The Sequel

The Sequel

by Jeffery Deaver

GO BACK TO SHORT STORIES PAGE

The very first letter Frederick Lowell slit open and read at his desk Monday morning would, he realized, change the course of history.

Literary history at least.

Which was, to him, perhaps the most important history of all.

Sporting a gray, three-piece suit, white shirt, and striped tie, Lowell sat in his anachronistic office on Seventh Avenue, a dim room tinged with a patina of old New York—high ceilings, windows that rose and lowered, stained oak trim, walls distorted by many layers of paint. The surfaces of the furniture and shelves were continually coated with the grit that always found its way inside as persistently as auditors at a hedge fund. And the music of street traffic, shouts, and jackhammers filled the air. The seventy-two-year-old lawyer pushed his metal bifocals higher on his nose, took a deep breath, and read the letter again.

Dear Mr. Lowell:

It has come to my attention that you are the literary trustee of the estate of the late author Edward Goodwin. I am an attorney in Ridgefield, CT. Recently I settled the estate of a client, who passed away three months ago.

The family of this client does not wish his or her name to be disclosed. However, they have instructed me that I may inform you of a discovery that was made during a review of my client’s correspondence.

Apparently my client was a friend of the late Mr. Goodwin during the 1960s. A carbon copy of a letter written to Mr. Goodwin was discovered among my client’s effects. It refers to a sequel to Cedar Hills Road. I myself am no expert on cultural history but even I am aware of the controversy as to whether or not Mr. Goodwin was working on a sequel to the novel when he passed away. The letter from my late client, a portion of which is reproduced here, suggests that indeed he was:

 

March 4, 1967

 

My dearest Edward,

[Material Deleted]

 

Finally, Edward, I’m delighted to learn from your latest letter that you are moving along well on the sequel to Cedar Hills Road. Is it true you are nearly finished? And let me say that I feel Anderson’s Hope is the perfect title. I know how tormented you were with the writer’s block you described in writing Cedar Hills and the even more difficult struggles you’ve had penning the sequel. It seems that you were right—it took getting away from the madness of urban life to the idyllic countryside and the beloved house of God that is so important to you. I cannot wait to read the second volume of the saga that, to me, defines America.

 

Mr. Lowell, I have examined all the other correspondence of my client and find no other references whatsoever to this sequel, nor were there notes or drafts of any fiction in my client’s possession related to this matter. The heirs of my client are willing to offer only the paragraph above, although they wish you the best in pursuing the matter if you so choose.

 

Very truly yours,

Daniel C. Wellington, Esq.

 

Frederick Lowell was a slim widower with a balding pate and affection for light opera and heavy novels. His life was simple: the law, walks around the city, meals with a close friend or with a book at one of the half-dozen modest restaurants he frequented on the Upper East Side, the enduring pleasure in taking his grandchildren to the zoo and movies (and bribing them with ice cream and s’mores to let Granddad read them the classics). He was staid and the epitome of calm ratiocination. Yet at the moment his heart was pounding, his palms popping with sweat, and he thought he might leap to his feet and dance a jig.

In 1966, a little-known journalist named Edward Goodwin published a novel called Cedar Hills Road, which immediately rose to the top of the best-seller lists.

Cedar Hills was one of those novels that come along once in a generation and take the literary world by storm. Writers can never be great unless they address the topic of death, and American writers can never be great unless they address the topic of race. Cedar Hills did both. Goodwin’s keen and poignant portrayals of family, justice, and morality captured the imagination of readers everywhere. The novel was a success because Goodwin painted these large subjects on a small canvas: a year in the lives of a Midwest American family, the Andersons, in their move from Hamilton, Ohio, to Chicago.

The book became a publishing phenomenon. It was sold in every major country on earth. The film version was described by a cantankerous but perceptive New Yorker critic as one of the most successful adaptations of a book to silver screen in the history of cinema.

The novel was largely self-contained, all the subplots tied up in craftsman style by the last page. And yet … the public hungered for more. This was hardly a surprise; who didn’t want seconds of their favorite meal? Of particular interest was the fate of the youngest son, Jesse Anderson, the most appealing of the family—the most observant, the most thoughtful.

But a sequel did not materialize. There were rumors that Goodwin was working on it, but stories also circulated that the success of the first book had sucked his creative well dry, like alum, and that he’d grown reclusive and taken to drinking heavily. The author died, at home in Chicago, in June of 1967 of pancreatic cancer, having never published another word after Cedar Hills.

If anyone might have known of a sequel, it would have been Frederick Lowell. His father, Richard, had been Goodwin’s attorney and after the author’s passing, the trustee of his literary estate. As Richard approached retirement age, in the 1980s, he shyly asked if his son would have an interest in joining him. The NYU law grad had leapt at the chance to give up the drudgery of hostile takeovers and international finance work on Wall Street, where he worked, and move uptown to become the right-hand portion of Lowell & Lowell.

