Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Minnow Feasts

Don't you just love corporate buyouts? The complexity of the deal is nearly fantastic, the sort of thing that only an entire coven of legal minds could concoct. Over in Ireland, it's the whole Riverdeep/Houghton Mifflin merger that has tongues wagging and fingers scratching heads in confusion.

Barry O'Callaghan is feeding a bit of the financial largesse to his managers, and himself of course. He's not working this hard for nothing. The incentives to the lucky group amount to around $132 million, with himself getting the lion's share. All the same, I wish I were one of Riverdeep's managers right now, and just in time for Christmas, all the little minnows getting a lovely bonus.

The new company, HM Riverdeep, bought up Houghton Mifflin for $3.4 billion, which means the original investors who picked it up from Vivendi made a very tidy profit. Then HM Riverdeep picked up Riverdeep for $1.2 billion, and voila as the French might say. Credit Suisse and Citigroup are ponying up $3.14 billion, with the remainder coming from equity and cash holdings of the two original companies. Glad I'm not holding the mortgage on this deal; I'd never sleep at night with worry.

With the incentive package, Mr. O'Callaghan and his team are locked in to run the entire operation. He's to invest an additional $200 million, to raise his stake in HM Riverdeep, and they'll all end up with a controlling interest.

Riverdeep gets the use of Houghton Mifflin's sales force with this restructured entity, an asset they plan to use to expand their market share. The new company will be looking to save some money by restructuring the intellectual property assets under Irish tax laws, which are more generous to big companies than the IRS. Then they'll cut a few jobs here and merge departments there, and the next thing you know, they're getting out from under the debt burden, assuming that sales take off as planned. There's ways to save money, and then there's ways to save money. If you're working for Riverdeep or Houghton Mifflin, you might want to get your resume in order.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Minnow's Deep Pockets

It's a done deal, according to the latest news. Riverdeep has swallowed up Houghton Mifflin for $1.75 billion (that's with a b, yes) in cash and $1.61 billion (another b) of debt will be assumed as part of the package. Sweet Jesus, but that's a mind-boggling list of zeros.

In a bit of financial finagling, Riverdeep is being acquired by HM Rivergroup PLC, which is Barry O'Callaghan's Riverdeep in fancy dress. Holders of Riverdeep stock get a new HM Rivergroup PLC stock certificate for every piece of Riverdeep stock that they owned, and Mr. O'Callaghan gets to be the executive chairman for the new company. For the financially curious, the deal values Riverdeep at $1.2 billion with net debt included.

And so Reader Rabbit and Carmen Sandiego will go forth under a new banner, and Houghton Mifflin's textbooks will be printed under a different label. Mr. O'Callaghan has been at this business since 1995, and made a success of things. Having 1.75 billion dollars in cash is quite an accomplishment in and of itself, to say nothing of generating that sort of capital in ten years time. With plans to take the old textbook publisher into the electronic age, here's hoping his run of luck continues.

If A Equals B, Then D

Not everyone was so fortunate as to study logic in school. This deprived group includes many members of the European Parliament, who can take two plus two and make five.

The EU has put out a report that claims Ireland's Shannon Airport has been used by the CIA for rendition flights. Well, yes, they will agree that there is no evidence that terror suspects were ever transported through Shannon. In fact, Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern has clarified the real destination of one of these so-called rendition flights. Yes, it went from Shannon to Knock. Perhaps the terror suspect being rendered wanted to stop off and say a prayer to Our Lady. Maybe he thought She'd pay him a visit as well, a heavenly apparition. At any rate, Mr. Ahern is up in arms over the report, since there is no evidence at all that Irish airports were used for the CIA's nefarious purposes.

So how can the EU Parliament make a claim when there's no evidence? Well, Proinnsais de Rossa, Irish MEP, believes there's no evidence because the Irish government acepted US assurance that no suspects were on board. Lying dogs, those Yanks. The incarcerated terrorists wouldn't lie about such things.

It's not just the US that's obstructed the whole investigation. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, was guilty of "omissions and denials" when he gave testimony, and the EU's counter-terrorism chief Gijs de Vries "lacked credibility" when he answered the Committee's questions. The Brits wouldn't cooperate either, and other EU member states came under fire for letting the CIA use their airspace and their land for secret prisons, of which there is of course no evidence. The EU Committee knew absolutely that they were right, so everyone else, except the terrorists, must certainly be guilty of deceit.

Unable to find proof of their hypothesis, the committee blames everyone else for giving false witness, violating the mighty dictates of the Old Testament, a key in their shared Judeo-Christian heritage. Will they ever figure out that the terrorists trying to kill them are not part of that particular demographic?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Money Matters

The US government has a tense relationship with France. So it's been, going back to the XYZ Affair and the undeclared war of 1799. Troubles in the Middle East have fueled the flames a bit, with a war of words settling down lately into a cozy simmer. But international affairs are about more than mere words.

Thierry Breton, the French finance minister, is growing uneasy. There's an election coming up, and the voting public is going to look at the state of the French economy before they cast their ballots. The problem these days is that the French economy is dependent on...the almighty dollar.

The euro is trading at a high rate, not its record, but close enough to make Monsieur Breton very nervous. Interest rates in the European Union are heading up at a faster rate than the American rate, which only makes the euro that much less appealing to investors. The exchange rate itself makes European exports less appealing to buyers as compared to American goods.

Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, the president of a European employers' organization, is asking the finance ministers to be a bit more proactive. With European goods more expensive than their American equivalents, the average customer will go for the lower price every time. That means French factories see a slowdown in demand, and the next thing you know, they're laying off the work force. Not a pretty picture when you're the politician in office hoping to be re-elected. M. Seilliere is hoping that the predicted rise in the interest rate might be postponed, but it looks like the ministers are going ahead anyway. Should the dollar fall further against the euro, he'll be up in arms, demanding that the ministers do something to control the financial market and cheapen down the ballooning euro.

Every now and then you might hear some financial wizard make a comment about the value of the dollar versus the euro, in a voice that indicates concern over the weaker U.S. currency. Listen carefully, and you will not hear a peep out of the Federal Reserve Bank or the major corporations. It's better for American companies, that weak dollar, and it's a boon for exports. Because foreign goods, like French wines and perfumes, become more expensive at a higher exchange rate, we buy less of them, and purchase our home-grown items.

That's diplomacy in action. A gentleman's game, all so very polite, but every fluctuation of the euro against the dollar is like twisting the knife, inflicting a touch of financial pain to the cheese eating surrender monkeys.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Waiting To Hear

If only Stephanie Lee of Manus & Associates would put me out of my misery. She's had a partial manuscript since the middle of August. Surely three months is enough time to tell? Or will you let your silence be the answer?

I know that the folks at BookEnds say it takes them a while to respond, but there's no sign of my SASE since the last week of August when I stuffed it into an envelope with a query, a synopsis and a sample of the writing. Go on, Kim Lionetti, you know it's brilliant. Just ask for the full manuscript. You know you want to. Sally Van Haitsma at Julie Castiglia's agency has had my query letter for just as long, and no reply yet. Another thirty-nine cents gone and nothing to show for it, and whatever will the folks at Castiglia do with a stamped envelope if they don't use it to send me the rejection letter?

Michele Beno at Curtis Brown, Gail Hochman at Brandt & Hochman, and Chris Parris-Lamb of the Gernert Company must all be swamped. No reply to a query sent two months ago. The funny thing is, the batch of queries I sent at the beginning of November, with a different letter, were all quickly rejected. So is the previous letter better after all, or are these literary agents just not bothering to respond any more?

I'd like to hear back, sure, but could you please reply soon? I'd hate to get a rejection letter for Christmas. That'd be worse than a lump of coal.

No Welcome In Turkey

Pope Benedict is set to begin his historic trip to Turkey, where he is to visit Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Oops, sorry, all you Turks out there. No one is allowed to refer to the leader of the Orthodox Church by his title. Not recognized in Turkey, wouldn't you know, since it's a Christian religion and the country is Muslim.

The man on the street wants the Pope to express his most profound apologies for insulting Islam, and that's the story you'll read in the papers and hear on the news. Anyone mentioning anything about the minority religions that are being squeezed to death? Anyone?

His Holiness won't have any seminary visits on his visit because Turkey bans any but Sunni Muslim seminaries. The Greek Orthodox seminary was shuttered back in 1971. It is impossible for the Orthodox or Roman Catholic faiths to train new clergy, a slow suffocation of the religions that predate Islam and were, for all intents and purposes, there first. But it's the Pope who's due to apologize, as far as the Turks are concerned.

There are only two monks left at the Mar Gabriel monastery. Members of the Syriac Orthodox Church founded the place in 397 A.D., but the site is coming to the end of its existence as a Christian place of worship. That's fine with the Turkish government, since they go around confiscating non-Muslim property as the Christian community dwindles. The Turkish government is encouraging protests of the Pope's visit, but there's no word on a similar encouragement of the Christian community to protest against discrimination directed at their own faith.

The Monastery of the Seven Churches is crumbling to dust. Despite promises of foreign funding to pay for the restoration of its mosaics, the Turkish government will not issue the necessary building permits. The Turks are not as concerned with the loss of a monastery as they are worked up about some notion that His Holiness might be coming to reconsecrate the Hagia Sophia, in essence reclaiming a Christian church for Christianity. As far as the average Turk is concerned, the Muslims won it in a fair fight back during the Ottoman times, and it's a mosque, even if the government calls it a museum. Funny thing, isn't it, that they wail and moan about giving back land to the Palestinians who were there first? It's nothing to do with who was first on board, it's all about who's Muslim.

