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May 2, 2002.

Morella gazed into the wake the little trawler left behind it as they neared the bone white beach, remembering times she and her grandfather fished on the Missouri River. She sipped a Diet Coke as she balanced herself; even with the strong breeze, it was amazingly hot, the hottest stretch of spring in a decade. Frenchy stood at the head of the boat, one foot cocked on the stern, looking like a chubby Ahab who had been relegated to trolling the shallows off Huntington Bay for his enemy. He seemed to be trying to coax some water spray onto his white shirt, but the boat was travelling too slowly for that. It began to scud along at an even more subdued rate as it angled diagonally against the beach, nearly running aground. The trawler's operator, a kid of maybe nineteen with the unfortunate name of Spank, cut the engine and they drifted against a tiny pier. A garish red speedboat was hooked up to it on the other side, larger than the pier itself. Morella had a fairly good idea who it belonged to.

Gail Cole and Dean Hammond were walking toward the pier, kicking up sand. Gail would have been well advised to remove her heels, Morella thought, but walking barefoot through the sand would have been far too casual an affectation for her to abide. Frenchy and Morella stepped clumsily off the trawler and onto the pier. The beach house loomed before them fifty yards away.

"What's going on?" Morella asked them when her feet had touched semi-dry ground.

"We've been locked out of the house," Gail said breathlessly.

The sound Spank revving up the motor again drowned her words somewhat, so for the moment Morella could excusably think she must have said something entirely different. She asked again: "What?"

"This man is insane, that's what!" Dean blurted. He was sweating profusely. As a group they began to climb the beach to a point where the lazy waves couldn't reach them.

"Tull won't let us back into the house," Gail said. Morella stopped in her tracks and the others followed her cue. She looked at them disbelievingly.

Dean jumped into the silence, furious. "He told us to go look at the beach, there was something he wanted to show us. We get out here, we're waiting ten, fifteen minutes, he appears at the balcony up there, he screams at us to get off his property or something, calling us traitors—"

"He called us spies," Gail said, "he called us spies for Time Warner."

"—yeah, spies, and then he disappeared. He comes out with a shotgun a few seconds later, this enormous deer gun, and shoots it into the air. We weren't looking, we were terrified!"

Dean took a breath. Gail turned a nervous eye back to the enormous house. She pointed to a high balcony as if to substantiate her story, uneasy under the weight of Morella's baffled stare.

"Is Rainchaser in there?" Morella asked them.

"Yes," they said more or less in unison.

"Yeah, he's in there," Dean added. "He's not answering either."

"He has a gun?" Frenchy asked.

"He took a....yes, he took a shotgun from inside," Dean said, enunciating each word loudly, exasperated, "and shot it, I thought he was shooting at us! I started to run like a goddamned whippet!"

"What were you all discussing in there?"

"We were just beginning to talk about the audio rights," Dean told them, "we were here for maybe fifteen minutes, and now here we are."

"Wait," Morella said, staring low for concentration, "wait. What exactly did he tell you?"

Like a child trying to explain his side of a playground fight to the teacher on duty, Dean stumbled over his words, started again, pointed and paced. "Oh Jesus. He didn't tell, he shouted, he told us to go back to Time Warner and if we ever showed our faces around here again, he'd shoot us down. This was after he fired the goddamn gun about twenty feet over our heads."

"Call inside," Morella told Gail, deciding that asking for further details would just push Dean closer toward a heart attack, "Call inside and tell him someone else is here from Skybridge."

"He was completely normal until he locked us out," Dean said as Gail dialed her cellular. "You know he's not going to answer."

He had no sooner gotten out his last word when Gail spoke into phone. "Yes, Sam?" she said, putting her free hand to her ear to screen out the sound of the bay. "This is Gail. What's going on, we can't get in the house." She listened for a moment. Morella watched the kid with the trawler become a more and more insignificant dot, then surveyed the house. "We've got two other people here from Skybridge, do you want to tell them? I....just a second." She handed the phone to Morella, who took it away from her more roughly than she had intended.

"Hello, I'm Morella Duvall, we've met. Could I ask what's happening?"

Sam Rainchaser's voice on the phone was insufferably smooth. "Apparently," he said, "Thomas felt certain that the two people who talked to him earlier were sent from Time Warner to impersonate Skybridge people."

"I don't understand; why would he think that?"

"He's very concerned that other houses might be trying to steal the manuscript," Rainchaser said through the phone.

Morella closed her eyes. "He thinks....I don't get it, that Time Warner is trying to steal his manuscript?"

A pause. Then: "Not just Warner. It could be anyone."

Morella looked at Gail and Dean, who were both staring at the high balcony, arms crossed. "Would you let us inside the house, please," she asked Rainchaser calmly, "so we can discuss this?" No answer.


There was a tiny click.

"Why would he think we're from Time Warner?" Dean asked.

"I have no idea," Morella told him. "I just got hung up on."

"I'm not talking to the man without an apology," Gail said resolutely. "I don't need this." Some of her hair had been loosed from her carefully sculpted ponytail. She and Dean appeared as if they'd just been in a barfight.

"I don't think you're going to get one, Gail," Frenchy said. He had taken the phone from Morella's hands, perhaps afraid that she might hurl in into the ocean.

"This is ridiculous," Morella said. "We're not going to stand out here and bake. We're going up there." She started toward the house. Frenchy followed.

Dean lifted a weak hand. "Don't go in there, Morella! He's nuts, he's got a fucking shotgun!"

Morella didn't answer him. She was angling toward a narrow stone sidewalk which would take them between parallel rows of somewhat withered hedges, taking exaggerated sand-steps which took twice as much effort. More of the stuff had obviously been added to the beach for purely cosmetic reasons. After a few seconds, which saw Dean being stranded alone on the beach with Gail, he belatedly started after them, trotting the first few paces. Gail followed, and in a few seconds was ahead of him, heels and all.

The beach ended twenty yards from the house. The sidewalk wound through a hedge garden in which sat a white wire bench which looked freshly painted. There was an expensive hammock tied between two tall posts. The house allowed entry on the beach side through a raised, screened-in green porch. A breezeway led around the side of the house to a three-car garage. Beyond that, there were some six or seven square acres of lush manicured lawn dotted with oak trees. The driveway wound around the side of the property and vanished into a gradual uphill slope, suggesting a substantial length. The nearest road was about three quarters of a mile away.

Morella approached the flight of steps leading upward to the porch, aware of what a ridiculous image she and the others must have presented to those within: four weary soldiers, or federal agents more likely, come to search the place for undefined paraphernalia, their suits crumpled, the expressions on their faces comically grim. She pointed off to the right.

"Frenchy, go around this side. Gail, there's a garage, go try that, will you?"

They scattered, probably appearing even more ludicrous. Morella didn't care. She resisted the urge to look upwards as she approached, suspecting that the famed writer Thomas Tull might be lording over them from behind one of the house's many windows.

Morella ascended the steps. The cheap wire door guarding the porch was locked with a simple hook device. Getting in would require punching in the screen. She pressed her face against the sun-warmed mesh and peered inward. She saw that the sliding glass door leading directly into the house's upper floor was wide open. The porch itself was utterly bare.

She looked to her right, saw that one giant section of the wire mesh was unusually loose against the wooden supports, which were spaced every eight feet or so. Leaning back, she could see that the mesh had separated entirely from the support in the lower left hand corner. Cheap workmanship. It reminded her of her grandmother's porch twenty years before, and the bug holes therein which she used to push her fingers through, making them slowly bigger.

She looked down. The top step rose about nine feet off the ground. She shuffled carefully sideways to get to the broken mesh, pressing her hands against the screens. She had roughly a fourteen inch ledge to work with. There was no wind to make it truly treacherous. If only Spank had not left with the trawler, she would have given him a fifty to complete this little stunt for her so she would not have to die in a fall from Thomas Tull's porch.

When she got to the hole in the screen, she crouched down exaggeratedly, a deft balancing act, now truly looking like a burglar. She shoved herself through the mesh and onto the porch. The tiny sharp teeth of the screen grasped for the cotton fibers of her blouse, but she was too quick. Once inside, she unlocked the porch door and pushed it wide open for the others. Then she entered the house, sweaty, calling out a cautious hello.

She was on the second floor, in the main living room. Air conditioning struck her like a strong wind. The place was decorated like a ski lodge. There was a full horseshoe bar to her right. Sitting on an enormous brown sofa in the center of the room beside a small Steinway piano was Sam Rainchaser, in a bright yellow sweater and tan slacks. He offered no greeting. He seemed to be both expecting and most amused by Morella's bizarre method of entry. His American Indian descent was obvious only by the way he kept his long hair swept back off his forehead and parted dead center.

"Where's Tull?" Morella asked him, walking forward.

"How did you get up here?" Rainchaser asked, not terribly interested in an answer.

"Is he gone?"

"He left. His driver took him somewhere, he doesn't want to talk any further today."

"Is he insane?" Morella asked in all honesty. "What's wrong with him? Is he drunk?"

"He's nothing of the kind," Rainchaser replied, checking his watch. "He has serious concerns. Theft of the book could bring a lot of money to the right people."

"No one's trying to steal his book."

"Miss Cole was extremely prying with questions about its whereabouts," Rainchaser countered lamely. He was unable to put on a front so cool as to make Morella wholly believe in it.

"I think, Mr. Rainchaser," Morella said, "she just wants to make sure there actually is a copy in existence to be stolen."

Frenchy appeared in the doorway, and Dean right behind him. Frenchy entered and sat down modestly on one of the stools beside the polished bar. Dean moved closer to Rainchaser than Morella had cared to. He looked madder than Morella had ever seen him.

"You really don't know where he went," Morella said.

"No," Rainchaser answered, looking calmly at Dean. "But he said he wouldn't be back tonight."

"Wonderful," Morella sighed. "Has either Dean or Gail told you about our concerns?"

Rainchaser leaned to his right to reach for a half-empty bottle of Heineken resting on an Ikea endtable. "They were about to get to those, I assume," he said after he had settled again and taken a confident swig.

"All right," Morella said, dragging one of the absurdly tall stools forward across the white rug and perching on it. She took the reins of control from Dean without thinking. Dean didn't seem to be in the mood for reason anyhow. "First of all, this sort of problem wouldn't exist if Tull weren't so unnecessarily secretive about his book. How many copies are there?"

"There are currently four."

"And a hard copy on disk," Dean added for him hopefully.

"There are no disks. Too easy to be stolen and duplicated. Mr. Tull only writes on a manual typewriter, or has an assistant transcribe from written notes."

"Are these copies at least in a safe somewhere?" Morella asked. "What happens if the house gets burglarized?"

"Yes, the copies are in a safe; you have nothing to worry about."

"How long is the book?"

Rainchaser shook his head and sipped his beer, nowhere near inebriated enough to fall for the ruse. "I can't tell you that."

Dean jumped on it. "We're paying Tull six million dollars and you can't even tell us how long the book is?"

"You've all read the outline, you should have an idea."

"Well, that's not exactly true, Mr. Rainchaser," Morella said before Dean could open his mouth, "but there are lots of other problems right now. I don't think you or Tull understand the gauntlet you're putting us through at Skybridge. He's already in violation of his contract."

"How so?" Rainchaser asked cutely, glad to entertain any legal challenge. As Morella understood it, he was one of the most educated lawyers in the country. "Why is he refusing to participate in the ad campaign?"

"You're not reimbursing him."

Dean's mouth fell open. "Not reimbursing him? He has six million dollars for a twenty page outline. He agreed to go along with a media campaign, including a couple of New York signings and an unspecified number of interviews." He stalked off, beginning to pace the room.

