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Book Jacket

0805426183
Paperback
352 pages
Sep 2003
Broadman & Holman Publishers

Paperback Writer

by Stephen Bly

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

prologue

the life of a
paperback writer

Paul James Watson never impressed his world . . . or himself.

But that is not to say he was a total failure.

Society sets a man’s value by what he accomplishes in the midst of others. A man measures himself by what he achieves when alone. It is possible to be a success at one and not the other. And, of course, one can be a failure at both.

A man who finds success in public and knows, in private, that he is a failure will never be understood by the general public. He will be called a moody workaholic who continues to drive himself.

The man who finds success in his private world but not in public is considered an underachiever, a man who lacks drive, one who never lived up to his potential.

When Paul James Watson’s youngest son, Peter, came home from college for the summer, he declared, “Dad, you will always be just a minor celebrity. Real celebrities need no intro-duction. But no one knows you until you are introduced.”

If the people in Bridgeport, Montana, thought about Paul James Watson at all, they concurred. After all, he did write books. They were published all over the world and read by thousands, perhaps millions. They knew there was some fame connected to that.

But Watson’s books weren’t read by the people in Bridgeport.

It’s not that they ignored their resident author. It’s just that life was crammed with hunting, fishing, endless garage sales, bowling leagues, pine needles to rake, and a garden to put in, if it ever stopped snowing.

They all had an autographed copy of a Paul James Watson novel around the house . . . somewhere. And every week or so a pilgrim would wander into town from some distant land asking the location of the home of the almost-famous novelist.

Folks pointed to the big log house on Tomahawk Drive on the north side of a dead-end gravel street. His editors in New York thought of Paul James Watson as a self-exiled iconoclast. If they thought of him at all. Of course, he thought about himself.

Not as often as his wife, Sheila, thought he did. Still, there were times when his eclectic mind turned inward. He thought about himself in those few glorious days after one book was finished and before the next one began.

Five times a year.

Some would not think that obsessive, but they don’t know how intensely he thought about himself.

And, right at the moment, Paul James Watson was between books.

Chapter 1

“Are you having a bad day, darlin’?” Paul James Watson drawled.

The onions on the three-egg Spanish omelette would give him heartburn all night. That’s why he ordered it with no onions. But the message somehow got lost in the scribble of the red-eyed waitress and white gravy from the thumb of the cook with a hair net over his bleached-white ponytail.

But Watson didn’t complain.

It wasn’t his style.

When the waitress resloshed his thick, chipped porcelain coffee cup, he glanced at her tightly drawn, narrow lips. She brushed the dangling strand of wispy pale almost-blonde hair out of her eyes as she wiped up the coffee spill with a once white damp rag. “Why did you ask me that?”

“There was something in the way you said, ‘Oh, crap! I don’t need this!’ after dropping my Tabasco sauce on the floor.”

She tossed the rag into the soapy water, then folded her arms across a weak chest. “Mister, I am having a bad day, a bad night, a bad week, a bad month, and a bad year. With any luck I will have a bad life as well. Any more questions?”

The coffee burned more than the tip of his tongue. “No, ma’am.”

She leaned her red, water-shrunk fingers on the counter and gazed out the window into the dark, east Montana night.

“And if I am really lucky, you will leave me a bad tip. And frankly, mister, I just don’t give a . . .”

“I believe I heard Clark Gable say that same line,” Watson interrupted.

Two girls bounced into the café and giggled their way to a back table. The waitress bused two tables and took their order. Then she leaned into the sink with one hand pressing the small of her back. She didn’t turn to face him.

“It’s a good movie,” she finally murmured.

Watson stopped dissecting the lump in the slate-colored gravy to glance at the back of her pink-and-white-striped uni-form. An oval sweat stain marked the cotton cloth just above her apron knot. “You like Gone with the Wind?”

“Yeah, I liked it. It’s been years. I ought to see it again.”He studied the back of her head and noticed that her hair was not the same color at the roots as at the tips. “It’s not nec-essarily a happy movie,” he added.

“But it makes you forget yourself and think about some-thing else. For that I am always grateful.”

“Who are you trying to forget?” he asked.

