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0 Comments | Dec 03, 2018

The Deal of a Lifetime

c1f31ea8-be83-4bf3-bb08-32c4e3342229Rick was supposed to be writing, damn it. He had a contract and a deadline and he’d already long-since spent the meager advance. He had done the math and it was driving him mad. The publisher expected a four hundred pager, due in seven months time, which was, of course, insane, seeing as how the first book had taken nearly five years to research and write. Four hundred pages, about a hundred and fifty thousand words, of which he currently had maybe ten thousand. To make the deadline meant cranking out about ten thousand more words every week for the remainder of the time until the deadline. Who the hell could do that? Nobody, that’s who. Maybe Stephen King, but that was about it.

The book would presumably be based on the topic already agreed in the brief four-page overview he’d provided to his agent nine months earlier when, based on the at least reasonable success of his inaugural novel, the publisher had agreed—with barely concealed minimal enthusiasm—to support a sophomore effort. That first novel had been a more or less autobiographical thing about his miserable upbringing in an impoverished west Missouri neighborhood. And sure he’d taken some liberties with the whole poverty thing, but it was a novel, right? It said so right there on the cover. So what did it matter if his eleven-year-old best friend from the apartment upstairs hadn’t really been killed in a drive-by shooting? Or that his father hadn’t been an abusive alcoholic who beat the shit out of his mother each night for exercise before going to bed. It made for great prose and didn’t people love reading about miserable lives that weren’t their own.

Starvation, deprivation, disease, substance abuse, physical mistreatment, gambling, lying, cheating, exploitation, racism, envy, infidelity, incest, mistrust—the list as endless as it was depressing, and readers just couldn’t get enough. Seven deadly sins? Get serious. There are dozens of them. The always fecund plains of narrative endeavor, ground plowed with relentless repetition (and a good deal more skill than Rick possessed) by the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Morrison. Had anybody ever won a Pulitzer, Booker, or Nobel for a happy story, an uplifting self-affirming tale of personal success and fulfillment? Never. Kill the family dog. Sell the children into slavery. Push grandma off a cliff. Make the baby still-born. The more grim and miserable you could make it, the more the books flew off the shelf. Nothing sold like a good dysfunctional family story, filled with visits by unloved relatives, angst-ridden holidays, unfulfilled dreams for the children, or the occasional unexpected fatality.

How to square that with the other popular notion that reading was supposed to be about escapism? Who in the hell wants to escape to a make-believe world of squalor, torture, or misery? Lots of people apparently. Why did readers devour Angela’s Ashes? Could they truly not wait to see what new calamity would befall the impoverished immigrant family? How many more of the author’s siblings had to wither and die of starvation? How many evil slumlords could turn the wretched family out into the frigid New York streets? Not enough, it seemed.

And so, God help him, Rick had done it too. He’d given disease to infants, starved the ones who survived, hell he’d even killed off the dog. Not a bit of which had actually happened to him growing up, or even to anyone he knew now or had grown up with. He had been raised in an upper middle class neighborhood fifteen miles west of Newark, New Jersey, a two-minute drive from the Bridgewater Mall. The most serious problem he could remember from childhood was that his father wouldn’t buy him his own car when he got his license nine days after his sixteenth birthday. But who the hell wanted to read about that? So he had spent his final year of grad school and another year after that reading every piece of dysfunctional family literature he could lay hands on—Russian, English, Irish (nobody did familial misery like the Irish), and then he’d cobbled together his own version with just enough finesse and descriptiveness that his agent had been able to sell it to a second-tier publisher who wasn’t all that concerned about its obviously derivative nature, just so long as he could swear there was no outright plagiarism, which Rick was able to do with a straight face … barely.

Only now that book—which had sold forty-seven thousand copies in hardback, another sixty-two in paperback, was nearly two years in the rearview mirror, while he was stuck in the here and now, staring at a computer file that currently comprised ten thousand four hundred and seventeen words no one had yet seen except for him, but which any reader with a seventh grade education would immediately recognize as being derivative of his already derivative first work. Rick was not a panic attack sort of guy under normal circumstances, but as he sat staring at the blinking cursor on his computer screen, he felt a first wave of cold sweat begin to creep up the center of his back.

He sat like that, sweating and cursing quietly, for another two minutes, eyes fixed hard on the screen, fingers lightly touching the keypad, before finally typing the word ‘fuck’ three consecutive times on a new line, and underlining and highlighting the words for good measure. Quietly verbalizing what he had just written, he rose from his chair, deciding the same thing he had decided at about this time on each of the preceding fifteen days, i.e., that one more day wasn’t going to make much difference in the depth of the hole he had by now dug for himself. No harm in busting out the shovel for one more go. He walked to the closet, grabbed the first jacket he found, and drew the front door closed behind him. Bennington’s Pub was two blocks down the sidewalk, and it seemed at least plausible that a good writing idea might just as well come to him with a scotch or two under his belt as not.

