by Stan Dryer
( This story was originally Published in the March 2019 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine)
There was no question about it, Harry Fredder knew he must act. For his own peace of mind, for the sake of his wife and for the general wellbeing of the universe, Gammie had to go.
For a long time the thought of doing away with his mother-in-law had only been a vague wish lurking in a dark corner of his mind. She had, after all, not always been so impossible. She had been a great help to him and Martha in the early days of their marriage. Their children had loved her, in fact it was Charles who had named her Gammie with his first spoken word. As a toddler, Linda had been her devoted follower and confidant. Gammie and Gramps had always been available as baby sitters and had taken the children off on long vacations to their summer place in the hills north of San Francisco.
But Linda and Charles had grown up and gone off to college and careers. Gramps had suddenly died leaving Gammie with a far smaller inheritance than she had expected.
Harry had done well at the brokerage firm where he worked. When they downsized, he was offered a golden handshake that left him with an ample portfolio, enough so he and Martha could live out a comfortable retirement. They hoped at last to have the time to do all they had planned to do, free from the responsibilities of family and career. In particular they looked forward to indulging Harry’s great passion, grand opera. For starters, they would take the famous Fifteen in Six in Two Tour, a trip that promised its members the opportunity to attend performances in fifteen different opera houses in six different countries, all in just two months.
But just as he and Martha thought they had reached this moment of peace in their lives, Gammie came to be more and more on their hands. She lived just a plaintive phone call away down the Peninsula in Menlo Park. She came for visits on any excuse and stayed with them forever.
She was never directly insulting to Harry. But she spoke of everyone else with vast disparagement, shredding away at all her old friends with endless bitterness. She saw the world growing steadily younger and richer as she plotted her course to a pauper’s grave.
What worried Harry the most was the change he saw come over his wife in Gammie’s presence. Martha’s whole being seemed to shrivel under her mother’s constant stream of abuse at her friends, enemies or anyone else who might wander into her sights. Yet Martha worried about her mother. She felt they simply could not leave Gammie without emotional support for two whole months.
So the dream opera trip was postponed and then postponed again. Harry’s only chance to indulge in his passion was on the rare occasions when an opera company of merit came to San Francisco. So when the Vitalia Opera Festival Company, famed throughout Italy and the rest of Europe for their Mozart interpretations, came on tour, he purchased two orchestra seats for Don Giovanni. As Gammie had invited herself up for the weekend, he had purchased a ticket for her as well.
From the opening bar of the overture, the real world dropped away from Harry. He became one with the soaring richness of the music, the echoing voices of the singers. His delight came to full blossom in the first act, as Leporello sang, to Mozart’s laughing orchestration, the Catalog Aria, that marvelous listing of Giovanni’s conquests. Harry closed his eyes and drank in the lilting words “cento in Francia, in Turchia novantuna, ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre! Mille e tre! Mille e tre!”
Then, over the sweetness of the music and Leporello’s solid bass, he heard Gammie’s loud whispered demand of Martha. “Is this song a list of that rotter’s seductions?” Harry felt the whisper was clearly heard at least three rows both front and back.
“Yes,” Martha whispered back, “but this is a comic scene. Just enjoy it for the music.”
“I certainly will not. There is nothing funny about philandering. I am going to leave.”
They could not leave Gammie alone out on the street. So, when the Leporello’s aria came to a close, they departed midst the muttered comments of a disrupted audience. As they walked up the aisle to the exit, Harry heard behind him the recitative preceding Giovanni’s and Zerlina’s duet, which Harry considered the most beautiful duet in all of opera. As the door to the lobby closed behind him, faintly came the orchestra’s opening bars and his mind filled in the words. ”La ci darem la mano, la mi dirai di si….” Then they were out on the dark street where the only music was the sound of passing traffic punctuated by the voice of a distant siren.
As they walked to the car with Gammie whining comment upon Mozart’s salaciousness, Harry looked up into the sky and realized that even the stars were screaming for the elimination of this blot upon the harmony of the universe. He knew in his heart that he, Harry Fredder, had been picked to do the job.
