Detective Steve Swanson clips the potted gardenia on his desk, then carefully waters it.
Chief Pasquale Puglisi drops a folder on Steve’s desk. “Something for you to look into besides domestic scuffles.”
Steve opens the folder, gazing curiously at the black and white photograph of a muscular young man with greasy hair, a monobrow, and an uneasy smile.
Steve smirks. “Was this taken during the Stone Age?”
“Addie doesn’t like to have his picture taken,” Puglisi says. “My guess, it’s from the nineties.”
Greying, with sympathetic but tired eyes, Steve, a twenty-three-year veteran, has come to Chestnut Ridge, New Hampshire from New York City, hoping the rest of his career is quiet and uneventful. He’s grateful to be working with Puglisi, who is known for giving his men free reign.
Steve also figures that Chestnut Ridge will be a good place to raise his award-winning flowers.
Steve thumbs through the pages. “I don’t see a rap sheet. Just a couple of mild complaints about public urination.”
Puglisi answers in the calm and thoughtful manner that has earned him the respect of the locals, who call him Patsy. “Addison Grey is a special guy, a special case. He’s been missing for four days, maybe longer. He’s in his forties, but he has the mind of a child.”
“You think somebody may have taken advantage of him being naive?” Steve asks.
“Possibly. He collects scrap metal, cans, whatever folks leave out. He’s a bit of a celebrity around town, always pushing around a shopping cart. Wears a T-shirt and cut-off short pants, even in the winter. He’s got tremendous upper body strength, which makes up for his weak legs. He had polio as a kid, so one leg is thinner than the other.”
“Does he have any enemies? Maybe someone who harasses him because of his infirmity?”
“Nah. Addie wouldn’t harm a flea,” Puglisi says. “People in town lookout for him because he’s such a sweetheart, always helping old ladies and kids. And from what I hear, he’s got a lot of money.”
“From collecting scrap metal and cans?”
“He donated ten grand to the Girls and Boys Club last year,” Puglisi replies. He studies the plant. “Gardenia?”
“You’re getting better at identifying plants, Chief. Any activity on his credit cards or his bank account?”
“No. Start with the complainant, Cosmo Adams. He’s Addie’s best friend. He collects the carts at Stop and Shop.”
“I hope this doesn’t make me wish I was still working domestic disturbance cases,” Steve jokes.
Steve sniffs the carnation in his lapel, grumbling to himself when he spots Cosmo Adams. Adams is wearing tin foil antennas, perhaps thinking it will improve the sound of the MP3 player tucked in his pocket.
Steve carefully taps the bearded, ruffled cart collector on his shoulder.
“Yeah, bro’, whas up?”
“I’m Detective Steve Swanson. You filed a missing person’s report regarding Addison Grey?”
“Yeah. Four days gone, bro. The blonde-haired magician took him.”
“Yeah, bro. Dude was wearin’ a fancy black suit. He had a black cape, you know, like a magician.”
“Anything else you can tell me about this man?”
“He had a cane. When he tapped it on the ground, him and Addie disappeared.”
“…Like into thin air?”
“Yeah, bro. Poof! You gotta find my friend. He’s sick.”
“Yeah, I heard he had polio as a child,” Steve says.
“No, it’s more than that. He went to the doctor recently. He found out he’s got leukemia.”
Steve plops behind his desk, exhaling heavily. He begins raking the dirt in his mini bonsai plant.
Puglisi gives him a sympathetic smile.
“I should have warned you about Cosmo. But I didn’t want you to judge him.”
“I have no idea what to even make of him. He says Grey was talking to a magician, then they both disappeared into thin air. He did say Grey just found out he has leukemia. Maybe he went someplace for treatment. I’ll run it down and let you know.”
“Fine. In the meantime, I’m doubling your workload. I just got a call from Leslie Hensickle, Harvey Hensickle’s grandmother. Harvey’s a trucker. She lives at his place and says he’s been missing for three days.”
“Sounds like a potential crime wave.”
“I’ll warn you this time, Steve. Mrs. Hensickle is several sandwiches short of a picnic.”
“Great. I’ll bring some tin foil.”
Steve sits across from Leslie Hensickle in a rickety rocking chair. Mrs. Hensickle is comfortably ensconced in a fluffy armchair that’s so big it appears it’s going to swallow the spry, petite, eighty-eight-year-old grandmother.
