“Paranoia” – by Prmary
Chapter 1 – Old Smiles
by Rock Kitaro
I should’ve known better. Smiles are so deceptive. Even in her advanced age, it seems wisdom has yet to falter. Still sharp as a whip. Makes things tricky, a bit difficult, but not impossible. Just take notice and tread with caution. For behind those disarming eyes is a tomb fill with secrets. But I’m a man on a mission and I’ve come to dig.
Florence Leach is a longstanding resident of Macon, Georgia. Her children and grandchildren are all of adult age. Each of them well established, either in college or pursuing some profession. The husband, James Leach, died in 2001 not long after the Towers fell.
Those were some depressing times. But from what I heard, the community rallied around her and gave her the strength she needed to carry on. Since then, she’s gone on to publish a number of whimsical children’s books good enough to give Mother Goose a run for her money.
Yes, if she were my grandmother I’d have every reason to be proud of her. Indeed her grandchildren were very proud. In an effort to maintain such affections, Florence made sure to keep her Southern two-story dream house in order.
Her front lawn was mowed recently, groomed, and edged behind a white picket fence. She must have hired a cleaning crew for the five bedrooms and two baths. There wasn’t a speck of dust on the cabinets or the gilded framed portraits adorning the walls. The area rugs were vacuumed, especially the hazelnut carpeting over the staircase. The kitchen had dark hardwood flooring and there was an exquisite dining table that was so polished you could your own reflection.
She entertains me in the formal study with afternoon light flowing through the windows. Silver platters gleam from the China cabinet. The luster fluctuates from clouds moving in and out of the sun’s way. It’s all so very quaint, really.
Before this day, Florence and I had never met. She didn’t know who I was or what I was about, yet she welcomed me in with such zeal. Perhaps it was my well-groomed appearance, my youth, combed blond hair or unblemished tan. Perhaps it was the sincerity she saw in my brown eyes that lulled her to trust and confide in me as so many have done before. She knew I was an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but that’s not why she granted me an audience.
Ms. Florence was simply lonely. And I was new. The intrigue was mutual.
Conversation begins casual and light-hearted. I shower her with compliments about so lovely a home. She tries to self-deprecate, claiming to be hoarder of books and small figurines. I assure her she’s nothing of the sort. I’ve met hoarders and a sense of self-awareness is an attribute they sorely lack.
After a joke from left field about how terrible the president’s doing, she finally gets to the point of asking why I’m here. This is good. I take in a deep breath and float my gaze to the window.
“I’ve come to Macon on assignment. Actually just wrapped up. But before I headed back, I just had to stop by and visit the home of my favorite mystery writer. I’m still blown away by the fact that I’m even here. James Leach. He’s the reason why I became a detective. He’s absolutely brilliant. And one thing I’ve always admired about his stories is that the culprits never truly confessed like they do in cop dramas. Down to the bitter end, they deny, deny, deny, despite the overwhelming evidence. That realism, it’s like, how can I not appreciate such a gutsy move by an author?”
She eats up every word and I can tell her wrinkly old heart has tightened with joy. It was then that it occurred to me, Ms. Florence had probably never read any of her late husband’s work. Yet, she seemed surprised and genuinely proud of my assessment. I was willing to venture that James must have been the type who talked about his plots and she somehow possessed the remarkable attention span to listen and absorb.
Almost abruptly, she gets up and heads to the kitchen to check on a pot of tea. I barely have enough time to check my phone before she comes back, just as emotional from when she left.
“You know…I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, you just. You sound just like him. He would’ve loved to meet you, to speak with you. I imagine it would have made him very happy.”
“Awe! Would have meant the world to me too. Sometimes I wonder what it was like for him to live in this world and deal with everyday people. You know, with his intelligence being on a whole nother level.”
“Haha! Yes! James was extremely intelligent. But he never wore it on his sleeve. He wasn’t conceited. He once told me that people become reserved and recoil back into their shells when they find out they’re in the presence of a natural born investigator.”
“And of course, you don’t need a badge to be an investigator,” I add.
“Precisely!” She says with a jolted finger. “Although! When it comes to acquiring such an intuitive nature, I dare say the balance is tipped in the favor of women.”
“It does seem that way,” I smile.
“Yes! But with James, however, his overwhelming depth seemed to have everyone taken aback. If you spoke to him for the first time, the sensation is very much akin to a frog emerging from the well. And you’re the frog! The world just seems so much bigger when you listen to a man who’s knowledge seems vast and endless. I was lucky to have him.”
“Where did you meet, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Oh! Why we were both students at the University of Georgia.”
