A flash-fiction cozy mystery. Who killed Brenda's best friend's brother? For Grim Blunt.
|The Next Best Option
Brenda Burton was always one of the first to know. When you’re the only bartender in the only bar in town, it can’t be helped. She meant to leave the cramped town of Burtonsville once she graduated from Smith College, but couldn’t find a job with a degree in psychology. Bartending paid well and she had college loans to pay-off. Besides, the degree helped with the tips, so it wasn’t a complete waste. She could empathize with just about anyone.
But now she needed more than empathy. Her best friend’s brother, Paul, was murdered. Shot, close range, in the heart, with a single bullet. Her best friend, Jane, now lived in France with her fiancé, Mike. Police thought Jane might be in danger, so they asked her not to return home as of yet. Brenda spoke with Jane shortly after she heard the news and promised to do everything she could to find out who did it.
As Brenda washed down the tables before closing, she questioned why would anyone want to kill the popular fifth grade teacher? Brenda had known Paul and Jane since the family moved into the neighborhood during Brenda’s first year at Burtonsville Elementary. Paul was two years younger than Jane, always hanging around whenever Brenda came over to visit. He was a good kid who turned into a pretty good looking young man. He loved kids and was one of the few who actually wanted to come back to Burtonsville after he graduated from college.
With the town being so small, Brenda knew just about everyone who came into the bar. It and the local coffee shop were pretty much the only two regular hangouts. She thought back on the last couple of weeks and remembered seeing Paul and Brenda’s cousin Billy in the corner at one of the tables with someone Brenda did not know. It wasn’t that unusual to have strangers drop in now and then; it’s not like they lived in Antarctica, but because of the circumstances and Billy’s connection to Paul, Brenda thought it might be worth investigating.
She decided to ask Billy’s mom, Aunt Dotty, as everyone called her, if she knew who Billy’s friend was. She felt a bit more comfortable asking Aunt Dotty instead of Billy, just in case Billy did have something to hide. Billy had a bit more of an edge than his cousin Paul and never really connected with Brenda.
Brenda parked in front of Aunt Dotty’s ranch-style house. She walked up the sidewalk and then knocked on the pink front door. Aunt Dotty immediately opened it. “Billy?” she asked expectantly.
“No, Aunt Dotty, it’s me, Brenda.”
Aunt Dotty started crying, “I don’t know where he is! I’m so worried! What if whoever murdered Paul murdered Billy?”
“I’m sure he’s fine. Maybe he’s just out helping the police?”
“Then why doesn’t he answer his phone, or call and let me know? He always calls when he’s not coming home.” She fell into my arms. I held her and hugged her until her shuddering eased up.
Still holding her I asked, “Aunt Dotty, has Billy had any strange visitors from out of town lately?”
She pushed back. “Strangers? No! Now you’ll have to excuse me. I need to get back in the house, just in case he calls.”
“Well, don’t worry. I’m sure he is okay. I’ll check in on you again tomorrow. Let me know if you hear anything! I love you!”
Brenda received no answer as Aunt Dotty had already closed the door by the time Brenda finished her last message. She went back into her car and sat behind the steering wheel, but did not turn on the engine. She tried to figure out who the stranger was with Billy and how Aunt Dotty wouldn’t know he was here. Billy lived at home.
Then Brenda remembered Billy and Jane went to the same college, the University of New Hampshire up in Durham. Brenda and Jane didn’t see each other a lot during the college days, except occasionally during the summers. With Brenda playing soccer at Smith and Jane involved in student government at UNH, spare time for either of them was limited. Maybe the visitor wasn’t a stranger at all to Aunt Dotty, Billy or Jane.
She hated to have to disturb Aunt Dotty again, but she had to know. This time she called. As soon as Dotty picked up the phone Brenda said, “Hi Aunt Dotty, I’m sorry to bother you and I am sorry to get your hopes up, but I need to ask if Billy had an old college friend visit in the last few days?”
Aunt Dotty didn’t answer. You could hear her trying to think on the other end of the line. Finally she said, “Yes. He mentioned something about Mark Procko, his roommate his first two years at UNH coming to visit. I never saw him. Do you think he has anything to do with Billy missing?”
“I doubt it,” I said, uncertain. “Maybe the two of them took a road trip?” I knew how foolish that sounded, given Billy’s habit of checking in with his mother, but I had to say something to try to reassure her.
As soon as Brenda got home she called Jane. It was the middle of the night in France, but Brenda needed to find out more about Mark. Jane quickly connected the dots, saying Mark thought they had a relationship, but it was clearly one-sided. Brenda cut their conversation short so she could call the police, promising to call back as soon as possible.
Once Brenda told the police what she knew they tracked down Mark. Mark held Billy hostage, but released him once the police showed up at his house. Turns out when he found out about Jane’s engagement he came to Burtonsville to put an end to the fiancé. Only, the fiancé (and Jane) lived in France. Unfortunately for Paul, he was Mike’s next best option.
1,000 words excluding title.