Janelle pulled up across the street from the address scrawled on her boss’ business card. Oh, great! The tavern’s façade did not inspire confidence. The bar was flanked by a vacant storefront to the north and a small parking lot to the south containing four vehicles, two of them rusty pick-up trucks, but at least the lot had a light pole. Following her boss’ instructions, she texted Jason Murphy to let him know she had arrived. Hitting “send” Janelle waited for a response. Already the light was fading and she did not like the idea of entering the bar in the dark. Ten minutes later, with the January cold seeping up through the floorboards her phone beeped. The text from Mr. Murphy was not reassuring.
“Hello, Ms. Walker. I’m sorry but I’ve hit a snag. I’m running about a half-hour behind. Jimmi’s serves food, so just go on in and get something to eat and I will be there as soon as I can.”
Lovely, just lovely. Janelle considered what else could go wrong on this business trip that seemed to be turning into a wild goose chase. She wondered once more what was so important in the thick manilla envelope entrusted to her by her boss that could not have been delivered by fax or messenger. With her toes rapidly turning into icicles, Janelle had to decide between waiting for Mr. Murphy in the warmth of the bar or running the engine on her rental vehicle to keep the anemic heater going. Her frozen toes won out. Janelle inserted the key into the ignition to move the car into the bar’s parking lot, but at the last moment decided to leave the vehicle on the street. She snatched up the manila envelope and her purse, stepped into the street and hit the “lock” button on the fob.
Pulling open the battered door, the familiar and detested odor enveloped Janelle. A quick scan of the room revealed three unoccupied tables against the right hand side of the room. Good. At least she wouldn’t have to sit at the bar itself. The bar stretched the length of the left side. A third of the tatty barstools were occupied by five scruffy men. Parked in front of the restroom doors at the rear an equally tatty pool table listed to one side. So far, the place was living up to its façade. Janelle took a seat at the middle table. The bartender called out to her, “We ain’t got no table service, lady. Whatcha want?”
“I’m meeting a business associate in a little while.” She looked at the soiled laminated card that served as a menu. “Jimmi’s serves food,” she thought. “Right, if you’re immune to food poisoning.” Out loud, she said, “I think I’ll wait to order until he gets here. For now I’ll have a Coke.” Janelle was pretty certain the bar did not have iced tea or even coffee. The bartender plucked a glass from the overhead rack, pulled the soft drink tap and placed the foaming glass on the bar, uncomfortably close to his unkempt patrons. She could feel five pairs of eyes on her as she walked over to pay for and pick up her drink.
Seated so she faced the door, Janelle pulled her tablet out of her purse and thumbed open the cozy mystery she had been reading before her sudden, out-of-town assignment. She was thankful for the lighted screen since the dim lighting would make reading a traditional book difficult. Janelle sipped the Coke and grimaced. It had been a long time since she’d had a soda so she didn’t know whether it was her altered taste buds or dirty lines that made the drink taste slightly off. A few pages into the book, Janelle grimaced again. She would have to use the restroom and she shuddered at the thought of what she might find in the ladies’ room.
The linoleum was worn and the Pepto-Bismol sink dated back to the 1950s, but at least the room was clean. Washing her hands, the water rattled and spurted from the cold water tap. The hot water tap yielded nothing. Janelle wiped her hands on the old-fashioned roller towel. She didn’t think those things were even legal anymore. Janelle reached for the door but stopped. The sensation that ran down her spine was what her grandmother called, “someone stepping on my grave.” Unbidden the thought echoed between her ears, “Careful! Pay attention! Observe!”
Something about the atmosphere in the bar had changed as Janelle stepped out of the ladies’ room. Resuming her seat, she noticed her glass of soda was not quite as she had left it. She could almost feel someone or something encouraging her to take a big gulp of the soft drink. Before touching her glass, she reached into her suit jacket pocket. At the airport, her friend Crazy Carrie had handed Janelle a small package. “It’s a ‘get out of jail, free’ card” Carrie said. Responding to Janelle’s puzzlement, she went on, “If you find yourself in a deadly boring meeting, just push the button. It has a 30 second delay and then it will ring just like your cell phone. Then you can grab your cell, pretend you have an important call and make yourself scarce.”
