(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)
(Previously: The Physical Trainer)
It was nine o’clock on a Tuesday and the regular crowd shuffled in. Bill Flogaast hadn’t eaten a single thing all day and there was an old man sitting next to him, stabbing his fork into a plate of bangers and mash. He said, “Bill, I believe this is killing me,” but he ate the grub anyway as the smile ran away from his face. There was, unfortunately, no piano for him to play on. The proprietor of Joel’s Place — who was not Joel (1946-2003) — had removed the small upright shortly after a few hipsters from Bushwick had pulled a post-flash mob viral stunt for Improv Everywhere and tortured the tired cortege of old timers. Why couldn’t these obnoxious kids just ride the fucking subway without pants and let the Joel’s mainstays settle their sorrows in peace?
The old man wiped the crumbs that had settled like clueless gentrifiers into his mustache and he bid his allies adieu, leaving Bill Flogaast to await his long-delayed dinner.
The day had been long and grueling, not unlike the Battle of Bataan if you took away the weapons and the casualties and the history-changing geopolitical stakes. And he still hadn’t put out all the fires. He had anticipated several of them. The calls from Hollywood. His nimble parries against the press. The shocking news that one million copies of Van Kleason’s new novel were now sitting in a Detroit warehouse ahead of pub date. The guarantee that 98% of these would be remaindered if the truth of Van Kleason’s death became public.
But they had made the announcement and it had been received with reliably shallow thoughts and prayers, along with the usual hangers-on who claimed to be Van Kleason’s friends once they spotted a potential meme to win likes and comments (and, of course, the predictable sympathy from those who hadn’t investigated the truth of the “friendship,” which was pretty much everyone on social media).
Henry — the gaunt septuagenarian who tended bar and who was somehow slimmer than an Auschwitz survivor — deposited the white fish-shaped deep dish onto the thin green placemat and reinforced the meal’s arrival with a second pint of Guinness.
“On the house,” said Henry. “You look like you need it.”
“I probably do,” said Bill, “but I’m not finished with the first pint.”
And he wouldn’t be for a while.
“But she’s here.”
“Do I really have to tell you?”
He was too hungry and exhausted to consider who this might be. She could be any number of people. Publishing people often spilled into Joel’s at unanticipated hours, but Joel’s was hardly Max’s Kansas City. It was a bar that was waiting to die, as so many others had during the pandemic. There were no live bands. Just a bunch of old men sitting on fraying barstools. The men were so sad that the prorpietor had removed the mirror behind the bottles after one regular had left his car running in his garage and never returned. Sure, the place was kept tidy, but it had not been remodeled for a good twenty years out of “respect for Joel’s vision.” But Bill Flogaast was one of the only ones still alive who could recall talking regularly to that tight-fisted tyrant, who used to kick people out of his bar if they ordered a martini with vodka instead of gin. Joel believed that he was running a classy place, but Joel’s was really no different from any other West Village dive Which was why it was so appealing. You wouldn’t be hassled by young louts, although they sometimes rolled into this funereal venue out of curiosity.
Bill picked up the spoon that had arrived with his shepherd’s pie and, as the waft of mashed potato crust whirled into his nostrils, he angled the utensil against the feeble amber light to see who she was.
Bill Flogaast had long ago mastered the art of peripheral hearing and peripheral seeing. This wasn’t just a technique used by private investigators. It was invaluable in publicity. He always had one eye scanning a mirror or a reflective surface so that he would notice if an unruly author with a grudge arrived at a book party. He’d swoop in and usher any nemesis to the other side of the room.
Dev Rawman, who always took offense whenever anyone pronounced his name like a package of noodles, was one such author. Five vitriolic outbursts at the last seven literary soirees he’d attended and all of these because he was a grownass man who was still angered and embarrassed by his debut novel, which was very bad and elided from his credits in future volumes. Never mind that his novels were still very bad and that his sentences were so awful that not even a very patient junior editor who diagrammed his sentences could get Dev to clean up his potboiler prose. Never mind that Dev had somehow found a ride on the cash cow with a lucrative TV deal from three of those novels (all of these books had the word “fantastic” in their titles and, after a while, people simply assumed that the work was fantastic because people weren’t reading as much anymore). Dev didn’t have a sense of humor. In fact, Dev was so humorless that he had once written an entire column about a blogger who had scorched him. Dev hadn’t counted on his readers siding with the blogger rather than him. And this infuriated him further. Then Dev got obsessed with this blogger and Googled around and found a YouTube video in which the blogger’s grandmother said that she was so proud of him, giving the blogger a huge hug over the triumph of embarrassing a talentless blowhard and being named in a major magazine. And because Dev had no one in his family who loved him (even Dev’s twin brother, whose shirt was stuffed tighter than Dev’s, had cut ties), he longed to know why some online troll in San Francisco would receive the kind of love that he, as a Successful AuthorTM was rightly entitled to.
Bill knew that this was the case with most authors. They were largely children who longed for attention and who spent more time bullshitting on Twitter than honing their latest novel.
Henry, eyeing Bill’s surveillance from behind the bar, nudged his head to the left to give him a hint. Bill flattened a piece of the pie into a manageable matchbox and shoveled it into his mouth — Jesus Christ, no rosemary or thyme with the beef broth? — before delicately dropping the yellowy mass from maw into his napkin. Then he turned his head and saw her.
