My winning entry in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest. A burnt-out detective traces missing kids to a toy store with a powerful secret and an alluring proprietor who makes him an offer he can’t refuse.
The missing kids shared one commonality: unhappy homes. Half of the parents never reported them gone. Those who did made me want to check for warrants. After twenty years, a cop develops a sixth sense for malevolence.
“They go in, and they don’t come out.” That was the tip. Abracadabra Toys was the store. Lauri Laska, the sole proprietor.
I met Mrs. Edward Galsworthy, age eighty-six, at a graffiti covered bus stop across from the shop.
A revolving door fanned customers into the store, flanked on each side by monolithic oak entablatures carved with Egyptian hieroglyphics.
My tipster said her late husband was a timepiece certification specialist, when all railroad men wore Ball wristwatches requiring twice annual inspections.
Her voice evoked fingernails on a blackboard. “He died two years ago, December fifth, nineteen-seventy-two. He paid attention to detail. If you policemen had his character, there would be a lot less crime in this city.”
Mrs. Galsworthy lived down to her name. She conjured a vision of my wife’s morning rants. The thought of going home to infinite animosity kept me working long after my colleagues munched TV dinners and digested Walter Cronkite.
I took inventory of the few subjects spiraling through Abracadabra’s twirling entry. Six in. Six out.
My patience with Mrs. Galsworthy’s stream of judgmental consciousness was whisker thin when I saw him. The boy looked to be twelve, bruises visible beneath his white t-shirt. He lingered at Abracadabra’s display window, tracing its treasures on the glass. After thinking about things for a few minutes, he marched to the spinning portal and disappeared inside.
Mrs. Galsworthy’s bus came. She went. I stayed.
The light changed. The traffic became a gridlock patchwork of multi-colored dominoes. I threaded my way across the street and pressed into the doorway’s slow circulation.
The size of the oak blocks made it seem smaller until you stepped inside its orbiting embrace. An immense, triangular pie-slice supported a frieze, framing two segments of opaque glass I associated with a private investigator’s office door. A grinning face with a huge third eye, white with a bright blue cornea, stared down at me from the top of the casing. I could have sworn it blinked. Focusing on anything for too long confuses a person. Things move.
A glowing feminine presence was the only sign of life. She wore loose fitting pastels and layers of flamboyant jewelry. Silver and gold circled her neck and wrists with no discernible strategy, except for a splash of Sedona crystals. A pendant with the words “Free at Last,” dipped into suntanned cleavage. Long black hair, streaked with gray framed a placid face and a genuine smile. Tiny wrinkles at the edges of bright green eyes revealed the only clue to her age.
I flashed my shield and ID. She admired the well-worn combination as if it were a Monet.
“J. Cavanaugh. That sounds like poetry. What does the ‘J’ stand for?”
“Jerry. Where’s the kid?”
She didn’t try to hide it. “In a much happier place, Jerry.”
I struggled to sound serious. Her alluring aura made it difficult. “Human trafficking is a federal offense, Ms. Laska.”
“I’m Lauri. Is that what it’s called when a person escapes abuse and finds unconditional love?”
“Agencies make those decisions Lauri, not us. How do you do it? Are there accomplices in the back room?”
“I guess you can’t arrest me until you figure it out, Jerry.”
The playful voice, punctuated sentences with gentle laughter. It sounded like shallow river rapids dancing over a gauntlet of random stones in Springtime.
Those images didn’t often appear in a cynical head like mine.
“Are you giving me permission to look around?”
I felt Lauri’s extended arms might encircle me. “Absolutely. Explore!”
The small storage area revealed nothing. Just inventory shelves and a fire exit into an alley too thin for a getaway car. The shop itself had no visible secrets.
Lauri scribbled a note on a receipt.
“What would you do if you could make your dreams come true, Jerry?”
The question hit me like a line-drive to the forehead. What would I do? I would start over in a different life with a woman like you, who radiated affection and joy and a thousand emotions I’ve long forgotten.
She balanced her beautiful head on woven fingers. The bracelets sang as they slid down forearms toward elbows resting on the countertop. “It’s not too late. All it takes is a wink and a smile.”
Fatigue drained my resolve. The kids I hunted escaped bad situations. I had a hard time believing someone like Lauri Laska made them worse.
I leaned against one of the immense oak blocks dwarfing the revolving door. “I wish it was that easy.”
Her tempting gaze tugged at my cold cop’s heart like a magnet. “A wink and a smile, Jerry. I hope I’ll see you again.”
A thousand things I wanted to tell her began to break through a lifetime of compartmentalization. One vision crowded out all the others. I longed to forget being a police officer and spend the rest of my life drinking in her sunlight.
I needed to leave before this madness strangled me.
I pressed the door into motion. Lauri disappeared behind the opacity of the glass.
I heard a soft click. The rotation stopped. I was drawn again to the grin and the cycloptic third eye. This time there was no doubt. The wink was real. The door’s outer partition began to move. It revealed a lighted corridor within the hollows of the oaken monolith. Young hands wrote familiar names on the walls. Names I knew from dozens of interviews with cruel parents. Below each, “Free at Last” was inscribed in the singular hand I recognized from the receipt on the Abracadabra sales counter.
A silhouette appeared at the far end of the passage. She stepped into the light, with a wink and a smile. The joyful voice I longed to hear whispered, “Welcome, Jerry. You’re free at last.”