Every work of fiction begins with an ‘aha’ moment. Something – an overheard conversation, an event witnessed, or a memory recalled – lands in an author’s lap. There is a realization that this ‘thing’ can be the seed that will grow into 90,000 words of prose. The ‘aha’ moment for A Whiff of Revenge was the landing in my lap – literally – of Hope Jahren’s lucid and thoroughly enjoyable memoir, Lab Girl.
Ms. Jahren, a geochemist, intersperses the story of her becoming a scientist with a series of riveting mini-essays. One of those essays was on the role of pheromones in the plant and animal kingdom. I was off and running.
Many readers comment on the amount of ‘useful’ knowledge I wedge into my stories. Several have told me How to Murder Your Contractor has served as a handbook for establishing a working relationship with contractors. (Others say they just leave the book in plain sight when someone comes to do work on their home.) A Whiff of Revenge includes the idea that it may be possible to isolate a molecule that will tell your tabby to go claw elsewhere; a goal that is quite within the reach of pheromone science. If someone isn’t already conducting such research, they ought to. The book also details how the head of a non-profit might skim millions from an endowment. I will only say that the subterfuge used by Brian LaPointe is all too plausible. There are other plot points that I won’t go into because I don’t care for ‘spoilers’. I’ll just say that they’re well-researched. And, yes, Cook Island Trusts really do exist.
I’ll also say that the book was a pleasure to write. Here are the first few thousand words:
A WHIFF OF REVENGE
Penny Walden never wanted to be famous. Though only in her late twenties, what she mostly wanted to do was to escape her past. She certainly had no intention of becoming three women’s go-to guide for getting even with a bastard of an ex-husband, an emotionally deadbeat dad, or a paramour with fraudulent credentials on his résumé and large-scale embezzlement in his heart. Especially if the target of the three women’s wrath happened to be the same man.
All she ever wanted was to be a scientist. Even if it meant the epitaph on her tombstone read, ‘She invented the stuff that made your cat stop scratching your sofa’.
The past from which Penny Walden was attempting to escape was of her own making. It began with a book. Seven years earlier, she had been a publishing sensation due to The Professor with the Wandering Hands. The book itself started as an exercise in boredom. Penny attended UCLA, an exceptionally competitive school filled with extremely bright minds. Penny was outstandingly smart (her IQ placed her in the top three percent of the population) but, in a college that was a magnet for hyper-attractive students of both sexes, Penny’s merely conventional ‘pretty’ looks meant her social life was rather bleak.
One date-less Saturday evening early in her senior year, Penny began thinking about something her roommate had recently confided in her. In less than a month, Penny had cobbled together a story about getting revenge and put it up anonymously as a giveaway on Kindle. To her astonishment, more than ten thousand people downloaded her story and gave it rave reviews. So she expanded the tale, began charging, and used her initials and last name as its author. At 100,000 downloads at 99 cents, a resourceful agent called, asking if the ‘P.D. Walden’ listed as the book’s author was, by any chance, the same person with whom she was speaking.
With an editor’s guidance, three months later, a re-written “Wandering Hands” went up at $7.99 on Kindle and in softcover at $15.99 and half a million people ponied up. Three months after that, Penny had a hardcover deal and a film sale. She took off a semester to promote her book.
That was when her publisher discovered that P.D. Walden was an ordinary duckling in a media world that expected their literary swans to be glamorous and sexy. Her smile was dazzling but her face was just a bit too square, her hair a common brown, her chin a tad prominent, and her eyes too far apart. Penny could be transformed into an acceptable cygnet only with the lengthy and excruciating intervention of a stylist, and then only long enough to take a dust jacket photo.
Unwilling to spend ninety minutes a day to look like her publicity photo, Penny began wearing a wig and sunglasses to book signings. Moreover, Penny discovered that she hated saying the identical thing over the course of a week to a hundred nodding, interchangeable reporters. She also hated travel and loathed hotel food.
