Short Story: Mystery
The forest green of Moira Dey's USA Courier uniform matched her flashing eyes. “Thieves!” Her car screeched to the curb bordering the fragrant lilac hedge, then she got her Irish temper in check and entered her small brick house.
“Hey-hi!” Phil Reid looked up from slicing celery into the stew pot. Moira's gaze softened. A painful divorce two years ago had left her feeling both vulnerable and needy, a bad combination. She'd chosen solitude rather than risk another attachment. Then Phil, a lawyer who'd truly kissed the blarney stone, had swept her back into society.
“Why so glum?” Phil handed her a nip of cooking wine.
Moira felt frustrated. Would this interest a lawyer? Her stolen heirloom brooch had little monetary value, after all. But it was her only keepsake of Grandma Fenwick. Moira fished once more, uselessly, in the small cargo pocket concealed under the wide lapels of her uniform jacket.
“Grandma's vintage log-cabin brooch needed the fastener repaired. I had it in my pocket, ready to drop off at the jewelers after work. We take our jackets off in the office all the time, so it was sitting around, but …”
“But they're your friends.” Phil eyed her jacket critically. “It didn't fall out?”
“With the pocket zipped?”
Returning to the stove, Phil soothed, “I know how much heirlooms mean to people. My sister has an American Heritage motif pin, about twice the size of yours. Real diamonds in the setting, too, not just diamond chips. She loves it, but it's irreplaceable, so it never sees the light of day.”
Moira, arms around his wait from behind, rocked gently back and forth as Phil sprinkled cloves in the pot. She felt no guilt about relaxing while he worked. By agreement, it was his cooking night.
But she couldn't stop thinking of the heirloom brooch, placed years ago in her care by quivering fingers. Remember the old ideals, Grandma Fenwick had said. Be true to yourself. That fine, steely woman had died just days later. Losing the keepsake made Moira feel hollow, as if she'd betrayed her grandmother's memory.
When tears dampened the back of Phil's shirt, he snapped his fingers. “Listen! You've got what, three coworkers in the local office? Write down each name and home address. Then start thinking up plausible excuses.”
Phil set out cheese croissants with his stew on a gingham tablecloth. The croissants were store-bought, a minor violation of their agreement, but Moira didn't nag.
Phil grinned across the table, looking wolfish. “Feel like taking a little drive tonight?”
They sauntered into the first yard. Her coworker, Kevin, was hustling a toddler away from an idling lawn-mower.
“Kev!” Moira shouted brightly. “A customer called. Real anxious. Says he gave us the wrong address for delivery. Did you handle …”
“Nope. I was in the office all day. Car broke down.” Kevin massaged his hand. “Writer's cramp. They made me catch up on paperwork.”
Phil spoke up. “I'm Moira's beau.” He smiled at the old-fashioned word she teased him into using. “Name's Phil Reid. Just made partner in my father's law firm.” He extended a hand.
The ritual complete, Phil studied the neighboring house with feigned interest. “That looks about two thousand square feet.” Phil rubbed his chin. “What've you got? About fifteen hundred? Nice stained glass on their front door, too – perfect match to the paint.”
Phil continued his comparisons, bringing a defensive scowl to Kevin's tanned face. That's just the way of lawyers, Moira thought. Get a target off-balance and agitated so he'll spill more. One thing puzzled her, though. She detected real glee in Phil's voice, a kind of ‘oh-ho’ quality, when he talked up one person's achievements to another.
Just then Kevin's attention was captured by snapdragons flying with abandon through the air. “Make spears!” the toddler chortled amid Kevin's wail, “Your momma's going to be mad!” Seeing that Kevin was about to scoop him son into the house, Moira rushed forward.
“Kev, I lost a brooch today that belonged to my grandmother. I feel sick. You didn't see …”
Kevin shouted over his shoulder, “Try the lost and found tomorrow. Or something.” The door snicked shut amid the toddler's squall.
At the next house, Moira embroidered on her spiel. “The client's just been hired on in his office. Doesn't want his boss to know he botched the delivery address.”
The coworker, Joyce, looked thoughtful. “Yeah, we get that kind sometimes. Wish I could help, but I don't remember a customer by that name.” Then an impish grin lit Joyce's lined face. “So when are you two getting hitched?”
“Phil and I met a whole two months ago. Give us some space!” But Moira flushed with pleasure. Suddenly, she could no longer keep up the charade.
“Joyce, have there been any thefts from the office before? You know, personal belongings?”
“Why, honey, is that why you came all the way over here …”
Smoothly, Phil cut in and described the missing brooch. “My sister has an heirloom, too, but I've always judged Moira's more elegant. Finer quality onyx with a carved gold border.”
He's making it sound better than his sister's brooch; he did just the opposite at our house, Moira thought confusedly.
“My,” Joyce said. “Just about anybody would long for the thing, hearing it described that way …” Brrring went the kitchen phone. Joyce bid a crisp farewell and fled behind her oak door.
Now what? Moira felt drained. Phil's enjoying himself, she thought, let him take the lead on the last stop.
Her coworker Vicky, a model's figure sheathed in lycra, was just mounting a slick red bicycle. “Gotta get the kinks out after warming a car seat all day!” she called, seeing Moira trudge up the walk.
“Spare us a minute?” Phil introduced himself, his eyes for a split second scanning the lycra, then the expensive machine. “This is what, a mid-range model? Cousin of mine, over Montana way, he just plunked down three thou for the top-of-the-line job. Composite frame, odometer, the works!”