"He didn't know what sort of interviews," Rainchaser said cryptically.

"What sort of interviews are there, Sam?" Dean asked, voice raising ever so slowly. "Good ones and evil ones?" The use of the familiar surprised Morella until she remembered they'd at one point been in school together.

"You contrived the vaguest media participation clause I've ever seen. If you don't like his reaction, why don't you sue?"

"Courts and negative publicity won't help either one of us," Morella said. "You know that."

Rainchaser looked to the ceiling. "Mr. Tull is not going to be interviewed by journalists who have slandered him in the past."

"All right, Sam," Dean said, "how about Charlie Rose? Why is he crapping out on that one already?"

"He regards television as tripe," came the reply, "and he's not going to have anything to do with it as such. You have an enormous ad budget, you'll just have to work around him."

"How about print interviews?" Frenchy asked from the corner, pouring himself a glass of scotch behind the bar.

"I say again: He's not going to talk to anyone who has taken pointless issue with him since or before publication of The Mortalist. He has a file of such incidents if you'd like to take a look at it. It's extremely large."

"Well, here's an idea," Dean spat, wiping the sweat off his forehead, "why don't we breed a Newsweek reporter from infancy and raise him in a cookie tin until he's thirty so there won't be any history of slander?"

Rainchaser dismissed him with a lethargic, don't-look-at-me batting of his eyes. "I have to do as my client tells me," he said. "I don't really understand him any more than you do."

"Has he ever locked you out of the house, Sam?" Dean asked. "Ever taken a shot at you?"

"Forget that for now," Morella interjected. "The contract for the unabridged audio rights has to be signed by tonight, that was the whole point of Gail and Dean coming out here. What's wrong there?"

Rainchaser finished his beer and clanked it on the glass coffee table before him. "You've once again set the royalty percentage while neglecting to state a wholesale price window. How are we supposed to know what kind of money to expect?"

"Sam!" Dean shouted. "No one has any fucking idea how long the book's going to be, how the fuck are we supposed to know how much to charge for the CD?!"

"Why not listen to my idea and pencil in a minimum figure?"

"How much are we talking about?" Morella asked, instantly suspicious.

Rainchaser spread his hands emptily. "I haven't been to a bookstore lately, I'm not sure. Literary properties aren't my specialty, you know."

"Make him sign the contract, Sam," Dean said flatly.

"Dean," Morella said, "why not call Everett right now and ask for a minimum figure. Ask him if we can take the contract to wherever Tull is, give him the clause and sign it. Otherwise something tells me there's a penalty figure."

"Fifteen thousand dollars," Frenchy said. He popped an olive into his mouth.

"I hope you're happy, Sam," Dean said, walking over to the phone on the wall, having no intention of going long distance on his cellular. "There's another semester at Brown for your kid."

"One more thing," Rainchaser added. "He doesn't want the woman involved with the book anymore."

"Gail?" Morella asked. "Why not?"

"He doesn't trust her."

"Fuck you, Sam!" Dean cried, hanging up the phone before dialing. "He doesn't tell us how to work our people!"

"I'd do it if I were you. Have you read the parachute clause?"

"We're all familiar with the parachute clause, Sam," Dean growled, returning to his call. Morella saw him fighting with the urge to attack Rainchaser. It occurred to him that a month ago Dean had checked into the hospital for something, and she had no idea what for. Whatever it had been, Dean was obviously not worried about straining it.

Frenchy frowned, puzzled about something. "When....when did he tell you he didn't trust Gail, Sam?" he asked from the corner.

"When you were all out on the beach."

Frenchy nodded, calculating, turning on his stool. "So....he accuses her of being a spy for Time Warner, and then says he doesn't want to deal with her through Skybridge?" There was a lethal pause as Morella grasped his line of reasoning, as did Rainchaser.

"He's a real gamesman, isn't he?" Frenchy added darkly. He did not take his eyes off Rainchaser, not for a moment.

Rainchaser looked away, shaking his head, and, deciding not to push forward, retreated instead. "Why are we even talking?" he sputtered. "This could all be settled by the letter of the contract we first put forth."

"Mr. Rainchaser," Morella said, "Skybridge will sue your client for breach regardless of what you say and even if there's little chance of winning. He'll have to spend a huge part of the money he's screwing Skybridge out of on legal fees over the next couple of years. All we're asking him to do is go on a couple of talk shows and give a few print interviews. We've already cancelled the signings."

"Oh, he'll do the signings," Rainchaser said cheerfully. "But he's got some stipulations about them. I can get them for you...."

"Not now. We just need to know where he is."

"I don't know."

"The audio clause has to be signed before midnight."

"I'd love to help you."

Morella waited, waited. Rainchaser would not bite, would not be coaxed out. Frenchy rose from his stool and ambled over to a more central position in the room, as if to subtly cause Rainchaser to notice that there were three presences against him, not only two.

"'re going to allow him to disappear until, what....nine-ish tomorrow?" Morella asked, making the words ice cold. "At which time he'll sign and make us pay a penalty. Is that the plan?"

Rainchaser said nothing.

"Just tell me yes or no," Morella said, suddenly more like an attorney than any of them. Dean, on hold, watched from one corner, wisely not breaking in. Gently, Morella asked again, this time with pointed slowness: "Is that the plan?"

Rainchaser chuckled disdainfully under his breath and stood, moving around the coffee table, headed for the bathroom. "Do you know his cabin in the Blue Ghost forest?"

"How would I know that, exactly?" Morella asked. Then, frowning, looking from Frenchy to Dean, she wondered aloud just where the hell Gail had vanished to.

Having left the Volvo on the other side of the bay, she and Frenchy took a cab from the shore to Centerport, where they found that the only car available for rent with working air conditioning was a tiny hatchback that Frenchy had a little trouble squeezing into. Morella drove them from there up 25 toward the Blue Ghost forest, covering about twenty miles of winding road. The highway became a cozier blacktop curving through school zones and past produce stands. The day had become radiant but neither one of them noticed.

"He actually did shoot a man once, you know," Frenchy said, fiddling with the radio.

"I know, I heard the story," Morella said. She found herself driving more slowly as they got closer to the cabin, watching the late afternoon court dusk. She tried to comfort herself with the thought that for the next few months, the afternoons would only get prettier and prettier. "Do you have any idea how to talk to him?"

"No," Frenchy said. "I never met him. But I have talked to a fair amount of crazy writers in my time. Ironically, not a one of them was good enough to merit insanity."

"What's wrong with them, mostly?" Morella asked quite solemnly, signaling right and making a final turn.

"Ego. Every writer thinks he was put on earth to blow Shakespeare away. And very few of them can distinguish their real selves from the utter fantasies of themselves they put on the damned page. But I don't know about Tull."

"Was it the knee he shot that guy in? It was the knee, wasn't it?"

"I heard thigh," Frenchy said.

"I don't know who to blame for getting me mixed up in this, me or Raymey."

"Raymey didn't put you into this without thinking about it first," Frenchy said, looking directly at her. "He probably likes you."

Morella peered through the windshield at a couple of rusty signs. She slowed to a stop, looked right and left, then drove on. Another half mile to go.

"That's all I need," she said tiredly.

The car had to be left beside a small athletic field. They got out and, following Rainchaser's directions, walked astride a chain-link fence bordering a community softball diamond. They veered to the east after passing the left field foul pole and latched onto a trail leading into the woods. It led way back, taking them in the general direction of a quiet pond. They walked in single file because the path wasn't wide enough for them both. Morella could hear Frenchy's labored breathing behind her as they went. The setting sunlight played brilliantly off the leaves all around them, but it was still a good deal darker in the woods than out near the diamond.

"Did you know they knew each other?" Frenchy asked her, eyeing a patch of what looked like poison ivy. "Tull and Raymey?"

"Sort of."

"It's true; Raymey was the first editor ever to turn down The Mortalist. If you believe the rumor, which you may as well do, Raymey met with Tull privately back then to discuss it. Tull tried to deck him in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park."

Morella stepped around a marshy puddle and rejoined the path. "Why would he do that?"

Frenchy shrugged. "No one knows. Maybe Raymey had some suggestions that Tull didn't want to hear. It must have turned out bitterly. When the book came out, Raymey reviewed it for New York magazine. Incredible piece. You couldn't tell if he loved it or hated it, but the way he described it, the book sounded incomprehensible. Very shrewd."

"How many houses turned it down?" Morella asked, deciding a small fork in the trail was a freak of geography and pressing on to the east.

"All the ones in God's universe. Did you ever read what Tull said about Raymey?"

"I make it a point not to read too much gossip."

"He said Raymey's head should have been cut off in Vietnam. Raymey was there, you know; he got the Silver Star. All this because Raymey rejected the book. Hell, it was too dense."

"Then Tull is insane," Morella deduced, slowing to allow Frenchy to catch up. She made the remark sound casual but hoped Frenchy would take it very seriously.

"No, he's not. He's just dangerous."

They emerged into a small clearing. The cabin Rainchaser had told them about sat in the center of it. The trail continued on the other side. The place itself, Morella was surprised to notice, was not a stylish log piece of work, but rather more of a shanty, half made of tin, the hiding place of a mad bomber more than a literary celebrity who still collected sixty thousand dollars a year from something he'd written three decades earlier. Two radial tires rested against the broken front porch.

"I'll tell you something," Frenchy said after they had sized up the place for a moment. "I think you should talk to him alone. He doesn't trust anybody; one more suit isn't going to help any."

"You think so?"

Frenchy looked off to the right, where in a small, grassy clearing, a picnic table rested a trifle crookedly, uncomfortably close to a large beehive. "I'll go wait in the woods over there, do a tick check," he said, and started to go.

He only got two steps when Morella stopped him.

"Frenchy," she said, and then hesitated. Frenchy's kind eyebrows were raised.

"If I quit my job," Morella went on, "just up and left tonight....what would they say about me? Would I ever work again?"

Frenchy thought it over, knowing as always the difference between a meaningless question and an honest one. He tried to moisten his lips with a parched tongue.

"Yes, you'd work again," he said. "No one would remember. But don't do it."

This last was said with such odd conviction that Morella half-expected Frenchy to suddenly reveal a sudden promise of promotion, or some secret reward that would be due her if only she pressed on a bit further. Before Morella could follow up, Frenchy had turned away, his fat man's tired body moving awkwardly toward the picnic table, searching in his breast pocket for his cigarettes. Morella had bought him some of that nicotine gum for his birthday. Frenchy had laughed and laughed.

She went forward to meet Thomas Tull.

She did not bother to knock. She opened a rusty screen door that felt as if it had been broken and re-hung a hundred times in the past. The cabin's interior offered no electric light; what shafted in through the windows was reddish orange and a bit too weak too see very well by. Thomas Tull was sitting in a large square of that light, in a black rocking chair with his feet on a tattered Goodwill carpet. He was dressed in tennis sweats. He looked perhaps a bit older than his sixty-six years, not a well-built Hemingway type like the legions of his educated fans might hope for, but a hopelessly plain-looking indoorsman with a struggling white beard. He wore thick glasses. Upon first seeing him, Morella was struck by the sad similarity between his pose in the rocking chair and Sam Rainchaser's on the couch back at the beach house. Both seemed staged, unlike the reception John Raymey had offered, which although equally odd, had appeared genuinely modest to Morella. Tull must have known she was coming, that Rainchaser would have sent her here within hours.

