The below was excerpted from Death Takes a Byline (Book One, Chapters 1-3) by D.S. Lliteras (Rainbow Ridge Books, 2020; Copyright © 2020 by D. S. Lliteras).
She reached into a canvas bag that hung from her shoulder, pulled out a notepad, and studied him.
He walked as if he was being followed; he was afraid to peer over his shoulder. His gait was unsteady because of a morning hangover; his gait was also stiff because the cold wind blowing across the Chesapeake Bay swept over the barren avenue of Ocean View in Norfolk, Virginia.
Tony hugged a cheap bottle of rye that was wrapped in a brown paper bag. He had been to an early morning liquor store that catered to those whose drinking habits prevented them from planning ahead. Needing a bottle instead of a drink placed him at the head of the line of those who could no longer plan ahead.
Tony pressed the bottle against his leather jacket in response to a fierce gust of wind. The fingers in both his hands were stiff and cold and unreliable. He needed a drink.
He approached the parking lot of the Sea View Motel, where he rented a room by the week. The motel was inhabited by misfits, drug addicts, and bums—the dregs of society who neither wanted to help themselves nor wanted to be helped. Their parked cars, which had been driven far beyond their expiration dates, also reflected the inhabitants’ economic condition.
When Tony reached a flight of stairs, he heard a vehicle drive into the parking lot. Paranoia accompanied him up the cement stairs to the motel’s second- floor landing.
After almost dropping the bottle, he retrieved the door key from his right trouser pocket, fumbled with the key in his trembling right hand, and managed to slip it into the lock. Then he glanced over his shoulder and saw an unfamiliar blue Nissan Sentra searching for a parking spot.
Tony turned the key, pushed open the unlocked door, stepped inside the dark room, and shut the door. He leaned against the wall beside the door and hugged the bottle. Then he eased toward the window’s Venetian blind, raised a single aluminum slat, and discovered that the vehicle was gone. He laughed. “Get a hold of yourself.”
After releasing the slat, he approached a table that was pushed against another window and pulled the bottle from the paper bag. He tossed the brown bag toward the overfilled trash can and missed.
He placed the bottle on the table, took off his leather jacket, and threw it on the bed. “I need a drink.”
Tony grabbed the bottle, twisted open the bottle’s cap, and poured himself a drink. He picked up the glass, tossed down the rye, and poured himself another. A tap on the door prevented him from reaching for the glass.
He leaned across the table toward the Venetian blind again and lifted a single slat.
A woman. Pretty. Small. Fair. Delicate features. Short brown hair. Harmless.
He opened the door, and allowed the cold and the light and her presence to invade the closeness of his existence.
She did not smile. “I’m from The National Register.”
“Do you drive a blue Nissan Sentra?”
“What do you want?”
“I’m a journalist. Are you going to let me in?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because you have nothing to lose.”
“There’s always something to lose.”
She smirked. “Then be a nice guy.”
“I’ve given that up.”
“Then be practical.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m cold. Aren’t you?”
He hesitated. “You’re a reporter.”
“Don’t you want your story told?”
“What would you know about that?”
“You might find out if you let me in.”
Tony was amused. “Alright. Come in.”
She entered the dark room. “Does this place have electricity?”
“Very cute.” He turned on the overhead light, then shut the door.
She studied the surroundings.
The motel room was dark and oppressive feeling. Thick Venetian blinds blocked out the daylight. Mildew from the threadbare brown carpet permeated the room. The unmade bed needed clean linen. The trash cans needed emptying. The yesterday drapes hanging from the rusty curtain rods contributed to the sorry condition of the motel room. A television was perched on top of a steel frame built high into the right corner of the room.
He scratched the left side of his face. “You’re my first guest here.”
“I can see that.”
The journalist did not unbutton her coat.
She reached into a large canvas bag that hung from her right shoulder, pulled out a notepad, and studied him.
Trim figure. Average height. Dark brown hair. There was handsome underneath his lack of grooming.
He needed a haircut, a shave, and a bath. He wore dirty clothes and a dirty disposition. The rye that governed his stale breath needed a shot of mouthwash. The black shoelace on his left sneaker was untied.
