The Ginger Box

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
R.J. Snowberger


Photo Credit: KotomiCreations/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The five of us sat, ignoring each other. We didn’t know why we were there. The will had already been read, the inheritance dispersed. There was nothing left to do. So, why had we all been summoned?

I shifted in my thinly padded chair to keep my butt from going numb and passed furtive glances over my cousins. Alec and Dirk were playing games on their phones, while Julia had her nose in a romance novel, and Maria—bless her heart—balanced the spine of a coloring book against her knee, attempting to fill in an animated cat with a gel pen.

When I thought about it, I realized I didn’t actually have a problem with Maria. The snobby, trust-fund triplets, yeah, but not Maria. We just hadn’t seen each other much since she had moved away when we were teenagers. We were merely out of touch. That was nothing to dislike anyone over.

I was considering going over to talk to Maria when the lawyer finally entered the room. He was a stocky fellow with brown hair that had been slicked back with so much gel, it lay flat against his scalp. His tucked-in, collared shirt was a little too tight and had a small stain in the middle that played peek-a-boo with his suit jacket as he moved.

“Hello, everyone. I am Peter Bradley, your grandmother’s lawyer,” he announced with a jovial smile. “I guess you’re all wondering why you’ve been invited here, today.” He looked like a clean-cut Hagrid, offering us a scholarship to Hogwarts. We were not amused.

His smile faltered and he continued. “So, when your grandmother died, she left most of her things to either the VA or your parents—”

“We already know that,” Alec interrupted. “It was in the will.”

“She left our mother a broach,” Julia added, face lowered and eyebrow lifted in disgust.

“Right, but what you don’t know, is that she left something for you, too,” Mr. Bradley replied with an ‘Ah, I’ve got you there’ expression. He then hesitated before correcting himself. “One of you, that is.”

“Which one of us?” Dirk asked.

“Well, that is to be determined by this.” Mr. Bradley held up a small stack of papers. After passing the pages out, he stepped back and watched as we scanned the document. He seemed amused by our bewilderment.

Maria was the first to speak. “A crossword puzzle?”

Even as an adult, her voice still had a high, squeaky pitch. When we were children, I used to tease her about it, calling her Maria Mouse. She would protest, retaliating with, “Yeah, well, you’re Piper Pepper” to which I would say, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Then we’d both pout, and Grandma Pat would tell us to “get over it” while simultaneously giving us sweets.

I guess I unconsciously smiled at the memory, because next thing I knew, Mr. Bradley was saying, “See, Piper is excited about the puzzle.” How a smile translated to ‘excited’ I’m not sure, but I received a few smoldering glares from the triplets for it.

“Now, the instructions are quite straightforward,” the lawyer continued. “The first one to finish the crossword puzzle, discovering the hidden message in that center column there, receives the prize.”

“And what is the prize?” Alec asked. His tone implied he wanted to know whether or not the puzzle was worth his time.

“Unfortunately, only the one who receives it will find out the answer to that,” Mr. Bradley replied.

“So, you don’t even know?” Alec asked incredulously.

Mr. Bradley ignored him, continuing on with the instructions. “There is only one stipulation. The puzzle must be completed alone. You are forbidden to help each other, so no group sharing.” He passed us all a stern look, but it was obvious that he was referring to Alec, Dirk, and Julia.

“My number is at the bottom of the page,” he stated, drawing our eyes to the name and number printed below the clues. “Let me know when you’ve finished.” He left then, leaving the five of us sitting in uncomfortable chairs with nothing but a crossword puzzle and the hope of maybe receiving a mystery prize.

Maria was the first to react. She packed up her coloring book and gel pens, and stood up. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve got a job, a husband, and a very busy two-year-old. I loved Grandma Pat, and I’ll miss her, but I don’t have time for games. I wish you all the best.” She gave us a small smile before following in Mr. Bradley’s footsteps, leaving her copy of the puzzle behind in her chair.

“Weirdo,” Julia snorted as the door closed behind Maria.

I immediately felt the urge to slap her and shoved my hands under my legs to keep myself in check. So Maria was a little weird. She still had some good points. I may not have a husband or a kid, but I did have a job. A full-time job—one that paid the bills and provided money for food.

Even as those facts crossed my mind, however, I was still considering the possibility of taking some time off. Just a day or two. Plus, there was no way I could allow one of the triplets to win, right?

When I arrived back at my apartment, I decided to see how hard the puzzle was before making any work-related decisions. Who knows? Maybe it wouldn’t be as time consuming as Maria had thought.

As far as games went, I hadn’t been all that surprised that Grandma Pat had chosen a crossword as her way to test us. She had always loved them, putting aside an hour or so every morning to fill out the one in the daily newspaper. She claimed they kept her sharp.

“Make sure you always find time to engage your brain in something that really tests you, Piper,” she would tell me. “You don’t want to become dimwitted.”

Upon first perusal of the clues, I experienced a brief moment of glee when I thought the puzzle might not be that difficult to complete. One, three, and five down, for instance, were simple: the clue “onion garden” obviously referred to chives, while “Grandpa Richard’s favorite game” was pool, and “The only type of tea” was loose-leaf.

As I filled in these squares, however, I noticed that none of the letters corresponded with the central column. The clues I’d answered were just distractions from the main point of the puzzle. I knew I shouldn’t have been shocked by this. Of course Grandma Pat wouldn’t make the clues to the main answer that easy.

Annoyed with myself, I found the clue for nine down—the middle column, mystery answer—and read it. It was about as vague as vague comes: “Where hope is kept.” What was that supposed to mean? The first words that came to me were ‘mind’ and ‘heart,’ but the answer had to be nine letters long.

Since columns six, eight, and ten across intersected with nine down, I switched my attention to them, hoping they would provide some letters for me to start with. Their clues, however, turned out to be just as vague: “Where love awaited,” “A memorial,” and “China.”

I decided it was time for some coffee.

While listening to my old coffeepot gurgle and slurp in its attempt to brew the nectar of life, I grabbed a Kit Kat bar from the freezer and pondered the clues I’d read so far. “Where love awaited” and “A memorial” were beyond me, but “China” struck a chord. I highly doubted that Grandma Pat was referring to the country, which meant it had to be a china set.

When we were five and six, Maria and I had been obsessed with tea parties. We each had our own little plastic sets, but sometimes on a quiet Saturday afternoon, Grandma Pat would bring out her white bone china set with the hand-painted, purple pansies, and we would have a real tea party. I could still remember her telling us, “You always need to have a set of four cups: one for yourself, two for your guests, and one for a surprise visitor.”

I froze for half a second, allowing the memory to wash over me, before snatching up the puzzle. To my delight, I found that the answer to column ten across only needed four letters. I wrote in F.O.U.R and stepped back, proud of myself for having figured out one of the hard clues.

Once my coffee was brewed, I mixed in some cream and sugar and then returned to the crossword. Deciding to save the main clues for later, I focused on some of the easier ones.

As I read over the clues, I found myself amazed at how a simple phrase or word could elicit such strong memories. Stories and funny instances that I had long forgotten came back to me in a flash, filling my mind with happier times. It was nice, but sad.

One thing I did notice, though, was that most of the memories had occurred when only Maria and I were present. The triplets wouldn’t have had any part in them, having grown up in Ohio instead of in the same town as our grandparents like Maria and I had. They wouldn’t know that Maria had once called Grandpa Richard’s eggplants purple squash, or how I had picked a leaf from their fig tree, exclaiming, “This was Adam and Eve’s clothes!”

So, why would Grandma Pat contrive a test that only either Maria or I could finish?

With the easy clues out of the way, I saw that a letter had been provided in the columns of the harder clues. From this—and some of the memories that had sprung up—I discovered that the answer to “Where love awaited” was hospital—because Grandma Pat had met Grandpa Richard when she was a nurse during Vietnam—and “a Memorial” referred to the azalea bush that Grandma Pat had planted in memory of her mother.

Now, all that remained was that center word.

The answer took me a while to figure out. However, with only the letters ‘I’, ‘E’, and ‘O’ and the phrase “Where hope is kept” to work with, I couldn’t fault myself too much. I could only remember Grandma Pat using the phrase a couple of times, and I had no idea what it meant. After all, how could hope be kept in a ginger box?

The ‘ginger box’ was a small silver-and-gold box that had sat on our grandparents’ mantle. It hadn’t seemed very special. My grandmother only used it to keep her ginger candies in. She had offered me a ginger candy once, but it had been too spicy, and I’d spit it out. Grandma Pat had laughed and said, “You get used to them,” but she never offered me another.

I learned later that she’d acquired the habit of sucking on them during her time as a nurse. She’d said they helped her ignore the stench. Afterwards, she’d carried them around when she was an activist in the late seventies and early eighties, standing up for women’s rights. “They gave me courage,” she’d explained.

The box of candies obviously held a special meaning to Grandma Pat. But why leave it to one of her grandchildren? And why create such a difficult puzzle in order to see who received it?

After typing in Mr. Bradley’s number, I pressed my cell phone up to my ear and waited. When he answered, I read him off the answers to the puzzle. I could hear a smile in the lawyer’s voice as he instructed me to meet him the next morning at his office.

Mr. Bradley only grinned as he pressed the ginger box into my hands. When I just stared awkwardly down at it, he added, “You’ll understand once you read the note.”

I decided to wait until I was in the security of my own home before I did anything. I don’t know why. It just seemed proper. So, while seated cross-legged on my brown, squishy couch, I opened the box. I half expected to find old ginger candies inside, but, instead, there was only a folded envelope. My heart hammered in my chest as I withdrew the crinkled letter and read its contents.

Dear Piper,

Yes, I knew it would be you reading these words. Though it was obvious that you would be the one receiving this gift, I only thought it fair to allow the others a crack at it.

I daresay, the triplets never stood a chance, but they needed to feel involved. They always did care more about physical possessions than life experiences. That left you and Maria. However, I’ve known for a while now that Maria is contented with where she is in life. She doesn’t want to relive the past, nor think of what could happen in the future. Which leaves you.

You’ve had it hard, Piper, and that’s okay. Life is never easy. This box can either financially stabilize you—for it is made of pure gold and silver—or inspire you to continue working towards a brighter future. It has been in the family since the early seventeenth century and has been my reminder that life goes on. It has also been somewhat of a good luck charm. I hope it will be the same for you no matter what you decide.

Love you, dear,

Grandma Pat

I blinked. She was handing me a choice between hope and riches. A smirk crept over my lips at the realization that I could be richer than the triplets.

I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket, distracting me. I knew who it was without looking.

“How did you do it?” Julia’s voice exclaimed. “That puzzle is impossible.”

“Really? I didn’t think so.”

She huffed in response. “Whatever. So, what was the prize?”

I looked down at the ginger box and smiled. “Hope,” I replied, and hung up.

pencil

Email: rjsnowberger[at]gmail.com

Special Warranty Activated

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Edsel Little/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

That ‘Everything’ bagel was a mistake.

I could smell my own breath—the distinctive waft of garlic and onions—as it crystallized, mid-sigh, in frigid, early morning air. Bits of poppy and sesame seeds were wedged between my teeth. I ran my tongue along my gums, grimacing as I tried to work them free.

I should have stuck to my regular order.

Plain bagel, lightly toasted. Small coffee, black. No fuss, no mess. No lingering onion breath, nor visible evidence to clear away. My order took longer than usual today and by the time I was out the door, I’d missed my train.

I should have known.

Deviation from routine equals disruption, then distraction, which leads to mistakes, then to reorganization and, if all these warning signs go unheeded, demotion. Deviation from routine is how you find yourself alone on the platform in the freezing cold, digging bagel bits out of your teeth while you wait for the train to take you to a job you hate, in a life you never wanted.

But I never seem to learn the lesson.

I stomped my booted feet against the frozen tiled pavement and checked my watch for the tenth time in last two minutes. According to the blinking sign above the platform, not only had I missed my train, the next one was running late. Not that it really mattered; I could parade in naked to the call center, or stumble in drunk, and no one would so much as look up or bat an eye.

Of course I’ve never done that. Too conspicuous.

The whole point of my working there is to blend in and take up no more space in the pack of pathetic sad sacks who work there than necessary. I resign myself to that existence because I have no choice, but I would much rather arrive on my own terms. On time.

A long, exasperated exhale escaped. At least my breath was clearing up.

The train finally rumbled into the station, the blurred faces in its packed cars coming into focus as it slid to a jerky stop. The doors jutted open and a stream of passengers spilled out and mingled with those waiting. I joined the advancing swarm, expertly navigating around the elbows, briefcases and backpacks until I found a seat. I brightened slightly; I never get to sit on my regular train.

Cellphones, tablets, and the occasional book or newspapers appear in the hands of my fellow commuters, pulled from their various purses and pockets. Their eyes glaze over; their jaws go slack as they disappear into them, shielded from unsolicited small talk and awkward eye contact with the people planted much too close within their personal space.

This is why I hate having bad breath. I can’t control who breathes on me, but I can lead by example.

“Excuse me, Miss, can you think of an eight-letter word meaning ‘to cause to function or act?’” says the man sitting next to me. I jump at his voice and my eyes lock involuntarily with his for a second. He is a jovial, unassuming old man: round face, pointed nose, grey eyes peering out from behind thick glasses, wispy tufts of white hair poking out beneath a faded green cap. I glance away, but not fast enough to discourage further conversation.

“Starts with ‘A’?” he ventures, eyebrows raised hopefully. He gestures to the crossword puzzle on a tattered page of newspaper in his hand.

I’m caught. But I don’t have to play along. “Don’t know. Sorry,” I reply.

He looks crestfallen.

“Active?” The woman across the aisle pipes up. She puts down her knitting and shoots me the briefest of glares as the man counts the squares in the crossword grid. He shakes his head and sighs.

“Activate?” I offer. I wouldn’t normally get involved but the woman’s righteous glare shames me; she’s like the teacher who guilts you into partnering up with the fat kid with no friends.

