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Unforced ErrorA Rep and Melissa Pennyworth Mystery
By Michael Bowen
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2004 Michael Bowen
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePeter Damon had known since junior high who got girls like this. And it wasn't guys like him.
Violet eyes with a minxish glint worth half a Byron canto. Luminous smile. Ebony hair framing a dusty rose face whose casual perfection reminded him of Uffizzi canvases. Ample breasts that casually mocked the perfunctory effort of her silk blouse to appear demure. Your basic Peter Damon, with his bookish pallor, wispy, light brown hair already retreating from his forehead, oversized ears, and watery blue eyes unkindly magnified by the thick lenses of wire-frame glasses, couldn't even let himself imagine that a woman like this might be hitting on him.
He hadn't imagined anything of the kind when she'd asked to join him at what she claimed was the last available non-smoking table in the Lake Tahoe Holiday Inn Crown Plaza restaurant. He hadn't imagined it when she'd introduced herself as Lara Teasdale, had guessed correctly that he was here for the librarians' convention, and had explained that she'd come to teach Power Point presentations to rookie sales reps for Golden State Office Interiors. He had wished, for the only time in his life, that he were a rookie sales rep.
He hadn't even imagined it when she'd segued unsubtly from crosswords to hookers.
"Please don't let me keep you from your puzzle," she said, nodding at the twice-folded New York Times beside his plate.
"It can wait," Peter said hastily, capping his medium point blue Bic pen and stowing it in his caramel colored corduroy sport coat. "Civil War theme, no biggie. I guess crossword puzzles are an occupational cliché for librarians, aren't they?"
"Not necessarily. I'm just an MIS specialist, and words have always fascinated me. 'Hooker,' for example."
"You mentioned the Civil War and that reminded me. Wasn't that when the word 'hooker' came into American slang?"
"Oh. Right. Because of all the, uh, er, camp followers with the Army of the Potomac while General Hooker was commanding it."
"Exactly," Teasdale said. "I love neat little connections like that. Like 'joysticks.' I remember seeing an 'eighties movie called Joysticks on video, and I'm like, am I the only one who gets this?"
"Probably not," Peter said, feeling a crimson burn on the backs of his ears.
"I mean, they once called the throttles on airplanes 'joysticks' because of the phallic association." She raised an eyebrow in polite interrogation, and Peter nodded: he knew what phallic associations were. "Then when video games appeared, they called the control rods 'joysticks' because they looked like the throttles on World War II fighters. Then someone making this B-movie teenage sex comedy revolving around video games thinks 'joysticks' is this incredibly clever double entendre, and all they're doing is going back to the original allusion."
"Uh, yeah," Peter said. "Er, hey, do you travel much for Golden State Office Interiors?"
"More than I'd like," Teasdale sighed. "I could draw the basic floor-plan for every hotel chain in the country. It gets very lonely."
"I guess it would."
"Like tonight," she added, catching his eyes and lowering her voice. "All I have to look forward to is Sports Center and a hot bath."
That's when Peter began to think the unthinkable. He caught himself holding his breath.
"That is," she continued, "unless you'd like to come up and show me how fast you can finish that crossword puzzle while we see if PBS or the History Channel is showing something on the Civil War."
Peter forced his lips into a shy smile and made himself meet Teasdale's gaze.
"You're the most beautiful woman I've ever talked to," he said gently. "You're the sexiest woman I've ever seen. But my wife, Linda, means everything in the world to me. It would really hurt her if I were unfaithful. I just couldn't do that."
He braced himself for a cold shower of bitchy petulance. He got a wistful smile instead as Teasdale rested her chin on interlaced fingers.
"Is Linda very lovely?" she asked.
"Very," Peter said, meaning relative to the female universe the likes of him had any business thinking about. "She's lovely, and smart, and committed, and idealistic, and just a very together lady."
"She's also something else," Teasdale said. "She's very, very lucky. Please let me get the check."
* * *
It was 7:26 p.m., Central Daylight time, when Linda Damon and the twelve million other people watching Reality Check Live! on Fox heard her husband describe her as lovely, smart, committed, idealistic, and very together. Though the night was warm, she pulled the sheet up to cover her breasts as she turned toward the other side of the bed and spoke.
"I think you'd better go now, Tommy."
Chapter TwoFortunately, only a handful of the other reactions to Peter Damon's unintentionally public display of chastity need concern us.
An aide to Missouri state senator Wade Carlton, for example, thought it important enough to break into a meeting between Carlton and the director of the America's Petrochemical Future Political Education Fund with a Tivo of the segment and the results of twenty frenetic minutes of Googling.
"Librarian from Kansas City," she explained as Carlton replayed the scene. "Civil War hobbyist. Obsessed with networking libraries and public schools interactively through the web. Presented a paper saying if we don't start getting libraries into kids' heads and kids' heads into libraries, we'll have an entire generation that can't identify Appomattox."
"Where is he on petrochemical issues?" the director asked.
"Get two 'graphs on this into my speech for the Majority Values Conference and make them sing," Carlton told the aide. "And have one of the interns find out what Appomattox is."