One hour and five shots later, Rick sat at the far left end of the bar, empty glass in front of him, staring at an increasingly frightening self-portrait in the bar mirror, wondering if five shots was perhaps too much, given that there was still a bit of daylight coming through the bar’s front window. He turned away, made eye contact with the bartender, and gestured with sufficient clarity to indicate that a refill was in order. Turning back to face the mirror again, the image was still there and Rick did the only thing he could think of to make it go away. He closed his eyes and pressed the heels of his hands hard against his eyeballs, so hard that brilliant sparkles of green and blue appeared in the blackness. After a few seconds, he opened his eyes and waited to see if by some miracle the man in the mirror had changed or, preferably, vanished. Not only had the man neither vanished nor changed, he was now accompanied by a new face just to his right, a face that seemed immediately otherworldly, even by the degraded standards of one who was just now having a sixth shot of scotch set on the bar before him.

“This one’s on me, friend,” the new man said, handing a bill to the bartender. Rick stared at him in the mirror for a long silent moment before finally speaking.

“And to what do I owe the generosity?” Rick said, turning at last to face his new companion.

“Perhaps I’m just the benevolent type,” the man replied.

“And perhaps you have some sort of agenda to which I am not yet privy.”

“Ah, the suspicious mind,” the man said. “It’s possible I’ve made a terrible mistake.” He shifted his weight as though preparing to leave.

“No … look, I’m sorry,” Rick said. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything. It’s just I’m afraid you’ve caught me at a bad time.”

“Doing a bit of wallowing in the puddle of self-pity, are we?” The man gestured toward the row of empty glasses.

“Hah! Would that it was only a puddle, but yes, that’s the gist. I’m afraid I’m in a bit of a creative doldrums.”

“The tormented artiste,” the man replied. He paused for a moment before placing his right palm to his head, extending his left in Rick’s direction, and feigning a gesture of self-effacement. “But where are my manners. Here we sit conversing and you don’t know me from, well, Adam. I’m Luther Pendergast. And you’re, of course, Rick Fleming.”

Rick was by now too inebriated to manage a look of surprise. “And how did you come by that tidbit of information?”

“I fancy myself something of a reader and I recognized you from your book jacket photo.”

“Congratulations, friend. You are one of a small but distinguished fraternity.”

“Now then, don’t be too hard on yourself,” Luther said. “You did better than a lot of first-time novelists, and there is genuine potential in your writing.”

“Well, you’re a gentleman for saying so,” Rick replied. “And a damned liar as well, but I’ll thank you nonetheless.”

“I’m no liar, Rick,” Luther replied. “I know talent when I see it, and the only thing between you and a seriously great piece of literature is a burst of inspiration.”

“And as you can see,” Rick said raising his shot glass theatrically, “that is precisely what I am working on at this very moment.”

Luther smiled broadly. “Far be it from me to tell you how to do your job, but I would suggest to you that there might be a better way.”

“And are you, sir, by any chance in possession of this better way?”

“I may be, my friend. I just may be.”

Luther rose from his barstool and spied a booth along the back wall of the bar. He gestured with a jerk of his chin in that direction, and Rick, taking the hint, reached for his shot glass, only to discover that it was empty. He shrugged and dismounted from his stool, wobbling a bit uncertainly as he followed Luther toward the back. He had no idea why he was following a man he’d known for all of five minutes, but he had no other plans for the evening and if it delayed the moment when he’d again be staring blankly at his computer, so much the better.

“May I ask you a bit of a personal question?” Luther said as they slid into the booth. Before Rick could respond, Luther had raised two fingers in the direction of the waitress. “I understand we’ve only just met, so I totally understand if—”

“No, really, it’s nothing,” Rick replied with a dismissive gesture of his right hand. The waitress appeared bearing a fresh round of drinks. “I’m an open book.” He grimaced at the bad pun. “Besides, you’re a reader, so, there’s that.”

“You a religious man, Rick?” Luther asked.

“No, sir. I shamelessly confess that I am a godless heathen. It’s actually rather expected in my line of work, as you will doubtless know. Though I was brought up in the loving embrace of The Roman Catholic Church, I strayed from the path early in adulthood and have never looked back. I do still know the liturgy though. No lifetime of fruitless hedonism can erase that which the Holy See hath planted, eh?”

“So, God be with you then,” Luther said, managing a wry smile.

“And also with you, my friend,” Rick replied, raising his seventh glass of the as-yet young evening.

“Well spoken,” said Luther. “Well spoken indeed.” He met Rick’s raised glass with his own and smiled broadly. “Tell me, Rick, what would you say if I suggested to you a transaction that was simultaneously effective and amazing, something that stretched the bounds of all credulity?”

