On the Saturday night before Christmas, after the creative writing department holiday party, I showed up for the second time at a warehouse store on the outskirts of Detroit drunk on cheap scotch and self-righteous bullshit looking to buy supplies for a kidnapping. It was ten minutes until closing time and I was telling the wide checkout girl in the wide orange apron about my fictional dog.
“Got the bladder of a senile old man,” I said.
“Poor thing,” she said.
“The plastic is for the carpet, to protect it. Not to wrap his dead body in or anything. I didn’t kill him.”
The cashier frowned and kept her eyes on me as she scanned the plastic. I looked longingly behind the cashier at the self-scan checkout already closed for the evening, wishing I could have avoided this whole person-to-person aspect completely.
“Seems like later at night like this they’d want to keep the self-scan open and close up these manned stations,” I said, trying to change the subject.
“Well, Dominick, then I wouldn’t have a job. I like my job. My daughter likes my job.”
Shit. This was how it started at the party. Simple comment, botched context, swift descent into madness.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to…wait, how do you know my name?”
I had explicitly avoided using anything that could be traced back to me and had even passed up the 5% discount I could get as a rewards member to maintain my anonymity.
She pointed to my shirt and I looked down at the name tag everyone had been forced to wear at the party.
“What kind of dog did you say you had again?”
You’d think this would have set off alarms that maybe I was in over my head, but believe it or not, this was the smart part of my plan. Half an hour earlier I almost went through the same checkout occupied by the same checkout girl with a cart full of items—plastic sheets, rope, knives, and duct tape— that might as well have been packaged as a kidnapping value pack.
I’d thought about adding more items to make it all look less nefarious, but the last of my teaching stipend had gone to cover a bad night at the casino during a failed “research trip” for a heist novel I wanted to write. There was barely enough in my bank account to cover the essentials, so I put back everything except the plastic and initiated the charming commentary on my imaginary dog’s bladder adventures.
There wasn’t another flash of common sense until I stood outside The Professor’s back door, three 24-hour store visits later, holding the plastic under my arm while trying not to drop the knife or the rope. The element of surprise I’d been hoping for quickly turned to the element of boredom when The Professor still hadn’t returned home after almost half an hour. My adrenaline was starting to wear off and the booze was starting to set in, and if I waited too much longer I was afraid I’d fall asleep.
Then I remembered why I was there in the first place, why I drank cheap scotch instead of the 20 year-old Macallan that had been making the rounds.
The Professor—Parker Farmington, Adjunct Assistant Professor, MFA East Ass End of Nowhere U—had refused to sign off on my final novel project, jeopardizing my second chance fellowship in New York City. Without the fellowship I’d have no other choice but to work the midnight shift at some godforsaken truck stop along I-75, destined to be shot to death by an angry trucker or a skittish hooker, a box full of unfinished manuscripts and second rate online publications as my final legacy.
The only other place The Professor could be was Posey Wade’s house. She and The Professor had been flirting and touching the whole time at the party. Nobody was officially supposed to know they were together, but it was common knowledge in the department. Posey was one of the better writers in the workshop and we shared a passion for Michael Chabon and The Simpsons. I’d been to her house in the student ghetto near the campus a few times and was pretty sure I could find my way back, even buzzed. It was a neighborhood where one wouldn’t particularly stick out walking down the street carrying plastic and rope.
By the time I reached Posey’s house, I’d re-run my last encounter with The Professor at the party until my rage supplanted the alcohol-induced lethargy threatening to derail my plan. It started toward the end of the party during a conversation about movies, one of Farmington’s favorite topics as well as one of my own, and I was looking for a scrap of conversation that I hoped could turn into a discussion about my novel.
But The Professor quickly spun the conversation toward a short story I wrote that included a snippet of screenplay format to show a character reliving a painful experience. I made things worse by trying to defend myself and mentioning the story had gone on to be published in a respected crime fiction journal and shortlisted for—
“Respected online crime journal,” Farmington said.
“Like a whore with morals,” a slicing blonde literature professor said.
“Or a pedophile who tithes,” a lumpy black essay lecturer said.
