Somebody Killed His Editor
An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
I can understand suffering for one's art--but dying? Not really my style.
But death did appear to be on the day's program judging by the groaning sounds from the bridge beneath me. I grabbed for the rain-slick wood railing with my free hand and stared down. A churning brown froth of mud, rocks and tree branches battered against the sagging pilings. I made groaning sounds of my own.
My disabled silver Lexus sat on the opposite side of the swaying bridge--too far to turn back now. I clung to the rail as the bridge heaved. Rain came down in glinting needles. I squinted, trying to make out the opposite bank. I couldn't see it.
As I hesitated, the decision was made for me. The bridge shuddered and then ripped partially away from its moorings. I had no choice but to race for the other side, clunk, clunk, clunking unevenly along in impractical Bruno Magli boots, and trying not to trip as my obscenely heavy suitcase banged against my knee, my bulging carryall bouncing from my hip to my butt.
I could hear the voice of Rachel, my agent, ringing in my ears. “It won't kill you to dress up for once.”
Famous last words. Me and my career, both dead in one week.
Clunkclunk, clunkclunk, clunkclunk...
Over the roar of the flood I could hear the shriek of joints giving way (luckily not my own) and splintering wood. The slats beneath my feet seemed to fall away. I pictured myself as one of those cartoon characters, legs bicycling in empty air for a few seconds before gravity kicks in. I ran harder--like the cartoon characters always do.
I'd known this weekend was a mistake from the moment Rachel had suggested it. I'd known, but I had ignored my instincts. And now I was well in the lead for this year's Darwin Award.
The bridge returned, rippling beneath my clattering feet.
Clunkclunkclunkclunkclunkclunkclunk... My boots telegraphed panic.
Nobody was going to believe this. Hopefully. Hopefully nobody would believe that I was this stupid. Well, first off, nobody was going to believe I'd voluntarily gone to a writers retreat. I was going to wind up as an episode in Unsolved Mysteries.
I could practically hear Robert Stack now, solemnly spelling it out for the at-home viewers.
“But questions remain. Why would Christopher Holmes choose to cross a rickety old half-flooded bridge on foot after deeming it unsafe to drive across? Why would the forty--er--thirty-nine-year-old author of numerous award-winning mysteries have agreed to visit a remote writers retreat in California wine country when friends and family agree Christopher loathed writers conferences and red wine always gave him a headache? And why would this reasonably intelligent and supposedly sane man have spent SO GODDAMNED MUCH MONEY ON A PAIR OF BOOTS THAT WERE PROBABLY GOING TO PROVE THE DEATH OF HIM?”
Robert Stack's God-like voice had to shout to be heard over the boom of water and eroding earth. I lumbered along like a drunken pack mule, listing from side to side under the weight of my luggage, and to my own astonishment I felt the wooden planks give way to mud. Mud and grass. My toes sank into the turf like rock-climbing crampons holding my wildly teetering self safely in place.
I was on the other side.
I was alive.
I clambered up the uneven slope and turned back to see the wooden bridge that connected Blue Heron Lodge to the outside world half-submerged beneath the flooded creek. Brush, boulders and bedraggled saplings rammed against the fallen structure and spun away to be washed downstream.
My legs gave out, and I collapsed on top of my bags. Shock, I guess. Not to mention more exercise than I'd had in the past five years. Cold rain peppered my head and face. I clutched my bags as though they contained all my worldly possessions, which to all intents and purposes they did. Fortunately there were enough extra clothes stuffed in there to make shelters for a dozen refugees, which is what I felt like.
I checked my watch. Four o'clock. It seemed later thanks to the lousy weather. One thing for sure. I didn't want to be wandering around here in the dark. I hauled myself to my feet. Why the hell hadn't I thought to grab the map when I bailed out of the car?
The lodge was nowhere to be seen. That would have been too easy. I mean, why would anyone want to house writers within walking distance--or even sight--of a main road? You might have scribes going AWOL, fleeing rubber round steak and limp lettuce for local fast-food joints--or bars--skipping out on workshops given by equally desperate colleagues, or, God forbid, deciding that their time would be better spent writing rather than paying money to talk about writing.
A crooked dirt road led up and over a small pine-covered hill that seemed to vanish into the low, sullen skies.
I picked up my suitcases and hobbled toward the hill. The distant tang of the sea and the smell of wood smoke hung in the air.
After a few yards of my Long-John-Silver-on-a-Bender routine, it occurred to me that quite possibly I was carrying appropriate footwear in my suitcase. I abandoned the road, evading the branches of the pine trees. The canopy provided scant protection from the downpour, deadening the sound of the rain. Kneeling in a nest of pine needles, I snapped open the locks on my suitcase, fishing around inside a pile of clothes I didn't recognize.
I didn't recognize them because they were brand new and had been selected by a helpful sales associate at Saks department store while I'd occupied myself scoping “the competition” at the nearby Borders. When I say “competition”, I don't mean men who are younger, buffer and have more hair than me--I mean writers with books on the Featured Selections shelf. Bad boys and pink ladies. Dick and Chick Lit.
The new wardrobe was all part of Rachel's master plan that I should “reinvent” myself and thus resurrect my career. I failed to understand how multi ear piercings and a new 'do could persuade Steven “Satan” Krass, my new editor at Wheaton & Woodhouse, to reconsider his decision to dump me if my track record didn't speak for itself (eleven NYT bestsellers and over twenty awards). I couldn't imagine what argument black leather could make, but I was desperate. And scared.
