The perfect Alibi
A typewriter ra ta ta ts-tats like a machine gun as Miss Bernice Clem types a letter. She sits ramrod straight, her mind is on typing when a woman enters the office.
Bernice jumps and hits the wrong key. She looks up to see her best friend smiling at her. "Linda you scared the wits out of me," she says, with her hand over her heart.
"Sorry, you were so deep in thought that I could have walked right past you and gotten into your boss's office," Linda says, as she shakes her finger at her friend. "I could go through the files and look up dirt on the big wheels that run this company. Then I'd blackmail them."
"What secrets would a boss that runs a company that makes enfant pacifiers and baby bottles nipples have to hide?"Bernice asks.
"You never know. How much do you know about Mr. Cranston?"
Linda, you know I've only worked for him a month. I still don't know why they picked me out of the secretary pool to work for him. I sure know it wasn't his idea." Bernice says with a smile for her old friends joke.
"Well, I know why. You've been with the company the longest and you're the best secretary. Of course, the top boss wants the best. I'm proud of you. Look, you've made it to the top boss," Linda says, waving an arm at the ceiling, her blond hair bounces and her tight skirt inches up her shapely leg.
"I've heard the ugly rumors. The other secretaries say I got this job because of Mrs. Cranston. She ran the other secretary off because she was too attractive, and gave me the job because I'm not," Bernice says with frustration.
Mr. Cranston's office door opens and his short, stout body appears in the doorway. "Miss Phlegm," he says, rolling the mucus around in the back of his throat to make a crackling sound. "You know you're not allowed to have visitors during working hours."
"But Mr. Cranston, Linda works downstairs. She was only bringing up supplies I need."
"Why don't you pick up your own supplies? Why must you always have to do thing differently from everyone else?" he says, his little beady eyes become even narrower. "I have a meeting to attend and I won't be back the rest of the day."
"Where can I reach you?" Bernice meekly asks.
"You have my cell phone number call me only if Steven Maxwell calls. Do you think you can handle that?" Mr. Cranston asks. Without waiting for an answer he leaves the office scratching at his crotch.
Bernice pushes thick glasses up on her narrow nose and turns toward Linda. The expression on Linda's face had turned from happy to anger.
"Does he always talk to you that way?" And what's with him calling you phlegm? Doesn't he know its Clem?"
"I'm sure it's his little way of making a joke," Bernice says with a light voice.
"No, it's not! That's harassment and you should report it to personnel. He can't talk to you like that," Linda's face is a scarlet tinge and the volume of her voice louder.
"Linda, please just forget it. I don't want to make any trouble and lose this position. It does pay quite a bit more from where I worked in the secretary pool. This will help out with mother's medical bills." Bernice says.
"Well, okay, but tell that S.O.B. that he'd better stop with the name calling. That's something kids do. And speaking of children, did you see how small his feet are? Linda asks.
"No, I never paid any attention to his small feet, only his big mouth." Bernice says with a sheepish grin.
Linda smiles, "You know what they say about the size of a man's foot?"
Bernice is lost. "No, what do they say?"
"Small feet mean a small you know what," Linda says, pointing down below Bernice's waist.
"Oh, Linda you do come up with things," Bernice says, and wonders if the tale is true.
"Love chatting with you, but I must go. Here are the supplies you wanted," Linda says, pointing at a box on the floor that contained reams of paper and envelopes. "I don't mind taking heavy things up on the elevator for you, but really you must do something. You can't climb the stairs for another twenty years, and what happens if I quit working here?"
Bernice's body shudders when she thinks of the elevator. "We talked about this when I took this position with Mr. Cranston. Don't worry I'll work something out. Thanks for bringing the supplies up." Bernice says.
It's nice to have the afternoon free from Mr. Cranston, so Bernice enjoys her lunch at the desk. Later while putting supplies away, the phone rings.
"Mr. Cranston's office," she says after grabbing the phone.
"Is Steve in?" a pleasant voice asks.