* * *
Then there was Diane Klimchock, Peter's boss at the Central Branch of the Jackson County, Missouri Public Library.
"Caught your act on the telly," she said into his hotel room voice-mail seconds after Fox's hidden camera had cut to a different attempted seduction. "Aces! Must chat soonest. Late tea sixish Sunday evening? Only a few hours after your return, I know, but pretty please? Ring me back."
Klimchock issued this invitation not in plummy accents redolent of Belgravia but with an unmistakably American high plains twang, for she haled from Nebraska and had yet to see the Atlantic Ocean. Anglophilia and Anglomania had dominated her personality since her first exposure to Wuthering Heights, however, and English idioms dating from Evelyn Waugh forward permeated her conversation.
* * *
Two women in their early twenties sharing an apartment on Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles also watched Peter Damon's one-hundred seconds of fame with mild interest. The one with long, sexy blond hair was smoking clove, handling her cigarette the way Audrey Hepburn had in Charade. The one with short, sassy blond hair was leafing idly through typescript brad-clipped into a pasteboard binder.
"What's the title?" the first asked just before Peter came on.
"Seven Days in May," her roomie answered. This wasn't a projected remake of the Kirk Douglas movie based on Fletcher Knebel's famous political thriller. In this permutation she'd be reading for the part of May Greene, first woman President of the United States, and she'd have more than a casual interest in the actors who'd be playing General Donald Day and his six brothers.
Reality Check Live!'s cut to the Teasdale/Damon encounter drew the long-haired thespian's focus back to the screen. She shifted her smoking technique to Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, for she was a well-rounded student of the cinema. When Peter turned the proposition down, she brought her cigarette to the right side of her mouth and clinched it between her lips through a long, determined pull.
"Bet I nail him in one week," she said.
"Just don't do it on spec," her roommate advised.
* * *
And finally Melissa Seton Pennyworth, newly minted Ph.D in Literature, as it was still called at the proudly old-school university that had conferred her degree, had tuned in. She watched Reality Check Live! strictly in the interests of academic research, the way guys in the 'sixties used to leaf through Playboy for the interviews.
"Rep, look," she called to her husband. "That's Linda Damon's husband. The guy you're going to see about your Civil War idea. "
"Are you sure?" Rep asked, politely feigning interest as he glanced up from a brochure from Engineered Storage Products Company, manufacturer of Harvestore® silos.
"I'd know those ears anywhere. I was just checking Linda's phone number. I'm going to call her tomorrow to let her know what time to expect us when we get to Kansas City next week."
"What a remarkable coincidence," Rep said. And because this isn't a nineteenth-century gothic novel, no vague sense of foreboding nor tingling premonition of disaster spoiled his foray into the arcana of engineered bolts and Breather Bags®.
Chapter ThreeJob-one, R. Thomas Quinlan figured about two minutes after Peter Damon's face disappeared from the screen, was a clean getaway. Time for all that ten-k and marathon training to pay off. Experience nourished a healthy fear of getting brained any second now by a flying ashtray, or whatever the equivalent missile in a non-smoker's bedroom would be.
He hopped on his right foot while trying to jam a shoe onto his left. Linda Damon's bravely-holding-back-the-tears expression and her whimpers about what a shit she was told him that she was already well into the self-loathing stage of adultress's remorse. All too often with rookies in the infidelity game, it was one short step from disgust to it's-all-your-fault and blunt objects sailing across the room.
"How could I do this to him?" Linda blubbered.
"It's not your fault," Quinlan panted. "It's not a question of fault. I don't know, maybe I shouldn't have brought the story by tonight."
"Especially with wine."
"The wine was yours. Chelsea Tuttle sent it especially for you." Total lie, of course. But then, he reminded himself, Jackrabbit Press was a fiction house.
"I'm such a shit." This from a woman for whom damn was a rare vulgarity.
"You're not," a now fully shod Quinlan insisted. "You're human."
"I've never done this kind of thing before." No kidding. "It's just that I was here by myself while Peter is off at a resort, and it's the sixth anniversary of the first time we made love and he didn't mention it—"
"—and one thing led to another," Quinlan said helpfully, lapsing into a cliché that Linda would never have tolerated from Chelsea Tuttle.
Linda started crying like she meant it. Quinlan edged toward the bedroom door.
"Please don't cry," he said.
"I've got to tell Peter," she sobbed.
NOOOOOO! DEAR SWEET JESUS NO!
Spousal confession meant melodrama, maybe even a slap or two. This would expand Linda's life experience and thus make her an even better editor—but it would make her an even better editor who didn't freelance for Jackrabbit Press anymore. Even worse, it might lead Peter to some ghastly nineteenth-century geste involving Quinlan. The Civil War replica cavalry saber hanging next to the blue uniforms in Peter's closet had looked very, very functional to Quinlan. He unconsciously covered his crotch, like a soccer player preparing to defend a penalty kick.
"No," he told Linda with calm and tender firmness as he managed to master his panic. "You'll only hurt him. You love Peter and you'll always love him. What we did means nothing. It was a fling, for God sakes. An existential accident. A chance collision of horny electrons."