It was Martha who gave him the first clue as to the disposal of Gammie. “If Gammie were up here with a place of her own, it would be a lot easier on us,” his wife said that evening. “She wouldn’t stay with us anymore. There’s so much more for a person her age to do here in the City.”
When he had heard this argument before, Harry had gently edged his wife away from such a plan. He knew only too well that having Gammie nearby could only be worse than having her thirty miles away. But tonight, a three step plan snapped into his brain full blown in every detail.. “I really think you have a good idea there,” he said.
Step one was the rental of an apartment on Goldplate Hill. It took some persuasion to get Gammie to look at it. But once in the place with that magnificent view of the sweep of the bay and the mysterious fog banks hanging just beyond the Golden Gate, Gammie was instantly persuaded. Harry did not worry about the cost. If things went as planned, it would be a very short lease.
Step two was easy. While helping Gammie move, Harry took the opportunity to duplicate the key to her garage.
Step three was straightforward. He let himself into the garage one night, slipped under the car, loosened the fittings on the brake lines and relaxed the emergency brake cable.
Goldplate Avenue is one of the steepest streets in the City, ending abruptly at a flimsy fence with a thirty foot drop into the Bay beyond. With her brakes inoperative, Gammie was going close to fifty when she hit the sharp turn at the bottom. But she lost neither control nor cool. Tires screaming, she slammed into the corner, whipped skillfully around a parked truck and turned into an uphill side street where the car slowed to a stop.
It was a remarkable piece of driving, as the Police Lieutenant explained to the television viewers that evening, pointing out her path on a large diagram on which were marked the locations of each of the pedestrians she had avoided. Gammie, bright with excitement, smiled happily at the Lieutenant and warmly shook his hand when he presented her with the Senior Citizen Safety Award.
“Such a nice policeman,” said Gammie the next evening at dinner. “He’s talking about starting a clinic for older drivers. Emergency skills, that sort of thing. He wants me to help run it.”
“How nice, mother,” said Martha. “Isn’t that wonderful, Harry?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Harry. He smiled warmly at Gammie, but his mind was leaping ahead to his next plan for her destruction.
There were, after all, a wide variety of other ways of eliminating a mother-in-law. Poison? With the proper dosage she would pass away with what would be diagnosed as a bit of fatal indigestion. But Harry was no chemist. A poisonous snake? The thought of a cobra stalking a hysterical Gammie to her doom across her living room had tremendous appeal, but he realized that cobras were rare in San Francisco. The purchase of one could easily be traced.
Fire seemed more reasonable. The staircase in the rear of Gammie’s apartment was a natural chimney. There was usually plenty of trash piled at the bottom.
Using a computer at the City Library, Harry found a simple and reliable device for starting such fires. Its timing was reasonably accurate, it was totally destroyed when it ignited and its ingredients could be purchased without questions at any hardware store. It was a simple matter to manufacture the device. Late one night he slipped into Gammie’s building, disabled the stairwell smoke alarm and slipped the device into the bottom of a barrel of newspapers in the hallway.
Harry slept poorly that night, waiting for the telephone to ring. When he dozed, he dreamed of the flames sweeping up the stairwell. But he steeled his courage with the memory of the lost duet. There was, after all, some point where you had to draw the line.
When the telephone rang at seven in the morning, it was not the police with the tragic news, but Gammie, quite alive, her voice bubbling with a vitality that Harry had not heard in years. “I just wanted to let you know that everything is fine; I was afraid you might hear something about the fire on the radio and get worried.”
“Fire? What fire?” Harry felt his voice sounded the proper concern while masking the bitter disappointment in his heart.
“Just a trash can,” said Garnmie. “I was up late working out some ideas I have for abook. I smelled smoke so I went and put out the fire. I don’t see why they’re making such a fuss about.”
“Fuss?” said Harry.
“Some silly business about an award. I’ll see you get invited to the dinner.”
At the awards banquet the Fire Commissioner explained that Gammie’s actions exemplified the kind of cool headedness that every citizen should emulate. She had immediately called the fire department; she had swiftly roused the other residents. Only then had she set to work with an extinguisher to douse the blaze. When she finished the job, she had turned to find three firemen watching her with obvious admiration.