Janelle laughed. “Don’t laugh,” Carrie answered. “You never know what kind of emergency you might need this for…and for some reason, I think you’re going to need it.”
Janelle thanked her friend, put the device in her suit pocket and promptly forgot about it. Until now. She opened up her tablet once more, then pushed the button. Mentally counting down, she picked up her glass at five, raised it to her lips on four, three, two…and when the shrill chime sounded, she jumped and spilled the soda. Grabbing several napkins, she began to mop up the mess, exclaiming “Sorry, sorry. Do you have a rag?” The bartender scowled and tossed his bar towel at her. Janelle caught it and wiped down the table.
“Ya need a refill?” he growled.
Janelle picked up her cell phone and pretended to read a text message. “No, thank you. Something’s come up and I need to leave. If a Mr. Murphy comes in asking for me, could you tell him I’ll call him tomorrow?” The bartender nodded. “Thank you, again.” She gathered up the tablet and envelope, stuffing both into her bag, slipped on her coat and lengthened the strap on her purse to hang it across her body. As she opened the tavern door, she fanned the keys on her ring in between her fingers. Her father called it a poor man’s brass knuckles.
Janelle stepped off briskly into the empty street and was just inches from her car when the attack came. She had almost been expecting it The man grabbed her from behind and she pivoted on one foot, driving her fistful of keys into his midsection with all her strength. He grunted and doubled over, releasing her. Slicing upward with her free hand, she caught him between the legs and the man collapsed onto the ground. Janelle hit the fob, wrenched the car door open and collapsed onto the seat. Locking the door, she fumbled the key into the ignition, shifted and peeled out from the curb, narrowly missing the writhing figure on the blacktop.
Two blocks away, Janelle stopped the car. Shaking, she slipped the purse off her shoulder and buckled her seat belt. One deep breath. Two. Three. Four. Five. Control returned. She checked her phone for the location of the police department and entered the information into the car’s GPS. It was when she started the car again that she noticed the red stain on her house key. It was the longest one in the bunch. She had drawn blood defending herself. Janelle ‘s purse, or rather its contents, were legendary among her friends. She had never gone in for the dainty handbags that could barely hold a single credit card. Sure enough, one of the many zippered pouches held a plastic zipper bag. She slipped the house key off the ring and into the bag. Then she headed for the police station.
Ten minutes later, Janelle pulled into the police department parking lot. Unlike the tavern’s, this was well-lighted. Still, she felt a bit of hesitation as she unlocked her car door and stepped out. It was only a matter of a few dozen steps until she entered the brightly lit lobby. A half dozen chairs, secured to the floor crowded the small but empty space. A counter, guarded by a Plexiglas window and equipped with a telephone handset, was flanked by a locked steel door. Janelle approached the window. A gently rounded woman with short silver curls indicated the phone. Janelle picked up the handset and said, “I need to make a report. I was attacked.”
The receptionist asked if Janelle needed medical attention. When she said no, the woman took her through Janelle’s basic information; name, birthdate, address, phone, and time, location and nature of the attack. She then told Janelle to take a seat and a detective would be with her as soon as possible. Plopping down in one of the plastic chairs, Janelle felt her control slipping. She was in the safest place possible but she couldn’t control the tremors that began in her midsection and traveled to her extremities, nor the tear that leaked from the corner of her eye. She was wiping her eyes and blowing her nose when the steel door opened.
The man who approached Janelle was tall and slender, with thinning blond hair lacquered into place. His dress shirt was wrinkled and open at the collar and topped a pair of dark blue dress pants and black oxfords. An empty holster sat on his right hip and his badge was affixed to his belt. He extended his hand and identified himself. “I’m Detective Mark Anderson. You said you were attacked? Why don’t you come back to my office and tell me about it.”
