Chapter 1:


June 23

Despite how good he’d felt after finishing his manuscript, Wood was unsure whether Louis Langston would be willing to hear him considering the working relationship between them over the last decade had been less than stellar. Miraculously, after some initial hesitation Langston did listen to the old writer’s pitch and agreed to speak with him, noting that he had a free hour the next day to review Wood’s submission. So that Wednesday morning Nicholas Wood found himself in Langston’s office at Liberty Press for the first time in nearly two years, waiting for judgment to be passed on his work.

Wood remained quiet as Langston read over the exposé and a copy of the first three chapters, his gaze shifting back and forth between the furniture and portraits on the wall while he tried not to fidget in his plush seat. He was sweating, partially from nerves and partially from the grey wool suit he’d chosen to wear; it wasn’t the best fashion choice given the warm weather, but it made him look dignified and he had to project the best image of himself if he wanted this pitch to go over well. He wiped some sweat from his forehead, silently praying that Langston wasn’t picking up on his anxiety.

Thankfully Wood had nothing to worry about as the African-American man sitting behind the desk from him wasn’t even paying attention to him, completely engrossed in the sample pages he’d been given. Louis Langston, 51, was managing editor at Liberty and strived to present a professional appearance in every aspect of his daily life. His hair and goatee were both closely trimmed, he always dressed well, such as with the three-piece beige he wore today, and he made sure to eat properly and exercise every other day to maintain what would be considered a medium build. He didn’t stand out in a crowd, but in the corporate world more attention is paid to those who conform rather than the outliers, and by keeping his image and attitude strictly business he’d been able to climb the ladder quickly.

Langston had met with Wood sporadically since the late 60s when the author had come to them looking for a new publisher, and Liberty was eager to put out works by established writers that would enhance their status. Events hadn’t panned out well for either party in the years that followed, which is why Langston wasn’t initially committed to today’s meeting. As he finished the third chapter, detailing the grisly discovery of the victim’s remains and the shock from everyone else in the building as to how the murder could have taken place when no one went near the man, he knew that seeing Wood had been the right decision. This partnership, he thought, was finally going to pay off.

Langston got up from his seat and gave the author a thin smile. “I must say, Mr. Wood, I think this is the finest work you’ve ever submitted to us.” His tone was all business, but it was clear he was very pleased with what he’d read. “It’s got an intriguing, baffling mystery, genuine human drama – it would be a perfect read for the Columbo crowd.”

“I knew you’d love it,” Wood said, thrilled that it had gone over so well. “It’s like I said yesterday, Lou, I was in a slump but now I’ve found my muse again.”

“Quite happy to hear that,” Langston said. “Based on what I’ve read I’d be more than happy to draw a contract for a complete manuscript.”

“Wonderful. I’ll sign it and be on my way. I just need a few weeks to make some edits and then it’s all yours.” Langston clipped the papers back together and handed them back to Wood before searching through his desk for the contract forms. “Now, uh, before I sign,” Wood spoke up, “could we discuss a possible advance?”

Langston looked up from the drawers and stared at Wood incredulously. “An advance? Mr. Wood, I will attest to the quality of what you’ve shown me today, but considering your reputation with our company do you really think –”

“I know, I know, I’ve let you down before. I make no excuses.” Wood tried to avoid sounding overly defensive. He didn’t want to ruin his chance at an early payday. “I feel ashamed to even ask this, all things considered. It’s just that I’ve got a few bills that are past due and this would help me keep the wolves away from the door. You can understand. Look, I’ll take a smaller royalty for the full publication if that’ll convince you.” He raised his left hand up while putting his right over his heart. “I won’t fail you again, Louis. You have my word.”

Langston curled his lip and scratched his goatee, unsure of what to do. Would this really be a wise decision after he’d already been burned so many times? “I’ll need to discuss this with my head publisher. If you wouldn’t mind waiting here.” He didn’t bother waiting for a response before walking out, leaving Wood to deal with the uncertainty of whether or not he’d see a quick payday in discomforting silence.

It didn’t take long for the isolation to play on Wood’s nerves; barely a minute after Langston left the writer was feeling anxiety clawing away at him. He needed something to keep preoccupied with while he waited. The only thing available was the stack of submissions on Langston’s desk, perhaps those would be a suitable distraction.

Wood skimmed through a few of the submission packets, reacting to each of them with some degree of confusion. The premises were simply wild. A radical feminist switches bodies with an international supermodel. A phony fortune teller at a carnival gets visions of the future that come true. A hiker gets lost in a cave and finds himself on an Indian reservation in the 19th century. A collection of dirty jokes a cab driver heard from his passengers. He shook his head in disbelief. This was the kind of stuff readers liked now? It reignited an old belief that the reason for his diminishing popularity over the years hadn’t been due to any serious fault on his part, but because people didn’t appreciate quality literature anymore. At least that’s what he told himself to preserve his pride.

