By Stephen Maitland-Lewis
Bronwyn Tasker, flanked by Princeton’s librarian emeritus and her literary agent, was escorted by a young summer intern along the long narrow corridor on the twenty-seventh floor to the book-lined conference room of Larkin & Forrest’s Manhattan office. She took her time, pausing frequently to stare at the portraits of the firm’s Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. Finally she found the one for which she had been searching. Arnold Lincoln. The brass plaque on the frame stated his name and the years 1879–1950. At ninety-six, she was now exactly twenty-five years older than Lincoln had been when he died. The young intern interrupted her thoughts. “Mr. Larkin is waiting for you, Ms. Tasker.” She continued to stare at the portrait for several seconds before moving on. Her only thought, as she was being rushed, was that he had a kind expression.
They entered the conference room. Mr. Theodore Larkin did not stand to greet them. With him were three colleagues, two dour and expressionless middle-aged women and a young man who bore a distinctive resemblance to the elderly Mr. Larkin, maybe a grandson, she speculated. They remained seated, two of them continuing to sip from their elegant coffee cups, barely giving her a glance. No coffee was offered to either Professor Tasker or to her two companions.
“Ms. Tasker, I haven’t much time so let’s get to the point. I’ll be frank. I only agreed to meet with you because of Lloyd Cape, here. As a Princeton man myself, I have known of Lloyd for many years. He has a well-deserved reputation as one of the country’s most eminent librarians. How he comes to be involved with you made me curious. And as for your agent”—Larkin paused to stare at Hyman Shapiro—“we have never published any of your authors and I doubt we are going to make an exception in the case of Ms. Tasker.” He pushed his cup aside.
Fixing her with a cold stare, he continued, “Larkin and Forrest has never in its hundred and forty-three years published anything written by a convicted criminal, so why have you come to see us?”
“Mr. Larkin. I want someone to write my biography. I’m ninety-six. I cannot write my own autobiography. If someone writes my story, I may not live to see it published. I need a successful biographer to take this on. Someone skilled. It cannot be third-rate and trite. I want a major author. Someone like Kitty Kelley.”
“Oh really,” Mr. Larkin sniggered. His three sycophants joined in with a cacophony of giggles and guffaws.
When the mirth evaporated, Mr. Larkin spoke. “And what makes you think the world’s preeminent biographer would want to give you the time of day, Ms. Tasker?”
“Because what I have to say will be the biggest bombshell in publishing in centuries.”
“I have a nonnegotiable demand.”
“And what is that?”
“I need to generate one and a half million dollars from this book. The full amount is to go to Princeton’s library, not one dime to me. Revenues over this can go to you and the writer as you determine. As long as Princeton gets one and a half million dollars.”
Mr. Larkin looked at his watch. Then at his colleagues. After a few seconds, he broke into a grin and laughed. His shoulders shook. “I am beginning to enjoy this nonsense, Ms. Tasker. Before you start, however, I want you to make your own case for your book. There is no need for your agent, whose name I’ve already happily erased from my mind, to remain. Similarly, I’m not sure that Mr. Cape wishes to besmirch his good reputation by being present. After all, he is not pitching the merits of this questionable opus.”
He paused. “I suggest the two of you wait in our reception area. This won’t take long, I assure you.”
One of the women stood to refresh her and Mr. Larkin’s coffee. The other one escorted Mr. Cape and Mr. Shapiro back to the reception area.
“Now,” said Mr. Larkin, “I have approximately ten minutes to spare, so go on—please. Amuse me.”
“I assure you, Mr. Larkin, your attitude will be different when you have heard my story.”
“You have ten minutes. Not one minute more.”
“I graduated from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.”
“I know where Aberdeen is, Ms. Tasker. Please make this quick.”
“I graduated in 1949. My studies were interrupted by the Second World War. I graduated in zoology, but during my studies I developed an interest in puffins and decided to research for a doctorate. The university awarded me a scholarship to study puffins and to spend a year photographing and observing them for my thesis. This necessitated a move to the Faroe Islands.”
The table again broke into lampooning laughter and sneers.
“Yes, Mr. Larkin. Puffins. So I went to the Faroe Islands, which, as you may know, are to the northwest of Scotland halfway between Norway and Iceland. The islands are an autonomous country within Denmark with a population of around fifty thousand. Very rugged, windy, and wet. It’s a wonderful place to study puffins. I settled in a small village, Hosvik, barely three hundred inhabitants.”
“Get to the point.”
“It was there that I met Gerald Mustell.”
“Our author, Gerald Mustell? The Nobel Prize winner for literature?”
“Yes, that Gerald Mustell.”
