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

Fixies Adrift

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Lou Nell Gerard


133
Photo Credit: Ian Hoar

Autumn

The white pelican thought little about the two bodies slipping into the water and floating away through the canoe path between the sedge reeds. As long as they stayed clear of his school of rainbow trout he cared not about the activities of these wingless land creatures. He was working fast packing away fish before those double-crested cormorants showed up.

Winter

“I still say that is an odd shape for reeds, seems too solid somehow.”

“Well, feel free to head out on that ice to check it out… your snowshoes might help keep you from breaking through.”

“It might just be thick enough this year, but then so am I, thick this year… naaaww… we’ll see come spring.”

“Thank you.”

“Huh?”

“Thick… you’re thick because of my irresistible cooking, right? Don’t tell me that wasn’t a compliment.”

Spring

The reeds had shed their winter snow hoar leaving shining wet and brilliant green against cerulean blue.

Lois and Lonny were enjoying their shore walk sans snowshoes. Soon they’d be bringing the canoe down to its fair-weather dock they shared with the summer folk.

“Look at that heron with pink feet!”

“Herons don’t have pink feet. Grey, kind of a yellow-orangey color I think, maybe black. No, no pink feet. You’ve got that pink-toed tarantula on your mind. It must be standing on something pink. What is it standing on?”

“What do you mean? I’m talking about that one there in the reeds.”

“No no no… look at it. I mean yes, I know you are talking about the one in the reeds. Look, that’s that spot, that odd shape we saw in the snow all winter long. There is something there in the reeds. That heron is standing on something pink.”

“Let’s go get the canoe.”

Raft

As they approached the reeds they squinted and strained to try to justify some of the odd angles and colors they were seeing in the reeds. Finally as they slipped through one of the old canoe channels they saw something pink, probably what the “pink-footed” heron was standing on. They nosed further in and there stood amongst the reeds two bicycles, one of them with a pink saddle. The bikes were aboard a rather substantial raft. Using their lines they fashioned a loop around a corner of the raft and given that there wasn’t much movement of the lake water in this little bay they felt secure stepping aboard the raft, after all, it had overwintered there. This, then, was the “odd shape for reeds” they’d debated about. They felt like children, the both of them, who’d found a great discovery. One bike was a black Bianchi fixed gear bike, the other, also a Bianchi “fixie,” sort of a turquoise bluish color—called “Celeste” they were to learn later. The latter was the one with the pink saddle. Wonder and excitement alight on their faces, they felt as though they were getting a tour of a stage set.

“Fixies on a raft… out here… and look at all the rest!”

All the rest included a picnic basket still propped open and lined with a blue, yellow, and white checked waffle fabric dish towel. There was a quarter-empty jar of pickled walnuts, shreds from a box of some sort—maybe crackers—and a red wax half-shell full of beak marks that very likely came off a cheese. There was a small ceramic knife and a bamboo five-inch by eight-inch oil-stained cutting board and an empty sardine can. Of course nothing edible remained. Whether it had been dined on by humans or devoured by lake dwellers was unclear, although the dish towel did have some distinctly beak-like marks and was in a bit of disarray. Perhaps cormorants and otters got together and dined on the raft. Was heron invited? Ducks?

Centered on the raft, the fixies, held by portable triangle stands, created an enclosure like that of a small sidewalk wrought-iron fence. This framed a light outdoor cafe table and two matching chairs. A floral muslin shawl draped over the back of one chair had slipped and was hanging as if placed “off-the-shoulder” of the chair. It was a delicate creation of pale greens and blues and yellows and pinks, flowers and vines on a cream background. Part of the shawl draped itself on the rough-hewn timber of the raft—the corner just dipped into the water as if taking a sip.

On the table, an empty bottle of 2009 RoxyAnn Viognier, two crystal wine glasses (one of them still bore pink lip prints overlapped as though the drinker rotated the glass to drink from a lipstick-free rim with each sip), and two bamboo fiber and melamine plates in a bright Mediterranean pattern. Lois thought immediately how odd to contrast the delicate breakable crystal wine flutes with the practical but still quite lovely plates. Tucked under the wine bottle was a piece of heavy paper. It looked as though it had a sketch of some kind on it but the melting snow had left simply a pattern of washed-out colors. Had that been a blue elephant? Letters of some kind?

Thirty-eight degrees, still cold even in the full blast of early spring sun. Everything about the scene sparkled. Even the rough-hewn timbers of the raft itself, still wet from snow melt, glistened. Under each chair a pair of shoes sat neatly as if on display. The shawl-draped chair guarded a pair of Jimmy Choo sandals with a spiked four-inch heel, pale green, size 8. No scuff marks, but worn enough that the ‘JIM’ part of the label on the footbed was slightly faded from friction. Later investigation revealed them to be from Jimmy Choo’s 2014 line. ‘Lance’ sandals in Peppermint retailing for around $775.00. These shoes had not been in contact with a bike pedal of any kind. Facing directly, as though in conversation with the sandals, were a well-worn pair of Converse Chuck Taylor “Year of the Dragon” men’s high tops, no laces, size 13. Probably retailed in 2012 for around $90.00. This particular pair did not have an ‘original owner’ look about them. Later close inspection revealed that the footbed was worn in two distinctly different pressure patterns. The bottoms, as well, were worn like they were worn by both a pronator and supinator, and they bore a look of having once been laced frequently.

The table was set with a pale yellow linen tablecloth. A lapis-blue linen napkin was wadded up to the left of the plate belonging to the high tops and the matching napkin was draped across the seat of the Jimmy Choo chair. A silver fork rested tines down at three o’clock on the empty dinner plate. Next to this plate was a tube of Laura Mercier ‘Spring Renaissance’ Crème Smooth Lip Color, in Palm Beach, still sitting upright as improbable as that may seem. Lois reached for the tube, then caught herself just as she was about to pick it up. Luckily, enthralled as they were, they had not yet handled anything.

