The Consequances Of Truth by Rick Keller






“Hello Police.” Snickered the female voice on the other end of the telephone. “I’d like to report a gruesome murder.”



She was killed while still snickering. Before realizing the call she had been practicing was not a prank.








“You are a male, Cau-casian is that correct?”



I didn’t know which was thicker, this pinhead’s skull, his southern drawl, or the retched stink of his dime-

store cologne.



“Yes.” I stammered positioning my back and ass between the splinters of an old wooden schoolhouse

chair at an angle geometry had yet to identify.



“Today is Friday, the thirteenth. Is that correct?”



The word “Yes.” sputtered out of my dry mouth.



“Please state your full name.”



“Why?” I asked sarcastically. “It’s printed right here,” I tried pointing to my jailed- issued ID bracelet. Seeing

as I was wired like NASA’s first space monkey, all I could do was point with my chin.



“Please state your full name.” scolded ‘Pinhead’.



Add the shit odor of Pinhead’s breath to my complaints.



“Conny Troy.”



“Your legal name!” barked   the ‘Pinhead’ sitting behind the box where all of my wires ran into and from.

I looked directly into his green eyes. By-passing the thick black frame of his glasses, gaunt face, and

tobacco-stained teeth. “Conrad Allen Troy.” I tried to spit at him, but could not. So I snarled instead.



“What is today’s date?”



“Friday, June thirteenth . . . Hey. It’s my birthday. Where‘s the cake?”


“I bet your mother’s proud she raised a murderer.”   ‘Pinhead’ responded without looking at me.


“Your age Mr. Troy?”



I smiled. “Twenty-three. Thanks for the acknowledging my mother ‘Pinhead’. Seeing you had two queers

for daddys.”



“Please state your current address.”



Hmm. Mercyville, Texas. . .” ‘Pinhead’ wrote something on the trail of paper rolling by him in the box.


“Cell number 32.” 32. My lucky number on Friday the thirteenth, huh. For the first time since I was four

years old and my Granddad had put a switch to my butt for stealing his Civil War pocketknife I began

to feel myself sweat.



When ‘Pinhead’ had finished writing, he peered at the other men in the room (the same two monkey-

slumped, toothless goons that had been my personal escorts this morning) nodded his head and said,

“Okay. Let’s begin.”



“It’s about time.” I complained as much as a man strapped in a chair could. “And by the way,” -scolding

the two goons- “when this crap is over and when you find out you got the wrong guy, I’m taking you boys

up on that Texas-size steak and potato dinner you promised.” The goons pointed at me and laughed aloud. How much trouble am I in I began thinking?



“Mr. Troy. Do you know a Terry   Scott?”



The question caused me to snap my head back sharply. What? I asked myself gazing over towards the

silent goons in bewilderment. Then back at the ‘Pinhead’.



Who is he? I thought. “No? I don‘t know any man named Terry Scott.”



“Do you know any women who goes by the name Terry Scott?”



“Still no.” ‘Pinhead’ began writing again. Terry Scott’s a woman?



“Do you know a Randall Murphy?”



“Yes. He’s the sonofa . . .”



“Your answer is either a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ Mr. Troy. Again. Do you know a Randall Murphy?”






“How do you know Mr. Murphy?”



“He works for the bank.” Works for? Huh. He IS the bank.



“Did you talk to Mr. Murphy about a Terry Scott?”



Stop scribbling ‘Pinhead’ and look at me I wanted to scream. “No! Absolutely not.”



“One more time. Did you talk to Mr. Murphy about a woman named Terry Scott?”



“O.K.. I made up a false story about some woman who had ruined my credit. I needed an excuse to try to

get the loan and I thought Murphy would buy it . . . feel sorry for me you know and approve the loan. I didn’t

mean any harm by lying to him and all. I just made up the name.”



“Please limit your answers to either ‘Yes’ or ‘No‘.” scolded ‘Pinhead’.



“Did you tell Mr. Murphy that you killed Terry Scott?”



Is this guy for real? A woman I made-up in my mind is not only real, but dead?



“No.” I heard one of the goons growl at my answer.



“Did you tell Mr. Murphy that you harmed Terry Scott?”





“Did you place your hands to your throat to describe to Mr. Murphy how you killed a women known to

you as Terry Scott?”



How can I kill someone that doesn‘t exist? “No.”



“One more time Mr. Troy. Did you act out in front of Mr. Murphy a procedure with your hands showing

how you brought harm to the woman who ruined your credit?”



I took several deep breaths hoping to clear my mind and become calm. I succeeded only in ingesting

more of ‘Pinhead’s’ stench. “It was a joke . . . a lie . . . I didn’t kill anyone. I don’t even know a Terry Scott.

I made it all up! Why don’t you believe me?” I argued clinching both fist.



“Again I remind you, your answers are either ‘Yes.’ or ‘No’.”



“Yeah. I know. Let’s get on with this.” Trying to show I was still in control of this event I shouted, “You‘re

REALLY pissing me off here ‘Pinhead’!”



Unimpressed, ‘Pinhead’ continued. “Was this woman you described to Mr. Murphy a brunette.”



“I don’t remember. . . No!” Relax Connie-boy. You’ve passed these things enough times before under

worse conditions and better examiners.



“Was this woman you described to Mr. Murphy five foot-two in height?”



These guys are trying to con a con. What amateurs. Just stay focused. “No.” Good. You’re in control

now. Screw these idiots. I’ll let them finish their party then leave.



“Did you tell Mr. Murphy that a women who was just over five feet in height with dark hair and weighed less

than one-hundred and twenty pounds ruined your credit?”



“No.” I had now reached the relaxed state of mind.



“Did you kill Terry Scott?”



“No. Sir.” My new state of mind rankled ‘Pinhead’. I saw his facial expression. He knew I was not being deceptive in my answer. He was puzzled. ‘Pinhead’ gave a furtive glance at the goons, then at me. I was already staring at him. He was playing my game now and looking worried.



“One more time Mr. Troy. Did you kill a women known to you as Terry Scott?”



Was I being set-up? Did Pinhead want me to believe I was? Every jailed con always thought that they couldn’t be conned themselves. For his answer, I had to re-live my short time in Mercyville starting with

the Silver Inn.







Downtown Mercyville. A dusty, pot-holed Main Street that smelled of storefronts rotting away, or was it its citizens? I had yet to make up my mind. I was walking towards the town’s diner, The Silver Inn, when behind

me I see this patrol car just slinking around, you know, going nowhere in particular. Just purposely staying behind me; discrete-like.



The diner was one of those long silver trailers -hence the diner’s name: Silver Inn. Ingenious huh? The smell

of freshly fried bacon and peppered hash browns was escaping from the roof vent. Both were seriously

teasing my empty stomach well before I opened the door.


I purposely kept my head down so as to not draw any attention. The floor was worn brown linoleum which gave way to bare, grease-stained plywood. Brown packing paper was strewn over each tabletop. Tarnished silverware hurriedly wrapped in a single cheap white paper towel waited to be freed. Circa 1950’s red plastic covered the booth’s benches and counter stools while Duct tape covered years of wear and tears. Small black jukeboxes were as abundant as freckles on a redhead. A quarter allowed you to play country songs from before I was born while you search for your food on a fold-out menu. Each page was covered both in thick plastic and months of customers greasy fingerprints. MMMM.



I ordered eggs over easy with the hash browns, bacon and a coffee. My waitress’s name was PollyAnna-a chunky high school drop-out with big green eyes, cute red pig tails and more crooked teeth than a worn

hand saw.



“You a narc ?” she asked suspiciously. I smirked. If she only knew!



“No.” I replied. “Just hungry.” In my ‘profession’, success depends upon winning the trust of ALL people.



“Hey,” she shot back. “I’m wearing somebody’s Thanksgiving’s Day tablecloth and serving greasy food and coffee to fossils. That’s more fun than any girl my age should be allowed to legally enjoy!”



PollyAnna pours me more coffee and asks me if I had any weed to sell her.



“Are you a narc?” I asked.



“Yeah. See my badge?” pointing to a recent, but yet unidentified food stain on her collar which made us

both laugh.



“Me and my friends can buy kick ass weed. “Weed is big around. But . . .” she leans in- choking off my

coffee buzz with her cheap drug-store lilac perfume- and whispers into my ear. “Lots of college kids come

here to do their drug buying.” I told her thanks, but no-thanks to which I received a pubescent pout and was instantly dismissed.



To me PollyAnna was in search of a way out of this, as she said, “Hick-stick, backasswards town.” and

thought I was both her ticket and driver. I pegged PollyAnna as being too dumb to realize she was too

smart for her own good; if that makes any sense. I guess you would probably have to talk to her to understand what I mean.



I enjoyed my breakfast and took in the locals. Over fifty. Retirees. Despite the warm April morning, the men

are wearing flannel shirts and worn canvas coveralls with muddy barn boots. The females have donned denim jeans and brown corduroy farm jackets with less muddied off-brand tennis shoes. Their faces are wrinkled

and weathered, but their attitudes are happy and friendly . . . until, that is, they get a look at me.



PollyAnna returns. I’ am quickly informed that several of the ‘regulars’ want to know who I am. I tell her that

I’m just a guy coming through town looking for a decent meal and doing some car shopping. No more. No




With child-like excitement she asks, “What kind of car?” I sip my coffee. “Don’t know. Depends on what I

can do as far as gett’en me a loan.” PollyAnna pouts again. When I ask why, she tells me that her friends

have been turned down for car loans. She says that “he” does it because he can and that gives him the

power in the town.



Who’s ‘he’ I started to ask. Then she lets out with: “Murphy is a sonofabitch. It’s not like there’s anywhere

else to go around here.” PollyAnna, with hands on hips. leans towards me and confesses: “In case you

hadn’t noticed Mr., Mercyville does not have its finger on the pulse of America. We’re like this distant

galaxy still waiting for light to reach us. And that’s just the way Murphy likes it. He’s the bank manager.

The only bank for fifty miles! And if you are lucky enough to go to the other bank, they call Murphy before

making their decision which usually a ‘No’!



See, lots of us didn’t graduate from high school. Those who don’t join the military stay here to work on the

farms. Those whose family’s don’t own farms finds dead-end jobs like this one. See, Murphy was the school principal here years ago. If you didn’t graduate, then Murphy thinks you shouldn’t have the privilege to drive.

So some of us are trying to get our GED’s just so we can get wheels and get the ‘f’ out of here.” As I begin

to toss the weirdness of this situation around in my head I hear, “But that’s where Max comes in.”



‘Max?’ I feel my spirits lifting. PollyAnna tells me that this Max character is kind of the “new breed” in the

town. “His parents are from money. And they own the bank that Murphy manages. And if Max likes you,”

she giggles. “you’re in.” She gives me the long ‘once-over’ look.“ Yeah. You and Max would hit it off real

good. You’d be a Q-1 client.”



“Where do I find Max?”



Chapter FOUR




“Hi. Are you Mr. Murphy?” I asked of a seated man, his head buried in the morning paper. Murphy wore a

bad toupee; like it had been made by a taxidermist. It was better looking than his yellow coffee-stained tie, wrinkled checkered shirt half-squeezed into blue seersucker golf pants.






Extending my hand and using my most respectful of voices. “Hello Sir. I’m Conny Troy.”



Ignoring my outstretched arm. “Mr. T-R-O-Y huh?” exaggerating my name with a healthy dose of skepticism

and condescension.



“Max sent me over.”



Murphy slowly turned the page of his paper. “Max sent you over? A flint of interest registered in his voice.


“Yes. Yes he did. He said that you were the man to see about situations like mine.”


“Well now, that’s a different story Mr. Troy.” as the newspaper fell out of his pudgy hands and onto his

cluttered desk. “Shame about this family.” Murphy said pointing to the headlines.



“What family?”



“You did graduate?” ‘Yes.’ “Can you read? ‘Yes.’” Countering Murphy’s shouts with my trusting smile.

“Didn’t you read the paper this morning son?” Murphy voice sounded like an immense pain that had yet

to find an outlet.



“No. No I didn’t. I . . .”



“Well then. Let me tell you what you’ve missed ‘er Mr. Troy. Seems the po-lice found themselves a dead

body ’round these parts last night.”



A cold sweat raced over my body. “That’s terrible. Do they know who it is?” I stammered.



His bloodshot eyes shot a beam of intense hatred wrapped in age-old suspicion directly into my brain.

Feeling my knees beginning to buckle I asked. “May I sit down?”


“Help yourself.” Sneered Murphy pointing to a blue plastic chair by his desk.



As I slid my slim six-foot frame into the “guest” chair, Murphy’s eyes studied me: uncombed red hair falling

into my sunburned face, faded blue jeans, worn work boots, and faded wife-beater shirt. I could read his

mind: either a drifter or a slacker. Most likely both! Odds are he’s got a record longer than Main Street.

And if Max sent him to me, he’s big trouble. Or soon will be.



“So,” Murphy asks,   “How’s Max doing these days?”



Feeling better, I sat up, squared my shoulders and stated: “Max is fine. I’m to tell you that I am a ‘Q-1’ client.”



“A ‘Q-1’ huh? he chuckles as though his pain had finally found an outlet. “Well then, let’s begin shall we”









Under a white sheet on the cold slab lay a torso. What remained was identified as a woman. Its head, feet

and hands had been savagely removed. The coroner had completed his post-mortem exam. Jane Doe

was sealed and placed in cold storage until she could be identified and released for a burial more proper

than had been her death.


*                   *                 *




“To be honest with you Mr. Troy, I don’t think I can help you.” Murphy stated matter-of-factly.



“ . . . but Max said?” I interrupted.



“Yes. Max.” Murphy spewed forth in a disappointing tone. “I really don’t know Mr. Troy. Your credit report

deems you not a worthy risk for a car loan over the asking price of ten dollars.”



Hearing that, I began pounding my fist on Murphy‘s desk. “Ah!” I moaned. “It’s all because of that woman.”



“What are you talking about?” Queried Murphy right on queue.



“It’s . . . ” Running my hands through my hair I sat back in my chair. “it’s so embarrassing. I met up with this woman about a year ago. She was really into me; so I thought. I fell for her hard luck story: an abusive relationship. Drug addicted boyfriend. So I took her in. Got her cleaned up and helped her with a loan to

get back on her feet. We talked about all kinds of stuff,” I sink my head into my chest for effect. “. . . even marriage. I come home from work one day and . . . and all her stuff is gone. Months later, collection agencies start calling telling me I’m behind in my payments. Seems she had opened accounts in my name with no intention of ever paying them.”



Murphy, now clearly drawn into my story, inquires. “Couldn’t you go to the police?”



“Did. Police said I had to find her first. Then take her to court.”



Murphy begins writing notes to himself. “Did you find her?”



Leaning close into Murphy I began to cry. “Yeah. I did.”



“What did you do?”



“I confronted her,” Grabbing Murphy’s shirt sleeve for emotional support. “Terry, why did you do this to me?

It was as if we were strangers and I was giving her directions.” Having delivered the desired emotional

impact, I released my grip.



“Did you tell the cops where to find her?” I gave Murphy the ‘thumbs down’ sign.



“Well, why not?” Murphy argued. “Didn’t you want your money back?”



“Ms. Terry Scott has learned her lesson.” I bragged.



Murphy leaned into me. “And, ah ‘how’ did she learn this lesson?”



I sat back. Perfectly relaxed. I placed my hands on my throat. Squeezed. Then closed my eyes letting my

head fall limp.



Murphy smiled at me for the first time.



I sat back in my chair and smiled too.







“’Where ya head’in son?’ is what I asked him. Tells me that he’s just “traveling” though. So I ask him if he’s

got any ID. Tells me he does and I have no right to see it. Then walks away. That’s when I tell him he’s under arrest.



During the car ride over, he tells me that he’s been talking with Mr. Murphy ‘bout a car loan. It checks out. Murphy tells me this story about our friend here. Seems Mr. Troy got one hell-of-a temper on him. Stalked

a women down that dumped him and choked her to death. Some lady named Terry Scott. Seems Ms. Scott was about five feet in height, one-hundred and fifteen pounds and had dark hair. Sounds like this Terry Scott lady may be the Jane Doe we found all chopped up this morning. And if she is, like I believe, then we’ve got

her killer sitting right here.”



