Authors: Mak K. Han
We sat in my living room.
I didn't have a fireplace, so there was a fireplace screen saver on my television. We all had wine. Emily sat in my armchair wrapped in a blanket, her legs folded under her. Alex lay sprawled lengthwise across the couch in boy shorts and a t-shirt, her milky white legs stretched out and her bare feet propped on the arm and crossed at the ankle. And I sat on the other couch.
It had been two days since the carnival and no progress had been made.
A dark cloud had fallen over Strawberry Shores. The three of us had tried to combat it with a slumber party, but as the night settled in and the wine took effect, we were helpless to resist it. The remnants of a hurricane had come up to Strawberry Shores from the southwest and outside, the wind howled and rain battered the siding.
“Who do you think killed Mr. Brooks?” Emily asked quietly. She was holding her wine glass with both hands and when she spoke, she spoke into the glass, muffling her voice.
“It's hard to say,” Alex said. “There are a lot of people it could have been. Mr. Brooks wasn't very popular.”
“Well, at least now we know what to do with the secret room!” Emily said, her voice rising. Her optimism was ill met. She went back to her wine glass.
“Some are more likely than others,” I said.
Alex contorted her body so she could look at me. “How do you figure?”
I shrugged. “Look at the days leading up to the carnival. Everyone was pretty annoyed with Edward, but there were a few who were really smoking at the ears.”
“Well,” I set my wine glass down so I could count with one hand. “For one, there was his wife. She was already at the end of her rope with Edward. Finding out he was going to be pushing back retirement probably didn't help matters.”
“She knew he'd keep being stressed out,” Alex continued. “Plus the court case with the town probably would have made it worse. Maybe she decided to take him out of the picture before that happened.”
“Right. Then there's Chester Rutherford.”
“Hm?” Emily leaned closer. “What does Chester have to do with anything?”
“Edward was a manager at Allied Innovation. Chester was lined up for the job. From what I understand, he's been waiting for that job for a long time. Edward was planning to push back his retirement, which meant Chester would have had to wait even longer.”
“So you think Chester got rid of him?” Emily asked. “He gets a promotion and does the town a favor at the same time?”
“Exactly. Then there's Harold.”
Alex and Emily sat up. “Harold?” They asked in unison.
I nodded. “It's a hunch, but Harold promised me he'd get Edward back for the way he treated me that day we found the secret room. Plus he's afraid of mice, so it makes sense that he would have rat poison.”
“Harold? Afraid of mice?” Alex looked at me incredulously. “I don't believe it.”
“Trust me, I know it,” I said.
“How do you know it?” Alex asked.
“I just do.”
Alex kept scrutinizing me. Emily didn't notice, because she saved me.
“I don't think it was Harold. I think you just want him to be a suspect so you can think about him. I think you like Harold.”
I scowled at Emily. “I'm just saying. Okay, next is Susan. Do you remember a few days back, when Edward gave her a ride home, and people were saying she'd spent the night with him again?”
Alex and Emily nodded. I told them about the conversation we'd had at the library.
“She said that?” Emily asked.
“Yeah, verbatim. She was angry. Maybe she decided to get back at Edward. She waited until everyone was distracted at the Carnival and lured him away. But I don't have any proof.”
“Hmm,” Alex said, sitting up. “So that's Mrs. Brooks, Chester, Susan....”
“And Harold,” I added. I quickly regretted it.
“That reminds me,” Alex said, gazing intently at me. “How do you know Harold is afraid of mice?”
“The other day, while I was showing him the secret room. He freaked out when he saw a mouse. I suspected it.”
Alex shook her head. “No, you don't suspect it. You know it. You've done this a few times since you've moved here. You'll say you know something—and you say it with certainty. You don't suspect, you know. How?”
I tried to stall for time by sipping my wine, but Emily was fully engaged in the interrogation. I was under Alex's harsh scrutiny. It was time to tell someone. What's the worst that could happen?
I took a deep breath. “I know because under certain circumstances, I can tell when people are lying.”
Alex frowned. “Can't we all?”
