Columbus plays a starring role in "Fourth Down and Out," the debut novel from veteran reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins. In this excerpt, meet the hero, private eye Andy Hayes.
Less than half an hour later the coffee shop door opened and a man who didn't look like he was enjoying a relaxing Sunday morning in mid-November walked in. White, age indeterminate but someplace in his early forties.
Tall, or taller than me, anyway, sandy hair receding, a few extra pounds but otherwise pretty good looking. Black peacoat, unbuttoned, khakis and blue button-down shirt.
"Ted Hamilton," he said, stopping at
"Nice to meet you," I said, shaking the proffered hand.
He shook his head. "Last thing I need
"So how can I help you?"
"It's bad," Hamilton said, sitting down. "I don't know what I was thinking."
I waited. It was a familiar type of
"If you can't help me, then what? I could be well and truly screwed."
"I won't know if I can help until I hear your story."
"OK," he said, pausing as he looked around the coffee shop.
He took a breath. "It's like this. I dropped my daughter off at a party Friday night-I needed the car and she was going to get a ride home later. We know the parents, and they were inviting people to stay and have a drink."
"In the kitchen."
"No-the house, I mean. What part of town."
"Upper Arlington. Big place. Near the
"That where you live?"
"No. Girls go to school together. Columbus Prep. We live in Clintonville."
"Gotcha. Go on. You had a beer."
"Right," he said. "OK, maybe a couple beers. And I hadn't eaten yet. Big mistake. I've got this blood sugar thing. Anyway, before I left I had to use the bathroom. Somebody was in the downstairs one, so I went upstairs. You know? And after I was finished and came out, I bump into my daughter's friend. The one whose house it is."
"This is still upstairs?"
"Right. In the hallway."
"What's the girl's name."
"Jennifer. Jennifer Rawlings."
"And she's like, really glad to see me. You know. 'Hey, Mr. Hamilton. How's it going? Whoa, I like that shirt. How's stuff at work.' That kind of thing."
"OK," I repeated. My ex-wives used to complain, rightfully, that I was slow on the uptake. But even I could see where this was headed.
"So we start chatting, about school and movies and whatever, and then she mentions she's got something she's been meaning to show me. In her room."
I sighed. Couldn't help myself.
"So we go in there, and God, I don't know, the next thing I know we're, ah, kissing, and she's really, like, sort of all over me."
"All over you."
"And you're pushing her away? Fighting the whole time?"
He looked down. "Not exactly."
"Then what happened?"
"Thing is," he said. "I was a little drunk. And she was, you know, really hot, if you want the truth. And things with my wife and me, lately . . ."
"So we're kissing, and I mean she seems really turned on, and then just when I'm starting to think, you know, how far is this going, she pulls away. Says she hears someone."
"I don't know. I just know it all stopped real fast after that. After a few seconds she told me I better go. So I did. Left immediately. Right down the stairs and out."
"Anybody see you leave?"
"No idea. I was in a haze at that point."
"I take it that wasn't the end of things, or we wouldn't be sitting here."
He shook his head. "Yesterday I was checking my e-mail, and I saw this message from someone I didn't recognize. Subject line said, 'You and Jennifer.' My stomach dropped. Didn't know what to think. Guessed maybe it was from her father or something."
"I'm guessing it wasn't."
"I click on it and there's a real short message. 'One thousand dollars by midnight Monday or this goes up on YouTube.' "
"That's it. I click on the attachment and it's a video. A video of us. In that room. It's, it's crystal clear."
"Any idea who the e-mail's from?"
He shook his head again. "The address was just letters and numbers. I figured it was her. But then I realized somebody had to shoot the footage, unless she did it herself somehow, remotely."
"Any idea how they got your e-mail?"
"Who knows. Internet? School directory? It's out there."
I said, "May I see?"
He nodded. "Figured you'd ask." He pulled out his phone, tapped on the screen a few times, then handed it to me. He looked away while I watched.
There was no sound, but he was right about the picture quality. It was good, the images clear and crisp, embarrassingly so, and there was no mistaking it was him. And he was right: it was bad.
I looked up at him.
"What in God's name possessed you to go into that girl's room?"
"I don't know," he said. "I'm screwed, aren't I?"
"You've got a big problem, that's for sure. So let's start with the basics: any idea how old that girl is?"
"She's eighteen. I'm sure of that."
"How do you know?"
"She just had a birthday-my daughter went to her party."
"You're sure? Because if she's underage, then I have to report it to police and this conversation's over."
"I swear. I wouldn't-I wouldn't cross that line."
