By Stan Dryer
Buck opened the door. Marla was standing there, sulky, long-legged Marla wearing glued-tight jeans and a cashmere sweater that Buck figured must have cost her husband the loot from two hours’ billing when he was still a lawyer for the rich and famous.
“What do you want?” Buck said.
“What the fuck do you think I want? I’m moving in.”
“Aren’t you supposed to ask me politely first?”
“Weren’t you supposed to ask me politely first if you should put my husband in the crowbar hotel for twenty plus?”
“Point taken,” said Buck. He stepped back and Marla glided through the door pulling a suitcase on wheels behind her.
“Where’s your bedroom?” she said. “And if I find some scumbag doxy’s clothes in your closet, they’re dumpster fodder.”
(The ending of the last chapter of Slammer and the Social Whirl by Martin Wielman)
# # #
The couple in matching ski masks snatched Martin out of his driveway, just as he got out of his car on a dark night in September. He had not even sensed their presence until he felt the gun pressed in his back and the woman said, “Just come along quietly if you value your life.” His first reaction was not a stab of fear but, what a hackneyed line. If I used that in a book, my critics would tear me apart.
If the line was bad, the gun was genuine, and he walked silently ahead of the couple down to the end of the driveway. They relieved him of his cell phone and wristwatch, then blindfolded and gagged him. They loaded him quickly into the back of their SUV, tied him down so he could hardly move, and threw a blanket over him as a bonus.
After that first command, the couple hardly spoke, just a few words here and there to coordinate their actions. They moved so quickly and efficiently Martin suspected this was not their first kidnapping.
The car doors clicked shut and the vehicle moved away from his house. They drove carefully; obviously they did not want to draw the attention of the police.
Buck Slammer would never have let this happen, was Martin’s first thought when his mind settled down. Buck, his tough, smart-mouthed detective, would have noticed and worried about an unfamiliar car parked at the end of the driveway. Whenever Buck viewed a crime scene or scanned the street in front of his apartment, his favorite comment to his sidekick Marla was, “What’s out of place here?” Even ex-socialite Marla understood that mantra. She was, after all, the one who had spotted a funny antenna on the car that turned out to be full of FBI agents in Slammer Goes Rogue.
But Martin had not noticed the SUV. It had been dark and he had been trying to work out at least a rough idea of the plot for his next novel. He had not yet reached the panic stage, but it was coming close. His half-million dollar advance was based solely on the faith of his publisher in a dead-end first chapter and an incredibly shallow synopsis. He was going to have to ditch both that chapter and the synopsis, and start afresh. But with what?
He dragged himself back to the reality of the moment. He should be trying to figure out where his kidnappers were taking him. Buck had known within a block exactly where he had been taken for questioning by Slimeface Eddie in Slammer Goes Undercover. But Buck hadn’t been blindfolded, just forced to lie on the floor on the back seat of the limo where he could count the number of streetlights they passed by their glow. All Martin could figure out was that they were still passing through the center of his town as they stopped periodically, obviously for traffic lights. That was about it.
Then the SUV picked up speed and they drove steadily for what must have been over an hour, giving Martin plenty of time to think. Why had they picked him to kidnap? That answer was obvious. His publisher had made sure press releases describing his half-million advance had been sent to every major media outlet. The only person in the world who hadn’t heard about it would be a hermit living in a cave without internet access.
He knew there was no chance he could persuade his publisher to give him advances without the attached publicity. Good publicity was the best way to hook new readers who would buy a book under the impression something worth a half-million bucks ought to be a pretty good read. Unfortunately that was not the case. He needed a totally new plot. Had he gone stale? Where was the old creative mojo?
He brooded on these matters until the SUV slowed, turned, and stopped. He heard the faint sound of a garage door opening; the car moved ahead, the engine went silent and the garage door closed. The couple came around to the back of the SUV, opened the lid and dragged him out. His feet were loose, but his hands were bound in front. Still gagged and blindfolded, he was led into the house by the man who gave him curt instructions along the way. “Two steps up.” “Turn to the right here.”
