Author: Tiffany Reisz 1
There was no such thing as London fog—never had been. The London Fog of legend was only that. In reality London fog was London smog, and at the height of the Industrial Revolution it had killed thousands, choking the city with its poisonous hands. Zach Easton knew that in the offices of Royal House Publishing, he was known as the London Fog, the disparaging nickname coined by a fellow editor who disapproved of Zach’s dour demeanor. Zach had no love of his nickname or the editor who’d coined it. But today he was eager to earn his epithet.
As he knew he would, Zach found John-Paul Bonner, the chief managing editor of Royal House Publishing, still hard at work even after hours. J. P. sat on the floor of his office, piles of manuscripts stacked about him like a paper Stonehenge in miniature.
Zach stopped in J. P. ’s doorway and leaned against the frame. He stared his chief editor down and did not speak. He didn’t have to tell J. P. why he was here. They both knew.
“Death—she comes to me on an Easton fog,” J. P. said from the floor as he sorted through another stack of books. “A poetic enough way to die. You are here to kill me, I presume. ”
At sixty-four and with his gray beard and spectacles, J. P. was literature personified. Usually Zach enjoyed playing word games with him, but he was in no mood for repartee today.
“‘Yes’?” J. P. repeated. “Just ‘yes’? Well, brevity is the soul of wit after all. Help an old man off the floor, will you, Easton? If I’m going to die, might as well die on my feet. ”
Sighing, Zach stepped into the office, reached down and helped J. P. stand. J. P. patted Zach gratefully on the shoulder and collapsed into his chair behind his desk.
“I’m a dead man anyway. Can’t find that damn Hamlet galley for John Warren. Should have had it in the mail yesterday. But happiness is good health and a bad memory they say, and I am a happy, happy man. ”
Zach studied J. P. for a moment and silently cursed him for being so endearing. His affection for his boss made this conversation far less pleasant. Zach walked over to J. P. ’s bookshelves and ran his hand along the top of the case. He knew J. P. ’s habit of stashing important papers where even he couldn’t reach them. Zach found a manuscript and pulled it down. He threw it on J. P. ’s desk and watched it kick up a small cloud of dust.
“Bless you,” J. P. said, coughing as he put his hand over his heart. “You have saved my life. ”
“Now I get to be the one who kills you. ”
J. P. eyed Zach and pointed at the chair across from the desk. Zach reluctantly sat down, pulling his gray coat around him like a suit of armor.
“Easton, look,” J. P. began but it was as far as Zach let him get.
“Nora Sutherlin?” Zach infused the name with as much disgust as he could muster, a considerable amount at the moment. “You must be joking. ”
“Yes, Nora Sutherlin. I’ve thought about it, looked at the sales projections. I think we should acquire her. I want you to work with her. ”
“I will do no such thing. It’s pornography. ”
“It’s not pornography. ” J. P. peered at Zach over the top of his glasses. “It’s erotica. Very good erotica. ”
“I had no idea there was such a thing. ”
“Two words—Anaïs Nin,” J. P. retorted.
“Two more words—Booker Prize. ”
J. P. exhaled noisily and leaned back in his chair.
“Easton, I know your track record. You’re one of the top talents in the industry by far. I wouldn’t have paid to import you here to New York if you weren’t. Yes, your writers have won Booker Prizes. ”
“And Whitbreads, Silver Daggers—”
“And Sutherlin’s last book outsold your Whitbread and Silver Dagger combined. We’re in a recession, if you hadn’t noticed. Books are a luxury. If it can’t be eaten, no one is buying it right now. ”
“So Nora Sutherlin’s the answer?” Zach challenged.
J. P. grinned. “Janie Burke at the Times called her last book ‘highly edible. ’”
Zach shook his head and looked up at the ceiling in disgust.
“She’s a guttersnipe writer at best,” Zach said. “Her mind’s in the gutter, her books are in the gutter. I wouldn’t be surprised if her last publishing house kept its offices in the gutter. ”
“She might be a guttersnipe, but she’s our guttersnipe. Well, your guttersnipe now. ”
“This isn’t My Fair Lady. I’m not Professor Henry Higgins, and she is no Eliza bloody Doolittle. ”
“Whoever she is she’s a damn fine writer. You would know this if you’d bothered to read one of her books. ”
“I left England for this job,” Zach reminded him. “I left one of the most respected publishers in Europe because I wanted to work with the best young American writers. ”
“She’s young. She’s American. ”
“I did not leave England, my life…” Zach stopped himself before he said, “and my wife. ” After all, it was his wife who’d left him first.
“This book has real potential. She brought it to us because she’s ready to make a change. ”
“Give her twenty shillings for a pound if she wants change. I leave for L. A. in six weeks. I can’t believe you want me to set everything aside and give my last six weeks to Nora Sutherlin. Not a chance. ”
“I’ve seen your in-box, Easton. It’s not so full you can’t work with Sutherlin while you tie up loose ends around here. Don’t tell me you don’t have the time when we both know you just don’t have the inclination. ”
“Fine. I don’t have the time or the inclination to edit erotica, even good erotica, if there is such an animal. I’m not the only editor here. Give it to Thomas Finley. ” Zach named his least favorite coworker, the one who’d given him his nickname. “Or Angie Clark even. ”
“Finley? That pansy? He’d make a pass at Sutherlin, and she’d eat him alive. If you punched him in the face, he wouldn’t even know how to bleed right. ”
Zach nearly laughed in agreement before remembering he was fighting with J. P.
