enny English, Professional Engineer, enjoyed the short walk from the construction site back to her office. The early morning fall weather was beautiful. Penny already knew from experience that she wouldn't like the winter, but her assignment north of New York City was for only two years. There were lots of benefits here to compensate for snowstorms-museums, parks, theaters, and the fact that with Halloween approaching, Penny's contractor cousin, Peter Bilt, was most likely at least several states away.
Of course, assumptions designed to be supportive should always be verified.
Penny opened the door to her office and immediately became immobilized. Someone sat in her chair, behind her desk, and that person was none other than the cousin Penny wished to avoid. He didn't look too good, either--Peter's hair and clothes were rumpled and there was a smudge on his face.
Peter looked at Penny and blinked several times, as though bemused. Penny blinked several times herself, but Peter didn't go away. Then he gave her one of his trademark smiles, showing two dimples and flashing his white teeth. Peter's smile was one of the reasons he'd been married numerous times.
Penny thought of at least ten things to say and used her best professional judgment to discard them all. "How are you," she said. She had to grit her teeth to screen her reactions, which were definitely not calculated ones. "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive?"
Peter stared at Penny a moment, appearing quite shocked. Well, whatever shock her cousin was feeling, it couldn't compare to the amplitude of Penny's. "That's not PC to say, and I'm not talking about the computer on your desk," Peter said finally, sounding hurt.
"Believe me, I could have said something worse," Penny replied. "Those are the first words Sherlock Holmes said to Watson." Penny cocked her head. "But come to think of it, though, it IS likely that there will be some major building opportunities overseas-" She stopped herself. There were more urgent matters at hand. "What are you doing here?"
"What are YOU doing here?" Peter shot back. "I thought you'd fallen off a cliff. I was devastated, and so was that Certified Hazardous Materials Manager, Q. A. Cusee. He's quite taken with you---"
Penny held up a hand to restrict the flow of words. "Having a professional and personal relationship with the same person results in too many conflicts of interest. I'm dating someone else-an actor."
"Anything can be negotiated," Peter argued. "So who is this guy?"
"His name is Cliff, and that's all you need to know." Penny used the same voice she used for failed inspections. "The last thing an actor needs is his name spread all over the press by an engineer."
"But how did you get here, to New York?" Peter persisted.
Penny sighed. "I needed a break," she said truthfully. "Last Halloween, I already knew I would be starting a field assignment here. When I stepped off that cliff-the rock cliff, not my Cliff, I landed in the sand. I thought I heard gunfire-"
"There wasn't gunfire!"
"Well, you can't blame me for wanting a factor of safety. I hid in a cave under the cliff. It was interesting from a substrate standpoint, and the longer I stayed there, the better it seemed. I waited until everyone stopped looking for me, then I walked up to the road, hitched a ride to town, packed, and moved here."
Peter shook his head regretfully. "Why didn't you tell me? I'm all the family you have left."
"Don't think I didn't consider that-have you ever wondered WHY we're the only family we each have left? I don't know about you, but I don't think I want to know the answer to that particular question. And Peter, think of everything we've been through Halloween after Halloween. Bodies every single year--I needed an egress. But why are you here? You may be my cousin, but you know what crime statistics say about that. Are you stalking me?"
"Of course not. You're not the only one with a job," Peter huffed. "I've been up here several months already. Did you know that 2002 is the 150th anniversary of the American Society of Civil Engineers? Or, as Mack Crohnim would call it, ASCE."
"Of course I know about the 150th anniversary of ASCE," Penny replied. "You're still hanging around with Mack Crohnim?"
"I'm still dating Minnie Tale, too, but how would you know? You dropped out of my life like unsupported deadload."
"I still want to know what you're doing here," Penny insisted.
"I'm building a hotel near the United States Military Academy, for your information, and I've also been selected to judge the West Point Bicentennial Engineering Design Contest."
"What?" Penny was incredulous-effectively distracted from trying to figure out what her cousin was doing in her office.
"I thought you'd know all about it. The contest starts November 11 for students K-12. And get this--each member of the top ranked student teams wins a prize ranging from $15,000 toward college to a notebook computer."
"I know all about the contest," Penny told her cousin. "It's also celebrating the 200th anniversary of West Point. But I don't believe you're a judge. You may be a licensed building contractor, but you're not a Professional Engineer."
Peter looked smug. "I can prove I'm a judge with just two words," he said. "Ima Tokyn."
