The Witch Downstairs – A Francine Non-Adventure

Index

Author Note: This is the start of the second serial story of Francine’s Non-Adventures. The first story was published last year and can be read from the link above. I’m currently working on rewriting parts for my overdue ebook collection.


I knocked on the door with the Coexist bumper sticker on it. The “witch’s door” as many people in the building called it. We had never met but I knew her from reputation. Well actually I had started hearing about her after the ghost in the park across the street started wailing my name on odd nights. I assumed I was supposed to talk to the witch about the ghost and kick off either a horror plot or supernatural drama. I had done neither by getting a pair of earplugs and simply avoiding her floor.

Now I was deliberately invoking a plot hook. After my recent success in dealing with the magic serial killer, without getting too involved, I noticed the plot hooks I normally had to dodge were gone. It was refreshing to not have to worry about spies or wizards or ghosts. Of course, nothing lasts forever and a few weeks later I was back to dropping USB sticks and throwing away magic rings. And the ghost started wailing my name again.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that taking care of the magic serial killer had satisfied the god-like force that wanted me involved in these “adventures”. So, I decided to talk to the “witch” and see where this plot hook was headed.

The door opened and a woman a few years older than me opened the door. She looked like Hollywood’s version of a New Age Hippy. Loose clothing, scarves tied and draped around her body, long curly messy hair, small glasses perched halfway down her nose. She smiled then frowned.

“Hold on a second,” she said, took off her glasses, and replaced them with another pair from her pocket. As she looked me up and down thoroughly, I noticed the glasses she was wearing didn’t have lenses.

“Um, hi, I’m Francine. I live on the fourth floor.”

“Francine … Francine,” she muttered as she stepped into the hall to circle around me. “Oh, you’re whose name I hear screeched every night from the park.”

“It’s not every night.”

She looked up to my face, “It’s been every night for the last week.”

“Has it? I wear earplugs so I don’t hear it.”

“Earplugs? That’s one solution, I guess. You could just go see what that spirit wants with you. May I?” She gestured at my arm. I nodded and she gently raised my arm up.

“I’d rather not engage with the supernatural directly. That’s kind of why I’m here. I’ve heard you’re a … an expert on the subject.”

“I’m a witch if that’s what you mean. Wow, you are a mess.”

“Excuse me?”

“You got your fate lines all tangled up and twisted around.” She waved her hand in the air under my arm. “Look at that. I don’t know how you make it through a day without tripping over yourself.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Fate lines. They’re possibilities, paths through life that you could take. Most people have a dozen, at most, but not you. You have a couple hundred but most of them are slack like they aren’t pulling you in a direction. They’re just there and you’re all tangled up in them.”

“Ok, I think I do know what you’re talking about.”

“Do you? Then spill.” She stood in front of me arms crossed.

“I think I’m being railroaded by a ‘higher power’ into having for lack of a better word ‘adventures’.”

“Huh. So you have a lot of ‘adventures’?”

“When I was younger. After high school, they stopped. Last year strange things started happening like something was trying to get me involved with new adventures. I started avoiding them and then things got really weird.”

“Really weird how?”

“I’ve seen things that made me doubt my sanity. Have you ever seen a portal to another world? Or magic rings? Or wizards dueling in alleyways? Or heard ghosts screaming your name?”

“No. No. No. Yes. Well, not my name. Your name, yeah. What can you tell me about the ghost?”

“Nothing. I don’t know anything about it.” If I had my way it would stay that way.

“But it’s calling your name.” Her eyes narrowed as she studied me again.

“Yeah, something wants me to investigate the ghost and … do something.”

“Something like what?”

“Well, usually ghosts mean the person was killed or had unfinished business so I guess I’d have to find the killer or finish their business for them in some way. Shouldn’t you be telling me how to deal with the ghost?”

She nodded, “If you know what to do why haven’t you done it?”

“I don’t want to get involved with … all this,” I said waving my arms around me.

She closed her eyes and was silent for a moment. “Then why did you come to talk to me?”

“I need your help.”

“Why my help?”

“Because… Because you’re a witch.” She opened her eyes and smiled.

“Interesting,” she said while adjusting her lensless glasses.

“What? What’s interesting?”

“One of the fate lines has lost some of its slack.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you’re moving toward one of the paths that fate has made for you.”

“So, will you help me with the ghost or not?”

“Of course. I have a fate line of my own that leads straight to you.”


Index

Serial Story: The Explorer Program

Faster than light travel but time still passes. A few weeks in a spaceship to travel hundreds of light-years but a decade on Earth. The Explorer Program was Earth’s next step toward finding new worlds. Manned exploration of exo-planets. And then it became humanity’s last hope.

