Elimination, Part One
A "Luminations' Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"The wizard's face remained grave and attentive, and only a flicker in his deep eyes showed that he was startled and indeed alarmed, 'It has been called that before,' he said, 'but not by you'."
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
When Edgar Allan Poe set out to fashion the ultimate locked room mystery, he cheated. The apartment on the Rue Morgue where two women were murdered wasn't truly a locked room. There was a broken nail in one of the windows, although Poe still managed to craft a remarkably bizarre and shocking resolution for his case. I never found the broken nail to be a disappointment, because a proper detective story is as much science as art, and it's the systematic uncovering of the clues to the mystery that lend enjoyment to the story, rather than the momentary thrill at the mystery's solution.
The true sportsman derives his pleasure from the hunt, and not from the kill.
My muscles tightened in the chill breeze as I watched the bus pull away from the curb and bully its way into the creeping line of brakelights that stretched west on Route 9. The quote came from an old edition of The Boy Scout Handbook, back when hunting wasn't so politically incorrect. I'd found it the bottom of a cardboard box of books that a homeless guy brought into my shop to sell. Most of it had been junk, of course, but he'd managed to find a few SF titles and he was careful to place them on top in easy view, and I appreciated that he was making an effort to get to know what I wanted and bought the lot for a few bucks more than I might have otherwise paid. I spent that afternoon flipping through the tattered pages of that Scout handbook, reading up on how to build shelter, make fire without matches, and properly fold the American flag.
I'd never been too thrilled with camping, although I had fond memories of reading A Wrinkle in Time and The Westing Game by flashlight curled up in a sleeping bag long after we campers were supposed to be asleep. As for hunting, I'd never tried it, never wanted to.
Today, I was hunting for answers. Like any good detective of literature, I was pretty sure I already knew what I would find, but I was determined to go about things step-by-step. Today was all about process of elimination.
I had my own little locked room mystery to explore. At its heart was a pendant engraved with a rune. I still didn't fully understand what the significance of the pendant was. That was for other players in this game to know and worry about. I did know that there were three pendants in total.
I worked my hand into my jeans pocket, feeling the familiar shape of the first rune. Raido, the safe travel rune. I'd found it hidden in Robert Olson's townhouse in Worcester.
Darren Voort had the second rune. We'd rescued it from Nathaniel Wheland's house during the floods up in Lowell.
The third rune had been hidden in the basement of my storefront. Except that it wasn't there when we checked. It had gone missing, and the only time anyone had been down in the basement was when my friends helped me clean the place up a couple days before the store opened.
It was a locked room mystery, with my three best friends as the only suspects, and I wasn't expecting any contrivances like Poe's broken nail to open up the possibility that I could be wrong. Simple solution: Either Em, or Belle, or Nate had the rune. I was pretty sure I knew which one it was, too. But I was going to do this the right way. Like a detective.
I got off the bus in Framingham with two down, one to go.
Em was the easiest to find. She works for me. She's been working for me weekends and some afternoons for a few weeks. I hadn't planned on hiring anyone so soon after the store got started, but it worked out well for both of us. Em was strapped for cash since she broke up with Belle and got her own apartment. I was strapped for time now that Chester Hall kept wanting me to research property records to keep tabs on the bad guys, not to mention the occasional search for a rune or three.
Em is a big girl like me, although I tend to think of her as big and tough. I'm more of a big marshmallow. She works a techie job in Cambridge that lets her telecommute two days a week, which frees up a couple of afternoons when she can cover for me at the store. I met her when I lived in Cambridge for a couple of years after college. She played in a roleplaying campaign that I joined, although I used to see her around Harvard Square in the pit hanging out with the skate-punk crowd. She still goes there after work every once in a while, sits on the steps and has a cigarette with these kids ten or twenty years younger than her. Her spiked, bleached hair, and eyebrow piercings fit right in with the crowd, even if her business attire isn't quite in line with the typical dress code in the pit. As far as I know it's the only time she ever smokes. I used to give her grief about it, but she took it pretty well. I called her the "anarchist auntie" and she ended up referring to herself that way.
Em has a good head on her shoulders; nothing fazes her. So when I locked the front door to the storefront and flipped the sign to closed fifteen minutes early, she didn't even blink.
And since Em is pretty upfront in how she handles things, I didn't waste any time with her.
