by Susan Oleksiw
This week we are featuring some mystery short stories that involve fathers in honor of Father’s Day. This never before published mystery short story is the latest.
The sounds of happy chatter ricocheted around the large room as shoppers inspected handmade sweaters, birdhouses, holiday decorations, and more. A table sagged under homemade pies, breads, and sweets. Youngsters jostled in line for a toss-and-win game.
Joe Silva, chief of police in the coastal town of Mellingham, stopped at the baked goods table near the front of the large room. “I could wait for you right here,” he said, with his eyes on a plate of homemade donuts.
“No, you couldn’t,” Gwen said, taking his arm. “If you did I’d be deprived of your good advice.”
“Where’s Philip?” Joe asked.
“I think he went off to look at the books section,” Gwen said. “He doesn’t need your help right now.”
Joe didn’t bother asking about his stepdaughter, Jennifer. The closer she got to her senior year in high school, the less he and Gwen saw of her. But today he knew exactly where she was. He could see her through the kitchen serving window putting cookies into individual plastic bags and tying them with colorful ribbon.
“And then we’ll have coffee and you can have those donuts you’ve been drooling over,” Gwen said.
“I’m that obvious?” Joe slipped his hands into his pockets and walked two steps behind Gwen.
“I’ve had your mother’s homemade donuts, remember?” Gwen turned around long enough to give him a knowing smile.
“If these are as good as hers, I’ll have one also. Oh, hello, Janet.”
Joe looked up from examining a birdhouse to see whom Gwen was greeting. Janet McMathews was still relatively new in town, and had apparently taken Gwen’s advice to volunteer in order to get to know people.
“I’m in charge of the tag sale,” Janet said. She held up her badge for Gwen. “The tag sale is in a separate room this year.” She was about to say more when the old grandfather clock in the hall clanged out the hour. When it ended, she leaned towards Gwen and said, “I’ve been listening to that thing for three days. I only have to make it through today and then I hope I never see that clock again.” Gwen laughed and Joe managed to suppress a smile.
“Hello, Chief.” Paul Winters, head of the annual summer fair, came up behind them. “Looks like you’re doing well in there, Janet. Lots of shoppers.”
“That’s good,” Janet said. “I don’t know what we’ll do with the stuff if no one buys it.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Gwen said. “You’ll come close to selling out.”
“I hope so,” Janet said.
“And we have arranged with one of the Boston charities to come in and take the rest tomorrow,” Paul said. “We just box it up tonight and they come and get it tomorrow.”
“Good planning,” Joe said.
“Of course we may not need to,” Paul said. “We’re already breaking records. Opening an hour earlier makes all the difference.”
“Then I’m glad I got here when I did, or there’d be nothing left,” Gwen said. She held up a hand-knit sweater and asked Joe for his opinion, but when she turned around he was at the other side of the room heading to the tag sale.
Joe walked into the hall and stopped at the kitchen door. The aromas from another batch of donuts drew him and the preparations for lunch invited him in further. “How’re things going in here?” Joe said.
“You can’t come in here, Joe,” Jennifer said. She wore a scarf over her hair and plastic food-handling gloves.
“You’re not protected.”
“Ah!” Joe smiled and backed out. “Save some of those donuts for me, Jennie.”
“She’s our best worker ever,” Elaine said. She winked at Joe. Elaine ran the kitchen every year, but she also threatened to retire, so every year she got more and more helpers until there was barely enough room for her in the kitchen. This year she sat on a stool near the door and gave orders, drank coffee, and taste-tested the sweets. The grandfather clock gave out its mournful twang and Joe headed for the tag sale room. He found Philip sitting on a crate paging through a book about sailing.
“What do you think of this?” Philip held up the book for Joe.
“That’s an old Penguin. Are you interested in that?” Joe asked.
“There’s one for sale here in town. I saw it in the paper.” Philip turned the page. “You know about sailing and stuff, don’t you?”
Joe nodded. “If you mean going out fishing with my family, then yes, I do.”
“And you being my stepdad, that makes me sort of Portuguese and like a water person, too, doesn’t it?” Philip gave him one of his hopeful looks. He had, to Joe’s mind, the most amusing way of asking for fatherly help.
“Yeah, that makes you sort of Portuguese,” he agreed. He leaned down and took a closer look at the Penguin. “Does it have to be a Penguin? Would a Turnabout do?”
When Gwen and Philip had had their fill of the summer fair, Joe took them home and began looking for second-hand boats for Philip. Jennifer went off with friends at the end of her shift. Joe returned to the fair later in the day, at the request of Fred Barbour, the treasurer. Before long, Joe heard a bell ringing and thunderous applause and cheering as the annual fair came to its official end.
