Mystery of the Red Shoes
Odd and memorable days often have odd and memorable starts. 63-year old Police Chief Ben Perdy’s day was beginning and he didn’t know it yet, sun rays still creeping toward his bedroom window, the flash momentary, sleep trying not to let go.
At that precise instant, beside the Edisto River at the edge of Saxon, two town boys came carefully through heavy growth by the river’s initial bend near Saxon Center, their lips shushed, their cameras in hand. Discovery and highlight of the new day came for the boys near the river edge. Sitting on the bank as if a sensual, long legged blonde or redhead had just stepped out of them, a pair of fiery red high heels. Red, sexy even in their emptiness, but dancing shoes, dating shoes, going-out shoes for sure. The sun caught them in an illuminating shot and quickly bounced away from its own glare. But there were no tracks, no sign of either long or short journey, no story to go with such abrupt high heel punctuation.
Trouble shoes, each boy thought.
The placid morning rolled around the pair of shoes the way a fog lifts, as though a vagrant artist had placed them there for a vision to collect, paints to speak his mind. Nearby, in the tall and mass-struggling reeds, a remnant April breeze sounded like a comb making its way through old corn stalks. Out of the northeast the night wind had stopped its gallop, had laid down its head to sleep in the early sun. River waters, at a point of tidal change, sat still as molasses in the vast spread of South Carolina marshes.
Questions, doubt, mystery all melded in the morning pot.
Ben Perdy rolled out of bed on the button of 5:00 A.M. Without a glass of wine the night before there was no need for an alarm clock. He often wondered if morning birds at high choir did it or some trick his blood performed. Or else a place in the back of his mind that snapped a flag for attention, some other-world retreat he’d been off to. Then, as always, without doubt, Molly Popp’s face came at him from that dark distance, sweet Molly, always potential Molly. Something electric, deep but not foreboding, moved within him. With an unsure touch he rubbed his stomach searching for an elusive gas pocket that might have roused him.
The youngster Darren was the first up out of the brush, saying to his pal Michael, “Think she drowned, Mike? Think some guy pushed her in, right out of her shoes? We have to tell Ben Perdy. He’ll put yellow tape around the whole area … if he’s got enough of it. And I don’t see any pocketbook. There’s always a pocketbook hanging around with chicks. They carry their own rubbers. I heard my sister Dollie telling Josie on the phone, ‘You got to have your own rubbers ‘cause they don’t care half the time.’ Jeezus, it’s like nothing to them the way they talk about it!”
His head was full of pictures he had seen in a few magazines; red high heels, long bare legs and the other bare mysteries that so often dried his throat. He wondered if this girl of the shoes had been a redhead, or a blonde, and that hard to tell.
Darren Popp and his fourteen-year old pal, classmate and bird buff, Michael Rodden, came upon the shoes along with the rising and splintering of the sun. Their cameras were ready for the first bird of the day, the first dawn-provoked, colored flight they would get a shot of coming up out of groundcover. Maybe it’d be a Clapper Rail bird.
Darren carried a Bowie knife at his belt. A just-in-case investment. And this was a mystery to them.
Looking about carefully, the boys noted again that there were no tracks near the shoes, not the slightest impression. Not a one. The bank was darkly rich, April soft and muddy and would not dry out for days yet, if then. They couldn’t remember the marsh ever being dried up.. But there were no tracks. The shoes cried out for tracks, for normal compliance, for mere explanation.
Mystified, the boys started back into town, imagination concocting tale upon tale easch timer they spoke. Measurements of some unknown kind were otherwise being contemplated, each boy with his own approach, his own angle on the shoes their own riverbank was wearing like a romantic remnant.
“Think we have a murder here?” Michael said, looking back to the Edisto River snaking away to the Atlantic, the bends behind him like a huge slow-breathing S emptying brackish ponds, upriver flats, other slow streams anteing up their own spring effluence. In the distance, darker than they would be minutes later, the range of hills around Saxon was also emptying damp April’s offerings. The boys knew the hill music the spring waters compounded, for that was a territory of past haunt and old nesting grounds.