The man resumes his counting—the word fits. He fills in the spaces carefully and looks up at us in triumph. “How about another? I need an eight letter word for ‘a stipulation, explicit or implied, in assurance of some particular in connection with a contract—‘”

The wording of the crossword clue stirs up a memory. A monotone voice, an odd instruction from the past:

Study these definitions; you’ll need them when someone asks for help with a crossword…

“Warranty,” I state before I’m aware of it. I feel a familiar unease stirring; old instincts aroused. I’m hyperaware of my surroundings, my mind starts taking in and noting the smallest details: the knitting woman’s wool is baby blue, the person three seats down from me just spilled tea down his front, a child’s mitten is lying abandoned on the floor under the emergency buzzer…

It could be nothing… don’t read into it unnecessarily…

The old man smiles and nods his confirmation but I already knew it was the right word. My body grows tense in my seat. He busies himself with the puzzle but keeps his eyes trained on me. My gaze shifts towards the door, where I count the blinking lights above indicating the train’s route. Four more stops.

They’re supposed to ask for help three times… he’s only asked twice.

“One more—seven letters, means ‘an exceptional degree; particularly valued’…” The third question. He trails off and there’s a weight in his voice that wasn’t there a moment ago. He’s knows that I know and he’s waiting.

“I really can’t help you—” I grope for my bag and try to stand up as the train starts its screeching deceleration. It’s not my stop but that doesn’t matter. I need to get off the train right now. The car rocks as it rounds a turn and the lights dim for just a second. Before I’m on my feet,a strong hand seizes my elbow and pulls me back into the seat.

“Oh, I think you can,” the man says, his voice low. His smile remains benign but his eyes darken ever so slightly. His hand is gripping my elbow, squeezing it so hard I almost wince.

“It starts with an ‘S’…” He hisses the letter and I feel a chill that has nothing to do with the gust of icy wind that rushes in when the doors fly open.

“Special…?” I whisper.

He nods again and releases my arm. I fight the urge to rub where his fingers dug in through the thick tweed of my coat. He gets up, touches the brim of his cap in a gesture of farewell to the woman across the aisle before he exits the train. He glances back at me for a moment while the door buzzer blares. The train jolts ahead and he’s gone.

I look down at the paper he placed on my lap and see it, intersected within the crossword puzzle, the signal from a former lifetime:

Special Warranty Activated

*

“You’re late.”

It’s an hour and seventeen minutes later when I walk into the half-empty diner. It’s next to the Specialty Electronic Shop on 10th Street, with an ‘Active Warranty’ sign in the window. The man from the train is waiting for me.

I move to sit in the booth behind him, with our backs to each other as is procedure, but he beckons me to sit opposite him instead, my back to the door.

I slide into the booth and bite back the sense of dread that creeps up from my gut. I need eyes on the door and I don’t have them. I catch a crude image of the door reflected in the dented metal napkin dispenser. It’s better than nothing.

“Did you forget how to interpret the signal?” He taps his watch at me in a ‘tsk, tsk’ gesture; all traces of the old-man joviality gone. He’s irritated, impatient.

I don’t apologize for being late; just as every other day, when I show up is one of the few cards I have to play.

The first words are critical… don’t rush them. You have all the time in the world…

I take my time getting settled: I pull my gloves off finger by finger, and then rub my cold hands together. I unwind my scarf in near slow motion.

Get your bearings. Easy does it…

I hear the bell above the door jangle every time someone enters. The early lunch crowd is arriving: the businessmen in their tailored suits, the old ladies shuffling in with their bulging shopping bags, the solo diners gravitating towards the counter. The noise level swells as the tables fill up.

I turn my attention back the man. His mouth twists itself into an irked half-smile as he takes a sip from his chipped tea cup.

“Terrible. Over-steeped.” He finally says, exasperated by my continued silence.

Good… Make him come to you.

“Would you like something? Coffee? A late breakfast?” He pushes a greasy laminated menu towards me.

I ignore it and clamp my eyes on his. “I already ate.”

“I can tell. You have something stuck in your teeth.” He smiles at my obvious annoyance. The bagel that put today in motion refuses to die.

“Who are you and what do you want?” I ask. My voice is devoid of emotion, calm even, despite the sweat gathering under my arms and at the base of my neck. They trained me well.

“You can call me Carl,” he says, offering his hand which I refuse to shake. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Mathilda.”

“I go by Brenda now,” I counter before I can stop myself.

He cocks his head to one side thoughtfully.

I gave him—‘Carl’exactly what he wanted: a noticeable reaction to my real name. I press my hands into the table and take a steadying breath.

Stay in control. You can do this.

“I know. Brenda Southland. 31 years old. Entry-level Customer Service Representative. Single. No children. No friends. Not even a cat,” he recites in a bored voice. He opens his jacket to reveal a thick manila envelope tucked inside. He taps it over his heart before zipping his jacket cheerily.

“What do you want?” I repeat, raising my voice a hair above normal.

Steady now… it’s a test… stay with him…

“I want to eat lunch. I’m starving. Then we’ll talk.” He snaps his fingers and a waitress, glaring haughtily at him, appears at our booth. “Two cheeseburgers, please.”

“As I was saying, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m aware of your current predicament—your demotion and subsequent relocation—and I want to help.” He removes his glasses, polishes them on a gleaming white handkerchief and puts them back on.

I open my mouth to respond but he cuts me off.

“Don’t insult me by pretending you don’t need my help. You were a good agent but you got sloppy. And now you’re stuck warming the bench. But you’re still valuable. I’m willing to put in a good word with The Administration. Get you back in the game.” He watches me draw in a breath. “What do you think, Mathilda?”

My real name sends me back to that last fateful mission:

I’m alone, crouched in a darkened motel corridor. I’m waiting for the ‘all-clear’ but something’s not right. My watch reads one minute past the specified drop time. I catch the faintest whiff of something in the air… cigarette smoke? No, gunpowder. I hold in a gasp as something dark and red oozes slowly under the door. Then I run.

I was training at the call center less than 48 hours later, or rather, ‘Brenda’ was…

I snap out of my memory. Carl is munching happily on his cheeseburger, waiting for my response.

“The Administration made it very clear the agents were killed because of my mistakes,” I tell him. “I don’t see them changing their minds so easily.”

He takes a long time to finish chewing as he considers what I said. He gestures for the ketchup, lobs a healthy dollop on his French fries and leans in closer. His voice is so faint, barely a whisper but there’s no mistaking his excitement:

“The Administration needs new intelligence. The easiest way to get it is to access a large communication network. Tell me, ‘Brenda’,” he says, a disgusting leer on his face. “What is it again that you do all day at the call center?”

Realization dawns, bright and clear, and a rush of goosebumps shiver up my arms. My pulse quickens. I just stare at him, unable to speak.

It’s so simple…what’s the catch?

“What do they want me to do, exactly?” I ask, breathless. My knee jumps under the table so I reach down a hand to steady it. The bell rings as the diner door opens. In the napkin dispenser, I see the distorted reflection of two construction workers in bright orange vests enter.

“Plant the malware on the server. When the system backs itself up, a copy will automatically download to the district server. The Administration will have its access and you’ll have your life back.” He smiles and for the first time all day, so do I.

Suddenly, a raised voice startles the noisy restaurant into a stunned silence.

“FBI! Freeze! Put your hands where we can see them!”

It’s the voice of Special Agent Mathilda Hawthorne—me.

I’m on my feet, my one hand brandishing my badge, the other closed around my gun, which I retrieved from my boot in one swift motion. My dining companion never saw it coming. He cowers, arms over his head.

“Great work, Agent Hawthorne,” crackles the voice in my earpiece, my partner in the Bureau.

“Thanks. Let’s get him out of here,” I motion to the construction workers, my backup, and they haul him out of the booth and into the waiting van.

“Nice undercover work, Hawthorne.” says Agent Cole as he tightens the handcuffs on ‘Carl’. “But just so you know, there’s something stuck in your teeth.”

pencil

Erin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Rendez-Vous

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Erin McDougall


Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“What do you mean, ‘He’s not there’?!

The screechiness in my mother’s voice rose to such a painful pitch, I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Sure enough, she launched into a full-on tirade, her words audible to the people waiting across the room.

“You had one job to do today, Olivia. They knew you were picking him up at 11:30, didn’t they? Where is he?” she demanded even louder this time. The others in the lobby exchanged pitying looks and glanced away quickly when I caught them. All I could do was shrug apologetically and turn back to my phone and my panicked mother. Her irritating jab at my failure to do my ‘one job’ today aside, I vowed to keep my head, no matter what she said.

“Mom, they knew I was picking him up. The nurse said he was waiting in the lobby earlier, but he now he’s not here,” I replied as calmly as I could. “And that’s all I know so far.” There was a split-second pause on the line—all the warning I needed to hold the phone away again.

“Did they even bother to look for him? He could have fallen or something. Where did he go?” she shrieked. “Never mind, I’m almost at the hall… I’ll have to stall everyone. Just… find out where your grandfather disappeared to on his 95th birthday!” She hung up.

I was severely tempted to throw my phone in frustration. Any other day, I would have laughed at how Grandpa was pushing my mother’s buttons in that perfect way only he knows how. But not today. Exasperated, I leaned against the antique lamppost and let out a long sigh.

A cloud shifted outside and the sun suddenly poured into lobby’s tall front windows. It reflected blindingly off something on the floor directly into my eyes. I blinked and noticed a pair of glasses sitting next to the lamppost. As I picked them up, I realized with a start the glasses belonged to Grandpa.

The lobby was empty, except for the nurse at the desk. As I approached her, she glanced up nervously. I felt bad for her. The staff here at Grandpa’s seniors’ condo does a great job and he’s never complained about anything, except the Early Bird Special, which he insists he’s still too young for. But my mom always finds something to criticize and the poor nurses continuously take the brunt of it.

“I’m so sorry—I really don’t know what else to say,” the nurse began anxiously. Her nametag read Carmen. “He was right there and then I had to take a phone call. When I turned back, he was gone… he has a remarkable amount of energy for someone his age—”

“It’s not your fault,” I soothed, and showed her the glasses. “Aren’t these my grandfather’s? They were on the floor, by the lamppost.”

She shrugged and offered to take the glasses back to his room.

“Thanks, but I’ll take care of it. Maybe I’ll find him hiding in there too,” I said casually, but I was starting to get worried as I made my way quickly down the hall to his room.

“Grandpa? It’s Olivia,” I called as I knocked. No answer. As I stepped inside, I breathed in the familiar scents of Old Spice aftershave and strong coffee. It was the first time I’d ever been alone in his room. Had it always been this small?

“I only plan to be in here to shit, shower, shave and sleep. And maybe read.”

I remembered him saying that when we moved him in four years ago, after Granny died. He was adamant he was only moving for the social aspect, because “my health is perfectly fine, goddamnit!”  I eyed the shiny golf clubs in their leather bag near the door and grinned. In his nineties and still plays 18 holes twice a week, all summer.

I ran a hand along the smooth, polished mahogany of his beloved dresser—the one he built for Granny as a wedding gift and insisted he bring here with him. It was full of photos and mementos of their life together: their children and grandchildren, Grandpa’s military days, their many travels across Canada and Scotland, their prized garden. Their beautiful black-and-white framed wedding photo was front and center.

A can of brown shoe polish and a freshly-used rag sat to the right of the photo. Three blue patterned neckties lay discarded on the armchair along with a white dress shirt and a grey jacket. It looked like Grandpa had decided to wear something else today. I glanced quickly in his closet and noted his best blue suit was gone.

Something felt off as I turned towards the bed in the corner of the room. I saw his glasses case on the bedside table and as I bent to put them away, I let out a gasp when my name suddenly leapt out at me, in Grandpa’s meticulous handwriting on a folded piece of paper.

My dear Olivia,

I know the family has some grand plans for my birthday and that you are responsible for getting me there. Forgive me, but there’s somewhere else I need to be today. Please don’t worry, but since I know you will, you’re welcome to join me—if you can find me…

I left my glasses by the lamppost because I knew you’d return them here. But if you remember our scavenger hunts from when you were little, you know there’s more to it than that. You are my cleverest girl. I know you can solve the puzzle. When you do, we’ll have lots to celebrate.

Love,

Grandpa

I stared at the note for a long time, willing it to spill the secret. I know you can solve the puzzle… it was so like him to make this a game. I reread it a few times, each time feeling a different emotion—relief, confusion, and finally, a small twinge of excitement. But then the impossibility of the task settled in. How was I supposed to find him?

“You’re Frank’s granddaughter, aren’t you?” A singsongy voice suddenly called to me, making me jump. A tiny woman was peering into the room, smiling at me from behind enormous glasses.

“Yes, I’m here to take Frank out for his birthday today,” I replied, taking her extended hand and giving the warm, withered palm a gentle squeeze.

“He suspected there might be something like that today,” she murmured. “But looks like he has other ideas…” She nodded towards the note.

“Have you seen Frank today? Do you know where he is?” I asked, but she shook her head and let out a rueful chuckle.

“Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?” she asked airily, clearly enjoying herself and in on the game. “Please wish Frank a happy birthday—if you see him!” She winked and shuffled slowly down the hall.

…you know there’s more to it than that…

My mind raced as I glanced around the room and my eyes landed on the small record player beside the armchair. He might have an iPad and a smartphone, but Grandpa still prefers his music from a record player. I flipped through the stack of records just to be doing something.

Each album was a testament to Grandpa’s wide variety in musical taste: from the fedora-clad Frank Sinatra, the haunting Ella Fitzgerald, to Gene Kelly hanging from a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain.

Hanging from a lamppost…

Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?

Singin’ in the Rain had always been Grandpa’s favorite film. Could that be something?

I held my breath as I turned the record over in my hands and shook it, waiting for some kind of revelation. But only a wad of crinkled candy wrappers tumbled out.

“Oh, come on!” I burst out and flung the record onto the bed. Then I spied his umbrella stand next to the bedside table and on a whim, pulled out the umbrellas. More crumpled candy wrappers fell out, along with some whole pieces of candy. I recognized them as the same candy he and Granny used to have in a little crystal bowl in the foyer of their house.

I scooped one up and indulged a moment as I untwisted the ends and popped the boiled sweet into my mouth. A sweet and creamy mix of strawberry and vanilla flavours greeted me. I twirled the candy around in my mouth and remembered the glee of sneaking handfuls into my pockets every time I visited Granny and Grandpa.

But so what? The initial sweetness of the candy memory was fading away and I was still no closer to figuring out where Grandpa had gone. I gave the candy two hard crunches, swallowed the bits and gathered up the wrappers. I was about to pull out my phone and concede defeat to my mother when I noticed it peeking out from behind one of the picture frames.

