by Barry Ergang
Jewel Of Denial is an original mystery short story originally published by Mysterical-E in 2005.
The vision of Ramona Braithwaite in ecstasy over her accommodations at the Forest Grove Inn warmed the profit-minded hearts of Lainie Truscott and her husband Frank, owners of the bed-and-breakfast. The wealthy, widowed Mrs. Braithwaite in a state of distress induced a polar opposite effect. On that Tuesday morning after the Memorial Day holiday, an icy climate settled over the Inn when Mrs. Braithwaite reported her diamond-and-ruby bracelet missing. She made the mistake—in the owners’ view, at any rate—of mentioning the fact to the other guests, all of whom immediately took stock of their own valuables. Several found cash and jewelry missing. Unavoidably, the local police were summoned.
They collected information from the victims, then examined the Inn minutely, finding nothing to suggest the identity of the burglar, or obvious signs—apart from absent jewelry and cash—of invasion. Consensus had it the thief had come in the night.
That afternoon, after the police assured the guests of a thorough investigation and departed, an irate Lainie drove the sixteen miles to her mother’s house. Two days earlier her mother had telephoned: “Your sister drove up from New York today. She’ll be here all week, so make time to visit.”
When Lainie reached the house, she saw Selena’s car parked at the curb, her mother was nowhere in evidence. She located the correct key on her key-ring, unlocked the door, and went inside.
A quick prowl of the first floor told her it was deserted; she made her way upstairs to the bedroom that had been Selena’s since childhood. She stood tight-lipped in the doorway for a moment, taking in the furnishings that had not altered since their schooldays. Her younger sister lay placidly in her bed, her breathing a faint whisper as she slept, tousled dark hair obscuring one eye.
Lainie plowed forward across the carpet and, employing a bedside manner a medical school would discountenance, roughly shook Selena’s shoulder. “Wake up!”
Selena Selkirk stirred, turned on her side, and continued to sleep.
“Wake up, you—” Lainie bit off the epithet. She yanked the pillow from underneath Selena’s head and struck her sheet-covered rump with it.
Selena gasped, rolled onto her back, then lurched into a sitting position, hands outstretched defensively. When she saw Lainie she said, “Oh, hi,” yawned, and rubbed sleep from her eyes with her fingertips.
“It’s after two,” Lainie snarled. “Are we worn out after our late-night pilferage?”
“Well, I can’t speak for you, but yeah, I am.”
Lainie fought down a sororicidal impulse. “What the hell were you thinking, hitting my place of business?”
“That a girl’s gotta pay the rent?” Selena asked airily.
“It’s time for a girl to grow up and find steady employment. I pulled jobs as a means to an end. I saved the money from the stuff we fenced to put toward buying the b-and-b. Frank and I have built it into a good business. It’s called clean living. You ought to try it sometime. Or does the concept strain your imagination?”
Her hands tented prayer-like beneath her chin, Selena smiled. “Thank you, Sister Virtuous. I’ll hurry to the convent as soon as I’ve had some coffee.”
Smacking her, much as Lainie wanted to, would prove feckless. Selena’s favorite method of fighting back was needling her antagonist to the point of utter frustration.
“Where’s the stuff?”
“How’re you planning to return it without looking suspicious yourself?”
Lainie waved a hand impatiently. “I don’t know. I’ll say I found it in the woods, the burglar must‘ve dropped the bag.”
“A hootie owl scared the nasty mans, he dropped the bag and ran away.” Selena rolled her eyes. “Brainy Lainie. How about, ‘The Seven Dwarfs found it on their way to the mine’?”
“It’s my problem, not yours. Where is it?”
“Where do you think?”
Lainie sighed and went to the closet. Sweeping aside the hangered clothes Selena had brought with her from the city, she located the panel, nearly invisible unless you knew where to look. She knew; there was an identical one in the closet in her old room. She slid the panel aside, reached into the niche it concealed and, ignoring a rubber-banded stack of cash, withdrew bracelets—including Ramona Braithwaite’s—necklaces, rings, and wristwatches. All were inset with precious stones which, an appraiser’s instinct told her, would bring substantial money from the right fence. A tic started at the corner of her left eye, and her palms tingled with the cupidity of yore.
“Nice haul,” she murmured.
“A tribute to the quality clientele you attract,” Selena said. “Tell me something. Ever get the urge to pull off another one, for old time’s sake?”