The couple picked him up and carried him partway up a stairway then let him walk the rest of the way. Very professional, Martin thought. There was now no way he could know the number of steps on the stairway. Then he realized their move was also a positive sign he would not be killed after the ransom was collected. Unless they just want me to believe that.
He was led down a hallway, into a room, and pushed into a chair and tied to its back. The woman took off his gag and blindfold.
He was in a room that had obviously been carefully and deliberately made featureless. The floor was bare wood. The blank walls were beige, the color of the bedrooms of a thousand other homes. A single window was completely covered with a heavy drape. The only furniture in the room was the straight-backed chair in which he was seated, a plain wooden table and a cot with a blanket on top. Martin knew, as soon as he had been ransomed, pictures would reappear on the walls, cute rugs would cover the floor and the table, chair, and cot would disappear into a remote dumpster. The room would be transformed into the guest room of that nice couple down the street who keep pretty much to themselves.
The couple watched him as he looked around. They still wore their ski masks, a definitely positive sign they did not plan to kill him. They were dressed in jeans and plain long-sleeved shirts. “You have a choice about your hands,” said the woman.
“Choice?” said Martin.
“We don’t want any of your fingerprints planted around this room. You can either wear latex gloves, or we’ll just keep your hands tied.”
Had this couple thought of everything? He was about to congratulate them on their thoroughness when he remembered he had been kidnapped and should at least be slightly pissed off. “Guess I’ll go with the gloves,” he said in as surly a tone as he could muster.
“You aren’t allergic to latex, are you?” said the woman. “The reason I ask is that we had this woman painter here who broke out in a rash as soon…”
“Nancy,” the man interrupted, “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to talk about previous clients.”
“Okay, Ted,” said the woman. “But even if Martin here figured out who she was, no way will she admit she was one of our clients.”
“I’m not allergic to latex,” said Martin. “And what’s with this client bit? Wouldn’t kidnapping victim be more appropriate?”
Ted laughed. “That would give our operation an unnecessary overtone of criminality. Believe me, when you get back home, you’ll feel much better if you think of yourself as a client rather than a victim.”
Ted untied Martin’s hands and squeezed a pair of latex gloves over his outstretched fingers. “There we go,” he said. “Nancy, you got the request note?”
Martin had noted the names Ted and Nancy, but knew those were definitely not the couple’s real names.
The pair eased Martin’s chair over to the table. Nancy put a printed document in front of him together with a pen. “That’s a letter to your wife. Just sign at the bottom.”
Martin read through the note carefully then looked up at the pair. “Up to now I figured you for professionals. Not anymore. That has got to be the worst ransom note ever written.”
“What?” said Nancy. From the anger in her voice, he knew she must be the author.
“Look at the first line,” Martin said. “’If you value your husband’s life, you will not go to the police and will do exactly as we say.’ Aside from being a terrible cliché for starting a ransom note, it is the dead wrong approach. You definitely do not want to send this to my wife.”
“My wife is away for a three week vacation.” He did not add that life had not been exactly lovey-dovey with Elaine for the last year. Their weekly shouting matches were endless rehashes of the same complaints. She would claim he paid more attention to those oversexed bimbos in his novels than he did to her. He would point out the women in his books actually had real depth of character, and, by the way, were paying for her upscale lifestyle. If his life were a novel, the plot was stalemated and needing a jump start.
Elaine might just provide the needed plot twist. He strongly suspected she was waiting for him to receive the next big advance before divorcing him, and walking off with half of the boodle. If she were the one to receive the ransom note, she might decide simply to ignore it, hoping he’d be quietly disposed of, thus leaving her with all the chips.
Ted looked at Nancy. “You think he’s bullshitting us?”
