“Did you see that?” Emma yelled to the two other wives walking toward her on the lakeside trail.
“See what?” they called back as they came closer.
“That powerboat over there,” she said, pointing across the lake. “It just ran over a swimmer!”
“What boat? That one in the distance?” asked Ali, a tall, sturdy blond.
“Yeah, that bright blue one by the far shore. Somebody was swimming near our dock and that boat ran right over him... or her,” said Emma, who had lingered behind her friends to study a small wildflower. She had been hurrying to catch up when they turned around and started heading back.
“Oh, come on, Emma. We were watching and we didn’t see anything,” said Joan, a deep-voiced brunette of medium build who took each step with care, as if she were balancing an imaginary plate on her head. Medium applied not only to her build, but to her haircut, her dress, and, one might even conclude, her mind. Nothing about Joan in looks or speech stood out from the crowd.
“The sun was in your eyes. I was shading my face when I looked out and spotted the swimmer. That boat ran right over him.”
“Are you sure you weren’t seeing a loon which dived underwater? From so far away, how can you be certain? A loon flapping its wings could be mistaken for a swimmer,” suggested Ali.
“Huh. I don’t know. Maybe. You all didn’t see anything?” Emma asked again.
“No, we didn’t. I think your imagination got the better of you,” declared Joan.
Emma said nothing more. Why does everyone doubt what I say? It’s really annoying. Of course, I could be wrong, but it did look like a person in the water. I’ll wait and watch the papers. If anyone is reported missing, then I’ll speak up.
Emma was used to being talked over by those who always “knew better”. Maybe it was her soft voice or her reticent manner. But she remembered when she was at a party a couple of weeks ago and had mentioned that heavy rain was predicted two days from then. A couple of men immediately pulled out their devices, checked their own weather sources, and proceeded to set her straight. No rain predicted. As now, she had wondered if she was mistaken, but she had been pretty sure she was not. She had gritted her teeth and said nothing. It poured rain two days later. My revenge, she had thought with a smile on her face.
The day of the boat sighting was warm and clear, and the three women had taken advantage of the sunshine to walk along the lake trail. But then, after an hour, Joan, always with food on her mind, said, “Hey, let’s head back and get a bite to eat at Jill’s.”
It was customary for Emma, Ali, Joan, and another friend, Tina, to meet for lunch every week. Tina was unable to join them for the walk, but planned to come for lunch. The three women drove back to Jill’s Cafe on Main Street in the village. Finding a table, they had just put in their orders when Tina arrived. She was dressed in a bright, loose-flowing dress, but looked a bit pale. She told them her husband, Josh, was going on a business trip. She had said goodbye and left him packing his bag. Later on, their caretaker Jim would drive him to the airport. Josh was a historian at the Radiman American History Museum in the next town over, and he often traveled for his job, so, at the time, no one thought much about it.
Jill’s Cafe was in the village of Lockjaw, named after the first settler in the region who had moved back east from out west in 1850. Taken by the beauty of the forest and lakeside location, he established a homestead. He was said to have brought along a “pile of gold,” which was used to bring in workers, construct a railroad, and build an elaborate house on the lake, along with a hotel and country store a couple of miles away. When asked how he made the money, he typically responded with silence. In fact, he had been a rather shy fellow, thus acquiring the nickname of Lockjaw. He didn’t talk much, but was educated and a prolific writer. However, before any of his writing could be published, he died unexpectedly, less than a year after his wife.
As far as anyone could tell, he took his riches with him. No will, no money. What happened to his gold remained a mystery. Had he spent it all or hidden it away?
His house, inherited by his daughter, had undergone multiple restorations over the years, but always remained in the family, eventually coming into the possession of Emma, his great-great-granddaughter.
The settlement he founded was named after him, and in 1893, the village was officially incorporated as Lockjaw. For many years after Lockjaw’s founder had passed away, the village appeared to have inherited the habit of its taciturn founder. Residents were short on conversation: one or two words sufficing in lieu of sentences. Lockjaw was a pretty place to live, but had a rather somber undertone.
