Excerpt: Permanent Fatal Error


It started with an email:


From: writerswife@yahoo.com

Subject: Query Regarding Suggested Life of Author Everett Hyde

To: Chase Alger

Reply-To: Amanda Hyde


Chase was accustomed to acquiring editors writing to suggest topics for biographies. The recent PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Chase’s biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had resulted in a flurry of suggested subjects for his next book.

But after five consecutive biographies of men of letters, a part of Chase craved something in a different vein.

Still… He stared at the subject line.

Everett Hyde. Son of a bitch!

Chase sipped his first coffee of the morning, still mulling that name, “Everett Hyde.” No denying that interested him. So did the sender’s name, Amanda Hyde. Perhaps the legendary author’s widow?

He clicked open the email and read on.


Dear Mr. Alger:

For the longest time, I have resisted repeated inquiries seeking my participation in various projects and biographical studies of my late husband, Everett Hyde.

After all the years, I have finally resolved to participate in the preparation of an authorized, scholarly biography of my darling Everett. To that end, I’m willing to provide complete access to official documents, typed manuscripts, typed personal journals and other privately held, never-before-seen materials.

I’ve been quite impressed with your biographies of Richard Haliburton, B. Travern, of Everett Ruess, Ambrose Bierce and so many others.

I am, therefore, reaching out to you as so many have (admittedly quite unsuccessfully!) reached out to me.

I do hope you’ll consider my request that you be the one to write my husband’s sanctioned biography.

You are my first and only choice for this project.

I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Amanda Hyde


Damn. Chase wasn’t sure he could stand to immerse himself in the dusty debris of another novelist’s life for eighteen or twenty-four months. Not even one with as sensational and sexy a back-story as Everett Hyde’s.

The past several weeks had found Chase flirting with the notion of composing a biography of Sydney Reilly, the legendary 20th-century British Spy alleged to have inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

Reilly, it had emerged a few years ago, had in fact been a Russian Jew by birth, and Reilly’s audacious self-reinvention and eventual disappearance along the Bolshevik-patrolled Finish frontier, and the man’s still unknown fate, gripped Chase’s imagination. Reilly’s story resonated for Chase in sundry, idiosyncratic ways.

Some part of Chase also fancied the notion of potentially spending several months conducting research in Russia.

Chase might have ignored the email query regarding Everett Hyde, simply deleted it without a response, but for that Reply-to line: “Amanda Hyde,” the reclusive late-author’s equally reclusive wife. Late author? No, that wasn’t quite right, not really. Everett Hyde’s fate was as open to conjecture and sinister conspiracy theories as that of Reilly’s, in many ways.

Shivering, Chase pulled his robe closer, thinking it was time to finally turn on the heat. Or, better, he should hustle back to bed with Ashley. That’d warm him up, he thought.

He read Amanda Hyde’s message over twice more, decided to respond. Chase kept his note back neutral. He didn’t commit to anything, but expressed an interest in talking further with Mrs. Hyde. He asked for a phone number and a time when he might call to discuss her proposal.

He read his reply over three times and hit Send. Responding in this way didn’t lock him into anything. He thought it bought him some time to decide to go ahead with her offer or to find some tactful excuse to pass. A sanctioned Hyde biography was potentially somebody’s goldmine; maybe it should be his after all.

Chase then turned his attention to other emails, just getting the gist of what had come in overnight. He was inclined to get back in bed with Ashley, to nudge her awake if she hadn’t heard him rise.

The digitized woman’s voice from his computer’s speakers suddenly chirped: “Mail truck!” The voice startled Chase, nearly made him spill his coffee.

Smiling crookedly at his reaction to the email alert, Chase scrolled back to the top of his inbox and saw a “Failure Notification Notice.” He clicked on the notice to see which of his emails had bounced back to him.

It was the reply to Amanda Hyde, marked “Unable to Deliver: Permanent Fatal Error.”

Less than a minute had passed since Chase had sent the reply to Amanda Hyde’s biography query. He shook his head, went back to his Sent box and reopened his note to Amanda Hyde. Chase hit Send again.

Thirty seconds later, he received another delivery error notification: “Permanent Fatal Error.”

Frowning, Chase copied the text of his message back to Amanda Hyde and pasted it into a new-message template. He checked Amanda’s email address from her original note and this time keyed it in by hand, twice checking what he’d typed against Amanda Hyde’s original message.

Chase hit Send again, waited a few seconds, then tapped the Send/Receive button of his email client. That perky voice again called out, “Mail truck!” Another failure notice marked “Permanent Fatal Error” appeared. Damn it to hell.

Perplexed, Chase ran his fingers back through his sandy brown hair and stood, shaking his head and pulling his robe closer around him. What the hell? Well… maybe—maybe—it was an omen of some kind.

And anyway, he really didn’t want to write about another writer; he was quite sure about that now.

So Chase decided he’d take it as a fortunate thing his email replies to Amanda Hyde’s offer had repeatedly fouled-out for whatever reason.

