Mystery Sad

Two pairs of small hands claw toward a cyan sky frosted with cirrus froth, but helium conquers gravity, and a frayed inch of twine taunts curled fingertips as the Pantone-perfect yellow orb rises largely unnoticed over the celebrant crowd.

Chastened by a yelp of frustration, the hapless child unconsciously backs a step. Retreat becomes escape as a towering shadow falls over both. The balloon flees lazily in the opposite direction as the shamefaced child seeks the raucous safety of pin-the tail commencing on the lawn. A glance back at the boy squirming in the growling shadow’s grip, and the incident already recedes, drifting into a dark mental corner as yellow retreats into cyan…


They find him some 15 miles northwest and 18 years ahead of the balloon’s remains. Both find rest amid the gathering leaves – he in the dead cover of a Central Illinois moraine, it in an aspen a mere 32 crow-feet from its launch point…


“Thing is, we’da likely never found it it hadn’t been a Swedish Aspen,” the tree doctor told Curtis. Brad deBoer held no doctoral honors, not even a community associate’s in silviculture. But the tricked-out green trailer at the curb conferred the title on deBoer and his father before him and his brother beside him sucking on an energy drink.

“Mm,” Detective Mead said.

“Bet the neighbors loved this guy,” Brad elaborated, nodding toward what resembled five mathematically aligned graves along the former back fence line. “See, the root system grows and spreads like kudzu. They’re hell on drainage tile and septic systems and underground lines. Nursery guy probably conned the idiot into planting the things – they look cool, and probably cost an arm and a leg. Guy didn’t know what he was getting into – this is what you’d call an ‘invasive’ species.”

“Mm,” repeated Curtis. He shook the marked Ziploc bag with the string and attached note. “So what’s that gotta do with this?”

“Gettin’ to that,” Brad muttered implausibly. “On average, you get a wire or cable embedded in the trunk or branches, it’ll hurt or even kill the tree. But if the tree has what they call the right plasticity, you know, like plastic gives (Curtis’ fingers clenched), the tree adapts and can grow around it, especially something small and pliable. Most of the times, that’s your smaller trees – your dwarfs and ornamentals. But some of your taller, what they call columnar trees like Italian Cypress, Japanese White Birch, Norway Spruce, and this bad boy got that same plasticity. We were talking a regular poplar or maple or elm, heat and rain and snow woulda destroyed your note a long time ago. As it is, the aspen protected it like some kinda time capsule or something. Good thing I was taking this one down – Wayne’s too dumb to have caught it, and wouldn’t have give a shit, anyway.” Dr. Wayne tipped his taurine bomb agreeably. “But I got kids of my own, and it hit me in the gut.”

Curtis smiled patiently. “You still got the piece of wood you cut this from?”

 Brad scanned the surrounding ground. “Do I need to tell the new owner this is a crime scene or something?”

“If it was,” Det. Mead rumbled, “it’s been contaminated all to shit by now.” 


“Might have been helpful if you’d left the whole thing intact.”

“Surgery’d already been done,” Curtis shrugged, settling on a stool next to a dirty chunk of wood. Denny Collingswood at least was a doctor, albeit with a P and an afterthought lab/office near the University Ag School loading dock. “That mean you can’t do it?”

The cop reached for the evidence bag, and the professor snatched it away. University crowd didn’t see limitations – just egos. The silviculturist peered at the hunk of aspen, at Brad’s incisions, at the discoloration where the tree doc had liberated the tiny scroll. “Well, at least you brought me a reasonable cross-section, and the bark’s still intact. I think I can get you a ballpark. When you need it?”

The detective climbed off the lab stool. “I imagine there’s no huge rush.”


“What’s the big rush?” Chris demanded, swirling her McFlurry. “And why do I get the shit work?”

“No work is shit unless it is performed shittily,” Curtis informed the tech. “Right tool for the right job. Dr. Denny knows his trees, while you are the reigning queen of trace.”

