Hero of the Unsung

Hero of the Unsung

In Fiction by Michael Washburn

Hero of the Unsung
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The Bourbon Restoration had a dark cool ambiance and friendly young servers and was a hit with local professionals. No matter that its name evoked antediluvian attitudes. After a couple of visits, Chuck Sullivan decided it was his favorite place to go after work. Yet he felt a sting of self-consciousness on entering the chic restaurant a few blocks from his new workplace. He hoped he would not betray the gaps in his education or the fact that he would quit his job tomorrow if an opportunity came along that truly interested him.

Writing copy for clients in the legal industry sapped any notions left over from when he was a fantasy-prone boy about wizards or sorcerers or dragons or ghouls. Yet he held out hope that the drab white walls all around him in his office must fall away. He just needed to meet the right people.

The first he met at The Bourbon Restoration were a pair of young law firm associates, Andy Boyle and Matt Harris. They were funny and kind. One evening after work, he sat at a table talking to them about a high-level hire at their firm when he happened to overhear a man at the bar having some sort of literary conversation with three young people.

“. . . and the whole time Salinger lived up there, I was one of the only people here in the city he’d ever communicate with. I mean it. Give out his private information and you’d be out of a job so fast, your head would spin.”

This seemed to impress the young interlocutors, who might have been graduate students. Chuck looked at the speaker. He was in his sixties, did not have quite enough hair to need a comb, and wore ratty trousers and a dark brown sports jacket with patches at the elbows.

“Who’s that over there?”

Surprised at Chuck’s question, Andy and Matt gazed at each other with knowing looks. As if anyone could not know who the guy over there was. It was Matt who answered.

“That’s Harry Treadwell. He’s a hotshot literary agent, Chuck. Works with some of the most famous names in contemporary letters.”

“And one in particular who’s, like, a demigod. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Andy said.

“An agent.”

Chuck’s face was that of a four-year-old seeing Santa Claus stroll into the room.

“Yeah, Chuck. An agent of some repute. And this is his hangout. Many’s the time I’ve sat here hearing all kinds of wild talk from his table, about writers and editors and publishers. You wouldn’t believe the people he’s known,” Matt said.

“He’s getting on in years. Look at the guy,” said Andy.

Chuck did.

“I’ve got to meet him.”

“Oh yeah, Chuck. See a wonder of the world before it’s gone. But I wouldn’t get up and go and bother him now. Like you’re the most important thing in the universe and those kids should all make way for the king.”

Matt and Andy had a laugh at their new friend’s expense, but Chuck did not care. He drank a few more beers and kept up the banter without hearing what his friends said or considering his own words. The place was loud and crowded. When the other people sitting with the agent at the bar rose and said their goodbyes, he shot up and made his way over, thinking that finally, at last, he was about to meet a living breathing agent. Chuck took a seat.

“Hello, sir. My friends over there were telling me you’re a literary agent.”

The deep brown eyes of the stranger shifted. The emotional intelligence they projected was a wily thing indeed. Chuck began to grow uneasy, but then the other smiled and extended a hand.

“Pleased to meet you, young man. Harry Treadwell, literary agent, friend to creative geniuses the world over.”

“I, uh, I’m Chuck Sullivan. I just started working at a copywriting agency here in the neighborhood. Anyway, my friends said you’re a regular and kind of a legend around here, and you represent someone incredibly important. I didn’t ask who, I was so startled. But I’m guessing it must be DeLillo or Pynchon or someone.”

Harry laughed.

“I can assure you it’s someone big. In the old, Mailer-esque sense of the term. Pleased to meet you, Chuck. Why have I never seen you in here before?”

“Ah, well, I just started a job around the corner—”

“Congratulations, young man. A job doing what.”

“I’m a, uh, copywriter. Writing about the legal industry. Lateral hires and office openings and such.”

Harry laughed mildly.

“A legal copywriter. You don’t exactly get to spread your wings a lot, do you?”

“No, sir, I can’t say I do.”

“But I have this sense that, when you’re not working, you’re a real writer, and that’s why you came to me. In addition to your genuine interest in my role in publishing and my service to literary culture, of course. You thought maybe I could help you get you out of the rut you’re in.”

Chuck wasn’t sure at all that Harry was being funny. The moment reminded him of a famous scene in the movie Goodfellas. All the more so when Harry laughed, this time with real mirth.