Consider it some kind of half-ass good luck, he told himself.



Ashley rolled onto her back, heart still racing. She smiled at Chase, said, “I think we’re finally getting the hang of this.” She clasped his hand, raised it to her mouth and kissed its back.

He laughed, pulled the covers back up around them and said, “Pretty sure I can still count the number of times we’ve been together.”

Chase had rushed back to bed and Ashley after checking his email. If he’d been working on a book, he’d probably have stayed at his desk until lunchtime or thereabouts. But as it was a chilly November morning, he’d instead brushed his teeth to wash away the smell and taste of his morning’s coffee and then slid back into bed, spooning up against Ashley’s long, bare body and cupping her left breast in his hand. Within a few minutes, Chase’s soft squeezes and his erection had sleepy Ashley pushing her hips back against him.

Brushing tangled hair back from her forehead, Ashley said, “Time to turn up the thermostat, don’t you think? It’s icy in here now.”

“I’m almost comfortable,” he said. “Finally.”

“I’m freezing.” She reached to the nightstand and turned on her iPod for some background music.

Muttering, Chase slid out of bed, his knees cracking and feet cold on the hardwood floor. He crossed the loft and edged behind the sectional couch to flip the lever to heat. He turned the thermostat up to seventy. There was the immediate whir of the blower; the scent of dust charring in the long-languishing ducts soon permeated the loft.

Chase hesitated, glancing at his computer screen before returning to bed with Ashley.

He had five new email messages. They included a note from his agent, two pieces of spam that had gotten by his filters. Esquire was proposing an article.

And there was another email from Amanda Hyde.

The query line on this note was the same as the first, but there was a different email address this time. The first query, the one Chase couldn’t reply to, had been sent from a Yahoo address. This new email was written from a Hotmail account.

Chase opened the new email and read it over. The text was nearly verbatim to the first note. Chase opened his Sent file again, found his reply to Amanda Hyde and copied it. He returned to her Hotmail note, hit Reply, and pasted his answer into the message area and tapped Send.

Ashley called to him, “Coming back? And do I smell coffee? If I do, I want some.” He could hear the smile in her voice: “Just sayin’.”

“A minute,” he answered. Chase waited about fifteen seconds, then hit the Send/Receive button on his email and cursed softly as another error message returned to him. He opened it and read through the boilerplate text. The words “Permanent Fatal Error” again leapt out.

Cursing again, he put his computer to sleep.

Chase fetched a couple of mugs and filled them with coffee from the steaming pot. He poured a little cream and sugar into Ashley’s mug.

She struggled up as she saw him returning, propping pillows up behind her back and running her fingers through her long, auburn hair. She turned down the sound on her iPod. “You lose your way to the thermostat?” She wrinkled her nose as he handed her the mug. “This isn’t early-onset Alzheimer’s, is it?”

“You won’t think it’s funny when you’re spoon-feeding me,” Chase said, sliding in next to her as she lifted the sheet and comforter for him. “I’m not that old, you know.”

At twenty-three, the late forties probably did seem rather old to Ashley, Chase figured. Or he feared it might. She sometimes seemed so young. And her devotion to him scared him a little. Ashley struck him as almost too clingy, or so he sometimes thought—usually when she wasn’t around. “I got this strange email,” he said. “Someone suggesting a book about her dead, well, her probably dead, husband.”

Ashley sipped her coffee, said, “I thought you’d decided to write about the spy. I like that idea.” She sipped some more coffee and frowned. “Who’s the husband? And what do you mean, probably dead?”

“Another writer, as it happens,” he said. “Another novelist.”

Chase stroked Ashley’s cheek. He remembered she had graduated Wellesley with a degree in English literature. In the course of the past six months, she’d been enjoying increasing publication of her short stories in various literary journals. Her day-job was a copywriting gig for a P.R. company. Gambling she might know more about Hyde than he did, Chase said, “You’ve heard of Everett Hyde?”

“Had a professor who was mad about him,” Ashley said. “I mean really nuts about the guy. Professor Greenwood even wrote a critical analysis of Hyde’s works. All three of Hyde’s novels were assigned texts for my class. Hyde is, was, a little like Salinger or Pynchon. The mystery man, ooo, ahh!” Ashley shrugged and the sheet fell down around her waist. She tugged it back up to cover her breasts. “Personally? I always suspected it was a cynical marketing ploy on Hyde’s part. The wife’s as much a hermit as Hyde was, as I recall. She actually wrote you? That’s pretty amazing on its own.”

“She wrote twice, from two different email accounts,” Chase said. “Haven’t decided to do anything about her offer, but I didn’t want to just shut the door cold, you know? Hell, it could be a big book, done right. And with her cooperation? Well, it could be bigger still. But each of my responses came back with these delivery failure notifications.”

“On both email accounts?” Ashley shivered and pulled the comforter up over her breasts. She sipped more coffee, watching him over her cup’s rim.

“Both, yeah,” Chase said. “Strange, isn’t it? I even wrote a fresh note back and typed in her email address myself. Still no go. Same result.”

