He was a few chapters away from finishing the trilogy he’d been writing for almost twenty years. A narrative unlike anything written to date. A prose no one had ever created before. Something that was to get him into the spotlight of the entire world and make his name immortal.
Hogwash! The idea of immortality left him entirely cold. He simply wanted to write a good book that readers would wrench from each other’s hands.
So far, he’d published two thrillers that just lay in the bookstores, despite their modest press run. At some point, they were withdrawn from the shelves and sent to recycling. That was more than two decades ago. Few were the readers interested in the works of Michael Conrad from Barintown. It may have been the fault of the publisher which didn’t market the books as it should have. Didn’t organize book launches, didn’t stick up posters all over the city, didn’t make arrangements for the author to be invited at the radio or TV studios.
The explanation was, in fact, different.
Michael Conrad knew it: those novels were bad. Excruciatingly bad. He re-read them a few times and was terrified by the frailty of the narrative structure, the implausible action, and the strange behavior of the characters. That’s why, not long after publication, he threw in the trashcan the copies he’d received from the publisher instead of royalties. He’d congratulated himself for not giving any copies to anyone. Then, he’d have had no choice but to ask them back and destroy them.
First, he decided to let go of any pretence as a literate. Still, in about half a year, he started to write a trilogy. A hundred-year span saga of a family whose members lived in dire poverty at first, then, all of a sudden, miraculously achieved an enviable prosperity, got atop the social pyramid to be consulted in any problem of major interest in the city of Barintown.
But their honorableness was only a facade.
Their spectacular and fast ascent was facilitated by the alcohol smuggling, oil dealings, bribery of civil servants for getting fat public contracts, or dettering the competition with blackmailing or death threats. Some threats were carried out; sometimes the assasinations were hidden under the guise of mishaps. The commissioned perpetrators of the crimes had never been aprehended.
At the beginning, he wrote fiercely, trance-like, wishing to lay out the narrative. Later, he adopted a slower pace. He would write one or two pages a day, taking his time. Sometimes even less. Not a single word for days at a time. He would just sit in front of the typewriter, without touching the keys, dreaming of his heroes and the world that was to come out of his imagination. The whole sequence of events was getting clearer.
Even when he retired, having more spare time at hand, he kept his relaxed way of doing work. He would often re-read or erase what he’d written, give up whole chapters, replacing them with new ones, or hone the sentences with the thoroughness of a goldsmith.
He rarely left his modest home in the outskirts of Barintown. He would greet his neighbors when he met them, but never spoke to them. He didn’t even know their names. He dissuaded any attempt they made to approach him. He walked to the store at the end of the street, bought some food, then got back the same way. He never read the newspapers and didn’t have a radio or a TV set. Instead, he was listening for hours to symphonic music or arias from the operas on his records. He often congratulated himself for making a serious stock of needles for his ancient record player.
He still read or re-read avidly the books he kept in his enormous bookcase, an inexhaustible source of inspiration for his saga. All the walls in his living-room and bedroom were covered with thousands of books, lain on the shelves he himself had made. He’d always lived alone. There was no Mrs. Conrad. He didn’t know of any living relative. Never made any friends.
The years he worked in the neighborhood’s library were an ordeal. He would often curse that job which he needed to support himself. Because of it, he had to go out.
At first, his male and female coworkers tried to lure him into their circle: they asked him to go on drinking bouts with them at the taverns or invited him over. They gave up to his curt answers and polite, but ferm, refusals.
He didn’t feel like talking even with those who came to lend books. He exiled himself in a small room where he recorded the books they received every day from the publishers, or read them and wrote blurbs for the info bulletin of the library.
A freak. A nutcase. That’s what everybody thought of him; they let him alone as long as he bothered no one and did his job well.
But he hadn’t much time left.
The doctor was blunt: he had about half a year left to live. The verdict was given with a careless tone, like a weather forecast for the next three days. The patient he was facing was a hard-up librarian, 69 years old, so he didn’t have to pay him any special regard. There were patients drowsing in the waiting room who had less serious problems, but better stocked wallets.
The doctor felt mercy for the little man who watched him with cold eyes as if this sentence wasn’t meant for him. In a few words, he told him what to expect in the following months. He would feel weaker still, lose his appetite and melt like a slow-burning candle. The hospitalizing would have been completely useless.
Michael Conrad thank him feebly for the consultation, paid, and vanished for ever out of the sight of doctor Gene Shelton.
John Owen had got the package more than two months ago. When it was brought to him, he nervously tore the wrapping paper that covered the rectangular box. He lifted the lid. Inside, there were typewritten paper sheets, up to the brim of the box.
He thought, who the hell still typewrites nowadays? Some pretentious geezer who doesn’t know how to use a computer. At least he didn’t send his masterpiece hand-written.
