Planning pays off
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A Tale from the House of Ashimbabbar
David stared at the screen, as if verifying that it still looked exactly
the same as it had two hours earlier when he started. And the day before,
and the day before that. But he knew, he could feel the inspiration coming:
any minute now, any second, the words would start and effortlessly flow,
like fine wine, carrying his brilliant ideas through his fingers, into the
word processor, and onto the disk. And, like fine wine, they would command a
premium price. Hey, that's an idea. He called up the notepad program and,
under ‘metaphors,’ entered the comparison of flowing words to fine wine. He
then returned to the former display and resumed staring with fingers poised,
awaiting the moment.
"Hi Honey! Got off early," Rhonda's voice rasped as she bustled through
the front door.
God damn it! Every time, every single damn time things started to work
and the words began to come, she had to interrupt. "I'm working!" he forced
through clenched teeth. What the hell did she think he did all day, play
video games? No matter how many times he asked her, she just wouldn't give
him any peace while he worked.
"Oh, sorry," she whimpered, going with exaggerated stealth into their
small bedroom, which, with a cramped bathroom and the combination
kitchen/dining room/office, comprised the tiny apartment.
David turned his attention back to the screen of his laptop computer,
parked on the edge of the dining table opposite the stove, but he knew it
was no use. In half an hour or so, she'd be bugging him again, banging the
pots and pans in the kitchen, or lugging the TV back into the bedroom, or
something. "OK, OK," he called petulantly, "You might as well get dinner
ready. I've lost the thread of the narrative now anyway."
"Sorry I interrupted you, Honey. They didn't have any overtime for me
tonight and I thought we could go out for hamburgers, maybe even see a
movie – it's discount night if we get there before six."
"Go out to eat? Sure, why not, we're so rich we can throw money away
anytime we want. Look at the palace we live in. And how do you like my nice,
quiet, private office? The kind of place where a writer can really get some
"Oh, come on, David. It's been a good week – this is the only night I
didn't get any overtime. I know we can't do everything we want, but we don't
have it so bad."
"For a one-income family, you mean. Go on, say it. We don't do so bad,
for a family where the man's been out of work for two years. Like it was my
fault. Well, what are you waiting for? Say it!"
"Now, Honey, that wasn't what I meant. I know it's not your fault you
got laid off. And you're sure to sell some of your stories soon. They're
really good, especially 'Freudian Slip.' That's my favorite!" She opened the
refrigerator and inspected its contents critically, "Since I've got the
time, we'll have a real nice dinner for a change."
"Oh sure, you would like that one," he mumbled, telling the word
processor program to make backup copies of the files, just as if there were
actually something new to preserve. Well, can't afford to lose that metaphor!
* * *
Next morning – well, early afternoon – David again began his daily
creative ordeal, seated across from the laptop like adversaries in a chess
match. It was only a cheap version of the kind Rhonda used at work, not
much as computers go: his late mother-in-law had only left them a few
hundred. However, it still provided a vast improvement over that old
typewriter with the bad "e" and the sticky shift key.
Today was the day, he could just feel it. He started with a quick review
of the thirty-some stories he'd completed (or mostly completed; maybe some
needed a final editing, adding a little atmosphere, cleaning up a few
typos: trivial stuff but, hey, editors ought to do something to earn their
keep), all submitted to and rejected by dozens of tiny-minded editors too
unimaginative or lazy to publish anybody new.
All, that is, except ‘Freudian Slip’ – in spite of what he'd told his
wife, he'd never sent in that one. Just his luck, somebody'd buy the damn
thing and then he'd never hear the end of it, how she gave him the idea for
his first published story! As if one little idea made the whole story. It
really was his best work, he reluctantly conceded. Hey: maybe he should
rewrite it, leave everything the same except for the actual method the
killer used. Now, there's an idea.
An hour later David broke for the lunch Rhonda had left him. He hadn't
really gotten going on the new method yet, but he had done some major work,
changing the names of the main characters (he'd called them "David" and
"Rhonda" originally, just to bug her) and their professions, and the city
from New York to Los Angeles. Then, using the thesaurus program, he'd
replaced several words with longer, more impressive ones, and even found a
place to substitute "pourboire" for "tip" – so what if the waitress was
otherwise uneducated? Editors just loved it when you used big words, and
French was even better. Hell, he'd simply make her French-Canadian; no:
Creole, or maybe Cajun, one of those. He knew the rest of it would come
easily, once he started on it.