Janelle nodded and rose, but her knees buckled and she thumped back down into the chair. Concern creased the detective’s forehead. “Are you sure you don’t need medical attention?”
“No. I’ll be fine. Really.” Janelle took a deep breath and stood again. This time her legs supported her, but her hand still trembled as she shook the detective’s. He placed a hand beneath her elbow and led her through the steel door down a gray tiled hallway to a tiny office that barely had room for the detective’s chair, a small computer station and two visitor chairs.
“You are obviously in shock,” Detective Anderson observed. He picked up his desk phone. “Emma, could you bring us two cups of tea, please?” Turning to Janelle, he said, “Tea is better for shock than coffee. So tell me what happened.”
Janelle began her tale. “My boss was supposed to meet with a new client, but he had an emergency appendectomy, so I was sent instead. I was supposed to meet a Mr. Jason Murphy at a bar called Jimmi’s on Prospect Street.”
The detective’s eyebrows lifted, “Jimmi’s, you said? Interesting.”
Janelle continued, “I don’t like bars and I wasn’t happy with the choice of meeting place, but I didn’t have much say in the matter. When I got to the bar, I texted Mr. Murphy to let him know I had arrived. He texted back and told me he was running late, but I was to go into the bar and order a meal.” At this, Detective Anderson snorted. “Mr. Murphy said he would join me as soon as he could.”
Janelle hesitated. Should she tell the detective about the intuition she’d had in the ladies’ room? No. That just sounded crazy even to her own mind. So she went on, “I didn’t like the look of the menu, so I just ordered a Coke. I waited about fifteen minutes, but the place just gave me the creeps. So I told the bartender that if a Mr. Murphy came looking for me, I would call him tomorrow. I left the bar and had just reached my car when a man grabbed me from behind.” Janelle hesitated again. “My father always taught me that when walking alone, to keep my keys laced between my fingers. When I was grabbed, I punched the man in the stomach with my keys. Then I got in my car and drove away. I looked up the location of your police station and then I noticed blood on one of my keys.” Janelle fished the plastic bag from her purse. “And I came here.”
The detective’s blue eyes turned sharp. He opened his mouth to say something when the woman from the front counter, Emma, bustled in with two steaming mugs. Anderson shifted some papers to make room for the cups, and just as quickly as she came, Emma departed.
“I have the feeling you’re not telling me everything.”
Janelle took refuge in her mug of tea. The heat steadied her shaking hands. “Well, that’s what happened.”
Anderson looked down at his fingers tapping the handle of his mug. When he looked up again, he asked, “Can you give me a description of the man who attacked you?”
Janelle closed her eyes. She felt the hands again that had violated her. Everything had happened so quickly. “It had just gotten dark. He grabbed me by the shoulders and put one arm around my neck. He was taller than me, but not as tall as you, and husky. I was able to twist around and I hit him in the stomach with my keys. He doubled over before I could see his face. He was wearing a blue or gray watch cap and a plaid wool jacket. I think the colors were black, green, and blue. It wasn’t buttoned up. I think he had just a t-shirt underneath. And he had faded jeans and worn out work boots.” Janelle opened her eyes. “I didn’t know that my keys had
drawn blood until I’d gotten away. That’s not going to get me into trouble is it?”
Detective Anderson picked up the plastic bag. “We don’t have access to the fancy labs you see on TV locally. But the state lab can analyze the blood for DNA and check if it’s in our system. It will take time, though. They have quite a backlog.” He paused. “Why do you think this Mr. Murphy chose Jimmi’s to meet? It doesn’t have the best reputation.”
“I have no idea. I’ve never been to Wausau before and I’d never heard of the place. But my boss was supposed to be familiar with it.”
“What exactly was the purpose of your meeting with Mr. Murphy?”
“I understood that he was a new client of our company and I was supposed to deliver a package to him.”
“And what company would that be?”
“Carson Laboratories. I’m a technical writer there. My boss is Hiram Carson. His grandfather founded the company.”
