Original, short fiction from The Perfectly Proper Paranormal Museum!
Unforgiving, black and white photos of executed murderers stared down at me from the museum’s glossy white walls.
Their glowers were nothing compared to Herb’s.
Quivering with indignation, Herb deposited the museum cat on my checkerboard floor. The black cat darted to the haunted rocking chair in the corner and sprang onto its wooden seat.
“I found GD outside.” The little man blinked accusingly through his coke-bottle glasses.
GD scratched at his new collar and howled. Customers turned, cringing, at the sound.
“GD is obviously unhappy,” Herb continued. “What did you do, Maddie?”
“It’s Detective Hammer.” I untangled the strings of my new marionette. “She told me if he didn’t wear a tracking collar, she’d impound him.” Detective Laurel Hammer and the museum cat had a long, tumultuous history. She blamed the cat – not unjustly – for setting her hair on fire and for running over her foot with a Camaro. The tracking collar was the latest thrust in their escalating war.
Herb’s mouth turned down with suspicion, his nostrils twitching. “Where did you get that?”
Pleased, I jiggled the marionette’s arms. “Do you like it? It’s Befana, the Christmas witch.” Her hook-nosed face grinned. Folds of bright purple fabric from her skirt hung around the broom she rode. Bits of dried baby’s breath stuck from her scraggly hair.
“I know what it is,” the little man snapped. “But I’m your paranormal collector. Where did you get that?”
“You’re not my paranormal collector,” I said guiltily. “You’re freelance.”
“Was it that Jared Loomis?”
“Never mind.” He glanced toward the bookcase. “Then who?”
“A guy dropped by this morning. He said his aunt was downsizing, and he was helping her get rid of her things. She wanted to donate it to the museum.”
“Sounds shifty. How do you know it wasn’t stolen?”
“Because his aunt is Mrs. Marybelle. She visits the museum every month.” My evil plot to have rotating exhibits in the gallery was paying off in repeat customers. Someday, I might actually be able to move out of my aunt’s garage apartment
He rubbed his narrow chin. “A shipment of Italian ceramics was stolen off a pier in San Francisco last week.”
“The Befana’s not a ceramic.”
“Her head is.”
“Who would steal a Christmas Witch to donate to a museum?” I asked uneasily. Because I had thought the stranger was sort of off. In spite of the chill winter air, sweat had beaded his forehead, and he’d looked too many times at the door.
“Do you remember what Laurel did last time you accepted stolen goods?” he asked.
“That haunted wine press was not stolen,” I sputtered. Laurel had been totally irrational about that blasted exhibit – which hadn’t been stolen. But maybe I should double check on the Christmas witch. “Besides, you sold me that press.”
“Er, did I? Well, got to go!” He scuttled to the bookcase and pressed the book that levered it open. Herb escaped through the secret door.
GD crept toward the slowly closing bookcase.
“Oh, no you don’t.” I hurried from around the counter and slammed the bookcase shut. Adele would freak if the cat wandered into her tea room again. She might be one of my best friends, but Adele was militant when it came to food safety.
I thumbed through my card file until I found Mrs. Marybelle’s number and called.
No one answered.
Well. That didn’t mean anything. Maybe she was at the store. Maybe she’d turned off her cell phone. Did she even have a cell phone? But prickles raced up the back of my neck.
Maybe I was a paranoid paranormal museum proprietor.
I tried calling Mrs. Marybelle twice more that day – once in the afternoon and once just before closing.
So I called my mother.
“Madelyn! It’s your mother.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I called you.”
“I don’t only call when—” Okay, maybe I did tend to phone when things went wrong.
“Is Mrs. Marybelle in your Ladies Aid Guild?”
“You know very well it’s the Ladies Aid Society, and yes. Why?”
“A guy came by this morning claiming to be her nephew. He donated a Christmas witch from her to the museum. I tried calling her to confirm the gift, but she doesn’t answer.”
“Mrs. Marybelle does have a nephew.”
“She does?” I asked, relieved.
“A thorough rotter.”
I straightened GD’s tip jar beside the register. “Rotter? Have you been reading Agatha Christies again?”
“Of course. She’s wonderful. And I’ll send some of the ladies by Mrs. Marybelle’s house to do a health and wellness check. That is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, but…” But why did I suddenly feel guilty?
“I’ll expect you and your boyfriend to stop by for dinner soon,” she said. “Let’s say, Saturday?”
“I’ll have to ask him,” I muttered.
“Saturday it is. Bye!” She hung up.
GD leapt onto the counter and rubbed against his tip jar. His whiskers twitched.
“It isn’t funny.”
I turned the sign in the front window to CLOSED and walked around the counter to the door. A shadow passed behind its curtained glass window. I reached for the lock. The door sprang open, knocking me backwards.
