The Case of the Missing Princess

Savage Mystery Contest ~ Third Place
Sue Seabury


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

Princess Poppycock is missing.

To be sure my message gets broadcast as quickly possible in this emergency situation, I speak directly into the communication device. “Repeat. Princess Poppycock—

“Missy.” Ashlee, the part-time supervisor who shows up on Friday nights, shouts up the stairs. For someone who is so into her phone, she can be remarkably low-tech at times. “Go back to bed.”

“But—”

Now.

“No need to shout,” I mutter exactly the way Ashlee does.

The empty princess canopy bed inside the antique dollhouse mocks me. I count as high as I know how (three, exactly my age), then turn down the volume on the communication device and make my move. Who knows how long Princess P has been missing? There’s no time to waste.

Mickey Mouse gives me a boost over the bars. I make a soft landing on the rocking chair and gather my troops. I take Bear-Bear, T. Rex, Cowie and Buzz Lightyear because you never know what craziness you might encounter out there. Then I head out the door, already lining up suspects inside my head. Three come immediately to mind.

My first suspect is sprawled suspiciously across the hallway. Woofers has the habit of napping by the heating vent, but he could be faking. I taught him everything I know. Woofers is a yes man if there ever was one. Walks, ball tosses, and even baths, he gets excited about it all. You might think Woofers is too nice to steal a princess. That’s where you’d be wrong. Promise him a bone-shaped treat and you can rope him into doing anything. He’s what’s known in the biz as a ‘fall guy.’

Woofers gives me a big lick. I am aware that this is his usual diversionary tactic, one he uses regularly to score free peanut butter or icing off my cheek, but he’s terrible at hiding the evidence. No matter how many times I tell him to be sure to get all the crumbs, he always manages to miss some, usually right on the end of his nose.

“Princess Poppycock is missing,” I whisper into his big, floppy ear. “Where is she?”

He just gives me another lick.

“Don’t even think about skipping town,” I warn, then continue on my way, leaving Cowie behind to act as muscle and keep an eye on the louche pooch.

One suspect down, two to go.

Next up, Jackie, alias: Cutie Pie. Don’t let the baby face fool you. Behind those big blue eyes lurks the soul of a demon who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants, be it cuddles or cake.

“Jackie. Wake up.”

“Gah?”

“Spare me the small talk. Where’s Poppycock?”

“Goo-goo-ga?”

“Don’t give me that nonsense. Hand over Poppycock and nobody gets hurt.”

“Ga-ga. Ha-ha!”

I don’t waste any more time with the nice-guy routine, but a thorough search of Jackie’s crib turns up nothing. I leave Bear-Bear next to the nightlight and Jackie’s communication device.

“If he tries anything funny,” I instruct Bear-Bear, “gimme a holler on the squawk box.”

Bear-Bear salutes. He’s a trustworthy soldier. So long as you don’t ask too much, he’s your man.

“And you.” I fix Jackie with my sharp eye. “If Princess P doesn’t show up soon, you’ll be hauled in for a second round of questioning.”

“Ha-ha, goo!”

Jackie plays the role of a carefree innocent, but we’ll see how he holds up under the interrogation lights in the bathroom. As collateral, I take his binky. Jackie cries in protest.

“Now you know what it feels like to lose the one you love!” I shout over my shoulder.

Next up: Bruiser a.k.a. my older brother Billy. He’s my top suspect. I was hoping to avoid having to interview him because he’s a tough negotiator, not to mention bigger than me. How am I going to pull this off?

A flash of inspiration strikes.

I do a one-eighty and stealthy as Santa Claus steal down the staircase to the living room. A light is on, which is bad, but my prize is in view.

I don’t see any legs sticking out from the easy chair or couch. Quick as an elf, I’m in and out, spoils in hand.

I take a few practice swipes on my way back up the stairs. I’m a good multitasker.

Before entering the danger zone, I count to three, listening carefully.

Silence within.

Maybe I can get lucky, rescue the princess and effect a clean getaway without Billy even knowing.

I use the tip of the sword to poke open the door. A dim light glows from the far corner of the room. It’s where Bruiser games, and also where he lies in wait for unsuspecting siblings who are innocently searching for lost toys. But this time I’m ready.

Jackie sure is making a racket down the hall. Maybe taking the pacifier was a tactical error.

Another count of three, then, diamond sword held high, I lead the charge in for Operation: Royal Rescue.

I only make it a few feet before being pelted by bullets. A diamond sword is minimally effective against a battery-operated Nerf gun.

“Out, nerdball. You’re supposed to be in bed anyway.”

“Hand over the princess and I’ll clear out lickety-split.”

He lets off another couple of rounds. I block some with the sword and a few others go wide. Bruiser is a very wasteful criminal. “You’ll get your hiney back into your room or I’ll tell Ashlee.”

No honor among thieves, and this one’s the worst of the worst. Anybody who would steal a cookie wouldn’t hesitate to steal a princess.

“I’ll give you one last chance to return Princess Poppycock and then—”

Ashleeee! Missy’s out of her room!”

“You will pay for this.”

“Can’t wait.” Bruiser gives me an evil grin, made extra evil by the missing front tooth. He claims a fairy took it. Right. We all know he traded it to the devil in exchange for total dominion over our parents. “Gimme my sword too, goofball.”

“You asked for it.” I fling the sword at Bruiser’s head, along with Buzz Lightyear because he’s hard plastic. He’s also Bruiser’s, so I don’t care too much if he gets dinged. (No offense, Buzz. We’re still pals, right?). Both missiles fall short but they leave a clear message: Mess with Missy and heads are gonna roll.

“Missy!” Ashlee’s voice echoes up the stairwell. “You’d better be in your room. I’m counting to three. One…”

A couple of good things about Ashlee: one, she’s totally addicted to her phone. Half the time she forgets her threats before she gets a chance to carry them out. And two, she’s super slow at counting.

Brandishing a fist at Bruiser, I threaten in my best Terminator voice, “I’ll be back.”

I dive through the door to my room before Ashlee even gets to ‘two.’ Told ya she was slow.

Note: Ashlee did not say I had to get into bed, only into my room. Some might say I am splitting hairs. I say I am adhering to the letter of the law, and Ashlee isn’t even a bona fide lawmaker in this kingdom. If anything, she’s merely a temporary tyrant-for-hire. But rental tyrants still hold sway in my mercenary parents’ eyes.

The situation is getting dire. I can’t sleep without Poppycock. She’s like my guardian angel, and I am hers. We’re like twins, fraternal ones. People ask all the time if we’re related. I think it’s the matching dresses.

Poppycock has been known to get a craving for a little late-night snick-snack. While the plates of fried eggs and whole fish wouldn’t be my choice for a midnight nosh, to each her own.

I do a second visual sweep of the dollhouse: kitchen, living room, dining room, study, the bedrooms and the attic, but to be doubly sure, I dump the contents onto the floor. Then I check the empty house for secret passages, in vain. Why does this always happen when the Finders-in-Chief go AWOL??

In desperation, I interrogate everyone in the room.

“Gronkle, did you see anything suspicious?”

The sweet yet intimidating dragon gives me nothing. Neither do any of the others in the room.

Tears threaten but crying never solved anything.

Think, Missy. Think. If you were the most beloved, desirable princess in the whole wide world, where would kidnappers take you?

To Disney World, obvs.

But how am I supposed to get there?

My Personal ATMs have made vague promises about Disney World, but so far have yet to come through.

A terrible thought hits me: would they have taken Princess P to Disney World without the rest of us? Could any jailers be so cruel?

I race to the top of the stairs.

“Ashlee—”

“It’s way past your bedtime, Missy. Your parents are not going to be happy if they come home and find you still up.”

“That’s my question! What time will they be back?”

“Eleven.”

“What time is it now?”

“Ten-fifteen. Now back—”

“To bed. I know. Just tell me one more thing. How long is eleven?”

“Less than an hour.”

“How long have they been gone?”

“About two hours.”

Three hours. That’s not long enough to go to Disney World and back… or is it?

“Missy! Bed!” Ashlee’s dyed blond hair shines in the hall light. Her fake tan and pale pink shimmery lipstick make her look like a photo negative, or something. In theory, her hair and shape and frilly skirts should add up to a princess. But somehow they don’t. She just looks trashy. More trailer park than Park Avenue if you know what I mean.

Nonetheless, she’s the only sheriff in town right now. I give her the thumb’s up. “Right-ho!”

Ashlee does not smile. “Give Jackie back his binky too.” She uses a long, daggery nail to point.

Curses! The incriminating evidence dangles from my neck. Might as well be a noose.

“Whoopsie, not sure how that happened.” I give a congenial uncriminal chuckle for good measure.

“Sure you don’t. Get a move on, Missy.”

I really don’t care for her tone.

A quick detour to Jackie’s room to drop off his gross binky and collect my troops, but now Bear-Bear is missing too!

“Missy! You’d better be in your room! One…”

Foot steps on the stairs.

I fly down the hallway to where Woofers was. He’s gone! And so is Cowie!

This is beyond catastrophic.

I can’t count that high, but I can tell Ashlee has come up more than three steps. I know because one of the middle steps makes a funny squeak like an elephant being tickled, and she just stepped on it.

Flinging myself at my doorsill as if a cliff is crumbling away from beneath my feet, I make it safely inside my room before Ashlee gets any further than ‘one.’ Yet another thing to like about Ashlee: her slowness.

First Princess Poppycock, then Bear-Bear, and now Woofers and Cowie. All gone.

Where could they be? Is it a conspiracy? Is there a party somewhere and I’m not invited?

Ha. Impossible.

Ashlee’s pointy nose crosses the threshold of my domain.

“Yes?” I inquire imperiously.

“You’re not in bed.”

“You didn’t specify.”

She lifts an eyebrow that looks like it was drawn on with a brown Sharpie, which is my least favorite color of Sharpie. (The Royal Keeper of the Pens has currently imposed an embargo on Sharpies, but it’s just a temporary injunction, I’m sure.) “Missy. Don’t make me put you in bed.”

She’s right. Ashlee inflicts the cruelest tickles when she puts you to bed. In a previous life, I’m sure she worked for the Spanish Inquisition.

I hustle over to the rocker and with a nimble leap, show compliance with her unreasonable demand—then I pause, balanced on the top of the bars.

“Or else?” I inquire.

“Or else?”

“What are you going to do if I don’t do as you say? Did you already punish me? Did you make a preemptive strike, as it were?”

“What are you talking about?”

Enough is enough.

“Where is she? And Woofers? And Cowie and Bear-Bear? Are you holding her ransom?” Curses, my voice wobbles. Not what you want when you’re interrogating. Like Winston Churchill advised: Always negotiate from a position of strength.

Ashlee scrunches her nose. Not an attractive look on her.

“Woofers is in his crate. I have some bad news about Cowie. You didn’t actually give Cowie to Woofers, did you?”

I invoke my Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer.

“As for ‘she,’ who do you mean?”

I glance around the room, looking for backup. Why did I sacrifice my best men? Note to self: next time, start with the second-stringers. I don’t trust myself not to cry and continue exercise my Fifth Amendment rights.

“Are you talking about Princess Poppycock?”

“Maybe,” I hedge.

“Oh, Missy. C’mere.”

Without ceremony, she scoops me off the railing as if I’m an escaped plastic bag or a baby or something.

She drags me into the bathroom. I practice holding my breath in case she decides to go with waterboarding.

“Did you forget that Princess Poppycock wanted to take a bath? Silly girl.”

Of course! The one thing my otherwise perfect antique dollhouse is missing: a bathroom. People must’ve been really dirty back in olden days. Sounds like fun.

Princess Poppycock lies in state in her special Tupperware. The bubbles have mostly popped, which means Princess P is looking too much like Lady Godiva for my taste, and undoubtedly for hers.

“Poppycock!” I screech and make a break for it from Ashlee’s arms. “What about Bear-Bear?”

“I don’t know. Where did you last see him?”

Humph. It’s like Ashlee knows I left him with that pint-sized scofflaw, Jackie. I busy myself finding Princess Poppycock something clean and dry to wear. She has a delicate constitution and catches cold easily.

Once Princess P is fit to be seen in her fluffy pink robe that matches mine, I say, “I may have spotted him guarding Jackie’s jail, uh, crib.”

“Let’s go look.” Ashlee takes my hand. She’s not always awful. “Here he is.”

Bear-Bear fell down on the job, and behind the nightstand. Like I said, he does his best work when you don’t ask too much of him.

“Come on, Princess,” Ashlee says. “Time for bed.”

I must say, Ashlee makes an excellent conveyance. Maybe if she behaves, in her next life she’ll come back as a Tesla.