The same little crystal candy bowl from their house.

It made the same tinkling sound it used to when I lifted the lid, and I wasn’t surprised to find it full of candies. But there was something else buried under the sweets at the bottom of the dish.

I pulled out something I never thought I’d find in a candy dish: a two-inch long, brass rifle shell.

I held it gingerly, away from myself like it was a grenade and felt my heart quicken. I really had no idea where Grandpa was going with this clue, or if this even was a clue. I thought back to the stories he’d shared with me about his WWII experiences. I couldn’t remember all the details but as far as I knew, he had spent some time in the UK before heading to France, where he’d been wounded.

I put the shell gently down on the dresser and gazed at the photographs. Grandpa’s smile looked the same in every photo—delighted, charming, and comical. What was he doing keeping a rifle shell in his candy dish? I searched for the photo of that man among all the Christmas and family gathering snapshots.

The closest I found was the black-and-white photo of him in his uniform, a young man at barely eighteen, his arms around his stoic parents, his smile still the same. How many times had that photo been pointed out to me? And how many times did I actually look at it?

I picked it up for a closer look and felt something tucked in behind the frame. I carefully pulled it out and saw it was a yellowed ticket stub from the old cinema downtown. What I saw when I turned it over almost made me drop the picture frame.

Scrawled on the back of the faded ticket, in Grandpa’s perfect handwriting in ink that was over 50 years old but just as clear as though it had just dried on the page—Rendez-vous May 21, 2016.

Today’s date.

Lamppost, glasses, candy, rifle shell, movie ticket, today—I had all the pieces but how did they fit? Only one person could help me with the puzzle. I bolted out of the room and didn’t stop until I’d parked my car outside the historic Bijou Cinema downtown.

But it hadn’t been a cinema in years; it was now a French bistro and confectionery.

At a small table in the corner, dressed in his best blue suit, his greying hair carefully slicked and combed and his brown shoes gleaming, sat Grandpa. His same delighted, comical, charming smile spread widely across his face as he saw me and he stood up and extended his hand. I had never seen him look so happy and all my questions and confusion evaporated on the spot.

“My dear Olivia! I knew you could do it!” He had tears in his eyes as he gave my hand a hard kiss and a firm squeeze. “Let me introduce you to someone very important.” He gestured to the woman opposite him, who I didn’t notice until now. She was maybe ten years younger than him, impeccably dressed in a lovely floral dress with a pink silk scarf tied chicly around her neck. She stood up timidly, took my hands and planted a soft kiss on each of my cheeks.

“Annette, je vous présente ma petite fille, Olivia,” Grandpa said, in near-perfect French. When and how did he learn to speak French?

“Olivia, this is Annette Vallois. She and her family saved my life back in 1943, when I was wounded in France.”

“Enchantez, Olivia,” Annette said softly.

The room was spinning and I felt the blur of tears running down my face. I looked at my grandfather and back at his friend. I realized, because of this woman, my grandfather is alive and my whole life exists. She smiled and gestured to the empty chair. I sat down heavily and both Grandpa and Annette waited calmly for me to respond.

“Annette, it’s so nice to meet you too,” was all I could say.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad, and exploring photography and visual storytelling with the photo blog Bridges and Benches. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Bus Stop

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brian Behr Valentine


Photo Credit: Matt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Matt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I was greeted with smiles, jeers and whistles as I walked through the large room full of desks. All city precincts are alike—attitude and clowning. Nothing is holy. It has to be, or you go insane. And if you’re not one of the gang, then you are shown respect, but given little. I’m not on the force anymore, but I’m still one of the gang, and they definitely respect me, though an outsider wouldn’t know by the clowning.

“Hey Jewell, we’ll push our desks together if you’ll strip!”

“Sorry, I’m going down to the firehouse later and dance for them… they have a pole!”

Laughing grumbles followed this as I went into the Captain’s office.

“What’s up, Bud?” I asked, noting he was getting closer to the Lou Grant look everyday.

“Thanks for coming, Jewell.” He indicated a seat. The ancient air conditioner in his ancient office buzzed fitfully.

“What is it this time, Bud? Need me to sneak into another board meeting, church social, or political rally?” Now that I was off the force, I was extremely useful to them. I knew what to look for, and, as a private detective, police rules did not govern my conduct.

“Nah. I got a case bothering me. I’m about to mark it closed, but… my hand won’t put it in the file cabinet.”

“Hmm. A mind of its own. Just what kind of things does your hand get up to, now that Janet’s left?”

He turned red. “The same as before she left and none of your concern.”

“Okay,” I smiled. “Before you call me a cruel bitch again, what’s the case about?”

“Looks like a mugging that caused a heart attack. Found this fat, middle-aged accountant lying on the sidewalk, tits-up, just past the bus stop where the overpass drops from Old Town Heights across the six-lane. Guy had a really bad heart condition. He rode the bus everyday and his apartment was ground floor, half block from the stop. He was tasered from behind. His wallet was missing. He had abrasions on his hands and forehead so we know he initially fell forward. His glasses were found about five light poles down the overpass from the bus stop… and that’s it.”

“How did they get down there?”

“The glasses? Dunno, maybe some kids kicked them down the street.”

“And…?”

“And that’s it. Looks like he took a short walk, got mugged, had a heart attack, and died at the hospital.”

“Sounds solid. So, what’s the problem?”

“He was a very important suspect in an organized crime case.”

“Why wasn’t he in witness protection somewhere else?”

“He was. We’re the somewhere else. Case is from the West Coast. We now know that he compromised himself in several ways.”

“How?”

“Calls to his wife. His brother. Who knows who else he may have called. I think the safe house was the most exciting thing to ever happen to him.”

“Well, he was an accountant. ”

He agreed with a shrug.

“You think it was a hit?”

“My brain tells me it’s cut and dried, Jewell. My… hunch tells me different.

“Well, Bud, anyone who knows you would take your hunch over the meager offerings of you brain any day.”

He game me a tired look. “You’re never going to forgive me for firing you, are you?”

“Would you?”

“No. Now will you take a look at this goddamn case? Please?”

“I’d do anything for you, Bud.”

“God, how I wish that were true, Jewell.”

“You have four heart bypasses. Best it’s only a tease.”

“I don’t know. Death might be worth it,” he grinned.

“Oh, I guarantee it would be worth it, Bud. I guarantee it.”

He shook his head, handed me the case file, and left red-faced but chuckling. I sat at his desk and read. It did look cut and dried. Except for one thing. The glasses were found five blocks away, out on the overpass. In the picture, the gold-framed glasses lay folded, lenses up next to a rusty, cast iron light pole, looking put aside with care. Neither muggers, nor the dying man would have done this.

“Um, Jewell?

I looked up to see Debussy—Conan O’Brien in a blue uniform.

“Yeah, Gregg?”

“Bud said I was to assist you,” he stated softly.

“Gregg, the paramedic’s report said he was laying next to a light pole near the bus stop. But his glasses were five light poles away from the bus stop. How did they get there?”

The cop that wrote it up had only what the paramedics told him. The veteran bus driver knew the man by his picture, like he knew everyone in the city by their picture, he said. He had no recollection one way or the other of the man getting on or off that day.

I had Debussy drive me to the paramedic squad house. He was too quiet.

“What is it Debussy?”

To his credit, he was forthright about it. “They fired you. Even though everyone says you’re the best detective they ever met.”

I didn’t respond.

“You saved that little girl…”

“I did.”

“And they fired you… Why did you strip?”

“To gain the suspect’s confidence, Gregg. It was the only way. Her life was on the line.”

“But you lost your job for stripping.”

“There are things more important than a job, or a uniform, Gregg.”

He didn’t respond.

“Gregg, if the job is more important than justice, you will never make a great detective. You will automatically stop seeing clues that would lead you down a bad career path. You become permanently mediocre. If you’re good, though, you end up betting your job against solving every difficult case. You might not have a long career, but there are other things waiting.”

“Like being a private detective,” he queried.

“Or a stripper. Think you’d look good in one of those Chippendales G-strings?”

He had a Harrison Ford self-deprecating grin. “Not really.”

Neither paramedic could recall exactly where on the overpass they found the man. They also claimed they had not seen the glasses. I was getting pissed.

The quiet one leaned to his partner and whispered in his ear.

“Oh!” The talker looked me up and down with a slow smile building.

Debussy moved his hand to his gun. His look said: “She’s one of ours! One of ours! And if you don’t want an angry six-foot-four cop pistol-whipping you into a tearful puddle, you’ll be respectful.” The paramedic’s smarmy smile leached away.

“We…” He kept looking from me to where Debussy’s fingers petted the grips of his pistol. “We found him laying by the light pole on the overpass, just down from the bus stop.”

“Which light pole?”

“Don’t know. I was kinda busy.”

The quiet one shrugged.

“You found him on his back, though?”

“Yeah.”

“Which one of you hit him with the defibrillator paddles?”

“I did,” said the quiet one.

“And what were you doing?”

“What? Getting him…” he glanced at Debussy and calmed his voice. “…ready.”

“Go through it.”

“What?’

“Are you deaf?” asked Debussy, dangerously.

“Okay, okay. After I cut his tie off, I pulled his jacket open and then…” He hesitated.

“What?” I demanded.

“Damn! I took his glasses…”

“Stop.” I pointed to the floor. “Show me.”

With a glance at Gregg, he knelt down, tugging at his partner to come down and play the dying accountant. “I opened his jacket. I saw his glasses in his shirt pocket. I grabbed them and…” He hesitated, then twisted around and lay them down. “…laid them next to the light pole.”

“Like this?” I asked, showing him the picture.

“Yes! That’s it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Driving back I said, “So, Gregg, you never come to see me down at the strip club like some of the others.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Most of the guys won’t. They think you’re beautiful, but… the police basically forced you to become a stripper.”

“That’s not true. I became a stripper on my own.”

“I’m still not coming to see you.”

“Why?”

“I like you just like this. I want…”

“What, Gregg?”

“I want to become a detective and, you know, bring justice to the world. I hate injustice. Hate it!”

“Then look for the odd things in the cases you are on. Little things that most people overlook. Like these glasses.”

“But what does that tell us?”

“In Bud’s file it says he was found south of the bus stop next to the light pole. This proves the man was found five light poles south of the bus stop.”

“What does that tell us?” Bud asked, when we got to the station.

“It tells us he didn’t get off the bus at the bus stop,” said Gregg.

“Very good.”

“But… you haven’t proven anything.” said Bud. “He gets off at the bus stop and takes a little constitutional out across the overpass. Someone mugs him. His tie gets grabbed in the struggle. A second operator shoots him in the back with the Taser. He goes down, face forward; they grab his wallet and run. The paramedics try too revive him but it’s too late,” finished Bud.

I indicated Debussy should explain where he was wrong.

“Well… it was way too far for a man in his health to walk in that heat on purpose—it was ninety-eight. And it’s downhill so he would have had a real hard time getting back uphill.”

“He would not have done it,” I stated. “Never.”

“So… he must have gotten off the bus where we found his glasses,” Gregg finished.

“Right.” I beamed.

“But what does… why would the bus let him off there?”

Debussy was out of ideas now.

“To kill him out of sight, Bud,” I said.

“What?”

“He was tasered in the back, right?”

“Right.”

“Have the Medical Examiner check the body to see if the Taser shot was angled downward.”

“Down?”

“From the top step of the bus,” piped up Gregg excitedly.

“Very good. I’ll be back in the morning for the answer.”

“He was tasered from above.” said Debussy. “The toothpicks the ME stuck in the Taser wounds were at an angle.”

“The bus would have been full of people,” said Bud.

“They could’ve used another bus,” Gregg countered.

“How the hell would they have gotten away with that?”

“The driver controls the sign,” I said. “After getting him on the bus the driver could have changed the sign so that no one at other stops saw it as their bus. He tells the passengers that did get on that he is having trouble with the bus and everyone who isn’t getting off at the overpass stop, needs to get off at the next stop.

“And the real bus would be coming along behind, so no one would have a complaint.”

“Very good, Gregg. You’ve got my replacement coming up here, Bud.”

Bud looked the beanpole up and down regretfully. He had a love/hate relationship with detectives.

“You can see how it goes,” I said. “The bus passes the bus stop and he yells, getting pissed off. The driver stops five light poles out onto the overpass. The driver tells him that he either gets off there, or goes all the way around again. This makes him even angrier. He steps onto the sidewalk and gets a Taser in the back. The huge bus blocks the view of anyone close. The driver steps off, grabs his wallet, flips him over, and flees the scene. The whole thing takes less than thirty seconds because he has practiced.”

“His wallet was in his back pocket. Why turn him over?”

I looked at Gregg and he grinned.

“To tighten his tie.”

“Exactly.”

“Sorry, that doesn’t wash. We’ve looked into the driver. Nothing odd or bad. All the drivers have been accounted for, on and off duty. You’ve got nothing.”

“If I were you Bud, and I am so glad I’m not…”

“Thanks, Jewell.”

“I’d— no. You do it, Gregg.”

He looked panicked.

“Calm down. What’s the dilemma? Take your time. How do you solve that dilemma?”

“Uhm… all the drivers have been accounted for… so…” He looked down, then up quickly, “But not all the people who can drive the bus!”

I smiled. “Excellent.”

“What?” asked Bud. “Who else?”

“The head bus mechanic. He knows how to operate it as well as any driver, and could cover by saying he was test-driving it.”

I clapped and his face turned as red as his hair. Bud personally escorted Gregg down to arrest the head mechanic. He’d been given twenty-five thousand to pull the caper off and had almost gotten away with it.

After we met in Bud’s office, I offered Debussy lunch and he accepted.

“You like these kinds of cases, don’t you?” Gregg asked at lunch.

“Like dogs love tennis balls.”

“I understand why you stripped now. It was for justice.”

“Right. I would have died for that little girl. I almost did die for her, and I would do it all again, gunshot wounds, coma and all. What was a little nude dancing against her life?” I started tearing up. “I see her occasionally. She’s becoming a niece of sorts.”

He handed me his kerchief and I sniffed into it while he smiled at me.

“What?”

“It’s passion that drives you.”

“Sure… Oh, I see. You’ve been taught to keep passion out of it. Sometimes passionate righteousness is all you’ve got to go on, Gregg.”