"Em, the third rune was in here when we cleaned the place up. I know I don't have it. Either Belle or Nate has it, or you do."
She looked angry, but just for a second. Then she nodded. She understood.
"What do you want to do about it?" she asked. "Should I turn out my pockets? You want to search my apartment or what?"
"No. Just look me in the eye. Tell me you don't have it. We've been friends long enough, Em. And I'm sorry I even have to ask you to do that."
She didn't hesitate. "I don't have it, Nancy. I didn't see it."
"Hey, I said it's okay. So... Nate or Belle?"
And this time I did hesitate.
"Belle." Em said it so I didn't have to. "That little twerp is a klepto, you know. Used to go on and on about how she and her friends would shoplift at the Natick Mall. Look, you go ask Nate. I'll wring Belle's scrawny neck for you and have the rune on your desk before you get home for dinner."
"She's my friend, Em." It was a recurring theme lately. Their breakup had been hard on all of us. In fact, it was probably easiest on Em. There were no conflicts about how she felt about Belle. Em was just pissed off. It was the rest of us who were caught in the middle.
"Friends don't steal from friends."
I nodded. She was right, but this was still something I needed to handle. Besides, Em would break Belle in half if I let her handle things the way she wanted to. I just wanted to know the three runes were somewhere safe. And there was still Nate to consider. Eliminate the possibilities, I reminded myself.
"This is mine to deal with, Em," I said. "Just drop me off at Nate's. I'll talk him and then I'll take he bus over to your... to Belle's condo and I'll call from there when it's taken care of."
She handed me her cell phone. "Give me time to get back to my apartment before you talk to either of them. Any trouble, call me."
I sat in a park across from Nate's apartment building in Shrewsbury reading a book for almost an hour and then checked in with Em just to make sure she'd gotten home.
Nate is an assistant manager at a big toy store on Route 9 over by the condo where Belle lives. I spoke to him on the phone a couple of days before and he said the first shipment of Christmas decorations just arrived, more than a month and a half before Halloween. I believe his exact words were "Bah fucking humbug."
Nate has had to break up fights between ticklish-Elmo-obsessed parents. He's had to mop up puke and he's been threatened by shoplifters and he's had to comfort parents whose credit cards got declined on Christmas Eve with a cartload of toys for the kids.
Every time I've hung out with Nate at his apartment, he's ranted about his job, but it always ends the same way. He suddenly gets this big goofy grin on his face and reaches into one of the boxes of toys and junk that litter his apartment, pulls out some transforming robot or plastic laser gun or die-cast truck and says, "But the employee discount makes it all worth it!"
Some people never grow up. Nate managed to grow up without ever ceasing to be a kid.
"Nancy! Well, don't just stand there." Nate pushed the door open a little wider and greeted me with a big hug when I walked in. He scrambled around, clearing comic books and DVD cases into piles until there was room on the couch and then reached for the remote. "Anime? I've got stuff you won't be able to buy in the States for months."
I caught his hand to stop him before he turned on the monster plasma screen with equally excessive speakers that dominated one wall of his small living room. "Maybe later," I said. "We need to talk."
I explained to him what I was looking for and put the question to him. He turned away.
"Nate?" I hadn't expected this. Nate lives by his own wacky honor code courtesy of the cartoons he watches. He couldn't have...
"I took it, okay? I'm sorry." He didn't want to look at me.
"I don't know. I just... It was just there. It looked cool. I stuck it in my pocket and figured no one would be the wiser."
I stood up. "Where is it?"
He shrugged. "I threw it in the trash a month ago when I was cleaning stuff up. It's gone. Buried in some landfill somewhere by now. I'm sorry, Nancy. I didn't know it was anything important."
"Damn it! Nate, what were you...? Look, friends don't do that to..."
I stopped in my tracks. I'd been moving toward the door. I guess I though I'd make more of an impression if I stormed out and slammed the door shut, and maybe refused to speak to Nate for a month.
When I turned, Nate was standing, looking awkward with eyes tearing up.
I made him look at me this time.
"Nate," I forced myself to level off my voice, "what did it look like?"
"It was..." He stopped for a second, and I didn't bother letting him finish. He was lying.
"Son of a bitch, Nate! You're covering for Belle! Why?"
