The annoying nurse, Wanda, was at Carol’s door. “Carol, you have a visitor.”
Carol resisted the urge to snap back. She really had no evidence that Wanda was connected to her accident, but she couldn’t shake the feeling. Wanda in the donut galaxy, Wanda at the crash site, Wanda in the hospital. Three times is enemy action.
But she bit her tongue. “Who would come visit me?”
“That would be me,” said the deep Irish brogue that still made Carol’s heart monitor speed up even after all the years and two kids.
“Hubs!” She lifted herself up onto her elbows so she could see the smiling face of the man she loved, the one person she desperately wanted here with all the weirdness that was going on. “What the hell are you doing here? I told you to stay home!”
He grinned and stepped in, with a bouquet of roses in his right hand and a stuffed pink Cthulhu in the other. “You know me, never any good at followin’ orders.”
Wanda at least had the good sense to peek at Carol’s monitors and then back quietly out of the door, closing it behind her. Carol said, “But – How did – You got here so fast. I was just emailing you!”
Hubs’s grin grew bigger. “They have Wi-Fi on the planes these days, Wubs.” He set the roses on the side table and the Cthulhu on her chest, and he leaned in to kiss her. Again the heart rate monitor jumped.
When their lips finally broke apart, and before she could say anymore, Hubs continued, “An’ before ye ask, Sean and Michael are with me Mum and Da. It just broke everyone’s hearts to get a vacation with Grandma and Grandpa.” Then his eyes narrowed. “They’d rather have come with me, of course, but I told them that wouldn’t do. I understood their concerns, but the price of three airline tickets…” He shook his head. “So I promised them that you are okay and that I’d bring their Mum back safe and healthy.” Then, with a glint in his eye, he added, “And bearin’ presents.”
“Oh, it wouldn’t do to return without presents.” Carol frowned. “But now we’re both going to miss trick-or-treating. I put so much work into their costumes.”
“Aye, you did. They’re the best Gawain an’ Dragon I’ve ever seen. But Mum an’ Da will take care of them.” After a pause, he added, “Or we could… leave early. The flight change would be expensive, but…”
Carol was torn. Part of her desperately wanted to see her twins after her accident. And part of her wanted to be as far away from this crazy town as she could get.
But part of her… She shook her head. “Not until we find Emil.”
There was one hitch: As silly as Carol felt about it, the nurses insisted on taking her out to Hubs’s rental car in a wheelchair, and that freaked her out. The chair was nothing at all like the snazzy electric one that creepy stalker Wayne used, but she still couldn’t shake the thought of him. Finally Hubs had to put his foot down, something he rarely did. “Wubs, ye’ll get in that chair, or I’ll put you in that chair. I –” He stopped, and Carol saw concern leak through his normally cheerful demeanor. “I almost lost ye once this week, love, so forgive me if I’m a little overly cautious for a while.”
She smiled up at him. “For a while?”
He shrugged. “You know me. I’ll get forgetful eventually.” She smiled and took his hands, and he lowered her into the wheelchair.
But Carol was still glad to get out of the wheelchair and into Hubs’s rented Nissan Rogue. Was that the only car Enterprise rented in Grand Rapids? But at least this one was an elegant black model. It looked less conspicuous.
She let Hubs help her into the passenger seat. Her instinct was to block the door and say, I can do it! But it wouldn’t hurt to butter him up. She was going to ask a lot out of him, some of which she wasn’t ready to explain.
But the weirdness would start all too soon. He got in the driver’s door, turned the key, and said hopefully, “Where are we going? Jim and Lorene’s?”
Carol shook her head. “2836 Roscommon.”
“Where’s that?” But his narrowed eyes said he could guess.
Hubs shook his head. “Ye’re not lettin’ go, are ye? Looking for Emil is what got you into this situation. He’s a big lad. He can take care of himself. “
Carol took a deep breath. “I don’t think he can. He’s gone missing. Didn’t you get that from my letters?”
“All right, it’s weird, I’ll grant that. But it’s not your problem. If you think something’s up…”
“What? Call the police? You?”
“Not me, you. It’s what ye are supposed to do, isn’t it? You bein’ an officer of the court, an’ all.”
“When I have anything definite they can act upon, I will. I promise!”
“And how shall we get that?
“We’re going to break in to Emil’s house.”
When they rounded the bend onto Roscommon, Carol gasped. “Alice!”
“Alice? The woman –”
But Hubs didn’t need to finish his question. He had spotted the low, burned-out husk that had been Alice McKay’s home.
The place had to ne a total loss. At ground level, a few scorched sections of wall still stood, including most of a brick fireplace now revealed. But the upstairs… The upstairs was gone, the roof reduced to fragments over the first floor. If Alice had been under there, she would’ve been crushed or roasted. Both possibilities made Carol queasy.
