"Death by Dingbats"
By Lauren Lynn McGraw
Co-author of Merry Go Round in Oz and The Forbidden Fountain of Oz.
This is the first publication of this excerpt from an unfinished mystery novel.
When I was a kid, I used to watch an old TV show called The Naked City. At the end, they'd show a big-city skyline, and a portentous voice would say, "There are a million stories in The . . . NAKED . . . CITY. And this . . . was only one of them." I liked the idea that anybody's life could turn into drama, but I felt different about it when it happened to me.
The day the whole thing started, the city of Westbank seemed to be keeping its clothes buttoned up to the neck. I sat in front of my computer, staring alternately at my headline: Future Development: Who Pays? and the information supplied by the City Engineer, and trying to think of a way to lead into the story. I'd been stymied so long that the screen saver came on, replacing my words with winged toasters and floating toast.
Westbank is one of my best clients. It's a small city about ten miles outside of Portland; a bedroom community, struggling with too much growth and too little identity. I write, design and produce their monthly newsletter, plus any miscellaneous brochures and flyers they need.
Freelancing isn't the most secure way to make a living, but it gives me time to paint. Rousseau may have worked full time at the Customs office, but I don't care - I don't think you can develop as an artist if you only paint on weekends. After I got out of art school, I tried to find a well-paid part time job, but there weren't any. I worked full time for several years, had some interesting jobs, but when I was making enough money to rent studio space - Catch 22 - I hardly ever had time to go there. So I finally decided to take the plunge into freelancing, and so far it's worked pretty well. I do jobs for several small cities in the metro area, none of them more than half an hour away from northeast Portland, where I live.
Working at home has a few disadvantages, but mostly I love it. My office is in the big front bedroom (I sleep in the back one) with windows looking out into an old lilac tree that's scrubby in winter but bursts into gorgeous dark-purple bloom in the spring.
My house is small - only two bedrooms - but the rooms are big and square, with high ceilings and plenty of windows. It was built around the turn of the century, probably as servants' quarters or a mother-in-law cottage for the big house next door, and it has all kinds of nice stuff, like a plate rail in the dining room, a bay window in the living room, and a little upstairs porch. Best of all, the basement is dry and well-lighted and big enough to use as a studio. It's the first house I've ever owned all by myself.
Living alone still seems like heaven after the years I spent with Nick. We never got married - once was enough, for me - but after seven years of living together, the disentangling of emotions and property are as difficult and painful as in a regular divorce. Worse, we'd had trouble selling our house, and had to stay together for an extra year before we could get our money out and split. The minute I got my share of the equity, I went out to hunt down a place of my very own. The mortgage payment takes most of my available cash, but I don't grudge a penny of it.
I caught myself gazing vacantly out past the budding lilac at the gray sky beyond. It was one of those gloomy March days that go from clouds to rain and back again all day long, sometimes with a little hail thrown in for variety. I dragged my attention back to Westbank's land use problems. The City Engineer's words weren't inspiring: ". . . Westbank has prepared service provision plans for the future development of lands within the Urban Growth Boundary and the City of Westbank Boundaries. . . . Approximately 800 acres of vacant buildable land are available for future urban development, and have been activated by the City as predominantly residential in use."
I groaned, then jumped as the phone shrieked suddenly from the desk behind me. I reached for it with relief.
"Angie Quinn, may I help you?" I said automatically.
"Hi, Angie, this is Joe, Rose City Typesetting. How are you, anyway?"
His big, generous voice seemed to balloon out of the receiver, and I smiled. When you hear Joe Hannigan on the phone, you imagine a large, florid man in his forties. When you see him in the flesh it's a shock, like hearing tuba noises from a flute: he's slight and sixtyish, with the bright blue eyes and wide, humorous mouth of an aging leprechaun.
"Hey, Joe! I'm doing fine. How about you?"
"Fine, fine. We miss you, though. Hardly ever see you since you got that fancy computer and started setting your own type."
"I know," I said. "It's lonely sometimes. Is that why you called? To cheer me up?"
"Nope, I've got something for you," he boomed. "Remember that old type case I showed you? Well, we're finally getting rid of all our metal type, so you can have a drawer if you still want one."
Worf, my cat, thundered up the stairs and landed on the desk in front of me. He seems to think the phone is dangerous, and likes to keep an eye on me while I use it.
"Oh, great! Sure, I still want it. You mean right away?" Worf nudged my arm, his green eyes huge. I stroked him reassuringly.
"Any time. I'm cleaning out the type now, but no hurry."
I looked at my watch. Almost three o'clock. I had to go out to Westbank for a meeting at four, and I was still in my old blue sweats, but I really wanted that type drawer. Its shallow compartments would make a great display case for all my most precious little doodads. It was destined for the bare spot on my living room wall.
