Secret 77 by Ty Treadwell is a thriller involving a series of puzzling clues (available May 27, 2013).
Your girlfriend is dead. You have 24 hours before your wife finds out.
Former crime reporter Clay Burton has no idea what the message means. The anonymous note reads like one of the clues from his book of solve-it-yourself mysteries based on real cases he covered for the newspaper. Clay shrugs it off as a prank by an overzealous fan, but then more clues arrive in the mail—a series of bizarre puzzles, each one more clever and devious than the last. Solving the riddles leads Clay to the remote lake house of a woman with a dark family history. Is she the “dead girlfriend” from the note, or has Clay been drawn into a twisted game devised by a brilliant psychopath? With his marriage, his sanity, and maybe even his life on the line, Clay must use his reporter’s skills and instincts to track down his faceless tormentor before the final deadly gambit is played.
Secret 1: Your girlfriend is dead. You have 24 hours before your wife finds out.
Clay Burton frowned at the note. Most fan mail came to his publisher’s office, but every once in a while a determined reader tracked down his home address. The letters came in two varieties; plain old gushing praise, or someone claiming to have the perfect idea for Clay’s next book. This note didn’t fit either category, and Clay had no idea what it meant. He did have a wife but he sure as hell didn’t have a girlfriend, alive or dead.
Normally a piece of mail like this would warrant about five seconds of Clay’s time. Then it would be trashed and forgotten along with the Land’s End catalogues and the credit card offers and the flyers from lawn services and gutter cleaners, all the junk that piled up and piled up because Clay just didn’t have time to deal with it. Something about this letter bothered him, though. He got up from the kitchen table, went to the recycling bin in the garage, and rummaged around until he found another note that came in the mail a few days earlier.
He went back to the table and laid the two letters side by side. Both were printed on a computer in plain old Times New Roman, but the paper was unusual. Light green and slightly glossy. Not stationery grade but not common printer paper, either. Computer-printed labels on the envelopes, too. Just Clay’s information, no return address. Both letters were postmarked from Holly Springs. Clay lived in Dunfield, on the outer fringe of Atlanta. Holly Springs was ten miles north.
The letter that came a few days ago had one lonely sentence: Can you solve the crime before you reach secret 77? Just the blurb from the cover of Clay’s book, Secret 7, but with an extra digit added to the title. How original. If it was supposed to be a joke, the person had wasted both their time and a stamp because Clay didn’t get it. He had thrown that note away without even noticing the unusual paper or the missing return address. And now he apparently had a subscription to the clever little messages. Wonderful.
The notes and envelopes went on top of the throw-away pile. Clay was halfway down the four-inch stack of mail but the rest would have to wait. He had pulled out everything that looked important—a few bills, something from his publisher, and a padded mailer addressed to his wife—and was just killing time with the rest of the stuff while he finished his coffee. Now it was nine o’clock, time to wake Lindsey. The beginning of another glorious day.
He took his mug to the sink and looked outside. The back yard was already marshy from five straight days of rain, and it was drizzling again that morning. The damp weather and cooler temperatures hadn’t been so awful at first; August in Atlanta was normally so sweltering that everything in town seemed to sag and drip like objects in a Dali painting. But people started grumbling when the bad weather stretched from a few days to a few weeks, and no one did it louder than Clay’s wife Lindsey, a lifelong sun worshipper.
Clay imagined how she would swear when she woke up and saw this. Her bedroom faced the back yard, so that’s what she stared at for most of the day. A nice long rectangle of grass with an herb garden at one end and a mass of English ivy that had crept over from the neighbor’s yard at the other end. A wooded area ran behind it all, filled with tall pine trees that sealed the yard off better than any fence. Lots of green and brown. A pretty nice view on most days. The only thing ruining it was the lone maple tree at the edge of the yard with the tree house clutched in its limbs. Clay wanted to tear the damn thing down after Lindsey’s accident. The tree, the tree house, all of it. Chop it down, burn it, and bury the ashes. It seemed natural, like prying a nail out of a floorboard after someone stepped on it. But Lindsey refused to let him touch it, and in her current state there was no way Clay could argue with her.
He left the unopened mail on the table and took the two anonymous notes and the rest of the garbage out to the recycling bin. It had actually been a few weeks since his last real fan letter. That one said his book Secret 7 was “really super,” and since his mini-mysteries were a lot more fun than both Jumble and Sudoku, it would be “even more super” if Clay could get the newspaper to run one every day.
The note had made him smile. The concept of fan mail was still a novelty, but he enjoyed it. During all those years at the Journal-Constitution, all he got was the occasional angry rant from a friend or family member of the lowlifes he wrote about for the metro section. He still remembered the one that said You didn’t write nothing nice about my son. You only talked about how he shot that other boy in the leg. Now people will think he’s no good. It came from the mother of a teenage gang member who was now serving a long stretch in prison, so if anybody thought the kid was no good, it was obviously the judge.