“Your grandson’s truck is still in the driveway.”
“I already told Patsy he’s missing, not his truck. Harvey is a diabetic, a sick boy. He barely made it home in one piece from his trip to Canada. If he doesn’t get his insulin every day, he could go into a coma.”
Mrs. Hensickle points to a gnarly table next to the rocking chair with a package of needles on it. “See? He left his supplies.”
Steve surveys the table.
“He also left without his keys.”
Frowning, Mrs. Hensickle gets testy. “Are you some kind of idiot? He didn’t leave on his own. He was taken.”
“I’m just trying to establish where he might be. Does he have a wife or a girlfriend? Did he take a delivery job and not tell you? Maybe he’s off somewhere vising someone.”
Mrs. Hensickle dismisses Steve’s comments with a wave of her hand. “He would have told me where he was going. It was the Cane Man. He came and took my grandson away, just like he took my mother in 1962.”
“You saw the man who kidnapped your grandson?”
“I saw him in ’62 from my bedroom window. He was dressed like a gentleman from Victorian times. My mother was standing in the front yard, talking with him, smiling. It was the first time I’d seen her smile for a year. She had consumption and it was slowly killing her. I came down the stairs to meet the man who seemed to be making my mother happy. I opened the door, and they were both gone.”
“What makes you think your grandson is with this man?”
“That’s what he does. The Cane Man comes and takes people away. He did it in ’47 too; back when I was a teenager.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hensickle, but the math isn’t right. If the Cane Man was already a grown man in 1947, he’d be almost a hundred years old by now.”
“He’s been taking people since they built this town.”
Steve lets out a heavy sigh.
“I know you don’t believe me. I can see it in that face you’re making. ‘The old biddy’s nuts,’ that’s what you’re saying to yourself. Well, you go ask Gail Goodhue.”
“She’s the head librarian. Mousy looking thing but smart. She keeps the town history, including articles about the disappearances around here.”
“All right. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for your grandson.”
“I told you, the Cane Man’s got him. And he’s not done yet.”
Meeting Gail makes Steve think Mrs. Hensickle was right about one thing. Gail Goodhue is a dowdy-looking middle-aged woman, with orthopedic shoes, large glasses, and pinched features who lets her unkempt hair fall wherever it wants. But Steve tells himself not to judge a book by its cover.
“I see you like flowers,” Gail says, pointing at the carnation in his lapel.
“I grow gardenias, roses, daisies, and I cross-pollinate. My roses finished first two years in a row at the Philadelphia Flower Show.”
“Really? I’ve got a blue thumb. Maybe you can show me how to grow a beautiful garden.”
“It’s a deal,” Steve says. “Leslie Hensickle says your expert on the Cane Man.”
Gail flashes a confident smile that says she’s all in.
Steve gapes at the computer screen as he reads an article.
“Arthur Ashton, Curly Quinn, Herbert Love, and Billy Brundage went missing in 2007,” he says. “Ashton had muscular dystrophy and Quinn had heart disease.”
“We found out later on that Herbert Love had Alzheimer’s, and Billy Brundage had liver disease from long-term drug abuse,” Gail adds.
“Why would anyone kidnap someone who was terminally ill? They might die before they could get any ransom money.”
“No one’s ever asked for any,” Gail answers.
“’Brundage’s parents told police they had seen the Cane Man outside of their home talking with their son prior to his disappearance…’ Guess drugs ran in the family…,” Steve comments.
“‘A local legend, the Cane Man supposedly appears every fifteen years in July to claim four victims. In 1992, Hollis Davis, Patricia McKenna, Chris Cleek, and Nelson Varsho went missing, and four other residents vanished in 1977.”
Steve looks up at Gail, who displays her best “gotcha” smile.
“Every fifteen years,” Gail says. “That’s more than a coincidence.”
“I like your enthusiasm and your smile, but we have to prove it.”
“I’ve lived here all my life,” Gail says. “A lot of kids were scared stiff by stories about the Cane Man. We were told he was a serial killer, a devil, or some sort of creature that hibernated, then woke up every fifteen years to kill people.”
“It’s too long a period. One person couldn’t have done this, ” Steve notes. “It could be a cult, though. Do you have any newspapers from 1962 and 1947?”
