Standing in line to meet world-renowned author Jeremy Argent, Michael Price was going over in his head what he would say to the other man—Good morning. I’ve read all of your books…—just as he figured everyone else in line was doing. It wasn’t every day that one had this chance, even if it came with a cost: $22.95 (plus tax) for Argent’s latest effort. But Michael Price wasn’t much bothered by that; he knew the outlay was well worth the opportunity.

When it was finally his turn to step forward to have his copy of the new book signed and to speak to the author, if he wanted to—and indeed he wanted to—Michael Price almost started speaking in the middle of his prepared remarks, at the place he’d gotten up to internally when the moment arrived to voice his thoughts. Fortunately, he realized the mistake he’d nearly made and rewound to the beginning of his mentally recorded loop before pressing play, as it were. Or, rather, before turning up the speakers, he supposed.

That’s just the sort of thing Jeremy Argent would write, Michael Price thought, and not without some shame. Just the sort of thing he’d write and get wrong.

“Good morning,” Michael said to the author. “I’ve read all of your books, and I think you’re a terrible writer. Really: terrible.”

Jeremy Argent, seated in a metal chair at a plastic-and-metal table, looked up from what he was doing—signing his name with a fine-point marker onto the title page of his latest bound and published collection of short fiction pieces, Building More Storeys, recently released—and said, simply, “Pardon?”

“You’re a lousy writer,” Michael Price told Jeremy Argent. “I’ve read everything of yours available for public consumption, and I haven’t liked any of it. I wonder with every new book whether anyone, including you, reads your work before it’s published. Putting aside that most of the time you don’t even think of the plots for your pieces yourself—a fact that at least you acknowledge, with asterisks—you over-explain just about everything—as if you expect your stories of murder, adultery, perjury, theft, and insurance fraud to be consumed by seven-year-olds—your prose is simplistic in the extreme, and you evidently have never heard Americans talk. Why do you even bother trying to have even some of your stories take place in the United States if you’re going to have every single character speak English English? You had a doctor in Florida tell a nurse that he was going to recommend her for a promotion and a ‘rise in salary.’ A rise in salary! There isn’t a person in this country who has ever gotten a ‘rise’ in salary. We get raises here. And nobody caught that before that awful book went to print? Even if you have no clue how anyone but upper-middle-class Britishers speak, don’t you have an American editor?

“Your work is crap,” Michael Price concluded. “Or, as they might say in Florida: It’s right rubbish.”

Then, for a moment, neither man spoke.

“Are you finished?” But this was Michael Price speaking again, pointing to the book on the plastic-and-metal table behind which the other man sat in a metal chair… and the pen in the other man’s hand, hovering over the title page of that book. Michael Price couldn’t quite see whether Jeremy Argent had completed his inscription, and he would need a full autograph in the book, or the woman (whose son, also a Michael, was a huge fan of Jeremy Argent) with whom Michael Price had made an arrangement earlier and who was now just waiting—in the bookstore but off the line to meet the celebrity author—wasn’t going to pay him for it. And then Michael Price would have been out the $22.95 (plus tax), more or less unnecessarily. Because he could always get Jeremy Argent’s books from a library, sooner or later, which was ideal, since he just could not imagine why anyone would ever part with any real money for the privilege of reading some of the worst writing available for sale. On the other hand, if he’d had to shell out the money just to have been able to say his piece, it might have been money well spent after all.

That afternoon, Michael Price was having a drink in the lounge of the world-renowned Puritan Hotel when a man approached him and asked, “Mitchell, isn’t it?”

Michael looked up to see none other than the author Jeremy Argent standing by his side.

“No,” the seated man said. “It’s Michael.”

“Ah, yes,” Argent allowed. “Michael. I’m sorry. I must have signed books for four hundred people this morning. Michael… Prince, if I’m not mistaken.”

“You are indeed again mistaken,” Michael said. “It’s Price.”

Jeremy Argent chuckled. “Maybe you’re right about me. I make everything British. Might I join you?”

Michael Price thought about this for a moment. A famous author was asking his permission to sit with him in a hotel itself famous for being where the most celebrated wits and wags of decades prior had once sat and traded bon mots and planned elaborate pranks. How could Michael Price say no?

“Of course,” he said.

Jeremy Argent dropped into an overstuffed armchair opposite Michael Price. “Well, this is much nicer than what the bookstore provided, I should say.”

“I imagine it is,” Michael responded, figuring he had nothing to lose by being polite. He might dislike Jeremy Argent’s entire professional body of work, but he had to admit to himself that he had nothing against the man personally, being, of course, that he didn’t know him personally.

“Quite the coincidence running into you here,” Argent remarked.

