A Jane Wheel Mystery
By Fiffer, Sharon
St. Martin's Minotaur
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
Nothing good ever comes from a conversation that starts with "babe."
--from Hollywood Diary by Belinda St. Germaine
Jane Wheel knew better than to speak on the record. One month ago, when asked if she would be interviewed for a newsmagazine program by the journalist who had written last summer's story of Johnny Sullivan's murder as a syndicated feature, coloring it as cautionary tale of small-town grift and aging Americans in rural isolation, which, truth be told, Jane had thought a bit over the top at the time, she could have and should have said no.
And if her mother, Nellie, hadn't agreed with Jane's first impulse, telling her that she would look like a fool, going on television bragging and yammering about other people's business, Jane might have remained firm in her refusal. But something about Nellie's advice to say no turned Jane's no into a yes.
That's how she ended up in a small television studio, miked for sound and pancaked for glamour, all of her instincts for self-preservation, her obsessive desire for privacy, her almost paranoid fears of self-revelation conspiring to stop Jane from talking. She choked on a glass of water, causing her to cough unattractively for the first five minutes of the pre-interview. She then felt her muted cellphone vibrate in her pocket. She excused herself, explained that her husband was out of town, she had to answer it in case it was her son calling . . . and left the room. There, she explained in an angry whisper to the actual caller, Tim Lowry, her media-curious best friend, that the interview had barely started, she could hardly tell him how it was going. She returned to the set with her lipstick freshened--Tim did know his stuff when it came to cosmetic reminders--and, when the camera rolled on her return, answered each question posed about the murder, about the experience in Kankakee at Fuzzy Neilson's farm, as directly and as cautiously as she could. Jane paused for a drink of water, remembering to allow her lips to stay moistened--Tim's voice in her ear again--and relaxed, just a bit. It was going well. She hadn't cursed, stammered, stuttered, or blurted out anything negative about anyone personally. Then Marisa Brown, the journalist who had written the original story that had been picked up by newspapers in almost every city in the country, leaned forward, girlfriend to girlfriend, and asked Jane Wheel, on camera, the million-dollar question.
"One day you were haunting garage sales, the next you were solving murders. Do you ever feel that your life has become a movie?"
Jane forgot that there was tape rolling. Her throat suddenly cleared. She opened her brown eyes a bit wider, barely licked her lips, and leaned forward in her chair.
"That's exactly how I feel. Every time I find a body, I think somebody's going to jump out and yell, Candid Camera, or what was that new one? Oh yeah . . . Jane Wheel. You've been punk'd."
After that, Jane couldn't stop talking. She described her parents, Don and Nellie, their tavern, the EZ Way Inn, the gambling scandal that had involved practically their whole town. She babbled on about her neighbor's murder and mentioned that she had been a suspect in that one because of an innocent kiss.
"Hey, it didn't mean anything," Jane said. "I mean, we'd been drinking, for heaven's sake."
Jane found that she liked playing to an audience. Marisa was smiling and nodding. Marisa's sister, Laura, who had taken the photographs for the print piece, was standing in the wings, doubled over in silent laughter at Jane's stories. Even the cameraman, all serious business when Jane was choking earlier, was now laughing and miming one-handed applause.
Only after the lights were off and Laura and Marisa were high-fiving each other on the piece did Jane wake up.
"I got a little chatty," Jane said.
"You were marvelous," said Marisa.
"Perfect," said Laura.
"Could you maybe edit out . . . ?" Jane paused. Where to begin? The loose remark about her mother, Nellie, being, at best, a difficult woman? The knock on Kankakee as the tavern capital of the world? Blurting out that Charley was an academic and everybody knew that academics were underpaid?
The Brown sisters did edit some of the interview. The carefully measured and thoughtful performance that Jane gave at the beginning of the piece disappeared. Instead, when the interview was televised nationally that week on a newsmagazine that Jane had never even heard of before, Jane Wheel appeared to be a cross between the crocodile hunter and the entire Ozzy Osbourne family.
Watching with Nick, she gave silent thanks that Charley was out of the country and hoped that Don and Nellie were still having problems remembering the numbers of television channels since they got digital cable. Besides, who had ever heard of this program?
Everyone. Jane heard from her former schoolteachers, Kankakee shopkeepers, her Evanston neighbors. Her personal worst was when she yanked the phone cord out of the jack and she looked over to Nick for some sympathy. He was staring straight ahead, almost comatose.
"I'm not going to school tomorrow," he said softly.
"What? I didn't say anything bad about you, honey," said Jane. "You're the one--"
"Ace," said Nick.
"I'm the ace midfielder on my soccer team?" said Nick, not quite as softly. "Why would you say something like that? Why would you say anything about me?"
"Ace means that you're good," said Jane, feeling herself grow weaker and weaker.
"Do you know what this means? For the rest of my life, I will be called Ace," said Nick. "And I'm not even that good, Mom. I'm finished. I'm quitting."
"You can't quit soccer, Nick. Nobody watches this, nobody--"
"I'm not quitting soccer. I'm quitting school," said Nick, leaving the room. "I'm quitting this family."
