Day 364 (T minus 1): The Happening

Damien ran into the cafeteria and squeaked his sneakers to a stop where Al and I ate lunch, plopping down on the bench next to me. He looked at me, then at Al, breathed out sharply and nodded. “The Men in Black are here.”

Al dropped his sloppy joe.

“Where?” I asked.

“Palm Street, just off Main.”

“What are they doing?” asked Al.

Damien threw up his hands. “No idea. But they’re all over the place.”

The clock on the wall said twelve sixteen. Nine minutes left of lunch break. “Gonna have to play hookey,” I said. “Let’s grab Harry.”

We intercepted Harry coming up the west wing and filled him in. We had a well-established escape route down the street side of the gymnasium and across through an antique store’s parking lot, then down a back alley.

Damien was right. Literally dozens of men milled about Palm Street, almost all of them in black clothing. Black shirts, black pants, black shoes, even black hair. They chatted in groups smoking cigarettes, sat alone, or went in and out of the local businesses. Some of them wore cowboy hats. We walked by and stopped in front of the thrift store.

“It must be a big happening for so many to work openly like this,” said Al.

“That’s what I was thinking,” said Damien.

“I thought they’d all be in black suits,” said Harry.

“Yeah, they’re probably lower level operatives,” I said.

A lot of them went in and out of the Golden Recording Studio. Two of them spoke quietly and leaned on the mailbox in front, as if they were guarding the place, but trying not to show it.

I tapped Al on the chest. “Hey, you guys think that’s a temporary headquarters?”

“Maybe it’s permanent,” said Damien. “Right under our noses this whole time.”

“Let’s talk to them,” said Al.

“They’re not going to tell us anything,” said Harry.

“Can’t hurt, though.” I was pretty keen on talking to them. Our UFO Hunters club could really use some contacts in the organization, and—who knows?—maybe we could get involved. “Let’s try the guys by the mailbox.”

The man on the left was taller than most and smoked a cigarette. No hat.

“Hey, mister.” Damien walked up to them. “I’m Damien Scorelli. May I ask your names?”

“Johnny Stone.” The tall one held out his hand and Damien took it.

“Is that your real name?” asked Harry.

“Of course not.”

I exchanged glances with Damien and Al.

The short one extended his hand to me. “Jason Ghostrider.” He smiled. “Mine’s not real, either.”

“You… you’re men in black,” said Harry.

They both nodded and smiled. “Yeah. That’s right.”

“You know Johnny Cash?” asked Jason.

“Huh-uh,” I said.

Damien let go of Johnny’s hand. “Was there some space alien activity around here?”

Johnny straightened, a funny look crossing his face. “There’s been a lot of activity around here.” He furrowed his brow. “Who wants to know?”

I stepped forward. “My name’s Jimmy Dickerson. This is Harry Crawford and Al Kaiser. We’re UFO hunters, and we’d like to get involved with your organization.”

Johnny chuckled. “My organization?”

“Yeah,” I said. I wasn’t happy the way he didn’t seem to take us seriously. “We do investigations all the time. You’d benefit from our experience and resources.”

“It’s dangerous work, hunting aliens,” said Johnny.

Jason scoffed. “Johnny, you shouldn’t be telling them that.”

Al stepped up. “We can handle it.”

Johnny pursed his lips. “I believe you could.” He leaned over, hands on his knees. “Okay. Here’s the thing. There’s an initiation for joining our team.”

“Johnny!” Jason pushed him in the arm.

Johnny glared at him. “Leave it alone, Jason.”

Jason shook his head and walked off.

“You want to be part of us, go inside there.” Johnny pointed to the Golden Recording Studio. “Ask for an audition, and do whatever they ask you to do.”

I looked at my pals, and we all nodded to each other solemnly.

“You know any Johnny Cash songs?”

I shrugged.

“My parents listen to him sometimes,” said Al. “But I don’t know any.”

“That’s all right,” said Johnny. “You know ‘This Land is Your Land?’”

“Yeah, of course,” said Harry.

“Just sing that.”

“They want us to sing?”

“Don’t question it,” said Johnny. “If they let you join, you’ll understand then.”

