Case of the Mysterious Cigarette Butts by Courtney Mroch

Courtney Mroch

“I don’t know how they keep getting there,” Pamela Butcher, the person in charge of exhibits, said. “All I know is it started happening a month ago and has slowly gotten worse.”


“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I asked.


Pamela shrugged. “I didn’t think anything of it really. Until now.”


I knelt down and scanned the floor around the logging machine display, which was littered with cigarette butts. Some had lipstick stains on them, some didn’t. And the lipstick was various shades, the butts themselves various brands.


“Maybe it’s the ghost,” Sue Ellen Reed, my secretary, offered.


Pamela shot her a scathing look, which affected Sue Ellen as much as water bothers a duck. She shrugged and waddled back to her office.


“They weren’t there when I left last night,” Pamela said when Sue Ellen was gone.


“Hmmm…” I said, standing. I scanned the other exhibits. Across the aisle, by the lumber wagon, I found several more.


“I hadn’t even noticed those,” she said, looking dismayed. A woman in her forties, Pamela prided herself on her innovative and informational displays. Working with a tight budget, she stretched every penny, creating what amounted to works of art. I figured she probably hadn’t told me because on any other day this really wouldn’t matter. She would clean it up and that would be that. But today wasn’t any ordinary day. With the new exhibit opening in a couple of weeks, the board members had wanted to come in for a sneak preview. And this was the day.


It wasn’t a huge mess to clean up, and we’d easily be able to do it before the board members arrived, but it was troubling nonetheless. Especially since this area was temporarily closed to the public.


“Maybe it was one of the contractors?” I suggested. It was a more realistic possibility than the one Sue Ellen had posed. We’d had numerous contractors in recently to do various projects with not only the upcoming exhibit but with the museum in general. Pamela discounted this theory too.


“No,” she said, shaking her head. “The painters were the last contractors in here, and that was three days ago. Besides, none of them were women, and I think I would have noticed this mess before now. This had to have happened between the time I left last night and when I came in this morning.”


“Who on staff smokes?” I asked. The museum wasn’t all that big. Anyone from the public would have been spotted coming in here. If it wasn’t the contractors, it had to be someone on staff, someone who had access to the place when others –including other staff members—weren’t around.


“Rebecca used to, but she quit last year. Kay and Sue Ellen don’t, and I don’t think Melanie does either. Besides, she left before me last night and won’t be in today. And I can’t imagine Tyrone doing something like this.”


“Me either,” I said.


Tyrone was the museum’s night security guard. If we couldn’t trust him, who could we trust? If we only had proper safety and surveillance equipment in place. Ah, but there I went again with my wishful thinking. The board, seeing that Tyrone did a good job, weighed his annual salary against the expense of cameras and alarms. The annual salary was less, and in the board’s eyes that meant more cost-effective. In my eyes it was a great big liability and an insurance claim nightmare just waiting to happen.


“We’ll figure this out, Pamela,” I reassured her. She made a face that indicated she doubted it and turned to clean up the mess. I left her to it while I went to look up Tyrone’s home phone number.




“Hello?” a woman answered.


“Yes, ma’am, this is James Hayden, the director at Herlong History Museum? I was wondering if Tyrone was available.”


“Tyrone?” she asked, her voice filled with suspicion.


I thought it was strange she should sound so wary, but I shrugged it off, thinking she might not know exactly who I was.


“Yes, I need to discuss a museum matter with him.”


There was a pause, then she said, “Tyrone don’t live here no more.”


With that, there was a click and the line went dead.


I checked the number I dialed and dialed it once more. When the same woman answered, I asked if I had the right number.


“You have the right number, mister. Tyrone just don’t live here no more.” And then she hung up on me again.


Frustrated, but not deterred, I scribbled a quick note to Tyrone, left it on his desk, and was on my way back to check Pamela’s progress when I saw Rebecca coming out of the employee lounge.


“Rebecca, could I speak with you a moment?”


She swiveled around when she heard her name. I thought I saw her eyes flash with panic when she spotted me. But it was quickly replaced with the cool bitchiness I’d come to know as her trademark demeanor.


“Can you please make it quick, Mr. Hayden. I know the board members are coming to see Pam’s exhibit today, but I have a new proposal I’d like to present to them and I want to put the finishing touches on it.”


“This won’t take but a second, Rebecca. I wondered if you smoke?”


“No,” she said curtly.


“But you used to?”


