Authors: Mak K. Han
“Ow! Emily, don't touch it!”
Emily frowned. “I have to look at it, Laura!” she replied in a harsh whisper. She brushed my hair aside to look at the swollen bump on my head. “It doesn't look bad. Just a bump.”
“Can we do this somewhere else?” Alex cut in. “It seems kind of inappropriate to be doing it here.”
I pushed Emily's hand aside. “I agree.” We were at Mr. Brooks's wake. Most of the town had showed up. Just about everyone had shown up for Jane's sake. Everyone was too polite to say it aloud, but not a lot of people missed Mr. Brooks. The only people that were crying were Jane, and the people that were crying because Jane was crying. Jane had opened the floor for people to make speeches about their fondest memories of Mr. Brooks, and only two people had made speeches—Dennis Arbour and Chester Rutherford, Dennis speaking on how great of a trustee Mr. Brooks had been, Chester speaking on how great it had been to work with him.
The wake had then basically turned into a town social.
“And you're sure you didn't see his face?” Emily asked.
I shook my head. “No. The light was in my eyes. All I saw was the glove and the piece of metal.”
“That doesn't exactly narrow it down,” Alex pointed out. “That could be anyone. So here's a question. If your attacker was the killer, and it seems pretty likely that it was, why was he there?”
“Or she,” I pointed out. “And I don't know. I think the only reason the killer attacked me was because I had the glove. Whoever it was, they pulled me out of the water, so they weren't trying to hurt me.”
“They hit you with a piece of metal!” Emily cried.
“Shh. I think that was just to disorient me. And it worked. I didn't see who it was.”
“So you're thinking the killer was there to clean up the crime scene? Dispose of evidence?” Alex asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, I do. The killer realized he or she left the glove behind and went back for it.”
“So if the killer was wearing gloves in the secret room,” Emily suggested, “it means there aren't going to be any fingerprints anywhere.”
I nodded. “Right. Which explains why there were no fingerprints on the bottle of poison. It would have covered the killer's tracks with the cup, too.”
Alex furrowed her brow. “Huh? What do you mean?”
“The cup. It was on the shelf and the streaks lead away from Mr. Brooks. That tells me that the killer was on the other side of the bookshelf. I bet Mr. Brooks set down the cup and when he wasn't looking, the killer slid it off the shelf and laced it with poison.”
“If the killer was on the other side of the shelf,” Alex said, partly talking to herself, “Does that mean Mr. Brooks didn't know he was there?”
“What, like he followed Mr. Brooks into the secret room and laced the drink when he wasn't looking?” Emily asked.
“It seems unlikely,” I said, “I feel like Mr. Brooks would have known if someone else was in there. Either way, why was Mr. Brooks in there to begin with? Why did he leave the carnival?” Alex and Emily were silent. “Something doesn't add up.”
“You're right,” Emily agreed. “You should go to Sheriff Caldwell with this.”
“And what's he going to say?” Alex said, before I had a chance to respond. “'Oh, Sheriff, I was hanging around the crime scene the other night, poking around where I wasn't supposed to be, and I almost got killed. But I have some speculation for you?’ I see that ending badly.”
“You're right, Alex,” I said. “For now, we'll keep it under wraps. There are still a lot of suspects.”
At the front of the room, Jane clinked her glass with a spoon. “Can I have your attention please?” she called.
The room hushed. Heads turned to her.
“Thank you all for being here,” she said. “I know Edward rubbed many of you the wrong way,” she said, almost sardonically. “But he was my husband, and deep down he was a good guy. I want to thank you all for being here. These last few days have been tough. It feels like he's still here. This is embarrassing, but sometimes when I can't sleep, I walk down to the library, hoping to see Edward there, hoping he'll get up and be okay again...”
The end of Jane's speech was a blur. Emily and Alex were staring at me, eyes wide and mouths open.
Had Jane just admitted to being at the library the night before? And therefore being the killer? Was this whole wake just a ruse because she killed her husband?
When I got home, I started writing.
I hadn't written anything since before moving to Strawberry Shores. I used to write a lot, especially in school, because it helped me to get a grip on things. Ever since I'd moved here, things had been fairly calm, and I hadn't seen a need to do so.
These last few days had upset that calm. So I started a story about a girl named Lauren, who moved to a town called Tomato Town and tried to figure out who killed a man named Mr. Streams.
In the back of my mind, I was churning things over in my head. Jane Brooks had just jumped to the forefront of my list of suspects. She herself had admitted that she went to the library at night. I'd gone to the library at night, and I'd come face to face with the killer.
