THE GHOST DEAL
Quentin Lawrence did not return to his office until 3.45. Endless London drizzle, an unsatisfactory lunch and an argument with that stubborn cuss Harrap had all contributed to unquiet stomach and grim frame of mind.
“Mr Lawrence. American rights – ”
In some discomfort he glanced up from his desk.
“A damnable business,” Lawrence groaned by way of response to his secretary. He lit a cigarette, releasing a cloud of smoke in her direction. “An absurd day!”
“Lunch not up to scratch? I’d’ve reserved your usual table but you did insist – ”
“Lord no, fine cuisine’s wasted on ghoulish hacks like Harrap. Goulash is more his style.”
“I’ve never read any of his. Don’t really care for horror-and-fantasy,” she ventured.
“Nor I, Miss Grey. But in 1966 one can’t ignore the stuff.”
She quietly laid a stack of letters on Lawrence’s desk before leaving to make tea.
American rights! Lawrence sighed. He must ring New York, tip off his partner Joe Levy. Their agency had become rather a success story. Despite sporadic squabbles – Levy’s loud Brooklyn insults encountering Lawrence’s lofty Wykehamist sarcasm – compromise was usually reached to their mutual relief.
Lawrence gulped several Rennies. While Joe, financial juggler and contacts man, handled the weirder transatlantic authors, he knew little of the London end. Bookselling, publishing, reviewing, agencies: Lawrence prided himself on thirty years’ experience…
After a short nap, Lawrence felt better. His headache cleared. He realised his depression had nothing to do with Joe or US rights. It was Barry Harrap – troublesome upstart, griping about the low advance on his new novel. What did Harrap expect for his fantasy tripe, a four-figure sum?
Still, Harrap had agreed the lower offer, £300 instead of the £500 originally demanded. The young author never suspected his publishers liked the book better than they’d admit: they were confident of making a very fair profit on sales. Lawrence was saving them £200 on the deal (for they didn’t want to lose Harrap), and by way of expressing appreciation these publishers would discreetly pay a £50 honorarium to Lawrence himself.
Same old racket: Lawrence favoured the gentlemanly variant; Levy’s approach was that of the plain man with no time for bullshit. Either way, this ‘ghost deal’ was foolproof: alliances were cemented, allowable expenses enjoyed. Just as well, Lawrence considered, that most authors remained ignorant of the economics of the business. Authors believed agents worked for them, when agents mostly worked with if not for, publishers. The agent’s priority was keeping publishers happy. Authors on an agency list were readily replaceable, but publishers were indispensable. A single major house might publish a dozen of one agency’s clients: the agent therefore rarely stuck his neck out for any individual author. Lawrence himself toiled mainly to represent the real moneyspinners and bestsellers, those he couldn’t afford to lose. Ten per cent of a regular, effortlessly placed lucrative product wasn’t negligible.
Quentin Lawrence smiled sincerely, the first time that day. Liking few authors, he enjoyed outwitting most of them. The devious processes employed fed a sense of power that compensated for any personal lack of creativity. Lawrence found in this ironic comfort.
He relied on an ingratiating manner, now automatically assumed whenever he found himself under pressure. Nonetheless, his lunching of Harrap had almost courted disaster. Harrap even came close to calling him a liar: only a further bottle had calmed the little creep. “My dear Barry”, Lawrence had repeated, “do remember that splendid list you’re on. Money isn’t everything, as the adage goes…” The longhaired Harrap eventually apologised, but Lawrence still begrudged footing the bill.
Another knock interrupted this reverie.
Julian Lake deposited a mass of MSS upon Lawrence’s best imitation-Bauhaus armchair. Lawrence glared. The young man mumbled apologies, stacking the manuscripts instead on the floor beside Lawrence’s desk.
“Sorry – all ghastly.” Lake was a thin, round-shouldered Oxford graduate, conscious of his new role in what he assumed was a position of cultural influence.
“Don’t apologise. Bad for your image and my nerves. Mercifully, we need only accept a quarter per cent of that drivel…. Yet the illiteracy rate rises.”
“No representation without education?” Lake said.