It didn’t make much sense to me, but, who knows? Maybe singing could be used as a way to paralyze aliens.

We walked into the studio. It was dim, but pleasant. I grabbed Damien and pointed to a poster on the wall that said ‘Man in Black Retrospective, Coming this Summer.’

“Is it code?” he asked.

I shrugged.

A big bald man sat in a chair in the reception room. He looked up from his tablet.

“Hello, sir,” stammered Damien. “Can… can we have an audition?”

“You all together?”

Damien nodded.

The man reached onto the counter next to him and grabbed a clipboard. After examining it for a minute, he handed it to Damien. “You can have the last slot in ten minutes.”

Damien wrote on the clipboard and handed it back.

After seventeen minutes, baldie ushered us into the recording booth. Two men sat in the dark on the other side of the glass.

“What is this?” asked a voice.

“We’re here for the audition,” I said.

They murmured to each other. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“On my count,” I whispered. I counted to four, and we all sang ‘This Land is Your Land.’ It wasn’t bad.

“Thank you. You may leave now.”

“Did we pass?” asked Al.

“We’ll let you know.”

When we got outside, the Men in Black were gone. Whatever the happening was, it must have cleared up.

All four of us were as excited as we’ve ever been.

“We could be real UFO hunters,” said Harry.

I scowled. “We are real UFO hunters.”

Harry frowned. “Yes. Yes. Of course.”

I smiled. “But you’re right. This could be really good.”

I don’t know how long it takes to process this kind of thing, but I was stoked. I went home and started a page for case number five. At the top I put “Unknown Happening.” In the middle, I took notes about our initiation audition to be bona fide Men in Black.

That was about two years ago, and I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that they were never calling back. I stopped in the studio several times, with the guys or alone, but whenever we asked for the Men in Black, they claimed no such people worked there.

Yeah, right. Had it been temporary? Did they vacate after we found out they were there? We’ll never know, but it was the closest we’ve come, so far, to the real Men in Black.

I thought it was finally time to close the case. Underneath the notes about the initiation I wrote ‘Rejected.’ At the bottom of the page for the happening, I wrote ‘Unsolved.’

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Day 280: Mystery Map

I knew the map that fell out of my granddad’s diary was something special the moment I saw it. It had his initials in the lower right corner, E.S for Everett Stewart.

My mom’s a Stewart, my dad’s a Dickerson. Our photo albums are full of old black and whites going back to Everett Stewart as a kid. Most of the ones with grandma and grandpa together were taken under the same maple tree where he proposed, and you could see it growing larger through the years.

The thing on the map that caught my eye was the saucer-shaped picture drawn right next to an unnaturally skinny figure with a disproportional head—much like the gray aliens reported in abductions all over the world. I also recognized a few landmarks he’d marked the dotted-line path with. What really fascinated me, though, were the words across the top. ‘Follow for something out of this world.’

I ran over to Damien’s house and pulled him out of a Battleship game with his sister to show him.

“What do you think? Is it legit?”

“I don’t know,” said Damien. “Out of this world can just mean ‘great’ or ‘fun,’ and this saucer thing could be anything, a pill, a ring, or a Bundt cake for all we know.”

“Yeah, but granddad was in the Air Force—he could’ve been involved in anything. Maybe he’s been to Area 51.”

Damien shook his head gravely. “All right. Let’s check it out.”

We called Howard and Al to meet them at Newman’s Convenient Store. The trail on the map started at Newman’s Soda Fountain, but I knew from my dad it changed its name before I was born.

We found the next few landmarks along the dotted trail, an arch in front of the Quakers’ graveyard, Bowleg Creek’s bend, and the old abandoned chapel, but it got harder after that. We eventually found them, but as we got to the end, passing through what turned out to be Main Street Park and dodging a bunch of kids with Supersoakers to get to the bolder that marked the tree at the end of the trail, several men in suits and sunglasses walked around the park, eating sandwiches and poking around.

“Feds,” said Al.

“No mistaking,” said Howard.

“We need to distract them,” I said.