“No,” she said. “When I called up that gossipy next-door neighbor and pretended to be a reporter, she couldn’t wait to tell me all the dirt. She said when his wife’s car was in the garage for a couple of weeks, some guy showed up in his Mercedes three or four times, picked her up and then brought her back four or five hours later. All this happened when Martin here wasn’t around. I figured she and her boyfriend just headed over to his place for a quickie, but apparently they take vacations together as well.”
Aside from the feeling that a knife had been driven firmly in his back, Martin’s main reaction was anger at his neighbor. That had to be Mrs. Parkerson, the nosy bitch. Knowing her, she’s blabbed the news to half the neighborhood.
Then he remembered what Buck had said to Reverend Blackward at the end of Slammer and the Sleepy Blonde, “Chill out, padre. The husband is always the last one to get the word. Learn to live with it.”
“Is this personal stuff really relevant?” he said to Nancy.
“No, but if we don’t send the letter to your wife, who do we send it to?”
To whom do we send it, Martin thought, but felt correcting a kidnapper’s grammar at this point might distract them from the point at hand. “My agent, Sandra” he said.
“Yes. I’m her favorite cash cow. If something happens to me, it’s dead cow, and the publisher may want the half-million back including her twenty percent.”
“Okay,” said Nancy. “What’s your agent’s full name? We’ll need her address and phone number too.”
Martin gave them the information.
“You said there might be something else wrong with the letter,” Nancy said.
“Well the amount you’re asking for is too low. You’re asking for thirty thousand. If you want the ransom bit to go smoothly, you should up it to forty.”
“You want us to actually raise the freedom fee?”
“We’ve found that asking for outrageous amounts doesn’t work very well.” Ted said. “People tend to go to the police if you ask for more than twenty-five, thirty thousand. We go for smaller sums, but try to work more clients a year. Getting greedy is a fast way to go out of business the hard way.”
“I’m not saying you’ll actually be getting forty thousand,” Martin said. “Sandra is an agent. Agents love to negotiate. If you ask for thirty, she’ll try to talk you down to twenty, twenty-five thousand. Just start at forty and hold firm at thirty. She’ll come round. All she really wants is to be able to tell me, for the next twenty years, how she cleverly cut my ransom by ten thousand. Sorry, what did you call it? Cut my freedom fee by ten thousand.”
“So what else is wrong with the note?”
“Aside from some dime-novel clichés, awkward sentence structure, and a handful of grammatical errors, nothing much. Let me put it this way. If Sandra sees that note, she is going to have a hard time believing it’s from me.”
“I think it’s perfectly fine the way it is,” said Nancy. She was definitely angry. Could it be she fancied herself a writer?
“Come on,” said Ted. “Let him rewrite it. As long as he leaves the part about the funds transfer exactly as it is.”
“Well, all right,” said Nancy.
Definitely sulky, Martin thought. Almost the sulkiness of an author who just got another rejection e-mail.
Nancy brought him a pad of lined paper and a pen and he rewrote the note leaving in the bit at the end explaining when Sandra would get a call both to verify Martin was still alive and to get final instructions for transferring the ransom money to an overseas bank account.
Nancy took away the pad and returned with a nicely printed version which Martin signed. She snatched it up, and left the room, hopefully to mail it off to Sandra by Priority Mail.
She was back in about an hour bringing Martin a burger, a salad and a shake from McDonalds. She sat and watched him eat his dinner. Then Ted appeared, blindfolded Martin, and escorted him to the bathroom and back, then over to the cot.
“Time to tuck you in for the night,” Nancy said. Tucking in consisted of tying his hands and his feet, and lashing him into the cot so he could turn from his back to his side but not move much otherwise. They put a button on a cord where he could just reach it, and told him to press it if he needed the bathroom.
“Sweet dreams,” Nancy said. They turned out the light as they left the room.
Martin was not ready to sleep. The basis for the plot for his next novel had come upon him. Kidnapping! In his first five novels, various characters, including Buck himself, had been taken for gratuitous rides, to be questioned, tortured or disposed of. Yet no one had actually been held for ransom. The question was who should be kidnapped?
