Monday, January 14, 2019

Pet: A Short Story

This story is a bit of a departure for me. I wanted to try something a bit more noir. I hope you enjoy it. 

by Shari Randall
This story originally appeared in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies (2018)

Katya left her Redondo Beach apartment, hurrying along the cracked pavement past nail salons, empty storefronts, and a crowd of cat-calling men outside a car wash. She tried her best to ignore them, the way her boyfriend, Lev, instructed as she headed to the pet shop. Black and white letters affixed to pink lattice spelled Rosie’s Pet Spa. Despite being located in an area dominated by surf shops and fast food restaurants, the pet spa had a reputation that lured the well heeled.
Katya pressed her face to the window, the tension in her body ebbing as she admired dogs that cost more than everything she and Lev owned. When she and Lev left Russia two years earlier, he’d promised that they’d live in a mansion. That they’d be free. That every day the skies would be the same color as her eyes. Most days the skies were blue, but she felt trapped in the tiny apartment they shared with four other young Russians.
Behind her a pink van lumbered to the curb. Katya turned. A Chihuahua poked its little head out the window and yapped. 
The driver pulled the dog from the window and got out. Katya heard “Reaper, stop!” as the Chihuahua raced around the van and ran to her, barking. Katya laughed and bent to stroke it.
Nyet, nyet,”Katya said, but when she saw the driver approach she switched to the English she’d learned from the video games played by the young men who lived with her and Lev. “Chill little man, chill.” The Chihuahua vibrated madly, licking her toes and worn rubber flip flops.
The driver, a stocky woman with pink streaks in her hair, set a carrier on the sidewalk with a grunt. “I liked the Russian better.” She scooped up the Chihuahua. “And you should chill, Reaper.”  The woman held out her hand. “I’m Rosie.”
Katya hesitated, then shook the woman’s hand. “Katya.”
“Reaper sure likes you. You like dogs.” It wasn’t a question. “I’ve seen you here before.”
Katya nodded slightly, unsure if watching the dogs was allowed.
“I’m looking for someone to give baths. One of my shampoo girls took off with some asshat surfer.”
“Asshat surfer?” Katya said.
Rosie laughed, a short bark. “Sounds better with a Russian accent. You looking for work? A job?”
Katya thought of the boys who shared her apartment, the way they looked at her when they thought Lev didn’t notice and of the other girl she lived with, Anya, how she only left the apartment to buy cigarettes, how her eyes always looked dead. “Yes. A job. Please.”
“You’re what, eighteen?”
Katya nodded. That’s what the papers Lev had bought said.
“I’ve got dogs out the wazoo needing baths. Come on in.” A bell chimed as she pushed open the door into a bright pink storefront that smelled like peppermint and dog. “Let’s talk.”
Three months later on a Saturday afternoon, Katya helped Rosie ready the shop to close.
“You need to get a life, Katya.” Rosie flicked off the lights in the bath area. “I’m your boss and I think you work too much.”
“It’s not work. I like it.” Katya nuzzled a Pomeranian that now sported one of Rosie’s trademark pink bows.
“That dog hates everyone, but she likes you. Whatever you’ve got, it works on Cujo. Sorry,” she bent toward the fluffy ball in Katya’s arms. “Caro. She belongs to Mrs. Ashburn. Richer than God. Can you believe it, the old bag gets to name a dog and what does she name it? Her. Own. Fricking. Name. Changed one whole letter, sure. But still. Gotta get her ready for the chauffeur, right, Cujo?” Rosie called all the biting dogs Cujo.
“She’s just nervous because she’s so small,” Katya said.
“You have to make sure Caro’s ready outside. Her mama’s time’s worth billions. Don’t forget the carrier.”
“I’ll take you out for some fresh air, Caro.” Katya picked up the carrier. “Come.” Caro followed on her heels, tail wagging.
“Fresh air in LA. You keelme, Katya. See you Monday.”
Katya sat on the neon pink bench outside the door and lifted Caro onto her lap.
Lev turned the corner, strutting in slim designer jeans and sunglasses. Katya froze. Lev rarely left the apartment during the day and he had never come to Rosie’s.
The Pomeranian yipped and jumped off her lap, leaping at Lev’s legs, scratching at his tight jeans and latching her tiny pointed teeth onto his ankle.
“Caro!” Katya jumped up.
“Overfed rat dog,” Lev sneered. He kicked out, his boot catching the Pomeranian under the ribs.
Caro yelped and skittered across the sidewalk.
Katya winced. She’d felt the impact of Lev’s pointed leather boot as if he’d kicked her and not Caro. She scooped up the trembling dog. 
“How could you?” She whispered, her heart thudding as she cradled the tiny body. She whirled toward the door, but Rosie was nowhere to be seen. Cars flowed by, nobody stopped.
“You want me fired?”
“Katya, they’re stupid, spoiled dogs!” Lev straightened the collar of his shirt and checked his jeans for tears. “What a joke.”
“This joke pays the rent.” She pressed Caro to her shoulder, the dog’s fluttering heartbeat matching her own.
Lev snorted and looked away, the reflection of a passing Lexus sliding across his Ray Bans. “Katya, Katya, we didn’t come here to wash dogs.”
A black limousine slid to the curb. A chauffeur heaved himself out, tugging on his too-tight jacket. He stepped slowly around the car, his glance moving from the top of Katya’s head to her rubber flip-flops. He frowned. Katya felt her cheeks burn.
“Madame would like to speak with you.”
Katya turned to Lev, Caro pressed to her hammering heart. Lev put his hand on Katya’s lower back and pushed until she moved forward. Had they seen Lev kick Caro? Katya thought wildly. Lev’s lips curled in a smile and he whistled as he picked up the dog carrier.
The chauffeur breathed heavily as he opened the rear door. A blond, smiling woman reached out her arms from the rear seat.
“Caro, come to mommy!” Katya mutely handed the dog to her then stepped backwards, bumping into Lev’s chest.
Mrs. Ashburn, the “richer than God” lady who owned Caro, had a deep voice, smooth as honey. Katya was dazzled. The woman’s wide white smile and silver blond hair reminded Katya of a woman she had seen in a movie once, a woman in a pink dress draped with diamonds, dancing with dozens of sleek men in tuxedos.
“Caro, my baby!” She held Caro to her shoulder, just as Katya had.
“You’re Katya.” Mrs. Ashburn smiled even wider and waved Katya closer. “It’s okay, pet, I don’t bite.” Diamonds glittered like fairy dust on every finger.
“My baby is so pretty and happy when she comes home. I thought, who is the girl who makes Caro so happy? I’ve got to meet her.”
Relief flooded Katya. Mrs. Ashburn hadn’t seen the kick. She felt Lev’s hand on her lower back, again pushing her toward the open door. “I’m, I’m Katya.”
“So nice to meet you, Katya. Call me Carol.” Katya watched Mrs. Ashburn’s eyes slide past her to Lev. “And who is your handsome friend?”
If Lev hadn’t pushed her into the limousine, Katya would have said no thank you and gone back to the little apartment that reeked of stale beer and cigarette smoke. But Lev had always had a nose for money. 
