Strange Bedfellows Part Three: The Treasure

Part One

Part Two

The sight that greeted them was mildly anticlimactic. Shepard immediately noted the absence of any number of gold bars, especially a large amount. Betty was pleased by the lack of unpleasant odors. Ben felt great relief at the lack of dead bodies.

The contents displayed before them in the ten by ten unit included a handcrafted mahogany chest of drawers, three large wooden packing crates, a life-sized teddy bear, a set of chrome rims with tires, and a small, empty aquarium. A fine layer of dust coated everything, except for a handprint smear on the top of the chest of drawers.

“Well, what are we going to open first?” asked Shepard.

“The dresser, of course!” Betty answered.

Ben stepped into the storage unit and peeked around the back of the crates, but nothing else was hidden behind them. He shook his head to Shepard and Betty’s unspoken question.

Betty joined Ben inside the storage unit and grasped the handles of the topmost drawer. When she gently tugged, it slid smoothly out, revealing a large key ring with several skeleton keys. Betty’s eyes widened at the sight, and she quickly snagged the keyring and lifted it out of the drawer. She spun to show Ben and Shepard, who were watching her intently.

Shepard’s sharp eyes picked out the paper tag fastened to the ring, and he moved close enough to Betty to read the hand printing on it. “It says 2027 Fairmount Ave, Phila. Do you think that’s where the keys work?”

“Those look like old jail cell keys,” said Ben. He pulled out his phone and googled the address. “Um, if that’s where the keys are from, they are jail keys. The address is Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.” He looked up at Shepard and Betty.

Betty’s jaw dropped. She’d always thought that to be just an expression, but she realized that it certainly was not. This day was getting crazier and crazier!

“Pennsylvania has to be eight hundred miles from here,” said Shepard. “Why couldn’t he have given us keys to a local jail?” Shepard was only half-joking.

“Um, it’s only seven hundred and eight miles away,” Ben corrected him. “I have it mapped out.” He held up his phone to show Shepard.

Betty calmed down enough to realize that she was still dangling the keys in her hand and that three more drawers remained unexplored, along with the three packing crates. “Whoa, boys, we’re not running off to Pennsylvania just because we have a mystery set of keys and an address to an old prison. Let’s finish up here before we even think about that!”

“You’re right, Bets. Let’s see what else we’ve got!” said Shepard.

Betty put the keyring on the top of the dresser and opened the second drawer, which was depressingly empty. The third drawer was also a disappointment, but the fourth and final drawer was almost as exciting as the first. An old, ragged Justin boot box was nestled inside, and when Betty carefully removed it from the drawer, the cardboard began to crumble in her hands. She quickly moved to set the box on the floor and slowly lifted the lid.

Inside were photographs. Mostly old and faded, but a few newer and brighter. She was all set to begin paging through them, but Shepard interrupted her reverie.

“That’s something you can bring home with you and have a look at. I’m going to see if I can open up this stack of crates,” he said.

Ben seemed to agree with Shepard, because he moved around Betty to the opposite end of the packing crates. Shepard took a quick look at the crate, admiring the craftsmanship, before gently lifting the lid, which wasn’t nailed down. Ben helped him angle it to the side and lower it to the floor, and they both stood back up to view the contents.

A once-white sheet covered whatever was inside, so Ben twitched a corner up and over, taking his time pulling the sheet out to reveal some odd mechanical contraption. Ben and Shepard both unconsciously cocked their heads to the side to get a new perspective on the item, but it helped neither of them identify it.

When Betty looked up and saw their confusion, she stood to have a look for herself.

“It’s a sock knitter!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands together in joy.

Ben and Shepard looked at her, mystified.

“You know, to knit socks! You already forgot how crafty I am?” she grinned. “This one looks in pretty good shape, too. My grandma had one that I used to play with every time we visited. Let’s see what’s in the next box!” Betty had forgotten all about the photographs.

Betty moved back so Ben and Shepard could move the top crate to the side of the stack, then moved closer again to watch them open the second. They placed the lid on the first box. Another sheet covered the contents of this one, and Shepard pulled it back this time.

As one, all three of them recoiled at what lay before them. Betty lifted a hand to cover her mouth, and Ben blew a forceful breath from his nose. Shepard was the first to recover enough to reach in with one hand to touch the mummified creature, and his shoulders sagged with relief.

