The Rabbit’s Head

Fiction
Omid Fallahazad


Photo Credit: Kurayba/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

At first, she didn’t want to leave the house. He had to threaten her, then entice her, both tactics involving how much screen time she would get on his iPad, and she finally yielded. He thought they needed to go for a walk, with all that was on the news, just to get some fresh air.

It had rained all night, soaking roof shingles and leaving the tree bark a shade or two darker in color. Now it was drizzling with the confused wind of late March. He took their umbrellas from the stand. She giggled when opening the umbrella. He, too, felt childishly giddy going through the motions—the soft, springy release button, the way the canopy opened with a flapping sound, the gentle pitter-patter of the first raindrops landing overhead.

But then a gust of wind blew from behind and snatched his umbrella. For half a second the handle was out of his grip, the umbrella suspended in the air like magic. The man clasped the handle just in time and drew it back. The girl screamed. The wind was lifting her umbrella too, pulling it until the yellow, duck-faced canopy popped inside out. The metal ribs rattled hard. He turned about and gave instructions, yelling. She managed to point the top of her umbrella against the wind. It instantly popped back into shape, dignified, as if nothing had happened. The wind suddenly dropped, and he recovered his umbrella, too. He told her to pay attention to the treetops, to watch for ripples in unmoved puddles, any sign that helped to read the wind. She listened intently.

“You stick to me if we see someone’s coming our way, you understand?”

She nodded.

“And don’t say hello. No hellos.”

She held the handle close to her face, white-knuckled, wide-eyed, and nodded again.

They walked through the long U-shaped suburban neighborhood without a word. On the outer side of the curve, the sloping lot, stood colonial houses, imposing and a bit too angular. Water sprouts were shooting from the pruning wounds of a large birch tree. There was a bicycle left on the pedestal of a stump near a mailbox post. Opposite, on the flat surface of the inner side, was a handful of snug ranch homes, each surrounded by a modest but manicured lawn and dark-soiled flowerbeds. A couple times, the man had to stop for the girl to catch up with him. No matter how slow he strolled, she kept falling behind. As he waited, he stared at the picture windows of the houses, drawn to the eerie serenity of their dim interiors.

“Faster,” he called, and twirled the umbrella handle. Large droplets flew off the rib tips in a helix pattern. The air smelled of pine cones. In fifty yards or so, they would reach the main road. Time to decide. Should they turn around and retrace their path through the neighborhood to get back home, or go ahead and complete the loop by taking the main road, which connected the two ends of the U? Similar lengths, but one with possible predicaments. Predicaments, if anyone else decided to come out during that hour, like the lean bandit man the other day. But even an eager jogger like the bandit man could do without such miserable, spitting drizzle. That was what the man hoped for.

The girl was in no rush. The sleeves of her parka were wet up to her shoulder seams. He could see why. She was carrying the umbrella bindle-like, drifting along the edge of the grass, talking to herself, or to the imaginary characters in her head.

He walked up to the main road and scanned the sidewalk all the way to the bridge over the muddy river. It looked deserted. Nothing moved in the rain-slicked, single-lane road either. Regardless, the decision had triggered a fluttering in his chest, and he knew it wouldn’t go away until they’d reached the next corner and veered off back to the safety of their neighborhood. She was still lagging behind by ten paces or so. There was no sign of the jogger.

Last time, he had appeared from the other side of the road, apparition-like, and crossed the empty street with nimble side strides. Red-faced, forehead glistening in sweat. Workout layering all in black, like a thin-limbed bandit, except that he had no mask, nor scarf. The man had acted by instinct, placing himself between his daughter and the jogger’s projected path. He had assumed that the jogger would jump over the curb into the bike lane to maintain some distance between them, but he didn’t. He stayed his course and came at them. It felt like watching the act of predation from the prey’s point of view. The man put his arm around the girl and made a shield of his body for her. The pull caused a stumble in the girl’s quick steps. But then she did the unexpected. In a singsong voice, she blurted out: “Hello!”

The response, a massive, guttural “Hi” that the jogger barked back at them, shocked the man. His body went slack. He saw a stream of sweat and spittle shedding off the jogger’s jowls, or so he imagined in his nightmarish replays of the encounter. It was like the old Gatorade commercials in which athletes’ blue and orange sweat went off flying into the dark. Dribbling sweat while dribbling the ball, all shot in an artistic rim light. A recent viral video showed how laser beams were employed in some darkroom lab to highlight airborne spittles issued from a person speaking. The phosphorus light traced the particles just short of the microbial level. Amazing how far they traveled, how many of the concentric circles they reached. Who knew that death would become the human body’s most easily transmittable trait? Death, not love, not intelligence, not happiness. Death and disease, spreading like a yawn.

“Look at this!” the man called, standing before a rain puddle on the sidewalk.

At first, the girl couldn’t see what he saw. At her height, the reflection of the clouds masked everything. He held his umbrella above the puddle.

“What is it?”

“Look!”

But he lost it, too. He could only see a pine needle afloat pointing northward, compass-like. A little squinting, a little bending, and the grainy asphalt came to focus. A tooth-size piece of gravel. A few bits of wood chip, mulch or not, cinnamon-colored and fibrous.

“What is it?”

“A worm.”

“A worm?” She squatted down with a sympathetic moan.

“It’s dead,” he said.

“It moves.”

“Water makes it bob,” he said. “It doesn’t wiggle.”

She reached for a twig at the edge of the lawn.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Wait, Daddy,” she murmured. He could hear her swallow as she prodded the flesh-pink worm with surgical focus. Her dark curls, raindrops beaded in them, covered the nape of her neck.

He began to walk away, irritated with himself for showing her the worm. Perhaps it was habit rather than impulse. Every walk was punctuated with pauses like that, to point out the living things: a bird, a bug, dandelions, shoots, bumblebees. Now that he thought of it, maybe it was more to marvel at dead things. Yes, the dead. The hollowed tree trunk oozing decomposed cork powder. Rustling dry leaves clawing the pavement in the wind. The squashed bird, bones and feathers matted up under the sun, turning into a dusty felt whose mere proximity made their skin itch. A long-legged frog’s carcass, so hardened black that he thought there must be something he could make from the leathery piece, a patch of armor or a knife sheath, if only he had inherited the artisanship of some ancestors from a buried civilization. Dead ants by the dozen, belly-up roaches, coiled spiders. Bees, curled up as if stabbing themselves in the heart with their stinger, in seppuku, maybe. Did they even have hearts, the bees? And if they did, could they die from a heart attack? Another peculiar thing he could puzzle over. How had his eyes managed to see such things in the first place? Like this dead earthworm, putrid pink in the bottom of a rain puddle. It could be mistaken for anything, for a stringy, red root, or a tender, leafless offshoot, snapped when the wind made branches cross sabers. Or even a piece of yarn, a snagged thread of a sort, discovered as giggling guests got out of their car and rang the bell, bottle and chocolate dessert in hand. It must have been a cold evening, a Christmas party, when the wife spotted the red snag on the husband’s ugly sweater and yanked it right before the jolly host opened the door and invited them inside. The snow buried the small piece of yarn, and now that the ice had melted away, it had re-emerged, soiled and faded in the puddle. It could have gone unnoticed, plastered to the pavement until its total disintegration by the elements, except that it hadn’t. More importantly, it wasn’t a snag. It was a worm, a dead one, and she was carrying it on her tiny stick, her face crinkled up in the needling drizzle.

“You’re bringing it? What for?”

“For a funeral, of course.”

A funeral? He smirked, dumbfounded, but then turned, alarmed by the syncopated pop, pop, pop of a car’s exhaust. He saw the vehicle in the distance, a white pickup truck about 500 yards away, on the bridge. It swerved violently to the opposite lane, and its fat tires under the extended fender flares hit the sidewalk curb. The wet surface of the road bled red with the reflection of the brake lights. It must be something in the current, or maybe the lapping river itself, that had caught the driver’s eye.

“Hurry up.” He grabbed the girl by the wrist, but she cried in protest, and he had to switch to her other hand, the one that held the umbrella, not the stick.

“Can you run,” he asked, “just to get to the corner?”

She couldn’t, not with her eyes glued to the worm dangling from the stick. The truck was creeping back to the left lane, straightening itself. He knew that they wouldn’t make it, that there would be some overlap, them being on the sidewalk and the truck passing by. He could hear the fizz of tires on wet asphalt louder, nearer. Mist clouds plumed around the truck, and he suddenly had another fit of anxiety, this time at the prospect of an accident: he saw a steel object, something polished like the head of a golf club, coming off the spinning truck, going airborne with an impossible trajectory toward his daughter’s skull.

“Run!” He pulled her and the truck kept coming towards them. Ten yards from the corner, they passed each other. He locked eyes with the driver. They looked puffy, menacing, a day-long wrangle in them. The stubbled young driver had one arm in a sling. And of course, there was a dark-haired woman in the passenger seat, disturbed-looking, clinging to the dashboard. The truck looked sleek and unused.

The man and his daughter turned the corner, the noise quickly fizzling out behind them. From there he could see his lawn, cocooned in the quiet of the U-shaped neighborhood.

“I dropped it,” the girl whimpered. “I dropped the worm.”

“Look there.” He pointed at another puddle, this one on the neighborhood’s sidewalk, elongated and murkier than the first one. The girl immediately squatted down next to the water and began scraping the mud with her stick. The man’s toes felt cold in his dampened shoes. He checked his pocket for his phone, then remembered that he had left it at home on purpose, not so much to protect it from the rain but to save himself from the news. He’d had enough of the news. If it wasn’t the charts and radiating maps, it was bystander footage of refrigerator trucks and body bags forklifted onto them, or selfies of racoon-eyed nurses during their “mask break,” or scenes of burials with undertakers in all-white, resembling a moonlander crew. That could drive anyone insane, could force them out of their homes, drunk or not. And if you’re in the middle of a domestic fight, driving recklessly on an empty road, a muddy river was an invitation to darker thoughts. Better keep certain things out of people’s heads. Dissection wasn’t meant for everyone. Leave some stones unturned, some stuff unstudied, like the rabbit’s head.