Jane heard a kind of angelic choir, some kind of chanting, and thought maybe, if she was lucky, she had dropped dead. Of course, the way she had sworn and been bleeped on national television, she should have known immediately that the first thing she heard after death was not going to be an angelic choir. No, it was just her cell phone that Nick had switched to the Seraphim ring tone.
"It wasn't that bad," growled the voice at the other end.
Uh-oh. If Nellie was calling to comfort her, it was even worse than she thought.
Jane would have to quit the family, too.
Tim, of course, had taped the interview and edited it in such a way that when he walked into Jane's house that night and dropped it into the VCR, it played over and over in a continuous loop. Tim then reminded Jane that if she tried to turn off the television manually, without the remote, she would never be able to get the television, with cable, back on. When she asked him what that had to do with anything, Tim smiled, dropped the remote into his vintage leather briefcase, and walked swiftly and decisively out the door.
One week later, Charley called, asking Jane how she felt about Nick joining him for an extension to his trip. He had been asked to join a faculty panel heading to Peru for a three-week symposium. Students would be attending for credit, it would be a safe and sane trip, and, after all, he reasoned to Jane, wouldn't Nick learn more from that experience than from a middle school unit on magnetism or yet another introduction to the significant battles of the Civil War? Jane, no defender of the curriculum at Nick's school, where she had seen him read the same short stories in English class two years in a row, still didn't like to go through the permission request for Nick to miss that much school.
The last time Charley had whisked his son away from his battered desk, the principal had intoned, "Even if it is educational, Mrs. Wheel, surely you understand that Nicholas is missing valuable curriculum material here?"
Jane, feeling like she was the one being called into the principal's office for some infraction, had bent her head and shuffled her feet, mumbling something about Nick's straight A's no matter how much class time he missed, and somehow managed to exit without her voice breaking or any tears escaping.
This time, however, Jane leapt at the opportunity to get Nick out of the country. He would surely forgive her televised babbling if she got him out of school, out of the country, for a three-week period when something, anything, might happen to break the middle school news cycle of her idiocy. Surely, in twenty-one days, some other kid's parent would do something, anything, that rivaled her loose lips sinking ships, and Nick could return to school, happily under the radar, where any self-respecting fourteen-year-old longed to live.
Jane told herself that it was a good thing Charley had gotten Nick out of town. And it wasn't just to spare him the razzing of classmates for having a mother who didn't know when to shut up. Jane knew her son would learn more from his father and the travel experience than he would here, and when father and son returned, they would both be full of the excitement and knowledge of the dig, forgiving and forgetting all about Jane's televised shout-out.
But now, on this October evening, cool with just enough orange and red leaves crackling underfoot to remind anyone and everyone that this was autumn in the Midwest, with all of its promise of harvest moons and the smell of woodsmoke--which, let's face it, never made up for the snow and freezing rain and skin-numbing cold that would follow--Jane, walking the neighborhood with Lovely Rita, her big loyal shepherd mix mutt, was filled with . . . something. Longing? Maybe a little. In that sentimental, falling-leaves sort of way. But this feeling felt bigger, more momentous. Desire? Well, she missed Charley, but they had grown comfortable with the rhythms of his fieldwork and her treasure hunts, which often separated them. Restlessness? Definitely. Jane needed something to happen. No, she needed to make something happen. She no longer wanted to fall into a criminal case by tripping over a body. She didn't want to live from Thursday to Thursday, checking the local paper's classifieds for garage sales.
Back home in her kitchen, she unsnapped Rita's leash and buried her face in her dog's neck. Rita turned around and looked at Jane, mildly curious, then trotted off in search of food and water.
Jane phoned Tim but got his machine. She dialed her partner in noncrime, Detective Bruce Oh, and heard his wife Claire's efficient voice message, dictating exactly what the caller was to do and how long he or she had to do it. Jane hung up.
She paced the length of her living room, a large space filled with wooden trunks used as tables, a cast-off crystal chandelier which had never been wired for light, only hung for reflection. She plumped the pillows covered in flowered barkcloth and stared at the bookcase filled with old hardcover books. Jane Wheel was not a book collector per se, but she was a collector who heard the small voices of objects that called to her. Take me home. That's what she heard from ceramic flowerpots and old autograph books, tins of buttons and battered boxes of office supplies from the thirties. She picked up a tiny matchbox with strong art deco graphics that held "gummed reinforcements" and wondered how many of Nick's classmates would know what a gummed reinforcement was. The tiny container had been propped up in front of a collection of books Jane had discovered at a house sale. She remembered the thrill of opening the carton in the basement and finding the cache of hardcover mysteries. No Nancy Drews, but hardcovers with glossy dust jackets intact. A Mary Roberts Rinehart. An Agatha Christie. A more recent, but also more raggedy Raymond Chandler. The Long Goodbye. Jane took it off the shelf and rubbed away a light film of dust with her hand, and found herself saying the title out loud. Such an exquisitely sad phrase, the long goodbye.
If Jane hadn't been holding the book, staring at the off-center column of stacked shabby suitcases filled with vacation photos, travel brochures, and maps, all gathered from rummage sales and thrift stores, all chronicling the lives and travels of strangers, she might have been more wary when she answered the ringing phone.