Both remained deadpan. Young Lake was learning, thought Lawrence, learning fast.
Conscientious, not overly sycophantic, even successor material…
“Successful lunch, Quentin?”
“Successful in flattening Harrap’s outrageous ego… Without flattering his hippie paranoia. Wanted to change publisher. Staying where he is, though. Now.”
“Bravo! Actually I quite rate his books.” Lake, scratching sandy hair, shifted from side to side. “Ah, Ballard also, Vonnegut too. And Pinell,” he added. As if invoking this trinity might avert any potential sarcasm from Lawrence.
To his surprise Quentin Lawrence sat up suddenly, patting at blotter.
“Pinell. Whatever happened to him? Long dead, I suppose.”
“I don’t think Oliver Pinell’s still writing,” Lake said.
“And I didn’t think you younger people knew his work… Pinell is or was the only fantasy writer I ever appreciated.”
“He’s completely disappeared from print.” Lake flushed with pleasure. “Except The Haunted Man, US paperback. Poetry London published another title in the Forties. Even before the War, they… Arm, I’m sure the BM, or the Bodleian…”
Quentin Lawrence stopped listening and let Lake ramble. Lake might be truly useful when he learned to conceal his enthusiasm… But when the young man left, Lawrence shut off both telephone lines and pondered the imminent resurrection of Oliver Pinell.
The usual course of action? To invite Pinell to the firm’s next party. Lawrence & Levy, like other agencies, gave parties as often as twice a month. Every such gathering had a different purpose: some kept publishers sweet; others brought together literary critics, columnists, reviewers and agents. Some were for authors. If authors seemed dissatisfied or hard to sell, a party often mollified them. ‘Difficult’ writers receiving an invitation were, so to speak, reassured of their existence. Should they decline, the agency had made its gesture; there’d be all the more alcohol for those who did accept. The latter invariably drank themselves into a stupor of mutual esteem, hatred, or maudlin gratitude towards the agency. Quentin Lawrence held that such extreme reactions, singly or in conjunction, needed occasionally to be indulged. The agency party provided a useful safety-valve indeed.
For Pinell however – probably embittered by years of neglect – a party was perhaps not the right bait.Too much pride involved. Lawrence’s curiosity approached excitement. He was ready to bet Pinell didn’t have, or had never had, an Agent. The old boy’d be only too glad to see his books reissued under some new imprint. After so long underground, a reclusive loner like Pinell might even have something up his sleeve… A memorable autobiography, say: non-fiction always sold well…
There was considerable interest again in the macabre, in horror of every sort: seemingly the supernatural was back in fashion. Oliver Pinell – publicised as a superior Peake or Tolkien – might sell hugely and turn into a cult. Furthermore, he, Quentin Lawrence, before bowing out of the book business, could arrange this inspired rescue from obscurity, a final literary bonanza and apotheosis.
The train puffed out of another of those small anonymous West Country stations. Oliver Pinell had proved difficult to trace, yet Lawrence took an almost perverse relish in hunting him down. The agent was warmly disposed towards authors who desired privacy. He regarded such desire as evidence of natural eccentricity, and in authors eccentricity was a jolly good thing. He half-believed eccentricity might mask talent, though any displays of individualism would never influence him unduly. Nothing should stand in the way of business: a code of pure pragmatism sustained him. Now he was near journey’s end.
Tracking Pinell had been a tricky affair, but Lawrence enjoyed the chase. Pinell’s hardback publishers were defunct, none of his books currently available. He rang the New York paperbackers who’d reissued The Haunted Man two years back, in ’64. American rights had been acquired for a trifling $750. This Lawrence learned from their MD, to whom he offered rights on one of Barry Harrap’s novels – for $200 less than the original asking price. Killing two birds with one sly stone delighted Lawrence, who also discovered that Pinell had dealt direct with the US firm, Marvel Books. Well, almost direct: the agent now possessed the address of Pinell’s bank, the only contact they’d been given. Pinell certainly needed an agent if he were spurning potential royalties, signing away books outright. Curious behaviour indeed. Moreover, US sales were disappointing: the book attracted little notice. Which simply confirmed Lawrence’s original hunches: Marvel weren’t marvellous, while Pinell was ahead of his time, a time very soon to come.
