2008 Short-Story Contest winner: "Working the Crossword"
Published: January 12, 2009
|Congratulations to W.E. Mueller of Chesterfield, Missouri, our 1st place winner in The Writer's 2008 Short-Story Contest! This year's genre was mystery stories. Mr. Mueller chose to set his story in the distinctive "hard-boiled detective" drama style of the 1940s. Enjoy! -- The Writer|
| It was a rainy Friday afternoon and I was looking forward to the weekend. Something had to break. I had spent the week serving divorce papers, tracing a missing 'hubby' just back from sub duty in the Pacific, and taking transom shots of adultery at the Coral Courts Motel. I didn't like the work but it paid the rent, as they say. The week had been a bust. I needed somebody's big trouble; that would mean a big fee. I'm a private investigator. My name's Zach Bannister.|
I sent Geraldine McGuire—my Girl Friday—home early. I looked out my second floor window and watched her umbrella pop open as she stepped into the rain. Sheets of it swept across the window, sounding like someone throwing gravel at me. Black umbrellas bumped along the sidewalk like mushrooms on a conveyor. I hung around the office because I had a ticket to the Brown's game that night. Nobody went to see the Browns play. But the Yankees were in town, and I'd pay double to watch Rizzuto play short and DiMaggio pick up a bat. The Browns didn't stand a chance, as they say.
The game was probably a 'rain out,' but I had nothing else to do, so I hung around the office. My feet were propped on my desk, a cold Falstaff in one hand and a pencil in the other—working the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. I was fighting the ennui creeping over me. I picked up on "ennui" months ago—12-Down, five letters: Boredom. Today, I was stuck on 24-Across, five letters: Large River in China. The Yangtze and Yellow didn't fit. Who the hell knew another large river in China?
That's when I heard the hall door open and someone step into the reception office, where Geraldine sits. The hard click of heels meant either a leggy babe or a tap-dancer from the Muny Theatre. There was a soft, polite tapping on my office door.
"Mr. Bannister? Are you in there?" Her voice was husky, Marlene Dietrich quality.
"It's open," I said.
She stepped into my office and the lousy week flipped one-eighty. She was gorgeous. Blond hair in a tight chignon, fire engine red lips and a country club tan. The clothes said London or New York. A swirl of colored feathers made a hat that listed portside on her head. Enough jewelry hung around her neck to open a new Tiffany's.
Photo by (Credit: Mark Evans)
"I'm Bannister." I walked around my desk.
She paused at the door, making sure I assessed the whole package. She had more curves than a roller coaster and she came at me like that first, slow, uphill grind that promises plenty of thrills ahead.
Dietrich said, "Jeannie Crain is a friend of mine and said that if I ever needed help I should come to you." Months ago, I had cleared Randolph Crain of an embezzlement charge. Jeannie, his wife, demonstrated unexpected appreciation. Dietrich continued, "She said you were smart, tough and good looking. Smart will do."
"Compliments won't get you a discount, Mrs. —"
I knew only two Smithsons. One they had named a museum after in D.C., and the other was local Judge Harold Smithson. But Judge Smithson had passed eighty and this filly was furlongs behind at thirty-five. She definitely didn't come from a museum.
"I'm Harold's wife," she said. "Marie."
We shook hands and I circled back to my chair. I could see her surveying my desk—a bottle of scotch, dried coffee cup rings, a telephone, my beer, pencil, and the newspaper folded to the crossword puzzle.
"I try to keep things neat," I said, waving her to the client chair facing me. It was a hard, wooden chair, without arms or cushion. I hate comfortable clients.
She slid into it, ladylike, and crossed her legs. No housemaid's knee there.
"What can I do for you, Mrs. Smithson?"
"Find out who killed my husband. Please call me Marie."
I shot forward in my chair. "I didn't know the judge was dead."
"Nobody knows," she said. "He was killed an hour ago." She looked at her watch. "Hour and ten minutes."
I gave her the dumb, in-the-dark look perfected by errant husbands and private eyes.
"Do the police—"
"No. No, they don't know."
The dumb look stayed around.
