(September 2022’s short story of the month. Better late than never!)
As a young girl, she learned how to juggle fruit: apples, oranges, sometimes pears. There was little risk, little drama, and people smiled politely and then moved on. But they started paying attention when she started juggling knives and saws.
She didn’t notice when the same man returned day after day to watch her. She smiled at the crowd and faked moments of danger. She didn’t notice him the first day when he watched in a suit, and she didn’t notice the second day when he watched in a hoodie and jeans. She didn’t even notice him on the third day when he was in a suit again, albeit a much nicer suit than the first time.
She didn’t notice, but Chuck did. Chuck watched her tips and drew in the crowd by hyping her skills.
As they sat on their bunks in their 400 square foot apartment, he asked, “What’s with that guy that keeps coming back?” He didn’t see any reason why someone would want to see the act more than once. It was always the same. The same fake moments of peril and the same planned moments of success.
“What guy?” Laney asked. She stacked the bills in a neat pile with each one facing the same way. “We did alright today. Might make the rent on time this month.”
“The guy in the suit,” replied Chuck. “He’s been back at least three times that I’ve noticed.”
“Weird,” said Laney and went back to counting their tips.
The next day the man returned. This time, Chuck nodded towards the man when he was collecting tips to indicate to Laney this was the guy.
After the performance, Laney collected their things, and Chuck took off after the guy. He followed him until he ducked into a coffee shop. Chuck stood outside waiting to see if the man would go somewhere else. Instead, hours ticked by. The man did nothing but sit in the shop ordering cup after cup of black coffee.
Chuck texted Laney the location. She arrived several minutes later, and Chuck still stood watch outside.
“He moved yet?” asked Laney.
“Nope. Just sits there like he’s waiting for something,” answered Chuck.
Laney looked through the window, and the man was looking right at her and waving.
“Pretty sure he’s waiting for me,” she said as she took a deep breath. “Stay here, and keep watch. If things seem off, don’t let me out of your sight.” Chuck nodded.
As Laney sat down across from the man, a waitress walked over and placed a latte in front of Laney.
“I didn’t order this,” said Laney looking back and forth at the waitress and the strange man.
“It’s all right. I ordered for you. I took a shot. Cinnamon latte. Don’t drink it if you don’t want to.” He folded his hands on the table in front of him.
Laney sat down reluctantly. She could smell the coffee. It was enticing. She didn’t trust the situation, but she wasn’t going to let a six dollar cup of coffee go to waste either. She took a sip. She waited for him to talk.
He smiled as she drank the coffee. “Right. You’re probably wondering why I’ve been watching you?”
She didn’t say anything or give any indication that she’d noticed him watching her. She kept studying him to see if she could figure out his game.
His hair was brown and cut and styled in a nondescript basic cut. He was clean shaven. Today he was wearing a suit that was dark grey with matching jacket. His buttoned up shirt was also grey. Everything about his was designed so that he wouldn’t stand out in any way.
He was caucasian with blue-grey eyes. He had an average build, and average height. She wouldn’t be drawn to notice him in anyway.
As Laney was taking all this in, she realized that the man’s whole point was to go unnoticed. He was boring in every way.
“I work as a recruiter for someone who needs people with a specific skill set. Specifically, the ability to look fear in the eyes and not flinch.” He didn’t smile or smirk. His eyes didn’t have a hint of humor in them.
This guy was being serious. Laney wasn’t sure what to think. What could he possibly want with her? She still didn’t say anything.
“I would like to recruit you to work for me.” He leaned back like he was waiting for her to respond.
“I don’t know what to say to that. Recruit me to do what?” Laney reached into her pocket and texted Chuck. Within a few seconds he was in the coffee shop too.
The man didn’t react when Chuck showed up. “Why don’t you join us, Chuck?”
Chuck shrugged and pulled up a chair. He sat close enough to Laney for their legs to touch.