“Good work Garfield.” stated Chief of Police Janus finally realizing that this reject of a farmhand may be onto something, instead of on something. “I’ll bring Wilbur on over to wire him up. Then we’ll get the “true” story

about our friend, Mr. Troy here. If he’s the murderer, we’ll throw ‘em in prison and let the ‘boys’ take turns with him.”chuckles Janus at the perverse visual playing in his mind.









So, here I sit. Waiting to die. Can’t say that I got a fair trial. For that matter, can’t say I got any type of trial.

It took all of one day. My public defender, if you can call him that, busied himself throughout my trial filling

out his FBI application. He was no match for the State’s D.A., Beau Pickens. This guy owned the jury- same people I saw that morning at the Silver Inn- the minute he walked into the courthouse. Turns out, I caught my lawyer asking Pickens to be a reference for him: if that just doesn’t stink to high heaven!



In his opening statement Pickens stated my motive: “In an attempt to correct a relationship with the victim

that had gone sour, Mr. Troy arrived in Mercyville with revenge on his mind.” What was not mentioned: my lie detector results showed no deception. The Police did not find any murder weapon, nor could they connect

me to one!



“Based upon the State’s Forensic Detective, these are the last minutes of Jan Doe’s life.” began Pickens.



“On the night she was murdered, Mr. Troy, under the guise of a romantic interlude, walked with the victim through the town’s park. They veered of the walking path and into the wooded area where, after a heated argument over money, drugs, and other men, a violent struggle ensued. The victim was quickly strangled

by Mr. Troy who then stripped of her clothing and killed her.



Removing a pair of latex gloves and three lawn bags from his front left pocket, Mr. Troy inserts his hands

into the gloves, removes a knife that he had taped to his lower leg, then decapitates the victim and hacks

off her limbs. Mr. Troy places the victim’s torso into bag number 1. Her body parts, clothing, and murder

weapon into bag number 2. After struggling up a small incline with bag number 1, Mr. Troy walks towards

the food pavilion several yards away, discards the torso in the Park’s dumpster to be trucked away long

before anyone notices that the victim is missing.



Mr. Troy then picks up the bag number 2. He walks to a nearby residential neighborhood stopping behind

a storage shed at a home posted ‘FOR SALE’. At the storage shed he retrieves a pre-planted bag. Inside

this bag are a pair of jogging shoes, tee-shirt, and sweat pants. He removes his bloody clothing and places them inside the last garbage bag, re-dresses himself, places all bags on the curb to be picked up by local sanitation before sunrise and simply walks away.”








One month into my sentence I get a message, I have a visitor. Maybe it’s my new lawyer I tell myself.

I contain my excitement as I am escorted down into the “VISITORS” room. It turns out to be Max!



The first and only time I had seen Max was at my ‘trial’. The bottoms of his worn leather sandals scuffed

along the cement floor as the stoned Max wobbled his short, bulbous body towards the witness stand. His unkempt black suit matched a thick bushy black mustache which dominated his pasty, acne-scared face.

Long black cornrows complete with beads hid the slits he had for eyes.



Under oath Max testified we had talked several times. Our talks ranged from my selling him drugs and trying

to convince him to become a partner in my “drug-selling enterprise” to how I was in quick need of a car to

get out of town because I had done something terrible to a woman who had “wronged” me. Now Max was

sitting across from the table from me.


“Why? . . .   ” His face reddens as he releases his rage. “Why did you kill my wife?”



What Max is talking about is this: After my trial, some kid was fishing down at the park’s fishing hole and catches what he believes to be a fish. What it is, is a human hand. Police theorize that bag number 2 was resting on a sewage grate and gotten snagged. After de-snagging it, I caused a tear large enough for one

of the severed hands to come out and fall into the sewer. The Police make a DNA match. The hand, as

does the rest of the headless Jane Doe I’m rotting in here accused of having killed, belongs to Max’s wife

who was reported “missing“ days before I entered Mercyville.



Max’s leaps out of his chair. He begins pounding the plywood table we share so violently that one of the

beads from his hair falls out and rolls towards me. I pick the bead up to return it. But somehow I can’t bring myself to do it right yet. Instead, I hold it in my open palm and just stare at it trying to remember why this little colored bead is so important in my life right now.



During my trial, the D.A. asked the coroner if he found any other means of death other than the obvious.

The coroner mentioned there was an anomaly. A small stone of unusual origin was found in the victim’s stomach. The bead I was holding from Max’s hair was the same kind of “anomaly” found in the Jane Doe’s stomach. And how did it get there I asked myself? The bead answers me.



I can only imagine how quickly Murphy took my Terry Scott story and told it to Max, who by then had already killed his wife. Max, whose wife eerily matched my imaginary girlfriend, called the police who then followed

me as I walk to the Silver Inn. Based upon perjured testimony and a hump for a lawyer, here I sit. Meanwhile Max, Mercyville’s “secret” drug dealer -who cut his own wife’s body into parts and pieces- sits across from

me ranting like a lunatic and blaming me for his own handy work.



Standing up I yell back at him. “Max. It’s not my fault that your wife was skimming from the dope money you

two were making off the kids in town. Sounds like she wanted to expand the business and you said ‘No.’ because if that happened word would get out to your parents. They would close down your little shop of drugs and you would be out of their will. So the misses gets antsy. Starts making it on the side with your contacts.

You find out, convince her that the two of you can make it work. Then, stoned out of your mind, you off her in

the woods. I come by, tell Murphy my hard luck story and you have the perfect patsy. That’s how it went down Max isn’t it?” Then I held up the bead from his hair. It was the incriminating proof of which he could not deny. “And how did this get into her stomach Max? I don’t have cornrows. But the real killer does.


Slinking back in his chair, Max’s trembling hands begin rubbing his sweating face. He is silent. His anger deflated. He has been caught.



“Don’t fool yourself Max. Your future, like this bead, is in the palm of my hand. You know I didn’t kill your wife.


I held the newest bead in my hand. It was my opportunity to seize not just another daily scrap, but my freedom. All I needed was my day in court and a competent lawyer. After I call the police, they’ll know too then come looking for you. You Max. You will spend the rest of your life in here. Are you ready to deal?”

I asked.

“Nobody is going to believe a pissant the likes of you! And you know why?” Max opines. “Because God put

you on this earth for people like me. Your type pay for our mistakes. We’ve been pissing on your parade your whole retched life. There are two types of people: the first are those like me who make things happen. They seize opportunities. Take chances, and reap their rewards. And then there’s the rest of humanity. Those, like you, who wait for scraps to come their way. And like the rodents you are, you fight for a measly daily existence among the scraps. You make believe you are happy when in fact you pray each night to die in your sleep and end the on-going misery you call a LIFE! As for your ‘evidence’ you’ll never get the chance to prove it. I’ll see

to that!” Max walked away. Free. Never to spend a day behind bars to answer for his crime.


Days later Max’s overdoses. He leaves behind a note confessing to his wife’s murder.



Max was exactly right. There are two types of people and we were of the same type. That’s why I followed

his wife back to Mercyville and confronted her: she had pissed on my parade. After saying she was sorry

for walking out on me, Terry suggested we meet for a walk in the woods that night to, as she said, set things right between us. She tells me that Max’s parents had found out they were selling drugs and threatened to

turn them both in and how Max was a control-freak and beating her. I’ am told to go to see Murphy   tomorrow. Tell him I had met with Max. Terry then promised she would get Max to co-sign a large loan for me. A loan,

she stated, that would allow us to be together again.



Terry then gave me a bead from Max’s cornrows. She said that if anything were to happen to her, just give

the police the bead because it was so unique it would automatically make Max the prime suspect. We

smoked some weed then I dozed off. I awoke hearing Terry snickering into a cell phone: “Hello Police? I’d

like to report a gruesome murder.” She dropped the phone and pulled a knife from her back pocket

readying it to carve open my chest. The phone, like the bead, belonged to Max. She was setting him up to

take the fall for killing me. She told me she hated me because I was her first unsuccessful con. I forced her

to swallow the bead before I cut her head and limbs off.


I am free. Con complete. Max was right, “Your type pay for our mistakes.”

The End

The Curious Case Of The Forty Hats by Roger W. Harrington

The account was certainly a strange one. Under different circumstances, I would have been more than ready to discount it, but it was Murcheson who broached it to me, and I have never known him to indulge in any kind of fantasy.


He came to my London rooms in Berkley Mews early on a Saturday morning in March. There was still snow on the ground and the wind keened in the eaves. He appeared dishevelled and somewhat out of sorts.   I asked him to take a seat in the armchair which he did immediately; flopping himself down with extreme abandon.


“You will not believe me, Renfrew!” he challenged.


“My dear Murcheson, it appears to me that you have had a significant encounter which begs revelation. Allow me to pour you a brandy which should calm your nerves. As to whether I believe you or not, you know that I have infinite faith in your veracity.”


I poured him a large brandy and handed it to him. He gulped it down eagerly with both his hands trembling on the glass.   I don’t know which calmed him more: my assurance or the brandy, but he seemed – after a while – to pull himself together.


“I had to come to you, Renfrew,” he explained, finally. “No one else can help me; I am sure of it.”


I waited.


“It was the teller in the bank, a few months ago, who brought the whole affair to my attention,” he explained. “I have never passed more than a word or two with him in my past transactions, but this time he initiated a conversation. ‘Your account has taken a leap, I see,’ he observed.


“I checked my balance. It had been increased by ten thousand pounds! I had no idea how this situation had occurred. I asked the teller to check the account, mumbling something about a possible bank error.


“‘No, sir,’ the teller responded. ‘There is no error.’


“I was stunned! Somehow, I made my way out of the bank and went across the street to Crosbie’s Coffee Rooms. You know; the place on the corner of Billing Street opposite the bank. I had to think.


“‘There is no error.’ The words haunted me! I had the power to expand my hatter business to at least two more shops. I was confused, but not distraught to the extent of ignoring the fact that this was, indeed, a valuable windfall for my business.


“I pondered on the situation. Eventually, I took things as they were and opened two more shops with the funds provided by my windfall. Oh, that I had never succumbed to such inordinate avarice! But my business was not providing me with much more than a living and so I did. Profits were good from the new shops and I began to live well.


“It was a few months after my apparently fortunate experience that I was approached in my home shop by a man who called himself Mr. Polankasis.


‘Might I help you?’ I inquired.


“You must understand that I had never seen the man before.


‘You already have,’ he smiled.


“There was something about his voice that sent chills down my spine.   He was a tall man, well dressed and, I would judge, in his mid-forties, with aquiline features and deep-set, piercing eyes. He held a silver-headed cane in his hand. I recall the top of the cane was shaped in the form of a hawk’s head.


‘You have the advantage of me, sir.’ I offered.


‘Come now, Mr. Murcheson. We recently entered a business agreement together. Surely you recall the ten thousand pounds? I’ve come to collect on my investment.’


“I was shocked! If what he said was true, and I felt sure that it was, my unthinking greed had placed me in this man’s power. I had no doubt that he would be without compunction in destroying both my business and my reputation with some revelation of my action in using the money.   He seemed that kind of man.


‘What is it you want?’ I asked him.

“He then proceeded to give me the most curious of reasons for his ‘investment’ as he had called it. ‘I need hats,’ he told me. ‘Forty of your finest black beavers, to be precise. I will send a man to give you the sizes and, later, to collect them. I am sure, with your new establishments, that you can provide what I need within, shall we say, a week?’


“I was flabbergasted! But I hastened to assure him that I would do what I could to fill his order. He smiled then; such a thin and harsh smile that it made me fear him all the more.

‘I knew that we could come to an agreement,’ he said. Then, without another word, he rose and left.


“You must understand, Renfrew, there was something eminently sinister about the man; he commanded absolute fear.”


“Most curious,” I observed.


“Curious, indeed! But, you must help me in this matter. Strange as it may seem, I feel this man has some nefarious purpose for the hats. As an unwilling accomplice, I am tied to heaven knows what terrible venture. I feel that only you can truly divine his intent.”


I replenished Murcheson’s empty glass. “Calm yourself, old fellow,” I instructed him. “I shall give the matter my complete attention.”


“You’re a true friend, Renfrew,” he gasped, gratefully. “A true friend, indeed!” He gulped down his drink and then he reached out and wrung my hand with both his own quite forcefully. “A true friend,” he repeated.


After he had left, I thought about the information he had divulged.   I pondered on it for some time. A few days later, I received a visit from my young lawyer friend, Edwin Groom.


“Edwin,” I greeted him, “we have a new case.” I hastened to apprise him of the particulars which Murcheson had imparted to me.

“I know the man Murcheson described,” I told him, “the Baron Von Shwartzhausen. Only he has such a cane. You must understand that I could not impart my knowledge of him to Murcheson. Heaven knows what the man might have done in his state! You need to know that Von Shwartzhausen is a potentially formidable adversary who has friends in high places. He is probably the most dangerous man in all of Europe. But I am confused as to his purpose with these hats, Edwin; I find it strange.”


“Strange indeed,” Edwin commented over the glass of sherry he had poured for himself from my decanter. “With that many black beavers might one guess at a funeral?”


“I have anticipated that eventuality,” I confided to him, “but ‘The Times’ records only one such event; the ceremony marking the sudden passing of the Rajah of Muhtan, which is scheduled in two days time in Khalipur.   We cannot possibly judge that so many European dignitaries might attend at such short notice.”


He absorbed my statement and then nodded agreement.

“…And other forthcoming events of note?” he enquired.


“The dedication of the Blenheim Museum by Her Majesty, in ten days; the opening of parliament three weeks from now; the formal closing of the Bourbon Jewel Exhibition, on loan from France; and the Black Hunter’s Ball at Twickenham in six days.”


Groom’s eyes flashed. “The Black Hunter’s Ball,” he repeated. “By God, Renfrew, that has to be it! You know, full well that the Black Hunters require all of their members to wear black beavers. Though why a group of sane men, in full dinner-wear, should race their horses after a fox at breakneck speed, eludes me.”


I nodded. “You may well be right in your estimation, Edwin. However, we should try to determine the truth of this matter one step at a time. There is no doubt that all actions, no matter how illogical they appear, are generated in response to other events. I have observed that the more illogical the criminal action – the more serious the event.   I believe that we must determine the event in this case quickly, Edwin, as I fear we may have little time to spare.”


“Do we have a delivery location?” Edwin enquired.


“No, the hats are to be retrieved from the shop.”


“One might venture that the requirement of the hats might precede the event of their need for some days.”


“I agree with you, but we must be on our guard, and presume the shortest of times. I fear some evil purpose here, Edwin. The investment is considerable and surely commensurate with the function.”


“What must we do? I am, happily, at your service for the next few days due to a lull in the business.”


“I am most fortunate to have that service, I assure you, my friend.   Please avail yourself, again, of the sherry bottle while I think things out.”

I began to pace the floor, as was my wont on such occasions. Edwin poured himself another sherry and returned to his chair. He waited, as he always did when I had a problem to resolve.


Eventually, a vague idea began to form in my mind. I stopped pacing and walked over to my bookshelves.


“You have something, Renfrew?”


“Perhaps,” I murmured as I reached for Harper’s ‘History of the English Nobility’. I flipped through the pages and found what I wanted. I returned the book to its place. “We must travel, immediately, to Norfolk,” I informed Edwin.


“As you say,” he acquiesced, reaching for his silver hunter.   “The four-ten for Norfolk leaves Victoria Station in approximately twenty-five minutes. I’ll hail us a cab.” He rose and left the room.


There are certain things I counted on with Edwin. Among them was a remarkable memory for rail and steamer arrivals and departures.

I collected a few personal items and followed him down the stairs.




“Lord Minton. Allow me to introduce my companion, Edwin Groom.”