Michael pursued his attempt at measurement and his chase at reality. “How do you get a pair of shoes stuck on the banking that way and no tracks around them? In a hundred years you couldn’t throw them together like that. Not from the reeds or the brush line. Not even from one of Guy’s canoes.” He looked back again. “Could have come right from a dance. I wonder what she looked like. Probably had great jugs that got her in trouble, and long legs from you know where. The chief, old Ben Perdy, won’t let a soul near that place in a month of Sundays. Like he don’t let no one get too near your grandma but never says anything anyways.”
All of 5:00 A.M. had touched Ben Perdy with its fingers, letting his bones know of its arrival. He washed the face of the older man looking back at him from the mirror, blinking his eyes at still having hair on his head and few wrinkles at the neckline for a 63-year old man. His eyes, he noted, were as pale green as ever and were not loaded with any great weight but his own measurement.
He swore he’d reach a song if he could, a good feeling moving in him, calling out to him. For a moment he figured it was morning rather than Molly Popp. She had a morning presence he had never told her about, figured he wouldn’t tell her in a hundred years, give or take a few. Little said is little damage done. He wanted to say status quo but it would not come up from where it was hiding.
Day had officially started. He pinned on his badge and snugged his belt. For a quick recovery of duties, to reassert a sense of organization (really, he thought, to catch his breath), he gave the day coming a salute full of yesterday’s leavings. Art Kornell was in a cell again, for raising hell at Mallory’s Pub. Art would need his breakfast and dear friend Molly Popp at her house-diner would have it ready for delivery by 6:30. Yesterday’s accident scene just outside town would need another look, if only to ease his mind. Mash Holcumb would still be out of town for his grandfather’s funeral, and then a day’s travel home before he’d come back on relief duty. Amid all that reflection he inhaled his near sixty-three years on and about the river, let it all come upon him; salt thrush, August fire in the pickerelreed, odd mix of plants hanging about the banking near Guy’s boathouse, even day-old fish thrown out on the high banks by young fishermen contemptuous of bones. All of it brought him measurements he was often not ready to accept or give away.
Even then, there was nothing unusual silhouetting or daubing the horizon of the new day.
That thought brought him back to Molly; he could see her leaning her goodness against the kitchen counter in the half-house and half-diner, as if all that goodness now and then needed some respite. Her still-lovely and comely being had worn him down long ago. Soft still-red hair would be tied up in a band, with a small portion of her years pushing at the backside of her dress. That part never failed to catch his eye. No calipers could ever lie or distort the lines of those curves, nor could they abort his wonder about her and the way she might be put together. He’d never be able to tell her that, he thought. Though, with him, her trimness counted and extended a mark of reliability. His own weight, controlled by work and practice, pushed lightly and comfortably against his belt.
This morning again, no different than hundreds of others, Molly wholly warmed him, small sparks traversing a mesh of inner wiring he could almost touch. My own gridline, he thought. He could easily compound a sense of spark or shock. Batteries included came at him with a grin. Plus, he thought, there’ll be a sense of cinnamon about her, a pause of kitchen refreshment that could readily move to the bedroom. Or it ought. She would look over one shoulder at his entrance into the diner, hair evenly in place, her neck in a graceful curve. She’d smile a particular kind of radiance, so that a whole hearth beckoned in the gesture, made welcome of itself. And the wire mesh, his own gridline, would generate a kind of ignition south of his belt.
At 5:00 A.M he knew the people of the town that were awake: there’d be Molly with his and Art Kornell’s breakfast in the works, Art Kornell himself, pacing the jail cell in hunger, and Tab Glasser at the gas station on the edge of town keeping his eyes down the road. Sometimes there’d be those boys with their cameras out and about, looking for prized migrants heading away from exotic lagoons toward the northern fields and the lean and mean neighborhoods of glaciers.
