Chip off the Old Block
A short-short mystery
Garrison Flint (Tom Gnagey)
There is no nice way of putting it. Rupert was a violent drunk. Maggie, his wife of fifty years, had lived her life loving him sober and hating him drunk. He seldom hurt her – and then mostly by awkward accident – but his vitriolic tirades and destructive rampages sorely tested her sacred commitment to their union. She told herself she should have known better – he turned out just like his father.
She had learned to turn off his haranguing. She waited out his throwing and smashing. She quietly tended to her own occasional bruises. But the evening he killed Roseanne he had finally gone too far.
Roseanne had been with them for nine years. She had been a good and loyal companion for Maggie – purrfect one might say. Roseanne had been their beloved cat – white with spots of tan and burnt orange. She had often stood between Maggie and Rupert as he would stagger in his wife's direction, hand raised. She would hiss and leap up at him, digging her claws into his chest. Unlike Maggie, Rosanne was not forgiving and would attack Rupert intoxicated or not.
Once Rupert had calmed down that evening, Maggie helped him into his recliner in the living room. She tipped him back so he could rest.
"Supper in twenty minutes," she told him, still teary eyed over her recent loss.
He closed his eyes.
She proceeded to fix the meal opting for sandwiches and raw veggies with dip. Rupert loved lemonade with shaved ice. On hot summer days, like they were experiencing, he would often go through a gallon or more of the drink in one evening. Maggie kept ten pound blocks of ice in the freezer and chipped off sections to run through the small, portable, shaver that sat on the kitchen counter. The ice cube maker in their old refrigerator would just not keep up with his demands. Anyway, Rupert preferred the crystal clear ice that came from the larger blocks.
With the table set and the lemonades poured, Maggie donned two oven mitts, went to the freezer, and removed the new block of ice. She carried it into the living room and without so much as a 'here's to ya’ or 'good-bye old sot', she raised it high and slammed it down onto Rupert's head. There was nothing dainty about the buxom Maggie Mallory.
She returned the ice to the freezer, went out onto the front porch, broke the window in the door, and, leaving it ajar, returned to the kitchen and removed her mitts. She placed Rosanne in a shoe box and sat it in the cool of the basement steps – only a temporary resting place until a more eternally appropriate casket could be located. She put on her best, newly widowed, weep, and called the police.
"A robber has broken into our house and attacked my husband. I'm afraid he may be dead."
The voice at the other end assured her that a patrol car would be there within a few minutes.
Maggie hung up and moved back to the recliner. She removed Rupert's wallet from his pants pocket and, slipping it into her roomy bra, returned to the kitchen where she sat to enjoy her sandwich and lemonade.
A few minutes later the police arrived.
"I was fixing supper," she began explaining to the two young officers while dabbing at the edges of her eyes with a white, lace handkerchief. "I heard a crash. Rupert had been drinking and often broke things when in that state, so, I didn't think much about it. A few minutes later I entered the living room to call him to supper and saw the broken window in the front door. The glass had fallen into the room so I figured it had not been my husband who had broken it with a flying book or vase. Clearly, it had been broken by an intruder in order to reach in and work the lock from the inside. Then I saw poor Rupert. His forehead was bruised like you see there and he wasn't breathing. I called you."
The policemen talked back and forth.
"Looks like death via the infamous blunt instrument," the taller one said looking around the room.
"From the huge width and breadth of the bruise it had to have been some mother of a blunt instrument – like a shovel or a dictionary from a library-stand," the shorter one added.
"Doubtful if a robber would have brought something that large with him, would you think?" The taller one said.
"Doubtful, I'd agree."
They both nodded. The shorter one put in a call to the precinct for a Detective and the Coroner.
"Anything missing that you know of, Ma'am?"
"Odd, but nothing so far as I can tell. We don't really have anything worth stealing. We keep our money in his wallet. I have a little in a jar in the kitchen. Like I said, not much here. It was payday today. The robber might have known that."
One of the policemen slipped his hand in behind the body.
"No wallet on him. Would he have had it with him?"
"Oh, yes. He had just arrived back from the bar on his way home from work. He works part time as a greeter at a discount store. It should be there. He never took it out until he undressed for bed."
One of the officers removed his hat and wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He made small talk while they waited, hoping to distract Maggie from her grievous sorrow.
"It's been a scorcher today, I'll tell you that," he said.
"How thoughtless of me," Maggie said. "Let me fix you kind young men a pitcher of lemonade.”
"That would be very nice. With your permission, Ma'am, we'll just nose around here and see if we can locate that blunt instrument."
"Yes. Please look around. Do whatever you need to do."
The taller officer accompanied her into the kitchen. He looked here and there as Maggie filled the pitcher with tap water, a little above the half way mark. She then stirred in the yellow powder. Taking her pick from the drawer, she broke the ice block in two. Half of it was soon shaved and scooped into the pitcher and two waiting glasses. She poured.
"This is wonderful. Never had lemonade with shaved ice before. Really great! I hope their will be enough for the others when they arrive?"
"You just drink up, officer,” she said patting his hand. “I'll be most happy to make more."
The detectives' search went for naught. They all did what they could to console, dear, old, sniffling, Maggie in her moment of grief, while she thoughtfully poured refills, cooled for them with scoops of Rupert's favorite, crystal clear, freshly shaved, ice.
The Emancipation of Henry Redding
A short, ghastly, ghostly, story
By Marc Miller (Tom Gnagey)
Some stories reflect the realities of life and living. We can all relate to them and feel reassured. Other stories warp reality to provide moments of escape from our daily drudgery. Many folks revel in this vacation from their lackluster routine. Still other stories take place within the idiosyncratic mind of the author, holding uncertain reference. Some of us are intrigued as we work to ferret out the allegory, the symbolism, and the potential lessons.