The following stories are from the pov of one Explorer crewmember. (ongoing)

Explorer Program: First Star

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milky-way-icon

Our first star system was four hundred and twenty-three light years away. Transit time for us was three weeks and about ten years for Earth. All of us gathered in the main control room of the ship. None of us needed to be there for the ship to exit transit-space but it was the end of our first long transit

The main control room had seats for all of the crew; two forward stations, the commander’s seat behind them, aux stations on either side of her, and five jump seats against the back wall. It can double as a last resort escape shuttle but lacks a space-warp drive. John, our primary pilot, sat at the right station reading the transit status to us.

“Coming out of transit-space in three … two … one …” The black void of transit-space remained. John looked back down at the panel. “Um … one.” This time the view outside lit up with the pinprick lights of stars. Some of the crew clapped. Mia let out a “Whoop!”

“Preparing to launch System Survey Probes,” our astronomer said. “Awaiting Commander’s order.”

The commander nodded, “Go ahead.” She turned to her right where Darren sat running Communications on the aux station. “Have we established contact with Earth?”

“Carrier wave is transmitting. Should be any–” A voice from the speakers interrupted them.

“Capcom Earth to Explorer ship, do you copy? Capcom Earth to Explorer ship, do you copy? Over.”

“I copy Capcom Earth. This is Explorer ship EX-014. Over,” Darren said.

“Good to hear from you EX14. What is your current status? Over.”

“All systems green. We just arrived at Kepler-186 and launched our probes. Over.”

“Sounds good EX14. Are you ready for network connection? Over.”

“Ready for network connection. Over.”

“Starting network connection. Over.”

“Network connection is good. Over.”

“We will maintain radio bridge until the upload is complete then disconnect from our side. Is there anything else to report? Over.” Darren glanced at the commander who gave a single shake of her head.

“Thank you Capcom. Nothing else to report. Over and out.

“Thank you EX14. Over and out.”

“Ok folks, everyone not on duty can return to standby,” the commander said. The five of us not at control panels stood up from the extra seats in the back of the control room and exited to the main living areas.

***

A few hours later my tablet chimed with a notification. A few hundred emails sat in my inbox. Ten years of messages, thankfully no spam. I opened the latest message.

Hey, it’s been a little while since I sent you anything so here’s a vid from the beach.

I clicked on the attached file. My tablet’s screen went white then the ocean faded into view. Waves broke and rolled on to the beach while people played in the surf. I turned the sound on. Gentle water sounds, soft white noise surf, punctuated by seagulls and people. The camera slowly panned across the water and sandy beach until it turned around to face my cousin. She looked different; not yet showing her age but noticeably different to my eyes. Changes in musculature and fat in her face since I had seen her years ago yet only a few weeks ago in my reference.

“It’s a lovely day here on Rockport Beach. Wish you were here,” she said smiling into the camera before the video stopped.

The previous message was a few months older and the one before that another few months older. As I scrolled further back, the time between messages shortened. How long could someone maintain a one-sided conversation? My cousin had lasted most of ten years. Was this right, I wondered. She spent years sending me messages and videos while I skipped to the end. Was it fair? Not to either of us; I knew.

I checked the probes’ data feeds and found one in orbit around a planet. Mostly brown with red splotches. I scrubbed through the image buffer until I found a prominent jagged line of blue running into an irregular blue shape. I adjusted the color contrast, cropped the image, and saved it.

I hit reply on the message:

We arrived at Kepler-186. I’m just getting started on catching up on the last ten years of messages. This will be released to the public later anyway but here’s a sneak peek at a river and lake on another planet. It’s the closest thing to a beach for 400 light-years.
Love Gabby

I attached the photo and sent the message. It would be several hours before we contacted Earth again and the message was actually sent. In the meantime, I resorted my inbox to “old to new” and started catching up on the last ten years.


<<Previous Index

Explorer Program: We Left Our Futures on Earth Behind

launch-icon

Author Note: This is not a sequel to The Explorer Program. It’s more of an expansion or close-up look at part of that setting. I have a few more stories that will continue to explore this setting.


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“Jolly started walking and is a terror. They bump into everything. We’ve had to move several lamps and put non-skid sheets under the deco-bowls.” My cousin laughed at herself. “There I go rambling on about boring domestic stuff.” We were sitting in her backyard while her child played nearby on a blanket. Pecan trees shaded the yard while we drank sweet iced tea.

“No, it’s nice. Go on,” I said.

“You don’t have to humor me. I know it must be exhaustively boring to hear me talk about lamps and deco-bowls after you’ve been across the galaxy.” She grinned at me. We had been closer when we were kids; I had been closer to a lot of family members back then.

