(Cross posted on One Bite at a Time.)

It started out like a normal Saturday: grocery shopping, run a couple of errands, then home for lunch. Last Saturday’s first errand was a trip to the Post Office to pick up Express Mail that had been waiting since Wednesday.

It was a cardboard mailer, standard letter size. A book, I thought, though why someone would spend $25.15 to Express Mail a book for review was beyond me.I opened the envelope walking to the car. No book. Two pieces of cardboard stiffened the envelope to protect the small package inside, wrapped in the front page of Tuesday’s San Diego paper. Inside the paper was a microcassette recorder. Taped to the recorder was a note written in a feminine hand:

Play me.

I had my finger on the button when my inner mystery fan kicked in. Isn’t this the scene where the unsuspecting galoot blows up and they roll the opening credits? I put the recorder back in the envelope and called the Beloved Spousal Equivalent and Research Assistant. She said not to push the button. She’d look into it. I gave her the name and return address and went about my business. If mailing it didn’t blow it up, driving it to the supermarket shouldn’t cause any problems.

The return address was a beachfront condo in San Diego, currently for sale. (Good luck with that.) The recorder looked normal, if a little scuffed. Still, I didn’t recognize the name or address, my address was in an unusual format, and spending $25 to ensure that only I could pick it up didn’t sit right. Probably too cautious, but some mistakes you only get to make once.

The FBI referred us to the Postal Inspectors. The first guy I talked to asked all the expected questions: describe the envelope, who do you work for, any reason to think someone would want to do you harm? When none of those answers alarmed him, he said I should play the tape to hear what it said.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I don’t mean to be paranoid, but I could have done that without involving the federal government. If this thing blows up, I’m going to be pissed.”

“WAIT!! DON’T PUSH THE BUTTON!!”

He hooked me up with a Dangerous Materials Investigator, who asked me all the same questions, plus a few more. Listened to what I had to say, decided it was worth coming over with his cool tools. Used a sniffer to check for biological, chemical, or radiation hazards. Negative. The BSERA was bummed. She thought a positive test would earn us a free housecleaning.

The agent took three X-rays, let us look at them over his shoulder.

“You know what this looks like. Mr. King?”

‘Yeah. A tape recorder.”

I played the tape while he packed up. A woman and a man went through what sounded like the first two pages of a story or screenplay. The woman was a writer; the man could have been a shrink or a cop. She told him about Julia, a character in the woman’s first story. About how she saw Julia—not a woman who looked like Julia, but Julia—talking to a hotel desk clerk, using the exact words as in the story. Told him how it couldn’t be a coincidence, because Julia then did exactly what she did in the story: took out a gun and blew her head off. This was the woman’s curse. For over twenty years, her characters had been coming to life. Not just to her, or on the page. For real.

That’s all that was on the tape, and all I know. True story. Swear to God.

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Comment by Dana King on March 20, 2009 at 1:07am
I'll admit, I was steamed after I learned what the deal was last night. Today I'm looking at it as fodder for a future story. I've also met a couple of nice folks over at the ARG site who may come in handy with background into this hobby, should I ever decide to write said story.

The Express Mail was extreme; I only hope St. Martin's didn;t have anything to do with it. Reminds me of the great line from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID: If he'd just give me the money he's spending to get me to stop robbing him, I'd stop robbing him.
Comment by I. J. Parker on March 20, 2009 at 12:26am
What a tale! And what a nuisance for you. I would have been outraged. It's much worse than those aggravating phone calls trying to sell me something. What makes people think they can sell stuff by annoying customers, or worse.
And of course it's a good example of how stupid promotion can get from a money standpoint.
Comment by Dana King on March 19, 2009 at 11:47am
Looks like this is just an Alternate Reality Game being used to promote the English translation of a German book released in the States on March 17. I hope St. Martin's didn't pay for this, as they spend $25 to send me a teaser for a book that retails for $25.95, and no reference to the book. Maybe someone thought I was into ARG, though I have no idea why.

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