"May I ask who is calling?"
"This is Mrs. Cranston. Is Steve in?"
"No, he won't be back in the office today. May I take a message? Gee that was dumb. Of course he'll go home before I'll see him Monday, Bernice thinks. "Have you tried his cell phone?"
Mrs. Cranston hesitates when she replies, "Yes, but he doesn't answer."
Bernice doesn't know why, but she feels sorry for Mrs. Cranston when she hangs up. I wonder if he treats her like he does me.
She longs to leave work a little early. Occasionally, her other bosses would let her go home early on a Friday she wouldn't dare do this with Mr. Cranston who is so controlling. At last the clock says 5:30 p.m., she grabs her purse and heads down the hall. Most of the time she walks on the far side of the hallway, away from the elevator, but today she walks up to it. Linda is right I must do something. I will try once more. She looks at her reflection in the steel doors. With a shaky hand, she reaches out, ready to push the button, but her hand remains suspended in space. Her heart races and her breath come in shallow pants. Even though the hallway is cool, she feels perspiration cover on her body. Her head starts spins and she tries to step backwards. The doors open, she feels a force pull her in as she looks into a deep dark hole. She fights the urge to scream.
"Miss Clem, are you all right?" She opens her eyes and looks into the black face of Joe, the Negro janitor. When she is more alert she looks around. She's on a small couch in the lobby of the main floor. "How did I get here?" she asks.
"You sure gave me a jolt. The elevator doors opened and you fell into my arms. I brought you down here to find some help, but everyone has gone.
"I've missed the 5:40 bus, now I'll be late getting home," Bernice says in a panicked voice. Mother will be so worried about me. When she tries to stand, a wave of dizziness hits her, causes her to weave back and forth.
"Miss Clem, would you like me to call an ambulance?" Joe asks.
"No, I'm all right. Just give me a minute and I can catch the 6:40.'
"There's no way I'm going to let you take a bus home. You wait here and I'll tell the security guard I'll be gone a few minutes. I'm taking you home and I won't take no for an answer." Joe says, and walks away.
Bernice is happy to get a ride home and doesn't protest as Joe helps her into his battered Ford- pickup. It rattles and shakes, but the motor has a nice hum to it. Bernice glances out the window, and watches the buildings on State Street pass as the traffic moves and stops.
"This Chicago traffic gets worse every year" Joe said and glances at her. "You look better now. You got some color to your face."
"I think the fresh air is making me feel better," Bernice says as she sits up straight. "I don't know what hit me," she lies.
The light turns red and the pickup stops. In the crosswalk in front of them is Mr. Cranston and on his arm is a girl half his age. She's giggles and flirts with him while they cross the street. Mr. Cranston gives a cocky smile as they enter the Hilton Hotel.
Joe breaks the silence. "Mr. Cranston does like his women young. His wife sure gets mad at him- what with her father who started the business and her being on the board and all. I- I guess that be none of my business, that- that's between he and Mrs. Cranston." Joe shakes his head. "There I go again running my big mouth. My wife is always saying Joe you talk too much."
So that's what he was doing all afternoon. Oh, poor Mrs. Cranston, Bernice thinks.
"Bernice, is that you?" her mother calls from the bedroom. Bernice breathes a sigh of relief; her mother isn't in the living room to see that Joe, a black man brought her home. Her mother would ask too many questions that she didn't want to answer.
"Yes, Mother. I'm sorry I'm late, I had to work a little overtime," she says as she removes her coat and hangs it up in the hall closet. "Why are you still in bed? Aren't you feeling well?
"I had one of my spells and I had to call Dr. Osterland. He came right over and ran some tests and drew some more blood and left me more medication. I'm feeling better now."
Bernice walks into her mother's bedroom. Her mother is lying in bed, her face swollen and splotchy. "Did the doctor say anything about your stomach being so swollen?"
"He said to increase the medication. And he drew more blood.
"Mother, I wish you'd let me take you to another doctor. Dr. Osterland has been treating you for years and you've not improved."