She tossed the plates in the sudsy water and splashed soap foam on her cheek. “Crap,” she mumbled. “I didn’t need that.”

He sprinkled pepper on the gravy-like substance. “Sorry, I’m through prying.”

She glanced back over a narrow shoulder and shook her head. “No, that wasn’t it. I mean, I don’t need this soap in my face, or the Tabasco on the floor, or lousy pay, or some trucker groping at my backside, or this stinking job.”

He scraped dried green food substance off his fork with his thumbnail. “Have you been putting in long hours?”

“All the extra time I can get. I’ve worked twelve straight today.”

“I presume you need the money.”

She wiped a thick, off-white ceramic plate over and over.

“Yeah, are you going to give me a million dollars so I can retire?”

He grinned. “No, but I have been thinking about giving you a five-dollar tip.”

“Whatever.” Her shoulders rose, then sank. “I don’t deserve it tonight.”

“Think of it as a partial repayment for all the times you did deserve it and got stiffed.”

For a moment she stood straight, and her body filled out. “Ain’t that the truth?”

Her hair hung down her back in a ponytail like a teenager, but the lines that framed her eyes said she would never see forty again. Paul James Watson considered her a pleasant-looking lady. Nice features. Pretty face. She wouldn’t stand out in a crowd of beautiful people, nor would she look out of place.

She flipped around and slammed another stack of dishes into the sudsy water. “I’m working long hours because I’m try-ing to forget the person that ruined my life.”

“How long have you been trying to forget?” Watson scraped the gravy off the toast with a knife and plucked out onion bits with a tine of the slightly bent fork.

“Twenty-three years.”

“That’s a long time to be so angry at someone.”

“I didn’t say I was angry.”

“Why else does someone not forgive?”

Her voice softened. “Because they are hurt?”

“That’s true.” He scooted his plate over to the light. “Do you have any idea what this purple substance is in my omelette?”

“Eggplant.”

“In my Spanish omelette?”

“Don’t you like eggplant?”

“No.”

“Then it’s not eggplant, it’s onion.”

“I don’t like onion either.”

“Mister, you are a pain to get along with. What do you like to eat that’s purple?”

Watson rubbed his square, clean-shaven jaw. “Boiled cabbage?”

“That’s what it is. It’s boiled cabbage.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Do I still get the five-dollar tip?”

When he laughed, he felt his steel-gray eyes relax. “I was considering lowering it to $3.50.”

“Yeah, that figures.”

He sliced the limp, soggy toast with his fork. “Tell me about the person who ruined your life twenty-three years ago.”

“A selfish, dumb, naive kid that had absolutely no thought of others or the future . . . bad habits, disastrous relationships, and mind-numbing debt that could never be repaid. It’s a tragic tale of stupidity and grief.”

“Not totally unlike Gone with the Wind.”

“Yeah, but there was no Clark Gable, that’s for certain.”

The toast caught in his throat. He raised his napkin to cough. “What is her name?”

Her smooth cheeks flushed when she spun around. “Whose name?”

“The one who caused you all that grief.”

“Who said it was a her?”

“You are talking about yourself, aren’t you?” he pressed.

She rubbed her arms as she crossed her chest. “Are you a detective, or what?”

“No,” he laughed. “But I do write detective novels.”

She wiped her hands on her wrinkled cotton apron. “No fooling? I’ve never met an author before.” She strolled over to the counter. “What’s your name? Have I ever heard of you?”

He grimaced, then shoved another bite past his thin, chapped lips. “Probably not.”

“Aren’t you going to tell me your name?”

“Not until I know the name of the eighteen-year-old who ruined your life.”

When she rolled her eyes to the ceiling, Watson surveyed her smooth complexion and pouting lips. “Barbara Joy DuPree,” she announced.

“And what is that same woman’s name now?”

“It’s Barbara Joy DuPree. But in between it has been Barb Cripane and Barbie Collins. Now that you know my name, what’s yours?”

“Paul James Watson.”

She glanced at the gold ring on his left hand. “That sounds formal. What does your wife call you?”

He grinned. “In the daylight . . . or at night?”

“Hah!” For a moment her tired eyes flashed. “How about in daylight?”

