Rejection Slip

by Mary F. Wardell

(previously published in Shadow Chasers Express #1)

 


     "I'm rejecting the new manuscript, Benny." 
     Edgar Benedek stared, narrow-eyed, at the man sitting across the large, mahogany desk from him. Brad Stockman, his publisher of five years, and eight best sellers. The man he had carried along with his success from eager-beaver assistant to a full editor. A sour smile quirked the corners of his mouth.
     Crossing his legs, Benny forced the smile to become his trademark grin. "Very funny, Brad, but why don't you leave the jokes to the expert? Now, how much of an advance am I getting? The good life don't come cheap, and I've got bills to pay."
     The editor shook his well-groomed head, genuine regret in his eyes. "I'm sorry, really I am, but your last book barely moved. This one...."
     "Last year we were in a paranormal slump — no one wanted to hear about UFOs. But this book, this one's gonna put me back on top. You'll see." Benny leaned forward to plant his hands on the desk, trying to mask the dismay that had his stomach churning. He hadn't had to do a hard sell since his first best-seller had hit the stands.
     Brad continued his spiel as if he hadn't been interrupted. "This one is well-researched, fully documented and depressing as hell. No one's going to buy it."
     Benny sat back in his chair. "If it's so damned good, why won't it sell?"
     Stockman sighed, resting a hand on the manuscript. "You want the truth, right?"
     Still reeling from the shock of his first rejection in more years than he cared to remember, Benny nodded. "The whole truth and nothing but."
     "Okay." Taking a deep breath, Brad exhaled sharply and began to speak in carefully precise sentences. "It's MacKensie's influence. Don't get me wrong, he's a nice guy. We had a fascinating discussion at that party you had back in January, so this is nothing personal. But he's changed you, changed your writing style. You've gone from a flashy, dazzling, sock-it-to-em writer to a guy doing a doctoral thesis on the paranormal. I've got news for you, pal. Doctoral theses don't move."
     Jonathan? Jonathan was to blame? Shaking his head, Benny got up, hands thrust deep within his jacket pockets. "I don't see what Jonathan's got to do with this, Brad. Every word in that manuscript is mine and it's all true."
     "I'm sure it is. But every word is also boring. If anyone gets through it, they aren't going to rush to Aunt Martha and say have you read the latest Edgar Benedek. They'll probably use it as a doorstop." Brad leaned back and pulled a book from the shelf behind his desk. "Remember Europe on Five Ghosts a Day?"
     "Of course I remember it. That was my first best seller, got me a whirl on the whole talk show circuit." Benny glanced at the gaudy cover, then back to his friend. "What's your point?"
     "The point is that this is your style, what people expect from Edgar Benedek. Just enough fact to make them feel they're not being totally suckered, embroidered into an exciting package. They want Mulchman to be a zombie or at least an unsolved puzzle, not some poor old hobo killed by toxic waste. Toxic waste they get on the morning news."
     "So what you're saying is they don't want me to tell them the whole truth?" demanded Benny, torn between anger and a depressing sense that maybe, just maybe, the man was right and he'd been reaching beyond himself to try something new.
     Dropping the book, and gathering up the manuscript, Brad got to his feet. "That's it in a nutshell, Benny. And don't get mad at me. I'm just the messenger. The public wants flash and dazzle from Edgar Benedek, and this company is in the business of giving the public what it wants. Do a rewrite on this," he handed the rejected pages back, "and we'll talk again. And, Benny, if you're smart, you'll take this advice. Dump MacKensie and the whole Georgetown connection before it ruins your life."



     The keys flew as Benny struggled through the rewrite of the story of the Phantom of Curtis Marsh. No matter how many times he tried, he couldn't drop the depressing truth — the man had died a painful and miserable death because of man's inhumanity to man. With a disgusted growl, Benny hit the keys that erased the file, then yanked the disk out of the drive. "Damn it, I never asked for a conscience!"
     But I've got one. Six feet tall with an accent to boot.
     Angrily Benny shut down the system and crossed the room to throw himself on the couch where he lay back and spent the next ten minutes counting in a fruitless effort to relax. Maybe Brad's right — maybe I am losing sight of who I am by hanging around Georgetown and the intellectual snobs down there. I mean since when has a fancy degree gotten anyone on Letterman?
     He jumped to his feet and started to pace the length of the apartment, occasionally pausing to look at the half-filled shelf he'd had built for his books. Half full. Or half empty? Shying away from the depressing path his thoughts were taking, Benny looked away from the shelf and spotted the folded copy of the National Register he'd picked up at the supermarket.
     The article! The hell with Brad and his ideas. Edgar Benedek might be temporarily short of funds, but he wasn't down for the count yet. Jordy Kerner owed him good bucks for the feature article on Mulchman. Grabbing up the paper, Benedek unfolded it and smiled. 'Phantom of the Galleria'. Jonathan had given him a good headline. He was gonna hate that when he found out.
     As Benny scanned the article, his smile faded, disappearing altogether by the time he reached the last paragraph. Rewritten! Every word had been rewritten, skewing the whole point of the article.
     "Damn it, Jordy, what do you think you're doing?" He was across the room in three steps, but before he could lift up the phone, it was ringing. This had better be an apology, pal. Some poor schmuck of a copy editor with delusions of grandeur is now on unemployment, right? "Hello?"
     "Benedek?"
     Benny winced. The last thing he needed right now was a summons from MacKensie that the game was afoot, or a hand for that matter. His words came out in a rush. "Look, I'd like to ask what you want, but you caught me on my way out the door. Got this big meeting with my publisher about the new book. Wouldn't want to rock the boat, would I? But, you make sure you let me know what it was when you get back from wherever Dr. Moorhouse has got you running, hear? We'll do lunch."
     Jonathan made another try. "Dr. Moorhouse has received reports of a pack of phantom dogs out...Benedek, I really need your help on this one." A pleading note entered his voice. "You know how I am around animals."
     Benny winced, remembering his friend's allergic reaction to the animal-filled Johnson habitat, but he ruthlessly squashed the urge to answer in the affirmative. "Sorry, Jack, it's outta the question. Brad's got a limo waiting downstairs. I've really gotta go. One bit of advice though. On the house. Phantom or not, better make sure you take the Sudafed along. Kind of hard to investigate anything if you're sneezing your head off."
     "Right." Benny could imagine the hurt look on MacKensie's face, the one that could break his resolve unless he got off the phone real fast. Then he caught a subtle cooling of the voice, as the other man said quietly, "Good luck with your publisher."
     A click and Benny found himself listening to dead air.
     I had to do it, Jack, for both our sakes. Benny dropped the receiver, spotting the Register once more. His anger rising to mask the gnawing sense of guilt he felt, Benny grabbed up his jacket and headed out of the apartment at a run. As the deadbolt on the door slammed home, the phone began to ring. Uh-uh, Jonny. No way am I gonna give us both a chance to change my mind. I've got to pick a very large bone with Mr. Jordan Kerner. Have a good life.



