A Short Story By Barbara Anne Helberg
Shaking with contempt, Molly Jenkins sat holding her dead mother’s pendulum, a large key dangling from the end of a thick, double-looped string. Mother Mira’s pendulum had nothing, nothing at all, to say to Molly.
“Why?” Molly spit out the word. She stared at the pendulum. “Why won’t you speak to me?”
She pounded her mother’s book, Pendulum Power, that lay opened on her lap. Her anger reddened her face. Nielsen and Polansky said the pendulum was an instrument that could “illustrate the electrical nature of the phenomenon we call love.”
Grunting and breathing heavily, she slapped the pages of the book backwards. “You fools! What do you know about anything?” She slammed her fist onto the book.
Calmness came to her as though prompted by a lover’s soft touch. Gently, Molly closed the book, then reopened it to the front pages. Stopping at “Contents,” she read: “Chapter 4 — Handcrafting your own pendulum.”
“Ha!” She shouted. “You’re not mine. That’s why you’re silent!”
She needed her own, personal key to personalize energy for a pendulum before it could begin to answer anything for her own needs.
She brushed the book to the floor, stood, and crossed the dingy room, nearly tripping on the torn corner of the carpet near her desk. Grabbing her purse from the scarred desk top, she pulled the zipper across the top of the purse, then thrust her hand inside and rustled through the contents until she landed fingers on her car keys.
With hands trembling, Molly twisted her car inition key from its ring. From the top desk drawer, she withdrew a ball of string. A pair of scissors poked up from a coffee can pencil holder on the desk top. She grasped the scissors and grappled with its finger grips. After cutting a length of string from the ball, she threaded it through the car key’s ring hole and tied it off.
Her trembling stopped. Smiling, she held up the string and swung the key back and forth.
“Now, my beauty, we’ll see.”
Excitedly, she sat down on the cushionless desk chair. Holding her back away from the chair’s hard, wooden spindles, she closed her eyes.
She held the string between two fingers and let the key settle into its lowest base.
Then she whispered: “Is Jimy L.’s love for me true?”
There was no response. The key kept its base. Molly drew a shallow breath and repeated her question. Her held breath was frenzy itself and nearly depleted her lungs to bursting. “Is Jimy L.’s love for me true?” She said it four more times, smally, and with little energy so as not to influence the pendulum’s response.
The pendulum wavered. Molly sucked in her breath, but quickly stilled herself. The key shook a little. Then it waved, slightly, ever so slightly, to the right and returned, to stop dead center.
Molly smiled to no one. “Close enough,” she said. Collecting the key into her palm, she stood. Wicked thoughts made her lips curl.
* * * * *
It was late afternoon on Wednesday, and FBI Inspector Mariano Stonebreaker, approaching his 50th birthday, was ready for some home life sanity. His housekeeper, Flora, would be fixing roast beef; Trey would be getting his emotions ready to play his school’s rival for the city baseball championship; and daughter Julia, who looked so much like her late mother, would be preparing for her date, Jim, to pick her up and take her to the game.
Stonebreaker sat in the glass-enclosed office of Canfield Mays, Toledo, Ohio, FBI Regional Director, anticipating the director’s wrath. He’d been unable to wrap up the Jenkins case following the arrest of Mother Mira’s slayer, Lira Jenkins.
His case partner, Jason Thadberry, sauntered into Mays’ office. “Is he late?”
“Mmm.” Stonebreaker looked up at Thad. “Something about this Jenkins family is escaping us.”
* * * * *
Molly Jenkins, locksmith, petty thief, and forger extraordanaire, had no problem whatsoever securing a fake hospital identification badge.
Soon, she would thank her unsuspecting, deceptive lover, Jimy L., for teaching her such skills. And she would do it in a way he never would think possible.
Rapidly assessing her plans for tomorrow — Thursday — Molly walked with important strides down the hospital’s dimly-lighted hallway. She noted the time on the hallway clock — 11 p.m. — when she boarded the elevator to ride up to the guarded second floor.
Jimy L. had been so naive about everything, Molly thought as she felt the jerk and lift of the elevator car. His secret affair with her mother, which never had been a secret to Molly, was an unforgivable betrayal.
