A short story for the London Book Fair by Barbara Zitwer
"I didn't kill Donald Plump. It wasn't me! Why don't you believe me?" My voice cracked.
"Miss Zitwer, his blood is on your jacket. Exhibit A."
The handsome detective, a dead ringer for Idris Elba, held the ruined white Prada that I had bought at Century 21 on sale; the one I was planning on wearing to the big event the next night.
"I told you a million times already. I found him in the bathroom of the Ivy! I tried to see if he was still alive."
" Why didn't you call the police?"
"The electricity was turned off."
"You expect me to believe that? "
"Have you ever worked at the London Book Fair before? Ask anyone!"
"Well, someone killed Donald Plump, the most famous literary agent in the world, and all the evidence points to you. Miss Zitwer, you are the only one that was locked in this building all night until this morning. What were you doing here, alone, so late? Why were you locked in? We found the bloody knife in your locker. Exhibit B."
I looked at the handsome detective through my tear-stained eyes, and started weeping some more. He handed me a tissue.
"Detective Luther, I was working so hard that I didn't realise what time it was. I had 75 meetings just yesterday. Some triple booked! I have to do six months' work in three days selling Himalayan books for God's sake! Who sells Himalayan books? You think it's easy! You'd lose your mind, too! " My voice cracked again.
"I never heard of Himalayan books."
"Exactly! But, the most brilliant literature in the world."
"Does anyone buy them?"
"Not yet, but I'm working on it. Himlayan books will be as popular as Swedish crime. One of my authors is short-listed for the Booker Prize - Yama Yama's The Woman Who Stopped Eating Meat. Can you imagine? So what that it took me 12 years to sell it; now she could be the first Himalayan in the history of publishing to win! They're announcing it tomorrow and that could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, in book sales. Maybe we'll get a movie deal, too!"
"Even I know the Booker Prize."
"And the party is at Kensington Palace. I am invited. Me, little nobody, me, with Camilla and Prince Charles! Me, a small independent agent from a town nobody ever heard of."
"New York City? That's what your passport reads. Why don't you start telling me the truth?"
"I grew up in Lake Ronkonkomo. Ever heard of that?"
"Can't say I have. But you're changing the subject. How did you get locked in here last night? Let's start with that."
"I told you already 10 times."
"Tell me again."
"I had finally looked up from my table. It was such a mess, overflowing with catalogues, books, empty coffee cups, candy wrappers, and water bottles. I had gotten lost in writing all my follow-up until I looked around and realised I was alone. I grabbed my mobile for the time; it had been plugged in, but it hadn't gotten powered. And my laptop was dead too. The electricity had been turned off. I got up and stretched my legs and then reached to the floor in a downward-facing dog. Suddenly my whole body ached. I assumed a plank and breathed hard, bent my arms into chaturanga, and then moved into cobra, stretching my lower back. I started doing yoga last year. It's such a life saver."
"I do yoga. Good stuff," Luther replied.
"I'm still afraid to stand on my head, but I'm getting there."
"Back to what happened, Miss Zitwer."
"Well, I was so relieved that day one was over. Only 200 more meetings to go. I cleaned up, packed my laptop, grabbed my coat, and walked to the front elevator. Only then did I look out the windows: it was pitch dark. I pushed the elevator down button; it didn't light up. So I walked across the empty floor to the staircase. The doors were locked shut, too. Then Nature called. It screamed. Desperate for a bathroom, I ran around the perimeter of the third floor, but every bathroom was locked. My legs had automatically squeezed together. I was hopping like a kangaroo."
"It was so not funny!"