“A pleasure, Mr. Groom, I’m sure. Now tell me Renfrew, what is this all about? Your telegram was the first of my worries. You must excuse my trepidation, but a telegram from you always puts me on edge.   You recall the Canterford affair?”


“Indeed I do, Lord Minton, and I hasten to assure you that your assistance in the matter was of the utmost value. As you will recall, that case was pursued to a satisfactory conclusion.”


“I’ve learned how to deal with you since then, my friend. I know you have something up your sleeve, Renfrew; give it up!”


“First, a question: have you received any unusual gifts recently?”


“No, but I have been promised one in the next few days; a black, silk beaver; donated, apparently, by one of my constituents.”


“Do you have the note?”


“Well, yes, I think so.” He turned to his secretary, who stood nearby. “Chalmers, do we have the note?”


“Yes, m’lord, I have it in the correspondence file.”


“Would you fetch it to us? It seems to be of some importance right now.”



“Certainly, m’lord.”


With that, Chalmers left the room.


“You must apprise me of this mystery, Renfrew. What can a black, silk beaver have to do with your present investigations?”


“To tell you the truth, Lord Milton, I have no present idea. However, I feel that this particular gift has a distinct function in a matter of some serious concern to the crediblily of this country and its government.”


“My God, Renfrew! You mean that such an insignificant item represents a threat to our very government?”


“I am sure of it. However, I intend to ferret out the design of the perpetrator; the Baron Von Schwartzhausen.”


“I never liked the man,” Lord Milton observed, grimly. “Met him once; some diplomatic function. Gave me the shivers with those eyes of his.”


Chalmers returned with the note, but it told me nothing.


“Lord Milton, I am afraid, we must be on our way. There is work to be done. One restriction I must impose on you. Please do not open the box containing the beaver. I don’t wish anyone to touch the box until I have examined it.”


“You have my word, Renfrew, and I am happy for your advice on this matter.”




“You know!” Groom accused on our train journey back home.


“I have a certain idea,” I admitted, quietly. “We are facing a very cunning and cautious adversary who is playing for very high stakes. There is something very large and devastating in the mind of the Baron Von Schwartzhausen.   We must repair to London and make sure of what I feel is his true design.”




“Then there is some detective work involved, Renfrew; without a doubt, for such a purpose, Gamp is your man.”


“I have sent word for him. Please avail yourself of the sherry, Groom, while I plan our next move.”


“Most assuredly.”


So saying, Groom poured himself another drink from the decanter.


“The whole thing is not clear to me completely, Groom. Please be so good as to pour me a double brandy.”


With something approaching surprise on his face, Groom did as I asked.


After my second sip of the brandy, it came to me! The whole matter was more serious, in its ramifications, than I had believed, but it had to be true!


Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. It was Gamp.

I had always been thankful for Groom’s successful defence of Gamp on a questionable murder charge. Gamp, of course, had been eternally grateful and it had been no problem for Groom to enlist his aid on a number of our cases. The man was a veritable chameleon. He had spent time, in his past, as an actor and knew the world of disguise better than any man. His cherubic face could be transformed in an instant to that of a swarthy and sinister Lascar or a benign minister of the cloth.


“Evenin’ guv’ners both,” Gamp said.


“My dear Gamp,” I greeted him. “We have need, once more, of your invaluable services.”


“’Appy to oblige in any way, Mr. Renfrew, sir, as I’m sure you’re aware.”


I poured him a liberal glass of rum, his favourite libation, and he tipped the glass to the both of us.


“Difficult case?” he enquired.


“Somewhat,” I conceded,” and possibly dangerous. We are dealing with the Baron Von Schwartzhausen.”


“Nasty piece of work, that one, sir, if I might make comment. I’m bringing to mind the Braxton case. But you got the better of him then and I’m sure you can do it again.”


“Thank you for your confidence, Mr. Gamp.”


“And my part, sir?”


“I need you to attach yourself to Muller, Von Schwartzhausen’s closest confidante and aide. I must know where he goes and everything he does.”


“Consider it done, Mr. Renfrew, sir.”


“Thank you Mr. Gamp, and now, if you would agree to joining us, I have sent round to ‘The King’s Head’ for some supper for us all. It should be here directly.”


“My pleasure, sir, indeed.”


In the interim, and later, as we enjoyed a fine supper of boiled mutton, we regaled each other with memories of past cases.




I had the feeling that Von Schwartzhausen would certainly remove himself from any direct action in the ensuing affairs. In this respect, I appeared to have been right.   It was no surprise to me, then, when I learned that our adversary was scheduled to appear at the coming-out of Lady Markingham’s daughter.


I hastened to inform my companions, Groom and Gamp, that I intended, given the seal of my good friend, Lord Milton, to attend the function.


“Do you see it as wise, Mr. Renfrew, sir?” Gamp queried. “Our quarry might realize you are onto his scent.”


“Can you believe, Mr. Gamp, that he does not already have these suspicions?   The matter of the hats, Mr. Gamp; the matter of the hats! I must know more. Understand me, the Baron and I have crossed swords before. Given his arrogance, he may reveal something.”


“I wish you well, sir. In the meantime, I intend to attach myself to a certain Mr. Muller.”


“Is there nothing I might do to assist you further?” Groom enquired.


“At this point, my dear Edwin, I fear there is nothing. You are too well known as my companion and a great deal of what is needed must be done in secret. Please be assured that when the time comes, I shall have great need of your assistance.”


At that moment, there was a gentle knock at the door.


“Come in, Mrs. Tansy.”


The door opened and my landlady, a full-figured woman in her late fifties, slipped into the room.


“Begging your pardon, Mr. Renfrew, but these letters came while you were out. I completely forgot to give them to you when you returned.”


She offered the letters.


“No harm done, Mrs. Tansy. No, harm at all.”


She smiled and left.


“I’ll be on my way then, Mr. Renfrew, sir,” Gamp announced.


“Yes, of course.” I began to read one of the letters. “Remember; tomorrow evening.”


“I will, Mr. Renfrew, sir.” He disappeared.


“Well, well.”


“Good news, Renfrew?”


“I’m not sure, Edwin. It seems that our case has become somewhat more complex.” I scanned the second letter and then the third. “Yes, a great deal more complex,” I concluded, handing the letters to him.


After reading them, Edwin looked once more at the signatories.


“Sir Richard Emery?”


“A close friend, and, curiously, a member of the Black Hunters.”


“Really …and Professor Blakehurst?”


“None other than the future curator of the Blenheim Museum. We studied together at Oxford.”


“Colonel Baker-Smythe?”


“Seconded to the police department; on special assignment, as a security expert for the Bourbon jewels.”


“Good Lord! That certainly does complicate matters; all recipients of a black silk beaver from an anonymous source.”


“Ah, Edwin, but there is one linking factor.”


“There is?”


“There is, and I have divined it! I shall need you after all, my friend. I want you to speak with Inspector Crump, of the London constabulary. As you know, he and I have collaborated on a number of cases.   I shall provide you with a letter of introduction which will give you the power of my own presence. Here, let me pen it now.”


I moved to my desk and applied myself to the writing of the letter. After only a few moments I was able to sand the letter and seal it.


“Take this letter to Crump and inform him that you have my absolute confidence,” I informed Groom. “I trust, only, that we are not too late.”


“What must I do with Inspector Crump?” Groom enquired.


“It is all in the letter. In the meantime, I must prepare myself for a coming-out,” I said, handing him the letter.




“And so we meet again, Mr. Renfrew. I trust you are well?”


“Very well, Baron Von Schwartzhausen, and you?”


“As well as I have ever been, I can assure you. Most recently, I feel a certain new and inspiring purpose in my life.”


“Indeed. You must acquaint me with your physician, Baron.”


He smiled, thinly, at this.


“You are always quick with the bon mots Mr. Renfrew; most refreshing, I assure you, in such gatherings. You are working on yet another of your famous cases?”


“I am, as it happens, a case involving hats; a most curious case.”


For a second, only for the briefest of moments, a curl appeared at the corners of his lips and then vanished. If there had been a companion with me, the companion would have sworn, later, that they had seen nothing in his face. But it was there!


“Remarkable,” he observed. “I hope you will pursue it to a successful conclusion.”


“I assure you, Baron, that I will.”


He drifted away after that, and I saw nothing of him after we had parted. It was as if he had attended the function only for one purpose.




“I need you both to tell me, in detail, what you have discovered. Mr. Gamp?”



“Begging your pardon, Mr. Renfrew, sir, but surely it is Mr. Groom’s place to begin.”


“Not so, Mr. Gamp! Your information is of the utmost primary importance. It is what you will impart that will clarify what Mr. Groom has to contribute.”


“As you wish, sir.” He took a well-thumbed notepad from his pocket and began.


“I followed the subject, Mr. Muller, and observed him to visit three locations.   The first was a theatrical supply company which is known to me. Not wishing to lose Mr. Muller, I delayed my enquiries at that establishment to a later hour. The second place Mr. Muller visited was a carpenter’s shop on Brackridge Street.   Given my confidence in my disguise, I chose to enter the shop after Mr. Fuller and observed him discussing matters with a carpenter who was standing by a large crate which had the letters HMG stamped on the outside. Subsequently, Mr. Muller led me to a street containing a number of warehouses. I observed Mr. Muller enter one of these warehouses, but chose not to follow. The name on the outside of the warehouse was: ‘Plank and Barnes’. After a while, Mr. Muller appeared again and then repaired to his lodgings on Clark Street. To my knowledge, he did not leave his lodgings that evening. Presuming the fact that he would not exit his premises, I took the opportunity to return to the theatrical supply company. There, I discovered that he had ordered costumes for a production of the new Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’”


“Capital, Gamp! Capital! I must commend you on your superb research! Only now are the pieces of the puzzle coming together. I assure you, the information you have provided is of the utmost value. It’s your turn, Edwin.”


“Apparently, Renfrew, your letter had some effect. I received full details and plans from Crump, which I copied, on the security measures taken for the protection of the Bourbon Jewels and the Blenheim Museum opening by Her Majesty.”


“Excellent, Edwin! Let me see them.”


He handed me a number of papers and I perused them eagerly.


“It is as I thought, gentlemen. We have him!

Just one more thing, Mr. Gamp, if I might impose upon you further. I need to know if the pulley on the upper-story loading bar at ‘Plank and Barnes’ is greased. Can you ascertain that for me Mr. Gamp?”


“Consider it done, Mr. Renfrew, sir.”


“It grieves me that the government security provisions are so poor. But, no matter, I assure you that we shall prevail in this endeavour, gentlemen. We have two days in hand; two, for the Bourbon Jewels and two for the opening of the Blenheim Museum. Fortune is with us. Edwin, I wish you to take a letter to Crump. Please assure him that I am in complete control of my faculties. He must do as I say.”


I hurried to my desk to write the letter. When it was completed, I handed it to Edwin.


“We meet here at nine o’clock of the evening tomorrow, my friends. Mr. Gamp, I need you to bring your revolver.  Please dress warmly, gentlemen; the Channel can bring powerful blasts at this time of year.”




We met together, the next evening, and Gamp assured me that the hoist-pulley at “Plank and Barnes” was well greased.


“As I suspected,” I commented. “Now, gentlemen, we must repair to the Blenheim Museum so that we might complete our journey.


I had already ordered a hackney carriage and instructed the driver to take us directly to the museum. There, we disembarked and took a waiting stage that sped us towards Dover.


“For the life of me, Renfrew, you must impart at least a portion of your knowledge.   I am completely confounded in this affair,” Edwin commented.


“You do not see, Edwin, that the Baron’s prize is the Bourbon Jewels?”


“But the hats…”


“A mere diversion. When I determined that none of our selected groups would give good reason for the hats, I realized that the Baron was playing a deep game; a deep and expensive game!   Consider this, my dear Edwin.   What value of return could the Baron expect to recompense him for his considerable financial outlay to put me off the scent? Only the Bourbon Jewels, which, as you know, are priceless.”


“Why should he embark on such a complex course of deception?”


“He knew I was his only viable adversary. He knew, too, that Murcheson, as a friend, would come immediately to me.   Believe me, Edwin, this man is a very cunning and formidable foe. His first concern was to put me on a paper-chase so that I would not be able to apply my skills to his endeavours.


Unfortunately, he made mistakes. If he had targeted one group with his hats, I might well have followed the chase. But the chase he had established was beyond reason.   In his arrogance, he compromised his plan; his plan to steal the Bourbon Jewels. I knew of this plan as soon as I met him. He could not conceal from me a small indication of triumph.”


“There is more; the warehouse, the costumes and the pulley.”


“All fully comprehensible, my dear Edwin. His plan was to create a duplicate crate which he would place on the official stagecoach. He would achieve this effect by rerouting the coach, with the use of men in police uniforms provided by the costumer; hence the Gilbert and Sullivan costumes.

I am conjecturing that the coach would be stopped underneath the “Plank and Barnes” hoist, and that distraction of the guards would allow his men to replace the real crate, on top of the coach, with a perfect duplicate.”


“You astound me, Renfrew! But surely we should be in London to confound this plan!”


“By no means, Edwin. The Baron’s plan is scheduled to be executed tomorrow night. Believe me, Inspector Crump will have his men ready.”


“But the Bourbon Jewels…?”


“Safe on top of this stagecoach, my dear Edwin; a day in advance of their projected journey. It is unfortunate that the government, in its wisdom, chose to mark this valuable cargo with its stamp: HMS. However, we should be able to meet the packet to France, at Dover, with no further opposition. Be of good cheer, Edwin, the French government may provide you with a medal for this service.”

The End

The Final Call by Stephen Paul

The Final Call

His friend had asked for his help, and like a fool, he’d agreed. Now he’d probably pay for it with his life. The whiskey bottle went to his lips again and he took a hard pull trying not to choke from the liquid that felt like acid going down his throat.


Leonard sat in his car on top of a dirt mound outside of North Las Vegas. It was high enough up he could see the strip lights glittering before him, the casinos like spiders that had spun intricate webs, waiting for their victims.


The paper had reported David Harley being found dead, suicide, the coroner said. His body stretched on a rope slung over a beam in the video game building, on Ashley Court, where he was vice-president of sales. It wasn’t suicide, it was murder.


David had a run of bad luck at the Casmir Casino, the one behind the MGM Grand. Not quite on the Strip, but close enough to snag the gamblers who tired of the glitz and showmanship. He went down for over $50 thou, then found out he wasn’t going anywhere fast with his job. Being a microchip engineer, he rigged a game to pay off big. So big, the mob who ran the casino knew there was something fishy going on.


Leonard Holtz was the man who played the rigged machine and hit the progressive jackpot for a cool 2.3 million. He got a cashier’s check for $185,000 and the balance would be paid over the next twenty years. All right! Easy street, I’m here, he thought.


A quick trip to L.A. so he could open an account for some untraceable money transfers, then back a couple days later. That was when he read the paper and learned Dave was dead. Now, they’d be after him. No horse’s head in his bed, thank you very much. Leaving Las Vegas, just like the movie, but Leonard had no intention of dying.


He threw the empty bottle out the window, not hearing the shatter of glass as it hit the ground. The car eased down Overlook Hill and he took Marquette Street south until he turned at 15th East and pulled into his apartment house parking lot. The front window had the reflection of the Stratosphere in it. If he stared long enough, he could see the roller coaster racing around the tower and would have sworn he heard the screams of the riders. Leonard didn’t turn the lights on as he entered. Silently, he stood and listened. Nothing. It didn’t take long to fill the suitcase and as he pushed on the top to latch it, the phone started to ring. The answering machine picked up and the message that came over was clear. “Give us back what’s ours.”


Leonard ran to his car, throwing the suitcase in the backseat and pulled onto 15th with a squeal of rubber. He sped a mile until he could take the Strip exit south. Traffic slowed him down as he went through motions of stop and go, stop and go. The Treasure Island Casino had a show going on outside on the pirate ship and Aladdin’s remodeled face promised more payouts than anyone else. Past the casinos he drove until he reached McCarran Airport.


He checked his bag at United, and with $65,000 in cash taped to his torso, Leonard boarded the jet for Cleveland, Ohio.


