Cold Reading by Wayne Faust

Sharon Teller was tough as nails.

Hard as granite.

Meaner than a snake.

Didn’t take crap from anybody.

And on and on.

She was a writer who had never met a cliché she didn’t like.

But one cliché summed her up the best:Sharon Teller was a survivor.

She had been poor once, but clawed her way to the top with no help from anybody. And now she was working on another guaranteed blockbuster.

She was probably the only best-selling author who still used an address book – not on a laptop or iPhone or Blackberry, none of which she possessed, but a real old-fashioned address book with a leather cover and pages made out of actual paper. Technology would have made her life easier, but it would also have allowed people to find out where she lived, although that was an ill-kept secret; it was hard not to notice all the security for her penthouse on the 66th floor of Lakeshore Towers in Chicago.

And on this morning, very early, she picked up her phone. This was always her favorite part of the day. The light was pink outside her floor-to-ceiling window as the sun poked its head over Lake Michigan. Coffee-stained pages flew by under her fingers as she looked up a number. She loved to call sources very early to make sure she woke them up; they were much more likely to spill some dirt that way. She push-buttoned the number on the phone, an actual landline with caller ID blocked.

“Good morning!” she shouted into the phone in a voice like a raven fighting over some trash. “This is Sharon Teller. Oh, did I wake you up? I’m terribly sorry. I just plain forgot that you’re two hours behind. But I just had to ask you one more thing about that Justin Bieber quote you gave me last week. You remember that? I thought you would…”

Five minutes later she had another one of her famous little tidbits, always from ‘an anonymous source.’ She jotted down some notes and filed them in a folder (once again, a real manila folder) marked Chapter 21. She was almost done with her research, but she still had to sit down and actually write the damned book. Most authors of her caliber had a staff of people to do this kind of research, but that would require her to trust somebody.

She got up and shuffled wearily into the bathroom and took the first of her angina pills for the day. She looked in the mirror and examined the crow’s feet around her eyes. It might be time for a facelift, although she’d seen the nasty results of too many of those in the some of the people she’d written about. And how many people was that? A lot. She counted up the years in her head:

Four years on the Clinton book.

Three years on Michael Jackson.

Two years on the Queen of England.

One year on John Wesley Macon.

And, in between, all the quickie books about fifteen-minutes-of-fame types like the Balloon Boy, Tiger Woods’ mistresses, and Nancy Grace’s housekeeper.

Yes, it had all been a real grind. It had made her a household name, which wasn’t easy. She resented all the invasions of her privacy that fame entailed but she did get some benefits, like a twenty million dollar portfolio for instance. She smiled at that and flopped down on the bed.

***

The sound of the door chime woke her. She sat up with a start. “Must’ve dozed off for a sec,” she muttered as she headed into the living room. Not many people rang her bell. It was probably Mort, her agent.

She opened the door and saw that it wasn’t Mort after all. Looking very out of place in the elegant, penthouse hallway was a tall, lean man in a brown, soft leather vest. His gray hair was unkempt and there were lots of holes in his blue jeans. It was the hat, however, that gave him away. He was wearing a train engineer’s hat, crumpled and oil-stained. It wasn’t hard for Sharon to recognize John Wesley Macon, although he looked much older and definitely more weathered than when she’d written her book about him.

“Mornin’ ma’am.” His famous drawl was soft and smooth, just like on his records. “I was just passing through and I was wondering if I might have a word with you. I hope it’s not too early.” He bent down to pick up the morning paper on the hallway floor and handed it to her politely.

Needless to say, this was unexpected. How had he gotten by security? Never mind that. Sharon’s brain was immediately kicking into gear. This was going to make a great story. No one had interviewed Macon since he had dropped out of sight three years ago, shortly after her book had come out.

Sharon mustered the disarming smile that had made her famous on Oprah and The View. She tossed the newspaper on the coffee table and took Macon’s hat. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked politely, motioning toward the kitchen table.

“No, ma’am, I reckon that John Wesley Macon only has bourbon for breakfast. I read that in a book somewhere.”

Sharon’s face flushed for a moment. So that’s how it was going to be. Well, she was ready. She was always ready.

“Well, Mr. Macon, why don’t you just sit on the couch and tell me why you’re here.”

“I prefer to stand, ma’am.”

“Do you mind if I get my notebook?” she asked, already backing toward the kitchen.

“Suit yourself.” Macon shifted back and forth on his two big feet, a giant among the Ming Dynasty vases on shelves and the Andy Warhol originals on the walls.

When she returned with her notebook, he was thumbing through a paperback copy of her book, Shooting Star – The Life and Times of John Wesley Macon.