“That would be a racer. Mine's a mountain bike. And it is top of the line.” Vicky eyed him cooly.
Phil bore down. “Something else is valued these days. Heirlooms.”
Vicky turned to Moira. “Did you come for something, like, or what?”
Moira's quiet explanation mobilized Vicky's angelic features into a snarl. “So, like, you think it's me?” She turned to the lawyer. “You can't go casting libel on people. You might get sued.”
Starting to pedal, she added loftily, “I've just landed a part-time modeling contract. I gotta stay in shape.” She sped out, pebbles spurting in all directions. One pinged Moira's forehead. She flicked it away and her shoulders slumped.
That evening, Phil's mood was philosophic. “Well, I think we know. But without hard evidence or an outright confession, a court case won't get on the docket. The case is too thin even for Small Claims Court.” For an hour, Phil explained the strict, sometimes arcane, rules of evidence in law. Finally, he softly kissed the top of Moira's head. “I'm going to bed. Trust me, put this behind you.”
Moira stayed up, warming her aching chest with a cup of hot cocoa. She wouldn't, couldn't, stay in a free-wheeling environment where a filcher made a fool of her. On the kitchen table she searched for The Weekly Bugle and pulled it towards her, its messy folds a reproach of their chaotic day. She opened it to the classifieds.
Moira skimmed the endless columns of ads. At the top of page five, she set the cubicle-cube offerings aside in disgust. No jobs of the outdoor type… She blinked. Her grandmother's words suddenly stood solid in her mind: Be true to yourself. And with tears stinging her eyes, Moira laid a plan.
Next day at lunch, she showed Phil what she'd done. “The Collector's Den has their big spring sale this week. I went over and bought a cheap necklace. It looks antique to the untrained eye. I'll take it to work, show it round like I did with Grandma's brooch, then let opportunity knock.”
“Don't touch it,” she added slyly. “It's covered in itching powder!”
A smirk played around Phil's mouth. They ordered lunch. Over the slouvakia, Moira drew another treasure, a real one, from her shopping bag. It was a medieval book.
“You know, Phil, sometimes hard experiences have a silver lining. I feel better after finding this book. The Den charged peanuts, but I think it might be a rare edition.”
Phil listened attentively to this lovely Irish girl as she described, in glowing terms, her theory of the significance of the old book. The lunch interlude passed quickly. At one o'clock, Moire excused herself to freshen up.
A little later, when the inevitable confrontation came, Moira was not as calm as she wanted to be. Her voice shook.
“Three employees had access to my brooch: Kevin, Joyce, and Vicky. Kevin was around the office all day. But he volunteered that information. No thief would be so stupid. Then Joyce. She's so sympathetic, so motherly, I just couldn't believe she would steal. Vicky? Aha! She got furious when confronted. Just sneered and ran.”
Moira blew her nose. She was nearly out of tissues, but she wasn't going to back down. The clincher during her musings last night had been Vicky's bragging. Some people bragged about other people's accomplishments. Vicky bragged about her own. That girl, with her model's figure and still-wet contract, had no envy in her.
Memory of something Grandma Fenwick taught had surfaced last night too. Something meant to put a catty neighborhood girl in perspective all those years ago: People who try to provoke jealousy in others are habitually jealous themselves. Last night, Moira sent thanks heavenward for that insight.
Now she lashed, “I knew you'd snatch that musty book when I went to the ladies'. You lust after anything that's talked up in your presence. Anything that others value.”
Beaten, Phil slowly handed over the brooch. He'd become a bulldog when cornered, but by now he was whining. Her own Irish storm had run its course. Phil pulled the ‘rare’ book from his other pocket, but Moira shook her head. “Worth zilch.”
Cradling her grandmother's bittersweet legacy, she walked out of the restaurant.
Author comment: This mystery story is more a whydunit than a whodunit. The journey of discovery is with human nature.
Tuum Est - It Is Up To You
Steel sculpture made of letters and symbols
Action, looks, words, steps, form the alphabet by which you may spell character.
Johann Kaspar Lavater
Said Mr. Baldock: ‘How do you read a book? Begin at the beginning and go right through?’
‘Yes. Don't you?’
‘No,’ said Mr. Baldock. ‘I take a look at the start, get some idea of what it's all about, then I go on to the end and see where the fellow has got to, and what he's been trying to prove. And then, then I go back and see how he's got there and what's made him land up where he did. Much more interesting.’
Laura looked interested but disapproving.
‘I don't think that's the way the author meant his book to be read,’ she said.
‘Of course he didn't.’
‘I think you should read the book the way the author meant.’
‘Ah,’ said Mr. Baldock. ‘But you're forgetting the party of the second part, as the blasted lawyers put it. There's the reader. The reader's got his rights, too. The author writes his book the way he likes. Has it all his own way. Messes up the punctuation and fools around with the sense any way he pleases. And the reader reads the book the way he wants to read it, and the author can't stop him.’
‘You make it sound like a battle,’ said Laura.
‘I like battles,’ said Mr. Baldock. ‘The truth is, we're all slavishly obsessed by Time. Chronological sequence has no significance whatever. If you consider Eternity, you can jump about in Time as you please. But no one does consider Eternity.’
From The Burden by Agatha Christie
(writing under pen name Mary Westmacott)
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