More than two million people bought her book in sixteen languages, making Penny moderately wealthy. Sale of the book’s film rights added substantially to her bank account but, in the process, she gave up creative control over the subsequent screenplay and film casting. Two years later, the film adaptation of ‘Wandering Hands’ appeared to mixed reviews. Most critics wondered aloud and in print, how Patrick Dempsey got cast as Professor Dalrymple when the part had Jeremy Irons written all over it. Critics were somewhat kinder to Emily Blunt, even though Ashley, the character she portrayed, was described in the book as plump and plain-looking.
‘Wandering Hands’ sold exceptionally well in paperback, especially as a movie tie-in. However, by the time the film debuted, ‘P.D. Walden’ gave only phone interviews. To the inevitable question of the when her next book would be published, her answer was invariably, “Probably never.” Asked if she was still in college and, if so, where, Penny equivocated. She wanted nothing more than to put the maximum distance – physical and psychological – between herself and her two-initial alter ego.
Also, by the time of the film’s release, Penelope ‘Penny’ Walden had long since received her undergraduate degree in Biology from UCLA and had been accepted at Duke’s graduate program in the same area of study. All of this was information she studiously avoided revealing in interviews. Long before ‘Wandering Hands’ was viewable on Netflix, Penny had earned her Master’s, and was formulating research topics for a doctoral thesis.
In addition to its academic reputation, Duke had the additional benefit of being three thousand miles from Los Angeles. No one in Durham had any idea that she was ‘P.D. Walden’ and she certainly didn’t mention it in her graduate school application. She had achieved the impossible: she had successfully vanished from public view.
It was at Duke that she became interested in pheromones. For the uninitiated, a pheromone is a chemical that serves as a signaling agent to either alert or change the behavior of members of the animal kingdom. The signal is generally given via smell. Humans have such poor senses of smell that we mostly ignore them, but pheromones are like the Internet for insects and most mammals.
Penny’s interest, though, was more in the specialized area of plant-to-plant communications over long distances. She ultimately earned her PhD in Pheromone Biochemistry by documenting the ability of oak trees to ‘warn’ oaks miles away that an infestation of gypsy moth caterpillars was denuding its leaves. The alerted trees began producing chemicals that made their leaves non-nutritious to caterpillars, halting the advance of the caterpillars.
Her newly minted doctorate brought Penny to the attention of recruiters from multiple universities and biotechnology companies. One of them was a venture-capital-backed enterprise in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Pheromonix.
She liked the idea of Boston. It was about as far away from Los Angeles as you could get and still be in the United States. This was not a whimsical consideration. Penny was all too aware that, in seeking obscurity, she had heightened her celebrity status among a sizeable group of hard-core devotees. ‘P.D. Walden’ had fangirl websites, chat rooms, and social media pages. All of them sought to resolve the question of how someone who had written a book so satisfying as ‘Wandering Hands’ could disappear so completely and have left almost no biographical details.
The Pheromonix recruiter had taken the time to skim Penny’s thesis and asked intelligent questions during the interview. Not one of them was about whether Penny was acquainted with a famous woman writer with the same surname as hers back in her undergraduate days in Southern California. Penny was delighted by the interview and resolved to accept an offer if one was made.
She of course did not need to work for a living. She suppressed a smile when the recruiter said, if Pheromonix successfully brought its first product to market and completed an initial public offering, her stock options could be worth ‘a couple of million dollars.’ The smile was because the smartest thing Penny had ever done, after signing her book contract, was to interview a dozen money managers and hire the one who didn’t ask her what color Mercedes she had picked out. Penny had a mid-seven-figure nest egg that, except for her graduate school expenses, remained untouched after six years.
An offer was made and Penny accepted. Not wanting to look conspicuous, in mid-June, Penny emulated her fellow, newly-hired doctoral recipients and rented a trailer hitch and a U-Haul, and drove a two-year-old Honda Civic from North Carolina to Massachusetts. She carried with her all her worldly belongings together with the promise of a life doing what she loved most. Her lone concession to her financial independence was to lease a one-bedroom apartment in an upscale block of relatively new buildings out at the Alewife terminus of the Red Line. As to purchasing clothes, jewelry, accessories, or the other trappings of the material world, Penny demurred. She had spent the past six years in jeans and was content to have her worldly belongings fit into half a dozen moving boxes.
