Small Town

Page 42

He carried his drink over to the window, looked out at the city.

There were no lights burning in the building directly across the street, and only one, on the top floor, in the building to its immediate left. A bald man in a suit walked the careful walk of the man who does not want anyone to know he’s drunk. A woman walked her dog, an Irish wolfhound, an enormous galumphing creature.

He recognized the woman, but wondered if he’d do so if she hadn’t had the dog with her.

The air seemed clearer than usual, his vision sharper.

Nothing succeeds like success. He’d finish the book, buoyed by the success it had already enjoyed. That would sweep the anxiety and self-doubt from his path, and he’d write it and polish it and turn it in, and Esther would love it because she’d come to it eager to love it. And the sales force, charged up in advance at the knowledge that they’d have this eminently promotable, eminently saleable book to push, would read it with great enthusiasm and make sure all their accounts loaded up on it. That would guarantee the stores had big piles of the books, and the publisher’s advertising dollars would further guarantee that the piles wound up on the front table at Borders and the front octagon at Barnes & Noble, so that you couldn’t walk in the door without it smacking you right in the face.

And so on.

The critics might like the book or they might not. But either way they’d give it more space than they’d ever given his previous work, and take it more seriously, and express their enthusiasm or distaste more fervently. It was the length and placement of a review, that and the heat it generated, that impacted sales far more than whether the critic did or didn’t like what was between the covers.

And the public would run out and buy it. In the chains, in the independents, from the online booksellers, they’d buy the book as enthusiastically as if Oprah had told them they had to. Enough of them would buy it to get it on the bestseller list, and then tons more of them would buy it simply because it was on the list, and—

ready now?

Nothing succeeds like success.

And here was the capper, here was the one thing that made it all just perfect. All of this success, this wild hitherto-undreamt-of success, was on its way to him notwithstanding that no one, repeat no one, not his agent or his publisher or any of the wonder-

ful fellows who’d been in such a hurry to shake his hand, no one on the fucking planet had read one fucking word of the book.

He’d been working away at it every day, and it was coming along just fine, thank you. Some days were diamonds and some days were stones, as John Denver used to sing, and there was a guy who had it all until his plane crashed, which showed that even success had its limits. And yes, some days were diamonds and some days were stones and some days were little better than mouse turds, but each day the book got a little bit longer, and it was going to be a good one. He knew that, and he’d told Roz, but nobody else knew a thing about it except for the fact that he was working on it.

So it wasn’t the book. That’s what the publisher would sell and that’s what the readers would buy, but that’s not what the success was about. They weren’t paying him three point one oh five because of what was in his computer. They were paying because of what was on his rap sheet. The whole reason, the sole reason for his success was that everybody was dead certain he’d strangled a woman.

Figure that one out. Go on, fucking figure it out.

He drank his drink.

A N D S U P P O S E T H E Y F O U N D him guilty?

That wasn’t something he wanted to think about. He was able to get up every morning and sit down at the computer and get work done because he was able to put the whole matter out of his mind. Denial, he figured, was given to man for a purpose. You were crazy if you didn’t make use of it.

But he could think about it now. On a night like this, flushed with triumph, high on success, he could afford to think about it.

What if there was a trial, and the prosecution presented their case and his lawyer did his best to refute it, and the jurors came back and he heard the words Will the defendant please rise? and he rose, and he heard all the other words, so familiar now to everybody from Law & Order and Court TV. All those words, and the last one: Guilty.

It could happen. He hadn’t done it, but they didn’t know that and he couldn’t prove it. And all of them—Esther Blinkoff and all the other bidders, and all the people in the upstairs offices who green-lighted the bidders and told them how far they could go, Jesus, they all knew it could happen, and they went ahead and placed their bids just the same.

Because it didn’t matter.

Just as it didn’t matter to his own lawyer, Maury Winters, whether he was in fact guilty or innocent. It didn’t matter and shouldn’t matter because the lawyer’s job was to get him off, and his guilt and innocence were consequently irrelevant.

So why should they be any more relevant to Esther Blinkoff, whose job was to generate revenue for her employer? She did this by publishing books that would sell, and his book would sell because of who he was and what he might or might not have done.

His book might very well be out before the jury came in. That would make the verdict moot, wouldn’t it? Or, if the trial began and ended before publication day, all it would do was generate publicity for the book. A guilty verdict wouldn’t make the public yawn and turn aside. If anything, an acquittal might diminish their interest somewhat, in which case it would be his job to go on all the talk shows and stir things up again.

Either way, though, Crown was looking good. Either way, John Blair Creighton, Author, was a success. Hell, if they sent him to Sing Sing or Attica or some other state-sponsored Xanadu, somebody would make sure he had a PC in his cell, or at least a typewriter. Book Two of his famous seven-figure two-book contract could be a prison novel. Always a popular staple, and the film prospects should be terrific.