First though, came too much time wasted over obsolete forwarding addresses and Box Numbers no longer current. Phone calls leading nowhere…
Having drawn so many blanks, and running out of leads, Lawrence had all but given up the quest for the elusive fantasist, when he unexpectedly bumped into his ex-wife. After various insincere greetings, the somewhat ruffled agent – for want of what to say to this horribly healthy-looking woman – began to his own surprise babbling obsessively about Pinell. Marion, whose abrupt digressions had once exasperated him, equally surprisingly babbled back. She knew a property speculator whose odd godfather always sent him a first edition every April Fools’ Day. The name was Pine-ell though, Pine-ell not Pin-ell… She thought the godfather’s name was John actually, but anyhow could she have her last quarter’s maintenance – and next quarter’s on time for a change?
Against a shopfront Quentin Lawrence reluctantly scrawled her cheque, in return for the friend’s name and phone. They parted in an unaccustomed state of truce.
That evening Lawrence swallowed his pride. Four years on, he still resented Marion’s appearing so much younger than himself and leading a life of her own; however, he rang the euphemistic ‘friend’. After initial hesitation her friend, sounding rather the worse for wear (in Lawrence’s book, alas, it took one to know one), came through with the goods. John Oliver Pinell, yes, his godfather, elderly widower. Modest place in Devon. Not seen him in years, hardly knew him, yet every April –
“I know,” said Lawrence with a dry laugh, “cruellest month, eh?” – as he cut things short.
Later that night he lay awake in bed, heart pounding. Strange coincidence: could Marion and the friend be hoaxing him? He began to shake with rage, then told himself it was on the level, serendipity, like Lake happening to mention this reclusive literary legend in the first place…
Lawrence suppressed his sudden unease, washed down two more heart pills with a whisky and managed to fall asleep.
Pinell’s reply was unexpected, peculiar in tone. Touched by your interest but wouldn’t recommend you misuse any precious academic time researching these works. Reputation is itself a vain thing, while to fathom another’s mind merely underlines the futility and horror of existence. No wish to disappoint, however. Propose meeting Friday, Honiton Station 10.15 pm. Try my meagre hospitality this weekend.
Lawrence thought Professor fair enough. Having adopted such a safe yet sage aura of authoritative probity, he downed another one for the railroad. And anticipated a relaxing weekend.
He was playing this one close to the chest. Next Monday morning he’d saunter in, casually announcing his coup. Others might return from country jaunts content with a brace of pheasant but he’d have a writer in the bag. What did the man of mystery look like? Lawrence could remember no photograph of Pinell. Replying, he’d described himself as silver-haired, tweed-suited and simply tall. No need to mention his embarrassing bulk – dignity and distinction were what Pinell would expect.
Regarding the latter’s continuance as unknown quantity and faceless blank, Lawrence felt a vague unease. He shifted and fidgeted in the empty first-class compartment, recalling the strong yet delicate style of Pinell’s work. Those books possessed a macabre poetry, a mysterious precision which distinctly impressed Lawrence on a youthful first reading. Not at all the sort of thing he currently approved… Besides, authors met in the flesh usually disappointed: this particular hermit might prove dull if not difficult, anyhow an egregious character. His plan to talk Pinell out of obstinate isolation now appeared whimsical or presumptuous, as well as oddly disconcerting. Lawrence’s own journey seemed to himself obscurely fateful, however. He felt as if impelled recklessly towards some perhaps unsatisfactory confrontation – one destined to remain without form, lacking in outline, null, void and unresolved, yet a matter to be pursued despite everything to the very end. A nastily insidious, dizzying sensation all round, a stare into nothing or down some abyss… He had recourse to his silver initialled hipflask, then lurched forward against the hypnotic rhythm of the train, struggling to let in some air. The window wouldn’t open. He slumped back again, loosened collar and tie and, resigning himself to the oppressive heat, glared out into the now unfathomable dark.