“So, Mr. Macon, how can I help you today?” she said, smiling. Only this smile was not her, Gosh-I’m–just-an-old-fashioned-girl smile, but more like an I’m-a-crocodile-and-I’m-hungry smile.

“Well, ma’am, I just kinda wanted to know why you wrote some of these things about me. Like this here…”

He fumbled with the pages until he found what he was looking for and began to read aloud,

“So, young John Wesley spent the last few weeks by her bedside. When she finally slipped away, friends say it tore the heart out of the fledgling young songwriter. Losing his beautiful young sister to such tragic circumstances led to his later fixation with the underage girls who flocked like geese backstage at his concerts.”

Sharon couldn’t help beaming. She loved hearing her own, excellent prose read out loud.

Macon was not beaming. He looked up and stared directly at Sharon Teller. His green eyes flashed. “Now, what do you figure my wife thought when she read that?”

Sharon wasn’t cowed in the least. Of course she wasn’t. “Do you deny this story Mr. Macon? Did you not have a sister that died when she was fifteen? Did you not stay by her sickbed for two weeks, playing your guitar? Facts, Mr. Macon. I have hundreds of sources and I deal only in facts.”

“Now, I may be just a simple country boy from Georgia but I know what people like you can do with facts. They can twist ’em and—”

“Spare me the little old country boy routine, Mr. Macon. You’re a millionaire and everybody knows it.”

They glared at each other for a few seconds. Actually, Macon glared and Sharon continued to smile like a whitewashed wall.

Macon thumbed more pages. He resumed reading in his soft Georgia drawl.

“It’s a well-known fact in the music business that John Wesley Macon ‘borrowed’ freely from other songwriters. In fact, his biggest hit, ‘Love Like A River,’ was probably penned by a soundman named Joe Fouts, who was never given credit.”

Macon looked up and his voice dropped a notch, taking on a low, raspy sound. “I wrote every damn bit of that song. It was my finest piece of work and if you believe that disgruntled little prick wrote it, you ought to get your head examined.”

“I have my sources, Mr. Macon. Hundreds of sources. Are you denying that you stole that song from Joe Fouts?”

“What good would it do if I did? Are you going to write another book with the real story?”

“Of course not, Mr. Macon. A book like that would never sell. Perhaps you could sue me for libel.”

“Oh, you’d love that, wouldn’t you? Then your damned books would really fly off the shelves. No, I’ve got better ways to handle this little problem.”

Teller felt a fluttering in her stomach. This was going to be a marvelous story. “Are you threatening me, Mr. Macon?” The button to call security was right behind her on the floor. She didn’t think she would need it though. She had had guys like this for breakfast.

Macon’s eyes narrowed into slits. “Where I grew up, we don’t threaten ladies, ma’am. Although I think the term lady is a little misplaced here.”

He opened the paperback and continued reading.

Back stage in Houston, John Wesley was strumming some chords when he came up with the first verse to his hit ‘Bright Eyes.’ He had been secretly seeing a fifteen year old groupie with the improbable name Anita Needa, so it was general knowledge at the time that the song was about her, although it could have been about any number of sweet young things. There were so many after all.”

Macon raised the book high and threw it to the floor with a loud thwack. It startled Sharon so much that she dropped down onto the couch in surprise. She felt a small inkling of fear as Macon hovered over her, trembling.

“That song was about my daughter. My precious little girl,” he said, his voice breaking. “We had some rough times over the years. I wasn’t a perfect father, not by a long shot. But I was finally getting things straightened out with her. And then your filthy little book came out. My daughter accused me of lying to her about her song. She was so proud of that tune. She had told all her friends it was hers and now she looked like a fool in front of God and everybody. She hasn’t talked to me since. You ruined the last chance I had with her, Miss Teller. You destroyed what family I had left.”

Sharon was a little nonplussed for the first time since she could remember. But she didn’t get where she was by being a pushover. She took a deep breath and tried to stand up. Macon pushed her back down.

“I got an idea, Miss Teller. I think I ought to read this whole book out loud right now. Kinda like in school. Let’s enjoy it together, right from page one.”

Macon grabbed the book off the floor and put one hand in the air like a Shakespearian actor. “Chapter One,” he said expansively. “A young boy in a small Georgia town sits on his porch on a summer night, strumming his guitar…”

Teller felt her face grow hot. This was getting out of hand. She looked toward the security button and noticed his foot was right next to it, blocking her. She glanced toward the kitchen table where a red telephone sat like a beacon. She would have to be quick. She took a deep breath and, staying low, darted catlike away from the couch. She would only have a second or two to dial up the lobby.

