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Bryce wrote: "Kyrgyzstan. Mineral wealth includes gold. 95% within Tien Shan mountain range. Capital: Bishkek." Then he put his pen on the pad and turned pages in the book open before him on the table, looking for more about the Tien Shan mountain range. It sounded rugged, a good setting.
Around him in this research section in the Mid-Manhattan Library were dozens of other solitaries, studying books, making notes. It felt comforting to be among them.
A whisper at his ear: "Mr. Proctorr?"
Oh, well, he thought. Duty calls. He looked up and there he was, young, mid-twenties probably, skinny and pale, his face too small for those big eyeglasses, his smile tentative, afraid of rebuff: "You are Bryce Proctorr, aren't you?"
Bryce nodded. "That's me."
"I love your books, Mr. Proctorr," the fan said. "I don't want to interrupt"
The fan's lined notebook and ballpoint pen were extended: "Would you? I'll tape it into my copy of Double in Diamonds when I get home."
"Well, fine, you do that," Bryce said. He took the pad and pen. "What's your name?"
They agreed on a spelling, and Bryce wrote, "To Gene, All The Best, Bryce Proctorr."
"Thank you, sir, thank you."
"My pleasure." He felt as though he were asleep through this, watching through closed transparent eyelids. Gene went away, and Bryce tried to search again for the Tien Shan mountain range, but he couldn't. He couldn't care about the Tien Shan mountain range.
This wasn't working. He knew he was spinning his wheels, but he'd thought, to do someresearch, even to do some pretend work, would be better than to just sit in the apartment, watch old videotapes, certainly better than to go back to the empty house in Connecticut on a weekday. But he couldn't feel himself, he was here but he wasn't here, this crap he was doing was crap. There was no story in this.
He felt restless, a little lonely, as he moved through the library toward the exit, and then his eye was snagged by something familiar. Someone familiar, a familiar face, in profile, bent over a thick book, seated before a thick book, copying addresses into a small memo pad. A familiar face, out of the past. Bryce slowed, and the name came: Wayne Prentice.
He almost walked on by, but then he thought, Wayne. Whatever happened to Wayne Prentice? Twenty-five-year-old memories riffled, like a book of postcards, always groups, at parties, crowded into cars, at Jones Beach, in bars, the small living rooms of small underfurnished apartments. They were never close, but always friends, and then there was a day they didn't happen to meet, and now it's twenty years, more than twenty years, and whatever happened to Wayne Prentice? Didn't he publish some books?
Wayne's hair was thinner and neater than Bryce remembered, his face in profile fleshier; but I've aged, too, he thought. Both men were in chinos, Wayne's tan, Bryce's black, Bryce in scuffed big sneakers, Wayne in shabby brown loafers. Wayne's windbreaker was dull green cotton, Bryce's buff suede. We look like old friends, he thought.
Bryce veered toward the other man, his pen in his left inside pocket, notepad left outside pocket, smile on his face. Now that he was famous, recognized almost everywhere, he found it easy to approach people; they thought they already knew him. And of course Wayne already did.
He looked up, and his expression was haggard, eyes morose. He was what? Forty-four, Bryce's age? Around there, but he looked older.
And of course he recognized Bryce at once, and his expression lifted, film lifting from his eyes, eager smile on his face as he jumped to his feet, losing his place in the book. "Bryce! My God, where did you come from? What are you doing here?"
"Same as you," Bryce said with an easy grin, hoping this wasn't a mistake. What if he asks me for money? "Library research. I keep telling my editor, I got into the fiction racket so I could make it all up, but no, everybody wants the details right." Gesturing at the now-closed reference book in front of Wayne, he said, "You know what I mean."
"Sure," Wayne said, but he looked faintly doubtful.
He won't ask me for money, Bryce decided, and if he does I'll give him some and see the back of him. "Want to take a break?"
"Absolutely," Wayne said.
"Let's go have a drink."
The bar was old-fashioned looking, with heavy dark maroon banquettes and fake Tiffany lamps turned low, as though the place had been designed for adulterers, but the dozen people in here at four in the afternoon on a Tuesday were all tourists speaking languages other than English. The waiter was an older man, heavyset, sour, who didn't seem right in the job; as though he'd lost a more suitable position and this was all he could find. Bryce told him, "A Bloody Mary," and explained to Wayne, "It's a food."
