Stuart spent very little time editing that day, he had seemed to feel the need to babysit Jeff instead. Jeff had loosened up a bit after a margarita at La Salsa and had finally felt like himself by the time they got home, full of various iterations of tortillas, meat, and cheese. On the way back, Jeff had stopped at the post office and mailed the memory stick and the receipts into Arthur Reed.
At home, Stuart had been antsy, sitting down, trying to edit, getting back up again, practically pacing, so Jeff had found a Mariner's game and they had watched that instead. Then they ordered Chinese food for dinner and sat out on the porch, waiting for it to arrive. Stuart was drinking beer instead of his usual Woodford, and Jeff wondered if the events of that morning had derailed him so much that he would not write that evening at all.
Stuart lit a cigar and stretched out his legs. They were seated with their backs to the table, staring out at the yard. Jeff noticed that damn post again.
“How are you doing, kid?” he asked.
“I'm okay,” Jeff said, sipping his cold beer.
“I've got an olive branch for you,” the writer said, “To make up for, you know, things.”
“Ask me anything you want. Ask me the shit you've been afraid to ask me. I'll be up front with you.”
“Tell me about Wallace Preston.”
“Jesus, diving right in huh? Wow.” Jeff shrugged and remained silent. “Alright, fair enough. It's a famous story and it is one that no one actually knows, regardless of what you read or heard.” Stuart regarded the younger man and sighed again. “I'll tell you, and I won't insult you by telling you that what I tell you has to stay with you, okay?” Even though, by saying that, he had reminded Jeff anyway. Jeff nodded.
“As you know, my book was bought in 1988. Wally wasn't the smartest agent around, but what he did was jump the queue. He didn't seek out permission from his agency, he read my letter, read my sample, and he was on a plane the next day. Showed up at my fucking dorm, if you can believe it, and I was lucky that he wasn't a swindler, because that son of a bitch had my signature within an hour of meeting me. He convinced me that I was a genius, that I was going to be huge, and that he was going to be the guy to get me there. As it turned out, he didn't lie.
“The half million dollar advance was all Wally's leg work and I always admitted that. When he suggested that we jump publishers because Viking wasn't taking me seriously anymore, well, that's what we did, and we moved to Vintage, who was going to take more pride in having a writer like me in their stable. Vintage, ironically enough, being an imprint of Random House, who wanted me in the first place.
“So there we were, me and Wally against the world, he was beside me at the hospital when my first kid was born and we both got rich.”
Stuart looks past Jeff, towards the lights of the house and smokes. His jaw clenches and Jeff can't be sure, but he would almost swear that the man had tears in his eyes.
“Betrayal is always worst when it comes as a surprise. Sometimes you can see it coming and it stings, but it's not so bad, you know?
“Wally's betrayal was simple and sad. He'd had a fucking crush on me since the day we met, and after he convinced me to jump to Vintage and we were swimming in money, well...
“At first I told myself he was just getting carried away, wanting to celebrate and getting inappropriate. But eventually the truth came out. I owed him. He wasn't trying to blackmail me, he probably didn't have much of an idea what he was doing, but he didn't negotiate the deal because he wanted me to succeed or because he wanted more money. No, the son of a bitch did it because he thought it would put me under his thumb and get me to let him put his cock in my mouth.”
Stuart went and poured himself a bourbon then, while Jeff sat, speechless. When Vic returned he brought Jeff another Coors. Jeff had asked out of curiosity, because the parting of Wally and Victor had been big news at the time, before Jeff's time, of course, but he had read everything on the man's biography that had ever been published.
“The real world ain't pretty, kid. You think life gets easier when you have money, and it fucking does, I'll tell you that, with maids and housekeepers and nannies and assistants, but...it doesn't change how much the world sucks. It still stings just as much when someone you love shows their true colors and they are ugly.”
The truth dawned on Jeff. “Oh my God,” he said, realization melting across his face.
Stuart smirked. “Just caught onto that did you? Yeah. My second book for Vintage, the first was already in the pipeline when the deal was made, so yeah, in Creature I wrote him a little Valentine. We haven't ever spoken since I left his agency. Only my wife knows what really happened. For all I know, the bastard still thinks he was perfectly within his rights to try to pressure me into..whatever. So yeah, I took the only little revenge that I could. I turned off the tap of the money that he made from my books, as much as I could, anyway. All of the first eight or whatever books he negotiated, he'll always get a piece of those. Can't be helped. But what I did was put a betraying, craven little fag into one of my books. For all I know he never even read it. Doesn't matter. It made me feel better, I'll tell you.”
Stuart reached behind him and ashed his cigar. “So there you go. The truth, for better or worse. And that leads us to Vic Stuart's trust principles.”
“What?” Jeff asked, tilting his head.
Vic put down his drink and held up one finger. “Never trust a man with a boy's name, like Billy, or...”
