55 Word Story – It’s in the Cards

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers

“Tarot.  Ace of Pentacles, an opportunity offered,” the metaphysical store clerk explained.

I remembered.  I still carried his star-embossed coin.  Once I shuffled possibilities, dealt answers, and survived by stacking the deck.  He died anyway.

If he had something to say, it was in the cards.  I flipped the coin, then I stole the deck.

Noir #1 – Tia Atwater (Approx. 1500 Words)

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

“You got a job?”

I’m startled, dropping my keys on the worn carpet.  When I stand up I’m dizzy from either the sudden movement or the paisley swirls down our apartment hallway.  It’s 7 a.m. and a fair question.  My landlord sidles up and leans casually on the wall between the dusty sconces.

“No.  I’ve got guilt and I’m out of coffee.”

“You’re only two months behind on rent, nothing we can’t handle.”

I step away from my door and onto the creakiest floorboard, “you’re very generous.  Especially to be working so early.  You changing light bulbs?”

The sconce behind him shudders as he pushes off the wall and the light flickers.  “Joseph complains so much.  You know he woke me up when he left at 6:45 this morning.  Told me the screen is broken in the stairwell window.  He was worried about bees getting in.”

I glance down the hall, really needing coffee now, but he doesn’t take the hint.  He’s looking very closely at me, so I stare back hoping he’ll get to whatever it is soon.  For a split second the corners of his eyes squeeze tighter, he doesn’t like my direct look.  Then I see him dismiss it.

He even shrugs a little before saying, “I need you to do me a favor.”

I’m supposed to follow him down the hall and since it’s the way out, I do.  I see the broken screen on the way down the stairs.  The grapevines have taken over the front of the building, tendrils curling through the screen.  It is September and the weight of the thick leaves has finally pulled a gash open.  I fight the urge to touch the invading force of nature.

Dupont stops his descent and points to a first-floor door.  “I was working here when I saw Anna’s door.”

I see it is wide open and the empty threshold feels strange.  I wave my landlord on and take a deep breath.  Focus on Anna.  She’s friendly; we’ve walked back from the bus half a dozen times. The discord of the morning has me tense and when I follow him through her open doorway I feel the inevitable slide of fear down my spine.

“I know you don’t say it, why would you, but I know what you are.  I need you to take the case.  The police don’t get anything right.  She’s deserves more than that.”  Dupont spits the last statement out, white foam at the corner of his mouth from his perpetual cheap mint chewing.

Anna is dead, laid out across her tousled bed the blood dried and dark in her long blonde hair.  I tear my gaze away from her body, gulping at how fast the day has gotten dark.  “Why?  Why me?”

My landlord is agitated, unable to look at her or keep still.  He winces back and forth outside the bedroom door chattering, “someone killed her here in our place.”

“Call the police!”  I croak even as I hear the approaching sirens.

“Tia, please, I know what you are.  Just do me this favor.  Its Anna; its our home.”  My landlord swipes his mouth with a dirty sleeve and nods as if he’s decided for me.

Dupont darts out into the hallway to watch for the police, leaving me alone.  I’m not with Anna.  She’s dead, I’ve seen this before, and there’s nothing human in her cold and hardening leftovers.  No light, no smile, no breath, and no voice calling my name even if I hear it in my dreams and on my worst days.

I’m reeling and tug at my shirt, feeling like there’s a rope cutting off my air, unable to look away.  I fight to keep seeing Anna, to not let Maria’s face appear under her same dark hair.  I force myself to reason; my landlord isn’t trying to torture me.  He doesn’t know.  Dupont brought me in here to help him.  I take three deep breaths and think.

An inappropriate bubble of laughter pops in my throat.  My landlord thinks I’m a private investigator: odd hours, bad company, and admittedly too much drinking.  My friend from college is a criminal lawyer and helped the dude in 4A solve some unfortunate charges.  Cal also knows I’m always up for a drink.  And then there was Logan picking me up for late dates in his squad car.  He did have a couple of cases where my insight shifted everything towards the explanation.