On the raft itself in the corner opposite the picnic basket sat a Crosley Echo portable battery-operated turntable in a retro red-and-cream case. One vinyl had been playing: Billie Holiday’s All or Nothing at All, 1958 on Verve records. Still in their cardboard album sleeves sat: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, 1959 on Columbia Records and Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, 1958 on the Fontana label along with John Coltrane’s Ballads, 1961 on Impulse! Records. Tucked between the portable turntable and the albums, propped against the side of the lid, was a slim, folded cane. A white reflective cane used by someone who is blind. Magic and wonder gave way to gravity. Two bicycles, one cane. Lonny had been in a marathon once with a runner who was blind; she had a runner guide… could that work for a bike? He just couldn’t visualize it… well, of course, but…

This, the cane more than anything else—the bikes, the shoes, the emptiness of the picnic basket—sent a chill up Lois’s spine. Lois looked at Lonny and they both reached for their phones with grim faces. Adventure and discovery had given way to a feeling neither of them could describe. That feeling when there seems no ready explanation, when time slows and sounds of life 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 a fish or a landing lake bird all disappear and are replaced by a tone of the imagination much like the deep, deep tonals of the throat-singing monks of Tibet. Seeing each other pulling their phones out they each started to demure—then they compared signal strength and his phone “won” or maybe “lost” so Lonny made the 911 call.

“Sir, please don’t touch anything else and get off the raft. Can you paddle to Harbinger’s landing and meet the sheriff to guide him and his team out?”

 

The sheriff’s department launch idled alongside trying not to overtake the canoe. Deputy June Wolmar was wishing she had her pole and line to string along behind… why not grab some trout on duty? She and the sheriff were both fit with winter-tan faces. Both wore Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses, June’s with brown tint—what she called “happy glass”—Dan’s with a dark grey-green tint. She always found that tint depressing while her brown tint added a golden light.

Everyone was quiet, seeming to enjoy the sun, the quiet purr and sputter of the barely-idling outboard, the light splashes of the oars, the occasional knock of an oar against the canoe—winter had deconditioned both Lonny and Lois from paddling smoothly.

When they reached the raft, Deputy Wolmar dropped the bow anchor and took a few pictures with her phone, then nodding to the sheriff, she and Sheriff Dan Markham stepped aboard the raft. Markham called in the forensics team who had been on standby in case of hoax or false alarm. He asked them to arrange for divers too. The team would use GPS to locate and join them. Then he pulled out a pocket spiral notepad and mechanical pencil. Wolmar had grabbed her iPad out of a pack she had thrown on board the launch. They worked well together though their choice of tools was different. Almost back-to-back, they slow-waltzed around each other in silence taking a full three-hundred-sixty-degree view of the scene before starting to take notes. Wolmar periodically used her iPad to take pictures. Markham knew he didn’t have to direct her; she was methodical and thorough. Some people said she was “OCD” as though it were a precursor to the plague or something. Well, fine, he thought, all the better for my team.

Lois and Lonny weren’t sure if they were in the way, dismissed, or witnesses so they sat rather uncomfortably in the canoe and shrugged their shoulders at each other. It was getting cold now that they weren’t moving. After about fifteen minutes Lonny cleared his throat.

“Oh, sorry, can you give the deputy here your names and phone numbers, then you can go for now, we’ll be contacting you later… and please keep this to yourselves?”

“Well, they certainly didn’t come out here in the winter…” June was crouched down admiring the Jimmy Choo sandals without touching them. “When was our last good picnic weather?”

“You are assuming that these people buckled to the types of choices we make—maybe they came out when it was already cold… well… we’ve had no rainfall in a record period, so I’ll grant it was likely dry. Then snow, cold, snow, and now melt. How long? How long?”

“Look here, Dan, attached to the side here.” June had located two punting poles and a paddle snapped into place by a pair of sideways-mounted shovel-and-rake snap holders. “Where did they launch the raft? Did they stop here or drift here after, after whatever? It is a pretty spot.”

“OK, let’s do the list, not much more we can do until forensics and the divers arrive.”

“The bikes, fairly new, expensive-looking; they still have serial numbers. Purchased where, by whom, reported stolen?” June was a fast typist and easily frustrated by her voice capture tool so she madly tapped away in Pages using her onscreen keyboard as they talked.

“What depths do those punting poles work in? Lake depth, can we backtrack and map possible paths for the raft? Any kind of current here, it is a big lake?”

“There are big sections where it’d be nearly impossible to get a raft that size to the lake, we can eliminate those and let’s first focus here on Upper Lake. No candles or lantern, longer day? Oh! And the drawing.”

“No signs of violence, but it looks so awfully like a stage set… that could mean nothing.” Dan, in fact, was thinking about street art but wasn’t ready to say anything. This wasn’t a city building or sidewalk that had been painted, after all. This was remote, where was the audience… no, highly unlikely… it certainly would be an expensive temporary ‘installation’.

“Or everything, everything…” June, too, was thinking of a stage set, a stage set by a perpetrator to make everything look “copacetic.” That’s the word he or she or them would use.

“Where are the clothes? Well, shoes left behind, but no little pile of clothes neatly stacked… it would fit wouldn’t it?”

“Well, something unfortunate happened or someone had an expensive little celebration and walked away or swam or rowed or…”

“Or not.”

Summer’s End

Lois and Lonny walked and rowed almost every day through spring and summer. They often speculated about the raft. The Sheriff’s Department towed it away after a week’s worth of in-place investigation. No information was forthcoming to the folks who found it. A brief flurry of local talk and headlines, then the biggest rainbow trout catches regained their rightful place.

