A reader was kind enough to photograph my book, The Color of Cold and Ice, in front of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and send me the photo. One of the chapters is set in the museum.
This is the first story featured in my book, The Missing Butler and Other Life Stories (A Collection of Short Stories). The book, both electronic and paperback) is available through various outlets, Amazon, Nook, Smashwords, Kobo, iBooks, etc.
“IT WAS THAT butler fellow that did it. Robbed me blind of ten thousand pounds” Those were nearly the last words of Abigail Rochelle who lived at No. 1 Rochelle Lane, aptly named since Miss Abigail Rochelle was the only resident on the lane.
Miss Rochelle was a spinster, a short, plump woman. She plopped a pan of brownies down on the inspector’s newly polished desk. The look of satisfaction spread across her face as she told the inspector she loved to bake—an excellent hobby to have, since her portly appearance suggested she also loved to eat.
It was Nigel Brown’s first case as inspector, having only been promoted the day before.
Miss Rochelle arrived at his office early. She stormed in, carrying a pan of brownies, exclaiming, “It was that butler fellow that did it.”
“Pardon me, madam,” the inspector apologized. “I haven’t had time to move everything in yet.” He removed a box from the chair and pulled it up for the woman. “Please have a seat.”
Inspector Brown eased into his own chair, giving Miss Rochelle a once over. Careful observation was important in his job. He sat at his sparse desk, a blank report before him, as he glowed with anticipation in beginning his first case as inspector. He had just taken down the details of the agitated Miss Rochelle when his ballpoint pen gave up the ghost.
“Drat! Excuse me, if you please, madam. Might I get you a spot of tea while I’m up?”
“A bit of milk to go with it, if you don’t mind. Tea would go nicely with the brownies. Extra gooey I made them. I’m not one to skimp on the ingredients.” She glowed with pride. The inspector picked up a brownie and took a bite.
“You certainly don’t. This may be the best brownie I’ve ever tasted. I won’t be long,” said the inspector. Miss Rochelle fanned her face, which had turned bright red with the compliment.
“No sugar, though,” she said as he was walking away. “I’m watching my weight.” Those were the exact last words of Abigail Rochelle.
Inspector Brown sauntered over to his old desk, rummaging through the drawer and found a handful of pens. “Surely, one of these will do the trick,” he muttered to himself.
Routine habit led him towards the teapot, but he suddenly remembered his new position, and made a sharp detour towards the clerk’s desk. “Ralph, if you would be so kind as to bring two cups of tea to my desk, along with some milk.”
Upon returning, he found Miss Abigail Rochelle slumped over in the seat, half a brownie still in her mouth. Nigel Brown’s first day as Chief Inspector was not going well at all.
The one bright spot was they were close to the morgue. Poisoning was ruled out. He had eaten a brownie himself and suffered no adverse effects. That was one blessing if one could call it that. The inspector was not a religious man. Logic drove him, as did a rugged ambition towards not letting a case rest until it was marked solved, which is what got him the promotion. On the opposite side of the coin, his stubbornness in not letting a case rest for even a moment often placed him in the doghouse with Mrs. Brown.
“It was that butler fellow that did it. Robbed me blind of ten thousand pounds.” It was Miss Rochelle’s first and only proclamation pertaining to a crime as she entered his office, and it was the closest thing to a statement she uttered before fate played its hand. Other than her address, he knew she made some mighty fine brownies, if not deadly. She took milk with her tea, and she blushed at compliments. Not much to go on.
* * *
The autopsy ruled that Miss Rochelle hardly had any passable arteries left. This did not surprise the inspector after contacting and conferring with the next of kin. Miss Rochelle had lived alone for many years and had no one else but herself to eat her fabulous confections.
Nevertheless, before her untimely death at the ripe age of fifty-one, Miss Rochelle had somehow been duped out of her life savings of ten thousand pounds.
Being a man with a reputation for thoroughness, Inspector Brown could not have a blemish on his record with the first case under his charge. He owed it to the dear departed woman. Of course, how dear she might be was yet to be determined. Before this was over, Inspector Brown decided to make that and every aspect of Miss Rochelle’s life his business—whatever it took to bring justice. He pictured the doghouse, once again, in his immediate future.
