Literary Agent Jean Collier meets the man in black.
Excerpt from my novel "The Right Thing"
Jean remembered it well. The rumor mill had spit out the buzz that novelist Brian Roman might break with Asgard Publishing. When speaking to a friend at the Long Island Writers Conference, this was the one bit of information Jean Collier thought she just might use to her advantage. It was worth a try. And as luck would have it, the rumor from the secretary at the Misch agency had turned out to be true . In addition, with a little grooming and complementary chatter, the secretary proved to be a font of information, informing Jean of Roman’s scheduled meeting at Asgard. The redhead couldn’t believe her luck. With a little help from her New York cousins and the promise of a payday regardless if the plot worked or not, they’d pulled off the staged drama at the parking structure. The plan had actually worked!
The next day, the redhead picked up the hotel room phone.
“Hello. This is Jean Collier.”
“Hi, remember me?”
“Yep. I was thinking I should have called earlier in case you needed help with your car.”
“Thanks. But I already had it taken care of this morning. The car’s here.”
“No kidding? That was quick.”
“Should be. I pay the auto club enough for the service.”
“I’ll have to get their name. Jean, I wanted to let you know I was serious about last night.”
“About what part?”
“About hiring your agency. My agent called me this morning. And guess what? The publisher agreed to my requests. Guess what else? I told him to stuff it.”
Jean didn’t answer.
“Hey—you still there?”
“I’m still here.”
“I did some checking, like I said I would. I think your agency will fit my needs perfectly. Nice Website, by the way.”
“Brian. I don’t know what to say.”
“You say that a lot.”
“I guess I do.”
“So, I think we have cause for celebration! Still pick you up at seven?”
“I’ll be waiting, Brian.”
“Jean. I can’t wait to see you. I—I’ll talk to you then. Okay?”
Smiling, the redhead put the phone in its cradle. Gotcha!
That night, the deal was struck. Over dinner, Brian agreed to meet with his new agent at her office in Vineland to sign a contract. The day Harry Misch’s contract expired; Brian Roman would become a client of the Jean Collier Literary Agency. And Asgard Publishing? His time with them was over as well. He’d let his new agent find him a new publisher.
Although thoughts of a relationship had been the furthest thing from her mind, Jean realized that Brian Roman was becoming infatuated with her. She decided to let it happen. Why not? After all, he was rich. He was good looking. And to her utter disbelief she found that she actually liked him. More than liked him, if the truth were known.
So, that evening when they again stood at the elevator, the handshake became a kiss, then an embrace. Then Jean pulled herself away. People were watching.
I want to Jean thought. And Brian? God does he want it! He’s hot! He wants it so bad I feel it. But no. Not tonight. Not in a hotel room. He’ll wait. When he comes to Vineland. When I’m home. Then I’ll let him into my bed.
The week seemed to crawl by. In the meantime, Jean had the papers drawn up. She felt like a schoolgirl, giddy with the thought that Brian was coming.
What is it about this guy? He’s all I can think of. He calls every night and we talk for hours. Why don’t I feel guilty? Shouldn’t I? All I wanted to do was use him. It was about the money. And now? Now I think I want more—much more. What in the hell’s the matter with me? He wants me. I want him. I wish he were here right now.
In the southern New Jersey town of Vineland, the sign above the door of the two-story redbrick building just off West Boulevard on Highway 622 read The Jean Collier Literary Agency. Standing at the window of her private second floor office overlooking the town’s main crossroad, Jean again thought of Brian Roman. Behind the post office, a freight train chugged its way through the heart of town.
Jean turned. Unless she wanted privacy, she always left her office door open. The young man stood in the hallway just outside the door.
He continued, “The lady downstairs told me to come right on up! I’m a bit early for my appointment. She said that wouldn’t be a problem. Would you be Ms. Collier, then?” The smile lit up his face. The man was young, perhaps twenty-five or twenty-six years old. Thin, dark haired and well groomed, he spoke with an English accent.
“I’m Jean Collier. You had an appointment?”
“Yes, I did.”
Jean thought why didn’t Leila tell me?
“Is there something I can do for you, sir?”
“I think there might be, Ms. Collier. May I come in?”
“Oh. I’m sorry, of course, Mr. . . .?”