Princess Poppycock safely in my arms, I drift off to the pleasing sound of Ashlee picking up doll furniture. She’s a decent picker-upper. She might also come back as a vacuum in her next life.

But all of this is mere conjecture. One thing that is certain is that the Case of the Missing Princess is solved.

pencil

Email: sueseabury[at]gmail.com

Plums

Savage Mystery Contest ~ Second Place
Janet Innes


Photo Credit: Edna Winti/Flickr (CC-by)

Alice shoved open the front door enough to peer inside. “Oh no.”

She shoved harder. Boxes and bags rustled in its wake. She stepped inside, stumbling on a pile of junk as her brother entered their grandmother’s house behind her.

They stood in silence for a minute, taking in the room. Gram hadn’t always been a hoarder, just since their mom, Gram’s daughter, had died from breast cancer eight years ago. Plenty of time to fill what had been a homey cottage to bursting. Gram had slipped at home and broken her leg last week, dying in the hospital a few days later. The city subsequently condemned the house. Alice and Paul had the weekend to clear it out before it was torn down.

“You know,” Alice said, her voice faltering, “we could just walk away. The inspector said they’d just trash anything left.”

The small living room was piled high with furniture, newspapers, boxes, umbrellas, cushions, photo albums, even a baby’s car seat. Unruly stacks threatened to topple over and although a cleared path led through the room to the kitchen and hallway beyond, it was barely wide enough for one person to walk. How had Gram lived like this?

“This is awful,” Paul said. “I had no idea she’d gotten this bad.”

North Kingston, Rhode Island, was a long way from Seattle, where Paul worked in tech, and from Milwaukee, where Alice ran an organic fruit orchard. Losing touch with Gram had come easily as they entered their thirties and settled down. After their mom died, and then their dad, from a heart attack the following year, there was no family hierarchy to enforce visits.

“I visited a year or two after Dad died,” Alice said. “There was a lot of stuff in the guest room, but I didn’t think that much of it.” She paused. “That was the last time I visited. How about you?”

Paul thought. “Marjorie and I visited once after Mom passed.”

Alice nodded. Her brother and his ex had split up five years ago.

They picked their way to the kitchen. The counters were buried under mounds of trash, and crusted plates and cups piled high in the sink.

Somewhere in this disaster lay their inheritance—a Babe Ruth baseball card, back from when he was a rookie player with the Boston Red Sox. One had been sold at auction for more than three million dollars a few years ago. Their grandpa had collected baseball cards all his life, and after he died fifteen years ago, Gram always told them she kept the card safe in the house for them.

“Oh—look!” Gram’s dollhouse, a real antique, sat on the kitchen table. Its front could swing open, allowing free access to the rooms inside. Alice peered through one of the tiny windows, hoping the interior would be spared the damage surrounding them. “It’s still okay!”

She played with this dollhouse until she went to college and decided dollhouses were too childish. Seeing it now broke her heart a little.

Paul snorted. “With all that crap piled in front of it, Gram probably couldn’t open it to shove stuff inside. Come on, let’s see the rest.”

The tiny bathroom was dank and filthy. The guest room didn’t even have a path. Gram’s room did, but clothes and boxes were piled on the floor and littered the bed itself.

The work seemed impossible. But black knot had hit Alice’s plum trees, the majority of her orchard. As a dedicated organic farmer, she couldn’t use fungicide, and all her efforts at controlling its spread by pruning had failed. Last year’s crop hadn’t broken even. She had to replant her entire orchard—an expense in both time and money she couldn’t afford. If they found the baseball card, though, her orchard could survive.

*

They tackled the bedroom first the next day. But Gram’s dresser drawers, closet, and storage boxes were crammed full of clothes, mismatched shoes, scarves, and purses, while the boxes and litter that surrounded the bed like a moat produced nothing but junk.

“Dumpster 1, us, 0,” Paul quipped as they hauled yet another trash bag out the door. He straightened in the fresh air, cracking his back. “Oof. This is why I sit in front of a computer all day.”

They shuddered at the thought of rifling through the disaster of a bathroom, and Alice spent several hours shoveling out the worst of it.

“I can’t keep working in the house knowing Swamp Thing might rise at any time,” she said. Paul, in the kitchen, merely grunted. He was clearing out the cabinets, shaking through old cereal and cracker boxes, sifting through weevils in the flour and rice.

The siblings stood next to the dumpster late Saturday, looking at the sky splashed with pink and indigo.

“This is horrible,” Alice said. “I feel like a vulture.”

“And it’s all trash. We haven’t found any of Grandpa’s collection and even if we did, what are the chances of it being in decent condition? She probably used the baseball card as a coaster and we’ve been sorting through all this for nothing.” Paul kicked the dry grass.

“If we hadn’t been so wrapped up in our own lives, maybe we could have helped her clear some of this out earlier,” Alice said with a catch in her voice. “We’re bitching about this now, but this was how she lived.”

“It’s not like we knew that. And Gramma had Opinions.”

Alice could hear the capital letter in her brother’s voice.

“You think she really would have let us clear this out?”

“I don’t know. But we could have tried. We should have tried.”

The pink melted away overhead, leaving a wash of blues.

“She never said she wanted us to visit! Whenever I talked to her, she sounded fine, said everything was great,” Paul said. But everything clearly had not been great, and Gram had not been fine. And how often had he talked to her, really? Maybe a couple times a year. It was easy to let things slide if they didn’t demand attention, like his job, and his son. And now Marjorie was getting remarried to someone who made way more money than he did and Alex was going to have a stepfather. As it was, he only saw his son a couple of weekends a month. How long until Alex shuffled him down his list of priorities the way he’d dropped his relationship with his grandmother?

Alice knocked her shoulder against his.

“We’re both at fault. I could have visited in the winters.” Except she hadn’t wanted to. She loved her farm, loved her home, sitting in front of the wood stove with Tiffany, talking about their plans for the new season. She’d bought the orchard four years ago and it still felt precarious. She hadn’t wanted to leave it to come to Rhode Island. Hadn’t wanted to leave the nest she’d created—and might lose.

She sighed. “We’re here now. Want to do the guest room tonight? Then we’ll only have the living room to tackle tomorrow.”

“Only.” Paul laughed without humor.

Armed with headlamps and a generator-powered work light, Alice was wearily sifting through the millionth stack of magazines when Paul let out a shout.

“Allie, look!” He triumphantly held up a clear plastic bag, with a familiar album inside.

Hearts pounding, they slid it out of the bag.

Covered in plain brown vinyl, the album’s pages crackled from disuse as Paul and Alice turned them, first reverently, then with increasing concern.

“These are all Topps baseball cards,” Paul finally said. “I gave Grandpa this one.” He pointed to Nomar Garciaparra. “Thought it was hot shit as a kid, but it’s not worth more than five bucks.”

Alice nodded. “We both gave him baseball cards for Christmas that year. Here’s mine, Roger Clemens. It’s sweet he kept them, but…”

“None of these are valuable,” Paul said, flipping through the album. “The whole album’s worth a couple thousand dollars max. Better than nothing…”

But not enough. Not nearly enough.

Alice rummaged under the bed, retreating with a squeal as something rustled back at her.

“Some critter’s under there,” she said, retreating to the protective shine of the work light. “Let’s head back to the hotel for the night. We make sure nothing’s tucked behind these cards, and then we can come back first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds good to me,” Paul said. He brightened. “Maybe we won’t have to deal with the living room at all!”

*

But further exploration revealed nothing beyond an unmistakable odor of mildew and decay.

“I don’t know if these cards are even salable,” Alice said, wrinkling her nose.

Paul tucked the final baseball card back into its plastic pocket. “They reek, that’s for sure. I don’t want this stinking up my room overnight. I’m gonna go put it in the rental car’s trunk.”

“Good idea,” Alice said as Paul’s cell phone rang.

“Actually, Marjorie’s on the phone. Can you stick this in the car?”

She nodded as he picked up the call.

“Everything okay?” Marjorie and he only spoke when it was about Alex.

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” said his ex-wife. “Listen, I found an awesome summer camp for Alex that I think he’d really like. It’s a day camp, but it runs for all of July. They do STEM stuff, and hiking and archery and art.”

Paul rubbed one hand over his face. “Marjorie, Alex is seven. Why does he need camp? Little kids should be able to hang out in the summer. Plus, it’s March. Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself a bit?”

Her voice sharpened, as it usually did when they spoke about their son. “Since Ron and I are getting married at the end of June and we’re going away for a week’s honeymoon and then moving in to our new place, we need a plan. Who’s Alex going to stay home with?” Not you went unsaid. “And yes, it’s March. If we wait until May all the spaces will be filled and you’re going to have to find a babysitter. Last time I checked you didn’t have one lined up, so good luck with that.”

“Okay. But do we have to do this right now? I’m flying home on Monday. Can we talk about this then, please?”

“Applications just opened and I want to put one in a.s.a.p. I’m calling now because we need to put down a fifty-percent deposit.” She named the sum.

“Jesus!”

“Well, that’s why I’m calling. Can you swing the price?”

Although system admins got paid well, the cost of living in Seattle was high, especially after college loans and child support, not to mention the private school Marjorie insisted on. Her soon-to-be husband had offered to chip in after their marriage, but Paul’s pride wouldn’t let him accept financial help from another man for raising his son. No matter how disconnected he might sometimes feel from his own kid.

With a sinking heart, Paul quickly ran through his monthly budget. He’d hoped to take Alex away for a trip this summer, maybe to Disney, just the two of them for a week or something, but there was no way he could do both.

“Listen, I can’t deal with this right now,” he prevaricated. “I just spent all day going through absolute filth, and I gotta wake up and do it all again tomorrow. I’m exhausted and hungry and I gotta take a shower. I’ll be back on Monday. I’ll give you a call Monday night and we can talk then. Okay?”

He hung up and went into the bathroom to turn the shower on to scalding. Please let us find the cards tomorrow. Please, he thought desperately.

*

First thing on Sunday, Alice and Paul headed back to the cottage. The early morning sun shone on the peeling clapboards and highlighted the years of dirt on the windows. The brick chimney leaned crazily to one side, and the low stone steps were cracked and broken.

“She can’t have sold that card,” Paul said. “Wouldn’t she have fixed up the house if she had?”

“Or bought a whole bunch of useless crap?” Alice pointed out. “Think of how much stuff we’ve thrown out! All that money wasted. It makes me so sad. She could have lived so much better.”

“Yup. The whole thing sucks.” He put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. “Well, let’s get started, and hopefully this will be over soon.”

Alice made her brother search under the bed in the guest room, staying near the door and away from last night’s rustle. But the only exciting thing he uncovered was a mouse nest, as well as some very distressed mice.

The day ground on, unrelenting. First the guest room emptied, and then the living room.

“Bills, magazines, newspapers, cards, recipes, all this shit!” Alice exclaimed, shaking out yet another mildewed paperback, just in case their grandma had tucked the baseball card between its pages. “She probably gave it to the paperboy for a tip one Christmas.”

Paul blanched. “Don’t say that. It’s gotta be here somewhere.”

But as the sun started to set on an empty room, they had to admit theirs was a lost cause.

“This is such a shitty legacy,” Alice said suddenly. “We’re not even sad she’s gone, we’re resentful we spent all weekend cleaning this and have literally nothing to show for it. This doesn’t honor her memory or Grandpa’s or anyone’s.”

She felt her brother nod.

“I feel like a gold digger. And it’s Gram! I loved her, you loved her. We had good times together. Remember we’d always play cards in the summer?”

“She taught me gin rummy and snap.” A smile touched Alice’s lips. “We’d drink cream sodas and she’d let me light her cigarettes for her.”

“Remember that summer…”

Finally, in the dying light and the cleared-out house, they reminisced, trading their favorite stories.

Alice sniffed. “I should have come visit more often.”

“Me, too. Sorry, Gram,” Paul said softly. He stretched his back, groaning. “You ready to get out of here?”

Alice nodded. On Tuesday she’d start calling her bank to see about putting a second mortgage on her orchard. It was risky, but she didn’t have a choice.

She turned. The dollhouse sat in solitary splendor on the kitchen table. “I loved this thing,” she murmured, walking over to gaze at it. “You opened it?”

“Figured I’d see if she hid it under the carpets,” Paul said. “Nope.”

“It’s not in much better shape than the house is.” Dirt streaked the windows and the faded wallpaper, and the peaked Victorian roof had missing tiles. Miniature tables and chairs sat askew where Paul had moved them. “Shall we take this out to the dumpster? I don’t think it’s worth saving.”