     As always, the offices of the National Register were the scene of apparent chaos, with the entire staff joining in to try for a place in the Guinness Book for the highest decibel level in one office. Benny had to shout his question five times before someone heard him and could direct him to Jordy Kerner.
     The Register's intrepid editor glanced up from the copy he was correcting, and apparently saw something ominous in Benedek's expression, because he lumbered to his feet, handing the folder back to the waiting writer. In my office, he mouthed to Benny.
     Still seething from the insult to his writing ability, Benny followed Kerner through the maze of desks to the relatively peaceful haven of the editor's office.
     On the way over from his apartment, Benny had rehearsed a half dozen ways to open this conversation, methods that ranged from wringing the other man's neck to stuffing the paper where the sun don't shine. But, when Jordy closed the door, lowering the noise to bearable levels, he met the man's gaze and asked quietly, "Why, Jordy?"
     Kerner, seating himself on the edge of his desk, chose not to play any games either. "The piece needed a major rewrite. You were in D.C., so I had Wick do the job."
     "Wick?" Somehow, having the kid, the up-and-comer of the paper, make the changes hurt worse than the fact of the edit had. Leaning against the office door, pretending to a calm he didn't feel, Benny stuck his hands in his pockets and asked again, "Why?"
     "It read like an article in the Times, pal. And in case it's escaped your notice, this," he waved his hands around taking in their surroundings, "...this is not the Times. The story needed color, pizzazz..."
     "The story was about a poor old man who died from toxic waste. Wick turned it into a Gothic novel."
     "He turned it into an article that fit in the Register. I warned you before, your work is losing its excitement. Maybe there's something in that D.C. air. Ever since you started hanging around with MacKensie and his pals, you've been..."
     Abandoning his casual pose, Benny crossed the room in four angry strides. "You're the guy who told me to go out and find some respectable connections, remember? I did, and now you're complaining about them?"
     Calmly ignoring the threatening finger waving near his face, Jordy replied, "I told you to make some respectable connections. I never told you to become them." When Benedek failed to back away, Kerner's voice rose, his own temper fraying at the edges. "Dammit, Benny, take a good look at yourself. Not so long ago you'd have been the first in line to jazz up that Santa Maria article. You were the guy who singlehandedly saved Wick's Elvis piece. Today, you'd probably answer like Sagan did, and say you were 'utterly astonished' and mean it."
     Benny opened his mouth several times but no sound emerged. Finally he dropped his hand and backed away from Jordy, turning to face a wall covered with front page articles from the paper, a large number of them his. "You and Brad get together on your stories or something?" he managed finally.
     "What?" Kerner looked genuinely puzzled when Benny turned suspicious eyes on him.
     "Nothing." Returning his attention to the headlines, Benedek reached out to touch the one that had been his big break. Man, have I lost control somewhere along the line. This is all happening too fast. One minute I'm king of the hill, the next I'm a has-been? Gotta have some time to think, figure things out. In a low voice he said, "You won't have to have Wick do an edit again, pal."
     "Why not?"
     "I already cut the Georgetown connection." Carefully donning his old, hail-fellow-well-met face, Benny faced Kerner again, adding in a lighter tone, "A guy's got to eat, right? Besides, those coeds down in D.C. are boring — they actually want to talk to a guy."
     "Imagine that." Kerner's voice was neutral.
     Trying to convince himself as much as Jordy that everything was all right with the world, Benny asked, "Where is Wick anyway? I ought to congratulate him on a great impersonation."
     "I sent him on vacation," replied Jordy, sounding as if he might buy the act.
     "Yeah? When?" Benny sauntered toward the office door.
     "About the time you walked in the door. Thought you might like to avoid a murder rap."
     Nodding, Benny gave the editor a thumbs up sign. "Good thought. But, you can bring him back any time now. Tell him he did me a favor and I owe him one. See ya."
     He pulled the door open, stepped through and slammed it closed behind him. His thoughts were a wild mass of mixed images as he made his way through the office, nodding vague greetings to his curious associates. He needed a stiff drink.




     He was thoroughly and totally smashed. Haven't felt like this...oh, in...don't 'member feeling like this at all.
     "Hey, buddy, we're here." The cabbie's voice roused Benny from his drunken considerations.
     "Thank you, m'man." Attempting a graceful salute, Benedek barely managed to get out of the cab and stay on his feet. He started to reach for his wallet, but the man shook his head. "Mr. Kerner already paid."
     "Good old Jordy...always looks out for his best writers. Course they keep him...in...in business." Benny carefully stepped away from the car. "Have a good night."
     "Right." The cabbie pulled away, leaving Benny alone in front of his building.
     Alone. Hate being alone.
     Burying that uncomfortable thought, Benny went inside, locking the downstairs door with exaggerated care. Don't want to bother Mrs. Ferguson.
     Somehow he must have gotten upstairs and into his apartment, because the next time his mind surfaced, he was lying face down on the couch and scared half to death. "No," he whimpered, struggling to a seated position, swearing never to touch anything stronger than lemonade for the rest of his life.
     However hard he tried, the images that had wakened him remained just the other side of memory. Hugging himself, Benny vainly tried to reassure himself. "A nightmare. That's all it was. Don't have visions any more. Just need sleep, lots of sleep. Everything will be all right in the morning."
     Somehow he managed to drift off to sleep once more, but his rest was disturbed by vague, but understandable, images of Jonathan calling for help, pursued by Brad and Jordy, blue pencils brandished like weapons.
     As a shaft of morning sunlight poured through his skylight, Benny woke, sober and sorry for it. His head ached miserably, and his stomach chimed its own displeasure. Groaning, he managed to crawl to his feet and shuffle into the kitchen where he started to heat up yesterday's pot of coffee. Least it'll be strong.



