Monday, October 18, 2010

The Proposal (con't)

Chapter Twelve

“Theo, is that you? How’d things go with the lawyer?”

Theo heard Ann’s cheery greeting through a vague sense of unreality. She leaned against the front door and let her purse fall to the floor. The purloined Post fluttered from beneath her arm and draped itself across her handbag.

Ann appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Good grief, girl, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.” she said, her eyes widening. “What happened? Were you in a wreck?”

“I’m a wanted woman,” Theo murmured, stiffly bending to pick up the newspaper and her purse. She walked toward the kitchen, her head still swimming.

Ann gave her a lopsided smile. “That’s not very funny.”

“I’m not joking.”

Ann stepped back to let her pass, and Stacy looked up from where she sat at the kitchen table with a flour-filled mixing bowl in front of her. She gave Theo a wide smile, then continued stirring the flour with a wooden spoon. “Look, Mama,” she said.

“That’s great, sweetheart.” Theo ran her hand through Stacy’s golden hair, then glanced at Ann. “Have you read today’s paper?”

Ann shook her head and gestured with floured hands toward the folded newspaper on the kitchen table. “Stacy and I were mixing up a batch of cookies. I was going to take a look at the paper while they were baking.”

Theo pulled the Metro section from beneath her arm and spread it on the table. “There,” she said, pointing to the article by Pamela Lansky.

A look of disbelief crossed Ann’s face as she looked at the police sketch. “That’s you, Theo.”

“Read the article.”

Ann yanked a chair from beneath the table and sat down, concentrating on the paper in her hands. Relief washed over Theo like an ocean wave as she pulled out a chair and sat next to Stacy. Ann would know how to handle things. Ann’s picture hadn’t appeared in four million newspapers that morning. She, at least, could think clearly.

“This article implies that you had something to do with this guy’s disappearance,” she finally said, looking up. “You’ve got to call the police and tell them what happened.”

“But I don’t know anything about what happened to him,” Theo protested, her eyes watering. Stacy looked up, startled at the sound of fear in her mother’s voice, and Theo forced herself to smile at her daughter. “It’s all right, sweetie. What kind of cookies are we baking?”

“Chips,” Stacy answered, her pudgy fingers wiping a trail of flour across her nose as she rubbed it.

“Chocolate chip,” Theo replied automatically. “My favorite.”

“Theo, you’ve got to do something,” Ann said, wiping her flour-encrusted hands on a dishtowel. “Just call the Washington police and tell them you don’t know anything. Then you’ll be done with it and out of it. No more sketches of your face on the front page.”

“But Janet Fischer’s saying I deliberately stole his proposal,” Theo protested. “What if the police ask about that? What can I say?”

“Tell them the truth,” Ann said firmly.

“What if they don’t believe me? It’s my word against Janet Fischer’s, and she’s a big-time editor. I’m nobody, just a wannabe writer.” She propped her elbow on the table and rested her head on her fist. “I’ve been thinking. I used my own name and address when I checked into that hotel. And I paid for everything with a credit card. The police could trace me in a minute if they wanted to, couldn’t they? I called home several times, too. They keep a record of things like that. If they really wanted to talk to me, they’d be on my doorstep right now.”

“OK, maybe. But if the police don’t want to talk to you, why is your picture in the paper?”

“Because I’m cute?” Theo tried to smile, then decided it was a bad idea. “I don’t know, Ann, maybe somebody’s chasing a rabbit trail. But this thing has rattled me. I’ve never even had a traffic ticket in my entire life, and when I opened the paper and saw that sketch . . . well, it threw me completely. I ran out of Adam Perry’s office like a scared rabbit. He’s met Theodore Russell, you see. If he read the paper and thinks that I’m trying to steal Theodore Russell’s work or something . . .”

“What about the doctor you saw yesterday?” Ann asked quietly. “Are you going to call him and explain everything? He’s probably read the paper, too.”

