Read an Excerpt
A Nicholas Linnear Novel
By Eric Van Lustbader
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Eric Van Lustbader
All rights reserved.
THE GROUND BOOK
West Bay Bridge SUMMER PRESENT
When Nicholas Linnear saw them fish the bloated blue-white thing out of the water, he turned right around, walking away, and was far down the beach by the time the real crowd had begun to form.
Flies buzzed furrily along the snaking hillock of sand above the high-tide mark. The spindrift, drying, was like a lock of a child's fine white hair. Beyond, the combers rolled in, purple-blue, then white as their tops turned to foam, spending themselves upon the wet sand at his bare feet.
He dug his toes in, very much as he had done when he was younger, but, of course, it did no good. The sea leached away the footing from under him and he grew shorter by inches as the land was eroded by the tide's inexorable progress.
Up until then it had been a quiet afternoon, Dune Road lazy in midweek, even though this was the week after the Fourth of July. He reached unconsciously for the pack of thin black-tobaccoed cigarettes which he no longer carried. He had given up smoking six months ago. He remembered the date well enough because it was the same day he had quit his job.
He had arrived at the agency one chill sullen winter's day and had stayed in his office only long enough to place the ostrich-hide briefcase that Vincent had presented him with for no apparent reason—it was some months past his birthday and longer than that since he had been promoted—on his rosewood and smoked-glass desk that was much too modern to hold anything remotely resembling drawers. Then he went out, turning left, past the curious, upturned face of Lil, his secretary, down the beige-carpeted, rose-neon indirectly lighted hall. When had he actually made the decision? He had no idea, really. On the way in, in the cab, his mind had been empty, his thoughts like ashes swirled in the dregs of last night's coffee. Nothing else seemed to remain.
He went past the pair of female guardians who, like perfectly carved sphinxes before a great pharaoh's tomb, flanked the enormous carved mahogany door. The thing of it was, they were damned efficient, too. He gave a brief knock and went in.
Goldman was on the phone—the dark blue one, which meant a conversation with a high-level client, rather than the beige one, which would indicate interoffice brainstorming—so Nicholas stared out the window. They're all high-level these days, he thought. There were days when being on the thirty-sixth floor had its advantages, but this was not one of them. The sky was so dense with leaden clouds that it seemed as if a lid had been clamped down on the city. Perhaps, near nightfall, it would snow again. He couldn't think whether that would be good or bad.
"Nick, my boy!" Goldman cried as he cradled the receiver. "It must've been ESP, you walking in now! Guess who that was on the phone? No." He waved one hand. It looked like a duck, eager to take off. "Better yet, don't guess. I'll tell you. It was Kingsley." His eyes got big. They always got big when he was excited. "Know what he said? He was talking my ear off about you and the campaign. The first results are already in. They're 'a dramatic improvement,' he says. Those are his words, the schmendrick. 'A dramatic improvement.'"
Nearing sixty, Sam Goldman did not look a day over fifty. He was fit and trim and always tan. This, Nicholas had always supposed, he maintained to set off his shock of brilliant white hair which he wore long and combed straight back. Goldman was enamored of contrasts. His face was somewhat long, lined, pitted slightly on the crown of each cheek. It was a proud face, dominated by large brown eyes, despite the long nose and generous mouth. He wore a blue pinstripe shirt with solid white collar and a navy and maroon Italian silk tie. He knew how to dress, Goldman did. Despite this, his sleeves were rolled partway up his forearms.
Looking at him now, Nicholas abruptly knew why this was going to be so hard for him to do.
"I'm glad, Sam," he said.
"Well, sit down, sit down then." Goldman waved him to a beige suede and chrome chair in front of his enormous desk. It was not, perhaps, what he would have chosen himself but all his clients were happy with it.
"No, I'm fine where I am, thanks." Now that he was down to it, he realized that there was just no easy way. "I'm leaving, Sam."
"Leaving? What, you want a vacation already? You've only been creative director for six months—"
"So who's counting? Anyway, you want a vacation? Okay, you got a vacation. Where're you going?"
"I don't think you understand, Sam. I want to leave the company. Resign."
Goldman swiveled around in his chair, stared out the window. "You know, it's going to snow today. On the radio they said no. But I know better. An old campaigner can always tell. My feet tell me. Every time I play tennis. I said to Edna this morning—"
"Sam, did you hear me?" Nicholas said gently.
"That Kingsley. What a schmuck! He may know publishing but he doesn't know shit from advertising. It took him long enough to come here." He swiveled back, abruptly. "You, Nick, you know advertising."
"Resign, Nicky? Resign? What's this resign? I don't believe it. You have everything here. Everything. You know how much we're gonna net—not gross, mind you, but net—from this one goddamn campaign of yours?"