     No matter how hard he tried, Benny could not manage to twist his words back into his former style. Seated at the computer, ruthlessly redoing the chapter on Mulchman from the book, the image of that old man telling Jonathan about his train kept coming between Benny and the monitor.
     "This is crazy," he groaned, finally giving up, not even bothering to save the butcher job he'd started. "Guilt. That's what it is — that damned conscience of mine again, making me feel bad because I wouldn't go off to god knows where with him and chase phantom dogs."
     A smile touched his tired face. "See," he congratulated himself. "Guilt. Jonny says he's going after phantom mutts and I have nightmares. That's what it must've been."
     The phone rang.
     Benny stared at the instrument for a full five seconds before he managed to pick up the receiver and mumble, "Hello."
     "Glad I caught ya..." Jordy's cheerful voice rumbled in his ear, renewing the hangover headache. "Listen, if you were serious yesterday, I think I've got some stuff that might interest you. A messenger's on his way over with it now."
     "I appreciate it, Jordy." Remembering the cab, he added, "Last night, too."
     "Hey, you turn just one of those tall tales of yours into a workable story and it'll be money well-spent. I really liked the one about the ET with the toilet fetish — you know, he kept flushing the toilet because he'd never seen running water before...?"
     I said that? His memory a complete blank, Benny made agreeable noises until the downstairs bell sounded. "Looks like your guy's here already, Jordy. I'd better go let him in."
     "Right. I expect a page one story out of this, okay?"
     "You got it," promised Benny, hanging up before carefully making his way down the stairs. Wish I'd remembered to get the buzzer fixed.
     When he opened the door, he found Wick, nervously holding a large manila envelope out toward him.
     "Mr. Kerner said you'd want this."
     "Thanks, kid. And don't look so scared, I hardly ever bite before the full moon." Blinking against the bright sunshine, Benny sat down abruptly on the step, fighting a wave of nausea as his head dropped to his knees. "Damn."
     "I brought something for that, too." Wick's voice came from a distance.
     "Poison?" quipped Benny, reluctantly raising his eyes to give his visitor an appraising look. "How'd you know I'd need a hangover cure anyway?"
     "You don't remember?"
     Benny shook his head carefully. "If I remembered, I wouldn't have to ask."
     "I was at the party last night — the one at Nick's?" When he got no visible reaction from Benedek, Wick continued, "Anyway, the way you were going, I had a feeling you might need something today, so I brought along my grandma's sure fire cure for hangovers. It got me through Yale."
     "Yale?" The nausea finally retreating, Benny was able to give his friend a studied look. "You went to Yale?"
     Wick shrugged. "I know, I've got a Harvard face, right?"
     Ignoring the bad joke, Benny continued, "And you're working at the Register?"
     "It's a good place to learn. Later on I can move on to more-uh-respectable things, when I'm ready. That's what you're doing, isn't it? I mean with Dr. MacKensie and all?"
     His head hurt too much to do any real thinking, but something about the kid's argument made a weird sort of sense. Later. He'd sort it out later, when he could function. "Right." He hauled himself to his feet, fighting a bout of dizziness, and muttered, "Help me upstairs and we'll give your grandma's potion a whirl."



     An hour and two belts of grandma's cure later, Benny emerged from the bathroom feeling almost human. "Has your grandmother ever considered bottling that stuff?" he asked, adding with a perplexed look on his face, "How does a lady whose grandson went to Yale have the perfect cure for a hangover?"
     "She was a rumrunner in the 30s," replied Wick absently, his attention on the pages he was reading. "You know, this is good stuff."
     "Not according to my editor," replied Benny, coolly. "He says it sounds like a doctoral thesis."
     "Maybe you ought to find a new publisher," suggested Wick.
     "Maybe." Newfound respect for his friend's lineage kept Benny from snapping that it was none of Wick's business in the first place.
     "My dad says that there's a big market out there for books like this."
     "Yeah? What makes your dad such an expert?" Benny regretted his sarcastic tone at once, but his anger seemed to roll right off Wick like rain off a duck.
     "He owns Winthrop Publications."
     "Owns?" All these revelations in his delicate condition were proving too much for Benny who found himself collapsed on the couch with his mouth hanging open.
     "Yeah." For the first time Wick looked just a touch embarrassed. "My grandfather bought it back in the Depression with the money my grandma made running rum before he busted her—"
     Benny made a time-out gesture. "Come again? Your grandfather busted your grandmother?"
     "Yeah — he was a Revenue agent, but he resigned after he proposed to her so there wouldn't be any conflict of interest. Anyway, he needed a job and this publishing house was about to go under."
     "So he bought it?"
     "Yup. But he's retired now and Dad's running things."
     "And you're gonna step in there someday and run things too?"
     "Maybe. I was thinking more along the lines of newspapers myself." Wick grinned, obviously enjoying the effect his story had had on the great Edgar Benedek. "But, anyway, Dad says there's a lot of serious interest in the paranormal and what seems to be paranormal these days. I bet he'd be interested in your book."
