by Gail Farrelly
This is a never before published mystery short story!
On the day after Thanksgiving the first bit of scary New Year’s poetry, printed by computer on plain white paper and enclosed in a plain white envelope, arrived at the office of the New York City Police Commissioner. Here’s what it said:
Happy New Year, NY!
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
When the ball drops,
So will you.
Cancel the New Year’s celebration in Times Square or thousands will die.
The NYC Police Commissioner broke this news to the world four days later at a Tuesday early-morning press conference held at One Police Plaza in the city. He said that, other than a Chelsea postmark, there was no evidence of where the letter came from.
The details of the press conference were reported by many media outlets throughout the world. Happenings in Times Square always made the news. Even more so when they were planned for New Year’s Eve.
Like so many others, Michelle Harrington, a 28-year-old administrative assistant to the police chief in Northchester, NY, a village 15 miles north of New York City, was outraged when she read the stories on her office computer. How dare some idiot, already nicknamed the TST (Times Square Terrorist) by the New York press, attempt to take over the city on New Year’s Eve.
The threat chilled her to the bone. Like the World Trade Center, Times Square was New York. And look what had happened at the World Trade Center. Michelle had grown up in the Bronx and had rung in more than one New Year in Times Square. The thought that someone might be contemplating a terrorist act there made her almost physically ill. This was personal. If that happened, it would be like part of her past being ripped away.
She tried to tell herself that it was just an empty threat. Sadly, intuition told her that it wasn’t. And it looked like the perp was smart enough to send a threat containing not one scintilla of evidence.
Michelle noted that there was the old investigation’s ongoing claim but very little real information in the story. The Commissioner said he was confident that the NYPD would catch the person responsible, but he asked for the public’s help in reporting to authorities the actions of anyone whom they deemed suspicious.
The whole thing was weird. Not even a demand for money or anything else – at least not yet. If she were in charge, she’d consider this threat an ominous one. But then again, what did she know? Except for working for a police chief, she wasn’t in law enforcement at all. She was a night student at a local college where she had completed 3/4 of the credits required for a degree in criminal justice. But that didn’t qualify her as an expert in law enforcement. She sure wished, though, that she could enforce the law against someone who threatened a happy night – a traditional night of joy and hope – for millions of people.
The timing could not have been worse, she was thinking. After all, the eyes of the world would be on Times Square on New Year’s Eve night, with probably about a million real-life revelers and many million more glued to their TVs watching the dropping of The Ball and other festivities.
She looked at the computer screen and did what she always did when she was nervous: fiddled with her tiny gold earrings and tightened the scrunchi on her long blonde ponytail. She read the message again and again.
Only when she knew the poem by heart did she pull her eyes from the screen and look at her To Do List. It was a long one. This was a busy time of year in the office and she really needed to pursue her own work and not that of the NYC Police Department.
Her job was challenging and fun. Most of the time. Doing community liaison work, keeping the chief of police organized (at times, the hardest part of her job), dealing with the press, and lots of other things besides. She never knew exactly what she’d be doing from day to day; she liked it that way.
Michelle worked at her own desk for an hour on some reports, then she was summoned to the office of her boss, Northchester Chief of Police Jim Cunningham. A former Texas Ranger, he was a huge man in his sixties and had been Chief in Northchester for 15 years, but he retained a lot of the southwestern ways (some good, some not-so-good, Michelle had decided) of his former home. His grizzled face broke into a smile when he saw her. He said, “You’re looking mighty fine today, little lady.”
She liked her boss (at least most of the time), but Michelle could have done without that kind of greeting. She sat in the straight-back chair across from his desk and merely said, “Good morning.” Cunningham immediately looked apologetic, as he said, “I know, I know, you don’t like to be called a little lady. I forget. I should know better, since you’ve worked for me for more than three years.” A pause. “ But y’know, you are little and you are a lady.” He shrugged and extended his hands, palms up.