Farmington then took the opportunity to bring the story up on one of the library computer with a giant monitor so everyone could see it and my accompanying author photo where I was holding an old-school Nintendo video gun with the cord dangling seductively from my mouth. It wasn’t long after that someone printed the story and began an impromptu live reading that devolved into a Rocky Horror Picture Show-style assault on every piece of the story.
Then the cheap scotch.
Then the trip to the home improvement store.
Then the cashier with the apron.
Then the dog.
My plan outside of Posey’s house was slightly more developed than the previous incarnation, but it was all for naught because the first person I saw was Posey Wade sitting in a hot tub and she told me Farmington was already gone.
“Did you need to see him about something?” She asked.
“Kidnapping,” I said. “Wait, no. I mean it’s about my thesis.”
“You have plastic, and what appears to be rope.”
“Why are you in a hot tub? It’s freezing out.”
“It’s invigorating; the mix of hot and cold. Also, I think one of the girls who lives here does a nude webcam to pay her rent and we sure as hell don’t want that inside the house.”
“Right. You wrote a story about that for workshop,” I said. “It would have made a great crime story.”
“Some of the other students, not me because I like you and your writing, they call you Murder Boy because you always kill people off in your stories, even the romantic ones.”
“You like me?”
If I’d had a tail, it would have been wagging then with eager thoughts of Posey’s approval of my life choices. Maybe she’d scratch my ears, or suck my—
“Sure. You have a great voice and your characters are always a riot. Your dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever heard.”
And then I felt as deflated as the bladder of the dog I’d made up earlier. I was drunk enough where the pee I felt running down my leg could have been literal rather than metaphorical.
“Oh, you like me as a writer.”
“I mean it’s not real dialogue, like how people speak in real life, but in real life people are boring and say ‘um’ a lot.”
“Were you in the hot tub with Professor Farmington?”
“Everybody knows you two are together. You should embrace it.”
“So he’s not here, then, right?”
“No. He screwed me then left me like he always does. Just once I want to stay over at his house. It’s a nice house.”
“I just came from there,” I said, holding up the plastic and the rope. “He won’t sign my thesis.”
“Are you still drunk from the party?”
“Sort of. I think there was something wacky in the punch.”
“You don’t look good. Come sit in here with me and relax.”
“You’re going to tattle on me, on what I was planning.”
“Come here. You really look like you could use—”
“I’m just frustrated. I wasn’t really going to do anything, and even if I wanted to I can’t pull something like that off. But he’s just such a…I mean since I’ve known him he’s always—”
“Are you crying?”
“This is my future he’s screwing with.”
“I’d come out and hug you or something for comfort,” Posey said, “but I don’t have any clothes on.”
“Ew,” I said. “Why are you naked in the porn tub?”
“I, uh, I tend to throw my clothes when I’m really getting into it.”
She pointed toward various pieces of clothing spread across the yard and in the tree next to the hot tub.
“Should I take off my clothes?” I asked.
“See, that’s why I like you. That sounds like something one of your characters would say.”
I laughed and stripped down to my boxer briefs, but paused before removing them. I’ve never been a prude and have what some may determine is a socially backward lack of shame in my body, but the last thing I needed was Farmington coming back and catching me naked in the hot tub with his girlfriend. I’d be forced to defend myself naked and whether I won or lost, it wouldn’t matter; this was my life with Parker Farmington. Even if I screwed his mistress, he’d still win and I’d be screwed
“Are you sure this okay? I mean will—”
“Come on already,” she said. “The heater’s on the fritz in here and the water is starting to cool off. I could use another body.”
If I really was going to be stuck in Detroit with a dead-end job for the rest of my life, this could be the last chance a naked woman would ever invite me into her hot tub without charging me. So I stripped off the underwear, shoved any thoughts of how many amateur porn stars had preceded me in the hot tub, and climbed in next to Posey. She reached over the side of the hot tub and came up with two cans of beer.
“Now let’s keep that buzz going while you tell me about this kidnapping plan of yours.”
I woke up the next morning still wet, but not in the hot tub. It took several minutes for my brain to reactivate from whatever shut it down and acclimate to its current surroundings. I soon realized I wasn’t back at my place and that the wet feeling probably had something to do with the guy standing over me with a spray bottle.
