The wasn’t any food on the table and the fridge was almost empty. John sighed. He knew his mother was disappointed in him but he didn’t think she would refuse to make him dinner altogether.
“You’re in your thirties. Sort yourself out.” John’s mother said to him when he phoned in. He had no other choice but to come home until he had enough money to find a new apartment. The previous landlord had kicked him out after three months of not paying rent. Regardless of what John said, the landlord knew he had no money to pay him and John knew this too. He had gotten fired from his job recently and was lucky enough to avoid a cease-and-desist. So far.
He walked out of the kitchen and into the living room. The grandfather clock showed it was 10 minutes before 11. His mother was most probably asleep in her room and even if she wasn’t, it was clear enough she didn’t want to talk to him at the moment. She had been giving him the silent treatment ever since he got here this evening. It had been several hours since then and he did nothing else but seclude himself in his old bedroom, locking the door so his mother wouldn’t come in and give him another lecture. Well, it worked.
Grabbing his jacket, keys, and a notepad and pen, John went outside. He wondered what could still be open at this hour. He contemplated on driving his car but everything was pretty much at a walking distance and this was a safe town. He grew up here with his older brother, their father passed away when they were in their teens and the mother never remarried. Simple life in a small town. Boring.
That was why John decided to become a journalist. He was tired of boring stories. What exciting thing could ever happen in a small town where nothing happens? It was already dull while he was growing up, surrounded by other kids to play with. Now it was just a town full of old people waiting to either die quietly in their homes, to be taken away by their children, or to be sent to the old folks’ home which was just a few streets away.
After a few minutes of walking, John finally reached the 7-Eleven. The bell rang as he swung the door open announcing his presence but no one even bat an eye. An instant noodle was the go-to meal -if you could call it that- so John wasted no time in buying one. He asked the cashier to pour hot water into the cup then sat at a small table with his dinner. While waiting for two minutes to go by, he pulled out the notepad and pen from his pocket. He looked around to see if there was anything worth writing was happening around him. There were two boys on their laptop, probably writing some college essays that would get them right out of this town. A man was walking up and down the snack isle, a truck driver stocking up his supplies from the looks of it. And then there was the cashier. Unsurprisingly nothing happened.
John thought about the last piece he wrote. It was about a screenwriter who had passed away three months ago ‘quietly in his sleep’, the newspaper wrote. But John had found it odd. He felt like there was more to it. Maybe it was his instinct as a journalist, a crime journalist to be more specific, but he was so sure there was more to the story. The screenwriter’s name was Michael Thompson. But that was about all the public knew about him. Not his face, his age, his family, nothing. The only point of contact to and from him was Wade Turner, his loyal assistant.
John had his eyes on Wade Turner. He found it fascinating how a screenwriter managed to stay anonymous despite his reputation. The first screenplay of his that was made into a movie came out in 2004. Since then he had success after success. Four of his movies were blockbusters, two of them had won awards and multiple more were constantly praised by the critics. He was a big name in Hollywood, but nobody knew who he was except for Wade Turner. Now, with that kind of success, you would think that Thompson was Wall Street rich. And you would think that Turner was paid a good amount of money as his personal assistant. But Turner had never worn an outfit that would cost any more than 50 dollars. Maybe even 20 if he shopped at Goodwill. Which he seemed to be doing. Granted, he never went anywhere that would require fancy clothes. Thompson and Turner avoided award shows at all costs. The only place you would see Turner was at press conferences for the promotion of Thompson’s movies and he would be there in his 20 dollars Goodwill clothes.
John had no doubt in his mind that Turner killed Thompson. Why wouldn’t he? His employer paid him very little, had strict rules about what he could and could not say, and by the looks of it, because of the circumstances Turner had never dated. He was a man in his 40s with no family and he was getting paid the minimal wage when he was actually working under a millionaire. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Nobody would know if he actually killed Thompson because nobody really knew who he was. But John caught up with his lies and exposed him in the newspaper.
Then he got fired and was threatened with a legal action for defamation of character.
His boss agreed to publish the piece but of course he didn’t want to take the heat. So, John had to take the fall all by himself. But that didn’t make him stop. He wanted to prove that he was right. There wasn’t a single doubt in his mind that Michael Thompson was killed by his assistant.
John snapped out of his thoughts when the bell rang. Someone had come in but John was too distracted to take a look. He realized he hadn’t touched his meal so he did just that, staring at the empty page of his notepad in silence. Everything happened three months ago, and now he wasn’t so sure about pursuing his story anymore. He still believed he was right, but he started to think that the risk was not worth the price. He was already unemployed and living with his mother. He didn’t know how much else he could lose.
