Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Mystery of the Missing Husband

The Mystery of the Missing Husband
Harriet's "Reviewing Circle" Mysteries #2

Harriet Klausner had a rhythm going.  She picked up the top book from the stack of unread books on the floor next to her armchair.  She flipped through the pages at lightning speed, then deposited the book -- still unread -- on the other side of her armchair.  She grabbed the next one and did the same.  And so on and so forth until -- the horror -- she reached down, and farther down, and still farther down, and her hand actually hit the floor.

Harriet blinked.  What should she do?  Her husband and son were away; the girls' basketball team Stanley coached was playing in a tournament and Eric had gone along to support his father.

With trepidation, she looked over the side of the armchair.  Sadly, she'd been reaching in the right place.  It was just that the books were all gone.

Harriet felt something deep in the pit of her stomach.  What WAS this feeling?  Guilt about pretending to have read books she'd only flipped through?  Remorse for inflicting over 29,000 poorly-constructed plot summaries on Amazon customers?  No, nothing that complicated.  Harriet was simply hungry.

Though unfamiliar with the workings of a functioning kitchen, Harriet had a vague idea that food was supposed to be stored there.  It was where Stanley insisted she keep the two-gallon jugs of relish he bought her at Costco every week.  But Harriet wasn't in the mood to eat relish straight from the jar with a spoon, not tonight.  No, she needed something to put the relish on.

Harriet worked to dislodge herself from her armchair, knocked over a TV tray in the process.  She hadn't ever put them away after the debacle that had been the first meeting of her "Reviewing Circle" mystery solving club.  With a groan and a couple of popping joints, she bent over and righted the TV tray.  Oh, the nerve of Stanley and Eric to go off and leave her alone.  She was Amazon's Number One Hall of Fame Reviewer!  She needed someone to wait on her hand and foot so she could keep the plot summaries going out and the free boxes of books from publishers coming in.  She was just that dedicated, though even her own family members didn't appreciate her tireless devotion.

She could see the kitchen through the doorway.  The only thing now was to get through the living room.  What an obstacle course!  Harriet skirted around a copy of Norwegian police procedurals, dodged a falling stack of erotica, and tripped over a couple of African-American health guides, landing face-down on the kitchen floor.

"Oof," Harriet said.  "What tsuris I am experiencing."  She pushed herself up with ease.  After all, she'd developed considerable upper body strength from over a decade of flipping through books at lightning speed and hitting "control + C" in her dictation software and, subsequently, "control + V" in the Amazon reviewing window.  And those mouse clicks!  Harriet wondered if any other index finger on the face of the planet had the strength of hers.

Having reached the kitchen, Harriet took a look around.  This room was full of metal boxes!  But which one held the food?  First, she turned her attention to the closest; it rose to about waist height and had a window in the door.  On top were four raised, circular things.  Above the mysterious circles, a forlorn digital display blinked "12:00."  A series of knobs or dials ran across the front.  This didn't seem like what Harriet wanted, though, so she turned to the next metal box.

This one also rose to waist height, but it sat under the counter.  It had some push buttons across the top of the front but no window in the door.  Harriet decided to try her luck with this appliance.  Alas, all that greeted her when she opened the door were some clean dishes.

That left two metal boxes.  One was the microwave; Harriet knew all about that.  Before she could use the microwave, though, Harriet had to have some food to put IN the microwave.  When Stanley had found out that Harriet had served the members of her "Reviewing Circle" club some Swanson Hungry Man dinners from 1975, he'd gone out to the garage, unplugged the deep freezer, and thrown all its contents into the trash.  By the time Harriet realized what Stanley had done, it was too late -- the garbage truck had come and gone.

"You could go to the Kroger and pick yourself up some new frozen dinners," Stanley had said.

"They don't make them the same way anymore," Harriet had said.

"Well, it wouldn't kill you to get out of the house every now and then."

Harriet hadn't talked to him for a week after that.  She'd slept on the sofa, using her trusty "Over the Top of ___" Atlas for a pillow.

The last metal box loomed in front of Harriet.  This one was taller than she was, and it had TWO doors but no dials or buttons.  She opened the top one first -- full of cold bags printed with pictures and words and containing hard chunks of something.  She pulled out the first bag.  She had no idea what the words said -- who could be bothered with actually READING?  The picture showed carrot coins.  Who would keep carrot coins around?  Maybe it was a trick and Stanley was hiding some large desserts inside.  She ripped open the bag, dumped the contents on the table.  And darn it, if it really wasn't carrot coins!