*     *   *


The sun was peeking up from behind low lying clouds when the plane landed at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. After picking his suitcase up, he hailed a taxi in front of the “A” terminal. “Take me to the Carlton Hotel on 38th and Wilmar, in Shaker Heights.”


“You got it, Mister. Ya want to see where Drew Carey does his show?” the cabbie asked.


“Just take me to the hotel,” Leonard said.


They drove down Clifton Blvd., with the Lake Erie on the north, then turned onto Highway 422 where the taxi picked up speed. When they came to the Wilmar exit, Leonard’s heart picked up the beat. He was close to being home. He’d lived in Shaker Heights for seventeen years. They might not find me.


He signed the register as Fredrick Holliday.


After changing clothes in his room, Leonard, carrying a small leather case containing the cash, boarded the last commercial trolley that operated in Ohio, Shaker Height’s claim to fame with banners and posters plastered over billboards and the back of the high school football field’s scoreboard.


He loved the ride through the small city; prewar buildings made from brick rose majestically, trying to prove they were capable of being important, mom and pop stores with fruit in display shelves outside the stores, and neat, whitewashed homes that made up a neighborhood of family.


At Sycamore Avenue, Leonard jumped off and went into a small store with the name, Final Call, on a huge sign.


An hour later he stepped out. The pressure surrounding his chest was uncomfortable, and he had trouble breathing. Two blocks east of the building was a small park with a fountain in the middle and made from granite blocks that had come from the local quarry in 1937. The significance was the engraving on the top of the granite blocks–The history of Shaker Heights in etchings by an artist who didn’t find fame until he had been dead for forty-five years.


Two men had boarded the plane in Vegas just before it left. They had the look of mobsters. No doubt they’d find he checked in at the Carlton. With a sigh, he stood up and walked back to Sycamore Avenue and waited for the trolley.


He pulled the stop rope at 38th, the Carlton across from the trolley stop. Leonard entered the lobby and saw the two men from the plane talking to the desk clerk. Leonard strolled over to a rack and picked a brochure out, pretending to scrutinize it.


“Yes,” the desk clerk said, a picture in his hand and bills sticking out of his closed fist. “He checked in a few hours ago. Room 512.” The clerk frowned. “But he left a little while ago.”


“Did he take any luggage with him?” one of the men asked.


“No, and he told me he’d see me later.”


Leonard approached the two men.


“Excuse me,” he said to the tallest one.


The man turned. “Hey, baby. What can I do for you?”


“Can you tell me how to get to the courthouse?” Leonard asked.


“Stick around sweetheart, I’ll take you,” the man replied.


“No thank you, I’m meeting my husband.”


“Oh. I don’t know where it is, lady.”


“You can either take a taxi or the trolley down to Sycamore,” the desk clerk said. “Then get off and you’ll see a theatrical store called, Final Call. The courthouse is two blocks south. You can’t miss it.”


“Thank you, you’re so kind.” Leonard said. He paced himself as he walked toward the door. Don’t panic, not too fast, you’re good.


As he pushed the door open, he heard one man say to the other, “Damn she has a nice ass and legs.” Then Leonard Holtz disappeared forever.

The End

The Royale by Larry Flewin

I’m a writer. It’s what I do for a living. Got a desk, a chair, a typewriter and a sink. A crummy one room hole on top of a bar. I watch the place when it’s closed, and in return I get to drink myself stupid in between paragraphs. Used to be a copywriter, and a damn good one, too. Seems you can’t get pissed and write at the same time, or so they said.

Haven’t shaved in a week, haven’t washed for two, got this damn article for a rag across town to finish. Deadline was last Monday, but I pleaded a coupla extra days to finish my research. That’s a laugh. I close my eyes and imagine my research assistant wiggling her tight little ass all over town for me. Right after she slaps my face for about the millionth time, I snap out of it and start punching out some money on the old Royale.
You work for yourself when you write. It doesn’t pay well, you don’t have many friends, and the few you do usually need bail money. But more than that, it’s all about the one big story, the one big money maker that’ll sell like hot cakes and see you on easy street for the rest of your life. We all know we have one in us, or we think we do, and we’ll drink ourselves to death trying to prove it.

I was miserable and feeling sorry for myself, as usual. I’d just blown my last quarter on a steak sandwich and pie, so now it was back to the hole and another night in solitary. Just me and the Royale. And the rain didn’t help much. More of that light misty crap that froze you to the bone.
And it didn’t seem to matter much which way I went, either. Maybe that was it. Same bricks, same mortar, same damned doors. Except for this one, the yellow one. Could have been the back door to hell for all I knew, except for tonight. It had a stiff in front of it. The one I tripped over.

Son of a bitch. I got up off of him, cursing a blue streak. Kicked him the ribs.
“Hey, asshole, what the hell’s your problem.”
He shifted him off his side and onto his back. The big red bloodstain in the middle of his chest wasn’t hard to miss. I dropped to my knees beside him, staring at the blotch as it began to widen under the power of the rain. Not to say that I was surprised, but the dead aren’t something you meet every day. I leaned over his face and looked into his eyes, half expecting them to blink or something. Nothing. I couldn’t hear a breath, and he felt cold even on this warm night.

I coulda left him, and now that I think on it I probably should have. But right at that moment my last shred of decency somehow came out of its shell. Maybe it was the steak coming back up, or maybe I was scared of dead people, but the urge to do something grabbed like a dog on a rat. Shook me up something awful, and all I could think of was go for help.

The door refused to answer my kicks and my curses, nor did anyone else for that matter. I coulda killed him myself ten times over and still no takers. Figures. There never really is a cop around when you need one. Every writer knows that cliché. I mean I musta covered six blocks after that, but not a soul to be seen. What, did people melt in the rain or something? Trouble was my new friend had the same problem.

I got back, after what seemed like forever, only to find him melted away too. Damn. l coulda sworn he was stiffed right out in front of me, cold as the grave, and dead as a doornail. And that big red stain. A blind man could have seen that. Big as a dinner plate and ruby red. So where did he go. I didn’t wait to find out.

It wasn’t until I sat down the next afternoon, to crank out my next meal, that I realized I had no more meals. I had managed to drink my way out of most of the in baskets around town. And the few that still put up with me were starving themselves. Another form of writer’s block. I wasn’t about to go thirsty, but a liquid lunch could only take you so far. I had to have something on paper to get paper.

I don’t suppose Hemmingway ever looked out his window and cursed the world. But I did, a lot. Usually at night and never sober. It’s different during the day. There’s a helluva lot goes on out there, none of it paying attention to the idiot with the open mouth. The idiot who can see, in the daylight, that he has a helluva a view. Including a yellow door that eats dead bodies at midnight. And that’s when this all started.

I raced back to the Royale and shoved the back of Chinese menu into the rollers.
It had all the elements. A man on the run, a stiff, a door, and a dark and stormy night. What editor wouldn’t cough up for a fresh idea with a local twist? And if I was really lucky, and really sober, maybe a desk and chair to go with it. It was still the only game in town as far as I was concerned, and I wanted back in. Bad enough to sell my soul if it came to that. And I was the only one with an angle that just might just be enough.

Menu’s littered the floor as I cursed the ribbon through her first thousand words. For the first time in months I was on a roll. Not fuelled by booze, or driven by hunger, but fired by enthusiasm and spirit. Damn but it felt good. Hunt and peck was a deadly slow way to type but the words were starting to fly off the page again.

It was dark by the time we were done and no amount of window gazing could go make her go any further. There was nothing else to say or do no delectus corpi’s, no nothing. Until the next day.

When god or nature or whomever it is that watches over you boots you in the ass, they mean well. At least in my case they did. I was up at the crack of dawn, stone cold sober and raring to go. Hadn’t seen a sunrise since I could remember when. And I couldn’t get over the amount of life living outside my window. Noisy as hell, and all in a hurry to get somewhere. And that somewhere included my mystery door.

I watched in silence as a parade of suits came and went for most of the morning. Snappy dressers all of them, and armed with suitcases, a smile and a secret knock. A knock that opened up on my mystery, drew them in, and spit them out only a short time later. Again, and again, and again, until I lost count. Not that it mattered much, but it was enough to fuel the imagination, and another thousand words of wit and wisdom. I had visions of offices dancing in my head.

But what did matter was the reason behind all this. What in the hell were they doing all day, and why. I watched that damn door for a whole week, and still the same parade. It started ragging on me, not knowing. It was the old missing piece of the puzzle cliché. I had everything else figured out, or least invented enough, to get me in a coupla doors. What I really needed now was something to wrap it all up nice and neat with, something to grab an editors attention.

Which is why I found myself outside that door the very next day, cleaned, pressed, and ready to roll. It was a simple enough plan, waltz in like I owned the place and give it the once over twice. At best I’d waltz out again, and at worst all they would was throw me out. Just another guy who got lost.

Smoking was one of those vices that had a multitude of uses. It calmed the nerves, kept my hands busy, and gave me that certain air of innocence. I spent an hour flicking butts into the street before getting up enough courage to do what came next. After case #14 came, knocked, and went his way, it was my turn. The door opened, I stepped in, and there it was. A one room cubbyhole with a desk, a chair, a sink, and a little old lady behind the typewriter.

“May I help you?”
“Uh yeah, uh…..yeah”
“Do you work here? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.”
“Uh, yeah I do. I’m, uh, here to, uh, pick up one of the cases. You know, for                      delivery. I’m kinda new. It’s my, uh, first day y’know.”
“Really. I’m not expecting anyone new today. You’re not on the list are you?                     What’s your name? Can I have your name please and I’ll just check.”
“Oh Mr. Farnsworth.” She half turned to query the closed door behind her.
“Yes?” came a muffled reply
“Are you expecting someone new today? I’ve a gentleman here who’s asking.”
“Yeah, some guy named Baldwin. Sean Baldwin.”
“Are you Mister Baldwin by any chance?”
“Uh, yeah, actually I am. Call me Al.”
“Very well, Al, please take that case, that one over there, by the door. You can                  work the Northeast for today, until we can figure…..”
Bingo. Hello writer’s cramp.
“Okay, thanks. I’ll uh, be seein’ ya. Bye.”
Like candy from a baby. I turned, picked up the case, and yanked open the door. Two steps and it was Pulitzer prize time.
I froze.
“You’re not Baldwin. Who the hell are…..?”
I ran…..
“Come back here, you!”
…right into the arms of the law.
“Hey buddy, watch it. Where do you think you’re going?”
“Officer, arrest that man!”
“But I swear it, officer, it’s the truth.”
“And who do you work for again.”
“No one, I’m independent. I’m working on a story.”
“Uh huh. No one. And you steal cases for no one.”
“I didn’t steal it. I was gonna bring it back, honest. I just wanted to know what, that’s all.”
“Know what, that you’re an idiot?”
“Whatever for,” queried a puzzled Farnsworth. “It’s not valuable or anything. It’s just a sample case.”
“It’s worth dying for, that’s what for.”
“Excuse me?”
“Coupla weeks back, some shmuck bought it right outside your door. I was there, I know.”
“Whaddaya mean you know. No one else knows about that.”
“He does.”
“No he don’t. Mr. Farnsworth here is a respected businessman. He’s clean. Got nothing to do with Johnny B?”
“Johnny B?”

“Yeah. It was one of his boys got dumped here last week. Right after the Connery hit. Word goes out but nobody knows nothing, nobody says nothing. Johnny B’s pissed. Got a lotta people asking a lotta questions. And then you show up outta nowhere.”

“But I told ya. I live across the street. I can prove it. I got my writing and everything.”
“But you don’t work for nobody. Said so yourself. Got no money. No one knows who you are.”
“Shut up. Let’s go…”

The slamming of steel on steel echoed down the concrete canyon like pistol shots, all but overwhelming the clack of the keys. I pressed harder and faster. I had it all figured it out now, but I was running out of time. The murmur of voices and the shuffling of feet faded away, but I didn’t care. I had what was coming to me, and it was finally down on paper. Easy street was on its way.

“Hey you, get your ass out here. It’s time.
“No wait, not yet, I just gotta finish this. I figured it out. I figured out how to….”
“Door’s open. You got 20 left minutes is all and then it’s back to the hole.”
“But I know how it ends. I got it all figured. I know what was in the case, how the body comes into play.”
“Yeah so, didn’t do you any good last time.”

But I wasn’t paying any attention. I’m a writer. I’ve got a desk, a chair, a typewriter, and a sink. A crummy one room hole……..

The End

The Turncliff Letters by Roger W. Harrington

I must finish this letter. I don’t know how much time I have. It might not be as much as I would want.

It’s so cold in this room. I can hardly hold the pen and my hand is trembling.


I want to light the fire, but I can’t possibly do that.   I shouldn’t complain. This is the only reasonable refuge I have. If I am right about my suspicions, I should be safe here for a while; but how long? It doesn’t bear thinking about.




I don’t understand the significance of what I saw, but I feel sure they have sensed I know something. Whatever the facts, I must concentrate on recording my exact movements.


My name, for what it is worth – it may be of some value: Martin Turncliff – clerk with Carr, Lindhold and Barker: barristers.


I recall that I was filing the Langford papers when Dyer came in.


An ugly affair, the Langford case. George Langford, good family, charged with murder in the death of his younger wife. The body had not been found, but an anonymous tip to the police had sent them to Langford’s place where they found a pool of her blood on the living-room carpet, a bloodied poker with Langford’s prints on it and Mrs. Adelaide Langford’s purse nearby.   As if that weren’t enough, a search of the purse had revealed a note in Mrs. Langford’s handwriting, written to her lawyer, which indicated that she was leaving her husband, as she was afraid of his increasingly violent moods.


Langford claimed he knew nothing of the whole affair. He protested, vociferously, that he had never lifted a hand to his wife nor had he ever even shown anger towards her. He had been called out of town at the time of the murder, he claimed, to a private business meeting; but there was no corroborating witness for his claim. Whomever he had been meant to meet, there was no trace of the man. There was also a large sum of money, in his name, missing from his joint bank account which he could not explain.


Had he paid someone to murder his wife?


I recall that Langford had looked confused and distracted when he came into the office. Mr. Carr, the senior, had looked after him. No matter. Langford, in spite of his money, had been convicted and there was an end to it.   The case was closed and I was ready to put the file away. It was the simplest of duties.


I must keep to the facts; just the facts. God only knows what they might reveal.


It’s so cold in this room.


Ernie Dyer, a sometime investigator for the firm, had come in as I was putting the file away. He was not a personable man; more of a brute, with a rough complexion and thick meaty hands.   I had never liked him, and he knew it.   I had the feeling, too, that Mr. Carr, the senior, disliked him – no, was afraid of him. Yes, that was it! It made me wonder why the firm employed him from time to time.


Dyer had asked me what the file was and I had told him. He had laughed then; more of a sneering chuckle than a laugh.


I don’t recall if he had said anything further.

I must remember.


No, he had not spoken after that. He had just sauntered into Mr. Barker’s office.


Henry Barker was the newest member of the firm; a young man who had been gathered up by the firm, as it were, for his litigation experience; tremendous courtroom presence and record. He had lost few cases. I had often wondered why Barker hadn’t taken the Langford case; but he hadn’t.


I must keep to the events of the day.

Some time later, Dyer had come out of Barker’s office.   I recall there had been a scowl on his face, as if he had made a proposal and been rejected. I remember too, that Barker had come to the door and had seen Dyer out with his eyes. Then he had looked at me, standing there with the Langford file in my hand. Had there been something in his face? I don’t know. But I sensed at the time that there had been.


For some reason, I had felt an urgent need, later that morning, to take the afternoon off. I recall speaking to Mr. Carr, telling him that I did not feel well and receiving his blessing in regard to my absence. I remember, too, that I had promised him I would be back in the office early the next morning. His response was diffident – no, I must be precise – he seemed strangely relieved at my news. Now there’s a peculiar thing! It is only on reflection that I remember it. Of course, I could be wrong as to his feelings.   Emotions are rarely clearly defined in a person’s manner.