"I'd love to come and get it tonight, Joe, but I don't think I'd be able to get there before five-thirty - maybe quarter to six if the traffic's bad."
"No problem, I'll be here. Just ignore the Closed sign and come on up; I'll leave the door unlocked."
"Are you sure? I don't want to put you to any extra trouble."
"No, no, glad to do it!"
I hung up, glanced at my watch again and abandoned Westbank's land use problems with relief. Maybe I'll be more inspired tomorrow, I thought, as I yanked off my sweatshirt and headed for the bedroom. I don't meet my clients face to face very often, so I don't keep much of a business wardrobe. I get a lot of mileage out of an oversized black knit blazer, paired with black knit pants or a skirt. It was pants today, with my favorite coral sweater and some big copper earrings. I stepped back from the mirror to get a full-length view: yes, the black was still doing a great job of hiding my extra pounds. I flashed a smile at myself, showing both dimples.
"Smart, businesslike, and slightly dashing, don't you think?" I asked Worf, who had transferred himself to my dressing table. He stared, then suddenly pressed the top of his head against my stomach. I can't resist him when he does that, so of course I petted him and said various silly and adoring things. His fur is beautifully soft and thick, black tabby stripes over a warm ginger-brown almost the same shade as my hair. I've had him since he was four weeks old, and he thinks I'm his mother; quite different from my other cat, Sheba, who seems to think she's my mother - or maybe my employer. Her attitude toward Worf is unambiguous: she can't stand him.
It took me about twenty-five minutes to drive to Westbank on I-205, and I spent most of it dodging trucks and commuters and wondering why Jonathan had asked to meet with me. He's the city finance director, but he's also in charge of the newsletter, by some inscrutable twist of municipal logic. We get along fine, but we usually do our business via phone, FAX, and email, and only see each other once a month when he delivers the raw material to my office. He'd said something about wanting me to edit his budget document, but I'd done that before without a meeting and couldn't see why it required one this time. I zipped in front of a ponderous fuel truck and turned off at the Westbank exit.
Westbank doesn't maintain a lot of formality. When I arrived at the Finance Department, there was no one at the front desk, so I leaned over the counter and waved at Kelly, the nearest clerk. She looked up from a pile of purchase orders and grinned, showing the slight gap between her two front teeth. With her freckled nose and blond ponytail she looked about twelve years old.
"Hi, Angie! Haven't seen you in a long time! You here to see Jonathan?"
I admitted that I was.
"Just a second, I'll make sure he's there. . . ." She punched a few buttons on her phone and spoke briefly. "He'll be right out. Hey, I liked that article you wrote about the Police Department. You know, the one where Officer Weinmann caught the duck? I really got a kick out of it."
"Oh, yeah," I said, "Hill Street Blues Meets Wild Kingdom. I liked it too. Thanks, Kelly, it's nice to know somebody actually reads the things."
Jonathan appeared, dapper as ever in gray pants and a blue Oxford cloth shirt, thick black hair neatly combed. With his narrow, bony face and heavy brows, he looks intense and slightly intimidating - at least until he smiles.
He escorted me politely back to his office: probably all of eight feet away. As usual, every available surface was covered with papers; bulging file folders, scribbled notes on yellow legal pads, vast bound stacks of green-and-white striped computer paper. An unsteady pile of books included catchy titles like Westbank Municipal Codes, and Statement of Taxes Levied in Clackamas County. Yellow post-it notes clung to the wall, telephone and desk blotter in random groups, like a flock of migratory butterflies.
I accepted a paper cup of coffee, then looked around for some place to set it down, but the computer keyboard and the calculator were the only bare spots in the office. My fingers were getting hot. I transferred the cup to my left hand and smiled at Jonathan, who was leafing through some papers, his heavy brows pulled together. "Is this a test? If I figure out what to do with the cup, it proves my fitness to be employed by the City of Westbank?"
He started, the eyebrows shooting halfway up to his hairline. "I'm sorry," he said, swiftly clearing a small spot on the desk. "Here, how's this? Would you like some sugar or something? Sorry everything's in such a mess, but I'm coming down to the wire on this year's budget, and. . . ."
"I'm fine," I said, staring at him. It's not like Jonathan to fuss and babble; not like him to miss a joke, either.
"Okay." He took a breath, then reached for a thick document held together with two black metal clamps. "Here's this year's budget document. The narrative's mostly the same as last year, but I've got some new stuff stapled in there, and you'll need to rewrite those parts and make sure the whole thing fits together. You did a great job last year; just do it again and we'll probably win another GFOA award. You still have the text from last year on disk?"
