“Hi, I’m home.” I glanced around as I entered my apartment to see if Natalie was in sight. No one. I listened for activity in the bathroom or bedroom. Nothing. I put my briefcase on the coat closet floor. As I swung the door closed I called out again, “Are you home?” No answer. “Jiminy Cricket!” It’s what my grandfather always said when something unusual happened.
It’s unusual that she wasn’t home by now. Her habit was to go out as little as possible which meant a couple of hours a day to do research. She didn’t know if she was being watched or followed and so kept her outings to a minimum.
I checked the hooks at the end of the kitchen cupboard. The front door key she had been using was hanging there. “Jiminy Cricket!”
I picked up my pace looking around the apartment. Had someone abducted her? She wouldn’t tell me who she was hiding from. She said she really wasn’t sure, but had a few close calls, she called them. That was part of her daily research. Trying to discover who was behind these disturbing incidents hoping they would lead her to the source of the cover-up and its purpose. There were no signs of a skirmish in the bathroom, bedroom or living room.
Did she move out on her own? I looked on the kitchen table and counter for a note. Nothing. I checked the bedroom by the nightstand where I keep a pencil and pad. Nothing. Her bluejeans, shirts, and underwear were in the three drawers of the chest I had given over to her for her clothes. Her suitcase was in the clothes closet. But why did she leave the key if she was still out doing research? Did she forget it?
I sat down on the couch to think. My arm rested on the neatly folded blankets I had given her for sleeping there. I had offered her the bedroom, but she wanted to keep an eye on the door. She liked the fact I lived on the second floor above the garages behind a house. She could see if someone came through the backyard of the house as well as people coming down the alley. You could hear their echoing steps before you could see them.
I looked around to see if she had left any other personal items. None of her papers were there. I glanced over at the computer desk. The printer was missing. I jumped up and raced to the computer. As if it confirmed it was gone, I brushed my hand across the table where the printer normally sat. I looked around on the empty floor not believing my eyes. Natalie had been using my printer connected to her laptop, but why had she taken it? She joked that she was going to wear it out, but she would replace it. Was that what she was doing? I checked the wastebasket for papers she may have discarded. Nothing. “Jiminy Cricket!”
In a state of confusion, I sat down on the couch again. As if the news would help calm me I jabbed the power button on the remote.
As the endless commercials played, I thought about the day Natalie knocked on my door. After six years of not being in contact, she arrived at my door. It was like it had only been a few days. It wasn’t like we had been high school sweethearts, but buddies might be a good description. We were on the same scholastic track in school, so we shared three or four classes each semester. We often sat next to each other in these classes. She was more outgoing than me, so I enjoyed the friendship. We even walked together in the procession on graduation day.
Two weeks ago I thought it rather bold when she barged in and came right out and asked if she could stay with me for a short spell. After explaining her plight, she said she knew that I was still single and didn’t live with anyone. She hadn’t elaborated on how she checked. She soothed my concerns in her classic bubbly, outgoing Natalie way, and I have enjoyed her company.
Maybe I was making her absence something out of nothing. She probably just forgot to take the key. She had explained she went to a different library every day to use their internet. She didn’t want anyone tracing her back to my house, or any one library. Maybe the library she picked for today was farther away. I felt better thinking that. I finally focused on the news.
KBCW Anchor Connie Taylor took a serious tone reporting, "Police are puzzled by a robber who appears to be a woman. They are examining security camera footage to be sure it isn't a disguised man. The person has robbed two convenience stores and a gas station. She or maybe he wears a rather kooky hat with a pony tail poking out of the back, but the body has a look that could be male or female.
"Wikipedia announced today that a source has given them evidence that Iradistan’s Premier Vladimere Konchell has business ties with a dozen officials in our government. These connections may have resulted in his country receiving preferential trade agreements.
"Locally, the mayor is under investigation for sexual harassment. Thirty women have submitted letters of complaint to the D.A. The mayor states that these are all phony letters by someone in the opposite political camp."
I changed the channel. I didn’t want to hear one more conflict of interest about the current administration of the federal or local governments. I was in overload about that already. Reruns of Rocky and Bullwinkle suited my temperament. I dined on a ham and cheese sandwich while I mindlessly indulged in the cartoons. They lulled me to sleep. When I woke the sky was sporting sunset colored clouds. I checked my cellphone. 8:13 PM. I must have been more tired than I thought.
My mind remembered that Natalie was missing. “Natalie?”
Nothing. “Jiminy Cricket!” Now, I really was worried. There were times I thought maybe she was suffering from schizophrenia, but everything else about her was good old Natalie - focused, engaging, funny. There must be more clues. I dragged her suitcase out of the closet. It was empty. I grabbed a flashlight and raced to the trashcans. No discarded pages from her extensive printing. Nothing else out of the ordinary. I checked the laundry room. On top of the dryer was one of her socks. It was laid out perfectly perpendicular to the dryer door. It was obviously placed that way on purpose. I grabbed it and headed back to the bedroom.
In one drawer was the matching sock. It was the only sock in the drawer. It was placed perfectly in the drawer. You wouldn't causally place a sock in a drawer in such an orderly position. The rest of her clothes weren't so orderly. “Jiminy Cricket! What does this mean?”
I found myself in front of the TV once again. Sometimes I need to let my subconscious mind work on puzzles while I do other things. PBS news reported that the New York Times has more information on the Iradistanian scandal. “This mystery source alleges that there are shell companies in various locations around the world tying administration officials to the Premier of Iradistan.”