He had come across the bloody head about a week ago, during one of their furtive walks. It sat on the sidewalk, its exposed front teeth just an inch from a pea pod of dark droppings. The head was missing the lower jaw, so cleanly severed it looked like a pencil drawing in a zoology textbook. He rerouted the girl to avoid the scene. But the eerie mystery of it, the Wiccan composition, bothered him. Why the droppings? Were they the predator’s? A coyote’s, perhaps? How could the rest of the carcass vanish without a trace of blood, without a tuft of fur?

Pop, pop, pop. The noise had returned. He eyed the main road. The girl was trying to dislodge a rock with the ferrule of her umbrella. Rain dripped from her springy curls. The loud engine sound caromed through the nearby houses. He saw the pickup truck drive by again, churning up mist clouds, tires hissing on wet asphalt. He saw the woman’s face. It was squished against the side window, not in a playful pig snout but in profile, cheek flattened on the glass, an eye contorted shut. And he registered the movements, the flailing hands fighting his arm that repeatedly hacked at them. That, he saw.

He came over to the girl. Under her umbrella, she was absently cooing at some living things. He picked up the wet rock and returned to the corner. The truck had stopped on the bridge in a peculiar position, two wheels on the road and the other two propped up on the curb. The rear windshield wiper was running fast. The door on the passenger side opened and closed. The man could make out a deadened yelling. Again, the door flung open, and the woman’s head and shoulder appeared with a jerk and disappeared inside the car. That happened a few times, like a cuckoo clock, each time the torso swinging out with a greater force until her hips were pushed off the seat, suspended in the air. But she hung on to the cab, hands clinging to the frame and heels hooked behind the sill.

Hey,” the man yelled, taking a couple steps forward. The woman found a moment to pull herself back inside and slam the door shut. Whether or not the driver was watching him in the rearview mirror, he could not tell. He squeezed the wet stone in his fist, muddy water dribbling through his fingers.

“Daddy, Daddy!”

He waited still. The truck door stayed shut. Then the red and white taillights came on in succession, a sign that the driver was working the gearshift.

“Daddy, hurry up,” his daughter called.

He glanced at the first house, the one closest to them, at the shut, quiet door behind strands of water dripping from the eaves.

“Daddy. Daddy.” The girl was walking to him. “I need to save them.” She had left the umbrella by the puddle. In the muddy cup of her hands, he saw the worms, two dirty filaments of flesh twitching violently.

“Away from the road,” he waved her off. “Go, get your umbrella, go!”

“I need a jar.” She gave him an exasperated look. “Why don’t you listen, Daddy?”

He cocked his head in the direction of the bridge. He didn’t know what to expect—a screeching over-steer for takeoff, or a slow, reluctant dispatch. He wasn’t sure how to account for any of those possibilities.

“I’m going home,” the girl announced and marched off, leaving her umbrella on the ground. It looked like a spinning top at rest. Her parka glistened wet all over. The man waited at the corner, listening to the drum of rain. Finally the truck moved and tires slowly came off the elevated curb, one at the time.

He watched the truck for a few more seconds, a last attempt to decipher any characters on the license plate. Pointless. Then he turned and started toward the yellow umbrella. A mellow gust of wind got ahead of him and teasingly tossed it into the puddle. About four houses farther, the girl had stopped to pack some more dirt around the worms in her hand. The man was in no rush. For once, let her be the one who had to cool her heels. Just as he reached the umbrella, the wind picked it up again and sailed it over onto the neighbor’s lawn. Uneasy, he invaded the lawn, but the wind swept the umbrella again, and it landed behind a sphere boxwood. Well, there was life and there was death, and there were all things in between, ridiculous things. Better get a hold of this umbrella before it turned into a circus. This time, he zeroed in on it with open arms and a wide-based gait, as if trying to catch a wild turkey. He snatched the handle, and, much relieved, shook it and collapsed it closed. Things in between, whatever it meant, he needn’t get doubly drenched like that.

When he returned to the sidewalk, he saw that the girl had stopped again, this time one house before theirs. She was holding out her arms, showing her precious finds in the palm of her hand to a bent-over, beaming bandit man.

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Born and raised in Iran, Omid Fallahazad is a bilingual writer. His works of fiction in Farsi include a novel and two short story collections, all published in exile. He has also been a contributor in a number of Iranian diaspora publications and media outlets by giving interviews and as a writer of reviews and essays. His English writings have appeared in literary journals and anthologies such as Paul Revere’s Horse, World Literature Today, Tremors, and My Shadow Is My Skin. His short fiction, “Arrested,” won a prize and was published in Glimmer Train Magazine in 2016. Email: omid.fallahazad[at]gmail.com

Permission

Flash
Natalie Schriefer


Photo Credit: Michael Muccioli/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

I didn’t mind, at first. Answering phones. Making copies. The silence between semesters, the students on break, the professors’ doors closed. I was five dollars above minimum wage, after all. I could walk to the beach during lunch, search for sea glass, ships.

I drowned my doubts in TV. In Futurama reruns.

Eleven days after my grandfather died, I reached the bureaucrat episode. We are who are, Hermes sang, and he was a bureaucrat. I wasn’t. Fresh off bereavement leave, I knew I wasn’t a secretary, a receptionist, an administrator. I was an editor. I wanted my own business. I wanted clients and retainers and contracts. I wanted my grandfather back.

That night I lay awake, cocooned in a rainbow of blankets. Moonlight arced along the curve of the blinds. My neck ached from hunching over my desk, and in the quiet, massaging the base of my skull, I couldn’t avoid what Futurama hadn’t meant to ask: What was I waiting for?

I built a website the next day. I printed fliers. Sent emails. Set rates.

Two weeks later, I gave my notice. A month later, I was free.

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Natalie Schriefer received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She started working as a freelance writer and editor in 2016, and has yet to look back. You can find her on Twitter @schriefern1. Email: schriefern[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Timothy Pilgrim


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

Montana Watercolor

I dip my brush, paint a depression
turned from fawn to gray,
beyond the wheat, next farm down.

Re-dip, add old age, barn, weathered,
sagging—rafter rot most likely—
roof caved. Good lives faded

like Big Sky mist, a still-white,
blizzard-frozen, drifted to edge,
off canvas, across road, piled on fence.

My plan—four paintings, montage,
a single homestead gone to ruin.
These two, large, plus hope,

gold sun-streak daubed small
through corral, past manure pile
to muddy stream. Last, the ravine,

willowed, wending, steep. Chickens,
sheep, strayed, the moving van,
blackest black. Children, inked waves

from truck bed, huddled in back.
Memory complete, almost dry,
I rinse my brush, put it away.

 

Grief

from the loss of her
comes over me in waves,
a tsunami intent on some island

already struggling to stay
above sea level after a convoy
of icebergs melt by. Or like a tidal bore

not holding its breath twice a day,
headed upriver, murky torrent
choking sawgrass, anemic, half dead

from salt left to cake both banks.
Or, perhaps, disbelief any sun will rise,
casually dispense heat sufficient

to dry blood, the grieving heart
pinned like her wet virus mask
on some tattered clothesline—

in wait for a wolf to lope by,
pause at the scent, leap,
rip red, run, feast.

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Timothy Pilgrim is a Montana native, Pacific Northwest poet and 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee. He has over five hundred acceptances from journals such as Seattle Review, Santa Anna River Review, Windsor Review, San Pedro River Review, Hobart, Toasted Cheese and The Bond Street Review. He is the author of Mapping Water (2016) and Seduced by Metaphor (2021). Email: pilgrimtima[at]gmail.com

Ironing Day

Poetry
Vicki Mandell-King


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

In bygone days, it was not just this drudgery
that could make a housewife want to run away.

Still, this is a weighty thing—

the heat, the steam, the heft of the iron,
the effort to press down,
smoothing out to crispness.

But today, Jane tells me she will
wash and iron new sheets for company.

When I protest that lovemaking,
and all the snores and dreams
in the toss and turn of night
will wrinkle and rumple them—

she scoffs, Then why dust, why mop?

After a pause, she turns pensive, adding
in her matter-of-fact way of speaking true,
It’s the small things that bring pleasure.

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Vicki Mandell-King has been writing poetry most of her life, even during a thirty-year career as an Assistant Federal Public Defender. Her poetry has been published in numerous respected journals. She has three published collections, titled: Tenacity of Lace, Shrinking into Infinite Sky, and Hurry, Open the Gates. Her fourth collection, Singing My Pockets Empty, is in the process of publication by Main Street Rag. Email: vmkengage[at]hotmail.com

Four Poems

Poetry
Joanne Holdridge


Photo Credit: Thirteen of Clubs/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Giving This Back

In my grandmother’s kitchen
alone with you
you cut my hair.
Trembling with fear, not desire
I stumble through the words
while your hands linger in my hair
brush against my shoulders
make this haircut one long
painful seductive act.

I tell you I don’t want
to suck you off in the back
of your van, in your apartment
when your wife is out
anywhere at all anymore.
Except those aren’t the words
I use because I’m fourteen
and I don’t know what to call
what you made me do
only know that with you
I feel like a dry chewed-on bone
buried in hole after hole
hidden and alone.