"Too fucking late. You're lying, and you can either admit it or not. I don't even care anymore."
He started to really cry. "I care about her, okay? Em dumped her and you've hardly got time for any of us anymore and I just want to help her. She's going through enough shit. She needs someone."
"She's gay, Nate. Nothing you do will..."
"I know that! It isn't like that. She just made a mistake and I was trying to be a friend."
I turned my back on him.
"Next time try some honesty. You keep friends that way."
I slammed the door hard on my way out.
The true sportsman derives his pleasure from the hunt, and not from the kill.
This hunt had been anything but pleasant. I'd strained one friendship and possibly ended another one, and my anger was simmering as I walked from the bus stop to the development where Belle lived. The condo was in her name. She'd shared it with Em when they were together. As far as I knew she lived there alone now.
Nate grew up, but stayed a kid. Belle brought out the kid in everyone around her. She was the cute bouncy skinny little ball of hyperactivity. Every so often one of us would just stop and yell, "Belle! Decaf!"
And she didn't even drink coffee.
She was brilliant in the occasional moments when she was focused, but she could be distracted by anything. She danced around, started water fights, jumped on tables... And she stole stuff. She always had. It had always been totally harmless.
The first thing I noticed was how empty the condo was. There was a desk and a futon and a bean-bag chair in the living room, and the rest of the carpet was empty aside from a couple of brightly colored plushies.
Belle herself was giving me a wide-eyed uncertain look. She stood there for a second and then backed away from the door. I stepped into the living room, closed the door behind me and got right to the point.
"The rune pendant from the basement of my store. I know you have it, Belle. I need it back. Look, I don't care that you took it. I know how it works. You just said 'Ooh, shiny!' and put it in your pocket and forgot. That's fine, Belle. But I need it."
She hung her head for a second and then slowly looked up.
And proceeded to lie to me. "Nancy, what are you talking about? I never took any..."
I'd been counting on her being reasonable about it. I'd been reasonable. I'd chosen every word as I walked over from the bus stop. Now I was done being reasonable.
In that moment I noticed the leather medicine pouch she was wearing on a string around her neck.
"What's in that?" I reached for it.
She slapped me hard. I blinked twice as the stinging spread over my face and then I tackled her.
I don't consider myself a fighter. I haven't been in a fight since middle school. But Belle weighs maybe ninety pounds soaking wet. I got her down on the floor and got my weight on her. She clung to the pouch and I had to pry her fingers away from it one by one, and somehow in the struggle the cord broke. I got it out of her grip and she stopped resisting.
"Damn it, Belle!" I stood up, out of breath. She stayed on the floor. It sounded like she was sobbing softly. I turned away and opened the pouch to find the familiar pendant. Finally. I need to let Em know, I was thinking. And Chess.
"I'm sorry, Belle." I turned to make sure she was okay. "But it wasn't yours..."
The pain went through my whole right side at once and I froze in place. Belle seemed paralyzed too, standing there rigid, her eyes locked, looking down. My shirt had come untucked when I was wrestling with her and I followed her gaze down to where my skin hung a little bit over my jeans and to where she'd stuck her pocket knife into my stomach.
My body was doing a bunch of things at once. Sweat oozing out everywhere, stomach queasy, getting set to throw up, legs shaking. I barely noticed. I was transfixed by the blood oozing slowly, staining my shirt and my skin and my jeans, spreading out little by little.
"Oh my God. Oh my God." Belle sounded like she was going into shock too. She repeated it over and over, and after some time my legs gave out and I flopped onto my side with the knife still in me sticking up in the air.
That finally brought Belle to her senses and she grabbed her cell phone, but I knew the second she started dialing that she wasn't calling 911.
"Christina! I stabbed her! Nancy! Nancy Mateo. She's here. I stabbed her. Tell me what to do. I need you."
I did throw up then, maybe sick from the betrayal, maybe just too panicked to do anything else. Belle had moved away for a second and I couldn't hear what she was saying.
I think maybe she turned out some of the lights in the apartment then, or maybe I was just starting to fade. I felt her hand on me. She moved me a little.
Absurdly, I noticed the Girl Scouts symbol on the jack knife just before Belle gripped it.
If she was a girl scout, I thought, she should know to leave the knife in.
I fainted from the pain when she pulled it out.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007