“Thanks for the lessons, Jewell. I’m gonna make you proud.”

pencilEmail: behrvalentine[at]excite.com

First in Time, First in Right

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meredith Bateman


Photo Credit: PeacockArmageddon/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: PeacockArmageddon/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

First in time.

Davis Nichols woke to the branch he needed to trim scratching his window, just as the sun brought grey to the horizon. He got himself coffee. Took a quick shower, he’d done well with Violet, his daughter. She’d seen all this conservation stuff coming a mile away. It was sensible and so was she.

He fed the chickens, watered the corn he would later feed the chickens. She’d talked him out of pesticides, antibiotics. He missed her, but as much as she could hold her own on the rugged edges of tiny towns, she belonged in the city. She was going to make the world a better place. She was a voice for the silent men like Davis.

It was normal to miss Violet though, just part of the day. It had been lonely since she’d gone. The most memorable thing to happen so far was the branch; he kept his place in good repair. He would take care of it after he checked the mail. His post office box was in town.

Davis checked it every other day with Otis, his bloodhound, the most- and least-friendly dog in the world, depending on if he knew you. The new postal supervisor wouldn’t let Otis in the office anymore, even just the box section, so Davis went when he wasn’t working.

Otis followed him, sat right at his side as he opened the box. Lay at Davis’s feet as he dumped any junk directly into recycling. Violet had told him there was a way to get them to stop sending it completely, but it had involved filling out an online form and he’d told her he’d need her help with it next time she came on back home and she laughed and agreed.

The day the branch woke Davis up got unusual when he pulled out his mail and there was the sound of unwrapped metal, something small, as it fell from the stack of papers. He reached in and pulled out Abigail Clark’s broach. It had been her mother’s. Davis didn’t have much of a mind for jewelry; Abigail had stepped in and helped Violet accessorize for dances and the like after Charlotte died.

There was a photo of the broach on his mantle. He’d spent a frantic hour looking for it after it had fallen out of Violet’s purse as she’d told him over and over again how irreplaceable it was. When they had told Abigail she had laughed, but she never lent anything of her mother’s to Violet again.

Davis went into the main office, Otis at his side. Sam began to shake his head no.

“Sam, I found this with my mail. It’s Abigail Clark’s.”

Otis growled. The supervisor had come in early. He had been crossing behind Sam and stopped to stare Davis and his dog down.

“Got to get out of here with that animal.”

“I’m getting out of here. I just wanted to know how this got in my box, with no postage or wrapping.”

Otis growled.

The supervisor reached for the broach. He sneered.

Davis held it back.

Otis snapped.

“I know who it belongs to.”

Davis left. The supervisor was yelling at his back, saying things about come back, impossibility, and police. Davis had known Joel Harris, the sheriff, since grade school, he would have been happy to surrender the broach to Joel. He was Abigail’s neighbor.

As they walked back to the truck Otis was riled up, bristling and jumping like a dog half his age. Davis looked down at the dog and said, “I don’t like him either. It’s okay.”

That was when he saw the glasses. Joel’s glasses sitting at the base of the lamppost. Joel had been legally blind since anyone had thought to ask him how well he saw. With them he saw everything, he was a hell of a sheriff, but he never went anywhere without them. He picked them up. It was unsettling, carrying things that meant so much to his neighbors.

He drove to Joel’s and Abigail’s. There was nobody at either home. It made sense that Joel would be at the station. It made sense that Abigail would be tending her peas and raspberries. They wove in the wind, in a lonely dance.

Davis and Abigail were friends, that was all, but he ached to see her in her garden. He wanted to see Violet beside her, ribbons in her hair. They would all be laughing. The girls outright, Davis something silent at the edge of his lips.

He circled their houses, looking in windows. When he found nothing there was nothing to do but leave.

He stopped at the sheriff’s office. It was unlocked and empty. With a force of four and crime amounting to those speeding through on their cars and an occasional occupant in the drunk tank, teens and Sam Chambers, one thing or the other wasn’t that unusual. But unlocked and empty was strange.

Davis stood, hat in hand. Otis circled him. There was work waiting for him back home. It could wait, but for what, for Davis to stand in an empty station with his hat in his hands. He circled it around.

Allen, the deputy walked in from out back.

“Davis, how can I help you?”

“Have you heard from Joel today?”

“Sure thing, called in sick. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“I was just by his house. He wasn’t there.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe he was sleeping.”

“Maybe.”

Allen reached to pet Otis. The hound didn’t growl, but he circled behind Davis, slow, unthreatened, and away from Allen’s hand.

“I found his glasses.”

“At his house? Did you go inside?”

“Wouldn’t go in a man’s house without invite. They were under the lamppost outside the post office.”

“That’s awful strange.”

Davis stood, Joel’s glasses in his hand. Allen stood back.

“I can take them and give them back to Joel when he comes back. Maybe he got a new pair.”

“Maybe so. Still, it’s strange where I found them.”

“It is.” Allen took the glasses and put them on the desk. “Folks should be careful when things are strange like that.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

Davis left the station, got back in his truck, stared at the sky. For the life of him he couldn’t think of why he hadn’t mentioned Abigail’s broach. There was a storm at the horizon. He could tell by looking it would roll through fierce and quick.

He needed to cut his branch. Nothing in his past served as a frame to make a plan for this. He started up the truck and headed home. Otis lay down on the seat next to him. Davis wished he would stick his head out the window like normal.

The hound held the storm in his bones.

At home Davis put the broach on the counter. He went out back and got his hand saw. Headed to the tree. The branch was dangling at a strange angle. It hadn’t grown to reach his house without Davis noticing. He prided himself on noticing all about his farm before even needing to. That was how to keep it going.

On the branch was Ben Goodwin’s medic alert bracelet. Davis’s mouth went dry. It tingled and his knees matched the branch’s strange angles. Everything within him was as foreign as the farm he gave his life to. He pulled the bracelet of the branch. He got the feeling Ben wasn’t home either. Wondered if his friend still had use for the bracelet.

He sawed away anyway. It was something he could do, had been in times lean and fat. His face was wet with tears and though there was no one around he hoped the storm would come. Folks were dropping and if Davis could be all the things he was always supposed to be he might be able to see the world Violet was making.

He turned around and wasn’t surprised to find he wasn’t alone. He was surprised to see Otis sitting at the feet of the visitors. They’d met before. He sat right between the two of them, eating a steak. A dog is a dog.

First in right.

“Davis Nichols, father of Violet, widow of Charlotte,” he looked at his palm and turned something around it. “Lifelong resident of Eagle, Colorado.”

“Just outside of Eagle,” the other one said. He looked at a finger.

The first speaker tossed the broach. “Abigail let Violet borrow this once, right? I thought I saw that in one of the pictures.”

“Did you see the ring he bought for Charlotte?”

The man extended his ring finger. Charlotte’s ring was at the very top of his finger, he held it out to his friend to look at.

“I like it. It’s simple.”

The storm cracked above. Even Otis looked up from his bone.

“Let’s go inside,” the man with the ring moved it down to pull his coat aside revealing a pistol. This hadn’t been necessary and the other man didn’t bother. There was no one for miles and a gunshot would just blend in with the thunder.

Davis had a rifle, but he didn’t carry it around with him to cut branches. He brought his saw with him inside. He should have gone straight for his rifle as soon as he got home.

As soon as they were inside the man with the ring put it on the counter. The other set the broach next to it.

“No matter what I wouldn’t keep it,” the ring man said. Though Davis would want Violet to have it, somehow that made it worse. They sat down.

“Do you know what this is about?” the broach.

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that idea?” said the ring.

“Are they all right? Abigail, Joel, and Ben?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” the ring man said.

“Joel didn’t have senior rights.”

“Joel was a decent sheriff,” said the ring man.

“Allen, now he’s more reasonable. Anything that happened to Joel, not that I’m saying anything happened to Joel, didn’t have to happen to him,” the broach said.

“Joel was decent.” The ring.

“You’re right, they did have to happen to him.” The broach.

“What did you do to him?”

“See, Davis, you never have to find out.” The broach.

“Where do you keep the rights?” the ring asked.

“I have a daughter…” Davis said.

“Violet. She’ll probably let you stay with her. We’re paying and taking the water rights, or you’re paying and we’re taking them anyway. You won’t actually have to leave even,” the ring said.

“We’re not pretending you can keep farming.”

“No one’s saying that.”

“What do you think is going to happen? If you let the ground go fallow? If this land is allowed to dry?”

“Our interests are far enough away that we have no interest in the dust,” the ring said.

“It will reach you.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’re reaching you now,” the ring said.

“All you want is for me to sign over my rights.”

Davis looked out at what had always been his whole life.

“Don’t think too long,” the broach said.

“Not much to think about,” the ring.

“This place is my whole life,” Davis.

“This place and Violet.”

“I raised her right. Abigail helped.” Davis’s eyes stuck to the horizon. “She knows how to do.”

“Think, Davis.” The ring put a picture of Violet on the counter in front of Davis. “Do you know what you’re saying? Do you know what you’re giving up?”

“I’m not giving it up. You have to take it.”

“Think again, Davis. All you have to do is sign the papers,” the broach said.

“For killers you don’t seem to want to kill.”

“Never set out to kill, just work for people who want their water,” the ring.

“It’s my water.”

“It was your water.” The broach. “They pay well. They pay well enough that men who never set out to kill would do anything. They’ll pay you well, then we don’t have to do those things.”

“Davis, did you think again?” The ring.

Davis answered by lunging at them with the saw. He had never done anything like that before. It wasn’t that he expected to get away from such a confrontation with his life.

The ring grabbed his left wrist, the broach his right. The broach squeezed and he dropped the saw. It dented the floor. Davis couldn’t help but notice that it needed cleaning just then and he smiled, and the rain started outside, but they were so close to each other that it was warm and they could feel each other’s breath.

“What do you want for Violet?” the ring asked.

“She stands to inherit the rights, doesn’t she?” the broach said.

“Out of everyone we’ve had to visit she’ll be the prettiest,” the ring said.

“They’ll catch up with us eventually. It would be nice to visit with someone pretty before they do.”

“It would.”

“What do you think, Davis?” The ring let go. He took a pen out of his pocket.

The broach let go of his right. “You don’t want us to visit Violet.”

The pen sat between them. Lightning cracked loud and oblivious outside. The sky opened and rain poured off the roof, onto the land, out to the sea.

pencilMeredith Bateman is a creative writing student in Denver, Colorado, a place where water is first in time, first in right. Email: nuclearmirror[at]gmail.com

Spotless

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Tara Kenway


Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Joshua Tabti/Flickr (CC-by)

“I’ve told you a thousand times to clean up, Edward. We’re a hotel, not a train station. The lobby must be spotless. Spotless! Is that clear?”

I nodded.

It was true. Justine had told me many times. Maybe not a thousand but probably not that far off.

“Keep it pristine.”

Pristine Justine.

That’s what we called her. Justine with her perfect hair, perfect nails and perfect uniform. She wasn’t even the manager, although none of us doubted that it’s where she saw herself.

We just saw her as a pain in the ass. I was responsible for the lobby and reception, Sophie had the first floor, Elaine the second, and Roger was maintenance. Justine was on his case even more than ours.

“Quick, quick, Roger! I haven’t got all day!”

The girls got hassled too.

“How complicated can it be?” she’d say, wiping a critical finger along a window ledge or shelf.

“God, why doesn’t she get promoted or get a new job,” Elaine whined one lunchtime.

“There’s no use complaining about it. She’s been here for fifteen years. I’ve told you before, I doubt she’ll leave now.”

That was Sophie. She’d been here as long as Justine and probably knew the hotel even better than she did.

Roger smoked in silence.

“Nothing to add, Roger?” I asked.

“I wish she’d die,” he muttered.

“I say, that’s a bit harsh,” Sophie said.

Roger shrugged and lit another cigarette.

None of us knew much about Roger. A man of few words and many cigarettes.

And me. I was one of us too. Only here for the summer, but that didn’t make any difference to Justine, who was particularly obsessed with the lobby entrance.

“It’s the window of the hotel,” she said, squinting at the floor, bending down slightly to see everything in a different light. “You know, the eyes are the windows to the soul, and the lobby is the window to the hotel’s soul.”

I liked how she tried to make being a maniac about cleanliness poetic.

All of this would make some sense if we were talking about a classy hotel somewhere, but we weren’t. The only reason we had any business at all wasn’t because of our spotless lobby, but the fact that we were the only hotel around. All the tired tourists who’d spent the last five hours in the car with the air con cranked up knew if they didn’t stop here they’d have to drive another couple of hours before coming across another place to stay.

Did the fact the hotel was clean help? Sure it did. But if the lobby really was the window to the hotel’s soul, most people would keep on driving.

This particular day the hotel wasn’t very busy. The weather wasn’t too hot, driving conditions were good and people just kept on, trying to get home rather than stop yet again. Sophie was the first to notice it.

“Have you seen Justine, Ed?”

“Nope.” I glanced at my watch. “Maybe she’s ill?” I flashed Sophie my crossed fingers and she laughed.

“It’s odd. She’s never late.”

“What? You think she’s been kidnapped or something? Too much CSI, Sophie.”

She smiled but still looked worried.

“Look, maybe she had car trouble. Or she’s ill. She’s only half an hour late. There’s a multitude of reasons to be late.”

She nodded and walked over to the elevator.

“Can you text me when she arrives? You better clean that up before she arrives too.” She pointed at the lobby floor.

“Sure.”

Some bastard had traipsed mud straight across the lobby sometime during the night and Justine would kill me if it was still there when she arrived.

I took out the vacuum cleaner and started passing it backwards and forwards. This was a mistake as the mud wasn’t quite dry yet and just smeared and stuck to the vacuum cleaner. Dark reddish smears ran across the lobby.

“Dammit.” Now I’d need to clean the cleaner too.

I put the vacuum cleaner to one side and fetched a mop and bucket.

A few swishes of the mop later and most of the mud was gone. I squinted at the floor, and bent down slightly, trying to see it through Justine’s eyes. I didn’t especially care about doing a good job, but I did like an easy life and cleanliness meant no Justine on my back.

There was still some streaks of mud across the hall.

I went out back to the cleaning cupboard and had a look at the products we had.

*Industrial floor cleaner.*

That could be the bottle for me. I had a look at the label.

Removes all stains from wooden and tiled floors. Mud, oil, even blood!

Well, if that didn’t work, nothing would!

