Write By Your Side
The polished mahogany hull of the Lady Phoenix sliced through the bronze waters of the Mississippi River, a slight churn in her wake from the twin motors pushing crossways against the current. Sam Price swung the wheel with the easy ability of someone familiar with both the machine and the water, swinging the forty-foot Chris-Craft replica around, judging the current by instinct.
It was cool for June, cooler yet on the river, but the humidity was still high enough to make his T-shirt stick to his shoulders as he leaned left to gauge his distance to the pier.
The side of the boat slipped into a perfect right angle to the dock. With a final gun of the motors in reverse, the cruiser stopped, hull bumping gently against the old tires lining the pier. He cut the motor, then hopped from the wheelhouse to the deck to tie the boat off at the two iron stanchions on the dock.
He had just secured the second rope with a bowline knot when a voice from behind him called, “’Bout time. Don’t you ever carry your phone?”
Sam didn’t need to turn. “I carry it. I just don’t have it on. Not when I’m on the water.”
“It’d save me a lot of trips down the steps if you would.” Archie Becker stepped over to the wooden cruiser to help his friend tie off the boat.
Sam straightened, wiping the water from his hands on his tan Dockers. “I thought you loved exercise.”
“These stairs aren’t exercise, they’re torture.” Archie straightened, hand gripping the gunwale. He waved with his other hand, frowning as if he expected to see gouts of water coming up through the boards of the deck. “You sure this thing is safe?”
“The Lady Phoenix is as watertight as when my dad built her.”
“Umph. That’s what I’m worried about.”
“Don’t let Dad hear you say that.”
“Not a chance. He might staple my foot to the ground with a nail gun or something.” Archie put a foot onto the deck, slowly shifting his weight from the dock to the boat. “I never did trust this thing. You know, they do make nice, new, safe modern boats.”
Sam shook his head. “So you keep telling me. No, these old boats are better built, simple. My dad and I placed every board into her. We know she’s solid.”
“That’s what they said about the Titanic.”
Sam smiled, leaning against the boat cabin. He noticed a smudge on the chrome trim encircling it. “The offer still stands to take you out,” he said as he buffed the spot with the hem of his shirt.
Archie shook his head. “No, thanks. If I’m going to drown, it will be accidentally in a hot tub.”
“Suit yourself.” He went to the rear of the cruiser to make sure the stern tie-off was snug.
Archie stayed where he was. Even though the boat wasn’t moving, he kept a solid grip on the top railing. “Get any ideas for the next book while you were out there?”
Sam liked to use his time on the water to brainstorm new book concepts. “Mmm, a couple. Getting kind of tough to find new murders for LL to solve.”
LL was Lottie Long, the venerable sleuth heroine of about forty cozy-mystery novels. Sam had been ghostwriting the popular character, originally the creation of local author Adelaide Brooks, since Adelaide’s retirement three years ago. Few locals knew Adelaide didn’t write the books anymore, which was fine with Sam. He tried to put as much class as he could into the work, and it was steady. Adelaide could keep all the adulation she wanted as long as he got the paychecks.
He finished a knot and stood. “So, which do you prefer—poisoning by extract of oleander or a good old-fashioned strangling with a necktie?”
Archie rubbed his chin. “Hmm. Tough choice. Which gives you the best character motivation?”
“Does it matter?”
“Good point. I’d go with the poisoning. I’d think anything with flowers would be a hit with the senior ladies in your audience.”
“Too bad you can’t just kill Lottie off. She’s got to be, what, about eighty by now?”
“Who knows? I already have about ten death scenes written for her, all of them inappropriate and none of which will ever see print.” Sam dropped a coiled rope on the deck by the stairs. “I can’t kill off the gravy train.”
“Well, look at the bright side. At least you’re a full-time writer.”
Sam shrugged. “I suppose that’s something.”
And it was. Writing was work, just like any other job, but it gave him a chance to do what he was best at. And the freedom to help his dad with the occasional job or take the occasional boat ride when he needed a break.
Archie paused. “They just announced this year’s Penniman Award winner.”
“Her, actually. Another Cartwright student if you can believe it.”
Sam was silent, busying himself with the ropes.
“Lightning strikes twice, I suppose. First you, eight years ago, now another grad.” Archie waited, cleared his throat. “Still waiting to see that first draft of Lady Phoenix. The book, not the leaky boat. Love to give you an unbiased opinion.”
Sam didn’t look up, went aft to coil another rope. Lady Phoenix was not only the name of his dad’s boat; it was also the title of his unfinished novel—his Great American Novel. The one he’d started after he’d won that same writing award. “You’ll be waiting for a while. I haven’t touched it in a few months.” Actually, more than a year.