“What do you say?” Carol had enthused on the drive to The Manse. “I need someone to live in and take care of Caro. You can have the little pink bedroom. It will look so pretty with your blond hair.”
And that was it. Katya moved in to care for Caro full time. The little pink bedroom was one of twelve bedrooms at Carol’s home, The Manse. The Manse was a half-mile away from Golden Oaks. Carol had grown up at Golden Oaks, a mansion so stuffed with artwork, antiques, and artifacts that she had turned it into a museum and moved down the road to the smaller house.
Just days after Katya began working at The Manse, Carol Ashburn’s chauffeur, Morton, retired to Florida.
Carol asked Katya, “Why doesn’t your boyfriend take Morton’s job and move into Morton’s old quarters over the garage?
Why not? Just as Carol had said to Katya, “Why don’t you come take care of Caro? She loves you so.” 
“You’re a nanny for a dog,” Lev sneered, but he took the job, as Katya knew he would, and he behaved properly around the other employees. Carol’s staff was old and well-paid enough to be loyal.
Several months later, Katya and Carol sat on the floor of Carol’s dressing room. An engraved silver tray with porcelain cups of tea and Oreo cookies gleamed under the mellow light of an 18thcentury chandelier. The women laughed as Caro chased a small rubber ball across the Aubusson carpet.
Faces on three oil paintings watched from the wall. One was Carol’s deceased husband, an amiable investment banker who had the good manners to leave Carol even wealthier after his early death. One was five-year-old Carol with Caro number one, wearing matching emerald green ribbons. The last, a slightly smaller painting, was of Carol holding her son, Max.
From the time she was a little girl, Carol always had a Pomeranian, always named Caro. This particular dog was the latest in a long line of Caros, all female, all purebred, all spoiled. When this Caro died, she, too would have her portrait hung in the gallery outside the music room. She, too, would have her small remains interred in a pet cemetery at the feet of the statue of Diana in the parterre garden with the other Caros. Carol would buy another Pomeranian to replace her.
Carol pulled open drawer after velvet lined-drawer, putting bracelets that had graced the wrists of murdered princesses around her dog’s neck. Carol’s ancestors had swept through Europe in the days after World War Two, buying art and jewels. It was a time when a ruby bracelet was a small price to pay for a loaf of bread.
The dog regarded herself seriously in a gold-framed, floor length mirror. Carol and Katya laughed and Katya snapped photos with her phone. 
Carol set aside her teacup and reached into a cupboard. “This is where I keep my special things.”
The cabinet was stuffed with leather jewelry boxes, but also, on the bottom shelf, a green satin covered photo album, a teddy bear, and a roughly carved wooden box.
Carol touched the box and shuddered. “When Max was little he and his friends used to get into my grandfather’s stuff from the Amazon. They shot blow darts with curare at Caro!”
Katya blanked for a moment, then remembered the oil paintings of the different Caros outside the music room. 
“Curare?” Katya asked.
“The tribes used it to hunt. It paralyzes the animal, makes it easy to catch and kill.” Carol patted the box. “Safely tucked away. Actually, I wanted to throw that stuff away, but my husband said”--Carol pulled herself up and lowered her voice--“Doll, those professors at UCLA would give their eye teeth for that stuff. You can’t just throw away priceless artifacts from the Amazon!”
Carol giggled and Katya laughed. Caro barked and turned in a circle, tail wagging.
Carol opened a blue velvet ring box and pressed the ring into Katya’s hand.
“It’s the Star Mountain diamond. Bigger than the one Onassis gave Jackie O,” Carol crowed. The little dog cocked her head and watched as Katya slipped the ring onto her slim finger. The diamond burned with a cold fire that made her think of ice coating the iron gates at the orphanage back in Russia. Katya reached out to stroke Caro. 
“It’s so heavy,” she said, pulling it off. “I think it would catch in Caro’s fur.”
Carol slowly took the ring back, then nodded. Her wide movie star smile flashed.
She slid open a different velvet lined drawer and took out a pearl choker, three strings of glowing ivory pearls, linked with a diamond and emerald clasp. She put it around Katya’s neck.
“This belonged to an Austrian princess. I want you to have it. Don’t say no, pet.”
Katya felt the pearls tighten around her neck as Carol did the clasp. Like Caro’s collar she thought, but pushed the thought away when she saw her reflection in the mirror.
“Lovely,” Carol sighed.
Katya noticed that Carol was looking at herself in the mirror, not Katya.
“Thank you,” Katya whispered. Caro climbed onto Katya’s lap.
A week later, Carol’s son Max’s silver Porsche Spyder skidded into the drive twenty minutes before Carol’s 75th birthday party, the same day Lev discovered the pearl necklace Katya had left in her underwear drawer. Lev whistled, then put it back among the faded cotton panties. “Finally, you’re doing something right,” he said.
Katya met Max at the party that night.
“You’re the Russian girl,” Max slurred. Max was tall and broad, his graying hair shaggy and long. A diamond winked on his earlobe. He waved his drink, spattering the bodice of Katya’s dress. “We’ll have to drink some serious vodka together.” Katya yearned to escape as he stood too close to her and talked about his collection of cars.
“So what about you?”
“Me?” Katya whispered.
“What do you do for fun?”
Katya felt Lev watching from the bar where he helped serve drinks. She was trapped in a circle of glittering women, all smooth hair and white smiles, all intent on Max’s words, his broad shoulders, his expensive watch, his expensive jacket.
“Caro. I play with Caro,” she whispered.
“You are single minded, Katya, I’ll give you that.” His laughter boomed and the circle laughed, pulled tighter as the impossibly beautiful women squeezed her out, but not before Max took her hand and whispered, “So am I, Katya.”
Max spent more and more time at The Manse. Katya often saw him with Lev in the garage, Max’s broad shoulders dwarfing Lev’s slim frame as they bent over whatever sports car Max had driven from his apartment in West Hollywood. Whenever she felt Max’s eyes on her as she walked Caro or sunned by the pool, Katya remembered Babushka’s stories of clever foxes and hungry wolves. She made sure that whenever Max arrived, she was busy with Caro or in the kitchen with Mrs. Floris. Both growled when Max appeared.
At first Lev had been wary, but he warmed to Max.
“Katya, he’s a cool guy. The old lady won’t live forever. He will inherit and be our boss. Be nice to him.”
After several weeks of Max’s surprise visits, Katya started avoiding the main house and took Caro to a pool in a garden by Carol’s private wing. The marble lined Arbor Pool was for staff only, but one Tuesday afternoon Max walked to the pool’s edge, holding two glasses. He lifted his eyebrows and set the glasses on a table.
