A CLEAN, WELL-WRITTEN MANUSCRIPT
By Dale T. Phillips
Jake hung up the phone, as Celeste looked at him, naked hope in her eyes. “That was the guy, wasn’t it? St. Clair, the collector?”
“Yeah, it was him.”
“What did he say? Is he going to give you the money?”
“Maybe,” said Jake, still staring at the phone. “He said he wants to talk.”
“Well, that’s good, right?” Celeste took hold of his arm. “If it was no, he wouldn’t have bothered calling you back.”
“He’s low-balling, offered seventy-five grand if it’s good.”
“Come on, cheer up,” she smiled at him. “So it’s only seventy-five grand instead of a hundred. You pay Anderson what you owe him, and we’ve got enough left to get out of here and start fresh.”
And if that damned kid hadn’t made that impossible half-court shot at the buzzer to win the game, I’d already be fifty grand richer right now, thought Jake. Breathe deep. There’s still a few hours left, and maybe the fish was on the line.
Celeste looked at the mailing envelope on the table. “Sure doesn't look like seventy-five grand worth. You going to finally tell me what this is? It’s like you don't trust me.”
“Of course I trust you, baby,” he said. “But loose lips sink ships, and all that. Our lives were on the line. Still are.”
“I wouldn’t tell a soul.”
“I know. Guess it doesn’t matter now.”
She sat on the couch and arranged her dress. “So tell.”
Jake started pacing, full of nervous energy now that the end was in sight. “You know my dad taught college for over twenty years, but you don’t know that his specialty was this writer Ernest Hemingway. Even named me after one of his characters.”
The name of the writer didn’t seem to register with Celeste, so Jake went on. “Dad wanted to be a writer, too, but all he could do was non-fiction books about his hero. Couldn’t write a novel to save his life. But he started work on a short story, directly copying the style of this guy, to get the formula down. The style is very distinctive, unique, really, but dad had spent decades absorbing every word the guy wrote. Dad spent the last twelve years of his life working on that damn thing, trying to get it right, to create a story Hemingway would have written.
“So when he had the perfect story, he went even further. He was a little nutty on this by then. He got some special typing paper, and a typewriter like the one the guy had used when he lived in Cuba. A shame he couldn’t get the real one, because typewriters are like fingerprints, each one has its own style. He typed the thing out, one finger at a time, and even included a typo the guy was famous for making. He wasn’t going to do anything with it, it was just his thing. And a month after he finished, he died.”
Celeste frowned. “So you’re selling a fake story? And it’s worth that much?”
“A real one like this, undiscovered all these years, yeah, would be worth a lot more than what I’m asking. But to authenticate it takes time, which we don’t have. St. Clair has the connections, and he can find a buyer, and get it to the right people for vetting.”
“Won’t they know it’s fake?”
“They’ll be suspicious, but it’s that good, and we got a backstory. You have to realize, baby, that most of the museums in the world have fakes. People want to believe, they want a good story. And this story has one to go along with it. The line is, it came from an old guy in Cuba who used to work for Hemingway, way back before Castro. When Fidel took over, he shut down communication with the Americans. But you know the President went down there, opened things up. So we say that’s how it came to light now. It plays.”
She nodded. “But what if they do say it’s fake?”
“We’ll be long gone by then. I sent a copy to St. Clair, along with some high-res shots of the ‘original,’ and he sent it off to his guy. If the guy gave him the thumbs up, St. Clair will pay me, because he stands to make over five times that later on, after it gets officially authenticated. He won’t want to pass that up, no real collector would. So everybody wins. Well, except for the guy who winds up buying it from St. Clair, but he’ll believe whatever the experts tell him.”
Jake looked at his watch and took a deep breath. “Guess it’s time to go. How do I look?”
She got up and took hold of his shirt collar and kissed him. “I’d say like a million bucks, but it’s more like seventy-five grand. I guess we can live with that.”
Jake picked up the envelope and tucked it in his jacket. He patted it, and went out to make his connection. He’d have preferred to take a taxi, but Jake didn’t even have enough money for that, so it was the subway. It made him nervous, with all the other people around. He counted the stops, and got out near the shop of St. Clair.
“Come in,” St. Clair said, indicating a seat in front of the big desk. On the desk was a small stack of paper, probably a printout of the story, or the report from the expert. St. Clair tapped it.
“Quite a story you’ve got here. A clean, well-written manuscript. Authentic? Could be. I was skeptical, of course. So I sent it to someone who would know.”
“Good," said Jake, with the casual confidence of the good con man. “It’s the real deal. If your guy knows his stuff, he’ll confirm it.”
“Let’s just say he’s cautiously optimistic. He can’t wait to get his hands on the original. Do you have it?”
“Do you have the money?”