“We did great.” That was Fred’s pronouncement at the end of tallying up the proceeds. “Thanks for staying, Chief.
I really didn’t want to have all this money around without someone from the force—just in case.” Joe nodded, glad the final tallying hadn’t taken very long. He had promised to take Philip to see a boat for sale.
Early the next morning Joe got a call about a problem at the church. When he arrived he found the door to the parish hall unlocked. Inside Janet was pacing the hallway, holding her cell phone to her cheek, apparently for comfort.
“I came by early,” Janet said. “I still had the starter cash from the tag sale—I forgot about it yesterday—and I wanted to put it in the safe.” Her voice caught. “The safe is empty!”
Joe went into the parish office and knelt down to get a good look at the safe sitting on the floor. “It’s an old one. I don’t think the pastor even locks it. I think he told me no one knows the combination so he disabled the dial.” Joe felt along the dial for the tape he suspected was there. He stood up. “How much money was in the safe?”
“All the receipts from yesterday’s fair. A few thousand dollars.”
“How did you get in this morning? Do you have a key?”
“I had one for yesterday because I had to come in early,” Janet said. “I just forgot to give it back at the end of the fair.” She gulped air. “Several of us had keys. Me, Paul, Fred, and Elaine. And the pastor of course.”
The chief returned to the hallway. “What’s all this?”
“What’s left of the tag sale. It’s going to a charity today. A truck is coming for it. Paul said he’d let them in this morning. I didn’t have to worry about it.” Janet struggled to keep from crying. “He was so wonderful to me—they all were—but after this.”
“After what? Did you steal the money, Janet?” Joe smiled down at her.
Janet, shocked at the question, feebly shook her head and gulped out a no.
“I didn’t think so,” he said. “Is there anything else left for pickup? Any food for the shelter in the next town?”
“Not that I know of,” Janet said, now in better command of herself. “I think someone took the leftover food last night. Paul said everything was taken care of.”
The chief told Janet to wait while he looked around.
“Should I call Paul or Fred or the pastor? I didn’t know who I should call first, so I called you.” Janet followed Joe for a few steps, then stopped and waited. When he returned to the hallway and walked toward the room for the tag sale, she again followed a few paces. “You know, chief, they’ll never let me be on any committee again. They’ll think I’m dishonest. Or bad luck.” Alone she paced the short corridor, sat down, and began chewing her nails.
Joe returned to the hallway and watched Janet get herself more and more worked up. “Why don’t you tell me exactly what happened yesterday after the fair ended.”
Janet tried to smile while Joe pulled up a chair and settled down to listen. “I helped box up the rest of the stuff for the charity pickup. I was going to help in the kitchen but it was all done. Elaine had everything under control.” Janet sighed. “I so admire her. Nothing gets by her.”
“Who was supposed to come in today to meet the drivers from the charity?” Joe asked.
“Paul said he would. They’re due just after nine o’clock.” She glanced at her watch. “That’s not for another hour.”
“And then what happened?”
“Almost everyone was gone by then, just Elaine and me and Paul and Fred.”
“Did you talk to them about locking up?”
“Paul said he would. I was so grateful. I told him if I had to listen to that clock banging out the time again I’d lose my mind. He just laughed and shooed us all out.” Janet shut her eyes tight and sighed.
“He seems to have taken your complaint to heart,” Joe said.
“Oh!” Janet said. “You’re right. It’s quiet here. The clock hasn’t been marking the time.” She stood up and looked at the face. “It says one-thirty. That can’t be right.”
“I think it probably is, one-thirty in the morning,” Joe said.
“But we were all locked up then.” Janet reached for the glass front, to correct the time.
“I’d leave that as it is,” Joe said. “Just have a seat while I look around again.” He made another circuit through the main room, where the folding tables were stacked along one wall, the chairs also folded up and stacked. The serving window into the kitchen was closed, but the main door was unlocked. Joe went in and admired the cleaning job the women had done the evening before. Everything was washed, dried, and put away. Nothing left out. Except one large bakery box sitting on a counter. Joe read the note taped to the top. “Donuts Hold for Joe Silva.”
“That man is way too conscientious.” Joe reached out for the box. He lifted it and weighed it in his hands. He inhaled, sniffed, and shook his head.
“What?” Janet peered into the kitchen.
Joe cut the tape along the sides, flipped open the top of the box and peered in. “I’d really rather have donuts,” he said, looking down at the neatly wrapped packages of dollar bills. He closed the lid and called Sergeant Dupoulis at the Mellingham station, advising him to head over to Paul Winters’s house, where the sergeant was to arrest him for the theft of the summer fair proceeds.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & more Father related mystery short stories that went up this week, in our mystery section.