“If you get thirsty.” His words were only a little slurred. Mrs. Floris joked that there were three taps in Max’s bathroom suite: one for hot water, one for cold water, and one for vodka.
Caro worked herself into a frenzy at Max’s approach. Her tiny body shook with an intensity that made Katya fearful.
“You’d think she’d like me by now,” Max laughed. “No love for old Max from that pooch. Actually, I don’t think any of the Caros ever liked me.”
Katya pulled Caro into the pool, away from Max. Caro was fifteen years old, old for a Pomeranian. Caro also growled at Lev, but she suffered his presence, clearly doing Katya a favor.
“So Katya, you’ve made a lot of friends here. The hound from Hell sure likes you.”
Caro, Katya thought, but she said nothing. The way he looked at her made her blush and slip back into speaking Russian, which she knew Max enjoyed. Max slid a terrycloth robe from his shoulders. The chaise creaked under his broad frame as he stretched out in the sun.
Caro yapped and Katya soothed her, walking across the shallow end of the pool away from Max. She leaned on the wall opposite, turning Caro away, but Caro growled and lunged over her shoulder as Max settled back on the chaise.
Lev hurried down the marble steps to the pool. “Max, Mrs. Ashburn sent me to ask you to join her in the library.”
Max groaned as he sat up. “She who must be obeyed.” He winked at Katya, knocked back his drink, and then rose.
Caro broke from Katya’s arms and ran around the pool at Max, leaping at his right leg.
“Ow! Little beast scratched me.” He grabbed his robe and hurried toward the house. He turned and waved at Katya. “Don’t worry, just a flesh wound!”
Lev looked from Katya to Max but said nothing. A flash of green in the window overlooking the pool made Katya look up just in time to see Carol turn away.
“Mrs. Ashburn’s going to change her will,” Mrs. Floris whispered later that afternoon as she and Katya watched Max slam the door of the Spyder and roar down the gravel drive. “He gets all this, The Manse, Golden Oaks, and all the companies in the trust, but his mother’s money is separate. And that bad boy needs money bad.”
Katya turned from the window in the breakfast nook of the staff kitchen. She wasn’t exactly sure what a trust was, but she had seen the phrase “The Ashburn Family Trust” on all the museum exhibit signs throughout Golden Oaks and on the programs at the Opera Hall when Carol took her to see The Queen of Spades. “There’s even more money?”
Mrs. Floris nodded. “Even more. As the will stands, the money goes to Caro and Max.”
“Caro! A dog gets money in a will!”
“Yes, the money goes to Caro. And the staff all gets bequests, too, don’t you worry.” Mrs. Floris patted Katya’s hand. “But Mrs. Ashburn’s sick of the way he’s throwing money around, and who he’s spending it on.”
Mrs. Floris leaned toward Katya. 
“His first two marriages went kaput. Didn’t even give Mrs. Ashburn any grandchildren.”
Mrs. Floris sipped tea from a heavy ceramic mug, leaving a deep red stain on the rim.
“And now he’s dating one of those awful televisionpeople. You know the show. The one with the kids of those famous actors. The ones who lived with the monkeysfrom their dad’s movie. Max is going to propose to the oldest girl and told reporters he promised to give her the Star Mountain diamond. He didn’t ask his mother first. Oh, was she steamed! The girl’s twenty years younger than he is. Her name’s Trinket.”
The thought of living with monkeys intrigued Katya. “Still, there are monkeys?”
“There might as well be,” Mrs. Floris said drily. “One of the housekeepers heard Mrs. Ashburn say to Max, ‘You’re out of the will. Now, you’re the monkey.’”
Three days later, Carol stopped Katya as she walked past the music room.
“Katya, you work so hard.” She stroked Katya’s hair, then patted her shoulder. Katya felt the strength of Carol’s grip through her thin cotton blouse, the heaviness of her hand that had two jeweled rings on each finger. “You must take a vacation.”
“But Caro”--
Carol waved a finger. “Now I won’t take no for an answer. Off to my little beach house. You and,” she hesitated, “your friend, Lev.”
Katya’s cheeks burned. She tried to keep her overnight visits to the chauffeur’s quarters secret, but the garage was just beyond the Arbor Pool and gardens outside Carol’s suite of rooms. It was hard to keep secrets at The Manse.
Carol smiled. “You must take a week. Relax. Then come back next Friday night so you’ll be here for Max’s engagement party on Saturday.”
Carol scooped up Caro and hurried down the hallway. When Katya turned back to the broad staircase, she was surprised to see Lev exit Carol’s suite with an armful of boxes. She hurried after him.
“Isn’t she wonderful, Lev?” Katya breathed as Lev put the boxes on a shelf in a closet down the hall. “Did she tell you about our vacation?”
As Lev closed the door, his lips twisted into something that was not quite a smile. “Da.Let’s go.”
Carol insisted they take the Bentley. Once at Carol’s “little beach house”-- another mansion fronting the Pacific with a staff of three--Katya forgot about Carol. But not Caro.
“I hope she’s okay,” Katya fretted. “She must go to Rosie’s for her grooming appointment.”
“Who’s crazier, you or the old lady?” Lev handed her a glass of champagne. A heavy gold watch encircled his wrist.
Katya brushed it with her fingertips. “Is that a gift from Carol?”
Lev nodded, then took her shoulders and turned her to face the view. The Pacific headlands rose over marble goddesses that stood sentry over an infinity swimming pool perched on the edge of the ocean.
He kissed her shoulder and slipped his finger under the strap of her bikini top. “Now, let’s forget those crazy people.”
The Manse was dark when they returned late Friday night, but their headlights illuminated the silver Spyder when they pulled into the drive. Katya sighed. “I’ll stay in your room tonight.” Lev looked from Katya to the Spyder, then nodded. “Da.”
When she woke several hours later, troubled by a dream about Caro, the sheets beside her were cool and empty. Katya noted the light under the bathroom door before she drifted back to sleep.
As sunlight warmed her face, Katya felt the bed give slightly under her. She rolled over.
Caro yipped and licked Katya’s face.
“I missed you! How did you get inside?”
Katya stroked the little dog and smiled as she remembered the week with Lev. He had never been so attentive. Perhaps this was a sign that their relationship was changing. Perhaps he was becoming softer toward her. Usually he wouldn’t allow Caro to visit his room, no matter how much Katya pleaded.
Caro’s tail wagged and she circled on the bed, her nails pulling at the sheet.
Katya lifted Caro’s paw and exclaimed in dismay. Caro’s nails were much too long.
“Carol must have been too busy with the party to take you to Rosie’s for your grooming.” Katya pulled her hand away and grimaced. A sticky brown substance smeared her fingertips. “What have you been into? I will give you a bath and trim your nails and make you pretty again!”
Lev exited the bathroom, tossing a towel to the floor. He lit a cigarette.
“Good idea, make her pretty again.” His words were joking, but his body was taut as he blew a stream of smoke.
Katya carried Caro into the bathroom, kicking aside a pile of Lev’s clothing. She held Caro to her shoulder as she ran the bath water, then put Lev’s clothes in the hamper. The t-shirt and running shorts were damp.