“You see,” Price rejoined, “that’s just what I’m talking about! If I didn’t mention it this morning, I think your plots are contrived to the point of complete absurdity, and it’s in no small part because you insist on characterizing as coincidence circumstances that are nothing of the sort! Our meeting in this bar is one of the more likely things that has happened today, all things considered. You were signing books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, of which there are now fewer than ever. Really, there’s just one major chain still up and running in this country. And the flagship store—where it would make the most sense for you to hold court in this city—is a block away from the train station that serves not just the entire commuter rail system but no fewer than seven subway lines as well. And even though you probably took a private car from the airport, and you’ll be taking a private car back again when you leave, it makes sense for you to stay at a hotel in this neighborhood, to be near the bookstore, if not the station.

“Now, I was at your book signing this morning, which already puts us in the very same place just hours ago. And that wasn’t coincidence, of course: I went to the bookstore specifically to see you. Since I don’t live in the city, I’ll be taking a train out to return home… but since telling you off didn’t take much time at all, it only makes sense that I’d stick around the city for at least a few hours before heading out again. Getting a drink is a good way to spend time waiting for a train, so a bar is the likeliest place I’d end up. That I chose this particular bar isn’t so much a coincidence as it is due to the fact that almost every other bar near the train station is a dive. But I suppose there’s something to be said for the fact that, had I thought about it, I’d probably have realized that you were likely staying at this hotel, so if I’d wanted to reduce my chances of running into you, I’d probably have just gone to one of the hundreds of dives within three blocks of the station, knowing that you, with your British sensibilities, would never be caught dead in one.”

“Indeed,” Argent said. “I’d much prefer to be caught dead here.”

That got a laugh from Michael Price.

“Well, I’m not here to kill you,” Price assured Argent. “After all, this meeting is just a coincidence.” And that got a laugh from Argent.

By this time, a waiter had appeared, quite quietly. Jeremy Argent ordered a single malt Scotch, neat, then asked Michael Price what his pleasure was.

“Another gin and tonic, please,” Michael told the waiter.

“House gin again, sir?” the waiter inquired.

“Absolutely not,” Jeremy Argent put in. “Do you have Boodles?”

“We do, sir.”

“Excellent,” Argent said. “Boodles and tonic for my companion, then, please.” To Michael Price, Jeremy Argent said, “You’re in for a treat. My treat,” he added.

“Thank you,” Michael Price said, and he meant it.

“Now, about your disapproval of my dialogue….”

“Oh,” Price said. “So this is a business lunch, is it?”

“We don’t have to talk shop,” Argent said, with a good-natured snicker, “and please correct me if I’m wrong in presuming that writing is at least an avocation of yours, if not your vocation… but I pride myself on being open to constructive criticism, and you’ve made no secret of having some to offer. I’m all ears, as you might say in the States. Is that right?”

“It’s a start,” Michael Price conceded.

“Let’s continue, then,” Jeremy Argent suggested, “but not here, not in the open. Will you join me in my suite? There’s a bar,” the famous author mentioned, as if that would persuade the other man, were he on the fence.

“Sure,” Michael Price said. “But just do us both a favor: Don’t ply me with drinks and then hit on me. There’s not enough alcohol in the world.” After a reflective pause, Michael Price added, “This is some terrific gin, though.”

“Do you really like it?” Argent asked, but before Price could answer he said further, “I’ll ask for a bottle to be sent up. Let me just give the waiter my room number, and I’ll meet you at the lifts….”

The men had been in Jeremy Argent’s suite only moments before there was a knock at the door—a porter traded a bottle of Boodles for a tip from the famous author, though Michael Price wondered if the porter had any idea who Jeremy Argent was. Certainly, the man was physically undistinguished: not too tall, not too short; not especially handsome but not ugly; neither overweight nor underfed, and not particularly muscular but not at all frail. He could have been any man in his early sixties, as far as his looks went. In fact, Michael Price thought, he might have made a good spy in his youth, being that he was so bland in appearance. Jeremy Argent might have blended in—and slipped away from—anywhere unnoticed. Small wonder, then, that he had sought some measure of fame through his writing. The much greater wonder, Michael Price thought, is that he’s achieved any!

“I have to confess,” Argent had begun saying to his guest, “that I’m glad we ran into each other again.”

“I warned you…” Price said.

“Stop,” Argent said. “I’m not making a pass at you. I’m a happily married man. In fact, my wife usually accompanies me on these book tours, but this time around she happens to be on one of her own.” Michael Price realized that he’d had no idea that Jeremy Argent was married to a writer, and then he realized that he didn’t care even the slightest bit whom Argent was married to. But he wondered if he’d hate her work, too.

“You’re not going to try to talk me into stealing something for you, then, are you?” In half, if not more, of Argent’s stories, someone used someone else to steal something. No one in Argent’s stories was very likeable—but at least most of them got what they deserved in the end.

