Undying Devotion

Submitted into Contest #238 in response to: Write a story including the line “I can’t say it.”... view prompt

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Crime Friendship Mystery

Lori plopped down in her desk chair, looking around at the walls of her cubicle. She remembered when she was first assigned this space three years ago. How excited she was to be hired as an investigative journalist at The Herald. Fresh out of journalism school, she’d had visions of solving great mysteries, changing the world, but that’s not how it worked. Much of her work was mundane stuff like investigating why a store was inflating its prices or why so many kids were suddenly absent from a school. Viral outbreak or something more sinister? Sometimes she conducted interviews in person, her reporter’s notebook in hand, but more often she was on a video chat or phone call.  Not as sexy or dramatic, but it got the job done.

Over this past year she’d had some better assignments, but nothing really exciting until now. Her editor had just given her the biggest story of her life. This was the kind of story the police would be investigating too, but she hoped to find a unique angle – or maybe even figure out what happened. She would learn everything she could and seek out interviews with the family and friends of the victims. Yes, this time there were real victims.

“Hey, what are you up to?” Tony asked, his smiling face appearing at the top of her cubicle wall. 

“I just got a new assignment, a pretty cool one this time.”

“Do tell,” Tony said, his head bobbing along the wall until he was inside her small space. 

“I really want to, but….”

He let out a sigh. “I get it. You can’t say it. It serves me right for hanging out with a fancy investigative reporter with your secret assignments. Although there’s nothing wrong with writing the City Life column” he teased. “I get some juicy stories too.”

Lori grinned at her friend. “I’m sure more people want to read your stories about nightclubs and theater than mine about…” She stopped. She always had to be careful when talking about her assignments; she’d need to be especially careful with this one. 

Tony saluted. “Yes, Ms. Marple, I get it. You can’t say it. But do you think you can spare 30 minutes to come down to the café for lunch. I heard today’s special sandwich is to die for.”

Lori shuddered. To die for. The gravity of that hit her all at once. “Yeah, sure. But just 30 minutes, okay?”

“I know, Sherlock, you have work to do,” Tony said, before putting out his hand. She grabbed it and pulled herself up from her seat, leaving her cozy cubicle, and the work ahead on the biggest story of her life. 

When they returned from lunch,  leftovers in hand, a bunch of their coworkers were huddled around the coffee maker chatting while they prepared their after-lunch K-cups. Mandy always had the Hazelnut and Josh the donut shop coffee. Tony was Caramel Macchiato – while Lori preferred the French Vanilla. 

“Lunch special at the café?” Josh pointed at the brown paper bag, putting his K cup in the machine almost before Mandy’s had finished pouring. She glared at him, but he didn’t notice. 

“It was divine,” Tony said. “But right now, I need coffee and Tylenol. I have to go to an after-hours club later for a story, so I need caffeine – and to shake this headache from last night.” 

“Are you sure going out clubbing is work?” Josh asked.

“It is to me,” Tony said, holding up his coffee mug in a motion for cheers. Lori smiled at her friend, admiring his spirit. Tony’s idea of fun was late nights out partying and flirting. Nothing wrong with that – but her idea of a good time was a quiet evening with friends or curling up on the couch with a glass of wine and a good book. 

“I have to get back to work too,” Lori said, her freshly brewed cup warm in her hands. “I just got a new assignment.”

“Oh really,” Mandy said.  She and Josh covered local politics and wrote lots of stories about what the mayor was doing. “Anything exciting?” she asked. 

“Probably,” Tony answered for me. “But she can’t say it.”

Everyone nodded in understanding. “Good luck with that,” Mandy said.

“Knock ‘em dead,” Josh added, and Lori shuddered again. Why did people keep saying die and dead. It was creeping her out. 

That afternoon she dug into the details of the case she was covering. Three women had mysteriously woken up alone in the same hotel after a night out drinking with no memory of what happened to them. The first time, it didn’t seem as much like a crime as a long night of partying gone wrong. Maybe alcohol or drugs but nothing really criminal. 

But when the same thing happened a second time and then a third, police began to connect the incidents. Lori was kind of shocked that her editor had given her this story. It was the kind of case she thought she wanted, but now she wasn’t so sure. She loved doing research and had always been a strong writer, so investigative journalism had seemed like a perfect match, but how did she get here, to this kind of case? 

Her hands were trembling as she searched for information on the three crimes, finding articles, police reports and interviews. Her editor suggested she reach out to the three women, and to the friends they went out with those evenings, who might provide some clues. She wasn’t sure if they would talk to her, but she had so many questions.  The police report said they feared the next woman may not be as lucky as to wake up alone - or wake up at all. Perpetrators like this loved to draw attention to themselves, and the crimes often got more sinister over time.

