Posts Tagged 'mystery'

Bodily fluids

It was a hot day in the city. A bead of sweat trickled down her neck, and she thought to herself I really have had enough of bodily fluids for one day. She took a tissue out of her bag and wiped at the back of her neck. The tissue, sodden, shredded immediately, and she looked at it in disgust.

The man at the falafel cart made a sudden hooting sound at her, “Hey miss Lady,” he said, “here you go, here you go.” He held a handful of napkins out to her. Her first impulse was to throw her soggy, sweaty Kleenex in his face and curse his children, but she did realize it was just her bad day speaking. She calmed herself, set her face in a civilized gracious neutral, and accepted the handful of napkins, sopping at her neck, her forehead, even down the front of her shirt (turning slightly aside as she did this).

“Thank you,” she said, stiffly, but sincerely.

“No problem, Miss,” the falafel man said. “You want a drink, I got Orange Fanta and Root Beer, nice and cold?” She admitted that an Orange Fanta would be pleasant, and he fished one out of his cooler.

“I’d give it to you for nothing, you know, only I work hard for the money,” said the vendor, with a look that suggested he’d been watching her cross the plaza every day as she left the labs.

“That’s okay, but thank you so much,” she said. She paid for the Fanta and left a tip that was too large, just to put that distance between them. The falafel man’s face fell just a little, but he smiled and waved, bravely, as she left, crossing the plaza to the bus stop. The number 17, as always, he noted.

When she arrived on the scene this morning, the day was already hotter than anyone expected this early in the year. The university, with its hardwood floors and wide open windows, seemed foreign to her, accustomed as she was to grey walls, formaldehyde, fluorescent lights and the chilly certainty of dead flesh in drawers lining the walls on three sides.

There was a pool of blood still oozing from his head when she got there, reaching into the pile of student papers on his desk. If only the campus police had responded immediately to his call – his hand was still on the phone – they might have gotten there before this final student assessment. As it was, she put on gloves, gathered the papers, lined lightly in spilled blood, and put them in plastic bags for later examination.

(Writing activity: Group member Andy brought a handful of incomplete sentences with him to group. Everyone wrote the partials down, then we wrote for 20 minutes, using as many of the incomplete sentences as we wanted to create a fresh narrative. Here are the sentences Andy contributed – But I work hard for the money, said
– A pool of blood still oozing from his head reached into the pile of student papers on his desk. If only
– The ship had reached warp speed, and soon the distance between them would eliminate their love, unless
– Pat was in seventh grade with only a hint of facial hair beginning to appear, and dreams that were
– It was a hot day in the city, a bead of sweat trickled down her neck, and)


Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1928.

This year she is solitary and she looks ill. You know, you’ve seen it before. Maybe it’s even been you.

We are a pretty clever set, I fancy, but we have a good many advantages. Being solitary is not one of our advantages. We are joiners, we support, we advocate, we are featured in our local papers. We are social and cultural, we contribute to our communities. You know us.

The people I love the best jump into work head first. This was a surprise to me at first, but in retrospect, I can see that this was, I don’t know, predictable or inevitable. Predictable or inevitable – how are those words alike, how are they different?

When I met Ginger 20 years ago, she went by Jinx. She was a red-headed girl, newly married and boisterous in her outlook. “Is marriage a constraint or a comfort?” She asked during gin nights in our newly married club in the Silicon Valley. This was a very good question at the time, much discussed, and support groups supported questioning and affirmed affirming. Her eyes were often red.  She does not go by Jinx anymore. Or by Ginger. She goes by her birth name, Elizabeth, or Betty, and that suits the person she is now.

This year she is solitary and she looks ill. When I realized she was ill I was transported suddenly and unexpectedly into those years before, when our advantages were both meta-analyzed and taken for granted. She looks ill, like a charcoal sketch of herself drawn by a weak hand, smudged and only recognizable to me who watched the sketch being made.

 The past is a zesty remembrance some days, and a muddy sack cloth clinging, dragging me down on others. She never knew how robustly her love defended me against the collapse of my pride. Or maybe she knew. Maybe we talked about it endlessly, that spiraling rondele of confessional friendship that is as reassuring as a nursery rhyme. Fri Felipe Fri Felipe duermes tu duermes tu. Toca la campana toca la campana, tan tan tan, tan tan tan.

I hear the church bells ringing this morning. The birds sing non-denominational songs. The Ginger-that-was left her husband and that predictability to marry a king of an exotic country, the UAE or Morocco or some such. I won’t say which one, and I should say that Ginger, Jinx and Elizabeth are not her real names. The king has had his revenge, and Ginger is home again, here in the cool foggy land on the west coast of the great experiment.

