“I’ll just go down this list of car owners, just as it was given to me, quite random, as you know,” I said in order to alleviate any sense of favoritism or suspicion. “So,” I continued, while looking at the top of the list, “let’s start with the Big Bad Wolf.” I figured I had just as well stick with the names of the characters for now. After all, that’s what they looked like and that is all they knew each other by. I had their real names and addresses now and I could always get to the real person beneath the costume later. Right now I was only interested in the events of this one night of their lives.
I looked up from the list in my hand and saw that the Wolf had refilled his punch glass, put another sandwich on his plate, and taken a seat by the fireplace. His wolf head mask was by his side on the floor. I walked over toward him and said for him to stay seated and keep eating.
I sat in the chair facing him and complimented him on his costume. “So, Mr. Wolf,” I continued, “you spoke to the guest alone at some point?”
“Yes, I did,” he replied. “In fact, we sat here for awhile.” He pointed with his sandwich to the two of us, indicating that he and the man had sat in the same two chairs just a couple of hours earlier.
“Was it a friendly conversation?” I asked.
“Well, it started out that way,” he said. “Then I decided we weren’t gonna get along too well. Didn’t agree on much. Two different lifestyles, I guess.”
“How do you mean?” I probed for more. If there was any foul play, I would need a motive.
“I guess you could say I chose this Big Bad Wolf costume ‘cause that’s kinda how I see myself. Now, I don’t break the law or anything, but I do like to have a good time, and I do like the ladies.”
“And he didn’t?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that once we got into our conversation a little deeper – well, it’s like he started trying to get me to change. He said my drinking would just get me in trouble, that all my carousin’ around would take a toll on me, and that a steady relationship with one good woman was much more rewarding than a string of one-night stands.”
“Really?” I asked, as if that sounded strange to me, when I really agreed with it all.
“Yeah. Can you imagine?! Weekends with no parties? And me with just one woman? C’mon!”
“Imagine,” I said as I took notes and didn’t even look up. “And church?” I asked. “I suppose he mentioned church, too?”
“Oh yeah!” said Wolf, thinking he had found a sympathizer in me. “He said I should give it a try. Forget the way I’ve been livin’ and try things God’s way for a change. Phhtt! Right – give up my lifestyle for his!”
“Then what happened?”
“Well, as I remember, I just shook my head, stood up, and walked away. I came here for a party, not a sermon. Never really saw him after that.”
“Okay. Thank you, Mr. Wolf. Just stick around. I may need more later.” With that dismissal, he got up and left, so I decided this might be a good place to conduct all the interviews. I remained seated and called out for Rowdy, the cowboy.
Rowdy stepped over with a glass of punch in one hand and one of his costume pistols in the other. He made an attempt at some fancy gun twirling and as he holstered the prop, said with a big grin, “Don’t worry, they’re not loaded.”
“Mine is,” I said to show I wasn’t impressed.
Taking the hint, he said, “Oh,” and sat down across from me. “I don’t know what else I can add, but I’m all yours.”
“Thank you, uh, Rowdy is it?”
“Yeah, I guess for tonight it is. Although it’s hard to get rowdy at a party with cops there, you know what I mean?”
I could tell he wasn’t taking any of this too seriously. And maybe he was right. Maybe nothing serious had happened. But we weren’t sure of that yet. “I know what you mean,” I said. “Now, Mr. Wolf there got a little put out with our missing guest for getting a little too personal and, shall we say, intrusive. Did you have any problem in your conversation with him?”
“Well, to be honest, I did. Nothin’ serious, mind you, but, yeah, he kinda rubbed me the wrong way after awhile, too.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Well, I started once to walk away, but he stayed with me and kept talking. He started to try to monopolize my attention. It’s like I was supposed to focus just on him”, Rowdy explained.
“I can see where that would bother you.”
“And that’s just the beginning of it,” he continued. “He kept after me to start doin’ spiritual things – you know – church and stuff. Readin’ the Bible, prayin’, things like that.”
“What’s wrong with things like that?” I asked.
“Nothin’, if that’s what you want to do,” Rowdy said, “but I don’t wanna do those things. At least not for now. I’m happy just the way I am!”
“So what happened then?”
“I finally just said, ‘Go away and leave me alone.’ I didn’t mean to be rude, but…”
“I see,” I interrupted. “And did you speak to him any more after that?”
“I don’t recall even seein’ him after that.”