“I haven’t been that far; just a few light-years.” I was silent as I thought about the first extra-solar mission I had been on. “I was only gone for a couple of months of my time but I missed years of Earth time. I wasn’t at your engagement party to Louisa or baby shower.”

“Would you have come?” she pressed for an answer.

“I… I would have sent a card or a message,” I said. Even before I had lost years to transit-space, I had kept my distance from the family. “That’s not the point. I don’t mind listening to you talking about ‘boring domestic stuff’ because I missed so much of it and I’m going to miss so much more.”

We lapsed into silence. Jolly threw a block an astounding three feet. The ice in my glass had nearly all melted.

“How long until the launch?” she asked.

“It’s not really a launch since the ship is already in orbit.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Three weeks. We have to report back in two weeks for final shake-down tests. Then we leave Earth.” I had been back on Earth for two months before I decided to check in with select Cousins.

“How long are you going to be gone?” I knew she had read the article about my mission. She had even commented on it, “we’ll miss u” which was why she made the short list of family I decided to say goodbye to.

“Three years of my time. A couple of centuries of Earth time. Jolly’s great-great-great-grandchildren will be here to greet me. Or not. They may not have children and I’ll return to Earth as an orphaned branch of the family tree.”

“If you’re afraid of being alone, stay.”

“I’m not afraid to be alone. I’ve been alone since I became a late bloomer. When I changed from he to she in high school, Mom and Dad didn’t really approve. It was easier to withdraw into myself.”

“Is that why you stopped coming to family holidays?”

“After I moved out, it was easier to not talk to them and they were always there.” She reached out and squeezed my hand. I smiled back at her. “If Mom and Dad hadn’t reacted badly, maybe I’d have more of a reason to stay. Also, I want to see something completely new. To boldly going where no one has gone before, as they say.”

“Do you still watch that ancient show?” she laughed. We had both watched it when we were younger.

“Just the good parts. I’m going to miss the revival next year.”

“You can’t download it when you arrive? I know you have FTL radio.”

“We won’t have a real-time network connection. After we exit transit-space and contact Earth, there’s a series of data uploads and downloads. We send ship status reports, data collected from the systems and planets we explore. From Mission Control we’ll receive a condensed history of the years we were in transit. They’ll also send us some popular culture touchstones, books, movies, music, whatever they deem relevant. Finally, the messages to our email accounts will be forwarded to the local ship network.”

“So, I can send you pictures and videos of Jolly growing up but you wouldn’t see them until you get to the next star system.”

“You had better send pictures of Jolly and you and Louisa and any other kids you have.”

“We’re not planning on anymore for now.”

“Ten years is long enough to change your mind.”

“Hmm. What about you? Are you ever going to have kids? Get married?” Jolly lifted themself off the ground.

“Not until the mission is over. Anyone we leave behind will be dead before we get back. Mission crew can’t have children and we can’t have significant others. We’re giving up our lives on Earth to explore the stars.”

Jolly ran on wobbly legs towards us, half falling but laughing the whole way.

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Mia’s Date With an Angel Part 1

Is it time?

You will know when it is time.

I’m scared.

You are made out of my love. You have nothing to fear.

Ok, here I go.

**Wednesday night**

Mia sat on the small balcony of her apartment that overlooked the communal pool. She held a pill bottle in one hand. The pill bottle looked too small to hurt her but the pills inside would do just fine. Sleeping pills for insomnia that she had stopped taking because they worked too well and knocked her out well into the next day. In her other hand, a bottle of cheap gas station wine. Pills and booze. How cliché, she thought.

She took a swig from the wine bottle to bolster her nerves. Ok, it’s now or never. She popped open the pill bottle and spilled the blue and white capsules into her hand. She popped them into her mouth glancing up at the sky as her head tipped back. A streak of light caught her eye. A falling star. I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight. She watched the light waiting for it to fade but it only got brighter and brighter. A flash of light streaked straight down hitting the pool and sending a fountain of water into the air.

“What?!” Mia said. Partially dissolved pills flew out of her mouth. She spat the rest out and wiped her mouth and chin. Below her a body floated face down in the pool, a white gown billowing around it in the water.

Mia grabbed the railing on the balcony and swung both legs over. She paused to consider the drop. Glancing over her shoulder she saw the still body in the water. She stepped off the balcony edge letting her arms take her weight and dangling for a second before dropping. A deck chair caught most of her impact but bounced her on to the cement. She hit with a thud and a light smack to the back of her head.

She rolled over and scrambled to the pool. Without any more thought, she jumped into the water. The cold shocked her but didn’t slow her as she pushed through toward the floating body. She grabbed it and pulled it to the side of the pool. After getting out she reached down and heaved the body out of the water with a strength she didn’t know she had.