“I suppose I would respond like any man who is nearly through his seventh shot of Scotch, meaning that I will do you the courtesy of listening intently while also trying very hard not to vomit.”

“That’s all a man can ask,” Luther replied smiling. “And perhaps, you being a purveyor of fiction, I hope you will grant me more latitude than the average layperson.”

Rick leaned back in his seat a bit in an attempt to convey casual insouciance, but instead knocked over his shot glass on the table, spilling out a small remaining portion of liquid.

“Well, damn it,” he said to no one. Luther met Rick’s eyes with his own while gesturing once more toward the hovering waitress and rotating his fingertips in a keep-them-coming gesture.

“Rick, you are a well-read fellow, so you’ve no doubt spent some time with von Goethe and his most famous character.”

“Faust of ‘Faustian bargain’ fame,” Rick replied. He lifted the empty glass from the table and peered inside more intently than the situation deserved. “Interesting that you bring that up actually. I am fairly certain that even now, as I sit here enraptured in good conversation and the solace of gratuitous liquor, I will pay with my immortal soul tomorrow morning.”

“Suppose, Rick, I were to say to you that I am possessed of some of the same … gifts as the individual with whom Faust struck his famous bargain in that story.”

“So, are you saying to me that you are the devil incarnate? Beelzebub? Mephistopheles himself, descended to this earth to somehow arrest the pitiful decline of an insignificant novelist? Seems to me Lucifer would have better ways to spend his time.”

“It is a trifle more complicated than that, Rick.”

“Well then, being as how the hour is still young and I am more than a little inebriated and unlikely to do anything of consequence for the rest of the evening, I would take some satisfaction in hearing all the details of your story, beginning, of course, with why me?”

“Rick, let me start by disabusing you of your original assumption. I am not, in fact, Satan, nor any of his numerous historical incarnations. I am, however, affiliated with his … organization and empowered to negotiate on his behalf.”

“So you’re some sort of … agent then? Scouring the world for desperate souls willing to exchange their eternal bliss for … money and success?”

“An oversimplification indeed, but in truth not far from the mark,” Luther said, leaning back in his seat and managing a wry smile as he sipped from his glass.

“You know, … Luther,” Rick said, “I can’t help but wonder if you’re an associate not of a demon but rather of my literary agent, sent here to frighten me into spending more time at the computer writing and less time imbibing. If so, it is a clever machination on her part, and you’ll kindly offer my regards to Kimberley next time you see her.”

Rick slid awkwardly across the seat and struggled to rise, but he only managed to rise partway before the forces of gravity and alcohol conspired to drop him back onto his seat.

“Rick, our … organization has been at this quite a long time, as you will doubtless know. The story with which you are familiar—the von Goethe play—is a nineteenth century creation. But this endeavor—this program if you like—has been going on for a bit over five hundred years.”

“Earthly pleasures in exchange for eternal damnation.”

“You have a gift for distilling complex things to their essence, Rick. But, in fact, we have evolved rather a lot in the past half millennium or so. Though we are now, as ever, primarily accountable for souls, we possess a great deal more flexibility these days in what we are able to offer by way of, shall we say, emoluments.”

“Luther, there is a little something you should know about me before you waste any more of your time or drink money on me, something that impacts directly on the veracity of any offers you might be inclined to extend to me.”

“You are an atheist,” Luther replied.

“So, if you already know this, if you know that I do not believe in heaven, hell, or any of the assorted deities that you claim to represent—or presumably oppose—then why waste your time on me?”

“Rick,” Luther said, “I assume you’ve heard the old aphorism ‘Just because you believe a thing doesn’t mean it’s true.’ Well, the converse applies as well. Your failure to believe in a thing does not mean that it does not exist. It is of no consequence to me what you do or do not believe. In fact, your lack of faith actually works in my favor, in the sense that if you believe there exists no afterlife, then what do you have to lose by entering into a business arrangement with me, if only out of curiosity?”

“All right,” said Rick, “let’s just suppose I play along for a moment in what I have no doubt is an elaborate practical joke being played by … someone. What exactly would you be offering me by way of exchange for the soul that I don’t believe I possess?”

“Oh, I should think that would be obvious,” Luther responded. “You aspire to literary acclaim and all that accompanies it. With nothing more than a simple handshake, such a life can be yours.”

“In exchange for?”

“Well, Rick, don’t think of it as your soul. Think of it as guaranteed eternal employment after death.”

“Why exactly would I require employment after death? Does one need an income in the hereafter?”

“Fair point, and a poor choice of words on my part,” Luther said. “Let’s just say you’d have an unending purpose.”

