Amontillado – a short story

Tina stared out of her window at a sea of tree tops, green and gently moving in the wind. It always pleased her to be able to look out of this fourth floor window and see greenery even though she knew that at ground level she would be immersed in the bustle of suburban Houston. If she concentrated she was sure that she could see the huge oak tree, which her children had named “broccoli”, in her own garden. Her pleasant day-dream was interrupted when the telephone rang. She turned to answer it. Now the calm of the outside greenery was eclipsed and, as she talked, she gazed at the stained carpeted floor of Alfonso’s, and her, shared office. In the only, previously uncluttered, corner was a pile of broken down cardboard moving boxes. 

Tina looked at them with an aversion, so physical, that it made her slightly queasy. She admitted to herself that the boxes look pristine, and neat, when transformed from flat cardboard; but they are difficult to assemble and damage a girl’s nicely manicured nails. Her hatred extended further than the task of assembly. She would have liked to call in sick on this day to avoid the whole saga of moving. She knew that she would have to organize the piles of undefined papers in her office with its familiar mismatched furniture. Along the way a thousand decisions awaited, each one crucial, relating to what to keep and what to toss. 

By eleven on this Friday morning of the move Alfonso, was nowhere to be seen. This annoyed Tina, as she wondered if he was doing what she longed to do, or if he was keeping his normal happy-go-lucky playboy hours If he didn’t make it in she suspected that she would end up having to sort through his junk as well as hers and pack them both. Eventually she was happy to catch sight of him breezing in at eleven-thirty. He acted happy, as though he had had a liquid breakfast, and so, when their boss, Earl, suggested that he accompany him on a final inspection of their new offices then stop for a bite to eat, Tina suspected that he would be gone the rest of the day. Earl returned at about 3:00. He looked grim and dusty. He told Tina that the construction crew had disappeared leaving the limestone decorative feature wall incomplete. He explained that he had finished the last courses himself, to make sure that things were ready for the moving crew over the weekend.

“Alfonso isn’t with you?” asked Tina.

“Nope. We won’t be seeing Alfonso again.”

“Too much to drink?”

“I’d say so. I’ve had to let him go. He may be talented but, heavens to Betsy, it’s no way to run an office.” 

“So will he be in to get his personal stuff?’

“I don’t think so. We have seen the last of Alfonso. On Monday I’ll go over his projects with you and let’s see how much you can take on.”

The phone rang and Earl answered it as he dismissively walked away from Tina.

“Yes, I’m going hunting this weekend. I’ll be gone all weekend back late on Sunday.” 

Tina turned to survey the pile of cardboard on the floor beside her, she thought about Earl’s dismissal of Alfonso. It was certainly overdue but she did wonder why it happened on the day of their move so that she had to pack up not one but two piles of stuff. Alfonso was talented; indeed Tina had to admit that he had flashes of pure genius. She also knew that he had a problem with alcohol and frequently arrived late in the morning with an apparent hangover which he treated at lunch time thereby rendering himself useless in the afternoon. He was also a flirt and one noxious office rumor had it that, when Earl was away on business or hunting trips, he spent time with Earl’s wife, Irene, in their River Oaks ‘castle’. Tina had only been there once but she could understand the allure, if not for Irene, for the shear opulence of the place. It was built of Austin limestone inside and out and even sported a, rare for Houston, underground wine cellar. When Tina had visited Irene had graciously given her an unexpected tour of the cellars. Her tour focused less on Earl’s wine collection and more on Earl’s ‘raid’ shelter with its concealed entry and luxurious bedroom.

“Why on earth did he build that?” asked Tina 

“Some strange paranoia about tornados” said his wife. She gave a mischievous smile, “I let him do it, it’s my money, you know. I like it. Sometimes when Earl is away I sleep there hidden in its quiet luxurious secrecy. Nobody can hear you down there!” At that moment, Tina recalled, Irene had patted her arm and given a confidential wink.

Tina cut her reverie short. She packed Alfonso’s things into boxes which she neatly labeled by project. She separated out the personal stuff which she packed into two boxes labeled ‘personal’. For some strange reason she held back his address book and a pile of personal notes with her things. If Alfonso was not going to return to the office ever, perhaps by moratorium from Earl, then Tina thought that she might try to get these to him herself. 

She watched her colleagues going through the same routine, and saw a pile of trash by the suite entry grow until it almost blocked their way out. This Friday might be their last day in this uncomfortable over-crowded office; yet, despite their discomfort, they all felt a twinge of nostalgia. They would miss the old place with its familiarity and memories; miss the downstairs delicatessen where they liked to congregate for lunch; miss the rickety stairs where they panted up five flights in deference to ‘keeping fit’, and, yes, miss the musty smell emanating from their dusty piles of old documents.