Oddly enough, the Christians in Turkey are praying for accession to the European Union. Only the pressure of Europe can keep the Turks from driving out every last Christian and eliminating forever the traces of a more ancient civilization. That's Turkey's idea of religious tolerance, you see. Tolerate one religion. And the Pope does not owe them any apology for speaking the truth.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Bookmark It

Sadly, the prose editors of the Hayden's Ferry Review have declined my short story. It's the usual 4 by 6 scrap of paper rejection, but these literary journals are on a tight budget. Three months after sending, it's a "no" and I move on to the next round.

Tight budget on the rejection slips, yes, but they sent me a lovely parting gift. Two gifts, in truth, both bookmarks.

The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing has an on-line book club, and it's open to one and all. Just pop in whenever you like at this location and you too can join in the fun. I haven't tried it yet, so I can't give it a thumbs up or down. While you're there, check out the link for the Writer's Studio workshops. According to my hand-dandy bookmark, there's to be a session beginning January 15 and running through the week of March 5. It's promised to be a 'craft-intensive workshop' for 'writers of all levels' and the sessions will be conducted by local community writers. Sounds like the English department professors to me, but who can say.

What about the other bookmark, you ask? That would have been best left out of the SASE. I understand that the editors need to advertise the subscriptions and gift donations to bring in some much needed cash. The problem there is that I don't have the money, since my work was rejected and I won't be getting $30 per page. These submissions run into some money, you see. That's not the worst of it, not at all. The rather annoying aspect of this lovely bookmark is the list of authors whose words were accepted for the Spring/Summer issue. Thanks for rubbing my nose in the rejection by displaying the lucky few, Harper's Ferry Review. If it's all the same to you, though, I'll be shredding it. Rejection is bad enough without a trumpet blare for someone else's triumph.

A Comic Book By Any Other Name

DC Comics calls them graphic novels. Sounds like a decent read, but it's still the same pulp that was forbidden in my childhood home. Go read a book, as simple as that, and if only I could have said, But, mammy, it's a graphic novel. That would've gotten me a sharp shot to the skull.

Now comes Karen Berger, high and mighty of DC Comics. She's after getting teenage girls to read comic books, what with teenage girls representing a vast untouched market. No superheroes for our young ladies, no indeed. Ms. Berger is going to release a series of comics that "honors that intelligence and assertiveness and that individuality." Marketing gurus have taken note that American teens are obsessed with manga. At our local high school, there's a club for manga lovers. Sadly, it's affiliated with geekdom, and the so-called 'normal' kids will have nothing to do with it. I'd suggest to Ms. Berger that it's a fractured market.

She's not needing my advice, though. No, Ms. Berger has gone to Alloy Marketing for help in promoting the new line. Remember Alloy? The same marketing clan that put together the plagiarized novel and said it was written by a teenaged girl who got admitted to Harvard? That little dust-up didn't scare them away from the publishing industry at all, now, did it? At any rate, the many tentacles of Alloy Marketing will ensnare a wide audience of teenaged girls for DC Comics, plugging the picture books along with the rest of the merchandise in their Delia's catalog. And there'll be the ever-popular website, where comic reading girls can interact.

It won't be long before literary agents are hopping on the bandwagon, letting writers of YA fiction know that they are actively seeking comic books...er, graphic novels. It looks to be a hot, hot market, especially because mothers these days don't seem so inclined to vet their daughters' choice of reading material. Is there a mother out there any more who would say no to the comic book, and tell her little darling to go read a real book?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Too Close For Comfort

What with today being the big day and all, wouldn't you know that Tony Blair was on the phone half the night before, turning the screws on Ian Paisley's geriatric thumbs. There was the scent of a political stand-off in the air, a fear that today's meeting at Stormont could fail and the appointment of First Minister and Deputy First Minister would never come to pass. Should that happen, it would the dissolution of the Assembly and then off to plan B.

It's words that are at issue, those little constructions of letters that cause so very much difficulty in certain circles. Somehow or other, the parties involved have to come up with a way to say that they are entering into a power-sharing agreement, without actually saying that they are entering into a power-sharing agreement. All for the supporters back home, you see, those hard-liners who are adamantly opposed to sharing power with anyone Irish or Catholic or whatever might be different from a Free Presbyterian.

The Shinners have agreed to accept policing, but only after they've gotten into power and can do something to change the force as it currently exists. The loyalists have been howling that there'll be no power-sharing if the Shinners don't accept the PSNI as is and shown, right now, and therein lies an insurmountable roadblock.

Never fear, for the governments of Britain and Ireland are working behind the scenes, making deals and possibly making threats. By this morning, it was presumed that Paisley would accept the nomination to be First Minister and things would proceed from there, leading to a new Stormont Assembly and home rule by next March.

Pity that Tony Blair did not hold a conference call with members of the DUP. With everything in place, and the politicians in their Stormont chairs, one of their storied members put an end to the whole affair.

Just this morning, loyalist thug and convicted killer Michael Stone made a grand gesture of refusal to accept change. Through the revolving door he went, into a room packed with journalists waiting to interview the Assembly members, and he tossed what he said was a bomb. 'No surrender,' he is said to have shouted, true loyalist to the core.

Needless to say, he was wrestled to the ground, at which time an astute reporter noticed that he had a gun on him, although no one could say if it was a real weapon or a toy. Stone is now in custody, but he's been jailed before for murdering some IRA supporters at a funeral. The bag, with its smoke and sparks, was being examined by explosives experts when last seen, and the building was of course evacuated. That put an end to the meeting of the day, and there'll be no agreement or nomination or anything.

The DUP has pulled off another stall, getting their way without having to actually negate anything. This stunt by Michael Stone is good for a week at least, and then another loyalist could volunteer for some similar duty, and the next thing you know it's Christmas and the politicians have to take a break for the holidays. Why, this sort of thing could string the process along for months, and nothing will get done and Plan B won't be implemented because the DUP hasn't actually not done what they were supposed to do.

All the talk of positive progress coming out of St. Andrews, the rushed legislation out of Westminster, and it comes down to one convicted murderer and a bag of smoke. The loyalists have been in power since the Ulster Plantation, the boundary of the north of Ireland was gerrymandered to ensure a loyalist majority, and now people genuinely expect them to cede some of their power to their sworn enemies? And the politicians honestly believe that this is going to happen through diplomacy? If they could only find the right words, is that it?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The First Thanksgiving

There'll be no turkey roasting in the oven this year. We're starting our holiday round of firsts, as in the first Thanksgiving after the partner's father has died. In the back of your mind, you always knew that such a first would be there, and yet you're not quite ready to deal with it.

This year, at the partner's suggestion, we're celebrating Thanksgiving in a hotel dining room. Different place, but then, everything about the holiday is different this year. There's a person missing, and it's easier to sit in a hotel dining room where the gap at the table doesn't exist. Christmas will no doubt be adjusted as well, but not as radically. We have to get past this first hurdle, the holiday that follows a death, and then we can begin to shift about and rearrange and settle into a holiday without.

We've much to be grateful for, and we'll focus on the good times and good memories today. The warmth and comfort of family and friends is a most precious gift indeed.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Agent As Editor

The whereabouts of Robert Astle have been identified. Formerly employed by Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans, the newly created literary agent must have found something that he likes about the business. He's up and started his own agency.

Details about what he's doing and how you can join in the fun can be found at his website, which is accessible through Agentquery.com. I'd post a link but the link posting bit isn't working at the moment.

To give you a feeling for his philosophy:
"We believe that interesting people write interesting books, and it takes, among many attributes, energy and persistence to build a long-term writing career. We also believe it takes an agency that will provide detailed editorial notes and sound career advice to develop and support a writers' career in the sometimes-bewildering world of literary and commercial publishing. We believe that the manuscript and proposal must be both irresistible and professional. We work tirelessly to negotiate the best possible deal and continue our support and advice through publication, promotion, brand name building and beyond."

Very nice. Sounds lovely. Continue on to the rest of his services, however, and you have to wonder how long before the folks at Writer Beware are probing his agency.
Will give a complete analysis and feedback, plus an idea of where your project stands commercially. For works less than 50,000 words the turn around time is one week, for more than 50,000 words the turn around time is two weeks. You will receive a written 10 page editorial memorandum (double-spaced and 12 point font), with suggestions on how to take your novel to the next step. Structure, content, action, character, metaphor, narrative and voice will all be discussed. After delivery of the memo, we will follow up with phone call.

Red flags are flying! Can you say 'conflict of interest'? Although he promises to keep the editing separate from the agenting, and he won't promise to take on a manuscript he's edited, Victoria Strauss will no doubt have a few words to say about the idea in general.

He hasn't been around all that long, and there's no track record on his website to confirm or deny his authenticity. Should you long to seek representation from Robert Astle, however, you might want to keep in mind that your literary agent should not be charging you for editing.

Possibly he's perfectly legit and thinks he's come up with a brilliant new way to expand his business. Time will tell. And Victoria of Writers Beware will certainly be letting us know.

Doctor Pacino?

Al Pacino is soon to be counted among the stars. Besides the Hollywood sort of star, I mean. He's about to claim an honor that has also been bestowed on Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and to equate the American actor with such a one, surely it's better than an Oscar.

