Authors: Ellen Meister
“Don't you see? The destroyed reputation is his penance. He gets to protect Audrey and bear punishment at the same time.”
Aviva pursed her lips, a faraway look in her eyes. “Oh,” she said, and the color drained from her face.
“What is it?” Pete said.
Aviva shook her head. “I don't know. I'm probably remembering it all wrong.”
“Will you share it with us?” Norah asked.
“Not until I'm sure. Because if Audrey did this, she can't plead
ignorance. She knew full well how serious a plagiarism accusation would be.”
“Audrey was a journalist,” Pete explained to their guests.
“We know,” Norah said.
Aviva stood and walked to her bookshelf. “Not only that,” she said, retrieving a thick volume that looked like a textbook. She dropped it on the table in front of the two women.
Ethics in Journalism
,” Norah read off the cover. “By A. L. Hudson.” She looked up, confused.
“Audrey Louise Hudson,” Aviva explained. “She remarried in 1985 and divorced in 1996, but kept the name.”
Dorothy Parker leaned in and placed her finger on the title. “Dear God. She literally wrote the book on plagiarism.”
“And she teaches a course on it at Columbia,” Aviva said.
“Columbia?” Norah said. “She's right here in Manhattan!”
“Don't get your hopes up,” Aviva said. “I don't know what you expect from her. But if you're counting on Audrey Hudson to help you get to Ted Shriver, you're dead.”
“That,” said Dorothy Parker as she stood, “shouldn't be a problem.”
viva Kravette canceled her afternoon meeting to accompany Norah and Dorothy Parker to Audrey Hudson's apartment uptown. Pete said he had to get back to work and stayed behind. “Besides,” he had added, “she hates me almost as much as she hates Ted. Guilt by association.”
As their taxi bumped its way up Third Avenue, Aviva explained that Audrey taught only one class at Columbia and that the rest of her income was from freelancing. “But most of that's dried up,” she said. “Audrey was always contentious with her editors, but it just got worse and worse. Now almost no one will hire her.”
Aviva had called first, so Audrey was expecting them and opened the door almost the very second the buzzer was pressed.
“I made coffee,” she said, instead of hello.
She was bone thin in a pale blue sweater and black slacks she didn't fill out. Norah was struck by her nervousness; the woman seemed as brittle as a crisp chip. She was still pretty, but her soft curls were now salt and pepper, and her delicate complexion was etched with fine lines. One aspect of her personality was apparent to Norah
instantly: vulnerability. You didn't need to peel away any layers to see it. It was all right on the outside, chafed raw by life.
Aviva kissed her hello and introduced them as Norah Wolfe and Didi Dickson.
The apartment was small and stuffed with too much furnitureâall of it just a bit too homely to qualify as shabby chic. Two small windows faced another building and let in very little sunlight. Framed prints by Salvador DalÃ and RenÃ© Magritte decorated the walls.
“Nice place,” Dorothy Parker said, and Norah cringed at the sarcasm.
Audrey didn't seem to pick up on it. “It's small, but I make do,” she said with a shrug.
“Of course you do, dear. All you need is room to lay your hat and a few friends.”
Audrey blinked, not sure how to react, and Norah could tell she was wondering if it was intended as an insult.
“She's just kidding.” Norah smiled kindly. “You have a lot of books,” she added, trying to sound impressed. There were, indeed, a surprising number of volumes lining the shelves on two long walls.
“I'm a big reader. Have a seat.”
They did as she asked, and everyone accepted a cup of the bitter coffee she passed around. Audrey lowered herself into a faded blue easy chair.
“These ladies have some news for you, Audrey,” Aviva said. “It's about Ted.”
Audrey jumped from her seat, her eyes wild. “What?”
“Relax,” Aviva said. “They come in peace.”
“I thought this was about a job!”
“I never said that,” Aviva insisted.
“What else would I assume! I haven't had an assignment in
. You said you were bringing some producers. I thoughtâ”
“I'm sorry if I gave the wrong impression. It's just that they have bad news and I didn't want to tell you over the phone.”
“Just a minute,” Audrey said, and left the room. Norah could hear her in the kitchen running the tap, and thenÂ .Â .Â . nothing.
