by Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Enjoy this never before published Valentine’s Day mystery short story! Be aware of some strong language.
He breezed into the restaurant fifteen minutes late with a rush of apologies, his cologne strong and his distraction stronger.
“Traffic was such a bitch. I’m so sorry.” He made a show of crossing over to kiss her on the cheek even as she was still rising from her chair, as though oblivious to what people in the crowded restaurant thought. Out of the corner of her eye she saw more than one woman send an approving glance their way.
“You could have texted.” She tried to add frost to her voice but her heart wasn’t in it. As Columbus had grown, the traffic seemed to get worse daily; it was a shared complaint of theirs. And to tell the truth she’d been a little late herself.
“I know, I know. It was just stop and go. Every time I started to—”
“It’s what we get for taking two cars. I should have come to your office. But you said—”
“It’s on me. I didn’t think my meeting would go so long.”
“It’s OK. You’re here now. Sit down and relax.”
“You’re wonderful,” he said.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, darling.”
“Why thank you,” she said, feigning surprise in a way that made them both laugh.
A waiter appeared as if he’d stepped through a hitherto invisible door. “I heard you mention the traffic, sir. Tonight of all nights. A drink, after all that?”
“Anything from Land Grant. And then the wine list?”
When the waiter was gone Doug looked at her. “Do you like your chocolates?”
“They look wonderful.”
“I was hoping you’d think so. You might look nice eating them with these on.”
He handed her a second box. She smiled. He’d pulled the same trick a year ago, on their first Valentine’s Day, except with a tired-looking rose, stealing the scene from Castaway when Tom Hanks gives Helen Hunt tea towels for Christmas, only to follow up a minute later with an engagement ring. Of course, before they can carry through—
She gasped despite herself. Last year’s pearl necklace had been stunning. But the diamond earrings before her glittered in their cotton cushion as if tiny suns glowed within them. She raised her hand to her chest.
“My God, you shouldn’t have. They’re . . . unbelievable. Thank you.”
“Put them on.”
“Why not? You’re the most beautiful woman in this room. Who’s going to complain?”
She blushed. “All right. I think I will.”
“Gorgeous,” he said when she’d finished.
“Thank you,” she said again. She tried not to think how much they must have cost.
“Excellent choice, sir,” the waiter said. He proceeded to recite the evening’s specials from memory.
“I think we’ll need a few minutes,” Doug said when he finished.
“Take your time.”
When he was gone she smiled at Doug, leaned over, reached into her large handbag and withdrew the packages inside. She placed them on the table in front of her, lining them up like exam books on test day. The rectangular boxes were identical—each about the shape of a chocolate box, come to think of it—wrapped in glossy pearl paper and tied with a silver ribbon.
“Oh my,” Doug said. “What’s all this?”
“I wanted this to be a special night. A Valentine’s Day to remember.”
“It’s already that. This looks like a bonus. What do I—?”
“If it’s all right, I’m going to tell you a little bit about each box first. What’s inside, I mean, and then you get to pick one. The choice you make will affect how the rest of the evening goes.” She smiled as demurely as she could, a look which didn’t come naturally but which she’d practiced in the mirror over several days.
“I’m getting more excited by the second.” He looked around and lowered his voice. “I’m also getting a little hard,” he whispered. “Between the earrings and these mystery boxes. Could we just skip dinner and head home for dessert?”
She laughed nervously. “There might be time for that later.”
“You never know. It all depends on which box you choose.”
“By all means, let’s proceed, then.”
“All right.” She paused, as if trying to decide where to start. “Well, each box contains something important to us. Something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Something that says a lot about our life together. And our future.”
He listened raptly, his eyes trained on her. It was a look he normally reserved for times when he wasn’t really paying close attention, but he didn’t know she knew that, and she didn’t mind tonight.
“Go on,” he said.
“It took me a while to come up with the ideas, but I’m hoping you’ll agree that each one represents something special.”
“I love you,” he said.
“Stop trying to change the subject. Now, there are certain rules involved.”
“Well, you have to hear me out, for starters. And you only get to open one box. Is that clear?”
“Only one. That’s very important. It’s like that game show. Let’s Make a Deal. You know?”
