April 2024: The 700-Word Mystery

Packing our stuff into boxes, loading up a truck or a van, and hauling it (or having it hauled) to a new dwelling. We’ve all done it, whether it’s across town, to a new city or state, or sometimes to a different country. Moving is a lot easier when we’re younger and can fit our belongings in the back of a vehicle. As we get older, we acquire more stuff and moving house becomes more difficult.

Then there are the reasons for the move. Consider two of them in this month’s 700-word mystery stories. Janet Dawson and D. Z. Church explore moves, motivations, and things that happen on the way. In one case, the loss of a job and something that doesn’t fit. In another, a decision to make a change. Both have consequences.

Janet Dawson

An Unexpected Move

moving boxes

I surveyed the boxes stacked on the floor around me, all crammed with bits and pieces of my life. I hated moving. But recent events left me with limited choices.

When the rent increase notice showed up, I muttered, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The feeling got worse when I did the math. I could no longer afford my apartment, cozy, comfortable and a short commute to work.

I got sticker shock when I started looking for another apartment. I’d heard rents were going up all over the Bay Area, but this was depressing. I considered downsizing from a one-bedroom to a studio, as well as finding a place farther from my job. But that would increase my commute.

Then came the layoff notice. I’d been working at the university for eleven years. But budget cuts and shortfalls meant my administrative job was going away. I switched from looking at apartment listings to job listings, wondering what I was going to do.

“Give up your apartment and move in with me,” Mom said.

“At my age?” I protested. “I’ve lived on my own too long.”

“It’s temporary. Till you find a job and a place you can afford.”

“You turned my room into a sewing room years ago.”

“I can move the sewing machine.”

I hesitated. “Well . . .”

“Come on, it’ll be fun being roomies.”

I sighed. “I don’t know about fun. But, okay. And I insist on paying you rent. And half the groceries.”

“We’ll work that out.”

So, here I was, out of a job and back in the room I’d had in high school. A group of friends had helped me move, transporting my belongings in my friend Stan’s truck. Much of the furniture was stashed in Mom’s garage and the boxes were stacked in the room. Mom ordered pizza, I’d picked up beer and sodas, and we’d consumed both in the kitchen. Then my friends departed.

Mom appeared in the doorway. “Need help?”

“Sure.” I picked up a box cutter and began opening boxes. With two of us working, we made progress, stashing clothes in the dresser and closet. We were almost done when I found the shopping bag, green with a sunflower pattern. I picked it up. It had some heft. I looked inside and saw a metal lockbox.

“Is this yours?” I asked.

Mom shook her head. “Never saw it before.”

“It’s not mine. I wonder if it was in Stan’s truck and got carried in by mistake.” I reached for my phone.

“Nope,” Stan told me when I reached him.

I disconnected the call, then lifted the box from the bag. Gray metal and heavy. There was something inside. But the box was locked. How did it get here, among my moving boxes?

I replayed this afternoon’s move. Me and my friends, carrying the furniture and boxes out of my first-floor apartment, loading Stan’s truck. The door next to mine opened and a woman came out. It was the neighbor who played her music too loud and smoked on her patio despite the “no smoking” signs all over the complex.

“Moving? Yeah, that rent increase was over the top. Let me help you with that.”

Before I could say no, she grabbed the box I held and headed down the sidewalk toward the truck, placing the box inside. I hadn’t given it much thought at the time, but now as I recalled the scene, I remembered that she’d carried a green bag looped over her left arm. I’d assumed she was going shopping. Something was off. Why would she take the bag from her arm and leave it in the truck?

Unless she meant to. Why? To get something out of her place so it couldn’t be found?

“I need to find out what’s inside,” I said.

“I’ve got a little screwdriver in my sewing basket.” Mom left the room and soon returned with the tool.

I set to work on the lockbox. In a few minutes, the lock gave, and I opened the lid. Something wrapped in green fabric. I teased away the edge and stared down at a gun.

“I’m calling the police,” I said, reaching for my phone.

D. Z. Church

Fresh Start

Row houses

They had planned the move with care. First to go was all the furniture, except an old breakfront that had been passed down through the family. Her family. Not his. The rest went by way of an estate sales company that valued their belongings and took what they wanted. The unsalable went to the reuse center, Habitat for Humanity, and the dump.

It had all been meant to free them. They weren’t getting any younger, and there was so much they planned to do. Since they had never had children, the idea was to move near family, buy something smaller and travel more. It had sounded wonderful.

“How do we decide where?” he asked. “You’re a midwesterner; North Carolina is my home. You’ve always enjoyed visits to my sister in Raleigh.”

“I have. Though I miss my family. And my parents are still alive. I’d like to be near them and my sisters.”

He scrunched his nose. “I’m no fan of Iowa summers.”

“We can travel those months.”

“Let’s draw straws. I’ll shorten three of six. And whoever draws two short straws loses.”

It sounded fair until he won. “It’s going to be great.” He kissed her cheek. “Think lunch in Paris.”

The next day, she found the straws in the garbage can: four short, two long. The fix was in.

They studied a map of the seaboard, deciding on Baltimore. They could afford a home there on the Inner Harbor, close but not too close to his sister in Raleigh and his brother in Philadelphia.

She bought a 10mm wrench, a catch pan and watched YouTube videos on fixing leaky brakes.

Their house in Marin County, CA, sold quickly and well above expectations. It paid handily for the rowhouse with a rooftop view of the Inner Harbor they picked out online in Fells Point. The rowhouse was fully refurbished, glorious on the inside, plain to scary on the outside, a narrow sidewalk to the street, garbage cans lined up out front shaded by a spindly, light-starved tree.

Inside it was modern, clean with a deck out the second-floor bedroom and a sundeck on the roof the length of the house. He clapped when their offer was accepted. She stared at him. They rented a trailer to haul the few things they kept, including the breakfront. She helped him load the car, too. When he went for one particularly large box, she pulled the 10 mm wrench from the bushes.

With their goods loaded, she flew to Baltimore to ready their dream house. He was on the road before she landed, surprising her with a call from Salt Lake City.

“Is it as great as we thought?”

“It’s lovely,” she lied from her hotel room near the Baltimore/Washington Airport.

“I’ll call you from Denver. I can hardly wait to see it with my own eyes. My sister is so stoked she plans to visit Sunday. Isn’t that great?”

She ground her teeth most of the night.

He never made Denver: wind, rain, and no brakes. Witnesses claimed the trailer jackknifed when the driver used his emergency brake on a steep downhill grade. The car and trailer ended up a twisted heap off Interstate 70, as did the 10 mm wrench hidden in the toolbox he carried with him everywhere.

She stood outside the rowhouse, near his family, not hers, conjuring the cornfields of Iowa, the trill of the meadowlarks and flitting fireflies. She had a house in Iowa City in mind. She sat on the stoop, feet planted on concrete, and scanned the harbor.

A phone call later, she entered the rowhouse. It was lovely, but not her dream. The realtor arrived within an hour; his dream house was on the market hours later.

She had her savings, his savings, his insurance and their stocks. She had the million from the sale of their home; the rowhouse was listed for more than they had paid. And two tickets for a 274-day cruise in her purse.

She stretched before calling the Georgetown, CO police, she gave them his sister’s address. Let his sister handle the details.

Tomorrow, she would be a cruising widow coping with the sudden loss of her husband.