Mia rolled the body over. It was a woman, dressed in a white dress that would have been very billowy if it wasn’t wet and plastered to her body. She also had large fake wings strapped to her back. The woman wasn’t breathing. Mia knelt beside her, grabbed her wrist and felt for a pulse. Nothing. She struggled to remember the proper form for CPR. Compressions. She thought she was supposed to start with compressions. How many? Was it five or fifteen? And what about breaths? No time to overthink.

She placed one hand on the woman’s chest, placed her other hand over the first, locked her elbows; the woman’s eyes opened before she could press down. The woman smiled but still didn’t take a breath. Mia smiled back, unable to look away, as a wave of love spread through her.

“Um, hi,” Mia said. She backed off the woman and sat down next to her, still staring. Mia felt something under her move tugged by the woman as she started to sit up. She leaned to one side and one of the woman’s cosplay wings slid free. The wing stretched out and up, extending over her head before folding behind her back.

“So, those aren’t a costume are they?” Mia said. Her body began shivering from the cold night and wet clothes.

The angel, because what else could she be, cooed and sang notes to a song Mia could almost place.

“I don’t –” Mia felt the world tilt sideways and rolled to her side. The angel knelt beside her and sang more notes. Everything was going to be ok, she thought. It’s ok. A hand brushed her hair from her face. She saw the angel looking concerned. Then everything began to fade out but instead of darkness, Mia saw white light and heard flapping wings.

To be Continued

Gazebo – A Francine Non-Adventure

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I waited in Kowalski’s patrol car for an hour while more police showed up to “take charge” of the scene. Then Kowalski took me back to the station where I waited another two hours at my desk for Detective Karter. He came in, glanced at me and hurried past into an office. Ten minutes later he came out and approached me.

He opened his mouth to speak but I cut him off. “Detective Karter, can I get pictures of the circle? I recognized some of the symbols but I’d like to try to find the rest.”

“Ms. Espinosa, your help has been invaluable but we no longer require it.” He sounded apologetic.

“What does that mean?”

He sighed heavily. “It has been made clear to me that no one outside the police force is to be working on this case.”

“You’re shutting me out?”

“I pulled a lot of strings to bring you on in the first place. It was a desperation move on a case that had dead-ended. Now that there are new leads and evidence–”

“That I found.”

He held his hands up. “I know. If it was up to me, you’d already have those photos but it’s not up to me.”

“Now what?” I asked.

“I need you to leave. If you have any more insights, you have my number but I can’t share any more details of the case with you.”

I had wanted to study the circle to know exactly what we were dealing with but my hand was being forced. “Detective Karter, you have to destroy or damage the circle.”

“I can’t destroy evidence,” he said.

“If the killer manages to finish their spell–“

“Nothing is going to happen because magic doesn’t exist.” I watched his face shift from apologetic to suspicious. “How did you find the circle again?” He was close to accusing me of being involved with the killer and I didn’t really blame him. I was spouting off about magic and spells.

I took a calming breath and said, “I looked at the files and found a pattern in where the victims lived. Officer Kowalski and I went to one of the victim’s home and I tripped over the loose rug. That’s all.”

He stared at me before gesturing toward the front. “Thank you, Ms. Espinosa, but we will take it from here.”

***

Later that evening I sat thumbing through a magic reference book. The book was just a book, not a magical book. Those I had burned and buried. I was looking for more info on magic circles. There was a surprisingly lot of magic systems that used circles for various rituals. They had differing structures but it was easy to find several that used the cardinal directions in setup for the main ritual or spell. The killer had to have a place for the final part of their spell and it had to be in the center of the victim’s homes.

Using the map app on my phone I pinned the victims’ homes and eyeballed the center point to be near the duck pond in Creekside Park. I gathered some supplies from around my apartment in one of those reusable grocery bags and headed to the park. Twenty minutes later I was wandering through the park toward the approximate center of the four ritual circles. A quick walk around the pond didn’t turn anything up. I checked the map again.

My location looked to be dead center. I zoomed in until the pond’s bean shape filled the screen. A smaller circle popped into view inside the pond. The gazebo. Except as I looked across the pond I didn’t see it. The duck pond gazebo had been closed for repairs after a big storm last year but I couldn’t remember hearing about it being demolished. The bridge to the gazebo remained with a heavy chain across its opening. I stepped over it and started walking across.

A few boards creaked and wobbled but otherwise, the bridge felt solid. At the end was just water. I stared at the end of the bridge for a couple of minutes. The last board was only half as wide and the railing didn’t end in a post instead just hanging in space. I steeled myself and stepped forward off the end of the bridge. My vision blurred and static filled my ears. Then I was inside the gazebo. Magic. That seemed to confirm whether or not the circles would work.