Buck? Never. Every plot so far had been driven by Buck in action. No way could he lock up his detective in a room for even a day without the plot slowing to a snail’s-pace.
How about Marla? No way. She was as essential to the action as Buck. Ironically, she had not been created out of thin air for this role. She had been left over at the end of his second novel, Slammer and the Social Whirl. Martin had not been sure what to do with her after Buck had sent her socially prominent husband off to prison for embezzlement, so he moved her in with Buck. She left her closet full of designer clothes behind in the condo that had been padlocked by the feds, but kept the dirty mouth she had picked up at Barnard, back in the two years before her expulsion.
The nicest part was Marla gave Martin the great ending that hooked his readers into buying his third book, Slammer’s Domestic Bliss. In that book she became essential, not only as great sex and often confrontational companionship for Buck, but as a simple way for Martin to avoid boring narrative. It was much easier, and more fun, for Martin to explain background material through the back and forth between Buck’s hardnosed detective wisecracking and Marla’s dirty-mouth responses. His fans ate her up. On-line blogs about Marla far outnumbered those about Buck. No way could that filthy mouth be locked up alone in a room for even a day without the plot going stale.
Who could be kidnapped? Perhaps one of Marla’s old society friends? Perhaps her friend’s husband? A hundred possible plots flitted through his mind as he dozed off.
He was almost into deep-sleep land when muffled shouting awakened him. The sound came from beyond the wall next to the cot. That must be their bedroom.
He found he could move enough so he could place one ear against the wall. The shouting became clearer. It was Ted’s voice. “Look, you really should listen to what Gerwalder tells you. You’re paying him enough. Your writing isn’t perfect. Try to think about what he’s telling you.”
“Well you don’t exactly listen to what Simone tells you about your paintings.”
Then the voices became more muted and he could no longer hear all the words, only ungrammatical bits of sentences. “Don’t think you can make it up that way… Sex maniac… I don’t know why I let you… No, don’t stop…”
Martin rolled back into the center of the cot, not particularly interested in listening to moans and squeaking bedsprings. Gerwalder. Simone. He repeated the two names to himself a dozen times to fix them in his mind, before he drifted off into the contented sleep of an unblocked novelist.
Boredom was the high point of the next two days while they all waited for the letter to reach Sandra. Most of the time, Ted and Nancy left Martin alone, tied to the chair with his hands free. They did give him a couple of paperback novels by other detective novelists, but he found he couldn’t just read them to pass the time. He saw them both as bundles of predictable banalities, stuck together with trite dialogue, books that never should have been printed. He had asked for paper and a pen to jot down some story ideas, but his captors refused, probably expecting him to write down details of the room and what he knew of the house.
Twice a day the couple would loosen him from the chair, untie his feet, and let him exercise, walking up and down the room and doing what exercises he could without the assistance of gym machines. During these sessions either Ted or Nancy was always present, wearing a ski mask, and sitting on the far side of the table with a Fazer close at hand. Ted sat there silently, refusing to reply to what Martin thought were innocent questions. Nancy would, on occasion, answer a question or two.
Martin did see clues as to what this couple was about. Ted was likely a painter who, when he wasn’t watching Martin, was very likely off working in oils. He was probably heavily into lemon yellow, if the occasional daub of that color on his hand or arm was any indication. Nancy was, he suspected, busy at her computer working away at the great American novel. What interested him was how these two avocations tied in with their kidnapping business. Had they been at their artistic endeavors for years without success? Had they then taken up the kidnapping of successfully wealthy artists and writers as some kind of sick revenge to compensate for the injustice of a system that rejected their works of art?
He decided to see if he could nail things down more specifically. Here was a situation where the couple’s only success was their kidnapping business and the temptation to boast about success was often irrepressible. In Slammer’s Domestic Bliss, Trevalian’s boasting to Marla of his sexual conquests had resulted in that shaman’s ultimate arrest.