Penny Walden could not have been happier. She was twenty-eight years old and ready for her real life to begin.
* * * * *
Pheromonix occupied part of one floor of a grey, six-story, one-hundred-year-old building on Binney Street, six blocks from the MIT campus. With its eleven-foot ceilings, it might have once been a factory producing machinery or farming implements. Two decades earlier, it had been gutted to its outer walls and rebuilt as a new kind of factory: one that produced ideas.
The building was a way station of sorts. Four companies with now-multi-billion-dollar capitalizations had gotten their start here. Those companies now had their own signature buildings designed by ‘starchitects’. The founders of Pheromonix had successfully ‘flipped’ two other biotechs, selling them off to pharmaceutical giants who paid hundreds of millions of dollars for R&D which they could have done themselves if they could have attracted the right people and given them a free rein.
Starting a company in the building was no guarantee of success. Pheromonix, had sublet its space from a failed web startup that, in its two-year existence, lived off of venture capital. When it failed to build an app that teenagers and twenty-somethings couldn’t live without, the company disappeared one weekend into the dustbin of failed enterprises and dashed financial riches.
Penny was issued a badge saying she was Employee Number 58. She quickly noticed that visitors to the company glanced at her badge number before they introduced themselves. Single-digit people, regardless of their position, got automatic deference. Low-numbered two-digit badges received almost as much respect. Those with a badge higher than 30 had to earn their way into people’s hearts.
The largest single group of Pheromonix employees – roughly twenty – were in R&D. Five had PhD’s, the rest were lab rats or administrators. Her boss was Helga Johanssen. She was in her late 40s, had her degree from Uppsala University, and was the kind of person who would have chain-smoked two packs of cigarettes a day had she not been in a non-smoking building in a city that would gladly prosecute for crimes against humanity any tobacco executive who dared show his or her face on Mass Ave.
Instead of indulging in known carcinogens, Helga consumed causal ones, carrying in a Starbucks drink cup every morning, and refilling it hourly until she departed, sometimes fifteen hours later. She wore Badge #11. The low badge number was unusual in one regard: she had not worked at one of the earlier corporate incarnations. Most low badges belonged to an inner circle that had followed the company’s founders through two previous ventures. Those employees already had stashed away their own nest eggs. They were working as much for the adventure as for the next shot at potential wealth.
Helga had come to Pheromonix from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where, in eighteen years, she had published a dozen major papers on pheromones but lived from grant to grant. While she was attracted by the challenge, Helga was at Pheromonix primarily for that potential seven-figure payoff. Helga was a big woman and, being a Swede, blonde. It was she who gave Penny an unexpected dose of reality on her first day.
“We’re under intense pressure to get a product out the door,” she said, eyeing her nearly empty coffee cup. She may have been born in Sweden, but her English carried only a hint of an accent, and that whisper was from the U.K. Anyone expecting sitcom-style ‘Svee-dish’ sentence construction or cadence was bound to be sorely disappointed.
“You’re not in a research lab anymore,” Helga said. “This is product development. And the product segment we’ve identified is huge.”
Everything about this conversation was news to Penny. The truth was that she had absorbed just two things from the recruiter. The first was that, Google-style, she could do anything she wanted to with a quarter of her time. In the most glowing of terms, the recruiter had promised that Penny could follow her private research dream using the best tools in the world and, if it resulted in a breakthrough product, reap the financial results. The other thing she heard (and, if pressed, she would admit she wasn’t listening all that carefully after that first bit) was that Pheromonix was pursuing ‘blue sky’ R&D. Penny was promised she was going to be chasing and helping catch unicorns. Pheromone-based unicorns.
“Have you ever had a cat?” Helga asked.
Penny thought about it. Her family was dog people. Mutts, mostly, with la-la-land names like Marilyn and Scooby Doo.
“No,” she replied.
“Do you know why you never had a cat?” she asked.
Penny tried to think of an acceptable answer. The real answer was that there are ‘cat people’ and there are ‘dog people’ and she had been raised by ‘dog people’.
“I really don’t know the answer,” she said, hoping neutrality would win the day.