But that was until he saw the person who walked in. He was wearing a faded green jacket with equally faded jeans, with a pudgy face but sharp eyes. John could not forget those eyes if he tried. The eyes of a cold-blooded murderer. He couldn’t believe his luck that he had to laugh. Wade Turner was 10 feet away from him!
John wanted to get up and wrestle him to the ground, hold him down till he confessed. But no, that wouldn’t be smart. He didn’t even watch Turner for too long. John’s face was on the newspaper. Someone as bitter as Turner would have his enemy’s face memorized. So he looked the other way and strained his ears to listen to the conversation between Turner and the cashier.
“Can I get that pack of gum?” Turner asked.
“Sure, Wade. It’s on me.” The cashier said. John noted that he called Turner by his first name.
“Ah! Just let me pay for it. And here’s some tip for you, I know your mama needs the money.”
They know each other. This is jackpot! Wade Turner isn’t just passing through the town, he lives here. John could not believe his luck. He didn’t even have to follow Turner home to know which house he lived in. He could just ask his mother. Small town folks know everything about each other. He just had to warm her into talking to him.
Finally, something worth writing was happening in this town.
The next morning John woke up early and went to the grocery store as soon as it opened. When he got home, his mother was still in her room. She was most probably awake but still refusing to talk to him. John didn’t even try to be quiet in the kitchen, in fact that would’ve defeated the whole purpose, so he made such a ruckus cooking up their breakfast. A simple meal of eggs and bacon, nothing complicated, but his mother would’ve been amused nonetheless. She always thought him useless except for when it comes to writing.
His mother came out of her room while John was doing the dishes. He tried to hide his smile and stifled from celebrating his victory too soon. Instead, he calmly took a seat in front of his mother and pour himself his second cup of coffee. “Ma, did someone move here recently?”
“Why’d you care about this town? You barely visited since you moved out.” She picked up a strip of crispy bacon and put it in her mouth.
That’s good. She’s annoyed, but not so angry that she’d refuse the meal. “I thought I saw Wade Turner at 7-Eleven last night.”
“Why are you interested in him?”
“You never read the articles I wrote, did you?”
She waved her hand dismissively at him, chewing down her food. “L.A. news don’t usually make their way here. Besides, we only read whatever local newspapers available at the store.”
John couldn’t help but feel impressed. Turner must have done his research. In a small town on the other side of the country where most of the people here were above 50 years of age and they only cared about local news, this was the perfect hiding place. Turner didn’t have to worry about paparazzi or tabloid reporters. He could live freely. But John bet that Turner did not expect him to be here. What would be the odds of that happening, right?
“A famous writer in Hollywood. He just retired all of sudden.” John lied. There was no need to explain the whole situation to his mother. She looked at him with a raised brow as if saying ‘and that’s interesting because?’ “Just wondering if he lives in a three-story house or something.”
His mother smiled. “Close enough. Two. It’s right down the next street. Nothing too fancy, I guess. You said he was famous?” John nodded. “Eh, sure didn’t seem like it.”
Came noon, John went out on a walk. His mission was to take a look at the house. He sure couldn’t drive his car because that would raise even more alarm than a man taking a stroll in the neighbourhood. It took his less than 10 minutes to find the house with ‘Wade Turner’ engraved on a plague by the gate. His mother was right, the house was nothing of the remarkable sort. Except maybe for the gate. No one in this neighbourhood really had a gate.
John didn’t notice this yet because he was too deep in his thoughts and his eyes were scanning the lawn but a man was standing at the front door, looking straight at him. The man was wearing his usual faded cloths, his hands in his pockets, waiting for the visitor to notice him. And when he did, they made eye contact. The visitor was visibly shocked but he didn’t make an effort to walk away. Either he knew it was too late, or he just had poor eyesight.
John knew it was too late to turn around. Turner saw him. At this time, he could only think of any possible excuse he could give to the person he publicly accused of murder in the paper. While his brain was working to build a coherent sentence, Turner was already walking down the steps towards the gate.
Turner open the gate. “Your mother mentioned on the phone that you might swing by for lunch, John Anderson. Come in.”
“My mother? Why would she tell you that?”
“Well, we’re neighbours. And she said you mentioned my name during breakfast.”
His heart sunk to his stomach. He miscalculated. John realized that Wade Turner didn’t choose this town because nobody would recognize him. He moved here precisely because he wanted John to find him. “If you dare lay a finger on my mother, I swear-”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, John! You’re a crime journalist, not a tabloid writer. Use your head.” Turner turned around and headed back to his door, only stopping once he realized John wasn’t following him. He sighed silently to himself before raising his voice loud enough so John could hear him. “Are you joining me for lunch or what?”
