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About the Author
Other Books by Elizabeth Peters
Praise for Naked Once More
Table of Contents
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All across America there are strange little roads that lead nowhere. Deep-rutted and narrow, slick with icy scum in winter, hidden by weeds in summer, they wind over remote hills and brambled woodlands, to end abruptly and without apparent purpose in remote spots far from any sign of human habitation. Occasionally a clue as to their function may appear: a rusty beer can, a scrap of plastic, a few scattered bricks from a long-abandoned house.
It was at the end of such a road that Kathleen Darcy's car was found. The searchers took almost a week to find it, since there was no sensible reason why she, or anyone else, should have gone there. Several days of heavy rainfall had hidden any tracks leading into or out of the place, and had encouraged the violent outburst of vegetation characteristic of a southern spring. The search parties spread out from the abandoned vehicle, cursing poison ivy and brambles fierce as barbed wire, keeping a wary eye out for bears and rabid raccoons. They found what they expected to find: nothing. In the overgrown tangle of the mountainside, riddled with caves and abandoned mine shafts, a body might lie undiscovered for years—at least by human searchers. There were black bears and bobcats in the area, foxes and feral dogs. And buzzards. Not far from the clearing, white water tumbled over boulders in its race to the river. Swollen by rain, it could carry heavier objects than the body of a slender woman.
Quite possibly she had taken steps to ensure she would never be found. Among the papers found in her purse was one that might be construed as a last message. "Looked like a poem," one of the searchers reported later, to an avid audience at the Elite Bar and Grill. "It was in her handwriting, but sheriff said she never wrote it herself; she copied it off some foreigner. Had some foreign words in it, anyhow. Greek, maybe."
"Latin," said a more erudite member of the audience.
"Latin, Greek, what the hell. Greek to me, anyhow." The narrator chuckled. "Meant she was scared of dying."
"I don't know anybody who's crazy about the idea," the erudite one said dryly. "But I wouldn't of spent much time worrying about it if I'd been her. How much she make off that book of hers—a million, two mill?"
The other man shrugged, belched, and pronounced Kathleen Darcy's epitaph. "She was one weird lady."
A similar sentiment echoed, albeit ever so distantly, in the mind of Christopher Dawley as he watched his client wend her way toward the table he had reserved (albeit ever so reluctantly) at the Tavern on the Green. Chris hated the Tavern on the Green. Jacqueline Kirby loved it, though, and Chris would have acceded to her wish even if she had not been his favorite client, because he was a gentleman as well as a literary agent. (Contrary to the opinions of some authors, the two categories frequently overlap.)
Writers constantly, and in most cases justifiably, complain about the paucity of their pay. The literary agent's standard fee is therefore ten percent of paucity—i.e., not much. But ten percent of Jacqueline, author of two best-selling novels, constituted a tidy sum. That was one of the reasons why she was Chris's favorite client.
Sometimes he thought it was the only reason. She had a number of infuriating characteristics. The way she dressed, for instance. Chris was a quiet man of conservative habits and attire, who preferred to remain inconspicuous. Appearing in public with Jacqueline was guaranteed to make anyone the cynosure of all eyes. This was one of the most flamboyant outfits he had seen her wear, which was saying a good deal.
The cloak that swathed her from neck to ankles was a bewildering swirl of iridescent sea colors, green and blue, pale lavender and ice-gray, overlaid with feathers, sequins, embroidery and other unidentifiable substances. And the hat! Since she hit the Times best-seller list, Jacqueline had gone mad about hats. This one was purple. The eight-inch brim was weighted down by lavender and turquoise plumes, almost hiding the dark glasses that covered the upper third of Jacqueline's face. She wore matching purple gloves and a jangle of gold bracelets. Further extravagances were concealed by the hat and the cloak. In the cheerful, calculated country charm of the garden room she looked as alien as a… Chris couldn't think of an appropriate comparison. He was a literary agent, not a writer.
Between the dark glasses and the hat, Jacqueline's vision was obviously not at its best, but she made it to the table with only a few stumbles, and was helped into her chair by the maître d', on whose face fascination warred with consternation. He retreated. Jacqueline peered out from under the brim of the hat. An enchanting smile curved her wide mouth.
"Cut it out." Chris resumed his seat. He had been about to give her the chaste peck that is conventional in the media professions, including publishing, but the possibility of becoming entangled in the cloak, not to mention the hat, had discouraged the idea. "I hate it when you go into one of your acts," he added grumpily. "Who are you today? Jackie Kennedy, Jackie Collins, Michael Jackson…?"
"You cut me to the quick!" Jacqueline pressed a purple hand to her heaving bosom. "You know I have my own unmistakable style, and excellent reasons for behaving as I do."