Ashley nodded. She sat her coffee mug on the side table and slid out of bed, forearms crossed over her breasts and hands rubbing below her shoulders as she padded naked on tiptoe to his floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. Like so many young women her age, Ashley was bare there. That excited Chase. She also had a tattoo of a butterfly at her bikini line, just above her right thigh, some Latin motto across the small of her back. Her tattoos? Chase tolerated those.

He looked again at her iPod set up there on the nightstand. Ashley had lately been leaving more of her stuff around his place, almost like she was gradually moving in with him. Not good. Then Chase looked at her again. Still… And that fine young body of hers?

Over her shoulder Ashley said, “You have any of his novels here? Hyde’s, I mean?”

“Maybe, though it’s been years, decades, since I looked at them, if I do.”

“If you’d only alphabetize your books.”

Chase had been in Ashley’s apartment just a couple of times. It was a small and depressing place, he thought, but probably the best she could afford in the city with some help from her not-rich parents. Oh, she’d made some attempts with the joint, made it as homey as it probably could be. Kept it neat. And even her rattiest paperbacks were organized by subject, genre and shelved by author’s last name.

The thing that has most struck Chase about Ashley’s place was the number of family photos littering her apartment, almost a comical number of them. An only child, nearly all of the photos were pictures of Ashley with her parents. She’d pressed him a couple times in recent weeks to pay a visit home with her. So far, he’d successfully deflected each of her attempts. He’d taken her requests as a sign she thought they were moving to the next level. Again, not good.  And, anyway, what could he possibly have to talk about with those people?

“Here we go,” she said, standing on one long leg, up high on her toes now, a long back and shapely ass. Her toned arm stretched to reach the book on a high shelf. She grabbed her right side briefly, mumbled, “God, must have pulled something at the gym.”

Still clutching her side with one hand, Ashley scurried back to bed and curled up against Chase, her feet already grown cold as she snuggled up with him. She kept her hand pressed to her side, over her butterfly.

Wincing at her cold toes poking against his calf, he said, “What’s with the book?” It was Hyde’s first novel, Steal Me a Dream.

Ashley smiled. “Hyde’s publisher. I figure it’s like a lot of the big authors, you know? A long and exclusive publishing relationship. Since the wife wrote you, and since she’s probably Hyde’s literary executrix, chances are Hyde’s present editor will be able to give you a phone number to reach the wife. I mean, if you decide you do want to pursue it.”

It was a good idea. He should have thought of it. Chase checked the book’s spine, scooped up his cell and dialed 411. He agreed to pay extra to have the operator dial the number for him and was passed through several desks before being connected to someone named Kathleen DeCarlo. Chase told Kathleen about the two email solicitations he’d received from Amanda Hyde.

Kathleen listened and then said, “I know your work, otherwise I’d accuse you of a sick joke or a scam, Mr. Alger.”

“Call me Chase. And what do you mean?”

“When did you receive these emails, Mr. Alger?”

“This morning.”

Chase looked at Ashley—the volume was up all the way on his phone and Chase could tell she could hear both sides of the conversation. Ashley’s tongue teased her top lip. Her warm, hazel eyes watched him.

A pause, then Kathleen said, “That’s impossible, Mr. Alger. Chase, rather.”

“Why is it impossible?”

“Because Amanda Hyde passed away two months ago. From cancer.”

“I didn’t know. Hadn’t heard. I’m very sorry to hear that.”

“Given it was Amanda Hyde, you wouldn’t really have expected to hear about it, would you, Chase?” Just a little acid there.

“No, I suppose not. But these notes were from Amanda Hyde,” Chase insisted. “Or at least they purported to be. Did you ever receive any emails from Amanda?”

“Several, but as she’s been deceased for nearly eight weeks, what dif—”

He pressed ahead: “Can you open your inbox and search for one of her old notes to you? I just want to see if the address I received my emails from matches yours.”

There was some hesitation, then the sound of keys tapping. Kathleen began reading the email address. Chase waited until she reached “at” and finished for her, “Yahoo.com, right?”

“That’s right,” Kathleen said. “You’re not saying—?”

“I am. That’s the exact email address my note was sent from,” Chase said, feeling gooseflesh on his arms and back. He saw Ashley shiver again. Hearing something strange in his voice, he said, “Did Amanda ever write you from a Hotmail account, Ms. DeCarlo?”

“Kathleen. And never. But that doesn’t mean Amanda might not have had one.” A pause. “I don’t understand any of this. It’s very strange.”

“Can you tell me who is representing the Hyde estate now, Kathleen? I seem to remember there being at least one child.”

“A daughter,” the woman said. “I’ll need to make a call before we proceed further. If we even are to proceed further.”

“I’ll give you my cell number,” Chase said, “and—”

“I have caller-ID,” Kathleen said. “I’ll be in touch. Or, I won’t. Good morning, Mr. Alger. I mean, Chase.”

Chase closed his phone.

Ashley said it for him. “Creepy.”


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