Long Fiction

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THE PIZZAZ DEFICIT

A Mystery

Chapter Six

Scott Anderson couldn't wait to get to the foothills home of his mistress.  It struck him as funny that his most urgent need was to talk to her.  How many times, in his professional capacity, had he heard the words, "My wife doesn't understand me"?  But weren't women the ones who were supposed to crave talk?

He was driving too fast on the crazy curves and undulations that connected the narrow ridges on which Tucson's rich people built their homes.  What a lot of pricey houses, about five times as many as a low-wage town like Tucson could ever have given rise to.  This wasn't locally generated wealth.  These were homes of people who'd made their money elsewhere and who enjoyed spending it where it went farthest, enjoyed sitting on their patios of an evening and gazing down at the twinkling lights of the amazing urban sprawl that was Tucson.

Anderson's affair was in its second year, an affair of the mind as much as of the body.  They loved sex and loved to talk, before after and during that pleasure, but on this afternoon his priority was talk.

Connie had made her money as a stock broker in New York, more money than she'd ever figure out how to spend in Tucson.  She came to town for a golfing vacation and never went back to work.  "Work is overrated.  I've know so many people who've tried to make it their whole lives.  I did it to make money, and now that I have money I don't need it."

Anderson had responded, "So what do you do?"

"I have a big studio where I paint.  I write.  I golf.  I'm never bored or lonely.  And I do this to keep form having a bad conscience."

"This" was volunteering at the local food bank where she'd met Anderson and was talking with him on that first meeting with no apparent restraint.

"And what do you do?"  she asked as she passed him a cardboard box of canned goods for him to add the items on his station to it.

"I'm a minister."

She shrieked and grabbed his arm.  "Oh god!  And here I am prattling away.  I hope I haven't said anything filthy or disgusting or sacrilegious."

"Not at all."

"Or even naughty?"

"Not even that."

"I don't believe in religion."

"I certainly have my doubts about it."

"Mercy.  You look and sound so normal."

"Thank you."

"I'm sorry.  I'm just at a loss.  I've never been around ministers.  Are you the kind of minister who drinks alcohol?"

"You mean as part of the service?"

"No, generally."

"I am."

"Wonderful.  I'll buy you a drink after we've finished these boxes and you'll see that an agnostic can be a perfectly good person, even if she's not that swift at handling curve balls."

"I'm a curve ball?"

"You sure are, a minister filling food boxes with us lowly volunteers.  And out of uniform."

"I don't have a uniform."

"Not even a Roman collar?"

"Not even that."

"What about for Sunday?"

"Vestments?  I'll cop to that, but they're one-of-a-kind.  I designed them."

They finished boxing food for a small portion of Tucson's many poor families and went from drinks to dinner to bed as smoothly as ever it's been done in the movies.

Anderson was relieved to see Connie's bright green Jag in her drive.  The custom house on the finger of land was modest by foothill standards.  It reminded him of a castle with a moat, in this case the moat consisting of air instead of water.  The style of the house was nondescript southwest of one-story block construction with a red tile roof.  The saving graces were that the block was white and rough, making it look like ice, and the ice jutted out toward the driveway at strange angles suggesting an interior that would be much more interesting than the usual collection of rectangles.  The suggestion proved true: the only right angles in the large free-form rooms occurred where the walls met the floors.

The furniture was an odd mix of comfortable stuffed southwestern sofas and  chairs and severe glass and wrought iron tables.  There were some handsome Mexican chairs and other craft objects of wood that added another discordant note.

Far more consistent and conventional than the furnishings, the paintings and sculptures were all minimalist late 20th century, including some pieces that must, by Anderson's unschooled reckoning, be worth a fortune.  The first time he'd noticed a familiar signature on one of the paintings, familiar even to an art ignoramus like himself, he wondered what it would be like to own a work of art that was worth more than the house you were displaying it in.

Connie met him at the door with drinks in both hands.

When she asked, "How was your day?" they both laughed at the banality and went in.

There was no point in trying to summarize the crime story, even though Anderson really needed to talk about his family, Connie asked so many questions, and such good questions, that the whole telling began to acquire the rich texture of a tapestry.

"You really seem interested in this."

"Of course.  It's so strange.  I've never heard or even read anything like it."

"And what about my explanation?"

"Seems quite plausible."

"Why am I not just a megalomaniacal nincompoop?"

"You have a three-drawer file cabinet in your office."

"Yes."

"About how many files are in it?"

"I'd guess three hundred."

"One file on your desk on the Salvadorans.  Of your 300 files, how many are labeled 'Salvadorans'?"

"Just one."

"And where in the cabinet was it?"

"Under S."

"So it wasn't on top or anyplace where somebody would grab it first?  It was filed away under S?"

"Right."

"So if it's not the FBI trying to send you a message, there's a one-in-300 chance that that particular file winds up open on your desk."