“It’s fake, guys,” he announced. He used both hands to lift the replica Fiji mermaid from the container, and marveled at how light it was. It seemed to be made from papier-mâché.

“I-I thought it had to be, when it didn’t smell,” Betty said, seeming a bit shaken.

“Um, it looks so real, though,” said Ben. “Somebody worked really hard on that thing.”

“They sure did,” Shepard agreed. “But it’s a little creepy to put on your mantel, that’s for sure. Let’s check out the last one.” He replaced the thing in the crate, and he and Ben lifted it over to atop the first one, and opened the third and final.

Another crate, another sheet. Ben and Shepard looked to Betty to reveal the final surprise. She whipped it back with a flourish, and they saw several stacks of old books. Betty picked up one from the top, and as she was leafing through it, several loose sheets fluttered to the floor at her feet. She let the book fall shut in her hand as she bent down to pick up the papers.

“Shepard, you’re not gonna believe this,” she said, passing the first sheet to him.

Ben watched the exchange with mild concern.

“Oh, wow,” Shepard trailed off. “This is–this is exactly what I was asking about, isn’t it? These are Miss Simpson’s love letters to Clarence’s nephew. I don’t–here, Betty, it feels like a violation of her privacy for me to read this. She was like my grandmother, but I never even met this–” he looked down at the letter “–his name was Clarence, too. I never even  heard her say his name.”

Betty was looking through the other letters. “You knew her, so you’d know what she would want, but how about you have a look at this one? She really loved him, and you, Shepard.” Betty held out a yellowed sheet of paper with only a few words written on it.

“Take it, Shepard, read it to us,” Ben didn’t hesitate while speaking this time.

Shepard traded letters with Betty. “Just this one, alright?” He cleared his throat and began to read aloud. “My Dearest Clarence, I still think of you every single day. Even though we never got to say our marriage vows in the church, I have lived by them for my whole life since I lost you. You were gone long before we could have a child together, but I feel that I know who he would have been if we had. I told you about the young couple who moved in next door to me, and about the son they had. He’s growing up to be such a wonderful young man. You would be proud of him. He takes care of my yard now that I’m getting too old to do it myself. He’s always so polite, and he works so hard at his studies. I think he’s going to do well in life. I only wish that you could be here to meet him. I love you always, Mary.” Shepard’s voice was breaking with emotion by the end.

Betty leaned in and rested her hand on his arm. “I’ll bet we’ll find the whole story in these letters for you. How about we take them and the photos and all go get some rest? It’s been one heck of a day, for all of us. What do you say?”

“Um, that sounds like a good idea to me,” replied Ben. “Shepard?”

“Yeah,” Shepard answered, his voice still a little husky. “Let’s lock up, and I’ll take you back to your cars. Maybe we can meet up for dinner?”

“Let’s do,” agreed Betty.

“Sounds good,” said Ben.

…to be continued.

Inspired by TBP.

Strange Bedfellows Part Two: Introductions

Part One

“I’ve got room; do you want to ride with me or caravan it?” asked Shepard.

Betty thought for a split second, then agreed with a qualification. “I’ll ride along if Ben’s up for it,”

Shepard and Betty turned to look expectantly at Ben. He mulled the idea over for a moment, lip twitching in anxiety.

“Okay, I’ll ride with you.” Shepard could barely hear Ben’s soft response. “Um, thanks,” Ben added, as an afterthought.

“Great!” Shepard exclaimed. “Depending on what kind of packrat our benefactor was, we may be spending quite a bit of time together, so we might as well get to know each other some on the way.” Shepard had been walking as he talked, and now slowed to a stop at a blue Trailblazer. “Who’s got shotgun?” he asked as he hit the button on the key fob to unlock the doors.

Ben nodded to Betty. “I’ll sit in the back. You, um, have the key anyway.”

Betty smiled and thanked Ben before hopping in the front seat next to Shepard. Ben chose the seat behind Betty for the extra bit of room her shorter legs would afford him.

Shepard was plugging the address into his GPS when a thought hit him. “Does anyone know where this place is? A person always give better directions than this thing.”

Ben shook his head, and Betty offered up a chipper “Nope!” so Shepard finished tapping and checked to make sure the route seemed halfway sensible before buckling up and putting the car in reverse.

Betty decided to break the ice as the SUV bumped out of the parking lot and onto the road.