A manual typewriter sat on a rolltop desk in one corner. There was no sign of any paper, however. The predictable moose head was mounted on a wall. No fireplace. A small makeshift kitchen area was tucked away behind a Chinese screen. There was a cot which looked like a movie prop: unused, too clean, as if the owner was playing at living a camper's life but had no real intention of sleeping out here. Looking at the place reminded Morella of the mention of Raymey's service in Vietnam. The cabin suggested to her that Tull was the kind of man who might envy such service bitterly and was striving impotently to be thought of as a man of daring.

"Hello," Morella said, and without being invited lowered herself into the only other chair in the cabin, a dilapidated rocker somewhat smaller than Tull's own. She thought the slight breach of etiquette might make her seem more imposing. Then it was too late to kick herself for falling into Tull's petty games.

"Are you from Skybridge?" Tull asked pointlessly. The sound of his voice made Morella realize part of the man's mystique: it was deeper than midnight, a commanding baritone.

"My name's Morella."

"What's that in your hand?" Tull asked with a tiny gesture of his wrist, like a dying man pointing to water.

"The contract," Morella told him, "for the unabridged audio settlement."

Tull turned his face away from her, closed his hands on his lap. He offered Morella nothing to drink or any other niceties, probably because there was nothing of that sort in the cabin that Morella could see, or perhaps simply out of disregard for her officious presence.

"How long have you worked at Skybridge?" Tull asked her. He made it sound like he'd asked how long she'd been executing kittens in her kitchen sink.

"Three years."

A plump orange cat flowed from under Tull's chair and onto his lap. The whole motion almost seemed like a magic trick. The cat regarded Tull with vapid eyes and settled there, content. Tull stroked it absently.

"Did you know," he said idly, "that they scammed the biggest book club in Europe for two million dollars over the course of ten years? And that they scammed the biggest distributor in Spain for another three? They were working a tricky invoice angle that the accountants over there never caught. Some of the people you pass in the hallways might be in jail by the end of next winter."

"I'm sure you're probably right," Morella said.

"God knows how many books have been killed because that poor Spanish company didn't have the funds to stock and ship them properly, give borderliners enough time to establish themselves."

"That's not really how it works," Morella said tiredly. She wanted to be out of here, in a bar with Frenchy, discussing books they had read, vacation plans, Frenchy's hilarious troubles with raising his three daughters. Every word already felt like an effort in front of Tull.

"I have no interest in how it works," Tull said dully.

"How many copies of your book are there, Mr. Tull?" Morella asked him quickly, not giving Tull the satisfaction of letting his backhanded condemnation hang too long in the air.

"Too many to try out an idea I had a long time ago," he said, petting the cat. "I wanted to write a book which was never copied, and then sell it at auction so the buyer would have the only one in existence. Could you imagine the amount of money that might change hands? What do you think of that idea?"

"Maybe that's what you still have in mind," Morella said.

"I wouldn't rule it out," Tull said, appearing irked that Morella should try to read his mind. "If Skybridge keeps trying to hardball me, I will definitely give it some more thought."

"No one has tried to hardball you in any way. This sale is no different from a hundred others; only the amounts are different. You've been treated with respect, and then some. No author has ever been given more leeway with editorial approval, advertising approval, the whole works." Morella stopped there, having duplicated the interior script she'd worked out in the car almost perfectly. She felt a great relief.

"But that's not what this is about," Tull sneered. "This is about you people admitting you're wrong."

"Wrong about what?"

"Your image of yourselves," Tull said, ejecting the words like ill-tasting food. "You're pimps. I don't want to be talked to like some commodity, as if I'm no different from a calendar of dirty jokes that will make you a fortune. I want you all to go back to school."

This sounded to Morella as if it too had been thought out well in advance, down to the last word and inflection. But looking at Tull, she saw genuine rage, a controlled species of it that would be deeply alien to someone like Dean Hammond, who was all fire and no smoke. Morella saw a very bitter man sitting across from her, someone who could easily wish death upon another because of a book review, or put on a horror show with a loaded shotgun and lie about manuscript theft. Such a man was probably beyond therapy, requiring nothing more from life than to feed off his own rotting contempt.

"We are pimps," Morella told him. "No one has ever claimed any different. Skybridge wants to make as much money as possible off your book. I would expect you to realize that. You're welcome to exercise the parachute clause and bankroll the book yourself, distributing it any way you want, if you really want to send a message. Thomas Paine did it. D.H. Lawrence did it."

"Either way, it eventually comes down to money," Tull said disgustedly.

"Not necessarily. You could put the book on the net and give it away for free."

She could not have produced a more uncomfortable quiet if she had suddenly revealed the cabin was surrounded by wolves. Tull scowled. He was not an expert poker face. Like so many writers Morella had spoken to, a life of isolation had not prepared him completely for playacting for others.

"See, I think you're something very similar," she pressed on. "But more for....attention. And applause. I think you want another Pulitzer Prize."

"What do you want?" Tull asked her.

Morella rocked gently back and forth in her chair. "To read good books. To help them into print."

"As long as they're presented to Skybridge through an agent. 'All unsolicited queries and manuscripts will be returned unopened to the author'."

Morella chose not to respond to this. She wished briefly that the orange cat would come to her, hoping that such a trivial bit of betrayal would wound Tull somehow.

"Will you sign this contract if I give you a minimum figure for the wholesale price of the CD?" she asked him.

"No," Tull said. It was obvious that nothing Morella could have said would have changed this. The answer had been prepared and found wholly satisfying.

So she rose from her smaller rocking chair and turned to the door. "Then I've got to get back to the city," she said.

"Give this to John Raymey."

Morella looked back. Just as the cat had appeared magically, so now did Tull hold a seemingly unsummoned green envelope in one outstretched arm. The arm, Morella noticed, shook slightly, from the early ravages of age. She stepped forward and took the envelope from Tull's hand, noticing that it had been graced with no writing whatsoever, but was firmly sealed.

She looked at Tull once more and then left the cabin, nudging the screen door with her elbow. She began to feel sick to her stomach. Butterflies circled there as if she were just now heading into some nasty confrontation instead of leaving it. She felt the same way whenever she narrowly avoided a fender bender on the road. She told herself to calm the hell down and crossed the leaf-strewn clearing even before thinking to look to see if Frenchy was waiting for her. When they got back to the car and Morella searched for her keys, she was for a split second confused as to the presence of a green envelope in her left hand, slightly crumpled. She stashed it into the glove compartment and they drove away. Frenchy asked some brief questions about how it had gone, and Morella offered little new information. She had a thousand questions for Frenchy, but felt too sickened to bring up a single one of them.

They were then silent virtually all of the way back to Centerport, and the city.

She re-entered her office at about nine-thirty, realizing when she got there that she'd had little reason to return. Her work for the week was more or less complete. She'd dropped Frenchy off at his townhouse five blocks away and by habit had driven straight to Skybridge. So to validate her presence in the office so late at night, she called her grandfather. The phone rang and rang; odd that Terry shouldn't be at home at this hour. Morella hung up and sat at her desk, straightening papers that did not need to be straightened, checking her e-mail (six messages, none of them demanding instant response, one offering her a spectacular deal on a Bermuda vacation). Not for the first time she played with the idea of spending the night in her office somehow, having no desire to drive back to the house. She could always read.

If she listened closely, she could hear the sound of fingers on word processor keys from down the hall. That would be Sally Brown, Michael Perlozzo's secretary. Often it would be just the two of them at night, Sally typing up correspondence to authors, and Morella in her own office outlasting the rush hour traffic and reading and removing some embarrassing screensaver which Frenchy had snuck onto her computer. She and Sally liked to shout things at each other, laughing, bouncing the words off the walls.

Michael Perlozzo himself now entered her office, giving the open door a casual tap and yawning as he came in. He had something in both hands.

"Don't even ask why I'm here this late," Michael told him. "One of the greatest mystery writers of our age just got dumped by his sitcom star girlfriend and is now weeping in my office, wearing nothing but sweatpants. How did the whole thing with Tull go today?"

"No problems," Morella said quickly.

"On an unrelated topic, did you see this?" Michael dropped the evening newspaper on Morella's desk, opened to the business section. A corner headline read: SKYBRIDGE WOES BROUGHT OUT IN COURT DEPOSITIONS.

Morella skimmed the article briefly. The company had been required to release touchy financial information prior to defending itself against the suit by Vorvez Books. Nothing in the article really surprised her. Skybridge had been running in the red for three years despite optimistic, and sometimes borderline fraudulent, claims to its stockholders.

"Great," Morella said, setting the paper aside.

"You should read the whole article. Worldseer's been trying to sell us to everyone from Miramax to Ben and Jerry's, and never a word to anybody."

"Is that for me?" Morella asked, glancing at the parcel in Michael's other hand.

"It's one of S. Ford's," Michael said, setting down the sizeable manuscript. "Did you want to read it?"

"Who is S. Ford?"

"Who is S. Ford?" Michael asked, mildly taken aback. "No one's told you about this guy?"


"Well, it's this guy who's been sending us unsolicited stuff for about two years now. Genre novels, you know how Everett and Louisa hate genre. But it's all been kind of a blast, he's really pretty good, so we pass it around if we have nothing else cooking." Michael retreated to the doorway, ready to head out.

"Since when do we read unsolicited? I thought it got mailed right back."

"It does, but this S. Ford person was so persistent, he sent us like six novels and on the seventh we just had to open it and send him back some kind of reply. Actually, they were addressed to you, but we figured he just got the department wrong."

Morella turned the manuscript toward her. The author's name was indeed a simple S. Ford, address somewhere in White Plains. No phone number was given. This book was entitled Pola's Run.

"What have you written to him?" Morella asked.

"Oh, not much. Thanks for submitting, we'd be glad to look at whatever you come up with, but no promises. That one there's not so good, though, his best stuff was the first. I don't know, he's got kind of an interesting way."

"Can I keep this here for a while?"

"Sure, then he'll get the same letter as always. I'll be here till ten or so if you want to go out drinking. I think Ronnie wants to meet us, and that means serious beer."

He left; Morella didn't see him go. She read the first few lines of the Ford manuscript, and from beneath it she pulled a small paperclipped packet: the novel's outline.

She read a few more pages. The cessation of Sally's hands on her typewriter keys two offices away made her look up. A light went off in the hallway. She saw a blonde sliver of Sally as she left the office a minute later.

The green envelope from Thomas Tull sat at Morella's right elbow. She rose, placed the Ford manuscript in her briefcase after removing a few things to make room, then took the envelope on one hand and shut off her desk lamp.

She walked the length of the hallway and ascended two flights of fire stairs. She'd always heard that Raymey came in late and worked even later. In the few weeks since she had met Raymey for the first time, they had not spoken to each other. Only once had Morella actually seen him, in the back of a limousine moving along West Fifty-fifth Street. That made three visual contacts with the president of Skybridge in two and a half years. The first had only been a chance glimpse as Raymey had entered the building flanked by businessmen touring the building. His name was mentioned a couple of times a week, mostly by Dean, and mostly in connection with the upcoming lawsuit, which of course was, as always, nothing to worry about.

The door to the stairs released Morella into the rear fifth floor hallway.

The place was a shambles. Small chunks of dislodged cement were strewn across the once pristine carpet. There was even more plastic sheeting than there had been a month before, and ladders were propped up in thirty foot intervals. The walls which she'd heard were going to be painted blue were (temporarily, she assumed) pink instead. The ceiling had been punctured in three or four places, with some sort of thick cable snaking into and out of the holes. The colorless wiring connecting the overhead light bulbs was shamelessly exposed.

She walked toward Raymey's office, envelope and briefcase in hand. Dean's office had been crudely boarded up. Cheap nails protruded from the planks, as if the job had been done by some amateur in a hurry. Dean had been moved to the second floor. At one point as she moved along Morella had to turn sideways to move around an enormous, eerily sentient dry-vac.