I drove that afternoon. I remember wanting to clear my head, for something did not sit well with me.   Without purpose, I drove and found myself some twenty miles from the office near tea-time. The sign I had followed had indicated that the village of Peckham was just down the road. I decided to stop there for tea. I don’t know why, but it was not until I was well into the village that I realized that Peckham was the place where Mr. Barker lived. It was a curious coincidence.


I found a tea-shop near the centre of the village and was just about to park the car when I had another surprise. A woman two cars away from me was leaving her automobile. I only had a glimpse of her, but I was sure it was Adelaide Langford! I didn’t feel there was any way I could be mistaken. I am good with faces; names, I might lose, but not the image of a face.   I remember she had accompanied her husband on one occasion when Langford had come into the office to see Mr. Barker about some business venture. Now, she was about to enter the same tea-shop I had chosen!


I backed out of the parking space I had moved into and continued down the road.   I don’t believe that – no – I am certain, she did not see me. I did not know what to think. I felt I had stumbled on some dark secret!


I recall driving home, parking the car and then trying to collect my thoughts.   It was not long before I came to the uneasy conclusion that it would be unwise for me to stay at home. I was sure that I had, unwittingly, uncovered some kind of conspiracy. What bothered me was the fact that there was just the vaguest possibility that my part, as an observer, was known. I had no reason to believe it, but I couldn’t shake the thought.


As a precaution, I left my house on foot, taking with me a newspaper, one of two I had bought earlier, a few small articles I felt I might need and some writing paper; for I intended to set down what I knew and then consider what I might do with the information. I walked to the Carleton property in town.


The Carleton place was an old, terraced house that had been empty for some time. The property was free and clear, but no buyer had come forward to make an offer on the place since the estate had been settled. It was, for the time being, a safe haven.


I am not subject to paranoia. However, I had the distinct feeling that the knowledge I held was enough to make me a target for someone. As clerk of the office, I had keys to the Carleton place and felt, somehow, that it might provide me with some level of sanctuary. But then, that’s not really the whole story. It had to be the Carleton property. I had chosen it deliberately.




It is so cold here, but I cannot afford to light the fire.

I must get the second letter finished; just a few more lines.


I chose the Carleton house, as I have said, for a reason. If anything does happen to me, and I pray that I am wrong, Detective Sergeant Lawson will be able to find the evidence I have left. The house is in his jurisdiction. Sergeant Lawson is a very competent and thorough man.   He has testified in a number of our court cases.


I had occasion to know him from the “Boardmaster’s Club” on Trent Street. It was a small club for gentlemen who enjoyed puzzles and games. I met Lawson there, on one of my weekly visits, and found that he too enjoyed an enthusiasm for cryptic crossword puzzles. Accordingly, we would often spend our time at the club working on a particularly difficult puzzle together.




If they find me, they will do everything they can to clear any trace of my presence, but I am confident that they will not discover the letter. Dyer is cunning, but he lacks imagination. He will never find the pages.


Was that the creak of a floorboard below?


No, I don’t think so.


The room has hardly any furnishings; just a table and a chair. They will search the room if they find me, I know, but I am sure they will discover nothing of value.


Another creak. This time, on the lower stairs.

I am certain, now.


I must hurry.


It’s very cold.


I wish Lawson had been at the station when I called. But he had not been there and I am sure that no other police officer would have credited my suspicions.


The fireplace is set with newspaper and kindling, and there are logs in the container on the hearth. The fireplace is always prepared, in case the house is shown. I wish I could have lit the fire to warm myself. But I couldn’t have lit it. No, that’s the one thing I just couldn’t have done!


Dyer will check the fireplace, wondering why I have not lit a fire. He will find my first letter there, amongst the kindling. He will also check the crumpled newspaper in the grate that I have marked with some notations and figures. He will find nothing there to serve him. How could he possibly interprete: “14D – 9L – a thin covering which takes a pasting?”   I have left a copy of the same newspaper, with a duplicate inscription and some confusing scribbles, on the table in my rooms.


It is Sergeant Dawson who will discover my duplicate letter. He will find one of my newspapers and then check the room wallpaper thoroughly.

It shouldn’t take him long to notice that the wallpaper in one corner has been peeled back and re-pasted. I am confident he will find my second letter behind the wallpaper.

The End

The Rat Trap by Christopher Pimental

The fierce Inca sun
beats down
on the tin roof,
got the mercury
topped out,
dead red
inside this swelter box

I get a chill
‘cuz these third-world spooks
who brought me here
are colder than stone.

They caught a live rat
in their sticky trap,
got him in here,
tied to a chair,

waiting for me
to walk his talk
through the valley of hope.

Man, there ain’t no hope.

I already know
how his show’s
gonna end.

But I have to perform
(‘cuz it’s either me or him)
so when I begin
I’ll say:

It’s just you and me son.
Hijo, don’t be afraid.
I’m not like them.
I promise:
you´re gonna go home.

I’ll say it again,
again, again,
till I see in his eyes
he wants to believe,
cuz that´s all I need
to get under his skin.

When he starts to listen
I’ll say:

If you want to survive,
just take my hand
I’ll show you the way
out of this
for big rats,

man, those white-hats
out there
are the scariest rats
I’ve ever seen.

So choose, hijo: Me or them?

And I know he´ll choose me,
so to start reelin´him in
I’ll say:

I know you ain’t bad,
You’re just a peach-fuzz
little mouse
got his ass
nibbling cheese.

Just this once
I can give you a pass.
You get to go home
if I get what I need.

Sooner or later
he’ll start to crack
because he wants so bad
to believe.
In this maze,
I’m the big cheese,
the hard cheese,
the head cheese,
the mind cheese.
When I set the trap,
they die to believe
that the whiff I’m givin’
is gonna be free,
and it draws them out
with the taste of freedom
on the tips of their tongues.

They all talk, they eventually do.
This one’s no different,
he’ll talk too.

When it’s over,
these local spooks
will dump his corpse
in front of his home.

I keep my promises.
I always do.

The fierce Inca sun
beats down
on the tin roof,
got the mercury topped out,
dead red
this swelter box.
Still I feel a chill
because I know
I’m colder than stone.

The End

Melch and the Throttled Thespian by Guy Belleranti

His Final Performance

Sergeant Sprott whistled. “Sure is a lousy place to get murdered, isn’t it, sir.”


Lieutenant Hugo Melch snapped his glance up from the

woman sprawled on the bathroom floor. “There aren’t any good places as far as I know, Sprott.”


The sergeant flushed the length of his long scrawny

neck. “No, sir, but. . . .” He flicked a carrot colored

lock of hair out of his blue eyes. “But in here. . .beside the toilet?”


“Why not?” Melch said. “Murders happen everywhere

nowadays. Progress, you know.” He grunted and groaned as

he squatted down to the ceramic floor. Sure would be nice if he didn’t have to take a closer look at Nell Darlingham, but such was the curse of being a homicide cop. He poised

himself above the dead woman, and, carefully not touching

her, leaned inwards toward the wall until he could get a

clear view of her pop-eyed, blue face and the rope

embedded in her neck.


Melch muttered under his breath. Ugly situation, that’s for sure. Not at all a nice way to die. He eyed the rope. Nothing unusual about it, unfortunately. Just plain nylon like you’d find at any hardware store.


“Sir,” Sprott said, “we’ve got a problem.”


“Huh?” Melch looked up. “Besides the murder you mean?”


“Oh no, sir. I mean, well it has to do with the murder itself, sir. And our solving of it.”


“Spit it out, Sprott,” Melch growled.


“Yes, sir. It’s our three suspects. They all claim to have been together in the living room when it happened.

But there was no one else was in the house. And all the doors were locked.”


“Hmm. Interesting.” Melch straightened his massive body, eager to get out of the room before he up-chucked his dinner. “They say why they were here in the first place?”


“Yes,” Sprott said. “At Mrs. Darlingham’s invitation. They’re struggling Hollywood hopefuls just like Ms. Darlingham was.”


“Actors, you mean?”


“Yes, sir. Two actors and one actress. Anyway,

apparently Ms. Darlingham had a big self-promotion idea she wanted to share with them.”


“That so?” Melch craned his head around the flowered

shower curtain and peeked in at the sparkling clean tub.

“What was this promotion idea?” he asked drawing his head out.


“I don’t know, sir. I was just going to ask them that

when you arrived.”


Melch nodded and swung his big eyes to the tiny window

five feet up the wall opposite the tub.

“Oh no one came through that window, sir,” Sprott said, following his glance. “Way too small.”


“Yeah.” Damn, he could see that for himself, didn’t

need Sprott to point it out. “Come on, Sprott. Let’s get out of here and let the M.E. and forensics crew do their things.   Meanwhile, we’ll sit a spell with these possible future stars of stage and screen and see what we can shake out of them.”


Melch stomped out the bathroom door, ripped the

transparent crime scene gloves from his hands, gave the

forensic team and M.E. a nod, and led the way across the

hall to the living room.


The three people on the couch looked up in unison.


Almost like marionettes, Melch thought. Good. They

were ripe for a bit of questioning.


“About time you showed some interest in us,” snapped

the older of the two men.


“And you are?” Melch asked.


“Art Cotton.”


Early fifties maybe, and lean with a bearded scowling face. Yeah, thought Melch, he could’ve done it.


“And you, ma’am?” Melch asked, turning to the dark-haired, weeping beauty.


“Oh, uh, I’m Consuela Molina, officer.” She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.


“And I’m Bobby Gordon,” said the third. Southern

accent, mid-thirties, handsome, but looking pretty haggard

at the moment.


“Of course there’s nothing we can add to what we

already told him.” Cotton wagged his head in Sprott’s



“You might be surprised,” Melch shot back. He planted

his hands on his hips and sent severe looks around the

room. “Which of you found Ms. Darlingham’s body?”


“Already been asked,” Bobby Gordon said.


“So answer it again,” Melch growled.


“Uh, okay. Sure.   Just didn’t want to waste your time and–” Gordon broke off as Melch took a step toward him. “Okay, okay. Sorry.   All of us found her.”


“And it was awful,” Consuela Molina added, her ruby

lips trembling. She wiped a tear from her mascara stained



Melch’s heart softened. His feet ached and his

stomach still felt queasy, but that sure wasn’t this sweet-

faced woman’s fault. He clenched his jaw. Or was it?

While women stranglers were few and far between, you never

could tell. . . .


He looked for a place to sit, spotted a single worn-

looking armchair and clomped across the room to sink into its depths. Being in charge had its rewards. Let Sprott take that hard-backed chair next to the couch.   “Okay, what do you mean you all found the body?”


“Just that,” Cotton said.


“That’s right, Lieutenant,” Sprott said. “They–”


Melch glared him to silence, then swung back to his

suspects. “You.”   He pointed at Gordon. “Tell me about

this finding of the body.”


“It’s quite simple,” Bobby Gordon drawled. “We were

all sitting here when all of a sudden we heard Nell shout.”


“Shout? Shout what?”


Gordon shrugged, and Consuela Molina explained. “We

couldn’t understand her, but it sounded so. . .oh I don’t know. . .so frightening, I guess.”


“I’d say bizarre is a better word for how she sounded,” Cotton put in. “Anyway, we all ran to the bathroom, but the door was locked so we–”


“Kicked it in,” Gordon said. “Or, rather, I kicked it

  1. in.   After calling out first, of course.”


“Hmm. And what did you find?”


“Hell,” Gordon sputtered. “You know that.”


“Poor Nell,” Consuela Molina burst out. “I couldn’t

move. None of us could. We just stood there in the

doorway holding on to one another. Nell’s face, those

popping eyes, that rope around her neck. . . . Oh, it was

horrible, just horrible. Finally I was able to unfreeze, and I ran to the other bathroom and was sick.”


“And I hurried out to the kitchen to call 911,” Gordon



“And where’d you rush to?” Melch asked Art Cotton.


“Me?” Cotton blinked. “Nowhere.   I remained by the

bathroom keeping watch.”


“For what?”


“Uh, the killer, of course. He had to be somewhere.

I mean, hell, I even looked behind the shower curtain and

in that little cabinet under the sink.”


“Was the window open?”


“The window?”


“It was closed,” Gordon cut in. “Not that it matters.

The killer couldn’t have gotten in or out that way. Way

too small, you know.”


“Yes.” Melch scowled. Why did everyone have to tell

him that obvious fact anyway? “What was Ms. Darlingham’s

wonderful promotion idea?” he asked. No better way to

catch a killer off guard than by changing tact.


“Uh. . . .” For once Bobby Gordon didn’t have a



“We don’t know,” Cotton said.


“She died. . .was killed before she could tell us,”

Consuela Molina added.


“Any of you hate her guts?”


“W-what?” Gordon sputtered.


“Someone killed her so someone must have hated her,



“Well, I don’t know. But we were all together, so it

couldn’t have been one of us.”


“Ah, so then you did hate her, eh?” Melch grinned



“No, of course not. Nell was a little full of herself

perhaps, but–”


“A lot full of herself,” Art Cotton said. “But like

Bobby says we were together the whole time. Someone else

must have sneaked into the house.”


“And out again?” Melch asked.   “Who? The Invisible



Cotton shrugged, Gordon frowned and Consuela Molina

began to sob. “Oh, this is more than I can take,” she

moaned. “I’m beginning to feel faint. I really am.”


Melch frowned. “Easy does it, ma’am. The Sergeant

will get you a glass of water, won’t you, Sergeant?”


Sprott popped out of his chair. “Oh certainly, sir.”


“I could use one, too,” Gordon said.


“Me, too,” Cotton said. “It’s damn hot in here.”


Melch rolled his eyes. “All right, get ‘em all a

glass, Sergeant. And me as well.” He would much rather have had a couple of beers, but hell, he had to be polite.   And he couldn’t drink on duty, especially not while he was grilling suspects. Melch crossed his arms over his ample stomach and ran his glance around the room studying each of the three in turn. One of them had done it. That much he was sure of. But how?   Damn. Why had he become a homicide cop anyway?


How many more years was it before he could retire? And get bored out his noggin? What was he thinking? Yeah, he hated dead bodies, but he sure loved it when he collared a the killer responsible for the dead body.


So which of these three was it? Which one of these three was the killer? And again, how? They covered one another perfectly, so unless they all were lying. . . . Could that be it? Could two be covering for the guilty one? Possible. Especially if they had all hated her. Yeah, in fact– Wait!   Maybe they were all equally culpable, had carried out the crime together. Wow. Maybe.   Yes, that could be the answer.   Had to be the answer.


“Sir.” Sprott shoved a cool glass of water into his



“Ah, thank you, Sergeant.” Melch sipped, swallowed,

and continued considering his three suspects. He didn’t mind if Cotton and Gordon were guilty, but too bad the woman also had to be involved. Too bad, too bad-– Wait!   What had she said earlier?   Something. Yeah, he remembered now. Melch took another swallow, a bigger one this time. And then he had it. The case was solved. Only one of them was guilty. The Invisible Man was invisible no longer.


“Ms. Molina,” he said suddenly, “I need to talk to



“W-what?” The woman jumped, spilled a little water

in her lap.


“You’re the key to this murder, ma’am.”


She stared at him, her face paling. “I. . .what do

you mean?” she stammered.


“I mean what you said earlier, ma’am. You said you

stood in the bathroom doorway and saw Nell Darlingham’s

face and eyes.”


“We all did,” Bobby Gordon said.


“Did any of you touch her?”


“Touch her?” Consuela Molina looked horrified. “No



“None of us did, Lieutenant,” Art Cotton said. “There

was no need to. It was obvious she was dead.”


Melch smiled grimly. “Then how did she get turned on

her right side — away from the door?”


“Huh?” Gordon stared. So did Art Cotton, Consuela

Molina and Sergeant Sprott.


Melch nodded. “That’s right. When the Sergeant and I

examined the scene I had to crouch way over Ms. Darlingham

to see her face, a face which was facing away from the

doorway and toward the inner wall.”


“I – I don’t understand,” Consuela Molina said.


“It’s quite simple. Either someone rolled her over

afterwards –- moved the body, in fact — or she wasn’t dead

when you discovered her.”