It was a radiant mother-in-law who came over to Harry and Martha’s table wearing her honorary fire helmet. “Such nice, nice men,” she said. “This whole fire business has given me the idea for my first chapter of Senior Survival for Dunderheads. Nothing like personal experience to give a book real impact.”
Harry realized it was time to seek professional assistance.
The gentleman whom Harry contacted was known simply as Wiper. They met at a bench in Golden Gate Park. His face was scarred and ugly, but his eyes gleamed with interest as Harry described his two failures.
“Did you disable the smoke detector?” Wiper asked.
“I replaced the batteries with a couple of dead ones, same brand. Wore gloves of course.”
Wiper nodded in agreement. “Nice thinking. I think you have real potential. If you ever want to turn professional, let me know.”
Harry knew that was supposed to be a compliment but for some reason it didn’t feel exactly like one. “Thanks,” he said.
“You’re still lucky you didn’t get busted. You amateurs always think too fancy. A couple of slugs from close in and you know the job’s done.”
His cool matter-of-factness frightened Harry, but he told himself he was hiring a professional and he did not want this attempt to fail.
“I need to warn you,” said Harry. “She’s dangerous.”
Wiper laughed, a harsh humorless sound. “You’re asking me to blow away an old lady. You tell me I’m to take out Big Eddie or The Claw and I’ll worry. This broad will be a piece of cake.”
“What’s it going to cost?” said Harry
“For you, the special introductory offer. Two G’s now and another three when the job is done.”
The price seemed very reasonable. Harry passed over the down payment in cash and they shook on the deal, Wiper grasping Harry’s hand in his cold gun paw.
On the evening scheduled for the rubout Harry sat in the bedroom pretending interest in a book. But his ears were tuned to the muffled sound of the television that Martha was watching in the living room. As the eleven o’clock news came on, she called out. “Come quick, Harry, it’s Gammie!” Martha did not sound at all upset.
It was Gammie all right, but very much alive as she pointed out to a young reporter exactly what had happened in that alley next to her apartment.
“Good peripheral vision. Seniors need to practice that. Saw the punk going for his gun and managed to make it down behind that car.” The camera swung to the car, its windshield smashed full of bullet holes.
“Remarkable,” said the young man. His reportorial cool was completely blown; he grinned obsequiously at Gammie.
Gammie smiled at the camera. Since her first interview she had picked up a lot of stage presence. “Resources,” she said. “To survive, you must put the materials at hand to work.”
“And those resources were?”
“A hatpin from my hat and a drinking straw from my purse. I put together a simple blow gun. It was then just patience and a bit a impro.”
“Certainly. I knew he thought he had hit me, so I moaned and sobbed a bit and then waited until he came around the edge of the car to finish me off. Then I let him have it.”
“Which she did,” grinned the reporter. “Right in the left eyeball. When the police arrived they found the hit man writhing on the ground with Gammie holding his gun wrapped in a handkerchief.”
“Didn’t want my fingerprints on the gun so some smartass defense attorney could mess with the facts.”
“Now,” said the reporter, “this incident represents the third time in as many months that your life has been in danger. You have exhibited remarkable resourcefulness on all three of these occasions. But do these incidents indicate to you that someone is trying to kill you?”
“Of course,” said Gammie and Harry’s heart tripped up into his throat. “I have suspected a deliberate effort from the start, but this incident confirms my suspicion. Of course I know who it is.”
“You know the identity of the person responsible?”
“That’s what I said. But don’t expect any revelations. In a week or two I’ll take care of the matter in my own way.”
“Did you hear that?” said Martha. “She thinks someone is out to kill her. Who do you supposed would want to do that?”
“Probably just a case of mistaken identity” said Harry. But he was rapidly calculating just how much ready cash he could pull together.
Harry ran. Fortunately he still had in hand the final three thousand that he would not have to pay Wiper. He took a jet to Hong Kong, and purchased a false identity in a back room heavy with the stench of opium. Four days and two continents later he had a job as a jackaroo on a cattle station in the deep reaches of the Australian outback.
