[This is the original version of the story I will be bringing to Monday’s meeting. 2600 words]
WHAT JUST HAPPENED [original]
Mystery novelist Marty Zimmerman sits slumped in his office chair staring at his laptop, willing something interesting to jump onto the screen spontaneously, because he feels himself unable to make this happen. He’s part-way into a mystery/suspense/thriller, which is neither mysterious, nor suspenseful nor thrilling, and he’s stuck. Blocked.
He’s been staring at the screen for easily half an hour, and nothing springs to mind, except that he’s starting to wonder what he might find to work at when his career as a novelist tanks, and who he might arrange to move in with when they repossess his house. And how he’ll even get there after they repossess his car. His brother is a hopeless alcoholic, his sister is a manic-depressive, and his best friend Arnie hates him now because he said something shitty about Arnie in a bar a year ago, and can’t remember what it was. He asked once, and all he got was, ‘You know. You know.’ What’s left, a subsidized housing unit? Would he even qualify at the age of thirty seven?
He runs over what he’s got down so far: a man hires a private detective – one [name] Sharpe – to find out who his wife is sleeping with, and the dick is taking his sweet time, while charging him the ‘discount’ fee of three hundred a week, plus expenses, which so far has reached close to nine thousand dollars, with no results. The husband is a man called Newton Finny, chartered account and loan shark [for people who can’t make their taxes]. His trophy wife Minnie, an aspiring lounge singer, is missing, presumably shacked up with her lover, whom the shyster Sharpe has found implausibly hard—make that impossible—to locate, a man whom Finny intends to ruin somehow, or kill somehow, or do something else nasty to.
So far so good, but while Finny storms around his house fuming and trying to figure out what to do next, Marty sits at his desk simmering with frustration and self-condemnation, also wondering what to do next.
But then suddenly, he remembers something he read once in a mystery writer’s how to guide: If you get stuck, have two men with guns burst through the door. He hadn’t thought about this seriously because he’d never been really stuck before, but now with nothing to lose, he types: Suddenly, two men with guns burst through the door. He sits waiting for inspiration, but nothing comes.
Then suddenly two men with guns burst through the door.
Marty spins in his chair, eyeballs popping, mouth open, his white-Knuckled hands gripping the arms of his chair.
‘What the hell is going on here?! Who are you guys?! And why do you have guns?!’
The two men look at each other, then back at Marty. One of the men, a fat lumpy guy in a green suit, porkpie hat, and carrying a tiny little semi-automatic pistol that looks like a purse gun, steps forward.
‘Any more questions, gumshoe?’ Marty gapes at the men, eyes flicking back and forth.
‘Don’t play dumb,’ the other man—a scrawny Hispanic-looking guy wearing a red scarf around his head and a gold ring in his ear—says, and gestures with his revolver, a ridiculously large gun that looks like it might have belonged to Wyatt Earp.
‘PI, gumshoe, whatever. All we care about is, you’re Sharpe.’
‘I am? How would you know that?’
‘Because that’s what it says on the door: Frank Sharpe. Private Investigator … and something else.’
‘It says that on the door? My office door?’
Marty’s brain is doing hand-springs. Is this a nightmare? Has he fallen asleep at his desk?
‘Okay, look guys, I’m not a gumshoe, or a PI, or anything else along those lines. I’m just a lowly writer. Well … not lowly, maybe—’.
Scarfhead gestures with his gun. ‘Don’t mess with us, Sharpe. We know what and who you are … or the other way around.’
‘I’m not Sharpe! I’m Zimmerman! And I write books.’ He wheels around and points to his desk, which should be replete with reference books and stacks of paper and a laptop and about eight coffee cups. The coffee cups are there. And a phone. And some papers, and a rolodex. But that’s it. Marty stares. Porkpie snickers.
‘So where’s your typewriter, pal?’ Marty wheels back to face them. Looks from one to the other.
‘Nobody uses a typewriter anymore!’ Having blurted that out, he suddenly realises he’s way off topic, and spins back to stare at his desk.
‘What the hell is this?! Where my laptop? Is that a land line?’
Scarfhead takes a step forward. ‘Enough with the questions, dick— .’
‘Um … Marty.’ Scarfhead blows his top.
‘WE DON’T CARE!’ Porkpie jumps, nearly drops his silly little gun. ‘Sorry … your name is on the door, we were sent here to find out why the heck you haven’t found Minnie yet. Our client is getting impatient.’ Marty feels like he’s listening to a foreign language.