With a graceful shrug she divested herself of the cloak. It fell in rainbow confusion over the back of her chair and spread itself across several square feet of rose-covered carpeting before she scooped it in and tucked it under the table. Her dress was comparatively restrained: royal-purple silk crepe, draped to display her admirable torso, which was embellished with a collection of gold chains as extensive as the dowry of a wealthy Ubangi maiden.
Sunlight pouring through the glass roof and walls glittered blindingly off the display. Chris averted his eyes. "I know; you told me. 'The only way I can keep my sanity in this business is to make fun of it—or at least its more preposterous aspects—and of myself.' But that's not the only reason. You enjoy this!"
"Of course I do." Jacqueline gave the hat a deft quarter turn, exposing her face.
It was a countenance that looked austere, even forbidding, in repose. The chin was delicately rounded but protuberant; the wide, flexible mouth could smile as enigmatically as an archaic Greek goddess or tighten into merciless rigidity. Most of her hair was still hidden by the hat, but Chris had had occasion to observe and admire its bronze-brown luxuriance. He had no idea whether the color was original.
She was smiling enigmatically now, and her green eyes shone like emeralds, a sure sign of amusement—at herself, or someone else. "But I must defend myself from those importunate fans of mine. Being a celebrity is soooo exhausting."
They had had the same conversation several times before. Chris couldn't imagine why he was bothering to repeat himself. "It's your own fault. If you hadn't made such a spectacle of yourself on the Today show and said those outrageous things in the People interview, and—"
"You were the one who insisted I do all those interviews," Jacqueline interrupted.
"It's part of the job," Chris mumbled.
"What?" Jacqueline leaned forward. "I can't hear you."
"I can hear you, and so can everybody else in the room. I said, as I have said a hundred times, that publicity is part of the job. You know that, and the—er—panache with which you perform would lead one to suspect that you love doing it. So don't give me that martyred look."
"But it shouldn't be part of the job. Nathaniel Hawthorne wasn't pursued by fanatical fans. Emerson never made the talk-show circuit. Louisa May Alcott—"
This was a new variant on an old theme, and Chris was carried away by the joy of debate. "Twain and Dickens did the lecture circuits and Alcott was besieged by her fans. Remember the scene in Jo's Boys, where she tried to pretend she was the maid to escape the attentions of one pushy family that invaded her study?"
"I remember." Jacqueline grinned widely. "But I thought men never read Alcott."
"My literary background is more extensive than you dream," Chris said. "I've even read Laura Ingalls Wilder."
A waiter circled cautiously around the hat and deposited two glasses tinkling with ice cubes and filled with a clear frosty liquid. Jacqueline raised her glass and took a long sip.
"Feeling better?" Chris inquired.
"Yes, much. But honestly, Chris, this promotional thing has gotten out of hand. You saw the schedule of that tour they arranged for me last fall—every pinky-dink bookstore from L.A. to Maine, every local newspaper, every two-bit radio and TV station.… I'll never forget the disc jockey in Centerville, Iowa, who called me 'man' and suggested that a tête-à-tête in the alley with him and his drug collection would give me new insights into the sexual habits of the Cro-Magnon."
Chris's eyes widened. "You never told me that."
"I try to spare you when I can." Jacqueline patted his hand.
"Did I what? Really, Chris." Lashes coated with something dark and shiny veiled her eyes, and she said reminiscently, "He was cute. Even if he did pronounce the g in Cro-Magnon."
"Jacqueline, did you—"
"Of course not. The point I am endeavoring to make, despite your interruptions, is that the writing biz is not for writers these days, it's for performers. Whatever happened to the reclusive author scribbling by candlelight in her ivory tower, companied only by shadows?"
"There never was.… Well, Emily Dickinson, of course, but she—"
"Writing is supposed to be for introverts. If you like people, you aren't supposed to become a writer. You're supposed to become an actor or a nurse or an insurance salesman or a—"
"All right, all right." Chris signaled the waiter. It seemed to him that Jacqueline had scarcely paused to draw breath, much less drink, but she had expeditiously disposed of her martini. He went on, "I don't disagree with you in theory. But what you're saying has nothing to do with the real world. The way it is is the way it is, and your grousing isn't going to change the way it is."
"Irrelevant, you mean," Jacqueline mused. "Or irrevelant, as my grand—as a young friend of mine says."
She sipped genteelly at her second drink, and Chris pondered her near slip of the tongue. Grandson? Grandniece? Jacqueline talked, interminably at times, about everything except her personal life. Presumably there had been a Mr. Kirby, or perhaps a Professor or Dr. Kirby. No one seemed to know what had become of this individual. Jacqueline never spoke of him. She had children—more than one, but precisely how many? Questions designed to elicit this information went unanswered.
