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As Dog is my WITNESSAnother Aaron Tucker Mystery
By Jeffrey Cohen
Bancroft PressCopyright © 2005 Jeffrey Cohen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChapter One
"Does it have to be New Jersey?" Glenn Waterman, tan, tall, flaxen-haired, and handsome—damn him!—was leaning back in his leather chair, resisting the impulse to put his feet up on his enormous modern desk, the one with the state-of-the-art flat screen computer monitor on it. For the sake of our conversation, he had removed the telemarketer-style headset from his ear, but he kept glancing at it, like a dog commanded to stay with a piece of red meat just barely out of reach.
"Yes," I said patiently. "It has to be New Jersey. I wrote the script about New Jersey because I know New Jersey. In fact, I think New Jersey pretty much becomes a character in the script. If you move it to, say, Oregon, it's not going to make sense that people act or talk that way."
Glenn had summoned me to Los Angeles, as far off my normal turf as you can get without leaving the continent entirely, to discuss the twenty-fifth screenplay I'd written, The Minivan Rolls For Thee, a lighthearted murder mystery that ... well, I've told that story already. Trust me, it was necessary for the proposed movie to take place in New Jersey.
Waterman's company, Beverly Hills Films, was not, in fact, headquartered in Beverly Hills, which makes sense if you've ever dealt with anyone in the movie business. It was in Santa Monica, in as nondescript an office building as you could find in Southern California. But his office, in a corner with lots of windows, naturally, was impressive, much as Waterman intended it to be.
If he liked the script, Glenn's company would purchase what in the movie business is called an "option," which is something akin to a rental agreement. The production company gets to take the script to studios to beg for money to produce it, and the writer (that's me) can't let anyone else do the same for the term of the option agreement. In return, the production company (that's them) gives the writer (that's me) money. That's the theory, anyway.
Since Waterman had paid my airfare from Newark to L.A. and put me up in a nearby hotel, I figured he had some interest in the script. He was now "giving notes," which means he was telling me everything that was wrong with the script he had told me, almost a month ago on the phone, was "brilliant." Things change quickly in Hollywood. If you've ever been there during an earthquake, you know exactly what I mean.
"I guess," he admitted finally. "Would be cheaper to shoot it in town, though."
"Anybody around here ever heard of the backlot?" I asked.
"They never use the backlot anymore," he said with a sneer. "Movies for The Disney Channel use the backlot. Feature films go on location."
"So go on location to New Jersey," I suggested.
"We usually go to ... other areas," Glenn said.
"Yeah. Usually to Canada, because films are cheaper to make up there. But I'm willing to bet you can find a part of Alberta that looks just like New Jersey."
He brightened. "I'll bet you're right."
"It's movie magic, Glenn," I told him.
As producers go, Waterman wasn't a bad guy, which is like saying that the shark felt really bad about eating you, but, hey, he was hungry and you were a mackerel. Waterman didn't brutalize his assistant in front of me (I can't vouch for anything that went on outside my presence), always offered me a Diet Coke when I got to his office, and only made me sit in the chair in front of his intimidating desk when someone else was involved in the meeting. Otherwise, I could use the couch, which itself was larger than the living room of my Midland Heights, New Jersey home.
"Aaron, on page 64 ... Waterman was moving on to another note, and we'd been at this for three straight days.
"Is this a big one, Glenn? I have a plane to catch in ... I checked my watch dramatically. "An hour and a half." I was lying; my flight was actually in two hours, but I'd heard enough nitpicking already—things that wouldn't make the script one iota better, but would still be changed as evidence of the producer's "brilliant creative input." Besides, I was worried about making my flight. This was Los Angeles, and driving from the parking lot to the next traffic light could take a half hour.
"Go," he said. "Go home to your wife and kids. And do the rewrite fast, Aaron. We have to strike while the iron is hot."
I picked up my canvas bag, and stopped halfway to the door, which meant I was only 50 yards from leaving the office. "The iron is hot? We have a hot iron?"
"I've been talking this up, Aaron," he said, looking hurt. "People know me. They'll want to know what I thought was so terrific. Make it better, and we'll have ourselves a deal."
"If my agent finds out I'm working on the script without an option agreement in place, she's going to squawk," I said, knowing full well that my agent, based in Cleveland, would have welcomed any interest in my scripts, even if it came from Hitler Wasn't Such A Bad Guy Productions, and they wanted me to work for free, forever. Margot was not exactly what you'd call a scorched-earth negotiator.
"Don't worry. I have confidence in you. You fix it, and you'll have an option soon."
Great. He had such confidence that he was sending me on my way to do more work on a screenplay he'd initially loved, and giving me no money to do it. I guess there's confidence—and then there's confidence.
I made the flight with a little time to spare, after having convinced the crack Los Angeles International Airport security team that the part-metal object in my pocket was a guitar capo, which it actually was. Unless they thought I could take someone hostage by changing their key, I presented no actual threat. The fact that everything in the security area was labeled "LAX" didn't inspire overwhelming confidence, but I could only hope they knew more about who was a terrorist and who wasn't than I did.
