Featured Story

Blessed Are the Meek and Wily

By R.L. Blake

2nd Place 2021 Short Story Award Winner

“Where is Mother’s ring?”

Regina’s voice snaps across the crisp autumn air like a whip in the hand of an experienced dominatrix.

I’d barely pulled to the curb at St. Andrew’s Cathedral when she rushed from the parish hall’s side entrance, her emerald cashmere coat left unbuttoned in her haste, a new Hermès scarf flapping in the breeze. Dressed to impress the Manderfields, no doubt, wealthy descendants of Cliffview’s founding family, and her daughter Sammie’s future in-laws.

Regina Cassidy could teach a master class in social climbing, in Louboutin stilettos, of course. Somehow Mother’s ring, or rather my ring, is important to her latest scheme. I intend to find out why.

Her husband Albert appears unembarrassed by her antics, though I suspect his frequent trips for Dentists Without Borders are camouflage for well-earned mental health breaks. Especially the ones to the Virgin Islands. Lots of cavities in paradise, apparently.

There is no escape for me.

I hoped we’d outgrow our dysfunctional childhood, but no heavenly hand ever reached down to answer my prayers. Looking back, asking God to pluck her head bald after a particularly cruel instance of bullying may not have been appropriate. But at thirteen, it was a sincere petition, and one I don’t regret. Even after Father Benjamin gave me five extra Hail Mary’s and a lecture on blasphemy.

I shrug off the memory and lift the insulated food carrier from the back of my latest purchase, a shiny pre-owned Volvo.

“Lasagna al forno, as ordered,” I tell Regina.

She grasps the container gingerly so as not to mar her perfect French manicure.

“A used car, Claire? Surely family law pays better than this.”

Her standard smirk is crossed with a pout of annoyance at my supposed frugality. I smother the unexpected laughter bubbling up in me at the look on her face. Delight and disdain. So hard to reconcile in one expression. If only she knew. My practice is not all prenups and adoptions. I just prefer not to flaunt my assets. Makes the clients nervous and Regina envious. Something to avoid at all costs.

“Sammie called yesterday,” I tell her as I heft the carton of crystal vases and cellophane-wrapped flowers I picked up on the drive over. Another last-minute favor for Regina. “She’s delighted her shower is here today.”

Regina shudders as she glances at the venerable church. An afficionado of all that is modern, she has no time or taste for the past, but my niece and I love the Gothic Revival architecture. Built in the early 20th century of rough-faced sandstone, it features a bell tower that rises over 100 feet and rare Tiffany stained-glass windows.

“How often must I tell you to call her Samantha, not Sammie? Willowcrest Country Club is much more suitable for a bridal shower, but she said the diocese can use the rental fee.” With a lofty wave of her hand, she states, “I agreed because we owe a duty to those less fortunate.”

Sanctimony doesn’t suit her. We’re the same height, so she needs to tilt her head back to stare down her nose at me. Mrs. Noblesse Oblige. Leave it to Regina to spin this as her own act of generosity.

Arms full, I push the liftgate closed with my elbow, and face the leaded glass image of St. Michael smiting the dragon. Today I will confront my own demon.

No more whipping girl.

No more minion.

No way is Regina getting my ring.

***

We stow our coats and handbags in the pantry off the kitchen and start prepping for the day’s event. I’m assembling the centerpieces when Regina turns to me.

“I’m waiting,” she says, hands impatient on her hips, a frown of intimidation attempting to form on her Botox-frozen brow.

As a vigorous advocate for those I represent, I am assertive without being antagonistic. I’ve negotiated positive outcomes from jaded prosecuting attorneys, obtained leniency from judges notorious for harsh sentencing, and won respect from law enforcement by treating them with courtesy. None of these skills have ever worked with Regina.

Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Today I’m taking a new tack. I stare straight at Regina’s menacing gaze and slowly articulate. “I’m keeping the ring.”

Clear. Decisive. OK, maybe there was a slight quaver in my voice. You can’t expect perfection on the first attempt.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She shakes her head as though what I said is of no consequence. “Hand it over.”

I cherish Mother’s ring. Its classic Art Deco design includes an emerald-cut diamond surrounded by tiny rubies shaped as petals. Worth but a few thousand dollars in today’s market, it is invaluable to me. Despite everything that happened.