The inspector’s first order of business was the questioning of Albert Rochelle, brother to Miss Abigail Rochelle. He and his family lived in London, an hour away by train. Mr. Rochelle had been out of town on business for the entire week in question and had only returned home on the morning of the death.
Miss Rochelle’s sister-in-law was much grieved to hear the news. She was already nervous and anxious, fretting over this and that. Her youngest was leaving for college she explained to the inspector. “I have been in such a tizzy, getting everything ready, you know. Well, Inspector, I should have called to check on Abigail, but I was just so busy—absorbed wholly in getting him ready. And, too, I guess I’ve been a tad depressed. Empty nest, you know.” She looked at her husband who sat rather stoic and stiff with his spine firmly positioned against the back of the chair.
The inspector offered solace for their loss and for Mrs. Rochelle’s state of mind over her son going off. “I have two boys of my own,” he said, “although they won’t be leaving for college for a while.”
“Well, you should treasure each moment with them,” she said leaning forward in her chair while turning towards her husband. “My husband is away on business quite a lot and has missed so much of their growing-up years.” Her husband squirmed in his seat and cast his eyes to the floor. “And now, his sister dying. Poor Abigail. Well, just a sad situation.” She grasped her handkerchief and crumpled it as if to wring out every drop of sweat coming from her hands. “It reminds us how short life is. Wouldn’t you say so, Inspector?” Mr. Rochelle had settled back into his chair, easing back into his same reserved manner except for lowering his eyes a tad. The inspector made a note on his pad—a possible sign of regret. Check out Mr. Rochelle’s financial solvency.
“Yes, yes, you are absolutely right.” The inspector tried not to betray his own guilty face to Mrs. Rochelle. The matter of not spending enough time with his own boys was another item that irritated Mrs. Brown. He vowed to himself, right after this case, he would do better. After all, he had people under him now. What was a new position for if he couldn’t use it to his advantage?
The inspector made careful notes, continuing to question Mr. and Mrs. Rochelle. Neither had heard anything about a butler, she explained to the inspector, having discussed the sad and strange turn of events earlier with her husband. They both concurred that this must have been some new development.
“Inspector, it was so unlike Abigail. Abigail wasn’t one to even go near strange men. She was shy around the opposite sex, never even had any gentlemen callers. I asked my husband. He had never heard of any suitors.” She turned towards her husband. “None at all. Is that right, dear?”
Mr. Rochelle mumbled, as if embarrassed for his sister, “No, dear, none that I’ve ever known of.”
“No, Inspector, she read and baked,” Mrs. Rochelle continued. “Yes, that’s what poor Abigail did. Oh, this whole incident is just so dreadful.”
“Um,” said the inspector as he continued to write.
Inspector Brown noted that Miss Rochelle’s brother was on the weighty side. Must be a family trait. Mrs. Rochelle, on the other hand, was as thin as a string bean, much like his own wife.
“Poor Abigail, such a messy person,” she said shaking her head. The inspector saw that Mrs. Rochelle’s place was spic and span. “My husband and I just couldn’t believe how neat everything was, everything in its place, not a speck of dust, so unlike Abigail. Well, inspector, we were in shock, I tell you, in shock, but then, this whole episode has been such a terrible upset. Isn’t that right, Albert?”
“Yes, dear,” he responded. The husband was definitely the silent type. It was apparent that Mrs. Rochelle was the spokesperson for them both.
The inspector scribbled away between questions. “Do you think she might have hired a butler?”
Mrs. Rochelle eyed her husband and then looked back at the inspector, divulging a troubled face. “She must have. We are at a loss, Inspector Brown, just at a loss.” Mrs. Rochelle had a habit of repeating herself.
“What about the bottle of wine and wine glasses?”
“Sir, my sister didn’t drink,” Mr. Rochelle stated resolutely, moving forward in his chair as he did so. “One drink of any form of alcohol would put her under the table. No, sir, she was a teetotaler.”
“Hm, most curious,” the inspector said as he continued to make notes, notes that weren’t connecting any dots thus far.
“Yes, Inspector, Albert and I found that most curious as well.”