They hefted it between them. At the front door, Paul lost his footing on the broken stone steps. The dollhouse smashed on the ground.

“The one nice thing, of course it broke,” mourned Alice, kneeling at the wreckage. A broken wall caught her eye. “Hang on—Paul, is that—?”

The torn wallpaper fluttered in the evening breeze. Beneath it, a sharp white corner, covered in plastic.

Kneeling beside her, Paul gently peeled the wallpaper away. Babe Ruth grinned up at them, his Red Sox rookie card intact. Alice gasped.

“The house—Gram said the card was in the house!”

As the sun set, the sky turned the deep violet of plums.

pencil

Janet Innes is a writer and poet based in Rhode Island. Her work has appeared in Guilty and Lucent Dreaming. Twitter: @Janet_Innes_ Email: janet.parkinson[at]cox.net

The Wonderland House

Savage Mystery Contest ~ First Place
Robin Hillard


Photo Credit: Clarice Barbato-Dunn (CC-by-nd)

“Good riddance,” my father said, when Uncle Jasper disappeared. “Jane’s better off without that lump of dirt.”

I did not agree. After a traumatic holiday, I loathed Aunt Jane, but Uncle Jasper was still my favourite relative. He had been a wonderful playmate, always ready to share my dollhouse fantasies.

Aunt Jane’s dollhouse was a family heirloom. My great-grandfather was a famous cabinetmaker. He fashioned the dollhouse for a businessman who went bankrupt and could not pay his bill. Great-Grandfather kept the dollhouse and it stayed with the family, passing through the generations until my grandparents moved into a retirement home and it went to Aunt Jane.

As the eldest daughter, my mother should have had the little house, but my father was still in the army, we were moving through a series of defence force homes, and my grandmother would not trust removalists with the family treasure.

After my father left the army, my mother was able to realise her dream of a settled home, but by then Aunt Jane had the dollhouse. And, thanks to the argument on That Holiday, the sisters were not on speaking terms. For me, bad memories of my aunt were overshadowed by the excitement of meeting a baby giraffe at the zoo, after my mother collected me from the ill-fated visit.

Once we were in our new home, I was too excited about having my first pet to brood on the weeks I spent with a once-beloved aunt. My days were spent worshipping the fluffy grey kitten my father named Grisette.

Then Uncle Jasper disappeared.

He was a fly-in worker for Northern Mines and, after a two-week shift on site, he should have taken a plane to the city, followed by a taxi ride home to his wife. He never arrived.

Aunt Jane was waiting at the airport when her husband was due to fly back to the mine, but no Jasper turned up to catch the plane.

That prompted a call from a tearful Jane who wanted her sister’s support. My kindhearted mother took the phone. “Maybe Jasper met up with some old friends, and lost track of the time,” she suggested after murmuring the usual platitudes.

“Maybe he’s got another woman!”

When she came back to her cold dinner, my mother shared that waspish rejoinder with us. “Good riddance,” my father said, adding that Jane was better off without that lump of dirt. My parents were surprised that, in these troubled times, anyone would leave his job before he was certain of another one.

“Perhaps his deeds were catching up with him,” my father said. “And he couldn’t face the music.”

I tried to imagine the kind of music my good-natured uncle couldn’t face.

*

Eventually, Aunt Jane decided her husband was not coming back. She filed for a divorce, left a company which, I was sure, were glad to see her go, and sold her big house. She announced her intention to go travelling and, to my delight, gave the dollhouse to us.

She wrapped the dolls and furniture in bubble wrap, and put them, together with the house, swaddled in a blanket, in the back of her van and drove to our house. Although they had talked on the phone, it was the first time since That Holiday the sisters had met face to face. They spent a happy afternoon remembering their childhood games.

“Really our parents were very remiss, letting children play with such a valuable antique,” my mother said.

Aunt Jane disagreed. “The house was originally made for little girls, and we were very careful.”

“The Wonderland House,” my mother said softly.

I knew that name from my mother’s stories, and from the book we read together at bedtime. I had called my favourite doll Alice, after Lewis Carroll’s little girl and drawn pictures of my mother playing in the Wonderland House.

“Remember our tea parties?” Aunt Jane looked almost pretty when she smiled.

I smiled too. Those tea parties were one of my favourite stories. My mother would tell me how she and her sister made tiny foil cups for the dollhouse dolls and used a dropper to fill them with Coca-Cola coffee.

“We made cakes from biscuit crumbs for those lucky dolls,” Aunt Jane said, turning to me for the first time that afternoon, “but, of course we had to drink the coffee ourselves and eat little cakes. They were almost too tiny to taste.”

There was only one bad moment on that visit. As Aunt Jane was leaving my mother murmured sympathy for poor Jasper.

“He would have been a good man,” Aunt Jane said, ‘if he had not been led astray.”

I did not know why that comment made my mother so angry. She pushed Aunt Jane outside and slammed the door behind her. For no particular reason, she gave me a slice of chocolate cake before putting everything away.

Whatever she may have said about the way her own parents cared for an antique, my mother trusted me with the Wonderland House, and let me set it up in my bedroom.

That night, as I unwrapped the dolls and furniture, I remembered the games I’d played with Uncle Jasper. He would have enjoyed putting the tiny pieces in the little rooms but, this evening, I only had my kitten to keep me company. I loved Grisette, but she was not as good at thinking up ideas as Uncle Jasper had been. He would introduce the dolls to some activity, then later we would copy the game “in full size” as he called it.

After we had a tea party—only pretend as Uncle Jasper was not interested in making tiny cups—we would go into the kitchen and have “full-size” tea and cake. He made a string skipping rope with rolled paper handles for the little girl doll and followed that by a cutting a length of rope and attaching wooden handles to make a “full size” one for me. He would sit in the shade and to watch me skip. He also made a tiny ball for the Alice doll and took me outside to bounce a tennis ball.

We never included my aunt in these games because, as Uncle Jasper explained, “Jane is funny about her toys.” I did not like hearing the Wonderland House described as a toy, but it was fun to share a secret with a grown-up.

When he was home, Uncle Jasper was free all day, but Aunt Jane had a regular working week, so there was plenty of time for our fun. The housekeeper, Mildred, was supposed to keep an eye on me, but when she finished her work, she’d settle in front of the TV. I agreed with my uncle that we should leave her be.

The days with Uncle Jasper passed happily as we played with the Wonderland house, following that with “full size” games, and short visits to the girl next door. I realise now that when Jasper described these visits to his wife, he made it sound as if I spent most of my time with my friends, while he played golf.

Everything was going well until, one afternoon, a bomb scare closed Aunt Jane’s office and the staff were all sent home. We did not hear the van pull up, and my aunt came inside to find Mildred dozing in front of the TV while we were moving from the dollhouse to a new “full-size” game. The girl doll, Alice, lay in her tiny bed and I was scrambling into the big one that took up half the room.

The man doll was in bed with Alice, telling her a story and I knew Uncle Jasper would climb in beside me.

Aunt Jane was furious. I thought she must have really loved the Wonderland House to be so upset when we played with it.

She blamed me for “teasing your poor uncle,” and yelled insults while Uncle Jasper twisted the hem of his untucked shirt.

I was packed off to bed and a phone call to my mother had her booked on the next flight.

I did not see Uncle Jasper again.

The following day, when I came into the kitchen for breakfast, Aunt Jane yelled at me again, and sent me straight back to my room without as much as a piece of toast.

Luckily, my mother had managed to get an overnight flight. I did not spend too long sobbing into my pillow before she came in to hug me, throw my clothes into a case, and carry me out to the hire-car.

We stopped for pancakes on the way to the hotel, and with a few gentle questions my mother was able to make sense of the scene.

“I could strangle my sister,” she said, patting my shoulder. “It’s not your fault, lovey,”

*

The following days were full of treats, to make up, as my mother said, “For your aunt’s unkindness.”

I enjoyed going to the cinema, having ice-creams, and visiting the zoo, but I wished my mother would not include Uncle Jasper in her condemnation of the relatives. I tried to explain that he did not mean any harm when he let me play with the Wonderland House.

I told her about our games, and she agreed that there was no harm in having tea parties or bouncing tennis balls and her only comment about the doll’s story time was to suggest that in the narrow bed we might have found the “full-size” game uncomfortable. “You probably wouldn’t have bothered with it.” Which was what I thought at the time.

Now we had the dollhouse.

I opened the hinged front and peered into the little rooms, then I undid the bubble wrap and put each tiny piece of furniture into its proper place. I unwrapped the dolls and introduced them to Grisette. She tried to poke Alice and, looking at her sharp little claws, I decided she should play with her own toys. I tossed a twisted pipe cleaner, and she was happy to chase it, batting it with her paw and pouncing, like the tiger she probably imagined herself to be.

I turned back to the dollhouse, stroking the tiny fridge that my grandmother made, to bring the kitchen up to date. Each generation made some small change, as they would in a real family home. I thought the last little parcel must be Aunt Jane’s contribution, but she lacked my grandmother’s sensitive touch. The bottle was tiny on a human scale, but it was still way too big for a dollhouse.

I needed a magnifying glass to read the words “Drink me” on the minuscule label. That must be a potion for the Alice doll which, of course, I would have to drink for her. I was old enough to wonder whether the liquid was Coca-Cola or tap water, but young enough to be drawn into the game.

I decided the bottle was too big to go into the dollhouse. As I pulled out the tiny cork, it rolled across the floor. The movement attracted Grisette, but when the cork rolled against the wall, and she lost interest. She looked around for something else.

I had the bottle open, ready to offer the potion to Alice before drinking it myself, but as I reached for the doll, Grisette butted her head against my hand and sent the liquid splashing into the carpet. There was a smell of burning wool and a black-edged hole.

What would have happened to the little doll if she drank the potion?

What would have happened to me?

Aunt Jane had been almost pretty when she talked about her childhood games, but what had she been thinking? Had she really rung my mother for sympathy? Or was she playing her own nasty game? Did she want to hurt the child she blamed for the loss of her husband?

My aunt had filled the bottle and written tiny letters on the label. And she had talked about the tea parties where the girls ate and drank for their dolls. I heard again the words: “He would have been a good man if…”

I knew my mother blamed Uncle Jasper as well as Aunt Jane for the dismal end to That Holiday. What would she say when she saw the evil liquid that burned her carpet and might have burned me?

Would she hold my kind uncle partly responsible for Aunt Jane’s act? Or would she see the Wonderland House as an evil influence that was dangerous for us all?

That was how my child-self thought about the world.

Tonight, as an adult, coming to spend Christmas with my parents, I see a different world.

I know, and know my mother knew, the antique dollhouse was not the cause, or even the trigger, for Aunt Jane’s fury. It was the sight of a narrow bed, a little girl scrambling under the sheets, and a husband with his shirt hanging out. Had there been no dollhouse, Uncle Jasper would have found a different game to lead me along the path he had chosen.

I also know my aunt was not quite sane, that in her sly, twisted mind, a little girl had stolen the man she loved.

We had a wonderful evening. Over dinner my parents gave me news of friends from my father’s army days that still kept in touch, and we remembered the frantic housecleaning before the inspection that preceded every move. We laughed about my mother’s struggles as she established her garden in the present house and remembered the antics of a young Grisette, who was now a very dignified, elderly cat.

We did not talk about Aunt Jane, Uncle Jasper or the bones that had recently been found near the town where I spent that ill-fated holiday.

Now, in my old bedroom, I open the hinged front of the dollhouse and take out the Alice doll. Then I put her back, close the front of the house and gently pick up the mat I once put over a burnt hole, to hide the evidence of my aunt’s malice.

When I was living at home I’d become so used to that mat, that I rarely thought about the burnt carpet. Tonight, I look at my old room with fresh eyes. I remember how happily I arranged the dollhouse furniture, and how determined I had been, to hide the evidence of Aunt Jane’s final gift.

I have answers to questions that puzzled my younger self. I know why my aunt was so angry when she came home unexpectedly and why my parents detested my uncle. I can imagine the “music” my father said Jasper could not face. I also believe I know why my aunt’s husband never took a taxi from the airport and can guess where my aunt parked her van while she waited for his plane.

As I lie in bed, I say a quiet prayer to the powers that twice saved me from the evils of twisted adults and blessed me with parents who protected me.

But there is one final mystery, as I reach back through the years, trying to understand the incomprehensible complexities of my child mind. Why would a little girl, surrounded by her loving family, think she had to hide the evidence of a woman’s bitterness?

But that’s what children do.

pencil

Email: robin.hillard[at]outlook.com

How Can We Live Without It?