Outside, under the full moon and light from nearby street lights, I hadn’t had much trouble seeing but in the shade of the gazebo’s roof, I found myself in the dark. I pulled a flashlight out of my bag and swept it across the floor. The circle I had found in the apartment had been four to five feet across. The one carved into the gazebo’s floor was at least twice as wide and as jammed packed with sigils, glyphs, runes, and words written in languages I didn’t know. The was no blood traced over the carvings.

The killer hadn’t finished their ritual. Ok, now I just needed to find a place to hide nearby so I – Wait, wait, no. What was I thinking?! I’m not going to play into the plot. I’m not.

I swung the beam of my flashlight behind me, checking for the killer. No one was there. Right, the killer is on track to kill tomorrow so I have most of a day to do something but first things first. I pulled out a box of salt from my bag and popped out the spout. I started at the door and poured a line of salt around the inside of the gazebo. Salt was good protection against a general number of evil things. It probably wouldn’t keep the killer out but it might disrupt the magics they were using. Blood magic tended to be evil.

Once the salt circle was done, I carefully stepped over it back onto the bridge. The gazebo remained visible. Either my stepping through it or the salt had broken the spell hiding it. Hopefully, it wouldn’t scare off the killer when they returned. I left the park and headed home.

I didn’t think Detective Karter would listen to me so I called Kowalski.

“Hello is this Officer Kowalski?”

“Yo, Kowalski here.”

“I … You answer the phone with yo?”

“Who is this?”

“Sorry, it’s Francine Espinosa. The consultant.”

“Oh hey, what can I do for you? I heard you had been taken off the case?”

“Yes but I think I have a lead for you. The center point of the four victim’s homes is in Creekside Park. I think you should check out the gazebo in the duck pond.”

“Have you been out there?”

“No. I just looked at a map. If the killer thinks they’re doing magic then it makes sense that they’ll want to finish their ritual.”

“I’ll pass this along to Detective Karter.”

“Don’t tell him I told you. Tell him you thought of it.”

“Ah… sure.”

“Thank you. Bye.”

“See ya.”

A few days later I read about an attempted murder in Creekside Park. The papers reported that there were occult connections but a lot of the details were being withheld by the police. Kowalski called to tell me my tip had been good. They found the circle, staked it out and grabbed the killer when he showed up dragging a homeless man to the gazebo. It’s unclear if he will be officially connected to the first four murders.

Not a completely satisfying conclusion but better than trying to fight some magic powered killer in the park. The ghost in the park across the street has started calling my name again. I’m thinking of walking over for a chat.

Author’s Note: So, this is the end of the story started in “The Alibi” which was meant to be a one off story.

“The Non-Adventures of Francine” was conceived as a series of very short stories about Francine avoiding story plots. The first three stories followed this format. It was while writing “The Scrapbook” that I had the idea of continuing the story from “The Alibi” the previous story.

I’m currently thinking of using “The Non-Adventures of Francine” as the title story of my next e-book.


<<Previous Index

The Scene – A Francine Non-Adventure

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We went to the last victim’s apartment. The apartment manager let us in. The door was clean of any signs or police tape.

“Have you been inside since … the police came by?” I asked the manager.

“Uh, I let Rob’s sister in and gave her a key so she could get his stuff out,” he said.

I looked at Kowalski. “Shouldn’t the apartment be locked down while the investigation is ongoing?”

“Why? It’s not a crime scene. The officers who checked it out didn’t see anything out of place. So what are looking for?”

“I don’t know. The killer chose the victim based on where he lived. There must be something special about the apartment or maybe the building. The killer could have drawn his square anywhere but he chose this place.”

“What if it’s random?” Kowalski asked.

“Then we have no chance at predicting where he will kill next and I’ve wasted the last week of my life on a pointless task,” I said.

“A lot of police work is pointless tasks.”

“That’s not how things work around me.”

“What makes you special?”

“Nothing.” I was a girl detective as a teen and now I’m a character trying to avoid plot hooks. I turned away from him and started walking around the apartment looking at the walls and shelves for a clue. Rob had been the man found in my apartment. Pictures of him with family and friends dotted the walls.

In the living room, I examined his DVD collection. Action, horror, and martial arts movies dominated but I noticed a shelf near the floor with romantic comedies. Nothing jumped out at me as strange or out of place. I turned to walk into the kitchen and stumbled as my foot caught on something. The carpet had a loose flap in the middle of the room. I crouched down, pulled the carpet up and felt a chill run up my spine. The third act twist had just shown up.