You put your hands over your heart
say you’re crushed, you’re hurt
can’t believe I won’t
anymore, you still want me
and I feel guilty, trapped in your pain
even while my mouth is glad
it won’t have to touch you anymore.
When you finally put your scissors away
pull your keys out of your pocket
head out to the driveway and your van
you say I remind you of the Dylan song
“Just Like a Woman,” how I break
just like a little girl.

I’ve carried this memory, humped it
swam leagues underwater with it
hurtled it out into space
only to have it return like a honing beacon
but now finally I’ll say out loud
what I have long known
of course, I broke just like a little girl
I was a girl, I broke.

 

Accidents, After the Fact

A woman driving and talking on her cell phone
almost hits me while I’m on my bike
I stop in time instead and fly,
judging by the bystanders’ reactions,
spectacularly over my handlebars
not a bad way to go all things considered

amazingly I’m barely hurt
just torn jeans, scrapes, bruises
glasses stuck in my left cheek
my husband takes me to the ER
where they are kind and efficient
my face only needs a couple of stitches

all lucky and a gift I report to my baby brother
while he grills me in our father’s voice
on how exactly this happened
makes me show him with a fork and knife
where I was, where the car was, how precisely
I ended up with my face in the street

explaining to my brother’s satisfaction
much more time consuming than falling was
but he can’t seem to stop asking
so desperate is he to find some way to undo it
affix blame, rationally understand
why I wasn’t more damaged

until I can hear like a hive of bees
my father muttering to himself over and over
why he didn’t finish college, hire the right contractor,
fix the retaining walls before they collapsed, all the ways
he could have not gotten my mother pregnant with me
after she was

 

One Step Ahead

Moving to Florida for the winter
convinced my grandmother she might
not have to die after all

the sun was still strong there
leaves thick and green
grapefruits hung heavy on the trees
“Mortality,” she whispered, hanging tight
to my smooth hands with her knobby arthritic fingers
“might not be what I’d imagined,” I nodded

wanted to ask what she meant
but she had already dropped my hands
shrugged off the rumors of sickness and death

and slipped away to drive her boat of a Chevy Impala
as close to the sea as she could without
actually stopping or getting her feet wet

 

To My Grandfather All These Years Dead

When you saw me standing at the end of the dock
new in my womanhood, sure I was alone
you didn’t call to me from the porch
or tell me to put my clothes back on
but watched me strip them off
and stand for a moment or two
debating whether to get wet or not
then the clean dive into cool water

For years I wished you had said something
told me my body was my own
that you regretted silently watching
but telling me later not to let my grandmother
catch me doing that kind of thing
but now I feel only wet-eyed gratitude
at least once before you died
you saw me and didn’t turn away

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Joanne Holdridge lives in Arlington, MA and has recently published poems in Coal City Review, Illuminations, New American Writing, Poem, Talking River Review, and Willow Review. She has work forthcoming in Mudfish and The Midwest Quarterly and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Prior to Covid-19, she spent winters on skis in northern NH and taught poetry and literature classes to ESL students at Bunker Hill Community College for thirty years. Email: joanne[at]meltzer.net

Triggers By Alexa Recio de Fitch

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Triggers by Alexa Recio de Fitch

Alexa Recio de Fitch’s Triggers (Solstice, 2020) is a smartly provocative and well-crafted mystery novel. In fact, before you open the first chapter, you might want to pour yourself a cup, adjust your lawn chair or recliner, and get comfortable for a while because it’s very hard to put down. The writing is clear, crisp, and overall, well done.

One of my favorite features in the novel is the use of setting. Triggers is based in New York City and even if the reader has never been there, they may feel as though they have. Dare I say that they may even feel a bit inspired to go there, too. I was pleasantly surprised to feel so grounded in NYC (pun intended). It’s true. I enjoy stories set in familiar places and I felt a kinship with the characters. It was a treat. And I especially enjoy New York stories. To absorb the reader so early on was no easy task to pull off. It was done with intention and purpose through details, description, and characterization. Overall, a spectacular use of setting!

Keeping with this idea, much of the novel takes place in forgotten, historical places that main character Phillip Weatherly visits in his quest for inspiration. He is an amateur urban explorer. Did I mention his day job? He’s a writer. Weatherly has writer’s block and goes to literal extremes to find his muse. Recio de Fitch has done her due diligence and cultural research as the reader gets a plus one ticket to some of the most famous and infamous places in New York City history via Weatherly’s musings and late night excursions.

Here are a few of my favorites along with the subterranean subway architecture that, yes, I would love to see.

Weatherly is very interested in North Brother Island, one of the uninhabited islands in New York City harbor. Around 1900 it housed a certain Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon until her death some years later. She sounds like a nobody but to many Americans she was also known as “Typhoid Mary.” According to Weatherly, she was held responsible for spreading the typhoid disease in Manhattan and spent her life incarcerated because of it.

Did you know that Washington Park holds a monument with a secret door? (I won’t spoil where it goes or who opened it.) There’s also a green park that covers hundreds of unmarked graves from the previous century: “People just go there with their picnic blankets and their Frisbees, and they sit on 20,000 graves without a clue about what lies beneath them. It’s hilarious…” (83).

Another unknown place of interest is also coastal. Somewhere underwater, there’s a scuba diver’s treasure trove of scuttled railway cars that the city had no use for and more. After reading about these real-life places, I wondered…

Besides location, Triggers also has a cast of cool characters. These people are vivid and all seem connected or linked to one another. It reminded me of the theory of six degrees of separation from Frigyes Karinthy’s 1929 short story, “Chains.” According to The Guardian, “A ‘degree of separation’ is a measure of social distance between people. You are one degree away from everyone you know, two degrees away from everyone they know, and so on.”

One of my favorite characters is nosy neighbor Clara, who seamlessly shifts between protagonist and antagonist. Much is revealed through her point of view. She is also a notable New Yorker to the core: “Where else in the world can you cry in front of complete strangers and have them not ask you if you are okay?” (41). Love her!

There are several other key characters to track and they each have their own points of view in an omniscient narration, allowing the reader to see and hear them, and read their character minds, too. Very helpful in a mystery story but also creating reasonable doubt as some of them are not always reliable while others are full of surprises. Regardless, Recio de Fitch’s characters are fully rounded and realized. They clearly and easily move along the pages and about their business in a realistic manner. Great detail. They do their job working in conjunction to move the plot to its climax. Recio de Fitch builds on their motivations, which are naturally to antagonize or support (sometimes both) the main character, who’s having a tough time when a killer mimics his book. Their dialogue is spot on. I think I may have bumped into one or two of them in the subway or coffee shop. Recio de Fitch takes her time building each of them with backstory and flashbacks between 2012 and 2017, curiously not always in chronological order.

Did I mention Triggers is a crime mystery?

There is a murder, a body, a great setting, and atmosphere. Loads of atmosphere. A cat-and-mouse game plays out on the pages as Recio de Fitch’s main guy, Weatherly, gets squeezed. Meanwhile, with the smorgasbord of suspects that are friends or foes, or perhaps friendly foes, readers may enjoy an interactive NYC hunt of their own to find the killer. Now you see… Now you don’t. Round and round it goes. Who done it? Somebody knows…

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Alexa Recio de Fitch is a crime fiction author from Barranquilla, Colombia, presently living in New York. Her publication experience spans the United States, United Kingdom, and Colombia. Her work has appeared in Orbis International Literary Journal, Library Zine!, Voices From Across the New York Public Library, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Women Writers, Women’s Books, Ancient Paths Literary Magazine, and El Heraldo. Alexa worked at Hachette Book Group and McGraw-Hill and holds an English literature degree from the University of Notre Dame. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, the New York Public Library Writer’s Circle, and the New York Writers Critique Group. Twitter: @alexardfitch | Instagram: alexa.reciodefitch | Facebook

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

Celeste Blue by Lou Nell Gerard

Candle-Ends
Shelley Carpenter


Celeste Blue by Lou Nell Gerard

Movement. It was the first thought that came to my mind after reading Lou Nell Gerard’s collection of short stories, flash and poetry in her latest book, Celeste Blue (Cyberwit, 2020). Many of the stories and poetry are literally about commuter characters traveling the pages in cars, motorcycles, canoes, bicycles, and city transit buses as in “New Friend” (127) and “Transit Posts” (128-135). This interested and “moved” me greatly as it evoked a certain nostalgia for a time in my life when I, too, traveled and met some interesting people and made some daily acquaintances.

Gerard captures this idea beautifully in several of her poems and stories such as “Finding Community at the Motor Hotel”:

I love the community that can be found far from home at the old style motel. I’m speaking of a true motor hotel where you drive up to the door or your room… People wander out to sit on a porch. A stranger offers another traveler a beer and shares directions… We recognize each other in a nearby diner and say “hello.” (109)

Other stories travel the opposite direction blasting ahead toward science fiction such as in “Derecho,” where main characters shift in points of view as daily commuters face down an ominous sky at the local diner and hospital. Gerard’s pace is spot on as she cranks up the tension with weather and dialogue: “Well folks hope you aren’t seeing’ the end o’ the world here in ole Pegs.” (19) and “The radio is saying it is what’s called a Derecho, like a giant, fast moving conga line of a storm. The thing is crossing state borders… we are maybe in the middle of the thing.” (20)

Lou Nell Gerard tells her stories with vivid evocative detail. The first story, “Fixies Adrift,” echoes this:

That feeling when there seems no ready explanation, when time slows and life sounds like the lapping water against the raft, soft wind through the reeds, the quiet bark of the canoe against the raft, bird song the occasional splash of fish or a landing lake bird all disappears and is replaced by a tone of the imagination much like the deep deep tonals of the throat singing monks of Tibet… (11)

What makes it so interesting is the juxtaposition of such a gorgeous setting that Gerard takes her time building with the mystery.

