Prevost, PI

Retirement had never looked so appealing. It was a gorgeous evening in Hollywood Hills, and Caroline Prevost, private investigator, was crouched over a producer who’d been murdered at his own birthday party.

None of the guests seemed to care, either: they were hollering at each other around the policemen struggling to restrain them, all shouting about Mr. Gordon’s will, the house, and what this would mean for his picture deal with Gardner. Prevost stood with a sigh.

“That’s enough!” she bellowed. The crowd fell silent. “I’m supposed to be at Lake Arrowhead for my niece’s birthday. I’ve got her present in my trunk and I’ve packed the most audacious swimsuit you ever did see, and I’m looking forward to a nice weekend of swimming and boating with my family, so if you’re gonna stick around and not flee like proper murderers, you can at least be quiet and let me think.”

A bloody pen-knife lay near the victim’s head; it was engraved, but not even this bunch were dumb enough to use their own knives for a murder. The remnants of the birthday buffet sat on the table. Prevost could see shrimp, canapés, olives, and two kinds of punch. At the dining table, the Mr. Gordon’s punch cup sat in its proper place. She picked it up, frowning – it looked like he’d been drinking water from the punch cup.

She turned back to the still-silent crowd. “Right. First of all, whose knife is this?”

A thin, balding man raised one trembling hand.

“Who were you sitting next to?”

“M-Mr. Weiss and Mr. Frederick.”

Prevost nodded. “Excellent. Now, which one of you two rinsed out Mr. Gordon’s punch cup?”

Two seconds of silence, then Mr. Frederick made a break for the patio door. Officer Watley brought him down with one raised foot.

Prevost nodded. “Lovely. Now, if you’ll excuse me, popcorn, cocoa, and mountain air await.”

#

The press, of course, had other ideas. Prevost’s dramatic exit was stalled by numerous reporters – and several of Los Angeles’ finest – wanting to know how she’d figured it out.

“The knife would have been easiest to steal during dinner,” she explained. “Everyone at that party would’ve had some motive, but Frederick, a fellow producer shut out of the Gardner pictures, might’ve had revenge on his mind.”

“So he stabbed Gordon?” shouted a reporter.

“Yes, but not fatally. You really have to do a number on a fella if you’re trying to kill him with a pen-knife. No, the real murder weapon was poison in the punch –”

“Then why was there only one victim?”

Prevost entertained a vision of smacking the reporter over the head with her niece’s birthday gift. It was a hefty model of metal popcorn popper. It would make a satisfying clang.

“Because,” she said slowly, “the poison was only in Gordon’s cup. I’m guessing Frederick used something that would have left a residue because the cup was rinsed out. When he tried to run for it, well, he finished my job for me. Any other questions?”

“What are you doing tonight, doll?” The reporters cackled.

“All right, that’s enough!” Officer Watley materialized from the Gordon residence like a bear leaving its den. A few waves of his huge arms scattered the reporters.

“Sorry ‘bout those hyenas, ma’am.”

“They’re improving somewhat. Usually they lead with that question.”

“They oughta show you more respect. None of us could’ve explained what happened here like you just did.”

Prevost sighed. “Well, that’s because I was in a rush and didn’t clue any of you in. For that, I apologize.”

Watley waved one skillet-sized hand. “If I had a niece as cute as yours, I’d want to get to her birthday, too. How old is she now?”

“Six, today.”

He whistled. “Growing up fast, huh?”

“Tell me about it. She wanted a popcorn popper because she wants to learn how to cook.”

Watley laughed. “Seems safer than a stove, I suppose.”

“Barely. Not sure her mother likes the idea, but I promised I’d supervise.”

“Well, my grandmama makes excellent popcorn balls, if your niece wants the recipe.”

“That sounds grand, Watley, thanks.”

Prevost said good-night and was soon cruising along Sunset Boulevard. It was a long drive to Lake Arrowhead, and her niece would no doubt be asleep by the time Prevost arrived, but she thought popcorn and belated birthday cake would make an excellent breakfast.

And next year, she vowed, neither petty producers nor the Governor of California would keep her from this birthday.

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The Temple of Rescued Wisdom

Sonia opened the door for the coded knock. “Blessings of the Lord of Sapience and His Unvanquished Flame.”

The cloaked visitor handed her a small box. “Three more.”

“Thank you.”

The smuggler disappeared into the night. Sonia closed the door, smiling, already freeing the rescued books from their packaging.

Photo by Eli Francis on Unsplash

Abruzzi’s Visit

With a practiced smile, Clara opened the door for the man to whom her husband owed his life. “Mr. Abruzzi! So nice of you to drop by.”

It wasn’t nice, which Mr. Abruzzi knew: surprise visits to his beneficiaries were how he ensured his investments were behaving. A stone-faced male aide followed in Mr. Abruzzi’s wake.