     "Forget it, Wick. I don't trade on friends to get places." Benny got to his feet abruptly. "And I think it's time you got the hell out of here so I can get to work on that ET story you and Jordy liked so much."
     "Okay." Wick rose, nodded at the pages and said, "I'm serious. That is good stuff."
     "Thanks. I'll see you at the office." Benny gently shooed the younger man from his apartment, leaning against the door when he was alone once more. You're a good kid, Wick, but, dammit, you are the most exhausting guy I've ever met.
     He did cross to stand by his computer, remaining there for about five minutes before taking up his manuscript. A big market, the man said....


     Benny released the page he held in his hand and idly watched as it slid down to join the pile at his feet. The kid was right, it is good stuff. The best I've ever written. He slid back until his head rested on the back of the couch, his feet propped up on the coffee table. But what good is it, if I can't get it published?
     The image of Winthrop Publications danced temptingly before his eyes, but Benny denied it vehemently. I never once traded on a friendship to get ahead and I'm not about to start now. He might not have had a lot of possessions growing up, but Grandma had taught him pride. Do for yourself, or do without.
     But do what? This is a fine time for you to be in Hawaii chasing Tom Selleck, Grandma. Then again, you'd just tell me to make up my own mind. And that's just what I can't do.
     Closing his eyes, Benny tried to envision his life before that chance meeting in Fartham's cemetery — bright colors, a kaleidosope of activities, always on the move, always avoiding commitment of any kind. Friends were ships passing in the night, to be enjoyed while present, but not missed once they passed out of sight. Everything had been easier then — no decisions to make that could hurt anyone. Just have fun.
     The phone rang. Benny snagged it on the second ring. "Hello."
     "Benedek?" He nearly dropped the receiver as the patrician tones reached his ear.
     "Dr. Moorhouse?" he squeaked, determined not to faint until he knew for sure this wasn't an aftereffect of the hangover potion.
     "I'm glad I caught you."
     Funny, she doesn't sound glad. Wonder what's up. "Jonathan's not here if you're looking for him. Last I heard, you had him searching for phantom dogs out in the hinterland."
     "I realize he's not with you. Mackensie left a message to that effect yesterday." Dr. Moorhouse's voice contained the usual tinge of annoyance, but something more as well.
     "If it's the expense account, I've got vouchers for everything..."
     "Damn the expense account."
     The woman's voice was so low that for a moment Benny wasn't sure he'd heard correctly. "Come again?"
     "Benedek, I realize that you and I have not exactly gotten along since Jonathan unearthed you."
     "That's about sums it up." Benny clung tightly to the phone, while a pit opened up in his non-too-steady stomach. "I kinda figured you'd appreciate the news that you wouldn't have me to kick around any more..."
     "Jonathan's missing."
     For a moment panic welled up from deep within him. He'd made a decision and it had backfired. Then, reason took over. "He's probably just lost out on those country roads, Dr. M. He's only been gone forty-eight hours. Give him another day and he'll emerge from the darkness, a pretty girl on his arm and a tale of woe a mile long."
     "His car isn't missing. The state police found it in a ditch ten miles out of Boynton, Tennessee."
     "That's the home of the phantom mutts?"
     Moorhouse chose to ignore his crack. "Jonathan checked into the Andrew Jackson Motel, left his luggage and drove out of town. No one's seen him since."
     And what do you want me to do about it?
     "Sounds like a job for the police," Benny suggested.
     A moment of silence, then he got a heartfelt sigh. "Yes...I suppose it is."
     She wants me to go. And she can't quite bring herself to ask me. Benny felt a moment's perverse desire to wait the woman out, to force her to acknowledge that she wanted help from the man she'd always professed to despise, the hack.
     "Well," Dr. Moorhouse broke the silence first. "I thought you should be informed. When I hear anything more, I'll let you know."
     The hell with my pride. "You want me to go down there?"
     "I thought you were busy with your editor? Something about your new book?"
     "The meeting's been...uh...delayed," Benny improvised hastily, unwilling to admit his fabrications.
     "If it wouldn't be too much of a problem," Dr. Moorhouse's voice turned much more its normal self. "There's a flight out of Kennedy at 9 AM on American Airlines to Nashville. A rental car will be waiting for you at the Hertz counter with directions to Boynton. Benedek, are you still there?"
     She knew I'd go. Dammit, how does she do that?
     "Benedek?"
     "I'm here, Dr. M, just thinking. Nine's fine. What was the name of that motel?"
     "The Andrew Jackson. And Benedek," the crispness vanished briefly from the woman's voice. "Thank you."
     "You're welcome." Benny acknowledged the change in their relationship before reverting to his normal banter. "Hey, you think I'm gonna miss out on a free trip to the home of the Grand Ole Opry?"
     "Somehow I knew that was uppermost in your mind. Call when you reach Boynton."
     Benny grinned. "Will do, boss."
     "See that you do. Good night, Benedek, and be careful." A click followed and the dial tone buzzed in his ear.
     He dropped the phone back in its cradle. "I like you too, Dr. M."
     Feeling better than he had since leaving Brad's office, Benny stared down at the mess his manuscript had made of the rug. I'll deal with you later. Time to chase some shadows.