Theo paused while the image of Dr. Ken Holman flitted across her mind. He had been cautious and careful, but he had believed her. Why wouldn’t he? She hadn’t lied to him.

“I didn’t tell him anything but the truth,” she finally answered. “And if he sees the article and wants to call me, he can. But I can’t be worrying about all this stuff, Ann, I’ve got to get started on my book. If I can get an outline and a few sample chapters together within three months, I can get a contract. We can live on the Visa card until the book advance comes through . . .”

“You’re talking crazy, Theo. First, I wouldn’t even touch that guy’s proposal after all this. And second, if you’re still dead set on writing that book, you should clear the waters you’ve helped to muddy. If this guy is really in some kind of trouble, you could save the police some time by calling them. You don’t want them to get sidetracked from finding him because they’re trying to check you out, do you?”

Pressing her palm to her forehead, Theo stood stiffly to her feet. “Okay,” she said, making her way toward the extra bedroom that she used as an office. “I’ll call. Right now. So I can get out of this and get on with my life.”

The phone buzzed on Howard Datsko’s desk. “Datsko,” he said, picking it up. He stuffed a corner of his salami sandwich into his mouth while he waited for a response.

“Hello, I’d like to speak to someone about Theo Russell, the novelist who’s missing.” The woman spoke in the low voice reserved for dreaded things, and Datsko’s inner antennae centered on the sound.

“Speak.” Howard paused to swallow. “Go ahead, lady. I’m listening.”

“I read the article about the woman who met Janet Fischer. Well, I think I’m the woman.”

“You think you are?”

“I know I am. But I didn’t lie to Ms. Fischer. My name really is Theo Russell, and I thought she wanted to see me. I’m a writer, too, you see, and Howarth House has one of my proposals. But I don’t know anything about the guy who’s missing. I’ve never even met him.”

Datsko switched the receiver from his right ear to his left, then reached for a pencil on his desk. “So you were at the hotel under your own name?”

“Right. I wasn’t pretending to be the novelist. I really do have the same name. Except I’m Theodora, not Theodore.”

“Were you on the twenty-first floor?” He searched his notes. Theo Russell had been assigned room 2121; the novelist had been in 3018 under the name of Russ Burkett.

“I think so.”

“Why’d you take the guy’s outline?”

“His proposal.”

“Whatever. This Fischer woman thinks you were out to deliberately steal Russell’s work.”

“No, I wasn’t. By the time I realized she thought I was the famous Theo Russell, I’d seen the proposal. I kept trying to explain that I wasn’t who she thought I was, and I tried to give the proposal back. But someone beeped her, and she left in a hurry.”

“Are you trying to tell me,” Datsko drawled, “that you couldn’t say, ‘Hey, lady, you’ve got the wrong writer?”

The woman on the phone sighed. “Have you ever had a conversation with Ms. Fischer? It’s hard to get a word in edgewise.”

Datsko grinned. Yeah, this lady had talked to Ms. Fischer, all right. “Okay, so you got stuck with the writer’s proposal. So what’d you do with it?”

“I mailed it back to Ms. Fischer on Monday. She should have it by Thursday or Friday, whenever snail mail gets it there. I’ll admit that I read Russell’s paper—and I want to write about the same topic—but I could never steal his outline. If I had published a novel like his, he could have sued me for plagiarism or copyright infringement. I’m only interested in his facts, and you can’t copyright facts.”

“Hey, lady, I’m not trying to judge you.” Datsko wrote seems honest on his notepad. “So you never met the guy, and you don’t know where he is.”

“Right. Since my picture’s in the paper, I figured I should call you.”

The woman ended this last statement with a sigh of relief, and Datsko drew a question mark and thumped the page with his pencil. “Sorry about the picture, lady, that was the reporter’s idea, not mine. We’re just trying to beat the bushes, see what might crawl out. Okay. Will you give me your address and phone number in case we have other questions?”

“Is that necessary?” Her voice was hesitant. “I don’t know anything else.”