“His mother was Danish, as I’m sure you know. That’s why he settled in the Faroe Islands. He spoke the language fluently. After you published his first book and it became a huge success, he became reclusive and moved to Hosvik, where he lived in a modest cottage. It was remote. No telephone. No neighbors nearby. And there he wrote, never having to deal with interviews, book signings, and all the other things that successful writers have to do. He lived totally alone, never saw a soul. Just him, his writing, and his model airplanes. Did you know he built model airplanes?”
“So you met him and then what?”
“I met him one day at the general store in Hosvik. We had a lively conversation about puffins and the trials and tribulations of living such a solitary existence. We began to take daily walks together along the coastline and to neighboring villages. I used to go to his cottage and cook for him from time to time. And he fell in love with me. He was much older, but that was never an issue between us. After a time he asked me to move in with him. I did.”
“So you were his muse?” Mr. Larkin raised an eyebrow.
“You can call me what you like. Muse. Girlfriend. Mistress. We made each other happy. We lived together until he died.”
“He died in Stockholm when he went to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
“I was with him, Mr. Larkin. He died in my arms at the hotel when we were getting ready to leave for the award ceremony.”
He refilled his coffee cup. “And you’re telling me your life in the Faroe Islands was exceptional somehow? Book-worthy?”
“It was simple. Every day after breakfast, including Saturdays and Sundays, Gerald would disappear into his office until around one o’clock. The only sound I heard was of him banging away on his typewriter.
“Meanwhile, I’d converted a small room off the landing into my office. It had no window, as it had been a storage closet. It was in that tiny cubbyhole that I worked on my doctorate.
“We would meet up in the kitchen around one, have soup and a chunk of bread I’d warmed up, and then we’d go for a long walk. Sometimes we’d walk for two or three hours. Less in the winter months, as we wanted to be home before it got dark. We’d have simple dinners, usually stews, listen to classical music on the radio, and then go to bed. As I said, we were happy. That is, until Gerald was notified that he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. At that moment, he changed. Life became hell. What should have been a most joyful moment in our lives became an absolute misery.”
“In what way?”
“He started to drink heavily. We always had a vodka before dinner, but an entire bottle every evening became the norm for Gerald, with me just sticking to one small glass. He would walk a mile to the only shop in the village that sold liquor and buy as many bottles as he could carry home. God knows what they thought.”
“Do you know what triggered this?”
“Yes, he was scared stiff. He’d been out of the public glare for so long, suddenly being thrust into the spotlight filled him with panic. Frequent vomiting, sudden rages, insomnia. He even lashed out at me and blamed me, for goodness sake. Why did he blame me? For helping him get the most distinguished prize in literature. It was madness.”
“First he wanted to decline the award. I used every argument under the sun to persuade him to accept. Finally he agreed. Then he refused to travel to Stockholm to be honored. And that created more rows and violent scenes. Every day, I had to put two empty bottles into the trash.”
A secretary came into the room with a fresh pot of coffee. No one indicated wanting more.
“Then the speech. I reminded him that he needed to make an acceptance speech. I thought war had broken out. Shouting, screaming, more abuse. He even struck me. I fell onto the kitchen floor. And he kicked me mercilessly. Oh how I wished we had neighbors, but we lived well over a mile from the closest.”
“Did you help him with the speech?”
“I offered but he refused. Whenever I asked how he was getting on with it, it led to more screaming and shouting. I asked to see the speech countless times but he always refused. It was a nightmare living with him during those weeks, believe me.”
Mr. Larkin looked at his watch.
“We flew to Stockholm and someone came to the hotel to fit him for formal attire for the award ceremony. Gerald gave me money to buy a dress suitable for the occasion. After all, I never had a reason to wear a formal evening gown in Hosvik. It was long, black, and most elegant. I’ve never worn it again, not after that evening.
“We were two days in Stockholm before the night of the ceremony. We never left the hotel suite. It was as if he’d lost his voice. He wouldn’t speak. He walked around in a daze. After all the hell I’d been through with him since he was notified of the prize, I guess I should have been relieved. But it was scary. He was so different.”
“Did he appear ill?”
“Not physically, but obviously there was something wrong with his mental condition. The afternoon of the ceremony, Johannes came to give us the final instructions and to say that he would pick us up at six o’clock. Johannes had a position with the Nobel organization.”
“Johannes Svensson? The man you murdered?”
“Yes. He deserved to die.”
He repeated words he had used several times, but now with less impatience. His was a coaxing tone as he said, “Go on, Ms. Tasker.”
She watched as he sipped his coffee. She craved some herself.