“Bagnold’s the name, Ms. Collier! William Bagnold! My friends call me Billy. Matter of fact, you might as well too!” The man’s smile was infectious.
Likeable fellow Jean thought. “Please, won’t you have a seat?”
He went on, “Thank you so much. I’m from England, if you haven’t guessed that already. My family owns a publishing house in London. My father sent me here to do a little business while I’m on holiday. I love what I’ve seen of the states so far. Jolly fine place, it is. My first trip abroad, you see.”
When they both were seated, Jean said, “Your family’s in publishing?”
“Has been for over one hundred and fifty years, Ms. Collier. Two Ravens Publishing. Named by another William Bagnold a long time ago. Oh, here’s my card.”
Jean looked at the card for a moment. “And your business brings you here?”
“Yes it does. Two Ravens received a submission from an American author for a manuscript titled The Circle of Light. Her name is Mrs. Elsbeth Malone. Well, my father has shown keen interest in the book and intends to publish. He’s very taken with the book, you see. But there happens to be a minor problem, which is why I’m here.”
“Mrs. Malone wishes to have an American literary agent represent her interest. We suggested an English agent; actually we advised Mrs. Malone that she needn’t employ an agency at all, but Mrs. Malone was insistent.”
“As I said, Mrs. Malone was very adamant that it be you. Not any other agent. You, Ms. Collier. As far as to the why of it, I suppose you’d have to ask her.”
“I don’t even know who she is.”
For the first time, the man lost his smile. Confused now, he said, “You don’t? Oh, my. Perhaps I’ve made a mistake. No—I couldn’t have made a mistake. I’m positively certain I came to the right place.”
The man pulled a small notebook from his breast pocket. He paged through until he found the page. “Here it is. Yes. The Jean Collier Literary Agency. Vineland, New Jersey, USA. This is where I am, is it not?”
“Yes. It’s where you are. I wonder why she chose me?”
“Dunno. But it’s you she wants, Ms. Collier. I have her card and phone number right here. Why not give her a call and ask?”
“Yes. I’ll do that. Thanks.”
The man pulled a card from his pocket and handed it across the desk. The woman’s name, address and phone numbers were printed in bold letters. Jean keyed in the number. The busy signal felt like a knife entering the side of her head. Frantic, she pulled the phone from the side of her head and slammed it down on the receiver.
“My God, I don’t know what just . . .”
Concerned, he said, “Is there something the matter, Ms. Collier?”
“I don’t . . . something with this phone . . . it . . .”
“I can’t get through.”
“I’m sure you’ll be able get in touch with her later.”
“Yes,” she said, staring at the phone. “I’ll try again later.”
Slowly, she regained her composure.
“Mr. Bagnold, you said the title was The Circle of Light?”
“I just seem to remember—give me just a minute, here.”
Jean moved the mouse, and then typed on her keyboard.
“I go through so many submissions. But now I seem to remember. I don’t record all of them. Some of them, though, if they showed promise, I put in a file. If I pass up a book and it gets picked up by another agent and is published, and it takes off, then I want to look back and see what I missed, why I passed on it. Okay, yes! Here it is! The Circle of Light by Elsbeth Malone. I didn’t rate it very high. I’m afraid I rejected the manuscript. But it did make my list of possibilities.”
“Understandable, Ms. Collier. And a common enough occurrence. Wouldn’t be the first time an agent let a book go by, now would it? But as I said, my father wants to publish Mrs. Malone’s book, and my father gets what he wants. But now to the business at hand. Ms. Collier, should your agency agree to represent our client, can we expect your standard non-domestic contract? Twenty percent?”
“Yes. Twenty percent for out of country, fifteen percent for domestic.” Jean opened a desk drawer. “I have a copy of our standard agreement.”
The man read the entire document from beginning to end.
“Well, Ms. Collier, I see no problem. No problem at all. Normally I wouldn’t divulge details until the client and agent meet, but I’m sure in this case Mrs. Malone won’t mind, seeing that you’ll be speaking to her personally later today. Two Ravens is prepared to advance Mrs. Malone the sum of . . . let me see . . . ah . . . in dollars . . . the figure will be approximately two hundred fifty thousand dollars.”
