In a luxury hotel, why would a thief steal something so inferior?
Open for Business
Three to One
Three lonely cottages framed the clearing, one painted with a cheery blue coat, another with a pale yellow, and the last splotched with gray.
Caroline’s eyes darted from one house to the other. Her eyes lingered on the one in the middle.
Marcus checked his watch. “It’s getting late- I reckon we should head back home soon...”
“You could bunk at our house,” Caroline suggested. “That way we can begin as soon as the sun rises.”
“Oh... um... all right,” he decided, looking up at the darkening sky. “As long as the walk isn’t too far.”
Caroline huffed, tilting her head toward the pale yellow house. “I don’t think so,” she sniffed. “It’s that one.”
As they approached the yellow house, Marcus noticed a nailed-on sign over the front door. In faded, painted on letters were six words.
The Sewing Shack- Open for Business!
“You own a business?” Marcus inquired, watching as she banged on the front door.
“Mm,” she grumbled as the door opened. “More like a supply closet than a business.”
A smiling, slightly red faced woman stood in the doorway. “Caroline! And, ah- ” She took a step back. “And...”
“This is Marcus, he’s helping me with the stolen hotel property.”
“Nice to meet you!” she opened the rest of the door and grinned in an embarrassed way. “I’m dreadfully sorry for the mess, Caroline didn’t clean up... this way...”
“It’s fine,” Marcus assured her, examining the room.
Cabinets lined two walls of the room, most of the doors ajar and overflowing with spools of thread. Random scraps of cloth were scattered around anywhere that was not covered in flyaway embroidery string.
On his right were jars full of needles and buttons atop a wooden shelf. Next to them, a box labeled “Cloth” held squares of only three different colors.
Marcus took a step forward and felt something cling to his foot. Peeling it off, he saw that it was a loose price tag.
Caroline climbed up a flight of stairs into a cozy sitting room. In a corner was a stove, a sink, and three clean plates. Marcus noticed a man in a dingy chair, sipping a drink out of a mug.
“Good evening, Father.”
“Evening, Carrie. I see you have a visitor.”
“Marcus, this is my father. He will be staying for the night to help with a case of stolen property.”
“I see.”
Silence fell on the room, and Caroline sat upon a stool and brought out her notepad. Marcus pulled up a chair next to her.
“This blue house,” she whispered, scribbling a rough sketch, “Belongs to Ms. Lila Travis. Owns a dying cafe... jealous of the hotel’s business.”
“This gray house,” Caroline made a disgusted face. “Belongs to the Websters. Filthy rich. Owns the two-horse ranch... but,” her voice dropped to a hiss of loathing. “They bought the horses- but stole all the saddles, stirrups, halters, you name it. Eventually caught. Fined quite a bit.”
“Uh... yes...” Marcus shifted uncomfortably. “That does not mean they’ll do it again, some people learn from their mistakes, of course...”
“But! But! That makes them our prime suspects, right?”
Marcus shrugged, contemplating the issue. “I wouldn’t jump to conclusions.”
Indignant, Caroline slapped the notebook shut and tucked it away. “If you insist.” she scowled at him. “‘Jumping to conclusions’ or not, we will visit them first thing in the morning.”
Caroline threw one more disapproving look over her shoulder and went into her bedroom down the hall.
Her mother arranged a pillow and a blanket on the floor of the sitting room, patting it down. Marcus crawled in, and within seconds had fallen asleep.
Dawn streaked pinks and oranges across the sky. Marcus watched as Caroline rapped primly on the gray door three times.
No one answered. The lights were still off.
“It’s Miss Lila Travis, then?” Marcus said.
“That’s easy, she’s always up at around four-o-clock to set up shop. It’s across town, though, do you mind the walk?”
“Not at all.”
Five minutes later, they had reached the cafe. It was splashed with bright colors just like her blue house.
“I’m going to collect evidence from the Websters’ house while you interview her,” Caroline announced.
Marcus blinked. “What? I thought we were supposed to do this together! That’s what he hired us for-”
But she had already forced three pieces of notebook paper and a fountain pen into his hands. “I’m going,” she said, with a tone of finality in her voice. She began the walk back to the houses.
Bells above the door jingled merrily as Marcus walked in. As far as he could tell, he was the first customer.
“Good morning, Miss Travis.”
She looked up from a tray of pastries she was cooling.
“Morning! Pastry? Coffee? Perhaps some tea?”
“Um, sorry, maybe later... I’ve come to ask a few questions.” Marcus stopped short and looked up at the curtains on the windows.
It was beige, just like the hotel ones, and had a small but noticeable burn mark on the front.
“What about the burn mark? Or the matches?”