* * *
Albert would have been the sole heir to his sister’s estate; however, Albert was a successful businessman and had no need of a meager ten thousand pounds. He had checked on Miss Rochelle’s brother’s finances and found him to be on an upward spiral as far as money went. He was indeed solvent. Nor would her house and possessions have been any great inheritance, not that her death was in question. Despite its new cleanliness, it was quite run down and in much need of repair. If anything its disposal would place a burden on the Rochelles.
Upon further investigation, Inspector Brown found Miss Rochelle’s bank account to be devoid of funds. She had only the day before her untimely demise closed it out.
“I do remember Miss Rochelle.” The teller placed special emphasis on the word do. “A short, round, plump woman, her head not coming too much above the counter. She came in alone,” the teller related to the inspector. “Well, how could I forget her? She offered me a cupcake. I passed, making the excuse I was watching my weight. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I could tell how proud she was of her baking. And she should be.” She leaned across the counter, closer to the inspector, and said almost in a whisper, “It wouldn’t be professional to be eating at my teller window. Let me tell you, though. They were indeed tempting. A true artist she was, such fanciful decorations.” The teller rolled her eyes, looking over at the doorway of her boss’s office. “Sticky pound notes are not something my boss would appreciate.” Her voice returned to a normal pitch. “Anyway, everything was in order. I counted out the notes and said good luck with your home repair. I think it was home repair. I’m sorry. I can’t be certain. So many customers, you know. Can’t remember every thing they tell me.”
The inspector thanked the teller for her time, placed his notes in his satchel, at the same time mulling over in his mind what he had learned up to this point. Not much, he concluded, as he walked down the street towards his office, mumbling to himself and stroking his mustache, while glaring off into the distance.
* * *
The inspector’s next course of action was to question neighbors and acquaintances. This was not an easy task as there were few of both. Miss Rochelle’s house was at the end of a cul-de-sac, hidden from view by a row of evergreens and a good half-mile away from any other houses. The neighbors rarely saw her out.
The inspector, being the man of logic he was, deduced that with all that baking, Miss Rochelle must have been in need of deliveries—eggs, milk, butter, and such. Would not the butler be taking care of this for her? Someone must have seen him.
The fingerprints he had obtained had not matched up to anyone they had on file. A description might be all that was needed to find this alleged butler.
One by one, he spoke to each delivery person. Miss Rochelle was a good customer, they all agreed. They were sorry to lose her business. She handpicked everything. She was meticulous about her baking; only the finest ingredients would do. None of them had seen a butler or a man for that matter. There had been a few smirks on the matter of a man.
The mailman told a different story. “She loved romance novels. She ordered them in bulk. The name of the publisher on the brown paper wrapping gave them away.” The mailman, wanting to be as helpful as possible, added, “She liked to enter a lot of contests.”
“Contests, hm, you don’t say? What type of contests? Did she ever win any?”
“No, she didn’t win that I know of. She sent stories and manuscripts to publishing contests.”
“And how exactly do you know that she didn’t win any prizes?”
“Thin envelopes. Rejection letters are always thin,” he said with an authoritative glance.
The inspector wasn’t sure what bearing this had on the case, but his motto was never to leave a stone unturned. One might not know where it could lead.
The inspector confirmed that Miss Rochelle had an entire walled-bookshelf filled with romantic novels. The inspector studied his list, trying to make sense of it. She was lonely. She had some money. She was off the beaten track with her only relatives an hour away by train. She was the prime target for a con artist, a romantic con artist who liked to clean. But how did he happen upon Miss Rochelle? Was he a traveling salesman? Inspector Brown ruled that out since none of the neighbors had reported one. So, how did he know Miss Rochelle? She had belonged to no clubs. She more or less kept to herself, baking and reading. There had been no other reports of middle-aged women in the area being taken in by a con man. But then, a con man, posing as a butler, would not be so stupid as to work in the same area.
Miss Rochelle received a weekly newspaper. Paperboys are out early. If anyone had seen the elusive butler, it would have been him. The lad appeared frightened. He swore that he saw nothing strange at No. 1 Rochelle Lane. The boy’s nervousness bothered the inspector, but then young chaps were often nervous around the law. He thought back to his youth, remembering his own scrapes. His parents were both shocked and pleased that he went into law enforcement. He made a note to come back later and question the boy again if need be.