“What was in the package you were supposed to deliver? And why was it so important to deliver it in person?”
“I have no idea. Everything is in a sealed manila envelope.”
Anderson asked, “Do you have it with you.”
“Yes,” Janelle replied and pulled the now battered envelope from the depths of her purse.
Anderson’s eyebrows quirked again. “What else do you have in there? Should I have put it through a metal detector before letting you bring it in here?”
Janelle blushed, “Oh, you know…just the normal things a woman needs to carry with her…”
He smiled. “So why don’t you tell me what you’re not telling me?”
Janelle blushed again. “Its, its, its just that it sounds kind of crazy.”
“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that?”
So Janelle launched into her tale of her trip to the ladies’ room and the intuition she had that something was wrong. She told Anderson how she had the feeling that her glass of soda had been tampered with and Carrie’s little gift to her, how she purposely spilled her drink but tried to make it look like a clumsy accident. Suddenly she stopped her narrative. “Oh! I completely forgot. Before the bartender threw me his towel, I mopped up some of the soda with the paper napkins on the table.” She pulled a soggy wad out of another pocket in her purse. “I wasn’t even thinking when I stuffed them in my purse. Oh, and I didn’t just hit my attacker with my keys. I, um, well, I also gave him a karate chop to his privates.”
The detective had been sipping his tea, and now choked as the lukewarm liquid spurted out his nose. Janelle noted he reflexively crossed his legs.
Anderson coughed and reached into a drawer for a tissue. He blew his nose, swiped his face, and regained his composure. “You are full of surprises, aren’t you?”
Janelle couldn’t help smiling.
“Why don’t we take a look at this mysterious envelope to see if it has any bearing on your case?”
“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea, ” Janelle said. “It could cost me my job.”
” while it’s possible you were the victim of a random mugging, it’s also possible you were deliberately targeted. That seems likely after your description of events in the bar. And if that’s the case, ” here he held up the envelope, “this is evidence.”
” Well, then… ” Janelle was interrupted by her beeping phone. She pulled it from Her purse. “It’s a text from Jason Murphy.”
” What does it say? “Janelle
“Sorry. Delayed again. Why don’t I meet you at your motel? One hour?” Janelle read.
“Don’t respond just yet.” Anderson said. “Which motel are you staying at?”
“The La Quinta on Stewart Avenue. My company booked the room.”
“Have you checked in?”
“Yes, as soon as I got here. But my suitcase and laptop are still in the car.”
“Good. You will not be staying at that motel tonight.”
“After what happened, that’s what I thought, too. The LaQuinta is on the company expense account, but I’ll have to pay for anyplace else. Can you recommend somewhere not too expensive?”
The detective responded , “Not much is cheaper than the LaQuinta unless you go out of town.”
Janelle’s phone beeped again. She read the text. ” Where are you? You have the package? Good to meet at the motel? “
“Just tell him, ‘OK. One hour.'” Anderson said.
Janelle did and got a thumbs up in reply.
“Okay now. Let’s see what’s in this mysterious envelope.” He donned a pair of surgical gloves. Then he placed the envelope in a large evidence bag. With the bag mostly sealed, he inserted a letter opener to slit the envelope, quickly sealed the bag the rest of the way and shook it. When no dust or particles emerged, he opened both the evidence bag and the envelope and slid the contents out. It was a document of perhaps fifty pages, stapled at the top. “Curioser and curioser,” he said. “It’s in Chinese. You said you are a technical writer. Can you read it?”
” Chinese? No, I can’t read it. I translate scientific jargon into intelligible English, “said Janelle. “But I can’t read Chinese.”
“Then this will have to wait until I can contact someone who can.” He looked at his watch. “What we need to do now is get you settled somewhere tonight and a team over to LaQuinta. I’ll need your car key and your motel key.”
“My motel key, I understand,” Janelle said as she dug the card from her wallet . “But my car key?”
“The team will drive your car to the motel. It’s a rental, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Janelle as she unzipped it from her ring. “But I still need an inexpensive place to stay and a way to get there.”
