The Ring: Cozy Mystery Short Fiction By Robert Petyo
Robert Petyo, author of “The Ring”, is a Derringer award finalist whose stories have appeared in small press magazines and anthologies. He lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
She saw Karen open the tiny black box and carefully remove the ring. She slipped it onto her finger and raised her hand so that the ceiling light flashed over the stone like a spotlight.
“Wow!” Shelly said. “That’s a beauty.”
Spinning, she yanked her hand behind her back. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Who’s the lucky guy? Ricky?”
She stepped back, keeping one hand behind her back.
“You okay?” Shelly asked. They were in a cramped room that separated the dining room from the kitchen. To her right were the windows where they got the completed orders.
“I don’t feel right,” Karen said, tapping her fingers to her forehead. “I don’t think I can finish my shift. I’m going to have to leave early.”
“Sure.” Probably to hug Ricky, Shelly thought with a shiver that racked her thin frame. Ricky was a dirtbag who probably stole the ring. He’d had a string of girlfriends, including the restaurant manager Molly, who was actually the one who introduced him to Karen. Probably to get him off her hands, Shelly thought. Of course, Karen wasn’t much better. She was a tramp who would latch onto any guy who looked her way. Ricky was just her latest.
Shelly shivered again. Was she the only normal person who worked in this restaurant?
But still, Karen was a friend— sort of. Always the optimist, Shelly hoped she could straighten her out. Maybe Molly, too. Sometimes she thought that it was her lot in life to help other misbegotten souls. Her own life wasn’t the happiest, saddled with school loans, struggling over a breakup, estranged from her mother, but it made her feel better to help straighten out other people who were more screwed up than she was. Her co-worker Todd often warned her to mind her own business, but she never listened.
Shelly shivered again. Was she the only normal person who worked in this restaurant?
“Can you and Todd handle my tables?” Karen asked as she turned and shoved the tiny box into the pocket of her black skirt. “It’s just for another few hours.”
“No problem.” It wasn’t like that had never happened before, she thought, as she did a quick pirouette to check the dining room behind her. Why Molly hadn’t fired Karen yet was beyond her. She must have incriminating photos or something. “Molly’s out of the building right now, but when she gets back I’ll tell her you had a family emergency. No worries.”
“Thanks a million.” She still kept one hand behind her as she backed away. “Sorry about this.”
“No worries.” Shelly took her order book and strode into the dining room.
Specializing in Italian American cuisine, Café Anello was a small but elegant restaurant on Miller Avenue, two blocks from Center Square. Soft instrumental music underscored the muted clatter of dishes and the quiet conversations.
She made eye contact with Todd, held up two fingers, and pointed to him then tapped her own chest. He nodded with a smile, shrugging his shoulders and cocking his head in a “here we go again” gesture. He pointed toward the tables he would take.
That left Shelly with Karen’s five tables along the right side of the room. She approached the first and said, “I’ll be taking care of you this evening.”
The neatly dressed man on one side of the small table perked up and glared at her through oversized Clark Kent glasses. “Where’s the other girl?” His full beard was streaked with gray and when he raised his jaw it seemed to threaten her with hundreds of silver daggers.
Surprised at his reaction, Shelly stepped back. “She had to leave early tonight. Don’t worry. If there’s anything you need, I’ll be glad to get it for you.”
He looked at the beautiful young woman seated across from him and forced a tight-lipped smile as he reached over the table and stroked the back of her hand. “We’re fine right now, aren’t we, hon?” To Shelly he said, “You have our order, right?” It was a dismissal.
“Yes, sir.” What a creep, she thought, immediately feeling sorry for the beautiful young woman at that table. She had to tell her there were plenty of wonderful guys to hook up with. A lot younger ones, too.
She moved to the next table Karen had been handling, a party of three elderly women who seemed in awe of the place.
After the steward brought glasses of wine to both tables, gray beard excused himself from his date and approached Shelly, cornering her near the entrance to the back room.
“Can I help you?” she asked, her hands clasping her order pad as a barrier in front of her.
