Ghost Writers

by Bill Prindle

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

part 1


Nick Andrews, the tall, gangly, bespeckled valedictorian of Crumley High School, Crumley, Iowa (population 1,081), Bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in English, University of Iowa, class of 1931, Master’s degree in Fiction from Columbia, and currently a cub writer with the nom de plume of Ace Burns at True Crime magazine, sat immobilized at his typewriter, fingers poised over the keys.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t think of what to write. He could, and that was the problem. Every day the burden of having to crank out the cliché-ridden, corpse-strewn, bullet-riddled, blatantly false crime stories for True Crime became a little more burdensome. He felt as though his brain was filled with the same dense fog that was swirling through the Manhattan streets outside his window.

At that moment in his story, three state troopers had trapped his two bank robbers, Mac “Two-Gun” McGurk and his moll Dixie Diamond, in an abandoned farmhouse. An FBI agent was about to show up and try to convince the desperados to surrender. Instead, the agent would be taken hostage. A wild shootout and car chase would ensue and thus would end this week’s installment, to be continued.

Nick gritted his teeth and began typing.

“McGurk, throw out your guns and come out with your hands up!” called Trooper Malone.

“How ’bout I throw out the bullets first!” roared McGurk as his Tommy gun sprayed a fiery torrent of hot lead over the troopers’ V-8 Ford. He didn’t have to wait long for a reply. The cops’ furious fusillade splintered the front door and tattooed the moonlit walls of the tumbledown farmhouse.

Just then a black sedan screeched to a stop alongside the Ford and a man in a trenchcoat jumped out.

“Who are you?” asked Malone.

“William Armstrong, FBI,” the man said, flashing his badge.

Malone introduced himself. “We’ve got McGurk and his doll bottled up. We’re waiting for reinforcements.”

“Good work, Malone. Look, I want you to hold your fire while I try something. I got to know McGurk before Dixie broke him out of Joliet. He’s crazy about her and wouldn’t want her to get hurt. I think I can get him to give her up. If I don’t, let fly with the tear gas.”

Armstrong took out his handkerchief, waved it over his head, and walked toward the house.

“Damned fool,” Malone growled.

“McGurk! It’s Agent Armstrong. I’m unarmed.” He advanced to the porch. “Surrender now, and I’ll guarantee your safety. But if you’re going to shoot it out, at least let Dixie go. She doesn’t have to die with you.”

Dixie moved so close to McGurk the scent from her honey-blonde hair heated him up like an acetylene torch.

“Whether it’s hell or heaven, we’re going together,” she breathed in his ear. “Let’s scram.”

McGurk called back. “I’m not walking out there to get shot up. You come in, we talk, then we’ll see.”

Armstrong nudged open the front door and entered the house, his shoes kicking aside the spent shell casings. The gun smoke hung in the air like an evil spell. Dixie smiled as she leveled a 12-gauge at his heart.

“Hiya, G-man. How’s tricks?”

Outside, Malone was getting impatient. Ten minutes had crept by with no sign of surrender. He called to Armstrong but got no reply.

“I don’t like it,” Malone growled. “Smoke ‘em out!”

Two troopers fitted tear gas canisters to the muzzles of their rifles and fired. Choking white clouds billowed out of the windows and front door. The troopers fired two more rounds and waited, rifles at the ready.

McGurk and Dixie had already slipped out the back door to their Buick sedan hidden in the barn. The super-charged engine roared to life, the Buick shot through the barn’s back wall, and swerved around the side of the house on two wheels.

Dixie fired a couple of parting blasts, and then they were flying down the dusty ribbon of country road, laughing like a couple of crazy kids. Once again Two-Gun McGurk and Dixie Diamond had escaped.

Forty miles later, they pulled into a gas station to pick up some beer. As McGurk killed the engine, the cold barrel of a .45 automatic pressed against the base of his skull.

