Doug looked around the room again. "You must have big bills."
Edna refilled her glass, topped off Dougs and motioned him to take a seat on the couch. "This is what I called you aboutall thats left of Russ earthly goods." From a shelf below the photo she took out a cardboard box, about the same size as a twelve-pack of Odenbach cans, and set it on the glass-topped table in front of the couch.
"This was forwarded to me not so very long ago when an old friend passed on. I had forgotten all about her, in a way, until I got this. The poor dear had so little yet she held on to this. Well, that was Russwomen just couldnt resist him."
The box was made of thick cardboard, like an old suitcase, a neat leather strap holding it shut. It had a few stickers pasted on the sideTusker Beer "Its Tusker, Buster!" Pacific Rail Lines Baggage Claim #109. Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. U.S.N. Montana/visitorand Doug was trying to guess if the box was his uncles or the late poor dears.
Doug unpacked the box, setting each item down on the table. There were some folded National Geographic maps with seemingly random locations circled in red or black, bills of lading from a dozen different shipping companies, a penciled-in Pirates-Phillies scorecard from May 2nd, 1948, stacks of addresses, TELEX numbers, and cryptic cables with now-meaningless strings of numbers and letters, overdue bills, an owners manual for a Norton motorcycle, two pairs of Ray Ban sunglasses, a handful of notes written in what looked to him like Chinese, Arabic, and Russian, an ashtray from Pan Ams Pacific Clipper Air Service the mementos of a well traveledif pointlesslife. Edna pulled things out at random, explaining the more obscure items, sometimes adding a short anecdote, sometimes a laugh, sometimes a puzzled "I have no idea what this is."
There were two photos, one of Edna looking much as she did in the Paris shot, but this time wearing not much more than a towel. A small towel. "Ill take that if you dont mind, Douglas. Im afraid Im not very photogenic."
The second photo must have been taken the same day as the one he had seen in his fathers gun cabinet, but it was only of Dougs father, arm cocked like he was ready to toss a baseball to whoever was taking the picture. "My dad," Douglas said, holding up the picture.
"Russs younger brother, right?"
"Right," he said, hoping this mystery woman would add something like "your uncle talked about him all the time," but she didnt.
"Thats it, thats all thats here," Doug said as he started putting things back in the boxlast things out, first things back in, like inventory at the brewery.
"There are other things," Edna said. "Postcards and letters. Mostly to me but also to other people we knew. I appear to be the unofficial custodian of the Russell Pearce correspondence collection. Your uncle and I were close and as the people we knew died off, theyd send me their letters and photos. People commit the strangest things to writing. Especially young women. Photos, too."
"I guess they figure that youd want to enjoy the memories," he said, but she laughed as he said it.
"My memories of Russell are quite different, and I was never that naive. No, I think they send them to me because they know that Ive always had an interest in Russells death."
"Thats funny. Ive always had an interest in his life and nobody tells me anything."
"These wouldnt tell you much. Youd learn more about the people who wrote themor posed for themthan you would about your uncle. But to me each adds something to the puzzle, although Im not sure what exactly. You see Ive had this plan in mind for the longest timeI should have done something about it years ago when I was younger but, well, I didnt. Besides, the letters and things didnt start arriving until a few years ago. I wanted to use this collection of ephemera as a bank of clues and reference material. I thought with that, and a little on-site investigating, we could solve everything."
From Relative Danger by Charles Benoit (Chapters 1 & 2, pages 1-16). Copyright Charles Benoit 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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