“It might be helpful.”

“OK. I live at 2035 Pineview Lane in the Adams Morgan area. The number here is 202-555-3947.”

“Thanks.” He heard the phone click before he had even finished saying the word.

Theo’s work went slowly that afternoon. A medical-research database she accessed on her computer yielded some information on abortion and breast cancer, but Theo had to read through summaries of fifty-eight articles to cull out the few that were pertinent to her work. She read for three hours, the printed articles under her left hand and a medical dictionary under her right.

A database comprised of newspaper articles brought her more usable material. One article featured the compassionate work of Dr. Griffith Dunlap, a gynecologist in Washington, D.C., who offered low or no-cost abortions for inner-city women who could not otherwise afford them.

“These women should not be denied the opportunities afforded wealthier women in this country,” the doctor was quoted in the Post. “Should a woman who struggles to feed three children be forced to feed four? No. I feel it’s my duty to do what I can to help these women better their lives. Society’s attitude seems to be, `You’ve had your pleasure, now pay the price.’ What is more immoral, granting an abortion or forcing young girls, some of whom are as young as twelve or thirteen, to assume the responsibility of a baby? In this pampered nation where Barbie dolls get more love and attention than human beings, it’s hard for me to take the antiabortion debate seriously.”

Dunlap went on to say that safe abortions were a medical necessity in this country and that it was ultimately healthier for a woman to have an abortion than to bear a child. But the doctor said absolutely nothing about breast cancer.

“Ann, I’m begging. Please do this for me.” Theo leaned against the kitchen counter while Ann rolled out an industrial-size pizza crust. Bethany was at the kitchen table, an open geometry book in front of her, and Stacy sat in her little rocking chair, a worn baby doll in her arms. Behind Ann, Theo heard the preheated oven began to beep on a perfect B-flat.

“No way.” Ann shook her head as she worked the dough with her fingers. “I’ll do anything I can to help you, Theo, but I’m not the private eye type. You want to play investigative reporter, you go right ahead.”

Theo tried to ignore the electronic beeping. “He knows my name, Ann. The secretary will recognize me. I can’t go back to Adam Perry’s office, but I’ve got to have these facts verified.”

“You should have thought of that before you shot out of that place.” Ann frowned and looked over her shoulder at Bethany. “Isn’t anybody going to shut off that oven? My hands are covered in flour.”

“I’ll do it if you’ll let me go to the lawyer’s office,” Bethany said, grinning. “It will get me out of school early tomorrow.”

Ann ignored her while Theo walked over to the oven and pressed the timer switch. “That pitch drives me nuts. Matt’s alarm clock was a B-flat. Woke me up every morning.”

“You know, there are lots of folks who’d give their eyeteeth to have your perfect pitch,” Ann remarked, jamming a can of pizza sauce under the electric can opener. “Just like there are lots of people who’d be happy to never again set foot in a lawyer’s office. I’m one of them.”

“Please, Ann.” Theo paused. “It’s only this one time, I promise. And you don’t have to lie. Just ask the questions I’ll give you and say you’re gathering the information for a friend. Adam Perry’s answers will be simple, and you can just drive home and tell me what he said.”

“Why can’t you do this on the phone?” Ann asked, her irritation evident in the way she slapped sauce on the pizza crust.

“He’ll ask too many questions if I tell him my name, and I don’t want to get into the Theo Russell thing. I’ll stay home with Stacy while you swing by his office. You’ll be home before you know it. Please, Ann, will you do just this one thing for me?”

Ann lifted her eyebrows. “Is this guy single? Good looking?”

Theo grinned. “Could be.”

“If you get me an appointment, I’ll go,” Ann answered, reaching for the can of Parmesan cheese on the counter. “But after this, I’m not visiting any more lawyers. The last one I saw took me to the cleaners.”

“This one won’t cost you a cent, I promise,” Theo said, giving her friend a quick hug. “I’ll take care of everything.”

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