by Gary Hoffman
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Jacob was sweating and his stomach felt nauseated, but his Uncle Leo always made him nervous at these meetings. He watched as his uncle did his usual slow dance over his ledger books. The old man would run his finger down each row of columns and then look up at Jacob and give him a half-smile when he got to the bottom. He seemed to have a calculator in his head.
Then he would turn a page, methodically and almost menacingly. If it wouldn’t turn, he wet his right index finger. His movement from the page to his mouth reminded Jacob of the first hill on a rollercoaster. It was slow, but you knew something was about to happen.
The connections Leo had in the city were still a mystery to Jacob even though he had worked for him for three years. All he knew was that he ran one of Uncle Leo’s lumber yards, and when the City of Trenton bought material, which they did most everyday, the price was always inflated some four hundred percent.
Sometimes the city’s prices were even higher, but that never appeared in the ledger books. The extra cash went into Jacob’s pocket. Of course, that was not the original deal he and Uncle Leo had made. Jacob was to get a percent, but he got a bit greedy, and the old man seemed to always be trying to catch him. It was like he knew but couldn’t prove it. Jacob always wondered how he was going to learn anything from just going over the books.
Since the last secession, Jacob purposely made an error on page three. He watched as Uncle Leo wet his finger and turned to page three. The finger started its trip down the page and stopped about halfway to the bottom.
“Mistake here Jacob,” Uncle Leo said. “Not big, but a mistake. You’ve got to be more careful. These books have to be perfect.” He paused and gave another half-smile. “But you know that.”
“Yes, sir. I sure do, sir.”
Uncle Leo closed the book and handed it to Jacob. “Be careful, Jacob. Be very, very careful. Mistakes can lead to places we don’t want to go.” He stood and even using his cane, it wasn’t an easy task. He turned to the man standing behind him. “Let’s go, Eugene.”
Jacob began to relax. He had passed another examination.
Jacob was sure Eugene was a bodyguard for his uncle, although he had never had any run-ins with him. Part of his duties was driving his uncle around, but he always came into the meeting and looked like he would like nothing better than to smash someone into a quivering pile of flesh.
When his uncle reached the door, he turned and looked at him. “Oh, I forgot to mention my brother-in-law’s sister has a son looking for work. I’m placing him in your store. Use him as a stock boy or something.”
Jacob’s stomach tightened up again.
Probably someone from the family who knows a lot more than being a stock boy. Why not call him a spy and get it over with? Or maybe it’s perfectly innocent. Maybe I’m just worrying too much.
He looked out his office window as Eugene opened the back door of his uncle’s car. The old man turned and flopped into the back seat butt first.
He may be old, but he still holds the reins. He told me he had willed all his assets to me when he dies. That shouldn’t be too long. Quicker with a little help. But, it’s got to look like an accident or something natural.
His mind was going over many possibilities as he drove home. Barbara had fixed a great pot roast with potatoes and carrots for supper. It was one of his favorites. He was enjoying an after dinner cup of coffee, when he started to put a plan into action. “Babs, baby, I really appreciate all you do around here. I think we need to take a vacation where someone else can wait on you.”
Barbara stopped her cup in midair. “What?”
“I think you deserve a vacation.”
She set the cup down. “That would be great. We haven’t gone anywhere in several years. I’m ready.”
“Well, how about, as soon as I finish my coffee, I go fire up the old computer and see what I can find.”
“Yes, yes…please do.”
As she was clearing dishes from the table, he patted her on the butt.
“What’s got into you?” she said. “You taking happy pills or something?”
“No, it’s just after talking to Uncle Leo today, I think things are going to go very well for us.” He paused. “In fact, I think we should invite him to go along with us. I’m sure he’d enjoy it.”
She frowned. “I didn’t think you liked him that much.”
“Oh, he’s okay. He just has some funny ways. Even if he went with us, I’m sure he wouldn’t be with us twenty-four hours a day.”
“Well…do what ever you think.”
Jacob headed for his study. He smiled when he got to the end of the hallway. On a table below a mirror was a new flower arrangement. The dried flowers were in a new old basket that Barbara had probably found in some specialty or antique shop.
He entered the study and turned on the computer. He then noticed today’s mail was stacked neatly in another new squarish basket.
She must have been in shopper’s heaven today.
As soon as his computer was booted, he started his search. Within fifteen minutes, he found the item he was looking for. It would be needed to carry out his plan. He then started his search for the perfect vacation spot. Everything had to fit and look like a perfectly normal place they would go. When he was certain he had found it, he told Barbara about it. She thought it was a great idea. He returned to his study to start making reservations. He got Barbara enrolled in two basket making classes.
The next morning after getting his new man started, he called Uncle Leo.
“Calling me this early? You got a problem or something? The new guy didn’t show up?”
“No, Uncle Leo. Nothing like that.”
“Well, I’m glad he showed up. I’m told he’s very bright.”
“Seems to be. I’ve got him stocking plumbing supplies right now.”
“Good. Keep him busy. Young people need to learn the value of hard work early.”
“Right, Uncle Leo, but that’s not why I’m calling.”
“And why are you calling?”
Jacob smiled. “I was talking to Barbara about my vacation I’ve got coming up. We decided to go down on the Jersey coast. A town called Tuckerton.”
“Yeah, ever been there?” Jacob asked.
“No, can’t say that I have, but I have an old friend who lives there. At least he did the last I heard.”
This just keeps getting better.
“Well, we thought maybe you would like to go with us or meet us there.”
“Me? Go on vacation with you and Barbara?”
“Sure, why not. We’re the only family both of us has left. We need to spend some time together.”
“Well, I have to say this is quite a surprise, but it doesn’t sound bad. And Barbara is for this?”
