The Album of Eventual Memories

Submitted into Contest #211 in response to: Write a story starring an octogenarian who’s more than meets the eye.... view prompt


Mystery Fiction Crime

As a reporter, what you call a coincidence, I recognize as an anonymous tip in want of a headline, and the persistent appearance of the eighty-something bohemian-looking Madame Lieberman in the background of all of the photos for my most groundbreaking stories of the last year demanded an explanation. 

Covering the news can be a bit like chasing after the wind, there’s just so much of it that it can be a real chore to distinguish the choice gusts from the beastly drafts, and when you do happen upon a first-rate breeze it’s absolute murder to bottle it up before it gets away. 

You must be part hound dog and part blood hound to make a living of it. Breaking a newsworthy story requires a knack for being in the right place at the right time and equally as much, a good nose for stories. From a very young age, I had both. But unlike many of my classmates, what I didn’t have was money. I relied on ingenuity and skepticism instead. 

Luckily, I managed to patch together some grants and scholarships, which allowed me to attend Princeton, where I still live. But the only audience that matters to me is Dolores Bellamy, who I have been trying to convince to marry me since our eating club days—though she spends most of her time in New York City now struggling through various Off-Broadway productions and trying to make her big break as an actress.

The Coffee Club had wood paneling with student photographs on the walls. Behind the counter was a black chalk board menu with handwritten selections in multi-colored pastel chalk. The lighting was dimmed, and some Harry Potter-styled ambiance music was playing. The tic-tac-toe cross hatch styled windows on the French doors faced out to the clean campus lawns, freshly coated with fall leaves in yellows, reds, and browns. The air outside was crisp with the smell of pine, the fruity wisps of chrysanthemums with hints of menthol, and the musty relish of damp earth, cedar, and dewy grass. Inside the coffee house, the mixture of brewed beans, frothed milk, syrup, and cinnamon pervaded the room. And the students spoke in excited tones full of energy and enthusiasm for the start of the semester.

The room was an enchanting place to get immersed in a story. Some fall specials were highlighted on the board: “Caramel Apple,” “Honey Cardamom,” and, of course, “Pumpkin Spice Latte.” Against this backdrop, I sat back in a padded leather chair in the corner, and Sook came over to disturb my solitude with some friendly repartee.

“Sook, look at this,” I said, pointing to where this woman was standing in the background of each one of my photographs—in one, right by the scene of a perp walk of a suspect, in another close enough behind Cillian Murphy to give him a peck on the cheek, in another at the dorms where a student was being arrested for a hit-and-run.

“Oh, Mr. Quinn, what are you doing following around this old lady?” 

“That’s Mr. Finn O’Quinn to you,” I joked. Then continued, “that’s the thing, Sook. I haven’t any idea who she is.”

“Oh, come on Mr. Quinn. You know you are in a situatonship with this woman, why don’t you just shoot your shot already!”

“No, Sook, be serious—was that even English?—I’ve never seen this woman in my life. These are stories about a dead Chinese woman found in Mercer Park, a land use meeting for expansion of the college grounds, Professor Mulvaney’s sign theft fiasco, and I can go on, but there’s nothing connecting these stories whatsoever.”

“I know the lady. If you want the deets, you could have just asked me.”

“Sook, you are the Editor of the Daily Princetonian. Is it perhaps possible for you to speak in the Queen’s English, as opposed to using that pidgin talk?”

“No shot.” Quinn was a half-Japanese, half-Italian mutt. Her eyes laughed and her cheeks blushed as she teased me. Quinn was curious and fastidiously detail oriented, but in complete contradiction to this, her personality was calm, relaxed, and fun-loving.

“Fine, fine – now who is this woman?”

“That’s Madame Lieberman. She lives over at 104 Library Place. In those cute old buildings off the main grounds.” 

“I may have to pay her a visit in order to get to the bottom of this.”

“She comes here about two times a week for muffins and tea. I think she’s a widow. A retired shrink or something. And I think her late husband Dewey is an architect.”