She was deep into her research when Tony popped his head over the wall of her cubicle again. “You look like you need chocolate,” he said. Lori jumped at the sound of his voice, but then smiled as her friend held out a bag filled with assorted chocolates and candies. “Thank you,” she said, picking two pieces out of the bag. “That’s exactly what I need.”

“Anything for you, my darling,” he said, popping a dark chocolate ball in his mouth. Lori heard the sound of nuts crunching in his teeth and felt a chill run down her spine. She was getting too deep into this investigation; her mind going into dark places. “You okay,” he said, a look of concern and sympathy on his face.

“I’m fine, “ she said. “Just very wrapped up in my research. But thank you. I needed the break, and the sugar.”

“Anytime,” he said, popping another chocolate in his mouth before his head disappeared back to his desk. Lori thought how lucky she was to have a friend like Tony. Most of her friends were from college and didn’t live nearby. It had been hard to meet new people since she moved to the city, probably because her life was consumed by her job, and she wasn’t into bars or the online dating scene.  She had come to rely on Tony’s kindness – even though their friendship was confined to the days and hours they spent together in the newsroom.

After three days of learning everything she could about the crimes and leaving messages for several people related to the cases, Lori secured her first interview with the best friend of one of the women, who had been with her that evening. They spoke on video chat early one morning and Lori followed her meticulously prepared question list. She typed up notes as she listened, not absorbing what she was hearing as much as trying to document every word to review later.  

As she ended the call and printed the document with her notes, Josh and Mandy walked over. “Hey, where’s Tony?” they asked.

Lori looked up at them. “I have no idea. I got in early for an interview and haven’t really talked to anyone yet. Did he go down for breakfast.” She looked at her watch. 

“No, it looks like he hasn’t even been here yet,” Josh said. “Maybe he’s sick.”

“Or hung over,” Mandy said. “He usually makes it to work anyway, but maybe he just couldn’t get out of bed this morning.”

“Do you want to call him?” Josh asked Lori.

“I don’t have his number,” she said, realizing how strange that sounded. They were friends, but there had never been a time when they’d texted or talked outside of work.

Josh and Mandy exchanged looks of surprised. “We figured you guys hung out on weekends. I mean that guy is so devoted to you, but whatever. I’m sure he’s okay,” Mandy said. 

Devoted to her. What did that mean? Sure, he brought her coffee and chocolates and made her laugh. But they were just friends. “We’re not really nightlife compatible, so work is where we hang out,” she tried to explain. She was concerned for her friend, but also itching to review her notes, to process the interview while it was fresh in her mind.

“Oh, okay. Keep us posted if you hear anything,” Josh said. 

As they walked away whispering to each other, Lori focused back on the interview and the few key pieces of information that stood out. The friend told her that the guy had come out of nowhere in a dark bar and flirted with her friend, making her laugh and buying her a drink. Her friend had been dancing when she started going in and out of consciousness. The next thing she remembered she woke up in the hotel, in bed fully dressed except for her shoes. A blanket was wrapped neatly around her. The odd thing was, she didn’t think the guy had assaulted her, just lay her down to sleep off her hangover or whatever he had put in her drink. She also checked her handbag, and nothing was missing except two Tylenol she had wrapped in a tissue. Her money and credit cards were all in place, and she was still wearing her rings and her mom’s sapphire earrings.

None of these notes made sense. Why would this guy go to all this trouble if he didn’t want to assault or rob her. Would he have done this just for kicks. Who does that kind of thing?

“Hi angel,” came a voice and a face appeared above her cubicle wall. Tony looked tired, and he had a long scratch on his face. “Did you miss me this morning?”

“What happened?” Lori said, and Tony tensed at her sharp tone.

“Oh, nothing just a late night, that’s all,” he said, dismissing her concern. 

“Weren’t you on an assignment last night?” she asked. Or was that the night before. She couldn’t remember.

“Yeah, I went to see a play. But it ended early, and I didn’t want to waste a perfectly good night out.”

“How did you get the scratch?” Lori asked, feeling intrusive, but they were friends, after all. She had to ask. It was thin, but red and angry, going from the top corner of his eye to his mid cheek.

He laughed, but it didn’t feel like his usual carefree sound. “Well, I was out drinking and got in the way of a guy who’d had a few too many and was gesturing wildly. His fingernail collided with my face, but he bought me a few drinks and I beat him in darts, so I think we’re even.”

Lori was about to ask more questions when her phone rang. She looked at it, knowing it could be about her story. When she looked up to tell Tony she needed to take the call, he winked and walked away. It didn’t feel like the right moment for a wink, but Lori didn’t have time to think about it. She grabbed the phone before it went to voicemail.