“But. . . . Of course she was dead,” Gordon



“Was she, Mr.– Sprott, grab him!”


Art Cotton swung his fists, but was no match for

Sprott’s sinewy muscle and youth.


“She was having us all on,” Cotton screamed as Melch

read him his rights and as Sprott cuffed his wrists. “The

only promotion idea the self-centered bitch had in mind was

using us as her stepping stone to the big time. The minute

Bobby left to phone 911 and Consuela ran for the other

bathroom. . . . She. . .she jumped up and laughed at me.

She bragged that talent agents would come from all over to

sign her up when they heard how her great acting skills had

fooled the three of us. She. . . .”   Cotton hung his head.

“I lost it. I grabbed that rope and. . .   I made her fake

strangulation a reality.”

The End

Unfinished Business by Bob Sorensen

Flinch Ripperton downed the shot in one gulp, the alcohol just adding fuel to the fire already smoldering in his gut.   He winced, eyes watering, and waited for the pain to subside. When it finally faded back to just south of bearable, he decided to hit the head.   Flinch scanned the cheerless smoke-filled dive, lit mostly from the blue flicker of a TV set bolted to a wall behind the bar.


“It’s too goddamn dark in here to see anything,” he muttered. He waved at a waitress as she shimmied by. The tall one with the nice rack and the big gap in her front teeth.


“Hey, toots, which way to the can?”


The waitress pointed towards the back.


“Over there, pops, cleverly hidden under the sign that says ‘Men’s Room.'” Flinch squinted, caught sight of the sign.


“Very funny. I didn’t know there was a floor show. And me not wearing my dinner jacket.”


She gave him the quick once over, saw an old man in a cheap suit and an institutional haircut. She decided there was no good financial incentive to continue the banter, so she turned and walked away.


Flinch watched her leave; it was worth it.   Before standing, he made sure the piece tucked into his belt wasn’t going to fall out of his sagging pants. Forty years was a long stretch, and Flinch felt good to be packing again. He snugged the automatic down against his hip, rubbing it up against raw bone and a thin layer of pale skin. He had picked the gun up earlier in the day from some twitchy kid over by the park.   Flinch hadn’t much liked the set-up, but the punk had come highly recommended from a buddy in the prison laundry, Nicky something or other. Turns out Nicky’s grandson was following in the family business. For fifty bucks Flinch had one of those new plastic jobs, a Glock. It was a hell of a lot lighter than the hog he used to lug around in the old days.


Flinch was halfway across the scuffed wood dance floor when the front door of the bar squeaked open. The bright sunlight poured in from the street outside making it impossible for Flinch to see who had come in. He stood there until the heavy door swung shut and the lighting dropped back to dismal.


A flash of heat rushed through Flinch when he saw the newcomer. It was him, the guy Flinch had waited all this time to see. Flinch took a deep breath, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. He decided that he could wait a little longer.


When he got back from the men’s room, the new guy was set up in a booth, on the far wall, halfway down from the front door.   He was skinnier than Flinch had remembered, with less hair, and the reading glasses were new. A beer had been delivered and then pushed off, untouched, to the side of the scratched and smeary table. The man was staring down at a small chess board, a cheap magnetic set someone’d give their kids to play with so they’d shut up in the backseat for a couple of minutes. He was moving pieces around, occasionally checking a worn and cracked leather notebook, the kind cops used to carry in their hip pocket. Flinch checked to make sure his gun was out of sight under his jacket, walked over, and silently slid into the booth, across from the chess player.


Flinch watched for a minute as the man moved the pieces around the board. Finally, Flinch spoke.


“C’mon, Detective Ben Rogers, ain’t you gonna say hello to an old friend?”


The man moved one of the black pawns forward, threatening the white king, then slowly lifted his head. He peered over his bifocals.


“Flinch,” he said evenly. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here. I would have planned something more festive.”


Flinch snorted. “Best you can do, Detective? After all these years? Course, I gotta believe you never thought you’d see me again. Figured I was gonna die in prison an old man. Life without parole, that’s how it was supposed to play out.   Right, Detective?”


Rogers shook his head. “Actually, I had heard that you were getting out. Got a call from a buddy of mine, he’s a guard up at Jessup. Told me you’d hit the lottery.”


Flinch laughed, “Yeah, something like that.   Turns out a dose of stomach cancer can really speed up the rehabilitation process. Guess they figured it saves the state a bundle if I die on the street, instead of the infirmary.”


Rogers shrugged. “So what’s that have to do with me?” He picked up one of the white chess pieces, studied it, put it carefully down back on the small board.


Flinch reached over and snatched up the piece, a queen, and held it tightly in his fist.


“What do you think? You’re the hero who put me away. Maybe I got some business to take care of before I croak.”


Rogers looked up, his face was worn and wrinkled, but his eyes were still clear.


“What do mean I put you away? I thought that the state prosecutor made it pretty clear armed robbery and murder during the commission was pretty much your idea. I was just the cop there to make sure you didn’t do it again.”


Flinch jerked up, then winced. He clutched his stomach.


“You and I both know that the killing was not my fault. I’d already knocked over twelve banks without mussing a teller’s hair. Cleared over twenty grand in less than six months.   You cops show up, and boom, somebody dies.”


Rogers smiled. “That’s not the way it goes. You know that. You take a hostage, he dies, somebody’s going to have to pay. You seemed like the logical choice, standing there with the gun and all.”


“Yeah, but you were there too, guns blazing, and it’s not like you even had to do that much thinking. You guys never would have been waiting for me at that bank without being tipped by that bitch, Lizzy.”


Rogers shrugged again, “Yeah, she told us where and when. But it’s no wonder your old lady turned you in. A woman knows that the honeymoon’s going to end sooner or later, but not with a couple of black eyes and a busted lip.”


Flinch slammed his hand on the table, loud enough so the bartender looked over. Rogers waved him off. The bartender went back to pushing a wet rag around the top of the bar.


Flinch leaned into the table. “Don’t give me that crap. I treated her like a queen. Maybe I got a little rough sometimes, laid some hands on her. But only after I’d had a few drinks. And it’s not like she didn’t deserve it,” he said.


Rogers looked up, a rush of red on his face.   “She told us all about it. The little game you’d like to play. Act like you were going to hit her. Then give her two for flinching. Big man, aren’t you? It took a lot for that woman to step forward. She was terrified of you.”


Flinch shrugged. “Hey, my old man did it to me. Beat me up good. I’d show up at school black and blue, kids would know I’d flinched. Started calling me that back in the fourth grade.”


Rogers reached across the table, grabbed the white queen away from Flinch. He put it back carefully in its original position.


Flinch looked down at the board. “What the hell’s all this chess crap. You weren’t much of an Einstein back in ’63. You gone soft or something?”


Rogers shook his head. “Nah, nothing fancy. I tried playing chess for real after I retired. But I didn’t like it. Too much going on. Pieces flying in from all sides. No good way to figure all the angles. But I like playing endgames. You know what they are?”


Now Flinch shook his head.


Rogers said, “It’s when you only have a few pieces left on the board. The trick is to figure out how to win in as few moves as possible. I like to replay endings from famous matches. See how the pros handled it.”


Flinch smirked. “Sounds stupid. What’s the point of only playing the last part of a game?”


Rogers dropped his voice so Flinch had to lean in to hear. “No man, see…that’s exactly the big deal. The endgame. It’s all that counts. Nothing you do during the game matters if you blow the endgame. You hear what I’m saying?” His gaze bored in on Flinch, who leaned back into the cracked vinyl booth.


“Sound like a real kick, Detective. Actually, I got an endgame of my own I’ve been working on. Wanna hear how it goes?”


He opened his jacket and eased out his gun, just enough to let Rogers see the grip. Then he tucked it away.


Rogers didn’t react, just sat there, pinned like a king looking at mate in two.


“Here’s how it’s gonna play,” Flinch said, his voice getting mean, the way it was in the joint when he wanted to make sure some punk didn’t get any ideas. “You and me are going outside, take a little walk, get some fresh air.”


A waitress appeared out of the gloom, she looked Flinch over. Then she turned to Rogers.


“Hey Ben, you or your friend need anything?”


Ben looked up, shook his head. “We’re okay, Charlotte.   Thanks.”


“All right, honey, just give a wave if you change your mind.”


When she had left, Flinch said, “Real cozy here, aren’t you? I checked around, you come here every afternoon.”


Rogers smiled, “So you’ve been doing your homework.   I’m impressed.”


“They installed some Internet terminals in the prison library couple years back. Got some punk lawyer in for tax evasion show me how to use one. I did a search on your name. Got the address, sat outside your house the last couple days.   Followed you here. Not exactly detective grade legwork, but it got the job done. Tell you one thing though.”

“What’s that?” Rogers asked.


“Can’t find Lizzy. She’s next on my list. But she’s disappeared. Like she knew I was coming. No mind.   After I’m through with you, I’ll keep on looking. She’s out there somewhere. The doc says I got at least six months. Enough time.   Besides, it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”


Flinch slid out of the booth and stood.


“All right, up. Nice and slow. Neither of us are as fast as we used to be, but I’m still fast enough.”


Rogers carefully packed away his chess pieces into a plastic bag, folded the chess board, and then slid both into the pocket of his overcoat. The leather note book went next. Then the glasses. Finally, he opened his wallet and threw a ten on the table.


The two men walked out of the bar. Rogers in front, Flinch about three steps behind.


The bright sun looked good, but it was doing a lousy job. The temperature had dropped since Flinch had gone inside. He pulled his coat close around his chest, shivered.


Rogers looked at him. “You gonna be all right?”


Flinch glared at him. “Don’t worry about me.   I’m gonna be all right enough to do what I waited for all these years.”


He motioned with his head. “Let’s go. Back to your house. We both know the way. And don’t forget about my little friend here,” he said, patting the pocket of his jacket.


They walked silently for a few blocks, past small storefronts, bakeries, delis, the occasional liquor store.


Finally Flinch spoke, “The old neighborhood hasn’t changed much since I’ve been in. It’s still a dump. Why the hell you living here? Cop’s pension can’t be that bad.”


Rogers laughed. “The place has its charms. Besides, everyone I know lives within five miles. You get used to being in one place.”


Flinch shrugged. “Maybe you, but not me. If I had the chance, I’d have blown out of here a long time ago.”


Rogers stopped, turned, looked at Flinch. “You still can. It’s not too late. Leave now and we pretend that nothing’s happened. I’m not going to tell anyone. Go live what’s left of your life. Make the endgame count.”


Flinch stared back, his gray eyes hard like the cement walls of his old cell block. “That’s exactly what I am doing. See, all that time, I’m stuck in a six by eight, I’m waiting. Knowing that somehow, I am going to get out and even up with you two. That’s what kept me alive all these years. Evening it up with you and Lizzy. I do you and then I find her. Settle the score, before this cancer eats its way through to the outside.”


As he spoke, Flinch started to gulp for air, his short breaths visible in the cold air.


Rogers moved to grab Finch’s elbow, trying to steady the gasping man.


Flinch pushed him away, and he moved his hand inside his jacket. “Don’t try anything stupid, cop,” he spat. “I don’t want to do you right here on the sidewalk, but I will if I have to.”


Rogers stepped back slowly holding his hands up out in front. “Take it easy, Flinch. I’m not trying to be a hero,” he said.


“As long as we understand ourselves, Detective.   Now just let’s keep walking.”


The two men reached a stoplight, pausing to wait for the light to change.


Rogers said, “You know, you should forget about Lizzy.   Leave her out of this. Don’t you think she’s suffered enough?”


Flinch snorted. “She don’t know what suffering is. I bet she’s had a great life. Laughing the whole time, me rotting away in some cell.”


Ben shook his head. “I don’t think so. I bet that she never got over what you did to her, the abuse, the beatings. Women don’t forget things like that. They try to push it back into some little corner of their heart, but they always know it’s there, because they have a little less room for all the other stuff.”


Flinch sneered. “And this is supposed to make me feel what…bad?”


Ben turned to look at Flinch, his face flushed.   “I bet that Lizzy lived in fear that one day you would get out and do what you are doing right now. Living like she just took a deep breath but was afraid to let it out. Can’t you just leave her alone?”


Flinch smiled. “Why would I do that?”


The light changed.


The two men walked silently until they reached the front steps of Rogers’ row-house, a neat two story brick building with wrought-iron railings flanking stone steps that rose to the front door.


Flinch grabbed Rogers by the shoulder, spun him around so they were face to face.


“Your tax records say that you live here with your wife, but I didn’t see any dame when I was watching the place. Is she around? I wouldn’t mind inviting her to our little party.”


Rogers glanced up at the front door.


“She’s not here. She…Beth went out of town about a week ago. She’s up at my daughter’s place, on Long Island, helping out with the grandkids while my son-in-law’s away on business. She won’t be back until next week.”


Flinch shrugged. “Too bad, I would’ve liked to have met her. See what kind of woman you go for.   Doesn’t matter. Maybe I’ll see her at the funeral.” He snickered.


Rogers glanced up and down the sidewalk. It was deserted. A few cars drove past, but no one noticed two old man standing in the late afternoon sun.


Rogers said, “Look, for the last time, please don’t do this. It’s not going to make anything better. Killing me doesn’t give you your life back. What do you say, we end it here, just call the last game a draw. Nobody wins, nobody loses.”


Flinch shook his head. “Sorry Detective, it’s too late. I’ve got to play this one to the end. Let’s go.”


The two men moved up the stairs and into the house.


As soon as they were both inside, Flinch kicked the front door shut, and pulled the gun out from under his jacket. He pointed it at Rogers while looking around.   Spotless living room to the left, hallway leading to a bright kitchen in the back. A set of stairs going up to the right.


“Let’s go in the living room. Nice and easy. Don’t get too close now.”


Rogers walked into the living room, crossed the gleaming wood floor and stopped by a table where an elaborately carved chess set was laid out, ready for a game. Flinch followed him into the room, his back to foyer. He stopped about six feet from Rogers.


Flinch raised the gun. He looked Rogers in the eye. “Any last words?”


Rogers took a deep breath. “Just take a second to think about what you are doing.   That’s all I ask.”


“O.K. Done.   So long, Detective,” Flinch said.


A loud report filled the room. Somewhere in the distance a dog started barking.


Flinch fell to the floor. Blood flowed out of the small neat hole that had just appeared in his shoulder. His plastic gun slipped from his hand.


Rogers looked up at his wife standing in the hallway.   Gun ready for a second shot, poised like a real cop covering her partner, just like he had shown her.


Rogers exhaled loudly. “You did great, Beth. But did you have to wait until the last second?”


Beth stared down at Flinch for a few seconds, then slowly raised her head to look at her husband.


“Sorry. I just wanted to be sure. Sure that he really was going to do it. I wanted to see if he had changed. But he’s still the same vicious animal he always was.”


She walked over and stared down at Flinch.


It took Flinch a few seconds to focus. He shook his head, squinted. “Lizzy? Is that you?   What the hell? Lizzy. What are you doing here?”


“I go by Beth now. And yeah, it’s me.”


Flinch had a puzzled look on his face.


“How,” he said.


Beth, still pointing the gun at Flinch, said, “Ben was so sweet to me during the trial. We started seeing each other. Fell in love. Got married.   We have a couple of grown kids.   Have a good life. One that you could have had, if…well…you had your chance.”


Flinch stared at her, his face draining of color.   Then he spoke, the way he had always spoken to Lizzy, his voice echoing across forty years of wasted life. “You crazy bitch. You shot me. Who the hell do you think you are? I can’t believe I got capped by some stupid housewife. You wait, I’m gonna kill your husband here, and then I’m gonna kill you.   And then I’m gonna find your kids and kill them too.” He made a move for the gun that lay a few feet out of his reach.


Beth strode quickly over to Flinch. She kicked the gun out of his reach, over to her husband.


Beth looked at Rogers. “I told you he wouldn’t change. There is no good in this man. Never was, never will be. All of that nonsense about giving him a second chance. Setting this whole thing up after we got the call he was getting out.   It almost got you killed.”


