A Terminal Case
(c) 2001, 2021 Darin Miller
“I’m leaving, darling,” said Milton, pulling on a worn tweed jacket.
His wife, Anita, sat at a large antique mahogany desk, pecking away at the keyboard of their computer. Her long fingernails clicked in rapid bursts of speed; her attention focused completely on the monitor in front of her face.
“Darling,” repeated Milton.
Anita brushed an errant strand of auburn hair out of her face. “What?” she demanded.
“I’m leaving for work,” said Milton, adjusting his unfashionably thin tie before covering his balding head with a well-worn fedora.
Anita snorted and returned her attention to the computer terminal.
“Would you like me to bring something home for dinner?” he asked, picking up his bulky leather attaché and slinging it clumsily over his shoulder. “Janet’s off tonight.”
Anita’s fingers continued to peck away. Occasionally, her right hand would flash out like lightning, seeking the mouse, clicking away rapidly before rejoining the left on the keyboard.
Milton stood in silence for a moment, looking like a pathetic schoolboy who patiently awaited acknowledgement from his teacher. When it became clear Anita was not going to respond, he cleared his throat gently at first, then again more loudly.
“What do you want?” asked Anita sharply. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
“Sorry, dear,” said Milton, shifting from one foot to the other. “I just wondered if you might like me to bring supper when I return tonight.”
“Well, you damn well better,” said Anita, momentarily surrendering her attention. “I sure as hell ain’t whipping up a smorgasbord.”
“Do you have a preference?” asked Milton. Anita was already lost in the computer screen. Milton sighed quietly, picking his keys up from the sofa table. “I’ll call you before I head home. You can tell me what you want then.”
Anita didn’t look up. She was riveted to the computer. Milton silently crept from the room and left the house, locking the heavy wooden door behind him.
As soon as the latch clicked, Anita’s annoyed gaze fixed on the door. How in the world had she gotten herself into this mess? She had never been in love with this man. She was, however, very much in love with his money.
Milton Theodore Stempel III was a scientist by profession, a multi-millionaire by inheritance. He was forty-two years old and aging poorly, with the personality of a tree stump and looks to match. By comparison, Anita was thirty-four, vivacious and curvaceous, green-eyed and auburn-haired. She had no wealthy family who would someday shower her with a magnificent dowry—quite the opposite, in fact. Anita Nelson had been orphaned at the age of five, with no living relatives to claim her or save her from the state institutions and foster homes in which she had grown, and there had been many of them. Anita tended to make trouble wherever she went, and inevitably ended up back in the custody of the state. At the age of eighteen, she had taken a job at Burger Buster, up to her lovely arms in grease and animal parts on a daily basis.
It was at Burger Buster that she had met Milton two years ago. Milton was not the sort of man Anita usually dated. His hair was thin, his glasses were thick, his pencils safely protected by a plastic sleeve in the breast pocket of his ill-fitting dress shirt. Anita usually went for bodybuilders, troublemakers and thrill seekers. There was something about Milton that made Anita pause, however. Not that she found him attractive. Good Lord, no! But there was the unmistakable scent of cash surrounding the man. It certainly wasn’t the clothes he wore or the car he drove—a boxy, mud brown Volvo. In retrospect, Anita wasn’t sure what it was, but the man smelled of money so old the dinosaurs may well have used it to play poker.
When Milton had come in that Friday night two years ago, he hadn’t ordered his usual pickle and mustard sandwich. Instead, he had laid his head on the table, crying like a child.
“What’s wrong, Milton?” Anita had asked, working authentic-sounding concern into her voice. It was always about maximizing the tip.
“My parents,” Milton had finally managed. “They’re dead.”
“What?” Her hand flew up to cover her mouth as her eyes widened.
Milton had nodded emphatically, as if to assure Anita that his parents were, in fact, quite dead. “They were mauled by lions while touring Africa.”
And so, Anita had consoled Milton, flirted with him, teased him, and eventually asked him out for coffee. Milton was shy and inexperienced, unsure how to respond to this newfound attention. For a short while, Anita feared the man was gay, and she had been barking up the wrong tree the whole time. However, she had finally worn him down, experiencing the single most awkward physical encounter of her life.
During their dates, Anita had learned the particulars about Milton’s wealthy family, the Stempels. His mother and father had been grand explorers, traveling the globe and experiencing different cultures firsthand. Anita found the notion exciting (minus the lion attack, of course), but Milton had always found his parents to be eccentric. How two such free-spirited creatures could produce offspring so completely different was unimaginable to Anita.
Anita had never possessed any more money than it had taken to keep a roof over her head and food on her table—sometimes not even that much. What lay before her was a passport to a new lifestyle, even if Milton Theodore Stempel III didn’t currently live in a manner befitting his personal wealth. Anita would provide guidance, getting him out of his cracker box apartment and into a suitable house. If Milton wouldn’t spend his money, Anita would do it for him.
They had married after a short courtship, and Anita had set her plan in motion immediately. She had been eyeing the Patterson estate on Preston Ridge for some time. The sprawling manor had been on the market for months, empty and just waiting for new owners to move in. It had three levels and a basement, large rooms with high ceilings, and all of its antique mahogany furnishings were included in the purchase price. Anita had convinced Milton with very little difficulty to make the acquisition. He was so eager to please her; it made her plans all the easier to execute.
What Anita hadn’t counted on was her own growing impatience with Milton. The man was truly a maladroit, immersed in beakers and lab rats, test cases and control groups. He lived and breathed science, babbling enthusiastically about elaborate scientific theorems which skipped right over Anita’s head. There was no doubt the man was a genius, but who really cared about subatomic structures and nucleotides? Anita surely did not.