Gail brings Steve two large volumes of news clips. He scans through them.
“He’s mentioned in July 1962,” Steve notes. “Four people went missing then too, including Mrs. Hensickle’s mother.”
Steve thumbs through the crumbling pages of the articles from 1947, coming across an editorial piece.
Curse of the Cane Man Continues
By Ben Bierce
Every fifteen years residents tell their children to come home early, businesses close at six on the dot, and police patrols triple. Because every fifteen years during the hazy summer days of July, the “Cane Man,” a benevolent-looking blonde-haired gentleman, swoops in from the ether and makes four innocent people disappear forever.
Anyone who wasn’t living in Chestnut Ridge fifteen years ago in 1932 says we’re simple country bumpkins afraid of the boogie man. But we remember the Branch sisters, Viola and Shirley, sweet septuagenarians with weak hearts, American Legion Captain Arvin Wurlie, who was battling cancer, and Cristobal Fuentes, the elementary school’s congenial janitor who’d suffered a stroke. On July 8, Arvin took a walk from which he has yet to return. The Branch sisters were gone when relatives checked on them on July 12, and Cristobal’s wife, Jeni, came home to find her house empty on July 15.
The police have stated emphatically that there is no Cane Man, no gang of marauding kidnappers, no devil worshippers pulling people out of their beds.
We all felt better this year as July passed into its third week without incident.
Today, four people disappeared all at once.
Simon Splittorff, Jack King, Jarvis Hooper, and George Victory have vanished. Four heroes with weak hearts, shriveled lungs, broken backs, or broken minds. Half a dozen people saw them sitting on the benches next to the war memorial early this afternoon.
Art Tatum has owned the souvenir shop across the street from the war memorial for the past two years. He laughed at the legend of the Cane Man until he saw him today.
“He was wearing a black cape. He had a cane and was thrusting it in the air like a drum major,” said Tatum. “It was odd. They weren’t broken men anymore. They looked happy like they wanted to go with him. He marched them past the library, past the town hall.”
The Cane Man marched Splittorff, King, Hooper, and Victory into oblivion. If you believe in the curse of the Cane Man, then mark your calendar for July 1962, and plan to take a long vacation away from Chestnut Ridge.
“It’s an established pattern,” Steve says. “But I need to find out who these Cane Men are.”
“I’ll be happy to keep looking for you,” Gail chirps. “It’ll be like we’re solving a mystery together.”
Steve’s cheerful cell phone ringtone catches his attention.
“We have a third missing person. Go to the Incarnation Nursing Home. Talk to Buck Buford, the security chief.”
“Chief, have you ever heard about the legend of the Cane Man?”
“Local folklore. I’ve got an open mind, but please don’t tell me he’s your number one suspect. If he is, then you don’t have much time to catch him.”
Steve approaches the exasperated head of security. The heavyset Black man eyes Steve suspiciously, muttering, “Nice flower.” Buford’s temperament remains grim as he turns to look at the empty bed in front of them.
Steve notices the nearby wheelchair and oxygen tank.
“I’ve been here thirteen years. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Buford says.
A chubby, red-haired nurse holds back her tears, biting her lower lip. “Me neither. I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault.”
“Don’t say that Hope,” Buford says defensively.
“Let’s not worry about putting the blame on someone,” Steve says. “Whose room is this?”
“Pastor Prometheus Jones. The man is eighty-four years old, nearly blind. He’s got arthritis so bad he can’t walk. Plus, he’s got a weak heart and has to suck oxygen virtually twenty-four-seven.”
“Yet he got up and walked out of here,” Steve notes.
“I don’t know how. Maybe it’s the will of God takin’ care of one of his own,” Buford replies. “What I do know is he can’t be without oxygen for more than fifteen minutes.”
“Has he had any visitors recently?”
“Nah. He’s outlived his kinfolk,” Buford answers.
“A man visited him earlier today,” Hope interjects.
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know. I walked past Pastor Jones’ room and they were talking. Pastor Jones was smiling at him. I heard him say, ‘That would be nice.’”
“Was this man tall, blonde, wearing a black suit and a cape, and carrying a cane?”
“Yeah, that was him. I recall thinking he was overdressed for this time of year.”
“And when you passed by again?”
“That was when I realized Pastor Jones was missing.”
