If this is Monday, I am, Lord willing, in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, participating in the Novelists' Retreat (and working on my WIP when I can grab a few minutes.)
Theodore Marshall Russell, recent darling of the New York Times Book Review and best-selling novelist, scowled at the chirping telephone on his desk. His agent had prophesied that Russell’s phone would “ring off the wall” after the success of his most recent book, but the disturbing calls he’d been receiving in the last few days had not come from those offering congratulations.
Frustrated, Russell snatched the phone from its cradle. “Hello?”
Silence. Then the slow, disquieting sound of heavy breathing in his ear.
Russell’s temper flared. “Listen, you freak, stop calling me! I don’t know why you’re doing this, but the police are tracing this call. They’re probably on their way to find you right now.”
A soft, masculine laugh echoed from the black receiver. Russell snorted in disgust and slammed the phone down. Within thirty seconds, the chirping began again.
Moving to the bar, Russell poured himself a strong drink. He didn’t need this. Madison Whitlow, his agent, had promised that life would be good after the success of Out of the Darkness, Into the Light.
“You’ll be able to name your price from the best of the big publishers, the crème de la crème,” Madison had promised. In addition, he’d predicted the suddenly famous author would be a fixture on Donahue and Nightline. Russell smirked, recalling that the agent had been as excited as a dog with two tails when, the day after the advance copies hit the street, Barbara Walters had called and begged to interview Russell.
Though the attention was nice, Russell hadn’t accepted a single television offer. There was no author picture on the dust jacket of his book, no acknowledgment of his hometown, his college, his background. The only personal information in the Darkness blurb was a brief mention that the book was Russell’s first novel and was based on months of painstaking research and interviews with people struggling to cope with the suicides of their loved ones. As an afterthought, the editor had added that Russell lived in the southeastern United States with two parrots. He’d thought about cutting even that vague note, but the book went to press before he had a chance to tell his editor to ax the blurb.
Theo Russell liked his privacy. His anonymity had enabled him to gather the interviews that formed the basis for Darkness. Most people whose lives had been affected by trauma shied away from flashy reporters and camera crews, but Russell discovered that they would talk freely to a tall, bushy-haired guy in jeans who didn’t even carry a notepad. His was an ordinary, middle-class kind of face; his manner polite and tactfully incurious. He told people he was a writer and mentioned that he was working on a novel about a man’s suicide. Teamed with his unthreatening appearance, that statement was usually enough to unlock wounded hearts and souls.
Because his penchant for privacy had served him well as he wrote Darkness, he guarded it jealously even as success threatened to expose him to a world of readers. Men of science and art should live always at the edge of mystery. He’d seen it happen too many times: Zealous examination by an overcurious public only left the once-adored object wanting in the severe light of scrutiny.
The click of the answering machine stilled the phone’s insistent chirping. His own voice filled the small, windowless room he used as an office; then a stranger cut in and took control: “Mr. Russell, we know where you live. We know everything about you. We know about your next book. And we are concerned. It truly would not be in your best interests if your agent sends it out again. I suggest you step out your door and take a deep breath, think it over. And be sure to take in the view while you’re out there. I believe you’ll find it most . . . illuminating.”
The answering machine clicked again; the message light blinked red in the gloom. Russell downed his drink in one stiff, practiced gesture, then walked to the back door. This had to be a prank. No one knew where he lived. No one knew anything—he’d made sure of that.
Carefully, slowly, he lifted the stiff curtain hanging over the door’s windowpanes and peered out. Nothing but velvet blackness. His right hand fumbled with a switch; then a yellow rectangle of light shone onto the wooden deck. From the cage, one of the parrots squawked.
Everything was fine. With a confidence he did not feel, Russell clicked the dead bolt and opened the door. A rush of warm, salty sea air flowed over him; in the distance the Gulf rhythmically pushed and pulled at the shore. The wind whispered through the sea grasses, and from far away he heard the hush of cars moving up and down the rural highway that led to this deserted beach house.
Russell took a deep breath. There was no broken glass, no smell of smoke, no warning ax buried in the wall. He managed a crooked smile. These guys were really fierce. All bark, no bite. Big deal.
He turned to go inside and paused by the dark parrot cage. Gigi, the female, blinked unsteadily on her perch, her emerald feathers ruffled. “Hello, Theo,” she called. It was the only phrase she had learned before Russell presented her with her mate and, consequently, the only phrase she knew.
“Hello, Gigi,” he answered, bending down. “Hello, Rambo.”
A sudden rise of panic threatened to choke him. The male parrot lay on the floor of the cage, his brilliant plumage flecked with bright spots of blood. He had been decapitated.
“Madison,” Russell said, sighing in relief that the man, not his machine, had picked up the phone. At eight o’clock on any given night his agent was usually dining in one of New York’s finest restaurants with a delectable blonde on his arm.