“Relax, Chuck. I’m honored that you felt curious enough to come over and introduce yourself to a graying literary agent. I’d raise a glass in a toast except it’s the end of the month and I’m frankly a little broke.”

Chuck felt immense relief. He signaled to the bartender.

“I’d love to buy you a drink, Harry.”

“Oh, stop twisting an old man’s arm.”

When they had beers in front of them, Harry seemed to warm to the curious youngster.

“So, I was telling these kids about Salinger. How he retreated from the world and holed up in that remote corner of New Hampshire where only a handful of people in the world could get in touch with him. And someone got fired from the literary agency down here for giving out his number.”

“I don’t doubt it, Harry.”

“Anyway. Think about this decision for just a moment. It’s not such a common career move for a writer who’s published his breakout book, is it? Jerome wanted to get away from it all and live in total privacy. And you might think, well, he needed a quiet little part of the world so he could put his writing first. No phone calls, faxes, and email at all hours of the day and night. But no. This was no Stephen King writing novels before breakfast. You know how little he produced after The Catcher in the Rye. Hardly anything.”

Chuck nodded, agreeing, wondering where this was going.

 “Jerome saw what I see every day, Chuck. We were kindred spirits in that regard, you know.”

Harry drank some more beer.

“I’m afraid you’ve lost me, Harry.”

“What’s the name of this place we’re sitting in, Chuck?”

“The Bourbon Restoration.”

“Correct. A bad pun. But it captures a basic truth of our literary and cultural life. We have moments of wild, brilliant invention, and the world reacts as it should. With interest and sympathy and encouragement. But then the reaction sets in, and it is hell-bent on exceeding to the nth power whatever excesses of revolutionary zeal may have preceded it. The crackdown is swift, harsh, unforgiving. The reactionaries of the cultural establishment are back in charge, and any creatives who tried to be themselves in the new dawn had better bolt.”

Chuck considered this as Harry drained what was left of his beer.

“So, you were in touch directly with Salinger during his long exile. And he confided all this to you.”

Harry nodded.

“That and much more. I was one of the few people in the world who had his number. And you wouldn’t believe the thoughts that came to him late at night and the solace he needed.”

“Really, Harry. I’m kind of surprised you haven’t gotten some lucrative opportunities out of your connection.”

Harry’s reaction was a bitter laugh.

“That would have been a betrayal of trust so profound no punishment in hell would be right for it. I know you’re just a kid. Buy me another beer, and I’ll explain.”

It was the end of the month and Chuck’s funds were low, but he agreed. The young man and the agent talked for another hour during which Harry needed two more beers, for which Chuck paid. He could forego the subway and walk home tonight. He needed the exercise.

Harry. The Bourbon Restoration. His life was taking a radically new course, and he did not know what to make of anything. He remembered how he heard about the place. Right after joining the firm as a copywriter, he began to share his frustrations with his young colleague Samantha about the long hours, the grind, the dull topics they had to write about.

“It’s always the same crap. Law firm culture, office openings, new practice areas, and we can never write critically about anything,” he complained when they met at the water cooler.

“Pays the rent, though,” she said.

Chuck nodded. The job did pay well enough to forget the fact that your career and life had not gone the way you wanted.

That was when Samantha told him about the lively restaurant and bar not three blocks away from the office. He resolved to head over there after work and check the place out.

As his job grew more demanding by the day, Chuck longed for those evening hours that held out the prospect of bracing new experience and insight into the world of letters.

On his next visit to The Bourbon Restoration, he spotted Andy and Matt at the table where he had first gotten to know them. This evening they were with a young woman and man Chuck had not seen before. His friends were ecstatic to see him and, as soon as he sat down, introduced him to Melinda and Peter, who, it just so happened, were both writers. Melinda was the author of a novel that refuted the received wisdom about the identity of Count Dracula. The historical figure who served as the basis for this most iconic of villains was not Vlad Tepes as so many believed, but an obscure Wallachian merchant who found a use for blood few people had ever heard about. As for Peter, he struck Chuck as yet another would-be Frank Herbert or Ursula Le Guin who imagined life on other worlds, but, Chuck guessed, with none of the élan of those writers. Not that Chuck was happy with his own progress. He recalled the words of the literary agent from that earlier discussion. A legal copywriter. You don’t exactly get to spread your wings a lot, do you?

With those words in his head, he could barely pay attention to what the others at the table said to him or to one another. He already liked Peter and Melinda and did not wish to be rude to his friends. But as soon as an opening in the crowd between his table and the bar afforded a glimpse of Harry Treadwell, gazing into an empty mug, he excused himself.