Instead, Helga got excited. “Thirty-five percent of American homes have cats,” she said. “That’s ten points less than the percentage of dog households. The biggest impediment to having cats? They scratch. A four-kilo cat can reduce a two-thousand-dollar sofa to fabric shreds in an afternoon.”
“What does that have to do with us?” Penny asked.
Helga sighed. “Why do you think a cat scratches? You’re a scientist. Think it through.”
Penny thought it through. “A cat scratches to sharpen its claws. Fabric offers the right amount of resistance, plus it probably provides a sense of accomplishment.”
Helga was smiling. “And so…..?
“We find the right pheromone that tells the cat this is not scratching territory.”
“A billion dollars,” Helga said.
“Pardon?” Penny asked.
“A billion in sales in the first five years,” Helga said. “Cats are the perfect pet. You don’t have to walk them. They’re small. They’re happy in an apartment. They keep themselves amused. Their lone downside is that they’ll destroy humans’ precious artifacts in the name of sharpening their claws or perhaps boredom. De-clawing is considered inhumane, so sixty-five percent of people in America and Europe will not have anything to do with that otherwise perfect pet.”
“And we’re going to identify and market the pheromone that tells cats to stay away from the curtains,” Penny said with dawning understanding.
Helga smiled as she nodded. “Cats are our ticket to wealth and fame.”
“Are we close?” Penny asked.
Helga’s smile turned to a neutral look. “We’ve had successes. And failures.”
“Do you want to tell me about them, or just give me the lab results to read?”
Helga sighed. “It isn’t a single chemical or marker. It seems to vary from breed to breed, male to female. Even cat to cat. Last week we sprayed a test piece of furniture with a promising molecule; an epideictic. Five female cats gave it a wide berth. Five male cats sprayed on it. A necromonic molecule kept Siamese cats of both sexes on the other side of the room. Where they defecated to the exclusion of their litter boxes.”
“It sounds hopeless,” Penny said.
Helga shook her head. “No. Not hopeless. Just harder than we thought. Cats have secretion glands on their mouth, chin, forehead, cheeks, lower back, tail and paws. We still don’t know if it is one molecule or a combination that will do the trick. That’s why you’re here. A fresh perspective and a more recent degree.”
With that, she excused herself to refill her coffee cup. That was the extent of Penny’s company indoctrination.
* * * * *
At least Penny’s office was everything she had been promised. Extraordinarily powerful computers, the newest in lab equipment. And room to stretch. Two weeks before departing Durham, Penny received a call from the company’s facilities manager asking if she had anything specific in mind for office furniture or décor.
Penny said she liked to pace when she was working on a problem.
“How many paces do you need before you turn around?” the man asked. Penny apparently wasn’t the first person to inquire about pacing room. She told him ten or twelve.
“Is a cot OK or do you want something more comfortable?” he asked.
A cot for my office, Penny thought. This was paradise. At Duke we used sleeping bags.
“Let’s start with a cot and see where it goes,” she responded.
Penny arrived to find a remarkably comfortable looking cot in her personal office. Long and narrow, she could easily take twelve moody paces without encountering an obstruction.
* * * * *
Penny spent her first days on the job going through three months of trial results. Each molecule tested was catalogued for its effects on different felines, no matter how undesirable the outcome. She also quickly discovered why there were so many assistants on the payroll. They were cat wranglers.
In Cambridge, a corporation does not keep a supply of cats on hand for experimentation, even if the extent of their participation is to have their body swabbed in a dozen places and, on occasion, be placed in a room with an unsuspecting and invariably doomed piece of furniture. If word got out that a company was imprisoning cats, the PETA folks would simultaneously picket the company, launch a midnight rescue mission, and file suit in the name of the suffering animals.
Instead, Pheromonix advertised for ‘subjects’ with a payment of fifty dollars for every successful ‘enrollee’. Every Wednesday and Thursday morning, there would be thirty or more women (yes, women, pandering to the worst stereotype about ‘cat ladies’) with their felines in carriers. One by one, a lab tech would take tabby’s history in considerable detail. Then, with the cat still in the woman’s arms, the lab tech would start swabbing, stopping to place each sample in a sterile container. If the cat objected, the process paused until the animal was again pacified.
