Nick Teravelli tugged on the sleeves of his suit jacket. They were an inch too short, but it was the only suit he owned. His mother had bought it for him three years ago for his college graduation. He wore the suit to her funeral six months later. The best and the worst days of his life were spent in this suit. Today could go either way.
Wetting a comb, he attempted to tame his long, wavy hair. He intended to have his hair cut the day before, but his father had insisted he mop the floors of the family restaurant. By the time he had finished, the barber shop had closed.
Stuffing his wallet and keys into his pockets, he hurried into the kitchen of the family’s two-story apartment atop the restaurant. His father, Dominic senior, nicknamed Dom, and his younger brother, Sal, sat eating breakfast at the kitchen table. His grandmother stood on her tip-toes stirring sauce in a tall, stainless steel pot on the stove.
“Nickie, you want I make you some eggs?” she asked.
“No, thanks, Nonna.” He lifted a metal pot from the stove and poured coffee into a mug. “I have to leave in a few minutes.”
“Where ya goin’ all dressed up, Mr. Fancy-pants?” his father asked.
Sal snickered as he slurped his orange juice.
“I told you last night, Pop, I have an interview with an agent this morning,” Nick said.
“Aah, an interview. Four years of expensive college, for what? It’s been three years since you graduated and you still don’t have a job writing.”
Nick swallowed hard and gripped the mug handle with white knuckles. “It takes time, Pop. To be a successful writer, you need a good agent.”
“Agent, smagent. You need to give up on this writer nonsense and work in the restaurant like your brother. He’s seventeen. He makes more money than you.”
“I told you—” Nick started.
“Shush. Turn that up.” His grandmother pointed to the television set in the living room across the hall.
Sal grabbed the remote and pushed the volume button. A photograph of a smiling, dark-haired young boy’s face filled the screen. “Hey, Nonna, isn’t that the kid you’re making the cannoli for?” Sal asked.
She nodded her head yes. “Listen.”
“. . . mangled body found inside a city sanitation truck yesterday was identified as that of Robert Owens. Owens was the prime suspect in the kidnapping and murder of six-year-old Benjamin Ryan. Police went to Owens’ home yesterday with an arrest warrant but found his apartment empty. Owens’ employer confirmed he did not report to work yesterday. Police feared he had fled the area.
Owens, a registered sex offender, had been repeatedly questioned by police after Benjamin’s disappearance and was considered a person of interest. Authorities upgraded him to a suspect yesterday morning when a warrant for his arrest was issued.
It’s unknown how Owens ended up in the sanitation truck where he was crushed to death by the compactor. An investigation is underway. The gruesome discovery comes one day before a neighborhood fund raiser for little Benjamin is scheduled at Saint Michael’s Catholic Church, where Benjamin’s maternal grandmother is a parishioner. All monies collected will be given to the Ryan family to help pay for the young boy’s burial expenses. Reporting from—”
Dom muted the volume. “Sick sonofabitch got what he deserved.”
Sal and Nick grunted in agreement. Nonna made a quick sign of the cross and turned back to the stove. “The sauce is ready, Salvatore. Carry it downstairs before you go to school.”
Sal drained his juice glass and stood.
Nonna wrapped thick, terry cloth towels around both handles. “Careful, it’s hot.”
Rising from his chair with a low groan, Dom moved his head back and forth, then rolled his shoulders. “Good thing I have a strong son to carry that. I pulled my back last night emptying the mop bucket Nick left in the kitchen.” He glared at Nick as he followed Sal. “I’ll get the doors.”
Sal headed down the stairs to the restaurant.
His father paused in the open doorway. “So, Nick, I guess you won’t be working in the kitchen today?’
“I told you I have an interview.”
“Yeah, well, your brother and me could use help closing up tonight.” His father shut the door behind him before Nick could reply.
“Him and that goddamned restaurant.” Nick slammed his coffee mug down on the table.
“Nickie, your language!” Nonna scolded.