I went back into the lobby and started cleaning. Thank God there was still no sign of Justine. I scrubbed and scrubbed and then passed over the wood with the floor polisher.

I looked at the floor again. Squinted. Bent down.

“Damn, now that’s what I call pristine.”

I turned around.

It was Roger. He was smoking as usual. He went to tap the ash on my floor.

“Come on, man. Gimme a break.” I pushed the bucket of dirty water over to him and he tapped the ash inside.

“Don’t let Justine see you smoking here. You know it drives her crazy.”

“Yeah, well, the feeling’s mutual.” He glanced around. “She not here yet?”

“Nope. Sophie’s worried.”

“Sophie’s always worried.” He dropped the cigarette butt in the bucket. “Let me know if she turns up.”

He wandered off, leaving dusty footprints behind him.

I passed quickly behind him with the floor polisher.

*

The rest of the day passed by and still no Justine. Sophie called the manager and told him Justine hadn’t come into work.

“I’m just worried. It’s not like her. In all the time we’ve worked together she’s not been late. Not once!”

He tried calling her at home but there was no answer. He finally called the police and they went to her house. Still no Justine. That’s when they came to the hotel and started asking questions.

There were two officers. I got a young guy who looked about the same age as me. My mother always said that you knew you were getting old when the policemen started looking young. Jeez, I was only 22 and I was already thinking that.

“Have a seat, Edward. Can I call you Edward?” he said.

“Sure.”

“So, when did you last see Justine?” His pen hovered above his notepad.

“Last night. When my shift ended.”

“And what time was that?”

“Around nine p.m., I guess.”

“You’re not sure?”

“Well, my shift ends at nine p.m., but then usually I leave a little later than that. You know, the time to put everything away.”

“Sure. And you didn’t see Justine leave?”

“No, but then I never do. She always leaves after me.”

“Okay. Is she popular here?” He glanced up at me.

“You’ve already spoken to the others, no?”

He nodded.

“She’s not the most popular. She’s a ball-breaker.”

“Pristine Justine?”

I laughed. “That’s her. That’s why the lobby’s so clean. Windows to the soul of the hotel.”

“She says that?”

“All the time.”

He asked me some more questions about her routine, my routine, my colleagues.

“Do you really think something’s happened to her?” I asked.

“Don’t you?”

I shrugged. “I really don’t know. It just seems a bit crazy.”

“All these things seem crazy until they happen. Then they don’t seem quite so crazy.” He stood up. “Thanks for your time. This is the number where we can reach you?”

I nodded.

I got up and left the office and went back into the lobby. There was a guest waiting at reception. Seeing as no one was there, I checked them in and got their keys sorted out.

“Don’t you have someone to help with my bag?” the woman asked.

I looked around for Roger, but he was still in with the police.

“Sure. I’ll help you myself.” I smiled a big cheesy grin. All my grins were cheesy—it was why Justine didn’t want me working directly with the guests.

“Try sincerity, Edward!”

“This is it.”

“Well, just stop smiling then.” She’d turned on her heel and walked away.

I put my cheesy grin away and took the woman’s bags. God only knows what she had in there but they weighed a ton. I almost joked that she had a dead body in there, but seeing the circumstances I thought it better to say nothing.

I took her up to the second floor. Elaine was up there.

“Room 215?” I asked.

She led us down there and opened up the door.

“Ma’am,” she said, holding the door open.

I put her suitcase down with a thud. Elaine looked at me and I shrugged.

“Thank you. That’ll be all,” said the woman. Not even a tip.

Elaine closed the door behind us.

“Bit of a pain, huh?” she asked. “Who does that remind you of?”

“Have the police spoken to you yet?” I asked.

Elaine nodded. “Same as you. I didn’t see her after my shift ended.”

“It’s weird though, isn’t it? What do you think happened?”

“God knows. Maybe she was having a torrid affair that none of us knew about.”

“Really?”

“Edward, I don’t know! But, come on. Outside of here we know next to nothing about each other. Do you know where I live, or if I’m married? Have I got kids?”

I flushed.

“Don’t worry. I know nothing about you either except that you’re a student. And that’s fine. All I’m saying is that we could all have secrets or a dark side and we probably wouldn’t know.”

“Until something like this happens.”

“Exactly.”

We both stood in silence for a moment.

“So what’s your secret, Elaine?” I asked.

She smiled.

“Well now, if I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret.” She pressed the elevator button for me. The doors slid open. “Back to the lobby with you, Edward.”

And so Elaine had a mysterious side. Who would have guessed? Certainly not me.

When I got back to the lobby, Roger was just leaving the office. He nodded at me as he passed.

The police officers were talking to each other and looking at Roger.

“Do we have any news?” I asked. “I’m not trying to inject myself into an investigation, you know. I know you guys watch out for that. I’d just like Justine to turn up.”

“Well, you’ll know when we do,” one of them said.

And that’s what happened.

Three hours later Justine’s car turned up but still no Justine. The police came back and started talking about a timeline and alibis. All of us were suspects as we were all at work when she went missing, and we weren’t together. It was hard to find out exactly where she had been as she regularly went all over the hotel.

I saw Sophie in the corridor.

“They think it’s one of us!” she whispered, spitting out the words.

“Maybe it is.”

“Edward! How can you even say that?”

“Come on. We were all the last people to see her. And none of us were her greatest fan.”

“Well, I didn’t do it,” she said, looking around her as if someone might be listening.

“I don’t think they’ve bugged the place yet, Sophie.”

She glared at me and walked away.

The police were hovering around the lobby, bending and squinting at the floor.

“Can I help?” I asked.

“This floor is spotless,” one of them said.

“Yes, sir. Justine’s very particular about that. She says it’s the window to the hotel.”

“Does she now?” He kept looking at the floor.

“Did you clean it when you arrived this morning?”

I nodded.

“Of course. It’s always the first thing I do. Plus someone had left mud all over the floor.”

He stood up, and gave a quick glance at his partner.

“Mud?”

“Yes. I had footprints right across the lobby. A real pain in the ass to get out.”

“I’ll bet,” he muttered.

The day continued quietly until the afternoon when Sophie came rushing in.

“Have you heard? They’re questioning Roger and Elaine. Again!”

“Maybe they just had some other questions.”

“No, no. It looked like they wanted to arrest them. Maybe they just don’t have enough evidence for the time being.”

“Like I said before, Sophie—too much CSI.”

At the same time, it did look like the police knew something. There was an urgency to them that hadn’t been there before.

I glanced over at the office and could just see Elaine shaking her head.

“We could all have secrets.”

Wasn’t that what she’d said to me? So what was her secret? Maybe she bumped off Justine. I certainly wouldn’t blame her, although it seemed a bit of an extreme reaction. At the same time, I knew I could get out of here at the end of the summer. Elaine didn’t.

And what about Roger? He was kind of suspicious, but then we all could be.

I sighed. This is why I wasn’t a police officer and they were.

“Not my job, man,” I said to myself.

The police kept them in there for a couple of hours. I sat at the lobby, checking in a few people, watching them as they scuffed my floor, cursing each one of them.

Once everyone had gone I took out the floor polisher again.

It chummed across the floor, making my arms judder.

I was engrossed in the cleaning when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Edward?” It was one of the policemen. “Can you come with us for a moment?”

“Sure. Can I just finish up here?”

“No, leave it.”

“But Justine—”

“I don’t think it’s going to be of a concern to her. You know we found her car.”

I nodded.

“There was an awful lot of blood inside. It’s Justine’s.”

“Oh.”

“Just leave the machine.”

I followed the officers, Sophie peering out the office door at me.

“She’s going to say I did it now,” I said.

“Did what?”

“Kill Justine.”

“No one said she was dead.” They were both looking at me.

“What? You just basically said it. Two minutes ago!” I started feeling a little scared. I didn’t want to be a patsy.

“Have a seat, Edward. We need to talk to you about the lobby. The mud this morning.”

“Okay.”

“You’re sure it was just mud?”

“What else would it be?”

“Could it have been something else?”

“What? Like dog crap?”

He gave a slight smile.

“We’re thinking more along the lines of blood.”

I thought back to the smears.

“We have a theory that Roger and Elaine killed Justine. We found her body in the garden behind the hotel. She’d been hit with an axe and then buried. We found her blood in one of the rooms and some blood on the fire escape stairs. There would have been mud on their shoes. But blood as well. The footprints would tie at least one of them to the crime scene. Otherwise we don’t have much.”

“I guess it could have been blood as well. It didn’t cross my mind. It was just hard to get rid of.”

“Can you show us what you used to clean up?”

“Sure.” We left the office and went to the store room. I showed them the bottle.

“Shit,” one of them said. “That’ll have destroyed everything.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t know, Edward.”

The police gathered their things and left. I guess to try and find a plan B.

We all watched them go.

Sophie sighed.

“The one time you manage to clean the lobby well. Nice job.” She walked away.

“Yeah, nice job, Ed,” Roger said, winking at me.

Elaine took Roger’s hand and smiled at him.

“Pristine.”

pencilEnglish writer and English trainer living in Lyon, France. Likes cats, cinema, reading and running. Has been previously published in TCLJ and has a story called “The Barber” in an anthology. Email: tkenway[at]gmail.com

Philip Knight

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Urvashi Bohra


Photo Credit: Bill Bentley/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Bill Bentley/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

‘And this is the famous site where Mr Knight left his footprints before killing himself in the elevator. Any questions?’ the tour guide, Jennifer, asked a group of wide-eyed fans of Philip Knight, the famous but troubled author who was known for his fictional work and untimely death.

‘So you are saying these muddy footprints are his?’ a fan asked, looking at the footprints that had been preserved since the last ten years in the lobby of Hotel Marina West.

‘Yes,’ Jennifer answered automatically like a machine with recorded answers. ‘Please don’t touch it.’ She snapped as she saw the same fan trying to get his greasy hands on the unspoiled footprints.

‘Sorry,’ the fan whispered and got up to hide behind the crowd.

‘Now if you walk with me, we can go to the conference room where you can watch an interview of the last person who spoke to Mr Knight.’

The group of six immediately followed Jennifer as she led them to the darkly lit room. Once they all took their seats, a young man took to the podium.

‘Good evening everyone, my name is Larry and I am here to tell you about the movie you will be seeing now. Before we begin, I urge you to switch off your mobile phones and cameras because the footage here is private and not to be shared by anyone. If you do shoot and share the footage, you will be penalized heavily as mentioned in the contract you have signed.’

Slight tones of phones switching off were in the atmosphere for the next few seconds as Larry waited for them to get ready.

‘Philip Knight, as you all would agree, is this century’s greatest crime and mystery novelist and may forever remain so too.’

The crowd murmured their approval.

‘He had a way with words that formed an image so compelling that one would be hooked from page one. You could never guess how a story could end because Mr Knight had a way of surprising you with his twisted endings and this is the reason why he and his work developed such a cult following. The movie that I am about to show you is an interview with the then-manager of this hotel, Mr Highmore, who was a great fan of the novelist himself and equally saddened to know about his demise. Well, without wasting any more time, I will play the movie now and if there are any questions then we will keep them for the end.’

Larry signaled a man, hidden behind thick glass, to start the projector. The unseen man did so immediately and soon the room was completely dark and the movie started. All the people were now at the edge of their seats as they tried to listen to every word the interviewee said.

The movie started with a picture of Philip Knight sitting in room 505, his favorite room in the hotel that the group had seen at the commencement of their tour. He was sitting next to his typewriter, which is still present in the room along with his other belongings. The image slowly started to fade out and the voice of the interviewer filled the room as he asked his subject to state his name and occupation.

‘My name is Samuel Highmore.’ An old man started to speak as he looked into the camera with big vacant eyes. ‘Before I retired I served as the Manager of Marina West Hotel for 32 years.’

‘Is it true that this was the hotel where Philip Knight used to come to write his famous novels?’

‘Ah! Mr Knight.’ The old man’s eyes shined as he remembered the old days and a hint of smile touched his lips. ‘Such a great fella, always came to greet me whenever he saw me.’

Mr Highmore looked at the interviewer with great joy and the same was gone immediately as the interviewer continued.

‘And you were the last person who spoke to him on the night of December 16th before his demise?’ the interviewer asked unemotionally.

‘Yes,’ the old man said as he looked down in disappointment, which the audience could sense as they sighed along with the man in that square frame looking for words to describe his agony.

‘It was raining heavily that night and Mr Knight always stayed with us during that season. He would always go out in the day and come back late in the evening completely drenched and would go straight to the bar. I had to ask the bartender to keep an extra set of towels for Mr Knight every day.’ Mr Highmore chuckled as he shared that extra tidbit.

‘He would always enter with those muddy shoes that would really infuriate the owner of the hotel, Mr Flinch. But he could never say anything to Mr Knight as he was our most reputed customer. Instead, he would take out his anger on the poor bellboy, Jimmy, who was always forced to clean up after those footprints. Actually, Mr Knight liked aggravating Mr Flinch so he would deliberately dirty the carpets daily.’

‘That night like every other, Mr Knight came into the lobby leaving his muddy footprints everywhere and said hello to me. I asked him how his new novel was coming along and he said that it will soon be finished and he can’t wait for everyone to read it. He was very excited about it.’ Mr Highmore looked into the camera and the audience in the room felt like he was talking to them.

Of course they knew about Philip Knight’s last book, The Stolen Kiss. His unfinished work that sold like hotcakes even though it lacked an ending. People all around the world gave the story their own ending and perception but no one was actually satisfied because the legend himself did not write it.

‘I asked him what he would like for his breakfast the next day, to which he replied that he had not decided. That felt odd to me because Mr Knight always knew what he wanted but I did not take it seriously, unaware of what would follow next.’ Mr Highmore took a pause as he tried to gather the next few words.

The audience waited for the sad description of the events that soon followed.

‘He walked towards the elevator and while waiting for it he waved at Mr Flinch, who smiled back at him and came towards the carpet to inspect the latest footprints. Mr Knight watched Mr Flinch lose his temper once more and after enjoying his frustration he entered the lift. This would be the moment when Jimmy would start getting yelled at but thankfully he was nowhere to be seen. I started to walk towards Mr Flinch to calm him down and suddenly heard a thud noise. I turned around to see that the elevator Mr Knight was in had abruptly stopped. Mr Flinch had noticed the same and we both started to walk towards the lift. It stayed broken for six minutes exactly and in that time I asked the maintenance man what was the issue. He told me that the problem is not external and that it seems that the lift was stopped by Mr Knight himself.’

