Here is the first chapter of Take Back Tomorrow.
Eddie Royce sat in Whistler’s office on the sixth floor of the Meteor building and waited patiently for the editor to look up from the galleys he studied, a smoldering cigar held between his thick lips and a look of quiet disgust on his face as he read. The muffled clack and ding of a typewriter made its way into the office from somewhere beyond Whistler’s closed door, and Eddie tried hard not to let it distract him. He sat in one of the mismatched chairs that faced Whistler’s enormous, scarred desk and thumbed nervously through the March 1940 issue of Stupendous, silently going over the pitch he had been formulating for days and hoping Whistler would not notice his anxiety. The magazine had hit the newsstands only three days ago, and Eddie had already read it cover to cover, focusing most of his scrutiny on one story—“Dark Hearts of Mars” by Edward Royce. It was his second publication in Stupendous, his second publication anywhere, really, but he already had two more stories and a serial accepted. After finally seeing his name in print following months of trying and failing, he had quickly come to believe in his success as a writer in spite of what he knew to be true—that he was at best unoriginal and at worst a plagiarist.
As with every issue of Stupendous, the cover of the magazine in Eddie’s hands was a work of art that no doubt accounted for a large portion of sales each month. The covers were always sensational, and this one featured a beautiful female space explorer watching in exaggerated alarm as her space ship exploded in the background, apparently leaving her stranded as she floated in space, her skin tight suit accentuating her curvaceous figure. Eddie knew from having carefully studied “Castaways in Space” in this issue that the story featured no such character or scene, but that did not matter. The Stupendous covers pulled readers in, and the stories kept them there until next month. Dozens of recent issues were scattered around Whistler’s office, each with its brightly lurid variation of the barely clad female warrior, seductive villainess or imperiled princess to draw the eye. With the first installment of his serial to appear in the May issue, Eddie knew that promoting it with a cover illustration would ensure reader interest and secure his position in the stable of Stupendous authors, and he had phoned to make an appointment with Whistler this morning to try to convince the editor of the same thing.
That Whistler had largely ignored him after having him seen into the office had not helped Eddie’s nerves any. He was made even more agitated when Whistler looked up from the desk for a moment and mumbled around his cigar, “Blackwood’s coming in this morning. I mentioned you’d be here. Says he wants to meet you.” He paused, an eyebrow rising to make deeper wrinkles in the editor’s already craggy forehead, before adding “Can’t imagine why” and returning to ponder the galleys before him.
Eddie did not know how to respond. Chester Blackwood was the most famous, most successful writer of science fiction in the last fifteen years. His stories and novels had been among the most inspirational things Eddie had ever read, and meeting his idol was something he had been hoping for since he had first begun getting published in Stupendous.
“I assume you don’t mind,” Whistler said, pulling the cigar out of his mouth and holding it over the galleys like a pen.
“Yep.” The editor set the galleys down now and stared at Eddie with more scrutiny than Eddie would have liked.
“No,” Eddie said a bit too quickly. “I don’t mind at all.” He paused. “Why would I mind?”
Whistler shrugged. “Star struck maybe. A writer like you. A writer like him. Some guys get antsy.”
“No, no,” he said. “It’s fine. What time’s he coming in?” He realized he might not get his chance to bring up the cover illustration if he didn’t say something about it quickly.
Whistler glanced at his wristwatch. “Should be here now. SOB’s always late, though.”
Eddie barely had time to register shock at the epithet when the door to Whistler’s office swung violently open behind him, slamming against a wall and half bouncing closed again before Eddie could turn in surprise. He heard before he saw the woman in the doorway shouting, “Whistler, goddammit, I’ve had it!” Twisted around in the chair, Eddie beheld a beautiful woman whose anger practically bubbled out of her. With platinum hair hanging to her shoulders and bright, gaudy makeup exaggerating otherwise stunning lips and eyes, she stood in a tattered green terry cloth robe, her chest heaving, her face red and her eyes brimming with tears of rage. She looked to be about 25, perhaps a year or two younger than Eddie.
Whistler stood up behind the desk and calmly said, “Now look, sweetie.”
“Don’t sweetie me, you son of a bitch!” she shouted, stepping all the way into the room, only two feet away from Eddie but oblivious to his presence. “I’m not doing it. Not this time. Not anymore.”