Gingrich Moore. Ginny if you hadn’t pissed her off in a while. But Moore was easily offended and fiercely protective of her authors, whom she often risibly compared with the 1920s modernists. She was particularly keen on Butch Wheel and his literary debut many years ago, which had been written in pretentious first person plural. Nobody read that book anymore, much less Wheel’s followups, and the gaps between Wheel’s books had stretched from three to seven years. Even Dev Rawman had raved about Wheel, perhaps secretly longing to fuck him as much as the KGB Bar groupies did. But if you were some sad bastard who suggested to Moore that Wheel wasn’t all that, Moore would disinvite you from parties and make your life difficult. Fortunately Flogaast had won over Moore through scandalous serendipity. He had spotted Moore and Wheel leaving a hotel, both looking surprisingly disheveled. Moore saw Flogaast and sprinted away and, based on the way that she had really gone out of her way to accommodate Flogaast after that, you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the two were boning each other and that this was the real reason for Moore’s feverish advocacy. Wheel was hardly the first author to use his dick as much as his pen when it came to “negotiating” contracts. But Moore had never struck Flogaast as the kind of editor who would fuck her authors. People were full of surprises.
“Hello, Bill,” said Moore, who was now towering over Flogaast’s table. “I saw you looking at me.”
“I heard about Paul Van Kleason.”
“Yeah, he was only 48. I’ve been working the phones all day.”
“You must be exhausted. And it’s Gingrich, not Ginny.”
Moore’s mouth contorted into a cruel smile.
“Gin-grich. That’s how you will refer to me.”
Flogaast laughed. “Did I do something to piss you off?”
“No,” said Moore. “Of course not.”
“Then why the sudden formality?”
“Because I know what really happened to Paul Van Kleason.”
“Alright, you tell me, hotshot. What really happened to Paul Van Kleason?”
“You don’t need to be coy with me, Bill. I also know about Sophie. This is really going to be quite embarrassing for you. Once everything comes out.”
Moore slid the chair from its resting place beneath the wobbly table and sat down.
“Gingrich, you and I have never had an issue with each other. Never. I respect you. I’ve never said a word about your…your extracurricular activities. What you do is your own business.”
“And I appreciate that. But Butch isn’t one of my authors anymore.”
“What? He went to another house?”
“He’s filed for divorce.”
“That’s too bad.”
“It is too bad, Bill,” said Gingrich. There was a luster in her eyes that made Flogaast uneasy. Flogaast downed the rest of his first pint and wrapped his hand around the second pint.
“He stopped seeing you?”
“You have averred correctly.”
“Gingrich, come on. I haven’t had a bite to eat all day and this hopeless shepherd’s pie is the only thing keeping me going. Why does Paul Van Kleason even matter to you?”
“Oh, he doesn’t. He was a terrible writer. An asshole really. At least that’s what I hear from one of your defectors.”
His former associate Ginny Romano. A tireless ebooks booster who had a knack for finding influencers before they even knew they were influencers. She used every trick in the book to keep them close. Including an aggressive booty call or three. She and Moore were well-matched, given that they shared a common rage directed at any man who had spurned their advances.
“Ginny is a good publicist, but she wasn’t privy to everything.”
“She was privy to enough. Van Kleason sells and he’s been a big hit on several Comic-Con panels. But it’s this image of woke purity that he’s cultivated — that’s what interests me. All of it could collapse like a delicate house of cards. And you, Bill, would be the one they’d blame for it.”
Flogaast nearly choked on a half-eaten pea that had nestled in his throat.
“What do you want, Gingrich?”
“You’re not my boss.”
“You’re right. I’m not. But I knew you would be here. You’re getting more predictable in your old age.”
Moore pulled a thumb drive from her purse and gave it to him.
“Just watch the videos, Bill. Nothing’s on the Internet yet, but it will be. Probably by early next week.”
Flogaast looked ashen. He knew what she had found, what he had taken great liberties to cover up. The leak had to come from Romano. She was still friendly with a lot of her former coworkers.
“Who else knows about this?”
“Oh, Bill, come on! I’ve always been a professional.”
“Except with Wheel.”
“Don’t be vulgar, Bill. Just admit that you’ve lost the upper hand and that there was an angle here that you couldn’t anticipate.”
“Who else knows about this?”
“Let’s just say that a small group of people at the top, people who are your competitors, are apprised of what I have.”
“I’m going to need some time.”
“You have a week, Bill. That’s it.”
“That’s not enough time.”
“Well, I guess you’ll have to face the music then.”
“What did I ever do to you, Gingrich?”
“It’s not personal. It’s just business. You’ve covered up smaller things than this.”
“Yeah, but it’s really bad.”
“Well, tell you what, Bill. I’ll give you two weeks.”
“That’s still not enough time.”
“Then get back to me once you understand just what kind of ladyboss you’re dealing with.” She leaned in. “Because, you see, Bill, I’ve always played hardball. You just haven’t seen it. How do you think we keep so many authors? But you? You’re just a softie from another time.”
She stood up and Henry, oblivious to the finer details of this sinister exchange, offered a hearty wave to both of them.
“Choose wisely, Bill. I know the Germans are counting on you.”
(Next: The War Room)
(Word count: 12,576/50,000)