"No, Bernice I want him. He's the only one who will come to the house. You know I'm not strong enough to take a bus to a doctor's office and you can't afford to pay health insurance for me. He's so kind and he gives me my medication at a discount," her mother says as she tries to sit up.
"Now don't worry yourself Mother. I won't change doctors," Bernice says not feeling strong enough to go through one of her mothers crying spells.
"He left the bill on the table. Would you pay him by the first of next month? He said things were tight at the clinic what with all the cost of everything going up."
Bernice walks over to a small table and picks up the bill. $248 for lab work, $125. for the house call, and $155 for two-week supply for Zofflen, the medication her mother took for her heart problem. Everything costs so much. Dr. Osterland did see that the liquid bottles of medication were brought to the house every two weeks. She'd called a drug store and learned that a two-week supply of Zofflen costs almost twice what he was charging, but it was taking everything she made to keep up with the cost of rent and caring for her mother.
Bernice places some leftover stew on to heat. With her mother eating so little, this would be enough for both of them. She enters her mother's bedroom carrying a tray of food.
"I feel so bad for you," her mother says as she tries to sit up in bed. "Why did your father have to run away with that young girl? Didn't he know what hardship he put on me?" Tears start to form in her mother's eyes. "He broke my heart and left me to raise you by myself. I know all that hard work I had to do to make money is why my heart is so bad."
Bernice helps her mother sit up and places pillows behind her back. "Now mother that was almost forty years ago. Can't you forgive and forget?" Bernice asks, spoon-feeding her mother the stew. How many years have I heard this?
"I'm happy you never married. It saved you so much heart break," her mother says, in a weak voice.
"Well, I did want children but it's too late for that. I'm almost forty."
"You're lucky to be free of a man. Sex is something you have to endure to get one to support you, and childbirth is the most horrible thing a woman can go through."
Then why is Linda always looking for sex and why are the girls in the secretary pool so happy when they get pregnant? Bernice thinks.
Later that night Bernice writes the check to Dr Osterland's clinic and thinks. I got the pay raise, and it will help with mom's medical bills in six months she'll be sixty-two and can draw social security. Maybe then I can start to save enough money so I can travel. Why am I kidding myself? I can't do anything as long as I have that phobia of elevators.
"You're five minutes late," Mr. Cranston yelled from the doorway of his office as Bernice enters. "And Maxwell called Friday at 5:20 and no one was here. I didn't give you permission to leave early."
"But Mr. Cranston, I left when the clock said 5:30, I swear I did," Bernice said, pointing at the clock on the wall. She leaves out that she had turned the clock up three minutes to give herself more time to make it down the stairs.
"The time clock shows you never checked out Friday. I know your little trick. As soon as I left, you were on the next elevator down. I can't put up with this behavior. Next time you pull a trick like this, you're back in the secretary pool," He goes into his office and slams the door.
Friday! I forgot to clock out. Joe could verify I was here. But Crab Face won't care.
Bernice spends the morning typing reports. When they're perfect she takes them into Cranston's office for approval. The room is empty and she breathes aBecky Evergreensigh of relief as she places the reports on his desk. I must have been in the supply room getting a ream of paper so I didn't see him leave. Now she has time to make it to the bathroom. Walking out of the office and heading down the hall she remembers the restroom on the top floor is being painted. She hurries down the stairs to the restroom on the eleventh floor. Rushes down the hall she passes the elevator. The doors open and before she can react, Cranston grabs her arm and pulls her in. "I need you to take notes," he says.
Bernice watches in terror as the door closes. She tries to control her fear and reaches out for the button to open the doors, but the two men with Cranston are in her way. The small room spins the interior darkens, she feels herself fall into blackness. She knows when she hits bottom she'll die. Panic overtakes her. She claws at the door and screams for it to open. A force pulls her back and she struggles until she's feels weak. She gasps for air and her screams turn into sobs, then at last the door opens and light floods in. The men with Cranston gently help her out of the elevator and onto a set of stairs that lead to the roof.
