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Joe Fortunato Fiction

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A Marvelous Peace

by Joe Fortunato

 

 

There is a marvelous peace in not publishing.
—J.D. Salinger

 

John Malachi flung his pen across his office and sprang to his feet, sending his chair rolling back, crashing into the wall behind him. He bellowed through the open doorway in the general direction of his assistant’s desk. “Any word from Reinhardt yet?”

Cheryl Solanich startled. By the time she looked up, Malachi—coat and tie off, sleeves rolled up, salt-and-pepper hair disheveled—was pacing in front of her desk grasping a fistful of papers.

She took off her black-rimmed glasses. “There’s no need to yell, John; I’m right here,” she said.

“I wasn’t yelling.”

“You know I would’ve put him straight through to you if he’d called.”

“It’s not like him to be late for a meeting.” He sat in the chair by her desk, tapping his feet rapidly. “I’m worried.”

“About him, or the deal?” Cheryl asked with a smirk.

“Both.” Malachi drummed his fingers on her desk.

He cocked his head. “What’s with the new hairdo?”

“I was wondering when you’d notice.” Cheryl gingerly patted her short, pinkish, kind-of-spiky hair. “I had it done Saturday.” She batted her dark blue eyes and flashed a roguish smile. “Like it?”

“I hate it. It’s unprofessional and undignified.”

She swiveled her chair in a complete circle her outswept arm taking in the entire storefront office. “Look around.”

“Well, can’t you dye it brown again, and de-spike it or something?”

“No,” Cheryl said. “Do you want me to call his cell again?” She lifted the receiver of her desk phone. “Third time’s a charm, right?”

“Yeah, go ahead.” He resumed his pacing. “If he doesn’t sign these contracts today, the whole thing goes up in flames. And me with it!”

Cheryl punched Reinhardt’s cell autodial number with the eraser end of a pencil, and, cradling the receiver, glanced up at her boss shaking her head. “Straight to voice mail, like before.”

“Try his office.”

“I doubt he’d be there. He was supposed to come here first thing, right?”

“Do you see him?” Malachi spread his hands and twisted left and right. “Me neither. Call.”

She pencil-punched Reinhardt’s office number. “This is Mister Malachi’s office calling. Has Mister Reinhardt checked in with you? No? Hmmm. Yes, I know, three hours ago. But he hasn’t shown up yet. Well, if he calls or comes in, will you tell him to ring Mister Malachi right away, please?” She half-whispered into the phone, “He’s apoplectic.”

“I heard that,” Malachi muttered.

Cheryl covered the receiver, “You were meant to.” Then, back to the phone, “And if we hear from Mister Reinhardt, I’ll tell him to call you. Okay, thank you.” Cheryl hung up. “No dice.”

“Damn him!”

“His assistant says she hasn’t heard from him since lunchtime Friday. Now she’s worried too.” She added, “About Mister Reinhardt, not your deal.”

The deal. It was a make-or-break arrangement for the tiny publishing house. House? More like hut!

The odds were stacked against Malachi from the start. He was an attorney—and a successful one—who knew next-to-nothing about publishing, beyond having represented an emerging author once in a dispute over royalties. But John Malachi was a dreamer, an idealist.

A little over two years ago, the forty-two-year-old divorcé hadn’t a care in the world. Then, one day, out of the blue, he bought out the contract for his partner-track position at a Philadelphia law firm, emptied his bank account, and cashed in virtually all his assets—house, car, boat, and what remained of some so-so investments—leaving himself with just enough to live on and to pay his ex-wife’s alimony for the next three years.

Malachi used the money to team up with his best friend, Steve Borek, an English professor, to found a small publishing company. Since English professors aren’t celebrated for their colossal salaries, Malachi supplied the lion’s share of the capital, while Borek contributed his expert eye for quality literature. The pair incorporated, and Malachi Borek was born.