“I know,” said Tony. “I’m not much to look at. I know I’m—”
“Just trying to make a living, Tony.” She glanced at her notepad. “Or Larry—Meachum—or whoever you’re supposed to be.”
He picked up his glass of rye. “Want a shot?”
“Not before breakfast.”
“Yeah. Don’t mind me. I’m a professional jerk.”
“Tell me all about that.” She placed her large bag on the table by the window, reached into it, and pulled out a small cassette tape recorder. She placed it on the table and pressed the Record button. “January 18, 1986.”
“January 18—? Oh. I see. When it all started.” He grinned. “An interesting take. Alright. 1986. Yeah. What or where to start.”
“Fact or fiction. It doesn’t matter.”
He placed the empty glass on the table near her bag after tossing down the rye. “I guess I’m no better than the freaks that live in this roach motel.”
“Don’t say that about yourself if you want to succeed in taking back your life. That is what you want to do, isn’t it?”
“It’s what you told my editor,” she said. “Remember?”
“That feels like a long time ago.”
“Not so long. You’re still in the stacks.”
He grimaced. “Is that where you found me?”
“In the stacks.”
“It’s a cold story, I know.”
“Not so cold to me,” he muttered.
“That’s good to know. That’s why I’m here.”
“Your editor didn’t take me seriously.”
“How did you know that?”
“I heard it in the tone of his voice.”
“I didn’t expect this.”
“Neither did I,” she said. “But I need the work.”
“How did you find me?”
“That’s a professional secret.”
He grinned. “Is that your only outfit?”
“What about it?”
“You need a new bag.”
She glanced at it. “That’s my toolbag.”
“I’d hate to see what the soles of your shoes look like.”
“You’re funny.” She turned off the tape recorder and stuffed it back into her brown canvas bag. “I don’t need this kind of nonsense.”
“Look who’s touchy. I thought nothing penetrated the sensibility of a National Register staff member.”
“I’m a freelancer.”
“Then you’re no better off than me.”
“Screw you. My days are long enough. I don’t have to listen to you.” She grabbed her bag and approached the door.
“Like hell.” She reached for the doorknob.
“Please. My real name is Larry Meachum.”
“That’s what you claim.”
“Did that come from your editor?”
“It’s the truth.”
She released the doorknob. “I’m Susan Kirkpatrick.”
“I’m not Tony Wilson.”
“One of you needs help.”
“Will you stay?”
“If you’ll say what you mean.”
“You have integrity.”
“That was fast,” she said. “And how would you know that?”
“I’m a freelancer, too.”
“In our world, integrity is synonymous with failure.”
She frowned, then unbuttoned the top button of her coat. A short length of unraveled thread hung beneath the dark-blue collar-button of her coat.
“Weren’t you running a scam against the publishing business?”
“Wait.” She took the tape recorder out of her bag again and turned it on. “Larry Meachum. January 18, 1986. Go on.”
“It was a novel approach to public relations. You know, it was marketing—a way to sell my books.”
“Okay.” She pulled on the lapel of her coat with her left hand in response. “Paint your story whatever color you want, but give me the straight facts, and tell me what you’re afraid of.” She placed the cassette tape recorder on the table beside the bottle of rye. “You faked a suicide. Begin there, Mister Integrity.”
Larry paced the floor as he reached into his memory. He stopped pacing when he arrived at a starting point that was to become an unexpected drama. He turned to her. “I was a struggling writer trying to get ahead, trying to gain that edge necessary for a writer. But everything went wrong. Now I’m struggling for my life and—”
“—And I’m trying to fix it. I swear. I’m trying.”
“I can’t take this anymore, Joe. I can’t take this constant hat-in-hand jockeying for space on the bookshelves, for ink in the print media, and for time with the live media. How can I continue writing when the people who are selling books don’t read; when the people who are selling books keep trying to second-guess the public about what they want to read? They’re jerks.” He slammed his fist into the palm of his left hand.
Joe was an overweight forty-eight-year-old man. He remained calm. “Take it easy, Larry.”
“Damn it. I can’t do that, Joe.”
“That’s Mister Joe to you. A great—”
“American. I know.”
“A great Italian-American.”