“He offered me some kind of job, but he’s being purposefully vague,” said Laney. She and Chuck didn’t have secrets.
The man glanced at Chuck and Laney and seemed to come to a decision. “I can offer you both a job. You wouldn’t be the first pair we’ve recruited.”
“Recruited to do what, exactly? You haven’t said anything yet that makes me want to believe anything you’re saying,” responded Laney.
The man was quiet and stared at them for several minutes before he finally spoke. “You would be asked to perform odd jobs. Whatever is asked of you.” He paused and leaned forward. His voice dropped to a whisper, “No matter what is asked, you find a way to make it happen. Do you understand me?”
Laney and Chuck looked at each other. This was nuts. There was no way this guy was for real. Did he think they were stupid?
Without speaking, the two stood up, pushed in their chairs, and turned to leave.
They went back to their apartment hoping that was the last time they would see him. When they opened the door, they thought at first they’d been robbed.
Turning on the lights, they realized their mistake. All their belongings were packed like they were moving. As they stood trying to understand what they were looking at, there was a knock on the door.
I have won NANOWRIMO! Woot woot! I just finished writing 50,000 words this month. And now I don’t want to even think about the draft. As a more traditional NANOer, I don’t edit as I write. (I do check spelling). So, here is the first chapter of my very, very rough novel titled Solved by Magic. If you read it, be nice. It’s probably pretty terrible. I’ve never written a mystery novel, so this was an experiment for me.
As always, happy reading and writing today and every day!
Solved by Magic
Chapter 1 When It Rains, They Die
It was raining again. What else could you expect in Seattle? The emerald city was dreary and not doing anything to improve anyone’s mood. The air smelled of damp garbage and a faint whiff of urine.
A person rushed along the sidewalk trying to hug the buildings. Their efforts were in vain though, the rain was on a mission that night. It poured down onto the heads of everyone drenching them and soaking them through.
Their hand slipped as they tried to push the door open.
“Damnit,” they said. They moved the cake from one arm to the other and used their other hand to push.
The door to this building always stuck, especially when it was raining. After stepping foot in the door, they stamped their feet, though it did little good because the mat was saturated. The cake started to slip from their grasp, but they grabbed it with both hands now that they were through the door.
They followed the murmur of voices carrying down the hall.
“Hey,” a brunette said as they entered the meeting room.
“Hey,” they replied. They sat the cake down by what was arguably the worst tasting coffee ever made. Whoever made it each day should be ashamed to live in Seattle. It was against everything the city stood for.
The chairs were already set up in neat rows facing the podium at the front of the room. The floor was tiled and aged, and the walls were do for a touch up. The once white paint was now more of a grey brown. Those gathered didn’t care about the shabbiness of the place. It mirrored the tone of the meetings in so many ways.
Everyone took their seats. Most of them sat in the same place every week. Newcomers were the last to sit, waiting to see where others would stake their territory.
Some of the chairs creaked and squeaked as everyone settled. The meeting was underway. They listened to each person tell their story followed by the others congratulating them and clapping. They were the last to share. Tonight was a milestone for them.
They were celebrating, hence the cake.
“I’m ten years sober today.” They paused and smiled. “It’s been a very long, and a very short decade.”
Some of them chuckled. A few chairs creaked as people shifted around. Some of the new members were growing restless. They hadn’t planned on attending and celebrating someone’s ten year mark. Of those gathered, some were only ten days sober.
“I won’t bore you all with my story. Many of you have heard it too many times anyway.” They looked around and smiled at the familiar faces smiling back at them. “Why don’t we get to the part of the meeting we’re all looking forward to.” They pointed to the back of the room. “I brought a cake. Please, have a piece with the world’s crappiest coffee before you set back out into the deluge of our fair city.”
There was a big round of applause. It felt like it was more for ending their speech than anything else.