This is the story of Henry Redding, slender, middle aged, dark suit and tie as appropriate for his place in the business, with pure white hair before its time, and sad, drawn, gaunt, features. The account plays out within his mind – or might that better be called his spirit. You will decide. Henry speaks incessantly and repetitively but mostly just inside himself.
Every aspect of this life I live is engulfed by my guilt, my anguish, my depression. It was I as the driver who was responsible for the death of my dear wife, Agnes. She was my reason for getting up in the morning, setting the smile on my face, working productively; she was my reason for living. We should have left this world together to soar freely in the heavens and spend eternity hand in hand, cheek to cheek.
Regrettably, I was spared, so unfairly. I am convinced that it is the strength of our mutual devotion that is keeping her from realizing her reward. She waits for me. I see her in the mist on the hill above our home – now merely a house, far too big and far too empty and cold. When she appears I run to her. She smiles and reaches out but the physical and the ethereal can never meet, never touch, never know the joys of holding one other.
I have contemplated ending my life to be with her, but my religion dictates that heaven cannot be mine should I do that. So I have waited for the eventual inevitable to still my being and set me free. It has not come. I have reached the point where I can no longer exist in this manner. I have formulated a plan – an ingenious plan that will, I believe, allow my physical death and yet permit me access to an eternity in paradise with Agnes. Why it had not come to me before, I do not understand. It is simplicity itself.
It was hot today and the ground still radiates its heat in the wee hours of the morning. A humid, cold front is moving in from the northwest. The ideal concurrence of conditions will soon arrive to produce the misty fog, which allows Agnes to reveal her patient essence. I am half way up the slope waiting in a natural indentation, which the breeze never finds. The fog lingers here. It has become my most treasured spot on earth.
I will now make my final phone call.
A labored, whispered, message.
“Hello. Yes. My name is Henry Redding. I need to report a man with a gun who is threatening to kill my wife, my daughter, and me. He has taken us half way up the hill behind my house at 2222 Redding Way. He keeps us in the shadows. He stands in the moonlight, such as it is tonight. He tells us our end will come at precisely two a.m. – on our knees – with a single bullet to the back of the head. He gives no reason.”
I close the phone and place it in my pocket. My watch says 1:50 – just long enough for the police to arrive by the appointed time. The ruse has involved a lie but no one will be hurt – well … . Such a minor falsehood surely will not keep me from my beloved Agnes. I shall not die by my own hand.
It will be a good night for this journey – the mist glowing golden from the full moon, the smell of the grass just mown, the crunch and taste of a freshly picked apple from her favorite tree. She would want that for me this one last time. I am excited – exuberant, giddy – for the first time in a decade.
The mist is now rolling down the hill – so thick I feel it as it tumbles in to fill this place of our reuniting. I hear the sirens; they grow close. I search the mist for Agnes. She must come tonight. She must!
From the bottom of the hill, I hear a voice on a blow horn and see lights bobbing their ways up the hill.
“Release your prisoners and toss your gun aside,” comes the predicted mandate.
I call out my well-practiced response.
“You’ll have to kill me, coppers. You’ll never reach me in time.”
I borrowed the phrases from an old back and white cops and robbers film from the forties.
I take three firecrackers and a lighter from my pocket. I watch the second hand as it approaches my most precious moment. I light the first and toss it a few feet away. It explodes with a flash of light. I turn to make my body a full-wide target and move out into the bright moonlight. Agnes appears. Her expression tells me she understands. I reach out. She comes close, arms wide.
There is a hail of bullets. The police move up quickly. Much to their surprise, no one is to be found. The only leavings are an apple core, a lighter, two unexpended firecrackers, and a disordered pile of very expensive men's clothes. One man points toward the top of the hill. Two undulating, vaporous, forms appear in silhouette, back-lit by the orange moon. The taller one waves. The other throws a kiss. They turn and disappear together into the night sky.
Lucy’s New Hobby
A short, short, story
© Tom Gnagey 2011
Lucy was confident, precise, and intelligent – three traits that helped make her a respected and able member of the city’s Crime Scene Investigation team. Lucy was plain, nearsighted, and gangly – three traits, which at 34, positioned her on the Plain Jane end of the attractiveness continuum. Lucy was okay with that. She defined herself through her work.
It was late afternoon. A shoeprint had been left behind at a crime scene in loose, fine, soil, but even in such tricky conditions Lucy would render a perfect casting. She held the spray can of clear plastic film higher above the ground than usual. That way the spray would gently waft in its decent and not disturb the sandy soil, which might happen from the more typical short, puffs of spray that she would direct across a firmer area. The surface of the print was soon covered with the thin, tough, film, fixing the soil in place ready to accept the plaster. Slowly and precisely she poured the thick, white, mixture from the can. A rapid or careless pour might disarrange the soil and therefore distort the print it held, rendering it useless as evidence. It might also form air bubbles in the plaster, which would tend to disfigure the imprint. After several minutes it was set. She lifted the hardened block, pealed back the plastic film, and revealed the flawless, dirt-free, impression. She was pleased.
“Mike. Can you take this back to the lab for me? I’m already off the clock for the day.”
“Sure thing, Luce. You want me to take your bag as well?”
“No thanks. I like to keep it with me.”
“Have a great evening, then. See you in the morning.”
It was Lucy’s full intention to have a great evening. The day had required her to examine a broken skylight on the roof of a tall, downtown, building – heights were not among her favorite venues. She was called to assist the coroner in the morgue – a place that was not high on her list of locations that were likely to yield eligible (that is, breathing) young men. She was also called to pick the lock on a security closet door to extricate a five year old boy impounded there in his father’s study by his slightly older brother – Lucy was one of the finest lock experts in the department.