When the phone rang he figured it had to be Molly or Ted.
It was one of the boys, Molly’s grandson Darren. “Sheriff, this is Darren. Me and Mikey found a pair of red high heels stuck almost side by side in the muddy bank of the river. And no tracks around them, Sheriff. Not a one. It’s like they wuz thrown there from the reeds. We thought you ought to know. Ladies’ bright red high heels.” He added, “The dancing kind,” as if he too were at measurement. His voice paused. “Kind of spooky if you ask me.”
“’Bout where, Darren?”
“Directly opposite Cosgrove’s front door, this side of the big bend. I lined it up, and we took a couple of telescopic shots of the shoes, but didn’t go near them. There’s still no tracks there.”
“I’ll check it out after I get breakfast from your grandmother. I got to feed Art.”
“He in there again?”
“Grandma gets paid for it, Darren.”
“Want us waiting? We got us some interesting flyers here. Won’t be wasting our time.”
“Stay put if you want, Darren. Me, I need breakfast first. I’ll be along.” As an afterthought of interest he said, “See anything else interesting? Any long-lost pals come along the way?”
Silence was as good as nothing, he figured.
When Ben Perdy told Molly about the red high heels, she allowed a serious look to come across her comely face, as much omen as it was surprise. Her eyes were bright with morning, the same light sitting on her cheeks. She wore a pastel dress and a red apron. Her legs were long as she leaned over the counter. Flour sat a pattern on her apron, another bit was dust on her short sleeve. Ben thought Molly was an aces cook, a sylph if he could have dragged the word out of the past, and that she, like all natural redheads, had those marvelous green eyes bearing all the powers of a spade. He dared think she could have owned him any time she wanted to. And he had long counted on her for sage advice at times. It was part and parcel of her being, and their own small network of two people too long in the fancy of the other, but without direct participation of the ultimate possibilities.
Molly Popp had kept the whisper of her shape all these years, thin and agile, and her hips could still be seen making the measure of the mystical valley. Ben Perdy often marked women by their hips. Ben would fix them in place with their minds. In addition, Molly’s hair was always in neat arrangement and she wore no makeup except her continual smile. Once, the two of them gabbing on a Christmas Eve, she told Ben it was the memory of Branner Popp, the only man she had ever known, that coaxed her through some odd days with a smile (as if Branner had never left, he thought). Now that smile had disappeared for a moment with talk about the red high heels. One of her hips dotted his horizon for the barest second, and his flush was slow but crawled toward permanence. On numberless nights she had assailed him and he feared that that dreamy marquee had showed itself again.
“Sounds like trouble to me, Ben. You know how I feel about odd things like that.” As if to add punctuation to her statement, or to stress her beliefs, she wagged the coffee pot at him. A breast moved under a large flower on her dress. It too wore the dust of flour.
He nodded and she poured, but he knew she was coming back at him, her head cocked, wonder showing. “It’s not just a pair of shoes, Ben. They’re not usual around here unless there’s a dance or a special time. Red high heels means a fellow’s in the mix, being chased or chasing. That’s easy enough to see. Red high heels mean finery and a pitch at elegance. Silk underwear, the whole lot.” Her face had not even reddened. “I guess I wore them maybe twice in my whole life. Once to Lonnie and Mella-Sue’s wedding, and once when Bran and me went to Charleston to that hotel for the big centennial dance.” The way she tilted her head was as much recapture as Ben could assess, but that was plenty enough for him, grandmother or no grandmother.
“I’d look along the river a ways,” she said, pouring another mouthful of coffee in his cup. She shivered at her delivery, the vibrations very strong along her spine. It was part of her announcement. Conviction came in the tone of her voice.
Ben Perdy, subsequently in a couple of attempts, looked along the river and found nothing.
