Copper Cannister Caper

 
Frances Sonnabend

 
The young woman in the pale green jumpsuit hesitated in the doorway, her gaze traveling around the small office of the Solva-Case Detective Agency. Her face, softly framed by a cloud of frothy black hair, wore an expression of anxious uncertainty as she approached Justin's desk. He rose from his chair and leaned forward, resting his fingertips on the desk top and thinking he had never seen such beautiful hazel eyes or such coffee-rich-with-cream skin. She was the kind of lovely being that made him glad he was still under thirty, single and reasonably good-looking.

"Justin Case," he mumbled, transfixed.

She tilted her head to one side and regarded him with a puzzled frown. "Just in case of what?"

He pulled himself back to professionalism, and said, "My partner, Joe Solva, is out of town. I'm Justin Case."

"Oh," she said, and smiled briefly. "Mr. Case, I need someone to help me find a family friend with whom I've lost touch. Do you do that sort of thing?"

Justin nodded and, motioning for the woman to be seated in the chair facing his desk, he crossed the room and closed the door to the hallway.

"My name is Belle Espree," she began as Justin seated himself opposite her. "And the lady I need to locate is Rhoda Dendron."

Justin felt a surge of disappointment. Was this beau-tiful lady conning him? But she was looking directly into his eyes and certainly seemed to be serious.

"Rhoda and I are from the same country," Belle went on. "One you've probably never heard of. Theyallguay."

Justin took a deep breath and looked away from her. She sighed and began to delve into her large fabric handbag. "No one ever believes me," she said, and produced a folded paper which she opened and spread on his desk. It was a map of South America. She picked up a pen from his desk and pointed to a location on the map. "Look at the border between Uraguay and Argentina, just south of Paraguay. See this little bulge?" She touched the line with the pen.

"Yeah," Justin said. "Looks like when they printed the map, the ink ran a little."

"No. That little bulge is Theyallguay. It was named for Ignacio Theyall. Unfortunately, in recent years, its English message has come true, for we have no industry to support our young people and encourage them to stay."

"And that's why Rhoda Dendron -- uh, relocated?" He had almost said "transplanted".

"Rhoda came to your country about ten years ago. She and my parents were good friends and they kept in touch, but now my parents are dead. My mother died in an accident and my father..." Her voice faltered. She looked down at her hands, nervously twisting the strap of her handbag. Then she looked up and said fiercely, "I must find Rhoda."

Justin leaned forward in his chair. He had been in business long enough to sense there was more to the story than she was telling. "If I'm going to work for you," he said, "you need to take me into your confidence."

She hesitated for a moment, then sighed. "Yes. I must tell someone." She squared her shoulders. "My father was a bio-chemist. He was very concerned about the widespread use of marijuana in our little country. For many years he tried to create some antidote for addiction to this drug. At last he concocted a recipe for a chocolate chip cookie that tasted as if it were laced with marijuana. People thought they were ingesting the drug. They felt good, but their abilities were not impaired, and there was no ill effect on their health. My father hoped the cookies would not only displace marijuana, but would also bring much-needed industry to Theyallguay."

"But your father died before the recipe for these -- uh, placebo -- cookies could be patented?"

Tears shone in Belle's eyes. "He was killed by an agent from GLOM, an acronym for Growers and Lovers of Marijuana." She pulled a tissue from her handbag and dabbed at her eyes. "They destroyed the recipe, but they didn't know my father had already filled a copper cannister with a dozen cookies and sent it to Rhoda. If we can get the cannister of cookies back, my father's colleague Dr. Adamia, can analyze them and recreate the recipe."

She shook her head. "Rhoda must have been moving the day she received the cookies, and I left Theyallguay before she could give me her new address. I'm afraid GLOM has learned about the cookies by now, and might be looking for her, too. So you see, we must find her quickly."

She leaned back in the chair as if exhausted, and Justin yearned to take her in his arms and comfort her. Instead, he reached for the telephone and touched one of the memory buttons. After a few rings, a female voice answered.

"Hi, June," Justin said. "Justin Case."

"Just in case of what?"

"C'mon, Junie, quit clowning. I need you to look up someone for me." He told her Rhoda's name, then, covering the mouthpiece of the phone with his hand, explained to Belle. "June Knipper. Tough old girl. Survived many a change of season at city hall."

In moments Justin and Belle were on their way to Rhoda's new residence, an apartment in a large building near the waterfront. As they entered the lobby, a tall loose-limbed man with a florid complexion confronted them.

"You aren't residents of this building," he said, his gaze flicking over Justin and lingering on Belle.

"No. We're here to see one of the tenants," Justin said, and took a step toward the ruddy blond man. "Justin Case..." he began.

"Just in case of what?"

Justin didn't like the man's attitude. "What's your interest in this, anyway?" he demanded.