“Did you go for a run?” She cuddled Caro and stood by the bathroom door. “Where did you find Caro?”
“Mrs. Ashburn asked that we keep her here.” He drew on the cigarette and looked out the window. “There’s been an accident at the house. Max got drunk and drowned in the Arbor Pool.”
After bathing Caro and trimming her nails, Katya reluctantly closed the door of Lev’s apartment. Lev insisted that Mrs. Ashburn wanted Caro to stay in his apartment while the police were at The Manse. She could hear Caro whine as Lev hurried her down the stairs.
“Mrs. Ashburn said that many of the other staff were away this week also,” Lev muttered. “We didn’t hear anything last night. We were asleep. Max got drunk and went for a swim alone. He must have been drunk enough to hit his head and drown.”
“Why are you talking like a robot? Is that what Carol said? It’s terrible.” Katya hunched forward in the cool breeze as they skirted police cars crowded into the circular drive of The Manse. They hurried around the house to the kitchen door, past the vast patio bedecked with flowers and tables for the engagement party.
“I saw Mrs. Ashburn early this morning when I couldn’t sleep and went for a run,” Lev said.
“She found Max dead?” Katya shuddered.
Mrs. Floris opened the door and rubbed her eyes as she poured cups of coffee. “What a mess. What a scandal.” She nodded her gray head toward the television. “Reporters will be at the gates soon, sniffing around, mark my words.”
The intercom buzzed. Carol’s honeyed voice called down that the police wanted to talk to Lev.
“I was with Mrs. Ashburn after she found the body,” Lev said to Mrs. Floris’ surprised expression.
Mrs. Floris patted him on the shoulder. “Mrs. Ashburn is lucky to have you to rely on.”
Katya and Lev hurried up the narrow servants’ stairs and then across the gallery, their footsteps soft across the oriental carpets. Lev pulled her along, but she stopped at the windows that overlooked the Arbor Pool. 
“Wait.” Below on the patio by the pool, Katya saw several people in police uniforms conferring with others in white coveralls. How strange they looked from above, their heads and shoulders making shapes like a computer game, she thought. Max’s body, still solid and vital looking, sprawled full length by the pool. A large bottle lay by his head. She leaned forward and caught her breath. She could just barely see scratches that ran along the front of both his calves.
Caro, she thought, remembering the scene by the pool. Caro must have scratched him again. Her heart beat faster as she thought of the brown substance under Caro’s untrimmed nails. Katya shook her head. The brown stuff didn’t look like blood.
“Could Caro push him into the pool? Could she make him hit his head?” She whispered to Lev.
He spun on her, his face red. “Katya.” He embraced her with such force she was breathless. He took her shoulders and held her in front of him. He smiled, a smile that struggled then surrendered. Lev was slight, just an inch taller than Katya. His green eyes bore into hers and for a moment she was afraid. “You’re being crazy. That little dog? Couldn’t hurt a flea. Ha!” Now his smile was genuine.
Katya sighed. Yes, the thought was really silly. Max was a big man. How could a little dog push such a big man into the water?
Two men in dark suits and sunglasses waited in Carol’s suite when Katya and Lev entered a minute later. They were police officers, she was sure, trying to act cool as they walked past a French king’s clock on the marble mantle piece, the Picasso over Carol’s bed, the little cross studded with dusky gems on the dressing room wall.
“Oh, good.” Carol was dressed in a jade green tunic over white leggings, heavy gold bracelets on her wrists. “Lev, before you talk with these nice gentlemen, could you help me with the picture over the safe?”
“Of course, Mrs. Ashburn.” Lev walked over to the second portrait, the one of Carol and Caro, took it down, and set it next to the wall. Then he went into the bedroom and brought a little embroidered footstool and set it in place for Carol. He helped her step onto it. Carol smiled her thanks.
As she watched Carol press numbers on the safe’s keypad, Katya wondered when Lev had gotten so familiar with Carol’s bedroom. And with the safe.
“The officers had heard the report of the engagement and the Star Mountain engagement ring. They’re just making sure there was no theft.” Carol reached into the safe and pulled out a box. All the men raised their hands to support Carol’s arms as she stepped off the footstool, like footmen helping Cinderella step from her pumpkin coach.
 “I know you must investigate every angle.” Carol’s voice dipped on the last two words, expressing the skepticism she was, of course, too polite to put into words. “But my son had a drinking problem,” she shook her head. “I tried to help him. A mother tries. And as you can see gentlemen, the ring wasn’t stolen.” Carol held out the blue velvet box. Katya could feel the excitement of the men next to her. Carol’s charm turned everyone into a child in a cave full of treasure.
The men bent their heads close as Carol opened the ring box. Katya lifted her eyes to the safe and caught sight of the carved wooden box she’d seen Lev move from the dressing room to the storage closet down the hall. She looked at Lev, but he was watching Carol.
 “Bigger than the one Jackie O got from Onassis. Max was going to” –- Carol bit her lip and closed her eyes –- “going to propose to his girlfriend.” She took a deep breath and then leaned heavily on Lev’s arm. “Dearest Trinket.” 
Katya’s heart beat faster as she wondered about the wooden box, now in the safe. The sticky substance under Caro’s nails. The scratches on Max’s legs. Lev’s damp clothes on the floor of the bathroom of the chauffeur’s suite. But she lowered her eyes and stayed with Carol as the men left the room.
Two weeks later, Katya walked with the other servants along the path from the private chapel at Golden Oaks to the private cemetery on a rise just outside the walls of the parterre garden. Black fabric swathed the grand doorways of the mansion. Tours were canceled.
Trinket and her family walked ahead, also swathed in black. Trinket wore a black pillbox hat with a full veil, the fragile lace brushing the deep V neckline of her bandage dress. Katya watched in wonder as Trinket tottered on stiletto heels down the gravel path.
Katya took a seat between Carol and Mrs. Floris. She held Caro on her lap. Lev had stayed behind at the house to help manage the valet parking for the funeral.
Mrs. Floris pressed a crumpled tissue to her dry eyes. With a dreamy expression, Carol stared at the carved cherubs on the Ashburn family crypt. She stroked Caro’s head in time to Trinket’s wails. Katya looked around at the other household staff, all somber, respectful, and dry eyed. Her hand flew to her necklace as she realized that Mrs. Floris and every female servant at the funeral also wore a pearl choker.
The sky was blue, so bright it hurt to look at it. At least Lev hadn’t lied about that.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Merry Christmas from the Lazy Mermaid