Defeated and ever-so intrigued, John followed Turner into his home. The first thing he noted was the decoration. Again, nothing too flashy but everything looked tasteful. The designs were old but they were high-quality. Despite their look, John figured they still costed a fortune.
Turner noticed how John was gawking at the furniture, it was rather hard to ignore. It was even harder to stop himself from chuckling when John eyed the other people in the house. There were five in total; a gardener, a housekeeper, a cook, and two bodyguards, and besides the cook and the maid who were going to and from the kitchen, everyone was sat at the dining table. Turner, of course, sat at the head of the table as the host. John sat to his right and one of the bodyguards sat next to him and another one right in front of him. The gardener took the last seat at the right side of the table, leaving the two remaining seats for the housekeeper and the cook. Once the two sat down they enjoyed a hearty lunch without a single word spoken. The thought of his food being poisoned did cross John’s mind but he didn’t think Turner would be that stupid. His mother knew he was here, that would for sure narrow it down to him if John ended up dead or missing.
The plates and the cutleries seemed expensive too. It was like the house was purposely made to look unattractive from the outside to hide all the treasures it had inside. John couldn’t help but wonder…
“Are you wondering if I used the money I stole from Michael Thompson to afford all of this? The money I took after killing him?”
John didn’t know how to react. Neither did everyone else at the table. Either that or they were trained to keep a straight face and pretend none of the conversation was happening. Probably the latter.
“Come on, John. I read your article. I sent you a cease-and-desist.” There was humour in his voice. And John found it irritating.
“Is this a confession?” John asked.
Turner wiped his mouth with a handkerchief. “A confession to what?”
John knew he wanted him to say it himself. Fine. “That you killed Michael Thompson.”
Everybody at the table chuckled, like they couldn’t hold it in anymore, and Turner was laughing loudly with a hand on his stomach. As if the joke was too funny. Psychopaths, all of them, John thought.
“I’m sorry, I can’t keep this up.” Turner said between laughs. “Everybody, please leave us.” With that all five of them noiselessly went upstairs where John assumed their respective rooms were. “They’re not usually this quiet. We just don’t have guests that often.”
Left alone with Turner, John was at the edge of his seat. He tried to decide if he should run or punch Turner in the face. With both options, he felt like the bodyguards would come sprinting down and kill him instantly. He stayed put instead. Turner, on the other hand, was calm. He had John where he wanted him and he clearly had the upper hand. The only thing left was to make John listen.
“I didn’t kill Michael Thompson.” Turner started. “I erased him.”
John stayed silent. Turner didn’t continue right away. He was waiting for John to let the words sink in.
“John, did it ever occur to you that Michael Thompson was fictional?” Turner asked.
John responded with another question. “What does that even mean?”
The playful twinkle in Turner’s eyes vanished. His voice carried a different weight now. “That Michael Thompson was never a real person. Just a character I wrote so I can live someone else’s life.”
“It’s not hypothetical.”
“If what you’re saying is true-”
“It is the truth.”
“Michael Thompson doesn’t exist. So, what? He’s just a character you play?”
Turner shook his head. “I don’t play his role. At least not publicly. He was nothing but a name that I came up with. A pseudonym, if you will.”
That didn’t add up. John couldn’t see the point Turner was trying to make. “Why go through all the trouble? Why not just write under your name and take the fame? It’s not like you hide your face anyway.”
“It’s not as fun, John. I figured since the beginning that I would want to ‘kill off’ Michael Thompson. I can’t ‘kill’ Wade Turner.”
“You could just retire. I don’t get it. For all I know you’re bullshitting me, trying to convince me that you’re not a murderer.”
“I’m just a writer.” Turner got up from his seat and paced around the room. This unnerved John. “Maybe I’m a little eccentric, a bit experimental, but I’m only writer. And Michael Thompson was only a character. I have power over him, and I have power over those who believe in him. He was mine.” The last sentence came out as a whisper. And a threat.
Turner stopped pacing and looked at John who was still glued to his seat.
“But you took him away from me when you wrote your article. People wrote about Michael Thompson, yes, but always as a character. My character in the story I wrote. The Hollywood screenwriter. But you, John Anderson, you wrote a different story. And it doesn’t quite fit my narrative.”
“I’m sorry,” was all John could say.
“You don’t mean that.” He was right.
Turner left the dining room and John took it as his cue to get up and follow him. The front door was wide open and Turner was pointing at it. Before John could walk out, Turner said one last sentence. “I don’t care if you believe me or not. But if you write one more piece about Michael Thompson or me, and the storyline is different from mine, well. Let’s just say I know how to write the ending of your story and make a damn movie out of it. I’m a screenwriter after all.”