Yes…I know. You were a naughty girl back then, weren’t you. It’s okay, Ms. Florence. Today is a day of reckoning. If you never told anyone, I guarantee you’re about to tell me.
“So, I’m guessing you must’ve been pretty brave to approach the formidable Jimmy Leach,” I say in jest.
She hunches over in a haughty laugh. The outburst is unexpected. I humor her with my own chuckle, but man! She keeps laughing! It’s excessive. I wait for her to simmer down, sitting upright and firmly pressing my spine against the curve of the padded chair.
She elaborates, “Well, I may not look it now but once upon a time I was quite the dish! I knew once I was in James’s crosshairs he wouldn’t be able to resist. Men can focus and strive to fulfill their heart’s every ambition, but all men have needs. I never told him this but I have my sorority sisters to thank. They stole his rucksack from the cafeteria when he wasn’t looking. I returned it to him. Said I caught them stealing it. The rest is, as they say, history. We went hiking through the magnificent Blue Ridge Mountains and from then on we were inseparable.”
“Oh my gosh! That’s amazing,” I gush. “I’m actually a Bulldog myself. I was never part of any fraternity but I attended a few junctions. The Decca Si boys were legendary. Tales of the stunts they pulled off will no doubt be passed down from generation to generation.”
“Decca Si? Hmph. Never heard of them.”
That’s interesting. It’s not that she means to insult, but I see pride, a sense of competition hidden in her dismissal.
I continue the hype, “I’ll never forget. They once brought a dead pig up to the roof of a Georgia Tech building, right next to their air vents. Haha! For weeks there was this putrid smell of rotting meat roaming the hallways before anyone could figure out what happened.”
“That’s funny…” she nods, still unimpressed.
“Alright. Well, as you know, LSU are our rivals. During homecoming week, the Decca Si boys broke up their parade and instigated a brawl right there in the middle of Main Street. It made headlines. One guy even died, accidentally.”
“Accidentally. How convenient,” she remarks.
“Okay! Haha! Enlighten me. What’s the worst your sorority ever did? Wait. Don’t tell me. Was it your class that strung up effigies of Malcolm X?”
She giggles. “Oh, no. I graduated long before Negroes started complaining about bus seats and equal rights.”
“Then what is it? What am I sensing here?” I smirk.
She averts her eyes. She wants to tell me but it’s against her nature. Loose lips sink ships and all that. I pry further. I need to know. Unlike her husband’s novels, I can’t move forward without the confession.
“You know if it happened in the fifties I can guarantee you the statutes of limitations has just about run out.”
My tone…I never yell. Monotonous by nature, but at times I can pull out the alluring gift of persuasion in a smooth inflection that fluctuates on certain words, points of emphasis. It’s not coercive or oppressive. In all matters I try to exercise polite manners even with the most rotten villains. No one likes to give up something against his or her will. Thus, it’s important to maintain the illusion that they are in complete and total control while I am the lowly one begging for their generosity.
She bites her bottom lip, excited by the thrill. I recognize the look. Only women can get away with it. Suddenly there’s a twinkle in those grey eyes as she stares at me, lust and desire apparent and obvious. A barely perceptible gasp escapes from the pit of my throat. I’m beginning to understand how an analytic like James might have fallen for her. Florence clearly knows when to turn on the charm. Who knows? If only there were fewer years between us…
“Once, there was this pompous girl who moved into our dormitory, an aspiring singer on a cheerleading scholarship.”
“From first impressions, none of the darlings liked her. I can’t blame them. It was the way she carried herself. So snooty and tight lipped. You have to understand, in those days there were things that were considered acceptable and things that were not. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, the dreamy Ricky Nelson, acceptable. Home-wrecking hussies like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, unacceptable. And this little sassy thing…she came in and strutted around with no shame at all. You know who her role model was?”
“Who?” I ask.
“Bettie Page! Oh! Everyone hated Bettie Page with a passion. If we could strangle her ten times over, we would. This new girl comes in and covers the walls with her decadence. Posters, magazine clippings, Bettie Page was everywhere! This girl had the same hairstyle, practiced the same smile. She even walked down the hallways imitating that disgraceful slut walk. Ugh! It’s that strut where she leads with a shoulder before shimmying the other shoulder forward with each step. I absolutely hated it.”
“We tried talking some sense into her. One of our head sisters met with her while we watched from the windows. You could tell the head sister was doing everything she could to stay calm, but that hussy was quite animated, vehement, so defiant. She slapped our sister so hard that we could hear it from inside the dormitory. That was the last straw.”
“What did you do?” I whisper on the edge on my seat.