"Ole Ander, plain clothes security."

You got that right, Justin thought. Who would notice a big guy dressed in striped brown pants and pink shirt.

Justin told him who they were looking for and Ander shook his head. "Haven't seen Miss Dendron all day. But she's in Apartment 803." He nodded toward the elevator, and turned away from them.

As Justin punched the bell of Apartment 803 for the fourth time, he glanced at his companion. The expression of anxiety was haunting Belle's lovely hazel eyes again, so he reached into his inner jacket pocket and took out the small tool he sometimes used to gain access to locked rooms.

He opened the door slowly. The stale air that squeezed out smelled of death, and Justin tensed, one hand reaching for the revolver in his shoulder holster. He ordered Belle to wait in the corridor, and slipped into the quiet room.

He found Rhoda's body in the kitchen. She had been hacked to death with pruning shears, which lay nearby. Before she had died, Rhoda had written the words "sad coward dri..." in her own blood on the white tile floor, the last letters wavering into a line as her life ebbed away. Justin felt sick. And his heart ached for Belle.

At the thought of her, he realized he had left her in the hall, possibly in danger, and rushed out of the apartment. Belle read his expression as soon as she saw him, and burying her face in her hands, sagged against the wall. Showing great professional restraint, Justin merely laid his hand on her shoulder, and murmured words of sympathy.

When Belle was able to bring herself under control, Justin told her about the words Rhoda had scrawled on the floor. She frowned. "If Rhoda suspected someone knew about the cookies, she would have tried to keep the cannister safe until I claimed it. She left a message she thought I would be able to interpret." For several moments, Belle was deep in thought. When she spoke again, her voice had a dream-like quality. "I believe 'coward' meant 'yellow' and she was trying to write 'driver'. Yellow Cab driver."

"That's amazing," Justin cried. "She might very well have left a package with a cab driver, all right." He frowned. "The only thing is, which one?"

"That's where the 'sad' comes in, I'm sure," Belle said. "We'll have to get a list of Yellow Cab drivers working this area and look for one with a name somehow related to 'sad.'"

"You're starting to sound like a detective," Justin said. He pulled shut the door to the apartment. At Belle's questioning glance, he nodded. "I hate to leave her like that, but we can't let the killer know that we know she's dead."

Justin's credentials and a hundred dollar bill bought the list of cab drivers they needed. They retired to a quiet corner of a coffee shop and pored over the names.

"Here," Belle exclaimed, after a few minutes. "Mel Ankoly." She pointed to the name. "He has to be the one, Justin." Green flecks danced in her hazel eyes, and Justin's heart palpitated for a moment.

Justin called the cab company and specifically asked they send Mr. Ankoly to the coffee shop to pick up two fares. When the taxi arrived, they waited for the driver to get out and approach the shop, checking to make sure he was not being followed. Mel Ankoly was a series of swags, like a panel of French drapery. Bags under his eyes were mimicked by baggy cheeks, his grey sweater bagged over his sunken stomach, his trousers hung in twin bags at the knees. Justin suspected if Mel turned around, there would be twin bags back there, too.

Belle and Justin stepped out of the shop, and Mel shuffled to a halt. "You folks call a cab?"

Justin nodded and reached for his wallet and ID. "Justin Case," he said.

"Just in case of what?" Mel asked, then squinted at the ID and shrugged. "So?"

"So we have reason to believe a lady named Rhoda Dendron put a package in your care." Justin was using his firm voice. "That package rightfully belongs to my companion." He indicated Belle.

Justin called the cab company and specifically asked they send Mr. Ankoly to the coffee shop to pick up two fares. When the taxi arrived, they waited for the driver to get out and approach the shop, checking to make sure he was not being followed. Mel Ankoly was a series of swags, like a panel of French drapery. Bags under his eyes were mimicked by baggy cheeks, his grey sweater bagged over his sunken stomach, his trousers hung in twin bags at the knees. Justin suspected if Mel turned around, there would be twin bags back there, too.

Belle and Justin stepped out of the shop, and Mel shuffled to a halt. "You folks call a cab?"

Justin nodded and reached for his wallet and ID. "Justin Case," he said.

"Just in case of what?" Mel asked, then squinted at the ID and shrugged. "So?"

"So we have reason to believe a lady named Rhoda Dendron put a package in your care." Justin was using his firm voice. "That package rightfully belongs to my companion." He indicated Belle.

Mel's glance dipped from Justin to Belle, then he looked away from them. "Wasn't exactly a package," he said. "Suppose if you could tell me what it was, I might believe it was yours, though." He looked back at Belle.

"A copper cannister," Belle supplied.

"Containing?" Mel questioned.

Belle hesitated and glanced at Justin, who nodded. "A dozen chocolate chip cookies," she said.