Abruzzi shed his coat; the aide handed it to Clara. Her hands shook as she hung it. She hoped they hadn’t noticed.

“You have a lovely home, Mrs. Leoni.” Abruzzi’s gaze swept the chandelier, the antique sideboard, and the matched wingback chairs, all kept obsessively clean. Clara often imagined how their next home might look: a tiny loft in France or Brazil, with mismatched and often dusty furniture, far more homelike than this gracious apartment.

“Thank you,” she demurred. She poured his favorite wine from a bottle on the sideboard. “Marco should be home at any moment.”

“Normally he’s returned by now.”

Did the watchful aide notice her tremor as Clara handed Abruzzi the glass? “He’s heading up a new project. Longer hours.”

Complimenti.” Abruzzi lifted his glass in a brief toast. “And his legs continue to perform?”

“The machinery is incredible,” Clara admitted.

It had seemed miraculous at the time: a philanthropist who’d heard about Marco’s accident and wanted to help them pay for the cutting-edge prosthetic legs. The payment plan was simple, he promised, the interest nominal – this isn’t Sicily, after all, he said with a wink.

Yet somehow the Leonis owed still more money, no matter how hard Marco worked, how clean their house was, how much Clara flattered Abruzzi on his visits. It took them months to admit Abruzzi owned them, and months more to plan their escape. Clara could only hope the pieces would come together soon.

“I’m curious about this new project.” Abruzzi lowered himself into one of the wingback chairs. “Such a…promising venture for the two of you.”

“It is.” She sat in the window seat, letting her skirt swing around her legs as she crossed her ankles. They’d learned over the course of Abruzzi’s visits that he preferred her in skirts.

She entertained another brief daydream of the future home, the dusty, cramped, wonderful one. In this home, she wore sweats.

What was keeping him?

The street two stories below was packed with commuters. Bicycles whirred past, dodging cars and pedestrians. Clara often wondered if anyone passing by had been a beneficiary of Mr. Abruzzi; if they were subjected to stressful visits and left sleepless for nights afterward, wondering if the expensive procedures Abruzzi had funded would ever be paid off – and what would happen if they weren’t.

“Here he comes.” She stood a little too quickly, but she’d spotted Marco’s distinct silver bicycle, his glossy dark hair catching the golden-hour sun.

She greeted him at the door with a warning smile and the customary kiss. He knew the look; he touched Clara’s cheek reassuringly as he passed her.

“Mr. Abruzzi!” All faux machismo, he shook Abruzzi’s hand roughly and slapped him on the shoulder. They’d learned Abruzzi responded well to such displays. “What can we do for you today?”

“Oh, I just stopped into say hello. I understand you have a new project at work.”

“Yes, it’s a new cyber-security platform – very exciting stuff.” He looked apologetic. “But Clara and I have an engagement tonight…”

“Of course!” Abruzzi gripped Marco’s shoulder. “I won’t keep you any longer. I simply wanted to check in. Josef!”

The aide strode past them to open the door for Abruzzi. Clara handed him his coat and forced a smile as he kissed both her cheeks for a little too long.

Buona notte,” he said, smiling thinly.

Once the door was safely shut, she scrubbed her cheeks with her skirt hem. “Will this new project keep you late often? You know I hate having to entertain him alone.”

“You’ll never have to entertain him again.” Marco drew two envelopes from his backpack. “This is why I was late: visas. Brazil.”

“You got them?” she whispered. “I thought it would take weeks!”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you, but I couldn’t risk Abruzzi noticing anything. We can leave tomorrow.”

“What about your work?”

“They’re happy to have me work remotely.”

“And we can really leave tomorrow?” she breathed.

“Really. Abruzzi won’t be able to touch us.”

She saw herself in sweats, breathing tropical air, unwashed dishes in the sink and laundry unfolded on the couch. “Then you’d better help me pack.”

Ochre and Earth

This is the story I wrote for round 2 of the YeahWrite Superchallenge. It had to open with the sentence “Everything I had known was wrong” and incorporate this image:

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Everything I had known was wrong. The thought plagued every step as I returned from hunting, empty-handed again, to the hut I shared with Joséphine.

I thought I’d find her painting by the cabin’s tiny south window, but she was outside, tending the garden we’d started in the sunniest part of our clearing. A few blonde curls had escaped her sun-bleached scarf. Her welcoming smile faded when she saw that the game sled I dragged was empty.

“What happened, Isabelle?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.” I sank into the dirt by her side. She slid my hat from my head and ran her fingers through my hair, loosening my braid. Her touch sent soothing shivers to unknot my shoulders.

“I think it’s the wrong wood,” I continued. “It’s too fragile – the deer just break the traps. It’s too dry, or too thin, or…I don’t know.”