“Setting aside for a moment the exact nature of that purpose, I confess I’m a bit confused on all this. The point of the Faustian bargain, at least as I recall it, was that the protagonist would enjoy a lifetime of fame and prosperity in exchange for spending eternity in perdition. You’re offering me eternal purpose as well as success and acclaim in this life. Where is the downside?”

“The downside, my perspicacious friend, is that being in the employ of my … superior requires that you—what’s the word—relocate.”

“So we’re talking about Hell.”

“Indeed. And it pains me to report that it is every bit as grim as the various holy books make it out to be—fire, brimstone, eternal torment, the works.”

“Well now you’ve gone and confused me again, Luther. How am I supposed to eternally fulfill this purpose you spoke about earlier—whatever it is—if I’m in Hell being tortured, roasted, whatever? Oh, and as long as I’m asking questions, you seem in quite fine shape for a guy living in eternal perdition.”

“You’ll receive all the details if you decide to accept my offer, but the short version is that we operate on what you would think of as an incentive scheme. The more individuals I sign up for our … program, the less time I am obliged to spend down there myself.”

“And if I were to accept your generous offer, I would become a recruiter like yourself?”

“Hard to say for sure, but I’d guess not,” Luther said. “There are a lot of roles that need filling. Difficult to say in advance what yours might be, except to say that they all have strict productivity goals—quotas if you like.”

“So you work up here to make your quota, and if you fail to make it, you’re back downstairs.”

“An oversimplification once more, but yes, something like that, Rick.”

“Honestly, it sounds to me like a pyramid scheme. The more recruits you sign up, the more benefits accrue to you as a result.”

“A defamatory choice of words, but in truth not a bad analogy.”

Rick sat silently for a moment, considering everything his new friend had said. He assumed, on the one hand, that it was all some ridiculous scheme cooked up by a friend. On the other hand, he was by nature a curious guy and inclined to want to see how unusual situations played themselves out. He was also, by this point, more than a little inebriated, which doubtless affected his judgment.

“All right, Luther,” he said, leaning back and crossing his arms in what he hoped was an air of insouciance. “Let’s suppose I’m inclined to go along with your proposal. Tell me, if you will, precisely what it is I would be agreeing to.”

“The deal, Rick, is a simple one, and a no-lose proposition for you, I might add. When you leave here you will return to your office, where you will begin writing a new novel that will receive such immense acclaim and success that you will scarcely know how to respond. And to ensure your success, our claim on your services will not become effective until ten years after you’ve sold one million worldwide copies of your book.”

Rick chuckled quietly. “A million copies …”

“A million,” Luther repeated. “total—hardback, paperback, e-book, audio, whatever.”

“Ten years. So I don’t get the normal full lifetime.”

“Well, there’s got to be some upside for us, Rick.” Luther said. “And besides, who’s to say how long it will take to sell that sort of quantity. The clock on the decade doesn’t start until you hit that million threshold. We both know how many copies of your first novel you sold, yes?”

“Yes, Luther, everyone knows that, I’m afraid. And thanks for the reminder.”

“Oh, and Rick, since we both agree that you regard all of this as nonsense, and because there’s some sense that you’ll turn me down for that reason alone, I’ve been authorized to sweeten the pot a bit upfront, just to convince you we’re on the up and up.”

“And which pot would that be exactly?” Rick asked.

“Why your pot, of course. Have a quick look at your checking account balance,” Luther replied. Rick took his cell phone out of his pocket and quickly accessed his checking account. It took a bit of doing for his drunken eyes to focus on the small screen, but once he did he was shocked to discover a balance that appeared to be ten grand higher than it had been that morning.

“Just a small advance,” Luther said, “on your future financial success.”

Rick stared at the screen for a long moment, looked quickly up at Luther, then back down at the screen again.

“Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m unconcerned about how you accessed my bank account, and focus instead on why you would do such a thing. Not, by the way, to say that I’m not grateful.”

“Simply a gesture of good faith,” Luther said. “To prove that our intentions are honorable. Of course, the deposit is contingent on your accepting my offer.”

“Of course,” Rick repeated. “Is there some sort of contract involved?”

“Nothing more than a handshake—a gentleman’s agreement,” Luther said.

Rick sat pondering these things, to the best that his clouded mind could manage.

“Ten years,” he said once more to himself. “Does all of this apply just to the first book, or am I guaranteed this riotous success for anything else I should happen to write for the remainder of my life?”

“Why, Rick, it almost sounds like you’re negotiating with me!” Luther replied, offering a wide and genuine grin.

“Luther, I can barely talk. I’m certainly in no shape for negotiation. I’m just curious is all.”

