Yeah, I know his editor.
Each letter was a silent death wish into the depths of the dark night that the woman had not foreseen when she pressed the enter key. She just wanted to be cool, one can imagine. After all, The Flavourful Twilight of The Soul was one of the biggest names in the seedy shadows of the web all of a sudden. Everyone knew it, but no one knew what it was. They knew the writer, Derek Merriman - no one didn’t know Merriman, the recluse, the savant, the magician, the genius, even if they didn’t know Merriman. Shadowman was still making so much bank that a lit reviewer for the New York Times joked that their bestseller list would have to make a Number Zero just to accommodate for his unwavering brilliance.
And yet here is this book, this alleged masterpiece, his magnum opus, and everyone’s talking about it, but no one’s seen it. Dozens of people in a chat room talking about a book that they can’t actually prove the existence of.
And she was about to jump on their bandwagon for kicks.
Next you’ll say you’re one of the 999, someone replied. Liar, the person typed again.
Almost in tandem with the first, someone else implied the same: liar liar pants on fire. no one has a copy of flavourful twilight you know that.
Yeah, I know that, she typed. I never *said* I had one. I’m saying I know the editor. She said she worked for the guy. Kept going on about his eccentric style or whatever. I’m sure if anyone would have a copy of original notes, or know why the book isn’t coming out, it’d be her.
The first responder: Really?
The second responder: stop lyin we dont care. can we just talk about the books we know he wrote?
Back to the first: So you don’t believe that Flavourful Twilight is real?
Back to the second: i believe that if derek fking merriman wrote another book his editor would be a damn fool not to jump on it. so either this chick is a bald-faced liar or this editor really isn’t your friend girl. because if she was your friend she’d fking publish the book.
It wasn’t the only time she’s heard that exact same sentiment online. Every small Merriman fan club forum felt that way - the man could only type gold, and there was no excuse for us not having such a nugget in our possession. It had to be unreal, or too bad to be real, if we can’t see it now.
The truth is, it probably didn’t exist. But the less it did, the more mystique can be built by playing along. Every voice adding to the rumour is a voice propelled to cult idol status, ‘someone who knows’, someone of value in this little underground cabal of readers. And she wanted really badly to be considered valuable.
Merriman was what helped her avoid that fear of being abandoned, after all. No matter how few friends she had or how little her mother kissed her on the forehead, she could pick up a Merriman book and read it cover to cover, then cover to cover again, and feel like she was a part of something, a world only he could open the door to, and that he opened only for her. She never met the man, but she felt more strongly connected to his words than she could to any friend or lover she ever pined for.
So what better way to respect his legacy, she must have thought, than to escape through his words again, even if those words were never truly written?
The second speaker chimed in, after some moments of wordlessness. i heard u can get a copy on the darkweb. Just dam up your privacy settins nice and tight and you can get one of the galley prints from silk road or whatever.
The first speaker, after a few seconds, replied. Yeah, I heard that too.
The girl hadn’t heard of that. But she had committed to her role already. She couldn’t very well back out to ask a question.
I doubt that’s the real deal. How’d they get it? Again, if anyone knows the scoop, it’d be my pal Elise. She had just made the name. It felt like it flowed better than not citing her name at all - what kind of person talks about their friend in any other way than as lovingly as that? In hindsight, the answer came - people who don’t want their friends’ identities swimming around the internet - but why would she care now? There is no Elise. They can do with her name whatever they wish.
The second speaker: yeah whateverrrr talk to us when you have scans of the fkin book then.
Okay, I will. :P. In that moment, she reckoned that credibility can only be had by bluffing as hard as one could, and she was prepared to, at least until her bubble was bound to burst.
She would never see that happen, though.
There was a knock on her apartment door, three quick raps. The woman closed her laptop and got up from her desk to answer it. In the corner of her eye she glanced the flickering light of her alarm clock; it was eleven forty-six, and she rarely got visitors at all, especially not at this hour. She was current on her rent, for the most part, and her landlady wouldn’t get up at minutes to midnight to harass her about coming up short when she had perfect daylight hours to do so. For a moment, she pondered who would be interested in talking to her this late at night, but she cast the thought aside.
“Hello?” A voice called out from behind the door, knocking it again thrice in succession.
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’.” She turned and pulled every lock on her door and pulled it open a crack. “How may I help you?”
“Are you Arlene Sanchez?” A pale girl, short - maybe four-feet-ten-inches, but she wasn’t sure, she was bad with averaging heights like that - stood before her in a tailored navy blue suit. The girl ran her black-gloved right hand along her tie, silken, red with thin dark bars running across it horizontally. There was a tie pin, but she couldn’t make out the thing, only that it was round, but not perfectly so.
“Uh, yeah. Who are you?”
“I would like to come in and discuss something with you,” the girl said. “It’s a matter of incredible importance.”
“'I would like to come in’ is not a Christian name. Can we talk about this where you are?”
“I’m afraid not, Miss Sanchez. Please, may I come in?”
Arlene paused for a moment. The girl looked like she couldn’t be over thirteen or fourteen, but certainly didn’t act like it. She never saw the girl in this apartment building before; and if she really wasn’t from around here, she had no right being out in the kind of neighbourhood they were in at this hour. “What’s your game, little girl?”
“Not little. Not girl. I’m coming in.” She kicked the door with the back of her heel, knocking Arlene back enough for the girl to come inside quickly and kick it back shut. “I’m sorry, but it’s absolutely important, and I don’t have much time to waste.”