Monday morning they drove new routes to work, found new parking spots and rode a pristine granite shrouded elevator to their new office suite on the fourteenth floor of the high rise about a mile from their old place. They had new ‘open-plan,’ top-of-the-line, Herman Miller modular furniture with matching fabric covered chairs and upper storage ‘flippers’. The movers had been efficient and their boxes were all stacked neatly in each office. 

By noon Tina was unpacked and ready to get back to work. Earl had Alfonso’s boxes stacked up against the interior feature limestone masonry wall adjacent to Tina’s work-station. He sat down with Tina and went over her new assignments. As they talked she saw him take long glances at the pile of Alfonso’s boxes. Tina felt mildly overwhelmed that she was to inherit Alfonso’s prestigious work. She detected something wrong with Earl and found his general demeanor disturbing, especially when he took glances over her shoulders at Alfonso’s boxes. 

That evening Tina stayed late to catch up with her clients. In the quiet of the evening she heard strange noises. They seemed to emanate from the wall behind Alfonso’s pile of boxes. The sounds were irregular as though they were being made by a living creature. She thought that some of the muffled wails could be being made by a gagged person. She called out,

“Who’s there?’

The only response was a scratching noise. It was muffled and could have been claws or finger nails dragged over a rough surface. She wondered if there were be rats in the building. She walked around the wall and deduced that there was a space, presumably a mechanical chase, enclosed by the decorative masonry. She looked under desks but found nothing. She told herself that she was watching too many horror stories and who-done-its and so, a little perturbed, she went home.

When she arrived early in the office on Tuesday morning she startled Earl who was standing gazing intently at the pile of Alfonso’s boxes. He had a strange twisted smile on his face. She immediately noticed that Alfonso’s ‘personal’ boxes had disappeared. She greeted him, ready to make an observation about the missing boxes,

“Good morning, Earl.”

“Yes, huh, good morning.” The response seemed dismissive and uncharacteristic of Earl so Tina decided not to mention the boxes. Instead she went to get herself a mug of coffee out of the office’s new Kuerig machine. As she went her mind raced – could this be an Amontillado story with Alfonso somehow encased in the wall perhaps lured there by Earl? The concept was too preposterous and yet it kept nagging at her all day. She watched Earl who appeared distracted and kept viewing the pile of Alfonso’s boxes.

That evening, she stayed late again, and as soon as she was alone she heard the strange scratching. She talked to the cleaning crew who surveyed her quizzically. They accompanied her to Alfonso’s pile of boxes and agreed that the noise was most peculiar. They confirmed that there was no evidence of rats in the building. Together they called the building security guard. The guard, a heavy-set no-nonsense type, reluctantly came and listened. He voiced, what they all were thinking,

“Building’s new – can’t be a ghost. Building is too new for rats. I’d say that it sounds as though there is something alive inside that wall.”

“What should we do about it?” queried Tina. Before the guard could answer she went on, “You know what I think, I think that we should get someone to open up that masonry and see what’s in there.”

“Go ahead, be my guest.” said the guard. He stroked his hipster gun with his hand, but made no attempt to offer any additional help.

Tina gave up and went home. She worried all night. The following morning she found that Earl was out of the office at a client meeting. Tina discussed the noises with her colleagues. When everyone stopped talking you could still hear an occasional faint scratching inside the chase wall behind the boxes. Tina took it upon herself to call the contractor who had performed their build-out. She asked them to send someone to open up the wall to determine the source of the noise. She felt a sense of urgency. At the latest the wall might have been closed up on Friday and it was now Wednesday morning five days later. Rather a long time for anything, or anyone, to still be alive in there.

By eleven the contractor arrived, moved Alfonso’s boxes, set down some protective plastic and opened a hole in the chase wall. Nothing. They shone a light into the cavity of the chase – nothing. Tina was beginning to feel mighty stupid when a scrawny cat emerged. It was thirsty but otherwise seemed in good shape. Tina knew that she would adopt it; and determined that she would name it Alfonso.

*********************************

The disinterring of Alfonso, the cat, might have been the end of our story but Alfonso, the man still haunted Tina. Over the next few weeks several items of personal mail arrived for him and she decided to deliver them to his apartment. When she got there no one answered the door. She went to the leasing office who confirmed that he was late with his rent and that they were about to evict him. They latched onto Tina and together they went and opened the apartment. The inside was untidy and un-kept but also looked like a place to which someone intended to return. The weeks-old fruit on the counter was rotten; and the open PC on the coffee table still running. It gave the immediate impression of a place abandoned without foreknowledge. Tina began to suspect the worst.

