Mystery

Missing

             “Here.” Randy grabbed his wife’s putter and wrapped his fingers around the grip. “This is how you hold a club. Then you bend your knees, swing gently, and tap the ball.” He pumped his fist as the ball rolled through the opening at the base of the windmill. “Just like that.”

            Kate gave her husband a narrow-eyed stare. “Thank you. I could never have figured that out on my own.” She snatched the club back and executed a perfect putt. Shaping her fingers like a gun and pointing them at Randy, she said,  “Who’s your mama now, huh?”

            “Please. This is mini golf. A two-year-old could do that. Right, Jemmy?” He looked around. “Jemmy?” He turned back at Kate, his brows knit. “Where’s Jeremy?”

            “What do you mean? He’s right behind you, playing in the grass.”

            Randy stepped aside and gestured at the patch. “No, he’s not.”

            Kate caught her breath, her eyes wide with panic. “But he has to be. Jeremy!” She whipped around. “Jeremy! Where are you, sweetie?”

            “Jeremy!” Randy spoke sternly to hide the panic filling his chest. “No more hide-and-seek. Where are you?”

            Randy blew out his breath. “Look, he couldn’t have gone far. Go get the manager. I’ll look around here some more.”

            Kate sprinted away before Randy stopped talking.  She returned minutes later with a shaggy-haired young man and a middle-aged man with a high-and-tight and a walkie-talkie clipped to his belt. Randy turned to the older man, but it was the younger man who spoke. “I’m Elliott, the manager.” He shook Randy’s hand. “I’ve already locked the gates. No one’s getting in or out. I’d like to get a description of your son, and then Joe here, our security chief, will help you search.”

             Kate reminded herself to breathe. “His name’s Jeremy,” she said. “He’s almost two and a half.”

             Elliott yanked his phone out of his pocket and started typing.

              “He has curly brown hair and blue eyes,” Kate continued. “He’s wearing blue jeans and a red shirt with a brown dog on it.”

             “Got it.” The manager stuffed his phone back into his pocket and jogged away.

             Joe put a reassuring hand on Kate’s shoulder. “I spent thirty years on the job—”

             “On the job?” Randy asked.

             “It means I was a cop and that I’ve seen this type of situation more times than I can count. Chances are better than good that we’ll find your son. Now, you said he’s about two years old?”

             Kate and Randy nodded.

             “If he’s anything like my son was at that age, he’s mobile enough to find trouble but not yet shrewd enough to get himself out of it. Is that right?”

             Kate allowed herself a small, close-lipped smile. That was her boy, all right.

             “For now, let’s assume that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here,” Joe said. “Ma’am, you come with me. You, sir, backtrack and check the holes you already visited. Then catch up with us farther down the course.”

Photo by claudio.arnese/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by claudio.arnese/iStock / Getty Images

             Randy took off as directed, calling Jeremy’s name as he went. Kate followed a step behind Joe as they walked the path to the next hole, a pagoda. She could hear happy families scattered throughout the park, every sound a stab to her heart. Moments later, the PA sprang to life with a scratchy-sounding announcement about Jeremy. Kate prayed someone would answer it.

             She and Joe made it to the pagoda. They saw no sign of Jeremy. The teens playing the hole didn’t recall seeing him, either. Kate and Joe returned to the path, her shoulders hanging a little heavier than before.

             They reached a stretch that ran along the outer rim of the park. Nobody paid attention to the empty lot visible through the iron fence.

             “Oh, my God!” Kate pointed to a cylindrical piece of metal at the edge of the concrete path. “Is that a bullet?”

             Joe picked it up. “Yup. A 22, from the looks of it.”

             “Someone here fired a gun? Jeremy might have been shot?” Kate started to hyperventilate.

             “Shot? Who got shot? Not Jeremy?” Randy jogged up behind them. “He wasn’t there,” he said in answer to Kate’s unasked question. He looked at the bullet in Joe’s hand. “Is that what I think it is?”

            Joe pocketed the bullet. “Did you hear a gunshot?”

             Kate and Randy shook their heads.

             “That’s right, because this bullet was never fired,” Joe said. He pointed a thumb at the fence. “Yahoos are always using that empty lot for target practice. This little gem probably got away from them.”

             For the first time, Kate noticed the wrought-iron fence that surrounded the park. The bars were set far enough apart that a child Jeremy’s size could easily climb through. The tops of the bars lacked sharp spikes or barbed wire, making it easy for someone to climb over. How had she ever thought this was a safe place to bring her son?