She made it to the phone and hit 0, turning to look behind her at the same time. Macon was still in the living room, still reading out loud, oblivious. Suddenly she noticed that Macon’s voice was coming out of the receiver in her hand. It was a few seconds behind the voice from the living room, sounding like a talk radio show where the caller doesn’t know there’s a time delay. She didn’t know how Macon had pulled off that little trick but she would soon find out. And there would be hell to pay.

She ran into the bedroom and picked up the phone there. Macon’s voice was coming from that one too. He was already on chapter two—Sharon had never believed in long chapters because of the short attention span of most of her readers.

She dropped the phone on the nightstand in a momentary panic. She took a deep breath. It was a trick, that was all. Then she noticed the clock above her dresser. It read 7:25, the same time as when she had laid down for a nap. She felt disoriented and maybe a little dizzy. From the living room, she heard Macon say, “Chapter Three California Bound. Like all rock star wannabes, John Wesley Macon packed up his meager belongings and headed west in a rusty Volkswagen Rabbit…”

She shook her head. Chapter three already? Yes, her chapters were short but not that short. The passage of time seemed to be skewed. Either that or she was blacking out occasionally. She put her hand on her chest and felt her heartbeat. It was racing a bit but otherwise it was steady. She made her way back into the living room. Macon stopped reading as she came in.

“Glad you’re back,” he said. “We’re just getting to some of the really juicy parts.” He smiled and his teeth seemed to be loose in his mouth.

“How did you do that with the phones?” she asked.

Macon didn’t answer but instead resumed reading. “In LA, with a sweet young starlet on every corner, John Wesley Macon was like a kid in the candy store.”

Macon was standing between Sharon and the doorway. But there was still the security button, the one that she’d never had to use. Well, she’d use it now because this had gone far enough. Macon’s foot was farther away than before so she moved quickly and stepped on the button hard, just as Macon’s foot shot back and covered hers, holding it in place, forcefully and painfully.

“That’s right,” he said. “Push it hard, little darlin’.” He was grinning at her now and his breath smelled like rotting leaves.

He began reading again and this time his voice seemed to come from the walls themselves and from the floor, especially from the floor. It was just a trick. It had to be. A damn, stupid publicity stunt, probably from somebody at Random House.

She pulled back her foot and twisted away. She was angry now. Security would be here in a second and she had had just about enough of this little game. Part of her brain knew that this was going to be a really great story. But she wanted it to be over. “Okay, that’s enough!” she shouted.

Macon stopped and lowered the book. His eyes were black orbs. “But Miss Teller,” he said, “it will never be enough.”

He reached behind her for the newspaper on the coffee table. He turned it face up. It was the Chicago Tribune. There on the front page was the photo of Sharon they’d used on the back of the dust jacket of the Macon book. She read the headline:

Celebrity Author Dies

Macon opened the book again, only now his hands were noticeably thinner, and his skin peeled away in chunks.

Sharon ran for the front door and flung it open. There was another living room on the other side, exactly like hers, with another John Wesley Macon standing by the couch and another Sharon Teller looking out the front door. She ran back into her bedroom. The clock still read 7:25. She stood there with her hands over her ears, trying to block out Macon’s voice but it didn’t work. He was near the end of the book already. How could that be? She heard him say, “The End,” in a triumphant voice, and then it was deathly quiet. Sharon held her breath. Was he gone?

She felt her heart beating steady in her chest. That in itself was a surprise because it had been jumping around for years. And everything that had just happened, Macon’s voice coming from everywhere and her living room stretching on forever like a repeating mirror, was clearly impossible. No one could have done all of this as part of a trick, not with all the special effects in the world.

She had to admit to herself that all of this meant only one thing.

She peeked around the corner into the living room, hoping Macon was gone. He was waiting for her there, just on the other side of the wall. He smiled a toothless smile and she nearly jumped out of her skin. A horrible, putrid smell now filled up the whole apartment.

Macon opened the book. “Chapter One,” he said in a voice that now sounded like a lion’s growl. He resumed his eternal reading, freezing her in place.

Raw, helpless terror gripped her for a while. This was a situation she could not control, something that had rarely happened to her. But eventually, during Macon’s second reading of Chapter Four, her mind unlocked.

Because Sharon Teller was a survivor.

“I don’t care,” she said as loudly and with as much cold malice as she could muster.

Macon stopped reading and looked up. By now, the skin of his face was mostly peeled away and his skull was showing through. “What did you say?” he asked.

