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The doorbell rang, startling me even though I was expecting it. Bell was a misnomer. It sounded more like a buzzer or someone gargling under water. But it got the job done and I knew someone had arrived. I pressed the button that unlocked the downstairs door without using the intercom to check who it was. It was Tuesday, a little before seven, and I assumed it was someone from the writers' group a little early.

I opened my front door. 'Oh it's you,' I said, surprised by who stepped on to the third-floor landing. Not only was Tony Richards not part of the writers' group, but well, he stuck out like a . . . Before I could finish the thought I stopped, casti- gating myself for the cliche? even if only thinking it. As the leader of the writers' group, I was supposed to be better than that. The problem with cliche?s was they got the job done, as in Tony's case.

Maybe in the Lincoln Park or River North neighborhoods, Tony would have blended in. But here in Hyde Park, with the casual vibe of the University of Chicago, the black cashmere overcoat, gray slacks and black shoes without the hint of a scuff stood out. He had an overall polished look, expensively styled dark hair and skin with a hint of tan despite the fact it was the end of March.

'I'm sorry for not texting you. I remembered you said your writers' group met Tuesday evening,' he said, giving me a friendly smile. It was the kind of smile that could melt an iceberg and of course, I said it was fine and invited him in. Before I could shut the door, Ed Grimaldi came up the stairs and crossed the landing. He gave Tony a dismissive look as he walked around him and into my entrance hall. He was part of the writers' group and in stark contrast to Tony was dressed in track pants and an unzipped down jacket. No tan, no stylish haircut for his salt-and-pepper hair. He worked in maintenance at the university.

'New member?' he asked, turning to me. When I answered with a simple no, Ed shrugged and headed down the hall to the dining room where the group met.

A moment later, Tizzy Baxter came in as I was about to shut the door. She gave off such enthusiasm, it gave me more of a boost than a cup of coffee. She lived down the street and was fascinated by everything.

Daryl Sullivan pushed open the door and joined us in the entrance hall. She had a totally different vibe. As always she was dressed in a trendy outfit. The styles of clothes had gotten so crazy now it was hard to tell if she was wearing an eclectic mix of pieces or she'd run out of clean laundry. Her face was locked in a tense expression. That is until she noticed Tony. Both she and Tizzy did a double take when they saw him. It was an awkward moment and I wondered about introducing them, but decided not to.

'You can go on into my office,' I said to Tony. 'I'll be with you in a moment.'

He smiled at them and tipped his head, and they both melted. 'I'm sorry for interrupting,' he said. 'I don't want to keep you from your workshop.' Neither woman made a move to leave. He seemed completely at ease and kept smiling at them.

'So, are you a friend of Veronica's?' Tizzy asked.

'I like to think so,' he said, before introducing himself and letting them introduce themselves. 'Veronica is a wonderful help.' He glanced toward the frosted French door that led to my office. 'I really should go in there and take care of things.'

Before anyone made a move, there was a sharp knock at the door, and I let Ben Monroe in. He and Tony locked eyes for a moment. Though Ben was dressed in jeans and a long sleeve burnt orange T-shirt, his manner was all cop. Tony smiled and held out his hand as he introduced himself. Ben gave me a quizzical look, which I answered with an uncom- fortable smile before he reluctantly accepted the handshake and offered his name. Tizzy and Daryl seemed a little dis- appointed when Tony finally went through the frosted doors into the next room. 'You can go join Ed,' I said to the three, pointing down the long hall. I waited until they started to walk before going into my office. It was always nice to see Tony and I wanted to make sure he had what he needed. He might have implied that he was a friend, but he was actually a client.

Besides running the writers' group, I was a writer for hire. I'd write whatever someone needed. In the past I'd polished wedding vows and composed love letters, written promotional material for a dance gym along with descriptions of all the classes. On a sadder note I'd written material for funerals or, as I preferred to call them, celebrations of life. I could write just about anything for anybody except, it seemed, for myself. I'd written a successful mystery The Girl with the Golden Throat and was struggling with the sequel.

I'd had a flutter of notoriety after I actually solved a crime. But by now it had settled down, though it had gotten me a lot of local publicity for the kind of writing I did, which is how Tony had found me. He'd seen me interviewed on a PBS show devoted to unusual professions. The program had focused on the love letters I'd written.

Tony had hired me to write love letters and now love notes for him. Well, more correctly, as him. I chuckled inwardly at how Tizzy and Daryl had reacted to him. I couldn't blame them because I'd done the same. There was something about him. It was more than good looks. I'd tried to put my finger on it; the best I could come up with was that he had a magnetic smile and there was something about how he treated me that made me feel noticed and valued.