She turned the corner and found herself staring at a grim blank wall, a temporary tagboard barrier set up to block Raymey's office. A carefully hand-lettered sign on it read:


Morella swore under her breath and turned around, retracing her steps. The hall smelled powerfully of paint and oil and sawdust, and she wondered what she might be inhaling.

She turned to the left at the L-intersection at the end of the main corridor. Here, the entire wall had been gouged out. She could see pipes and steel and brick. The remnants of the wall were scattered freely onto the carpet, which remained only in large segments between which peeked hints of a scuffed marble floor. Morella thought of a dissected corpse lying on an autopsy table. Worst of all was the pathetic lighting here. Only two overhead bulbs remained, casting a weak glow on everything. She could not have read written text if it were held before her. Orange highway drums told her in comically large letters to BE CAREFUL! RENOVATION UNDERWAY! Morella had to squint to read even these. She would have loved to have known how this could all be going on without making a sound that could be heard downstairs. Perhaps the workmen labored only at night; it was now unofficially the weekend and they would have gone home.

She turned the final corner, thinking of abandoned buildings she had played in as a kid without fear. She stopped to a dead halt. She was unable to go any further.

Thousands of pieces of paper littered the front hallway. All were blank. It was as if a hundred photocopiers had exploded at once. The paper was white, yellow, red, robin's egg blue, probably the booty of some rarely visited storage room. It would take half a day to collect it now. In addition, junked office furniture was strewn all over the place. The walls were intact but the floor had been gutted. Every step would have brought her feet down on ancient exposed planking. Nails jutted up from loose boards. Pieces of carpet here and there. And a quarter of the way down the hall, there was another temporary, or not so temporary wall. There was a sign of the same size and shape as the one that had stopped her before, but it was too dark in this hallway to read it.

She had bought herself a tiny penlight and attached it to her keyring some months before because she had gotten sick of fumbling for her home doorkey in the dark. Now she turned the tip of the penlight clockwise and a small but rather impressive beam shone forward. The sign read:


She stood there for a moment, reading it twice. Tiny lettering below this message was illegible but certainly of no importance.

She swore more loudly this time. There were no other doors, no other entrances.

"Hello again," said a voice behind her, and she nearly yelped in fear. She sighed with the force of a jet engine when she saw it was the man she had met up here a month before, the man with the injured eye. He wore a patch over it now; it must have been a nasty injury indeed to still be healing.

"Hi," Morella said a little nervously. "This is a beautiful scene."

"They've been going crazy," he agreed.

"It's been weeks and weeks and they don't seem to have made any progress," Morella said.

"That paper," the man said, pointing toward the snowcover of blank pages, "has been here since last month. It's funny, I've had two identical dreams about it. I'm up here and I'm asking someone in a suit exactly how many pieces there really are, and they tell me, but I can't hear the answer."

"So how do I get to John Raymey's office now, do you know?"

"No," he said. "I only come up here to use the Pepsi machine. I never introduced myself, I guess. I'm Ken Huston, I work down in Human Resources."

She offered her hand and her name, not paying much attention. Ken Huston from Human Resources left her where she stood, limping slightly, wanting only to get a ginger ale and go home.

Morella had no choice but to return to the original fire stairs. Raymey's office did not, for all intents and purposes, exist. Yet she could see enough over the top of the six-foot wall in the rear hallway to establish the fact that the lights in Raymey's inner sanctum were on. They glowed through the small windows above his door. Somebody was in there. Somebody had to be.

Morella descended the fire stairs. She left the offices of Skybridge Press.

On her way behind the building, walking briskly toward her reserved parking space in the employee lot, she threw the green envelope Tull had given her into a garbage can. First, though, she tore it into two equal pieces. Then she drove home. Two miles into her journey, she stopped at a red light and was very slow to move when it changed. She put on her blinker to make a U-turn, head back, retrieve the envelope, and tape it together. Some idiot in a pickup truck honked his horn behind her, and Morella instead went straight. Never again during her drive that night did she consider returning to Skybridge.

From Playboy magazine, June 2002:

PLAYBOY: Why is it that you've written nothing in the past two and a half decades?

THOMAS TULL: I have published nothing in the past two and a half decades. I have written, in that time, about twenty thousand pages of fiction. Because I have said nothing original in those pages, I have not offered them for publication.

I suppose the next question would then be: So why write at all? I used to tell people who asked me that question that it was this simple: there is a spider loose in my brain. The spider crawls around in there, feeding, and every once in a while the itch becomes too maddening, and I must scratch it. It's a pathetic, kitschy explanation. The real one would eat up volumes.

How many times have I wished that spider would die, though. To be a good writer is a sentence of life imprisonment within one's own mind. No matter how I chase down my ideas, see them onto the page, and close the book, there are always more. I will have no peace in my old age. On my deathbed, I will grieve for the books I have yet to write.

So can you understand why my hands shake when I walk into a bookstore and see this sewage on the shelves? Sleazy books by pardoned murderers, radio deejays, decrepit alcoholics. If separating myself from these people requires shutting myself away for years, toiling over every word, watching my life go by while I wait for just one moment of clarity, then so be it.

Ice skaters. Television stars. Pedophiles. The only respectable publishing house would be one which printed everything, everything sent to them. At last, they would be free of their lies.

I pray I live long enough to see it happen.

* * * * *

The events of May through early July, 2002.

Editor Morella Duvall's close relationship with Thomas Tull's Tyrant, Draw They Sword was thankfully mitigated during the summer months. She neither spoke to nor heard from Tull directly, nor was she asked to participate in the book's development apart from proofing a few press releases and dodging her capacity as the book's informal spokesman at BookExpo America. Interest in the novel throughout the industry remained very strong, and through the beginning of May, at least, it seemed like the book would not become the albatross it had threatened to.

In late May, however, some real trouble began. In an interview with Playboy magazine, Thomas Tull's first print interview in six years, he offered little restraint in his criticisms of Skybridge Press, relating that it was "not the house I would have chosen" to publish his second novel; that "market forces" had caused him to settle there. No, he claimed, he was not likely to change presses at the last moment, but he did confirm that he was less than happy with his contract arrangements. The reasons for his displeasure were either not detailed by him or prudently edited for length considerations when the interview was printed.

Tull's most cutting words, however, were reserved for his own book. Although he had been working on Tyrant, Draw They Sword for almost a decade, he referred to it as "a trifling shadow of what I'd originally planned" and "something a younger, angrier writer would have been more skilled with. It is not territory for an older man, and the pages cry out for a recklessness I can no longer conjure. Frankly, it's turned out to be a botched experiment. I'm done with it." When asked about the novel's story, he said only that it was related to "themes of a country's intellectual impairment".

Because the Playboy interview was not part of Thomas Tull's package with Skybridge Press, he was under no obligation to tell them of its contents, and he most certainly never had any intention of letting them in on his views. An old friend of Dean Hammond's who was soon to be married to the interviewer acquired a copy for Dean two weeks before it hit the stands. He was furious, yet decided it would be impractical to even make any attempt to contact Tull. According to Sam Rainchaser, Tull was "back in seclusion" and would not speak to anyone at Skybridge until the book had gone to press. In fact, he insisted that editorial review of the novel take place via the Internet so that his schedule would not be disturbed. Dean's prediction was that pre-orders of the book would dip sharply when the interview came out. He began to mobilize efforts to examine the reaction of other media to the interview. Together with Louis Steen he drafted several press releases calling the still-unread book "the best thing Skybridge has ever printed" and "undoubtedly the novel of the decade".

There were other problems. Still refusing to divulge the actual length of the book, Sam Rainchaser relayed information from Tull to Skybridge that the length should be irrelevant to the novel's final retail cost. In fact, Tull suggested that perhaps the book should be offered at the "unique" price of seventy-five or perhaps even one hundred dollars, complete with slipcase, making it, in his words (according to Rainchaser), "an event book, something memorable". This suggestion was quietly set aside and never again discussed after it emerged during the first week of June.

The cover design was another sticking point. Working only from a vague eleven page outline, Skybridge had to submit to Tull several possible concepts for the jacket of Tyrant, Draw They Sword. A total of seven jackets were drawn up; Tull accepted none of them. Again through Sam Rainchaser, he spoke of an idea in which his own name not appear anywhere on the book at all until the final page, where he would provide a replicated signature. Sam Rainchaser thought this was a supremely modest and original suggestion. Dean Hammond and others pointed out to him that such an idea was what had come to be known at Skybridge over the years as "a Minnesota backrub", meaning an act so fraudulently modest that it only called attention to the gross hubris involved. Another three covers were drawn, and Tull miraculously agreed to choose one among them. His final choice featured a replica of a simple daguerrotype, a sitting portrait of an unidentified businessman circa 1900. Skybridge sincerely hoped it had something to do with the story.

In late June, the long-awaited film adaptation of Thomas Tull's World War II classic The Mortalist opened in theaters in selected major cities. The movie had been in production for two years without any involvement from the author himself, who had accepted a three million dollar paycheck to take a hands-off approach. Privately, Morella Duvall wondered who the genius was who had been able to engineer that deal. The movie had been struggling to get made since 1979, when director Stanley Kubrick was offered the rights to the story, and it had been bandied about from studio to studio and director to director for years afterward. The two hour and forty minute product that survived, starring William Hurt as the deranged janitor who narrated the story, was not particularly well received, or even as eagerly anticipated as Hollywood had once believed it might be. Critics who liked the book called it impossible to translate to the screen. Critics who had never read the book, which was most of them, found the story generally uninvolving. The novel's comments on the mentality of war had possessed a far greater impact when it was first released in the aftermath of Vietnam. The movie adaptation grossed just over ten million dollars domestically for Paramount Pictures, representing a sizeable loss. Thomas Tull never saw the movie. Its release, so soon before the introduction of his second novel in thirty years, caused many wags to postulate that perhaps Tull had simply fallen victim to financial woes and that the concept of selling out was not so alien to him as had been thought. This theory, too, when it became common fodder for the press, caused Dean and Everett and others at Skybridge no small measure of heartache.

Morella did her best to pay no attention. She busied herself with other projects. Two assistant editors left their jobs that summer, and three more were hired. Working in her office late at night, Morella sometimes heard drills and hammers sounding faintly above him. The renovation of the upper floors went on and on. No one was supposed to go up there for any reason. And no one knew where John Raymey had relocated to, if indeed he was not still up there somewhere amidst the gutted corridors. An intraoffice memo told the twenty-seven employees of Skybridge's New York base that renovations of the three lower floors would begin in November.

During the weekends, Morella went for long drives around Long Island, or more often, she found herself lying on her bed, reading the novels of an unpublished writer who went under the name S. Ford. One copy of each of his works had been kept on file in Skybridge's much smaller Los Angeles office. Morella started with Ford's first novel, The Prediction, the story of a sickly brilliant plan to blow up the Golden Gate bridge, and then worked her way chronologically through the next seven books. Morella found them all to be very good. Ford's style was a modest and proven one, not especially striking, but his characters and stories were thought out superbly. Only the most recent submission, Pola's Run, was lacking, just as Michael Perlozzo had said. Its style was spare to a fault, and it came in at a bare third of the length of the standard novel. It was so lacking, in fact, that Morella almost read it twice, trying to connect the author of the first books (whose sex, age, and even phone number was still a mystery) with this failure. The editors at Skybridge had taken a total of two pages of handwritten notes about the books, hinting that the author had much promise but was not yet ready for publication. No real attempt to contact the author except through polite rejection letters had been made.