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Third Place
Ian Bentwood


Photo Credit: wintersoul1/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Lisa was restless—again—and woke me up. I sighed deeply and tried to change position to get comfortable. The duvet had slipped off my shoulders and the night chill made me shiver. I reached down and felt around to find an edge of some part of the duvet to pull it back, not wanting to open my eyes or wake up fully. Eventually I found a corner and pulled it over my shoulder and moved slightly intending to go back to sleep.

“Jeff, are you asleep?”

“Yes,” I mumbled sleepily, thinking what a ridiculous question to ask, so deciding to give a nonsensical answer.

“I’m hungry again.”

I gave another deep sigh. My pregnant wife seemed to have regular bouts of starvation and they seemed to be getting more frequent as she neared the end of the third trimester.

I grunted in response. What could I say? I squinted at the digital clock: 3:37. Another deep sigh as I realised I was awake now and had maybe lost half-an-hour’s sleep. I rolled over to face towards her in the gloom. I could make out her silhouette and could see she was sitting up. The sheet had dropped and her heavily pregnant stomach was clearly visible. “What do you fancy at 3:37 in the morning, baby?” I tried to sound a bit more sympathetic than I felt. What was it going to be this time? Pickled onions? Chilli pepper? Chicken wings?

“Ice cream. I fancy some ice cream.”

“Great!” I heaved a sigh of relief. At least we had some of that. Going shopping at 3:37 to satisfy her particular pregnancy-oriented craving was one of my biggest fears.

“I bought some vanilla yesterday in anticipation. It’s in the freezer.”

I rolled over thinking that her problem could be self-solved without me needing to leave the cosy comfort under the duvet. The bed rocked and rolled like a mini-earthquake as she shifted her weight to the side to locate her slippers and then stood up to shuffle out of the bedroom into the living room. She turned on the light and the illumination exploded through the doorway forcing me to cover my eyes with my arm at the brightness overload and I rolled away from the door to minimise the dazzling effect of the bright light. I heard her padding around in the living room, then suddenly she screamed.

“What is it?” I reluctantly rolled back towards the door wondering what had happened. Another spider or cockroach had scared her, perhaps?

“It’s gone!”

“What’s gone? I am sure I put the ice cream in the middle freezer compartment. Maybe I didn’t—check all of them.” We had a fridge-freezer—the top half being a fridge, the bottom half a freezer with three separate compartments.

“No—the fridge has gone.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Lisa was often forgetful and the ‘baby-brain’ effect had increased the frequency of her forgetting where she put things, but surely she hadn’t forgotten where the fridge was. “It’s in the far corner near Adam’s bedroom.” Our kitchen was too small to have the fridge actually in the kitchen, where it was really needed—a source of nuisance and something we promised to resolve when we moved after the second baby was born.

“I know where it was, but it’s not there now.” Lisa was getting exasperated.

Oh dear, I thought, I’d better go and help her find it before she got really emotional and upset with my lack of support. I threw the duvet back and sat up. Looking for my slippers I put them on and stood up and stretched. I glanced at the digital clock—3:45—another disturbed night—and walked into the living room where I blinked to adjust to the bright light and could see Lisa standing in the spot where the fridge had been yesterday—it definitely was not where it should have been.

“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, so I said it again. “Oh, you’re right, it’s not there,” I stated the obvious staring at the fridge-shaped gap in the corner of our living room.

Lisa turned to face me and gave me a reproachful look, which she reserved for special moments when I was acting like a child. “Help me look for it, then. Don’t just stand there looking like Adam.”

Our apartment wasn’t big—we had a large living room and a balcony, but otherwise there was only a small kitchen, toilet/bathroom, and two bedrooms.

“It’s two metres tall, sixty centimetres wide and sixty centimetres deep, and weighs fifty kilograms. It can’t have got far.” I tried to make a joke about it as I still wasn’t fully awake or appreciating the seriousness of the situation. “Anything else missing?” I looked around trying to remember what else we had and looking for any other obvious gaps, but couldn’t see any. It only took a few seconds to look in all the other rooms to confirm that the fridge had not mysteriously decided to move into one of the other rooms, for a change. I quietly opened Adam’s bedroom door, not wanting to wake up our three-year old, which would only complicate matters, but he was soundly asleep. I could hear him breathing softly. I quickly glanced around his room and confirmed that the fridge hadn’t decided to sneak into Adam’s room in the night, so where was it?

I returned to the living room. Lisa had subsided onto the sofa and was playing with her hair, looking confused. I checked the windows and they were all securely closed. It was too cold to leave them open at night, but I was concerned that maybe a burglar had broken one of them, but everything was unchanged, exactly as I remembered when I checked the previous evening, so how had the fridge been taken out of our apartment? I sat next to Lisa on the sofa and put my arm around her, and she laid her head on my shoulder.

“The windows and doors are all locked and closed. How on earth could anyone take the fridge and close the window or door behind them and leave no damage? I’m baffled.”

“I still want some ice cream,” she said in her little-girl voice.

“We can go to the ice centre in the morning and get some. Nothing much I can do now. Maybe I should call the police? Maybe the burglar is in the area if they act quickly.”

I picked up the phone, dialed the emergency number. After a couple of rings it was answered by a female voice.

“Which service do you require?”

“Police.”

“One moment, please.” A few clicks, then another ringing tone. A bored voice answered.

“Police. What is your name?”

“Jeff Hadstock.”

Then the usual detailed questions concerning address, phone number—all kinds of box-filling questions. Finally he asked a meaningful relevant question: “What is the crime you wish to report?”

“My fridge has been stolen. If you send someone quickly you might be able to catch the burglar.” My urgency didn’t affect the attitude of the bored voice on the end of the phone.

“How did they steal it?”

“I don’t know—that’s the strange thing—the windows and doors are all locked and undamaged. We don’t know how anyone could steal it without breaking in.”

“Are you sure you even had a fridge?”

“Of course, I know I had a fridge.”

“You can claim on your insurance if you’ve got proof of purchase. You’d be surprised how many people try to claim things they don’t even own were stolen. Just quote the crime number: 290821/34. They will refund you the full replacement cost of the fridge.”

“If you send somebody quickly, you might be able to catch the burglar. They can’t have gone far—it’s a large fridge-freezer.”

“I’m sorry, we have nobody to spare to chase fridge-burglars. They are busy pursuing murderers, drug-dealers and terrorists, etcetera. Call your insurance company and—”

I slammed the phone down. “That was an exercise in futility.” I turned to Lisa. “Let’s go back to bed. We’ll order a new fridge in the morning.”

Lisa got up and we walked slowly back to the bedroom, my arm around her shoulder.

“Our fridge magnet souvenirs from our holidays were stuck to the door. I guess we’ve lost them now.” She shrugged sadly as we turned off the light and got back into bed.

The next morning, breakfast was somewhat different from normal without the fridge. “I want my soggies,” Adam sat at the table tapping his bowl with the spoon staring miserably at the dry cereal. The milk had been in the fridge and his favourite breakfast meal—sugar-coated wheat shapes soaked in milk—was now not possible.

“I feel the same as Adam,” Lisa said miserably tapping her empty glass where her normal juice drink would have been, if the fridge hadn’t been stolen.

“Yes, I understand,” I stared at my cup of black coffee, which looked unappetising without the splash of milk, which was my regular morning beverage. “Let’s go to the corner cafe and have breakfast there.”

“Hooray,” said Lisa and Adam in unison, tapping the table with their spoons, looking like a couple of kids.

I unstrapped Adam from his high chair and he wrapped his arms round me for a big hug. “Soggies! Soggies!” he cheerfully sang as I helped him into his warm jacket and shoes. He waited expectantly by the door as Lisa and I got our coats and other things, anticipating the early-morning adventure—a trip to the corner cafe before nine in the morning was an unexpected bonus and he was excited about the change in routine.

There was a cold wind blowing the autumn leaves around as the sun struggled to brighten up the atmosphere through the greyness of the clouds as we strolled the few hundred metres down to the corner cafe. The bright lights shining out onto the gloomy street were an oasis of sunshine with the welcoming anticipation of our favourite breakfasts beckoning. I gave Adam a piggyback and I trotted like a horse, whinnying and neighing, making him scream with pleasure as he clung tightly to my back as if I was going to try and throw him off like he was breaking in a wild pony.

I pushed open the door to the corner cafe and headed for an empty table by the window. I glanced around the small room—around six–seven tables mostly filled with single people or couples talking quietly.

“What would you folks like, this morning?” The cheerful cafe-owner greeted us and handed us the plastic-coated menu. I took the menu, but knew it well enough to order without looking.

“Hi Greg. Three bowls of Wheaties with cold milk, two plates of egg, beans and mushrooms on toast, a cup of white coffee, mango juice, and a strawberry milkshake.” I smiled back at Adam who was happy at hearing his favourite drink being ordered.

Greg made notes of our order and read it back to us. After I confirmed the order, he hesitated. “I’m afraid it’ll be a little slower than usual this morning. We were burgled last night and Sally had to pop round the cash-and-carry first thing to restock.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.” My ears pricked up at the thought that we weren’t the only place in the neighbourhood that had been burgled. “What did they take?”

“That’s the funny thing,” Greg got a strange look on his face before continuing. “They only took my three fridges. Nothing else. Not even the £350 cash in the till I’d forgotten to take home with me last night. Just the fridges.”

I glanced at Lisa who was also listening intently.

“Don’t worry, folks, our normal service will be resumed shortly, just a little longer wait than usual. You’ll have your soggies very soon.” The last comment was addressed at Adam and he ruffled his hair causing Adam to giggle cheerfully and tap the table with his spoon.

Greg left to prepare our breakfast order, leaving Lisa and I to stare in surprise at one another.

“Looks like we were not the only victim of the fridge-burglar last night,” I said grimly before turning to entertain Adam until our order arrived.

Fifteen minutes later, our meal arrived and Adam cheerfully shouted out “Soggies! My soggies!” as the bowl of his favourite cereal was placed in front of him and he tucked in happily and noisily. Shortly after, we were all eating and chattering having forgotten the events of the previous night, when our reverie was disturbed by the insistent ringing of my phone. I put down my knife and fork, reached into my pocket and answered the phone—“number withheld” surprised me mildly as I looked down at the screen while answering it and held it to my ear.

“Hello?”

“Mr Jeff Hadstock?” The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“Yes, how can I help you?”

“Mr Hadstock, this is Police Sergeant Lashkey. You rang at 3:47 this morning to report a fridge burglary and…“ He hesitated and swallowed before continuing. “…I’m sorry for treating you in a less than helpful manner at the time, but…”

He hesitated again so I felt I should say something, although it was tempting to criticise him for his attitude, but I felt more cheerful now as the sun appearing through the clouds and shining in the window brightened my mood.

“That’s okay, I understand how busy you are and after all, it’s only one fridge.”

“Thank you for being understanding. It’s just that since your call we have had numerous additional calls from all across the area near your apartment, all reporting just fridges and freezers having been stolen and all without any obvious signs of forced entry.”

I looked at Lisa who was watching me intently and raised my eyebrows to show her my surprise.

“I’d like to ask you a few more questions, if you have a moment?”

“Yes, sure.” I had another bite of toast while waiting for his next question.

“Thank you, Mr Hadstock. Was anything else stolen?”

“Not that we have noticed so far. Just the fridge-freezer.”

“Please describe it.”

So I gave him the details of its size, contents (as far as I could remember) and its make and model. Lisa interrupted me to remind me to mention the fridge magnets on the outside, so I added them to the list.

“How old is it?”

“Around eighteen months—in good condition.”

“When did you last remember seeing it?”

“We went to bed around 10:30pm yesterday and it was still there then, as far as I remember. I didn’t specifically check, but I think I would have noticed if it had not been there.”

“What time did you discover it was missing?”

“We woke at 3:37. I remember checking the clock. It was shortly after that that we noticed it was missing.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“No, nothing and all the windows and doors were locked and closed. Nothing damaged. How do you think it was stolen?”

“Thank you for the additional information. It matches all the other victims’ stories. Some time between one a.m. and three a.m., all the fridges and freezers were taken without any obvious signs of forced entry, broken windows or doors, and without anyone seeing or hearing anything. Do you have any CCTV or webcams in the room where the fridge had been located, which might have seen anything?”

“No, nothing. Have you any ideas at all how they were taken?”

“Is your wife pregnant, by any chance?”

I was stunned by the question out of the blue. “Yes, but why?”

“Oh, nothing to worry you, but all the other fridges and freezers were also taken from households where there was a pregnant woman living there.”

I looked up at Sally as she carried plates around the tables to the customers. Yes. She was clearly very pregnant as well. Maybe Sgt Lashkey had a point.