Inspector Brown concluded the man in question had been there less than a week and had kept himself scarce upon seeing other people. Maybe he was truly a butler. Maybe he was as shy as Miss Rochelle. More than likely, he was practiced in the art of keeping out of sight, especially if he were playing some sort of con game. The next course of action would be to visit estates and find out if there was any word about new butlers being hired or fired.
* * *
Another week passed. Inspector Brown was becoming more perplexed. A workload of files flooded his once immaculate desk. He shoved them all aside, in favor of stamping case number 1101, that of Miss Rochelle, closed. He stared at the notes before him and rapped his knuckles almost to the point of blood against his desktop. His wedding band echoed like a drum against the wood and left a dent. A heavy sigh escaped his mouth as he looked at the opened file in front of him and the stack of files surrounding it. His boss was hounding him. More importantly, his wife was becoming disagreeable. He had broken his promise of not bringing his work home. Sweat dripped from his brow. A bouquet was in order. Yellow roses were her favorite.
Although the flowers brought a temporary smile to Mrs. Brown’s curved downward lips so prevalent over the past week, they fell short of their intended purpose. So short that he could feel them drooping towards the floor while still in his hands. The weekend was at hand. She insisted that he take her and the children on a train ride into London as he had neglected them so. For the sake of his marriage, he conceded. A break would do him good. He was getting nowhere on the case.
“Dear, I heartily agree. A train trip it is.” This brightened her mood. Upon saying the words, he felt something heavy lift from him. The thought of a weekend get-a-way brightened his outlook as well. It would be good to leave the frustration of the case and the neglected workload on his desk for a while. Yes, this would do the both of them good. “Dear, I promise. I will put this case out of my mind during our trip.”
“Nigel, I’m not that naïve,” Mrs. Brown said as she rolled her eyes.
“Yes, dear.” He could hear Mr. Rochelle in himself. Perhaps this was the way of all husbands.
On the train, Mrs. Brown chatted on about all the shops she would visit while the inspector played a game of cards with his boys. The oldest was winning. The inspector’s concentration was off. As much as he tried not to, he found he was replaying over in his mind the information he had on case number 1101. He fingered his mustache and rubbed his thinning hair in disgust.
The youngest, aged ten, tugged at his coat sleeve. “Papa, can we go to the new bakery in London?”
“Yes, yes, I suppose we can,” he said distracted. “What is the name of this new bakery?”
“Abigail’s, I think,” said his son.
“All right, if it is okay with your mum.”
A light bulb went off. The inspector jumped to his feet, knocking the cards in every which direction and bumping his head on the overhead bin.
“Nigel, what on earth is wrong?” his wife asked in both pity and disgust.
Inspector Brown registered the two words—Abigail and bakery together. “Tell me Jonathan, how do you know about a new bakery in London?”
“My friend at school told me.”
“Who is your friend?”
“Daniel. He was delivering newspapers. A man on his route told him about a dandy bakery that would open soon, and that he should visit it when he was in London.”
The puzzle pieces were starting to fall into place. “What else can you tell me?” Inspector Brown almost screamed with a wild look in his eyes, while placing his hands on his son’s shoulders.
“Nigel! Whatever are you doing?” Mrs. Brown shrieked.
“I’m sorry, son,” he said removing his hands from the lad and taking a deep breath to calm himself. “This is important.”
“He won’t get in trouble, will he?” his son implored with widened eyes.
“Get in trouble? Son, who do you mean?” Inspector Brown gripped his son’s shoulders firmly once again.
“Daniel’s older brother.”
“Why would Daniel’s older brother get in trouble?”
“Because he asked Daniel to take his paper route. He had got sick from drinking and smoking with some other boys the day before.”
This information hit the inspector like a ton of bricks. No wonder the lad was so nervous when questioned.
“No, son, he won’t get into trouble,” the inspector smiled to reassure his son and broke into a laugh, removing his hands.
“I know the street it is on,” his son said with relief and pride in pleasing his father.
“We will go there first thing.”
