Mr. Cables (Novella #9)Ronald Malfi
"Mr. Cables" (Novella #9)
By: Ronald Malfi
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
“This is the scariest book I’ve ever read,” said the woman, placing the book on my table.
I smiled at her, as I did with everyone who queued up to have their books signed, but then I looked down at the book and my smile faltered.
It was a thick hardcover book with a creased and peeling paper dust jacket. The cover art depicted a row of homes on a suburban street with little lampposts between each house, and was done not in great detail but in a black-and-white rudimentary fashion, like an artist’s unfinished pencil sketch. The title of the book, printed in blocky yellow font, was Mr. Cables, and despite the fact that the author’s name below the title was my own—Wilson S. Paventeau—I had never seen the book before.
“This isn’t one of mine,” I said, puzzling over the name. It was not a common one, after all. I opened the cover and flipped to the title page, already assuming this woman had printed a phony dust jacket which she’d wrapped around someone else’s book. I’d had stranger things happen at book signings. But the title page confirmed what was printed on the dust jacket—Mr. Cables by Wilson S. Paventeau.
“I’ve read all your books except the latest one, and this one was by far the scariest,” said the woman. She was short and squat, packaged in a gaudy paisley dress beneath a wool coat. She wrung her chubby hands together below the precipice of her overlarge bosom as she beamed at me. Her face was round, her features blunt. Her eyes were small and squinty.
“I didn’t write this,” I said.
The corners of the woman’s small mouth sagged. “What do you mean?” Then, before I could respond, her face brightened again. She leaned closer to me. “Do you mean it’s…ghostwritten?” I could smell denture cream on her breath.
“No, I mean this isn’t one of my books.”
She frowned. “But of course it is. It’s right here.”
“There’s your name on the cover.”
“And your…” she began, but allowed her action to finish the sentence as she turned the book over to reveal the author photo on the back.
I struggled to keep the smile on my lips. The black-and-white photo was of me, albeit an older one from earlier in my career. I reopened the book, this time right to the middle, and saw that the header on the left page contained the book’s title while the header on the right contained my name. A quick thumbing through the second half of the book showed that this pattern was consistent throughout the text. If it was a gag, it was an elaborate one.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the bookstore’s security guard take a step in my direction. “Everything okay, Mr. Paventeau?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said, and turned back to the woman wringing her hands in front of my table. The people in line behind her were beginning to peer over at us, curious. “Be honest with me,” I said to the woman. “Is this a joke?”
That frown was firmly in place on the woman’s face now. “A joke?”
“Where did you get this book?”
“At a yard sale.”
“Where?” the woman echoed. “Who can remember? It was years ago.”
“I’m curious about it,” I said, turning it over in my hands. “Could I borrow it? I’d pay you for it.”
“Can we trade?” the woman asked, her eyebrows arching as if triggered by some mechanical device. She nodded toward the stack of books at my table—the hardcover release of my latest novel, Blood Show. “Like I said, I haven’t read the new one yet.”
It occurred to me that this had likely been the woman’s intention all along—to proffer a trade, a prank book for the real deal. Yet this woman did not seem to be in on the prank, let alone the perpetrator.
“My pleasure,” I said, sliding a copy of Blood Show off the stack. I scribbled an inscription then handed her the book.
She clutched it to her chest, her face red, her smallish mouth stretched into a grin. I noticed that her fingernails had been gnawed down to near nonexistence, and that there was dried blood around some of the cuticles.
“You sure you won’t miss it?” I said, holding up the fraudulent book.
“Oh no,” she said, the smile dropping from her face. “I won’t read it again. It’s too scary.”
“Well, enjoy the new one,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sure I will. You’re really just so wonderful. It’s just…that one…” Her gaze skirted down to the odd book that she had given me, which was now resting in the center of the table. Something akin to distrust seemed to wash over her face. Then that jubilant smile reappeared.
Because she seemed to need some urging, I said, “Take care, now.”
She gave an awkward little curtsey then toddled across the bookstore to the exit.
I had every intention of waiting until I got home that evening to flip through the book, but writers are curious creatures by nature, and I wound up examining it in the food court of the mall while ingesting some orange chicken from Panda Express. I stripped the dust jacket off and saw the book’s title and my name embossed in gold leaf along the spine. The date of copyright was 1999, and the publisher was Gorgon & Heavenward. I’d never heard of the publisher, and there wasn’t an address or any contact information for them anywhere in the book. A quick Google search on my iPhone revealed zero results. If it was printed by a vanity press, the “publisher” wouldn’t necessarily have a Web presence. I searched for the book’s title in conjunction with my name, but none of the hits that came back had anything to do with the book.
Lastly, I turned to the back of the book, where the brief author’s bio read:
Wilson S. Paventeau is the New York Times bestselling author of eleven novels. He is the two-time recipient of the Bram Stoker Award, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and was nominated for three Edgar Allan Poe Awards by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2010, his horror novel Devil’s Dance was adapted into a film starring Thomas Jane and Neve Campbell. He lives in New Jersey, where he is currently at work on his next book.
