PAPER WALLS/GLASS HOUSES

by

Eric Shane

 

Eric Shane is a pseudonym for a noted mystery and thriller author, who has been nominated several times for major mystery awards. This is his first published story under this name.

 

 

I was bucks up. A script that had taken me two long weekends to write had been sold to an obscure production company in the San Fernando Valley for an obscene amount of money.

I knew exactly how to celebrate.

I dropped by a liquor store on Figueroa, grabbed a couple of bottles of Cuervo Gold and a bottle of margarita mixer, and headed over to a cheap chain motel on the beach north of Zuma.

As soon as I checked into the room, I dropped the bottles on the dresser, made a quick trip to the ice machine, and settled in for an extended pseudo-Mexican vacation.

I dialed a Spanish language channel on the television, dumped a handful of ice into a twenty-cent hotel glass, filled it halfway up with Cuervo, and the rest of the way with the mixer.

About fifteen seconds later, I did it again.

It took me right at two minutes to go through three glasses. I liked to call this ‘laying the base’, the way a ski resort puts down ten or twenty inches of powder before freezing the place up for the winter suckers. I had gone from zero to zonked in no time flat, and my only task now consisted of keeping the buzz alive.

I can assure you – at this I was very well-practiced.

I probably could have gone on my bender at home, but my mother had always drilled into me the axiom that you don’t shit in your own nest.

I sipped the afternoon away, watched an old John Barrymore movie on TCM, and then a Magnum PI episode that was almost – but not quite – the worst piece of writing I had ever encountered. By then it was getting dark outside. I called a local delivery joint to have a pizza sent over.

The pizza wasn’t half bad; or maybe I was just incapable of telling the difference anymore. In any case, I snarfed that bad boy down and assembled another drink.

That was pretty much the way the evening went.

I woke around one in the morning. Ten years earlier, I probably would have yanked myself out of bed and rushed to the bathroom to bury my dinner at sea. That was all in the past, though. I had developed a tolerance for the fruit of the agave that made me as impervious to its devils as Superman was to bullets. When I awakened, I felt only a dull buzzing ache at the base of my skull. I knew that I could send it packing with just a sip of Jose, but I didn’t want to spoil my breakfast.

I was in a corner unit, on the fourth floor. I had splurged for the ocean-view room, even though I had no intention of spending much time staring at the sea. I sometimes liked to crack my window and listen to it, though, and I liked the salt air. It tasted like the rim of a perfectly blended margarita.

I lay in bed, listening to the beating of my forty-year-old heart, and tried to recall a time when I hadn’t been cynical or jaded.

I heard a sound behind my headboard. Then came a slam as the door to the room next to mine shut with a thud. I heard locks click and a deadbolt thrown. There was the soft murmuring of voices, quiet at first, and then louder as I began to focus on them.

“Will this do?” he said.

“That’s enough. Put it on the dresser,” she replied.

“What now?”

“What do you think, lover?”

There was a second of silence.

“I want to turn the lights out,” he said.

“On, off. Whatever trips your trigger honey.”

I heard a click, and the sliver of light that crept under the connecting door to our rooms disappeared.

“What do I call you?” he asked.

“Make it easy for yourself. Call me whatever you like.”

“Can I call you Esther?”

“What the hell kind of name is that?”

“It’s what I want to call you.”

“Your nickel, man. Lie on the bed. Esther’s about to do a number on you.”

I heard a rustle of sheets, a creak of worn bed springs. Then, a low moan. An expletive.

“May I touch you there?”

“You bought the whole package, sweetheart. It’s all yours. It’s all good. You like this?”

He moaned again. I heard the box springs protest. I became vaguely aware of my own excitement.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“What do you think it is?”

“I’ve never… I mean, I’ve never worn one before.”

“You start payin’ for it, you better get used to wearin’ one.”

“How do you…”

“Hold on. Let me do it for you. I got a special way of puttin’ it on.”

He moaned again.

“Would you be on top?” he asked.

“Top, bottom, on the floor, in the chair, on the ceiling, it’s all the same to me. Here I come.”

There was a frantic creaking of the springs, and a chorus of groans, gasps, and overtures to the Almighty. It was poignant and brief. Mercifully, I heard the man almost yelp in what sounded like unexpected pleasure, and then I thought I heard a sob.

“You okay, man?” she asked.

“I’m fine. It’s been… a long time.”

“You feel good?”

“Yes.”

“Your Esther, she did you all right?”

“You were fine.”

“I’m so happy to hear it. Tell your friends. Listen, baby, I got to jet…”

“Already?”

“It’s late. You’re the end of my night, sweetness. Momma got to call herself a cab.”

“How much…” he started to ask.

“What?”

“Could you… stay?”

“Oh, hell, man, that’s gonna cost you. I got places to be.”

“I can afford it. It’s been such a long time since I … slept next to a woman.”

“Shit. You are hard up, you know that?”

“Yes.”

He sounded pitiful in a way I had never heard from anyone but a scolded child.

“How much?”

She told him.

“Yes,” he said. “I can do that.”

“Roll over, sugar.”

I heard the springs creak again. Minutes later, all I heard was snoring.

 

* * * * * *

 

I awoke at eight with the reflected sunlight from the Pacific streaming in my window like scalpels aimed at my retinas. I pulled the covers over my head, and resolved to sleep for another hour before venturing down to the Denny’s in the lobby for a Grand Slam and a Bloody Mary.

There was a thump next door.

“I left the shower running,” she said.

I realized she really had stayed the entire night.

“Did you use all the shampoo?” he asked.

“I left a little. The little bottle of mouthwash wouldn’t hurt you much either.”

“Bitch.”

“Bastard.”

“I love it when you talk tough.”

I heard him roll off the bed and hit the floor. Seconds later, I heard her on the telephone.

“Hi. Any messages for me?… Yes. Give me the number. I’ll call him from here… How did the kids do? Did Jeffrey give you any trouble going to bed?… Mother, if you let him watch one extra show, he’ll stay up all night… Okay… Yes, we should be home by middle afternoon… Thanks again… Love you too…’Bye.”

I heard a metallic creak as the faucet in the bathroom was shut off, and I heard a man humming.

“I hate hotel soap,” he said, moments later.

“Beats bringing your own.”

“Did you call your mom?”

“Yes. Jeffrey talked her into letting him stay up until almost midnight to watch a movie on HBO.”

“The little con man.”

“What time is checkout?”

“Eleven.”

“We have time for breakfast? It’s a six hour drive back to San Francisco.”

“We could stop somewhere on the way.”

“No. Let’s go ahead and eat here.”

“Let me get dressed.”

“Wait.”

They didn’t say anything for a few seconds.

“Damn,” he said. “That’s good.”

“A little reward for playing along last night.”

“Did you get turned on?”

“Couldn’t you tell? I haven’t been that wet since before the baby.”

“How would I know? You made me wear that damn…”

“You loved it. Admit it.”

“We must do this again. Soon.”

“Get dressed. I’m hungry, and we have to get on the road. We promised to take Jeffrey to that new Disney flick tonight.”

They didn’t say anything else, until I heard the door to the next room open and close.

I thought I heard them giggling on the way down the hall.

I lay back in bed and thought for a while about how strange people can be.

 

*****

 

“So they were playing a game!” my agent said, as he looked up from the manuscript.

“Yeah,” I told him. “You see, this couple likes to take it on the road once in a while, and pretend like they aren’t married. He picks her up in a bar, they go to a motel, she plays the pro and he pretends to be this helpless Sad Sack. Somehow, it gets their rocks off.”

“Recharges their marriage.”

“Beats wife-swapping, I guess.”

“You’ve never met my wife,” he said. “This is great. Not like your usual stuff. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a fine writer, but this is special. I think I can peddle it to one of the glossies.”

“No shit?”

“What could it hurt to try? I don’t suppose you have any more of this arty shit bouncing around inside that head of yours?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

 

*****

 

He sold the story to a major magazine, for more money per word than I’d seen outside of screenplays in my entire life.

I started hanging at the Zuma Beach motel more often. My liver took a beating, but the stories that floated through the wall behind my bed kept me from complaining.

Somehow, despite the fact that I was – more or less – the poster boy for wasted life, I discovered that the motel room next to mine was a sort of Pathos Central. It was like a Harry Chapin song come to life, each night more heart-wrenching than the last, and I sat in bed with my laptop and took down every word.

There was the guy who checked in, climbed on the telephone, and racked up a week’s pay calling phone sex lines while he abused himself into a lather, and then spent the rest of the night whimpering and telling some absent specter how ashamed he was and how he would never do it again.

I sold that one to The Cimarron Review, and bought myself a used Miata with the proceeds. 

Then there was the threesome who visited the room once every several weeks – two guys and a woman. I figured out after a while that the guys were the couple, and the woman their guest. Apparently it was a concession they’d made to satisfy one of the guys’ occasional butch curiosity. He would test the bed springs with the woman, while the other guy would sit in a chair across the room and direct, like he was shooting a movie. For all I knew, maybe he was.

My agent passed that story along to Mandate, and I got my house painted.

One night a group of bikers rented the room, and ran a cocaine supermarket throughout the evening. Every ten minutes or so I’d hear a knock at the door, another guy ready to hand over a slice of his soul to get his weekend load on. Around two in the morning, they had to deal with a dissatisfied customer, and the whole scene nearly erupted in gunfire, while I cringed on the floor behind my bed waiting for the bullets to fly.

In my story, they actually shifted up into the heavy metal rock and roll, automatic weapons and everything, and High Times lapped it up like mother’s milk.

All in all, my occasional lost weekend in the corner unit off Zuma had turned into something of a cash cow. My agent thought I was the second coming of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck rolled into one. I found myself actually drinking less and listening more.

I was nominated for a couple of the lesser-known literary prizes.

Life was good.

 

*****

 

I was sitting on the motel bed, nursing a Cuervo and limeade, watching an old Bogie flick on the tube, when I heard the rasp of a key in the lock of the room next door through the air space at the bottom of the connecting door.

The hallway door to the next room opened forcefully enough to bang against the wall. It made me jump a little.

“I hate you!” a woman shouted. I could hear her heels click on the tile near the door, and then the sound disappeared as she hit the carpet. She had a Spanish accent.

“Not so loud,” a man said. “You’ll wake the whole place.”

“I don’t care,” she said. I could hear the pout in her voice. “You insulted me.”

“How?”

“You talked about your wife.”

I already had the laptop warmed up and ready to transcribe. This was going to be good.

“I just mentioned her. That’s all.”

“You should never talk about that beetch when you are with me.”

“I’m sorry. I was thoughtless. What can I do to make it up to you?”

“Come here.”

I thought I heard the comforter yanked forcefully from the bed. Then I heard a long, slow zipper. I figured that was the woman, or else the man was seventeen feet tall.

“Oh… my… God,” the man said.

“You weell make it up to me,” she said. “You weell be better than you have ever been.”

I think he said something at that point, but the words were muffled by flesh. After a few seconds, the woman began to whimper a little, and then came the moans.

“Oh baby oh baby oh baby oh baby, just like that,” she said between gasps. He said something, but I couldn’t catch it. I left a space for something clever on my screen, and kept typing.

“Stop!” she commanded.

“What?”

“You are always in too much of a hurry. You need to take your time.”

“All right.”

“Roll over.”

This woman loved to take the reins. She was commanding the guy like she was a drill sergeant.

“Oh,” he said, some surprise in his voice. “You’ve… never done that before.”

“A special treat for you, my love.”

It went on like that for a while, and then came the rhythmic thumping of the headboard against the drywall, which I could feel all the way into my room.

“Oh, jess!” she started to wail. “Jus’ like that. Ahchi, ahchi, AHCHI, AHCHI!”

Now, I’m no Spanish scholar, despite the fact that it’s slowly becoming the official language of Southern California, so I’d never heard the word ahchi before. For all I knew, there was no such word, and she was just imitating an enraptured chihuahua. There was no mistaking the context, though.

Moments later, the man made a sort of choking noise, chuffed a few times, summoned a couple of deities, and then the room went silent save for a brief period of heavy breathing.

I finished typing, and waited to see if there would be a second act.

 

*****

 

They revved up again just after sunrise. It was quicker this time, and only slightly less noisy. Afterward, the man coughed a few times, the way I’ve seen smokers do after trying to take up jogging, and I heard him pad across the room to the bathroom.

I heard the rasp of the shower faucets, metal on rusted metal. A couple of minutes later, the water shut off.

“You should have left it running,” she complained.

He didn’t answer. Instead, I heard the faucets turned again, and the water began to beat against the empty shower stall.

Then she was in the shower, humming some obscure Tejano tune I’d heard on the radio, somewhere along the line, but couldn’t identify.

She turned off the water, and seconds later returned to the room.

“Bobby,” she said, a coquettish lilt in her voice.

“Yes,” he said.

“Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?”

“Sure. How could I forget it?”

“When do you thin’ you might do it?”

“I don’t know. I have to think this out very carefully. We’re not talking about boosting an apple from the local grocery here. This is a major crime.”

My fingers stopped cold on the keyboard.

I’d heard criminal activity in the next room several times, of course – the biker dealers, for instance, and one weekend when a sports book set up shop there.

This seemed different, though.

She pressed on.

“Did you know that there are places in Mexico where you can leeve like a king for only ten thousand a year?”

“I’ve heard.”

“You can have a house as beeg as a mansion. On the beach. Weeth servants.”

“Yes.”

“How much do you thin’ the insurance would pay?”

I felt a chill run down my back.

“It’s a quarter-million dollar policy,” he said. “With double indemnity, a half million. The house is paid for. I could sell it for another three-quarter million. I’d get the 401k proceeds, of course. That’s in her will.”

I nearly choked. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“How much ees thees 401k?”

“When she quit working she had maybe another half million in it. All in all, I’d say the estate would be somewhere in the range of two million, once the entire kit and caboodle is liquidated.”

“Wha’ is thees ‘keet and caboodle’?”

“It’s a saying. Once I sell everything off. It would be a lot of money.”

“Woul’ they not suspect you?”

“I’m sure they would. They always suspect the husband first. That’s why we would have to be so incredibly careful. It would have to look exactly like an accident.”

As quietly as possible, I rolled off the bed and slipped into my clothes. All the while, I tried to figure out what I should do next.

In retrospect, I guess I should have called the police. What would I tell them, though? I had no idea who the couple next door was. I’d never actually heard them use the word murder, but it wasn’t hard to read their intent from the conversation.

I glanced at my laptop, still sitting on top of the bed.

I had a transcript of their conversation, from the moment they walked into the motel room. That had to be useful for something.

“I’m hungry,” the woman said. “I want breakfast.”

“Me, too,” the man said. “Get dressed. We’ll take my bag down to the car, and get a bite. Then I have to get you home. I’m due at work at nine-thirty.”

I pulled together my belongings, and prepared to leave. Just as I had everything packed, I heard the hallway door in the next room open and slam shut.

I rushed over to my door and peered through the fisheye peephole. Too late. All I could see was their backs as they headed down the hall away from me. He was tall, maybe a little over six feet. She was lithe and athletic. Her hair was ebony and tousled, and fell halfway down her back.

They disappeared from the peephole.

I tried to figure out how to get a better look.

Then I remembered that there was only a single parking lot for the motel, and the side window of my corner room had a great view of it.

I crossed the motel room and gently pulled the drapes away from one edge of the window. After a couple of minutes, I saw the couple cross the shell and asphalt lot to a silver Toyota Avalon. The man opened the trunk lid, and dropped a cloth overnight bag inside. After closing the lid, he took the woman’s hand and they turned toward the Denny’s next to the motel.

I quickly wrote down the license number of the Avalon.

While they ate in the Denny’s, I loaded my Miata, and sat in the lot waiting for them to finish. My own stomach rumbled loudly, but I didn’t dare run across to the convenience store to grab a quick bite, for fear they’d leave before I could get back to my car. Besides, how would it look if some crazy-eyed guy cut a record hundred yard dash across the street just as they were pulling out of the lot? The idea here, I reminded myself as my stomach twisted into a half-hitch, was not to be noticed. 

After a half hour, they walked back to the Avalon. As they pulled out of the lot, I backed from my parking space and fell in behind them. I stayed pretty close for the first mile or so, and then slowly dropped back, allowing four or five other cars to fall in between us.

They drove south on the PCH, until they reached Santa Monica. The man pulled into a side street near Venice Beach, and then into a driveway attached to a squat, pink, slightly disheveled bungalow.

I stopped half a block back, practically out of sight behind a stand of palm trees, and waited. The woman stepped out of the car. She blew a kiss to the man, and then walked across the postage stamp yard to the front door. After she was inside the house, the Avalon backed slowly from the driveway, reversed, and drove directly toward me!

I turned off the Miata, and dove across the front seat. The gearshift lever pressed into my abdomen like a dull knife.

I heard the Avalon cruise by, and a slight chirp from the tires as it rounded the next corner.

I knew enough about the neighborhood to realize that he had to either get back on the PCH, or turn right somewhere on down the road, unless he planned to drive right into the ocean. So, I restarted the Miata and drove past the woman’s house. I jotted down the address and the name on the mailbox – Flores – before turning left at the next cross street and heading out toward Pico. I stopped at the light on Pico just in time to see the Avalon cross the intersection.

It seemed an eternity before the light changed, allowing me to turn right and follow him. As I had before, I kept enough distance between us to remain effectively invisible in the typical heavy Los Angeles morning traffic, but stayed close enough to keep him from disappearing himself.

After several miles, he turned left, and pulled into a parking garage near LaBrea. I circled the block once or twice, and then also entered the garage.

It took me a few minutes to find the Avalon. I drove up another level, found a compact car space, and parked the Miata. Then I hiked back down the incline to the Avalon.

It had been parked in a section of reserved spaces, designated as belonging to Squire Insurance. Since they were reserved, I played a hunch and walked around to the front of the car, to the concrete stop block designed to keep the car from rolling straight into the wall of the parking deck.

Sure enough, the stop block had been stenciled with the owner’s name. Robert Dickman.

Considering what I had overheard the night before, I found the name somehow amusing. I would never use it in my story, though. Nobody would believe it.

I returned to the Miata and considered my next move. I had Bobby’s name, and half of his female co-conspirator’s name – Flores.

I needed more information, though, if only to flesh out the parts of the story I didn’t know. I was already outlining a new screenplay in my mind, and envisioning a huge sale to Warner Brothers or Paramount, maybe even Columbia Tri-Star.

Oh, and a trip to the police.

I didn’t want to forget that detail.

It was a little after nine-thirty. Dickman probably would be holed up in his office for a few hours. I decided to drive back to Venice and dig up a little bit more information on the girl.

Fifteen minutes later, I pulled to the curb about two houses down, and surveyed her house. The neighborhood was quiet. Most of the residents were either at work or at school. I quickly looked around, and noted that a Chevy truck parked two houses down from Ms. Flores’ house, and across the street, had the rear tail light knocked out, and what looked like baseball bat dents in the rear quarter panel. An idea occurred to me.

I rooted around behind the passenger seat until I found a clipboard. I checked my glove compartment, and located some car rental forms that looked properly official. After placing them on the clipboard, I put a pencil behind my ear and pulled the Miata into the driveway of the Flores house.

The woman from the motel answered the doorbell on the first ring. She opened the front door, but left the iron-barred screen locked.

Jess?” she asked, as she looked me over from head to toe and back.

“Are you Ms. Flores?” I asked.

“I am. Who are you?”

I dug back for a fake name from one of my stories.

I borrowed a name of one of my short story characters, and flashed her a quick look at the clipboard. “I’m an adjustor with Fidelity Mutual Insurance. We’ve received a claim from your neighbor up the street…” I gestured toward the damaged Chevy truck, “…alleging that someone damaged his property in the last couple of days. I’m just following up with some routine site assessment. I was wondering whether I could ask you a couple of questions.”

“I di’n’ do nothin’ to hees truck,” she protested.

“I’m sure you didn’t. I’m sorry if I gave you that impression. I just need some information about the neighborhood. Are you aware of any problems with vandalism in the area? Teenaged kids, maybe, out for a few kicks?”

“We have teenagers here. Some are okay. Others get into trouble.”

“It’s the troublemakers I’m interested in, ma’am… or is it miss?”

Ms.,” she replied “Angel -  that is, Angelina - Flores.”

I made a note on the forms attached to the clipboard.

“And these troublemaking teenagers?”

“We have gangs in Venice Beach,” she said, her voice clipped. “Eet is not healthy to talk about them to strangers. I would imagine tha’ Mr. Cantinas, he peess them off. Tha’s why they mess up his truck.”

“I see. I… I don’t suppose you would recall exactly when Mr. Cantinas’ truck was damaged?”

She waved a hand in front of her face. “No. I am sorry, but I have no idea when tha’ might have happened.”

“He claims it was vandalized three nights ago. Were you around that evening, Ms. Flores?”

“Wha’ is this?” she said, suddenly irritated. “Do you accuse me of damaging Cantinas’ truck?”

“No,” I protested.

“Because, it sound very much like you thin’ I had somethin’ to do weeth thees.”

“Not at all,” I said, trying to calm her. The neighborhood looked deserted, but who knew how many secluded denizens might be roused if she pitched a nutty right here on her front stoop? “I’m sorry for disturbing you. I just needed to get some information about the neighborhood. Please have a nice day.”

I stepped backward a couple of paces, and then turned to walk back to my car.

 

*****

 

I got back to the parking deck around eleven. I parked the Miata, this time one level down from Dickman’s Avalon, and thought through my next move.

An idea came to mind. It was so transparently elegant that it almost shocked me.

I pulled a sheet of my screen credits from my briefcase, and slipped them onto the clipboard. Then I walked into the building attached to the parking garage, and checked the directory until I found Squires Insurance, on the fifth floor.

When I got off the elevator, I found myself in the middle of a cube farm maybe sixty feet square. A woman sat at a desk just off the elevator alcove. The triangle block on her desk announcer her as Shirley Hicks, Administrative Assistant. I smiled at her, and walked up to her desk.

I told her her my name.

“I’m looking for Robert Dickman,” I said.

“Is he expecting you?”

“My secretary was supposed to phone ahead to make an appointment. I’m on something of a deadline, you see.

She checked her appointment book.

“I don’t see you here,” she said.

“Could you check with Mr. Dickman, see if he’ll talk with me? I only really need a few moments.”

She regarded me the way some people look at the stuff they dredge out of their pools, but she picked up the phone and dialed three digits. After talking with the person on the other end, she racked the receiver.

“Mr. Dickman will be up in a minute or two. Please have a seat.”

I was almost too nervous to sit. At just that moment I could have used a stiff belt of my buddy Jose C. I was about to come face-to-face with a man I suspected of plotting to kill his wife. That kind of thing tends to put the old ticker into overdrive.

Presently, a tall, dark man with an aquiline nose and thin lips emerged from the cube farm. He saw me sitting in the waiting area. I quickly stood and introduced myself.

“I’m a screenwriter,” I told him. “I write scripts for movies and television. I’m sorry for arriving unannounced. I thought my secretary had called ahead to set an appointment.”

Dickman shook my hand, but seemed puzzled.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. What is it I can do for you?”

“I’m writing a screenplay. It includes some plot factors revolving around the insurance industry. I don’t know a thing about insurance, except that it eats a huge hole in my paycheck every month. I was hoping you could answer some questions for me.”

“I don’t know. How did you find my name?”

“My agent,” I said, quickly. “I told him about my screenplay, and he asked a friend for the name of someone in the insurance industry who could give it just that spark of realism. The friend came up with you.”

“And this friend is…”

“Damned if I know. My agent talked with him. I can find out if you want. My agent is on a vacation to Cabo, though. Very out of touch, if you catch my drift.”

I winked at him, as if including him on a ribald secret.

To my relief, he seemed to buy it.

“Well, I suppose I can give you a few minutes. Why don’t you step back to my desk?” 

I followed him through the maze of cubicles to a glassed-in office overlooking the boulevard outside. In the distance, I could make out the central city office spires through the bluish smoggy haze.

He asked me to have a seat.

“Have I seen any of your pictures?” he asked.

I pulled the sheet of credits from the clipboard and handed it to him. He looked it over.

“I’ve seen a couple of these,” he said. “I liked this one, Run To Sunlight.”

“I’m particularly fond of that one myself,” I told him. “It paid off my house. Again, I’m sorry to barge in. I’ll only take a few moments of your time. What I need is information on life insurance.”

“Life insurance,” he echoed.

I noted the picture on his desk. It was the image of a pretty woman in her late thirties. She was California blonde, with bright blue eyes and a fetching smile. She looked like the kind of woman whose father gave her a nose job for her sweet sixteen birthday present.

“Your wife?” I asked, pointing to the picture.

“Yes,” he said, a bit uncomfortably.

“She’s lovely. She looks a little familiar. She doesn’t work in the film business, does she?”

“She did, at one time. She quit when we got married. Life insurance, you say?”

“Yes. This screenplay I’m writing turns on the concept of double indemnity. You know, like the old movie.”

Dickman seemed noticeably uncomfortable.

“Double indemnity,” he repeated, not a question.

“What I need to know is how the term applies in the modern world. In the movie written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler back in the forties, the idea was that a life insurance policy pays double if the insured dies in an accident. I was wondering whether this is still the case.”

“Well,” Dickman said. “I can’t speak to the arrangements in the industry before I was even born. However, if you’re talking about modern insurance policy, then I’d say that double indemnity works more or less the way you’ve described it. It has to be written into the policy as a condition of insurance, though.”

“So, some policies don’t provide for double indemnity?”

“No, not specifically. There are a number of conditions that have to be met in order for the policy to be doubled. For instance, the insured's death usually has to occur prior to a specific age.”

“Is that age always standard?”

“Not exactly.”

“Is it likely that someone over the age of, say, forty might be eligible for double indemnity?”

“Well, as the age of the insured increases, the availability of a double payment decreases. You see, the purpose of double indemnity is to compensate a younger family, in the case of accidental death, for the income that might have been earned in the working life of the deceased.”

“I see. What other conditions are there?”

“In most cases, death must result from bodily injury that is related solely to external, violent, and accidental means, with no other contributing cause. Death must occur within a specified period after the injury.”

“Okay,” I said, writing furiously on the legal pad I’d attached to the clipboard. “So, being killed during – say – a robbery wouldn’t meet the criteria.”

“Not exactly. The policy would stipulate the conditions. If the policy includes murder as a qualifying condition, then double indemnity would apply.”

“Terrific,” I said, without looking up from the pad. “You have no idea how helpful this is. Everything you’ve told me fits in with my plot. This couldn’t be better.”

“Would you mind if I asked you what your story is about?”

“My screenplay,” I corrected. “Basically, it’s a murder-for-pay plot. It’s about a man who’s having an affair with a manipulative, controlling woman. She convinces him that if they arrange for his wife to have an accident, they can run away together on the proceeds from her insurance. The hook is that the insurance will pay double, because she dies during a robbery. What do you think?”

Dickman was clearly distressed. His neck had reddened, to match his ears. If I could have taken his blood pressure at that moment, he probably would have set some kind of Guinness record.

“It… seems somewhat… far-fetched,” he stammered. “Of course, I don’t see a lot of movies these days. Perhaps… perhaps because of the insurance angle I can see problems that the average viewer would miss.”

“Such as?”

He waved his hand, dismissively.

“Oh, think nothing of it. Technical details, really. They would probably just bog down the movie. It sounds as if you have a very good beginning there. I wish you the very best with it. Now, if you will excuse me, I do have a pressing meeting.”

I thanked him for his time, and told him I could find my own way out.

I made my way back to the parking deck, to the Miata, and waited. After several minutes, I heard a tortured squeal of tires on concrete, and smiled as Dickman’s Toyota Avalon rushed past me toward the exit of the deck.

Again careful to keep a safe distance, I followed him back to Venice Beach. As I had suspected, he drove directly to Angelina Flores’ house, and skidded to a halt in her driveway. He jumped from the car and ran to her front door. Apparently he had called her on his cell phone, because she opened the front door before he got to it. He hustled inside.

Minutes later, they both left the house and climbed into the Avalon.

I followed them back toward the city. They stopped at a restaurant and went inside. I could see them through the window. First Dickman talked animatedly, waving his hands about and gesticulating wildly. After a few moments, Angelina mimicked him. Whatever they were discussing, I had a feeling that it wasn’t about sports, and that it didn’t spell any good tidings for the soon-to-be late Mrs. Dickman.

On one hand, I felt as if I should do something. Call the cops, maybe.

I realized that I still didn’t have much to offer them. Eavesdropped conversations in a motel room? Clandestine meetings in a restaurant? A nervous reaction when I presented Dickman with a scenario close to the one I suspect him of plotting against his own wife? He was right. It did seem a little far-fetched.   

On the other hand, I thought, what if they were planning at just that second to escalate their plans? What if they decided that the time was ripe, and that Mrs. Dickman needed to die before the sun set over the Pacific?

I’m callous, calculating, and cynical, but I didn’t think I could live with myself if I sat on this story for the sake of a boffo screenplay, and allowed an innocent woman to be murdered for money.

I opened my laptop and latched onto a wireless network from the coffee house next to the restaurant. I pulled up a website that listed addresses and telephone numbers, and asked it to search for Robert Dickman in the L.A. area.

I was in luck. There was only one listing. Even better, it wasn’t too far away, in the Hollywood Hills. I was familiar with the area. Everyone in the film business is. It was the kind of place where houses jut out from hillsides and you can run across a wild coyote just sitting in a driveway watching the cars go by.

I jotted the address on my clipboard, and headed off across the city toward that big old white sign in the sky.

 

*****

 

Robert Dickman lived in a Spanish styled bungalow situated on the edge of a hill, with the deck cantilevered over a deep canyon. It was just a matter of time before an earthquake or a mudslide sent his home sledding down the hillside. From the looks of the place, though, it had survived forty or fifty years of Southern California weather and disasters.

I parked a short distance up the hill, hiked down to Dickman’s circular drive, and walked up to the front door. Seconds after I rang the bell, a speaker next to the jamb crackled.

“Can I help you?” a woman’s voice said.

“Are you Mrs. Dickman?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Your husband is Robert Dickman, who works at Squire Insurance?”

There was a pause.

“Oh, my God. What’s happened?”

“Please, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

I stopped, realizing that, if I told her what I had come to say, I would be doing exactly that.

“What do you want?”

I told her my name.

“This is very difficult,” I said. “I’m not exactly certain how to approach you with this.”

“I don’t like this,” she said, through the speaker. “I think you should go.”

“Not before I have a chance to talk with you.”

“I’m calling the police.”

I tried to think quickly. Maybe the police were exactly what I wanted at that moment. I could explain to them what I had learned.

What were the chances they’d believe me, though? What proof did I have besides a tryst in a neighboring hotel room and talk of insurance policies?

I slapped the screen door frame.

“I think your husband is planning to kill you!” I blurted.

There was silence for a long moment.

Then I heard the deadbolt click. The door opened.

“I think you’d better explain yourself,” she said through the screen.

 

*****

 

A half hour later, I sat in Janet Dickman’s living room, sipping a Sprite as I finished my story.

“Let me get this straight,” she said. “You overheard this conversation through a motel room wall?”

I nodded.

“Isn’t it possible that you didn’t understand what they were saying?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “The wall is very thin, and there’s a connecting door between the rooms with a gap under it. I could hear pretty clearly.”

“What am I saying?” she asked, as she stared wistfully out the sliding doors, over the deck, and across the canyon. “I’m arguing with you, and you clearly have evidence that my husband is cheating on me. If he can do that, I suppose he could do anything.”

We were interrupted by the sound of a car pulling into the drive. A car door opened and slammed shut.

“My husband!” she said. “What should we do?”

“Hide me,” I said. “And act naturally.”

She grabbed my hand, and pulled me across the living room to the kitchen. She opened a door to a pantry, and pointed inside.

“Robert never comes into the kitchen, except to get a beer from the refrigerator. Hide in here.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked.

“I don’t know. When it’s safe, I’ll let you out.”

She pushed me into the narrow space, and closed the door. I pushed it open just a crack, so I could see and hear what happened.

Dickman walked through the front door, and draped his suit jacket over one of the bar stools.

“Darling!” Janet said, with just the slightest quaver in her voice. “What are you doing home so early?”

“I decided to take the afternoon off,” he said. “Rough morning. Have you gotten any calls? Someone looking for me?”

“No.”

“There was this guy at the office, said he was given my name by his agent. Probably nothing.”

Just as Janet had told me, Dickman walked around the bar into the kitchen, and grabbed a beer from the refrigerator. He popped the tab, and took a long swallow.

Janet stepped out to the deck through the sliding door. I could see her wrap her arms around herself. She rocked side to side a little. Robert followed her out.

“What is it?” he asked, as he placed the beer onto the deck rail.

She turned and slapped him, hard. He reeled backward. His hand raised to palm his cheek.

“What in hell!” he gasped.

“I know,” she said.

“What?”

“I know about… her.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“The motel in Zuma Beach?”

He stepped back a foot or two. He ran one hand through his thick black hair.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “You hired a detective?”

That was when Janet made her mistake. If she had said yes, Dickman might have faced a messy divorce, a little embarrassment, and some nasty alimony, but he’d never have tried to harm her. 

“No,” she said, instead. “I followed you.”

Through the crack between the pantry door and the jamb, I saw Dickman’s face redden. His fists clenched. Even from my clumsy angle I could tell that he was furious.

“You… stupid… interfering… bitch!” he growled.

He reached out, grabbed her by the upper arms, and swung her around. Slowly, he started walking her toward the deck rail.

“You’ve ruined everything,” he said, his voice low and menacing. “You stuck your nose where it didn’t belong. To think, I had decided not to do anything about you. I’d decided it was too dangerous. Now, you leave me no choice.”

“You’re hurting me!” she said.

She glanced backward, into the canyon hollow, as her backside touched the redwood rail. It was a sheer hundred foot drop beyond the deck, with nothing but rocks and scrub below. Nobody could survive a fall from that height.

I stepped out of the pantry, dashed around the bar, and onto the deck.

“Let go of her!” I yelled, finding it hard to believe that it was my own voice shouting.

He turned and saw me.

“You!” he gasped. “What in hell are you doing in my house?

Janet took the opportunity to break away from him. She ran and hid behind me. In retrospect, she could have chosen some more substantial protection.

Dickman stomped across the deck, grabbed me by the lapels of my sport coat, and tried to lift me off the ground.

“Let go!” I yelled.

“Answer me! What have you been telling my wife? Why were you really in my office today?”

I wedged my hands between his wrists, and jerked them upward rapidly, breaking his grip. Immediately, he lunged at me again, grabbing for my neck. We were only a couple of feet from the edge of the deck. I could see the dizzying abyss beyond the railing.

I planted my feet as he reached for me, and shoved him backward with both hands against his chest.

He staggered back, off balance, until his butt hit the deck railing. His arms flailed helplessly as his momentum started to pivot him over the rail. Janet Dickman screamed as he rotated backward, his eyes wide with terror. He rolled over the rail into space.

At the last second, he reached out and tried to grab the rail to stop himself from launching into empty air. His fingers scraped the wood, and then they disappeared over the edge.

A couple of seconds later, I heard him hit the rocks. It was a sound I’ll never forget.

I leaned over the railing and looked down. Dickman’s broken body had hit the incline, and had rolled and skidded along the desert scrub before coming to a stop. He looked like a truck had rolled over him.

I became aware of Janet at my side. Her hand covered her mouth. She turned to me.

“Did you hit him?” she asked.

I was too stunned to understand. I shook my head, trying to clear it.

Did you hit him?” she asked again, more insistently this time.

“What?” I asked.

“In the face! Did you punch him?”

“I… don’t understand,” I said. “No. I just shoved him.”

She backed away from the deck rail and began to walk in a small circle.

“Good. Okay. If you had hit him, there would be bruises. The police would ask questions about that. Why in hell did you come here, anyway? You could have messed up everything!”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

She walked to the telephone, dialed three digits. Seconds later, her voice changed dramatically.

“I need help!” she choked into the receiver, between sobs. “My husband’s fallen from our deck. I think he’s terribly hurt. I think he might be dying!”

There was a pause.

“That’s right. 4730 Holly Canyon Road. Please come quickly!”

She replaced the receiver, and turned to me.

“We don’t have much time. You can’t be here, understand? You have to go.”

“Wait,” I protested. “I have to stay. I pushed him over the railing. The police are going to want to know what happened.”

“What happened is that he fell off the deck. It was an accident. That’s what we’re going to tell the police.”

“I can’t lie about this. He was attacking me. It was self-defense. I didn’t do anything wrong. He was planning to kill you.”

“I don’t have time to argue with you,” she said. “I can make it worth your while. I can give you money. A lot of money. Between his insurance and his savings and investments, there will be several million. I can give you a hundred thousand to just disappear. You could take the money and go to Mexico. You could live like a king there for ten thousand a year or so. You could have a house overlooking the beach. You could even have servants. Just take the money and go, before the police arrive!”

I stared at her, unable to speak.

I had heard those exact words once before, earlier that day.

The front door opened. Angelina Flores rushed into the house.

“Wha’ happened?” she asked. “I heard a scream.”

She rushed over to the rail and peered over.

Honey,” she said, as she embraced Janet. “You did eet!”

“No,” Janet said, nodding toward me. “He did.”

Angelina turned to me.

“Wha’ are you doing here?” she asked. “You were jus’ supposed to be a witness!”

“What?” I asked, as the truth slowly began to dawn on me.

“She’s right,” Janet said. “Your agent really shouldn’t drink so much. I met him at a party a few months ago. He told me all about this author he represented, who listened to people in the next motel room and wrote stories about them. That’s what gave Angel and me the idea.”

“You… set me up?” I stammered.

“You were just supposed to be a witness. You weren’t supposed to get involved, not directly. Angel was supposed to get Robert to try to kill me. I’ve been taking martial arts training during the day while he’s at work. I could have tossed him over the rail without even thinking about it. All I had to do was get him to attack me out here.”

Angelina picked up the story from there.

“We wanted you to hear me plotting with that jerk to keel her,” she said. “Afterward, you could testify about wha’ you had heard. Eet woul’ have convinced the police that eet was self-defense.”

“But…” I said, trying to catch up. “But that would implicate you!”

Even in my shock, I was trying to clean up the plot lines, as if I were doing the punch on a screenplay.

“I called the police,” she said. “From the car. I tol’ them that Robert was out of hees mind. I tol’ them that he had threatened to kill Janet, and that I had not been able to talk him out of eet.”

“You have to leave!” Janet said, grabbing my arm. “The police are on their way. The ambulance will be here any second. You can’t be here when they arrive. A quarter million! I’ll give you that much if you’ll just go!”

 

*****

 

The girls were right. You can live like a king in Mexico for very little. Sure, it costs more than ten grand a year, but not a lot more.  

I live in a pretty little house overlooking the Sea of Cortez now. It has a couple of nice-sized bedrooms, a lovely terrace where I write as I watch the boats sail on the crystal waters, and an incredible living room where I sometimes entertain friends. The sea breezes waft through the house day and night, sort of like nature’s air conditioning.

Through the miracle of satellite Internet, I can still write my stories and screenplays, and send them to my agent in Los Angeles. I hardly even get to the United States anymore.

I discovered that you can get really great tequila down here for next to nothing.

On clear days, all I have to do is pull out my binoculars, and I can see Janet and Angelina lounging on the deck of their own villa a half mile away.

I took the money, of course. I figured I had earned it, for playing the unwitting role of the patsy in Janet’s murder plot. After moving to Mexico, I hired a former Mexican prize fighter to work as my bodyguard. He also cooks like a French chef and makes a mean margarita. His girlfriend keeps the place clean.

I like having servants.

I keep a close eye on the girls. We have an uneasy truce. Even though it would be tough for the American officials to touch us down here, we all know what we did. It’s kind of like what that old boy Sun Tzu said: Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.

I think, though, that our tenuous relationship will eventually be better defined by another ancient axiom, something Ben Franklin once said.

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

You do the math.

 

END

 

 

Copyright © 2007 by Richard Helms

 

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