He imagined the lit lamp hitting the curtains as the thief towed them out, leaving that burn mark. The fire on the curtain could have caught on the floor as well, and then extinguished by the rest of the curtain.
“Oh, that?” she chuckled. “Courtesy of my horrid ironing.”
Marcus blushed; she’d caught him staring at a piece of possible evidence.
“Have a seat, my customers aren’t coming until eight- if they’re even coming at all.” She threw a dirty look in the hotel’s direction, just down the street.
Marcus scribbled in his book as Ms. Travis explained what she was doing the other night.
5:30- Made dinner for myself and son, ate it at 6:00 P.M.
I wanted to sit by the fire to warm myself, but there were no matches. I sent my son to buy some. He came back with them.
“How many were there?” Marcus lifted his head.
“A handful. But not a lot.”
He imagined the boy taking the matches with the curtains, tossing them down, and running off with them.
Son went to buy matches. Handful of them. Could be evidence. Will check w. Caroline.
It was hard to imagine, but it was possible.
Burn mark on beige curtain... evidence? But if so, then why put it in plain sight?
“Did you see anyone outside at the time?”
“I don’t think so.”
Marcus stared down at his measly collection of scribbles. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, good day.” She went back to loading pastries into the glass case. Marcus heard the bells jingle as he walked out.
Caroline was jogging up to him. Without exchanging words, they immediately compared notes while walking back.
On the day of the crime, Marlon Webster went to “buy” new leather shoes. Brown, laces.
At the time of the crime, he was inside making dinner for his daughters, Peggy, Angelica, and Eliza.
Wore a brown coat and milky buttons when interviewed.
They went back to Caroline’s for a full breakfast. Mr. Webster was standing in front of his house, watching his daughters play in the yard. He was wearing a black trench coat and work shoes, beaming as the three rolled around in the grass.
A string of questions ran through his head.
Mr. Webster wouldn’t just switch clothes so frequently, especially shoes.
Then... was Caroline telling the truth?
But why would she lie?
She unlocked the door and they both crept in. Marcus stopped Caroline as she went up the stairs.
“Caroline- what were you doing on the night of the crime?”
“Cleaning the shop, of course. Every night.” She went up, back down, tossed him a piece of toast, and then walked out the door to sit on the front porch.
Marcus briefly scanned the room while she was gone.
She was cleaning this place? Then how come it was still so messy?
He walked along the perimeter of the room. Embroidery string in one cupboard. More in another. Buttons and needles. His eyes stopped on the box of cut-up squares.
Three colors- white, beige, and brown.
He felt around, pulling out colors of every kind, and then stopped when he reached the bottom.
It couldn’t be.
Could it?
He ran out of the house and stood, panting, in front of Mr. Webster. Caroline shot him an inquiring look. He turned away.
“Sir, sorry to interrupt, but may I borrow a camera from you?”
Mr. Webster pondered this, looking at Marcus like he was some sort of curious specimen.
“All right, but only if you return it safely.”
He went into the gray house and returned with an enormous vintage Polaroid.
“What in the name of my poor old grandfather do you need a camera for?” Caroline chewed on her toast.
“Lovely view,” his mouth was dry as he spat out the words.
“Oh, I see.” Caroline’s eyes narrowed.
He shakily closed the door behind him, and snapped photos of the evidence. They printed out almost immediately, and he stuffed them in his pocket and left.
“Mr. Webster, sir, here’s your camera.”
“Thank you, son. Have a nice day, now.”
“You as well, Mr. Webster.”
Marcus walked up to Caroline, who was tilted back on the porch, flicking crumbs off her fingers.
“We’re going to the hotel right now,” he said.
“What do you mean? We haven’t discussed the culprit yet.”
“I’ve figured it out. We’re going right this instant, Caroline.”
He took off, half-running, into the small not-quite-a-forest and back to the front of the hotel. Caroline tried to keep up, tripping over her own feet.
The oak door of the manager’s office loomed over him again. He knocked.
“Who is it?”
“Marcus Vanryn, waiter, room service.”
“Come in, and quickly.”
The office looked almost exactly the same- only the person seated behind the desk had changed. Mr. Matzke looked anxious, maybe even stressed.
Caroline entered next. Marcus directed her to a seat and took a deep breath.
“Caroline,” he said, “Why did you steal the hotel property?”
“Her?” Mr. Matzke’s eyebrows shot up into his hairline. “My goodness!”
“You have no evidence!” Caroline tried to look confident but only succeeded in looking slightly nauseous.
“The evidence is in here,” he pulled out the Polaroid images from his pocket.
“Images?” Caroline spat. “Could have been altered, you could be taking pictures of any scrap box...”