     Emerging from Jonathan's cabin at the 'exquisite' Andrew Jackson Motor Lodge in Boynton, Benny blinked against the sudden onslaught of late afternoon sunlight. Not a clue. Not even a hint of a clue as to where his errant partner had been going when he'd vanished.
     Someone who didn't know you better would think you'd been snatched by little green guys, Jack.
     "Benny?"
     "Huh?" Startled out of his thoughts by the unexpected greeting, Benedek found himself enveloped in a bear hug by an enthusiastic female.
     "Edgar Benedek, himself! I don't believe it!" The woman stepped back, revealing a once-familiar face. "It's so good to see you again. Why, the last time I saw you—"
     "— you were being dragged off by the campus police for occupying the Dean's Office! Sandie! Sandie Richardson!" Benny felt a grin spread across his face.
     "And you were scribbling it all down for the campus rag. It's Blakely now, but yeah, it's me. But what brings you to a hick town like Boynton? I couldn't believe my eyes when I came out of Hanrahan's and spotted you." Sandie laughed, shaking back long, dark hair from her face.
     "I could ask the same thing, kiddo. This burg's not exactly where I'd expect to find Miss Radical Cause of 1971 hanging out."
     "Geoff and I have a farm about fifteen miles from here. Good place to raise kids, and..."
     "Plot revolution." Benny nodded, recognizing Geoff Blakely's name.
     Sandie shook her head. "No more revolution, Benny. We're raising our kids to take over the system from inside, as decent, law-abiding Republicans! Ours and the kids of a few dozen other close friends."
     "Republicans?" Benny fought down the rebellious thought that this did not sound like the people he'd known so many years before. After all, he'd changed, why shouldn't they?
     "Republicans." Sandie laughed again. "Sounds gross doesn't it? Kinda like Family Ties when you think about it...you know radical parents, conservative kids. But," she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "when those kids reach middle age and go through the change, they'll loosen up and change the world."
     "Instead of the other way around." A grin blossomed as Benny got the drift. "Not bad, Sandie. Who knows, it might even work."
     "Believe it, chum." Sandie cocked her head to one side, avid curiosity glowing in her eyes. "So, enough with the diversionary tactics. What brings the king of the tabloids to Boynton? Not that stupid phantom dog hoax?"
     "Indirectly. I'm looking for someone who was investigating it...and how do you know it's a hoax?"
     Sandie linked her arm in his and led him across the street. "Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly..."
     "Whoa!" Benny dug in his heels. "I know how that story ended."
     "The ice cream parlor, silly. This is Boynton, not NY."
     "Right." Benny allowed himself to be led into a shop right out of a Norman Rockwell painting and stared, bemused, as Sandie ordered chocolate milk shakes for the both of them. When they were served, he asked, "I'm not being fattened for the kill, am I?"
     "Nope. I just wanted to show you why the phantoms are a hoax." Sandie pointed around the shop with her straw. "This is Boynton. Middle America at her height. Ice cream parlors without Baskin-Robbins or rock music. Not a boombox in sight."
     "Kids with short hair and neat clothes...yeah, I see it. So what?"
     "There are no drugs in Boynton, Benny. No discos. No nothing. It's dullsville in a million ways. Kids have to use their imaginations to have fun."
     "So they invented the phantom mutts to scare truckers off the highway into ditches?" Benny could almost buy it. This town looked too boring for words. Even good old Jack would look wildly dangerous.
     "Sure." Sandie nodded vigorously. "They probably read Hound of the Baskervilles in school."
     "And painted someone's dog for a hoot, only it got a little serious when that trucker landed in the hospital."
     "Right. A prank gone bad that will probably never happen again."
     "What about my buddy? He came down here to look into the scare and disappeared."
     "Dr. MacKensie?" Sandie blinked.
     "That's him — Dr. Jonathan MacKensie, Georgetown Institute of Science. Tallish guy with longish hair...speaks with an accent. You met him?"
     "He stopped by the farm."
     "Did he say where he was going? If he had a lead of any kind?" Benny jumped at this first faint hint of a clue.
     Sandie drew circles on the table top with her cold glass, a troubled expression on her face. "No...he didn't really say much to me. Mostly he talked to Frannie...you remember Fran?"
     "Your partner in radical causes? How could I forget? She gave me the worst black eye of my life 'cause I wouldn't use an article she wrote for the school paper." Benny grimaced at the memory of the tall, aggressive girl who'd always shadowed Sandie. Definitely not the girl you asked to he senior prom.
     "That's Fran. She's still the same too...all passion and fire." Sandie shrugged. "Anyway, your friend did most of his talking with her and some of the kids. Seemed like a nice enough guy. So, he's the MacKensie?"
     "Nope, that was his dad," Benny replied automatically, getting a hint of the annoyance Jonathan always exhibited at the same question.
     Sandie stared at him, horrified. "You investigate the paranormal with an old man? Benny, that's terrible!"
     He flashed a time-out signal. "Whoa! Sandie, I thought you meant old Leonard and his Nobel, not my good buddy."
     "What would I know about Nobels?" Relaxing, Sandie finished off her milkshake. "I meant the guy you do your paranormal thing with."
     Laughing delightedly, Benny shook his head. "Jonny is not gonna believe this...when I find him..."
     "Maybe he doesn't want to be found."
     "Huh?" Thrown off-track by the question, Benny paused to take a slurp of his own drink. "No, it's not his style. He'd shut off the electric, and cancel the papers if he wanted to take off by himself. And he'd never, ever let his classes go by the boards. The man's one of those dedicated types...like Dr. Johanson, know what I mean?"
     "Dr. Johanson is living on a kibbutz in Israel."
     "No way."
     "He dropped out of sight in '83 and didn't surface for two years. No warning, no preparations. Classic mid-life crisis."
     Benny shook his head, remembering the intense English professor from his college days. "That's not Jonny's style, believe me. I know the guy."
     "Do we ever really know anyone?"
     "Sandie? Something wrong?" Dropping all pretense, Benny covered her hand with his.
     "Nothing that can't be resolved, but thanks for asking." Sandie placed her other hand over his, giving it a quick squeeze. "Look, I've taken up enough of your time. I'd better go. You want me to ask Fran if your friend told her anything about his plans?"
     "Maybe I ought to do that for myself." He dropped a few bills on the table to cover the check over Sandie's protest. "Call it my contribution to the rebel cause."
     "Are you sure you want to talk to Fran?" The troubled look had returned.
     "I'm sure. Why don't I follow you out in my car? That way I can drive back to town after I invite myself to dinner to meet all these young Republicans of yours. Might be a story in it....'NEST OF REVOLUTION HATCHING PLOT TO TAKE OVER US GOVERNMENT'...how's that sound?
     "Sounds like Fran will black your other eye, but come along if you insist. I've got to visit the ladies room before we go. It's a bit of a drive. I'm driving that red Bronco over there. I'll meet you there in five minutes."
     "I'll wait for you forever."
     As he followed Sandie along the country roads out of town, Benny couldn't help but let his thoughts worry away at the puzzle. What do a phantom dog sighting, a missing anthro prof and a nest of potential movers and shakers have to do with each other? And over all, he retained a gut feeling that he wasn't going to like the answer.