“Interesting,” I said, adding to my notes. “That’ll be all for now.”
Rowdy said he hoped it would help and got up and ‘moseyed’ away. He seemed to be just a good ol’ boy – not much of a threat – not much of an asset, either.
I called for the Queen of Sheba, who was next on the list and she set her plate down on the table near where she had been standing and gracefully walked over to my interview area. I rose to greet her as she approached and she looked so majestic that I almost bowed! She looked and played the part well.
“Please be seated,” I said and then I complimented her on her costume and commented that she seemed to fit the part rather well. She thanked me and said that even though it was just a costume and the jewelry was all fake, she was not unaccustomed to wealth and good breeding.
“Yet you came to a party to try to win some prize money,” I said, as if it were actually a question and I guess it really was.
“Oh, one can never have too much money,” she explained. “And the prize was to be $50,000.00. It’s a pity no one will get it now, but I’m quite sure none of the others would have truly appreciated it anyway. They probably would have squandered it away soon enough.”
I sensed that she was trying to act as if she were acting the part of Sheba, yet really did feel that way. Sarcastically, I responded, saying, “Like wasting it on college tuition or any of the hundreds of things kids want these days.” I, of course, was referring to the other two young ladies who likely had legitimate needs for such a windfall. It didn’t seem to faze her much.
“Well, to the business at hand,” I said. “Did anything happen in your dealings with the man in white to, shall we say, put you off toward him?”
“Well, yes,” she admitted freely. “He did turn me off after a short while.”
“Go on please.”
“Well, it didn’t take him long to start talking about my money, and the things I’ve bought with it. You’d have thought it was his wealth!”
“What did he say?” I asked.
“Well, he was trying, I know, to get me to think that there is more to life than money and possessions – like I don’t know that!” She sounded indignant, but I think she was trying to convince herself, not me.
“Go on,” I said.
“He started talking about me giving money away – to churches and missions, or even just to help people,” she explained.
“You mean like Mr. Gadston, maybe?” I asked, tongue in cheek.
“Exactly!” she replied. “There are plenty of others who want to do that sort of thing. But I came here to win more, not give some away!”
“I see. So then what happened?”
“Nothing, really. I politely excused myself at some point and just walked away. I never saw the man in white again.”
“That seems to be the pattern so far. That’ll be all for now. Thank you.” We both stood and she nodded as if to dismiss me, then walked away as gracefully as she had come. She was quite the lady, though apparently a snobbish one. Who did she think she was anyway? Oh, that’s right, she was.
“Little Bo Peep, please,” I called out for my next interview. I was beginning not only to sense a pattern in these conversations, but my intuition was helping me to get an inkling of what had really happened there that evening. However, it was too fantastic to believe, so I would need more information.
Bo Peep came over and did a little curtsy. Maybe it was the costume and character – maybe she was every bit the lady that the Queen was. I motioned towards the chair and said for her to please be seated.
“Shall we get right to it?” I asked and without waiting for her answer, I continued. “All the others had some difficulty with this guest. Nothing serious, it would appear, but certainly some uneasy conversation. How about you?”
“I guess it was the same with me. Uneasy, as you put it. He started talking about all these changes he thought I ought to make. He said I should be attending church with my kids and reading them Bible stories every night. He said I could make new and better friends at a good church, especially if I got really involved.”
“That doesn’t sound like bad advice to me,” I offered, still taking notes.
“Maybe not,” she said, “but I don’t do changes very well. My life may not be much by some standards, but the kids and I do okay. I’m comfortable and that’s the way I like it.”
“And he was trying to change your life –maybe for the better.” I was trying to get her to think it through again, because I happened to agree with the man! Not only did those kids need the gospel and church in their lives, but Bo Peep did too.
“Well, maybe he meant well, but like I said, I don’t like change. I told him to go try to change one of the others and he left,” she said.
“Did you see him much after that?”
She thought for a second or two, and then said, “Now that you ask, not at all.”
“I think you’d be wise to reconsider what he said, but that’s all I need for now.” I politely stood as she rose to leave. I noticed that as she walked away, she paused for a second, then tilted her head to one side briefly, as people often do when they’re thinking, then walked away. I hoped that meant she was thinking about what I said about reconsidering what the man had said.
I called for Superman and he was there in a flash! Sorry, but I had to say it. We sat down and I flipped to a new page in my notepad.
