Three out of nine days, writing for William Talbot was a joy. The other six days his time would be better-spent fishing. This typically gorgeous morning in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, Central Mexico, where the air strokes the skin like a lover, started out one of the joy days. But then the telephone rang. A low down bedroom whisper asked for him by name. He thought she might be one of his students. “We need to meet right away. You have information I’ve got to have.”
Couldn’t be about her grade. After the university back home refused to give him tenure he quit and came down here to teach tourists, hoping to connect for romance. He did not give grades. “What information?”
A sharp intake of breath carried over. “On a foreign phone? No way.”
He visualized a tall and willowy brunette spy with a classic bob, short of lip, long of bone, and with knowing eyes. He cleared the morning tequila phlegm from his throat and dropped his voice down into the gravel-in-tin-bucket range. “What’s your name?”
She lowered her voice an octave and the image took on a high-arching upper lip and a game under bite. “I’m Shultz, no c, but of course that’s not the name I’m going by.”
“What you going by?”
“Not on a foreign phone!”
Talbot saw himself in trench coat and trilby, slouching in Casablanca’s yellow fog toward a ‘thirties transport with hiccoughing engines.
“Listen, I’m close. Pick a public place that’s safe.”
All the better. He couldn’t afford to fly anywhere or, for that matter, drive. His car’s brakes had gone south and it needed a new tire. “Do you know Café Colon?”
“Catty corner from the ice cream shop. Ten minutes.”
Great! But how had he missed her? Talbot had attempted to hustle every good-looking woman of any age in San Miguel. He was still hopeful even after four failed marriages.
“Don’t be late ‘cause I got to keep moving.”
He rushed a shower and shave. Not having exercised in weeks, he opted for slimming black pants and shirt.
No one down here had ever seen him run before and heads turned as he staggered past. He arrived at Café Colon winded and sweating. Damn! He had forgotten to apply underarm deodorant. Luckily the restaurant reeked of burned onions. The TV spewed a jangly stream of mariachi played by fat men poured into studded embroidery. There was only a yawning waiter and the patron, whose multiple chins wobbled on his chest at the cash box. Feeling like a spy himself, Talbot sat with his back against a wall and watched the door with his eyes narrowed.
Thirty minutes passed. No Shultz No C. The mariachi was giving him such a headache.
Two large men came in together. They had hard expressions. Their tailoring was neither Mexican nor American. Russian assassins, assigned to cut off her end run? He was so glad he had not worn his trench and trilby.
A woman with a billowing orange bouffant paused in the doorway and inhaled a cigarette. She wore a silk jumpsuit the same color as her hair. The sun shining through her and the smoke made her look wreathed in fire. She was at least Talbot’s age and he prayed this was not Shultz No C. His preference was women less than thirty. Too often the older ones had no illusions left and saw through him instantly.
She shifted a black shoulder bag and teetered on four-inch spikes to the table of the Russians. Leaning on her thumbs she whispered. They stared open-mouthed at her and disavowed. She lurched to his table. “You him, what’s-his-face, the writer?” She had a smoker’s voice. Her lips had north and south furrows. Those hawkish eyes were sin paku, showing white all around, a condition Talbot believed indicated serious mental aberration.
“So what’s this all about?”
She folded, and sighing, sat. “Always eat when you can ‘cause you never know. Also, never pass up a toilet. Remind me before I leave.”
“So what can I do for you?”
She held up a cautionary hand. She ordered the biggest breakfast on the menu and when it came, studied each bite as if a micro-listening device might be embedded. While eating she said not a word but smoked three bent unfiltereds. At last, she pushed her plate away and flicked her Camel out the door. It hit a burro on the rump that bucked and pitched its load of kindling all over the street.
She smirked. “That’s what you get when you’re a beast of burden. I should know. I was a stripper for fourteen years.” She lit number four and blew smoke in Talbot’s face. “Tell me exactly what I got to do to write a blockbuster best-selling novel.”
“I could have told you that on the phone.”
“Yeah, but I had to see if I trusted you.”
He sighed. “So how long you been writing?”
“I’m starting today, on the plane back to New York.” She pronounced it Naw Yawk.
“Why do you want to be a writer?”
“Because I’m high maintenance and more and more that takes big bucks.”
This was the first time he had heard such honesty from a hopeful writer. Usually, they said they wanted to change the world, make a difference, but the truth was that they wanted to change the opinion their high school classmates had of them. “What do you do for a living now?”
“I’m an agent.”
Well, at least he had got that right. Spying was a sordid business and she looked plenty sordid. “What government?”
“Real estate. But maybe you saw me when I was stripping? Capri Hipcock Buckingham? I was the one introduced lap dancing to Manhattan. Hey, you know somethin’? I could use that moniker for my writing. Better than Shultz, no c.” She squinted through the smoke. “God, now that I think of it, the stripping career alone ought to be worth a million. Better make a note.” She scribbled furiously on a paper napkin and then joined the mariachis’ rhythm section by pounding a soup spoon on her plate.