“Leave it to me,” said Damien. He ran back to the kids with the Supersoakers and borrowed a couple, making a B-line for the feds.

We left the yelling behind, found the boulder right next to the maple tree on the map. There was a heart carved on the tree, but a very old one. The letter E was barely visible, but the rest of it had grown into a blur.

I don’t know what we expected, but with the feds around, there had to be something, right? We searched the area and waited to see if anything came up, but we didn’t find a thing. Perhaps there’s a secret entrance to a bunker we couldn’t find. Perhaps the aliens have invisibility shields. Maybe by beating the feds there we scared them off.

All we know for sure is that we followed a map true, and found ourselves at its end, nothing to mark the spot but an old carved heart. A mystery for the ages. At the bottom of page for case number twenty-four I wrote in big block letters—‘unsolved.’

Day 264: UFO Spoor

The signs of extraterrestrials are quite ubiquitous. That’s the word my mom says when she means ‘everywhere.’ Sometimes we just stumble across things, like the time Damien, Al, Howard, and me walked through the woods to get to Newman’s Hobby Shop. We came across a clearing that was covered in crop circles.

Well, not exactly crops, it was a grassy meadow, and not exactly circles. There were squares and hexagons, too, but who cares? It was plain to see that UFOs had made their marks.

Damien held out his hand and beckoned. “Jimmy. My phone.”

I carried the Strange Phenomena Kit—we rarely went anywhere without it, so I peeled it off my shoulder, dug through the side pocket for his iPhone and handed it to him. He started taking pictures and video.

The sizes and shapes of impressions varied. A few were quite large, especially a square one that must have been caused by a ship as big as a house, but most were small, like car-sized or maybe a small Airstream.

“Wow.” Howard pulled a notepad and pencil out of the pack. “This was quite a fleet.” He scratched notes.

Al wended between the outlines. He hopped a stream that ran through the middle of the clearing down a slight incline. I followed him, and Damien came along.

Al squatted next to a hexagon. “They didn’t compress the grass evenly in one direction. Not even in the circles.”

“You know what that means,” I said.

“That’s more realistic,” said Damien.

“Exactly,” I said. “More natural. Much less likely to be a hoax.”

Al stood up and pointed along the ground outside the impressions. “There are a lot of random scrapes in the ground.”

“Landing gear?” asked Damien.

Howard caught up to them. “Could be.” He waved them back toward the stream. “There’s a circle of ash over here.”

We gathered around it. “Like someone got zapped with a ray gun or something,” I said.

“That’s what I was thinking,” said Howard. “There are a few more on the other side.”

They shivered. The feeling of danger was thick in the air.

We found a less defined trail of depressed grass going into the woods again.

“Could be a runway,” said Al. “Or they might have carried everything into the woods.”

They trudged into the trees, but soon lost the path, so they wandered more, and tried to find the right bearing towards Newman’s. They came upon another clearing bustling with human activity. A community of nature lovers clustered around several dozen tents, some cooking and others lashing together branches for some unknown project. Signs posted all around the camp said: ‘Leave No Trace.’

We’d seen these people before on another as-yet-unsolved case when we fled what we thought was the zombie apocalypse. My dad called them ‘grass eaters.’ A long-haired man I knew as Gerald sat on a stump and stitched the side of a boot. Gerald, if not their leader, was at least a sort of spokesman.

“Whazzup, G?” said Damien. He fist bumped Gerald, who then tied the thread off.

“Living the dream,” said Gerald. “What are you boys up to?”

“Heading over to Newman’s,” I said.

Gerald slipped the boot on his foot. “Oh, I like that place.” That surprised me, considering their lifestyle. I couldn’t exactly visualize an HO train set inside one of these tents.

Al handed Gerald the other boot. “You wouldn’t happen to have seen any aliens, have you?”

He gave them a bemused look. “Not today, I haven’t.”

Howard pointed back the way we came. “Nothing unusual down that way?”

“No.” Gerald took the boots back off and wiggled his toes. “We camped down their for a while, but it was too wet.”

Damien and I looked at each other, then caught the eyes of Howard and Al.

“Ooooh,” I said.

