-- Finished by Anne Del Borgo
This story was actually conceived by Kathy Schroeder – she wrote the basics of the first section, posted it on the internet, then challenged the rest of us to finish it, changing whatever we liked along the way. This is what I did with it.
Seth woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed. It was six in the morning, and his alarm clock was going off. He silenced the ringing, then sat with his head in his hands, trying to sort out his thoughts. That had been one hell of a dream, but that was all it was – a dream.
Or was it?
Getting out of bed, Seth went into the bathroom and splashed water on his face. He could remember every detail of the dream, and the brilliant clarity of it all – plus the uncanny way it had paralleled recent events – troubled him to no end. The memory of it carried a certain urgency, as if something or someone was trying to tell him something.
Seth glanced at his watch; it was only quarter past six. Jessica wouldn’t be up for another hour, and besides, there were very definitely aspects of this dream that he wasn’t about to share, least of all with her. The only thing to do was to try and sort it out for himself. He padded into the kitchen in his bathrobe and slippers, flicked on the switch to the coffeepot, and sat down at the table with a pad and pencil.
First of all, he listed events in the dream that had also actually happened over the course of the last few days. Everything concerning Selka Dorrity’s role in what the local press had clumsily dubbed “Cafeteriagate” – how she had come by the job, and discovered a serious case of fraud, only to be accused by federal auditor Ronald Percy and fired, even how Percy’s body had been discovered in the photograph - all of that was echoed in the dream exactly as it had played out in real life. But that was where the similarities ended. Selka Dorrity, for one thing, was very much alive. There wasn’t any trace of snow on the ground. And there most certainly had not been any romantic liaison with his best friend.
Here Seth flushed, and put his pencil down to consider that last part. It wasn’t the first time that rather upsetting subtext had woven its way into his dreams, and he always woke from them with a vague feeling of regret.
With an effort he shook it off. With everything that had been going on, it was no wonder that the murder should replay itself in his dreams. As for the rest of it, that must have been his subconscious simply filling in the gaps. And the snowstorm – that was probably what Jessica would have called “metaphor,” and nothing more.
“Well, I might as well get on with the day,” he said aloud to himself. Finishing his first cup of coffee of the morning, he pushed back his chair from the table and retired to his bedroom to get dressed. Then he went into his office, switched on the radio to catch the morning news on NPR, and started to look over his schedule of appointments for the day. In the middle of a report about the rising cost of fuel oil, the phone rang. Seth picked it up without thinking.
“Doc Hazlitt here,” he said.
“Seth! You forgot, didn’t you.” It was Jessica, and she sounded faintly annoyed.
“Breakfast. At the coffeeshop. Wednesday? Today is Wednesday, isn’t it?”
Seth slapped his forehead as he suddenly remembered. “Lord, I’m sorry, Jess … I didn’t sleep well last night, and it slipped right out of my mind …”
Here Jessica softened her tone. “Is everything all right?” she asked.
Seth forced a laugh. “Far as I know, it is,” he said, with more brightness than he felt.
Relief on the other end. “Good. Well, no matter – I’m not on a tight schedule today. You can meet me down there whenever you’re ready – that is, if we’re still on.”
“Oh, we’re still on,” Seth assured her. “How does half an hour sound?”
“Fine. See you then.”
Seth hung up, and reached for his jacket just as the weather forecast was coming on the radio:
“The National Weather Service has issued a winter
storm watch for southern and coastal
Seth froze where he stood as he listened, and a chill ran down his spine as he remembered his dream: Jessica looked out the window as the snow swirled outside; it was if they were in the middle of a snow globe …
It hadn’t been just a dream, he realized. It had been a warning.
Half an hour later he walked into the coffeeshop, where he saw Jessica already seated at a small table in a corner, a cup of tea in her hands.
“Mornin’, Jess,” he said as he joined her. “Sorry about forgetting about this morning.”
Jessica waved the apology away as a waitress came over and filled Seth’s coffee cup. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “There’s been a lot going on.”
Seth took a sip of coffee and considered his friend. She radiated grace and self-confidence, as she always did: there was no sign of the ravaging guilt and grief that he remembered so vividly from his dream. Nor could he find any trace of vulnerability; that was something she had learned, since her husband’s death, to bury deep within her, under a blanket of stubborn self-reliance. These days only a severe shock or trauma could succeed in bringing it to the surface.
Like falling off a bridge.
He paused in his musings to find Jessica fixing him with a piercing look.
“Seth, are you sure you’re all right?” she asked. “You seem preoccupied.”
The temptation to tell her about the dream was overwhelming, but he kept it in check. Jessica was unnaturally perceptive, and he was afraid that if he started to tell her about even part of it, she would figure out the rest. Not an attractive option.
“No, it’s nothing,” he said. “Have you spoken with Mort yet this morning?”
“No, but I’m going to.” She lowered her voice and added, “Seth, I think I know who murdered that auditor.”
Seth looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was eavesdropping - a favorite past time of the coffeeshop’s regulars. “Who?”
“Selka?” Seth said in amazement. “What makes you think so?”
“Because she knew too much,” Jessica said. “Too much about a man that she supposedly had never seen or spoken to before he accused her of fraud.”
“But why would she do it?” Seth asked.
“Well, I did a little digging,” Jessica said. “As it so happens, this same auditor, Ronald Percy, was the one who oversaw the liquidation of her husband’s business shortly before his death.”