She would get to the crafty, undevoted Jimy L. shortly. First, she would take care of finishing what she’d started weeks ago with Thomas Poppopolis, her family’s very loving psychiatrist, who seemed to have achieved remarkable success in the ways of love and loss with all her family members. Molly shooting Poppopolis in the darkened Vermont cabin had failed to result in his deserved death. Very fixable, she thought.
Halting at Room No. 110, Molly nodded to the policemen guarding Poppopolis’s door. He inspected the badge pinned to her hospital blouse, then she swung her way through to her victim.
* * * * *
Early Thursday morning, Jason Thadberry called, “Hey, captain boss,” as he approached Stonebreaker’s desk. The busy room bristled with ringing phones and paper crackles while information changed hands.
“Inspector.” Stonebreaker corrected Thadberry’s playful title call for the hundredth time. He frowned and looked up at his partner. Bouncy and irritating, he thought. Nonetheless, Thad, ten years his junior, was energetic and reliable.
Stonebreaker drew his eyebrows together and waited. “What?”
“Poppopolis was snuffed out last night.”
Stonebreaker dropped his pen. “What? Snuffed? His hospital room had a police guard.”
“Inside job.” Thadberry tossed a plastic hospital identification badge onto Stonebreaker’s desk.
Judy Torrey, the name badge said. Stonebreaker focused on it. “Who is Torrey?”
“Judy Torrey is someone who temporarily lost her hospital badge after a thump on the head. She’s puzzled herself, apparently, but her I.D. and alibi checked out. The perp left the swiped badge on Poppopolis’s chest, after she dropped him with a little extra I.V. treat. Air.”
Picking up his pen, Stonebreaker scrambled from his chair. “We’ve got to speak with Mrs. Poppopolis again. Maybe now she can tell us something we don’t know.”
* * * * *
Before noon on Thursday, in her dirty, uncomfortable motel room, Molly read another stimulating page from Mother Mira’s pendulum notes. What her mother had written about her relationship and Vermont rendezvous with Jimy L. sickened her, but she wanted it all fresh in her mind before she went to him today. She repeated one of Mother Mira’s lines aloud:
“My pendulum holds me captive. It will neither confirm, nor deny, Jimy L.’s love for me.”
Molly stared at her mother’s handwriting. “Because Jimy L. didn’t love you! It was me!” She violently pounded the page, then changed her mind, removed her hand in slow motion, and looked at the comment again. “The orphanage janitor!” She screeched.
“Falling for a wrinkled, 60-year-old, snake charming orphanage janitor!” She screamed to the bare, filthy walls. What had she, or even her mother, been thinking? She vowed again to fix it.
Beside herself with rage, she glued herself to the note pages, to absorb them, to devour them, to reduce them to smoldering embers in her brain.
Her mother’s backward slant said:
“I waited for Jimy L. within distance of the back door of the orphanage, desperate to assail him with questions of love, but suddenly became shy in his presence, like a disciplined child.”
Gritting her teeth, Molly tore the page from the notepad, shredded it, doubled it, and shredded it again. She dropped it and stomped it with sharp heels into the blood-red carpet of her miserable, rented room.
* * * * *
Stonebreaker waited with Thadberry. Victoria Poppopolis stared at them from the straight back living room chair she occupied. The silence grew among the three of them until finally she stated with no emotion, “I think you’re looking for Molly Jenkins.”
“Molly?” How many Jenkinses are there, Stonebreaker wondered. He exchanged looks with Thadberry seated next to him in a comfortable, flowery brown overstuffed chair.
“Molly is Mira Jenkins’ daughter with her deceased husband, Craig. Mira named one of her twin daughters Mira. The other was Lira. But Molly came first and was deserted. Thomas’ files on Molly should help you understand it all. Transferences triggered everything.”
“We apprehended Lira after she killed Mother Mira –”
“Yes. I know.”
Sighing, Stonebreaker gave Mrs. Poppopolis his steady attention. “What about transferences?”
She nodded at Stonebreaker’s puzzled look. “A patient transfers her love to the doctor, convinces herself she loves him and it’s returned because he is the one listening and helping. Thomas used it to a reversal art form. He created it in many of his orphanage patients, using them to keep them in therapy. All the ones he chose believed he was in love with them. I doubt he thought the separated Jenkins family would discover each other’s affairs with him. The twins didn’t seem to know he was their real father. Nor, I suspect, did he think they all would learn the truth and turn on him, as well as on each other.”