“Right.” Larry was in no mood for humor. He sat on the black leather couch that was parked against the wall opposite the desk.
Joe Gagliano’s office at Tidewater Publishing Company was cluttered with in-baskets and out-baskets, file cabinets and bookshelves, stacks of paper that sat on the right side of his desk and a television-looking computer that sat on the left side. Numerous manuscripts were arranged eight-wide and were stacked to a height that varied from ten to fifteen manuscripts upon a narrow mahogany table, which stretched across the length of the wall behind the desk.
Joe laughed. His dark Italian eyes sparkled. He ran the fingers of his left hand through his thick black hair.
Larry smirked. “What’s so funny?”
“You’re sulking like a school kid.”
“I’m tired. I’m broke. I can’t do it anymore.”
“I believe in your work. That means I’ll keep publishing you no matter what.”
“And I’ll live on what?”
“Peggy’s working. You’ve got money.”
Larry shook his head. “Our marriage is—well—she’s fed up.”
Joe rose from his chair and approached his office window. He gazed at the company’s parking lot.
Larry leaned back against the couch, covered his eyes with his left forearm, and exhaled.
“You deserve more than what we can give you, Larry.”
“Thanks. But don’t sell yourselves short.”
“We’re a small company, and our sales reps don’t take us seriously.”
“Like my readers.”
“Now you’re selling yourself short. Your readers love you.”
“All fifty of them.”
“If we knew how to reach your market—damn. They’re out there.” Joe sighed. “You know, I got into this business to publish books. I didn’t know I was going to publish literature.”
Larry lowered his left arm to his side and sat up in response—he was moved by Joe’s compliment. “I thank you for that. Forever and ever.”
Joe turned away from the window and shrugged. “I wish I knew what to do. I’d do it. If ads worked, I’d dig up the money.”
“I know you can’t afford that.”
“Not yet. But someday all of my departments are going to be staffed by more than one person and—everybody will be paid a decent salary, damn it.” He smiled. “I might pay your royalties on time, too.”
Larry chuckled. “You crazy bastard.”
Joe’s mood brightened. “I do have an idea that might work.”
“I mean it.”
“Alright. What?” Larry stood up and waited.
They’d been friends and colleagues for years. Their relationship had grown beyond that of a publisher and author.
“Actually, it’s more like a scheme.”
“No, you don’t.” Joe tapped the fingertips of his right hand against the fingertips of his left. “In fact, it is a scheme. And it could be a dangerous one because . . . because . . . .”
“Don’t edit your thoughts, Joe. Say it.”
Joe crossed the room and closed the office door. “It starts with your suicide.”
Larry was bewildered. He sat on the couch. “Okay.”
“Mock suicide, of course.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Follow me on this. It’s a little harebrained, I know.”
“Sure. He knows.”
“Look at me.” Joe dramatized his presentation with both hands. “The New York Times—Headline: Fiction Writer Commits Suicide. The Today Show—Morning News: Desperate Author Seeks Recognition at All Costs. NBC—The Evening News: Brilliant Books Released by an Independent Publisher are Discovered by the Reading Public. Publishers Weekly—Feature Article: Bidding War Escalates Over a Past Publication. Random House, Doubleday, Putnam—all knocking on Tidewater Publishing Company’s door. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
“Not so crazy. It has happened.”
“Not in that way.”
“Of course not in that way. It’s never the same way.”
“Okay, okay, what must I do to make lightning strike?”
“You’ll have to become somebody else: Tony Wilson.” Joe sat on the couch beside Larry.
“You’ve already picked out a name for me?”
“I’ve been thinking about this for a while.”
“I’ll say you have. And what’s this Wilson character supposed to do for a living? How does he eat?”
“That’s easy. You can work for me as an assistant PR man. Nobody knows you in Norfolk. And have you noticed? Nobody knows what you look like here at Tidewater Publishing Company anymore. Don’t bother trying to recollect. I’ve had a high employee turnover this year—a real pain in the ass. But one that could work for us now. Notice: I didn’t introduce you to anybody today; I ushered you from the parking lot into that unoccupied office as soon as I saw you arrive from your place in DC; I told you not to speak to anyone—right?”
“By the way, you didn’t speak to anyone, did you?”
