This is my third attempt at a one day mystery. However, I got halfway through the first draft and was completely unhappy with it, so I started over. Thus, it took more than a day to write it.
Mr. J’s Bronze Buddha
©2020, Joseph L. Thornburg. All Rights Reserved.
(contains language, violence)
“Now, now, Mrs. Busch. You made me promise never to let you eat more than two pastries in one day.”
“I never bleedin’ said pastries, I said cinnamon rolls!” cried Mrs. Busch, as she reached for her third pain aux raisins. Curls of fiery red hair with white roots drooped on her head like a comatose Komondor. It was remarkable she was able to walk in her lime platform wedge mules without keeling over. And though it was the middle of a hot and humid August, she had wrapped her cylindrical figure in a brand new mink coat, which had been dyed a blinding shade of fuchsia. A recent immigrant from London, where it was rumored she had won a fortune in the National Lottery, she moved to East Kingsley to be near her daughter, who had married an American. What she lacked in height she compensated for in volume, and hers was the type of British English where words like “eye” are pronounced “oy”.
“And I told ya before, Julius, none of this bleedin’ ‘Mrs. Busch’ nonsense.” She drew herself up in a regal manner. “Call me Dainty.” she said with mock pretension, then cackled at her own joke.
“Yes, Dainty.” said Mr. Campbell. She knew his name was really Caesar, but he gave up trying to dissuade her from calling him Julius.
“You’re very busy again t’day!” she said as she dropped a ten dollar bill on the counter.
“Yes, as ghoulish as it seems, business is booming.” He rang up the pastry, put the bill in the drawer, took out seven dollars and tried to hand it to her, but she grabbed his hand and shoved it into the tip jar. “Everyone wants to see the coffeehouse where all the murders took place. We expanded into what used to be Licoricia’s candy shop and made it a second dining area.”
“It was nice of you to call it ‘Licoricia’s Lunchroom’. And ooh, I liked watchin’ those sexy worker men.”
“I can’t keep up with all the changes. The bakery closed since Kneady’s in jail. Peccari is running the deli while Collops is recuperating, and she’s hired a helper. What was his name? Ignatius?”
“Ichabod.” corrected Dainty.
“Ichabod, yes. And there’s a psychic now by the cigarette shop and a jewelry store, too.”
“And that new Japanese curiosity shop.”
“Speaking of which, Benjy and I were about to head over and check it out. Want to come with?”
“Ooh, any chance to see that young man who works there!” She cackled again and licked her lips.
The three of them made their way over. A big sign over the window said “House of Hashisaki / Grand Opening”. They stepped inside.
“Welcome! I’m Ari.” said a handsome young Japanese man. He shook hands with Benjy and Caesar. He tried to shake Dainty’s hand, but she seized him in a bear hug, patting his butt as she did. “Mmm, firm!”
Ari blushed. An old man in an expensive looking tweed suit hobbled up to him and said something in Japanese. Ari shook his head hurriedly and peeled Dainty’s arms from around him and said, “Everyone, this is my grandfather, Junnosuke.”
“I’m Halo.” said a woman behind them. All but lost in a whirlwind of shawls and beads, she wafted her way over to the group. “I am the proprietress of the psychic sanctuary a couple doors down.” She handed business cards to everyone.” Benjy looked at his. It read, “Halo Prairieflower, Psychic and Clairvoyant”, and listed a phone number, address, and website. It smelled faintly of patchouli incense.
Junnosuke looked at his card in puzzlement and nudged Ari. “Halo.” said Ari, slowly and deliberately. “Hay-Low-san” said the old man, and he bowed formally to her. As everyone introduced themselves, Junnosuke repeated their names in a heavy accent and bowed.
“May we ask about that statue?” said a new voice. A woman and a man, arms linked and wearing matching blue suits, approached. Her free arm was gesturing toward the register, where there was a bronze statue on a pedestal. There was also a sign on the front that read Do Not Touch, with presumably the same message in Japanese underneath.
Before Ari could answer, there was a loud thudding sound. Everyone looked toward the door. A young delivery man had dropped a large box which was now at his feet. Despite his fragile appearance, Junnosuke got right in his face and began yelling in Japanese. The group was amazed such a frail looking senior could deliver so much vituperative invective. Even more amazingly, the delivery man seemed completely unperturbed by this.
“Tough old geezer.” said Dainty admiringly. She let her gaze fall to his butt and said, “Ooh, I see where Ari gets it!”