“Not really. I think my grandmother watches it sometimes.”
“Well, the way it works is you have to pick a door, and depending on your choice, you win a particular prize.”
“Ah. Sort of like the lady and the tiger. That story about the king who gives an accused man a choice? One’s a wife, the other—well, he’s dinner.”
“Yes. Something like that.”
“Is that the only rule, then? I have to pick one?” His face was beaming; she could tell he was enjoying the challenge. He’d always liked games of chance, despite the fact he wasn’t very good at them.
“There are two more.”
“I’m all ears.”
“So, you only get to open one. But you have to open at least one.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem.”
“I hope not. But just so you know. Promise?”
“Promise. And the third?”
“You have to abide by your choice.”
“Does the choice involve you in some way?”
“More or less.”
“As long as it’s more, that one won’t be a problem either. Can we start?”
Before she could speak the waiter returned. She ordered the scallops, asparagus, and wild rice. Doug got the prime rib special with sautéed zucchini. The waiter left a basket of warm sourdough rolls for them.
“I love these,” Doug said, picking one up, tearing it apart, and smearing it with butter. It was butter suffused with garlic and herbs. She took one herself, tearing it in half and tearing it in half again, and adding a much smaller portion of butter.
“Ready?” she said.
“I was born ready.”
“I hope so.” She scooted herself forward in her chair, her heart racing a bit, as if she’d just climbed a flight of stairs. She tapped her right forefinger on each box with a thip, thip, thip.
“So. Do you remember our honeymoon?”
“Are you serious?”
“Just checking.” She offered him a small smile. “More importantly, do you remember what I was wearing, that night?”
“Again, are you serious? It was—amazing.”
“I’m surprised you can remember at all given how quickly you took it off. Well, the thing is, I found another one just like it. But unfortunately, there’s even less material involved.”
“Is that even possible? Not that I’m complaining.”
“You’ll have to see it to believe it.”
“I can hardly wait—”
“If you choose that box.”
He feigned disappointment. “Of course. Rule No. 1. All right, I agreed to your conditions, so I’ll live with them.”
The waiter arrived with their wine. He uncorked it in front of them and poured Doug a small sampling. Doug made the usual production of swirling it in his glass, smelling the liquid, and then tasting it. “Oh, very good,” he said. They waited while he filled her glass, and then Doug’s. You didn’t see that often, which is why they came here. They usually got the details right.
“I’m ready for my second choice,” Doug said.
“All right.” She took a drink of wine to calm her nerves. “It’s a photo.”
“Mmm. Is it of you?”
“It’s of Barbara.”
He knitted his heavy, dark brows in confusion. “Barbara? Barbara who?”
“Barbara. Ben’s wife.”
“Ben, like Ben Ben?”
“OK. That’s it? A photo of Barbara? I don’t think I understand.”
“I think you might. If you end up seeing it. Because it’s actually a photo of Barbara and you.”
“I’m sorry, darling. I’m not sure I understand. From the office party, do you mean? Or last summer? I seem to recall—”
“It’s a picture of you and Barbara in bed together.”
He froze. It was almost comical because he had his wine glass raised in his hand at that moment, and as a result looked like someone at the exact instant one of those flash mobs starts or stops and not a muscle can be moved.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s just what I said. It’s a picture of the two of you in bed together. About an hour ago, if I’m correct. Which—I can’t even begin to tell you how that makes me feel. But, it’s the reality, I guess. Traffic was such a bitch. Really, Doug?”
“No. No. I don’t know what you’re talking about. This…This isn’t funny at all. I was in a meeting—”
“It’s not meant to be funny.” She was getting flustered. She had to stay in control. “You were at the condo in Dublin. The one you keep for the out-of-town clients. You’re probably not aware of this, but the second bedroom window is visible from the upstairs women’s bathroom in the common area.”
“Please, you have to believe—”
“It was Patty, just so you know.”
“You met her, a couple of weeks ago. She came by to visit one Saturday. I told you she was an old school friend. You were out—I hadn’t been expecting you back so soon. Afterward, you said she was pudgy and a little homely. Do you remember?”
