Wilma Ritewell looked up from the bestelling vampire romance novel she was mentally dissecting. The man in the cheesy suit didn't look like anyone important, but at Cafe Temptation, you never knew. "Yes?"
"I don't mean to bother you, but . . . ." He glanced from side to side before he leaned over the tiny table, his grin as wide as his lapels. "You're a writer, aren't you?"
Wilma glanced down at her coffee-stained AlphaSmart, the stack of soda-stained index cards, and her Platinum Koi fountain pen, which was leaking onto the beverage nap under her cold cup of mango chai. "How did you guess?"
"You're not writing." He dropped down in the chair she'd forgotten to push away from her table. "So how's it going? Are you blocked? Stuck in a sagging middle? Find out your crit partner stole your title?"
"No, no, and no." Wilma placed the paperback cover-down on the table. "Are you taking a survey or something?"
"Nah. I saw you from across the cafe and thought you looked a little depressed. I'm a sucker for a blue writer." He parked his latte on the table and sat back to inspect her. "So, you come here often to not write?"
She stiffened. "I don't think that's any of your business." She squinted at him. "Just what is it that you want?"
"Hey, take it easy. It's not like I'm a reviewer or anything." He held up both hands, palm-out. "I like writers. Really. They're some of my best clients."
Oh, God, he was some self-pubbed how-toer. "Really." She started gathering up her things. "I do have to get back to my home office--"
"Ever see any of the real stuff?"
She blinked. "Excuse me?"
He chuckled. "That's a joke. I deal in information for writers. Real, solid information. 100% pure." He patted the briefcase by his right leg. "Not that I'm saying you need any. I bet you've got, what, fifteen books in print? Twenty? Last four on the Times extended list?"
"Six in print, and two made the USA Today list." Wilma sighed. "Look, whatever it is that you're selling--"
He reared back, his expression horrified. "Lady, I am not here to sell you anything tonight. I saw you frowning at that paperback, evidently not impressed, and thought you might like to talk to someone who understands. Obviously I was mistaken." He started to stand.
"Please, don't go." Wilma felt about two inches tall. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to insult you. I've had a tough year."
He subsided back in the chair. "That's all right; we all have. Everyone knows what terrible pressure writers are under these days. I'm surprised you didn't bite my head off before I could say hello."
"I'd never do that." She exhaled slowly before forcing a smile. "So, what sort of information do you handle?"
"The best kind." He leaned close again. "Everything I sell comes with a complete writer-satisfaction guarantee."
"That's probably not a good idea." She frowned. "Writers are very hard to satisfy."
"Don't I know it." He propped his briefcase on the table, popped the locks and raised the lid. Inside was a copy of the latest issue of Publishers Weekly and a Levenger catalogue. "That's why I make it my business to sell exactly what a writer needs and wants most."
"I can't afford the subscription to Publishers Weekly," Wilma said politely. "And Levenger's sends their catalogue to me in the mail."
"Oh, those are my personal copies. What I handle is more valuable." He took out a sealed plain brown envelope. "Like the names and addresses of all the bookstores the Times uses to compile their bestseller list. With store manager names, home addresses and marital status. It's one of my bestsellers." He chuckled at his own joke.
"If one of my novels ever makes the bestseller list," she said flatly, "it will be because my readers put it there. Not because I cheated."
"You've got principals. I like that about you." He slowly withdrew a very small envelope. "Would you have the same problem with acquiring all the passwords to your editor's and agent's e-mail accounts?"
Wilma swallowed, hard. "That would be unethical, not to mention illegal."
"Professional and personal e-mail accounts," he murmured. "Total access to everything they write . . . about you, your books, that sweet young thang they just signed to write, what, the same sort of romances you're writing? For twice what they're paying you? Or is it really triple?"
"I'm not a snoop." Wilma stood and began packing up her tote bag. "Besides, my editor keeps accidentally sending me the wrong e-mails all the time, so I already know what they're paying that other writer." Quadruple the advance they paid her, the bastards.
"Hang on, honey. I've got four words for you." He grabbed her arm and waved a CD envelope in front of her face. "Bootleg subscription to BookScan."
"No." She tried to pull free. "I can wait the eleven months for my royalty statements. I'll have my numbers then."
"But what about sweet young thang's numbers?" he persisted. "Shouldn't you know how well she's selling before you write that cover blurb your editor is demanding from you for her next book? You know, before your editor yanks your slot and gives it to her?"
"Stop it." Wilma closed her eyes tightly. "Just stop it."
"Honey, listen to me." His grip eased. "It's just information. You should have access to it. I can make that happen. Tell you what." He stroked her arm with one hand as he reached into his briefcase with the other. "I'll give you something for free. Something you've wanted for a long, long time." He slipped a Post-It into her hand. "The real name, home and work address and telephone numbers for that Publishers Weekly reviewer who hatchet-jobbed your last novel." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "And there's more where that came from."
Wilma swayed for a moment, dizzy and flushed as she clutched the slip of paper. Somehow, with a superhuman effort, she crumpled the Post-It and threw it in his face. "Go to hell."
"C'mon, baby, don't be so uptight--"
Slamming the briefcase shut on his hand and hearing him squeal with pain gave Wilma almost as much satisfaction as the Post-It. Almost. "And take your writer porn with you." She stalked out of the cafe.
Another woman sitting near Wilma's table came over with a cup of ice and a napkin. "You poor man. Here." She set aside her notebook to wrap some ice in the napkin before holding to his bruised hand. "Are you all right?"
"I will be, thanks." He glanced at the sonnet she'd been writing, smiled at her and opened his briefcase, flipping up the divider to reveal the latest issue of Poets & Writers and some NEA Grant applications. "You're a poet, aren't you?"