“Johannes arrived on time, at six. We were ready to leave with him. We were dressed, and if I may say it myself, we looked good. Elegant, he in his white tie and tails and me in my new black evening gown. Gerald said he needed to go to the bathroom before we left. That was no surprise. He’d been having prostate problems and had to go frequently. We stood waiting for him. We heard a loud thud. He’d obviously slipped. We rushed into the bathroom and there he was on the floor. I bent down beside him and cradled his head in my arms. Seconds later, he drew his last breath.”
“Quite a shock?”
“Johannes ran back into the living room and called for a doctor. Then I heard him talk to someone else but I couldn’t understand Swedish and I had no idea who was at the other end of the line.
“Some medics arrived as well as the hotel manager and God knows who else. The room suddenly became hectic. Poor Gerald’s body lay on the bathroom floor and I couldn’t hold back my tears. No one spared me any notice.”
“Well, when Gerald fell onto the floor, and I took his head in my hands, I noticed a piece of paper, folded in half, slip out from the inside pocket of his tails. I guessed—correctly, as it turned out—it was the speech he was due to give.”
“And what did you do with it?”
“Something told me to keep it. If Gerald wasn’t going to deliver it, no one else would. I took it from his pocket and slipped it under the bathmat. Seconds later, three people came into the bathroom to take Gerald’s body away. Just like that. They left me on the floor, crying. Ten minutes later, everyone had left. The doctor had asked me a few perfunctory questions and said that a coroner might have other questions for me but that it seemed to him, at first examination, that Gerald had had a heart attack.”
“And that was later confirmed, was it not?”
She nodded. “Imagine the callousness of everyone. They had left me alone. I got up from the cold tiled floor and walked into the empty living room in a state of shock. The next morning, I read in the English-language newspaper that someone had given a speech to honor Gerald and announce his death. There was no one to either receive the award or give the acceptance speech. I then remembered the paper under the bathmat. I went to retrieve it. When I read it, I was stunned.”
Mr. Larkin stretched to pick up a telephone on a side table. “Hold all calls,” he ordered the operator.
“Johannes arrived to present me with Gerald’s award around ten that morning. I was still in my evening dress from the night before. Johannes knew that Gerald had no family and that he and I had been together for close to thirty years. He assumed—incorrectly, as it turned out—I was his only heir. He asked me if Gerald had a speech prepared for the award ceremony. I lied and said no. The last thing I wanted was for him to see Gerald’s typewritten speech. But there it was lying next to me on the sofa.
“ ‘What’s that?’ he demanded. I hesitated. Again, he shouted, ‘What’s that?’ He ordered me to give it to him so that he could release it to the press. That was the last thing I wanted. ‘Well at least read it to me,’ he ordered. I hesitated still. He shouted again, and in my vulnerable and shaken state, I feared he would strike me. So I read him the speech. He looked at me in disbelief. He said he would come back later to discuss this with me but in the meantime I was not to say a word to anyone. Well, he didn’t come back later that day, or the next. It made no sense for me to remain any longer in Stockholm, so I flew back to Scotland. I took the ferry the next morning to get on with my life in Hosvik.”
“Did you go to Gerald’s funeral at least?”
“No, Mr. Larkin. As you know the Nobel people notified Gerald’s agent, who got in touch with his attorney here in New York. He had Gerald’s will. He wanted to be cremated and his ashes dropped into the sea. Any sea. He was an atheist so there was no religious service. I was a beneficiary and within a short time I began to receive a substantial monthly check out of the estate.”
“What about your PhD? Did you continue with your research on puffins?”
This time no one sniggered at the mention of puffins.
“Yes, I had been awarded my doctorate years before but had done nothing with it. After Gerald’s death, I returned to the workplace. I moved to London and joined the faculty of King’s College.
“Then one evening, after I’d been living in London for about six months, out of the blue, the doorbell rang at my Bloomsbury apartment. It was Johannes Svensson. At first he was pleasant, but after about an hour, he began to blackmail me. He demanded money. Fifty thousand dollars. I should have refused but I didn’t. I asked him to give me a few days to arrange this, which I did. This became a pattern. Every six months, he flew to London to demand money. Each time he came, he demanded more. First it was fifty thousand, then seventy-five thousand, and then one hundred thousand. He became more and more unpleasant and abusive. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. My nerves were shattered, so I went to my bedroom to get my gun. I came back into the living room and shot him. I have no regrets. None whatsoever.”
“How come you had a gun?”
“I’d had one since the day I went to the Faroe Islands. With the wildlife there, it was prudent to have one for my own protection living in an isolated place as a young single girl.”
“So you had just shot him.”
