Authors: Mak K. Han
When I came home after work, I found Alex sitting on my doorstep. She looked concerned.
“Hey,” I said. “What's going on?”
Alex cleared her throat and stood up. “I came over earlier to see if you were home. I found this taped to your door.” She handed me a photograph.
At first I wasn't sure what I was looking at. The picture seemed to be of two people, and seemed to have been taken at a distance. Both people were facing away from the camera but the more I looked at it, the more I recognized the two people.
“That's me and Harold,” I said flatly.
“And that's the Strawberry River in the background.”
My heart skipped a beat. “This was taken last night, while Harold and I were on our date.”
Alex made a spinning gesture with her pointer finger. “Turn it over.”
I did. On the back, scrawled in Sharpie, read: BROOKS IS DEAD. LET IT BE.
“It's a threat,” I said. “The killer knows I'm trying to figure out who killed Mr. Brooks.”
Alex looked up at me. I'd never seen her this way before. Alex was usually the first to mock danger but in this instant the blood was gone from her face and her eyes were trembling. “I called Emily. She should be here in a couple of minutes. I think we should go to Sheriff Caldwell with this. Emily didn't give me a definitive answer but I think she'll probably agree with me too.”
It took very little effort to convince me that Alex was right. As soon as Emily arrived, we hopped in her car and drove down to the station.
The Strawberry Shores police station was a small, trailer-sized building. Stepping in, we found Sheriff Caldwell lounging in his chair with his polished black boots on the table. The room smelled like whiskey. A radio behind him played Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire.”
“Solving cases, I see,” Alex muttered as we entered.
“You talkin' about the Brooks case? I got some pretty solid leads,” he said. There was a fair amount of static when he said this. “You just leave it to me.”
“Well, we might have a clue for you,” I said, handing him the picture.
The Sheriff looked it over, front and back. “What's this?”
“Last night, Harold Friedman and I went for a walk in the park,” I explained. “That's us. We didn't know someone was taking pictures of us. We think it was the killer.”
“And what's this message on the back mean?”
My face went warm. “I've been asking around town to see if anyone knows anything about the case,” I said. Technically that was the truth with a few details omitted, and not a lie. I picked up static anyway.
“Welp, I'll dust it for fingerprints,” the Sheriff said.
He headed out back to get the equipment to do the check.
“That's scary, Laura,” Emily said. “Did you see anyone during your date last night?”
I shook my head. “I mean, I saw people. But nobody stood out. And I didn't see any cameras.”
Sheriff Caldwell dusted for fingerprints, identifying three sets.
“What does that mean?” Emily asked. “Can you tell who the killer is?”
Sheriff Caldwell shook his head. “I'm afraid not. I'll have to have it sent to the lab in Greenville and see if they're willing to run it for me. Don' get too excited though, that'll take some time. I'll see if I can get 'em to do a handwriting analysis too.”
Alex was shaking her head. “That's pointless. It makes sense that there are three sets of fingerprints. I touched it, Laura touched it, and Sheriff Caldwell touched it. One, two, three.”
“Maybe the killer was wearing gloves,” Emily suggested.
I held my tongue.
“Listen, I'm gon' hold on to this for evidence,” the Sheriff instructed me, sticking the photo in one of his drawers. “In the meantime, you might think about leaving the investigatin' to people like me. You hear me?”
I nodded. “Sure Sheriff. It won't happen again.” I started to turn to walk away before catching a whiff of the whiskey again. “Say, Sheriff. Yes or no—will you tell me who the suspects are?”
“I can't do that, Laura.” He said.
“Are you sure?” I leaned against the desk, putting on my seductive face, posturing the way I'd seen women in movies do it. “I mean, I'm feeling kind of scared after this whole photograph thing. Maybe if you let me know who your suspects are, I can avoid them.”
The Sheriff didn't respond.
“Please? I just want to feel safe, and you're a good sheriff. I trust you.”