They waited in uncomfortable silence until Norah spoke. “What do you think she's doing in there?”
“If she were sticking her head in the oven, we would smell gas,” Dorothy Parker said, “so I imagine she's slitting her wrists.”
“She'll be fine,” Aviva said. “Sometimes she just needs a few minutes toÂ .Â .Â . regroup.”
Sure enough, when Audrey came back into the room she was more collected. If she didn't know any better, Norah would have suspected there were psychopharmaceuticals involved. Valium, maybe. Or Thorazine.
“Okay,” Audrey said, sitting. “I'm ready.” She closed her eyes.
Aviva reached over and patted her knee. “This isn't a firing squad, honey.”
“I still hate him, you know,” she said quietly, as if it were a secret.
“Of course you do.”
“He said he would never cheat on me.
. He promised.”
“That should have been your cue,” said Dorothy Parker. “The next time a man says, âI promise,' run. It means he's agreeing to something he's never been able to accomplish before. And as we all know, men do not change.”
Audrey sighed. “Just tell me whatever it is you came for, becauseâ”
“Ted's dying,” Mrs. Parker said.
“Brain tumor. We don't know how much time he has.”
Audrey opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Tears spilled from her eyes. She ran into the kitchen again.
“Come back!” Aviva said.
“Don't be so shocked, dear,” Dorothy Parker called after her. “People die every day.”
Aviva went after her friend, leaving Mrs. Parker and Norah alone in the living room.
“Be gentle,” Norah whispered. “She's very fragile.”
“A china cup is fragile,” Dorothy Parker said, putting down her coffee. “This woman is a cracked teapot.”
“A guilty conscience can do a lot of damage. She may have spent her whole life looking over her shoulder, wondering if she'd get caught. This visit could be her worst nightmare.”
“Perhaps she's eager to confess and end her self-torture.”
After several minutes, Aviva came back into the room with her broken friend. Audrey's face was ashen, her nose red and swollen from crying. She clutched a tissue.
They sat together on the sofa, opposite Norah and Dorothy Parker.
“There's something else you need to know,” Norah said, leaning forward. “I think Ted still has feelings for you.”
Audrey blew her nose. “Why are you telling me this?”
Norah sat back, troubled that Audrey didn't seem the least bit surprised. She had been hoping this revelation would change everything.
“I didn't think you knew,” Norah said.
“Let me show you something,” Audrey said, rising. She went into her bedroom and came out with a rectangular plastic container. “He still sends me a birthday card every year.” She sat down with the box on her lap and pulled out a sample. “This is from 1992: âThinking of you. Happy Birthday.'” She put it back and took out a few more. “From 1987: âHeard you got married. Happy Birthday.' From 2002: âHope you are well. Happy Birthday.' Here's a longer one, from 1999: âSaw your article in the
. Good job. Happy Birthday.' They're all like thatâmundane, uninspired. Not what you would expect from one of America's most treasured literary figures.”
“I guess he never really wanted to let go,” Norah said.
Audrey's shoulders began to shake and she broke down in sobs.
“Oh, honey,” Aviva said.
“I'm so very sorry,” Norah said, and realized it felt like they were consoling a grieving widow, instead of confronting a woman who took revenge on her husband by ruining his life. There were, she knew, some people who had a kind of genius for helplessness, eliciting sympathy and concern wherever they went. Audrey was the type of lost soul who got help from people on the street. If she asked for directions, no doubt a stranger would lead her to her destination and ask, “You sure you'll be all right from here?” No one could resist feeling sorry for her.
Still, Norah was there on a mission, and she wasn't going to back down simply because this woman was about as stable as plutonium. She just had to approach the subject slowly and carefully so she wouldn't explode.
Norah cleared her throat. “I get the sense that maybe deep down you still love him, too, andâ”
“No!” Audrey said. “I hate him. I hate him and I'm glad he's dying.”
“I don't think you mean that,” Norah said.
“Of course she does,” said Mrs. Parker. “This is exactly what she's been waiting for.”
Norah said, trying to make eye contact. She simply had to find a way to convey that this was the wrong tactic. This broken creature had to believe they were on her side.
Dorothy Parker ignored her and leaned toward Audrey. “You believe he'll take your secret to the grave. Isn't that why you're glad he's dying?” she asked.
