by Terry Shames
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story by mystery author Terry Shames.
Mira looked terrible in black. It made her complexion appear washed out and depleted, which was appropriate, under the circumstances.
She glanced at the diamond watch Bob had bestowed on her two years ago for their thirtieth wedding anniversary. 9:20. Sharon would be picking her up in twenty minutes. Maybe she should wear her old watch. Unclipping the elegant diamond one, she laid it in her jewelry case and rummaged around in the drawer until she found her old Timex. Of course, the battery had run down a long time back, but there was no reason anyone should notice.
One more critical look in the mirror to practice her brave smile and to make sure she projected the proper grieving widow look. Not too grieving. After all, hadn’t her mother said one always had to keep up a brave front?
When the doorbell rang, she counted twenty seconds before she opened the door.
“Oh, Mira! What a sad day!” Mira’s friend, Sharon Cuthburt, allowed two little frown lines to crease her face.
Sharon reminded Mira of a fox–despite their beauty you always had to keep in mind that foxes couldn’t be trusted. “Honey, I’m trying to bear up. Don’t go all gushy on me and make me cry.”
Sharon brushed a lock of Mira’s hair back. “Have you been sleeping?”
“I was sleeping fine until Keith called yesterday.” Mira sighed.
“You mean Bob’s lawyer? What did he want?”
Mira threw her hands wide. “He said something about a box Bob left for me.”
“Oh.” Sharon shot a nervous look toward the street, where her car idled at the curb. “A box? Like, what kind of box?”
“You know what Keith is like. He wouldn’t tell me.” Mira spoke in a portentous voice, “ ‘We need to discuss it in person, Mira.’ So of course I’ve been a wreck wondering what Bob was up to.”
“You’ve got other things to think about now.” Sharon slipped her arm around Mira’s waist. “We need to get going,”
Mira insisted on riding in the back seat of the Cuthburt’s Mercedes. At the wheel, Alan turned and reached behind to grab Mira’s hand. “Ready for this?” but Mira’s eyes were riveted on the book in Alan’s hand, a Bitter Detective paperback by Morris Pembleton.
She sat forward and pointed. “Alan, what the hell is that you’re reading? How can you be so disloyal?”
Alan looked at the book as if it had appeared by magic in his hand. He glanced at his wife for a signal. “Disloyal about what?”
“God, you are so clueless!” Sharon hissed through clenched teeth. “Where did you get that book?”
Alan held the paperback, with its splashy cover, away from him, as if he’d just discovered it was covered with dog shit. “It’s not mine. I found it in the back seat pocket. Am I not supposed to read it? Seems like a pretty good story.”
“Just put it away and shut up,” Sharon snarled. Her skin had the unfortunate property of turning splotchy when she was embarrassed, and at the moment it looked like someone had splashed crimson polka dots all over it. She turned to Mira. “I have no idea how the book got in this car. One of the kids must have put it there.”
“Alan go ahead, read it if you’re enjoying it, ” Mira said. “Clearly you’re not alone in thinking he writes a good story. His books are wildly popular, despite the fact that the writing is awful. “
“Mira, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” Alan looked truly distressed, although Mira couldn’t imagine how he had missed knowing how much she resented Morris Pembleton’s unwarranted fame.
“Bitter detective indeed! While my two wonderful books sit unnoticed on the remainder tables!” Mira flopped back in her seat. “I don’t have the energy to fight it anymore.” She flung a dismissive at him. “Read, read!”
“No! You’re not giving in. You’re a much better writer than Morris Pembleton. You know you are.” Sharon snatched the book from Alan’s hand and threw it on the floor in the back seat. It landed with the back cover facing Mira, so that she had to see that ridiculous blank spot where the author’s picture usually was, with the question mark in the center.
The funeral went by without Mira’s mental participation. She watched the minister’s mouth move–he’d never met Bob, so what difference did it make what he said? She vaguely tuned in to the comments of Bob’s long-time friends… “The shock, only 55, a good friend, a solid citizen, etc.”
Then the reception afterwards in the serene, dignified community room of the church, with its redwood walls and ceilings mellowed with age, casting a glow of benevolence over everything. Over finger foods and wine Sharon had arranged, Mira graciously greeted friends, accepting their heartfelt comments: ‘You have to take care of yourself. Such a shock. If there’s anything I can do…’ And the comments of those more willing to wade into gossip territory: Did you even know Bob was sick? What are you going to do now? Are you selling your lovely home?
