Written Off


Written Off by E.J. CoppermanIt was the way the grass had been mowed that made the difference for Duffy Madison.

He stopped dead in his tracks and shouted, “Here! Dig here! Now!
The six FBI agents scouring the field behind the convenience store halted in their tracks and pointed to the uniformed police officers, who were the ones holding the digging implements. The uniforms were quickly on the spot and began frantically planting their shovels in the precise spot where Duffy was pointing.

Almost immediately, Lt. Antonio was by his side. “What did you see?” she asked, breathless from rushing to Duffy.

“A difference in the pattern,” he answered. He turned toward the men, who had already dug down more than two feet. “Hurry, please!” he shouted. “She only has a minute and twenty seconds of air left!”

The officers did not look up but did seem to pick up the pace of their digging.

“What pattern?” Antonio asked.

“The pattern of the mowing,” Duffy told her, intent on watching the effort. “The grass was mowed within the past two days, and it has not rained since. Harold Magaden managed to replace the sod over the grave he dug, but he didn’t take the mowing pattern into account. The grass over this spot looks different. I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner. Oh, just let me,” he shouted, and grabbed a shovel from one of the officers, who deferred to him.

Duffy launched himself into the shallow grave and furiously clawed at the earth, making dirt fly everywhere. One especially vicious thrust flung soil onto Lt. Antonio, but she didn’t react other than to brush herself off.

“Forty seconds,” Duffy muttered. And then there was the sound of a shovel hitting something hard.

“Here!” he shouted. Duffy cleared off the edges of the makeshift coffin and leapt out of the hole, allowing the six officers to pull it up quickly. Within seconds the lid was off and there was the sound of someone gasping desperately for air.

Danielle Bancroft lay in the pine box with plastic insulation—really the bubble wrap that online shippers use in packaging—wrapped around her from her neck to her toes. As soon as she sucked in enough air to permit it, she began to sob.

Antonio took a step toward the sobbing girl, but Duffy grabbed her arm firmly and gently. “Let her cry,” he said. “She’s earned it.”

The End

I let out a long breath, as I always do after I finish a first draft. The novel was far from finished—there would be a rewrite starting tomorrow and then revisions once my editor Sol Rosterman had read it over and found all the inconsistencies I didn’t see and mistakes I’d swear I didn’t make—but the heavy lifting, the creating-something-from-nothing, was over. People compare writing a book to giving birth, and I don’t know about that, but while I’m sure writing is less painful physically, it usually takes months of exhaustive work, so there is a certain feeling of relief, coupled with crippling weariness and a type of postpartum depression. But that would take a little while to sink in.

Looking around my office, the former mudroom of the two-bedroom house I’d bought a year ago in Adamstown, New Jersey, I realized that this book might have taken a little bit more out of me than previous ones. There were papers everywhere, which wasn’t terribly unusual (remember the “paperless society” we were promised?), but there were also a couple of sweaters, unopened mail, three stress balls, copies of six books I’d been sure I wanted to read, information about a dinner in Manhattan I had once wanted to attend, and in one corner, a bottle of diet soda that I was fairly sure I’d opened in early spring. Today was July 21.

I’m not even going to begin telling you about the dust. It was depressing to think there were that many dead cells in the one room. I wondered how I had any live ones left.

So maybe the long breath was coming out more like a sigh.

“Paula!” I called out. Paula Sessions, my indispensable assistant, was in the next room, the second bedroom, which was her office. The fact that her office was larger than mine was my own fault: Paula had more office furniture than me and needed more room for filing and being efficient, which I was unquestionably not. Paula works only two days a week and regularly gets about six times as much done as I do. Someday, Paula is going to take over the world. Trust me, the world will be better for it.

She appeared in the doorway almost immediately. “What do you need, Rachel?” she asked.

“A good man, a bottle of champagne, and a month to prepare,” I said. “But I’ll settle for cookie dough ice cream.”

Paula’s eyes lit up. “It’s done?” she asked.

I nodded. “Time for our ritual. The first draft is finished, and we get to celebrate. And Paula, make it two scoops.”

“This was a tough one, huh?”

“It’s getting harder to find stuff for Duffy to do without repeating myself,” I admitted. The manuscript file on my MacBook represented the fifth Duffy Madison mystery. I loved Duffy and his world, but repetition was becoming my most feared nemesis.

“I’m sure it’s great,” Paula said. “You’re too hard on yourself.”

“Not as hard as Sol’s gonna be.”

“Sol loves your writing. You get this way every time you finish one.”

I spun my finger, pointed down, to indicate she should get moving. “That’s what the ice cream is for. It’s a restorative,” I told Paula.

“I’m off,” she said, turning in the doorway.

“I know, but I love you anyway.”