I sighed. What else is new? I flipped back to the local channel. "The District Attorney continues to get complaints about Mayor Flanders. He has turned the letters over to a forensic specialist. The letter are reportedly similar in style suggesting one author."
My subconscious mind hadn’t figured out the sock clue during the news, while falling asleep, nor while day-dreaming at work the next day.
When I arrived home, I tried once again, “Hi, I’m home.” No one answered. I checked the bedroom and bathroom just in case. No Natalie. I even checked the laundry room again, as if it would reveal another clue. There was nothing in the machines and nothing else out of the ordinary. It was a reminder, though, that it was time for me to do laundry. I retrieved my laundry basket and emptied it into the washer. I never bother to separate my whites and darks like my parents faithfully do. I reached for my box of laundry detergent to fill the soap drawer with flakes, but nothing came out. I checked the opening. Something was inside clogging the opening. I ripped the cardboard carton back. I found a folded paper. Unfolding it revealed a large smiley face. “Jiminy Cricket! What does this mean?” Was it a promotion from the detergent company? Surely they would have their name or logo on it if not a commercial message of some sort. Was this from Natalie?
I raced back upstairs. In the bathroom I found Natalie’s box of feminine products, but her toothpaste and brush were gone. I checked her suitcase again. In the pocket I found another folded smiley face paper! “Jiminy Cricket!”
I jerked open her underwear drawer. Three silky panties were carefully placed in the drawer. She had told me once that she owned eight underwear. She could do laundry once a week and still fit all of her clothes into one suitcase. So, she was wearing one pair, and she must have packed four with her in her computer backpack. I counted the jeans. She must be wearing one pair, but left her others here. She must be wearing one shirt and packed four. “Jiminy Cricket! What does this mean?”
On the news the President promised to get to the bottom of the Iradistanian mess. He had assigned an independent investigator to find out the truth! Everyone guilty of improper behavior would pay the price! Good for him! The male/female robber struck again. This time a Goodwill store, of all places. No security camera there. Maybe the robber is getting wise to the security cameras. The mayor seems to be gathering followers professing his upstanding character. They all seem to know that one person is writing all of the letters of complaint. How are they getting inside information is my question.
That night my mind knew that I had clues telling me something, but what? It was obvious now that she left on her own accord. She took a minimum of clothes with her, but besides that I was clueless. I didn’t get much sleep as my mind tackled the problem.
I tried once again, when I arrived home the next day. “Hi, I’m home.” Then I realized she didn’t have a key. She couldn’t be there. That was depressing.
The news didn’t help. The Washington Post had inside information about the shell companies. Some of them were in Switzerland, some in Russia, some in Panama and other places I have never heard of. The shell companies shifted money to other shell companies who then sent it along to other shell companies. The rich get richer! The police now think that the male/female robber is a woman, but that the pony tail is fake. She also appears to pad her clothes to look heavier and perhaps male. The D. A. says he can't comment on the progress of the letter campaign against the mayor.
Over the weeks Natalie had shared how she had to be careful not to leave a trace that would help her pursuers track her down. That’s why she didn’t use my computer. That’s why she used different libraries. That must be why she didn’t tell me about her leaving orally or by note. That must be why she left smiley faces. She was telling me all was ok. I felt better.
I slept like a baby that night and the next day at work I realized that she would be running out of underwear and shirts. I had guarded optimism that she would be back but. I didn’t bother saying, “Hi, I’m home,” when I arrived. I wasn’t surprised, though, when there was a knock at the door almost as soon as I had closed it. My only surprise was that I hadn’t heard anyone climb the wooden steps behind me! I hurled around and opened the door. A woman with long dark hair wearing sunglasses and a kooky hat rushed through the door with a box slamming the door shut behind her.
She turned around smiling as she took her glasses, wig, and hat off. “Like my disguise? Here is a new printer to replace your old one. I didn’t want anyone to trace my papers back to you through your printer.”
I was shocked. “Jiminy Cricket! Why are you disguised? Why did you disappear?”
Her grin was as big as the Cheshire Cat’s. “Haven’t you been watching the news? I’ve been delivering my Iradistan findings to the various news media.”
I felt like a ton of bricks had fallen on me. “You’re the source of that news? Thank God! I'm glad you're not the person writing letters about the mayor.” Then I looked at her hat and fake pony tail.
She smiled as she pranced over to the couch and plopped down. “You guessed it, Einstein!”
I didn’t know whether to believe her or not. This was heavy duty investigative reporting. Was my little old Natalie a big player in the investigative field? It was just as plausible to think she was a robber, or a letter writer. “I don’t know what to say!”
“Well, you don’t really have to say anything. I need to get my belongings. I have to disappear for a while. The FBI is putting me into the Witness Protection program ‘till this blows over.”
My jaw dropped.
As she left she gave me a kiss on my cheek. “Thanks for helping me. Your country owes you for your patriotic effort. Maybe we can get together after this blows over. What do you think?”
Without waiting for an answer she flopped her wig and hat back on her head and slipped out the door followed by her rolling suitcase. What do I think? Whether she was a robber, a political letter writer, or an investigator going into hiding either from the FBI or by the FBI, I don’t know. All I know is that I can't handle such a mysterious, high flying person in my life! But I have a feeling if she returns, she won’t be asking my permission. “Jiminy Cricket!”