June and Dan, unbeknownst to each other, frequented the archive room, each looking for an overlooked clue, each haunted by questions and their own particular theories. Dan loved the idea of a stage manager or someone like that creating this set for whomever came across it to draw their own conclusions… sort of a three-dimensional Banksy for the great outdoors. In which case it was too bad the raft couldn’t have stayed out there in the reeds for as long as the weather, otters, cormorants, herons, pelicans, ducks, woodpeckers, flickers, and bugs let it stand. Of course, someone would have made off with the bikes and those Jimmy Choos. June was of a less-optimistic mind, but unclear as to details. Neither of them wanted this one to end up “Unsolved.”

pencilLou Nell Gerard is a freelance writer of poetry, essays and short stories. Her essay “Secret Dreams” was published in the Women’s Forum of Rider Magazine. Her enthusiasm for motorcycles, movies, music, plays, paintings, books and road trips are frequent topics of her blog. She lives in Kirkland, Washington with her husband, Klee, and their cat, ShuLien. Email: louge[at]gerards.org

Marginalia

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jen Julian


e-book generation 8356
Photo Credit: korafotomorgana

Our cousin Ruthie was seventeen when she disappeared. By that point in her life, she’d swelled to the size of three average full-grown women, which inevitably became her defining feature. My brother and me heard all the usual punches about how impossible it was for a girl that big to go missing at all: a guy who stepped out on his front porch anywhere in the county would be able to see Ruthie; Ruthie’s ass was visible on Doppler radar; Ruthie had to iron her jeans in the driveway. Etcetera. We joined in. Given our tenuous place in the fourth-grade hierarchy—we wanted to be tough, tricksters, uprooting order for the sake of chaos—it was impossible not to join in. In fact, a couple of the jokes I just mentioned, that was actually Chris and me.

When Ruthie had been gone three months with no word, our uncle hit a breaking point. The bus dropped us off from school and we found him home from work early, wearing a paper surgeon’s mask. He had doused the bathroom and the kitchen all over in bleach, and the smell was so strong that Chris and me couldn’t stay inside without getting dizzy. We moved our play to the magnolia tree in the front yard. There, higher in the branches than any adult would dare to go, we watched our uncle coming and going from the door carrying trash bags. He put whole boxes of Ruthie’s books out on the front sidewalk for the garbagemen to pick up. We threw magnolia fruits at him, pretending they were grenades. He ignored us. This wasn’t by itself unusual. If we were outside, the rule was that we were basically animals, and our uncle had come to accept our wildness in a way that had earned him our respect. Still, we could feel his intensity as we watched from the tree, the buildup of anxieties that had been quivering underneath since Ruthie’s disappearance. In his yellow gloves and surgeon’s mask, with his rimless glasses flashing, he had become the mad scientist of our Sunday morning TV shows. We found ourselves genuinely unsettled.

By dinnertime, we’d mostly forgotten this feeling. The gloves and mask were gone, and we assumed our uncle was once again himself, salesman, smooth-talker, unaffected and distant. He wore nothing on his sleeve but a large silver watch, and when he spoke his voice was warm as whiskey; it could, as our father had said, “wheedle the bloomers off any blue-haired lady.” But the intensity was still there, bubbling in the steaks he cooked for us that night. When Chris and me began to fight and stab at each other with butter knives, something broke. Our uncle snatched the steaks up and hoarded them at his end of the table.

“If you don’t stop acting like a couple of goddamn fools,” he said, “neither one of you will eat till Sunday. I will consume every bite of this in front of you. Every bite.”

We fell quiet. The house, still thick with the lemon-bleach smell of the Great Cleaning Blitz, was all the more filled with absence—absence and misery and a kind of guilt I wouldn’t understand until I was much older.

“Now listen,” said our uncle. “Y’all need to grow up. Y’all need to grow up because y’all need to help me out. If we’re on our own, then that’s the sad state of things, and the foolin’ has to stop.”

I looked at Chris. Chris stared at the table.

“Now eat,” said our uncle, pushing his plate within our reach. “And don’t be animals about it.”

We ate, but our uncle didn’t. He looked out toward the window with his chin in his hand, his sharp movie star chin. He was among the better-looking men in town. Strangers wouldn’t have guessed Ruthie was his daughter. Once, a crazy woman in a supermarket had mistaken him for a resurrected Marlon Brando, though I wouldn’t know who that was until years later. Out of a family of six brothers, he was the only one who’d actually been successful; it was due to his pretty face and charisma, according to our father, who didn’t think much of either quality. Our father was in jail for assault. Our mother was at a place upstate with manicured lawns and topiary, “unwinding” as it had been told to us. We had been living in suburbia for a little over two years.

“The books,” our uncle said. “I should bring them back in, I guess.”

He wasn’t talking to us.

“No,” he said. “They’re just gonna take up space. Leave ’em out there. Hell, leave ’em out there.”

*

I dreamed of rivers that night and woke up to the heavy sound of rain on the window and the pale gray light of morning. Our uncle went on to work while Chris and me waited for our bus in our rain jackets. The big trash pile was still there at the end of the driveway.

A lot of the books had laminated covers and call numbers on their spines. Ruthie must have gotten them when the library closed down and sold off all its stuff for five cents a pop. As I remembered it, Ruthie had bought everything she could and read it all, cover to cover, even the children’s books. Even the biographies, for God’s sake.

“Why do you think he’s throwing this stuff out?” I asked, kicking at the waterlogged boxes.

Chris shrugged. “Like he said, they were taking up space.”

“Seems weird,” I said. “She could come back still, or the police could find her.”

Chris was ten months older than I was. He’d ceased to be curious about the ways of adults. He thought he saw through them.

“Shut up about it, would you? She comes back, it serves her right for running off, her stuff getting thrown out. If she doesn’t come back, don’t matter no way.”

“But what if somebody kidnapped her?” I asked.

Who would kidnap her?” said Chris, a statement of fact, not really a question.

