This week’s blog features the conclusion to the Toe Ring Caper. As you recall, last week I left my four-prompt private eyes preparing for a trip toward unknown trouble, the journey inspired by a pair of Egyptian toe rings and a pile of steaming compost, both items clues sent by Barnabus White’s sister.
Today’s blog also marks a bit of a milestone: my 100th post. THANK YOU to the many folks who have taken a moment to read my work, and a special THANK YOU to the people who decided to add me to the list of bloggers they follow.
As always, enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.
The Toe Ring Caper: Part II
The ’54 Dodge scooted down the highway with ease. The second year for Red Ram V-8s in this line and I’d opted for the 241 cubic-inch engine with a four-barrel carburetor and 150 horsepower. After all, in my line of work I never knew when a fast getaway might be required.
I’d been pretty quiet since receiving the second coded message from my one-and-only sister. The toe rings clued me that she wanted to see me, or at least talk. The load of crap, as my partner had intimated, seemed to imply urgency, as if she might be in some real trouble. But if she’d taken the time to mail a package and pay for special delivery compost, her desperation couldn’t be too serious. Right?
Wong quit trying to find a radio station he liked, clicked off the AM tuner, and leaned back in the front seat. He stared at me, his capability to respect my desire for solitary thinking had reached its acme.
“So, what kind of trouble you think your sister is in?”
I glanced at my watch. “Twenty-two minutes.”
“You allowed me twenty-two minutes of uninterrupted thought. That should be a new record.”
Wong glared. “Bastard.”
I grinned. “Not according to my parents…unless they forged my birth certificate.”
He rolled his eyes. “So…?”
“So… If she had time to send me messages instead of calling, her problems can’t be too life-threatening. Still…”
“Well, only you would know. How long’s it been since you and your sister got together?”
“Since… Damn. Since I got back from Korea, I guess––in ’52.”
“Nothing since then?”
“Nope, not since the party after I got back.”
“Purple Heart and all.”
I rubbed my left shoulder. “Right.”
“Was your whole family included in your state-side celebration?”
“Mom had already passed, but, despite his age, Pop was there, along with Sis, our aunts and uncles, cousins––the entire clan.”
“Been in touch with any of those folks since then?”
“I, uh…” The heat from a rosy blush rushed into my cheeks.
“What a jackass you are, White. Your family throws you a celebration for surviving a war, and you discard ’em like yesterday’s news. Not the way to treat family, pal.”
The insinuation turned my blush to a mild boil. “Oh, and you’re the model for family familiarity?”
“Sometimes more often than expected, like when my pal leaves me with my cantankerous mother to nurse a hangover.”
I recalled the night I’d dropped Wong at his mother’s place for safe keeping. He’d escaped a trap set by a slave-labor boss known as the Pidgeon. Marion the librarian didn’t fare so well. Her death prompted Wong to drown his guilt-ridden sorrows all the way back to the office. Too drunk to help mount a counter offensive, he was better off with Momma Wong, who still knew how to handle her “little boy”––by the ears. The recollection inspired a sigh. “Okay, so I can be neglectful.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“Okay, okay. I get it. But I doubt my absence has something to do with Sis’s messages.”
Wong stared. “And if she’s reaching out now, there could be something much more important.”
I focused on the roadway again and allowed the monotonous drone of the engine and the hum of the tires to lull me into solitary thought once more. Maybe Wong was right. Maybe there was something going on, and Sis couldn’t get word to me any other way. Wong and I had been in and out of the office lately. Maybe she’d called when we weren’t around. With no secretary to answer the phone who knows how many times she might have called? Maybe the messages were the only foolproof method of snagging my attention.
Two hours later, Wong and I drove through a little burg called Pleasantville. A few miles further we took a left, past a mailbox labeled Halloran. The lengthy gravel road led to my sister’s homestead, a two-story Victorian set in the middle of forty-five pastoral acres dotted with maple, elm, and oak trees. We pulled up to the main gate located about one-hundred yards from the house. The gate was closed. A small burlap sack was hanging by its drawstrings from the cedar fencepost near the latch. I stopped the car and pulled on the emergency brake. Wong and I looked at the sack, then at each other, then back to the burlap.
“I’ll get the gate,” Wong said, “then you pull through.”
He stopped short of unlatching the gate and stared at the paper pinned to the sack. Wong lifted the drawstrings from the post and walked back to my side of the car. I rolled down the window.
“Got your name on it,” Wong said. “In big letters.”