On the days potentially effective pheromones were tested, lab techs encouraged the cat ladies to watch their companions from behind a one-way mirror. Pheromonix wanted no rumors of cat abuse. Instead, the company earned a reputation as the easiest fifty bucks to be had in the Greater Boston area.
Pheromonix’s techs were uniformly good-natured about their work. Many had college degrees, though mostly not in the life sciences. But they were smart enough to realize how large a task was in front of the company.
Penny learned that Helga briefed the ‘Executive Committee’ at least twice a week. She never returned from those meetings with a smile, and she frequently immediately consumed two or even three cups of coffee afterwards. On her third day at work, when Penny asked Helga how things had gone at such a briefing the previous day, Helga waved Penny off and said, “Just keep working.”
And Penny never lost sight of that promised ‘personal investigation’ time. She had brought with her a folder filled with clippings and printouts about bees and hive collapse. The generally accepted scientific thesis is that it is not one specific chemical that is the reason for the dramatic drop in the bee population Rather, it is an accumulation of multiple man-made events, many of them having to do with the introduction of a new generation of plants treated with insecticides and, in some cases, with those insecticides made part of the plant’s genetic structure.
The spare-time investigation Penny wanted to pursue was to figure out if there was a way to tell bees to stay away from the pollen of plants laced with neonicotinoids. She had no idea if such a feat was possible, but that is what research is for. (Of course, banning neonicotinoids is the preferable alternative, but that’s another story.)
On her fifth day on the job, Penny looked up from a trial journal to see a slender woman leaning on her doorway. Actually, ‘slender’ and ‘woman’ were only marginally accurate descriptions of the person, and she was slouching rather than leaning. She was maybe seventeen or eighteen – too young to be one of the company’s lab assistants – and though at least five-foot-ten, she couldn’t have weighed a hundred and ten pounds. Not quite anorexic, but also not quite not anorexic either. She had waist-length jet-black hair with an unfortunate interruption of magenta half way down. The hair was arranged around her face to hide more than half of her visage. Penny could see dark eyes, a small nose, and a mouth with what looked like a perpetual pout. She was dressed in short-shorts (it was late June, after all) and a tank top advertising what Penny suspected was a band she had never heard of and would likely not enjoy listening to.
“Can I help you?” Penny asked.
The girl nodded and said in a high voice, “You’re Penny Walden.” Given that Penny had arrived on Monday to find a metal nameplate already affixed to her door, the woman’s opening statement seemed rather obvious and more than a bit redundant. “I wanted to see what you looked like,” she added.
“Does that mean I’ve already helped you?” Penny said, allowing a trace of annoyance to creep into her voice.
It must have had some effect because the girl said, “Uh, sorry.” She placed the fingers of one hand on her chest. “I’m Helga’s daughter. Allie.”
“And your responsibility is to assess the personal appearance of all incoming scientists?” Penny asked.
Allie rolled her eyes. “I read your résumé. Helga brings home the good ones and asks me my opinion. I don’t know if she follows all of my advice but I said you looked like a good one. Candidate, I mean.”
“Then I thank you for that vote of confidence,” Penny said, relaxing somewhat. “Would you care to take a seat?”
Allie had been waiting for the invitation. She plopped into the office’s second swivel chair and began swinging in half circles.
“You call your mother ‘Helga’,” Penny said. “Is that for my convenience or is that a Swedish thing?”
Allie stopped swinging. “It started when I was fourteen. That’s also when my father chose to dump his family.”
“Do you also call him by his first name?” Penny asked.
“I have other names for him,” Allie said in a lower voice. “And I don’t care if he hears them.”
Helga had made no mention to Penny of her marital status. Penny assumed if Helga wanted to say something on the subject, she would have done so.
Allie pulled a phone out of her pants pocket. “Do you mind if I take your picture?”
“I have a strong sense that, if I said ‘no’, you’d lay in wait for me by the building entrance and take it anyway,” Penny said. “I am trying to work, though, so how about just one?”
“That’s all I need,” Allie said. “How about turning your head just a little to the left?”
