NOTE: Found this on my hard drive last night. Not sure when I wrote it. Figured: Why not?
THE PHONE was ringing, and I was doing my best to ignore it. I was buried under cats, four of them sleeping in various positions on top of me, purring softly. Their weight was almost enough to trap me under the covers, and it was only through heroic efforts that I managed to free an arm and retrieve the receiver.
“It’s Your Editor.”
My editor. A bolt of fear shot through me, and I sat upright, dislodging two cats who landed gracefully on the floor, yowling and giving me unhappy looks. I would pay for this rudeness later, I knew, but one threat at a time.
“Is this about [REDACTED]?”
My latest book, delivered on time a few days before. Usually it took My Editor at least a week to get back to me with her comments and critique on the book, and dread bloomed inside me. “Uh, did you read it?”
“No. You better come down. We have to talk.”
The phone went dead.
Outside my Publisher’s offices, I bought a large coffee from a street cart, dumped half of it into the gutter and topped off the cup from my flask. Provisioned, I shrugged my raincoat into better position on my shoulders, scratched at my beard, and stepped into the lobby as confidently as I could. The security guards behind their huge desk watched me coldly—they’d seen me before, and so let me pass, but the pale hate I felt coming off them was visceral. These were men and women who would have gladly ejected me from the building with prejudice. I got that a lot.
In the elevated I gulped half my coffee in one convulsive swallow. I stood pop-eyed for a moment struggling to keep it down, one hand clamped over my mouth, and instantly broke into a sweat. When the doors split open again I staggered onto the floor, grunting and slopping spiked coffee everywhere.
“Oh no,” the receptionist shouted, leaping up with phone in hand. “Not again. I’m calling security!”
I waved my hands frantically and managed to take a single deep breath. “No! Wait! I was invited here by My Editor, I swear!”
The receptionist paused and glanced down at her desk, slowly slumping back into her chair. “Well, hell, look at that.” She looked back at me, her face blank. “Fine.” She pressed the hidden button and the door behind her sagged open with a buzz. “Go on back.”
I felt her eyes on me as I passed, and struggled to maintain my composure until I managed to put a shoulder against the door and push it open.
“What the hell have you done?”
I jumped, more coffee splashing everywhere. My Editor was standing right behind the door, arms akimbo, glaring at me. I’d seen My Editor do terrible things. I’d noticed some of her authors go missing.
“Uh, look, if it’s the subplot with the bunnies and the crockpot recipes, I was going for—”
“I haven’t read it, jackass,” My Editor snapped.
I blinked. Wiping flopsweat from my eyes, I took a deep breath. “Why not?”
“Because everyone who has is dead.”
People stared at me as I followed My Editor through the labyrinthine corridors of the office. I smiled and toasted them with my coffee as I walked, but realized that the glistening sweat on my face and numerous coffee stains all over my clothes—which had last been laundered some distant time in the vague past I could no longer recall—was ruining the effect.
I stared into a cubical as we passed it briskly. “Uh—was that a pile of semiautomatic rifles?”
My Editor didn’t slow down or turn around. “No. You’re seeing things. We’re a publisher. Why would we need guns? And before you ask, no, that is not a huge pile of gold bricks in my office.”
I purposefully kept my aching head facing forward.
As we approached a closed conference room door, I recognized That Guy from Marketing leaning against it, polishing his glasses. As we drew near he straightened up, smiled and pushing his glasses back onto his nose.
“No one in or out,” he reported. “Hey Jeff.” He wrinkled his nose. “Dude, is that you?”
I blinked. “I, uh, didn’t have time for a shower. It sounded urgent.”
Looking dubious, he turned and opened the door, holding it open for My Editor and I. After we stepped through, he followed, pulling the door closed behind himself and leaning against it.
“Damn,” I breathed.
It was a standard-issue conference room, white walls, white table, a dozen or so red chairs with cheap fabric upholstery. In the middle of the large table was a neat stack of letter-sized paper. Stacked neatly against one wall were what appeared to be six corpses.