One afternoon Morella came across the original envelope in which The Prediction had arrived, and was flabbergasted to see that her middle name had been included on the address label. The same was true, she saw, for the envelope in which Pola's Run rested. She found herself staring at that name for several minutes, wondering how S. Ford could have possibly known it. She had not used that name for any reason for years. No trace of it remained on any document or piece of identification having anything to do with her.

The lawsuit brought against Skybridge Press by Vorvez Books entered the courtroom on the first day of June. Morella followed the proceedings only through office gossip. In essence, Vorvez accused Skybridge, and more specifically a now-dead accountant named Johnathan Yackowitz, of bilking them for a million dollars through invoice fraud. No connection of malfeasance was drawn to the New York office, or to John Raymey. It had apparently been the accountant's scheme from the beginning, and he had involved no one else apart from an executive at a competing distributor, who was already in jail for income tax evasion. Things didn't look good for Skybridge's defense. It seemed that some of the dirty money had found its way into its coffers, directed there by Yackowitz as a subtle shield. Dean called the case a joke and told everyone not to give it a second thought. Most people in the office paid a lot of attention, however, when Skybridge's books were opened and its total assets as of May were shown to be only about twenty million dollars. Morella and Frenchy, sitting around Trader Vic's on Friday afternoons, looked at this figure from a number of angles but were both forced into agreement on a simple truth: about a third of the company's total worth had been paid directly to Thomas Tull for the rights to publish Tyrant, Draw They Sword.

Morella conferred with Frenchy about all manner of things as spring gave way to a startlingly hot summer. She did her best to fathom Frenchy's admirable psychic distance from the petty pressures of the office, and had come to the conclusion that it was not merely a product of years of experience there, but some innate humor bred into the bone. Morella was interested to hear Frenchy refer to their tasks as "games", much as Raymey had, and was fascinated when her osmotic education absorbed details about Frenchy's amazing expertise in dealing with wayward writers, accountants, advertisers, and distributors. She watched Frenchy use reverse psychology and good-natured intimidation to smooth over broken promises and assaulted egos. She listened to his stories about surmounting tricky moral dilemmas through coin flips and pop astrology. Frenchy entered and left the office in the exact same mood day after day, a seemingly simple but impenetrable puzzle. Morella would then observe Louis Steen, frazzled to a kind of narcotic high, embarrassingly ambitious, with a juvenile temper of black bursts and arrows, and wonder what each of them sought here.

The only good news of the summer, it appeared, was that Skybridge produced its bestselling book ever, a semi-controversial affair referred to inside the building as the Big Penis book. It climbed to the number two position on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for several weeks. Michael Perlozzo later informed Morella of a depressing fact: that Skybridge had bought the book from a struggling university press just four months before it went under. The book had, in fact, actually been on the shelves in eighteen states a year prior to its Skybridge edition. That university press filed a nine million dollar lawsuit against Skybridge in June, claiming it had been unfairly swindled out of a valuable product.

The coming of July meant the final phase of the Thomas Tull project. He was obligated to submit the final draft of his novel to the house by the fifteenth. It would be proofread and a few suggestions offered by Gail Cole and others, but most likely it would hit the presses untouched by any hands other than Tull's. An initial print run of six hundred thousand copies had been guaranteed. It would arrive in stores the same day as new releases by Dean Koontz, Maeve Binchy, Tom Wolfe, Bob Woodward, and Tiger Woods.

And somewhere in there, Morella began to write a long, long letter to her grandfather in Ann Arbor, describing the events of that unpleasant year. It began with the night someone broke into her house.

A meeting was called on July 7 in conference room three, the largest at Skybridge. Dean Hammond organized it. In attendance were James Diaz, Everett Pauly, Gail Cole, Howard French, Michael Perlozzo, Neil Blum, Louis Steen, two other editors, and a few people Morella had never seen before. She assumed they were from Atlanta. Upon entering the room and noting the size of the gathering, she understood the sense of foreboding that had been building around the office. She sat down beside a woman who introduced herself simply as Sandra. No one said much as they waited for Diaz and Everett to arrive. Frenchy and Neil exchanged observations on the upcoming football pre-season. Louis Steen, whom Morella had seen very little of recently, was speaking to Gail in hushed tones about the deadline for a novel whose title Morella didn't quite hear.

Diaz and Everett came in at about four-thirty. Everett sat down at the head of the table while Diaz remained standing.

"I've got some ugly news," Diaz said in an elegaic tone. Morella felt an instant flash of deja vu—then thought that it was more the sad inevitability of those words which made her believe she'd already heard them spoken before.

"First I want to tell you all that the office will be closing a couple of hours early on Friday so anyone who wants to go to Ken Huston's funeral can do so. He worked down in Human Resources, he had some sort of freak eye accident involving a ladder on five during the first week of renovations, and he died of a brain hemorrhage in his sleep on Friday. So there's that. James?"

James Diaz stood up. Morella, temporarily lost in some middle space between the conference room and her memory of Huston, missed his first few words entirely.

"Skybridge is going to settle with Vorvez," Diaz said. "Monday will be the last day in court. We don't have much choice in the matter. I've been told that there are certain matters which Skybridge doesn't need revealed, and they might be if we pursue this."

From the way Diaz slightly stressed the word matters, Morella could almost visualize the skeletons that were itching to burst out of the Skybridge closet. She was frankly surprised Diaz had chosen to reveal even that much.

"What 'matters', James?" Dean asked, more in the dark than he had at first seemed. "Who told you this?"

"No. WorldSeer. Skybridge is after all just one part of their program, so they're not willing to put their reputation on the firing line. They've already had enough trouble with Longmeadow Science." He began to pace slowly around the table, seeming uncomfortable under so many simultaneous eyes. "This is going to mean some reorganization of the stock; the settling price is twenty million."

"That seems excessive," said Neil Blum. "They're only suing for thirty."

"Believe me, it's the best deal we could work out," Diaz told him, obviously defeated. "The accountant, Yackowitz, was inventive, I'll give him that. Before he shot himself he somehow made two hundred thousand dollars pre-selling a David Foster Wallace book that didn't even exist."

"This may mean some layoffs," Everett said to the room quietly. "Actually, it will certainly mean layoffs. We may have to close down the Los Angeles office; the Atlanta is gone for sure."

There was a brief silence. Then Neil leaned forward gravely, appearing offended at the others' lack of initiative, and asked, "Is this going to mean bankruptcy at all?"

"I doubt it, I doubt it," Everett said. "It depends on who the Dutch want to head up the company after Raymey; he'll be released in a couple of weeks. I should say he's never been involved in any wrongdoing, it's just policy." Then, without an audible pause, he said, "Louis, Dean, Morella, Frenchy, could you all step down the hall into con room two, James and I will be there in a few minutes." He rose almost immediately and went to the door, leaving Diaz to temporarily field questions. Morella and Frenchy exchanged a glance and got up as well, both experiencing the brief flicker of dread brought on by the necessity of moving from a large room to a smaller one to receive what would obviously be more bad news.

No one bothered to take chairs.

"At this point," Everett told them, closing the door, "Skybridge needs all the money it can get. We've got to be quite liquid if we're going to make it through the next year without having to ride piggyback on some bigger house." He sat gently on the edge of the large rectangular meeting table. "As part of the settlement with Vorvez, they're willing to accept a lump sum payment and defer the rest of the penalty until next year, maybe even the year after. It might be necessary if we all want to be here next spring. So I want to talk about the Tull parachute clause."

"It's an option we have to face head on," Diaz continued for him. "I'm going to try to hammer out hard deals with Vorvez over the weekend, but we need to know very quickly if we're going to get that seven million dollars or so. Two weeks, tops."

"Are you going to try to sell the book to another house?" Frenchy asked.

"That's the problem," Everett said, "we can't. We can't dump Tull voluntarily; that also is in his goddamned contract. If we did, he'd sue Skybridge for all the profits that were supposed to come from sales of the novel and then some. That might put us under entirely, and we can't afford another suit of any kind. Hell, Gail just had to turn down a pretty damned fine novel yesterday because of some vague and probably ridiculous plagiarism complaint. The bottom line is, someone's got to buy this book from us."

"Do you have any offers?" Morella asked.

"Not one firm. That Playboy interview didn't ruffle any feathers with the public, but around the other houses it was a major issue. That plus Tull's reputation is making it impossible. No one wants the book on such short notice, and no one wants to put off publishing it for another year; there's been too much hype already, it'll look terrible. Word's gotten around that Tull's impossible to deal with."

"So you want to make sure he sells out on his own," Morella concluded.

"Yes. It'll make us look like soggy toast, but at least we'll survive." He turned to Diaz. "You're sure, right, that Vorvez will accept nine million or so?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

Everett removed his jacket, the first time Morella, or maybe any of them, had seen him in short sleeves. He turned his head toward a faint shuffling out in the hallway, as if paranoid that the place were being staked out. Louis actually took two steps toward the door and then stopped, satisfied that the sanctity of the room was still valid.

"We came up with a little plan, Dean and I," Everett said hesitantly. "I don't want it to leave this room." He smiled sadly, the smile of a middle-aged man resigned to watching years of hard work slip slowly away from him. "The hell with that, I trust you guys. I'm not even going to Raymey with this, if he even cares anymore. I wonder if you would approach Tull and tell him we're simply taking the book away from him."

"What exactly does that mean?" Frenchy asked.

"Tell him we can't do business like this and we want the book. Say we're going to publish it—at a reasonable length—and we'll be happy to see him in court afterward. He's bound to have a heart attack over that. He'll run to another house within the hour."

"But you said no other house is willing to pay one hundred and ten percent."

"We've got to try," Everett said firmly. "It could be that no one at the other houses is putting out the truth of the matter. They might be playing mind games, trying to work us down on the price. Of course, we can't come down. Now Tull of course could legally halt the presses entirely, but I see no reason he'd bother when he can just back out and see the novel printed elsewhere."

They all considered it silently, searching for holes in the argument. Everett spoke up again before they pursued it too far.

"I want you to see Tull tonight. I'll give Sam Rainchaser a nasty call."

Morella looked over at Louis, whose eyes suggested an angry glee with the plan that seemed a bit too vicious for safety. "Frenchy and I will talk to him," Morella volunteered. "We should be able to handle it. I think I've pushed him pretty far already." Louis looked pained.

"If Tull doesn't blink for some reason," Everett told them, "tell him we have someone who will do ghost revisions on the book, someone who'll take a half million dollars to change it into something readable."

"Okay, that he won't believe," Morella said with some confidence.

"Oh, but we actually do have someone who wants to do it. In fact, we'll let him if Tull doesn't sell out and what he gives us is too awful. It's an incredible assignment if you think about it."

"Who," Morella asked, fascinated, utterly disbelieving, "would sink low enough to do that?"

"I think you almost married him, Mo," Everett said. "Philip Jost."

It was at that moment, grandpa, Morella wrote, that I made my final decision, if I hadn't already. I had always kept the train ticket Philip had given me; I never threw it away even after it was useless. I wanted it as a reminder. When Everett Pauly spoke Philip's name in that room, I knew that there really was insanity here, insanity that could suck people in who were much stronger than me. That day, I was amazed to realize how deep I'd actually gone without seeing that. The irony is, these truly are decent people for the most part, and all of them keenly intelligent, even Louis Steen, and even Gail Cole, one of the best editors around. I was still thinking of Raymey a lot then, trying to figure out what he had been trying to tell me, and of what sort of man he really was. I found out just a few days later, after our final talk with Thomas Tull.