Penny complied. Allie was her boss’s daughter and she assumed there was some affection between the two if Helga shared interesting résumés over dinner.
Penny heard a clicking sound and assumed she had fulfilled her duty. She turned back to her desk and the reports on lab trials. Allie, however, stayed in her chair, fiddling with her phone.
“God, this is one amazing app,” she said, tapping her screen.
“Is there a Pokémon in this office?” Penny asked.
“Something infinitely rarer. Just another sec,” Allie said. “There.”
Allie turned the screen toward Penny. “Here’s the shot I took.” Allie had zoomed into a ‘head and shoulders’ shot. It was a competently arranged photo. Penny nodded her assent that it was, in fact a likeness of her. Me and my pointed chin, pooh-bear nose, and pale skin, she thought.
“The neat thing about this app is that it can show what you’ll look like in ten years, twenty years – you just plug in the current age and the app does the rest with algorithms,” Allie said.
“May I say I’m not interested?” Penny said, being both honest and trying to inject that Allie was getting on her nerves.
“It also works the other way,” Allie said casually. “It can take a pretty good guess at what you looked like ten or twenty years ago.”
Penny felt a chill run down her spine. Allie was smiling. She tapped the phone one more time.
“Voila,” she said. “Penny Walden seven years ago; age twenty or twenty-one.” She tapped the screen a second time and another, particularly familiar photo appeared alongside the one she had just taken.
“And P.D. Walden, from seven years ago,” Allie said, showing the dust jacket photo that had adorned the hardcover and trade paperback editions of ‘Wandering Hands’. “I could add the wig to your photo or subtract it from P.D.’s, but I think that’s unnecessary. What do you think?”
* * * * *
Penny didn’t know what to think.
Until that moment, she had lived with the satisfaction that there were only three people who knew where ‘P.D. Walden’ was spending her literary retirement. Her parents knew. And her financial advisor knew. As far as most of the rest of the world was concerned, ‘P.D. Walden’ had vanished into some literary Neverland: a one-book wonder.
And, at least in theory, P.D. Walden should certainly not have been missed. ‘Wandering Hands’ had not been at the forefront of the genre called Empowered Woman Getting Revenge on the Lecherous Professor. Other books had already explored the theme and, within a few years, shelves would bulge with similar-sounding titles.
Moreover, all of those books were increasingly an anachronism; subjects made historical curiosities by the march of progress. By the middle of the second decade of the new century, the act of leering at students – male or female – was something that would quickly imperil the careers of faculty members who engaged in such behavior. Penny had written ‘Wandering Hands’ before the era of trigger warnings and microaggressions. In theory, novels about women taking retribution against lecherous professors should be quaint artifacts,
But that was theory. The facts were considerably more troubling.
Nevertheless, Penny decided to play it cool. “How did you guess it was me?”
Allie grinned and tapped the side of her head. “Well, right initials and last name. And you did your undergraduate work in Southern California at the time the book was written and the betting money has always been that the school in the book is UCLA. But the rest of it was intuition. When P.D. Walden stopped giving interviews, it was a pretty good indication that she had moved to someplace where people wouldn’t suspect who she was. Durham, North Carolina fit the bill. But then you got your degree and moved again, even though there are plenty of biotech jobs in the Triangle and the weather is a lot nicer. It seemed to me you were covering your tracks.” Allie shrugged. “It was worth taking a photograph.”
“O.K.,” she said, and managed a slight smile. “You have me dead to rights. So what?”
“I read your book,” Allie said. “I loved it.” Then she added, “I hated the movie.”
“So did everyone else,” Penny said, and this time, the smile wasn’t forced. There were several months when all she heard around her friends at Duke was that a really good book had been turned into hash by a Hollywood studio.
Then Penny asked, “What were you doing reading my book? Shouldn’t you have been devouring Harry Potter?”
Allie again rolled her eyes; an eighteen-year-old’s non-verbal equivalent of ‘spare me’. “I read those when I was, like, nine and ten. Then I grew up. I wanted something a little juicier. You were perfect.” Allie paused. “But then you stopped writing. Why?”