The plan was to seek out and disseminate superior works of literary fiction by unknown writers. The fledgling publishers leased a pricey medium-sized suite in a prestigious Center City high-rise, hired a top-notch designer to trick it out with stylish furniture, carpeting, and fixtures, and waited for agents and authors to beat down the door.

The trouble was, most unknown writers stay unknown—and unread—for a reason: they stink! Instead of agents and authors, creditors beat down the door. By the time the endeavor hit bottom, Borek had bailed, and the creditors, particularly the high-priced decorator, had taken the door.

However, Malachi, too stubborn (or too stupid) to accept total defeat, decided to go it alone. Using a little of the three hundred thousand dollars of his own money he’d held in reserve, he downsized the office space to a small drop-ceilinged storefront in a Northeast Philadelphia strip mall and hired his recently-widowed twin sister, Cheryl, as his administrative assistant. The place had been a Laundromat until a few months ago, so in addition to the change machine cemented to the floor by the door, an exposed pipe between Cheryl’s desk and Malachi’s office presented an omnipresent tripping hazard. What passed for his office had no door, and was made of what had to be the cheapest composite paneling available. Cheryl swore the wonky fluorescent lights were sucking the vitamin D out of her and causing her vision to flicker.

To fill the space, Malachi picked up a couple of cheap desks, a few chairs, and a brown metal filing cabinet at a bankruptcy auction. On the walls hung three or four landscape prints, each about a quarter of a notch higher in quality than Dogs Playing Poker and Velvet Elvis. To complete the transition from prince to pauper, he swapped out his leased Claret Mica Lexus GX 460 SUV for a red Kia Rio.

“Maybe he’s dead,” said Cheryl.

“If he is, I might as well join him.”

“God forbid, don’t say that!” She made a sign of the cross. “But he could be. I mean, he weighed at least three hundred pounds and smoked three packs a day. He could’ve had a heart attack. Or been murdered.”

“People don’t get murdered just because they’re fat smokers. And stop talking about him in the past tense,” Malachi said. “Besides, he can’t be dead. He has a contract to sign. After that he can be as dead as he wants.”

“John, he’s only one client.”

Malachi looked at her as if she’d sprouted a turd from her head. “He’s only one client? Cheryl, Reinhardt is my only client. Or would have been if he hadn’t up and died on me.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t dead.”

“Well why else would he be more than three hours late?”

“You always say writers are the most unreliable people on the planet, always acting fickle and changing their minds.”

“Gus Reinhardt isn’t a writer. He’s an agent. They’re a little more reliable. And one of his clients is Paul Quickthorn, the guy who wrote The Nicodemus Pendant and three other best sellers before it. Quickthorn’s not happy with the way his publisher handled the publicity for Nicodemus. He claims they edited the hell out of the thing, and then pushed him too hard with an impossible schedule of interviews, signings, and appearances. He figured after three consecutive best-selling novels, he’d earned the right to rest on his laurels for the fourth.”

“So he’s looking for a new publisher.”

“Right,” said Malachi. “He thinks a smaller house, where he’d be a huge fish in a tiny sea, would treat him with more respect, coddle him. I happened to cold call Reinhardt at just the right time. It was kismet. We talked on the phone, met for lunch a couple of times, and I made some promises. Reinhardt took them to Quickthorn, who liked what I offered, and agreed to sign a two-book deal with me. Gus is supposed to sign a preliminary deal today, and bring in Quickthorn next week.”

“Except now he’s probably dead.”

As the words left Cheryl’s lips, the little bell above the door tinkled and a fat man in a charcoal cashmere coat waddled in huffing, a lit cigarette dangling from his pale lips, an inch-and-a-half of ash dangling from the cigarette. He coughed, and the ash floated to the gray-speckled linoleum floor. The man looked around, and in a hoarse voice asked, “This isn’t one of those non-smoking offices, is it?”

