Michael Crichton reclines in his study, exhausted but satisfied. He has completed the first stage of what promises to be a highly-regarded novel; a lusty mix of speculative science, corporate intrigue, observations of the natural world, and horror. A framework is sketched. Characters are outlined: protagonists, antagonists, brain candy, cannon fodder. Three notes are jotted, one atop the other, in the lower right-hand corner. The first reads “Research plants.” The second: “Check basic physics.” And the third: “Need writing not to suck.” He completes the early ritual with a title page. Micro. He then secures the page and his draft notes to his abdomen with strips of duct tape. He dies two days later.
Under the pale light of a quarter-moon, Richard Preston wipes a briny muck from his face as he digs under the grave marker of Michael Crichton. His pace is frenetic. The rumors still ring in his ears: a final manuscript, completed moments before his untimely demise, never having reached the eyes of any editor, never having been digitally transcribed, never found among his personal possessions. Taken to the grave. Richard Preston will have this story. Richard Preston will realize his dream of co-authoring a work with Michael Crichton. Richard Preston will ascend to greatness.
A thud. He has hit lacquered mahogany. He tosses the shovel aside and digs with bare hands, revealing his prize. He tears his shirt on a corner. He does not notice. The lid is opened. With assured purpose, he searches under the body, under the pillow, under the lining. He finds nothing. Panic rises. His frantic gaze then settles on the body. The burial suit is torn asunder. There: a stack of papers, secured to the abdomen by strips of duct tape. Richard Preston grabs at them, secreting them away in his waistband, hidden under torn shirt. In his mania, he tears the final bits. He does not notice a small piece of the lower right-hand corner left behind, hidden under a strip of tape.
Richard Preston has retreated to his shack in the woods. The small room is lit by a trash can fire; smoke roils on the ceiling, escaping through narrow cracks in the thatch. The floor is naked boards. He is bent over a sun-bleached writing desk, poring over the notes. A rising despondency grips him by the throat. Where paragraphs should exist, there are only phrases. Where developed personality traits ought to be, there are only job descriptions. This is unlike any manuscript Richard Preston has encountered before. In fact, the manuscript reads like… draft notes.
The realization sweeps over him: Richard Preston must write words. He has dreaded this day for nearly eighteen years. He never intended to supply great stretches of narrative. The process of fictional composition is mysterious to him. One to whom it is not mysterious is Jezebeth, the demon of falsehoods. It is she who was the true author of The Hot Zone. For Richard Preston harbors a dark secret. Richard Preston is no writer.
Richard Preston is a wielder of arcane magicks.
He steels himself and reaches under his desk. He finds the old mason jar, and brings it to the flaming trash can. The top is discarded. Inside is a mixture of animal bones, widow’s tears, vulcanized rubber, and salvia. Eyes rolled back in his head, he recites a dark incantation and drops the brew into the fire.
A lost child stumbles into the shack, finding Richard Preston face down upon the floorboards, naked, surrounded by aborted attempts at origami, unable to be roused. He steps gingerly over the prone form, avoiding a half-swan. He finds some food — a cabinet full of Triscuits, unpackaged and standing in stacks of twelve — and notices papers on the desk. The papers seem to be draft notes for a story. The child is intrigued. He won a writing award in seventh grade before running away from home. He spots something in the lower right corner: “Research plants” is scrawled just above a small tear in the paper.
He then notices a cardboard box in a far corner, decrepit with age and thorough with rot. He walks over to it and tugs at the top flap. The soggy material disintegrates, and a hundred unsold hardcovers of The Demon in the Freezer spill to the floorboards. He picks one up. It fills him with a sense of disquiet; he does not think of reading it. He turns it over instead. On the jacket cover is a picture of the author. He looks from the jacket to the man on the floor, and back again. He realizes that this is the Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone, inspiration for him to quit school in the seventh grade after realizing that a world with ebola is a world without meaning. Clearly his hero has come into a bad way. The child will help Richard Preston in his time of need. He returns to the writing desk, grabs the draft notes, and strides purposefully out the door, stepping over a half-tulip, heading for the library.
The child returns to the shack, a stack of paper clutched tightly to his breast. Again he steps over Richard Preston’s sprawled figure. He sets the papers neatly beside the typewriter. He has combined an old biology report on rainforests with a character narrative framed by the draft notes. He has followed all of the notes that were on the page. He has followed none of the notes that were not. He stokes the trash can fire, bends down, sweeps aside a half-sailboat, and gives Richard Preston a kiss on the forehead. He walks into the woods. He is eaten by wolves.
Richard Preston has taken an upright position. His head swims, his hands shake, and his stomach seizes. This is Jezebeth’s toll; he can feel the gap left in his abdomen where she burrowed. He is ravenous for Triscuits.
He crawls through a family of half-frogs to his writing desk to see what the demon may have wrought on his typewriter. He is surprised to find a very neat font, with nonuniform letters, line widths bound precisely to one-inch margins around the page. This is not at all like what happened last time. And it is theoretically impossible for a typewriter. Such is the nature of the dark arts.
He quickly tucks the new manuscript into an envelope; to gaze upon it too carefully before it enters the editing process would be to undo the work entirely. But he does notice a Post-It affixed to the title page, with what appears to be the hesitant calligraphy of a childlike hand. Creepy. He tosses the note directly into the trash can fire, sending its demonic machinations back to Hell. He then seals the envelope and gives his story unto the mail, addressed to HarperCollins. Richard Preston returns to the floor, the weight of destiny pulling him down. He sleeps.