Gail turns off the lights in the children’s room. Only her office light remains on, giving the building an eerie look.
She retreats to her office, smiling at the bouquet of roses Steve had delivered after he’d left. Opening her desk drawer, Gail slips an envelope she’s addressed to Steve inside of it.
She folds her hands in front of herself and waits.
Gail senses someone else is in the library.
An elegantly dressed man holding a cane appears in the doorway.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she says.
“You have a choice, you know,” the man replies.
“No. I’m not like other people. I can’t handle pain.”
“There is a part of you that wants to be with Detective Swanson. Perhaps you could be happy together for a while.”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
“Then we should leave now.”
Gail follows the Cane Man out of the building.
Hoping Gail is still in her office, Steve parks his car in front of the library.
He sees a tall man standing near the front door. The buildings outside lights reflect off his gold-tipped cane.
Steve rushes toward him, identifying himself.
Gail moves between the two men, who stare intently at each other.
“As a kid going to Catholic School, I used to wonder what the Angel of Death would look like.”
“You can keep wondering,” the man says.
Steve draws his gun. “Move away from him, Gail.”
“No, you don’t understand, Steve. I have to go with him.”
“You what? This man has killed at least three people.”
“Not killed, saved,” Gail replies. “And he’s going to save me. I have pancreatic cancer. I’ve got a year, maybe less to live. If I go with him, I can be healthy again.”
“That’s not possible. He’s a killer, not a healer.”
Gail takes the man’s hand. “This man is giving me, Addison, Prometheus, and Harvey a second chance to live.”
“How? Where are you going?”
“I’m going to a better place. I won’t be sick anymore!”
The man taps his cane on the pavement.
Gail gives Steve a last optimistic smile. “Thanks for the flowers!”
Gail and the Cane Man’s figures begin to fade, disappearing.
Chef Pisani drops an envelope on Steve’s desk.
“The staff at the library were going through Gail’s things and found this envelope. Guess she intended to give it to you before she disappeared.”
“You know, it’s been two weeks since anyone’s filed a missing person’s report.”
“It’s a shame the last one was Gail’s,” Steve replies.
“Looks like its case closed,” Pisani says as he walks away.
“…For another fifteen years…,” Steve says to himself.
Steve sniffs the gardenia on his lapel, hoping its sweet scent will soothe Gail’s loss.
Opening the envelope, Steve pulls out a photograph.
Steve recognizes it as a picture of the Cane Man.
The back of the worn photo reads Dr. Roric Armstrong, July 1852.
The envelope also contains a timeworn article.
July 16, 1852
Gallant Doctor Returns
After two harrowing weeks on the road, in which he encountered rainstorms, mudslides, highwaymen, and a bevy of wild animals, Dr. Roric Armstrong returned to Chestnut Ridge with a supply of life-saving medicine that will quell the current smallpox epidemic. Unfortunately, during his absence, his wife, Abigail, eight-year-old daughter Carolyn, and twelve-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, perished. His beloved 15-year-old son, Cain, also died, drawing his last breath as Dr. Armstrong sat by his bedside.
Dr. Armstrong, who has investigated immortality, has said he will devote his life to healing the sick.
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Michael I loved your crime noir style. From the fun dialogue to the unique boogeyman stories this was definitely an original take on the prompt.
Thank you. Sometimes my imagination takes me to fun places!
The idea behind the story could easily be matched to your "noir' style. So that worked. But it did need a fair bit of work with grammar/spacing/proofreading. But with a bit more work this story could be a lot of fun. Note: when attempting noir, your attention to detail has to be spot on, or it fails. Alternatively, you can do it tongue in cheek. Unfortunately I wasn't quite sure what you were aiming at.
Thanks. Yes, my grammar skills were a bit off for this one. Thanks for the comments!
This was a fun story! An intriguing mystery that moves at a great pace. I like that not everything is resolved by the end, and I suspect the detective will spend the next fifteen years preparing. So much for a quiet retirement, I suppose :) One thing I did notice is that the Chief's name seemed to change from Puglisi to Pisani. Thanks for sharing!
I love this spooky story! The mix between reality and folklore and then the stand off. Well done! My only nit-picky thing would be to add some kind of break (with asterisks or something) between "scenes" to make the transitions easier for the reader.
Thank you for your comments, Jeanette!