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Filmmaker Jack Duncan knows almost nothing about Terri Osborne, but is so entranced by her that he proposes, and, to his surprise, she accepts.
Celebrating in an Omaha restaurant known as a hangout for actors, Duncan is distracted by a stranger who tries to interest him in filming a story about a mystery hundreds of years old. While his back is turned, Terri vanishes-from both the present and, it seems, from the past, as though she had existed ...
Filmmaker Jack Duncan knows almost nothing about Terri Osborne, but is so entranced by her that he proposes, and, to his surprise, she accepts.
Celebrating in an Omaha restaurant known as a hangout for actors, Duncan is distracted by a stranger who tries to interest him in filming a story about a mystery hundreds of years old. While his back is turned, Terri vanishes-from both the present and, it seems, from the past, as though she had existed for only a few months.
Duncan eventually summons police for help in finding Terri, but then realizes that he is their main suspect in her disappearance. As his arrest seems imminent he is sent to England to oversee a filmed quest for the "real" Shakespeare. But Duncan's "escape" to England is not so lucky after all. The Keepers of the Shakespeare Myth have some nasty surprises waiting for him. And the pleasant old literary mystery leads him straight into a timeless nightmare in which no one can be trusted and he himself may be the villain.
The investigation in Nebraska becomes inexplicably intertwined with the mysteries in England and a race ensues to determine who will be lucky enough to destroy Jack Duncan and bury the truth about Shakespeare for good.
Eight people sat around the table, most of them actors who had just finished a rehearsal of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Jack barely knew them; he didn't even know their real names, because they used the names of one another's characters—a joke that had become habit.
"Do you carry a gun?" Gooper asked Jack.
Jack shook his head with a grin and Terri Osborne gave him a scolding look.
Jack had taken Terri for a look around the playhouse several months earlier, his first visit there in six years. It had been creepily nostalgic for him—a mistake, he realized, not only because it recalled past off-stage horror but also because Terri had become caught up in the "atmosphere" of the place and had signed on to do lights and cues and makeup, and he had been drawn back into the old nightmare.
"I don't think I'd like your job," Brick said. "I don't think I'd like making enemies of smugglers and druggies and murderers."
"Well, usually I make friends with them."
Terri had told them that Jack made film documentaries. "About what?" one of them asked. And so Jack had told them about Two-suiter Jimmy, the parrot smuggler who had gotten that nickname by smuggling himself out of Australia in a big suitcase checked in as luggage—Jimmy wanted to be sure his methods weren't too cruel to the parrots—and he told them about living undercover in a crackhouse with an unsuspecting roommate who got so scrambled on the cocaine one night that he played Russian roulette with an automatic but missed his own head. Pretty soon the whole table was listening to him. Not that he cared anything about impressing anyone there—except Terri, the impressing of whom was all he did care about. She seemed to be enjoying the yarns, too, so he kept talking. Then Don piped up.
"Bullshit," he said. He said it off the back of his hand, to Terri, but loud enough to let everyone hear.
No one but Terri seemed to know Don. He had come into the restaurant alone, spotted Terri, and immediately sat down next to her, to Jack's instant annoyance. "This is Don, everyone," Terri had said, seeming embarrassed.
"Where you from?" Brick had asked, in a friendlier voice than Jack could have mustered.
"Here and there," Don answered, smirking in Terri's direction.
So everyone had seemingly written Don off as a jerk and the conversation had gone on without him, until now.
Jack couldn't resist: "Don wishes, respectfully, to differ with something I just said.
"I said bull, uh, shit."
Terri had swung around to face Don, and something in her look at him had evidently ruined the word. What kind of look was it? Jack wondered. Don busied himself with his drink.
Jack tuned out of the conversation for a while and gave his attention to the small bandstand in the corner. Peggy Sterling was singing, "I Get Along Without You Very Well," her signature number, and it was strangely soothing to him after Kathleen's death. Peggy noticed Jack listening and nodded. Jack had known the quartet for almost ten years, following them from joint to joint. When the song ended, they took a break, and Jack had a waiter take them drinks—coffee for the aging bassist, Doc, who'd had ten thousand too many drinks and stopped cold turkey one might after he flubbed a note. Doc saluted Jack with his cup when it came.
Big Daddy piped up: "Now I remember seeing you on television. You got some murderer out of prison."
"Rapist," Jack corrected him. "Mistakenly convicted rapist," he corrected himself.
Don spewed gin and tonic into the air. "That's not how I heard it. I heard you got yourself out of prison."