“Paul.”

“Paul, do you have a pen name you write under?”

“Nope. I’m afraid that’s it.”

“You’re right, I never heard of you.” She avoided his eyes. “You really got some books published?”

Her straight, white teeth caught his gaze. “Ninety-eight.”

“You have ninety-eight books published, and I’ve never heard of you?” The faint outline of girlish dimples framed her tan face.

“Yes.” He drug his fork across his plate. “Do you have any idea what this stringy thing is in my hash browns?”

“Paul James Watson, do you ever eat your food? Or do you just play with it?”

“I guess I’m not very hungry, Barbara Joy DuPree.”

“Then why come into the diner at ten o’clock at night and order breakfast?”

He leaned back on the red vinyl stool repaired with gray duct tape. “Just to visit, I suppose.”

She laughed and leaned over the counter until she was only a foot from his face. “With me?” She winked. “You came in to visit with me?”

She was in his space, but he didn’t pull back. “To visit with anyone, darlin’. I’ve been locked in my motel room way too long.”

Barbara Jo Dupree stood up. “That’s where you write?”

Watson trailed his fork through the omelette. “Yep.”

She reached for the top white button on her dress as if to make sure it was fastened. “Where’s that wife you mentioned?”

He spun the gold band on his left ring finger, then smiled. “She’s at home in Bridgeport.”

“Bridgeport?” She brushed her hair back with her fingers. “That’s seven hours from here.”

“I wrapped up the final chapter of my latest book tonight. I’m going home tomorrow.”

“What’s it called?”

“Diamond Dandy Disaster.”

She locked her hands on narrow, shapeless hips. “So, you are celebrating tonight?”

“You might say that.” The coffee was cold but strong. He took two sips before he set the cup down.

“By ordering an omelette you don’t like and talking to an over-the-hill waitress who is ticked off?”

“Yeah, I really know how to live it up, don’t I? If it’s any consolation, you don’t look over-the-hill.”

Her eyes softened, and she stroked dangling, Indian-bead earrings that he hadn’t noticed until that moment. “Thank you, Paul James Watson. But you are as pathetic as I am.”

“No, Barbara Joy DuPree, I am more pathetic.” He combed his graying dark brown hair back over his ear with his fingers.

“How do you figure that?”

“You haven’t been pathetic as long as I have. I’m a good ten years older than you.”

She studied him from waist to hair. “You don’t look it.”

“Thank you. The tip just went back up to five dollars.”

She carried an order of nachos and a plate of curly fries to the two teenage girls in a booth at the east end of the café. Then she returned and filled his coffee cup. She packed an aroma somewhere between French fries and vanilla musk perfume. “If I was celebrating, it surely wouldn’t be at this café,” she murmured.

Watson pushed his plate back. “Where would you go to celebrate?”

“The Pinto Club,” she announced.

“Why there?” he asked.

“They’ve got live music tonight.”

“Who’s playing there?”

“Trampis and the Desperadoes.” She tilted her head. The weak brown eyes now sparkled. “You ever hear of them?”

Paul Watson studied her face. “No.”

“Gary’s a local guy who works for Allied Chemical. He used to be married to Nancy Mason. He sounds just like George Strait.”

“So you’d like to hear a little ‘Amarillo by Mornin’?”

“I was thinking more like, ‘Lead On.’” She started toward the kitchen, then turned back. “Paul, I get off at eleven. If you want to go to The Pinto, I’ll ride over there with you. What do you say?”

Paul Watson looked at her brown eyes. They looked like a former homecoming queen’s that dreaded another rejection.

Then her face blurred like poor television reception.

--------------------

When Watson’s mind cleared, she looked different.

A lot different.

Her eyes looked impatient.

“Well?” she demanded. “What do you say?”

Paul James Watson glanced back at the sticky, plastic-covered menu on the empty gray counter in front of him. “I can’t decide.”

“Mister, you come in here and stare at the menu for ten minutes and can’t decide what to eat? There aren’t twenty items on the dinner menu. It can’t be that tough,” she snapped.

He stared down at her chipped red fingernail polish. “I can’t decide whether I’m hungry or not.”