“Ow! We’re closed.” I rubbed my shoulder where it had ricocheted off the door.
The man looked like he’d been cast in a thirties gangster film. Sharky eyes. Built like a boxer and with a nose as crooked as Befana’s. A jagged scar down one cheek. But the scar wasn’t half as terrifying as the knife he gripped.
“The cash is in the till,” I squeaked.
“Where’s the doll?”
“Doll?” Involuntarily, I glanced at the museum’s creepy doll collection. The antique dolls, their gowns sooty, gazed back through blank, blue eyes.
GD hissed, a ridge of fur rising on his back. He jolted forward on the counter.
I grabbed the cat mid-launch and pulled him to my chest.
GD thrashed, scoring angry red scratches on my right arm.
The stranger pointed his knife at us, and I shrank against the counter. “I’ll kill that cat if it gets near me.”
“Let me put him outside, and he won’t.” My voice shook.
He pressed the tip of his knife to my neck. “Fine. But remember, it takes two minutes to bleed out. Don’t make me cut you.”
“I won’t,” I whispered. Legs watery, I cracked open the door and dropped GD. The cat bolted down the sidewalk.
“Lock the door,” he growled.
“Get back behind the counter and sit.”
I did that too.
Knife extended, the man backed to the pyramid of creepy dolls.
Heart thudding, I watched him twist off the heads of the dolls and toss them to the checkerboard floor. “Where did he put it?” he muttered.
All I had to do was survive the wait. GD’s collar worked like one of those house-arrest ankle bands. Laurel got an alert if he was more than ten feet from the museum. I just hoped the detective came to yell about his escape in person and soon.
The bookcase creaked open.
In two strides, the intruder was at the counter, knife at my throat.
My best friend, Adele Nakamoto, backed into the museum in her Jackie Kennedy-style suit, and my stomach plunged to the tiled floor.
“Honestly, Mad, you know Laurel’s just looking for an excuse…” She turned, GD in her arms, and her mouth eased open, her eyes widening.
Irrationally furious, I glared at the cat now depositing black hairs across Adele’s ice-blue suit. Laurel wasn’t coming. The tea room didn’t count as more than ten-feet outside the museum, because the tea room and the museum shared a building. I should have figured GD would make a beeline for the nearest supply of chicken salad sandwiches.
The man flicked his knife toward Adele, frozen in the open bookcase. “Close the… whatever and get over here.”
She swallowed, clutching the cat to her chest, and glided to the counter.
“Behind the counter,” he said.
She walked around the counter to stand beside me.
He backed once again toward the dolls.
“Mad,” Adele whispered. “What’s going on?”
The cat squirmed in her arms.
“A robbery,” I said in a low voice.
“The witch has to be here somewhere,” the stranger muttered.
“Give me the cat,” I said quietly.
She handed over GD, and I set him on my lap, stroking his fur beneath the counter.
“Witch?” Adele asked me. “Which witch? Your stupid museum is full of them.” In times of stress, Adele’s true feelings toward the museum leaked out.
“I’ll get us out of this,” I muttered. “Just give me a minute to think.”
In spite of her prim, waiflike appearance, Adele was one tough cookie. She stood quietly and let me do my thing.
Finally, I cleared my throat. “Are you looking for a doll or for a marionette?” I asked the man.
He turned, his sharklike eyes narrowing.
“Because,” I continued, “a man donated a Christmas witch today. It’s here, beneath the counter.” Keeping one hand on GD, I reached beneath the register with the other and pulled out the Befana.
“Yes!” He snatched the marionette from my grasp, wooden sticks clattering on the counter. Unlocking the door, he sped from the museum.
I raced around the counter and slammed the door shut, locking it.
“If you knew he wanted the witch, why did you wait to give it to him? We could have been killed!”
“If he’d gotten within ten feet of you again, I would have.” I grabbed the phone off the wall and called the police – a number I’m sad to say I’ve memorized.
Adele said something unladylike and pulled apart the blinds. “I don’t see his car. He got away.”
At my feet, GD purred. I smiled down at the collar-free cat. “Maybe not.”
The next day, two FBI agents “encouraged” Adele and I to sign nondisclosure forms, swearing us to secrecy on the Befana incident. My mother and Mrs. Marybelle signed too. We never found out what was so special about the Befana. National security. Go figure.
The wall phone rang, and I answered it. “Paranormal Museum!”
“Madelyn, this is your mother.”
I sighed. “Hi, Mom. How’s Mrs. Marybelle?” The women on the wellness check had found the old lady bound and gagged, a victim of Shark Eyes, in hot pursuit of her nephew and the Befana.
“Still recovering from the shock of having a criminal for a nephew.”
“He didn’t mean for his gang to chase him to his aunt’s house.”