“Thanks for bringing a cake, though I feel bad for asking you to, since it was your celebration and all.” A familiar voice droned on while they ate their cake. Others came up to them and shook their hand. All in all, it was a fairly depressing celebration.
As they stood there, nibbling on bits of cake and making small talk, they started to feel uncomfortable. Others began to feel unwell too. First, their head hurt. It was a headache that felt like it might split their skull. They made a quick excuse and went to the restroom.
They sat with kneeling on the dirty and dusty tiles vomiting up the cake and coffee. It didn’t end there. They regurgitated everything they’d consumed that day. And when they were finished with that, they threw up bile.
In that few minutes, they didn’t understand what was happening. As the pain and nausea continued to intensify, they panicked. This kind of pain wasn’t normal. This was the kind of pain you went to the hospital for. As they rested on the floor trying to focus on anything but the pain, others came into the room.
The stalls filled with members puking up their guts. There were murmurs of “what is happening?” and “make it stop.”
In the seconds that felt like minutes that they were sitting on the stall floor, there was a brief moment of clarity.
Something was wrong, very wrong. And it wasn’t just the coffee. Before the pain blacked out everything else, they pulled out their phone and dialed 9-1-1. Unfortunately, they dropped the phone before they hit send.
As several of them succumbed, the rest of the members grew alarmed. Luckily, those falling to the floor weren’t the only ones concerned about the fast acting illness. Another member called 9-1-1 at the same time. Their call went through and Seattle’s finest were on the scene in just over twenty minutes.
In addition the police, ambulances lined up to take away those stricken ill, but they were too late. In the minutes that everyone stood there waiting, desperately wishing there was something they could do, five people died.
Once the police and EMTs were on scene, the remaining members did their best to recount what had happened. The problem was that it all had happened so suddenly. How do you explain something that is outside your own understanding?
As the cops took statements, the crime scene techs arrived and began collecting evidence. With this many bodies, and the sudden onset of the illness, poisoning was suspected immediately. Everything in the building was evidence. The cake was collected, along with the foul coffee.
The longer they stood there being questioned, the more the members realized that they were all suspects. They were told not to leave town and their statements were triple checked. Their alibi was irrelevant. Any of them could have done it.
While they were being questioned, another one of them started to feel sick. He dropped to the floor.
“Someone grab his head. He’s having a seizure.” The EMTs were still on the scene. They did everything they could to help. Everyone else, cops, AA members, and crime scene techs, were useless. Whatever was causing the rapid deterioration seen throughout these people was too fast acting to stop.
The death toll ross to six. After that, the police rounded up all the remaining members up again and escorted them to the precinct. They weren’t taking any chances. One of those at the meeting was most likely the culprit.
The techs went about processing the scene. They gathered the food and coffee and also water samples. They picked up the pamphlets and collected paper cups. Photographs were taken and diagrams were drawn. Everything was labeled and collected according to procedure. They taped off the room and locked it in case they needed to return to collect anything else.
The building super wanted to know when the room could be used again.
“Not anytime soon,” said one of the techs.
The super wasn’t happy.
“Seriously, don’t use this room until we give you the all clear,” said the tech making direct eye contact with the super.
“Sure, sure,” agreed the super.
The tech was pretty sure the room would be used the minute they left the building, but none of them were paid enough to sit around and guard it.
As the case proceeded, the cops questioned and re-questioned everyone that had any connection to the building, no matter how tentative. The forensics confirmed what everyone had suspected from the beginning—poison.
In this case, someone had laced the coffee with cyanide. When asked who’d made the coffee, every remaining member had agreed. Victim number six always made the coffee. They wouldn’t have poisoned themselves, would they?
As the days ticked by, little progress was made. The only conclusive fact was that the poison was a very strong form of cyanide. Not something you could just buy. Someone had made it more potent. That seemed to indicate intent. Had one person been the target and the other just collateral damage?
No matter how few leads they investigated, nothing was learned. The cops tried leaning on those who’d been at the meeting, but nothing came of it. No one knew anything. All of them seemed scared.