Dad and Mom discovered it in a musty antique store on their honeymoon in New England. Mom wore it until the day she died. I admit it was a non-traditional choice as my own engagement ring, but its uniqueness eclipsed the more conventional options. And my fiancée agreed to use the money we saved toward a down payment on our first home.

“How can you bear to touch it after Jonathon left you at the altar?” Regina’s aim is impeccable. Straight to the jugular as always. “Anyway, Samantha expects it today.”

“No, she doesn’t. Tell the truth for once. What are you really up to?”

At that moment Darla Manderfield, the mother-of-the-groom, bursts into the kitchen.

“Darling Claire,” she exclaims and enfolds me in her arms, not with the brief hug and fake air kisses so common in her social circle. A real embrace. Regina inhales sharply, shocked at our rapport. The familiar green-eyed monster shimmers in her narrowed eyes.

Darla first appeared in my office several years ago, hair pulled too tight in her ballerina bun, a sure sign of distress. Could I have her daughter Mia’s shoplifting record expunged, she begged, so it wouldn’t harm her chances for college acceptance? A first offense, I could and did get the charges dropped after I had Mia make restitution and a heartfelt apology to the store owner.

“Claire, you must sit with Edward and me at the Metropolitan Museum fundraiser next Saturday. I hear Regina is donating a spectacular family heirloom for the auction, a

Cartier-designed piece from the 1930s.”

Fireworks explode in my brain at this news. There it is. Regina gets the ring from me, for free. She gains status with her daughter’s future in-laws by donating it. And gives credit only to herself. Her audacity should not surprise me, but it does. I’d been deliberating on whether to go through with my plan. This knowledge, however, solidifies things for me.

“I’m sorry to tell you, Darla. That heirloom is no longer available. Perhaps Regina can find another item.”

I glance at Regina’s ashen complexion, but she rebounds quickly.

“Certainly, Darla,” she gushes. “I promise. You’ll be amazed!”

***

“The chalice is gone! Oh, my Lord, the Richelieu chalice is gone!”

Angela Maldonado hustles into the banquet hall as fast as her walker and orthopedic shoes permit. The normally soft white curls of St. Andrew’s secretary-slash-guardian resemble a mad explosion of cotton balls.

Gasps and cries of “oh no” and “how terrible” echo around the tables where the shower guests are finishing coffee and lemon crème brûlée.

“I took it from the vault this morning to polish before tomorrow’s services and now it’s missing,” Angela exclaims.

She starts to tremble. I rush forward and lead her to a nearby chair.

“Regina, call 911.”

“Oh, Claire, she undoubtedly put it someplace else and forgot.” She turns to those assembled and gives a strained chuckle. “Just a tiny misunderstanding. Please enjoy dessert while we deal with this little contretemps.”

Of course, no one pays any attention. Excited whispers pop and float in the room like hot sparks from a Girl Scout campfire.

“Go check the church, Regina. I’ll stay with Mrs. Maldonado. She’s still unsettled.”

She grumbles her acquiescence and leaves. I pat the secretary’s arm. “I’ll make you some of your favorite Earl Gray.”

“You are always so sweet, Claire.”

Regina returns ten minutes later as I wheel the tea caddy from the kitchen.

“No luck.”

In a voice laden with skepticism, Regina asks Mrs. Maldonado, “Are you certain you removed it from the safe?”

The elderly woman sputters, “I’m not senile.” Querulous now, she snaps, “In fact, I saw you in there earlier today. Maybe you stole it.”

The accusation stops all chatter in the room. An ugly red flush blooms on Regina’s neck.

The Richelieu chalice would make an ideal item for the fundraiser.

“Don’t worry,” I tell those gathered. “I’ll call the police. We’ll find the chalice.”

***

Outside, I shiver as Officer Wrigley pulls Regina’s hands behind her back and slaps on the metal cuffs. Click. The shower guests, Cliffview’s elite, remain inside but crowd together at the windows, mouths agape, their warm breath fogging the panes.

This is so much better than I could have predicted.

“Claire,” she cries, voice cracking. “Help me.”

I stand corrected. This is better. Even if she didn’t say “please”. Yet in my rising euphoria, I pause. Is it too much?

Then she barks, “Answer me, you twit!”

Now I ask you. Is that any way to speak to your twin sister? Who can still fit into your clothes? I must admit. Cashmere truly is luxurious. And Regina’s coat sleeves proved spacious enough to conceal the chalice, as the police discovered for themselves in their search of the premises.