His manner returned to normal as we discussed computers, deadlines and the progress of the current newsletter, and I was getting ready to leave when he suddenly said, "Angie. One more thing."
He leaned forward, his voice quiet. "This may not affect you at all, and certainly not for some time, but I think it's only right to let you know. City Council has approved Phil's - the City Manager's - request for a full time Public Information Officer position. The ad will appear in the Oregonian next Sunday."
It took me a second, then I said, "You're saying Phil will want this new person to do the newsletter." No wonder he'd jumped when I joked about my fitness to be employed by the City. My stomach began quietly tying itself in knots.
"I don't know what his plans are," - his voice was carefully neutral - "he hasn't confided in me; but it's possible he'll want to do it that way."
"Yes," I said, "it would be logical." My voice sounded calm, even casual, but I guess Jonathan wasn't fooled.
"If it were up to me, Angie, you'd be doing it forever! You've done a great job; everybody likes it." He smiled warmly and gave me an encouraging pat on the shoulder. "Maybe this new person will have sense enough to know that you don't fix something that isn't broken."
I gathered purse and papers and got up. "Maybe so, Jonathan. I hope so."
I was on my way out when Kelly called to me. "Angie! If you can wait a second, we'll have a check for you; Gail's just running them through the protector."
"Sure, I can wait." I went over to stand beside her and watch Gail feed checks through a small machine that buzzed like an angry wasp as it stamped each one with an amount and a signature.
Kelly nodded at the thick document in my hand. "Jonathan keeping you busy?"
"Yeah, for now, anyway." I hesitated, then went on. "Maybe there won't be so much for me to do when Phil hires this new PR person, though."
She snorted. "Yeah, right. Like a PR person is just what we need, when we're all jammed into this little building, bursting at the seams, and the cops are working double shifts and the library's cutting their hours. And that position wasn't in the budget, either. You know why I think he wants a PR person?"
She lowered her voice. "Damage control. He's already done a lot of stuff people don't like, and he's sucking up to the big developers, and then there was that awful thing with Pat, in the Planning Department. . . . of course, that wasn't his fault. . . ."
I nodded. Nine months before, Pat Glazer, the City Planner, had arrived at work on a Tuesday morning, locked her office door and shot herself in the head.
"And they still don't know why she did it?"
Kelly shook her head, her pert face sober. "I guess her son was really broken up; he'd just graduated from some big ivy-league college. Like, 'Look, Mom, I made it,' and then boom, she shoots herself."
Gail turned from the machine then, holding out my check. "There you go, Angie; you just saved us a stamp."
The familiar pale-green oblong seemed suddenly precious and significant, as I realized there might not be many more.
I drove back to Portland with my head in a whirl. The Westbank newsletter doesn't bring in a lot of money, but it's steady: a few hundred dollars every month, regular as clockwork. When you're self-employed, a job like that can mean the difference between sink and swim. I do newsletters for Braddock and Canyon City, too, but they're both quarterlies. All my other projects are sporadic, subject to bureaucratic whims and sudden budget cuts. So far, it's always evened out by the end of the year, but without Westbank's steady trickle to get me through the lean months, I could be in real trouble.
I thought of my house payment and cursed Phil Blashfield and his as-yet-nameless Public Information Officer. Ever since Phil had taken over as City Manager, things had been changing at Westbank, and not for the better, as far as I could tell. But why did he have to mess up my life?
It was drizzling again as I crossed the Fremont Bridge, and the combination of cloud cover and fading light made the trees and grass look vividly green, almost fluorescent, as I threaded my way through the network of narrow residential streets that edge the northwest industrial area. It was five-thirty-five when I pulled up in front of the Joe's building on Seventeenth. The Closed sign was up, but the heavy front door opened to my habitual hearty shove, and at the top of the stairs a faint light filtered through the frosted glass panel in Rose City's door. I started up the dark stairs, calling "Joe?"
I thought I heard footsteps, but no one answered. When I got to the top, I knocked perfunctorily, then went in. The lights were on in the front room, and big manila envelopes were neatly arranged on the high counter, each labeled with a client's name. Where was Joe? I moved forward, peering toward the glassed-in workroom at the back, but why would he be in there with the lights off?
A stab of pain in the sole of my foot told me I'd stepped on something small and hard. Swearing under my breath, I picked up a tiny block of metal carved with a pointing hand.
"A dingbat," I said to myself, then jumped as I heard a harsh gargling breath.
I rounded the end of the counter with one giant step and froze. The type case stood a few feet away, empty slots where its shallow drawers had been. A few empty drawers leaned against the wall; one, still spilling metal type, lay smashed at my feet. Behind the counter, Joe Hannigan sprawled on the floor, face down, his white hair matted with blood.