Mr. Pacino has been in Ireland of late, filming a documentary. Oddly enough, he's most interested in Oscar Wilde and Mr. Wilde's play Salome. The film in progress is titled "Salomaybe" but I suppose we'll have to wait for its release to understand the significance of the name. As long as he's here, and considering the fact that Oscar Wilde was a student at Trinity College, he's to be given an Honorary Patronage of the Trinity College University Philosophical Society. Quite a mouthful for the man most famous for portraying a Mafia don.

At 8 p.m. tonight, the award will be handed over and Mr. Pacino will speak to the bright lights of Trinity. His lecture is set to discuss Oscar Wilde's days as a student at the university, presumably taken from Wilde's various writings and jottings that Mr. Pacino has been studying.

From Martin Sheen to Al Pacino - Ireland's the place to be, isn't it?

The Slowdown Starts Now

The day before Thanksgiving, and not a creature is stirring in offices across the land. Many are taking the day off, to prepare for the grand feast to come. Perhaps it's only a half-day at work today, with time to catch a late flight home. In New York, in literary agent land, the whole process begins to wind down when the stores on Fifth Avenue start putting up holiday decorations. One whiff of pine, one glimpse of a colorful glass ornament, and thoughts turn away from the slush.

Granted, the two weeks that bracket Christmas and New Year's Day are the absolutely most slow of all. No one is working, it seems, what with the vacations and the holiday parties and the general merriment. As if anticipating all that joy, the publishing world, agents included, gear up for the time off by starting a slowdown now.

Should you wait to query? Absolutely not. Someone is working; not every agent is so well established that they can take time off and still pay the rent. It's not as if your snail mail query is going to get pulped because it came in with a batch of Christmas cards. What will happen is that your response time will be drawn out, and don't expect anything like a quick reply between now and the start of the new year.

So query away. Get your humble request out there, under the noses of agents who might be a bit distracted by the twinkling fairy lights. If you can't stand the longer wait, the month of December could be a good time to polish the query, polish the manuscript...and you're working on your next novel, of course. If you've got a short story in you, this is a good time to try your hand at submitting to literary journals. Need names and addresses? You can always start here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

False Hope

A new e-mail! Look, there, the icon shows one unread message, and it's in the mailbox of the account used for snail mail query responses. Amy Williams, of McCormick Williams, is sending an e-mail. To me.

When did I mail the query? The sixth of the month, a couple of weeks ago. Not as quick a response as I would have expected, based on past experience, but agents are busy people. Click on the box, open the letter, and ..... sorry, what?

"Thank you for sending me your letter of November 6, 2006." she says. You're most welcome. As for the query letter? "...not right for me, but I’m grateful for the chance and wish you luck with it."

But what about the SASE I included? Could you not follow standard protocol and mail the rejection? Even a "NO" stamped on my original letter and stuffed back in the envelope would be fine. The e-mail response is for acceptance only. You want more material, a few sample chapters, that sort of thing; there's where you send the e-mail. Rejections are via snail mail only, a piece of paper to be shredded at the first opportunity.

Dreadful, should this style of rejection take hold. The joy of the Outlook Express ping will be no more.

Rights Available

Must be heartbreaking for an author, when the publisher courts them, leads them on, all the way to the steps of the altar and then...jilted. Where do you go after being abandoned at the last minute?

Having been rejected by HarperCollins only a week before the lay down, OJ has a completed manuscript and the attendant rights. There's no reason why he can't go looking for another publisher. Well, yes, there's the moral and ethical reasons, but those sorts of things don't seem to get written into contracts. His agent is perfectly free to take the manuscript, turned down by one imprint, and offer it to another one of the publishing houses.

Can't quite see that happening, though. Hard to picture the likes of Simon & Schuster or Knopf picking up such a thing. It's been a big money-loser for News Corp., since they were the ones doing the jilting. Legal minds believe that OJ will get something out of the failed enterprise, payment for his time and effort on manuscript and interview, but there'll be no royalty checks cut. Unless someone else will publish his confession, of course, but who would be willing to take a chance after News Corp. got burned so badly?

There's one house that can handle the task. Yes, this is a printing job for PublishAmerica, scam artists extraordinaire and ever so fitting for this situation. They put on paper anything sent to them, ripping off their clients and trading on illusions of writerly grandeur. Best of all, the brick and mortar book shops don't stock PA titles, so we'd never be subjected to the offending title. Sounds like a best case scenario for the reading public.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Book Too Far

The firestorm of criticism flared up, but there were those who believed that Judith Regan could not fail. Someone so knowledgeable, so experienced, must surely know just how far she could go when selecting books for her imprint, ReganBooks. And now, Ms. Regan has gone beyond the limits; she has stumbled.

News Corp. has cancelled the infamous book, the so-called confession of a cold-blooded killer, and the TV interviews are also eighty-sixed. In spite of Ms. Regan's insistence that she wanted to publish this particular piece to draw attention to spousal abuse, several independent booksellers were refusing to stock the thing. Borders, a sizeable chain, was going to donate any profit from the confession to charity, and doesn't that shout out 'keep your blood money'?

It has been noted that Life magazine paid Emmett Till's murderers $4,000 for their story after they were acquitted of the killing that they then admitted to. Somehow, this seems radically different, with payouts in the multi-millions and a certain cynicism on the part of the news organizations and even ReganBooks. Given the fact that Fox News was going to air the interviews as a part of sweeps week, the stink grew increasingly fetid, until the odor of rot and decay became unbearable.

There were plenty of excuses, and assurances that the money from the book was to go to the children. You can be sure that lawyers had sewn up the publishing contract so that not one cent would go to the Goldman family, who have yet to see anything from their successful lawsuit. That big check from ReganBooks to whomever OJ's legal team named as beneficiary is nothing more than a large slap in the face to the families of the murder victims.

The bottom line dictated this decision, far more than questions of taste or ethics. With book vendors refusing to sell the book and local outlets refusing to broadcast the interviews, News Corp. and ReganBooks had no hope of recouping their investment. They thought that they could make a buck, but there comes a time when a corporation will cut its losses and move on to the next money-making venture. Judith Regan and Rupert Murdoch will bounce back. Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, however, are gone forever and their families will never be whole.

Debuts For This Week

Who is actress Courtney Thorne-Smith? I'm not one to watch the afternoon soap operas, and as for evening television, well, if there's something in the line of sports, that's where my eyes are. She's written a novel, you see, her debut in the publishing world, and wouldn't you know but the book is about life in LA with all its absurdities. And of course there's the requisite delving into the dark underbelly of the entertainment world. At any rate, she's literate enough to pen a novel and see it published. Can she write? Doesn't much matter, not with her platform. Actress dishes the dirt on Hollywood...that's all anyone needs to know.

Margaret Lowrie Robertson used to work for CNN. Now she's an author, with a book that tells the story of a foreign correspondent in Beirut, circa 1983, and need I go on with the plot? Foreign correspondent writes about a foreign correspondent, and we're back at the platform issue. On the plus side, her contacts at CNN could get her some air time to plug the book, and the merits of her writing fade away into insignificance.

There's a novel coming soon, penned by Jonathan Friesen. Is this the same man who turns up on a Google search as a Bible college student, planning to do good deeds in South America? Can he be the real deal, an average guy who happened to write a catchy story? The protagonist of the upcoming debut novel suffers from Tourette's syndrome. I do hope that neither Mr. Friesen nor his close relations suffer from the disease. It would be disappointing to discover that he's writing from personal experience, as are the previous two debut authors.

Checking the lists of debut authors week after week has proven that you need something beyond a good book to get an agent and get published, with so very few platform-less authors turning up in the listings at Publishers Marketplace.
And yet the literary agents insist that good writing trumps all. A bit of delusion? Or wishful thinking?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Smaller No

I think I've found a rejection that I can tolerate moderately well. Literary journals can be just as impersonal in their refusals as any literary agent stamping 'No' on the query. By the same token, the journals can be far more personal and far more encouraging. Just feeding the addiction, sure, but that tantalizing little scribble grows irresistible.

An outstanding submission came back at last, over six months later, and it's a no as I would expect. In truth, I was wondering if the journal was out of business, having heard nothing for so long. But it was more than the simple form letter on an eighth of a sheet of paper, photocopied innumerable times. No indeed, this one had lovely blue ink, a careless and quick fist, and a name I can't decipher.

Sorry, the editor said. Yes, himself, the top of the pile, the editor apologized for the delay. The short story came ever so close, on the verge of acceptance, but then at the end....so sorry. That alone was enough to inspire me, the fact that my prose was good enough for serious consideration on down to the final cut. You'll never know that sort of thing from an agent's refusal, if the first pages sucked big time or rocked the house. Yes, I will continue to write, yes, because someone in a university creative writing program thinks I can.

And better yet, the editor asks that I submit something else. Not to just anyone at the journal, either, but to him. Send it to him personally, the man whose handwriting I cannot read. But what to send? What did he like in particular? Was he looking for historical, is that why the short story was appealing? Could it be the character study aspect of it all? In other words, what should I send next so that he doesn't read it and think that he was all wrong about the abilities? Inner editor, meet inner obsessive-compulsive. I'll scour the university website and get the proper spelling of the man's name, but how can I tell which short story I should submit the second time around?

Single Stem - Chapter 17

Previously: Love finds Trevor and Maggie when they are not looking for it. At last, Maggie discovers the joys of liberation.


