I stood on the train tracks and looked up into the darkness where the house was. After a while first light broke and turned the sky gray and purple and pink and I could see the mountain and the river and the house. He would be awake now. It would be a good day. I left the train tracks below and walked up the hill toward the house.
Around the side you could see where someone had left a door unlatched. I pushed on it and slipped inside and walked through the kitchen and down a few steps into the living room. He was alone in his bathrobe, his back to me, looking straight ahead at the far mountains through a picture window. A double-barreled shotgun lay on the table by his side.
Yes, with his own gun . . .
I holstered my automatic and reached for the shotgun.
“Don’t worry,” he said toward the mountains. He spoke as a man would speak to his wife. Then came the sound of my boot scraping the floor and he knew it was not his wife and he spun to meet me. His face was twisted with surprise and rage. He stood in a slight crouch.
Let him come for me, I thought. Let him try me if he has his cojones left, let him try the one man he could never fight fair and beat but only snipe at from the shadows, rob and slander and betray. I took the safety off and waited.
“You,” he said.
“Open your mouth, Papa.”
He slumped a bit and obeyed me without protest, as a solitary prisoner obeys the commander of his firing squad. I jammed both barrels into his gash of a mouth and squeezed the triggers, blowing him back on to the cover of Life where he belonged…
“Oh, come on, Elliot–”
“No. I sincerely mean it. Yuck!”
I’m holding the manuscript high between two fingers, like a rotten fish, as I pass it back into Craig Vandermeer’s fluttering editorial hands. We are lunching at One Fifth Avenue and the lunch is on Craig, who is in a complete ecstatic dither over this obviously bogus fragment that some nut is trying to palm off as legitimate memoir.
“Is that all you have to say?” Craig sniffs into his Campari and waits, eyes endearingly agog, a characteristic little trick I’ve watched him pull since our college days nearly twenty years ago. “Tell me, what does yuck mean?”
“Yuck means I’m offended by this, this–”
Craig is already wagging his head. “Offended doesn’t count, Elliot. Sure, it makes you sick, it’s raw and upsetting, but we’re not here to discuss sick or raw, et cetera.” His face assumes a quick shrewdness and he arches over his bowl of chili, moving in on the point. “This issue, old boy, is authenticity, period. Could it have happened? The question of taste is neither here nor there.”
“It’s not authentic.”
“How do you know?”
We stare at each other with grim half smiles. I am already somewhat irritated since I thought I was coming to lunch to beat the drum for my own project, LifeForms, and instead all Craig wants to talk about is this other insignificant grotesquerie.
“Tell me how you know.”
“It’s painfully obvious–to most of us, anyway. The facts are well established.”
“Oh, really?” He slurps a spoonful of chili. “No one saw it happen. Mary Hemingway was upstairs asleep. They simply found him with his head blown off. This Eric Markham guy could have done it.”
Under the table my foot is peevishly whapping the floor. “Don’t be an idiot. Of course it was suicide. He came from a whole family of suicides. He thought about it all his life. He’d already tried it four or five times-they had to wrestle the gun out of his hand. He tried to jump out of a plane, for God’s sake. The man was a time bomb.”
Craig raises his forefinger. “But the fact remains, no one saw it happen. Possibly someone else could have gotten in and–”
“Possibly who? Alice B. Toklas? Hey, don’t count her out, she hated him, you know! Or the butler. Did Hemingway have a butler?”
Craig waves his hands in tactical surrender. “All right, very cute. But there’s more–the whole Paris angle. Apparently this guy and Hemingway were pals back in the twenties, Hemingway plagiarized him–”
“Well, that’s what he claims. And what if it’s true? I mean, think about it.”
“Craig, you’re talking to the guy who wrote Hemingway on the Terraces. I’ve got stories on Hemingway that never even made it into print. In all that Left Bank gossip I never once came across the name Eric Markham.”
“What if, that’s all. What if?”
Craig sits back with an unyielding grin across his tiny mouth. Something is making him look unusually stylish today, very GQ, maybe his baggy tweeds or his creamy brown tortoiseshells. Craig has been an editor at Warren & Dudge his entire adult life. I watched him pay his dues as a grind. Now he is into Big Acquisitions and he likes it–the sense of discovery, the adventure, the risk. He’s proud of his rise to the top and has devised personal insignia to go with it–his teal elbow patches, his silver Mont Blanc pen, his cultivated Angloid manner. Warren & Dudge has just been acquired by the British press magnate Sir Harry Taymore, who wants to mark his entry with something splashy and explosive. Craig, who recently edited My Ten Days with Bigfoot, is definitely playing in the right ballpark.