Paula didn’t even turn around. She had heard that joke more than once. I saw her recede into her office and heard her grab the keys off her desk. She’d be heading for the local ice cream shop, the Cold Cow, and be back in about a half hour.

I decided to take the time to begin—and it would be a rough estimate at best—straightening up my office. I got a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle of furniture polish from the kitchen and headed in feeling righteous.

That didn’t last long. I had barely cleaned off one shelf of books, with no new resting place for them in sight, when I had lost interest, thinking instead about how I’d started out to be a newspaper reporter and ended up writing mystery novels.

Graduating from William Paterson University in Wayne with a degree in print journalism had oddly not prepared me for the situation I found: Newspapers were being slaughtered by television news and especially Internet sources. I had one contact after spending a summer interning at the Record in Hackensack, and Jim Wolpert was anything but encouraging when I arranged to have lunch with him after graduation.

“Carve out a niche and get on the web,” he told me solemnly over “rippers,” deep-fried hot dogs found only at Rutt’s Hut in Clifton. “Newspapers won’t be here in twenty years. Hell, they might not be here in ten. You’re young. Don’t tie yourself to a dying industry.”

He did spring for our rippers, though, although he had to ask me for an extra single to make the tip.

I tried to take his advice and establish myself in one coverage area—a beat—to exploit on websites and managed to get some articles on women’s sports and real estate posted on New Jersey–based blogs. But the web wasn’t paying for content, so I ended up taking a job in corporate communications for a paint company in Montvale writing press releases about new colors and openings of new company-owned retail outlets.

I hated it.

The company itself was fine, but I wasn’t using any of the mental muscles I had hoped to exercise when I’d graduated college. I was, finally, six years out of school, living in a one-bedroom garden apartment, working in a job I didn’t like, without much of a social life. Occasionally, my friend Brian Coltrane—we are, believe me, just friends—and I would go out for a beer or two. I went to a lot of movies by myself. I didn’t really mind that so much; it was easier to concentrate on the film.

My parents had divorced when I was in high school. My mother was living in Denver, exploring her freedom in ways that she felt no compunction about describing to me on the phone once a week. My father was in Claremont, New York, near Woodstock, having given up his corporate job at a Wall Street firm to take up carpentry, which he did in a workshop he’d built in his barn.

My father had a barn.

He was the one who had turned me into a reader when I was little. My mother had always been more interested in television and music, but my father rarely spent his evenings joining her (perhaps a harbinger of things to come) and often told me that a good book “never steals hours away from you; it always helps make the hours feel like they were spent doing something special. It’s like you get extra time, Rachel—the hours you spend reading and the hours your mind spends in that place, that’s time that the author gives to you.”

Mostly, though, he read to me. When I was a tiny girl, it was Dr. Seuss—my favorite was The Lorax, who spoke for the trees. Later, he read me the adventure stories he loved like Kidnapped and The Three Musketeers. When I complained, at the age of six, that the girls in these books didn’t have much to do, he moved on to Ivanhoe, which I didn’t understand (and which was still all about some guy). Out of frustration, he took me to the local bookstore to pick out something for him to read to me at night.

I spent quite some time scouring the stacks in the children’s section and eventually picked out a book whose cover featured a blonde girl (I am not blonde but wanted to be at that age) and the word “secret,” which I could make out, having learned to read on my own by then.

Daddy looked the book over and nodded approvingly. “Nancy Drew,” he said. “She might be just the thing for you.”

As it turned out, The Secret of the Old Clock opened up a world to me, but in a very indirect way. I liked Nancy and I adored the idea of snooping around and uncovering secrets, but she seemed to live in a world that wasn’t really very much like the one I knew in northern New Jersey, decades after the book had been written. But I “read” three more Nancy Drew books with Daddy before I asked him if we could try another book. “One like that, but different,” I said.

And that was when I was introduced, through my father, to Encyclopedia Brown.

Even though Encyclopedia was a boy—there was nothing that could be done about that—he did always have at his side Sally Kimball, the girl who had tried to trick him but found out how smart Leroy (Encyclopedia’s real name) was and thereafter acted as his bodyguard. The girl rescued the boy—and he solved the problem with his brain! After Daddy explained what an “encyclopedia” was and why Leroy might want to use that as his nickname, I was hooked.

It started a love of mystery stories that had persisted from grade school into high school (when I discovered Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle) and then college (Robert B. Parker and Elizabeth Peters). Years out of college and alone in my apartment, I was reading Julia Spencer-Fleming when a story idea occurred to me out of nowhere.

The train of thought that led me to Duffy Madison was not a straight one; the tracks took many a turn and more than one switch was thrown along the way. Suffice it to say that I flashed on the idea of a consultant to the police, a very specific kind of genius who would be able to help when the authorities could not.