I remember the days when Philip and I would write together, in the apartment in Detroit, racing against time, anxious to see which would happen first: our novel's completion or the final depletion of all our money. I was never meant to be a novelist any more than what I'm doing now. But I miss the sense of recklessness we had, and our lighthearted anger at the world of publishing. That was when I was last completely innocent of what real anger was. Now neither one of us can go back to that. We're past thirty, and sure, we would have eventually let those days go anyway, but it hurts to have nothing else to hold on to. Or maybe that's what we mean by the concept of home.

What was I meant for, then, if not life in a quiet room, writing and writing, and not on the other end of the business, in my tiny office? What might it be like to be forty years old and still have no idea? Or fifty? That's why Tull terrified me so. I saw that same question in the face of a man too old to start fresh in any direction. He seemed like such a success; I think otherwise. I think he'd come to hate even himself and the road he'd chosen. His own soul-eating doubt sunk into me like a knife. Then, eventually, instead of opening me up to a kind of grudging empathy, it simply made me shatter.

Dean joined them in a small lounge on the first floor reserved mostly, Morella thought sometimes, for firing people. It was an overly decorated room that Skybridge shared with a calling center that sold disk drives. Everett tended to ask people down there to let them go, as if layoffs and firings were something that should not occur within the walls of something as dignified as a publishing company. It occurred to Morella also that the awkward geography of the ground floor might force Tull to ask someone for directions, putting him further on the defensive. She would not put it past Everett and Dean to consider such meaningless victories. She was feeling very strange tonight. It was a little after eight p.m.

"Here I am," came a voice from the doorway. They turned to see Thomas Tull standing there, a littler bit taller than he had first seemed to Morella in May. He wore thick sunglasses, a sweatshirt, jeans, loafers. His greeting was not terribly pleasant. He walked past a small aquarium and sat down in an easy chair, not bothering to shake hands or pursue introductions. He gave off an aura of extreme age somehow, a pale mockup of one of the wise men. His mere presence made Morella edgy, irritated.

"Thanks for coming," Dean said. "Sorry you had to come all the way out here, but we can't get away just now. Is Sam Rainchaser with you?"

"No," Tull said ominously. He did not elaborate, but his tone suggested an argument and perhaps a dismissal. Morella could imagine that Rainchaser's phone call summoning him to Skybridge had been vague enough to infuriate the man.

"I'll get right to the point," Dean said from across the room, keeping a good distance away. Morella and Frenchy stood off to one side. "I'm afraid the progress of the book isn't what we'd hoped for. Skybridge has become very uncomfortable with the entire situation. This has become something of an unprecedented method of publishing a novel, and we're not sure we want to become known as the house that subsidized it. We're inviting you to exercise your buyout clause, and sell Tyrant, Draw They Sword to another house. I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding a suitable publisher."

Tull seemed not to hear any of this. He was gazing remotely at the far wall, adrift in his own thoughts. When Dean was done, Tull's face developed an expression of mild amusement. He did not look at any of them as he spoke.

"Your court case is going badly," he said softly, "and you need the money. You're going to lose thirty million dollars to the Spanish. Skybridge should be giving them sixty." He settled further back into his chair, believing he knew everything there was to know, and overjoyed by it.

Morella spoke next, as they had agreed beforehand. She was shaking slightly, could not stop. "If you don't exercise the buyout option, Skybridge can't agree to live up to its promised advertising budget. And anything beyond a second printing might have to be done in trade paperback. In fact—"

Tull had held up a gentle hand in her direction, a sickening paternal gesture. The juices in Morella's stomach cooked and churned.

"That's enough, Ms. Duvall," Tull said in that same lilting voice. "I've heard all I want to hear. Skybridge will publish my novel, and then, if my contract is not adhered to, we will go to court. Whatever I win, combined with your concessions to the Spanish, should easily put you under." He finally did them the courtesy now of looking at each of them in turn, and spoke as if he were a caring priest reprimanding schoolboys who had taken the name of the Lord in vain.

"Then," he went on, "I will return to the gutted building you once did business in, and urinate on the ashes. Through my lawyer I'll turn the book over to you in its final form in two weeks. These are my last words to any of you, ever. If I'm contacted again, I will, in every interview, do what I can to hasten your burial."

Frenchy shook his head, turned his attention to the ceiling tiles. Dean had no reaction at all. Tull seemed to be waiting for something before he rose to leave.

"One week," Morella said, her mind spinning, the lights above him drilling tiny holes in her head. "One week."

Tull looked at him, eyebrows raised.

"The book is due in one week," Morella said, leaving the wall, stepping toward Tull, one nervous finger raised into the air. "What do you think we are, Mr. Tull? Stupid?"

She moved closer, leaning in.

"We've been putting up with your gall for months; did you really think we hadn't read your contract again, and again, and again? Did you think you could slip one more past us? Like we were blind?"

Tull's leering face, just inches from hers now, would not let him stop.

"I'm not a fucking idiot! I've read your contract, you stupid, impotent old man, so stop your fucking lies!" she shouted, spraying spittle into Tull's face, making him turn away in disgust and fear, as firm hands fell on Morella's quivering shoulders and grabbed at her right arm, which merely dangled at her side, useless. She turned away and stumbled out of the room, breaking free of their grasp, and ran past the receptionist and out the front door onto the street, where the noise of the traffic on Fifth Avenue took nearly ten minutes to soothe her back from madness.

Thirty miles north of Manhattan, in the town of Westchester Hills, a large trailer park sat unnoticed beside a road flanked by tall trees. The park was set aside tastefully, within one hundred yards or so of a small, unpolluted stream. Beside that, a par three golf course ran east and west; every couple of hours during the summer misplayed balls would sail off the sixth tee and wind up dangerously close to the rows of trailers.

At six-thirty, when Morella reached the park in her Volvo, the sun played in soft pools and patches on the scruffy grass surrounding the property. Seeing no real parking lot, she stopped the car beside the southernmost row of trailers, got out, and searched for the proper address. There were perhaps twenty feet between most of the trailers and she wound through the columns they created with a definite feeling of trespass.

Two chunky second or third-graders were playing catch with a brand new football beside one of the homes, tossing the ball back and forth across a thirty-foot stretch of hardpan. Morella went by them, noting that the regulation football was far too big for their tiny hands. The most recent throw of the heavier of the two boys went wide and struck Morella on one of her leather shoes. She scooped it up before it could clang against the side of the closest trailer, one step ahead of the smaller boy, who seemed deeply afraid of losing the ball to this intruding bully. "Go deep," Morella told her quietly, and the boy turned and ran without comment, looking back over his shoulder to receive Morella's clumsy hurl. The chubby one knocked it away at the last second and celebrated his defense. Morella walked on.

She crossed a well-trodden path that separated the two halves of the park and made her way among some less well-kept homes. Most of these were set on suffering cement blocks. In a couple of minutes she had found number forty-four. She walked up to what appeared to be the main door, hearing far behind her the muted laughter of teenaged golfers, kids out for something silly and different.

She was about to knock on the door when a tall young man appeared from behind the trailer, dismounting a ten speed bicycle. He wore a grayish industrial uniform. As Morella watched him he set the bicycle to rest against the rear of the trailer. Then he saw her and approached without hesitation.

"Hello, Morella," he said.. He was perhaps thirty years old, hair cut very short. He wore a nametag from the White Plains Holiday Inn on the breast of his uniform.

"You...." she began, perplexed. "Steven?"

"Yes," he replied.

She looked at the nametag, myopically unable to drag her eyes away from it. "My God, are you? When's the last time I saw you?"

"When we carved our initials down at the strand, in Arcadia. Eleven years, I guess. You never came back."

He spoke with the same soft tones she remembered so well. His calming voice made it difficult to tell if his last sentence was meant to be just a requiem for a fond memory or something closer to an accusation. Either way, the eleven years disappeared in an instant and the suddenness of it made her dizzy. S. Ford made no move to ask her into the trailer, to make it a formal reunion. She wanted to be in there, though, so much, to just sit down and have a glass of apple juice, something harmless, to sit and swat a fly away from her face, but it wasn't happening, she was right here, and the moment was going on forever.

"I've read all the books you sent me," she said to him. "Why did you do it?"

He looked toward the sun. "I thought you might understand them a little better. I don't know." He seemed about to apologize, then stopped.

Morella looked at what the years had done to him, imagined him seeing her through the exact same lens, and felt so unutterably sad she nearly wept. She was the first boy she'd ever gone on a long trip with. It had been by train. Ann Arbor to Iowa, just to see what it would be like to go, and tell no one till they returned to tell stories of their adventures.

"Did you give up?" she asked him softly. "They were getting shorter and shorter, and not as good. Did you just....give up?"

"Yes," he said, without much delay at all. Decisive, honest. Some distance away, a man was asking some other to hold the ladder firm, hold it, come here and hold it.

"Are the initials still there?" Morella asked Steven.

"Yes," he said again.

At seventeen they'd made it to Burlington, been depressed at what they saw there, and turned back. Morella's parents had been dead less than a year. All she remembered of Iowa was that she had dreamed of them as they crossed the state line, napping shallowly on the train.

"I want to try to get one of them published," she told him. "Not through Skybridge."

Steven, who had held her while she cried over her parents on the ride back into Michigan, nodded. "Then help me," he said quietly, dispassionately. "You have the power to help me, so do it. Change my life, Morella. Change it."

"I'll try," Morella told him. She lay a hand briefly on his elbow, for comfort, fearing that his facade would break any moment and that he would collapse. She prayed to God, right then and there, that it was truly not a facade, that he was as strong as she remembered, but he did crack a little, or at least just his face did, at first, and when he spoke again she wanted to die, because it was then that all the weakness came rushing out at once, and he asked her to change his life again, the way she imagined a thousand others did every day she went into the office and opened another package. Please do it, he said, and Steven was gone, probably forever, and S. Ford had taken his place, S. Ford who had closed the door on his time with Morella long ago. His face held little but a lonely, unproud promise to do anything at all in exchange for a chance. A long, soundless moment passed while they stood in tandem, Morella in her skirt and blouse and Ford in his uniform, in the summer light. Of course she would do her best, she told him. I'll see what I can do.

Sam Rainchaser was right on time. He came to conference room three at exactly noon on the thirteenth day of July, alone as expected, dressed flawlessly as always. It was Dean who was just a trifle late, and Rainchaser did not proceed until he arrived, apparently considering the presence of Morella and Frenchy and Gail and Everett not quite substantial enough to complete the transaction and be on his way.

When they were completely settled, Rainchaser crossed the room to where a large blue duffel bag had been set upon a table bearing coffee and doughnuts. These had been left over from a morning meeting and were slowly going stale. He unzipped the bag and, straining his wrists, gently removed from it three boxy parcels, each wrapped in plain white paper. He then moved over to the main table and set one heavy parcel before Dean, one before Gail, and one before Everett, at which point he began to re-cross the room.

"You have there three copies of Mr. Tull's novel," he said formally, drawing the zipper closed after pulling one last thing from it: a single sheet of white paper. "There will remain three. By signing this document, you will attest that the book will not be duplicated in any manner, not even a single sentence, until these are returned to Mr. Tull through a third party. The third party will not be me, as I have been dismissed from representing him. The copies cannot remain outside Mr. Tull's possession for longer than five days. You will be held criminally liable if each copy is not returned on time. Also, the copies are not to leave the building. You'll read the book here and here alone. I'll phone one of you later." With that, he set the ad hoc contract on the table close to Morella's elbow and turned to the door, apparently assuming that the formality would take care of itself. He was gone in a few seconds, not looking back, offering no comments of either thanks or condemnation. They never saw him again.

They looked at the packages before them. The book was no less than five inches thick. Wordlessly, Gail undid the wrapper on her copy, and shortly after her cue, the others did the same. Morella and Frenchy watched them. There was the sound of paper being torn and set aside.