“Yes,” said Al. “Aliens obviously prefer the moisture.”

Damien nodded.

“Exactly,” said Howard.

With this new intelligence, we said our good-byes and headed for the marshy part of the woods. That’s when it got extremely eerie.

“Do you hear that?” asked Howard.

I didn’t hear a thing at first, but Damien and Al swore they could.

“It kind of sounds like a spaceship engine might,” said Al.

A little farther along, and I started to hear it. A chorus of chirping. A veritable wall of sound that may or may not have sounded like a spaceship engine. “It’s like a flock of birds, but greater and more consistent.”

As it got louder, we watched with wide-eyed anticipation. It sounded like it was straight ahead of us and we should see it, but as we stepped into the muddy area, the sound stopped dead.

A chill went up my spine and into my shoulders, and a jumping frog startled me.

“It’s got some kind of invisibility shield,” I said. “And when they noticed us, they turned the engine off.”

We searched all around, waving our arms in front of us to feel for it, and couldn’t find anything.

“We look like idiots,” Al said.

I had to agree.

Howard spoke to the air. “We know you’re here. We’ll treat you peacefully as long as you do the same for us.”

Nothing happened. Eventually we got bored and moved on.

At Newman’s, I drooled over an HO starter kit, while Damien, Al, and Howard pooled their money for a motorized balsa wood airplane model.

I remained paralyzed by desire, imagining a gigantic replica of the Swiss Alps to build my train around.

On the way back, we searched further for any sign at all of the aliens, but we found bupkis. Resting on a picnic table at the edge of the forest, I pulled out my secret files notebook, and wrote down case number twenty-three. At the bottom I wrote ‘unsolved’ in big, slanted lettering.

Day 261: Saving Mr. Pinckney

“I think Mr. Pinckney has been replaced by an alien,” said Damien. “He’s got an eldritch demeanor.”

‘Eldritch’ is a word Damien used to show off. Why not just say ‘spooky’ or ‘eerie.’ We were hanging out in Al’s basement, Al taking apart a humidifier, Howard reading ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ and Damien setting up for Dungeons and Dragons.

“He’s always acted strangely,” said Al.

It was true. The man spoke in a monotone, but he said the goofiest things. Like the other day he told us chemistry was like a hundred different flavors of lollipops, and then he looked around and said, ‘Just making sure there are no llamas in the room.’ What the heck? In a small town like ours, these eccentricities get noticed. ‘Eccentricity’ is a word my mom uses to describe freaks.

“Yeah,” said Damien. “But he’s gotten weirder.”

There’s another one. Why not say ‘weird’ instead of ‘eldritch?’

I found myself agreeing with both of them. “You’re right,” I said. “He’s gotten a bit bouncy when he walks up and down the rows of desks, and he stares out the window all the time now. Exactly the kinds of things an alien would miss while keeping his cover.”

“He’s also completely lost his beard,” said Damien.

“We should test him,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Al. “Let’s kick some alien butt.”

Howard put down his book and held up a finger. “If he’s been replaced by an alien, he’ll let his guard down when he’s not in public.”

“That’s right,” said Damien. “We’ll follow him home from school Monday.”

Thirteen hours of D&D and a half-night’s sleep later, we were all pretty electrified by the prospect of following Mr. Pinckney after school. We brought our bikes, and Damien brought his iPhone for pictures or video, just in case.

It was easier than expected. Mr. Pinckney only lived a few blocks from school, and he walked.

When he entered his house, we ditched our bikes at the end of his block’s alley and crept up, looking for vantage points to see inside. We cut through some yards and found a trashcan shed that gave us cover and a higher perch for observation. That’s when we saw him.

Mr. Pinckney was dancing! Inside his living room, he had a big smile on his face, rolled his arms, swayed, and just plain grooved.

“That can’t be him,” I said.

“Not in a thousand years,” said Al.

Damien tried to get some video, but it was too far away and too dark to show up well on the iPhone.

“So did extraterrestrials replace him with one of their own, or are they controlling his mind?” asked Damien.

I had to think about that. “That’s a good question.”

Harry raised a finger. “If he’s an ET, he won’t eat human food. He’ll eat something completely different.”