“Seems like a large gamble for a professional to take.”
Stonebreaker caught Thad’s look of agreement.
“He knew patient confidentiality was on his side, even when it came to the law. Doctors sometimes gamble on confidentiality.” Mrs. Poppopolis’ pinched lips told Stonebreaker she didn’t agree with the information she was sharing.
He saw more emotion surface around her eyes, emotion he’d expected to be attached to any conversation concerning her late husband, but this was raw, raking disapproval.
“He was despicable.” Victoria Poppopolis blurted it out, as though it was at last a relief to say it. “Of course, Mother Mira was sworn to secrecy about the father of her twins.The files.”
Following a slightly audible exhale, Stonebreaker asked, “Thomas’ files?”
“Yes. Lira broke into Thomas’ office some months before you captured her.”
“You saw her?”
“I was behind the staircase, terrified. Thomas wasn’t home.”
“Why didn’t you report it?”
“I couldn’t. Thomas’ files were still confidential then, and I certainly couldn’t tell him I’d been through them myself. I needed to protect my own interests. Now… Well, with him gone… My interests have been served.” She hesitated, then began again. “Before the break-in, I’d read Thomas’ notes about Lira becoming suspicious of his intention to break it off with her. Lira didn’t know about Molly.”
“The twins and Molly never had met?”
“Not that I know of after reading Thomas’ files.”
“So, it’s likely Molly and Mother Mira crossed paths at the Vermont cabin when Thomas was shot, and neither knew who had accomplished the shooting in the dark.”
“Molly. Lira, and Mother Mira each were planning their own versions of revenge.”
“What about Sister Mira?” Thadberry leaned forward in his chair to listen to her answer.
“According to Thomas, she was the quiet one. She accepted him more like the father figure he actually was and whom she, sadly, didn’t know about. There is little mention of her in his file notations.”
“Except for his description of seducing her, also.”
Pressing her lips together, she briefly closed her eyes. “Poor little thing is locked away in a New York state sanatorium.”
Stonebreaker clasped his hands together. “We’re still missing something,” Stonebreaker said, glancing at Thad. “If Molly never retaliated for being deserted, why would she suddenly show up and get herself into the middle of this after being absent all this time?”
Victoria Poppopolis took a deep breath. “There’s another man. His name is Jimy L. He’s been the orphanage custodian for years.” She pointed at the files. “Jimy L. was involved with Mother Mira. She was fanatically in love with him. Thomas was just a frustration fling to her.”
She stopped, but Stonebreaker sensed a dynamic punchline. He nodded encouragement to her.
“It was Sister Mira whom Jimy L. loved to distraction, not Mother Mira.”
“Holy cow!” Thadberry said, sitting back deep into his cushioned chair.
“Because of his desire for Sister Mira, Jimy L. threatened to blackmail Thomas if he didn’t end his abusive transference practices.” Mrs. Poppopolis shifted her arms.
Stonebreaker filled in the blank. “To counter, Thomas had Sister Mira committed to the sanatorium.”
“Why were they all at the cabin?”
“I’m not certain, but I believe there possibly was a pretense for an agreement to be worked out between Jimy L. and Thomas, by Mother Mira’s invitation, apparently.”
“Molly’s been close at hand all along, watching and waiting,” Thadberry stated. “A shooting instead of an agreement. Everything gone awry.”
“We appreciate your input, Mrs. Poppopolis.” Stonebreaker paused for her small sniffle that told him she wanted to elaborate.
Mrs. Poppopolis stiffened in her chair. “I loved Thomas at first. Later, it was the security of his money. He gave me everything I ever wanted.” She bowed her head and held her hands tightly together in her lap. “I was a 16-year-old at the same orphanage when I met Thomas. There was nothing in my life. Then there was Thomas, and I thought I had everything.”
Turning his head at Thadberry’s grunt, Stonebreaker rose and extended his hand to Victoria Poppopolis. “Thank you, Mrs. Poppopolis. You’ve been very helpful.”
Half an hour later, Stonebreaker looked up from where he sat at his office desk, thumbing through Poppopolis’s files.