The tingling increased, and she rubbed her eye. “I’ll say it once, Selena,” ignoring the question, “and you’d better believe I mean it: if you ever pull something like this again, I’ll give your name to the police.”
“Not unless you want them to know about gracious innkeeper Mrs. Truscott’s past, you won’t.”
“You take your chances, I’ll take mine,” Lainie said grimly. “I’ll need—”
“Oh, there you are,” a voice from behind them said. Lainie whirled. Noreen Selkirk, a slim, pretty woman whose manner and gait belied her forty-some years, walked into the room and kissed her oldest daughter on the cheek. “I saw your car outside. Are you two getting all caught up?”
She noticed Lainie’s hands. “Pretty baubles, aren’t they? I just got back from the supermarket. Come downstairs and I’ll make us something to eat.”
Selena slid from under the covers and donned a robe. “Anything’s fine, as long as there’s coffee to go with it.”
“Wait a minute, Mom,” Lainie said. She lifted her jewel-laden hands. “Do you mean you knew about this?”
“Of course, dear. Now come downstairs and I’ll make lunch.”
Suddenly dizzy with astonishment, Lainie scarcely noticed her mother’s departure from the room or her sister’s words: “Gotta go brush my teeth.”
I need a bag to put this stuff in, she thought, beset with a drowsy sluggishness, which impaired lucidity and physical movement. She roused herself and sought the stairs as Selena emerged from the bathroom and followed her down. They went into the kitchen. Selena sat down and sipped coffee. Lainie clattered the jewelry onto the table.
“I’m making ham and cheese sandwiches,” Noreen said from the counter, where she spread mustard on slices of rye bread. “It’s not exactly breakfast, Selena; I’ll scramble eggs if you like.”
“Sandwiches are fine.”
“Mom,” Lainie said, “you knew about this,” indicating the trinkets on the table which coruscated varicolored fires in the sunny room.
“Pay attention, dear. I already said I did.”
“You let Selena burgle my customers—my business?”
Her lethargy-inducing sense of irreality grew, but Lainie plodded on. “Do you understand what kind of a position you’ve put me in?”
“An advantageous one. We’re giving you a share.”
“No! I can’t be involved in this. You’ve jeopardized my business, Mom. You’re going to ruin my reputation, not to mention my marriage if Frank finds out about this. You promised you’d never let him know anything about this part of my history. We have a good marriage, and we’ve worked hard to make the inn turn a profit.”
“Whatever you want, dear. You’ve been old enough to make your own choices for a long time. Would you like American or Swiss cheese on your sandwich?”
Selena snickered through a mouthful of coffee, then launched into a fit of coughing. Noreen rushed over, lifted Selena’s arms over her head, and clapped her repeatedly on the back.
“I’m okay now, Mom.” Selena lowered her arms. “It went down the wrong pipe.”
“All right. But sip—don’t gulp.” She turned to Lainie. “Why are you standing, dear? Sit down. And tell me what kind of cheese you want.”
Distilled frustration ripped from her throat, an inarticulate growl. “You’re not hearing me!”
“I hear you perfectly, dear,” Noreen said calmly. “I heard that awful sound you just made.”
“Damn it, Mom—”
“Elaine Melinda Selkirk—”
“Truscott,” Lainie added in a mutter, knowing what was coming.
“—I’ll have no profanity in my house.”
Gripping the back of a chair, Lainie fleetingly pondered the odds of having a stroke at her age. “Then treat my house with the same kind of respect. Don’t scare off my customers. Ramona Braithwaite’s been coming up here every year since we opened. She’s brought in all sorts of business for us: wealthy people who’d rather have a quiet getaway in the country than stay in flashy resort hotels…”
Selena jerked her eyebrows upward, indecipherably tilting her head to the side and slightly backwards. Frowning, Lainie ignored her.
“…If we treat them right, they’ll tell their friends. Treating them right doesn’t include letting my sister and mother steal their jewelry.”
“Technically,” Noreen said, her back to her daughters as she piled slices of ham onto the bread, “Selena does the stealing. I fence it.”
“Whatever, Mom. The point is, you don’t crap where you eat—”
“What did I just say about language?”
“—and you two are crapping where Frank and I eat.”
Selena’s cranial spasms continued unheeded.