It was the same bio that appeared at the back of Blood Show, but with one glaring difference: I was the New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels, not eleven. What made this error particularly strange was that the forgery—this Mr. Cables, parading as one of my own works—should have brought the tally to a baker’s dozen. Instead, whoever had written and printed the book had eliminated one of my actual novels. I concluded that the forgery must have been printed prior to the release of Blood Show.
Of course, if the copyright date was accurate, then this book was published in 1999, before I’d published any of my novels. Which was impossible.
I drove home that evening with the peculiar book sliding around on the passenger seat of my Mercedes. It was strange, but when I came to a stop at an intersection and happened to notice a large metal Dumpster in an alley between two storefronts, the urge to get out of the car and throw the book away was nearly overpowering. In fact, I’d even slipped the car into Park in anticipation of climbing out, but then the traffic light changed and the guy behind me laid on his horn.
After a dinner of leftover spaghetti and a hot shower, I poured myself a glass of merlot and settled into the upholstered armchair by the bank of windows that looked out onto a vast pine forest. My nearest neighbor was over a mile away as the crow flies, but I could see a drift of smoke rising up from his chimney beyond the trees.
I opened the book and read the first sentence—
The curious thing about Quimby was that he wasn’t curious at all.r />
I couldn’t help it; I chuckled out loud, careful not to spill my wine. If someone was attempting to emulate my style, they’d missed the essence of what the critics most often indicted me for—namely, vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake. No one had ever accused me of being subtle. The opening line of Blood Show, for example, was:
Blood spurted in glittery crimson ribbons as the knife was dragged across the woman’s pale throat.
An opening line about someone’s curiosity—or lack thereof—didn’t exactly have my thumbprint on it.
I kept reading.
The book was about a man named Quimby, a fastidious, humorless bank clerk whose lack of interest and investment in the outside world manifested as an inability to achieve any level of excitement or even the simplest pleasure in life. Like an automaton, Quimby existed simply to exist, functioned only to function, and took no great satisfaction in any event, circumstance, or thought that might occur to him throughout his day. His life was tedious, repetitive, and unfettered by even the merest acquaintance, let alone a close friend or lover. His colleagues at the bank avoided him, which was Quimby’s preference, and the waitress at the restaurant where he ate every day at precisely noon—the same egg salad on rye bread with a half-glass of apple juice, no ice—knew better than to engage him in conversation.
The only measure of satisfaction Quimby received was from reading books, and even that menial task was performed not with simple pleasure but with the calculated exactitude of a surgeon excising a particularly troublesome tumor from a patient. In fact, much of the action in the novel came in the form of the stories Quimby read, and not necessarily with Quimby himself.
By the time I slipped a bookmark between the pages, I had read five chapters and drained two glasses of merlot. Darkness pressed against the bank of windows that overlooked the pine forest.
I turned the book over in my lap and stared at my outdated author photo on the back. Five chapters of a book where absolutely nothing happened in the story—arguably, there wasn’t a story—yet I’d been so engrossed that I’d lost track of time. Exhaustion suddenly weighed on me like a change in gravity.
I set the book on the end table and was about to rise out of my chair when I noticed something about the crude artwork on the cover that I hadn’t before. As described, the artwork was of a pencil drawing of a row of homes along a residential street, a lamppost stationed between each house. The artist had created the perception of darkness by etching swirls and arcs and various crosshatches of shading in the spaces between and above the houses. The thing I noticed now—the thing I hadn’t seen until that very moment—was that the artist had also sketched the suggestion of a figure among the crosshatching. A cursory glance might allow the figure to go unnoticed—and indeed it had with me until now—but the more I stared at it, the more those variants of shading in the pencilwork conspired to create the vestige of a slender man standing between two of the houses, and partially obscured by a lamppost.
“Hello there,” I said, and ran my thumb across the figure, as if to smudge it out of existence. But of course the figure remained. And the longer my gaze lingered on it, the more it seemed to retreat back into the shadows and into nonexistence again.
It was exhaustion. My eyes burned with it.
I went to bed, and I won’t lie: I dreamed about the lackluster Quimby.
The next day, I phoned my agent.
“You should be honored,” she said. “They say emulation is the highest form of flattery.”
“It’s not emulation or even plagiarism. They’re just using my name.”
“Yeah, there was a guy who posted a bunch of ebooks on Amazon under the name ‘Stephen King,’ I think. Wound up making some bank, too. It’s become something of a trend.”
“This book was published in 1999. Or at least that’s what the copyright says, although that can’t be true. Either, way, it doesn’t exist on Amazon, or anywhere else, for that matter.”
“Not on eBay?”
“Nowhere. According to the Internet, the book doesn’t exist. Neither does the publisher.”
“Who’s the publisher?”
“Gorgon and Heavenward. Ever heard of them?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
“I thought it might be a vanity press,” I suggested.