"Please listen," she said. "Tonight is the Bar Association dinner. At the Jefferson Hotel. Same time as the Browns game you're going to." She nodded at the ticket tucked in my shirt pocket. "After I returned from the club—my tennis match was cancelled—I told Harold I was going upstairs to get ready. I turned on the radio, started the bath water, got undressed, and took a long, cooling bath, letting the water run." The picture got my attention. "I got dressed. It was strangely quiet. I called out for Harold, letting him know I was ready. When I didn't get an answer, I went to the stairs, thinking he was downstairs, already dressed, getting a drink. I looked down and there was Harold, lying on the floor. His chest was covered with blood. I knew he was dead."
"This happened an hour ago?" I asked.
"And ten minutes."
"And you didn't call the police or go anywhere or do anything … except come here?"
Mrs. Smithson nodded and said, "When I looked down at Harold, I could see my gun on the floor, near him. A pillow from our sofa was there, too. I'm sure the killer used it to muffle the shot."
"A police special thirty-eight."
I couldn't drop the look.
"Harold and I are gun enthusiasts, Mr. Bannister. We do a lot of shooting. Harold gave me the gun for my birthday."
"Did you touch it?"
"No." She paused, then said, "You should also know that I filed for divorce on Monday."
"That doesn't help."
"No," she said.
We looked at each for a long moment. Like Schmeling and Louis in the center of the ring, sizing each other up, while the ref talked. I was doing some quick math and everything in Mrs. Smithson's column was a minus, as they say.
"It's a warm day. How about a Coke?" I suggested.
Before she could answer, I was moving toward the small icebox in my office. I opened two Cokes and wrapped the handkerchief from my suit-coat around one bottle, and held it so her right hand would have to reach for it.
"Thanks," she said. Her hand shook slightly as she took the handkerchief-wrapped Coke.
"Sorry, don't have any straws," I said. But what I did have was a handkerchief around a bottle that would pick up any gunshot residue. If Mrs. Smithson fired a gun in the past two hours, the moisture on the bottle would help transfer the powder residue from her right hand to the handkerchief. I had pals down at Central who would run the test for me. I followed the bottle to her lips with each sip. A slight palsy in her hand was chipping away at Mrs. Smithson's hard veneer.
I said, "Let me make sure I understand everything that happened." I recapped her story: home from the country club, Judge Smithson still alive, start the bath water and keep it running while you bathe, get dressed and call for your husband—Marie Smithson was nodding her agreement with everything—when your husband didn't answer, you looked for him, and there he was at the bottom of the staircase, shot, with your gun nearby.
"Precisely," she said. "Don't you think that's mysterious?"
"What I think is you should go home and call the cops. You've got a lot to explain."
For a moment, she appeared uncomfortable.
I said, "A dead husband. The wife's gun smokin' on the floor. No sign of a struggle. A call to the police hours later. It doesn't stack up very good, Mrs. Smithson."
"That's why I'm here."
"Go home. Call the police. Do you know a good lawyer?"
"My husband was a judge, Mr. Bannister. I know more lawyers than the attendance at tonight's Brown's game." She scratched her kneecap, moving her dress a little higher on her leg. "Will you help me?"
I looked at her. What could I say? She had killer looks but that didn't make her one. She was, as they say, out of my league. She was the Yankees, I was the Browns. Her story had as much credibility as a politician's promise. But I've never overloaded myself with good sense when a beautiful woman is involved. And who knew, maybe the Browns would get lucky.
"Yeah," I said. "Sure."
She got up and handed me the Coke. I took it by the neck and let the handkerchief fall onto my desk. She looked down at my desk.
"Pearl," she said.
"Pearl. A large river in China. Twenty-four across." She walked to the door, then turned and looked at the handkerchief on my desk.
"I'm left-handed. If I had shot my husband, I would have used my left hand. I'm a little nervous drinking with my right hand." She turned and left. I watched her walk down the narrow hallway, the sharp click of her high heels echoing like rifle shots, the roll of her hips bouncing shock waves off the walls.
Damn, I reprimanded myself, that's what you get for hanging around the office. I went back to my desk and flicked on the radio. Yep, the ballgame was rained out. My common sense was rained out. I picked up the newspaper and lettered in P-E-A-R-L for 28-Across. The R was the last letter in 10-Down, six letters: Name for Lollipop.
I looked at 10-Down for a minute, damn well knowing the answer. Then I wrote in S-U-C-K-E-R.
Well, I told myself, you've got somebody's big problem, you big lollipop. As they say.
--Posted Jan. 12, 2009