Announcing that she went to the library at night had been a huge risk if she was the killer. Or was it? She'd probably figured out by now that I couldn't go to Sheriff Caldwell. I'd been creeping around a crime scene—illegally—meaning any testimony I could make would be thrown out. Maybe she was covering her tracks. Maybe she suspected that someone had seen her walking around at night and she wanted an alibi.
That made sense. If the whole 'heartbroken widow' thing was an act, she'd just bought herself a free pass to visit the crime scene whenever she chose. Hell, she could probably justify attacking me in hindsight if she had to—she was so distraught at finding someone messing around in the secret room that she'd been overwhelmed with emotion. Then it didn't matter if I reported my experience to Sheriff Caldwell because I'd look like the bad guy.
I wrote out the story as much as I could, being as detailed as possible. The more detailed I was, the more clues I could pick up on. Maybe in writing it out, I could pull something out of my unconscious that I'd overlooked. Failing that, I could finish it off and put it up for sale, and just maybe it would take care of a couple of months' rent.
By the time the doorbell rang, I had decided on a course of action. I had to visit Jane and somehow get her near a radio. Then I'd gently interrogate her about the case. I wouldn't be able to come out and ask 'did you kill your husband?' No, I'd have to be subtle. Ask her how she was handling things. Ask her what she did on those nights when she visited the library, listen for lies to see what she was hiding.
I answered the door. It was Emily and Alex. They didn't wait for me to invite them in before stepping inside. “We have lots of theories!” Emily announced.
“Guys, I don't know how helpful—”
My phone rang. I sighed. So much for a quiet Sunday evening. I left Alex and Emily to their devices, setting notebooks out on the table, and answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, is this Laura?”
“Speaking. Who's this?”
“Harold. Harold Friedman.”
“Oh. Hi, Harold.” I started twirling a strand of hair with my finger.
“Listen, I've been trying to get reestablished in Strawberry Shores. It'll definitely help business if I know people. I was wondering if you wanted to hang out tomorrow?”
“Who is it?” Emily whispered beside me.
I covered the speaker with my hand. “It's Harold! He's asking me out on a date!”
Emily shrieked and clapped. I put the phone to my ear.
“Laura? What was that noise?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Emily is baking cupcakes and burned herself.” I covered the speaker again and glowered at Emily. “Will you shut up?” I uncovered the speaker. “Yeah, I'd love to. What were you thinking?”
“Go on a picnic!” Alex whispered over Emily's shoulder. “Bring a radio! Ask him if he's a murderer!”
“Well, we could see a movie, or we could go out to dinner…"
I covered the speaker. “What?”
“Picnic!” Alex mouthed to me. “Picnic! Radio! Ask if he murders people!”
Speaker uncovered. “You know, I hear it's supposed to be nice tomorrow. Maybe we could have a picnic?”
“Sure, a picnic, that works. I'll bring the basket, you bring the blanket?”
“Sure, I'll bring a blanket.”
“And mace!” Alex whispered. “In case he tries to murder you!”
“And condoms!” Emily added. “In case you guys—”
Speaker covered. “Both of you shut up!”
Speaker uncovered. “Great. I'll see you at, say, six?”
“Uh-huh. Six.” I smiled. “I look forward to it!”
I hung up. The girls looked awestruck. “You're both incredibly unhelpful,” I grumbled.
“You'll soon be singing a different tune!” Emily announced. “Alex and I have developed theories. We are thinking international conspiracy. Come! We have it all figured out!”
I rubbed my temples.
“How does this spot look?”
I surveyed it. Harold had lead us to a small clearing on the banks of the Strawberry River. It was a beautiful spot overlooking the water, and we were facing the east, so we could watch the sun setting over the trees lining the opposite shore. “Great!” I said.
I set down the radio and unfolded the blanket, laying it across the grass. Harold found some stones and set them on each of the four corners. I turned on the radio, stuck it on the blanket, and plopped down cross-legged. Harold lay down nearby, angled toward me, keeping himself propped up with one elbow.
For the last two hours, I'd been Alex and Emily's personal Barbie doll. They'd spent the first hour arguing about how I was going to dress for the date. Then when it was clear that they were never going to agree on anything, I told them what I'd be wearing and they acted as a sounding board. The final decision had been a nice knee-length blue skirt, a button-up white blouse, with my hair done in a ponytail tied up with a pink bow—that had been Emily's addition—and flip flops. Again, Emily. Alex had been arguing for high heels, until Emily pointed out how much it would suck to walk along the riverbank in heels. She also said it would make me look ‘whorish.'
