The reclusive author was something of a trope for me until I took on Agatha Reeve as a client. JD Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee and Elena Ferrante were the names that I knew but landing one as an actual client had been an uneasy blessing.
She enquired by letter. She sent her first book along with it, a romantic thriller called Control and I had grimaced at it before idly flipping the first page over and reading her work. It had a crisp, disciplined strut to it. The language was simple and trusted the reader to do the work of the book, sometimes approaching a poetic lilt in places. Underneath that though, seethed an engine of sex and violence that made the blood rise in my cheeks.
It was a new experience reading something that was there that sung to me as I read it.
She wrote back when I sent her the publishing contract, which was mostly fending off accusations that Agatha was a publicity stunt, a JT LeRoi in all but name. After that, we would exchange greetings cards at Christmas. We sent emails to everyone else, but I liked that she required a measure of effort to reach.
The eccentricity wore a little thin when Control became a very successful book. The movie rights were snapped up and adapted by Tom Ford. I wrote about the Oscar ceremony. I had asked her, offered to have her chauffeured at every step of the way.
She was too busy working on the next book.
She had not even moved from the one room flat she lived within. Success had not scaled the surrounding wall.
I only had one photograph of her. It had taken several letters before she sent it. Taken in the early 70’s, when she was a young woman. Bright red hair combed into waves either side of her face sat with her strong thighs apart and her hands on her knees, pushing her chest out.
The last contact I had with her was a short letter explaining that she was working on something new and would be in touch when it was finished.
Two years later, the manuscript arrived.
Agatha’s success and mine were intertwined. I had to employ a reading assistant, Sonya, which meant that she had the pleasure of reading the new Agatha Reeve before I could. She brought it through to me; her face pinched with unease as she set it on my desk.
‘So, what did you think?’
Sonya folded her arms, ran the tip of her tongue over her lips before she spoke.
‘It’s brilliant but.’ She sighed and shook her head.
‘It’s really different.’
She passed it off as a headache but I knew different. Reeve had grown more intense with each book, still aligned on the backs of strong, robust storytelling but challenging the reader with torrents of raw passion and emotion.
I sent her home, unplugged the phone and started to read. I took pleasure in her work, but I still needed to sell the damn thing and I was hoping that with each one, she might dial it back a little, give me another Control or Bad Dreams, Good Nightmares. She was a brand now and so I read with a little apprehension.
Then the words rushed up to meet me and I lost myself in them. I slipped into the spaces between them, went down into what she had been working on.
She had written a rocket ship of a book. I had to force myself to break away from it to go home, grabbing take out and a bottle of wine, drinking and reading and eating but my mind was wrapped up in the world of her book.
In her isolation, she had written something terrible and beautiful. It ended on a cliffhanger and the words ‘To Be Continued’ which made me think franchise.
The book which she had titled Last Kiss was about a couple separated by death, who find one another in the afterlife. I thought of ‘What Dreams May Come, the Richard Matheson book but this worked a more visceral vein. Sonya was already scanning the manuscript for the publisher and sending it to my American counterparts for the movie rights.
You saw the movie. We all made money from it but Agatha did not return our letters aside from a short note, apologising that she was already deep into the sequel.
The second manuscript arrived three months later.
I was away when it arrived. Sonya offered to fax it to me, but I had my eye on a junior executive from Fox, so I told her to read it and send me notes. I was flying back the next day, I told her, and we could catch up then.
She did not go into work the following day. Her phone was switched off. She had the only copy of the manuscript and I drove over to her flat, planning on leaving with the manuscript and an explanation.
The curtains were drawn and she did not answer until I started hammering the front door so hard that the glass in the windows shook. She peered through the small gap between the door and the frame, her eyes glassy and lips bitten through and flaking.
‘Sonya, I need the Reeve manuscript.’
She sniffed and lowered her head.
‘No you don’t. No one does.’
I tried to enter in, but she closed the door a little and shook her head without looking at me.
She told me that she would go and get it for me.
She had wrapped it in a yellow towel and handed it to me with a disgusted urgency. She said that she was sorry and that she wasn’t coming back to work anymore.
She asked me not to read it before she shut the door.
I looked at it, still in the towel and I uncovered it where it sat on the passenger seat. I took it home with me, too exhausted to face having to explain it to anyone. I decided to scan it in on the computer at home instead, but after a sandwich and a glass of wine, I thought I would take a peek at it.
Bluebeard’s wife, looking for the right key to the wrong room.
I managed two lines of the first page before my head started to swim and I sat back on the chair, drained and elated with emotion before everything went black.
Agatha stood next to me. She was blurred, out of focus, with her copper hair glowing from within.
Book the like you did. She said.
My breath came out in a plume of moisture and I shuddered as a bitter, ugly chill settled upon me. I tried to speak but terror stuck them in the back of my throat, making me gag with their weight.
Come to more. Me stopping is nothing.
When I came to, my phone was ringing. The sun streamed into the room and I answered as I got up from the chair. Mandy from the office said that there was someone there to see me. Not an appointment.
The detective sat in my office, crumpled and paternal as he finished his coffee.
He asked when I had last spoken to Agatha Reeve. I explained about the arrangement we had and he frowned like he had indigestion.
Agatha had built a life of such perfect isolation that she went eight weeks before anyone came across her, laid on her bed, wreathed in flies and partially melted into the mattress.
I did not tell him that we had received her third manuscript. It did not seem like something that I should tell a detective.
He glanced around him, the awards and pictures of our clients and successes giving him an impression of us that was probably not favourable. Effete and flighty, but he did not understand the ambition, the drive it took to make art and sell it.
He gave his condolences and left.
It was something to think about. I put it down to jet lag and stress. Sonya was explained off as a mental breakdown.
The success of the book did not resonate with me as much as the previous ones had. I had dared not read it since.
The reason why it all came up was that today we had another manuscript delivered. The date was recent, and the paper fresh. There was a small, handwritten note attached by a paperclip to the front.
I put my life into this.
Mandy went to get coffee and I sat there, looking out the window.
Plucking up the courage to turn the page.