Now I’m dodging into dangerous headspace, the worst symptom of unemployment.  I have nothing to do so naturally I’m casting around for anything I can do.  Like be a private investigator for my landlord in order to make up for two months of late rent.  Except there’s a dead body in front of me, and it’s Anna.  She is, was, two years younger than me.

Why would someone kill Anna?

I start looking around.  She was killed by a heavy blow to the back of her head.  There is nothing near her that could be the weapon, just throw pillows.  From the vivid image of her wound bashed into my mind, I’m looking for something heavy and just more than fist-sized.  Her one-bedroom apartment is hardly bigger than my studio and I stagger around looking for possibilities.

It occurs to me the killer wouldn’t put the murder weapon back neatly and nothing else is disturbed.  Also, I’m not a private investigator and I feel as if flood waters are closing in over my head.  The only thing I can see is that Anna was into Tarot cards.  One whole shelf is stacked with books on the subject with a beaten up notebook shoved in the corner.

I stop and breathe for a second before looking back in her bedroom.  Directly across from her bed, a Tarot card is tucked into a picture frame, covering up her boyfriend.  The Roman numeral VIII is etched at the top in gold and the figure below puts my stomach on ice.  A woman, blindfolded, stands in the middle of eight swords with her hands bound.  The illustrated sky is dark and foreboding.

“Get out, pretend you’re just walking by!”  Dupont appears, snatches my hand, and swings me into the hallway just as the police step up the front doors.  He hits the buzzer and leans on the doorway, blocking my view as I pretend to walk by.

I can’t solve the Tuesday crossword, much less a murder.  The only thought that will form is a blurry eyed memory of the crossword that stumped me a few days ago.  I have to calm down, stay calm so I concentrate on the first clue that stumped me, 23 down: Chaucer’s walking tour.

What kind of clue is that?  I rail inside my head and it has nothing to do with the crumpled puzzle any more.

It doesn’t work when I’m panicked.  I smooth out my breath and settle my face into a blank as I approach the police bottlenecked in our building’s tiny foyer.  I make it through the first set of squeaking doors and past the tight crowd scanning the mailbox names.  Then I’m outside and about to take a deep breath only to be stopped dead on the front steps.

“Tia Atwater.  I forgot you live here.”  Detective Larsen holds up his hands to block my way.

“She just walked past the scene, we haven’t questioned her yet,” a uniformed officer tells him.

“Perfect place to start.  Logan always thought she was a natural detective.  Almost a psychic.”  Then my ex’s old partner turns on me: “so you must have known what your break-up would do.  He got suspended, you know.  And now they’re transferring him.”

A tall, lanky man in a loose suit with a loose smile steps up to us.

Detective Larsen sighs.  “Meet my new partner, Detective Ramirez.  This is Tia.”

Ramirez smiles, this time at me despite recognizing my name.  “I just need to ask you a few questions before you go to work.”

Detective Larsen stops on his way in through the front doors.  “You got a job?  Case closed, boys, it’s the Apocalypse.”

I tell Ramirez that, no, I do not have a job.  I’m just heading out to buy a coffee.  He asks if I know who lives in apartment #209 and I’m honest when I say I only know her first name is Anna.  Then I can’t remember when I saw her last.  Off the bus, walking home, we passed on the sidewalk and she told me school was stressful.  That was maybe two days ago.  She’d mentioned a boyfriend before and seemed happy.  No, she wasn’t worried or scared and I have no idea if there was anyone who disliked her.  Our landlord loved her and checked on her often.   I’m just explaining how all I saw was Dupont standing in Anna’s doorway when Detective Larsen comes back out.

“Victim is Anna David.  Boyfriend’s name is Drew Thompson.  They’re picking him up now.”  He nods to Ramirez before pulling me aside.

“Something’s happened to Anna?”  I realize my eyes are wet when Detective Larsen frowns and loosens his grip on my arm.  I can’t help but reach up to my neck, an old gesture that doesn’t erase the cord marks I’ve seen.

“Anna was struck in the head,” he tells me because he remembers my past.  “It could have been an accident.”

That helps me fight off the dizziness of memories as I take a deep breath to spit out: “liar.”

“We’ll find out who killed her.”  Detective Larsen puts his hand on my shoulder, “Why don’t you sit down for a second.  You look a little pale.  Tia, sometimes we never know why these things happen.”