“What the fuck?” Arlene braced against the crowded bookshelf behind her to avoid from tumbling down, then straightened herself. “You have no right simply barging into people’s apartments like-”
“The Flavourful Twilight of The Soul. I’ve come to talk about that.”
Arlene froze. She didn’t know what to think of that. Was the jig already so embarrassingly up that someone came to rub it in her face, in living colour, the very moment she closed her laptop?
“Is it fair to say,” the girl said, “that you know where to get a copy?”
“That’s what you came here for?” Arlene walked slowly to her computer, her eyes still on the girl. “If you just give me a few days I may be able to get something for you-”
“From your editor friend, right? Elise?”
“Uh… this is some joke, right? You set this up before you got here, didn’t you? To see who’d take the bait?”
“I didn’t set anything up, Miss Sanchez. You know that.” The girl reached for a metal folding chair leaning against the wall - Arlene had several, and a folding table as well, as a makeshift dining room in the case of impromptu company - and opened it to sit. “I follow the chat rooms, the forums, comment sections here and there. I was in the area. Imagined I’d check this hunch first.”
“… Hunch?” Arlene dropped into her own chair.
“In hindsight, I just came to punish you, I reckon. But we’ll get to that once you be honest.” The girl folded her legs, placing her palms slowly on her lap. “So, the editor’s last name. What is it?”
Arlene said nothing. She gazed at the girl, transfixed, a bit confused. Very confused, rather.
“I said what’s the girl’s last name? Elise what?”
“In fact, don’t bother. You see, no one named Elise has ever worked at Harbinger Publishing. Not before Derek Merriman’s first book, not during his success, and not after his seclusion - so why’d you make one up?”
Arlene was dumbstruck. A battle waged in her head to fess up or keep the lie going, but she didn’t know who this girl was or why she was here.
“So, I’ll be direct. I came to pick up a copy of the book, much like everyone else. You should be only a little bit glad that you don’t have one. But I’m not sure if I can trust that to be true. Can I?”
“I… I don’t have one.” Arlene could barely find her voice. “I just… was playing along, I guess. The book’s not real. Just forget it. Make fun of me, whatever. Just forget it.”
“Oh, the book’s not real?” The girl’s voice rose just a bit.
“It can’t be. A Merriman book everyone knows about but can’t find? It’s, it’s a hoax or something, a marketing thing -”
“The book’s not real?! The book’s not fucking real? So what, is Shadowman a fairy tale then?” Her shouting made Arlene jump backwards, out of her computer chair and onto the floor, the upturned furniture’s wheels rolling slowly in the air.
The girl got up and dashed toward her, already on bent knee beside her body, her own face above the girl’s face. Something small glinted in her hand at Arlene’s neck as the moonlight and the light of the city outside hit it, but Arlene couldn’t make out its shape. “You can tell any other blind fool whatever you wish. But not me. I will not tolerate another fucking lie out of your mouth, do you understand?”
Arlene tried to nod, but not so much as to feel the discomforting cold of the thing in the girl’s hand against her neck.
“Okay, good. So, have you ever seen a copy of The Flavourful Twilight of The Soul?”
“No…” Arlene croaked. “N-no, I haven’t. I didn’t know it was a -”
“Shut up till I ask you something else.” The girl stayed there afterward, hovering over her head, pausing long from any other questions, simply looking deep into Arlene’s eyes with fearsome judgment.
“So, one more time.” Suddenly, the light left the corner of Arlene’s eye, and something sharp and cold plunged deep into the skin of her hand. She cried out, but the girl put her free hand over her lips, stifling the noise as she twisted quickly a whole quarter-turn. “What is Elise’s last name?”
“There is no Elise! You said! There is no Elise! I made her up!” Arlene squealed through the girl’s fingers. “Please! What the fuck is going on?!”
The girl pulled the thing out of her hand, and the pain would persist. Arlene backed into a corner, clutching her bleeding hand close to her chest, as far away from her, but still not too far that she could not reach, and the girl grabbed her hair and looked her in the eyes once more. “Don’t scream,” the girl in the suit said. “So you know no Elise?”
“I know no Elise! I swear!”
“And this Elise… she didn't come to you in a dream?”
“A dream… no. I swear. I made her up. Out of thin air.”
“Don’t lie to me,” the girl in the suit said, softly, almost comfortingly, still glaring fiercely.
“I’m not lying. Honest. Just don’t hurt me. Please. It’s just a -”
“Don’t say it’s just a fucking book,” the girl said, and Arlene fell suddenly silent, stiff, her eyes fixed on the girl’s face. “So. Don’t lie to me.”
Arlene Sanchez just sat there, unmoving, her eyes on the girl as she continued.
“Miss Sanchez, what colour is the door?”
“M-my… my door?“ she glanced over her shoulder at the apartment door. She took it far too much for granted to recall its colour at will, but she could see it clearly enough in the halflight of the moon through the window, enough to jog her memory. "It’s white - off-white. Off-white.”
“Good. Thank you.”
And it was with those words that the girl in the suit thrust her knife through Arlene’s neck, far too suddenly for her to react.
“I am going to tell you the truth, Miss Sanchez,” she whispered in her ear, the blood rolling down onto Arlene’s white shirt as she withdrew her blade. “The book is real. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to share that which should not be shared, and now people have it. And you were doing a good job of making sure people didn’t know, really, but one day you’d want to know yourself, so I can’t allow you to stay. Maybe, when you get where you’re going, you will understand.”