After his father’s retirement, Frederick became successor trustee and took up the job as shepherd of Cedar Hills Road on behalf of Goodwin’s heirs—his son and daughter. Most of this work involved negotiating renewals and new contracts for the book’s publication and pursuing infringement claims. Often too he would field questions from publishers—and fans—as to whether a sequel existed. He’d pursued the matter years ago and found no evidence of one.

But now? Could it be true?

Outside the window, the jackhammers echoed the fierce thudding of his heart.

But a reference to a manuscript does not a manuscript make.

“Caitlin?” Lowell called into the ante-office.

“Yes?” asked the young woman, a brunette who would be delicate looking if not for the ink and piercings. Like Lowell, she was an NYU law school grad, cum laude, but one who preferred a more blended life than practicing law offered: as a paralegal during the day and East Village songstress at night.

“Hold all calls and cancel meetings for the next two days.”

“Is everything all right?”

“Oh, yes, very much all right,” the lawyer said enthusiastically and with more volume and animation than normal—earning him an amused but suspicious gaze from his assistant. Frederick Lowell was not known for outpourings of emotion. In fact, he was not known for much emotion at all.

 

One aspect of the job as trustee of the Goodwin estate that Lowell did not enjoy was, curiously, a main contractual duty: collecting and distributing to the heirs the royalties and other payments that Cedar Hills generated.

He’d come to believe that if anything had derailed the lives of Goodwin’s children it was the late author’s generosity.

The will provided that several libraries and literacy foundations would receive modest bequests and that the rest be divided equally between Goodwin’s son, Stoddard, and daughter, Anna. The problem was less the large, lump sum windfall they received at the time of their father’s death but the promise of regular income for the rest of their lives—or at least for so long as Cedar Hills remained in print. The offspring, in their twenties when their father passed, had immediately quit their jobs. And from that moment on they began to coast through life. Stoddard had tried his hand at a number of small businesses, which had not so much failed as petered out when he—or his wife, Beth—grew tired of them. He golfed and tennised a lot. Anna had tried to follow in her father’s footsteps and had written several novels, only one of which was published; it received indifferent notices. She gave up and, unlike her brother, found nothing as productive as sports to fill her time. Husbands and drinking became her pastimes.

Apart from cutting the checks, Lowell didn’t have much to do with the son and daughter, whom he referred to, with a hint of tacit disdain, as the Siblings. Legally they had no control over the disposition of Cedar Hills; Goodwin had the foresight to establish the trust that made substantive decisions about the novel. But the inconvenience of the law didn’t stop the Siblings from meddling, Stoddard and Beth at least. They would frequently call, offering suggestions about advertising and merchandizing (as if an action figure based on Jonas Anderson, the patriarch at the center of Cedar Hills, would be snapped up by Mattel). They were suspicious about the flow of income and insisted on detailed financial statements, which Lowell—meticulous by training and nature—readily provided.

As for Anna, Lowell had received only a dozen calls from her in the past five years and none about business. Mostly she rang him up late at night, drunk and sentimental, and asked for details of her father’s life, which he was unable to provide, never having met the man himself.

But several hours after receiving the letter from the lawyer in Connecticut, Lowell was on Metro North, speeding to White Plains to see the Siblings.

He was met at the station by Stoddard, now in his sixties. Trim, tall, and fit, strikingly resembling his father, the man greeted Lowell with a weak handshake and averted eyes. “So, look at that park,” he said, pointing at a green near the station. “They were close to finishing it but never did. There’s a huge battle in city hall. Do you know how many people sit on the board of supervisors?” As they climbed into an old, musty Cadillac and sped off, the man went on and on about the matter.

Lowell paid no attention. He’d learned by now that Stoddard believed that if you preemptively rambled enough, people would forget to deliver bad news. He hadn’t told the Siblings about the letter mentioning the sequel, just that he wanted to see them about an important matter. He was worried that forewarning would give them time to think up dozens of questions, as well as schemes about how to maximize the income they’d be receiving from the new book.

It seemed that a wise detective would play cards close to his chest.

WWSSD … What would Sam Spade do? That was Frederick Lowell’s new mantra.

They drove for ten minutes on the highway before Stoddard turned off and began threading along increasingly smaller surface roads. Finally they left pavement altogether. This was curious. It was not the way to his and Beth’s house (and Anna, he knew, had recently lost her residence to her third husband in a messy divorce).

Soon all he could see was Westchester County wilderness. Thick trees mostly. A marsh or two.

Lowell’s curiosity at their route turned to shock when he saw their destination: a small, battered bungalow sitting in a scabby square of dirt and weeds. A carport about to collapse. A chicken wire fence.

“Home sweet home.”

Their previous house had been an opulent McMansion. The plot of land was small but the home itself had sprawled over six thousand square feet. That was in addition to a vacation house in Florida and ski lodge in Vail.

And now they lived here?