"What in the hell was that all about?" Cranston yells.
Bernice sobs and yells back, "I have a fear of elevators." By now she doesn't care who knows.
Cranston's little beady eyes glare down at her. "Get yourself under control and clean yourself up. Take the rest of the day off." He then walks up the stairs to the roof.
"Miss, are you sure you're all right?" one of the men with Cranston asks.
"Please leave me alone," Bernice pleads. The man slowly follows Cranston but pauses and glances back at Bernice before going out the door.
It's not until the door to the roof is open and the air blows down on her that she realizes in her fright she had urinated on herself. She looks down to see her tan linen suit shows a huge wet stain. With sobs in her chest and wobbly legs, she slowly descends twenty flights of stairs. It's hot in the stairway and by the time she reaches the bottom floor, her suit is drier, and the stain more visible. On the main floor, she hurries across the hallway andenters the woman's bathroom to wait for Linda. I'm such a mess, I can't walk through the office to find Linda I'll wait for her, she always come in here before she goes out to lunch. Yes, Linda will get me home. Home where my mother who is always prying into my life and she will ask why I wet myself.
She hides in the handicapped stall that no one uses, and waits for Linda.
Thirty minutes later she hears Linda's voice talking to another secretary. "Linda, come here," she whispers, pushing the door slightly ajar.
Linda looks at her. "What happened?" Bernice tells her the whole story. "Wait here and I'll get a sweater to tie around your waist and take you home."
"But you take the bus."
"I'll get my boss to let me use his car," Linda says and disappears.
They hurried out the backdoor to the parking lot and drive away. Quiet falls over the ride until at last Bernice speaks. "Linda I don't know what I'd do without you."
"You're my friend, I'm happy to help you, but aren't you worried what old Crab Face will do now?" Linda asks, as they pull up to Bernice's apartment.
Before she has a chance to respond, the neighbor, Mrs. McGregor runs out to the car her short, heavyset body bounces, gasping for air she says, "It's your mother. I found her passed out by the mailboxes. I called the paramedics and they called an ambulance. She's at Saint Mercy Hospital."
Bernice goes pale. She knew this would happen someday, but today?
"Go in and change your clothes and I'll drive you over. Can I use your phone to call my boss? I don't want him thinking I hijacked his car." Bernice nods.
Linda is short of breath as they climb the stairs to the sixth floor of the hospital. She had refused to leave Bernice's side to use the elevator, and when Bernice has to fill out forms and leave a hefty deposit for her mother's care, she remains with her.
The bright light in the hallway hurts her eyes, and the hospital smell makes her nauseated as she and Linda make their way to the intensive care unit. Her mother lies in bed-attached to IV tubing, and an oxygen mask covering her face. Bernice feels her knees buckle. The nurse gently takes her arm and helps her to a chair. Far away she can hear Linda's voice. "Bernice, are you all right?" She nods.
"Is she suffering? Does she know I'm here?" Is she able to talk to me? Bernice asks.
The nurse shakes her head. "I'll tell the doctor you're here. He wants to talk to you"
"I'm sure Dr. Osterland can give him more information than I can," Bernice says as the nurse walks away. Twenty minutes pass before she realizes that Linda is still by her side. "Linda, you need to get back to work."
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" Linda asks, with concern.
"I might need to stay the night. At least I've got on clean underwear," Bernice says to lighten the moment.
Linda gives a weak smile and takes a scrap of paper from her purse and writes something down. "Call me. If I'm not at work and I can be here in fifteen minutes. Promise! That's my boyfriend's number, and I can use his car. I'll call and let Mr. Lee in personnel know you won't be back to work the rest of this week."
Linda returns with a sandwich and a large cup of coffee. "I know you missed lunch," she says, handing her the food.
"Thanks, now get out of here," Bernice says and forces a smile.
She sips the coffee, but her stomach isn't ready for food. The hot fluid with cream and sugar clears her mind and steadies her shaky arms and legs.