Arlene gurgled in resistance, fighting hard enough to make a sound, not audible enough, but made anyway, and surely still important: “Why?”
“I can’t tell you,” the girl said, getting up, dusting her pants with her hands, and looking over at the bookshelf. A spine stood out to her, and she walked over slowly, stepping over Arlene’s foot to get there. “You have Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony. I haven’t read this one yet… do you mind if I borrow it?”
Arlene’s eyes widened in both the horror of the last moment and the confusion of the present one.
“Oh, right,” the girl said, walking toward the door. “Who am I kidding? Of course you don’t mind.”
What’s the difference between a bar and an IRC chatroom? Kevin thought.
He was having problems coming up with an answer. They were both crowds made up of wanderers. A chatroom, at its core, is just a bar without drinks - the same losers coming in and out, mingling without consequence with someone they will barely know at all by the time they’re done.
Maybe the only difference with a bar is that you can find someone you like here and be lucky enough to leave with them. This was, for some, the literal reason they went to bars - to find someone they like, tell them they could no longer be in the bar, and... leave the bar. Together. Get in their car and head off to their semi-messy apartment where they’ll enjoy each other’s sloppy company till the early morning. That drinking was just foreplay, prologue, an appetizer.
He shrugged and brought his second bottle of stout to his lips, still mulling over the question silently. Doesn’t that mean, he thought, that being here was like... leaving a chatroom... for a chatroom?
He checked the clock hung over the bar counter. It was sixteen-forty-five. He anticipated the rest of them would be just a little late. They agreed upon half past fourteen, to hurry here as soon as their work days ended, but Kevin always has a feeling when people run late. It probably isn’t their fault, of course. He remembers one of them, a girl going by ’angelmoon34’, saying she didn’t even have a car.
But he knew at least that they’d make it, however late. This was an opportunity of a lifetime. Something he knew none of them would pass up, or else they wouldn’t have made plans to spend the rest of their evening in the presence of total strangers.
He just really wished they’d get here by now.
He took one large swig of his drink, waving vigorously with his free hand to get the barkeep’s attention. The man behind the counter, a bald fair-skinned man, slim but fit, in a dark blue shirt and grey slacks, nodded sternly to him and reached into the fridge behind him for another cold drink.
Kevin put down his bottle, sighed, and looked up at the ceiling. He could imagine holding it in his hands, feeling it warm and new against his fingertips. One of the first. One of the triple-niners. His to claim for the right price.
He resisted the temptation to look at the clock again. His palms were itching. Something as majestic as this experience shouldn’t be kept waiting. He assumed it was something beyond their control - traffic, impromptu work meeting, a tragedy even - and, under his voice, cursed each possibility in turn.
He tugged at the bow tie around his neck. He hated them. He didn’t like the feeling of something wrapped around his neck. But it was required. A uniform. A signifier of what he shared with his companions. He remembered what he said in the chat when ‘counterfeitrudeboy’ suggested it: It’s like wearing a placard that reads ‘I AM A HUGE DORK’ around your neck.
Not bow ties specifically. He liked bow ties, even if he felt uncomfortable wearing them. Not even the specific warm-coloured pixel-pattern bow tie they were discussing. Just the reference behind the bow tie. An esoteric literary one - that it was the tie Adam Cantrell wore in Derek Merriman’s Revolver, the tie he wore with nearly everything no matter how silly, his absolute favourite article of clothing. A symbol - for earnestness? or naivete? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are readers of Merriman’s books. Plus, perhaps, one more answer, for good measure.
Kevin went to reasonable lengths for this tie to make sense. A blue long-sleeved shirt tucked into denim jeans. He loved his grey slip-on sneakers, and wasn’t feeling like tying his laces that morning, like most mornings, so that completed the set. Not very Adam Cantrell, if he was being literal, but it would do.
When he brought his head back down, there was a young woman standing beside the table, looking right at him. He cleared his throat nervously. “May I help you?” he said.
She pointed at the wooden chair to his right. “Is this seat taken?”
He was about to say he was waiting for company when he noticed, under her black leather jacket, nestled above the collar of a plain white shirt - a bow tie, lots of pinks and oranges and yellows in a pixel pattern.
He thought back to the novel. Wasn’t her first words to him also Natalie’s first words to Adam in Revolver?
He smiled. “It can be, darling,” he replied, smirking.
She grinned, putting her leather messenger bag down beside the chair and having a seat. She stretched her hand out to Kevin. “You’re a MerriFan if there ever was any. I’m PearlizedLenses. You can call me Rebecca.”
Kevin took her hand gently and gave it a firm shake. “KingOfHandsomeBirth. I don’t have a lot of close friends, but the ones I have call me Kevin.”
“Good evening, Kevin. What’s a good drink here?”
As he made to answer, the barkeep put his drink on the table, nodded to them both, and left. “Well, as you can see,” Kevin said, “I’ve been having the same since I got here. Stout’s not everyone’s favourite, though. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s really mine, even.”
She shrugged. “My usual, then, I guess.” She whistled to get the bartender’s attention, and he turned. “Vodka cranberry, por favor.”
He nodded and said “One Cape Cod, on its way,” barely audibly over the average din of the surrounding patrons, and continued heading to the bar.
The two MerriFans waited in silence for barely a moment as the bartender returned with one red-hued concoction in a highball glass, gently draping a napkin onto the table in front of Rebecca and resting the glass on it. She leaned down and took a sip of it through the straw leaning over the rim, slowly gulping it, and then turned to Kevin and said, “Good. I am no longer mentally at work. Now, where the hell is everyone else?”