“Nor that,” Argent assured Price. “We’re not in one of my stories now,” he said. “But I do want your help with one that I’m in the middle of.” The author handed Michael Price a drink. “You’re absolutely right: I’ve never gotten American speech down properly. So maybe you can coach me.”

“Maybe,” Michael Price said, noncommittally. “What’s the story?”

“Well,” Argent said, “the relevant set-up is a lot like this one: Two men in a hotel room. One older than the other. The men are having a drink, at the older man’s request. The men have just met, but the older man wants to tell the younger man something. Something important.

“So I thought that maybe I could rattle off some things that the older man might reveal, and you could tell me what you think the younger man would say to each. Can we try that?”

“Why not,” Michael Price said. “At the worst, your dialogue will improve, and I’ll know that I helped you write a story I’m sure I’ll despise and resent.”

“Win-win,” Argent remarked. “Eh? Give me just a moment, please.”

Jeremy Argent stepped from the outer room where the men had been talking to retrieve a writing journal from the bedroom, flipping it open to a marked page as he returned.

“If I told you that I was your biological father,” Argent said, “what would you say?”

“I’d say, ‘No! That’s not true! That’s impossible!’,” Michael Price responded. “I might add: ‘I was told you betrayed and murdered my father!’” Michael could see that Argent didn’t get the joke. Argent was taking notes. Michael Price sighed inwardly.

“What if I said that I was a… secret agent whose superiors had betrayed him, and that I needed you to… help me deliver a top-secret package to sympathetic operatives just across the border who——”

Michael Price rolled his eyes and interrupted: “I’d say that you needed a whole new plot! Come on, man. For real? Long-lost fathers revealing themselves to sons… burned spooks recruiting civilians to finish impossible missions? These have been done to death! Then they’ve been brought back to life and done to death again!

“You know what galls me the most about your books?” Michael Price asked rhetorically, getting a full head of steam. “The blurbs. Not even the stories themselves, which are hackneyed and, much more often than not, not even the fruits of your own imagination. But the praise heaped upon you is what I find absolutely maddening. I realize that any publisher with any clout can buy good quotes for a book jacket, but when someone actually compares you to Roland Dale… that makes me think about buying as many copies of your books as I possibly can, just to keep them from being read. Roland Dale is my favorite author, and the highest praise I’ve ever gotten, from anyone, is comparison to him. Maybe I’ve heard that twice, but both times it made me damned proud of my work. Then to read something like, ‘Jeremy Argent is a worthy successor to Roland Dale’—on the cover of one of your collections of stories with pilfered plots and the worst dialogue written by anyone who has ever had a conversation with another person… well, that’s what really kills me!”

“Fair enough,” Jeremy Argent conceded, nodding, appearing to write in his journal everything his guest had just said. Finally, he looked up from the book again and asked the younger man, “Now, what if I told you that I’d poisoned your drink?”

Howard Bates stood in line to meet his favorite author, going over in his mind what he would say to him when it was his turn at the plastic-and-metal table. Howard Bates was clutching in sweaty hands a copy of the author’s latest collection of short stories—Murder, I Reckon—a book Howard Bates, and hundreds of thousands of others, had looked forward to since the publication three years earlier of Building More Storeys.

When finally Howard Bates was given permission to approach the table, he blurted out, without preface, “I’ve read all of your books, and I love them. I think the stories in this book are some of your best.”

“You’ve read these already?” Jeremy Argent asked his fan.

“Most of them. While I was waiting,” Howard Bates said.

“That’s quite impressive,” Jeremy Argent remarked.

“I especially liked the one about the critic who gets his comeuppance in the hotel room, and I noticed that there’s no asterisk next to the title of that one. So it’s not based on a true story.”

“No,” Jeremy Argent said with a chuckle. “Of course not.”

“Right,” Howard Bates said. “Of course not. And although I saw the end coming pretty much from the very start of the story, you know what they say about the ice cream truck, I’m sure.”

“The ice cream truck?” Jeremy Argent asked.

Howard Bates suddenly realized that he didn’t know whether they have ice cream trucks in England, where Jeremy Argent was from. “An ice cream truck is a truck that——”

“No, no,” the author interrupted. “I know what an ice cream truck is. But what is it that people say about them?”

“Oh,” Howard Bates said, recollecting himself, suddenly amazed and quite pleased to realize then that he was going to share a bit of wisdom about writing with the world-renowned Jeremy Argent. “They say that even though you can hear the ice cream truck coming, you’re still happy when it arrives. And in that story, even though I knew the obnoxious critic wasn’t going to make it out of the hotel room alive… still, when, what’s his name… Mitchell Prince… just rolls his eyes again, into the back of his skull, but doesn’t say anything at all… well, that was just a perfect ending.”

“Asterisk” appeared in Popcorn Fiction.