I was upset with myself for reacting to his charm. There wasn't an ethics organization for writers of love letters, but if there had been I was sure part of their rules would be that it was bad form to feel attracted to the clients. I was sure I wasn't his type anyway, though I knew almost nothing about his lady love, not even her name. He had me use terms of endearment like Dearest or My Love.

I'd been writing the letters for him for a couple of months, though I still didn't know much about him other than that he traveled a lot. After meeting him, it was hard to believe he needed any help in the romance department, but he'd explained that it had to do with all the time he spent away and he wanted his lady love to know he was thinking of her while he was gone. He said he wasn't much of a words man. That was the reason he needed the letters and notes. When I asked about the person the letters were going to, he'd been all charming and mysterious and given no details. At least I wanted an idea of what sort of tone he had in mind, but when I asked if he wanted something serious or cute, he just said to write something that I would like to hear.

I went into my office and opened a file on my computer. 'Here's what I've got,' I said, offering him the chair in front of the desk. He was reading over what was on the screen as he slid into the seat. 'I don't know what I'd do without you,' he said, turning to face me. 'This is great stuff. You have absolutely saved my life with her. It's made it so she doesn't make a fuss when I have to leave.'

'Glad it's helping,' I said with a smile. 'If you have what you need, I'll leave you to it.'

My arrangement was different than it had been with my other clients. Since he was on the move a lot, he always came to my place. I had what I'd written for him set up on my computer. I left him alone to make any changes he wanted and he printed up the final version on some stationery he kept there. He gave me a nod and I walked out into the entrance area near the front door.

Thanks to the design of the apartment, I could just hear the hum of the group's conversation. I'd heard the style described as either shotgun or train-car design. Personally, I thought train-car sounded more appealing. The living room went across the whole width of the place, with windows looking out on the tree-lined street. There was also a door to a balcony. My office had another set of French doors that opened into the living room. I often wondered what that room had been intended for when the building was built over one hundred years ago.

I started down the long hall to join the group, thinking that the hallway was the only part that seemed to resemble a train- car. There were doorways to two bedrooms, several closets and a bathroom before the hall ended at the dining room. Beyond it there was a butler's pantry, the kitchen and a small bedroom and tiny bathroom. It was a lot of space for one person. But it hadn't always been that way. There had been three of us for years when my parents were both alive. When my mother died, it had been my father and me. And when he died I became the sole inhabitant. Despite the age of the place, it was now a condominium, with a paid-off mortgage meaning I could get by on my writing jobs. Many of the other tenants in the building had turned their dining rooms into dens, but I'd kept mine for its original purpose, along with being a place to host the writers' group. The rectangular wood table sat in the middle of the room. A buffet filled with drawers that held things I didn't use like tablecloths and candles was against the wall. On the other side of the room was a bookcase with some books and a lot of pretty things I liked to look at. The couch seemed a little out of place, but it had been there forever.

'Who's the guy?' Ed said, dropping his voice slightly and gesturing toward the front of the apartment. The four of them were gathered around the cleared-off dining-room table which was already covered with their pages.

While I was thinking of how to answer, I heard footsteps coming down the hall. A moment later Tony stuck his head in the room. 'I have everything I need.' He held up a manila envelope. 'Everything looks great as always. You're a wonder at what you do.' I felt myself blushing. It wasn't just the compliment, it was the way Tony said it in full-on flirt mode.

'You're lucky to have her,' he said to the group. 'Sorry to interrupt; you can get on with what you're doing.' I went to get up to walk him to the door, but he assured me that he could let himself out.

'Wow, what a dreamboat,' Tizzy said. 'Sorry for the cliche?, and a dated one at that.' She rocked her head in regret. They all knew I had an aversion to cliche?s in writing and even in my own thoughts. I didn't have to say anything, and Tizzy went into substitute ways of describing Tony's attributes. 'He seems like the whole package: classy Cary Grant sort of demeanor but with some Brad Pitt thrown in. So what's he to you?'

'No fair,' Ed said. 'It's cheating to describe him in terms of other people.'

'That's only in writing,' Daryl said. 'I think Tizzy hit it on the head.'

'Thank you,' Tizzy said, smiling at Daryl and giving Ed a pointed nod. She'd taken off her outer jacket revealing a kimono-style covering made out of patches of different materi- als. She tended to gesture when she spoke and the sleeves fluttered with the movement. She turned back to me. 'Are you going to tell us who he is and what was he doing going in your office?'

'Whatever,' Ed said with an eye roll. 'Let's get down to why we're here. What Veronica does in her spare time is none of our business.'

'He's a client,' I said, hoping it would settle things. 'He's on the road a lot, so I let him use my computer and leave some stuff in my office.'

'I get it, you don't want to talk about him,' Tizzy said. She turned to the others. 'But she has another client I'm sure she'd be glad to talk about. As soon as I heard that Rex LaPorte was looking for someone to write descriptions for the menu and copy for their website, I told him Veronica was perfect. And he hired her.' Tizzy took a breath. 'I just love to help people.'

'I appreciate it,' I said. 'I'm looking forward to getting started.' LaPorte's Bakery and Cafe? was a neighborhood fixture.

'Their chocolate mint cake has been my kids' favorite since they were little. It's always my go-to for their birthdays. Any chance you can snag the recipe?' Tizzy asked.

'Do you really think they'd give me the recipe for their signature cake?' I said with a chuckle. 'It's about as likely as Colonel Sanders giving me his fried chicken spice list.'

'You're right. I wouldn't mind a piece of that cake right now with the buttercream icing,' Tizzy said.

'Enough about your cake fantasies,' Ed said. 'Can we just get to it? Some of us are anxious to get down to business because they actually have someone waiting to put their pages on their website.' Ed wrote stories about contestants on a fictitious dating show for a website. The kind of show where one guy had a choice of women. Ed liked to imagine them to be famous women. There was a lot of time spent in the Getting to Know You Suite. I was pretty sure that Ed modeled the guy on himself. His work had been pretty graphic and only recently had he started to make the characters a little more multidimensional. So, now there were fuller fleshed-out characters, still with a lot of flesh. Ed's head had gotten a little swollen from actually being published somewhere and I'd thought he was going to stop coming, thinking that he didn't need the feedback anymore, but we had gotten to be a tight-knit group and I think he felt adrift without coming to our weekly gatherings.

The writer was never allowed to read their own pages because it was more effective to hear somebody else reading their work. In Ed's case, it was always Ben who read his work. Ben was a cop and he was able to read the detailed descrip- tions of the meet-ups in the private suite in a flat voice as if he was reading a police report. When the rest of us had tried to read Ed's work, we'd been reduced to embarrassed laughter.

Ben and I had a friendship outside of the group, too. His sister was my downstairs neighbor and she'd initially gifted three months of workshops to Ben hoping it would give him an outlet from the pressure of being a cop. He worked in one of the suburbs - maybe not quite the mean streets of the city, but there were problems everywhere. Sara was hoping there'd be more to it than helping with his writing. She was doing her best to push us together. So far unsuccessfully. He was going through a very slow recovery from a divorce and wasn't ready for any new entanglements. I on the other hand might have been interested, but since he clearly wasn't, neither was I. I was not one of those people who seemed to only want someone who didn't want them. I was less complicated. I only wanted someone who wanted me.

Tizzy was practically a neighbor and I knew her outside the group. She was married with grown children and worked at the university in the business school. She was writing a time- travel romance that was heavy on history with just sweet G-rated romance thrown in. She'd gotten the opposite advice of Ed's. The group thought she needed to spice things up a bit between Campbell Jones, the guest at the Chicago World's Fair, and the very contemporary Lilith.

Tizzy had been close to being finished with her book and then had decided she wanted to revamp it. Ed read her pages. It was hard to focus on the words because he kept rolling his eyes at the hand-holding and kiss on the cheek that had gone on between Campbell and Lilith. 'Can't you put some tongue in it,' he said finally in exasperation.

'Not if he's going to kiss her on the cheek,' Ben said, and we all laughed at the image of Campbell licking Lilith's cheek.

'You know what I mean,' Ed said.

Daryl read Ben's work. He was working on a crime story with a cop as the main character. It was full of short sentences and terse dialogue. The group had prevailed on him to give the main character more emotion. He was making headway, but still had a long way to go.

'OK, I get it,' Ben said. 'You're not going to be happy until my character is crying about something.'

It was Tizzy's job to read Daryl's pages. She was the most difficult person in the group. She managed a trendy clothing store downtown, which was probably why she always had on an eye-catching mixture of clothes. She was too tense to say much when we made small talk and when it came time to read her work, she sucked in a breath loudly and I was always afraid she was going to forget to breathe out.

Tizzy presented Daryl's work. It all went fine until Daryl burst into tears.

'We didn't even say anything,' Ed said, putting his hands up in a hopeless gesture. Daryl was ultra-sensitive about any criticism. She got defensive if someone even brought up a misplaced comma. But if everyone gave her bland approval, she reacted too, saying that it wasn't helpful. As a result, they left it all up to me to give her comments.

This time it wasn't just worry about what anyone was going to say. It turned out she'd had a bad day at work, somehow getting in the middle of an argument between a mother and daughter who were customers in the store. We all tried to make her feel better.

I walked them all to the front when the time was up and saw them out the door. I knew it was done, but not over.

A New Writer for Hire Mystery
by Betty Hechtman

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