At around seventeen-thirty hours, the last member of the party, a lean dark-skinned man in his early twenties walked up to the table in a lime green shirt, a purple blazer with matching slacks, and a boater hat with a large hole in the brim. His bow tie was visibly disheveled, as if he had given up trying to tie it properly at all.
“How late am I, exactly?” the man said, huffing heavily, holding his sides.
“Quite,” Kevin said, “but we can’t blame you. Sit down. Take a load off.”
He fell into a chair opposite Kevin. “Darren James. counterfeitrudeboy? Pleasure to make your acquaintances.”
Clockwise, starting from him, they introduced themselves: Rebecca, then Kevin, then angelmoon34, also known as Adrienne, a short, shy girl with shoulder-length brown hair in a grey cardigan that all but covered up her own bow tie.
Darren nodded. “Cool. So, since I’m late, I guess we get ready to hit the road?”
“Eh...” Rebecca said. “I wanted to ask a question about that. When everyone got here, which we’ve now all done.”
“What’s up?” Kevin said.
“What do we know about this guy?”
“Muzzio?” That was his forum username. “... as much as we know about each other, I guess.”
Darren was the one with the big idea that this was worth capitalizing on in the first place, and now he couldn’t help but think this was just going to be an anxious mess. He noticed, out of the corner of his eye, Adrienne rubbing her shoulder awkwardly.
“You do understand how reassuring that isn’t, right?” Rebecca said.
Darren put his hand up. “I’m really sorry for dragging you guys along for the hype, in that case. To be honest, I don’t know anything about him either. And surely he knows the same about us. But this is, like, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity-”
“- to be bamboozled,” Rebecca interrupted.
“To test the hypothesis,” he rebutted. “Either Flavourful Twilight exists or it doesn’t. Which means either we win or we lose. I mean... some of us made more of an investment to get here than others.”
He noticed Adrienne glancing up at them all, and then back down. They knew he was referring to her; she had traveled all the way from Jardine College, all the way from the Eastern Woodtown coast, for this opportunity; where the rest of them may have been mere blocks from the Tilleton bar they chose to meet in, she had taken the bus for almost a day, and probably holed up in some leaky motel on the outskirts of town before this meeting.
“But,” he continued, “if it does, we’re going to look back at this moment as the big crazy journey we had to meet a shady-looking guy on the internet and buy a secret book from him under the table. And if it doesn’t, we’re going to look back all the same as the big crazy journey we had to find out that Merriman probably died in a gutter somewhere with his magnum opus incomplete, in a dusty shoebox in his last apartment. But, like, that’s the kind of story that brings strangers together, builds character and all that jazz, right?”
“In the movies, maybe,” Rebecca said.
“Exactly!” He grinned. “Just like in the movies! Where the road trip ends up being a rite of passage!”
Darren didn’t make out that Rebecca rolled her eyes, but she did so directly in Kevin’s field of vision. “Well, I’m here because I’m hoping the book does exist,” she replied. “All I’m saying is that I hope someone vetted the guy at least a little.”
“All I know about him is that he is legit.” Darren scratched his head, not in confusion so much as in reach of a genuine itch. “In the... illegit sense. Makes a lot of under-the-table artifact deals. Art, really peculiar stuff - not, you know, the typical pricey Seventeenth century lacquer paintings or whatever. Lost architectural manuscripts people thought had been burned in war, notebooks from Freemason craftsmen. The weird shit.”
“And there’s never an unhappy customer, either,” Kevin added. “One guy bought an Olliphant painting just to see if it had the rumoured Grantus sketches underneath; Muzzio checked himself to see if the provenances mentioned it. Independent auditors confirmed the sketches have come up in inspections, but the painting the guy got didn’t have ‘em. Muzzio personally investigated the forgery himself. Just because he got paid for the original Olliphant. Not for no charge, of course, but... that attention to detail is a big deal.”
Rebecca squinted at Kevin. “... and you learned all of this from...?”
“The internet,” Kevin and Darren said in unison.
“Right.” She folded her arms. “And I should trust this?”
“Well, yeah,” Kevin said. “Like, it’s unmistakable. The trail is full of evidence, if you follow it. The only thing that isn’t obvious about him is who he is. But he always delivers.”
“That answers the question - or tries to - of whether we can trust him to deliver. It didn’t answer the question of whether we can trust him.”
“To repeat,” Darren said, “each one of us is not sure if we’re sitting at the table with three serial killers.”
Adrienne finally chimed in. “Well, I’m hoping you aren’t. And... the experience or whatever is not what I care about. This book...” She was looking up now, her hands on her lap. “It’s easy to say it’s just a book, right? That we will just forget about this whole thing if it doesn’t exist. But...”
Darren noticed her slender hands straightening her dress nervously. She cleared her throat. “...you know when something you’ve read, or watched or listened to, changes your life so tremendously that you wonder sometimes what kind of life you’d be living if you didn’t have it? When something literally saves you? Merriman is that. I don’t give a damn about whether or not I can tell the story of how true that is. All I care about is that it’s true. And I... need this.” She whispered that last part, but didn’t look away from anyone. “Right now, it’s important to have this book. This one. So the quicker we can get on with it, the happier we’ll all be, maybe?”
Kevin raised an eyebrow and added, reticently, “Well, I guess that’s three votes.” He turned to Rebecca and waited silently.