By the time the train reached its destination, Lawrence’s disquiet had increased. A spasm of anxiety assailed him as he alighted, surveying the ill-lit, bare platform. He cursed that absurd remnant of romanticism within him: what nonsense to expect too much of others or allow authors such importance. As for Pinell, he was anachronism personified, a camp old relic a good fifteen years older than himself.
Out of a hissing cloud of steam materialised a squat, red-faced man, bald as an apple, most shabbily dressed. The man snatched Lawrence’s overnight case and strode toward the exit, wordless. Lawrence hastened heavily after him, murmuring that a porter was unnecessary. Then he relaxed: Pinell had arranged for him to be collected.
Beside a battered black Ford Popular the man gestured.
“Mr Pinell sent me. Hop in.”
Not concealing his distaste, Lawrence managed to squeeze onto the flimsy torn front seat.
The man drove through the town, along some sidestreets, then away into the darkness. The car sputtered, headlights dim between tall uncut hedgerows and gloomy slopes of oak.
“What’s Pinell like?” Lawrence finally inquired.
“Like? What’s Dr Pinell like? As like to me as Professor to you, Mister Lawrence,” the man replied.
“Don’t quite follow.”
“You profess to be a writing agent,” the driver continued, eyes fixed on the twisting lanes ahead.
“I’m down here to talk. In confidence. Only to Oliver Pinell.”
After a silence the driver started laughing.
“Bit of a joke on you then, my being Pinell.”
“Well ah, you don’t look – I don’t believe – ”
Lawrence’s chest tightened under the weight of an intense annoyance.
“Younger than my age, see,” the man chuckled. “Pushing seventy-nine. Country life, and so on.”
Lawrence couldn’t bring himself, vis-à-vis this ruddy-complexioned gardener, to pronounce the once celebrated name now so grotesquely unbefitting.
“How did you, ah –”
“Guess? Oh I’m a bit fey – that’s what you want to hear, eh? Did some digging of my own. Local library, Writers and Artists Who’s Who. You should have fed me another name, Mr Lawrence… Been expecting visitors like you for bloody ages. Vampires, that’s what!”
Lawrence’s heart was pounding furiously again.
“Matters might have been easier if you’d –”
“Been more open? But I am. You’re the intruder. And welcome only on that basis. Won’t do, Mr Lawrence, wanting too much from me. Yertiz, we say here. The haunted house.”
Fatigue suddenly overtook Quentin Lawrence, whose vexation was only exacerbated by Pinell’s comments. He staggered out, peering in disbelief at the cottage. The place looked dank and isolated indeed, nearly derelict. The porch light’s startlingly high-watt bulb seemed to reveal rather more than he cared to see of rough grey stone, uneven outline of red-tiled roof, leaded windows with cracked panes. Behind both men was a rickety, yawning iron gate by which the jalopy had entered, fuming past the ivied ironmongery of the makeshift fence, through into a small front yard where, piled higgledy-piggledy, reposed rotten planks and rusted motor parts. From all sides, infiltrating towards the light, or so it appeared, encroached vegetation comprehensively overgrown, untended, rank with cowparsley, nettles and giant hogweed.
“Enter, Mr Lawrence! My late wife haunts this place. She’s everywhere. But your descent from the infernal metropolis calls for a drink.”
Quentin Lawrence was already regretting his visit. He felt mocked, faintly insecure. Fumbling for some dismissive wit a propos of the supernatural, he abandoned the attempt. He stooped under the porch, failing to avoid an obtrusive tendril that clung with cloying fragrance momentarily along his cheek. He never could abide the smell of honeysuckle.
He sat down on a fusty chintz-covered settee in the cramped parlour, spreading himself out so as to regain composure. The grate of the unlit fire was choked with ash. This dingy little house with its heavy head-threatening beams lacked charm, style, or cleanliness. Not a single book was visible, the room’s solitary standard lamp was scruffy and inadequate, the ornaments vulgar and chipped.
Pinell thrust a cracked mug into the agent’s hand.
“A weirdly powerful brew – my own parsnip wine.”
Lawrence forced himself to take a sip, then put the foul-tasting stuff down by his feet. He felt weary beyond measure, in no mood to converse. He heaved himself to his feet, making perfunctory excuses.
