The Character-Driven Story

Petifor set the full coffee cup down on his desk in the middle of twenty or thirty coffee cup rings. The cat did not move, until Baldwin edged the cat away with the back of his hand. The cat hissed, jumped off the desk, and ran to the litter box where he squatted and peed about three inches away from the box. Petifor rolled a piece of paper into the typewriter, took a sip of the coffee, and started typing.

***

Thunder cracked the early morning silence. Three cruisers and an unmarked car skidded to a stop in front of Baldwin Petifor’s home. No lights were on in the nine-bedroom mansion.

The police deployed around the grounds of the famous writer’s estate. Lightning lit up the swank Beverly Hills neighborhood. Detective Sam Smith knocked on the front door. “Mr. Petifor. Police. Open the door.”

Smith shined his flashlight through the glass door and its wrought iron bars. He could only see the handmade oriental rug, a runner, worth about nine thousand dollars retail. The detective clicked the radio button. “McKale, is your team in place?”

“Roger that, Smith.”

Smith hammered on the door again. “Mr. Petifor, open the door. We are here on a murder investigation.”

A small light, deep inside the mansion, flickered on. Footsteps approached. A tall man in a dark suit opened the door. “How can I help you, sir?”

“We’re here to talk to Mr. Petifor.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Petifor is indisposed at the moment.” The tall man looked down the driveway at the four vehicles.

“We need to talk to him concerning a very urgent matter.”

“This is his writing time, 5:00 am until noon. Perhaps you could return at 1:00 this afternoon.”

“There’s been a body found in the city pond, and we can’t wait; it’s getting cool.”

The tall man winced. “I will consult with Mr. Petifor. While you are waiting, please feel free to correct that last vague reference.” He turned quickly, and walked into the darkness.

“Vague reference?” Smith asked his partner.

***

“Mr. Petifor will see you now, sir.” The butler led the group down the long hallway to the study.

Smith spoke into his walkie-talkie. “We have entered the building.”

“Roger that.”

The study was the size of a small house. Paintings graced the walls, oriental rugs covered the floors. There were enough chairs to seat the detective and his team. Next to a Van Gogh painting hung a Pulitzer prize.

“What brings you here this early in the morning, detective?” said the fiftyish, some say ‘attractive’, rather fit and strong featured gentleman behind the desk.

“We’re sorry to intrude, Mr. Petifor. Where were you last night between the hours of two a.m. and three a.m.?”

“I was asleep in my bed. Why do you ask? “

“Can anyone verify that?”

“No. Has someone met with misfortune?”

Smith leaned forward in his chair. “As a matter of fact, they have. We’ve found a body in the city pond.”

“And you immediately thought of me because…?”

“He had a copy of your first novel in his coat. We checked his ID. He’s from Chicago. He’s a book reviewer.”

Detective Smith rose from his chair and approached Baldwin at his desk. “May I ask, Mr. Petifor, what is that spot of red on the back of your left hand?”

“Oh, that. I cut myself shaving this morning, and I must have wiped the blood off with the back of my hand, inadvertently.”

“Hmm.”

“But I thought you said you found a man drowned in the city pond, detective.”

“I didn’t say ‘drowned’, Mr. Petifor. Indeed, he was stabbed to death and found in the pond. Do you mind if we take a swab and…

Thunder cracked the early morning silence. Three cruisers and an unmarked car stopped abruptly in front of Baldwin Petifor’s home. No lights were on in the nine-bedroom mansion.

“Mr. Petifor, open the door. We are here on a murder investigation.”

A small light flickered on.

“How can I help you, sir?”

“We need to talk to Petifor about a very urgent matter.”

“Come this way.”

The detectives sat down in Baldwin’s study. “Where were you last night between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m.?

“I was asleep in my bed.”

Detective Smith approached Baldwin at his desk. He looked closely at Petifor’s hands. They were clean. Then he looked over at a letter opener resting next to a pile of envelopes. “I am curious, Mr. Petifor, as to the blood on this small weapon.”

“I’m not sure what to say, detective. I would not call it a weapon. My butler opens all of my mail. Frederick? There is blood on my letter opener. How did that get there?”

“I’m not sure, Mr. Petifor. As you know, I’ve been on vacation for the past week, so you would be…”

***

Thunder cracked the early morning silence. An unmarked car skidded to a stop in front of Baldwin Petifor’s home. A small light flickered inside the trailer house.

“Baldwin,” shouted Smith. He pounded on the aluminum door for the third time. “I know you’re in there. Open up.”

The door handle twisted and Baldwin shoved the door to open it, but it stuck. He kicked the lower part of the door, and the door gave way. “What the hell are you doing here this time of night?”

Detective Smith climbed the three metal steps, pushed his way into the trailer house, and then stumbled spread eagle onto the floor. The carpet was shag. It smelled of cat urine.

“You’ve been drinking.”

Smith rolled onto his side. “No shit, Baldwin. You would too, if I was jerking you around.”

“I’m jerking you around?”

“Yeah. You send me into your mansion, by the way, the mansion you don’t have. You write into the story a butler who graduated from some MFA program who corrects my dialogue, something about a ‘vague reference’, which were your words, by the by. And then I find a clue that implicates you in the murder, which you rewrite out of the story. I find another clue that you did it, and you deftly shift it over to Frederick the butler. By the way, that isn’t very original. “

“It’s my book, Smith.”

“I’m in it, Baldy.”

“You’re just a character.”

“Just a character? I’m just a character? Don’t you remember your first novel? I got you a thirty-thousand dollar advance.”

“Yeah, that lasted a long time.”

“You drank it up. And, oh yeah, the editor didn’t like my name, so you changed it to Smith.”

“He didn’t want you to be so prominent. That’s why we named your girlfriend Lolita.”

“When it comes to writing, Baldy, you’re quite the whore. I’m leaving. I hear Elmore Leonard has an opening.”

“Wait, wait, Smith. Calm down. What if I update your unmarked car to a Cadillac Escalade?”

“Nah.”

“Hybrid?”

“Nope.”

“How about a .762 mm H & K assault rifle.”

“I can get that one all over the internet.”

“You can get the automatic? Thirty rounds a second?”

“Well, no.”

“How about I bring in Lula, from Evanovich’s series?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have copyright problems with that.”

“I know Janet. She’ll let me.”

Smith turned onto his back and looked up at the ceiling.

“Okay. I’ll do it. On one condition.”

“What’s that.”

“You’re not going to agree.”

“Try me.”

“Here it is.” Smith tossed his empty beer can over his head and into the kitchen trash can.

“I’m all ears.”

“We need a new opening paragraph.”

***

Baldwin went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. He took out a few ice cubes and put them in his glass. He poured some gin, and added tonic water. When he returned to the living room, Detective Smith was no longer there. Petifor sat down in front of his typewriter. The paper in it read: “Thunder cracked the early morning silence.” He replaced it with a new sheet of paper.

***

Lolita was kissing Smith’s left earlobe when the call came in from headquarters. A body had been found in the city pond. It was that of the missing town alderman. The detective would need the help of someone experienced in the murder business. A perceptive weaver of words, a writer of mysteries, perhaps.

Thunder cracked the early morning silence. The Cadillac Escalade skidded to a stop in front of Baldwin Petifor’s home. No lights were on in the twelve-bedroom mansion.


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