A Thousand Words: A Mystery Short Story

May 27, 2017 | 2017 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by John M. Floyd

This story was first published in the Vol. 2, #6, 1995 issue of Pleiades.

Catherine Munsen was less than thrilled about her job. In fact, until the day she met Frank Goodman, she thought it was downright boring.

Catherine was a part-time teller at the Marshlands Bank in Gulf Springs, Mississippi. Her actual position, though not recorded anywhere on her job description sheet, was a combination of teller and secretary and supply sergeant. The only thing she was not allowed to do was process loans. That was the job of branch manger Dwayne Beevers, who was in sole charge of that task because he didn’t know how to do much of anything else.

Catherine’s responsibilities were threefold: one was to the customer by handling inquiries and complaints and—when required—routine teller transactions; the second was to Mr. Beevers by ensuring the timely delivery of his morning coffee; and the third was to everyone else in the branch by ordering and dispensing office supplies, which included everything from paper clips to calendars to printer cartridges.coffee

In the daily course of her job at the bank, however, Catherine occasionally got a chance to indulge in the one thing she did enjoy. It was done during coffee breaks and lunch hours, and the once-bare walls of the back offices and hallways were a testament to her talent: they were all covered with pictures. Sketches, line drawings, portraits, landscapes, everything imaginable drawn in pencil and charcoal and ink and even watercolor.

Catherine Munsen, you see, was an artist.

And if her pictures themselves were pleasing to the eye, it was even more pleasing to watch her create them. She worked quietly and smoothly, seemingly without effort. It was not unusual to see her do a detailed sketch of an old car or a bicycle or a delivery truck (or anything that happened to park itself outside the window of the bank) in a matter of seconds, her hand flying over the paper while her eyes remained fixed on the subject. Sometimes she scarcely even looked down at the work until it was finished. The only problem, she often remarked, was that she couldn’t draw something from memory. It had to be there and visible to her at the time in order for her to get it down correctly on paper. “If I see a guy jogging past and I decide I want to draw him,” she once told one of the tellers, “I have to hope he falls down.”

The truth was, Catherine Munsen took her art seriously. It was both her hobby and her passion. The business of banking, especially the business of ordering notepads, was no great stimulant to either her heart-rate or her imagination.sketch books

At least that was what she thought until the day Frank Goodman came in. It was a clear, cold morning in February—one she would never forget—when Goodman walked across the street and through the lobby doors and into her life.

But, alas, he did not come to claim her heart. He came to claim the deposits of the fine and loyal customers of the Marshlands Bank.

“Everybody freeze!” Frank Goodman shouted, holding his drawn pistol steady with both hands. He stood there covering the scene while his two accomplices spread out across the lobby. Other weapons were produced, empty canvas sacks were thrust into the faces of the tellers, customers were ordered to the floor.gun

Shouted demands and warnings echoed across the large white-tiled room. Mr. Beevers burst out of his office, stern-faced and glaring at the intrusion, and when he took it upon himself to issue his own set of orders, he was promptly shot dead by one of Goodman’s associates.

Eventually, when the screaming died down a bit, Frank Goodman restated his demands: Fill the bags and fill them fast, make no other sudden moves, and speak to no one. Pressing the alarm buttons, Goodman said with a smile, was perfectly acceptable, since they had been disconnected, as had the telephones and security cameras. “Just don’t let pushing the buttons interfere with filling the bags with money, ladies,” he added. “Large bills, by the way.”

They were almost done when one of the tellers, who was finished with her own bag-filling activities, happened to notice Catherine Munsen. On this particular day Catherine was manning the secretary’s desk, and thus was sitting some distance away from the center of the festivities. She did, however, have a clear view of the leader’s face, and was quickly and efficiently capturing Frank Goodman’s likeness, on a plain sheet of 8½-by-11 stationery.

She would probably have gotten away with it, too, if the curious teller hadn’t shot her a glance that lasted a shade too long. As things turned out, Frank Goodman noticed the teller, followed the direction of her gaze, and saw Catherine putting the finishing touches on an excellent portrait of Bank Robber in Action.money

In one swift movement Goodman vaulted the wooden railing between the lobby and the admin area and leveled his gun at Catherine Munsen’s extremely attractive nose. “Let’s have it,” he told her, cutting his eyes down at her paper and back again.

Without hesitation she picked up the sheet and handed it over.

“Commendable,” he said, studying the portrait. Amusement flickered in his eyes. “It would’ve looked great on the ten o’clock news.”

That was, of course, the understatement of the century. The rendition he held in his hand was as clear and as sharp as a black-and-white photograph. Frank Goodman, an average-looking guy with unremarkable hair and facial features, was almost impossible to describe with any degree of accuracy. Words were simply not enough. A picture, on the other hand…

A picture like this would have baked his goose, and he knew it.

Smiling, he stuffed the drawing into his coat pocket and waved his gun barrel. “Move away from the desk,” he said as he backed toward the lobby and his two partners. When he had crossed the divider and made his way to the door, he nodded a signal to his men, who were waiting impatiently with armloads of moneybags and weaponry. Relieved, they dashed out and into the street.

Just as he was about to follow, Goodman turned and stared Catherine Munsen straight in the eye. He reached down and patted his coat pocket.

“I admire a lady with initiative,” he said to her, smiling. “Nice try.”

And then he was gone.

For a moment no one moved. Finally one of the senior tellers ran for her cell phone while others rushed to the limp body of Dwayne Beevers. He was indeed dead, they found—a fact later verified by what seemed like three dozen police officers.

In the long minutes before the cavalry arrived, however, while most of the branch staff was standing around wringing their hands and trembling and sobbing into each other’s padded shoulders, one of the younger employees happened to notice Catherine Munsen, who was sitting once again in her chair, staring thoughtfully at a sheet of stationery she had picked up off her desktop. There was a satisfied little half-smile on her face as she studied it.

“Catherine?” the girl asked. “What on earth are you thinking about?”

Catherine looked up at her and said, in a quiet but triumphant voice: “Carbon paper.”

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John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 250 different publications, including The Strand Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner and an Edgar nominee. His sixth book, Dreamland, was released last year.


  1. I really enjoyed this short story (I guessed the carbon paper angle.)

  2. I liked the story muchly – thanks for sharing with us and Happy Almost 7th Anniversary KRL!!!!!

  3. Cute story. Awesome ending! I did not see that coming.

  4. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. It should be a full length book.

  5. And I was going to go for a shading over the indentation’s with a pencil 🙂 It’s been a long time since I used carbon paper!!

  6. Excellent, John. But what’s carbon paper? Must have been before my time.


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