Inside the dim place, mustier than the Caddy, he greeted Beth, who was a stocky woman with short hair, and Anna, leaner, dressed in baggy shirt and skirt like a hippie—or a homeless lady. Her graying hair was long and dull.

Beth looked at Lowell suspiciously. Then equally so at her husband. She’d expressed resentment over the years that Stoddard’s share of the royalties went to him exclusively, not the two of them—one of the many issues they sniped and countersniped about. Lowell couldn’t understand such a relationship. He had been married for forty-two wonderful years to a woman he’d met at a literary conference. They’d wed eight months after meeting and been constant companions until a faulty artery had separated them forever. He knew theirs had been a high standard for a marriage—friendship, humor, intellectual parity at the prow—but Stoddard and his wife didn’t even bother to conceal their seeming mutual disdain.

Anna greeted him with a distant smile. Her travel mug was filled with liquor, Lowell could smell. The hour was just past one p.m.

Looking around, Lowell observed too that one of the bedrooms seemed to be hers. He could only imagine the tension that this living arrangement created.

The house was quiet and sparsely decorated. A few books, more magazines, and a huge flat-screen, high-def TV. A few family pictures of Goodwin, his wife, and the children dotted the walls. Neither of the Siblings had children of their own. Maybe having a literary legend of a father—and a tormented one—had been a deterrent.

Beth must have noted Lowell’s eyes sweeping the house. “It’s only temporary,” she said defensively, with a glance at her husband.

Lowell couldn’t help wondering how they’d blown through millions and millions of dollars. As of a few years ago, the last time he’d visited, they’d been doing fine. Since the regular royalty income was not insubstantial, Lowell assumed they were in debt. Stoddard’s bad business ventures, probably; Anna’s choice of men.

He sat down on a saggy couch; no one offered him a beverage. He looked them over and said, “Apparently there is a sequel.”

There was no need to be more specific. The center of their lives was Cedar Hills Road; it hung over every conversation and gathering. The title never needed to be mentioned. In fact, it never was, as if uttering those four syllables would be like a demonic incantation that would destroy the good fortune the book had brought.

“My God, you found it?” Stoddard asked, eyes wide.

“So Dad had it in him after all.” Anna seemed pleased. She celebrated by lifting her mug and taking a long sip.

Beth looked at her distastefully, then turned to Lowell and asked, “Now. Frederick, what’s the offer?”

“I don’t have the manuscript yet. Just a hint that it did at one point exist.” He explained about the letter he’d received from the lawyer in Connecticut.

“Well, sue him,” Stoddard snapped.

“What?” Lowell asked, blinking.

“We’ll sue the prick, force him to tell us more.”

Lowell explained, “I don’t know what you’d actually sue for. He doesn’t have to tell us any more. He contacted me as a courtesy. Besides, he told me there was nothing else and I believe him.”

“No, no, he’s holding out. Mark my words, he’ll let us stew and then hit us up for a finder’s fee.”

Anna rolled her eyes.

Lowell said, “Well, I think the more productive approach is for me to try to track down the manuscript. I found two clues and I’m hoping you might be able to help me with them.”

He removed the letter from his attaché case and read the passage aloud. He looked up. “So, in the spring of ’67 your father was in some idyllic countryside and apparently spent time in or near a church while he was writing the sequel. If we can find out where, we might be able to pick up leads as to who has the manuscript or where it is.”

“Pop wasn’t religious,” Anna pointed out. “It was one of the things that made the book so good. Spirit detached from formal religion. He tapped into the zeitgeist of the period, the conflicted 1950s.”

Stoddard and Beth looked at her blankly.

Lowell harbored a suspicion that Stoddard had never actually read Cedar Hills Road. He was sure Beth had not. Anna, on the other hand, had produced some critical pieces about her father’s work—good ones—before her energy for writing dissipated.

“We never went to church growing up.” Anna added.

“No. Never,” Stoddard agreed.

“Wouldn’t have been a bad idea,” Beth said cryptically and with an edge.

“What about the countryside reference? Was there a vacation home?”

“Not one that we ever went to. We didn’t see dad much for the last two years of his life,” Stoddard said darkly. “I think he was embarrassed about having a family.”

Anna countered, “No, he was going through hell. Writer’s block, the pressure to do a sequel, the cancer. He didn’t want us to see him miserable.”

Stoddard frowned. “Bullshit. It was that he was having affairs and didn’t want his girlfriends to know about us.”

“All anybody had to do was read the book jacket to know he had children,” Anna snapped.

The meeting was going even worse than Lowell had anticipated. “Do you have any letters, records from back then?”

Anna looked at her brother and grimaced. “He had quite a lot of our family’s things.”

Stoddard said sourly, “How was I supposed to know anybody’d come calling about a sequel?”

“You threw it all out?” Lowell asked in a whisper.

“Bad memories,” the man muttered. Then his face softened and he looked at the lawyer. “As long as you’re here, Frederick, tell me: When’s the next royalty check coming in?”

To read the complete story, you can purchase issue 38 by clicking here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *