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Ghost Writers

by Bill Prindle

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


Many who read the novel wept at the end, especially Nick’s agent and publisher. They begged him to change his mind. Maybe the lieutenant in charge of the firing squad was a fellow spy and had loaded blanks into all the rifles. Perhaps Bill, Dixie, and Mac wore bulletproof vests under their coats. Maybe they were only badly wounded and spirited away by an anti-fascist coroner. Nick said no to all alternatives. The Three Tricksters were gone for good.

Nick was grief-stricken as well. From time to time, he’d type in a greeting to Mac, Bill, and Dixie and wait for the keys to tap out a wisecrack from Dixie or a cool observation from Bill or some ungrammatical yawp from Mac. But there was never a reply, and Nick eventually accepted there would be none.

He was unable to write anything that satisfied him, and his ragtag army of sources around town worried about the dark circles under his eyes and his wan expression. They asked if he was all right and was there anything they could do for him. But there wasn’t.

Nick decided to travel to Europe to have a look at Paris before the inevitable war broke out. While he awaited the delivery of his passport, his publisher arranged a reading at the Grolier Club in hopes of perking Nick up and gently pressuring him to write a fourth novel.

It was sold out with many of his fans attending. Afterward, while he was signing copies of his novels, he opened the book placed in front of him and without looking up, asked, “How would you like me to sign it?”

“‘To Ruby Narinian, who owes you an apology.’”

Instead he signed it, “To Ruby Narinian, who I hope will wait until I’ve finished signing books for the people waiting behind you so we can go out for a drink”

To which she replied, “If you’re sure you want to.”

After he signed the last book, his admirers pressed in to pepper him with questions about minute inconsistencies they had discovered in his plots. When he spotted Ruby standing by the door, he wished his fans a hasty goodnight, and Nick and Ruby darted out the door onto 60th Street.

He suggested they go to Sardi’s and started to hail a cab, but she said it was such a nice night, why not walk. It was a soft spring evening with people walking their dogs and couples strolling along arm in arm. He agreed.

“Before I got your letters, I went back to True Crime and asked that jerk Harper if you knew what he did. He said he’d never do such a thing as steal another writer’s ideas, and you certainly wouldn’t, either, and then he asked me to go out with him. What a nerve on that guy!” she said.

“After that, I was so embarrassed by the way I treated you that day — and when I found out you were a big deal author — I couldn’t bring myself to write back. I felt so humiliated. I’m really sorry, Mr. Andrews.”

“First of all, Miss Narinian, no apology necessary. And please call me Nick,” he said. “So tell me about yourself.”

Hers was a classic New York story. When she was two, her father helped her and her mother escape from Armenia to the U.S. He stayed behind to help the rest of his family escape the marauding Turks and was never heard from again.

Her mother worked as a seamstress, died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, and Ruby grew up rough in orphanages and foster homes. She didn’t go into a lot of detail and that was telling enough.

She loved school, especially history and English, and from the time she could write, she was always making up stories. On her own since fifteen, she’d scraped by as a waitress, cabbie, telephone operator, and occasionally as a nude model in life drawing classes at the Art Students League.

That gave him a jolt. He asked her what that was like.

“Let’s just say they could spend a lot more on heating that joint,” she said.

All the while, she’d taken night classes in typing, stenography, and English and finally landed an office job that left her time to write stories and send them in to magazines, with no results.

When they arrived at Sardi’s, he asked her if she’d like something to eat and she replied, “I would, but I warn you, it could get expensive.” From the way she attacked her pastrami sandwich, Nick got the feeling that good meals for Ruby were few and far between.

They talked about writers they liked. She said it was funny that he’d mentioned Chekhov because her favorite story of his was about a young woman who was in love with a medical student but he treated her as though she were an anatomical specimen to study.

“I cried my eyes out after I read that. That poor girl had nothing to look forward to and believe me, Nick, I knew just how she felt.”

Nick believed her.

He didn’t want the evening to end, so he asked if there were anything else on the menu that looked good to her. She said she wouldn’t mind splitting a piece of the cheesecake. When Sardi’s closed at three a.m., they were still sitting in the booth, arguing about whether Hemingway or Fitzgerald was the better writer.

As he walked her back to her apartment, he asked what kind of stories she liked to write.

“I’ve met so many different kinds of people, I want to write stories about them, but when I’m done, I feel like I haven’t brought them to life — not the way you do. You got any advice on how to do that?”

“The most important thing you can do,” Nick said, “is not to get in their way. They’ll tell you what to do.”

“Yeah? No kiddin’?”

“No kidding.”

