The High House Writer
by Brendan DuBois
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, July/August 2009
Among the things private investigators must be able to do—besides searching the Internet, lying fluently to public officials, and locating the best public restrooms—one very important skill is sizing up potential clients. Most of my jobs are pretty straightforward. Lawyers will come to me for asset investigations, insurance companies for photos of fender benders or employment verification of customers submitting claims; even other investigators come for advice on the best way to approach the local police.
Pretty basic stuff, which can be boring, but despite what you read or see on the silver screen, boring private investigation work is a good thing. I love boring. Boring means steady work, means a thick wallet, means a good night’s sleep without worrying who might break in at three a.m., upset over some imagined slight.
So always keep an eye on clients. A good rule, and one not made to be broken.
On this particular day in late May, the door to my one-room office opened up and a young man came in. He had long, black hair to his shoulders, a sparse beard that probably went by the term scraggly, and khaki trousers. He also had on a brown leather jacket and he carried a bag over one shoulder, something I think nowadays is called a manbag by those with a sense of humor. He came in shyly, like a boy buying his first six-pack of beer with a fake ID, and looked around my office. Not a very impressive office, but it works for me: desk, phone, three chairs, computer and two three-drawer filing cabinets with good solid locks.
“Miss Dunbar?” he asked, his voice soft.
I said, “The same,” as I opened up the center drawer to my desk. Not that I’m paranoid or anything, but whenever a male potential client comes into my office, I make sure my .357 Ruger stainless steel revolver is readily available. Most men who come into my office are under some form of stress, and that can result in some off-the-wall behavior. Though based on what I had seen and heard so far, it looked like I could have knocked over this wisp of a boy with a flyswatter.
“My name’s Terry Crandall, and I’d like to hire you,” he said, standing behind one of the two chairs in front of my desk.
“Have a seat,” I said, which is what he did, and I kept the center drawer open, took out a black ink pen and found a clean notepad to make notes. “What can I do for you?” I asked. I usually play a little game called “what does this potential client want,” but I had to give up. Terry Crandall was unlike anyone who had ever stepped into my office before.
He coughed and said, “I’d like for you to find someone for me.”
“And who’s that?”
He paused, like he was still deciding whether to proceed, and he lowered his voice a bit and said, “Harmon Blake.”
That’s what I wrote down, and I looked to him and said, “Who’s Harmon Blake?”
Terry’s eyes widened, and I knew I had committed some sort of faux pas. “You know, Harmon Blake.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, no. Don’t recognize the name.”
“Harmon Blake—” He repeated the name, trying to jog my memory.
“—is one of the best science fiction authors we’ve ever had. He started off writing television screenplays back in the sixties, before turning to short stories and novels. He’s won almost every major writing award for science fiction there is. He’s a famous author, a legend.”
“And you want me to find him?”
“Yes, I do.”
“He . . . well, um, it’s personal. But I need to find him.”
I doodled on my pad. “And how can I help you with that?”
“Because he lives here, in Purmort.”
I stopped doodling. “He does?”
“And why can’t you find him on your own? Even if he has an unlisted number, if you’re sure he’s here in Purmort, he can be found. It’s not that big of a town.”
His face flushed. “I can’t find him because no one will help me, that’s why. The post office, the people at the town hall, even the police department . . . nobody will help me find him.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Where are you from, Terry?”
“Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he said. “I’m a grad student and, well, I took a bus up here. I’m staying at a motel out on Route 4, and I’ve got to find him. I’ve just got to.”
He seemed to struggle with something for a moment, like he was going to reveal some secret. Finally, he said, “Look. I’ve been a fan of his as long as I can remember. He wrote a famous script for one of the Solar Voyage episodes, called ‘High House Horror.’ A classic, considered one of the best ever done for that or any other science fiction series.”
My little computer of a brain switched into gear. “Solar Voyage ...
wasn’t that on back in the seventies? About a starship exploring the galaxy?”
“A little old for you.”
“Classic science fiction lives forever,” he said. “Some of my favorite authors—like Asimov and Heinlein—they’ve been dead for decades. It doesn’t matter.”
“But still . . . I’ve got see him. I’ve just got to.”
So I’ve had my share of wild and woolly visitors, but this young man was something else.