Ben stared at the floor, unable to look at his wife. “It’s going to be all right now. We handled it. It’s over,” he said.


Beth shook her head. “It’s not over as long as he’s still alive. He will always be out there. Trying to get me, to get us. I can’t live with that anymore.” She looked down at Flinch, sneered at the man.


“I’ve spent forty years scared out of my mind that this piece of crap would show up, waiting to prove to you that he is as evil as I said he was. Well now it’s done. Time to lay the demons to rest.”


Rogers turned away.


Flinch tried to sit up. His arm gave way and he fell back on the floor. Without warning, Beth kicked Flinch in the shoulder, hitting the source of the pool of blood that was forming near the table with the chess set.   Flinch screamed. She raised her foot, as if to kick him again, but stopped short. Flinch grabbed his shoulder and squirmed anyway.


Beth pointed the gun at Flinch, right at his heart.


“Sorry, honey but you know the rules. That’s two for flinching.”


The gun fired. Flinch didn’t hear the second shot.

The End

What Ever Happened to Chuck? by Tim Wohlforth

“What ever happened to Chuck?” I asked Carol. She certainly should know. She dated the fellow our whole senior year. Chuck, the charmer, handsome blond hair, thin athletic build, the lead in the school play. He was the favorite of our headmistress, Mrs. Trimble.

“I believe he has married well,” Carol said. There was an ironic bite in her voice. “An older woman.”

“Yes, it would be an older woman. And wealthy.”

“So I hear.”

Carol and I sat under a white canopy set up in front of the old manor house of Maple Hill, a progressive boarding school for the talented few and the troubled children of the intelligent rich. We were attending a reunion. My first time back to Marystown, Massachusetts since I graduated. I didn’t fit in when I attended the school and I wasn’t fitting with my old classmates now. Except for Carol. I hadn’t been particularly talented. Didn’t paint, or act, or dance. I suppose I made it into the “troubled” category. At least my year’s stay at Maple Hill had been troubling. Chuck stood at the very center of my troubles.

A light rain fell on the canopy and splattered the flagstones around us. We shared an awesome view of the Berkshires, rolling on and on like a deep green wrinkled carpet. The overcast sky gave the landscape a richness so lacking in parched California where I now lived. They called them mountains here in the East. In California, they would barely make it as hills.

I found the scene oppressive. It was not the Berkshires fault. Nor Carol’s. It was a sense that Chuck had never left Maple Hill. His malevolent spirit had somehow seeped into the flagstone under my feet, pervaded the woods that surrounded us, defaced the bright yellow mansion with green shutters that lay behind us. Like the flash of a lightning bolt that illuminates an old cemetery, transforming a tranquil setting into a nightmare.

The drizzle had driven the others of our class inside. Good. I had run out of small talk. Sick of trying to justify my modest career as a private investigator to bankers, suburban housewives, television executives. They may have been troubled and talented thirty-five years ago. Now they were remarkably untroubled, prosperous and exceedingly dull.

Except for Carol. I hadn’t known her well at the school. She was the brightest, the prettiest, dated the biggest catch in the school. If Maple Hill had cheerleaders, she would have been one. Prom queen if we had a prom. But when you only had thirty-five students and an idealistic headmistress, you did without such accoutrements. She had accomplished much in her life. Gone to Radcliffe, married well then divorced, headed to the Congo as part of the Peace Corps, worked with disabled kids, volunteered for the liberal Senator Paul Wellstone in her home state of Minnesota.

“Chuck is why I came to the reunion,” I said.

Carol looked at me, startled. A thin woman with short brown hair, she had retained her good looks in an austere way. No make up. White shirt, jeans, Maple Hill sweatshirt. The kind of woman you expected to chair the meeting at the fundraiser.

“I wasn’t aware he was a friend of yours,” she said.

“Quite the opposite. It was at Maple Hill that I first came across evil. I took the discovery personally. I suspect it influenced my decision to become a private investigator. My year here has haunted me ever since. I was hoping this trip would free me of certain memories.”

It was strange to be discussing evil in the bucolic setting of the Western Massachusetts countryside, watching drops of rain fall on verdant hills. But we were.

“What memories?” Carol asked. Her tone suggested no surprise. She knew something about Chuck. She would have had to.

“You knew, of course,” I said.

“Knew what?”

Her bright blue eyes searched into mine. Yes, she knew something. But I doubted if she knew everything. Knew what I knew.

“About Chuck,” I said. “The real Chuck behind the mask.”

“He fooled me at the time. I guess I didn’t want to probe. He was so charming. Attentive. Flattering. Fun to be with. All the girls were envious. And Mrs. Trimble loved him.”

“He made certain that she did,” I said. “I can picture him now passing out the petit fours during a literary tea. Returning the plate to the table beside her chair. Squeezing her hand.”

Literary teas. How archaic, how distant from my life now in the San Francisco Bay Area. I hang out in a Victorian bar on Jack London Square and sip Oban neat. Hard to remember I once sat in a stiff oak chair with red leather cushions, huddled by a massive brick fireplace, hoping I wouldn’t be called upon to perform.

The literary tea had been a mandatory Sunday afternoon routine for seniors. All seven of us. The dark room, richly paneled in stained oak, stifled me. Mrs. Trimble sat imperiously in a rocking chair, glasses half way down her thin nose, gray hair pinned on top of her head, not a strand out of place, flowing silk dress falling below her knees. A brilliantly polished silver teapot and strainer, Wedgwood china teacups, saucers and sugar bowl sat next to her. It was a jacket and tie affair, which only added to my discomfort. I had endured each torturous session trying to avoid breaking a teacup, or being called upon to produce a poem.

“Chuck always had a poem to recite in that stentorian voice of his,” I said. “Mrs. Trimble was enthralled.”

“I wrote those poems for him. He could get me to do anything.”

“So you never had doubts,” I said.

“Doubts, yes. But nothing definite. I felt I knew him but did not know him at all. Like he was always acting. Never really there for me. But when I mentioned my doubts he would pour on the charm. Listen to my every word. Tell me stories about his early life that I now believe he made up. Then one day just before graduation Mrs. Trimble called me to her office.”

“So she knew.”

“Something had happened between them. Maple Hill was her life, the gift she felt she was born to give to young people. Chuck was her reward. She loved the adulation that Chuck so skillfully delivered. But more. She needed to feel she was changing him. That her progressive educational theories worked.”

“Chuck was an experiment for her?”

“More. I believe she fell in love with him. Platonic, of course. Then something happened. He betrayed her.”

“She told you what happened.”

“No. She warned me not to get too close to him. She was afraid I would marry him. So she told me his history.

“Chuck had a very beautiful and wealthy mother. She could not have children. She had adopted him in a failed attempt to use a child to hold her marriage together. Her husband left her anyway. She ended up with sole care for Chuck. And she was not strong with motherly traits.

“She sent him away to school after school. Each school experience ended badly. Petty theft, drinking, some girl would complain. The mother brought Chuck home and used him as an escort when going to the theater or the opera. It flattered her to be seen with an attractive younger man. No one suspected Chuck was her son. But she found his presence oppressive. Perhaps because of his actions. Or maybe having Chuck around made her feel old. In desperation she sent him to Maple Hill. Mrs. Trimble promised to change him.”

“She told you all this?”

“Yes, Then she said that she had failed. ‘Do not trust Chuck,’ she warned me. He’s …”


“She didn’t complete the sentence. Broke down in tears. But I believed that was the word she was about to use. You have no idea what a blow such a statement was to Mrs. Trimble. I had known her for years. She believed there was good in everybody. It was her job to find the good, let it blossom. But she could not find it in Chuck. Her faith in human beings collapsed because of Chuck. She became a disillusioned woman. She lost her sparkle, her idealism, her reason to live. She aged before my eyes.”

The rain began to come down harder. But we didn’t move. Both of us had traveled in time back those many years.

“I will never forgive Chuck for what he did to Mrs. Trimble,” Carol said.

I needed to tell her my story. I had crossed a continent for this moment. I told her about the gang Chuck formed among the boys. Recruited from the troubled ones. He was the leader, the enforcer. Under the democratic façade of progressive education a regime of terror reigned.

“One day I sat on my bed in the boys dormitory,” I said, “and felt a lump in the mattress. I upended the mattress. A Lugar pistol. Chuck came in to retrieve the gun. He had hidden it there when a faculty member entered the dorm.

“I remember the evening when Chuck and his friends invited me outside for a smoke. We left the dormitory and walked into a bitterly cold Massachusetts night. The moon lit our way, brightly reflected off the snow. I shivered.

“We had only traveled fifty yards when Chuck stopped. The gang stood around me in a circle. Chuck started to hit me. Soon they all joined in and I fell down into the snow. My glasses came off and my nose started bleeding. Blood on the snow. I tried to get up to fight back. Chuck pushed me back down. I felt small, weak, lying there and they seemed so strong, powerful, hovering over me. They kicked me. My side, head, legs, stomach ached from the blows. I feared – almost hoped – I would lose consciousness. Terrible, uncontrollable fright, coursed through me.

“Chuck spoke directly to me, a smile on his face, voice filled with hatred. ‘We run this place. You say a word to anyone and we’ll kill you.’ I believed him.”

I paused for a moment. Then I continued.

“I guess the worse thing about that incident was the look on Chuck’s face. The smile. A touch of saliva at the corners of his mouth. Flushed red cheeks. He was enjoying himself.”

Carol and I sat for a few minutes without saying a word. I had told no one about Chuck. Not my parents. Not friends later in life. I needed to talk about Chuck. About the beating. Carol heard me out. I felt purged. Lightened somewhere deep inside of me. She reached for my hand and squeezed it.

“He was evil,” she said.

“I suspect he still is,” I said.

* * *

I didn’t think about Chuck after my Massachusetts trip. I fell into my daily routine living on my boat at the Jack London Square Marina, investigating insurance claims, hanging out at Big Emma’s the Victorian bar run by my best friend Lori Mazzetti. A pleasant life. Little pressure, sufficient income to cover my modest expenses, plenty of time free to read, to talk with Lori, to occasionally sail. Fitted me.

One afternoon, as I sipped my Oban single malt and leafed through that day’s issue of the Oakland Tribune, I found myself staring into Chuck Hardgrove’s smug face. He was impeccably dressed on a tux. One arm wrapped around an older woman in a wedding dress. Petit thin woman. Quite pretty. Yet the effort she had expended in remaining so was expressed in the taut skin on her face. Carol had mentioned he had recently re-married. But why the wedding picture now? Then I read the headline, “Doubts, Fears Filled Latham’s Last Days.”

“Damn,” I shouted. “He’s murdered his wife.”

The din of bar conversation abruptly stopped. All eyes turned toward me. Lori dropped a shot glass on the floor and came out from behind the bar and over to my table.

“Who murdered who?” she asked me as she sat down in the booth opposite me.

Her naturally blond hair was tied up into a ponytail by a red ribbon. Tight white sweater, red mini-skirt and matching boots completed the outfit. Lori wasn’t a subtle dresser, but few customers complained. At least she had clothes on. Behind her, painted in rich oils, floated Big Emma, all 300 pounds of her, lying stark naked on a crimson settee with curved gold legs. Not the finishing school type. I suspect Big Emma was creative in her way. I shoved the paper toward Lori.

“Chuck killed Beverley Latham.”

“Who’s Chuck? Oh, I see the husband, Charles Hardgrove. Of course he did, but he’s going to get off.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Read the story. I’ve been following it on Court TV. The cops have dropped charges.”

“I don’t need to read the story. I know he did it. I went to school with the fellow.”

I explained to Lori about my trip back to Maple Hill and my talk with Carol about Chuck.

“He’s evil,” I continued. “I never met anyone so completely lacking in human feeling. He threatened to kill me once. I believed him then. I believe now he’s killed his wife.”

“Read the story. The evidence clears him.”

She shoved the paper back at me. The patrons returned to their conversations. In the back I heard the banging of dice cups. I took a deep swallow, finishing off my scotch and absorbed the story. Lori got up to refill my glass. She knew I would need another drink.

And what a story it was. Beverley was born poor on a small farm in Eastern Tennessee. A striking beauty, she became a runner-up in a Miss World contest. Then she met Don Latham who owned a newspaper chain worth over 100 million dollars. They married and she transformed herself into a socialite. Don spent his last years in a wheelchair being taken care of by his attractive wife.

The husband passed away three years ago. Chuck had met Beverley at a pro-life fundraiser. Chuck, pro-life. What a gas. She was now sixty-five years old. No problem for Chuck. As Mrs. Trimble could testify, he was good with the elderly ladies. They were married within weeks. Seemed a fair proposition. Don Latham had the wealth to attract a beautiful younger wife. Beverley figured she now had the money to attract a handsome younger man.

I looked again at the photo of Chuck with Beverley. Her smile seemed strained, like she was trying too hard. What was this marriage really about? Sex? In part. I doubted if she had gotten much from Don in his wheelchair days. Pre-Viagra days. Then I looked at the tight skin, the carefully made-up face. She was trying to cling to a youth long lost. Defy nature. She didn’t want to die. With her wealth, she planned to live forever. She barely made six months.

Beverley died just as she was preparing to write Chuck out of her will. Their relationship had been stormy. Beverley reported to a friend that she had gone on a jeep ride with him within weeks of her death. He swung the vehicle sharply to the left. She felt herself flying out of her seat. He reached for her seat belt. But couldn’t get hold of it. She told her friend she thought he was going to unbuckle it. He claimed to her he was checking it for her safety. And there was the matter of a former wife who died under mysterious circumstances.

Of course Chuck murdered Beverley Latham. Everything fitted. Except, as I read on, the evidence at the scene of her death. Chuck had talked his bride into an overnight camping trip to a private lake on their Sierra Foothills estate. They drove there in a jeep. A small rowboat was kept at the lake moored on a pier. They set up camp, ate a supper composed of French bread, Brie and Mumm champagne. According to Chuck’s story – and there were no witnesses – she had wanted to make love. He refused, saying he was too tired. She wandered off clad only in bra and panties. He fell asleep.

When he found her missing the next morning, he called the cops. They discovered the boat floating in the middle of the lake. She had drowned. There was only one set of footprints crossing the sand, going to the pier. Hers. They found a pair of her sneakers in the boat, covered with sand. The cops concluded that they had insufficient evidence to indict Chuck.

“He did it,” I said. Lori had returned with my Oban.

“But he couldn’t have.”

“Chuck is smart, calculating. He planned it all out. He killed her.”

“It has nothing to do with you.”

“We will see about that. No one beats me up and gets away with it. Maybe I couldn’t do anything about Chuck then, but I sure in hell am going to act now. I have some phone calls to make.”

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and called a friend of mine, Connie Hernandez, who works on the Trib. We have a very pleasant on again off again relationship.

“God, I haven’t heard from you in ages,” Connie said.

“Not my fault. You took that assignment in Sacramento.”

“Ninety miles away too far for you?”

“Or you?”

“Why do I feel this is not a social call?”

“Truthfully, I do need some help. Remember the Latham case?”

“Remember it? That was my story from the get go. The network people came to me. I was working out of Sac when it happened. The ranch and lake were nearby. I arrived within an hour of the cops. Saw the crime scene. That is if there was a crime.”

“There was a crime.”

“How in the hell do you know?”

“I know Charles Hardgrove.”

I told her my Maple Hill story.

“But what can you prove?”

“I’m going to get the bastard somehow or other. But I need your help. Just a phone number. The daughter Sherry Powers. She’s the one who would have benefited most from the new will the mother was drawing up.

“No problem, but you know my terms.”

“Dinner out at Chez Panisse.”

“That’ll get you in the sack but no phone number.”

“An exclusive on any results from my investigation.”

“You got a deal.”

I called Powers and explained to her my interest in Chuck and my present profession as a private eye. She was skeptical until I made her an offer that was hard to refuse.

“I don’t want one penny from you now. If I succeed in pinning the murder on Hardgrove, I’ll want $10,000.”

“Fair enough.”