“I think you just called me a tool along with the borderline sexism.” Chris adjusted her baby bump and the vintage OfficeMax chair some distant city budget had endowed. “But since I don’t care for prenatal Dutch elm disease...”

“Now I know I made the right decision, Nature Girl.”

She flipped him off. “Lucky this was written in crayon – I’d probably had to bring out the message chemically. ‘HELP HES A MONSTER.’ Shit. This is the world I’m binging little Grissom into?”

“It helps,” Curtis consoled, “I think this was written at least 20 years ago. Same old shitshow.” 

Chris noisily sucked the last of her McFfluvia. “Your tree preserved the knot tied around the note, though your hypothetical 25 years of summer heat and winter weather probably released what looks to be a second exposed knot. How high your tree guy find this?”

“Dr. Brad said maybe 15 feet. You’re already ahead of me. Up, up, and awaaaayyy…”

“You’re an old soul,” Chris observed. “Prehistoric.” 


“A message on a balloon,” Lt. Twitchell stated. Again. Initially, Curtis had been grateful the body was found in a state refuge. Otherwise, he’d be dealing with the third-term county sheriff, who’d only recently issued an ambivalently finger-wagging half-apology for his deputies’ supremacist social media hijinks. The ISP’s Zone 5 commander was probably 60 IQ points beyond Buford Pussbag, but maybe not so imaginative. 

“I was beginning to think the connection was bad.”

“Look, what do you want? Clearly, this was some kind of prank, at best some poor kid venting.”

“I’d probably agree with you, except where we found the note. You heard of the Casey Grant case? The kid found in the Wild Oaks Moraine back in 2006? Went missing in 2004?”

“Of course, only murder ever in the park. Case is still open. You think this balloon note is some kind of break?” 

“This balloon note was found maybe 10 feet from Casey Grant’s house, in the neighbor’s tree. You crack open that open file, you’ll find the boy disappeared two weeks after his eighth birthday. You got kids, Lieutenant?”

“Three,” she responded, warily.

“You keep a helium tank on standby?”

The line went momentarily silent. “So to repeat, what do you want from me?”

“Think I already got it.”


“I need a lawyer or something?” Will Grant asked as he sidestepped another onslaught of liberated children. Several moms and a dad or two peeked toward the assistant principal and the cop, a few glaring at the man who’d abruptly commandeered a gap in the pickup line. 

“Your dad passed a while back, right?” Curtis employed his library voice, even amid the glee and tumult. “Can’t see why you need one.”

“Dad was no monster,” Grant said pointedly, leaning slightly toward the detective with a smile for a millennial mom about eight feet away. “See, you show me this note and tell me maybe Casey wrote it, you get why I might feel like I need legal counsel.”

The millennial clearly was waiting for something to break. Millington was a campus town, and Amelia Rayburn Elementary was equidistant from the tidy junior faculty homes to the east and the stretch to the west where the sidewalks began to crumble. Cops were an unsettling presence either direction and especially at this point between.

“I wouldn’t have bothered you here if I didn’t see a possible lead in your brother’s case,” Curtis said. “Your folks have a party for Casey’s eighth birthday?”

Grant sighed. “Dad and Mom always had all our friends over every birthday, at least ‘til, well, you know.”

“You know anybody took any video?”

A smile finally broke through. “Mom was the official documentarian – Ken Burns coulda done a PBS marathon just on our birthdays.”

“Your mom still got those videos?”

“Mom’s in Heritage Alzheimer Care over on Poplar – early onset, they say, but I think Dad…dying…after Casey’s disappearance was just more than she could handle. But I got the birthday videos digitized a few years back. Know what, I got a staff meeting in about 20, but if you want, I can pull ‘em out again when I get home in, oh, about an hour-and-a-half. Maybe I’ll pop some corn.”

“Wife’s got a church thing tonight,” Curtis noted. “Make it pizza instead.”


As long as Rich Neely wasn’t in a mood for war stories, Curtis calculated he could deadhead it back to Little Caesar’s and then Will Grant’s place within the hour. Neely had known him mainly as a uniform before he’d retired in ’15, and from all Curtis had heard through the sour-grapevine, he didn’t expect the former lieutenant had popped a cork when Officer Mead made Det. Mead.