After about six months, Anita’s own personality shifted dramatically. No more would she pay rapt attention to the scientific ramblings of her wealthy husband. No more would she hide behind schoolgirl giggles at his inane attempts at humor. It was so difficult to fake enthusiasm for a man who more and more made her skin crawl. She had originally hoped it wouldn’t be so bad, consolation coming in the form of pretty packages and expensive gifts. She had pictured confining Milton to specific areas of the house and having the run of the rest, but Milton had refused to stay put, always wandering in during Anita’s favorite television programs to talk about his latest laboratory experiments. As if she cared. By their first-year anniversary, Anita had dropped all pretense of civility toward the man.
Anita’s original scheme had involved a divorce around the two-year mark, helping herself to half of Milton’s family fortune in the settlement, but an obstacle had been thrown in just prior to the wedding. Hayden Brock, long-time attorney for the Stempels, had come by Milton’s old apartment with a document for Anita to sign.
“What’s this?” she had asked, her pleasant smile faltering.
“It’s a prenuptial agreement,” the silver-haired lawyer had said, his eyes studying Anita’s face. “It’s fairly standard when there’s this much money involved.”
Anita had turned a wounded gaze to Milton. “Is this what you want?” she had asked, her voice trembling.
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it. Hayden, do we really have to mess with this nonsense?” Milton had asked.
“I’m afraid so, folks. In the event of your engagement, the requirement of a prenup is a stipulation of your parents’ will,” Hayden had said, laying the documents out neatly on Milton’s cluttered workspace. He turned to face Anita, his eyes cold and perceptive. “They just wanted to make sure some shark wouldn’t come along and try to take the family money.”
Milton had laughed while Anita held her breath. “Not my Anita. She would never do anything like that.”
“Of course not!” Anita had said, laughing half-heartedly and wincing slightly as Milton pulled her close.
Hayden’s pause was almost imperceptible. “Nevertheless, there’s nothing we can do about it but sign the appropriate paperwork.” He had slid the first form toward Anita and offered a pen.
“Should I have a lawyer read this?” Anita had asked, taking the pen and stalling while she tried to formulate a way around this little snafu.
“You can if you want to, but it’s pretty basic stuff. If you leave, you get what you brought with you and not one thing more. Is there a problem, Miss Nelson?” The lawyer had nearly licked his lips at the prospect of making Anita squirm.
“None whatsoever,” she had replied, signing her name with a flourish. “There’s no need worrying about what will never come to pass.” She had planted a sloppy wet kiss on Milton’s mouth. When she had finished, Milton’s ears were bright red and his expression was pure bliss, but the attorney had not been fooled. His disapproving gaze would have been hard to mistake.
And with that, Anita had signed away her opportunity to divorce Milton, provided she wanted to retain her financial stature—and she very much wanted to retain her financial stature.
In the meanwhile, Anita had insisted upon hiring help to maintain the grand old house. “Everyone else in this neighborhood has staff. I want a maid, too,” she had said petulantly.
Any other man might have pointed out that Anita had plenty of free time on her hands since she had quit her job immediately after the wedding, but Milton had merely been concerned that his treasured wife was unhappy. “Start interviewing at your leisure, dear. You’re here more often than I, so you should hire someone with whom you are comfortable.”
“Obviously,” Anita had said, rolling her eyes. “I want a maid who cooks, too. I’ve been cooking my whole damn life. It’s time to let someone else do it.”
“Whatever you think is best.”
“But I don’t want a live-in,” added Anita. “I’m not comfortable with the thought of someone thinking of my house as her own.”
“However you want it to be, dear.”
Janet Norris, a slight woman in her mid-thirties, had been hired shortly afterward. She came in every morning to fix breakfast and left shortly after dinner each night, taking Wednesdays off. She was a mousy woman, hard-working and easily intimidated. Anita remembered her type from high school, the type who faded into the wallpaper during school dances, afraid to express her own opinion about anything. Anita figured that Janet would give her another outlet through which she could vent her frustrations. Antagonizing her would be terribly fun, after all.
From that point, Anita’s day was entirely free from responsibility. She generally slept until eleven, then took a long, hot soak in the Jacuzzi before heading out to fill the trunk of her car with packages from the mall—not the crappy mall at Midtown, either. Anita preferred to do her shopping at the Pinnacle Square Mall, where the customers drove Lexuses and BMWs and the price of a single sweater could challenge a middle-class budget.
Still, shopping had gotten boring after a while. Anita longed to travel, but Milton would never leave his work long enough for that. Restlessness was setting in.
One day about three weeks earlier, Milton had come home bearing gifts. Anita was wary as he trundled back to the car to bring in box after box. The last gift he had spontaneously purchased was a collection of fossils embedded in a hunk of petrified wood, presumably to place on the mantel as a conversation piece. Anita had been horrified and ordered Milton to keep the hideous thing either in his workspace or down in the basement.
Milton had carried the final box in before stopping to wipe the perspiration from his brow.
“What is it?” Anita had asked suspiciously.
“It’s a PC,” Milton had said proudly.
“A computer, dear. I thought you might enjoy—”
“A computer? What in the world do I need with a computer?”
“Well, I thought you might enjoy surfing the internet. You wouldn’t believe the amount of reference material available. It’s simply staggering!” Milton had continued babbling, praising the technology as Anita stared skeptically.
Finally, she had said, “Do what you want. I might look at it later.”
Milton had assembled the computer, monitor, printer and scanner in no time, and soon, he was offering operational advice and demonstrating the equipment’s many features.
Anita was unimpressed. She could understand how a scientist might find a computer invaluable, but she didn’t see any reason she might use it.
“There are also online communities,” Milton had said, wrapping up his tutorial.
“Online communities? What, a bunch of eggheads trading recipes for anthrax?”
“Not at all, dear. They have online communities for every type of interest. Sports, entertainment—why, they even have communities to help single people meet each other. Quite a different spin on computer dating, wouldn’t you say?”