A big white sedan with a fire department license plate was parked in front of the house. A tall man in a fire helmet walked carefully around the home, wrapped in a GRFD windbreaker. He alternated between taking photos with his phone and dictating notes. He was inspecting the wreckage. Occasionally small whiffs of smoke still wafted up, and he cursed at it and stepped back. He followed by making some sort of readings using a big box on his belt. Carol suspected this was using infrared to scan for hot spots.
Hubs had slowed, but they were almost to the house. “What do we do now?” he asked.
Carol grimaced. “We stick with the plan. We can’t… If anything’s happened to Alice, there’s nothing we can do about it. We still have to get into Emil’s place, we’ll just have to use the back door so the fire inspector doesn’t see you jimmy the lock.”
Hubs shook his head. “He wouldna noticed anyway. I am that good.” Carol gave Hubs a weak grin as they pulled into Emil’s driveway and got out of the car. Hubs continued, “Now remember what I told ye: Just walk around the back like we own the place. Nothin’ suspicious about us at all.”
He made it sound so easy; but then, he was a professional. Retired, of course. He had long since abandoned his misspent youth. Today he had a respectable IT job, with employers who knew about his past indiscretions and had come to trust him anyway. Still, all his old skills were still there when he needed them.
Carol, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as comfortable with the whole breaking and entering business, even if it were her idea. She knew the principles in theory, especially after long conversations with Hubs, but hardly in practice. She was strictly law and order… Well, except for the business of marrying one of her parolees after his discharge. That was on the shady side of ethical, though her supervisors had found no rule against it.
When Hubs put his arm around Carol’s waist and guided her through the gate to Emil’s backyard, his natural acting abilities came to the fore. They made small talk about dropping in to surprise Emil, and soon they stood on his back porch. The inspector had never even looked in their direction.
Once they were safely at the back door, Carol fell back against the blue siding and let out a long breath. She looked at Hubs, who stood there relaxed, opening the screen door and peering at the inner locks. “How do you do it?” she asked.
With as long as they’d known each other, he didn’t need to ask what she meant. “You tell a great story, Wubs. I live it. You put yer brain inta yer characters so ye can write ‘em. I put me whole self inta being someone who just belongs where I’m at. No one notices what belongs.”
Carol chuckled. “That must’ve been convenient.”
“I’m nut sure I should admit that to me parole officer.”
“EX parole officer.”
“‘Tain’t nothin’ EX about us, me love.” With that, he turned a small, flat, shiny narrow pick that he had inserted into the lock without her even noticing. There was a pronounced click, and he twisted the doorknob. It turned.
“Not so fast. Your friend is a cautious man. He has a deadbolt, too. Those are usually trickier locks.”
Indeed, this one was so difficult, Carol actually saw Hubs going at it, with the flat pick in his right hand and a curved pointy implement like a nutpick in his left. He uttered Irish curses under his breath as he worked. At last he pulled out a slender knife and flipped open the blade.
Carol stared at the sharp edge. “How did you get that through airport security?”
Hubs grinned up at her. “A man shouldn’t share all his secrets. Where would be the fun in that?” He slid the tip of the knife into the keyhole between the two picks, gripped all three between his strong finger and thumb, and oh so slowly turned. There was a loud slide and clack, and the deadbolt opened.
With a very serious face, Hubs turned to Carol. “So am I under arrest?”
Carol slapped his arm. “You’ve already got a life sentence.” Then she pulled his face down to hers and kissed him. “Without parole.”
“Then let’s get inside. Standing out here without Emil at the door makes us look suspicious.” He glanced around. “If anybody’s lookin’, which they’re not.”
They stepped inside, and Hubs shut the door behind them, taking care to lock the door and latch the deadbolt. “We wouldn’t want any burglars to get in.”
Carol looked around, and her jaw dropped open. “Yeah… They might trash the place.”
Hubs looked as well, but he reacted in panic. He grabbed Carol’s shoulders and swung her into the corner nearest the door. Before Carol could respond, he stood between her and the interior of the house. The switchblade had reappeared, now held in a low, loose fighting grip. His left hand hovered overtop of it, ready to parry any attacks on the blade.
“What’s the matter?” Carol asked.
“They might still be here.” His gaze swept the kitchen and laundry nook where they had entered the house.
Carol looked as well, finding towers of dirty dishes, piles of paper, books stacked almost waist high, And knickknacks on every spare surface, some on top of each other. Rocket ships and aliens and dinosaurs. More clowns than Carol liked. Some of these heaps had fallen to the floor, and there was barely a path to walk through.
Carol laughed. “This isn’t the work of burglars. I’ve never been here before, but I’ve heard the stories. Emil is… Technically he might be a hoarder, though he’s never been diagnosed with this. He does the dished only when he runs out. He doesn’t shelve books anymore because there’s no more space for bookshelves. And his filing system is just piles. He remembers what pile everything is in… Or so he says, and no one has ever caught him losing a sheet of paper.