The police told our uncle that Ruthie had probably run away. That was usually what happened. She’d come back in a few days. But none of Ruthie’s things were missing, and she hadn’t taken any money out of her bank account, and her mother in Jacksonville, who’d remarried years ago, hadn’t heard a thing. As the weeks wore on, we entertained morbid ideas. Visions of serial killers and cannibals populated our imagination, though girls like Ruthie were rarely targets in the horror and crime movies we obsessively watched. We had trouble reconciling this contradiction.

The bus was late that day. I started picking through the books.

“Check it out,” I said. “The Elephant Vanishes.”

Chris looked at me and smiled. We shared a high five for the unsaid fat joke, but it was more out of habit than meanness.

See, we’d never wanted someone to harm Ruthie, though we hadn’t liked her much. For all our uncle’s coolness, Ruthie was surly and shrill, prone to bouts of seclusion and panic. It was always pranks on Ruthie that got us banished from the house, since our uncle’s only recourse as peacemaker was to shove us out the front door and tell us to come back later. He’d send us off with some sardonic phrase, a signal to us that we weren’t really to blame for being so wild: “Go find a feral cat to torment. Go poke a stick into a fire ant mound. Go throw some rocks at a wasp’s nest. Go on. Get.” So we’d wander around the neighborhood until dark. By the time we returned, our uncle would be watching a ball game, and Ruthie would be sealed up in her room, doing whatever it was she did in there.

“She wrote all these notes and crap in her books,” I said. “You can’t read most of them now. They’re all wet.”

“Why you still looking through that shit? Leave it alone,” Chris said.

If we’d grown up twenty years earlier with the advent of Scooby Doo and Jonny Quest, we may have been more interested in figuring out what had happened to our cousin. But this was the nineties, Scooby Doo was lame, and the coolest thing you could do was not give a flying fuck. In town, whatever interest had been piqued in Ruthie’s disappearance had settled by the time our uncle shoved her books out on the curb. No leads, no new information. Her name had disappeared from school altogether, and she had started becoming one of those faceless town legends that kids brought up at sleepovers to scare each other. When our uncle threw away Ruthie’s books, it raised the last questions we would consider for a long while. Why throw them out? Was he so torn up that he couldn’t bear to see them in the house? Did he think Ruthie had in fact run away, and was he punishing her for abandoning us? And if Ruthie had run away, why had no one seen her? She had no car, no close friends that we knew about. How would she get out of town? She was, as we’d known her, an outsider, lonely, distant like her dad. But on her wide, homely face, her distance just seemed to us like desperation. Had someone helped her leave? If they had, they’d stayed quiet about it.

I wouldn’t have said it to Chris, but throwing out Ruthie’s books seemed mean to me. She had been totally invested her books, if nothing else. She’d read intensely and without discrimination—pulp romance and fantasy, anthologies of short stories, Victorian novels, war novels, speculative sci-fi novels, self-help books, Beat poetry, whatever. She liked old books, enjoyed their feel and smell. In the book pile, I found an illustrated collection of limericks so ancient the binding was peeling off.

“Hey,” I said, choosing a page. “Hey, Chris, listen to this.”

“What,” said Chris.

“Listen.”

“I’m listening! Jesus.”

“Look what she wrote here. ‘My whole fucking life. Here is my whole fucking life.'”

Ruthie had written this underneath one of the limericks. Chris took the book from my hands. I watched as he read, his lips moving silently with the words.

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.

“That’s so friggin’ stupid,” said Chris.

The opposite page featured a cartoon of the man of New York with the fork jammed into his round belly. Beside it, Ruthie had written, “me.”

For a while, we were quiet. The neighborhood seemed enfolded in cloth, and I felt a hum, a ringing, and I think Chris felt it too. I remember thinking the hum had been there all along, pulsing throughout the entire suburb, only I hadn’t noticed it until then.

It was Chris who broke the silence. “I don’t think you could murder Ruthie with a fork.”

We smiled, but we didn’t high-five each other that time.

For a reason I couldn’t have explained, I kept the book of limericks, though I wouldn’t crack it open again until years later. When we came home from school that afternoon, the rest of the books were gone.

*

We finished up our fourth-grade year at our uncle’s place and moved back in with our mother over the summer. It was the last summer Chris and me were really what you’d call friends. After that, he made his own friends, kids with acne and tobacco teeth, kids who liked fire and jumping from high places. Chris got in trouble. I got a scholarship. When I was seventeen, he got pissed off at me for some stupid reason and broke my jaw, and it’s been clicking ever since.

Ruthie never came back. Our uncle never heard from her.

I kept her book of limericks, though I couldn’t say why. I opened it up again during Christmas while I was home from college, around the same time our uncle paid a visit, slinking around the house and drinking spiked eggnog from fluted glasses. He made charismatic gestures as he spoke. I noticed for the first time how long his fingers were.

My mind kept going back to the long afternoons we spent wandering around the neighborhood, coming home to a quiet house—our uncle on the couch, Ruthie in her room like a hermit. They didn’t interact much, not that we cared, though I remember getting up one night to raid the kitchen, and I saw his lanky shape and Ruthie’s round one on the living room couch together. They were eating leftover pasta and watching a movie, and as I slipped by, I saw a flash of silver as he poked her side with a fork.

“Porker,” he said, the word sifting out of his mouth with softness and affection I hadn’t heard before, the tone you’d use for a child much younger than Ruthie was.

“Quit it,” she whispered, sliding away.

He poked her again. “I’m gonna eat you up.”

“I said stop,” she said, sternly.

I went back to bed with a handful of Oreos.

I must have told Chris about this. Maybe I didn’t. In fact, I may have forgotten about the moment entirely until I opened up the book of limericks at Christmas and saw the page again, the image of the man on his back with the fork in his gut. “Me.” The neighborhood hum returned, unceasing. It stayed with me.