Anita’s interest level had heightened. “You’re kidding, right? People actually meet each other on the internet?”
“Oh, sure. It’s like having an electronic pen pal, and the best part is, you don’t have to wait for the postman to deliver.”
The thing most sorely lacking in Anita’s life was romance. She wanted the wealth and prestige that came with being Mrs. Milton Theodore Stempel III, but she also wanted heat and passion. These were things that Milton would never be able to provide.
“Isn’t that kind of dangerous?” she had asked. “You wouldn’t have any idea who you were dealing with.”
Milton had chuckled. “That’s half the point, dear. Anonymity. They have no more idea about you than you do about them.”
Anonymity. What a wonderful concept! Anita had never had many friends, mostly due to her lack of social graces. She was perceived as bossy (which she was), phony (which she also was) and manipulative (which she was again). The only person she had ever fooled was poor, sad Milton. The computer afforded her the opportunity to become someone else, someone whose facial expressions wouldn’t give everything away.
Anita had spent the next several days acquainting herself with the device, learning how to access the internet and participate in chat rooms. The computer quickly became a window into another world, where she could be anyone she wanted to be; single, teenaged, sex-starved—she could be male or female, for heaven’s sake! There were plenty of kinky people out there, she had quickly discovered, but soon she focused on public chat rooms geared toward lonely people of her own age group. There was nothing overtly sexual about the conversations. Mostly, they were the types of exchanges common between good friends, but since Anita had never had any good friends, she couldn’t be entirely certain. Her screen name was MZZ KITTY, and she never divulged any real details of her own life. She became so protective of this alternate persona that she shielded the screen from Milton’s eyes anytime he neared the desk. It wasn’t that Anita’s activity was incriminating, but it was like having someone stand over your shoulder while you read your mail. It was personal, dammit! Furthermore, half the fun of MZZ KITTY was the fact that she had never even heard of Milton Theodore Stempel III.
On this particular afternoon, Anita had been conversing with several of her regular chat partners when Milton had interrupted her. Now, as his Volvo buzzed away toward his research center downtown, Anita returned her attention to the computer terminal and her friends, PITA LOVIN RITA, LITL BLAKE and DIAMOND CLEO.
PITA LOVIN RITA:U STILL THERE, KITTY?
PITA LOVIN RITA:WHAT DO U THINK?
DIAMOND CLEO:I THINK U R MAKING IT UP
PITA LOVIN RITA:I DIDN’T ASK U
Anita had to scroll back through the conversation to see what she had missed. Apparently, PITA LOVIN RITA had heard about a friend who was stalked by someone she had met in a chat room.
MZZ KITTY:IF SHE’S DUMB ENOUGH TO GIVE HER ADDRESS...
PITA LOVIN RITA:I KNOW I WOULDN’T, BUT SHE WAS LONELY:-(
Anita was only just learning the abbreviations and various symbols associated with internet chatting. She had to think for a minute before remembering that this represented a sad face.
Suddenly, a chime sounded brightly through the computer’s speakers. A small square popped up, declaring a private instant message was available for MZZ KITTY. This is new, Anita thought. She had heard the terminology but had never actually received one. Her internet friends conversed as a group. This message was from a user named BIRDMAN. MZZ KITTY didn’t know any BIRDMAN.
BIRDMAN:CAN I ASK U A QUESTION?
MZZ KITTY:AS LONG AS U R NOT SELLING SUMTHING
BIRDMAN:NO SALE. IS IT TRUE THAT CURIOSITY KILLED MZZ KITTY?
Anita read and then reread the last line. Had she just been threatened? She didn’t know how to reply or if she even should.
The clever little chime sounded again.
BIRDMAN:GOD! THAT SOUNDED PSYCHO. WISH THERE WAS AN “UNDO” BUTTON ON THESE DAMNED INSTANT MESSAGE THINGS. I WAS TRYING TO BE CLEVER
Anita relaxed a little but wondered who in the hell BIRDMAN was and what he wanted. Cautiously, she typed her response.
MZZ KITTY:CLEVER ABOUT WHAT?
BIRDMAN:OK. ALREADY PUT MY FOOT IN IT. MIGHT AS WELL GO FOR BROKE. I’VE BEEN IN THE PUBLIC CHAT ROOMS WITH U SEVERAL TIMES. I’VE NEVER JOINED IN, JUST WATCHED. U R SO FUNNY. I LOVE TO READ YOUR CONVERSATIONS. I HOPE U R NOT OFFENDED. AS I TYPE, IT SEEMS KIND OF CREEPY AND SICK.
MZZ KITTY:Y DON’T U JOIN IN?
There was no response for some time, and Anita began to think that BIRDMAN had turned chicken. Anita was suspicious of this stranger, but remained intrigued, nevertheless. She was a smart woman. She wouldn’t fall victim to some internet prowler.
The chime sounded again.
BIRDMAN:I NEVER KNOW WHAT TO SAY. I WANT TO B FUNNY BUT AM NOT. (SEE FIRST QUESTION FOR PROOF)
MZZ KITTY:LOL :-)
Anita happily entered the abbreviation for “Laugh Out Loud” and as an afterthought, followed it by a smiley face. She had only recently learned the abbreviation and used it at every opportunity. The smiley face was inspired by PITA LOVIN RITA’s earlier use of the opposite symbol.
MZZ KITTY:BUT SEE, THAT WAS FUNNY!
BIRDMAN:IF U SAY SO
MZZ KITTY and BIRDMAN continued for the next half hour, exchanging quips, and asking little questions about each other. Anita found the mysterious messenger to be less suspicious and more intriguing with each passing line of text.