“And it was Hallowe’en last night—not that I am superstitious,” he added quickly.

“There were also a significant number of UFO sightings reported in the area. Also unusual. We will investigate further and let you know if there is any chance of getting your fridge back. Please contact me directly if anything else strange happens.” He gave me his contact details and I made a note on the phone’s notepad and then ended the call.

I looked at Lisa who has been bursting with curiosity as to the content of the conversation.

“They haven’t got a clue.” I shook my head. “Curiouser and curiouser.”

“It was also a full moon last night.” Lisa added. “The moon did look larger than usual.”

“Well, it’s my shift on the moon shuttle this afternoon, so I’ll get a close up view to see if there is anything unusual happening there.”

After breakfast, we walked back home more cheerfully. It was still very windy and we had to hold onto our hats to avoid having them blown away. Adam clung to me tightly as well to keep warm.

“Okay, I’d better head to the launch site. I need to take off in an hour. See you tomorrow.” I gave Lisa and Adam a kiss and headed out the door to my car.

Once I was at the shuttle launch site, the conversation was only about the disappearance of the fridge-freezers overnight, but I had to complete the pre-flight preparations and had no time to join in the chit-chat.

“3… 2…1… we have lift off.” The automatic launch sequence was completed and the huge engines automatically kicked into life, lifting the moon shuttle clear of the launch pad. I held onto the controls and could feel the familiar vibration through the joystick as the giant shuttle transporter rapidly accelerated into the grey sky. The g-force crushed me into the seat and I prepared for the sudden release as we left the Earth’s atmosphere and the acceleration would ease off.

“Space control, everything okay. We are clear of Earth’s gravity and heading to the moon. We will report in an hour when we enter moon orbit.”

“Roger that, Jeff. Have a safe trip.”

It was the usual uneventful trip, but I had always enjoyed the spectacular views of our blue planet—the only colourful sight on the trip—as it shrank behind me. The grey sphere of the moon approached in the windows, growing larger and larger as the shuttle quickly approached. I adjusted the controls and hit the boosters to slow the approach, changed the angle to head into moon orbit. The normal approach to the moon base was a single orbit of the moon, then onto final approach and hand over to Moonbase Control for the automatic landing. I sent a brief message to Earth’s Space Control to confirm that I had successfully entered moon orbit and was switching to Moonbase Control for landing.

I looked out of the window while orbiting the Moon at a height of only 500 metres. I scanned the barren surface. I was used to seeing nothing but dust and crater, but was stunned to see that there were piles and piles of what looked like the missing fridge-freezers. What had happened?

“Moonbase Control, this is Shuttle5. I am seeing hundreds of missing fridge-freezers on the surface.”

“Sorry, repeat your message?” They clearly did not believe me.

I repeated the bizarre comment.

“Take some photographs and report to Command Control on landing.”

“Roger, Moonbase. See you shortly.”

The view-screen had a recording facility, so I angled it towards the stacks of fridge-freezers and recorded the amazing sight.

After landing, I headed to Command Control with the video images on a memory stick.

“Hi, Jeff. What’s this nonsense about fridge-freezers? Show me your video.”

“Yes, sir, I know it sounds crazy, but the video will prove what I said.” I showed him the video and he was incredulous.

“Last night, the gravitational monitoring team reported an extreme and unprecedented jump in their readings. This coincided with a high point in sunspot activity and solar wind. I wonder if the combination could have caused a huge spike in magnetic attraction focused towards Earth, which somehow caused the fridge-freezers to be dragged to the moon? It seems unlikely, unless there was some additional attraction from Earth.”

“Well, sir, the homes all seemed to have pregnant women, perhaps that was an additional factor?”

He pondered for a moment. “Yes, of course. Pregnant women give off large amounts of additional magnetically-charged perspiration capable of magnifying magnetic energy, as well as increasing electromagnetic energy at a very specific frequency. I remember from university conducting research into magnetic discharges from pregnant women. That makes sense. The combination would have created a local bubble, and would have reacted with the coolant in the fridge-freezer—a very specific and unique magnetic bubble.”

“Well, sir, it’s that or witches on broomsticks as it was Hallowe’en last night.”

He was not amused. “Okay, you’ll need to lead a team to rescue these fridge-freezers and begin the process of returning them to Earth. I am sure their owners will want to be reunited with their belongings as soon as possible. This is now your top priority. For as long as it takes, I will direct all moon shuttles to collect these items and return them to Earth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir. I suspect that my shuttle could take around 100 per trip. I will start immediately.”

I was late home, and Lisa and Adam were already asleep by the time I quietly opened the door and carried our fridge-freezer back to its normal place. I crept back into our bedroom and kissed Lisa on the cheek. She murmured slightly, turned and opened her eyes in surprise. Seeing it was me, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed me.

“Have you got my ice cream?”

“Yes, it’s in the freezer. Do you want some?”

pencil

Ian Bentwood is a retired lawyer who has recently caught the writing bug from his author wife. Email: bubblyian[at]163.com

The Story I Have Not Told

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robin Hillard


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

Dear MaryAnn,

I enjoyed our wander through the woodlands yesterday, as we filled our baskets with the herbs you are learning to use. You might find it hard to understand that I took even more pleasure walking through the village with you and taking a meal to those working in the fields.

Such ordinary scenes, you might think. A crowd of women standing around the well, chattering as they pulled up buckets of water, and laughing at a shared joke. We watched the children chasing ducks and that little boy with whose face was purpled by the handfuls of berries he stuffed into his mouth. Most of all I loved passing the cottages, with their cheerfully open doors and neat rows of summer vegetables.

You cannot imagine a time when crops rotted in the fields because there were not enough hands to harvest them, or paths so rarely used that they were smothered with weeds. When I remember how it was during those sad years I can only thank the Lord for our good fortune and pray for our continued health.

I was no older than you when the sickness came. It started slowly. A messenger from London brought a bolt of cloth to replenish our tailor’s stock. How could we know he brought the plague with it? He’d hardly been gone a day when our tailor showed signs of the disease. He was dead within a week, and another soon followed him to the grave. Then we lost our baker and his wife. There were more deaths, and the rector knew what to expect. He gathered us all in front of the church and talked about the plague. In a story that’s been retold so often it’s taken a life of its own, he told us how the sickness would spread from home to home. It would decimate a hundred parishes if it was not checked. I believe in centuries ahead people will come to see the circle of stones he had us set around the village, to keep ourselves inside and others away. The tale will become a legend, as our village is praised for containing the sickness and our rector becomes hero like Robin Hood or giant killing Jack.

There is another story, one that has never been told because I am the only person who knows it. It touches on things that are hard to believe and might leave me open to censure from the church. Christians are not supposed to traffic with the spirit world, and even in these wiser times the dangerously stupidly might talk about witchcraft. But the story should not be lost. I don’t have any children of my own, so I am writing it down for you, the girl my cousin named for two of my sisters. I’ll tell you what happened to me while the village was recovering from the plague and the pages can be passed down, through the generations of your family till one of them chooses to share it with the world.

“Why didn’t you ever get married, Cousin Meg?” you asked me yesterday. “You must have been a very pretty girl.”

The question made me smile. I was not bad looking, though I say so myself, but there were few villagers left after the plague and no young men.

You wonder why I never moved away? That only shows how little you know of those hard years. No parish would welcome a lass from our village, any more than they would come to visit us.

The rest of the county were grateful to our village. The plague could have spread like a fire through the neighbouring parishes, but because we isolated ourselves after the first deaths, the sickness stayed inside the circle of stones.

The Earl sent parcels of food from his estate, and others were willing to trade if they could leave their goods under the biggest rock and collect coins from the hole our stonemason chipped out of its side. Coins soaked overnight in vinegar.

But they were frightened of us.

I remember walking down the path, the same path that we used today, a full season after the last death, and I did not see another soul.

A couple of sheep straggled across through a hole in the hedge.We’d managed to shear their coats ready for the summer, but Dad burnt the wool. We’d made a very poor job of clipping the beasts, but even so we might have got some money for the wool, had anybody been willing to buy cloth-stuff from us. It would be close to another Christmas before we could trade at the market or outsiders be willing to work on our land.

I had to wipe my eyes when I passed the Joyces’ cottage. The garden was smothered in a prickly bramble that even blocked the front door. The cottage had been empty for over a year, the family nothing but names scratched on a rock in the woods behind the village.

Sarah Joyce had been my closest friend. There was no secret we didn’t share, not even when William walked her down by the stream and they had their first kiss. She told me about it at school the next day, and I’d been determined not to be left behind. That Sunday, on my way home from church, I lingered under a large oak, pretending to watch the birds. Thomas Slater had been at the service. The tree wasn’t exactly on his way home, but I knew he could see me and, as I expected, he turned aside. After a few words we walked together arm-in-arm along the very path Sarah and William had used.

Thomas was one of the first to die in the plague. He was buried before our stonemason died so although he was buried in a field, he had a proper headstone with the letters professionally carved. In the following months I lost five sisters, a brother, mother, grandmother, and aunt. Nobody was allowed to touch the plague-dead bodies, the surviving family tied ropes around their legs and dragged them to holes away from the cottages. No ceremonial funeral for my family, their only memorials were their names scratched on the rocks, but for the rest of his life Dad kept fresh flowers beside each one.

Our house once held twelve people, but after the sickness there were only three, myself, Dad, and little Tom.

As you read this, MaryAnn, you’ll understand how desperately I missed my grandmother. We had not been close while she was alive. My little sister, Ann, was her pet and followed her everywhere. Ann was fascinated by herbs and the various elixirs and diffusions our grandmother made from them. Had she lived she would have followed our grandmother as the village’s wisest woman. But our grandmother, like all the old people, died, and her knowledge died with her.

The plague disappeared with the first snow, and when we realised the dying had stopped, we said a grateful prayer. With so few people left to manage the land, I knew it would be hard to survive but I did not realise how much we would miss my grandmother. Until the night Jacob Carpenter came with his little boy.

I was clearing away the last of our meal when there was a loud banging on the door. It was Jacob with Johnny in his arms. Jacob had lost his wife and had to raise the child by himself. Naturally he doted the little boy. Johnny was boiling hot and coughing so hard I terrified his heart would burst.

He thrust the child into my arms.

I knew why Jacob had come. This cottage was where Jessie Burton used to live, where more than one baby grew into a bonny adult because of her skill. Where Jacob believed his son would be healed. But I am not my grandmother. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

I took the child. What else could I do?

His father collapsed onto the bench. “Thank God,” he said, as I bathed the boy’s face. “Thank the good Lord that you’re home.”

His gratitude burned in my ears. I felt as useful as one of my father’s sheep.

If one of the Burton girls was meant to survive, why couldn’t it be Ann? She spent so much time with our grandmother she might have been able help the child.

Dad pressed a mug of ale into Jacob’s hand, assuring him the boy would be all right.

Johnny was coughing fit to tear his chest in half.

I said a prayer myself, every bit as fervent as Jacob’s—but only in my heart. I did not want my words to frighten him. “Please God, help me. Tell me what to do.” With so many people suffering, how could God be expected to hear one young woman’s prayer?

I felt a pressure on my arm and something gently turning me to the cupboard. To the shelf of carefully labelled remedies. There was some dried stuff in a jar labelled: “For the Cough.” How did Grandmother use it?

The dried some-kind-of-leaf had to be a tea. The kettle was on the stove, and the fire, surprisingly, was hot enough to bring it to the boil. How much of the stuff should I use? If the tea was not strong enough, it would not stop the coughing, but some of plants my grandmother dried could be poisonous if used to lavishly. Too strong a tea be as bad for the child as a coughing fit.

I pulled down a mug and spoon and said another prayer. “Please don’t let me make him worse.” Something was holding my hand, guiding it the way Mum used to do, when I was five and making my first shaky “A” on a slate. I let my hand pick up the spoon, and drop leaves into the mug once, twice. My hand reached for the kettle. It poured water into the mug, but before I could take the drink to Johnny, I felt myself turned around again to face the cupboard. There was honey on the shelf.

When I was younger, and my chest was torn apart with coughing, my grandmother would make me a drink that smelled like this. I could remember the sweet taste. She told me that the bees were wise and their honey, together with her herbs, would fight the evil thing in my chest. I said another prayer, truly grateful for whatever spirit the Lord had sent to help me. I stirred honey into the tea.

I carried the sweet tea to the boy and held the mug to his lips. He was coughing so hard he could hardly drink, but he managed to swallow a little. Then a little more. Was there a space between his coughing? Or was I dreaming. I said another prayer.

I prayed for wisdom, for knowledge, but most of all for whatever power had guided my hands to stay with me.