Tina decided to go through Alfonso’s address book and find if he had any relatives. She found his mother’s address in Toronto. She called and asked for news of Alfonso. His mother sounded forlorn and distant. She told Tina that she hadn’t heard from Alfonso for weeks and that he had missed her birthday, which was a first for him. Tina suggested that his mother ought to file a missing person report.

Several weeks later the police arrived at the office. Tina glanced at her calendar and estimated that it was now two months since their move. The plain clothes police inspector spent a long time with Earl in his office, and left with the parting words,

“Don’t worry sir, we will find them. In the meanwhile stay in contact and do not leave town.”

Tina wondered who the ‘them’ were. She went to talk to the office receptionist, who always knew the office gossip,

“What’s up? Those inspectors said ‘we will find them’. Who are ‘them?’”

“Didn’t you know? Have you been so busy with Alfonso’s clients that you didn’t hear the gossip? Earl’s wife, Irene, has disappeared.” She nodded confidentially, and lowered her voice to a hoarse whisper, “Well you know that she and Alfonso were close and now he’s also missing. Put two and two together and you get an elopement!”

“Are you joking?”

“No I’m serious. Of course I think that the police might suspect foul play and who has better motives than Earl. Irene was the one with all the money. I’m sure that he would like to see the end of her! The last few years have been rough.”

Over the next weeks the police keep snooping around. They interviewed Earl’s hunting buddies and verified a firm alibi; they interviewed everyone in the office including Tina. Eventually they obtained a search warrant and searched Earl’s home. Again they found nothing amiss. The investigation was going nowhere. On their third round of questioning they had Tina come down to the station. She wondered why they were treating her like a criminal when all she had done was hold back some of Alphonso’s personal items; and be the first to go to his apartment. As she was escorted out she chatted freely with the young inspector.

“What did you think of Earls’ house? It is quite an edifice isn’t it?”

“Yep, and so much limestone makes you wonder if there could be any more left at the quarry!”

“Good thought but there is plenty; I assure you. And what did you think of the wine cellar?”

“Quite a hoard; makes you wonder how he expects to drink all that stuff before he dies!”

“I agree because I don’t think that he drinks much. So, what did you think of his basement ‘raid center’ with its satin sheets?”

“Saw no satin sheets. A basement ‘raid center’? I saw no basement ‘raid center’. What’re you talking about?”

Tina stopped and stared at him, “Then you must have missed it, the door is semi-concealed.”

The inspector looked surprised and grabbed Tina’s arm as he muttered, “Hmm, You give me an idea, we’ll have to go back and you must come with us.”

When they reached the basement wine cellar Tina looked for the door to the raid room. She couldn’t find it and began to doubt herself although she was sure that she remembered what Irene had shown her. “Wait,” she said, “it was here. Now there is a stack of wine bottles over the place.”

They moved the bottles and their associated shelving system to one side. Their labors brought them no closer to an answer for the masonry behind looked continuous. Tina ran her hand over it and inspected the joints. She was beginning to perspire with nervous energy as she wondered if her whole episode with Irene had been a dream. She stood back and squinted at the wall and that’s when it came into focus and she was able to see a faint outline of the old opening. She heaved a sigh of relief and pointed.

“It’s there.” she said “Open up the masonry there.”

They called for tools and soon were demolishing limestone. Tina had been right a door came into view. It was locked. A key hung beside the door jamb. Perhaps they died quickly, maybe in their sleep of asphyxiation but there they lay on the glorious satin sheets locked for eternity in each other’s arms. When everyone had begun to recover from the shock of the opening the inspector looked at Tina.

“I know that he is innocent until proved guilty, but how did he do it? How did he lock ‘em in when he was out in the woods on a hunting trip with his buddies?

Tina looked at him and hesitantly answered, “Simple, the lock is electronic as is the ventilation system for the room. I’m sure that you will find that both have remote controls. All that’s needed to operate them is a mobile phone!”

© April 2015, Jane Stansfeld.

Raccoon Amour – a short story

Betty told us about her raccoon visitation when we were standing on a back patio wood deck sipping wine and sharing trivia. The occasion was a beautiful balmy early November evening in Austin, Texas. It was warm enough for us to be outside without coats. We were baptizing our friend’s new deck which was still under construction. The wood was fresh scented and un-weathered and a proposed guardrail was not yet constructed. We sipped our wine and were careful to avoid getting too close to the edge, some three feet above the ground below. We looked out over our friend’s back yard while he explained that his treasured, (city ordinance protected), large oak and pecan trees prevented grass from growing. He told us that he intended some shade-tolerant xeriscape planting to beautify it and bring it to the standard established by his new outdoor patio.