Chapter 17

The phone was ringing, rousing Trevor from a deep and peaceful sleep. It seemed as if he had just closed his eyes he was so tired. The light was on; he had fallen asleep and forgotten to turn it off. Wondering what time was it, he tried to clear his head and focus on the clock. It was a few minutes after seven a.m., and he rubbed his eyes, sensing but not certain that he had been in the middle of a dream about Maggie. He found the receiver and mumbled a greeting as he rolled over to see that the other side of the bed had been slept in.

“Mr. Harwood?” an American voice was asking him a question, but he was distracted, trying to smell peonies on his sheets. He found a faint odor on the pillow, and there was no mistaking Maggie’s perfume.

“Trevor Harwood here,” he said, not clearly. He was trying to find her by turning his head in circles. The bathroom was empty and the house was quiet, and he saw that her dress was gone from the floor. “I’m sorry, who is calling?”

“Did I call at a bad time?” the woman inquired. “Are you awake? Should I call back later?”

Trevor sat up, trying to shake the sleep from his head. He was positive that she had been there, but at that moment he had to presume that she had left him in the middle of the night, without a word of goodbye. “Yes, I’m awake, I’m fine,” he replied. Looking again, he could find no shoes, no deliciously seductive bits of French lingerie lying about on the floor. Even his clothes had been picked up, folded, and placed neatly on the end of the chaise longue near the windows. Ciaran had made some comment last night about her strength, and Trevor began to fear that this was an example of Maggie’s fortitude. Immediately he began to review the previous night, searching for the one thing that he might have done to make her run away.

“April Marziniak, from the Brandenburg Theatre. I hate dealing with agents so I call direct. We start rehearsals this Monday, Mr. Harwood, and I’ve sent a script overnight that you should receive today or tomorrow, I can’t figure out the time change in my head. Daniel Mason has written a new drama and I’d like you to play the lead; Tony Casorio has already signed on to play your nemesis. Tony asked for you, in fact, to play opposite him; he was very impressed with your performance on Broadway several years back. Well, you can call back after you’ve read the thing and we’ll discuss the rest of the cast. There’s no problem working with me, is there?”

“I cannot commit to anything until I’ve read the script, Miss Marziniak,” he said, every syllable one of restraint. Daniel Mason was as well known and respected as Eugene O’Neil or Arthur Miller, an artist who painted with words. To be asked to appear in his newest work, and to open at the Brandenburg Theatre, was all too impossible to believe. His mind was swimming with confusion. “After that, I will have to make a decision.”

“Bullshit, Mr. Harwood, you’ll be here the minute you can get a flight out of London. We’re set then, so I can call your agent to make final arrangements,” April concluded, firm and direct, with no nonsense in her speech or actions.

“Fine, call him and I’ll read the script as soon as it appears at my door,” he said. He longed to get off the phone and get out of the bed he had shared with Maggie for only three or four hours before she bolted.

“Oh, by the way,” April quickly added a postscript, “when you see Maggie, could you tell her that I’d rather have the black turtleneck, the cashmere and not the lambs wool. Don’t forget to tell her, I’m dying to get my hands on something from Glasgow House.”

He hung up the phone and sat on the edge of the mattress, trying to remember everything that had happened during the night, to discover the problem so that he could find Maggie and fix things between them. Dead tired still, but he did not want to crawl back into the empty bed, not when it reminded him of all that had happened the night before. He stumbled into the bathroom and turned on the water in the shower.

While he waited for the temperature to warm up, he looked in the mirror and an old man looked back. There were scratches on his left shoulder; he could remember very distinctly how they had gotten there. Last night had been the best night of his life, and he was positive that he had returned the favor, had given Maggie as much pleasure as he could, for her glowing smile was not an act and Maggie was not an actress. It could not be over, not so quickly, not so coldly.

The water ran over his head as he searched his memory. The first time had been pure bliss, but the second time he clearly recalled that he had lost control of himself completely. Looking back, he felt guilty for just running wild instead of making love. He reached for the bar of soap and sighed, admitting to himself that what he had done was more properly called rutting, a step away from an assault. There was no concern then about condoms and protection and safe sex, and after his very witty bon mot about dipping his wick. Dipping that wick in a veritable cesspool, that was the implication, and Maggie must have been furious with him.

Always saying the wrong thing when he was around her, and he tallied that as yet another fine example. If Maggie thought he was a sex-crazed old goat with a long string of lovers he would not be surprised. There had been just such an implication, when he claimed that he was concerned about exposing her to who knew what kinds of horrible diseases. She was too kind-hearted to blow up at him in the middle of everything last night, and Trevor felt grateful that she had at least waited until he was sleeping before she walked out his door. One phone call would clear up the misunderstanding, once he explained to her that he was only joking. Even if Maggie wanted more assurance than his word, he could make an appointment with his physician for a full battery of tests, anything to set her mind at ease.

Slowly, as the pulses of water beat his brain awake, the memories grew more distinct. She would never have stopped him the second time. Despite his self-centered focus on his own satisfaction and his own pleasure, he was aware that Maggie had enjoyed herself thoroughly. There was one more recollection that popped into his head. She had whispered to him, twice in fact, using such sweet sighs to tell him that she loved him. All at once it hit him, and he was ashamed of his behavior, for all he had done was to greedily consume her love, acting like a dog on a bitch in heat. Somehow or other he had even ripped her stockings, although he truly he had no recollection of how he had done that. Unlike him, to be so callous and downright rude, but the fact remained that he had said nothing, not a word before he fell asleep, and he wanted to tell her that he loved her, from the minute she laughed at him with her eyes. It was obvious to him now, as he bemoaned his oversight. Maggie had been insulted, driven away because he was too wrapped up in his own lust to show her a simple courtesy.

Trevor leaned against the glass wall of the shower stall, beating his head against his fist. “Why didn’t I tell you, Maggie, why didn’t I just admit that I love you?” he shouted into the air, resting his tired forehead against the wet glass.

“Do you drink coffee in the morning?” Maggie asked, looking awkward yet deliciously sexy. She was standing in his bathroom wearing his shirt, not knowing what was supposed to come next. “I brought this up when I heard the water running. Would you prefer tea? I wasn’t sure if Englishmen always drank tea, or if that was something from the movies.”

Staring at her with a look she did not understand, he opened the door and took the cup from her hand, carefully taking a sip of the hot liquid. This was absolutely something from a movie, where the female lead was meant to appear sophisticated and worldly, as if she were in the habit of serving coffee to wet, naked men. Her slight frown asked if she was doing it right, looking to the director for advice. It was only the first take, after all, and it was not asking too much that he cut her a little slack.

To begin with, her morning face was pretty horrendous, with a pallor that resembled the living dead until she could stroke a swath of blush across her cheekbones. Her mascara had smeared and now her eyes resembled a raccoon’s face, but with her cosmetics bag in her hotel room there was nothing she could do about it here. As for her hair, the perfectly styled crown that appeared at the party was now sticking up here and there in some bizarre ways that looked more than disheveled. None of that would matter if he focused on her lips, and the way that her mouth turned up into a lovely grin as she thought about their night together, replaying the scenes in an unedited version that was unashamedly X-rated.

The caffeine must have hit bottom, surging into his brain and jump-starting his heart. Without taking his eyes off her he put the empty cup on a shelf, not noticing the sponge that was knocked to the floor. He pulled Maggie into the shower and kissed her as he had kissed her last night. “You know I love you Maggie, I never had to tell you,” he said.

Men were said to be visual, aroused by something as insignificant as a photograph in a magazine. He created a picture last night, a man’s way of expressing things even though women liked and needed words. She accepted his inability to communicate feelings because she had been out in the world for enough years to know that men did not express themselves well, they were put together differently than women and that was actually a good thing. For his benefit, she would show him a picture that was worth the thousand words she might have used, an image that began with her eyes locked on his as her tongue slid along his belly, licking up a drop of water that rolled down from his chest. In an instant, he was grabbing hold of the doorframe to steady his wobbly legs, and she was satisfied that the message had been received, processed and unquestionably understood.

His forehead rested against hers, his eyes closed in a blankness that meant that he was, at the present, nothing more than a bundle of quivering nerve endings that were soaked in euphoric neurotransmitters and electric pulses that inhibited anything beyond just feeling marvelous. “Coffee…good,” he finally spoke, coming back to reality. “Yes, I do. In the morning. Drink coffee. Um, Maggie, do I…do I still have legs? You’ve left me a bit unsteady here.”

“Nice legs, yes.”

“Why did you get up, did I wake you, love?”

“You got me drunk, you naughty man, and I never fell asleep, I passed out. The room was spinning when I woke up so I walked around a little to clear my head,” she said, feeling silly about her overindulgence in champagne. “I tried to stay in bed, it was so nice to have you next to me. And then too I had to rinse out a few things, since I came so totally unprepared for an overnight stay.”

“This shirt looks better on you than it does on me,” he complimented her as he removed the soaked silk.

“Oh, no, Trevor, your shirt,” she gasped, “it’s ruined, I’m sorry.”

“My dear, I could never wear that in public again after this morning without being embarrassingly aroused,” he replied. The water was growing cold as he turned off the tap. Reaching across to the rack that stood near the vanity, he picked up a towel and wrapped her in soft, warm cotton before drying off himself. He lifted a bathrobe from the hook behind the door and slipped it over her shoulders, tying it jauntily around her waist. She sat on the bed while he dressed, making conversation about last night’s party in a way that reminded Maggie of an old married couple.

