Just a little heads up here. This story is only supposed to be 1200 words or less (Exercise 29 Instructions). Still, as I worked my way to a complete story, talking with our local police about procedure, with my husband about computer systems, and with my father about possible plot ideas, I found that the story itself ended up being somewhere closer to 3000 words long (2947 to be exact). I realize I could probably cut it and, normally, I would, except for one thing.
I don’t want to.
Anyway, this story is much longer than my usual and you’re suitably warned of the fact. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know in the comments, please, if you thought it was good enough to leave it at its current length. Huge thanks in advance to those of you that manage to get all the way through it.
It had been a difficult afternoon for Detective Joe Campbell. Six days ago, a wealthy collector had been robbed and a set of six rare, gold coins in an expensive leather case had been stolen. The case had been given to Joe with the understanding that fifteen years of experience in police work would probably make recovering the coins easier. So far, Joe had been over the crime scene time and time again and questioned suspect after suspect with no luck. In fact, he felt no closer to resolution of the case than he’d been six days ago.
With a sigh, Joe climbed into his cruiser and headed home for dinner. His wife, Ann, had promised him baked ham and mashed potatoes. When he reached home, though, the table, rather than being attractively set, was stacked with brick-a-brac from every corner of the house.
“Ann?” he called, fear rising in his throat. A fear immediately dispelled when Ann emerged from the kitchen carrying a box.
“Joe, you’re home,” she observed, setting the box on the already overcrowded table. “You’re early, aren’t you?”
“No. It’s six o’clock, as usual,” Joe replied in confusion, watching as Ann began tossing the contents of the box out at random. “What’s going on?”
As if in answer, Ann lifted her left hand. “See anything different?”
“Your wedding ring‘s missing,” Joe replied after a second.
“I’ve been all over the house twice,” Ann huffed, casting the now empty box to the floor in disgust. “Look through some of this stuff, will you, Joe? Maybe I’ve missed something.” With that, Ann left the room again.
“But Annie,” objected Joe, “I only have an hour before I have to be back at work. I’ve got a case that’s been sitting on my desk for nearly a week, babe.”
“Fine!” Ann replied irritably from the kitchen. “Go to the corner deli, then! I don’t care! I’m not cooking anything until I find that ring!”
Joe sighed again.
As the door clicked shut behind him, Joe thought about the corner deli and wondered if he was really up for a pastrami sandwich on a whole-wheat bagel, his usual order when he ate there. Glancing back at the house, he ran his hands through his hair, once a lustrous black, but long since given over to salt and pepper. He knew Ann had always been like this. If anything went missing in the house, even if it wasn’t as important as Ann’s wedding ring, she would tear the house apart looking for it and then spend hours reorganizing everything so as to try and prevent another occurrence.
Joe’s stomach growled, easily making its opinion known.
Oh, forget it, Joe thought. Maybe she’d find the rings in the next fifteen minutes and they could still have dinner together. Besides, Joe’s doctor had been after him to lower his cholesterol for a while. Absently, Joe began to walk, more or less hoping to take his mind off his lack of dinner by a little unexpected exercise, but not really hoping for much. It wasn’t long before he realized he’d walked to Dex’s house.
Dexter Klein was the strangest shut-in Joe had ever met. He’d first come into contact with Dex about five years ago when the younger man had called the police screaming about some missing credit cards. Joe, who had a real knack for calming people down, whether they were a criminal or not, had been sent to try to get some sense out of him and had found the three cards stuck into three separate computer manuals like bookmarks. Since then, he and Dex had been friends and Joe suspected that he was probably Dex’s only flesh-and-blood friend in the world.
Dex was agoraphobic. Let him just open his front door and he was shaking. Five steps from his house was the farthest Joe had ever made Dex walk before Dex gave in to panic and ran back into the house.
Dex was also very careful. His entire house was almost obsessively clean, if poorly organized. His computer desk was electronic and could move up and down, so that Dex could exercise while he was working. Dex owned three sun-lamps and his own technical support and computer repair company which he operated out of his home and he obviously did pretty well because he made enough money to hire a lawn service to handle his yard and still kept all his bills paid. He had two top-of-the-line computer systems, one just bare bones, for work, and one running the very latest Linux windows technology for ordering groceries and supplies, paying bills and handling his entirely electronic social life.
All of this, Joe knew, was calculated specifically to keep Dex from having to leave the house. So Joe had made a habit of spending all of his free-time here, giving the little shut-in a vital link to the outside world and real life. Joe had even bought Dex his first-ever television set for a birthday gift and every year, the two would get together and watch the Super Bowl. Once a year, Joe even sprang for a detailed home inspection to check the house’s wiring and so on, knowing that things could be extraordinarily bad if Dex ever had a house fire.
Now, Joe debated even knocking on the skinny geek’s door. In the house, Joe saw a window curtain twitch. That settled it. Dex already knew he was there. With yet another sigh, Joe walked up to the house and rang the doorbell. Dex was there in a second, pulling Joe into the house, rather than trying to talk with him in the doorway like some of Ann’s friends did.