He yanked off his glasses. “Where’s Karen, the girl who waited on us before?”
“I told you, sir. She had to leave.”
He brought up his hand as if to claw at her face, but he managed to pull back at the last instant.
“Is there something wrong, sir?”
“Yes.” He folded his glasses and put them in his shirt pocket. “That girl stole my fiancee’s engagement ring.”
“I was going to propose to Anna tonight.” He spoke stiffly, obviously struggling to control a brewing anger. “When she went to the Ladies’ Room, I gave that waitress the ring. I told her to bring it out with our desserts. You know. As a surprise.”
“Oh.” Shelly tapped her throat and leaned back against the wall. “Listen, our manager should be back any minute. I think you better talk to her.”
“No, I think we better go see Karen. She doesn’t live far from here.”
“Give me a second.” She pulled out her cell phone and called Karen but there was no answer.
“Oh, forget it,” he said. “I’m calling the police. And then I’m finding my insurance agent.”
“No. Please wait.” She kept patting her hand through the air as if to calm him. “There must be some kind of mix up. I’ll take you to her apartment.”
He considered it, but said, “I better stay here with my girlfriend.” He pointed at her. “I’ll give you half an hour before I call the cops.”
An hour ago Molly had to run home because her neighbor had reported a water leak. “No worries,” Shelly had said. “We can handle it.” Then she let Karen scurry away. Always the helpful one, or always the sucker. And now she told Todd to do his best until Molly got back. She hated leaving him like that but she had little choice. The busboy from the kitchen could help out, she told him. And the place wasn’t packed tonight.
Karen lived in an upstairs apartment of a building about half a mile from the restaurant. Shelly had no car. She took the bus to work and usually bummed a ride home or called a cab. So she had to walk.
The dark sky pressed in on her as she hurried down Miller Avenue. Widely spaced streetlights did little to brighten her path and her button down sweater did little to fend off the evening chill. Only the headlights from passing cars lit her way. Puffing she turned the corner at Huddleston Street and stopped in front of the second house, a sagging double block with an upstairs entrance on the right side. Taking another deep breath, she gritted her teeth and jogged up the wooden stairs that creaked beneath her.
There was no answer to her knock.
After a few seconds she tried the knob and the door swung inward.
She pulled out her phone and accessed her flashlight app so she could find a light switch.
But she never got to a switch. Her light flashed across Karen’s body sprawled across the floor of the den. Shelly staggered back and swung her phone around to call nine one one.
It was well past closing time and the kitchen staff was gone and Todd and Molly were finishing up the paperwork when Shelly got back to the restaurant. Todd saw the police car outside and hugged her. “What happened?”
She couldn’t respond.
Two scruffy men in ill fitting suits walked in behind her. “I’m Detective Benderson,” the taller one said. “This is my partner Detective Medura. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“What’s wrong?” Harmon DeLuise and his fiancée were still there, seated at the short bar just inside the door. Shelly had called him after she called the police. She had given him no details but told him to wait for her.
“Please. Everyone sit down.” Benderson gestured for everyone to move to the bar. “This is a murder investigation.”
For some reason everyone turned to Shelly. “Karen’s dead,” she whispered.
Benderson moved in front of Shelly. “Is there another room where we can talk?”
Molly pointed toward a narrow door to the back office.
He touched Shelly’s arm. “You first, please. I’m going to have ask you a few questions, and I’m sorry but you’ll probably end up repeating everything you told the patrolman earlier. I have to know exactly what happened this evening before Miss Stanton left.”
Shelly nodded and trudged to the back office. She told them everything that happened from the moment she got to work to the moment she found Karen’s body. Benderson listened silently. Medura stood like a guard at the door.
“You saw no one leaving the apartment when you arrived?”
“Any cars rushing away as you approached?”
“Not that I noticed.”
“From the time Miss Stanton left to the time you found her. How long would you say? An hour?”
“Maybe a little more than that. Karen left around eight-thirty. It was nine-forty-five when I called the police.”
His eyebrows arched at that.
