by Merilyn Ruth Liddell
Copyright © 2018 by Merilyn Ruth Liddell
The door whispered shut behind Martha. She counted three rapid clicks. A green light flashed. Lock engaged. The knot between her shoulder blades loosened.
She set her shopping bags on the floor and propped her cane against the wall. Breathing through her mouth, she reset the alarm, then hit the switch for the air scrubber and slid down onto the wooden bench that ran the length of one wall of the entryway.
After five minutes she allowed herself the sigh she'd been holding in. The scrubber had cleaned most of the foul air that had followed her inside and she took deep breaths to rid her lungs of the poison she'd been inhaling all day. Ignoring the meows and the scratching coming from the other side of the inner door, she removed her damp hat, filthy overcoat, and the rest of the rags she'd worn to town and stood in her underclothes — the only respectable garments she'd donned before leaving home.
"The weather was miserable today, Dad — cool, gray and drizzly — perfect for my costume. I hate having to wear it on a warm day. I wish now I hadn't decided eight years ago to be an old lady with a cane. After bending over that stick for hours I feel like an old lady… okay, an older woman than I really am. Every time I get back from a shopping trip it takes me longer to straighten up."
She arched her back and kneaded her spine with gnarled fingers. The trek from the road hadn't worked out all the kinks. No one could maintain a steady pace on the route she'd taken through dense bush and over rocky ground.
The scratches grew more insistent.
The cat let out a wail.
"You're going to wear yourself out. Give it up."
Martha picked up her discarded clothing, opened a panel in the wall, took out some hangers, and hung each item. She felt for the gun in the coat's inner pocket — still there — then tucked the cane in beside the coat. From behind another panel, she removed a worn pair of jeans and a sweatshirt and slipped them on, wrinkling her nose as she caught a whiff of her armpits. No time for a shower. She dug in a pocket for an elastic band and wrapped it around straggly strands of hair.
"Okay. First the raven."
She located the stiff bird, added an extra knot to the bag that held it, then placed it in a cold storage unit opposite the bench and programmed it for quick freeze.
"Well, Dad, will this be the one with evidence against you? We'll see what it tells me tomorrow."
When the scrubber signaled the end of its cycle, she entered the code to unlock the inner door. It slid open and she grabbed Frances as the cat dashed in. Holding the squirming animal to her chest, she stroked its head and murmured, "Silly beast, afraid you'd miss your dinner?"
Frances purred and allowed herself to be cajoled for a few minutes before leaping from Martha's arms to the floor and climbing into one of the shopping bags. Martha shoved them, squawking cat and all, through the door and reset a second alarm. She grabbed a roll of tape and a long-handled wrench from one of the bags and left the curious cat with the rest of her purchases. Work first.
"You stand guard, Frances."
The cat paid no attention, its head buried.
Martha strode down a wide hallway to another locked door. She checked the records of the security scan before entering a different set of numbers to gain access. All clear. Lights flicked on as she stepped inside, relocked the door and descended a steep flight of metal steps.
A mobile platform ladder stood in one corner of a cavernous, white-walled space. Pipes over her head formed a maze with tubing of different lengths, diameters and colors, from brilliant shades of the primaries and secondaries to more subtle pastel hues. Bright tape in contrasting colors banded some of the tubes. The network of metal and plastic resembled art more than electrical conduits and plumbing.
She rolled the ladder into position, secured the wheels, then slipped the tape and wrench into a tool belt, which she secured around her waist before moving up the rungs, stiff joints becoming more flexible with each step. On the platform, she ignored the aesthetics and searched for the leak she'd spotted the day before. Her fingers felt a trickle of moisture on a stretch of tubing almost hidden behind a pipe just above her head.
Not serious yet. Nothing caustic, but it needed tightening and taping… if she could reach it.
"I hope this new wrench works better than your crap tools, Dad."
She maneuvered her hand around the larger pipe and managed to get the jaws in place. She tugged. The teeth grabbed and she increased pressure on the wrench. Only her teeth moved as she ground them together. She released, reset, tried again.
"Honestly, Dad, who designed this mess? Did you sign off on this?
Martha set the wrench on the tray of the ladder and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. God, it was hot up here. Why hadn't she thought to grab some water? She took a deep breath.
"All I have to do is clamp the fitting and turn it. Which way? Shit. I wish I'd inherited your sense of direction along with your nose. ‘Righty tighty, lefty loosey.' But what if the damn thing's upside down?"
Her father's calm words soothed her. Think it through, darling. Think it through.
"How did you manage the maintenance after everyone left? Your hands are bigger than mine. And your memory—"
The wrench slipped off the pipe and out of her sweaty grip, dropping to the concrete surface below with a resounding clang. Should have worn gloves. Where was her head today? Thank goodness she'd had enough sense to leave Frances upstairs. A loud meow sounded from behind the door.