             Randy opened his mouth and closed it. “People shoot guns on a lot next to a miniature golf course? How is that legal? Why don’t the cops stop them?”

             Joe held up his hands. “Not for lack of trying, I assure you. Shall we keep going?”

             Kate pushed away her doubts and continued down the path, calling for Jeremy. The men followed. They were not quite at the next hole, a mock-up of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, when Kate exclaimed, “That’s him! Jeremy!” and sprinted toward the green. Randy and Joe hurried behind, finally spotting the red-shirted boy who had caught Kate’s eye.

             “Jeremy?” Kate touched the boy’s shoulder. He turned toward her, and she lost her breath. This boy wasn’t hers. She looked up to see a woman staring at her. “Sorry,” Kate said. “I thought… I’m sorry.”

             “Your boy,” the woman said. “He’s the one they made the announcement about?”

             Kate nodded.

             “I hope you find him.”

             “Thank you.” Kate shuffled back to the path, where Randy put his arm around her. She sniffled and wiped a tear from her cheek.

             “Ready?” Joe asked.

             Randy squeezed Kate’s shoulders. “Don’t have much choice, do we?” he said, half to himself.

             They were searching around the pyramid when the radio on Joe’s belt squawked. “Joe!” Elliott called. “Try the lighthouse. Someone said they saw the kid there. Joe, can you hear me? Check the lighthouse.”

             Randy’s eyes gleamed. “Where’s the lighthouse?” 

             “Two holes down,” Joe answered. The three of them broke into a run.

             They arrived at the lighthouse, but it was empty. No Jeremy, no anyone. Randy turned circles, looking for some sign of his son.

             Kate sobbed and smacked her husband’s arm. “Why weren’t you watching him? You said you’d keep an eye on him!”

             “Me? What about you? You’re his mother!”

             “And you’re his father. We wouldn’t even be here if you weren’t set on making him the next…whoever.”

             “Rory McIlroy,” Randy answered through gritted teeth. “Besides—”

             “Hey!” A punk-looking teen waved from a few feet down the path. “You lookin’ for that lost kid?”

             “Yes!” Kate and Randy yelled.

             “He’s down here. At the castle.”

             The trio ran to the castle green. There was Jeremy, in the castle moat, splashing, giggling, smiling, the picture of not having a care in the world. Kate couldn’t stop herself from laughing.

             Jeremy looked up. “Mommy! Look! Simming pool!”

             “Yes, honey,” Kate laugh-cried. “You found a swimming pool.” She reached for her husband’s hand.


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Something Fishy

            Dr. Troyan settled into his chair and stretched his fingers. “So,” he said, prodding my teeth one by one, “did you hear about the sushi place next door?”

            “Uh-uh.” It’s hard to speak coherently with a dentist’s digits in your mouth, but that doesn’t stop them from starting a conversation every single damn time. I wonder if they learn that in dental school.

            “Turns out,” he continued, “they’re under investigation by the health department.” He leaned down and added in a conspiratorial whisper, “Seems they’ve been using extraterrestrial fish.”

            Funny, that was the exact phrase the anonymous tipster had used: “extraterrestrial fish”—not the colloquial “alien fish,” not the official “non-Terran fish.” Looked like the anonymous tipster wasn’t so anonymous anymore. A person can use any number of a dozen technologies to hide his voice, but his words always give him away.

            Did Dr. Troyan know I was a health department inspector? He’d been my dentist for years, but I didn’t remember ever talking shop. I wasn’t about to start now, even though the sushi joint was someone else’s investigation. I kept my answer a neutral “Is that so?,” which sounded great in my head but came out like a drunken version of that vintage cartoon dog, Scooby Doo.

            It was enough to spur Dr. T to keep talking. “Yup, only a matter of time before the health police shut them down. Good riddance, too, if you ask me. Never could stand the smell of fish, no matter what planet they come from.”

            From that, I assumed Dr. Troyan had never eaten next door. He must have learned about the non-Terran fish—if there were any—from someone else, maybe a patient. I’d have to pass that along to the case inspector.

            Frankly, I didn’t see what the big deal was. Ever since the United Nations signed the Intergalactic Free Trade Agreement, all kinds of non-Terran foods had found their way to Earth. There were restaurants devoted to Sayaran cuisine, grocery stores that sold nothing but Kiertan groceries. The trade went the other way, too. The Uwa, for example, had developed a taste for molé. Its dozens of ingredients fit right in with the complexity of their native chow.

