Authors: Mak K. Han
“One more time,” I said. “Let's go through the plan one more time.”
“I think you should probably be focused on the road,” Alex said nervously.
She was probably right. Torrential rain had the windshield wipers on their maximum setting and I was holding the steering wheel so hard my hands hurt. Still, after we'd left the gas station on Tuesday night, we'd met to discuss a plan. We'd met on Wednesday night to go over it again. And now it was Thursday, we were on our way to the Brooks house, and I wanted to make sure everything was perfect.
“Okay,” Emily said, breaking the silence. “We're going to meet with Jane. Alex and I will get her talking. Alex will have her radio on mute. Laura, you listen to Jane and see if she's lying about anything. When you get something, step in. Alex and I will back off and you dig around for information.”
I nibbled my lip. It was the best we could come up with. The real trick had been getting a radio near Jane. We couldn't very well expect her to have a radio playing when we got there. And due to the nature of the visit—condolences about her loss—we couldn't figure out a way to work a 'hey, let's turn the radio on!' into the conversation—assuming she owned a radio at all.
So we settled on Alex bringing a pocket radio borrowed from her father and muting it. It wasn't a great plan. We'd tested it among ourselves. I'd had Alex turn it on, and then asked she and Emily questions to which they would either lie or tell the truth. With the storm, the effect had been hit-or-miss. Which had lead us to thinking we might wait until the weather cleared up, but the forecast was predicting the storm would last until the weekend. With every day that passed our chances of solving this thing dwindled.
So the plan was to get into Jane's house, get her talking, probe around for clues that she might be lying. It had to work.
As we turned onto the road Jane lived on, my phone rang. I pulled it out of my pocket.
“Jesus, Laura. Can you ignore it?”
The screen read ‘HAROLD.' “No. Hold on.” I pulled over to the side of the road. “It's Harold.”
Alex frowned as I picked up the phone. “Is this really the best time to be working your love life?”
“Hey Laura,” he said on the other end.
“Hi Harold. What's up?”
“I was wondering if you wanted to see a movie tomorrow night.”
I looked over at Alex, and then in the rearview at Emily. Both looked uneasy.
“Sure. Pick me up at six?”
“Sure. You in a hurry or something? You sound kind of on edge.”
“I'm driving. It's raining crazy out here.”
“Oh, okay. I'll let you go then. Drive safe! Tomorrow at six?”
“Six it is. See you then.” I hung up and we continued down the road.
“You have a date?” Alex said, relaxing a bit as the car propelled forward.
“Yeah. We're going to see a movie tomorrow night at six.”
“Aren't you having your bulkhead fixed tomorrow?” Emily asked.
I thought it over for a minute. “Whatever. I'll figure it out in the morning. For now, we have to get this sorted out. Let's make this quick, because I don't want anyone finding out we're here.”
“I agree,” Alex said.
Emily was quiet for a moment, but then said, “Oops.”
My eyes snapped to the rearview. “‘Oops?' What is ‘oops?' Who did you tell?”
Emily cringed. “Miss Tisdell...”
Alex spun in her seat. “Miss Tisdell?! Why did you tell Miss Tisdell?”
“Sorry! She asked. I said we were going up to see Jane tonight.”
I rubbed my temples. “Okay. When did you tell Miss Tisdell?”
“Umm...earlier. About an hour before you showed up. She stopped by the bakery to pick up a cake. She asked what I was doing tonight.”
I sighed. “Okay. It's not the end of the world. Miss Tisdell can only spread gossip so fast. Let's get in, get out, and get out of here.”
Alex and Emily nodded in unison. “Right. Let's do it.”
We rounded the corner and the Brooks house loomed before us.
I popped open my umbrella as I stepped out of the car. The wind threatened to pull it out of my hand.
The Brooks house was an enormous mansion crowned with pointed spires and tall, dark windows. The driveway was designed so that cars were left at the foot of the hill. From there we had to walk up the gravel path to the broad front lawn.
The car was out of sight by the time we reached the front door. “Okay, are you ready?” I asked Alex as we stepped under the overhang and onto the porch.
“Hold on,” she said as she pulled the radio out of her jeans pocket and flipped it on. “Okay. Full battery.” She held it to her ear. “I'm getting a pretty good signal but it's still spotty. Give me a test.”
I mulled it over for a moment. “Alex, have you ever kissed a boy?” I asked.
“Okay, I don’t hear any static, so it's working. Let's get inside and get to work. Hopefully there's nothing in the walls that will block reception.” I turned to the door, grabbed the knocker, and pounded twice.
“Here we are,” I said quietly. “Three sweet, wholesome girls here to offer our condolences. Emily, play up the innocent angle.” I paused for a moment. “Shoot, we should have had you bring cupcakes or something. Alex—try to, uh, not be yourself.”
She gave me a dirty look.
We waited. I looked at Emily and Alex, and then knocked again.
We waited again.
Emily shuffled. “Guys? Did you see any other cars in the driveway?”
A moment of quiet. Alex shook her head. “No, I don't think so. Wouldn't Jane have a driver or something? I mean, she's rich.”
“Not all rich people have limos, Alex. I've seen Jane driving.”