Other stories in the collection have a certain classic atmosphere blending old and new into a very interesting modern noir. “Eidolon” is one of these. Written in third person with varying points of view it oozes the ambience of a 1950s crime story with a cool, modern twist. The main character enjoys a favorite podcast during her commute and something unexpected happens in the podcast. Gerard knows the hallmarks of noir and she uses sensory details to deliver a gripping story all of which happens on the road: “Slow down, doll. Get us killed, you’ll get them killed too…” (39)

Police procedurals are another element in several of the stories. Police officers and detectives play protagonists and antagonists in several. They speak, move about on the page, and are perfectly realized while other characters are sketchy giving the reader pause to consider whether or not the protagonist is reliable or telling the truth. Stream of consciousness comes to mind when I read “Hester’s World”: “In a perfect world. I live in a perfect world. It is my world. My reality. My version. When did I first get an inkling that it wasn’t a real world?” (55)

The short stories and flash fiction lead the reader to a series of poems in the section marked Miscellany. The poems range in subject from observations from daily life such as “The Best Loud Child,” which made me smile out loud, to the achingly poignant “Mom Had Alzheimer’s” and “The Day That She Knew Me.” There were also curious ideas and explorations in “Melancholia,” “Empty Park,” and “Terraform,” and a feeling of nostalgia for Woodstock (even though I wasn’t alive back then) in “We who were 18.” Gerard’s poem made me wish I were.

The stories and poems in Celeste Blue are unique and unexpected and full of wonderment as they transport the reader to places and spaces that are as unique as they are familiar. Bravo.

*

In 2020, Lou Nell Gerard published her poetry collection, Skateboard Girl On the 5 Fulton (Cyberwit.net), and Celeste Blue (Cyberwit.net), a compilation of short stories, flash, and poetry. Her work has also appeared in Toasted Cheese: “Eidolon” placed second in the Dead of Winter 2018 contest, “Derecho” placed third in the 2018 A Midsummer Tale Narrative Writing Contest, and “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. Find her thoughts on reading, writing, film, and friendship on her blog, Three Muses Writing.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: reviews[at]toasted-cheese.com

Memories from Franklin County, Missouri

Savage Mystery ~ Third Place
Jay Bechtol


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

The old woman twitches in her hospital bed. Her feet move with the nightmare pulsing through her sleep. In her dream she is a small grey rabbit. Her back feet kick up dried leaves and fallen twigs as she zigzags through a pasture. A growling mongrel gets closer despite her frequent turns. The beast’s jangling collar gets louder and louder with each moment. She darts under a fence where the pasture ends and through a tangle of thorn bushes. The dog gains. She cuts hard at a stone structure made by humans; it smells of things burnt. There is a sharp bark as the dog’s snapping jaws miss her haunch.

The grey rabbit is not as clever as her wild cousins, nor does she have the endurance. One last cut toward a stand of trees. The dog’s snorts so close now she can feel its breath pushing through her fur. She dashes toward a small hole at the base of the largest of the trees. She stretches. Behind the dog lunges, aware that the small creature is about to escape. A snarl fills her ears.

She tumbles sideways through the hole under the tree. The dog’s forepaw tripping her last stride. She rolls to a stop, spiderwebs and dirt matting her coat. A long gash in her leg. She lies on her side, tongue out panting, her eyes slashing back and forth in wild terror.

Outside the tree the dog skids to a stop. It barks and scratches for a time. Then her ears pick up the sound of the brute wandering off.

The woman starts awake. Morning filters through the floor to ceiling windows of the long term care unit. An orderly stares down at her.

“Having a dream, Ms. McKenzie?” The smile on his face hides his concern.

She gathers herself, swims through the fog of her dreams, the on-rushing dementia, her guilt, and tries to smile back. “Miguel? It is Miguel, right?” She is relieved to see him nod. “Yes. More of a nightmare.” She tries to focus on the room. Sterile but cozy. “I think I’d like to sit by the window today, Miguel.”

He helps her to her chair and wheels her across the room. The second floor window on the long term care unit looks out across the small town and to the farmlands beyond. He tucks a shawl around her legs.

“Thank you, Miguel. You are kind.” She smiles. “Could you bring me my book?”

“Sure, Ms. McKenzie. Would you like some breakfast, too?” He places the large scrapbook in her lap.

“Breakfast would be lovely. Thank you.” She glances out the window for a moment and then drops her eyes to the book. She opens to the first page, filled with an article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Monday, September 3rd, 1962. Almost sixty years since the disappearance. Sixty years of not knowing. She flips a few pages and stops at an article from the Franklin County Tribune.

September 1, 1962

Massive Storm, Tornadoes Across Franklin County Friday

Staff Writer Frank Lamar

A massive storm rushed through wide swaths of Franklin County on Friday afternoon and well into the evening. The storm damaged buildings and property throughout the region and into St. Louis. Local Fire Departments and Police Stations have been flooded with calls of missing persons, lost animals and missing items. Residents from Union and surrounding towns reported seeing funnel clouds touching the ground. The U.S. National Weather Service tracked fourteen separate tornadoes…

She reads a bit more before turning her focus back out the window. Her brain is clear and she lets her mind wander.

*

Claire McKenzie stared at the empty rabbit hutch, glanced at the sky, and scanned the farmyard across the large pasture with its white fence, past the stone incinerator on the other side, and into the trees that surrounded the acreage. The tops of the trees swayed. “Colleen!” she hollered. “We need to get inside, sweetie.”

The young girl stepped from the shadows of the barn and waved, “Over here, mama, just helping daddy makin’ sure the stables are secure.” Dust coated her overalls in contrast to the smile that brightened her face.

“You tell your father he needs to hurry along as well.” Claire glanced back at the hutch. “Do you have Clover?”

“Clover?” The little girl’s smile disappeared. “She should be in there.” She trotted toward her mother. “I haven’t had her out all day.”

Claire turned and examined the large enclosure again. The door swung lazily in a breeze already beginning to show signs of turning into something stronger. She took a step closer and bent, trying to see inside the small wooden shelter. Maybe Clover was tucked away in the back under some hay.

Colleen ran past and dropped to her knees at the side of the hutch. “Clo-ver,” she sang. “You in there, Clover?”

Claire turned her eyes skyward again. The afternoon was darker than it had been minutes before.

“She wouldn’t go far, mama, she doesn’t like to hop away from here unless she’s with me.” Colleen spun on her knees searching across the open areas of the farmyard.

Claire sighed; there wasn’t time to get the barn and the farm secured and send out a search party for a missing bunny. “Clover will be fine, sweetie, we’ll find her after the storm passes. She’ll get in under the barn or under a bush and ride it out.” She hoped she sounded convincing. Rabbits weren’t the hardiest or smartest of animals.

“What if Ray-Ray or something else chased her off? Clover could be hiding somewhere scared and alone.” Colleen’s words started to have that quiver indicating tears might not be far behind.

“Bradford!” Claire called toward the barn. “You got Ray-Ray?”

From inside the barn her husband’s voice came back. “Yep. He’s in here somewhere.”

Claire looked down at her daughter, “Ray-Ray’s in the barn. We haven’t seen a coyote around this entire summer.” She paused, trying to figure out the next thing to say. “Clover’s a smart bunny. She’ll be fine.”

Colleen gave her mother a look of distrust. “It could have been Ray-Ray. I’ve caught him staring at Clover through the chicken wire.”

As if on cue the large dog ambled from the barn. Part hound, part something larger, overly friendly and more inclined to romp and play than pose a real threat to anyone.

Claire rubbed her forehead. “You’ve got five minutes, sweetie. Then we are going in.” Claire headed for the barn and hoped the rabbit would appear. She was not interested in riding the storm out with a daughter anxious about a missing bunny rabbit.

*

In her hospital room she flips through a few more pages of the scrap book. Her hand hesitates on an article from the Franklin County Tribune, its edges yellowed with time, the clear plastic sheeting offering limited protection.

September 2, 1962

Local Girl Among the Missing

Staff Writer Frank Lamar

Franklin County Sheriffs have not given up hope of finding the youngest reported missing person after the storms Friday night. Friends and family members gathered at the McKenzie farm to help with the search for eight-year-old Colleen McKenzie. Making the project more challenging are the numerous downed trees and power lines hindering rescue vehicles and communication.

Colleen’s father, Bradford McKenzie, is coordinating the search. Her mother, Claire, is also…

She stops reading and wishes the dementia was more cooperative. Or at least would filter out the guilt. Her doctor has reminded her numerous times that, in her fight against the disease, painful memories are as important as the positive ones.

*

The wind had increased in intensity for the past half hour. Each gust rattled the house and sent echoes down the creaky wooden stairs to the basement where they huddled on Claire’s grandmother’s old couch.

Colleen sobbed into her mother’s chest and rubbed Claire’s gold locket between her fingers, “She’s not going to make it, mama. She’s too little and she’s never been in a storm before.”

“Hush, child,” her mother repeated, kissing the top of Colleen’s head. She raised her eyes to Bradford and wrinkled her eyebrows up and down.

Bradford recognized the expression, the “do something” signal when words weren’t available. He shrugged his shoulders and raised his own eyebrows back, his “there’s nothing I can do” response.

Bradford knelt on the cement floor and patted his daughter’s back. “Are you sure you didn’t open the door to her hutch today and just forgot about it.” A big gust caught the side of the house and something outside crashed.

No!” Colleen’s voice hardened between gulps. “I already told you.” She turned her face toward her father, her glare as hard as her voice. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“Bradford,” Colleen’s mother said, “let’s not worry about who opened the cage. Let’s remind Colleen that rabbits are resourceful, clever little creatures and…”

Her point was interrupted as a second violent crash came from outside followed by a gust and the tinkling of glass, barely audible over the sounds of the raging storm.