Two weeks later, the issue of the red high heels about the last thing on her mind, Molly saw an article in the paper about a missing woman, the wife of a rich industrialist. The woman’s husband had flown from the airport at Charleston to Savannah. It was a night flight. When he came back the next morning his wife was not at home. After a few days she was declared missing. There was still no trace of her. Molly did not like it, the vibrations and the red shoes locking together in her mind.
She’d mention the shoes to Ben again. It was only right. Molly had found out small rumors and innuendoes about the flyer husband had surfaced. He was a ladies man. Molly had called a few old pals. The rumors were persistent. The line of flight from Charleston to Savannah, sitting at the Atlantic’s edge, went right down over the Edisto River, out of the hills and right over the huge spread of the coastal marshes, thousands of acres of saline and often brackish marshland sitting like a state itself, a salty delta full of tidal life. That knowledge set her tingling. Ben ought to know all that. It was only right. If he didn’t listen to another woman on this account, it would serve him right.
“I won’t tell you your job, Ben, but you know how things come at me. I plain think that poor girl was thrown out of that aeroplane. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. I just got this feeling invading me all of a sudden.”
“Molly, how in hell can I check out thousands of acres?” He swung around on the diner stool, nobody else yet in for breakfast.
Behind the counter those discernible hips of hers were making statements, of that he was sure, when she said, “You ain’t saying she ain’t worth the extra mile, that poor girl? And him flighty with another one don’t know her dues is coming. You saying that, Ben Perdy? Some people stays and pays their dues.”
If she wasn’t making a promise, she was providing decent room for one. The age-old tingle again became apparent somewhere south of his belt line, grandma or no grandma. He was thinking about prerogatives and intentions, and soon realized they didn’t mix with crime or details. A couple of times he and Marsh set out on one of Guy’s rental canoes, and plied their way through brackish pools, tide spills, and the tidal runs through parts of the marsh. Nothing was ever found. No lady belonging to the red high heels. No dancing lady no longer dancing.
Molly, at breakfast one day in the diner, said, “If I was you, Ben, I’d let someone down the capital have those shoes to check them out. Where they come from, like what store and such. Shoes like that come from city stores. Give them to that guy at the lab you know, and get them out of your mind. Most important, get them out of my mind. I keep thinking about that girl gone missing and her husband flying around doing his thing. That bugs the hell out of me.” She turned her back on him, leaned against the stove counter, her charms moving at him, slowly, relentlessly.
He suddenly realized she was charming him, using him. Not a wholly new thought either way, he thought he’d like to kiss her anyplace she wanted kissing.
It hit Ben Perdy that she knew what she was doing. That she couldn’t say any more than he could say; the two of them stuck in neutral, pleasant, hungry, but in a forced neutral gear. He was willing to wager that Branner Popp had known those measurements all the time.
The boys in their pursuit caught up with a few strange birds…and Ben Perdy made more assessments, more broad calculations. The laboratory proved by DNA checking that the shoes belonged to the missing woman. An investigation by capital police ensued. There would be an inquest, even without a body.
All vibrations had been noted, all electrical connections made and understood, all dalliance moved aside on the downside of life. Ben Perdy walked around the counter one morning shortly thereafter and put his arms around Molly and said, “I wasted enough time, Molly, ‘bout half my life. You still got them high heel shoes you wore to the centennial dance up at Charleston?”
The grid line moved, sparked. She smiled and said, “You ain’t as slow as I thought you were, Ben.”
Bio note: Tom Sheehan served in 31st Regt., Korea, 1951-52. His books are Epic Cures, 2005, and Brief Cases, Short Spans, 2008, Press 53 (print and eBook issues); A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, 2009, Pocol Press; and three manuscripts tendered. He has 18 Pushcart nominations, in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, has 301 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine and work in/coming in his 5th issue of Rosebud Magazine, 5th issue of The Linnet’s Wings and 8th issue of Ocean Magazine. His newest eBooks from Milspeak Publishers are Korean Echoes, 2011 and The Westering, 2012, with 9 more in the publisher’s queue. The Westering has been nominated for a National Book Award by the publisher.