Taking the worn stone stairs two at a time, Pinell preceded him, holding two oil lamps, since currently – and his host laughed at this – there was no electricity upstairs. By which time Lawrence was past caring. Wicker chair, tiny table, a bed he feared mightn’t support his weight, and some brick-and-plank shelving devoid of books. That was all. Fortunately it was July, otherwise the place would have been arctic…
Pinell indicated a bathroom across the landing and retired to his own room. “Expect you’ll sleep sound as I do”, he called out. “Fortified by the libation!”
Hurrying to the bathroom, Lawrence frowned. A single grubby towel. Torn sheets of newspaper placed beside a broken lavatory seat and grimy pedestal. No bath. A smeared sink. Cold water. That settled it! He’d depart the very next morning.
Yet Lawrence couldn’t bring himself to admit making a mistake. He struggled to close his bedroom window. Useless. All out of true, frame splintered, the sashcord long gone. Well, it was warm enough, despite the fact that the door didn’t properly close. He wouldn’t demean himself by asking Pinell for sheets. There were none, but he’d make do with the two frayed khaki blankets.
He donned pyjamas and sweater, swallowed his pills (bitter pills, he ruefully reflected) and lay down as comfortably as possible in the darkness.
Nearby an owl began to hoot. What props were lacking, he wondered. Creaky floorboards, severed hands, howling hounds? Let Pinell do his worst, the old bugger couldn’t escape him now… With this thought the agent drifted into unconsciousness, astounded that such a narrow, lumpy mattress should be cradling his massively weary limbs.
Lawrence slept like a stone. The morning brought no birdsong but a fierce shaft of sunlight woke him when it pierced the centre of the window, where ripped felt curtains did not meet. He fumbled for his fobwatch, an affectation of his, found it, found it was ten o’clock, and dressed hastily, vexed that Pinell hadn’t seen fit to wake him earlier.
Sleep seemed if anything to have tired him. Aching all over, Lawrence inserted false teeth, arranged sparse white strands across his scalp. To shave – in that apology for a bathroom! – even to wash, was out of the question. He dabbled a modicum of dusty water onto himself from an ancient bedside jug, patting his face dry with his silk handkerchief. The lavatory’s flushing mechanism proved intractable as his own urinary urge. At length, picking an awkward way down steep uneven stairs, he called: “Pinell?”
His host had disappeared. It was hard to move in the hallway cluttered with cardboard boxes, ancient coats and boots, grimy utensils and ill-assorted detritus. Lawrence tried a door he hadn’t noticed the previous night.
Finding it locked, he repeated “Pinell?”
No reply. Nose wrinkling in distaste, he located the kitchen by its sickening odour of rotting food and unwashed dishes. This might once have been a quaint corner of the world, but Pinell had let the cottage go to rack and ruin as if he no longer gave a damn. Poor form indeed.
On the oval of grubby oak gateleg table lay a stale, nibbled loaf. Two saucers of contrasting ooze held rancid butter and congealed greenish jam, while within a smeared mug was a sluglike teabag, itself suspiciously secondhand. Lawrence’s fastidious gaze considered a vast rusty kettle atop an oldfashioned stove, before he abandoned any idea of breakfast. There, stuck to a nearly empty bottle whose yellowish milk seemed to have solidified, was Pinell’s note:
Gone to regular haunt downstream. Fishing. You’ll appreciate
need for early departure.
Huffing and puffing and cursing the old coot, the agent fetched down his case and prepared to wait. Several minutes’ exploration had left him none the wiser. Pinell’s own bedroom was locked. The view from the landing window revealed only a rambling back garden, dilapidated except for some tomato plants and rows of cabbages. Beyond lay open fields, a farmhouse in the distance, torpid cattle.
Tired of surmise, Quentin Lawrence tried to relax in that dingy front room, opening a Simenon previously skimmed on the train. It was clear Pinell was a damned liar, and banking on his guest to catch the bus through sheer boredom or exasperation. Pinell had sought to give the impression he’d be out all day, and Lawrence therefore reckoned on his host’s likely return soon after eleven a.m. Good lord, how shameless, how transparent!