The Sheriff shook his head. “Sorry Laura. The law says I can't talk about suspects. But tell you what.” As he rummaged around in one of his drawers, I noticed there was no static. That was because he was telling the truth. Indeed, the law stated that he couldn't take about suspects. He handed me a card. “You have any problems, you give me a call. I'll come runnin'.”
I smiled. “Thanks Sheriff. I guess it'll have to do.”
With that, we left.
“Jeez, Laura,” Alex said after she hopped in Emily's car. “Way to lay on the sex appeal. You trying to get with Sheriff Caldwell?”
“Banish the thought,” I said sharply. “No, I picked up static when I asked if he'd tell me who the suspects were. So he has loose lips. I just have to figure out how to come at him the right way.”
“Well, you wanted insight on the suspects, and maybe you already had some,” Emily suggested.
“What do you mean?”
“Well...you know Harold isn't a suspect anymore!”
I frowned at her. She smiled.
It didn't make me feel better.
Come 5:00, nervousness tickled my stomach.
I'd tried to keep a low profile throughout the day, avoiding the urge to gossip about the case with the library patrons. Still, the idea that the killer was out there, knew I was poking around in the case, and had the ability to see me without me seeing him had me on edge.
While I was locking the doors, I realized that Susan had been gone for some time now—about an hour or so—since she'd gotten a phone call. She'd gone into the back somewhere. I couldn't leave without her.
I ventured into the stacks, slowing every now and then to fix books that had fallen over or dropped onto the floor. And while I'd stayed away from talking about the case because I didn't want to risk unwittingly talking about it with the killer, nobody would know if I thought about it.
Harold was out of the pool of suspects. Sure, there was the possibility that he'd been working with someone, and that the date had been an elaborate ruse to distract me. Still, why would Harold even suspect me? Why wouldn't he focus on the more pressing issue, Sheriff Caldwell? The whole theory that Harold was working with a partner didn't hold much water so I'd all but done away with it. It had been unlikely that he was a suspect.
Which left Jane Brooks, Chester Rutherford, and Susan. It was looking more and more like I was wasting my time. Even if Jane had committed the murder, how could I prove it? Aside from her admission that she'd visited the secret room after the murder, I had no evidence against her. I barely knew anything about Chester Rutherford, other than that he had a motive. In this town, just about everyone had a bone to pick with dear old Edward Brooks. Susan was my best lead.
Speaking of Susan, I found her in the back of the library. I heard sobbing and traced it to its source. I found her leaning over a table, covering the mouthpiece of her phone with her hand. Her eyes and cheeks were red and puffy and her hair was a mess, like she'd been running her hand through it over and over. I waved at her and when I had her attention, pointed at the invisible watch on my wrist. She nodded and waved me away. I headed back to the counter.
“Five already?” Susan said a few minutes later as she returned to the front of the library. She sniffled.
“Yeah. What was that about?”
Susan shook her head. “Nothing. Just an argument.”
“It was more than nothing. Who were you arguing with?”
Susan sighed. “Chester.”
She nodded. “Yeah. We're together.”
I leaned back against the counter with my arms crossed. “Together? Like...together-together?”
Susan nodded again. “Together-together. It wasn't anything bad. He's just under a lot of stress at work because there are a couple people—people with less seniority than him—trying to get promoted to Mr. Brooks's old job. It just makes a lot of stress.”
“Sounds tough.” I'd all but lost interest in the conversation. Chester was with Susan—juicy gossip, sure, but it wasn't earth-shattering.
Susan was still interested. “It happens every now and then. We argued at the carnival,” she laughed nervously and rolled her eyes. “We pick the best times...”
“I don't remember you arguing at the carnival?”
“Yeah. We're trying to keep our relationship under wraps. It's nice to have some privacy every now and then, you know? With Miss Tisdell running around, that's not always an option. At the carnival when things started to go south, we headed across the street to the gas station.”