“Chuck!” said Harry. For his part, Chuck felt flattered that the agent remembered his name.

“You look like you need another one.”

“What an unerring sense you have. Thank you, young man, I would like another.”

Chuck had barely stopped thinking about Harry’s Salinger monologue the other evening. But now the agent surprised him with a different reference.

“You remember when Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York?”

In this moment Chuck’s self-consciousness, his old feeling that the world waited on his answer to an unexpected question, crept back like kudzu.

“Uh, no, Harry. Sorry. I was a bit young.”

Harry laughed.

“A bit young! No, you weren’t even born yet. As I should have realized. Anyway, Mailer used to come and confide to me.”

“Confide to you? About what, Harry?”

“Oh, about how to run his campaign. The finer points of PR and community outreach. How to sound worldly, cultured—”

Mailer? Asked how to sound cultivated?

Harry laughed indulgently.

“I know, how could one of the leading men of letters of recent times ask for advice about that? But, you know, he wanted the perspective of someone inside the publishing industry. Who talked to editors and publishers daily and knew what was in demand and what was on the way out. That way he could talk to reporters and really sound like a member of the cultural establishment, not just another arrogant writer who thought getting elected was his birthright.”

“But how was any of this relevant to politics?”

Harry laughed again.

“You’re a bright kid, Chuck. Excellent question. Why did he ever run in the first place? As if his background was even a little bit suitable for the job. As Auden once said, ‘Why writers should be canvassed for their opinions about politics I have no idea.’”

This time they both laughed. Chuck was enjoying Harry’s company. The discussion had gotten so far away from what Chuck wanted to ask Harry about that he had to pause his drinking and try to collect himself.

“So, listen, Harry. I sent over the manuscript of my novel the other day, by certified mail—”

“Haven’t seen it yet, Chuck. I’ll ask one of my assistants tomorrow.”

Chuck felt suitably impressed. How many assistants did Harry have?

“Amazing, thanks. Also, I really do want to ask you—you know, about that famous writer people whisper about who’s a client of yours—”

Harry shook his head with the pure contempt reserved for a childlike error.

“Uh-uh, Chuck. The writer in question—and believe me when I say you have heard of him—is highly particular about this. People have gotten fired for disclosing any information about his personal life.”

“But Harry, I’m just wondering—”

“No, young man. I know you think you’re just asking me to confirm one of the rumors swirling around here and what’s the big deal. But they must remain rumors. I cannot betray a client’s trust. My integrity depends on it.”

Right away Chuck felt he had crossed a line and endangered his wobbly friendship with the agent, along with any prospect of finally bringing attention to the manuscript he had toiled over for years. He rebuked himself for not understanding sooner. And in these times! The Bourbons were back in power. Innovative writers had it tough and their trust was a precious thing.

He wondered how he could smooth over the awkwardness. Then Harry answered the question for him.

“Say, Chuck, I really could use a whiskey right about now, but I left my wallet at home. Can you spot me one?”

Chuck quickly replied.

“Of course, of course! I’d love to, Harry.”

“Thanks, Chuck. You’re a prince among men. And, not to lean on you too hard, but do you think you could help me out with thirty dollars? My bank card was stolen and I’m still waiting for a new one in the mail.”

Chuck agreed. When Harry got started on his Maker’s Mark, three people came up to the bar out of nowhere and began a lively banter with the agent. Finding their and Harry’s conduct rude, he slunk away.

At work the next day, Chuck’s colleague Samantha asked him how he found The Bourbon Restoration. He said he hated it. Then, recognizing her look of shock and bewilderment at such rudeness to one of the very people who tried to help Chuck settle into his new work environment, he realized she meant the restaurant, specifically. Not the cultural regime.

“It’s wonderful, Sam. Thank you so much for recommending it. Really. I love it there, and I’ve met some fascinating people.”

Sam nodded at his gushing endorsement, but she did not smile before continuing on her way down the hall. Samantha had some kind of secret agenda; he just knew it. Chuck began to feel he was socially inept, and others were too kind to say so. He did not love working here, and just as Winston Smith in 1984 thinks often of Shakespeare, perpetually had the names DeLillo and Pynchon in mind.

Twenty minutes later, as he sat in his cubicle, his phone rang.

“Chuck Sullivan.”

“Hello, young man.”