     Fran looked like she hadn't changed much, if the way she attacked a pile of apples was any indication. Still had the same spitfire temper indicated by her thatch of auburn curls. Warily Benny kept his distance as Sandie announced their presence. "Look what followed me home, Fran."
     The tall woman glanced up, pushing an errant strand of hair out her face with the hand that held the knife. "Well, if it isn't the great compromiser," she sneered, before returning her attention to the hapless apple she was decimating.
     "Nice to see you again, too." Benny began to wonder if coming here had been such a good idea after all, then remembered that she might have been the last person to see his missing friend and steeled himself to be polite despite an urge to start name-calling. Just like the old days. "Really. Never expected to find you in a domestic-type situation."
     "Everybody needs to eat." Fran grabbed another apple and started to slice it up.
     "Last I heard you were into the animal rights movement...throwing yourself in the path of whalers and such. Far cry from activism on the high seas to making apple pie in America's heartland." For a moment something almost clicked in the back of his mind, and Benny lost track of the conversation.
     "....hasn't changed. Still a muckraking son of a..."
     Sandie interrupted before proceedings could escalate to all out war. "Fran, he's looking for a friend. Seems that nice Dr. MacKensie who was here the other day disappeared shortly after he left the farm. You remember him, don't you? The one asking about the phantom dogs?.
     Benny nodded. "The state police found his car about ten miles back in a ditch."
     The knife dropped to the table with a clatter as Fran advanced on Benny. "Are you accusing me of something?"
     "Whoa! Let's not jump the gun, okay, Frannie?" Benny backed up until he felt the smooth metal of the kitchen sink dig into his back. "We don't even know if anything's happened to Jonny. I mean, Sandie here suggested maybe he just decided to chuck it all and go back to nature. After all, a talk with you might have that effect on a guy."
     Fran's anger drained away all at once. "What do you know about me? You never bothered to find out back when we were in school. Why should you care now? Why should anyone?" She turned, and before Benny could react, was out of the room, clattering up an inner staircase.
     "What is with that woman?" Benny glanced down at his hands and found they were shaking.
     "You don't know?"
     He shook his head. "Know what?"
     With a sigh, Sandie joined him at the sink. Her troubled eyes met his. "You didn't hear this from me, understand?"
     "No, but okay. Shoot."
     She grimaced. "Bad choice of words." Sandie paused, searching for the right words. "You knew about Fran's work with Greenpeace and some of the other organizations. Did you also know she was married?" He shook his head. "Dan McLaughlin was a big, easy-going guy. Gave the world's best hugs. He and Fran met in veterinary school, and they were married right after graduation."
     "What happened?" Benny's voice was low.
     "One of the whaling companies got nasty. They torched the shed where she and Dan kept their equipment. Probably didn't know that he was inside until the news broke the next day, but they didn't waste any time. Fran was arrested for vandalism, and...murder."
     "Wait a minute...how come I never heard any of this? It should've hit all the papers." Benny frowned.
     "If Fran had been her normal self, I'm sure it would have, but she was in a state of shock from Dan's death. And, luckily, there was a local police chief who thought the whole case smelled and cleared it up fast. The arsonists went to prison, the whaling company is still killing whales and Fran came here."
     "I see why she's so jumpy," Benny nodded somberly.
     Sandie nodded, chewing on her lip. "It doesn't take much to set her off these days, although she's better than she was." The woman hesitated, then, placing a hand on Benny's arm, said, "Benny, your friend — would he...I mean...what kind of man is he?"
     Thrown by the apparent non sequiter, Benny tried to catch his friend's eyes. "What the hell kind of question is that? One minute we're talking about Fran and her borderline psychosis, the next you want an in depth profile of Jonathan MacKensie?"
     "Just answer the question, Benny, please."
     And how do I answer it? Jonathan is...Jonathan, a straight arrow in a corkscrew world. The guy who could be in real trouble 'cause I let him go off by himself after a bunch of phantom mutts who want to grow up to be Hounds of the Baskervilles. Something clicked. Wait a minute...phantom dogs. Fran, the animal rights activist. And Jonathan disappeared right after talking to her, a lady more than ready to explode if she feels threatened.
     With that thought ringing through his head, he was already in motion, slamming out of the kitchen and racing for the foot of the staircase he found in the hallway beyond. "Fran! Fran...."
     "Benny, no! Don't!" Following on his heels, Sandie grabbed at his arm.
     The kitchen door clattered open. "Fran! Fran, where are you? There's something wrong down at the yard! The dogs are all whining, and they're crowded around that guy..."
     A teenaged boy skidded to a halt in the hall entrance. "Oh — Mom, I didn't know you had..."
     Benny froze in mid-step when the kid mentioned dogs and a 'guy'. He turned cold eyes on Sandie, "Jonathan?"
     She nodded, her head turning toward the stairwell.
     "You lied to me." Icily calm, Benny spoke bitterly, staring at Sandie until he returned his gaze. "All the time you were sweet talking me back in town, you knew where he was." Events began to click into place.
     "All right, I played a little ignorant back in town when we met, but your friend seemed to be alone. How were we supposed to know you'd show up?" Sandie said quietly. "We figured he wouldn't be missed for the little while we had to keep him out of sight. So when Fran..."
     "I should've known. I should've known the second you told me she was here that Fran was the troublemaker, just like she always was. Couldn't leave well enough alone."
     "The way you did?" Sandie's temper flared. "Hanging to the rear of every issue until you were sure which way things were going to go? The great compromiser."
     Stung, Benny whirled, fist raised. "At least I didn't go arround hurting people. And I sure as hell didn't kidnap anyone."
     Benny felt hands grabbing him from behind and cursed himself for forgetting the boy.
     "Leave my mom alone! She didn't do anything!" insisted the boy, his big hands tightening their grip on Benny's arms.
     Benny forced himself to relax. He'd gotten so involved with this confrontation that he'd almost forgotten the reason for it. Jonathan was in touble and it involved those damned phantom dogs. There wasn't time for a knock down drag out fight, even if he had a chance of winning which he didn't. "I'm sorry, kid...honest. I wasn't gonna hurt anyone. Tell him Sandie, please." His voice rose a little as the iron hold began to hurt.
     "Jimmy, let him go." Sandie spoke in a tone not to be disobeyed.
     "But, Mom—" The kid looked surprised and hurt that his efforts weren't being rewarded. Benny could almost have felt sympathy for the yongster but for the fact that his arms were rapidly losing circulation.
     "He's a friend, Jimmy."
     "She's right, Jimmy." Fran appeared on the landing above them, firm despite the puffy eyes and red face which bespoke recent tears. "He is a friend."
     With obvious reluctance, Jimmy released Benny and stepped back, although he remained within easy reach of Benny in case his mother's so-called friend caused any more trouble. "Ever consider a career in pro-wrestling?" Benny rubbed his tingling arms, his relief fading back to anxiety as his eyes went from the unhappy boy to his equally unhappy mother and on up the stairs to Fran. "Anyone want to tell me what the hell's going on around here?"
     "Jimmy?" Fran looked to the boy. "What were you shouting about?" She came the rest of the way down the stairs. "I heard something about the dogs being upset..."
     "Uh — yeah..." Jimmy returned to the errand that had brought him to the house. "I was down feeding the dogs so they wouldn't — uh — be noisy, you know, tonight...." he looked at Benny, as if unsure how much to say.
     "Spit it out, Jimmy," ordered Sandie. "And don't you look at me like that, Fran...I warned you what could happen."
     "Look, I don't give a damn about these dogs...you want to run an underground railroad to Canada to keep them out of the draft or whatever, that's fine with me. Just tell me about this guy Jimmy mentioned," Benny exploded. "Where is he?"
     "He was going to go to the authorities. We were going to let him go tonight, once the dogs have been collected. I couldn't let him ruin everything. I had to do something!"
     "Tell him, Fran." Sandie met the eyes of her friend. "Everything."
     Jimmy protested, "But, Mom — what about the dogs?"
     "Don't you people ever listen? The hell with the dogs!" Benny exploded. "Where's my friend?"
     "He's in the run with the dogs," Fran snapped. "He wanted to find them so badly, I figured he wouldn't mind spending some time with them."
     "In with the dogs?" Benny paled, his memory replaying Jonathan's violent reaction to fur-bearing animals. And he'd been missing more than twenty-four hours. "How long?" Startled silence greeted his question. "How long has he been in with the dogs?" he repeated through gritted teeth.
     "An hour, maybe two — since Sandie told us you were in town looking for him. We had to get him out of the house." Fran came the rest of the way down the stairs. "Why? What does it matter? It won't kill him."
     "Does anaphylactic shock mean anything to you?" Benny turned his back on the woman, to face Jimmy. "Kid, I need you to take me to this yard of yours right now, no argument. Sandie, call an ambulance, tell them it's life or death." Something in his voice seemed to convince the boy, who started for the kitchen door without any resistance.
     "Benny?" Sandie called after him while Fran stared, what color remained in her face draining away.
     "Sandie, I got no time to argue with you." Benny glanced back from the door. "Ask Fran. She'll tell you. Just like if anyone had bothered to ask, Jonathan would have told them he's allergic to animals. But I guess you were all busy being so self-righteous, you didn't think about that. Get that ambulance." With a final glare at the two women, Benny followed Jimmy out of the house, grateful that the youngster at least seemed to have grasped the need to do move quickly.
     Hang in there, Jack. The cavalry's on the way.