After her first book had made the best-seller lists and her performance on talk shows had turned her into a semi-celebrity, several enterprising gossip columnists, scenting possible scandal in her determined reticence, had tried to trace her family. The farthest any of them got was the campus of a midwestern university where, it was rumored, Jacqueline's son was registered. Inquiring of a fresh-faced young woman in the registrar's office, the reporter had been told that a Mr. Kirby was indeed in residence. An introduction was offered. The journalist was then led to a room occupied by seven or eight—or possibly twelve or thirteen, he eventually lost count—smiling young men all claiming to be the son of Jacqueline Kirby. They all had different first names—names like Peregrine, Radcliffe, Percival, Agrivaine and Willoughby—and the interview promptly deteriorated into a free-for-all of claims and counterclaims, denials and insults, ending in actual hand-to-hand combat.
Further research indicated that the only Kirby registered at that particular university was a thirty-nine-year-old graduate student of obviously oriental parentage.
Chris had chuckled over the story, but when he was questioned about Jacqueline's private life, he told the literal truth: he knew no more than anyone else. He didn't want to know. It was part of his job to calm his clients' frazzled nerves, build up their fragile egos, and try to talk them out of making disastrous commitments of time and money, but he did not consider himself obliged to play psychiatrist—or lawyer. For all her failings, Jacqueline had never wakened him at 3 A.M. threatening suicide, or demanding that he make bail for her. He was content to know no more than he needed to know; and indeed, as he studied his companion, surrounded by her cloak like a peacock in molt, he found it impossible to think of her as a grandmother.
The arrival of the waiter, proffering menus, distracted Jacqueline temporarily, but after she had refused a third drink and decided on a salad, she returned to the subject—like a cat mauling a dead mouse, Chris thought gruesomely.
"It really isn't irrelevant, Chris. The rat race is getting to me. I'm not enjoying it anymore. I did once, I admit it; I had a ball, showing off and smirking at the cameras and thinking up cute, acerbic comments."
"Many of which you stole from Dorothy Parker."
"You know that, and I know that, but most of the audience never heard of her—or any other writer except the current best-sellers. People don't read, Chris. Even book people. I know, I'm exaggerating; I don't suppose there are more than three publishers who brag about never reading novels. But…" She pressed her hands to her temples. "I need to get away from all this. I need to get out of New York and contemplate my navel, or my soul. Probably the latter, since it is aesthetically more pleasing."
Her raised voice made him jump. "What?"
"Something is bothering you," Jacqueline declared. "You've been squirming like a guilty schoolboy, and avoiding my eyes."
"Was it something I said?" She rolled her eyes and made a face, but the concern in her voice was sincere.
"No. I mean, yes. I mean…" Chris took a deep breath. "What you just said struck a nerve, though it wasn't intended to do so. I know exactly how you feel. I want out of the rat race too. I'm getting out. Retiring."
Jacqueline's face went blank. She stared at him, her lips parted, for what seemed to Chris like a very long time. Then she screamed.
The sound was not very loud or elongated, but it was shrill enough to turn the heads of the diners at nearby tables. Jacqueline's hands went to her throat. "Oh, God. Oh, God! You don't mean it. You can't do this to me, Chris. After all these years—after all we've been to one another…" She slumped forward, plumes at half-mast.
Chris cleared his throat. "Jacqueline…"
Jacqueline sat up straight. Her eyes were luminous with laughter—and something else. A little tingle of pleasure touched Chris at the sight and made him less irate with her absurd performance than he might otherwise have been. "You have Roquefort on your feathers," he remarked, dabbing at them with his napkin.
"I do love you, Chris," Jacqueline murmured. "Sorry about that, I couldn't resist. You looked so guilty, I thought you were about to announce your forthcoming incarceration for fraud, or your nuptials, or something really serious. You weren't worried, were you? You didn't think I'd make a scene, did you?"
"Just a teeny-weeny itsy-bitsy one. Confess, you'd have been crushed if I had accepted your decision coolly."
"I thought you might try to talk me out of it."
Chris shook his head. "I've been remodeling that house in Maine for over a year now. It's finished; and so am I. I want to sit on a rock and think for a few years. Do some fishing and skiing, cultivate my hobbies—"
"Carving duck decoys." Jacqueline's voice was studiously, suspiciously, unamused.