She parked on the street near the art studio where she would have her painting class at seven. After taking care of one last important chore for the day she relaxed over a sandwich and coffee at a café across the street. Contrary to her usual arrive-at-the-last-moment approach, she was in the classroom with her canvas and easel in place well before the other class members began arriving. It was a friendly group of people ranging in age from teens to pensioners. Lucy felt relaxed and confident among them.
The subject for the evening was a still life. It sat already prepared in the middle of the room – a round, draped, table set with a large wooden bowl, an assortment of colorful fruit, and three wine bottles of various shapes, hues, and heights. Lucy set up her pallet while the instructor – Herr Prendergast, a scruffy, pudgy, bespectacled little man with a bushy white moustache and thick German accent – belabored, unnecessarily, the details of the subject matter and fussed over a lamp until he was satisfied with the highlights and shadows of the arrangement. He had an excellent eye for good art and the kind of subject matter it took to assure saleable paintings. He was only a mediocre painter, himself, but was an excellent teacher. As a dealer he had acquired a less than respectable reputation among the local art aficionados and on numerous occasions had been visited by detectives regarding missing pieces of art. He had never been found to be associated with any of them, however, and dubbed it ‘police harassment’, blaming it on his ancestry.
That night, Lucy would use a canvas that already held a painting – she was frugal and known to reuse practice canvases in that way. She was less interested in saving and accumulating her paintings than she was in looking for that one perfectly pleasing endeavor. In fact, after class, she often left her work there on a shelf beside the door to Herr Prendergast’s private studio so she could use it the following week without having to lug it back and forth. When she arrived that evening she had gone directly to the shelf and selected a particularly large, previously used, canvas. She toned it with a special black gesso – a good, opaque, color that completely covered what was underneath.
She worked in acrylic paint. Most of the others preferred oils. A painting done in acrylics would be nearly dry by the end of the two hour session and that was more to her liking than oils, which might take days to dry and tended to leave telltale streaks of color on the back of the front seat of her car. The gesso was almost dry as she began determining proportions and laying in forms and base colors.
Her interest in painting was relatively recent. Three months before, she had worked a burglary scene in Herr Prendergast’s small, private, studio at the rear of the sprawling classroom. The door, which opened out into the classroom, was clearly the only means of entry and after the theft it had been found to be locked, presenting a fascinating conundrum in the case. As she had examined his collection of paintings for fingerprints she became interested in both the man and the style of work he admired. One in particular caught her attention and later she would try to emulate the style in her own pieces.
The incident brought back memories of a break-in and robbery at her home several years before. Her grandfather had left the family a rather valuable painting. Prior to its theft, it had hung over the mantle in their living room. She loved the old painting’s soft pastel colors that had so masterfully brought to life a hidden garden with trees, flowers, a high stone wall, and round, marble, birdbath bedecked with cardinals, bluebirds, and canaries – the only truly vivid colors in the picture.
Recently, she decided that it was time she had a hobby. Her colleagues had been telling her that for years. She worked too hard, too long, and too diligently. So, she cut down on overtime and set out to enjoy her hours away from work. Painting had long been on the short list of things she thought she might like to try someday. She considered her investigation of the crime scene at Herr Prendergast’s studio, and her simultaneous search for a new pastime, to represent a happy, serendipitous, coincidence. She signed up for the class with him.
By the end of the session that night, Lucy was pleased with what she had accomplished. It might not have been her best work but it was the most personally satisfying piece she had created. She would take it with her.
Twenty minutes later as she entered the living room in the family home – where by then she lived alone – she eyed the long empty space above the mantle. As was her habit, she made a cup of cocoa in the kitchen and then returned to the living room where, out of habit, she turned on the police scanner. The first call amused her. Apparently sometime between five p.m. – when Herr Prendergast left his studio for dinner – and the end of class, another painting from his collection had been stolen. She shook her head knowing exactly where her day would begin the following morning.
She lay her newest painting face up on the table. With the skill of the well trained CSI agent that she was, she carefully and methodically ran her fingernails along the top edge of the canvas, separating and carefully pealing down a layer of pliable, though tough, plastic film that separated the painting underneath from the layer of black gesso on which she had worked that evening. Lucy set aside her fresh picture. She nodded and smiled as she lifted the newly revealed older painting into place on the mantle. She took a seat on the couch to sip her cocoa and admire the beautiful addition.
She loved the old painting’s soft, pastel, colors that had so masterfully brought to life a hidden garden with trees, flowers, a high stone wall and round, marble, birdbath bedecked with cardinals, bluebirds, and canaries – the only truly vivid colors in the picture.
She raised her cup as if offering a toast. “Welcome home, old friend. Welcome home! Or, after all this time in captivity, perhaps the more familiar words would be, Willkommen zu Hause, alter Freund. Willkommen zu Hause!”
Upon My Passing
A short short story
by Tom Gnagey
From what I know of such things – and even at my age, who among us really knows – I believe my imminent passing will take but moments. The thought of having to leave the familiar, comfortable, and secure confines I have known all my life is intimidating to be sure. I have told myself that it is something that comes to all of us so should be anticipated not with fear and apprehension but with inquisitive resignation.
I will be remembered as Thaddeus Winston Wentworth the third, an impressive name, I suppose, for someone who has really accomplished very little in life. I have done my best to grow in body and mind according to the best laid plans of natural happenings. At this point I feel unqualified to judge if I have truly done my best in those areas. Time will write that chapter.