“I’ll start us off!” Betty smiled as she spoke. “I’m Betty Parks, I’m thirty-one, I sell life insurance over the phone–” here Betty paused to mimic gagging. “–okay, okay, so I’m a telemarketer. But I’m still a really nice person, I promise!” Ben and Shepard chuckled. “And my favorite thing in the world, besides my dog Oscar, is crafts. You probably noticed my flippy flops. Everyone does! I went a little crazy with this pair, but I love them.”

Betty was short enough to kick her legs up to show off the easy-dozen-per-shoe fabric flowers she’d painstakingly hot glued on. Ben offered a polite half-smile, but Shepard had determined that her enthusiasm only increased his initial attraction to her. He’d definitely noted that she hadn’t mentioned a husband or boyfriend, only a dog. Shepard loved dogs.

“So that’s the quick and dirty Betty, huh?” Shepard winked at her. “I’ll go next since I’m pretty sure Ben here wouldn’t mind a few more minutes to collect himself.” That small kindness earned Shepard a grateful nod from the back seat. “So, Shepard Strom, and you already know I never moved out of my parents’ house.”

Betty had been wondering about this since Talmon had brought it up earlier. Shepard didn’t seem the type to lean on family, or anyone, for help, at least from the little she’d observed of him so far. Maybe something had happened, she thought.

“Trust me,” Shepard continued, “I’d be a mama’s boy if I could. My parents both died in a car crash the weekend I graduated from high school.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” interjected Betty, as she unconsciously reached out a hand to squeeze his knee in comfort. Ben echoed the verbal sentiment, half a second behind her.

“Thanks,” said Shepard. “That’s not the kind of thing you ever get over a hundred percent, but I’ve lived without them longer than I lived with them, so that wound’s about as healed as it’ll get. I’m a woodworker by trade, to change the subject, and I spend my summers doing yard work for little old ladies, but you know that one already, too. He grinned at Betty, already missing the weight of her hand on his leg.

“Well, Ben,” said Betty, turning in her seat a bit. “Are you ready to open up to us a little?”

Ben’s demeanor was noticeable more relaxed than it had been back at the office. He even sat up a little straighter.

“Um, sure, okay. Ben Henderson, and I’m twenty-eight years old and mostly unemployed. If you heard about the Stockholm scandal last year, well, that was, um, my fault. Nobody wants to hire me with that on my resume, so I try to, um, do as much freelance accounting as I can. My family thinks I should have, um, minded my own business, so it’s been pretty hard for a while now. But I, um, made some smart investments in college, so as long as I’m careful, I can ride this out until somebody else screws their life up and everybody, um, forgets about me.” Ben took a deep breath, as if to recharge. Betty and Shepard glanced at each other in amazement.

“I thought the whistleblower’s name was Hendrickson,” Betty said, cautiously. She was unsure how lightly to tread on the subject, for Ben’s sake.

“Um, yeah, that’s me,” said Ben. “I changed my name and moved here, hoping I could start over, and, um, it helped with regular life, but without Stockholm, I don’t have any work history, and with it, um, well, they figure it out sooner or later. Um, mostly sooner.”

“I was so angry reading about that scandal. It’s completely unfair that they stole millions of dollars, and you’re the one suffering for it, when you’re the one who did the right thing!” Betty remembered her outrage, and it infuriated her anew.

“Um, billions,” Ben corrected her.

“That’s even worse!” exclaimed Betty.

Shepard shifted in his seat. He vaguely remembered something of the story, but it had seemed so far away at the time, like it would never directly affect him. Shepard was never one to pay much attention to the news.

“Well, maybe Clarence just solved your problems, bud. This unit could be packed full of gold bars. Then none of us would have to worry about being careful with our money,” Shepard said.

Everyone laughed, skeptical of the idea, but joyfully entertaining the possibility.

“So, what do you think is in there?” Betty asked, still smiling.

“Whoa, there,” Shepard cut in, “There’s no telling whatsoever what’s in there waiting on you to turn that key. I’m not worried about it because we’ll have that answer in just a few more minutes. What I want to know is the story behind my neighbor, Miss Simpson, and how she was Clarence’s nephew first love. What happened there? And Betty, you have an uncle you never even heard of? What’s with the big family secret? Isn’t that driving you nuts?”