If Ruthie did leave town, my hope was that she ended up someplace better, someplace without kids like Chris and me to torture her, without a town to laugh at her. I don’t know for sure and this troubles me, I admit. Her moon face on the window keeps me awake at night, expectant and surly. In the end, all I can really do is close the curtains.

pencil

Jen Julian is a first-year PhD candidate in Fiction at the University of Missouri, Columbia. In 2010, she received her MFA in Fiction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she worked as editor for The Greensboro Review. She has had work published in Four Way Review and Press 53’s 2010 Open Award Anthology, and her fiction was a finalist for the 2009 NC State Brenda L. Smart Fiction Prize. Email: julianjen.n[at]gmail.com

Rare Books

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ellen Wright


Books
Photo Credit: Ben Leto

My uncle Robbie works for the NYPD, so even though I only eat over there once a week, I’ve gotten used to almost every dinner being interrupted by a murder or a robbery. Aunt Lauren insists that we eat together “as a family” which means putting everything in the fridge until he gets back closed-mouth and depressed and we choke down the congealed, cold remains.

On this particular day we’re nearly done eating when the phone rings so I start cramming big bites of mashed potatoes into my mouth. Lauren shoots me a look but I just keep eating while Robbie grunts a lot into the phone.

He comes back already wearing his coat. “Jules, I’ll take you home. I shouldn’t have to be there long, and it’s in your direction.”

“Dad lets me take the subway alone,” I say, but he ignores me. I swipe a couple cookies and stuff them in my backpack.

Leaving Robbie and Lauren’s apartment on the Upper East Side is always surreal. The halls and stairs and elevator gleam, and the doorman always smiles at us. It’s a far cry from my dad’s and my cramped walk-up in Alphabet City, whose staircases usually smell of pot and are stained with vomit and other things I don’t want to look at too closely.

Robbie hails a cab and pretty soon we’re zooming down Second Avenue. Neither of us feels like talking. I stare out the window at the buildings flashing by.

“We can get out here,” Robbie calls to the cabbie. We’re in front of a swanky hotel that I’ve never seen before. Robbie looks at me and glances around. “You’ll have to wait in the hallway,” he says finally. I know he’s thinking that Lauren will yell at him if he makes me sit out on the street.

“Sid, can you keep an eye on Jules?” Robbie asks when we get upstairs, not waiting for an answer before he brushes past us and starts talking to one of the detectives. People in uniforms are milling around everywhere, holding coffees and notebooks and talking very seriously. I exchange half-hearted waves with a few who’ve seen me before.

Sidney, a rookie cop who has been stuck on Jules duty before, greets me amiably enough, giving no hint that babysitting isn’t really his job.

“Whatcha reading these days, Jules?” he asks, but his heart isn’t in it.

What we both really want to be doing is eavesdropping on the investigation. In unspoken agreement, we meander closer to the open hotel room door. There’s a table over in that direction where a hassled-looking young woman is handing out coffees.

Sidney saunters up to the table. “Hey Liz, how about snacks for me and my friend here?” He nudges me and I blush, but Liz smiles kindly and hands me a cup of lukewarm coffee. I don’t really like coffee but I take a tentative sip so I’m not just standing there.

Robbie sacrifices himself and keeps distracting Liz while I concentrate all my attention on eavesdropping.

“This was on the body,” someone is saying.

I hear Robbie’s distinctive rumble in response.

“It’s some sort of poem” is the response. “It says—

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.”

“Edward Lear,” I mutter to myself. Sidney looks sharply at me but I shake my head and he goes back to distraction mode.

“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” Robbie says. “Suicide note?”

“My grandfather write poetry,” offers a distraught female voice. I lean a bit closer to the door and squeeze my eyes shut, concentrating. “Maybe that’s how he decided to say his good-byes…” Her words dissolve into muffled sobs.

“Hey, Jules,” Sidney says, and I open my eyes. Liz looks a bit angry. I know I’ve been too obvious and she’s going to tell me to go stand by the elevator, so before she can, I dash over to the open door.

“It’s not a poem!” I shout. “I mean, it is a poem, but it’s from a book by Edward Lear. He must have…” Then my eyes go past a shocked Robbie and a woman with tearstains on her face and a bandage on her arm and fall on the enormous man lying dead in an easy chair, clutching a fork covered in some brown substance. His eyes are closed but his face looks like he’s in so much pain.

“Jules!” Robbie yells. Behind me, Sidney is apologizing. Robbie stalks towards me and drags me away from the room and out of the hotel. Outside he hails another cab. He doesn’t even yell, that’s how upset he is.

“Mom used to read the book to me,” I offer a few blocks of silence. “A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear. I liked that one because we live in New York.”

He doesn’t respond.

“Do you think the granddaughter did it?” I ask after some more silence.

“What?!” Robbie exclaims. He’s really shocked. “What makes you think that?”

“Well, if you were dying and you ripped a page out of a book,” I explain, “you probably wouldn’t have time to put the book back on the shelf, but she pretended there was no book. Maybe the book had evidence and she threw it out so you wouldn’t find it.”

My queasiness about seeing a dead person is now entirely replaced by this idea. Robbie, on the other hand, now looks ill.

“Jules, if the man was trying to tell us anything it was that he was sad and wanted to end his life. Maybe that book gave him comfort at the end.”

I can tell Robbie doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, so I fall silent, but I’m still thinking about it. I’m thinking, if I’d murdered my grandfather and there was a book that might lead the police to me, what would I do with it? If I just threw it in the trash they might find it. And then I know I have to find out what the next limerick in the book is. Maybe it’ll be something like—

There once was a young woman who—

and then I’ll know it was the granddaughter.

Robbie doesn’t say anything when we pull up in front of my apartment but I know I’m still in the doghouse. I run up three flights of smelly stairs and unlock the two padlocks on our front door. Dad’s sitting on the couch watching Reservoir Dogs like he’s going to be quizzed on it.

