by Jan Christensen
Tricks but No Treats was previously published in the anthology, It Was A Dark and Stormy Halloween, Whortleberry Press, August 2009.
When she looked up, her boss stood in the doorway wearing a witch’s costume. She couldn’t help but laugh as she sank down into her chair.
“You’re not in costume.”
“I know,” Phyllis said. Of course she knew. When did she have time for this nonsense? She had a full-time job, a husband, and two pre-school children. She had had to get them costumes, including her husband. “I came as a health-care executive. Notice the detail–the five-year pin on the lapel of my gray power suit. Two inch heels–no more, no less. Hair at chin length, make-up perfect.” She decided not to mention the concealer for the dark circles under her eyes. “You know your slip is showing?”
“It’s supposed to,” Matt said. He sat down in the chair next to her desk and pulled up the skirt a bit more to show the checkered slip. “What do you think?”
She studied the fake nose with obligatory wart, the black dress with black and white striped hose covering nice muscular legs. Black granny shoes and black hat over gray wig completed his costume. “Good. Very appropriate.”
“More like a wizard,” she grinned. “The way you handled Leonard yesterday was magic.”
“Thank you. I’d blush if I knew how. We’re getting up the quality team right away. I want you to head it.”
Her breath caught. “Really?”
“Yeah. We’ll make you Vice President of Quality Assurance.” He looked around her cramped office. “You’ll move to the office next to mine. We’re getting rid of Jeff.”
“What? What do you mean?”
Matt crossed his legs and more of his petticoat showed. Phyllis didn’t know if her grin was because of that or because of the job just thrown in her lap. Her thoughts were spinning. She couldn’t believe her luck. But it wasn’t all luck, she reminded herself. She’d worked hard, and it now seemed she’d found her niche.
“Jeff’s gone. I fired him last night.”
Phyllis winced at Matt’s bluntness. “But why?” she asked. “I thought you liked Jeff.”
Matt shook his head, almost making his hat fall off. “Liked him okay. Didn’t like his work so much. Like yours better.” He grinned at her.
A bit of unease coursed through her. A few times in the past year when she’d worked for Matt she thought he might be coming on to her. Then she’d shake off the feeling. He was just being friendly. A nice guy. Didn’t he treat all the women the same? She couldn’t be sure.
“Thank you, Matt,” she said, giving him a wary smile. “When do I start?”
He stood up. “Office Services guys will be here any moment to help you move into Jeff’s old office.” He held out his hand.
Phyllis jumped up and took it, aware of its size and strength. He pulled her towards him and hugged her. “Welcome to the executive suite, Phyllis,” he whispered in her ear. “You’ve earned it.” When he broke away, he handed her a key. Grinning, he said, “For the executive washroom.”
She nodded, dazed, and took the key.
Then he left with a swish of skirts.
Phyllis stood, blinking after him. Slowly, she put her purse in the desk drawer and headed for the break room. She needed coffee badly.
Four people sat at the table nibbling on doughnuts. She felt shy all of a sudden. Should she tell them about her promotion? Was it a secret? She didn’t know and covered her confusion by pouring herself a cup of coffee and sitting down with the group.
Sally glanced at her. “You’re not in costume.” She had on a flapper outfit and looked quite nice. It suited her–her flamboyance and love of life. A long strand of huge fake pearls swung from her neck as she moved to take a doughnut from the box in the middle of the table. A headband with a feather sat at a jaunty angle on her head, and glitter gleamed from her short dress.
“I’m a health care executive,” she said, using the same line she’d used for Matt.
Gary barked a nasty laugh. “Very good, Phyllis. We should have known it was a costume since you’re only middle management.”
Bastard, thought Phyllis. And wait until he hears. He’ll be mad. Gary thought his degree in accounting should merit him every advantage. His choice of costume was interesting. He’d come as a doctor. She wondered if that had some hidden meaning.
Jennifer seemed subdued. She’d dressed as Raggedy Ann and looked cute, Phyllis thought. But she hadn’t even said hello, which was unusual. Phyllis wondered, since Jennifer was head of Personnel, whether she knew about Jeff being fired and Phyllis’s promotion.
