“May I come in?” whispered a timid, familiar voice, and a slender young woman crept around my office door.
Her shimmery blond hair and gray-blue eyes made her look like a child—or, more poetically, a wood elf. But this particular elf had written six best-selling detective thrillers: sophisticated, complex novels that managed to be both cerebral and down-to-earth.
“Sorry to disturb you, Ms. Anstruther,” she said, her eyes downcast. But I wasn’t looking at her eyes. I was looking at the fat manilla envelope she carried.
“Celia... I’m Shelli,” I said lightly, motioning her to sit down so she wouldn’t stand there like a schoolgirl in the principal’s office.
She held out the envelope, and I took it.
“So... this is it?”
“You could have emailed it...”
“I know, but I was in town. I’ll email it this afternoon, too.”
“You’re traveling?” Celia rarely left her remote village, 500 miles from the city.
“Yes... with my fiancé.”
Fiancé? That was a shock. To my knowledge, Celia had never had a fiancé, or even a boyfriend. But I was her editor, not a gossip columnist.
“Congratulations,” I said. “Is he here?”
He was. I walked to the lobby with her and met Bryan—tall, muscular, handsome, with red-brown hair and interesting green eyes. I hoped he wasn’t a gold digger who’d break her heart—that sort of thing could destroy a writer’s imagination. But his hand touched her shoulder gently, and his eyes were like a caress... and somehow, I wasn’t worried.
I went back to my office and started reading.
The Last Question. That was the title of the thing, and it was Celia’s best yet. Her oddball detective, Alfred Siegbert—a brilliant oddball nerd with dark hair and thick glasses—had never seemed so real, so sympathetic. The first chapter began with a breathtaking chase through an old, quaint, sinister city. I reveled in Celia’s whimsical, confident prose, her sure command of all the elements that held a reader’s attention.
The first shock came in the fourth chapter. On Page 48, Siegbert’s shy, sensitive girlfriend was swiftly, brutally murdered by Siegbert’s archenemy (though without graphic detail—that wasn’t Celia’s style).
I made a note in the margin: Rethink. Another girlfriend for Siegbert? Readers won’t like it!
I read on. No substitute girlfriend appeared, but Siegbert grieved quietly, intensely. I fumbled in my desk for a tissue, despising myself. Editors shouldn’t cry.
I turned the pages faster and faster, as the grieving hero untangled the villain’s web, strand by strand. His plan succeeded...
But the villain kidnaped Siegbert and escaped. No, no, NO! I scribbled emphatically, though I couldn’t fault Celia’s flawless writing. This is too much, after all he’s been through...
Siegbert suffered eloquently in the villain’s lair. I had expected that—but not that the villain would fire a bullet at close range...
Then the cavalry arrived, moments too late... and Siegbert, with his dying (DYING!?!) breath, gasped out the last scrap of information to unravel the criminal’s empire.
I stared at the last page—stunned, horrified, breathless. Then I picked up the phone.
Celia’s home and cell phones went to voicemail. I checked my email and found that she’d forwarded the manuscript, but she didn’t answer my replies.
I tried to reach her for a week, while I made notes and thought of alternate endings. Siegbert (savior of his city and our publishing house) couldn’t die. Couldn’t.
Maybe the gunshot had missed his vital organs. He’d gone into a coma, his heart had stopped for a few seconds... that could be overcome.
Maybe Siegbert’s unknown twin had given his life to save his brother... Maybe the last scene was a dream or hallucination...
UGH. Terrible ideas. Only Celia could resuscitate her hero. And she must.
When I phoned seven days later and found Celia home, she said she’d been in Paris. I couldn’t imagine her on the Champs-Élysées, but that was her affair.
“Celia,” I said, “You can’t kill off Siegbert. I know there’re ways to bring him back, if that’s what you’re planning...”
“No, Shelli. Siegbert’s dead.”
I knew how to handle her—I thought. But this time, she was stubborn. She didn’t argue. She just said “no.”
Finally, we both stopped talking. Then Celia said,
“I’m writing a new novel, you know...”
“A new... ?”
“And there’s another hero... tall, with reddish brown hair, green eyes...”
“Sounds like your fiancé.”
“Husband,” Celia corrected gently, and put down the phone.
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