"I take it you're the daughter?" an older man dressed in white asks. Bernice nods.
"I'm Dr. Kingsley and I've been caring for your mother since she came in."
"I expect it's her heart. Dr. Osterland has been treating her for years for a heart condition. I'm sure he can answer any medical questions you might have," Bernice says standing.
Dr. Kingsley gently places his hand on her shoulder. "You might want to sit back down because I'm afraid I have only bad news for you."
Bernice lowers her body back in the chair, "What do you mean? Isn't my mother going to live? Did her heart give out?"
"Your mother's heart is fine but she has extremely high blood pressure that caused her to have a massive stroke. And her heavy drinking for so many years has destroyed her liver, that's why her stomach is so swollen."
"But my mother never drank liquor in her life! And the only medication she ever took was the liquid Zofflen. She took it for years for her heart," Bernice says in shock.
"Sorry but Zofflen comes only in tablets and is an antibiotic that is taken for only two weeks. It's very expensive, but I don't think that's what he gave your mother. She has 90% alcohol in her blood. The ambulance attendants brought this bottle they found on her nightstand in with her. Is this the medication she was taking?" Dr. Kingsley asks holding up a prescription bottle Dr. Osterland had given her mother.
"Yes, Dr. Osterland has been giving her that medication for years."
"This bottle contains mostly vodka and a little cough syrup to give it a smell. The police will want to talk to you about Osterland. He lost his license ten years ago, but he has continued to practice medicine. I'm sorry, there isn't anything we can do," Dr. Kingsley says his voice kind but sternly.
Bernice sits by her mother's bed and waits for the end. Her mother had been her whole life. Ever since she could remember her life had been only the two of them doing things together. Never a father she could remember, and her mother not interested in other men or people, she had attached herself to her daughter. Bernice realizes that for the past twenty years their role in life had been switched, she had become the caregiver.
At nineteen when she started working and going to night school to become a secretary, her mother stopped work as a cleaning woman, stating she was ill. For years her mother went to doctors, but they couldn't find anything wrong, that is until she went to Dr. Osterland. Shortly after she started seeing him, she had demanded that he make costly house calls or was he the one who talked her into making the house calls because he didn't have an office? Had he taken advantage of her mother for ten years? Why didn't she become suspicious when he was always the one to provide the medication? Why did she believe him when he said he did the lab work and ran the EKG? Why, had she been so dumb? She becomes angry as she thinks of the thousands of dollars she'd paid him to turn her mother into an alcoholic.
"Sorry to bother you at a time like this, I'm Detective Conner," a stout man in his mid-fifties says holding out a thick muscular hand. "I think you can understand how important it is to get this charlatan doctor before he can hurt anyone else."
"I feel like such a fool. I tried to talk mother into going to another doctor, but she refused." When I think how he took us." Bernice stops and looks into space, trying to fight back tears.
"You're not alone if that helps. He's taken in a lot of people, even causing some deaths."
"Did you check the address on the bottle of medication?" Bernice asks.
"It's an empty building and has been for years. Eight years ago, he had an office there for a short time. When was the last time you saw him?" Conner asks.
"He came to see mom three days ago while I was at work. I myself haven't seen him but twice. Most of the time he made his house calls while I'm at work." She stops and thinks. "My God I'm dumb! Years ago he called to say he couldn't afford to pay a girl full time to do his billing without raising his prices, and would I mail his payment to a post office box number? This way his wife could do the billing at their home."
Detective Conner continues to ask questions. Bernice doesn't know the answers.
She stays by her mother's bedside throughout the night. At sunrise her mother takes her last gasp for air. The nurse called Linda who is by her side and helps her down the stairs. She's tired so very tired, and is happy to have Linda take her home and help her into bed where blessed sleep takes her mind and body.
The following afternoon Bernice and Mrs. McGregor enter the Family Friendly Funeral Home. "Thank you Mrs. McGregor for coming with me to make mother's arrangements." Bernice says.