“I can arrange that.” Anderson reached for his desk phone. “Emma, round up Perkins and Bao and send them in, please.”
Moments later, two uniformed officers crowded into the tiny office. The man was of average height with spiky, copper hair. The woman was tiny but muscular, her shiny raven hair slicked into a tight bun.
“Ms. Walker, Officers Randy Perkins and Minh Bao. They will be staking out your room at the LaQuinta tonight. We’ll see what your Mr. Murphy has to say for himself…if he shows.”
“But that still doesn’t give me a place to stay?” Janelle objected .
“Yes, I’ve thought of that. Are your suitcase and laptop in the back seat or the trunk?”
“The laptop is on the front seat, the suitcase is in the trunk.”
The detective explained his plan to the officers. “Randy, would you get Ms. Walker’s belongings from her car? Then one of you drive her car and the other take an unmarked vehicle to the motel. Bao, you’re in the room. Perkins, you’re outside. Room 110.”
The officers left. ” But, but… “Janelle sputtered, “How will I get to a motel?”
“You won’t be staying at a motel. There’s a bed and breakfast that will do quite nicely. I’ll drop you off there. “
“A bed and breakfast? I can’t afford that!”
“Don’t worry. It’s off season. You can afford it. Besides, my sister and brother-in-law own it.” He picked up his cell. “Siri, call Martha.” His phone rang three times. “Hey Sis, I’ve got a guest for you tonight. You have room? Mmhmm. I figured you would. Oh, and she may need security. Pete can handle it? Right. Good. I’ll drop her off in about twenty. See you.” He ended the call.
Janelle was flabbergasted. “A B&B? Security? You’ll drop me off? Is this the way you handle all your cases?”
The detective grinned. “No. Just the interesting ones. If you’re ready, let’s go.” He rose from behind his desk and held the door for her. He stopped to retrieve his gun from a locker. Janelle’s suitcase and laptop were parked by Emma’s station and the detective picked them up. He led her through a maze of hallways to a back door, and from there to his personal vehicle.
A thought occurred to Janelle on the drive over. “I should call my boss to let him know what’s going on,” she said.
“No. Don’t do that. I don’t like it that he was supposed to be the person to make this delivery. You said you had less than a day’s notice of the change in plans?”
“Well, yes. But appendicitis doesn’t exactly give advance warning.”
“Still. Hold off until I can get that document translated.”
Janelle grudgingly agreed.
“You’re probably wondering about the B&B.” Anderson said. “Pete, my brother-in-law inherited an old Victorian mansion from his grandmother while he was still an Army Ranger. My sister Martha was living in base housing while he was deployed. Our Dad is a carpenter and it was Sis, not me, who ended up being his partner. She loved the challenge of fixing the place up, with Dad’s help. So by the time Pete got out of the service, it was quite the showplace. But it was too much house for the two of them and Pete was having a little difficulty settling into civilian life. Turning the place into a B&B, where they could make a living and be their own bosses was just the thing. In the off season, Martha still works with Dad building and remodelling houses. Pete bought a limo and provides transportation and security for guests at the downtown hotels and for wedding parties and proms.
The Victorian was perched on a slight rise, surrounded by a large lot. Directly south, across the valley containing an arm of the city, the illuminated ski runs of Rib Mountain created ethereal trails against the dark bulk of the hill. Even before she was out of the car, the door to the B&B opened. In the porch light, Janelle could see a blonde woman, tall and solid, and beside her a surprisingly slight man the same height as the woman. Janelle had supposed Army Rangers must be muscle-bound hulks.
Anderson handed over Janelle’s luggage to the man and made introductons. “Ms. Walker, this is my sister Martha and my brother-in-law Pete. They’ll take good care of you. Now I’ve got to run.” He gave Martha a quick peck on the cheek and dashed back to his car.