“My first piece of evidence,” Marcus continued, “Was in your office. Caroline said that she had already been at the scene of the crime. This couldn’t be possible, as I had the woman’s key. Yet, she was telling the truth, since she had stolen the items already.”
“What about a second key?” Caroline shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“To get that, you would also have to steal, so either way, you could still be charged with robbery.”
She stared at her feet. He held up one of the Polaroids, the photo of the messy shop.
“My second piece of evidence,” Marcus said, “Was on the night of the robbery, she was, quote-unquote, ‘cleaning her shop’. When I visited, it was still atrocious. Therefore, she had to be busy with something else that night.”
Caroline continued to stare at her feet.
“Next, after I interviewed Ms. Travis, she claimed that Mr. Webster had worn leather shoes and a brown coat with milky buttons- the color and description of the owner’s coat and shoes, Mr. Stanford.”
“Hmm,” Mr. Matzke nodded. “And..?”
“However, he was wearing a black trench coat and work shoes only minutes after she shared the evidence.”
“You don’t have a picture for that,” Caroline sneered, looking up.
“I don’t, but I did not need to.” Marcus calmly answered. “Fourth piece of evidence- Caroline tried to frame the Websters for the robbery just because they have stolen before.”
Mr. Matzke, he noticed, was scribbling down something on a pad of paper.
“And the last piece of evidence was this.” He held up a photo of the Cloth box. It had squares of white, beige, and brown.
“As I dug through this box, I noticed the white squares had the same texture as the hotel towels and bathrobe- soft, and similar to a rug. And the brown seemed rough, like wool on a coat. The beige is the curtain.”
“And they are all... cut into squares?”
“Beyond damage, yes.”
Mr. Matzke put his head into his hands. Marcus held up a snapshot of the leather shoes.
“Also, under these- shoes. Genuine leather, completely hidden underneath.”
The next picture was of the shoes.
“And the last one, the final piece- the button jar. Inside were about 10, the majority of which were milky white.”
Marcus, with a triumphant grin on his face, slid all the photos onto Mr. Matzke’s desk.
“The final question is,” he turned to Caroline as he talked. “Why?”
He almost felt sorry for her, she looked like she had aged about ten years in the brief five minutes they had been talking.
Defeated, she spoke. “My father works out of town and shares his earnings only for food. My mother and I run the shop. Our cloth runs out fast, but not much else. Our business wasn’t making enough money to buy another large supply.”
She took a shaky breath.
“I stole. I knew it was wrong of me, but we needed that money. My father did not like the stealing, but I had already cut up the entire collection. He ordered me to try and ‘solve the mystery’ so I could frame someone else and steer the attention away.”
Mr. Matzke continued writing.
“People were talking about a robbery at the hotel. This rumor got to me, and I took action. I called Mr. Matzke and told him about my expertise in robbery.”
“Ms. Caroline,” Mr. Matzke said, “You know you will be fined for this, correct?”
“Yes, sir.”
“On the charges of robbery, and property damage?”
“Yes, sir.”
“No,” Marcus interrupted. “I will pay for half of the fine. My daily earnings are more than enough to provide for me. Her family is running out of money, and I feel guilty for putting her in such a hard spot.”
“Really?” Mr. Matzke tilted his head. “In that case,” he crossed out something on his paper pad and rewrote it quickly. “This is your fine, Ms. Powell. I expect your payment by tomorrow, both of you.”
The next day, Marcus and Caroline gave their earnings to Mr. Matzke. Caroline was ushered away. Marcus’ hand was on the doorknob when Mr. Matzke stopped him.
“Mr. Vanryn,” he said. “You’re promoted.”
“Sir...” Marcus resisted the urge to laugh. “Really?”
“Front desk, now. Zoe will show you the new ways.”
“It’s alright, sir- I’m quite comfortable with my current job-”
“Perhaps a pay raise, then?”
“All right. Thank you, sir.”
“Have a good day.”
“You as well.”
The door closed. Marcus walked up to the bartender and began wiping the counter.
“You alright, boy?” the bartender winked. “You look like you got a puppy for Christmas!”
“I’m good,” Marcus answered.
Something in the pocket of his pants crinkled.
He reached in and pulled it out. A slip of paper.
Thank you so much for paying that half when I deserved every bit of that fine.
With all due respect, Caroline Powell.
P.S. Tell the owner of that coat I will sew him a new one. The shoes will arrive in a package later.
Marcus slipped the paper back into his pocket and was unable to contain his smile.
The bartender brought out a bottle.
“Bring this to Mr. Stephen Kandinsky, Fourth Floor.”
Marcus accepted the bottle. If he hadn’t delivered that one crucial bottle to Ms. Abigail Clemens, then he wouldn’t be here at all.
In a way, the grouchy lady had done him a favor.
And quite a large one at that.

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