As a writer, you often find yourself in a battle between your writing and the rest of your life. As such, contests and other deadlines can help us justify saying YES to our writing projects! Well, Short Story Contest 2015 is one of those deadlines! It works this way. First short story is written in 7 days, the next one we only get 3 days, and the final one must be written in 24 hours. You’re only guaranteed to do the first one – you must be selected to move forward to the next stage, etc. AND, to liven things up, the Short Story Contest Masters tell us what genre we must write in, the subject matter, and even specify one of our characters. Here is what I was given: 
 
Genre:  Mystery (I don’t read mysteries)
Subject:  Scavenger Hunt (I really hate these)
Character:  Fast Food Restaurant Employee  
 
The story below is what I came up with over 7 days…and yes, I had a few days where I just got stuck, but then, it all came to me! Smile. Enjoy and I’ll let you know if I make it to the next level of competition!
 
 
The Cherry Pie Caper
The day he made up his mind to propose, Lizzie missed work for the first time in anyone’s memory. The next day, the manager – who hated the morning shift – spent the day in a dark mood, muttering under her breath about inconsiderate employees. The third day, Tommy overshot the glowing yellow arches by about four miles and came to a squeaky stop three driveways south of the house surrounded by T.V. vans. Their satellite towers eagerly transmitted the intriguing story as slick newscasters gushed the juicy news like a double patty Big Mac dribbles grease. 
“The question on everyone’s mind is what happened in that hotel room? What could possibly drive Elizabeth Montgomery to kill herself, and how did she know the internationally renown Champion Ballroom Dancer, Natalie Pearl? Let’s switch over now to Eric, who’s standing by outside the Hyatt Convention Center, as attendees of the Ohio Star Ball react to the shocking news …”
Watching the well-coiffed reporters as they chattered almost enthusiastically about their ad-selling sensational story, Tommy was amazed that they utterly ignored the blatant desperation of the nieghborhood around them. Five years ago, the collapsing housing bubble had deflated all of the dreams of the people living there … all except Lizzie. And Tommy didn’t know what made her different anymore than he had a clue why she’d been found dead in a posh suite on North High Street?
On his way home, Tommy stopped to ditch his uniform in a back alley dumpster. The only reason he took the job at Mickey D’s was Lizzy – it sure wasn’t the pay – and now that she was gone, he was never going back. As he rode away from the smell of rancid oil, his mind was on blood-stained ball gowns, the Tango, and his next step.
By morning, Tommy had settled on his uncle’s gun chest and the preferred option of killing himself. In the forgotten blocks between Chicago and Princeton Ave. Lizzie’s non-stop dreaming had held the oppressive despair at bay. They were outlandish and impossible, for a couple of kids from the backwaters of Columbus, Ohio, but still, her dreams had felt almost within reach. Tangible. Just around the corner. Now, hope was gone.
And so it was that Tommy found himself staring into the dreaded mailbox at a predictable pile of bills and late notices, topped by a pink envelope covered in Lizzie’s familiar scrawl.  
“Dear Tommy, I know you’ve always loved scavenger hunts, so grab your camera and come along with me for an adventure …” the letter began.
Tommy sat down hard on the curb and read all three pages. Then, he laced up his sneakers, grabbed his camera and headed toward downtown Columbus. Within minutes, he was in another world; zipping along smooth, newly paved roads in the bustling city center where employment was the norm. 
Nine hours later, he rolled to a stop and surveyed the cop car in his driveway with mild surprise until his Mother’s brown face appeared in the drab living room window. That made him angry. The local cops did nothing about the tsunami of crime and drug deals that had overwhelmed his previously nice-enough neighborhood. But now, with a murder mystery that had attracted national attention, they were busting their balls.
His Mother pushed her way through the barred, metal door, her face ashen. “Tommy! Do you know about Lizzie?” 
“Yeah, Mom.” He’d wanted to be the one to tell her, but her night shift had a way of screwing everything up. “I know.”
She blanched but recovered quickly, hiding her fear.
“This is Lieutenant Bennett and Officer Timson.” Her hands were wringing a tired kitchen towel like she wanted it good and dead. 
“We’d appreciate if you’d come down to the precinct and answer a few questions, son.” The taller cop said. His thick partner, muscled like a bulldog, leaned back on his heels and watched. 
Son? Tommy looked at the white man who could never be his Father. Did they suspect him of being involved? Was he, the black man, the first stone they planned to turn? Lizzie’s family died in a house fire three years back. So, who had sent them his way?