Michelle sat up straighter, pulling her 5-foot-1 frame up as high as much as she could. She felt like screaming a response, but knew it would do no good. So she just sighed and said, “I’ve heard it all before.”
He smiled and accepted the rebuke. “Okay, okay, but I hope you won’t consider it harassment if I tell you that I meant it when I said you are looking mighty fine today. Michelle stifled a smile, as she plucked a speck of lint from her sleeve. She had just bought the black pantsuit she was wearing (a designer one, 70% off at Loehmann’s) two days ago, and it was on its maiden voyage. As was the white clingy blouse that she was also wearing. The Chief sometimes annoyed her, but he did have a good heart and was fair. And he was good at smoothing over a misstep with a quick compliment.
Back to business. Michelle said, “What do you make of that NYC New Year’s Eve threat? It sounds kinda scary.”
The Chief shifted his huge frame in his chair, gave his gray moustache a little twirl and said, “Lots of nuts spring from the woodwork around the holidays, then they go right back in when the new year starts. The New York guys will handle it. We have enough on our plate. What about that PowerPoint presentation for the Chamber of Commerce speech I’m giving on Friday? Is it ready to go?”
They became immersed in the daily grind of work and Michelle gave little thought to the TST for the rest of the day. That was as it should be, she reasoned. She probably couldn’t do a thing about the New York City thing anyway.
Or could she?
Her resolution to just not worry about the Times Square terrorist was put to the test when the second bit of threatening poetry arrived a few days later and was posted on the Internet within a few hours of the release of the information by the Police Commissioner’s office. The opening greeting and closing threat were the same, the second poem just a slight variation from the first one:
Happy New Year, NY!
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
A deadly rain of color,
Will shower down on you.
Cancel the New Year’s celebration in Times Square or thousands will die.
In the course of her work, Michelle had seen other written threats, but for some reason they had never seemed as scary as this one. The thought of a million people being in one place at one time and targeted by a crazy person filled her with dread. Then there was that phrase “A deadly rain of color.” She didn’t think the terrorist was talking about blood, which was basically one color. There could be shades of red of course, but that wouldn’t describe a rain of color.
“A rain of color” brought back a wonderful memory of a fascinating gift she had received for her fifth birthday. A kaleidoscope, with a constantly changing set of colors. It was so mysterious and so beautiful. The note from this New Year’s demon was also mysterious, but not at all beautiful.
That night she had dinner with some friends at the Irish restaurant Parnell’s on 53rd Street and First Avenue. After dinner, she took a walk over to Times Square and gazed up at the huge height of the One Times Square building. For many years now, it had hosted the same act. The dropping of The Ball, two tunes immediately played for the waiting crowd: “Auld Lang Syne” as well as the wonderful “New York, New York.” In her head, she sung some of the words from the latter tune:
I want to wake up in that city
That doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill
Top of the heap
A lump was forming in her throat. She wondered if The Ball would be the only thing dropping that night. Or would there be something else. Bombs or other weapons. She shivered — not so much from the cold as from the prospect of what could possibly happen there on New Year’s Eve night. She told herself not to think about it.
But then the third poem arrived. The opening greeting and closing threat were the same as in the first two missives, the poem slightly different:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
The storm will start at midnight,
There’ll be nothing you can do.
Michelle focused on the word storm. Could the terrorist have figured out a way to manipulate the weather? Nah, that was the stuff of science fiction. And it didn’t fit with the third line of the previous message, A deadly rain of color. A storm wasn’t colorful, was it?
She needed to talk to someone about this and she knew that Chief Cunningham wasn’t that someone.
She thought about her friend, Daisy Rosenberg, a detective in the New York Police Department. Daisy was ten years older than Michelle. The two had known each other for ages, as their mothers were best friends. Michelle and Daisy met for dinner – and sometimes a movie – a few times a year in the city. They hadn’t seen each other since September; it was definitely time for them to get together. And time for Michelle to see if she could get some inside information on attempts to find that Times Square villain. She picked up the phone.