I got out my cell phone before the flight attendant made the announcement to turn all electronic devices off, something which still sounds to me like a line from a science fiction movie. I pushed the "1" button and held it for a couple of seconds.
Abigail's voice, my favorite sound in the world, broke through from 3,000 miles away. "Hello?"
"This is an obscene phone call." The woman to my left, in her mid-sixties, gave me an involuntary glance.
"Oh, good," said my wife. "I haven't had one in hours."
"We aim to please. I'm on the plane."
"Thank goodness," Abby sighed. "I'm tired of being a single parent."
"How are they?"
"Leah misses you," she said. "And I'm pretty sure Ethan finally noticed you're gone. He complained about walking the dog, but didn't say it was your turn."
"Well, it's been four days. He was bound to catch on sometime. Have I gotten any work calls?"
"A couple from the Star-Ledger and one from Lydia at Snapdragon. She says they don't have anything now, but she's not forgetting about you."
"Neither is Bank of America, and they want their mortgage payments made on time," I groaned.
"I'm still gainfully employed, Aaron," my wife reminded me. "We're not getting thrown out on the street anytime soon. Oh, and you've gotten four phone calls from Lori Shery."
That was odd. "Lori? What'd she say?"
"Just to call her back. She obviously doesn't know you were away, and I haven't talked to her. I just heard the messages on the machine."
"She probably wants a free column for her newsletter, but she usually emails," I said. It was odd that Lori would call, and four times in a day—I had talked to Abby the day before— meant it was important." Well, there's not much I can do from here. I'll call her when I get home."
"Which will be soon," Abby said.
"It's touching how much you miss me."
"It's garbage night, and Ethan can't lift the cans all by himself."
"Stop it. Your devotion is getting me aroused." The woman next tome looked up at the "call flight attendant" button, and seriously considered pressing it.
Abby's voice turned serious. "I'll be glad to see you, honey," she said. "You know that."
"I miss you guys more than I can tell you in a public place," I answered. "I hate being away."
"How'd the meeting go? Did you get the option?"
I wasn't interested in telling her what a bad negotiator I am." They're saying I have to turn off the cell, Abby. I'll tell you all about it when I get home."
"That means no, doesn't it?"
"See you soon, honey. I love you!" I hung up.
So I'm a bad negotiator, a liar, and a coward.
Chapter TwoThe flight was, as usual, uninteresting. I'm not a fan of air travel, since I don't actually get to fly the plane. Surrendering control of my life to someone I've never actually met on the basis of a uniform with wings on it, issued by a corporation interested in keeping costs low, does not make for a relaxing experience. And you can't make up for that with a bag of pretzels and a Diet Coke.
Back on the ground, in cold, windy Newark, New Jersey, I started to feel empowered again. After all, here I controlled my own destiny. I picked up my battered blue minivan from Cut Rate Parking, used my EZ Pass to gain access to the New Jersey Turnpike, and fought the final stages of rush hour toward Midland Heights. Familiarity may breed contempt, but at least it's, um, familiar. Not having to check a map every fifteen seconds, which I had to do in L.A., was a huge and welcome relief.
I pulled into my driveway, hungry and tired, at 8:15. Luckily, I travel light, so the canvas bag holding my screenwriter equipment and my one carry-on case were the only items I had to maneuver into the house. But after only four days, I had already gotten out of the habit of wearing a heavy coat, and was already trying to remember why I didn't live in a warmer climatic zone.
Entering the house was no small feat, since four small feet were waiting for me just inside the door. Mr. Warren T. Dog (the "T" is for "The"), the beagle/basset mix we'd liberated from a shelter not long before, can hear a fly walking on the outside wall of a building two blocks away, and so he heard me coming up the steps to the front door. When I opened it, he was squealing and pacing in front of the door, making it difficult to get by without petting him, so I patted his head. He looked disappointed, as if I should have immediately taken him for a walk, or at least fed him some hamburger meat.
Ethan, as twelve years old as a kid with Asperger's Syndrome can get (which means he was often twelve going on nine), was sprawled about the sofa in the living room, one foot, with shoe, on the cushion, and one off, in a T-shirt and shorts. He didn't know it was in the twenties outside, because twelve-year-old boys don't have nerve endings. He was staring blankly at a Disney Channel movie called "The Luck of the Irish," which they run about every 20 minutes. I was hoping some day to make as much from screenwriting in a year as the guy who wrote this TV movie gets in a month of reruns.
"Hi, Dad." For all he noticed, I could have just come home from getting a gallon of milk at the convenience store. Depending on to whom one speaks, Asperger's Syndrome (AS, for those of us in the know) is either a form of, or similar to, high-functioning autism. Kids like Ethan, who are on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum, are not severely hampered in their lives, but need help understanding the world's finer points—like the fact that when their fathers leave home for four days, it's not the same as a trip to the neighborhood video store.