‘Sorry, guys … look, this is insane. My name is not on the door, and I am not who you think I am! I’m not a private investigator or even a public one! I’m a— ‘
He spins around to face his desk, notices again that his laptop is no longer where he left it, then spins back.
‘I was a novelist specializing in crime, until somebody absconded with my laptop.’
Scarfhead makes a face. ‘Never mind the sob story. We’re here to present you with a choice. Either find the broad in twenty-four hours— ‘ He checks his watch. ‘Or, give back the money our client Mr. Finny paid you to find her. Your third option is …’ He cocks the revolver significantly, waits. Marty waits, then finally:
‘Is what.’ Porkpie steps forward, irked at being second banana.
‘What did he just do, Sharpe?’
‘Zimmerman!’ Marty looks over at Scarfhead. ‘He cocked that humungous gun?’ He waits for confirmation. ‘Am I warm?’ Porkpie snickers. ‘Yeah. But, WHY do you think he did that, flatfoot?’ Scarfhead gives him a backhander on the shoulder. ‘Will you fahcrissake get current? Nobody says flatfoot anymore.’ Porkpie looks wounded again. ‘What about gumshoe?’ Marty, his patience all but gone, clutches his head with both hands.
‘Okay, okay, I know why he cocked his gun! So he could shoot me if I don’t comply with …whatever it was. The problem is, these people don’t exist! Not even me!’ A beat. ‘I mean Sharpe. I exist, but I’m Zimmerman! Questions?’
The two hit men look at each other, then back to Marty, clearly unable to think of a question. It strikes Marty that he’s wasting his time with these imaginary boneheads, and decides immediately that maybe the best plan is to stop spinning his wheels and go along with this scenario until something happens.
‘Okay guys, I get the picture. Give me twenty four hours to find the broa—the woman. Minnie, is it? Minnie Finny? Yikes. Good thing his last name isn’t Mouse.’ The two goons don’t get it … clearly not serious cartoon fans. ‘Okay, I’ve picked up a few clues in my search, and in fact I was just about to call my client and report in.’ He puts on his best dog-eating-cat-crap grin, and waits. Porkpie, now back to being puffed up with is own (delusional) authority, nods decisively.
‘Works for me, Sharpe.’ He catches sight of Scarfhead giving him ‘the look’.
‘Whaddya think, boss?’
‘I think you should lay off the pizza, you’re getting too big for your britches.’ Porkpie, looking wounded again, glances down at his britches. Suddenly two men with guns burst through the door. One sports a black beard, the other doesn’t. They see the others, and freeze.
‘Whoops,’ the beard says. ‘Looks like we’re late. I told you we shoulda taken a cab.’
‘Don’t blame it on me, it’s not my fault there was a jumper in the subway station.’ The two interlopers smile obsequiously and back out of the room, closing the door gently behind them. Marty— although he regrets not being a better writer—still wishes he could get back to being Zimmerman, but at the moment he has no idea how to do that.
‘Right. So let’s leave Mr. Finny out of this for the time being. I’ll go scare up Minnie, and you two can bundle her off home and collect the reward money.’ Porkpie brightens.
‘There’s reward money?’
‘I meant your fee.’
‘Oh.’ Scarfhead eyes Marty suspiciously, decides ‘suspiciously’ is a cliché, and tries for smug scepticism. He seems happy with it.
‘And what are we supposed to do in the meantime?’
Marty clicks into action.
‘Not my problem, boys. I got things to do. Close the door on the way out, wouldja please?’
He strides over to his desk, and starts riffling papers. The two men hesitate, then, realising they’ve been unceremoniously dismissed, try to make a dignified exit, bumping into the door but closing it gently. Marty shuffles through the pages on his desk, not sure what to make of all this paper … seeing as how he doesn’t have a fireplace in his office. Suddenly he notices that one of the pieces of paper is addressed to Sharpe, and his first name’s Francis. He sags. What kind of detective has a name like Francis! On an impulse, he goes to the door, opens it, and checks the sign on the wall to the right of the door jamb. It reads:
BY APPOINTMENT ONLY
Aha! Frank. That’s more like it. He closes the door and virtually swaggers back to his desk, and again the door bursts open. He turns around slowly seething with irritation.
‘Jesus H. Christ! Doesn’t anybody—?!’
A drop-dead gorgeous black woman—easily six feet tall and dressed to the nines—strides in, swings the door shut behind her so that it almost slams, and stands there in a confrontational type of posture. Marty stares at her. He seems to hear bells ringing. The woman cocks her lovely head.
‘Doesn’t anybody what.’
‘I’m sorry, what?—oh, right. Knock. Besides the sign says BY APPOINTMENT ONLY … sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. It’s just that it’s in caps—’
‘Yeah, I see that. Are you Sharpe?’ Marty draws a breath, decides this time to try a joke to lighten up the atmosphere.
‘As a tack.’ He smiles, she doesn’t. Marty moves on. ‘Apparently, yes. Yes I am. Frank Sharpe, at your service.’
He moves toward her, his hand out. She glances at it, dismisses it. Marty snaps back into business mode.
‘So, how can I help you, Miss …?’
‘Finny. Only it’s Mrs. Finny.’ Marty springs to attention, scenarios galloping through his head like wild elephants.
‘You’re Minnie Finny?’
‘Minnie Jiwan. I don’t like to use my married name, for obvious reasons.’
‘Ah. Of course. I used to enjoy playing that game, you know? If you’re last name was Highwater, would you call your daughter Helen?’ He grins at her, waiting for a reaction. He doesn’t get one this time either. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Finny, I’m just a bit startled by your unexpected arriv—’
‘I’m sure you are. But now you’ve found me, so you get to keep your fee. All I want from you is to deliver a message to peckerhead.’ Marty is desperately trying to process this information: for example, he suspects peckerhead is Mr. Finny, but under the circumstances, he wants to be sure.
‘You mean … Newton?’
‘Please don’t say that name in my presence!’ She glances around the room, a tad perplexed. ‘Don’t you have a client chair for your clients?’ Marty looks unnecessarily around.
‘Um, I guess not. I should do something about that.’
‘Never mind, I’ll stand.’
‘Ah. Well then, I’ll stand too.’ He does. Minnie eyes him snootily.
‘Don’t be absurd. Sit.’ He does. ‘Now you’re probably wondering what the message is.’
‘That would be helpful if I’m to deliver it. Or, you could write it down, and I could slip it into his—’
‘Stop! I don’t want anything in writing that could possibly used against me in the court of public opinion. Just tell him that I and Dwight are taking off tonight, flying to a third-world country where he’ll never find me. Nor will you.’
She regards him judiciously. ‘Are you really who you say you are?’
‘Um, well … if you mean what the door says … Okay, look, I’m new at this. I used to be a writer, but then suddenly two men with guns burst through the door and everything changed.’
‘I see.’ She doesn’t. ‘Now, have you got it straight?
‘All right … you and Dwight … third world country … don’t look, never find … love, Minnie.’ Minnie gives him the blackest look he’s ever seen. He cringes. ‘Ah. Scratch the love, Minnie line?’
‘Obviously.’ She heads for the door, stops, turns. ‘I presume you’ve already been paid sufficiently for doing absolutely nothing.’ She goes out, not closing the door. Marty watches her through the open doorway, then closes it gently. As he moves back to his desk in a kind of stunned stagger, the door bursts open, and a short, stocky man with a pencil moustache and an Irish-style cap, wearing a yellow checkered sports jacket over grey flannel trousers enters, stops dead, and stands staring a Marty
‘Who the hell are you?’ Marty, near the end of his frayed rope, quivers visibly, chooses counter-aggression..
‘Oh yeah?! Who the hell are—wait! You’re PI Francis Sharpe … sorry … PI Frank Sharpe!
‘Yeah, but who—’
‘Shut up and listen. Minnie Finny—sorry, Minnie Jiwan-Finny—just left to get on a plane with Dwight to a third world country where nobody will ever find her. Especially Newton Finny. Deliver that message to your client—don’t add ‘Love, Minnie’ at the end—and collect your money. Oh, and if you see two weird-looking guys—one skinny with a rat face wearing a red bandana and an earring, the other fat wearing a green suit and porkpie hat—duck into an alley. They’re looking for you, and they’re armed, totally insane, and stupid, which is a bad combination. Oh, and don’t try to go after Minnie, she’ll charge you with kidnapping. Now get the hell out of here and LEAVE ME IN PEACE!!’
PI Frank Sharpe is too dumbfounded to speak. He backs toward the door, then stops. ‘Dwight who.’
‘I DON’T KNOW!’ Sharpe blinks a couple times, then turns and barrels out the door and down the hall. Marty slams the door, turns back into the room, and—can you believe it? There’s a laptop on his desk. The phone is gone. There are still books and papers scattered around, but they’re his! He’s back in his own office! He’s just Marty Zimmerman now! Tears spring to his eyes as he bolts across the room and hugs his chair, then lowers himself gingerly into it. He stares at his laptop screen, and begins to type. Feverishly. Suddenly stops, and looks out into the void.
Retired professional actor and playwright, now turning to writing short stories.