Reporters are trained to develop a sixth sense, a nose for when a story smells fishy. And something about this one wasn’t right. First of all, the only witness changed their statement multiple times. Second, the witness’ estranged family presented damning evidence: psychological issues. Several psych ward stays. All of them where the witness left against medical advice. And third, this is my first job out of college. Need I say more?
“What was the witness’ initial statement?” my boss asked as she swiveled in her chair and clicked a blue Bic pen.
“The witness, a neighbor, in summary, stated – – and I quote: “The house was raving like it was 1999,”” I responded, trying to say it with a straight face.
“And their most recent statement?” my boss inquired further.
“The witness stated the house’s activity was because the occupants were aliens from planet.. Lunarous,” I stifled a laugh.
“How many differing statements did the witness give?”
“Lois,” my boss swiveled to face me. “Looks like you’re back at square one.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m on it!” I gathered the case files in a bankers box, snatched a protein bar out of my snack drawer, and picked up my thermos of leftover coffee from my cluttered desk. “It’s gonna be a long night,” I sighed to myself as I headed out the door.
I struggled with my apartment key as I juggled everything in my arms. My jingly keys cued loud yowling and cries on the other side of my front door. “I hear ya, Coco!” I breathed in the door crack. I finally managed inside without dropping the box.. or spilling stale coffee all over.. my case files. “Little successes count too,” I thought to myself. I need a win. In life and at work.
I clapped on the lights once my hands were free. Coco silently scurried under the coffee table because of the startling sound of my clapping. “Oh, you scaredy-cat!” I teased as I tossed a handful of food into his.. or.. her bowl. I haven’t had the time yet to take Coco to the vet to determine what Coco is. I found him or her at my doorstep last week and we became instant friends. Hell, I sure needed one. Funny how that works out, huh? Animals just know when humans need.. company.
“Now, it’s my turn,” I said to myself as I opened the fridge. Unfortunately, there were only condiments. Expired at that. I rested my head on top of the fridge door and lightly banged it in frustration. I sure am hangry. My cell phone rang and vibrated in my jeans back pocket. I answered it without looking at the caller I.D.
“This is Laney Lois, how may I help you?” I undeniably needed a new greeting. I sound like a customer service representative at a department store. I rolled my eyes at.. myself. “Another residential explosion in Kew Gardens?! I’ll be right there.” I shut the fridge door, patted Coco’s little chocolate head and mentally mapped where to grab a quick bite on the way.
“What do we know, Terry?” I unofficially announced my presence as I came across the police tape.
“Sheriff. Sheriff Bayard. We’re on the clock, Lois,” Terry retorted as she scribbled on a pad of paper and met my gaze.
“What do we know, Sheriff?” I correctly asked. “Same as the last explosion?”
“Looks that way,” Terry nodded towards the smoking remains. “Another vacant house, due to be demolished, exploded.”
“Oh, my,” I muttered in awe. I expeditiously cleared my throat and straightened my posture. “Mind if I interview the neighbors, Sheriff?”
“No, g’head. One less thing I gotta do. Make sure to share their statements with me before you leave. I’d appreciate it,” Sheriff Bayard ordered.
“Yes, ma’am. Will do,” I replied. “Thanks Terry.”
Sheriff Bayard scowled at me. I flashed my cheesiest grin at her as I walked away and back under the police tape. I noticed she eventually cracked a thin smile, shook her head lightly, and returned to her scribbling.
I knocked on a couple doors across the street with no answer. Either these neighbors worked the graveyard shift or were heavy ass sleepers. Locals know to cooperate (new residents are educated by the locals) when an incident happens around here. Sixty plus years ago, a homicide occurred where over three dozen witnesses saw or heard the attack but none of them called the police or came to their aid. This infamous incident helped create the 9-1-1 system.
Third time’s a charm because the third house and after the third knock, the inside lights flickered on. “W- -who is it?” a drowsy old timer with a Southern accent answered their side door in camouflage pajamas with matching slippers.
I hurried about the wrap around porch from the front door to greet him. “Hello, sir. I’m Laney Lois, a reporter from Queens Chronicle. Sorry to disturb you at this time of ni- -,” I began as a nearby train whistle interrupted my professional spiel.