Kowalski leaned over the sofa and asked me, “What did you find?” I yanked the carpet up and to the side, exposing the floor. Underneath the rug was a series of circles, one inside the next. Between the circles, symbols, glyphs, runes, sigils, and other things I couldn’t identify were carved into the wood. A dark brown substance was smeared, tracing every line, on all of them. Kowalski stared at it all with mixed horror and puzzlement playing across his face. I probably didn’t have to tell him the brown smears were most likely blood either the victim’s or the killer’s or both. “What is this?” he asked.

“It’s a magic circle meant to draw energies from the victim and give power to the killer.”

“And how do you know that?” he asked. His eyes narrowed and his posture shifted.

“I took a few classes on myths, magic, and religions. This rune represents power. This symbol means power and this one is life. It’s all jumbled up from like five different systems. The killer probably just copied it out of a book.” Kowalski relaxed as I rambled about the circle. I had actually learned most of what I knew when magic beings started appearing around me. Several days of hard studying at the public library had given me enough knowledge to mostly avoid getting involved with anything supernatural up til now.

This jumbled as it was might still work. The normal rules didn’t apply around me. I had seen portals to other worlds, wizard duels in alleyways, magic rings(I knew they were magic because they glowed), and ghosts in numerous locations. I had even seen a circle like this but simpler and made of stones. That one I had disarmed by kicking the stones and running away. This one, one of four, might be harder to dispel. I reached to touch one of the symbols.

“Stop! Don’t touch that,” Kowalski shouted. “This is a crime scene now. We need to get out and call CSI to come examine the floor.” He grabbed my arm and gently guided me out of the apartment.


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Kowalski – A Francine Non-Adventure

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Now that I was engaged with the plot, it slowed to a crawl as I spent the next week reviewing the police’s files on the murder victims. Hours every day reading reports, looking at photos, and making notes that were little more than a list of questions without answers. In a tv show or novel, this would have been a montage or just a few sentences at the beginning of a chapter and not days of my life.

“Hello,” an officer said as he passed my desk. I watched Officer Kowalski fill a paper cup from the water cooler. It was across from the spare desk Detective Karter had found for me. Kowalski stood out as the only patrol cop I saw on a regular basis. Maybe it was just a coincidence he was always scheduled when I was in the station. That didn’t explain why I saw him several times during the day when he should have been out patrolling the streets. Most of the police people seemed content to ignore me. Kowalski said hello every time he passed my desk.

“Hey Kowalski,” I said. He turned to face me. “What do you think of this case?” I gestured at the reports and photos spread across the desk.

“I don’t really know much about it. Serial killer. Four victims, that we know of, unrelated. Kills every two weeks. Fakes the crime scene.”

“So, you’re all caught up. He’s scheduled to kill again tonight. I’m supposed to catch this guy.”

“It’s not your fault this guy’s out there killing people.”

“I know that but I’m the observant outside who cracks the case wide open. At least I thought I was.”

“This isn’t tv. Police work is hours of talking to people, finding evidence, putting together timelines.”

“I know that and I’ve put in the time. I’ve been reading these reports and looking at these photos for days and I have nothing to show for it.”

“I’m sure we’ll catch this guy. These guys always think they’re so smart but they always mess up somehow.”

“We got nothing right now. The crime scenes are fake. The “murder weapon” from each murder isn’t even the murder weapon. The victims didn’t live in the same neighborhood. One lived up here,” I touched the map in the approximate location of the first victim, “Another lived over here, the third lived across the city here.” I paused with my finger on the third victim’s home. “And the last lived here.”

I stared at the invisible points where my finger had touched the map. I pulled out the victims’ files and began marking the exact addresses of their homes. Using the edge of a folder, I drew straight lines between them. They made a perfect square. “How did I miss that?” I said out loud.

“Miss what?” Kowalski asked.

“The victims’ homes make a square on the map. They aren’t random. He chose these four men because of where they lived. But why?”

“I don’t know,” Kowalski said looking at the map, “They line up with the cardinal directions, too.”

“What?”

He pointed to the compass on the map and back at the square I drew. “North, south, east, west.” I flipped through the victim’s files. The police had checked the victims’ homes but nothing of note had been found. They didn’t know the locations were significant.

“We need to go to one of the victims’ homes.” I stood up and started gathering my things.

“Hold up, I thought you were a consultant. You can’t just go investigating on your own.”

“I’m not. You’re going to go with me.”

“I am?” Kowalski asked.

“Yes. I need a police escort and you don’t seem to be doing anything right now. Are you doing anything?”

“I have … paperwork,” he said uncertainly.

“Of course, you’ve been hanging around doing nothing. You’re my cop buddy.”

“I’m your what now?”

“Never mind that. We need to get going. I should have figured out the victims’ homes thing days ago.” Kowalski stared at me like I had grown a second head. “Look, I’m here to look at the evidence with fresh eyes but there’s no evidence from the victims’ homes because no one thought to look for any. The only way I can look at the evidence is to go to one of their homes myself. And you are going to take me.”