She is living with me, secretly, in hiding, and she is ill. When I answered her call, it was late for now, but early for then. Around midnight. Meet me in the Mission District, I will be wearing a mud cloth jacket that hangs below my knees. I took her home to my second divorce apartment in the Haight – little remnants of that early assumed privilege. She is feverish and talks a lot. I know too much – I suppose she will have to kill me, but that is a joke not to be repeated.

“I have someone else’s eyes in my head” she says, she moans, repeatedly, for hours until the fever has broken and then she looks pale again and docile as a china doll.

The king does not know yet that she still lives, and it will be a challenge to keep it that way.

A romantic mystery of the usual kind



Alene, Iris, Susan and Jill met for drinks once a month at the lounge in the Sorrento Hotel. By agreement, each one of them brought a secret with them, to share openly or by implication. A well rounded Malbec, assorted crudités, fresh bread and then cognac brought them to a peak of confidentialities every month. Some months, these were served with great whooping laughter, other months the four heads pulled together over low tables and they leaned into their secrets. In their twenty years together, they’d told a number of scandalous stories, some romantic ones, some sad and mortal. This year was their first brush with murder.

“What kind of hell would we live in if we all revealed our secrets?” Jill started, while the Mediterranean plate was passed around. She scooped kalamata olives, crusty bread and a roasted bell pepper tapenade onto the small bread plate. Setting it down, she picked up her wine. Looking over the rim of the glass, she assessed the effect of her words on Alene, Iris and Susan. All three of them, hands raised halfway to their mouths, had paused. Eyebrows raised, their faces made one unified statement: Why are we here if not to reveal our secrets? Here at least, if nowhere else? She tipped the glass, and the warm earth tones of the Malbec delivered red for strength. She set the glass down and began again.

“It was right after last month, after Alene wrote that check to Cosmo, remember?” she said. Alene looked around – yes, they remembered, even after the third bottle of wine. Cosmo and his specialty auto body and paint shop. Yes, even now all Alene really remembered was a smell of turpentine and the bright glaring lights and the tattoos on Cosmo’s shoulders and then the hydraulic lift and lower that explained to her forever after the appeal of the low rider. She blushed and picked up a large caper berry with the stem still attached. She put it in her mouth and sucked, watching Jill to see where this story was going.

“At the end of the evening, we said goodbye and said be careful, the roads are wet.” Jill continued. Her voice was flat. Iris picked up her bread knife and cut a thin slice of the chilled butter. She waved the knife at Jill and said, “Yes. Continue.” Jill looked at the knife and touched her throat. They could see a pulse, jittering at the edge of her collarbone, and her face, suddenly strained and strange. A stranger.

Susan pushed her hair behind her ears, attuned to something new.

“Let’s go to my house,” she said. A first. As a group, they’d made the decision to never tell tales where the walls might hear them. She waved down the waiter, paid, and 40 minutes later they had all reconvened in her living room.

“I got home that night and I was lonely. The lights were low and there were no stars.” Jill continued. The women sat clustered on sofas in front of the fire, the flames shaking their faces. I can see our twenty years passing in the flames, thought Susan.

“Wait. Look, I can’t say it. I can’t. Just look.” She pulled a photo out of her purse and handed it to Alene. Alene looked, dropped it suddenly, then picked it up and put it on the table in front of them. They all looked – that familiar face, known and unknown the way the very famous are – and the sudden, shocking realization that he was dead. Barely, freshly, horribly dead.



Her brother, Dennis, was her mother’s favorite. Iris’s hair was red, not blonde. She bit her nails. Her mother’s name was Charlene, and Dennis was a bully and the model for all her future husbands. “Iris-itis” was the nickname given to her by Dennis and his friends when he was fifteen and she was twelve, with big gap-toothed teeth and ink stains on every skirt she owned.  When he was sixteen, he tripped on a rock at the edge of a ravine near a half developed sub-division and broke his neck. Two years later he suffocated under the weight of a pillow, an accidental death that Charlene recreated in mixed media non-representational art for the next 15 years, until she died of mixing paint fumes with cigarettes and valium. She passed out and fell face down in a clay piece that was wet and sticky, and never came up for air. Iris went to art school on the insurance, and bought a little studio in a pricy neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, where she worked when she was not in Seattle. Iris, like her namesake, liked wet, cold climates, and disliked both sunlight and morning.

When Iris first met Susan, they’d been out making the rounds at the espresso cafes that were so much a part of life in the pacific northwest. No point in being a morning person in the far north. Iris had moved there completely at random, getting away from the relentless sun and endless daylight hours of the southwest, and settled into the vampire routines of the northerly climates quite naturally. Eventually, she settled on a job in publishing that allowed her to work afternoon hours, which left night-time for studio work and morning for sleep. She quite liked her pale complexion in the rain forest among the ferns; her red hair lit up the woods like a dangerous flame, a suggestion of things not quite right, ready to erupt, sudden, violent heat pouring down the mountain side.