Now, years later, modern life replaced the somber… but also replaced the pretty. Once upon a time, a person walking along Main Street could have nodded a hello to families sitting on front porches, to children roller skating along the empty streets, and to couples out for an evening stroll. There was a time when wisteria wound its way up the low-slung wood homes and lilacs flourished in yards enclosed by white picket fences. Back then, tall pines rose to lofty heights, as if protecting the village from the elements. That time was no more.
Now, up and down Main Street, sprawl, like an epidemic, had crawled into the village, scarring its once lovely downtown. Trees were rare. Chain burger shops, auto dealerships, gas stations, banks, restaurants, and parking lots crowded both sides of the street. Renouncing tradition, once somber residents had become a garrulous lot, the loudest ones dominating.
Emma, however, was a holdover from the past. She enjoyed listening to others, rarely feeling the need to join in the conversation. Time spent outdoors had taught her to listen, not expound. She wasn’t exactly lockjawed, but neither was she outspoken. Unlike Emma, Ali, Joan, and Tina – newcomers to the area – were competitive talkers.
Ali, a charge nurse, worked night shifts at the local hospital so she could be home for her kids when they returned from school. She was an efficient, well-organized woman, and responsible to a fault. While she carried out every last detail of her job as both nurse and mother, she spent little time pausing to hold a frightened patient’s hand or to cuddle her children through childhood traumas. When her husband, a bank officer, came home in the late afternoon to take over from her, it was to an immaculate house and kids running wild.
Joan was a stay-at-home mom whose husband, a project manager, was often away on business. She was “correct” in everything she did. Her loudly-voiced opinions lined up precisely with whatever the majority believed at the moment.
Tina, independently wealthy, was childless by choice. She spent a good part of her days sitting at her sewing machine or hand quilting unusual fabrics. Her creations were abstract. Shells and pieces of glass were often woven into the designs. Many hung in art galleries, a few in museums.
The women chatted over lunch, but rarely went deeply into a subject, having almost come to blows over politics a year ago. Ali, a committed conservative, had shouted everyone down. The meal had not ended well. Now, they carefully avoided such subjects and kept conversation light.
For days after thinking she saw the swimmer, Emma watched the papers. Her husband Ted, the editor of the local newspaper, had a sterling reputation for keeping all reporting to important information only. There was no gossip in his paper. But at home he relayed to Emma all kinds of things that never appeared in print: snowbirds were coming back from the south, camps along the lake were opening up, Joe’s dog had been hit by a car, Ruth Stack had emergency surgery for appendicitis, Josh’s powerboat was getting a new paint job…
“Wait,” interrupted Emma. “Didn’t he just paint his boat last year? I remember you went over to celebrate the new do-over with Josh. You told me Tina was the one who wanted a new look.”
“Guess Josh didn’t like blue after all. I don’t know why he wastes his caretaker’s time like that.”
“Blue. Did you say it was blue?”
“Yeah, a lovely deep blue. Looked good to me, but Jim says his boss didn’t like the color, so he’s doing it over.”
Should she tell Ted about seeing a blue boat seemingly running over a swimmer? Emma wondered. She did not. Understandable. Ted was for facts, not speculation.
Two weeks later, the women gathered for lunch again. Tina was not there. No explanation. Down to only three, conversation lagged. They missed Tina chatting about quilt designs and galleries. It filled the empty spaces.
When another two weeks passed and Tina still didn’t show up, the women began to speculate.
“I talked to Tina today. She said Josh was still away and that she was too busy to join us. That seems odd,” said Ali as she attacked a large, onion-slathered hamburger.
“I hope nothing’s wrong,” chimed in Joan, who was struggling not to spill her taco onto her lap.
“Makes you wonder,” commented Ali.
