“Congratulations, Ellery. The Warrior’s Tale has topped the best-sellers lists for the third week in a row. Copies of your book are flying off the shelves. Hanover House is very happy with its hottest property.”
“How alliterative of you, Max.” I can hear the dollar signs in her voice. “Are you sure you aren’t considering a career change?”
“Not on your life.” The sound of her light chuckle tickles my right ear. “I’ll leave the writing to you. I’m quite happy to stay in your shadow managing your career. It might not be as glamorous, but so far it’s proven extremely lucrative.”
No arguments there.
“My shadow, my ass!” Now it’s my turn to chuckle. “Max, please, you’re about as shy and retiring as a barracuda!”
“All the better to get you the best deal possible, my dear,” she airily ripostes.
“Of which you take a generous cut!”
“Ellery, I earn every percentage point! Quit complaining. I’ve made you a veryrich man.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that.” I take a quick sip of my tea. “On both counts. Just think: but for you—and your endearingly nosy niece—at this very moment I might be anonymously languishing away in a garret somewhere in glorious, anonymous poverty.”
And definitely not having this conversation. Hmmm. Considering the circus my life has become as a result of the entrance of the redoubtable Maxima into it, the garret option sounds pretty good. On both counts.
Max giggles. Not a sound one often associates with her. Trust me on this one.
“Oh, Ellery, get over yourself already. Languishing is not your forte, and while a garret probably seems romantic to someone with your unique sensibilities, there’s nothing glamorous about poverty.”
“I never said there was. Anyway, how the hell would you know? Being born with a silver Porsche in your mouth hardly qualifies you as an expert on the subject.”
“Admit it, Ellery,” Max continues, “Carrie’s curiosity about her fiancé’s mysteriously reclusive roommate and the equally mysterious manuscripts he was so protective of—her going behind your back and going through them was the best thing that ever happened to you. To both of us, actually.”
“Oh, yes, lucky, lucky me.” I roll my eyes, serene in the knowledge she cannot see the visual expression of my total lack of enthusiasm for my supposed fortune. “What an incredibly serendipitous stroke I drew a college roommate engaged to a charming young lady with no concept of personal space, boundaries, or property. And what were the odds, her aunt happening to be a hungry literary agent looking to make her mark.”
With luck like this, I shoulda booked passage on the Titanic.
Sarcasm is wasted on Max. The idea someone—namely me—might not actually enjoy being routinely victimized by the Machiavellian media publicity engine in which she has me ensnarled doesn’t figure in her reality. Power mad beast that she is.
Pull my life over; I want to get off now.
She blathers on about how bleeping lucky I am to be me. I tune her out and check my watch. Nine fifteen. No sign of the other significant female in my life. That’s odd. I wonder what’s up. She’s not usually tardy. It’s not like she would have slept in or anything. Maybe she’s finally moved on. Pushed off, cleared out, flown the coop, decided to find some peace and leave me to mine. Not that I’ll get any, even if she has headed off for greener pastures, but a man can dream.
“Five best sellers in a row.” Max again. Oops, is she still talking? “The movie rights and DVD residuals alone are keeping me up nights. You, Ellery Joyce James, are one supernova of a hot literary commodity. I don’t know how you do it.”
It’s a secret, and I plan to keep it that way.
“The detail in your stories is incredible; it’s like you’ve actually been there. In the past, I mean. The events you describe, the people, the places, everything you write; it’s all so… well, it’s almost spooky how real you make it all. I don’t even want to think about how much time you spend researching. Then there’s the actual writing. You do sleep, don’t you, Ellery? You crank these babies out so fast! Especially this latest one. Ellery, I swear, it reads like you actually lived Marcus’s life!”
Well, someone did, all right, that much is true, but it wasn’t me.
Pop goes the bagel! It’s about time!
“That’s great, Max, I’m pleased you’re pleased.” And I’ll be pleased as soon as I sink my teeth into this little bakery beauty here. “But I sense you’re not calling to dazzle me with a deluge of praise and award me another laurel wreath to rest on.”
’Kay. Bagel has been fished out of the toaster and plated. Whee. Excellent, we are mere seconds away from achieving breakfast. Next step, cream cheese.