“He lives like this?”
Carol nodded. “What did Larry and Jerry write? ‘There are lots of ways to be human.’ I guess this is his.”
“Well, I couldn’t take it.”
“I know.” She patted his arm and stepped out from behind him, smiling at his chivalrous reflex. “That’s one of the things I love about you. You put everything in its proper place.”
“So’s I know where to find things! Where do we look in here, for pity’s sake? For that matter, what are we looking for?”
“Emil,” Carol answered. She didn’t add: Or his body. Instead she said, “Or his laptop. I suspect it’s just as cluttered as his house. It’s his personality type, you know? Despite clean, orderly stories, the man is half pack rat.”
After several minutes of searching the kitchen, they convinced that Emil’s laptop was not to be found there, not in any pile and not in any cupboard or drawer. Carol even checked the refrigerator. For some reason, the nearly empty freezer contained only empty ice cube trays, a bottle of caramel schnapps, and a four-inch gray plastic rat.
Hubs picked up the rat. “That Emil… The lad sure knows how to party.”
Carol laughed. “Put… the rat… down. He must have a reason for keeping it in there.”
“Sure an’ he does,” Hubs said, replacing the rat and closing the freezer. “He’s a writer. Ye’re all crazy.”
“Crazy pays, Hubs.” She looked around the room. “I think this is pointless. Let’s check the next room.”
The house wasn’t very big. The first floor was divided into just the kitchen and laundry nook in the rear, and the combination dining room/living room/office in front. In this latter area, Emil’s pack rat nature rose to new heights – literally, a glance showed volumes on in practically every chair. Many flowed out onto the floor. More toys and gimmicks and photos and prints and always books. In the corner to their right stood a globe of Mars on a cherry wood stand. On a pedestal to their left rose a full-scale model of a Pierson’s Puppeteer. Hanging from the ceiling was an elaborate space battle, with starships from Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Dune, Battlestar Galactica, and other universes Carol couldn’t identify. The cleanest surface in the room, an old industrial desk, held only a few folders and an old manual typewriter with a clean sheet of paper inserted, ready for typing.
Then Hubs said, “Stop!”
“This room has been searched.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at the floors.” He pointed down, and Carol looked at the same as she saw everywhere else: loose papers, scattered books, toppled toys…
“I don’t get it. It’s just Emil’s lousy housekeeping.”
“Nah, that’s not this. There’s no paths.” Carol took another look, and she noticed. “Even the most out-of-control hoarder, even the most overstuffed office has paths to get places.” Hubs crouched down so his head was at waist level, and he pulled Carol down with him. “Look straight out here. Keep your eyes at this level. What d’ye see?”
Carol’s eyes widened. “Paths!”
“Uh-huh. Now back up ye go. Look down. What d’ye see?”
Carol nodded. “The paths have been filled in, partly. Stuff dumped over and into them. Some papers and books strewn all around, some paths almost clear. As if…”
Hubs said, “As if someone searched the place. Thoroughly.” He peered around, eyes narrowed. “I would say your friend Emil lived in his own personal organized chaos — that’s the only kind there is, ye know, personal—but now someone has upended the place, looking for something.”
Carol looked around. “His laptop.”
“Probably, from what ye said. An’ there’s no sense us lookin’ for it. They found it.”
Carol turned to Hubs. “How do you know that?”
“Because they stopped searchin’. Not all the piles here is tumbled over. The kitchen is practically clean by comparison. They found what they were lookin’ for, an’ they left.”
“Or they could’ve heard someone coming, someone who scared them away.”
“Aye, that’s possible. It mighta happened that way. But my money’s on them findin’ the laptop, an’ we’re wastin’ our time lookin’.”
Carol would’ve sunk into a chair, if any chair near her had been clear. Instead she wrapped her arms around Hubs, pulled him close, and trembled. She wasn’t going to cry for Emil. Not yet. Not until…
No, she couldn’t believe that. Emil was at the center of all this madness, and she had to find him. Or find a clue. Some message from him…
She looked back at the desk with its nearly clear top. And with the old typewriter with a sheet of paper, ready for Emil to type.
Emil never used a typewriter. Not since his first word processor thirty years before.
Carol slid between the mess and the desk, leaned over the typewriter, pulled out the sheet of paper, and flipped it over. There was an address scrawled on the back.
“Hubs, we have another stop…”
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month ofcreative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share theirexplorations. Today’s prompt: Ghost weaponsmith,
All right, I admit, I missed that one by a mile. But at our writing group at Dorr Township Library, today’s writing prompt was Organized Chaos. This came after I had dictated Carol and Hubs investigating Emil’s kitchen. Synchronicity for the win!