Rebecca remained equally silent. She was well aware of how many ways this road trip could turn into a gory tragedy. She was one of two women, and beyond her questions about Muzzio’s criminal leanings, she wasn’t really willing to put either one of these guys in the driver’s seat of a mission to meet a stolen art fence in the middle of Tilleton after dark. Part of her - the part of a woman that is ever-vigilant in new spaces - even wondered if that was their plan at all.
But there was another part of her. One that hummed with curiosity. The one that craves only to know that which the world thinks is unknowable, or to prove that which the world considers untrue. She felt as many Merriman readers did - a mind so fine, so beautifully complex, would never take a new notion and leave it incomplete. Even if he never shares it. She was hungry to know what that mind’s last hurrah looked like. What it meant, what it said, what new and disturbing revelations lay between its lines. She could spend a few hours being on a hair trigger for that, she thought.
She sighed, reaching for her drink and downing the rest of it in one go, and then stared sternly at Kevin.
“Alright, losers, we best get ready to go, then.” She turned to Darren and squinted. “But if this Muzzio guy turns out to be bad news, I’ll kill you before he gets a chance to.”
“Yeah, of course.” He grinned. “As a matter of principle.”
He looked at his daughter Joan, his darling daughter, lying on the floor, shaking her head for him not to go. Then he looked back up at Olga Pastukova.
“You’re sure? It has to be me?”
Olga Pastukova nodded.
“Alright. I’ll come. But, all throughout, you have my word that I won’t fucking like it.”
- ‘Hope Has A Sailor’s Tongue’, Derek Merriman, in The Tilleton Weird Reader: Volume 3
A thin, average-looking man in a houndstooth jacket, white shirt and khaki pants sat by the window of room 212 at the Hanson. All of the windows were drawn before he got there; he insisted over the phone. He asked for all of his soda in cans, and insisted that no room service call for him or ever deliver any meals at all, not even anything complimentary, until his guests arrived. He cut the concierge off when she was about to ask about said complimentary pampering; this was his twelfth visit to the hotel in as much as eight months, not like he could tell. He only stayed for some days at a time, but it was always the Hanson. And always 212.
Out past the windows lay the Tilleton port. The best view of the bay, and all the lights and business between him and it, was from this window; 211 faced the opposite direction, and try as it might, 213 couldn’t really touch it. Closing into the evening, like right now, he loved to look out of the large glass windows and see its lights mingle with the rouge-tinged clouds. He preferred that, if he was going to travel any real distance out of his hometown just for a job, he should at least pay for a decent view. A motel was enough as a momentary place to sleep. He was already in Tilleton for one day - a Carmelite day, forty hours, more than enough cause for jetlag after covering so many private clients in the Earth Caribbean. He was expecting, unfortunately, to be there at least two days and one night more. So, the view was enough.
He sighed. This was just the meeting, after all. He could have done most of this over the phone, or not at all. But he was here. It was imperative that he appeared punctually and this meeting occurred without a hitch. He had to see it himself. To know it was done.
He squinted out of the window. It felt less magnificent this time around. Less sprawling and joyous.
It felt more like dozens of eyes were up at him, judging.
It goes without saying that a man of his talents is not so much paranoid as he is aware. That awareness has kept him alive for this long. That awareness has also ensured that he was the best and longest running man in his craft, the one whose name uttered in shadow had been granted a level of trust. When people see it in an online forum, they can think of at least one story they’ve heard. In it, lots of random passersby have possibly lost property, or suffered painfully, or even died. But it always ends with someone getting something they want. And people only die a few times.
He let the curtain hang down, stepping away from the window and toward the edge of the queen size bed. His rendezvous was due any moment now. He would have to prepare his presentation.
His phone began to vibrate on the bedside table, rattling the small ceramic vase beside it, its plastic bamboo shoot trembling. He picked it up and put it to his ear, the phone automatically answering the call.
The voice on the other end was light, almost childish. “Good evening. I figure you’re the person I’m supposed to talk to?”
“Well, since we’re off...” Darren put his palms flat on the table. “One more, for the road? I haven’t had a drink since I got here.”
“That’s because you got here late, friend,” Rebecca rebutted.
“Come on.” He smirked. “I know I’m late to the party, but you guys got to know each other already. I’ve been trying to find this place for a half hour; can’t I at least get a moment to sip some sauce and chill?”
“Then I hope whatever you’re feeling for comes in a bottle, at least,” Kevin said. “It’s getting far too late anyway. We’ll have to head up soon enough. I’ll be damned if we lose this because you got lost in town.”
“Ey, barkeep!” Darren shouted, spinning around to see if he got someone’s attention. “One shot o’ tequila. Immediately.”
A man in a dark blue shirt looked up from a nearby table and squinted at him in annoyance. “Uh huh,” he grunted, heading up to the counter; Darren got up to follow, and the others joined him, reaching into wallets and purses to pay for what they already had. He downed his shot instantly, then reached into the left inside pocket of his blazer for a money clip and pulled out a twenty-vinemark bill.
“See? Now we’re all ready to face the world!” he said eagerly, gesturing for them to head out.
Kevin started toward the door. “You’re one of those guys who’s proud to say he’s hyper, aren’t you?”
Darren nodded. “Why, is that a bad thing?”
“Course not.” He grinned anxiously. “Not at all.”
