I picked up a pulp novel, the last of a dozen that I had rescued from a Cape Cod flea market last summer with my girlfriend Leah, back when she was still alive.
This was My Gun, Her Body by Jeff Bogar, published in 1952 and originally titled Dinah for Danger. Most pulp titles are bad—My Gun, Her Body is fantastically awful. If I ever write a book, I’ll come up with my own so-bad-it’s-good title, and I’ll even name each chapter after a forgotten pulp novel. My tribute to the golden age.
On the front cover, the tagline blared, “He prowled the halls of a Florida brothel!” Should be easy to catch him. How many halls can there be in a brothel? I took in the artwork. A lanky man, his face half in shadow, sports a trench coat the color of split-pea soup and holds a cigarette in his left hand while pulling something black out of his coat pocket with his right hand. He gazes over his shoulder at a heavy-lidded, heavily mascaraed blonde, also half in shadow, who leans against a doorframe while clutching the front of her pink robe in a half-hearted attempt to keep it cinched. Seductively draped over her bare left shoulder is—a dish towel? Has Trench Coat caught Heavy Lids in the middle of cathouse KP duty?
Most pulp plots are formulaically bad, swapping a brunette for the blonde and a dark alley for the brothel. Doesn’t matter to me if the stories are hokey. I don’t read anything to expand my empathy or to gain a deeper understanding of the multiverse.
I read to escape.
I flipped through the brittle, yellowed pages and sniffed deeply. I adore the smell of old paper—every book lover does—but there are traces of other scents in these pages, mementos left behind by the readers who came before me. Perfume. Cigarettes. Whiskey. Even when the scents aren’t really there, I still smell them.
I ran my fingertips over the cover, barely brushing the surface, tracing the cracked spine, feeling the nicks and folds and imperfections. This wasn’t always a beat-up book. Back in 1952, someone saw it in a newsstand or drugstore and dropped a quarter for a few hours of hedonism. The lurid cover was unblemished, the thin pages crisp, the thin story untold.
Who bought this copy? It’s fun to imagine. A post-war office worker on their lunch break? A teen who hid it from her parents? A sailor on leave in an unfamiliar port?
Whoever they were, they were a book lover like me. They read it by flashlight under a blanket, or on the bus ride home from their dead-end job, and then they passed it on to a friend, or left it in a diner for the next patron, or dropped it in a box and forgot about it. As the decades passed, this little book could have died any of a thousand deaths. Buried in a landfill. Chewed by mice. Burned in a fire. But it didn’t die. It survived and made its way to me.
These books give us stories, but they also have their own stories.
I opened the book and flipped to page one. Classic rock pounded from my headphones. The cheap window air conditioner groaned. The kids were asleep. A dopey Labrador retriever named Mungo was snoozing on my lap, pinning me to the too-short couch.
This wasn’t my house. They weren’t my kids. It wasn’t even my dog. But it was a typical Matilda Garrigan night—reading a hokey pulp novel, listening to awesome music, and talking to no one.
But ten pages in, my ringing phone turned my bliss into annoyance.
I peeked at the screen. It was Ray Yodice, the founder and head of Mitotic Press, the tiny publisher where I used to work. Nine weeks ago, I quit Mitotic after I was too late returning from a routine business trip to the other Earth to stop Leah from killing herself.
Ray called me every few days to woo me into coming back. I always let the messages go to voicemail. I wasn’t ready to go back. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever be ready. Besides, eleven at night was way too late for a Ray wooing. I tapped “Ignore” on the phone and got back to the book and the music.
For ten seconds.
My phone rang again. Yodice again. Ignore again.
If I can’t be wooed during business hours, I certainly can’t be wooed late at night. Manners,
Ray! But I started to feel a little uneasy. There was no reason for Ray to call me except to ask me to come back to work—and he knew that I was not coming back to work any time soon. Odd.
My phone rang for a third time.
“Come on, Ray,” I muttered as I prepared to hit Ignore again, “leave me alone.” But this time it wasn’t Ray. It was Steve McAllister, my best friend both in and out of Mitotic.
I sighed loudly at the snoring Mungo, pulled off my headphones, and answered. “Steve-o.”
“Mattie,” Steve said quickly, “are you home?”
“Nope, I’m at Tommy and Gretchen’s. I’m on aunt duty tonight. Why? Where are you?” “Mitotic. Did you see that Ray called?”
“And you didn’t answer?”
“Why would I? It’s always the same thing. Come back to work, Matilda. We need you. I’m not ready, Steve. Ray knows that.”
“Mattie, you should have answered. This isn’t about you coming back to work. Someone found out about the Room.”
“What do you mean, found out?”
“I mean found out found out.”
My stomach flip-flopped. “What happened?”
Steve sounded like he was panting. “Someone left a book. In the parking lot.”
“A book? Mitotic is a book publisher. There are books all over the place. That’s no emergency.”
“But this book, Mattie—it had a note in it. A very threatening note.”
“You’re not making any sense, Steve.”
“Just get here. You need to see this.”
“I can’t leave the twins alone. Plus, whatever is happening, it’s not my problem.” “Mattie, this thing—at least hear what happened. So, a few hours ago—crap, hold on, someone’s knocking at my office door.”
I gave Mungo a few pats with a shaking hand while I waited for Steve to return. This had to be some kind of mix-up. A book and a note? Pretty stupid way to start a mystery. Plus no one could have found about the Room. Mitotic Press was nothing if not an excellent secret-keeper.
Steve was back. “That was Ray. We’re all going to look at the footage again to see if we missed anything.”
“Footage? Of a book?”
He groaned. “I don’t have time to get into it. Look, I’ll tell Ray you’re not coming in tonight. But you better come in first thing in the morning. Things could get real bad, real soon.” He hung up.
Mitotic Press had kept the Room a secret for decades. Both Ray Yodices were convinced that civilization would crumble if either Earth learned Mitotic’s big secret: our two offices, on two almost-parallel worlds, were connected by a portal in a basement conference room, allowing us to travel to the other Earth as easily as walking from one room to another. Which, by the way, is literally how we did it.
The portals were the key to Mitotic’s deceptively simple business model: they took published novels from one Earth and published them as their own on the other. Mitotic Press is, literally, a company of thieves. And I had been one of those thieves—until I quit after Leah killed herself. That’s when I stopped caring about things like parallel Earths and portals. And I was the better for it.
I grumbled at Mungo, who kept snoring, then I texted Ray and Steve and told them I’d come in tomorrow morning—if Ray still needed me. Most likely he’d have solved this little mystery by then, and I could stay quit. A book in a parking lot? It had to be nothing.
I shut off my phone. I didn’t feel like dealing with Mitotic anymore tonight. I put my headphones back on to drown out my soliloquy and tried to get back to reading My Gun, Her Body. After all, Dinah was in danger! But I couldn’t concentrate.
Leah. Nine weeks dead, and she was still keeping me from living.