I follow my brother in this experience by three years – Jerry by name. Thankfully, so far I have not been degraded with diapers the way he was. Our parents – Jake and Thelma – often tended to get upset with him and took most unappealing corrective measures. I can proudly say that has never been the case between them and me. From early on I heard words like precious, beloved, and miracle tossed in my direction.
I have to wonder, though, how they will react to my departure from this place. Recently, mother has become quite emotional. I have heard her sobbing; no, that is not the proper word. I am not good with words. Crying or calling out, perhaps, or even screaming. Here in my carefully and lovingly prepared sanctuary I have been all quite purposefully shielded from the intensity of sound and emotion. I do believe that just outside I have heard the reassuring tones of my father and others whose voices I do not even recognize. During the past hour, murmur seems to have escalated into hubbub – would that be the right word? They must believe my moment is near. Fully unanticipated, I do believe my own mindset is that of excitement – the expectation that something wonderful lies beyond this final event.
There has always been music in my presence and they have played it often for me during these final days. It plays now. Throughout my life I have come to love music. In fact, I believe it has surely been the basis for nurturing my synapses and coaxing my mind to develop far beyond what it would have otherwise achieved. There is a structure to music that foreordains a logical progression of mental development and sets a dependable rhythm necessary for a successful life. I thank my parents for having provided that from my earliest days. And just now it provides solace, comfort, and reassurance as I anticipate my trek into the unknown.
Upheaval! My world suddenly seems to be changing – shifting – rapidly. This must, indeed, be my time. I feel queasy. I sense my family’s presence. I feel the need to say something profound – memorable – but words fail me as things are progressing too rapidly. I feel adrift in a sea of ever-rising, powerful, surging, waves. Oh, Yes! My being is most certainly on the move to somewhere. I want to open my eyes and check things out but there seems to be some heaviness preventing it.
What is that? Light? Yes, at long last the promised light – blinding light, and bone-chilling cold like I could never have imagined. There is pressure as if my access into the beyond must be forced – labored. I never considered that this process might be an ordeal – that it might be anything but a gentle, easy-flowing, pleasant, evolution. In truth it is difficult. It is hurtful, even. Clearly I can’t stay, and yet I don’t see how I can find the strength to navigate this grueling transition by myself. What am I to do? The child in me cries out. Help me! Mama. Please, help me!
The doctor smiled down at Thelma as he laid her newborn son in her arms.
“Thaddeus, meet your mother. May you have a long and wonder-filled life with your family – mother Thelma, father Jake, and big brother Jerry – may he seldom lead you astray.”
Maggie Brown's Dubious Arrangement
A short, short, story by Tom Gnagey
Maggie Brown was single. Maggie Brown lived alone. Maggie Brown was 71. Maggie Brown had the first serious suitor of her life.
“Now, Maggie, the other girls and I have decided we need to just come right out and say it.”
It was Maggie's neighbor, Sophia, who lived across the hall in the aging brick apartment building where a dozen older ladies made their homes.
“We think you better proceed with caution where Wilfred is concerned.”
“Wilfred P. Bushman,” Maggie offered in a slow, staccato, manner as if to boost his stock by name alone.
“Anyway, just be sure he's not a fortune hunter who will take you for all you’re worth.”
“All that I'm worth?”
“You know we aren't busy bodies and we're just looking out for your welfare, Maggie, but we put our heads together and figured with what you made from the sale of your home, your pension from the Water Department, and your social security, you must be worth at least $150,000. That’s a lot to protect, Maggie, and a pretty good score for a con man.”
“Score for a con man? You been reading those paper back detective books again? Wilfred P. Bushman is a gentleman in every sense of the word. He has more money than he knows what to do with. He has no need for whatever money I may have. You girls stop worrying about me. I wasn't born yesterday. I can take care of myself.”
Sophia had given it her best shot but she had known going in that Maggie was stubborn and single minded about such things. She left Maggie's apartment hands in the air, mumbling to herself, on her way to report her failure to the other girls. Maggie Brown was perhaps the only one who didn't see Maggie Brown as being incredibly gullible.
Maggie and Wilfred had been seeing each other for several months. In truth, although he dressed well, drove a nice car, and brought her expensive gifts, Maggie could only guess about his finances – other than, of course, that he was obviously rather well off.
That evening Wilfred came for dinner.
“Maggie, I've been thinking that it makes no sense for us to live apart. We enjoy each others company, we have lots of interests in common, and we get along splendidly.”
“Are you suggesting we live together in sin?”
“Oh, no, Maggie.”
He removed a small, black velvet, box from his pocket. He opened it revealing a diamond ring.
“Will you marry me, love of my life, Maggie Brown?”
“I don't know. I haven’t been thinking along those lines. When?”
“As soon as possible. How about Friday? That will give us four days to make whatever preparations we need to make.”
“Oh, my! Only four days? I don't know?”
“The way I see it,” Wilfred went on in what could have been interpreted as a well rehearsed litany, “My friend Judge Wilson can perform the ceremony in his chambers. You can leave the apartment and move into my big house – its so empty with just me there. We can set up a joint bank account and make reservations for a honeymoon in Miami Beach. What else is there to do?”
“You do seem to have things well thought through, Wilfred. It does make sense, I guess. I'm not usually this impulsive but yes, I'll marry you, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
“Wonderful!” You've made me extremely happy, Maggie.”
During diner they talked through their plans. Gullible Maggie, always practical in her approach to things, suggested that since they would be leaving for Miami immediately after the wedding it would make sense to make the arrangements at the bank before hand. Clearly surprised at the suggestion, Wilfred readily agreed.
For personal and legal reasons, Maggie had decided to keep her own name. She made the case to Wilfred that she wanted to avoid the hassle of changing names on credit cards, social security, her pension, and the small trust fund her parents had set up for her years before. Wilfred understood and offered no objections.