“I saw the time on my phone.”
“Very observant,” he whispered with a grin. Though he looked exhausted, like he hadn’t slept in days, and had been wearing the same suit just as long, Benderson’s eyes crinkled sweetly when he grinned.
Shelly wondered if he was seeing anyone.
“Miss? Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry. Just wandering a little. I think you should be talking to Ricky.”
“Who is that?”
“Her dirtbag boyfriend.”
He glanced at his partner. “Do you know where we can find this dirtbag?”
“They live together.”
“But he wasn’t there when you got there?”
“What did they want to know?” Todd asked.
“I just told them everything that happened.” Molly had gone into the back office. DeLuise, Todd, Shelly, and DeLuise’s girlfriend Anna sat at the bar like patrons at Happy Hour.
“How about us?” Anna asked. “We have nothing to do with this.”
Shelly wondered if her boyfriend had told her yet about the ring. “They want to talk to everybody,” she said with a look at DeLuise. Let him tell her they were here because the police were looking for his stolen ring, she thought with a grim smile. It was a nice romantic gesture that went blooey. Turning to Todd, she said, “Sorry I left you in the lurch like that.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He leaned toward her. “You found the body?”
She nodded and leaned even closer to him. “I told them to look for Ricky.”
He gave a knowing nod and sat back.
Molly came out of the back office and DeLuise went in next. “It’ll only be a few minutes, hon,” he told his fiancee.
It was longer than a few minutes, but when DeLuise came out he sat beside Shelly. “They don’t have my ring. It’s gone.”
“Is that all you care about? That ring. A girl is dead.”
“It was an expensive ring.”
“Did you get in touch with your insurance agent?” Todd asked.
“Yes.” He slapped the side of his skull. “But I’ve got to call him again now that the police have confirmed it’s missing.” He pulled out his phone and moved into the darkened dining room.
Todd leaned toward her. “He’s awfully concerned about that ring.”
“And it’s after eleven o’clock. I’m sure it could wait until morning.”
“He already saw him.”
“His insurance agent. He went to see him right after you left to go to Karen’s apartment.”
“He told me he was staying with his fiancee.”
He pressed his lips in a tight line and shook his head.
“He could have driven to Karen’s apartment and got there before me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He told me he knew where Karen lived. Maybe he went looking for his ring.” She slid off the barstool. “I have to talk to those detectives.” Just as she turned toward the back room Anna was escorted out. Shelly pointed at Medura. “I have to talk to you.”
He held out his hand like a stop sign.
At the same moment DeLuise came in. “I got hold of Richard. He’ll have the paperwork submitted by tomorrow.” He held out his hand. “Come on, hon. We don’t have to stay here any more.”
She pulled away from him when he tried to take her hand.
“Hold it,” Shelley snapped with a wave to Benderson who had just come out of the office. “He did it.”
“He killed her.”
DeLuise jolted to a stop. “What are you babbling about?”
She spun to him. “You knew where Karen lived. You knew her name. We don’t give out our names here.” She tapped her chest. “We don’t wear name tags.”
“She told me her name. So what?”
“And where she lived?” Benderson moved beside Shelly. “How did you know where the woman lived?”
“She told me,” he mumbled.
“Why would she do that?”
Shelly pointed at him. “You wore those gigantic glasses. And that beard looks fake.”
His fingertips went to the spiky beard.
“It is new,” Anna said.
“You were trying to fool her, weren’t you? You knew Karen. You were probably one of her old boyfriends.” She leaned toward Benderson. “Karen had a ton of them.”
“I don’t have to listen to this.” He reached for his fiancée. “C’mon, hon.”
“No,” Benderson said. “I think you better stay for a while.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
Benderson gave Shelly a tight grin and a nod.
Good work, she thought. Maybe she could be a detective, too. That and straightening everybody’s life out.
“We just got a report,” Benderson said. “They found your ring.”
“They did?” DeLuise tapped his sternum a few times. “Where?”
“Ricky Suarez had it.”
“How did he get it?”
“Probably from Karen. He was going to get it to a fence and make some big bucks.”