“Yes. Why?” She wasn’t even trying to be nice. I might have taken it personally, but Missy Jamison, the head of the board of directors, had warned me that certain employees were quite faithful to the previous director and would be hard-pressed to transfer their loyalties to the new guy. Rebecca was one of the loyalists.


“We found some cigarette butts in Pamela’s display. I’m trying to find out where they might have come from.”


“Maybe it was Jesse.”


Jesse was the name they’d given to the ghost. I was beginning to think they’d made up the story of the ghost in order to have a scapegoat for anything that went wrong.


“Doubtful,” I said coldly.


“Well then I can’t help you. Is that all?”


I nodded and watched her sashay away. She was Pamela’s assistant and had been for the last two years. She’d only taken the job thinking she’d quickly prove herself and be promoted, as she possessed almost the same credentials as Pamela. Which she did. Almost. She was a good worker, but she lacked the experience and finesse Pamela had acquired over her years. Due to budget constraints, it was also difficult to foresee a time when there’d be enough money to support two full-time exhibit positions. Rebecca resented this, and she reminded everyone of it every chance she got. Why she just didn’t look for another job was beyond me.


Glancing at my watch again, and with my own ducks to get in a row before the board members arrived, I let the case of the cigarette butts sit for the time being.




The board member’s visit went well. They’d been pleased with Pamela’s exhibit and had been spared any knowledge of the cigarette mess. I took Sunday off, completely forgetting the incident until Monday morning, when Pamela stormed into my office first thing.


“It happened again,” she said, her face red.


“What?” I asked, putting down my coffee and waving her to a seat.


She shook her head, declining, and said, “The cigarette butts. But this time there were more of them and they were in more areas. And I also found beer bottles.”


“What?” I stood and followed her into the gallery.


Sure enough, there were cigarette butts and beer bottles strewn through various displays of the museum.


“Good morning, Mr. Hayden,” a woman said from behind me.


I spun around and to my horror saw Missy Jamison smiling at me. My heart fell to my stomach. What was she doing here? And right now? Trying not to panic, I knew what I had to do: get her out of there pronto.


“Well, Missy, isn’t this a fine surprise?” I said, hoping my voice didn’t sound as phony as I thought it did. “To what do we owe this great honor?”


She cocked her head to one side and said, “Didn’t Pamela tell you I was coming in this morning?”


Trying to control the darts wanting to shoot from my eyes, I looked at Pamela. “As a matter of fact, she didn’t.”


“I’m sorry, James. I totally forgot. Missy left while you were talking to Mr. Pigeon on Saturday. I was supposed to tell you she’d be back today.”


Taking a deep breath, I faced Missy again. Her eyes roamed past me and to the floor. Her pleasant expression turned to one of curiosity, and she stepped forward and peered down at the mound of butts and bottles.


“Oh my word!” she exclaimed. “Is that what I think it is, Mr. Hayden?”




“It’s something I was experimenting with, Missy,” Pamela stepped in. “You know, kind of a slice of life type of thing. A vignette of what it might have looked like around a real logging camp.”


I held my breath to see what Missy would make of Pamela’s lie.


She stared at the floor for a second more, then she looked up at us with a disapproving sneer.


“I can see a few cigarette butts perhaps, but not so many. And beer bottles? For one thing, those are new bottles, Pamela. I’m sure Light beer wasn’t even invented at the end of the nineteenth century. For another, I’m sure those men didn’t drink on the job. You shouldn’t have put the bottles by the machine. Maybe by their tents, but even that’s tacky at best.”


“Yes, ma’am. James was just humoring my experiment.”


Missy now turned her full displeasure on me.


“I’m surprised at you, James. I thought we agreed on Saturday that the exhibit was just fine the way it was?”


I felt the heat rushing to my face and knew I had to change the subject fast before I lost my temper and all composure.


“We’ll see to it that it’s cleaned up, Missy. Won’t we, Pamela?”


Unable to meet my seething gaze, she bowed her head, nodded and set about cleaning up.


“Now, Missy, let’s discuss whatever it was you wanted to talk to me about.” I steered her away from the exhibit and back to my office.




Missy hadn’t wanted to do anything more than gossip. She found it charming that I was a gay man. She felt I made the perfect confidante for her wagging tongue. Of course I did. Not many people in the small north Florida town knew my sexual orientation. The other stodgy board members would never have approved my position if they had.


Missy, however, did. After confronting me directly, I’d admitted it. I would have done that with anyone though –even any one of the stodgy board members. I wasn’t one to lie about it, but neither was I one to flaunt it. After all, heterosexuals didn’t have parades so why should I? I was who I was and that was that. But Missy mistook my lack of pomp for shame and held it over me. Such is the way of small people.


