The rule you don't break
Continued from ""The Fat Man chuckles"
The cold rain was coming down as hard and fast as layoff notices in a newsroom. As I hurried down the front walk of the Fat Man’s house, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye.
Ducking around a corner, I stood behind a tree and waited. A figure in a dark raincoat came around, and I grabbed an arm and twisted.
“Hey! Take it easy, buster. Do you know who I am?”
A woman’s voice. I pulled her over to a streetlight for a look. “Well, well, a little far from home, Ms. Freeman.”
Jan Freeman, copy-editor-turned-moll for Language Log’s Boston family. First non-linguist to be named a consigliere. I let go.
Rubbing her arm, she said, “You’re out of your depth here, McIntyre. Go home.”
“No chance, sister. I’m not going to walk away and let you do Steven Pinker’s dirty work. I know about the putsch, and what’s more, I figured out who killed the Mister.”
Her shoulders slumped. She shook her head and turned. She stopped and hissed at me: “You're just a two-bit grifter, and that's all you'll ever be.” Then she was gone.
I was pensive on the drive back to the Brockenbrough bungalow. Editing’s a mug’s game. The words strain and crack; sometimes they break under the burden, the tension. They slip and slide and perish — won’t stay still. You go out on a raid on the inarticulate, and not everybody comes back. The public doesn’t like to see it but wants it done. That leaves it to me.
Martha was sitting in the living room. The scientists had gone, taking the body. “What did he say?” she asked.
“What I needed to know.”
“Let me ask you a question. Your book, Things That Make Us [Sic], doesn’t it have an entry on what Bryan Garner lists under ‘Superstitions’ and H.W. Fowler under ‘Fetishes,”?
“Yes. Sure. I called them “false commandments.’”
“Uh-huh. Got a copy handy?”
There’s one in the study.”
She led the way through the door to the library and over to the desk. There was a little blood on the blotter, and next to it, on top of a clipping of James J. Kilpatrick’s annual column on the placement of only — it figures — was Martha’s book.
I picked it up and turned to page 223, “THE TEN FALSE COMMANDMENTS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.” “Was this what you and he were arguing about?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t play games with me. I made a phone call on my way back, and the boys will be back. Once they match this dent in the buckram cover to that bruise on the Mister’s temple, it’s all over.”
Her face crumpled.
“National Grammar Day was mine, mine, and he and his pack of cranks wanted to take it over. There were going to be uprisings of English teachers in all the major cities. He laughed at Chapter 10, ‘Rules That Never Were, Are No More, and Should Be Broken.’ He said that when the cabal made English the official language, all those rules would be written into the United States Code. He was mad and out of control, and I picked up my book and struck him.”
“He swore, said the cabal would have me locked up in Leavenworth. I reached for that red pencil and struck at him, and he groaned and slumped over the desk and was still.”
“It’s over. Oxford University Press has moved Jesse Sheidlower to a secure, undisclosed location. The flatfoots are rounding up the members of the cabal. The threat to National Grammar Day is over. I just want to know one thing.”
“Why’d you call me in?”
“You’re a professional copy editor. You fix things.”
“All but this. Sweetheart, you’re taking the fall. National Grammar Day will go on, but you’ll be spending it in a cell.”
Outside, a siren was growing louder.