My first reaction was a sort of interior wail: "Oh, NO-O-O-O-O! Not Joe! Not me - I don't know what to do!" Idiotically, I even looked around as if hoping to see someone - my mother, my sister, the Marines - coming to my rescue. Then Joe drew another ragged breath, and I yanked myself back to adulthood and headed for the phone, dialling 9-1-1 with a finger that shook only slightly.
The dispatcher was patience itself, and I managed to give her most of the pertinent facts, at least who, what, and when. She already seemed to know where, though she did ask me to confirm the street address. I was so rattled, I had to look at one of the manila envelopes to make sure.
I described Joe's condition as well as I could, peering reluctantly at his half-hidden face and bloody hair. No, I told her, I didn't think he could have fallen; I thought he'd been hit. Well, because of the way he was lying, and from the bump on his head. Yes, I told her, he was still bleeding. Yes, quite a lot. No, not spurting.
The dispatcher suggested some things I could do - monitor his breathing, apply direct pressure with a clean dry cloth (only where was I supposed to find any such thing in a type shop?) - and suddenly her calm, passionless tone was infuriating. Here's Joe lying on the floor, hurt and bloody and maybe dying, and she's reading the First Aid manual. When she asked if I wanted to stay on the phone until help arrived, I almost shouted, "No!" then added hastily, "Thank you." Heaven forbid I should be rude, even with the world collapsing.
The minute I hung up I was sorry. Without that link to another human being, the room seemed bigger and emptier. I was on my own. What should I do first? I thought of calling Joe's family, then realized I had no idea how to reach them. I thought he had a wife, but I didn't know her name or where they lived.
I could look for that clean cloth, I thought vaguely. Instead, I knelt down by Joe. His head was still bleeding a little, though more slowly, I thought. Blood had run into the deep creases that webbed the back of his neck, and his breathing sounded awful. A bubble of emotion welled up in my chest and burst out my mouth in a sort of dry sob. Oh god, I thought, not now! I shut my mouth tight before anything else could escape and strained my ears, hoping to hear sirens, but there was nothing.
I drew a deep breath, willing myself to shut up, be calm, and gently laid a hand on Joe's back. "Joe," I said, "I'm here. Don't worry, you'll be okay. I'm going to try to find something to stop that bleeding now."
I got up. He looked small and frail, lying there on the green linoleum, and I realized how much the personality I thought of as "Joe" depended on his big voice and bright blue eyes. As I stared around the room, looking for some cache that might conceal a clean dry cloth, I remembered how nice he'd been to me, from the very first. Who could have done this to him?
The back of my neck prickled as I remembered the footsteps I'd heard. What if the person who had done it were still around? There was no place to hide in the front room, but the darkened back room was another story.
I've always despised those movies where the plucky heroine goes charging right into the dark stairway or sinister laboratory where you know something horrible is going to grab her. When I see them on TV I tend to yell, "Don't go in there, Stupid!" but now I was beginning to understand. I did not want to go into that back room, but I had to try to help Joe.
I approached the workroom doorway, the tightness between my shoulder blades mounting at every step. Cautiously, I peered in. Some light from the front room came through the glass, but the big machines and tall worktables provided plenty of possible hiding places. Gritting my teeth, I leaned forward and stretched my arm as far as it would go until one finger touched the light switch. I flipped it on and froze. There was no movement; no sound but Joe's harsh breathing. I let out my own breath, eased cautiously into the room and looked around, but there was no one there. The gray metal door in the far wall was locked; I rattled it to make sure. A second door led to a small unisex bathroom. I checked it out with the same arm-reaching/spine-tingling technique I'd used for the workroom and was relieved to find it empty of head-bashers and well supplied with paper towels: not the scratchy tan kind, but the white, waffle-patterned kind. They weren't cloth, but they were clean and dry, so I grabbed a handful and went back to Joe. I folded several towels into a pad and pressed it against the wound, gingerly at first, then harder. I murmured "Sorry, Joe," in case it was hurting him, and tried to cushion his forehead from the floor with my other hand. His skin was warm, and his forehead fitted neatly into my palm. The contact was oddly intimate, and I felt a surge of protectiveness.
Where was the ambulance? Where were the cops? I craned my neck, trying to see out the window. It seemed like I'd been waiting a long time, but when I looked at the clock on the wall I saw it had only been a few minutes. They had to be here soon.
Maintaining my pressure on the wound, I looked around, my eyes flitting restlessly from the spilled type on the floor to the empty wooden drawers against the wall to my left. Had one of those been meant for me? Sure enough, there was a piece of paper taped to one, with "Angie" on it in bold black letters. It looked like a good drawer: lots of little compartments, different shapes and sizes. By stretching my neck and squinting I could just read the yellowed label by the wrought iron drawer pull: 16-72 pt Aurora, Alt. Char.