A scream made everyone jump. Gary leap out of his chair and ran towards the sound, the rest of them on his heels.
They found Martha standing at Jeff’s office door, hanging onto the jamb. Her skin was as white as the sheet she wore for her ghost costume. When she saw the group, she pointed into the office.
Phyllis was closest to Gary, and they went in. Jeff sat in his chair with much of his head a bloody mess. He held a gun in his hand. He must have committed suicide, she thought. Because Matt fired him? Oh no, and she was taking his job. She thought she might be sick. She couldn’t be, but the stench of death was overpowering. Phyllis felt the bile rising into her throat, and she had to look away. Her eyes traveled over the rest of the office, roving anywhere to avoid looking at Jeff. She saw a piece of red yarn on Jeff’s desk. She looked quickly towards the doorway. Jennifer stood there, her red yarn wig askew, shock making her eyes wide. Phyllis also noticed a feather on the file cabinet.
As Phyllis left the room, something crunched under her foot. She looked down and saw a tongue depressor. Gary took hold of her elbow, and she noticed the pocket of his lab coat, filled with tongue depressors. Had one dropped out when he entered the office? She didn’t think so.
Matt came down the hall. “What’s going on here?” he asked. Without a word, everyone stepped aside so he could see into Jeff’s office. Phyllis realized then that Jeff was the only one besides herself not in costume. Matt took in a sharp breath when he saw Jeff and quickly backed away from the door. When he put up his hand to balance the witch’s hat, Phyllis noticed one of his false black fingernails was missing.
Bill came around the corner, and everyone stared at him. Jennifer gasped. He was wearing a gangster costume–double-breasted pinstripe suit, large white tie, spats on his shoes. He had a long cigar clamped between his teeth, fortunately unlit.
“What’re you all doing here?” he asked. “Having the Halloween party early?”
“Yeah,” Gary said. “It’s a mystery game. Jeff’s playing the victim.” He waved his hand towards Jeff’s office.
Phyllis wondered for a moment if it was true, that Jeff really wasn’t dead—it was a gag. But no, no one could fake that smell. Bill looked into Jeff’s office, then turned quickly back to Gary.
“You’re not a bit funny, you know,” he growled. Then he looked again into the office. “Hey, that looks like my gun.” He took a step inside, then turned back around, white as Martha’s sheet. “But it’s not real.”
“What do you mean?” Jennifer asked.
“The gun–it’s a toy.”
“Some toy,” Matt muttered. “Have the police been called?”
No one answered. “I’ll go have Celia do it,” Phyllis said, glad to escape from the area.
She walked briskly to the front and found the receptionist, dressed as a cat, frowning at the phone. When she saw Phyllis, she said, “Where is everyone? I’ve got people holding on almost all the lines.” Her whiskers twitched with disapproval.
“Call the police, Celia. Jeff’s dead.”
“What?” Celia’s mouth opened and stayed that way a moment. Then she closed it with a click and frowned. “Is this some kind of a joke? For Halloween?”
“Do I look like I’m joking, Celia? Call the cops. I’m going back to be with the others. And get rid of all the callers. Say we’re in a meeting and can’t be disturbed. Until further notice.”
Phyllis turned and walked away, not waiting for Celia’s reaction.
Phyllis trudged back towards Jeff’s office, her thoughts spinning. She couldn’t believe one of her co-workers had been murdered. But worse was the thought another one had killed him. But who? Gary who wanted his job? Maybe he hadn’t known Jeff had been fired last evening and that Phyllis was taking his place. Would she be next on his hit list? She shuddered as she remembered the tongue depressor on the floor.
How about Jennifer? Phyllis had suspected for several months now that Jennifer and Jeff were having an affair. Had Jeff broken it off, and Jennifer, in a rage?
She had to stop thinking like this. Let the police take care of it. As she rounded the corner and saw her co-workers milling in the hall, she caught sight of Jennifer’s red wig and wondered about the yarn she’d seen on Jeff’s desk. But that brought up the question of the gun. Bill’s gun. How had it gotten there? Placed there by the murderer. Must have been. But why? It was only a toy.