“You know how it is,” Neely shrugged, easing the hood of a vintage Corvette as the late afternoon breeze picked up beyond the open garage bay. “Something like that happens, the cracks start forming and, eventually, everything crumbles. Casey and my girl Brenda went to grade school together — he was a sweet kid always wanted to help teacher or some littler kid getting hassled.

“Being a friend of the family, I had to sit mostly on the sidelines, but they tore this town apart trying to find the boy – grilled every creep on the Offender’s Registry. Ed and Dina Grant were a wreck, and poor Wil kinda got shuffled into a corner while the folks started playing the blame game and Ed sank into the booze. Between us, I had to straighten out a few DUIs for him, and after Ed, well, you know what happened, I wondered maybe I’d just let him take his medicine, he’d still be around and maybe Dina wouldn’t be in that shithole on Poplar.”

“Shoulda, woulda, coulda,” Curtis suggested.

Lt. Neely, Ret., tipped a Bud Lite. “Amen, Bro.”

Curtis easily found his way out.


The sky to the west was a rosy bruise and the Little Caesar’s a grease spot by the time Curtis fast-forwarded through a wobbly chorus of “Happy Birthday” and the dissection of a Walmart white-on-yellow with magenta and royal blue script. Grant smiled faintly as maybe 20 kids dispersed into largely gender-based cliques and parents gelled into semi-vigilant clumps. Casey rampaged with a day-glo super-squirter, scattering squealing boys and girls. Beyond the melee, a larger boy crossed the back lawn. Curtis leaned in.

“That you there?” the cop asked. 

Grant squinted. “Yep. I never really noticed before. What’ve I got there?”

As if on cue, the yellow object escaped Wil Grant’s grasp, snapping back on its tether.

““Looks like you’re heading toward that girl by the shed,” Curtis murmured, transfixed.

“Some kid in Casey’s class,” Wil frowned. “I was 11, and there weren’t any other kids my age at the party. I was bored shitless.” Grant’s brow furrowed as he watched himself call to the somber girl in the pink corduroy pants. “I remember now,” Wil breathed. “When I saw this little kid off to the side all by herself, I guess I felt bad for her. I gave her a balloon to try and cheer her up.”

“Or tried to,” Curtis observed as the girl lurched slightly back and the string slithered though her fingers. The detective watched the yellow balloon drift almost out of frame before an abrupt gust tugged it on a new trajectory. Curtis refocused on a man who’d rushed into frame and after a beat grabbed Wil’s arm. Then, the frame filled with blue.

“Yeah,” Wil drawled. “This dude begins yelling at me, telling me over and over she’s eight and what am I thinking. I’m trying to explain, but the girl’s run off. Then Mom comes roaring onto the scene. Just dropped the camera and came in guns blazing.”

“You don’t know who the guy was?”

Wil pursed his lips and shook his head. “Looks familiar, but after Casey, Mom and Dad drifted away from most of the other parents. Sorry.”

“S’okay,” Curtis said, numbly.


“You haven’t been watching your texts today, have you?” Chris scolded through the dashboard speaker as Curtis steered into the dusk along University. 

“Heavy day of snipe-hunting,” he sighed as he glanced at the sleeved DVD on the passenger seat. It wasn’t pepperoni gnawing at his gut. “You got something for me?”

“Not much. I called your tree guy at the university and he confirmed a couple decades’ growth around the note and twine, based on past insect damage and long-term climate patterns and, oh, gosh, just a bunch of scientific shit I’m too dumb to grasp.”

“Sensitive, much?”

“Mostly around the ankles and boobs, thanks for asking. I did confirm your balloon hypothesis. Rubber-plastic trace embedded in the cotton string fibers probably as the balloon deteriorated and the pieces dropped to the ground to get raked off with the fall leaves.”

“Brad the Treeologist told me Swedish aspens usually go yellow in the fall, so I wouldn’t be surprised.”