“You’re absolutely right, Shepard?” Betty wanted to slap herself in the forehead. “I know my family has skeletons like anyone else’s family, but it’s hard to believe that we could erase an entire person! It’s easier to think that I’m the wrong Betty Parks, but Mr. Robinson or Mr. Talmon or whoever just did so much research, how could they be wrong? I didn’t even ask whose brother this uncle was.”

“Um, I don’t think he has the wrong Betty,” added Ben. “I mean, he found me, and I was trying to hide. And um, since he knew your uncle before your family disowned him, or whatever happened there, he’d have known, um, your grandparents, and maybe one of your parents. But, um, Shepard would have been the easiest of all to find, since he’s only one degree of separation from Robinson.”

Ben seemed to suddenly realize that he was speaking out of turn, and tried to draw in on himself, but Shepard noticed.

“That’s some serious critical thinking there, bud. Good points! You’re gonna be great when we’re trying to sort through old dude’s stuff,” said Shepard.

“Um, thanks,” said Ben. Shepard and Betty were happy to see the first honest-to-goodness smile on Ben’s face. Ben was certainly beginning to appreciate being saddled with two so kind and considerate individuals.

“Are we here? That’s the place!” Betty squeaked. She couldn’t wait to get out of the car and open up D-22.

Shepard read the signs and slowed to a stop in front of what seemed to be the right building. The three of them piled out of the car and pounded down the empty corridor until they finally reached their destination. D-22 was stenciled in black paint just above the rolling door. Betty put the key she’d been gripping the entire trip into the heavy duty padlock and turned it. She removed the lock from the door and put it in her pocket.

“Let’s open it together,” she said.

Everyone put their right hand to the handle, and Betty counted aloud. “One, two, three!”

The door opened to expose the treasures waiting within.

…to be continued.

Inspired by TBP.

Strange Bedfellows Part One: The Inheritance

The sign on the heavy oak door in front of Shepard read “Marcus L. Talmon, Esq.,” with “Attorney at Law” in smaller gilded letters underneath. Shepard still didn’t know who Clarence Robinson was, just that the poor guy was dead as a doornail. For some reason, that Shepard hoped Mr. Talmon would be able to explain, Shepard was prominently featured in the Clarence guy’s last will and testament.

Shepard realized he’d been standing at the door too long when a dulcet voice behind him softly nudged him back to reality.

“Excuse me,” said the petite redhead in a comfy-looking t-shirt, capris, and flipflops bedecked in fabric flowers to the very edge of wearability.

Shepard took a step back to allow her to enter the lawyer’s office, then followed her inside. She raised an eyebrow, and he sheepishly shrugged.

“Got distracted. Here for a bequeathal. I’m Shepard Strom,” he said, extending his right hand for a shake.

She took his hand in a firmer grasp than her frame implied. “Betty Parks,” she smiled, and her face lit up like a Christmas tree. “I’m sorry for your loss.” Her megawatt smile dimmed a bit in sympathy.

“Actually,” replied Shepard, “I never even met the man, as far as I know So no need for commiseration.”

“Wait a minute, not Mr. Robinson?” Betty asked, astonishment dawning on her face.

“You too?” Shepard grinned back. This was shaping up to be a better day than he’d expected when he’d gotten out of bed this morning.

The pair turned as the office door opened behind them. The small, timid man coming in peered through his Coke bottle glasses to verify that the receptionist was not in her assigned place, then scampered hurriedly to the chair farthest from Shepard and Betty.

As Shepard was opening his mouth to say something he’d surely regret later, the far door, leading deeper into the office, swung open without a sound to reveal a stern-faced, grey-coiffed woman in a severe tweed skirt suit.

“This way please, Miss Parks, Mr. Strom, Mr. Henderson,” she firmly announced. Her voice told of too many cigarettes and not enough soft-spoken words of kindness.

Shepard and Betty glanced to the newly seated man who could only be Mr. Henderson. The look of near-panic on his face caused their gaze to politely slide away, and Shepard held a hand towards the open door and sour receptionist.

“Ladies first,” he nodded to Betty, who tightened the grip on her handbag and marched past the older woman. Shepard followed, then Mr. Henderson, with the nameless receptionist pulling the door closed behind them.

“Last door on the left,” she rasped before disappearing into another office.