Anita awoke from her afternoon nap with a mischievous smile on her face. She had dreamed about BIRDMAN again. It didn’t matter that she had never laid eyes on the man. Her imagination was filling in all the blanks. He was tall, dark, mysterious—every cliché imaginable, but as provocative as one of the men on the covers of those trashy romance novels. Despite his earlier claims of being unfunny, Anita found him very witty and quite charming.
MZZ KITTY and BIRDMAN had developed a routine of chatting nightly at 7:00. They had been doing it for two weeks now, and Anita found herself looking forward to it more than any other event of the day. They had recently discovered they only lived thirty miles apart. It was amazing how two people so geographically close had found each other on a network that spanned the entire globe.
Realizing it was 6:45, Anita descended the stairs bouncing on her toes, nearly floating to the bottom. Milton had gone to work hours ago and was working on a big experiment. He expected to be late, and Anita realized she would have more time than usual to chat with BIRDMAN.
Her smile left her face as she rounded the corner to the study. Janet Norris sat on the padded window seat, her feet pulled up and a notebook propped on her knees. Pens and pencils stuck out randomly from within her mousy brown hair which was coiled atop her head. The girl was deep in thought.
Anita cleared her throat, and Janet jumped. “Just what are you doing?” Anita asked, her hands on her hips.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the girl squeaked. “I had done everything on the list. All I was waiting for was to serve you dinner before I was on my way. I’ve had so little time to do my writing—”
“So, you thought it was just fine and dandy for you to take up your hobby while you were on my clock?”
Janet tucked her notebook into a well-used book bag with trembling fingers. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t think you’d mind since I had done everything on the list.”
Anita sighed exaggeratedly. “Let’s be clear, Janet. When you are working for me, you are working for me—not writing your little stories. The list is what I need done before you leave. If you complete the list, you can grab the vacuum cleaner and sweep something. You could get busy in the garden. I had bulbs delivered. They need to be planted immediately.”
Janet’s eyes had drooped to the floor, and she cowered in the presence of her employer. “Um, okay. I didn’t know I was to do gardening.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Janet! Must you complain about every little thing? Milton and I are paying you good money for your services. Another girl I interviewed at the time we hired you had no problem with gardening or anything else we might need. Maybe I should pull my file and see if she’s still looking for a job,” threatened Anita.
“Oh no, ma’am! Please!” pleaded Janet. “I didn’t mean to make noise. It’s just that I’ve never done any planting before. I’m afraid I don’t know how.”
“What’s to know? You dig a hole, throw the bulb to the bottom, cover it, water it, voila! You’re done,” said Anita.
“What if I ruin them?” Janet’s tremulous tone suggested that she didn’t wish to be caught in the wrath of Anita Stempel should the plants die.
“Just go!” Anita shooed Janet away impatiently. It was 6:57. Time to get online.
MZZ KITTY:GOOD NEWS. RAT MAN WON’T BE HOME FOR QUITE A WHILE. WE CAN TALK LONGER.
MZZ KITTY and BIRDMAN had already discussed their respective spouses. Both were married and both were bored. BIRDMAN had discussed the inevitably of his divorce. MZZ KITTY wasn’t quite that committed yet.
BIRDMAN:I THINK IT’S TIME WE MEET.
Anita’s fingers froze. PITA LOVIN RITA’s story about her friend’s internet stalker floated to the forefront of Anita’s mind. Still, she was very tempted. Part of her wanted to know what BIRDMAN looked like, while the other part was afraid that her perfect illusion would be shattered beyond repair.
BIRDMAN:U STILL THERE?
MZZ KITTY:SORRY. I DON’T KNOW IF WE SHOULD MEET.
BIRDMAN:I UNDERSTAND. U DON’T REALLY KNOW ME FROM ADAM. TELL U WHAT. HOW BOUT I GIVE U INFORMATION ABOUT ME? U CAN CHECK ME OUT AND I’LL NEVER KNOW IT WAS U. THEN WE CAN MEET IF U WANT.
MZZ KITTY:WHAT KIND OF INFO?
BIRDMAN:MY NAME IS BOB DRANSDALE. I’M A RIDING INSTRUCTOR AT THE COUNTRY CLUB.
Anita made careful notes, capturing the information on a steno pad she kept by the keyboard.
That night, she tossed and turned, wondering what she should do next. Milton had come home close to midnight and was now snoring soundly beside her. He had attempted to engage her affection, but she had begged off with a headache.
Anita’s mind invariably wandered back to the steno book. Bob Dransdale. She could slip over to the country club tomorrow afternoon and see what he was like. She liked the thought of him on a horse. The image was so virile and exciting. Anita couldn’t even imagine Milton on a horse.
Still, what if he was an ogre? What if he had double chins? What if he turned out to be worse than Milton?
By morning, Anita had decided what to do. She realized she was falling in love with the fantasy of her internet pen pal. She needed to know if Bob Dransdale measured up. By his vocation, he wouldn’t be a wealthy man. That was the biggest disappointment in the scenario. Anita tried not to think about it much, but it was such a big factor. She may have never loved Milton, but she had certainly adapted to having his bank accounts at her disposal.
Anita drove her BMW convertible down State Route 10. With the top down and the warm summer air blowing through her hair, she drove toward the country club at a pace which would best be described as pensive. None of the other country club wives had cars as nice, but it truly didn’t seem to matter. Try as she might, Anita was never able to impress that lot. The Stempels had been long-standing club members for generations, but Anita had only been allowed in by virtue of her marriage to Milton. She was an outsider, and they wouldn’t let her forget it easily.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter all that much to Anita, either. She could come and go as she pleased, do whatever suited her fancy and leave whenever she wanted. She didn’t have to cozy up to the other women, forcing false attentiveness and fluttery little laughs. It was a relief, in fact.