"I don't care, Sam."
"Two hundred fucking thousand, Nick. Now why would you leave?"
"I'm tired, Sam. Honestly. I feel like I've been in advertising so long that lately—lately, I've been waking up feeling like Count Dracula."
Goldman cocked his head, a nonverbal sign of query.
"You know, like I've been in a coffin."
"You're going back to Japan."
"I hadn't really thought about it." He was far more pleased than surprised; Goldman was unusually perceptive about these things. "I don't know that it matters."
"Of course it matters!" Goldman exploded. "I think about going back to Israel all the time!"
"You didn't grow up in Israel," Nicholas countered.
"I would have if it'd've been in existence then." He snorted. "But that's irrelevant." He waved a hand again. "History. History is all that matters." A call came through for him and he barked at one of the sphinxes outside to jot it down as a call-back. "Listen, I don't give a good goddamn what we make outa Kingsley, Nicky, you know that. But it's a sign. Can't you see that? You're hot now. I felt it was gonna happen a year ago and now I know I was right. You really want to walk away from that now?"
"I don't think want is the right word," Nicholas said. "Have to is more like it."
Goldman took out a cigar from a thick wooden humidor, contemplated it. "Nick, I won't bore you by telling you how many bright guys would give their left nut for your job—"
"Thanks," Nicholas said dryly. "I appreciate that."
"Everyone's gotta do for himself." Goldman's eyes regarded the cigar's tip. He took a bite off the end, struck a long wooden match.
"I wish you wouldn't," Nicholas said. "I've given up smoking."
Goldman eyed him, the flame in midair. "Just like you," he said flatly. "Everything at once." He puffed at the flame, flicked the match into a wide glass ashtray. But, unwilling perhaps to admit unconditional defeat, he stuck the cold cigar unhappily in his mouth, chewed on it meditatively. "You know, Nick, I like to think of myself as more than just your boss. It's been a lotta years since I picked you up right off the boat."
Goldman waved his hand. "Whatever." He took the cigar out of his mouth. "As a friend, I think you owe me some kind of an explanation."
He put his hand up, palm outward. "Hey, I'm not gonna try to stop you from going. You're a big boy now. And I can't say I'm not disappointed, because I am. Why the hell should I lie to you? Only, I'd just like to know."
Nicholas got up, went over to the window. Goldman swung his chair around to follow his progress like a radar tracking station.
"It's not even very clear to me yet, Sam." He rubbed a hand across his forehead. "I don't know, it's like this place has become a prison. A place to get out of instead of come into." He turned to face Goldman. "Oh, it isn't this place, itself. There's nothing wrong—I suspect ..." He shrugged. "Perhaps it's advertising. I feel lost within the medium now, as if the electronicization has no meaning for me. As if I've slipped back, somehow, into another age, another time." He leaned forward, a peculiar kind of tension lacing his upper torso. "And now I'm beginning to feel as if I'm adrift, far out at sea where there's no sign of land in any direction."
"Then there's nothing I can do to change your mind."
Goldman sighed. "Edna will be very upset."
For several moments their eyes locked in a kind of silent struggle where each, it seemed, was sizing the other up.
Goldman put his thick hands flat on the desk top. "You know," he said quietly, "years ago in the police department of this city it used to be that the only way you got ahead was if you had a rabbi down at headquarters. Someone who looked after you when things got rough or"—he shrugged—"who knows? Used to be the way of the world—all over." He put the unlit cigar into the opposite side of his mouth. "Now, maybe, it's different. Corporations, they don't know from rabbis. You gotta conform. You gotta suck up to all the vice-presidents, get invited to their weekend parties, be nice to their wives who're so horny and unhappy they'd hump a tree if it could tell them how pretty they look; you gotta live in that certain part of Connecticut where they all live in their two-story houses with the semicircular drives. Used to be they had button-down minds; now they got computer minds. That's getting ahead, Nick, business-wise. So they tell me. Me, I wouldn't know. Not firsthand anyway. I'd retire before they'd get me into that kind of trap." His eyes were clear and they sparkled despite the fact that the light was so dull and leaden. "Me, I was brought up with rabbis. They're in my system; no way I can get 'em out now, even if I wanted to." He sat forward in his high-backed chair, his elbows on the desk top, leveled his gaze at Nicholas. "You get what I mean?"
Nicholas looked at him. "Yes, Sam," he had said, after a time. "I know exactly what you mean."
The aching cries of the circling gulls hid the sound of the siren for a time, but, as the ambulance drew nearer, its wailing rise and fall, rise and fall blotted out all other sound. People were running silently along the expanse of the beach, looking birdlike and rather awkward as they tried to compensate for the too soft footing.