"Big of you."
"I know I made a mistake. That's why I'm here. I just want to know if there's anything you can do to fix this."
"On what you want me to do."
"I want you to help me."
"First way I can help is play the middleman and handle the money."
"You mean I should pay them?"
"That's not what I had in mind."
"Probably smart. Second way I can help is tell them, on your behalf, to fuck off."
"Run the risk of them posting it? No way."
"Why not? What's the worst that could happen?"
"Everything. Marriage. Ruin me at work."
"What do you do?"
"Government relations. Work for grocery stores and liquor outlets. Lobbyist, basically."
"Ever had this kind of problem before?"
"Never," he said. "That's why this is so bad."
"First time for everything."
He grimaced. "Anything else you can do?"
"Option three is I have a friendly conversation with this girl. Persuade her it's not in her best interest, and whoever else is involved, to move forward."
"You could do that? Get them to call it off? Get the video?"
I shook my head. "Not in this day and age. A copy of that video is sitting on a server someplace and somebody's laptop and probably a flash drive, and that's just for starters. It's always going to be out there. You're going to have to live with that. Best I can do is keep them from posting it."
"Jesus Christ," Hamilton said. "What's the good of any of this, then?"
"Good question. I can make a strong argument on your behalf, and we'll cross our fingers. That's about all we've got right now."
"There's no way you could fix this
"If by permanently you mean wind the tape back, return to a moment when it hadn't happened, then no. You're going to have to accept the possibility that someday the video will surface."
He went silent. I dipped my muffin in my coffee, took a bite. Looked out the coffee shop window and saw two women jog past. A man walking his dog the other direction turned to check them out. Another jogger, a man, passed the dog walker and checked him out. Sunday in German Village.
I heard Hamilton say, "When could you start?"
"You still want to hire me?"
"Sure," he said. Then he added: "What other choice do I have?"
"What we already talked about. Go home and tell your wife. Even if you decide we go after them, try to stare them down, it's better that she knows now. I mean, if your marriage is something you think worth's saving."
"I can only imagine her reaction."
"Don't tell her?"
"Don't imagine. Just do it and hope to
He thought about this for several seconds. Then he said,"If you don't mind me asking, you know who Art Schlichter is, right?"
I sighed. I got this question a lot. "Former Ohio State and NFL quarterback who lost everything to his gambling addiction. Yes, I know who Schlichter is. What does that have to do with anything?"
"Nothing, I guess."
"But you asked."
"There are some similarities. You know."
"Here's the difference," I said. "We both went to prison, but I'm the one sitting in a coffee shop on my day off trying to save your ass."
Hamilton chose Door Number 3, though without telling his wife yet, while I'd attempt to make the problem go away as much as it was possible in the digital age.
It wasn't the option I'd have picked, but I was now up by a $500 deposit plus $100 a day in expenses. I lingered after Hamilton left, gulped a bit more coffee and took another bite of my muffin.
I had one task to do before I got to work, and I wasn't looking forward to it. I dialed the number from memory.
"Hello?" I could tell right away I had awakened her.
"It's Andy," I said. "Sorry to call this early."
"Damn right it's early," she said, and I didn't respond, despite the fact it was nearing ten.
Instead I said, "Something's come up. A job. Guy called me while I was having coffee this morning."
"You can't make it." A statement, not
"I could lie and say there's still a chance. Or I might be there, but just a little late. But, you're right, I can't make it. I don't know how it's going to unfold. So I'll tell the truth."
"And you know how I feel about the truth."
"And you also know how I feel about broken promises."
"And how I feel about that expression."
I didn't say anything.
"On that note," she said, "Goodbye."
The hardest thing was not knowing whether she was disappointed I couldn't make it. I knew I was.
At least, I think I was.
Back in the house I rent on Mohawk Street, I started by searching Facebook for Jennifer Rawlings. I found the same pretty-looking blonde from the video, her page locked to outsiders.
I thought about sending her a Facebook message, but that could cut either way: it might provoke a return call, or it might scare her off.
Not sure what else to do, I called the number for the only Rawlings I could find listed in Upper Arlington.
"Hello?" A woman's voice. Too old to
"This is Mr. Weatherbee?" I said. "From the high school? For Jennifer?"
"She's not here right now. Something I can help with?"
"Wouldn't you know, our website's gone down and I've been getting calls and e-mails about the assignment-lot of kids say they can't access it, and it's due tomorrow. I thought I'd just pass on the details by phone. Quicker that way. Do you know what time she'll be home?"
"She didn't say. Could I take a message?"