Back inside, Clay paused by the table and straightened the stack of mail. This was the time of morning when the stall tactics began. Fidgeting around in the kitchen, checking the fridge and cupboards to see what they were out of, rewashing dishes that were already clean. Anything to give him a few extra minutes before he woke Lindsey.
His daily routine reminded him of the guy from Greek mythology whose punishment in the afterlife was to endlessly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again just before he reached the top. What was his name? Tantalus? Sisyphus? He always planned to look it up when he had the time and energy. The problem was, he never had the time and energy. As much as Clay loved Lindsey, her new condition exhausted him. He ended each day battered, drained, and filled with an ache that clung to his bones like wet cement. He still had the willpower to keep on fighting, he just didn’t have the strength. He felt like the guy at the bar who’s been drinking all night and now he’s so jacked-up on alcohol and adrenaline that he’s ready to kick the shit out of the first person who looks at him funny, no matter how big they are, but he’s so plastered he can’t even get off his bar stool without falling over.
Another minute crept by as sad raindrops inched their way down the kitchen windows. Clay finally fetched Lindsey’s pills and a glass of water, went down the hallway to her bedroom, and opened the door. After he started sleeping in the guest room, Lindsey had converted their room into a combination bedroom, den, and art studio. The curtains were closed, but even in the muddy half-light the level of clutter was astounding. Clay’s former side of the bed was heaped with magazines, his old nightstand littered with brushes and tubes of paint. Clothes and CDs all over the floor, pyramids of books on top of the dresser, piles of miscellaneous junk in the corners. As if Lindsey’s life had exploded and she’d never bothered to clear away the wreckage.
Clay sidestepped the items on the floor as he circled the bed, but Lindsey’s easel blocked his path and he had to pick it up and move it out of the way. It held a painting of the maple tree from the back yard, signed with the simple LL that Lindsey adopted as her signature back when she was still Lindsey Lake, a wild teenager just learning how to sling her emotions onto a canvas.
She was sound asleep, oblivious to the disaster area surrounding her. The sheets were kicked down to the end of the bed and Lindsey lay on her side with her long limbs flung in all directions, honey-colored hair fanned over the pillow in curly tangles. She wore cotton shorts and a tank top, her face tucked into her shoulder the way a bird might sleep. Her left shoulder, the one with the angel tattoo on the back of it. The design was artsy, ornate, lots of delicate curves and curlicues, like something from a 19th-century Christmas card. Clay tickled the angel’s feet. Lindsey moaned softly and raised her head, eyelids fluttering.
“Morning,” Clay said. “How are the conditions at Lindsey Lake?” It was a tired old joke from their dating years, but Clay still pulled it out of the closet from time to time.
Lindsey rolled over, stretched, then touched both sides of her head like she was testing fruit at the supermarket. “So far Lindsey Lake is calm and peaceful. Very little turbulence.” Clay bent down to kiss her and she gave him a drowsy smile. “Thanks. My nights still suck, but I like your wake-up calls.”
“Another rough one?”
“Same as usual.”
“I really thought you’d sleep better once you had the bed to yourself.”
“I told you, my headache doesn’t care how big the bed is.”
The morning conversation always started the same way. Then Clay would tell Lindsey that if she took her pill at night she might sleep better, and Lindsey would repeat for the hundredth time that if she could only feel decent for a few hours each day, she wanted it to be during the afternoon when she could actually enjoy it. Sixteen years of great discussions about books, art, film, politics, culture, everything under the sun, and now their daily dialogue had been reduced to this. Every conversation began with Lindsey’s health, or worked its way around to it, or sometimes focused on it completely. The interaction had become automatic, like chatter between two robots with limited programming. How’s your head? Not too bad. Do you need to lie down? Maybe later. Can I get you anything? I don’t know. Maybe some tea? Let me think about it.
Clay shook one of the fat yellow pills out of the bottle. Lindsey chased it down with water while Clay opened the curtains, then she rose from bed and pulled on the old yellow robe she always wore until she got dressed, which sometimes didn’t happen until mid-afternoon if it happened at all. Clay had grown to hate the robe the same way he hated the huge pill he fed his wife each morning. The color yellow had become synonymous with sickness and defeat. Clay wished he could stuff the damn robe in the trash and replace it with one that was pink, or purple, or neon green. Anything but yellow.
Lindsey vanished into the bathroom as Clay headed back to the kitchen, their morning routine moving along like clockwork. By the time Lindsey got to the breakfast nook, her special cup of instant coffee was ready and waiting; one spoon of regular and one spoon of decaf, mixed with milk instead of water, and served in an oversized cup that could double as a soup bowl.
“I need to leave soon,” Clay said. “I’ve got that interview with Paul’s friend at ten o’clock.”
“She can’t come here?”
“She lives downtown. We’re meeting halfway, at Centennial Park.”
Lindsey sipped her coffee then rolled her head on her neck, working out the kinks. Even first thing in the morning, with no makeup on and her long hair frantically snarled, she still took Clay’s breath away. The perfect cheekbones, the aristocratic nose, the green eyes with the upward slant that made her look a little catlike, a little exotic. It was a face that grabbed the attention of both men and women, who seemed equally fascinated by her. Some mistook her for a celebrity—an actress, a model, someone they’d seen in a magazine ad or a TV commercial—although no one could say for certain who she looked like. Others didn’t know and didn’t care if she was famous; they just knew she was hot. Thirty-six years old, and even teenage boys nudged each other when Lindsey walked by.