“Well curiosity is a positive sign,” Luther said. “It means you’re taking my offer at least somewhat seriously. We may yet come to an agreement. And yes, to your question, the acclaim and success that you yearn for is yours for the duration of your life, in as great or as small measure as you choose. It’s limited only by your productivity. You can keep on writing after you sell your first million copies, or, if you like, you can spend the ensuing decade basking in the success and leisure provided by that one title. Entirely up to you.”

Luther leaned back with arms folded and said nothing further, only stared at Rick with black penetrating eyes. Rick tried to stare back, but he could not sustain the effort and after a few seconds dropped his gaze to his empty shot glass. After a minute or so of silence, punctuated only by the routine clinking, pouring, and murmur of the thinly populated bar, Luther began sliding out of his seat as though to leave. As he began to stand, he reached into his jacket pocket.

“Tell you what, Rick. I’ll leave you a car—”

“No, no … I’m sorry,” Rick said, gesturing for Luther to retake his seat. “I’m just a little zoned out is all.” He leaned forward awkwardly and took the business card from Luther’s hand, moving it forward and back in an ultimately futile attempt to read it in the poor lighting of the bar and with his less than fully functional eyesight. Suddenly, Rick slammed his hand down on the table with all the resolution he could muster in the moment. The noise momentarily attracted a few turned heads.

“Fuck it!” he said, offering a sudden broad smile. “It’s not like I’m going to get a better offer, right? And even if everything you’re saying is complete and utter bullshit—which I thoroughly expect, just between me and you—ten grand is still ten grand.” Rick momentarily pointed an unsteady finger at Luther and then leaned back into his seat as though contemplating his own words. “And besides,” he continued after a long pause, “who’s to say I don’t just go home, keep the ten grand, go to sleep, and not write a damned thing. Then the money’s mine and I’m free and clear according to your conditions, right?”

“That is a distinct possibility,” Luther admitted with a wry smile, “but I’m confident you’re going to get home tonight and discover that you simply cannot help yourself. Why, I’d be surprised if you haven’t cranked out a chapter or two before you even turn out the lights tonight.”

“But,” Rick said, his voice suddenly exuding a mix of drunkenness and enthusiasm, “no million seller, no eternity in perdition. That’s the deal.”

“That is indeed the deal,” Luther confirmed.

Rick rose awkwardly and extended his hand. “And one more round to toast our new business relationship.”

Luther raised a hand toward the waitress and a new round was promptly delivered. By the time the two men departed the bar an hour later, three more rounds had been consumed, and though Luther seemed utterly unaffected, it wasn’t at all obvious that Rick would even manage the three block walk back to his apartment. Luther was only too happy to accompany him the short distance and to shake his hand at the front door of the building.

“You keep in touch,” Luther offered with a final shake of Rick’s hand.

“Keep in touch …” Rick managed. “And how do I keep—”

Luther reached out and gently tapped at the card inside Rick’s breast pocket.

“Right … right … the card,” Rick replied, gesturing awkwardly toward his head.

In the end Luther did somewhat overestimate Rick’s ability to begin writing right away that night, though in fairness to Rick, it was past 2:00 a.m. by the time he made it into bed. Still, as he lay there, fully clothed and uncertain as to whether he would or would not vomit before going to sleep, ideas had already begun swirling about in his immensely inebriated head, a couple of which he managed to mumble into his cell phone’s voice recorder before passing out. He would not awaken until noon the following day, and with one hell of a headache to boot.

Staggering to the bathroom, all Rick could recall about the previous night was someone named Luther—Luther, from what Rick now felt certain must have been a bad alcohol-infused dream. Luther, who had somehow caused ten thousand apparently genuine dollars to appear in his barely liquid checking account. Luther, who now quite possibly had a claim on his immortal soul, except what rube would possibly believe a thing like that?

Once out of bed and more or less on his feet, Rick did several things in quick succession. He palmed and dry swallowed four Advil, removed his clothes from the night before (still redolent of bourbon), spent a quality half hour in the shower, brushed his teeth, put on clean clothes, and took a seat at the kitchen table. The memo light on his phone was blinking, so he pushed the button and heard an incoherent thirty or so seconds of mumbling emerge. But it didn’t matter. He had a grip on the new idea and, headache or no, it seemed a fairly decent one. This time he jotted it down on a scrap of paper, taking care to write clearly. But rather than dive immediately into exploring the possibilities of the new idea, it occurred to Rick to first try a quick experiment. He would reread the thirty-five pages he had been laboring over for the past few weeks, to determine whether any of it was worth pursuing. In the end, it didn’t take long at all.