“W- -who? What?” he shouted while cupping his ear in my direction. I could see a hearing aid in his ear. The train’s wheels squeaked on the track.
I loudly repeated myself and in the middle.. I determined he couldn’t have heard anything, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t see anything.
“Oh, yeah, hell of a sight! Felt like I was at a disco. All those colors!” he exclaimed while gesturing with his hands toward the crime scene. The nearby train’s farewell whistle echoed as it retreated down the hill.
“A disco? You don’t say?” he nodded, so I continued. “What do you think the colors were?”
“Ya know, I don’t know. Now, I wish I did. I just closed the blinds and hit the sack,” he concluded.
“Thank you, sir. Please call me if you remember anything,” I handed him my business card. “We’re going to figure out what’s going on around here,” I guaranteed as I stepped down from his lopsided porch.
“Godspeed kid,” the old timer saluted before he closed the door between us.
I had better luck with the neighbors on the same side of the street as the taped off house. I wrote down their statements of what they saw, however they didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.. especially since, one neighbor pointed out, that they have noisy railroad trains passing through regularly during the night.
How could I have missed this important detail?! Whoever is behind these crimes could be utilizing the loud railway to muffle their activities in this otherwise quiet, quaint neighborhood. I kept this theory to myself as I shared the neighbors’ statements with Sheriff Bayard before I headed home.. to my lonely queen size bed. Oh, and Coco. I’m sure they miss me too!
“Ugh! Could you not?” I whined as Coco licked my hand and then.. savagely demanded their breakfast. I literally rolled out of bed onto the dusty hardwood floor. I leisurely crawled the short distance to the kitchenette, and sprinkled some kitty chow on the tile floor. Totally missing the bowl. Oh, well. I’m not a morning person. That’s why they invented coffee. Java. Cup o’ Joe.
I began rifling through the case file.. again.. hoping to find something I may have missed. I took a bountiful sip of bean water and sighed deeply at its dark, dangerous deliciousness. This moment of bliss was short lived because I noticed a fresh, wet coffee ring on one of the case file papers.
“Ahh, shi- -,” I exclaimed as I dabbed it with my over-sized brown bathrobe. As I examined the damage, the stain encircled the word: “barefoot.” I read the entire paragraph and noticed a detail from my most recent interview with the only witness that somehow didn’t add up. I had noted: “The witness, Veruca Knutt, was barefoot at the time of the interview. She mentioned she had thrown her shoes at the house in question because that’s all she had to defend herself from the “alien attack.””
“How odd.. Huh, Coco?” I asked my oblivious cat who was still munching on their breakfast throughout the kitchenette’s nooks and crannies.
“Alright, Coco,” I leaned back in my chair and twiddled with a packet of sugar.
“Veruca Knutt must’ve had other items inside or outside her house to throw,” I couldn’t break the habit of thinking out loud.
“W- -wait,” I paused. “Did I simply assume she was a next door neighbor?” I sat upright at my revelation.
"You know what assume stands for, Lois?" I faintly heard my late journalism professor and mentor, Dinah Preston, quizzing me on my error.
“Yes,” I answered back as I looked around the kitchen. It was just me and Coco. They meowed and pawed at the empty chair next to me.
“You’re haunting me, huh?” I laughed nervously.
“It’s called rest in peace, ya know,” I mockingly impersonated her posh British accent.
"When you assume, it makes an ass out of you and me," Dinah continued. "Have I taught you nothing? C'mon Lois, think!"
I sorted through Veruca’s thick pile of psychiatric records. All of her Doctors stated that Veruca’s family showed grave concern for her well-being because she’s been a long term vagrant. I couldn’t dial Terry Bayard’s phone number fast enough.. well, maybe I could’ve just dialed 9-1-1.. No, no time for any of that nonsense.
Sheriff Bayard confirmed Veruca does not have a residential address, however has a registered P.O. Box downtown. Terry did mention Veruca has been arrested and convicted numerous times for drug related charges. I cross referenced this with her psych diagnoses: “bipolar, bulimia, depression, drug-induced psychosis per positive test of methamphetamine use and withdrawal.“
“What was Veruca doing in Kew Gardens?” I pondered aloud as I ran my hands through my greasy black hair.