“I wish you’d stop it with the interviews,” she said. “It’s pointless. I told you that.”
“We need the help, and you know it.”
“Sweetie, I can do the housework. I never leave, so what else am I supposed to do all day?”
“You need to rest and I need to write. Besides, I think you’ll like this girl. Paul said she’s an artist too. You’ll probably have a lot in common.”
“I don’t need a babysitter.” Lindsey slid a catalogue off the top of the mail stack and started thumbing through it.
“That big envelope is for you. Did you order more art supplies?”
“It’s probably my sable brushes. I was about to call the company and chew somebody’s head off. I paid for those damn things a month ago.”
“Then I’m glad they made it. And by the way, we’re not hiring a babysitter. We’re hiring a housekeeper.”
“Whatever. We don’t need her.” Lindsey’s face was calm as she sipped more coffee and gazed out at the yard. The headache obviously wasn’t gnawing at her yet. She had once compared it to a slow-moving hangover that didn’t hit her until she’d been on her feet for an hour or so. Chasing her pill with a little caffeine right after she got out of bed seemed to delay the process, although—ironically—coffee was one of the many things that Lindsey couldn’t handle in large doses anymore.
“Just give her a chance, okay? Paul says she’s really nice, and Maggie loves her to death.”
“Wait, this girl is a friend of Maggie’s? She’s a teenager?”
“No, she’s older than Maggie. In her twenties, I think. She used to live down the street from Paul. They hired her to give Maggie private art lessons.”
“Thank god. A babysitter is bad enough, but a teenage babysitter…”
“How many times do I have to clarify this?”
“Okay, fine, she’s a housekeeper. But when you talk to her about the cleaning—when you talk to anybody about the cleaning—make sure they know to stay out of my room.”
“Why can’t you let somebody else take care of that mess?”
“Because it’s my mess, and I’ll deal with it. Now get out of here or you’ll be late for your interview.” She took another sip of coffee then frowned. “Wait a minute. You’re meeting at the park? You’ll get soaked.”
“Maybe the rain’ll stop by the time I get down there. Anyway, I told her to meet me at the snack shop. If the weather stays bad, we can sit inside.”
“Take an umbrella anyway.” Lindsey rose on shaky legs and headed back toward the bedroom. “I’m gonna lie down again. Come say goodbye before you leave.”
Clay rinsed out Lindsey’s cup, gathered his wallet and cell phone from the guest bedroom, took a raincoat and umbrella from the hall closet, then stuck his head in Lindsey’s room. She was propped up in bed with her journal open on her lap, tapping a pen against her teeth. One of her doctors had recommended it as part of her therapy. Write down how she felt each morning, compare the days, look for patterns, anything that might aid the recovery process.
“Drive slow,” she said. “The roads are probably a mess.”
“I will. And I’ll be back as soon as I can. The interview shouldn’t take long, then I’ll run over to CNN and say hello to Paul.”
“They make him work on Saturdays? Yuck.”
“It’s temporary. He’s finishing up a project. And since I’m meeting this girl right across the street, he wants me to stop by and tell him how it went.”
“Well, give him a big sloppy kiss from me.”
“Nah, his beard tickles too much.”
“Then come over here and give me one.”
Clay did, but it was the dry, perfunctory kiss that had become routine over the past few months along with so many other things. Striving for more passion would only frustrate them both. They had only had sex one time since the accident—on their wedding anniversary—and the experience was so awkward that they hadn’t tried again since.
Clay was halfway through the bedroom door when Lindsey called out to him. “Hey, wait a minute. I just realized something. You still get together with Paul once in a while, and I’m here by myself every Sunday when you visit Sam. Why do you worry about leaving me alone during the week?”
“I can’t keep arguing about this, Lindsey. Seriously, I can’t.”
She waved the question away, like wiping a silly doodle off a foggy bathroom mirror. “I’m sorry. Go on, get out of here. You’re gonna be late.”
As he passed through the kitchen on his way to the garage, Clay noticed the padded envelope addressed to Lindsey lying on the table beneath the rest of the mail. He almost grabbed it and took it back to her room, but then he stopped. He had told her it was there and she hadn’t even glanced at it. If she suddenly needed her art supplies, she knew where to find them. Later that night, he would wonder why he hadn’t looked at the envelope more closely. He would ask himself how he had overlooked the missing return address, and the fact that the computer-printed address label matched the ones on the two anonymous letters. He would be surprised that he hadn’t noticed the strange, soft feel of the object inside the envelope, or the fact that part of it was wet when the rest of the mail was completely dry.