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year! May your new year be full of good health and good reading!

Monday, November 19, 2018


Small Business Saturday Signing

Saturday, November 24, 12-2 p.m.
Bank Square Books
53 W. Main Street
Mystic, CT

Stop by and say hello at one of the best bookstores around!

Mystery Author Extravaganza!

Saturday, December 1, 1-3 p.m.
Reston Regional Library
11925 Bowman Towne Drive
Reston, VA 20190

Mystery lovers won't want to miss this. On Saturday, December 1st, 26--yes, 26!--mystery authors from throughout the DC area will be appearing at the Reston Regional Public Library to talk about their new books and stories published this year. This annual Mystery Authors Extrvaganza is sponsored by the Sisters in Crime Chessie Chapter) and the Reston library.

The following authors will be appearing: William AdeDonna AndrewsEd AymarKaren Fraunfelder CantwellMary Ann CorriganBarb GoffmanSherry HarrisEleanor Cawood JonesLibby KleinMaureen KloversTara LaskowskiEileen Haavik McIntireAdam MeyerMelinda R. MulletAlan S. OrloffJosh PachterShari RandallSusan ReissVerena Main RoseColleen ShoganShawn Reilly SimmonsLane StoneArt TaylorRobin TempletonCathy Wiley Stegmaier, and Stacy Bolla Woodson.

Public Library of New London Friends Dinner

You can take the girl out of the library, but you can't take the library out of the girl....

Many thanks to the wonderful folks at the Public Library of New London. Their president, Josie Esposito, asked me to take part in their annual Friends of the Library dinner last night. The fabulous group presented a sizable check to the library and celebrated with a delicious dinner (with wine - they know how to live!)

I was honored to be asked to talk about my books and do a giveaway. Gwen won the coveted Lazy Mermaid Lobster Shack Team Mermaid T-shirt.

Does your library have a Friends group?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Halloween Short Story - Disco Donna


Disco Donna
By Shari Randall

Enjoy this Halloween treat - a short story that was chosen as Story of the Week by Robert Lopresti's Little Big Crimes blog when it was first published in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays

I'm fascinated by urban legends and dreamed up one for myself - and Disco Donna was born. 