This seemed to call for a drink, and he could skip the ice this time.

A N O T H E R R E V E L A T I O N , M O R E B R A C I N G than the whiskey: He wasn’t going to be found guilty.

It was possible, because nobody knew how a trial would go or what a jury would do. But it wasn’t going to happen, and not because he hadn’t killed Marilyn Fairchild. That only mattered if he could prove it, and he couldn’t.

There was a very simple reason why they’d come back and say Not Guilty, and that was because, as of today and forever after, he was a success.

And that was why Roger Delacroix, the Roger Delacroix, had not only congratulated him on his book deal, had not only shaken his hand, but had also taken the trouble, quietly, graciously, discreetly, to tell him he knew he was innocent. Not because he knew squat about the case, or about him. But because he knew, deep in his gut, way down in his bones, that no writer with a three-million-dollar contract could be guilty of splitting an infinitive, never mind wringing a woman’s neck.

Imagine if OJ could write like Faulkner . . .

They wouldn’t convict him. They wouldn’t be able to, any more than they’d been able to with OJ. Not because he had money. The rich had an edge in court, but they didn’t get a free pass. Look at the Menendez brothers, look at Michael Skakel. Once in a while, even the rich got the judicial shaft.

It wasn’t OJ’s money, or his Dream Team of lawyers, or the inept prosecution or the flaky judge. It wasn’t because he was black and so were most of the jurors. None of this hurt, but that didn’t explain why he got off, and it seemed so clear now.

He got off because he was OJ Simpson.

He was a success, he was a star, he had that glow, that magic.

How could twelve people get in a room and convict him? They must have known he did it, or else they were the only twelve people in America who didn’t, but it didn’t make any difference. They couldn’t help themselves. He was OJ Simpson and they had to cut him loose.

T H E G L A S S W A S E M P T Y, but he wouldn’t fill it up again. He was feeling the drinks. The alcohol had carried him through the long evening. It wasn’t fuel, but it worked as if it were, lifting you on its wings, keeping you from feeling your exhaustion. He’d had just enough to keep that edge, and now he was ready to put himself to bed.

Undressing, he came across the card the woman in black had given him. I’d love to get to know you better / Susan. She was a beauty, too, self-possessed and radiant. If she were here right now, he thought, she could get to know him in a hurry.

Should he have made a move? She was out the door before the possibility had even occurred to him, so it had never been an option, and it didn’t take much thought to realize it would have been a bad idea. He was with Roz, for one thing, and although there would never be anything romantic or sexual in their relationship, that didn’t mean he could abandon her and trot off after some tail-wagging cupcake. But even if the timing had been different, even if Susan had turned up as he was putting Roz in a cab, it still would have set the evening off in the wrong direction.

This wasn’t the night for a romp with a starfucker, however classy this one might be. This was a night to be spent exactly as he had spent it, first at the bar at Stelli’s, sharing laughs and insights with men who had suddenly become his peers, and then at home, by himself, to taper off with good whiskey and think through and relive the best day and night of his life.

He’d keep her card, though.

But where? It was all too easy to misplace things in his roomful of organized clutter, and he didn’t want to let it slide until calling her would be awkward. His memory might be spotty in the morning, and he might be like a squirrel who buried nuts and forgot where he’d buried them. You got a lot of trees planted that way, but in this instance, if you’d pardon the expression, he was more interested in getting his nut.

So the idea was not to make a point of remembering where he put the card, but to put it where he’d find it anyway. He could leave it on top of the computer keyboard, that would work, but then it would be in the way and he’d have to stick it somewhere, and he’d be back where he started from. But if he left it where it would not be in the way, but where he’d see it every day . . .

He opened his sock drawer, propped it on top of a pair of navy socks, and closed the drawer.

That did it, and now he could go to bed and dream whatever sort of dreams successful men dreamed. He wouldn’t set a clock, he’d wake up whenever the sun or his bladder woke him, and—

Wait a minute.

He’d seen something, got the merest glimpse of something, in his sock drawer. Or imagined it, some chimera hovering on the edge of thought and the periphery of his vision.

Forget it, he told himself, and go to sleep.

But it was still there in his mind’s eye when he got into bed, just a patch of color, really, but of a color that didn’t belong in a drawer full of socks that were almost all black or navy, with the rest brown or maroon. His white socks were in another drawer, with gym gear, because that was pretty much the only time he wore them. He was, you’d have to say, a dark socks kind of a guy, although—who knew?—he supposed that might change with success. He might turn out to be the sort of man who wore argyles, but up until now he’d been Mr. Dark Socks, so what would a hint of bright color be doing in his sock drawer?