“I’m not letting this slide, Mom,” Lainie continued. “Customers like Mrs. Braithwaite are hard to come by. She’s as sweet a woman as anyone I’ve ever known—”
“If you aren’t a darling!” a familiar contralto said.
Convinced by the wave of dizziness that assaulted her that apoplexy had finally set in, Lainie turned around slowly to remark, in all her silver-haired, matronly glory, the buxom Ramona Braithwaite standing at the entrance to the kitchen.
“Oh, my God!”
She glanced over her shoulder at Selena, who smiled, shrugged, and said, “I tried to tell ya.”
“There’s no need to get upset,” Mrs. Braithwaite assured her, advancing into the kitchen to pat her on the back, hug Selena and Noreen. “I hope I’m not intruding. The door was open.”
Lainie pulled out the chair and sat down, now out of necessity. “You’re part of this?” she asked Mrs. Braithwaite.
“Brainy Lainie,” Selena scoffed. “Mom called to tell you I drove up on Sunday. I hit your place Monday night. How could I know which rooms to hit with no time to scout out the place?”
“You couldn’t—” Lainie shook her head “—unless someone told you beforehand.”
“Give my sister a kewpie doll!”
“I don’t believe this. I don’t—”
“Careful, Lainie!” Noreen warned.
“—believe this,” she finished, censoring an emphatic participle. She sighed, picked up the diamond-and-ruby bracelet from the pile on the table, and held it out to Mrs. Braithwaite. “I guess you want this.”
Mrs. Braithwaite laughed. “Not at all. I never really liked rubies. I only kept it for sentimental reasons—my husband gave it to me as a memento of one of our better scores. Between what we’d earn fencing it and what I’d collect from the insurance company, I’d make out beautifully.” She laid a hand on Lainie’s shoulder. “But we’ve put you through some distress, so you’re welcome to keep it as a peace offering.”
Lainie regarded the bracelet, felt the renewed tingling in her palm, then dropped it back onto the pile. “Just what I need—to be accused of receiving stolen goods on top of harboring a thief and being an accessory after the fact of burglary.”
“It’s your decision.”
Lainie slammed her hand on the tabletop. “No! That’s the problem. None of this is my decision. You three have been using my home—which is also my business—as your bank.”
Her mother set a sandwich and a cup of coffee in front of her, whispering, “I gave you Swiss.”
“Tell me, Mrs. B”— Lainie pushed the plate away—“how’d you hook up with my mother and sister? And how many of my customers have you ripped off over the last four years?”
Ramona Braithwaite sat down and looked at Lainie through earnest blue eyes. “I’m afraid you have a horribly mistaken impression. Your mother and I go back many years. When she told me you and your husband opened a bed-and-breakfast, I decided to avail myself of the facilities—strictly as a guest, you understand. The Forest Grove Inn is charming, and I’ve recommended it to many friends and acquaintances.”
“To set them up as marks.”
“Not at all. This score was the first and, I swear, the last. I steered several guests your way who I know own some pieces of value and who, in all likelihood, would carry healthy amounts of cash. Your mother, sister, and I are a little cash-poor right now, so we decided to—shall we say?—avail ourselves of the riches at hand.”
“And you gave Selena your bracelet so you’d look like a victim, too.”
“Exactly,” Mrs. Braithwaite smiled.
“Unbelievable,” Lainie said, “just unbelievable,” this time including the participle.
“Lainie!” Noreen snapped, then said to Mrs. Braithwaite, “She was raised better than that.”
Lainie shoved back her chair and stood. “I have to get back to the Inn,” she said, still befogged. “I’ll need a bag for this,” she murmured, her eyes rooted to the sunfired pile of jewels on the table.
“Oh? Still think you can come up with an explanation about how you found it?” Selena asked.
“I… No, I guess not.” She shook her head.
“You haven’t touched your sandwich,” Noreen said.
“I’m not really hungry, Mom.”
“You didn’t want Swiss, did you? I can take it out and put in American.”
“No, it’s okay.”
“Then I’ll wrap it and you can take it with you.”
“No, it’s all right… Yeah, okay, I guess so.”
Noreen took the plate from the table. At the counter she opened a drawer and drew out a plastic sandwich bag, into which she placed the sandwich. “Are you sure you won’t stay, Lainie? We have another score to plan and you‘re welcome to join us.”
Lainie wondered if they heard the papery scrape of her left eye twitching.
You can find more of Barry’s short stories, plus many others, in our Terrific Tales section.