It was not an easy life, but Harry took to it. He grew thin and lean with the heavy work. With his bearded face dark from the hot sun he knew that none of his friends would have recognized him. But he knew in his heart that all was hopeless.
One morning some six months after his arrival one of the aborigine stockmen stopped him as he left his cottage. “White woman, constable man, come for you before noon.”
“Woman? What kind of woman?”
The man made a grim face. “Old, ugly woman hunts to kill.”
Where the aborigines got their information no one knew. But it was never wrong. Two hours later Harry was waiting with a rifle behind a rock outcropping as a Land Rover with two people in the front seats came across the plain towards the station, a long plume of dust pointing its path. For a moment he thought of trying to slow them down with a few shots. He might then be able to make it deep enough into the bush to shake them off.
But peering through his binoculars at the approaching vehicle, he saw his mother-in-law pick up a rifle and slam home a clip of cartridges with an expertise that made his knees quiver. As he watched, she patted the butt of the rifle and said something to the constable at the wheel. He threw back his head and laughed in obvious vast amusement.
Harry was standing with his duffle packed when they drove into the station. “You leave a tough trail,” said Gammie as she climbed out of the Land Rover. “But I wanted to tell you in person that all is forgiven and you can come home now.”
Harry could not figure out what story Gammie had told the authorities. The policeman treated him with reasonable respect on the long drive back to civilization, but Harry noted that he kept all weapons well out of his reach.
It was not until he was seated beside Gammie on board the jet and airborne for the long trip back to the States that she made her position perfectly clear,
“You may be wondering,” she said, “why you are not being packed off to prison where you belong.”
Harry said nothing. Could prison, he wondered, be the better of two alternatives?
“First of all, putting you away would break Martha’s heart and I wouldn’t want that. Second, I do owe you something of a debt of gratitude.”
“Yes. If it wasn’t for your clumsy little plans I’d probably be headed for senility in an old age home. But those reasons are minor. As it turns out, I need you Harry.”
“Yes. I need someone I can trust”
“Trust? Trust me?” Harry was getting a bit confused.
“Yes. A full set of the evidence against you is on file in a very safe place. Any more of your fun and games, the entire file goes to the police. Do you understand now why I feel have your total loyalty?”
“I guess so.”
“You see,” said Gammie, “I’m producing and acting in a TV series called The Very Ends of the Earth about how a senior woman hunts down wanted criminals across the world. Guess where I got the idea.”
“Sounds like a nice idea.” Harry was not sure where this was going, but he figured it wouldn’t hurt to play Mr. Nice Guy.
“Glad to hear that, because you’re going to be in it.”
“Yes. You are going to be my side kick, Blathers. Kind of a comedy role. You’re always messing things up, giving away undercover operations, failing to take the safety off your gun when you corner the villain. That kind of stuff.”
“Couldn’t you get someone else for the part? I mean, don’t you think a professional actor would do a better job?”
“Well, we thought about that, but then we ran into the life-threatening bits.”
“Life threatening?” Harry did not like where this was going.
“Yes. In each episode, your character faces death in a unique way. We’ve decided on total reality.”
“Total reality?” Harry was really getting nervous now.
“Yep. Take the quicksand scene in the first episode. You’re up to your ears in the quicksand, going under when Loretta finally figures out she should throw you a rope which you have to grab in your teeth.”
“Shouldn’t this kind of scene be done by a professional stunt man?”
“Well, that’s where we ran into kind of a snag with the reality bit. The quicksand scene is going to be filmed in Kenya at the Bottomless Sands National Park. If a stunt man were to do it, his union would require it be in a tank with a solid bottom. The stunt man would pretend he was drowning by bending his knees. No real danger there. My target viewers are sharp seniors who have seen it all. They know when stuff is being faked.”
“I see,” said Harry. What he saw was a most unhappy future. Death during the filming of a life threatening scene would leave him a hero in Martha’s eyes, but he would still be dead.
