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Ghost Writers

by Bill Prindle

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

part 5

He stopped into a drug store and used the pay phone to call a college pal, who had a job at the Times. Nick asked if he knew an agent or editor, and he did — his uncle, Nathaniel Halsey, a literary agent who handled one or two big names and a lot of second-tier, successful writers.

“You can use my name to get in the door, but after that, you’re on your own. Your stuff better be good or he’ll eat you alive.”

“I’m used to that,” Nick said.

For two weeks, Nick polished his stories, typing his way through two typewriter ribbons and another ream of paper. He wrote a letter of introduction explaining who he was, his plans for his characters in future stories, and mailed the letter and stories to Halsey.

Nick resumed his routine of scouting the city for stories night and day and then spent the rest of his waking hours writing. After a week, he phoned the agent’s office. The secretary said Mr. Halsey had received the stories but was very busy and would get back to him.

Another two weeks passed with no word from Halsey. The money Nick had gotten from Carney was running out, so Nick answered an ad for a nightshift job at the Herald Tribune proofreading obituaries and editing memorial notices sent in by bereaved relatives.

More grist for my mill, Nick thought as he read some of the poignant and unintentionally hilarious tributes.

Another three weeks passed with no word from Halsey.

Finally, Nick took to lurking outside Halsey’s office building at lunch time. One day he saw Halsey leave his office and walk to the Times Square Automat. Halsey was biting into a chicken salad sandwich when Nick introduced himself.

“You’ve had my stories for over a month, Mr. Halsey. Have you had a chance to read them yet?” Nick said.

Halsey said he hadn’t, that he would eventually, and assured Nick he’d be in touch. Nick took the pages of “Inside Straight” from his briefcase, got down on his hands and knees, and begged Halsey to read just the first page.

“If you don’t like it, you’ll never hear from me again,” he said.

Halsey read the first page, then the second and third pages. He then asked Nick if he’d mind tgetting him a cup of coffee while he finished the story.

“All right, Mr. Andrews,” Halsey said when he’d finished, “if you don’t have anywhere else to go right now, let’s go back to my office.”

On their walk, he asked Nick where he worked.

“I’m proofing obits at the Trib. Before that, I was a writer at True Crime, but Mr. Carney fired me.”

Halsey chuckled. “Fired from True Crime? That’s a feather in your cap.”

Back at the office, Halsey phoned Carney. “J.J., you old pornographer, I’ve got a kid sitting in my office who says you fired him. Is he really that good a writer?” Halsey listened for a while, laughed, and hung up.

“He says that I’d be a bigger idiot than usual if I don’t give you a chance.”

Halsey located the other two stories on his desk and read them, writing an occasion note in the margins. Nick sat quietly, deciding he’d be happy with just a word of encouragement. Halsey set the pages on his desk and tapped them with his forefinger.

“For me to describe everything that’s technically flawed would miss the point, Nick. Simply put, your stories have a heartbeat and are a helluva lot of fun to read. Tragically for your parents, you are a writer and about to embark on a life of penury and rejection.

“But there’s nothing for it — it’s what you’re meant to do. I’m going to make some more notes, you’ll write another draft or two, and then we’ll see if there are any editors out there who might be interested. I think they will be.”

Nick was so excited that he didn’t remember much about walking the next five blocks. Before heading off for his job at the Tribune, he stopped at his usual stationery store on Second Avenue to buy more paper and a typewriter eraser. As he was leaving, he held the door open for a young woman whom he recognized.

“Miss Narinian?”

She took a moment to recognize him.

“You’re that guy from True Crime, aren’t you?” she said. She didn’t sound pleased to see him again.

“Well, actually, I used to be at—”

“You stole my ideas and used them in your magazine and never gave me a plugged nickel. What kind of a person would do that?” She took a step toward him. He caught the faint floral scent — her perfume, or maybe it was her soap.

“A bad person, but really, it wasn’t—”

“I’ll tell you what kind of a person would do that. A bum, is what. You and your pals are all bums.”

“Miss Narinian—”

She gave him a look of such scalding wrath that he was silenced. She stalked into the store.