So, one afternoon as he walked back and forth the length of the room, Martin looked over at Nancy and said, “I’m curious. Do you just select artists and writers as your clients?”
Behind the ski mask, it was difficult for him to see what she was thinking. Perhaps she was worried he was trying to discover her true identity. Then, as Martin had figured, her need to boast overcame any cautions.
“Pretty much like that. It’s smart to specialize and let the word get around. You know. We stay away from corporate CEO’s; you stay away from the arts.”
“Tell me. How do I shape up as a client? A lot of the writers I know would be going ape-shit along about now.”
“Oh you’re a total pussycat. But not every writer is as easy going as you. We picked up this woman who had won a nice fat children’s book prize. What a loser. For a children’s author, she had an incredibly filthy mouth. All she could do was curse us out. Told us she was going to find out who we were and turn the law loose on us.”
“Doesn’t sound like too much fun,” Martin said.
“You’ve got it. Listening to all that bitching got old pretty quickly. We thought, if she acted that way at home, her husband might decide not to pay up, but he crashed through. I’m not sure we’ll do any more children’s authors, but that may not be necessary…”
She must have heard something, for she suddenly stopped. The door opened, and Ted came into the room. “You had enough exercise?” he said to Martin.
Martin nodded and they tied him back in his chair. He smiled inwardly. A woman who recently won a large children’s book prize and who lives a few hours’ drive from here. She should not be hard to find.
On the specified time on the appointed day, Ted and Nancy put in the call to Sandra.
Ted was wearing a face mask that distorted his speech and was obviously speaking on a throw-away phone. When he got Sandra on the line he simply said, “Here’s this author of yours, wants to tell you he’s still alive.” He handed the phone to Martin.
“What have you gotten yourself into this time?” said his agent.
“Just a simple kidnapping by a couple of professionals,” said Martin.
“They aren’t going to kill you after they get the money, are they?” Sandra’s tone was not full of sympathy. It sounded more as if she wanted to make sure she wasn’t wasting the ransom money.
“No. They’ve worked pretty hard at making sure I don’t know who they are and where they live. Just pay them what they want. I’ll be good for it.”
“I’m not worried about getting repaid. I’ll just take it off the top of your next royalty check.”
“Look, just pay the ransom and don’t do anything stupid like going to the police.”
“Who’s going to the police? Last thing we need is the public knowing a famous detective story writer with a street-smart detective let himself get kidnapped.”
Martin did not see this conversation going anywhere but downhill. “I’ll let you talk to them,” he said.
He handed the phone to Ted. Martin could only hear his end of the conversation, but Sandra was apparently as good at negotiating a reduction in a payment as an increase. They settled at thirty thousand.
Sandra must have been familiar with offshore banking because within an hour the couple got a call from someone, probably their agent in the Caribbean, who apparently told them the money had been transferred. Martin figured the loot was already on its untraceable way through several more bank accounts.
“Well,” said Ted, “it’s been fun having you here as a guest. No need to keep you any longer. As soon as it’s dark, we’ll let you go.”
Early that evening they released him from the chair, gagged and blindfolded him and tied his hands in front of him. Ted took him downstairs and out into the garage. They were standing there waiting for Nancy to appear, when Ted suddenly said, “Damn. I forgot your cell phone and watch. Just stand right there. Don’t move. We’re on the way to setting you free, so don’t try anything funny.” He must have gone into the house, because Martin heard a door open and close.
Martin took a small step back and his body came up against what had to be the SUV. He took a couple of steps forward and his foot bumped into something hard but slightly pliable. Some kind of a plastic bin? He took a big chance and bent down on one knee and reached ahead with his bound hands. It was a bin. He reached inside and his hands found what felt like a stack of printer paper. Apparently the nice young couple down the street was into recycling. He grabbed for the top sheet of paper, got it somehow into his hands, and staggered to his feet. Then he half folded, half crumpled the sheet and stuffed it into the front of his pants, trying to make sure no corner showed above his belt. He stepped back close to the SUV.