I go to bed but I can’t sleep, staring into space and thinking about poems and forks and Edward Lear. The light of the TV from the living room dances on my ceiling all night long.

The next morning I get up early. The TV is still on and Dad has fallen asleep in front of it. I shower and make some cereal really quietly. It’s Saturday so the buses won’t be running very frequently. I weigh my options and decide to walk the mile to the Strand since it’s not raining.

Mom’s copy of A Book of Nonsense disappeared a long time ago. I think Dad got rid of most of her books after she died, excepting the few I was able to sneak into my room. I’m determined to find a copy and figure out what the next limerick is, in case it points to a killer—the granddaughter or someone else.

Usually I try to avoid the clerks at the bookstore but today I need help. I approach the skinny guy who’s standing just past the notebooks and new fiction and he smiles at me.

“I’m—I’m looking for a book?” I stutter and his smile widens.

“We’ve got plenty of them here,” he jokes.

“It’s by Edward Lear? A Book of Nonsense?” I add weakly, wishing everything didn’t sound like a question.

He leads me over to one of the computers and punches it in, then points out the right aisle.

I find the book and sit down in the middle of the aisle to read it. It isn’t a very long book, so it doesn’t take long before I realize I’ve reached the end and I haven’t seen the one about New York and the man with the fork. I flip back to the beginning and read it again, more carefully this time, but it still isn’t there.

Two employees happen along just as I finish. The guy says, “Hey, you’re not allowed to sit in the aisles.”

I scramble to my feet. “I—I have a question,” I say, and he raises an eyebrow. I hold up the book. “I’ve been reading this, but it’s missing pages. I mean, there aren’t any pages torn out or anything,” I add hastily, afraid they’ll blame me, “but there are poems that I remember being in it that aren’t in here.”

“Oh,” says the girl. “It’s a different edition. There were more illustrations in the first two editions, and that one’s the later one. I like Lear, too.”

“Do you have the other one?”

“We might have it up in the rare book collection. It’s pretty expensive…”

“It’s pretty important,” I say, barely louder than a whisper. She glances at the guy, who shrugs, and takes pity on me. I’ve never been up in the rare books collection before. I look around me with awe as I follow her.

“I remembered it because we just got this copy in,” she says, placing it carefully on the table in front of me. “Did you remember that there’s a poem about New York in it? That was always my favorite…” She rifles through the pages just as I did downstairs, with the same expression when she comes to the end and it isn’t there.

“Maybe… it’s been torn out?” I suggest.

We go through page by page, and to my immense excitement find a ragged edge in between two of the pages.

“Whoa,” she says. “That’ll bring down the price. It’s in good condition otherwise.”

I would argue with her—it smells musty and you can barely turn the pages without breaking them—but I’m too eager to see the next poem. I sit down and open the book wide to that page. It says:

There was an Old Person of Chili,
Whose conduct was painful and silly;
He sat on the stairs,
Eating apples and pears,
That imprudent Old Person of Chili.

I sit back, disappointed. I can’t make any sense of it at all. But maybe Robbie or one of the other cops can?

“I need to take this with me,” I tell her. “It might be important evidence.”

“Slow down, kiddo,” she says with a smile. “It’s still worth a couple thousand dollars, even damaged. This is a very rare first edition.”

I call Robbie, hysterical. “I found the book!” I say. “I found the book and the page is torn out but the next page doesn’t make any sense and she sold it so she must have been…”

To Robbie’s credit, he doesn’t tell me to shut up or to forget about the case, he just says he’ll be here as soon as he can.

I’ve calmed by the time he arrives. He looks angry but I jump right into my explanation. “She must have sold the book,” I say. “She knew there was evidence in it and she couldn’t throw it out, and maybe she knew it was expensive. It’s worth a couple thousand dollars,” I add. “But I can’t make sense of the next limerick in it. Maybe you can or…” We flip to the torn-out page and he inspects the ragged edge. Unlike the rest of the pages in the book, the one about Chili is stained with dark trails. I wonder if it’s the same thing that was on the dead man’s fork, if he spilled that last meal on this page.

“Jules…” he says and trails off, closing his eyes.

“Did you find out something more?” I say suspiciously.

“Yes,” he says. “He died from poison. If he committed suicide, we should have found the bottle by now, but we haven’t.”

I’m reeling but he just stands up and flashes his badge. “I need to take this with me,” he tells her, and she actually lets him.

Three days later, I’m microwaving canned spaghetti when Robbie calls. I tuck the phone under my chin and stick one bowl on the side table next to my dad’s spot on the couch.

“I can’t believe it,” he says, sounding tired but with a smile in his voice, “but you were right. There was evidence in the book.”

“The poem made sense?!” I ask excitedly, sloshing tomato sauce over the brim of my bowl.

“Not exactly,” Robbie says. “Those stains on the page turned out to be the granddaughter’s blood. We also found her blood on the fork the dead man was clutching. He must have realized that she’d poisoned him and attacked her.”

I’m stunned. I remember, vaguely, that the granddaughter had a bandage on her arm when I saw her sobbing next to her grandfather’s still body.

“What happened to the book?” I ask after a moment.

“We had to take out the other page to analyze the stains,” he says hesitantly. “It’s not worth as much anymore, and we’ll have to keep it for the trial, but… would you like to have it, after that?”

So I don’t have my mother’s copy any more, and I don’t have the poem about New York, but the book is sitting on my bookshelf in a place of honor next to my desk. It reminds me of my mom, and the dead man whose last thought was probably of it, but it’s not really morbid. It reminds me that books are meaningful, even if not always in the way you expect.

pencil

Ellen Wright lives in New York and works in publishing. Email: ellenbwright[at]gmail.com

Derry’s Down, Deary

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Alison Reeger Cook


fork
Photo Credit: Robert Parviainen

1887—London

Owl went missing two weeks ago. Normally, Pussycat wouldn’t worry about him; Owl could take care of himself, and sometimes he landed jobs that would make him vanish for days. But he had never been gone this long, and Pussycat’s intuition screeched in her ears that something wicked had befallen him.