"It's okay. I'm okay." Her raised voice echoed.
She descended the ladder and sat cross-legged on the cool floor. Her arms on the bottom rung formed a cradle for her head.
You've tried it three times, darling, and it hasn't worked. Don't keep flogging a dead horse.
"Have you anything to suggest besides a cliché? I'll never find another tool that will fit." She raised her head. "But maybe some goop and duct tape will do."
Periodic wailing from upstairs provided accompaniment as Martha worked. She applied sealant, pressed tape over it and managed to smooth it around the circumference of the pipe. A finger held against the mend stayed dry.
"That should hold. For now."
She took an indelible marker from the tool belt and wrote the date in precise figures on a small square of tape, which she stuck onto the edge of her repair job.
>—— «» ——
Back upstairs, she dropped food into the cat's dish. "This is all you get, greedy beast. You ate a big breakfast. I'm taking a shower. No more squawking."
In the bathroom, she glanced at the mirror and burst out laughing. When she'd rubbed her perspiring face, she'd forgotten about the make-up she'd applied in the morning. She'd covered her clear complexion with a gray pallor, darkened her eyes, and drew lines where she had none. After aging her skin, she'd added a smear of lipstick and rouged her cheeks — makeup to detract from the makeup. Now mascara from one eye bled into the unnatural blush on her cheek. Her hair, a well-earned silver, hung in a ratty knot on one side of her head.
Grinning to herself, she freed her hair, stripped, and stepped into the stall. She set the unit on slow steam and waited for the warm moist air to dampen her body. She soaped herself down, massaged the knots in her neck and shoulders, scrubbed her fingernails, shampooed her hair, then turned on the overhead shower. The false face and traces of the outside world washed down the drain.
Martha carried a glass of wine into the living room. She'd activated the fireplace before supper and the room was now comfortable. Frances curled up in a basket near the hearth with a satisfied purr. Martha switched on the lamp by her favorite armchair, set the wine on a side table and snuggled into the chair cross-legged.
Beside her glass were two of the items she'd purchased in town: a slim leather-bound notebook and a new pen. She opened the book, rubbed a hand over the smooth white paper, picked up the pen, scrawled the date, then stared into the fireplace.
"Another store burned down last night, Dad. It was still smoking when I got into town. I do most of my shopping at Mack's. Hate that place, but it's the one business that has a reliable supply of merchandise. I suspect they had a sudden increase in stock overnight. Everything's behind the front counter now and I had to wait for one of the miserable clerks to serve me. He was packing a handgun and an attitude.
"I lucked out today. Mack had notebooks — I need a new one for my field notes — leather covers and bleached pages, so they have to be old stock. Must have been buried in some warehouse in the city. I could only buy two. I'd already counted out the bills for my other purchases and would have had to take another purse out of another pocket. Didn't want the goons or the customers to know I had cash to spare."
She glanced at Frances. "Talking isn't helping me get work done, is it?"
She pressed the pen to the page and wrote.
"What number is it, Dad? 253? I'll check when I'm in the lab tomorrow."
A raven — dead — alongside the road about a kilometer from the Peters' residence.
"Didn't see a soul on my route this morning. Could feel eyes following me when I passed George Peter's place. And I'm not being paranoid. The kitchen curtains moved. The cabbie who drove me back from town said George had died, yet someone was in his house today."
She set the pen down and took a sip of wine. Why hadn't she asked the annoying driver when George had died? Because engaging him in conversation might crack her facade. Because…. She shrugged.
George was one of the few people in the community she'd had ongoing conversations with. She'd met him on her first trip to town. He was tending his garden and had hailed her as she passed. He had offered her a drink from the bottle resting beside his tools, insisted she take some vegetables home with her, gave her some seeds from his prized tomatoes, asked her no personal questions — called her Samantha.
She raised her glass. "Goodbye, George. I wish I knew what they did with your body."
"Okay, Dad, back to my list. If I get it done, I'll have time to read before I go to bed. You'll be happy to know the library is still open. Being next door to the police station could offer some protection, but I doubt the local constabulary even knows how to read. They wouldn't care if all the books went missing. The shelves do have fewer volumes since my arrival — not all my fault.
"The new clerk tried to strike up a conversation about my selections. She even stamped a due date in the books as though she expects to see them again." She chuckled. "Will have to remind Frances Katt she has three weeks to read The Invisible Man and Life of Pi. Also managed to tuck a copy of Paroles into one of my bags without being seen. The library security scanner hasn't worked in years. I refuse to feel guilty. You paid for those books and I'm just replacing the ones you gave away."
She grabbed the pen.
Cursory examination of bird. No blood evident. No evidence in the grass of a struggle with another animal.
She grinned. "I bet the cabbie thought I was going to have it for supper. If he only knew."
If she only knew… for sure.