Excerpt from THE UNWINDING CABLE CAR
Below is the first chapter of my upcoming novel, The Unwinding Cable Car. It is available for preorder and will release Nov 17th wherever books are sold.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, Hamilton,” the man behind the onyx black desk said. He sat, reclining as far back as the chrome-and-leather chair behind the desk would go, his hands interlaced behind his head of slicked-back black hair as he looked up at the ceiling, formulating his thoughts. A gold Rolex glinted in the harsh glare from the ceiling fixtures above. “It’s shit.”
“Oh, come on, Brad,” Hamilton argued, almost whining. “It’s better than complete shit.”
Hamilton Raines sat in his agent’s pristine office on the sixteenth floor of the First National Bank tower in downtown Dallas, the mid-afternoon sun starting to glare through the plate glass windows that lined the west wall. The light caused little rays and rainbows to bounce around the chrome and glass surfaces and little decorations that littered the place. In a few hours, Hamilton wanted to go escape all this light, go to the streets of downtown, maybe find a bar in Deep Ellum, listen to some music from one of the local bands and get tipsy, really tipsy. Until then, he was being berated by Brad Pascal, his agent of nearly five years.
He was thankful for Brad—most of the time. The no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is attitude that Brad employed was one of the things that made Hamilton choose the man over the other six agents that he had his choice of when he queried his first novel. But that was three books ago and now Hamilton Raines wanted a little coddling.
“I didn’t say complete shit,” Brad said, the light playing a weird dance off his glasses. He thumbed through the manuscript, stopping every few pages to review it.
“You’ve got a decent idea here, I think. But, the payoff, the ending, well, it needs some work. A lot of work.”
“What’s wrong with the ending?” Hamilton asked, his hands outstretched, the blazer he was wearing straining.
Endings, it turned out, were not Hamilton’s strong suit. After his first novel was accepted by a big publishing house, the promotional circuit initially made him out to be the next big thing. The next Harlan Coben. The next Gillian Flynn. Instead, the reviews trickled in and the industry excitement soured on Hamilton Raines. Despite the sales being far below what was initially expected, Hamilton wrote two more. They didn’t help, and he slowly saw less and less from each advance. The third book hadn’t even out-earned the advance yet. Unfortunately, the reviews all said the same, in just a different combination of words: Hamilton Raines’s endings suck. After all this time, all this work, his name would be just as anonymous as the countless other names on the shelves in Barnes and Noble.
The most gut-wrenching day of his life, the day Carol left nearly five months ago, was capped by making a late-night trip to the local dollar store for a gallon of milk and a bag of coffee and seeing one of his books in the bargain bin. The bargain bin at a dollar store!
“It’s not earned, Ham!” Brad exclaimed, mimicking the hands-out Christ pose. “I see where you want to go with the story, but the characters need more depth before they get to the end.”
“Well, what do you suggest?”
“Make them suffer,” Brad said. “Readers want to feel that before the big payoff. If this is the ending you want to get to, you need your characters to earn it. I have to tell you, Ham, I’m getting a lot of heat from the guys in New York. We expected big sales for the last one, man. I mean, Great Desperations was supposed to be a monster. A fucking monster!”
A monster that ended up in the bargain bin. “Well, this isn’t Great Desperations,” Hamilton said with a sigh. It was true, though. That book should have been the monster. It was his favorite, and what he thought was his best work yet.
The New York Times, however, gave it two-and-a-half stars.
“We need to deliver a monster, though,” Bad repeated the phrase, his favorite when discussing the books. A monster to him was the ever-elusive catch that seemed just out of grasp. “Know what I’m saying?” Brad was now leaning on his forearms on his desk, a MacBook closed and shoved to the side rested under his sleeve.
“I know, I know,” Hamilton relented. He stared out the window, the taste of cheap bourbon already calling for him. “I just really thought I had it with this one.”