The melding of their assets went this way: Maggie transferred a total of $175,000 and Wilfred $325,000. It was an 'either or' account as was the custom of the day.
Afterward, they had lunch at a nice restaurant. Wilfred then dropped Maggie off at her apartment. According to the plan Wilfred would pick her up at one o’clock the next afternoon – Friday – when they would drive to the courthouse for the ceremony and then on to the airport. They needed to work around Wilfred's early Friday morning business meeting at which he said he needed to tie up several loose ends before leaving town. Beyond that, the specifics of the meeting had never been clearly stated.
Not according to the plan, at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, Wilfred appeared at the bank. He requested that the account be closed and asked for the funds in cash. He carried an empty brief case in one hand and a single ticket to Canada in the other. The teller left, returning after a few minutes with the branch manager.
“Mr. Bushman. There seems to be some confusion. At eight o'clock this morning Maggie Brown closed the account. As I recall she said she was beginning an extended European vacation.”
© 2010 Tom Gnagey
A short story about final priorities
It was early Saturday morning – Hilda’s 85th birthday. According to her plan this would be her last; in fact, according to her plan, this would be her last day.
She often quipped that she was out of life-long friends because they were all long out of life. She was lonely, well, except during the time she spent with the little girls at the group home down the street where she volunteered every Saturday morning. That, however, she figured was really a one way street – it was she who needed them as companions, not the other way around. The girls had each other – an abundance of companions among the seven of them. In her mind she characterized it as a marginally pathetic way for her to hang on to the fading memories of her own childhood – tea parties, dress up, giggling over things that only small girls understood were worth their giggles. Using kids for her own selfish purposes could not, she thought, be a healthy undertaking, even though she had done her best to make it a useful and enjoyable time for them.
It had been her determined plan for many years that on her 85th she would set her soul free to drift with the breeze, commune with the birds, and soar high above the clouds to be forever warmed by the sun. From the moment she awoke that morning she was filled with a sense of excitement, no, of exhilaration. An 85 year wait for freedom had seemed an eternity and yet, it was eternity that she was seeking, anticipating, so eagerly awaiting.
She fixed her usual morning cup of tea – nineteen dips of the bag and one lump of sugar – and she toasted her usual piece of dark rye bread – buttered sparingly as she had to watch the cholesterol. She then sat down at the kitchen table beside the window that offered the comfortably familiar view of her lush backyard with the flowers and trees and birds and squirrels that made it such a wonderfully peaceful place. She had so enjoyed the digging in the earth, the planting of the seeds and seedlings, and even the mowing and raking and annual whitewashing of the wooden fence – which was again in need. It was her creation and she selfishly guarded the view. She wondered if she would miss that once she had transformed into her ethereal self. Stop that! All such questions were to have been left behind.
She noticed a smudge on the window – lower left – that she would need to … Oh, no, she wouldn’t. She giggled at her foolishness. It fed her sense of elation. She took the amber vial of pills from where it had long resided between the salt and pepper shakers and held it close to her heart closing her eyes and raising her shoulders as if already in the midst of her long contemplated ecstasy. Another short-lived quandary entered her mind. Could the freedom itself possibly be an adequate match to the anticipation she felt about it at that moment. She dared not dwell on such thoughts. All decisions had been carefully made and the time for questions lay far behind her. She had promised herself that was how it would be.
She opened the container and examined the contents – twelve, plain white, easy to swallow, oblong, tablets, each one suitable for inducing a good night’s sleep, or, when combined, the glorious sleep that would last forever. It had taken some clever doing to obtain them and that, in and of itself, was a source of great pride for Hilda.
With loving care she coaxed them out of the container onto a dark blue, linen, napkin – the color selected especially for the occasion so her old eyes could find each one without difficulty. She arranged them and rearranged them as playfully as a child ordering and reordering the Cheerios floating in her bowl. In the end she disassembled the happy face and lined them up, side by side, one against the other for easy, sequential, access. She prepared the way by nibbling at her toast – taking pills on an empty stomach made for a disagreeable battle down there. She sipped her tea, making sure there would be twelve sips left to ease each of the pills on its way. The moment was upon her. She was ready. My, how she was ready!
The doorbell rang. Another inconvenient quandary. Would she answer it or ignore it? Hilda had never ignored a doorbell in all of her 85 years. It was something she just could not do. It rang again. She returned the pills to the amber vial and returned the vial to the space between the salt and pepper. Still, again, it rang. It would be possible to brew another cup of tea later. She would be able to adjust. She had always been able to adjust.
With all that settled, she stood and made her way through the living room to the door. The bell rang for a fourth time as she reached for the knob. Standing there, waist high to the old woman was a child – a disheveled little girl – Melissa from the home. She looked up into Hilda’s eyes. Her face was smudged and wet with tears. Her silent, irregular, short, choppy, sobs disrupted the rhythm of her breathing and convulsed her chest.
“Mrs. Thompson said you told her that you weren’t going to come back to talk with us and play with us and read to us anymore. Please come back. I love you, Miss Hilda. We all love you. We have a birthday party waiting for you with tea and coconut cookies and real cloth napkins and the blue and white plates you gave us at Christmas time. I stirred the dough and Myrna spooned them onto the sheet and Jenny put them in the oven, and Wilma made the icing and Bev put them on the big, glass, platter.”
She reached her arms around the old woman’s waist and sobbed into her apron.
So many inconvenient quandaries had emerged to change the nature of her special day. She took Melissa by the hand and soon had her sitting in the kitchen, her tears put away, her face again spic and span, her hair pushed back from her face and secured with a red, white, and blue, barrette from Hilda’s special box filled with things for little girls.