As he automatically ate his cold chicken, Greek salad, and chocolate
cream pie, he thought again how simple it would be if only he could work
undisturbed, without all the petty daily worries. With enough money for a
couple of years, and without Rhonda's continual interruptions, he could
forget the mickey-mouse short stories and concentrate on his major work: his
But, alas, without her, there wouldn't be even what little money she
brought in. A tiny, insidious thought crept up from the depths of his mind.
He quickly suppressed it. But it was a persistent little thought and soon
wormed its way back again.
Well, merely hypothetically, as the plot for a story say, let's think
about it. The term insurance they'd converted his company policy into after
he got laid off covered them both and, now over two years old, its suicide
exemption had expired. Together with Rhonda's coverage at work, and her
He crouched on the floor of the bedroom closet and searched rapidly
through the box where Rhonda kept their important papers and receipts,
finally locating all the insurance policies and quickly adding their death
benefits: eighty-two thousand dollars. Damn! And that assumed it wasn't
accidental. With the double indemnity on the one policy, it would be over
a hundred grand if it looked like an accident. A hundred thousand bucks,
tax-free! Hell, she'd never bring that home in three years, no matter how
much overtime she worked.
Now for the method. That's where he always got stuck. Every time he had
a foolproof method (foolproof except to his brilliant police Inspector
Saint-George, naturally) Rhonda would find some little detail missing, some
insignificant contradiction, and show him it couldn't work, acting so proud,
like she'd helped him or something. Not like her idea, oh no; that one, much
as he hated to admit it, even he couldn't find fault with – and had he tried!
A perfect method.
Suddenly he froze. That's it! He had it, the perfect method. Already all
worked out and complete in every detail. And how very fitting to use her own
idea on her.
He didn't even realize when the faint, insubstantial line between the
hypothetical and the real had been crossed, but crossed it had irreversibly
been. And now he could see it all, the whole package. He'd certainly never
be able to publish ‘Freudian Slip,’ but what the hell, with time and peace
to perfect his own ideas, one lousy story seemed like a pretty small
sacrifice. Besides, the insight gained from actually planning and executing
his own perfect crime would surely make merely writing about others a snap.
"Write about what you know" – how many times had he read that in those
books on writing?
He paused a moment to consider whether he could really do it, really...
kill her. It took him a while to put it into words, even to himself, but
once he did, the answer came immediately. As long as he didn't have to
actually do anything... messy or... bloody, himself, and provided his plan
proved so undetectable that he avoided any possible risk of being caught,
the rest didn't merit consideration. Besides, hadn't she always said she'd
do anything to help him succeed? "Well, Baby, here's your chance! And the
best thing is, it won't take any real effort on your part. All you have to
do is keep on being your same old dull, boring, predictable self. For just a
little while longer."
* * *
Every waking moment David devoted to studying and following the story.
He began going to a neighborhood bar each Tuesday night, staying from eight
to midnight. Rhonda always worked late Tuesdays and readily bought his story
(hey, "bought his story" – add that to the notepad!) that he needed to
research a new idea. He arranged to run into a couple of acquaintances
accidentally, and mentioned with casual concern that his wife hadn't been
feeling well lately, depressed a bit. A little backup, in case the
‘accident’ didn't satisfy everybody.
He checked the wooden brace he'd put across the bedroom window and,
since he'd used some old curtain-rod holes, there was no way to tell it had
ever been there once he removed it. As if the local cops would notice! He
and Rhonda didn't have any close friends and he knew no one else had been in
their bedroom since he'd installed it. She had complained repeatedly about
how dangerous it was, reaching out to pull the swinging window closed (the
crank had broken years ago). In fact, he'd nearly slipped once himself and
put the bar in immediately thereafter. The first time Rhonda used it, she
remarked how that would be a perfect crime: put in a loose bar so it would
snap out when somebody leaned on it. Even though he had turned it into a
real story – fleshing out the details, developing the characters, weaving the
plot – she still maintained a proprietary attitude towards ‘her story’ simply
because of that one stupid comment. Well, she could damn well have it, all
to herself. "Baby, it's really going to be your story now!"
