The hostess put a glass of eggnog into Will's hand, and he tasted it to find that it was virgin, just plain egg and sugar and milk. That was bad. It was a college, he reminded himself, and while the resident students mostly got plastered in their dorms right now, the collection of writing club geeks and ass-kissing honor students assembled in the lecture hall would be as sober as church ladies. Will, however, did not intend to hold an hour-long speech on a Friday evening without at least some booze in his system, and he excused himself to the bathroom briefly, glass in hand. A minute later, he had dumped about three fingers worth of eggnog into the sink and replaced it with Bacardi from his trusty stainless steel hip flask, the one he had bought on a research trip to Scotland ten years ago. When he emerged from the bathroom again, he held the glass way out of smelling range of his hostess.
They made their way through several corridors, the linoleum floor squeaking under the soles of his almost-new Oxfords. He had picked the Euro-writer outfit for the evening, a pair of tan slacks and a patterned brown sport coat over a black shirt. Even the small-rimmed pair of glasses on the bridge of his nose was part of the outfit. He didn't need glasses yet, technically speaking, but he had started wearing them after his publicist suggested that a Nobel laureate should look properly studious on his book jackets. His hostess led him into a lobby adjoined by a set of slightly opened double doors, and Will could see a stadium-style lecture hall beyond the cracked doors.
Undoubtedly the biggest facility of its kind on campus, he thought sourly. It may hold as many as two hundred students.
"Right in here, Mister Liebkind. Professor Francisco is going to make a quick introduction, and then they're all yours." She smiled at Will, all professional and properly reverent of the superstar author gracing the halls of her college, and he smiled back graciously.
"Thank you, ma'am."
His hostess opened the double doors a little further and gave a wave and a thumbs-up to the speaker behind the podium on the raised stage in the back of the room. Will saw that the lecture hall was packed, with some people standing in the aisles at the side of the room.
All of them wasting a perfectly good Friday to see the Great Novelist, he thought. And I'm wasting it pretending to know that I have a fucking clue about writing.
However, the school's check had already cleared, so Will put on his game face and straightened his coat before opening the double doors fully, striding towards the podium like a boxer before a bout.
The speech was a well-rehearsed one; it was his standard college circuit lecture. The young crowd always liked it, and he had memorized it just about word for word. He started at the lectern, studying the assembly over the rim of his artfully tilted-down glasses, until the room was quiet and everybody looked at him in quiet and curious expectation.
Then he reached into the pocket of his sport coat, brought out a small leather case, and opened it. Inside was a gold medal, and Will took it out of its padded case and dropped it on the lectern, where it landed with a solid "thunk". Then he picked it up again and flipped it onto his palm.
"Heavy little sucker," he said. "Seven ounces and change, I believe. They used to be made of solid twenty-three carat gold, but they switched to eighteen-carat gold twenty-five years or so ago. We younger guys got gypped."
This part usually brought the first chuckles from the crowd, and he was not disappointed. Some of the students laughed, and others murmured to each other when they saw the two-inch disk of gold he now held between his fingertips.
"Anyone know what this thing is?"
"Uh, the Nobel prize medal?" An eager and enterprising bespectacled girl in the front row offered the answer to the obvious question, and he gave a her a smile that made her blush.
"Yep, that's right. The Nobel Prize for Literature. They give you that, and a cool diploma for your living room wall. Oh yeah, there was a bunch of money, too."
More laughter. Good. Will held the medal up for everyone to see, and many of the students craned their necks to get a glimpse at it.
"The front of this thing says, 'And they who bettered life on earth by new found mastery.' It's from the Sixth Song of Aeneid, and it's written in Latin, of course, because that's what academics use when they want to sound smart and relevant."
The crowd was loosening up now, and the spiked eggnog did its part to loosen Will up as well.
"They gave me this thing when I was twenty-five, youngest recipient ever. In fact, I was seventeen years younger than the next youngest recipient on the list, which was Rudyard Kipling. I am speaking from experience when I tell you that giving a gold medal and ten million Swedish crowns to a twenty-five year old English Lit major is not usually a good idea."
He grinned as the crowd broke out in laughter, and took a sip of his drink before continuing.
"Yeah, I still have the medal, as you can see. The diploma is, in fact, on my living room wall, but I have no clue what happened to all that cash between then and now."
Another pause for laughter, and he went ahead with the script, saying the same stuff for the fiftieth time this year alone.
"Now, why am I telling you about all this? I mean, other than to dazzle you with my amazing intellect, of course." He stowed the medal back in its case and snapped it shut.