I took the sack. The handwriting seemed familiar, but script I hadn’t been exposed to in decades. I uncinched the burlap and peeked in. Another piece of paper had been folded in half and placed inside, along with a slotted spoon and a spatula. The note shared the same penmanship as the tag. The message was direct:
BARNEY-BEAN, IF YOU’RE READING THIS, YOU’RE ALSO BEING WATCHED. DON’T COME ANY FURTHER UNTIL YOU AND WONG SWAP YOUR WEAPONS FOR ONE OF THE COOKING UTENSILS. PLACE YOUR WEAPONS IN THE SACK AND LEAVE THEM AT THE GATE. WHEN YOU REACH THE HOUSE, EACH OF YOU HOLD A UTENSIL ABOVE YOUR HEADS WITH BOTH HANDS AS YOU APPROACH. PLEASE, MY SURVIVAL DEPENDS UPON YOUR COOPERATION.
“Well, what’s it say?” Wong said. “Another coded message?”
I exhaled. “The note’s from Sis, alright. Says her survival depends on whether we cooperate.”
Wong frowned. “Whatta you mean? And what’s with the cooking tools?”
“You packin’ heat?”
“A skinny Asian guy livin’ in the big city? Never go far without it.”
“Pffft,” I said. “What about all that Kung-fu stuff?”
“Flying feet and hands don’t stop bullets. Besides, not every Asian knows Kung-fu.”
“Right.” I handed Wong the note and the spatula, then spread the sack. “Need to put your artillery in here.”
“What about your sister?”
I pointed toward the written message. “Gonna have to rely on our wits to help her, I suppose.”
“Rather have my gun.”
Wong read the note. “Barney-Bean?”
“It was a nickname when we were kids, alright?”
We complied with the note’s disarming requests, then I drove up to the house and stopped in the circular driveway. The front door swung open, but no one waited in the entrance. I glanced at my partner. “Remember, both hands on your tool and hold it over your head.”
He snickered. “I’ve never held my tool with both hands, much less over my head.”
I shook my noggin. “Now who’s the jackass?”
Wong shrugged. “Okay, Barney-Bean.”
Like prisoners in a concentration camp, Wong and I ambled hands-high to the front steps.
“Barnabus White and Peter Wong here,” I said. “We’re unarmed and coming inside.”
Once Wong and I passed through the front entry, the door slammed closed behind us. A gruff voice said, “Don’t turn around. Keep your hands up and slowly walk to the kitchen.” The triple click of a cocking revolver reinforced the gruff voice’s directive.
My partner and I shared sideways glances. “Better do as he wants,” I said, then nodded forward. “The kitchen’s in the back––down the hallway, then to your right.”
Wong sniffed the air. “Your sister must have been making dinner before––”
“Shut up and start moving,” the voice said.
Wong and I took deep breaths and shuffled ahead. Heavy footsteps followed, thump, shhhhht, thump, shhhhht, as if the gunman behind us had a gimpy leg. The aromas Wong had sensed grew stronger as we approached the rear of the house. Sis had definitely acquired our mother’s culinary skills. Too bad she’d been interrupted by… by whom? The guy behind us either had Sis and her family restrained in the kitchen, or––more likely––he had an accomplice holding a gun on my kin. Question was what did they want?
I paused as we neared the dining room. “Praline sweet potatoes. I smell––”
“Yams,” the gimpy gunman said. “Twelve roasted yams. Now keep moving.”
We stepped into the dining room. An opened chest containing pure silver dining utensils lay on the mahogany buffet, both items passed down from my deceased grandmother. Grandma’s good china was stacked on her quarter-sawn oak table. If robbery was the motive, the 1860s era china, silverware, and furniture would fetch a pretty penny. Their loss from my family would thoroughly piss me off.
I stopped and turned around. “Alright, what’s this––Uncle Harry? Whatta you doing with Grandpa’s Walker Colt? What’s going on?”
Bristly-haired, chunky around the middle, but still very much able-bodied, Harold White grinned ear-to-ear. “Had ya goin’, didn’t we. Like my bad-leg trick?”
“Whatta you mean we? C’mon, what’s with the charade?”
A chorus of relatives hollered from the kitchen. “Happy Thanksgiving!”
My sister sashayed into the doorway. “I knew implying trouble was the only way to pry you away from the big city. Glad to know you can still decipher our code.” She smiled. “Glad to see you again.”
A warm blush rose into my cheeks once more.
Before I could muster a reply, Sis hugged me, then stepped back. “Now, you and Peter get into the kitchen. Take that spoon in your hands and stir the mashed potatoes. Peter, use that spatula to flip the scrapple. Dinner will be ready shortly. After spending most of the day cooking, don’t think I can survive another minute in there.”