     ".....doctor says he's gonna be fine, Dr. M — that animal tranquilizer they had him on delayed the onset of the shock. What? Oh, I'm just fine. Give me twenty-four hours of sleep and I'll be ready to take you out for a night on the town." Benny felt a smile cracking the tension that had etched his face through the long night. "This lifetime, that lifetime, it's still a date, Dr. M. Talk to you later." He hung up the receiver, nodding thanks to the nurse on duty before tiredly making his way back down the corridor to the waiting room and the plastic chair that felt almost wonderful to his aching body.
     "Want some coffee?" An aromatic styrofoam cup was thrust under his nose.
     Benny looked up, amazed to see Fran standing in front of him.
     "I'm out on my own recognizance," replied the woman to the unspoken question in his eyes. "Sandie guaranteed I wouldn't run away before the trial."
     "And they believed her? They're a lot more trusting than I am."
     "Sandie didn't want to lie to you, Benny." Fran sank onto the plastic chair beside his.
     "But she did."
     "To give me time to finish my project." Fran bowed her head over folded hands, then added, "Your friend understood what we were doing."
     "Right. Next you'll tell me it was his idea for you to drug him to the gills and pack him in with a bunch of refugee mutts." Benny refused to let go of his anger.
     Fran shook her head. "No, I wouldn't dream of telling you something so obviously a lie. Jonathan MacKensie is many things, but he's not suicidal." Her face changed. "If only I'd told him where we were going to hide him, things might have been different."
     "He let you drug him?" Benny turned on his chair to face her.
     "Of course not. But we had a lot of hours to talk before Sandie called; before I used the drug. I tried to convince him that what Jimmy and I were doing was right and necessary."
     "And what exactly were you doing?"
     "Helping a friend." Benny snorted his disbelief and she gave him a defensive glare. "The dogs were 'liberated' from a research lab and I'm not going to tell you who did it, so get that idea right out of your head." A hint of Fran's old acerbic manner reappeared, then her burst of energy faded and she wilted visibly.
     "Fair enough. And the Hound of the Baskervilles routine?"
     "That was Jimmy's idea. He thought it would make a good distraction in case the authorities got interested." Despite everything, Fran seemed inordinately proud of her protege'. "They just read the story in school and he figured the police would decide the whole thing was a kid's prank. In his own way, Jimmy was trying to protect me. He never thought anyone would get hurt because of the dogs. That trucker going off the road scared him silly."
     "Not to mention what it did to the trucker."
     "I know. When Dr. MacKensie came by I almost let him call the authorities. But, when push came to shove, I couldn't compromise. He didn't realise that the dogs were on the farm's property, so he came back to the house to use the phone after he found them."
     "And you invited him in for a debate on animal rights?"
     "Something like that." Fran had the good grace to look embarrassed. "Actually, it turned out to be almost exactly that once he stopped demanding that we let him go and I sent Jimmy to bed. He asked why the same as you and I tried to convert him to my point of view."
     "And did you?"
     "Your friend is a very good debater. For every argument I gave him against using animals to test drugs, he countered with an advance that might not have been made without that testing. The only thing we could agree on was that the conditions in many of the labs was barbaric."
     "Sounds like you and Jonny got real cozy. How come you used the drug?"
     Fran heaved a sigh. "I'd always planned to knock him out and put him in with the dogs so he'd be out of the way until the picke-up. I didn't want to risk a gag — too easy for a person to choke." Some of the color drained from her face, but she continued, "When Sandie called to tell me you were coming to the farm, Jonathan tried to escape. Jimmy managed to stop him, but we couldn't move him kicking and screaming. I am a vet, so I had access to the tranquilizer and I used it."
     "And the rest is history." Benny got to his feet and paced the small room. "You and Jimmy stashed Jonathan in with the dogs, figuring you could do a song and dance on me and I'd go away. You'd get the dogs out of the county, set Jonathan free and nobly take the rap when he pressed charges. So what went wrong?"
     "You." Her answer surprised him. "You didn't go away. The Edgar Benedek I remembered would have grabbed at the first semi-plausible line we handed him and gone back home without a second thought. You kept digging and worrying until everything came out."
     "I wasn't the 'great compromiser' any more?"
     "No, you weren't." And Fran's voice reflected a surprise and even a note of admiration that startled Benny. "You stood your ground. Something I haven't done since — Sandie said she told you about Dan?"
     Benny nodded.
     Fran stared at the wall. "I came here to stop running away from life. Instead I got involved in another cause."
     "You've never run away from anything in your life."
     "I've been running all my life," she quietly contradicted him. "That way I never had to take the time to look at myself too closely."
     "I've had a hard night, Fran, and I'm kinda out of it so would you please run that one by me again?" Benny picked up the neglected styrofoam cup and took a long swig of the cooling coffee in an attempt to clear his foggy brain.
     Fran held up her hands, spreading the fingers wide. "I told you, I'm a veterinarian, Benny. And I'm good at what I do. Or at least I know that in my head. In my heart — I'm still the girl who couldn't even get a date to the senior prom."
     "You wanted to go?" Benny cast back and remembered the angry girl who had blacked his eye in college.
     "Of course I wanted to go. But I couldn't let anyone else know I wanted it. Otherwise they'd have felt sorry for me when no one asked me. I couldn't bear failure. Then or now."
     Benny found this to be a feeling he could understand. "So you threw yourself into every cause that came down the pike? Anything to keep you from looking at yourself?"
     "And let me feel like a worthwhile person at the same time. That's the way it was." Fran smiled. "You've gotten a lot smarter in your old age, Benny."
     "I'm not so sure of that, but thanks for the vote of confidence." Benny got to his feet, too restless to sit still for any length of time. "Fran, I don't know exactly how to say this, but — "
     "Don't say anything, Benny. Not now." Fran too had risen, her clear hazel eyes meeting his. "Tell your friend that I'm sorry. I didn't think." She leaned over and her lips briefly brushed his cheek and she was gone, striding down the hallway without looking back.
     "Wait a minute!" Benny called after her, not sure if she heard him or not.
     Fran paused, looking back over her shoulder.
     "What's gonna happen to the dogs?"
     For the first time since she'd joined him in the waiting room, Fran smiled. "They were 'collected' while we were getting Jonathan to the hospital. In a couple of days they'll all have new homes and IDs, but you didn't hear that from me."
     Benny stared after her as she vanished around a corner. Damn, with everything falling to pieces around her, she still managed to save the dogs. Despite his righteous anger, Benny couldn't help feeling a tinge of admiration for the woman.
     Still mulling over the strange conversation, Benny sauntered back up to the nurse's station, sneaking a quick glance into the Jonathan's room as he passed. A nurse was calmly replacing an empty IV bottle, her eyes flickering to the monitors that now registered a steady heartbeat, and a regular respiration.
     "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Benedek?" A quiet voice drew Benny's attention from his friend.
     For a moment, Benny felt the urge to break into his trademark patter at the sight of the attractive young nurse, but the memory of his conversation with Fran had nudged other memories to the fore of his mind, and he asked instead, "You got a pad of paper I could borrow?"