I doodled some more. “I’m not sure I can do that, Terry.”
“Why not? I thought that’s what you private investigators do, find people.”
“We do. Among other things. But Terry, you’re not his father, his son, nephew, or anyone else with a connection. If Harmon Drake does live here in Purmort, he probably values his privacy, and that’s something we all value around here. Privacy. If you can’t find him through whatever public resources are out there, I really don’t want to take the case.”
The poor guy looked like he was going to cry. “Please . . . I don’t know what else to do. Can’t you help me?”
If tears had developed, I probably would have done something for him, but so far I didn’t like his attitude or approach. It was like he was a stalker or something, and I didn’t want to be a part of him doing something loony or worse with a shy writer living in my hometown, so shy that even I hadn’t heard of him.
And then he surprised me by digging deep into his manbag, and my hand went back to the open drawer of my desk, to the cool metal of my revolver, wondering just how quick I should react to whatever was coming out of his bag, but there was no weapon, just a book.
I took a breath, thinking that the poor kid had been five seconds away from having one of Ruger’s finest products presented a couple of feet away from his head. He held the book up; its cover showed a spaceship apparently in orbit around Saturn and had his name on it. The title of the book was High House Revenge.
He handed the book over and I looked at it. “Really? You wrote this?”
His smile was small and shy. “Yes, I did. Based on that teleplay he wrote ... an inspiration. Of course—” His smile got even more shy. “—I couldn’t get a real publisher interested in the book. So I had to get it self published. And that cost me a lot of money.”
I held the book and flipped it over, where I saw his face in black and white on the back cover. I hefted the book and looked to him. “Let me guess. You wanted to bring this to him and have him look at it. Right?”
He looked so very relieved. “Yes, that’s right. I would. That’s been my dream, for a very long time. To have him personally autograph it.”
I gave him back his book, saw the puppy-dog look on his face, and something just gave way inside of me. “Okay. Let’s see what we can do.”
And it almost ended before it started. From the top drawer, I pulled out the standard client form, and his eyes widened when he saw the rate schedule at the top of the page.
His voice almost squeaked. “Eighty dollars? An hour?”
“That’s the standard rate,” I said. “It’s more for evenings and weekends.”
This time, the tears did come. “I’m sorry, I can’t afford that. I really can’t.”
Me, I’m a sucker for tears. “What can you afford, then?”
His hand darted back into the manbag and out came a crumpled twenty dollar bill. He slid it across my desk and I just smiled, made a few adjustments to the standard client agreement, which he signed. After he left, I went out to earn my pay.
Lucky for me, one of the joys of living in a small town is being connected to a very informal but very efficient intelligence agency. It has no committees or board of directors or any oversight board, which is probably why it is so very efficient. This particular agency knows who’s a success in business, who’s cheating on his or her spouse, and who’s going to build a new extension on their home. It also knows who’s ill, who’s recovering from surgery, and who’s getting ready to move to Manchester. The little and the big, this intelligence agency knows a lot.
Though not a native of Purmort, I’ve come to be accepted as someone who did her part for the town, and I became friends with members of this intelligence agency, including the town clerk, one Mrs. Pam Dawkins. The little sign on the outside of her office door in the town hall said closed, but knowing better, I opened the door to find her having lunch at her desk. I suppose any other member of town would have gotten a “get the hell out of my office” look, but to Pam, I’m not just another resident, I’m one who helped her out when her ex-husband decided to skip town and stop paying child support. I took on her case and got everything resolved favorably—favorably, that is, for Pam.
She looked up from her yogurt container and said, “Must be something to interrupt my four-star lunch.”
“It’s something, but not earth shattering,” I said, taking a seat across from her in her small and cluttered office. “Need to know about someone.”
“Sure, that’s what I’m here for,” she said. “To faithfully serve the townspeople of Purmort.”
“Harmon Drake,” I said. “Does he live here?”
She smiled, brought up a spoonful of yogurt to her mouth. “Didn’t know you liked science fiction.”
“Well, I tend to read mysteries when I can, but there you go. What can you tell me about him?”
Pam slurped some of the yogurt from the spoon. “Funny thing, you’re the second one to ask about him in as many days.”