Lindsey was right about the babysitter, although Clay would never admit that to her. Getting help with the cooking and cleaning would be great, but what Clay really needed was time to research his next book. Not just an hour or two at a stretch, either. He needed a good half day, maybe a full day sometimes, to get the information he needed from his sources downtown. In Lindsey’s current condition, she just couldn’t be alone for that length of time.
Clay tossed his cell phone onto the passenger seat as he pulled out of the garage. The sky was a dreary gray, the rain a forlorn drizzle. He was already rehearsing the interview in his head as he backed down the driveway. Should he offer more money this time? Play the sympathy card by telling Lindsey’s whole story? Or should he talk less about the accident so he wouldn’t scare this girl off like all the others?
Near the end of the driveway, Clay glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a flash of movement. An arm, a hand, part of a face, the mouth open in surprise. He swore and stomped on the brakes. Tires squealed and his seatbelt bit into his shoulder. Still swearing, Clay slammed the shift knob into PARK and twisted around in his seat. Through the rain-smeared back window he saw a person in a hooded raincoat, either black or navy blue, standing in the street behind the Audi’s bumper.
Clay’s heart was pounding. He had nearly run the person over. He was going too fast and he should’ve checked the mirror sooner, but why the hell was one of his neighbors walking around in the rain? And who was it? Frank Gladstone from next door sometimes walked his dog in bad weather, but Frank was middle-aged, stocky, and moved like glue pouring out of a jar. If it had been Frank in that dark rain coat, the man would be mashed under the Audi’s rear tire right now.
Clay’s phone started ringing from the passenger side floorboard; it had tumbled down there when he slammed on the brakes. He unhooked his seat belt then leaned over and scrabbled for the phone, checking the caller ID. Damn it. He had been collecting voicemails from his agent for three days now and still hadn’t called her back.
“Hi, Clay. You all right? You sound a little out of breath.”
“No, I’m fine. Just dropped my phone, that’s all.”
“Well…I hate to bother you over the weekend, but I wasn’t sure if you got my messages.”
“I know…I mean, I did. I did get them. Hang on a minute.” Clay sat up straight again, looking for the person he had nearly flattened. There was no one behind the car. He scanned the street both ways. Nobody. No, wait. A dark blur near the side of the road, three houses down. Was it the same person? If so, they were moving fast. Running? But why?
“Clay? Everything okay?”
He backed into the street, facing the direction he had seen the blur. He flicked the wipers up to high. Nothing at all now. Just raindrops filling the air with static.
“Clay? Are you there?”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I was trying to…no, forget it, it’s not important.” He pressed the gas, checked both sides of the street as he drove. “And I’m sorry I haven’t called you back. Things are still crazy around here.”
“How’s the research going? Any progress?”
“I wish I could say yes, but I can’t. Dealing with Lindsey is a full-time job, and I’ve got all the housework on top of that.”
Marie started to say something then paused and made a noise instead, that dire little mmm sound people make when they don’t know how to respond to bad news. Then another pause while she chose her next words. “Listen…I know you’re in a tough situation, but the clock is ticking on this project. The people at Callisto are getting anxious.”
“I know, Marie, I know. But even when I do have time to work, all I can do from home is surf the web. Most of the stuff on the Internet is garbage, and even the good stories are too sketchy to use. I can’t put together another book this way.”
“Then what’s the solution?”
“I need to spend some time downtown. Visit my friends at the precinct, camp out at the library for a while…either that or convince Paul to sneak me into CNN so I can use their resources. But I can’t do any of that until I find someone to watch Lindsey. I told you about the eggs, right?”
“You did. And I know you’re stressed out, so I hate to feel like I’m jumping all over you. But if you can get this sequel done, it’ll fix a lot of your problems. I know money’s tight right now. Life’ll be a lot easier with another advance in the bank and bigger royalty checks down the road. Easier for you and for Lindsey.”
“Believe me, I’d love to spend all my time working on another book instead of taking care of a sick wife. Really, I would. But the fact that I can say that—hell, the fact that I can even think it—makes me feel like the biggest jerk in the world.”
“Come on, Clay. Don’t beat yourself up. Seriously. You don’t deserve it. Just do what you can and keep me updated, okay?”
Clay promised he would then hung up, looking around for the running figure one last time as he pulled out of the subdivision. It would be twelve more hours before he connected the person with the two anonymous notes or the bizarre contents of the padded envelope.
Centennial Olympic Park was a huge chunk of green in the center of downtown Atlanta, a grassy oasis surrounded by concrete and skyscrapers on all sides. Paul’s friend Gina was already there when Clay arrived, standing outside the snack shop. The rain had passed but all the benches were wet, so they decided to walk the path that circled the park’s perimeter.
They began at the Fountain of Rings, where hundreds of underground water jets formed the five interlocking circles of the Olympic logo. In good weather, the fountain swarmed with kids in bathing suits. At the moment it was empty except for three pigeons fighting over a soggy scrap of hamburger bun. At the south end, CNN Center and the Omni Hotel rose up like glass mountains at the end of a long, flat plain. The Journal-Constitution’s offices were right next door. During his days as a reporter, Clay had retreated to the park whenever he needed a break from the chaos of the newsroom.