Oy, this poor fridge is ever so bare. Nothing much left of the odds and ends I picked up to tide me over until I make a proper re-provisioning run. I’ve been back now almost forty-eight hours, and I still haven’t gone outside. I will, I will; it’s just…. I have to keep reminding myself I’m not in New York anymore. It’s okay to leave the house. This is sleepy little Birchwood. I’m not gonna get swarmed by paparazzi the second my foot hits the sidewalk.
I hate big cities. New York in particular. Damn publicity tours! Every time I get conned into doing one, I swear it’ll be the last. Maybe this time it’ll finally be true.
The solution to making it all go away is simple. I must cease feeding the beast. When I stop pumping out the moneymakers—if there are no more big, shiny books to bally-hoo—I’ll no longer be useful to those making a killing selling little pieces of me. I’ll drop off everyone’s radar. The world will forget me and move on. Ah, bliss. Definitely something to look forward to. Can’t quit yet. As much as I hate the machine, the cash it’s cranking out is largely funding the work I really care about. My other really big secret. That won’t always be so; all that insider info has been turning my investments into gold. A little while longer and I won’t have to write the books any more.
Soon, soon. I’ll hang it up and fade back into my wallpaper, here. No more touring, no more book signings, no more stupid interviews and talk show appearances. No more getting the crap scared out of me turning a corner unsuspecting and seeing my face plastered all over the newsstand on the cover of some stupid tabloid.
Calm down, Ellery, it’s all over for now. The big, bad city is behind you, and you’re back home, safe and sound in good ol’ Birchwood. Breathe and focus on the task at hand.
Cream cheese, where’s the cream cheese? Aw, don’t tell me I’m out of cream cheese!
“You know me too well, Ellery,” Max sighs. “Why, yes, now you mention it, I did have an ulterior motive for making this call. I was wondering when we were going to get a peek at your current masterpiece in progress.”
Ah! There it is! Cream cheese! Yum! Step three, flip the lid, insert knife, and spread.
“Not yet, Max.” I wedge the cell between my chin and shoulder so as to expedite lid-lifting. “I’m not ready to let anyone see it yet. It’s kind of… uh… experimental.”
Yeah. Experimental. Sure, why not. That works. Sounds good too. Way better than owning up to not having even started the damned thing yet.
Aw nuts! The container is empty! This is not happening.
“Not even me?”
I can hear her pouting from three thousand miles away.
“Nope, not even you,” I heartlessly return.
No cream cheese. I am officially bummed out here.
“Now I’mreally intrigued. You’re not usually this mysterious about your work, Ellery. This one must be something extra special.”
You just keep on thinkin’ that. Me, I have to cut this conversation short. There is no way I’m eating this stinking bagel without cream cheese. I don’t have to and I don’t want to. However, the cream cheese shortage means my toasty friend here is destined to be a discard. The trashcan gets a bagel. My stomach gets squat.
I have no breakfast. Dommage.
That’s French for “woe is me.”
Well, this bites. Big, big appetite. No bagel. Bummer.
Oh boy, I really don’t want to go back to Dinah’s Diner yet, but being hungry enough to start gnawing on the knotty pine is a powerful motivator. I can’t keep avoiding the place forever, especially as their reopening has removed my excuse for not making an appearance. Other than being chickenshit, that is. I’m not ready to return, but I’m really, really hungry. And you know what else? Even when I have crummy cream cheese, these stupid bagels are a lousy substitute for their lovely breakfasts to which I've become not so much accustomed as addicted. My mornings haven’t been the same without Norma’s utterly divine Eggs Benedict.
God, I’ve missed that place, and Norma and Molly and—the unfortunately late and deeply lamented Martin.
“You writers,” Max laughs, snapping me back into the conversation. “You’re all such prima donnas. Fine, suit yourself; be mysterious. As long as you produce, I don’t care if you want to hole up in your ivory tower and remain completely incommunicado for the next six weeks.”
“Is that your not-so-subtle way of reminding me of my deadline?”
“Ellery, would I be so obvious?” She laughs again. “All right, I’ve wasted enough of your time; I’ll stop talking and let you get back to work. Be brilliant, and see you in a couple of weeks?”
“Looking forward to it, Max.”
Please let her be done. I don’t ask for much, but definitely asking for this.
“Oh, Ellery, before I forget, there’s just one more little thing.”
Argh. Of course there is. Hunger is making me hallucinate. I swear I see bagel-shaped spots in front of my eyes.
Without any cream cheese.
