Small Town

Page 49

By Monday, when Tracy Morgensen called, he knew about Friday night’s three firebombings. Tracy was a senior publicist at Crown, and told him she’d be his publicist, and how did he feel about doing some early publicity now? Because they did have his two books scheduled to ship in September, The Goldsmith’s Daughter and Nothing But Blue Skies, and the sales reps would be taking orders for both titles this week, so a little publicity wouldn’t be a bad thing. There wouldn’t be a tour, because there wasn’t enough time to set it up, and besides these weren’t new books, and he’d probably toured when they were first published, hadn’t he?

Well, no, he hadn’t. But he couldn’t really tour right now anyway.

“Because you’re working on a new book. Yes, I know, and we’re all excited. They didn’t tell me the title. Do you know what it’s going to be?”

He said he didn’t. She ran down a list of things she was working on. All local, she said, so he wouldn’t have to travel, in order to keep any interference with his writing time to a minimum. He told her that was just as well, because he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to leave the state, given that he was currently out on bail and charged with homicide. That stopped her right in her chirpy little tracks, but only for a minute, and then they were back to work, figuring out what shows he would go on, what reporters would get to interview him.

By Thursday, when he went downtown to be Lenny Lopate’s guest on WNYC radio, the police had released a photo of the Carpenter. Friday’s papers carried the NAILED! and GOTCHA! headlines, and he’d watched coverage on New York One and read a long story in the Times before he walked over to Jones Street to meet a Daily News reporter at the Vivaldi. They sat outside, where they both could smoke, and ordered cappuccino, and she fum-bled with questions, asking him what he as a novelist made of a person like the Carpenter, and how did incidents like those of the previous week affect his use of New York City as a canvas for his novels.

The questions didn’t make sense to him, but that wasn’t the point; they were in this together, she trying to write something that would pass for news, he looking to get some ink and sell some books. And, while he was at it, to give the public at large the impression that he was one of the good guys.

Maury Winters had made the latter point when he’d asked the lawyer if it was all right to go on the air. “It’s a godsend,” Winters told him. “Anything about Fairchild, the charges, the trial, you smile and explain you’re not allowed to talk about it. You get some prick won’t leave you alone on the subject, you stand up and walk out. Anything else, you’re helpful, you smile a lot, you think crime’s a terrible thing, you think the police do an outstanding job, you’ll be glad when this Carpenter momzer’s locked up and the city can get back to normal. As for you, all you want to do is sit home and write books. And John? They want to interview you, you meet them somewhere. They’ll want to come to your apartment, they’ll want to photograph you at your desk, or in front of a wall of your books. Your apartment’s off limits. You don’t want ’em nosing around in your things. Meet in the park, meet for coffee.

They keep asking the wrong questions, you can get up and leave.

That’s not so easy to do when you’re already home. You meet a cute one, you want to fool around, go to her place. If she’s married, go get a room.”

The News reporter was cute, in an angular, hard-bitten sort of way, but she wasn’t his type, nor did he sense that he was hers. At the end she turned off her tape recorder and put away her notepad and said that was fine, she’d be able to get a nice feature out of what he’d given her.

They both lit fresh cigarettes, and he asked how long she’d been at the paper, and how she’d decided on journalism. And she said what she really wanted was to write fiction, and that she’d almost enrolled for his workshop at the New School.

“You’d have been shortchanged,” he said. “They canceled the last two classes.”

She said, “Why?” and then winced when she figured it out; they’d canceled the classes because the teacher had been arrested for murder. “I’ll bet I wouldn’t have felt shortchanged,” she said, recovering nicely. “I’ll bet you’re a good teacher.”

“I didn’t do much,” he said. “Teaching writing is like practicing medicine. The Hippocratic Oath, I mean— First, do no harm.

Mostly I just encouraged them to write. The good ones, that’s all they need. The others, well, nothing’s going to help them, and at least they’re writing.”

She got out her pad and made him repeat all that and wrote it down. Then she said she guessed he wouldn’t be doing any more teaching, and he agreed that he was probably done with that. She paid for the coffee and they shook hands and he went home.

A F E W D A Y S L A T E R , he had lunch with Esther Blinkoff. He met her at the Crown offices, where she took him around and showed him off to ten or a dozen people whose hands he shook and whose names he promptly forgot. The younger ones seemed a little in awe of him, and he wasn’t sure whether it was the size of his contract or the fact that he was going to be tried for homicide. Young or old, they all told him how excited they were at the prospect of working with him.

