WITH A CRACK of an elm branch a squirrel did its best imitation of a monkey. The creature leapt expertly from tree to tree over a creek, finally landing on the side of Camden Swanson’s apartment building and defying gravity by scampering up to the roof. More squirrels followed in its path, and none of them fell into the shallow stream of water or tumbled to the ground.
Camden watched intently and raised his bottle of beer in appreciation.
It was dusk, and his posterior was firmly entrenched in his frayed camping chair on his back porch. He finished his last sip of beer and reached into his cooler to find nothing but water and ice. He heard a knock inside his apartment, but before he could stand up, the door creaked open and then shut.
From his vantage point on the back porch, through the large screen door that looked into the living room, Camden watched a strange woman wearing a short skirt walk toward him. She stopped about three feet from the wire mesh and stood next to a shelf that was packed with his collection of vinyl records. At first glance he couldn’t tell if she was the tallest lady he had ever seen or the prettiest. When she lit a cigarette with a Zippo and put it up to her full lips, he was sure she was the sexiest.
“Your door was open,” the woman said.
If he wasn’t so buzzed, Camden likely would have been startled by the intruder. The alcohol instead dulled his senses, and emboldened him where he might have been more alert to potential danger. Also, like many men, his good judgement dissolved in the presence of an attractive woman, and there was an almost atavistic need to be agreeable with her.
“Come on in,” he said, quickly realizing it was a stupid thing to utter since she’d already had.
Camden thought he might have seen her before but couldn’t be sure because his girlfriend, Georgia, often had all kinds of people show up unannounced at their doorstep. Georgia was a well-respected artist and had both welcome and unwanted visitors. Usually the latter were male fans, groupies who loved her work and found her alluring. The uninvited women were almost always art dealers desperate to get her to showcase at their galleries, though Camden had to shoo away a few horny female Georgia admirers.
This woman, however, seemed too put together and too confident to be a groupie, and he figured her for someone who wanted to buy or sell his girlfriend’s work. “I’m guessing you’re here for Georgia,” he said. “She’s out. And I’m not authorized to do anything with her pieces.”
“Georgia Léveque is a very talented artist, but I want to talk to you, Mr. Swanson.”
Camden stayed seated and peered at his towering visitor. Her slightly tousled ink-black hair fell to her shoulders. A fringe of bangs covered most of her forehead. If she wasn’t an art dealer, who was she? He could only think of one other thing. The previous year, one of his mistakes, or actually a series of them, led to bankrupting the newspaper he used to work for in Los Angeles. She could be a reporter looking to do a where-are-they-now article. “I’m long over talking about what happened in LA. And it’s hardly news anymore.”
“I know all about how you were fired for ‘egregious disregard for facts,’ as I believe it was officially stated,” the stranger responded, and then took a long drag of her cigarette. “But I’m not a reporter, and that’s not why I’m here. However, there’s quite a bit I do know about you. Thirty-five years old, from the Boston area, and you’ve lived in California for about seven years. You’ve won awards for your reporting, used to be a mini-celebrity in LA because of your TV news appearances. That all went away about a year ago, and your more-than-generous girlfriend has been trying her best to help you turn your life around. Without much success.”
Camden stood up, which he hadn’t done in over an hour, and with all the beer he had consumed, wobbled just slightly. His intuition had been blunted from months of apathy, but something was wrong here. She could be a thief, a person he had unknowingly wronged from his past, or possibly there was a guy in a white coat right now running after her with a giant butterfly net.
“Okay, you’ve Googled me. Can I ask why?”
“My research has gone far beyond the internet. I’ve been watching you. Pretty sure you’ve been wearing the same pair of jeans all week. The only variant is your Red Sox shirts. How many do you own? I’m also curious if you have written any poems today?” she asked.
“I haven’t catalogued all my shirts, so can’t answer the first question. I have, in fact, written some poems, but not even Georgia knows I do that. There’re only three other people on the planet who know my little hobby. Did Dickie, Sal, or Rubbish send you here as a joke?”
“I’ve seen you with your friends, but I’ve yet to have a conversation with them. While I’m sure deep down they’re all nice people, I hope it doesn’t have to happen. But I’m curious as to why you write poems.”
“Because it keeps me sane standing in a museum gallery all day doing fuck-all nothing. All right, Twenty Questions is over. Who the hell are you, and why have you been watching me?”
Camden had been on the back porch for the last two hours, unprepared for his encounter with the mysterious, tall woman. With the squirrels his only companions, he had eaten seven pieces of string cheese, drank five beers, and had written three haiku. He had recently gotten into the Japanese poetic form after watching Winter Days, a short anime film based on the poetry of Bashō. Camden wrote better when he was working at the museum, but there was one with promise he had scribbled earlier in his tiny notebook:
Cracking branches! San Carlos dusk. Vanishing squirrel.