The rich deep voice instantly summoned him from the mundane world of legal copywriting to a realm of deities and wizards.

“Harry! How are you?”

“I thought I should call you personally and let you know your manuscript did arrive.”

For Chuck it was suddenly easier to breathe, and the three hours left in the workday did not seem long at all.

“That’s incredible news.”

Of course, it should not be. He had sent the envelope via certified mail to a local address. But to hear Harry confirm it meant he had gotten further than any number of other writers out there in the gray drizzly world. What Harry said next nearly made him leap from his chair.

“I’m just getting into it, and already I can see potential.”

“That’s—I’m—”

“Oh, one other thing, Chuck. Can I borrow a hundred dollars? I have to go down to D.C. for a couple days, and I’m at a bad pass now, thanks to certain deadbeats who don’t fulfill the terms of their contracts.”

“Of course, Harry. Of course! Where can I meet you?”

“How about in the lobby of your building, in thirty minutes?”

“I’ll be there.”

He did not want to say Harry had not paid back the thirty. Or that Harry wasn’t the only one struggling. Chuck had planned out the remainder of the month and set aside a certain amount of money for each day. If he gave out a hundred now, he would have to eat quarter bags of pretzels for lunch for a couple of weeks. But he must do nothing to alienate Harry.

After stepping out to visit an ATM, Chuck sauntered back to the lobby of his office building. When he saw the shambling figure in the tweed jacket come ambling up the street, he felt a twinge of the wonder and hope that had helped him get through the tedium of so many workdays. Harry took the money, cursorily thanked him, and set off again.

Chuck badly wanted to meet Matt and Andy, and maybe Peter and Melinda, and share his good news with them. There was also the nagging fact that he was still single after so much flailing. So, even with Harry out of town, a trip to The Bourbon Restoration would be well worth it.

As soon as he entered, he spotted Matt and Andy. Not until reaching their table did he see Melinda was with them. Never before had he seen her without Peter.

“Chuck! Great to see you, man. Say hello to the next Truman Capote,” Matt said.

Chuck felt his awkwardness, his acute self-consciousness, creep back.

“Oh, come on. I’m not quite in that league yet.”

“False modesty,” Andy said.

“I think the real issue is that you’ve misclassified our friend here. Chuck writes in a Michael Moorcock type of vein. Swords and sorcerers and demons and red suns. Am I right?” Melinda said.

“That’s actually a good analogy, Melinda. It’s, like, fantasy stuff for adult readers. And I might add—”

But Chuck lost track of what he wanted to add, as he noticed a curious sight on the far side of the crowded place. What he saw couldn’t be real. Harry sat there, in his usual seat at the bar, hoisting a beer to his lips, talking and laughing with strangers. It was not possible for Harry to have spent “a couple of days” in D.C. and to be sitting here now.

“Excuse me.”

He got up and slid and pushed his way through the crowd to the bar. Even as he stood there, inches from Harry, the venerable agent did not appear to notice him at all.

“Harry! I thought you were in D.C.”

Harry set his glass down and looked at Chuck with evident annoyance.

“Young man. I’m in the middle of negotiating a rather important deal here.”

Chuck looked at two middle-aged men on nearby stools, who regarded him as an impertinent child.

“I’m sorry, Harry, I just thought—”

A look of annoyance creased Harry’s urbane features.

“We can catch up later, Chuck. I’m doing business here.”

“I’m important to your business too, Harry. And if what you told me earlier is true, as a pretext for borrowing money, you should be in D.C. now—”

“We’ll talk later, young man. And you might want to check with your mail carrier about that manuscript you said you sent over.”

Chuck thought this was a bad dream. Nothing he had envisioned in his imaginings of other worlds could inspire more sheer horror than what he felt now.

You said you got the fucking manuscript!

At this, several heads turned, and Chuck realized he might have irreparably harmed the one thing in his life that had given him hope.

“I—I’m sorry, Harry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’ll give you a call later.”

Harry turned his head away, neither with approval nor disapproval. It hurt Chuck more than a stinging rebuke could have done.

When he retreated to the table, he got the sense that his friends had watched the little scene unfold despite the crowdedness of the place. Andy’s first question was like a punch to the gut.

“Why would you harass Harry Treadwell in the middle of a business meeting?”

“I had no idea he was making the publishing deal of the millennium. That’s where he usually sits when he’s—”

“Chuck. Do you know who that guy represents?” said Matt.