Two nights later, the two women were having cheeseburgers at McFadden’s, a restaurant and saloon near Grand Central Station. Michelle munched on a french fry and looked across the table at her friend. Not for the first time, she thought that Daisy belied her name. Far from looking sweet and fragile, her 5-foot-11 frame was pretty intimidating. If I were a crook, she would scare me, thought Michelle. Daisy wasn’t heavy, but she was no lightweight. And she had a lot of muscle and very little fat. She was attractive in a no-nonsense kind of way, and the short brown hair framing her face was artfully tousled, as if it had been done by a top NY hair stylist.
Daisy swallowed a mouthful of cheeseburger and said, “Well, needless to say, there’s a lot of work going on related to that New Year’s nut. You know, studying weapons purchases, interviewing persons of interest, grilling informants, whatever. No findings so far, though. In a way, I think it’s a shame that the whole thing has to be dragged through the media at this point. But the Commish really had no choice, when it was clear that a couple of newspapers had found out about the threats from TST.” She sighed. “ He’s been forced into holding the press conferences.”
“Guess he had no other option.” Michelle took a sip of her Pepsi and said, “What about the notes themselves? No clues there, huh?”
“Nada. Nothing distinctive about the printing, done on a computer. Not even any DNA on the gummed flap of the envelope. No forensic evidence of any importance at all so far.”
“I was thinking more in terms of the wording in the notes. For example, those lines, A deadly rain of color, Will shower down on you. I can’t help but think they’re saying something important. Have no idea what that something is, just a feeling that it’s really, really relevant. In fact, the way this maniac focuses on color. Red, blue, whatever; it’s important, I just know it is. Just wish I knew what it meant.”
Daisy shrugged. “Yep, you, me, and the whole NYPD.”
Michelle was thinking hard and spoke slowly. “Sometimes I think that there’s just too much scientific analysis and use of computers in law enforcement and not enough emphasis on logic, reasoning, and plain old common sense.” She blushed after she said this and soon added, “Oh, what am I talking about? Who am I to criticize? It’s not as if I’m an expert.”
Daisy leaned over to pat her friend’s hand. “Look you may very well be right about that color angle. There’s been no real progress on this case. You’ve always been a wordsmith. If you come up with a reasonable idea about the hidden messages in those notes, give me a call. I can pass it through to the right channels.”
Michelle said, “Okay, thanks, but I wouldn’t want my name used.”
Daisy smiled. “Sounds like a Deep Throat kind of deal. I’ll buy it.”
Michelle didn’t answer. By then, she was too busy studying the dessert menu.
Daisy knew how to get her attention. “So what would Deep Throat think about a hot fudge sundae?” she asked.
Two more deadly notes made the news in the period before Christmas. As with the first three, they started with the salutation, Happy New Year, NY!, and ended with the threat: Cancel the New Year’s celebration in Times Square or thousands will die.
Michelle, and just about everybody else who read them, found the two new poems just as creepy as the first three:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
You’ll be choking and gasping,
I’ll look down and see the view.
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
A colorful way to die,
You haven’t got a clue.
After the fifth note, the pressure was really on. Not a lot of time to stop the TST.
On the Monday the fifth note was revealed to the media, Michelle got a call at work – it was almost quitting time – from her six-year-old nephew Andrew. Still a week and a day to go before Christmas, but he was already into plans for the next holiday. He wanted to know if she could come to their house on New Year’s Eve to watch The Ball drop on TV. He was talking so fast she wasn’t getting every word. More than once, he mentioned the word fetti. The third time he used the word, he said, “I love that fetti. It’s so pretty.” This time she stopped him.
“The what?” Michelle asked laughing. This was a new one on her. Here was a real mystery to solve. What the heck was fetti? Could it be a new Italian dish her sister, an adventurous cook, was working on? Andrew gave his explanation.
“Fetti, the little pieces of colored paper from the sky. Y’know, fetti.” A few seconds later Michelle heard her sister Gabriella on the phone in the background advising her son, “The word is confetti, not fetti, you silly kid.”