From Boy Wonder to Has Been in one easy lesson. Well, maybe not easy, and it had taken sixteen years, but I was the victim of a kind of literary middle-aged spread--and I was barely forty.
“Steven feels that the sales on the last four books were... er... rather soft,” Rachel had tried to explain. “The numbers aren't there.”
“What numbers? Miss Butterwith Closes the Case is already in its third printing.” I couldn't believe what I was hearing. They weren't renewing us? They weren't picking up my option?
“But that's way down from, say, the first six months of Miss Butterwith Dispenses.”
I felt numb. It had never even occurred to me that the day would come when Miss B. and I could no longer hoist ourselves over the transom.
“But everyone's sales are down, right? That's what I keep hearing. No one is reading, that's what everyone says. Everyone is watching DVDs and listening to CDs and playing computer games.” Cold sweat popped out on my forehead. I felt nauseous. I don't take rejection well. Ask my ex.
“Not everyone's sales are down,” Rachel said carefully. And the fact that she was being careful told me everything I needed to know. In New York publishing circles Rachel Ving is known as Ving the Merciless. “Look, Christopher, the market has changed. Miss Butterwith is--”
I couldn't bear to hear it. I had to interrupt. Portly and unfashionable though she might be, Miss Butterwith was my baby, the child of my heart. I cried, “Miss Butterwith is a classic, she's an institution. She's right there with Miss Silver and Hildegard Withers.” I swallowed on the last word, a kidlike gulp. I went on arguing, as though it were Rachel I had to convince.
“The critics have compared her to Miss Marple. I mean, Miss Butterwith and Mr. Pinkerton have solved more crimes than--” This wasn't just my livelihood, this was my--well, actually considering the fact that this was my livelihood was about all I could take in. I'd sold the first Miss Butterwith straight out of college. I'd been writing the series, three books a year, for sixteen years.
“Well, maybe we should think about spinning Mr. Pinkerton off,” Rachel said, trying to be helpful.
She was still thinking out loud. “Yeah... You know, it's not a bad idea. Crime-solving cats are still popular. Look at the Cat Who books. Maybe he could get locked in a trunk of... of... I've got it. Weapons of mass destruction are being shipped to the States, and Mr. Pinkerton gets trapped in one of the crates.”
My shattered silence must have said it all.
She said awkwardly, “Or maybe not. This isn't the end of the world. You're a very talented writer. You merely need another platform.”
Platform? How about a window ledge?
“Simply because Wheaton & Woodhouse isn't going to pick up your contract--”
“You mean Steven Krass isn't going to pick up my contract,” I broke in bitterly. “It's his decision, right? He's the Editorial Director, right?”
“It's business, Christopher. It's nothing personal.”
“It ought to be personal. After all the money I've made for them. Do you know the offers I've had over the years?”
Well, yeah, Rachel knew. She was my agent. She also knew no one had tried to lure me away in recent memory, but instead of pointing out this painful fact, she came up with her brilliant scheme to have me ambush my former editor at Blue Heron Lodge where he was booked to bestow divine wisdom on acolytes all weekend long.
Rachel's idea of ambush was different from mine--less likely to land me in Tehachapi Correctional Institution. In my best consummate professional manner--whatever the hell that meant--I was going to propose a brand new and absolutely brilliant series. Now all I had to do was come up with the idea for one.
“This is the perfect opportunity to try something new,” she urged.
“I don't want to try anything new.”
“Well, you should. You're a thirty-something-year-old man writing about a seventy-year-old spinster and her cat. That cannot be healthy.”
I was so flattered that Rachel thought I was still in my thirties that I didn't put up half the fight I should have.
I managed to locate one Reebok tangled in a knot of silken jockstrap (what had that kid in Saks been smoking?), found the other rudely nudging the crotch of a pair of Kenneth Cole trousers, and managed to exchange my footwear in a kind of squatting fumble, sort of like a Russian dancer after a few vodkas. As I balanced there, one hand planted in wet pine needles, one hand tugging on my boot, I caught a flash of color out of the corner of my eye.
I sank back--barely noticing that I was sitting on a pinecone--and stared. A small building sat in a clearing a few yards from me. It looked like a miniature Japanese teahouse. The shoji screen door hung drunkenly from its frame, and a bundle of rags spilled out onto the ground.
I felt the hair prickle on the back of my neck. Suddenly the woods seemed deadly silent. A single diamond drop of rain fell soundlessly from the branch in front of me. Nothing else moved.
Slowly, I got to my feet and limped past a bronze statue of the seated Buddha. As I drew near the teahouse with its broken door, the pile of rags came into sharp focus. I could pick out the glint of gold, splashes of purple and rumpled khaki, and then I knew for sure that I was looking at clothes.
Clothes and hair.
I stopped a few feet away. It was a woman. A woman with blonde hair tumbled across her face. She appeared to be wearing plum-colored pajamas beneath a khaki trench coat. Her feet were bare. Small, bare blue-white feet with red painted nails and a gold toe ring.
I took another step forward and then stopped. She wasn't breathing. She wasn't moving. She wasn't the right color. You don't have to write crime novels to recognize a dead body when you see one.
A really good clue was the broken and bloody tree branch lying an inch from the tip of my boot.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.