“It’s a Halloween costume emergency,” I said. Mrs. Maven nodded and pushed her way through racks of vintage clothes. I figured if anyone could help Berks find a costume at the last minute, it would be Mrs. Maven.
Eunice and I had our bell bottoms and flower power ready to go. Berks, however, complained that hip huggers hugged her hips too hard. She had a point. She’s definitely curvy.
“Not much in here,” Mrs. Maven said. She owns the storefront on Elm Street that houses both Roseport Retro Rags and Cookie’s Bakery. There isn’t much else in Roseport. It’s a bucolic village, or at least that’s what it says in the real-estate brochures. Cookie’s is the place where everyone meets, and Retro is where high-school kids shop for cool stuff. Since Mrs. Maven is the world’s biggest gossip, she keeps the door between the two shops open, so occasionally you’ll see teachers from the high school come in for coffee and pastry, which is awkward for kids like us if we’ve just skipped school. Aside from that, though, the combination is heaven. Pastry and vintage clothes: two of my favorite things.
“Just got a box of new stuff in. Looks hippyish to me.” She waved at a box on the counter. “Came from some people who said they bought a house in Hamilton Park. They’re living with friends while they gut it. They found some boxes in a crawl space.” She opened the cardboard box. “They took a box of books to the library book sale and brought the clothes here. Doesn’t look like any mice got at it. Help yourselves.” She waved a vague peace sign and left us with the box.
Berks and I dug in, giggling at the headbands, tie-dye shirts, and patchwork skirts, draping ourselves with macramé necklaces and beads, and posing in front of a cloudy floor-length mirror making peace signs.
“Some of these clothes are a bit more seventies,” I said. I held up a pair of Frye boots and hot pants. “Not so much hippie. Kind of disco.”
Berks tugged a polyester halter dress over her jeans and T-shirt, pulled up her curly black hair, and twirled. “Very Saturday Night Fever, don’t you think?”
Berks danced over to Cookie’s door, waved to Mrs. Maven, then danced back. I shook my head. Berks had a very big comfort zone. I shrugged into another silky dress but it hung slack on me. Curvy I’m not.
“That dress works for you, Berks.” I took off the dress. “You’re about the size of whoever owned these clothes.”
“Maybe you could wear this skirt.” Berks tossed a denim mini to me, then perched some pot-leaf sunglasses on my nose.
I frowned. “Too short. My mom would never let me out of the house in this. Cool patch pockets, though.”
I put my hand into one of the pockets and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. “Hey, what’s this?” I smoothed it. “It’s a study hall pass from Roseport High! ‘Please excuse Donna Demonte from gym class.’”
Berks’s face clouded. “Oh, my God. Donna Demonte.”
“Who?” I tossed the skirt back in the box.
“You don’t know Disco Donna?” Berks shrieked and clawed ather dress. “Eew! I’m wearing a dead girl’s dress!” She stumbled backward into a mannequin, sending it tumbling to the floor.
“Oh, my God! The Disco Donna!”
The commotion drew Mrs. Maven. “Girls! What is it?”
“Mrs. Maven, do you remember that high-school girl who waskilled? Disco, er, Donna Demonte?” I handed her the hall pass.
Mrs. Maven’s eyes widened as she studied the paper. “How could Iforget? That poor girl was murdered.” Mrs. Maven and I helped Berks pick the mannequin up off the floor.
We peeled the dress off Berks while she continued to shudder and moan. Several customers from Cookie’s Bakery poked their heads in to see what the commotion was about. In the crowd, I saw the disapproving face of our high-school principal. Time to go!
We thanked Mrs. Maven and hurried from the shop, leaving Mrs. Maven to share this delicious nugget of news with the folks at Cookie’s.
“I cannot believe I touched a dead girl’s stuff.” Berks passed me a bottle of hand sanitizer as we ran to our volunteer gig at the Roseport Library. Her mom makes her take sanitizer everywhere. “You wore a dead girl’s glasses, too.”
I shrieked, then started giggling. Nerves, probably, but it was kind of exciting. Some towns had haunted houses, or a ghostly black dog, or the Bunny Man who killed partying teens. We had Disco Donna, our unsolved crime, our urban legend.
Donna had been queen bee of Roseport High back in the seventies. Head cheerleader, bad rep, too hot to care. The morning after Halloween, she was found laid out on her bed real peaceful, with a red rose in her clasped hands, bruises around her neck. People said a madman had escaped from the sanitarium in Springfield, climbed in her window, and strangled her. Or it was the star quarterback or the president of the student council? Everyone had a theory. People whispered. They said her mom went mental when she found her and left her room unchanged like a shrine for years. If a girl told the story, they always mentioned the rose. If a boy told the story, they always said she was naked.
Her killer was never found.
“You know what?” Berks gave me the one-eyebrow-raised smirk that was a sure sign she was about to make a bad decision. “That dress would make an awesome costume!” She spun on her heel. “I’m buying it. It fit me perfectly. I’m going to be Disco Donna for Halloween tonight!”
“That’s a monumentally gross idea,” I said. “What if the dress is haunted?”
Berks shrieked with laughter. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
I ran up the steps of the Roseport Library, a gray stone building on the edge of Hamilton Park. The library was the other town hub, so I didn’t mind volunteering there. The librarians were nice, with one exception. Mrs. Davis-Keen, The Dragon Queen. She could make a table of teen delinquents pack up and leave with a single death-ray glance, so when she was there we were on our best behavior.
I waved to Mrs. Day, the cool children’s librarian, and hurried into the staff-only area to get a book cart, praying that Mrs. Davis-Keen wouldn’t notice that Berks was late. A half hour later, Berks dashed in, face flushed, holding her bag with The Dress. We hurried into the staff room. Tillie Thompson, a tiny older lady, was there sorting through some boxes. I stopped short.
“Remember what Mrs. Maven said?” I whispered. “She said the people who brought in the clothes also dropped a box of books at the library.”
“Oh, my God,” Berks whispered, grabbing my arm. “Dead girl’s books!”
Mrs. Thompson reached into a canvas bin so deep that her toes barely touched the floor. “Need some help?” I asked.
“You girls are the best.” Mrs. Thompson smiled. “I’ve got to run, but if you can just get the boxes on the table, I’ll sort through them tomorrow. Could you finish up for me?”
Could we ever. As Mrs. Thompson twinkled out, we hefted the remaining three boxes of books from the bin.
Keeping an eye peeled for the Dragon Queen, we rooted quickly through the boxes. One box held paperback romances, cover after pink trimmed cover, with shirtless men and half-naked women. We rolled our eyes and moved on to the next box. Ludlum, Benchley, Jacqueline Suzanne. That left one box. It almost vibrated with— what? It was just an old cardboard box, but my hands shook as I pulled the flaps open. I could tell Berks was holding her breath.
High-school textbooks. Very old high-school textbooks. Earth Science. Algebra and You. “Oh, no!” I gasped. “Should we be wearing gloves?” We were huge fans of CSI.
“Her killer probably didn’t handle her textbooks, unless he was a complete weirdo,” Berks said.
I unfolded a poster of a skinny, bare-chested rock singer with amazing blond hair. Frampton Comes Alive.
“Kind of hot.” Berks put the poster back in the box. “Look! A Roseport yearbook.”
We flipped it open and thumbed through the pages. “Look at those glasses! And those prom pictures. Ruffles!”
Mrs. Day’s whisper came over the intercom. “Mrs. Davis-Keen’s heading your way.”
“Quick!” Berks grabbed her shopping bag and thrust the yearbook inside. “Let’s put the other books back in the box and get this later.”
My hands shook as I put the textbooks in the box. In my haste, I knocked the huge algebra book off the table. It fell open. We gasped.
The pages had been glued together, then hollowed out. Tucked in the hollow was a pink notebook.
I pulled it out. On the cover, someone had written in purple looping handwriting: Diary. I felt like it was burning my hand as I pushed it into the shopping bag, too. Berks shoved the bag onto a shelf just as Mrs. Davis-Keen entered the room.
“Hi, Mrs. Dra— er, Mrs. Davis-Keen. We were just helping Mrs. Thompson with those donations,” I stammered.
Mrs. Davis-Keen swept her laser beams over us but evidently was too busy thinking about important library business to detect our nervous energy.
She powered over to the boxes we had rifled. “These came in today.”
“Um, that’s what Mrs. Thompson said.” We edged toward the door.
“Move along, girls. Get back to your shelving,” she murmured as her beautifully manicured hands lifted the flaps on one of the cartons.
We pushed our book carts into the children’s room. “Why is she going through those boxes? She never looks at donations,” I whispered. When Mrs. Day popped around the corner,I almost died.