“Sorry, Nonna.” He leaned to kiss his grandmother on the forehead. “I gotta go.”
Nonna patted his cheek. “You’re a good boy, Nickie. Your mama would be proud.”
As he exited the door, Nick touched his fingertips to his mother’s photograph hanging on the wall. He wondered whether she would have looked like Nonna had she grown older.
His mind churned during the thirty-minute walk downtown. He walked fast, the morning breeze cooled the anger burning in his face. He had never been close to his father and after his mother’s death, the tension between them escalated. Nick often found himself wishing it had been his father who died instead of his mother. He missed his mom every day. She’d understand the importance of his interview today. She had always supported his passion for writing and convinced his father they should pay his college tuition.
In his senior year, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. In spite of the disease which ravaged her body, she promised him nothing would keep her from attending his graduation. She looked so thin in the green dress she had bought for the occasion, yet pride shone in her eyes and her smile overpowered the gauntness in her face.
After graduation, Nick mailed out dozens of query letters and manuscripts. His mother told him her dream was to live long enough to see his first book published. Nick desperately wanted to fulfill her dream. On some level, he hoped it would keep her alive.
Although he had aced all of his classes in school, he wasn’t prepared for the steady stream of rejection letters he received from publishers. When his mother died, grief and depression overwhelmed him. He believed his failure contributed to her death and reluctantly gave into his father’s demands to resume working in the family restaurant. His dream of becoming a writer, buried along with his mom.
Self-doubt gnawed as he neared the crowded downtown area of the city. Jamming his hands into his pockets, he quickened his pace and weaved in and out of the throng of pedestrians.
His interview was with Victor Ruby, owner of Ruby International Promotions, a prestigious agency with a proven reputation for sky-rocketing their clients to fame and fortune. He wasn’t sure if talent or sheer luck had landed him as a finalist in Ruby’s contest. With so much at stake, the competition would be fierce and his odds of winning, slim. If he failed his interview today, he would have to face his father’s ridicule, his girlfriend, Katie’s disappointment, and worse, lose the last shreds of his self-confidence as a writer.
Ruby International Promotions had its own office building, located in an upscale section of the business district. While not the tallest hi-rise in the city, its sleek steel frame and dark-tinted glass windows stood out among the older brick and mortar structures on the block. Entwined initials ‘RIP’ formed the logo, prominently displayed in red on the double glass doors.
His cell phone vibrated as he waited for the elevator in the lobby. Good luck, I Luv U displayed on the screen. Nick smiled and texted, Luv U2.
The smile stayed on his lips as he rode the elevator. Katie had been the only good thing that came out of working at the restaurant. He remembered every detail of the evening she came in to pick up a pizza. Nick couldn’t stop staring across the counter at her. He had dated a lot of girls, but she was the most beautiful he had ever seen. Blond-haired and petite, with brilliant green eyes that lit up when she smiled. He wanted to talk to her but found himself mutely handing over the pizza box and grinning at her like a twelve-year-old boy.
As he berated himself for blowing his opportunity, he spotted her debit card lying on the counter. He ran his finger across the raised letters on the smooth plastic. Katherine Harrington. His father yelled when he left his post at the counter. Nick ignored him and ran down the street. He caught sight of her a block away and followed her to the local hospital.
She and her coworkers were opening the pizza box when he walked into the break room. The other nurses whispered and giggled as Nick stammered a greeting and returned her card. Asking a girl out had never been a problem for him, yet he struggled to get the words out with Katie.
After over two years together, he still smiled every time he thought of her.
Nick arrived early and opened the door to a packed waiting room. A young, red-haired receptionist instructed him to sign in and then take a seat.
Too nervous to sit still, Nick walked the perimeter of the room studying the framed photographs and posters hanging on the walls. The images showcased Victor Ruby’s numerous success stories. Movie actors, television stars, musicians and authors, all united by the common theme of horror, Ruby International Promotions’ specialty.