My ears perked up. I opened my mouth to speak and then stopped. The last thing I wanted was for Susan to think I was interrogating her. If she got the sense I suspected her, it might strain our relationship. I came at her from a different angle. “You guys must have been sneaky. Then again, all the excitement with the secret room was probably a good distraction.”
It worked. “We missed all the excitement with Mr. Brooks. We left before it happened.”
I played it cool. Hearing Susan say that was sort of bittersweet. In a way, I was glad she wasn't the killer. She was my friend, after all. Another part of me, though, wished she was the killer. It would have been exciting to catch the killer on my own. And seeing as Susan was my number one suspect, vindicating her meant one thing—all of my other suspects had motives, but I had nothing on them.
As we finished closing the library and I started home, I couldn't help but despair a little bit. Sheriff Caldwell had gotten nowhere with the case. I'd gotten nowhere with the case.
As I walked home that evening, I resolved to go to the gas station the next day and see if I could see the security footage from the Carnival, just to make sure. Somehow, though, I knew Susan was innocent, and between the Sheriff having no leads and me running out of mine, it was starting to look more and more like Mr. Brooks's killer was going to get away with the murder.
“Why are we doing this again?”
“Because,” I explained to Emily as we crossed Stem Street toward the gas station, “Susan was my number one suspect.”
“You said yourself that she was telling the truth,” Alex remarked. “I mean, you didn't hear the static stuff while she was talking, right?”
“Right,” I couldn't help but agree. “Then again, I didn't have any radios nearby. We were in the library.”
“I think you're getting obsessed,” Emily said flatly.
I looked over my shoulder and scowled at her. “That's something I'd expect to hear from Alex.”
I opened the door to the gas station. Alex and Emily stepped inside. I followed them. They spread, Emily going to the snack aisle to look at the cupcakes, Alex browsing the energy drink refrigerator. I approached the counter.
The attendant was a kid about my age with dyed-black hair combed to one side. His ears were gauged, and I could see out the window behind his head by looking through the holes in his lobes. Behind him a radio played death metal.
“Can I help you?” he mumbled.
“What are the odds that I could see the footage from your security camera?” I asked.
The kid—his name tag read Jimmy—cocked his head to the side and frowned. “Slim to none. Do you need gas or something?”
My static tickled when he said 'slim to none'. That was good news.
“Please?” I pressed. “I think my boyfriend is cheating on me. I want to know for sure.”
“And looking at the security footage is going to help how?”
“I know he was here on Saturday night. I want to see if he was here with someone.”
Jimmy shook his head. His earlobes flopped. “No go, sweetheart. I won't show it to you.”
Again with the static. This told me that I had a chance to see it, but Jimmy wasn't going to just let me watch it. That meant there was something I could say to soften him up – but what was it? Time for a new approach.
“What would it take for you to change your mind?”
Jimmy shrugged. “I don't think there's anything.”
The static went off, but I didn't need it this time—just the sound of his voice told me that he himself didn't believe what he was saying.
“I'll give you ten bucks,” I offered.
Jimmy shook his head and then nodded toward the back of the store. “You friends with her?”
I followed his gaze. He was looking at Alex. Amazingly, I hadn't picked up on it, but Alex had probably caught his eye the moment we walked into the store. I could see why, too – she was in a black skirt today, with Converse All-Stars and a band T-shirt with pink skulls on it. Her hair color today was black with purple tips. Jimmy was wearing his employee uniform, but outside of work, I could definitely imagine he and Alex getting along pretty well.
“Who, Alex? In the skirt?”
Jimmy nodded. “Yeah. Get me her phone number and I'll show you the tape.”
I shrugged. “Alex. Come here!”
Alex glanced over her shoulder, pulled an energy drink off the shelf, and approached the register. “What's up?”
I smiled. “Well, this is Jimmy. Jimmy, this is Alex. Jimmy wants to know if you'd be willing to share your phone number.”