Archie grunted. “You said that a year ago and the year before that. When are you going to finish that thing?”
“When I have a chance. And it’s not like anyone is waiting to read it.”
“How can they if it’s not finished?”
Same old push. “Please, no deductive logic on the weekends.”
“I teach at a college. It’s an occupational hazard.”
Sam returned to where Archie was standing on the deck, arms folded. He sighed, folding his own arms. “I don’t know, Arch. I’m thinking of trying something new. Maybe under a pen name of my own.”
“Why don’t you try romance? Lot of money in romance. Especially the spicy stuff.”
“Not really my bag. Don’t have the abs for it.”
“Well, thrillers are hot.” Archie paused. “Nah, you’d probably be stepping on some toes with that.”
Sam didn’t respond.
“Speaking of toe-stepping, how is Ellie these days?”
Nice segue, Archie. “I’m assuming fine.”
“Saw she has a new one out. Doing a book tour.”
Sam had spotted an interview with his ex-writing partner—also ex-girlfriend—in this morning’s Town Crier. “Oh?”
Archie nodded. “Must be doing pretty well with her latest. Something called...Shoot Me Now or Shoot Him…something. Shoot to Thrill. That’s it.”
“Shoot to Thrill is an AC/DC album.”
“Oh. Shoot or Die? Eats, Shoots & Leaves? Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player?”
“Shoot the Messenger.”
Archie snapped his fingers, nodding. “That’s it.” He glanced at Sam. “Read it?”
“Nope.” Time to change the subject. “So, why are you here, anyway?”
Archie stared at him blankly, then snapped his fingers again. “Oh, another message from Max. Since you weren’t answering, he asked me to pass it along.”
Again? Sam thought. “What’s he want this time?”
“He didn’t say, but he seemed even more hacked off than usual.”
“I didn’t think that was possible.” Sam’s agent, Max Horton, appeared to be on the edge of a life-ending coronary every time you talked to him.
“He told me to tell you to call as soon as possible. It’s urgent.”
“That’s what Max always says.” Sam had learned to let his agent blow off a little steam before getting back to him. “I wish he’d stop calling you.”
“I’m reliable. He also said you would say that, so he said this time he means what he says.”
Sam had to think about that one for a bit. He stepped onto the dock, and Archie followed, testing the boards before transferring his weight.
“Okay, I’ll call him on the way back to the house.” Sam double-checked the mooring tied to the cleats.
“Better make it soon. I think he was about to pop a vein.”
“Vein pop, huh? Must be serious.”
“Isn’t it always?”
Sam chuckled. True. Max had been his and Ellie’s agent for four years. First, as a team seeking advice, but now...
He gave a last glance at the Lady Phoenix. The boat bobbed a goodbye as he turned and began heading for the long stairs up the hill from the tiny marina.
The Lottie Long writing had started off as a temporary deal, just a way to keep the rent paid and the ramen noodles on the table. Adelaide Brooks had had a mild heart attack three and a half years ago—she was almost ninety, after all. (At least that’s what he thought; Adelaide told no one her real age.) Max had convinced Sam to take a shot at ghostwriting her next book while she recuperated. It had been a dry spell for Sam, and he’d agreed to give it a shot. To his surprise, he had taken to it, his earlier detective writing with Ellie coming in handy.
No one was more shocked than he was when Adelaide Brooks announced to her publisher that she wanted to retire and have him take over as the writer for Lottie Long. At first, he was hesitant. He wondered, once his own literary career took off, did he really want the embarrassing anchor of being Adelaide Brooks’s ghostwriter weighing down his career?
But the money was good, and he’d already tried every ramen flavor about twenty times. Anyway, he was good at it, even though finding a voice for an elderly female sleuth had been a challenge. He figured he could use his real name for his novel later. Then he’d pass along the Lottie Long duties to the next fake Adelaide.
He could hear Archie muttering behind him on the stairs, and he tried to keep his own breathing from getting ragged. One advantage of this river slip was that it was fairly private, picturesque, and cheap. The obvious disadvantage was the two hundred and twenty steps you had to take down to get there. Or up, as they were doing now.
“I...swear...” Archie was puffing. “I’m going to launch...a Kickstarter...to put an escalator...in here.”
Sam knew his friend just liked to complain. But his own calves were hurting, so the gold stripe ringing the belly of the Golden Grove water tower over the top of the steps was a welcome sign. He paused at the top to check his cell phone for service. It was always a little dicey here around the cliffs. And nonexistent down at the river.
Nope. No bars yet.
Archie was bent over, hands on his knees, making a show of gasping. “Is this really worth it?”