That was the nature of the game, of course. Assassins for hire could disappear just as easily as their targets, but Owl and Pussycat were the best in the business. Their aliases were whispered with reverence and fear throughout the underbelly of London; if there was a hit that was judged impossible by every other cutthroat in the city, Owl and Pussycat could get the job done. That also meant there was competition who would love to snuff out the deadly duo, and one rival had attempted to do so. After pieces of him were delivered to other hit men as a warning, no one had pursued the pair since.

But this was different. When Owl and Pussycat were together, they were untouchable. Apart, Pussycat could only imagine what traps were set for her partner. She owed much to Owl—he had swept her up from the streets, taken in a poor mangy girl with no family or home, and rescued her from the workhouse or the brothel. He was the only one who ever made her smile, playing silly songs on his guitar, pilfering little trinkets to bring back to her, teaching her all the “most fashionable” dances—not that they’d ever attend any public affair at which they could dance.

When Owl didn’t come home after five days, Pussycat began prowling every dank and dreary cesspool of London to get a lead on where he was last spotted. After a week-and-a-half of dead ends and false tips, desperation led her to an underworld barkeep named “Snout” Robinson—not an ironic name by any means. He was a bloated boar of a man, with piggish eyes and a gold ring in his nose.

“Yeah, I’s seen ‘im,” Snout said. “Few weeks ago. Seemed off ‘is box, almost sick-like. But he left me somethin’, said someone might come lookin’ for ‘im and to give it to ‘er. Seein’ you’s the only one come askin’ for ‘im, I’d guess he meant you.”

Snout handed over a leather purse to Pussycat, who instantly recognized it as Owl’s. She pocketed the purse and turned to leave.

“Missy…” Snout lowered his voice. “I’ve heard rumors, maybe I’m not supposed to be tellin’. The Morbids may’ve gotten to ‘im.”

Hot pinpricks stabbed at Pussycat’s skin as the dreaded “M” word echoed in her ears. Owl had warned her about the Morbids. They were relentless. They were undetectable. Once they targeted you, you were gone. No matter how sly you were, no matter how far you’d run, the Morbids would find you.

But no, it couldn’t happen to Owl. She gave Snout a dark glare before she exited to the safety of the night’s black shroud. Inside Owl’s purse were two items. The first was a scrap of paper that had been torn from a book. Upon it read:

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.

The other object she stuffed into her coat pocket and rubbed its cool, smooth surface repeatedly over the following days. She massaged it in her palm as she stowed away on a merchant boat to America; she held it as she hid in a crate and was carried onto the docks by the unaware ship crew; she held it as she wandered the grungy streets of New York City, sniffing out any clues as to the “Old Man” indicated in that ridiculous poem, or any clues to finding Owl.

The object was a silver spoon with the word “Runcible” engraved on the handle. For some reason, Pussycat had a feeling that her life, and Owl’s, depended on that spoon.

*

“May I help you, deary?”

Pussycat looked over the woman at the counter of the antique shop. She was squat and stout, with a chin wattle that embraced her neck like a python. Her hair—what was left of it—was decayed red, straggly wisps framing the pink prune that was her face.

“Are you Madam Runcible?” Pussycat asked.

The woman chuckled. “No, I’m afraid not. My great-uncle, Irvin Runcible, was the original owner of this shop, but he passed away long ago. My name is Eliza Narragansett, but you may call me Ellie. May I help you find something?”

Pussycat narrowed her eyes on the woman. Even sweet, harmless old ladies could prove to be otherwise. Who knew whom the Morbids—if they indeed had a hand in Owl’s disappearance—employed to spy for them. Rumor was, the Morbids had eyes, ears, and fingers everywhere, not just in England. But this was the only place in all of New York City that carried the name Runcible—Runcible’s Antiques and Home Wares—and she was growing desperate for clues. She withdrew the spoon from her pocket and placed it on the counter.

The woman looked over the spoon. A look of bewilderment crossed her face. “Oh my, the spoon from the original Runcible wedding dinner set! My great-uncle had twenty pure silver place settings custom made for his bride and his wedding guests. Only one of the place settings had the Runcible name engraved in the silverware, for my great-aunt. How did you—”

“Do you have the other silverware that goes with this?” The limerick from Owl’s purse began a haunting chant in her mind. “Do you have the knife, or the… fork?”

Ellie scratched her chins. “A close friend of mine acquired the whole set from to the Runcible estate auction, when the Runcible sons went bankrupt. Paid a pretty penny for it. That’s why I’m surprised you have the spoon. Although it would be like Derry to buy something expensive, only to lose it or give it away. How did you come by it?”

Pussycat kept a cool expression, despite her temptation to pounce on the woman to strangle the information out of her. “My brother is a business partner of Derry’s. Derry let him have it to bring home to me. I collect rare silverware. That’s why I would like the rest of the set. Do you have Mr. Derry’s address, so I can pay him a visit? My brother has been out on business, and I cannot reach him to inquire about Mr. Derry’s homestead.”

“I dare say, Derry doesn’t much like surprise guests, but I’m sure he’d enjoy a little company. Poor man’s alone so much. Use to be such a happy man…” Ellie shuffled through a counter drawer, taking out a pen and paper and scratching out a list of directions. “He lives right above the Bong Tree Café, down on 55th Street. Try the turkey-and-pea soup. Put a little meat on your bones.”