With his arm around her waist he led her downstairs to the kitchen, saying, “I missed the pasta last night, so now you have an opportunity to make up for it. What are you making me for breakfast?”

Free to poke around and explore the perfectly appointed kitchen, she set out her ingredients on the cooking island while her audience of one sat at the counter facing her. Putting on a cooking show, Maggie lined up slices of bread left over from last night’s party, some eggs from the refrigerator, and a bottle of brandy from the bar. While she whipped up eggs and sugar with a splash of orange juice, they interviewed one another, in a way, because they knew almost nothing about each other. Trevor watched her cooking while sipping his coffee; Maggie was at center stage and he was her most enthusiastic fan.

“Your friend April called this morning,” he began, but his nonchalance was too strained to be credible. “She wants you to get the black cashmere. Say, is she a long time friend?”

“April Marziniak? She was my cousin Theresa’s roommate in college, but they were friends in high school before that. How did she know I was here?” Maggie asked as she dipped the bread in the egg batter.

“I, um, left the number at the hotel in case you were needed overnight. I cancelled your car,” he said with a sly grin, feeling perfectly comfortable with what he had done. She was about to say something, to tell him that she was glad he had done it, but Trevor had a few more questions to ask. “How long has she been a director at the Brandenburg?”

“Not sure, actually. She was acting when they started out, back in the old days when they rented a church basement to put on their little dramas. Once she split with Paretsky, I think she started leaning towards directing. They were living together for years, but I think Jim got a little too big for his britches when he started believing the press clippings. Oh, Trevor, what fun days when we were young.”

“Don’t tell me that you were part of the troupe,” he said, as if it would be a catastrophe if she had been.

Maggie laughed at the idea, smiling at him while gesticulating with the knife she had just used to put a pat of butter in the pan. “You are talking to one of the first stockholders, Mr. Harwood. April and Jim, the whole group, they were all so enthusiastic and really determined to start up this theatre. I scraped up enough money to pay their rent for the first few months, never told my husband or he would have gone nuts. It was right after we were married and we didn’t have much. Anyway, I gave Jim the rent money and he gave me a paper napkin with a note on it, and that was my stock certificate.”

“Do you sit on the board of directors, have any say in who gets cast in the plays?” he asked, trying to sound like he was only making conversation. The sugar began to caramelize around the edges of the bread as the pain perdue fried to a crisp golden brown. She delicately lifted a piece, pretending to take careful note of the color while trying to figure out what he was driving at. In the back of her mind, she began to fear that she had misjudged him, that he was only using her to get a part in a play and he would pay her off with the best sex she would ever have. Except that the sex would not be good anymore if that was the case.

“Of course not, I only did it to help out. Well, there was one time,” she said, focused on her work. “My neighbor’s son was a great actor in high school, not a good student at all but on stage he was outstanding. Well, they were worried about him, about his future, so I asked April to give him an audition. They took Tony right away, but only because he was talented.”

“Tony Casorio?” Trevor asked. Her nod of assent seemed to relieve every scrap of tension that had accumulated in the muscles of his face. “He’s been cast in Daniel Mason’s new drama at the Brandenburg. Rehearsals start soon.”

“Will you come to Chicago, Trevor, to see the play?” Maggie asked, her voice rushed as she nearly pleaded on her knees. She put the slices of pain perdue on two plates and looked at him intently, but he said nothing. She poured more coffee, and came around the island to sit next to him, to lay things out in the open instead of leaving with words left unsaid. “Last night, when we were making love, I kept thinking about asking you to come see me in Chicago. So, do you think you could?”

He sampled his breakfast, a delicious confection with a scent of brandy, the like of which he had never tasted before. “This is brilliant, Maggie, really fantastic. We should have a few friends over for Sunday brunch and serve this, maybe Will and Callista with the Barringtons, people you’ve met and had a chance to chat with.”

“This Sunday will be my last in London,” she sighed.

“Actually, love, you won’t be here on Sunday. Change your ticket and don’t worry about the penalty, and get me on the same flight, something that flies out on Friday. I know about the play, you see, because I am playing opposite your old friend Tony. Sorry to cut your trip short, but I have rehearsals starting on Monday.”

She did not realize that she was sitting there, slack-jawed, until he put a piece of pain perdue in her mouth with the sing-song warning, “Here comes the train. Choo, choo, now there’s a good girl.” He was laughing, feeding her and moving her jaw up and down to help her eat because she was too stunned by the turn of events.

“It makes no difference if April offered me the part to get me to Chicago or if Tony really asked for me,” he said. “It’s the chance of a lifetime, Maggie, and I won’t pass up an opportunity because of the way it was handed to me.”

“But it’s a blow to your ego,” she said.

“It’s the nature of the business. There’s nothing wrong with letting the air out of a man’s ballooning ego. You’ve done it well enough, when it needed doing.”

Rude, but unavoidable, he rushed her through the meal and cleaned up the kitchen haphazardly while she dressed, barely able to wait to get to Strand House so that Maggie could check out and move into his house. As they drove along Park Lane, Trevor declared that he would walk up to the desk clerk and ask for the key, and if that snooty man gave him a look then he would look right back. Trevor Harwood was going to give the man one wink that said yes, we are lovers and you can tell the world.

While Maggie fixed her hair in her hotel room, Trevor lay down on the bed. His eyes grew heavy as he estimated that he had slept for less than four hours before April rang up at an uncivilized hour. She tidied up the dresser top while he figured out a schedule for the day, with activities commencing at eleven when they would meet Callista for lunch. He was genuinely happy that there was time for a short nap, something that she agreed would be most welcome after a long night, with another late night to come.

“Would you like to go for a little drive this afternoon? I was thinking that you might like to see the university at Oxford,” he said as she sat next to him, a pillow plumped up behind her back. “Tomorrow we could run out to the Midlands so you can see the countryside, for a change from the city.”

She smiled at him, amused by the intimate tone that lay at the base of their chatting. As if they were old friends, he discussed Callista’s wedding and she knew that her invitation was implied and its acceptance assumed. He asked after Joey with genuine interest, a man who was involved in a relationship rather than a few hours of lust abatement. Lying next to her was proof that she had finally taken control of her life, without mindless prayers and superstitions creating roadblocks. Trevor could not possibly understand what she had accomplished when she took a chance and took him to bed, anymore than he could appreciate her rejection of Ciaran. Last night had been the best night of her life, Saturday night had been the worst, and she was not sorry that she had experienced either one. It was not the power of prayer that healed her; it was the power of living, the power that she held in her hands.

“There’s an aura about you,” Trevor said. “You’re as unattainable as a vestal virgin, and no man can resist the challenge to sway you. I know that times have changed, Maggie, my daughter reminds me of it almost daily. But men haven’t really changed that much. We all admire the lady who holds us at arm’s length, even if we complain about not getting any from her. Devious, isn’t it? To send out all these messages that you want her to give it away, and then calling her a slag for doing it.”

“Last night was my choice,” she said, growing defensive. “I didn’t want to have an affair with Ciaran, and if I didn’t want to sleep with you, I wouldn’t be here now. I could call him up right now and make plans, and give Noel a quickie before dinner if I wanted to.”

“No you won’t.” He gave her a serious look that broke into a silly grin.

“How can you be so sure?”

“You won’t.”

“Would you have come to Chicago without the offer from April?”

“Absolutely. I want to be with you.”

“It’s funny how it came about. Almost like a miracle.”

“There’s nothing miraculous about our friends plotting and scheming behind our backs. April’s ploy is quite a grand undertaking for a bit of matchmaking, and you have no idea how often Nigel or Bea rang me up for a pep talk. I would have gone after you anyway, chased you down if need be, but I wasn’t going to give up unless you sent me packing.”

With her head beginning to ache with the threat of a hangover, Maggie got up to take an aspirin. She took a minute to look around the room one more time, to enjoy the plush d├ęcor, when she caught sight of the porcelain heart. For one night, she had been desired but unattainable, and that was a rare perch to occupy. Smiling to herself, Maggie thought back, and recalled how close she had come to falling off the pedestal.

“After your wife died, did you miss sex?” she asked.

“Not as much as I missed making love. You know what I mean, don’t you?”

“That’s what I missed, the emotional connection.”

“Young ladies today don’t appreciate that. Hop into bed so quickly they might as well advertise their bodies as sperm receptacles. All this emotional mumbo-jumbo and feelings get worked up in their feminine brains, and we men don’t really care all that much who is underneath us when the urge strikes.”

“And you took advantage when you could?”

“Of course I did. I’m only human, my dear, a mass of hairy sweat and testosterone and a tiny little brain in my crotch that does most of the thinking.”

“That’s what scared those old Catholic theologians, the power that women had over men. One whiff of perfume, a little flash of skin, and rational thought goes right out the window.”

“If I were twenty-five, Maggie, my rational thought would be on the wing right now. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

“Do I sound too mercenary? It’s just that, if a girl doesn’t sleep with a guy unless he agrees to marry her, to take care of her and their kids, what’s wrong with that? I mean, for the women. I can see what’s wrong with the arrangement for men.”

“There has to be some kind of give and take, doesn’t there? Men can’t have babies; it’s as simple as that, and we do want children, in spite of what you might think.”

“So women get the relationship that they want, they get sex, which they want, and the guy gets what?”