When she finally left I was free to once again ponder the mysterious cigarette butts. Remembering the message I left for Tyrone on Saturday, I looked on my desk for a reply. There wasn’t one.


Somehow those butts were getting there, but who was doing it? Sue Ellen? I doubted that. Rebecca? Would she stoop to such a trick to annoy Pamela? Or maybe she wanted to make her look bad? Possible.


Or was it Pamela herself? Maybe she was trying to make me look bad. After all, it was funny she’d been finding those cigarette butts for the last month, but had only brought it to my attention two days ago –on the same day as the board member’s visit. And to have conveniently forgotten to tell me about Missy’s return visit?


Rebecca had been loyal to the previous director, and Pamela might have been sad to see him go, but she’d always made me feel welcome since I’d come on staff. I found it hard to believe she had it in for me.


Maybe it really was Jesse.


Oh the joys of office politics –and buck passing.


The ringing phone snapped me back to reality, and then interrupted my investigation of the cigarettes altogether. Other fires were in need of tending.




At lunch most of the employees ate in the lounge. There weren’t many staffers. Only Rebecca, Sue Ellen, Pamela, Kay, and Melanie. As much as I knew they’d resent it, I felt it better to catch everyone all together, even if it meant disrupting their lunch.


“I hate to trouble you all right now, but there is a problem that’s a bit disconcerting to me and I need some help figuring it out. As Pamela may or may not have filled you in, we’ve had a problem with cigarette butts –and now beer bottles—being left around the exhibits.”


“I didn’t know we were allowed to smoke and drink in the building,” Kay said. A heavyset lady who made up the entire accounting department, she tended to take things too literally.


“No, Kay, we’re not,” Rebecca said, not kindly. “That’s why it’s a problem.”


“I’ll say,” Pamela chimed in.


“So who do you think’s doing it?” Melanie, the museum’s cashier, asked.


“That’s what I’d like to know. The public isn’t allowed in that area, and we would have noticed if any were, so it’s got to be one of us,” I said, looking at them all, hoping that maybe one of them would confess. I was rewarded with silent mouths and blank stares.


“Don’t look at me,” Rebecca said. “I swore I’d never touch another cancer stick and I mean to stick to my word.”


“I smoke on occasion,” Melanie confessed and then added, “But only in social situations.” She bowed her head guiltily.


“My weakness is chocolate, not nicotine,” Kay said. “If you find Hershey’s wrappers laying around, I’ll be the first to fess up.”


I sighed and left them to their lunches.




Because I had a lot of paperwork to catch up on, I decided to work late that night. It was also an excuse to try and catch Tyrone when he came on duty. I knew once he reported to work, he’d come by on his rounds. I’d work until then.


Around seven o’clock the lights in the hall went out.


“It’s okay, Tyrone. You can leave them on. I’m still here,” I called out.


The lights didn’t go back on, and there was no answer.




When there still was no answer, I got up and poked my head out the door.


The hall was empty and dark.


Then the lights flicked back on…and my heart flicked into overdrive. I’d been staring right at the switch for the hall lights. No one was there. It hadn’t moved up or down, and there was no other place they were controlled from.


Shivering, not from the air conditioning but from the creeps, I backed into my office and quickly gathered my things. Everyone had their Jesse stories, and now it looked like I had one too.


A minute later, as I was hustling down the hall, I jumped again when Tyrone rounded the corner and we nearly collided.


“Well, hello, Mr. Hayden. Is everything all right tonight?” he asked, concerned.


He must have noticed my eyes, which I was sure were as round as dinner plates.


“For the most part, Tyrone. Hey, while I have you here, did you get the note I left you on Saturday?”


“Oh, as a matter of fact I did, sir. Didn’t you get my answer?”


“No. Where’d you leave it?”


“On your phone. I figured it was easier to leave a voice mail.”


“No, there were no messages on my machine this morning.”


Tyrone frowned, then shrugged and said, “Well, I remember what I told you at any rate. Maybe it was Jesse, though I never knew her to smoke before.”


I was about to say that wasn’t funny when he added, “Seriously, Mr. Hayden. I don’t smoke. My momma taught me to say no when I was a kid and I have ever since.”


“Thanks, Tyrone. If you do happen to find out anything, let me know.”


“Of course, boss, of course.”


I hustled past him and I don’t think I took a breath until I was safely locked in my car. As I drove home I thought again about the cigarette situation. They weren’t just coming out of thin air. Someone, and I was convinced it had to be someone within the museum, was leaving them behind. But who?