"Then I'll have one, too," Wayne decided.
The waiter went away, and Bryce said, "God, it's been years."
"I've been trying to think how many."
"At least twenty. I think you'd just sold a novel."
Wayne nodded. "Probably. I took that money and went to Italy for a year, to Milan, research for the next one. Lost touch with a lot of people, then."
Their Bloody Marys came, they toasted one another, and Bryce said, "You don't write any more?" Then, at the twisted expression on Wayne's face, knew he'd been terribly stupid. "I'm sorry, did I"
But Wayne was shaking his head. "No, no, don't worry about it. It's a good question. Am I writing any more?"
Bryce wasn't used to feeling awkward, and was regretting this reunion. "I just, I don't think I've seen your name for a while."
"No, you haven't." Suddenly, Wayne gave him a beaming smile, as though the sun had come out. "By God," he said, "I can tell you the truth! For the first time, I can tell the truth."
Bryce's regret grew more acute. "I don't follow."
"This won't take long," Wayne promised. "I didn't write one novel, I wrote seven. The first one, The Pollux Perspective, did"
"That's right! I've been trying to remember the title." And the subject; that part hadn't come back yet.
"Well, it did better than anybody expected," Wayne said. "So then I got a two-book deal at a much better advance, and both of those books did great."
"This is all fine so far," Bryce said, and wondered what the disaster would be. Drink? A bad marriage?
Wayne said, "Let me tell you the world we live in now. It's the world of the computer."
"Well, that's true."
"People don't make decisions any more, the computer makes the decisions."
Wayne leaned closer. "Let me tell you what's happening to writers."
"Wayne," Bryce said gently, "I am a writer."
"You've made it," Wayne told him. "You're above the tide, this shit doesn't affect you. It affects the mid-list guys, like me. The big chain bookstores, they've each got the computer, and the computer says, we took five thousand of his last book, but we only sold thirty-one hundred, so don't order more than thirty-five hundred. So there's thinner distribution, and you sell twenty-seven hundred, so the next time they order three thousand."
Bryce said, "There's only one way for that to go."
"You know it. As the sales go down, the advances go down. My eighth book, the publisher offered twenty thousand dollars."
"My third contract was the best," Wayne said. "Books four and five. I got seventy-five thousand each, with ad-promo money and a little publicity tour, Boston and Washington and the West Coast. But then the sales started down . . ."
"Because of the computer."
"That's right." Wayne tasted his Bloody Mary. "My editor still believed in me," he said, "so he pushed through an almost-as-good contract next time, sixty for the sixth book and seventy-five for the seventh, but no promos, no tours. And down went the sales, and the next time, twenty grand. For one book only. No more multi-book contracts."
Bryce could comprehend all that, as something that might have happened to him, but had not. "Jesus, Wayne," he said. "What did you do?"
"What other people already did," Wayne told him, with a glint of remembered anger. "I got out of their fucking computer."
"You got out? How?"
"I'll tell you a secret," Wayne said. "All over this town, people are writing their first novel again."
It took Bryce a second to figure that one out, and then he grinned and said, "A pen name."
"A protected pen name. It's no good if the publisher knows. Only the agent knows it's me." Wayne had a little more of his Bloody Mary and shook his head. "It's a complicated life," he said. "Since I did spend that one year in Italy, the story is, I'm an expatriate American living in Milan, and I travel around Europe a lot, I'm an antiques appraiser, so all communication is through the agent. If I have to write to my editor, or send in changes, it's all done by E-mail."
"As though it's E-mail from Milan."
"Nothing could be easier."
Bryce laughed. "They think they're E-mailing you all the way to Italy, and you're . . ."
"Down in Greenwich Village."
Bryce shook his head, appreciating that as though it were a story gimmick. Then he said, "It's worth it?"
"Well, you know," Wayne said, "there's got to be a downside. I can't promote the book or go on tour or do interviews. I can't develop any kind of personal relationship with my editor, which can be a drag."
"But there's an upside, too," Wayne told him. "I took that eighth book, the one my first publisher would only offer twenty thousand for, I switched it around enough so it wouldn't be recognized, my agent sent it out, a different publisher offered sixty thousand."