Anita parked her car and headed directly to the rear of the large property. The stables were there, and Anita nearly ran in anticipation of finally seeing what BIRDMAN looked like. She slowed as she saw a group of three middle-aged women being guided out of the stable on sturdy, gentle horses. The man pulling the reins was undoubtedly Bob Dransdale. Anita stepped behind a large oak tree, not wanting to be seen. Other stablemen carried on about their business, but they didn’t seem to notice Anita’s presence.
Bob was ruggedly handsome, six foot three, two hundred twenty-five pounds, and a mane of jet-black hair that spilled slightly over his shoulders. Anita’s heart beat faster as the man turned and swung up nimbly into his saddle. She licked her lips as she watched him smile and encourage one of his students to move forward. He was every bit as attractive as Anita had hoped he might be—even more so. Should she run to him? Should she announce who she was?
For God’s sake, woman! Get a hold of yourself! You’re at the country club!
It was with true regret that Anita watched the group ride slowly out into the field. She then returned to her car, never bothering to go into the club itself. She had seen what she had come to see.
The next few nights, Anita dreamed of BIRDMAN, but now his romance novel image had been replaced by the face and body of Bob Dransdale. Although they had chatted in the interim, Anita had not yet told BIRDMAN she had come to see him. If she told him she’d seen him and she approved, he would surely want to meet immediately. Where could they meet? If she wasn’t careful, everyone in town would be talking about her affair, and as deep as Milton kept his head buried in the sand, even he would inevitably find out.
Anita felt trapped, unable to relinquish her claim on Milton’s money yet longing fiercely for the touch of her online companion. If only Milton would have an accident on the way to work, a drunken driver careening into his Volvo. Oh! Or maybe an accident at work, chemicals exploding when introduced to each other in the wrong proportions—but it would never happen. Milton was far too careful in the laboratory for that.
The next afternoon, BIRDMAN asked the inevitable.
BIRDMAN:SO, HAVE U CHECKED ME OUT?
BIRDMAN:WHEN SHALL WE MEET?
MZZ KITTY:IT’S NOT AS SIMPLE AS THAT. THERE’S A LOT AT STAKE.
BIRDMAN:LIKE MY HEART.
MZZ KITTY:DON’T GET ALL GOOEY. I’M TALKING CASH.
MZZ KITTY:NO U DON’T. LOTS OF CASH. IT WOULD BE SO MUCH EASIER IF MY HUSBAND HAD A HEART ATTACK.
There was no response for some time, and Anita feared that she might have scared her paramour away. When she re-read the lines, she saw the coldness of her words, yet they were truthful. There was no shame in being truthful.
BIRDMAN:HAVE U EVER THOUGHT OF HELPING HIM ALONG?
Anita’s breath caught in her chest. Was she reading correctly? Did BIRDMAN just propose murder?
MZZ KITTY:WHAT DO U SUGGEST?
BIRDMAN:I SUGGEST WE MEET.
MZZ KITTY:NO! NOT YET. HOW COULD WE HELP HIM ALONG?
There it was in electronic letters. She had officially opened the can of worms. There was no retrieving the question.
BIRDMAN:ANY NUMBER OF WAYS. POISON, A GUN, A KNIFE, STRANGULATION…WHICH DO U PREFER?
MZZ KITTY:I’D PREFER IT IF HE HAD A HEART ATTACK. I DON’T WANT TO SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE IN JAIL.
BIRDMAN:I’VE GOT AN IDEA, BUT U HAVE TO TELL ME WHO U R. I CAN’T HELP U IF I DON’T KNOW.
Anita hesitated. She was now to the point of no return. If she answered him, she would have committed herself completely to the grisly plan, whatever it might be. The dream of a future with Bob Dransdale by her side and Milton Stempel’s money in her pocket was powerful motivation.
MZZ KITTY:ANITA STEMPEL. MY HUSBAND IS MILTON.
BIRDMAN:WELL, ANITA, GLAD TO MEET U. HERE’S WHAT’S NEXT. I’M GOING TO SEND U A PACKAGE OF TULIP BULBS. BUT WHAT’S INSIDE WILL BE SOMETHING FOR U TO SHARE WITH MILTON. THREE DROPS IN A BEVERAGE. IT’S SLOW ACTING AND IMITATES THE SYMPTOMS OF A LETHAL HEART ATTACK. HE WILL HAVE BEEN AWAY FROM THE PLACE HE INGESTS THE TONIC FOR HOURS BY THE TIME IT TAKES EFFECT. GIVES U TIME TO DESTROY ANY EVIDENCE.
They signed off shortly afterward. Anita couldn’t believe she was even considering the plan, but the aftermath would be pure nirvana. The thought of growing old with Milton was repugnant, and the thought of being held in Bob Dransdale’s arms was hypnotic. Even then, Anita knew which choice she would make.
Two days later, as Anita was checking up on Janet, she spotted the girl prying open a box of tulip bulbs that had arrived in that afternoon’s mail.
“What are you doing?” Anita shrieked, crossing the room and seizing the package.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I had some extra time and thought I’d do some gardening, like you suggested. I saw these in the mail today, and—”
“And you opened my mail? That’s inexcusable, Janet, absolutely inexcusable!” Anita clutched the package to her breast like it was her own child.
Janet’s face deepened red, and she fumbled with her apology. “It didn’t occur to me that—I mean, I never thought you’d mind if—oh! I’m so sorry, Mrs. Stempel. It will never happen again!”
“You’re damn right it won’t! You’re fired!”
“Oh, please, ma’am! I was truly only trying to be helpful! Please don’t fire me!” Tears had formed in Janet’s big brown eyes.
Anita made her grovel for several more minutes before finally letting her off the hook. “All right then, Janet. I’ll give you this one last chance. But you had better understand that what comes to the house addressed to me is for my eyes only. Are we clear?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” Janet nearly bowed out of the room, dabbing at her eyes as she went.