"That's what I thought.  On the other hand, the FBI are grown-ups and this looks so damn childish, holes in the ceiling and all."

"Yeah.  A bit theatrical, even for the FBI.  Changing subjects, the sex consultant returns tomorrow?"

"Yes.  And I want to bounce some ideas off you I feel like I've got no right to."

"Because we're really just buddies."

"That's one way of putting it."

"But that's what buddies are for.  Seriously.  I bounce ideas off you when I want to, maybe nothing as heavy-duty as what I fear is coming."

"You don't mind?"

"Hell no.  I'm offended by the question."

"Great.  Okay, she comes home.  No fireworks for a couple days because she's horny and doesn't want...well, wants to focus on taking care of that."

"Are we trying to avoid the f-word?"

"It's my job.  I'm a minister."

"Okay, so after the big bangs?"

"I think she might pull the plug."

"Ask for a divorce?"

"She doesn't ask for things."

"So what's the problem?"

"The kids."

"Three lovely boys."

"I'm worried about them, what a divorce would do to them.  Are you sure you don't mind this?"

"I'm warning you."

"Okay.  They've already got problems.  The oldest one is turning into some kind of competitive monster.  He's only fifteen and all he can talk about is his career.  He's make friends with the physicists in the church so he can get an assistantship and a PhD in physics, which he's not really interested in, and start some science-based business because academic life is underpaid.  He's already got some kind of internship lined up in a physics lab in Chicago next summer.  I'm not saying this well.  The kid is driven, driven to success, which means money, and that's his one reality."

"Girlfriend?"

"Yes and no.  Girlfriend because she's available, but not a serious girlfriend because he doubts her long-term earning potential."

"How available?"

"I'm betting all the way."

"I love it.  If he's this twisted at fifteen, maybe he'll wake up by twenty."

"I never thought of that.  Are you saying that he could burn out on materialism and become a human being?"

"Sure.  Materialism is his native culture.  He's precocious.  He sucks it up precociously.  Maybe he'll spit it out precociously."

"See?  That's why I needed to talk to you.  Not being a parent, you've got perspective."

"Next?"

"The middle one.  He's got the opposite problem.  Can't get his ass in gear.  Can hardly get out of bed in the morning.  The good news is that he's got a good heart."

"The bad news?"

"He could actually be held back a grade."

Connie laughed.  "Darling, you silly goose!  You've got a 12-year-old with a heart and you're worried about that?  Where's your sense of priority?"

"No problem?"

"Only if he doesn't know where you stand.  Tell him you think he's great and tell him that you think school will sort itself out."

"Exactly.  That's what I need -- perspective."

"Next."

"The youngest.  There seems to be some gender confusion."

"Meaning?"

"He told me he wanted to be a girl."

"And?"

"For one thing, I didn't handle it very well."

"Go on."

"I hyped up how great it was to be a male."

"So next time hype up how great it is to be a female."

"You ought to be doing this for a living."

"I don't need a living.  I'm rich."

"But you can't deny that divorce really messes kids up."

"It does indeed."

"I don't think I'm going to be given a vote."

"My advice: If she wants something to keep it together, give it to her, even if it hurts."

"For the kids?"

"The studies are all showing that the 1950s 'for the kids' stuff was right on."

"You read the studies on it?"

"No.  I just hear them reported on the tube.  But they're all running in the same direction."

"Well buddy, you've really helped."

"What are friends for?  Now now about some music and dinner?  Or do you have to get back to the kids?"

"I've got an overnight sitter for them.  They think I'm doing good works in Phoenix."

"We're having a simple pepper steak dinner, but you've got a choice of music."

Connie walked to a little box recessed in a wall.  She opened a cover on hinges and poised her fingers over a key pad.

"Since we're having pepper steak, maybe we should have Chinese music."

"The Beijing Opera suit you?"

"I was kidding."

"I know, but I do happen to have it."

"I'd rather hear some funky old blues."

"Could you be a little more specific?"

"John Lee Hooker."

"Done."

The blues throbbed instantly throughout the house, magically transporting hardscrabble Mississippi onto an elegant bejeweled finger of a ridge in the Tucson foothills.

"If you know how to cook perfect rice, I'll let you cook your supper.  Mrs. Garcia made the pepper steak."

"It has to be perfect?"

"Yes.  I'm kind of picky about rice.  I'll do it if you can't."

"As a matter of fact I can."

Anderson  worked on the rice as Connie watched from a bar stool at a high kitchen counter and told him where to find things.  They ate at the kitchen table in companionable silence, savoring the food and music, but as soon as they finished Connie turned the music off.

"I'm afraid I have some bad news for you.  I didn't want to spoil dinner."
With that she gave him a business-size envelope that was addressed to her.  He opened it and found a typed note: "Tell your lover, Scott Anderson, that a member of his congregation will blow the whistle on him if he doesn't immediately start seeking another church.  Tell him he's no Forrest Church."