"He did what?" Gooper asked, looking back and forth from Jack to Don.
"Ask him," Don said. "No, on second thought, don't bother. He'd just feed you some more ..." He cocked his chin defiantly at Terri. "... bullshit."
Terri turned to Jack and crossed her eyes. But the lopsided grin Jack was wanting wasn't there. Nor did she put a restraining hand on him. Can't she tell I'm about to bury my fist in his face?
Instead, Big Daddy's hand was on Jack's shoulder. "I wonder why Tennessee Williams never used that term. 'Mendacity' is okay, but so polite. 'Bullshit' comes more to the point."
The other actors laughed and Jack let the mood change. "Yes, but it doesn't have any class."
Cat said, "I have to confess that when I was reading for the part I had to ask someone what 'mendacity' meant."
"Yeah, that was me," Gooper said. "I told you 'lies,' but I was guessing. I probably would have said 'bullshit' if you hadn't been so gorgeous."
"What the hell?" Don said, at sea.
"Our play is about lies," Cat explained. Jack was happy to hear a note of condescension in her voice.
"Someone wrote that lies are the most powerful forces on earth," Big Daddy said to no one in particular. "Do you believe that?"
"Oh, you're just trying to motivate your character and getting us to do the work for you, Big Daddy," Cat said.
Jack said, "Yeah, I buy that," so quietly no one heard him.
"I think it's true," Big Daddy continued. "Look at the slaughter the lie about Jesus has caused."
"Now, hold on, Big Daddy," Gooper said. "Some of us don't appreciate that kind of talk."
"Auggh," Terri said, "not another fight!" She stood and scooted her chair back as if to leave.
Someone touched Jack's arm, gently.
"Please forgive me for intruding on your conversation."
It was a little old man leaning over from the next table. His voice was barely above a whisper and seemed full of pain. "I couldn't help hearing that you are a journalist, and then I remembered seeing some of your work on television. I wonder if I might interrupt just long enough to ask you a couple of questions."
"Go ahead," Jack said, not in a very friendly tone. He was embarrassed that his braggadocio had been entertaining other tables, and he wanted to keep his eye on Don and Terri.
"What is the point of what you do?" the old man asked.
"The point?" The question bordered on impertinence, but the man seemed so feeble Jack didn't want to be rude to him. "I guess it's to find out what people know. Especially if someone doesn't want me to find out."
"And then tell it."
"Ah." The man sat silently a moment and Jack turned back to Terri and the actors. Terri was still standing, one eyebrow lifted.
"Suppose," the man said, touching Jack's arm again, "that you were to learn the answer to a mystery more important than smuggling or murders or even getting innocent people out of prison, a mystery so great it has gone unsolved for hundreds of years."
Jack again saw the pain in the man's eyes. "Go on."
"Would you report it?"
"Sounds like a trick question, but yeah, sure."
"Oh, I left out one thing. I forgot to say that knowing the answer and reporting it might destroy you."
"Now I'm interested." Jack laughed slightly.
The man began to write in a small notebook. "I am going to give you a list. It's a list of people who have discovered the answer."
"And been destroyed?"
"Yes." There was no mirth in his voice.
"Well, we journalists are intrepid as all hell. Bring on your accursed mystery."
The man handed Jack the piece of notepaper and stood. "Thank you for listening to me, Mr. Duncan. Incidentally, one of the names on the list is my own." He helped the even slighter woman beside him to her feet. She smiled at Jack, and the two walked away. Jack stuck the note in his pocket and immediately forgot about it.
A different mystery had begun. Terri Osborne had disappeared. Disappeared not just from the table, but from the restaurant. Don's chair was empty too. Big Daddy said she might have left. Jack hurried outside, looked in all directions, checked two parking lots, went back in, waited by the women's restroom door for a long while, and then returned to the table, getting only blank looks from the others.
Terri Osborne had disappeared. Not just for the night. Disappeared.
"What do you know about Shakespeare?" Morris Lamb demanded.
Jack stared at him blankly. He had just spent five hours on two planes and another hour with a taxi driver who did not understand the word "Manhattan" and who was so short he relied on the car's missing shocks to toss him high enough for fleeting glimpses of the street. And, as usual, Jack had gotten about ten minutes of sleep the night before, which meant the hangover was just now beginning. So he was in no mood for a chat with Lamb about dead playwrights.
"You want everything?" he asked, sarcastically.
"Just some headlines," Lamb said.