“We just hung that one.” The receptionist pointed to a poster near the door. “Do you like Blood Lust?”
The poster depicted a rock band on a stage. A cloud of red mist rose from the floor around the feet of the black-clad and heavily made-up band members. A red-lined cape blew back from the shoulders of the lead singer. Along with his pale face and black-ringed eyes, he resembled a vampire.
“I know them. They’re a heavy metal group,” Nick said. “My brother has one of their CDs.”
The receptionist smiled and returned to typing on her computer. Nick continued his slow stroll around the room. He paused at Joseph Cullen’s portrait, the famous author whose books had inspired him to write horror stories. The gray-haired writer sat at an antique oak desk holding one of his best-selling novels. Nick grinned as he imagined his own photograph, looking equally as dignified, hanging on the wall next to Cullen’s.
The receptionist called out a name and a young man leapt from his seat. He dropped a folder of papers in his haste. Bending, he scooped them up and crammed them haphazardly back into the folder. He sprinted through the door of Victor Ruby’s office.
Nick found an empty chair in a corner next to a young woman dressed in a black gown with tattered lace trim. The ends of her short, black hair were dyed blood-red and black eyeliner contrasted against her pale skin. He settled into the chair and nodded at her. She scanned Nick from head to toe then turned away. Nick looked around the room at his competition. They eyed him back. Tension crackled in the air.
“Janis Ford?” the receptionist called. The goth-looking woman next to Nick rose and strode into Ruby’s office. Nick leaned forward in his chair. His dress shoes squeezed his feet like two leather pythons.
All eyes in the room widened each time the red-headed girl approached with her clipboard in hand. She called a name and another hopeful scurried into Ruby’s office. Some interviews took longer than others. For Nick, each took an eternity. He checked his cell phone for the time and found he’d missed a text from Katie. How’s it going?
He typed, still waiting.
Katie had showed him the newspaper advertisement for Ruby International Promotions’s search for a new horror writer. Nick shrugged it off, convinced it was yet another rejection waiting to happen. Katie prodded him daily to enter the contest. He submitted his manuscript hours before the final deadline. Weeks dragged by. He wished he had never entered. The thought of looking into Katie’s hopeful eyes and telling her his work had been rejected, haunted him. When the phone rang last Friday afternoon, the news on the other end shocked him. He’d made the final cut. Victor Ruby wanted to personally interview all of the finalists before choosing a winner. Nick’s mood alternated from sheer elation to gut-twisting terror for the entire week leading up to today’s interview.
Startled, Nick jumped to his feet. The waiting room had emptied. The redhead winked at him and opened the door to Ruby’s office. Nick yanked on his jacket sleeves and drew in a deep breath.
Intense heat assaulted him the moment he entered. The hot, dry air proved a jarring contrast from the air-conditioned waiting room. In the center of the spacious office, Victor Ruby sat in a high-backed, red leather chair behind an enormous mahogany desk. He stood and flashed a brilliant white smile.
“Vic Ruby,” he said, thrusting his hand toward Nick.
Nick shook his hand. “Dominic Teravelli. It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Ruby.”
Ruby’s grip was strong, and his hand felt hot. Nick forced his gaze away from Ruby’s fingernails. They were long, tapered and shone with a clear, glossy polish.
“Dominic Teravelli,” Ruby chuckled. “There’s a great Italian name. Roman Catholic, yes?”
The question caught Nick off guard. “Um, yes sir, I was raised Catholic.”
The larger-than-life reputation of Ruby International Promotions did not match the physical stature of its owner. He’d imagined Victor Ruby as a powerful giant of a man. Instead, Nick, at six foot four inches, towered over the short, wiry man standing in front of him. Yet, in spite of his slight frame, Ruby’s presence dominated the room. Nick immediately felt intimidated.