"No one should be alone at a time like this." Mrs. McGregor says, as she takes Bernice's hand. Looking like Mutt and Jeff they slowly walk down a small hallway.
A pasty white middle-aged man in a dark stripe suit pop out one of the doors and greets them. "I'm Mr. Allen and here at FFFH we're here to make this as simple as we can for you in your time of grief." He escorts the women into a small office and they take comfortable seats in front of a desk.
"Mothers, how important they are to us. There isn't anyone more important to us in life than our mothers. And I'm sure you want to do the best you can for your mother."
"Here at FFFH we're family oriented. We're not here to care for only the deceased, but the whole family. We can give a lower cost on you're first family member to pass if you and your husband and children sign up with us at this time. You also have the comfort of knowing when it's your time, everything will be taken care of," Mr. Allen says with a false smile.
"I have no husband or children," Bernice says.
"Not to worry," Mr. Allen's smile falters a little." Instead of being charged for each service; casket, burial, viewing, preparing the body, transportation and cemetery plot, etc, with each family member who is signed up with us we give an extra service for free. Now if you sign up at this time, you will get one service free at the time of your departure."
Mrs. McGregor breaks in, her Irish voice filling the small room. "We're here to bury this poor girl's mother, not to have a Chinese dinner. Now get down to the basics. She wants something nice but doesn't cost an arm and a leg!"
"I'm having some financial problems, so I do need to know you're lowest price," Bernice says, giving Mrs. McGregor a smile of gratitude,
"Now young lady," the director says, his eyes glaring at her through thick glasses. "We're talking about the most important person in your life, your mother. Don't you want to give her the best?"
"I gave her the best years of my life," Bernice says, suddenly finding her backbone. "I think that's more important. Now what is the less expensive funeral you can offer?"
"With just a viewing and no funeral services, flowers, or a limo to pick you up, and of course we can't give you the family plan, around this price. He writes a number on a sheet of paper and pushes it toward Bernice.
Bernice gasps. "I don't have that kind of money!"
The director gives her an annoying look "Very few people do, that's why we have the layaway plan."
"You mean you'd leave my mother lying around until I have the money?"
"No. You make a monthly payment. We here at FFFH provide you credit with low interest of only 9%."
Bernice starts to panic. She knows the hospital bill would be large and now this.
"What would it cost to cremate? No service, embalming, viewing or cemetery. Just cremate." Mrs. McGregor asks. "And I know this answer so don't be going overboard because we can take our business else where."
The director places a finger under his tight collar and pulls. "The basic cost for that is $1,400, then it depends on what kind of urn you wish to put the ashes in, and that ranges from $300 hundred up to $1,000. Then you must store the body for three days, that's another $150. But here at FFFH we have learned that the loved ones of the deceased never get a full closure with cremation."
"Then I can't afford closure so I have to go with the $1,400," Bernice says. "And I'll keep my mother's ashes until I can decide what to do with them."
Mrs. McGregor smiles, "And I know of a place we can get a nice box to put her in." The director leaves the room to get forms to fill out.
Bernice lowers her face into her hands. "What have I done? I don't have that kind of money. I'll have to use their layaway plan."
Mrs. McGregor removes her hands from her face. "I have that much in my savings. I'll let you borrow it," She takes out her checkbook and writes the check.
"Mrs. McGregor, I can't let you do that. I'm sure you have only your social security to live on. And I'm sure this is most of your savings."
"Bernice, I've known you since you were a little girl. You've done so many nice things for me through out the years, I've always thought of you as the daughter I never had. Please let me do this for me." Mrs. McGregor says.
"All right but I'll pay you back and with interest." Bernice says.
"Mr. Lee, how nice of you to call," Bernice says into the phone.
"I hope you got the flowers the company sent."
"Yes, they're beautiful and I'm looking at them right now. Don't worry, Mr. Lee. I'll be back to work Monday morning. Mother didn't have family or many friends, so there isn't going to be a funeral." Gee I hope he doesn't think I'm callous.
