Authors: K. P. Hilton
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Animals, #Women Sleuths, #30 Minutes (12-21 Pages), #Literature & Fiction
(A Locked Room Short Story)
K. P. Hilton
Copyright © 2015.
All rights reserved by the author. No part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblances to any persons, living, or dead, are completely coincidental.
Betty Hitchens couldn't fully focus on the show she'd decided to watch from her overstuffed DVR, due to the noise caused by the three men who were replacing the roof on her house. Loud bangs, buzzing saws, and bawdy jokes swirled above her head and engulfed her ears. She was trying to enjoy her day off as her young employees, Fred and George Darby, ran things at Betty's Cakes in downtown Yellow Rose but that was proving more and more difficult. Shaking off the intrusive annoyances, she looked up as her daughter entered the living area. By the expression on Brianna's face, Betty knew something was wrong.
“What is it?” she asked. Zorro, the family cat, plopped onto the floor from Betty's warm lap, mewling in protest as she stood.
“You should see this,” Brianna said. She led the way out of the room and down into the basement. She paused and turned to her mother. “Just to warn you, it’s disgusting,” she said as she opened the door.
Inside contained what once had been a rec room, with a ping pong table, a large TV connected to a Nintendo gaming system, and a couple of recliner chairs near the far wall. But of late the place had become more of a storage area. There were boxes stacked everywhere. Christmas decorations sat on the ping pong table, while old pots and pans were nestled inside a big box that had once held the new dish washer. There was a space heater in the room, though it hadn’t been used in quite some time. Two glass doors were shut loosely over the heater's opening, and more boxes were piled in front of it.
And there, in the middle of the floor, was a mouse, clearly dead. Betty heard a meow and turned to see Zorro inching into the room. She hurried and edged him out with her foot before shutting the door on him.
“Gross,” Betty said. “So what, you want me to get rid of him?”
“No, I want you to tell me how he got in here,” Brianna said. “I’m not going to be able to sleep knowing we might have house mouses.”
“Mice,” Betty corrected her.
“Whatever,” Brianna said under her breath.
“Even if we do, it looks like Zorro took care of the immediate problem,” Betty reasoned. “He’ll take care of any others if they're out and about.”
“Mom, there’s no way he could have gotten in here,” she said. “Something else killed that mouse.”
“Maybe he had a little mouse heart attack, Brianna,” Betty said to her daughter. “What do you think, an alligator sneaked in?”
“It could have been a snake!”
“He probably died of natural causes.”
“Mom, go look at him,” Brianna pleaded. Betty resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and stepped forward. She crouched down, though she didn’t really need to. It was obvious that the mouse had been bitten.
“It was Zorro,” Betty said again.
“How?” Brianna asked.
“How what?” Betty asked. “You really think a snake did this?”
That was a horrible thought. Betty could handle the occasional mouse. But a snake, in her house? No, it was Zorro. But she needed to prove it to Brianna, so that each could get some sleep that night.
“The door was shut, as well as the windows,” Brianna said. The basement room had slim windows near the top of two walls that were at ground level.
“If it wasn’t the cat, it means there’s a snake, or something worse, hiding out in here. So let’s figure out how the cat could have done it, all right?” Betty said.
“Okay,” Brianna said, stepping forward. “Cats squeeze under doors,” Brianna said. “Right?”
“He’s never been able to get under this door,” Betty said. “And if he could, I think he would be in here now.”
“So then it’s a snake.”
“How would a snake get in here?” Betty asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s clear our heads. Settle down.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to sleep knowing that slimy death is slithering towards me,” Brianna said with a grim look on her face. Her mother ignored her and looked around the room.
As she looked closer Betty noticed that there were dark smudges on the cream colored carpet. Small dots crisscrossed the room. Some led to and away from the mouse.
Looking at the dead rodent once more didn’t tell Betty anything new at first. It looked as though the poor little creature had been bitten, and she didn’t notice anything else out of the ordinary. The black spots on the carpet probably had not come from the mouse. Its feet were much too small.
Betty moved on, going back to the entrance of the room and crouching at the door. She bent and peered underneath it. She could see Zorro’s nose and whiskers. He made a high pitched meowing sound. He wanted to come in, but couldn’t.
“Mom,” Brianna called as she peered at the mouse. “Look.”
Betty stood and went over to her daughter, who was crouched and peering at the mouse. “Look between his little toes,” Brianna said.
Betty peered and saw it instantly, now that she was looking for it. A small fleck of blue between two of the mouse's digits on its front right paw.