“I use it on the cats,” the man said. “They’re pretty dumb but this still gets them off the couch. But you…”
There was something about the voice I recognized, but I couldn’t quite place it. I tried to latch onto what I last remembered. The party, the home improvement store, oh yeah, the hot tub. There was a girl. Shit. This was probably her boyfriend. Wait. The girl was from my class. Oh shit. Her boyfriend was—
“Professor,” I said. “What are you doing here? I mean, wait, this isn’t your house is it?”
“There’s coffee in the kitchen. Your clothes are on the floor here next to you. They smell like vomit but I don’t think the washer here works.”
I sat up and felt around for my clothes, trying to figure out how to play this. But my head was barely ready to process standard movement and anti-vomit commands, let alone create complex scene reconstructions from the night before and place them in a context in which I’d be comfortable making my next move.
In fact, my brain only seemed to be able to focus on one task at a time and when pulling on my shirt and pants became the prime focus, the anti-vomit walls went down. I threw up all over the inside of my shirt, and while trying to remove the vomit shirt, the rest of my body gave up its fight against gravity and collapsed in a pile between Posey and Farmington. Posey squatted next to me and helped me squirm out of my vomit shirt.
“I was telling Parker about our conversation last night,” she said.
That didn’t have to mean anything. Posey and Farmington probably talked about a lot of things. They shared many of the same interests and some common acquaintances.
“I was telling him about your plan,” she continued.
“Really?” I asked. “Why would you do that?”
“It certainly impacts him, don’t you think?”
There was no way to know what Posey already told Farmington. In the sober light of day it was easier to believe Posey could be setting me up than it was that she was my new muse or possible wealthy patron. So maybe I should just say as little as possible and wait and see what happened. Yeah, that seemed like a good plan. And it worked until I got to the kitchen, looking for something starchy to help me regain my inner balance, and heard Posey talking.
“Go ahead and explain it to him. Maybe he has some ideas for better execution.”
That definitely sounded like she was setting me up, but all I could do was stumble along the conversational mine field until I figured out an escape route or blew myself up.
“I was drunk,” I said. “You say things when you’re drunk that—”
“You peed off most of your buzz by the time we ended up in bed. It was a good plan. Tell him.”
My head was starting to spin now. Confusion and panic were adding to my hangover and paranoia.
“What? Bed? Did we—”
“No. We watched TV and I kicked you to the couch when you kept snoring. Now tell him the plan.”
“That’s really not a good idea.”
“See, I told you,” Farmington said. “He’s all talk and bravado in workshop but when given a legitimate chance to do something with his work, he crumbles into a—”
“You really want to hear this?” I asked. “I don’t get it. What are you trying to do to me?”
“To you? I want to do this for you,” Posey said.
I took the insulated Disney princess mug of coffee Posey offered me and sat down at the kitchen table. The kitchen was the oldest part of an old house occupied mostly by students without the skill or desire to provide proper upkeep. The chair wobbled when I sat down and it was enough of a jolt to make me wonder if, instead of hung over, I was still drunk.
“Let’s say we do this,” I said. “How do you suggest we start?”
What was I even saying? Why would Farmington be part of his own kidnapping? They had to have an angle and damned if I couldn’t figure out what it was. I needed to get out of there and get my head clear and see if I could shake anything helpful loose on my own turf.
“I have to go to work,” Farmington finally said. “Maybe you two can—”
“Tell him about the first story,” Posey said. “The one you told me last night. You know, Murder Boy.”
“For the collection. You know. For your thesis.”
“Ohhhhhhh. My thesis. I thought you were talking about the other thing.”
The dominos were beginning to fall and I could feel clouds lifting from my head as the file drawers in my brain that had been knocked loose slid back into place. We were talking about writing, not kidnapping. Apparently at some point during the evening I had confessed to Posey my secret passion of wanting to do a short story collection instead of a novel for my thesis project along with my plans for a boozily plotted kidnapping scheme. Wait, had I just ruined the plan before I even knew what it was?
“What other thing?” Farmington asked.
“Nothing,” Posey said. “Like he said, he was drunk.”
“Yes, Drunk,” I said. “Drunk…”
“If we’re going to work together,” Farmington said to me. “You’re going to have to increase your verbal skills.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sure. Wait. Really? You want to work with me on this.”