“Will be faxing you a contract to that effect. Sign it and fax it back with directions for getting to the lake where the murder happened. Also a letter granting me permission to be on the Latham property would be handy.”

“No problem. Until a court says something different, I own half that estate. You’ll need a jeep.”

“I’ll get one.” I hung up. Then I called Carol. I told her about the murder. The story never made it to Minneapolis.

“I’m coming with you.”

“All the way from Minnesota?”

“I feel responsible. I didn’t do anything about Chuck after Mrs. Trimble spoke to me. There’s something worse. Something I didn’t tell you at the reunion.”


“After graduation, Chuck turned up at my house. I was out of town. He had met my parents earlier in the year. He went into my father’s study, took one of his checks, and made it out for $5,000. He forged my father’s name and cashed it.”

“Your father didn’t prosecute.”

“I asked him not to. We all covered for him, Jim. I’m coming.”

And so it was set up. She would fly into SFO, I’d rent a jeep, and we’d head for the Sierras.

“What about me?” Lori asked.

“It has nothing to do with you.”

“You have something to do with me. What does this Carol look like?”

Lori and I were once in a relationship. We are now closer than we were then. We lived our own independent lives, yet each of us was quite capable of jealousy. This time it was Lori’s turn.

“An old school chum. A middle-aged lady.”

“Your age. And you still look pretty decent.”

“Bumpy ride. You’d have to sit in the back sidewise. The wind will ruin your hair. And the bugs.”

“Oh, buzz off.”

* * *

Carol and I bumped our teeth-jarring way up a rutted, rock-strewn road into a pine forest. The road took a sharp turn as it made its snake way up the side of a small mountain. We had a view of thousands of acres of grasslands, owned by the Latham family. Black specks, cattle, were the only signs of life.

Our road began to follow the bank of a small creek. The frothy water cascaded down the hill, each molecule determined to beat its mate to the bottom. Blue lupine, yellow asters and orange centered madias filled the sunny spots by the water. Further back, under the pines, ferns took over.

“Hard to imagine all of this beauty and the grasslands below belong to one person,” Carol said.

“If we don’t do something about it, that person will be Chuck Hardgrove.”

The road leveled off. I spotted a clearing to our right. It overlooked a mountain lake. I pulled into the clearing and turned off the engine of the Jeep. A peaceful site. All I heard was the buzz of bees. A half-dozen blackbirds landed on the grass and then took off in a flutter. Light blue pygmy butterflies flitted among purple irises.

Carol and I got out to look around. The remains of a campfire, surrounded by small stones, occupied a small knoll at the lake end of the clearing. We walked over to take a closer look at the campsite. The spot was protected from the wind by a small stand of pine. Two indentations in the grass indicated where sleeping bags had once lain. A small trail headed down the side of the hill toward the lake, no more than one hundred feet away.

“Let’s check out this path,” I said. “Supposedly the Latham woman wandered down there wearing nothing but a bra and panties.”

The path led to a sandy beach about six feet wide. At the other end of the beach stood a rickety pier. A small wooden boat with an outboard attached was moored at the end. A rocky shore and a stand of pines covered the other end of the lake.

“This is the scene described in the newspaper,” I said. “No footprints in the sand. Wind and rain in the months since Latham’s death has obliterated the evidence. Which is what I had expected.”

“Then why are we here?”

“To get a feel of the place. To try to imagine what really happened.”

I stood, with Carol beside me, staring at the sand, the boat, the lake. Nothing came to me. A dead-end. But there had to be an answer.

“Carol, do me a favor. Just walk across that sand and stand on the pier. Don’t return. I’ll come out to join you.”

She did as I asked. I knelt down by the end of the beach and inspected her footprints. Made by Nikes. Not the same as Latham’s would have been. The paper said she wore sneakers. Probably tennis shoes. Carol’s prints were quite faint where she had crossed the dry sand. However, there was one distinct footprint in a narrow strip of wet sand next to the pier. Footprints made by shoes. I had the beginning of a thought. I walked out to join Carol.

“Walk to the end of the pier,” I said. “I’ll follow.”

Her shoes left barely visible traces of sand on the wooden planks of the pier. The cops must have seen these as well. One pair of shoes walked to the pier. The same pair walked to the boat. The sandy shoes that made these imprints were found in the boat. Why had she taken her shoes off?

“We’ve seen all there is to see,” I said. “I’ve got to make one call on my cell. Then let’s go visit Chuck.”

The call was to my reporter friend Connie. Had two facts to verify. They checked out.

“So you how did he do it?” Carol asked.

“I have an idea. Perhaps enough of one to shake the truth out of Chuck. He always was an arrogant bastard. He’s no doubt looking for an opportunity to brag. We will furnish him with one.”

* * *

We drove down to the ranch house. Looked more like a mansion than a working farm. An enormous sheltered porch covered the entire front of the structure. A Porche was pulled up in front. I had called Chuck earlier and arranged the meeting. He seemed quite upbeat. Said he was looking forward to seeing “an old school chum.” One hell of an actor.

“I’m coming in with you,” Carol said.

“No, you’re not. He doesn’t know you’re with me. And he won’t open up if he knows I have a witness. Watch through one of the windows.” I handed her my cell. “I’ll gesture with my hand if I need you to call 911.”

I walked up to the huge carved-oak front door and pressed the door bell. Chuck swung the door open. He wore tight brown gabardine pants, a loose-fitting gray silk shirt, a string tie, and a Stetson hat. The very image of a valley ranch owner. Behind him was an immense room dominated by a fireplace made of hewn granite. A tiger skin rug, complete with snarling head, lay in front of it. Tacky.

“Great to see you, Jim. It seems like a century since our graduation. You haven’t changed much. Recognize you anywhere.”

“And you as well.”

His naturally blond hair had thinned, but not by much. His face still held a boyish charm. His cheeks were touched with red. Almost like a woman’s treated with blush. I knew what that meant. He was excited. Looking forward to the confrontation to come.

“I hear you’re a private eye now. So what brought you to search me out?”

“I read the papers.”

“Ah, wanting to con a few bucks out of my late wife’s daughter? You know the cops have cleared me of having anything to do with that unfortunate accident.”

“Unfortunate for her. Fortunate for you.”

“Live right and you get the breaks.”

“Doesn’t seem as if her death had upset you that much.”

“I’ve learned to deal with my grief,” he said.

“I bet you have.”

“So you’ve been up to our pretty lake?”

“Yes, and I know how you did it.” Not a flicker on that mask of his. Chuck was always in control.

“But I couldn’t have. You read the report in the papers. Only one set of footprints across the sand to the pier. Her shoes.”

“Her shoes,” I said. “Your feet.”

He smiled broadly. “My, you are a smart one. What precisely are you saying?”

“You got her drunk on the champagne that you spiked with Seconal.”


“Yes, I checked. A good friend of mine, Connie Hernandez, covered the story for the Trib.”

“Ah, the pretty Spic.”


He was playing me.

“The coroner found barbiturate in her system. Not enough to kill but plenty, combined with the alcohol, to knock her out.”

“She had difficulty sleeping.”

“Not that night. You picked her up and carried her to the edge of the sand. Then you laid her down. Took her shoes off. Stuffed your feet into them. Picked her up again and shuffled to the pier.

“That’s where you made your first mistake. You stepped on the strip of moist sand next to the pier. You left a footprint too deep for a light woman like Beverley. Connie noticed it. Pointed it out to the cops. But neither she nor the cops connected the indentation to the combined weight of you and your wife. The footprint was measured, photographed. The evidence is in the police investigation file.”

“The other mistake.”

“You carried her out to the boat. You took her shoes off your feet and placed them in the boat. You wanted them found, covered with sand. You knew they would match the footprints. But why would she take her shoes off? It made no sense.”

“Caused no problem for the cops.”

“It’s the string of evidence that adds up. The Seconal, the deep footprint, the shoes in the boat.”

He didn’t respond. Not a muscle in his face. Just that placid confident smug visage I had remembered over the years. The expression he used when serving petit fours at our literary tea.

“Then you placed her in the boat,” I continued, “got in and motored out into the middle of the lake. You turned off the engine, dumped her in the water. That’s when she woke up.

“You had to hold her head under the water while she struggled, careful that she didn’t claw you. But you are a powerful man and she, a thin weak woman. After a short while she stopped moving. She drowned. Then you swam to the rocks by the other shore, climbed out and returned to your campsite.”

“Come with me,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

I followed him into the next room. Not a good move as there were no windows in the room. I was on my own. He pointed to a large glass cabinet that covered the wall.

“My gun collection.”

The Lugar was right in the middle. I couldn’t help but stare at it.

“You recognize my old Lugar,” he said. “That’s the very one that you found under your mattress.”

“I figured as much.”

He got a key out of his pocket, unlocked the cabinet, and retrieved the German gun.

“Remember what I said to you that night out in the snow?”

“That you’d kill me if I said anything about your gun, about the gang.”

“And I meant it.”

“Did Mrs. Trimble discover your gun on her own?”

“Yes, the nosy old bitch. Threatened to tell my mother. Couldn’t have that. So I told her what I told you.”

“And she believed you.”

“I would have, too.”

“I’m sure you would. You know, you were her one big failure.”

“Failure? You call $100 million failure?”

He raised the Lugar, clicked off the safety and pointed it at my heart.

“Yes, it happened as you say. The stupid cops missed the importance of the Seconal. I didn’t even remember the wet sand. Then the shoe in the boat business. No matter. You’re telling nobody. I figured you were on to something. That’s why I came up here without staff. No witnesses. Just an intruder shot dead.”

I could have gotten the draw on him back in the main room. I had my revolver with me. But I had to get the fellow to talk. A lot of good his talking would do me now.

That look came over Chuck’s face, breaking through the mask he always wore. The expression that was on his face the night he beat me up. A smile so cruel it contorted the otherwise smooth surface of his cheeks. Saliva formed at the corners of his mouth, almost foam. His flushed red cheeks burning with anticipation. Of the kill. Me.

He began to squeeze the trigger.

A sound from behind Chuck. He jerked his head back to check his rear. A mistake. I knocked the Lugar from his hand just as Carol smashed an ornate Chinese vase over his skull. She stood over him and started to kick him in the groin.


I dragged her away. She collapsed into my arms.

“Thanks for not following my instructions,” I said.

“When you left the living room, I knew I had to act. Entered by the back door.”

I pulled out my Smith & Wesson Airweight revolver. He began to stir.

“How about a million dollars?” he asked. “The two of you split it.” Then he smiled as if nothing had happened. “Or give it to Maple Hill.”

“Too late,” Carol said. “No deals. You ruined Mrs. Trimble’s life.”

He looked at me. I shook my head.

“Now we plan to ruin yours,” I said.

Carol dialed 911.

“I never forgot that beating,” I said to Chuck. “And I don’t forgive. I always settle old scores. It’s just that this one took thirty-five years.”

The End

Why Cops Keep It in the Family by Ed Lynskey

The young lady gave him a scrunchy face. “What sort of a badge?” Sip.


Their brief conversation had already swung around to their jobs. Her hazel eyes held steady on him, expecting a reply. He knew before saying it she’d get disgusted and walk away.


“My name is Xavier Jarvis or just Wes for short. I’m a cop. I investigate death scenes.”


Sip. “Oh. Well. C.S.I. stuff.”


“Not exactly. My scenes are processed long after C.S.I. ever does their work.”


Sip. She switched on a different look: Christ, this is like pulling teeth. Or maybe she didn’t care. But Wes felt led to offer a more complete explanation.


“My squad — there are four of us — are called in whenever a corpse turns up.”


This time she didn’t sip coffee from the cup. Wes supposed the image of a putrefying corpse had formed in her mind. It was never a pretty picture. Wes knew what she’d asked before her lips moved — they always brought up the same question.


“But why?”


Wes gave her the nuts and bolts. “We process the death scene to determine if the decedent is a homicide or died from natural or accidental causes. If it’s the latter, we move on. If it’s the former, we call in the Homicide detectives.”


“Accidental like suicides?”


Wes nodded. Their conversation was petering out. Talk of “The Job” always dampened any romantic sparks he’d ever felt since his wife’s passing the previous year. Then the young lady hit him with an unexpected cliché.


“I guess it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.”


“The glamour quota is rock-bottom, yeah. I can’t say I enjoy my work or you’d turn on your heels and leave, thinking I’m a creep, or something worse.”


She smiled in an open way only ladies that young can do. “You seem pretty sure of what I’d do. But then again, I might shock you.”


Is she flirting with me? thought Wes. Do my rusty antennae pick up the right vibes? He moved to fill the awkward silence growing between them. “That’d be hard to do. I’ve seen a lot.”


“Uh-huh. Then let’s go to a dinner and a movie.”

Wes’ recovery was a quick laugh — the wiser, older man’s laugh.


“I’m old enough to be grandfather.”


“Ever heard of Viagra, gramps?”


At this point, Wes wasn’t clear if she was messing with his head, or what. But he startled at feeling a familiar tingle. “Aw, quit teasing me, or I might blow out a heart valve.”


She laughed and he liked hearing it. “Are you slumming in here today?”


Wes gave a casual shrug. “Could be. This week I’m burning some vacation time.”


“Use it or lose it? Your vacation time, I mean.”


Wes didn’t react to her double entendre. “That and I needed some down time. My lieutenant ordered me to get lost. Go trout fishing and clear my head, she told me.”


“Do you ever fish?”


“Not even once. But I got her message. So here I am.” West gazed around them. The early morning hadn’t yet filled the lobby with the shouts from the coffee drinkers.


She checked her wristwatch. “Damn, I’m running late again.”


Concerned, Wes threw off his languor. “Sorry. Just tell your boss a cop stopped you.”


She lost her smile fast. “My boss has heard enough about me and cops.”


“Why is that?”


“Because my dad is a cop. Or rather he was.” She paused at the tough part. “I’m late to Davies Funeral Home. They told me to bring my checkbook. Can you believe the nerve of some people?”


“Sorry for your loss,” said Wes, usually a platitude but now spoken in gruff words from the heart. “Was he killed on the job?”


Her face clouded over and rained a few tears on her high cheekbones. “He made the rookie mistake of going into a bank lobby dressed in his uniform. A robbery was in progress.” She paused again.


“You don’t have to tell me this.”


She went on. “One of the perps freaked and pumped two slugs into his chest.”


His sympathy, a groundswell roiling up from his guts, was instant. In his job, he seldom had to break the bad news to the next of kin, so his people skills weren’t the smoothest. She got up from their table and lurched toward the door. Then as if an afterthought, she turned, this smile just scratched on above her quivery chin.


“Thanks for your condolences.”


“Don’t forget your coffee,” Wes told her. “My treat, the least I can do for your lousy morning.”


“That’s okay. I should break the expensive habit anyway. Besides coffee won’t cut it for me this morning.”


“Uh-huh.” He wanted to console her maybe with a hug but that might not be so PC.


“Nice meeting you,” she said, shouldering her way out the door.


He watched her climb into an older model SUV and drive off into the rain. A pang told West that he wanted to know her better. The trouble was he didn’t even know her name so he followed his cop instincts.


“The attractive brunette I was talking to, do you know her, Paul?” Wes asked the squat counterman about his age, give or take, and wearing a coffee-splotched necktie. They’d spoken before on occasion.


Paul stabbed the cash register’s keypad, all but ignoring Wes. “Why? You want to go hit on her again?”


Self-righteous people, especially from Wes’ demographic (WASP, 50s), pissed him off, even if their accusations were right on. He decided to strong-arm Paul to get the wanted information. Wes’ shield slapped out on the countertop. Paul’s eyes flitted down before regarding Wes again.


“All right, no need for any trouble.” Paul gazed off to the door. “What’s on your mind?”


“That sounds better. Who was that young, attractive brunette?”


“Tina. Tina Suarez. She usually comes in here at noon.”


“And . . .”


“I can’t help you more, sorry. Her name was on her MasterCard. That’s all I know.”


Paul turned and walked away, leaving Wes more than a little intrigued about Tina Suarez.

The End