“I don’t care,” she repeated. “Keep reading. I kind of like it. I thought my book about you was one of my better efforts. If I really am dead, then hearing my own words for eternity isn’t so bad, now is it?”

Macon frowned, or at least as much of a frown as anyone with a face like rotting meat can muster. Meanwhile, Sharon’s face was creasing into one of her famous smiles. Gotcha.

There was a long, long pause. Finally, Macon put the paperback down onto the coffee table next to the newspaper. He looked down at the floor. He shrugged his bony shoulders and sighed. His breath sounded like air bubbling up through swamp water. He turned his decaying head to the side as if listening to something below the floor. “Okay,” he finally muttered.

The image of a decaying John Wesley Macon shimmered for a moment and then began to morph into something else. The skin on his hands and face smoothed until it was no longer rotten. The threads of his tattered clothes solidified and crawled like growing vines, eventually settling into the form of an elegant tuxedo, black and white with a scarlet bow tie. Glittering rings appeared on hands that looked like they could have belonged to a concert pianist. Teeth grew back and turned pure white like teeth in a toothpaste commercial. Cheekbones flowed like molten lava, eventually becoming part of a face that was much different than John Wesley Macon’s, but still incredibly handsome. Eyes turned the deepest, purest blue, but they bore a look of disappointment.

“I really hate to admit this,” the now elegant figure said, “but you beat me. That doesn’t happen often.”

Sharon felt a rush of adrenaline. She was still confused about what all of this meant but she knew she’d won whatever game they were playing. “Good,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Maybe now you can tell me what’s going on?”

“Of course,” answered the man. “Ask me any question you want.”

“Okay, how about the big one. Am I dead?”

“Yes, you are,” he answered. “You had a heart attack. Pretty mundane for a celebrity like you, but that’s the way it is.”

“Oh,” answered Teller, hiding her disappointment. “And what about Macon?”

“He died of an overdose yesterday. He’ll be in tomorrow’s paper. Kind of ironic, don’t you think?”

“Was that him that was just here?”

“No, that was me. I’m good at impressions. Channeling, actually. I said what Macon would have said if he was really here.”

“Then where is he?”

The elegant man just shrugged and looked up at the ceiling.

Teller pursed her lips. “If he’s up there, then I’m…”

“Yes you are. But as I said, you beat me. I thought I could torment you with what should have been your worst nightmare. But you evidently don’t scare, so you’ll have a much different kind of eternity than the others down here. In fact, I might even have a position for you on the Management Team.”

“Management?” asked Teller. She supposed there would be millions of souls in…well, you know. Maybe billions. It would take a huge team to keep them all in line. She’d always been a lone wolf but why not be a joiner for a change?

“Where do I sign?” asked Sharon.

“Oh, there’s no need for that,” answered the man smoothly. He put a fatherly arm around her shoulder. “My office is just this way.”

He led her toward the big picture window which overlooked the deep blue expanse of Lake Michigan. But as they got closer the view began to change. As Sharon watched in surprise, the window morphed into a huge set of double doors, swinging open to reveal a vast, fiery pit far below. She dug her toes into the plush carpet, trying to stop her forward momentum. She was pretty sure that the flaming pit was not this man’s office.

The man let out a maniacal laugh. With amazing strength he pushed Sharon forward. She tumbled over the edge of the pit and her shriek mingled with the screams of billions of tormented souls below.

The tuxedoed man straightened up and turned to face a group of shadowy, sniveling forms that had just materialized behind him in the room. He waved his hands in the air. “You try to be creative,” he shouted. “You try to mix it up after all of these millennia. But no! She makes you do it the old way.” He wiped his hands as if trying to remove something distasteful. But it wasn’t yet over.

Sharon’s voice came from behind him. “Read to me!” she shouted. “I promise to be scared!” Incredibly, she had caught herself and was still hanging on to the edge of the pit with one hand.

The man rolled his eyes and turned back around. “Story time’s over,” he growled. He stomped on her hand and she let go.

The last thing Sharon Teller said before she pinwheeled into the flames was, “But I’m a survivor!”

The elegant man grinned like a wolf as he stared down into the pit.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll survive.”


Wayne Faust has had over 35 stories published in various magazine and anthologies, including stories in Norway, Australia, and England. He has also made a full time living as a music and comedy performer for over 35 years (www.waynefaust.com). Since he has been writing songs for all that time, where you have to say everything you want to say in 3 verses or less, his prose tends to be tightly-written and fast-moving. Ten of his stories have been performed aloud on stage for One Night Stand Theater in Denver. (http://www.onenightstandtheater.org/7nightstanders.html)

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