“I remember that! Rory Dorrity filed for Chapter 11, and the IRS ripped his assets apart. Then two months later Rory dropped dead of a heart attack.”
“That’s right. Selka blamed Ronald Percy not only for the ruin of her husband’s business, but also for his death. She planned to sue Percy for wrongful death – she approached two or three lawyers in town about it – but she lacked the finances to pay the legal fees, and the case never got off the ground. That was fourteen years ago.”
“Makes sense,” Seth conceded. “But how do you prove it?”
“Well, that’s the tricky part, but I think I know how I can do it. I’ve arranged to meet with Selka tonight, at the bridge in the park.”
Seth set his coffee cup down with a thump. “Ah, Jess, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”
“Well, it’s just this feeling I have … at least let me go with you.”
Jessica shook her head. “Can’t do that. Selka insisted I come alone. Besides, Mort and Andy will be lurking in the background. I’ll be fine.”
Seth grasped at any reason that might dissuade Jessica from walking into the middle of his foreseen disaster. “There’s supposed to be a storm moving in tonight. Not safe to be hanging around outside in the middle of a blizzard.”
Jessica brushed this off. “The snow isn’t supposed to even start until midnight. I’m meeting Selka at ten.” She said it with a finality that clearly indicated that her mind was made up, and the conversation was at an end.
Jessica spent the rest of the day working out the
details of her case, and despite Seth’s misgivings, the meeting on the bridge
went forward as planned. Or almost as
planned – the nor’easter, with typical New England unpredictability, hit the coast
Jessica paced back and forth on the narrow stone bridge, her head wrapped in a woolen scarf and bent into the wind.
“Jessica,” a voice said from behind her – it was Selka Dorrity. “I’m glad you came.”
“I had to come,” she said. “You said you could prove you were innocent of switching the food stores in the freezer.”
“I can!” Selka said. “And when you see it, you’ll know that I had nothing to do with any of this, it was all the cafeteria manager! He stabbed Percy with the kitchen cleaver to cover up his fraud!”
Jessica looked at Selka impassively. “Stabbed? How did you know that he was stabbed – and with the cleaver, no less?”
Here Selka faltered. “Well, it was in the paper,” she said.
Jessica shook her head. “It wasn’t. The only person besides the Sheriff, Seth, and me who knew that was his killer – you, Selka.”
Selka was shocked. “I can’t believe you’re say this!”
“I wish I weren’t! But you’ve been using me, Selka. You took those pictures of the freezer, being careful to avoid the area where you’d put the body – all except for the last one, where you carefully put his hand in the shot, knowing I would pick up on that and investigate. And with your evidence that the cafeteria manager was defrauding the federal school lunch program, it was natural that everyone should look to him as the only person with a motive strong enough to murder a government auditor. You killed Ronald Percy, in revenge for what he did to you and your husband.”
Selka said nothing, her arms hanging limply at her sides. Jessica took a step back as Mort and Andy appeared at either end of the bridge.
“It’s over, Selka,” she said.
Without warning Selka’s face twisted in hatred. “No, it’s not,” she hissed. “Not by a long shot.” And before either Mort or Andy could reach her, she rushed forward and gave Jessica a push that sent her falling backwards – over the edge of the bridge.
Jessica was not conscious of even having time to let out a cry, only that her fall was oddly shorter than it should have been and ended rather differently than she had expected. Seth caught her in his outstretched arms, and they both tumbled forward onto the ice and snow of the frozen brook in a tangle.
“Hullo, Jess,” he said. “Nice of you to drop by.”
A single candle and crackling fire in the fireplace illuminated Jessica’s bedroom. She lay propped up in her bed, thick quilts covering her legs and chest. She was chilled to the bone, exhausted emotionally and physically. Jessica looked out the window as the snow swirled outside; it was if they were in the middle of a snow globe. She heard footsteps and looked over at the door. Seth came in, and the candlelight reflected off his face with a warm glow. He had a tray in his hands, and set it on the night stand.
Seth sat on the edge of her bed and made himself comfortable, knowing that by morning he’d be paying dearly for the rescue. Taking her chilled hands in his, he held them in his warm ones briefly. He could see colour returning to Jessica’s cheeks, but she was still chilled through. He tucked the covers up closer and asked, "Can I get you anything else, Jess?"
She shook her head. "No."
“Mort has Selka in
custody; they’ll be transferring her to
“I know. It was a close call. Thank God you were there.”
She was still shivering, and so Seth gathered her up into his arms and held her. Outside the sound of the wind and the snow swishing against the windows contrasted with the candle and firelight inside; their warm, soft glow made the room seem very peaceful and cozy.
Jessica became limp in his arms. She wasn’t asleep, just emotionally drained, and when she looked up at him … it was with that so rarely seen vulnerability. Seth was overcome with a sudden desire to seize the day. This was his chance – there would never be a moment more perfect than this to confess that he loved her. And yet, and yet …
Seth bent and kissed her … chastely on the forehead.
“Go to sleep, Jess,” he said as he released her. “I’ll check in on you in the morning.”
Jessica lay back on her pillows and gave his hand a squeeze. “Thank you, Seth,” she said, smiling.
Seth stayed with her until she had drifted off to sleep. When he was sure she was deep in some peaceful, pleasant dream, he quietly got up, blew out the candle …
… and left the house, with a vague feeling of regret.