by Erik Koht
He spotted it. He dared dream he spotted it first: Hollywood was producing more films based on novels with tragic endings by a factor of 0.26% on the Doublenight curve. The reason the trend-change had been hidden was that Hollywood often turned tragedies into comedy or farce. But to start with, they were tragedies. It was a trend-change with huge implications. Those implications could spell tragedy for his publishing house. If Hollywood wanted tragedy he better publish tragedies, but he knew darn well his team was doing no such thing. His publishing house, Parkmann, could do without Hollywood for a while, but not for long. Hollywood could do without Parkmann forever.
The publisher kept track of his developing projects like a fearful father. First he nursed them through the nappy stages and watched them take their first steps, then through adolescence in hard cover and, if that went well - it often did not - it was time for the paper back release. That should be the end of it, but it wasn't. The big earnings lay ahead in the signing of film production rights. What would it be, victory or oblivion? Increasing those odds was his responsibility.
No paper manuscripts cluttered his desk. These day no tawdry authors blackened his door. He recalled the old days: Writers weighed down by stacks of coffee-stained hard copy lined the hallway and staircase. All gone now. They all had agents now, and lawyers. Just ghostly voices on the phone and crisp, clear contracts bound in leather covers on his desk. The world of publishing was no longer a world of amateurs. Those had understood nothing of legal matters, nothing of market segmenting, and talking to those guys about projections... Recalling, the publisher shuddered.
Something need be done about the tragedy deficit. Today nine out of ten fictional works on the best-seller list ended rosy red. Among the works in the forthcoming fall collection, things were not much better, eighty percent happy endings. He glanced at the list of works in progress, scrolling down. He sampled genres and concepts at random. Here was one called "Wolf!", a tale in the science fiction category. "Talking wolf contributes actively in the prevention of ecological disaster," he read. The wolf project was ahead of schedule. He could use that extra time to make some changes. Experts in genetics, phonetics, veterinarians and experts in catastrophe conjecture had submitted their reports. The story-line might be nonsense, but it would be based on up-to-date scientific facts and correct terminology. The plot curve for optimal suspense had already been determined. He skimmed the plot outline, skipping ahead to read the final few lines: "The environment is saved, and somewhere in 1) the jungle, or 2) on the tundra or 3) on a floe of ice a new litter of talking wolves are born." He let it stand. Hollywood wasn't likely to go for a talking wolf, no matter it died tragically or lived happily ever after.
He studied another dozen concepts, found none that could be easily changed. Feeling desperate he turned to the list of short-stories. Publishing houses could make good money republishing old stuff, just adding one or two new stories in each collection. Killing off a recurring hero was bad for business, unless that hero was completely out-of-date and there was no hope of resurrection. What did he just say? "Out of date and no hope of resurrection." Yes! Inspiration! He knew just the one. Toggles had to die. Toggles, the good-natured neighbourhood cop, hero of a hundred and fifty short stories, was finally going to catch it. It would be a sensation on level with the death of Batman. He knew the idea was brilliant. He could picture it, that final episode: "Toggles up in a tree, trying to save a strayed kitten. All the neighbourhood kids were assembled below, oh-ing and ah-ing, shouting warnings and encouragement to the precariously balanced Toggles high above. Then, just as he grabbed the kitten by the neck: Crack, snap. Frozen silence from below. The branch Toggles had been holding on to broke. Still holding the kitten, protecting it, Toggles is hurled down, down, down. His body hits the pavement with the sound of bones cracking."
Even as Toggles falls, the publisher is on the phone. He is assembling a meeting in his office right away. "Get in here. No, not in five minutes. Now!" Pushing call buttons like mad and talking even faster, he is assembling his story-line composers. The best in-house writers ever, experts on endings every one of them. They would do Toggles proud! His demise would not be wasted.
He had hardly finished talking when his office door busts inward, smashing with a vengeance against the wall, turning plaster to dust. In the doorway appeared: A wolf, as white as a roaring snow storm, leaping for his throat, or Toggles, sub-machine gun blazing, spewing fire and lead, knocking the publisher off his chair, or Parkmann himself, the founder, his mighty bulk filling the doorway, his anger knowing no bounds: "You imbecile," he roared. "This house has earned millions, I say millions, on Toggles, he will earn us millions more. There will be no killing!"
"Very good, you guys," beamed the publisher as he rose from the floor where he had fallen. "I liked those, but I'm ready for more."
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