"It's a skill," Chris insisted. "An art form. Decoys are highly collectible—"
"I believe you, sweetie. I know you'll carve superb ducks." The glint of mockery faded from her eyes and she said gently, "I'll miss you terribly, Chris. I doubt I will ever find another agent with your combination of intelligence, humor, and integrity. I would try to talk you out of it if I didn't think so highly of you. Feeling as I do, all I can say is I'm terribly happy for you." She shook her head. "Good Lord, I'm talking as if you had announced your nuptials. I'll cry in a minute."
Chris said nothing. Jacqueline peered at him. "Chris, you look like a cat that's raided the goldfish bowl. You sly dog, you, don't tell me there is an unknown charmer on the distant horizon?"
"She's the town librarian."
For some reason this struck both of them as immensely amusing. The remaining tension, and sentiment, dissolved in gales of laughter.
"You've got good taste," Jacqueline remarked, carefully dabbing at her encrusted mascara. "As an ex-librarian, I can assure you there is no finer type in the land. If you don't invite me to the wedding I'll come anyway, and bring something wonderfully ghastly, like a Victorian chamber pot. But, Chris—all kidding aside, and bushels of mazel tov—what am I going to doooo?"
The last word was a siren-like wail. Jacqueline was back in form.
"If you'd like me to, I'll continue to handle your first two books. There will be royalties, foreign sales, and the like, for some time to come."
"My ten percent will be thanks enough."
They smiled at one another in perfect understanding and amity. Chris went on, "There are few agents in New York who wouldn't kill to have you on their list. You can pick and choose. I suggest you interview several."
"Like I did when I picked you?"
Chris's lips twitched as he remembered. He had never heard of Jacqueline Kirby when she first called him to announce she was looking for an agent and would like to interview him. The cool effrontery of the statement was breathtaking; unpublished authors don't interview agents, they plead with those godlike creatures to glance at their manuscripts. Chris started to explain this when the cool, ladylike voice on the other end of the wire interrupted him.
"I've been working with Hattie Foster. You know her, I presume."
Chris had to admit the presumption was justified. Hattie Foster was one of the best-known and most cordially disliked people in publishing. Her fellow agents detested her as much as—it would have been impossible to detest her more than—editors and publishers. Nor was she particularly popular with the authors she had misrepresented and allegedly defrauded. Earlier that year she had figured prominently in a scandal that had rocked the publishing world and left Hattie's not entirely pristine reputation further besmirched. A case of first-degree murder, solved by a homicide detective named O'Brien and a woman named…
Chris pursed his lips in a silent whistle. No wonder the caller's name had been vaguely familiar.
"I know her," he said cautiously.
"Say no more, say no more. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink."
"What?" Chris took the phone away from his ear and stared at it.
"I beg your pardon, I am wandering from my point. Hattie submitted the manuscript to Last Forlorn Hope of Love, which, or who, as the case may be, made an offer for it." She mentioned an amount that made his eyebrows rise. "I feel, however, that the book is worthy of a wider audience. Besides, I'm not comfortable with Hattie. I've decided to leave her and find another agent."
"But…" Chris tried to think of a polite way to put it. He failed. "But, Miss—er—Ms.—er—Mrs. Kirby, you can't do that. I couldn't take an author from a colleague. Especially Hattie Foster."
"I can." The statement was followed by a crisp sound, as of teeth snapping together.
And she could, too. After he had read the first fifty pages of the manuscript, which arrived via messenger that afternoon, Chris had called Hattie, and Hattie had assured him she would never dream of holding an unhappy client to an agreement and that, moreover, she wished both of them the best of luck. The sentiment was so wildly unlike Hattie that Chris could only conclude Jacqueline was blackmailing her. He asked no questions, then or later; he didn't want to know about that, either.
"Names?" Jacqueline said, and Chris dismissed past memories for present business.
They discussed the matter—the pros and cons of various individuals, the burning question of large agencies versus independents—but it was increasingly evident to Chris that Jacqueline's heart wasn't in it.
"I don't know whether I want another agent," she muttered, studying the dessert menu.
"Oh, go ahead; have the chocolate cake."
"I intend to. You never hear me babbling about dieting, do you?" She didn't give him time to answer. "That's not why I'm grumbling. I'm upset. I'm not going to try to talk you out of it, I really am not; but I hate the idea of finding someone else. I lucked out the first time; how can I hope it will happen twice?"
The compliment was too graceless to be anything but sincere. Chris beamed. "Don't depend on luck. Use your intelligence."
"I don't know whether I want to write anymore."
"Nonsense." Chris addressed the waiter. "Two coffees, and the lady will have the Deadly Delight."
Jacqueline leaned back and contemplated her ringed hands. "I wrote that first book as a joke, you know. Surrounded by romance writers, unable to believe the stuff I was reading had actually been published… I was astonished when it took off the way it did."