“Okay, okay, confetti. But Aunt Michelle, can you come to my house and see it with me?”
Michelle was still holding the phone but almost dropped it. Now she had to hang up and fast. “Yes, yes, absolutely,” she told her nephew. “But now I gotta go, I’ll catch you later.”
Out of the mouths of babes! CONFETTI. It was tradition for a lot of it (about a ton of it, she thought) to rain down on the Times Square crowd at midnight. But what if what was falling was ten tons or a hundred tons or more? What if the confetti just didn’t stop coming? The words echoed back: A deadly rain of color, Will shower down on you.
Could confetti kill? Probably so – or at least maim – if there were enough of it. She thought of those lines: You’ll be choking and gasping, I’ll look down and see the view.
A million people, many of them drunk (technically, drinking of alcoholic beverages wasn’t allowed – yeah, right) would be packed into Times Square on New Year’s Eve. She knew that the police set up separate holding areas, almost like pens for cattle, in order to maintain order in the huge crowd. It was terrifying to think of the panic and terror – maybe even the stampede – that an overdose of confetti could cause.
It all fit. And Michelle didn’t know whether to be glad or sorry.
She figured that if she were like the heroines in some of the cozy mystery books she read, she would barge right in and investigate this personally. Go right down to One Times Square and the neighboring buildings and figure out a way to sneak in and search the buildings. She didn’t “buy” that stuff when she read it in books and she wasn’t buying it now. No, she had a better plan.
She glanced at the clock. Only a few minutes to quitting time. Good! She could hardly wait for that moment when she could grab her purse and head for home. She had an important date. With Google, on her home computer. She had to research topics such as: confetti composition, crowd control, public stampedes, policing to prevent riots, etc. Was her confetti fixation a hunch with some merit, or was it just crazy speculation? Tonight she’d decide.
A few hours later – most of the time had been spent on the Web – she had become convinced that her confetti idea was no fluke. It was at least worthy of investigation.
Who ya gonna call when you have an idea that can’t be handled through your own resources? Not a ghostbuster, but a crime buster. Your very own contact at the NYPD, of course.
She dialed Daisy’s cell and was soon spilling out her thoughts about the TST in a non-stop monologue.
When she finally stopped talking, at first here was silence at the other end of the line. She understood why. In a way, it seemed ridiculous to suggest that confetti could be a dangerous substance. But the confetti concept did seem to pull the whole thing together. It was logical. It made sense – a horrifying, deadly kind of sense.
Finally, Daisy broke the silence. “I…I…don’t know what to say, Michelle. But I’ll definitely pass your idea along tomorrow.” Before Michelle hung up she heard five heavenly words from her friend: “You can count on me.” Michelle took a deep breath and put the phone back in its cradle. Of course, she knew she could count on her friend, but she didn’t mind hearing those delicious words to confirm it.
The next morning the two friends touched base again. Daisy had called back to say that the powers that be were getting together a group of crowd control experts on Thursday morning at One Police Plaza to consider a number of TST scenarios. The idea about the confetti danger had been added to the agenda. YES, Michelle said to herself as she mentally pumped her fists.
Thursday night Daisy called in with the report. She told Michelle that the group had concluded that, in this instance, there was a good chance that massive amounts of confetti could cause injuries, maybe even death. They couldn’t predict with perfect accuracy, of course, how confetti would perform as a weapon. They just said it was a definite possibility.
“Gee, I don’t know if this is good or bad news,” said Michelle. “The horror of it is overwhelming, but now maybe there is a chance to set things right before there’s New Year’s Eve chaos in the city.”
“Exactly. What’s definitely good news, though, is that just a few minutes ago the NYPD was able to get search warrants (they found a lenient judge who was a native New Yorker and a great lover of Times Square New Year’s festivities) for a slew of offices near the top of One Times Square and some buildings nearby. If there are unexplained quantities of confetti in the area, they’ll find them.”