Audrey looked up. “Huh?”
“You see, dear, we know what you did.”
The color left Audrey's face with alarming speed, and Norah was
sure she would pass out. Aviva saw it, too, and made her friend put her head between her legs just as her eyes started to roll back.
“Breathe,” she said.
After a few moments, Audrey slowly raised her head. She was sweating and trembling. “I want to be alone now,” she said.
“That doesn't sound like a very good idea,” Aviva said.
“Let's talk about this.”
Audrey stood and they all looked at her. “Excuse me,” she said.
“What do you need?” Aviva asked.
Audrey ignored her and went into the bedroom. The door slammed shut.
“That woman buzzes around like a mosquito,” Mrs. Parker said. “I'm tempted to swat her with a newspaper.”
“You need to leave!” she shouted from the bedroom. “All of you.”
Aviva stood. “Audrey, honey, come out and we'll discuss it.”
“We just want to help. It'll feel better to get it out in the open.”
“I said, âGet out!'”
“Please,” Aviva said, “open the door. I'm worried about you.”
Audrey didn't respond, but they heard her walking around inside the bedroom. There was shuffling and the sound of a drawer being pulled out. And then the door opened, and there she stood, still trembling, but focused. And in her hands, pointed right at Aviva, was a gun.
ever, in a million years,” Aviva said as the three women spilled out the front door of Audrey's apartment building and onto the street. “I mean, I knew she was unstable, butÂ .Â .Â .”
“You sure you're okay?” Norah said, trying to convince herself that she was only concerned about Aviva. But in fact, she had been quite certain Audrey's anger was directed at all of them.
“I didn't even know she owned a gun.”
“My dear,” Dorothy Parker said, “people like that always own guns.”
“This woman was my
Norah stiffened her hand to see if it was still trembling. She took a long, slow breath to calm herself and to connect with the notion that Audrey had wanted only to frighten them. She coughed several times and regained her strength.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Norah said, “I don't think she actually would have shot you.”
Norah saw several yellow cabs waiting at the light and stepped off
the curb to hail one. “You'll feel better when you get to your office,” she said, waving toward the traffic.
“Better still,” Dorothy Parker said, “let's get her a drink.”
“I could use one,” Aviva said, “but I have to get back to work.”
A taxi stopped and Norah opened the door for Aviva.
“Work will be there when you return,” Mrs. Parker said. “I can promise you that.”
Norah held on to the cab door. “I think we've taken up enough of her time.”
“In or out,” said the driver.
Aviva scratched her cheek, indecisive, and then let out a breath. “Thanks anyway,” she said to the driver. She shut the door and pointed across the street. “Hamilton's. They make an old-fashioned you could die for.”
“That has me written all over it,” said Mrs. Parker.
A short while later, they were seated at a dark booth with wooden bench seats. Dorothy Parker made quick work of her gin and tonic and was on her second while Norah and Aviva still nursed their first drinks.
“I can't believe she did that to me,” Aviva said.
“I must admit,” said Dorothy Parker, “there are people I've wanted to kill over the years, but I've never had the gumption to pull a gun. I wouldn't have guessed she had it in her.”
Norah stared. “You're not actually
her, are you?”
“Defending? No. But it's hard not to feel a touch of grudging respect.”
“I feel like she stuck a knife in my back,” Aviva said.
“An odd metaphor for a gun in your face,” Mrs. Parker said.
Aviva looked at her. “I'm talking about the betrayal. She
to me for more than twenty-five years. And I was always so good to her. I would have done
“She's very damaged,” Norah said.
,” said Mrs. Parker.
Aviva sipped her drink. “I introduced them, you knowâAudrey and Ted. I was living downtown and Audrey was friends with my roommate. We got very close. She was always high-strung, but smart and perceptive. Challenging, even.”
“And Pete was your boss?” Norah asked.
Aviva smiled. “An office romance. And Ted was a rising star. He was always kind of boorish, but he was so brilliant we all decided it was part of his charm. So I introduced him to my friend. I thought they made such a great matchâyou should have seen them together. He doted on her. And she was happier than I ever thought she could be. I felt like some kind of genius for bringing them together. Then when he cheated on herâGod, I was furious. How could he do that to someone so fragile? He had to know it would break her. I wanted to wring his neck. And then the plagiarism thing happened and I thought it was just another casualty of his sloppy drinking. But nowâ”
“Are you inclined to forgive him?” Mrs. Parker asked.