“She’s there because someone told her the books were donated by people who bought the old Demonte house,” she said. “You know how people are. If anyone hears that we have books from Disco Donna’s house, they’ll cause a disturbance. And you know how Mrs. D-K feels about disturbances.”
We finished our shift, hurried to the back room as casually as possible, and grabbed Berks’s shopping bag. When we ran out, I was certain that the bag was glowing radioactively and we had “Stealing Disco Donna’s Diary” in a huge thought bubble over our heads.
We ran to my house. I texted our friend Eunice. She had to see the diary and yearbook A.S.A.P.
Berks and I sat in my room staring at the plastic bag, which sat on the floor in the corner. It seemed to breathe. I didn’t want it on my bed. I was dying to look at it but knew that Eunice would kill us if she learned Berks and I had gone ahead without her.
I heard Eunice’s mom’s van wheeze to a stop in front of the house, and then the sound of footsteps as Eunice pounded up the stairs.
“What’s this all about?” Eunice exclaimed. She was wearing a perfectly coordinated hippie outfit, including a purple pimp-like hat. “What’s this about Disco Donna?”
“Shhhh!” I grabbed her arm and pointed at the bag.
“Disco Donna’s shopping bag?” Eunice deadpanned. We dissolved into shrieks of laughter, but I shushed everyone again.
“This is for real,” I said.
“Really real,” Berks whispered. I filled Eunice in. Our eyes turned again to the bag. Berks grabbed it, and we flung ourselves on the floor. We opened the yearbook first, flipping to the D’s.
“That’s her,”I whispered. Donna looked out at us with dark, almond-shaped eyes ringed with heavy eyeliner. She wore huge hoop earrings. A mane of dark curls. Her smile was flirtatious, almost a smirk.
“She kind of looks like you, Berks,” Eunice whispered.
Berks snorted. “Maybe she looks like me with way too much makeup and attitude. Supposedly she was pretty slutty, right? That’s not me.”
Eunice flipped open the diary. “Look, she dots her I’s with bubbly hearts. My auntie says that means you’re weak minded.”
“She doesn’t look weak to me,” I said.
I could hear my mom answer the doorbell downstairs, but the voices of little kids yelling “trick or treat” faded into the background as Eunice read the diary entries. Donna noted big events, which sounded pretty wild. Fights with her mom, whom she called a “slut,” “fat pig,” and “jailer.” Donna never mentioned girl friends, but she had a lot of boyfriends. Occasionally she’d doodle hearts, flowers, and peace signs, and after most entries she’d write “Keep my secrets safe, Peter! SWAK.” Page after page describing make-outs with Jimmy, Paulie Sugarboy, Billy, Chris, Scott the Hickey King, and some nameless boy she did IT with in the janitor’s closet after a basketball game. We were riveted. September of her junior year, she started mentioning Mr. X.
“Dear Diary, I’m calling him Mr. X because if that Fat Pig sees this, we’ll get in trouble. Mr. X is an older man. So much more mature than those high school boys. A REAL Man. He says I’m his Special Lady. I can’t wait to see him Saturday. I’ll have lots to tell you when I get back!” Hearts, hearts, hearts.
“He climbed the trellis last night. He said it was time to make me HIS WOMAN. He touched my dirty word with his dirty word and then he dirty word dirty word dirty word,” Eunice read.
“Give me that!” Berks snatched the diary from Eunice’s hands and began to read.
In October, things had changed. A few pages were ripped to shreds, evidently by Donna digging in with her pen.
“Dear Diary: It’s REALLY REALLY true. How could he do this to me? He said we’d move away and he’d get a job in another school.”
“Another school? He was old enough to work in her school?” Eunice gasped.
“A teacher? That’s gross!” I shuddered. “Creep.”
Berks flipped the page.“Cindy Pertaki. Why her? She’s a total slut. She thinks she’s hot stuff with that Camaro. How could he do that? Why!!!!! If he won’t leave her, I will tell EVERYONE. Because he promised we’d be together. Forever.”
“That’s the last entry,” Berks said, leafing forward through some blank pages just to make sure.
I grabbed the yearbook and pawed through it until I found a picture of Cindy Pertaki. A blonde with soft eyes and a lot of cleavage stared soulfully at us.
“That’s the freshman section,” Berks said. “Mr. X was a cradle robber.”
“The last entry was two days before Halloween,” I noted. “And Disco Donna died on Halloween.”
Eunice stared. “So that means—”
Berks looked from me to Eunice. “What? What does it mean?”
“Mr. X had to hide his games with his students. When Donna threatened to tell on him”-
“He had to shut her up,” Eunice finished my sentence.
Berks whispered. “Mr. X killed Disco Donna.”
Silence settled on the room. Eunice twirled her hair. Berks bit her fingernails. I flipped through the yearbook to the teachers’ pages. Row upon row of serious-looking men and women stared back, black and white pictures of respectable, middle-aged educators. Berks stabbed a photo of a blond man with aviator glasses. “There. The gym teacher.They’re always so full of themselves.” We contemplated the gym teacher, Cale Smith. “He’s not my type,” Eunice declared.
“Mine either.” Berks turned the book, squinted. “He looks a little like our Principal Smith, doesn’t he? If Principal Smith were a lot more handsome and had hair? I wonder if that’s him.”
“Doesn’t matter about our types, it had to be Disco Donna’s type.” I flipped back to the student section.
Berks gasped. “Wait! That’s—” she jabbed the page. “My uncle Paul. Paul Sugarman.”
A skinny boy with long black hair, braces, and a mangy moustache grinned from the page. Everyone knew Berks’s uncle. He was on the town police force. Now he weighed twice as much and had half as much hair as the boy in the picture. Thankfully, he no longer had the moustache.
“Your uncle was Paulie Sugarboy?” I started giggling. Berks blushed.
“Well, this probably means that your uncle’s a psycho killer, Berks,” Eunice said. “Even though he seems pretty nice now. Maybe it was a crime of jealous passion.”
Berks shot Eunice a killer look.
“Wait, wait,” I said. “You’re forgetting. Disco Donna practically points the finger at Mr. X. Seems like she and Paulie, er, Uncle Paul, whatever, were just a passing thing. It was probably a teacher.”
It was hard to see what any teenage girl would see in these guys, since the clothes and glasses and hairstyles were so unflattering. We flipped through, muttering “How about him?” but didn’t get killer vibes from anyone other than the chemistry teacher, who looked like he’d spent way too much time with the formaldehyde.
“We should call the police. We have new information that could crack the case,” Eunice said.
“Correction. We stole information that could crack the case,” Berks said.
“We didn’t know it was Donna’s. Oh wait, we did,” I said.
We paced, bit our nails, twirled our hair, and avoided each other’s eyes.
“Wait a minute.” I picked up the diary. “She keeps mentioning this guy Peter who keeps her secrets safe. Maybe he knew.”
“What if Peter was the killer?” Eunice’s eyes glowed. “Peter gets to hear from this hot girl about other men, but secretly he’s in love with her? It might drive him wild with jealousy.”
“That’s a good theory. I saw a movie like that on Lifetime,” Berks said.
“But the timing,” I said. “This Peter has heard about all these other guys and never did anything except keep listening.... Doesn’t seem likely.”
“He might have cracked,” Eunice said.
We nodded. People cracked. That happened on Lifetime all the time, too.
“Listen.” Berks stood up. “We’ve got to do the right thing. Let’s take the stuff down to the police station in the morning. My uncle’s there. We’ll tell him and we won’t get in trouble because he does everything my mother tells him to, and she won’t want me to get in trouble.”
“We do have that Halloween party to get to. I don’t want to waste my costume,” Eunice said.
Berks and I shrugged into our hippie clothes. A Halloween party with a bunch of other kids our age suddenly seemed pretty tame.
“I’ve got a better idea.” I pulled on a sweatshirt. “Let’s drive by Disco Donna’s house.”
I have no idea why it seemed like a good idea to go to Disco Donna’s house or what we’d do when we got there, but five minutes later Eunice parked her mom’s van in a pool of hazy gray light from the streetlight directly in front of the old Demonte house. Two Dumpsters filled with rubble sat in a tangle of weeds. Someone had left a lawn mower, gas cans, and a pile of junk by the front door. There were only a few houses on this side of the park, and the laughter of trick-or-treaters on the main road was swallowed by the shadows lurking beyond the streetlight. We all had flashlights we’d found in the van, thanks to Eunice’s mother, a Girl Scout leader.
“I am so not okay with this,” Eunice said.
“Come on, I just want to take a look,” I whispered as I approached the house.
“Cluck, cluck.” Berks pulled Eunice through a pile of dead leaves.
Vines twisted up a trellis to the Demontes’ second floor. I aimed the flashlight at the trellis, spotlighting blackened petals and curved thorns. “Roses! The killer probably got a rose from the trellis when he killed her!”