Is this for real? Jean thought. First the deal with Brian Roman, and now this? If good things really do come in threes, I wonder what’s next?
He sat across the table, waiting.
“Mr. Bagnold, I’ll try to contact Mrs. Malone again.”
She keyed in the number. Tentative, she put the phone to her ear. This time, the busy signal sounded normal. When she was about to hang up, the signal changed to the intermittent, wrenching screams of a woman.
Petrified, she dropped the handset to the floor.
“What is it, Ms. Collier? Are you all right?”
Disoriented, she said, “Yes . . . yes . . . I . . . I’m sorry, Mr. Bagnold.”
She reached for the handset and quickly placed it back on the receiver.
“I’m afraid the line was still busy.”
“Tell you what, Ms. Collier. I’m staying in Atlantic City—I’ve had a bit of success at the tables, lucky me! . If father knew he’d be appalled, I’m sure. He simply detests gambling! So . . . why don’t we meet in a few days? It’ll give you time to talk to Mrs. Malone. If you need to contact me here’s where I’m staying. They’ll find me.”
Jean took the card, recognized the hotel casino, and said, “Why don’t we make it Tuesday? If I’m not able to contact Mrs. Malone I’ll call you before then.”
“Splendid! Well then, that settles that. I must say, Ms. Collier, it’s been a pleasure.”
Jean stood, came around the desk and offered the man her hand. “The pleasure’s been all mine, Mr. Bagnold. And thank you very much. I’ll do my best for our client; you can count on that. To be honest I really can’t imagine why she wants me to represent her since I did reject her work. But I certainly welcome her business. I’m really anxious to speak with her—I’d like to know why.”
“I understand, Ms. Collier. I admit it’s rather unorthodox, but after all, it’s what the client wants, and she did write the book, didn’t she? You will do the right thing for her, won’t you, Ms. Collier?”
“I most certainly will, Mr. Bagnold.”
The man smiled. Jean looked closer. Funny. No, not funny, strange. Although Mr. Bagnold displayed a toothy smile, the good cheer seemed to evaporate. The humor in the eyes was gone.
“Billy. Please. Call me Billy. Good day, Ms. Collier.”
“Good day, sir. I’ll show you out.”
At the foot of the stairs, the man’s good nature had returned.
“Well I guess I’ll be saying goodbye to you too, Ms. Colbert!” Bowing, Bagnold continued, “It’s was certainly nice to make your acquaintance!”
Leila said, “It was nice to meet you too. I trust you had a good meeting, sir?”
Bagnold beamed at Jean Collier. She smiled in return.
“Oh yes, we had an excellent meeting, didn’t we Ms. Collier?”
“Yes, we did. And thank you again, Mr. Bagnold.”
Jean offered her hand, and when the young man raised it to his lips and kissed it, Jean flinched. Just for a split second the touch was like a hot branding iron. When she withdrew her hand, the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
In a breeze, the man was gone.
About to comment on the man, Leila turned to speak, but Jean was already on her way up the stairs.
Brian Roman held the phone away from his ear. His soon to be ex-agent was having a bad day. At least Harry wasn’t cursing. When Harry was mad, he swore like an ironworker. So far, the agent had held his cool.
After listening to the litany of reasons, Brian said, “Look Harry. I told you. No dice. It was a good run; I’ll grant you that. And don’t tell me I’m ungrateful. I know you gave me my chance, and I appreciate it. But that was a long time ago, Harry. How long do you expect me to pay for it? Forever?”
“Brian! We’ve worked together nineteen years! Nineteen! Now all the sudden you’re going to chuck it all away over money? I told you—Ira’s a very reasonable man. He’s agreeing to all of your demands. What more do you want? He’s giving you everything you asked for and now he’s willing to give even more! It’s in black and white. Just take a look at the paperwork. I’m asking you as a friend. C’mon Brian. Do I have to say pretty please?”
“Harry, I’m sorry, but I’m not changing my mind.”
“Okay. Okay then. How about if I give it to you straight? Is that what you want to hear? Why don’t you stop being an asshole and take a look at the contract? Shit, Brian, there’s no reason why we can’t work together on this!”
“It’s not going to happen, Harry.”