"Only had ten when I took it," Mel cried, then his face reddened. "Now, it's only got eight." His guilty gaze sagged between them. "Miss Dendron didn't say I couldn't sample some. Only said a beautiful young lady with black hair would claim them."

"Where is the cannister, now?" Justin asked.

Mel jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "In my cab."

"Justin, look!" Belle's cry was full of dismay. "That old woman just took the cannister out of the cab."

Looking where Belle was pointing, Justin caught only a glimpse of the old woman as she disappeared among the people crowding the sidwalk. He moved to sprint after her, but Mel caught his arm.

"You won't be able to catch her," he said. "She's a wily old gal. But she lives with her daughter, Cassie O'Peeyah, and I know where Cassie lives. C'mon, I'll take you there."

As they climbed into the back of Mel's cab, Justin caught a glimpse of a blond man wearing a pink shirt hailing a cab behind them. He looked vaguely familiar, but at the moment Justin could not remember where they had met, and in the urgency of the moment, dismissed the man from his mind.

Cassie's house, serenely content within its fifty feet of space, was the only one left on a block of commercial buildings. The windows facing the street were twinkling with tiny half-moons, stars and rainbows of crystal and leaded glass strung on silver threads. Painted unicorns danced on the shutters, and a pair of long-necked cat statues smiled from either side of the front door.

As Justin and Belle went up the walk, Cassie opened the door. She was tall and willowy, with flowing brown hair and wide-open blue eyes that held a faraway look. "I'd better question this one," Belle whispered.

"Looks like she's already sampled the cookies," Justin murmured, but Belle hushed him with a look.

"Oh, yes," Cassie said dreamily, after Belle had ex-plained the theft from the taxi. "I do remember the copper cannister with the cookies. Mother is like a mynah bird, so attracted to shiny things." She sighed, leaned against the door jamb and fingered the zodiak pendant hanging round her neck from a fine gold chain.

"Your mother has already been here with the cannister?" Justin exclaimed. "But we took the cab right over."

Cassie smiled. "Mother does not heed signal lights." She looked up and pointed to a spider's web hung in the corner of the porch. "Waverly does beautiful work, don't you think?" she asked.

"Yes, very nice," Belle agreed. "But we really don't have time to admire it. We must get the cannister and be on our way."

The innocent blue eyes were shuttered for a slow blink, then Cassie said, "I put all six cookies into a zip-lock bag and had a little boy take them to my boyfriend, for his afternoon break."

Six cookies, Justin thought. Somebody ate two. Either Cassie or her mother. And I'd put the bet on Cassie.

Belle groaned, and leaned against Justin.

"Where does your boyfriend work," Justin asked Cassie, "and how quickly can we get there?" Cassie told them her boyfriend's name and gave them directions to a nearby construction site where he was working.

"Don't give up, yet," Justin reassured Belle as they hurried toward the building. "We may still be in time."

The foreman of the job scowled as they picked their way through the jumble of construction materials. He grunted and nodded when they asked him if Phil Harmonick was working on this building. "That's him up there on the third floor. Can't you hear him? Hummin', always hummin'. Classical stuff. But you can't talk to him 'til break time."

"We have to talk to him before break time," Justin insisted.

The foreman glowered at Justin. "I don't know you from Adam's off-ox."

Justin reached for his ID. "Justin Case."

"Just in case of what?"

Justin quickly fabricated a story about the cookies Phil was about to eat, that they were part of a lot being recalled because the chocolate chips were tainted. The foreman grudgingly agreed to let them talk to Phil just as the whistle sounded for break time.

The construction elevator lumbered to a stop on the third floor and as Justin and Belle stepped out, they heard Phil's humming stop abruptly as he shoved a cookie into his mouth. "Stop, stop," Justin yelled, as he and Belle edged their way along the beam toward where Phil sat, plastic bag in hand. Phil looked at them with no surprise whatsoever, as if young men and pretty ladies came strolling through the construction site every day. Phil and Cassie were a good match, Justin thought. Even as he and Belle struggled toward Phil, the man opened the zip-lock bag again, popped another cookie into his mouth and munched down on it.

"The cookies are poison," Belle cried.

Phil stopped chewing for a moment, then resumed. "Taste OK to me," he mumbled, but did not delve into the bag again.

Justin repeated the story he had told the foreman and Phil handed over the bag. There were two cookies left. "You ate four?" Justin exclaimed.

Phil looked properly outraged. "I did not. I ate two. Cassie only sent four. Unless..." he looked off into space, hummed the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth, then said, "unless the kid she sent them over with ate some."

"It's all right, Justin. We can make do with two," Belle whispered. She began edging her way back along the beam toward the elevator. Justin followed.

