It was a dark and stormy night.
Silas Slovotsky leaned back in his chair and studied the words he’d typed into his computer.
He grinned. Perfect. The very words he needed to set the scene. And they had the added benefit of being true. It was a dark and stormy night. Except for his porch light, of course. And the thunder and lightning—
He leaned forward and peered at the computer screen. Did the sentence seem a bit trite? Maybe he needed to spiffy it up. He opened his thesaurus to the word “dark” and ran a finger down the page. “Stygian”. That might work.
He cleared his computer screen and typed: It was a stygian night.
Nope. Didn’t have the euphoniousness of the original sentence. Perhaps if he reread what he’d already written he could figure out how to proceed.
He printed out the manuscript he’d been working on for the past four months and read the single page. Dark as Night by Jack Kemp.
A thrill ran up his spine. He could see it on the shelf in the bookstore. Kemp, King, Koontz. He’d chosen his pseudonym specifically so the reviewers could call them the unhallowed trinity. And he deserved the accolade.
A knock on the door startled him out of his dream.
Who could that be? His friends—all two of them—knew he didn’t like to be disturbed when he was writing.
He tiptoed to the door and peered through the spy hole. His heart pounded and his knees went weak. Cops!
With sweaty hands, he fumbled with the lock and slowly pulled open the door.
“I’m Officer Maddox,” the female cop said. She had shoulders like a linebacker and a face to match. “And this is Officer Fawcett. We won’t take much of your time. We have just a few questions. Do you know the woman next door?”
Silas swallowed, trying to summon enough saliva to moisten his voice box. “Yes. Jill Allenberg.”
“Do you talk to her, have any conversations with her?”
“We talk all the time.”
“She says hello, and I say hi.”
“No. Sometimes she says hi and I say hello.”
“Does she have any friends, family, anyone who visits her?”
“I’ve never seen anyone over there but Jill.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“Two days ago.”
Officer Fawcett, who seemed about half the weight of his partner, gave him a stern look. “You haven’t seen her since?”
“No. Why? Has something happened to her?”
“What is your name?” Officer Maddox asked.
Silas opened his mouth to say “Jack Kemp,” but “Thilath Thlovatthky” slithered out. His cheeks burned at the hated lisp that showed up when he was nervous.
“Where have you been the past couple of days?” Officer Fawcett asked.
Silas straightened his shoulders. “Here. Writing my novel.” He waited expectantly, but both cops managed to hide their awe and admiration behind hard stares.
“But you didn’t see Jill?” Officer Maddox asked.
“I never looked out my windows.”
“Thank you, sir. We’ll be in touch.”
The two cops swaggered down the sidewalk.
Silas blew out a breath, locked the deadbolt, then rushed to his computer to get it all down before he forgot the feeling.
It was a dark and stormy night.There was a knock on the door.
He hugged himself, barely able to contain his glee. Only a great author could pen such brilliant prose. These sentences told the whole story. The sinister ambience of the night. His weak-kneed trepidation at seeing the cops. The sweaty horror of the interrogation.
Now he needed to find out what happened to Jill, dash off the rest of the story, and send it to the publishers. If he kept his attention focused on the task, he knew he could finish the book in a month. Two at the most. Or three.
He placed his fingers on the keyboard and listened to the waning storm. The rain slanting against the window sounded like the tapping of typewriter keys, and the air smelled like—
Some hot chocolate sure would taste good. With marshmallows. No, with whipped cream.
He wandered into the kitchen, poured himself a glass of milk, grabbed a package of chocolate chip cookies, and went into the living room to watch television.
Silas woke to a bright morning so quiet he could hear his friends talking in the kitchen. They had stopped by to eat breakfast before work as they always did, but Silas felt that this was no ordinary day. What was different? It came to him in a rush—the cops, Jill Allenberg, his book.
He threw back the covers and launched himself upright. No way was he going to waste even a moment of this wonderful opportunity. Soon—oh, soon!—he’d realize his dream of being an important author. To the imagined sound of genteel applause as he accepted the Pulitzer Prize, he pulled on his clothes and bounded into the kitchen.
Skim, so called for his bluish-white skin, stood at the stove sliding a single sunny side up egg onto a yolk-encrusted plate.
Banjo, short for Benjamin Joseph, frowned at him. “Every morning you do the same thing—cook one egg at a time. You know you’re going to eat three eggs, so why can’t you cook them all at once like normal people?”
“They taste better this way. Besides, you make one piece of toast at a time.”
Though he usually found this exchange fascinating, Silas barely listened. He had more exciting things to think about, such as why the cops had asked about Jill. What had happened to her? He gasped. Maybe she’d been murdered!
Banjo looked up from buttering his toast. “What?”
Silas pulled himself to his full five feet eight and one-quarter inches. “My next door neighbor got murdered last night.”
“Murdered!” Skim said. “Way cool.”
Banjo shook his head. “Can’t have been. There’s no crime scene tape over there. No cops.”