While she was speaking, Nick couldn’t help but notice that her mouth looked like she was about to smile, even when she was angry. She also had a dimple in her chin — no, it was more of a soft dent, a thumbprint perhaps. She was prettier than he remembered — beautiful even. He knew there was no point in trying to talk to her now, so he left for work.

That night, he finished editing the memorial notices and had a lot of time left on his shift. He wrote Miss Narinian a letter of abject apology, explaining that he’d recommended her story ideas and had only learned of Harper’s dishonesty the night he’d met her. Before he could do anything about it, he’d been fired.

Like her, he was trying to make it as a writer too — a real one this time. Now that she knew the truth of the matter, perhaps she would consider having a cup of coffee with him, and they could discuss Chekhov or Turgenev’s stories. From his wallet, he took out the scrap of paper with her address and copied it on the envelope. He mailed the letter on his walk home and wondered how she’d feel if she found that he’d appropriated her looks for one of his characters.

* * *

After he received Halsey’s edits, Nick worked quickly to revise the stories. A week after he submitted them to Halsey, to his great astonishment, Halsey informed him The Saturday Evening Post had picked up all three stories and scheduled them to run in successive issues. The Post paid Nick a small advance, which he celebrated modestly by buying a few rounds for his new friends at McSorley’s. He returned to editing obituaries and prowling the city for stories. He sent Miss Narinian a second letter of apology but received no reply.

* * *

By the publication of the third story, the charming and cagey con artists Mac, Dixie, and Bill had generated enough reader interest that Esquire had approached Halsey for another three stories. Halsey also received an inquiry from Random House.

Did Nick have a novel in the works? He didn’t, but Nick and Halsey talked it over. Nick would continue to write a story a month and use the rest of his time to start a novel, based on the same three characters.

His stories and night job made Nick enough money to pay the rent, add to his wardrobe, and improve his meals — roast beef sandwiches now. Over the next six months, he wrote a novel entitled A Bullet for Your Trouble, which he dedicated to Carney: With thanks and affection to J.J. Carney, for firing me.

To capitalize on the popularity of his stories, the novel was rushed into publication, and was on the bookstore shelves three months later. It received favorable mention in the New York Times as “entertaining fare” in a group review of noir novels. Sales were brisk.

Nick moved to the top floor of a three-story brownstone on Christopher Street in the Village. He settled into a comfortable life of writing and continued visiting the dancers, workers, vagrants, gamblers, drifters, bohemians, petty criminals, and his pals at McSorley’s. Despite the popularity of his work, his Midwest sense of modesty had him turning down more invitations than he accepted.

He was anonymous on the streets of New York and content to remain so. Socializing was limited to a few close friends and occasional blind dates with young women who, his friends assured him, were just his type.

His friends were wrong. Whether at parties or dinner at a restaurant or listening to after-hours jazz at Harlem’s Vaudeville Comedy Club, he thought about Ruby Narinian. He’d sent her a copy Ivan Bunin’s stories and an autographed copy of his novel but, again, received no reply.

With so much time to himself, he quickly wrote another novel, Triple Cross. He invented every imaginable jam for Mac, Bill, and Dixie to get into and slip out of, staying ahead of the law, gangsters, and the criminally wealthy whom, to the delight of his readers, they swindled and humiliated.

The threesome had attained the level of master con artists, adept at every conceivable form of disguise, deception, and righteous larceny. Even while it was being typeset, Nick’s publisher was clamoring for another novel, but Nick was hesitant.

The sense of excitement and anticipation he used to feel when he started a new story had faded. He decided to talk it over with Mac, Dixie, and Bill.

He arched his fingers over the keyboard, but the typewriter started tapping out a message first.

“How’s tricks, Nicky?” said Dixie, admiring her four-carat Tiffany rock. “Things have worked out pretty good for the four of us, doncha think?”

Nick typed there was no denying they had all done well.

“Here you are in swell digs, everyone knows your name. I’ll bet you hang out with those hotsy totsy scribblers at the Algonquin,” said Mac. He lit a Cuban cigar with his gold Dunhill lighter.

