux

 

Part 3: In the Chamber

The Chamber had a handful of bare desks and damaged chairs. The walls were a neutral yet muddy color, fluorescent lighting buzzed annoyingly overhead, and the air was as dry and stale as a business reporter’s vocabulary.

It was so much like a newsroom that a wave of nostalgia swept over me.

Sweeney seemed oddly solicitous, like a tyro reporter who imagines it’s possible to curry favor with a copy editor. “If you get bored,” he said, “we got a room full of books over there. We sold the shelves, but you can’t get anything for books and they want to charge you to haul them away.”

“Sweeney, old chum,” I said, “why so concerned about your prisoner? Is there something you want from me?”

He sighed with relief, like an intern whose headline has passed muster with the slot. “The Boss says I gots to go to this editor society thing wearing a bow tie.”

“And?”

“I can’t tie one, and the Boss says no pre-tied.”

“Sweeney, my man, do you have a phone that gets internet sites?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Let me show you a video with an expert who explains how to do it.”

He more or less got it down by the tenth try.

“But it’s crooked,” he said.

“That’s how people can tell it’s real. Now, is there anything else?

“Well,” he mumbled, “ how am I supposed to talk to those people?”

“Easy. They’ve all been to college and they’re vain about their vocabularies. Just use some fancy words. Suppose you’re in a bar with them. Say you’re not adverse to a cocktail. Explain that the proof of the whiskey is a criteria of its quality. Tell them you always appreciate a fulsome pour. Like that.”

“Gee, you’re all right. I’ll see to it that you get an extra ladle in your swill tonight.”

After dinner—the swill was a grade or two above the prefab sandwiches in a newsroom vending machine—I helped Sweeney with a little more vocabulary-building.

The next morning he was off to St. Petersburg, and I settled down with a copy of The Kingdom and the Power that looked as if it had never been read to await the outcome of the Gray Man’s putsch.

 

Next: Waiting

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