The time passed. At last, just as a buzzing fly alerted Lawrence from an involuntary doze, the front door creaked.
Oliver Pinell, watery blue eyes staring at the drowsy Lawrence with a curiously resigned malevolence, stood in the doorway grasping a dead hare. Blood welled from its jaw and dripped onto the flagstones.
“I see you’ve had success,” remarked Lawrence drily. He’d learned over the years that surprise attacks worked best. “Even if the fish aren’t biting.”
Pinell tossed the carcass into a corner and seated himself opposite Lawrence.
“You’re very persistent,” Pinell said.
“I deal with difficult authors. Often.”
Pinell shot to his feet as if stung.
“You’re straining my patience, mister. I’ll come clean with you. If you agree never to bother me again.”
Lawrence nodded and smiled, having not committed himself.
Pinell went into the hallway, returning with a large cardboard box. Lawrence experienced the familiar tightness in his chest. His heart thumped and over it his waistcoat was a band of iron.
“My works,” said Pinell quietly, passing the box.
Lawrence opened it, then looked up at Pinell. His exasperation knew no bounds as he rummaged through the mass of yellowing newspapers.
“What the hell’s this? Bloody crosswords?”
“Numerous, mostly correct, Mr Lawrence.”
Lawrence slumped back against the settee, breathing hard.
“I see you don’t care for my sense of humour… But I’ll put you out of your misery, keep you no longer in the dark… Well, Mr L, apart from some youthful travels I’ve lived hereabouts most of my life. For years I was schoolmaster at Handley Cross. I married one of my pupils, an orphan…”
Pinell took from his top pocket a torn sepia-tinted photograph which he handed Lawrence. It showed a girl in her twenties, wearing the clothes of forty years ago. Long hair, perhaps dark red, fell past her shoulders; she had dreamer’s eyes, and she was enchantingly attractive but for a very obvious hare-lip.
“It was rumoured the gypsies left her. Can’t say I know about that. But I took her in. Mighty clever she was too. Her name needn’t concern you, since I gave her one. Mine. And then she took mine and used it to escape. Yes Mr Lawrence, my wife wrote under my name. Every word of those books. That was her escape, escape from me and from a world which rejected her… I’ve no talent, absolutely none, not even the ghost of her gift…And no ambition except to be left alone, for whatever remains of my own life…”
Lawrence, speechless, returned the photograph.
“Now you’re in the picture, so to speak,” Pinell continued. “You can guess the locked room downstairs was hers – where she’d shut herself in all day, writing. Natural flair, maybe. But folk like that don’t last long. Burn themselves out, you’d say. She was ill, too. Sick in the head and hell to live with. I humoured her with that business of the name. Because those days, it was so much harder for women, getting published… By the end though, she resented me. That’s one reason she destroyed her papers before she died. Wanting none to share her secrets. You understand, Mr Lawrence, there’s nothing in it for you. Even vampires can’t live off dust… Only old books left. Send the best to my godson, seeing he likes my sense of humour.”
With extreme difficulty Lawrence rose to his feet. By tacit consent Oliver Pinell went to start the car. Drained of energy, Lawrence followed. He was dreadfully cramped inside Pinell’s rust-bucket, but during the drive to the station he made one last-ditch attempt.
“Isn’t there some moral duty to the public not to – ”
Pinell spat out of the window.
“Whether the books are read or buried is a matter of indifference to me.”
His derisive pedantic manner urged Lawrence to persist.
“Come, Mr Pinell, surely you’re joking again. Won’t you change your mind about these extraordinary works?”
“The books could reappear under her own name if you prefer.”
“Why on earth not? Don’t you owe her that?”
“I don’t like you and your kind. Even if I did, you’d still get the same answer. We’re quits. She paid me back. In full. By her own hand, as they say.”
Feeling sudden nausea, Lawrence closed his eyes, but behind his eyelids he seemed to see drops of blood spurt onto a slab of stone. He forced himself to sit bolt upright, opening his eyes again. As if from some distance he heard that unappealing drone of a voice with its suspiciously rural intonation:
“Maybe I did buy her. Maybe I paid over the odds. But in the end damned if I sell her after she’s gone.”