Ruby sat and motioned for Nick to do the same. The guest chair, leather, black, and thickly cushioned, featured intricately carved wooden arms and legs. Nick recognized his manuscript lying on the desk. He gripped the arms of his chair as Ruby’s long nails swiped at the corners of the pages. Between nervousness and the oppressive heat, sweat formed under his arms. More trickled down the center of the back. The cotton dress shirt clung to his wet body beneath the suit and tie.
Ruby glanced up from his reading. “I hope you’re not uncomfortable. I’m from a hot climate, not a fan of air conditioning.” His ruddy complexion confirmed time spent in the sun.
Nick forced a smile, hoping Ruby didn’t see he was sweating like a pig. “No problem, Mr. Ruby.”
“Mr. Ruby?” Ruby nodded. “Respect. A rare quality in young people these days.” He bent his head and continued to flip through the manuscript. Except for the light scratching of Ruby’s fingernails against the paper and Nick’s heartbeat thumping in his eardrums, the room was silent.
Nick shifted in his seat and looked around while he waited for Ruby to finish. A green glass-shaded banker’s lamp on the desk provided the brightest source of the light in the dim room. Floor length draperies covered a wall of windows behind Ruby. Ornately framed oil paintings hung under brass spotlights on deep burgundy-colored walls. One side of the room housed an entertainment center with ample seating while the other side held a computer station with multiple, wall-mounted monitors.
Nick cleared his throat. “So, what do you think of my manuscript, sir?”
Ruby looked up. His dark eyes and black hair were equally shiny. “Well-developed characters, good pace, and an interesting story line. You have talent.” He stroked the black goatee on his chin, turned his head and reached into his desk drawer. Ruby’s hair hung well past his shoulders, secured at the nape of his neck in a neat ponytail.
“Smoke?” Ruby offered a box of thin, black cigars.
“Yes, Dominic Teravelli, you have talent. Of course, this type of story has been done before. A vampire struggling with his conscience.”
Nick slid forward in his chair. “I have others, sir. This one is the first of a trilogy. The second and third books introduce strong supporting characters, an ancient ghost, a modern-day witch and several unique plot twists—”
Ruby held up his hand, his fingers broke the swirling ribbons of cigar smoke hanging in the hot, arid air. “Yes, vampires, ghosts and witches. I get it. Giving monsters a conscience and human emotions does seem to be the popular trend.” Ruby puffed on his cigar. “Not my idea of horror. But I leave most of those decisions to my publisher, Jack Conrad.”
“I have other manuscripts. What type of stories are you looking for?”
Ruby grinned. “One without warm, fuzzy werewolves or sensitive vampires who sparkle in the sunlight. A monster without a moral compass, unburdened by human emotion. After all, isn’t that what makes them monstrous?”
“Yes, but readers are human and there has to be an element of hope in a horror story, no matter how dark the story line. Something that makes you sympathize with the tortured soul of the monster. Or, a weakness in the monster so readers will root for the protagonist to destroy the evil,” Nick said. “Good always wins over evil.”
“Well, because . . . it just does,” Nick stammered. “Otherwise the story would be pages of chaos and mayhem. The reader would have no empathy for the characters. It would be emotionless, brutal, no hope for salvation. Evil would win. That can’t happen.”
Ruby sat, silent and expressionless, his piercing eyes riveted on Nick. The flow of perspiration seeping through Nick’s clothing increased.
Ruby’s sudden burst of laughter shattered the uncomfortable pause. “That’s a debate we’ll save for another day.” He tapped his cigar into a silver ashtray, the rim adorned with sparkling red gemstones. “There’s lots of good horror writers, Dominic. It takes passion to be a true star. Ambition. And most of all, desire. Tell me, do you have desire to succeed?”
“Yes, Mr. Ruby, I do.”
“How much of yourself are you willing to invest in your career?”
“Everything. One hundred percent. One hundred and ten percent.”
“Hmm.” Ruby tapped his nails on the polished desk. “You obviously want this opportunity, but will you do whatever it takes to deserve it?”