I crumpled my hat between my hands. Joséphine extricated it before I could ruin it.

“You’ll figure it out – you always have so far.”

“I was a stationer’s daughter,” I snorted. “How did we ever believe that we could survive on what I read in books?”

Her hand on my hair froze. “Don’t tell me you want to go back to Sarlat.”

I caught her other hand and kissed it. Under the dirt were her omnipresent paint stains: scarlet and mossy green settled into the fine lines of her skin. “Never,” I said.

“Then we just have to keep trying,” she said. “Don’t discount all you’ve learned because of a few mistakes.”

“This isn’t painting, Josie, it’s survival. Mistakes out here will kill us.”

“We knew this would be hard, but what choice did we have?”

We could have chosen lies; I could have chosen Paul-Edouard. Joséphine could have hoped for a patronage, but most likely she would have ended up some merchant’s miserable wife, or in a nunnery, or worse. We’d chosen each other instead, and in this tiny cabin in the Aquitaine wilderness, we were piecing together a life of our own.
I smiled, tracing the outline of her stained palm. “The best choice.”

#

Later that week, I bartered the first of our pumpkins for lessons with a woodsman who traded at the tiny local market. He was reluctant to share his secrets, especially with a woman, but I must have convinced him that I was no threat to his business. As the summer passed, I cut lengths of the wood he recommended and treated the sinews the way he’d shown me. Finally, I spent an exhausting August day replacing every single one of my traps and setting new ones.

When I returned home at sundown, weary and nursing several blisters, Joséphine was painting.

It was beautiful – a walnut orchard, its soft dawn colors amplified by the golden evening – but she was supposed to have made our strawberries into preserves to sell, and the jars stood empty on the kitchen table.

“You’re back!” She set her brush down and kissed my cheek. “Look! It’ll be ready to sell next week.”

“What about the preserves?” I asked tightly.

“Oh – I didn’t get to them today. But the painting will sell for so much more than jam, Belle.”

I rubbed my temples. “Josie, we needed the money from the preserves to buy flour. We have less than a week’s worth left!”

“This will be my final painting, anyway.” Her jaw clenched in a way that I knew meant she was holding back tears. “This is my last canvas.”

I stared at her. “What?”

She nodded. “And tomorrow I’m going to find work in the village.”

“Josie, no – you don’t need to give up your painting! We’ll work something out – I’ve almost figured out these traps, and then I can buy you more canvas!”

“No, you were right.” She took my hands. A smudge of ochre transferred to my thumb.

“This is about survival.”

“Just give me more time,” I pleaded. “If it’s a bad winter, you can look for work in the spring.”

Joséphine withdrew her hands. “If you think that’s best.”

She closed the door to our room behind her. I stood in the fading light, watching the smear of ochre dry.

#

Joséphine was already gone when I woke the next morning. I assumed she was out foraging for mushrooms, or perhaps gone early to the market. I wanted to talk to her about the previous night, but there wasn’t time to wait – I had traps to check. I avoided looking at her unfinished painting as I left.

When I returned from the forest at sunset, Joséphine was waiting for me at the edge of our clearing.

“You were gone so long – I was worried.” Her eyes widened when she saw what I was dragging on my sled. “A deer! It worked!”

“All those hours with that grouchy hunter finally paid off.” I kissed her, feeling her lips smiling beneath mine. “I’ve found a second game trail, too. Soon we’ll have enough to be comfortable this winter, and to buy you more canvas!”

Her smile faltered. “Isabelle, I went to the market today. I sold my paints.”

The sled’s rope fell from my hands. “Oh, Josie.”

“I knew we’d need money long before winter, and it seemed…for the best.”

“But Joséphine, you love painting!”

She stretched out her hand. I could see green and ochre, the colors of the walnut orchard, on her fingers. My heart broke to think she would never finish that painting, that instead of paint on her hands, she’d only have dirt. Her upturned palm encompassed the canvas upon which we’d made our home: the clearing, the wooded hills, the setting sun tingeing the low clouds with gold.

“Yes,” she said, “and perhaps we can afford paint again someday – but I love this life with you more.”

Her lips touched mine and for the first time in weeks, I felt certainty: that about love, at least, I could never be mistaken.

The Nymph of Salento

You had been swimming, you and he. You wear the water well. Together you went back up the beach. You were laughing, your hair loosed from its braid and dancing. He never stopped smiling at you.

I followed you and your laughter to your hotel. You were staying on the water, the Adriatic steps from your door. I let the waves rock me nearer to the wall; I could not see you, but I could hear you. I listened for hours. Your conversation was probably mundane, but that made it all the more special to me:

Look, another cruise ship is passing.

Can you get the lights for me?

Where did the bottle opener go?

