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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

The Prince and the Pulpster

"[Name redacted] has spent the past two decades traveling the world as a diplomat, all the time dreaming about writing fantasy and science fiction. He's visited nearly forty countries and lived in seven.… He's witnessed coup attempts, mafia and terrorist attacks, played chess with several world champions, and had bit parts in a couple of movies."
—Author biography from a science fiction novel

 
HARD AS IT was to believe, I was finally about to begin to live out my lifelong dream of becoming a well-known science fiction and fantasy writer. And in keeping with my go-getter, balls-to-the-wall, take-no-prisoners, dog-eat-dog approach to high finance that had made me a Prince of Wall Street at the age of thirty-five, reaping me millions of dollars and a lavish lifestyle, and, at this triumphant stage of my career, affording me the opportunity to enact my dreams, I was leaping straight over all the usual apprenticeship and journeyman labors by buying my way into the writing game.

The tactic had been so simple and obvious, its implementation so easy, that I was surprised no one else had thought to do it before. (Or maybe someone had: The scheme implied a certain element of deception and secrecy that in earlier instances might have remained unbreached.)

I had simply bought myself a writer and arranged to take over his identity—fame and reputation, if not his actual writing prowess—lock, stock, and barrel.

So now across from me sat my new intellectual and esthetic and public identity, having just signed his name to our deal. I picked up my copy of the contract, and he took his. We shook hands.

"So," I said to my doppelgänger, "how does it feel to be no longer mere Harold Bettler, author of The Warlock of Seagrave series and winner of one token Nebula Award, but instead to be Gardner Greco, rich playboy and hedge-fund wizard?"

Harold—or Gardner, as I had to start calling him, however odd it felt to bestow my own name on this near-stranger, for I myself was now the only Harold Bettler—frowned slightly and seemed to take a spiritual inventory of himself. "It feels strange—but not unexciting or unpleasant. How do you feel?"

"Fantastic! No pun intended! This is the culmination of a childhood daydream. All those fantasy and sci-fi books and movies I worshipped—Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter—while dreaming of being able to create such marvelous realms of the imagination! But I never had the time before to pursue my innate talents, so busy was I with my business career. Yet now I can, thanks to borrowing your life!"

Gardner looked a bit flummoxed. "Yes, about that. Are you sure you understand everything that's inherent in adopting my life?"

"Of course! The agony and the ecstasy of creating beauty out of the raw materials of my soul! The acclaim of my fans! The mental stimulation of speculating on the future. The intrepid comradeship of my peers, as we labor to improve the genre. Working hand in glove with sympathetic editors. Hefting my beautifully designed books hot off the presses. What could be more glorious, more romantic, more fulfilling!"

"But surely you've had your share of romance and glory and fulfillment in your chosen sphere of activity? Engineering hostile takeovers, earning big returns on investments, bringing new and useful products to consumers, hobnobbing with the rich and famous, receiving civic awards from politicians—?"

"Trash, mere trash! None of it can compare with the satisfaction of crafting one fine sentence filled with true sense of wonder!"

Gardner Greco shook my head—his head—and said, "Well, okay, um, 'Harold,' I hope you feel that way at the end of our deal one year from now."

I started to usher him toward the door of his own house, now mine. "I know I will. Without a doubt, I'll want to make the arrangement permanent. Now, you left me the manuscripts of your new novel and that batch of short stories, right?"

"Yes, they're all on the hard drive, and printed out as well. They should see you through the next few weeks until you start producing your own work."

"I suspect I'll start by tweaking them a little, add some extra zing and zip to the prose."

Gardner seemed to bite his tongue before saying, "You do that, Harold. The name and the career are all yours now—at least for the next twelve months. Try to handle them well."

"I'm sure when the year is up, I'll just be getting started with taking the Bettler name to the bestseller ranks, and will want to renew our agreement."

"Time will tell."

I waved good-bye to Gardner Greco as my—as his—chauffeur drove him away in the Lexus, then turned immediately to my domain.

The first thing I did was prepare myself a little snack. Hard to work without the small treats I was used to. But I was somewhat dismayed by the condition of the kitchen in Harold's—in my—home. The sink dripped continuously, and the refrigerator, far from being the massive Sub-Zero model I was used to (not that I ever spent much time in my own larder, given the ubiquity of my servants), was some ancient piece of junk from Sears, whose freezer door was held in place with a bungee cord. And the choice of treats was either a jar of pickles or an old rind of Velveeta. No truffles, no brie, no pâté, no caviar. Not even a leftover slab of Black Forest ham.

I made up a little (chipped) plate of pickles and cheese and went to my work desk. There I brought up the file of one of the new short stories—"The Shadow of a Shade"—and began tinkering with it. Soon I was lost in the dreamlike flow of composition and revision, and did not even notice when darkness fell. Exhausted by my creative endeavors, I made my way to the bedroom, dropping my clothes behind me as I went. I fell into a sound sleep, despite the lumpiness of the mattress and the repellent feel of polyester sheets.