At this moment, Jim Pritt stormed in like a man possessed, pulling open the French double doors with considerable effort and standing in the foyer with his hands on his hips. 

Jim was an older lawyer in his fifties who had silver side-parted hair, some gray stubble on his prominent round chin, and who always wore a suit, usually light brown, with a starched white shirt and cotton tie—todays was green—and who carried himself formally, but with a relaxed, cozy formality that gave off the vibe that he never took himself that seriously. Jimmy was one of the brightest men I knew, but he was the kind of natural politician who saw every interaction as a way to win someone over and find common ground. That being said, he did have his quirks.

“We have a situation on our hands Finny—they are shutting down the Panera,” Jimmy said.

“Where will you work?” I asked, laughing inside at the thought of the former Princeton Class President, who had his own law firm, working several days a week from the local Panera Bread on Nassau Street.

“That’s not the point. This is a bridge too far. Shutting down a Panera? What will come of our civilization?” Jimmy responded. I had to admit that as Panera’s go, it was a very nice one. But I didn’t share Finn’s enthusiasm for the cause.

“You are an industrious fellow, and rich. Speak to the owner. Buy out the franchisee. Figure it out. Now, here, I’ve got something else for you.” And I pointed the photos out to Jimmy.

After introducing Finn to my present conundrum, he stared at me blankly and said, “you are flirting with a ‘likeness and image’ lawsuit here from the number of times you’ve photographed this poor lady without attribution.” 

“Right. Maybe so. But the question is – how could this woman have been present when each of these stories was breaking? I have sources on campus, in the police, in the government, at the Prosecutor’s Office, and in a dozen other places. I was following these stories. And I had advanced warning when arrests would happen or when the vote would be for a new building, or when filming would happen on campus. How could this woman have known to be at all those places? And, more importantly, why was she there?”

“Let’s look at the operative facts and see if we can hunt down a clue. There must be a common thread. Tell me about these stories.”

“There’s this story here about a visiting sixty-nine-year-old Chinese woman, Ms. Ling, found dead from a hit-and-run on the side of Princeton Road near Mercer Park on her first visit to the States. I got a scoop that a student on campus was being arrested—and there she was when the police walked him out.”

“Alright, this woman may have an in at the detective’s bureau,” Jimmy offered.

I reviewed the backstory for the next photo: “Then there’s this story about Chainsaw Productions. A prominent political consultant, Mike Cad, had undertaken two murders for hire, and was suspected in several others, including a stabbing of the Sheridans, a connected political couple, which was covered up with a house fire and remains unsolved. Cad had been holding murder mystery horror shows called Slaughter Camps—an immersive and electrifying experience—where the theme and plot of the murder mystery shows was a play-by-play of the actual murders. He was picked up by the F.B.I. during one of these overnight shows, and I was there to break the story. Madame Lieberman was there.”

“Self-snitching! That is certainly one of the most interesting cases of outing oneself I’ve ever heard. But wouldn’t that also fall under the theory that she has a contact in law enforcement?” Jimmy said, reiterating his prior point.

“Fair enough. But what about this one? They were filming the movie Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in April and I was doing a retrospective piece about Oppenheimer—got a shot for the piece with Cillian Murphy. There’s Ms. Lieberman close enough in the background to kiss him on the cheek. The filming date and location were undisclosed unless you pulled the permit.”

“Did you say Ms. Lieberman? I knew her husband Dewey,” Jimmy said. 

“Jimmy! You know her?”

“I knew Dewey. Never met the old lady—goes by Madame now, I heard. She lives just down the block. Maybe she walks the grounds daily, and just so happened to be passing by when you did your cover shot?”

“Maybe. But what about this one. It concerns the Cloak and Dagger bookshop hosting an escape room experience called Crime Scene. A Russian Spy named Boris Chernila was picked up by the FBI for having stolen an alarming number of pen sets from The Fountain Pen Hospital in Manhattan. She’s right there!! Just off to the side of the lawn when they are perp walking the pen thief out!”