“Is there a chance the person might just actually have the same name as you?”
“I found a Wilson Parenteau on Facebook, believe it or not, but no other Paventeau. Besides, they used my author photo and bio. The photo’s an old one and the bio isn’t one hundred percent accurate, but they’re mine.”
“That’s really bizarre. Do you want to send me the book?”
“I want to finish it first.”
My agent laughed. “You’re reading it?”
“Bested by curiosity, I guess,” I said, and the first sentence from the novel rose up in my mind—how the curious thing about Quimby was that he wasn’t curious.
“Is it any good?”
“You know, I can’t really tell. If I explained it to you, you’d probably fall asleep. I mean, I’ve read maybe fifty pages and absolutely nothing has happened yet. But there’s just something about it that I can’t explain. Even weirder is that the woman who gave it to me said it was the scariest thing I’ve ever written, yet I’m not even sure it’s a horror novel. I’m not sure what kind of novel it is. It’s about as scary as milk.”
“Heck, maybe it’s got a killer twist ending. If it’s any good, we can turn around and sell it to Hollywood. It’s already got your name on it.”
It was a joke, of course, but for some reason the comment made me uncomfortable. “Maybe,” I said.
We discussed other matters, and by the time we hung up, I found myself anxious to get back to the novel. I’d left it on the table beside the armchair in the living room last night, and it was still there now, framed in a rectangle of daylight coming through the floor-to-ceiling window.
I poured a mug of coffee then settled down in the armchair, promising myself I’d read for only a half hour before heading to my den to get some work done. The story was still as uneventful as it had been the night before. In fact, I was halfway through the book before the titular Mr. Cables made his appearance, and even that turned out to be a disappointment: Mr. Cables was nothing more than the main character in one of the books Quimby was reading. Much of chapter seven was devoted to the ominous Mr. Cables, who spent his days inexplicably traveling on city buses and watching commuters while scribbling notes (presumably about them) in small memo pad, and his evenings combing through stacks of books for the answer to some unknown question. It was at this point that I realized I was reading a book about a man reading a book about a man reading a book.
When I paused in my reading to refresh my coffee, I realized I’d spent three hours in the armchair with the book. I stood there, staring at the wall clock and at the panels of sunlight that had repositioned themselves across the living room, and tried to account for what had kept me so enraptured with the book. But I could make no sense of it.
The front door opened and Trudy Parrott’s cheery voice crooned a spirited halloooo down the hallway. A moment later, she appeared in the kitchen doorway, looking like an Eskimo in her winter hat and coat, her face red from the cold.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Paventeau,” she said, tugging off her big fuzzy mittens.
I’d forgotten it was Trudy’s day to clean the house. I tied my bathrobe closed and offered her a cup of coffee.
“I’ve already had my one cup for the day. If I drink more than that, I’ll be up half the night with the shimmies. How did the book signing go yesterday?”
“Very well. It was nice.”
“Is that the last of them?”
“For the winter, yes.”
“It’s good to be home, isn’t it?”
“It really is, Trudy.”
I went to the coffeepot, refilled my mug, then told my housekeeper that I would be in
the den for the rest of the day getting some work done.
My den was situated in the part of the house I thought of as the Quiet Corner. There was only one window and the view was of the dense firs, so there wasn’t much to compete with my concentration except the occasional squirrel. I’d written seven of my twelve books in this room, and although the entry into each one of those stories was different, the process had always been the same. The mind was allowed to run free while the hands were put to the keys and forced to labor.
I got very little work done that day, however. It took the better part of an hour to string together a few sentences, and even then I wasn’t exactly sure what those sentences were supposed to say. My mind was on the mysterious book, which I had left on the end table beside the armchair in the living room. I considered going to retrieve it, but the thought of my housekeeper catching me in the act filled me with a measure of inexplicable shame, as if there was something downright perverse about my association with that mysterious text. I decided that was my subconscious telling me I needed to focus on my own writing, but I knew that was a lost cause at the moment—the old word-maker in my head had shuddered and gone to sleep for the afternoon.
I spent the rest of the afternoon making phone calls to several used and rare bookstores. None of the shops that I called had ever heard of a novel titled Mr. Cables, though one shop owner said he had a collection of Wilson S. Paventeau first editions, and he’d be happy to have me come in and sign them. Moreover, no one had ever heard of a publisher called Gorgon and Heavenward. By the time I got off the phone, I was not only exhausted; I was defeated.
There was a couch in my den, and it wasn’t unusual for me to make good use of it after a strenuous afternoon of writing. The writing hadn’t been strenuous, of course—it had been nonexistent, for all intents and purposes—but my fatigue was so great that I decided to grant myself maybe forty-five minutes of shuteye before attempting to rouse the word-maker and get back to work. I kicked off my slippers, reclined on the sofa, and laced my hands behind my head. With my eyes closed, I listened to the sound of Trudy’s vacuum moving up and down the hall, lulling me toward sleep.