Bradford winced. “That sounded like the front room.”

“And,” Claire continued, “bunnies are good at hiding. So Clover is going to be just fine.” She stroked her daughter’s hair. “Right, Bradford?”

“Yes,” Bradford grimaced. “Clover is going to be just fine, sweetie.”

Colleen covered her ears and snuggled in closer to her mother.

*

Claire stirred and her eyes slowly opened into the darkness of the basement. She raised her head off the back of the couch and fumbled for a flashlight. The wind and storm seemed to have died down to something more manageable, although the house still creaked and vibrated above them. She pressed the switch, covered the front of the flashlight with her fingers and aimed it at her watch. A little past midnight. The flashlight’s filtered glow illuminated the sleeping shapes next to her, huddled under a blanket.

She debated turning on the new transistor radio but at this hour news was unlikely. She peered through the dimness toward the other end of the couch, barely able to see the rise and fall of the blanket under which Bradford and Colleen slept. She rubbed her eyes and tried to adjust her position.

“Hey,” her husband whispered. “Still blowing out there?”

“Yes,” Claire replied, “but calming down. Not looking forward to cleaning up in the morning.” She sighed. “How you doing?”

“In and out. Hard to string together more than an hour at a time of real sleep. How’s Colleen?”

“What?” Claire sat up and pulled her fingers from the front of the flashlight. The beam hit the open wood of the basement’s ceiling and created a glow around the well-worn couch. “Isn’t she under that blanket with you?”

“No, I thought she curled up with you.”

Bradford leapt to his feet. “Colleen?” he called.

Claire jumped up, too, waving the flashlight frantically. “Colleen!

Another gust of wind battered the house.

*

In her hospital room the day outside continues to be bright. Sunlight pours in and warms the room. Her memory is working well today. A nurse pops in and smiles with the practiced cheeriness of many of the staff on the long term unit.

“Can I get you anything, Ms. McKenzie?” the nurse asks.

She shakes her head in polite denial and returns to the pages before her. She flips a large group of five or six together. The cellophane coating crinkles in response and lands on a page with multiple scraps of newsprint. From multiple newspapers around the St. Louis area. Some cut and creased, others torn. All obituaries.

December 26, 1974

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Obituaries

Bradford Adams McKenzie born July 1, 1931 died December 14, 1974 in an accident on the family farm. He was born in Mercy Hospital Washington, the son of Beatrice and Charles McKenzie, one of three children. He was raised on the McKenzie Family farm outside Union, MO. He is survived by…

She stops reading and runs her finger along one of the accompanying pictures. It’s a good day for her dementia and she can remember the feel of his face, coarse with stubble, after a long day working the farm. She lets her finger trace the lines of his jaw. She closes the scrapbook and clutches it close to her chest. The warm sun cloaks her.

*

Claire’s flashlight fought the darkness. “Colleen!” she screamed. The wind shoved the words back into her throat, choked her.

“You should go back inside.” Bradford directed. “If she comes back, someone should be there to make sure she doesn’t go out again looking for that damn rabbit.”

Claire understood what he said, but pointed to her ears and shook her head. “Can barely hear you. I’m going to check the barn then the pasture.”

“Claire!” he shouted.

“Bradford!” she hurled back.

He slumped. “Fine. I’ll go around behind the barn and check back into the fields.” He clutched her arm. “Be careful, I don’t want to lose both of you.”

“You aren’t going to lose either of us.” Claire leaned against the wind and gave him a small peck on the cheek. She turned into the gale and lurched toward the rabbit hutch. It remained empty. She hoped Colleen might have curled up underneath. She hadn’t. Claire circled toward the barn, called her daughter’s name, screamed it, tried to make herself heard above the storm that stole her daughter.

On the far side of the pasture, past the fence and the incinerator, a sharp crack pierced through the night. Splintered wood, a moment of silence, then an earth-shaking whoomp as a large tree came down. She aimed the flashlight in the direction of the sound and was hit in the face with a stinging blast of dirt. She staggered forward both arms outstretched, the beam of the light catching the side of the barn in its shine. She leaned against the wall, steadied herself against the force, and wiped her sleeve across her eyes.

Somewhere behind her another tree crashed to the ground. The heavy sound put her more on edge. “Be careful out there, Bradford,” she whispered into the wind. “Colleen!” she cried out again, barely able to hear her own voice above the withering scream of the winds.

She pushed forward, into the pasture, and left the barn behind.

*

The sun has almost disappeared and her dinner tray is empty. It has been a good day fighting the disease that is slowly erasing her memories. She has spent the entire day leafing through the pages, able to connect almost all of the dots. She rubs the cover of the book and stares out the window toward the distant farmland.

The door behind her pushes open and an orderly enters her small space. “Ms. McKenzie?”

“Yes,” she answers trying to place his face. “Miguel? Isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am. You have a visitor. I was wondering if you are interested in seeing anyone this evening.”

She searches her memory for someone that might come to see her. “I suppose, for a few minutes can’t hurt.”

The orderly pushes the door open. A man she thinks she recognizes comes in carrying a manila envelope. He raises a hand in nervous greeting.

“Good evening, Ms. McKenzie. I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m Jim MacLeod, my father Lloyd bought your family’s farm back in ’75 after Mr. McKenzie died.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Yes, of course.” She was certain she held some vague recollection of his face and his name. “Mr. MacLeod, how are you doing?”

“Very well, Ms. McKenzie. Thank you.” He hesitates and looks at the orderly. Miguel nods to continue. “I spoke with your doctor and he felt it was a good idea to share this with you. He said all memories are helpful.” He steps forward, holding the envelope in front of him like a protective shield.

She takes the gift and turns it sideways, sliding its contents into her lap. A small golden locket and a Polaroid.

“My daughter took that picture. She has one of those old-fashioned cameras. She loves to snap pictures around the farm with it.” He waits for a response then continues. “At the back edge of the property, back where it’s just trees and brush, we found… remains. Under a downed tree. We are clearing, getting ready to expand the farm, bought the property next door…”

He stops when she lifts her hand. She waves him closer and opens the cover of her scrapbook to the first page. He looks over her shoulder.

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Monday, September 3rd, 1962

MISSING GIRL FOUND ALIVE!

By Craig Jameson

In a scene from a Hollywood movie, eight-year-old Colleen McKenzie was found Sunday afternoon almost forty hours after she went missing during the recent spate of storms and tornadoes that cut through Eastern Missouri. According to her father, Bradford McKenzie, young Colleen had ventured out to find her pet rabbit during the height of the storms. Miraculously, she found the small pet and then crawled into the bottom of the family’s incinerator to escape the gale.

One of several large elm trees on the property uprooted during the storm and fell on top of the incinerator. The sturdy stones of the fireplace protected the girl. But the debris and destruction made it difficult…

…the search continues for Claire McKenzie who was last seen the same night hunting for her daughter.

She looks over at the man who has come to visit her. She rubs the chain of her mother’s locket.

He tries to explain, “There was a small ravine—”

She interrupts. “I took Clover out.” A loud sob escapes. “I’ve never told anyone, not my father.” Hiccups and tears impede her words. “No one. I got distracted and forgot to put Clover away. Dad blamed himself, said he shouldn’t have let her go searching for me. He died thinking it was his fault.” Her tears splash onto the cellophane protective covering.

“I’m sure that it wasn’t…” the man offers, but stops when Miguel touches his shoulder.

She peels the plastic sheet back and slides the Polaroid onto the page next to the article. A picture of a ravine and some fallen trees. She presses the covering back down and strokes the plastic.

She weeps. Happy that it has been a good day fighting the disease. Happy she can remember. Happy to know.

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For the last thirty years Jay has been a social worker. He has learned that everyone has a story, and more often than not, several stories. His work is in multiple publications including Penumbric, A Rock and a Hard Place, Crystal Lake and Toasted Cheese. He can be found online at JayBechtol.com and on Twitter @BechtolJay. He can be found in person in Homer, Alaska. Email: bechtoljay[at]gmail.com

Mystery at the Museum

Savage Mystery ~ Second Place
Morgan-McKay Hoppmann


Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“I don’t do bones,” Dr. Helen Coultier said, slipping a bit on the damp leaves. The smell of rain still hung in the air. “You’re the forensic anthropologist. Why do they need me?”

Dr. Thomas Lucknow, her colleague at the Southeastern Museum of Antiquities, offered her a hand so she could step over a fallen tree. Last night’s storm had brought down a good many. The wind was still blustery, making the surrounding trees creak alarmingly—she didn’t trust that another wouldn’t come down on top of them.

“You know as much as I do,” Professor Lucknow said, voice gruff as they approached the area cordoned off by yellow police tape. Dr. Coultier waved her pass at the police officer standing by, who nodded and lifted the tape for them to walk under. Up ahead a giant oak tree had toppled, roots reaching for the sky like the gnarled fingers of an old hand. However, it wasn’t the tree itself that was the focus of the two men crouched beside it, but the gaping depression left in the ground by its absence.

The man not in uniform glanced up and immediately straightened. “Lucknow, fancy seeing you here.” He grinned. “And you must be Dr. Helen Coultier, the antiquities expert. Detective Green.” He peeled off a latex glove and extended his hand. She shook it.

“Pleasure,” she said. If she was too curt, it was his own fault—he was much too chirpy for this hour of the morning.

“You say that as if you weren’t the one to call me here,” Lucknow said. “Bones in that hole?”

Detective Green took off his other glove, balling them up. “No bones. Something else.” He jerked his head to the pit. “Take a look.”

The detective’s companion, a younger police officer clearly eager to please, offered Dr. Coultier a box of latex gloves.