In a normal circumcision, there is a little bit of drama, of course. The significance is there, hanging heavy in the air like incense. Like incense, this is a sin or a virtue unspoken. A little drama in a piece of skin, establishing forever, viscerally, the concept of guilt, resentment, forgiveness, redemption.  The connection of regions and religions speak a shared vocabulary of hierarchy, a shaking of walls. All of life is suffering. Suffering, then death.  Then feast days, the feast days of corn and mutton and fry bread and birds flying high overhead, looking down on the land of the people, fields ripe and heavy, the heavy hanging bells of Castilian guilt, the wine, the blood, the suffering of our lady, the suffering of our lord, the dragging of the cross, the piercing of the breast, the blood, the snake, the butterfly, the dragon, the quickness of water, air, light, and wind all blowing together and apart. Dust devil is a saint in some religions, you know, delivering change, confusion, delight. If someone says church to you, what do you say back? Rebirth, renewal? Rejection, redemption?  Confession, repression? The four directions, the trinity, the one-ness, the nothingness, the void? The gods reaching out are feeling us, lost little shapes in a black velvet bag – they cannot see us, just feel, the feeling of each of us is unique as every marble, every stone, every leaf, every feather.  What can be seen without looking? What can be felt, heard, smelled, known with fingertips, with breath, with thirst, with longing? Knees are for kneeling, for praying, for seducing, for begging, for holding arms up, reaching toward an offered embrace.

Another English Mystery

english breakfast

The front room was dusty and smelled of something, I couldn’t decide what. Old house, some cooking smells, ashes in the grate perhaps – Nigel had told me it would need a bit of care, but not bad overall. He’d dropped me off at the front gate, then took the Peugeot into the village to shop for me, getting sausages, tomatoes, baking soda, lemons, vinegar, hard soap, a rag mop, and a tin of shortbread.

While he was gone, I walked from room to room, pulling sheets off of worn armchairs, small tables, bookshelves, a fainting couch, a low embroidery rocker and an upright Victorian sofa covered in blue velvet. Most of the house was put away for the season, or for ever, I thought, without sign that anyone had recently left or recently been back.

Until I stepped into the kitchen. This room, which sat at the back of the house with a door leading out into an unkempt vegetable garden,  was in full and current use. Mac n cheese burnt into an aluminum saucepan, dishes stacked high in the sink. No running water, but a large jug of water apparently in use for general washing up. An old army cot with wool blankets and a flat pillow with dirty pillowcase. When I first opened the door into the kitchen, I instinctively backed away when I saw the signs of inhabitance, but realized almost immediately that there was nothing in the room to suggest that someone was in there at the moment. Still, after a quick look round, I closed the door behind me and went outside, where I stood awkwardly in the drive wishing Nigel hadn’t taken the car.

All around me in the yard were the peaceful sounds of a warm summer morning: bees buzzing in the snapdragons, a small white cat with a black spot on her nose passing through, stropping me briefly on her way somewhere else. In the distance, I could hear someone mowing their lawn. From the house, I could not see any of the neighbors, I realised, and thought what a good, safe place it would be for someone who did not want to be seen. I tugged on my skirt and walked down the drive to the gate and opened it, cautiously. It opened without a sound. I had remembered it as a creaking, loud gate that I could never sneak out of at night, and when I looked I found, as I had half expected, that the hinges had been recently cleaned and oiled.

Nigel came back, half an hour later, to find me sitting on a stump in the lane, picking at my cuticles. He’d been thinking about selling the house. I had decided to keep it. I quite understand the kind of situation that would lead a person to hide in an English cottage, and I thought I might know who this person could be.

Inspector Morse and the needlepoint murder


Inspector Morse brushed aside the corn husk and the corn silk that lightly covered the body. Beneath it, and innocent looking it was, lay a brave little embroidery hoop, with a needlepoint sampler half done. “We all wander in this vale of tears. Find happiness in …..” it read. The thread dangled off, an incomplete thought hanging there, expectant.

“No needle,” Morse said, to himself. He felt tired. “Another day, another corpse,” he said under his breath, imagining this cheery motto done nicely on a pillow cover in his Aunt Edna’s parlor. Loved his Aunt Edna, he had. Still missed her cookies. What was that she’d done with marshmallows and chocolate bars? Well, she’d been gone a long time. He shook himself back to the present, where this corpse was sitting quietly in her chair, hand still holding the hoop as if ready to take one more stitch. Eyes open and staring out, or past. Contemplating, those eyes might almost be.