"The point is that they gave me this thing when I was just a little older than you guys are now. In fact, I was probably a worse slacker than most of you, having changed my major twice in two years. Once it was just so I could take classes with a girl I had a crush on..."
It was a catchy speech. Will had worked on it for a day until he had gotten it right, and it still gave him a lot of mileage. It was the usual motivational junk, personal anecdotes mixed in with college jokes and bits about achievement and the universal appeal of literature, and it was all a bunch of fluffy shit. The college kids, however, tended to lap it up with applause, and he was a popular enough guest at colleges that he could stay in high-dollar hotels for a month straight during graduation season if he booked his appearances right.
Will's brain ran on autopilot whenever he delivered the lecture, pausing in all the right spots and gauging the crowd reactions while his eyes scanned the rows of students for a specific kind of audience member. There were always a few in the crowd, and their presence was so predictable that Will had coined a term for them: glory bunnies. Those were the girls that came to his lectures all classed up, dressed in clothes that were bought or borrowed for the night, and who hung on his lips with what they hoped were sufficiently enigmatic and semi-interested smiles. After a minute or two, he had spotted the most likely candidate in the third row, a stunning blonde with blue eyes that were artfully framed by glasses every bit as unnecessary as his own. She wore her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail, and her outfit was suited for a corporate office floor, not a liberal arts college. There was an air of cool superiority about her, and he made a bet with himself that she'd hang on the sleeve of his sport coat not ten minutes after the lecture was over. His gaze kept crossing hers as he concluded his speech, and near the end she was well aware of his attention, giving him sly little smiles whenever their eyes met.
He concluded his speech, basked in the applause, and listened to the closing comments of the college provost. It was always the same when Will signed up as guest speaker in Academia: a speech for the students, and a reception with plenty of elbow time for the faculty. The press was there, as always, four reporters with their attendant photographers, and even a local evening news crew looking for some six o'clock filler. Will did his usual dignified routine, shaking hands and looking into cameras so the local bigwigs could get a picture of themselves with a Nobel laureate for the office wall.
When the faculty had their fill, it was mingling time for the students. He signed copies of his book, everything from the first hardcover edition down to freshly-bought paperbacks with college bookstore stickers still on them, and patiently posed for pictures with young literature geeks who were practically exploding with excitement.
He almost lost the bet with himself, but the stunning young blonde from the third row finally sidled up to him after the initial rush. She had no book to sign, and no camera, which was refreshing. From a distance, she had been attractive; from three feet away, she was a complete knockout. Even her fellow students, who stood shoulder to shoulder waiting to shake hands with the famous writer, gave her a little room when she moved in, as if they were afraid to come too close. She was clearly well out of the league of these college guys. Here was a young woman used to dating guys who drove Porsches instead of Nissans, and who took her to French eateries instead of Denny's. Her makeup was immaculate, perfectly accenting her blue eyes and high cheekbones, and her jewelry was sparse and classy.
Will shook a few more hands and smiled into a few more cameras, and then it was her turn. She offered him a hand, and he took it, surprised at the firmness of her handshake. She did not offer a name, and merely smiled at him.
"So this is what a Nobel Prize winner looks like," she said, and he grinned.
"No, not really. Most of them are about as old as the tides. I'm probably one of the few who can still work up a good whiz in the middle of the night."
She laughed at this, flashing very white and even teeth. Emboldened, he pressed on.
"The Nobel was meant to bankroll further research for the winners. I have no idea why they insist on giving it to people who are about to retire."
"Isn't it all just a big show anyway? A chance for the academic elite to pat each other on the back?"
"That about sums it up," he responded. "Not that the money isn't nice, mind you."
"I'm sure." She leaned in, and he turned his head as he brought his ear towards her lips.
"Do you actually enjoy these things? You must be bored out of your skull. Our provost is about as exciting as the Home and Garden channel."
He laughed discreetly.
"You get used to it. Part of the package, I guess. They do pay well for an hour of pep talk. I'll catch up on fun when I hit the bar back at my hotel in a little while."
There, he thought. The bait is tossed out.
She took it, too, without a moment of hesitation.
"Where'd they put you up, the Motel Nine? Ours is a poor school, you know."
"Hardly," he said, admiring her ability to work the inquiry into an innocent comment without breaking stride.
"They paid for a nice room at the Regency. If it's not the best place in town, it certainly comes close."