“I appreciate how you’ve been a little more professional in this whole thing. You seem to take things a little more seriously than Rowdy and the Wolf,” I said.
“Anything I can do to help,” he said.
“Then tell me if there was any more to your conversation with the man in white – anything negative about it – anything at all?”
“Well, we never really saw eye to eye from the beginning, but he was polite and listened to what I had to say. I think he understood me, too, even if he didn’t agree. Like I said, he very quickly said he felt my priorities were out of whack, but that was okay – everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, even if it is wrong.”
I had often said that same thing in jest, but he seemed to be serious. He didn’t crack a smile, or wink, or add anything further. I believe he really felt that the man had been wrong and he was right – Superman indeed!
“Did he offer anything to explain his position?” I asked.
“Sure,” replied Superman. “He kept trying to get me to see I needed more and deeper relationships in my life. Maybe even with him! He insisted that somehow, eventually, my life was not going to satisfy me and I would need something more that my career and success couldn’t provide.”
“And…?” I said, asking for more.
“And I told him that I didn’t need him or anyone else for that matter. Things were just fine as they are and they’re headed just the way I’ve always hoped they would.”
“Let me guess,” I stated. “And he just walked away.”
“That he did,” confirmed the man of steel. “And we never spoke again. I hadn’t even noticed until someone brought it up later that he had gone.”
“I suspected as much. That’s all for now, thank you.” I dismissed Superman and called for my last interview, Joan College. She bounced over to my area with a big smile. She was having a good time and I expected she would be. I had risen to meet her and her enthusiasm was catching. I felt younger myself somehow. I told her to have a seat and we both sat down. I took my usual policeman interview pose, I guess, and she sat forward in the chair, sitting on her hands and watching my every move, as if she couldn’t wait to testify.
“Well, Miss Joan College, you seem to be enjoying yourself this evening,” I said.
“Oh, I am,” she agreed. “I mean, I hope there’s nothing wrong with the man in the white suit, but I am having a good time now.”
“Now?” I asked, feeling there was something to the way she had said that.
“Well, I mean, like earlier I was kind of upset about him missing and all, but once you got here, I kind of settled down.”
“Good,” I said. “I’m glad to be of some comfort. A lot of people your age don’t seem to want us around.”
“Oh, not me,” she said. “I enjoy older people.”
“I meant policemen.” I knew she had said it innocently and didn’t mean anything by it. She kind of shrugged her shoulders and smiled as if to say “oops.”
“Anyway,” I continued, “I’ve asked all the others, so I’ll ask you, too, if there was ever any bad vibes between you and the man in the white costume. Did he ever say anything that bothered you?”
“Actually, he did,” she replied. “He kept trying to tell me that I needed to spend more time with spiritual matters, you know, reading the Bible, getting involved with some people my age in church, do mission work, things like that.”
“And you see that as a bother?”
“Well, no, but I just don’t have time for all that, Inspector. And I told him so, too. I mean, like I told him, I’m a cheerleader for the men’s games, I play on the volleyball team myself, I sing in the ladies’ ensemble, and I’m on the student council and the school newspaper. There are practices and games and I have to keep my grades up to keep my scholarship.”
“I’ll bet you barely have time to date more than three or four guys at a time,” I said with a smile.
“That’s right!” she said as she tilted her head up and back a little and flipped her hair. “I don’t. But anyway, the shiny white guy said that my priorities needed an adjustment and I was too busy with things that really wouldn’t matter in the end.”
“So you said…”
“So I said, they all matter to me, and that’s what counts. And then I think I went to get more punch and when I looked back, he was gone.”
“Did you ever see him again after that?”
“No, I didn’t. I don’t know what could have happened to him.”
“Thank you, Joan College. I think that about does it for now.”
We both stood and she asked me if I was any closer to solving this puzzle. I told her that I had an idea, but needed to confirm a couple of things with the Hoffmans and clear up a few small details with my officers out front. “If all goes as I think it will, I believe we’ll be able to clear this mystery up very soon,” I concluded.
“Everyone! If I could have your attention please,” I called. “I’m going to confirm that neither of the Hoffmans have much to add, as I believe is the case, and then I have a point or two to clear up with the officer outside. I’ll be back in shortly and see if we can’t have a solution. Please stay here in the parlor until I return.”
(more to come!) ( Trick or Treat? (A short-story mystery) ( 2 ) ( 3 ) ( 4 ) ( 5 ) ( Conclusion! )