When Harry opened the door of their apartment, Martha greeted him without a smile. “You owe me some explanations big time, fella,” were her openers. “You had no right to leave us without saying where you were going. Gammie and I and the kids were worried sick as to what had become of you. You’re just lucky she cared enough to go and find you.”
He mumbled some platitudes loaded with apology. Martha at least let him stay in the apartment, albeit a place of separate bedrooms and full with the chilling atmosphere of sins unforgiven.
He was only there two weeks, weeks mostly spent with a young and perky acting coach who hammered into him the basics of dialog. Then it was off to Kenya and the Bottomless Sands.
Despite the fact that it took three takes to get the scene right to Gammie’s satisfaction, Harry survived the filming of the quicksand episode with only a couple of swallows of sandy water. They did let him practice catching a rope in his teeth beforehand in a shallow water tank.
They filmed the shootout scene in the second episode with live ammunition and in an actual back alley in Nairobi. Just the villain used live ammo. Harry was issued blanks. He escaped with only a minor flesh wound.
And so it went. After Harry had gotten through the filming of the fifth episode with its stampeding rhinoceroses, he began to feel the faint glimmer of hope that he might live at least through the first season.
But the terror lived on. It tightened his gut from the moment he entered the set and held him in its grip through even the most innocent of scenes, where, for example, he had to explain to Gammie, The Hunter, the blundering details of how he had let the totally cornered villain escape. The fear, of course, grew to a heart thumping crescendo in the scenes where he was expected to escape from real and hopeless danger.
One plus to Harry’s film career was the change in Martha’s attitude. Now that he was something of a television star, she had warmed considerably towards him. They were back sleeping in the same bed with the obvious benefits and it was nice, he supposed, to listen to her explain to her friends just how gutsy he was to do those stunts without a safety net.
Martha’s opinion of him improved even more as week by week their ratings improved. While the numbers for Senior’s Over Seventy were disappointing, those for the coveted Twenty to Forty Audience more than made up for it. Apparently that age group took great interest in figuring out how those near death scenes were being faked.
The critics also lauded the series. As Fenton Whalburger, of Video Gazette on Line put it, “While the actress and entrepreneur we all know as Gammie does an adequate role as The Hunter, Fredder, as the bumbling sidekick Blathers, steals the show. We have never seen an actor portray fear so vividly. I’m not talking about the raw fear you see in his face when he plays those life threatening bits. Any actor could pull that off. I’m talking about the subtle background fear that you see in Fredder’s eyes during even the blandest of moments. Only a consummate actor can convey that kind of emotion.”
Eight episodes into the season, Gammie summoned Harry into her office high in the Goldgetter Building in San Francisco. A large and well-appointed space, it was the appropriate setting for the Executive Director of Gammie Productions. His mother-in-law, seated behind her huge oaken desk, smiled at him when he entered. “It seems,” she said, “that we’ve been nominated for a couple of awards by the AAV, you know, the Academy of Adventure Videos. My nomination is, of course, for Realism in Settings for an Adventure Series. Needless to say, I’m a shoo-in for that.”
Harry waited for her to go on. When she did not, he said, “Didn’t you say we’ve been nominated?”
“Oh, that’s right. You’ve been nominated for Best Portrayal of an Emotion, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up. You’ll be up against Sendra Pullheart, the queen of the crying jag, and Jason Punchit, probably for the scene in Gone Whoring Wild where he smashes up a bordello.”
Sure enough, a week later a packet arrived in the mail from the AAV with a nice congratulatory letter, tickets for the awards ceremony and a list of the nominations in all categories. Harry found himself listed and then checked the Realism in Settings category but could find neither Gammie nor Very Ends listed.
Curious, at the next rehearsal he caught up with Gammie in her office on the set. “How come you’re not listed in the award nominations?” he asked.
Gammie gave him a toothache level pained look. “If you want to know, we were disqualified.”
“Here, read this. Maybe you can explain to me what those idiots are thinking.” She handed him a two page letter.
It was from the AAV and politely described why they were disqualifying Very Ends. Harry read through the letter twice, more carefully the second time as an idea of much import formed in his mind.