"For Pete's sake," Penny said, "get a grip. I'm a token is three words, even in metric. You, Peter, have never been a token."
"Not token-Tokyn," Peter protested. "Ima Tokyn is in charge of selecting the judges. You can call her if you don't believe me. And you can call and verify that I'm building a hotel, too, if you insist on doubting me. One of my clients has the same name you do."
Penny decided she needed to sit down. Since Peter look well anchored to her chair, she sat in one of the others. "You have a client with the last name English?" she asked hopefully. Maybe she DID have other relatives. Maybe they had normal Halloweens.
"No," Peter dashed her hopes immediately. "The guy is half Italian. His first name is Penne, like the pasta."
"What's his last name?" Penny asked before she could stop herself.
"It's kind of an unusual situation." Penny was starting to get a bad feeling about this-her cousin seemed so engrossed in detailing his explanation. "Penne's father is Japanese American," Peter said. "His last name is Okyo."
"Penne Okyo?" Penny closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, Peter was still there. How did she ever get into this out-of-scope conversation? Never mind-now Penny wanted to get to the bottom floor of this tale, and she didn't mean Minnie.
"I knew you'd give me a hard time about it," Peter said.
Penny ignored the protest. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Penne Okyo is in partnership with an American Indian named Long Nose."
Peter looked perplexed. "No, but one of Penne's partners is Hungarian."
"Peter, you're almost a diversity division all by yourself," Penny said. "But if Penne's partner is Hungarian, I'm hoping there isn't an Al Dennty in this story. I can't keep myself from asking--what's the partner's name?"
"Sol Pryter. He used to box professionally, so we call him Pro. Maybe you've heard of Pro Pryter?" Peter sounded hopeful.
"What's the name of their company?" The logic of this interrogation was beginning to resemble a design charrette.
"Sol "Pro" Pryter and Partners."
"Peter, think about what you've just said. It doesn't make sense."
"I don't see what's wrong with it. The three guys pay their bills on time."
"There's another partner?"
"Yeah, really nice guy-Wesley Pointe. He helped me get settled here."
Penny was the engineer of record for this conversation-she had no one to blame but herself, in spite of the fact that she considered her cousin quite a liability. She pressed two fingers on either side of the bridge of her nose. She could feel a headache coming on. "Never mind. Whatever. Duh."
Peter looked concerned. "That doesn't sound like the Penny I know. Are you doing volunteer work with teenagers or something?"
"I don't care about any of this." Penny resisted the temptation to shout. "Forget it. You could be working for Fly-By-Night Industries and I wouldn't care. How did you find me?"
"After I was here for a few weeks, I heard that you were working on that big parking garage. From there, it wasn't hard to follow the white line and figure out your office site. Finding you here gave me quite a jolt, I have to admit, but I figured if you didn't want me to know where you were, the best alternative was no further action on my part."
"Then what are you doing in my office?"
"I'm not positive, but I think I we're both the focus of the actions of a desperate man. A few weeks ago, Q. A. showed up on my doorstep. He'd discovered you were here, you see, and he wanted me to contact you. Me being your cousin, and all."
"I don't see."
"Well, he kept insisting, and I kept telling him no, but he must have taken matters into his own hands," Peter said. He leaned forward and looked at Penny intently, lowering his voice. "I think Q. A. drugged me and then kidnapped me from my apartment. He must have brought me here because he wants to use me to reestablish contact with you. It's all still fuzzy--I just regained consciousness a few seconds before you opened the door."
"I don't believe any of this, except for the fuzzy part." If Penny's voice were any flatter, she could have taken the slope out of the word grade. She shook her head emphatically. "Bah humbug," she added for good measure.
"Wrong holiday," Peter replied. "If I can prove my story, will you spend Halloween with me?"
"Are there any bodies involved?" Penny shot back.
Penny couldn't think of any Holmes quotes that seemed appropriate. "Elementary" had been discarded long ago. She considered her options. If she wanted to get Peter out of her office without a change order, it might be best to go with the flow. "Give me the short version," she said. "The executive summary part."
Peter took a deep breath. "I've been here three months already, working on the hotel I told you about and getting ready to judge the design contest. I found accommodations at the Vintage View Apartments, with the help of one of my clients-"
"Don't tell me, let me guess. Wesley Pointe helped you find a place to live." Penny thought it might sound better coming out of her mouth. She was wrong.
"Right," Peter agreed. "Anyway, everything was going swimmingly, on schedule, under budget-"
"You expect me to believe that?"