Sitting beside Gail, Morella confirmed that it was true: the packages each contained an immense stack of typing paper. The top page was a cover sheet which Morella could read by leaning slightly to her right. TYRANT, DRAW THY SWORD BY THOMAS ROY TULL were the only words, printed in 12 pitch Times Roman.

"Batman save us," Gail whispered, and looked at Dean, who said nothing. Everett Pauly was shaking his head again and again, trying to wake up from a dream which might never end.

Seeing that Gail had no intention of lifting the cover page to see what lay beneath, Morella reached over and slid the enormous block of pages in front of her. She removed the top page and looked at the second, on which began Thomas Tull's long awaited second novel—not in the standard double-spaced format used for editing purposes, but in a dense block of single-spaced text, leaving bare half inch margins on the left and right, suggesting a book more than twice as long as it first even appeared.

Morella began to laugh. The others looked at her sharply, disapprovingly, but she found she was powerless against it. She threw her head back and stared at the ceiling, letting the laughter emerge freely. After her initial five-second eruption, something seemed to break and crumble within her almost as if she were throwing up her insides, but what issued from her throat was only more hilarious laughter, childlike and unrestrained, without vanity. Tears poured from her eyes. Someone, she thought it was Dean, rose out of his chair and left. Gail Cole stared at Morella as one might stare at a dangerous schizophrenic who had been invited to a formal dinner party only to shame the other guests. Morella's chest began to hurt. She laughed. She waited for Frenchy to join her but that didn't happen, although she could see through her cloud of tears that it was close. Her illness in the end was not quite contagious. She let herself become swallowed by it.

And so we began to read Thomas Tull's Tyrant, Draw They Sword, grandpa. Dean didn't want to read his copy at all, and Everett chose to rely for now only on Gail's opinion of the book, so Howard French—Frenchy around the office—and I were allowed to read it over the weekend. We all ignored Sam Rainchaser's instructions concerning keeping the book in the office, and took it to our homes instead. There would have been no way to make it through the damn thing otherwise. I suppose we should have planned for a surprise visit from Rainchaser; it would have been very much like him and Tull to check in on us, but for some reason they never did.

I stayed home that Thursday and Friday to create a four day weekend, and I read the novel mostly on the tiny sliver of white beach behind my house. I wish you'd been able to see it while I was there. It was a miraculous bit of peace so close to the city. In the two years I lived on Long Island, I think I spent most of my time either out on the deck or just on the edge of the water, in a plastic chair with a lemonade and a book, letting the waves soak my feet.

It took me three entire days to get through Tull's novel. I dreaded that it would be as dense as The Mortalist, and imagined myself plodding through the book like a freshman cramming for an English Lit exam. But this book was quite different from that first one, and although the style was still a bit over my head (some things truly are, even to snooty editors at publishing companies), I was engrossed from the beginning.

What can I say about the book? It was, in the end, an amazing piece of work. It totaled one thousand six hundred single-spaced pages, what might have been the longest novel ever published in one volume in America. The story, which wound along so many paths that I can't even begin to describe the minutiae of the plot, concerned the life of an openly Socialist candidate for senator in an America thirty years down the road, when the political right had gained a firm foothold all over the country. I didn't necessarily agree with Tull's vision of the future, but he certainly made it plausible. The book broke off every few hundred pages into exhaustively detailed chapters about what life might be like in the early two thousand thirties. These were just as fascinating as the rest of the book, which chronicled the protagonist's entire life and introduced about seventy solid characters. As the book progressed, these characters would sometimes take the story to completely different places, and even different time periods. The book ended in a much different manner than it had begun. When I finished it, I was drained, but astounded at Tull's skill and daring. There was a sense of having made a long journey across a future America, the armchair equivalent of a Greyhound tour from New York to California.

But here is the thing: I am fairly certain that the book was not so mesmerizing or satisfying as to be able to completely capture the imaginations of most casual readers. Gail Cole agreed with me on this point above all others. It was a memorable and important book, to be sure, but a work so devoted to the intellectual sphere of the mind, and so accursedly long, that impatient readers who required likeable characters would almost certainly tire of it, as they had of The Mortalist. The book could never be a commercial monster, as Skybridge had originally hoped for. Its sheer length guaranteed that, no matter how the reviewers might have praised it, no matter how many awards it might have won. Tyrant, Draw They Sword was not such a masterpiece that it would change American literature; it was a terrific story written with great talent, and really nothing more. Gail, Frenchy and I discussed it for an entire day and that's the conclusion we came to. I want you to keep this in mind, grandpa, when I tell you of that final night on the beach.

Everett Pauly read the book after we all told him of its merit. He was not as impressed, and though he respected the novel, he perceived there were some nagging story flaws and was relieved when it ended. Dean Hammond, intrigued even though he hated Tull more than any of us, finally agreed to tackle it at Everett's urging. He approached me in the hallway a day later; he had stayed up all night with the book.

"What did you think?" I asked him.

"It's a masterpiece, a work of genius," he said honestly, looking like a haunted man. "I stopped four hundred pages in. I don't want to read any more." The whole experience had simply broken him, grandpa. He just wanted to forget, even if it seemed he was more impressed than any of us. It was quite a gesture on his part just to open the book; he was not even an editor.

There were three days of argument and brainstorming as to how the book could be marketed profitably. The pricetag would have to be somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty dollars since Tull had specified the book must be printed on a particularly high quality bond of paper. Yes, he truly had thought of everything. The only route Skybridge could go was to advertise the hell out of it, which it no longer had the money to do, and pray that the reviews and word of mouth would be so enormous as to create an instant classic, not a classic twenty years down the road. I offered the dubious opinion that the book's gargantuan length could conceivably become an actual selling point, something so unprecedented as to make it a trendy purchase among the literati. You see, a financial success on a par with The Mortalist would not nearly be enough. Tyrant, Draw They Sword had to go through the roof in the first six months of release.

The copies of the book were returned to a third party as promised. No one at Skybridge, I am sure, ever once conveyed their enthusiasm and deep respect for the book to Tull himself. There was just too much bad blood. Shortly the book would go to press and the rest of the world would decide the novel's final fate. I never had to deal with it again, even casually, if I didn't want to. But then, nine days and endless meetings later, the end came, an end I hadn't dared imagine. I still can't conceive of it. In retrospect, though, it wasn't the event itself but what Frenchy told me afterwards, on the beach behind my house, at two in the morning, something I know I'll never forget.

John Raymey went to the WorldSeer Building at a little after eleven on the Friday before Morella's letter was sent. He nodded at the security guard at the front desk, who was more than used to seeing him there that late, and took the stairs up to the sixth floor. There, he entered the little-used office of Skybridge's Events Coordinator, who had been out sick with the flu for the past three days. Without turning on the lights, he set a jet black briefcase on the Events Coordinator's desk.

Working in near total darkness, he removed from the briefcase several large, unkempt stacks of twenty-dollar bills. These he set on the carpet, and then pushed the briefcase behind a wastebasket.

He made no move toward the light switch. After straightening the six or seven stacks of bills with his left foot, he stood for a full minute in the office, his eyes closed, absorbing the traffic sounds that crept into the building from the adjacent office's wide picture window. In here, there were no windows at all.

"Hear my prayer, O Lord: and let my crying come unto thee," he whispered. "For my days are consumed away like smoke: and my bones are burnt up as it were a fire-brand.

"My heart is smitten down, and withered like grass: so that I forget to eat my bread.

"I am become like a pelican in the wilderness: and like an owl that is in the desert.

"Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.

"The children of thy servants shall continue: and their seed shall stand fast in thy sight."

He left the room then. Three minutes later, another man entered the office to collect the money. Raymey never saw him. He was already walking uptown, stopping briefly to talk to a homeless man he sometimes chatted with, who lived in front of a comic book store and had attended Stanford University for two years. He gave him a cigarette and they talked about the Yankees for a moment. Raymey left him and walked the streets, waiting for a phone call. When he got in, he went to a pay phone himself and dialed 911.

"Hello," he said to the dispatcher. "I need to report a fire."

Morella was deeply asleep when the phone rang at eleven-thirty. In her dream, she had been told something shocking by the woman who had introduced herself in con room three only as Sandra on the day Dean told them of the settlement with Vorvez. She appeared as vividly as Morella's own mother might have. As they stood in the center of a vast, blinding desert, Sandra informed Morella that she had been chosen to adopt ten severely retarded children, and that she was now legally obligated to them until their adulthood. Morella begged her to reconsider, and asked if there was any way out. Yes, there was, Sandra said. She was to carry a stack of cinder blocks all the way through the desert toward the city of New York. If she could make it there, hauling the incredibly heavy blocks, without stopping, she could gain a reprieve. Morella knew she could never make it and dropped the blocks after only a few steps. She wept and lay in the sand.

She got the phone on the seventh ring, sweating. "Hello?"

"Morella, it's Frenchy. I'm calling to tell you that Tull's house is burning down."

Morella blinked, still delirious. "What? Literally?"

"Yes. If you remember how to get out there, I suggest you go. You may see me, you may not, but either way we'll get together tonight."

"I'll be there in an hour," Morella said, crushing about ten screaming questions before they could leap out of her throat, and the phone slipped out of her hands. Frenchy had already hung up.

Morella got there in fifty-one minutes, covering the forty mile country drive without a trace of fatigue. She had merely pulled a sweater and jeans over the sweats she slept in. She left the Volvo parked at the entrance to Tull's long, sloping driveway, where there were no fire engines. She could hear the sounds of the fire right there, nearly a half mile away.

She had driven barefoot; now she put on some sneakers and walked the length of the stone driveway, keeping just off to one side so any car that passed her would not see her. At first she was enclosed in shadow under the half moon, screened by trees, but eventually the grass around her was touched by a soft orange glow, and the sound of the fire slowly became immense.

Staying out of sight near a stretch of thick bushes, she watched Tull's house burn down. The fire had gutted the entire beach side of the place, and was still spreading. There were six fire engines gathered, a similar number of police cars, and a standby ambulance. It seemed that the firefighters were merely trying to contain the blaze rather than attacking it wholeheartedly, long since conceding defeat. Morella judged by the size of the fire that it was doubtful anyone could have been cognizant of its birth.

The sound was that of a hundred bass drums. Flames licked out from every window. Their tendrils snapped in the sky and disappeared. The air was ten degrees hotter where Morella stood, eighty or ninety feet from the other observers, who consisted almost entirely of men and women in formal dress. They had spilled out from the adjacent mansion in the middle of a raging party, about one hundred of them, perhaps more. She became transfixed by the fire for a short time, and then searched the faces on the beach, watching their expressions of awe. She saw a kind of haunting in their faces, those glittering people forgetting the glasses of cognac in their hands as they suddenly understood how helpless they were before God.

She did not see Frenchy anywhere. Eventually she picked out Thomas Tull himself, standing among the strangers who had come to fight the fire. Tull was dressed in a tuxedo. He spoke to no one, and the officials present appeared to want to leave him alone. He was crying. Immobile tears shone on his face, visible even from so far away. He cried with an openness and innocence which horrified Morella. She was somehow seeing Tull in every age he had ever embodied in his time on the earth, from six to fifteen to forty to sixty, all there in those ghastly tears.

Ten seconds of being witness to that was too much. Morella turned and began to jog back the way she came. She drove back a trifle more slowly. She turned up the radio very, very loud and was not ever truly aware of just what sort of music she was hearing. Frenchy called her cell phone midway through the trip.

She met him on her small quarter acre of beach. Above them, motionless clouds obscured the moon. Tiny pinpoints of yellow and white light dotted the horizon across the water, signaling faraway life. The waves lapped the sand inches from their feet.