“Look, Elliot, you don’t think I asked you to lunch just to sniff at a few pages of manuscript–”
Ah, maybe we’re coming to LifeForms after all.
“Here’s the situation. The editorial board, with a smattering of ritual dissent, has taken the bait–”
“–at least so far as to look into this alleged assassin a bit further.”
The assassin. “Oh.”
“Elliot, think about it. If this claim has the slightest validity to it–any at all–I mean, just imagine: I Killed Hemingway, the life an times of Ernest Hemingway’s real-life assassin! Is that a guaranteed best-seller or am I way off base?”
He’s canoeing on a tide of sewage, but why stop the flow? LifeForms will come up in due time. Meanwhile, it’s dawning on me that there must be some kind of a money role for me in all this, so I ought to shut up and listen. Who am I to be so high and mighty anyway, with my rent due, my fall clothes stuck in the cleaners, my cleaning woman dunning me for three weeks’ pay?
“I suppose it might sell.”
“You bet your sweet ass it will.” He leans forward, ostentatiously serious. “Then here it is, Elliot. Sir Harry himself is a great Hemingway fan. He called personally to say that he wants somebody to go down to Key West and see what this guy is all about. He wanted to use a private eye but, thinking on my feet, I said, `Wait a minute–Elliot McGuire’s your man!’ I mean, a Hemingway scholar, for heaven’s sake–”
“That was a long time ago, Craig.”
“I know, I know, but who cares? It’s legitimate. Hemingway scholar–”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Never mind. I assume there is money involved.”
“Three hundred a day plus expenses.”
“I accept.” I signal the waiter for another Scotch.
“That was quick.”
“Once I isolate the essential argument–in this case, the money–my reluctance melts away. So, tell me more.”
Craig is bubbling over with conspiratorial glee. “Oh, Elliot, you’re going to love this.”
“You fly to Miami and take a connector to Key West, rent a car and drive to the Blue Conch Motel–don’t you just love it, Blue Conch Motel? Eat, drink, whatever. Wait for somebody to contact you.”
“Remember, you’re down there representing us, you’re one of our editors, okay? Talk to him, feel him out. He wants a deal on what he’s shown us. Five pages! Ridiculous, of course, but Sir Harry’s hot for this. He doesn’t want to get scooped so he’s very reluctant to play hardball with the guy. Try to get a look at the rest of the memoir. Get a sense of whether or not it has an authentic feel to it. That’s the operative word, feel.”
“We’re not interested in truth?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. But watch my lips carefully as I reiterate: feel, Elliot, feel, okay? It may not be the Liberty Bell but does it go `bong’ when you ring it?”
“I told you you’d love it.”
The waiter sets my Scotch down and leaves. I stir the cubes with a forefinger. Something about this makes me feel a hundred and fifty years old. Not just lack of enthusiasm, but a deep dread, a gloom of anticipation that I can’t fully explain.
“And if I find he’s full of shit?”
Craig raises a hand to stop me. “Keep your mind open, that’s all. Make your judgment on the totality. Even if you’re convinced he never pulled the trigger, what else do you see? Is there a book there? That’s what Sir Harry wants to know. Is there a book?”
Why am I so down on this gig? The Hemingway connection, I imagine, but I’m supposed to have made a lot of progress with my Hemingway problem. Really, I ought to look at it as a paid Florida vacation, even the possible beginning of a new side career: Elliot McGuire, literary gumshoe. So why so sour? Because, damn it all, if Craig had come through with an advance for LifeForms, I wouldn’t have to accept errand-boy jobs like this to keep body and soul together.
“What about LifeForms, by the way?”
Craig dusts his lap with his napkin. “Patience, old boy. Sir Harry’s only been on board for six weeks. He’s got a huge stack of projects on his plate and he’s going through them one at a time. LifeForms is in there.”
“That’s all you can tell me?”
“Relax, Elliot, it’s a terrific idea, we all think it’s going to be an absolute monster, but Sir Harry–”
“Sir Harry needs time.”
“Exactly.” Craig’s little grin grows like a man-eating flower consuming itself.