“Look, the web site says you never leave them alone.” Nancy’s voice, very annoyed, as the door opened and shut.
“There’s our pussycat, right where I left him. I told you it was no problem.” Ted’s voice, soothing things over.
His release was simple enough. He was loaded into the back of the SUV and tied down. They drove for more than an hour with a few stops at the end, no doubt for traffic lights. They unloaded him somewhere and stood him where he felt gravel under his feet. Ted stuffed Martin’s phone and watch into his jacket pocket, did something to the rope binding his hands and said. “There you go, Pusssycat. I untied the knots on your arms.”
His footsteps scrunched away and the door of the SUV clicked shut. By the time Martin shook loose the rope binding his hands and yanked off his blindfold, the couple’s vehicle had disappeared.
Thanks to the blindfold, his eyes were already accustomed to the dark. He was standing in an open space surrounded by the dim outline of trees, but he could see a faint light in one direction. He walked towards it down a rough driveway, and emerged under a streetlight on a familiar street next to the sign reading General Sturgess Park. He was three blocks from home.
Ten minutes later he unlocked the front door of his house, kicked aside the accumulated mail just inside the door, and headed for the kitchen. He found a package of lasagna in the freezer, tossed it in the microwave, and broke out a beer from the fridge.
Then he carefully pulled out the piece of paper from his pants and flattened it out on the kitchen table. He had hoped it might be a bill with a name and address on it, but it was not. It appeared to be a page from a detective novel. Nancy’s novel? He started at the top.
“Get your hands up in the air,” said detective Gregory Quickmove in a voice that had a lot of anger in it. “If you don’t do so very quickly, its curtains for you.”
“You have absolutely no goods on me,” said Malcolm Tuffguy who had slick hair and a mean expression on his face. His voice was also angry showing the affect of the words Gregory had just said.
Martin stopped reading, feeling slightly nauseated. Nancy had a long, long way to go.
He thought of the two names he had heard through the wall when Ted and Nancy had their shouting match. Gerwalder and Simone. Gerwalder was probably a writing coach. Simone might just be an art dealer.
Gerwalder turned out to be chief honcho of Write Your Way to Greatness, an entity with a web site graced with a well-padded biography of his success in turning just ordinary Janes and Ernests into successful Austens and Hemingways.
Martin quickly got the coach’s attention with a text message suggesting they meet to discuss the possibility of Martin being taken on as one of Gerwalder’s highly touted consultants, literary giants, instantly available to assist budding Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners.
Martin knew, with the leaky nature of the internet, it was best for him to continue his investigations in person. Write Your Way to Greatness was physically located in New York City, two hours away by train. While in the big city, he could also check out some art galleries.
Write Your Way’s office was most utilitarian, no receptionist, just four cubicles occupied by college-age young people at computers, obviously cleaning up the loose ends of clients’ masterworks. Gerwalder occupied a slightly more lavish private office with the business owner himself seated behind a well-worn oak desk.
The Coach was a plump man, close to fifty, wearing a sweatshirt that read, Are You the Next Shakespeare? He rose and greeted Martin with unfeigned enthusiasm, obviously delighted such a large fish had jumped into his boat all by himself.
“I’m looking forward to working with you in your efforts to bring enhanced literacy to hopeful writers,” Martin said. “But before we get into the details, I need your help with something. I think this might be written by one of your clients.” He placed a copy of the page from the kidnappers’ garage in front of Gerwalder.
The Coach read the first couple of paragraphs and grimaced. “I’m afraid so,” he said. “One of my assistant coaches quit after working with this particular author for six months. I didn’t fire her, you understand. In fact, I told her she shouldn’t consider herself a failure just because she couldn’t make progress with one client.”
“I’m wondering if you could, as a special favor, give me the name and address of this writer,” Martin said.
Gerwalder frowned. “It’s not our practice to give out information on our clients. Part of our pledge to clients. It’s right there on the web page.”
“You’re saying that, as one of your consultants, I wouldn’t know with whom I was working?”
Gerwalder’s eyes narrowed. Apparently, he had been in the literary game long enough to recognize implied blackmail, for he said, “Certainly not. Give me a minute.” He turned to his computer, and a minute later handed Martin a sheet of paper with a neatly printed name and address, Helene Presage, 324 Oakhurst Lane, Plakenburg, NJ. A phone number and e-mail address were also provided.
Plakenburg, Martin thought, Just an hour and a half drive from my home. Sounds correct. He folded the paper and put it in the inner pocket of his jacket. “Of course, as your consultant, I’ll maintain confidentiality in this matter. No one but you and I will ever know where I obtained this information.” Christ, he told himself, Am I turning into the cliché kid?
“Now,” Martin continued, “let’s get down to the details on this consultation bit. Exactly what are your fees for working with a best-selling author, and what would be my cut?”
Was that disappointmentMartin saw in Gerwalder’s face? Does this joker think he is getting my services for free?
They worked out a very reasonable arrangement. With the number of delusional would-be-successful writers out there, this little sideline represented more than chump change.
It was time for the second part of his adventure in the Big City. He had obtained a directory of all of the galleries with art for sale in New York. Only one was run by a Simone.
It was a simple operation, a small storefront on a side street in the Village. The paintings were modestly displayed with nice overhead lighting. A woman appeared quickly from the back room. She was dressed on the artsy side, perhaps a bit heavy on the beads. “May I point you to anything in particular? Do you have a specific artist in mind?” She spoke with a faint French accent. Definitely a Simone.
“No, nothing in particular. I’d just like to browse.”
He scanned the paintings slowly, looking for ones heavy on the lemon yellow. There was only one that fit the pattern, an interesting oil showing the figure of a man inside a bright yellow box, reaching up through the top of the box for a bundle of what looked like paper money hanging on a string just out of reach.
“Jeff calls that The Captive.” Simone had come up behind him.
“What are you asking for it?” Martin asked.
“It was three thousand, but I’m sorry, it’s already been sold.”
“Sorry to hear that. It’s a very interesting painting. I don’t recall seeing anything quite like it before. Is this Jeff a new artist you’re representing?”
“Yes. That’s the first of his paintings we’ve sold. Jeff is a real sweetheart. Lives out in Plakenburg, New Jersey. His wife, Helene, is a budding writer. Sweetest couple. I wish you could meet them.”
“You think this Jeff has much of a future as a painter?”
“Definitely. You see, it was Wannamaker who bought the painting.”
“Yes. We call him the chickadee. You know how chickadees show the other birds where to find the good bird feeders? Well, Wannamaker has a keen eye for what is going to be valuable down the line. Once he buys a painting by a new artist, everyone jumps in behind him.”
“So Jeff is on the gravy train?”
“I’ve told him I want to see every painting he has completed, no matter what he thinks of them. If you come back, say in three weeks, I might just have something you’d be interested in. Of course, the price will be a bit more, but not near, I predict, what his paintings will be going for in six months.”
“Thank you,” said Martin. “Sounds like an artist I’ll be interested in investing in.”
That was certainly a fruitful trip, Martin told himself on the train ride back. He thought long and hard how best he could utilize his new found information for fun and perhaps profit. He had but one more bit of research to do. When he got home to his still empty house, he spent a productive half hour on Google. Then he wrote a letter.
# # #
Dear Jeff and Helene, or would you rather be called Ted and Nancy?
How’s business? Not the writing and painting but the other one. Any new clients?
Now don’t panic. I’m not turning you in to the forces of law and order, so don’t do anything stupid like trying to silence me permanently. Please excuse this rather timeworn expression, but everything the police need to know to convict you is in a safe place and goes right to the authorities if anything happens to me.
Also don’t decide to head for the hills or wherever in the Caribbean you have the money stashed. Remember, Jeff, you are now in demand as a painter and stand to make a bundle down the road with your alleged art. So you should stick around. That is fine by me, as I look on you two as reliable, long-term clients for my protective services.