“Russell?” Madison Whitlow’s cultured voice rang with surprise, then cheerful determination. “Hey, I’m glad you called before I went out. Got a call from the Donahue people again, they’re really pushing for you. If you’ll just come to New York—”
“No,” Russell interrupted, moving quickly toward his bedroom. “I want to talk about the new book.”
“Hey, the proposal’s great. You’re really on to something. Controversy, man, I can smell it. We’re talking the cover of Time and Newsweek, maybe even People if we cut in a personal angle. It’s hot stuff, Theo. Top drawer.”
“I want you to forget it,” Russell answered. He cocked the phone between his shoulder and chin as he pulled a duffel bag from his closet. “Forget all about it. I’ll come up with something better, so just trash that proposal, OK?”
“Trash it?” Confused wonder rolled over the telephone line. “But it’s good. And what a story it will make! I know it goes against popular opinion, but if you dare to swim against the tide, the tide will turn. If you’ll just let me—”
“Did you show it to anybody?” Russell threw two pairs of jeans into the bag.
“Show it? Why, I showcased it. Everybody wants your next book. Howarth House is about to eat it up. But if you want me to get some bidding action—”
“Don’t. Throw it out.” Russell sat on the edge of his bed and caught a glimpse of his wide eyes and pale face in the mirror. He looked like Ichabod Crane—a disaster waiting to happen.
“Listen, Russ, you can’t be serious about this. This is a one-in-a-million proposal, one of those high-concept ideas with the potential to take Hollywood—”
“I’m serious all right. Trash that proposal. Somebody’s after me, Madison, and I can’t take this. They killed Rambo tonight.”
“The bird? Gee, man, no wonder you’re upset. But maybe the bird croaked of natural causes.”
“They cut his head off, Madison.”
Silence. Then, “Are you sure?”
Russell held his head in his hand. “No, his head just fell off. Of course I’m sure. They called me and told me to look outside. I did and I saw what they’d done. They cut his—”
“OK, OK, I get the picture. Listen, don’t go ballistic on me, OK? Call the cops if you want, but it’s probably just some jerk in your neighborhood with a beef about the birds’ squawking. You’ll be OK. Now I hate to leave you like this, Russ, but there’s a lovely young lady waiting for me. I’ll call you tomorrow, and we’ll talk.”
“I won’t be here tomorrow.”
“Listen, man, have you been working too hard?” Madison laughed nervously. “Authors don’t get to crack up until after they’ve written the great American novel. Darkness was good, but you can do better.”
“I’m not cracking up. I’m getting out of here, but I need you to do something for me. Call Mrs. Margaret Chambers, she lives down the street from me, information will have the number—”
“My cleaning lady. I’m leaving, I won’t be able to call her, so you do it, OK? Tell her to check on things at the house and take care of the birds. She’ll freak out at the mess, but she’ll do it—”
“Theo.” Exasperation echoed in the agent’s voice. “I’m not your house-sitting service. Can’t you call this woman?”
“No! I’m outta here, Madison. Maybe even leaving the country. Don’t try to find me, and don’t worry. I’ll check in with you later.”
Russell hung up and tossed the phone on the bed, then rummaged in his drawer for balled-up socks and clean underwear. From the closet he extracted several white cotton shirts and a sports coat. Everything went into the duffel bag. He zipped it, picked up the cellular phone, and checked a slip of paper in his pocket before punching in another number.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice trilled across the line.
“Anna, this is Theo Russell.” He took a deep breath, calming his voice. “Is that invitation to speak at your convention still open?”
“Theo M. Russell, as I live and breathe. Of course it is, darling, even at this late date. When can you come?”
“Tonight. I don’t know when I’ll be arriving, but if you’ll have a room for me in any name but my own—”
She laughed, and Russell closed his eyes, thankful that Anna Burkett, president of the National Authors League, would think his abrupt change of plans merely a charming idiosyncrasy. He and Anna had spoken several times over the phone, and each time Russell had politely but firmly turned down her invitation to speak at the NAL convention. Despite his consistent refusals, she had remained gracious, and Russell had a feeling that netting him had become her personal challenge.
“I’ll have a room for you at the Hilton Tower Hotel under the name of Russ Burkett,” she said. “Oh, this is wonderful. We’re having quite a gathering, you know. People from everywhere, none of those dreary predictable speeches, but a fascinating group of editors, authors, and—”
“Anna, I’ve got to run. I’ll see you in Washington. Probably tomorrow.”
“I’ll count on it. I’ll schedule you to speak Friday night, so you can have an entire day to rest. Everyone will be so thrilled to hear that you’re coming.”
“No! Anna, don’t tell—” But he was too late. Anna Burkett had already hung up.