“I believe I have some cake candles here somewhere,” Hilda said searching the cabinet drawers. “We could put one in each cookie. I’ll help you light them and then you can all sing happy birthday to me. I have a feeling this is going to be the best birthday I have ever had.”
By Tom Gnagey
Caleb Covington was a very rich old man. Caleb Covington was a very sick old man. Caleb Covington was not a very nice old man. Caleb Covington had a secret.
“Good morning Mr. C.”
It had been the cheery greeting offered by 19 year old Johnny Smith as he adjusted the curtains in Caleb’s bedroom to let in the morning sun.
Johnny had – how shall it be put – been associated with Caleb since he was twelve. He was a live-in associate who ran errands, kept Caleb on schedule, readied his clothes, fluffed his pillows, drew his bath, and so on. The role of a valet might best describe the services he performed even though he was still a relative youngster.
Johnny Smith was a very nice young man. Johnny Smith was a very poor young man. Johnny Smith shared Caleb’s secret.
Johnny Smith was born Juan Herrero. He lived with his family in central Mexico until his twelfth birthday. On that day he was kidnapped by human traffickers. There were seven boys taken from the area that month. Some were older. Some were younger. None had agreed to the long, hot, terrifying, trip north of the border.
At some point after entering the United States they were sold individually at very private auctions. Caleb purchased Juan – Johnny. He brought him to his isolated villa among the mesas and canyons in the Southwest. His thinking was that a boy, lifted from poverty, educated, and given a good life, would be appreciative and could be counted on to take good care of his benefactor – his only source of support in the world. It was their secret. It seemed to have worked well.
Johnny learned to tolerate Caleb’s erratic temper and acerbic personality. He was appreciative of what Caleb had offered him – a luxurious place to live, an education, and a generous allowance of $100 a month. He felt lucky. He felt rich. His father had never earned that much money in one month during his entire life.
On Johnny’s thirteenth birthday, Caleb received a letter. It stated that the sender knew of the abduction, of the boy’s illegal status, and of Caleb’s fully illegal role in it all. It could have been from the trafficker himself. It had been known to happen. He said he could offer irrefutable proof of Caleb’s involvement. The author of the letter demanded a hefty twenty thousand dollars a month for his silence. For a man of Caleb’s great wealth the amount was rather insignificant. He agreed – the money for silence.
The first Monday morning of every month, Johnny delivered the money on foot in a back pack filled with a random selection of various sized bills. No one knew where the delivery was to be made until Johnny was well away from the villa. The instructions were that he would receive a call on his cell phone. The route and destination would be different each time. It was all well designed to keep him out of sight in case Caleb tried to have the boy followed in an attempt to nab the blackmailer. The backpack would be placed as directed and Johnny would return home. It typically took most of the day. It had been going on that way for years.
Johnny often wished for friends. He was tutored alone at the villa. He often wished for time off. When Caleb was awake, Johnny was expected to be at his side. He often wished for someone with whom he could speak again in Spanish. Only English was allowed at the villa.
What had seemed like a generally good life as a boy gradually became like a prison. The secret maintained his silence, his presence, and his obligatory devotion to the old man. Despite his circumstances, Johnny never forgot about his family in Mexico. During the first few years he often cried himself to sleep thinking about them, wondering about them, and wanting to share the important moments of his life with them. He had considered running back to them but Caleb had made it clear that if he went missing even over night his family would be harmed. Between that threat and the secret, Johnny felt he had no alternative but to stay. Surely the sick old man would soon die. Then he would be free. Every night as he lay in bed he delighted in his plans for that day. He hated Caleb but knew better than to show it.
And so it was that every morning he dispatched his cheery greeting and got on with the unchanging routine of the day. Johnny had seen Caleb’s will. His name appeared nowhere in it. Although he couldn’t understand that, he was not really surprised. Johnny was like a piece of livestock to the old man. That was made plain every day of his life. It had never entered the old man’s thinking that Johnny might deserve some portion of what he would leave behind, and because of Johnny’s illegal status the young man would never be able to pursue it through the courts.
Fortunately, the young man’s early years had been spent within the embrace of his loving family who taught him his true value as a human being. It was a lesson well learned and Caleb had not broken his spirit. The boy could often even smile to himself as he kowtowed to the man’s angry demands and cutting remarks.
Johnny repeated his greeting once more after the curtains were pulled back and tied in place.
“Good morning Mr. C!”
Mr. C. did not respond. Mr. C. did not draw a breath. Mr. C. was dead.
* * * * *
There was a mariachi band from Los Rios and wonderful, long unsampled food Juan’s mother and sisters had prepared. They danced. They sang. They talked until the first rays of morning appeared over the mountains. His brothers and sisters marveled at the fine clothes he wore and at the lavish gifts he brought to them. Clearly his life north of the border had been grand.
Juan smiled, nodded, and left it at that.
“Si, mucho grande!”
Juan had a secret. He would only ever share it with his father. A bank book.
“But how did you earn so much money in so few years, my son?”
“Figure it out, papa. Six years, times twelve months a year, times twenty thousand dollars a month!”
Dear, Sweet, Annabelle
A short, short, story
© Tom Gnagey 2011
Lamar Latham loved cats. He had loved cats for 84 years. Lamar Latham hated people. He had hated people for 84 years. Whether or not cats loved Lamar Latham was difficult to ascertain – cats being cats. It was not difficult to ascertain how people felt about Lamar Latham – people being people. They hated him. He wielded a sharp tongue, was ever critical, and delighted in highlighting the mistakes and weaknesses of others. He terrified children and sent them screaming for home by mounting his menacing frown and brandishing his heavy cane in their direction. He kicked dogs just because they came close enough to kick.
