Part 31 of an original tale that delves into the unexplored realms of the human mind. Hired by her lover to find a raven haired beauty, Benjamin Bering must avoid the local police as well as the agents of a nonexistent government agency who are after him and the woman. There are just two problems. The woman is in a coma and her body has been stolen. (Part 1 can be found HERE.)
"Good Lord!" Rosie exclaimed as we walked through the door. "You two look like something the cat drug in and the dog wouldn't have anything to do with."
Through our reflections in the mirrored wall behind her, it was evident that we were quite a mess. Our clothes were disheveled and we were covered with spots of dingy dust. "We decided to dress up and go out to a fancy place to eat tonight," I countered.
With her elbows on the counter and her chin resting in her hands she grinned and said, "Touche'." She placed a menu in front of us and continued, "I heard it on my police scanner, Ben. What the hell happened over there? A gas explosion?"
I shrugged and answered, "Let's just say that as of tonight, I'm homeless."
She let my words sink in and shook her head, "You always said you never liked that flat anyway." She then turned her attention to Susan, "Are you all right, honey?"
"Yes," Susan said. "I think so. Maybe a little shaken up."
She nudged my arm with a talon-like finger nail and winked, "Ben, she's a keeper." She smiled with the pleasure that she'd induced a flush to both our cheeks. She trained her eyes on Susan again and queried, "Did you find the accommodations to your liking at my palatial abode in Franklin?" She sensed my raised eyebrows and amended the description of her home. "Okay, so it's only a converted cottage."
"You have a very lovely home, Rosie," Susan responded. She glanced at me and with a sheepish grin said, "...And we didn't mess up the sheets."
"Susan!" I chided. I sighed in defeat as Rosie and Susan exchanged high fives. It was quiet for a few minutes and then we finally placed our orders, both Susan and I settling for a burger and some fries.
Susan had only taken a couple of bites from her sandwich when she began to spread bits of shredded newspaper on the counter. She motioned to Rosie and asked, "Would you have any scotch tape lying about?" While it was like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing, she managed to align the print. She then tore off small trips of the tape and pressed them gently onto the bits of newsprint to hold the pieces in place.
She scanned the lines of print on the side facing up. I thought she was probably wasting her time, but she seemed certain there had to be a clue of some kind hidden there. Her curiosity getting the best of her, Rosie inquired, "What are you looking for, dear?"
"I'm not quite sure," she replied. She flipped the patched paper over and added, "I have a hunch there's something ..." She tapped her finger on an enclosed box of print and triumphantly declared, "Yes! Here it is, Ben! It's even been circled in blue."
Her excited cry caught me by surprise. I leaned closer to see what she had found. It was an advertisement of all things. "A dating service? I don't see ..."
She cut me short and said, "Look at the name of the dating service."
"Checkmate Dating Services ... Well I'll be," I uttered. "...And it's associated with the Check Mate Lounge?" I looked at her and mused, "The Check Mate Lounge is no longer ... I wonder, what is the date of that ad?"
"You two only just met, didn't you?" Rosie asked. "Already you're checking out a dating service?" When both Susan and I looked at her without saying a word she moved away and said, "Don't mind me. I'm just wiping down the counter. Oh dear, how did I miss that spot over there?"
Finding no date, Susan lifted the patched sheet to check its other side. "I don't see a date ... Wait! Right here in the top corner. No, only the year, 2000. The rest was torn away."
"Hmmm, eight years ago!" I observed. I turned to her, "Susan, are you seeing a pattern here?"
"What, that eight years ago was a very good year?" She smiled and then started reading from the ad. "Whatever the date, the lounge had a party for all the couples who met through their dating service." She grew quiet for a moment before speaking again, "Say! I remember when that place was closed to the public one night. I couldn't get in because I had no invitation. I was mad...," she was drumming her fingers on the counter and appeared lost in thought.
"Susan? What is it?" I asked.
"Two nights later ... there was a drug raid. I was busted for one lousy joint they found in my purse." She faced me and raised her hand and said, "Scout's honor, Ben. I don't know how that joint got into my purse. Then your cop pal Sergeant O'Day arrested me. I had to spend the night in jail with about a dozen other girls."
"Only girls?" I said. Her nod confirmed what I feared. I was hopeful that the supposition I was about to make was way off base. "Recruits?"
There was a slight paling to her face when she responded, "Recruits? What do you mean by that?" The color returned to her face after a moment and then waxed to an angry red. "You aren't suggesting that the girls were released and then had the charges dropped in exchange for "volunteering" to participate in a research project?"
"I've no proof, nothing concrete," I stated in earnest, "it's just a theory I was kicking around in my head. Of course, there is the matter of the dating service too. Just think of the subjects that could have been "harvested" from the account files of such a service."
It was Rosie who spoke next, "I don't mean to be nosy or to butt in, but how is it that you happen to be walking around with pieces of a newspaper eight years old with a circled ad on it anyway?"