Ari put himself between the two men. “Eric,” he said, seeing the name tag of the delivery man. “We get a lot of very delicate merchandise here. Please be more careful.” Over Ari’s shoulder, Junnosuke grumbled to himself, with every third word being “Eric”, which he spoke like a profanity.
“Yeah, whatever.” said Eric. “Where do you want this?”
“Behind the counter will do.” Eric started to pick up the box, then decided it would be easier to shove it along the ground. He grunted and swore while he did so.
“Anyway,” said Ari. “That statue is a reproduction of the Buddha at Asukadera in Nara. It’s about 1300 years old. My grandfather brought it with him from Japan.”
“A family heirloom?” asked Halo.
“Not exactly. It’s just for display; he doesn’t want to sell it.”
“A shame; it must be worth a fortune.” said the man in the blue suit.
Dainty cried out—Eric had shoved the box against her leg.
“Bloody cheek! Watch where you’re goin’!”
“It’s not the first time.” said the woman in the suit after Eric was out of earshot. “Oh, my husband and I run the jewelry store. I’m Jocasta Payne, he’s Haemon.” Introductions went around again, and Junnosuke repeated their names. “Eric is always dropping our parcels. We’ve complained to his company before.”
“I’d love to have that statue in my space.” said Halo. “Think of all the spiritual energy and history it contains!”
Eric finished his task and thrust a clipboard at Ari. “Sign here.” Ari signed and handed the clipboard back. “Thank you for choosing NPS.” recited Eric in a bored monotone. He headed for the door, where he collided with two people coming in. “Watch where you’re going!” he snapped as he shoved past them. In walked Peccari with another young man.
“We’ve closed the deli for the day.” she said. “Oh, everyone, this is my new assistant, Ichabod. He’s helping out while my dad recovers.”
“Hi everyone.” said Ichabod. He saw Junnosuke, bowed, and said, “Ichabod desu. Hajimemashite.” The old man didn’t seem surprised but he bowed in return and said, “Junnosuke to moushimasu. Hajimemashite.”
“Ichabod,” said Benjy. “You speak Japanese!”
“Not really. When I was in high school I went there as part of an exchange program. I only remember tourist sentences now. You know, ‘my name is Ichabod, nice to meet you, where’s the bathroom?’”
“So tell us about your shop.” said Caesar to Ari.
“Well, I wanted to go into some kind of imported goods business after I got out of college but didn’t have the capital. Then, my grandfather moved here and put up the money about six months ago.”
“Why did he move here?” said Benjy. “I mean … he looks … well, only that such a move would be difficult for someone of his age.”
“He never said. It was kind of a surprise. He never even said anything about wanting to visit America, much less move here. One day he was in Japan, the next he was on my doorstep asking if he could stay until he got his own place. Oh, excuse me.” Ari reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell. He stepped away to take the call. Junnosuke bowed to everyone and busied himself behind the counter, unpacking the parcel Eric had brought. The group began exploring the store. Ari finished his call and was talking excitedly to Junnosuke. He came up to Benjy and Caesar, who were still taking to Ichabod. “Hey, you two are right next door, right?” Benjy nodded. “Listen,” said Ari. “I hate to ask, but I need a favor. I’ve got to leave town for a couple of days to handle an emergency. I don’t want to shut the shop when we’ve just opened. I’m going to leave my grandfather in charge, but can you guys keep an eye on him? He can run the register and everything but his English is pretty nonexistent.”
“Sure.” said Caesar. “Tell him to come get me if he needs help.”
“Me too.” said Ichabod. “My Japanese sucks, but I can try.”
“Great, thank you all.” said Ari. “We’re closing soon, then I’m leaving right after. I’ll be back Thursday.”
The next day, Dainty was finishing her third profiterole when Benjy came up to her table. “Dainty, would you like to go with me to check on Mr. J?” He hadn’t quite got the hang of pronouncing Junnosuke.
She gulped down the rest of her tea and wiped her mouth. “Ooh, that would be nice. If I can’t ogle that handsome son, I can at least look at his grandfather. He’s quite dishy himself!”
They stopped in the deli to see if Ichabod wanted to accompany them. Peccari said he was out on an errand, but should be back in a few minutes. “I’d wait,” said Benjy, looking at the clock on the wall, which read 11:58am. “But we’re getting busy at the coffeehouse and I need to get back as soon as possible.”
They entered Ari’s shop. It was empty. “Mr. J?” said Benjy. “Hello?”
“Looks like he sold the statue.” said Dainty, pointing toward the now empty pedestal.
“I thought he didn’t want to sell it. I wonder where he is?” Benjy headed toward the backroom, the door to which was past the counter. There on the floor behind the counter was Junnosuke, lying face up, a patch of blood under his head. “Dainty!” Benjy cried out as he knelt by the body. She joined him and looked.