“Maybe they’re not getting along,” Joan replied, scooping tomato and cheese off her skirt. “Maybe he didn’t leave for business reasons.”
“I guess they have their moments like everyone else,” offered Emma, who was sitting back in her chair, sipping a glass of wine.
“Nonsense,” declared Ali. “Those two lovebirds? They’re the perfect couple.”
Emma said nothing. She was, as always, overruled by the loudest mouth. She seethed inwardly, tired of being contradicted. Though, maybe I am wrong, maybe they get along better than I think. But Tina had made comments before that left Emma suspecting all was not well in Shangri-La.
“So, let’s talk about something else. Guess what I’m doing now?” said Joan who had finally gained control of her lunch. “Genealogy. Everyone’s into it, so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s really fun. I found ancestors I didn’t know existed. I’m trying to learn more about them. The research is full of surprises.”
The next day, Emma went for a long walk along the shore, as she often did. She enjoyed her solitary outing with no one talking and disturbing the peace. She felt lucky to live by the lake, to be surrounded by the woods, and yet be only a couple of miles from the village center. There were few homes along the shore to mar the view. Tina and Josh lived around a peninsula out of view. A dozen camps lined the far end of the lake, not far from a public dock. Other than that, it was mostly wild. Some might think her walks were lonely, but not to Emma. Birds were always chirping, lively leaves fluttered in the wind, chipmunks scurried along the ground, flower blossoms popped up in unexpected places, and the breeze sang in the trees. In fact, she sometimes felt more alone around others who constantly talked over her, causing her to doubt herself. Old feelings of anger about those times came rushing back. Too much brooding, she thought. I need a project. Maybe, like Joan, I should try genealogy.
The following week, she began tapping into the internet in a search for ancestors. Time on the screen was a bit boring until she came across a startling piece of information. All of her great-great-grandfather’s writing had, at some point, been turned over to the local library. What am I doing sitting in front of my computer when his actual papers are right here in the village? She wasted no time in getting herself to town.
When the librarian, Marion, was asked for Lockjaw’s papers, she was surprised. “You know, his notebooks have laid around here untouched for years. Then, a couple of months ago, Josh from the museum was in here looking at them. And now, you come along as well.”
Marion, a stooped woman with her hair pulled back in a tight bun, led Emma down to a basement room protected under lock and key. Opening the door and switching on the light, Marion pointed out stacks of dusty file boxes on rows of shelves – some with no lids, all overflowing with yellowed papers. “Let’s see. At least four of these contain Lockjaw’s papers,” she said, as she started reading the labels. “Ah, here they are. You can take them to the corner desk over there and read all you want. However, nothing must leave this room. Also, I would prefer you put on gloves to protect anything you touch. Here, I keep extra pairs for you visiting scholars. When you’re through, just come get me.”
Scholars! Nobody has ever flattered me like that before, thought Emma. From that moment, the two women began to bond.
Marion, on her way upstairs, paused at the lower step and looked back, “I hope you find something interesting. It would be fun if you dug up an old scandal in those forgotten papers.”
And so began many days of poring over old, yellowed pages owned by her ancestor. Much had to do with surveying, land purchases, and related finances. Occasionally, she found short descriptions of the abundant wildlife in the days before the settlement had grown. It broke her heart to realize how much wilderness had been lost to development. It was on the third day that she discovered something curious.
She was reading through a flimsy notebook dated shortly before his death. One scrawled page explained how he thought it was time to write a will, leaving his daughter the gold he had managed to hang on to. He had written: “I don’t trust the bank, so I will store it safely away near home, but in a place where digging will never find it. I’ll let my daughter know the location, but shall not mention it in the will.”
At that point, to her great dismay, she saw that two pages had been ripped out. Had Lockjaw done that, afraid the document might fall into the wrong hands? Or, had someone ripped those pages out more recently? But the only other person who had ever bothered to look at these pages was Josh. Surely a historian would never do such a thing.