Ruby stood, walked around the desk and leaned close to Nick’s ear. “I choose my clients carefully, Dominic. I invest a great deal of time and money in each one. I insist they be fully devoted.”
Cigar smoke clung to the fabric of Ruby’s black suit, a unique odor of charred wood mixed with cloyingly sweet florals. Combined with the oven-like heat in the room, it made Nick queasy.
“I’m devoted to writing, Mr. Ruby. Becoming a published author is my dream. It would mean the world to me to have you as my agent.”
Ruby patted Nick’s shoulder. “We’ll need to do some tweaking, but I do believe you could be my next star. Bestsellers, book signings, television appearances, and eventually movies based on your novels. Very demanding work. There will be sacrifices. Are you ready for fame and fortune?”
Sweat coated Nick’s upper lip, yet his mouth felt void of any moisture. Had Ruby chosen him? His mind reeled with the impact this would have on his life.
“Oh God, am I ever ready.”
Ruby snorted. “God has nothing to do with it.”
Nick stared, unsure how to respond.
Ruby threw his head back and laughed, then pressed a button on his phone. “Stephanie, bring in a contract for Mr. Teravelli.”
Cool air streamed through the open door when Stephanie entered carrying a packet of papers. Nick wiped his upper lip with his hand.
Folding back several sheets of paper in the stapled stack, Ruby laid the contract on the desk and placed a silver pen with a red Ruby Promotions logo on the open page.
“All it takes is your signature. Then I’ll get started making you rich and famous.”
Nick recalled his father always warned never to sign anything without reading it first. He picked up the pen and unfolded the contract.
“It’s our standard three-year contract,” Ruby said. “States that you’ll agree to let Ruby International Promotions handle you, your books, publicity, et cetera. We get twenty percent. Most of our clients are millionaires by the second year. But, if you’re unsure, you’re welcome to take the contract home and read it over.”
Nick turned the pages, scanning the small text as quickly as he could.
“Stephanie, keep Janis Ford’s phone number handy. She’s a decent writer. Mr. Teravelli appears hesitant. Perhaps he’s not ready for such a life-changing decision.”
“Yes, sir.” The receptionist exited the office.
“No, wait.” Nick flipped to the last page and scrawled his name on the signature line. “Here.” He handed the contract to Ruby.
“Congratulations, Dominic. You’ve made the right decision.”
“I’m ready to change my life.”
Ruby hugged the contract close to his chest and stroked it with his long fingernails. “Your life will certainly change.”
“You won!” Katie’s excited squeal blasted through the cell phone speaker. “Victor Ruby signed you up himself! That’s incredible!”
Nick walked in a circle inside the lobby holding his cell phone to his ear. He had called Katie the second he exited the elevator.
“I know. I’m still in shock.”
“You deserve this, Nick, you’re an excellent writer.”
“You’re the one who pushed me to enter the contest. We have to celebrate. What time do you get off work tonight?”
“I’ll meet you at the front entrance. I love you, babe.”
“Love you, too.”
Nick jumped and punched the air with his fist. His excited whoop echoed through the lobby. From the corner of his eye, he saw movement. Heels rapped against the marble floor. The goth-looking woman from Ruby’s waiting room walked toward him.
“You’re the one he picked?” she asked.
“Yeah.” Nick grinned. The stony expression on the woman’s face extinguished his smile. “I know everyone up there wanted this opportunity. I’m sorry you—”
“Don’t feel sorry for me. You’re the one who’s going to be sorry.” Pivoting on her stacked heels, she stormed out the front doors.
At a quarter past seven, Katie still hadn’t exited the hospital. Nick paced back and forth on the concrete landing outside the entrance. He checked his cell phone for a message. Katie kept her phone turned off at work, though she sneaked text messages to him.
Entering the sliding glass doors, he immediately spotted Katie coming down the main hallway. Her pale blond hair shone under the fluorescent lights. A handsome young man in blue scrubs walked next to her, chatting and smiling. Nick’s stomach tightened. Straightening to his full height, he strode toward the pair.