Rebecca could’ve been doing it to spite Pamela; Sue Ellen really had no reason to do such a thing; Kay, a kindhearted grandmotherly type who truly did have an unnatural affinity for chocolate, also seemed unlikely; young and ditzy Melanie made no sense either; and Pamela? I just couldn’t wrap my mind around her sabotaging her own exhibit. She took too much pride in them.


That left Tyrone and myself. I knew it wasn’t me, and Tyrone? It might get lonely and tedious at the museum during the night, but to smoke so many cigarettes? He’d have a nicotine overload. And there was still the matter of some of them having lipstick stains…


Did Jesse wear lipstick?


Oh brother! It hadn’t taken me long to jump on the passing of the ghost buck bandwagon, had it?




The rest of the week passed uneventfully. Work as usual, hectic and harried, but no more cigarette butts. Maybe just the fact that I was asking around had been deterrent enough for whomever to stop.


I was especially looking forward to the weekend. No reason to work it this time. And when Friday came, I left all work worries behind. I had plans to rent a movie, make myself a nice dinner at home, and in general unwind.


On Saturday I spent time running errands and catching up on all the housework I’d put off during the week. I tired myself out and was fast asleep before eleven that night. Three hours later the phone woke me up.


“Hello?” I asked groggily.


“Is this Mr. James Hayden?”




“You’re the emergency contact for the Herlong History Museum?”


At the mention of “emergency contact” my eyes flew open and all sleepiness evaporated.


“What’s happened?”


“There’s been a fire.”


My heart sunk.


“How bad’s the damage?” I asked, fearing the answer.


“Pretty extensive. It’s just lucky no one was hurt.”


“So the security guard made it out okay?”


“And all the other people who were in the building.”


“Other people?” I asked, confused. “There shouldn’t have been anyone else in the museum.”


“So you didn’t authorize the after hours event?”


“What after hours event?” I was beyond exasperated at this point. “There was nothing scheduled at the museum tonight.”


“Maybe you’d better get down here.”


I was dressed and on my way in five minutes.




When I arrived, it was even worse than I feared.


Not including the fire department personnel, there was about 30 other people, most of them in their late teens or early twenties, mulling around in front of the building. I spotted Melanie as I was pulling up.


“Melanie?” I asked. Smudges of soot marred her nose and cheeks and her hair was disheveled and wet.


Guilt flooded her face and she dropped her gaze.


“What happened?”


But she was spared from answering when a policeman approached me.


“Are you James Hayden?”




“Come with me please, sir.”


I followed him to the fire marshal. He asked me to give him a moment while he talked with another man, so I took the opportunity to survey the scene. The museum was in bad shape. It might be able to be rebuilt, but not in time for the new exhibit’s gala opening in a week. Speaking of, the section of the museum where that was set up was the one most badly damaged.


“Mr. Hayden, thanks for coming so fast,” the fire marshal said, finally free to speak to me.


“What happened?” I asked.


“It seems one of your employees, a Mr. Tyrone Barker, was using the museum as a dance club.”


“What? Our security guard?”


The fire marshal nodded.


“He confessed to the whole thing. Guess he’s going through a bad divorce, custody battle, facing stiff child support payments. Said he and a friend concocted the scheme as a way to earn some extra cash. They charged a five-dollar admission and provided the music and drinks.”


I closed my eyes while I let the information sink in.


“Do you want to press charges?” he asked.


“I’ll have to discuss it with the board members.”


“I understand. The police will be taking him in anyway for serving to minors and operating without a permit. Just give them a call when you decide what to do.”


He turned to walk away, but I had one more question.


“Do you know how the blaze was started?”


“Maybe all the cigarettes on the floor, maybe faulty wiring. We won’t know for sure until we conduct a thorough investigation.”




Being a young person in a small town with limited things to do after sunset, Melanie didn’t really see the harm in attending Tyrone’s parties. They’d started out small, but as is so often the case with such things –especially fun things—the parties grew in popularity until they were “the” weekend event.


Needless to say, Melanie was promptly let go from the museum’s staff.


The board decided it was in their best legal interest to press charges against Tyrone in case any of the “club” goers decided to sue the museum for the fire debacle.


The museum is undergoing what we like to call “renovations.”


The fire department still doesn’t have an exact answer as to what caused the fire. They’re leaning towards a combination of faulty wiring and improperly extinguished cigarettes. At the museum, we blame it on something else entirely –Jesse.

The End