I remembered the little pointing hand I'd stepped on, and scrunched down to look at the label on the smashed drawer. Sure enough, it read, Ornaments, Dingbats, 36-72 pt. Joe had charmed me years ago by telling me that the little stars and arrows and curlicues were called dingbats. Could he have been bashed on the head with his own dingbat drawer? It seemed terribly wrong. I listened to his labored breath and tried not to look at his blood-soaked hair, and then, finally, I heard the sirens.
The door opened, and all at once the room was full of large, competent people in uniform. Four police officers first, then paramedics and firemen - six of them. This was rescue beyond my wildest dreams. I leaned against the counter, watching as two paramedics knelt beside Joe, checking his vital signs and muttering alternately into a radio and to each other. Two police officers left the room, apparently to search the rest of the building. Another, a tall black woman, crouched by the broken type drawer and examined it carefully, then began to prowl quietly, taking notes. Her partner, a heavyset man with graying sandy hair and mustache, approached me.
"You made the call, Ma'am?" he asked. Up close, he looked huge and intimidating; also extremely neat. His uniform shirt was freshly ironed; his shoes were shiny; his badge said Parnell.
"I'll need to ask you a few questions," he said, flipping open a small notebook and giving me a mechanical half-smile.
The questions weren't hard; they started with my name and address and went on to the events of the last half hour, which I'm sure I'll remember till I'm ninety-five. All the firemen stood around and listened intently. I tried to be coherent and cooperative, but I was distracted, watching the paramedics as they worked over Joe, strapping him to a board, fitting a band around his forehead and attaching an IV to his arm. When they began moving him onto a gurney, I burst out, "What's going to happen to him now?"
Parnell stopped in mid-question. "Well . . . they'll take him to the hospital."
"Yeah, but which one? And aren't you going to call his wife or somebody and let them know?"
He recovered his official manner. "This is currently an assault situation. If there had been a fatality, the Medical Examiner would contact the next of kin, but since the victim is alive. . . . no."
I stared. "But . . . you mean he'll be there all by himself, and nobody will even know where he is?"
Parnell looked slightly disconcerted, even defensive. "Well, I would assume that the hospital would attempt to contact the family, but I can't say for sure what their procedures would be," he said stiffly.
My backbone sagged. I was tired and hungry and longed for home, but I couldn't abandon Joe yet.
"Which hospital are they taking him to?" I asked.
When I pulled into my driveway several hours later, I felt as if I'd been gone for days. Joe was still alive, still unconscious. I'd stayed at the hospital, badgering nurses and Admissions clerks until they'd assured me his wife was on her way. I switched off the headlights and sat for a minute, feeling oddly squeamish about going into the dark house, then gasped as small shape materialized on the hood in front of me. Sheba peered in through the windshield.
Normally, I would have laughed, but in my wrung-out condition, it didn't seem very funny. Wearily, I unfastened my seat belt and picked up my purse. "Okay, your Serene Highness, I'm coming."
When I got out of the car she stared at me searchingly until I bent down for a quick nose-to-nose inspection. Then, having apparently satisfied herself that I was all right, she herded me efficiently into the house, pausing impatiently when I stopped to lock and chain the door, then headed straight to the kitchen, where we were met by Worf. While he rubbed against my ankles and emitted throaty "rowls" of hunger and encouragement, she perched on a tall stool and supervised, giving an occasional lick to her tortoiseshell coat and graciously overlooking my tired fumbles. I gave them tuna to apologize for my tardiness, and leaving them hunched enthusiastically over their bowls, I grabbed a handful of pretzels and went upstairs, turning on every light I passed.
One of the best things about my house is the bathtub. It's an old-fashioned clawfoot, so long and deep I can stretch out and submerge to the neck without any danger of overflow. I turned the hot water on full blast and added a generous blob of my precious German bubble bath, a gift from my niece, Dina. This was an occasion worthy of its healing powers.
As soon as the bubbles had reached a reasonable level, I slid cautiously into the tub, inhaling the herb-scented steam. I felt stiff and old, every minute of my thirty-eight years and then some, and I never wanted to see the inside of Rose City Typesetting - or any hospital - ever again. I reached for a washcloth, and suddenly found myself shaking, while all the fear and sadness I'd suppressed for the past two hours swelled up into my throat in one giant lump. I pressed the washcloth over my face, lay back in the comforting warmth, and let myself cry.