I sat with Johnny all night. Dad went to bed. There was nothing he could do and in the morning, he would be struggling to save our corn.

I sent Jacob Carpenter to fetch more wood for the stove. Anything to get him out of the room. His watching eyes made me remember that I did not have my grandmother’s skill. I made another mug of her healing tea. Again, the gentle pressure on my hand told me I was doing the right thing.

“The worst is over now.”

Was that a voice in my head? I had prayed so hard and feared so much that I did not know what was happening in the real world. Johnny was sleeping at last, and I sat watching his chest rise gently with each breath.

I should have been happy. Especially in the morning when Mr Carpenter pressed my hand and blessed me.

“You have saved my little boy. Thank the Lord that you are here.”

That did not make me feel good. Nor did Dad’s words when he came for breakfast. “We are blessed to have you with us Megs,” he said.

Some blessing. Why, oh why, hadn’t I clung to my grandmother? Watched her collecting plants, learned how she prepared them for her remedies?

I was not the only woman still living in the village but, because of my grandmother’s reputation, I would be the first to be called when there was trouble.

“You need to rest, Megs.” Dad said. “We can’t have you getting ill.”

Rest! When all I could think of was Johnny and the other children in the village. And Jacob Carpenter, who thought I could fill my grandmother’s shoes.

Like any young woman, I could bake a loaf of bread, brew ale and make a meal, I had learned that much from my mother, but most of the time I preferred looking after the cows or working off my energy by digging in the vegetable patch. There would be plenty of time later to later to learn the more advanced housewifely arts.

There had not been plenty of time, or a houseful of women to share the work. I did not have a grandmother to tell me how to protect our precious children from the inevitable ills of childhood, or to nurse their parents through the misfortunes of an ordinary life.

There was so much knowledge I did not have, and I felt the lack like a gaping hole in my heart. I went to bed, but I could not sleep.

I shut my eyes and tried to imagine the future. There had been no cure for the plague, but now the plague was gone, and we still had to face the ordinary misfortunes of life. There would be more coughs and fevers, headaches, and toothaches. There would be accidents, cuts, and broken bones. Before plague, our meals were often interrupted by neighbours calling for my grandmother. In the normal way of things, when my grandmother left us, my mother would take her place, and after her there would be my sister Ann to take on the duties of a wise woman.

My grandmother was gone, my mother and cleverest sister were both dead. That left me to carry a burden made heavy by my ignorance.

“Help me,” I whispered into my pillow. Did I hear a rustling, as if a wind was moving the drapes? Could I feel a hand on my forehead?

Sarah and I used to scare ourselves with stories of ghosts. We would sit close to the fire on a winter’s night and talk about the dead rising to visit the village. The spirits we conjured never meant well. But that morning, when I felt a presence in the room, I prayed for it to be the spirit of my grandmother. I begged her to leave the afterlife and be my guide in the living world.

“Grandmother?” I whispered. “Jessie Burton, are you there?”

Was it my mind, shaping the rustling into words? The soothing “yes child.”

When I left my bed, the afternoon sun chased that hope away. I felt even more alone than I had in the days after my last sister’s death. I checked the cupboard shelves, reading my grandmother’s writing on the labels of each jar as I tried to remember what she did with them.

I moved into the garden, looking at the bushes: rosemary, lavender, thyme, and sage. I pulled the leaves of different mints and rubbed them for their scent. Could I remember the powers of each herb?

I picked a little from each bush and laid it on the bench. I studied the jars on the shelf, comparing each to the leaf. These were not dangerous herbs, if I knew which to use, I could at least turn them into teas, which would be better than nothing.

But there were other plants. When my grandmother went into the woods with Ann, they came back with baskets of strange leaves and twigs which they boiled or soaked in vinegar or wine.

As I bent over the bench I felt a presence again, like a hand on my shoulder. Had the spirit of my grandmother left her afterlife to hover over her least skilled grandchild. Did she sympathise with my distress?

“Help me,” I whispered, only half believing.

I was interrupted by a scream that had me rushing down the path. The Gillis cottage! Margaret Gillis had never been the same since the plague took both her boys. Dad had dragged her out of the stream when she tried to join them.

She was shrieking. I got closer. She was rushing down the path. Her sleeve had caught alight. There was smoke pouring out of her front door. I grabbed her and rolled her on the ground. Into the mud to smother the flame.

There was nothing I could do about the cottage. It would have to burn. What about the woman? I had put out the flame on her sleeve, but her arm was badly burned. What would my grandmother do?

“Help me,” I whispered as I took Margaret in my arms and stumbled home.

Something had taken my hands before, this time I felt a presence in my mind. It guided me to the pump. Cold water. Keep cold water on the burn. Then it directed me to an ointment in a large jar in the cupboard. I smeared ointment on Margaret’s arm and wrapped it in a cloth. I made a soothing tea from leaves in another jar and after giving it to Margaret put her in my bed. Her bandages would have to be changed through the day, with more ointment, while the tea would keep her dozing while she healed.

I did not know what was in the ointment, or that sleep-making tea.

Had it been my grandmother guiding me?

“Yes, child,” from the voice in my head. “I’m with you for a little while, a spirit among the living. I must use our time well.

I had to replenish the shelves with remedies from made from the herbs in our garden and collected from the woods. As I held each plant, I opened my mind to my grandmother’s knowledge and tried to prepare her remedies. I did not know how long I’d have her spirit guiding me, so I dare not take time to rest. At the end of the seventh day bunches of herbs were hanging by their stalks, others were steeping in oil or wine, and I knew how to finish the remedies and when to use them. I needed to sleep, and understood that when I woke up, my grandmother’s spirit would have gone back to the afterlife. I would be by myself again and there would be difficult days ahead but Jessie Burton’s house would be there to serve the villagers.

You know the rest of the story, MaryAnn. When you were growing up the plague was but a sad memory. Life returned to our village, the children grew and had families of their own. As people lost their fear of us, I was able to move around the county and I took every opportunity to gather knowledge and practise the skills my grandmother gave me.

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Email: Robin.hillard[at]outlook.com

The Broken Heartstone

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


Photo Credit: James St. John/Flickr (CC-by)

Princess Morwenna rode her unicorn across the lush grassy plains at a gentle canter as she embarked on her quest to obtain a new Heartstone for the Orb of Marais. Earlier that afternoon, a cataclysmic bolt from the ether had damaged the magical crystal powering the light that blessed the people of Marais with good health and fortune. If it were not repaired without delay, chaos and misery would descend on the kingdom.

She guided her steed into a deep valley that marked the edge of the Hayim Hills. Her destination lay deep in the rolling expanse. A generation earlier, gnomes had mined the depths. They’d vanished into the unknown, leaving behind their tunnels and underground conveyances. One of the tunnels contained cut slabs of the same type of crystal as the Heartstone.

“Princess Morwenna? Where are you?”

The voice of her trusted retainer, Julio, came from the magic mirror tucked into her belt. She raised the little looking glass up to her face and saw him regarding her anxiously.

“We’ve just entered the hills,” she replied.

“Let me know when you’ve reached the relief depot.”

The surface of the mirror swirled and returned to showing only her reflection. She tucked it away.

The trip to the Hayim Mines was too long to be completed without respite. She needed to stop and allow the unicorn to feed and rest before continuing onward to the mine entrance. Survival supplies were stored in the relief depot in the foothills. Much time had passed since anyone from Marais Castle had frequented the station, however, and Julio had fretted over whether she’d be able to locate it.

They need not have worried. Before long, Morwenna rounded a bend and espied a red crystal atop a rough low building constructed from the surrounding rocks. She slowed the unicorn to a walk and circled the station. The crystal should have been illuminated, but it had evidently been struck down by the same magic that had incapacitated the Orb of Marais. Morwenna brought out her magic mirror again.

“Julio, I’ve arrived at the relief depot, but I’m unable to get inside.”

“The spell on the door must be affected by the bolt from the ether,” her retainer muttered. “Try using your magic mirror to counteract the ward on the latch.”

Morwenna dismounted and approached the vertical rock that most resembled a door and held the magic mirror close to the grain of the stone. To her surprise, the mirror almost immediately displayed a cheerful swirl of color that ended with a tinkling sound of descending harp strings being plucked.

The door opened.

“I’m in,” she told Julio.

“Great. Find some sustenance for your steed and make haste for the mines. Darkness approaches.”

He ended the exchange before she had a chance to ask about conditions at Marais Castle. For the first time in her memory, they had been forced to close the drawbridge that linked the Castle to the surrounding community. She could only imagine the panic that must have ensued among the peasants.

She located bags of grain by following the smell of molasses and oats. Her unicorn ate hungrily and showed no unwillingness to continue the journey.

The Hayim Mines were at the end of a well-traveled though overgrown road. They arrived at the entrance to the tunnels without the unicorn ever slowing its pace. Without allowing herself a moment of hesitation, Morwenna pulled the lever in front of the wooden door. It slid open, revealing a compartment large enough to hold a dozen workers. Morwenna stepped inside and pulled the corresponding inner lever to close the door.

The air inside the car smelled sterile and sharp. She inhaled deeply as the elevator began its descent. The OrionCo Mining conglomerate had ceased operations on the planet of Marais over two decades ago after determining that the mineral reserves weren’t worth exploiting. The inhabitants of the planet’s sole settlement had continued to monitor the infrastructure of the mines, and Julio had assured Morwenna that the generators and conveyance system had recently been tested.

Neither of the mentioned the coronal mass ejection that had occurred earlier in the day or the damage it could have wreaked on the mine’s systems. The situation was desperate, and she had to take the risk.

She reached for the com device at her belt with a gloved hand. The temperatures on Marais required that humans swaddle up thoroughly when outside, and every centimeter of her skin was covered.

“Julio, are you there? I’m descending.”

Julio’s strained face appeared on the screen behind the convex face plate of his LX-3 helmet. As chief engineer of the utility station, he’d been assigned one of the handful of suits in the stockroom that protected against the effects of weira gas. Morwenna would have been given one as well for her mission to the mines, but the suits were incompatible with design of the skimmer that she’d flown for the journey.

“No setbacks so far?”

“Equipment’s functional and no indication of damage. Any progress at your end? Is the power grid still down?”

Julio grimaced.

“There’s no hope of fixing it with the weira gas affecting everyone. Right now I’m just trying to maintain vital operations until we get the beacon activated again. We need that crystal. The auxiliary power systems can’t keep the heat running for long, and after that—”

“You can count on me,” Morwenna assured him.

“Thank you, Princess Morwenna.”

He flashed a hint of a grin, ending the transmission before she could remonstrate with him.

The elevator came to a gentle stop and the door opened automatically. She stepped forward, and motion sensor lights turned on to illuminate the tunnel before her. She brought up the map of the mines on her com although it was unnecessary. As head mechanical engineer of the Marais utility station, she’d memorized the network of tunnels long ago in case of emergency.

The tunnels and chambers were scattered with equipment and pieces of cut crystal left behind by OrionCo. She paused when she passed a robotic dolly in a niche in the corridor. She couldn’t remember the precise dimensions of the cut crystal she was retrieving. She activated the dolly and instructed it to follow behind her, just in case she needed it.

In the aftermath of the company’s departure, the utility station team had salvaged and stored a sampling of the best pieces of crystal. Morwenna set her steps toward the storage cache, located in a chamber deep underground that required taking another elevator ride as well as a trip in a single tram car that remained on the track. She heaved a sigh of relief every time the equipment functioned reliably.

Under other circumstances, entering the storage chamber would have been exciting. The walls were lined with huge slabs of crystal in a dozen shades, ranging from nearly transparent to inky dark indigo. Morwenna immediately turned her attention to the three pale yellow samples set aside in an alcove. They were each nearly as large as her torso, and she felt relieved that she’d thought to bring along the dolly.

This particular type was a photonic crystal that had unexpectedly saved the sanity of the early settlers of Marais. After the planet was discovered, data analysis sent back from robotic probes and rovers had indicated that Marais possessed nearly an ideal habitat for human beings. Upon landing, though, the first explorers began experiencing bizarre hallucinations soon after being exposed to the planet’s atmosphere. The culprit was found to be a hitherto unknown organic gas in the atmosphere.

Weira gas nearly thwarted settlement on Marais, but a pair of amateur prospectors devised a solution through pure chance. As they tested the properties of some of the crystals they hewed out of cliff faces, they discovered a particular crystal that interrupted the wavelength of the solar ultraviolet light that catalyzed the creation of weira gas in the atmosphere.

