Authors: Zev Chafets
Copyright © 1995 by Zev Chafets
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jobete Music Co., Inc. for permission to reprint two lines from “The Way You Do the Things You Do” by William Robinson, Jr., and Robert Rogers. Copyright © 1964 by Jobete Music Co., Inc. Reprinted by permission.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The bookmakers / Zev Chafets.
1. Authors and publishers—New York (N.Y.)—Fiction.
2. Novelists, American—New York (N.Y.)—Fiction. 3. Murder—New York (N.Y.)—Fiction. I. Title.
At 3:15 on the morning of his forty-fifth birthday, near the corner of West Seventy-sixth and Columbus, Mack Green received a gift from a stranger. The gift—unexpected and startling—came wrapped in a revelation: that he was a man capable of seriously contemplating his own suicide. And although it was something that had never occurred to him before, he instantly recognized it as the idea that would save his life.
Mack was on the street at that hour because he dreaded the prospect of discussing the future of the American novel—especially his own American novels—in bed, buck naked, before breakfast, with a woman whose name he didn’t know. Brenda or Glenda—she had only said it once, and her Indiana accent made it hard to catch—claimed to be a literary critic from Indianapolis. This wasn’t entirely improbable; the Flying Tiger Polo Lounge, described in an outdated guidebook as “New York’s hottest literary
hangout,” where Mack had been celebrating his birthday with double bourbons, attracted a disproportionate number of literary ladies from the Big Ten states. Over the years, Mack, whose resistance to sexual temptation was close to zero, had succumbed with amiable ease to the charms of countless Brendas and Glendas looking for a one-night stand with a once-famous author.
In bed, half drunk, the bookish groupies of middle America comported themselves like high-priced, low-minded hookers. But in the morning, with sleep-putty still clogging the corners of their eyes and tequila on their breath, they underwent a frightening transformation into serious-minded free-verse poets or assistant professors of creative writing. What was Updike really like? How does one find a really fine New York publisher? And, inevitably, why had so much time passed since Mack’s last novel?
Mornings, he had learned, were best spent alone, asleep on the perennially unmade mattress in his West Side studio apartment. And so Mack, who tried hard never to hurt people’s feelings, waited until the literary ladies snored off before slipping out of bed, scribbling an affectionate note and fleeing into the night.
Most times he took a taxi home, but tonight he decided to walk. A few days earlier he had been given a harsh lecture by Dottie Coleman, who, combining the internist’s natural alarmism with the brutal frankness of an ex-lover, had warned him that his cholesterol and liver enzymes looked like “a Molotov cocktail in a test tube,” that he had every risk factor for most of the diseases common in the industrialized world and that his lifestyle was twenty years too young for his body. She had used hard words—“alcoholic,” “lung cancer” and “drop dead at any minute” were the ones that lingered in his mind—and while he detected a certain fond malice in her attitude (ending their affair had been his idea), the dire picture she painted was not entirely unfamiliar. Mack was too allied with his bad habits to abandon them, but he was willing to moderate their evil effect by sporadic acts of medical virtue, such as a salubrious postcoital hike.
And so he had walked from the Waldorf, arriving at the corner of Columbus and Seventy-sixth in a sweaty, self-congratulatory state. He was thinking about calling Dottie later to let her know he was taking her warning seriously when he heard a thick, furry voice from a doorway next to his brownstone.
“ ’Scuse me, mister, you got the time?”
Mack turned and saw a thin young black man in a crummy-looking imitation-leather jacket. In the dim light of the doorway he could see dulled, yellowish eyes peering at him. Though the kid looked no more than sixteen, Mack immediately understood that he was about to get robbed.
“I said, do you have the time?” repeated the boy, who suddenly darted in front of Mack, blocking his way.
“I heard you,” said Mack.
“You too good to talk to niggers?”
“Naw, I talk to niggers all day long,” said Mack. The smart-ass answer startled him. After twenty-five years in New York, he knew better.
“Gimme your watch, you nigger-talking motherfucker. And your wallet.” The kid was trying to sound threatening, but his voice wobbled nervously. When Mack didn’t move, he reached inside his jacket, pulled out a Smith & Wesson .32 revolver and pointed it at him. “Right now, man. I ain’t playin’.”