“I know the Cloak and Dagger. But again, this just shows she has some kind of connection to law enforcement.”

“But these are wholly disparate divisions doing the investigations.”

“Still, there could be a common informant or something.”

“I’ve got to Jimmy. Please pay my tab with Sook. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

* * *

When I rang Madame Lieberman’s doorbell, she appeared promptly, unlatched the bolt, and waved me inside, saying, “Right this way,” and immediately proceeded to walk me through the front foyer, back through the kitchen, opened the sliding glass doors to the patio, and said, “go on and take a seat and I’ll be right out. I’m just going to fetch us some tea.”

Madame Doris Lieberman was short and plump, with a blank and welcoming face that seemed to reflect back your own intentions. She wore a head wrap, a hammered sterling silver curved bib necklace with lapis lazuli ornamentation, blue opal earrings, and silver and blue bracelets and cuffs on her arms.

I sat down in a lawn chair on a stone patio made with quarried bluestone, which had an elegant look against the carefully manicured garden and lawns. The photo album was already sitting there out on the glass topped patio table. 

Madame Lieberman brought out an old oriental tea pot and small traditional teacups, with a wooden washing board and pitcher of hot water besides, all meticulously laid out on a serving tray. She poured us each a lovely jasmine tea that had hints of ginger root and tasted lovely with a mix of bitter and sweet with a hint of powdery ester like the taste of flavorless Big Chew bubble gum. While she was pouring the tea, I noticed that she wore her husband’s class ring on her left ring finger, but her wedding band and engagement ring were missing.

The photo album had a black dyed sheepskin cover with an ornate gilded floral border, plus ornate stamping with the title “Eventual Memories” on the front. 

“I’ve got a few questions for you before we begin,” she said, and I supposed she wanted to know how I discovered her involvement in these stories.

“Alright, very well,” I said.

“Do you believe in love, Mr. O’Quinn?” she asked, and I noted that I hadn’t told her my name.

“I fail to see the relevance, I am afraid,” I quipped, a little put off by the prying question.

“Oh, dear, I don’t know what could be more relevant.”

“How so?” I asked.

“My dear late husband Dewey was a Mason. On admission to the Entered Apprentice degree, they ask an initiate if they believe in God. If one answers ‘no’ they are denied admission, seeing as it is a secret society where initiates are sworn to an oath of secrecy, the oath is not worth anything unless one believes in an almighty judge. So, for his lodge members, belief in God is the prerequisite for keeping one’s word.”

“I see,” I said, once again failing to see the relevance.

“Now, Mr. O’Quinn, I have been expecting you for some time. But before I reveal to you my secrets, I must determine if you are a worthy initiate. Only, to my mind, the Masons have it all wrong. It is not whether one believes in something, but whether one knows the meaning of true devotion that makes one deserving of trust. One will not forsake that which they love. And so, I ask you again Mr. O’Quinn, have you ever been in love?”

“Well then, yes, most assuredly, I have, once, been in love.”

“Then, I’d ask that you swear on your lover’s name that you will keep these secrets I am about to tell you.”

“Very well then,” I said, a little annoyed by all this pretext and superstition, “I swear on Dolores Bellamy that I will keep your secrets.”

“Thank you, Mr. O’Quinn,” she said, her lips drawing up to her cheeks in a pleasing smile, “then we can begin.”

“You said you’ve been expecting me for quite some time?” I asked.

“Why yes, my dear. I saw your face in one of my photographs. In fact, it is the very last one in the album. And I’m afraid I won’t be here to see how this story ends. You see, there are only two photographs left in the album.”

“Can you show me these photographs?” She opened the album.

“You see the photos—well, the polaroids—are all here, and each one has a date at the bottom.”

“Did you say polaroids? That’s impossible. Polaroids are developed instantly, right as the pictures are taken. Someone would have to actually be present for that to work.”