"Because it was a first novel."
"Because it was good," Wayne insisted. "It was an exciting story, and the writer didn't have any miserable track record in the computers. So they could look at the book, and not at a lot of old sales figures."
Bryce grinned. "I love a scheme that works," he said.
"For a while, it went fine," Wayne said. "One-book deals, because I wasn't a pro, I was some antiques expert off in Italy. But the second book went up to seventy-five, the third to eighty-five. Sales on the third were slower, the fourth we went back down to seventy-five."
"It's happening faster," Bryce said.
"Three weeks ago, the publisher rejected book number five. No deal at any price."
Bryce could sympathize with that pain, though nothing quite like it had ever happened to him. "Oh, Wayne," he said, "that's a bitch."
"My agent made some phone calls," Wayne said, "but everybody knows everybody's track record, and everybody has to sell through the same computers. Nobody wants Tim Fleet."
"It used to be."
"Wait a minute," Bryce said. "The Doppler Effect?"
"That was the third one."
"Your publisher sent me the galleys," Bryce said, and offered a sheepish shrug. "I don't think I gave you a quote."
"Doesn't matter." Wayne looked past Bryce at nothing and said, "I'm not sure anything matters."
"Well, what's going to happen with the new book?"
"Nothing. I said to my agent, why don't I put my real name on it, see what happens, and he said, the computer still remembers me, nobody's in a hurry to bring Wayne Prentice back, and besides that I've been gone for seven years. The computer will remember me, but the readers won't."
"Jesus Christ, Wayne, what a shitty situation."
"I'm well aware of that," Wayne said. "Shall we do another round?"
"Not another Bloody Mary."
"Beer is also a food."
They called the waiter over and decided on two Beck's, and then Bryce said, "What are you going to do?"
"I made a resumé," Wayne told him. "I'm gonna try to get a teaching job somewhere. That's what I was doing in the library, getting addresses of colleges."
"Well, at least it'll keep you going for a while."
The beers were brought, and they sipped, and Bryce looked at Wayne's unhappy face. He doesn't want to teach in some college, he thought. He wants to be a writer, the poor bastard. He is a writer, and they've shot it out from under him.
What a stupid joke, to meet him at this point, when I'm not even a writer any more, when it's dried up and I'm
And he thought of it. He thought of the story, he thought of it as a story. For the first time in over a year, he thought in terms of story.
That had been the first element in his love for and fascination with the work of the novelist, that slow but unstoppable movement through the story, finding the story, finding each turn in it, each step forward. It was a maze, a labyrinth, every time, that you constructed and solved in the same instant, finding this turn, finding this turn, finding this turn.
That's what had been missing from his brain for the last year, more than a year, the tracking through the story, discovering the route, surprised and delighted by himself at every new vista, every new completed step forward. His life had been frustrating and boring and interminable the last year and a half because that, the motor of his existence, had been missing from it. He hadn't had that pleasure for such a long time, and now, just this instant, it had come back.
But not exactly a story, not something he would go home and write. Something else.
Wayne was looking at him, curious. "Bryce? What is it?"
"Hold it a minute," Bryce said. "Let me think about this, let me think this through."
Wayne waited, his brow furrowed, a little worried on Bryce's behalf, and Bryce thought it through. Could he suggest it? Could it work? Was it the answer?
He thought yes.
"Bryce? You okay?"
"Wayne, listen," Bryce said. "You know how you You know, you're working along in a book, you're trying to figure out the story, but where's the hook, the narrative hook, what moves this story, and you can't get it and you can't get it and you can't get it, and then all of a sudden there it is! You know?"
"Sure," Wayne said. "It has to come, or where are you?"
"And sometimes not at all what you expected, or thought you were looking for."
"Those are the best," Wayne said.
"I just found my hook," Bryce told him.
"What, in the book you're working on?"
"No, the life I'm working on. Wayne, the truth is, I haven't been able to write in almost a year and a half."
Wayne stared at him in disbelief. "You?"
"That's how long I've been involved in this shitty shitty divorce. I should never have left my first wife," he said, and shook his head. "I know how stupid that sounds, believe me, Ellen was Mother Teresa compared to Lucie. Lucie's out to get everything, everything, it's wearing me down, lawyers, depositions, accountants. She has half the copyright on everything I published during the marriage, and she wants a hell of a lot more, and it just won't come to an end."