            Still, Earthlings have a long history of resisting cultural change. That’s why the U.N. passed legislation protecting trademark indigenous cuisine, such as sushi, from alien influence. Most people—me included—broke that law daily within the private confines of their own homes. The planetary authorities turned a blind eye to that but not to the infiltration of non-Terran foodstuffs into more public meal sources. In the United States, enforcement fell to health department employees such as myself, and any one of us would say the same thing: we’d have better success emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.

 

* * *

 

            The next morning, my mouth still sore from Dr. Troyan’s cleaning, I tracked down the inspector assigned to the Satsuma Sushi case, an efficient young man named Lewis. I told him about my dentist.

            “Sounds like the neighborhood busybody,” he said. “But I’ll check him out.”

            Out of curiosity I asked, “What have you found so far?”

            He waved a hand over the stacks of file folders on his desk. “Lots of nothing. Everyone I talked to’s heard the rumor, but no one has anything specific to back it up.” He raised his eyebrows. “Frankly, Jonah, I could use some help on this. If you’re not working on anything urgent. If you don’t mind.”

            I ran through my caseload in my head. No, nothing urgent. And Dr. Troyan had piqued my curiosity. I held out my hand. “I don’t mind at all.”

            Lewis shook my hand and smiled as if his dream girl had just accepted his prom invitation. “All right. Thank you.” He turned and grabbed a handful of folders. “Let me show you what I’ve got so far.”

            We spent the next two and a half hours going over the case. Lewis was right. He had lots of nothing.

            He looked at me like an expectant puppy. “So what do we do now?”

            “We go to lunch.” I put my hands on the desk and pushed myself to a standing position. “I feel like sushi. How ‘bout you?”

            Lewis smiled. “Sushi sounds great.”

 

* * *

 

            Satsuma Sushi was largely empty when we arrived. No surprise given that the lunch rush wouldn’t start for another hour. I led Lewis to two stools along the back counter. I’d already instructed him that we were going “undercover”—no credentials, no formal investigating, just lunch and some careful observation.

            “Know anything about sushi?” I asked.

            Lewis shrugged. “Some.”

            “Good. You can teach me. I usually eat my fish fried and in a taco.”

            Lewis walked me through the basics: how nigirizushi differs from makizushi, how futomaki differs from uramaki, and how under no circumstances whatsoever are California rolls authentic sushi. Then he caught the counterman’s attention and ordered a sample bento for each of us. “Some” knowledge, indeed.

            Minutes later we each had a box in front of us. Each box held six pieces of sushi, some soy sauce, and a few slices of ginger. I pointed to the piece in the upper left corner of my bento.

Nigirizushi  and  makizushi . Photo by Japan Sushi via  Wikimedia Commons . Used under CC 3.0

Nigirizushi and makizushi. Photo by Japan Sushi via Wikimedia Commons. Used under CC 3.0

Nigirizushi, right?”

 “Right.”

“And what kind of fish is that on top?”

Lewis leaned over for a closer look. “Salmon. You really don’t know your fish, do you?”

“Fish tacos,” I reminded him. “You still want me on this case?”

He popped a piece of uramaki into his mouth and nodded as he chewed. “Hm-hmmm.”

            I waited for him to swallow before asking, “Anything in these boxes look non-Terran to you?”

            He used a chopstick to poke around and through our sushi. By the time he finished, my bento held a mess of rice, nori, fish, and vegetables. His didn’t look much neater.

            “May I help you?” a male voice asked from behind us.

            We turned to find a middle-aged Asian man in business casual dress wringing his hands.

            “I am the manager,” he continued. He pointed at our boxes. “Was the food not to your satisfaction?”

            Lewis and I exchanged a look. Our undercover operation was over. We pulled our credentials out of our pants pockets.

            “Sir,” I said, showing him my identification. “Is there somewhere we could talk privately?”

            He nodded and led us to a door labeled “Restrooms” along the back wall. We followed him through the door, down a hallway, past the bathrooms, to a small but orderly office next to an emergency exit. He took the seat behind the desk and gestured for us to take the folding chairs along the wall.

            For a few moments, the only sound in the office was the scraping of the chairs as Lewis and I pulled them closer to the desk. We introduced ourselves and the manager gave us his name, Akihiro Otasaki.

            “And what have I done,” Mr. Otasaki asked, “to attract the attention of two health department inspectors?”

            We explained about the anonymous tip and the investigation it required, saying nothing about our suspicions of Dr. Troyan.