“Make that your verbal and your listening skills.”
Farmington kissed Posey on his way out of the house and I sighed deeply and then Posey smacked the back of my head.
“What the fuck?” She said.
My head grazed the coffee cup in front of her, sending it rolling off the table and crashing to the floor, which added an extra layer of ringing in my head.
“You could have blown everything.”
“I wake up and the first thing I see is him standing over me with a water bottle?” I said. “Excuse me for being a bit off.”
“I was trying to help you and you almost got both of us—”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Do we really need to go through this again?”
“Last night. We had a long discussion about your goals and dreams. You cried a lot and threw up a bit. That’s when you told me about the story collection and how you hate writing books with plots and want to write little stories of character.”
“That sounds like something I would say…”
“And it sounds great. Great for you, because it’s just the sort of thing Parker likes and good for him because, between you and me, his career’s kind of in neutral and he could use an exciting book like this to generate some buzz for both of you.”
“So you’re out to help him, not me?”
“I’ve got to get to class, but—”
“Class isn’t in session is it? I thought we were done with classes. I hope I haven’t—”
“It’s one of those two week mini semesters. Part of it meets here and then part of it meets up at a ski lodge in Traverse City. Parker’s coming with me, so you two should get as much done as you can in the next day or so to set the foundation. Come back over here around five and I’ll make dinner for all of us and some wine and you two can work while I pack.”
They both then left me alone on the couch to deal with what had just happened. I was happy, until I started thinking more about it. Thinking has always been a weak point of mine. While my own hyper-self-awareness gave me my strength as a writer, it was a double-edged sword that routinely led to paralyzing panic. In this case it led to more vomiting. And then a shower.
I was at a table in the university library writing when Parker Farmington found me. Rather, I was doing what passed for writing in my special world. After typing a few words in the open document on my computer, I switched over to Twitter and tried to build my brand. It was a nice place for a socially backward guy who was good with words to build connections in the crime fiction community without creeping anyone out. I managed to ride the line between clever and offensive for a while before typing something stupid and deleting it. Then I typed a few more words before Googling recent book deals. I was always hoping to see a rash of books sort of like the one I was working on but not too similar so I wouldn’t be accused of piggybacking. I padded my total word count for the day with an inane dialogue sequence I was sure would later be deleted and was about to shut down my laptop when Farmington sat down across from me.
“The only reason I agreed to your inane little plan,” Farmington said, “is because I need Posey to keep her mouth shut about our relationship.”
“Because sleeping with your teaching assistant is creepy and against the rules even if you’re the same age?”
I thought about that for a second after I said it. We were all the same age, but Posey and I were stuck in neutral and stuck in Detroit while Parker was a prodigy just passing through.
“Because I’ve got something going that I don’t want stymied. She needs to think you and I are really working on this new project of yours.”
“Even though we won’t be.”
“But if you tell her we are and act like we are, I’ll try to get you an extension and maybe we’ll get your thesis signed and get you out of here next year.”
“If you would have signed my thesis form the first time around, I wouldn’t—”
“If I signed off on that literary swill we’d both be ruined.”
“What am I supposed to do for a whole goddam year? I have a fellowship in New York with money and a teaching job now.”
“Shhhhh. We’re in a library. I can maybe get you something in the writing center to hold you.”
“Maybe? Maybe? No maybe. Sign my fucking thesis or I’ll go to the Dean about you and Posey.”
“I’m a man of letters, a man of taste, a man of education,” Farmington said in a pompous voice as though he were addressing a jury. “How many times have you been on academic probation again?”
I knew he was right. While I’d been able to overcome the bulk of my personality issues that resulted in my spectacular flameout from a top-tier writing program, I still wasn’t a very good student and spent more time writing and reading what I wanted instead of what was assigned. But even if I couldn’t tell the Dean about Farmington’s relationship and get him fired, there was one other person I could tell. While complaining about how badly she wanted to have sex in Parker Farmington’s house and comforting me on my plummeting career prospects, Posey Wade also talked about her psychotic bounty hunter brother and how much he hated the men she was involved with.
If I could get Posey’s brother in the same room with Farmington, maybe we could strong arm Farmington into signing the thesis approval form.
“You’re smiling,” Farmington said. “It’s kind of creepy. Are you on board?”