Mack noticed that the kid’s arm was trembling. He saw it with a kind of intense but distant interest, as if the hand holding the pistol belonged to one of his fictional characters. Suddenly he felt the once-familiar hunger to mold and craft a great scene. The feeling gave him a sense of fearless control.
“Beat it, Junior,” he said, watching the kid’s eyes widen in disbelief.
“Man, you must be crazy,” said the mugger, waving the gun. “You give it up right now or I’ll shoot your motherfucking ass for real.”
“Go ahead,” said Mack. “Let’s see you do it.”
“Man, give me the wallet,” the kid said, his voice rising. “Give me that motherfucker, man—”
“Hey, don’t shout,” said Mack. He was surprised to see that the kid instinctively lowered his voice. He took a sudden step forward, not knowing exactly what he was planning to do. The kid retreated, stumbling slightly. While he was off-balance, Mack lunged and grabbed him by the forearm. Even through the jacket sleeve the arm felt thin and weak. Mack shook it hard, and when the Smith & Wesson clattered to the pavement he put his foot on it and pushed the kid back against the building. Then he bent down and scooped up the gun. The whole thing took less than ten seconds.
“Man, you’re the worst fucking thief I ever met,” said Mack, breathing hard from the exertion. “This your first time or what?”
“Don’t hurt me, man, I’m sick.”
“Sorry to hear it,” said Mack. “You should take better care of yourself. I know an internist I could recommend if you don’t mind a woman doctor.”
The kid looked at him through scared yellow eyes and said nothing.
“I have this theory,” Mack continued in an easy, conversational tone he barely recognized as his own. “People get the mugger they deserve. You think I deserve you?”
“Man, what you gonna do?”
“I’m talking to you, son. We’re having a late-night chat. Answer my question—you think I deserve you?”
“You a cop?”
Mack laughed and shook his head. “I’m a writer. I can talk like a cop, though. I make up dialogue. You know what dialogue is? Like in the movies, when people talk to each other? What I’m doing now is bantering with you, cop style.” Green was aware that he was babbling, but he didn’t care. It was three in the morning, he was flying on adrenaline and he had already begun to grasp the significance of this encounter.
“Let me tell you something else,” he continued. “People get
the mugger they deserve? Well, muggers get the muggees they deserve. You got me and I’m the wrong one. Know why?”
The kid shrugged. Green could see that he was no longer frightened. In fact, he looked a little impatient.
“Because I wasn’t afraid to die just now. Usually I am, just like everybody else, so don’t blame yourself. You just happened to catch me on a bad night.”
The kid shifted his feet and looked at Mack. His nose was running and he wiped it with his sleeve. Suddenly Green felt very tired. “Okay, Dillinger, split,” he said. “I want to go home and get some sleep.”
“What about my gun?”
“I’m keeping the gun,” said Mack. “It’s a souvenir. In the morning it will remind me of you.”
“Oh, man, I need that gun. I ain’t gonna do you nothin’,” moaned the kid with soft, hopeless urgency.
“Nosiree, bob, this here six-shooter stays with me,” said Mack. “That’s cowboy dialogue I’m doing now. Recognize it? You go to the movies ever?”
“Shit,” said the mugger.
“I used to go every Saturday, in Oriole. That’s where I’m from, Oriole, Michigan. Name’s Mack Green but they call me the Oriole Kid and I’m confiscating your shooting iron, pardner. Now run your ass back uptown before I make you dance. And tell them up there that the Oriole Kid is back in town.”
The young man gave Green a long look, appraising his chances of grabbing the pistol. Then his shoulders slumped and he started trudging up Columbus. Green watched him for a moment as he absently emptied the bullets from the revolver and tucked it into his waistband. After years of inexplicable bad luck and frustration, Mack knew that he had been given the gift he had been waiting for: the return of his creative imagination.
“Hey, kid,” he called out. The boy stopped and turned, facing Mack.
“What’s your name?”
“Shit,” said the boy defiantly.
“Good name,” said Mack. “It fits you. When the new bestseller by Mack Green comes out, be sure and steal a copy. It’ll be dedicated to you.”
When the phone on Tommy Russo’s nightstand rang he awoke instantly, a reflex from his days at the seminary. He checked his Rolex, saw it was just past nine—too early for a call from the Coast on the movie deal—and let the machine answer. “You have reached the residence of Tomas Russo,” said the refined telephone voice, which belonged to one of his actor clients. “Please leave a message and I’ll return your call as soon as possible.”