     "You're right, Wick — this really is very good."
     Poised to make a grand entrance into Jonathan's room, armed with fruit basket and magazines, Benny froze at the sound of Jonathan's voice. What the hell?
     "I thought you might feel that way, Dr. MacKensie, that's why I thought I might try to enlist your help."
     "Benedek already rejected your suggestion?"
     "Said he doesn't trade on friends to get ahead, but this wouldn't be anything like that. It would be good business. You read that manuscript. It's good stuff."
     Benny could almost see Jonathan wince. "Yes, I suppose you could describe it that way, but I fail to see how I can help you. Once Benedek has made up his mind about a subject, nothing short of a nuclear holocaust could make him change his mind."
     "Don't I know that," laughed Wick. "You should hear Jordy and him when they get going. The irresistible force and the unmovable object in three-D. It's something to watch."
     "I can just imagine."
     Before Benny could hear any more, a finger prodded him in the shoulder. "Young man, didn't your mother ever tell you that eavesdroppers never hear anything good about themselves?" The acerbic tones made Benny turn too quickly and he banged his knee against a nearby utility cart.
     "Owww!" he yelped, hopping about on his uninjured leg. "What'd you want to go and do that for?" he demanded.
     "It's as much as you deserve, lurking about in hallways, listening to other people's conversations. That's a habit you're going to have to break, once your new book is out." A diminutive gray-haired woman breezed by Benny into the room. "Wick, darling, have you two quite finished idling the day away?"
     Benny followed close on her heels, protesting every step of the way. "I get some of my best stories lurking in hallways!"
     Shaking her head, the woman contradicted him. "Not any more, you won't. It's the library for you in the future. Winthrop Publishing's newest author can hardly be hauled off to the pokey every few days." A mischievous twinkle appeared in her eyes. "That's what research assistants are for, people like Wick, here, for example."
     "Grandma, I've got a job." Wick got to his feet in time to be swept into a hug.
     "And now you have another. You bring us someone, you are responsible for them. Sorry, darling, but that's the way it is." Releasing Wick, she crossed the small space between where he'd been straddling the visitor's chair and the bed. "You must be Dr. Jonathan MacKensie." Taking Jonathan's hand between her own, she added, "I thoroughly enjoyed your paper on the possibility that poltergeist activity was responsible for many of Europe's legends of brownies, trolls and elves."
     Jonathan gaped. "But that hasn't been published yet."
     "Jonny, you sly devil you. You never told me what you were up to — poltergeists, brownies and elves, huh? I can see the headline now — -"
     "Benedek, you wouldn't?" Horrified, Jonathan pulled himself to a seated position.
     "Of course he would." Fran appeared in the doorway. "That's what muckrakers do." A smile softened her harsh remark.
     "But he won't, my dear, not unless he wants to cross swords with Henrietta Simmons, and as I am his new employer, I'm sure he won't want to do that." Smiling complacently, the old woman sat in the chair Wick had vacated.
     Benny raised his hands in a time-out gesture. "Whoa! Hold on one cotton-picking minute here." The others all stared at him, startled into silence by his tone. A smile tugged at a corner of his mouth. "Good. Now, let's try this again, from the top. Jonny, how're you feeling?"
     "Much better, thanks. They took me off the IV this morning and Dr. Phillips says I'll be out of here at the end of the week if I continue to improve." Jonathan turned his gaze to Fran who had remained in the doorway, looking unsure of her welcome. "Mrs. McLaughlin, I'm glad you came by. I wanted to let you know that I don't plan to press charges against you. I understand why you did what you did. But I can't speak for the authorities."
     "What I did was irresponsible, Dr. MacKensie." Her mouth twisted slightly. "Not where the dogs are concerned. There I'm sure I was right. But I could have killed you."
     "But you meant no harm, and please, call me Jonathan." Jonathan managed to look charming despite the hospital gown.
     "Only if you call me Fran. I hear Mrs. McLaughlin and I start looking for my mother-in-law." Disarmed by Jonathan's obvious friendliness, she added, "I never expected..."
     "That's our Jonny for you," Benny swept into action before Fran could break down. He knew only too well she would never forgive any of them if she did, and the one thing he was certain of was that he didn't want to lose contact with her again. "Why don't we do lunch and I'll explain him to you?"
     "It's a deal." The look Fran sent Benny's way buoyed his spirits as he turned next to Wick and his grandmother.
     "I didn't mean to ignore you, Mrs. Simmons, and I don't want to sound like I don't appreciate you coming all the way down here, but Wick had no business sneaking my manuscript out for you to look at. It's already committed once I get the rewrite done."
     "I didn't do anything you wouldn't have done." Wick spoke before his grandmother could say a word.
     Expecting an apology, or at least a defensive attitude, Benny was thrown by the calm approach Wick had taken. "But, I told you..."
     "We all say many silly things, Benny. You don't mind if I call you Benny, do you?" Mrs. Simmons quickly got to her feet, stepping between the two men. "Wick did what any self-respecting publisher would do when he found good material in the hands of a block-headed writer. He took it to your agent. Dear Sarah is a sensible girl and gave him her approval to bring the manuscript to me."
     "She can't do that," Benny started another protest, but the old woman merely stared him down.
     "Next time you should read the fine print when you sign a contract, dear. Sarah's the soul of honesty, but there are so many con artists in the publishing world."
     Hastily smothered laughter from both Jonathan and Fran distracted Benny long enough for Henrietta to produce a thick sheaf of papers, the light blue cover proclaiming them to be a legal document of some sort. "I want you to take this home with you and read it at your leisure, Benny. Discuss it with Sarah, if you have any reservations. And if Brad comes sniffing around, do tell him to grow up. Rejecting a fine book like that. Really." She sniffed disdainfully.
     "Grandma." Wick spoke chidingly, "Brad isn't that bad."
     "Twinkletoes Stockman wouldn't know a well-written book if he were hit over the head with it. Not his fault, of course, it's all in the genes and his grandfather — well, the stories I could tell."
     "Will you?" asked Benny finally emerging from his stunned silence to find his hands curled around the contract. "Tell me about his grandfather, I mean? This I got to hear." His old audacious smile flashed around the room as he began to feel appreciated once more.
     "Once you've signed the contract, Benny, I'll let you negotiate for the story over dinner." Henrietta patted his arm before snapping her purse closed. "I'll leave you people to visit. Come along, Wick. The chopper's waiting to get us back to Nashville, and I did promise Jordy you'd be back in time to get the paper to bed."
     "Coming, Grandma." Wick looked at Benny. "You mad?" he asked.
     "Me? Mister Geniality himself?" Benny tried to look stern, but failed miserably. "Kid, I'm furious. The only way you get out of this one is pick up the tab when your Grandma and me go out on the town."
     "It's a deal!" Wick grinned, while following his grandmother from the room. "Hope you like Burger King!" floated back with a laugh as the door closed behind him.
     Jonathan settled back against his pillows. "Do you always negotiate like that?" he asked.
     "Like what?" asked Benny perching himself on the end of the bed, waving Fran to the visitor's chair.
     "Somehow I never pictured anyone telling you what to do," admitted MacKensie.
     "First time for everything, pal. A guy's got to change to keep up with the times. High time I tried it." Benny felt uncomfortable under Jonathan's scrutiny. "Sorry, I let you walk into a mess while I was busy fighting the changes."
     "Benedek, I'm not a child. You didn't let me do anything. I walked into it all by myself."
     "Well, you had a little help." Fran joined the conversation. She leaned forward. "I've been a mess since — since my husband died. I think it's time for me to do some changing, too. Get back into the real world."
     "You've made a beginning," Jonathan began, only to be interrupted by the opening of the door.
     "I'm sorry to interrupt folks, but it's time for Jonathan's respiratory therapy. It'll only take a few minutes, if you wouldn't mind waiting outside." A petite brunette nurse stood in the doorway, her equipment in a basket hanging from one arm.
     "We were just leaving, right, Fran?" Benny got up from the bed, slapping Jonathan's foot. "Jonny, glad to see you looking better. I'll bring you some more magazines tomorrow."
     "Benedek, you don't have to hang around Boynton on my account," Jonathan protested.
     "Not to worry. I'm not." Benny offered Fran his arm. "Hey, lady, wanna go to the prom?"
     "The prom?" For a moment Benny wished the words back, the way Fran stared at him suspiciously. Then her face cleared and she nodded. "I think I'd like that." She rose and placed her hand tentatively on his arm.
     "Prom? Benedek, what are you up to now? Benedek?" Jonathan's agitated voice followed them past the waiting nurse and on into the corridor.
     "You should explain it to him, Benny," said Fran glancing back down the hall.
     Benny punched the elevator button. "Tomorrow, Fran. Tonight it's 1971 and I've got the most gorgeous redhead in the class as a date for the prom."
     "Why, Benny," Fran grinned suddenly, "What good taste you've developed."

 

- the end -

 


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