He pushed the box contemptuosly aside up to the edge of his huge desk where other manuscripts lay. As he was reading them, he would toss them in the trash can. Nothing interesting, nothing of value. Unless he would get pretty quick an exceptional offer from an author, he would have to put up the shutters and start a new business.
In the following weeks, on John Owen’s desk remained only a laptop, an almost empty datebook, a pen-and-pencil holder, a lamp, and a bottle of whiskey from which he poured out a glass and emptied it almost at once. It was evening. He was alone and desperate in the building of his publishing agency. He was pushing 60 and he had a gloomy view of his future.
He saw the box and, instantly, felt the need to take his fury out on it. He stood and grabbed the box, meaning to get out into the hall and threw it in the dumpster. Some inexplicable deeper urge forced him to sit, to lift the lid of the box and take out the stack of papers.
He was in no mood to read. Must be some illiterate aberration. Some schmaltz with spinsters, or a historical thriller with a small-time plot, possibly well documented but without suspense. He had a mind to throw the pile of sheets which weighed pounds. A strange force, though, was pinning him to the chair.
He poured another glass of whiskey. Took a few sips. Only then he looked at the first page. A name was written there, in capitals: MICHAEL CONRAD, followed by a title: SAECULUM.
The name had a ring to it. He didn’t strain to remember. He put the sheet aside and took the next one. He began reading.
‘Three shots were heard, almost simultaneously, in three neighborhoods of Barintown in the last night of the year 1899. The sound was drowned by the usual cacophony of the New Year’s Eve celebration when the revelers got dipsy in their houses or in some joints, yawping, yelling and dancing, or setting off firecrackers.’
Hm, John Owen thought, not a bad start. Not bad at all.
He reached to pour another glass, but changed his mind. He snuggled more comfortably into his chair and kept reading, getting ever more fascinated…
At 9 am, his secretary arrived. He told her to bring him more coffee than usual and that he was not to be disturbed by anyone.
“But you have a meeting with–”
“To hell with! And take this damn bottle away! Give all the employees the day off. Unplug the phone. Then leave! Don’t forget to close the door on your way out.”
The secretary gave him a stunned look: Mr. Owen never spoke to her like this before. But she obeyed his orders exactly.
He finished reading the manuscript only at sundown. 1400 double-spaced typewritten pages. He was saved. The masterpiece he ever dreamt to publish was in his hands. It needed only slight changes.
It was something different.
He felt his eyes tiring. His back went numb. He sipped again the cold coffee and grimaced – it was mostly dregs. Now he could use a nip, to celebrate. He went to the secretary’s office and searched for the bottle, but he didn’t find it this time.
He got back to his office and stared again at the first page. Michael Conrad… Where did he know him from? Wasn’t he…?
He rushed to his laptop and started searching frantically. In a short while, he congratulated himself for keeping his records straight and never erasing any piece of information he got.
Michael Conrad had been published by his agency. Two thrillers whose plots he couldn’t remember. Pieces of junk. But, two decades ago, he could afford to miss the boat every now and then. Back then, both he and the book buyers had more money.
He’d have wanted to start looking for the author right away. He had the address. Was it still valid? There was no phone number to call at that late hour. There were four Michael Conrads or so in the phone book, but none living at the address displayed on the laptop’s monitor. He had to put off the investigation until morning…
After many months of search, he was back in his office again. He didn’t know what to do.
Michael Conrad had died. A courier passing flyers around the neighborhood felt the terrible smell coming out of his house through an open window downstairs. He ventured a look and saw him lifeless, collapsed on the living-room floor. He hadn’t died of the disease indicated by his doctor. He’d had a heart attack which saved him from any suffering.
Mr. Owen asked around to find if the deceased had any relatives. But no family member were at the funeral, all expenses paid by the City Hall. Only a few coworkers from the library and a devout female neighbor. None of them knew anything.
Under the pretext that he would be interested to see if this author he published in the past had left him some manuscript, he managed to get into the house. But in vain did he rummaged through every nook and corner – there was no testament, nor any copy of the SAECULUM novel.
He was raring to publish the trilogy. But, after all the investigations he made, an idea crossed his mind. What if…? What if he’d publish it under his name? After all, an experienced editor could pass for a believable author.
No. It wasn’t a good idea. The book launching must have some mystery in it, which could’ve made the novel a bestseller, saving him from all financial burdens.
An old librarian who wrote a masterpiece and died unexpectedly… A lowly overlearned man with an unusual talent… A great contemporary writer, unknown to anyone… Not bad at all for arousing the audience interest.
And yet, his editorial flair was warning him that the mystery surrounding the author had to be bigger.
He couldn’t postpone the publication any longer. The difficulties he faced were more and more serious. He hesitated, though, for a few days. Until one night, after two nips of whiskey, when he took the first page of the manuscript, tore it to pieces, and tossed it into the trash can. Then took from a drawer another sheet of paper on which he ditheringly wrote at the very typewriter of Michael Conrad when he’d come by his house. He put it on the rest of the pages and looked at it.