“All right, all right. Just calm down and catch your breath for a second.” When she remained silent, Whistler continued. “This is Mr. Royce, by the way. You may be modeling for one of his stories next month if he gets his way.” Eddie turned again to look at Whistler, stunned at what appeared to be Whistler’s amazing intuition. The editor really did know writers. But probably not women, Eddie thought.
The woman barely glanced in Eddie’s direction and then said, more calmly now, “Not a chance. You either need to get Klaus another model or you need to get me another artist. I’ve had it, I tell you.”
“Let’s not go overboard here, Roxie.” Whistler was beginning to take a patronizing tone with her. Eddie doubted that it would do any good. “Now tell me what the problem is, and we’ll see what we can work out.”
“This is the problem,” the woman said, her voice rising again as she quickly undid the terry cloth belt and pulled open the robe. Eddie felt his face grow red, and he glanced quickly at the floor before finding himself compelled to look up again and stare. She stood in an outfit that would have been perfectly suited to one of the women on the covers of Stupendous: gold boots that went to just above the knee, fish net stockings covering her thighs, gold short pants that went only to the tops of the thighs and wide, gold suspenders that crisscrossed her bare chest, leaving her breasts almost completely exposed. They swayed slightly from the motion of her arms having yanked the robe open, and Eddie found himself wondering what kept the suspenders in place. It was the same question he would have asked if he had seen her on the cover of the magazine.
Whistler cleared his throat. “A little too much skin, huh?”
“Yeah,” she responded sharply, her eyes growing wide, challenging.
“You know he’ll change your face on the final drawing. It’s not like you’ll be walking down the street and people will recognize you from the cover. They never have before.”
“That’s not it, and you know it. He’s a pervert! You should see the way he stares.”
“He’s an artist, Roxie. He’s got to look if he wants to paint you.”
“But do I have to be dressed like this while he does it? Couldn’t I just strike the pose?”
Whistler sighed as though he had been through this with her before. “You know he’s got his limitations. He needs his models in costume, or he can’t capture the feeling of the scene.”
“He can change my face but not the outfit? You know that’s not it. You know it as well as I do. Even you can see that, can’t you?” This last was addressed to Eddie, and he felt himself grow redder, both at having been acknowledged by her and at having been caught so obviously staring at her breasts.
He self-consciously looked up into her eyes. They were deep and blue and stared right back at him. “I . . .” he began, but she waved her hand dismissively at him, glared once more at Whistler, then turned on her heel and strode out of the office, the robe still open and fanning out behind her as she walked past a tall, gray haired man outside Whistler’s door.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said and kept walking.
Behind Eddie, Whistler let out a long sigh and then said, “Eddie Royce, meet Chester Blackwood.” Eddie spun quickly to look at Whistler, then turned again as he got out of the chair to face the door. “You’ve actually met the whole Blackwood family now,” Whistler added, sounding quite amused.
Blackwood stepped into the office, a mischievous look on his face. He was taller than Eddie had imagined and looked considerably older than the pictures on the backs of his books. He wore a wide brimmed fedora, which he took off almost immediately to reveal a head of thinning gray hair. He had a full, thick mustache that drooped down past the corners of his mouth, hiding his smile almost entirely. His eyes were the same deep blue as his daughter’s but with deep crow’s feet around them. When he smiled, the wrinkles lifted and were more expressive than his mostly hidden mouth, but when the smile faded, the wrinkles made his eyes appear heavy, weary and empty. He smiled now as he gave Eddie a firm handshake while Whistler formally introduced them.
“Roxanne can be a bit volatile,” Blackwood said as he released Eddie’s hand and looked back at the door his daughter had just stormed out of. Eddie could only grin in embarrassment. Painfully beautiful, Roxanne’s presence alone would have been enough to shake Eddie, but her outburst and her costume had left him in a spin, and immediately meeting the writer he most wanted to be like after Roxanne’s tempestuous departure had caused Eddie to feel almost numb and self-consciously foolish. It was not the professional meeting of peers he had fantasized about. After a few moments of exchanged pleasantries, Whistler left them, clearly feeling the need to find a pretense to leave the two writers alone. His departure was so awkward and obvious that it made Eddie even more nervous, as though Blackwood had made it known ahead of time that he wanted to be alone with the younger writer, something Eddie had not been prepared for. Under any other circumstances, he would have been thrilled, but now it made him uneasy.
