"Ms. Lesharpe?" Jenny, the editorial assistant Mercedes had inherited along with her too-small, hopefully very temporary office, yawned over the intercom. "Your eight a.m. is here."
Merce punched the reply button. "Please pickup the handset, Jennifer." As soon as she heard her assistant's asthmatic breathing in her ear, she said, "We don't refer to anyone I am seeing by appointment times."
"We don't? But Ms. Hartlace--"
"--is now working for Wiley and Tight House," she reminded her. "Where, if she chooses, she may call people by their pornstar names. In my office, however, we use proper names."
"Okay." Jenny sounded glum. "Mr. John and Ms. Marcia are here to see you."
Merce gritted her teeth. "Mr. John and Miss Marcia who?"
"You said not to call them your eight a.m."
"I meant, what are their surnames?" After a long silence, she asked, "Their last names?"
"Gee, I don't know," the assistant admitted. "I don't think they have any. Come to think of it, neither do I."
"We don't mind being referred to by our appointment time," a pleasant male voice called out over the speaker.
Merce propped her forehead against her hand. "Jennifer, the next time I request you pick up the handset, please remember to also turn off the speaker."
"Oh, sure." Chewing gum popped. "I'll write that down."
"Excellent." The assistant would definitely have to go back to reception, by the end of the week at the latest. "Now please send in our guests."
"Who? Oh, you mean them. Okay."
Merce straightened the lapels of her jacket, slid her hands together to check their temperature and humidity, and then resisted the urge to fiddle with the perfection of her chignon as the door to her office opened and her eight a.m. came in.
The hero, Merce saw at once, was far too tall, dark, and handsome. As for the heroine, she looked like a brunette-wigged Heidi Montag before all the surgeries. "Good morning. I'm the new senior editor, Mercedes Lesharpe. Do call me Merce."
"I'm John," TTD&H said, striding over to reach across the immaculate desk and seize her hand. He had a grip like a shoe junkie at a DSW 80% off sale. "It's such a pleasure to meet you." He released her bruised fingers and slipped his arm around PreSurgery Heidi's thick waist. "This is my darling Marcia." He patted the bulging elastic panel on the front of her skirt. "And of course our little devil, who won't be making an appearance until our next novel, Demon's Redemption."
"A sequel." No one had mentioned this. "How delightful. Congratulations to you both." Merce imagined heads rolling down the aisles in Acquisitions. "Please, sit down."
Once everyone had settled, Merce put on her sympathetic-but-brisk face. "I appreciate you making time in your busy schedules to see me. I'm also sorry we had to meet here, but the board is still shifting personnel, and it will be a few weeks before I have my office." She removed a folder from a drawer, and pretended not to see the empty Skittles wrapper that came out with it. It fell on top of her right stiletto, which she quickly shook and shifted to cover it. "Although I have yet to assign a new editor to your novel, I want you to know that Ms. Hartlace was extremely fond of your novel, and deeply regretted leaving your author in the middle of production."
"Really?" Marcia appeared bewildered. "Her last e-mail said she couldn't wait to get out of here. After she called me a stupid bimbo who needed to grow a brain."
"No, honey," John told her. "It was before she described blowing chunks over our manuscript so often she had to be treated for bulimia." He thought for a minute. "Or maybe it was after she said she now believes there is a hell, thanks to us."
Merce cleared her throat. "Nevertheless. I will do my best to find the right editor to step in and fill the enormous shoes left behind by Ms. Hartlace."
"Size eleven and a half extra wide," Marcia said.
Merce blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Agatha had feet like a rodeo clown." John's expression grew fond. "She always smelled deliciously of powdered sugar and Jack Daniels, too. God, I miss her already."
"Yes. Well." Merce decided the faster she could end this meeting, the sooner she could start in on the thermos of Irish coffee she'd brought from home. She opened the folder. "I do have a few questions about your story." She nodded at Marcia. "You are currently pregnant, obviously, but when I read the manuscript for Angel's Darkness I never found a wedding scene. Did your author at some point hold the ceremony off-stage?"
"We didn't get married," John said. "Marcia wanted to at first, naturally, but her being half-angel and me being half-demon, well . . . it would create a catastrophe."
"What kind of catastrophe?"
"Um, the apocalyptic kind." Marcia made a face. "We discover it when I find that unholy book in the very back of the library, you know, and read the prophetic passage that details the destruction of all life in the universe, the sundering of Heaven, the end of time itself, yada yada yada. Should John and I ever tie the knot, all that kind of happens. Like immediately." She thought for a moment. "Middle of Chapter Seventeen, I think."
"Right after we do it on top of the coin-operated copy machine," John put in.