Carrots forgotten, Harriet chose another bag at random.  Whatever was in here had thawed and refrozen in a solid hunk.  She ripped it open, peered inside.  Frozen PEAS?  Seriously, who ATE this stuff?  Harriet tossed it aside.

Five minutes later, three bags of chopped spinach, four additional bags of peas, two pounds of frozen corn, and one bag each of sliced bell peppers, kale, broccoli, and Lima beans had met their fates on the kitchen floor.  Harriet paused to consider the second, lower door, but decided against opening it.  Surely she'd only find more vegetables.  She'd rather avoid further disappointment.

Almost desperate enough at this point to eat the relish directly from the jar with a spoon, Harriet scanned the room one last time.  Her eyes lit up when she spotted something wrapped in plastic out on the counter.  She approached, poked at it with a finger.  It didn't bite back, so she unwrapped the plastic and found most of a loaf of rye bread.  Perfect.  THIS would go great with relish.  Harriet cradled the loaf of bread under one arm, kicked some thawing vegetables aside, and retrieved her relish jar from the pantry.  She paused next to the silverware drawer.  Should she get a spoon?  Well, that WAS more civilized.  She got the spoon.

Harriet went back out to the living room.  Ha!  Getting her own meals.  That'd show Stanley how unnecessary he was.

Unconsciously, Harriet reached for a book.  Then, she realized what she was doing and pulled her hand back.  She couldn't eat and handle books at the same time!  First off, she needed both hands to flip through the books.  Secondly, she didn't want to get food on the books.  That would greatly decrease their resale value.  Harriet reached down between the armchair cushion and the side of the chair, fished around for a bit, and eventually extracted the remote control.  She turned on the television.  Good, Deep Throat was already in the DVD player.

Harriet ripped off a hunk of rye bread and spooned relish on top.  So much relish, in fact, that she didn't even notice that the bread looked a little off.  She settled in to watch her favorite actor, Harry Reems.  She really liked the part with the bandages.

Harriet spent the next couple of hours mesmerized.  By the time the credits started playing, she had eaten the entire remainder of the loaf of rye bread and finished off the relish, as well.  She hoped Stanley had thought to buy a backup.

She set the empty relish jar down, stretched.  The spoon had fallen out of her hand at some point and lay forgotten on the floor.  Harriet felt a little strange.  She knew she ought to be doing something.
Harriet shifted positions, heard the sound of paper inside her chair.  She stood up, removed the cushion.  There -- a book!  Harriet was supposed to be ‘reviewing.’  She removed the book from the chair, replaced the cushion.  She sat down and opened the book to the first page.  There wasn't much text here.  And the paragraphs were numbered.  Where were the proper nouns?  Where were the geographical locations, the character names?  Where was the dust jacket summary?  Harriet flipped further through the book.  What was this curious tome?  Would she -- gasp -- actually have to READ any pages inside before writing a review?

Maybe she'd just read item #1.  That was basically the same as reading the back cover.

"1. A box of candy can be divided equally (without cutting pieces) among 2, 3, or 7 people.  What is the least number of pieces of candy the box could contain?"

Harriet threw the book down.  What was this devilry?  Were these MATH PROBLEMS?

She shook her head as if to clear it, blinked a few times.  When she looked up, she was surprised to find a man sitting on the sofa across from her.

"Hello, Harriet," the man said.

Harriet shrank back.  "How did you get in here?  Who ARE you?"

"I'm John Sebastian, of course," the man said.

Harriet clasped her hands over her heart.  "I'm one of your biggest fans!"

John Sebastian said nothing, just bobbed his head up and down.  The silence was interrupted by a scratching sound at the front door.  "I'd better go get that," Harriet said.

Harriet deftly maneuvered the obstacle course that was her front hallway -- twin piles of relationship guides on the left, a precarious tower of paranormal romances on the right, a yellowing escarpment of mass market Harlequin Superromances dead ahead.  She looked through the peephole.  No one was there.  She had almost made up her mind to turn around and go back to John Sebastian in the living room when she realized that perhaps the new UPS man had dropped off her daily allotment of advance review copies without knocking.  She opened the door, looked down.