            When he spoke, Mr. Otasaki’s voice was calm but tense. “I assure you, gentlemen, we serve only fish indigenous to Earth. We use Sayaran technology to cook our rice because it is so much more efficient, but every morsel of food here is pure Terran. I am happy to provide any paperwork or samples you need to prove it.”

            “Thank you, sir. We would like to take some samples and review your purchase orders, just for confirmation,” Lewis explained. “I’ll grab what we need from the car.”

            Soon after Lewis stepped out to fetch his collection kit, another possibility occurred to me. “Do you have any enemies, sir? Anyone who might want to cause trouble for you by calling in such a tip?”

            The restaurant manager leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers together. He sighed before saying, “I’m afraid I might. Do you know the dentist next door? Dr. Troyan, I believe is his name.”

            Dr. Troyan? Interesting. I made an effort to keep my expression neutral.

            “It is unfortunate, but we have had some run-ins with him. Nuisance complaints, mostly. He does not want us here, but I cannot say why.”

            Lewis returned, and Mr. Otasaki led him to the kitchen. When the restaurant manager rejoined me in the office, I asked him to list the complaints made by Dr. Troyan and their timing, to the best of his recollection. Then I went to help Lewis collect samples.

 

* * *

 

            Back at the office later that afternoon, after we’d delivered the samples to our laboratory, Lewis and I re-strategized. We did not know for sure that the complaint against Satsuma Sushi was false—we would need lab results for that—but we strongly suspected that was the case. We also suspected Dr. Troyan was at the center of the hullaballoo. It could not have been coincidence that I fingered him as the anonymous tipster and Mr. Otasaki identified him as the restaurant’s sole enemy.

            So while I dug deeper into my dentist’s life, Lewis talked with his so-called witnesses again. Forty-eight hours later, we each had reached the same conclusion: the accusation against Satsuma Sushi was completely false, and Dr. Troyan was behind it. The witnesses all turned out to be patients of Dr. Troyan or relatives of his patients. I had no difficulty imagining him whispering his suspicions to them just as he had with me. Under the law, anyone who filed a false accusation could be fined the cost of the investigation. We made it our mission to prove Dr. Troyan deserved the fine.

 

* * *            

 

            “You’re not going to believe this,” Lewis announced as I walked into the office the following morning. He waved an olive-drab folder. “The lab results are in.”

            I threw my jacket on the back of my chair. “And?”

            “The fish is all native to Earth.”

            “Not a surprise. That’s what we expected.”

            “But the rice is not.”

            I fell into my chair. “What?”

            Lewis opened the folder and put his index finger on the top page. “The rice is of a variety found only on the planet Sayara.”

            “So efficiency isn’t the only reason all their rice cookers are Sayaran.”

            “There’s more.” He put down the olive folder and picked up a red one. “I went through Satsuma’s purchase orders. They haven’t bought any vinegar in years.”

            “So?”

            Lewis let out a sigh of exasperation. “Sushi rice is made with vinegar. Except Sayaran rice naturally has a vinegary taste and sticky texture, perfect for sushi.”

            It was my turn to sigh. I leaned back in my chair. “Where does that leave us?”

            “With charges to file against Satsuma Sushi.” He raised an eyebrow. “Right? Unless I’m missing something?”

            “There’s still something fishy, pardon the expression, about Dr. Troyan’s anonymous tip. I’d like to know what’s behind it. He sure as hell didn’t know about the rice, or he would have said so in his call.” I rocked forward. “You handle the charges against the restaurant. I’m going to have a chat with my dentist.”

             

* * *

 

            I waited in Dr. Troyan’s office while he finished with a patient.

            He greeted me with a smile. “Jonah! Everything all right?”

            “Yes, everything’s fine.” I answered. “I’m actually here about that sushi restaurant. You said they served extraterrestrial fish.” I flashed my credentials and took a bit of pleasure in watching him blanch.  “I wanted to assure you that we’ve investigated thoroughly and found no evidence of non-Terran seafood anywhere in the place.”

            “Oh, well, um, thank you.”

            “I suspect you knew that, though.” I stepped closer. “So tell me, just between us, why’d you make the call? Why all the nuisance complaints against Mr. Otasaki?”

            I watch his wheels turn. Finally, he shrugged and said, “I wanted his storefront so I could expand my practice.”

            It figured. Plain old Earthling greed. I needed to find a new dentist.

 

 

Click here to read the story behind "Something Fishy."