Chapter 1: The Oralia
I’d been trying to get ahold of my agent for months. I was beginning to think she was dead. Then she called, at dawn, sounding like she’d run up a flight of stairs. “Noelle, drop whatever you’ve got going on tonight.”
Box wine and ramen, done.
“A publisher wants to meet with you at the Oralia Hotel. It’s super swanky and upscale. So doll yourself up.”
I hung up and spent more time putting my pitch together than my outfit. I got ready at the eleventh hour, ruined a zipper in my panic, and did my makeup in a series of swift strokes right before my Uber pulled up.
I scooted into the middle seat nervously adjusting my necklace in the mirror. It was a bib of emerald laurels mom had given me for just such an occasion. I have no idea how much it set her back, but it was priceless on waitress’s salary. And…I had it on backward. I unlatched the bib, flipped it around, and struggled to get it back on.
“You know what you look like with your good bag and cheap shoes?” I muttered in my best Hannibal Lecter voice. “You look like a rube.”
“What was that?” My driver squinted through the mirror.
“I was just wondering if you could go a little faster.”
The Oralia was hard to pick out of the skyline. Its bricks were so black it blended into the storm, but there was no missing the hotel when facing it dead on. Spotlights shot up the columns, like something off the poster for a silent film. The entrance was made of dark marble tiles separated by a grid of gold. A golden maze-like pattern ran up the side of the building. The balconies started on the third story.
I walked inside and a bellhop stepped forward. “Welcome to the Oralia. May I take your things?”
I handed him my umbrella and kept my briefcase to myself.
I strode past chandeliers that looked like pipe organs, gorgeous gargoyles, and a giant clock that assured me I didn’t have time to appreciate the art deco architecture.
It felt like I was rushing through the set of a Busby Berkeley film. Big buxom sculptures grazed my case, water fountains sprayed my forearms, and ballroom music beckoned me in.
The archway between the lobby and the check-in counter featured a gilded recreation of the entrance: a skyscraper lit from the bottom up. Behind the front desk was a smaller version of the same thing.
From the stained glass stars to the bright red carpeting, the lobby screamed Golden Age Hollywood. Even the name Oralia meant golden. I felt certain that this was one of the last bastions of elegance and class from an era when there was still tinsel in tinsel town.
I scanned the plaque on the counter to confirm my suspicions.
And… The hotel was founded in 2008.
The concierge didn’t notice me. She was face deep in a paperback. I leaned over to see what it was. I couldn’t catch the title, but I caught the hunk of beefcake on the cover.
At this stage of my career in publishing I was in the retail sector, working at an establishment whose name rhymes with Yarns and Global. The hardest part of my job was when I had to tear the covers off of the romance novels that weren’t selling. The publishers didn’t want them. They just needed to know we weren’t giving them away, so they had us send back the remains. I felt bad for the male models on the covers, all their bench presses gone to waste. I felt worse for the women on the back, smiling with their eyes so full of hope, yearning to be loved.
I daydreamed writing romance under a penname, giving single women the bearded billionaire bondage experience of their dreams. I’d like to say it was artistic pride that kept me from doing it, but really, it was fear of not being able to pull it off. Romance wasn’t my area of expertise.
The concierge felt my eyes on her. She buried her guy-candy in a drawer, folded her spectacles, and stood up.
“May I help you?”
I gave her a nervous smile. “I’m here to see Matilda MacDonald.”
The concierge pointed to a vampish figure on a couch in the corner.
Matilda wore a black pants suit that was all pleats and leather, with no undershirt. The Pradas she’d kicked up on the footrest were patent leather with heels that went on forever. She wore her jet-black hair in a pixie cut. Topping off her look was an armored ring that ran the length of her index finger.
Matilda swiped at a phone in an embroidered leather case. In her clutches, it looked like a forbidden text filled with spells for calling up the dead.
I extended my hand. “Matilda MacDonald?”