"Finally, I saw a low light - like a beacon in the middle of a storm. It was coming from the pop-up Ivy, where I could never afford a membership, but I bolted towards it. The harsh light of the bathroom hurt my red, tired eyes. I squeezed them shut and did my business. Relieved, exhausted, and wondering how the hell I would get out of the building, I stared at myself in the mirror. My carefully blown-out hair was a mess; my eye make-up had run down my face. I looked like a ghoul. I splashed with cold water, and that's when I noticed a pair of legs lying on the floor. They looked like they belonged to an old woman, with thick white stockings and black Mary Jane heels with ankle straps like from another era. I thought I was hallucinating at first.
"Then I stepped over to the swinging door of the last stall. It was no old woman. To my horror, I recognized Donald Plump! His 300-or-so-pound body dressed in a flower-patterned frock and pearls, and a wig that had slid off his bald head. His throat was slit. His blood oozing into the toilet. I ran. My screams echoed throughout the entire building as I ran as fast as I could.
"Donald Plump had been murdered. I wiped his blood on my white jacket. The killer must be locked inside, too? I couldn't stop screaming. I zigzagged through the rows of tables, knocking down every chairs in my way. I had never been so scared in my entire life. Finally I made it to the safety of the Russian restaurant, Siberia, at the far end of the floor. Ironic, wouldn't you say?"
"I hid underneath the bar inside the liquor cabinet. It had been left open, and I grabbed an unclosed Stolichnaya and downed a few gulps until my breath returned to normal. What the hell? Then I started giggling. Then laughing like a hyena. Donald Plump murdered. I climbed out and my fear abated. I realised; who would want to kill me? No one.
"Plump was the most hated man in publishing. What poetic justice. He had been trying to steal Yama Yama from me and kill my business, but instead I had found him dead. A lot of people I knew would be celebrating when they heard the news. So I kept drinking, and then fell asleep. When I woke up four policemen and two huge dogs were staring at me. All you have is my blood-stained jacket. I didn't do it."
"And you didn't see a knife at the scene."
"I swear on Gala's life. No."
"But we found the knife in your locker. How did it get there?"
"Don't you see, I've been framed!"
"We went through your computer and found this."
He handed me a copy of the letter I had just written to Plump that had been published in BookBreakfast.
"So what? He was trying to steal Yama Yama. Doesn't mean I killed him for God's sake. Why don't you talk to Basil Hastings? Plump stole Jane Austen from him. Or Trevor Chattingsworth? Plump stole Wordsworth, Joyce, and Mary Shelley. As a matter of fact, there isn't one agent in England or around the world who is any good and whom Plump didn't steal from. He even stole the Bible from God."
"He tried! Sued the Vatican, but lost that one time. That's what he does; I mean did. He sued people, cancelled contracts, took back foreign rights, tied everyone up in court. He's notorious for blackmail and hacking into agents' computers and stealing their correspondence and contracts. He has secret files on everyone."
"Blackmail, hacking, lies, aren't you getting a bit carried away? It's not like he was the President of the United States or Vladimir Putin. You're not making any sense."
"Plump threatened a publisher to pull the new 100,000,000,000mth Shade of Shade if they didn't buy a new novel by an unknown writer for two million dollars."
"You seem to be obsessed with him. Jealousy. That's one of the biggest motivations for murder there is."
"Blank, bloody pages! Millennial, binge-blogger writing. That's what he sold it as. Blank, bloody pages sold for two million dollars! It's true!"
"That's why you killed him. I can understand. It sounds pretty frustrating to try to compete with someone like him. Just tell me really what happened. You'll feel better."
I couldn't control myself any longer. I jumped up and grabbed Luther by the lapel of his coat.
"I didn't kill Donald Plump! I'm on the international board of Save the Ants, for God's sake. I'm a vegan-vegetarian. I don't even believe in eating seaweed!"
"Save the Ants, seaweed?"
I slumped down on the chair and buried my head in my hands.
"Calm down, Barbara."
Luther called me by my first name. My heart melted. I did my best Lauren Bacall imitation.
"Listen, he was in the middle of an auction for the unauthorised Melania Memoir. It was up to 30 million, word had it. Maybe he got in too deep for his own good this time. I don't know. But I didn't kill him. I was framed."