The dashboard went dead for a nanosecond. “Yellow?”


She wants nothing more than to run. But she’d begged and begged, just this one time. The others had stopped inviting her; they’d stopped asking her to play at recess. Just this one time. He finally gave in only because he was friends with Casey’s dad. Now, he’d NEVER leave, because she’d begged, because Casey’s mom had yelled at HIM, which nobody ever did. It would be bad at home.

He’s now laughing with the other dad. People always got over being mad at him quick. But she could tell everybody what He really was.

She heads for the abandoned table with what’s left of the cake and balloons secured to each corner. She spies a scattering of crayons from Casey’s new jumbo Crayola set, picks a Pea Green, tears a corner from a sheet of drawing paper, and quickly but carefully inscribes her brief message. She as carefully pries the tape from a red balloon bobbing above the demolished cake, rolls the paper into a scroll, knots the balloon string around the note.

“Who’s the monster?” 

She spins. Casey has been standing behind her, watching the whole process, curious and now concerned.

“Is he the monster?” he asks quietly, pointing at toward the huge man who’d yelled at his brother. “It’s OK. I won’t tell.”

Wide-eyed, she turns back to see her note floating over the neighbor’s fence. Casey moves closer as the first tears roll down her cheeks. 

“I wanted your mom or dad to find it, you know, after we went home. Somebody who can help us.”

“I’ll help you,” Casey smiles, patting her shoulder.


“I was hunting the wrong monster,” Curtis admitted. “No offense, though, obviously, the ship has sailed on that one.”

He settled onto the couch — an act of de-escalation likely wasted on one who was trained in the rules, the tricks of de-escalation. The Glock .22 neither dropped nor rose. Surrender doesn’t happen; violence happens in a blink. Curtis leaned into the stasis. 

“Somebody comes along, tries to pull the rug out from under everything, it can make you panic, do any horrible shit to protect yourself. Or somebody you love. I get it.”

“I was mad.” It just spilled out. “It was stupid, and I could have messed everything up. But he just wouldn’t let it go, even after I begged him to. You know what could have happened. Or maybe not. You even got kids?”

“No. But, look, my Dad was no walk in the park, either. He was a scary asshole when he got a load on, and gave me the belt more than a couple times. And I’d have fought like a wildcat anybody tried to take him away from us.”

Brenda Neely’s arm remained rigid, but something shifted in her face. She looked a little less like her dad, though not enough. She was still in her deputy’s uniform: Curtis had been waiting on her porch on the Millington outskirts when shift ended. He hadn’t wanted to do this at the sheriff’s, though that now seemed a questionable call.

“And that’s the thing,” Curtis continued. “I didn’t think your dad, whatever else he was, would kill a child on the off-chance somebody might believe him. Rich Neely was an important guy, a shrewd cop – some eight-year-old wasn’t going to bring him down. You couldn’t know that. Were you afraid of your dad losing everything, you getting taken away from him? Or was it how angry he’d be?”

The Glock wavered, slightly. “He was going to help me even if I didn’t want his help. The stupid little shit.” Brenda’s fingers tightened. “I had him meet me at the park, you know, over near the junior high, to beg with him one more time. He told me I was just scared of the monster and he’d tell his dad and maybe the police and save me and Mom. I don’t even remember what I picked up, but, you know, after... You think you know Him, but He didn’t yell or smack me or anything — just hugged me, said he’d take care of everything. I messed everything up, and he just took charge. You don’t know shit.”

“I know you were only eight,” Curtis began cautiously. “You put that gun down, lemme see if I can’t—“

Help me?” Now the Glock jerked up an inch.

 It had been the dead-wrong move. He wasn’t a parent. But Lt. Twitchell was, as she’d eventually remembered. As the wall behind Brenda Neely abruptly lit up in red and blue, Curtis was grateful for it.