“Bloody hell! Is he dead?”
“No—he’s breathing, see? Call 911! Mr. J? Can you hear me?” Then he noticed Junnosuke was holding a pencil in one hand and a sheet of note paper in the other. On it was scrawled a capital letter H.
A crowd of proprietors, customers and curious passers-by watched as the paramedics loaded the still unconscious form of Junnosuke in the ambulance. “The paramedics said he’s in a coma.” said Benjy. “Someone bashed him on the head pretty hard.”
“And probably stole that statue!” added Dainty. “Poor Mr. J!”
“Ari left is such a hurry we forgot to get his phone number.”
Halo, her fingertips pressed to her temples, said “I’ve been trying to reach out to his mind, but he is not responding.”
Caesar rolled his eyes and said to Benjy, “You said there was a note in his hand?” Benjy handed it to him. “The letter H—did he write that before or after he was attacked?”
“I suppose he could’ve written it after. Someone tried to steal the statue, Mr. J caught him, they fought, Mr. J got clobbered, but had time to write H before he lost consciousness.”
“May I see the note?” said Halo. Caesar handed it to her. She closed her eyes and pressed the note against her forehead, then made an odd cooing noise. “It wants to speak to me. Oh, note! I ask you to yield your secret!” She cooed again.
“Maybe he was trying to identify the attacker?” said Ichabod.
“That would mean he recognized him!” said Peccari.
“Someone whose name begins with H.” said Caesar. They all slowly looked at Halo, who still had her eyes closed. She finally opened them, then noticed their stares. “What?” she said. “I sense suspicion in your hearts.”
“You had your eye on that statue.” said Dainty. “Said it would look good in your shop!”
Halo sputtered indignantly. “What? Do I look like the type that would conk an old man on the head and steal a statue? I mean, go look in my shop. It’s not there!”
Jocasta eyed her. “Well, I’m sure you wouldn’t be so stupid as to display it right after the crime.”
“Or ever! But I didn’t take it!” Halo looked just over Jocasta’s shoulder. “Besides, I’m not the only one here whose name begins with H.”
Jocasta turned to follow Halo’s gaze and saw her husband. “You mean Haemon?” she said. “Don’t be absurd.”
“Why not? You were talking about it being worth a fortune.”
“I think that’s pretty obvious to anyone!” blurted Haemon. “I mean, anyone might’ve taken it for that reason!”
“Anyone whose name begins with H, that is.” said Halo.
“That still includes you!” Haemon took a threatening step toward Halo, who raised her arms in a poor imitation of a martial arts posture. And if there were anyone capable of staring daggers, it was Jocasta, who was sending a steady stream of trench knives toward Halo.
“Everyone, please calm down!” pleaded Peccari. Halo put her arms down, while Haemon took a deep breath and stepped back to stand by his wife, who had put all but one dagger away. Best to maintain a defensive stance, just in case Halo got out of hand again.
“Anyway,” said Haemon, clearing his throat. “I would not be so stupid as to try to sell something so unique and valuable. It would be like trying to sell the Mona Lisa.”
Peccari said, “Did anyone notice Mr. J was missing his left pinkie?”
“Uh oh.” said Ichabod. “I wonder if he was Yakuza?”
“Yacker-what?” said Dainty.
“Yakuza. Japanese organized crime, like the Mafia. In Yakuza culture, if you screw up, you have to cut off your little finger and give it to the boss as a show of penitence.”
Halo shuddered. “My goodness, couldn’t they just quit?”
“You know,” said Caesar. “Ari was saying Mr. J came to America rather abruptly, and gave him all the money to start his business. Maybe he had to get out of Japan for a reason.” He tilted his head coyly and made a “hmmm?” sound.
“And maybe this robbery was Yakuza related.” said Ichabod. “You know, revenge or something. But I don’t see how that’s connected to the letter H.”
“Maybe he was writing a note to Ari.” offered Peccari. “H for Hashisaki.”
Ichabod shook his head. “He wouldn’t address him by his last name, would he?”
“Are we so sure it’s an H?” said Benjy. He took the note from Halo and looked at it. “Mr. J was about to lose consciousness, I’m sure he wasn’t trying for neatness. He turned the note around so everyone could see it, and rotated it a quarter turn. “Maybe—it’s a capital I.”
Everyone then turned to face Ichabod. “Oh, no.” he protested. “It wasn’t me. I wasn’t here. I was on an errand.” Not everyone looked convinced. “I went to the bank to drop off yesterday’s take for Peccari, then I went to have lunch.”
