It was as the sun crossed the Virginia horizon, bounced off the sizzling cars on I-95, eventually streaming nearly horizontally through my room’s curtains that I noticed someone’s secret sitting there on the desk where I rested my laptop.
In that late afternoon light, the shadows of a prior guest’s last message written on the hotel’s notepad showed like filigree etched into fine glassware, like the pattern embossed on the shin-high leather of my Justin boots.
None of your business, I thought. You’ve gotta make it down to the Longhorn before half of Fredericksburg decides they want your rib-eye, medium, baked potato and cold beers. Okay, a little salad, too.
For most of my life this inquisitive nature of mine and blessed curse of turning a phrase paid the bills, put two daughters through college, paid off one mortgage and half of another and let me retire at 62. Besides, who the hell would know or care?
I reached into my laptop bag and pulled out one of the school kid’s thick soft-lead pencils I started using when the arthritis made it too painful to write with a yellow #2 like other folks. That is, those folks who actually write anymore.
I rubbed the graphite equivalent of an illegal phone tap lightly from the upper left to lower right of the notepad. And then I read the transcript of someone’s private life:
Jax — 8:30
Pkg Gar 3-24
Well, that was more than the something like Large half pepperoni w/small antipasto no onion I expected. This was more like one kilo, no B12, no glucose.
Of course, it could be just someone doodling, a mystery writer or some lame fan fic geek still trying to get Crockett and Tubbs in the sack together after twenty-five years. The misspell of “cops” might confirm the latter.
No, the depth of these imprints showed some emotion pushing down the pedal and the pen. This ghost note’s writer was fairly intense, as least within their own mind.
Okay, Mr. Retired Newshound, what’re you gonna do? Telling the cute Pakistani girl and the fat Bubba sweating through his shirt down at the main desk might get the ball rolling. And then you won’t be late for that hot date with Ms. Well-Marbled 2016.
Besides, you’ve had no excitement since you piled a career’s notes, files, plaques, pics and bye-bye kisses into that small cardboard box on your way out of the city room. You know you want one more first on a story before all the talking hairdos and oh-so-serious news bunnies set up their lights and cameras to tell the same story for the next three days at Noon, 6:00 and 11:00.
That’s how I found myself sweaty and squinting into the shadows of the garage across the way from the hotel. I figured its proximity made the hotel and I-95 made it worth a shot. I’d climbed the stairs to the third level and realized why I didn’t chase ambulances anymore. Young guy’s game.
But those kids lack your chops, Woodstein, I wheezed to myself.
At column 24 I could feel my heart flutter like an old fire horse’s when it heard a bell even after being put to pasture. I had to admit, this was an excellent place for a money drop for any nefarious reason — drugs, kidnapping, extortion — down on the dark far corner from the exit. Down where there wasn’t a Honda to be found.
Daughter 2 taught me how to use my iPhone as a flashlight, so I thought I’d give the scene a cursory flyover and then head on down to the Longhorn before they closed the kitchen. That’s when I spotted the business card in a dark puddle. A dark puddle in a parking garage was no surprise, but the red stain it imparted on the card was.
Shit. Damn it. Oh boy.
I turned off the flashlight and hit 911. Two hours later, the cops let me go after I gave them my statement, my cell number and the land line at my new home in Florida.
Yep, that was blood and the name on the card was that of Elise Weston, a Richmond bank exec who hadn’t shown up at work since Tuesday. I left the sherlocking to the Sherlocks and stepped out into the warm Virginia night. The midnight night.
I finally ate, though not that rib-eye, dammit. No, here in the room where it all started this afternoon I’m munching on this personal half-pepperoni and small antipasto, no onions. Sipping this Sweetwater IPA from the supermarket down the road. Glad the cashier could handle the C-note I paid with. Wiped the worst of the blood off so…
Discovery draft free write I managed in the past 90 minutes of toddler nap time. Gotta learn how to write something like a flash fiction mystery/thriller someday, I reckoned. Today was the first toe in the bloody puddle.