Authors: R. L. Stine
R. L. Stine
Witness one Zachary Gold, 33. Youthful, tanned, long and lean, tensed over his laptop in the back corner of the coffee shop, one hand motionless over the keyboard.
Casual in a white Polo shirt to emphasize his tan, khaki cargo shorts, white Converse All-Stars. He grips the empty cardboard latte cup, starts to raise it, then sets it down. Should he order a third, maybe a grande this time?
Zachary Gold, an author in search of a plot, begs the gods of caffeine to bring him inspiration. He is an author in the hold of that boring clichÃ©, the Sophomore Slump. And his days of no progress on the second novel have taught him only that clichÃ©s are always true.
Not a superstitious man, not a fanciful man. Practical. A realist.
But today he will welcome any magic that will start him writing. An angel, a muse, a shaman, a voice from beyond the grave, enchanted beads, an amulet, a scrawled message on a crinkled-up paper napkin.
Today â¦ perhaps today that magic will arrive.
No, Zachary Gold does not live in
The Twilight Zone
. He lives in a brownstone in the West 70's of Manhattan, a building he bought with the abundant royalties from his first novel.
He tells interviewers that he never reads reviews. But he did read the piece in the
New York Times
that declared him the “once-and-future king of the new American popular literature.”
Does the once-and-future king have a future?
Zachary succumbs to a third latte, skim milk with a shot of espresso, and resumes his throne in front of the glaringly blank screen.
The first book wrote itself, he recalls.
I practically wrote it as fast as I could type it. And then I barely had to revise.
A sigh escapes his throat. The hot cup trembles in his hand. If the first book hadn't crowned him king, he wouldn't be under so much pressure for the second one.
A lot of kings have been beheaded.
And then he scolds himself: Don't be so grim. A lot of authors have had this problem before you.
Zachary has a sense of humor. His wife Kristen says it kept him alive several times when she felt like battering him over the head with a hot frying pan. Kristen is a redhead andâanother clichÃ©âhas the stormy temperament that is supposed to come with the fiery hair.
Two teenage girls at a table against the wall catch Zachary's attention. They have their green canvas backpacks on the floor and their phones in front of them on the table.
“Mrs. Abrams says we don't have to read
War and Peace
. We can read the Spark Notes instead.”
“Mrs. Abrams is awesome.”
At the table behind them, a woman with white scraggly hair, round red face, a long blue overcoat buttoned to her throat, two shopping bags at her feet, slumps in her chair as if in defeat, jabbering to herself. Or is she on the phone?
Zachary tells himself he needs the noise, the chatter and movement, the distraction of new faces, to help him concentrate. He wrote most of the first novel in this very coffee shop. He can't stay at home. Not with the baby crying. And the nanny on the phone, speaking torrents of heated Spanish to her boyfriend.
He tried an app that a friend told him about. It offered background coffee shop noise to play through your home stereo. Like those sound machines that play ocean waves to help you sleep. The app had an endless loop with the clatter of dishes and low chatter of voices. But the sounds weren't stimulating enough to force Zachary to beam his attention to the keyboard. He had to get out.
And now he sits gazing from table to table. Studying the faces of those chatting and those caught in the glow of laptop screens. And he thinks how carefree everyone looks.
Because they don't have to write a book.
Most people leave school and never have to turn in another paper. And they are so happy about it.
Why did he choose to be a writer? Was it because he couldn't think of anything else? Was it because his parents begged him to start a real career, to find something he could “fall back on?”
Was it because the Howard Striver character came to him as if in a dream?
Howard Striver, please don't haunt me.
I like you, Howard. No. I love you. I'll always be grateful, old buddy. But I need to leave you behind.
Zachary sips the latte, already on its way to lukewarm. A flash of an idea.
What if an author's character won't leave him alone? Pursues him in real life?
It's been done. But it's the start of something.
Zachary leans forward. Shuts his eyes to allow his thoughts to flow. Prepares to type. A shock of pain as a hand squeezes his shoulder.
He turns and gazes up at a big, broad man, fifties, maybe sixty, salt-and-pepper stubble of a beard on a jowly, hazel-eyed face. Sandy hair in disarray. The whole face is blurred, Zachary thinks. Like the man is somehow out of focus.
A homeless man looking for a handout? No. He's too well dressed. Pale blue sport shirt open at the neck, dark suit pants well pressed, polished brown wingtips.
The hand loosens on Zachary's shoulder. “We need to talk,” the man says through his teeth. The lips don't move.
The harsh tone makes Zachary lean away. “Do I know you?”
“I'm Cardoza,” the man says.
“S-sorry.” Zachary has always had a stammer when he's surprised.
“Cardoza,” the man repeats. The hazel eyes lock on Zachary. “Cardoza. You know me.”
“No. Sorry.” Zachary turns away and returns his hands to the keyboard. “Please. I'm working. I don't have timeâ”
The man named Cardoza lunges forward. He reaches for the lid of the laptop and slams it down hard on Zachary's hands.
Zachary hears a
. Then he feels the pain rage over his hands and shoot up both arms.
His scream cuts through the coffee house chatter. People turn to stare.
“You broke my fingers! I think you broke my fingers.”
Cardoza hovers over Zachary.
Zachary frees his hands from the laptop. He tries to rub the pain off his fingers. “What do you want? Tell meâwhat do you want?”
