Me tanner, you jane, p.24
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       Me Tanner, You Jane, p.24

         Part #7 of Evan Tanner series by Lawrence Block
 
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Page 24

 

  “Capital,” he said finally. “Those terrorists were a threat, you know. To the stability of the present regime. So you might say that you’ve helped keep the Modonoland government in business. ”

  “Er,” I said.

  “And Lord knows,” he said, refilling our glasses, “that they need all the help they can get. As a matter of fact they may be a lost cause. There’s been a heavy run of arms into the country in the last week or so. The liberal opposition is looking stronger than ever. A new influx of funds, it seems. From Moscow or Peking, you would think, but our so-called experts admit they don’t know the source. ”

  I did, though.

  Oh.

  I almost forgot.

  Back in the cemetery, with me standing there like a dead tree and Knanda Ndoro ready to chop me down. With the shovel whistling through the air at me.

  I ducked. Just barely, and with no room to spare, but this was one of those instances in which a miss and a mile are of equal value. The Glorious Retriever missed, and I guess he hadn’t expected to miss – humility, as he himself had attested, was not his long suit. Anyway, his momentum sent him stumbling, and perhaps the opium in his system had an effect and perhaps it didn’t, but in any case he took a series of shuffling steps and wound up in the grave.

  The shovel landed on top of him.

  More precisely, the business end of the shovel conked him on the top of the head. I don’t know if he was unconscious when he fell into the pit or no, but he was certainly out colder than a refrigerator-freezer after the shovel got him.

  We couldn’t wake him up. Plum didn’t see why we ought to, and I could see her point, but oddly enough I couldn’t work up much of a hate for the Retriever. He had saved our lives, whether or not he had intended to do so permanently. I couldn’t completely shirk a feeling of obligation to him. And, on a more pragmatic level, his presence in Modonoland could only be awkward.

  So what I wanted to do was get him out of the grave and onto his feet and away from there.

  None of which I managed. He simply wouldn’t wake up. I called his name and slapped his face and did everything I could think of. Nothing had any discernible effect whatsoever. He was out and he stayed out.

  And it was getting light.

  I tried lifting him, and that didn’t work either. He was too big and too heavy and too limp to budge. So I lifted the strongbox instead, which was easier, and Plum and I got out of the cemetery and carried the loot and the shotgun and the flashlight and the shovel back to the Penner house.

  I bought smelling salts at a chemist’s shop, and we went back to the cemetery around ten in the morning. But we couldn’t get close to the grave, because somebody was already there.

  The gravediggers. The three drunken gravediggers, passing a pint bottle back and forth, and laughing inanely, and staggering. And filling in that empty grave all the way to the top.

  When they left, finally, arms linked and voices raised in song, I walked over to the grave. In the daylight I could read the little headstone. Gerhard Herdig, it said, and the year he was born and the year he died. I subtracted the one from the other and established that Herdig had lived to be eighty-two, which was more than the years of Bowman and the Retriever added together.

  “May he rest in peace,” Plum said. “Can we go now, Evan?”

  I couldn’t write on Gerhard Herdig’s stone. But I knew what the Retriever would want, because he had come right out and told me. I stood at his graveside and bowed my head and spoke Robert Louis Stevenson’s epitaph into the still morning air.

  Under a wide and starry sky,

  Dig my grave and let me lie.

  Glad did I live and gladly die,

  And I laid me down with a will.

  This be the verse you grave for me:

  Here he lies where he longed to be;

  Home is the sailor, home from sea,

  And the hunter home from the hill.

  Plum said it was pretty Bugs Bunny. I told her she meant Mickey Mouse, and I told her I knew it was, and I told her to shut up.

  Afterword

  Evan Michael Tanner was conceived in the summer of 1956, in New York ’s Washington Square Park. But his gestation period ran to a decade.

  That summer was my first stay in New York, and what a wonder it was. After a year at Antioch College, I was spending three months in the mailroom at Pines Publications, as part of the school’s work-study program. I shared an apartment on Barrow Street with a couple of other students, and I spent all my time – except for the forty weekly hours my job claimed – hanging out in the Village. Every Sunday afternoon I went to Washington Square, where a couple of hundred people gathered to sing folk songs around the fountain. I spent evenings in coffeehouses, or at somebody’s apartment.

  What an astonishing variety of people I met! Back home in Buffalo, people had run the gamut from A to B. (The ones I knew, that is. Buffalo, I found out later, was a pretty rich human landscape, but I didn’t have a clue at the time. )

  But in the Village I met socialists and monarchists and Welsh nationalists and Catholic anarchists and, oh, no end of exotics. I met people who worked and people who found other ways of making a living, some of them legal. And I soaked all this up for three months and went back to school, and a year later I started selling stories and dropped out of college to take a job at a literary agency. Then I went back to school and then I dropped out again, and ever since I’ve been writing books, which is to say I’ve found a legal way of making a living without working.

  Where’s Tanner in all this?

  Hovering, I suspect, somewhere on the edge of thought. And then in 1962, I was back in Buffalo with a wife and a daughter and another daughter on the way, and two facts, apparently unrelated, came to my attention, one right after the other.

  Fact One: It is apparently possible for certain rare individuals to live without sleep.

  Fact Two: Two hundred fifty years after the death of Queen Anne, the last reigning monarch of the House of Stuart, there was still (in the unlikely person of a German princeling) a Stuart pretender to the English throne.

  I picked up the first fact in an article on sleep in Time Magazine, the second while browsing the Encyclopedia Britannica. They seemed to go together, and I found myself thinking of a character whose sleep center had been destroyed, and who consequently had an extra eight hours in the day to contend with. What would he do with the extra time? Well, he could learn languages. And what passion would drive him? Why, he’d be plotting and scheming to oust Betty Battenberg, the Hanoverian usurper, and restore the Stuarts to their rightful place on the throne of England.

  I put the idea on the back burner, and then I must have unplugged the stove, because it was a couple more years before Tanner was ready to be born. By then a Stuart restoration was just one of his disparate passions. He was to be a champion of lost causes and irredentist movements, and I was to write eight books about him.

  The first six Tanner novels, from The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep through Tanner’s Virgin (nee Here Comes a Hero) were published as mass-market paperback originals by Fawcett Gold Medal. While they were being written and published, I was also publishing hardcover fiction with Macmillan, starting with Deadly Honeymoon in 1967. And, when I was ready to write a seventh book about Tanner, I offered it to Macmillan.

  Nowadays, almost anyone would assume that the move from paperback original to hardcover was a Big Step Up. And nowadays it generally is. But things were different then, and the most significant reason for Macmillan’s publication of Deadly Honeymoon was that Gold Medal had already turned it down.

  Consider the numbers. Gold Medal paid an advance representing a royalty on the total number of copies printed, and generally amounting to somewhere between $2500 and $3000. (If they went back for a second printing, they paid a similar advance for all copies printed. This, sad to say, never happened with any of the Tanner books. )

  Macmillan’s
advance was $1000, against royalties on copies sold, and in return they took 50% of any paperback earnings the book might generate.

  Now there were compensations. Macmillan always took me out to lunch. And hardcover books were much more likely to get reviewed, for whatever that’s worth. (Not much, I suspect. ) And, finally, there was something far more prestigious about hardcover publication. A hardcover book with one’s name on it – and perhaps one’s photograph on the flap, or even the back cover – looked good on the shelf, and made one’s mother proud. It was evidence that one had arrived, even though it might in fact owe its existence to one’s having been first rejected by a paperback house.

  Me Tanner, You Jane hadn’t been rejected by Gold Medal. They seemed perfectly willing to go on publishing Tanner’s adventures. The books weren’t selling terribly well – as I said, none of the six ever managed to get into a second printing – nor did sales seem to be increasing from one book to the next.

  For my own part, I was getting tired of the books – although I’m not sure I was aware of it at the time. For all that the settings changed from book to book, the characters and situations seemed to me to be repetitive. And, annoyingly enough, Tanner wasn’t making me rich or famous, and for all that Fawcett was selling upwards of a hundred thousand copies of each title, I never had the sense that anyone out there was actually reading the books, or paying any attention to them.

  So my agent and I put our heads together, and one of us – I forget which one – thought perhaps it was time to move Tanner to hard covers, and the other figured it was worth a try. By this time I had an idea and a title, and my agent arranged for me to meet with my editor at Macmillan and pitch it.

  My first editor at Macmillan was a woman named Mary Heathcote. She bought and edited Deadly Honeymoon and After the First Death, and moved on before the latter book was published. Her replacement was Alan Rinzler – “I am the new Mary Heathcote,” his note to me began – and it was to him that I would propose Me Tanner, You Jane.

  We’d met before, of course, and had had lunch once or twice. He didn’t drink, didn’t drink at all, which I found quite remarkable. I thought everyone in publishing drank. I thought it was part of the job description.

  Still, he was a bright and personable fellow, and his status as a nondrinker meant there was no great danger in meeting with him in the middle of the afternoon. (CBL read the notation on a good many cards in the Rolodex of one agent I knew; Call Before Lunch was what it stood for. )

  So I went in and sat across the desk from him, and started talking about this book I planned to write, furnishing him while I was at it with some background on the series, and it didn’t seem to be going too well. He looked, dare I say it, hungover.

  And his eyes did look to be glazing over, which I’ve never found to be a good sign. So I talked a little faster, and fabricated some plot elements, and just kept talking, talking, talking, until the poor man held up a hand.

  “Stop for a minute,” he said. “See, I had some really dynamite hash last night, and I’m not tracking all that well today. But I can see you’ve got a well-thought-out story here, and it sounds good to me, so I’ll put through a contract. ”

  So then all I had to do was write the thing.

 
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