I cleared my throat. “It may be possible that we forgot to make a backup plan in case she's not home.”
The three of us looked at the door. “Maybe she's mourning,” Emily suggested. “You know, wearing all black, a veil, the whole nine yards. Knock again!”
I knocked again. No response. Alex flipped the radio off. “She's not home.”
“Should we wait?” I asked.
“Maybe we can wait in the car,” Emily said. She was hugging herself, her teeth chattering. “It's kind of cold out here.”
“Okay,” I said. “New plan. We'll wait in the car.” We backtracked down the path. “Here's what we'll do,” I said. “We'll wait in the car until Mrs. Brooks comes back. Then when she arrives—”
“Laura?” Alex interrupted.
She pointed down the path at my car. “I don't think your car was like that earlier.”
I followed her finger and stopped in my tracks. A piece of rebar stuck out of my windshield. White paint, freshly applied to the hood, read I WARNED YOU.
I swallowed hard. Despite the howling of the wind and the pounding of the rain, the woods surrounding the path suddenly seemed silent.
“Do you think the killer is watching us right now?” Emily asked quietly.
“I don't know.” I scanned the tree-line. I didn't see anything out of the ordinary.
“I'm starting to think this is getting a little out of hand, Laura,” Alex said. “This isn't fun anymore.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding absentmindedly. “Yeah. This is getting scary. New plan—let's go back to my house and forget about the murder. We'll let Sheriff Caldwell handle it.”
“That's a plan I can get behind.” Emily approached the car and hopped in. I pulled the rebar out of the windshield and tossed it aside. Scanning the woods one last time, I climbed behind the wheel.
Then we turned the car around and, as I peered through the spider-cracked windshield, I realized that as the Brooks household disappeared behind, we would leave the case behind. It was time to move on.
“He'll be here in like half an hour. Are you ready?”
Alex was behind me, fastening my dress. Emily stood at my side applying blush. Eric Clapton's “Wonderful Tonight” played in the background.
“I'm fine. We're just going to a movie. And he's going to be here in fifteen minutes,” I corrected Alex.
“Don't think of it like that,” Emily said. “You're going to the theatre. With an R-E. Theat-re. Classy!”
“Nothing classier than the smell of stale popcorn and sticking to the floor when you walk,” I grumbled.
“Aww, be happy, Laura. So we didn't find Mr. Brooks's killer. We tried our best.”
“I know,” I said, dejected. “I just—I thought I could use my power for something more, you know?”
There was a thud outside. Emily went out into the other room. “The guy is here to fix your bulkhead,” she called.
“All right, let him in,” I called over my shoulder.
“Do you want us to stay here while you're gone?”
I snorted. “It's Daniel. I trust him. I think you just want to hang out and eat my food.”
Alex shrugged. “Yeah. Mostly.”
Emily returned to the doorway. “I let him in. He's going downstairs now. I looked out into the driveway but I don't see Harold yet. I'm going to go wait for him.”
“Fine,” I called over my shoulder.
“So what's next?” Alex asked. “Maybe you're onto something. Maybe your true calling is doing police work. With that psychic thing of yours? You'd make a great detective. Plus you could write about your cases afterward.”
“I don't think I'm allowed to do that—write about cases, I mean,” I said. “Besides, I'd like to at least establish myself as a writer before moving on to other things.” I tilted my head back for Alex to adjust my hair. “I started a book a few days ago and I've barely worked on it. I guess it's sort of a crime drama.”
“What's it about?”
I blushed. “A girl named Lauren who tries to solve the mystery of one Mr. Streams in one Tomato Town.”
Alex chuckled. “Sounds familiar.”
“Yeah, write what you know, right? The only problem is, I don't think readers are going to relate to a heroine who can't solve the mystery at the end.”
“Make something up,” she said, grinning while looking over my shoulder. “Maybe Lauren has a devilishly cute friend with an androgynous name like 'Taylor' and she ends up being the killer at the end.”
“Oh?” I looked at her in the mirror. “I think that would be hard to pull off. I think 'Taylor' was at the carnival with Lauren.”
“She could have snuck off.”
I smiled. “Leave the writing to me, Alex. You have to think of the logistics. For example, where would Taylor get the gloves? The rebar?”
“Her dad is well-connected.”
“To what? Construction workers?”
“Sure, why not? Maybe she—”
“Stop.” I said.
“Huh?” Alex looked at my face. “Laura? What's wrong?”
“Gloves,” I said. “Rebar. Rat poison. The kinds of things a construction worker would have.”
“What are you saying?”
I spun around to face Alex. “Daniel would have those things. He knew the layout of the secret room because he was the one who blocked it off. Do you remember seeing him at the carnival?”
Alex had gone pale. “Well, no, but I wasn't looking for him...”
I pushed past Alex and stepped into the living room. “Emily?” I called.
“Take it easy, Laura,” Alex said, putting her hand on my shoulder. I brushed it away.
“That's probably what happened,” I said. He lured Mr. Brooks into the secret room at the carnival. He had rat poison. He was standing on the other side of the book shelf and took Mr. Brooks' cup when he set it down. That's why the streak marks were facing away from where they found his body. The killer—Daniel—poisoned the drink while Mr. Brooks wasn't looking and then replaced it.”