“Yeah, funny thing. Let me guess. The first one to ask you about Harmon Drake was a skinny young man with a starter beard on his face. Am I right?”
That resulted in a laugh and Pam said, “The same. He wanted to find out where Harmon lived, and I told him I couldn’t help him.”
“Why not? Tax maps and tax records are a matter of public record, aren’t they?”
She had an impish grin on her face. “True. And if Harmon Drake paid taxes in this town, and if Harmon Drake owned property in this town, I would have to tell young sire where he lived. But he doesn’t, and I didn’t.”
“But he does live here.”
It took another spoonful of yogurt before I figured it out. “He either rents or he owns it under a company name. And the company pays all the bills.”
“Very good,” she said. “A few years ago, he incorporated himself, and the corporation owns the property and pays taxes on it. Legally, his name doesn’t appear in any of the public paperwork. He’s not even registered to vote. Not bad, Karen. You ought to try using that keen mind for a career or something. Like a private detective.”
“Yeah, a good idea. And the kid didn’t know enough to ask that?”
“Nope. And even if he did . . . hell, the guy deserves his privacy, right? You know there’s a whole bunch of famous writers who live in New Hampshire, and we nutty locals like to help them protect their privacy. Like the guy who wrote Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger. And that other guy, who wrote that book about Da Vinci and his code. None of the locals ever tell the devoted fans where they live. Harmon Drake just likes to be left alone, and who can blame him? Besides, that kid gave me the creeps.”
I cocked my head a bit. “The creeps? Really? Seemed pretty harmless to me.”
Pam scraped the bottom of the yogurt container with her plastic spoon. “Maybe so, but he was really adamant on finding out where Harmon Drake lived. Kept on pushing and pushing . . . practically started crying. Said this was his last chance, and that I had a duty to help him. And I told him that my duty was to the taxpayers of Purmort, and that he didn’t fit the bill. A few more words and then he left.”
“What was he so angry about?”
She took the empty container, tossed it at a wastebasket in the corner, where it hit the edge and fell in. She looked happy and turned back to me. “Said Harmon Drake owed him money, and that he was going to make sure he paid up.”
“Money? Are you sure about that?”
“Yep. Money. And then he left, saying he was going to the police. And obviously he got the same answer, because he ended up with you.”
“Lucky guy, huh?”
“You said it,” Pam said.
I got up. “Mind telling me where Harmon Drake lives?”
“Sixteen Townsend Road. Can’t miss it.”
“And why won’t I miss it?”
She smiled. “The lack of old cars, abandoned toilets, and domesticated animals in the yard.”
I headed to the door and turned before opening it.
“How come I got the address so easily?”
She laughed. “Because I know and like you.”
“Truly. And, well, one more thing.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I help set the tax rates for the town,” she said. “So I know you’ll play nice. Right?”
I smiled back at her and left before committing myself.
Townsend Lane was a narrow one-lane blacktop on the north side of town. Most of the residences on it were old Cape Cod homes, a couple of distressed farmhouses, and some doublewide trailers. Even without the handy numbers on the fence posts and mailboxes, it was easy to determine where Harmon Drake lived: His house looked like it belonged in a pricey Beacon Hill neighborhood. It was big and set off a distance from the road, made of gray stone and brick, with what looked to be a curved driveway set off from the large front door. There was also a tall, black wrought-iron fence surrounding the property. I pulled over and stepped out. The driveway was blocked by a gate and on the gate was a sign:
PROPERTY UNDER SURVEILLANCE
Off to the side, on a metal post holding up one end of the gate, was an intercom box. I pressed the switch and called out, “Mister Drake? Harmon Drake?”
Only got the hiss of static in reply.
“Mister Drake, my name is K.C. Dunbar. I’m a private investigator in town. I’d like to speak with you.”
More hissing of static.
Still no reply.
I stepped back to my Ford, looked over the property. “Damn,” I said. “Guess there’s more to this writing gig than I imagined.”
Back at my office, Terry Crandall was waiting for me outside, shifting from one foot to the next, like he had to use a restroom or something. I pulled in to an empty spot in front of my neighbor, an Italian restaurant, The Coliseum, that was run by a second-generation Greek family—typical for New Hampshire. When I got out, he looked at me and asked, “Well? Well?”