"Jane, oh, Jane, I feel I know you, may I call you Jane?"
Jane nodded, before she actually spoke.
"And what may I call you?" she finally asked.
"I'm Wren Bixby and you can call me Wren, but everybody out here calls me Bix." She paused for a breath or for effect or for both and added, "Including my buddy Jeb Gleason, who claims to be your best friend. Is he lying to me again?"
Jane felt all of her loneliness melt and be replaced with something else. She threw The Long Goodbye on the couch and curled up in a giant padded rocker and tucked her feet underneath her.
"You're a friend of Jeb's?"
"We worked together years ago and he was the love of my life. Luckily I've had almost as many of those as he has, so we've remained friends," said Bix. "Look, I'm just terrible at small talk and dancing around stuff, so do you mind if I get straight to the business of this call, then we can trade Jeb stories?"
"Fine," said Jane. She immediately responded to this stranger who disliked small talk, since Jane was so bad at it herself. In fact, she hated small talk as much as she hated talking on the phone, so the combination of telephone small talk was something she really wanted to bury. "Shoot," she said.
"I want to buy your story and turn it into a movie."
"Which one?" said Jane, looking up at the bookcase.
"The scarecrow murder, to start with. You've got a lot more?" asked Bix.
Jane claimed later to have gotten a little hazy after she realized that Wren Bixby was not talking about buying any of her old first editions. Bix explained that she wanted to buy the rights to Jane's life story . . . at least to the part that had become public when Jane got into the crime-solving chapter of her life and when she babbled like an idiot on that Chicago television newsmagazine. Apparently Wren had caught the segment on some early morning program in L.A. on a sister station to the Chicago channel that had carried it. That same morning, Bix happened to have breakfast with Jeb Gleason, mentioned the story, Jeb told her that he and Jane had been close friends in college, and since there are no coincidences, according to Bix, she knew she was meant to make a movie of Jane Wheel--PPI, picker, private investigator.
"So how about it?" asked Wren. "The sum we offer for rights is small, and I mean small, but if we move through the pipeline with the project, sign with a major studio, get a good writer, persuade a star to get involved, and the movie gets made, you'll get more. I mean, we'll put you on as a consultant or something. I usually give a fancy dog-and-pony show when I'm schmoozing someone for their story, but Jeb says you are strictly a no-bullshit kind of woman.
Jane took a deep breath. "I might need a little bullshit for this one."
"Fair enough. How about you come out to L.A. for a meeting with us--my partner, Lou, and I have a very small production company, Bix Pix Flix. Don't judge us on cutesy, we picked it in a moment of weakness. Kind of like people who pick their online screen names in homage to their favorite metal band, then have to give the contact name out during a job interview . . . you know . . . yes, I do have that MBA and you contact me at email@example.com. Anyhow, BPF will fly you out here . . . oh, and we want Tim Lowry's rights, too, but they're not essential," said Wren. "You're the story here, Jane."
Jane called Charley's cell and left a message. She knew he'd say to do whatever she wanted on this. This was not the kind of thorny issue that Charley and she would need to sit down and thrash out. Charley would tell her to leave him out of it, Nick would make her sign an oath in blood to portray herself as childless, but basically, this would be her decision. Jane could take it or leave it. And she knew what she would do. She would leave it. She had done enough damage to her own privacy and to those whom she loved in a ten-minute interview. She was a monastic person, one who would be happy to live as a recluse, a hermit . . . if only the other caves would hold occasional yard sales.
Ay, there was the rub. Jane had to put up with all those other people because people begat stuff, and stuff, for Jane, was what brought people palatably to life. It made others interesting, warm, human. It was what people kept and what they discarded that guided Jane through the confusion of human emotions. But how could Jane go along on her anonymously merry way, scouting junk in alleys and yards, on rummage sale tables and auction house floors, if she was involved in some ego-wrenching nonsense in, for the love of Pete, Hollywood? What would ever make Jane leave her happy home, in the sensible midwestern time zone where you can catch the local news and Letterman and still be asleep by midnight, and head for loopy La-La Land?
Not Jeb Gleason. Not anyone who found her through Jeb Gleason, that was for sure.
Jane picked up The Long Goodbye and carried it with her to bed. She fell asleep with the book open next to her, content with her decision to call Bix in the morning and explain that she was not interested in any movie project.
Morning came slightly earlier than Jane had planned--announced by a ringing telephone.
"Wake up, babe, wake up. I've already booked our flight. We're going out tonight. I'll be there in a few hours to help you pack appropriately. Book a haircut and a pedicure. You'll be wearing sandals. This is going to be a first-class trip."
Right. Jane picked up her alarm clock and held it an inch in front of her face. 5:00 a.m. What was that she had asked herself when she decided that she would reject the movie proposal? What would make her leave her happy home? Wrong pronoun. Who would make her leave? Not Jeb Gleason, no.
Tim Lowry. Of course.
Copyright 2006 by Sharon Fiffer
Excerpted from Hollywood Stuff
by Fiffer, Sharon
Copyright © 2006 by Fiffer, Sharon.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.