“No, I don’t know. That’s the one thing no one will tell me. It’s DeLillo or Pynchon or someone—”

“So maybe you should know better than to approach him without ascertaining that he’s not negotiating the most important deal in the history of publishing.”

Chuck pressed his hands over his eyes and bent down until his chin scraped the table.

“Oh, God. I’m sorry.”

Then he felt Melinda’s hand on his shoulder, gentle and consoling.

“It’s all right, Chuck. I guess these two guys never told you that they’re writers. And without Harry, they’d be nowhere.”

When Chuck looked up again, it was as if he saw Matt and Andy for the first time.

“You are writers?”

They nodded. Then Matt answered.

“And I met Harry over there after a very bad experience, when I was in the depths of existential despair, and he gave me a reason to keep going.”

For the first time, Chuck noticed a pair of straight scars on either of Matt’s wrists.

“There aren’t many agents like him left in the world, Chuck,” said Andy.

“We’d all be nowhere without him,” Matt added, his eyes alighting on various people sitting or standing at various points around the place.

What Melinda said next startled him.

“Sadly, not everyone understands this. Peter is in a really bad way, Chuck. I think I know where he is, but he’s turned his phone off. And he’s warned me to stay away from him when he gets like this, or he doesn’t know what he’ll do.”

Feeling pity for kind, gentle Melinda, Chuck wanted to help. She gave him the address of the second-floor apartment of a mutual friend of hers and Peter’s. The owner was out during the day but had made a surreptitious promise to Melinda not to lock the door. All Chuck had to do was follow someone into the building’s front lobby, which had no doorman and people coming and going at all hours.

Saturday morning rolled around. Sure enough, Chuck got into the building easily enough. The hard part was arriving on the second floor and looking down the long hall. Down there was a door. He heard each step resound as he moved down the hall, and his heart lurched with frightening vehemence as he turned the knob, pushed the door inward, and stepped inside. The apartment was filthy and stuffy, with clothes strewn without rhyme or reason on chairs and a reeking litter box whose former contents lay about it in a wide radius.

“Peter?”

No one answered. He called out again, a third time, a fourth. This was a fool’s errand, Chuck knew. The responsible thing would have been to call the police and have them come and do a “wellness check.” He advanced through the kitchen and living room and entered a narrow room where a figure lay stretched out on a sweat-stained mattress. Peter did not have the will to walk even to the bathroom, and the stench filling the space made Chuck want to turn around and bolt. Peter’s eyes were bleary and bloodshot and for all the wet heat his body shivered violently.

“Peter. Do you have any idea how Melinda’s feeling—”

A croaking voice answered.

“Melinda’s the past.”

“What?”

“She’s the past, Chuck. Melinda belongs to a time when, like the poet Arnold said, the world lay before me like a land of dreams. And not just this world, brother. I’ve imagined nebulae, galaxies, cosmoses. I’ve explored red buttes and hills in the shapes of faces and quicksand where the tortured souls of eons wait in judgment. I’ve walked through the fires of all the rage ever known. Nothing can hurt me like what that man said to me, Chuck. Nothing.”

“Peter. It’s horrible in here. We’ve got to get you cleaned up—”

“Chuck. Your friends recommended that man to me. I trusted him with the stuff of my soul, and I gave him whatever he asked for because he said he was on the cusp of closing a deal. And then when I saw him the other night—oh—”

Peter rolled onto his back and looked at the ceiling and for the next hour refused to speak, save to threaten to call the police if Chuck did not leave.

At the office the next day, Chuck was brooding about what to do, whom to call, when the phone rang.

“Chuck? Harry! How’re you getting on, young man?”

“Harry. Do you have any idea what Peter is going through?”

The laugh that Chuck heard now was all the more deeply unpleasant for its patrician inflections.

“Chuck. I thought we both lived in the real world. Peter put tremendous pressure on me, and I tried to find a way to tell him that his ambition exceeds his talent. Count yourself lucky that I see real promise in your manuscript.”

“The one you haven’t received.”

“Of course, I received it! The other evening, I thought you were talking about a new project, which seemed reasonable given how many you have kicking around in your head.”

Was it just possible Harry spoke the truth? The agent went on.