"Big, high, bald head. Wrote Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Henry the Fifth and, uh, some other stuff."
"Did Popperman put you up to this?" Jack asked.
"Put me up to what?"
Kevin Popperman gave Jack paranoia; whenever Jack opened his mouth in this place, Popperman seemed to materialize, mustache and eyebrows identically steepled, brandishing his English accent, ready to point out the idiocy of Jack's ideas, whatever they might be. Lamb had hired Popperman away from the BBC for no good reason that Jack could divine, and he had wormed his way up to staff producer by turning the whole system of doing documentaries on its head. Don't go off on an expensive search for some elusive truth, he told them. Let someone else find an answer, then shoot whatever illustrates that answer in the most entertaining—and cheapest—way. Two years earlier, Jack had sat in this same office trying to sell Lamb on a documentary about the recruiting and training of cops, thinking he could expose how the system encourages brutality and increases crime. It would have been a risky documentary, might have taken years and might have proved the opposite, or proved nothing at all. Lamb had been interested. But Popperman had stuck his head in the room and called the whole concept "specious reasoning certain to produce impalpable results." Amazingly, Popperman had managed to include a yawn in the word "impalpable" without smearing any of the syllables. He was Moses from the mountaintop scolding his misbehaving flock, and Jack's poor little documentary had lain there dying. Jack had had no comeback, because he didn't know what "impalpable" meant.
"The son of a bitch has made a career of shooting me down from the first moment he saw me," Jack said now, to Lamb. "Every time I bring in a rough cut to show you, he shows up, and I have to crank the volume all the way up to compete with his condescending groans. Doesn't he have any work of his own to do?"
"Jack, you're losing it. Popperman is not out to get you. He's an efficiency wonk and a scientist. And he's good at ..."
Just what I need! Jack thought. My buddy, Lamb, defending the blusterbag Popperman in the middle of giving me some nonsensical English Lit test.
Jack rose halfway out of his chair, thinking he would walk out in a display of principle, but he sat right back down, remembering how much he needed the job. Wait! What job? As his mind wandered through this thicket, he realized that Lamb was still talking.
"... looked like your sort of doc. Do you have six months to spend on it? We'll pay sixty thousand."
Someone knocked at the door and, without waiting for an answer, pushed it open. A head protruded.
"Oh, sorry, Morris," the head said. "Didn't know you had guests. Need to talk to you, Morris. Hello, Jack."
"Go to hell," Jack responded. "And you knew damn well he had guests." The head, which belonged to Kevin Popperman, disappeared, and the door closed again.
"That creep lies in wait for me like a buzzard," Jack said. Then it registered on him what Lamb had just said. "Sixty thousand dollars?"
"Payable a third up front, the rest when we accept a fine cut."
There was a long pause.
"Fine cut of ... what?"
Lamb stared at Jack as though he'd made a big mistake.
"Did you hear anything I just said?" Lamb said.
"Oh, yeah, sure, I can spare six months for a story like that," Jack said. "Sounds like a winner."
Lamb spun his chair around, stood up, grabbed his framed, autographed picture of Edward R. Murrow from the shelf behind his desk, and turned it face down.
Jack waved a hand around, absolving himself of whatever blunders he might have just made. "That son of a bitch Popperman threw me off." Then it dawned on him what the story must be about.
"Oh, Shakespeare!" he said. "I forgot to tell you, I was in Shakespeare once. Midsummer Night's Dream."
He shot a look at the door, afraid Popperman would reappear like Jiminy Cricket to point out this latest lie. Jack hadn't been in A Midsummer Night's Dream. But almost. When he was twenty, with no worries, no responsibilities (or as Lamb would call it, "feckless"). He was just drifting along behind an amazing looking blonde, whose hair swished to some inner music that Jack was beginning to hear himself, and almost without noticing it, he followed her into the theater and into the middle of auditions for the play. He got the part of Quince without even reading for it. The director looked at him and said, "You're Quince." The blonde with the musical hair got Puck. But just before dress rehearsals, the woman playing Titania, queen of the fairies, who was living with the guy playing Oberon, king of the fairies, found some teeth marks on Oberon where no teeth but her own were supposed to be—teeth marks from the bicuspids of Puck—Jack's Puck. The result was a dress rehearsal with the great god-king Oberon all doubled over in pain from what had become two bites, Titania having felt the need to show him what a real bite feels like. And everybody's lines were being drowned out by a screaming match between Titania and Puck backstage, the gist of Puck's argument being that Oberon's was "the last cock in town" that anyone would find her, Puck, biting. So they had called off the play. Which was okay with Jack, whose interest in Puck had waned during the dispute, and he had never really gotten into his character.