“Gus! No, smoke all you want, my friend.” Malachi rushed to greet him with a hearty slap on the back, pumped his hand and said to Cheryl, “See? I told you he wasn’t dead.”

Reinhardt knitted his bushy grey eyebrows. “Dead?”

Before Malachi could think of a reply, Cheryl came to the rescue. “Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Reinhardt?”

“Yes, please,” he rasped. “Black, one Splenda.”

She grabbed her pocketbook, said, “Be right back,” and rushed out the door.

“Where’s she going?” Reinhardt asked Malachi.

“To the Starbucks across the street.” Reinhardt shot him another quizzical look. Malachi added, “Uh… Our Keurig is in the shop.” He made two mental notes: stop saying stupid stuff, and, as soon as he signs this contract, buy a Keurig.

Malachi put his hand on Reinhardt’s shoulder and guided him to the office.

“Geez, Gus, for a while there, I wasn’t sure you were coming.”

“Yeah, well, I got tied up in some tough negotiations that took longer than I’d anticipated. I’m sorry I didn’t call. My smartphone fell in the sink last night while I was brushing my teeth, and when I went to check in with my office this morning, it kept shutting down on me. Luckily, it’s insured, so I can get a new one cheap.”

Cheryl came in with two coffees, placed them them on Malachi’s desk, gave her boss a thumbs up behind Reinhardt’s back, and walked out.

“So, let’s get down to business, shall we, Gus?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you.”

“Tell me? What tell me?”

Reinhardt lit a cigarette. “The negotiations I was into today were with Quickthorn’s publisher.”

“Wait a minute,” Malachi said. “I thought I was going to publish him.”

“His almost former publisher, then.” Reinhardt loosened his tie. “You see, John, Quickthorn never really wanted to leave Dolce-Placer. They’d been good to him, put him on the map. He just wanted to shake them up a little, you know, get a better deal, a lighter load.”

Malachi began to see the light. He swiped his hand over his face and groaned.

Reinhardt continued, “When he told them he’d decided to go with a small house, at first they thought he was bluffing. Which, of course, he was, but they couldn’t be sure.”

Another groan, this time from deeper in the throat. “No, please, Gus.”

“Last night, Dolce himself called me and said they were ready to talk in earnest. So early this morning I hopped an Acela to New York, we talked, and I rushed back here as soon as i could. I wanted to tell you in person. I’m sorry we had to use you that way. You happened to call at just the right time.”

The groan had evolved into a growl.

“The clincher,” said Reinhardt, “was that Dolce-Placer just hired a new editor, a guy whose style Quickthorn has always respected. Quickthorn made it a condition that this man would be the only one to edit his material.” He shrugged, “They agreed, and Quickthorn signed a five-book deal with Dolce-Placer. And Steve Borek will be his editor.

“Borek?”

“Yeah. You know him?”

With a roar, Malachi leaped over the desk, knocked Reinhardt and his chair backward with a crash and a thud, and stretched his fingers around Reinhardt’s plump neck. The agent puffed and panted, began to turn blue. Malachi released his grip and collapsed on top of him.

#

The medical examiner determined Reinhardt died of a massive heart attack, probably as a result of the physical assault, with obesity and cigarette smoking listed as contributing causes. Malachi apparently succumbed to a brain aneurysm that burst while he was attacking Reinhardt.

Two days after her brother’s funeral, Cheryl started her new job as a barista at the Starbucks across the street.

 

 

 

BIO

A native South Philadelphian, Joe Fortunato taught math and physics for twenty years before retiring in 2014 to pursue writing. Prior to his teaching career, he spent more than two decades as a voice talent and radio personality in New Jersey, Delaware, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In addition to making his debut in this issue of The Writing Disorder, Joe’s stories have appeared in The Storyteller Anthology and The MacGuffin. His hobbies include acting in community theater, and oil painting. Joe lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Deb, their cats, Punkin and Sadie, and a black-mouthed cur named Rufus

 

 

 

 

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