“Nick!” Katie ran the last few feet and threw her arms around his neck. “Congratulations! I’m so thrilled for you.”
Hugging her tightly, he stared over her head at the man in scrubs.
Katie stepped back. “Oh, Nick, this is Jon Gerber. Jon, this is Nick Teravelli.”
Jon stepped forward and held out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Nick squeezed Jon’s hand hard. Jon’s discomfort showed in his strained smile.
“Sorry I’m late,” Katie said. “This is Jon’s first day. I was showing him around.”
Jon nodded to Nick. “Hope I didn’t keep her too late. Katie’s been so patient teaching me the ropes.” He grinned at Katie as he turned to leave. “See you tomorrow.”
“You have that look,” Katie said as they sat at the sidewalk cafe table.
Katie sighed. “Your jealous look.” She reached across the small round table and squeezed Nick’s hand. “This is a celebration, right? I’m not the least bit interested in Jon. I love you.”
Her touch melted his anger. “I’m sorry, I can’t help—”
The waitress placed their drinks on the table.
“Let’s forget it, okay.” Katie raised her wine glass and smiled. “To my soon-to-be outrageously famous, best-selling author boyfriend.”
Nick clinked his glass against hers. “How about your soon-to-be outrageously famous and rich, best-selling author husband?”
“You know I want that more than anything.”
Nick leaned close and kissed her. “I promise you, my first royalty check is going for a diamond ring.”
With the day’s surreal events replaying in his mind, Nick sauntered from Katie’s apartment to his family’s restaurant. His grin reflected in the darkened plate glass window of the closed restaurant.
Upstairs, he found his grandmother asleep in her chair in the living room, her baby-blue Rosary beads wrapped around one hand. His father’s steady snoring vibrated through the ceiling from his bedroom on the third floor while sounds of electronic carnage emanated from Sal’s room, next to his father’s, where he spent most evenings playing video games.
Nick stood in the hallway outside his bedroom. He wished his mom was still alive. He pictured her smile, the tiny crinkles at the corners of her brown eyes turning upwards when he told her his incredible news.
“Who’s there?” Nonna called from the living room.
“Me, Nonna.” He walked into the room and offered his hand to help his grandmother up from her chair.
“It’s late, Nickie. Where you been so late?”
“Celebrating with Katie. Good news, Nonna. I have an agent. A famous agent who’s going to publish my books.”
“Good, Nickie, good. You happy? You make money? Maybe now you marry that nice Irish Catholic girl, eh?”
Nick smiled. His grandmother adored Katie. His whole family appreciated how she had helped care for his mother during the last months of her life. Nonna even relented in her stubborn belief that her grandsons should only marry Italian girls.
“Oh, Nickie, you help me bring the cannoli to the church tomorrow morning? It’s the fund raiser for little Benjamin, God bless his soul. It’s Saturday. Your father needs Sal in the restaurant.”
“Sure, I’ll help you, Nonna.”
“Okay, good. Get some sleep, Nickie.”
Nick stretched out on his bed with his hands behind his head grinning up at the ceiling. His cellphone vibrated on the night stand. Thinking it must be Katie, he reached for his phone and saw an unfamiliar number.
“Mr. Teravelli? Hi, this is Stephanie from Mr. Ruby’s office.”
“Yes?” Nick’s stomach knotted, fearing the late-night call meant Ruby had changed his mind.
“I’m calling to tell you to report to the Ruby building tomorrow morning at ten o’clock for your photo shoot. You know, publicity photos and a bio picture for your book jacket. We’ll have Wardrobe and stylists on site.”
“A photo shoot?” Nick exhaled a breath of relief. “Uh, sure. I’ll be there. Ten o’clock?”
“Yes, ten sharp. Oh, and don’t shave.”
Stephanie giggled. “We don’t want any cuts from a nervous hand. Like I said, there’s a style team on site. They’ll take care of everything. Be sure to be here on time.”