“True dat,” said Al. He was trying to sound like his dad.

We discussed how to get a better vantage point of the kitchen when Mr. Pinckney disappeared into the recesses of his house. A few minutes later he came out with a button-down shirt and a sport jacket, and went outside to his old, blue, beat-up Cavalier.

I jumped off the shed. “To our bikes. Hurry.”

We ran down the alley, picked them up, and hopped on at a run. By the time we got around to the street, he was already backing out of the driveway to head the other way. We pumped our legs hard to keep up and just barely kept him in sight after he turned and then stopped at a house a few blocks down.

He knocked on the door, and a lady came out, taking him arm-in-arm down the sidewalk.

“That’s gotta be his handler,” gasped Damien.

“Right,” I said, trying to catch my breath. “She could be controlling his mind right now.”

“You know she is,” said Al. “Look at how rigid he is walking next to her.”

We followed them to Main Street where they went into Applebees. We took turns pretending to use their bathroom to see if we could get a good look.

Howard went first. “They’re laughing in there. Mr. Pinckney never laughs.”

Al came back with a grave expression. “He’s eating real food. Soup and some chicken dish.” He glanced back toward the restaurant. “But she’s only eating vegetables. No meat. No dairy. Just water to drink.”

“I knew it,” said Damien. “So he’s still human, and she’s the alien controlling him.”

“We’ve got to break the spell,” said Al. “We can’t just leave him to her mercy.”

“Some kind of shock to his system,” said Howard.

“That makes sense,” I said. “All right. We’ll go in together, and you guys distract them.”

The boys did a great job. They said hello and pretended to be surprised to see him while I found a bottle of tabasco at the bar. I approached the table from the opposite side, Mr. Pinckney’s back to me, and the woman looking at my friends.

Mr. Pinckney gesticulated and said. “This is my girlfriend, Lauren.” The disbelief on the guys’s face was priceless. Mr. Pinckney with a girlfriend? It erased all doubt that she was an alien. I came in low behind him and shook a good dose of tabasco on what looked like chicken parmesan, then quickly capped and pocketed it.

I stepped in with the gang.

“Oh, hello there, Jimmy. Hope you all have your homework done for tomorrow.”

I laughed nervously, and we said our good-byes. Before we got out the door, Mr. Pinckney gasped and grabbed his water, chugging. His eyes popped out of his head, and I could see the clarity in his eyes, and maybe some embarrassment. He was definitely self-aware again.

In spite of that, he stayed with the woman and finished his dinner, but we all went home knowing that the spell was broken, if only for a time, and that we gave him his best chance to see the woman for what she was and to escape the mind control that threatened him.

Within a few weeks we found out that he stopped seeing her, and his behavior returned to normal. We’ll never know the true nature of that alien or how she managed to change his behavior and control him, so I marked it down in my notebook as ‘Case 18: unsolved.’

Day 239: Covering the Crime

Patty gallomphed through the woods looking for a little creature to talk to, her pocket full of bread and mixed nuts. She liked squirrels best because they would bark at her for long minutes, sometimes throwing her a nut or two, but she was in the mood for something different. A porcupine maybe or a pileated woodpecker.

Voices chattered past a hummock ahead, so Patty veered left to get behind a cluster of arrowwood and approach them unnoticed. Two young men smoked cigarettes at the base of a giant cottonwood, maybe two hundred feet tall. She didn’t know either of them. One had a butch haircut and a leather jacket, the other in a jean jacket with longish hair and peach fuzz. Both were at least a head taller than her.

The long-haired one pointed his two fingers holding the cigarette at the other. “We’ve got to get our story straight—every detail has to be the same.”

“Nuh-uh.” The butched kid flicked his cigarette to the ground. “You got it all wrong, man. The more rehearsed and exact our stories, the more they’ll think we made it up. We’ll be busted for sure. We get the strong points dead on, but we disagree, even argue about the rest.”

The more they spoke, the harder Patty listened.

“Like how?” asked peach fuzz.