“I’ll meet you at the station. Don’t talk to anyone until I arrive.”

Regina jerks her arm from Wrigley’s guiding hand and slides unassisted into the rear seat of the black-and-white. Before he closes the door, I see her knees and ankles are pressed together, canted slightly to one side. The Duchess pose. Haughty ’til the end. I am a little proud of her in that moment. Her booking photo is going to look great in my scrapbook.

Three years. That’s the typical sentence for a Class D felony. But the charges won’t stick. Eyewitness testimony is often flawed, and poor Mrs. Maldonado is nearly blind. Plus there are no fingerprints to be found. I made sure of that.

Regina’s sole punishment will be to live as a social pariah, the subject of lurid gossip.    For her, it’s a fate worse than plastic wineglasses at a formal dinner party.

Why did I choose such a punitive option instead of more moderate revenge?

Call it poetic irony. I’d never have contacted Jonathon if Regina hadn’t demanded the ring. We’d not spoken since he failed to show for our wedding. I survived the bone-deep embarrassment of that day but never knowing why has haunted me.

Once the shock on hearing from me wore off, Jonathon was strangely relieved to reveal the sordid details. How Regina snuck into his hotel room the night before the ceremony and seduced him while pretending to be me. Her smug confession and mocking laughter the next morning appalled him. The thought of Regina as a family member was so repugnant, he fled.

Regina covets what I hold most dear. I have always known this. What she cannot take from me, she does her best to destroy. To maintain peace, I’ve let my sister go unchallenged.

Until now. Jonathon may have been weak, but I loved him.

I raise my hand to my throat and lift out the necklace hidden under my dress. The diamond from Mother’s ring glitters in its new platinum setting, its facets catching and reflecting the reds and blues from the cruiser’s flashing lightbar.

I stroke the pendant before I slide it back beneath my collar. Patterson’s Fine Jewelry did an amazing job on the rush orders.

As the patrol car departs, I stand in the shadow of the cathedral, home of my religious training, and decide to show some mercy. Regina can have the ring. I hope she likes cubic zirconia.


R.L. Blake
R.L. Blake

After a year teaching English in Tokyo and traveling in Asia, R.L. (“Bobbi”) Blake spent 30+ years working in economic development in the high-tech software industry. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she resides in Northville (between Ann Arbor and Detroit), where she is working on her first full-length novel, a modern-day mystery centered on the 1913 Italian Hall Disaster, a true life tragedy where over 60 children of striking copper miners died at a Christmas party in Calumet, MI.  She is a founding member and officer of the Michigan chapter of Sisters in Crime. She enjoys spending time with family and friends, history, playing golf and euchre, and meeting with her writing/critique group* who help each other to improve their craft.

*Wine included.


The Magic of Giving

By Kevin Sandefur

3rd Place 2021 Short Story Award Winner

Donna nicked her finger while peeling the last apple. It wasn’t a deep cut — more of a shallow scallop, really — but it bled far out of proportion to its size, and she had to suck on it for several minutes before it stopped.

She hadn’t cooked much lately, and she was out of practice. In fact, she hadn’t baked anything for the better part of a year — not since Jasper had left.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were fascinated by the process. Both cats spent the day sitting on the counter, taking tongue baths and watching Donna roll out the pie crust by hand before preparing the filling and topping. Dutch apple had been Jasper’s favorite, and as she worked, she wondered why she was going to so much trouble.

It wasn’t like he’d shown her any similar kindness. Their final year together had been excruciating. They’d argued more and more, at first about money, but then about increasingly trivial things, until finally they spent more time scoring points on each other than anything else. Towards the end she’d begun to suspect he was having an affair.

He’d finally disappeared Super Bowl weekend. She didn’t see him again until he came to collect his things a week later, just before Valentine’s Day. He didn’t say much, because he didn’t stay long. She’d already packed his belongings and left them sitting inside the door.

They’d barely spoken since. After a month or so, once the shock began to wear off, she started thinking about divorce. She couldn’t afford a lawyer, but there was no way she was going to ask any of her attorney friends to take the case.

She’d been in that limbo for months, feeling her way around the edges of her pain, refusing to let herself think about where he was, or who he was with.

