My enthusiasm was matched only by the derision of the beautiful blonde I had dragged along. I had no choice but drag her along—we were on a date when the letter of instructions arrived.
“Hey, what is this?” she asked. After scanning the letter, I had bolted up, sending my chair flying, and grabbed her arm.
“Let’s go, Lopey.”
“I’m finishing my dinner first.”
“We go now.” I threw a fifty on the table and pulled her up. “Has to do with a case. You’re coming with.”
“Like hell I am.”
She looked at me coyly. I knew she couldn’t resist.
“You’re going off to make a fool of yourself,” she said, with all the scorn she could muster, “running around in the middle of the night because you get some dumb letter. In the pouring rain.”
“And you can’t wait to watch me.” I knew the hook was set. “And I’ll need your help.”
“This should be fun,” she said with a sneer.
It was appropriate, ironically appropriate, that she was along for the final act. Ideas gleaned from her conversation, even while my quest was a secret, had set the events in motion. This letter promised progress toward the elusive chrome-coated casket.
The letter, delivered to my table at the luxurious Sur le Pont d’Avignon restaurant at 8:58, was unsigned, but I knew its provenance. Only four people knew of my interest in what was code-named “The Case of the Missing Violin,” and only one of those four, a woman once tall and muscular, now slumped and bloated, a former concentration camp guard who was finishing her miserable life in a prison in East Europe, could be the source. Her manly face, complete with dark mustache, leered at me in my dreams. I had met her only once, and that out of necessity.
“Nicht verstehen vat you vant. Silly Amerikaner. Old voman in prison know nuttink.”
The grim-faced, tight-lipped guard standing at the entrance to her cell precluded speaking the special words aloud. Braving the reek from her body, I leaned up to her ear and whispered the phrase.
“Hey, none of that!” the guard grunted, reaching for her pistol. I quickly backed away. The prisoner’s face revealed the impact of the phrase I had whispered. Without even a nod for the prisoner, I exited the cell.
Fifty-eight days ago—days of alternating hope and despair, of advances and dead ends. The crucial sheet of instructions I now held was the fruit of the secret I had softly seeded into that cold, cruel ear. As suspected, her connections, spun from that sorry cell in central Slovenia, reached far and wide, more than capable of gathering the information I needed.
Information that could yet prove bootless. A set of instructions: X meters in this direction, Y meters in that direction, etc. Lopey and I arrived at the big-box building supply store just minutes after it closed.
“Damn! damn! damn!”
“What?” she demanded.
“We need a long tape measure. Hundreds of meters long.”
“So why didn’t they include it with the letter? This is indeed going to be royal!”
I failed to see the humor.
She let me suffer for a couple of minutes before she said, “Jack’s got a hundred-foot tape in his garage.” Jack was her brother. “Do you think you’re smart enough to convert from metric? Better, is your phone smart enough?”
I didn’t answer that but squealed out of the parking lot to Jack’s place. From there to the cemetery.
I parked my retro Ford Thunderbird as near as I could to the designated gatepost and impatiently dragged Lopey through the rain and mud.
“You’ll be telling this adventure to your grandchildren,” I shouted.
“Huh! More likely a cartoon I sell to Disney.”
Whatever. Just needed to have her with me.
At exactly 10:48 pm we stood at the south pillar of the southernmost gate of the Heavenly Rest Cemetery. My patent leather shoes and the cuffs of my tuxedo trousers were already splattered with mud. She looked at her dress, her stockings, her shoes.
“Ooooh,” she cried. “Look what you’ve done.”
Actually, the mud-splattered and soaked look was kind of sexy. She knew it. Tonight was supposed to have been special, so she was wearing a very feminine outfit rather than her usual unisex tux. Part of me hoped that tonight could still turn out to be special. (By the way, her given name is ‘Penelope,’ but she insists on being called ‘Lopey.’)
I was to proceed 152 meters in the direction set by the shadow of that southernmost pillar, a shadow to be created by the full moon at exactly 10:48 pm. More steps followed, but this first step was already problematic.
No moon. It was somewhere behind thick clouds. No shadow. I cursed. I vainly sought some hint of a shadow.
“So, you drag me all the way out here to complain there is no moon? Some romantic you are.”
I had to tell her the problem.
“Not a problem,” she said in a firm, sarcastic voice.
“Not a problem?”
“Just a bit of arithmetic. How do you think they came up with these instructions in the first place?” She looked something up in her phone. She closed her eyes. Her lips moved silently. Then, “Pull out your compass and proceed on a course of 283 degrees.”
I knew she was an astronomer. But not that she was a human calculating machine. Of course, maybe it wasn’t mental mathematical mastery at all. I hoped it was. Mostly I was happy for any help in achieving my objective.
A quick flick of my finger to remove rain-plastered hair from her face; a quick kiss on her cheek. “While you’re at it, how many feet if I have to go 152 meters?” The answer came immediately. I set the course by the compass in my phone. We needed some finagling to maintain our line once we reached 100 feet and had to reset the tape. The line took us neatly through the rows of tombstones, perhaps the only straight 152 meter diagonal that successfully avoided all the headstones.
We arrived at Point A. Lopey’s dress, soaked by the warm summer rain, was clinging most encouragingly. I did my best to keep my eyes on my work. I couldn’t afford to be soft-headed at this point. I pulled out the instructions. “From Point A, proceed 80 meters in the direction of the chapel steeple. Look for the light in the tower. One if by land, two if by sea.”
