So I'm sitting at my desk and the doorbell rings.
First thing that happens is the dog goes berserk. Of course, our dog goes berserk when a doorbell rings on television and now that we can keep the windows open, pretty much anytime someone walks by the house, so that's not terribly unusual. I tell him to be quiet, he doesn't obey, and I walk to the door. We have our rituals.
After Gizmo finally shuts up I open the door and there stands a woman in her early-to-mid thirties, I'd say, although I'm a terrible judge of age in pretty much everybody, so for all I know she's 108 or 16. The door has a screen in it and I don't want to let the dog out to lick this person within an inch of her life, so I say, "Can I help you?" I mean it literally. I have no idea if I am capable of aiding this woman. Probably she wants to tell me about a political candidate (New Jersey's primaries are tomorrow and for the first time in decades at least one of them actually matters). Probably I want to get back to Words With Friends--hey, it has "Words" in the title, so it's part of my job--and would like to get rid of her ASAP.
"I'm Rachel Goldman," she says.
I chuckle involuntarily. "Sorry," I say. "I don't mean to be rude. I'm a mystery author, and my new book has a character named Rachel Goldman."
"I know," she says. "I'm her."
I'm so stunned I don't even mention the correct grammar would be, "I am she." Instead my erudite mind comes up with, "Huh?"
"I'm the character in your book. You wrote me. You created me. I don't know what to do.You have to help."
My head starts to hurt. Even Gizmo looks a little confused, but he's a beagle and that's how they look. "In the book, WRITTEN OFF, this is what happens to Rachel," I said. "Her main character, Duffy Madison, shows up at her door." (Actually he calls and then shows up at a book signing, but this is more concise.)
"Yeah," the woman says. "How meta can you get? Can I come in?"
This must be the weirdest campaign pitch in history, but it works; I let the woman into the house. "I'm not sure what it is you're trying to accomplish, Ms..."
"Goldman. Rachel Goldman. You should know. You named me." She sits on the armchair without asking, which is probably what the Rachel Goldman in WRITTEN OFF would do and... wait a minute.
"This is a joke, right?" I ask her. "Somebody who's read the book paid you to come here and pretend to be my character? You're very good, by the way. You must have really studied the book."
"I haven't read it," she answers.
That's what Duffy Madison tells Rachel in the book. This is getting weird. No. It's been weird since the beginning. Now it's getting eerie.
"Why are you here?" I ask. "You think you're the Rachel Goldman from my book, fine. Go be Rachel Goldman. Duffy comes to her because he's a consultant with the county prosecutor's office and he thinks she can help him solve a missing person case. Why did you come to me?"
She fixes me with a grin. I'm fixed now. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Gizmo thinks bad.
"The book hasn't even come out yet," the woman points out. "You don't know if people are going to buy it. I don't have any money. I need a place to stay. You got a spare room?"
I think about the room my daughter vacated to go teach in the Bronx. But she might be back in a few weeks, or not, and... Wait. "No," I tell this nut. "You can't stay here. You're wearing nice clothing. Your hair is well coiffed. You're carrying a purse. I'm thinking you got all that stuff somewhere."
She shrugs. "This is what the woman in your book would look like," she says. "I'm her. You didn't write her naked and broke. I'm saying you owe me. I carried a whole novel for you, now I need another week before the book comes out to get myself together. If enough people buy the thing, maybe I'll be super-successful and I'll be out of your hair. If not, well, you can always kill me off in the next one." Her eyes look straight at me like she's challenging me to think of the blood--or ink--on my hands if I decide Rachel (in the Mysterious Detective Mystery series) must die.
"What proof do you have? Anybody could show up at my door and say she came out of my book. How do I know--"
The doorbell rings and Gizmo loses it again. I hold up a defensive hand to tell "Rachel" I'll be right back and actually step outside the steel door and onto the stoop so I can talk to this new visitor without a beagle baying his brains out in my ear.
I bolt back inside and lock the door in his face. Something feels odd. I'm sweating and it's not that hot out. My mind is a little hazy. I shake my head violently to clear it. When I look up, a woman and her tween-age daughter are standing in my living room. "I'm Alison Kerby," she says. "This is my daughter Melissa. There are ghosts here."
Then I sit up in bed, just like in the movies. I look around the dark room and hear the hum of the air conditioner. My wife scuffles a bit on the other side of the bed but stays asleep. I lie back down because there's no one here to see I just woke up and sat bolt upright, making a fool of myself.
I really have to stop eating Raisinets before bed.
WRITTEN OFF, the first novel in the Mysterious Detective Mystery series, will be published by Crooked Lane Books next Tuesday, June 14. If you want to get this crazy woman out of my spare bedroom, I hope you'll pick up a copy. (It's also available for pre-order as an audiobook.)