“I’ll jot you down some titles of books dealing with style.”
“Hey, pal, look at me. I know all about style. It’s grammar I’m weak at. And vocabulary. My boyfriend says I use less than a hundred words and every one of them has to do with money. He should know. Jack’s a Wall Street bartender.”
“Got a computer with a word processor program?”
She circled her pen over the napkin. “Word processor: one word or two?”
“Next, you sit down and write.”
She wrote. “For how long?”
She wrote that down.
“The second day you do it again.”
She glowered. “Sixteen hours? Seems excessive.”
“Eight hours every day for ten years.”
“Oh, yeah? Listen, bub, last month in three hours I peddled a brownstone and made a hundred sixty K.”
“You might hang on to your day job.”
“Ten years? Are you kidding me? I’ll be past sixty. I mean, forty.”
“The average best-selling author is fifty-four, overweight, divorced, has a dog, a drinking problem, and wears bifocals. Sometimes forgets to wear deodorant.”
“Do I have to hang out with other writers?”
“Painters and their models are more fun.”
“What about plot?”
“Plots are everywhere; you just have to recognize them. But you might have to invent a beginning. Sometimes a middle. And always an ending.”
“Can’t I use a plot some drone noodled out?”
“Perfectly acceptable. Shakespeare lifted his out of an old history book. Hemingway, some of his short stories anyway, from a Russian writer name of IvanTurgenev.”
He started to but she slapped the table. “Not the damn Russky. Hemmerway.”
“All you’re allowed to steal is the plot. Invent your own characters, descriptions, similes, and metaphors.”
“Spell them last two.”
“And you’ll need a late-model dictionary.”
She wrote. “So that’s it? All I got to do?”
“That ought to do you.”
“Okay!” Shultz No C folded the nappie, stuffed it in her bag, and stood. “Now you tell your publisher I want a million bucks in advance.”
At this point Talbot did not have one but decided telling her was unnecessary. “I will certainly pass that on.”
Without another word she tottered out, sticking him with the bill.
Talbot snatched up a Mexican newspaper and read with satisfaction of murders and dismemberments.
* * *
Two months later, a hard bound novel arrived in the mail: “Molly of Manhattan,” by one Capri Hipcock Buckingham.
The rear dust cover bore a photograph of Shultz No C, saluting, legs around a fireman’s pole. About twenty, she wore a g string.
Talbot read the first five paragraphs and sat back in shock. Her descriptions were brief and on the mark, some of them as if the writer had x-ray eyes. They contained verbs and nouns instead of adjectives and okay was spelled out. There were no vitality eaters replieds, stateds, or expostulateds.
He read on, letting his bacon and eggs get cold. The heroine of “Molly of Manhattan” was a Manhattanite whose career as a strip- tease artist and party girl threatens her love affair with a married uptown real estate agent she described as looking “just like Donald Trump.” Now, how the dickens had Shultz learned so quickly? It had taken Talbot decades. Ah! he told himself. She accosted a bunch of other writers, picked and chose the best advice they gave and followed it to the letter.
The story would certainly appeal to the widest common denominator of readers, the trailer park set.
He realized only at the end that the plot was familiar. Talbot rooted in his study for Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of D’Urbervilles.” The milkmaid Tess also had a career as a shady lady.
Ah ha, Shultz had merely changed the names, the place, and the era, though she deleted Hardy’s hayricks and other epoch-defining details. Talbot Googled and found that her novel had the same number of chapters and pretty much the same number of sentences and paragraphs. Smiling, he slammed the book shut. Surely Shultz No C would go to jail.
Within a week the writer and her derivative novel were on every channel but not because of plagiarism. Jack the former bartender had put the manuscript up for auction and the print publishers went into a feeding frenzy. The high bidder was Oprah, who paid five million, a record for a debut writer.
A week later, Hollywood forked out a million nine for the movie rights. Critical applause arrived from the eight points of the compass.
A Sunday Morning interviewer tracked Capri Hipcock Buckingham to Cairo, in the rambling, pink palace that she won playing Yahtzee with a maharajah.
After nine days of intensive work, eight solid hours a day including the weekend, she had just completed her second novel. In the background, a printer busily clacked it out.
“My teacher, Bill Talbot of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, taught me everything I know.” She chuckled. “He can use the publicity. He’s one of them la-de-dah literary writers. Didn’t teach, he’d starve to death.”
Two months later another hardbound arrived. “Biting the Bull” was a transparent rewrite of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” Hem’s Lady Brett Ashley character was here named Countess Dorinda Wabash Smith.
There was an inscription inside:
Come to Cairo and let me buy you breakfast.
I’ll give you can’t-fail tips so you can write
your own blockbuster.
Talbot read “Biting the Bull” also in one sitting and believed it was a masterpiece.
Shultz had modeled Rex Galahad Jones, the cool, handsome, world-weary hero, after him.