‘Six minutes later the lift started working again and we all took a sigh of relief. It went to the floor where the bar was and we all resumed our work. The maintenance man called the lift back so he could see what was wrong with it.’

‘I will get someone to clean the carpet, sir,’ I told Mr Flinch who just shook his head. “No, wait. Where is that boy Jimmy?” he asked in a curious tone and I started to look around to find him. Jimmy was standing near the main entrance but before I could call him, I heard a sharp yell coming from behind. I ran to see what had happened only to find Mr Knight lying in the elevator lifeless.’

Mr Highmore sighed deeply as grief took over him and made him feel like these events had happened just a few hours back.

‘I lost a great friend that night. We got his body out of the elevator and eventually it was declared a suicide when the police found a suicide note still in his typewriter. It is still a mystery as to why he killed himself. It seems like he just… gave up.’

Mr Highmore could not speak anymore as he broke down leaving many members of the audience to do the same. The movie then ended as the lights came back on and Larry was back.

‘Intriguing wasn’t it?’ he asked, to which everyone agreed in unity. ‘Any questions?’

A few arms were raised as Larry started with a weeping female fan.

‘Where is his suicide letter now? We did not see it in his room.’

‘The letter was taken by the police and it never was given back to us and since Mr Knight had no family, it remained there.’

‘Where are Flinch and Jimmy now?’ a middle-aged man who came with his wife asked without waiting to be chosen.

‘Mr Flinch, as you all can see, turned the hotel into a memorial of sorts for Mr Knight and Jimmy left soon after the suicide. Why do you ask?’

‘Just curious,’ the man replied while sharing a look with his wife.

‘Were there no cameras in the elevator?’ the wife asked.

‘No. The elevator is an old one and Mr Flinch did not want to ruin its old rustic charm. I think that the time is up and Jennifer will now take you to the last leg of the tour,’ Larry said and Jennifer came from behind as she got the group to follow her again.

This was the part of the tour that everyone was excited about. Their friends, relatives and virtual strangers on the internet had spoken wonders about this part of the tour, calling it the best and a curious ending to the tour. Sadly none of them knew what it was. As part of their tour package, every person was made to sign a contract with the hotel affirming that they would not reveal what they saw, found or heard at the hotel or take anything away from its place, in order to keep it a surprise for the next guests.

The group followed Jennifer with anticipation. They got out of the room and were soon faced with the footsteps of Philip Knight that ended right outside an old two-door elevator. Jennifer begins to address them.

‘This, as you all can already guess, is the elevator where Mr Knight took his own life. As part of your package, we now give you the opportunity to spend exactly six minutes in the elevator, stuck where Mr Knight did. Many have found those six minutes inspirational and spiritual and let’s hope the same for you all. If you could all please enter one by one.’

Everyone in the group got inside the lift immediately, hoping that somehow the ghost of Knight would speak to his one true fan. Jennifer asked the last person who entered the lift, who was evidently a student given his attire, to press the twelfth floor button and as he did so, she closed the outer door of the elevator.

The first few seconds as the rickety lift started to rise went in complete silence as everyone prepared for something divine to happen to them. Suddenly the lift stopped between the sixth and the seventh floor. Although everyone was prepared for it, when it actually happened, they could not help but gasp. A minute passed while everyone stayed quiet, some trying to talk to Knight, while some just looked around to see what all was there. The man who came with his wife was on his phone and suddenly yelled, ‘I knew it.’

Everyone jumped at his voice that now echoed the small space. The man’s wife asked him what happened to which he replied—

‘I put a search on the Flinch guy. He looked very fishy. It seems like he was about to go bankrupt before Knight died but was able to use his death as a way to earn some good cash.’

‘Does that mean what I think it means?’ his wife asked him curiously.

‘You guys seriously don’t think that, do you?’ the girl who was weeping earlier asked the couple in disbelief.

‘Come on, this is so obvious. Knight was murdered,’ the husband replied, not trying to hide his excitement.

‘How could he kill him if he was in the lobby the whole time?’ the man with the greasy hands asked him.

There was a brief silence, as everyone went to their own thoughts.

‘Jimmy,’ said the student who looked up at the husband sharing a look of agreement. ‘Jimmy was always bullied into anything Flinch said, why not this?’

Suddenly everyone started to panic in exhilaration as they all believed what the husband was already sure of.

‘This is what happened. Flinch forced Jimmy to kill Knight and also go to his room to type that suicide note. The police would have not found the fingerprints because he was wearing gloves.’

‘How did he kill him?’ the woman asked in anticipation.

Silence, once again. No one could answer that. The only guy who had not spoken yet about the subject was a 50-year-old man standing in the corner. But that changed now.

‘If we all know Knight and if what you are saying is actually correct then he would not have left without a fight. I am sure he would have left something here to reveal the truth.’

Everyone immediately started searching for clues. The student tried to put himself in Knight’s shoes and the first thing he did was go to the corner with the buttons and started pressing them frantically. When nothing happened he punched the wall in frustration and suddenly a note dropped from behind the socket. Everyone was shocked as the student started to open the paper gently.

The paper contained one word, which took everyone by surprise. There was no way of knowing if it belonged to Knight but they believed it anyway. The one word helped them solve the biggest mystery of their life and the worst part was that they could never tell anyone about it and had to keep it amongst themselves.

No one was ready to go to prison over a murder that happened years ago or pay a fine so huge that it would leave them penniless. Even though the truth was never to be shared, they were happy to be the only ones who knew about it. They felt special.

The note was folded and placed back behind the socket as the lift started to rise to the twelfth floor.

‘That’s why the bastard never got the footprints cleaned. He knew they would get him money and that is why we are made to sign that stupid contract, too.’

‘Shoes,’ the group whispered to themselves, trying to figure out what this word that they read in the note meant. But one thing that was sure was that Knight did not kill himself.

Jennifer greeted the group at the twelfth floor and asked them about their experience to which they replied halfheartedly. She then led them to Knight’s favorite bar spot and concluded the tour.

The death of Philip Knight has always been a mystery to everyone who ever visited the hotel. Many came across the note, and while some believed him to be murdered others claimed that he killed himself. Like the ending of his books, his own life’s ending was the biggest mystery they came across. No one knew why he killed himself, if he killed himself, just like no one knew that Knight never really died in that elevator.

When a writer known for his words finally realized that he did not find any comfort or familiarity in those same words, he knew that he was done. He was embarrassed to admit his failure and when he combined that with his love for mystery, he decided to become a protagonist in the stories of many who came to the hotel.

Now hiding behind a thick glass wall and a projector, Knight waited and saw how his fans enjoyed the one last mystery that he had left for them .

pencilUrvashi Bohra is a recent college graduate with a degree in mass communication. She wants
to live in a world where she can support herself solely through her words and create stories that inspire people just like her favorite writers inspire her. Every day she learns something new about the art of fictional writing and finds great joy in that and hopes to excel in it as much as possible. Email: urvashi.bohra6[at]gmail.com

Nothing Comes From Nothing

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Sarah R. Clayville


Photo Credit: Alexa Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Alexa Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Never, for one moment of your life, lose sight of those you love. —Belinda Grayson, Life Coach and Survivor

Abby didn’t promise she would stay in the hotel room.

Rather she promised she would stay out of trouble, and as many television shows and statistics proved, trouble could just as easily be found beneath a hotel bed as it could in the lobby or the courtyard or anywhere else for that matter. Abby’s mother had raised her from a young age to be fearless and stubborn, a terrifying combination for a nine-year-old, but it was a function of their nomad lifestyles. Abby’s mother gave speeches to others about how to pull their lives together, and on the few occasions she had been permitted to listen to them, she had marveled at how hypocritical the entire venture sounded. Nothing about their lives felt much together at all.

The elevator ride downstairs was smoother than others that usually bounced or shimmied up and down the cables. It smelled like cigar smoke and Abby regretted the chalky odor that clung to her when she exited.

Her plan had first been to sneak in and listen to her mother talking to the audience. They would be mostly women, mostly single, and they would all share an envious countenance because her mother wore the fanciest clothes and hired a professional to do her hair and makeup just on these occasions. Often these stylists, out of pity or amusement, would turn to Abby, fluffing her hair, painting tiger stripes on her nails.

“Are you going to grow up to make people feel good about themselves, too?” They would chatter at her, snapping shots with their phones, posting them to social media just the way her mother did. And as soon as the cloud of women would head down to the conference hall Abby would scrub away the colors, give herself one of those looks in the mirror, and flip through the papers scattered across her mother’s bed. Fan letters. Messages of devotion.

They always got two twin beds in their hotel rooms. In fact once her mother had howled at a concierge because he’d given them a king and after her mother Belinda remembered that she was a public figure and couldn’t get away with yelling, she’d said simply that Abby couldn’t be her own woman in someone else’s bed.

Except Abby wasn’t a woman at all, she was a child. And she never promised she would stay in the room, just that she would be a good girl.

You can trick the world, you can trick a camera, but you can’t trick a mirror. —Belinda Grayson, Life Coach and Survivor

Downstairs in the hotel, the women worshiped Belinda.

They arrived to the presentation with her book under one arm and tissues tucked in their purses. It was a well-known fact that no one left without shedding either tears of joy or jealousy, frustration or frenzy. Belinda had dragged herself through hell and back and now could prove to the world of hurt women that survival was possible. Pretty, even.

“And tonight you will go home and know that the morning is a gift, that you are a gift, and that I am sending my good energy to each of you personally.” Belinda emphasized the right words, swallowed the weak ones, and stood poised to take over the world.

The crowd erupted with cheers. Belinda started rotating her wrist because she would need to sign each woman’s book, and not just a signature. There would be a note of wisdom, stolen from somewhere else because all of the good things had already been said by people much smarter, much more compassionate, than Belinda. But the notes were part of her brand. And her brand meant everything regardless of what sacrifices and truths had to be played with.

An electronic whine distracted her momentarily, and she buried her phone in the depths of her bag, because Gregory had been texting the entire evening. The messages had started lengthy and desperate, but the more she ignored him, the shorter the texts became until he simply said I’m packed. I’m gone. Belinda smiled, tilting her head to the left because it bred trust in people. She’d taken psychology classes at the local community college to understand how to worm her way into their brains and make them feel special. Loved. Unfortunately this unintentionally worked too well with men, none of whom understood that if she were to marry or publicly date someone, her image would shatter into a million little pieces worth nothing. And she’d been worth nothing to many: first her alcoholic neglectful parents, then her lascivious college professor, and finally a philandering husband.

Worth nothing. Belinda would never hear those words again, and slowly, as her fans flooded her with gifts and emails, the words faded and blurred.

“Could you make this copy out to my ex, Bucky.” The woman wore an oversized jumper and too much blush as if she were unbearably hot or itchy. Her hands smelled of juniper. “Tell him to fuck off. Fuck off Bucky. Love, Belinda.”

This wasn’t the first anti-dedication Belinda had been asked to do, because these women wanted to siphon off just an ounce of the strength she’d used to leave her own husband. The secret to it was that Belinda had no choice, she’d known that deep down either she would leave him or kill him, and she didn’t want to go to jail and wear an orange jumpsuit and eat mushy green beans. Instead she told him one night that he was the nothing—after he’d drunk himself into a stupor—and then she lied and told the world that night he beat her and threw her against a wall and told her he’d do the same to Abby and so with every ounce of courage she’d packed up her daughter and herself and run away to protect them both from the inevitable. Other women took her lead. They tumbled down the rabbit hole with her, even though her story was rife with half-truths, and husbands came home to empty beds.

If you retrace your steps, you’ll only get a front row seat to all of your mistakes. —Belinda Grayson, Life Coach and Survivor

The police officer was terrified for the mother.

“These don’t lead anywhere. They’re a threat!” Belinda held Abby’s shoulders firmly as the police ushered them away from the crowd huddling by the muddy footprints. Abby’s feet were notoriously bare.

“It’s a prank. I’ve seen similar before, and often someone is just being ugly. But how did they get your daughter’s shoes?”

The officer knelt down and studied Abby’s toes one by one, as if there was a shred of evidence woven between them. Belinda knelt right down with him and refused to stop her own interrogation.

“Talk to me, not her. She’s clearly traumatized. Speechless.”

Abby nodded three times in agreement with all of her mother’s statements, as she’d been taught.

“It doesn’t matter how he got her shoes. Look at them.”

The footprints were disturbing. The feet were facing the wrong way as if the legs had parted ways and tried to run away from one another. And the mud was a strange dark copper color that made the police officer’s stomach turn because he’d seen mud like this before. Mixed with blood. But it was his job to keep Belinda and her daughter calm and somehow sedate the crowd that fiercely protected the two. A number of them were on cell phones with friends or the press, and he knew that in a matter of minutes things would become more complicated than they needed to be.

Abby sat down on the floor, crossing her legs and inspecting her own feet. The police officer noticed small cuts on the base of her heels and immediately pulled gauze out of his jacket pocket. Even though Belinda was quickly typing on her phone, he knew full well if he approached without her consent she would eviscerate him.

“Ma’am, her feet are bleeding. I need to wrap them, or would you like to?” He held out the gauze as a peace treaty, relieved when she motioned for him to do the job himself. Now Belinda was on the phone with her manager, demanding a private investigator immediately.

“Abby,” the police officer tried, “you look pale. Are you hungry?”

“I’m thirsty.” She broke her silence. “My throat hurts, and I only drink ginger ale or water.”

Her demand amused him, an echo of her mother’s behavior except she didn’t know how to be nasty about it and instead presented her feet for him to wrap. He did it quickly and thought better of asking her more about her shoes because he recognized the exhaustion in her voice, and frankly he was exhausted just watching Belinda let alone living with her. He asked the concierge to bring ginger ale because it was more interesting than water and procured a private room for the two behind the kitchen.

The throng of women tried to follow, but at this point more police had arrived as well as the media and they managed to block one another respectively. “We are investigating,” the officer announced to the crowd. “And the little girl is safe. She was never abducted.”

Somehow his statement made the crowd angrier. They only wanted to hear about the star.

“Tell Belinda not to let anyone threaten her. We support her,” one fan chimed in as if she had a megaphone.