“I can’t just take you to a random location to look for … for clues.”

I paused putting on my sweater. Was I looking for clues? Was I too caught up in the crime thriller plot? I had said I would stay in the precinct where I was safe. It wasn’t like the killer would be waiting for me at one of the victims’ homes, would he? No, even that would be too coincidental. I was stalled working with just the police files. I had to do something to move the plot forward before he killed again.

“Call Detective Karter and tell him I’ve got a lead but I need to go to one of the victims’ homes.”

Kowalski stared at me. I waved him to the phone on the desk. He sighed and picked up the phone. After a short conversation, he hung up and said, “Get your stuff we’re going a field trip.”


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The Consultant – A Francine Non-Adventure

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“Detective Karter, thank you for seeing me,” I said. I had shown up at the precinct and asked to see the detective, a few minutes later he walked out holding a file folder.

“Sure, what can I do for you?” He had the same leather jacket, unshaved, rumpled look from the first time we met even though it was barely past noon.

“There’s something I noticed the night of … the night I found the body in my living room. The victim was killed by a single cut across his neck. Arterial blood spray was found on the wall along with a smeared handprint presumably from the victim trying to catch himself as he fell dying.”

“You got all that from the few seconds you saw the body when you found it?”

“I had to walk past it to retrieve my medicine and the coroner was talking about the crime scene with someone.” The coroner had been fairly loud and loose-lipped about the body’s condition.

“We’ve already reconstructed the series of events,” he said unimpressed.

“Did you notice the blood spray overlaps the handprint?”

He frowned for a second before opening the folder he was carrying. How convenient that he just happened to be walking around with the relevant folder. He shuffled through some papers and photos until he found what he was looking for and stopped staring at the photo. He eyes widened and he looked at me.

“How did you see that?” he asked.

“I’m really observant.” He let out a short loud barking laugh. “And I have a little experience with investigation.”

“Do you know what this means?” He closed the folder

“The crime scene was staged and the victim was killed somewhere else,” I said.

“Yeah.” He seemed to zone out for a second staring over my head mumbling to himself, “Probably all of them were staged.” There had been more murders like the one I found in my living room. Murders the detective thought were connected.

“A serial killer,” I said aloud. My speaking snapped the detective back into the moment. His head darted back and forth looking around the room. He grabbed my arm and pulled me down the hall into a meeting room. Once the door was shut he began to pace.

“We think there have been four murders, including the one you found. The crime scenes are virtually identical, which would make sense if they’re staged.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Six weeks since the first murder. Two weeks since we started thinking it might be a serial killer. Four days since we all but confirmed it. He kills every two weeks. We’ve been keeping it quiet because we have almost nothing to go on except the crime scenes. Now we don’t even have the real crime scenes just the fake ones the killer gave us.” He stopped leaned over the table head down.

“Well I think I’ll be going now,” I said. He head snapped up.

“Wait, I could use some fresh eyes on this. You said you’ve done investigative work before? Were you a P.I.?”

“Not exactly.” Girl detective was kind of hard to put on a resume.

“Doesn’t matter. I can get you clearance as a consultant. Strictly in-house. You wouldn’t have to go to crime scenes or hit the streets.” That I knew was a lie. I’m sure the detective believed what he was saying but I knew how these kinds of stories went. First I’m just working at a desk until a hot lead comes in. We rush to follow the lead and blammo! we’re in a shootout with the suspect. After that, I’m basically his sidekick following him around giving him insight into crimes he otherwise couldn’t solve. No thank you.

“I would rather not get more involved,” I said waving away his offer. It was better this way I would go back to my normal life and this killer would be caught in due time even without my help. I turned, grabbed the doorknob, and a thought passed through my mind. The killer always returns to the scene of the crime. It’s a silly cliché but silly clichés held more weight in my world than others. I could return home but that didn’t mean the killer would come after me there for whatever reason. Was this a buddy cop show or a crime thriller? Could I choose?

I turned back to Detective Karter and said, “You know, I think I can help you.”


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The Scrapbook – A Francine Non-Adventure

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A week had passed since I had found a dead man in my living room. Something about this felt familiar. I went to the top shelf of my closet. All the way in the back and pushed to one side, I found the box. I pulled it down and took it into the living room. The box was plain brown, its flaps were bent and creased and slid open easily. Inside was a penlight long since dead, seven tattered pocket notebooks, a watch with glow in the dark numbers and hands, a skeleton key from one of our cases, and the scrapbook.