The nosy fool! If she had opened the parcel, she would have known it didn’t contain tulip bulbs. If the police were at all suspicious after Milton passed away, Janet would have been able to tell them about the mysterious vial which arrived in the mail for Mrs. Stempel, masquerading itself as flowers. Anita’s pulse raced, and her temples throbbed with each heartbeat. She was so close to her goal, yet one innocent observation by a third party could have caused the whole plan to capsize.
At 7:00 that evening, Anita signed on to the internet. Milton had called to say he was in the middle of a laborious project and would be later than usual in getting home. That was fine with Anita. She didn’t want him to walk in while she plotted his murder onscreen.
BIRDMAN:DID U GET MY PRESENT?
MZZ KITTY:I DID.
BIRDMAN:WHEN R U GOING TO DO IT?
MZZ KITTY:SOON. HE GOES TO A CONVENTION ON THE EAST COAST NEXT WEEK. I’M DOING IT RIGHT BEFORE HE LEAVES FOR THE AIRPORT.
BIRDMAN:BRILLIANT! HE’LL BE HUNDREDS OF MILES AWAY WHEN THE MEDICINE DOES ITS MAGIC.
MZZ KITTY:THEN WE CAN MEET?
BIRDMAN:NOT RIGHT AWAY. IT WOULD LOOK SUSPICIOUS.
Anita knew that he was right, but her longing for Bob Dransdale was intense. Still, to have come this far, what harm would there be in waiting a month or two more?
MZZ KITTY:U R RIGHT.
BIRDMAN:NEXT WEEK IS STILL A WAY’S OFF. I’M WORRIED FOR U. WHAT IF HE FINDS THE VIAL? HE’S A SCIENTIST. HE’LL KNOW WHAT IT’S FOR.
MZZ KITTY:HE WON’T FIND IT, I’M CERTAIN.
BIRDMAN:DO U HAVE A GUN?
MZZ KITTY:WHATEVER FOR?
BIRDMAN:IF HE THINKS U R TRYING TO KILL HIM, HE MIGHT TURN VIOLENT.
Anita laughed at the thought. Milton was the least threatening man she had ever met, and she had met quite a few in her day.
MZZ KITTY:THAT’S RIDICULOUS.
BIRDMAN:JUST THINKING OF YOUR SAFETY, DARLING.
The days went by in slow motion, long afternoons stretching into longer evenings. It didn’t help that BIRDMAN was unavailable for chat three consecutive nights. He had a pressing family emergency and had to leave town. Anita spent her days criticizing Janet’s efforts around the house and her evenings listening to Milton theorize and hypothesize endlessly, about what she did not know—the words all ran together.
Nights were surprising. Anita’s wonderful dreams about Bob Dransdale had been supplanted by nightmares of Milton trying to kill her. In each dream, Anita had left the vial of poison on her desk by her computer terminal. Milton’s reaction was different in every iteration but equally horrifying. Sometimes he strangled her. Sometimes he stabbed her. Sometimes he shot her. Once he even doused her with gasoline and lit a match. She had woken up screaming with the smell of burning flesh in her nostrils. The benevolent Milton Theodore Stempel III had become an evil night stalker, seeking revenge in the most brutal ways.
After the fourth night of horrid dreams, Anita wandered into Milton’s study. He had never declared the room off-limits or shown any privacy concerns whatsoever. It was merely one of the areas to which Anita had tried to relegate the man. He collected little bits of this and that, wartime memorabilia, antique documents, and so forth. What Anita was interested in was his weapons collection. He didn’t have many pieces, just a few small handguns, several knives and a magnificent samurai sword. It was from the handguns that Anita made her selection, a small pearl-handled piece that could easily be concealed in her pocket. Milton kept the ammunition locked in a separate cabinet, but Anita had no trouble locating the key. She would feel much safer with the small pistol at her side.
Finally, the day had arrived. Milton had been fussing for hours, dragging his feet about what to pack in his suitcase. He hated to fly, and this flight would be a particularly lengthy one.
“I don’t know why they can’t all just fly here,” he groused.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Milton! You’ve flown a hundred times before. Don’t be such a baby,” said Anita.
“Wouldn’t you like me to run down to the village and pick you up some dinner? Janet’s out tonight, and you’ll be by yourself.”
“Quit stalling. I’ve got a frozen dinner in the freezer. I’m fine. You need to get yourself together. I’ll tell you what,” said Anita, her voice sweeter than it had been in quite some time. “I’m going to get you something to settle your stomach. You’ll feel so much better. All right?”
“Of course, darling. Anything you say.”
Anita’s smile broadened as she traveled down the hall. Her work was almost done. She went downstairs and retrieved the blue vial from the depths of her desk. The liquid inside was completely clear. Anita fixed an Alka-Seltzer and carefully placed three drops from the vial into the fizzy mixture. It blended seamlessly with the tonic.
She carried the glass upstairs as if it contained nitroglycerin. She didn’t want any of the liquid to spill out and onto the carpet. It would contain traces of the poison, and that kind of evidence could not be left behind. She would have to pay close attention to Milton, as well. If he spilled any of the liquid, she would need to see exactly where.
She needn’t have worried. Milton downed the Alka-Seltzer in one shot and belched perfunctorily.
“Thank you, dear,” he said, returning to his suitcase to fasten the straps. “I’m sorry to leave you alone like this. Are you sure you won’t go with me?”
“And listen to a roomful of scientists go on and on? I’d rather be dead,” said Anita.
Milton smiled and kissed Anita wetly on the cheek. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
The next time I see you, you’ll be dead, thought Anita.
At 7:00, Anita signed on to her computer.
MZZ KITTY:IT’S DONE. ALL WE HAVE TO DO IS WAIT.
BIRDMAN:R U SCARED?