“She couldn’t have been visiting her family because they’re estranged.. have been for years,” I rhythmically tapped my favorite purple Paper Mate pen across the case file piles.
"Keep going, Lois," Dinah's raspy voice encouraged me.
“Okay, okay.. maybe, m- -maybe she was visiting friends? Do drug addicts have friends? Maybe. Until she had worn out her welcome; couch surfing or bumming off them for a ride. She could have been servicing a john?” I gagged at the thought of having sex for money.
"Keep going, Lois," Dinah repeated.
I took another sip of coffee to keep from vomiting and regain my focus. “Perhaps.. she was trying to score s- -some m- -meth?” I forced the words out. It was a long shot.
"Keep going, Lois," Dinah echoed.
“Drug addicts do stick together. Drug dealers are.. drug addicts’ friends!” I stood up from the table and started pacing.
“I gotta go take another look at that place!” I announced to Coco who was still preoccupied with attacking the empty chair.
I arrived just before sunset; the recent daylight savings time change made the day fly by. Kew Gardens was empty and eerily silent at 5pm. My theory of residents working graveyard shifts seemed to be dead on. Pun intended! Haha.. I decided to retrace my steps: first stop was at the first burnt down house where I interviewed Veruca Knutt about the explosion. I grabbed a long, sturdy stick to poke around the ashes. I felt something move. It was a shoe. I examined it closer: no laces, holes in the toe, blackened on the tongue, and.. the handwritten letters “VK” on the sole.
"Yahtzee!" Dinah cheered her cheesy catchphrase.
I sprang forward at the sudden shrill of my cell phone’s ringtone and vibration. “Hello?” I hesitantly answered in the dark and felt as though I was being watched.
“Is this, uh, what does that say? Huh.. Lucy Lewis?” a familiar voice asked.
“Uhhh, no, this is,” I paused. “This is Laney Lois.”
“Oh! Well, apologies. I can’t seem to find my glasses,” the Southern accented man continued. “This is Hogarth. You woke me up last night.”
“Yes, yes, again, I apologiz- -,” I began. “W- -wait, what’s your name, sir?”
I slapped my forehead and popped a squat on the curb. How could I be so stupid to forget to ask his name? Hell of a reporter I am..
"We learn from our mistakes." Dinah reminded me.
“Yes, yes, Hogarth, I remember you, sir,” I squirmed on the concrete to remove my notepad from my back pocket. I added his name to the address number, 5649. “How may I help you?”
“Ya said I should call ya if I remember anything.”
“Yessir, I did,” I lingered onto his every word as I sat on the edge of the curb.
“Well, go figure in the middle of my Hungry-Man dinner,” he coughed. The anticipation was killing me! “Excuse me. I, uh, remembered that my son setup a security camera a couple weeks ago.”
“Really?” I stood up, slid my notepad in my back pocket, and started walking across the street.
“Really,” he continued. “And uh, a couple of ’em just happen to point toward the two houses that exploded.”
I knocked on 5649’s door.
“Hold on, Miss, someone’s knocking on my door,” he accidentally hung up on me as he put the phone down.
“Evening, sir,” I smiled as he opened the front door. “May I come in?”
“Boy! You got here awful fast!” Hogarth blurted. “Well, you surely may! Would you like some coffee?” He was sporting an Army t-shirt, black sweats, and the same camo slippers.
“I’d love some, thank you,” I followed him through the living room and into the kitchen. I gasped and clutched my chest because I was caught off guard by a handsome young man sitting at a round table typing on a laptop.
“Oh! I didn’t expect to see anybody else in here,” I extended my hand while lightly laughing and introduced myself. “Excuse me, uh.. I- -I’m, uh, Laney Lois.”
“I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Hogarth’s son, Judge,” he spoke with a British accent. He stood up to shake my hand and flashed a beautiful smile.
“Judge? After.. Judge Reinhol- -?” I chuckled as I lingered in his personal space.
“No, no,” Hogarth interrupted. “After Judge Judy! My wif- -.. my late wife and I loved that program.”
“Really?” I inquired as I sat down to join Judge.
“Really,” Judge answered softly as he shrugged his shoulders. “You know what they say? You can’t choose your parents.”
“What’s that?” Hogarth shouted while cupping his ear in our direction.