“I'll keep an eye out for mice,” I said jokingly. “I know how you feel about them.”
Harold chuckled. “I told you. I'm not afraid of mice.”
The static prickled in my head. Good. The radio was working.
“So you mentioned that you were trying to reestablish yourself,” I started, keeping the conversation light. “You said it would be good for business?”
Harold nodded. “That's right. I'm thinking about starting a business here in Strawberry Shores for as long as I'm here. I'm thinking an art business.”
I leaned back on my elbows so we were at the same level. “An art business? Is that what you studied in California?”
Harold nodded. “Yeah. I'm thinking start small, and then expand, but keep things based here in Strawberry Shores.”
There was a bit of static tickling the back of my head. “What do you mean by expand?”
“Well, sooner or later—ideally—someone is going to have a Harold Friedman work in their house, and I'll be out of business. So sooner or later I'm going to have to attract new customers. The only place to do that is the big city. New York, LA, Miami…I don't know.”
“What kind of art do you do?”
“Dark art. You know, scary stuff. It helps me vent demons.”
I nodded. “I feel the same why. That's why I write, to get stuff off my chest.” I turned onto my side so we were facing one another. “Strawberry Shores is certainly a good place to get inspiration, what with this whole Mr. Edwards mystery.”
Harold chuckled. “Yeah, that's something else all right. Poor Mr. Brooks.”
I put on my sweetest, most innocent smile. “Poor Mr. Brooks? I thought you were the killer. Didn't you say you were going to defend my honor?”
Harold took the bait. He thought I was joking. “I was just talking big. I'd never hurt anyone.”
“Really? I had you pinned from the get-go,” I pushed, just to be sure.
“No, Laura, I didn't kill Mr. Brooks. Happy now?” He looked at me in the eyes. His gaze was cool and calm and collected.
Yes, I was happy. No static.
“So you said you were planning to expand. How long before you leave Strawberry Shores?” I asked.
“Oh, it'll be a while. Like, a long while.”
For some reason, I heard static.
Harold nodded. “Yeah, probably years.”
I giggled. It was partly legitimate and partly nervous. “Come on. It's not going to take you years to get off the ground. I mean, you've been studying art for four years. You must be, like, Picasso by now.”
“Picasso?” Harold looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “Hardly. But you're right. Maybe I'm selling myself short. Maybe it'll take less than years.”
The static abated.
“That's a good attitude,” I said. “Stay positive!” I slipped off my flip flops and rolled onto my belly, kicking my feet in the air.
“That's the spirit.” Harold reached into the basket and pulled out a Nutrigrain bar. He offered me one. “Appetizer,” he said.
I accepted it and we were quiet for a minute, nibbling. “I like you, Laura.”
I slowed my chewing and looked at my Nutrigrain bar. My face was fiery. Red hot. I swallowed hard. “Thanks,” I said.
“I mean it,” he pushed. “You're cute, you're smart. I want to get to know you better.”
No static. He meant it.
“Oh, do you have a crush on me?” I asked.
“Yeah, you could say that.” The sarcasm hadn't deterred him. He meant what he was saying.
I cleared my throat. “I don't know what to say. I mean, I haven't really thought about boys since I left the city. My last boyfriend wasn't all that great.”
“What didn't you like about him?”
I rolled my eyes. “Ugh. The list is endless...”
“If you're not comfortable talking about him,” Harold said quickly, holding up his hands. “We can back off. Just making conversation.”
“It's okay,” I said. “He lied a lot. He told me we'd be together forever. But he was also super interested in the bedroom stuff. He'd get rude if I wasn't in the mood.”
“Yeah, that's lame,” Harold said.
“But the real big one was that he lied a lot. He'd tell me whatever I wanted to hear, so long as in the end he got his way.”
“That bugged you.”
I nodded. “Yeah. That bugged me.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I'm not interested in bedding you.”
I looked at him. There was static in my head. He doubled back quickly. “Well, I mean, I wouldn't turn it down if I had the opportunity.”
I blushed. “Thanks. I guess.”
“It's good, though. I'll back off, if you're still getting over that last relationship.”
“Thanks, Harold. What did you bring for dinner?”
We ate. We talked. The sun dipped below the horizon and soon the stars came out, speckling the night sky like diamond dust. By eight, Harold had his arm around my waist. As he walked me home, it was around my shoulders. On my doorstep, he gave me a kiss goodnight.
After an excited hour long three-way call with Alex and Emily, I went to bed feeling like Cinderella. My memory was ablaze with the memories of the evening I spent alone with Harold Friedman.
I'd soon find out we weren't as alone as I'd thought.