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When I received the telegram in Skópelos, I should have wired my regrets immediately: “Thanks, but no thanks. Having far too much fun leading sailing holidays. Must respectfully decline offer to take charge of family firm. Stop.”
Instead, I said I’d be on the next plane, and it nearly cost me my life.
I’d had reservations about coming back to manage the small, sedate publishing house I’d inherited, but my worst fear was that I would die of boredom. No one told me that book publishing was a murderous business, and that within a single week in the not-so-distant future I would barely escape death in a dozen exotic forms.
The treachery of the business wasn’t immediately apparent; far from it. For my first two years with the company it seemed that nothing could go wrong, and I was lulled into a false sense of well-being. It came as a nasty surprise when, on a drizzly October evening almost two years to the day after I’d returned to London, I got the first inkling that all was not as it should be.
I climbed out of Farringdon tube station jet-lagged and woozy, fresh off the plane from Boston. I’d spent two utterly unproductive days there trying to close a copublishing deal with an American company, and didn’t much feel like going out that evening. But a promise was a promise. Two weeks earlier I had agreed to attend the publication party of a competing book publisher, Soames and Sons, to celebrate the release of Fleet Street Beat, the memoirs of one of London’s more respected tabloid editors.
I turned down a cobblestoned alley under a sign that said CHURCHILL’S REAL ALES and sighed. Why Soames and Sons was throwing its party at this tourist trap of an old brewery, miles from the nearest tube station, I couldn’t imagine. I’d been here once before, and the smell of rampant fermentation was still fresh in my mind.
I told myself to give Soames and Sons credit; at least they had a reason to throw a party. It was more than I could say for my little company.
No sooner had I straightened my tie and entered the brewery’s yawning stone hall than Alison Soames wiggled up to me in a tight electric blue suit. She was the new blood in Soames and Sons, which I often thought should be renamed Soames and Daughter, as Rupert Soames had no sons.
“Alex! You came.” She was flushed and slightly out of breath as she took my arm. Alison’s décolleté fashions and breathy voice tricked some people into thinking she had more beauty than brains, but she didn’t fool me.
I looked around and smiled, shaking my head. “You’ve done it again, Alison. I don’t know how you expect us to compete.”
It was clear to me now why Alison, a public-relations genius, had decided to have the party here. The brewery’s size and general atmosphere of decay had allowed her to create a full-scale replica of Fleet Street, the infamous home of London’s journalists. Pasteboard facades of the familiar buildings lined the walls, and costumed actors set type by hand at old-fashioned printing presses positioned throughout the room. I gazed in wonder at several giant rolls of newsprint hanging overhead, suspended from ceiling-mounted cranes.
I was impressed by Alison’s authenticity. Not many people knew that when London papers had actually printed their news in Fleet Street, there had been no other way to get the big reels of newsprint into the cramped old buildings but through upper-storey windows. Cranes had hoisted the two-ton cylinders in from the back alley like tin cans on strings.
She gave me a look of mock reprimand, tilting her bleached blond head to one side. “Don’t give me your hard-luck story, Plumtree. You’re the one with the best-seller.”
I smiled modestly. There was no point in telling her that, barring a miracle, within a week or so I would have to close the doors of Plumtree Press for good.
Alison beckoned to a passing waiter and lifted a pint off his tray. She thrust it into my hand as if in condolence. “Drink it and weep, Plumtree.”
Standing very close, she ran her hand down my back in a way that made me shiver. Then she winked and was gone. I stared after her for a moment, feeling slightly confused in her wake. Alison never failed to interest me, physically if not otherwise, and she would probably be a lot of fun if I were in the market. But I wasn’t—not at the moment, anyway.
I took a sip from the dripping mug, trying not to spill it on my suit, and got my bearings.
Everyone was hard at it, the journalists drinking and the publishers talking as fast as they decently could. Most of the book reviewers from the major London papers and magazines were there, as well as the managing directors or senior editors of publishing houses like mine. They studiously avoided looking at their watches to determine which train they could take to their country retreats for the weekend; after all, it was well worth the investment of a Friday evening to establish a rapport with an influential reviewer. The return, in the form of a review in a Sunday paper, could be on their doorstep in the space of a few weeks.
With gratitude I spotted Barnes Appleton, the most influential reviewer of them all, and headed in his direction. A chat with him was a worthy excuse for not performing my real duty for the evening, which was a sort of Plan B in case the American copublishing deal didn’t come through. Loathsome as the thought was, I would have to gauge the interest of several competitors, including Rupert Soames, in purchasing a chunk of my company.
It was unfortunate that the only people likely to be interested in a piece of Plumtree Press were my father’s most bitter competitors, several of whom were downright obnoxious. But even more than the personalities involved, I hated the idea of selling out. Aside from the feeling that I was betraying my father and three generations of Plumtrees before him, I hated it because Plumtree Press had come so close to having more profit on its bottom line this year than any of its competitors had seen in decades.
Just not close enough.
Barnes Appleton saw me coming and raised his glass in greeting. He reminded me of a chubby leprechaun: short, fairly jolly, rosy cheeks. But this benign image masked a force to be reckoned with in the world of print. He wrote for the Sunday Tempus, and had won the prestigious Beecroft Award, the British equivalent of the American Pulitzer prize, the year before. His exposé on a third-world dictator had actually gotten the ruffian thrown out of office.
Barnes was also a recovering alcoholic, and of all his achievements I admired that one the most. I thought it must take a lot of courage on his part to come to these industry functions where alcohol flowed like the River Fleet.
“Alex,” Barnes said, looking pleased. “I hoped I’d see you here tonight.” He had to tip his head back to look up at me, and I was aware of our extreme difference in height. At six foot five inches, I was a full foot taller than he, and I wondered if he would get a sore neck talking to me.
“Well,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “Same here.” I was surprised at the warmth of his greeting and somewhat flattered. We were acquaintances, certainly, but no more. I wondered what was up. “How’s the critiquing business?”
“That’s exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.” He glanced at someone over my shoulder, gave me a worried smile, and steered me off toward a nearby printing press. Assuming he was trying to avoid someone, I played along.
When we were safely behind the press, Barnes glanced surreptitiously around the room and frowned. Finally he spoke, barely moving his lips and speaking so softly that I had to lean over to hear him.
“I’m not sure I should be telling you this, Alex, but I think you’ve a right to know.”
I looked at him with interest. I’d never seen him act so mysteriously.
He reacted as if I’d shouted. He looked around nervously and held up a palm. “For God’s sake, Alex, don’t make a scene—act your inscrutable self.”
“All right, all right,” I said, chastised. His habit of looking around was contagious.
When he spoke again, it was in a stage whisper. “Something very big has happened with that sequel you gave me to preview.” He swept the room again with his eyes. “And someone out there is doing his best to prevent me from telling the story. I wanted you to know before—”
“Barnes! Alex.” It was Alison Soames getting her money’s worth. The opportunity to talk to Barnes Appleton was one of the reasons she’d organized this party. With a mixture of fascination and dread, I wondered how close she would stand this time.