"Might be easier if I just talked to her myself. Or maybe I'll e-mail her and you can just tell her to check that. As long as you think she'll see it in time."
"Oh, I'm sure she will. And I'll text her just to be sure. She's at the library, supposed to be doing homework. What class did you say this was for?"
"What did you say your name was again?"
"How about I leave you my number?"
It's a funny thing, but over the years I've found that nothing allays suspicion on calls like this more than offering a way to contact me.
"Ah, sure," she said. "Just a moment."
When she returned to the phone, I gave her my cell number.
"Nice speaking with you, Mrs. Rawlings. You have a nice day."
One of the things I like about Columbus is that, as big a city as it's gotten to be, it still takes only about twenty minutes to get anywhere. And so it was that in almost exactly that amount of time I was driving up Tremont to the library in Upper Arlington. It was a tony old suburb full of comfortable houses, wide boulevards, tall trees, fine golf courses, stellar schools, and a Fourth of July parade that people start reserving lawn space for days ahead of time. It was a bit much at times-the 'burb's nickname, "Uppity Arlington," was not always undeserved-but its charms were hard to argue with.
Jack Nicklaus grew up there, and Dave Thomas, the guy who founded Wendy's, called it home for forty years. My namesake, the real Woody Hayes, moved there after landing the Ohio State job in 1950.
Which was one of the reasons, the cost of real estate aside, why I'd never considered living there myself. Just wouldn't have worked out.
I eased my blue Honda Odyssey into an open space in the library parking lot, got out of the car, and headed for the entrance.
Then I reconsidered and took a stroll around the lot instead.
I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for, but I found it anyway underneath a tree at the end of a row of cars: a gleaming new red Mini Cooper with the license plate "JENI KAR."
I walked into the library, went over to the information desk, and explained my situation. A minute later I heard the announcement over the PA system. And a few minutes after that Jennifer Rawlings walked up to the desk, wearing a tight white sweater, jeans that fit her quite nicely, and a frown that could have stopped Sherman's army.
"I'm really sorry," I said. "I dinged your car as I was pulling in. Do you have a sec-" I said, and gestured toward the door.
"Oh geez," she said, with no improvement to the frown.
"Sorry," I murmured, and we walked out together, the librarian at the desk casting a sympathetic look in my direction.
We walked without talking until we reached her car, at which point she stopped and demanded, "Where is it?"
I took two steps toward her. I said, "You're Jennifer Rawlings?"
"Yeah, that's me," she said. "How'd you know my-"
"Here's the deal," I said. "I'm going to talk for five minutes and you're going to listen. Interrupt me and I'll key the Michigan fight song into the driver's side door of your pretty little vehicle here. Understood?"
"I-" she began.
"I'm here on behalf of Ted Hamilton. I know all about the party. I've seen the e-mail and the video. I know what you're up to and what you're asking."
"I, I don't know what you're talking about," she tried.
"No interruptions, remember?" I said, jingling my keys. "What you're doing is extortion, and it's illegal. You can go to prison for it. You and whoever shot that video. But even worse is the publicity. Got any college plans? You can kiss them goodbye if this hits the papers."
She stared toward the library, not meeting my eyes. But at least she was listening.
"I can see how you thought this might be pretty easy. A simple way to make some quick cash, not that you look exactly poverty stricken. I'll wager Mr. Hamilton wasn't even the first. But all that's in the past. The situation is now like this. Mr. Hamilton, who I represent, is declining to meet your demand.
If you choose to post the video, he and I will be at the county prosecutor's office and the local FBI headquarters and the Upper Arlington Police Department and the sheriff 's and the dogcatcher's and whoever else I can think of before you've had three hits on the site. Am I making myself at all clear?"
She didn't say anything. Just looked at her car.
"On the other hand, should you choose to rethink your request, we'll simply walk away-on one condition. I want the video camera, the laptop, and every memory stick and external drive and mouse used in this undertaking. If I'm in a good mood when I'm done wiping them clean, you'll get them back."
I looked at her to see if I was getting through. She met my glance, then looked away.
"Unfortunately," I said, looking at my watch, "I can't be as generous with my deadline as you were. Therefore, you have until eight o'clock tomorrow morning. If I don't have the stuff by then, I'll assume you're not accepting my offer and we'll head to the police. Got it?"
After a moment, she said, slowly, "I really don't know what you're talking about."
"That's up to you," I said. I reached into my wallet, pulled out my business card, and handed it to her. She wouldn't take it, so I tucked it under a windshield wiper on her car.
"Eight a.m.," I said. "Thanks for your time."