“Well, what?” I asked. I went to my office door—k.c. dunbar, investigations, stenciled with gold leaf lettering on the door—unlocked it, and went inside. I went to my desk and opened the center drawer, sat down, and watched my client take a seat, his manbag on the floor between his legs. I went into my jeans and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill, and slid it across my desk.
Terry looked at the face of Andrew Jackson. “I don’t understand. What’s this?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Your fee. You’re no longer my client, Terry, and I’m turning down your case. Such as it is.”
“But why? What happened?”
I said, “What happened is that you lied to me. That’s a big no-no. I may lie on your behalf, I may twist the facts a bit to help my client, but having a client lie to me is a non-starter. So I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
“When did I lie to you?”
“When you told me that you wanted to see Harmon Drake for an autograph,” I snapped back. “Maybe that was so, but you also wanted to see him for something else. You think he owes you money, is that right?”
His face grew red in an instant. “He does, he does owe me money.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
“Because you didn’t need to know! I just needed to find him, that’s all, and I’d take care of it by myself.”
“Take care of what, Terry? How does a science fiction author here in New Hampshire owe a graduate student from Massachusetts some money?”
He ran his hands across the back of his head, like he was trying to smooth down his hair. “Because . . . I bought something from him. And he won’t let me return it. And get my money back. That’s not fair.”
“You purchased something from him? From this famous science fiction author? He actually sold you something?”
My drawer was still open, the Ruger .357 in its usual place. “Terry? What did he sell you?”
It looked like he was trying to keep whatever control he had, and he said, his voice low, “A script.”
“A script? From when he wrote for that television show?”
Now tears were running down his cheeks, and he got up from his chair. “I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry I wasted your time . . . and if you can’t help me, I know somebody else in this town will!”
He reached down, grabbed the twenty dollar bill, and left my office.
I let out a breath, closed my desk drawer, and rubbed my hands together. One for the books, for sure, from the oddball client to the oddball writer, and everything else in between. I turned around and went to my computer, spent a bit going through my e-mail—not sure why a woman gets so many Viagra and body-enhancement related e-mails—and when it came time for lunch, I nearly tripped over something near my desk.
My former client was in such a hurry to leave, he left his manbag behind.
I picked it up, thought for a moment, and then went back to my computer. I guess I could have looked through it, but since he wasn’t my client anymore, I decided to skip that. A few seconds of research later on my computer I found only one motel on Route 4, the Purmort Arms. I called, learned that Terry was in fact a guest there, and left him a message, saying I had his bag. Along with that message, I gave him my office number and my cell phone number, and then left for a day at the county courthouse to do some real investigative work.
And that was the last I ever saw of him.
Later that night, I was having some fettuccine Alfredo and sharing it with my main man, Roscoe, who sat next to me on the couch, eyeing my bowl of pasta with cool seriousness. I ate some of the pasta and said, “Well, that was my day. Pretty odd, huh? And how was yours?”
Roscoe didn’t say much of anything. He rarely does, and usually it’s a whine or a cry that can cut right through you. Roscoe leaned over and I put a bit of cheese sauce on the end of my thumb, and presented it to him, and with his little raspy tongue, he cleaned it right up. Roscoe is a black and white cat, about the size of a small raccoon, and mostly he’s a delight, though sometimes he has the personality of an old man standing in a deli line, holding number twenty and looking up and seeing that customer number seven is being served.
He lapped again and I thought he was going to say something, but instead the phone rang.
“Karen?” came the woman’s voice.
“It’s Pam Dawkins.”
I looked at a clock on top of the coffee table. It was nearly eight p.m. The town offices close at five p.m. “Working late?”
“No, but I just found out something about that kid from Massachusetts who came to see us.”
She sighed. “Karen, he’s dead.”
A few minutes later I was back at Harmon Drake’s house, where the way was illuminated by flashing lights from a variety of police cruisers and an ambulance from the Purmort Volunteer Fire Department. I parked behind a county sheriff’s cruiser and got out and walked up to the now open gate. There were some locals standing across the way from the main gate. One of the three police officers for the town, Seth Gorshen, was standing guard by the gate and nodded at me when I came up.
“Hey, Karen,” he said.
Something cold seemed to be growing in my throat. “What happened?”