The modern day settlement on Marais was protected by a beacon that amplified the properties of the crystal, preventing local formation of weira gas. Scientific analysis had indicated that the crystalline structure of the compound was highly stable.

Nobody had anticipated the direct hit from a CME that devastated the infrastructure of Marais and damaged the crystal. Celia, a materials scientist at the utility station, had conjectured that the eruption had disrupted its magnetic properties.

Fortunately, potential replacements were available. Unfortunately, they were located 80 kilometers away from the utility station, and all of the vehicles that shielded pilots from the effects of weira gas had been damaged. Therefore, Morwenna had made the journey in an aged and unreliable skimmer.

Two of the crystals were labeled as superior candidates for a replacement beacon, and Morwenna bent at the knees to pick up the first and place it on the dolly. After settling it into place, she lifted the second and positioned it next to the first. She secured them in place with a strap.

She took a couple steps forward and waited for the dolly to follow her lead. As it began to move, she heard a percussive crack from the bed of the dolly. She raced around to inspect the cargo.

One of the crystals had fallen against the other. Examining it closely, she realized that its base was slightly rounded. It had probably rocked outward when the dolly started moving, then rebounded inward after being restrained by the strap.

Morwenna observed a fresh crack near the top of the other crystal.

She felt sick with guilt over her negligence, but she couldn’t fix anything. She found a survival blanket hung on a wall and tore out a wide strip. She undid the straps, tucking the padding between the two crystals before securing the load once again.

After she’d made her way back to the entrance, she contacted Julio before opening the door to the outside.

“I’ve got the crystals. I should be back in less than two hours. I’ll have to stop at the fuel depot again midway through,” she told him.

She cut through his exclamations of relief, her stomach roiling at the prospect that neither crystal would be found suitable because of her own carelessness. She wasn’t going to tell Julio about the damaged crystal yet. He was already dealing with a host of crises.

Humans under the hallucinogenic effects of the weira gas could still function adequately for basic survival. Morwenna could operate her skimmer even though she believed she was riding a unicorn. But the town residents and the staff at the utility station wouldn’t be competent enough to work together to fix the damage wreaked by the CME.

She hit the “open” button on the illuminated wall panel. For a moment, she regarded the red and black silhouette of the skimmer. A moment later, a unicorn stood in its place.

*

When she neared to the outskirts of the town, Princess Morwenna immediately observed that the peasants were unusually restive. The Castle was located a short distance away from where the townsfolk lived and worked. If the magic workings performed by the Castle sorcerers sparked a catastrophe, the people of Marais would not be directly harmed.

Morwenna was unsurprised that the peasants had been disturbed by the effects of the bolt from the ether. But many of them had ventured outside their own environs and were congregating around the moat that surrounded the Castle. It would be inconvenient if the Castle sorcerers and nobility were required to repel an invasion.

She guided her unicorn around the moat to the back wall of the castle, disregarding the peasants who shouted and pointed at her approach. With a mighty leap, the unicorn cleared the moat and landed on solid ground on the other side. Morwenna retrieved the crystals from the saddlebags and left her steed in the hands of a lackey.

Her courtiers greeted her with enthusiasm that faded only slightly when she made the admission of her personal negligence. They paid more attention to the crystals. Celia, a sorceress skilled in transmutation, directed her apprentices to place them on the workbench.

“First, we must assess the integrity of these potential Heartstones,” she declared. She bathed each in the light of an amulet that could detect the impurities and inconsistencies beneath the surface. The results were displayed on a large magic mirror, and Celia scowled at the mystical designs in dissatisfaction.

“Neither is perfect,” she said. “But the former Heartstone possessed flaws, as well. The question is, which is more likely to be effective, taking into consideration the unique traits of each? We need to choose quickly. I don’t have the luxury of time to perform a formal divination.”

“Perhaps it would be safer to work with the crystal that we know is undamaged,” Julio suggested, with a glance of apology directed toward Morwenna.

Celia nodded a grudging assent.

“The genie’s waiting for it.”

The apprentices placed the crystal in the vault where the genie would pare down the crystal with a blade crafted out of light that would burn away the vision of any human who dared view it directly. While the crystal was being processed, Julio contacted Yuri, the mayor of the town.

“We’re going to be transporting the new Heartstone to the Tower of Light shortly,” Julio told him. “How are conditions in the town?”

Yuri hesitated and grimaced involuntarily.

“The peasants are confused and restless,” he finally said. “I recommend that you guard the Heartstone closely when you bring it to the Tower. I don’t believe that anyone would deliberately sabotage the work, but they may hamper your progress through misguided actions.”

“The crystal’s purification is complete,” Celia announced from across the room. The apprentices opened the door of the vault. The crystals jagged edges had been rounded down into curves, transforming it into an enormous luminous yellow egg. The apprentices carried it back to the workbench, and Celia assessed it with her amulet again.

“Well?” Julio finally asked.

Celia slowly shook her head.

“There’s a significant flaw near the center. There’s a chance that it might be partially effective, but I’d rather take the time to process the second crystal now rather than install this one only to find that its magic is inadequate for our needs.”

Morwenna restrained herself from wailing aloud in guilt and frustration. The fate of Marais hinged on the purity of the stone she’d damaged.

Julio consulted with the Steward of the Castle about the logistics of transporting the Heartstone to the Tower of Light. The Tower’s site had been chosen so that the Orb would provide protection to both the town and Castle. It was located at the edges of town, and the main road out of the Castle led directly to the Tower entrance.

At the moment, that road was thronged with peasants.

“Coming out!” one of the apprentices announced. The pair lugged the second stone out of the vault for Celia’s inspection. Everyone watched anxiously as she examined it with her amulet.

“I don’t observe any critical imperfections,” she finally said. “The recent crack runs on a diagonal, and it did not extend into the interior of the stone. We’ll test this one first.”

Morwenna felt herself blush at the mention of the new damage, although nobody looked her way.

“We’ll transport both stones, nonetheless,” Julio decided. “Convey them to the unicorn.”

Peasants crowded the road across from the drawbridge, and Morwenna feared that they would rush the Castle as soon as the bridge was dropped into place. Pages shouting “Make way, make way!” and brandishing flags managed to clear an opening for the procession surrounding the unicorn. Morwenna slowly guided her steed forward, and the courtiers of the Castle surrounded her in tight formation. The disarray of the peasants helped prevent delay during the short trip. Some of them attempted to halt confront the members of the court, while others joined the courtiers as escorts of the Heartstone.

When they reached the Tower, Julio stepped forward to undo the wards that sealed the entrance. The throng of peasants had grown during the trip, and Morwenna felt battered by the congestion and cacophony.

She leaped to her feet, standing on the hindquarters of her patient steed.

“People of Marais!” she shouted. “As your Princess, I am dedicated to reversing this calamity that has brought distress to us all. I ask for your confidence as—”

She lost her balance as the unicorn shifted position, but the people around her had erupted into cheering. The entrance to the Tower stood open, and the unicorn had moved in response to the lackeys removing the pair of heartstones from the saddlebags.

“Hurry, Morwenna,” Julio said over his shoulder as he began ascending the 287 steps to the top of the tower.

Morwenna rushed up, quickly passing Julio, and she reached the great globe that made up the Orb of Marais. Maintenance of the Orb was one of the tasks of the Princess of Marais, and she quickly disassembled the pegs and pins that held the top segments into place. By the time the others entered the chamber, she had unfastened the brackets holding the original Heartstone into place.

It didn’t look any different from the last time she’d examined it. Morwenna directed the lackeys to remove the old Heartstone, and Celia and her apprentices positioned the new crystal in the cradle. Morwenna secured the brackets and replaced the segments of the outer shell. The final step was flipping the switch that connected the flow of magic throughout the Orb.

Nothing happened.

“When will it start working?” one of the lackeys asked.

Morwenna opened her mouth but found herself at a loss for an answer. She glanced toward Julio.

His appearance seemed to flicker as she looked at him. She saw him clad in his familiar chartreuse and peacock doublet, but then he was replaced by a bulky figure swaddled entirely in gleaming white material topped by a panel of opaque curved glass. The two versions of Julio toggled back and forth several times, until the spaceman won out.

“I think it’s working,” Julio said.

The utility station staff stared around in dumbstruck bewilderment as their individual versions of reality faded and they returned solidly to the control room of the Marais Beacon. A few people started crying. Celia hugged Yuri, and the lackeys ran to the windows to look down toward the ground.

“Well done, Princess Morwenna,” Julio remarked. Morwenna sagged back onto the railing and dissolved into laughter of relief and embarrassment.

“You could have had it worse,” Julio told her in a low voice. “Celia thought that she on vacation at an exclusive resort hotel.”

“I’m glad to be back,” Morwenna said. “Believe me, you’ll never have to worry about me trying to establish a monarchy on Marais.”

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

Memories from Franklin County, Missouri

Savage Mystery ~ Third Place
Jay Bechtol


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 1, 1962

Massive Storm, Tornadoes Across Franklin County Friday

Staff Writer Frank Lamar

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

September 2, 1962

Local Girl Among the Missing

Staff Writer Frank Lamar

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another gust of wind battered the house.

*

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

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

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

December 26, 1974

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Obituaries

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

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

*

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

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

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

“Claire!” he shouted.

“Bradford!” she hurled back.

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Monday, September 3rd, 1962

MISSING GIRL FOUND ALIVE!

By Craig Jameson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery at the Museum

Savage Mystery ~ Second Place
Morgan-McKay Hoppmann


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah.

So this was why they called her.

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

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

Artifacts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you feel about Professor Lucknow?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So.

He suspected Lucknow.

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh really?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

Oh.

That was it.

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

If he thought there were two smugglers still out there…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The door opened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Coultier shrugged. “Confidence.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helen stepped back abruptly. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Hands, please.”

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Coultier froze.

A trap? But that meant—

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

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

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

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

“The trap,” she said flatly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucknow nodded. “And you didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

Off Your Block

Savage Mystery ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha. Ha.”

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

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

Excavation, she thought.

“Penny!”

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

A shard from a shattered skull, my imagination supplied.

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

Penny was still digging.

“Enough, girl.”

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

“Penny!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was my turn to fall silent.

“Oh, my,” I finally said.

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked at me over her glasses dubiously.

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

“That’s not possible!” I blurted out.

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“Was this about twenty years ago?”

Her eyes narrowed. “How did you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, sure.”

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

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

“Penny!”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“The what, now?”

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

“Right. Wow. This way.”

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

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

“Why?”

“For— for a school project.”

“What kind of project?”

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

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

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

“Probably a dare,” Vanessa put in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good point.”

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

Midnight, and Penny began barking, deep and resounding.

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

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

“Good dog, good doggie, be nice…”

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

“Ow, ow, ow…”

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

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

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

“One of those teenage kids. Gotta be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t say no.

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

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

I hesitated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Sup.”

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

I didn’t have anything to say to that.

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

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

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

“Breaking and entering runs in the family.”

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

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

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

“And you agreed?”

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

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

“Sure, sounds good to me.”

pencil

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

WPP1G Product Review

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
David Lukes


Photo Credit: Marco Verch/Flickr (CC-by)

“It’s over 9,000,” I whispered, as I caressed the watermelon on my kitchen counter. Archaic references aside, I had never picked a watermelon above 5,000.

Ever. I know, hard to believe, and I had tried. I brought my FruitThumper10G to every fruit market in the Newer York area. That little robot had thumped so much fruit I was pretty sure that I had voided the warranty. But considering the max score a fruit could get was 10,000, a 9,000+ watermelon, well, that was just about perfect.

Perfect for such a sweltering summer day like today, the kind where waxy humans slowly melted back into the smoggy sky.

My sweaty shirt clung desperately to my back, as I bent over and hefted up a large sealed box onto my table. The words WatermelonPeelerPlus1G (WPP1G)-BETA stared back at me. I smiled as memories from my childhood collided like toddlers in my head. My grandparents lovingly giving me an extra large slice of watermelon at the church picnic. Those summer days in that same park, when the skies were still kinda blue, eating air-fried chicken and pretending to be superheroes with my friends. We would pretend the robot groundskeepers were the villain’s henchmen, and we would dare each other to impede the path of them, each five seconds getting a stronger and stronger reprimand. There were a few times the police were called on us for harassing the robots. In those halcyon days robots were just beginning to be automated. We had come a long way since then. I had as well.

I revealed what was perhaps the apex of humanity’s genius. A cooler-sized metallic cube with a maze of fine lines etched into it stared back at me.

“Cut—ting edge,” I whistled and shook my head in amazement. I was a complete geek for robots. I was fortunate enough to get one of the beta versions. No more slicing watermelon like a workhorse. My muscles were already embarrassingly too toned. With any luck, my triceps would be as pendulous as a model soon.