“Well, now. Let’s get you settled. Do you prefer Janelle or Ms. Walker? We normally only serve breakfast, but I’m guessing you haven’t eaten. And without a vehicle, you won’t be able to go out for a bite. I have leftover roast from supper that I can warm up, and I can throw together a salad. Or you can order a pizza or Chinese, whichever you prefer. ”
“Janelle, is fine, and the roast sounds wonderful, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Martha replied. “Pete will show you to your room.”
Pete led the way up a grand staircase with gleaming walnut handrail and newels. He opened the first door on the right, indicated Janelle should go in, then followed and set her suitcase on a luggage stand and her laptop on a desk. ” The bathroom’s through there. ” He nodded towards a door on their left. “I’ll let you know when your supper is ready, or you can come down any time you like. We have a library downstairs and a parlor, so you don’t have to stay up here. You’re our only guest tonight so you’ll have them all to yourself. ” Then he left.
Janelle marvelled at the room she was in. It was easily twice the size of her own bedroom. To the left, as Pete had noted, was the door into compact but beautifully detailed bathroom. The second door on that wall revealed an ample closet. Centered on the outside wall was an electric fireplace. Flanking it were the desk, where Peter had set her laptop and an oak bureau. The queen size bed was on the interior wall with oak nightstands on either side. A bay window overlooked the street and the view of Rib Mountain. Next to it was a highbacked arm chair and matching, upholstered ottoman. The bed was covered with a handmade quilt. Janelle recognized the “trip around the world” pattern. It was what her Mennonite friends called an ugly quilt. Individually, most of the fabrics were unattractive shades of mustard yellow and avocado green. But the quilter had employed accents of royal blue, gold, emerald green, and brown to skillfully pull the disparate blocks into a soothing whole. The light oak hardwood floor sported several floral rugs that picked up the colors of the quilt. The high walls and ceiling were painted a light celadon and accented with white crown molding. This was a far cry from the dingy motel room Janelle had expected at the start of her assignment.
So lost in her admiration for the space, she was startled when Pete tapped on the door to announce supper. Janelle followed him down to an elegant dining room. A place setting graced the head of the table. She felt a bit awkward sitting at the long table that could seat a dozen people. Martha carried in a platter of roast beef and a bowl of parslied potatoes. Pete followed with bowls of green beans and a mixed salad and they set them before her. Janelle felt even more awkward. She was not accustomed to being waited on.
“Would you like tea, coffee, water, milk, not chocolate, or a soda with your dinner?” Martha asked. ” I have both regular and decaf. “
“Oh, coffee would be lovely.” Janelle said. ” but better make it decaf…and some milk for it, if you don’t mind. “
“Of course. And…” here Martha paused. “Would you like some company, or would you rather be alone?”
“I’d love some company.” Janelle answered .
“Good!” Martha grinned. “Because I’m dying of curiosity!”
Pete re-entered the room with a tray containing a coffepot, three cups, cream, sugar, and three plates of blackberry cobbler. They took up seats on either side of Janelle but gave her a few minutes to make some inroads on the plate before her while enjoying their own desserts. Then Janelle repeated the tale of the evening’s adventure. Martha had almost as many questions as her brother, but Pete sat silent and attentive. At the end of her narrative, Janelle was unable to stifle a huge yawn.
“Oh my goodness!” Martha exclaimed . “You must be exhausted! Why don’t you go on upstairs and we’ll see you in the morning. Breakfast is usually at 7:00, but I can serve it later if you need your rest.”
“Would eight be a problem?” Janelle asked.
“No. That means I get to sleep in, too.” Martha laughed.
They said their goodnights and Janelle retired to her room. She really was exhausted, but when she looked at the schoolhouse clock on the wall, she was surprised to see it was only 9:15. She took a quick shower and changed into her pajamas. Settling herself into the comfortable bed, she took out her Bible to read a chapter in Psalms, but was unable to concentrate on the words as the day’s events replayed themselves. Tired as she was, she thought, “I’ll never get to sleep this way.” Yet in just a few moments, she was snoring softly.
(To be continued)