“A writer with no capacity for suffering is no writer at all. That’s what I told Truman when he was at a nadir of his life. The booze and the constant insecurity about his career and the unlikelihood of ever replicating what he pulled off with In Cold Blood. You don’t think all that got to him? Go back and read his story ‘Master Misery’ sometime, and you’ll know exactly where it came from. Anyway, I conveyed some blunt truths to him, and it made him adopt a manly attitude toward what was going on in his troubled life. Not to mention in the world, what with the Challenger blowing up and everyone full of despair about the Cold War.”

Chuck mentally assigned the Challenger disaster to 1986 and struggled to remember exactly when Capote died. But there was no time to pursue that.

“Harry. Goddamn it, you don’t understand! I saw Peter—”

“Be glad you’re not anything like Peter and I see real promise in your writing. Real promise, Chuck. Anyway, young man. I look forward to catching up soon but in the meantime, can I borrow five hundred dollars?”

Chuck slammed the phone down so loudly that others in the drab white space turned their heads, and he began to fear a call from HR. But the next person he spoke to was the wily Samantha. She approached him by the water cooler and told him politely but firmly that she had heard about the yelling and phone slamming.

“It won’t ever happen again, Sam. I was talking to—”

“A certain literary agent at a popular local bar.”

He looked at her in dumb shock.

“How on earth—”

“Someone should have told you—I should have warned you before you ever set foot in there. There’s this so-called agent, Harry Treadwell, who lures writers into sending him their manuscripts. Then he takes them and sells them to unscrupulous publishers in India or wherever. And the works appear under the commercial imprints of those thieves, and Harry pockets a nice sum.”

Again, Chuck found it hard to breathe and that old feeling came back: The world has been playing a mean joke on you since the day you were born, boy!

“That can’t be. Someone would have turned him in.”

Samantha looked at him with pity. The poor, innocent ingenue.

“Oh, it’s an urban legend. No one can prove it. Which tragically doesn’t make it less true.”

When he got home in the evening, he set to work gathering what he had acquired over the years in the grip of one or another passion or taste. His baseball cards. His comic collection. All his DVDs and tapes. Most of his books. Clothes he never wore, and some he did. His barbells. His treadmill. The electric Smith-Corona typewriter his parents had sent him off to college with, on which he had written his first papers. Then he put everything online and sold most of it and pawned what was left.

Soon he had just barely enough to engage the services of a private investigator, Jack Crowther, who listed “artistic and literary fraud” among his areas of expertise. After a few calls from pay phones, he felt confident this spook was up to the task. Something in the P.I.’s deep, crisp voice inspired confidence, a belief that Philip Marlowe was ready to take on your case and carry out his commission with all the finesse of a canonical hero.

Crowther was blunt about the fact that he rarely met clients face to face, but Chuck did not really care one way or the other. Chuck wired a deposit to Crowther, along with an account of Harry Treadwell and the nature of his suspicions, and then he waited.

In the middle of a dreary Thursday afternoon at the office, his phone rang.

“Harry, I’m not going to—”

“Chuck?”

The heavy feeling came. It was not Harry, but Jack, and from the sound of things, the P.I. was pretty anxious. Chuck dropped his voice to a whisper.

“Jack? I’m at work—”

“Chuck, listen. I’ve got three seconds here. You won’t believe what I’m looking at, man.”

“Where are you, Jack?”

“Where on earth do you think? I’m in the home office you directed me to. I think it belongs to some millionaire who went missing in Siberia five years ago and somehow Harry got the keys. Anyway, there’s a tall stack of manuscripts here. And I’ve been reading this guy’s emails and he’s on the black market—”

Chuck heard something ominous in the background, like the unhurried but unmistakable opening of one of the doorways to hell, and then a thud as if the phone had slipped from Jack’s fingers. Wary of calling attention to himself, he hung up the phone in his cubicle and, after writing a quick email to HR saying he felt sick, slipped out of the office without a word to anyone.

The next day, a short item appeared in one of the tabloids about a break-in at the office of a well-known figure in the literary industry, whose name the paper withheld out of consideration for his privacy. It said that the police had found the body of the presumptive burglar and junkie in a dumpster outside, and confirmation of the corpse’s identity was pending. Chuck deduced that someone, and he had a fair idea who, had murdered the man who had gone there at his behest and covered up what had happened in the tidiest way.

He could barely say a complete sentence or pursue a thought to its conclusion as he sat in his cubicle, desperate to avoid the gazes of others. When six rolled around, he got up and bolted for the exit without regard for the pile of papers in his inbox. Not a minute later, he entered The Bourbon Restoration and took in a familiar scene.

Now he leapt up onto a table and yelled at the top of his lungs.