Lamar Latham was not a nice person.
There was one exception on the human side of those relationships – Annabelle Mosby, fourteen years his junior. She tolerated both cats and Lamar Latham. Lamar lived in apartment 201 directly above Annabelle in 101. It was a small, three-story, wooden, walk up, apartment building with rotting window sills and peeling white paint. In front it had been built up to the sidewalk in the days before mandated set-backs and building codes, and sat in what had become the transition area between old town and new town in a medium sized, upper Midwestern, city.
Everybody knew Annabelle as a capable, good-hearted, sensible, lady. Nobody could understand how or why she put up with Lamar. “She’s a saint,” some would say apparently easing their guilt through that recognition. “Has the patience of Job,” others would say, apparently easing their guilt through that recognition. Annabelle remained above it all and never commented as to the why or how of the matter. (Saints with the patients of Job don’t have to justify their behavior.)
The aging residents lived from one government check to the next and none had significant income beyond that. Well, it was known that Lamar did receive a pension check but others were not privy to the amount or other details. Rumor had it he was wealthy. His living situation, of course, suggested otherwise. Another belief was that he clandestinely owned the building and lived off their rents. Within that tight knit circle of aging residents, reality never trumped rumor. Many were therefore jealous of Lamar and a few of them figured Annabelle knew something they didn’t, and was intending to somehow cash in through her kindness and assistance to the old reprobate. Why else would she be investing so much time and energy on his behalf? Still, none of them demonstrated any inclination to help or comfort him or improve their relationship with ‘Old 201’ as he was often called.
Annabelle did know things. Annabelle never shared things. She kept Lamar’s records – bank book, legal documents – deposited his several sizable checks each month, and wrote and mailed the letters he dictated. She sent cards on relatives’ birthdays although Lamar could have cared less. He had alienated them early on and, to his satisfaction, they made no effort to contact him. She made sure he ate well and took his medicines. At least twice a week, weather permitting, she cajoled him into taking walks with her along the aging sidewalks in the ever changing neighborhood. She assisted him up and down the stairs.
Unbeknownst to the residents, Lamar harbored a second soft spot – other than the one for cats. He had been raised by his grandparents – his very poor grandparents. He had seen them suffer because of it and believed poverty was an unfair fate to foist on the aged generation. In his will, he had therefore remembered each resident with a modest bequest. His estate was to be divided with a large donation to his favorite and only charity – an organization for the care and treatment of abandoned cats – and a lesser amount for the residents. Annabelle was included for her one share like the others. Annabelle would not complain about that. The charity – C-C.A.T.S (Cat Care and Treatment Services) – had actually been discovered for Lamar by Annabelle many years before when he expressed an interest in finding such an organization. He made sizeable monthly donations. It was the only thing in life that made him feel good inside.
‘Things’ began happening. Unpleasant things. Scary things. Malicious things. At one point the screws in Lamar’s front door knob had been loosened so he was unable to get out of his apartment. The single window leading to the iron fire escape was nailed shut with large, strong, spikes. His morning newspaper was stolen, periodically. His mailbox had been broken into – apparently chiseled open at the lock. There had even been written death threats – three of them mailed to him. They presented no explanation. Each was the same: “Death to Old 201” scrawled with a blue marker on cheap pink stationary.
Lamar wanted to go rapping on doors and root out the scoundrel or scoundrels responsible. Annabelle helped him understand how that would only make matters worse. Being mum about it and not giving the culprit the satisfaction of knowing that it was bothering him would be the best course. If, later on, it became necessary, they could call in the police. She pointed out that if the threats were coming from one of the enfeebled residents, it was doubtful any one of them was capable of causing the old man’s death.
It did, however, lead Lamar to change his will. It was a savvy move for a man whose old brain was as well used as his. In all honesty the idea may have been prompted by an offhand remark from Annabelle as she expressed her disgust at the unnerving goings on. Lamar had Annabelle prepare a note for each resident. It read in part: “In case of my death from natural causes, one quarter of my estate will go to C-C.A.T.S and the rest will be divided equally among the current residents here in the apartment house. It will be a substantial sum. If, however, my death is caused by accident or suspected foul play, my entire estate will go to C-C.A.T.S.”
The message was clear: Help keep the old man alive and free from accidents, and you will be rewarded. Fail in that and you will not.
Annabelle arranged for Lamar’s attorney to make it all legal and a week later, the new will was signed, notarized, and sealed safely in the attorney’s vault.
Unfortunately for the residents, a few days later, Lamar Latham, was found on the floor of the first level entry hall, dead from an obvious fall down the stairs. It came as no surprise. He had experienced difficulty making the climb for years. Annabelle had often privately thought a simple pat on his back would send him tumbling. The coroner ruled it an accident – and accident was not a natural cause. Too bad, residents.
* * * * *
A week later, as Annabelle was tidying up her apartment – placing into a white trash bag things she wanted to get rid of – she got a call from her bank.
“The C-C.A.T.S. account at our bank, which is in your name, has received a very large deposit from the estate of Lamar Latham – just over one million dollars. Shall we also transfer that into your personal account the way you have instructed us do with his smaller monthly deposits in the past?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Annabelle smiled as she continued to place things into the trash bag – the hammer and small sack of spikes, the Phillips screwdriver, a dozen newspapers still in their yellow plastic sacks, the metal chisel, what was left of a pad of pink stationery, and a large, blue, marker. She wouldn’t need them in her new, twelfth floor, luxury, apartment overlooking the pristine sandy beaches of South Florida.