When they reached her place, he was so enchanted by her candor, her animated gestures, and her throaty laugh that he didn’t want to go home. She didn’t seem in a rush to go inside.

He was running out of things to talk about, so he did what Dixie had suggested. He told Ruby that he’d never stopped thinking about her. He confessed that she’d kind of become his muse when he adopted her looks for Dixie.

“You know, I kinda noticed that,” she said. “Your muse, huh? Like being a model, in a way.”

She held out her hand. “I had a swell time tonight, Nick.”

He took her hand and didn’t let go. He blurted out, “Ruby, I’m headed to Europe on the Ile de France in a couple of weeks.”

“Really? That sounds like fun.” She looked at her hand. “Are you going to take my hand with you?”

“I was wondering if you’d like to go, too. With me.”

She tilted her head and regarded him as though she thought he might be serious. “Go to Europe. With you.” She smiled. “I hardly know you.”

“There’s not much to know, and most of it’s boring. It takes five days to cross the Atlantic. I can tell my whole life story over breakfast on the first day.”

She asked if he were serious and he said he was.

“I’ve heard my share of lines, Nick, but this one’s a lulu. Go to Europe with you? As your what?”

“As Ruby Narinian, writer. You’ll have a round-trip ticket, your own stateroom, and your own hotel rooms. We’ll take a last look at Europe before all hell breaks loose and then come back.”

She shook her head. “I can’t do it. It would take me forever to make enough money to pay you back.”

“You’re right,” Nick said. “How about this then: Ruby Narinian, will you marry me?”

“Well, Nick Andrews,” she said with laugh, “you sure know how to turn a girl’s head. Let me think about it. Can I have my hand back?”

She climbed the steps to her front door, turned around, and said, “Okay, I’ve thought about it. I’ll marry you.”

* * *

After spending their honeymoon in Paris and traveling to Vienna to witness German troops marching into the city and watching Mussolini’s fascisti parading like toy soldiers down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, Nick and Ruby journeyed to England just as Germany invaded Poland. They picked up jobs first as stringers and then as reporters. As a duo, they covered the war from the invasion of Africa to the Normandy landings.

A week after the liberation of Paris and a boozy reunion with Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa at the Ritz Hotel Bar, Nick and Ruby boarded a flight from Le Bourget to London. Their plane was caught in a fierce storm over the English Channel. After the pilot issued one “Mayday,” the radio went silent. The plane and its passengers vanished.

* * *

Dulcie Nichols had served as a nurse on a hospital ship in the Mediterranean. She’d seen enough of war to know that she no longer had the heart to continue nursing. She needed time to recover from the searing experiences she’d witnessed and had duly recorded in her journals during her service.

When she’d returned to New York, she cast about for what next to do with her life. Always a good student, she decided to make use of the G.I Bill and enrolled at CCNY.

In her freshman English class, her instructor assigned the class to write a fictional story of no more than eight hundred words based on something that had really happened to them.

The next evening, she’d tried to describe an attack of German dive bombers she witnessed during the landings at Anzio. Of the three ships destroyed, the munitions ship had exploded so violently that it blew out the thick glass portholes on her hospital ship. She’d volunteered to assist in a lifeboat, rescuing the horribly injured men from the water.

The memory of one young sailor in particular had haunted her, a Southern boy called Cabel Maddox. Despite her best efforts, he’d died, but before he had, they’d talked about his youth on a North Carolina tobacco farm and how badly he’d wanted to go to sea. She wanted to write a story that would bring him back to life.

When she finished and read it over, she realized it sounded like a mechanical recitation of facts from a news account and had nothing of how she’d felt during the attack or what it must have been like for Cabel. She desperately wanted to convey what had happened but wasn’t sure how to do it. While she was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee, she heard typing coming from her living room.

She stood in front of her desk and watched as her bewitched typewriter typed line after line.

“Dulcie, remember the smell of cordite from the ammo that blew up? How the oil slick shimmered like a rainbow? The cries of the men in the water? The thick black smoke from the burning hulls? The frantic efforts to rescue the sailors? The crack of the anti-aircraft guns? Tell what happened to Cabel — what he saw and smelled and heard. Write it as he told it to you. That’s your story.

Alarmed but curious Dulcie typed, “Have I gone crazy?”

“Don’t worry. You’re not nuts. This happens to all good writers. We’re your characters, Dulcie. You’ve got a million stories bottled up inside you, and we’re here to help you write them.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Ruby, over there is Dixie, next to her is Bill and Mac, and finally, there’s the love of my life, Nick.”

“Where did you come from?”

“We’ll get around to that sometime. First, you have some writing to do.”

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle

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