“Forgive me, brother Conrad! You die again.”
He chuckled. This must have been the feeling of a hit man who had unwillingly taken the life of an innocent man while the real target got away. In fact, it wasn’t his nature to apologize. He had no remorse. Life made him step over dead bodies. In the editors’ world he was known as a master of dirty schemes that brought him profit. He didn’t pay the authors in time, or at all, often publishing books for whose printing he claimed money from pretentious writers eager to see their names on the front cover. He knew how to get money for works that never got to be published. Behind his back, they called him a `skunk’ or a ‘weasel’. He didn’t give a fuck for these appellatives. He said to himself, smirking: “Personal interest comes first. Everyone gets on the best he can.” With the help of some cunning lawyers he won all trials he was prosecuted with.
He poured another glass. He must calm down, not be afraid. The die was cast. Remorses were useless. He and remorses? Come on! He could see himself in bookstores ranting in front of the readers or TV cameras in cultural shows — he was crazy about being in the spotlight, posing as a man of letters:
“I don’t know who Bernard Kirimati is. A few months ago, I received a manuscript signed with this name. Nobody knows who brought it; it didn’t come by mail or courier agency. It’s possible that the author himself left it at the secretary’s office. I started reading it right away. My interest was sparked from the very first pages. It’s the best thriller I’ve ever read. Something different from everything that’s been written to date. I tried to reach the author – I couldn’t. Notwithstanding, I decided to publish the work, hoping he would come to me some day. Unless he wants to stay forever unknown… Another enigma in the history of the literature…”
More than a year had passed. The trilogy had been published and was the bestselling book of the decade. It got translated in a few corners of the world too. A TV network had offered his agency a fabulous contract for the book to be turned into a TV series. No doubt, the mystery surrounding the author paid off beautifully for the promotion.
One morning, Mr. Owen sat at his desk in an excellent mood. He’d been going over the records from the accountancy and breathed a sigh of relief. He’d saved the publishing agency. He could fulfil his dream of buying a luxury house and car with enough money left in the account for an untroubled aging.
The secretary poked her head inside:
“There is a gentleman here to see you. Can he come in?”
“Who is he?”
“Says he’s a friend. Wants to surprise you.”
Mr. Owen felt generous that day.
“Tell him to come in!”
A few moments later, a sturdy man entered the room, about 45 of age. He was wearing a quality suit, quite shabby, and polished shoes, but worn. Without any invitation, he sat, legs crossed, on the chair in front of the desk. His gestures conveyed confidence, even a slight insolence.
Mr. Owen looked at the unexpected guest in confusion and slight annoyance. He’d never seen him before.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
The man flicked an imaginary fleck off his lapel and smiled at him.
“I came here with business. Truly. To express my gratitude. And admiration. You did an excellent job. They don’t call you ‘The Jackal’ for nothing. We struck gold.”
The manager of the agency threw him a stunned look. The Jackal? That was something new. Who was this guy, anyway? Some nut? A drunken author? He started to lose his patience.
“What gold? Who are you?”
The stranger snuggled up into the chair, then spoke up.
“I’m Bernard Kirimati, you old geezer! The mysterious Kirimati. It’s a rare name, but now it’s on everyone’s lips. It’s Kiribati for ‘Christmas’. But you know that because you picked it up. You wanted it to be most unusual. Why are you staring like that?”
The badger eyes of John Owen took up a threatening glint. He rose so as to seem loftier. The other one rose, too, taller and more powerful.
“Damn it, John! It’s utterly funny. Bernard… and Kirimati. How is that for a match? You don’t believe me? Here are the papers! Surely enough, you searched the phone book to make sure there is no Bernard Kirimati in the scenery. But you blew it. I cannot afford a phone anymore.”
The man stood up and handed him a passport and a driver’s license. The letters danced in front of Mr. Owen’s eyes. Kirimati was blabbering away as if he didn’t notice the upset of the man or give a damn about his state of mind.
“Well, that’s how it is… This is it. Say, when do we sign the copyright contract? I’m on a shoestring lately. And it’s not kosher that just one of us to be swimming in money… Don’t you ever dare trying to sting me, like you did with the others. It won’t work with me. I have something that’ll convince you to play fair.”
He scooped out a small revolver from one pocket of the coat. He flashed the gun, then put it back nonchalantly. Dr. Owen slumped into his chair.
“Ah, one more thing, John. Don’t you worry. Keep on going with that claptrap about the unknown writer. You beat it out so well. As for me, I won’t gripe your butt. I don’t give a rip about fame or meeting those punch-drunk readers. I only care about the clams. The more, the better for both of us…”
–Translated from the Romanian by Dan BUTUZA
This short story was first published, in Romanian, in Revista de suspans Issue 3/ December 2012.