A Tale of Two Brothers
By Tom Gnagey
Walter and Henry – neither ever married – were identical twins and still bore an uncanny resemblance at age 54. They had been born several weeks prematurely while their parents were on safari in Africa, and amid the commotion of their untimely appearance, the order of their birth was lost. Neither could, therefore, claim to be the eldest son. They were short of stature and uncommonly slender, having been described as grotesquely gaunt as adolescents. Their pale skin set an eerie contrast with their still jet black hair and brown eyes. With sharp chins, high foreheads, and long, gangly ears they could in no way be described as pleasantly featured.
They lived – as they always had – a reclusive life in the family mansion atop a mostly barren hill north of Black Water Springs, Kansas. The brothers were – what’s the word – despicable in virtually every dimension. To describe them as overly competitive severely begs the thoroughgoing depth of the relationship. They hated each other and everybody hated them. On his deathbed their father said that his one great sadness in life was that he had been unable to find a way to divorce them. Not even their great wealth could override their disagreeable personal and physical attributes in the eyes of the ladies.
With their wealthy parents long since departed the only remnant from earlier family times was Alfred, the long-suffering, forever present, butler. Everybody loved Alfred – well, everybody but Walter and Henry. They hated him primarily because everybody loved him. Still, they would have been lost without Alfred so dismissing him had never entered their minds. Being thoughtfully, self-centered was perhaps their most positive personal characteristic.
Although neither outdid the other in most of their repulsive qualities, Henry was, perhaps, the more conniving of the two. He had always been a manipulative schemer, and as such had delighted in regularly getting Walter into undeserved trouble. It had been the basis for brutal physical battles between them. Since they had been designed as physically ineffective weaklings, no level of combat ever really inflicted any significant damage. As adults and with the passing of their parents, that had become less of a force in their lives.
As meaningless as it was, the greatest contention between the two of them was who deserved the bulk of the inheritance. Each contended he was the older. Neither of them had so much as a shred of evidence to support that. So long as they resided together in the huge, old, house and lived on the family fortune most would have thought it fully irrelevant. Not in their minds, however, even though the Will clearly split things equally between them, with Alfred standing in the wings should anything happen to the sons.
Henry had a plan, the kernel of which had developed way back prior to puberty. He had revised and honed it down though the years. In some convoluted sense of logic and justice extrapolated from their birth year having been 1955, he designated their 55th birthday as the moment of truth – the moment Walter would die leaving Henry as the sole legitimate heir. It was a matter of fulfilling his rightful destiny and Henry had not looked beyond that fact.
Through the years it had become a ritual that on the night of their birthday they would climb the stairs to the attic – the fourth floor – and spend time going through the things stored there, rehashing the memories the items rekindled. It was the one dependably civil time between them. As boys, they had preferred the back, spiral, stairway. It became their private passage to all the places they were not allowed to go. It was too narrow for them to climb side by side even back then. It was steep and dark. The fragile wooden railing that ran along the outside away from the curved wall had become unstable over time. A brisk breeze flowed through its central core from the basement, up and out the fireplace chimney, which sat in the center of the attic. It whistled an eerie air as it played in and out of each crevice. As children, on hot summer nights they would often take pillows and sleep on the third floor landing enjoying the moving air cooled in the deep, rock lined, basement before spiraling past them on its way toward heaven.
Henry’s plan was straight forward. He loosened the tread board on the top step at the attic landing and tied a large bag of sand by rope through a hole along its outside edge. A rope extending down to Alfred’s quarters – on the third floor just above the boys’ rooms on the second – was attached to the sand bag which sat on the landing. The lower end of the rope was attached to Alfred’s door. When that door was opened the rope would pull on the bag making it drop, which would raise the loosened tread board, which would send the person (in this case Walter) who was standing on it over the outer railing to drop to his death on the basement floor forty-five feet below.
Henry would arrange for Walter to climb the stairs well ahead of him. At the crucial point in the assent Henry would tell Walter to stop. He would call down to Alfred who would open his door to see what the man wanted. The deed would be done. Walter would be dead and Alfred would be blamed. Henry would be the victor. There was also the matter of hiding the rest of the rope coil in Alfred’s room along with the nails, which had been removed from the tread board. Earlier in the week Henry had sent Alfred to purchase the rope for him at the local hardware store. The deck had been well stacked against the old gentleman.
There were two more crucial items. Henry set up a confrontation between Alfred and Walter at the grocery store in town that morning. Witnesses would vouch for the fact of bad blood between them. Nobody in Black Water Springs would hold Walter’s murder against dear old Alfred. The law would, however. Finally, at precisely the proper moment on the night of the fifth, Henry would call the sheriff to report the continuation of the altercation – one in which Alfred was making death threats toward Henry’s dear brother. The timing assured the authorities would arrive close to the moment of the fall and before Alfred would be able to disable the rope and hide the evidence. Henry was quite proud of himself.
The night of the 5th arrived. The two began the climb to the attic. Henry followed his plan to a T. The mechanics of the plan worked flawlessly.
* * * * *
Alfred stood on the balcony of his newly acquired penthouse in Miami Beach and greeted a new day – well, a new life, actually. As butlers do, he had known everything that went on in that big old house. He had been well aware of Henry’s plan for years. When he realized he was being set up in the grocery store he figured the time was at hand and understood the why and wherefore of the rope purchase. Alfred was, of course, well aware of the birthday ritual. He examined the crucial area of the house and relocated the incriminating evidence to Henry’s room, running the rope on down to Henry’s door on the second floor. Alfred arranged to be cleaning that room at the time – having entered from the front stairway according to the police report. When he rushed out the rear door to answer Henry’s call, the murder was set in motion.
Walter was dead. Henry was in prison. Alfred was the new heir to the family fortune.