“Like, we both say it was two guys that took her, see. But we disagree what shirts they wore. Like you keep saying one guy had a green shirt with swirly lettering, but I’m dead set on saying it was a blue one with a Penn State logo. See what I mean?”

“Won’t that make us unreliable?”

“That’s the beauty of it—they already know everyone’s unreliable, so if we get little things different, they’ll find us believable on the big things.”

Peach fuzz nodded silently and puffed his cigarette.

Butch pulled out a pack and tapped out another, then lit it. “And we’re going to have to look for her real hard, without rest, even if we know we won’t find her.”

Patty tried to slow her heavy, quivering breaths so they wouldn’t hear her. She tensed her entire body, too frightened to move. She forced herself to listen as long as she could before she would run to town and called 9-1-1.

“Wait a minute,” said peach fuzz. “Now I think you’re wrong. I seen it on TV where criminals try to inject themselves into the investigation, so we should just stay out.”

“Not when it’s a good friend who’s missing,” said butch. “It’ll be natural for us to work hard to find her. Besides, we’ll be looking, not investigating.”

“All we did was take her out for some fun.”

“Against her will.”

“Seems a waste us searching where we won’t find her,” said peach fuzz.

“It’s not a waste. It’s showing them behavior of innocents,” said butch.

Peach fuzz put his cigarette out on the cottonwood. “Can’t we just pretend to discover her and bring her back?”

“Out of the question,” said butch. “We’ll be top of the suspect list. We’ve got to stick with the abduction story.”

“But if we just—”

“Cal!”

Patty noted peach fuzz was named Cal, and watched butch point to the sky.

“She’s up their now. We aren’t going to get her back.”

Patty fought tears.

“All right, Jess.”

“One more thing,” said Jess. “Don’t be tempted to find her ourselves. The only way we should find her is if she’s directly in our path.”

“What then?” asked Cal.

Jess shrugged and shook his head. “Then, by all means, ‘find’ her.”

It was more than Patty could bear, so she turned to go back, but slipped and fell.

“What was that?”

She lay at the edge of the arrowwood, so she buried her face in her arms and froze, hoping they wouldn’t come around.

“Are you okay?”

She looked up tentatively. The boys looked down at her, and Jess reached for her, but she scuttled backwards.

“Don’t touch me!”

“What’s the matter with you?” asked Cal. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

“What did you do to that girl?”

The boys looked at each other.

“What girl?” they asked.

“The one with the story. The two men. Blue shirt, green shirt.” Patty pushed herself to her feet, ready to run.

“Oh! You mean Chippey,” said Jess.

“Ch-chippey?”

“Yeah. The team mascot,” said Cal. He pointed midway up the tree they’d been talking under. A monkey lay on a branch chewing on leaves. “Coach is going to kill us if he finds out we lost her.”

The tension released all through Patty’s body. She pulled out her baggies with bread and nuts. “Maybe I can help.”

Day 231: Liberty Head Nickel

Shaverham set down his lordship’s requested Gibson with scarcely hidden disapproval.

“Shaverham, what happened to my new coins?” asked Lord Bumpersnick.

“I couldn’t say, sir. Perhaps, given their resplendent display obstructing the room, a visiter could not contain the temptation to show them around.”

“That’s complete rot, Shaverham. Send up the alarm. Call up the bobbies. Search the rooms, for heavens sake, and make it fast.” Bumpersnick took a less than genteel slurp of his Gibson. “Such a collection might be sold in a day.”

“Indeed, sir.”

“We must recover the Liberty Head Nickel, Shaverham.” He schlucked the rest of the drink down, onion and all. “It’s my Hope Diamond. My Faberge Egg. My Arkenstone!”

“We must refine your reading, sir.”

“Don’t be such a snob, Shaverham.”

“I will endeavor to improve, sir.”

“The Liberty Head Nickel is worth four times the value of all the rest of them.”

Shaverham and Butler Cranbury conducted a search of the manor with footman Cridgeford’s assistance, strenuously avoiding any offense to their guests. In the wastebasket behind footman Puffleschmidt’s bed, they found the coin holders stripped of their treasure.

“I hardly think it could be Puffleschmidt,” said Cridgeford. “The man is irreproachable.”