“Joe,” smiled Dex, hugging the older man impulsively. “It’s good to see you. I almost never get to see you when you’re on duty. What’s up?”
“It’s nothin’, Dex,” Joe sighed, “Ann can’t find her wedding ring, so I’m out of the house with no dinner until she finds it.”
If Joe had been expecting a reaction from Dex, the one he got wasn’t it. Dex’s eyes lit up like Christmas lights and his whole body seemed to quiver like an ecstatic puppy being petted by a child.
“What?” Joe asked, feeling distinctly like he’d been caught at a crime scene without his gun.
“Can you keep a secret?” Dex grinned, bouncing on his toes.
“Sure,” Joe replied, “as long as it’s nothing illegal.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Dex laughed, “I’m not stupid enough to do anything that would take me to jail. Come here.” Taking Joe by the arm, Dex led him into the living room. Here was where Dex kept his computer desk. It was in the lower position at the moment and the work computer was currently linked up to a separate computer tower that Dex was apparently working on for a customer. Dex sat down, motioning Joe into a recently purchased spare seat. Grabbing the mouse, Dex clicked on a small icon on the screen of his non-work computer that looked like a little blue triangle with a yellow star in the middle of it. Two seconds later, a large square leapt into view. It was brown and depicted on it was a computer mouse wearing a large, blue wizard’s hat. The words “Mouse-Magic” flashed above this graphic surrounded by twinkling stars.
“Mouse-magic?” Joe asked, taking the offered seat.
“It’s a program I wrote to help me find things, like my credit cards,” Dex explained, still smiling like a kid in a toy store. “Only yesterday, I used it to track a shipment of groceries that were a day late.”
“No computer program in the world can do that,” Joe objected.
“Except for this one,” asserted Dex patiently. The screen had filled with a large, white window containing a single box with a blinking cursor in it and a button marked “Search.” It reminded Joe crazily of the Google start page except that the box was three times as wide and twice as long. “Now, tell me about the missing ring.”
Joe described the ring in as much detail as he could, with Dex’s help. Then, Dex clicked the “Search” button and a caption appeared beneath the search box, “376 results found. Please refine search.”
Dex then asked Joe several more detailed questions. Where did Joe purchase the ring? When did he marry Ann? How many times had the ring been resized? After each question, Dex clicked “Search” again and the number of results were fewer. Finally, after so many questions Joe had lost track of them all, the caption that appeared read, “1 result found.” Beneath that was a photograph of a dark-blue Honda Civic, identical to the one Ann drove and, in small print, a number of words.
“It’s in your wife’s car,” declared Dex with all the decisiveness of a man reaching an unshakable conclusion.
“That’s impossible,” Joe replied. “Ann would never lose her ring in her car. It’s so clean that germs would starve.”
“Trust me,” Dex smiled confidently. “Go home and look underneath the driver’s seat of her car.”
Joe shook his head. His watch said it was getting late anyway and, if he intended to eat before he went back to work, it was time that he went back to retrieve his cruiser, at the very least.
“If I’m wrong, the next time we get together, I’ll buy the pizza,” insisted Dex as Joe got up to leave. Joe chuckled softly as the door shut behind him.
Joe ran back to his own house, where his car was waiting for him. Sitting in front of it in the driveway was Ann’s blue Honda. Joe gazed at it for a while before walking over and opening the driver’s side door. It couldn’t hurt to check. Joe knelt down on the pavement and ran his hand underneath the driver’s seat. To Joe’s surprise, it wasn’t long at all before his hands encountered something small and hard. Joe grasped it and was even more amazed to find his wife’s ring clutched in his fingers.
“Ann!” he exclaimed from the front door, “I found it!”
“You didn’t!” Ann replied, emerging from the attic. Joe held the ring up for her to see and she surprised him with a squeal of purely girlish delight. “Where was it?”
“In your car,” Joe smiled, pleased to see her happy again. “It was under the driver’s seat.”
“Oh, you doll,” giggled Ann, gleefully drawing the ring back onto its accustomed finger again. “When you’re finished with work today, I’ll have to find a way to make it up to you.” As Ann spoke these words, they seemed to strike his brain with added force. When you’re finished with work today.
“Babe, I’ve gotta go,” Joe decided, giving her a quick kiss on the lips before turning and dashing to his cruiser.
“But you still have twenty minutes,” Ann called back, surprised.
“It can’t wait that long,” Joe shouted as he clambered into his car. “I love you, Annie. You’re the best!
Ann shook her head and went back inside to straighten up again.
Five minutes later, Joe was stumbling back out of his car at Dex’s house. In his right hand was the file folder for the case he’d been working on most of the week. He dashed up the steps to Dex’s front door and was just about to knock when the door came open beneath his hand.
“Joe, didn’t you find Ann’s ring?” Dex asked, a look of concern touching his eyes.
“I found it,” Joe grinned, wanting to laugh with excitement as he pushed past the smaller man and into the house. “I want you to find something else for me.”
“What have you got in mind?”
In answer, Joe drew out an insurance photograph of the coins he’d been asked to find. The photo had been provided by the burglarized collector.