Silas plopped onto a chair. “It’s hush-hush. Probably something to do with national security. I bet she was a spy and she infiltrated a terrorist cell and they found out and killed her.”
Banjo snorted. “Yeah right. Like I’m supposed to believe there are terrorists here in Loveland, Colorado.”
“Terrorists are everywhere,” Skim said. “They like to hide out in places where no one would ever think to look for them.”
Silas nodded. “That’s true. And the cops don’t want anyone to know what happened because they’re afraid someone would go over there and poke around and destroy evidence.”
Skim shoveled most of the egg into his mouth. “We wouldn’t.”
“Of course we wouldn’t,” Silas said. “I’m just saying . . .”
“How do you know all this?” Banjo asked.
“The cops were here last night. They really gave me the third degree.”
“Did they ask about the snowball?” Banjo elbowed Skim.
Skim laughed, spraying chunks of egg. “Yeah, did they ask about the snowball?”
“I was afraid that’s why they came,” Silas admitted, “so I was nervous at first. But they never brought it up. And anyway, it was an accident. I didn’t mean to hit that cop car. I was throwing the snowball at Skim.”
Banjo shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Don’t you think the statue of imitations has expired by now? It was twelve years ago.”
“Cops never forget and they never forgive,” Banjo intoned.
Silas sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Then he brightened. When he was a famous author, they wouldn’t dare put him in jail for such a silly offense. They’d be afraid of what he’d write about them. Maybe he’d write the story anyway.
But first . . .
He filled a bowl with Sugar Honey Maple Syrup Oat Flakes, added milk and artificial sweetener, and ate with his usual gusto.
Silas’s heart beat so furiously that it shook his entire body. Trying to keep his hand steady, he reached out and palmed the packet. Did anyone see? He looked to the right, to the left. He remained alone in the drugstore aisle. But what about video cameras? Had someone hidden in a back room seen him? If he hurried, maybe he could be halfway home before anyone raised an alarm.
He stood behind a woman so tall and broad that she blocked his view of the others in the checkout lane. What if a cop or a terrorist waited in line, too? No, he was being paranoid. Still, he needed to act nonchalant. He raised his gaze to the ceiling and whistled, but only a hiss came out.
The woman in front of him glanced over her shoulder, but he studiously kept his eyes focused on the ceiling. It’s a good thing he knew about being inconspicuous, otherwise she might think something was suspicious.
The line moved forward. The woman paid for her prescriptions, shot Silas one last glance, then headed for the door.
Silas took a surreptitious look around, put the packet on the counter and, with a forefinger, nudged it toward the checkout clerk. Did the boy give him a strange look? Maybe he thought it peculiar that Silas was buying bobby pins.
“They’re for my . . . my wife,” Silas said. “That’s it. They’re for my wife.”
“Two forty-five.” The clerk sounded bored, but Silas knew it was merely a pose.
He handed over the money, slid the bobby pins into his pocket, and strolled outside. Whew! He’d have to remember the sheer, nerve-wrangling terror of buying his lock-picking kit. That’s what readers wanted to know—how things felt. The emotion he put into his work made it great. And most people—most authors—didn’t have his ability.
He walked carefully to his car, feeling the stiffness of the package of bobby pins in his pocket and the responsibility of his rare talent on his shoulders.
Silas parked in front of the yellow clapboard house he inherited from his Great Aunt Maudie, then went inside and changed into black jeans and a black turtleneck. Since it was daytime, the clothes wouldn’t offer him invisibility, but if he was going to be a cat burglar, he had to dress the part.
Why did they call them cat burglars? he wondered. Probably because the burglars dressed in black like black cats. He nodded to himself and made a mental note to add the information to his book. Facts like that helped give a story the ring of truth.
He slipped out his front door, checked to make sure no one was around, then marched to Jill Allenberg’s bungalow. If you act like you belong, he told himself, no one will pay attention to you. He made a mental note to add that to his book. Wasn’t there something else he wanted to recall, something about cat burglars? No, of course not. With his steel-trap mind, he would have remembered. Once he made a mental note, he never forgot.
He paused in front of the house. What was he going to do? Oh, right—find out what happened to Jill.
He took the packet of bobby pins out of his pocket, extracted two, and straightened them. He stuck one in the keyhole, then the other, and jiggled. Nothing happened. He jiggled the pins again, and one got stuck. He tried to pull it out, tried to push it in farther, but it wouldn’t budge.
He studied the curtained window next to the door and remembered seeing a movie once where a guy used a rock to tap the corner of a window. A piece of the glass had broken off, leaving a neat hole just big enough for the guy to snake his arm through and open the door.
Silas looked around for a rock and found one the size of a football. He tapped a corner of the glass. The entire window collapsed, sounding like a rack of dishes breaking.
He froze. Had anyone heard?
When no one came to investigate, he reached a hand into the house and tried to open the door, but the knob didn’t turn. He felt around for the lock button on the knob and discovered it wasn’t pushed in. So the door was unlocked. So why couldn’t he open it? Maybe something blocked it.
He poked his head through the window opening. No, nothing there, just fragments of glass.