Half an hour later, boiled, shriveled, pink-eyed and somewhat restored, I sat on my living room couch eating scrambled eggs and toast with a large glass of pinot grigio. It was good wine; too good to drink with scrambled eggs, some might say, but to them I say Phooey. This might not have been the worst day of my life, but it was probably in the top three - and I needed some pampering. It was almost enough to make me homesick for Nick. The thing about living with a partner, even an indifferent one, is that there's usually someone there to listen to your tale of woe and offer sympathy, or at least distract you.
For the first time, my beloved house felt empty and lonely. There were too many windows, and too many dark corners. I decided that when I could afford it, I'd replace the lace curtains with something more substantial. I had a book open on my lap, but I kept seeing Joe's limp body and bloody hair instead of the words on the page. I shook my head hard enough to make the brains rattle and considered calling my sister. She'd offer sympathy, all right - but did I want it badly enough to pay the price? Rosemary's a good person and I love her; it's just that I've spent so many years trying to struggle out from under her sisterly wing that I hate to take a step back for any reason. I stared at the phone and debated.
The whump of the cat door startled me. There was a wild scrabble of claws on the hardwood floor, and Worf and Sheba sped by in a demented blur, her nose an inch from his tail. They made a flying circuit of the room, barely missing my shoulder as they levitated over the couch, then launched themselves up the stairs, leaving the hall rug askew and me clutching my plate. A minute later Sheba descended unhurriedly, leaped gracefully to the coffee table in front of me and began to wash her left hip.
"Come on, Baby," I coaxed, "come keep me company." I put down my plate and patted my lap invitingly.
She drew her fragile body up to its full height and stared regally down her brindled nose - Helen Hayes as the dowager Tsarina - then jumped down from the table. Obviously she had other plans. I sighed. I was halfway to the kitchen when the doorbell clanged, making me jump a foot. "Who could that be?" I muttered, glancing at my watch. Almost nine o'clock.
Cautiously, I peered out one of leaded glass panels that flank my front door. The porch light illuminated a smallish dark-haired woman, standing half-turned toward the street. She carried a clipboard and looked non-threatening, so I put the chain on and opened the door.
"Hi," I said tentatively.
She swung around, showing beautiful teeth in a wide, pleased smile. "Hi! Oh, you are here! I'm sorry to stop by so late; I was here earlier, but you weren't home, so when I got back from talking to everybody else and saw your light on, I thought I'd just see. . . . I'm your neighbor; from the big yellow house up the block? I've seen you around, but I don't think we've ever been introduced. I'm Clio Richardson."
I took a step back, opening the door a little wider. I liked her smile and slight southern accent, and she didn't look like an ax-murderer or a magazine salesperson, but you never know. I kept my hand on the knob.
"I'm Angie Quinn," I answered cautiously. "It's nice to meet you."
"So Angie, do you have a minute to talk?"
"Uh, well, it's late, and I've had kind of a bad day. . . . What's it about?"
The smile disappeared and the black-fringed eyes grew earnest. The accent intensified. "I wouldn't bother you, but it really is important for the neighborhood. It's going to affect all of us, and we've got to do something right away. Did you know they're trying to tear down six big old houses - good houses, not a thing wrong with them! - and bulldoze the lots, and put up a whole lot of fancy, tacky row houses, right here on our street? Just so some slimy developer can make a profit? I'm really worried about what's going to happen to the people who live in those houses, and what's going to happen to all the big trees, and to our street. This is a great neighborhood, but if we don't do something, it's never going to be the same!"
I unhooked the door chain. "Come on in," I said.
By the time Clio left, I knew a lot more about neighborhood politics, "slimy developers" and high-density housing than I had before, and as I shut the door behind her I discovered that I'd also found the distraction - and even, indirectly, the support - I'd been wanting. Somehow, the horrible events of the day had receded to manageable proportions, and the idea of pouring out my woes to Rosemary seemed strange and quirky.
As I got ready for bed, I deliberately kept my mind on neighborhood politics, the "strategy meeting" I'd agreed to attend, and Clio herself. Something about her appealed to me, and I toyed with the thought that we might eventually be friends as well as neighbors.
I got into bed and prepared to read myself to sleep with The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves, my standard soporific. It's interesting enough to keep me from getting up and finding something else, and boring enough to make me sleepy fairly soon. As I opened Volume One to Chapter 35, "The Giants' Revolt," Worf leaped onto the bed and settled down for a vigorous bath, leaning heavily against my hip. I was grateful for the company, but it was like being in bed with a minor earthquake.