Professor Lucknow’s brows furrowed in confusion. “Then why am I here?”

“Connections to a previous case. Remember the museum security guard who was murdered, oh, four years back? Found his body last year?”

Pulling on the gloves, Dr. Coultier approached the edge of the pit.

Ah.

So this was why they called her.

Professor Lucknow grunted. “Skull caved in, struck with something heavy. Member of a smuggling ring, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, well,” Detective Green said. “We found his stash.”

Artifacts.

She crouched to better see, hand going out to the tree’s roots to keep her balance. A Ming Dynasty porcelain vase. A tribal wood carving from sub-Saharan Africa. A cylindrical seal that she already knew was done in the Sumerian style, making it thousands of years old.

And that was just the beginning. Her eyes ran over the rest, calculating origin, condition, price. “Four million,” she said, chuckling as she shook her head. “At least. Your smugglers knew what they were doing.” She glanced up. “But why here?”

“We think they were using the museum as the staging area before shipping out the artifacts to their final buyers,” Detective Green said. “The security guard was their inside man. You’re here, Lucknow, because I thought you might have some additional insight concerning the crime scene, considering you helped out at the first one. And I miss your sunny personality.”

Professor Lucknow grunted noncommittally, circling to the other side of the pit and peering in, hands clasped behind his back. “You think the accomplice killed him and hid the loot while waiting for things to cool down?”

Detective Green shrugged. “Or the other guy hid the loot and his accomplice murdered him before finding out where. It’d explain why it’s still here.”

A chill wind rushed through the forest, setting the trees creaking again. Dr. Coultier glanced up at the swaying trunks. “Well, it’s not staying here any longer. I want a team. And a tent. We’re doing this right.”

Detective Green nodded. “I expected nothing less. But no press.”

She gave him a look. “I don’t do the press.”

“Good,” the detective said. “I don’t want this getting out. As far as we know, the partner is still out there, and we don’t want him deciding to take back what he views as his.”

“You don’t have to worry about us,” Professor Lucknow said.

Dr. Coultier pushed herself to her feet. “Then let’s get to work.”

 

The sides of the tent shook in the wind. Dr. Coultier finished making a note on the log, then placed the carefully-wrapped piece of jade jewelry into the plastic container.

“You done with that?” she asked, glancing at Detective Green.

The detective turned the Phoenician carving over in his hand. The museum had one very similar to it in its collection. “Think this could be used to bash someone’s head in?”

She held her hand out. He placed the stone in it. “Would you find evidence on it four years later if it was?”

“You’d be surprised,” Detective Green said. “Fingerprints can last over seven years on surfaces, as long as they aren’t destroyed. Furthermore, our forensic team has the ability to reconstruct the shape of the object off the impact wound. But I don’t want to bore you with trivia. How long have you worked at the museum?”

“A little over three years.” She made a note on the log and began packaging the carving. “I had nearly a decade of hopping across archaeological sites around the world. I knew the museum from a few previous visits, so it was the logical place to settle down.”

“So you remember the investigation of a year ago.”

“Vaguely. I didn’t start working at the museum until after the security guard had been killed, so the police saw no reason to question me.”

“How do you feel about Professor Lucknow?”

She snapped the lid onto the container and turned to the detective. “You suspect him.”

Detective Green peeled his gloves off, tossing them into a waste bin in the corner. “He started working at the museum fourteen years ago. The timeline fits with when the smuggling ring first became active.”

“But I thought the dead guard was your inside man. Wouldn’t you need someone from the outside as the connection?”

“See, though, I don’t buy that the guard was the inside man.” Detective Green shook his head. “He had a life, a family. I think he was a witness. Saw the true inside-man making a deal or moving the merchandise, and was killed so he wouldn’t talk.”

Dr. Coultier motioned for the detective to pick up the plastic bin, then undid the straps holding the tent flap closed and stepped into the blustery day. “That’s why you brought him here. To watch him.”

“Right you are,” the detective said cheerfully, starting his tromp through the woods towards the road.

She followed. “What were you hoping from me?”

“Your eyes,” he replied promptly. “If Lucknow is our smuggler, then there’s a good chance he hid the murder weapon in this stash of artifacts, and he won’t want that falling into police hands. He’ll try to get it back. I want you to keep a close eye on him, and notify me if you find any artifacts that might have been used to kill the guard.”

She nodded, casting a glance at the clipboard in her hands. She added one last item to the list—Tefnut statue, Egypt. “We should be finished inventorying the stash later today. I’ll contact you with a list, and you can send one of your specialists over to examine the most likely objects.”

“Thank you, Dr. Coultier.” They had reached the road. Two police vehicles were still parked along the median, along with the green minivan the museum had sent to transport the artifacts. Detective Green paused beside the minivan and glanced at the bin in his hand. “Now, how did I end up carrying this?”

“You volunteered.” She shrugged, opened the back of the van, and he slid the box on top of one of the others. One more, then she’d take them back to the museum.

“Well, thanks again for your help.” Detective Green cast a too-sunny smile at her. “I’d hate for any more antiquities to go missing.”

 

So.

He suspected Lucknow.

She paused wiping down the Tefnut statue—a lion-headed ancient Egyptian goddess—and cocked her head to the side. She supposed she could see his reasoning. However, she wasn’t quite sure why he supposed Lucknow would have waited four years to retrieve the antiquities if he had known where they were the whole time. Still, something to keep in mind.

The anthropologist walked up to her. “How’s it going?”

“It’s progressing.” She handed him the Tefnut statue. “Would you put that on the table?”

He did, and she peeled off her gloves and leaned against her worktable. “Would you say Green is an effective detective?”

Professor Lucknow crossed his arms. “I suppose. I’ve known him since before he got his promotion, so I’m not the most objective person to ask.”

“Oh really?” she asked.

He shrugged. “A lot of police officers will pick up extra shifts working museum security for a little extra cash. So I’ve known him, what, thirteen, fourteen years?” He shook his head. “And he’s as annoying as ever. Anyway,” Lucknow glanced around, “I’m here to help.”

Dr. Coultier found her clipboard and tugged it out from beneath some other papers. “Here’s the inventory list if you want to double-check everything is here.”

He accepted it, glanced it over. “I’ll do that.” He began walking down the aisles and, starting with the Tefnut statue, marked down items.

Dr. Coultier frowned a little as she watched him, thinking over Detective Green’s words once more.

Oh.

That was it.

Detective Green thought the guard was innocent. That meant he wasn’t just looking for one more suspect, but two.

If he thought there were two smugglers still out there…

She shook her head and turned back to her worktable. Hopefully it wouldn’t pose a problem.

 

“We have a problem,” Dr. Coultier said.

The museum curator sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “How many?”

“Six,” Dr. Coultier answered. “Detective Green has already been notified.”

“Who was on guard last night?” Professor Lucknow paced down the aisle between the exam tables where the artifacts sat for cataloguing.

“The detective posted one of his men outside the door.” Dr. Coultier drummed her fingers against the table’s metal surface where, the night before, she had set the Tefnut statue. “With the possibility of the murder weapon being among the artifacts, he decided museum security would benefit from the additional presence.”

Professor Lucknow cast her a look, heavy brows drawing close. She kept her gaze fixed on the curator. Did he realize Detective Green suspected him? Perhaps.

The door opened.

“Okay, I’m here, I’m here,” Detective Green announced, sliding out of his raincoat and hanging it on the coat rack. “Sorry, just catching up with my man. Seems we have a bit of a dilemma.”

“More than what we already have?” Professor Lucknow said drily.

“Indeed.” Detective Green marched forward. “It seems that only three people entered this room last night, and none of them left with any object or bag large enough to hide an object.”

“Which means the antiquities must have been taken before they reached the museum,” the museum curator said.

“Impossible.” Dr. Coultier shook her head. “I inventoried them upon arrival and they were all accounted for.”

“I can attest to that,” Professor Lucknow said in his gruff voice. “I aided in the process.”

Dr. Coultier glanced at the detective. “Who were the three people to enter the room? Or two people, I should ask, seeing as how I had to return for my car keys, and I assume your officer counted that.”

Detective Green bowed his head in a nod. “He did. The other two were myself and Mr. Sunny Personality here.”

Professor Lucknow scowled. “Your humor is not appreciated.”

“You’re welcome,” Detective Green said. “But what I want to know is where are the antiquities, seeing as how no one could have taken them.”

Dr. Coultier motioned to the hundreds of yards of shelving that stretched up and down the room. “Obviously, then, they never left.”

The museum curator released a sigh. “Are you sure? What would be the point in hiding something in the same room where it already was?”

Dr. Coultier shrugged. “Confidence.”

Detective Green nodded, casting a glance at Professor Lucknow. “Once the investigation was concluded, assuming he wasn’t caught, the thief would be free at any point to return and collect the items he had hidden away.”

Professor Lucknow nodded a head towards Dr. Coultier. “Or she. No offense, Helen.”

Dr. Coultier smiled, just slightly. “Let’s test that out, shall we?” She turned to Detective Green. “If the thief, and your murderer from four years ago, did indeed hide these six objects, that must mean your murder weapon is among them. Find these artifacts, and you find your murder weapon.” She gestured to the shelves. “We might as well start alphabetically.”

 

Dr. Coultier and Professor Lucknow were not allowed to participate in the search, of course, although their expertise was certainly called upon regarding whether the antiquities matched the labels. She supposed she couldn’t fault the police officers for that. Not everyone could tell the difference between a Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty vase.

Or, in this case, a Bastet and a Tefnut statue.

“You’re sure?” Detective Green turned the statue over in his hands. “I seem to remember Bastet being a goddess with a cat head, which this one has.”