“I guess. But what does that have to do with—”
“She’s a private detective. She’s not a school friend at all. She’s the one who took the picture. And got it to me so fast, which believe you me took some ingenuity on her part.”
“Barbara was wearing a sheer black teddy with red ribbons, in case you think I’m bluffing.”
He didn’t finish whatever he’d been about to say. Instead, he blurted out, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She took a breath. “So, in that box is a picture of you and Barbara in bed together an hour or so ago. On Valentine’s Day. Barbara, who is your business partner’s wife. I don’t know what you were thinking”—she raised a hand to ward off his attempted explanation—“but really, Doug, of all women. And of all days.”
He sat back. She could see that his hands were trembling.
“Anyway,” she continued, “the picture’s not the point, exactly. I mean, it is and it isn’t. The point is that if you choose that box, Patty is going to text the photo to Barbara and Ben simultaneously. I think they’re at the Refectory tonight, aren’t they? That’s where they were meeting?” She would have preferred the restaurant on Bethel Road herself, but Doug had a thing about French, and tonight probably wouldn’t have been the best night anyway.
“No. She can’t. Ben will—”
“He’ll throw you out. I know.”
“She’s watching us right now. Patty, I mean.” She gestured toward the bar and waved. Doug turned. Patty waved back, her face as neutral as someone at a funeral for a co-worker she didn’t know all that well.
“Jesus,” Doug said. “I’m sorry. I’ll do anything to…I didn’t mean to hurt you. I don’t know how it happened. But, don’t do that. To them. Tonight, of all nights.”
“And then there’s the third box.”
“For God’s sake. Who cares about the third box? We need to talk. Really talk. I need to…I need to figure out a way to make this up to you.” He rubbed his hands up and down his face. “I am so, so sorry.”
Their food arrived before she could reply. The prime rib sizzled on a metal plate. It smelled good. Her scallops smelled and looked equally delicious, but she found herself having second thoughts, and wondered if she too should have ordered the special that Doug was having.
When the waiter was gone, she said, “The third box contains two playing cards.”
“I said, forget the third box. Just fucking forget—”
“One of them is the Ace of Diamonds.” She let her right hand drift up to her new earring. “The other is the suicide king.” The King of Hearts, in which the king appears to be stabbing himself with a knife.
“What are you talking about?”
“They add up to twenty-one. Blackjack. You know the game?”
“I guess. Sure. But what does it have to do—”
“It’s the game you’ve been playing at the casino. And not playing well. Losing a lot.” She’d had mixed feelings when the casino opened up on the west side of Columbus, and recent events had only solidified her concerns. “But the thing is”—and here she lost it a little, choking up—“the thing is, you’ve been losing with my money. Or rather, the money my parents left me.”
“That’s not true—”
“You’ve lost a lot of money, Doug. And it was all mine.”
“Is this Patty again?”
“Your little private detective? More snooping?”
“No,” she said, miffed. “This was me. Checking the accounts. Things weren’t adding up. And I found some papers, in your office. Doug, this is serious. You’re in trouble. We’re in trouble.”
He licked his lips. “I know,” he said, after a moment. “I know. I’m working on it. I didn’t want to tell you because I’m going to fix things.”
“Fix things how?”
“Get the money back. I just had a bad streak. But things are going to come my way again.”
She took the deepest breath of the evening so far. “Anyway, that’s what’s inside the third box.”
“And if I open that and find these goddamned cards?”
“Then I go home alone.”
“Alone? What are you talking about?”
She turned around casually, as if reacting to the sound of someone laughing a touch too loudly, but perhaps at something worth hearing or seeing. “The two men. Two tables back. Do you see them?”
“I guess. Yes. In the suits? What about them?”
“They’re here to collect their money. If they see you’ve chosen the cards, then they’re collecting it from you. Tonight.”
“I don’t have the money,” he said in a harsh whisper. “I guess you know that now. There’s nothing to collect.”
“What I meant, is that they’re going to collect the money, or let you know what happens when people borrow funds they can’t pay back. The whole ‘pound of flesh’ thing. I think they take that literally, just so you’re aware.”
He paled as if a ghost had passed behind her. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am. I’m sorry. But what you did—”
“Please,” he said, whispering. But not harshly, now. Terrified.