Finally, Keith Conran, Mira and Bob’s lawyer, showed up at her elbow, speaking into her ear in his thin, discreet murmur. “Mira, my love, we need to get together. Call me at my office to set up an appointment.”
“I don’t understand why we can’t talk about this box now.”
A tiny hesitation. “It’s a delicate matter.”
“Is everything all right?” …radiating alarm.
“Of course, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Keith, you’re being very mysterious.” She raised her voice so that several people glanced at them, salacious curiosity in their eyes. What could be mysterious about sweet, down to earth Bob LoPresto?
“Sharon you absolutely cannot desert me. You have to come with me. Keith’s behavior was so…odd. It scared me.”
They were on treadmills at the gym. Mira had insisted that Sharon come and work out with her, claiming she couldn’t bear it if she ran into people she knew and had to talk to them alone.
“But Mira, you know now melodramatic Keith can be. I’m sure it’s nothing. You’ll be fine going to see him on your own.”
“Aren’t you even a little curious about the box?” Mira said, savoring the jerk of Sharon’s lip and the panic in her eyes.
Sharon grabbed her bottle of water and took a greedy swig. “All right, but I can only go with you on Wednesday this week. That’s really the only day.”
“Perfect for me,” Mira said.
Keith balked at being told when Mira would be at his office rather than being asked when it was convenient for him, but Mira was prepared to push. “Keith, I also want to discuss with you whether it’s appropriate for you to continue handling my business now that Bob is gone.”
A prolonged silence sucked the air out of her cell phone. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
She made her voice sound vague. “Well I don’t know. Bob handled all the business stuff. Laws are so weird. For all I know there’s a law that a widow has to change law firms, in case the husband’s law firm is doing some tricky business with the estate.”
“Oh, honey, I don’t mean to imply anything. Please don’t be offended.”
“I think I can work you in at 9 a.m. Wednesday.”
“I’m so relieved. I really need Sharon with me and it’s truly the only time she can come.”
When Keith escorted the two women into his office on Wednesday, you would never have known Mira had needed to coerce him; he could not have been more charming and his secretary even trotted out the sterling silver coffee service. The three of them sat on comfortable leather armchairs around the coffee table, in the “cozy” end of Keith’s massive office.
“Keith, this is lovely,” Mira said. “What a nice gesture.” She raised her eyebrows in collusion with Sharon, who looked puzzled by the special treatment.
“Now, I can’t wait any longer.” Mira said, crossing her legs primly at the ankle. “Keith, you were too cruel leaving me hanging about this mysterious box. What is it all about? Let me get a look at it!”
Keith rose and walked across the lush carpet to his desk, where a substantial wooden box sat precisely in the middle. He picked it up and brought it to Mira, handling it as if it contained nitroglycerin. She took it from him and set it down on the coffee table. It was a work of art, an exotic burled wood polished to a fine glow. The corners were so finely joined that it seemed to be made out of one piece of wood. A bronze keyhole was inset into one side. “It’s very beautiful and obviously expensive, but why would Bob want to give me a box?”
“I think it’s what’s inside that counts,” Keith said.
“Well, what it’s in it?”
Keith looked like a man who had swallowed a fly. “I don’t know exactly. As you’re well aware, Bob could be secretive.”
Mira gave him a blank look. “No, I never thought of Bob as secretive. Was he a secret pedophile and these are pictures of him with little boys? Or did he have a second family somewhere?”
“Good God!” Keith said. “How can you even joke about such things?”
“Well, honestly, you’re being awfully spooky. We can solve this right now. Where’s the key?”
“I don’t have the key. I have a letter with instructions.” He pulled an envelope from his inside jacket pocket and handed it to her.
Mira turned to Sharon. “Have you ever heard of anything so silly? What could Bob possibly have been hiding? I mean, everyone knows he was the most unimaginative person in the world.” She put her hand out to stop the protest. “I don’t mean that in a nasty way. You know I adored Bob. I just mean he was steady. That’s why I married him. I needed someone steady. Every artist does.”
Sharon reached over and covered Mira’s hand with hers. “Of course you loved him. Maybe he’s left you a nice piece of jewelry–something to remember him by.”
“You’re right! That has to be it. He loved to give me jewelry.” Mira stood up, holding the box at her chest. “Keith, we won’t take anymore of your time. I’ll call you about that other thing.” She widened her eyes and gave him a little nod.
“Yes, of course, anytime. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.”