Several weeks passed before Tina, slightly overweight and dressed well in a brightly-colored flowing dress, showed up at the women’s lunch group. She was clearly upset. When her friends pressed her, she finally broke down. It turned out that Josh had not gone away for business – he had moved away for another woman. Her friends, eager to hear more, pushed her for the details.
“One night, several weeks ago, he told me he was leaving to live in California. I was shocked. The next morning, he insisted I meet you for lunch as usual. He didn’t want a scene. He would pack, take a last swim, and be gone when I got home.” Tina related, tears running down her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I thought I could handle seeing you all, but here I go, breaking down again,” she said in a quivering voice.
“Make sure the bastard pays you alimony,” Ali burst out. “The dog!”
“No, there’s no need for alimony. My father insisted I sign a prenup before we married. He never did trust Josh. He said if we ever broke up, he wanted to make sure Josh wouldn’t get any of my inheritance.”
Ali and Joan, showing little sympathy but a lot of curiosity, quizzed Tina at length, and she tearfully tried to answer their questions. They’re heartless, thought Emma. Leave the poor woman alone.
Finally, Emma spoke up, “I’m just so sorry to hear all this. It has to be very hard for you right now. Will you be okay out at the lake by yourself?”
“I’ll be okay with Jim doing all the outside maintenance. I guess the inside maintenance… I’ll have to do myself. Somehow, I have to find a way to keep going, not break down like I am now.” Smiling through her tears, she continued, “I feel like a knife is ripping me apart.”
Ali was immediately ready with suggestions: yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, soothing music, the right herbs. “Maybe let her be,” said Emma. “She needs sympathy, not advice.”
“Nonsense,” responded Joan who could be counted on to go right along with Ali. “She needs our help and guidance.”
Does she? wondered Emma.
Despite the strong opinions of her lunch friends, Emma still found them good people and fun to see, on occasion. For their part, they viewed Emma as a quaint local. In their eyes, she lacked sophistication and was too stuck in the old ways. On the other hand, her friendship made them feel as if they were part of the inner workings of the village.
Other than lunches with them and her genealogy work, Emma was happy to spend her time walking in the woods, studying the different mosses and the tiny woodland plants, and listening to the birds flitting through the trees. And then there was the lake. She loved to hear the waves lapping at the shore, watch the ripples in the sand under the shallow water by the beach, and see the ospreys soaring overhead, occasionally diving at the flash of a bass to scoop it up their fearsome claws. These moments brought balance into her life, reminding her not to let the little things get her down.
One day, when she was standing on the shore by her house, she looked down and saw broken snorkel equipment. The previous day’s storm had washed it up. Now, why would that be here? she wondered. I wish I could tell my friends about it, but they’d just pooh-pooh it all.
That evening, she began to wonder about a lot of other things as well: the swimmer, the repainted boat, the missing pages, the snorkel. Josh. Could there be a connection? I should read more of Lockjaw’s papers. Maybe I missed something.
The next day Emma was back at the library. Marion was there at the front desk, welcoming her with a big smile. “Could I take another look at the files?” Emma asked.
“Of course,” Marion replied, reaching into the drawer for a key to the downstairs room, “I thought you’d be back for more. There’s a lot there to read. Can’t be done in a few sittings, that’s for sure.”
Emma spent the next several days at the library. Marion seemed glad to see her. The two chatted and their friendship grew. On the fourth day, as she turned the pages of yet another old notebook, Emma suddenly let out a cry of astonishment. She had found a map of the lake with a black dot on it… and the dot was near the shore of her home! As she was by herself in the downstairs archive room, there was nobody to see her jump up in excitement. Probably a good thing. I’ve got to share this with someone, she thought, but with whom? She was sure her lunch friends would write her off as silly if she ventured to voice her concerns. Besides, it would upset Tina even more. And, as much as she loved Ted, she did not think she had enough facts to persuade her skeptical husband. As the paper’s editor, it was natural he thought that way, of course, but Emma needed someone more sympathetic to hear her out. Ah, Marion. Maybe I can talk to her. She seems to believe in me. Maybe she can help make sense of all of this. She put the file boxes away and on the way out, stopped at the front desk.