Right. If there were more than thirty feet of visibility. So close yet so far. I was starting to lose it.
“I see the light,” Lopey said and pointed. By the time I looked, it was gone in the rain and increasing fog. Had she actually seen it?
“Please don’t lose the direction.” I begged. “How many feet?”
“No problem.” She was confident. “This way. Come on.” She translated the meters to feet. She’s good, I said to myself. It’s like she knows where she’s going.
After fifty-two meters we came to a high, tightly grown hedge that looked to be at least six feet across. Now what? Then I saw a narrow gap in the hedge, the slightest path, following the line we had been assigned.
“Through here,” I said and plunged in. Wet, scratching evergreen branches soaked my soakedness exponentially. In my aroused state I got careless of the person behind me. A branch I released slapped her in the face.
“Damn it, Jerome. Watch what you do with the branches.”
We reached the other side. It was lighter here, a faint glow from the lights in the steeple. If she had a weapon when she emerged from the hedge, I’d not be telling this now. A branch had snagged her dress, tearing it from her shoulders.
“You think this is cute, huh? If you were a gentleman, you’d have given me your suit coat long ago.”
“Sorry,” I said meekly and unbuttoned my jacket.
Pulling her by the hand, I hurried through the rest of our 80-meters-toward-the-steeple. Point B was a dock on a large lake. I checked the instructions. “Point C: the rock with the tree growing from a crack.”
I cursed the paper in my hand. “What rock?” Then I remembered. “Lopey, was there one light or two in the steeple?” Trees now blocked the steeple.
“Two, I think.”
“‘Two if by sea.’ We need to take that rowboat and cross the lake. The rock, Point C, will be over there somewhere.”
“Over there! Send the word, to beware, over there!” she sang.
“Enough, already. You’d better take off your heels before we try to get into the boat. Let me help you with your nylons.”
She removed her pantyhose by herself. The part of me that knew this was serious business scolded the part of me that kept getting distracted. Tension and anticipation built inside me like floodwater behind a dam.
We reached the far shore. It was all rock. No place to land the boat. The rain had stopped. Sure glad for Lopey’s sake it was a hot night. After rowing about fifty feet to our right, searching through the fog for the rock and tree, we reversed and explored to the left.
“There is it,” said Lopey. Indeed, a stout tree grew from the rock, the only vegetation on the barren wall of rock. “What do we do now?” she asked. “This is too stupid. Don’t know why you can’t tell me what this is all about.”
I resisted the urge to say, “Then I’d have to kill you.” She knew that anyway. I said, “No more instructions in the letter. We must be at the destination.” My hand shook as I folded the letter and returned it to my pocket. At last.
I rowed up close to the rock, using overhanging branches to pull it the last few feet, shaking more water down on us.
“Can you hold the boat here while I investigate?”
“I’ll try.” She grabbed a branch.
I scrambled up, using the trunk of the tree. Sharp edges of granite did a job on my pants and patent leather shoes. With the light from my phone, I explored. I pulled out a loose rock, careless of my fingers. A small, chrome box in the hollow. I grabbed it and tried to open it. An eerie laugh flowed from the steeple and echoed off the wall of rock. At the same moment, Lopey used an oar to push the boat away from the rock and rowed vigorously toward the dock, leaving me perched precariously.
“You probably don’t want to try to swim in this lake,” she said. “It’s quite toxic.”
Desperate and shivering, I managed to open the little box by the light of my phone. It held a small piece of quality stationery. An elegantly hand-written message:
“Sorry. You meddled where you should not have. This was the necessary response.”
As I read the message confirming what I had hoped was not true, the fog lifted and the full moon disclosed my environment. Sheer rock walls rose from the lake in both directions. The lake itself was littered with carcasses of fish and water fowl. My phone showed No Service.
Will the cavalry arrive of do I wait here to die of thirst—it supposedly takes about ten days—or plunge myself into the threatening tarn, the lethal lake, the pestilent pool?
* * *
Within minutes the fair Penelope’s voice, abusing with most unfeminine language the officials who were arresting her, boomed across the tarn. I gave thanks that I had managed a clandestine phone call after the letter arrived. Soon the rowboat arrived to retrieve me from my rock.
* * *
“How did you know?” she whimpered when I removed my soggy suit coat from her bedraggled bodice before they cuffed her and lowered her into the cruiser.
“Your attempt to shape my thinking with your seemingly random conversational gambits. You ‘happened to read’ something about former concentration guards. Another time, you mentioned a podcast about some far-flung fraternity of former fascist fanatics. The night conversation turned to passwords, you ‘happened to mention’ reading about a secret cipher for the fascist organization.
“You didn’t know I would see through your scheme. I had already begun to suspect you. Why was my contact in Amsterdam fished from the canal the day I arrived there last February? Why, a month later, on the day I arrived in Montreal, did two under-cover agents die in a fire at the safe house?
“No, my sweet. It all suggested a hypothesis I hoped was wrong. While you thought you were laying a trap for me, I was laying this one for you.
“Pity, though. We had some good times together. We’ll always have Cleveland.”
I tossed the tape measure and my wet suit coat into the T-Bird and drove off into the sunrise.
Originally published at The Weekly Knob.