For three days Sharon didn’t return Mira’s phone calls. Finally Mira called from the gym phone, and Sharon picked up.
“Mira! God, I’m so sorry I haven’t called you back. It’s been…”
“Sweetie! No apology needed. I’m dying to know what’s in the box Bob left me, and I promised myself I wouldn’t open it until you were here to brace me.”
Mira imagined the look on Sharon’s face as she tried to come up with a reason why she couldn’t possibly be there when Mira opened the box. “I know what you’re going to say,” Mira said, “that it’s just too private, but nothing…and I mean nothing is so private that I can’t share it with you. In fact, I simply don’t have the courage to open it without you here.”
In the interest of getting it over with, since Mira was clearly not going to relent, Sharon said she’d be over in thirty minutes.
Mira stood in front of her full-length mirror. She was wearing jeans and a pearl gray cashmere sweater. Her hair was swept back, held with two ebony barrettes. She thought about changing into something more glamorous, but decided shabby chic was best. She applied a hint of lipstick.
When Sharon arrived, Mira flung her arms around her and pulled her into the kitchen. “I can’t do this without a glass of wine.” She pulled a bottle of Conundrum from the refrigerator. It was from a case that Bob had bought last year.
Sharon eyed the bottle. Even under perfect makeup, she was pale and her eyes were twitchy. “Bringing out the good stuff?”
Mira shrugged. “It was Bob’s favorite. I just thought it would be appropriate.” She handed Sharon a glass. “Shall we go up?”
“Up?” Sharon eyed the kitchen door with a nervous laugh.
“Bob’s study.” Mira paused, letting her eyes go soft. “I want to feel as if I’m surrounded by him when I look at whatever this special thing is he’s surprising me with.”
“Mira, don’t you feel a little…I don’t know…nervous? I mean, suppose it’s something, well, unexpected.”
Mira smiled, grabbed Sharon’s hand and tucked it through her arm. “Well of course it’s unexpected silly, that’s why I need your moral support.”
Upstairs Mira hesitated in front of the door to Bob’s study. “I guess I do feel a little strange. This is the first time I’ve been in here since…”
“Let’s sit down in your bedroom and open it on the bed,” Sharon said, snatching her hand away.
Mira flung open the door. “There! See, that’s not so bad. It’s just a stuffy old office.” She set her wine glass on the desk and surveyed the room. Bob was nothing if not tidy. Desk cleared of everything but an inbox with a couple of unpaid bills and an empty outbox. That and a letter opener one of the children had given him, a few pens and pencils and a book on office management. Mira almost couldn’t resist a snicker at the book.
“So,” Sharon said. “Where’s the box?”
“Oh, where’s my brain? Just a second, I’ll get it.” Mira sauntered down to her bedroom, giving Sharon plenty of time to stew. She took up the box and the key from her dresser, pausing to wink at herself in the mirror. When she got back, Sharon was sitting in the armchair facing Bob’s desk, little beads of sweat dotting her upper lip.
“Box!” Mira flourished it. “And key.” She produced it in the palm of her hand.
She scooted around to sit in Bob’s chair facing Sharon, placing the box on the desk before her. Not looking at Sharon, she fumbled with the key, enjoying the sound of Sharon’s shallow breathing. The key turned in the lock. “Ready?”
Sharon bleated a “yes.”
Mira opened the lid. Inside sat a black velvet box. “Oh, Sharon, I think you were right.”
“Come over here!”
Sharon staggered to join her, hands clutching the desk next to Mira.
Mira took out the black box and opened it to reveal a stunning necklace of diamonds and emeralds. She gasped and picked it up out of its box. “It’s gorgeous!”
“But…” Sharon whispered.
Mira saw that Sharon had turned deadly pale.
“Are you okay?”
Sharon gave her a sickly smile. “Sure, it’s just I can’t imagine why in the world would Bob give you something like that? Where in the world will you wear it?”
“You’re right. It’s terribly impractical, but that was Bob, when it came to giving me things.”
Sharon’s eyes were on the box, her hand at her throat. “Is that all that was in the box?”
Mira laughed. “Isn’t that enough? You think there should be earrings, too?”
Sharon dropped to her knees beside the desk, staring at the necklace. “No, I just thought maybe there was a note or something.”
“Nope,” Mira said, displaying the open box for Sharon to see. “Just the necklace.” She smiled.
After they had “oohed” and “aahed” enough, they went back downstairs for another glass of wine. Sharon slugged hers down and declared that she had somewhere to be and left.