Lori got into the office early the next morning so she could review her notes and get ready for a meeting with her editor. She had been energized since she started research on this story. She seemed to walk taller these days. She was finally doing something that mattered. 

Her editor told her that victim number four had just come forward. That established a pattern of one a week for the past four weeks. He told Lori he wanted her to publish a series of stories, and the first one would run the following Sunday. Sundays were a big deal in the newspaper business, and she now had a firm deadline. It felt her career was changing overnight. After three years of waiting, she was finally becoming the journalist she had always envisioned. Or she might if she did a good job with the series. 

By Monday, the scratch on Tony’s face was healing. “Tell me all about this story you’re working on,” he teased. “You’ve been very busy. We’ve barely had time for lunch. I’m starting to miss my work buddy.”

She looked at him. “I’m really sorry. This has turned into a complex story, but it will finally run on Sunday. I have a Thursday deadline, and then I’ll be free.”

“Yes, we’ll celebrate,” he said. “I knew all you needed was this big break. I’m so happy for you. I can’t wait to read your story.” 

Lori looked at him. The scratch was faded now, but he had dark rings under his eyes and his skin was blotchy. It was the first time she’d noticed that, and she felt bad that she had been so focused on herself lately. “Thanks. We can definitely celebrate on Thursday -- but is everything okay with you?” 

He looked at her, his eyes intense. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. You just get that story written. This is important for your career. Maybe you’ll even figure out who is taking these women.”

“What?” Loris said, staring at her friend. “How do you know what my story is about? I never told you.” 

Tony looked down at his feet, and then back up at her. “Well, between you and me, I’m the one who suggested you for this story. I sent an anonymous email to our editor. I wanted you to have this opportunity.”

“Why would you do that?” Lori asked, a chill going down her spine. “What do you know about this.”

“Let’s just say I would do anything for you,” my sweet girl. “You should have the chance to solve a real investigation for once. I thought this one was pretty creative.”

“Is there something I need to know, Tony, about this case or about you.”

He walked along the wall and into her cubicle, making her feel claustrophobic as he entered the confined space. “You’re a great journalist. I know you are. You can figure this out. And your career will take off after this. I just know it.”

Now Lori could barely breath. “Tony, did you know what happened to those women? Did you…” 

He looked amused. “You’re the one who’s been researching this case for two weeks. What can you tell me.”

She just stared at him in horror.

“Say it, Lori. Tell me what you’ve figured out. Think. Put the pieces together.”

Her thoughts swirled in her head. She had spent two weeks living and breathing this case. It was making her think crazy thoughts. Tony was probably just playing with her, but the way he looked at her, the way his tired eyes stared into hers. She didn’t know what to think. 

“You can’t say it, can you.”

She shook her head firmly, trying to push away what was beginning to seem clear. “No, I can’t say it.”

February 19, 2024 17:44

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10 comments

Susan Lamphier
22:11 Feb 29, 2024

This was chilling. So much detail! Wee written, with a build up of suspense. Good job!

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Karen Hope
23:47 Feb 29, 2024

Glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for the feedback - always helpful and nice to hear!

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Julie Grenness
16:31 Feb 29, 2024

So well written, a mystery. This story was great, very apt response to the prompt. The scenario was credible, and the characters' dialogues and responses very human. Overall, this tale worked for this reader, as the writer built up the suspense, and left the audience wondering. Very skillful writing.

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Karen Hope
16:41 Feb 29, 2024

I'm so glad you enjoyed the story - thank you so much for your thoughtful feedback. I don't usually write mysteries so it's nice to hear that I did a good job building suspense. These prompts really help us get outside our comfort zone - in a good way!

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Marty B
05:15 Feb 21, 2024

Never trust the 'Caramel Macchiato' guys! The line tipped me off not to trust the guy- 'Lori heard the sound of nuts crunching in his teeth and felt a chill run down her spine.' Lori needs to watch out!

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Karen Hope
13:34 Feb 21, 2024

Our coffee choice does define us, doesn't it? That crunching nuts moment was the first clue. Glad you picked up on it. Thank you for reading!

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Alexis Araneta
10:36 Feb 20, 2024

Ooooh, chilling one, Karen. I mean I could feel like Tony was into Lori, but, wow! The lengths he went to. Yikes! Stunning and refreshing. I loved this!

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Karen Hope
14:07 Feb 20, 2024

So glad you enjoyed it. I've never written anything this dark, so I thought I'd give it a try. I think I scared myself LOL. Thank you for reading!

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Trudy Jas
01:23 Feb 20, 2024

Oh, boy! That is devotion The kind one can do without. Great job.

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Karen Hope
01:29 Feb 20, 2024

Thank you for your feedback! That pretty much sums this one up.

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