“I am waaay creeped out.” Eunice shivered.
“Now that we’re here, I want to see her room. Who’s coming in?” In the light from my flashlight, Berks’s eyes glowed.
“No freaking way.” Eunice folded her arms.
“Okay, Eunice,” I whispered. “You can be the lookout. Down here. Alone. As in all by yourself. With the ghosts.”
Eunice punched my shoulder but followed close behind as we crept into the backyard. We tried the door; it was locked, but being tall has its advantages. We pushed a trash can under a window. I climbed up on it and managed to slide a window open. I swung into the dark house and then opened the kitchen door for my friends. Inside, we bunched together and made our way down the hallway. Pale gray fingers of streetlight clawed at the dirty windows.
We OMG’d up the stairs.
Everything creaked. We peered into gutted rooms. The emptiness magnified our every gasping breath. As we passed a derelict bathroom, Eunice moaned, “I’ll never get into Harvard with a rap sheet.”
Berks hugged her. “No way my uncle will let this get out. Even if we get arrested, no worries, Eunice. Trust me.”
I stopped at a door at the end of the hall. “I bet this was her room. It’s on the side with the trellis.”
“A psycho could climb up the rose trellis again. And kill an innocent high-school girl. What are we doing here again?” Eunice’s voice wavered.
“We’ll look fast.” I turned the knob and the door creaked open.
“Two minutes,” Eunice said. “I mean it.”
Three beams of light crisscrossed silently in the empty room. I don’t know what I expected—to see her room as it was? I had imagined a ruffled bed and painted furniture, hippy, rainbow colors, posters on the wall.
“Berks, what was that poster she had? The blond rock guy?”
“Frampton Comes Alive?” Berks whispered. Her fingers clamped so tight on my arm they were cutting off my circulation.
“Frampton Comes Alive? Peter Frampton? My dad listens to him all the time,” Eunice said.
Berks’s fingers tightened. “Maybe Peter...”
“Peter was the poster!” I said. “But how would a poster keep her secrets?”
“If this were my room, I’d put the bed here.” Berks waved her hand like a game show spokes-model. “There are all these eaves and windows, so the only wall for a bed is here.” She turned. “And if I had a poster of a hot guy I wanted to see all the time, I’d put it...there.” She waved to the wall with a built-in bookcase.
“It would’ve fit there,” I said. We hurried to the empty bookcase and stared at the three-foot gap between the two middle shelves.
“Uh, what’re we looking at?” Eunice’s voice was getting shrill. “Bookshelves. Nothing to see here, people. Let’s go!”
“Wait!” I started knocking on the back of the shelves. “On TV there’s always a hiding place behind the wall.”
Berks crouched down, aiming her light so I could see as I knocked. The back of the bottom shelf made a different, hollow sound. “No way!” Berks said. Eunice knelt too, her eyes wide, aiming her flashlight at the bottom shelf. Eunice pulled a Swiss Army knife from her key chain. “Finally something I can use this for.” She knelt down and angled the knife into a seam at the back of the shelf. “It’s coming away. It’s just cardboard painted like the wood!” The flashlight beams wavered as we jockeyed to see better. I pulled away crumbling cardboard. There was a narrow, hollowed-out space behind it. In it sat a small white gift box.
Berks reached into the bookcase. “Don’t touch it,” I said. “I’ll get gloves—”
A loud thump came from downstairs.
“What was that?” Eunice said in the loudest stage whisper I’d ever heard.
I’d heard it, too. Berks jumped to her feet. “The lights,” I said. We switched off the flashlights. The thumping continued.
I could barely breathe. I could just see Berks’s wide eyes in the pale light coming from the window. Eunice babbled. She reverted to Korean, which she did only when she was completely unhinged or in gym class. There was more thumping, and then a pungent smell, and then a whoosh and a reddish glow from the hall. Eunice and Berks jumped and shouted, “Fire!”
I ran to the door. A red glow and a cloud of white smoke surged toward us. I slammed the bedroom door and ran to the window. “If a psycho killer can climb the trellis in, we can climb out.”
“You first!” Berks shrieked as I struggled to raise the sash.
The window groaned open. I swung one leg over the sill and aimed my flashlight beam onto the trellis. “Doable,” I said. Eunice and Berks held my arms while I hung from the rotting sill until my feet found the trellis. I prayed it would hold me.
Smoke gathered behind Eunice and Berks.
I was halfway down when I heard sirens shrieking. A police car swung into the driveway, followed by a fire engine. Firefighters leapt from the truck. A radio squawked, and one of the firefighters pointed to the side of the house. I hurried to the ground, then waved my flashlight and shouted. The firefighters reached the base of the trellis as Eunice neared the bottom. Berks quickly followed, touching the ground just as a police officer jogged up.
Berks shone her flashlight on her own face. “Hey, Uncle Paul, it’s me, Berks.”
Uncle Paul rubbed his face. His shoulders slumped. “I know,” he muttered. He pulled us aside as firefighters placed ladders and started hoses. “Your mother tracked you on your cell phone. When she saw you weren’t at the Halloween party, she called me.”
Berks swore. “I am so dead.”
A few minutes later we were hustled into the back of an ambulance, its back door left open, while the cops and Uncle Paul decided what to do with us. The firefighters quickly contained the fire. Nobody would tell us what was happening, but we caught words like “accelerant” and “dumbass prank.”
Eunice moaned. “I guess I can kiss off Harvard.” Her eyes searched mine. “They can’t pin this on us. Right?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “We didn’t do it.” I meant the fire. We had definitely broken into the house.
“Oh, my God.” Berks pointed. “It just got worse. Look who just showed up. Principal Smith! He’s over there talking with the cops.”
We could see Principal Smith standing under the street lamp. He had smoke smudges on his shirt and bald head. A firefighter leaned into the ambulance and told us we were lucky. Principal Smith had been driving by and saw the fire. He’d gone into the house to make sure no one was trapped inside. Passing trick-or-treaters called the fire department.
Eunice moaned.
“We’re doomed,” Berks said. “And the worst part is, we’ll never know what Disco Donna hid in the bookcase.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” I pulled the cardboard box, now slightly crushed, from beneath my tie-dye T-shirt.
“Gloves!” Berks said.
“Screw forensics,” Eunice said. “Open that box.”
Berks pulled the door to the ambulance shut. My hand shook as I lifted the lid of the box.
Inside was one dried rose, brownish gray and moldy. A cassette tape. And a shiny old-fashioned Polaroid photograph. “Oh, my God,” Berks exclaimed. “It’s a naked guy! It’s, it’s...”
“Looks like he’s asleep,” Eunice whispered.
As I set down the lid of the box, I noticed something written on its underside.
The door jerked open. Uncle Paul looked in. “Well, what do you ladies have to say for yourselves?”
I turned the lid of the box so Berks and Eunice could see it.
Berks smiled. “Uncle Paul, you’d better get ready to make an arrest. We know who killed Disco Donna.”
Uncle Paul didn’t look too pleased, but he climbed in, closed the door, and listened. We told him what we’d done, from the moment we found the hall pass. He kept rubbing his hand over his face, especially when we told him about entering the house, but then we showed him the box. With the rose. And the cassette. And the photo. And the lid of the box, where Donna had practiced her signature. Or what she thought would be her new signature.
Mrs. Cale Smith.
Two nights later, Berks called to tell me the details of what Mrs. Maven had already reported at Cookie’s. Brave Principal Smith, who had tried to rescue a bunch of honor-society arsonists, had been arrested.
The man in the photo, the man heard during a “romantic exchange” on the tape, was our principal. He’d been a gym teacher at Roseport High all those years ago. He’d left town shortly after Disco Donna’s murder, but had returned to take a promotion to principal, thinking that no one would remember his brief time as a gym teacher at the same school nearly forty years before.
He’d been in Cookie’s when Mrs. Maven made her broadcast about the hall pass. Creepiest of all, he confessed that he’d followed us after seeing the “vision” of Donna in Retro Rags—my friend Berks, of course, wearing Donna’s old dress. When he saw us going into the Demonte house and feared we might have found some evidence, he decided to burn the place—and us— down.
Needless to say, we all got grounded, except for our appearances on Crime Solvers and The Today Show.
We still tease Berks about the vision thing.
Eunice wouldn’t speak to me for days, until Berks convinced her that our crime-solving adventure would make a killer college application essay. Emphasis on killer.