Matilda extended the hand with the armored ring. “Noelle Blackwood. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
I held my briefcase to my chest. “The pleasure is mine. Publishers never reach out to mid-listers. Who do I have to thank for floating my name in your direction?”
Matilda smirked and took her seat. She reached into her bag and slid a book across the table. “I trust you’ve heard of Barkley Carver.”
Barkley Carver, his name always made me think of trees, especially since there were evergreens on the covers of all of his books, including this one Out on a Limb.
Cover artists used tree lines as visual shorthand for shallow graves, which fit since all of Barkley’s stories started with hikers discovering a body. Barkley filled his fictitious funeral plots with the segment of the populace that made up his audience: upper-class white women; the same ones the media turned into saints whenever they went missing, say while jogging through the woods. This is why the mystery section of every bookstore looks like a forest mural.
Barkley took this theme a step further by working it into each of his titles: Fruit from the Poison Tree, Shake Like a Leaf, and A Tree Falls Silent.
I flipped the book over to find the same portrait Barkley Carver had used for the last twenty years. The author stood proud in his bomber jacket, full flight suit, and helmet. He leaned on the nose of a fighter jet and looked to the sky in big aviator shades.
Matilda signaled to the bellhop. He set a storage bin on the table, and flipped it open.
I peered inside. “What’s that for?”
Matilda nodded at my luggage. “Your briefcase, your coat, your phone, and a smart watch if you have one.”
I tapped my luggage. “What about my manuscript?”
Matilda drew a piece of paper from beneath the table. “Think of this meeting as less of an acquisition and more of a commission. Go ahead put it in.”
“Then I suppose you’ll want my Wi-Fi glass eye and fiber optic hair extensions?”
Matilda rolled her eyes. “Would you be so kind?”
Joking aside, Matilda wasn’t going to pass anything my way until I gave up my phone, so I did, and the bellhop left with the bin.
Matilda slid the piece of paper across the table. It wasn’t an offer. It was a nondisclosure agreement. I skimmed far enough to get to the part where I realized Matilda’s proposition wouldn’t start until I’d signed.
I drew a squiggle and slid the agreement back. “Why all the secrecy?”
Matilda swapped the agreement for a manila folder. “This offer is for you alone. Barkley and I, we’re not like other publishers. We don’t take submissions. We seek out talent and your name, Noelle, has come up several times. Your screenplay for The Identity Thieves just made the blacklist. Script readers gave it their highest marks, but do you know why it will never get made into a film?”
I shrugged. “Because it doesn’t have the words ‘fast’ or ‘furious’ in the title?”
Matilda nodded. “Because it can’t be retooled to fit an existing franchise, yes, just like your first manuscript couldn’t be softened into teen lit, and your last one couldn’t be sold as fantasy or horror. Your work defies traditional branding. Now that’s where we come in.”
I shook my head. “What is it with the royal we? I thought you only published Carver’s titles.”
“Oh we do, but we publish 5 Carver titles a year. We’d like to ratchet that number up to 15.”
“Those are James Patterson numbers.” I slouched into the sofa with an underwhelmed sigh. This was all starting to make sense. “You want me to ghostwrite for Carver. You know, serial killer thrillers aren’t really my forte.”
Matilda leaned forward and tented her fingers. “Barkley chose you because he wants to explore a new direction.”
I cocked my head. “He’s read my work?”
Matilda pushed her armored ring back and forth. “You know that paranormal investigations podcast you’re on?”
Ohhh. “So he’s heard my work.”
“We’ve listened to all nineteen episodes.”
“Then you know I’m just the token skeptic, there to make the show seem balanced.”
“Maybe that’s why they hired you, but you’re the star of the show. Every week you break down all of their supernatural pseudo science into simple psychology.”
Turning a screw into my skull, I quoted myself. “Stimulate the anterior insula and you too can see a ghost.”
“Of course. We’re hardwired to see faces everywhere.”
Matilda raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“I’ve seen them in wallpaper, marble tiles, even a chain length fence when the light hit it just right.”