She looked at her watch. “It’s time to choose, Doug. One of the boxes means our evening ends happily. The other two, well . . .”
“But the money. I don’t have it. They’re going to—”
“If they see the cards, they’re coming for their money. Or you. And before I forget, don’t try to rush off or sneak out the back or anything like that. I understand they’ve got the whole restaurant covered. Parking lot and all. They’re very upset.”
“And if they don’t see the cards?”
“Then you’re in luck. But not that kind of luck. Because I’m hoping you’ll see the value in never gambling again.”
His eyes glanced wildly around the room. “I won’t do it. I won’t open the boxes. If I don’t open them, none of this will happen.”
“But you promised. You agreed to the rules.”
“Fuck the rules. Fuck this. I don’t have to do any of this—”
“If you don’t choose a box in the next two minutes, I’m going to file for divorce. I don’t mean tomorrow, or next week. I mean my lawyer is waiting for my text. If he doesn’t get it, he’ll submit the papers electronically. And in case you’ve forgotten, the house is in my name. And a lot of other things too. Do you really want that? To start over, without me?”
“Does it matter? I pick one box and my business partner’s going to have my head. I’ll be out of a job. I pick another and I’ll be—I’ll be…” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
“It matters to me,” she said. “Because there is a third box.”
“I won’t do it,” he said, weakly.
She held up her phone. “One minute.”
His resolve lasted all of ten seconds. His face turned red and he was sweating as hard as if he’d just returned from the boutique gym where he worked out each morning before going to the office. He grabbed the box farthest to her right, set it down too hard, picked up the middle one instead, started to pull the ribbon, then replaced it.
“Goddamn it,” he said, picking up the one he’d chosen the first time. He tugged ineffectually at the ribbon, and then swearing loudly enough to draw stares from the table beside him, grabbed his meat knife, lying untouched on the table, and sawed through the ribbon. He tore at the wrapping paper and then ripped the lid off the box.
He stared at the red negligee nestled in the pink tissue paper. She watched him looking at it. She hadn’t been exaggerating. There was much less material involved.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, panting, relief sweeping across his face like a drowning man pulled from an autumn riptide. Tears filled his eyes. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I—”
Making sure he was watching she sent a text message. Then she reached out and touched his left hand. “It’s OK. It’s OK now. See?”
He shook his head. She pointed at the bar. He followed her gaze. Patty was nowhere to be seen. She turned around. The men sitting two tables back were gone too.
“I guess you made a good choice.”
Doug stood up. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Better take care of yourself.”
He staggered toward the men’s room without saying a word. Their waiter, hovering near the kitchen entrance, caught her eye with a concerned look. She shook her head with a smile, reassuring him.
She collected the two remaining boxes and put them back in her handbag. She set them next to the envelope containing the gift receipts for the two other minimal negligees, one black, one purple, that each contained. The money she’d get back from the returns would more or less cover Patty’s bill along with the day’s Equity work for the actors sitting in suits two tables behind them.
Her phone buzzed with a text, interrupting her thoughts. She looked at the message and felt her face flush. An emoji hand making the “OK” sign.
She put the phone in her bag. Back to business. She felt bad for Doug, but something had had to be done about the casino losings—no question. Because the more money Doug, a lousy gambler, lost at blackjack, the less she’d have to spend at the racino south of town, where by contrast she made real winnings. And then there was Barbara. Doug was right about one thing. If Ben discovered the affair, Doug was history. And if that happened, there’d be far fewer opportunities for her to be around Ben, not to mention with him—as she had been just over two hours ago, in Ben’s own, more secluded secret condo. Where he’d done that thing with his hand that always drove her wild, the stroke that started with his fingers in the OK sign…
“Feeling better?” she said as Doug returned to the table.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, his eyes red.
“We should eat. Our food is practically frozen. And there’s dessert at home, remember?”
“I don’t know where to start—”
“You can start by agreeing with me.”
“Yes, of course. Whatever. Just tell me.”
“You can agree this was a Valentine’s Day you’ll never forget.”
He didn’t reply. She didn’t mind. It meant he’d lost his appetite, which allowed her to nibble at some of his special after all.
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