“Don’t order the meatloaf.”

He glanced at the gap between her upper front teeth. “Bad, huh?”

“No, it’s good, but it’s gone.”

“Maybe I’ll just have breakfast.”

She brushed a long, loose strand of sandy blonde hair over her ear. “At ten o’clock at night?”

“It says, ‘Breakfast all day.’”

“Do you believe everything you read?”

Watson laughed and shook his head. “No. I spend most of my time with fiction.”

“Me too. I like romance novels, the trashier the better. Are you going to order or not?” she pressed. “My back hurts, and I’ve got dishes to wash.”

“I’ll take your Spanish omelette, no onions, with wheat toast.”

“Out of wheat. And no sourdough either.”

He scraped dried egg off the menu with his thumbnail. “What do you have?”

“I got white bread.”

“That’s fine.”

She pushed her way back into the kitchen. Watson glanced at his watch. Why do I do that, Lord? I script out the entire scene before it happens. But reality is never as good. I get lost in fic-tion all right. Sometimes it’s like I never get totally out of it.

I should probably call Sheila. But it’s late. She said to call when I finished the book, but she’d be worried to get a call after ten.

If Ruth Ann is home, she’ll have the line tied up with the Internet. I can leave early tomorrow. I can get home by two; that’s soon enough.

He pulled a small calendar from the back pocket of his jeans and studied it.

I’ve got an Old Bridgeport Days meeting at 7:00 if we have a quorum. That wasn’t the night of the coaches meeting, too, was it? I’ll call Brett. He doesn’t need me. If I get home in time, I’ll change the oil in the truck. That pile of gravel needs to be spread in the alley. I doubt if Pete got to it, what with the new job. I could put the blade on the four-wheeler, but the starter needs to be replaced. Just as easy to use the wheelbarrow, unless that tire went flat again. Everything waits. Like street gangs in a dark alley, real life waits in ambush. If I glance up more than two minutes from my writing, real life imprisons me.

He pulled a pen from just below the top button on his beige long-sleeved shirt and wrote on the paper napkin. He had filled one side with a scene about a waitress at an all-night diner when the front door of the café banged open. A wide-shouldered man, with square jaw and suntanned face, swag-gered up to the counter. The blonde-haired waitress scooted out of the kitchen holding a plate with a chicken-fried steak lapping over the edges.

The man, with strong spice aftershave, thick dark-brown mustache, and black golf shirt labeled “The Old Course at St. Andrews,” plunked down two stools away. His wide grin revealed straight white teeth. He flashed the waitress two deep dimples. “This is your lucky night, babe!”

She brought him an empty, unchipped coffee cup. She glanced over at Watson, then back at the man. “It hasn’t exactly been lucky so far,” she mumbled.

He laced his hands behind his head and leaned back on the stool. His biceps bulged in the short sleeves of the black golf shirt. “Tell her who I am, P. J.”

She turned to Watson. “You know this guy?”

Paul James Watson shoved his half-empty coffee cup toward her. “Yes,” he replied. He studied the anticipation in her tired eyes. “This is none other than Tobias Patrick McKenna. Most of the ladies call him Toby.”

She filled McKenna’s cup with coffee, then paused. “Yeah, right, and I’m Scarlet O’Hara.”

McKenna puckered his lips, then took a sip of coffee. His arms were as tan as his face. “You see that, P. J.? The cute babes never believe who I am. Remember that supermodel in Manhattan Moon? It took me until chapter 6 to convince her who I was.”

A deep red flooded her face. “Oh, my word. . . . Is he really Toby McKenna? The famous detective?”

Watson studied the blush in her otherwise plain, pale face.

“That’s him,” Watson nodded. He pointed to his coffee cup.

“None other than the distracted detective himself.”

She shoved the coffeepot toward him, then handed McKenna a bowl of sugar cubes. She leaned on the counter, her chin resting on the palm of her unringed hand. “You want a menu, Toby?”

He reached over and squeezed her fingers. “I can already see what I want, darlin’,” McKenna drawled.

Her eyes widened. She looked twenty years younger.

He pointed to a plastic case behind her. “Give me a big slice of that apple pie.”