At an elegant French-Asian restaurant on East Fifty-fifth Street she told him she felt guilty taking him away from his work. “I won’t ask how it’s coming,” she said, and he told her it was coming along quite well, that he felt good about what he’d written and optimistic about the part he hadn’t done yet. Was there any chance she could hope to see some of it sometime soon? He said he never liked to show anything to anybody until he was done.

“Roz said as much,” she said, “but I thought I would try. Actually, I think you’re right not to show work in progress. The only reason writers do it is it gives them a chance to stop work while they wait for a reaction from us, and the only reason we want to see chapters along the way is to assure ourselves that the writer’s actually doing something, not just drinking up the advance.” She patted his hand. “Present company excepted, I hardly need add.

Oh, I have some good news. We just increased the print order on both books, Daughter and Blue Skies. They’re good solid books, John, and I’m afraid we underpublished them the first time around. Of course we’ve had some personnel changes since then.”

“For the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Thank you, and I have to say I believe you’re right. I think it’s wonderful that those two books are getting a second chance in hardcover, and Tracy’s going to make sure that they’re received like new books. In other words, reviewed, but more than that we’re hoping they’ll generate the kind of sidebars and feature articles that will serve as a launching platform for the big one. Did you say you had a working title?”

He’d long since decided against A Nice Place to Start, and had had several working titles since, tentative successors to Fucked If I Know. The current favorite was Darker Than Water, and he mentioned it with some reluctance; if she didn’t like it, they weren’t off to the best possible start, and if she loved it he was stuck with it.

“Meaning blood,” she said immediately. “As in thicker than water, but darker instead. John, I think it’s very good. It sounds dark, obviously, and it has the feel of a thriller title, but at the same time it’s subtle enough so that there’s a literary feel to it. And it’s short enough so that the art director won’t have a hard time getting it to look good on the mass-market paperback.” She’d heard him on New York & Company, and said he’d come across well. Lopate made it easy for his guests, he told her, and she agreed, but said he was effective in his own right. “And that’s important,” she said. “It didn’t used to be, and maybe it shouldn’t be, but the business has changed. How do you feel about touring?

Not this fall, we’ve ruled that out even if it were possible, but for Darker Than Water.”

“If I’m free to tour, I’m all for it.”

“Free to tour. Let’s see now. In the most tentative way, because the last thing I want to do is put pressure on you, we’ve sort of penciled the book into our schedule for October of 2003. I know there’s going to have to be a trial—do you mind talking about this?”

“No, of course not.”

“Well, we’re certainly not going to publish before next October, and wouldn’t you think the trial will be over by then?”

“It seems likely,” he said. “And if I’m acquitted, I’ll be happy to go anywhere you send me.”

“If you’re acquitted. John, I don’t think there’s the slightest doubt you’ll be acquitted.”

“I think there might be a little doubt over on Hogan Place.”

“At the Manhattan DA’s office? I honestly don’t know why they don’t drop the charges. I’m sure that lunatic killed her. He seems to have killed everybody else who died in the past six months.”

They’d collected a full set of Harbinger’s fingerprints from the Upper West Side apartment he’d abandoned, and someone had matched a thumb print to a previously unidentifiable print left on a quart can of charcoal lighter found in the ashes of a blaze in the Bronx back in the early spring. That was strong evidence that the Carpenter had already been plying his trade well before the Twenty-eighth Street whorehouse murders, and just when he’d begun and how many times he’d struck were the subject of endless speculation.

As were his whereabouts. The Carpenter had stayed at the same Midtown flophouse for several days after his attack on the three Chelsea bars, moving out only a day or two before his picture was on every front page. He left without telling anybody, just walked off and didn’t come back. By the time a tip brought the police to the hotel, his room had long since been given to another man.

He’d left nothing behind, aside from fingerprints that made it certain he’d been there.

Since then there’d been no end of sightings, no end of squad cars dispatched to locations throughout the five boroughs. But nothing had panned out. William Boyce Harbinger, aka the Carpenter, had vanished from the earth or into it.

O V E R C O F F E E H E S A I D , “Actually, there’s a possibility the charges might be dropped. That’s what my attorney’s pushing for.”

“I should hope so. That’s Maury Winters, if I’m not mistaken?

Now there’s a man who could write a book. Of course his best stories are probably ones he’s not allowed to tell.” They traded Maury Winters stories and then Creighton felt sufficiently at ease to raise a question that had been bothering him.

“If there was no case,” he said. “If it turned out Harbinger somehow got into the woman’s apartment and killed her—”

“Which I’m convinced is what happened.”

“Well, would it be harmful from a publishing standpoint? If there was no trial, and the story more or less petered out?”