Peter ignored her. "-until last night."
"What happened last night?"
"Let me back up a few days. At least a week ago, I noticed a tent in the green space behind our apartment building, but I didn't think much about it. Now I think it must have been Q. A. Cusee, scoping things out, watching you, watching me-"
"Creepy of Cusee," Penny contributed.
"He's a guy in love," Peter replied, "you have to cut him a break. Anyway, there's a really nice woman next door to me. She cooks me casseroles and stuff and leaves them outside my door. Last night she left me some delicious blueberry cobbler in a fancy, shiny brass bowl. I hadn't had any dinner, so I changed out of my work clothes, sat down at the kitchen table, and ate all the cobbler. Afterwards, I went into the bathroom to wash out the bowl. I started feeling dizzy. That's the last I remember until I saw you open the door here. Well, the last except for one thing."
"Just before I blacked out, I caught a glimpse of Q. A.'s face, reflected from behind my shoulder in the bottom of the bowl."
"You're sure it was Q. A.?"
"I'm certain. It was as plain as seeing a poster for a fugitive."
Penny didn't want to dwell on that image. "Then what happened?" she asked.
Peter shrugged. "Well, the rest is supposition. Our apartment building is locked up from eight at night until eight in the morning, and besides, you have to walk by the front desk to get to the stairs that lead up to my apartment. People come and go during the daytime, but at night, the clerks monitor the doors for anyone without a key. So I think Q. A. got into the building during the day, drugged the cobbler, and got into my apartment. The locks are really flimsy-I've opened my door a few times with a credit card myself when I've forgotten my key. I think Q. A. hid in my apartment, waited for the drug to take effect, and then brought me here."
"If you changed your clothes, sat down in the kitchen, and went into the bathroom, where did Q. A. hide?" Penny asked. "Not in the shower-the man may be a little deranged, but he's not psycho."Peter paused. "There's a small broom closet in the kitchen," he said finally. "It's just big enough for one person. Q. A. must have waited for me in there."
Penny raised one skeptical eyebrow. "If the building is locked at night and the night clerk is on duty, how did Q. A. get you out of the building?"
"I've thought about that," Peter said. "I'm on the second floor, and there's a small fenced yard in back of the apartment building. I think Q. A. must have used a sheet, tied it to the bed, and carried me out through the window. My bedroom has a large window that looks out onto the back yard."
"Do you really think I'm going to fall for this faulty story?" Penny asked.
"What do you want me to do, get a letter of certification?"
"No," Penny replied. "You know my methods, Watson-I mean Peter. I want you to show me how it was done."
"Geez, talk about QA/QC," Peter grumbled as they drove up to the Vintage View Apartments.
"I don't want to talk about him," Penny snapped.
"Forget it," Penny said. "Just show me."
First Peter led Penny around the back of the building, so he could show her the small fenced yard and green space behind it. There was a marked contrast between the yard and the green space. The yard was full of holes, and had very little green in any of its space. A puppy of dubious heritage ran up to the fence and started barking fiercely.
"That's Trip," Peter said. "My neighbor, the one who cooks for me, found him on vacation last month, at a rest stop on the interstate. Lucky fellow. That's why she named him Trip."
"Cute," Penny said. She paused to pet Trip through the chain link fence, then followed her cousin to a place behind the yard. Trip had certainly been busy with landscape architecture if the yard had been like this area before his arrival. The grass outside the fence was thick and green, and Penny could see where the lush verdant carpet had been visibly flattened in a rectangular area potentially the size of a tent. At each corner of the rectangle, there were telling holes the size and depth of a tent stake. Three majestic Oak trees stood about fifteen feet away from the flattened area Peter indicated.
Almost as soon as Penny had had time to note the flattened area in the grass, Peter was excitedly calling her attention to a window on the second story. Sure enough, there was a sheet hanging out the window, the end dangling about eight feet from the ground. Peter hustled back around the building and up the steps into the lobby of the Vintage View Apartments with Penny following him. "We're in luck," Peter said. "This is one of desk clerks who's usually on night duty--Reginald Stirr."
"Just call me Reggie," the young man said with a smile. Then Reggie Stirr proceeded to verify everything that Peter had told Penny about building security.
"How many nights do you work?" Penny asked.
"Four nights and one day shift every week. Looks like I'm in luck today." Reggie flashed another smile, one brilliant enough to compete with Peter's.