"That's awful," Wayne said. "There I've been lucky. Susan and I are still together, no problem. I've known other people got into that kind of thing, and I really think it's usually more the spite and the bad feelings than the money."
"With Lucie, it's the money," Bryce assured him. "It's the spite and the bad feelings, all right, but it is goddam well the money."
"I'm sorry, man."
"Thank you. I'm almost a year past my deadline on the next book, the editor's calling me, little gentle hints, I'm lying to him, it's coming along, wanna be sure it's right. And meantime the lawyers and all the rest of it are eating up what money I have, and I don't get the next big chunk until I deliver a manuscript."
"You've got to have some kind of cushion."
Bryce grinned at him. "You think so? Three kids in college at the same time, none of them with Lucie, thank God, plus the lawyers and the accountants and the alimony to Ellen and the house in Connecticut and the apartment in the city and the maintenance she gets every month."
"Well, every divorce has to end sooner or later," Wayne said. "This is only temporary."
"Well, it seems permanent," Bryce told him. "But now I've got my hook, my narrative hook. All of a sudden, I've figured it out. I know how to get past this place. And you're getting past it, too."
Wayne shook his head. "What do you mean?"
"You have a book and no publisher," Bryce reminded him. "I have a publisher and I don't have a book."
"What?" Wayne half-grinned, saying, "You're joking, you're putting me on."
"I am not. I remember The Doppler Effect, it was good, I remember thinking, this guy writes kind of like me. Suspense, action, but with the big picture. This manuscript of yours, what's the story?"
"There's a businessman," Wayne said, "he's had some dealings with a senator. Nothing shady, nothing important. But now a special prosecutor is investigating the senator, and his staff keep sniffing around the businessman, thinking he has something for them. He doesn't, but he does have shady stuff elsewhere, environmental shit he's pulling, and he doesn't want them to find that when all they need is the goods on the senator, which he doesn't have. He has to make the investigation go away."
"So what does he do?"
"He kills the senator," Wayne said.
Bryce shook his head. "That's a short story."
"It's the first hundred pages. There's a lot more, a lot about Washington, about deep-sea pollution, and Wall Street. Your book Two of a Kind, if you described the setup on that, anybody would say it's just a short story."
Bryce smiled. He knew it was going to be all right. "You see? We can make it work."
"No," Wayne said. "You aren't serious about this."
"Of course I am. Who's seen your manuscript?"
"My wife and my agent and my former editor."
"Send it to me," Bryce said. "I'll give you my card. Send it to me, and if it's what I think it is, I'll fiddle it around a little, send it in as my next book. Wayne, my advance is a million one."
Wayne looked impressed, but nodded and said, "I thought it was in that area."
"I split it with you," Bryce said. "Before commissions and taxes and all that, we'll work out all those details, that's five hundred fifty thousand for each of us. That's seven times what you would have gotten if your publisher had stuck with you."
Wayne said, "Bryce, this is crazy."
"No, it isn't. Wayne, what does it matter to you what name goes on the book? You were never gonna be able to claim it anyway, it was gonna be Tim Fleet."
"This way, we both get a breather, we both have money in the bank, we both have time to organize our lives."
"You'd have a book out there," Wayne told him, "with your name on it, that you didn't do."
"I don't give a shit," Bryce said. "It wouldn't be the first time in the history of publishing that happened, and it won't be the last, and I don't give a shit."
Wayne sat frowning, trying to find objections. "If anybody ever found out . . ."
"That's my worry, not yours."
"I suppose, I suppose you could . . ." Wayne frowned and frowned, then shook his head and gave Bryce a quizzical grin as he said, "It could work, couldn't it?"
"It'll save my bacon. It'll save your bacon."
Thoughtfully, Wayne said, "I was never gonna be a good college teacher."
"You'll send me the book."
Wayne nodded. "I'll mail it in the morning."
"And we have a deal."
"We have a deal."
"With one condition," Bryce said.
Wayne looked at him. "There's a condition?"
"Sure. What is it?"
This was it, now. Bryce looked levelly into Wayne's eyes. "My wife must be dead," he said.