Excerpt: The Great Pretender




“Perception is reality, that’s how the saying goes, isn’t it, Hec?”
Hector Lassiter, novelist, screenwriter, and for the moment, literary executor, looked down at all the chilly pedestrians scurrying through the autumn wind tearing along Fifth Avenue. The fierce wind made eyes water and noses run down there. Up here the wind cut to bone. He called above its roar, “That’s indeed what some say, Mathis.” Hector lit a cigarette with his windproof Zippo, engraved with the legend, “One True Sentence.” He slipped the lighter into the  pocket of his overcoat.
Standing on the eighty-sixth floor of the world’s tallest and most famous building, Hector pulled on his right glove and took another hit from the coffin nail as he stared up at the dirigible mooring mast—a pointless novelty—looming higher above them.
Hector wasn’t crazy about heights and the view up made his legs tremble. Taking a deep, icy breadth, he looked back down the side of the Empire State and said, “Suppose as clichés go, that one is true enough. Least so far as it runs. Take those people down there. They only look like ants, you know.”

They were supposed to be having this meeting over coffee in a cozy place downstairs. But Hector had talked his companion into coming up here in the wicked wind where only fools, would-be suicides or stubborn tourists would venture on a blustery, late autumn day. Hector had his reasons.
Peter Mathis, rising New York publisher, smiled and said, “Sure. Anyway, this is a remarkable turn to say the least. Imagine, the popular and mysterious mystery writer, Connor Templeton, and the cult crime author, Bud Grant, being one-in-the-same. But, no, that’s not enough! Both of those male writers were actually the pen name for a raven-haired stunner named Brinke Devlin! My publicity people are going to go berserk in the best sense with this, Hec. It transcends the merely remarkable. And it’s surely money in the bank. Having seen some snapshots of
Brinke, this wife of yours who wrote like a tough, lusty he-man and yet looked like a far prettier, bustier Louise Brooks? All I can say is, this will be huge.”

“Money isn’t the point, not for me,” Hector said. “And certainly not for her. Publication, long-term, hell, permanent publication, is the aim. This is about her legacy. This is about Brinke’s long game. Literary immortality is the objective.” “Well, of course,” Mathis said. “That’s one of the things you pay me for, isn’t it?”
Hector nodded. “Just making sure we’re clear on my primary goal in signing with you to at last publish all of her books under Brinke’s real name.” It was a Hail Mary gambit on Hector’s part. His first wife’s literary oeuvre under both her pen names had lately gone out of print. Hector simply couldn’t stomach that. Brinke could never slip into literary obscurity, not so long as Hector lived.
The two men shook gloved hands. Mathis said, “To my last comment, I’m in danger of being late for a meeting about some of Thomas Wolfe’s posthumous works. We’re in negotiations about trying to do something more significant with O Lost. I still can’t believe he’s dead. And gone so young. Did you ever meet Tom?”

The North Carolina novelist and Ernest Hemingway’s bête noire had died last month. Tom’s was a sudden and bad death, like Brinke’s, only of natural causes. Hector let go of the man’s hand. “Crossed paths two or three times, I suppose. Seemed a nice enough fella in the moment. A decent, if undisciplined, fiction writer. He drove Hem to distraction, I know. Anyway, thirty-seven is far too young to be dead, regardless of what you did or how well you maybe did it.”
“Indeed. Well, at least Tom didn’t have to suffer too long. There’s real comfort in that, yes?”
“Sure there is.”
They said their goodbyes. Hector watched the publisher go, then checked his watch. His next appointment was characteristically late. He turned up the collar of his overcoat and thrust his hands deeper into its pockets, looking out across the city but also watching the other lone man standing a bit off to Hector’s left, the author’s presumed stalker—his reason for dragging the publisher and the actor yet to come up here in
the roaring, cold wind.
But there’d be time for that later, if indeed the man was really following the writer. For now, for better or worse, Hector’s head was elsewhere. Dead at thirty-seven? Jesus Christ, didn’t that resonate? Come January, Hector would be thirty-nine. Brinke would have been, what? Forty-three, forty-four? Something like that. Hector damned himself for not being certain. Either way, his first and truest love had never seen 1926.