“What the hell was I thinking?” Rick muttered to himself as he tossed the pages into the nearest trashcan with disgust. A few moments later he was seated before his laptop typing away like a man possessed. Six hours and thirty-seven pages later, he arose from the chair, wondering if perhaps some lunch wasn’t in order, despite it being nearly dusk. He could not recall ever feeling quite like this, having just written in a single sitting more than he had in his previous six weeks of trying. Lunch be damned, he thought, grabbing a soda from the refrigerator and retaking his seat at the table. Writers wait years for this sort of momentum to happen. Once more his fingers touched the keys, and by 1:00 a.m. the new manuscript was up to sixty-four pages. Seven months for four hundred pages? Hell, at this rate, he’d be done by the weekend! As his fingers flew, he gave not a moment’s thought to Luther or to the surreal conversation of the preceding night.

Three weeks passed, during which meals were missed, sleep was lost, and the stack of printed pages on the kitchen table grew from nothing to more than three inches in height. The only significant breaks Rick took were to use the bathroom, greet take-out food deliverers at his front door, and utilize over half of the windfall cash in his checking account to pay delinquent bills, the latter much to his landlord’s surprise and delight. Though thoroughly enjoying the unimaginable productivity and inspiration, Rick remained careful enough to stop every twenty pages or so and print a hard copy of what he had drafted, terrified that some horrible malfunction of his laptop might cause it all to be lost. Besides the added safety, printing out the manuscript and placing it into an ever-growing pile afforded a satisfyingly tangible sense of progress that simply looking at the word counter on his text editor did not.

Four weeks more and the stack of paper had grown to more than six inches, so tenuously stacked that at one point more than half of the pages slid from the table and onto the floor, vindicating Rick’s early decision to include page numbers. Three days shy of two months and Rick struck the final key—a period—on his laptop and declared the manuscript—the draft at least—complete, all two hundred and seventeen thousand odd words of it. During the course of the frenetic two-month writing marathon, Rick had received occasional calls from his agent, inquiring as to his progress on what was by no means a late manuscript, but which it nonetheless behooved her to check up on, as her income was inextricably linked to whatever monies would be generated by Rick’s book. He assured her that things were moving along far better than either of them had any right to expect, particularly given his history of less than timely submittals, and that she should, against every instinct she possessed, just trust him on this one. She told him that she would, but was nevertheless stunned into momentary speechlessness when he walked into her office the following Monday morning and dropped the ten-pound box of paper on her desk. A label was stuck to the top of the box bearing the single word ‘Pastimes.’

“It’s a little more than we talked about,” he said, “but I figure it’ll lose some in the editing.”

But it didn’t, at least not much. What emerged from the publisher’s presses thirteen weeks later was a six hundred and ninety-three-page tour de force that was variously described by early reviewers as “that rarest of rarities in which a sophomore work utterly eclipses the author’s inaugural offering,” and “a novel that reminds us of why we read.”

Before he’d had so much as a chance to take in the rave reviews and the raucous receptions he received on his twenty-city book tour, Rick woke nine weeks later to the news that he’d been nominated for a Pulitzer. This only served to increase the throngs who appeared at his readings, though not nearly to the extent that winning the award for fiction the following spring did. Throughout the year or so after his initial (and thus far only) meeting with Luther, Rick thought of the curious stranger from time to time, though mostly just to wonder if the entire conversation in the bar that night had been nothing more than an alcohol infused dream. It was an easy enough thing to dismiss, particularly as each passing day made his success a bit more real. And God knew he was having more than his share of alcohol infused dreams lately. There were receptions, parties, dinners, so many social engagements, in fact, that Rick was completely blindsided on the night, almost one year to the day after his meeting with Luther, that his agent had clinked her champagne glass at a party and quieted the enthusiastic crowd to announce that worldwide hardback sales of Pastimes, already available in seven languages, had officially exceeded one million copies. An ebullient cheer arose from the crowd as Rick raised a dismissive hand. In the end, he raised his glass along with the rest, but even amidst the raucous celebration—the proudest moment of his still-young writing career—Rick’s thoughts drifted back to the bar, the hazy conversation, and what may or may not have been a fateful handshake.

But the dream continued, with even more enthusiasm than before—the paperback release, an additional nine translations, the film released to rave reviews at Cannes the following May. And all the while, as time allowed between the readings, interviews, and social commitments, Rick kept writing. In slightly less than two years from the day when he’d dropped the completed manuscript of Pastimes onto his agent’s desk, the next novel, his third, was finished and the entire process repeated more or less the same as the previous time—reviews, awards, huge sales, profound amounts of money, so much so that Rick and Gretchen, his now girlfriend, purchased a fifth-floor condo on Central Park West, complete with panoramic bay window overlooking Central Park.

By the eighth year they were married, and by the ninth they had their first child, a girl, and Rick was well along on his fifth novel, with one Pulitzer, two National Book Awards, and more minor honors under his belt than he could count. It had all been such a whirlwind that in the most recent five years Rick had had not one conscious thought about that night in what must surely have been a previous life. Luther did, though, make occasional appearances in Rick’s dreams, but these evaporated with the morning light, leaving his mind free to conjure the twenty to twenty-five pages that he was now reliably producing each day that he wasn’t on the road.