“I’d like some sugar, please,” I answered for Judge.
He mouthed: “Thank you,” as he resumed typing and clicking on the laptop.
I smized at him as I sipped the mug full of instant Folgers coffee.
“I’m still trying to figure out the security camera program,” Judge admitted as he went back and forth between a paper manual and the laptop. “I should have the last couple week’s worth of video feed up soon.”
“Okay, great,” I wandered about the quaint kitchen. “So, um, where are you from, Judge?”
“I’m currently studying at York College in Jamaica Bricktown for my Masters in Architecture,” Judge replied.
“Oh, n- -no, I- -I meant- -,” I fumbled over my words.
“Oh, you mean my accent?”
“Yeah, do you get that a lot?”
“I do,” he laughed lightly and pushed away from the table. “I was born in Ipswich, England; when my Father was in the service. That’s where he met my Mother.”
“Sorry to hear she’s passed,” I said sincerely.
“Thank you,” Judge said as our eyes became transfixed on one another.
I cleared my throat. “You have a magnificent magnet collection, Hogarth,” I complimented the old timer, who seemed left out of the conversation.
“Why thank ya kindly, ma’am,” Hogarth joined me to admire the eclectic fridge magnets.
“Is this your wife?” I asked as I pointed to an obituary newspaper clipping.
“Yes, it is,” Hogarth breathed. “My Dinah.”
My stomach dropped. I lost the ability to speak. I couldn’t believe it.
“♪♫ Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,” Judge softly sang.
“♫ Someone’s in the kitchen I know,” Hogarth joined in.
“♪ Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,” they sang together. “Strumming on the old banjo, and singing. Fie, fi, fiddly I o! ♫”
I applauded when they finished the chorus.
“Thank you, we used to tease her by singing that song every time we were in the kitchen together,” Hogarth commented.
“This is a small world,” I announced.
“How small, my dear?” Hogarth inquired.
“Small,” I uttered as Judge’s eyes met mine again. “Dinah was my college professor and mentor. She taught me everything I know about journalism, which inspired me to be a news reporter for the Queens Chronicle.”
“Wow.. you’re.. you’re Little Miss Firecracker?!” Hogarth gave me a tight squeeze around my shoulders. “Dinah talked about you all the time! She called you a firecracker because you were gonna light your way in this world.”
“We feel like we know you. Mother talked very highly of you. She admitted you were her favorite pupil,” Judge added as he stood to join Hogarth and I at the fridge.
“This is crazy! I’ve been hearing Dinah’s voice all day today,” I blurted.
Judge and Hogarth exchanged concerned glances.
“No, no, I mean.. I’ve been feeling her presence all day and remembering the wisdom she pounded into my head,” I rephrased so I didn’t seem insane. Especially in front of Judge. By the way, I didn’t see a ring on his left hand.
A loud computer ding startled all of us and we gathered back around the kitchen table. Judge at the helm. I at the ready with my notepad. Hogarth supervised and sipped his instant Folgers coffee.
“Here it is,” Judge announced as he swiveled the laptop toward me so I could see the video feed.
“Thank you, Judge. Thank you, Hogarth. I really appreciate all your help!” I squealed in excitement for solving my first case. “I emailed the video to my boss and to Sheriff Bayard. They said it’s enough to arrest the local squatter who wasn’t just a witness, but.. who was responsible for exploding the two houses because they were cooking meth.”
“You are everything Dinah said you were and more,” Hogarth beamed ear to ear as he hugged me again.
“Thanks again, Judge. I- -,” I glanced over at Hogarth. He looked at the two of us and sensed we wanted to be alone so he left the kitchen and fiddled with the living room TV.
“Congratulations, Laney,” Judge said. “I’m glad to hear you solved the case. Now, you can write your article about what happened. I hope you make the front page.”
“I was wondering if- -,” I continued. “If you’d like to have dinner with me tonight? To celebrate? My treat.”
“Uh, yeah, I’d like that,” Judge answered. “Ya know, my Mother did say, more than once, that you and I would be perfect together,” Judge smiled. “I’m starting to see why.” He winked at me and grabbed my hand. “Let’s go, I’ll drive.”
"Keep going, Lois," Dinah cheered me on.