“Nice,” admitted Dex, taking the photo.
“Someone stole them six days ago,” Joe explained, following Dex to the living room for the second time that day. “Everything you could ever want to know is right in this file folder. I was hoping to work on it over dinner.” Gingerly, he placed the manila folder at Dex’s right hand and opened it.
Joe couldn’t rest as Dex alternately pored through the file and typed on his computer, but paced like a restless tiger in a cage waiting until…
“Got it!” Dex exclaimed finally. Seizing a pen and a sheet of paper, he wrote furiously on it then handed the page to Joe. Joe took the page and examined it. There, neatly inscribed, was an address and driving directions from Dex’s house.
“Will you know if the coins move?” Joe asked, carefully sliding the paper into the file and tucking it back under his arm.
“Naturally,” replied Dex.
“Great!” chuckled Joe. “You have my cell number. Call me if anything happens.” Dex might have said something after that, but Joe was already outside and running for his car. The minute the car-door closed and his key was in the ignition, Joe grabbed the CB.
“Car 98 to dispatch,” he announced, pulling out.
“Dispatch,” replied the radio, “What is your situation, 98.”
Quickly, Joe explained his intentions and gave the address Dex had provided him. This procedure was pure habit from his academy days. Then, setting his phone to “vibrate,” he drove to the address, parked and settled down to wait. Two hours later, the sun had completely set and the moon was up when Joe’s phone finally buzzed against his chest from his breast pocket.
“Campbell,” Joe answered almost automatically.
“Joe,” Dex’s voice responded from the phone, sounding tense. “The coins are moving. They’re leaving the house.” A few seconds later, Joe heard the sound of a car starting.
“They’re picking up speed,” Dex informed him. Then a dark colored Ford Taurus emerged from the driveway of the house Joe was watching and turned south.
“Call the streets for me, buddy,” Joe grinned tightly.
With Dex’s help, Joe was easily able to follow the Taurus without getting so close that he might arouse suspicion in the driver. Even if he managed to somehow lose the car, Dex’s directions told him precisely where the car was, so that it was easy for Joe to find it again.
“The coins are slowing down now, Joe,” Dex added, finally. “They’re turning off the street. I think it might be a parking lot.” Sure enough, Joe saw the Taurus pull into a parking lot in front of an old strip mall that only had four stores in it: Ye Gamer’s Guild, which was a gaming supply store, Omar’s Hlal Market, the Legends and Lore used book store, and the Lucky Find Pawn Shoppe. There were only about three cars of varying makes and models in the parking lot and the Taurus’s driver quickly selected a vacant spot in front of the Lucky Find.
“The coins have stopped, Joe,” Dex declared.
“I’ve got it from here, partner,” Joe replied. “Thanks for all your help.” He parked across the lot from the Taurus nearest to Legends and Lore and watched as the Taurus’ door opened and a familiar form stepped out of it, clutching a small, leather case. Joe almost swore when he saw the man. It was Matthew Swigert, an associate of the coins’ owner. Joe had asked the swaggering young brunette in twice for questioning about the stolen coins and, both times, Swigert had pretended ignorance. Thinking fast, Joe grabbed his leather jacket from the passenger seat of his car and relayed his new location to dispatch. Then, pulling his jacket on, Joe jerked the collar up and entered the barred door of the pawn shop.
As the shop door swung open, Joe heard the jingle of a tiny bell over his head. At the far end of the shop stood Joe’s suspect. At the display case in front of Swigert, an enormous, bored-looking woman, probably somewhere in her mid-thirties, with tangled black hair, dark eyes and a long nose glanced up at him. Joe turned and pretended to be examining another of the shop’s display cases near the door. The woman blinked, then returned to Swigert. Joe edged carefully along the line of display cases toward the two, pretending to be casually window-shopping until he reached a position where he could see out of the corner of one eye what they were doing.
“How hot are they?” the woman asked, picking up one of the coins and turning it over in her fingers so that it glinted and gleamed in the dim light of the shop.
“Hot enough,” Swigert replied, glancing nervously at Joe, who quickly turned to bend over the case he stood at as if to have a better look at the collection of knives displayed there. “How much will you give for them?”
“Well,” the woman considered, pulling out a calculator, “there’s the total worth of the coins, minus average cost for fencing stolen goods. I’d say I could probably pay you about ten thousand dollars.”
The two of them dickered back and forth and, when they finally agreed on a price, Joe glanced over again to see the dark-haired woman pick up the leather case. Joe quickly counted. Then, just as casually, wandered back out the door and walked to his cruiser to call dispatch again. In less than an hour, the department could have arrest warrants for both Swigert and the pawn broker, plus they’d be able to get a warrant allowing police officers to search the Lucky Find for other stolen goods, as well. Once everything was set in motion, Joe called his friend.
“Did you catch your thief?” Dex asked with all the excitement of a boy that had just played his first round of Cops-and-Robbers.
“Better,” reported Joe, “and it’s all thanks to you.”
Dex laughed delightedly and replied, “Just more mouse-magic.”