“So how did you and Paul meet?” Gina asked as they made their way down the cement path. “Were you stuck in the research department, too?”
“No, I was a cops reporter.”
“A what reporter?”
“On TV they call it working the crime beat, but in real life we call ourselves cops reporters.”
“Well, that’s pretty cool. And you wrote that book too, right?”
Gina giggled. “Why do you say that? You’re a bona fide author. That’s awesome.”
“You obviously haven’t read it. It’s not exactly Pulitzer Prize material.”
“But it’s still cool. You know the only thing I ever got published? A fan letter about the Backstreet Boys in Teen America magazine.”
Gina was nearly a foot shorter than Clay, so she had to tilt her head all the way back to smile up at him. She had a pleasant face—big blue eyes, a snub of a nose, reddish-brown hair cut in a trendy shag—but her body was incredible. Not the rock-hard abs and long legs of a bikini model from a beer commercial, but the type of soft, womanly body Clay first saw as a child when he found a box of Playboys from the 1950s in his grandfather’s basement. Gina was Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield tucked inside skintight jeans and a T-shirt with a smiling cartoon Buddha on the front. Clay dragged his eyes away from what lay beneath that Buddha and looked forward again, his face hot and flushed.
If Gina noticed what had just happened, she pretended not to. “So, Paul said you need help around the house because your wife is sick. It’s nothing serious, is it?”
“Lindsey’s not sick. She’s recovering from an accident.”
“Oh, wow. What happened?”
Clay always dreaded the question just like he dreaded the long explanation that followed it. “Crazy as it sounds, she fell off a ladder.”
“Really? Like one of those ladders you keep around the house to change a light bulb or something?”
“No, not exactly. We’ve got a tree house in our back yard—we didn’t build it, it was there when we bought the house. It’s really fancy. It has a real roof, and a window, and a good, solid floor. The people who lived there before us built it for their son, and we decided to leave it up in case we have kids of our own someday. For now we just use it for extra storage space.”
“Like a little closet out in the yard. Cool.”
“Sure, but the thing’s twelve feet off the ground and you have to climb a wooden ladder to get inside. About six months ago, Lindsey went up there to get some art supplies and she fell. I wasn’t home at the time. When I found her, both she and the ladder were on the ground. I don’t know if the ladder slipped or if Lindsey fell and dragged it down with her. She was out cold and couldn’t remember what happened.”
“Jeez, that’s scary. She’s lucky she didn’t break her neck.”
“I know. She did break a leg though, and she had plenty of scrapes and bruises, but the worst part was the head injury. She had a little hematoma, a swollen spot about the size of a quarter, right behind her ear. But the swelling went away after a few days, and the doctors did a CAT scan and an MRI and they didn’t see any damage, so we all thought she’d be fine.”
“But she wasn’t?”
“No, not at all. About a week after the fall, all these weird symptoms started showing up.
All of a sudden she couldn’t handle things like alcohol, or caffeine, or bright sunlight. They all make her feel dizzy now. But the worst thing is the headache she gets every morning. It’s not major, not like a skull-splitting migraine or anything, but it nags her so bad she can barely focus on anything else.”
“What about pain pills? They don’t help?”
“They’ve got her on some new drug called Neurvex. It works okay but it’s really strong, and she can only take it once a day. Lindsey says it wipes out the headache for about six hours, but then it starts wearing off. That means if she takes it at breakfast, she’s miserable again by dinner time.”
“Oh, man. That sucks,” Gina said in a reverent whisper. They were walking side by side but the cement path was narrow, and every once in a while her arm brushed against Clay’s. Even that brief contact was enough to make his groin tingle. “But at least she feels human for a few hours each day, right? While the pill’s still working?”
“Not really, because the pill has its own side effects.”
“Like they talk about in the commercials? May cause rash, nose bleeds, diarrhea…”
“Something like that, yeah. The worst part is that it makes her really tired. Not sleepy, but physically drained. So even though her head feels better, she doesn’t have much strength to do anything. She loves to exercise and we turned one of our spare rooms into a little gym with a treadmill and a few other contraptions, but if Lindsey tries to work out after she’s taken the pill, she says it feels like she’s got lead weights tied to her arms and legs.”
“Can’t the doctors try another pill?”
“This is the third. Believe me, the first two were worse.”
“Wow. What about surgery?”
“Head injuries are tricky. Without visible damage, you can’t always diagnose them. The doctors throw out terms like post-concussion syndrome or traumatic brain injury, but it’s just a shot in the dark. Nobody wants to open up somebody’s skull unless they have to. Since her symptoms fall into the ‘tolerable’ category, the Neurvex is our best option right now.”
They had reached the north end of the park, where a deserted playground sat. An Asian tour group stood in a ragged cluster nearby, their guide clutching a long, thin pole with a yellow flag on top as she pointed out the park’s various monuments. A homeless man in a stained army jacket shuffled past, stealing a glance at Gina and grinning toothlessly. The tour guide waved her flag to rally her troops, then the group filed onto the concrete path. Clay and Gina stood aside to let them pass, then continued their walk in the opposite direction.