“The writing was fun,” Penny replied. “The marketing wasn’t.” She pointed around the room at the lab equipment. “This is fun. Otherwise I wouldn’t have spent all those years getting a PhD.”
“But your ideas were sheer genius…” Allie started.
Penny waved her hand dismissively. “It’s fiction. A number of reviewers pointed out that the whole plot depended on Dalrymple deciding to leave his office for a private call just as Ashley was trying to figure out how to break in. The phrase one reviewer used was, ‘just a little too convenient’.”
“But you…” Allie started to say.
“Allie,” Penny interrupted. “A long time ago, a roommate told me about an enormously suave professor who put the moves on all the pretty girls. We spent one evening fantasizing about how to get even with the guy. My roommate got up the next morning and went to class. I didn’t have a class that morning, and so I started writing. Beginning, middle, and end of story.”
Allie was silent for a moment.
“So, you know who I was,” Penny said. “I consider that a closed part of my life. It’s why I go by my given name instead of the initials my publisher insisted on. I’m never going to write another book. The one I wrote was a fluke. I knew I wanted to be a scientist before I wrote the book. I became a scientist after I wrote it. If I don’t talk about it, it’s because I don’t want to be P.D. Walden any more, and I wasn’t exactly overjoyed for that year when I was her. On the other hand, I’m ecstatically happy being who I am today. Are we good?”
Penny looked to Allie’s face to see if she had gotten through.
“Yeah, I guess we’re good,” Allie said. “I see your point and I totally respect it. And I’m not going to send this photo off to Entertainment Tonight, TMZ, or The Smoking Gun. I’m not going to send it to any of the freaky sites that love to do those “look where they are now” exposés. And I especially won’t send it to the ‘WhereIsPDWalden” website which is where the real freaks reside, because those guys would start pitching their sleeping bags here and at your apartment building just for the chance to get a glimpse of you. A lot of them want to marry you. Both the men and the women.”
Penny felt she was about to retch. She knew exactly where this was going. It was the thing she thought she had put behind her. Except here it was in front of her; dressed in a tank top and short shorts.
The mistake Penny had made was not allowing P.D. Walden to become boring. Instead, she became the writer who stopped giving interviews and doing signings while the book was still a best seller. When the film came out, the handful of interviews she gave were over the telephone and, in each one, Penny pointedly declined to say where she was and what she was doing.
She became a cult figure; a twenty-first-century J.D. Salinger. Which made her background and present whereabouts the subject of intense scrutiny. Her dust jacket bio said only that she was “enrolled at a large, Southern California college”, and her fictional ‘Topanga College’ mixed elements of half a dozen institutions.
“However, to ensure that I don’t do any of those things, I want you to help me,” Allie said, snapping Penny back to the present.
“How much?” Penny said, resigned to either watching her career evaporate after five days or writing an exceedingly large check. Probably the first of many large checks.
“I know it’s ten million,” Allie said. “And twice that when you throw in dividends and interest and that other stuff.”
Penny gasped. Just the ten million was several million dollars more than what she had in her investment account from her book earnings. Allie intended to bleed her dry. “You can’t be serious.”
“That’s what he stole,” Allie said. “That’s what I can document…”
“You said ‘he’. Who is ‘he’?”
Allie blinked. “My father. He embezzled about five million bucks before he walked out on us. Since then, he’s stepped up the pace. He has stolen another five and it has all been invested so it’s more than twenty million. He hasn’t spent any of it. I know that much. He’s living off of her. But I think I know how to get it back. And, when we do, there won’t be a thing he can do about it, unless he wants to spend the rest of his sorry-ass life in jail. It would be a great story, though. Every news site would have it as a banner for weeks. ‘World Famous Horticulturalist Caught Green-Handed.”
“Why me?” Penny pleaded.
Allie stared at Penny for a long second. “Because I read your book,” she said. “You may not know it, but you have one of the most devious minds I have ever come across, and you are not afraid to put that mind to work on behalf of righting a wrong, even if it means causing considerable discomfort for the bad guy. You have a gift, and I want you to use your gift one last time before you make the world safe from cat-clawed curtains.”
Penny slumped back in her chair. “Allie, maybe you want to start at the beginning.”