“Well, like I said, it’s not complete shit,” Brad said as he flicked the corner of the pages with his thumb. The sound echoed through the office. “We’ve got something to work with here, at least in the first fifty thousand words. But the second half, it needs a lot of work before we even send it to the developmental editors. And I sure as shit don’t want to send this manuscript to New York in the state it’s in now. They’ll eat us alive, Ham.”
For all intents and purposes, Hamilton knew this book was it. His last shot with a big-name publisher. His contract was up after this one, and there’d been absolutely zero negotiation to renew or extend the deal for more books.
Brad looked at Hamilton with a sincere gaze. “Look, I believe in Hamilton Raines. I wanted you because I knew you had something special in you. We just haven’t cracked it yet.”
“Well, how do we crack it then? Because I thought this one was pretty good,” Hamilton said.
“I don’t know. What’s your routine like right now?”
Hamilton didn’t want to tell him the truth. He didn’t want to tell his agent that he’d, for a lack of better term, holed himself in his apartment, sleeping during the day and drinking during the night. He’d type away a thousand words—sometimes more—before crashing on the couch. His diet at this point consisted of deli meats and white bread and cheap booze.
After all, Rolling Rock was five dollars for a six pack down at the corner store.
“My routine? I generally write at night. Try to get a thousand words on the laptop.” Except a thousand words was a stretch. He’d finally been hit with the mythical dragon that all writers succumb to, the one thing that makes it all screech to a halt. Writer’s block.
He’d spent days on end staring at the blinking cursor on his screen. He’d type a few words, and then delete them. He’d type new ones and just stare at them. He’d rearrange them, walk away, come back and delete everything again. The story was there, in his brain, but he couldn’t seem to get it to flow out of his fingers and into the keyboard.
The weight of it all crashed on his shoulders as he knew that this was it. If he couldn’t deliver on this story, he’d be out on his ass, the contract ripped up, no more advances, no more books.
“You getting out much?” Brad’s voice pulled him from his thoughts.
“Well,” Hamilton stammered, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I mean, I’ve been busy with this draft, and…” he trailed off.
“How’s Carol?” Brad pressed.
Hamilton looked away, the memory of that worst day coming back to his mind. “She left me, Brad. You know this.”
“And you’ve basically shut yourself up in that apartment then? I bet if I came to your place, I’d find nothing but empty beer cans and leftover sandwiches.”
Right on the money. Hamilton didn’t respond.
“Alright, this is what I want you to do. Get out of the apartment. It’s nice out this time of year. I want you to find a cafe, nothing too busy, one of the local joints, and get out of the apartment and write from there,” Brad said. “Some fresh air will do you some good.”
“I’m not some Instagram wannabe, Brad,” Hamilton scoffed. “Want me to take pictures of my coffee while I’m at it?”
“One of those Instagram wannabes just got a fifty thousand dollar advance from Grand Central Press,” Brad said. “You’ve got a lot of potential, and I want my ten percent. So, if that’s what it takes, do it.”
“That’s not me, though. I write thrillers, mysteries, dark shit. Not bubblegum love stories. I don’t write from a cafe,” Hamilton said.
“Look, just try it out. A change of scenery might be good for you.”
“Write from the cafe,” Hamilton sighed. He reached into his messenger bag at his feet and produced a black Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Hamilton had traditionally used it to collect his thoughts, to write down character ideas and to hash out plot points. It hadn’t been cracked open in quite some time. Like a security blanket though, he kept it with him. “Might as well flash this thing around so everyone around will know that I’m a bona fide writer. God, I'll be a walking stereotype, with my notebook and my latte.”
“Well, with some luck and some polish, this book will make you a rich walking stereotype,” Brad said with a wink.
“Yeah,” was all Hamilton could muster.
Brad Pascal chaperoned his client out the door, and a few minutes later, Hamilton was riding the elevator to the first floor of the high-rise building. Across the street, through the traffic of fourth street, he never noticed the little coffee shop tucked into the corner of the stone and glass building there. The metal sign above the facade read URBANA.