“I feel so bad for your wife,” Gina said. “That whole situation is lousy. Now I see why you guys need help.”
“Taking care of both Lindsey and the housework has been tough. If someone else could cook and clean maybe three days a week, I could finally get back to work. The house is really easy to clean, too. It’s a one-story, no stairs. The living room is huge but the other rooms are small. And you can probably skip the master bedroom. Lindsey spends most of her time in there and she doesn’t like other people messing with her things.”
“Well…sure, whatever she wants. I can leave that room alone and scrub the rest of the house like crazy. I’m pretty handy in the kitchen, too. I’m great with salads and stir-fries and healthy stuff, and I can make funky dishes like Thai noodles and lettuce wraps. Or just plain old meat and potatoes, whatever you guys like best.”
“Then it sounds like you’re perfect for the job. When can you start?”
Gina stopped walking. “That’s it? I mean, I’m hired just like that?”
“Sure, why not? Paul recommended you, and that’s good enough for me.”
“Oh, wow. Well, shoot, that’s great. Then I guess I can start whenever you want.”
“Fantastic. But look, we need to talk about something else first.”
Gina raised an eyebrow. “Like…you need to do a background check, or make me pee in a cup or something? Because I swear, I never—”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I’m sure you’ll do a great job with the cooking and cleaning, but there’s more to the job than that. I also need you to help me take care of my wife.”
“You mean…like a nurse? But I don’t know anything about that stuff.”
“No, not like a nurse. More like a caregiver.”
Gina chewed her lip, all the excitement from thirty seconds ago now flushed down the toilet. “Wow. It’s just…I don’t know, I wasn’t expecting this. I’ve never taken care of sick people before.”
“But like I said, you won’t be doing the things a nurse does. You’ll just be keeping an eye on her while you’re in the house working.”
“So I’d be more like a babysitter?” Gina asked, making the title sound as awful as Lindsey had earlier. “Your wife is probably…what, thirty or thirty-five?”
“So I’d be babysitting—or whatever you want to call it—for somebody eight years older than me? Oh, man. I don’t know about that. It’s kind of weird.”
“Look, Paul told me you’re an artist. Lindsey paints too, so you probably have a lot in common. She could really use another friend right now.”
Gina looked away and gave a nervous laugh, the way anyone would if someone had just offered to buy their friendship. Clay was familiar with the fidgeting, the uncertain frown, because this was the point where the negotiation always fell apart, where the offer of an easy part-time job turned into something nobody wanted to deal with. He could already feel the tension creeping up his shoulders and into his neck.
“Why don’t you think about it?” he suggested. “Take a day or two to make up your mind. I’m fine with that.”
“But I…don’t get me wrong, I really want the job, and I’m sure Lindsey is a super cool person, but…I don’t know, the babysitting thing…it just freaks me out. I’d probably be so stressed out that I couldn’t even do my job. Like, the whole time I’m scrubbing the tub I’d be worried that I’m gonna walk out and find her passed out on the floor or something. I’m not sure I can handle that.”
Clay wanted so badly to lie, to tell this girl that his wife was mostly fine, she just got tired easily, and was edgy at times, and she only needed a helping hand and a friendly voice to get her through the rough patches, but he couldn’t do it. “Here’s the thing. Lindsey has…episodes. Not very often, but every once in a while she has a little meltdown. Almost like a panic attack. The last few months have been tough on her, and she can’t always handle it on her own.”
“No offense, but wouldn’t it be better to have a friend or a relative help out with that?”
“Lindsey’s parents live out west, and most of her friends have families or careers to deal with. I need somebody who can stay all day, not someone who just drops by for a few minutes before they pick their kids up from soccer practice.”
“There’s nobody at all? Not even a neighbor, someone who lives close by?”
“I did talk to one of our neighbors about the job, but her husband threw a fit. He thinks a wife’s place is in her own home, not someone else’s.”
Gina laughed. “Seriously? Does he live in the fifties? Or maybe the 1850s?”
“No, he’s just a jerk. We’ve had other problems with him, too.”
The snack shop where they started their walk was only a few yards away. Once they reached it, Gina stuck her hands in her back pockets and gave an apologetic shrug. “Well, jeez. I’m sorry you’ve had such a hard time finding somebody, but…I just don’t think I’m cut out for the job, either. Do you hate my guts now?”
“Of course not. But we didn’t even talk about money. I could—”
“Look, I’m sorry.” Gina took a step back, as if Clay had tried to kiss her after a bad first date. “I hope everything works out for you guys.”
They had spent less than half an hour together, but watching Gina leave depressed Clay on so many levels—because she turned down the job, because of the way she practically ran off at the end, because of the fact that he’d really enjoyed spending time with a woman who was both beautiful and healthy—and as Gina melted away into the gray morning, Clay wondered if he’d just blown his final chance to get his life back in order.