"Hello, Harriet," a voice said from near the ground.

"Hello?" she asked.

"Don't you remember me, Harriet?" the voice asked.

Harriet furrowed her brow.

"I'm Diogenes of Sinope, your favorite philosopher."

Harriet's eyes lit up.  "Diogenes!  Did you ever find the honest man you were looking for?"

"Sadly, no.  But I'm here to help YOU find something."

"Me?  But I haven't lost anything."

"Don't be so sure."  After a moment, Diogenes continued.  "Aren't you going to let me in?"

"Of course.  What was I thinking?"  Something wasn't right with Diogenes.  He was awfully short, awfully low to the ground.  But right now, Harriet really wanted to know what he had to say.

Diogenes came in.  He was quick and agile and had made it to the living room in no time, despite the many obstacles in his way.  It took Harriet a bit longer, and she was winded when she got back to her favorite armchair.

Diogenes had taken a seat next to John Sebastian on the sofa.  Harriet slid around in her seat until her rear end locked into the permanent indentations in the foam cushion of her armchair.  Stanley tried to get her to buy a new one from time to time, but Harriet wouldn't hear of it.  Not when she'd spent so long conditioning this one.  It molded to her body perfectly.

Harriet folded her hands in her lap.  "So, Diogenes, welcome to my home.  You said I was missing something?"

"I did."

"Well?  What is it?"

"You tell me."

Harriet scowled.  She scanned the floor, hoping to pick up some clue.  What on earth was Diogenes talking about?  Her eyes stopped when she reached the book she'd thrown down in frustration earlier.  She looked at it, then looked back up at Diogenes.  He nodded.

She picked the book back up off the floor.

"You've got to open it," Diogenes said.

Harriet opened the book back to the first page.  She gasped and did a double-take.  Someone had penciled in the number 42 below the silly question about the candy box.  "Who did this?" she asked.  "Who defaced this book?"

"Did you ever have to make up your mind?" John Sebastian sang.  "You pick up on one and leave the other one behind.  It's not often easy and not often kind.  Did you ever have to make up your mind?"

Harriet looked from the book to John Sebastian, then back to the book again.  Her eyes went wide.  "My spouse!"

"Yes?" Diogenes asked.  He nodded.

"I can't find my spouse.  He knows linear algebra.  He can do these puzzles."

"Exactly," Diogenes said.

"Where is he?  Where is my Mikey?" Harriet asked.  "If I turn on my charm, I'll bet I can get him to write the 'review' for this puzzle book."

"Do you believe in magic, in a young girl's heart?  How the music can free her, whenever it starts..." John Sebastian crooned.

Harriet watched him, mesmerized.  To be treated to a personal Lovin' Spoonful concert in her own living room.  The only thing better would be if Mikey could be here to see it with her.

She did not hear the front door slam, did not hear two pairs of feet maneuvering down the hallway, did not hear anything, in fact, until someone grabbed her shoulder and shook it.  "Harriet!" Stanley said.

"Not now, Stanley," Harriet said.  "I'm listening to John Sebastian sing.  Then we're going to go find my spouse Mikey.  We're going to solve a mystery!"

"Harriet, I don't hear the radio."

"He's not ON the radio.  He's right here on the sofa.  Don't you see him?"

"Harriet, that's not John Sebastian, that's my Chipper Jones bobblehead."

"Diogenes, tell Stanley.  Tell him we're going to solve the mystery of my missing spouse Mikey."

Stanley furrowed his brow.  "Diogenes?"  He looked to the figure seated to the left of the bobblehead on the couch.  Then, "Aiiiiiiiii!"  He grabbed Harriet by the arm, pulled her out of the living room.  "Eric, go outside and call animal control on your cell phone."

"All right, Dad."  Eric left.

Stanley mustered all his strength and dragged Harriet out of the house, knocked over stacks of books right and left, slammed the front door behind them.

Harriet frowned.  "What did you do that for?" she asked.  "You're the one who made Mikey disappear, aren't you?  You always were a jealous one."

"Harriet, I have no idea what you're talking about.  How in the world did that THING get into the house?"

"Thing?  What thing?"

The animal control truck pulled up to the house.  The driver emerged and removed an empty cage and a long pole ending with a loop from the back of his truck.  Eric approached him; after exchanging words with Eric, the man went back to the cab of his truck and pulled on a pair of long, thick, leather gloves.