His wife’s eyes iced over, and her mouth protruded downward once again, aware their holiday had taken a detour. The inspector recognized that look and grew uncomfortable. “Cupcakes for everyone!” He shouted which brought cheers from the boys.
* * *
The paint was still fresh. A pale pink. An Opening Soon sign hung on the door. The children’s mouths dropped but not Inspector Brown’s. He studied the sign that hung over the window—Abigail’s Confections. Inspector Brown banged on the door. As he did so, he apologized to his wife who stood there with folded arms. “Dear, this won’t take long, really. I promise I will make it up to you.”
Within a short while, an older gentleman with a paintbrush in one hand cracked the door. “We are not yet open for business.”
The inspector whipped out his badge. Mrs. Brown rolled her eyes, jealous of this man who had usurped their family outing. Inspector Brown’s sons, disappointed that they were no longer getting cupcakes, fidgeted behind him. The man with the paintbrush gave a puzzled look and let them all in. He put down his brush, wiped off his hands with a wet rag, and extended his damp hand toward Inspector Brown. “I’m Charles Butler. How may I be of service?”
Inspector Brown gasped. How could he have been so negligent in missing this possibility? All the while he had been looking for a manservant or someone disguised as a manservant. He observed Mr. Butler whose face registered surprise but not a trace of guilt.
“Mr. Butler, are you acquainted with a Miss Abigail Rochelle?” He used the present tense when presenting the question to Mr. Butler. He didn’t want to cause any alarm right off.
“Why, yes, I am. Do you know her? I hope you will not spoil how great this place is turning out. I want her to be surprised.” Mr. Butler’s face was glowing. Inspector Brown was accustomed to men who perpetrate crimes. Mr. Butler was clearly not this type of man.
“Mr. Butler,” the inspector continued, “I’m afraid I’m the bearer of, well, some information.”
“Is Abigail all right? I left in such haste. She was quite groggy, half asleep when I told her of my plan, our plan, I should say. She seemed so thrilled with it all.” Mr. Butler’s face turned a bright crimson. “We made quite merry the night before. We consumed a whole bottle of wine. We talked of making repairs to her house. She insisted on using her savings to do it. I calculated the materials needed and their cost, and Abigail withdrew the money from the bank. But, then after a good night’s sleep, a most brilliant idea came to me. I sat at her bedside and told her before leaving.” Blushing again, Mr. Butler looked over at Mrs. Brown in apology before continuing, “Our relationship was all above board, I assure you. When I told her of what she should do with the money, she gave me her blessing. She loved the plan, Inspector. She was still groggy, mind you, but she definitely loved it.”
“Yes, this shop. I planned to call her tonight. I tried a couple of times but could never catch her at home. I was glad she took my suggestion.”
“Yes, Inspector. I encouraged Abigail to get out more. She hardly ever left the house. I have made such progress. I took leave from work and have worked day and night on this place. Have you ever tasted her baked goods, Inspector? They are incredible.”
“Yes, I have. And they are scrumptious. And, Mr. Butler, I can see you have poured your heart and soul into this place.”
“I’m sorry I’ve rambled on. I’m just so excited. I bought the ring today.”
“The ring?” The inspector’s eyebrows arched.
“Well, yes, I plan to ask for Abigail’s hand in marriage.”
The inspector looked over at his boys. He reached into his pocket and gave them each some coins. “Why don’t you go next door and buy yourselves sodas? Your mum and I will come over shortly.”
“Inspector, what is this information?” Mr. Butler asked.
The inspector waited for the door to close behind them. “Mr. Butler,” the inspector said with hesitation. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Something has happened. Mr. Butler, there is no easy way to say this. I’m afraid Miss Rochelle has died.”
Mr. Butler’s smile vanished as he moved backward and turned pale. He looked like a man who had been run over by a double-decker bus.
Mrs. Brown stepped in. “Please have a seat Mr. Butler. Let me get you a glass of water.” She walked over to the counter and poured him a glass. Mrs. Brown walked back over and placed the glass in his still damp hand, more so with sweat now.
“How did you and Miss Rochelle meet?” Inspector Brown asked in a most apologetic voice.