“He gets roped into the deal because Mr. Crotch is doing all the thinking. We aren’t complicated at all, are we? Give us sex and we’ll give you whatever you want in exchange. There’s good reason that prostitution is the oldest profession.”

“Still, I don’t get why we girls would give up that control so easily.”

“Because you like sex, too,” he suggested. “How many times have you eaten a box of chocolates and then wished you hadn’t? But when you were eating them, you weren’t thinking about the extra pounds that you would have to deal with afterwards. It was all taste and texture and yum this is good and then oh, my God I can’t fasten the waistband on my skirt.”

Back in bed, she nestled her head against his chest. She had to agree with Trevor, with his honest assessment of men’s duplicity. They championed sexual equality, but there was such a thing as too much equality, a fact that they revealed in subtle ways. Since the beginning of time they had been pressuring women to give in, only to think a little less of the ones who submitted. Their disregard was no longer put on display, but it was there all the same, and that was why Maggie had been so attractive to Ciaran and Noel and even Trevor. She was pristine and unsullied, relatively speaking, and when the crown prince of seduction failed to capture her, she became that much more irresistible.

She rolled over onto her side because Trevor was snoring in her ear. It was a comfortable sound, a sound of small dinner parties with great conversation and a charming wine. His snoring was a frank admission that this was his real self, without a need to be on best behavior because they were, after all, lovers in a relationship that lived with honesty and brushed off artifice. Maggie knew enough about men to know that the sound meant Trevor was going to be gloating because he was quite aware that he had beaten a rival and now stood on top of the heap.

“I’ll give you that one for your ego,” she said.

The curtains were opened, framing windows that were spotted by rain. All she could see was gray fog, but in her mind she could still remember her first glimpse of London as she stood at the same window only a few days ago. Turning her head, she could see the mirror that had reflected last night’s perfectly styled hair and taupe-shadowed eyes. She had looked into the image of a confident woman and she had vowed to stay true to her convictions, that no sex was better than bad sex, even though it had been the most difficult thing she had ever done, and now she was blissfully happy.

There were plenty of men who were looking to get into her panties, but it was better to save herself, not for marriage, but for the man who wanted to get into her heart and mind as well. With Trevor, she shared an emotion, a connection, which made them lovers instead of sex partners, an intimacy that would remain in a lasting friendship. After so many years of marriage, she wanted the closeness and familiarity of a relationship, making casual sex a waste of time and effort. He snorted and rolled over onto his back, as if to put an exclamation point on her thoughts.

“The epilogue,” he murmured. “Best ever.”

THE END

Friday, November 17, 2006

Judicial Wisdom

Mr. Justice Peart has been a most busy man of late. After ruling in Bono's favor in regard to the trousers and hat, he turned around and ruled that it was all right to kidnap children. Not that he said it like that, but it's the essence of his decree.

Tim and Ethel Blake are apparently not fond of their new son-in-law, and Mr. Blake hates the U.S. so much that he once said he'd rather see his grandson dead than raised as an American bastard. Sounds like a lovely man, doesn't he? Real salt of the earth. Would you be surprised to learn that the daughter did not seem to get along with her parents? By the way, her second husband (she was widowed at an early age) just happens to be in the United States Navy. So you hate Americans, Da, well, I've got me a sailor, and stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

A few years back, they came to Winthrop Harbor, north of Chicago, to visit their daughter's youngest. Poor aul' Tim, said he was dying, he did, and wanted to see the boy one last time, and could he perhaps spend a bit of time with the lad? Would you be surprised to learn that the daughter insisted that her parents give her their passports first, so that they could not steal the child and run off to Ireland? Would you then be surprised to learn that Tim and Ethel had two sets of passports, and gave their daughter the false ones?

In Illinois, where this crime took place, it's called aggravated kidnapping, and it's a Class X Felony. In Ireland, apparently, it's really nothing at all, at all. Why, Mr. Justice Peart doesn't see where this particular crime rises to such a level. After all, there were no guns involved. No one issued any ransom demands, and there was no injury. Surely he means a physical injury. One can only guess at the emotional damage that Tim and Ethel inflicted on the nine-year-old child.

But Tim proved in court that he's a sick man. Physically sick, I mean. The judge took that into account, and then pondered the fact that the man was facing a minimum of six years in prison. Considering the state of the Irish health care system as compared to health care for inmates, I'd say Mr. Peart did a serious dis-service to Mr. Blake, but then again, the judge did not think it was a good thing to separate Mister and Missus, as they'd been together for so many years.

As for the issue of extradition to face trial in Chicago, Mr. Peart turned down the request of the people of Illinois. He said that the minimum sentencing requirement would preclude a fair trial for the Blakes. With a minimum, there is no room for the pity and the hair-splitting and the feeling sorry for the kidnappers that they could expect from an Irish court. Now, if the Blakes could have the same sort of trial in Chicago that they'd have in Cork, well, that's the crux of the problem. The judge in Illinois won't get to consider the Blakes' pathetic excuses and give them a shorter sentence, not with that legally mandated six years behind bars.

To detain the kidnappers in an American prison "would represent for each of them an appalling vista" according to Mr. Peart. As for the appalling vista that the grandson viewed upon being kidnapped, well, Ireland's not exactly child-friendly. The age of the industrial schools and the Magdalen laundries is not in such a distant past.

The only good thing to come of this is the fact that the Blakes can never set foot in America without getting arrested. At least their grandson can sleep at night, knowing that they can't come and steal him away again. That's one way to deal with a control freak.


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Single Stem - Chapter 16

Previously: As the party winds down, Maggie reunites Ciaran and Cindy. There's no hope for her and Trevor, she'll be alone again tonight, but she has learned some important lessons about relationships.

Chapter 16

Guests were beginning to leave more quickly, now that it was approaching two in the morning. Trevor was getting more and more animated, thinking about what he would tell Maggie once they were alone. He was planning to start with a tour of the house to help her relax and feel more comfortable before he showed her the bedroom. A heated debate raged in his mind, as he pondered the issue of turning down the bed. He could lead her into a room that was ready for immediate occupancy and be quite blunt about his intentions, or he could go more slowly and more accurately test her level of interest. The more he thought about it, the more he pictured those stockings and he was afraid that once he got her dress off he would not be able to proceed slowly.

“He’s still an asshole,” Bea fumed as she said goodbye to her host. “As if I would ever let him touch me again.”

It was the same old speech that Trevor almost knew by heart. Every time that Nigel tried to make amends he would say something that he thought was witty but Bea was never left laughing. With her departure, it meant that Nigel was the last guest remaining, since he had a habit of being the last to leave Trevor’s galas. Only the hired wait staff was still bustling about, cleaning up the detritus of empty plates and glasses, collecting their linens, and loading up their equipment.

“Have you seen Maggie?” Trevor asked for the hundredth time that night, but Nigel could only shake his head. He thought that he had seen her earlier, getting into Ciaran’s car, but the driver was holding up an umbrella to shield the couple from the photographer who somehow managed to track Ciaran down. He was not absolutely and unequivocally positive that it had been Maggie, and maybe it was someone else. Such a fantasy was something that Nigel attributed to wishful thinking, out of loyalty to his best mate. What was necessary at some point was a true confession, but Nigel could not bring himself to tell his closest chum that he had failed, completely and totally, to win the heart of a woman who was trying mightily to give her love to someone.

“She must have slipped out when we weren’t looking,” Nigel suggested. He wanted to get out himself at that moment, to get away from Trevor Harwood’s broken heart. Not tomorrow, but the next day, the picture of Ciaran and Maggie behind an umbrella would turn up, and Nigel would have to find some way to get Trevor over another one of life’s hurdles. He could not do it tonight, though; he needed to prepare his speeches.

“Did she go home with Doyle?” Trevor asked, grabbing Nigel’s arm with unexpected force. “Just tell me the truth, for God’s sake.”

“I don’t honestly know who he took home, Trevor. I couldn’t see who was getting into the car.” There had been several cars, and several couples, and Nigel was not going to review the muster of guests. He had seen another blonde with one of Ciaran’s friends, but that bit of news was far too cruel to deliver.

“He probably solved her little riddle,” Trevor fumed, throwing cushions around on the sitting room sofa. “What comes after seek and you shall find, how very clever of you, Maggie.”

“Knock and the door shall be opened, ask and it shall be given,” Nigel said blankly, not understanding the significance of the phrase.

Trevor’s face reflected an utter disbelief at his own blindness. Nigel had his answer there, a bright dawning of awareness that was coupled with admiration for a clever woman who did all that she could to get Trevor’s attention, yet still maintain some fragment of her dignity. Of course it would have made things easier for them all if she had done the asking, if she had thrown herself at those Tony-award-winning feet and ignored Trevor’s bumbling. If she had known how much Trevor feared her rejection, she might have done things differently, made a bolder move, but Maggie was very much a lady, and she had her pride.

“Oh God, I am so damned stupid. Ask, she only wanted me to ask and she would have said yes. I don’t deserve her, Nigel, she’s far too good for the likes of me.”

“On that we agree, old chum, she is too good for you. And she is far too good for Ciaran Doyle. Your last, best hope is that Doyle will be finished with her by tomorrow, and you can beg her to give you a try.”

“There is no hope, I had my last chance tonight. In the pantry, she stood there and practically begged me to take her. All I did was tell her not to stand on chairs because it’s dangerous.”

“She’s very kind and understanding. Put the question to her in the right way and she might feel sorry for you.”