“I gave your manuscript to one of the Interns to read,” My Editor said without preamble. “After two hours I checked on her, and she was dead, slumped over the manuscript. So I told one of the other interns to call 9-1-1, and gave your book to a third one.”
“How many interns do you have?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Dozens. You don’t have to pay them. We grab as many as we can.”
“This one guy’s been an intern here for seven years. We’ve never paid him a cent,” That Guy from Marketing said cheerfully. “There’s an office pool on when he finally asks for a salary. You can buy in, if you want.”
“Anyway,” My Editor said forcefully, gesturing at the stack of bodies. “When I went to check on those two a little later, they were both dead, and no one had called 9-1-1. But I noticed they’d apparently been reading your book, so I started to experiment. I gave the book to three more, and three more died. That’s when we locked everything up in here and called you.”
“I stacked the bodies,” That Guy from Marketing said.
I nodded. “Okay. So, uh, wait a second, why am I here?”
My Editor stared at me, and I felt the hairs on my arms start to singe. “What did you do?” she asked. “I can’t sell a book that kills everyone who reads it.”
“Well,” That Guy from Marketing said quietly, “not multiple printings, no.”
I frowned, finishing off my coffee. “I didn’t do anything. I don’t think” I touched my forehead. “It’s a little bit of a blur. There was liquor involved. I remember chanting. . .a chicken. . .”
My Editor stormed over to the table and picked up the manuscript. “Well, fix it. Don’t send it back to me until it’s no longer fatal.”
I hesitated to take the paper from her hands. I glanced quickly at the bodies and then at That Guy from Marketing. “Uh, how will I know?”
My Editor and That Guy from Marketing looked at each other. My Editor shrugged. “We’ll send you some interns.”
On the street I struggled with the immense pile of paper and my empty coffee cup, which I had inexplicably retained. At the corner I realized I didn’t need an immense pile of paper, as I had the electronic files at home, and dumped both into a trash can. A block away I realized that some innocent, crazed garbage-picker might read the book and die, and I walked back to retrieve it. Then I took out my ancient, comically large cell phone and dialed my agent.
“I’m right here.”
I whirled, finding Janet behind me, leaning against a mailbox.
“Jebus! Don’t do that. I’ve asked you not to do that.”
She smiled, showing lots of teeth. “Yes. So this is about how your new book is killing people?”
I blinked, opened my mouth to ask her how she’d known that, and then swallowed the words. “Yes,” I said instead. Then I squinted at her. “Did you read it?”
She laughed. “Of course I read it. I’m your agent. I have to make sure you didn’t write some sort of constrained-language horror, or forget to include bad language.”
I studied her; the cowl of her dark robes rose behind her head majestically, ending in sharp points like a fish scale. “Janet, everyone else who’s read it has died. Apparently from reading it. So how come—”
“Tosh,” she clucked. “You have no idea what I’ve read over the years. I’m exposed to every sort of horror known to literature. I read slush, kiddo. It’s like taking a little bit of poison every day to build up a resistance. I could read the goddamn King in Yellow and walk away whistling. Now,” she took my arm and began guiding me up the street. “You have a problem. You’re going to have to revise it down a little—at least try to get it to a point where people are only getting sick from reading it. A rash would be ideal, something dermatological we can blame on poor hygiene. See what you can do.”
I produced my flask and took a swig, heart pounding. “What if I can’t? What if it just keeps on killing innocent interns and the like?”
She scowled. “Well, if you can’t deliver a viable manuscript, they won’t pay you the rest of your advance. Which means I won’t get paid.” She looked at me. I waited a few seconds for her to continue, but she just continued to stare at me steadily. I took another long pull from my flask.
“Gotcha. I’ll write a new book.”
She touched my nose with her index finger. “Bingo, kiddo. You’ll go far. Or, if you don’t write a new book, your career is over.”
I nodded. “I’ve got some notes. There’s a short story I wrote 20 years ago that I’ve always wanted to expand. I’ll call it Chum. It’ll be inspired by sheer, abject terror.”
And so it was.