“That looks like…” Betty began, then trailed off.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Brianna agreed. The women each stood and headed for the door.
They made it outside after making sure Zorro didn’t sneak past and go down into the basement. Next, they did a quick trip up the stairs and out the back door that opened up from the kitchen. They skirted a ladder leaning against the back of the house that the men applying the roof used to go up and down. Next to the ladder was a blue tarp, with various tools and stacks of shingles sitting on it.
Towards the rear of the backyard was a small gravel garden with a fountain that spewed cool clear water from underneath it into a miniature pond. The gravel was white and blue. Betty led the way to it.
“Looks like it, huh?” she asked. The blue speck that they had found had almost certainly come from the gravel by the fountain.
“Look at this, Mom,” Brianna said. She was a bit past the pond and gravel, by a tree. Betty joined her and saw a hole at the base of the tree, burrowing under it. She didn’t know if mice lived underground, but it seemed about the right size.
“Maybe he wasn’t in the house when he was killed,’ Betty said.
“You might be right,” Brianna agreed.
“Okay, so what killed it out here and brought it in?” Betty asked.
“Zorro ran out this morning when I came out to give the guys some coffee,” Brianna said. There was a young guy working with two older men, and Betty knew her daughter found him cute. Things has been strained between Brianna and her boyfriend lately, and Betty was glad to see she had shown some interest in a man with an actual job. So while she was giving all three men coffee, it was really meant for the younger, better looking one.
“When did he come back in?”
“I heard him meowing an hour later by the back door and let him in.”
Betty nodded. She felt as though the pieces were coming together, but she couldn’t see the whole puzzle yet. She went back inside, followed by her daughter.
When they went down into the basement they shut the door again, even though Zorro wasn’t with them.
“Where is that cat?” Betty asked.
“I think he ran outside when we went out back,” Brianna said.
Betty nodded. “I wanted to look at his paws. Maybe he has some gravel, too.”
“Even if it was him, how could he have gotten in here?’ Brianna asked, thinking that they were back to square one. Betty stood quietly for a moment, looking around the room. It was hard to think though, because the men on the roof had started pounding again. The sound traveled through the chimney and straight down into the basement.
“That racket,” Betty said, massaging her temples with her fingertips. “I can’t hear myself think.”
“I know, I hope they finish soon,” Brianna said.
“Wait a minute,” Betty said. She looked at the faint dark spot on the carpet, then went to the chimney. She began moving boxes out of the way. The top one had black marks on top of it like the carpet.
“What is it?” Brianna asked, as her mom reached for the glass doors covering the fireplace. They weren’t closed all of the way, and came open easily.
“Look at that,” Betty said as she reached into the fireplace and touched the bricks at the bottom. The fireplace had not been used in quite some time. A thin layer of black soot and ash covered the bricks. It looked disturbed, as though something had walked through it.
“Zorro?” Brianna asked, because the prints looked as though they might belong to a cat.
“I think so,” Betty said.
“But how could he get into the chimney?”
“Follow me,” Betty said. She was sure she had the whole thing figured out. They went back outside and Betty motioned to the ladder.
“He climbed the ladder? Can a cat do that?” Brianna asked.
“If he can climb a tree, I’m sure a ladder is nothing,” Betty said.
“So he killed the mouse and took him up the ladder and down into the room through the chimney. He climbed all the way down the chimney?”
“His claws could hook in between the bricks,” Betty said. “It wouldn’t be a problem. He took the mouse by the fountain, then wanted to leave it somewhere that wouldn’t get him in trouble. He’s a smart cat. He knew we would flip out if he carried it through the house.”
“I don’t know, Mom. It sounds a bit crazy, don’t you think?”
“Well, let's catch him red handed,” Betty said, laughing and then adding, “or black pawed, I guess you might say. Where is that cat?”
“There!” Brianna yelled, pointing. Betty turned just in time to see Zorro dart up the ladder and onto the roof.
“Told you!” Betty said. “Let’s go surprise him.”
The women laughed as they went back down into the basement. They were just fast enough to be standing by the chimney when Zorro came out.
“There you go,” Betty said. “Black pawed.”
Zorro came forward slowly, purring as Brianna pet him. His paws were once again covered in soot which matched his black fur.
“Get him out of here and I’ll get rid of the mouse,” Betty said. Brianna did so, glad for a reason to leave the mouse to someone else.
Betty went about her business, but she couldn't help but think she could hear something nearby, slithering among the boxes. She had to tell herself she was being crazy, that she had solved the mystery, but wondered if she would be getting a good night’s sleep after all.