Megan Nafke’s The Puzzle Keeper:
The author hopes you will enjoy this free excerpt:
I died five times as a child from the Watkins plague that killed a third of the world’s population twenty years ago, yet I can’t remember being as scared as I am right now. I stared over the ‘Closed for Private Party’ sign posted on the door to the Red Lion Pub, trying desperately to see if my friends were inside. After some time I peered to my side without moving and saw my boss, Gail Lewis, a large woman with short wispy brown hair and large bright brass earrings standing next to me.
“Just making sure someone was inside.” I pointed at the sign on the door, as my lips stretched reluctantly into a smile.
“I’m assuming that they are inside?” Her pudgy nose flared slightly in a sigh.
“Yes, Mrs. Lewis.” I opened the door and she strolled through slowly. I took a deep breath and followed her into the pub.
The small pub was filled with Survivors, which was the name given to the lucky people who had the illness during the plague but survived. Most of the people here either helped Trevor with his research on the long-term side effects of surviving the Watkins plague, or knew that he was about to make his research public. My adopted sister, Molly, loved him and his work, so I grew to tolerate him despite my knack for finding faults with anyone who dated her.
I had always known that the illness gave us some sort of side effects. Shortly after I was revived from cardiac arrest for the last time due to the plague, I started to pick up on other people’s emotions, which I mimicked to my mother’s frustration.
My mother thought I was simply reacting to the trauma of the illness, but then I started to see scattered images. At first the images were like trying to watch a TV show when it is flickering in and out of reception, but as the images became clear it was obvious that I was seeing other people’s memories and thoughts.
Once in the bar, it didn’t take long to spot Trevor, the lead researcher and Molly’s fiancé. He was hard to miss since he was close to six and a half feet tall and wore oversized black retro glasses. His long, bony arms wrapped around Molly, as a crowd hovered around them. She looked up at me, her eyes hopeful, but I shook my head. I wanted to go in but I was having trouble blocking other people’s thoughts and emotions; I needed to sit as far away from the crowd as possible.
My body trembled as I walked along the wooden wall filled with dart boards and ale advertisement, I could see that my body was moving down the hallway, but I didn’t feel as if I was present; exhaustion was flowing through every part of my body. I fell like a lifeless rag doll into the first empty seat at the bar, and buried my head in my bare arms.
My nose twitched as I caught the strong, bitter smell of freshly brewed coffee, and saw Colin refilling a man’s coffee cup a few seats down from me. From his appearance, you would not guess he was working at the pub. All the workers were required to wear a uniform consisting of a dark green shirt and black slacks, and keep their hair neatly combed. Colin, however, had on his favorite light leather jacket, tee shirt, and slightly wrinkled jeans. His chestnut brown hair was styled in a mass of unruly wave, and he always seemed two days late for a shave.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you,” I smiled and eagerly turned over the mug in front me.
“Are you talking to me or the coffee?” Colin asked.
“You, of course,” I laughed, “though coffee would be nice.”
“Uh huh,” His left eyebrow rose slightly as he poured the java into my small cup.
“I didn’t know you were helping out tonight,” I said between sips.
“Only way Dad could close the bar for tonight.” He nodded his head towards the end of the bar, where his dad was in the middle of pouring drinks.
“I can’t believe Sean agreed to closing his bar,” I said.
“Yeah well he’d do anything for you two,” he said. Colin, Molly and I had shared a hospital room when we had the plague. Our parents became close and we grew even closer after losing four of our six parents. The two surviving parents, Colin’s dad and my mom, took it upon themselves to raise all three of us. My mother even adopted Molly after her parents died, and Colin’s dad tried to fill in as a father to all three of us.
“How’s your day been?” Colin asked.
“Long,” I took long sips of the hot coffee.
“I think we’re all going to be having long days for awhile.”
“At least the anticipation will be over soon. Today reminds me of being at the dentist waiting to get my wisdom teeth pulled. You can’t leave. You know it’s going to be incredibly painful. All you can do is sit by the clock and wait for the inevitable.”
“Look on the bright side. We all have each other. Some people might be going through this alone.” He patted my wrist softly and looked around the room.
“True,” I smiled. “I can’t image how people cope with this alone.”