“A neighbor heard the shots. There were two. She called the police. I was taken off in handcuffs to the police station. I was charged with murder. I pleaded guilty.”
“Why didn’t you tell the court that you were being blackmailed?”
“I didn’t need to. Blackmailed over what? I wasn’t ready to deal with that. Anyway, it wasn’t necessary. Prior to me firing the shots, he’d hit me, broken my nose and my jaw and given me a black eye. It was a clear case of self-defense. I was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment for manslaughter. I was released after seven for good behavior.”
“And then you moved to the United States. How were you able, with your criminal background as a murderess, to obtain a visa to come here, let alone settle permanently?”
“That was no problem, Mr. Larkin. I’m an American citizen. I was born in New York.”
No one spoke for at least a minute.
“And you think that your life story, interesting as it is, merits the attention of a major author like Ms. Kelley.”
“Yes, I do.”
Again, silence. One of the two dour women rose from her chair to whisper something to Mr. Larkin.
“Quite. Quite,” he murmured. “Tell me, Ms. Tasker, about Gerald Mustell’s acceptance speech. Where is it?”
“I have it here in my purse.”
“Please, may I see it?”
“I will be happy to read it to you.”
She opened her purse and took it from an envelope. She began in a firm voice that displayed no emotion.
“Your Majesty, Mr. President of The Nobel Committee, Ladies & Gentlemen.
“This is a great honor but not one that I can accept. My life has been one big fraud. Please allow me to give this short speech and then disappear into oblivion for the remainder of my years. After I graduated from college, I took a summer job with the great writer Arnold Lincoln, working as his general factotum and helping him with his research. That summer job lasted fifteen years. He paid me well, and I enjoyed my life with him at his home in Connecticut. He died suddenly. Before I left his household, I stole seven of his completed and unpublished manuscripts that he had written between 1910 and 1922, many years before he became famous. I knew that they were good. I moved to Hosvik and began to retype the manuscripts. I submitted them, one every few years, under my own name, and I gave them new titles. They became best sellers. Apart from the title changes, every single word had been written by Arnold Lincoln. I am a thief and an imposter. Simple as that. Arnold left his entire estate to Princeton University. I have bequeathed my estate to Princeton too in honor of the man who should be here today to receive this award. My only request is that a generous allowance be granted for her lifetime to my muse, Bronwyn Tasker, who knows nothing of my criminal activities and whose love for me, I know, will be forever lost as a result of this confession. Please forgive me. Good night.”
“Good God,” Mr. Larkin said, a look of bewilderment crossing his ashen face.
Practically in unison his colleagues echoed similar sentiments.
“Now, you will understand why I want Princeton to get one and a half million dollars. Any earnings above that are for the author.”
“Now may I see the speech?”
Mr. Larkin rose, crossed the room, and stood behind Ms. Tasker to study the speech. “And you mentioned not being his only heir?”
She gave a wistful shrug. “Gerald was a mystery.”
He walked back to the telephone and asked for someone called Candida, whom Ms. Tasker presumed was his secretary.
“Tell the chef Professor Tasker and her friends are staying for lunch. Meanwhile bring in a couple of bottles of champagne. And get Ms. Kitty Kelley on the telephone.” ■
Stephen Maitland-Lewis is an award-winning author, a British attorney, and a former international investment banker. He has held senior executive positions in London, Kuwait and on Wall Street prior to moving to California in 1991. He has owned a luxury hotel and a world-renowned restaurant and was also Director of Marketing of a Los Angeles daily newspaper. Maitland-Lewis is a jazz aficionado and a Board Trustee of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York. In 2014, he received the Museum’s prestigious Louie Award. A member of PEN and the Author’s Guild, Maitland-Lewis is also on the Executive Committee of the International Mystery Writers Festival. His novel “Hero on Three Continents” has received numerous accolades, and “Emeralds Never Fade” won the 2012 Benjamin Franklin Award for Historical Fiction and the 2011 Written Arts Award for Best Fiction. His novel “Ambition” was a 2013 USA Best Book Awards finalist and won first place for General Fiction in the 2013 Rebecca’s Reads Choice Awards. Maitland-Lewis’ most recent novel “Botticelli’s Bastard” was a 2014 USA Best Book Awards finalist in three categories and won the Bronze Award in Best Regional Fiction (Europe) at the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards. In January of 2016, Maitland-Lewis was sworn in as a Freeman of the City of London and admitted as a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of City Solicitors. In April of 2016, he became a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society (FRGS). Maitland-Lewis and his wife, Joni Berry, divide their time between their homes in Beverly Hills and New Orleans.