When the door clicked shut after Whistler, Eddie smiled unsteadily and Blackwood, who had remained standing since entering the office, now walked around Whistler’s desk and sat in the editor’s swivel rocker, making it squeak loudly. He pushed himself back from the desk a bit and crossed his long legs, his elbows on the arm rests and the fingertips of each hand meeting lightly in front of his chest. He nodded toward Eddie and then directed his eyes downward toward the chair Eddie had hopped out of when Blackwood had walked in the room. Taking the cue, Eddie sat, continuing to smile at the older writer, not knowing what else to say or do. Blackwood had seemed pleasant enough when being introduced to Eddie, the deep lines around his eyes making him appear open and inviting. But he was not smiling now as he quietly asked, “Did you think no one would figure it out?”
Eddie hesitated. The blush he had felt at Roxanne’s presence returned tenfold. He knew there should be a dozen ways to respond, had thought out this moment a hundred times and planned all the possible ways out of it. But he had never thought it would be Chester Blackwood asking the question, and he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. His mouth instantly dry and his heart pounding fiercely, he could see in a straight line six months back to September 1939, could see the direct cause and effect chain that had gotten him here and how it had started with his decision to cheat the system rather than beat it.
He had been sitting on the uncarpeted floor of his apartment during the hottest part of the day in the middle of the hottest month of the year. Eddie had only been in L.A. a short time but had learned that September in Southern California was always the worst, and he had the windows open and a cheap electric fan blowing right on him. It didn’t do any good, just moved the hot air around, reminding him there was no way out of it. The air wasn’t the only thing weighing on him. He sat with his back to the wall, the apartment’s single door to his right, dressed in faded dungarees and a worn undershirt, sweat beading on his forehead and dripping from his dark, unkempt hair. On the floor next to him lay a small pile of envelopes, most of them still sealed. The one that mattered had been torn open in haste, and the letter it contained now rested on the floor next to Eddie’s thigh. He had learned from experience to look for the first negative word. It always jumped out—words like “sorry” or “unfortunately” or “regret”; phrases like “cannot use” or “does not fit our needs” or “unable to place at this time.” This one was no different. As much as typewriters or time alone, rejection letters made up the life of the professional writer, or the person trying to become one. Eddie knew this as well as anyone and had been stoic about it, patient about it, but the steady stream of rejection and the barely polite, insincere encouragement of “perhaps another time” or “we wish you success” that came at the ends of the letters was beginning to get to him.
He had been sitting there for half an hour, his gaze shifting from the letter to other spots around the room—to the rickety second-hand desk with the big black Underwood perched on its edge, to the single bed with its dingy pillow and lone sheet, to the wall heater that had barely functioned when he first moved in and which he had not needed to use for several months, to his shelves packed floor to ceiling with books and boxes of pulp magazines. And as he sat, he really hadn’t been reading the letter or taking in any of what he looked at. Instead, he had just been thinking, a litany of phrases going through his head repeatedly, variations on “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not original enough,” and “I should just give up.” Eventually, it was originality that he began to fixate on, to worry about, to grow frustrated and angry over. Since the time he had gotten his first rejection letter, he had been plagued by the question of what other writers had that he lacked. This had driven him to read and study not only the work of geniuses but also the successful, well-paid hacks, trying to find their secret. He knew the works of Wells and Verne inside out. He admired Edgar Rice Burroughs’ originality and success, his slick craftsmanship. He didn’t aspire to their greatness. He just wanted to be published. And there were so many venues; his shelves were a testament to this with their carefully catalogued collections of Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding, Stupendous, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and dozens of other lesser pulps. He bought, read, studied and preserved his collection, perusing old issues in the middle of the night, becoming truly amazed and astounded at the work being produced in the last several years by people like C.L. Moore, Stanley Weinbaum, and Chester Blackwood.
And that, he realized, had been his problem. The thought struck him with an almost physical impact, and he let his head fall back against the wall with a thud, his eyes now brighter and more alert than they had been since he had opened the letter. I’ve been trying to be original, he thought, but I’ve just been crowding my head with other people’s ideas. What was worse, he knew, was that the process was probably irreversible, that there could be no unique plots when the outlandishness of Burroughs crept into his subconscious imagination whenever he began mapping out a story, that there could be no unique aliens when Moore’s Shambleau or Weinbaum’s Martians held their constant influence over his creations. He had learned from experience that the more he tried to break away from the ideas of others, the less interesting his work had become. I haven’t got an original idea in my head, he thought and felt almost freed by the realization. I can write, but I can’t create. So now what do I do? The temptation to stride across the room and toss the big black Underwood out the second story window to the street was momentarily overwhelming, but another thought, even more radical, popped into his head almost immediately. He had been trying so hard, too hard, to be original, and the attempt had failed him. What if he tried deliberately to be unoriginal, to copy blatantly, unashamedly? He smiled at the thought. But who to copy? Borrowing from other science fiction writers hadn’t gotten him anywhere, even when he didn’t know he was doing it. So why not borrow from elsewhere, take someone else’s plot and set in space?