“Now I know every time we’ve talked about this you’ve refused to listen to reason, but you know me.”
“I’m willing to give you another chance to see things my way.”
Now there’s an offer I can’t refuse.
“Ellery, I really think you should reconsider the bodyguard issue.”
“Not even after the incident in New York?”
That was New York. The Big Apple. This is Birchwood. The Small Potatoes. I’ve lived here long enough to be on speaking terms with almost everyone in town. I’m fine with them, they’re fine with me. We’re all fine. Birchwood is good, and so am I, as long as I’m here. End of discussion.
Honestly, I don’t know why she thinks I need “people.” Things are complicated enough around here already; adding additional warm, nosy bodies to the population of my happy haven is the last thing I want. Or need. Yet for some unfathomable reason, Max seems determined to encumber me with an entourage. Personal assistants, secretaries, gophers, researchers, bodyguards—you name the species of superfluous lackey, she’s had a go at running them by me and inciting me to employ them.
I don’t get it, but I won’t have it—or them—either. No matter how much she nags. But so far it hasn’t stopped her from trying. She has been going on, and on, and on, about this bodyguard issue for the last six months. Still not gonna happen. It’s bad enough I let her run my public life. I’ll be damned if I’ll put up with some no-necked bruiser telling me what to do once I’ve escaped the fishbowl and returned to my private domain.
Especially a no-necked bruiser she’s handpicked and programmed to be her puppet proxy. Anyway, the whole idea of me needing personal protection is ridiculous. I don’t know what the heck she thinks could happen to me in Birchwood.
“No, Max.” Geez, give it up, already.
I hear an impatient hmph on the other end of the line. Max is becoming miffed. She’s not used to resistance, especially from me. I don’t often dig my heels in—with good reason. Brooking Maxima Collins is not to be embarked upon lightly. Nor is it for the faint of heart. Trust me, when going head to head with a mega-diva of truly epic proportions, you pick your battles.
Every one I do, I win.
“Well, we’ll leave it for now, but this isn’t over, Ellery.”
Yeah, it is. Deal with it.
“Seeing as how you’ve suddenly become so tediously unreasonable, I suppose there’s no point in discussing disposing of that backwater monstrosity you’re living in?”
Hey, don’t diss my digs. It’s a very nice monstrosity. Loaded with atmosphere, lousy with history, oozing quirky charm and character, all with a foyer you could bowl in. Aside from the fact I dropped a bundle to restore it to its former glory and a little more besides, after having barely survived the insanity masquerading as my most recent New York experience, backwaters suit me just fine.
“La, la, la, got my fingers in my ears.”
“Seriously, Ellery, even after what little you’ve done to it, the place is too hideous for words. It gives me nightmares just looking at it. You’re absolutely adamant about living in the creaky old place?”
Oh, I am, I am.
“We could still gut the entire interior, and then possibly I could persuade Darren to pop down there, inspect the building, come up with a floor plan that would make the place habitable.”
In your dreams, sweetheart.
“La, la, la, I can’t hear you.”
“Mind you, the property isn’t a total loss. The grounds are lovely, and it is a good location. For the middle-of-nowheresville. How about this, demolish the old, in with the new, we could completely do away with that shabby old eyesore and put up a beautiful new, modern building.”
“You need to stop talking now, Max.”
Speak to the phone, the El has stopped listening.
“Honestly, you’re such a child,” Max wearily scolds me. “I can’t talk to you when you get like this.”
I know. That’s the idea. Bad, bad Ellery.
“I’ll get back to you when you’re prepared to be more reasonable.”
That would be… never!
“Kiss, kiss,” Max signs off, and breaks the connection.
“You should marry that girl.”
Ah, there she is. The other woman. So much for my hopes of having a completely normal day for the first time in….
God, I don’t even remember how long it’s been since she hasn’t been….
“Good morning, Mrs. Sheridan,” I sigh, tossing my cell phone on the kitchen counter and the bagel and empty cream cheese container in the trash. “Don’t you ever knock?”
“Most amusing, my darling boy.”
I turn and see all five feet of her, from the top of her silvering head to the fuzzy pink tips of her over-sized slippers. Her sparkling eyes are set like ironic agates in the comforting creases of her time-tracked face as she stands in the middle of my kitschy country kitchen, smiling indulgently at me.