By the time Langston returned to the office Wood had gone through nine samples, the last one describing the comedic exploits of a pair of draft dodgers as they try to make a living while evading the law. As soon as he heard the door open he hastily put the packet on top of the stack. Even if Langston had noticed he didn’t appear to care. He just went back to his seat to address Wood, folding his hands on top of the desk.

“Mr. Wood, I won’t mince words,” he dryly said, “Mr. Spencer was not receptive to your request for an advance. Even after reading your submission, which I might add he did enjoy, he’s concerned about the prospect of another potential loss given your prior failu – difficulties in meeting contractual obligations.” In spite of the bad history they shared, Langston still preferred to be tactful. “And I was fully prepared to agree with him.” Wood didn’t want to show it, but the news was devastating him.

“But,” he drew in a breath for emphasis, running a hand over his shortly trimmed jet-black hair, “in spite of all that’s happened before, I genuinely believe this could be a major release for our business and potentially relaunch your career. After explaining my reasoning and your current financial issues, Mr. Spencer was willing to reconsider. He’s prepared to offer a $2000 advance.”

Wood was reeling from the emotional whiplash. His heart sank after hearing Spencer was denying the advance, and now barely a minute later learning that he’d reconsidered had him ready to leap up and start dancing. Even if it wasn’t as much as he was hoping for it was still something. He didn’t even bother hiding his joy as Langston produced a check from his pocket.

“However,” Langston abruptly stated before handing over the check, “in order to recoup these expenses along with compensating for past losses, the royalty fees will be significantly reduced. Five percent if we print it in paperback, eight if we go for hardcover, we’re still undecided. If the work proves successful we can renegotiate for your next book.” He locked eyes with Wood, wondering how the man would react. “You did say you were willing to accept a lower rate. I hope your position hasn’t changed, because I’m afraid these are the only conditions under which we’ll be willing to publish.”

“Yes, yes, of course, that’s perfectly fine,” Wood quickly replied. So it wasn’t the major payday he was hoping for. So what? This book was sure to be a bestseller. Even at eight percent sales he’d still be raking it in with all the copies flying off the shelves, not to mention signings, interviews, the lecture circuit, and the inevitable follow up. The press junket was what made you the big money now, after all. “Please give Mr. Spencer my thanks for having faith in the book.”

Langston produced a contract form and went over the clauses and stipulations it outlined, Wood feigning attention as they were recited. He’d heard them all before; he knew the drill. He eagerly signed it as soon as his editor had finished the recitation. “You won’t regret this, Louis. It’s a new start for both of us.”

“I’m sure it is,” Langston replied, making it clear he wasn’t fully convinced.

“Oh, before I go, I’m planning a little get-together in a few weeks. Finishing this book has reignited something in me and I’m in the mood to celebrate. I’d be delighted if you came.”

“I’ll think about it. When will it be?”

“July 11th. Didn’t want to interfere with anyone’s plans for the 4th. If you can make it just give me a call to let me know. You have my number.” Wood gave the man a cheerful wave as he walked out. “See you around, my friend. And Happy Independence Day.”

As soon as Wood left, Langston’s previously expressionless face broke, allowing his apprehension to show. He had been down this road too many times before and, even with a hot new prospect in his hands, couldn’t shake the idea that he’d made a grave mistake.

By contrast, Wood’s attitude was one of complete optimism. He strolled out of the publishing house ready to take on the world. The check was in his pocket, the contract signed, now he just had to finish those revisions and get the party organized. There was still one final matter to take care of, though. Can’t have a proper party without enough guests, and he had a very special list of individuals he wanted to invite, though not for benevolent reasons.

Wood straightened his tie as he caught his reflection in the side mirror of the crimson Bel Air he’d owned for the last 20 years. The color had long faded, and it took a while to get started, but it still got him where he needed to go so he did his best to keep it running smoothly. Sliding in behind the wheel he looked at the quartet of clipped paper packets on the passenger’s seat. Before his meeting he’d stopped at a copy shop to run off duplicates of the first three chapters from his manuscript. One he’d given to Langston, the rest would be going to his guests, each with a personalized invitation he’d typed up last evening. He could have had them made cheaper on the library’s mimeograph, but he wanted the copies to be of a high quality. If he was going to gloat, it would be in style. After the engine finally turned over Wood set off towards the post office.

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