“We have important business to discuss,” the woman said. “Should I join you on the porch, or would you like to sit in the living room?”
“Don’t take another step until you tell me who you are,” he said and pulled out his phone. “I’m on my way to being sloshed, but I can still dial 9-1-1.”
“There’s no need for that. I’m here because I have a serious offer for you. One that could change your life.”
“Can you get me my career as a journalist back? That’s the only thing I want.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to pull off such a miracle, but you will want to hear what I have to say nonetheless.”
Camden opened the screen door and entered the apartment, instinctively sucking in his belly and attempting his best to appear cool in front of her. He ruined it when he belched. “Excuse me,” he said. “Must have been that soda water with cranberry juice.”
“Or possibly all the Lagunitas you’ve had,” she said. “You usually get a six-pack of that brand, but then go back to the supermarket for more. You switch to a less expensive option, I imagine, due to the size of your bank account.”
“Are you going to guess my weight next?”
“You don’t want that,” she said with a smile. “I’ll take a glass of wine, if you have it.”
“While I’m at it, I could cook you dinner. I think there might be some filet mignon and lobster in the fridge.”
“My apologies. Since you’re drinking, I’m being polite by asking to join in.”
“My mom raised me right, so I’ll get you a glass. But let’s cut to the chase.”
Camden went to the cupboard in the kitchen and selected a bottle, set behind several choices from top Napa wineries, of Trader Joe’s Two-Buck Chuck. It’s what Georgia used to make sangria. He then poured it into a plastic San Francisco Giants cup and handed it to her.
The woman sipped her wine and did her best not to grimace. She left a trace of lipstick on the cup when she set it down on the end table. She then eyed an Impressionist-influenced watercolor on the wall of Parisians crossing the Pont Neuf, painted by Georgia when she was nineteen.
“Is your girlfriend named after Georgia O’Keeffe?” she asked, wandering around the living room. “Or something more prosaic like the state?”
“If I’m ever asked to write her biography, I’ll be sure to find that out. Her dad owns a few O’Keeffes, but I’ve never heard him talk about them.”
“I’m familiar with your girlfriend’s father as well,” she said and picked up a framed photo of Georgia wearing a graduation gown standing with her dad. “Mr. Léveque is an impressive collector and from all accounts a true gentleman. Nice picture of them. Are they why you took your current job as a museum security guard? A way of getting into the family business?”
“More prosaic reasons, to borrow your phrase. Money, a J-O-B, the means to pay the bills since nobody will hire me as a reporter. And before we go any further, you have five seconds to tell me why I shouldn’t call the condo security. The fact you know all these things is creepy. Or as the kids say these days, creepy A-F.”
“Mr. Swanson, money is the reason why I’m here. I’m going to present you with an offer where you can make lots of it.”
“Swanson makes me think of frozen dinners. Call me Camden.”
He didn’t take his eyes off the woman while she continued to poke around the apartment. She scrutinized more photos, the stack of Camden’s vinyl albums next to the Bose speakers, and then picked up a tiki mug shaped like a coconut. While she didn’t touch it, the woman bent down for a closer inspection of a foot-high abstract sculpture Georgia had done when they first met. She had given it to him as a birthday gift.
Camden was 94 percent certain the lady was a con artist, but he owned next to nothing and had no access to any of Georgia’s work or valuables. He could have called the building’s security and had her thrown out, but she had stirred an emotion inside he hadn’t felt in a long time—curiosity. So he decided to give her five minutes to explain her “offer,” and then he’d get back to the squirrels and his haiku.
“Camden, I’m here because you used to have a career as a journalist. But now you’re a guy approaching middle age who punches a clock at a museum for minimum wage.”
“It’s fifty cents higher,” he said. “Got a raise.”
“I can’t imagine you find any satisfaction with your current job,” the woman said.
“Are you kidding me? There’s tons of job satisfaction as a museum gallery attendant. I get paid to stand. I stand with my arms behind my back for eight hours a day and tell kids not to touch the art and old folks not to lean against walls. Occasionally a teenager gets a backpack through, and I ask them to check it. That happens infrequently, but when it does, it goes right in my diary. But let’s get back to your fantastic offer that’s supposed to change my life.”
He went to the fridge, reaching past Georgia’s vanilla soy milk, for another beer. He popped it, returned to the living room, and plopped down on the couch. The woman sat right next to him and he got just a hint of perfume, or possibly it was just lavender body cream. Camden watched her swirl the purple liquid in her plastic cup, smell it, and then put it back down without taking a sip. She crossed her long, tanned legs and studied him. Her look was a mixture of curiosity and disgust, akin to a seventh grader’s gaze at a formaldehyde-imbued frog.
“Camden, I’m here because I think you can help me.”
“You work at a museum. I want to rob it.”