This month’s challenge to both of us: write a 700-word short story. Otherwise known as flash fiction. So we did.
It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was hard! I’ve been writing novels for decades and I like having that broad canvas to paint on. This exercise forced me to choose each word carefully and eliminate some of the details I would normally put into a work of fiction.
Here’s my story.
Bea Goes Missing
“I’m not overreacting, Jeri. I’m worried about Bea.”
My friend Agnes and I were in her living room, talking about her neighbor.
“I saw Bea this morning. I was on my porch. She left her house, carrying her shopping bag, blue with bees on it, going to the market for milk. She said, ‘Let’s talk when I get back.’ But I haven’t seen or heard from her since. It’s not like her.”
“Did she go out again?”
“Maybe. She keeps her car in the garage. I’m too short to reach the window, so I don’t know if it’s there. She’s not in the house. I have her keys, so I let myself in. There’s no sign of her. No blue bag, no milk in the fridge. I don’t think she came home from the market.”
“What did she want to talk about?”
Agnes frowned. “My guess? Her deadbeat nephew Carl. He borrowed money and hasn’t paid it back. She was going to insist, next time she saw him.”
We left the house, with Bea’s keyring. Outside, I peered through the high window of the detached garage. No car. Agnes described it—silver Honda, a plush bumblebee toy in the back window. Bea’s house was empty, a paperback on the coffee table, a quilt made of bee fabric on the sofa. And no milk in the fridge.
Agnes went back to her house. I headed for the corner market. The checker remembered Bea, or rather her bag, adding that Bea encountered another customer, a man she knew. They’d gone across the street for coffee.
At the coffee shop, the guy bussing tables remembered Bea. After she and her companion finished coffee and pastries, Bea headed toward the next corner. He pointed, and I walked that direction. Midway down the block, I glanced inside a storefront that was being remodeled, where two men were tearing out drywall. I was just about to ask if they’d seen Bea when one man said, “Where the hell is he?”
The other man laughed. “Probably asleep in his new car.”
“That guy is useless. I’ve had it with him.” The first man set down his tools. He brushed past me as he came out the door and headed down the sidewalk.
I waved to the second man and asked about Bea. “I don’t remember seeing the lady. Maybe Terry, that’s the boss who just left. Or Carl, that’s the guy he’s looking for.”
“Carl?” Same name as Bea’s nephew? “This new car, has he had it long?”
“Just got it today, he says. Silver Honda. It’s on the side street. That’s where Terry went looking.”
When I rounded the corner, Terry was berating a twenty-something man on the sidewalk. By the time I reached the silver car, I spotted the plush bumblebee in the back window.
I ignored Terry and loomed over Carl. “Where’s your Aunt Bea?”
“Who the hell are you?” Terry demanded.
“A private investigator. I think Carl stole this car from his aunt. She’s missing. My guess is she was walking past your worksite, spotted Carl.” I glared at him. “She brought up that money you owe her. Looks like you took her keys and went back to her house for the car. But what did you do with her?”
Terry sputtered. “Are you serious?”
“Elderly woman, carrying a shopping bag, blue with yellow bees.”
“I saw her.” Terry turned to Carl. “What the hell did you do?”
I grabbed Carl’s arm. Terry clamped a hand on his other arm. Together we marched him back to the storefront.
“Ramon,” Terry snapped, “when did Carl get to work?”
“He was already here when I got here. Eating a roll and drinking milk out of a carton.” Ramon pointed and I saw it behind a section of sheetrock, a blue bag decorated with bees, the top of a milk carton visible.
I hauled Carl through door at the rear that led to a storage space and a bathroom. Bea was there, tied up in a closet. Ramon removed the gag as Terry backed Carl into a corner, an enraged look on his face.
I pulled out my phone and hit 911. Then I called Agnes.
D. Z. Church:
Keeping the Watch
“David’s here,” Grandma Lou said.