Merce sighed. "Chapter Seventeen will have to be tweaked, then. The unholy book can be deleted, and that will take care of this apocalyptic prophecy. I also don't care for sex atop public-access equipment, so we'll cut that as well. You" --she looked at John-- "may use the resulting space to propose marriage. And you" --she turned to Marcia-- "will blushingly accept with all your heart."
"I don't have a ring," John said. "Or a heart. I'm half-demon, remember? Totally different physiology."
Marcia looked stricken. "We liked having sex on top of the copy machine. The slidey part made it fun." She touched her stomach. "It's how our little angel was conceived."
"Is your mother Sarah Palin?" Merce asked sweetly. "No? Then this unplanned pregnancy is not happening. I also want you two to date in the story for several months -- eight or nine should do -- before you jointly decide to commit to a physical relationship. This should happen a week or two after John proposes. We want your author to send the right message to our readers, don't we?"
The couple simply stared at her.
"Good. Now, a few more things."
Merce went through her notes, briefly outlining the two hundred and seventy-nine other tweaks she needed their author to make. Neither John or Marcia made any more protests, and by the time Merce reached the last item she felt comfortable enough to break out her thermos and pour herself a healthy measure into her company mug.
"The final change I want made is this green wallpaper." She took a sip from the mug. "We want to offer readers attractive modern settings with the sort of interiors they dream of for their own homes. Your author can paint this room instead; since it belongs to you, John, I think soft but still masculine adobe colors with some texturizing would be--"
"No!" Marcia jumped to her feet. "You can't take away our wallpaper! I know it's a hideous green, but it's our hideous green, don't you see that?"
"I'm sorry you feel that way." Merce closed the folder. "But the wallpaper is fictitious."
"Like our wild monkey sex, our huge plot twist, our unborn half-human quarter-angel quarter-demon baby?" John countered. "They may not mean anything to you, but they're our whole world."
"Which is also fictitious," Merce said sweetly. "I'll have your new editor explain it to your author once I order, I mean, assign one to her."
"We do have other publishing options now, you know." When she didn't respond, he stood up. "All right. I don't think our author will be working with any of your editors on this novel."
"I'm sorry you feel that way." Merce knew her smile wasn't as pained as it should have been, but she was enjoying this too much. "The terms of your contract, however, are quite clear. As senior editor I do have the final say over content, and with the exclusive rights clause your author agreed to, she can't sell any paranormal novel to anyone else without my approval."
"Wrong." John produced a roll of papers from his jacket and tossed them onto the desk. "Our contract. Check the next to last page."
Merce scowled as she unrolled the pages, flipping to the end. "These are the usual agency riders. There's nothing here that forces us . . . " she paused as her gaze drifted to the bottom of the page. "Where is the author's signature?"
"Temperance hasn't signed it yet." John plucked it from her hands and dropped it in the trash can next to her desk. "Come on, darling," he said to Marcia. "We'll go and talk to that nice man from B&N.com who promised us seventy-five percent."
Merce shot to her feet. "You'll never get the kind of distribution we can give you," she called after them. "Or a print edition. Or any editing at all."
"Sounds good to me." John shot her the bird behind Marcia's back before the couple exited and the door slammed shut.
Merce sank back down into her chair. "Ingrates," she muttered as she emptied the rest of her thermos into her mug. "I can sign five authors -- better authors -- to take the place of yours before lunch." She chugged down more coffee and then yelled, "And they'll write without an advance for six percent, do you hear me? Six percent and not a penny more!" The intercom buzzed, and she punched the button. "What now?"
"The Dreamworks studio rep is holding on line two," Jennifer said meekly. "He wants to talk to you about acquiring the film rights for Angel's Darkness and Demon's Redemption. Evidently Mr. Spielberg loves the storyline. He also wants to inquire about us collaborating with them on enhanced content for the e-book editions."
"Get his number and tell him I'll call him back." Merce spilled the rest of her coffee down the front of her blouse, slipped on the Skittles wrapper, and slammed her hip into the corner of her desk, but the sodden material, broken stiletto and shooting pain didn't slow her pace. She skidded to a halt by Jennifer's desk. "Which way are the elevators?" She waited for the girl to point, and then raced out in that direction.
Jennifer waited until the editor disappeared around the corner before she got up, went down the hall in the opposite direction and knocked on the door to the private conference room. "Hey, you were right, she actually broke a shoe. Now what do I tell her when she comes back and asks for the rep's number?"
"Say he preferred to call her later," John suggested in a slightly muffled voice. "When Spielberg can do a conference call with them."
"John." Something inside the room got slapped. "That's too mean."
Something inside the room got kissed. "So was tweaking our baby out of existence."
"So is your author really going to self-publish, or was that just part of the gag?" Jennifer heard a yowling sound, and peeked inside. Seeing what John was doing to Marcia on the conference table made her giggle. "Gee, Ms. Hartlace was right. You guys really are like bunnies."
(for Darlene and all the other John & Marcia fans out there)