The possibilities were endless and exhilarating. He sat down at the typewriter, rolled a fresh sheet of paper into it, and began thinking, looking at the shelves across the room on which he kept the few works of literature that were not science fiction. He laughed out loud as he began to ponder Hemingway’s Lost Generation set in space, a galactic Jake Barnes running with horrifying beasts through the streets of an alien city, desperately in love with an aloof space princess but filled with doubt and anxiety over his emasculating injury from a recent interplanetary war. Or Faulkner: generations of psychologically repressed space colonists on a distant moon whose interactions with each other were all colored by the past and the faded glory their families had known before a great war had relegated them to this sad and tragic existence. Or the Bible: a space messiah, oppressed people, a betrayal, an execution, a resurrection, a revolution. There were so many ideas, so many possibilities, and none of them had ever been tried in science fiction. He could churn out novels for the rest of his life and never run out of ideas—because he wouldn’t have to think of any in the first place. The work had all been done for him already.
He had finally settled on Shakespeare and began rewriting Hamlet as a space opera. His hero, whom he named Rider, was an alienated prince who had just returned to his home world after his father’s death. Rider was informed of his father’s murder and his uncle’s treachery not by a ghost but rather by a faithful pet that communicated with the dead king through psychic and telepathic abilities. Rider swore revenge and decided to affect not insanity but shell shock. Here, Eddie had to go back and revise, having Rider return from a war rather than from an intergalactic university. Seemingly deadened to his existence and oblivious to the attempts of friends and the seductive Princess Euphonia to interest him in life at court, Rider successfully presented himself as harmless to his dangerous uncle while developing a plan to avenge his father. Realizing that the suicides and murders of almost all the principle characters was not as suitable for the pulp market as it had been for Shakespeare’s stage, Eddie rewrote the end to have Prince Rider kill his uncle in a duel, banish his mother to a penal colony on the planet’s moon and take Euphonia as his wife after rescuing her from space pirates loyal to the dead uncle.
It took Eddie three days of constant writing and revising to finish the sixty page manuscript of “Rider’s Revenge,” three days and nights of banging away at the Underwood with only breaks of an hour or two to sleep or wander down the hallway to the bathroom and down the stairs and out to the street to get a sandwich at the Terminal Café, the small restaurant built into the corner of the Southern Pacific station a block away. Finally finished with the manuscript and actually satisfied with it after reading it with pencil in hand a dozen times, Eddie pushed himself away from his desk and walked around the room. His hands shook, and although it was two o’clock in the morning, sweat beaded on his brow. He knew the story was good, better than anything he had done before, because he had never had such a physical reaction to anything he had ever written. Surprised, he found that he was afraid of what he had done, not because it was Shakespeare plagiarized but because he knew with absolute certainty that it would change his life. He looked around the apartment, at the shelves, the hot plate, the bed and the litter of discarded pages around the floor, and knew the manuscript in his hands was his ticket out.
After finally allowing himself to fall asleep for a few hours, Eddie woke up, ran down to the Terminal for a cup of coffee, and spent the rest of the morning perusing the most recent issues of Amazing, Astounding, Fantastic and Stupendous to determine which would be the best place to submit “Rider’s Revenge” to. He finally decided on Stupendous for a handful of reasons and started the four-block walk to the drug store for an envelope and stamps.