“Yeah.” He held up a second finger. “Trust no men with girl's names.” Third finger. “Trust no men with facial piercings, lemme tell you,” fourth finger, “Trust no men with ponytails, and of course,” thumb, “Never trust a lawyer. I shouldn't have to tell you that one after today, right?”
“I'll keep it in mind,” Jeff said. “What about the other myths?”
“Other larger than life stories.”
Stuart took a drink and looked amused. Jeff was hoping to draw the author away from the depressing track he had led them down. “I'm larger than life? Do tell.”
“For example, did you really reject Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott when you were approached to make films of the Wilcox books?”
Stuart laughed, a single loud HA. “Kinda,” he said. “As with all myths, there's a bit of truth and a lot of bullshit. I had a meeting with Scott's people, Scott Free, a few years ago. They weren't interested in buying a single book, they wanted the whole damn series, every one of them, to develop as a serious series for Showtime or HBO.”
“But...that would have been amazing!”
“Coulda been. Coulda sucked. There's very few ways of being able to tell until the product is finished. They showed me special effects tests and scripts and production schedules, tried to really impress me, and then one day I was in an office with Scott himself, and I said the only thing I knew to say. I said I'd need to be in on every step in the process and have to sign off on the lot of it. If I didn't like a script, it didn't happen. If I didn't like an actor, I'd pull the plug on the whole thing.”
“Yeah. Some people have told me that it showed a lot of balls and others have told me that it makes me an idiot. But what's the point? I mean, I liked the Lord of the Rings movies as much as the next guy, but I'm not sure they were necessary, you know? Certainly the Narnia movies weren't. Some things deserve to live in the imagination more than on a screen. But that's the only time we really got close.
“I've had plenty of offers, but most of them are for quick and dirty horror movies that are cash grabs for title recognition. They're not people who actually wanna make a Wilcox movie. When I was just getting started, New Line offered me a million flat so they could make a movie called Grave and put my name on it, even though they didn't actually wanna use my story. And that's been a bit more typical than the Scott Free business. I haven't given up, but I'm not in any kind of a hurry, believe me.”
Then the food came and Jeff needed another beer and then they back out on the porch with plates and noodles and soy sauce. Stuart used chopsticks. Jeff stuck with a fork.
“Okay,” Jeff said around a mouthful of rice, “What about Tales from the Crypt?”
Stuart gave his large, toothy grin. “What about it?”
“There was a rumor that you wrote a few episodes under a pseudonym.”
Stuart gave a few nods. “Guilty as charged. That's why I've got the whole series on DVD, if you noticed. I loved the idea of the show and when they asked me to contribute, I couldn't do it fast enough. But we were negotiating a movie deal at the time and it had some exclusive clause in it. Don't even remember now, but the pleasure for me was in writing for the show, not in seeing my name in the credits.”
“Damn. That's awesome.”
“Yeah. I might not be in a rush to see movies of my books, but creating something to be filmed and getting to witness that whole process was amazing. I was able to write two short scripts at the end of one summer out here. The year after that, when I was done with that year's book, I tried to write a full length movie. Could never quite get it together. But I'm still young, right?”
“That would be so cool.”
“I think so, too. You hear all this shit about the Hollywood machine, but the days I spent on set at Tales from the Crypt were amazing. Zemeckis keeps saying he'd like a shot at Wilcox, but he keeps getting distracted with all this digital 3D nonsense he's making instead.
Stuart let out a loud burp and took a drink. “Any other myths you want to debunk while we're at it?”
“I don't...” Jeff laughed, “I can't remember any more.”
“Well, let's see,” Stuart helped himself to more cashew chicken. “I've never slept with anyone famous. No matter what you've heard, you can take that to the bank. No movie stars, no pop stars, no one you've ever heard of. The opportunity has come up every once in a while, but I've convinced myself the illusion is probably always gonna be better than the reality.
“Tales was the only TV or movie writing I've ever done. I got paid to do a rewrite pass on a horror movie once, and I was useless. Free money, in the end, but I never did it again.
“I've never killed a man, either,” he said, bringing his head down to look at Jeff. “I'm not just talking about today, either. I know there are stories, it's inevitable when you write about the kind of stuff that I do, but I make stuff up, man, I don't write from experience.”
Stuart butted his cigar. “What time is it?”
“Uh, it's a little after 7,” Jeff said, checking his phone.
“'Kay. I don't think its gonna happen tonight, so let's just call it a wash. I think what I'll do is watch SportsCenter for some highlights and then I'll take an Ambien and call it a night.”
“Okay,” Jeff said, starting to rise from his seat to begin cleaning up.
“Siddown, kid. Take it easy for once. Get out of here if you want. Go for a drive, go see a movie, go to bed early, do what you wanna do. You're off duty for the evening.”
After their talk, Jeff didn't have more questions, but he didn't want to leave, either. Instead, he opted to have another beer and watch SportsCenter with Victor Fucking Stuart, who had just disclosed some of his darkest secrets.