There were more people waiting to get their face time with the celebrity, and she yielded her spot, shaking his hand again and patting his arm lightly with a slender and well-manicured hand.
"It was an honor to meet you, Mister Liebkind. Enjoy your stay at our lovely school." She put just the faintest trace of sarcasm into the word lovely, and he smiled as he watched her stride away, a swan among chickens.
The college had hired a limousine with driver for him. On the way back, Will asked the driver to stop at a convenience store, where he bought a twenty-ounce bottle of Diet Coke. The driver watched with well-concealed amusement as Will dumped a quarter of the bottle onto asphalt of the parking lot. Then he topped off the bottle with the rest of the rum from his flask.
"Rough day?" the driver asked as Will sank back into the leather cushions of the Town Car's back seat.
"No, not really. Just a long one. There an open container law in this state?"
"For soda? Hardly." The driver chuckled. "Just don't breathe in the cop's face if we get pulled over."
"Good enough." Will smiled at the driver and leaned back, taking a long sip from his field-improvised rum & coke.
When they arrived at the hotel, his coke bottle was empty, so he tossed it into the garbage can at the door and went straight to the hotel bar. The Regency was nice, he supposed, but all the upscale hotels tended to look alike after a while. He had taken to rating them by the quality of their bars rather than the rooms, and in that category, this particular hotel did well indeed. They had an amazing variety of single malts at hand, and Will settled at the bar with a glass of Oban on the rocks. The bar was nearly empty on a Friday night, which suited him fine.
He was just finishing his first glass when Miss Third Row walked into the bar. She still wore the form-fitting beige pants and black sleeveless top she had worn back at the school. He watched as she stopped briefly at the door to scan the room. When she saw that he had already noticed her, she crossed the room and sat down on the bar stool next to his own.
"I was going to saunter in and check out the room before coming over, but there's hardly anyone here," she said. "Doesn't leave much opportunity for subtlety."
"No, I guess it doesn't. Drink?"
"What are you having?"
He held up his glass. "Oban. Single malt scotch. May not be your thing."
"I'll try some." She ordered one from the bartender before he could do it for her, and Will was relieved when her ID seemed to pass muster. She didn't exactly look like jail bait, but age was a hard thing to guess these days.
She took a sip of her drink and made a little face before setting the glass onto a napkin.
"Not bad. I usually don't do the hard stuff straight up, but this is kind of interesting." She turned to face him and held out her hand.
"Once more, with a few less people around. I'm Laura."
"Hi, Laura." He took her hand and shook it once again. "I'm Will, as you know."
"Yeah," she chuckled. "It's not like your face wasn't plastered all over campus on those event flyers all week."
"You'd be surprised how few people actually ever recognize me out in public. Suits me fine, though. Once they start putting Nobel laureates on Wheaties boxes, I'll have something to worry about."
"I don't think that's going to happen any time soon," she said.
"You're probably right. Nobody ever asks me to endorse a pair of sneakers."
She laughed at this, her finger lightly circling the rim of her lowball glass.
"I'd do it, too. In a heartbeat. 'This is what I wear when I write, ' and cha-ching, twenty million bucks appear in my account."
"Yeah, well, not in this country," she said. "We Americans are unrefined. I hear they treat writers like rock stars in Europe. Maybe you're moving around in the wrong culture."
Will shook his head.
"I like being able to buy my own groceries without a herd of photographers trying to get my bad side for National Enquirer."
She looked around as if she half expected some tabloid hounds hiding nearby with cameras at the ready, and he could tell that she found the prospect exciting. Her complexion was flawless, either favorable genetics or very skilled application of expensive makeup.
"So, Laura," he said. "What brings you here on a Friday night, having drinks with an old fart when you could be out clubbing or something?"
"You're hardly an old fart," she said, touching his arm. "You're, what, thirty-five? That's hardly ancient."
"Thirty-seven, actually," he replied. "That makes me, what, fifteen years older than you?"
She smiled demurely.
"I'm twenty-four, but thanks for the compliment. And I happen to like older guys. The ones my age are a bit immature."
And not yet well-heeled, he thought.
"You're a bit of an exotic rarity around here," she continued. "I don't often get to rub elbows with accomplished people, and I thought I'd take the chance while it presented itself."
"I see." Will took another sip from his glass, draining the rest of the scotch, and he signaled the bartender with the empty glass.
"What's your major in school, Laura?"
"Business," she replied without hesitation. "I actually sell cell phones at the mall when I'm not in school, if you can believe that."
"Sure," he said. "Hey, I'd buy from you just to see that lovely smile."
She actually blushed, despite the lack of finesse in the compliment. It wasn't his most skilled approach, but he was a little tired and slightly drunk, and he knew that she wasn't here merely to sip a drink and walk off with an autograph. Moreover, she knew it as well.
"Yeah, well, it pays the bills until I graduate, and then I'll start my own business."
"Ambitious." His new drink arrived, and he took the glass and sipped. "You'll leave all those geeks in the dust in a few years, I'm sure."
"Not ambitious enough," she smirked. "When you were my age, you already had that medal, and a worldwide bestseller."
He waved his hand in dismissal.
"When I was your age, my head was full of wool, and I wasn't nearly mature enough for all the attention. That medal just fell into my lap, that's all."
"Well, you have it, and that's something, right?" She hesitated briefly, and her eyes wandered to the coat hanging over the stool next to him.
"Can I see it?"
"Sure," he said, and reached for the coat. He pulled the leather case out of the pocket and placed it on the bar in front of her. She picked it up gingerly and opened it. Then she took out the medal and bounced it a little on her open palm.
"It is heavy, isn't it?"
"Solid gold. I guess the medal alone is worth a few thousand just for the material. Not that I'd try and pawn that thing, or anything."
He watched as she inspected the medal, turning it around in her hand and running her fingers over the raised relief image on the front.
"What is that supposed to be?"
"It's a guy under a tree, being visited by the muse."
"I see." She looked up at him. "And do artists need regular visits by a muse to keep having inspirations?"
"Of course," he replied. "That's part of the package. Didn't you watch 'Shakespeare in Love'?"
"Yeah, I did. Good movie, but in reality I think his main motivation was to make a buck. Or a sovereign, as the case may be."
"Pounds and shillings. And yeah, that's pretty much the universal motivator. No cure for writer's block like an empty fridge and a stack of bills."
"That's not what you're supposed to say," she smiled. "You need to impress me with the complexity of the creative process, so that I may become suitably impressed with your enigmatic and powerful intellect."
Will laughed again. She was remarkably sharp for someone her age, and he found that he enjoyed this conversation far more than he had anticipated.
"You put your finger right on it, Laura. That's right out of the Tortured and Misunderstood Artist playbook. Very good."
"I dated a Visual Arts major once," she said dryly. "Nothing can make up for the hours I've spent looking at his class projects and pretending that a plastic bag blowing across a playground was high art, just because he slapped an indie rock soundtrack over it."
"Hell, try reading through hundreds of versions of some depressed kid's bad attempt at the Great American Novel. Every time I stop somewhere for a lecture, I have some sweaty-handed Lit major hand me a manuscript."
"Do you read them?"
"I used to," he shrugged, "until I realized that there's maybe one out of a thousand of these kids who actually has the talent to publish anything."
"Don't worry," she said with a smile. "I won't pester you about helping me get published or anything."
"Okay. And I won't play the unappreciated artist to try and get you into bed or anything."
She smiled again, a lovely natural smile without pretense.
"Look, I don't want you to think I'm a slut or anything, but if you invited me to your room, there's a better than even chance that I'll say yes."
"Well, then." Will returned her smile. "How would you like to grab a bottle of this overpriced Scotch and continue this conversation in more private surroundings?" He leaned in and lowered his voice conspiratorially.
"My room has cable and an ice cube maker, you know."
She laughed brightly.
"Oh, the possibilities."
Laura could hold her liquor quite well. Up in Will's suite, they went through another half bottle of Oban before he even noticed that she had started slurring her words. They watched a bit of late-night TV, trying to outdo each other with acerbic commentary, and before long, he leaned in and kissed her for the first time. She responded to his kiss readily, closing her eyes and putting her hand on the back of his neck. He drew out the kiss only long enough for their tongues to meet briefly. Always better to leave them wanting more than being bored with too much. She opened her eyes after he had pulled back, and smiled at him.
"That was nice. I wouldn't mind some more of that."
He obliged, and this time her tongue was more adventurous. Soon, they were locked in embrace, and when Jay Leno was finished with his monologue, they had peeled off each other's shirts. He detached himself from her momentarily and leaned back a little to admire the lines of her bra-clad upper body. She was lean and athletic, with a body that was as flawless and well-maintained as her face. Will spent three mornings a week in the gym himself, just enough to keep a reasonably trim physique, and he knew a carefully sculpted body when he saw one. She had gone for toning instead of bulk, and he could imagine that the result of her efforts made every straight guy leer at her when she put in her sixty minutes on the elliptical machine every day.
"Like what you see?" she asked with a coy little smile, and he pulled her close and ran his hands over her back in response. She reached back and undid the clasp of her bra in a swift and well-practiced motion, and then his hands found even better employment on her front.
They coupled on the undisturbed comforter of the king-sized bed, with the TV running unwatched in the background. She was content with him on top of her, moving in a slow and steady rhythm, and he raised himself up on his elbows frequently to enjoy the sight of her smooth and defined curves underneath him. Her breasts were a bit on the small side, but they were firm and perfectly shaped. Her stomach was flat as a board, and the blond hair on her mound was neatly trimmed, undoubtedly maintained every day like a prestigious golf green. Will enjoyed the luxurious friction of her sex as he worked in and out of her in an ever-increasing rhythm, and near the end, she wrapped her legs around him and bucked her hips back at his own, responding to his thrusts in kind as they both neared their release. Eventually, he released his restraint and finished with a flurry of fast and hard thrusts, spilling himself inside her as he came with a groan.
Later, after she had cleaned up in the bathroom, she returned to the bed wearing only his shirt, unbuttoned, with the tails hanging down almost to her knees. She handed him a freshly poured glass of Scotch, with new ice cubes clinking in it, and he took it with a smile.
"Thank you. I'll probably have a bear of a hangover in the morning, but what the hell."
"Hey, if you can drink, you can suffer," she said with a smile. "I actually don't mind the hangover. It's a good reminder that anything enjoyable in this world comes with a price attached. Sooner or later, you have to pay for the fun."
"That's an interesting way to look at it," he said.
"It's the truth," she said, sitting back down on the bed and crossing her legs underneath her, offering him a stimulating view. She took another sip from her own glass and studied the downtown skyline through the window behind Will. Her hair was messed up, but even the blond strands hanging into her face looked as if they had been carefully tugged into place by a skilled coiffeur.
"You should have been a philosophy major," he said with a smile.
"I was," she replied. "Double major, in fact. Philosophy and history. That was before I realized that philosophy majors usually wait tables or park cars for a living."
Will laughed and shook his head.
"You're wise beyond your years, Laura. College must bore you to tears. I doubt they can teach you anything you don't already know."
"Well, I still need the paper at the end, you know."
"You'll get it, and then you'll go places and make fortunes, I have no doubt of that."
"Why, thank you," she said. "Coming from you, that's an endorsement." She chucked softly.
"Imagine that, a Nobel prize winner telling me I am smart. Mom would be so proud. Maybe I'll even tell her about this evening."
"Minus the boffing part, no doubt."
She laughed, flashing those perfect teeth again.
"You don't know my mother. She'd be so proud that she'd probably tell all her buddies at the trailer park about it."
They managed to finish the fifth of Oban, and have sex once more. This time, Laura elected to do the work, riding him at a slow and relaxed pace, and when they were finished, they both fell asleep on the comforter.
When Will woke up in the morning, the TV was still running, and Laura was gone. There were two glasses and an empty bottle of Scotch on his bedside table, and his hangover wasn't quite as bad as he had expected it to be. He climbed out of bed and waited for the room to come to a rest before stumbling over to the bathroom. There were two used towels on the floor, evidence that Laura had showered before leaving. Will climbed into the still-damp shower, turned on the faucet, and stood under the hot water for a few minutes. When his head was reasonably clear again, he stepped out of the shower and grabbed the remaining bath towel from the rack.
He walked into the living area while he dried himself off. There was a hotel notepad placed in the middle of the writing table, and he could see that there was writing on the top sheet. A pen lay across it diagonally, and he lifted the notepad and shook the pen onto the tabletop.
I had a good time last night. Thanks for the company, and the expensive overpriced Scotch. Do look me up whenever you're in town again.
P.S.: I stole your shirt.
There was a phone number underneath her postscript, and he smiled as he folded the note carefully and put it back on the writing table.
Will chuckled as he looked around for the rest of his clothes. Everything else was there—his pants along with his wallet, and his sport coat with the leather case and the heavy gold medal inside. She had taken a modest souvenir, to be sure, but he had no doubt about who was a notch on whose headboard this morning.
Will smiled as he sat down in his bathrobe and picked up the phone to order some breakfast. He had to pick up the Yellow Pages to remind himself where he was: Asheville, North Carolina.
This place wasn't so bad after all, he decided. Graduation time was only a few months away, and he resolved to ask his publicist for a booking or two in Asheville when the time came.