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Ghost Writers

by Bill Prindle

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

part 3

With the freedom reportedly felt by condemned men, Nick took the subway to his furnished studio apartment over a German delicatessen on 86th Street and looked through the notebooks he’d filled with story ideas, overheard bits of conversation, descriptions of strange people he’d seen around town, newspaper headlines, snippets from advertisements, and other bits and pieces that appealed to his imagination. It had been so long since he looked through his notebooks, it was like another person had written them.

There are some possibilities here, he thought.

He picked a news story about an unemployed insurance salesman named Herbert Pinkerton who had jumped off the George Washington Bridge and survived. Nick decided to write the story backwards, starting with the guy being fished out of the Hudson; before that, jumping off the bridge; before that, writing a suicide note; before that, telling his wife that he hadn’t gotten the job he applied for, and so on, searching for the exact moment when poor Herb’s spirit had broken. Around 2:00 a.m., Nick left off with Herbert begging his boss not to fire him.

When Nick awoke, he remembered writing a new story the night before and felt a moment of exhilaration. With a jolt, he remembered the story at work. He dressed in a panic, flew down the two flights of stairs, and ran to the subway.

It’s only eight o’clock, he thought. I’ve still got plenty of time to rewrite those last few pages.

Nick arrived at True Crime, gasping for breath. Upon entering his office, he saw the owner, publisher, and editor of True Crime, Chain Gang Girls, Thrill Killers, Graveyard Ghouls, and Spicy Stories, the redoubtable J.J. Carney, his feet propped up on Nick’s desk, his face wreathed in a cloud of cigar smoke. He was reading Nick’s story.

“College Boy, go to Katz’s and get me a black coffee and a bialy.” From out of the cigar smoke, two crumpled dollar bills landed on the desk. “Get yourself a coffee too, and I expect change. Go on! Beat it!”

On the round trip to Katz’s, Nick considered his options. He would of course offer to rewrite the story. He would silently endure another tongue-lashing of the kind that Carney reveled in doling out to his staff, particularly the cub writers.

If worse came to worst, he’d update his résumé and once again apply for jobs at all the newspapers and magazines that, less than a year ago, had rejected him. And there was always Rocky’s for consolation.

Nick’s hand trembled as he set down the coffee and roll in front of Carney, who was still puffing away and leafing through the story. Nick stood across from him and sipped his coffee, awaiting the firestorm that would surely rain down on him at any moment.

Carney set his feet on the floor, took a bite out of the bialy, and drank some coffee.

“Nice touch having Mac and Dixie discover they’re actually brother and sister. A whiff of incest always adds pizzazz,” Carney said. “But the Robin Hood idea stinks and nobody gets killed. Story rejected.” He dropped the pages into the trashcan.

Christ, Nick thought, they screwed me.

“Close the door, please.” Carney said evenly. “I’m going to ask you a question. Think about your answer before you speak.

“What are you doing at the offices of True Crime magazine?”

At first Nick was at a loss for an answer. He couldn’t say that his characters had written the end of the story because he’d sound nuts. Then he realized that Carney was setting him up like a bowling pin, so it really didn’t matter what he said.

“I am turning out crappy, untrue crime stories that will be gobbled up by morons.”

Carney broke off a piece of his roll and pushed it onto his mouth. “Correct in part. That is your job description, but is that what you are doing here?”

“Mr. Carney, it’s what I try to do here. Isn’t that what I’m doing here?”

“Andrews,” said Carney — which alarmed Nick, because Carney had never called him anything but College Boy, You Idiot, or What’s-Your-Name — “I will tell you what you’re doing here. You are marking time.

“You’re trying to be something you are not now nor will you ever be. You say you are turning out crappy stories, but the truth is, they lack the sleaze, pungency, and unsavoriness upon which I have built my publishing empire.

“Now, you take a nitwit like Harper there,” Carney said, gesturing with a piece of bialy as Harper walked by. “Harper belongs here because he’s incapable of writing anything better than what I publish. But the difference between Harper and you is an important one. He loves writing this stuff, he’s good at it, and he will prosper.

“You thought you could fool yourself into writing like Harper, but from the day I hired you, I suspected that your literary tendencies would hold you back, and they have.” He sipped his coffee and flicked an errant crumb from his necktie.

“So, you’re firing me?” said Nick.

“Yeah, but I’m also doing you a favor. You think I’m a crude, pandering purveyor of subliterate junk, and perhaps I am, but I did not start out this way. I logged a year and a half at CCNY. I read three books a week, and I am not without learning and culture.

“After taking a run at the legit publishing world, I knew that I was better suited to write and publish pulp. I enjoy it, it’s enriched me, and, those morons to whom you refer, are my valued readers who give up their hard-earned dimes, which they can barely afford to do, to read True Crime. For the length of our stories, they can forget their cares. So I owe them a damned good yarn.

“You, on the other hand, don’t enjoy your work, and you don’t respect your readers. So you’re not doing them, yourself, or me any favors by being here.”

Carney reached into the bottom drawer and took out the bottle of bourbon and Nick’s half-finished novel beneath it.

“Writers like you always have a novel in their desks. I read some of yours,” he said tossing it across the desk. “It’s not bad — I didn’t totally hate it — and it’s a helluva lot better than what you’re writing for me.”

Carney took a fifty-dollar bill out his wallet and put it on top of the manuscript. “If you tell anyone I gave you this money, I will have you killed. I know people who’d do it, believe me.”

“I believe you, Mr. Carney,” Nick said as he slipped the novel into his briefcase and the money into his pocket. He left the bourbon on the desk.

“Now, please open the door.” Nick did so.

Carney stood up and yelled, “This story is the worst piece of namby-pamby, wishy-washy, pseudo-literary, collegiate crap I have ever read!” Nick imagined he could hear the sudden intake of air by the rest of the staff as they stopped breathing so as to hear every word. “Get the hell out of here and go peddle this dreck at Esquire or Cosmopolitan or Redbook. Or jump off a bridge.”

Under his breath Nick whispered, “Thank you, Mr. Carney.”

“Don’t mention it,” Carney whispered back.

“Now get the hell out of my sight!” Carney shouted.

Nick stood there smiling and thanked Carney again.

“No, really, College Boy,” Carney said, “get out.”

* * *

Proceed to part 4...

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle

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