That voice—it rose above the roar of the wind. “Hector, old man! Don’t you look well?” It was l’enfant terrible himself, George Orson Welles, twenty-three, red-cheeked and already the toast of the Great White Way and the radio airwaves. Orson, still tragically baby-faced, was sporting the sparse shadow of a beard he was growing for a stage role. Hector had first met the dramatic prodigy in Ireland, when Orson was indeed a boy actor. Back then, Orson regarded Hector as a kind of worldlier older brother. Eventually, after a brief return to the States, the two had shared an idyll across Spain, followed the bullfighting circuit together. That fraternal dynamic defined their friendship in its early going.
Now, despite their age difference—one of fifteen years, give or take—they comported themselves more or less as peers.
Hector supposed that owed chiefly to his young friend’s precocious but universally acknowledged—if untamed—genius. As he had the last time they’d met, Orson looked to be firing on pure adrenaline, caffeine and nervous energy. Maybe something else, too: Hector was betting on Benzedrine or perhaps amphetamines to kick-start the boy-giant’s metabolism.
Even as a kid, Orson was fighting his waistline. Eyes already tearing-up, Orson cast his watery gaze down at the sidewalk far below. “The call of the void, yes? Did you hear about Dorothy Hale, old man?” Orson’s voice was already growing breathy, the cold wind aggravating his asthma.
Hector shook his head. “What’s a Dorothy Hale?” “What was, you mean. Or who was she, rather.” Orson smiled sadly. “Socialite and struggling actress. Pretty, but lacking talent. She threw a big farewell party for herself in her penthouse in the Hampshire House on Central Park South.
Then she hurled herself off her terrace. It was only a few days ago. It was in all the papers. Suicide, though some say murder.

Would they really dig for a bullet after a fall like that some have wondered. Anyway, I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”
“Been on the road mostly these past few days,” Hector said. “Haven’t been keeping up with the news. Just grown more than tired of all the war drums, you know?”
“Understood, and anyway we haven’t much time, old friend,” Orson said. “We need to take our meal and then for you to tell me what was so pressing for us to have to meet—delighted though I am for any excuse to spend time with you. Then I need to get to my place with all haste. You can sit in tonight, if you’d like to, and listen to the probably vexing wax disc coming my way later. I’d frankly love it if you did. I’d be very grateful for your reaction. They’re rehearsing and recording our next Mercury production tonight. It’s a corker, at least in theory. My spin on H.G.—that other Wells, though he spelled his last name the wrong way—and The War of the Worlds. We’re giving it the new broom treatment. Projecting it all through the prism of our modern mass media. Basically, in the early going anyway, it will play as a developing radio news
story. We have a fake orchestra, fake news breaks. Hell, even a fake F.D.R., more or less.”
“Can hardly wait,” Hector said. “But about us meeting now, I’m confused. You telegraphed me for this meeting, don’t you remember?”
“I did no such thing, old man. You sent for me.” Orson frowned. “Urgent was a word used at least three times in various forms in your telegram, you’ll recall.”
“I don’t recall that and I could say the same of your wire to me,” Hector said. A new chill that had nothing to do with the autumn cold made him shiver.
“This is very strange,” Orson said. “Clearly, we do need to talk more.” Orson smiled uncertainly and pulled the brim of his hat lower against the gales. Of the same, he said, “This wind… Still, not as bad as last month’s, I suppose. The remnants of that hurricane killed over five-dozen in the city and injured hundreds here. Whatever the reason for us being here together now, is there some good reason we’re at the top of this absurd building, in this ridiculous cold, old friend?”

“Maybe, and it could be tied to this other little mystery about our respective wire communications,” Hector said. “My previous meeting was here, but I was also testing a theory. We can surely go inside now. Know of any restaurants close-by and with a fireplace?”
Orson smiled and took Hector’s arm. “We’ll find such a place. It’s colder than a witch’s you-know-what up here. Maybe Billingsley’s Club Room, or Dickie Wells, in Harlem, we might find some delectably dusky female companionship.”
Orson smiled and impulsively tousled the hair of an eavesdropping, equally red-cheeked boy. The child frowned, then looked like he might cry. His pretty young mother glared at Orson. For his part, Welles held up gray-gloved hands to show them both empty. He said in his most sonorous tone, “Now, watch out for the slightest hint of hanky-panky, good sir.”
With raised eyebrows, Orson reached behind the boy’s ear and produced a quarter that he folded into the tyke’s trembling hands.
All seemed to be forgiven. Smiling and shaking his head, Hector said, “Always with the magic.”
Orson winked at the boy’s comely mother and said, “Always. Of course.” An at once cherubic and satanic smile spread across the actor’s face. He said, “I am, after all, a charlatan.”