Then there arrived the morning in late September, the early fall air aglow with that clarity that makes New York worth living in the entire rest of the year. He was awake early and sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a muffin, and a notepad before him. As he raised the cup for a sip, a possibly interesting idea entered his head and he set the cup down, reached for the pen, and put it to the pad. There was nothing more frustrating than a good idea that vanished before it could be written down. He drew the pen across the page but it left no mark. He shook it a time or two and tried again but with no better result.

“Well, shit,” he murmured.

“Now what’s the problem?” Gretchen responded, entering the kitchen behind him. She bent over and offered a light kiss before reaching for the refrigerator door.

“Oh nothing,” Rick replied. “Stupid pen.” He stood, picked up the pen, and tossed it into the kitchen garbage pail before joining her at the refrigerator. “If you tell me you’ll love me forever, I might make you an omelet,” he said, kissing the back of her neck.

“Rick, Rick, Rick,” she replied, turning to embrace him, “of course I will love you forever. But I have a meeting downtown in half an hour, so I’ll have to take a rain check on the omelet. I’ve barely got time to drop Katie off at the nanny’s.”

Right on cue, a squeal arose from the bedroom and Gretchen ran in response. Moments later the two females in Rick’s life were standing at the front door offering parting kisses and promising to be home in time for lunch. Alone once more in the apartment, Rick, still hanging onto the new idea that had popped into his head over coffee, reached into a utility cup on the kitchen counter, drew out another pen, and sat back down before his notepad. But once more touching the tip of the pen to paper produced nothing, despite Rick’s repeated smacking of the pen on the side of the counter.

“Son of a bitch,” he said, a bit louder now that he was alone. Tossing the second pen into the trash pail, he picked up the coffee cup and walked to his office. Taking a seat at the desk, he hit the wake button on his computer and took another sip while he waited for it to start up. With a blank text editor screen before him, he opted to first document his idea from the kitchen, rather than risk losing it, before diving into the day’s planned pages for the latest novel. Only then a truly odd thing happened; when he began typing on the keyboard, nothing at all appeared on the screen. Rick wasn’t especially technically astute, so the best he could manage was to check the cable between the keyboard and the computer. Everything looked fine, and the only other thing he could come up with was to shut down the program and start it again. When that produced no improvement, he resorted to his very last idea, shutting down the entire computer and booting it up again. But still, nothing he typed on the keyboard appeared on the screen. His next thought was a mildly frantic one—what about the new manuscript?

Rick closed the blank document and opened the main folder where all the files related to his current project were stored, including all his research documents as well as the manuscript itself, now nearly four hundred pages in length. And it was in this moment that the first true sense of panic began to creep in. The project folder was completely empty. With another few minutes of searching through folders, the situation began to seem serious indeed. Every writing file that he had on the computer—all the final manuscripts for every book he’d ever written—were completely missing. The only conclusion was that something horrific had happened with the hard drive on his computer, something which caused Rick to say a silent prayer of thanks for the consistent diligence with which he backed everything up at the end of each work day, both on an external drive and in a large cloud account. It took another ten minutes for Rick to begin coming to the realization that he might actually be in serious trouble. The external drive was empty. His cloud account was empty. That meant the only remaining form of back-up for the new novel was the binder filled with pages that he printed out every evening against the remote possibility of just such a calamity. As he turned in his chair for the bookshelf where the binder was stored, the doorbell rang. Uttering a silent curse, he rose and walked to the front door. Who the hell was here this early in the morning and how had they gotten past the doorman without being rung up first? He turned the doorknob, pulled open the door, and there in the corridor was a face from a long-ago dream.

“Rick! What an absolute thrill to see you once again.”

Luther offered a smile as broad as a smile can be and stepped past Rick into the apartment without having been offered any invitation at all to do so.

“Sorry it’s so early,” he said, “but I have a lot of stops to make today, and I figured you’d be up working anyway. You always were a morning person, right?”

He walked about the apartment, peering into the glass-front bookcase at the collection of Rick’s most prominent awards.

“Hey, congrats on the Pulitzer, buddy! And you nailed it on our first project. You’re a real overachiever. You’ve been a busy guy: five novels, thirty-seven countries, more awards than you have space for … and just look at this place!” Luther spread his arms widely and enthusiastically. To this point Rick had not uttered a sound.

“Oh, and hey, you’re welcome for the extension, by the way.”

“Extension?” Rick managed meekly.

“Yeah, yeah,” Luther said, “your actual contract date was nine days ago. I was never that good with dates, you know. Sometimes that actually kinda bites me in the ass with the boss.”