At one of the tables on the sidewalk outside the building, a young man sat in front of a large notebook, scribbling away with a rhythm that Hamilton recognized immediately. Dark hair falling over his brow, furrowed as he vigorously wrote, he wore all black, doing his best impression of a young Neil Gaiman. The furious scribbling without so much as looking up to sip from his iced coffee could mean only one thing—this young man, in a pair of slim-fit dark chinos and a black button-up with rolled sleeves, was writing.
A walking stereotype.
Checking the Kobold watch strapped to his wrist, Hamilton saw it was just after five. He figured, what the hell, he could go have a coffee and observe the atmosphere, take it in, see if it held any magic. If not, the bar in Deep Ellum was just a few blocks away.
Once the traffic cleared and he had a green cross signal, Hamilton jogged over to the coffee shop. He glanced over at the young man with the notebook and sure enough, he was writing paragraphs, dialogue.
He was writing a book.
Walking inside, the coffee shop had that roasted bean smell that was prevalent and somehow uniform amongst all the coffee shops he’d ever been in. High energy pop music swam out of ceiling-mounted speakers. A young lady in a green apron behind the counter greeted him warmly. Her purple and pink hair shone vibrantly, a physical manifestation of the hipsterness of this place.
There was no magic here, though. Nothing of this shop spoke to Hamilton Raines, or made him feel inspired. It was just a cookie-cutter coffee house, where a caffeinated hot chocolate or an iced macchiato could be had for five bucks. After perusing the menu, he ordered an iced vanilla latte, waited for it and took it back outside. With his drink in hand, he sat at one of the metal patio tables and just watched.
People were beginning to fill the streets, the rush hour beginning. Still, the young man with the notebook paid no attention to the bustle around them, sunk into his story. Hamilton envied him, envied that ability to get lost in a story as it was being written, leaking ink onto pages just to find out what happens next. This last novel had been a beating, a chore. There wasn’t much magic left in him. The thought of that scared him, too. He knew it as he was writing, he just didn’t feel it like he used to. At one point in time, he could do nothing but think of his stories. In the shower, he’d come up with dialogue, acting it out with Pantene in his hair. Now, writing a book was like pulling a tooth. It was work, and it sucked. And sometimes there was blood.
The young man with the floppy hair must have felt Hamilton’s eyes on him because he looked up from the open pages.
“Working on something good there?” Hamilton asked, hoping to sidestep any awkwardness.
“Oh,” the man said. “Yeah, something like that.”
“Are you a writer?”
“Well, kind of. I’m working on my first book,” he said.
Hamilton wanted to sidle up next to him and pour five years of pessimistic wisdom in his ear. Tell him that all the book would do in the end was break his heart. No one would buy it and it would end up in a discount bin.
Instead, Hamilton smiled. “That’s exciting. What’s it about?”
“It’s kind of a murder mystery. Three boys build a treehouse out in the woods and then discover a dead body,” the man said.
“Sounds intense,” Hamilton said.
“It’s a story idea I’ve had for a long time, I just finally feel like I have the inspiration to write it,” he said.
Hamilton knew that feeling. He would do anything to get it back, to feel that excited about a book again. The unfortunate thing about work is that it eventually becomes work.
“You always write by hand?” Hamilton asked.
The young man looked down at his notebook and nodded. “Yeah, I thought I’d try it the old-fashioned way. Something about a laptop, a Word document just felt...I don’t know.”
Hamilton finished the sentence, “Impersonal? Like it’s not real?”
“Yeah,” the kid said. “Plus, Neil Gaiman writes like this, by hand. I figured I’d give it a shot too.”
Bingo. Hamilton could point out the imitators a mile away.
“What’s your name? That way I can say ‘I ran into that guy before he was famous.’” Hamilton asked, nearly cringing at his own question. The young aspiring author lit up though.
“Well, my name is Jeremy, but I think I’ll use a pen name,” he said, tapping the side of his jaw with the butt end of the pen. “I was thinking J.A. Phillips.”
“I like it,” Hamilton said, sipping his iced coffee.
“What about you?” Jeremy “J.A.” Phillips asked.
“Hamilton. Hamilton Raines,” he answered.