“About Lizzie?” He asked, picturing the love of his life playing under the fire hydrant spray this summer, her bikini top and shorts a perfect, see-through white. 
“Word on the street is that you and she were close.” Said the stocky cop. “She didn’t deserve to die this way, don’t you agree?”
The warning look his Mama flashed him was unnecessary. Word on the opposite side of the street had reached his ears many years before. Such questions were how they tripped you up, if you weren’t smart enough to keep your mouth shut.  
He turned and spit out a sour mouthful, dropped his bike on the long, gone lawn and headed for the cruiser. “Ready when you are.” 
They didn’t grill him so much as they bored him. Paperwork this, wait awhile that…a couple questions, then another long, tedious period of waiting with nothing to look at but an old Sports Illustrated covered in greasy fingerprints. At least, he hoped it was grease. Finally, the tall one – playing the roll of nice cop – called him into his office. 
“We talked to Elizabeth’s boss at McDonald’s and she mentioned that you and Elizabeth were close. She also said you never came in yesterday.”
Tommy nodded. “I quit.” 
The cop opened a file, glanced at what it contained, then closed it again. “How close were you and Miss Montgomery?”
Tommy was ready for this one. He’d already been patted down for weapons, but still, he put his hands in the air. “Can I show you something I’ve got in my pocket?” 
“Sure.” Nice cop said, leaning back slightly. 
Reaching into the pocket on the side of his jeans, Tommy pulled out a ring box covered in faux velvet and two pieces of paper. He placed the box in the middle of the table. “The day she missed work, I was gonna ask her to marry me.” 
Nice cop inspected the miniscule diamond that would have thrilled Lizzie to no end, then handed it back. “How you holdin’ up?” He asked, man-to-man. Only it wasn’t. It was hunter-to-hunted.
“Didn’t sleep much last night.” 
“But you were up early, your Mother said … gone before she got home, and gone all day.” He cocked his head to the side. “Where’d you go?”
Tommy slid the two sheets of paper across the table. 
The cop’s eyebrows went up as he read through the letter once, then a second time. “This is what you were doing today?”
“Yup. Seemed like the thing to do. To be, closer to her, you know?”
The cop nodded as the door to his office clicked open and stocky cop joined them. 
Nice cop waved his partner to sit down, then ticked off the list. “Big Rock Bridal Atelier on North High Street, Grandview Travel on West 5th Ave, Columbus Main Library on Grant Ave…and there’s a list of numbers here?”
Tommy nodded. “It’s the call number for a book about the Caribbean Islands.”
“What’s this all about?” Snapped the stout cop, stepping into bad cop mode. 
“It says it right there in the letter.” Tommy pointed, holding his temper. “She wanted me to take photos of these things. Like window shopping, you know?
“Pretty big dreams, don’t you think?” 
The unspoken words, little man, lingered in the air.
“Yeah, they are,” Tommy agreed, “but when dreams are all you’ve got, why hold back?” 
Nice cop handed back the letter and after another interminable wait, Tommy was given the thumb’s up to head home where he examined the third page that he hadn’t shown to the cops.
That night, as exhuastion finally overwhelmed the edginess of grief, the newscasters did something good, if entirely by accident. “The second victim of an apparent suicide pact at the Hyatt Convention Center,” said the blond, blue-eyed Fox News Anchor, “was a young, brutette woman named Elizabeth Montgomery …”
Tommy froze. Brunette? Lizzie did have brown hair, usually, but not on the day she died. Just twenty-four hours before her life (and his world) ended, they’d spent the day making love on her sagging mattress. The first time, they’d been waiting for the bleach to set and he’d practically suffocated on the fumes. The second time, her new color had been setting. A wildly bright pink that he was sure would piss off her manager, to which she replied, “I don’t care!” Whispering into his sweaty neck, “We’re gonna be moving on, soon … headed for distant waters and happier days!”
The girl who Natalie Pearl had shot, before turning the gun on herself, wasn’t Lizzie! But, then, who was lying in the morgue? And, where was Lizzie? 
Tommy whipped out the scavenger list and read the only item he hadn’t yet taken a photo of: Slip #67 Scioto Boat Club. What if Lizzie was there? He wondered as he made his way to his best friend’s house. Billy had a car that ran reliably, it’s only flaw the Domino’s Pizza sign stuck to the top of it. 