“Marry Max? That’s possibly the most bizarre thing you’ve ever said to me.” I cross my arms and frown at her. “And given some of the odder conversations we’ve had over the years, we’re talking a whole lot of bizarre, here!”
“You need someone in your life, dear,” she says with a sad smile.
“Whether I do or not is neither here nor there, and also none of your business,” I irritably retort. Thankfully we don’t have this conversation much, well, not much any more, that is; even so, I’m growing more than tired of it. Max and I have a successful business relationship. So far we haven’t killed each other. I relate to her on a personal level as personally as I’ve ever been with anyone living and breathing. The relationship is what I need it to be. Comfortably functional. Max is definitely not a touchy feely kind of person. And she’s far too preoccupied with running my life to expend much energy actually discovering who I really am or what I can do.
Exactly what I need her to be.
“Max is a good friend, and an even better agent. She’s also the last person I’d consider getting involved with.”
If I were considering getting involved with anyone. Which I’m not. Life is complicated enough without adding intimacy to the insanity. No, it was made clear to me a long time ago it’s better for me and everyone else to never, ever go there.
The price I pay for being me.
Marry Max. Mrs. S. should take her act on the road; she’d totally knock ’em dead in the Twilight Zone. I’m not in the market. Not now, not ever. Even if I were, she wouldn’t be on my short list. Not simply because she’s Max. Or because she’s engaged. Again. She’s… she’s not the right one.
If I weren’t half-dead from hunger, I wouldn’t be thinking about this at all, and I certainly wouldn’t admit that for all my “I walk alone” bravado, I do have a short list. It’s short. Only has one name on it. No, that’s not right; it’s not a name, because I don’t know it. Not a name. A face.
I try not to let it happen, but sometimes, despite my best efforts to keep it away, when I lie awake late at night or surface in the morning, caught in that twilight state between the world of wakefulness and dreams—I see it. The face. Just a hint, teasing, ephemeral features dancing in the recesses of my awareness, not long enough to be able to pick him out in a lineup, yet leaving enough of an inner impression for me to be certain I know him. I know I’ve never met him, he probably doesn’t even exist, and yet….
Forget it, and him. Stuff all this nonsense back in the oubliette in your head and have done with it.
“It’s not like you know a lot of other women, darling.” Mrs. Sheridan gives me a pointed look over the tops of her wire-framed glasses. “Or any other people for that matter. You spend far too much time with—”
“And whose fault is that?” I snap at her. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be getting so irritated. She means well, and God only knows, if it weren’t for her tirelessly running interference and helping to keep certain things under some semblance of control, my daily existence would bring fresh new meaning to the concept of “living hell.” All the same, being a constant in my life for over twenty years doesn’t give her the right to run it!
“Have you had breakfast yet, dear?” she soothes. “No, of course you haven’t,” she confidently carries on before I can reply. “You wouldn’t be this grumpy. You can be quite rude when you’re hungry, you know. There’s obviously no talking to you at the moment, dear, so scoot now and eat something, and why don’t you take the morning off? We’ll postpone the appointment until after lunch. How does that sound?”
“That sounds fine, Mrs. S.” I sigh and rub my eyes. “Now, buzz off so I can shower and get dressed. Go… go knit something.”
“Now, dear, you know I can’t knit anymore.” She blinks, favoring me with an ingenuous smile. “I’m dead.”
Poof, she disappears.
Thank God, I thought she’d never leave.
Oh, I’m sorry; did I not mention Mrs. Sheridan is a ghost?
Yes, it’s true, I’m crackers. Ever since I was a boy, I’ve been seeing and hearing this sweet, little old dead lady hanging around, constantly popping in and out of my life. Why? I dunno, you tell me. But for whatever reason she’s here, seems like I’m stuck with her, or her with me. I’ve kinda gotten used to her and the whole talking to a dead person all the time schtick, and it wouldn’t be so bad if she were the only one.
Oh, God, if only she were the only one!
Step out of the shower, quickly toweling off, yes, I will take the time to shave, dammit. It’s my face, and if I want to shave it, I will. Screw Max and her “Now Ellery, I thought we settled this, you look so much sexier with the scruff. We’re going to forget about the razor for the rest of the tour.”