“He did.” said Peccari.
“You only know he was away from the shop. You don’t know where he actually went.” said Jocasta.
“Now that I think of it,” Halo said, pausing for dramatic effect, “isn’t Jocasta sometimes spelled with an I?” Jocasta brought all her daggers back out. Haemon was about to object when Ichabod said, “Look, I can prove it. After lunch I was heading for the deli when I ran into Eric. Literally. He was running down the sidewalk with a package and bumped into me. He said, ‘Fuck, man, I’ve got to make this delivery!’ and kept going. And then I walked into the deli shortly after that.”
“Well,” said Benjy. “He’s due here in a little while to make his deliveries. We can ask him to verify that then.”
“Look, we don’t know whether it’s an H or an I, so we can’t just blame Ichabod.” said Peccari. “At least he seems to have an alibi.”
“Unlike some people.” said Halo, as she tipped her head toward Jocasta and Haemon.
Haemon spoke: “Well, what about you? Where were you when all this was happening?”
“I gave a Tarot consultation at 11:30, then I took a nap. I have to recharge my soul after communing with the spiritual world.”
“How long was your consultation?” said Caesar.
“Half an hour. I have another appointment at 1:00 so I figured I had enough time for a quick nap and lunch.” She glanced at her watch. “Oh, it’s almost one!” She trotted back to her shop, leaving a trail of frankincense perfume in her wake.
“We should get back, too.” said Haemon.
“Just a minute.” said Benjy. “Where were you two just before noon?”
“You know, we’ve already given a statement to the police. But just to make you happy, we were both in our shop. We had a customer buying a particularly expensive emerald necklace. The register data will back that up.” He smiled in smug satisfaction.
Benjy was about to point out that it only takes one person to run a register, when a young man in an NPS uniform came up. He was holding a small padded envelope. “Are you Mr. Payne?” he said to Caesar.
“No, but I wish I were.” smiled Caesar.
The man smiled back and said, “You could be.”
Haemon cleared his throat. “I hate to interrupt your date, but I am Mr. Payne.”
The man winked at Caesar then turned to Haemon. “Nobody was in your shop and this is signature required.”
“Ah, thank you.” Haemon signed the clipboard then took the envelope. “What’s your name? Where’s Eric?”
“Innocenzio, at your service.” said the man, more to Caesar than to Haemon. “Eric, well, he got fired yesterday.”
“It’s about time.” said Jocasta.
“Fired? Why?” asked Caesar.
Innocenzio affected a dramatic pose and said grandly, “Why should we fire thee? Let us count the ways.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised he lasted this long. That imbecile was always screwing up. Anyway, they changed my route today so I could do his packages until they could get another driver. And now I’m running late. Ta-ta, my friends!” He winked at Caesar again. “See you soon.” He jogged away down the street toward an NPS truck.
“Fired?” said Peccari. “Why, that means …”
“He wasn’t making a delivery today.” finished Benjy.
“He was there yesterday when we were talking about the statue.” said Jocasta. “Maybe he got fired and thought Mr. J reported him, and he stole the statue for the money.”
“It would be the just the sort of stupid stunt he’d pull.” said Caesar. “Stealing something too valuable and important to sell. It’s probably on G-Bay right now.” He pulled out his phone and said into the microphone, “G-bay.com, search, Asian statue.” A minute later he showed an image to everyone. “There it is.” He scoffed. “His reserve price is only two hundred dollars!”
“What a bloody idiot!” said Dainty. “And to have beaten poor Mr. J for it. Makes me blood boil!”
“Let’s show this to the police.” said Caesar.
“So the doctor thinks my grandfather will be okay.”
“I knew he was a tough old geezer.” said Dainty as she munched on her third spanakopita. Ari had come back and they were all in BaxCam Coffees.
“He finally came out of the coma and yeah, he said it was Eric.”
“That’s great news,” said Benjy. “But I’m puzzled. What was he trying to write when he was attacked? Was it an H or an I?” He showed the paper to Ari, who looked at it and smiled.
“Neither. It’s a Japanese character that makes an ‘ehh’ sound. He was probably trying to write ‘Eric’.”
“Well,” said Dainty, sucking up a bit of feta cheese from her thumb. “You tell your grandfather I’m goin’ to pay him a visit soon! He needs a little tender lovin’ care and I’m just the one who can give it to him!” She tried to wink suggestively, but ended up looking more like she was about to sneeze.
Ari leaned closer to Benjy and Caesar. “I think he’s going to wish he’d stayed in that coma.”