"As you journey through life, take a minute every now and then to give a thought for the other fellow. He could be plotting something." [Hagar the Horrible]
On a seventy-degree-seventy-per-cent-chance-of-rain Tuesday in September, a tall blond man with an Abe Lincoln beard stepped onto a brick, suburban doorstep and poked the doorbell. He hunched his shoulders, rocked on his heels a couple of times, and patted his sports jacket for cigarettes before the door swung open and a woman peered out. It took three seconds for him to eye her from tousled hair to bare feet and pronounce her, "Connie!"
She tugged her sweatshirt tail, pulled in her stomach and answered, "Doug!"
"I'm not going to invoke that old lie about how you haven't changed, but you still do justice to a pair of jeans."
"Come in, Doug. It's been so long—gosh, a decade."
She led him into a high-ceilinged room that appeared to have recently entertained a poltergeist. Connie stirred the air with her hands. "Oh, not in here. I'm washing walls. Let me show you my office."
It was tiny, what must have originally been a powder room, windowless, and overpowered by one small desk, two chairs and three bookcases. Doug dropped into the visitor's oak chair, obviously hijacked from the dining room, and rolled onto one hip to reach the lighter in his pants pocket. Since there was a glass ashtray beside her laptop, he didn't ask if he could smoke.
"Lordy, I look like summer camp," Connie gushed. "Wait a minute till I slip into something less comfortable. Get you something to drink?"
"No thanks." Doug set fire to his cigarette and stretched out a leg to return the lighter to his pocket. As her footsteps padded away, he squinted across the desk at the bookshelves, reading titles. He shook his head and tsked—mostly mystery fiction.
Connie came back wearing a yellow dress. white sandals, and blue eye shadow. She settled into her pleather executive chair with a sigh.
Doug motioned at a bookcase. "I see you haven't outgrown your taste for blood."
"You never sent me anything you wrote, autographed or plain, to elevate my literary tastes."
"So why didn't you buy my outpourings? Your husband wouldn't dream of giving away his legal advice, would he?"
"Paul and I are thinking about divorce."
"Sorry." He frowned. Shook himself. "But that's not the point."
She showed teeth in a momentary smile. "So tell me where you've been. Except for a Christmas card now and then, I wouldn't have known you were still alive. When we were in high school we were so tight, it would've taken a crowbar to separate us."
"Mostly in California. Or abroad—Italy." He modestly dusted lint off one knee. "Writing, of course. My forté is biographical nonfiction. I've met some very important people."
She annoyed him by not asking who. Instead—"You could have at least attended an alumnus. You didn't even come this June and we were the twentieth year class. Have you had lunch?"
He leaned to pick up the ashtray and tapped his cigarette over it. "You should see the places I've been and things I've done in the name of research. Drugs, gambling, prostitution, gang wars . . . . I've written and sold some great material on some horrible facts of life. I wonder what a dedicated writer wouldn't do to authenticate a true story."
Connie picked up a pencil to worry between her fingers. "Sure. I know it's important to experience everything you want to write about."
"Exactly!" His sudden enthusiasm startled her into dropping the pencil. "Exactly," he repeated more quietly. "I'm glad you understand, because that's my reason for coming here."
She laughed. "You're going to write an article about washing living room walls?"
"No. Blackmail. The psychologies of the victim and the criminal. Their interaction. How the experience affects the lives of each. I think I could stretch it into a book." He was flashing little smiles and speaking too fast. "About the time I got interested in blackmail, there was a mention in the L.A. paper about Paul challenging The Grand Old Lady of the fourth district this November. It had to be a sign, don't you think?"
"I'm afraid you lost me."
"I'm going to be the blackmailer, and you are going to be the blackmailed," Doug chortled. "You are going to pay me money to keep me from telling the world the truth about the wannabe statesman, your husband Paul Willett."
"Ex-husband," she choked out. "What truth?" But she put her hands over her ears to keep it out.
"That he hit a boy with his car and left the scene. That he didn't try to get help that might have saved the kid's life."
"It was years ago. We were—graduation night. The three of us. Dumb kids. And we've suffered mental anguish enough to pay for that mistake many times over."
"True, all true. Plus Paul had to sacrifice his '76 Ford over a cliff to cover for the broken headlight."
"You wouldn't blab that old story, It would ruin your reputation, too."
"Darling Constance." He laughed. "Do you think a man who's run with pimps, drug dealers, and the like has a an image to uphold?" He ground his cigarette to a pulp in the ashtray and set it on the desk beside a framed photograph. "Paul Junior?" He flicked a finger at it.
She snatched the photo up and squeezed it to her chest. "Please, Doug. Write about robbing banks or selling government secrets or fishing without a license!"
"Be a good sport, Connie. Just thirty thousand. In cash."
"I don't have that much."
He gave her a look.
"I don't! We're divorcing. All our assets are tied up. Even if we weren't splitting up, we don't have much money. Look at this tiny office. I have to wash my own damn walls!" She set the photograph on the desk in order to drop her face into her hands. Silence stretched. She sniffled. "I'm a writer, too, you know. Just because I give away my poetry and prose to small presses that only pay in copies of their wretched magazines, it doesn't mean I'm not a writer."
"I'm not Danielle Steel," she muttered.
"Twenty. Due tomorrow."
She slapped the desktop, knocking over Paul Junior.
Doug sighed. "Nineteen and no more argument."
"Sixteen, and I'll have it for you this afternoon."
He scratched at his beard. Grinned. "I'll come back around four, shall we say?"
"No. You aren't welcome in this house anymore." She sounded just like his mother. "Meet me by the creek in Water Works Park. You know, where we used to wade. You'll be right at home there. Remember the leeches?"
At four o'clock, the seventy percent odds on rain were paying off. It dripped from Doug's brow, pasted his slacks to his spindly calves, and made his sports jacket smell like wet sheep. He slogged his way to the deserted creekside, and into the open shelter house overlooking it.
He didn't have time to locate a cigarette before Connie rushed in. She was dressed for the weather and intrigue—colorless trench coat, opaque plastic hat with brim pulled low, black gloves, nondescript boots. She agitated her classic, black umbrella before depositing it on the picnic table. She fumbled with her shoulder bag and it plummeted to the puddled concrete.
"I'm nervous. You can put that in your story," she said as he retrieved it for her.
Doug watched her fingers worry the catch open. "You're really taking this quite well. I'd like to have seen Paul again, but I guess under the circumstances . . . ."
Connie lifted the flap of her bag and let it drop shut again. She swiveled, peering every direction. "I don't want anyone to see us."
"There's only me, you, and a spider by your left foot."
She began a second reconnoiter.
Doug said to her back, "Did I mention that I won't make any further demands for payment?"
She groaned. "That's such a cliché." She flipped open the bag and rummaged inside. "Did I mention that I've been taking an online class to improve my writing?"
"Super. Umm, Connie, could we hurry this up a tad?"
"I don't hate you, Doug. I do understand about experiencing things firsthand—my instructor recommends it, too. Me, I"ve decided to write murder mysteries." And she brought the pistol out to fill Doug with the firsthand experience of death.
That same night while Connie's fingers skimmed the keyboard, churning out the first chapter of Murder Fouls Most, Doug boiled up from the floor and promised her he'd decided to write a ghost story.