Matt caught her eye and motioned her over. “We need to talk,” he said in her ear. They walked towards his office, the one with “President” on the door. Had he killed Jeff? She felt as if all the blood had left her face. She put her hand up to her cheek and felt how cold it was.
In Matt’s office, they took their usual seats—he behind his desk, she in the wingback visitor’s chair.
“Did you kill Jeff?” Matt asked, without preamble.
She gasped and put her hand against her throat. “No. No, of course not. Why would I?”
Matt shrugged. “I have no idea. You wanted his job and didn’t know I was going to fire him? You were having an affair with him? He made an unwelcome pass? Any number of reasons. But I have to know before I make any changes in office personnel now.”
“I had no reason at all to kill him. I wasn’t after his job. Gary was.” She realized Matt had suggested all the reasons she’d been thinking other people had to kill Jeff.
“I know.” Matt leaned back in his chair. “For some reason I believe you. We’ve got to find out who did it fast so we can get back to work here.”
Phyllis nodded, numbness creeping over her. The beginnings of a headache pushed against the back of her eyes. “I’ll do whatever I can. What do you suggest?”
“Just keep your ears open. Let’s meet at the end of the day and compare notes. Have Celia call off moving your office for now.”
A commotion down the hall caught their attention. “Police must be here,” Matt said and stood up.
As he did so, Phyllis’s attention was again drawn to the missing fingernail.
The police quickly sorted out everyone and began interviews, starting with Martha because she’d found the body. Phyllis tried to get some work done, but it was difficult.
Finally it was her turn with the police. Nervously, she brushed her palms down her skirt and walked to the break room where they’d set up. On the table she saw the plastic gun, a feather, the tongue depressor, the yarn, a piece of filament which she realized was one of Celia’s fake cat whiskers, a black fingernail, and a five-year pin. Her hand went automatically to her suit jacket lapel. Her pin was gone.
Sweat started in a trickle down her back. She sat down quickly and stared at the table.
“Your pin?” asked a man in civilian clothes. He was large, but not fat. Dark hair, with some gray at the temples, blue eyes, thin lips, and an ordinary nose. His eyes were like ice chips as he watched her swallow hard.
“Yes,” she said, determined to say as little as possible.
“Any idea how it got into Mr. Jeffrey Montague’s office?”
“No,” she said.
He shifted in his chair. “I’m Detective Jones, by the way, and this is Sergeant Peterson.” He gestured to the man on his right. Peterson wore a uniform and tipped the pen he was holding in her direction. He was rather short with regular, unremarkable features, and brown hair, brown eyes.
Phyllis nodded at the Sergeant and returned her attention to the Detective. “You’re not wearing a costume,” he remarked.
Phyllis didn’t say anything.
“Why not?” he asked, his tone mild.
“I didn’t have time to either make one or rent one. I have a full-time job, a husband, and two children.” She hoped having children might help rule her out as a murderer. Mothers didn’t go around murdering people, did they? Her gaze lingered on the pin. How did she lose it?
Detective Jones nodded. “Where were you between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. this morning?”
“At home, or on my way here. I arrived about ten minutes late—eight-forty.”
“Anyone at home with you?”
“Husband and two children.”
He nodded again. “Sergeant Peterson will take your fingerprints.” Peterson moved a small pad near her and carefully took her prints.
“What can you tell us about the victim?” Detective Jones asked.
Phyllis swallowed hard. “He was VP. Head of auditing. I’m afraid he wasn’t well liked.” Cheap and arrogant, but she didn’t say that. People who worked under him complained that when they went out to eat he always claimed he didn’t bring any money, so they ended up paying for his meals. He also bummed rides to save on gas. He tried to slash the budget every year which made everyone angry.
Detective Jones’s eyes still seemed to bore into her. “And how did you feel about him?”
“I…I thought he did a good job for the company.”