"So was I." This candid admission won Chris a hostile green glance from his client. He tried to make amends. "Nobody knows what makes a best-seller, Jacqueline. Yours was a good book—of its kind—and eminently readable. The second book was stronger, more professional. If you continue to improve—"
"But I don't want to continue. I hate the damned books." The waiter thrust Jacqueline's cake in front of her and beat a hasty retreat. She contemplated its swirled frosting gloomily. "Oh, don't worry, I haven't developed delusions of grandeur; I don't want to write lit-ra-choor, or win the Pulitzer. The literary pundits may dismiss my kind of writing as 'popular fiction'; but it's a lot harder to write than those stream-of-consciousness slices of life. A 'popular' novel is just about the only form of fiction these days that has a plot. I like plots. I like a book to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I'm proud of what I do and I have no desire to read or write anything else. But ro-mance? God save the mark! There haven't been more than half a dozen good historical novels written since the turn of the century, if you count Dorothy Dunnett's six-volume saga as one. Gone With the Wind, The Time Remembered, Katherine, Amber, Naked in the Ice.… Did you just flinch, Chris? Why did you flinch?"
"It wasn't a flinch, it was… Nothing."
Jacqueline was too preoccupied with her grievances to pursue the point. "Well, maybe Naked in the Ice isn't a historical novel. It's a unique blend of fantasy and fact, an adult Lord of the Rings, a literary Clan of the Cave Bear, a Pleistocene Gone With the Wind. But you know one thing all those books have in common, besides being best-sellers? Not a single organ of the body throbs, hardens, or pulsates! Honestly, Chris, if I have to write one more so-called love scene I'll start giggling, and I won't be able to stop, and three or four days later somebody will find me lying across the typewriter laughing insanely and they'll call an ambulance, and as they carry me away… Chris, you did flinch. I saw you."
"What do you want to write?" Chris asked.
"A joke book," Jacqueline said promptly. "A lunatic farce; a diabolically witty, mordantly humorous work like Black Mischief or Cold Comfort Farm. Or maybe a fantasy novel." Her eyelids, lips and feathers drooped pensively. "A nice fantasy novel. Or a mystery story. I've always thought I could write a lovely mystery. I have this friend.…"
Chris didn't flinch, he cringed. One of Jacqueline's flaws as a client was that she "had these friends," who produced, from time to time, suggestions designed to drive an agent crazy. "You mean your agent hasn't sent you anything from Tiffany's? Darling, all best-selling authors deserve little trinkets from Tiffany's." It was thanks to one such friend that Jacqueline had developed her unholy passion for the Tavern on the Green.
He listened in tight-lipped patience while Jacqueline rambled on about her friend Catriona, who was a well-known mystery writer, and who felt absolutely confident that Jacqueline could write a smashing suspense novel if she wanted to. Finally he said mildly, "I'm sure you could. Of course you wouldn't make much money from it."
"Oh." Jacqueline considered this depressing suggestion and nodded reluctantly. "Catriona says crime doesn't pay—enough."
"The successful crime writers, like your friend, do well. But they don't stay on the top of the Times list for six months."
Jacqueline's emerald eyes narrowed, and Chris added hastily, "I know, there are exceptions. I am merely pointing out that for you to give up a sure thing for a questionable possibility would be foolish in the extreme."
"But, Chris, I told you, if I have to write the words 'ruggedly handsome' or 'throbbing manhood' one more time—"
Chris didn't interrupt this time. Jacqueline stopped herself on a long indrawn breath. "I knew there was something else. What? What is it?"
"How would you like to write the sequel to Naked in the Ice?"
Jacqueline's pent breath erupted in a vulgar gust that fluttered the edges of the paper doily under her Deadly Delight. "That's it? That's what you… Thank God! I was afraid you were going to tell me you had only a year to live, or…" Her voice soared suddenly into a high-pitched squeal. "What did you say? Did you say… me… sequel… Naked…"
"You, sequel, Naked."
He watched it sink in, wondering if he ought to call the waiter and order champagne. The occasion was worthy of commemoration: the first and only time in their acquaintance that he had seen Jacqueline literally speechless. Not to mention the confirmation of something he had only suspected until this moment—that his eccentric, infuriating client's affection for him was strong enough to outweigh, if only for a few seconds, a proposition that would have deafened many writers to the last words of a dying spouse.
He knew he didn't have to tell Jacqueline what a dazzling prize the assignment would be. If there was any book of the past decade that was known, not only to the reading public, but to many who had to move their lips when they read the labels on cereal boxes, it was Naked in the Ice.
- On Sale
- Aug 6, 2013
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing