Prince was laid out in sea green on his hospital bed with bandages swathed over a gunshot wound to the head. Alec looked on as a nurse checked all the pipes flowing in and out of him. The room was beep, click, whirr, puff; machine breathing for him, heart playing a steady rhythm. On the wall a brain-scan readout showed that Prince was probably dreaming about counting grains of sand.
“Before you lies a man named Prince. Prince Cockburn,” Alec said.
The nurse looked up from her report and waved it with a sympathetic look.
“I wouldn’t believe you if I didn’t have this, but it’s right there. ‘Cockburn, Prince P.’ Are you related to him?”
“Not really. I was his replacement.”
She checked back a few pages, “No next-of-kin.”
“None,” Alec said, “His mother and father both died far away from here. His sister died when she was four years old. His actual real brother received a DUI from God. He’s the last Cockburn he knew existed in this world.”
The nurse offered him a chair, which he declined. She took a seat and they both stared at him. Prince sat comatose: bald, unshaven, a tattoo of a black dog on the back of his hand. Alec saw the rest of his tattoos in his mind’s eye underneath the blankets: a bottle of vodka with “Murder Weapon” scrawled across the label, the words “CLEVER RUSE” over his crotch and a very old double-fisted peyote button done before he had dropped out of college.
“So, you two were close?” the nurse asked.
“I knew him very well, yes. I was about to be his literary agent. I suppose I am, sort of, but not in any official way. Prince has been a writer since he was six, maybe seven years old. They tried to discourage it out of him, the both of them. They smiled and nodded and told him that it was admirable, cute even, that he wanted to write for a living. But they never validated it.”
“His mother and father. The dead ones. I’m just thinking that I was quite satisfied when they died. Prince loved them to the end, and I tried to appreciate them for a while, but I’m starting to think they never did a thing worth praising.”
“Not to speak ill of the dead,” she offered, perhaps hopefully. Alec shook his head,
“No, I’m quite fine with it.”
“But- well, you know. They raised him, fed him, changed his diapers … right? How can you be so callous?”
Alec chuckled contrary to how he felt watching that machine pump air in, out, in, out,
“Yes, they weren’t complete monsters. They attended to his most basic needs. What heroes. Exemplars, really.”
The nurse was silent. Alec started to feel a bit guilty.
“I’m feeling … too honest today. Stress; you know how it goes, you’re a nurse.”
“What was he like? Prince. As a person.”
“Warm. Casual. Drank too much. Obsessed with one thing and one thing only: writing novels.”
“Was he good at it?”
“Yes and no,” Alec frowned, “Pardon me, I need to make a phone call.”
Before he left he got the nurse’s name: Patricia. On the hospital payphone he dialed the director’s office of Fanfare Publishing House. As the phone rang he watched the hospital hallways dull and lifeless. In the distance an attendant shifted through the frame of the hallway, rolling something covered in a sheet, then out of sight. Everything was green, white, an ice blue color. The director’s secretary secretary picked up.
“Yes, I’m a Mr. Careful, Alec Careful. I need to speak to your boss again.”
“Again? Have we … spoken before, Mr. Careful?”
“Go to his office. Rap on the door frame. Tell him that a man named Prince Cockburn is still alive, that a machine is breathing for him, that nobody knows who shot him and that a man named Alec Careful needs to arrange a meeting for as soon as possible about the rights on Mr. Cockburn’s manuscript.”
Lynne got all of it eventually and Alec put down an afternoon meeting with the director. She tried to ask him for more details but the phone was back on the hook and he was in Prince’s room again. Patricia sat there staring at him. Alec asked if she was okay.
”Yes. Well … I don’t know. I’m on break, really,” she twirled a curl with her index, “Normally I go smoke but I felt compelled to stay here and watch him. Since you told me he was a writer I’ve been thinking through all the books I’ve read trying to place the name. It sounds familiar.”
“You’re wasting your time,” Alec replied.
She looked stunned, “Wh- why?”
Alex sighed, “Because he’s never gotten a single thing published.”