“We found out she had a crush on this boy from my Advanced Civics class. So we lured her to the third floor observation deck and told her that her beau was waiting for her. I pointed to the balcony and said that he was waiting to serenade her like Romeo on the trellis. And that is how we solved our Bettie Page problem.”
I keep smiling, but to say I’m appalled doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’ not just the sheer magnitude of the revelation but also the lingering resentment she seems to harbor towards a girl fifty years after her demise. I got the confession I needed but there’s no triumph in it. I’m only barely containing my rage and wearing this mask of civility is exhausting.
So I stand up and turn around, gravitating towards the brown wooden hutch stationed against the wall. The countertop is covered with Christmas figurines. I try to focus on a baby Jesus to keep from staring at myself in the mirror. But for some reason, intuition takes over and forces the words, “Well then. It sounds like she got what she deserves.”
Her shrill voice crawls over my shoulder. Somehow she managed to get up follow me with the silence of a shadow. Was I really so transported? It gives me the creeps and if you’re aware of my history, you’d know that’s saying something.
I confess, the difficulty in bringing myself to look in her eyes once more, it’s dispiriting to say the least. She’s entranced, enamored, emboldened. Florence is indeed brave if she thinks she’s about to lay her lips on me. I feign flattery and it takes everything I got to keep my stomach strong.
“How about that tea? I’m parched,” I whisper, going so far as to rub my thumb across her pasty old cheeks.
She shudders, batting her lashes in adoration. “You stay right here. I’ll go fix it.”
Florence struts off, confident that she’s seduced me. But that confidence won’t last. There’s no way in hell I’m about to stick around and drink her cold-blooded tea. As soon as she’s out of sight, I return my attention the hutch, fulfilling what I came to do.
Neatly arranged on the wooden countertop were sixteen little figurines depicting a Christmas nativity scene. There were the three wise men, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in the manger. Off to the side and closer to the hutch’s vanity mirror was 4×6 photo of a couple taken on Christmas Day, 1965. The couple was carrying a baby. It was Florence and James cradling their first-born son.
Such a happy photo. James, in particular, was especially elated. It’s just a habit of mine where I examine the facial expressions and wondered what people were thinking at the time the photo was taken. From my research and given what Florence just told me, I gather that James’s surprise stemmed from the fact that he probably never believed he’d one day get married and have children. He probably accepted that his deep-thinking ways would forever leave him desolate and despondent. He felt lucky and afraid. Afraid that he’d one day lose those closest to him. On that subject, I can speak from experience. It’s much easier to stay alone than to have people in your life, lose them, and then have to get used to the loneliness all over again.
I reach into my coat pocket until I feel the dull jagged edges of something rocky attached to a smooth chain. It’s a necklace, a necklace by no ordinary means. It had a silver chain almost as thin as a thread, making it easy to assume that it was fragile but it wasn’t. This chain has survived un-rusted for well over sixty years. It’s delicate charm inspired awe and intrigue, for it consisted of crumbled white coral fashioned into a heart. The heart was no larger than a dime and in the middle of was a tiny black pearl.
I set the necklace next to the photo and proceed to carefully push the charm behind the frame without leaving any prints on the hutch. Once the chain is out of sight, I step back. The deed is done. All that’s left is to wait till nightfall.
Just as I turn for the front door, a hard unnerving concern grips in my chest. Someone’s watching me and my heart skips a beat. At first, I thought it was Florence. I turn to the mirror and lock eyes with my observer.
Standing in the doorway of the dark laundry room was a tall lanky man staring at me with a sad melancholy gaze. He was wearing a gray pinstripe suit with a white wide collar shirt. His entire ensemble was so dusty it appeared as if was just yanked from the bag of a vacuum cleaner. He just stands there, guardedly out of range of the slanted rays that beamed through the living room windows.
I’m frozen in place but not terrified, just annoyed. Perhaps sensing this, the man’s eyebrows furrow into an angry frown. His pupils enlarge until nothing but a black hole remains. As his lips snarl into a grimace, the fullness of his cheeks quickly deplete until his face diminishes into a skull, his skin cracking like bark from a burning log. He starts to shake and twitch like a hound protective of its owner. He looks like he wants to charge at me but he doesn’t. He just stands there, so angry, so bitter.
This is the late Mr. James Leach. He sees right through me. He acknowledges my ill intent, my malice, and indignation. He knows I come to bring ruin and it bothers me not. If anything, he should be thanking me. I’m about reunite him with his dearly beloved. Although, I can’t say for sure she’ll have her sanity when she comes.
Ms. Florence returns with a tea set on an exquisite silver platter.
I’m already gone.