"Oh, for god's sake," Lucy exclaimed. "It's a ghost story." She dropped the page she was reading onto the smaller of the two stacks that filled every inch of the available space on her cluttered desk. This manuscript, the first half of DV's latest novel, had arrived from Italy the day before. The package was tattered and stained, the postmark a month old. Why had DV shipped it by sea mail? In preparation for the labor of transcribing it onto the computer, Lucy had passed the morning reading it, experiencing, as she always did when confronted by her employer's contributions to the world of letters, a steady elevation of blood pressure and an involuntary clenching of the jaw that made her face ache. The page she took up next was as covered over with scratches, lines, and mysterious explosions of ink as an aerial photograph of a war zone. Why, she wondered, did it take such an effort for DV to write so poorly?
Under different names, in different settings, the narrators of DV's novels were all the same man: a self-absorbed, pretentious bore, always involved in a tragic but passionate relationship with a neurotic, artistic, beautiful woman, always caught up in some far-fetched rescue adventure, dipping occasionally into the dark underworld of thugs and hired murderers, or rising to the empyrean abodes, the glittering palaces of the wealthy and the elite. The whole absurd mess was glazed over with a sticky treacle of trite homilies and tributes by the narrator to himself for being so strong and wise and brave when everyone around him was scarcely able to get out of bed. He was usually a writer or a journalist; sometimes he traveled. When he traveled, he was always recovering from an emotional crisis and he was always alone. This time, his name was Malcolm Manx, described by himself in the early pages as "an American writer of some reputation." Devastated by the breakup of a passionate but tragic marriage, he has secluded himself in a villa in Tuscany, where he hopes to find peace, inspiration, and a renewed interest in life.
Lucy placed her frog paperweight carefully on the pages and stalked off to the kitchen. To read on, she would need a cup of herbal tea, a glass of water, and two aspirin. The book was awful. DV's books were always awful, but what made this one worse than the others was the introduction of a new element, which was bound to boost sales: There was a ghost in the villa. DV had gone gothic. It wasn't enough that the unsuspecting Italians must succumb to the bold and original charms of the devastated American writer; now he was haranguing the dead as well.
The ghost was the restless spirit of a dead Resistance fighter, a partisan, ambushed by fascist forces in the yard of his own estate. This dead warrior, mirabile dictu, shared with Malcolm Manx both a staunch love of liberty and an ancestor from the rugged Basque country. The presence of such a soul mate, a comrade, stomping through the family olive groves in search of peace and old-world wisdom had so excited the murdered partisan that he got right out of his grave, and now he was wandering around pointing at things, always in the dead of night, when everyone was asleep, everyone but Malcolm Manx, who was up and struggling with the big, hard questions of life and art.
For reasons Lucy usually tried not to think about, DV's books sold well. A few had been made into movies, and DV was encouraged by everyone around him to write more. Reviews were rare, however, and seldom favorable, which galled him, but he had learned to take satisfaction in the size of his bank account.
Through eight years and five novels, Lucy Stark had worked for DV. He never asked her what she thought of his books and she never told him. She was, in his phrase, "the assistant," or sometimes, more accurately, "the office." She kept track of everything, made sure he didn't see the worst reviews, kept his ex-wives at bay, handled his mail, supervised the flow in and out of large sums of money, and transcribed every word of his wretched prose from the tattered, indecipherable pages he sent her to the computer he had never learned to use.
In the early years, she had tried to straighten out some of his worst sentences; she had balked when a mixed metaphor strained to include a fourth incongruent element, but those days were gone. DV had complained to his editor, Stanton Cutler, who had called Lucy and explained, politely but firmly, that she must restrain her no doubt rightful enthusiasm. "Just think of it as a draft," he suggested.
Armed with her tea, dosed with painkillers, Lucy returned to her desk and took up the page that had driven her from the room.
A dark and brooding figure beckoned him eerily on the moonlit drive, and Malcolm felt his burning blood turn to ice in his veins.
"Jesus," Lucy said.
The phone rang. She dropped the page, reached over the lamp, caught the teacup in the cuff of her sweater, and watched in horror as the tea spilled out across the manuscript. Bringing the receiver to her ear with one hand, she lifted the soaking page with the other and tried to funnel the hot liquid into the wastebasket. The tea poured out across the carpet.
"Lucy Stark, please?" a woman's voice inquired.
"This is she."
"American embassy in Rome calling. Please hold."
And in the next moment, as she knelt beside her desk, blotting at the tea stains with a page of newsprint hastily torn from last week's book review, a hostile, disembodied male voice came on the line and gave her the astonishing news that DV was dead.
Excerpted from Italian Fever by Valerie Martin. Copyright © 2000 by Valerie Martin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.