Sam was out of breath himself but wasn’t going to show it. “To get away from phones, people, just be out on the river all by myself with nothing to do but watch the water? Absolutely. See you later at Ray’s?”
As he headed for the parking lot, Archie only gave a nod and a wave backward, which Sam assumed meant yes.
He beeped the lock to his own car. He sat behind the wheel for a moment, engine idling. A late summer breeze blew through the open windows, clearing out the stuffy air. He watched the sunlight as it dappled through the oak leaves. His mind wandered…Lottie Long to Adelaide Brooks to Max to Ellie. He knew Archie meant well, bringing her up like that, but that was a chapter in his life that was over.
At least, that’s what he’d been telling himself these past four years. It was at times like these—alone, in silence, just off the water—where he found himself hoping there was still something in the story left to be written.
Ellie Chambers’s palms were sweating. Oh, geez. “I’m sorry...what was the question?” She felt the eyes of the entire radio crew staring at her.
Her interviewer, Rachel Dean, smiled sweetly next to her, then touched her hand. “Don’t worry, Ellie, we’re not really live. Just relax. We can take it again from the top. Here”—she handed Ellie a bottle of water—“take a sip and we’ll go again when you’re ready.” Rachel turned to the bearded guy in the booth behind the glass next to her, nodded, and made a rewind motion with her finger.
Ellie took the bottle and settled back in her chair, grateful for a second chance. If this public radio interview had been live, she would have sounded like a complete idiot. She unscrewed the cap and took a sip of water, nice and cold. Man, she hated these things. It brought back too many memories of high school debate team. Public speaking: the number one fear in America. Before death, taxes, and rewriting your first draft. Someone got that right.
Okay, relax. She needed to remember this was good promotion for the new book. She rubbed her damp palms against her skirt. She hoped she wouldn’t have to shake hands with anyone.
Rachel got the cue from her engineer behind the plate glass, then gave Ellie a smile and a nod. Go again.
“Welcome back to Live in Iowa,” she said into her microphone. “I’m Rachel Dean. Well, if you’ve ever wondered what a bestselling thriller author sounds like, you’ll find out today. Ellie, welcome.”
“Thanks, Rachel,” Ellie said. She fought the urge to clear her throat.
“My guest today is Ellie Chambers, a USA Today bestselling thriller author. Shoot the Messenger is the newest book in her popular Christine Carver series. Now, Ellie, even though you don’t live in New York City, you still maintain a strong connection with the publishing world, correct?”
“Yes. I rely heavily on my agent in Chicago, Max Horton. He handles the business side of things, which lets me concentrate on the writing.” There you go, Max. Enjoy the plug.
“We’re here in Des Moines, but you actually live in a small town here in Iowa?”
“Yes, Golden Grove. Up by the Mississippi. I grew up in Chicago but went to college at Cartwright. I ended up staying there.” Please don’t ask me why.
“Golden Grove is fairly small, right? What’s that like for a writer whose characters travel the world to exotic locations?”
“Well, it does seem like kind of”—Quick, you’re a writer...what’s that word?—“an anomaly, but I find the seclusion and less exotic surroundings actually help me with my writing. I’m better able to allow my imagination to take over. Besides, there’s always the Internet if I need to research something. My assistant, Ginger, helps with that, too.” So far, so good. She was getting back into the swing of being interviewed.
“Interesting, interesting. And your new book, Shoot the Messenger, is the sixth in your Christine Carver series, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Yes? Yes, what? Say more, you moron.
Rachel paused. “Your previous books have received high praise from reviewers and even authors like C. J. Franks. She’s a hero of yours, I believe?”
“She is? I mean, I am? Yes, she’s kind of my...not my inspiration exactly, but she is the reason I decided to try to write thriller novels.” C. J. Franks reads my books?
“And what’s it like as a woman, writing about guns and assassinations and explosions and so forth?”
“Well, I suppose it gives me a chance to explore my darker side.”
Her host smiled, waiting.
“I mean, really, why should the men have all the fun?” Wait, was that sexist?
That got a laugh from Rachel.
Ellie relaxed. “I mean, just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you’re automatically relegated to writing romance or...or cozy mysteries or something.”
“Oh, I agree.”
Ellie was warming up. “See, some authors think that writing page-turning books with an exciting plot is beneath them, that it demeans the great history of Dickens or Hemingway or whomever. But most people don’t even realize that Dickens wrote most of his books in weekly installments, almost like a TV series. He was just as much of a hack as Stephen King, or I, for that matter.” She froze, sweat breaking out on her neck. Wait...did I just call Stephen King a hack on public radio?
Rachel was chuckling. “I see you’re very passionate about the subject.”
Ellie cleared her throat. “Sorry. Just got up on my soapbox there for a moment.”