Continuing his sidle toward the door, he spotted a bathrobe hanging from its back. He eased it from its hook and tendered it to Linda, keeping his face discreetly toward the door as he did so.
"Thank you," she snuffled as she snatched it.
"I think I should make you some coffee," he said.
"No. Just go. I'm sorry. Please."
"All right. I'll call you tomorrow."
He slipped through the doorway. He had nearly reached the bottom of the stairs and was on the verge of breaking into a full sprint when he heard Linda come out of the bedroom.
"Watch out for the newel capital," she called. "It's loose."
Although Quinlan had thirteen years' experience as a professional writer and editor, he'd never been married to Peter Damon—he didn't have the faintest idea of what a newel capital might be. He turned around, resting his hand on the wooden sphere atop the bottom stairpost.
"Okay," he said politely.
"And wait. You dropped your keyring." Linda tossed the fistful of metal toward him.
Jesus, he thought, wondering what malign Iago lurking in his superego had let this Desdemona's handkerchief slip out of his pocket as he was making his otherwise flawless escape. Lurching to snag the ring, he heard a sound of splintering wood. An instant later he found himself holding the ring in his left hand and the wooden sphere from the stairpost in his right. Lamely, he held the latter up.
"Newel capital?" he asked.
"Yeah," Linda said, deflating. "Just put it down there. I guess. I'll take care of it."
"Okay." He made his voice as gentle as he could. "I'll call tomorrow."
"Shit," Linda said, to no one in particular.
Chapter FourAt five-fifty-eight Sunday evening Diane Klimchock, redolent of Constant Comment and Dunhills, opened the door of her apartment and welcomed the Damons into a parlor—"living room" just wouldn't do it justice—that evoked sepia-toned photographs. She showed them to a pink settee in front of a low, mahogany table where tea, coffee, and two tiers of pastry and muffins awaited them.
"Peter," she gushed in the process, "you're famous!"
"Well," Peter said, "for twelve more hours, maybe."
"Becomingly modest, as usual. If we can nurse your limelight for a fortnight or so we'll be able to make splendid use of it."
"I'm afraid I don't follow," Peter said. "Er, that is, I don't think I'm in the picture."
"The Liberty Memorial Library Expansion proposal," Klimchock said crisply. "As you know, we have a very generous pledge from Mr. John Paul Lawrence of Jackrabbit Press to get the ball rolling on our hoped-for addition filled with many, many of those wired-up computers you're so keen about, as long as we call it the Liberty Memorial Wing. But that leaves eleven million or so to raise, half of which we can get from our chums in Washington if the State of Missouri and Jackson County and Kansas City and other private donors will chip in the rest together."
"Ah," Peter said with vast relief as he reached for his checkbook. "Well, Linda and I don't have a great deal of money set aside, but I'm sure that for a cause as worthy as this we can, er, do our modest bit."
"Peter, Peter, Peter," Klimchock said, chuckling indulgently. "I wouldn't dream of asking you and Linda to help fill up our multi-million dollar hole. Your help is wanted with the public fisc aspect of things."
"Not in the picture again," Peter said.
"We need Senator Wade Carlton on the Budget Committee to push through the state's share, which will more or less lock up everything else. Senator Carlton is very big on what he calls majority values, by which he seems to mean grown-ups not being naughty with each other."
"Yes?" Peter prompted, foreboding showing unambiguously on his guileless features. Linda, meanwhile, who had yet to speak with Peter about the, ah, fling, felt her gut shrivel.
"You do see, don't you, darling?" Klimchock pressed. "You're bullet-proof! There you were on television, not being naughty. It was so touching, so sweet, so majority value-ish. You're the perfect choice to go hat in hand to Senator Carlton's committee and read our prepared plea."
"But after the statement there'll be questions," Peter said, "that I'll have to answer. And I'm not good at that kind of thing."
"But that's just it, luv. There won't be any questions. You're bullet-proof. They'll all use their time to tell you how wonderful you are and thank you for coming, and we'll have our funding."
"But what," Peter said, more to himself than to Klimchock, "if they do? Ask questions, I mean."
"Now don't get disgruntled on me, Peter, dear," Klimchock said firmly. "I need you gruntled and steady, there's a good chap, thank you very much. It's not just the expansion per se. We're all teetering on the edge of a post-literate age. Literacy is assailed on all sides. Libraries are the last line of defense. We're like the final remnant of redoubts defending Roman Britain against the illiterate Saxon hordes."
This simile struck Linda as an unhappy one, for she had a general impression that the first time around the Saxons had won. For Peter, though, Klimchock's argument—her ringing appeal to the eternal sanctity of Language, of Literacy, of WORDS—was unanswerable. He murmured his dubious commitment to walk point on the funding request. And all the way home he looked both baffled and miserable.
"I feel like my life is turning into a bad novel," he told Linda when she tried to comfort him.
"Almost everyone's life is like a bad novel," she assured him after a moment's reflection. "If your life is like a good novel, someone writes your biography."
Excerpted from Unforced Error by Michael Bowen Copyright © 2004 by Michael Bowen. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen 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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