Just then the door opened to the makeshift interrogation room, and another officer entered and beckoned Luther. The clock read 13:00. My stomach was growling. Luther returned.
"Miss Zitwer. There are a few new developments."
"Am I cleared? I'm missing all my meetings!"
"Did you know that Donald Plump was a woman?"
"The preliminary autopsy report is back. He was a she."
"It appears that she had a sex change."
"Well, he wasn't exactly Orlando Bloom. That kinda makes sense."
"But apparently he dressed as a man to fool everyone, for business. He had been born a man but changed his gender 50 years ago and then cross-dressed as man when he became a woman."
"Maybe that's why he was so fucked up? Sounds pretty complicated to keep straight. Maybe he was just a poor, emotionally tormented soul, not just a greedy bastard? Makes me feel sorry for him now."
"The dress and pearls he was found in were his real clothes. We are still looking for his disguise, his suit. He had been filmed yesterday at a press conference in a bright red, white and blue suit. We can't find it. Maybe you know where it is?"
"Ask Bellyanne Runaway! She's his right hand. Been working with him for decades. She does all his dirty work. If anyone knows anything about Donald Plump, she does."
"Bellyanne? What kind of name is that?"
"As a matter of fact, we're looking for her right now. What do you know about their relationship?"
"She's Goebbels to his Hitler. I'm surprised she wasn't murdered with him, too. She never leaves his side."
"Detective Luther, you know I didn't kill Plump. It's all circumstantial evidence. Ask anyone. I wouldn't even kill an ant."
"I just might believe you. Who could make up Save the Ant?"
He smiled. His eyes twinkled.
"Please. At least let me take a walk. My legs are as stiff as a corpse. Oops. Bad analogy. And I'm starving! "
"OK. Come on."
"You're a doll!"
"Excuse me?" Luther took a pair of handcuffs from his pocket.
I stood up, walked inches from the devastatingly handsome detective and put my hands out. When his fingers clasped the cuffs around my wrists, I felt an undeniable spark. God, was he hot. He stepped aside and we walked out from the media room that had been turned into a temporary police station and onto the main floor. As soon as I appeared, every agent and publisher who saw me stood up and applauded.
"Way to go, Barbara! You did it for all of us!"
I got a standing ovation. The room erupted in cheers.
I raised my shackled arms, "I didn't do it! I'm innocent!"
Detective Luther and I were thronged by publishers and editors from all over the world; people I had begged for appointments with, who had never returned my messages, were now patting me on the back.
"Barbara, what about your memoir?" Jerry Bing shouted into my ear.
Donny Gehta pushed his way through, "Three million for world rights. Right here, right now."
"Don't sell world rights to anyone. You need an agent. I'll help you," Sir Niles Smyth smiled. "You're the most famous woman in the world right now. You're a celebrity. You can name your price."
"Without a doubt," he assured me.
"But I didn't do it."
"I can close a 10-figure deal before the clock strikes the next hour. Isn't that worth a confession and a few years in jail? You're the agent who killed Donald Plump. I'd seriously think about it if I were you."
"BAR BAR A ! BAR BAR A ! BAR BAR A! The crowd chanted louder and louder. Luther pulled me towards a little fast food shop, and slammed the glass doors behind him. Every editor I ever wanted to sell a book began slipping their business cards underneath the door for me and giving me the high five.
"I didn't know how crazy publishing people are."
"Welcome to my world," I cried.
Luther took his walkie-talkie off his belt and stood it on the table.
"What would you like?"
"Is this like a date?"
He leaned over on the table; his face inches from mine.
"You're a funny lady, you know that?"
"A necessity when you're selling Himalayan Books."
"I want to hear all about that."
He turned and ordered a pizza.
Luther's walkie-talkie was crackling, so he turned the volume down low.