The cover had colorful letters that said “Margaret and Francine’s Adventure Book”. The first couple of pages were just photos of me and Margaret as young kids. After that, the newspaper clippings started. “Kids Find Dognapped Show Dog” was the first one. The accompanying photo was of two kids on either side of a dog. The original color photo was also on the page. I studied the two children, Margaret was smiling broadly, she had been so excited to solve a “mystery”. I was smiling as well but not the face-splitting grin Margaret had. Did I know then? Maybe I had just started to figure out. The caption read, “Ten-year-olds, Margaret (left) and Francine (right) found Dixie (center) in the cellar of an abandoned house.” I touched the liquid paper that covered my deadname. Someone had carefully printed my name on top.

I flipped quickly through the following pages. Not every adventure had ended with a front-page story. Most barely rated a short blurb in the weekly Oddities and Curiosities column. Everyone was collected in the scrapbook, interspaced with photos of us taken by our private photographer, my mom. A couple of years floated by until I reached the two-page spread dedicated to the Case of the Crooked Beauty Pageant. The big photo under the headline, “Beauty Pageant Scandal!!”, was of the finalists in their formal wear. I was third from the end.

Margaret had heard rumors the pageant’s voting was rigged. The fact that Jennifer Grey had been crowned two years in a row suggested something might have been hinky. So, we entered the pageant. I hadn’t meant to enter but during the summer I had been too busy with our adventures to get a haircut and puberty hadn’t yet hit me hard. When the woman at the registration desk asked for my name, Margaret had jumped at the chance to have both of us backstage. The dresses, swimsuits, and makeup were all strange and confusing to me but the rest, being seen and treated as a girl, had just felt right. Perhaps if I had actually been a boy it would have bothered me. Maybe I would have put up more of a fight when Margaret suggested I compete. Instead, I had loved all of it, well except for the chase through the hotel in a ballgown.

After the pageant, which had been fixed by Jenifer’s father bribing the judges, I went back to living as a boy, mostly. I flipped a couple pages to the next big case we had a few months later. The Case of the Silver Teeth. The teeth belonged to the grandfather of a local judge. They had been “misplaced” after a small fire in the judge’s house. In the photo Mom had taken, we’re holding the teeth between us with the judge behind us. My hair is still uncut held back by a headband. The judge had called us the best girl detectives he had ever seen. Mom had corrected him but it hadn’t bothered me.

I flipped a few more pages to a photo of the two of us standing next to a mud covered safe. My hair is short, cropped almost to the root. Do I look as unhappy as I felt? I’m smiling in the photo but I know I wasn’t happy. A week earlier I had cut my hair off after one too many remarks from a classmate. Peer pressure, bullying, or whatever you want to call it had finally forced me back into societal norms. I was miserable and couldn’t understand why.

Several pages later I was wearing a skirt and a jaunty beret to cover my still short hair, posing with Margaret and the Mayor. We had helped him find his father’s pocket watch. Not the most compelling case we ever had but the most important one to me. It was during this case that I came out as trans. Mom had accepted me almost immediately once I had dug up enough courage to tell her. Dad was hesitant but came around fast. Margaret had laughed and said it was about time. She had picked up on it during the pageant and had tried to subtly encourage me. The Mayor had been confused that the boy and girl detectives he had contacted were two girls by the end but he rolled with it.

The rest of the scrapbook was adventure after adventure. In photo after photo, I could see myself and Margaret grow up. There was no newspaper clipping to go along with our last adventure that had nearly ended with us in jail. The last photo was taken just after we graduated high school. Soon after we had gone to different colleges and lost touch.

I closed the scrapbook. What was I doing? Reminiscing about the “Good Old Days” to what end? A dead man had been found in my living room. I had an almost airtight alibi. There was no reason for me to involve myself with the investigation. As a “kid detective”, if I hadn’t gotten involved, Margaret would have. That was all behind me, wasn’t it? I had been fighting against getting involved with these “stories” that seemed to spawn around me for years. This felt familiar, though we had never seen a dead body or investigated a murder. It was a mystery and I understood mysteries. Maybe I could subvert the story. Stay a step ahead of it and … solve it without needing to be kidnapped or stumbling onto the bad guys.

What was I thinking? I’m in the clear. I just need to let the police do their jobs and find the killer. Just keep my head down and nothing will happen to me. I put the scrapbook back in the box, closed it and shoved the box back on the closet shelf. Yeah just leave it alone, I thought and closed the closet.

I walked back into my living room. The cleaners had done a great job. I couldn’t even tell where the carpet had been soaked with blood. The blood splatter on the wall was gone as well. The bloody handprint, erased except from my memory. Something clicked in my head. I grabbed my notebook and wrote down a note. I would call the detective tomorrow about it but surely he or someone else had noticed it too. I would just make sure they had noticed it, that was all. I wasn’t getting involved. I wasn’t.


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