Morse thought he’d have a nice vacation, that had been his intention. That’s what brought him to this quiet old town of aunties, church fundraisers, and bakeries. He’d pictured himself sitting in someone’s front room with a cup of tea in one hand and a plate of jam tarts in the other. But death follows the inspector, he told himself. He brushed the ashes off his suit jacket and damned himself for starting to smoke again. He damned the nice local constable who asked him, just as a matter of courtesy, to come in on this needlepoint death. He considered ways to excuse himself, pointing out the obvious: elderly women die in their sleep, it is 3 in the afternoon on a warm summer day, and she’d obviously nodded off, permanently. He opened his mouth to say so, when the young officer held out his hand and gave Morse the corn husk.

“Way I see it,” he says. “Is she’d about finished with the corn – she made corn dolls and sold them like Indian made for tourists in the states – that’s how she kept a little extra money coming in. Anyway, she’d done with the corn and set it aside to do her needlework.”

“Yes,” Morse said, almost leaving off the question mark. “And then?”

“Well, I guess she must’ve fallen asleep, don’t you?” The young man’s red eyebrows wagged a bit, and he looked at Morse for help. Morse looked again at the quiet body, the corn, the needlework. Why am I here? He asked himself, feeling foolish, feeling automatic. The automatic inspector. His eyes scanned the chair, the hoop, the thread, then up to the woman’s face. Her face was upturned, eyes china blue, her expression pleased, expectant. Her hair was slightly mussed. He thought she might want to reach up and tidy it, just a bit. He leaned over and looked at the back of her head, where the hairpins would ordinarily keep her hair well contained. There, at the base of the neck, he saw it. A small red dot, a shiny metallic point. A needle, neatly inserted into the base of her skull. A murder, here in the quiet village where he’d come to regain his sanity. He sighed, and fingered his pocket for his smokes. Time to step outside and think, for just a moment.

Writing practice, 25 minutes. See the Inspector Morse TV series, or the books, by Colin Dexter, for more on the source of this character.


The door of the camo van slid open. A pale man with a slithering walk and drooping posture climbed out. He wore a monocle; he had the vacant look of a man in shackles, ashamed, unarmed, nearly naked. Behind him came a second man, a big gorilla of a man with a grin that said ignorance, villainy, an angry ape shit monkey balls testosterone case kind of man. The kind of man you wouldn’t want to meet on speed-dating night. The kind of man whose inside is bound to be different than his outside; at least that’s what his mama always hoped.

There is a smell to the two of them, the way they move as they leave the van: compact, tightly wound, a conviction of violence even in the automatic whistling of the big man.

It’s odd, giving birth to these two brutes, one in an Italian suit and narrow expensive shoes, the other we assume with heavy brows and a flat broad voice. And yet there they are together, luring us into an underworld darkness, emerging from this panel van with bad intent, flagrant villains. No need for delicate psychic sensibilities to pick up on the reeking desperation of the pale man. He is sweating slightly, dabs at his thin mustache, thinking circular process thoughts: decisioning, coming to a compromise we can all agree upon, agreeing on a way to deny destiny, to bypass the interrogatory moment – here, can’t we all just be friends?

But the truth of the matter is that, no, we can’t all be friends. We can all have this vague feeling at times, so much commonality: we all have furniture, we all have cubicles, we all have moments of twinning with the office mate, the colleague, the incidental intimacies of work pulling us together. As these two had been pulled together. To steal diamonds, to sell guns, to sing the grateful song of the triumphant earthworm, unarmed yet ecstatic static cling bringing them together for crime, for punishment, for watching as their time together draws irresistibly closer to its unnecessary, violent end.

William thinks about butterflies, cranes, loose bright squares of origami paper, striped cotton sheets on a clothesline in his mother’s house when he was 12. Running through the sheets as the wind blows on a warm August day. The only shade in the ratty little yard. Something pushes him, pushes against his back. His future pressing down, so far from Tulsa, where this brute is not friendly, they’ve played cards and killed people, at least on paper, together.

Toby thinks William is German, but he is not; he’s just a skinny blonde guy from someplace Toby’s never been. There’s a lot Toby doesn’t know. Nothing important though. Need to know a few things. How to read a map. How to drive as if invisible. How to deliver the right severance package to the right corporate fuckup. Toby likes peaches, apple pie, remembers his own mother as if she’ll always be 35. She smacked him once in awhile, took the bus to work at the A&P, liked to bake when she had a little extra time. He and William used to talk about their moms, when they were out on the road together, killing time.

William’s achieving a form of buddahood, detaching from this moment, floating weightless away from Toby, from criminal intent, from judgment. He feels light, almost good. Toby takes him to breakfast, nice place, chilled grapefruit, quiet courtyard in a garden café. He eats his omelette, then William’s french toast and spoons the egg from a porcelain cup. They are best of friends at this last meal. Toby picks up the check, “I’ll get it, that’s ok, least I can do,” and they leave. Back into the windowless van and uptown where a final meeting will be held, lists will be made, consensus will be reached. By everyone but William, who will be attending this meeting at least in spirit, but will already have received his last, passionate kiss.

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