I sat back from the computer and read over what I'd just written before I pressed save. Derek Streeter, my fictional detective, had just announced that he was ready to close in on the bad guy - or was it bad gal since in this case the killer was a woman? My business was words so I took a moment to think it over. 'Bad guy' seemed sort of unisex, but these days you had to be so careful about what might be considered offensive to somebody. I spent a bunch of time checking out the derivation of 'gal' and decided it sounded dated and was more likely to offend. I left it as guy and finally hit save.
It had been a long haul writing this book, but the end was finally in sight. There had been so much stopping and starting as I agonized over the words. The problem was the first book in the Derek Streeter series, The Girl with the Golden Throat, had been a nice success and I was worried the second one wouldn't measure up. I hated to admit that it had paralyzed me and my writing had become labored, like squeezing words out of a toothpaste tube or, said in a more colorful way, like having word constipation.
Not that mystery writing was likely to make me rich or even take care of that many bills. Only the superstars made the big bucks. That was why my real work was as a writer for hire. I wrote anything and everything as long as it was legal - that included love letters, promotional copy, food descriptions, wedding vows, celebrations of life for funerals, and more. I'd just finished a gig coming up with interesting names for paint colors where the names were more poetic than they were actually descriptive. It was about emotion rather than the shade. I came up with names like Twilight's Last Streaming for a soft pastel rose and Autumn Touch for a mellow yellow-gold. I did a lot of work with food places creating descriptions of menu items, ice-cream flavors and coffee blends. It was always an adventure since it got me into all kinds of interesting situations with all kinds of people. I also ran a writers' group out of my apartment. Every Tuesday night they gathered around my dining-room table and shared their pages along with bits of their lives.
The computer screen went dark and I pushed away from my desk. In a rush of inspiration, I'd taken my morning coffee and gone right to work on the mystery. I stopped writing as I had an appointment with a potential client and I was still in my sleepwear. It seemed like it was going to be a meet and greet to see if we hit it off. I wanted it to work out because it was a dream gig. It would mean that I'd have to put Derek Streeter on hold for a while since the client was looking for someone to assist her in writing her memoirs. I knew nothing about her besides her name, Maeve Winslow, and had no idea if she'd done anything noteworthy or if she was just longing to have someone create interesting word snapshots of her life.
I not only wanted the gig, but needed it, too. My only other writing job at the moment was creating love notes for a math professor. And who knew how long that would last? I usually required knowing about the obstacles and the people involved. But much as I'd tried to get information about who the notes were for, all he would tell me was that he and his wife had had a falling out and he was trying to get her back. I gathered that he was the one who did something wrong and whatever it was, it was pretty terrible - enough so she wouldn't even talk to him. Thanks to a previous client, I'd discovered that there was a responsibility to writing love letters. I certainly didn't want to help a stalker or someone out to deceive a person. Everything about Caleb's demeanor said he was neither, and I really needed the money.
He seemed too lost in his world of numbers to manage being a stalker and too awkward to pull off any sort of decep- tion. His plan was to send the notes I created attached to gifts. It seemed like a good plan to me. Who isn't going to read a note attached to a box of really good chocolates or flowers or cookies? He was willing to try just about anything. But so far, the notes and gifts had no effect. It felt like throwing spaghetti against the wall and none of it had stuck. I paused in my
thoughts, wondering if the spaghetti thing counted as a cliche?. I scolded myself for ruminating about cliche?s. True, I thought the meaning could be said in a fresher way, but fussing about cliche?s made me seem set in my way, old maidish - which wasn't really accurate since I had been married briefly a long time ago - and, worst of all, no fun. I really needed to be more of a whatever sort of person.
The point was that it wasn't going to go on forever with Caleb. Either the notes and gifts would get through to her or he'd realize it was a hopeless cause and give up. I was hoping at the very least that he'd finally tell me what he'd done to make her so upset that she shut off all communication.
Another reason I wanted the memoir gig was that Maeve lived a short walk away. I figured there would be numerous meetings and having her close by made it so much easier. For the moment, I was car-less, depending on public transportation with the occasional Uber or Lyft. The idea of being able to walk a block or so was a lot more appealing than all the time it would take up if I had to depend on trains or buses. I didn't want to jinx the deal and had avoided trying to do any research on her in advance of our meeting, which meant I was going in cold.
I took my coffee mug into the living room to get a look at the day. The window in my office looked out on the brick wall of the next building and it was hard to get a take on the weather. The living room was my favorite room in the apart- ment. It and the kitchen were the only rooms with a view that didn't involve the brick wall of the building next door. The bayed windows looked out on the tree-lined street and across to the other side to several other brick three-story walk-ups like mine. Already the leaves were looking a little wilted now that it was late September, but they still clung to the branches, keeping them from being the bare brown skeletons they'd be soon. Fall was my favorite time of year in Chicago. The hot humid days were over and the icy-cold days were still off in the future. For today, the sky was a bright blue, and when I opened the door to the balcony to check the temperature, it felt comfortably warm.
My smart watch vibrated on my wrist, reminding me of my upcoming appointment, and I hustled to get ready. I always tried to dress to suit the occasion. The point was for Maeve to feel at ease with me, which meant dressing too formally might put her off. But too casual might make me seem unpro- fessional. I went back to my bedroom and thumbed through my closet, choosing a paisley print tunic and black jeans outfit that seemed to hit a sweet spot in the middle. I'd add a silver necklace and some silver bracelets to finish it off.
I stuffed some samples of my work into my peacock blue messenger bag and slung it over my shoulder, wished myself luck and went out the door. I was on my way down the stairs when the second-floor apartment door opened and a toddler rushed out. I heard a voice from inside sounding a little panicky as she called for him to stop.
'Hey, Mikey, where are you headed?' I said laughing as I snagged the little boy just when his mother rushed through the door.
'Good timing,' Sara Wright said with relief, picking him up. 'His escaping has become my nightmare ever since Mikey learned how to open the door.' She looked at my messenger bag and picked up that I was wearing makeup. 'Where are you off to?'
Sara was my neighbor and my friend. We were about the same age, though at different places in our lives. I gave her the rundown of where I was headed and how much I wanted the job.
'I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you,' she said. 'Let me know how it goes.' She turned to go inside, muttering some- thing about needing to get some other kind of lock on the door.
It felt warmish when I first stepped outside but as soon as I reached the corner and turned on 57th a gust of wind hit me in the face and blew my breath away. The wind was coming off Lake Michigan and had a sharpness that made me wonder if I needed a jacket. Ah, Chicago weather - you honestly never knew what was around the corner.
Since I didn't have far to go, I braved the wind and kept on going. It was late morning, so the coffee shop on the corner was in that quiet spot between breakfast and lunch. Someone walked out of the cleaner's with an armload of clothes in plastic. I glanced in the window of University Foods which was so convenient and so pricey. Four joggers passed me seeming unbothered by the wind. They were wearing maroon T-shirts with the UChicago logo.
As I reached the corner, the hairdresser in University Styles looked out at me as I passed and smiled. Was she imagining what she'd do with my rather plain brown hair?
The wind abruptly stopped when I turned onto the side street, thanks to the Metra tracks. They were on a raised embankment and acted as a barrier. I took a moment to recover my breath and push the hair out of my face. I really did want this job, I thought, looking down the street, thinking again about the convenience. I might have thought it was bad luck to find out about the woman I was meeting, but I knew all about this two-block stretch of houses. It was like its own little community within the Hyde Park neighborhood. The street had been developed as a planned community in the 1880s, before Hyde Park was even part of Chicago. The Queen Anne and shingle-style homes had a view of the lake, since at that time the Metra tracks were level with the ground. They were called the Rosalie Villas after Rosalie Buckingham, who had been involved with the development until she went off to marry Harry Selfridge. They moved to London where he started the hugely successful Selfridges department store.
The information had come courtesy of one of my writers' group people. Tizzy was writing a time-travel novel; she was into the history of the neighborhood and was generous in sharing what she found out. I was curious to see the interior of Maeve's house. Would it have the charm it had been built with, or would the inside have been gutted and altered to go with the current fashion of making the common area into one big space.
I kept checking addresses and stopped in front of a Victorian- style house painted lavender with fish-scale siding. The covered front porch had a wicker settee decorated with a pumpkin surrounded by gourds and Indian corn in anticipation of Halloween. I glanced at the stained-glass strip above the top of the door as I felt my nerves kick in. This was it. It was
show time. I wished that I could be cool, calm and collected, but whenever I met a potential client I always got butterflies in my stomach. I gave the doorbell a push and looked in through the glass pane on the upper section of the outer door, putting on what I hoped was a friendly smile.
And then nothing. I was considering giving the bell another push, when a woman opened the inner door and eyed me with a blank expression.