“Those footprints look like blood,” another noticed, and the police officer slammed the door behind him where Belinda stood by a low window counting the vans in the parking lot. Abby was shaking in her chair and still hadn’t put on the socks or anything else brought to her but carefully sipped the ginger ale and watched the officer with the clearest eyes he’d ever seen. He brought the can over to her cup to pour more in, and with her lips still wrapped around the straw, she whispered to him from the side of her mouth this isn’t the first time.

The police officer was terrified for the daughter.

The truth cannot be sacrificed or perverted. It will always claim what rightfully belongs to it. —Belinda Grayson, Life Coach and Survivor

Abby and her mother looked at one another, with foreign eyes.

“This is not the first time someone threatened to harm Abby, but it’s the first time anyone did it publicly, and so I am forced to address it publicly. This is no coincidence.” Belinda turned to the crowd and exhaled, ready to reap the rewards of her stunt.

She had brought a chair up next to the podium, and Abby crossed her legs and hugged her knees tightly with bare feet still wrapped in the officer’s gauze, staying within arm’s reach of her mother. The little girl caught sight of herself on a shining tray tipped over at the end of one of the banquet tables and locked eyes with herself, counting silently in her head and forgetting the way the shoes had been pried from her feet.

“I had planned on waiting and announcing this at the gala, but I’ve just accepted a television offer, one that will allow me to spread my message globally. It is something I wanted since I was a little girl. Even though some might be… embarrassed at what I have to say. So much so that they thought threatening Abby would silence me.” Belinda also noticed her smile in the tray that had captivated Abby and couldn’t help admiring the red lips. The curved shoulders. Belinda dominated the room. She didn’t need to demand obedience. It was served to her freely.

The audience refused to stop cheering, despite the media frantically waving their hands to get Belinda to acknowledge them and answer questions. It was the remedy to all the ugly voices in her head, and she knew what she’d done, what had been required to do to get her there was all worth it. Borrowing Abby’s shoes and traipsing back behind the hotel through the mud where one of the stable horses had just given birth. Carefully coating them with a layer of the dirt and waiting until there was a lull in the lobby and the cameras craned their crooked necks away from the poster advertising Belinda’s latest engagement. It all delivered the perfect forum. Everyone in the room would be hinged on who was threatening Abby. The mystery would launch her show perfectly, and all Belinda had to do was keep up the ruse.

“I’m setting us up for the rest of our lives,” she’d whispered to her daughter just before bed, filling Abby’s head with hopes for the future rather than any happiness of the present. “But if you tell, if you let anyone know, someone will come take you away and then we’d both be wrecked. Abby, we are a team.”

Once the reporters were able to make headway through the applause, one man asked Belinda what she thought the footprints meant. Belinda’s heart started vibrating in her chest because she had known this question would be asked. Everything had been orchestrated flawlessly.

“You know, some with darker minds might conclude a darker meaning, but what I see are two paths, going forward or sliding back, and I…” Belinda moved to the grand doors nearby. “I am moving forward, and the truth will be told. All of our truths will be told.”

The officer frowned in the audience, noticing a piece of gauze had loosened and Abby draped it back and forth across the floor. The stains of blood actually looked pretty to her, scarlet butterflies tattooed along her feet, and she suddenly appreciated her mother’s instructions to keep her feet bare even though the air stung the unintentional cuts the glass she’d dropped in the room had carved into her skin. The room was fascinated with Belinda’s show, and the officer secretly moved to Abby’s side and curled the white bandage over her foot.

“Honey, your mom wants me to take you to get your feet washed up before they start taking pictures. You know how important those pictures are, don’t you?”

Abby nodded and liked the way the officer smiled right at her, never looking above or away.

“Mom told me how important it is to do what she asks, for both of us. Or else…” Abby’s voice trailed off, and the officer lifted her to her feet and slipped out the back exit with her to his car which wasn’t a police car at all, and once she sat down next to him in the passenger seat, a seat she was never allowed to sit in with her mother, she pulled the mirror down to smile and make monster faces.

“Abby,” the man said, unbuttoning his old Halloween costume and settling into the grey T-shirt he wore underneath, “what was the or else?”

Abby folded her hands in her lap and played with the frayed ends of her shirt. She trusted the man who had bandaged her feet and listened to every single word she’d said as if all of it was important.

“Or else I’d be taken away.”

The man reached into his glove compartment and handed her a bag of Goldfish and jelly beans because he wasn’t used to children and didn’t exactly know what she might like, but the combination made her smile and so content she didn’t bother asking why they were driving away from the hotel. It had almost been too easy for the man to take Abby with him even though his plan had initially been to confront Belinda and accuse her of the lies she spread, of the parents who weren’t actually alcoholics but just dismissive or the ex-husband who had been so dismissive she’d had an affair with a man she didn’t remember. The Goldfish and jelly beans were meant to be a gift, not a lure.

And Abby and the man looked at one another, with the same eyes, and he believed that if he retraced his steps far enough he’d find a way to keep his daughter and expose Belinda’s mistakes to the world.

pencilSarahSaysWrite. Email: sarah.clayville[at]gmail.com

The Case of the Dropped Case

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
D. Staats


Frame clutch
Photo Credit: ruby-jo

Being from Canada, I am used to snow, but I had no idea how much snow falls on Syracuse until I once spent a week in that not-too-cosmopolitan city. To be accurate, I should say that I stayed in a suite hotel in a suburb on the northern edge of the city. I was there to prepare for and testify in a case which I had investigated on behalf of a defendant who had sufficient funds to employ the—if I say it myself, it is only because it is a fact—rather well-known and well-regarded Hercules Leek.

The trial was to begin on Wednesday, and my flight from Quebec arrived Monday morning. I spent most of that first day in the office of the attorneys who were employing me, leaving them about four to go check into my motel. It was a mild April day, temperature in the forties, not a day when one would expect any substantial snowfall. The signs of impending spring were abundant, including the ubiquitous and unsightly snow detritus on the edges of roadways and around the borders of parking lots, where shrunken mounds of snow were dark and ugly with months of accumulated grit and dirt.

The attorneys were, of course, paying for my accommodations, and I was not entirely displeased with them. At five in the afternoon, the motel was quiet and peaceful. I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. I turned in a few minutes before ten, reading for a few minutes in a pocket edition of The Merchant of Venice to distract my mind before I turned out the light.

My next encounter with consciousness occurred when I was awakened by a tremendous roar followed by a loud thump. A few seconds’ pause, and then a repeat of the roar, followed by a screeching noise, and a metallic clunk. All of this noise was coming from the parking lot. I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

There, below, a rather superannuated and disreputable-looking red pick-up truck with a plow blade mounted on its front was clearing snow from the parking lot. The pestilent thing must either have had an enormous hole in its muffler, or no muffler at all. The driver, a man in his thirties with a full brown beard, had his window down and seemed to be enjoying himself. He would put the plow down and floor the gas pedal, making an ungodly roar as he picked up speed across the lot until, boom, he smashed into the remnant piles of snow at the edge of the parking lot. Then he would raise the plow blade, twist around in his seat, looking out the back window, and floor the gas pedal again, backing up to his starting point. A little correction, of course, so that he was plowing new snow, and he was off again. There were probably thirty centimeters of snow, or as the Americans would say—I had to get used to American measurements for my trial testimony—about a foot.

I went back to bed. I noted as I did so that it was 5:20. That plow had to have wakened every guest in the hotel. You really would think someone would know better.

After another day closeted with the attorneys, I got back to the motel about five o’clock. Being somewhat keyed up from my day’s work, I took a stroll around the outside of the motel. The temperature was now in the mid-50s. As I walked the perimeter of the parking lot, I noticed that the plowboy, as I resentfully referred to him, had pushed the snow with such force that he displaced the theretofore-existing snow piles, and pushed both new snow and old back further, thus exposing the bottom few inches of the old snow piles. These few inches were melting in the mild temperatures. This, of course, was no impediment to my progress, as I wore rubbers to protect my good leather shoes.

I saw in the dark, silt-laden, melting slush a small rectangular outline, which on being nudged with my toe, turned out to be a small, black purse. I picked this up, soggy though it was. It was a snap-frame purse which opened at the top. Inside, the sole object was a tiny pistol, which on my examination, proved to be a two-shot .22 caliber. On my further examination, I determined that one of the two cartridges had been fired, and the empty brass was still in the chamber. Whatever this might mean, it could not be ignored. I had to take this into custody, so to speak.

The next day was trial. I was supposed to go on the stand in the morning, but there was no surprise to me in the fact that proceedings were delayed with arguments of counsel. During one of these sessions, while lead counsel were wrangling, I asked the junior counsel if there had been any crimes in the recent past involving a .22 caliber bullet.

He looked thoughtful for a moment, then his eyebrows rose a full centimeter and he said, “Yes, yes there was a… quite, quite… quite a case.” He told me, in a low voice there in the courtroom, that it had involved a beautiful married woman accused of murdering a man who attended the same church as she. There was no time for more, as the attorneys were coming back from their sidebar conference with the judge.

After court ended that day, all the attorneys adjourned to a quiet restaurant and settled the case. The attorney who had hired me was kind enough to tell me that my testimony had been instrumental in leveraging a settlement favorable to his client. I felt I had earned my fee. And now unexpectedly I had two days free. I had been scheduled on this case for the whole week. As a matter of professional interest, and what might possibly become a legal duty to turn in evidence, I went in the next day to talk with the senior attorney and asked about the case which the junior attorney had mentioned to me.

To sum up what he told me, a thirty-three-year-old married man had been found dead in the parking lot of the motel where I was staying. It was a little more than a year ago and in the dead of winter. In the ensuing investigation, suspicion centered on a woman who attended the same church as the dead man. It turned out that the man had gone to the pastor and confessed to unwanted feelings for this woman, and as a married man not looking for romance, asked for help in dealing with them. The pastor then questioned the woman who said she had noticed the man staring at her and paying close attention to her. She said she had some reciprocal feelings, but neither of them had acted upon them, and in fact, they had avoided one another.

The pastor had decided that each of the two should be counseled by an elder in the church, and had set up appointments for them to go, separately, to confess to an elder and receive the elder’s counsel. This had upset both of the parties who feared the matter would become public and cause them excruciating embarrassment. The pastor also insisted that the man tell his wife, which, reluctantly, he did. To the man’s surprise, his wife supported him and was understanding about his struggle.

Before the date of the counseling sessions, the man and the woman decided to meet to see if they could not between themselves resolve their feelings and clear the air, so as to avoid the necessity for the counseling. They met at the restaurant of the motel in question. According to the woman, it was at first an awkward meeting, but as the two of them talked, they found that their impressions formed at a distance, each of the other, were unrealistic and inaccurate. These impressions gave way to a sense of the other as a real person with faults and a genuine desire to live out the gospel. They each decided that they could manage to maintain a non-threatening Christian relationship and that further intervention would be unnecessary.

They left separately, as they had come. The woman testified that she had driven away before the man and that she saw him leave the restaurant and walk to the parking lot by the motel, opposite from the restaurant parking lot where her car was. She said that on her way home, a giddy feeling came over her. She was very happy, and when she got home, perhaps did behave in a somewhat giddy manner, and was especially joyful that she would not have to tell her husband about the matter.

The next morning, the man was found under a car in the parking lot, frozen stiff and shot through the heart with a .22 caliber bullet. The murder weapon was never found.

At the trial, the principal evidence against the woman was this: she was the last person seen with the victim; she was distraught upon arriving at home that night after meeting the victim; her husband had a .22 rifle and she had access to his ammunition; she had a motive to avoid the disclosure of an illicit love affair.

The jury of five men and seven women deadlocked, seven to five in favor of conviction. The prosecution declined to re-try the case. Many in the community still think she did it, and she leads a difficult existence, employed as a bookkeeper for a small firm.

This cleared up one question. I would have to turn in the purse and the pistol to the police as potential material evidence in a criminal matter. Whether this would result in a re-trial of the matter was unknowable. After a year out of doors in the snow and rain, there were not likely any fingerprints other than my own, which probably covered the entire pistol, being that it was so tiny. Whether there would be any useful ballistic evidence was also uncertain.

Before I turned in this potential evidence, I thought I would see what I could do by way of clearing up the matter. I spent Thursday afternoon in the courthouse, reviewing the trial record. After dinner that evening, I went to see the woman, still uncertain about how I would get rid of her husband so that I could talk to her alone. The address I had for her was in a set of identical two-story apartment buildings. In the dark it took me some time to find the right building.

She answered the doorbell promptly. She was tallish, perhaps an inch taller than my below-average height. She was not so pretty as I had been led to expect. A certain world-weary sadness played about her eyes. Maybe her ordeal had aged her and robbed her of her looks, or maybe I was looking at the ravages of guilt—maybe she was a Dorian Gray without a portrait in her closet.

I introduced myself. I told her I was an investigator who perhaps had new information about the murder of Jason Martel. She let me in but was wary, as, fortunately for me, her husband was not home.

Without any preliminaries, before even either of us had sat down, I took out the small purse, held it in my palm outstretched towards her, and asked, “When did you lose this?”

She looked at the purse, knitting her forehead together, then looked at me with open, innocent eyes. “It’s not mine. I’ve never seen it before.”

“But you know what’s in it.”

“No… no, no, I don’t.”

All right. I put the purse back in my pocket. Despite this gambit of mine, she asked me to sit. I told her what I had learned about the case and asked her to correct any misunderstandings I might have and fill in any information she thought I might be missing. We talked for nearly an hour. She never once smiled. I sensed that if I showed her the pistol, she would start crying, so I didn’t.

I came away feeling sorry for her. Not that I necessarily thought she was innocent. However, if she were acting, she was very good; but then, she’d had a year to rehearse.

Whenever a married person is murdered, there is always a natural suspect ready to hand: the spouse. I had learned that Louise Martel had collected $250,000 in life insurance benefits upon her husband’s death. Whether this could be motive, would depend on what kind of person she was. I made plans to try to talk to her the next day, Friday.

Louise Martel lived in a very upscale neighborhood. Her house was by no means the largest in that neighborhood. However, it was distinctive in that it had been designed—or remodeled—to mimic a Mediterranean villa, with a red pantile roof, a stone wall with an un-doored opening, and a side patio surrounded by trellises. It looked out of place in snowy Syracuse.