"Hey, buddy," I said, "lie still and I'll read you a story. Listen: 'Enraged because Zeus had confined their brothers, the Titans, in Tartarus, certain tall and terrible giants, with long locks and beards, and serpent-tails for feet . . .' Sounds sort of like Officer Parnell, doesn't it?" He stared at me over the furry bulge of his stomach, hind leg at half-mast, for approximately two seconds before resuming his ablutions. Hoping the bath would be short, I went on reading - silently - and by the time I'd gotten to Chapter 38, "Deucalion's Flood," Worf was stretched warm and purring against my side, and I could hardly keep my eyes open. In spite of the horrible day I'd had, I fell asleep almost instantly.
I woke at 7:30 the next morning to find that the millennium had apparently come; both the cats were on my bed, peacefully sleeping less than a yard apart. I was astounded; also a little uneasy, because the only thing separating them was my body, and I didn't think their détente would outlast their awakening. I lay still, sleepily pondering the hazards of being in the middle of a hiss-and-swat session, and waited for the rest of my brain to wake up. When it did, I was sorry. Yesterday came back full force, looking even worse in retrospect.
I groaned, waking both cats. Worf thudded hastily to the floor, where he was immediately seized by a series of waking-up sneezes. Sheba stretched thoroughly, then jumped down and sauntered past him with a contemptuous glance.
I felt like pulling the pillow over my head and staying where I was, but instead I threw back the covers and headed for the shower. I still had a newsletter to write - though it might be the last one - and besides, now that the cats were awake, they'd pester me until I fed them.
As soon as I was dressed, I called the hospital and asked for news. Joe was still alive, the nurse told me, and still unconscious. If she knew any more than that, she wasn't telling. I hung up, feeling depressed and frustrated, and went downstairs to get fresh water and a can of Beef Banquet (for them) and corn flakes and coffee (for me).
Breakfast is a wonderful thing. By the time I'd finished my coffee, I was feeling more cheerful. After all, I told myself, he's still alive; he's just as likely to get better as to get worse. And surely Westbank won't fire me after all these years.
I'd been working for over an hour, and had the land-use article almost whipped, when the phone rang.
"Uh, Angie? This is Mel Springer, Rose City Typesetting."
My stomach gave a slight lurch. "Oh, hi, Mel. What's happening? Is Joe. . . ."
"No, no," he said quickly, "Joe's still the same. We're just trying to keep things going here . . . everybody's kind of in shock. Ellie was with him all night, I guess, but she was so upset she didn't think to call me until this morning. She says you're the one who found him, is that right?"
"Yeah. Gosh, I'm sorry . . . I guess I should have tried to call you, but things were so confused. . . ." I felt a twinge of guilt; I hadn't even given Mel a thought last night. I was vaguely aware that Joe had a partner, but our paths hadn't crossed much. I hadn't even known his last name until now.
"That's okay; you did fine. No, the reason I called is . . . well, the cops told me what happened last night, but it was sort of bare-bones. I was hoping you'd tell me your version; maybe fill in the details. And there's a type drawer here with your name on it; maybe we could get together?"
"I probably can't tell you much more than the police did, Mel," I said slowly, "but I can tell you what I saw, of course. Uh . . . I suppose you want me to come over there?"
"I'm sorry to ask," he said apologetically, "but things are pretty crazy here today, and I don't feel like I can leave."
We arranged to meet in half an hour; might as well get it over with, I thought. I abandoned my article in mid-sentence, put on some lipstick, added a leopard-print scarf to my taupe pants and yellow sweater, and was on my way. I made a brief detour to Coffee People, and fortified by a double Cappuccino, arrived at the type shop right on time.
I climbed the stairs in slow motion, then paused with my hand on the door. "Come on, Quinn," I told myself bracingly, "that was last night. This is now."
I pushed open the door and was confronted with a scene so reassuringly normal and familiar that the events of last night seemed like a dream. The broken drawer and spilled type were gone; there was no trace of blood on the green linoleum, and the pale sun shone through the windows. Machinery clicked and hummed, papers rattled, people moved purposefully back and forth. The only incongruous note was Mel, who sat at Joe's desk behind the high counter, making corrections on a pile of type galleys. Seeing me, he tossed the pencil down and heaved himself to his feet, making the battered old swivel chair squeak protestingly. He came toward me, automatically passing a palm over his bald spot.
"Angie! Thanks for coming." He was smiling, but his round face was pale and creased with anxious lines. "Come on back to my office; it's quieter."
He led me to a glassed-in cubicle sparsely furnished with a desk, file cabinets, and a gray metal bookcase full of ledgers. I took the chair he offered and looked around curiously while he settled himself behind the desk. There wasn't much to see; three of the walls were glass from waist-height on up; the fourth held a bulletin board plastered with notes and type samples, and a wall calendar with a beautiful four-color photograph of Mt. Hood. Probably a freebie from some printer. I squinted, trying to read the logo at the bottom of the page: Adlard Properties. No, not a printer. Mel cleared his throat and I forgot the calendar as I turned to face him.