“I think I understand what they’re saying,” Harry said to Gammie when he finished the second reading. “There’s big difference between reality and realism.”
“Reality is the actual thing. Realism is someone’s attempt to create reality. By using reality you haven’t created anything, so there is no basis for a realism award. If you let the special effects people create a good illusion of reality, that’s realism and you’d be eligible for a nomination.” Harry hoped this made sense. If he could get Gammie on board with realism, his life would become significantly safer.
“Forget it,” said Gammie. “Forget the awards. We’ll stick with reality.”
Harry had expected that Gammie might not want to attend the AAV Awards Ceremony, but she insisted on going with him and Martha. He suspected she went mainly for the opportunity to watch his disappointment.
The Judges must have felt the same as did Critic Whalburger when they handed Harry the Award for Best Portrayal of an Emotion: Fear. Harry was totally surprised when the envelope was opened and his name announced. He stood up under the pleasant umbrella of a standing ovation, hugged Martha and took a quick glance at Gammie. She was not smiling and although her hands were moving back and forth they did not seem to be producing any sound. She did not seem ready for a hug.
On the faint chance that he might win, Harry had written an acceptance speech which laid it on heavy about Gammie. How proud he was of her living demonstration of how seniors could enrich their own lives by enriching the lives of others. How grateful he was for the marvelous opportunity she had given him to fulfill his own ambitions. When he had written these latter words, he had seen them as a blatant falsehood. When he read them to the Ceremony attendees, he suddenly realized how much of a truth they held for his future, and how he just might achieve that future.
Harry left the awards ceremony with Martha clinging tightly to his arm and with worship in her eyes. Gammie walked beside them, holding Harry’s gold plated Viddie. A stream of reporters and photographers followed them, all demanding a word or a pose from Harry. One lone reporter did corner Gammie but only to ask the question “How does it feel to have an award winner as the lead actor in your production?”
Once safely in the limo and headed for the airport, Gammie finally smiled. “You know that episode that we planned for next season, the one where you have to wade through a cave full of poisonous snakes?” she said. “I’ve decided to move it up in the sequence. We’ll be filming it next week.”
Two days later at nine in the morning, Harry walked past the obsequious nods of the production staff and into Gammie’s office without a knock.
Gammie looked up from the papers on her desk and frowned. “Did you make an appointment?”
“Screw the appointment,” said Harry. “We need to talk.”
“First of all, moving up the snakes in the cave bit is fine, but it’s going to be non-poisonous snakes. Ninety-eight percent of the audience won’t know the difference.”
Gammie glowered at him. “What makes you think you can…”
Harry held up his hand. “Can the Executive Producer crap and face facts. Killing me off would be a big mistake. We need each other too much. In fact, I see us as kind of a team.”
“Right. People are watching Very Ends to see whether I get wiped out in the next episode. If I do actually get killed, that’s the instant end of your lucrative little series. On the other hand, I need Very Ends as a venue for my blossoming acting talents. So here we are, son-in-law and mother-in-law, in bed together, platonically speaking.”
Gammie stared at him for a long moment, then smiled. It was not a smile of pleasure but one of considered calculation. “Shit,” she said, “You’re probably right.”
“And one other thing,” said Harry. “We should take the series out of Africa at least for a while. The ratings people say your viewers are getting tired of me getting trampled on or attacked by your menagerie of beasts. The Opera Festival of Vitalia in Italy is coming up next month. An episode with most of the action taking place during live performances at the Festival would add some class to the series.”
“Well that would take some planning. I’m not sure that we could put it together in time. Perhaps we should think about it for next season.”
Harry smiled. “I’ve already talked to the writers and they are wild about it. You’ll have the script on your desk by the end of this week. Parsons has contacted the Vitalia officials and they are totally on board. They see it as great free publicity.”
Gammie did not smile. “You son of a bitch,” she said. “I never could understand why Martha wanted to marry you, but I have to admit, she got herself one clever bastard.”
Harry smiled to himself. He hadn’t told Gammie that the clever bastard had booked the filming of the opera house scenes to coincide with one rehearsal and three performances of Don Giovanni.