“More than for it for several reasons. First of all, she likes the sea air. Might be good for you, too.” Jacob chuckled so his uncle could hear. “And of course, she’s all excited about it for another reason. There’s a place there called Tuckerton Seaport and Museum. They have two classes there where they teach people how to weave baskets, and you know Barb and her baskets.”
He heard Uncle Leo laugh, something he hadn’t heard in a long time. ”Yes, I’m sure that would be incentive for her. The woman is bananas about baskets. I don’t know how you put up with all of them in your house.”
“Oh, I manage okay. She could be out spending money on booze or something. Baskets are much better.”
“There’s a lot of truth in that.” Uncle Leo paused. “Let me think about this for a while. You have someplace in mind to stay down there?”
“J. D. Thompson Inn. It’s right on Main Street.”
“I’ll get back to you.” The line went dead.
Jacob had chosen Tuckerton because it was small, just a little over 3500 people. Also, they hadn’t had a murder there since 2000, and maybe before that. That was the only statistics he could find. He figured they wouldn’t be equipped to handle murder cases. And the fact that they had a deal with baskets just made it all the more plausible that he and Babs would want to go there. It was also just a little over an hour’s drive from Trenton.
Leo called back a little after noon. “I don’t think I can spend the entire week down there, but I would like to go. I had to get a different place to stay. The one you are staying at was full. But I’m looking forward to it.”
“Great! Glad to hear it. We’ll go over some details later as the time gets closer.”
“Oh, yes, I’ll do that.”
You bet your old wrinkled ass I’ll do that.
The following Friday, Jacob and Barbara drove to Tuckerton. Uncle Leo came down the next Tuesday. That night, they took him out to eat at Skeeter’s Seafood Café and Crabhouse. All of them came close to making themselves sick on the fantastic crabs prepared there. As they were leaving, Uncle Leo explained that he had gotten in touch with his friend and was going to see him in the morning. He wanted to meet with Jacob in the afternoon to go over the ledger. That worked fine with all of them because Barbara had a basket class all day.
Uncle Leo sat in a chair by a table that was close to a window as he opened the ledger. Jacob was nervous again, but for different reasons. He watched as his uncle ran his finger down the first page. He then licked his finger to turn the page and start down the next one. He turned page two and stopped about halfway down the page. When he got to page three, he wrinkled his brow, looked up at Jacob, grabbed for his chest, and fell over sideways from the chair.
Eugene was right beside him. “Call 911!” He knelt beside the old man and began to administer mouth to mouth resuscitation. Jacob made the call and hurriedly gave information. By the time he hung up, Eugene had fallen over and was on top of Uncle Leo.
What the hell is happening now?
Paramedics hauled both men to an ambulance. The Tuckerton Chief of Police stayed to talk to Jacob. “Sorry I have to ask some of these questions right now, Mr. Lubbock, but we need to find out as much information as we can.”
“So, it appeared to you your uncle had a heart attack?”
“And the other man?”
“I have no idea. It was like he had one, too.”
“Strange both men would have a heart attack at the same time, but I guess stranger things had happened. Maybe this Eugene had one because he got overly excited about his boss having one.”
“That’s kind of what I figure.”
“And you’re your uncle’s only next of kin?”
“Yes, sir. His wife has been dead for several years. They had no children. I guess I’m his only blood relative. His sister was my mother.”
“And she’s gone also?”
“Yes, almost nine years now.”
“In that case, I’ll need your permission to do an autopsy.”
“Sure, anything to help.”
He produced a form, and Jacob signed it.
“Thank you, Mr. Lubbock. Sorry for your loss.” He started to leave. “And one more thing, please stick around the area for a few days.”
“We planned on it.”
“Good.” The chief patted him on the shoulder as he left.
Two hours later, Barbara came back with what she called a pound basket. The thing was huge. “It’s what the old fishermen used to bring their catch in from the boats.”
“It looks good, but sit down, Barbara. There’s something I have to tell you.” He relayed the entire story about Uncle Leo and Eugene.
“That’s horrible! What do we need to do?”
“Right now, nothing. The police asked that we stay around for a few more days, so let’s just try to enjoy ourselves as much as possible.”
“That will be difficult to do.”
Guess it depends on your outlook.
The following morning, Jacob convinced Barbara to go to her other basket making class. He stayed in the room and tried to read a few magazines there, but couldn’t concentrate. He knew he was supposed to be happy, but Eugene’s death put another wrinkle in the story. Jacob didn’t have to worry for long. Two New Jersey Highway Patrolmen came to his door.
“Mr. Lubbock, you’re under arrest for the murder of Leo Feinstein.”
“What? That’s impossible! He had a heart attack.”
“He appeared to have a heart attack, but the man with him also seemed to die the same way. Sort of a strange coincidence, don’t you think?” one of the troopers said.
The other trooper read him his rights.
“You can’t prove anything,” Jacob said.
“Oh, I think we’ll be able to make a case. We’ve already had two search warrants served—one for your home and one for your office at work. We found the berries.”
“Berries? Oh, those. I ordered those so my wife could use them to decorate some of her baskets. She’s big into baskets.”
“We did notice all the baskets in your house, but the berries you ordered from India are highly poisonous. Some people call them Rosary Berries because the poorer people there use them to make rosaries. But the juice from just one of those berries is enough to kill several people.”
“In your office at work, we found the rest of the berries and the old fashioned ink pen you used to put the juice on the red numbers at the top of each ledger page. We have been told your uncle always licked his fingers when he turned the pages.”
Jacob smirked. “Then how do you explain Eugene dying, too.”
“What you didn’t plan on was Eugene giving him mouth to mouth. There was enough poison left on Mr. Feinstein’s lips to kill him, too. We’re pretty sure our autopsies will confirm all of this.”