“I saw him,” Dee answered, working her way down the clothesline, gathering dried clothes into a plastic laundry basket, leaving those that were still damp. She was enjoying her time away from big city noise, happy to be at the family farm helping her grandmother. At first, she hadn’t noticed David signaling her from his usual spot on the grass outside the hall window. When she did, she waved. It was the polite thing to do.
In his worn coveralls and checked shirt, he ticked his head toward the horizon, then brushed a hank of sable hair from his forehead. Dark clouds roiled in the west. Dee registered the warning and the stiff breeze providing a tailwind as she scampered toward the farmhouse.
Inside, she set the clothes basket next to the ironing board and joined Grandma Lou in the kitchen. Lou was pinching off lumps of kneaded dough for biscuits.
“How long?” Dee asked.
“Six, eight hours.”
It was four in the afternoon on a muggy summer day. The light sifting through the billowing clouds lay a hue of violet over the radiant green fields, leaving brown and blue shadows as a warning of things to come.
“Always?” Dee asked.
Grandma Lou nodded. “The bad ones. One time he just showed up. Like now. Standing there. Not six hours later, a twister tore through. Like in his day. No one saw it, just heard it. Hadn’t been for David, we would have been caught flat-footed instead of in the storm cellar.”
“I guess he hopes to be let in out of the weather. Instead, he’s on perpetual watch. Can’t get in, can’t leave.”
“Maybe we should tell him that we’ve got the watch now like the Navy officer did at Grandpa’s funeral.”
Lou pointed. “He’s out there again. Must be a bad one.”
Dee crossed to the hall window. David ticked his head toward the clothesline. Dee emptied the basket on the ironing board and trotted back out. David tagged behind her until she slammed back through the farmhouse door, the basket filled. She checked out the window. He was gone. Not the clouds though, they were closer, more threatening.
Grandma Lou readied dinner; fried chicken, snap beans, and baked potatoes. The wind came up while they ate. After dishes, they turned on the black and white TV. As Lou knitted, Dee watched cop shows waiting for the ten o’clock weather report. Severe thunderstorms, no tornado warning.
Lou stood, signaling bedtime. Dee climbed the stairs to the second floor. As it neared eleven, the wind raced through the eaves, lightning ravaged the sky, bouncing from cloud to cloud and striking earth. Dee climbed into bed, pulled up the sheet, and stared at the ceiling, counting between strikes. When a bolt rocked the house, she ran to the window, kneeling to see what had been hit. St. Elmo’s fire shimmered its blue light down the electric fence line. A hand touched her shoulder, she turned.
“The farmyard is on fire,” he said, “You should put it out before it reaches the house.”
“Lightning?” Dee asked.
“Embers,” he said. “From the garbage barrel.”
Dee threw on her robe, slipped into her shoes, and headed to the kitchen. The fire was her fault. She had burned the trash earlier and hadn’t replaced the grate. She tore out the backdoor as Grandma Lou entered the kitchen from her downstairs bedroom. Wind flamed embers ringed the chicken scratched grass and raced toward the house and the garage.
Dee filled a bucket at the spigot, dumping each bucketful on the leading edge, then on the fire. The last bucket of water went into the barrel. A pleasing hiss indicated any embers were smothered.
Lou waited inside the kitchen door, then turned for her bedroom. Dee trundled upstairs, half-expecting to find David waiting.
When he wasn’t. she kneeled by the window until the lightning crested the peak, then snuggled into the bed. Waiting. Listening. When rain pounded on the roof, four sharp knocks on the wall announced all was clear to those roomed upstairs. As they had, did, each night.
For now, David could rest, his day’s watch over.
