Synopsis: Annie doesn't always understand what's going on, but she understands the art of the deal.
Annie rolled over and looked at the clock. 10:45 a.m.
Who knew a pandemic could be so awesome?
Other than an urgent need to use the bathroom, she had no place to be and nothing she had to do. Another day of Netflix and no bra. Annie’s Attic, her non-essential business, was temporarily closed. She’d considered updating the company website and dusting the eclectic items her family had collected for three generations, but Netflix was more interesting.
I should shower and put on clean pajamas.
A shower could wait, coffee couldn’t. She flushed the toilet, washed her hands and face, and headed barefoot down the stairs to the Keurig in the kitchen/employee lounge. Her two employees weren’t in the building that doubled as her home/business. They were furloughed for the foreseeable future. She was thrilled to be alone.
Since her widower father had taken her to see The Omega Man on her twelfth birthday, she’d fantasized about a world devoid of pesky people. Almost fifty years later, her fantasy was mostly coming true thanks to COVID-19. Unlike Charlton Heston in the movie, she wasn’t forced to deal with the infected. Her biggest worry was running out of toilet paper. Running out of money wasn’t a concern. She’d seen to that six months before the current crisis.
Halfway down the staircase, her right foot landed on something hard and sharp.
Her butt hit the stairstep. She sat a few seconds, breathing heavily, before examining her foot. She’d stepped on a . . . rock?
What the hell?
It was an oyster. A shucked oyster empty except for a slip of paper tucked inside like the fortune in a fortune cookie. BITCH was written on the paper. She couldn’t have been more shocked if the letters had reached out and slapped her.
Who would do such a thing?
She stood with her weight on her right foot. It throbbed a bit. Cautiously descending, she paused at the foot of the stairs to eyeball the gloomy space between her and the front door. No one lurked in the shadows. Nothing looked out of place.
The door was locked. She flipped the lights on and raised the blinds on the window next to the door. Sunlight flooded the showroom, easing some of the tension in her body.
She looked out the window to see the usual parade of humanity on the sidewalk along South Congress Avenue. The hipsters with their silly hats; the panhandlers with their cardboard signs; the tourists with their whiny toddlers. The sidewalk was empty.
Oh, yeah—the pandemic.
She scooped the mail off the floor under the slot in the door and headed to the back of the building to make sure the freight door was locked. Satisfied she was in no immediate danger, she returned to the strange shell she’d left on the stairs.
Did Scott do this? I did say no to drinks and dinner with him, but he seemed to understand I don’t mix business with pleasure. It must’ve been Jillian. She has the weirdest sense of humor. But how did she get in? My employees don’t have keys.
She sat on the stairs and leaned against the wall under a framed Willie Nelson for President poster. The wall was lined with memorabilia, stuff an eccentric aunt would have in her attic. Cowboy hats, taxidermy trophies, antique maps. All of it for sale. The most expensive items were displayed in a locked, glass case located near the bottom of the staircase. Shoplifting had always been a problem. She’d had cameras installed after inheriting the store from her father who’d had a heart attack and died.
I picked a bad time to turn off the cameras.
No customers and no employees meant no mischief, she’d wrongly assumed.
She sifted through the mail, separating the junk from the bills and catalogs she wanted to study over a cup of coffee. A postcard caught her eye, prompting a grin. She recognized the familiar Keep Austin Weird slogan on it. There was no stamp or postmark, only handwriting that brought tension roaring back into her body. Her shoulders rose as she read: BITCH, I know what you did.
She tried to focus, but her head ached.
Get a grip. You don’t have the virus. It’s just this B.S.
Sunlight reflected off the glass case below her, drawing her attention. There was an empty spot in the case. She almost fell rushing down the stairs. A magnificent crystal oyster embedded with sapphires and pearls was gone, replaced with a stack of paper. The case was undisturbed and locked.
She hustled up the staircase to retrieve the key ring she kept in a safe in her closet. Her fingers fumbled with the combination padlock. It took two tries to get the safe open. She grabbed the key ring and ran down to the locked case.
The key didn’t fit in the lock. She tried another key and another until she heard someone fiddling with the front door. Fight or flight kicked in. She ran for the stairs. There was a loaded gun under the bed.
Her sore foot hit the third step when she heard a familiar voice. “You really need to change the locks.”
Annie turned to see a large, masked man approach.
Trouble’s back in town.
“Bro, long time no see.”
“Yeah, I finally crawled out of the bottle.” He leaned against the case, tapping the lock. “Don’t worry, I already changed this lock.”
Shit, I can’t believe Dad gave him a set of keys.
“You’ve been busy,” she said.
“Not as busy as you.” He pointed to the papers. “That’s Dad’s original will. The one you didn’t tamper with. The one naming me sole owner of this place.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I got $30,000 for the oyster. Get out of Austin and stay out, and it’s all yours. Otherwise, I’ll see you in court.”
“Throw in a cup of coffee and a shower and you’ve got a deal.”
Author's note: You just read the second half of round one of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest. I was tasked with writing a mystery with the majority of the action taking place on a staircase. Also, I had to write about an oyster in the story. And, I had to do all that in 1,000 words or less. Easy peasy, right? WRONG. I struggled with this one, and ended up using basically the same format I used in the first story I wrote for round one which you can read by clicking here.
This story will be judged and rewarded points, hopefully. Those points will be combined with the 11 points (fifth place) I scored with my first story in round one to determine if I get to move on to round two. Are you thoroughly confused? Does a bear poop in the woods?
Anyhoo, I'll find out the score I receive for this mystery on October 14. Meantime, please keep your fingers and toes crossed for me because I really really really want to go to round two. Some of you may remember that I missed out on round two last year by one point thanks to Carl who STILL lives in his mother's basement in New Jersey.