"No one knows where the fire started," Frenchy told her, not much more than a plump outline in the dark. He wore the same suit and tie he had been seen in around the office twelve hours before. "It got to Tull's study, where every copy he'd made of the book sat out pretty much unprotected. Nine of them, there were. They and everything else were destroyed. The fire wiped out all record of the book ever existing."

Morella tried to make out Frenchy's expression through the gloom. There was simply not much there to read. Glimpses of his round face could be had only when the tip of his thin cigarette glowed.

"How could someone know those were the only copies?" Morella asked him.

"Our good and recently embittered friend Sam Rainchaser made the mistake of telling someone in confidence about the copies, someone at Skybridge. Did you see the look on Tull's face, out there on the lawn? That pain wasn't for his house. He lost his only child. That was Tyrant, Draw They Sword."

Morella nodded. "So you were there after all."

"Just near the end," he said.

Morella dug her bare feet into the cool sand, brushed the hair from her eyes; the wind pushed it right back into place. "And what sort of price would buy a guarantee that every copy was in the right place at the right time?" she asked.

She expected Frenchy to keep something resembling a front of secrecy, or at least to pretend not to know details. Instead, he answered simply: "A million dollars. Complete break-in and discovery."

"Whose decision was it?"

Frenchy looked at her, disappointed. "Raymey, of course. It was Raymey's call all along. He paid for every dime himself. Nothing came out of Skybridge's accounts."

Morella turned to the horizon, hearing a distant horn, trying to piece things together in her head. "What did he do," she asked, "hire a few guys to go in and wipe the place out?"

"Close," was the answer. "He hired one man to hire some others. Can you make a guess as to who took on the first task?"

"Someone I know?"

Frenchy nodded. For a moment, Morella was baffled, running through an internal file of names and faces, coming up with nothing. Then the answer came to her quite clearly.

"Louis," she croaked, feeling an accomplice just by speaking the word. "Frankensteen."

"The kind of thing he aches for. It was his last unofficial act at Skybridge. Shortly he'll be fired, and disappear over to Workman for protection. The plan worked perfectly." He pronounced this last with equal parts awe and revulsion.

"No one else?" Morella asked him, mesmerized.

Frenchy thought about it, obviously not for the first time. "I'm not really sure," he said finally. "There's probably someone in the woodworks somewhere, deep in the bone, some face none of us knows. Raymey has some interesting connections in WorldSeer, I don't know. I doubt Louis would have known directly who to call to set it in motion."

"Now we'll most likely all be let go, I suppose. This is the end of the company."

"Hell, Morella, it was end of the company as soon as Tull refused to sell out to somebody else. I've been putting out feelers for eight months. I hope to slip away like a snake."

Morella closed her eyes for a moment, then gazed into the black water that curled onto the shoreline, a tranquillity so removed from the bloated fire she had seen an hour and a half before it seemed impossible that it had ever happened. She asked the one question she really could not provide her own answer for.

"Did Raymey really hate Tull that much?"

Frenchy put a hand to his forehead, considering, then dropped it again.

"I don't know if it was hatred of a person, Morella. Maybe Raymey just wanted to make a statement. He sure as hell did. Maybe he finally went insane watching the spit fight between art and money, and pride, or some such highbrow ideal. But I really think he just saw it as an atrocity that had to be...cleansed. The capability to do such a thing was always there in him. I saw it, and I only talked to him five or six times in all my time at the company. He was a rare one. He saw beyond all the fog, into the purity of things."

"Who else knows?"

"To my knowledge, just Louis, myself, and Dean. Everett wasn't trusted, probably because he's too good of a person."

"And what about you?"

"Me?" Frenchy echoed, looking at the muted eye of the moon. "I was a slipup. Louis just couldn't keep quiet, he was so tickled by the whole concept. It would have killed him. And now that his bile has been drained, he'll never tell a living soul."

"My God, if they ever find out...."

"It doesn't matter; Skybridge is going under. Raymey is completely safe. He wouldn't have tried this if he didn't know for certain he was covered."

"This is sickening," Morella said, breathing too heavily, her stomach beginning to tie itself in knots. "Frenchy, I had no idea it could go this far. This is inhuman. All that work, for nothing."

"You weren't involved. Don't think about it anymore." He dropped his cigarette onto the beach. The wind brushed it along the sand and it rolled closer to the water, where the next wave snuffed and swallowed it.

"There's one more thing," he said. "I don't think you're going to like it, but it's something I have to do." With that, he produced a bulky package from the crook of his left arm. The darkness of the beach had concealed it from Morella's eyes. Frenchy held it out to him, and she took it.

"From John Raymey," Frenchy said. The package was about three inches thick. It weighed about four pounds.

Morella turned it over in her hands. She could not discern any markings on the wrapper.

"What is it?" she asked, dreading the response, although the answer was so obvious there was little point in asking.

"Tyrant, Draw They Sword," Frenchy informed her softly. "The pages were scanned into a computer, typeset, printed out, and bound." He lit up another cigarette while Morella ingested his words.

The package, a slimmer version of the one they'd been given by Sam Rainchaser, was cold and dead in her hands. It resembled nothing more substantial than a block of unspoiled Xerox paper. She stared at Frenchy, her voice cracking. "Why is this being given to me? Why?"

The orange glow of the Marlboro tip lit his face briefly. "For our personal enrichment, according to Raymey."

Morella gripped the book tightly, shutting her eyes tight, shaking her head. Two decades before, in the one of the many traumatic and now virtually forgotten experiences of her youth, she had discovered the bones of a long dead drifter in the woods. Her reaction at that precise moment, when she had realized what she was looking at, came back to her now at the age of thirty-one. She was touched by an icy finger of disgust, repulsion, and an awful sense of connection to an act her small mind could still not yet conceive of.

"Oh my God, Frenchy," she said weakly. "Don't give this to me. Do you know what this is?"

"Yes I do," he answered coldly, in a tone very unlike him. "I got one too. So did Dean. And Raymey's keeping one. He found it....quite a read."

"What's to stop me from going to the press, or another house, and showing this, getting it printed?"

"Nothing," Frenchy said. "You do what you want to do."

Morella found all the strength return to her voice now, and she spoke loudly, loudly enough perhaps for her neighbors to hear faint voices on the beach, and wonder what they could possibly be discussing.

"He had no right. This is a great book."

"A great book written by a hateful human being. A technician, an expert at manipulation; that's not literature."

"It is literature," Morella sputtered, "it doesn't matter who did it or why. It deserves to live."

"I think it does matter. He tried to drown this company from the beginning, out of spite for Raymey, out of contempt for everyone. He turned down the major houses and went after an ailing dinosaur which had the perfect target up above. This book is a bullet. It's like some crippled child born out of wedlock."

"It's not just his book anymore, Frenchy. Millions of people want to read this, they don't care about what happened between some publisher and the author. Ten years of his life went into this!"

"Maybe he should have spent those years becoming an acceptable human being. He's gotten a life lesson."

"Frenchy, it doesn't belong to Raymey; he has no right!"

"I know all the arguments, Morella. I've thought about them myself the last couple of nights. Maybe I'm so jaded that I can't see beyond Tull's hatred. I'm not going to the press or another house, and neither is Dean. It's really all up to you. I'd never fault you for whatever you decide to do, and it's completely your move. But do you want to sit back and watch Tull bask in his cheap glory while people we know at the company, people like Lilla and Michael, are fired because of his hate? Can you really take all the issues away and just leave what's on the page? I could when I was young and all books were sacred to me, but it's a different world from what we thought it was. It's a lot different."

Morella placed the book under the crook of her own arm so that it would be out of her sight. "He gave me this," she theorized, exhaling shakily, "because he knew I'd go insane thinking about it."

"And why would he do that to you? He liked you, Morella. What's the significance?"

"Did he say there was one?"

"I tried to read him," Frenchy said. "He spoke to me last week about the book, and about your reaction to it. He asked me what I thought of the way you'd handled things all along." He paused to begin choosing his words more carefully, then went on.

"I think he was trying to get you to grow. I suppose there's a way to get back at him, just send the book anonymously to somebody in a position to do something with it. But you see, that would defeat his purpose in giving it to you." He narrowed his eyes in thought. "Raymey is like no one else we've ever met. He's an educator. He's been in publishing most of his life. He's seen books into print that he knew were bad just to give struggling hacks a taste of success. And he's killed things by famous names because they had no soul. Well, this is his Act Three. Tull tried to screw him, and he's turned it into more than revenge. He's made a parable. And don't think he won't resurface somewhere else in a year or two, in a place we'll never know about. He'll go on and on; the job doesn't matter to him. It's the wisdom. It's the opportunity to do what no one else has the willpower, or the courage to do. Raymey is the only truly fearless man we'll ever know." He blew out a cloud of smoke and paused again.

"I think he chose you to be in the middle of it all because he saw something in you that needed a parable. I've heard he had three sons who slipped away from him, turned out badly. Who knows, maybe he saw you, even briefly, as a surrogate. More likely you were confused when you met him, and he sensed it. A lot more went on during your one moment in his office than you knew. That I'm sure of.

"I think giving you the book is a very difficult test, Mo, a horrible one, maybe, about the world you've gotten yourself into. He made sure there's no right answer, the bastard. The brilliant, amazing bastard."

Morella hung her head low, not caring anymore how weak she sounded, or appeared. "But you'll stay with the job," she said to Frenchy.

"My wife likes to meet the writers," Frenchy replied, stone-faced. "As for me....I'm numb, I think. I am numb."

Morella looked over his head at the sleepy reach. She crushed the manuscript brutally beneath her arm. And now she hated herself, despised herself the way Steven Fohm must have hated himself as he stood in that trailer park and begged for acceptance, because she was about to sound like a child and not a grown woman at all, just for one sentence, but it was terrible, the pleading tone she could not keep out of her exhausted voice.

"And what difference has any of it made," she asked her friend, "when the only life that's going to change now is mine?"

Frenchy's shadow turned away. "I'm sorry, Morella. I thought I had to give it to you. It's what the man wanted."

"It's all right," Morella said after many seconds had passed. "It worked. It worked."

They stood together on the beach.

All along, grandpa, she wrote that night in the final minutes before dawn, I'd thought Raymey was the brilliant one, the master manipulator. The one who forced me into an ethical dead end too immense for me ever to solve. The one who put it upon me to establish once and for all just what sort of person I was, and what I truly believed. The real master, though, was right there out on the beach with me: a fat, middle-aged man with a kindly face and a smile for everybody, who played dumb and kept quiet and worked hard.

Frenchy was my true teacher, she wrote. You see, no copies had been made of Tull's book. They had all indeed been destroyed in the fire, an act of madness orchestrated by John Raymey. There was no final decision to be made. The weight of the world was never really on my puny shoulders at all.

My package was filled with empty pages. It was just Frenchy, trying to teach me about life and choices, getting me to think harder than I ever had in my life. John Raymey acted out of outrage, vengeance, and above all, a violent sense of irony. Frenchy lied to me on that night out of compassion.

And I see now that I have been lost in a place I don't understand, and that I have to rebuild myself. God knows I can't do it here. It's too close to the flames. This much I know: I am not yet enough to fight them. This would be my burial ground.

She put the pen down there for just a moment, waiting to feel the slightest whisper of doubt—and, to both her relief and her sorrow, none came. So just before the sun came up and she started packing, Morella Duvall, who upon her graduation from college had sworn she would never go back to the Ann Arbor of her stifling childhood, the city where her parents had been murdered and her dreams slowly pushed forever out of focus, added her letter's final line:

I am coming home.