No need to explain all that to Lamb, Jack reasoned. None of it had been Jack's fault.
"... so that's why I thought you might be able to do this one."
"Huh? Say again?" Jack said.
"Ignorance is what I was saying. This piece could use your unique, uh, qualifications."
"I suppose you mean that we're to do this doc as a journey by 'Everyman.'"
Lamb nodded slowly. "A journey taken by a very ignorant man."
Jack didn't like the slur, but the past five months without work had interfered with his indignation. And he couldn't work out how to rebut the "ignorance" slur when he still wasn't clear about what Lamb was accusing him of being ignorant of.
"You might be surprised how much I know about it."
Lamb stared at him silently, until Jack finally asked him what they were talking about, which obviously gave Lamb some pleasure.
"The authorship question," Lamb finally answered. "Who wrote Shakespeare's stuff? You may have noticed that Shakespeare is a hit lately. I mentioned his name this morning and my sixteen-year-old daughter actually squealed. And the old argument about who he was is making a little news again. The prime suspect is a guy named Edward DeVere, who was the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. The problem is that the mystery always degenerates into a complicated debate among a bunch of stuffy academics who spew Shakespeare quotes the way Trappist monks quote the Bible."
"Or would if they were allowed to talk," Jack added
"And what comes out is indecipherable minutiae that serves only to put everyone but their fellow Shakespeare nuts to sleep. So we want you to be our questor, our seeker for the Holy Grail of truth, a search into mysterious old castles and musty halls of records and spooky tombs where we will meet a dazzling assortment of strange people."
"How much truth do you suppose I'll find?"
"None, I should think. It's a thoroughly trampled field. But there are plenty of crazy things to look at. Some guy has found Edward DeVere's old Bible and sees Hamlet in it, another guy has inherited DeVere's childhood castle, complete with ghosts. And if the DeVere well runs dry, there's the hideaway on Malta where Christopher Marlowe hid out after he was murdered so that he could keep writing the works of Shakespeare, and—"
Excerpted from The Cottage by Alan K. Austin Copyright © 2011 by Alan K. Austin. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted August 13, 2012
Full of Surprises
Reviewed by Joseph Yurt for Reader Views (6/12)
Surprise! For me, this single word best describes my reaction to Alan K. Austin’s new book, “The Cottage.” But the extent and nature of surprise in this novel is puzzling and overwhelming at times. My reader’s emotions ranged from wanting to abandon the book, to not being to put it down. The source of the chaos is not so much the story, as it is the love-hate relationship some readers are apt to develop with the books central character, eccentric documentary filmmaker Jack Duncan (Austin’s other career is that of award winning, investigative film documentarian.) Duncan is painstakingly created and is aptly described by another of the book’s primary characters as “the most peculiar man I’ve ever met.”
As complex as is the character Jack Duncan, the story told in the “The Cottage” is even more entangled. From the first page, it is clear that the reader will be challenged to consider whether the circumstances of the story are true tales or tall tales. Jack’s fiancé, whom he doesn’t really know, disappears in the first chapter, and despite that event, Jack suddenly heads off to undertake a project that rides the coattails of the current Shakespeare controversy. England and Shakespeare country are the setting for the rest of the story. It is also apparent from the first page that Jack Duncan is brilliant and befuddled, quite capable of making mindboggling poor choices in his actions. This mosaic combination of plot and character made the first few chapters maddening for me. But once more of the story began was revealed, I began to become more captivated with it.
While Jack Duncan is clearly the central character, and the most developed, there is a strong, eclectic supporting cast who also contribute to the book’s allure. Indeed, Mr. Austin has a special gift for getting us “inside” his characters, in some instances deeply. This might well be a carry-over from his documentary work. That same work also lends an air of authenticity, real or by association, to the overall tone and manner of Jack Duncan’s thoughts and actions. But despite the overall influence of Austin’s documentary background, it does not appear to have noticeably influenced his writing style. He is a first rate storyteller with words and has a strong ability to subtly guide the reader through his tangled web of surprise.
Alan K. Austin’s “The Cottage,” like the book’s central character Jack Duncan, is perhaps one of the most peculiar books I’ve read. It is also one of the more engaging, stimulating mystery novels I’ve read. A strong story, strongly developed characters, and magnetic writing make for a not surprisingly good book that is full of surprises.