“You mean she – ” Lawrence was out of his depth, floundering. “You’re saying you’re not interested in the rights –”
“No. Nor the wrongs. No more.”
Something seemed to snap in Lawrence’s chest. He heard himself shout Crazy old fool!
“You too, Mr Lawrence.”
Lawrence slammed the car door. He lumbered towards the platform, not looking back. An almost tearful frenzy shook him as, with free hand trembling, he sought and at last found the other half of his firstclass return.
It was not long before a train arrived, by which time the enraged agent had taken two more pills. He felt well on the way to recovering, if not affability, at least a semblance of his former self-control.
Back in his Kensington flat, Lawrence ran a temperature. Depressed and feverish, he remained in bed. And even telephoned his ex-wife, without success. There was, he realised, nobody else he could ring. What an error, to have driven Marion away… He wallowed awhile in wretchedness, then managed to pull himself together and drowse.
He awoke in the small hours, drenched in sweat. Arriving very late at the agency one Monday morning, he’d mislaid his key. Yet none came to admit him. The firm’s unfamiliar name on the plate-glass entrance read Levy & Lake, Literary Agents… A dream clearly absurd, but it woke him just the same with a jolt.
His actual return to work was thus all the more determined and decidedly earlier than usual. He was anxious to put into perspective the nonsensical portent of the night before, attributing its origin to his misguided journey to Pinell’s. That visit seemed a far worse nightmare.
Greatly ahead of Miss Grey and the rest, there already appeared Julian Lake. The perspiring Lawrence had scarcely a moment to compose himself before this earlybird was flapping excitably about his office.
“Morning Quentin. Good news first – I clinched it with Bailey & Austin. A decent weekend anyhow! I’ve also checked the paperwork for that deal…”
“Admirable energy Julian… What else?”
“The bad news? It’s too horrible – Barry Harrap’s been killed. Car crash on Saturday, wife in coma, son hurt too. Frightfully sad…”
“Sadder still,” observed Lawrence with that lofty precision Lake seemed keen to imitate, “here beginneth the new Harrap cult. Endlessly lucrative. And no doubt spawning many a reprint of every scrap he ever scrawled. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, agreed, but no Harrap legacy for us, alas. I’ve virtually given away the bloody rights on his last three novels!”
Timing and delivery prompted a titter from Lake, who instantly departed to relay to colleagues this latest mauvais mot.
Lawrence slumped backward until his considerable girth nearly unbalanced his desk. Everybody required daily evidence that he was still firmly in control, never wrongfooted, never outflanked. Pinell, Levy, Lake and the others? None of them big enough to bother him. Not calling it a day yet. Retirement a foot in the grave. Good riddance anyway to the Harrap creature. Those boyish looks of Barry’s, or perhaps his naive honesty, always got people hot under the collar. But. No time to waste nor sleep to lose, getting exercised about such matters.
It finally struck him: he, Quentin Lawrence, didn’t really believe in talent. Everyone pretended to it and to themselves, that was all.
Then his heart jumped, began driving pain like a stake into his chest. It startled him so, heavy pounding, unstoppable unison with the monstrous knocks on the door. He was too scared to react, helpless and crushed far beyond answer, when in the end there entered one whose face could not be distinguished. The unrecognized or unknown intruder showed features of scarlet, a mouth grossly blurred.
A desolate wail resembling a shriek no longer suppressed grew ever more audible, insistent. Beginning as barely stifled yet prolonged squeal, it then heightened in pitch. Whatever its origin, throughout the building this frenzied note swelled, a wretched keening neither male nor female, but filled with unutterable wild exasperation. It sounded like some previously articulate creature managing at last to emit only a singular drone. Meanwhile the same someone or perhaps something else gripped by an equal impediment struggled together toward what was always too difficult to pronounce.
(World Wide Writers vol 3 no 16, 2001 first published the above story in their ‘Guest Author’ slot. This final version subsequently appeared in the anthology You Are Here [Redbeck 2006], eds. Bill Broady & Jane Metcalfe.)