Returning from a lunch sandwich run, Thadberry ambled to Stonebreaker’s desk and perched on the rounded corner of it. He dropped a paper sack on the desk. “Ham on rye.”
Automatically, Stonebreaker began the storytelling analysis he used with Thad when they were stuck on a case’s point. “Mother Mira deserts baby Molly, leaving her at the back door of the orphanage.”
“Right.” Thadberry’s voice rose a notch when he added, “Geez! Poppopolis! Can you believe that guy’s ego?”
Squinting, Stonebreaker spoke slowly. “Lira kills Mother Mira at the Penneynickel Canals for her affair with Poppopolis after he had told Lira she was the only one.”
“We catch and imprison Lira. Sister Mira’s locked up.”
“Now there’s Molly, whom everyone scorned.”
“Right. She finishes Poppopolis.”
“Yes. None of Molly’s life was in Mother Mira’s journal. Purposefully. The orphanage is the common denominator.” Falling silent, Stonebreaker drummed his fingers on the desk, then leaned back. “She’s got to be looking to take out Jimy L. next. She’s obviously trying to corral the situation, to control what’s left to control. Killing Poppopolis and Jimy L. They both torched her personally.”
“But where and how?”
“Hm.” Stonebreaker sighed. “Soon. Because she knows she easily could have been seen at the hospital, even identified.”
“She needs to finish.”
“And she’s fearless.” Stonebreaker gripped the arms of his chair. “Maybe he needs to finish.”
Thadberry lifted his hand from his chin and pushed it sideways through the air. “Not the orphanage.”
“Scene of the crime.”
* * * * *
Her preparations complete, Molly climbed into the blue Chevy rental car and headed toward her destination with resolve and happiness in her heart. It was almost over.
With Mother Mira and sisters Mira and Lira, plus Poppopolis, all accounted for, she need only address Jimy L. for his crimes against her.
The rented Chevy purred as she laughed and guided it along the single lane highway.
* * * * *
The sun sent a hot, searing sizzle through the Piper’s side window, catching Stonebreaker full in the face. Minutes later, the plane landed smoothly at the little county airport.
Hopping out of the Piper with Thadberry in tow, Stonebreaker sprinted to the waiting county sheriff’s black cruiser.
“Wickersham,” the officer said, nodding to Stonebreaker through his open window. “No more than fifteen minutes to the canals.”
Stonebreaker and Thadberry tumbled into the rear seat and the car spun off, crunching stones on the berm of the airport’s long driveway.
* * * * *
Jimy L. unhanded the rowing oars and reached empty hands toward Molly. “Would you sit beside me, my dear?”
Molly hadn’t counted on his wanting to go for a boat ride at their old, romantic spot on the Penneynickel River; and near the place where Lira had bombed their mother into bits and pieces. She’d been apprehensive, but agreed warily. His smile had been the irresistible and charming one, his instant invitation sincere when she stepped through the back door of the orphanage.
He’d been expecting her and looking forward to it, he’d said, and her suspicion of a betrayal immediately evaporated. He’d overwhelmed her previous mindset. He could do that.
But her key pendulum had said “no.”
She instinctively noted Jimy L. stopped rowing at the deepest part of the river, and her sense of danger and thrill picked up again before she accepted his entreaty to sit beside him.
His eyes gathered her in, and the liquid, ugly stare, wide and angry, was there, and she knew.
Molly drew the knife out of her jacket pocket. She stood up. The boat rocked as she rushed to close the gap between them. “I hate you!” She lunged forward and thrust the knife at Jimy L.’s throat.
He gasped, reached out, flung himself sideways and kicked at her. Molly ripped the knife out of him. She struggled, screamed, tried to stay upright, but stumbled with the wobble of the boat. She fell against him and straight onto the wavering, murdering knife.
The weighty thud of her body sounded out when Molly toppled onto the bare boards of the rowboat’s bottom. Jimy L.’s body followed, rolled from the seat, and crumpled on top of her. He gurgled a last protest.
* * * * *
“Holy cow!” Looking down at the two dead bodies, Thadberry whistled.
Stonebreaker straightened up. “Descriptions click.” He shook his head. “Case closed.”
“Happy birthday,” Thadberry said quietly.
+++Credit: Story and Photos from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg