Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Novel

“Please pick up, please pick up, please pick up,” Martha was chanting as she listened to the ringing over Bluetooth hands free set in her ear. This was the fourth client she had called in as many hours, and she was beginning to get panicked.

“Hello?” said a female voice on the other end.

“Katrina?” Martha said. “Thank God your there.”

“Martha?” the woman asked. “It’s been a while, how are you doing.”

The voice was pleasant, but it was also obvious that the woman on the other end did not want to talk to Martha.

“Katrina, I need to talk to you,” she said. “I’ve talked to several of my clients today, all of which have told me that they’ve switched to new agents, all at the same agency, some place called The Caspian Writer’s Agency. I’m calling to check in with you, make sure you’re still with me, and find out how that new manuscript is going.”

She winced. She sounded desperate, which she was, and also gave away way more information than she needed to. But Katrina was one of two clients that were all she had left. Whoever was behind this Caspian place, they knew an awful lot about her clients. But Katrian had been with Martha through thick and thin, through six books now, two movie deals and a third one on the way. She wouldn’t leave her. Not now, not in this time of need.

“Listen, Martha,” Katrina said after a long pause.

“No,” Martha said. “You too? Katrina, I thought we had something here. I’ve been to your kids piano recitals. Heck, I watched Thomas graduate high school with you. You’re leaving me?”

“Look, it’s just,” the other woman hesitated, “It was Anne. She called me about two weeks ago, saying she was starting up a new agency with some new partner. They offered me a better deal. She’s already sold my new book, and I’m not even finished with it. It’s nothing personal. I’m sorry.”

And with that, the phone call ended. Nothing personal? Of course it’s personal, this was her livelihood. How could it be anything but personal? Especially since it came from Anne. That bitch must have stolen Martha’s contact list, her entire database of customers was at her fingertips. And, being Martha’s one time partner, she had her own relationships with these authors. It would have been easy for her to drag them away. Martha’s eyes narrowed and she vowed vengeance against the skinny brunette that seemed to be out to ruin her life.

She stared glumly at her laptop, now displaying said database of clients, all of which were now working for Anne. Well, except for Edward, who said he was no longer interested in writing. And Conrad, obviously. But, he wasn’t on this database because he was a major recluse, and would only talk to Martha…

Conrad! Of course, that mad, brilliant genius. Anne wouldn’t have convinced him to her side, because she didn’t have his contact information. No one did, except Martha. Even if Anne had been able to get a hold of him, he would have refused. He didn’t work with anyone except Martha. And normally that would put him out of the business, except that Conrad was a certified genius, and wrote some of the most fantastic sci-fi/fantasy she had ever read. His first book was optioned into a movie a few scant months after being published, as was his second, which was actually a trilogy. His last series of books, which he finished the last one on last year, has just been optioned as a TV show. He was by far the majority of her paycheck, and she could keep going with him alone. She could also use still having him as a client to re-build her client base. She picked up her phone and made one more phone call.

“Martha!” came the smooth, male voice on the other end almost immediately. Martha couldn’t help but smile whenever she heard Conrad say her name like that. It was like she was the winner of a game show. “I’m so glad you called, I was just finishing my new novel, and I wanted to invite you out for the weekend and show it to you.”

“A new novel?” she said. “The one you were telling me about a few weeks ago? I can’t wait!”

“Actually, it’s a different one,” he said. “I didn’t like where that other novel was going, the main character just didn’t have that… spark. Still, I’ll probably go back to it. No, this one is like Jane Austin meets Die Hard, with a little steam punk thrown in. I think you’ll like it.”

“Wow,” she said. “You always were the most prolific author I worked with. I can pack up and be there by tomorrow after noon.”

“Sounds fantastic,” Conrad said. “I’ll have lunch ready for you when you get here.”

Yes, this was exactly what she needed. She spent the rest of her day getting ready to go, packing the things she would need before leaving tomorrow morning. She went to bed early, knowing she would want to start right away. It was a six-hour drive to Conrad, but it was always worth it. And she looked at those visits to Conrad as mini vacations as well as business trips.

The next morning she finished packing, piled everything in her car, and drove out to Conrad’s. The trip was mostly pleasant, and she played her favorite Wynonna Judd CD and enjoyed the countryside. However, about half way there, her mind automatically went back to the situation with Anne. Anne had seemed like such a nice girl when they first met, willing to work as Martha’s assistant to learn the ropes of the business. Apparently, the sweet little girl from UCLA actually came to steal Martha’s business out from under her.

About a month ago, Anne had called a meeting with Martha. That should have been Martha’s first clue. Anne was never the one who called meetings. With anyone. The second clue was that Anne had a cup of Martha’s favorite Starbucks waiting. Anne never got Martha coffee, even if she was already at the coffee shop.

“Martha,” Anne said as soon as Martha entered the room. Martha had been reading a manuscript when she arrived, and her mind was still on the adventurers of a band of pirates who were transported to a world where magic worked. “I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you here.”

“Hmmm?” Martha said. She was hoping this wouldn’t take long, she had two meetings with new authors and a third with a publisher today, and she still had to finish reading this manuscript.

“Martha,” Anne said a little more harshly, causing Martha to look up. “I’m quitting.”

“What?” Martha came up short. “You can’t quit, I need you.”

“I know,” Anne said. “But the truth is, you need a whole lot more than just me.”

“What does that mean?” Martha said.

“It means, Martha,” Anne said, her voice dripping with venom and anger. “That you are the worst business woman I have ever had the misfortune to work for. You don’t know how to manage your office, your money or your time. You haven’t actually sold a book to a publisher for a year, and your client list is only ten people right now. Six of those people are new writers that don’t know any better, and the rest have a false sense of loyalty to you because you talk about their families.”

Martha was getting angry. How dare this woman, who had only been in the industry for eighteen months, tell her, a ten year veteran, how to run her business.

“You have no idea, Anne,” Martha said. “This is a highly competitive market, and things are done in a particular way, or they don’t get done at all.”

“This is exactly what I am talking about,” Anne replied. “You are getting things done, even using your ‘this-is-the-way-things-are-done’ attitude.”

Anne paused, and sighed. She seemed to get smaller with that action, as if this was something that truly pained her.

“Martha,” she said. “I’ve been offered a position at Davidson’s. With them, I’ll have the funding and power to truly help our clients. Your clients, Martha. I’m taking them with me. Oh, sure, some will resist, but eventually, you know, they will all come to me. They like me, and Davidson’s has a huge reputation for getting authors published. This is happening, Martha. I need you to understand that. I also need you to understand that I am doing this because you can’t. Because I truly want to help our authors get the best deals they can get, to get their books out there for people to read. And you’re not. Or you can’t. I’m not really sure which.”

And that was basically the end of that. Martha was awe struck. She didn’t know what to say. And Anne took her silence as a sign that the meeting was over. She walked out, and with her two clients left. A few short weeks later, and she was left with only one client, Conrad. Her last hope.

The rest of the trip was spent turning up the CD to try and drive the thoughts away, but it didn’t work. By the time she pulled into the little fishing village by the lake that Conrad lived on, she was just as upset as she was the day before. The originally named town of Lakeside always reminded Martha of those little Main fishing villages you always saw on horror movies or those travel programs on the Discovery channel. The lake always had boats on it, and the tourists came in to rent cabins in the forest by the lake and go fishing on the other side in little rowboats.

She drove through the main part of town, past the general store and the sheriff’s office. The sheriff even waved at her as she drove by. She smiled. It almost felt like coming home. She drove into the driveway outside the big house Conrad owned. It was a beautiful villa, on the top of a hill, with a fantastic view of the lake and a private path leading down to his own private section of the lake, where Conrad liked to go fishing. It also had a path leading into the woods, where the reclusive writer liked to go hiking. She never understood either of those interests. Conrad had insisted she go fishing with her, but all she did was sleep. She never even caught a single fish. She just couldn’t figure out why he found it so much fun. She wasn’t even halfway up the driveway before she could hear the man himself calling down to her.

“Martha!” he cried jovially. “Welcome! Come on, I have a fantastic lunch prepared for you.”

He always did. Conrad was not only a fantastic writer, but he was also a fantastic cook. He had prepared a wonderful fish dish that she couldn’t identify, but was yummy just the same. The two of them talked for a long time, but not really about much of anything. Martha told him about the boyfriend that had left her two months ago and had taken the dog with him when he left. He told her about his son, and how the latest woman he dated and decided that it was better to sleep with an entire motorcycle club than his son. Martha was suitably horrified.

“Okay, Martha,” he said. “It’s time for you to step up to the plate and tell me why you’re really here.”

“What?” she said. “To see you’re book, of course.”

“Oh, yes,” he said, running his hands through his salt and pepper hair. She was never attracted to Conrad herself, but she knew that part of the reason his books were so popular was because the older man was very handsome. Some women liked their men to be in their fifties. And divorced three times. And be a heavy smoker. Martha mused that she knew more things about Conrad than most people ever would. She thought that if he ever died, she could write a book on him and be set for life.

“But, let’s face it,” he continued. “You hardly ever call me looking for a book. You usually only come out here when something’s bothering you. So, out with it. What’s going on?”

She slumped down. She knew that she was going to half to break it to him. As much as he knew secret things about Conrad, he knew all her dark secrets as well. It was part of why the two made such a good pair.

“It’s Anne,” she said after some silence.

“She’s your assistant, right?” he asked, obviously stretching his memory to remember who she was.

“Yes,” she said. “Or, she was. She left, and she took my entire client base with her. All my authors. Gone. Well, except you. Which is why I’m here. I needed to be reassured that you were still with me.”

Conrad looked at her with a quizzical look on his face. “Of course I’m still here with you. Martha, I don’t trust people, you know that. It’s why I live in the forest, by a lake. The nearest town is still two miles away from here, and my nearest neighbor is one. I don’t like people. But, I like you. I trust you. In fact, and I believe n this case more importantly, I don’t trust anyone else to edit or sell my books. It’s you, or no one, kiddo.”

She smiled, and tears started coming. He always knew what to say.

“Thank you Conrad,” she said, trying to choke back the tears. “I really appreciate it.”

They sat for a few moments, Conrad not saying anything and giving her the time she needed to get her emotions under control. Then, suddenly, he stood up and claped her hands, which made Martha jump a little in surprise.

“Well, now that that’s been said,” he said, waving his arms as if clearing the air of a foul smell, “let’s go get some fresh air. What do you say, fishing? A little hike? Some sun and air will do you good at this point. And I won’t take no for an answer, Martha.”

She smiled. He wouldn’t, she knew that to be true. Once, she had refused to go on a hike, and so he just picked her up and carried her up the side of the mountain, kicking and screaming the whole way. When he set her down, he told her if she still didn’t want to go on the hike, she was welcome to go back to the house. The problem being, of course, that she didn’t know where the house was from there. So, of course, she went along. And this time, at lest, he was giving her a choice. And given that choice…

“A hike would be nice,” she said. “You’re right, I could use some fresh air.”

He told her to go up stairs, put her things away, and get dressed for the hike. He was giving her an hour. After that, he was coming to get her and go hiking, no mater where she was in that processes. Needless to say, she was ready to go in forty five minutes.

The walk itself was rather nice, and was pretty easy, compared to the first few hikes Conrad took her on. She was always amazed at the scenery of the place Conrad chose to live in, especially compared to the kinds of books he wrote. Here he was, living in one of the most beautiful places in the world, surrounded by nature, and he wrote about heroes flying through space in tin cans, or elves and men fighting giant dragons in some massive mountain. It never made sense to her. Still, she supposed this was why she was an agent, and not a writer. The one book she had managed to finish, and eventually publish, was about a woman book agent that ended up with an author who had written a real spell book and wanted to sell it to the world. It did marginally well, and her publisher was always asking her for a second book, but she just couldn’t figure out what else to write about.

The were mostly quiet on the trek out, but on the way back, they both started talking about his latest novel. When he told her the basic story, she was in awe. It really was like Jane Austin meets Die Hard. She couldn’t wait to read it. When they got back home, he gave her a copy, reminding her that this was only the second draft, and there was still a lot of work to be done on it. Then, he made them both dinner. After eating, she realized how tired she was, and excused herself to go to bed.

“Good night, kiddo,” he said. She liked that he called her that, for some reason. It was comforting. “Just to let you know, I was planning on a camping trip to the other side of the lake. I’ll be gone for a few days, but you’re welcome to stay as long as you want. The fridge is kinda empty, though, so if you do stay, you’ll probably want to head into town and pick some things up for yourself.”

With that, she went to bed and slept. It was a restless sleep, though. Anne kept coming into her dreams and stealing away the other characters. She woke up at least three times that she could remember. Eventually, she just got up and decided to stay up. She did her morning yoga and tried to meditate, but Anne just kept invading her thoughts. Mostly, it was her imagining all the different ways she could kill the little bitch. Eventually, she shook her head and went to take a shower. The really nice thing about Conrad’s place was the fact that there were four bedrooms, and each one had its own shower. Conrad didn’t have guests over often. It was usually just her and his son, though never both at the same time. But Conrad never liked having to walk down the hall to the shower, and didn’t want his guests to either.

She dressed and picked up the copy of Conrad’s newest manuscript. It was gripping, right from the start. It was also something unlike Conrad had ever written before. Oh, sure, it sill had some of his tell tale writer finger prints in it, but over all, this story was very different from Conrad’s other books. She spent several hours reading it before she realized she was wearing only a towel, sitting on the edge of the bed, and was starving because she hadn’t had breakfast yet. Quickly, she dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen to get something to eat. Conrad was nowhere to be seen, but she didn’t expect him to be, either. It was likely that he left very early that morning.

Just as Conrad said, the fridge was practically empty of food. A couple of turkey dogs, two cans of beer, half a carton of eggs, some milk and two packages of paper and saran wrap. From the smell, there was fish in there. Conrad probably used the last of his provisions making lunch and dinner last night. There was some pancake mix, coffee beans and his coffee grinder. But, cooking was never her strong suit. Instead, she decided to head into town to eat. She grabbed the manuscript and drove down to the little diner in town.

It was a great place that she had eaten at before. Not exactly a greasy spoon, as her daddy used to call such places, but very country diner. The food was good, and came in heaping piles, so she took some back with her. She read more while she ate, and then made a quick stop at the General Store to pick up some groceries. She had decided that she would be staying for a few days. She could use a vacation, although it occurred to her if she was working with Conrad on this book, she wasn’t really on vacation. Still, working with Conrad at his place was far more relaxing than working at her office, or even at her home.

On her way out of the store, she ran into a man in a sheriff’s uniform, though he wasn’t the sheriff. A deputy, she realized. He called her by name and asked her if he could ask her a few questions.

“Do you know Conrad Smith?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Have you seen him this morning?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “He said last night that he was leaving to go camping for a few days, on the other side of the lake. He probably left before I even woke up.”

The deputy nodded. “The sheriff was going with him. He was expecting to meet him at the campsite several hours ago, but Conrad hasn’t shown up yet. If you see or hear from him, please let us know. Thanks ma’am.”

Now concerned for Conrad’s safety, Martha rushed back to the house. That was when she noticed that his Jeep was still parked in the driveway. She started to freak out. Where the hell was he? She rushed into the house and immediately began calling out his name. There was no reply, but she wasn’t really expecting one. She continued to search throughout the hose, until the only place left was Conrad’s room. She hesitated. She had never been there before. Conrad trusted her a lot, enough that the man who admittedly did not like people allowed her to stay at his place while he was away. But even Conrad’s trust of her didn’t extend to his room. This was the most private of sanctums. To enter here, especially if nothing were truly wrong, would destroy all the trust she had spent years building. Her last, and now only, client would be gone.

Still, she didn’t know what else to do. The man refused a cell phone, so trying to call him would do no good. She had searched every where else in the house, including the garage, and he wasn’t anyplace else. And with the Jeep still parked outside, she doubted that he had actually left. So, that left here.

“Conrad?” she asked through the door. “Conrad, are you there?”

She even knocked, though even that felt like some kind of graven sin. Eventually, she knew she had no other choice.

“Conrad?” she called one last time. “If you’re there, I’m coming in. I’m just checking to make sure you’re okay, and you’re not answering. So, I am coming in.”

She gripped the door handle hard, turning her knuckles white, and then turned it. The door creaked slightly as she opened it, and it made her stop, as if she were about to be caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to. She shook her head, concern for her friend overriding her fear. She swung open the door and looked around the room. It was finely furnished, complete with a large bead, a find writing desk with a computer on it, and even a TV. But, no sign of Conrad. She saw the door to the bathroom, on the other side of the bed, open. She rushed over there, and that was when she found him.

He lay on the floor, one hand clutching his chest and the other splayed at his side. His legs were also at odd angles, as if he had just fallen where he stood. His eyes were closed, which Martha was thankful for. She fearfully crouched down and placed a trembling hand on his neck, feeling for a pulse. There was nothing. In fact, he was rather cold to the touch. She jerked her hand back immediately, as if a snake had bitten it.