Now that he had my attention, he seemed reluctant to start. He moved a pile of invoices, picked up a letter opener and put it down again, and finally spoke. "This is a terrible thing." The words came out slowly, separately, as if each weighed ten pounds. He paused, then added, "Joe and I have been partners for twenty years." He put his finger carefully down on the very tip of the silver letter opener and began twirling it in precise half-circles: 180 degrees to the right, 180 degrees to the left. He shook his head, let the knife drop, leaned forward. "Well. Would you mind just . . . going through it from the beginning?"
I told the story the same way I'd told it to Officer Parnell - just the facts, Ma'am - soft-pedaling the gore and leaving out my own fears and general wimpiness. He didn't interrupt, though he drew in his breath sharply when I mentioned hearing the footsteps. As soon as I finished, he asked, "You say you didn't see anyone? You're sure?"
His eyes probed mine. "No impressions, who it might have been?"
I shook my head. "No, sorry."
He leaned back, sighing explosively. "The cops seem to think someone came in to try to rob the place, but I can't buy it. We don't keep cash around, and most of our equipment is too big to steal. It just doesn't make sense."
"Maybe when Joe wakes up. . . ." I said hopefully.
"Yeah." He sighed again, passed his hand over his bald spot, and stood up abruptly. "Well, Angie, I sure appreciate your coming down here, and of course everything you did for Joe."
I muttered some kind of confused disclaimer, but his voice went on, topping mine as he turned and reached into the space between his desk and the wall, pulling out a type drawer. "Anyway, here's your drawer; least we can do is make sure you get that. You parked close? Want me to carry it out for you?"
I assured him I was perfectly capable of hoisting a whole fifteen pounds or so, asked him to keep me posted on Joe's condition, and before you could say "dingbat," I was out on the sidewalk, awkwardly clutching the drawer to my bosom while the tag that said "Angie" fluttered in my face.
I cast a puzzled glance up at the typeshop windows. "Here's your hat, what's your hurry," I muttered. Was it my imagination, or had I just been given the bum's rush?
I was still trying to decide as I drove back across the Broadway Bridge, sparing an automatic snarl for the still-under-construction Blazer Dome that was blighting the edge of my neighborhood. I'm not a basketball fan, though you can practically be lynched for admitting it in this town, and I resent having my tax money used to tie up traffic and rake in more money for a bunch of bloated sports gods.
My mood improved as soon as I turned into my own tree-lined street, and I decided I'd misinterpreted Mel's behavior. After all, he was busy; he was worried; what did I expect?
I wrestled the type drawer into the house and decided to clean it up a little before I went back to work. Those cute little compartments had collected a lot of dust over the years, and it took me a good twenty minutes with a damp rag. I should have stopped there, but I spent another fifteen minutes hunting for screw eyes and picture wire and rigging it all up, and by the time I actually hung it on the living room wall, I'd invested almost an hour that would have been better spent meeting my deadline. I did a fast pickup of tools, hardware and wire snippets, then stopped halfway to the wastebasket with Joe's tag in my hand. I turned it over: just a beat-up sheet of scrap paper, with some crossed-out typing on the back. Joe's bold black capitals had bled through; you could read my name from either side. I knew I was being silly, but somehow I couldn't throw it out - not yet. I opened the door of my grandmother's steeple clock, and stuck it in behind the pendulum along with a shriveled horse chestnut and Worf and Sheba's old ID tags. Since the clock stopped working five years ago I've gotten in the habit of using it to store oddball things that don't seem to belong anywhere else. I shut the little pointed door and looked at my watch. Time for a quick lunch, then back to work. With any luck, I could get the newsletter finished and off to Jonathan before the end of the day. Then I could go to Clio's "strategy meeting" with a clear conscience.
Copyright © 2003 Lauren Lynn McGraw. All rights reserved.
THE FORGETFUL POET
By Ruth Plumly Thompson
Originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, February 25, 1917.
The Puzzle Corner
"Why does the letter B in the word jubilee resemble a secret known only to us two?" Because it is between you and I. Yes, that is the answer to the first of last week's puzzles and WAR is the answer to the other.
Now, what animal fond of climbing ends in a flower?
Mr. G. Ography says that three places are hiding in this sentence: Can Ada rush a bell fast? and three more in this: Carl's bad and 'es chilly. There are two here: Cal cut a turkey! There are four here: Have Anna Glass go grease china.
Send your answers to Mr. G. Ography, care of the Boys' and Girls' Department, Public Ledger.
[Answers next time. Please do not send answers to Hungry Tiger Press.]
Copyright © 2003 Eric Shanower and David Maxine. All rights reserved.
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