Just as Belle was about to step off the beam, her shoe came down on a loose bolt, setting her off balance. Justin reacted instinctively to her cry of fear and flung out his arms to steady her. The baggie containing the last two cookies slipped from his hand and whirly-gigged toward the ground. He watched its downward course in dismay, which was heightened even more when a large yellow lab came loping out of nowhere and snatched the baggie before it hit the ground. In unison, Justin and Belle screamed at the dog.

"I wouldn't do that if I was you," Phil called to them as they scrambled into the elevator. "That's Buck Thorn's dog, and Buck's real protective of him."

By the time the elevator reached the ground, the dog was trotting away, toward an old brick building which was cordoned off with ropes and guarded by uniformed policemen.

"You can't go any farther." The guard stopped Belle and Justin as they followed the dog. "This building is due to be imploded in exactly fifteen seconds." Even as he spoke, Buck Thorn's dog disappeared into a side door.

Out of the corner of his eye, Justin noticed a movement and heard another guard shouting. A blond man in brown striped pants and pink shirt had eluded the policeman and was running toward the same entrance the dog had taken. This time Justin recognized the man as Ole Ander, and realized Ander must be an agent of GLOM, and very likely also Rhoda's killer.

Justin glanced at Belle. Apparently, she, too, had recognized the man and drawn the same conclusions as Justin, for bits of blue ice flashed in her hazel eyes. "I hope he's torn limb from limb," she muttered coldly.

At that instant, the explosives ignited and the building sagged in on itself and crumbled, creating a massive dust cloud. As it billowed skyward, Justin saw Buck's dog in the periphera of the cloud, staring back at the settling debris, calmly holding the plastic baggie in his mouth.

Belle gasped, and Justin charged toward the dog. He almost had the cookie bag in his hand when a heavy voice roared, "Don't touch that dog!"

Justin stopped, turned and beheld a behemoth of a man with bristly hair and eyebrows, knuckled hands on his hips, sinewy feet planted firmly on the ground. It was evident to Justin that the man was Buck Thorn, the dog's owner.

Belle ran over to Buck and repeated the poisoned-chocolate-chip story Justin had invented. Buck was unmoved.

"Can't nothin' hurt Junkyard. Got a cast-iron stomach and a brass brain." He looked past Belle at the dog. "Anyways, it's too late. He's already et the cookies."

Junkyard had indeed torn open the baggie and devoured the two remaining cookies. Belle's shoulders drooped, she turned her hands palms up in a gesture of despair, and tears gleamed in her eyes. Justin couldn't bear to see her so disheartened. Then an idea struck him and he hurried to her side.

"How good is this doctor-of-science friend of yours?"

Belle blinked away the tears. "Dr. Mac Adamia? Out-standing in his field."

"Could he reconstruct the recipe from the crumbs left in the cannister?"

Belle caught her breath. "Why, I think so."

Even before she had finished speaking, Justin had caught her hand and together they ran back to Cassie's house. Cassie, seated on the porch steps staring up at the sky, looked at them as they approached. "You've come back for the copper cannister," she said. "I was going to wash it for you, but I heard an explosion and came outside and then I saw those lovely thunderheads and...."

* * * * * * *

Justin walked with Belle toward the small aircraft she had hired to take her back to Theyallguay. The copper cannister with the cookie crumbs was packed in the duffel bag she carried. Justin's gaze scanned the tarmac.

"Are you sure you'll be safe?"

"I think so. GLOM is a loosely-jointed organization. I doubt if they know yet that the body found in the rubble was their agent." She glanced at the burly man hoisting her other luggage into the plane. "Anyway, with Buck Thorn and his dog Junkyard as my bodyguards, I should be all right."

"Will I see you again?" Justin caught hold of her hand, reluctant to say goodbye.

"Once we get into production, I'll want to test market the cookies in several large U.S. cities, and I promise one of them will be yours," she replied.

Justin grinned. "Great. I wouldn't want you to forget Justin Case."

She smiled and gold lights danced in her hazel eyes. "Just in case of what?"

 
 
 


Author Bio

Ms. Frances Sonnabend was born in Portland, Oregon, but she has lived most of her life in Washington state. She has been writing for as long as she can remember, including humerous epic poems for office parties/functions and humerous memo/reminders. She's only started submitting for publication in recent years.
Her hobbies are reading, writing, sightseeing, and photography. Her favorite fiction authors are Mary Stewart, Stephen R. Lawhead, Cary James, Janny Wurts and David Eddings. She also reads extensively in non-fiction areas concerning medieval times, especially anything about Great Britain.
She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference and her short story/novel excerpts have placed in the top ten in their respective categories for five consecutive years in the PNWC contests.

 


 

 
 
 
"Copper Cannister Caper" Copyright © 1998 Frances Sonnabend. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
This page last updated 1-22-99.

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