Matilda cocked her head. “And you never flinched?”
I shrugged. “Our ancestors had to spot predators in an instant. So sometimes we see face where there are none, the Virgin Mary on toast or a cloud shaped like Donald Trump. It’s just a glitch in evolution.”
Matilda nodded recognizing this talking point from the podcast. “People don’t hallucinate that much, do they?”
I nodded. “Oh yeah. No need for drugs or schizophrenia. With enough anxiety people will see all sorts of things.”
Matilda leaned forward. “Are you speaking from experience?”
“About anxiety or hallucinations?”
Matilda tilted her head back and forth.
“On the podcast, when I said part of my writing ritual involved speaking to my characters like they were actually there-“
Matilda perked up. “Walk ins you called them; imagined figures that felt like they were literally in the room.”
“I was being hyperbolic to prove my point.”
Matilda feigned a smile. “Still, you’re clearly qualified for this, so much so that Carver is eager to lend you his name.”
I looked down at my boots, still wet from the walk. “Yeah, but isn’t that cheating?”
“It’s collaborating. He’s the architect. You’re the engineer. He draws the blueprints. You build the house.”
“And how extensive are Carver’s blueprints?”
Matilda tapped the manila folder with her pen. “He’s written a ten-page synopsis.”
“So it’s a sketch on a bar napkin?”
Matilda shrugged. “It’s bare bones, but think of how much freedom that’ll give you.”
I waved my hands in the air. “Yeah, but it’s Carver’s name on the building. How does that help my career?”
Matilda leaned forward. “Right now, your name, with your following in the paranormal community, might get you into a local bookstore. Carver’s name will get you that prime checkout counter space at a national grocery chain.”
“Were you a real estate agent prior to your career as a publisher?”
“I’ve been many things.” Matilda smiled and passed the manila envelope across the table. “This one little book will earn you royalties for the rest of your life. It’ll buy you time to get your own magnum opus in print.”
I shuddered. “I could always put it out myself.”
Matilda pursed her lips, feigning optimistic approval.
“It’s true, as a group, self-publishers are taking bigger bites out of the e-book pie, but as individuals most of you are starving. Anonymous reviews don’t have the sway of syndicated columns, podcasts don’t have NPR’s listeners, and trendsetters don’t have the influence of traditional publishers. Go ahead and throw your book at the wall, see if it sticks, but when readers have so many options they prefer established brands.”
I unbuttoned the top button of my blouse and let out a low sigh. “How does this bestseller factory of yours work?”
Matilda raised her eyebrow, knowing she had me.
“You’ll stay here, in the Oralia, until you’ve finished a draft. We’ll comp the room, the pay-per-view,” she tilted her head back and forth, “and room service within reason.”
I looked toward the concierge. “Why put me up here? Doesn’t Carver trust anyone to keep his secret?”
Matilda bit her lip to conceal her smile. “It’s something new we’re trying. Think of yourself as an artist in residence. The Oralia isn’t old, but it was built by people who remember when this town was filled with magic. Soak it in.”
I scanned the lobby of the creepy hotel that was to be my home.
“This is starting to sound a lot like a Stephen King story, one that didn’t end well for the author in it. Is there any kind of advance?”
Matilda produced an attaché case and took her time entering the combination.
The locks clicked open and she slid the case across the table. It was lined with stacks of cash. They were twenties, but more money than I’d ever seen.
Matilda slammed the case shut. “This will be in a safe behind the counter. Send us a draft in one month and management will be authorized to hand it over.”
“It’s how Carver wants it done. It’s in the contract. Think of it as a writing marathon.”
I reflected on my first semiautobiographical novel. I labored on it in my twenties, sold it for pennies, and watched it barely make back the advance.
I looked back at the cash. “All that for one month’s work?”
“When can I check in?”
Matilda slid another document across the table. “Right after you sign on the dotted line.”
Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.
Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.
Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.
Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?