“Nothing but the hotsy totsy-est,” wrote Nick.

“Tell me something, Nick. When’s the last time you wrote all night?” asked Bill. “When’s the last time you were on fire to get words on a page?”

“It’s different now,” Nick typed.

“You’re right. Something is different.” Bill said. “You know what has to happen next. You just don’t want to face it.”

Nick didn’t write anything.

“Come on, Nicky,” said Dixie, “say it for Dixie.”

“If you won’t, we will,” said Mac.

Nick knew what was coming.

“You have to kill us off,” said Bill. “We’re holding you back. You’ve taken us as far as you can. You’re too comfortable, and pretty soon you’ll be writing for paychecks instead of from your heart. If you do that, you might as well go back to True Crime.”

“Carney wouldn’t have me,” Nick wrote.

“Time for us to go, Nicky,” said Dixie.

“To tell you the truth, I had thought about it,” Nick typed.

“Of course you did, Nick!” said Mac. “What’s the scoop?”

Nick summarized the plot. The Three Tricksters are so adept at gaining people’s confidence, disguising their identities, and disappearing without a trace that they’d come to the attention of U.S. government agencies other than the FBI. As the threat of war darkens Europe, the U.S. spy agencies need operatives with the precise set of skills the Tricksters offer.

When the FBI finally nabs them, much to J. Edgar Hoover’s bitter disappointment, instead of going to jail, they’re secretly hustled to the War Department in Washington where they are presented with a simple offer: serve the U.S. government or serve time.

Spying sounds like fun, and no more dangerous than bamboozling a gangster out of his loot, so with a new set of identities in hand, off they go for training in foreign languages and spycraft.

Serving as an attaché at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, Bill impersonates a naval officer who’s always looking for a way to make extra money and isn’t above betraying his country. Mac’s a gambler who hangs out in Berlin’s underworld clubs, fleecing German officers and then forgiving their debts in return for favors and information.

Dixie’s a doxie, who pretends to seduce Bill and peddles the false secrets she’s pried out of him to her German admirers and in turn, passes along classified bits she picks up from the Boches back to Bill.

“But when do you bump us off?” asked Dixie.

“I was thinking I’d have you arrested by German Abwehr, and you’ll disappear into the annals of spying legend,” wrote Nick.

The three of them shook their heads. “You’re leaving the door open for a sequel,” said Bill. “Maybe we should write the end for you.”

“Yeah,” wrote Nick, “because that worked so well the first time you did it. But seriously, I don’t think I can do it. You three are my best friends.”

“That’s why you have to count on us, ya big galoot. We won’t let you down!” shouted Mac. “We’ll go out in a blaze of glory — maybe even a hail of bullets — for old time’s sake!”

“One last bit of advice, Nicky,” said Dixie. “You spend too much time alone. Stop with the writing, go find that doll, and tell her you can’t stop thinking about her.”

And so was born the hugely popular novel Midnight Soldiers, with the three lovable rogues spying across Europe, dodging Gestapo and Abwehr agents and police from Berlin to Paris, and eventually making their way to Madrid in the midst of the Spanish Civil War.

In the final scenes as outlined by Mac, Dixie and Bill, and reluctantly written by Nick, the Tricksters are double-crossed and, instead of fleeing to Gibraltar, they give their U.S. passports to three young artists marked for death by the fascists.

Captured by Franco’s troops, Mac, Dixie, and Bill are summarily sentenced to be shot as spies. Insisting that they die together, they are marched to the wall, all three refusing blindfolds and Bill declining a last cigarette because, as he says, “I’ve been trying to cut back,” which gets Mac and Dixie laughing. This flusters the lieutenant in charge of the firing squad, who watches in frustration as their laughter grows more raucous.

Bill turns to Mac and Dixie and says, “Listen, you two, it’s not funny. It’s high time we started taking better care of ourselves.”

The three of them are roaring with laughter when the squad fires. When the smoke clears, Mac, Bill, and Dixie lie motionless on the ground.

* * *

Proceed to part 6...

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle

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