“One move and I’ll splatter your brains all over the windshield,” Armstrong said from the backseat. He dropped a pair of handcuffs into Dixie’s lap. “Here’s some bracelets for you, darlin’. Cuff your right hand and put your arms behind you.”

“You dirty gumshoe!” she hissed. He snapped the cuffs tight around her left wrist.

“Andrews! School’s out! We’re leaving!” Tripp Harper called out as he walked past Nick’s office. “We’re going to Rocky’s for a bucket of suds!”

“I’m on deadline! This story’s due at nine a.m. or Carney’ll have my head.”

“As your boss, I order you to join us,” said Harper. He was the senior writer at True Crime, but everyone knew there was only one boss and that was J.J. Carney.

“Fifteen minutes,” Nick shouted back.

He listened to Harper lead the other three writers in a fraternity drinking song while they waited for the elevator. The song faded away, and Nick stared at what he had written. He took a half-full bottle of bourbon and a smudged glass out of his bottom desk drawer, poured a shot, and knocked it down. He’d inherited his family’s predisposition for drink and lately was using it a lot to silence his conscience.

He was wondering how he’d work in one more gun battle when he heard a woman’s voice.

“Anyone here?”

Nick stuck his head out of his office to see a petite young woman with sleek black hair, cut in a Louise Brooks’ bob.

“Are you Mr. Harper?” she said in a Brooklyn accent.

Nick said no, she’d just missed Harper. He introduced himself and asked if he could help.

“Okay, Mr. Andrews, maybe you can. I sent in some story ideas like it asks for in the magazine, but never heard back, so I thought I’d drop some more off just in case the others got lost or something.”

She handed Nick five stapled sheets of paper filled with neatly typewritten, short paragraphs. As she’d taken them out of her purse, he admired her slender fingers, dark eyes, and olive complexion, her cheeks rosy from the cold. Despite the shapelessness of her thin winter coat, the word “lissome” occurred to him.

Nick scanned the pages. “This is a lot of story ideas, Miss” — he looked at the top sheet — “Ruby Narinian.”

“Yeah, well, Mr. Nick Andrews, I got a million of ‘em. I’m trying to be a writer.”

“I’d say you’re a writer already. I’ll give these to Harper tonight.”

She smiled. “Thanks... Nick.” They stared at each other for an awkward moment.

As she turned to go, he asked her if she’d like join the staff of True Crime for a drink.

“It couldn’t hurt if Harper could put a face to your story ideas,” Nick said, but he really just wanted to get to know her. “They’re a harmless bunch. The only true crime around here is what we’re paid.”

“Maybe another time,” she said over her shoulder. “I’m late for class.”

“What are you studying?” he said.

“Russian lit.”

He couldn’t think of anything else to say and heard the elevator doors rattle open and close behind her.

Nick returned to his office, jotted down her name and address on a scrap of paper, put it in his wallet, pulled on his overcoat, and left for Rocky’s.

“Hiya, Rock!” Nick said out to the ex-prizefighter wiping down the bar.

“Hey, Nick. Those mooks are in the back. Here, take these.” He handed Nick a round metal tray with five shots of Four Roses.

Todd and the others cheered when Nick joined them. After they’d downed the shots and finished the first pitcher of beer, Nick read through Ruby’s story summaries. He was impressed. They were as good as the stuff in the magazine.

He handed the pages to Harper. “You should give these a look.”

Harper saw the name on the top page. “Oh yeah, the Narinian dame again. She’s sent in stuff before.”

“And?”

“And I’ve doctored a few of her ideas and used them.”

“What? Did you pay her?”

“Are you kidding? Carney wouldn’t spring for it, and if he found out about her, he’d fire me and hire her.”

Nick was spliffed enough to tell Harper what he thought of that. “That stinks, Todd. You stink. ”

Harper was drunk enough not to care what Nick thought. “Welcome to the big bad world of publishing, College Boy. Have another beer.”

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle

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