“Please, I’m not that pathetic. Give old Trevor a tumble, Maggie, he’s too much of a dunce to take advantage of you at a weak moment when you offered the first time.”

“Sleep on it,” Nigel suggested as he pulled on his coat. “Bea still likes you, she can intercede on your behalf. And if you do get a second chance at love, don’t make a mess of it again. Ask, and it shall be given. How could you not remember that?”

The catering company was finished shortly after two-thirty and Trevor wandered through his gracious home, with its cavernous rooms echoing his solitary footsteps. He switched off lights, carefully checking every corner in case Maggie had gotten as smashed as she had planned, and had passed out in a quiet corner somewhere. There was only silence, only the sounds of a very historic and very empty house. He walked up the stairs slowly, feeling dog-tired and old.

Earlier that night he had searched Maggie’s handbag to get his own glimpse of her passport. Her home address was printed on an inside page, and he copied it into his address book. Even her birthday was jotted down, as he mentally calculated that her fortieth was coming up in March. His first reaction was to make a note in his appointment calendar so that he would remember to send a gift, but as he thought about it he decided that he would fly to Chicago and deliver it in person. He would give her another peony, the type that she told him was named in honor of the great Sarah Bernhardt, the one he selected because it was a rich shade of pink and more fragrant than the red ones. In the box with the flower he would put an article of jewelry, something special like a diamond necklace that she could wear with the elegant black dress she had on tonight.

Those dreams were fading now, as he pictured her with a younger man who would give her a night of passion, all night long if she could stand it. Trevor Harwood was the old lion, the one that lost the fight and lost the lioness. He was the one who was at home, to lick his wounds while Maggie and Ciaran were together. He did not want to think about it, about all the things that Ciaran could do to Maggie to make her stay with him until he was tired of her gorgeous breasts and her soft skin.

One final inspection of the upstairs bedrooms uncovered only a rumpled bed, used by some lucky couple, and rooms full of quiet. Will had gone back to his flat with Susan, no doubt thinking that dear old Dad would need a bit of privacy tonight. Standing in the hallway, Trevor leaned against a wall, trying to determine why was he so afraid to leave his own party when some of the guests had made full use of the facilities. In that crowd, no one would have noticed or cared if he had stolen away for an hour, and he sighed loudly over the lost opportunity. If he had made the offer, Maggie would have accepted because she was willing to go with him tonight. He blindly entered his room, switching on the light before peeling off his sport coat. He pulled off his shirt and sat on the end of the bed.

Thinking about Maggie with Ciaran was making him nauseated, yet he could not stop wondering what they were doing at that moment. It was pointless to fantasize, since it only made him feel more powerless, and with a weary groan he stood up to get ready for bed, alone. The coverlet was rumpled and he knew someone had been there, where he should have been. He flipped it down to the end of the mattress and knocked the condoms off the table, sending them fluttering to floor, like so many dry leaves skittering in the wind. The packets clattered to the wooden floorboards with the sound of latex sheaths laughing at the old man’s futility, at his pitiable bungling.

Looking down at his middle, he had to admit that Maggie would never want to be with him after she spent a night with a buff, trim Ciaran Doyle. There was a roll of loose flabby skin bulging over his waistband that was not such an attractive sight, and God only knew what gravity had done to his bum. Trevor climbed out of his trousers, tugged at his socks and stripped off his underwear, shuffling to the bathroom to brush his teeth but feeling too tired to lift the tube of toothpaste. There was something else that he had to do, and then he would be able to face the overwhelming emptiness of his bed.

Before he did anything else that night, Trevor had to make a phone call. He picked up the phone and silently draped the cord across his bed, sitting on the floor among the condoms as he pressed the buttons. While the phone rang at the other end, he held his breath, listening intently, but no other sounds came from his house beyond the usual creaks and groans of old wood. Somewhere a joint popped, and the wind rattled the windowpane while he waited for an answer.

“Ciaran,” he whispered into the phone when Doyle finally mumbled a greeting. “Trevor Harwood here.”

“I’m a little busy at the moment, Trevor,” he hissed quietly into the phone.

“Oh, sorry, yes, it’s late,” Trevor stammered.

“Maggie’s not here, if that’s why you’re calling. She’s not giving it away, not to me or anyone else. If you’d talk to her you’d understand that.”

“No, no, I understand now. We have a little in common, I think.”

“You’ve buried a wife and Maggie’s buried a husband; that’s a shared sorrow you can talk about. Is that all?”

There was a silence as Harwood’s brain tried to interpret the words. Surely Callista knew the facts earlier, when she reminded her father of his humiliation in Los Angeles. Trevor was beginning to think that everyone knew except him. “Oh, no, I, I am sorry, about tonight. I was drunk and a bit edgy; it was rude of me to lash out at you. I called to apologize.”

“You could have called in the morning,” Ciaran sighed. Trevor could hear a woman’s voice in the background, while Ciaran could be heard explaining that it was Trevor Harwood calling, and the man was essentially incoherent.

“I expect to be busy in the morning,” Trevor said, “and I thought it best to extend my apologies at once. Oh, and one more thing, when you were with Maggie the other day, did you take her to the British Museum?”

“You randy old bastard, is she there with you?” Ciaran burst out laughing. “Are you having it off with Mrs. Angiolini?”

“That’s rather a personal question, Ciaran,” Trevor replied, his sense of decorum and restraint coming to the forefront.

“It’s time for her to be thinking about grandchildren, I guess.”

“That’s the natural order of God’s universe. You get married, you’re a couple, you have children, they grown up, and then you have to learn about life all over again. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the right person to learn with.”

“I’m far behind you, aren’t I? Just getting to the first part, ready for the little chiselers under foot. She’s been a good friend to me, my best female friend.”

“Sorry I interrupted.”

“Apology accepted, and call me tomorrow anyway. Let me know if her bush is as blonde as her head.” Ciaran hung up the phone.

Feeling along the walls of the hallway, Trevor made his way down to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle of champagne and an ice bucket, to bring a little cold courage to his bedroom. All he had to do was ask and Maggie would give; that was what she had told him when he was not rational enough to see that she was being rather blunt about her desires. He would call, ask her to pop over, crawl on his hands and knees and drag her back if need be, but by God there was going to be love and romance tonight. Always a gentleman, and cautiously anticipating a negative outcome, he mentally prepared himself for a complete rejection, payment for his callous treatment of a woman who had suffered as he had.

“I didn’t know you were a widow,” he tried the excuse, but his behavior at the party was nothing less than inexcusable. He had run because he was afraid, but he could see that Maggie had things to fear and he was the only man who could understand.

He recalled so vividly his first sexual experience after Allison died. An overpowering sensation plagued him that night, when he could not shake the feeling that he was cheating on his wife even though he knew that she was dead. If he was Maggie’s first lover after so many years of marriage, he was the best man to help her overcome the irrational guilt, and he was gentle enough to give her the time she needed to make the transition.

He climbed back up the stairs with the energy of a twenty-five year old virgin on his wedding night, ready to make right all that he had made wrong only a few hours ago. Setting the scene and creating a mood, he placed the ice bucket on the floor. Languidly lying on his back in the bed, he reached over with sensual grace and found the spot that was within his reach, and he carefully adjusted the placement of the champagne. Next, he saw to the music by opening the entertainment center that was hidden in one of the armoires. His collection was limited to the soft music that he preferred when he was reading, but stacked on top of the CD player was a pile of jewel cases. Picking them up, he recognized the sort of modern tunes that Callista liked, and he had to smile at his daughter’s thoughtfulness. She had left him an outstanding collection of sappy love ballads, which Trevor suspected was the sort of thing that women liked to hear playing softly in the background during intimate moments.

As the first song began to play, Trevor realized that he had been wandering about his bedroom in the nude with the light on and the curtains open. Never before had he been that distracted, and he chuckled at the thought of his neighbors observing him in the nip, justifiably presuming that he had gone mad. Crawling along the floor, he retrieved his trousers and slipped them on so that he could stand up and pull down the shades. At the same time, he tried to understand how Maggie’s mind worked. There was no reason for a modern woman like her to confine herself to one lover, yet he could not understand why she did not accept Ciaran when she clearly liked his company. She reminded Trevor of a more old-fashioned sort of girl, the like of which had not existed for the past fifty years. It did not matter if one or a dozen men wanted her, because she only wanted one man and he smiled at the notion that he was that one man. As far as he could judge, there was nothing special about him, with his average physique and his average outlook, but still Maggie found something in him that led her to offer her body to the nice gentleman who was not very good at displaying his emotions.

Not that she would know the difference, but he could not talk to her over the phone until he had brushed his teeth, run a comb through his hair and washed his face. The bathroom door was ajar, the light left on, and he made a move to storm in, to tell whoever was in there that it was time to go home because the party was over. Afraid of coming upon a man’s buttocks flexing rhythmically between a lady’s thighs, he peaked in first before quietly opening the door.

“Maggie, are you working? Tired of the party?” he asked as he walked into the bathroom, carrying two glasses of chilled Veuve Cliquot. “I brought you a fresh drink.”

“Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, Trevor, but I started reading Callista’s novel and it’s so good I couldn’t stop. I am so rude to leave, I’m really sorry,” she said, writing furiously without once looking up. “Is my car here yet?”

She was sitting on the floor with her back against the bathtub, in a cross-legged pose that hiked her dress up above the tops of her stockings. Her posture looked positively painful, as she was bending over to write with the paper on the floor. Trevor slid down to the floor next to her, his heart pounding in anticipation. “Shall I help you, then, so that you can finish before you go?”