I shook my head. “Not like this. About ten years ago, I was driving home one night in a blizzard. My car went off the road and I hit an electrical transformer. I was fine, I thought. A plow passed by and towed me out. Over the next couple of months, though, I started to find something—sometimes when people lied to me, I heard a static noise in my head. At first it wasn't consistent. Then, I started to realize—it only happened when there was a radio nearby. I figured it out one day while I was driving with my ex, Gerald. I asked him where he'd been the night before. And I knew he'd been out with another girl—her name was Samantha—I just wanted to hear what he had to say. And he said he'd been out with a guy friend. And I heard the static, because the radio in the car was on. I asked which friend, and he said one of his friends' names, and the static got louder. Then I asked him if he wanted to stop at a restaurant for lunch, and he said ‘yes.' The static disappeared because he was telling the truth. That's how I knew that robber didn't have a gun. There was a radio in the gas station. I asked him if he had a gun, and when he said yes, I heard the static. Right then, I knew he was lying. That's also how I know Harold is afraid of mice. There was a radio nearby when I asked him, and he said he wasn't afraid of mice. When he said that, I heard the static.”
Alex stared at me for a moment. “Laura, that sounds completely bonkers.”
I shrugged. “Fine. Whatever.”
Emily wrapped herself in her blanket and plodded over to me. “I'm not so sure, Alex. Laura—what am I thinking right now?”
“That's not how it works, Emily.”
Alex threw her hands up. “Fine. Let's test it. Where do you have a radio?”
I pointed to the kitchen. Alex shuffled into the kitchen, grabbed the radio, and brought it back. She turned it on and then sat on the coffee table before me.
“Okay,” she said. “Ask me something.”
I rolled my eyes. “What's your name?”
“Alex. Come on, something you don't already know.”
I chewed it over for a moment. “What's your middle name?”
“No it isn't.”
Alex furrowed her brow. “Okay, maybe that was an easy one. It's actually Juliet.”
“No it isn't.”
“Bingo. Alex Jade Shade? You must have tortured your parents for that one.”
Alex's face reddened. “It's my mother's maiden name. Okay, a few more questions.”
Alex had more than a few more questions. She had about a hundred. They all went about the same as the middle name interrogation. Every time she was lying, I knew. Every time she was telling the truth, I knew.”
Finally, an hour later, Alex retreated to the sofa, defeated. For the first time ever, I saw Alex speechless. Emily, convinced after about three questions, had lost interest and dozed off in the recliner about twenty minutes earlier.
“Wow,” Alex said finally. “It's true.”
“So why not just line up the suspects and ask them if they killed Mr. Brooks or not?” she asked.
“I'd thought of that,” I explained. “First, I'd have to get them all near a radio. Then, suppose it's none of the people we suspect? What, am I going to ask everyone in Strawberry Shores? And suppose I do ask everyone in Strawberry Shores. Then what? I know who killed Mr. Brooks, but I have no way to prove it. Even if Sheriff Caldwell put me through the same round of questions you just put me through, he'd assume it was some kind of trick. The fact of the matter is, there's no way 'psychic testimony' is going to hold up in a court.”
Alex rubbed her eyes. “I see your point. Still, there has to be something you can do. Sheriff Caldwell is useless. He's usually too drunk to bust teenagers for skateboarding. How's he going to solve a murder case?”
“I'm not looking to be a hero,” I said.
“No, maybe not,” Alex pressed. “But still. You have something special. You have a gift. You—”
A loud bang cut Alex off mid-sentence. Emily screeched and sat straight up in the chair. She looked around in a daze, wisps of blond hair floating in front of her eyes. “What was that?”
I jumped to my feet. I had a sneaky suspicion. I crossed the room to the window and looked down. The bulkhead doors had broken open—the bang was one of the doors striking the siding. “It's just the bulkhead,” I called over my shoulder. “It's fine. I'll have to call to have it fixed. Until then, let me run downstairs and jury-rig it.”
I left Alex and Emily up in the living room as I started for the basement, intending to secure the bulkhead door with a pair of bungee cords. As I descended the steps, however, I got to thinking that maybe Alex was right.
Maybe I could help out.
What are you doing here?
It was the question I started asking myself the instant I stepped onto library property. Most people my age were in downtown Strawberry Shores on a Saturday night, but here I was skulking around the library, trying to gain access to a crime scene.
Alex's words had stuck with me all day. I'd worked from 9:00 AM to 2:30 PM—the library closed early on Saturdays—and I'd hoped to get Susan near a radio so I could talk to her about the case, but Susan hadn't worked today. Eager to get a jump on the case, I went with the next best option: explore the crime scene.
I stood in front of the library. To the left was the wooded path, which had been cleared and illuminated with spotlights. I didn't want to loop around the library that way—suppose someone walked or drove past and saw me sneaking around? It probably wouldn't end well.