“I’m through for now. But I’ve found some curious stuff. Would you be interested in having lunch together tomorrow so I can share it with you?” she asked. Marion, delighted, said yes.
The next afternoon, Emma and Marion sat down for lunch at Jill’s Cafe. It was a good place to meet. Carpeting and well-separated tables insured that conversations were not easily overheard. Emma had arrived early and selected a table in the far back next to a pine-paneled wall hung with sports posters. Marion joined her at the wooden table, pulling out one of the mismatched chairs (the latest trend in modern dining) to take a seat.
“I’m really curious about your research. What did you find?” asked Marion, before they had even looked at their menus.
Emma immediately launched into the subject, telling first about the map, then about the ripped-out pages, then about the other things she thought might have some connection to Josh’s disappearance. The waitress returned three times to take their order before they remembered to look at the day’s specials and make a choice.
Marion, a widow, lived a less-than-adventurous life. The prospect of solving a mystery made her shiver with excitement. After Emma described all of the details to her unusually eager listener, the two began to speculate on how the disparate parts of the story could be related. They did not lack for imagination.
“Do you actually think Jim could have killed his boss?” asked Marion.
“Well, if you add my seeing a boat running over a swimmer to the torn-out pages about the location of the gold, it sort of points in that direction,” said Emma. “Josh probably took Jim along in the boat to help him pull up the heavy box, promising a cut of the treasure. Then Jim decided he would rather have all the goods instead.”
“Wow! A real murder right in our town and the clue was hidden in the library all these years!” said Marion, her eyes sparkling. “But wait, you said at the time that you weren’t actually sure if the boat ran over a swimmer or if it was a loon. What makes you so sure now?”
“Let’s think about it. Josh had little money of his own. Most of his and Tina’s income came from her inheritance. He had plenty of motive to go after the gold for himself… and remember the snorkel I found? That’s just what he would have used to search the lake bottom.”
“True. Oh, and you told me that he left her for another woman. He probably couldn’t have done that without extra money. Yes, it’s all beginning to make sense,” said Marion.
“But if Josh tore out the pages with the directions to the gold, why did he leave the map with the x on it?”
“I think maybe he never read that far. The map was on the next to the last page of the notebook.”
The women were both silent, thinking while they munched on their sandwiches.
Then, Marion went on musing. “So, you think Josh took Jim along because the box was too heavy for one person to manage alone? But if that was the case, why did Jim think he could go back later and pull it up by himself?”
“I’m not quite sure about that part but he must have had some kind of plan. Maybe using a block and tackle?” speculated Emma.
“I bet once he thought he could be financially independent, he planned to live like jet setters with his girlfriend,” said Marion.
“Yeah, something like that,” agreed Emma.
“So, the x is not far from the end of your dock?”
“That’s right. That’s part of what got me thinking about all this. Why the snorkel washed up on our beach.”
“So, when he told Tina he was going for a last swim before he left, he foretold his own doom,” said Marion, eyes wide with excitement.
The two animated women continued whispering conspiratorially, their eyes lit in a fever of excitement. They ordered a round of wine to top off the hard work they had put into figuring out what happened.
“There’s another thing,” said Emma. “If Josh’s girlfriend wondered why he never showed up, she couldn’t very well call his wife to inquire.”
“Yeah,” said Marion. “Now, what’s next?”
“At this point,” replied Emma, “I think I had better tell my husband what we’ve come up with. While he sometime jokes about my speculations, he can also be sympathetic. No doubt, he’ll know what to do.”
That evening, Ted had just sagged his weary body into a chair on the deck. Emma brought him a glass of wine and sat down to join him in watching the sun go down.