“It’s her ending, you see, it’s sweet but the way that she wrote it, it comes out a little too trite,” Maggie explained, making marks on Callista’s typed copy.

He had read his daughter’s book, and was even thinking about having it turned into a screenplay for a television movie. The trite ending was very familiar to him, and it had bothered him the first time he read it. At the time, he was going through hell, and only when he read the story did he discover that Callista was aware of how much he was suffering. “Real life is often trite, Mrs. Angiolini, if you pick it apart and analyze it.”

She looked up at him then, as he made fun of her remark from so long ago. Maggie looked into his eyes, only to find two warm brown smiles sparkling with the stars of the night sky. Trevor kissed her lips gently and with hesitation, as if he was not sure if this was the right thing to do.

“I would be grateful for your help, Mr. Harwood,” she said so shyly that he almost could not hear her.

His kiss had stolen her breath and made her eyelids fall slightly. He lightly put his hand on her neck, with his fingertips barely touching her ear as he kissed her tenderly again. She could feel her pulse pounding wildly in her throat, racing even more rapidly than his heart. The scent of her perfume, with its top note of peony, was making her dizzy. “Should it be a sad ending for the hero, with the widow returning to one of her old boyfriends, or perhaps some former lover?” he suggested, whispering seductively in her ear.

“There were no other lovers, only her husband,” Maggie said, her voice trembling as she made a confession that she did not really want to make.

“None? On your wedding night, you were…?” Trevor asked incredulously. Maggie’s eyes turned down to look at the paper, sorry that she had admitted to being the good Catholic girl who waited for marriage, just like the nuns had said. It made her sound like a country bumpkin, unsophisticated and clinging to Victorian nonsense, but she was urbane in the Chicago style, stylish and modern, and proud that she had waited. This was a gift that she was giving him, something priceless and rare, and she wanted him to appreciate what she was doing.

“Only my husband.”

“Only the husband. Then the story should end with the widow agreeing to spend the night with the host of the party that she was attending, and they make love all night.”

“All night, Mr. Harwood?”

“At my age, Maggie, having if off twice in an eight hour period constitutes all night.”

“In my revision, I’ve written the hero as someone who is very experienced, and he has had several lovers. Does he laugh at the widow because she’s not very good in bed?”

“Oh, no, that’s not a suitable way to end the story. You see, the widow was married for a long time, and she read all those women’s magazines that offered one hundred and one tips to please your man, and she memorized the Kama Sutra. She was very studious, a star pupil, and she will be the most skilled lover that the hero has ever had. But he won’t tell her that until the epilogue.”

She drained her glass quickly, eager to make a leap into another world. She watched him, studied the way his lips touched the crystal flute, thought about his fingers touching her in the ways she had imagined when she was standing on a box on a chair in the pantry. He took her empty glass and set it on the vanity, not bothering to ask if she wanted more, taking charge with the grand magnanimity of the victor. After he stood up he helped her to her feet, wrapped his arms around her and kissed her neck, her ears, and finally her lips. There would be no going back, but she did not want to go back, ever again. It was time to initiate Trevor into the most exclusive club on earth, the brotherhood of men who had shared a bed with her. There had been a small pool of candidates, but he was the one who had been selected, and before the night was over, he would be the only man in the entire world who knew how Maggie made love, the one who would help her over a hurdle that he had once faced.

They danced slowly into the bedroom, with Maggie’s eyes gazing into his with a look that told him everything that was in her heart. He unzipped her dress and slid it off her shoulders, taking a moment to absorb an image of erotic French lace, tiny bows and ribbons. With her eyes still fixed on his, she slipped off her shoes and stepped out of her dress. As if she were an angel gliding from heaven, Maggie floated down with her arm outstretched, holding his hand as she pulled him towards her. His eyes were fixed on hers as he took hold of his waistband and began to unbutton his trousers, looking every bit the mighty conqueror as he slid the zipper down.

What had begun as a slow seduction was played out when he moved his lips from her face to her chest, the sight of her bra igniting his passion. His fingers were trembling as they gently slid under the lace cup, a tender caress that set her on fire. Firm flesh greeted his fingertips, and he fondled with a light squeeze that was all probing and exploring in a strange and foreign land. With amazing dexterity and the speed of a crazed man, he reached around her back and undid the clasp. His breath came in fast, deep gulps as he slowly removed the Lejaby size 34C, throwing it aside carelessly while his eyes locked onto her chest.

“Oh, Maggie,” he sighed, a lover enraptured, a man standing at the gates of heaven as they were thrown open, inviting him to enter. Greedily caressing her and tasting her skin, he took her breath away with one warm touch of his tongue. “So beautiful, Maggie, your breasts are so beautiful.”

For a moment, he was not her master but a humble servant, worshipping and paying homage to a body part that she was quite proud of. As if he had read her thoughts, he spoke the very words that she wanted to hear, the sounds of adulation that were the most erotic, most arousing things any man could ever say. His hands slid between her thighs and she could scarcely wait for the end so that they could start all over again, the longings of a woman who had buried her desire for so many years that she was surprised at the intensity of the feeling. She was starving but she did not want to be sated; she was in a hurry but she wanted to take her time, to feel everything at once while basking in every individual sensation.

“Forgot the raincoat,” he mumbled, out of the clear blue, just as he had positioned himself between her legs and was only inches from penetration. He rolled over in the bed and took her with him, one arm holding her close against his chest while the other stretched down to the floor. Opening an eye just a crack, Maggie saw what he was struggling to get to. The condoms that had been arrayed on the lamp table were scattered on the floor, lazing just out of reach. She was woefully inexperienced in these things, not sure if he was meeting a requirement or following common practice, but his flapping fingers were taking forever to locate a packet and she did not think that she could wait another minute.

Without question she was ready to start and take matters into her own hands if he could not tell that she did not need another second to warm up. At last, he located what he needed, turning up the intensity of his kisses as a way to signal that he was coming in for a landing. With one hand he tried to rip open the foil, panting in frustration, and it took all her control to not laugh. Gently, with all the subtlety she could muster, she rolled onto her back, knowing that he would follow. The unopened condom popped out of his sweating fingers and landed with a moist thud on her neck. The debonair, suave man of the world needed help before he crumbled into a pile of self-doubt and impotent jitters. As if she were brushing a stray strand of hair away, she flicked the warm foil wrapper off her neck and onto the bed, pretending that it was not even there and that he was just as polished and smooth as he had been all night.

“You don’t need that Trevor, I swear I can’t get pregnant anymore,” she said as she touched his hand, to guide it down to her left breast where it belonged.

“It’s all right, my love, you don’t know where I may have dipped my wick,” he said in a breathy whisper, and she could not believe that he was being so jocular at such a moment, but that was what came out. “It’s how things are done these days.”

He was trying to catch his breath afterwards, while she held him against her body, not willing to let him go even while a drop of sweat dripped from his hair onto her cheek. Exhausted as only a fifty year old man could be, he lay on his back and pulled Maggie into his arms, kissing her hair and unable to speak. Her fingers stroked his chest, with her red nails twirling through the thatch of black hair that coiled down to his stomach. Maggie looked up at him, to share with him an angelic smile, the smile of a woman who had made love and enjoyed every minute of it.

“I never knew it could be like that,” she whispered. Her words were utterly sincere.

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” he agreed. “To have this at the end of the day makes life worth living, no matter what gets thrown at a man.”

The bottle of champagne was at the tip of his hand but the glasses were sitting on the vanity, and he had to climb out of bed to retrieve them. She giggled at the way he scampered across the room, a light sound that informed him that his bottom was quite nice. They drank a toast to the joys of sex, being silly for a time before they cuddled quietly, with champagne to celebrate the night. “I was going to ask you to turn off the light,” Maggie said, too shy to look Trevor in the eye.

“You wanted me to miss all this?” he teased her, with a playful squeeze of her breast.

“But I’m glad you didn’t, or I would have missed all of this,” she retorted, grabbing the little roll of flab around his sides.

He paid her back with tickling and she returned his attack, trading teasing jabs about their middle-aged body parts that were no longer perfect, but then they both knew that they were not youngsters anymore and this was about much more than pure physical attraction. Before long, they were rolling on the bed, laughing their heads off until they tumbled off the edge and landed in a heap on the floor. With a seductive grin, she pinned his shoulders down, brushing her breasts against his face as she reached across him.

“You wouldn’t,” he dared her when he heard her hand rattling around in the ice bucket, but she did, tearing him free of his reserved and inhibited nature. On the floor of the bedroom he became a selfish animal, as virile as a young man who was completely blinded by urgent desires that overpowered all rational thought. She was only along for the ride this time, but she found pleasure on a different plane, where it was more enjoyable to give than to receive. His wildness transferred through his skin and then throughout her body, not only a physical connection, but a complete merger of bodies and minds and hearts and souls. Without knowing how she got there, she found that she was lying on the bed, his arms wrapped around her in an embrace that was as comfortable and soothing as a soft quilt on a cold winter’s night. Champagne flooded her brain and she began to sink down, deep into the mattress and deep into a place she had never been before, where every cell in her body was bathed in contentment and the unique atmosphere of pure sexual gratification. This was what all the hoopla was about, and Trevor had given it to her, the finest and most generous gift that a man could ever give to a woman.