I listened for a moment. The house was silent. Daniel wasn't out front, nor could I hear him working on the bulkhead downstairs. I handed Alex my phone. “I'm going downstairs,” I said. “If something happens, call the Sheriff.”
“Laura, this is sketchy—”
I brushed her off and stood at the doorway to the basement. Silence below. “Emily?” I called.
No response. I took a step down. “Emily? Are you down there?”
My heels thudded heavily on the steps, one after another. I peered under the edge of the wall.
Daniel stood there, clutching Emily and holding a hand over her mouth. “I told you to stay away,” he growled. “Tell your friend up there that if she calls the Sheriff, your friend here gets it.”
I paused and looked up at Alex. She'd heard.
Daniel pushed a piece of duct tape over Alex's mouth and stood back to survey his work.
Alex, Emily and I sat tied up in the kitchen. They were gagged—he had yet to tape my mouth. Daniel brushed his hands together. “This is one way to tie up loose ends,” he said, chuckling at the lousy pun.
“You're not going to get away with this,” I hissed.
“I already did, until you started messing around,” he barked back. He ran his hands through his thinning black hair. “It was a perfect crime. I told Mr. Brooks at the carnival that kids were snooping around in that stupid room under the library. When we got around to the back side,” he smiled to himself. “I told him it was you, Laura. That you were trying to clean out the books. That really set him off.”
“And then you got him into the room. While he was busy looking for me, you poisoned his drink,” I responded.
“A bit of ingenuity on my part, if I do say so myself. I didn't poison his drink, I poisoned mine and switched it.”
“But why leave the rat poison?” I asked. “The glove?”
“Sloppiness,” he frowned. “The glove fell out of my pocket and apparently I kicked it under the shelf. Brooks drank the poison and hit the floor. Jane had followed us and found him a few seconds after he went down.”
“But she didn't see you. She only saw Mr. Brooks go behind the library.”
“I was ahead of Brooks, so sure,” Daniel said, nodding. “She must have only seen him. That was dumb luck. Nobody was supposed to see us, after all.”
“So how did the poison end up on the floor?”
“Jane found us and screamed. I knew I only had a few moments to escape. On the way out I dropped the poison, and decided to leave it, because I'd only handled it with gloves. There wouldn't be any fingerprints.”
“And while the rest of the town was going around the left side of the library,” I added, “You were going around the right. You knew that was the dangerous path, so nobody would take it.”
Daniel bowed sarcastically. “Voila. Everyone is distracted and I slip back into the crowd. I come back a few nights later to find the missing glove.”
“And you find me instead.”
“Yes. Sorry about that business with the bop on the head.”
“You don't want to kill us,” I challenged him. “Otherwise you would have left me in the stream. Instead you pulled me out.”
“That's true,” Daniel said. He was pacing now, perhaps impressed with his own ingenuity. “I didn't. But you didn't back off. You kept asking questions. I gave you the picture, and what do you do? You go up to the Brooks house. I have Miss Tisdell to thank for that tip-off.”
I looked away from Daniel long enough to give Emily a nasty look. She cringed.
“So what now?” I asked.
“I'm going to have to kill you,” he said. “Sheriff Caldwell is chasing ghosts. He'll never catch me. But you three have to go.”
I swallowed hard as Daniel pulled a final strip of tape off the roll. I knew it was meant for me, and that if it made its way to my mouth, we were done for. Daniel would load us into his van and take us wherever, and do whatever – I didn't want to think about it. Alarmingly, I hadn't picked up any static when he'd said 'I'm going to kill you'.
The tape neared my mouth. I jerked my head away at the last minute. “You don't want to kill us, Daniel,” I said. “You were angry at Mr. Brooks. We're just loose ends.” I looked him in the eyes. “Do you want to kill us?”
“Do I want to? Yes, I do,” Daniel said, pausing. I heard static.
“Are you sure this is the only way to do it?”
He still hadn't gagged me. “Yes.”
Louder static now. “You know there's another way. You know that nobody is going to believe the three of us, for starters.”
“It's three against one,” Daniel said. “They'll believe you.”
“Not necessarily. Nobody knows your motive.”
“I must have worked for that monster a dozen times. Every time, I delivered quality work. And every time, he complained about it. He'd bring me back.” As Daniel spoke, I realized he was trying to justify killing us. He figured the more we knew, the more the reason he had to kill us. “He'd stand behind me, and criticize. It was always something or the other. I got fed up.”
“He tortured you,” I said, putting as much sympathy into my tone as possible. “This isn't you, though. You can push through this. Untie us.”
Daniel shook his head. “No. Brooks is dead, and I'm getting away with it.” He moved to gag me again. I glanced over his shoulder.
“Wait!” I said. “Suppose there's something you're overlooking. Tape my mouth and you won't know what it is.”
“I'll take my chances,” he said as he pushed the tape over my mouth and stood up. “Time to say goodnight, girls.”
I nodded at something behind his back. He looked over his shoulder just in time to see Harold. The rebar that collided with his face was probably moving too fast for him to see.