March 08, 2024 19:29

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Michał Przywara
01:49 Mar 15, 2024

This feels way longer than 3k words has a right to, in all the best ways. A strange discovery, a decades old cold case, all the side characters contributing to the investigation, and of course, a good twist. A fun read :) “No work is shit unless it is performed shittily” - I like that. You get quite a lot of characterization done in a short space, especially for some of the side characters that only appear for a moment. I can't quite place my finger on what does it, but I think the dialogue plays a big role here. That, and maybe I've wat...


Martin Ross
02:04 Mar 15, 2024

Thanks, Michal! I was going to make more of Baby Grissom, but had to cut a bunch. I’m going to expand in the book version, as well as flesh out Curtis’ investigation and maybe add some procedural sideplots.


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LeeAnn Hively
03:58 Mar 12, 2024

Another story of yours that leaves me wanting a longer version. Well done, as always.


Martin Ross
05:50 Mar 12, 2024

Thanks, LeeAnn! I think I am going to try to make this one into a novel.


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Trudy Jas
00:36 Mar 12, 2024

Your (or rather your character's? speaking style reminded me of "Fargo", all that was missing was the ya bet-cha I did get confused at times between some of the characters. (old age, prolly). Could be a novel - should be a novel.


Martin Ross
01:44 Mar 12, 2024

I'm thinking of expanding it as a novel -- 3,000 words was too tight to do the kind of character development or plot turns I'd have liked here. Ironically, Curtis is a secondary character in many of my previous cozier mystery stories, but the idea of doing a cop novel appeals to me. The fact is, Curtis is sort of surrounded by Midwest Fargo types, but I picture a somewhat younger Samuel Jackson as I write him, especially as he deals with my more eccentric amateur detective Mike and his witnesses and suspects. Thank you for the notes -- I d...


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Tom Skye
20:58 Mar 10, 2024

This is conceptually brilliant. It feels like something which should be expanded over an entire novel. Even the order in which you deliver the information is perfectly thought out. I think there is so much care taken with each character, as reader you really sense a greater back story for them even though it isnt detailed here. And the actual scenario for the crime is strikingly unique. It would make a brilliant a miniseries like Broadchurch or something. Really clever writing. Language is awesome, as usual. This was brilliant work. Wr...


Martin Ross
23:36 Mar 10, 2024

Thanks, Tom! I did save a pre-edited version that I’ll either include in my next collection or, perhaps, expand into a more full-fledged procedural. Curtis is a secondary character in many of my other shorts, but being based on one of my best high school buddies, I’m especially fond of him. I appreciate your advice; maybe it’s time to try. Have an excellent week!


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03:48 Mar 09, 2024

I read this twice to get more familiar with the different characters and get straight who was who. Lots of back story bits to figure out as well. Totally tragic. A crime is committed and the fact it happened keeps on ruining people's lives. Someone knows and keeps it covered up. Family loyalties get in the way. What a mess. Deftly solved. But still very sad. I love your looong sentences full of alliteration and novel words. Almost tongue twisters. Great way to start your story, but I'm glad it wasn't overdone. Thanks for reading some of my ...


Martin Ross
05:04 Mar 09, 2024

Thanks for reading. My wife has helped me tone down the verbal gymnastics a little 🤣. I’ve heard a lot of discussion lately about gaslighting and the Stockholm Syndrome-type loyalty of manipulated spouses and kids, and I wondered how the love-hate might play out.


06:34 Mar 09, 2024

verbal gymnastics - great description. Stockholm Syndrome loyalty of manipulated spouses and kids. I knew it had a name. This kind of mentality is because if they are not 'for' the troublesome family member, it will be concluded they are against him/her. Either way they are likely to have it taken out on them but maybe less so if they appear fiercely loyal. It's loyalty and fear mixed together. Blood is thicker than water and fear adds impetus.


Martin Ross
06:46 Mar 09, 2024

Extremely perceptive. Disturbing to see it in family or friends — I’ve only recently fully realized the negative an in-law I’ve never liked has had on his wife, his sons, and possibly my wife’s ex. And all except the ex and I seem to worship him.


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Mary Bendickson
20:19 Mar 08, 2024

Another mystery brilliantly solved.


Martin Ross
20:25 Mar 08, 2024



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