In the car, Rebecca couldn’t help but notice that Adrienne’s phone made her anxious. It had rung six times since she arrived at the bar, not counting the time it just vibrated in her bag. She made up her mind that this wasn’t worth asking about - she wasn’t about to go prying in anyone’s business - but it registered regardless. She wasn’t sure if she was concerned or annoyed, but a part of her brain twitched as Adrienne twitched, as if her fidgeting shook the whole back seat. Rebecca rested her left elbow on the door and tried to ignore it.
Darren yawned and checked his own phone. “The Hanson Arms, Daly Avenue.”
“Yes, Darren,” Kevin said, “we know.”
“Says here it’s a-”
“Half hour drive - we know.” He sighed. “Not like the app knows what it’s doing, anyway - it’s adjusting for traffic, but this isn’t nearly as bad as the navigator thinks. We can be there in fifteen, ten.”
Darren dropped his phone onto his lap and rubbed his hands eagerly. “I can’t wait. We’re probably going to be the first people this side of Cordon County to actually feast our eyes upon Merriman’s last masterpiece.”
“Last?” Adrienne looked up from her phone now, one eyebrow raised. “As in... no more?”
“Well, duh.” Darren stretched, looking back from the front passenger seat. “This is one of those, like, marketing fumbles publishers make when they absolutely positively can’t get another book out of the guy. Like, not just because he ‘retired’ or went on some eight-month alcohol bender. This is squarely in ‘the author’s probably dead’ territory, I’d reckon.”
Adrienne let out a gasp that sounded more like a squeak. Then, she squinted at him. “That’s dumb. Like, conspiracy-theory-level foolish.”
“So... it’s more believable that he, or his publisher, hated the book so much that someone else made a thousand copies of it and started selling them for four figures in private chatrooms?”
“Well, it makes more sense.” She locked her phone and put it away in her purse. “Not that they hate it - that this is some kind of gimmick. A stunt to drum up more attention for the book.”
“So why would it matter to us to get it now? And... why are we meeting a man the internet insists is a hardened criminal?”
Adrienne paused, contemplating the question. “I don’t know. It just... wouldn’t make sense for us to not know what’s going on with Merriman. I mean, he’s one of Carmel’s most outstanding writers - and our news can’t get enough of reminding Earth that Carmel makes just as many talented, functioning people as they do. If he passed, it would be news. It would be... better for the book, even. As morbid as that sounds.”
Rebecca chimed in soon after. “Besides, neither theory answers how the book exists in the first place, or how we’re getting it. If the publisher didn’t want it out, whoever had one would have put it in a torrent database by now. Someone has copies. What we can only presume are ARCs of the original manuscript. Warts and all, even. Right off a desk. And is handing them out hard-copy. That’s what we’re paying top dollar for - the chance to see those warts.”
“Come now, children,” Kevin said. “Let’s not have this debate in the car, or so help me, I’ll turn it around.”
“Oh, come on, Kev...”
“Kev?” Darren was obviously beginning to get on his nerves a little. Rebecca was the only other person who noticed.
“We’re just having a harmless conversation. But I’m sure you’ve been wondering too. Why all this trouble for a book? Not just for us to have it - I’ve played a couple alternate reality games in my life, I know all about traveling cross-country just to answer a call in a phone booth. Why all this to make it?”
Kevin turned back to the road, pretending to ignore the question. But it gnawed at him too. This wasn’t some stunt. Stunts don’t rely on strangers making meetings with confirmed real-life art fences with trails of blood behind them. This was... the word ‘mistake’ came to mind as a descriptor. He strained to find another, but the word he found seemed to get bolder in his head. Mistake. MISTAKE.
“Anyway,” Kevin replied, “I don’t need to have this conversation now. We’re about to get our hands on one. Idle speculation won’t do us any favours. “
Darren leaned back in his seat roughly. Rebecca winced as he nudged her knees. “Alright, I’ll shut up now,” Darren said, and she whispered softly, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Adrienne jumped again, glanced down at the phone in her lap, and then sighed.
Kevin insisted on doing all the talking. Rebecca silently objected to not having any input, but she didn’t feel like inputting at this point. She put her hands in her pockets, observing the lobby of the hotel with intense silence.
Darren whistled as he walked in, impressed by the stone walls of the interior, stretching beyond the side and back of the front counter and going right into the open dining space, where dozens of couples and business executives sat by round glass tables eating small portions of well-plated expensive food. “How much does a room in a hole like this go for?” he asked, not really in anyone’s direction. “Near four figures a night?”
Kevin stepped up to the concierge desk, drumming his fingers against the brown marble counter as he waited for the attendant to come off an intercom receiver on the wall and face him. The concierge caught his eye and signaled that it would only take a moment. After a few more hums of affirmation into the phone, he hung it up and turned to them. “Welcome to the Hanson, ladies and gentlemen. What can I do for you this evening?”
“We’re here to see a Mr. Muzzio? He said Room... Two-Twelve? He may have mentioned that he’d have guests around this hour.”
“Oh, yes...” He opened a ledger beneath the counter, flipping through pages slowly. “Uh... yep, says here he’s expecting a party of four for a meeting - you’re kinda late, I think? Darren James and company.”
Darren grinned at the two ladies, and Rebecca rolled her eyes.
“Yep, that’s us,” Kevin said with a soft sigh.
“Understood. He said I needn’t call him up when you guys get here, just that you should hurry on up and see him.” The concierge smiled warmly and shut the ledger. “Room service will be sending up some light refreshments at his request; anything special you guys would like?”
“Lotsa tequila,” Darren shouted, walking forward a bit.