“Like she was being pursued by demons,” Mira said aloud.
Mira poured herself another glass of wine and went back up to the study. She slipped the necklace back into its case and took it into her bedroom, where she put back into the Tiffany’s bag along with the sales receipt. The salesman would be horrified when she returned it tomorrow, but maybe she’d find something she liked better–something understated.
Back in Bob’s study–her study now–Mira settled herself in the desk chair. She opened the middle drawer of the desk and took out the items she had removed from the box before Sharon came. It had been a stupid accident that led her to find the box just before Bob gave it to Keith for safekeeping. She needed a stapler, and instead of going downstairs to her little office off the kitchen, she thought that just this once she would slip into Bob’s office and borrow his. If the box had just been sitting on the desk, she probably never would have even noticed it, but instead it was shoved into a shopping bag. A shopping bag in Bob’s study? She wondered what he was doing with a shopping bag. Then she saw the pretty box and wondered if it was for her. Why would he give her something like that? And she had opened it.
And found the flash drive and the letter.
“My dearest darling Mira,
If you are reading this, it means that I am no longer among the living. And that at last you will be made privy to the secret I’ve held for fifteen years.
I only wish I could have told you this while I was alive–but I knew it would hurt you too much and that was never my intention. It was a silly whim on my part that led me to write my first Bitter Detective novel. I thought it would be fun to share writing careers with you, that we could laugh about how hard it was to be successful writers.
The plan had been to spring the news on you once the book was published and we could have a good chuckle together. Instead, my modest effort created a huge stir and my publisher was rabid for a second book. All my energy went into writing the next one and I put off telling you and the world. Eventually, I had to write the damn things full time to keep up with demand. I don’t mean that to sound gratuitous, my darling. So I quit my job years ago and rented office space to have someplace to go, and yes, so I could keep my secret life from you.
Lately I thought that I would like to break the news to you and then quit this wretched writing business. I thought the two of us could travel, maybe buy a villa in France or Italy. But writing is an enslaving business; I found that I kept being compelled to write “just one more.”
Find attached my list of bank accounts and holdings, many in the name of Morris Pembleton, my alter ego. To keep him completely secret, I even arranged his own social security number. Although my apology is abject, you must admit that the money I made from The Bitter Detective kept you in fine style, allowing you to write at your leisure.
You will find attached a flash drive containing a book I wrote to kill off The Bitter Detective. That way, there will be no need for you to reveal who I was. It can remain your secret–well, yours and Sharon’s. At some point I was torn about the decision to keep my secret and I confided in Sharon to ask her advice. She agreed with me that it was best you not know. She has been such a comfort to me.
So darling, please send the flash drive to my publisher and enjoy the fruits of my labor. It was all for you.”
Your loving Bob
“Write at my leisure!” Mira shouted to the empty room. “My little hobby. My little leisure activity. You damned fool, it was never about the money!” And Sharon! Mira had been betrayed by her best friend as well as her husband. Well, that was all over now.
Mira took a deep breath. From the back of the drawer she took out the ashtray and matches she had stashed there yesterday. With great ceremony she shredded the letter, struck a match and watched the pieces burn. She turned the flash drive over in her hand. Smash it, or keep it? She could decide later.
Mira had always said Morris Pembleton, aka Bob LoPresto, was a hack writer who got lucky when his books hit a nerve with the public. He had stopped being lucky when she found out what he was up to. With what delicious irony she had chosen to use one of his early books as a template for his death, making sure to avoid the mistakes that led to his fictional villain’s downfall.
She took Bob’s laptop out of the bottom drawer and plugged it in. Opening it, she called up the last book he had been working on, The Almost Murder. She was ready to begin slipping her own touches into the book, to make the transition from Bob’s work to her own seem organic. It wouldn’t be hard; Bob’s writing was pedestrian at best. If the writing got better after this book, people would put it down to “Morris” learning more about his craft and then, after say two books, she would be ready to make her announcement, that she was the elusive Morris Pembleton. She pictured the press conference, her demure smile, the applause. She’d wear something modest to the press conference, a good suit, something a successful writer would wear. Not black; something in cream, with tasteful earrings.
Wouldn’t Sharon be surprised? Mira had no doubt that Sharon would keep her mouth shut. After all, what could she say? She had only Bob’s word that he was Morris Pembleton. Who would believe her even if she did protest? Mira set down her wine glass and rubbed her hands together.
Time to get to work.
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