Seth said, “Karen, you know I can’t say much. It’s still under investigation.”
Up by the house was a little group of people, all in uniform, save one, a plump guy with a goatee, wearing black pants and a white shirt, talking to a state trooper with a notebook. Harmon Drake, no doubt.
“I know, Seth,” I said, “but the kid who’s dead, Terry Crandall . . . he was my client.”
Technically, he was no longer my client since I returned the money, but that was between him and me. I still had that signed client agreement back in a file folder at my desk, and as far as I was concerned, I was back on the poor kid’s payroll.
“Oh,” he said. “I guess the chief will want to talk to you.”
“I guess so.”
He turned and then said, with a touch of embarrassment in his voice, “Hey. Ask you a favor?”
“Make sure nobody tries to get in, okay?”
“No problem,” I said, crossing my arms, looking up at the house, wondering how they could all be standing around, calm and cool, where a young boy had been killed.
Chief Paul Wilkins came down the driveway, moving slowly and deliberately, as only a man who looks like a mobile fire hydrant can. He’s a few inches shorter than me and about a foot wider, and his two joys in life are eating and being police chief. He has a mustache and a florid face that looks like he’s about ten blood pressure points away from a cardiac event, and he’s been the chief for two months, since the prior chief left for the greener pastures and heftier paycheck of a Homeland Security job.
“Karen,” he said.
“Chief,” I replied. We have a proper and cool relationship, meaning that I don’t bug him over the weekend for routine items that can wait for Monday, and he doesn’t make me pay five dollars per photocopied sheet of a police report for an insurance investigation.
“I understand that the victim here was a client of yours,” he said.
“What was that about, then?”
I nodded past his shoulder. “How about a quick and fair trade. You give me a thumbnail of what happened here, and I’ll tell you what I know about my client.”
Any other police chief in any other large town probably would have told me to go to hell, but this was Purmort. Wilkens shrugged and said, “From what Harmon Drake has told me, the guy’s been harassing and stalking him for months. Wouldn’t leave him alone. Then a few hours ago, he jumped the gate, came up the driveway. Seems like he found where Harmon lived by calling the local oil dealers, found out who delivered to the local writer guy. Alarms inside the house rang off and Harmon went to the door. Said the kid was verbally abusive, had a knife in his hand, and that he was in fear for his life . . . so he shot him.”
Those few plain words just shocked me, though I was anticipating them. I just closed my eyes, thinking of the slim young man who couldn’t even grow a decent beard, and how he seemed to have the emotional depth of a twelve-year-old boy. “Where?”
“Once, in the chest. Then Harmon called us, and the fire department, and by the time we got here, the kid had bled out.”
“You find the knife?”
“Yep. Folding clasp knife, right in his hand.”
“Nope,” the chief said, shaking his head. “Now it’s my turn. Fair enough?”
“Oh yeah, chief, fair enough. Go ahead.”
The chief now had a notepad in his hand, and by the light of a nearby Purmort police cruiser, he started taking notes. “You said this Crandall was a client of yours. For how long?”
“One day. That’s all.”
“And why did he hire you?”
“He wanted me to locate Harmon Drake’s address for him.”
“And did you?”
“No,” I said. “I . . . thought he was a bit obsessive, like a fan who wanted to see his favorite movie star or something. And I also learned that Terry thought Harmon owed him money over a script that he had sold the kid. So I told him I wasn’t comfortable trying to do this job for him, and left it at that.”
“A script?” the chief asked. “What kind of script?”
“Harmon wrote some teleplays back in the seventies for that science fiction show, Solar Voyage. I guess he sold an original script for that show to Terry, and Terry wanted a refund.”
“Mmm,” the chief said. “Any idea where he was staying?”
“Purmort Motel, out on Route 4. Look, what’s going to happen here?”
The chief stopped writing on his pad and looked up at me. “You tell me, Karen.”
“Oh, I’m here and the State Police Major Crimes Unit is here, along with an assistant attorney general, but what do we have? We have an out-of-state kid, a crank, someone who’s been harassing a somewhat famous but reclusive resident of the town. Said kid trespasses on the property, approaches homeowner with a knife, and said homeowner—in fear for his life—shoots him. In New York or Massachusetts or some parts of California, that means the guy gets charged with shooting. But here, in this county? Guy was defending his life, defending his castle.”
“A whitewash, then.”
If possible, the chief’s face got even redder. “No, Karen. No whitewash. And me and about a half dozen of your overpaid public servants are going to be camped out here overnight, processing evidence, seeing where it takes us, but I can tell you right now where it’s going to take us. Self defense.”
“But chief . . .”
For some reason my arms were cold. “Terry . . . he couldn’t hurt anyone. Honest. He was just a kid who loved science fiction and, for some reason, had to see Harmon Drake about that script. He didn’t seem violent to me. Not at all.”
The chief flipped his notepad closed and stuck it in a back pocket. “First time I met you, before I started working here, you mentioned something about keeping the drawer of your desk open first time a male visitor comes into your office. Want me to remind you of the story you told me, about why you did that?”
“No,” I said sourly.
“Well, I’m going to do it anyway. Happened soon after you opened up and some sweet old guy with a cane and wearing a snappy bowtie came in and chatted with you, until he asked for a massage. You said no, and he got up and hit you on the side of your head with his cane. Karen, before he hit you, did you think he was the kind of man who could do that to a woman he had just met?”
Again I said, “No.”
The chief turned to head back up to the house. “People do strange things, and you and me, Karen, we often see the strangest. Thanks for the info. Call me if you have anything else, okay?”
So the chief walked away and I went back to my truck, and I guess I should have done my civic duty, for at home I had Terry’s manbag. But was that anything else, or just merely a possession of Terry’s that I could turn in at a later date?
I decided to think about that all the way home.
The next day, fortified after a night of reading, six hours of reasonable sleep, and a breakfast of an English muffin and two cups of coffee, I returned to the scene of the crime on Townsend Avenue. The road was empty and it was hard to believe what had been going on here just over twelve hours earlier. There were marks in the grass and dirt on the side of the road, showing where the police cruisers and ambulances had been parked, and there was a piece of yellow crime scene tape, flapping in the breeze where it had been caught on a fence post.
I got out of my truck, walked up to the gate, and tried to announce myself using the intercom system.
“Mr. Drake? Karen Dunbar. I’m the same private investigator here in town from the other day. I’d like to talk to you.”
Like before, just the hiss of static.
“Mr. Drake, the young man you shot last night, Terry Crandall. He was a client of mine. I’d like to talk to you about what happened.”
“Mr. Drake, I think you’ll want to talk to me too.”
I lifted my thumb from the intercom switch, looked up at the gate. Easy enough to climb over, and I suspected that’s what Terry did last night.
Sure, a voice inside of me said, and look what happened to him.
I stepped back and eyed the fence and the sloping driveway. I grabbed part of the fence and hoisted myself over, then got back on the other side with minimal difficulty, though I did take a deep breath when I landed on the ground, luckily on both feet.
The things I do for clients.
The little voice returned. Moron, it said, don’t you remember? You gave him back his twenty bucks.
I didn’t care. The kid was still my client.
The front door opened up just a crack and a man called out, “That’s far enough! Any farther and I’ll call the police!”
I kept walking. “Sure. Go ahead. I know the chief pretty well, and I’m sure he’s going to be interested in what I have to say about you and Terry and that TV show you wrote for.”
The door opened just a smidge more. “Look, I don’t care what you have to say, you just get the hell off my property. Or else!”
That did it. “Or else what? Or else you’ll shoot me too? Just like you shot that poor kid last night?”
“He was threatening me!”
Now that I was just a few feet away from the door, I could see his face. It was flush with anger and his hair was a bit mussed, though his goatee was nice and white and trimmed. “Maybe he was,” I said, “but did he have to die for it?”
“I had no choice!”
At his doorstep I stopped. His eyes were red rimmed, and I was glad that it looked like he hadn’t slept much last night. “Sure you did. You could have called the cops. Closed the door. But you saw an opportunity. He was here, trespassing. One shot. Thatall it would take. One shot and your problem would be over. Put a cheap, untraceable, foldover knife in his hand . . . not a bad job.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Sure you do,” I said. “Oh, I agree. Terry was threatening you. But he wasn’t threatening to hurt you. He was threatening to expose your little scam, the little scam that he investigated, the little scam that he uncovered.”
