by Gary Hoffman
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Sheila pushed the play button on the answering machine. The beep sounded and a voice she did not recognize said, “Myra, this is Janet. I was supposed to pick up Scott at four o’clock in front of Hubbard’s Café on Midland. Please, please, please, pick him up for me. I really need to show up at Jason’s ballgame today. Thanks. Hugs. Bye.”
“What?” Sheila said out loud. She rewound the tape and played it again. She smiled and thought about the message on her machine. When she bought the answering machine, she left the generic male voice on it. She thought a man’s voice might be a deterrent to some unwanted people. She lived alone since graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism. After several interviews, she was lucky enough to land a position at a major St. Louis newspaper.
She thought about her generic message again. She then figured maybe Myra did the same thing. Janet got a wrong number and didn’t even know it. Now someone named Scott was going to wait for a ride that would never show up.
She returned to her kitchen counter where she had deposited the grocery bags she was carrying into the house when she had seen the blinking red light on her answering machine. Her wish for a return call from Joseph went unfulfilled, again. Once all the food was put away, she went back out to her car to get her dry cleaning and a couple of books she had checked out from the library.
When she got back in her apartment, the light on the answering machine was blinking again. “I was only gone for a few seconds,” she said to herself and shook her head. She got the clothing put away and listened to her new message.
“Myra, this is Janet again. I thought I better double check with you. If I don’t hear from you by three-thirty, I’ll assume you’re getting Scott. Thanks so much. Hugs. Bye.”
Sheila now figured this woman didn’t get a wrong number. Maybe she wrote a number down wrong. Then another thought hit her. Maybe it was a wrong number, and she just hit a redial. It all added up to Sheila’s ideas about today’s technology.
Sheila’s caller ID showed the number as being unlisted, so she had no idea of how to call this woman. She assumed she lived close, and maybe that’s how the calls got mixed up. Also, Hubbard’s was just about half a mile from her house. Sheila just shook her head again and went to the fridge for a Diet Pepsi. She picked up one of the books she wanted to read and looked at her watch: three o’clock. She set the soda on her end table, being careful to use a coaster as her mother had always insisted, and sat down on her couch that folded out for her bed. On late nights, she didn’t bother to open the bed, but just curled up under a blanket on the couch.
She opened Harlan Coben’s Just One Look and started to read. She almost dropped the book when the first word was “Scott”! She looked around wondering if someone was playing some sort of joke on her. She decided that was stupid ? this just had to be a very strange coincidence. She started to read. Scott’s name appeared seven times on the first page and that was just half a page long, but she kept reading. By the end of the first chapter, she felt she really knew Scott. He was a U.S. Attorney, so he couldn’t be one of the bad guys in the book. In the next chapter, he disappeared. She checked her watch again. Janet was now depending on her.
Wonder who this guy is? Probably just an average guy looking for a ride. If he can’t afford a taxi, what kind of a guy can he be? Maybe a famous person who doesn’t want anyone to know he’s in town. No, that’s stupid.
She started to read again… ‘Sheila, you’re a reporter. This might be a great human interest story. Meeting in front of Hubbard’s would have to be a safe place. Lots of people always around.’
Sheila found herself in front of her bathroom mirror combing her hair. She usually didn’t wear make-up, so getting ready was simple. Her pulse fluttered in her throat as she headed for Hubbard’s.
When she got to the restaurant, she parked across from the main entrance, but backed her car in so she could watch. No one appeared to be waiting. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel and constantly turned her head trying to see in all directions. She checked her watch: five to four. This had to come off pretty soon. She caught sight of someone walking across the parking lot to her right. He was carrying a small leather satchel. He was around six foot tall and had wavy black hair. He stopped before he got to the door and scanned the parking lot. ‘Got to be him.’
Sheila debated one more time before she opened her car door and stepped out. The man was paying no attention to her. She walked in his direction on weak knees. “Are you Scott?” she squeaked. She cleared her throat and tried again.
“Are you Scott?”
The man’s forehead wrinkled and his dark eyes went into questioning mode. “And who are you?”
“Sounds tempting, but I’m supposed to meet someone out here. Don’t want to miss them.”
He took a step back. “How did you know that?”
“It’s kind of a funny story really. Want to come in and hear it? I can tell you Janet isn’t coming.”
“Why? What happened to her? Is she okay?”
“She’s fine. She called me to pick you up, but it was a wrong number.”
“I think I need a cup of coffee, so you can explain all this to me.”