As a twelve-year-old boy in 1926, Eddie had been initiated into the world of space ships, aliens and time travel when his eye had been drawn to the third issue of Stupendous on a drugstore rack, and the magazine had held a special place in his collecting and reading ever since. Back then, the magazine had been titled Stupendous Stories of the Strange and Supernatural, and it had been the first pulp to compete with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. The brainchild of its original editor, Augustus Swinburne, Stupendous had undergone a lengthy evolution, publishing serialized classics from the last century as well as the pioneers of the new science fiction. By the late 1920s, it had changed its title to Stupendous Science Stories when it dropped the supernatural elements, shifting those stories to a new magazine called Macabre. By the early 1930s, it had been shortened to just Stupendous and had a reputation for publishing the most innovative, creative and artistic stories in the field. While Amazing stressed the science in science fiction, and Weird Tales focused on the uncanny, Stupendous published stories that were character driven. Because of this, Eddie felt that the stories in Stupendous always made sense; their characters’ choices were always justified and consistent with their personalities and motivations. Explosions, death rays, bug-eyed monsters and the like were not likely to appear at the end to effect an escape for some hapless hero or struggling superman.
And best of all, as far as Eddie was concerned, Stupendous was the flagship of a publishing empire; after Macabre, Swinburne’s company had branched out, and Swinburne had given up editorship of the magazine to form the Meteor publishing company, printing Westerns, Romances and Detective stories in a variety of pulp magazines. What was more, they took the occasional wildly successful serial and reissued it as a hardcover book. Eddie had several of them on his shelf, most by Chester Blackwood, who was unequivocally the star in the Meteor family of authors. He thought about the books as he walked to the drug store with the manuscript for “Rider’s Revenge” in his hands—the dust jackets, the excerpts from book reviews, the “About the Author” paragraph on the back cover. He imagined his name on the spine instead of Blackwood’s, and he started to shake again.
When the letter had come, he hadn’t needed to look for the negative words. Pulling the letter from its envelope, he had felt his heart all but stop as a check slipped out with it and fluttered to the floor like a sick bird. He had stood as if entranced, not even thinking to read the acceptance letter signed by Whistler himself rather than by the generic “editorial staff” that typically closed the rejections. Instead, he had looked at the check lying face up on the floor, the sum of $30 clearly visible in blue ink, already thinking about Troilus and Cressida set on Mars.
Now he sat in Whistler’s office a changed man. The dungarees and sweat stained undershirt had been replaced with a decent suit to cover his wiry frame, still bargain basement but respectable. He shaved every day now when he wasn’t in the middle of a writing frenzy, and he wore cheap cologne and convinced himself that it didn’t smell cheap at all. He kept his dark hair cut and combed, and when he looked in the mirror every morning, he imagined his face on the back of a book, telling himself it was the face of a writer—angular features, dark eyes, a nose maybe a bit too pointed and a bit too big but overall an attractive package. It was not that he had grown conceited but rather that he simply had confidence. “Rider’s Revenge” was long passed, having seen publication three issues ago and, according to Whistler, having generated quite a bit of reader mail although Eddie had never seen any of it. “Dark Hearts of Mars”—the Troilus and Cressida story—would be followed by Eddie’s version of The Tempest; or rather the first installment of his first serial. His versions of Othello and Measure for Measure had already been accepted for publication, and he had spent the last several days reading Richard III and Macbeth trying to decide which could be more suitably adapted with ray guns and robots.
But now he found himself wondering how to respond to the first person to hint that he had figured out where Eddie’s story ideas had come from. If it had been Whistler asking if he had thought anyone would figure out his deception, Eddie would have explained that it wasn’t really plagiarism, that there were no original ideas, that his stories were nothing more than adaptations and really no different from the adapting that Shakespeare himself had engaged in when borrowing his plots from older stories. But it was not Whistler asking. It was another writer, one whom Eddie had deep respect for, one whom he idolized. He could not so easily justify to Chester Blackwood what he had done to get himself published.
Blackwood just raised an eyebrow and waited. Finally, Eddie simply said, “No.”
“No. No, I knew someone would figure it out at some point, but . . .” He felt a mixture of shame, embarrassment and indignation. He didn’t know how to proceed.
“But you figured it would get your foot in the door,” Blackwood finished for him. Eddie nodded. “Figured once they knew you were good, maybe even once you had some fans out there,” he waved his hand towards Whistler’s filmy window, “they’d have to keep you on, keep printing you, maybe even take seriously all the stories they hadn’t bothered with before.”
“All true,” Eddie said. He felt diminished, childlike, as though he would be walking out of the office a different man than the one who had walked in, as though he had never received an acceptance letter or seen his name in print.
“And besides,” Blackwood went on, “Whistler wouldn’t expose you, as that would just embarrass the magazine. At worst, he could give your original work a shot, and if it didn’t work, didn’t live up to Shakespeare,” he raised an eyebrow again, “he could just let you fade away, a writer who couldn’t maintain the quality of his original output. Happens all the time.”
