The Word Boss
Leon’s chair groaned as he leaned his three hundred pounds backward. The banker’s lamp on his desk cast deep shadows on his acne-scarred face and a bright spot on the silver and red money counter. Although a cigar muffled his speech, Kathy understood him clearly enough. “Nikhedonia. That’s going to cost you one hundred.”
Kathy met Leon’s words with a gasp. She almost brought her hand to her face, but her instinct for self-preservation stopped her. No sudden moves.
“Pay up or don’t use nikhedonia.” Leon chuckled. His eyes blackened, becoming both a window into his soul and a fortress surrounding it. “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.” He flicked open the switchblade on his desk and used it to drill a small hole into the cigar tip.
Like hell you don’t. Kathy’s face tensed. The two armed bodyguards on opposite sides of Leon moved their hands to the pistols tucked in their pants. She willed herself to appear non-threatening. “That’s outrageous. You probably don’t even know — ” Kathy instantly regretted that sentence. Leon had a volatile and violent reputation. She’d heard the stories. A friend of a friend self-published a novel without paying any word authorization fees. That writer spent a month in the hospital. Another writer, ironically a mystery author, was found dead at the bottom of a lake in the Catskills, weights tied to his arms and legs, a paperback thesaurus stuffed into his mouth.
There were no free words, not if you valued your kneecaps or life.
Leon leaned forward and slammed his beefy arms on the desk, making the room shake like a thunderclap had assaulted it. “I know what nikhedonia means!” he growled. “If you’re here to insult me, the price just went up twenty-five percent.”
“No, no, sir.” Kathy lowered her eyes to the floor. “I’m sorry. It’s just that Mr. Saly’s fee is only twenty dollars a word.”
“That’s indeed true, but he’s the boss of easy words like ‘refrigerator’ and ‘swim.’ You want to use a fancy word in your book, you have to pay fancy prices.” He released a long breath, like a deflating balloon. Leon seemed calmer to Kathy now, maybe because he knew that she knew she had no road to travel other than the road that ended at his wallet. “If you want to sound like you’re a know-nothing writer, fine then, just use the words controlled by Saly and the other dime-store word bosses. If you want your prose to shine with words like ‘jentacular’ and ‘crapulence’ you have to pay up.”
Leon’s office had more in common with a coffin than an office. Dented filing cabinets lined three walls, and the floor was covered by a tattered, brown carpet that bore the impressions of dozens of fallen bodies. The carpet carried the metallic stench of dried blood. A photograph of an emaciated old man hung on the wall behind Leon. His father or grandfather? The man in the photograph was so skinny it was hard to imagine a genetic connection between him and the minivan-sized Leon.
I might as well get it all over with today so I don’t have to come back. “Can I get perfidy and excoriate, too?” she asked.
Leon shook his head. “Those words are in Joseph Talin’s territory. Mid-level words. I only deal with the fancy words. You’ll have to see him, but I gotta tell you, Talin doesn’t have a charming personality like me.” Leon interlaced his fingers, reversed his palms, and cracked his knuckles. “We bosses don’t encroach on each other’s territories. That’s our golden rule. The less violence, the better.”
Except for the poor writers who don’t pay, Kathy thought.
“Okay,” she said. Kathy offered the bodyguards a disarming smile, hoping to telegraph, “no weapon.” Slowly, she reached into her bag and withdrew her wallet. With trembling hands, she counted out five twenties and held them in her outstretched arm. The closest guard snatched the bills and deposited them on Leon’s desk. Leon scooped up the cash and slid the pile into the money counter, which whirred as it sorted and counted.
Kathy spied the digital counter: $36,100. She wondered if that was Boss Leon’s haul for a day, a week, or maybe just an hour.
“I love that sound,” Leon said. He chewed on his cigar for a few seconds. “You’re a good writer?”
Kathy nodded like one of those bobble head dolls. “I think so. I get good reviews. My most recent novel was in the top ten in thrillers on Amazon.”
“Tell you what. I don’t get many writers who want jentacular or poltophagy. You want to use either of those, they’re only fifty bucks each.” He made an odd purring sound. “Deals like that don’t come along every day.”
Kathy wasn’t sure if Leon was being generous or making a demand. “Okay.” She retrieved another hundred dollars from her wallet.
“Good then,” Leon said. “We’re done here.” He flicked his hand her way.
Kathy stood and sidled toward the door. She hesitated before reaching for the doorknob and turned back toward Leon. “Can I ask you a question?” She had no idea where her sudden boldness came from.
“Seeing how we’re going to be long-term business partners, sure.”
“With these word authorization fees, how does any writer make a living?”
“That’s not my problem. Now get out of here.” The bodyguards tapped the sides of their pistols. Kathy didn’t need to be told again.