His call had been a complete surprise. She was even more surprised to hear herself invite him over for dinner. He’d started by asking how she was, but it felt perfunctory. Then he told her he was calling because his uncle had died and left him a substantial sum of money — nearly a million dollars — and that it was probably time to sort out the legal status of their marriage. She agreed and suggested it might be more productive to have the conversation in person, over a meal.

He’d hesitated briefly, but then told her that yes, he’d like that. She wasn’t sure at the time what possessed her to extend the invitation. In the few days since, after she’d had time to reflect, she decided this was all for the good. It might even be her best chance for closure. She put the pie in the oven.

***

Jasper had to lean to one side to see past his own reflection in the shop window. He turned slightly in order to get a better angle, forcing the flow of Christmas shoppers on the sidewalk to move around him. He was looking for a specific dessert wine to take to dinner, but he couldn’t remember the name. It’d been Donna’s favorite. He was hoping he might recognize the label, but there weren’t any bottles in the window that looked familiar, and he was running late.

He went inside the shop to throw himself on the mercy of the salesclerk. “I’ve been trying to remember a particular dessert wine,” he said. “I think it had a purple label, with apples and cherries on it?”

“That could be any of a number of our wines,” the clerk said apologetically. “Perhaps if you could describe its qualities, I could find you something close to it.”

Jasper had never paid much attention to the qualities of wine. That’d been Donna’s domain. He did have one thought. “It needs to have a very strong flavor.”

“Your taste is for the more robust vintages, then?” the clerk asked.

“It’s actually for … my wife,” Jasper answered, “but yes. Robust would be good.”

“With apples and cherries, of course.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Let me see what I can find,” the clerk said. “I’ll just be a moment.”

While the clerk looked, Jasper questioned why he’d hesitated to call Donna his wife. They’d been separated for ten months, but neither had brought up divorce until now. He wondered if there was still any chance that she’d take him back, then quickly dismissed the thought. That ship sailed long ago.

“I think this might meet your requirements,” the clerk said, holding out a small, red bottle.

Jasper looked at the price tag. It was more than double what he’d hoped to spend, and he hesitated. He’d signed all the paperwork for the inheritance and the money was now his, but it wouldn’t be in his account until the middle of next week. Think of it as an investment, he finally told himself. Besides, he was already late, and he still had one more stop to make. “I’ll take it,” he said.

***

The dinner went better than she’d expected, all things considered. They’d been understandably awkward when he first arrived, but she appreciated the gesture of the dessert wine. She’d tried to keep the menu simple to avoid mistakes: chicken fried steaks, potatoes au gratin, steamed vegetables — all favorites of his.

“It’s delicious,” he told her.

“Thank you. Rosie and Gildy helped.”

“Cats make good helpers,” he agreed. “Thank you. For all of this.” He gestured at the remains of the dinner spread across the table.

“You’re welcome. I didn’t see any reason to make this harder than it already is.”

He dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. “I know this hasn’t been easy for you.”

“It is what it is,” she said. “I’m guessing divorce is never easy.”

“Then we agree that’s where this needs to go?”

She nodded. “I think that’s pretty obvious. It’s just a matter of working out the details.”

“Which I think you’ll also agree just got more interesting. The inheritance is a lot of money; so much that I think we probably should leave all that to the lawyers.”

She ran a finger around the rim of her water glass. “I’m not sure I can afford an attorney,” she admitted.

“I can cover all the legal fees for both of us now,” he said, waving his hand dismissively.

“That’s very generous of you. As long as I get to choose my own lawyer.”

“Of course,” he agreed. “I’m sure we can come to some mutually agreeable arrangement.”

“In that case,” she said, “I think it’s time for dessert. Why don’t you pour the wine while I bring in the pie?”

***

He scraped the last crumbs from the plate with his fork. “That was amazing,” he said. “Dutch apple is still my favorite. Thank you for remembering.”

“I’m just glad we did this.”

“Me, too.” He raised his glass in a toast. “Here’s to being civil.”

“To civility,” she agreed, and drained the remainder of her glass. “Good choice on the wine, by the way,” she added. “I love the way its warmth spreads all the way down.”

“I’m glad you like it.”

She looked around the table. “Time to clean up, I guess.” She started to stand but only got halfway up before sitting back down abruptly.

“What is it?” he asked.

“I’m not sure.” She seemed genuinely confused. “My legs don’t seem to be cooperating.”

He nodded. “That would be the neurotoxin.”