“I do, but before we trade, let me warn you. If you’re running a con on me, and this turns out to be counterfeit, it will be the worst mistake of your life, and the sorriest day of your sorry life. I am not a man who tolerates being made a fool of. I hope we’re clear on this. So I’ll ask you just once. Is it genuine?”
Jake leaned forward and looked St. Clair square in the eyes. “I swear to you this is genuine. I know its value, and if I had more time, I’d be asking for a lot more.”
“You’d better be right. I already have an interested buyer.” St. Clair reached into a desk drawer and started putting small stacks of bills on the desk. Jake took out the envelope and set it down. He started counting as St. Clair pulled a plastic-wrapped set of pages from the mailer.
“If you’re going to touch that, you’d better be wearing gloves,” said Jake.
“I just wanted a look. It appears to be rather the worse for wear.”
“Yeah, well, it sat on some guys’ shelf in Cuba for over fifty years.”
“I suppose so.”
“Wait a minute,” said Jake. “There’s only fifty grand here. What gives?”
St. Clair smiled. “It’s the going price. You need cash quickly, while I can afford to wait. It’s a buyers’ market, and that’s the new offer.”
“You already knocked me down from a hundred.”
“Thus proving my point that you’re sadly in need of funds. I’m a businessman. I try to get the best deal.”
"You’re a cheat.”
“Be careful what you say,” St. Clair said, the smile gone, replaced with a chilling look. “You sought me out, and you’re getting fifty thousand dollars for a few pieces of paper that may or may not be authentic. But if you want, you can leave the money here and take your manuscript with you. Which will it be?”
Jake burned, but he couldn’t take his gaze from the stacks of bills. Clumps of hundred-dollar piles, all banded with neat bank wrappers. He wanted to get up and walk out, but his legs wouldn’t let him. Some part of his brain was reminding him of what he owed Anderson in a very short time from now. He picked up the stacks of money, as angry with himself as with St. Clair.
“I thought so,” St. Clair chuckled, but he looked relieved. Jake realized he’d been suckered. If he’d picked up the manuscript and started walking, St. Clair would have caved and given him the full amount. But now it was too late.
He stormed out of St. Clair’s office, feeling foolish, until he realized he’d just pulled off a great swindle. Let him have his laugh, he thought. The last one will be mine.
Now Jake was ten times more nervous riding the subway, with fifty big ones on his person. He couldn’t use any of the money for a cab, because if he was even a dollar short, Anderson would claim a default. So it was a tense ride.
By the time Jake got let in to see Anderson, it was after ten thirty.
Anderson smiled. “Howdy, Jake. Hope you have some good news for me.”
Jake took out the stacks of money and piled them in front of Anderson. “It’s all there.”
“Splendid. And with eighty-one minutes to spare. That’s good. One minute after that, and you’d owe me another five gees, and a couple of broken limbs. You could have said goodbye to your arms. At least for awhile.”
“So we’re square, right?”
Anderson nodded. “We are. But I hope you didn’t do anything stupid.”
“Like trying to pull a con on the Collector.”
Jake felt his bowels turn to water. “You had me followed?”
Anderson laughed. “Of course. Know how many guys get an idea in their head to skip out when payment comes due? So a day or two before the bell tolls, my boys tail the ones who owe big. You went to see the Collector, and suddenly you’ve got my fifty grand. You sure didn’t offer me any collateral, so it makes me wonder what you sold him. For your sake, I hope it wasn’t just a bill of goods.”
Anderson laughed again. “Like the Big Cheese. Me, I’m a businessman, you screw me, I bust you up and charge you more. But he takes things personally. Someone messes with him, he pays them back, with interest. He deals in millions, so he’s got a reputation to protect. And he doesn’t care about civilians. You’ve got a little lady, right?”
Jake swallowed, unable to speak.
“Just saying, that’s all. And if you think I’m nervous about people skipping out on me, he’s the king of paranoia. If I were you, I wouldn’t go near an airport or bus station. He’d wonder why you were so anxious to split, when you had all his dough in your pocket.
“But as long as he stays happy, you stay breathing. If he’s not happy, even the green hills of Africa won’t be far enough away to hide. But, if things work out, come back and place another bet whenever you get the itch. Now that I know you’re good for it.”
Jake got up on wobbly legs and left, but slumped to the wall outside of Anderson’s office. He rode the subway home in a daze, looking around at his fellow passengers and wondering if he still had a tail.
Celeste met him at the door. “Did you get the money?”
“Some of it.”
She frowned. “Enough to pay Anderson off?”
“Yeah. We’re square.”
“Well, then, we’re in the clear, right? We can get out and start over, just like we planned.”
Tears came to Jake’s eyes. “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Dale T. Phillips has a number of story collections published in book form, including the series of CROOKED PATHS; Five tales of mystery and crime. He writes the popular Zack Taylor mystery series. The fifth novel in this series, A SHARP MEDICINE, is currently available. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and is on their Speaker’s Bureau.
Copyright © 2017 Dale T. Phillips. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!