“You like it warm?”

“The hotter the better, babe, with a melting kiss of vanilla ice cream, if you don’t mind. Now, tell me”—his eyes glanced to her name tag—“Barbara Jo, darlin’, where are we goin’ when you get off work?” McKenna insisted. “Do you feel like dancin’, cute thing? I feel like dancin’.”

“The Pinto Club is nice,” she murmured as she carried the pie back into the kitchen.

Paul James Watson sipped his coffee, then glanced over at McKenna, who waved at the two teenage girls in the back booth. “Hi, Little Darlin’,” he called out. “You growed up as purdy as your mama!”

The girls giggled.

“Toby, you don’t know either of those girls, and you don’t know their mamas.”

McKenna balanced his knife straight up on the counter.

“I don’t?”

“No, you don’t.”

He peered back at the girls. “Shoot, partner, I just bright-ened up their day anyway. There’s nothin’ wrong with that, is there?”

“But it’s all fiction,” Watson protested.

“Of course it is. But the blonde girl does look like Corina from Georgia Never Minds, doesn’t she?”

“Corina was African-American,” Watson insisted.

“Other than that, they look similar.”

“Toby, what are you doing in this café, anyway?”

“Just like you, P. J., I’m celebratin’.”

“But we said good-bye an hour ago. I told you I didn’t want to see you for a month.”

“I didn’t know you were in here,” McKenna explained.

“A world-class detective, and you don’t know where I am? We both know that’s a lie.”

“Look, I knew you’d be havin’ trouble talkin’ with the wait-ress, so I figured I’d stroll in and pump you up a bit.”

“I don’t need help talking to a waitress.”

“Why don’t you ask Barbie girl if you need help?”

“I’m not the one who needs to hit on every waitress in North America.”

Toby laughed. “North America? How about that Arab beauty in Casablanca Suspect Slaying? She was a waitress.” He rubbed his chin. “Or was she a belly dancer?”

“McKenna, I don’t want to talk about your women.”

“You’re in a sour mood for a man who just finished a book. I’m goin’ out and celebrate how I finally cracked the Diamond Dandy Disaster case.”

“You cracked it?” Watson exploded. “You were stuck in that dead-end alley with the Palestinian kid and the rocket launcher before I found you a loose brick. You were dead meat until I figured how to get you out of there.”

McKenna sipped his coffee and stacked sugar cubes on the counter. “I didn’t know anyone still used cubed sugar.” He leaned back and stretched his arms. “One loose brick? That was your help?”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

“Only because of my years as a minor league pitcher for the Sea Cats. I would have found my way out on my own.”

“Toby, you would have been blown to kingdom come.”

“No chance of that,” McKenna boasted.

“Oh?”

“L. George Gossman told you that you can’t kill me off until sales are consistently under thirty thousand. We ain’t there yet, partner.”

The waitress returned with two big scoops of vanilla ice cream melting down over the double portion of apple pie. She wiped a fork clean on her apron, then set them down. “I can’t believe Toby McKenna is at my counter. I read about you in the New York Times.”

“Sort of makes your heart jump, doesn’t it, darlin’?”

McKenna blustered. “But I never did like New York City. You probably heard about how I solved the mystery of the missin’ cab drivers in the book Yellow Sea.” McKenna chomped down on a big bite of pie, then wiped his mouth on the white paper napkin and leaned forward. “Say, total cuteness, are you related to Faith Hill? You look just like her, only shorter and thinner in places, if you catch my drift.”

She grabbed the coffeepot from in front of Watson. “Is he really THAT Toby McKenna? The one in Twenty-Three Minutes to Midnight ?”

“And in Long Night in Laguna, Tunnel to Heaven, North Shore Nanny, and about fifty more. That’s him, in all his glorious ego,” Watson replied.

“Of course,” McKenna blurted out, “you can’t always believe P. J. Watson. He might be stringin’ you along. I might be a truck driver from Des Moines. He’s a known liar and a thief.”

Her hand went to her mouth, and she stared right at Paul James Watson. “You mean, he’s a crook?”

“It’s much worse than that.” Toby McKenna shook his head and bellowed, “He’s a paperback writer!”