“I can’t imagine how people will feel when a tall nerd outs them on national television without any warning. I’ll be back,” he said strolling down to a redheaded waitress that was waving him over to the other corner of the bar. I didn’t recognize the waitress and wondered if it was business or pleasure.
“Claire?” Molly asked as she slipped into a seat next to me. Molly was tall and curvy. People were drawn to her large dark eyes and winsome smile. Seeing us together most people could tell one of us was adopted.
“How’s the big night going for you two?” I asked.
“It‘s just been the best. I’ve never seen him so happy.” Her eyes lingered on Trevor.
“I’m glad,” I said.
“You should come and watch the interview with us.”
“I think I’m going to stay here and drink my coffee and watch the interview with Colin. I’ll stop by later to congratulate him.” Her eyes followed my gaze as I looked at Trevor. “When the crowd thins out a bit.”
“Well, you do look like you need a cup.” Molly put a hand on my shoulder, which felt more patronizing than sympathetic“You look fine, sweetie.” She wrapped her arms around my shoulders briefly then walked away. “I’ll save you a seat at our table if you change your mind.”
“You already drank your cup of coffee?” Colin peered at my cup and shook his head. “I was only gone for a minute.”
“I could use another,” I said.
“You’re addicted to the stuff.”
“I’m not addicted, I simply need to drink a certain amount of coffee a day to avoid debilitating headaches,” I grinned.
“Uh huh,” His deep laughter caused small ripples in the coffee pot.
Everyone stopped talking but the thoughts in the room buzzed too loud and chaotic to focus on any one thought. I turned and found everyone straining and contorting their bodies to see the screens that were placed on top of the bar.
A brunette woman in her thirties with her hair tied up in a bun was on the screen sitting across from Trevor.
“I’m here with Dr. Trevor Harris to discuss his recent findings in his work with the Survivors,” the woman said.
“Thank you, Jane.” Trevor stared at something just beyond her and nodded his head. “It’s been twenty years since the epidemic that killed one third of the population and left another third of the population hovering between life and death started. During the four years between epidemic cycles of the Watkins plague, most researchers have been so focused on the people that died and preventing the illness that they neglected the Survivors. In the five years since a cure has been found, most researchers have been focused on discovering how Dr. Watkins created and spread the disease. However, I have been working with the Survivors to find any long term effects of the illness.”
“And?” She asked wrinkling her brow.
“Yes, I found that certain Survivors had what I will call side effects of the illness.”
“Why did only certain Survivors develop side effects?”
“I found that the majority of the people who developed any side effects were very young children at the time they contracted the illness. All the people who have side effects had cardiac arrest at least once.”
“I’m not surprised that having your heart stop would cause complications, but what type of side effects did these people have?”
“That is the interesting part. As far as I can tell the side effects range in type and intensity. I’ve seen people who can read thoughts and emotions and people who can communicate with animals or spirits, and I’ve found people who can travel with their spirit.” Jane looked puzzled and turned to look at something off camera.
“Those claims seem a little far fetched.”
“My findings have been well documented and reviewed by the scientific community.” His thin lips smiled showing his crowded front teeth. “However, I can give you a quick demonstration.” He nodded his head and his research assistant came on camera. “This is Bill Mason, we’re both Survivors with side effects but his is more convincing.”
“What do you mean?” She said but then grew very pale as the note cards in her hand started to pull away from her even though no one else was touching them. Jane jerked back and the cards hovered over her head before zooming to Bill’s hands.
“Bill is telekinetic; he is able to move objects without touching them. He can give you another demonstration if you wish.”
“That was enough of a demonstration for me.” Jane crossed her arms and sank in her chair. “Thank you very much for coming on the show. To find out more about the research findings on the Survivors, read Dr. Harris’ paper that is posted on our website.”
The silence at the pub was broken when a man stood up and started clapping. I shook myself and turned my eyes away from the TV screen. The clapping was contagious and died down only as people started grabbing glasses of champagne. It’s amazing how the presence of alcohol will distract people from almost anything. The tension in the room had calmed down but all I could think about was how everyone else in our town was going to take the news.
A tall Hispanic police officer stopped me at the gates to the mansion perched on the Santa Cruz Mountains. “I’m sorry Ma’am but I can’t let you in here. This is a crime scene.” He spoke as if speaking to a child.