“I don't know,” Aviva said, and sighed. “It's complicated. I've been furious with him for so long.”
“But he didn't deserve to have his career destroyed.”
Aviva looked down. “That was unfair to him, unfair to all of us. He was so brilliant. God knows how many more books he could have written. His impact might have been substantial.” She stopped to sip her drink. “Despite everything, I'm a huge fan of his work. I've never wavered on that. In my opinion, Ted Shriver has a place among America's greatest novelists.”
at thirteen,” said Norah. “Even then, I understood that he was a genius.”
“All this time I thought he sabotaged his own career, and that enraged me as much as the cheatingâthat he would deprive us of
the books that might have come next. I never dreamed Audrey was capable of such artifice.”
“Hell hath no fury,” Mrs. Parker said.
“I understand fury,” Aviva said. “But she lied to me for so long. In factÂ .Â .Â .” She closed her eyes. “That vague memory is getting sharper. I think I tried to suppress it all these years.”
Norah leaned forward. “Were you involved in the publication of
Aviva nodded. “I was Pete's assistant then. Nothing was electronic in those days, of course, and I was responsible for logging in the manuscripts. Somehow I got the wrong copy of that one. No wait, it was Audrey who told me I got the wrong manuscript. That's itâthat's what happened!” She sat up straighter, closing her eyes to picture it. “I remember now. Audrey called and said that Ted had accidentally sent the wrong version and would I please throw it out, because she was going to send the final manuscript over by messenger.” She opened her eyes. “That must have been when she planted the paragraphs.”
“She played you, my dear,” said Mrs. Parker.
“I never imaginedâ” Aviva said.
“I wish we could compare the two manuscripts,” Norah said. “That would give us proof.”
Aviva looked absently at her bracelet watch. “Maybe we can,” she mumbled.
She stared straight at Norah. “I saved a lot of manuscripts back thenâespecially if I thought the author might have historical significance one day. It wasn't even for the value. I just had this romantic notion that I was a part of literary history and had aÂ .Â .Â .
“Wait,” Norah said. “You
both of those manuscripts?”
“I don't know,” Aviva said. “I might have.”
“My dear,” Dorothy Parker said, “you could turn out to be the hero of this tale.”
“Do you know where they would be?” Norah asked.
“We have a house in Connecticut. I put all those things in the attic. I haven't looked at any of it for years. It's so dark and dusty I never go up there. I can't even remember what we ditched and what we kept.”
“When can you check?” Norah said.
“Pete and I are supposed to go there next month.”
“We might not have that much time,” Norah said.
“I don't think I can get up there any sooner,” said Aviva. “I'm presenting an award tonight, and tomorrow I have a meeting I just can't postpone. Then I'm off to London for a week.”
“We'll go,” said Mrs. Parker.
Aviva looked at her. “What?”
“Norah and I. We can leave immediately.”
“You want me to give you the keys to my house?”
Aviva pursed her lips.
“Do we look like criminals?” Dorothy Parker said.
Norah's right knee shook in excitement. She imagined shining a flashlight into a dusty attic and coming across the treasure of a lifetime. She put a hand on Aviva's arm. “Please,” she said. “I promise we won't touch a thing except for those manuscripts in the attic. You can trust us. IÂ .Â .Â . I've been a fan of Ted Shriver's almost all my life. I wouldn't do anything toâ”
“Okay, okay,” said Aviva. “What the hell.”
“You'll give us your house key?” Norah asked. She was excited.
Norah paused and swallowed. “Just one more thing,” she said, and looked into Aviva's face, hoping to convey how trustworthy she was.
“Yes?” Aviva said.
Norah hunched her shoulders apologetically. “We don't have a car.”
“You've got to be kidding.”
“I live in Brooklyn. I take the subway.”
Aviva shook her head, and Norah wondered if she had pushed too hard. But the woman opened her purse, put cash on the table and stood. “Let's go,” she said.
“Where to?” Norah asked.
“I need to show you where my BMW is parked.”