He had come out to West Bay Bridge early in the season. In order to survive now, he had to push it all away from him, into a comforting middle distance, not too close, not too far away. The agency, Columbia, everything. Not even a discovery of some drowned corpse was going to interrupt his solipsistic world; it was too much like the city.
Oddly enough, it put him in mind of the call. It had come only a few days after he had left the agency. He had been in the middle of the Times' Op-Ed page and his second Irish coffee.
"Mr. Goldman was good enough to give me your home number, Mr. Linnear," Dean Whoolson said. "I trust I've not intruded."
"I still don't understand why you've come to me," he said.
"It's quite simple, really. There has been, of late, a renaissance of interest in the field of Oriental Studies. The students here are no longer satisfied with the superficiality, shall we say, of many of our oriental courses. I'm afraid they view us as sadly out of date in that area."
"But I'm hardly qualified as a teacher."
"Yes, we are well aware of that." The voice was rather dry, like a pinch of senescent snuff floating through the air. But underneath there was an unmistakable note of sincerity. "Naturally we are aware that you do not possess a teaching license, Mr. Linnear, but, you see, this course I have in mind would be perfect for you." He chuckled, an odd, startling sound as if made by a cartoon character. "For us, too, I might add."
"But I have absolutely no familiarity with the curriculum," Nicholas said. "I wouldn't have any idea where to begin."
"Oh, my dear fellow, it's a piece of cake," Dean Whoolson said, his voice now radiating confidence. "The course is a seminar, you see. Taught by four professors. Well, three now that Dr. Kinkaid has fallen ill. It meets twice a week during the spring semester with the four—I'm including yourself, of course—rotating. You see the beauty of it, Mr. Linnear? You can leave the curriculum to the others and stick to what you know better than anyone else in the Western Hemisphere." That strange, oddly likable chuckle came again, reminding Nicholas of mint chocolates and creme sweets. "I don't imagine you would have to concern yourself with overlapping the others' material, would you? I mean to say," he rushed on, as if enraptured by the wholehearted assurance of his own voice, "the kinds of things—uh, insights, as it were—into the Japanese mind are just the added fillip we are looking for. The students would be delighted, no doubt—as would we."
There was a singing discernible on the line in the ensuing silence between them and, faintly, Nicholas could make out the inconstant sibilances of other voices, like ghosts, raised in argument.
"Perhaps you would care to see the campus," Dean Whoolson said. "And, naturally, it is most beautiful in the spring."
Why not try something different? Nicholas had thought. "All right," he had said.
People were still running past him, attracted by the anxiety the wailing siren brought out. A growing knot of curious onlookers hovered, quivering on the borderline between revulsion and fascination, moths circling a flame in an ever-tightening orbit. He concentrated on the sound of the surf, curling and rushing in toward him, calling like a friend, but the human voices, raised in excitement and query, pierced the afternoon like needles. For them it was but a sideshow attraction, a chance to turn on the six o'clock news and say to their friends, "Hey! See that? I was there. I saw it happen," exactly as if it were Elizabeth Taylor and her touring party who had rolled through that particular stretch of surf, and then, as placidly as if they were contented bovines, return to their icy astringent martinis, the sliced pepperoni that someone had thoughtfully brought out from Balducci's in the city.
His house was of weathered gray shingle and coffee-colored brick with neither the pop-eyed Plexiglas bubble windows nor the bizarre cantilevered walls that many of the homes had along this stretch. To the right of the house, the dunes abruptly gave way to flat sand, somewhat lower than that of the surrounding area. There had been, up until early December, a house worth roughly a quarter of a million dollars on that property, but the winter had been fully as foul as the one in 1977–78 and it had been washed away with much of the land itself. The family was still trying to get the insurance money to rebuild. In the meantime, there was more open space to the side than was usual along this densely populated and highly fashionable beach front.
The breakers seemed to be pounding harder as the tide continued to sweep in and he felt the cold salt water licking up his ankles to his calves. The bottoms of his jeans, though turned up several times, pulled heavy with washed sand. He was reaching down to brush them out when a figure barreled into him. He fell backward with a grunt, someone sprawled atop him.
"Why the hell don't you watch where you're going?" he yelled crossly as he untangled himself.
"Sorry, but you don't have to scream, do you? It was a simple mistake."
The first thing he saw was her face, though before that he smelled her perfume, faintly citrus and as dry as Dean Whoolson's voice. Her face was extremely close to his. Her eyes he thought at first were hazel but then he saw that they certainly had more green in them than brown. There were one or two red flecks floating in the left iris. Her skin was creamy and lightly freckled. Her nose was rather too wide, which gave her character, and her lips were plump, which gave her an innate sensuality.
Excerpted from The Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader. Copyright © 1980 Eric Van Lustbader. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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