And Anita truly was excited. She knew there’d be talk around the village of how Anita didn’t deserve the vast Stempel fortune, but she could live with that. She could nearly feel Bob Dransdale’s big arms around her, holding her tight.
After signing off with BIRDMAN, Anita collected a small paper bag from the corner of the desk. She and BIRDMAN had discussed what she should do with the contents of the bag. It contained the vial and drinking glass which Milton had used. Anita grabbed her car keys and trotted out to her BMW. It was after 10:00. Traffic would be nearly non-existent on Old Mill Road.
As Anita drove slowly along the gravel road, she remained alert for the headlights of oncoming cars. She hadn’t seen any for miles when she approached the section of road which skirted the quarry. The black waters of the quarry were very murky and very deep. Finding the bag in there would be like finding a needle in a haystack. She pulled off to the side and hurried out of the car, anxious to be done with the whole affair. She drew her arm back and threw straight and hard, sending the bag in a high arc that ended far away from the edge of the water. As soon as she heard the gratifying plunk, Anita raced back to her car and started the engine. She saw the faint pinpricks of headlights on the horizon and put her car in gear, pulling back out onto the roadway. She wanted to be back up to normal speed when she passed the other car.
Adrenaline was pounding again, and Anita almost expected the other car to be a police cruiser, but as the headlights finally drew upon her, she realized it was only an old beat-up farm truck. She laughed like a crazy woman, her hair whipping wildly in the night air. The coolness felt good against her bare arms, and with the top of the convertible down, she felt as though she were flying. Flying like a BIRDMAN.
The house seemed large and foreboding as she idled up the winding drive to park beside the mansion. It was the only drawback to a residence of this design. Anita hadn’t thought to leave lights on throughout the house, and goosebumps raced along her arms as she ascended the veranda stairs. Wind rustled the bushes around the portico, sounding like animals scrambling through the branches. Anita fumbled with the lock and then let herself in.
She could hear the steady ticking of the grandfather clock in the library. It resounded through the silence with exaggerated volume, setting Anita’s nerves on edge. Milton should have reacted to the poison by now. He should be laying cold and dead on a slab in some coroner’s office.
Anita wondered if she would appear appropriately upset when the police officers came to tell her the bad news. She figured they could come at any time. She would have to be prepared.
It was then that she heard a noise upstairs. It was a distinct thudding, like something heavy dropping from a shelf. Anita froze. She stood at the bottom of the stairs, peering up. A faint light shone from the end of the hall, casting its diminishing luminescence against the back wall. Anita had almost convinced herself she had imagined the sound when she saw a shadow move distinctly through the spillage of light.
Panic seized Anita’s throat, constricting her airflow and stifling her voice box. There was someone in the house with her! She felt in the pocket of her sweater and was relieved to find the gun still there. She tiptoed to the telephone in the foyer and dialed 911.
“Please, there’s someone in my house. Send the police immediately!” She banged the phone down without bothering to give her address. She had read about the sophisticated equipment of 911 operators. If the call weren’t originating from a cell phone, they could pinpoint the exact location within seconds.
With the gun emboldening her, Anita quietly ascended the long stairway to the second floor. She held the gun out front, leaving little room for debate as to her intentions. She felt violated. Someone had dared to breach the security of her private residence, and they would have to pay for it.
Once she reached the landing on the second floor, she could hear the steady rise and fall of her own breathing. She could see the shadow more clearly from here. It was moving back and forth within hers and Milton’s bedroom. Obviously searching for my jewelry or other valuables, thought Anita, her fury mounting. Of all the jewelry she had squeezed out of Milton, there was one garnet ring buried amongst it that was absolutely irreplaceable. It was a ring that had belonged to her birth mother, and it was all she had left of her.
She couldn’t wait for the police any longer. The prowler might have already found the garnet and stuffed it into his trouser pockets. She crossed the hallway and pushed the door open, keeping the gun extended in front of her.
“Don’t move or I’ll pull the trigger!” she shouted.
The intruder froze by the dresser, his back toward her. He began to turn slowly.
Anita continued, “If you make any funny moves, I’ll—”
Anita heard a loud snap from behind her in the hallway. A sharp pain registered between her shoulder blades as she began to lose muscular control. Her arm grew heavy, the gun sagging at her side. As her knees grew wobbly and her legs grew weak, she realized the intruder was Milton. He was observing her casually as she dropped to the carpet.
The investigating police officer was a short, round man named Taggert. He looked tired with dark bags folded into crescent moons under his eyes. He was substantially overweight, and his dark pants and yellowish dress shirt strained at various seams. His partner, an angular woman named Rogers, took notes with definitive strokes, her bony fingers holding a Bic ballpoint tightly in her grip. The ambulance had just left, taking Anita’s body away. Others circulated through the house, doing their jobs as unobtrusively as possible.
“Terrible tragedy, Mr. Stempel, just terrible. I’m sorry to ask, but the facts always tend to be more accurate if we gather them as quickly as possible after—well, you know. We responded to Mrs. Stempel’s 911 call. She obviously wasn’t expecting you to be here. If you would be so kind, start at the beginning and tell me what you know,” said Taggert, his voice gently coaxing.
Milton cleared his throat and dabbed at his eyes. His voice quavered with despair. “I was supposed to be at a science convention in New York for the next few days. Although the subject matter was intriguing, I am deathly afraid of flying. I’ve done it before, but I think I hate it worse with each trip. I simply couldn’t make myself get on the plane.”
“Didn’t your wife normally accompany you to these events?” asked Taggert.
“No,” he said quietly. “She didn’t care for conventions. She said it was just a bunch of boring old scientists going on and on about things in which she had no interest.”
“So, you came home?”
“Yes, eventually,” said Milton. “I have to admit, I was embarrassed by my own cowardice. I knew Anita would be disappointed in me, so I went to my laboratory downtown for a while.”