Harmon Drake didn’t say anything. He just stood there, breathing hard, like a guppy that’s been tossed from his safe bowl of water and has landed on the kitchen floor. I went on. “He was a good kid, that Terry. Knew you and admired you. He even self published a novel based on your most famous TV episode. And from his notes . . . the two of you had a correspondence going on for a number of months. In a way, you seduced him. You told him that he was a special fan, one that really got his tales, not like anyone else. And for a special fan, you had a special deal. An original copy of that prize-winning story you wrote for Solar Voyage. Not the script that was shot and broadcast. No, the first version, the darker, edgier version. Putting these well-known Solar Voyage characters in situations and scenes that were shocking. Never seen before, never published before. But for this special fan, you could be convinced to turn it over for a thousand dollars. Does that sound familiar, Harmon? Does it?”
His voice was almost a whisper. “It does.”
“So young Terry . . . what a jewel, what a priceless artifact he has. This unaired script . . . He probably thought he had a bargain when he bought it for a thousand dollars. And part of the deal, Harmon, was that the buyer had to keep his mouth shut. Had to promise never to reveal what had gone on, but Terry couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He e-mailed a Solar Voyage fan in Spokane to tell him of his purchase. And this Spokane fan, a bit pissed, wrote back, saying, no, he had purchased this original script. By the time Terry came to see you last night, he’d found about a dozen fans, scattered around the country, who had purchased this valuable, one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-revealed script. You scammed them, Harmon. You scammed them all, didn’t you?”
Not a word, but then the door opened up and he stepped out, running both of his hands through his hair.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I certainly do,” I said. “They were scammed. All of them. Guys and a few gals, with stars in their eyes, thought they were getting something special from their favorite author.”
“They did get something special!” he said. “They did! And it was a script that got rejected, one that was different than what aired.”
“But they all thought they were getting something unique,” I said. “And they didn’t.”
He came down the steps, and I checked his hands to make sure he was unarmed. He was, as far as I could see. “If he had kept his mouth shut, they would have gotten something one-of-a-kind. They would have. Look, Miss ... ah—”
“Dunbar,” he repeated. “Look, I’m a writer. I spin tales. I create dreams. And what I was selling to those fans was just that. A dream that they could have in their hands, an artifact from their favorite television show. They got a piece of that dream, I got some money, and everyone was happy.”
“Money,” I said. “So that’s all it was about, huh?”
His eyes flashed at me. “Yes. Money. What else? That script, that ‘High House Horror’ script, you know how much I got paid for that? Four thousand dollars. Wow. Four thousand friggin’ dollars, and that one episode has been rerun over and over again for more than thirty years. Every few months I get a residual check for those rebroadcasts—ten bucks here, four bucks there, while the actors and the producers make thousands and thousands. I’ve written scores of novels, and all of them are out of print. So I did what I had to do to survive.”
“Including shooting a fan?”
“He was threatening me!”
I shook my head. “No, he was threatening your little con. That’s all he did, and you know it. Who knows where that knife came from, but I’m sure it didn’t come from Terry.”
He folded his arms across his pudgy chest. “You can’t prove it.”
“No, but I can report what I found in Terry’s possessions. The copies of the e-mails, the letters, the notes outlining how you swindled him and so many others.”
Harmon allowed himself a faint smile. “Like I said, I’m a storyteller, Miss Dunbar. And the story here is a homeowner defended himself. The cops won’t care about the scripts I sold. Not one bit.”
I returned the smile. “Who said anything about going to the cops? No, I’m going to spread news about your shady deal to the science fiction fans, the fans of that television show. We’ll see how you do after that.”
I started going back down the driveway and he called out, “Wait!”
I looked over my shoulder. “Thinking about going back in your house and getting your gun, shooting me? I don’t think so. Two shootings in two days won’t look good, Harmon.”
“No, no,” he said, taking a few steps toward me. “It’s not that, I mean, please. Don’t do it. Think about it. Think of who I am, one of the few writers still around who wrote for Solar Voyage. Doesn’t that mean anything? Didn’t you see the show?”
I thought for a moment. “Yeah, I saw the show.”
Now he looked hopeful. “Well?”
I turned away. “Sorry. I’m more of a mystery fan.”