"Thanks," Penny said with a very small smile of her own. She followed Peter up a flight of stairs to a narrow, dark paneled hall lined with doors.
Peter turned right, passed two doors, then knocked. "This is where my neighbor the cook lives," he explained. A short perky blond who could have passed for Minnie Tale in a heartbeat opened the door. "I'm sorry to disturb you so early," Peter apologized.
"It's not a problem," the woman said. "I went to bed early, got a good night's rest, and got up early this morning."
"This is my neighbor, the gourmet cook," Peter told Penny.
The woman blushed. "Peter is too kind," she said. She held out her hand. "I'm Ally Bigh. But please, call me Ally."
"Figures," Penny muttered to herself, then listened while Ally verified all the details of Peter's blueberry cobbler story, even down to the description of the bowl.
"I'm happy to cook for Peter," Ally explained. "He's a good neighbor--he fits in here. Vintage View is just what it sounds like-did you know that the building is over a hundred years old? It's a quiet place-I always worry when a vacancy opens up-you never know who will end up living next door to you."
"You own the dog, right?" Penny asked.
Ally glanced nervously at Peter, as though looking for direction. "You mean Trip?" she asked. Penny nodded. "Well, he's not really a dog, he's just a pup," Ally demurred.
"Trip isn't a problem for the other residents?" Penny persisted.
Ally's eyes widened. "Oh no," she said. "Trip kind of belongs to everyone here. You could call him the Vintage View Pup."
"No one complains about the noise? Trip was barking up a storm when we went to see him," Penny said.
Ally laughed. "Oh, that's just because he doesn't know you."
Penny told Ally Bigh bye, and Peter unlocked his door. When Penny stepped into her cousin's apartment, the first thing she noticed was the bright blue walls. "Has it been like this since you moved in here?" she asked.
"Sure has," Peter said. "I do enough renovating at work. I'm a contractor, not a busman. I don't believe in bringing the job home with me."
The apartment was just as Peter had described, essential living space tucked into minimal floor space. The kitchen was combined with a small sitting area-no place for hidden surprises there. Penny looked in the broom closet. The door swung on hinges out to the right, away from the refrigerator. Penny stuck her head only part way inside, not surprised to note the absence of a broom or any cleaning supplies. The whole apartment was testimony to Peter's characteristic approach to housekeeping-here, in the broom closet of all places, was a large spider web in one of the upper corners, displaying a certain Halloween-type beauty all its own.
Penny didn't need to see more to prove to herself that someone could in fact have hidden in the closet without drawing attention by removing its nonexistent contents. She noted that the walls of the closet were not painted the same color as the rooms-someone had taken a short cut, or someone had decided against blue through and through.
Peter was quick to point out an empty brass bowl on the floor tiles in the bathroom. Penny turned her attention to the bedroom, noting the single bed pushed up against the wall across from the window. There were blankets and two pillows piled on the bed. Two sheets had been tied together, one end tied to the bed, the other end hanging out the window as Peter had pointed out previously. Penny walked over to the window and looked down. There was Trip, enthusiastically working on his latest project-maybe the pup knew more about things than anyone else, maybe he was mining for gold. Beyond the yard, the grassy space with the flattened rectangle clearly evident. Peter's bedroom window also afforded a beautiful view of the three majestic Oaks.
The window had no locking device. Since Peter's apartment was on the second floor, it was not an impossibly dangerous drop into the yard, even if there was no cushion of grass remaining there. The fence was tall enough to keep Trip from encroaching on other sites, but it would not have been difficult to climb.
"See," Peter said. "I have evidence and I have witnesses. I'm telling you the truth."
"Not so fast," Penny replied. "Show me."
Peter looked at his cousin with something like Halloween horror dawning on his face. "You're kidding, right?"
"No." Penny was adamant.
Peter walked over to the window and looked down himself. "The sheet doesn't go all the way down to the ground," he said. He turned to Penny and immediately added, "That's because Q. A. Cusee is taller than I am, of course."
"He's thinner than a profit margin, too," Penny agreed. "Improvise," she told her cousin.
After much protest and fumbling, and getting another sheet out of the closet, Peter retro-fitted the rope of bed linens so that it went almost all the way down to the ground. With much talk about how he might break his neck, and how much easier it was to bear all this when one was unconscious, he climbed out the window and let himself down into the yard. Trip watched Peter intently, his tail wagging furiously. Perhaps the pup thought Peter had come to lend expertise in excavation activities.