Following the deaths of their friends, some of them had fallen hard off the wagon. They needed those meetings now more than ever, but at the same, they would never be able to attend one again. Watching their friends die so quickly and without reason scared them for life.
No leads pointed to anyone. The case was going nowhere, but unfortunately, the news wouldn’t let it go. The media frenzy surrounding the story refused to die down. Headlines that predicted deaths were great for ratings. The papers printed stories with headlines like “What if you’re next?” “Random acts of violence on the rise.”
The detectives investigating the case, like every other cop in the SPD, were getting pressure from their boss to find someone, anyone, that could have committed the crime. Six deaths could not go unaccounted for.
The original cops on the case did their best but it lead nowhere, eventually, more urgent cases popped up. The files were kept open, but without any new leads, nothing could be done.
After nearly four weeks of nothing happening, the original detectives were called into the office of their captain. She was the meanest person in the department, but also the most respected. She didn’t get to be captain of the west precinct homicide squad by chance. She’d worked hard to get her place, and she fought hard to keep it.
Captain Carol Sayers was an impressive 5’11’ and thin as a bean pole. She towered over most people and wore heels that made her even taller. She liked to look people in the eye when she spoke to them, and she would rather be looking down into someone eyes than up into them.
“Sit,” she said to the two detectives milling about in her doorway. She was tapping a pen on her desk pad and glancing out the window watching the rain fall.
Detectives Rosemary Howe and Rook Wilmot were her best homicide detectives. They had an impressive closure rate, and more professionalism than most of the other detectives put together. The captain wished she could bottle up whatever made these two work so well and spoon feed it to the others.
The two sat quietly waiting for the captain to be the first to speak.
“You know about the poisonings that happened a month ago,” Sayers said.
They both nodded. How could you not know about it? The whole precinct, every department, kept talking about it. With no suspects and no leads, the news had resorted to blaming the SPD for the deaths.
“Well, today is your lucky day. It’s your case now,” said the captain.
Both detectives shifted in their seats. “We don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. We thought the case was Moore and Stevenson’s?” asked Wilmot.
“Not anymore,” replied the captain getting to her feet and coming around the desk. She sat perched on the side facing them. “They aren’t making any progress.” She paused and sighed. “We need fresh eyes. A new lead. Anything really. We can’t let six deaths go unexplained.”
“Of course,” said Wilmot.
“Plus, the media is determined to bring it up as much as they can. We aren’t looking very competent right now.” Sayers studied the two as they sat there. They studied her back, not in a challenging way, but in the way that capable detectives did. They observed and put pieces together. Hopefully this puzzle wouldn’t be outside their capabilities. “I want you to work on this case and nothing else until you’ve exhausted everything. Go over everything again. Requestion all the witnesses. Until I say otherwise, this is your only case.”
They nodded at her and left her office without asking any questions. Rosemary had a feeling this case would get dropped on their laps. The really tricky ones usually did. She hated cases like this. It was the kind of case that needed solving but didn’t want to be solved.
It’s NANOWRIMO! You should be writing! (Just kidding. Only be writing if you want to).
Well, it’s only the third day of NANO and things are going well for me. This year, I’m writing something I’ve never written before–a mystery novel!
It’s fun to be trying something new, but also daunting. I’m enjoying it so far. Unlike fantasy writing though, I’ve had to look stuff up. (Gasp). I’m not world building or creating my own magic. This time, it’s about solving a crime (and a little bit of magic).
Anywho… whatever you’re working on this month, I hope it’s going well for you.
If you’re here for the short story prompt of the month, you’ve finally found it!
November’s short story prompt:
It was just ridiculous enough to be true. Then again, she could be making the whole thing up. It was just so hard to imagine Diane’s father, the respectable banker who never left the house without a suit and tie, actually…
Complete the Story
This one sounds like it might be leading somewhere salacious…