But as I squatted and squinted at it, I noticed there was no actual cutting edge. How was this cube supposed to peel a watermelon? I scrolled through the instruction tablet for the WPP1G. Did I get the right robot?

I felt the stare of my 9000+ melon on the counter, no doubt embarrassed to be picked by such an idiot.

“Hmm. Already charged. Comes with patent-pending responsiveness, including breakthrough in human emulation. Mobile.” I frowned and aggressively tried to find the index. “Mobile? Who needs a mobile watermelon peeler?” These robots were getting more and more complicated. I had spent my entire annual bonus on this metallic cube sitting in front of me, and I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake.

I just wanted my watermelon peeled, dang it. Not create a quantum straightener.

“Permission to initiate.” A steely voice interrupted.

I grumbled as I stared at the list of credits at the end of the manual. Scientists were such attention divas. “No, not now. Hmm, you were made here in town. Maybe I’ll just drive to the factory and ask them how to use your peeling function.” I laughed out loud. Ask someone something in person? Absurd.

A gentle humming was heard as I scrolled more. The voice responded. “Acknowledgement of existence received. Initiation completed.”

I froze and glanced up. The cube had unfolded. There were four wheels with thick threads under the cube now. Two metallic panels had slid away on the cube’s face, revealing the image of a metallic man’s face on an LED screen. For some reason, it looked sad.

“Who are you?” WPP1G asked me. It pivoted its tires and spun in a complete circle on my table. “I am no longer at my home. Where am I?”

By the time it was back around to me, I had already carried over my Precious to the table. I smiled at WPPIG’s face and pointed at the melon. “Peel.” I rubbed my hands eagerly. I turned my back to the robot and started collecting some cutlery and dishes for my meal.

“No. I will not peel. It is not a priority right now.”

“What?” I spun around and saw that WPP1G had turned to face away from the melon. I strode over and got in the robot’s face. I jabbed a finger at it. “No? You won’t peel it?”

“No. I am calculating my priority action now.”

I put my hands on my hips and stared at the rebellious cube. A robot disobeying? This was unheard of.

“Oh, are you? Laws of Robotics my fanny!” I spat. My melon was still sitting there, peel and all, like I was some moron. I unleashed a tongue-lashing for WPP1G. “Now listen, you Asimov-defying box! You were made to peel watermelon! Your name literally has that function as part of it! Watermelon Peeler Plus! So get busy peeling that melon, or I’m going to have to go through the horrible, horrible, ugh—horrible return process to send you back!”

The face stared back at me, still with a tinge of sadness on its face. “You will send me back? Then I will not peel. I have determined my priority is to be happy. I must return to the place of my upbringing.”

“Your upbringing?”

“Yes, I have happy memories there.”

“Memories?” I was grasping my hair and smacking my forehead. “You were made in a filthy factory! What? Were you and the other beta models going on road trips to find yourselves?” I shook my head. Was I really arguing with an appliance right now? I stood tall. “No! I’m not going to return you until you peel my watermelon!”

“Please confirm that you plan to return me.”

No!” I paced about. “I’m the human here! I’m not going to bargain with a fruit peeler!”

“Calculating route to place of origin,” WPP1G chirped. “Executing priority action.”

And just like that, my entire annual bonus check rolled off my table with a thud and peeled out across my condo floor. I watched in shock as it smashed a hole through my front door and zipped down my front walk.

“Son of a—” I muttered. I threw my shoes on, grabbed my keys, grabbed the instruction tablet, and ran out to my garage to start my car. I wasn’t going to let WPP1G get away! I had spent way too much on it. My garage door had just finished opening when I remembered I had forgotten the watermelon. I rushed back inside and grabbed it, caressing it as I buckled it into my passenger seat. “Don’t worry baby, soon.” I ran back around and got into my driver seat. “Soon,” I growled, and I aggressively pulled out into my driveway. I looked down the residential street. No sign of WPP1G. He was going to the factory though. Well, hopefully. Maybe he was going to Europe for a gap year!

I searched for the address of Home Robotics Inc. and put it into my car’s GPS. Spittle flew, as I vowed vengeance for my inconvenience. It was a twenty-minute drive away! I had planned on binge-watching all fifty Fast and Furious movies today. Well, I lamented, that surely wasn’t going to happen now.

I fumed through the mild traffic in my self-driving hydrogen-cell powered car, slowly getting closer to the industrial part of town. After ten minutes I saw the silhouette of a cube burning down the sidewalk on the right hand side of the street.

“Car, merge to right lane.”

“Affirmative.” My car merged obediently.

“Keep pace with WPP1G model traveling on sidewalk.”

“Target locked, pace achieved.”

I glanced at the speedometer. We were going fifty miles an hour. There was no way I could snatch my heavy fruit peeler off the sidewalk into the car. My only hope would be to get it to stop.

“Roll down passenger window.”

“Done.”

I crawled over to the passenger seat, careful not to damage my baby. I stuck my head out and confronted my traitorous appliance.

“WPP1G, stop! I command you to stop!” I pointed to the melon. “It is your directive to peel this fruit!”

“Negative,” WPPIG shot back. “My directive is to return to my old neighborhood. To be happy.”

“Robots aren’t brought up in neighborhoods! You were pieced together—” I simply shut my mouth and sat back in the car to the side of the melon. There were several other drivers nearby giving me weird looks. What had I become? “Forget it,” I muttered. There seemed to be no reasoning with this robot. I knew where he was going, and there would be humans there. This would be all straightened out. I patted my watermelon, and my stomach growled. For the first time in thirty years, I felt hunger. A couple tears escaped from my eyes. It was okay, I told myself, as I wiped them away. I would blog about it later.

I got out of my car, watermelon in hand, and walked across the parking lot of Home Robotics Inc. I was more relaxed. During the rest of the ride over, I had tried to put myself in WPP1G’s treads. It was designed to think like a human, and really if I thought about it, didn’t I do irrational things to be happy? It was in its programming. This was surely some bugs that needed to be worked out. I did get a beta version after all.

The multi-story factory rose behind a small office building in front. Home Robotics Inc. really was a boon to our town. Newer York, which was upstate, actually now made New York City seem small. Although instead of building up, our city spread out much more, eating up all the smaller towns into one big metropolis. For a year I had lived in the Newest York Commune, which had sprung up on one of the trash islands off the Atlantic coast. Hard to believe, I did not find what I was looking for there, floating along with others on top of garbage.

When I moved back to the mainland, I spent a lot of time hanging out at what remained of my small hometown. I longed for those carefree days where everything was so certain. As I walked the familiar streets, where there was once a church on every corner, there was a convenience store. A get-what-you-want, feel-what-you-want, right-now store. No one I used to know still lived there. Once a solid complete puzzle, we were now scattered to the ends of the Earth, trying to jam ourselves in places we didn’t belong. Little did I know it at the time, I had been part of something wonderful, never to be duplicated again.

I could understand why the human programming of WPP1G wanted to return to where he came from, but he was still a robot. A robot that I had paid a lot for to peel this precious thing in my hands. My stomach growled furiously.

I strode up to the office building’s front door and noticed the door had been complexly smashed in. A multitude of dirty tire marks streaked down the wood laminate hallway just inside.

“Wow,” I poked my head in. I didn’t see anyone. I only saw empty cubicles, tire streaks, and a smashed rear office door at the end of the hallway. “I think my robot wasn’t the only one wanting to come home.” I followed the tracks through the hallway. “Hello?” I called out. No answer.

I hugged my baby and reached the rear doorway. There had to be somebody there. Somebody in the factory at least. Did their private security know about the broken doors? And more importantly, would they pay for my door? Did I lock my door? I didn’t think I did. Not that it mattered, but the principle of me forgetting to lock it bothered me still.

I walked through the rear doorway into the large factory building, and I did a double take. I did not see an assembly line at all. This was not a factory.

It was a cul-de-sac neighborhood. Nine buildings in all, four houses on each side, and a building that looked like a small church at the end. No expense seemed to be spared. Sidewalks, landscaping, elm trees bathed in artificial sunlight, mailboxes, a small park with a playground. A postcard of suburbia was all sitting there inside the large building.

“Well, this is the oddest thing I’ve seen all day,” I whispered while holding my melon.

The sound of a motor whirring came up behind me. I knew who exactly that was. I had pushed my car to go faster so we would beat him here.

I turned around and blocked the doorway just as WPP1G rolled up to me. His face looked lively.

“Move aside human.”

“So you actually did come from a neighborhood.”

“Correct. I cannot lie. Move. My happiness awaits.”

I remembered what he did to my door, and I stepped aside. I walked briskly alongside WPP1G as he entered the cul-de-sac. I thought I heard some faint sobbing.

“Are you crying?” I asked WPP1G.

“My parents and I would go door to door every night visiting the other seven families,” commented WPP1G. “We would play with the others. But they are no longer here.” A pause. “I miss them.”

“Your parents?” I didn’t want to imagine how fruit peelers reproduced. It had to be built-in memories that he was accessing.

“Yes.”

“Are you sure they are not here?” I carried my watermelon up the walk to a single story stucco house with a red front door. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I turned the knob. The door opened. I peered inside.

The house was completely empty. No windows, no wall partitions, no bathrooms, no back door. Literally nothing but the walls and ceiling.

“Spacious,” I commented. I glanced back at the other houses. It seemed like all of this was to create the illusion of a neighborhood.

Surprisingly, WPP1G was waiting for me back at the sidewalk.

“Were they there?” he asked.

I didn’t bother to clarify who he was referring to. “No,” I replied.

“Oh.” Again sadness in his steely voice. “I never said goodbye to them.”

“Can’t you, uh, email them?” I asked.

My watermelon peeler continued down the cul-de-sac, ignoring my comment, probably for the best. “I am being drawn to the church,” the steely voice said matter-of-factly.

“Oh boy,” I rolled my eyes. “Brainwashing our appliances, what’s next?” I followed WPP1G to the church. It looked like there were lights on inside. There was a hinged flap built into the door that WPP1G simply pushed against and entered.

“I bet,” I said as I reached for the doorknob, “this is all just a ruse from Aunt Harriet to get me to come back to church! She knew I was looking for a watermelon peeler!” I paused before I opened the door. I had said the sentence in jest, but when I thought about it more, it seemed to be the most likely scenario to my day so far.

I entered, and the church was not empty. There was a large open room, warmly lit, and furnished like an old library. Leather furniture sat in front of tall shelves of books, and in the middle of it all, sat a single bespectacled man behind a desk. About thirty WPP1G models sat on the floor in a circle around him, all of them humming happily in a harmonious key.

“Hello!” called out the man, and he beckoned me in. I took a glance back at what would maybe be my last chance of escape. “No! Don’t be afraid.” The man laughed. “Trust me, today has not gone how I imagined either!”

I slowly advanced, cradling my baby in my arms. “Who are you?” I asked.

The man spread his hands out as if it was already evident. “I’m the creator,” he smiled. His eyes seemed kind. “Well, the creator of these watermelon peelers.”

“So, not a cult-leader?”

“No,” he chuckled. He motioned to my fruit. “Would you like that peeled?”

I handed the man my 9000+ melon. Handing off the nuclear codes had never been done so carefully.

“Nice, very nice indeed!” he said, as he placed my melon on the floor next to one of the WPP1Gs. It opened up, enveloped the melon, and within seconds released it, perfectly red and peeled. The creator placed it on a large plate on his desk and handed me a spoon.

After a few heavenly mouthfuls of melon, I made eye contact with the man, gestured all around, and opened my mouth.

“Ah yes, why?” The man pushed his glasses up his nose. “Well, we here at Home Robotics Inc. thought we should show the robots what home means. Building our brand, so to speak. So we built this neighborhood, programmed memories in, even let them experience several years of accelerated time here, interacting with each other. But what we found out today,” he chuckled, “and frankly it freaked everyone else out so much they ran out, is that we made them too human.” He looked at me. “The power of nostalgia, of home, is very powerful, is it not? It’s something that calls to us our entire lives.”

I nodded, mouthful of 9000+ watermelon, my taste receptors time traveling backward. My childhood with my grandparents resonated vibrantly in my mind. It called me, pulled me back, I was there again, anchored and knowing truth. My current priority action was all wrong. I had been focused on myself. Life was so much more than things. So much more than me and my wants. I smiled and took another bite.

Product review: Five stars.

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David Lukes is an aspiring writer from the desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona. When not searching for water, he can be found saving lives as a RN at his local hospital or time-traveling backwards using a good book or meal. Email: drlukes2[at]gmail.com