And they did. Daisy called Michelle at 10 p.m. on Friday with the news. In a number of the offices they searched, the police had found massive amounts of confetti (in boxes marked with false contents), ready to be unpacked, and a number of huge machines programmed to spew the confetti out the window at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And this wasn’t the confetti that was part of the “official” celebration. Seemed like this was killer confetti.
According to Daisy, the cops had hit paydirt in the twentieth office they searched, where they discovered a thirty-year-old multimillionaire, a computer genius stoned out of his skull, busily using a box cutter on boxes of confetti. When questioned, he readily confessed to being the Times Square Terrorist. His girlfriend had given him the boot a few months before, and he said it annoyed him to think of everyone else in the world living it up on New Year’s Eve when he didn’t even have a date. “I wanted to share the misery,” he admitted.
“Can you believe that?” Michelle asked, continuing, “being willing to pull that kind of a stunt, just because you don’t have a date for New Year’s? I mean, come on. How crazy is that?”
“But wait there’s more,” Daisy said. “Here’s the best part. Uh no, I guess I mean this is the worst part. He was arranging for an extra, super amount of confetti to be dropped on the area of Times Square that is set aside specifically for the handicapped on New Year’s Eve. He figured that this group would find it especially hard to deal with the confetti onslaught, so he was planning for extra coverage there. Can you imagine?”
“That’s outrageous. Well, I mean, the whole thing is outrageous. But going out of your way to target the handicapped, that is so sick. Beyond the beyond.”
“I know, you’re right. The whole thing is pretty disgusting.” Daisy sighed. “ Gotta admit he was pretty clever though.” She went on to explain that all of the office space he had rented was actually subleased, so apparently he had circumvented the checks that would normally accompany renting that much office space. Money was no object in accomplishing his goals, and he had spread quite a bit of it around.
Both were quite for a moment.
Then Daisy said, “Forget about that character. I want to talk about you. I’m proud of you, kiddo. You cracked this case. I did what you asked. I didn’t reveal your name, but I did say that I had gotten the confetti idea from a source, who also happens to be a friend. And guess what? Tonight, just an hour ago in fact, I was called in to work and asked to go to the office of THE MAN himself. The head honcho, the Police Commissioner. Boy, does he work late. Anyway, he wants you to come to the office someday so that he can meet you and thank you in person. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’d offer you a job.”
Michelle let out with a long slow whistle, then said. “WOW, that’s all I can say. Just WOW. That would be a fantastic honor to meet him.” She paused, then added, “But if the offer of a job were to come up? Not for me right now. I HAVE a job, and have to keep my priorities straight. Finishing college is first on the list. Then maybe…well, who knows.”
“You might not want to work for Chief of Police Jim Cunningham forever. Oh, but this is funny. The Commish told me he had placed an after-hours call to your boss to tell him the whole story. He wanted you to get some credit. When Cunningham heard the story, his response was, “Not a bit surprised. That little lady has the instincts of a Sherlock Holmes.”
“Whoa! I’m coming up in the world,” Michelle said. “I would have expected him to compare me to Nancy Drew.”
They both laughed. Before she hung up, Daisy said, “Talk to you soon. Don’t be surprised if I call you on a consult, Nancy.”
Michelle smiled as she hung up the phone. Merry Christmas to me — and to the city, she was thinking. And, even more important, Happy New Year.
Ten days later……………..
At 3 p.m. on New Year’s Eve as Michelle cleared her desk and prepared to leave the office, she was in a mellow mood. All was right with her world. It had been a good year, and she had helped solve a case that could have been a major disaster for New York City, its residents and visitors. And thanks to Daisy, she had made an important contact – the New York City Police Commissioner. Yippee! Ya gotta believe.
Most of all, she felt lucky to have a wonderful date by the name of Andrew for New Year’s Eve.
So what if he’s only six years old and has trouble pronouncing the word confetti? Just as well, she figured. For tonight, confetti belonged on the backburner.