“Then what about Angie Clark?”
“She’s too busy right now. Besides…”
“Besides what?” Zach demanded.
“Clark’s afraid of her. ”
“Can’t say I blame her,” Zach said. “I’ve heard grown men practically whisper her name at parties. The rumor is she slept her way to her first book deal. ”
“I’ve heard that rumor, too. But she hasn’t slept her way to this one. Unfortunately,” J. P. said with a playful grin.
“I read on Rachel Bell’s blog that she never leaves the house in any other color than red. She said Sutherlin’s got a sixteen-year-old boy working as her personal assistant. ”
J. P. smiled at him. “I believe she prefers ‘intern’ to ‘personal assistant. ’”
Zach nearly choked on his own frustration. He’d been ready to leave for the evening, even had his coat on, when some demon voice in his head told him to check his work email one more time. He had a note from J. P. telling him that he was considering acquiring erotica writer Nora Sutherlin and her latest book for their big fall/winter release. And since Zach didn’t have much to occupy him until he left for L. A. in a few weeks…
“I need you to do this for me. You and no one else,” J. P. said.
“Why am I the only one who can handle her?”
“Handle her?” J. P. practically chortled the words before turning serious. “Listen to me—no one handles Nora Sutherlin. No, you’re just the only one I’ve got who can keep up with her. Easton…Zach. Hear me out, please. ”
Zach swallowed and resigned himself to a moment’s détente. It was a rare thing indeed when John-Paul Bonner called anyone by his first name.
“She writes romances, J. P. ,” Zach said quietly. “I hate romances. ”
J. P. met his eyes with sympathy.
“I know you’ve been through hell this past year. I’ve met your Grace, remember? I know what you’ve lost. But Sutherlin…she’s good. We need her. ”
Zach took a slow, deep breath.
“Has she signed the contract yet?” Zach asked.
“No. We’re still ironing out the terms. ”
“Is there a verbal agreement in place?”
J. P. eyed him warily. “Not yet. I told her we’d have to look at the figures and get back to her, but we were leaning toward yes. Why?”
“I’ll talk to her. ”
“A good start. ”
“And I’ll read the manuscript. If I think there’s any chance she—we—can make something decent out of her book, I’ll give her my last six weeks. But the book doesn’t go to press until I sign off on it. ”
J. P. ’s eyes bored into Zach. Zach refused to blink or look away. He was used to having final say on all his books. He wasn’t about to relinquish that power, not for J. P. , not for Nora Sutherlin, not for anyone.
“Easton, one Dan Brown title will outsell in a month what the entire poetry section of a bookstore will sell in five years. Sutherlin’s ‘pornography,’ as you call it, could pay for a lot of poetry around here. ”
“I want the contract in my hands, J. P. , or I won’t even meet her. ”
J. P. sat back in his chair and exhaled loudly through his nose.
“Fine. She’s all yours. She’s got a nice little place in Connecticut. Take the train. Take my car. I don’t care. She’ll be home on Monday, she said. ”
“Very well then. ” Zach knew he was likely safe. When the mood struck him, Zach could be merciless to an author about his or her book’s shortcomings. The great writers took the criticism. The hacks couldn’t handle it. If he was hard enough on her, she’d beg for another editor.
The argument now at a stalemate, Zach rose tiredly from the chair and with hunched and aching shoulders headed toward the door.
A small cough stopped Zach before he could leave the office. J. P. didn’t meet his eyes, only ran his hand over the first page of the Hamlet reader’s copy in front of him.
“You should read this book when it comes out,” J. P. said, tapping the page. “Fascinating exploration of the feigned madness of Hamlet—‘I am but mad north north-west…’”
“‘But when the wind is southerly, I can tell a hawk from a handsaw,’” Zach finished the famous quotation.
“Sutherlin’s only as mad as Hamlet was. Don’t believe everything you’ve heard about her. The lady knows her hawks from her handsaws. ”
J. P. closed the book and didn’t answer the insult. Zach turned to leave again.
“You know, you’re still young, Easton, and too handsome for your own good. You should try it sometime. ”
“What? Madness?” Zach asked, nodding toward the book.
“No. Happiness. ”
“Happiness?” Zach allowed himself a bitter grin. “I’m afraid my memory’s too good for that. ”
Zach returned to his office. His assistant, Mary, had left Nora Sutherlin’s manuscript on his desk along with a file folder.
Zach flipped the file open and barely glanced at Sutherlin’s bio. She was thirty-three, about a decade younger than him. Her first book had come out when she was twenty-nine. She’d released five titles since then; her second book, entitled Red, had created a minor sensation—great sales, lots of buzz. Zach studied the numbers in the file and saw why J. P. was so eager to acquire her. With each subsequent release, her sales had nearly doubled. Zach ran through the little he knew of erotica writers in his mind. These days erotica was about the only growth market in publishing. But it shouldn’t be about the money. Just the art.