“I can scarcely disagree,” said Cranbury. “But the evidence is incriminating.”

Cridgeford scoffed. “Would a man with his intelligence leave such evidence, I ask you? This has every characteristic of a frame-up.”

“Right, you are,” said Shaverham. “It seems another layer to the plot must be unearthed.”

“I suppose,” said Cranbury. “But how to proceed.”

“I say.” Cridgeford picked up a few coin holders. “Look here. These casings have grease on them. Our little mastermind has left behind a clue. Who might have grease on their hands?”

Shaverham took a coin holder from the footman and sniffed it. “It smells of automobile oil.” He handed it to Cranbury, who immediately gave it back to Cridgeford and pulled out a cloth to wipe his hands.

Cridgeford dropped them back into the wastebasket. “What’s our next move then, sir?”

Shaverham hitched his mouth. “Cridgeford, remain here to safeguard this evidence while Cranbury and I search Applebaum’s room.”

“You think it’s the driver?” asked Cridgeford.

“We’ll be back forthwith.”

Shaverham unlocked the room over the garage and searched the drawers, the closet, and Applebaum’s private cases. He then lifted the mattress to find a few dozen loose coins underneath. Cranbury’s inventory revealed that all were accounted for, except the Liberty Head Nickel.

“His lordship will be crestfallen.” Shaverham collected the coins in a felt pouch and strung it to his belt.

“Not if we get to Applebaum first,” said Cranbury. “The guilty party will have it stashed, and a firm interrogation will produce it.”

“Let’s assemble all the evidence before confronting him, shall we?” said Shaverham.

“Right ho,” said Cranbury.

Shaverham grimaced at the vulgarity.

They returned to Puffleschmidt’s room.

“What’s it?” asked Cridgeford.

“We recovered a tenth of the collection’s value,” said Shaverham.

“More like a fifth,” said Cridgeford.

“Quite,” said Shaverham. “I’d say we are ready to bring the accused before his lordship. Come along, Cridgeford.”

They hiked it to the study where Lord Bumpersnick read a Philip K. Dick novel.

“Good evening, sir,” said Shaverham. “Our investigation has met with success, and the guilty is discovered.”

Cridgeford took his place next to Shaverham. “Shall I send for Applebaum, sir.”

“I hardly think that’s necessary, Cridgeford. Is the Liberty Head Nickel in your room or on your person?”

“B-beg your pardon, sir.”

“I must say, you almost had me. To frame someone of framing someone else was a splendid show of misdirection.”

“Is it true?” asked Cranbury.

Cridgeford pulled at his fingers. “How did you know, sir?”

“I didn’t say what we’d recovered,” said Shaverham. “Yet you knew enough to correct the value I gave you.”

Lord Bumpersnick set the book down and stood in front of Cridgeford. “Where’s my Arkenstone, footman?”

Shaverham wrinkled his brow. “Too much drama, sir.”

“Don’t be a snob, Shaverham.”

“Yes, sir.”

Day 67: Buried

Morris awoke in complete darkness, barely able to move, his arms and legs pinned against silky material. His forehead touched the material when he lifted his head, only a couple inches between. Pressure from a cylinder lodged between his arm and side gave him discomfort. He breathed easy, maybe better than usual, so there seemed to be air. He pushed up with a shoulder and bent his knees to do the same, but other than a little give of cushion, he couldn’t move anything. He might as well be buried in a coffin.

It was a coffin, he realized. What else would it be? His heart sped up, and his breaths became quick and short, but he calmed. “I’m breathing fine. It can’t be so bad if I’m breathing.” His voice was comforting and disconcerting at the same time.

He resolved to think his way through it. Take inventory of what he had at his disposal and consider the options. He couldn’t bend his elbows outward far enough to get his hands in his pockets or even feel them properly, so he undid his pants, and pulled them down little by little until he could work his hand into them. A dime. That’s all he had.

He explored as much as he could, then wanted to move himself in a better position. Foremost he hoped to move the cylinder that dug into his side and maybe get his arm up where he could get more leverage. He’d explore the entire managable range of motion.