“Good. Then we’re in business.”
“Are you sure?”
“Listen to me: a new receptionist; had to fire and hire another Publicity man; the Shipping department’s different; Accounting had a baby; Managing Editorial left to have another baby and raise children; Copy Editing has moved to Charlottesville with her new husband; Typesetting was offered a better paying job after we had her trained; and Marketing decided he could make more money selling Mercedes-Benz automobiles. All this in less than six months. You think you have problems? I hate employees. I hate payroll.” Joe shook his head to emphasize his disgust. “Anyway, you’re free and clear here. Nobody knows you.”
“And you think I can work in your PR department?”
“You’ve been self-promoting your books on the telephone and with the print media all along. That’s Public Relations, man. That’s part of what PR is all about.” He shook a finger at Larry. “It’s a good thing you don’t like having your picture taken. And, aside from having an occasional dinner at my house, you haven’t been to the office for . . . for—hey, it’s been months.”
“I’ve been working on a new book and—”
“Fine, fine, good boy—you’re a true author. That’s what you’re supposed to do; that’s worked in our favor. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, you’re a great author because you don’t harass my staff. That’s rare. Very rare. So, now you can hide behind your anonymity as Douglas’s PR assistant.”
“My latest Public Relations Director. In fact, my whole PR department—some department. He’s another incompetent buffoon. Nice guy. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy. But hell, I don’t know what kind of germ infects the employee who works in that PR office. I need to fumigate that room. All I get from PR is talk and no action. Look—be my assistant PR man, my first action man, my first voice of reason in there.” He caught Larry taking him seriously. “What the hell, right?”
“What the hell.”
Joe slapped Larry on the back. “Good boy.” He stood up. “But, hey—I can’t pay you much, right now.” He shrugged. “You don’t need much, do you?”
“Peggy’s working, remember?”
“Peggy won’t be able to help you.”
“You’ll be dead.”
“Oh. I see. Are you sure—”
“She can’t know, Larry. You can’t be living with her in DC or be seen with her—nothing.”
“Washington, DC, should be far enough—”
“National, Larry. We’re going to make your books national bestsellers. Understand?”
“Alright, alright. But she’s going to be awfully angry in the end.”
“In the end?”
“You know, when we finally tell her about—”
“Oh. That. She’ll get over it.”
“Sure she will,” Larry said facetiously.
“Don’t worry about it. Trust me. Stop worrying about your marriage.”
“Hey.” Joe produced an exaggerated smile. “Our beers together will be on me.”
“Fine, fine. What the hell.”
Joe tapped him on the shoulder. “Good boy.”
Larry stood up. “Assuming this scheme of yours works—I know Peggy. She won’t be happy about—”
“Stop worrying. Trust me, Larry. The scheme will work. She’ll be thrilled about your success. And think of it, she’ll be happy about your resurrection. You’ll see. I know her, too.”
Larry nodded reluctantly. “If you say so.”
“I’m saying it.”
“Alright. I’m convinced. In fact, my suicide might make her happy.”
“Don’t say that, man. She loves you.”
Larry scoffed. “Yeah, yeah. Mock suicide for you, mock love from her.”
Larry smirked. “I’m stopping.”
“So then it’s just you—and me.”
“What about Lois?”
“Nobody means nobody, Larry. You’re dead. Fortunately, it will be easy to keep this from my wife since she never comes to the office anymore—like your wife. They never come here anymore. See? Easy.”
“Yeah, easy,” Larry mused. “I’m going to miss DC.”
“You mean, your wife.”
“My wife,” Larry muttered. “Yeah. My wife.”
“Nobody can know about this. Nobody. I mean it. Just you. Just me.”
“Just.” Larry nodded.
“There you go.” Joe offered his hand in partnership.
“I must have rocks in my head.” Larry ratified the alliance by shaking Joe’s hand.
“Books, my friend. Tony Wilson will be promoting the bestselling books of Larry Meachum: may he rest in peace.”
D. S. Lliteras is the author of fourteen books that have received national and international acclaim. His short stories and poetry have appeared in numerous national and international magazines, journals, and anthologies. He lives in Montgomery, Alabama with his wife and author, Kathleen Touchstone.