“Okay. I forgot. Now you’re a big shot. That’s right. Big fucking author, right? We’ll see how far you get without Asgard’s backing. And who’s going to represent the great Brian Roman? His Royal fucking Highness Brian fucking Roman? Who? Can you tell me that? Or is that some big secret?”
“What’s the matter Harry? Afraid you might have to go back to work for a living?”
“Very fucking funny. Have it your way, Brian. But I’ll tell you this. You’re going to live to regret it. Mark my words. You’ll live to regret it. You don’t fuck with Ira. Ira has connections. He’ll make sure you won’t be able to publish a fucking cook book.”
“Goodbye Harry. Nice working with you.”
“Go ahead. You’re going to be real sorry. And don’t come crying to me later. Better watch for me, Brian. Watch real close. I’ll be the guy grinning in the back.”
Brian hung up. Let the lawyer handle it from here on out. It was time to kick Harry off the gravy train anyway. Matter of fact, it was long overdue. And Ira? No problem there. Ira had hundreds of Harry’s.
Wonder what she’ll say? Brian thought as he put his bags in the trunk. She won’t be expecting me. Damn I can’t wait to see her. I feel like a sap-filled eighteen-year-old! Well, Miss Collier, we’re going to have to do something about that too, aren’t we?
Getting out of New York City was tough as ever. With the Garden State Parkway clear, Brian headed south toward Atlantic City.
Should get there before 4 o’clock. She said she’s usually in the office till five. Should catch her there in plenty of time.
Entering Vineland at three-thirty in the afternoon, Brian found the red brick building easy enough, and parked a block away. He entered the first floor office. The woman looked up. The nameplate on her desk read Leila Colbert.
Before the attractive African-American woman could speak, Brian shook his head. He put a forefinger over his smile. She cocked her head, smiling.
Leila kept her voice down. “Are you who I think you are? Brian?”
Brian nodded. “Is she here?”
“Yes. Upstairs. She’s been there all day. I was about ready to go up and have a chat. I thought you were coming next week?”
“Change of plans.”
“She talks a lot about you.”
“Good stuff, I hope.”
“I won’t tell. Well, go ahead. Go on up.”
“I’ll go with you. That means you go first,” Brian said.
Her smile grew wider. “Okay.”
Brian followed her up the stairs.
God, he thought. An ass to kill for.
Thick carpeting covered the hallway floor. Jean’s office door was shut. Leila knocked and said, “Jean?”
Leila turned the handle and pushed. The door was locked.
“She never locks the door. Never.”
“Jean? Are you in there?”
Brian said. “Are you sure she’s here?”
“Not unless she jumped out the window. Yeah, she’s here. She went back up after she showed a client out. Maybe she fell asleep.”
Leila’s voice raised an octave when she knocked again and called, “Jean, are you all right?”
Brian said, “Leila? Do you have a key?”
“I’m pretty sure I have one in the top drawer of my desk. I’ve never used it. I’ll go get it.”
She returned, key in hand. Leila put the key in the slot and turned the doorknob. She pushed the door open.
When they saw Jean Collier, Brian Roman rushed into the room. Leila’s blood-chilling screams reverberated from the doorway.
Like a library, shelves completely covered the north wall of the room. Buildings from this era had been constructed with high ceilings, and books filled the shelves from floor to ceiling. So long ago, at the time the craftsmen built the bookcase; they had installed a sliding ladder positioned on runners. The ladder allowed access to the top shelves.
The office floor had the same heavy carpeting as the hall, and big bay windows overshadowed the east and south walls. Built over half a century ago by Jean’s great-grandfather, the huge oak desk dominated the room.
After she saw the Englishman out, Jean had gone back up to her office, and locked the door. She went to her desk, opened a side drawer, and withdrew a pair of scissors. She used her folding three-step footstool to reach the top of the east window, where she cut the woven sash cord away. Next, she put the footstool atop the desk, stood at the top step, and barely reaching the ceiling fan, tied a square knot around the ceiling fan shaft. Jean tied a slipknot on the other end of the sash cord, and wiggled her head through the loop and pulled it tight around her neck. Wavering at the top of the footstool, she kicked it away. When the footstool fell from the desktop, it barely made a sound when it hit the carpet. Downstairs, Leila hadn’t heard a thing.