Damn it! He hadn’t come this far just to be shut out. He kicked the door, venting his frustration. It swung open. He smiled to himself. Brains was all it took.
Glass crunched beneath his shoes as he stepped into the house and surveyed the living room. A nubby brown couch, a brown- and green-striped easy chair, a coffee table, a floor lamp, a built-in bookshelf. The place looked tidy, as if someone had recently cleaned, and the throw pillows were neatly arranged along the back of the couch.
Silas tossed the pillows on the matted brown carpet, yanked the cushions off the couch and chair and heaved them on the floor, but he didn’t find anything. Not even any coins.
He looked around. Where else would someone have hidden a clue? He bounded to the bookshelves, grabbed a book, and leafed through the pages. A cheap romance, it looked well read. A name had been written in purple ink on the inside cover: ALISON CAMRY. An alias! So he was right. Jill really was a spy.
Excitement shuddered through him. His book was going to be so great. Spies murdered in Middle America by terrorists! Well, perhaps Colorado couldn’t be considered Middle America, but so what. Only the words mattered, not the truth.
He grabbed another well-used book, checked the inside cover. JOAN BLICK. How many aliases did the woman have? For all he knew, the name Jill Allenberg could be an alias, too. He riffled through the rest of the books and found two more names: JACKIE MEYER and KATHLEEN BROWNELL.
He frowned. Who should he tell? This discovery seemed to be something Homeland Security would be interested in, but how could he contact them? Maybe he wouldn’t need to. When he published the book, the authorities would contact him. The authorities. He rolled the word around in his mind, enjoying the sound. It seemed so . . . authoritative.
Kicking aside the books, Silas wandered into the bedroom. He dumped clothes out of drawers, yanked garments off hangars, pulled sheets and blankets off the bed. Nothing. He spared a nod of respect for the woman. She was good. Very good. If he didn’t know better, he’d think she was just an ordinary person leading an ordinary life.
Only one room left to search—the kitchen. Didn’t women bury valuables in the flour? But except for a set of cheap dishes and some glassware, an opened package of saltines and two cans of tomato soup, the cabinets were bare. No flour, no sugar, no salt. No place to hide anything.
The refrigerator contained a few cartons of yogurt, and the freezer a couple pints of ice cream. He grabbed a pint, rummaged in a drawer for a spoon, and ate the cookie dough ice cream while he ambled home.
It was a dark and stormy night.There was a knock on the door.The special agent carefully searched the spy’s house and
Silas stared at the words. They seemed too stark. Didn’t he need something else? Perhaps a “therefore”. If he used lots of therefores, it would give the impression he’d thought things through.
He added “therefore” after the “and” but it still didn’t look right. The problem was he had only the circumstantial evidence of the aliases to show that the woman was a spy. He needed proof. Something solid to base the story on. Maybe he’d given up his investigation too soon? His character, a special agent with blazing eyes when angry and a past so mysterious even the reader never finds out what it is—Silas chuckled to himself, thinking what a great twist that was—wouldn’t give up easily but would stick with the job until he’d uncovered the truth.
The sound of the doorbell yanked him out of his creative bliss. Who could that be? Maybe the authorities were contacting him already!
He pulled open the door. Two uniformed cops gazed at him with identical looks of disinterest on their square-jawed faces. Either the younger officer was a woman or too youthful to shave—not a shadow of a beard marred the smooth chin.
“Sir, we had a call about suspicious activity in the area,” the older cop said. “Did you see anything unusual?”
“Suspicious activity?” Silas breathed, forgetting his fear of the police in his excitement. Things kept getting better and better!
“Someone broke into the house next door and trashed the place,” the younger cop said.
Silas drew in a sharp breath. “Someone broke in next door? Who? Why? Am I next? Am I a target?” Maybe the terrorists had been watching him and had broken into the place after he left. He remembered how neat and clean the place had looked when he’d entered, so they had to have broken in right after he left. That must mean they knew who he was. More than ever he needed to write his book, make the story public. It was the only way he’d be safe from the terrorist organization.
The police officers thanked him for his time. Silas watched them stride down the sidewalk, then it hit him. He had his proof! There really were terrorists in Loveland.
The story he wanted to tell blossomed in his mind, and he could see every word, every nuance, every scene. Just like that, his book was completely written. All he needed to do was get it into the computer.
Time to celebrate!
He gathered his dirty clothes, bundled them into his car, and headed for The Watering Hole, a Laundromat with an ice cream parlor attached. He stuffed the garments in a washer, ordered a root beer float, then sat at a table empty but for a newspaper someone had left behind. He leafed through the paper. A name jumped out at him. Jill Allenberg. Struck by the similarity of the name with that of the murdered spy, he read the article. According to the reporter, Jill was a deadbeat mom, an ex-lawyer. Her househusband, who had put her through school and taken care of their daughter while she worked, had been granted custody of the girl, child support, and alimony. Irate at having been taken to the cleaners, Jill had quit her job and disappeared.
Hmmm, Silas thought. There could be a story in this.