Jones’s smile was thin-lipped. “You didn’t like him.”
“No,” Phyllis said and stared back at Jones. “No, I didn’t. However, I didn’t murder him.”
The detective stood up abruptly and held out his hand. “Thank you. You’ve been a help.”
Startled, Phyllis also stood and absently shook Jones’s hand. “You’re welcome,” she said, sounding prim.
She turned and walked away carefully, not wanting to stagger or stumble.
Phyllis didn’t feel like going back to her office, so she sauntered to the reception area. And was shocked to find five or six people milling around.
Most had removed what they could of their costumes. Jennifer’s Raggedy Ann red yarn wig was gone, as was Sally’s flapper headband and swinging necklace. Gary had removed his white lab coat, and so the tongue depressors were nowhere in sight. Bill had been unable to do anything about his gangster outfit except to wash the gel out of his hair and let it fall naturally again. Celia’s whiskers were gone, and the makeup had been scrubbed from her face.
They all looked at her as she approached. No one spoke. “Was I the only one who told the truth about Jeff?” she asked.
Now they all glanced away. “Well, they’ll wonder what each of you was trying to hide, then.”
Jen looked the most worried. Phyllis was now more sure than ever that she and Jeff had been having an affair. Celia looked angrier than usual. Had Jeff made her so mad she’d lost it and killed him? Phyllis could almost believe it. Celia had the worst temper of anyone she’d ever met.
“Bill,” Phyllis asked, “how on earth did your gun end up in Jeff’s office? Do you know?”
“You think? Don’t you know for sure?”
“No, I don’t. When you lose something, you rarely remember where you lost it, or you wouldn’t have lost it, right?”
Phyllis smiled. Totally logical. She looked around at the others. “The police had something from each of our costumes. Someone had to collect all those pieces and put them in Jeff’s office.”
They all nodded thoughtfully. “Celia, do you know how you lost your whisker?”
Celia frowned and almost snarled. “Of course not. It’s like Bill said. I don’t know what happened to it.”
Of course, Phyllis thought, Celia’s whisker could have fallen off anywhere, and the opportunist murderer simply have picked it up.
She turned to Sally. “I suppose it’s the same story about your feather?”
Sally nodded. “I could have lost it anytime.”
“Gary? What about your tongue depressor?”
Gary shrugged. “I decided to hand them out, like a trick or treat?”
“Did you give many out?” Phyllis asked.
“Only to Matt,” Gary said.
Everyone stood shock still. Phyllis’s head whirled.
“And what happened to your pin?” Jennifer asked.
Phyllis remembered the congratulatory hug earlier, from the witch.
“No,” she moaned and fled down the hall to Matt’s office.
She stood in the doorway, breathing hard. Matt looked up at her in surprise. His witch’s hat sat on a file cabinet, and now all his fingernails were back to normal. She entered and sat down hard. Until then, she hadn’t known that the rest of the office crew was right behind her.
“You killed Jeff,” she said, her voice hoarse.
“Of course not,” Matt said. He sounded calm, but his glance darted around the room. Looking for an escape?
But there was no escape. “You must have struggled with him, and he tore off one of your fingernails. When you realized that and looked for it, you couldn’t find it. So, you began gathering parts of all our costumes. Only you, Gary, or Bill had access to the gun because Bill left it in the men’s room. But Gary only had time to give you a tongue depressor. Then there’s my pin. You were the only person close enough to me to filch it. And you wanted me to report what was going on every night so you could perform damage control. Why did you do it? Why did you kill him?”
Matt put his head in his hands. “It was an accident. He tried to punch me when I fired him. I hit back, of course. And he fell against the corner of the desk, cracking his head open. I…I panicked.”
Panicked, but recovered enough to implicate us all, Phyllis thought.
“Will someone get the police?” she asked.
“We’re right here,” Detective Jones announced.
Phyllis slumped in her chair. Her fingers automatically went to her lapel. The pin would be evidence, she supposed. But she didn’t want it back, anyway.
Someone behind her said, “Trick or treat?”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section and watch for many more Halloween short stories this month.