“Like I said, Mr. O’Quinn, I do not know how the photo album works or where the pictures came from. I just find the location and go there on the date in question.”

“But how did you come to own this photo album?”

“When Dewey passed on, there was a clause in his Will that said to take a key he left with his lawyer in an envelope and go to a safety deposit box in a bank in town, and it was there. The cover was locked with a key and the album had been there in the safety deposit box since about 1980, a little over forty years.”

“Absurd! Madame Lieberman, if I may, these pictures are all taken after that photo album was locked away, granted, you might have doctored them after retrieving it from the lock box, but that doesn’t change the fact that its physically impossible for those photos to have been placed in that album some forty years ago!”

“It is stranger than that. I’m quite sorry to tell you, Mr. O’Quinn that the next photograph is of my gravestone, and the date is not a week from today. So, you could say, I am living on borrowed time.”

“What is this secret then you’ve been hiding.”

“Well Mr. O’Quinn, I had a daughter, you see. With my one true love. I was already betrothed to poor Dewey, but I took a trip to Sicily to have the child and placed her in foster care—not far away—just down the road, with the Bellamys. And as I suspected, you know her, Mr. O’Quinn, Dolores is my daughter.”


“And you will be there, I presume, as you have been in all these other photographs, to hunt down my killer.”

“Then what is the last photo?”

“It is taken backstage at a play, and you are there delivering flowers to my dear sweet Dolores after the show. I guess it will be up to you, my dear, how that story ends. Here, I want you to have this. Won’t be of much more use to me now.”

I reluctantly took the old photo album and brought it back with me to the Coffee Club, where I left it in Sook’s capable hands, while I headed home to finish up my story.

As I was walking out, I noticed that Madame Lieberman had an identical, but empty, photo album lying open on her kitchen island. Apparently, she had planned to start a new scrapbook, maybe containing some of her own photography. Which must have meant that her premonition of death was wrong. I was glad to see the old woman wasn’t totally unhinged after this uncanny, inexplicable mystery—the very reasonable explanation for which I would soon ferret out.

* * *

When I arrived at Madame Lieberman’s house, Chief Dave Buccarrelli was already inside.

“Afraid the old woman is dead Quinn,” said Chief Buccarrelli.

“Oh, Dear God! No! What happened?” I asked.

“Looks to be another stabbing, but we were watching the old lady on our patrol routes, like you’d asked, and one of the patrolmen was happening by—”

“Did he catch the killer—" I interjected.

“No, but when the commotion was breaking out, he turned on his lights and came in, so the perpetrator ran this time and never got a chance to destroy the evidence with a cover fire,” the Chief finished.

Jimmy burst through the front doors saying, “What the devil is going on Finny?”

“Would you mind accompanying me to New York City old friend, I’ll explain on the way, but I need to go to an Off-Broadway show to see about a girl—Dolores Bellamy.”

August 14, 2023 03:04

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Martin Ross
15:29 Aug 19, 2023

Amen — ingenuity and skepticism, and plugging away. I’m a sucker for a reporter story — was one myself for 33 years — and a terrific mystery. And I thought a little bit about “Chinatown” at the very satisfying climax. Great job of melding mystery and supernatural elements!


Jonathan Page
21:26 Aug 19, 2023

Thanks Martin! I really like the reporter as a protagonist. I wish I had more knowledge of how reporters really ply their craft.


Martin Ross
22:52 Aug 19, 2023

You have a pretty good take on the mindset, what drives the journalist. My Mike Dodge doesn’t project a lot of his reportorial bearing in retirement, but like me, journalism taught him HOW to make connections and research information. I was a plugger — I learned a lot because it was necessary to asking the right questions and knowing what readers should know even if they might not think so. I think you did fine here.


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Mary Bendickson
11:44 Aug 14, 2023

Mystery. I got interrupted reading this so lost some of the train. Want to reread later.


Jonathan Page
21:25 Aug 19, 2023

Thanks Mary!


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