I hate stubble. It itches like crazy, and I don’t like the way my face feels when I don’t shave. I hate it almost as much as I hate this hair. Black and straight and way too long. I want to drag a towel over my head and go. Not stand here staring at myself with a blow dryer. I hate blow dryers. I hate my face, my black, supposed bedroom eyes, my chiseled, dimpled chin and all. I hate the entire “Ellery, it’s all about image. You’re the whole package. You not only write it, you could be on the cover. We’re going to give you a total Fabio make-over. You can carry it off, and the public will love it. Just… give it a try. Especially the hair. You’ll learn to live with it. Trust me.”
While I’ve been blowing, foaming, scraping, frowning, and frothing at the mouth, I’ve moved way past hungry and into frankly freaking starving. I hurl myself into my closet and throw on some clothes. Now I finally need to commit to where we’re heading next.
Eat out or fetch provisions and cook in? Truth be told, I’m equally unthrilled with door number two. The grocery store option. Especially after the last encounter I had at the deli counter. Not something I’m anxious to risk repeating. Certainly not on an empty stomach.
Grocery shopping could prove to be an equally unpleasant alternative to daring Dinah’s, depending on who’s hanging around whom while they’re prowling the produce aisles hunter-gathering, completely oblivious to the fact they’re being relentlessly stalked by their recently dearly departed.
So, what’s it going to be, the deli or Dinah’s? Either way, I really need to go out. I checked out the obits in the paper this morning. It’s been pretty slow on the death front recently, so maybe I can get to wherever I decide to go and back again without encountering any spectral stalkers.
Oh, Ellery, just suck it up and go already!
I slip on my jacket and grab my cell and the manila envelope for my mailing service: a week’s worth of wrapping up loose ends messages from the out-of-towners. I’ve lost track of how many of these post-mortem missives I’ve sent out over the years. Literally thousands of cards and letters along the lines of, “Hello, you don’t know me and I prefer to keep it that way, but Fred wants you to look in the tool shed under the third brick from the bottom. I don’t know what that means, but he says you will. Have a nice life and sorry for your loss, but if it’s any consolation, he’s looking well.”
Or similar variations on the same basic theme. Beyond-the-grave instructions, blessings, and words of love, last good-byes from those taken before they could be spoken, pleas for the bereaved to let go and move on. So many things left undone, unsaid, postponed until a tomorrow these souls took for granted and never got to have. Most of these other-side supplicants were basically good people, their requests well meant and worth fulfilling, but as in life, so also in death, some, but not all. Occasionally I’ve run across some bad ones, twisted and bitter while they were alive, death evidently not evincing any improvement in their character. They come to me reeking with envy and resentment, still wanting to strike out and hurt the ones they’ve left behind. Those kinds of messages I don’t pass on. Hey, I don’t have to do this at all, and I certainly don’t get a postage allowance for it!
I’ve often wondered what effect these little metaphysical missives have had on the recipients. I hope they’ve done something good for someone out there, but as I have no plans to do any follow-ups on this end, I guess I’ll never know. Maybe it’s just as well. I don’t know anything about them or their lives, and they are equally unaware of me and mine. That’s what works best for me, and that’s the way I plan to keep it.
So far, so good. No one—that is, no one living—knows I can do this. Not that it’s been easy to keep this so-called “gift” under the radar. Hey, you try to carry on a conversation with a real person while a dead one is attempting to flag you down. Eventually the haunts I encounter during the course of my daily existence work out badgering me non-stop is akin to flogging a dead horse. If you pardon the expression. I’ll deal with their dead baggage for them, but I’ll do it in my time and on my terms. If they don’t bother me until I’m ready to deal with them, I tend to be much more co-operative.
As for the ones who come from all over the frigging world—and I haven’t a clue how they find me—Mrs. Sheridan does an excellent job keeping them at bay. Nothing like having my own personal otherworldly secretary and spectral screener at my service twenty-four seven. Thanks to her, nobody and nothing bothers me when I’m at home. My personal living space is sacrosanct, my sole refuge from the otherwise constant bizarreness also known as my life. She keeps the magnificent and Max-maligned mansion-slash-mausoleum-slash-former-B&B I was bequeathed off limits and out of bounds to anything not breathing. They don’t get to waft through my walls unless they’ve got an appointment. Seriously.
While this little arrangement, for which I’m quite grateful, gives me sanctuary from the psychic storm constantly swirling about everywhere else outside these ivy-covered walls, it also means I don’t get out much. ’Cause as soon as I venture outside my—literal—comfort zone, I’m fair game.
Oh well, let the games begin.