Alex looked Jimmy up and down. “Is this so he'll show you the camera footage?”
“Whatever. Buy me this energy drink and I'll do it.”
Emily appeared behind Alex. “And these cupcakes. Buy me these cupcakes.” She placed a package of Little Debbie cupcakes on the counter.
“What do you need a package of Little Debbie cupcakes for?” I asked her.
“They look good. I want to see if I can duplicate them using the ingredients list.”
“Can't you just take a picture of the package?”
Emily shook her head. “I'm hungry, too. I'll share!”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I'll take the energy drink and the cupcakes.”
I bought the energy drink and the cupcakes. Alex cracked open the drink, scrawled a phone number on the back of the receipt, and handed it to Jimmy. Grinning, Jimmy stepped aside and knelt at the stack of TV monitors. “Okay, which one do you want?”
I pointed to the one in the top left. “That one. The one that shows the pumps and the front door. That should work.”
“Okay.” Jimmy positioned his finger on the rewind button. “Where do you want it?”
“Last Saturday.” I leaned over the counter, watching the monitor intently as Jimmy rewound the tape. “Between six and eight.”
Over my shoulder, the Little Debbie package crinkled. A small chocolate cupcake with pink frosting appeared beside my face. I accepted it, popped it into my mouth, and returned my eyes to the monitor. “Thurr!” I cried out, my mouth full of chocolate. “Thuds ut.”
Jimmy pressed play. Sure enough, there was Susan and Chester walking into the parking lot. It looked like they were having a heated argument. “Okay, fast forward it a little bit.”
Jimmy pressed fast forward. Susan and Chester buzzed around the parking lot at hyper speed, finally disappearing around the corner of the building. They emerged at about seven forty five.
Half an hour after the murder, I thought to myself.
“That's enough,” I said. “Thank you.”
The three of us left.
“That was amazing!” Emily exclaimed as soon as the door had closed behind us. “How did you get him to show you the tape?”
“I asked him, and I knew he was lying when he answered. Then it was just a matter of figuring out what he wanted.” I gestured over my shoulder at Alex. “He wanted Alex. Apparently black lipstick goes a long way.”
“Are you going to go on a date with him?” Emily asked.
“Oh, don't say that,” I chided. “Who knows? Maybe he'll sweep you off your feet when he calls.”
Alex giggled. “Well, that's the thing. That phone number I gave him? It's not my number. I think it connects to a dry cleaning service in Florida.”
I sighed. “So why did I have to buy you an energy drink?”
“I was thirsty. Thanks, by the way.”
“And for the cupcakes. Do you want another cupcake, Laura?”
“No, I don't want another cupcake. I want a lead.”
“Well, there's only one person left,” Alex said. “And that's Jane. Maybe we should set up a meeting with her? You know, to express our condolences.”
Instantly the image of the photograph of me and Harold at the river sprung to mind. “It's dangerous,” I said warily. “If the killer finds out we're visiting Jane, it could be bad news.”
“Unless the killer
Jane,” Emily retorted. “And who else could it be? It wasn't Harold, it wasn't Susan, and it wasn't Chester. Jane had the most to gain anyway. I'm surprised we didn't follow up with her sooner.”
“That's a good point,” Alex added. “Suppose the killer IS Jane? You're going to want us there with you, Laura, in case it hits the fan.”
I nodded. “You're right. But how are we going to approach her? She's not just going to come out and admit to killing Mr. Brooks.”
“You'll have to use your psychic powers,” Emily said matter-of-factly. “Back her into a corner. Figure out what she's lying about and checkmate her. It'll be like a chess game!”
We paused at a street corner to wait for the signal. From here I could see the Brooks house up on Strawberry Hill, overlooking the town. “Okay then. We'll visit Mrs. Brooks. But let's go back to my place and plan it out. We'll only have once chance.”