I let several minutes pass before I rang the bell a second time. According to my research, she was a self-employed interior decorator, so it was likely that she was home. However, there were no lights visible through the windows, so I could not be sure.

After another long moment, the main door opened with a sound of rushing air as the opening created a vacuum behind the storm door, which clunked as the pressure of the outside air pushed it in tighter against the jamb.

“Yes?” said a woman with dark hair pulled back into a tight pony tail. She was shorter than I and oddly, the level of the foyer floor was a few inches lower than the porch on which I was standing. Consequently, she was staring up at me. She was not unpretty, but she had a peculiar nose, with a bulbous tip.

With age and experience, one does get a sense of people. Instantly I changed my planned approach. Speaking loudly so as to be heard through the storm door, I said, “I think I have found some property which may belong to you—if you are Mrs. Martel.”

She cocked her head and looked at me closely. “I used to be. I go by my maiden name now, Wilson. What is it?”

I took out the purse and holding it between my thumb and forefinger, waggled it as if it were a fish lure. From her reaction, I knew I had her. Getting an admissible confirmation was a matter of using established techniques. It was routine for me.

I flew back to Quebec quite satisfied with my week’s work in the States.

pencilD. Staats is a writer who does not want the reader’s perception of the work to be colored by any description of the author. Would the reader enjoy this story more if he or she knew that it had been written by Anton Chekhov or by Melvin Snodgrass from Podunk, Idaho? Email: d.staats100[at]comcast.net

Wish I May, Wish I Might

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Carole Mertz


Lost: red bobble hat
Photo Credit: Rachel Beer

Bo sits by the window. He’s tired of looking out on snow, but notices the daylight is extending a bit past five-thirty in the evenings. He takes up his newspaper and, after a coughing spell, reads about the robbery that occurred two nights ago in nearby Schoffsburg. I suppose the sluggards have nothing else to do. Someone should put them to work.

He hears Mrs. Gelber shuffling about in the apartment next door and wonders if she will bring him some supper tonight, which she does occasionally. Once she gets started, she certainly causes a ruckus banging those pots and pans about. But she cooks up a fine stew.

At eighty, Bo, a retired coal miner, is not up to much physical activity, but he returns Mrs. Gelber the favor by carrying her daily garbage bags to the dumpster behind the building. Tonight, after her fine dinner, he collects his own garbage and the two bags she has set outside her door. By the dumpster he meets Estelle, little Maribelle’s mother, and wishes he’d collected the garbage minutes earlier or minutes later.

He nods to Estelle, but she doesn’t speak. Well, then, have it your way! A return greeting might not kill you, though. He smiles to himself.

The next morning, Saturday, March second, Bo sets out for the village at nine-thirty. Snow fell during the night, but Bo tests the sidewalk and with his old boots on, and reassures himself he won’t slip. He waits for his cough to subside, then, cane in hand, begins his slow trek to Bander’s Buffet. Not only does he relish his breakfast there, but he also enjoys reading his newspaper and observing the villagers as they drop in throughout the morning. He chooses the second booth past the cash register, near enough to the door, but not too far from the men’s room.

Bo is comfortable here, where he occasionally stops to talk with neighbors. He doesn’t know that within ten days many of the villagers will not feel as comfortable as they have heretofore. He lingers in his booth till a few minutes past noon. Neither the manager nor the waitresses ever complain about his lengthy visits. Not wanting to annoy other customers, he steps outside or into the bathroom if a too-persistent coughing spell overcomes him. His emphysema hasn’t improved since his retirement, but neither has it worsened, he tells himself.

Midway through his biscuit and creamed chipped beef, Bo watches as Maribelle enters with her schoolmate Azure. Maribelle reaches up and hands the clerk two dollars. “Mama wants the newspaper and she says I can have a chocolate bar, too.” The two girls, not sisters, are thought to be related, for they wear identical knitted caps (another of Mrs. Gelber’s neighborly gestures) and usually appear inseparable.

They’ve surely shared some secrets, Bo muses, wiping some cream off his chin.

“Your mama’s sleeping in, then.” The clerk fishes for a bit of information, the way of folk in small communities, but Maribelle only nods.

She’s as taciturn as her mother, then. But Bo realizes Estelle’s talk is more of the behind-your-back kind of talk. He recalls how she bad-mouthed his dear wife before she died, six years ago. And she’d had no kind words for him either, blaming him for his wife’s death.

“‘You could have at least gotten her into the hospital when she needed it.'” Mrs. Gelber reported Estelle’s gossip to him directly, a week after the funeral. Indeed, I hardly knew what my dear Chip needed then, but one thing the doctor had affirmed to me was keeping her quiet and rested at home would do her more good than a disturbing shuffle to Schoffsburg General. The doctor knew her for years, and I’m sure he knew what was right for her. Old Bo wipes a tear from his eye.

He watches Maribelle and Azure on the sidewalk as they huddle together to unwrap the chocolate. The two girls lean toward each other as Maribelle splits the chocolate wedge in two. The two knitted balls atop their caps bob a bit as the girls bend their heads together—Maribelle’s cap a bright red and Azure’s a mustard color.

*

A red fox hurries across the field, then turns left following the field’s edge. Yards ahead lies the wooded area the fox will enter. Its lair is almost invisible, though Jimmy, who frequently treads off the path that runs through the glade, is aware of its location. He knows to skirt the area giving a wide berth to the animal’s territory. Jimmy calls the fox Flare-Foot. He’s seen the black feet trotting. They make Jimmy think of charcoal, as if the fox has run through fire and the ashes have marked his feet.

Jimmy loves the fox, loves its independence and its know-it-all air. “You’re a loner, all right,” he tells the fox, as he spies the animal from a distance.

The teenager lives with his grandparents on a farm about a mile out from the village. He checks his traps in the stream and reassures himself all is in order, then heads back to the farmhouse. He whistles as he goes, watching his condensed breath rising.

“Damn, it’s cold!” A rhyme enters his mind. “‘The wind flapped loose, the wind was still.'” He lets the rhyme float through his being, trying to warm himself. “‘The wind flapped loose, the wind was still,’ how does it go? ‘…shaken out dead from tree and hill.’ ‘cept Grandma knows the whole thing, I’ve only got the first verse.” He lifts the latch at the gate, hurries along and enters the kitchen end of the old stone building.

*

At three o’clock Bo startles awake following a dream. He sits by the window and tries to peer out. His glasses have fallen into the newspaper in his lap. His dream lingers, something about a bright light flashing onto something black and shiny. Only a dream. He looks out and sees Azure and Maribelle. The two clap their hands together in some kind of ritual. Bo can’t hear them, but he sees their lips moving. They clap so rapidly he knows they’ve done this routine before. Clap—together, clap—across, clap—together, then diagonally across. Bo wishes he could hear them. His head droops and he snoozes again.

A knock wakes him. “Pa, I knocked four times. Are you OK?” Josie, his younger daughter, is at the door carrying two large paper sacks.

“You know my door’s always unlocked. Come in, sweetheart. How’s my gal? Have you seen Jennifer? How’s she doing? Here, set your bags down.” He attempts to stifle a cough but has to give in to its five-minute duration as Josie unwraps the kitchen items and stores the canned goods and frozen packages in their proper places. She and her sister visit their dad on alternate weekends.

“Jennifer’s good, Dad. She told me to remind you to call Dr. Bream to renew your prescription. Has your cough worsened?”

“Nah! ‘Bout the same. How was your shift this morning?”

Josie always drives directly from her early shift at the hospital on Saturdays, picking up Bo’s groceries along the way.

“Same as usual. No rest for the weary feet. How’s it going? Anything new in town?” She’d heard about the robbery that took place at the Schoffsburg Gas ‘n Take-Out a week ago. She waits to see if her dad has any news from the villagers. She doesn’t tell her father about the eight-year-old who was admitted that morning following a sexual molestation. Word about the case spread quickly through the hospital.

“I heard from Ned Nelson at the Mart that they’ve installed a camera scan at the rear door of their store. Since that robbery at the gas station, nobody’s taking any chances. Want chicken paprikash tonight or spaghetti and meatballs, Da’?”

“Oh, let’s have the—” Another coughing spell interrupts Bo, after which he flops into his recliner.

Josie begins the paprikash. “It would be nice if we’d get rid of the snow one of these days. And I think you should start locking your door at night.” She pounds the cutlets, flattens them, and cuts them into bite-sized pieces.

Her father sleeps.

*

A week later, March 18th

On Sunday afternoon, returning from Bander’s Buffet with his newspaper under his arm, Bo passes the two young girls. Maribelle and Azure are holding hands and skipping down the center of the street. As they skip, they shout loudly and in a merry sing-song: “Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” They yank their linked hands forward and back.

Wouldn’t their mothers be a wreck if they spied them in the middle of the street! Then again, when have their mothers ever been that watchful of their children? “Here! Step over here,” Bo calls to them. But they are giggling and don’t hear him.

“Wish I may, wish I might.”

Bo walks on down the street. Wonder what I’d wish tonight, if I were wishing. He smiles to himself. Wouldn’t mind having a new set of lungs. He hears a car beep behind him. But now, lost in thought, he shuffles on home, noticing the snow has become slush.

*

Meanwhile, Jimmy is seated at the kitchen table in the farmhouse. His stamp collection is spread before him. He reaches for the magnifying glass, trying to decide where to place the Sri Lankan stamp with its curlicue letters. I wonder what that says? I wonder if I’ll ever go to Sri Lanka?

His grandma places a cup of hot chocolate on the table. “Better set that way over there, Grandma. You know how clumsy I can be.”

“I wouldn’t call a lad who can collect over $3.25 a week on his muskrat skins clumsy.”

Jimmy smiles, pleased that his grandmother recognizes his trapping skills. “I’m lucky Mr. Peters pays me 25 cents each for the pelts.” He reaches for the cocoa. He knows not too many of his classmates would rise at four in the morning to check their traps, but he’s grown used to the chore.

“It’s been a good winter. It’s a wonder old Flare-Foot never wanders by the stream. But he’s too smart for that.”

“Who’s Flare-Foot?”

“He’s a fox I see now and then. I know where his lair is, but I’ve never seen another fox. Only him.”

Jimmy places the pink stamp on a square and considers gluing it fast.

His grandmother sighs. “You’re a good lad.”

“You think Gramps would let me show him the fox’s spot? He never goes into the woods, does he?”

“Your Grandpa knows every inch of this property, I expect.”

*

Maribelle is in the coal bin. She sobs and rubs her dripping nose on the sleeve of her coat.

Azure puts her arm around her. “Don’t cry, your mom doesn’t really want to hurt you.”

“She does, too. She yelled at me and said I could go to that place—she said ‘You can go to hell, all I care.’ Sometimes I wish I had a daddy. A real daddy at home. Then this wouldn’t happen. I bet he wouldn’t let Mommy beat me.”

Azure says, “Yeah.”

They sit quietly, shivering.

Azure jumps up. “Let’s go for a walk!”

The two girls walk to Featherstone Street and turn up Maple to the warehouse at the edge of the village. The afternoon light begins to weaken. They’re used to walking, but have no idea how far they’ve come. In the fields they look back toward the village. The warehouse is far behind them. When Azure realizes how distant it is, she shakes. “We should go back. Maybe it will be dark soon.”

“I don’t want to go back. I don’t ever want to see Mommy again!”

“I don’t like it here. C’mon. Let’s go back.”

Maribelle walks on. She kicks at stones and puts her hands in her pockets, looking steadily down.

“I’m cold, Maribelle. C’mon!” She begs, but Maribelle walks on. Azure sees the woods in the distance and knows she will never go there in the dark. She begins to cry. She looks at Maribelle, then turns to look at the warehouse, now only dimly visible. After a last look at her friend, she turns and runs home.

*

Bo reads the news of the missing child on Tuesday morning. He doesn’t need the paper to inform him, for the report has already spread throughout the village.

The waitress approaches his booth. “Your regular today, Bo?”

“No, I don’t feel much like eating. Just a black coffee, please.”

Bo reads that an investigator was at Mrs. Randolph’s house on Monday and that she had reported the child missing at eight that morning. Hah! She took her good old time. The newspaper reported: “Nothing from the child’s bedroom was missing or disturbed. Mrs. Randolph said she’d never known the child to stay out past dark.” Well, if she did, Estelle would never have known it, the careless bitch! I never saw the mother walk with the child. Always only Maribelle and Azure, Maribelle and Azure. Wish I may and wish I might. Wait a minute! I wonder if they’ve talked to Azure. Bo is deep in thought when the waitress comes to refill his cup. The reporter had titled the article “The Girl in the Red Snowcap.”

That night Bo calls Josie. By now he needs her advice. Should he talk to the police, or not? And if so, whom should he ask for? “I’m not used to this sort of thing, Josie. Suppose I make a fool of myself.”

“Dad, how about if I come over tomorrow, soon’s I get off work? We can go to the station together.”

The next day she’s at his door by two-thirty. “The newspaper said they’re talking to all the neighbors,” he tells her. “But there’s no mention of Azure and so far nobody’s rung my doorbell, either. Yes, let’s go to the station.”

It snows later that night, the day of the spring equinox. The next day dawns spring-like, with temperatures in the mid-forties.

*

Old Flare-Foot, what are you up to now? Jimmy asks of the darkness. The elements don’t feel so quiet in the woods this morning. Jimmy’s on edge. Before checking his traps, he spies something lying nearby. The snow has drifted toward a tree trunk and is nearly melted. Soggy leaves lie there from the prior season. Jimmy turns his flashlight toward the leaves. There on top lies the object. It’s red. Startled, Jimmy runs back to the house. He’s heard about the girl in the red snowcap.

Jimmy wakes his grandpa and together they drive to Schoffsburg. Officers piece together their various reports into one brief document, brutal in its clarity. Maribelle’s body is found on the same day Jimmy discovers the cap. Weeks later the villagers still talk about how Azure and her family have left town.

Bo sits in Bander’s Buffet, his newspaper spread open. “This is one sad story,” he tells the waitress. They shake their heads.

pencilA retired musician, Carole Mertz writes from Parma, Ohio. This is her first mystery, though she has published essays, short stories, and poetry in With Painted Words, The Conium Review, at Page and Spine, and in various anthologies. She won an honorable mention in the 4th Worldwide Intergenerational Storytelling Contest. Email: carolemertz[at]cox.net