The three unexpected musketeers headed down the hall, Betty and Shepard examining door plaques and artwork, Mr. Henderson keeping a close watch on his worn brown leather shoes. Betty took a step past the last door on the left, allowing Shepard to turn the knob and let the three of them inside.

It was a dark office; rosewood and walnut featured predominantly in the furnishings, and the three waiting chairs were upholstered in a burgundy pinstripe.

“Welcome, lady and gents,” boomed the white-haired man behind the massive, yet immaculate, desk. Shepard pulled the middle chair back slightly for Betty, then continued to the far right while Mr. Henderson took the left.

“I’m Marc Talmon, Mr. Robinson’s executor of estate.” He raised his hands, palms out, preemptively precluding mutual introductions. “Now, now, I’m already aware that not one of you recalls meeting Mr. Robinson. As far as he was concerned, he didn’t need to meet you in person to know that you were the right people to include in his will. Wait ’til the end, alright, son?” This was directed at Shepard, who had adjusted in his seat and opened his mouth slightly. He shut it again, curious to know what this was all about.

“Miss Parks,” Talmon continued, lacing his fingers together atop his spotless blotter, “Your uncle served with Mr. Robinson during the Korean War.”

Betty’s confusion drove her to speak up. “My only uncle was a pacifist who spent his entire adult life protesting the war in Vietnam until he was killed by a drunk driver before I was born. He was just a baby during Korea, and–”

Talmon cut her off. “Your other uncle, Miss Parks. Please, let me finish.”

Betty fell back in her chair, the words dying in her mouth. She knit her brow in confusion.

Talmon continued, again, seemingly unfazed by the interruption. “During the Korean War. Though your uncle’s mental faculties did not survive this period, Mr. Robinson’s loyalty never wavered. As his last living relative, Mr. Robinson remembers you in your uncle’s stead.

“Mr. Strom.” Shepard sat up straight, keen eyes on Talmon. “You have lived in the same house since you were a child, and never once failed to cut your elderly neighbor’s grass for as long as she lived, until early last year when she succumbed to pneumonia. Mr. Robinson appreciated your consideration for his nephew’s first love.”

Shepard had always wondered why such a nice old lady had no family, not that he had gotten any kind of real answer from Talmon.

“Mr. Henderson. When you reported your employer’s tax fraud last year, you did so in spite of being well aware of the personal and professional risks you were taking. Mr. Robinson valued integrity above all else, and immediately severed any and all business ties with your former employer, Stockholm Industries, their interests, and subsidiaries. He did not, however, lose track of you, and this is the reason you are alive today.

Shepard was impressed. He craned his neck to look around Betty at the blanched Mr. Henderson with a newfound respect. Mr. Henderson appeared to be trying to sink through the burgundy pinstripes. Talmon continued to continue.

“Now that you each have some inkling of why you, personally, are here today, I will move on to the actual reading of the will.”

Shepard zoned out for the initial legalese, but kept his ears peeled for Talmon to get to the part that concerned Shepard. At last, Talmon got to the magic words–specific bequests.

“To the persons Betty Parks, Shepard Strom, and Benjamin Henderson, if they survive me, the entire contents of the storage unit numbered D-22 located at 1419 Benedict Drive. This rental costs for this unit have been paid in full for another seventeen years from the date this will has been witnessed and notarized, so I have no doubt it will remain in my possession at the time of my death.” Talmon droned on a few more minutes with minor details, such as witnesses, names, and dates, but Betty, Shepard, and even Ben were wide-eyed and chomping at the bit to get the key to their storage unit to explore their fresh, new plunder.

“And that’s that,” said Talmon. He reached into his breast pocked and pulled out a shiny silver key, which he handed to Betty. “As you are listed first, my dear, I will entrust the key to your safekeeping. Are there any questions for me at this time?” Talmon looked from Ben, to Betty, to Shepard, and nodded firmly as each shook their head in turn.

“Then our business here is concluded. As Mr. Robinson specified in his final documents, I will not be available to mediate any concerns regarding the contents of said storage unit. You must agree, or agree to disagree, on your own. Goodbye.” Talmon gestured to his office door, which was open again. The cadaverous receptionist was waiting to guide them from the office, and the trio remained silently, individually contemplative until they exited the building together, into the bright sunshine, a stark contrast from the dimness of the past shared hour of their lives.

…to be continued.

Many thanks to LRose at The Blog Propellant for her inspiration!