Surrounded by a plush neighborhood and wide swaths of green, Scioto Boat Club itself is small, which made the yacht in slip #67 stand out all the way from the parking lot. As he walked down the gangway, the raised voices emanating from the yacht also stood out against the peaceful silence of wealth. 
Tommy clicked the record button on his camera phone, slid it into his shirt pocket, stuffed in his earbuds and took a deep, steadying breath. He knew he could die, but hadn’t he been ready to do just that a mere eighteen hours ago? Besides, Lizzie had wanted him here. 
“We’re both dead, you fool!” The voice had a distinct, New York accent. “Even if I kill you myself, he’ll still tie concrete around my ankles and drop me in the Hudson!”
“But, I didn’t mean to…it was an accident!”
“Do you think that matters? You killed his favorite neice, you idiot!”
Tommy rehearsed his lines in his head, but as he got closer, he realized he had no idea how to “knock” on a yacht. Especially not one named The Natalie Pearl. 
“You there!” Shouted a man, leaning over the railing with menace. “What’re you doing here?”
Pulling out his earbuds, Tommy yelled up as if he hadn’t heard a thing, “I gotta pizza delivery for George Samson … you him?”
“No.”   
Tommy looked around. “Do you know where …?”
“Don’t know, don’t care, kid. Get lost!” 
Tommy turned, with a shrug, then stopped – knowing he had to ask the question and hoping it wouldn’t get him killed. He pointed to the side of the hull. “Isn’t Natalie Pearl that woman on the news?”
There was a long, tense silence and Tommy wondered if he’d pushed his luck too far, when the second man spoke. “Yes. This was my wife’s boat. She grew up around here.”
“Oh.” Tommy said, his feet starting to move. “Well, sorry man.”
“No! Wait a minute…” 
Sweat exploded on Tommy’s back, slicking his shirt instantly as the man strode away from the side of the boat, leaving the mob man watching him; his black eyes cold and sparkly in the dock lights. 
“Here! Take this with you and dump it, won’t you?” He said. “They’ve already locked the dock trash bins and we’re heading out tonight.” Tommy caught the bag of trash. 
“Thanks kid … and good luck with your pizza delivery.”
Mumbling a reply, Tommy turned and slouched away, like he was used to being treated like shit and taking it quietly. 
Once he got home, he examined the trash bag for clues, but all he found were two, unopened Mickey D Cherry Pies. Tommy poked a hole in the bag and pulled out one of them. They were Lizzie’s favorite (she hated apple). Everything about them reminded him of Lizzie and before he knew what he was doing, he’d eaten the whole thing, licking the red jelly from his fingers. Thirteen hours later, he woke up and called the cops. 
“I know who murdered Natalie Pearl.”
Nice cop looked at Tommy like he was crazy when he dug into the trash bag and retrieved the second Cherry Pie. “There were two in the bag. I ate one and konked out before I knew what was happening. Woke up on the living room floor. I expect if you test this one, you’ll find it’s drugged, too.”
“What does that prove?” 
“That Natalie Pearl’s husband murdered his wife and the girl in the hotel room.”
Nice cop spread his hands, confused. “You mean Miss Montgomery?”
“According to the conversation I overheard on The Natalie Pearl, the girl you found in the hotel room is not Lizzie. She’s a member of an East Coast Crime Family. Have you fingerprinted her?” 
Bad cop gave nice cop a look and stepped out of the room. 
Tommy went on. “Meanwhile, Mickey D’s Cherry Pies have been on recall in the midwest for weeks, but the East Coast franchises still carry them. I bet you’ll find that this pie came from New York City.”
Nice cop pursed his lips. “Well, I guess we should thank you.”
Two weeks later, Tommy walked toward the Ashland, Ohio post office. According to the press, Natalie Pearl’s husband had admitted to the bungled murder attempt on his wife and Elizabeth Montgomery who he accused of blackmailing him. Of course, his refusal to admit for what he was being blackmailed had the media in a frenzy and, much to Tommy’s relief, no more eyes pointed toward him. 
Stepping into the small post office, he eyed the third page of Lizzie’s letter; the one that contained a code which, when applied to the ingredient list of a McDonald’s Cherry Pie, had spelled out where he should go and when. Now, he was here.
With baited breath, Tommy slid the key into the notched hole and turned it sharply, ready for anything. What he didn’t expect was to find stack upon stack of neatly rubber-banded bills filling every inch of the rather large P.O. Box … or the scent of freshly warmed Cherry Pie as Lizzie’s voice tickled his ear. 
“I always told you we had a better life coming to us, Tommy.”
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