Sheila noticed Scott put bunches of cream and sugar in his coffee; she drank hers black. When they were settled in, she told him what had happened. As she was talking to him, he seemed to be someone she had seen before, but she couldn’t figure out where. Scott sat back, looked at her all throughout the story and didn’t ask any questions. She finished before he spoke. “So you just took it upon yourself to come down here and pick me up?”
“Yes,” she smiled and felt a tingle of pride go through her body; this was the right thing to do.
“Well, I guess, thanks, but all of this is really none of your business.”
“I can manage quite well on my own, thank you, even though my sister is still a flake.” He stood and tossed three dollars on the table. “Here, I’ll at least pay for the coffee for your trouble.” He picked up his satchel and started for the door.
“Wait a minute,” Sheila said. “That’s it?”
He turned back towards her. His hand was up, and he had a finger pointing at her face. His face was red and the veins on his neck were bulging. “What in the hell would you want for being nosy? Nosy people bug the crap out of me.” He stomped through the front door.
Sheila grabbed her purse and ran after him. She got around in front of him and made him stop. “So, Janet is your sister?”
“None of your damn business.” She saw him staring off to his right. In one movement, he pulled a gun from under his coat with his right hand and grabbed her right shoulder with his left hand. He shoved her to the ground. She heard several shots ring out from the parking lot, and then a car speeding away. Scott leveled his pistol and started firing at the car. The whole episode was over in a matter of seconds.
He looked down at her. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You got a car here?”
“Then let’s get the hell out of here.”
They were driving before Sheila spoke. “Any place in particular?”
“Yeah, drive around a couple of blocks first. See if anyone’s following us.” Scott kept watching out the back window. When he was satisfied no one was following them, he spoke again, “Now, the truth. Why did you come pick me up?”
“I told you. I’m a reporter. I thought it might make a good human interest story.”
He snickered. “Well, that plan is shot in the ass. Not only can’t you write about this, you can’t even tell anybody about it.”
“What did you mean back there when you said ‘dolphins’? Being in the business I’m in, I keep track of a lot of days and what they mean. Did you know that today, April 14, is National Dolphin Day?”
“You were supposed to give me an answer that was in juxtaposition to dolphins. That way I would know where you stood. The fact that it is National Dolphin Day is just a coincidence.”
“Yeah, sure, and what was I supposed to say back to you?”
He grinned. “It’s an old line from a lot of television shows, but if I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
She gulped and sat silent for a few seconds. “Okay, so who’s trying to kill you?”
“You don’t want to know. The less you know about me, the better.” He looked behind them again and then ahead. “Turn north on Lindbergh.”
“Anywhere special from there?” Sheila asked him.
“Just drive. I’ll figure that out later.”
They drove in silence for several minutes. “You in trouble with the law? Are you gonna let me go?”
He laughed out loud, “Oh, yeah, the last thing I need is more baggage. And no, I’m not in trouble with the law. I helped the law. That’s what got me in this mess.”
“So, do these guys go around shooting at you all the time?”
“Only when they can find me.”
“How’d they find you now?”
“You ask too many questions.” He glanced up the road. “Airport’s up here, right?”
“Drive in there and let me out in front of the boarding area. Lots of people. I can catch a cab from there.”
Scott took out his cell phone and punched in a number on his speed-dial. “Jan, you screwed up, big time. Just tell me where they moved mom.” Pause. He flipped the phone shut. “Make it the airport. I’ll still take a cab from there.”
Sheila started to breath a little easier. Her mind was racing trying to figure out questions she could ask to find out more about this guy. “You came back in town to see your mother?”
“None of your business.”
“Come on, Scott. Give me a bone here. I almost got shot today. Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“You almost got shot because you’re nosy.”
“Goes with the territory of being a journalist.”
“Might think about changing careers.”
The line waiting to drop passengers at the airport was long. “Let me tell you what I think,” Sheila said.
“First, I’d bet your name isn’t Scott. You’re probably in a witness protection program. You said you helped the law. You came back to St. Louis because your mother is sick. Somehow, the people who you testified against knew you would try and come back to see her. They probably covered all forms of transportation into the city watching for you. Now your family has moved your mother to some secret location, so you can go visit her. How am I doing?”
They were approaching the drop off area. Scott grabbed his satchel and got out as soon as she could stop. “Thanks for the buggy ride.” He slammed the door, took two steps, and turned around. The passenger window was open. “You’re a hell of an investigative reporter. Don’t give it up. Just keep ‘dolphins in the desert’ in mind.”
Sheila watched him walk over to the area to catch a cab. She debated about following the cab, but really didn’t want to get shot at again today.
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