I slip out from underneath his concern and scowl, “but there’s always a reason.”

“And we, the police, will find out what it is.”  It’s a gentle warning, as irritating as a rock in a shoe.

Dupont’s right, the police will never get it right.

I force my grimace back into a blank face and fake a nod.  Detective Larsen steps aside though he has more to say and I hold my breath as I pass him.

Calm down.  23 down: Chaucer’s walking tour.

Pilgrimage.

It comes to me quick as I break away down the steps.  Chaucer’s walking tour is a pilgrimage.  They walk miles to see the relic of a dead saint, seeking favors, forgiveness, or God.  I walk away too fast down the sidewalk and wonder when I’ll stop.  It should be simple: all I want is a strong coffee and the truth.

Character Intro – Anna Abbey (Approx. 500 Words)

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

He had to step aside or she had to go through him.  As he snarled and gnashed his teeth, she considered her options: go home and watch her father play house with his new young bride; sleep in her car for another week; or let the police catch her.  The sirens blared into the parking lot and she took a step forward.

The Rottweiler lifted his lip again.  Seconds later his growl reverberated off the walls, and Anna wondered if she should count like people did between lightning and thunder.  She counted to five and hoped his stormy thoughts passed, hoped the hotdogs in the next aisle over tempted him, but mostly she hoped she had her mother’s stare.  If only Anna could reflect that cold dagger blade look full of insight without empathy, then the hulking dog would back away.

Car doors cracked open and terse orders were called across the parking lot.  Anna was seven feet from the glass case and a few long strides away from smashing her hand into the cause of her nightmares.  She was seconds away from silencing the sickeningly persistent call.

Or getting charged with breaking and entering.  Either or, Anna thought.

“Go home,” she said and realized she was talking to herself instead of giving the Rottweiler a convincing command.

The police were not at the back door yet.  The dog might chase her but Anna could be up the shelf and out the window before he lunged.  People left cars in pawnshop parking lots overnight all the time.  All she had to do was get away and come back in the morning.  The knife would still be under glass, glinting on a swath of green canvas, and tomorrow she could stop the visions it caused.

Anna knew it would not be easy; this object hit hard enough she’d abandoned her regular plan and broke in just to stop it.  The original plan was to buy the knife or at least ask a clerk to open the case so she could hold it.  One touch was usually enough yet here she was ready to steal it as the police shone flashlight beams over her desperation.  If she didn’t get a handle on this one it could carve out her sanity, drive her to suicide like her mother.

Just grab it now, who cares if you get caught? Anna thought.

The Rottweiler flinched away from the glass case as a frightened growl ripped straight from his throat.  It pushed through a rack of military overcoats and disappeared.  Anna knew the police would hear the breaking glass but she raised her fist and ran forward.

The vision slammed into her and knocked her breath out in one sharp cry.  The room went black and Anna fell into unconsciousness without another sound.

Character Intro – Psychometrist (Approx 2000 Words)

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

Sybil, a.k.a. Billy, is a character I have been working on for a long time.  She has shown up in different situations and short stories but always with the same strange talent.  Psychometry is the ability to pick up past-life energies from objects.

This began as my entry for the 2012 NaNoWriMo when my first son was only one month old.  Unfortunately, Billy’s full novel did not reach the bench mark of the contest but my eldest son, nicknamed Primo, thrived.  More about Billy soon!  🙂

“I can’t go.”

“Yes you can and we’ll be fine.”

I give my husband, Tommy, a disgusted look to cover up the swelling of desperation I’m feeling.  He’s holding our six-month old son and should realize why I’m so conflicted but he is ignoring it.  “I don’t need to go to a cocktail party and I certainly won’t feel bad about breaking a date with Alan.”

“You were all excited yesterday telling me how you haven’t been to a party in fifteen months because of the little guy.  You were even willing to spend time with Alan again just to get out of the house and have, quote, adult conversations.”