Yes, I am going to keep you safe and sound. I won’t tell Yvonne Tysen your names and where you live. You remember Yvonne, your client who won the Broker Prize for Children’s Literature and was so adamant about tracking you down and seeing you prosecuted. And I definitely won’t go to the authorities. Of course there’s going to be a client’s fee for all that protection. I figure twenty percent of what you get for the paintings. And to show you the kindness of my heart, that’s twenty percent of what’s left after your buddy Simone gets her cut. Why be greedy. As you told me, being too greedy can get you in real trouble.
As for your other business, I hope you’re not planning to close that operation down now your paintings are going to do so well. As a matter of fact, I have a couple of future clients lined up for you right now. They are fellow members of my profession who live reasonably close by. They tricked their way into winning awards that should have gone to me, nice fat awards you can milk for your usual cut. And I’ll only want twenty percent of whatever you get. I’ll be in touch about the details.
Try to think of yourselves as my clients, not as victims. That way, we can avoid the unnecessary overtone of criminality in what I’m doing for you.
On to practicalities. For my protective services, I’ll need an up-front payment of ten thousand dollars to cover the costs of my investigations to date. Obviously, the money should be in random and unmarked low denomination bills. I’ll call you in a week to describe how I plan to pick up the cash. Please have it ready.
I look forward to a long and profitable business relationship with you.
Sincerely, Your Pussycat
# # #
The letter was in the mail and he had completed the new synopsis of his next book. All that was needed now was that first chapter. He sat down at his desk, popped open the lid of his laptop, and went to work.
Slammer Under the Gun By Martin Wielman
She was definitely a looker. She was draped in a designer one-of-a-kind dress showing lots of firm and well-tanned flesh, and she had that old ask-me hunger in her eyes. She eased in the door of his office, and filled the place with class and the faint odor of expensive perfume. But Buck also smelled greed. Buck knew greed always led to trouble, usually of the large and nasty variety, but he ignored the alarm bells ringing in his head and said, “Good Morning, Sweetheart. What can I do for you?”
“I’m Linda Treffany, she said, “Marla said you could help me.”
Buck nodded at the visitor’s chair. “Have a seat and tell me the deep innermost secrets of your heart.”
She sat down and crossed a pair of gams that were difficult to ignore. “My husband, Ronald Treffany, has been kidnapped,” she said. “And it’s important he stays that way for at least a month.”
“You mean, Boss Ronnie, who owns the State Legislature?”
“The very one,” she said and smiled.
“Usually you hire a detective to rescue someone who’s been kidnapped. Keeping someone kidnapped may be a bit out of my line.”
“Marla says nothing much is out of your line,” she said. “You have a real fan there.”
Sometimes having an insane one-woman fan base was one fan too many. He had better have another talk with Marla about which live lions she should drag into the tent for him to skin.
Martin saved the file, shut down the computer, and smiled to himself. That should hook them in.
He thought with satisfaction of the letter winging its way to the couple who were so sure they were real professionals. The income from his new venture would, of necessity, be tax free and there was no reason Elaine should know anything about it either.
As Martin walked down the front hallway to the kitchen to thaw out something for dinner, the front door opened and his wife eased in, trailing a suitcase on wheels, back from vacation with her undoubtedly fictitious friend Annette. She was the same Elaine, tall, blonde and slim, and wearing a designer dress that showed off a significant portion of her taunt body, now well-tanned by Florida sunshine. It was also, Martin knew, a dress that had cost him the royalties from five-hundred plus of his book sales. Elaine stopped and smiled at Martin, filling the hallway with class, and the faint odor of two-hundred-dollars-an-ounce perfume.
But Martin also smelled greed, plain old-fashioned seven-deadly-sin greed, greed that usually led to trouble of the large and nasty variety.
“Good to be home,” said Elaine. “Have you gotten that check for the book advance from your publisher yet?”