“What?”

“I put it in your wine while you were fetching the pie. The paralysis is very quick. It begins in your arms and legs and then spreads, gradually slowing down your heart and lungs until they stop. It’s supposed to be relatively painless; rather like going to sleep.”

She stared at him blankly without speaking.

He shrugged and continued. “I assure you it’s no longer personal. You of all people must know that I’ve never been much for sharing.”

She looked down at her unmoving legs as though willing them to stand. Then she began to laugh.

He hadn’t expected that. “What on earth?” he asked.

She didn’t answer, but just kept laughing.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he said and started to stand, only to pitch forward, barely catching himself before he fell onto the table top.

She thought that was the funniest thing she’d ever seen.

“What have you done?” he whispered.

“Your pie,” she said, smiling. “I poisoned your damn pie.”

“But wh–?” he started to ask, but stopped when she raised one eyebrow.

“Seriously?” she asked and started laughing again.

“Okay, I get it,” he agreed. “You’re right. We should probably call an ambulance.”

“Ya think?”

“My phone is still in my coat pocket. Hanging by the door.”

“Mine is probably on top of the wine rack. Sitting by the door.”

They both turned to look into the next room. The front door seemed miles away. He pushed away from the table and dropped to the floor. Only his arms were still working as he dragged himself towards the proscenium arch separating the rooms. She slid down out of her chair and pulled herself forward by the most direct route, under the table.

“My arms are failing,” he said.

“Mine, too. I can’t feel my fingers.” She was dragging herself by her elbows.

He used the last of his arm control to roll over onto his back. Wriggling just his shoulders, he managed to move another six or eight inches before he had to give up and lie helplessly in the archway. She tried to pull herself over him, but could only get halfway across before her arms failed. She collapsed, spent, her head resting on his chest. Both of them were breathing heavily from the exertion.

“Maybe someone can hear us,” he suggested and began to yell. “Help! Somebody help in here! Anybody?”

She was barely able to shake her head the tiniest bit. “It’s no good. All the windows are closed, and Mr. Patterson down the hall is gone for the weekend.”

“What about Mrs. McGillicuddy downstairs?”

“She can barely hear you when you’re in the same room.”

Their breathing began to slow. “So, this is it, then?” he asked.

“I guess so.”

“Aren’t we a pair?”

There didn’t seem to be a good answer to that question.

“Was it really all that bad,” he finally asked. “I mean, back when we were still together?”

“Not at first,” she admitted. “But at the end? Yeah, it was pretty awful.”

“I guess so.”

Neither spoke for a while after that. In the silence, with her head on his chest, she could hear his heartbeat. “It’s been a long time since I listened to your heart,” she said.

“What’s it doing?”

“Slowing down.”

He sighed. “It shouldn’t be long now.”

“Are you sorry?” she asked.

He had to consider that. “Strangely, no. I don’t think I am. You?”

“No. Me either. What the hell is wrong with us?”

He chuckled.

“What on earth are you laughing at now?” she asked.

“This is how they’ll find us,” he said, “in each other’s arms.”

“Well, that’s ironic. Plus, it’s a locked room. They’ll probably think it was double suicide.”

“Is that so bad?”

“Better than double murder, I guess. In some small way, maybe even kinda romantic.”

“Do you really think so?” he asked.

“No,” she decided. “Not really.”

“Me, either.”

“How long do you think before someone comes looking?”

He mapped the calendar in his head. “Not before Monday night. At least two days. Maybe longer.”

“Damn.”

“I know, right?”

“No, you don’t understand. Who’s gonna feed the cats?”

There was a long pause. “I guess we are,” he said.

“Well, isn’t that special?”

“Merry Christmas.”

She giggled at that. “You always could make me laugh.”

“I always enjoyed doing it,” he admitted, and smiled. “I still love the sound of your laughter.”

“Merry Christmas,” she said, and closed her eyes.


Kevin Sandefur
Kevin Sandefur

Kevin Sandefur currently works as the Capital Projects Accountant for the Champaign Unit 4 School District. His first published stories recently appeared or are forthcoming this year in aftermath Online Magazine, PULP Literature, and the Bath Flash Fiction anthology, Restore to Factory Settings. He lives with his wife and two cats in Champaign County, Illinois, which is a magical place where miracles happen almost every day, and hardly anyone seems to find that remarkable.

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