“This one has the head of a lioness,” Dr. Coultier corrected. “That makes her the lesser goddess Tefnut, rather than Bastet. My guess is that the Bastet statue that was previously here will be found in a more obviously displaced position, with the goal that we would mistake it for the missing Tefnut statue.”

“Which means this is most likely our murder weapon,” Detective Green concluded.

“You’ll have to run forensics to be sure,” Dr. Coultier cautioned, “although it is a very distinctively shaped object.”

“And our dead guard had a very distinctively shaped dent in his head,” Detective Green said. He handed the statue to the young police officer behind him and turned to her. “Thank you very much for your help, Dr. Coultier. You are now under arrest.”

Helen stepped back abruptly. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Hands, please.”

“Oh dear,” the museum curator said, clearly out of her depth.

Dr. Coultier held out her hands and the detective snapped the cuffs on. “I—I don’t understand. You have to check the statue for prints. You can’t arrest me on no evidence.”

Professor Lucknow stepped forward. “No, Helen. You wiped the statue clean and then handed it to me, making sure my prints were the only ones on it. You were trying to set me up.”

“No, I—I suppose I did, but that was just because I wasn’t really thinking—”

Detective Green chuckled. “Give up the act. The whole thing was a trap.”

Dr. Coultier froze.

A trap? But that meant—

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” the museum curator said, fingers flittering nervously in the air. “Surely this must be a mistake. Dr. Coultier has been here for the past three years—”

“Three and a half years,” Detective Green corrected. “Becoming a permanent staff member six months after the murder of that security guard. Oh, and she made a brief visit to the museum six months before that. What did you do? Kill the guy because he wanted more than his fair share of the loot?”

Dr. Coultier tried to chuckle. “Coming back to the scene of the crime would be awfully stupid of me, don’t you think? Besides, you said you thought the guard was innocent.”

“I lied.” Detective Green shrugged. “All part of the trap.”

“The trap,” she said flatly.

The detective nodded. “See that lovely Tefnut statue you led us to? Lucknow here found it miscataloged three weeks ago. Since he worked on the original case, he knew the general shape of the murder weapon and thought to send it to forensics. He was correct. And yes, we checked for fingerprints, and yours were indeed on it.”

Dr. Coultier rolled her eyes. “So what? I’ve worked at the museum for over three years. It’s no surprise if something here has my fingerprints on it.”

“Exactly,” Detective Green said. “Hardly enough evidence for a conviction.”

“Wait, wait!” the museum curator said, looking between Lucknow and the detective. “How could you have found the statue miscataloged when the tree wasn’t blown over until just a few days ago?”

“Because there was no stash under the tree,” Lucknow said. “That was the trap.”

Ah. So that Phoenician carving had been from the museum’s collection.

“After pulling your fingerprints,” Detective Green continued, “we asked ourselves: What could prompt a murderer who so clearly got away with it to return? Obviously, the answer was money. You killed your partner before finding out where he had hid the stash, and you had come back to try to fix that problem.”

Dr. Helen Coultier released a long sigh. “And so you accessed my travel records and reconstructed what might have been in the stash based off where I had been. You bet on the fact that, four years later, I wouldn’t remember exactly what I had smuggled out of those countries.”

Lucknow nodded. “And you didn’t.”

She finally let the edge of a smirk sneak onto her face. “So you let the detective put the idea in my head that Lucknow did it, and the murder weapon was still among the stash. The moment I retrieved the statue from the shelves and handed it to him, you had proof I did it.”

Detective Green shook his head. “Actually, the moment you wrote Tefnut statue on the log of items found in the stash, we had proof you did it. Because we had placed all those antiquities under that tree. And we knew there was no Tefnut statue.”

She couldn’t help it—she laughed. “I suppose I did.” She cocked her head, smiling at the detective. “But since that was the stash you planted, I take it you don’t know where the real stash is?”

The detective motioned for her to start forward and she did, slowly, in no hurry to be put into the jail cell. “No clue,” the detective said. “That remains a mystery for another day.”

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MM Hoppmann is a junior at Coastal Carolina University. She is an assistant editor of the Weekly Intelligence Brief and has been writing fiction since she was 14. Email: mmhoppmann[at]gmail.com

Off Your Block

Savage Mystery ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


Photo Credit: CJS*64/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“So this all started with a fairy house?” Vanessa asked, skepticism and perhaps a hint of derision in her tone.

“No, not in the least,” I assured her hastily. “Well, maybe. An idea for a fairy house. There was a cavity at the bottom of the root mass of the fallen tree that formed this little triangular recessed nook. It would have been perfect for maybe a table and a couple stools. All biodegradable material, of course. Bark and twigs bound together by grapevine, maybe a woven coaster as a rug…”

I shut my mouth. I wasn’t winning her over with my interior decorating schemes.

“Here, look.” I tugged on the leash to bring Penny to a stop and located a picture on my phone. “See what I mean?”

“Hmmm.” She peered at the image of the fallen tree, a magnolia in the courtyard of my apartment building. Cicero, her pitbull mix, pulled at his leash and whined. Vanessa and I were dog friends. Our dogs had fallen in love at first sight—despite both parties being neutered—and we’d established a routine of walking the dogs together after work.

“I’m still not clear on how this leads to you turning up with a black eye gabbling about Toby jugs,” she said as we continued down the sidewalk. “I looked them up on the Internet. Those things are awful, Russ. What happened, did one of the fairies punch you out after you tried to install a Toby jug in his house?”

“Ha. Ha.”

It had really all started a couple nights ago, I told Vanessa, with a storm that brought a spectacular lightning show, torrential rain, high winds, sustained peals of thunder, and a freaked out black lab quaking underneath the covers of my bed. I immediately noticed the downed tree in the courtyard when I stepped outside the next morning.

Seen from the bottom, the roots of the tree splayed up and outward in a vertical semicircle, forming a hollow partially nestled into the ground. Penny and I were both intrigued by the possibilities. Fairy abode, I thought.

Excavation, she thought.

“Penny!”

I made a grab for her as she began to dig in the gooey mud, then froze in place as my hand tightened around her collar. She’d uncovered an off-white curved contour of an object buried a couple inches down.

A shard from a shattered skull, my imagination supplied.

A second glance revealed that the object was perfectly circular and coated with glaze. I scrabbled down and drew out a medium sized flat bottomed bowl of handmade pottery. I turned it around in my hands, trying to figure out a scenario in which it had ended up underneath tree roots.

Penny was still digging.

“Enough, girl.”

She didn’t listen, and I failed to stop her before she thrust her snout deep into the mud.

“Penny!”

When she emerged, she was triumphantly clenching the remains of a boot in her jaws.

I didn’t attempt much forensic work on the pair of boots other than observe that the soles were probably a bit larger than my own size eleven, but I made some interesting observations when I washed the bowl. The bottom was decorated with a black pawprint, and the artist had signed and dated it. Tara Pratt, 1999.

The Internet informed me that Tara Pratt was a multimedia artist living in Houston, but she’d graduated from Copley College close by my neighborhood in 2001. From the photo on her Etsy page, she looked more like a CEO than the burlap-clad sort of person I’d pictured working a potter’s wheel.

“Yeah, I did sell dog bowls back then,” she told me over the phone. “At rummage sales, school fairs, going door to door. Anything to earn a buck for tuition.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember if you ever sold one at my building?”

“I doubt it. I sold so many of them, so long ago.”

I mentioned the address, and there was a moment of silence. When she spoke again, there was an edge to her voice.

“Does the name Maria Fosco mean anything to you?”

It was my turn to fall silent.

“Oh, my,” I finally said.

“Exactly.”

Vanessa broke into my account. “The woman can’t be that bad, really.”

“She can, indeed. Her first complaint against me came the day that I moved in. The movers were being too loud.”

Maria Fosco had lived on the top center apartment of the building for more than thirty years. Her hobbies were cosseting her pair of Yorkies and amassing grievances against neighbors.

“Fortunately, she likes animals a lot more than people,” I said. “Penny is my saving grace, in her eyes.”

I’d never knocked on her door before. I came bearing an offering of pastries bought from the bakery around the corner. Her home health aide showed me into the living room.

“Of course I remember buying that dog bowl,” Maria told me. “I special ordered it from that art student, but it took the girl three tries before she got it right.”

I nodded in commiseration. I’d heard the same report from Tara Pratt.

“What happened to the bowl, do you remember?”

She looked at me over her glasses dubiously.

“It’s right there.” She pointed toward the kitchen.

“That’s not possible!” I blurted out.

Her dog bowl, although similar to the one I’d unearthed, was smaller and darker brown. It was also decorated with pink hearts surrounding the paw print.

“But…” I brought out my cell phone and showed her an image of the bowl. Her face softened.

“Oh, that poor little girl. That was such a tragic loss.”

“What happened?”

“Her little beagle puppy was stricken with parvovirus and died. Milo never even had a chance to grow up to drink from that bowl.”

“Was this about twenty years ago?”

Her eyes narrowed. “How did you know?”

I thought that it was pretty obvious that the girl, Caitlin, had buried her beloved pet in the flower bed and planted the magnolia as a memorial. No way, according to Maria.

“Watts would never have allowed it, not even for a sweet little girlie like her. Plus, all those magnolias by the building were planted at the same time. That tree wasn’t planted special for Caitlin.”

Upon reflection, Maria was right. Our landlord probably wouldn’t have allowed his tenants heat or running water if it wasn’t required by law.

“You know what happened?” She rapped her knuckles on the coffee table. “Derek Gillespie. No good ever came of that kid, but he had a good heart. He did odd jobs for Watts and he was probably the one who planted those trees. If Caitlin had asked him to bury Milo under a magnolia, he would have done it for her.”

As I was leaving, Daniela, the home health aide, followed me out to the landing. She glanced back nervously toward Maria’s apartment.