Kevin turned to him and widened his eyes in annoyance, then faced the desk again. “Water and coffee will be fine. We doubt we’ll be here long enough for it to be ready, anyway.”
“Well, if it makes you feel better,” the concierge said, “our chefs try to be really quick about our preparation of water.” He chuckled a bit, first proud of his joke, then nervously as he noticed Kevin’s lack of response.
Kevin tapped the counter awkwardly. “Well, we’ll be heading up, then,” he said, stepping toward the elevator, and the three others followed.
“I for one thought that was at least a C-class joke,” Darren said as they entered the elevator, Adrienne lightly tapping the second floor button. “C-minus, maybe.”
“Good for you,” Rebecca said. “Maybe the both of you can open a comedy club when we’re done.”
The doors swung open again to pastel-pink walls along the walkway, with red accents below, and deep red carpet running the length of the floor. The room to the left wall from the elevator was Room 201, with all the others leading down the corridor.
“Well, time for the moment of truth.” Rebecca yawned and started ahead down the hallway. She tried not to seem overly tense. But she was. This was a bad idea. A terrible, terrible idea. At best, they all wasted money and time to get here. At worst, this was how people got kidnapped.
Adrienne fidgeted. The hallway was haunting, in its own way. Silent, dimly lit, with just the slow and creaking trolley of hotel room service being pushed toward them by a short and fair attendant who kept her head low. She parted the four of them with it, even, splitting them into even pairs of male on the left and female on the right, one front wheel nearly tripping Adrienne as they walked past. Rebecca caught her with both arms around her waist before she could fall over.
“Apologies,” the attendant murmured.
“No problem,” Adrienne said, straightening up quickly and anxiously. She glanced back at Rebecca. “Thanks.”
Rebecca nodded, letting go, her eye still idly on the attendant until she slipped into the elevator, headed downstairs.
Darren snapped his finger, making her jump. “We’re right over here,” he said, pointing at the door to 212. “Door’s already open, too—”
He pushed it open slowly, mouth open wide in shock. In the dark, he could barely make out the specifics. But he knew that the floor was sticky beneath the heels of his shoes, and that the white bedsheets were speckled with something dark. He saw an old man in a jacket slumped on the floor in the centre of the room, just beside the bed.
Kevin stepped behind him, reached across the inner wall for a light switch. Once he found one, the room springing with white awareness, he made to scream—and Darren caught his mouth just as suddenly.
Darren stared right at Rebecca. “We have a problem.”
Rebecca grabbed Adrienne by the shoulders, gazed intensely into her eyes. “Calm. Down.” Then, she glared at Darren. “What the fuck did you bring us into?”
Darren raised his head from inspecting the bloody portions of the man who once was, presumably, Mr. Muzzio. “I don’t know!” he whispered. “This was just about--”
“—about a book! Exactly! About a fucking—”
Adrienne was shaking, her eyes darting, trying to find at least one thing that wasn’t slick with blood. The room didn’t have an answer for her. Even a drop, it was all over. Speckled against the curtain, pooling on one corner of the bedsheets, hardening against the fabric of Muzzio’s houndstooth blazer.
Darren drew a slip of paper from the blazer’s inside pocket, squinted at it, and held it up silently for Rebecca. When she wouldn’t take it, he turned to Kevin, who had his arms folded anxiously, pacing along one side of the room. “Will anyone take this fucking thing and look at it?”
Rebecca sighed, reaching across to grab it, unfolding it slowly into a long typewritten sheet. Dozens of lines of text starting from the top had been crossed out in neat black ruler-drawn lines of black and blue pen. Near the bottom of the list, between other blacked-out lines, were four untouched ones, made up of what looked like jumbles of numbers and letters separated by pilcrows in a way Rebecca imagined wasn’t random.
“What is it?” Adrienne’s voice choked. “What does it say?”
“Fuck if I know,” Rebecca replied, tossing it away. “Are you gonna be good?”
“No?!” She shook her head. “We’re in a crime scene in the middle of the night! Why would I be okay?”
When Kevin finally added something, it was the same thing he said moments before Darren had closed the hotel room door behind them. “Why are we even still here?”
Darren was the first to answer. “Because we—and he—came all the way here so we could get this damn book, and I will be damned if we’re going to leave before we can. I mean, think about it. The way I see it, he literally died for it.”
Kevin began to breathe heavily. “Or he crossed his human trafficking contacts, or had a falling out with a rival gang warlord, or—”
“The book, guys.” Darren checked the pockets of the man’s trousers, the insides of his shoes and socks, even trying to feel for something taped to his body in the usual hiding places. Nothing—save for the two black pocket notebooks he had already tucked away while the rest of them were too tense to notice. He’d look over those later, see what stood out to him.
“Why is the book on your mind right now?!” Adrienne half-whispered. “We should be calling the fucking police and leaving.”
“But if we call the cops,” Kevin said, “then we have to tell them how we know the guy, and what we were meeting him for. Guess which of those questions has no simple answer.”
Rebecca sighed. “Both.”
“Exactly. And Heaven forbid someone already called the cops before we got here, that means they can still see us now.”
Rebecca turned back to Adrienne, shoulders trembling in her hands. “You’re right. Let’s just go. There is no book. There probably never was. We don’t know what was gonna happen here, but it doesn’t have anything to do with us any more.”
Darren rose from beside the body. “Hold on a minute, we should just make su—”
“We’re going. Or you’re finding your own way home out of here.”