“I’ve confirmed that with the folks down at the lab,” interjected Rogers.
“When did you arrive at home?” asked Taggert.
“I’d say it was close to ten-thirty. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t paying much attention to the time. Anita’s car was gone, so I figured she had gone out to see friends. I carried my suitcase up to our room and started putting my things away. It was while I was doing this that Anita came in, her gun drawn. She must have thought I was a burglar,” said Milton, his voice breaking on the last word.
“How do you figure into this, Miss—Norris, is it?” asked Taggert, consulting notes he had made earlier. He turned to face the woman seated in a rocking chair, her knees pulled up to her chin, her eyes red and swollen.
Janet was barely intelligible, her words coming out in fragments punctuated by gut-wrenching sobs. Taggert conferred with one of the other men in the room, a kindly-faced doctor who administered a sedative to the woman. After several moments, her hysterics had subsided enough that she was able to respond.
“I’m the maid, but I was off-duty today,” Janet said. “I came back because I had left my book bag. I attend the university part-time. I have a composition due in English tomorrow morning, and I left my things here.”
“Okay, Miss Norris,” said Taggert. “What happened when you arrived?”
“It was unusually quiet in the house. Usually, Mrs. Stempel would have the television on or maybe the stereo, but it was completely quiet. It was unsettling. After a moment, I saw a shadow on the wall at the head of the stairs. I couldn’t tell who it was, but I could see the outline of the gun she was holding very clearly. I thought someone had broken in to kill Mrs. Stempel.”
“How did you happen to have your own gun?” asked Taggert.
“I have a permit,” said Janet. “My father made me start carrying one when I moved out on my own. We’re from the country, out where you can leave your doors unlocked and not worry about a thing. He’s convinced the city is filled with stalkers and rapists, even a small town like this. Oh, I wish I’d never listened to him!” Her tears overcame the sedative for a moment before she regained control.
“So, you shot her?” asked Taggert gently. “Why didn’t you ask her to stop where she was, identify herself?”
“I didn’t think there was time. Her gun was drawn, and I could see Mr. Stempel over her shoulder, directly in her line of fire. I was afraid if I hesitated, she would have shot Mr. Stempel. It wasn’t until after she fell that I realized it was Mrs. Stempel holding the gun. Oh, how can I live with this? I’ve killed another human being!” The sedative was useless by this point, and Janet returned to the quivering mass of jelly she had been when Taggert had begun questioning her.
Taggert mumbled something to Rogers and sent her on her way. He asked Milton to accompany him out into the hall.
“If we need any more information, Mr. Stempel, we’ll call, but I think we’re about done here. I’m going to have Dr. Adams take a look at Miss Norris, maybe leave her with something to settle her down.”
“She won’t be arrested, will she?” asked Milton. “She’s such a frail girl. She’s so upset about what has already happened. I think being arrested might seriously push her over the edge.”
“Oh, no, I doubt if the prosecutor will want to press charges. It’s pretty obvious that this was a tragic accident. I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. Stempel,” said Taggert, offering his hand. Milton shook it absently before wandering back into the bedroom. Poor man, thought Taggert. Completely devastated.
Dr. Adams wrote a prescription for Janet to help her get some rest, leaving a sample behind until the pharmaceutical could be filled. Everyone else eventually returned to the places from where they had come. Milton had offered one of the guest rooms to Janet, as the medication would make driving an automobile an unwise choice. She had retired while Taggert had collected his men.
Now that the big house was empty, Milton kicked his shoes off and wandered down to the study. He glanced at the desktop and placed his hand on the cool metal frame of the computer terminal.
“Coast’s clear!” he shouted.
Janet bounded down the stairs and threw herself into Milton’s arms. “I can’t believe it actually worked!” she cried.
“She would have never given me a divorce, you know,” said Milton.
“I know. She would never have given up the money,” said Janet.
“And how do I know that you’re not after my money?” asked Milton playfully.
Janet sighed and pulled him closer. “Because you just do. Besides, the money we’re going to make from our own talents will make your family fortune look like chump change.” Milton had suggested that he and Janet collaborate on a book of revolutionary scientific theorems, with Milton supplying the technical expertise and Janet supplying the turn of phrase. She worked magic with the written word, capable of taking a list of ingredients found on the back of toilet bowl cleaner and making it read like poetry. The combination of their talents would be powerful, indeed.
“Oh, darling,” said Milton. “I never knew how love felt until you started working here. I can’t believe I ever mistook what I had with Anita for love.”
“That’s all part of the past. We’ll have to wait a respectable amount of time before we can start seeing each other socially, but in the meanwhile, I’ll be here like normal to do the housework and keep you company. It won’t seem inappropriate at all,” said Janet.
“And we can retire BIRDMAN?” said Milton.
“We can retire BIRDMAN,” confirmed Janet. “I think he did his job quite well, considering that he was both you and I.”
The poison had been clear because it had been tap water. Milton had played on Anita’s insecurities to make her fear him and start carrying the gun. Even if she hadn’t pulled it out, Janet would have shot her anyway, and together they would have placed the gun in Anita’s cold dead hand. The rest of the story would have played out the same. There were a few elements which could have muddied up the works, such as if Anita had actually spoken to Bob Dransdale the afternoon she had gone out to the country club, but Milton had determined it was an acceptable risk. Anita had commented on various occasions that the women at the country club were gossip mongers, and it was doubtful that she would have blatantly exposed her intent to Bob Dransdale while she was on their turf. That was part of the reason Milton had selected Bob in the first place—that and his brooding good looks. Overall, Anita had taken her cues well, and there was no sense in worrying what might have gone wrong now. Milton and Janet would be happy together for the rest of their lives.
Their love was a terminal case.