While Peter was climbing over the fence and coming back around through the lobby, Penny noticed a gold embossed piece of paper on the floor next to the wall. She hadn't seen it previously, since it had been under the bed until Peter climbed out the window. The piece of paper turned out to be an invitation to The New Mexico Governor's Halloween Ball. It was addressed to one Mr. Q. A. Cusee.
Penny waved the invitation in Peter's face the moment he walked back into the apartment. Peter took one look, then threw up his hands. "Why would I have an invitation addressed to Q. A. Cusee?" he asked. "It's just more proof that I'm telling the truth. Q. A. must have dropped it here when he was using the sheet to climb out the window."
"Ha," said Penny. "There are enough holes in your story to ventilate an entire structure with sick building syndrome."
"That many?" Peter asked. "Bad news usually comes in threes."
"This time, you've outdone yourself, Peter. There's not one, but five places where your story means zip."
Peter took a moment to think this through. "One, five, zero. That's 150. You're trying to get me to work in another reference to the 150th anniversary of ASCE."
"Damn skippy, as Stephanie Plum would say. You try working that into normal dialogue multiple times."
"What do you mean, plum?" Peter looked more confused than ever. "It was blueberry cobbler. There weren't any plums in it."
"Give it up, Peter. If you don't mind spoilers, after I take a break I'll tell you each of the five things in your story that aren't true. But if you're any kind of puzzle-solver who can stand on your own without reinforcing, you'll figure it out without any more consulting on my part. And Peter, even if you hadn't messed up five different ways in concocting your story, Trip would still have given you away."
"Trip the dog?"
"In your case, he's Trip Pup. And I'm talking about the curious incident of Trip Pup in the nighttime."
Peter stared at his cousin. There was no enlightenment in his face, no watts on. "The pup did nothing in the nighttime," Peter protested.
"And that," Penny said, "was the curious incident."
"I still don't get it," Peter replied. "I'll probably have to end up giving you a penny for your thoughts. But before you take your break, I have something to ask you."
"That is NOT the game afoot," Penny informed her cousin. "You lost. You can't ask me to go somewhere with you for Halloween."
"I'm not asking you to go with me. I confess--I hunted you down and planned all this with Q. A. We wanted to do something to get your attention, so we planned this escapade to show you the lengths we'll go to get you back in our lives."
"And as I recall, the length wasn't quite long enough," Penny retorted. "Your story won't hold wastewater."
"Don't be Curt-try and understand where we're coming from, even if it doesn't make all that much sense."
"Well," said Penny slowly, "I'd be a plain Jane not to admit that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Bummer," she added."So you'll go to the Halloween Ball with Q. A. Cusee?" asked Peter. " He's smitten, Penny. Have a heart, even if it's not Valentine's Day."
"You expect me to go to a Halloween Ball in New Mexico?" Penny asked incredulously.
"New Mexico?" Peter echoed, grabbing the invitation to study it more closely. "Damn if that isn't what it says. But what the heck, Penny. I hear that New Mexico is a good place for female engineer sleuths. You might fit in there so well that you'd want to stay. In New Mexico, you wouldn't have to ever worry about hearing Ima Tokyn."
Used correctly, a brass bowl could be a formidable weapon, and as an alternative to engineering, writing true crime was looking better and better. "I've never been a token, you jerk." Penny settled for punching her cousin in the arm.
"I don't mean token, I mean Tokyn," Peter said for the second time, rubbing his arm. "If you're not here in New York, you won't have to worry about picking up the phone and hearing Ima ask you to be a judge for the West Point Bicentennial Engineering Design Contest."
Penny was slightly mollified. "Well, you can say that again," she told Peter.
"I've already mentioned the design contest as many times as I decently can in one story," he replied. "Come on Penny, be a sport. What do you say about the Halloween Ball?"
"I already told you," Penny said, "I'm dating someone else."
"Oh no," exclaimed Peter. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
"Yes." Penny said the words no one wants to hear. "This is another Cliff-hanger."
This is Penny's break. Spoiler freaks, you are hereby forewarned.
After Penny took a break, she turned to Peter. "Let's take this down the critical path," she said. "I know that Q. A. Cusee didn't camp in a tent in back of your apartment for a week, and you didn't recognize him by glimpsing him standing behind you, reflected in the bottom of the brass bowl. I know that you weren't drugged by eating blueberry cobbler only to regain consciousness in my office this morning. No one waited for you in the broom closet, and no one used sheets tied to your bed to climb out your second story window."
How did Penny know?
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