Mr. Butler sipped on the water and stared off into space before he was able to form words. “She entered a contest. You see, I work for a publisher here in London. She didn’t win. But I was so enthralled by the way she put forth words on paper. I have the manuscript here. Would you like to see it?”
“No. Not now. Later?”
“Yes, of course. Well, anyway, I just had to meet her. So, I took it upon myself to go see her.” Mr. Butler took the ring from his pocket, eyeing it over. “You see, Inspector, I fell in love. Do you believe in love at first sight?”
Inspector Brown looked at Mrs. Brown. “Yes, Mr. Butler, indeed I do.”
“How did she die?” Mr. Butler asked in a broken voice.
The inspector explained the whole situation to Mr. Butler, leaving out the part where Miss Rochelle had thought he might have robbed her blind. Now he saw it was a total misunderstanding.
“Mr. Butler, did you know that Miss Rochelle has a brother in London?”
“Yes, she has mentioned him and his family. She told me his wife is quite the baker as well.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that. Mr. Butler, I will need to call on you again. Will Monday be okay?”
“Yes. That will be fine. I will have to figure out what to do. I guess I’ll need to sell the establishment. I put most of my savings into it along with Abigail’s. There is even an apartment above the shop. I had been getting that ready as well. I thought it just right for the two of us.”
As the Browns left the shop, Mrs. Brown took hold of her husband’s hand. “An incredible love story,” she said, grasping his hand even firmer.
Nigel planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek. “As is ours, dear, and if this has taught me anything, one shouldn’t waste a moment. Life is too short.”
* * *
Early Monday morning, the inspector once again took the train into London where he visited Miss Rochelle’s brother and wife relaying the odd circumstances. Together, Mr. and Mrs. Rochelle and the inspector paid a visit to Mr. Butler. Upon meeting him, they found no reason to press any charges. It was such a shame that Abigail didn’t have a clue.
Mrs. Rochelle was elated with the little shop, so much so, that she and her husband agreed to buy out Mr. Butler’s part. A bakery was the perfect thing to keep her busy since both her sons were now away at school.
Inspector Brown marked case 1101 solved.
My bucket list is minimal. As far as my writing endeavor is concerned, one of my goals was to have my books make it as a book club selection. Jessica Lost Her Wobble achieved that. Another goal was for my ebooks to make it to OverDrive. OverDrive is ebook checkout for libraries. Both books made it to Kentucky Unbounded Libraries OverDrive program yesterday, and today I saw where one is already reached the status of On Hold. So someone is hopefully reading it.
I have both of my books, The Color of Cold and Ice and Jessica Lost Her Wobble on Smashwords. I have listed both as buyer sets the price. Feel free to get them for free. I hope you will leave me a review on all of the various sites, Smashwords, Amazon, Goodreads, etc. But at the same time, only read my books if they call out to you. Life is too short, and we should all be reading what makes us happy, makes us think, or expands our minds and our hearts. Thanks, J. Schlenker
“I don’t want to make anyone sad, not even you.” Those were the words she started with, the only words she could think to write. A ton of possible words, explanations, and reasons bombarded her brain before she actually sat at the kitchen table to compose a letter.
She wanted to write about the accident and how it had inwardly changed her and how she should have acted sooner. But in front of the blank white paper she froze. Instead of pouring out her heart to Nick, her own thoughts and feelings, the ones she hid in her locked journal, she looked out the window in a daze fixated on the rain hitting the pane. Nick’s words reverberated in her head, the ones he used so often, “Isa, you sadden me.” Those words rested like an anvil on her heart each time he sarcastically spit them from his mouth. Those words came after every argument.
What was the point in writing anything? She couldn’t express herself like the authors she read. She was a reader, not a writer. Besides, she and Nick were beyond what words could fix. The marriage was broken. So, she wrote,
“I don’t want to make anyone sad, not even you.”
She left the note on the kitchen table, ripped the pages out of her journal, burning them one by one, watched the ashes disintegrate down the garbage disposal, picked up her suitcase holding a week’s worth of clothes along with a new journal and her laptop. Tomorrow she would begin divorce proceedings. She would return for the rest of her stuff when she figured out what she was going to do. But she already knew what she was going to do. She had been Googling Europe for months, in particular, France.