The kid’s face went flush. “What?” he finally stammered out. “Are you serious?”
Hamilton just shrugged. “In the flesh.”
“Oh my god.” The kid slumped back in his chair. “You’re telling me I’ve been talking with Hamilton Raines this entire time?”
“Yeah. My agent’s office is in that building,” Hamilton thumbed behind him. “Thought I’d come down for a cup of coffee.”
The young man shut his notebook and rummaged through a canvas backpack at his feet. He produced a copy of Great Desperations. “This is my third time reading it,” he said, cradling it in his hands like a precious object. “It’s literally my favorite book of all time.” Then he looked up at Hamilton, hopeful yet embarrassed to ask, though Hamilton knew what question was coming.
“Will you sign it for me?”
Hamilton smiled. “Of course I will.” That was still his favorite part of writing. Despite how much the process and the business of it seemed to have drained him over the last five years since his first novel, he never tired of signing autographs.
Phillips got up from his table and crossed the patio to Hamilton, who pulled a Waterman fountain pen from the inside of his jacket. Taking the book from the kid’s hands, he felt the spine, the bent and broken corners, the way the pages fanned even when lying flat. The book had been well-loved. He cracked it open to the title page and scrawled his name in blue Waterman ink that flowed from the pen. Underneath, he wrote the inscription, “To J.A. Phillips, from your first fan.”
He handed the book back to the kid who beamed at the autograph.
“This is seriously the best day of my life,” he said.
Though Hamilton didn’t hear him. His attention was suddenly and completely drawn elsewhere.
Walking up the sidewalk and into the front doors of Urbana was a woman unlike any he’d ever seen in his life. Of course he’d seen beautiful women, had a few notches on the bedpost, but this woman in front of him seemingly glowed in a halo of light and beauty. Her long brown hair fell in ringlets that framed a perfectly round face. Her lips, plump and red, juxtaposed the cream color of her skin. Hamilton blinked once, twice, perhaps to shake himself from this enraptured seizure of his attention.
She looked at him, smiled, impossibly white teeth glinting in the happy hour sun and as she walked inside, no longer in his line of sight, the spell broke.
The kid’s voice brought him back to reality. “Anyway, thank you so much for this. It means the world to me.”
He looked up at the kid, who was still admiring the autographed page in his copy of Great Desperations.
“Oh,” Hamilton said. “Yeah, kid. Anytime.”
Grabbing his backpack, Phillips tossed both the newly-autographed book and his notebook in its large cavity. “Thank you again,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you around here again sometime?”
“Yeah, maybe.” Probably not.
Hamilton got up to leave as well. He threw his drink, which was just water and ice stained with milk at this point, into the trashcan by the tables. It was time to head back home. He turned to the sidewalk and nearly ran face-first into the beautiful woman, who had come out the door.
“Oh my goodness,” she said, startled, juggling the drink in her hand so that it didn’t slosh all over the both of them. “I am so sorry.” Her voice was tinged with a hint of an accent that Hamilton couldn’t immediately place. Mediterranean, maybe?
“No, no, it’s my fault,” Hamilton said. “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
Up close, she was even more beautiful. Not just beautiful—flawless. If he were to build his dream woman, she would look something like her.
“Do you know him?” she asked, nodding toward Phillips who was now a block down the sidewalk, waiting for a crossing signal to change.
Hamilton turned. “Oh, that kid? No. I just met him. Why?”
“I see him here often,” she said. “He is a writer. I thought maybe you were a friend of his.”
“No. I just found this place.” He was about to explain that he was a writer as well, that his agent had suggested he find a coffee house like this, but he didn’t want to come off as cocky. Instead, he said, “I need to get going myself. Enjoy your coffee.”
“Well, I hope to run into you again soon,” she said.
Hamilton didn’t know how to respond. It sounded flirty, and he liked it. The way she spoke, it made him feel like he still had it. “I hope so,” he finally said.
Walking back to the DART station that would take him back home, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander, to let his imagination come up with every sort of scenario involving this beautiful woman. It felt crazy, but he absolutely wanted to see her again.