* * *
Finally! The ideal Tuesday. Rhonda told him she'd be working later than
usual, wouldn't be home until after ten. He asked her to call him at the bar
as soon as she got in so he wouldn't worry. He'd never worried before, but
she overlooked that in her pleasure at his concern. As soon as she left, he
got the old piece of wood he'd trimmed to size, nearly identical to the
window brace but without any screw holes. Nobody would ever notice it
amongst all the trash scattered in the alley four floors below. Carefully he
removed the brace, meticulously gathering every tiny wood chip and flushing
them all down the toilet: even the infallible Saint-George could never have
solved it without that clue! He jammed the substitute into place. The new
brace fit perfectly; it seemed firm at first, then popped out suddenly under
enough pressure. Like the pressure of someone leaning on it to pull in the
window. He checked the window again: it stuck when fully extended and he had
to lean way out and really yank on it. Perfect!
Then, for one final time, he went over ‘Freudian Slip’ word by word on
his laptop; he'd already destroyed all of his printed copies. When he
satisfied himself that he had followed the plan exactly, and not without a
tinge of regret – Damn, but it would be hard finding as good a use for
"defenestration" again! – he erased it from the disk and copied other stories
and programs over and over until the disk was full. Couldn't afford any
chance of some nosy cop recovering that file with an ‘unerase’ program.
Everything was complete, everything was perfect. Even Inspector Saint-George
would give up on this one, and they surely didn't have anyone like him on the
local police force, nor, he suspected, anywhere else.
* * *
Five minutes past ten, right on time, the bartender handed David the
phone. Rhonda, breathless. She'd just walked in the front door and wanted
him to know she'd gotten home all right. Careful not to be overheard, he
recited his lines, "OK, Honey, thanks for calling. Oh, yeah, I think I left
the bedroom window open. One of the guys here just said it looked like rain
so be sure to close it right away. I'll hold on."
She said it hadn't looked like rain to her, but left the phone anyway.
The sweat ran down under David's armpits. He thought he heard a faint cry,
but still waited several minutes longer before handing the phone back to the
bartender, saying, "Just like a woman! Went to hang up her coat and forgot
she was on the phone." He heard his voice crack, but the bartender only
grinned in sympathy. He wondered briefly if she'd known – on the way down.
David forced himself to remain at the bar for the years until midnight:
follow the plan, follow the plan! He also limited himself to his normal three
beers. He nodded agreeably when spoken to, but without hearing anything
being said. Finally, midnight came and he could leave. He went over and over
the script in his mind as he walked home, planning how he would enter the
apartment, hang up the phone, call Rhonda several times, louder and louder,
then, at last, look down from the window and scream. But he was spared that
ordeal. Lights flashed from behind the building where a crowd had gathered.
The apartment manager spotted him and ran up, sobbing, how terrible, how
horrible, how somebody found her only a short time before.
David allowed himself to be led through the crowd to the two men huddled
over something on the ground. As he approached, one of the men moved aside
and David looked straight into Rhonda's eyes. Those eyes stared at him for a
long moment, full of pain and sadness, then suddenly glowed fiercely with a
final spasm before they glazed and stared on, at nothing.
David knelt by reflex and took her limp hand as the paramedics continued
their efforts for only a few minutes longer, before their attitudes if not
their words declared her dead. David gasped, "What happened? Did she say...
Did she tell you what happened?"
One of the paramedics replied, "She must have fallen or jumped from a
window. Didn't say a thing. Hell, I don't know how she held on as long as
she did. Her skull is fractured and her neck's broken; probably her back,
too. Never should have even regained consciousness!" He turned to his
companion and added in a lowered tone, "Let's take her in anyway; I want a
doctor to pronounce this one!"
The manager, still at David's side, sobbed, "She waited to see her
husband one last time!"