“Then you got it back.”
“Yeah. You sound a little disappointed.”
“No. Of course not.”
“Maybe you were hoping your former girlfriend would swipe it. She was a former girlfriend, wasn’t she?”
He sighed and lowered his head.
His fiancée backed away.
“It was a long time ago, hon.”
“I knew about her,” she said with a bowed head. “That’s what I told them.” She pointed at Benderson. “And those stupid glasses. Forgot your contacts, you said.” She shook her head. “You knew her. You were hoping she would steal it so you could collect the insurance.”
“I knew it,” Shelly said. “He killed her.”
“I didn’t kill anybody.”
“I know,” Benderson said. “For you this was all about the ring and an insurance scam.”
“I don’t understand,” Shelly said.
“It’s fake. Worth maybe a hundred bucks. But you were hoping to collect three thousand, weren’t you?”
DeLuise struggled forward and leaned on the bar. “But I didn’t kill anybody.”
“Insurance fraud is a serious offense.” He pointed toward the door. “Go on. Get out of here. You’ll be hearing from the bunco boys tomorrow.”
Shelly took Benderson’s arm. “How did you know the ring was fake?”
“Because Ricky took it to a fence he’s dealt with before. The fence knew it was fake and beat the crap out of him for trying to rip him off. Somehow Ricky made his way to the emergency room. They’re the ones who called the police.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Karen’s boyfriend is a dirtbag. You said so yourself. She gave him the ring hoping he could sell it to a fence and make some money for them, but the fence saw that the ring was fake.” Benderson gave a heavy shrug. “Ricky’s in pretty bad shape right now, but actually, I think he’s lucky the guy didn’t kill him. Ricky apparently hangs with the kind of guys who might shoot you at the drop of a hat. Right now, he’s telling an awful lot about the gang he hangs with. Very interesting stuff.”
“But what about Karen?”
He looked at Molly. “Yes, Mrs. Cathman. What about Karen?”
Her eyes flared three sizes as she stared at him, her chest heaving. “What?”
“Shelly told us you had left the restaurant before all this started. We checked. There was no water leak at your home. That was just a line you gave so you could leave. You didn’t go home. Where did you go?”
“I went– I was just driving around.”
“But why did you lie about the water leak?”
“I needed a break.”
“From what? Is managing this restaurant too tough for you? Maybe you should find another job.” He pointed at Shelly. “I think she could manage things here pretty good.”
“No. I just–”
“Are you sure you didn’t stop at Karen’s apartment? To see Ricky?”
Her eyes flared and she turned and dashed for the door where Medura stood with his thick arms folded across his chest. She staggered to a halt and her arms hung down, dragging her shoulders toward the floor.
“What’s going on?” Shelly asked.
Benderson pointed at his partner. “Why don’t you take Mrs. Cathman downtown for some further questioning? I’ll finish up here.”
Medura nodded and took Cathman’s arm. She didn’t resist.
“Karen’s taking the ring and going home early was a spur of the moment thing,” Benderson told her. “So she surprised somebody at home. Not a burglar. No sign of a break in. As soon as I found out the boyfriend lived with her, I suspected him. And when you told me Cathman was an ex-girlfriend, who just happened to be out of the restaurant when this all went down, we checked on her. She was with Ricky at the apartment, trying to reconcile. You see, he really was a dirtbag just like you said.”
He sat at the bar and gestured for Shelly to sit beside him. “Apparently you know people.” That pleasant grin again, showing little yet promising a lot. “He was a dirtbag who got the crap beat out of him and was in no shape to make up any stories. He came clean about Cathman. Said she hid in another room when Karen showed up unexpectedly. As far as he knew she was still there when he left with the ring. After he left the two had words that ended up with Karen dead.”
Shelly stood at the bar, leaning on the stool beside him. “Wow! You’re pretty good.”
“Thanks,” he said with a shrug. “I know people. Sometimes I think it’s my lot in life to try to straighten out the dregs of society.”
She smiled and patted his hand. “Me, too.”
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