“What do I want? Just what's coming to me.”
Cardoza pulls out the chair opposite Zachary and, with a groan, lowers his big body into it. His smile is unpleasant. Not a smile but a cold warning. He spreads his hands over the table, as if claiming it. Large hands, dark hair on the knuckles, a round, sparkly pinky ring on his right hand.
Zachary rubs his aching hands, tests his fingers. They seem to be working properly. If this man intended to frighten him, he has succeeded. Zachary glances around for a store manager, a security guy, maybe. Of course, there is none.
Why can't he get the man's face in focus? It seems to deflect the light.
He slides the latte cup aside. “I really am working here. I don't know you and I really thinkâ”
Cardoza raises a big hand to silence Zachary. His smile fades. “I don't really care what you think.”
Zachary glances around again, this time for an escape route. The narrow aisles are clogged with people. Two women have blocked the aisle with enormous baby strollers.
Two of his fingers have started to swell. Zachary rubs them tenderly. “You've attacked me for no reason. I have to ask you to leave me alone now.”
The smile again. “Ask all you like.”
Zachary doesn't know how to respond to this. Is Cardoza crazy? If he is crazy and wants to fight, Zachary is at a disadvantage. He's never been in a fight in his life, not even on the playground as a kid in Port Washington.
He eyes the man without speaking. He knows he's never seen him before. A tense silence between them. Zachary's laptop case is between his feet on the floor. Can he slide the computer into the case and get ready to make his escape?
Cardoza breaks the silence. He leans over the small, square coffee-stained table. “Having a productive day, Mr. Gold?” He doesn't wait for an answer. He spins the laptop around, opens it, and gazes at the screen. “Blank? A blank screen? Again?”
Zachary grabs the computer and spins it back around. “What do you mean again? What are you talking about?”
The hazel eyes lock on Zachary, now with cold menace. “Isn't that why you stole your book from me?”
“Hah!” Zachary can't help a scornful laugh from escaping. “Is that why you're here, Cardoza? You're crazy. You're messed up. You need to leave now.” Zachary jumps to his feet as if to chase the man away.
Cardoza doesn't move. He clasps his hands together on the tabletop. “Word for word, Mr. Gold. Line by line. You stole my book. But I'm not a vindictive man. I just want a little payback.”
Zachary's mind spins. Once again, his eyes search the small room for someone who could rescue him. “Cardoza, you need help,” he murmurs. “You're deluded.”
This man is insane
, Zachary thinks.
But is he dangerous?
Do other authors have to put up with this kind of harassment?
Does he really think I'm going to give him money?
“Pleaseâleave me alone,” Zachary says softly. “I'm asking you nicely.”
“I can't, Mr. Gold. “I can't leave you alone. I don't know how you uncovered my manuscript. But you know I'm the one who created the Howard Striver character. He is based on my older brother, after all.”
Zachary is still standing, hands on the back of his chair. “I'm begging youâ” he starts.
Cardoza shakes his head. “I'm not going anywhere.” He motions for Zachary to return to his seat. “I think you and I are going to develop a very close friendship.” That cold smile again. “Unless you want the world to know you are a thief and a fraud.”
Zachary sees the women push out the front door with their strollers. This is his chance. He ignores his suddenly racing heartbeats, grabs the laptop in one hand, leaves the case on the floor, spins to the front and runs.
“Look out!” A young long-haired young man carrying a muffin and a tall coffee cup leaps back as Zachary bolts past him.
Zachary is out the door. Nearly collides with the two strollers. The women have stopped to adjust the babies in the seats. They glare at him as he stumbles and skids to a stop, turns, and runs up Amsterdam Avenue.
A mild, hazy day of early spring. The air feels cool on his blazing hot face. He dodges two men with handcarts, making a flower delivery to the store next-door. Runs past a man setting up his shawarma cart on the corner, a brief whiff of grilled meat as he passes.
Zachary has to stop at the corner as a large Budweiser truck rumbles through the red light, horn wailing like a siren.
Which way? Which way?
He glimpses a dark blur behind him. Is Cardoza following him?
Zachary shields his eyes with one hand and squints into the sunlight. Yes. The big man is chasing him. Head down like a bull stampeding a toreador. A glint of silver, a flash of light in his hand.
Is he carrying a gun?
Maybe it's a phone.
Zachary darts behind the beer truck, crosses the street.
I can outrun him, but it would be better to hide. Especially if that's a gun in his hand.
The branch library stands in the middle of the block. The front window appears dark. Is it open? With the budget cuts, it's closed a lot of days. Zachary trots to the door, tugs the handle. Yes. Open. He swings the door just wide enough to slip inside.
Shouts outside. Is it Cardoza? The sound cuts off as the glass door closes behind him.
The librarian, a young woman, black bangs cropped across her forehead, red-framed glasses glinting in the light over the front desk, perched on a tall wooden stool, almost lost inside a loose camisole dress, very lilac, clashinges with the red eyeglasses. She sees Zachary enter, breathing hard, almost wheezing, probably sweat visible on his forehead and cheeks.
He struggles to look calm and collected, as if he intended to visit the library. Flashes her a smile, but she continues to stare warily. He's holding the caseless laptop in one hand. Awkward.
I didn't steal it. Honest.