David's tears came quickly, surprising and pleasing the small portion of
his mind that gallantly persisted in trying to orchestrate his performance.
He stood weeping silently as the paramedics strapped her to the stretcher
and lifted her into the ambulance. He started to climb in after her, but a
man casually blocked the doors until they closed and the ambulance drove off
with its siren wailing uselessly. When the man turned to him, David was
indeed the dazed bereaved, with no need for affectation.
The man had a stocky build and blond hair, without any eye-patch or
Viet-Cong-scarred left hand – quite ordinary in appearance, actually. But
David's heart still stopped momentarily when the man introduced himself as
"Saint-George." His shock must have shown because the officer slowly
repeated, "I'm Sergeant Jordan." David recovered, sure that his lapse would
be ignored under the circumstances. And, indeed, everything went just as
he'd written. In the apartment, Sergeant Jordan went straight to the
bedroom, not noticing the phone off the hook. After examining the window, he
went so far as to suggest there might be grounds for a lawsuit against the
apartment owners: David had never even considered that!
* * *
David stayed in a hotel that night and the following two as well: just
couldn't bear to be in the room where the tragedy occurred, you understand.
No problems developed, accidental death seemed a foregone conclusion. In
fact, he regretted mentioning Rhonda being depressed: be a damn shame to
lose the accidental death benefit now. At least none of that had gotten back
to the police so far. Of course, he'd have to see a lawyer eventually and
check out the lawsuit angle, but no need for unseemly haste. All in all,
everything went perfectly: by the book, so to speak.
He dreaded the avalanche of condolences that might (or even worse, might
not) descend. So Friday afternoon, immediately after the simple funeral, he
headed for a nearby resort for the weekend: only a brief respite before he
bravely threw himself into his work to suppress his grief. Great personal
tragedy traditionally inspired writers; he knew it would do no less for him.
* * *
Returning from his trip late the following Monday afternoon, David
automatically walked unseeing past the array of mailboxes beside the lobby
door before he stopped and turned back, sighing as he recognized this as yet
another of his late wife's tiresome little tasks he would now be forced to
After two tries, he located the correct key on his ring and finally
managed to open the box and remove its packed contents. Among the usual
stack of bills and nearly a week's junk mail, the letter addressed to Rhonda
with the return address of the local newspaper in large Old English script
stood out prominently. "Now, why the devil would the paper be writing to
her?" he wondered, ripping open the envelope and extracting the single
letterhead sheet within, dated the previous Tuesday, the very day poor
Rhonda had died!
Carefully assuming his most mournful expression – getting a letter
addressed to one's recently deceased mate certainly demands an extra measure
of grief – he began reading as he again hurried toward the stairs. After
only a few steps, however, he stopped and, shaking his head in useless
negation, read on helplessly, relieved forever of any need to feign grief.
He didn't even look up when Sergeant Jordan, a Sunday paper under his arm
beside a handkerchief-wrapped piece of old wood, walked over trailed by a
uniformed police officer, simultaneously reaching for David's wrist and
reciting the prescribed legal incantation.
It is with great pleasure that I inform you that ‘Freudian Slip,’ the
short story you submitted on behalf of your husband David, has been
selected as the First Prize winner in our annual unpublished writers
contest. You both should take additional pride in the fact that the
selection panel's choice was unanimous for the first time in the history
of the contest. I am grateful to my wife for persuading me to overlook
the formalities in accepting your entry – Jennifer can be most
persuasive, as you are undoubtedly well aware. The story will be
published in this Sunday's edition, in the book section, along with the
photo and resume of your husband you were kind enough to furnish. Formal
notification, and the check for the First Prize award in the amount of
$5000.00, will be forwarded within two weeks.
This clever story so impressed me that I took the liberty of sending
a proof copy to Mr. Hiram Goodwin, a literary agent who is also a
personal friend. He replied that he is sure David can place it in a
mystery magazine or collection. Although he does not, as a rule,
represent authors who write short stories exclusively, he did express a
strong interest in discussing David's future literary efforts and will
contact him by letter in the near future.
Jennifer and I send our congratulations and very best wishes to you
Very truly yours,
R. Arthur Youngman