“Would you mind if I came down and took a picture of the bowl?” she whispered. “I’m a contributor to Off Your Block. I think this would make a great local history piece.”

Off Your Block was a local news site. It was notable mainly for the ferocious slugfests found in the comments section for each story.

“Um, sure.”

Daniela carefully arranged the bowl and the pair of rotted boots on a table in front of a sunny window in my apartment as if she were a curator at the Met. She thanked me profusely after taking a dozen pictures, and I walked her to the door.

When I looked back toward the window, one of the boots was gone.

“Penny!”

I retrieved the reeking boot and told her that she’d make herself sick chewing on that particular delicacy.

Less than an hour later, my doorbell rang. I took no notice. Usually, it was food delivery for one of the other apartments.

The ringing persisted. I finally went over to the intercom.

“What?”

When I opened the door, I was perplexed to find that my visitor was a teenage boy. He introduced himself as Connor and asked if he could see the artifacts.

“The what, now?”

“The artifacts, you know?” He held up his cell phone. I saw a picture of the dog bowl and boot under the headline: “Storm uncovers unbelievable artifacts.”

“Right. Wow. This way.”

I’d put the boots in a plastic bag and hung them up high by the back door. I brought them down for Conner to examine. His eyes darted from the boots to the bowl and back again.

“Can I borrow them?” he finally burst out as if he’d been working up to the request.

“Why?”

“For— for a school project.”

“What kind of project?”

He bit his lip. “Uh, science. Or maybe history.”

“But it’s summer,” I said in confusion before realizing that whatever reason he had for coveting the artifacts, it had nothing to do with a school project.

I told him that I’d consider it if he brought a note from his teacher.

“Probably a dare,” Vanessa put in.

“Knock on a stranger’s door and attempt to obtain their newly-discovered dog bowl by chicanery? It’s not the sort of thing teenagers do today.”

We’d reached my building, and I could see the prone magnolia next to the walkway.

“Hey, want to come in and see the spectacle?”

I unlocked the gate and let Penny off her leash. Vanessa followed suit with Cicero.

“So maybe it’s a weird dare for a teenager,” she conceded as we entered the courtyard. “But do you have a better explanation?”

“Ah. Wait until you hear what happened next.”

The doorbell rang. I tensed and hoped that it was just somebody else’s food delivery. Once again, the caller sat on the button.

Instead of buzzing them up, I went outside to the gate in the courtyard.

I expected the same pudgy teenage boy with the unfortunate skin. Instead, it was a pudgy teenage girl with a spray of freckles across her face. She introduced herself as Olivia and asked if I was the guy who’d found the buried stuff.

“I was wondering if maybe I could borrow the artifacts. My brother’s really into local history, and he’d love to see them, but he’s sick.”

I probably would have assented without a second thought if I hadn’t already had another visitor trying to finagle the objects away from me.

“I’ll certainly consider it, but I’m a little busy right now. Maybe you can give me your email address and I’ll get back to you?”

“That clinches it,” Vanessa said. “Definitely a dare. The first kid failed, so Olivia came along to see if she could do better.”

We were standing by the hollow below the root mass of the tree. Vanessa was attempting to restrain Cicero from diving into the churned up ground.

“Did you dig any deeper, see what else is down there?”

“Well, no. I didn’t really want to find the bones of Caitlin’s little puppy.”

“Good point.”

“Anyway, I still say it wasn’t a dare. I haven’t gotten to the part about the Toby jug yet.”

Midnight, and Penny began barking, deep and resounding.

Penny never barks. I half fell out of bed, threw on a robe, and followed the sound of her voice.

As I staggered to the back of the apartment, I became aware of a second voice, this one thin and human.

“Good dog, good doggie, be nice…”

The back door was wide open, and a figure was sprawled on the floor in front of my kitchen cabinets. Penny had him at bay. The intruder scrambled to his feet when he saw me and rushed for the door. Penny sprang past him, and he pitched over onto my back stairs. I dashed forward as he regained his footing. Penny bounded toward me in excitement, and my shins met her flank. I toppled.

“Ow, ow, ow…”

“So that’s how you got the black eye,” Vanessa surmised.

“Yeah. Probably from the edge of the door. The intruder was gone by the time I got to the stairs, but I know who he was.”

I waited for a gasp of anticipation. I was disappointed.

“One of those teenage kids. Gotta be.”

“Well, yeah,” I said, nettled. “But I have proof. He dropped his cell phone in his tussle with Penny, his unlocked cell phone. The name’s Connor. Connor Gillespie.”

“Okay. As I said, one of the teenagers.”

“With the last name of Gillespie. Just like Derek Gillespie, the one-time handyman who planted the magnolias.”

Maria Fosco sounded bleary when I called her around eleven the next morning.

“Maria, yesterday you hinted that Derek Gillespie got into some sort of trouble. Do you happen to know the details?”

Her voice became more animated now that she had the opportunity to dish out dirt.

“Yeah, the kid was arrested for breaking and entering a house here in the neighborhood. Terrible thing. He stole a whole bunch of valuable collectibles and they were never seen again.”

“Do you remember the name of the person he robbed, by any chance?”

“Of course. Arlene Voss, a lovely woman. She still lives around here.”

I brought up the online newspaper archives through the public library and confirmed that Maria’s account was partially accurate. Arlene Voss had reported a robbery twenty years ago and accused Derek Gillespie of stealing her prized Toby jug and several other collectible toys and curios.

The Toby jug was a bizarre piece shaped like a rabbit’s head, with its ear functioning as the handle of the vessel. I couldn’t imagine a teenage boy breaking in to steal it any more than I could understand the recent adolescent interest in possessing the dog bowl.

Derek denied the crime, the police could find no proof, and the items were not recovered. But my eyes fastened on one final detail, an unproven claim made by Arlene Voss. The police had found footprints in the soil outside the broken window. She was convinced that they had been made by Derek Gillespie.

“Wait, you’re not saying that those boots—” Vanessa broke in.

“Exactly, Watson. Derek Gillespie steals the Toby jug and other goods. Then he hears about the footprints and decides to get rid of the boots. He’d just helped Caitlin bury her poor little puppy, so he knows where there’s a large, deep patch of soft soil where he could bury them very easily, never to be seen again. Are you with me?”

She didn’t say no.

“Then, twenty years later, his nephew Connor Gillespie reads about the boots resurfacing and figures out what happened. He tries to get the boots away from me, first by asking, then by breaking in. I’m sure he got a copy of the master key for the building from his uncle. It should have been easy—just sneak in the back door and grab the boots. But Penny heard him come in, and I’d moved the boots down to my storage locker in the basement anyway. They stank.”

“Russ, have you reported all of this to the police?”

I hesitated.

“Not yet. I’m not really sure what to do about Connor. I don’t really want to see the kid arrested for being loyal to his uncle and maybe sort of stupid.”

“But considering what you told me about the boots—”

“I haven’t told you all of it yet,” I said hurriedly. “The name Voss sounded familiar to me. And this is why.”

I showed her a note on my cell phone: the name Olivia Voss, along with her email address.

“Connor Gillespie wanted the boots so that he could keep them buried for good. Olivia Voss wanted them so that she and her grandmother, Arlene Voss, could take them straight to the police.”

Before we parted, I promised Vanessa that I’d talk to the police the next day. But as it turned out, it was unnecessary. That morning, a breathless Off Your Block article linked the boots to the unsolved robbery. The police were examining the evidence.

Flummoxed, I went down to my storage locker. The boots were gone.

The cased was to remain unsolved. The police determined that the rotted boots did not serve as sufficient proof to link Derek Gillespie with the robbery.

I changed my dog walking schedule and route. Within a week, however, Vanessa caught up with me.

“Hey,” she said, too cheerily, as I strode grimly through the park.

“‘Sup.”

The silence stretched between us. I was the first to crack. “So, what’s the deal? What’s your connection to Arlene?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” she said unconvincingly.

“You were the only one who knew were I’d stashed those boots.”

“Ok, she paid me five hundred bucks.” It came out in a rush.

“Huh?”

“She saw us together in the courtyard that day, and approached me wondering if I thought you’d be willing to give her the boots. I said that you’d already refused two people, so she asked if I’d be willing to help her out. Russ, do you know how much I owe in student loan debt?”

I didn’t have anything to say to that.

“Anyway, I thought you’d want to know the last few details of the story. You almost got it right. But Olivia actually wanted the boots to stay buried, too, as it turns out. Arlene Voss wasn’t Olivia’s grandmother. She was her step-grandmother. Big difference. Arlene Voss threw Olivia’s mother out of the house on her eighteenth birthday and refused to let her take along several items with sentimental value that had belonged to Olivia’s real grandmother.”

“Such as a Toby jug?” I put in despite myself.

“Exactly. Olivia’s grandmother had used it as a vase for flowers. Arlene Voss put it in a locked display case. So Derek Gillespie volunteered to reclaim the goods.”

“Breaking and entering runs in the family.”

“Apparently so. Anyway, I’m glad you didn’t report Connor to the police. It’s refreshing to meet someone who’s willing to forgive.” Her tone was insinuating.

“He didn’t profit from his crime, though.”

“Neither did I, in the end. Arlene’s son visited me yesterday. He told me how his mother’s mentally ill and not competent to handle money. Asked if I’d consider returning the five hundred bucks.”

“And you agreed?”

“I wasn’t feeling great about the deal anyway. So, back to our usual dog walking routine tomorrow?”

I watched the dogs romping. Cicero lunged for Penny’s throat. Penny knocked him violently to the ground. They looked ecstatic.

“Sure, sounds good to me.”

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Cara Brezina is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Email: borealisblue[at]gmail.com