While he squirmed and moved and explored, he tried to understand how he might have gotten here. What was the last thing he remembered?

He was at a party drinking cheap wine, Carnivore Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, talking to his on-again, off-again buddy, Thomas. Morris was telling him about a little one-to-one soiree he’d arranged with Cindy Myers.

“No, you don’t,” said Thomas. “I’ve been seeing her for weeks now.”

“What? No.” Morris dug in for it. “You know how long I’ve had a crush on her.”

While they argued, Thomas’s sister, Lisa, brought more wine, trading Morris’s empty for a full one, then filling Thomas’s and the empty one from the bottle.

They didn’t resolve anything. Thomas even told him to be careful who he angers, but Lisa set her wine down and pulled their heads together at the napes saying, “If I can get over it, you two can get over it.” That seemed to settle them both, and their discourse was friendlier after that.

A buzz by his right cheek startled Morris into paroxysms, thinking some large insect was inside the coffin with him, a bright flash accompanying it. He nearly wet himself, and the musty smell of flatulence filled his space. It took him a moment to realize it was his cell phone. He turned his head, but couldn’t see who the call was from. He couldn’t grab it, so it stopped after the third vibration. A minute later he heard the chime indicating voicemail.

It took some time and strained his breathing, but he worked his left arm up and over to the cell phone. The cylinder crowded the right arm, preventing much movement at all. He two fingered the phone and pulled it to his chest. The display showed no signal. “How did I just get a call?”

Fortunately, his voicemail downloaded to the phone, so he navigated to it and pushed ‘play.’

A hoarse whisper came over the line, sending chills through his back and groin.

“You’re getting what you deserve, Morris. No one is going to find you ‘cause you’re six feet under the ground. You’re still alive because the tank under your arm has been feeding you oxygen since I buried you. It won’t last much longer.” Morris’s scalp prickled. “You’ll have just enough time to consider what you’ve done before you die.” Morris started to panic again. “You won’t have a signal, I made sure of that. I’m using a cellular extender, but I’ll be shutting it down as soon as I hang up. Good-bye, Morris.”

What had he done? Whose whisper was it? It was familiar, but he couldn’t tell. He looked at the phone again, and sure enough, no bars. He tried to dial 911 anyway, but nothing connected. He laid the phone on his chest.

There was nothing else that he could find in the coffin. The sharpest thing he could cut or dig with was the dime. No way he’d accomplish anything in time, if it worked at all. He thought about the oxygen tank. Could he rig it some way to explode while protecting himself from it? How would he get a spark, anyway? Who left the message?

Early in the party, Morris had finally gotten the courage up to ask Cindy Myer’s out. She spectated a friendly poker game he was in, and when he won a big pot, he drew a heart using a black Sharpie on the heads side of a dime and handed it to her.

He chatted with her after the game, cajoling her to go out with him.

“I can’t,” she said. “Lisa’s my friend.”

“Lisa’s a big girl. She took it fine when I broke it off.”

Ultimately, she agreed to the date later that night.

Morris ripped at the material in front of his chest. He knew it was an act of desperation, and he savagely fought down panic. He tried to come up with something else that might save him, but he could only think of stripping off the material, then trying to carve through the lid with the dime. His breathing was becoming labored. He feared that the oxygen ran low.

Before Morris had gone to the party, he’d stopped by Lisa’s house to break up. They’d known each other for a long time, and he respected her enough to tell the truth.

“You know I’ve been smitten with Cindy for some time,” he said.

“I do know,” she said. “I’ve been trying to save you both from that possibility.”

“Well. For a short while I didn’t think of her at all.” He tried to give her a good-bye kiss, but she pulled away. Walking out the door, he wondered if he’d damaged their friendship. He never should have gone out with her in the first place.

With the material cut away, Morris dug for the dime and scratched at the lid’s surface with it. As his breath grew shorter his scratching grew more frantic. His phone chimed and lit up the coffin. The message indicated the battery was low. As he returned to vigorous carving he stopped because there was something odd about the dime. In the light there was a heart drawn over Roosevelt’s head in black.

“Cindy. Why?”