"You might say that someone left Ben a present in his apartment," Susan offered. "It was wrapped in newspaper."
"Maybe I'm missing something here," Rosie countered, "but this someone just happened to have an eight-year-old newspaper lying about? What are the odds he or she would grab that page with that ad on it?"
I lunged forward so fast that Rosie was startled. I placed my hands on her cheeks and planted a quick kiss on her lips. Stunned she backed away and blubbered, "Ben Bering! What in the hell was that for?" She ran her hand across her face and said, "You've got that pretty young gal sitting there next to you and you're hitting on me? And in front of her?"
I laughed and pulled Susan into my arms and kissed her too. That kiss, however, was long and heated. I pulled away from Susan's blushing face and exclaimed, "I love you both!" I sat up straight and said, "I wasn't seeing the forest for the trees. All this time I thought the whole world was against us. Susan, you were right that there might be a clue on that piece of newspaper. In fact, there was more than one clue! Rosie, you brought to my attention not what was there, but what was not there."
I smiled as I observed the bewilderment on their faces. My nose for news, my instincts had been dormant for too long. It had already been apparent to me that not only were there those who wanted to stop us, but there were also some who wanted to help us. How could I as a newspaperman, especially an investigative reporter, have been so blind?
It was more than those shredded pieces of newspaper that had awakened me. If not for Rosie and Susan I don't know if I would have figured out just what was in play, what was at stake. It wasn't what was on the newspaper as much as what was not on the newspaper. Newspaper was the operative word, and pieces the modifier.
Stu my editor, on the other hand would have said I was missing one important thing - proof, substantiated proof. That, of course was the rub. Well, I had learned a long time ago that coming up with proof was the easy part of an investigation, it was finding the facts that was the hard part. Sure, there were still a few loose ends, but I knew at that point in time that I was close to tying them together.
I had to remain tight-lipped to both Rosie and especially to Susan. Too much knowledge on Rosie's part was not conducive to her safety. As for Susan, I wasn't sure how she would hold up if she was to learn the truth about the missing but important details of her life.
I came out of my reverie of deep private thought when I remembered the package I'd removed from my mailbox. I looked at the two envelopes I'd also taken. One was from a bank trying to get me to take out a life insurance policy. I chuckled and held aloft the other and announced, "The bill for my rent." I tossed it and the other one in the direction of the trash receptacle next to where Rosie was standing and said, "You don't expect me to pay rent for an apartment that's no longer there, do you?"
I studied the small package for a moment and glanced at Susan, "Maybe it's another clue?"
"Who's it from?" Susan asked leaning closer to me.
"No address," I replied. "It has no postage. This was hand delivered to my mailbox."
After removing the wrapping I held up a small box usually reserved for jewelry. Inside there was a folded piece of paper lying atop some foil which was covering something beneath.
"What does the note say, Ben? Susan asked in anticipation.
I read it aloud. The three of us wore puzzled looks as we tried to digest the meaning of four lines of a poem. It read:
She who must go last sits before the king"What in the hell is that supposed to mean?" Rosie queried.
And awakens someone else or so it seems
From a castle north a pawn sends a ring
And sleeps again to take flight in dreams.
"Tommy Tsunami? What kind of a name is that? Who is it?" Susan asked.
I removed the foil to reveal what both Rosie and Susan easily identified as a friendship ring. When I raised my eyebrows in a querulous manner Rosie stated, "Don't be surprised, Ben. We women know our jewelry."
Susan stood up excited, "Ben, that's Michelle's ring. She was wearing it during those experiments." I was a little slow on the uptake and winking she added, "You know, she was wearing it on her finger! Michael wasn't wearing it. Michelle was wearing it."
Rosie, obviously confused by Susan's remark exclaimed, "Of course Michelle would be wearing it. It's a woman's ring!"
Susan and I exchanged a knowing glance at one another at Rosie's expense. She knew nothing of the transformation that had happened to Michael and Michelle. I turned my attention again to what I had determined was a cryptic message hidden within the four lines of poetry. Suddenly there appeared that proverbial flashing light bulb in an imaginary thought bubble above my head. I snapped my finger to signal that moment of discovery. I knew where Michael Black was!
I stood up and stretched. "Rosie, thank you as always for your generosity and wit. Susan and I really must go and clean ourselves up a bit." I winked in response to the inquisitive mask on her face. I placed a hand on Susan's shoulder and announced, "After we've made ourselves more presentable, we have a couple of errands to run. For starters, we'll need some warmer clothes. Then we're going to need to rent a car."
"You solved the poem already? Where are we going, Ben?"
"Yes, I believe I did solve it. We are going to visit Michael up north at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire." I answered.
Rosie reached under the counter and retrieved her pocketbook. She fumbled around groping for something in the depths of the bag. She produced a set of keys and laid them on the counter. "It looks like you're going to be asking me for the keys to my cottage, which just happens to be in Hampton Beach."
(To be continued in part 32 on Friday 3/20, with The Wizards of Odds.)