At sunset, like all the other couples, the two of you walked along the wall. You’d redone your braid. I trailed silently in the water below you, hidden beneath reflected gold and dusk. When the cool evening breeze picked up, he draped his jacket around your shoulders. I wanted your place more than ever in that moment.

I could have taken him; he wouldn’t have been the first I’d pried from a partner. But at the end of the seawall he stopped just to hold you, to press a kiss first to your hairline, then to your lips. He looked at you like he beheld you for the miracle you are. I could not hear what he whispered to you that made you smile, but I could guess. Such words have been said to me, but the man who whispered them didn’t believe them, so neither did I.

They were not him. They did not see the miraculous in me – not the way he sees it in you.

When the sea finally darkened to fractured starlight, you took his hand and together you walked back. I did not follow you.

Ambition Unburied

We’re so far down in the Scuttles that not even the neon advertisements reach this deep. The only light comes from the police vehicles and a single icy white streetlamp. The gawkers left hours ago; once the rumor spread that the killer was high on Krimson, people wanted some distance. Eyewitnesses claim the incident began as an argument between two dealers: both used their product to fuel their aggression. The one who got the upper hand ended up killing everyone in the room, then fleeing.

I lean against my car, waiting for the go-ahead to enter the building and begin the investigation. I wish Colin would hurry up; the longer I wait, the more memories creep in. He’s probably dealing with unpleasant memories, too.

Anusha joins me, leaving the crime scene techs to mill around near the entrance. They shoot furtive glances at me; I can tell Anusha is uncertain around me, too. This is only her third encounter with Krimson; I built my career on cleansing the city of the stuff. So I’d thought.

“Still no Colin?” she asks.

“He’s finishing his preliminary.”

She squints up at the seventh floor windows where the crime took place and takes a deep breath. “Taking his sweet time.”

Finally, Colin arrives. He’s engrossed in typing on his tablet, his face bathed in blue glow.

“Detectives,” he greets us without looking up. “We’re ready for the techs. Still waiting for toxicology on our blood samples, but almost certainly this was a Krimson addict. If you’ll follow me, please.”

“Did you work a lot of Krimson cases back in the day?” Anusha asks as we walk.

“Oh, I’m sure Detective Pia has all manner of horror stories from those days,” Colin says.

“You’ve never told me any.” She studies me.

“Yeah, because they’re horrible. These new cases pale in comparison.”

“That’s hard to believe.”

“One time I had a case involving a Krimson user who got mad at his neighbor for having the TV up too loud. He concussed himself and shredded his hands trying to break down the door.” What he’d done to his neighbor once he got through didn’t bear repeating. “I’d never seen anything like it before. And that was one of the nicer cases.”

“Then why would anyone bring Krimson back?”

“Easy: money.”

Colin comes to a halt and I nearly walk into him. “Not just money,” he says. With his tablet lighting him from below, he looks like he’s telling a ghost story. “Power. Control. Pia, you and I are among the last who remember what the Scuttles were like when Krimson was at its height.”

I do remember, and I hate it. I don’t understand how Colin can speak about it with such reverence. “Who else has accessed the crime scene?”

“Just myself and the techs, who no doubt need your expertise.” He gestures impatiently toward the entrance.

I look up at the austere concrete facade. “Who took the blood samples?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

I point up. “If you’re the only one who’s been up there, who could have taken blood samples already?”

Colin’s eyes dart. I keep pressing; Anusha tenses, ready to move. “How did they match the blood from four victims and the killer so quickly?”

On the seventh floor, something explodes.

Anusha drags me back; my knee twists and I fall. Glass shards and chunks of concrete rain around us. Dimly, I hear Anusha shouting on her comm, trying in vain to reach the techs.

She doesn’t see Colin running, but I do.

I pull my gun and fire. The shock round sticks in the back of his thigh. His leg locks up and he falls, twitching.

Anusha helps me up. We make our way through the press of cops and firefighting drones toward Colin. She cuffs him before deactivating the shock round, and I pick up his tablet. In the corner of the screen is a timer, flashing zero.

“I’m guessing Anusha and I were supposed to be upstairs by now?”

Anusha hauls Colin to his feet. He snarls at me. “You have no idea how much I lost when you cleaned out Krimson.”

“Clearly you got back in the game. What was this,” I ask, gesturing at the burning building, “eliminating your competition?”

“Making it easier for history to repeat itself. Krimson could have faded into urban legend. Gruesome murders caused by a powerful hallucinogen, or just another night in the Scuttles?”

“While you get rich,” Anusha scoffs.

“I told you.” He smirks. “It’s about so much more than money.”

“Well, now you get nothing.” I gesture toward the cars. “Get him out of here.”

Summer’s End

Seven miles later, we exited the trees into sunshine over the glittering river. There are many trails on this mountain, each one a new view.

The fires took them all.

At the mountain’s ashen feet, we say goodbye until it greens again: someday, whether it takes months or years.