"You seem to know a lot about Plump and publishing. So, let me ask you. Will this Belleyanne Runaway inherit the agency now that he's dead? He, I mean, she, wasn't married and had no children or living relatives."
I chewed the pizza and then gulped the Diet Coke he had brought me. "Actually, rumour has it that Plump just stole Brian Goseling, the hot-shot American wunderkind agent from Big Mack Global. He discovered U.R. Nuts, the author of the Zero Sex trilogy, and he's taking her with him. That will mean millions of dollars to Plump. Runaway never brought in new clients: she is, was, just his slave. She'll be out."
"Mmm. And how would she feel about that?"
"Feel? She doesn't feel. But can we not talk about Donald Plump for five minutes?"
"Are you married, Luther?"
"You really get to the point, don't you?"
"Look, I could be facing a life sentence."
Luther laughed out loud: "Not married."
"Detective Luther, I'm innocent. And if I get out of this mess by tomorrow night, will you be my date at the Booker Prize party at the palace?"
A voice was shouting from the walkie-talkie. Luther turned the volume up.
"Luther, get down here right away. We're in the basement. North West corner by the garbage. You won't believe what we found."
"Come on," he pulled me up as I wiped my greasy face and led me through my adoring crowd down to the basement.
"What is it? What did they find? Am I cleared?"
We walked through the dark maze-like corridors and finally heard voices shouting. Police officers and a dog were standing around a body. Luther told me to stand back, and as he walked towards the others they parted, and I saw what they were all talking about. It was the malnourished-looking Bellyanne Runaway, in Donald Plump's signature red, white and blue suit; her legs splayed wide apart. A revolver was by her side, her head blown off. Runaway's bleached yellow hair stuck to the wall with her own blood. In one hand she clutched a note, the other an oversized fried drumstick. A secret binger. No one had ever seen Belleyanne eat, but there she was with 10,000 calories of fried lard, flour and fake chicken in her hand. A jumbo order of Tallahoochee lay by her side. I was astounded. I listened as Luther read her suicide note aloud.
I didn't kill Donald Plump. I didn't kill myself. I am not dead. Donald Plump was not my lover. I didn't love him. I didn't kill him. I did not hate that agent who Donald did not fall in love with. I am not upset that Donald became straight after being my lesbian lover for 50 years. I am not dead and neither is he.
She couldn't stop lying, not even in her own suicide note! The audacity of that woman. Plump and Runaway, lesbian lovers all this time. I couldn't have imaged that. Thank God the forensic evidence confirmed that she was the killer. I was cleared.
Two nights later, arm in arm, Detective Luther and I stepped into Kensington Palace. The room was candle-lit and the royalty of the publishing world were out in their finest. I tugged on my pink dress. Ordinarily I would never wear pink and it was too tight, but it was all I could find at the last minute to wear, my white Prada suit having been ruined. Luther looked like he was walking the carpet at Cannes. The handsomest man in the room and the man who had set me free. We sipped Champagne, nibbled hors d'oeuvres, and watched a swarm of publishers and agents circling around Brian Goseling, the agent who had inherited Plump's agency. He was the new center of attention, and he was basking in it. He was being devoured by the crowd.
But I caught snatches of conversation from the biggest agents in town. "I got Wharton, Austen, Charles Dickens and everyone else back!" "Look at that stupid American who believed he had all of Plump's clients in the palm of his hand. He's nothing without Plump. Wait till he finds out that Greene, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and everyone else came back to us this morning!" "Melania jumped ship, too."
That night Yama Yama did become the first Himalayan to win the Booker Prize, but her win unfortunately got lost in another story. No one could stop talking about Donald Plump. The man who had become a woman and then pretended to be a man. His murder had nothing to do with business or money. It was the greatest crime of passion after all. In his death, the agent who stole stories from everyone ended created a story that would be stolen by everyone else.
Barbara Zitwer represents clients including the Man Booker International Prize-winner Han Kang and the North Korean author known as Bandi.