So I went around the right-hand side, the side with the swamp and the embankment. I tucked my flashlight into my belt and stuck to the wall, keeping a close eye on my footing. Once I eased my way along the embankment, I took out a flashlight.
The rear of the library was lit up with more spotlights, but the field was surrounded on all sides by trees, so I wasn't too worried about being spotted. I paused for a moment in the corner, listening intently in case someone like Sheriff Caldwell was inside the secret room.
I crept around the corner of the library and turned the flashlight on, taking care to watch the beam so nobody would see it. Then I ducked under the crime scene tape and into the secret room.
The secret room was deathly silent. There was a chalk outline on the floor where Mr. Brooks's body had been, and a little red flag identifying where the rat poison had been found. I shined the flashlight around the room. It looked like those were the only clues Sheriff Caldwell had found, as there were no other red flags.
I started by examining the shelves nearby. The fact of the matter was, I didn't even have a working theory as to what exactly happened the night of the carnival. Why was Mr. Brooks in the secret room? Why was the rat poison right next to him? It made sense that the killer would have lured Mr. Brooks away from the crowd. That would give him time to escape after Mr. Brooks drank the rat poison. Choosing the carnival was smart because it made just about everyone in town a possible suspect.
The light passed over a spot of shelf that didn't have a book on it and I paused. There had been something there. I backed up a little bit. The dust on the shelf was uneven here. There was a circle in the dust, as though a cup had been set there. The way the dust streaked made it look as though the cup had been sitting there and then dragged off the shelf.
At first I thought it made sense. Mr. Brooks drank the punch, set the cup down, and then collapsed, taking the cup with him. That is, until I realized that the streak marks lead away from where Mr. Brooks had been found. That meant that either Mr. Brooks had been walking around, or that there had been someone else in there with him, also with a drink.
I kept looking. Was there any significance to using the secret room? I suppose that it might make sense if Dennis Arbour used it as a sort of irony. Or possibly Susan. What if the rumors were true? What if Susan had been involved in an affair with Mr. Brooks? That worked well too. Susan lured Mr. Brooks away to the secret room for some alone time, offered him a drink to loosen up, only to lace the drink with poison. Or Chester had decided to ask Mr. Brooks for a talk in private that ended fatally.
As I angled my flashlight downward, my eye caught the edge of a piece of fabric sticking out from under one of the shelves. Puzzled, I squatted and pulled it out from under the shelf.
It was a glove, a gray glove with blue on the fingertips. It was dusty, but not dusty enough to have been there for any length of time. Sure, maybe Daniel had left it behind while he was blocking up the secret room, but I doubted it. I was sure this glove was involved in the case somehow. I was sure it had been worn by the culprit. That was why no fingerprints had been left behind. They'd worn one of the gloves.
Something creaked behind me.
I stood up quickly. “Hello?” I asked. I shined the flashlight where I'd heard the creak. “Is someone there?”
My palms had gone sweaty all of a sudden. I shone the flashlight around but the shelves blocked my vision. It was time to go. I picked up the glove and tucked it in my back pocket. Slowly, I backed out of the aisle.
Something shuffled beside me. I shrieked and spun. In the flash of the light I saw two things. A hand wearing a glove—the companion glove to the one I had in my pocket —and the piece of rebar the gloved hand clutched.
Turning on my heel, I sprinted out of the secret room and took a right. My heart rat-a-tatted in my chest. I could hear the killer behind me, shuffling through the grass.
When I reached the embankment I paused, and that pause proved to be a foolish one. The next thing I knew, something hard and metal contacted the back of my head and I went tumbling down the embankment.
I landed face down in the water. My head was spinning and I was barely clinging to consciousness. I had to get a hold of myself. There was a killer only a few short yards away and here I was, practically immobilized. I flailed in the water.
A hand contacted my tailbone and held me in place. Pure, abject terror flooded my body as I realized this was it. First it was Mr. Edwards. Now the killer is going to drown me.
The glove slid out of my pocket, and then hands pulled me out of the water, lifted me gently into the air, and pivoted my body. The killer dropped me on the slope, face down. I gasped for breath and—despite the throbbing pain in my head—turned to look up at the killer. The killer's back was to me, though, and silhouetted against a floodlight. My vision was shaky from being hit on the head.
The killer disappeared over the hill and I lay on the grass, catching my breath and waiting for the pain in my skull to pass.