Anderson went white.  A sweat broke on his brow.  After a few minutes of staring at the note, he finally managed to croak, "This is terrible."

"I was afraid it would be."

"I'm gone.  There's nothing I can do against this."

"Some whiskey?"

"I guess.  Thanks."  He spoke in a vacant, defeated tone and felt faint.

"You look like you're about to keel over."

"That's how I feel."

She waited until he slammed his drink down.  "What's a Forrest Church?"

"Wow.  That helped.  I can feel my blood start to circulate again.  Forrest is a famous minister in our denomination who had an affair and his church kept him.  I think it was a historic first for the denomination."

"And his name was Church?"

"Yes.  Forrest Church."

"I wondered why she mentioned him specifically."

"She?"

"Just guessing."

"But you think a she?"

"I do but I don't know why."

"Forrest Church because she wants me to know that she's a member who knows the score, not some casual outsider."

"What now?"

"Now I'm fucked."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Hold on a second.  I'm completely disoriented."

"We've got all night."

"I'm completely fucked."

She took his hand and led him to the living room where she sat on a sofa and had him lie with his head in her lap.  Tears flowed down the sides of his head, wetting her fingers as she stroked his hair.

He startled her by starting to sing in a low voice with a western twang.  "I get tears in my ears as I lie on my back in my bed and I cry over you."

"Oh god."

In a mock prissy voice he said, "I'm making a spectacle of myself."

"If there's anything better than a man who can cry, it's a man who can cry and has a sense of humor."

"And at the same time."

"Yeah."

Anderson sat up.  "Let's go drink at the kitchen table."

"What are we drinking?"

"Whiskey, ice water back."

"JD?"

"Perfect."

When they were settled at the table again, Anderson said, "If I didn't feel so awful for myself, I'd feel bad about this being dumped on you."

"I appreciate the thought."

"Why would anyone want to do this to me?"

"Couldn't guess.  By the way, she said start looking for another church.  Suppose you did.  How the hell would she know that you did?  That's not something you'd ordinarily announce from the pulpit, is it?"

"Good point.  It means she's wired.  She must know somebody on the Ministerial Placement Committee."

"How does that work?"

"You call them up when you're fed up with your church and you want a new one, or in my case when some blackmailer is running you out of town.  They then start very discretely looking around for you.  This lady is letting me know that she's some kind of big shot who has connections in Boston."

"Boston?"

"Our denominational headquarters, like Rome for the Catholics."

"How many big shots like that have you got in your church?"

"I wouldn't think more than twenty or so of the female persuasion."

"Of those twenty is there a woman you've pissed off recently."

"Not one.  The lady big shots have been particularly supportive of late.  They really opened their purses for the last fund drive, actually broke a record.

"How many of your people have really old typewriters?"

"I see what you mean.  This is pre-electric even."

"And beaten up.  Some of the letters look almost muddy."

"Can I take the note?"

"Sure.  I've made a copy."

"Why?"

"When evidence of a crime passes through my hands, I like to make a copy.  You'd be amazed at what good stead that kept me in with the Securities and Exchange Commission."

"What crime?"

"Blackmail."

"Are you sure?"

"Close enough.  Blackmail, extortion, must be something like that."

"I wish I knew why she's picking on me."

"Adultery?"

"No chance.  We're dealing with a grown-up here."

"So what do you do?"

"I'm open to suggestions."

"I love that in a man."

"Me too."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but she seems to be saying that there's no particular hurry."

"I missed that part."

"Well, you don't find a new church and dump this one overnight, do you?"

"You're right.  It's very involved, usually takes at least three months."

"So if you got the process started and she somehow knew you had, you'd buy yourself a good piece of time at any rate."

"Time for what?"

"Maybe find out who she is.  Perhaps talk her out of it.  Maybe strangle her."

"Let me use your phone."

"Behind you."

Anderson reached around for the receiver and punched many numbers into the pad on its center.  "Hey Hal, Scott in Tucson...So-so.  You?...You still in Ministerial Placement?...Find me a nice rich church, will you?...No, they're doing okay.  Up ten percent, actually.  I'm just ready for new vistas...No comment on that, you dirty minded bastard, but officially it's new vistas..."  They chatted briefly and Anderson hung up.

"He guessed the problem?"

"Yes, but it doesn't count.  It's a standard ministers' joke."

"I'd never have guessed how ministers talk to each other."

"We go way back."

"So word will get out?"

"Not to the congregation at large, but to the big shots this kind of word gets out at the speed of light."

"Did the police want to know if you had an alibi?"

"The detective didn't ask."

"Strange."

"I thought so too, but I'm glad because I didn't."

"Where were you?"

"I was at home, which is very close to the church.  The kids were asleep.
Sue was out of town.  I could easily have gone over to the church and murdered somebody."

"Maybe I could give you an alibi if the need arose."

"I wouldn't let you do that."

"How gallant."

"Darn right."

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More to come.