As I looked out, I mentioned that I was reminded of the previous morning when I looked down from our patio to our lawn-less back yard and had seen two large raccoons beside our fish pond. They might have been fishing or drinking, or perhaps, dousing their food. Dousing is a strange habit, mostly observed in raccoons in captivity, when they wet their hand-like paws to increase their tactile sensitivity. Naturalists speculate that this is so that they can examine their food better. It is this habit which accounts for the raccoon’s name in many languages. It is waschbär in German, and orsetto lavatore in Italian, both literally meaning wash bear. In a like manner it is raton laveur in French and ratäo-lavadeiro in Portuguese, both literally meaning wash rat. Our English name is derived from a Powhtan Indian term ahrah-koon-em which means (the) one who rubs, scrubs, and scratches with its hands. My two were doing something with those same hand-like paws. They looked up at me with their black and white faces before, very slowly, moving off into the adjacent green belt. I remarked how nonchalant they looked and commented on their size and attitude of ownership.

My comments brought Betty to her story. She also lives adjacent to a greenbelt. When she moved into her two story house she had the door between the house and garage fitted with a cat door so that her large female cat could pass in and out at will. Betty kept the cat’s food, water and litter in the garage. She further indulged her feline by making sure that the overhead garage door was never completely closed. It was always left with a six inch gap between it and the drive so that the cat could commune with the outside as she pleased. The arrangement seemed perfect until Betty noticed that the cat was making more mess and was eating more. Betty was not overly concerned as the remainder of the cat’s routine remained unchanged. She was as loving as usual and, at night, still visited Betty’s bedroom where she would curl up on Betty’s bed and sleep next to her.

One night Betty was drifting off to sleep when a large animal jumped onto the bed. Betty knew that her cat was large and sleepily thought that it was her. Then, in her half-asleep state, she thought that she could distinctly feel two bodies on the bed, the sensation woke her up. She looked down and, to her surprise, saw her cat and another animal sleeping on her bed. The other animal sported a bushy striped tail. She reached out to touch it. Her movement woke both creatures and the visitor turned his face towards Betty. She recognized his dark patched eyes surrounded by a white ring, the white around the snout and the dark stripe down the middle of his face. It was the unmistakable face of a raccoon. Both Betty and raccoon reacted with surprise and the raccoon jumped off the bed, fled out through the bedroom door, down the stairs, out through the cat door, into the garage, and out to the beyond.

As Betty narrated this curious tale I couldn’t help thinking about the Warner Brothers amorous Parisian skunk Pepé Le Pew who fell in love with a cat named Penelope Pussycat. I recalled the scene when some paint fell on her back giving her a skunk-like stripe down the length of her body. I remembered his jumps and sweet Anglo French accented comments such as, “It is love at first sight, is it not, no?”. I wondered whether Betty’s tale was also a story of mistaken love. Or was this raccoon merely being companionable and moving in with the cat with whom he had been sharing the garage for some time?

Betty thought that the visit was just a strange event until one morning, a month or so later, she arose to meet the raccoon standing in the middle of her bedroom. She advanced towards the creature. She must have been obscuring his line to the door as, instead of taking this path of escape, he turned and somehow managed to climb up the window coverings and to position himself in the corner of the room. He sat high up under the ceiling where the curtain rods of two adjacent windows came together. Betty remained calm and made sure that the bedroom door was open. She also opened the windows and then, unconcerned, went into her bathroom and took a shower.

When she came out she fully expected to find that the raccoon had gone but he was still there. He looked down, with his masked face, and chattered at her. She went and got a broom and tried to coax him to leave. This was of no avail. Betty knew that raccoons carry rabies and so did not want to come close enough to be bitten. She decided to call her neighborhood security department.

Two uniformed guards arrived and took a look at the poor animal still clinging onto his perch. They also attempted to coax him to leave by prodding with Betty’s broom but they knew better than to get within biting distance. They told Betty that this was not their expertise and suggested that this was a job for Ernie.

They called Ernie who soon arrived. Ernie came equipped a net with a remotely operated clamp and positioned himself to capture the raccoon. As soon as Ernie began his approach the raccoon must have recognized defeat for he leapt down from his perch and shot between their legs, out through the bedroom door, down the stairs, out through the cat door, into the garage, and out to the beyond.

When the humans left in the room had recovered from their astonishment they also went out of the bedroom and down stairs. They stood in the hall near the cat door into the garage unwinding and talking to each other. They needed a few minutes of discourse to bring their world back to the norms to which they were accustomed. As they were shaking hands and beginning to break up they were further taken by surprise. Betty’s cat selected this moment emulate the raccoon and to streak through their legs. As she went she gave a wild wail. She quickly went out through the cat door, into the garage, and out to the beyond.

Copyright © Jane Stansfeld, September 2014