Darren snorted. “... alright, whatever. But if we just lost out on the opportunity of a lifetime...”
“You did,” Kevin muttered. “The opportunity to be gutted in a top-class hotel room. Now, will you please shut the hell up?”
It had been nights, nearly a week since Rebecca ever bothered to open the chatroom again. She had sworn off of it. She didn’t believe in The Flavourful Twilight of The Soul any more; all she believed in was buckets of blood on expensive bedsheets. And even if the book did exist, she wasn’t sure that was the kind of business she wanted to get wrapped up in just to see it. It was a book. She’d read others—the classics of Earth sci-fi that she had already grown up on with her mother, or whatever was trying to be postmodern coming from her town right now. She heard that Paul Forrest had come out with something new, had apparently gotten better at genuine magical realism. Maybe she’d read that. Maybe it’d do.
The other three folks she had met all went back to their places—Darren to Castiron City, Kevin to Soriana, Adrienne a little further east to Persephone. They had traveled so far just to get their hands on a book. The longer she thought about it, the less total sense it made. But then again, the thought of the book, of what it could have been, still pulled at her.
Walking back into the unlit kitchen late that night, she hadn’t even noticed that she left her tablet on the counter until she had heard a ping. Earlier, she figured she may as well stop by in the MerriFans chatroom, see what came up. Not much had changed. It was still a war between the believers and the doubtful, and doubt still won. ‘counterfeitrudeboy’ never gave up proselytising, swearing up and down that he and ‘three guys I met right here in chat’ were inches away from cracking the spine of Merriman’s latest creation.
‘Lay off the weed, pal,’ was his first reply.
This ping was also him, but privately, in a direct message to Rebecca: ‘what, you stop talking to us or something?’
She had no intention of answering. She wanted to be unseen, to forget the trip ever took place. She wished that would erase the image of an old man in a houndstooth jacket with ribbons of dark-red torn into his flesh. But it didn’t. It stirred her awake every morning, in a dream where the blood never stopped pouring, filling up the room, and she would turn to Darren and insist that they leave but he is already over the body, picking it clean of anything he thinks will give him this book, and the blood is already just below his eyes but he doesn’t seem to be bothered by drowning in it, Adrienne is still shaking in her hands but she is too afraid to move, Kevin is pacing through the current of red as if he can’t even notice it, and she is begging, begging to leave but it is as if no one can hear her at all—
“You saw the door, didn’t you?”
Rebecca’s train of thought is broken by the sound of someone’s voice. Unfamiliar, stern, even a little cruel, with an accent she couldn’t immediately place.
“You saw it, didn’t you?” the voice said, more angrily.
“What?” Rebecca turned, squinting in the dark of her surroundings, wishing she had put the light on when she came in for a snack. “Who are you?”
“Answer my fucking question.”
“You’re in my house, so you—” As she pivoted to the left, to the drawing room windows, she caught a glimpse of a short silhouette only weakly cast by outside light. “Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in my house?”
“I came to get the book.”
“Wha—” She stepped back from the shadow, her back against the doors of her refrigerator. “You’re another one o’ those kooks, then? There is no book.”
The silhouette flinched before raising its voice. “Wrong answer. Wanna try again?”
Rebecca reached back on the counter beside her for her knife block, hoping to find anything at all to defend herself with. But her hand found it empty, fingers tracing the hollow spaces within it.
The silhouette advanced, just enough that another shaft of light from through the windows cast upon its face, revealing a short white girl in a white t-shirt and cargo pants, holding a knife in each hand. “Looking for one of these?” the girl whispered. “Because I can give you one back.”
Rebecca retreated once more. “What do you want?”
The girl scoffed. “A little girl comes into your house, takes all your knives, starts asking you questions? What do you think this is?”
“... an interrogation?”
“I’m telling you, whatever crazy shit you’re on, I thought there was a book too, but—”
“—don’t. You have it, I know. He was sent to give it to you. Which means if it already belongs to you, you have to die anyway. So don’t be a hero. Because I can kill you and start looking anyway.”
Rebecca’s idle hands kept searching blindly on the counter for something, anything that would give her a moment to flee. Finally, she found something.
“You came to kill me for a book?”
“The book’s that important. Making sure nothing changes is that important.”
“Then go ahead. Look for it. I promise you, there’s nothing here.”
“I will. But what will I do about—”
Rebecca gripped the small sack of flour and threw it, and it burst against the girl’s face in a cloud of white. The girl groaned and threw a blade forward, narrowly missing Rebecca’s head as she ran out of the kitchen and toward the stairs. She threw another one, jamming in the wall before the staircase just soon enough for Rebecca to grab it on her way up.
The girl followed. Agile, eager, reaching on her belt for her own sharpened blade to use instead. When she got to the top of the staircase, on the other end of the landing Rebecca was already waiting. Knife held firmly in her right hand, anxious but still prepared.
“So you can fight?” the girl asked.
“Isn’t this a school night?” Rebecca countered.
The girl chuckled. “Of course the lying swan would choose a girl like you. Brave, stupid, willing to resist. And witty?” She twirled her army knife between her fingers. “Oh, I am going to have a lot of fun getting rid of you.”
“I really have no idea what kinda drugs you’re taking, but I won’t ask again—you better get the fuck out of my house.”
“I will. After I gut you.”
Before Rebecca could even reply, the girl had already lunged. Adrenaline made her counter with the only thing that came first to her body—blade out, charging forward, ready to fight it out.