“Yeah. Yes. Yes. I’m on board.”
My plan seemed simple enough: harness the rage of Posey Wade’s crazy bounty hunter brother to scare Farmington into signing my thesis approval form. But the more I thought about it, the more opportunity I saw to add insult to injury. I was also going to teach Farmington a lesson.
I envisioned dragging Farmington around to the nastiest parts of Detroit to show him the impact of crime on society. It would open his eyes beyond the little suburban realism stories he was so fond of. And a bounty hunter would give me the courage to visit some of the places I’d written about—or wanted to write about—but never felt safe enough to visit alone.
A quick Google search gave me an address for Wade Bail and Recovery in downtown Detroit across from the courthouse. It only took fifteen minutes to get down to the office, but after parking in a fenced off lot a couple blocks down the street, I sat in the car for another 30 minutes contemplating what I was about to do. It didn’t take long for it all to overwhelm me again, but instead of leaving, I pushed it to the back of my brain, dug into my storehouse of petty resentment, and loaded up on Hostess orange cupcakes and Red Bull.
Titus Wade’s office was unlocked and I entered feeling confident and lightheaded from the sugar rush. A door off to the side swung open and a hulking bald man stomped out, holding a bloody shirt to his forearm.
“Who are you?”
“Are you Titus Wade?”
“Get out of here,” the man said.
“If we could just talk for a minute, I’m kind of in a bad place and need help.”
Wade ignored me and went back out through the side door. I followed. It wasn’t a bathroom as I’d expected, rather a storage room with three safes and two file cabinets. There was a closed door I figured was a maintenance closet or link to another office, and an open door that led outside where I found Wade wiping down the inside of a large black pickup truck. My confidence in my plan was rapidly fading.
“I’m in a workshop with your sister; I’m a writer, and the professor hates me.”
Wade stopped wiping the truck and looked at me. I knew he hated Farmington as much as I did but I didn’t want to set him off yet.
“I need somebody to show him the nasty places in the city, scare him a little, but—”
“I find people, I chase people, and occasionally I shoot people—”
“Oh God, don’t shoot him.”
“If he owes you money, I can get it out of him for you,” Wade said. “If all you want me to do is drive him around town, then get yourself a goddam cab.”
I hung my shoulders in defeat, but didn’t move from my spot in front of Wade’s truck. I wasn’t selling my plan well enough. This is why I was a writer. I was never very good with words in person, but I could make them dance on the page. I could find just the right rhythm and combination and word choice to make even the most complicated idea or situation seem manageable. But Titus Wade didn’t seem like the sort of fellow who would read a note explaining why he should join me on a quest to capture his sister’s fornication partner. So I went with the skill of last resort: unfiltered rage.
“This guy is fucking your sister,” I said, “and he’s fucking with my career. We need to take him down.”
There was enough of a pause in Wade’s movement that I thought maybe I got to him. But the shields came almost immediately back up and he gave me the brush.
“Sorry,” Wade said. “Call me if you ever need bail.”
I left Wade’s office flipping between anger and depression. I’d swear and punch things, then cry a little and wonder if I’d be able to find anything interesting to write about while working as a fast food clerk. My pain threshold eventually exceeded my anger and I stopped punching things, but I couldn’t shake the depression. I’d spent the entire year focused only on getting my thesis finished and approved for the fellowship to New York. So much so that I neglected almost everything else in my life.
I let my car payments slide (I wouldn’t need a car in New York City), hadn’t paid rent in more than six months, (housing is included as part of the fellowship), allowed my cell phone to be disconnected (the only people who called were collection agents and my mother) and I’d neglected every personal and professional relationship once my letters of recommendations had been secured. The only person I had been more interested in than myself over the past year was Parker Farmington.
I tolerated his jokes, snide comments, the inane revision requests; I’d vaulted through every petty hoop Farmington had thrown in my path, all to please the only person who could stand in the way of my dream. Some of it had actually made my manuscript better, and early on we shared some nice conversations about our favorite crime writers, but as the year wore on and I talked more about New York, Farmington increased his intimidation and foolishness. It wasn’t much of a reach to suspect Farmington didn’t want my success interfering with his.