"Hi, kiddo. Come here." I held out my arms to embrace him, and he looked at me like I had to be insane. "Come on."
He glanced at the TV screen again, but he knew I was serious. He stood, walked to me, and put his arms around me awkwardly, making sure he was positioned to keep his eyes turned toward the kid on TV who was turning into a leprechaun right before the big basketball game. No, I'm not kidding.
"I'm glad to see you," I told my son.
"Uh-huh," he answered lovingly. I let him go because two better huggers were headed my way from the kitchen.
Leah, newly nine years old, was, unsurprisingly, faster than her mother, but I had to bend to receive the flying hug she offered. It was worth it, since Leah hugs whole-armedly, essentially wrapping herself around the huggee in an outpouring of affection. A Leah hug is worth flying 3,000 miles.
"Hello, pussycat," I said. Despite my general indifference to cats, I used it as a term of affection. "I missed you."
"I missed you, too, Daddy," came the chirpy voice a quarter inch away from my left ear. "Did you bring me something?"
I put my daughter down. "You'll see when I unpack my bag," I told her.
"That means yes." She eyed my bag the way Warren eyes a roast beef we're having for dinner.
Ethan looked up from the couch. "Did I get something, too?"
I turned to Abby. "This he hears," I said. She smiled widely and put her arms around me. A hug from Abby is worth traveling 3,000 miles, too, but for different reasons.
"Welcome home," she said. For a few moments, I felt quite welcome indeed. Then, of course, I had to let go and resume the non-hugging part of my life, which in my opinion is vastly inferior to the hugging part. Then again, if you were hugging all the time, it would be difficult to ride a bicycle.
"Have you eaten?" Abby asked.
"You're such a Jewish lady."
"They gave us something on the plane, but I'm not sure what it was, or what time zone I was in at the time. I didn't eat it, anyway."
"So you've had about 25 Diet Cokes and you're loaded with caffeine?" Abby stood marveling at how I managed to survive four days without her dietary supervision. Luckily, God had invented the cellphone.
"That's about the size of it."
"Come in the kitchen. I've got some chicken left over from dinner."
As I followed my wife toward the kitchen, Leah took hold of my hand. "Daddy ... She looked up at me with big expressive eyes, and I thought I saw a tear welling up in one of them. I knelt.
"What's the matter, baby girl?"
"Aren't you going to give me my present?" Her lip actually quivered.
I waved a hand at her as I stood up, ever so creakily. "Go through the bag," I told her. "Just don't destroy any of my stuff."
Ethan looked over and considered joining in the hunt for gifts. Luckily for him, the leprechaun movie went to commercial. He rushed around the couch to help his sister plunder through my luggage. My underwear flew in various directions as I walked to the kitchen.
Abby was taking a plate out of the oven with a potholder. She set it down on a ceramic tile with an Al Hirshfeld caricature of Groucho Marx on it—I had bought it when I was in college, and it had somehow survived. I could see the plate held oven-fried chicken and a baked potato with some broccoli hidden in it. My wife looked after me well.
"You were ready for me," I said.
"Watch out, the plate's hot," she said, turning perfectly into the next set of embraces I'd planned for her.
"So are you," I said.
"Eat. You'll need your strength for later, unless the jet lag's gotten you." She smiled and walked to the dishwasher.
"Remember, I gained three hours. My body thinks it's late in the afternoon right now. By eleven o'clock, I'll be at the height of my energy." She pretended to look horrified. At least, I think she was pretending.
She sat next to me at the table. "So you didn't get the option yet, huh?"
"Keep in mind that 'yet' is the operative word in that sentence," I told her.
"Still, you flew out there for four days ...
"To get to the point where I understand what Glenn wants, and once I give it to him, I'll get the option. It's a question of weeks—a couple of weeks probably." The chicken wasn't the least bit dry. It was crunchy and flavorful. If I had cooked it, you could have used it for a game of shuffleboard.
"It's not a sure thing, though, is it? I mean, we do kind of need the money, Aaron." Abby had a point. When a pipe had burst, we'd had to tear out and replace all the plumbing in the upstairs bathroom, and though our semi-resident contractor Preston Burke had been sympathetic, he didn't forget to give us a bill. Owning a home is more fun than human beings should be allowed to have.
"It's close to a sure thing," I said through potato. I was hungry, and Abby is about as fine a chef as I've ever met. It's one of the many ways in which my wife is perfection personified. "I'll make some changes—not really big ones, either—and send it to Glenn, and he'll pony up the cash. Believe me, I've been through this before. He wouldn't have flown me out there if he didn't think he could sell it."
Abby raised an eyebrow as she thought a moment. "I'd feel better," she said, "if I knew a check was in the mail."
"So would I, but what could I do?" I asked. "Dazzle him with my non-existent reputation and flash the Writer's Guild card I don't yet have? I have no leverage."
"Larry Gelbart doesn't work on spec, you know."
Excerpted from As Dog is my WITNESS by Jeffrey Cohen Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Bancroft Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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