Stanley had his hands full keeping Harriet from rushing back into the house.  But it looked like Eric had things under control.  Once the animal control employee had gone inside, Stanley called to Eric.  "I think your mother's hallucinating.  Maybe you should also call an ambulance."

Eric nodded, dialed some more numbers on his phone.

A few moments later, the animal control man emerged from the house, carrying a creature inside the cage.  "A long-tailed weasel.  Rabid, from the looks of it.  How did that EVER get into your house?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Stanley said.

"Did anyone come into contact with it?" the man asked.

"As far as I know, only my wife."

"Well, you'd better get her vaccinated, just in case.  It hasn't been too long, so she should be all right."

"The ambulance is already on the way."  Sure enough, the flashing lights and sirens of an ambulance could soon be seen and heard at the end of the street.  The animal control man put the caged weasel in the back of his truck and drove away.  The ambulance pulled into the driveway and a pair of EMTs emerged.

Harriet shrieked.  "No!  He took Diogenes away!  How am I ever going to find my spouse Mikey now?"

"Do you have any restraints in there?" Stanley asked the EMTs.  "I'm having trouble holding her."

--The Next Morning--

Stanley and Eric sat in the hospital waiting room.  They'd been here all night.  Stanley had a crick in his neck from sleeping in one of the waiting room chairs.  He cradled a cup of cold, terrible coffee in his hands.  Eric had his ear buds in and played a game on his cell phone and was, like all young people in similar circumstances, oblivious to his surroundings.  A doctor in a white coat entered the waiting room.  "Mr. Klausner?" he asked.

"That's me," Stanley said.  He shook Eric's arm.  Eric removed his ear buds.

"Would you like to see her?" the doctor asked.

"Yes, please."

"Follow me."  The doctor led them out of the room and down a hallway.  "We're still trying to piece together what happened.  Is there anything you can add that might help?"

Stanley shrugged.  "Eric and I went out yesterday evening.  I coach a girls' basketball team and there was a tournament.  When we got home, Harriet was blabbering some nonsense about Diogenes and John Sebastian and someone named Mikey I've never heard of, and she was staring intently at a bobblehead.  She said the bobblehead was singing to her.  And there was a weasel on the couch across from her.  A rabid WEASEL!"

"Well, don't worry about that.  We've started her on the antiviral shots. It's much easier these days than it used to be.  Were either of you exposed?"

"Not I," Stanley said.

"Me neither," Eric said.

"She was hallucinating, you say?  The toxicology lab did find a high level of ergot alkaloids in her system.  I'm sorry to have to bring this up, but is your wife a drug user?"

"No, never," Stanley said.

Eric slapped his forehead with his palm.  "The rye," he said.

"What?" Stanley and the doctor asked, simultaneously.

"Remember that rye loaf you wanted me to throw out because it looked funny?  I hadn't gotten around to it yet.  It was still in plastic on the counter when we left the house.  When I went to clean up the kitchen floor -- you know she threw out every single bag of vegetables from the freezer, by the way -- the rye was gone.  She must've eaten it," Eric said.

"Ergot poisoning would explain the symptoms you describe," the doctor said.  He stopped walking.  "Well, we're here.  She's tired, so it's best if you only stay a few minutes."

"Thank you, doctor," Stanley said.

"All in a day's work. I've got rounds, so be sure to let the nurse know if you need anything."  The doctor walked off.

"Stanley!" Harriet said from inside the hospital room.  "How soon can I get out of here?  I didn't get to 'review’ any books yesterday.  I need to post some 'reviews!'"

Eric and Stanley looked at one another.  "She's going to be fine, isn't she?" Eric asked.

"Indeed son, she is.  Indeed she is."

The End



Embee said...

Sneaky, this is awesome! I grinned the whole time. Fortunately, I don't know who Harry Weems is or what the reference to bandages is about--I don't think I want to know, though. I love this stuff! Keep up the good work.

Sneaky Burrito said...

I don't understand the bandages thing either. It's just something Harriet came back to -- more than once -- in reviews. It has something to do with adult films and that's more than I really want to know.

Bev said...

Great mystery, Sneaky!

Hattie's been out of touch with reality for quite some time now, but I never suspected the kosher rye...

I figured it was the fermented relish.