Eddie nodded. “Does he know?”
“Whistler?” Eddie nodded again. “No. Well, at least not from me. He’s smart, though. Just not that well read in the classics. But he keeps up on this and that, and if there’s fan mail that’s made the point, you can bet he’s been thinking about it. Probably got some flunky in the mailroom reading the collected works and writing up a synopsis so he can figure out what to do. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will.”
A new thought occurred to Eddie. “And what’s this to you, Mr. Blackwood?”
Blackwood smiled. “Chester. Please.” He drummed his fingers together. “You intrigue me, Eddie. You remind me a lot of myself when I was starting out.” He paused, a little too long, Eddie thought, but he could not fathom what the pause was meant to reveal. “You also worry me. Perhaps for the same reason.”
Eddie smiled uncertainly, thinking that Blackwood was perhaps putting him on. Blackwood did not return the smile. “Worry?” Eddie finally asked.
“You underestimate Whistler and the people he works for. More so them than Whistler. He’s shrewd, but he is just the editor. His superior, though . . . I don’t think would take kindly to being fooled. You’re just lucky you settled on Shakespeare to borrow from and not someone alive. With a lawyer. Even so, our friend on the top floor might feel as though you owe him something. And he’s not good people to owe.”
Eddie felt himself begin to sweat. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“I’m not sure you want to understand.” Blackwood stood up. He did it quickly, spryly. He was a tall man and looked like he had been muscular once, but in his late fifties now he seemed on the verge of frailty, and his sudden movement caught Eddie off guard. “If you really understood, it would probably scare the shit out of you. Let me ask you this—have you ever stolen anything before?”
“Yes. Like you’re stealing from Shakespeare. Like you’re technically stealing from this magazine when you cash those checks for half a cent per word. The Shakespeare is harmless, I suppose, since it’s so old, but someone who steals even something harmless usually has a propensity for theft in general. Wouldn’t you say? And if you haven’t stolen before, you’re bound to steal more now that you’ve seen how easy it is—easier than writing on your own.”
Eddie told himself he should feel insulted, but he knew Blackwood was right. Still, he did not think of himself as a thief and never had. “I’ve never stolen anything,” he said. “I mean, kids steal things. Penny candy and things. But no, nothing like this ever before.”
“And what drove you to it? Money? Fame?”
He hesitated. Blackwood was asking him to reveal a truth he was not even comfortable admitting to himself. There was no point in hiding it, though, and he said with a shrug, “The dream.” Blackwood just raised an eyebrow in response, and Eddie continued. “I wanted to see my name in print. I wanted people to read me. I wanted to be able to say I was a writer.”
“Anyone can write,” Blackwood said, leaning now on Whistler’s desk.
“But only the people who get published and paid for it can call themselves writers.”
Blackwood smiled, the crow’s feet around his eyes crinkling up. “True enough. So you’d steal to realize the dream.” The crow’s feet faded with the smile, and Blackwood looked coldly serious as he said, “What else would you do?”
For reasons he did not understand, Eddie found the question frightening. Perhaps it was the way it had been asked. All he could say in response was, “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand a lot, Eddie. For a smart guy . . . What else would you do for the dream? Would you kill for it?”
“Would you defy the laws of the universe?”
Blackwood’s smile returned, his lips actually parting below the moustache to reveal yellowed teeth. He spoke matter-of-factly. “If you had to defy the laws of the universe in order to realize your dreams, would you do it?”
Eddie hesitated and watched Blackwood’s eyes, his mouth. They betrayed nothing. The older man was like a teacher who had just asked the biggest question of the day and had no intention of offering help or hints. “Theoretically,” he began, but Blackwood’s eyes immediately shifted away and his droopy moustache swallowed up the smile. “Yes,” Eddie said quickly. “Not just theoretically. Yes.”
Blackwood’s smile returned. He raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure?”
“Then we do have a lot in common.” He walked around the desk, reaching into the inside pocket of his coat as he did. He pulled out a business card and stopped in front of Eddie, took a pencil off of Whistler’s desk and stooped to write on the back of the card. He handed it to Eddie, who stood up to accept it. “You may need this. I can’t say for sure.”