Being quoted back to myself changes my look to a scowl but Tommy is immune and unfortunately right.  I’m overjoyed to be in a little black dress, boots with actual heels, and wearing perfume instead of baby lotion.  Though looking at my two men so cute in their sweatpants, ready for a night of sports highlights and bottle-feeding, I can’t help but want to stay home and revel our family.

Tommy sees this and starts listing my own pros and cons, “frozen pizza versus canapés; talk of headlines, world crises, and careers versus goo-goo and the five hundredth rendition of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle;’ a real cocktail versus juice from a sippy cup; yoga pants versus that damn sexy little dress.”

I smile despite my desperate wish to be two people.  He hands me my little black purse pointing out I can hold it in one hand and not worry about diapers, wipes, or extra onesies.

“Besides you can’t back out now.  Alan’s here.”

Alan rings the doorbell as he opens the door and lets himself in.  It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t seen me in over two years or that he has never set foot in our house.  It feels incongruous, him in his fashionable tight cut suit against our brightly lit entryway with the sky blue walls and light colored wood floors.  The way my life has changed slams home with our heavy front door decorated for fall.  All the flash and freedom of someone with a nightlife standing in front of a coat rack hung with burp cloths and an overstuffed diaper bag.  Still, he comes in already at home despite the cool reception from my husband and gives big hugs and kisses all around.

I’m not prepared for his embrace as he enfolds me in a nightmare flash of someone else’s life.  There’s a sickly fog all around and the muffled yells of men in strange flat-eyed masks.  I’m being shoved out of a trench but am too afraid to stand up.  The crouched man who pulls me the last few inches suddenly slumps over and a dark stain spills onto the ground near my hands.  Terror makes me claw my hands through the dirt, soaking them in his blood, in order to start dragging myself along the ground to the cover of trees fifty feet away.  I’m choking, unable to breathe, wanting desperately to tear the mask from my face but too afraid of the lingering green cloud clinging low to the ground.  The cloud covers me and instinct takes over, I spring to my feet and a bullet bursts through my chest.

Alan doesn’t let me out of the hug right away, holding in me in front of him by my shoulders so he can check my reaction.  I slam a mental door shut on the horror and scan his outfit for any World War II patches, pins, or medals.  He must have a trigger object on him somewhere.  A young solider staggers across my foyer and reaches for our forgotten stack of mail before fading.

“Oh, little family, aren’t you just perfect!  What’s his name?”  Alan doesn’t take his eyes off of me, sure that I saw something.

“His name is Edward, after his grandfather.”

“And what about the short one in footie pajamas?”  Alan’s smile twinkles at me mischievously.

Tommy lets his jaw harden before putting out a firm handshake and saying, “I’m her husband, Tom, and you must be Alan.  I’ve heard all about you.”

Alan lets his left hand flutter over his heart as he shakes my husband’s hand and mugs for me.  Then he sticks his tongue out at Edward and straightens his slick suit with a flourish.  “Yes, yes, evil old Alan.  She just uses me for invitations to the best parties.  It’s not like we’ve known each other for years and practically grew up together.”

“Being neighbors and never speaking doesn’t count,” I remind him.

“We were also lab partners in high school.  Practically simpatico.”

Tommy can’t help but step in, “so how exactly did you two start hanging out?”

“Well, Eddie, let me tell you,” he sidles forward making Tommy frown and Edward giggle, “your mama used to like this wonderful thing called happy hour and for some reason wherever she decided to slake her thirst she would run into her old lab partner Alan.  So we started to meet on purpose and viola: friends.”

“Friends sell each other’s secrets to the highest bidder?”  Tommy asks casually, avoiding my look.

Alan takes stock of my family, reassessing our unit now that he knows I share everything with my husband including my unusual gift, and repeats absently, “yes, yes, evil old Alan.  I sold her secret but I didn’t sell her out.”

“You just made a lot of money off of what she can do.”

“Yes,” Alan flashes a brilliant smile at the room, “so drinks are on me tonight!  Come on, gorgeous, are you still willing to put up with my foibles for a little fun?”

Two years is a long time, I remind myself as I check my short hair in the hall mirror.  Seeing myself here, in our crowded foyer with all the family clutter around me, I am confident I’ve put my past behind me.  I’ve already practiced my plausible story with Tommy two hundred times and now it’s time to try it out on Alan.