He was dead. Conrad Smith, her best writer, the man that had single-handily made her career, the last hope she had of salvaging her career, now lay dead at her feat. From the looks of things, he died of a heart attack. She didn’t know what to do. She panicked and raced across the hall into her room, where she collapsed onto the bed in tears. Conrad was a friend, and that alone hurt. But, she couldn’t stop thinking about her career. What in the world was she going to do, if she couldn’t represent Conrad Smith? How would she get new clients without his draw?

She spent the next several hours just crying and sleeping. She would cry until she was exhausted and then sleep. When she woke up, she would remember what happened, and cry some more. Finally, she woke up and realized she was done crying. She felt kind of numb, and was hungry, as well, something that made her feel slightly guilty. Then she remembered the groceries still in the car. She rushed down stairs and pulled them out. Thankfully, nothing was lost, and she put it all away, and then made herself a sandwich while she thought things over.

She knew that she needed to call the Sheriff. So, pulling out her cell phone, she made the call. Strangely, she got the office voice mail. Upon reflection, that made sense. Everyone was probably out of the office, looking for Conrad. She left a message that stated she had information on Conrad, and to call back as soon as possible.

She then went upstairs again. She avoided Conrad’s room, and went to hers. She wasn’t quite sure why, but she started packing. She felt strangely calm. Almost devoid of emotion. Her actions were robotic, stiff and unhurried, as if she were simply acting to act, rather that to achieve any real end. Eventually, during her packing, she came across the manuscript. She stopped what she was doing and picked it up. It was good. Really good. And now she realized, it was the last book ever written by Conrad Smith. Well, probably not, but the last completed book he ever wrote.

Suddenly, a very wrong though crossed her mind. There was still a chance she could save her career after all, she mused. She ran back into Conrad’s room and, being careful to avoid looking at the other side of the bed, she ran to his computer and turned it on. Conrad didn’t password protect his home computer in his room, because he knew no one would see it. Looking through the files, she saw that Conrad had, in fact, three complete novels. Two were still on their first draft, but that was okay. Anne may have been right and Martha wasn’t a good businesswoman. But she was a damn good editor. She could clean and polish these manuscripts up and have three full novels ready to go in a matter of weeks. If she saved then, and released them one a year, she could live on those books alone. Plus, they would draw in other clients. She still had Conrad Smith, after all.

She shook her head. It was a horrible thought. She couldn’t do that. She might be able to hold onto the books, maybe release them later, after there was time for the news of his death to settle in on the world. Then, she could release them as “lost” manuscripts. She shook her head again. What she was contemplating here had to be illegal. It just had to be. Plus, what would she do with the body. No, it was just impossible. Still, she looked at the files. Several short stories, the three books, and a huge file of story ideas. It would be a shame if the world at large didn’t get to see these things.

Her phone rang just then, causing her to jump out of the chair and practically fall to the floor. Quickly regaining her composure, she walked out of the bedroom and answered the phone.

“Hello, Martha?” it was the deputy. Oh, shit, it was the deputy, returning her call. What was she going to tell him? “Martha?”

“Oh, right, sorry,” she said when she realized she hadn’t been talking. “What can I do for you, deputy?”

“Well, you called me saying you have information on Conrad?” he said, sounding kind of agitated.

“Oh,” she hesitated. “Right. Well, I do. It’s… his jeep. It’s still parked outside, but I can’t find hide nor hair of the man in the house. Some of his camping gear is missing, but he’s not here. I figured he must have decided to hike to the campground rather than drive.”

There was a pause, and the Deputy responded. “Yeah, that’s what the Sheriff said must have happened too. It’s good to get confirmation. Don’t worry, ma’am. We’ve got search teams looking through the forest right now. We’ll find him.”

“Thank you, Deputy,” she said. “I know you will.”

She hung up and looked around the hallway. What the hell had she just done? She had just lied to the sheriff’s department about something she had no part in. The man wasn’t killed, after all. He had a heart attack. She was no guilty of lying to the police. She didn’t like that feeling at all. But once again, her eyes brought her to the manuscript; still lying across the bed she slept in last night. In a flash, it all came to her. She realized she knew exactly what she needed to do.

Flipping open her phone, she searched her database of contacts until she found the one she wanted. She dialed, and held the phone up to her ear, waiting. When the other line was picked up, it was a woman’s voice on the line.

“Rocketship Publishing, how may I direct your call?” she said.

“Hi Sandy,” Martha said. “It’s Martha. I need you to transfer me to Mr. Michaels. Tell him, I’ve got the latest Conrad novel, and this one is going to blow away your mind when you read it.”

The End

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