“So what are you…” Rick started.

“Oh, so, this is your big day, buddy! New gig, change of scenery. You know, today is the first day of the rest of your eternity! I don’t know who came up with that one, but I love it.”

“So this is my…” Rick was having obvious difficulty processing what was happening. He fell onto a bar stool in the kitchen.

“So, let me guess,” Luther said, “you’ve had some problems this morning with your computer?”

“Was that…”

Luther threw up both palms and offered another immense smile. “Guilty as charged, my friend!”

“So you’re expecting me to come with you…or something?”

“Oh hey no, that’s the good news. So we have this new program now where you get to stay right where you are. This works out better for everyone actually, Space is getting a little tight down there.”

“So, nothing changes?” Rick managed, the slightest hint of hope creeping into his voice.

“Oh no, there will be loads of changes,” Luther said. “It is Hell after all. I mean c’mon.”

“Such as…”

“So there’s one there,” Luther gesturing to the front door, which had, in the course of their conversation, become a solid wall. Luther extended his arms outward, snapped both fingers, and every window in the apartment vanished, replaced by more solid walls.

“I mean, seriously, Rick, there’s no section of Hell with a view of Central Park, right?”

“So I can never leave?”

“Good for you,” Luther said. “You always were a quick learner.”

“But what about Gretchen and Katie? How are they supposed to—”

“They’re not supposed to do anything that has to do with you, my friend. That phase of your life is over, I’m afraid. As far as they know, you vanished while they were downtown, never to be heard from again. Oh, but not to worry. They have plenty of money in the bank, so they’ll be fine. I can’t say they’re going to think much of you after this, though. I mean, vanishing without so much as a note. Really, Rick?”

“But they’ll try to come back to this apartment…right here!” Rick stood, growing more animated. “In about three hours.”

“And they’ll find it just like it is now. Well, except that all of your stuff will be gone. Think of this as more of a special accommodation for you, kind of a simulacrum, if you like.”

Rick fell back onto the bar stool once more.

“And so … what. I just sit here for eternity…and write?”

“Oh, Rick, sadly, I’m afraid that’s going to be a problem too. That whole thing this morning with your files, and the pen, and the keyboard—you haven’t figured that out yet, my friend?”

Rick stared blankly back.

“C’mon, Rick, it’s Hell. You know how this works. Oh all that Dante crap about levels and fire and brimstone and demons. That’s not what you were thinking is it? That’s just marketing stuff. No, we’re way more imaginative than that these days. These days Hell is uniquely tailored to the needs of each member. I don’t know—maybe ‘member’ isn’t the best word, but you get the idea. We put a lot of thought into how each person is going to spend their hereafter. So what is it that Rick likes to do best? Write stories! So here’s how this is going to work. For the rest of your—well, forever actually—you’re going to stay here in your nice apartment, and you’re going to have the most awesome ideas for new novels and stories—bestsellers, instant classics. But…”

“But?” Rick replied, his voice fainter still.

“But you’ll never be able to write any of them down. No writing, no typing, no nothing. Is that awesome!? It’s irony, man. Thought it up myself.” Luther smiled self-contentedly.

“And what about food and, and, other … stuff?”

“Oh, not to worry, my friend. That’s all gone. We wanted to make sure you have maximum time to enjoy your new … arrangement. No food, no bathroom breaks, no sleep even. Twenty-four seven coming up with ideas you can’t do anything with.”

“I may as well just kill myself,” Rick said quietly.

“Well, that’s not going to be a problem, Rick. You’re immortal now, you see. No windows to jump out of, no knives, no pills.”

“And that’s it,” Rick said. “I just sit here until I go mad. Is that the idea?”

Without warning Rick rose from the bar stool and lunged at Luther. But it was to no effect, for he passed right through as though Luther wasn’t there.

“No need for violence, Rick. Deal’s a deal, after all, right? And look, at least you’re with your stuff. Well, most of it.” He gestured toward the bookcase and all of the medals and certificates inside vanished.”

“That’s the other neat little touch we dreamed up just for you. We’ve taken the liberty of eliminating your entire legacy. Yeah, it was a little tricky—lot of logistical work—but we’ve eliminated every copy of every book you ever wrote, every award you ever won, the works. No one—not even your wife and family—will ever remember that you ever did anything with your life other than leave your wife and daughter inexplicably.”

Rick lay on the floor where he had fallen. He stared back helplessly at Luther but made no move to rise.

“Well, hey, that’s pretty much it. Just wanted to make sure you knew what you’re dealing with here. You be well … and keep those ideas coming, eh?!”

As Rick watched helplessly, Luther stepped to where the front door had previously been—a space now occupied by solid wall—and stepped through like it wasn’t even there.

 

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