“Of course.  Besides, I can’t pick up spirits from objects anymore.  It faded when I got pregnant and hasn’t happened since Edward was born.  Seems to be a common thing to lose your psychic ability as your life changes.”

I kiss Edward’s sweet smelling head and let Tommy’s lips linger on mine, wishing all the while that what I said was true.  The lie is thin protection against Alan’s probing look as he escorts me outside, past the World War II solider forlornly leaning on our mailbox, and out to his waiting car.

 

“You done good,” Alan says as he turns down his dreadfully hip music and pulls away from the curb.

Seen from the outside the blue suburban house could be anyone’s.  Alan and I could be twenty-two again and I decide to go with the feeling.  Tommy’s right and it has been a long time since I had my body and my time to myself just for a little while and I want to have fun.

“But do I look good too?”  I ask, stretching my nyloned legs out and looking with delight at my high heels.

He laughs, “not only do you make cute babies but your body bounces right back.

“Yeah, well, you didn’t see me in the first few months.”  It is easy to forget how putting on clean sweatpants was a victory; hot coffee was a luxury; and time didn’t signify anything except the countdown to the next feeding.

“Well I hope you don’t mind that I’m not taking you far.  The party is literally at your neighbors.  We could’ve walked but I wasn’t about to scuff my shoes.”

He pulls up and over the hill to the bay side of our neighborhood where the houses jump in price by one million dollars.  San Francisco is a dull smudge of light under the ribbon of fog but the Golden Gate Bridge is bright behind the bulk of Angel Island.

“See,” I tell Alan as I tell everyone who lives in San Francisco, “this is why I live in the East Bay.  We get the beautiful view of the skyline but none of the fog.”

“I like the fog.  It adds the perfect ambiance to my store.”

“Store?  No more eBay?”

He parks the car and comes around to open the door for me.  “An actual store with a window, a sign, and everything.  You should see the display I have up right now: beauty modification devices through the ages.  Looks gorgeously sinister with a little fog in the air.”

Alan’s brand of antiques falls under the label of odd though a more accurate description would be macabre.  He specializes in the Victorian Age and therefore loves San Francisco like no other.

He rings the doorbell of a lodge-style house with redwood siding and winks at me, “maybe if you’re a good little date tonight, I’ll ask Tommy if you can come out to North Beach and play.”

Our hosts are perched on top of the million-dollar bracket of my neighborhood as the wife opens the door and we are immediately treated to stunning views of the bay that span all three bridges: the Richmond-San Rafael, the Golden Gate, and the Bay Bridge.

“Alan it is so good to see you and you brought your friend!  I’m so glad you were able to make it.  Alan says that you are so busy with an adorable family but he was determined to tear you away for tonight.”

“She lives just down the street so I was able to make my extraction on the way here,” Alan pushes me inside as I stiffly realize I have not had to deal with this number of adults in a long time.

“My name is Sybil but everyone calls me Billy,” I manage and Alan beams at me like a proud papa.  “What a wonderful home you have.”

“Thank you, Billy.  Oh, we were just hoping you’d come.  Here let me get you a drink.”

Her enthusiasm has me narrowing my eyes at Alan but he is ignoring me and already mingling through the impressive open concept of the main floor.  Our hostess pulls me towards a kitchen island the size of a Volkswagen where a forest of wine bottles has sprung up amid fields of cheese trays and deep black pools of cavier.

Cavier, I think.  How Tommy will laugh.  For a minute I ache over the image of my darling husband and baby son enjoying their frozen pizza and bottle together on our saggy couch, but the first sip of a peppery Cabernet of unconceivable price range brings me back to the party.

“My name is Maria and that man with the round glasses by the window is my husband Xavier.  We met Alan at a flea market.  Xavier was looking for a gift for his youngest brother who just passed his medical boards and Alan had a perfectly hysterical collection of medical devices.”

“I can imagine what he sold you.  Was it a stainless steel liver stimulator or perhaps a tonic made of strychnine?”

Maria laughs, “something perfectly horrific that his brother displays in his office.  Oh dear, please excuse me, there’s the doorbell again.”