In the morning, my clothes were just where I had dropped them, unretrieved by any valet, and I had to make my own breakfast, which consisted of a cup of instant coffee and some toast from a loaf of bland grocery-store bread. I wanted to drive to some café for a better meal, but the fifteen-year-old Ford Festiva in the driveway refused to start.

The conditions here were appalling, and I wondered why the former Harold Bettler had not indulged a bit more in the finer things of life.

Then, using the supplied passwords, I went online and checked out Harold's—my—bank account and discovered why. I had boasted a larger sum than that when I was still a college freshmen entrepreneur! Well, the old Harold had not been able to maximize his earnings, but I surely would.

Regarding yesterday's writing work, I was pleased, and immediately sent it off electronically to a magazine editor who had purchased many Harold Bettler stories in the past. Then I decided to go through my email.

There was an invitation to attend a small convention in the Midwest—assuming I could pay my own expenses—which I gratefully accepted. How splendid it would be to mingle with my fellow writers and my ardent readers. The unmarried, parentless, sibling-free Harold Bettler and Gardner Greco were virtual twins—that had been a prerequisite of the swap—and Harold Bettler also did not boast a high social media or public profile that would undermine the impersonation.

There was a fan letter from a young woman asking if I could better describe one of my characters so she could perfect her cosplay of that figure. Also, could I send her a free book. A professor wanted me to explicate several of my stories to help her with a paper she was writing on "Minor Prophets, Misprisioned Tropes." My agent, Hagrid Morgaine, explained to me that I had interpreted a contract incorrectly and was not due any royalty monies until next year at this time, and that before I got any payments he would deduct not only his standard percentage but the thousand dollars he had loaned me. And several missives from my peers contained various feisty if dispiriting gripes, complaints, rants and imprecations against the state of the field, the state of publishing, the stupidity of fans, and many global controversies. Looking for a boost, I googled the name of "Harold Bettler," but the ignorant trollish comments I found across a variety of websites made me despondent. I left the computer feeling a bit overwhelmed.

I puttered around the house a while, browsing through the extensive library of genre books, many of them autographed ("Dear Harold, another sausage from the sausage factory"), and reviving my inspiration. After a lunch of canned corned beef on Triskets, I checked my email again.

The story I had submitted a few hours ago had been rejected! Harold, wrote the editor, I don't know what you were thinking with this one, but it's not for us—and maybe not for anyone!

I experienced the greatest anguish and self-doubt I had ever felt in my life, greater even than on that day when Jenna the supermodel had left me at the same moment I received news about Elon Musk beating me out for a stake in Uber. But soon the indomitable spirit that had stalked through a dozen boardrooms returned, and I buckled down to the author's life.…

One year later, the penthouse apartment belonging to Gardner Greco looked utterly alien to me as I disembarked from the private elevator. The level of luxury seemed otherworldly. I was dismayed to realize that I could no longer summon up the memories of what champagne tasted like when sitting in a jacuzzi and surrounded by naked Real Housewives.

Gardner Greco—the former Harold Bettler—sat comfortably in a vintage Eames chair. The sight reminded me that one of the casters on my cheap desk chair from Staples had broken that morning. He held a snifter of what a glance told me was Marquis de Montesquiou 1904 Vintage Armagnac, and was smoking a fifty-dollar Cuban cigar.

I tried to keep the fear and longing and despair from my voice and project my wonted Master of the Universe aplomb.

"Well, Gard—I mean, Harold, this amusing little experiment is over now. I've gotten all I care to experience from the writer's life. Time for us to resume our real roles. You to return to the keyboard, and me to the stock exchange."

Gardner Greco—I couldn't really think of myself as bearing that original name any longer—just grinned. "What happened, Harold? I thought you'd be reupping for another year at least of riding the bestseller train."

I couldn't keep up the pretense any longer, and fell sobbing to my knees, clasping Gardner Greco's expensively trousered legs.

"It's been a living hell, man! Rejections, insults, failures, being ignored and misunderstood. The poverty, the shame! Life as a writer is a constant gauntlet of exquisite torture! And for what? To produce a throwaway piece of fiction that will be forgotten in a decade or less. Please give me back my pride and self-esteem!"

Gardner Greco stood and gracefully extricated himself from my tearful embrace.

"I'm afraid that's not possible any longer, Harold. I've come to relish your status and perks too much. All my life I favored the bohemian lifestyle and disdained the bourgeois. What the hell was I thinking! Having real money is heaven on earth! No, I'm afraid you're stuck in your current life. My battery of lawyers has sewed you up tight as Harold Bettler."

I rose to my feet, trying to reassemble some shards of dignity. "Very well, then, if that's the way it must be. But you just wait for a very cutting Tuckerism against you in my next book!"

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