“Yes, I know.” I indicated the police tape that was only inches away from me. I handed him my badge. “I may be short and blonde but that doesn’t make me a child.”
“Oh, sorry. Detective Moseley told me you’d be coming.” He coughed. “I just thought you’d be, older.” Actually, his thoughts reflected that I would be just about anything but a petite blonde. Although he didn’t mind that I was one because he was thinking about asking me out. That is until he realized from my badge that I was a Survivor. I considered reprimanding him for the political incorrectness of his thoughts but I didn’t want to reveal that I could read them.
“It’s all right, Officer.” I signed the clipboard he was holding, and grabbed some gloves and a pair of booties.
“You made it here fast. Didn’t your plane just land?” Colin asked greeting me at the gate.
“What can I say? I’m an efficient driver.”
“I think police officers have another word for that: speeding.”
“That’s such a negative word. I prefer mine.”
“I’m sure you do.”
Gargoyles on the edge of the roof watched me as we walked along the stone pathway leading up to the house. Two men in casual slacks and button up shirts stood at the metallic looking front door. Their professional appearance contrasted sharply with Colin’s. Colin, as usual, had on his favorite light leather jacket, tee shirt, and slightly wrinkled jeans. His chestnut brown hair was styled in a mass of unruly waves on the top of his head, and he always seemed two days late for a shave.
When we got closer to the two men, I recognized one of them as Detective Austin Hughes. My heart raced. I struggled to keep walking, as if I was wearing cement shoes.
“You could have told me he was the detective,” I straightened a loose blonde curl behind my ear.
“I didn’t know.” Colin shrugged. “I must have talked to his partner.”
I glanced up at Austin, he was still as handsome as the last time I saw him. He had broad shoulders and a short hair cut like you would expect from a police officer. When I caught his gray eyes, the color of a storm cloud, searching my face, I looked away.
“Hi, Claire.” Austin smiled at me. I could feel my cheeks growing hotter. “Colin.” He nodded his head at Colin.
“I see you made homicide detective.” I could see out of the corner of my eye that he was staring at me, but I kept my focus on the door.
“Yes, it’s my third case. This is my partner, Detective David Moseley.” He nodded his head towards the man next to him. He didn’t look like a man who could make it as a cop, or even a round of dodge ball against a girl scout. His bones showed clearly through the skin on his face, giving him an appearance of being ill. He was no taller or wider than a typical twelve-year-old boy.
“Nice to meet you both.” His voice matched his boyish size.
“It’s nice to meet you, Detective Moseley,” Colin said reaching out to shake his hand.
“Better not,” He said showing us his gloves. “You don’t want to know what I have been touching.”
“Fair enough,” Colin said. “Can you give us a rundown of what you already know?”
“We figured you’d want to see the scene so we haven’t moved the body,” Austin said as he stepped into the house. Detective Moseley shrugged and followed him. Colin and I put on our gloves and booties and followed the detectives. Despite the house being filled with oversize windows and indoor light, it appeared dark.
Our footsteps echoed throughout the house as the two detectives led us up the long staircase. I hugged my bare arms against my chest as we walked down the chilly hallway. It felt like someone had the air conditioning on way too high. I unclenched when we stopped at a doorway.
The bedroom looked rustic like an interior of a lodge. An antique bed with maple posts took up more than half the room. A woman with long blonde hair and a white summer dress was lying across the top of the bed.
“This is Mrs. Eileen Cooper,” Austin said. He indicated her open mouth. “We found what appears to be some type of material and stuffing lodged in her mouth. We haven’t found the object, but we believe it’s a pillow.”
“What makes you think it’s a pillow?” I asked.
Detective Moseley straightened. “I figured it out. There should be a pair of decorative pillows with initials embroidered on them. We found one with “BC” on it but the one with “EC” is missing.”
“That’s impressive,” Colin said.
“Our theory at the moment is that the killer covered her mouth with a pillow to keep her quiet, and then stabbed her multiple times in the chest and abdomen.” Austin indicated the stains on the top of her low cut, cotton dress.
“Wait a minute. We’re in the middle of the woods. The nearest house to here is almost a mile away. Why would the killer need to keep her quiet?” Colin asked.
“That’s a good question. The only explanation I could think of is that someone else was on the property or expected back,” Detective Moseley said.
“What is that?” We all looked down. The word traitor was carved into the bare skin that was exposed on her chest. Each letter was deep with jagged edges.
“Traitor to whom?” Colin asked.
“We found this next to the body.” Austin picked up a plastic bag with a flyer in it and held it so we could read it. It was a Brotherhood of Humanity flyer with bold lettering at the top reading, Top Twenty Most Dangerous Survivors. It was no surprise that my future brother-in-law, Trevor Harris, was number one. After all, it was his research that exposed the paranormal side effects caused by the Watkins plague. A few pictures down was a picture of Mrs. Cooper with her name written underneath. An “x” was over her picture in what looked like blood.
“Was she a Survivor?” I asked.
“No way to really tell without medical records. The husband says no, but who can tell?” Detective Moseley asked. That was true; on the outside there was nothing to distinguish us from the rest of the population and not everyone who survived the plague had paranormal side effects.
“Her son Russ is a Survivor. Poor kid’s had a rough week. He was in a fight after school yesterday afternoon,” Austin said.
“Where is the son?” Colin asked.
“At the hospital with his father. He had … well I really don’t know what happened to him. One minute he was crying but behaving in a normal way after losing a parent and then the next minute he completely snapped. Couldn’t even understand what he was saying. We had to have an officer ride with him to the hospital to get their statements,” Austin said.
“That seems understandable considering …” I started to say.
“Trust me this was not normal,” Detective Moseley said.
“We will stop by the hospital after this. Any other evidence?” I asked.
“We collected what we could. We just wouldn’t know until the lab runs everything,” Detective Moseley said.
“Heck, we haven’t even been able to find the murder weapon. Though we think it’s some type of kitchen knife,” Austin said.
“Who found the body?” Colin asked after a long moment of silence.
“Mr. Cooper found the body when he came home from work, around 5:30 this evening. No one else was in the house,” Detective Moseley said.
“Is there anyone else living here?” I asked.
“Her sister, Nadine, and her brother-in-law, Mike, live here as well. Mike was at work with Mr. Cooper during the time of the murder. Nadine claims she was running errands. She had a gas receipt on her with a time stamp of 4:20. She also had a receipt from Target with a time stamp of 4:50, which proves she was out of the house. We don’t have the exact time of death but we do think it’s around the time she was out,” Austin said.
“So basically we have a town full of suspects, with no leads and no witnesses?” I asked.
“Afraid so,” Austin said.
I was on the last few sips of my cold coffee, when I heard my name being called from the nurses’ station. The waiting room was filled with a sea of patients. I tried squeezing myself through a tiny gap between two tall women, but they simply pressed their hips together. Colin growled, “Move.” His voice was deep and loud and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up straight. The crowd quickly moved to either side like Moses parting the Red Sea.
An elderly nurse was furiously typing on the computer in front of her. She held out her hand to the side of the computer. After a moment she sighed and looked at her empty hand, then looked up over her glasses at us. She stretched her hand closer to us and said, “Patient’s card.”
“I don’t have one, but I think this will do.” I showed her my badge and she withdrew her hand.
“What can I do for you, Agent Bennett?
A tall, curvy nurse stepped up to the counter and said, “I’ll take this one. Agent Bennett is my sister.” The elderly nurse looked at both of us and shook her head. I didn’t have to read her mind, it was a familiar reaction to hearing we were sisters. It was obvious that one of us was adopted, since I was about as far from tall and dark as you can get. We moved out of line so we could talk privately.
“I didn’t know you were back from your trip. Why didn’t you call me?” Molly asked twisting the locket around her neck.
“I just got home, haven’t even picked up Rosie yet. Besides, I figured you were busy moving in with that fiancé of yours.”
“You know I’m never too busy for you, sweetie.”
“It seems we are both busy these days. You move out to be with Trevor, and I spend my time cleaning up his messes.” The image of Mrs. Cooper’s body popped into my head.
Molly ignored me and turned to Colin and pointed her finger at him, “speaking of work. She just gets back and you put my sister to work. Can’t you do a case without her?”
Colin stopped playing with his cell phone and looked up, “When has she ever listened to me? The words ‘No’ and ‘can’t’ are like catnip to her.”
“I know, I’m just teasing.” She gave him a quick hug. “I don’t get to see you much anymore so I need to get in as much teasing as I can. I know this isn’t a social call, what are you guys doing here?”
“I think the more important question is what are you doing in the E.R.?”
“No, choice.” She shrugged. “The whole hospital has turned into one big emergency room.”
“Is it safe for you to work here? What if someone dies near you?” I asked.
“I’ve been careful. My boss is working here tonight, too. She’s aware of my problem. She has assigned me to work triage.”
“Still seems rather risky,” I said. Molly normally works in a clinic, where the chance of being around when someone died was slim. The closer she is to a person when they die the better the chance a ghost will know she can see them and the more they stick around and bother her.
“We are here checking on a patient. Was Russ Cooper seen here?” Colin asked.
Molly scanned the computer screen and then said, “Yes, he was moved to a room for the night.”
“How is he?” I asked.
“We talked about this. You know I can’t tell you,” Molly said.
“I’m sorry. I know. Can we speak to him?” I asked.
“Depends. It’s up to his doctor and his father if he is up to talking. Let me give them a call,” she said. After a short phone conversation, she said that Russ’ father agreed to speak to us and gave us the directions to his room.
We made our way to Russ’ hospital room on the eighth floor. A large bald man who resembled a short tempered nightclub bouncer stood outside room 305.
“Mr. Cooper?” He nodded and I shook his hand “I’m Agent Claire Bennett and this is my partner, Agent Colin O’Connor,” I said as Colin shook his hand.
“I don’t understand. Why are you here? The cops have already been here to talk to us.” His voice reminded me of a drill sergeant.
“We work for the Bureau of Survivor Affairs. You probably haven’t heard of it. It’s a relatively new agency that deals with cases that involve the Survivors. We have been assigned to your wife’s case because some of the evidence points to it being a Survivor related crime,” Colin said.
When Mr. Cooper didn’t say anything I added, “We are very sorry for your loss. How is your son?”
“It took two hours to calm him down,” he said. “It was so bad they’re making him stay the night, just in case it happens again.”
“Losing a parent can be very painful,” I said.
“No, it was different. It wasn’t just sadness from losing his mom although that is bad enough. I haven’t seen pain like that since the army. Let me tell you, nothing in the world is worse than seeing your child in pain and not being able to do a damn thing to make it better.” Mr. Cooper took a seat on a tiny chair propped against the wall and buried his head in his hands. “I think he blames himself for the murder.”
“Why do you think that?” Colin asked.
“My son has always been,” he paused and scratched the small bald spot in the back of his head and finally said, “Different. I always liked that about him. Since the news came out, he has been more different than usual.”
“Is different bad?” Colin asked.
“Now it is. Haven’t you seen the papers?” Mr. Cooper asked. We nodded. The image of the bombing of a Survivor support center in upstate New York popped into my head. It didn’t take much to provoke violence. Being different right now was dangerous if not deadly. “He is a walking target, from the costumes he wears to telling everyone he meets that he has ‘magical powers’.”
“I could see how that’d be a serious problem,” Colin commented.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Mr. Cooper said. “Can you imagine being at the grocery store and having your son tell the teller, a complete stranger mind you, that he is able to steal memories?”
“That would be a bit awkward.” I swallowed a laugh. I liked the boy already.
“Is he really able to steal memories? Or is he just a telepath or something?” Colin asked.
“Just a telepath?” His face stiffened. “Oh God, I hope not.”
“Excuse me?” I asked. “What’s wrong with being a telepath?”
“There’s a difference between someone that does not like telepaths and someone not wanting their loved one to be one,” Colin said.
Mr. Cooper nodded in agreement, but by his thoughts he wasn’t entirely sure why I was angry. Colin put a hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him and relaxed. He was right. For the most part I liked being a telepath, but I wouldn’t like someone else using it on me.
“Just tell us what you do know about Russ’s abilities,” Colin said.
“Russ says he sees things when he touches objects. Things that aren’t really there. To be frank, He doesn’t talk about this stuff to me and I don’t ask. Maybe I should have.”
“How has he handled being so open about his side effect?” Colin asked.
“He found out the hard way why it was a bad idea. A group of kids jumped him on his way home from school. It was so bad I had to take him to the hospital for stitches.” I noticed his neck muscles twitching just above the collar of his white polo shirt. “Ever since then he has locked himself in his room glued to the computer.”
“Did you try talking to him?” I asked.
“I tried. I really did. My wife was the one he talks to. I mean talked to,” his hazel eyes became red and glossy. “Eileen would’ve known what to do.”
“You’re not alone.” I put my hand on his thick shoulder. “We will find a way to help him.”
A croaking voice called “Dad?” from inside Russ’ room.
“We can talk about this later. Come see us when Russ gets released.” Colin handed him his business card.
Thankfully, my apartment wasn’t far from the hospital. I could hardly wait to see my dog Rosie, take a shower and get the stink of the airport and crime scene off of me. From first glance the boutiques and restaurants that line my street, Cherry Blossom Lane, look like stylish cottages from some small European village, each painted a different pastel color. The upper stories of each building had apartments. Light glowed ahead, leading me to the one store still open. My eyes blinked as they adjusted to the light as I gazed into the Wonderland Bakery. It was aptly named. The walls had murals of scenes from Alice in Wonderland, and the tables and the chairs were funky enough for the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
I could see Alice’s frizzy black hair bounce as she danced from the oven to the counter with a batch of cupcakes. Alice froze when she saw me. Redness spread across her creamed coffee skin. She gestured at a plate of frosted sugar cookies shaped like bunnies. My stomach growled at me to take the offer.
It had become a test of wills to live over the bakery, the smell of chocolate flowing through the apartment.
“Glad to see you back, girl,” Alice said opening the door to her shop and embracing me with a hug. “Rosie’s been missing you. I never knew a dog could pout that much.”
“Thanks for watching her. Would have asked Molly but you know ….”
“I was glad to do it. How was the trip?”
“It was another case of a neighborhood overreacting to the discovery of a Survivor with side effects in their midst. By the time I got there the murderer had pretty much identified himself by bragging to anyone who’d listen how he got rid of ‘that freak down the street’. Not much need for a telepath there.”
“Now don’t go making me sorry I made that appointment with that reporter.”
“While you were gone, the local news team decided to do a series of stories about the Survivors and they asked for volunteers. So, I volunteered.”
“Why would you do that?!” I shook my head in exasperation. “Have you not been listening to the kind of problems Colin and I have had to deal with since the news came out about our existence?”
“If all people hear is what’s wrong with us how will anything ever change?”
“Well, yes, but your timing couldn’t be worse. I’m on another Survivor related murder and this time it’s local. And it looks like we’ve got an active anti-Survivor organization calling themselves ‘The Brotherhood of Humanity’. Can’t you postpone it?”
“You worry too much. I’m a baker; who would hurt a baker?”
“When is the interview? I want to be there to scan the crowd for problems.”
“It’s Friday night. I appreciate you coming down for it. Speaking of my special goods, I have some dream cookies all ready for you to take home.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
Alice’s side effect centered around baking. She made many types of cookies with various effects, but my favorite was the dream cookie. It allowed you to take complete control of your dreams. You could relive memories so vividly it was hard to separate the true memory from the dream or allowed you to make any dream scenario feel real. Although you had to be carful to eat them before bed, or you risk dreaming while awake. For that reason she only sold or gave her special baked goods to a select few.
Alice reappeared and handed me a pink box. “I’d better get back,” Alice said over the oven buzzer.
“Thanks again,” I said.
Alice nodded and gave me a quick wave as I walked alongside the building to the door of my apartment.
Rosie, a border collie with German shepherd coloring was pouting in the living room when I opened the door. It would have made me feel guilty but her bushy tail was wagging behind her. When she decided I’d suffered enough, she got up and walked over so I could pet her. I noticed a light was on in Molly’s room. For a moment I had a jolt of happiness and went to look for her. When I got to her room, it was empty except for the furniture and I remembered that she moved out while I was gone. It was the first night Molly has lived away from me since we shared a hospital room as kids. Rosie and I curled up on her mattress and we fell asleep.