“How so?” Eddie glanced at Blackwood’s business card. It had his name, but the address and phone number were for the offices at Stupendous. On the back of the card, he had penciled in a Pasadena address and a phone number.
Blackwood held up a hand to stop him. “Enough questions. I want to talk to you more about this later. Today if we can.”
Eddie slipped the card into this shirt pocket. He felt confused and was responding more automatically than anything else when he said, “Okay. When?”
Blackwood looked at his watch. “Let’s say five. At a little bar at Sixth and Los Angeles. Called the Reno Lounge for some reason. One of my haunts. Good?”
“Sure.” Eddie met Blackwood’s offered hand and shook it for the second time that day. He hoped his voice did not betray his confusion or his doubts about himself and everything that had just been said. “I’ll see you at five.”
“If I’m late, wait. I have a lot to do this afternoon, and time has a way of slipping away from me. Now get out of here, would you?” he said good-naturedly, “And let Whistler know he can have his office back. I need to kick his ass over what he wants to do to my next story.”
Eddie walked to the door and then turned back to face Blackwood. “Just one other thing,” he said, his hand on the knob. “Your daughter . . .”
Blackwood nodded. “She’s trouble, kid. You don’t want to be interested.”
“No, it’s . . . How long has she been modeling for the covers?”
“Long time,” Blackwood said, clearly not happy about it. “Quite a long time.”
Eddie took the hint and did not pursue the subject further. He turned to the door. Outside the office, Whistler sat at his secretary’s desk, looking agitated as Eddie came out. He waved Eddie over and ignored him when Eddie told him Blackwood was waiting for him. Whistler spoke in a low voice, just above a whisper, and tapped a legal looking document on the desk with a pen as he said, “I just got a call from Swinburne while you were in there with Blackwood. He wants to put you on a three-story contract.”
Eddie was dumbfounded. He had never met Augustus Swinburne but knew of the publisher’s reputation as a shrewd businessman who never let a penny go unless absolutely necessary. Eddie knew that some writers got contracts. It kept them focused while guaranteeing that their work would go to one of the Meteor publications. It also kept them too busy to submit stories anywhere else. But those kinds of deals only went to the sure bets, the established writers with proven track records—not to hacks with only a few stories to their credit.
“You’re kidding,” Eddie said.
“I wish I was. I don’t get it, and I don’t like it. You’re good, Eddie, but you’re just getting started. I don’t mind telling you this doesn’t make any sense.”
“How much is the contract for?”
“It’s not for a money amount. It’s for three more stories. At a bit more than half a cent per word. But the final money will depend on how much you write. Still you’ve got a guaranteed sale for the next three stories. If you want to sign it.”
“You got a pen?”
Whistler reluctantly handed the pen to Eddie while glancing at the door to his office. “What did Blackwood want with you?”
“Just to see what I was going to do next. I guess he’s a fan,” Eddie said without hesitation as he signed the contract. He surprised himself by being able to lie with such facility.
Whistler pulled a carbon copy from the back of the contract. He glanced at Eddie’s signature. “Been practicing your autograph?”
Eddie blushed. Whistler really did know writers.
“You got a safety deposit box?” Eddie told him he did not. “Get one,” Whistler said.
Whistler sighed heavily, glanced at his office door again, and actually began to whisper, causing Eddie to lean closer to hear. “You’re going to take this the wrong way, but you’ve got to trust me on this. You don’t deserve this.” He tapped the contract. “Swinburne and Blackwood taking an interest in you . . . there’s something odd about it. Swinburne’s smart. Too smart sometimes. One thing I’ve learned is that he doesn’t waste money. And when he figures out this contract is unnecessary, he’s going to want to go back on it.”
“It looks plenty legal,” Eddie said, his own voice lowered now though not as far as Whistler’s.
“It is. But that won’t stop him from trying to get around it. If you want to cash in on it, keep it in a safe place.”
“My apartment’s not safe enough?”
Whistler sighed again. He appeared to be growing increasingly exasperated. “Look, I’m taking a risk here doing you a favor. I’m offering you advice. Swinburne doesn’t always play fair. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Eddie nodded and straightened up again. He felt the editor was being paranoid, but he also had to agree that there was something odd in the coincidence of Blackwood and Swinburne suddenly finding him worthy of attention. “All right, then,” he said, no longer whispering. “I’ll take care of it.” He was not sure he meant it as he shook Whistler’s hand and walked quickly out of the office, certain that Whistler had stood up to watch him go.