“I’ve something I need to share with you,” she began.
Ted braced himself. “I’m listening. Go ahead.”
And she did, sharing the entire scenario that she and Marion had worked out.
Ted was quiet for a full minute before speaking. “Interesting,” he finally said, while gazing across the lake as if looking for the blue boat. “But, what about the body? Wouldn’t that have floated to the surface by now?”
“I’ve been thinking about that, too. Haven’t you noticed that there’s often a boat out after dark with a search light going along the shore? Maybe that’s Jim searching for the body,” she replied, as she stood up to better survey the golden lake reflecting a setting sun.
“Or maybe it’s just the locals out hunting bullfrogs for their favorite dish of frog’s legs,” Ted mused.
“Hmm,” Emma responded.
“And don’t you think those pages could have been torn out of the notebook by Lockjaw himself?”
“Yes, I guess it’s possible. But, on the other hand, maybe they weren’t,” she responded.
“And that dot on the map... could’ve marked good fishing,” Ted continued. “That happens to be an excellent spot to catch fish.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied. “But there’s also the snorkel.”
“Oh, Emma,” responded Ted with a sigh. “Do you know how many people go snorkeling in this lake? It could have come from anyone. And, by the way, how can we make a serious report to the police if we don’t have a body and Josh’s girlfriend never came looking for him, nor made a missing person’s report.”
We? Sounds like he’s coming around, Emma noted with relief.
Ted continued, “You don’t even have a witness to the crime. Only your distant sighting, which you weren’t sure enough about to report to the police.”
“But there is a witness. Jim!” Emma exclaimed.
“Wait. First you think he’s the murderer, then you call him a witness?”
“Well, why not? He’s both!” she replied.
“If Jim found that money, I doubt he’d stick around here very long. Would you like me to go interview him and ask if he happened to have murdered his boss?”
“Well, obviously not. But you’re clever at talking to people. Maybe you could casually stop by when he’s outside and ask how things are going and such. Then you could casually ask if he plans to stay on working for Tina. That could be a clue.”
“That’s a lot of casual. I don’t know that I can pull it off, but it seems the only option right now. I’ll give it a try the next time I see him.”
The following day, Ted came home with shocking news. Jim had been sawing down a tree on Tina’s property and it had fallen, killing him. It also killed Ted’s plan to have a talk with Jim. Emma and Ted did not discuss the subject any further that night.
The next morning, after Ted had left, Emma poured a second cup of coffee and carried it down to the lake. The mist was beginning to rise, the day warming up. Pulling off her sweater, she sat down on the wooden dock, dangled her legs over the edge and listened to a loon hollering in the distance. Waxwings chirped in the cedars along the shore. The lake, still as a mirror, breathed serenity. Reflecting on the last several weeks, she struggled to make sense of it all. Should she put in a report? What to do?
Then she remembered the owner of a lakeside resort telling her about the chaos when one of the guests had gone missing, presumed drowned. A search had been initiated involving helicopters roaring overhead, firetrucks grinding large ruts in the dirt road to the resort, and dozens of volunteers’ cars parked askew all over the lawn. People had tramped through the grounds, grinding garden plants underfoot, and tracking the outside inside on their countless trips to the bathroom. Fences were dismantled to allow an ambulance access to the lake. Trucks had arrived with food to feed everyone. Tables had been set up down by the docks, blocking access to the resort’s boats. Garbage cans had been brought in; power boats had zoomed every which way. There were drag nets and divers roiling up the lake, while two-way radios had kept up a constant barrage of crackling voices.
Do I really want all that? she wondered. This peaceful spot forever tainted by such an intrusion? Perhaps the mystery is best left buried in the annals of Lockjaw.
She stretched her arms into the warm morning air, then laid back on the dock and watched the clouds sail by. A passing breeze whispered through the leaves. In the distance, a dove was cooing. She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly... and basked in the sunlight.