Now I was stuck in neutral in Detroit and couldn’t find any way to accept that. I tried rational discussion with Farmington, which neither of us seemed to have any skill for, and I was becoming increasingly convinced I would have to get Farmington’s signature onto that paper by force. Alone, it was an impossible task.
But Posey could be the key. If I could convince her that it was in Farmington’s best interest to sign off on my thesis she’d be the perfect partner. We’d talked enough about how torn she was between being a poet and following in her brother’s footsteps as a bounty hunter that I knew she had the skills and gravitas I lacked. I went back to her house but she wasn’t there, so I went to a McDonald’s near campus that had free Wi-Fi.
Since I’d stopped paying rent, my landlord had become aggressive about hunting me down. He was an old Italian guy whose office was right next to the only entrance to the building and he was always there watching ‘80s action movies on VHS. He particularly favored the work of Sylvester Stallone and I’d been able to negotiate a pretty sweet deal on my rent by giving him my copy of Over the Top, in which Stallone plays a truck driver turned competitive arm wrestler; that was the missing piece in his collection. A few weeks ago, in what I assume was an attempt to rebuild our connection, he mentioned he was heading to Philadelphia for a Rocky tour. I took advantage of his absence, loading everything I could into my car and never looking back.
I spent most of my time in the university literary magazine office using their showers and comfortable couches to survive. My erratic hours and routine sleepovers made me look like a dedicated editorial professional rather than a landlord-dodging hobo. But after my encounter earlier on campus with Farmington I wasn’t in any mood to risk a repeat confrontation, hence the trip to McDonald’s to email Posey. She was always checking her email on her phone and this was something that didn’t seem well-suited to a text message. I waited several minutes without a reply before the employees began giving me looks that suggested I either order something or go on my way. I was leaving when Posey snuck up behind me.
“Coffee,” she said “Black. Then let’s talk about your idea.”
I told Posey what I’d been up to during the first part of the day, from my conversation with Farmington at the library to my failed meeting with Titus. I told her I felt I had no other option than to kidnap Farmington and force him to sign the thesis approval form. When I was done, Posey kept her eyes focused on me without saying anything for several beats.
“My brother saw us once, you know, during…”
“I’m surprised Titus didn’t kill him,” I said.
“I don’t know. Just…after what you were talking about, with your plan—”
“A very poorly designed and barely executed plan.”
“You and I, we don’t have anything. So maybe you can just be a regular guy. Like a friend. And my brother can see I can be with a guy and not, you know—”
“It’s exhausting. Every guy. Every teacher, every fucking person I make contact with I’ve got to worry about what Titus will think. I’ve got to plan ahead and plot and scheme. It’s just getting to be too much.”
I nodded in agreement and wondered if I had enough change in my pocket to get a McChicken sandwich.
“But this can be the end of it,” she continued. “And it can help all of us: you, me, even Parker. I’ve been floating for so long, and now, maybe with a little kidnapping and some life-changing discussions we can both anchor him down in our futures.”
I really didn’t want to think of a future with Farmington in it. And despite a few heartfelt moments, I still didn’t trust Posey or her motives and could only see disaster for both of us. But what other choice did I have? My academic career was on the verge of collapse and I was not cut out for professional office life. I’d been locked once before into a boring job with a pregnant fiancée, thinking I’d lost my chance to chase my dream before a miscarriage and a rotten economy set me free. I wasn’t going to waste this second chance.
So I slugged the rest of my coffee back, held out my hand for Posey and said, “I can’t even attempt a kidnapping without getting disoriented and tired, but if you help me we might be able to—”
“There’s this guy I want you to meet,” she said. “His name is Rickard. He’s a security guard at the school and has helped me out a few times with Titus and shares your distaste for Parker. Kind of creepy and intense, but he has access to places we might need in the future. He’s good with weapons and stuff and…well, he’s kind of sweet.”
I nodded and mentally planned my victory celebration.
“I just texted him,” she said. “But it’s probably best if I’m not here when you talk to him. He’s…he’s easily…he’s skittish around me.”
“Whatever,” I said.
Twenty minutes after Posey left, Rickard still hadn’t shown up so I figured I’d been had and left. I stopped at the bathroom on the way out and that’s the last thing I remembered before blacking out.
* * *