“Trick. Button. Plant. Fly.”
Kara Simpkins leveled her gaze at Jerry Mills. She: graduated for years, her first mystery novel published to promising reviews, her brain always eager for something new and baffling to chew on. He: retired for years, his gold shield in a velvet box, his mind still haunted by various ‘cold cases’. They: vying for dominance on the chessboard once a month ever since she consulted him while researching her book.
“Isn’t that rather cliché?” he challenged, his bishop doing no less.
“‘Hmm…’ is always a good place to start,” she riposted, her knight sidestepping.
“Cause of death: blunt force cranial trauma. We got there just as he faded out. Looked up, eyes locked on mine, said those words—gone. We bent our brains into pretzel-shape on every stakeout for years trying to figure it.”
“I presume he was not performing a magic trick when a button flew off his tuxedo and landed in a fern while he made a grab, slipped and struck his head on the planter?”
Jerry smiled, nonchalantly moved a pawn, “I like it, but no.”
She took his pawn. “I know that was bait. Was there an unfinished crossword on the table?”
“Puzzle-freak that I am, I’d’ve noted that. You know it was bait yet you swallowed all the same.”
Kara pursed her lips and thrust her chin as she always did when sussing out his strategy. “Distinguishing crime scene characteristics?”
“Very vanilla. Nothing eccentric. Thanks for the rook.”
“Caught in my web. But you’re withholding something. Victim’s profession?”
Jerry turned Cheshire Cat, pronounced with gravity, “Writer.”
Her hand froze over the squares—she met his eyes—pulled her arm back. “Think you’re quite the grey fox, don’t you?”
“Take your time.”
She scanned the board, her head swaying slightly to an inner music. “In writing terms, a ‘plant’ is something innocuous that becomes important later in the story. A ‘button’ is a memorable way to end a scene. Like how I lured your bishop on this sidetrack,” she demonstrated, showing dimples, “only to be defrocked.”
“Ouch,” he mock-appreciated.
“Requiescat in pace.”
“’Trick’ and ‘fly’, however?”
“Nah,” she grunted, “not really.”
“Masterstrokes now,” he announced, his queen on royal expedition.
“Now if I were writing it…”
“Aaahhh…” He settled back, eyebrows cocked.
“…I might make him a spy, and the words are coded. Any midnight visits by trench-coats?”
“Alas.” He wilted.
She focused on the pieces. “Waltz that queen all you like—I know a tease when I meet one.”
“Besmirched! She’ll have your head for that.”
“Head...” Kara’s brow knitted. “The perpetrator brained him, you said. He probably had aphasia; he might’ve thought he was saying ‘The butler did it’.”
Jerry looked sideways, hating the plausibility. Could he tolerate a weirdly mundane answer to a delicious question that he’d dined on for years? Where was the meaning?
“Hey there, guy,” his opponent ventured, pestering his king, “sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar but not really more interesting than a cigar.”
He set his interrogation glare at her, leaned back over the game, castling king and rook, and admonished, “Ponder your last words now.”
“Nice trick. Button the rook. Plant the king. Queen on the fly.”
“Now that’s criminal,” the old cop snickered.
Kara looked sideways now, sobering. “That poor fellow: fatally smacked . . . seconds to live . . . one last chance to communicate . . . connect somehow . . .”
Jerry recalled those eyes—more than any other’s—the plaintive voice, the desperate words he knew he’d never forget now, seeing not their meaning but through it.
“Hey, flatfoot,” Kara alerted him gently, “you’re in check.”
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