Recommendations. In my work-in-progress, The Things We Keep, Jeri Howard finds a skeleton in attic of spooky old house in Alameda. Now, as I write the novel, I’m detouring into the past, specifically 1969. Why? Jeri’s speculation about who the bones belong to and how they got into that attic have led me to the Zodiac, a serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area in a spree that began in December 1968 and lasted through 1969, attacking seven people and killing five. I’ve been researching the case, not just on the Internet, where typing “Zodiac killer” into your search engine get 2 million-plus hits. Robert Graysmith of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote the book Zodiac, about the crimes and the investigation, the book is the basis for the 2007 film Zodiac. Then there’s Reporter’s Note Book, by Chronicle reporter Duffy Jennings. He covered everything from the Hearst kidnapping to the Zodiac and Zebra killings, to the Jonestown-Peoples Temple tragedy, the Milk-Moscone murders, and the trial of Dan White for those murders. Also check out Season of the Witch, by David Talbot, a meticulous look at San Francisco in the turbulent years from 1967 to 1982, a great time capsule for this writer.
D. Z. Church:
Viewing or Reading Recommendations: If you’ve never read The Uninvited (by Dorothy McCardle), or seen the classic movie with Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, do. Immediately. It is a true treat. And listen for the debut of the classic song Stella by Starlight. Also, the movie goes well with the story above. Our century farmhouse was positively slopping over with the Uninvited.
And I recently watched one of those intense submarine movies. You know the sort, The Enemy Below, Das Boot, Hunt for the Red October, Crimson Tide. The film, which belongs in the pantheon above, is titled The Wolf’s Call (Le Chant du Loup), yes, it is French, but it is dubbed. The plot revolves around a young submarine sonar/acoustics operator who can recognize any sound. The fate of the submarine depends on his ability to tell friend from whale, from foe. When he makes an inaccurate call, everything is up in the air… and off it goes. The movie left us exhausted and wildly entertained.
Doings: I got my vaccine shots! Colorado, here I come. Colorado, because I am going to visit my mother. I haven’t seen her in 15 months. That’s a long time to go between visits.
March 9 brought the publication of The Sacrificial Daughter, featuring my sleuthing geriatric care manager Kay Dexter. A new character, a new setting, and the first book in a new series. The response has been great. In fact, here’s a link to a review of the book and an interview in Kings River Life Magazine. I also have an article in the same publication, about some of the real life experiences that inspired the book.
Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair. Well, mine was never that long or beautiful. I tried the long hair thing in college, but mine is curly and those were the days when straight was the fashion. So I’ve had short hair all these years. Cue the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders. I decided to let my hair grow. My curls are now down to my shoulders, gray and who cares about fashion!
D. Z. Church:
Doings: I’ve been hard at work on a special project regarding the first book in the Cooper Quartet, Dead Legend, which includes a redesign of the cover and cover text. A Sisters in Crime meeting about short story writing led to this month’s newsletter offering. Seven-hundred words (flash fiction) to tell a whole mystery aren’t many, but what a great exercise it turned out to be. I write about it in my Ladies of Mystery blog: A Little Writing Exercise. And, of course, my newest standalone romantic suspense, Booth Island, is just out and available in eBook and paperback, so I’ve been busy promoting it. Try it, you’ll like it.
Observation: Spring! The daffodils have finished blooming, the freesia are almost done. My roses are full of buds and the lemon tree getting ready to bloom. I’m getting that dig-in-the-dirt feeling. Most years I plant tomatoes. And most years I have to outwit the critters that want to eat my tomatoes. Before I do any significant planting, however, I need to do battle with the weeds. There are always weeds.
D. Z. Church:
Observations: I’m one of those people who typically does the stuff I don’t want to do first, you know, the things you don’t want to do because you’d rather be _________ (fill in the blank). If you just get the crummy stuff done, then you can attack the rest of your day freely. It is similar to the belief that if you make your bed each morning no matter what else has happened during the day, you accomplished one thing. Lately, I find I’m just tired of it all. Maybe as a result of a whole year of nothing but the hard, crummy thing. Maybe. Or maybe, I’d rather be researching and writing… not worrying and fussing.