“All of you! Peons! Dupes! Desperate strivers who put your faith in any self-proclaimed messiah!”

There were gasps and cries and calls for security. Over at the bar, Harry’s head turned, his look oddly indulgent.

“Hear me, trusting souls! That man over there at the bar, you’ve seen him ten thousand times if you’ve seen him once, that Harry Treadwell is a rogue and a liar! He calls himself an agent to woo you and gain your trust, and then he fleeces you. Harry uses your desperation for success, for ‘getting your foot in the door,’ to commit blackmail and extortion.”

There came more cries and an empty bottle slammed into Chuck’s gut and clattered on the table. Another soared just past his head. Harry smiled.

“Look around, all of you, at your fellow writers. Ask yourself what you have done for him. And then ask how many book deals any of you have gotten in all the months of being obsequious to Harry Treadwell! Con artist, plagiarist, intellectual property thief! He does not represent a great writer. He represents one person. The Devil walks among us here!”

Amid the cries and screams and curses, a calm voice broke in.

“Calm down, calm down. You know what? I accept the challenge, young man. And I’m glad you’ve put me on the spot, so we can bring a few things out in the open and put your mind to rest forever.”

Harry had left the bar and stood not twenty feet from the table. People regarded him with awe. Matt, Andy, and Melinda watched their friend with horror and pity.

“Cool down, everyone! You especially, Chuck. You’re a prince among men. I ask you only to follow the norms and standards of due process before you pursue your attack against me. And be so kind as to allow me to present the evidence in my favor.”

At this moment, you could have heard hair grow inside The Bourbon Restoration.

Harry reached into a pocket of his jacket and pulled out a folded paper rectangle. It was a document of some kind. Steadily, calmly, Harry unfolded it and held it up to the light. And though Chuck could not see it from where he stood, he knew that Harry held a letter from one of the very greatest living American novelists conferring on Harry an official role as the writer’s agent. Chuck thought, DeLillo. Pynchon. Oates. Auster. Somebody pretty fucking important.

“Let this letter set to rest forever any doubt about my credentials. We all forgive you, Chuck. You’re an idealistic lad. You’re a prince among men.”

The laughter that came now was so loud, cruel, and sustained that people around the city must have heard it. Every patron jeered and leered and pointed and swore at the buffoon up on the table who had few choices now other than to make his way to the river and hide his shame from the world forever. The laughter went on, and on, even after Chuck slunk out of The Bourbon Restoration and went looking desperately for a cab.

On his final day at the office, the receptionist rang him to let him know he had a visitor down in the lobby. He asked who it was. After a pause, she told him it was someone who owed him something. Chuck guessed that, out of pity, Harry had come to pay back the money he owed a writer to whom the agent would never give another thought.

The man waiting in the lobby was not Harry. Nor was he a stranger. With his fedora pulled down so far and his dark shades, it was hard to make out the man’s features. But Chuck realized that rumors of Jack Crowther’s death had been premature. Or, what was more likely, the P.I. had floated false rumors about his own demise.

“I’ve done some more digging, Chuck. Enough for you to release the rest of my fee, I think.”

Chuck’s hands grew damp and he felt nauseas. It was hot in here and he felt exceedingly awkward.

“I’m broke, Jack. Tell me what you’ve got.”

“This agent, Treadwell. He has documentation from a famous writer acknowledging that he’s that author’s agent. But I dug up some correspondence in Harry’s home office, and here’s what people don’t know.”

Chuck could barely stand. People passing through the lobby looked at the sickly man and the other with morbid interest.

“Yes, Harry Treadwell is an agent manqué, but he is doing a service to that famous novelist. Whose real agent absconded with five hundred grand meant for the writer and is now reportedly hiding out in the rain forest somewhere down south. The writer—Pynchon, DeLillo, Oates, do you really care?—then made this deal with your man Harry. To pretend to be the famous writer’s agent. So that if word ever got out, fans of the writer would hound Harry, and send him death threats and maybe kill him, and not kill the real agent before they could get the money back.”

As he studied the documents Jack held out, he knew he had finally met a hero of the unsung. Chuck still found it hard to breathe and unbearably hot in the lobby. Soon he must go upstairs and face a young colleague who had grown tired of hearing him whine about how little he liked his job.

About the Author

Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author of five short story collections. His short story "Confessions of a Spook" won Causeway Lit's 2018 fiction contest.

Read more work by Michael Washburn .

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