*

Pussycat waited patiently until the owner of the Bong Tree Café closed the restaurant and locked the door behind him, then she made her way to the entrance that led up to the second floor apartments. She ascended the staircase with soundless footsteps, to the apartment number noted in Ellie’s directions. On the doorframe was a worn nameplate, “D.D. Derry.” She knocked, and then wrapped her fingers around the pistol tucked into her belt. For all she knew, she was walking right into a snare. No one answered. She reached into her boot, plucking out a lockpick. She jimmied the door easily, and stepped into a dark space that carried familiar smells—familiar to her line of work, that is.

There was an oil lantern sitting on a table at the far end of the room. Pistol at the ready, she crept across the apartment, and picked up the lantern. She intensified its flame, and held it before her as she scanned the room in the soft yellow light. There wasn’t much: a settee, a dining table, a bookshelf, an armchair… with someone in it.

The chair faced away from Pussycat, but she could see the hand resting on the chair’s arm. She heard a faint melody coming from the chair, like someone humming.

She aimed her pistol at the chair. “You, in the chair. Move one inch, and you’re a dead man. You’re going to tell me what I need to know. Got it?”

The chair’s occupant didn’t answer. The humming continued.

“I’m talking to you!” Pussycat stepped towards the chair. “Do you own a Runcible fork? Or can I skip ahead, and ask what you know of my missing partner? He gave me the spoon. It led me to you. Start talking!”

By now, she was three feet from the chair. The humming was, in fact, soft singing, and she could make out the words:

There was an Old Derry down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry…

“Are you deaf? I am two seconds from spilling your brains—”

So he made them a book, and with laughter they shook at the fun of that Derry down Derry…

Pussycat leapt in front of the chair, cocking the trigger of her pistol and pointing it straight at the singer. She stopped cold at the sight of a withering man, with full-moon spectacles set before tired eyes. The wrinkles of his face implied this was once a man who laughed, and sang, and smiled, but now had sunken into moroseness…

A silver fork, with the word “Runcible” engraved in the handle, was sticking out of the red, sticky pool in his chest.

It was not the first time that Pussycat had seen a bloody body, of course. It wasn’t the first time she had seen self-mutilation, or even death by fork. But as the man continued to chant, as the life-wine dribbled down his front, she felt a sickness well up inside of her that made her drop her pistol.

This wasn’t suicide. There was something unseen at work here. This was… morbid.

She approached the bleeding man, placing her fingertips on his cold, bony hand. “Mr. Derry, can you hear me?”

The glazed eyes wandered up towards Pussycat. The lips paused, and then a dusty, creaking sound came from Derry’s throat. “Oooooooowl…”

“Owl? Where is he? Did the Morbids do this to you?”

Derry’s eyes fell. “I was… his happiness. I… was the part of him… the Morbids couldn’t touch. The songs, the poems, the paintings… it drove back the Morbids. But they became too strong… they took the songs, they took the stories… but they had no use of me…”

Pussycat was losing her patience. “I don’t understand. Why are the Morbids doing this? Who are they? Tell me. I can find them. I can kill them.”

Derry shook his head. “The Morbids… are… sadness. His sadness. They have… overtaken… him. Once they have him, they have the rest of us.”

“Who’s ‘him’? You said something about poems. Owl left me a poem, about an Old Man from New York. Do you know that poem? Who wrote it? Is that who you’re talking about?”

Derry sunk deeper into the chair, or perhaps he was shrinking. “He went by my name… I was the side of him he never wanted to let go. But he was the real one. I was… just… the shadow. Find the man… who has my name… but it is not his true name…”

“You’re not making any sense!”

Derry suddenly looked at Pussycat. An unsettling smile cracked his face. “Exactly… it’s nonsense… that you’re looking for…”

There was scratching at the windows.

There was clawing from beneath the floor.

There was a suffocating sorrow dripping down from the ceiling.

Pussycat knew the Morbids were there. They were there for her. She shoved her hand into her pocket, grasping at the silver spoon, thinking of Owl and his singing and his dancing and the way he always made her laugh, and laugh, and laugh…

*

Two months later she was in San Remo on the Mediterranean coast, in the Villa Tennyson. She stood at the foot of a bed, staring at a man wasting away beneath the sheets, a man who looked so much like Mr. Derry, except older, and grayer, and sadder. She had tracked him down after searching for the author who had for years gone by the pseudonym Derry Down Derry. Somehow, the name Edward Lear didn’t sound half as charming.

Lear stared up at the ceiling, hands folded over his chest. Pussycat had heard gossip in town that Lear was suffering from a heart disease. It only made it easier for the Morbids to do their work on him.

“Mr. Lear, did the Morbids take Owl?”

Lear was still.

“Have the Morbids killed him? Or is he still alive?’

Lear sighed. Very quietly, he breathed into the stillness, “An Owl and a Pussycat… they went out to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat…

Pussycat felt an intense pang of grief.

They sailed away, for a year and a day, to the land where the Bong Tree grows…

“Mr. Lear, I read your story about us. About Owl and me. We’re supposed to be together. I think, even if the Morbids take us, we won’t die. So, if you would…”

They dined on mince, and slices of quince…

“Let the Morbids take me.”

Lear stopped.

“Let them take me. Because they’ll take me to where they took Owl. I want to be with Owl, Mr. Lear. Even if it means sadness overtakes us, at least we’ll be sad together. Being sad together is better than being sad alone.”

The quiet lingered a moment longer. Lear tilted his head towards the foot of the bed. There was no one there.

He smiled. He laid his head back down. He closed his eyes, whispering:

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.”

pencil

Alison Reeger Cook is the book reviewer for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. Her first young adult novel is The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Shades of Nyx (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2013). In 2011, she placed Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition for her play “Major Arcana,” and in WD’s Science Fiction contest for short story “Psycho Babbles.” She currently works at Peachtree Publishers, a children’s picture book publisher, as a trade show and literary conference coordinator. She likes sushi and sundaes (but not together). Email: imaginalchemy[at]yahoo.com