Paul Eckstein frowned into his Starbucks cup. “We should’ve gone to the Mexican place. I could really use a beer.” He and Clay sat in the CNN Center food court, where every tabletop was plastered with a logo from one of the CNN networks. It was barely eleven o’clock but most of the tables were full and a line had formed at the entrance to the CNN Studio Tour.
“You’ve been at work for two hours,” Clay said. “This job can’t be that tough.”
“Fuck that. The job’s a breeze. I just can’t stand the jagoffs I work with. Maybe if I stayed drunk all the time they wouldn’t bother me so much.”
Based on his appearance, no one was surprised that Paul had worked as a glorified librarian in the Journal-Constitution’s News Research Department and that he now held a similar post at CNN’s Research Library. The surprise came when the short, bearded man with the nerdy glasses and the baggy clothing opened his mouth. Instead of behaving like a quiet academic, fifty-year-old, Paul laughed too loud, swore too often, and spoke in a macho jargon so opposite from his looks that the words sounded foreign coming out of his mouth.
“I’m sure the extra money makes it tolerable,” Clay said.
Paul snorted. “Yeah, right. That’s the ironic thing. I took this gig for the pay raise, but then Maggie started college and the extra cash just vanished. Now my car’s about to die and Beth wants new furniture, but we’ve got books and tuition and study trips to Europe to pay for.”
“You could always rent your services out to lonely women. Ever since Lord of the Rings came out, the ladies go wild for men who look like hobbits.”
“You might have something there. Beth always said I was quite the sex machine. What about your old lady? How’s Lindsey doing?”
“Right now she’s mad at me about the housekeeper thing, but she knows I can’t write and take care of everything else at the same time.”
“Still pounding away at the second book?”
“I’m trying, but doing research over the Internet is a joke. A lot of the news archives charge by the article now, and sometimes you don’t even know what you’re getting until you’ve already paid for it. I spent over two hundred dollars last week and got maybe three good stories.”
“That’s a bitch.”
“Sure is. Life would be so easy if my friend from CNN would let me use his resources.”
“Dude, I told you, I’m still the rookie in my department. Let me build up some clout before I start letting people wander in off the street and commandeer one of our computers.”
“And how long will that take? A few more weeks? A month?”
“Shit, Clay, I don’t know. When the time seems right I’ll give you a shout, okay?”
“I guess there’s no big rush. I still can’t leave Lindsey alone for a whole day.”
“That’s why I put you in touch with Gina. Bingo, problem solved.”
Clay shook his head. “Problem not solved. She turned me down.”
“What? You’re shitting me, right? Why the hell would she do that?”
“She’s worried about keeping an eye on Lindsey. She says it’s too much responsibility.”
“Holy crap. That girl’s always bitching about money, but when she gets a great job offer she says it’s too much fucking responsibility. You know how she pays the rent? She gives kids like Maggie art lessons for ten bucks an hour. Oh, and she’s got a part-time gig as a nude model over at Georgia State, too. Can you imagine that? It’s enough to make a badass like me sign up for one of those sketching classes.”
“She can’t make a living as an artist? Is her stuff any good?”
“I’ll bet her stuff is fucking great. I’m glad this table’s covering my lap, because I’ve got a stiffy the size of Texas just thinking about it.”
“I’m talking about her paintings, idiot.”
Paul scratched his chin then shrugged. “Those? Yeah, I guess they’re okay, too.”
Clay was back home before lunchtime. A few people had wandered outside now that the rain had stopped, and Clay waved to the ones he knew as he coasted through the neighborhood on the way to his house.
They lived in one of the rare pockets of Dunfield that still hadn’t succumbed to the modern age. Unlike the new subdivisions with their cookie-cutter houses—each fronted by a small, bland rectangle of grass—every home on Clay’s street was unique, and the yards were shaded by magnolias, dogwoods, and towering sweetgums. This was the Old South. There were wooded gullies, and bramble patches, and twisting creeks where it wasn’t uncommon to pick something shiny from the water and find out it was a uniform button or a bit of grapeshot left over from the Civil War. But the future was slowly encroaching. A strip mall recently popped up at the end of the street, and new construction was in progress on all sides. Just like the confederate troops who fought on this very land, the neighborhood was in danger of being decimated by a force intent on changing its way of life forever.
The figure in the dark raincoat was already forgotten, but as Clay neared his house he saw another person outside, one he recognized instantly. Chip Kern, the neighbor who went ballistic when Clay offered his wife a job, was out in his driveway with a cell phone pressed to his ear, a cigarette held loosely in his other hand.
Chip turned when he heard the Audi approaching. His hair was stiff with gel and his eyes were small and mean. Clay raised the fingers of one hand from the steering wheel, trying to be civil, but Chip only glared. As the Audi passed by, Chip flicked his cigarette toward the road. It landed in a shower of sparks a few feet behind the car’s bumper.
When Clay got home, the house was dark and quiet and there were no signs that Lindsey had ever come out of her bedroom. The padded envelope lay undisturbed on the kitchen counter along with the rest of the mail.
He found Lindsey fast asleep in bed, surrounded by magazines. Clay leaned against the doorframe and watched her. Even now—damaged, housebound, lying on crushed copies of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker—she still radiated a mysterious form of magnetism. Back in college, Clay would bolt out of class at the end of each day and hurry to their meeting place in the middle of Georgia State’s concrete campus. They would drive to Lindsey’s rented room in a house near Piedmont Park then make lunch and eat it on the front porch. Afterward they would take long walks, or poke around the trendy clothing and record shops, or have coffee in some tiny, anonymous café. If the weather was bad, they would lock themselves in Lindsey’s room and listen to music, or spend the entire day wrestling around in bed.
Realistically speaking, Clay and Lindsey never should’ve gotten together in the first place. When they met, Clay was an overly serious teenager who didn’t drink or smoke and avoided clubs and parties like the plague. Lindsey, on the other hand, was the brainy, exotic beauty who wore vintage clothing, sipped obscure cocktails, and was the life of every party. She was bold, sexy, brilliant, funny, and tirelessly energetic; in other words, the last woman in the world that the quiet, reserved Clay would’ve imagined himself dating and later marrying.
They met near the end of Clay’s sophomore year. Clay and Alex Fox, a fellow journalism major, were embroiled in the daily chess game they played during the break between Feature Writing and Advanced Reporting and Research Methods. It was a bright spring day and several other students were gathered around the outdoor table, smoking cigarettes and sipping watery vending machine cappuccinos while they watched the action.
Alex had mentioned a girlfriend named Lindsey but Clay had no idea he was talking about Lindsey Lake, the subject of so many campus anecdotes. Alex, whose flinty personality was a perfect match for his Aryan good looks, had been studying the chess board for nearly ten minutes when a tanned goddess in black leggings and a lacy black tank top sauntered up behind him. Long blonde hair fell to one side as she cocked her head and surveyed the chess board from over Alex’s shoulder. The boys watching the game all shifted their attention to Lindsey instead, and Clay found himself staring stupidly at her as well. He had seen her from a distance as she studied in the library or sat laughing with a group of friends, but this was the first time he’d been so close to the freshman who was already a legend at Georgia State.
Alex finally raised a tentative hand and picked up his queen, but then he put the piece back down with a huff. Lindsey sighed and leaned down over his shoulder, revealing a dreamy hint of cleavage as she swept Alex’s last remaining bishop fluidly across the board. “This is what you want to do,” she murmured, her mouth inches from his ear, “because now you’re only two moves away from winning, assuming your friend here doesn’t wiggle out of the trap.”
Alex turned and scowled at her. “Damn it, Lindsey! What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m helping you win. This guy seems pretty ferocious.” She smiled at Clay, who only managed a silly grin.
Alex flicked a hand at the remaining pieces, knocking most of them over. “Fuck it. This game’s ruined now.” He stood and started putting away the board. “We’ll play again tomorrow.”
“No big deal,” Clay said. Lindsey mouthed sorry as Alex loaded up his backpack, but Clay waved the apology away and Lindsey gave him a wink before trotting off after her boyfriend.
“That girl is seriously hot,” one of the spectators said as Lindsey walked away, the angel tattoo peeking out from behind one of the straps on her shirt. “She’s too perfect to be real. It’s like she escaped from a video game or something.”
“The kind of chick who could probably do karate on a hundred bad guys before she fucks you crazy,” his friend added. “Shit, man, I am totally in love.”
Clay kept his opinions to himself, but he was just as awestruck as the other boys. Two days later, Alex told Clay that he and Lindsey had broken up. The next week, Clay passed Lindsey in the hallway and asked her out for coffee. He was shocked but thrilled when she said yes.
They spent most of their first date tallying their differences. Clay read Twain and Steinbeck, Lindsey read Nabokov and Ayn Rand. Clay liked dramas and documentaries, Lindsey favored comedies and independent films. Clay loved Greek and Italian food, Lindsey was crazy for Chinese and Thai. The one thing they did have in common, though, was a mutual fascination with each other. After a week of dating, they became inseparable. Two years later, just before Clay graduated, they got engaged. After Lindsey’s graduation the following year, they were married.
Thunder rumbled in the distance, causing Lindsey to stir. The rain would be back soon. The bedroom window was still open, as usual. If the wind was too strong, Lindsey closed it to keep the rain from coming in. Otherwise the window remained open until dusk every day as a way of staying connected to the outside world. One small rectangle of freedom, of normalcy.
Clay had never given the open window a second thought, but as he looked at it now he realized that a person standing outside would only need to throw a leg over the sill and they could step right into the room. He went to the window and pushed it shut.
The sound woke Lindsey, who squirmed slowly on her bed of magazines, the covers crinkling. She opened her eyes and blinked at Clay. “How did it go? Did she say yes?”
“Nope. It’s still just you and me.”
Lindsey smiled and rolled onto her side, hugging her pillow tighter. “Then maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
Copyright ©2013 Ty Treadwell
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Ty Treadwell is the author of the humorous mystery The Devil Did Grin and co-author of Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row. For more death penalty trivia, read Ty’s blog at http://lastsuppersbook.blogspot.com/