"Yes, more people are leaning that away now days. But I also called uh- I really don't know anyway to put this but to come right out with it."
"Go ahead," Bernice says a chill going through her.
"I don't know what happened between you and Mr. Cranston last Monday, but he refuses to let you be his secretary and demands you be fired. I talked to Mrs. Cranston when she came in for the board meeting and told her about your long service here at Baby Love Supplies, and she agrees you should stay on."
"I understand. I always believed I was forced on Mr. Cranston and that's why we never got along. It's all right if I'm back in the secretary pool," Bernice says with relief in her voice.
"Right now, there's no open position in that department, but the company is willing to give you the job at the front desk,"
"You mean as greeter? I'd work the information desk."
"I'm sure it won't be long just until there's an opening for a secretary." He pauses, "Miss Clem you'd have to take a cut in pay," Mr. Lee says with so much stress in his voice that she feels sorry for him.
"Then I'll be back making minimum wage?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so." There is a long pause until Bernice broke the silence.
"Mr. Lee. I do thank you because I know you did everything you could. I'll be at the information desk Monday, but I'll have to think it over whether or not I stay."
"I understand, Miss Clem, and again let me extend my sympathy." Bernice hangs up. How can she return to doing the same job she did when she was nineteen? Twenty years of her life and she's back where she started.
The deposit at the hospital took her savings, and she still owes them six thousand dollars and Mrs. McGregor fourteen hundred. She looks around the apartment she has lived in for almost twenty years. She no longer needs two bedrooms and must find a cheaper place to live. Something small and close enough so she can walk to work this way she can save on bus fare and rent. Being closer to downtown, she might be able to find a part time job after work.
Back at work it's hard for Bernice to keep the tears from her eyes as the staff greets her and gives their condolences. Mr. Lee takes her aside and asks if she needs help with finances. She shakes her head no. "I'm sure when I get settled in my new apartment I'll look for a different position. It's going to be hard leaving my friends here but change is good," she says, trying to keep her spirits up.
"Miss Clem, I think you should know that Mr. Cranston is so angry that he has left orders that if any other company inquires into your working here, we're to direct the call to him. I think we both know what he's going to say. You do understand if I get the call, I won't direct the call to him, but I can't speak for the new employees and the ones afraid of Cranston."
"He can't do that!" Bernice says not believing her ears.
Mr. Lee looks away to avoid eye contact. "Miss Clem, we've worked together for many years and I know this isn't fair." His voice falters a little. "I checked with a lawyer and yes, he can. Miss Clem, if you can hold out for a while I'm sure he'll change his mind."
Bernice takes her position in the information desk. For the first time in her life she is angry enough to kill. "How can that little toad do this to me? What have I ever done to him?" she whispers.
She glances through the newspaper. At least here in the information booth she has time to look for an apartment. She'd better get one fast because he may put a jinks on that too.
Tears form in Mrs. McGregor's eyes. "I have your address and I'm going to come visit you soon. This has all been so fast. Are you sure you have everything?"
"I was lucky that my landlord let me out of the lease. He has a handyman ready to remodel the place. After eighteen years it sure needs it," Bernice says, giving her a hug.
"Isn't it strange they won't update or fix a rented place, even if you live in it for decades, once you move they fix it up for the next renter?" Mrs. McGregor says.
"They also raise the rent." Bernice says glancing around the empty room with only stacks of boxes covering one wall.
"Go through the things I left, if there is anything you want help yourself before you let the Salvation Army have it. Bernice turns to see Joe and Noah lifting the old television.
"No don't take that, it's broken. The landlord will take it to the dump. Strange how that old set quit the night mother died," Bernice says, looking around the apartment for the last time. "I can't believe it entertained us for twelve years."
Bernice picks up the container of her mother's ashes are in and walks out to the truck where Joe and his brother Noah wait with her belonging.
"Joe, I do wish you'd let me pay you and Noah for helping me move."
"Oh, apish posh, charge to move de's few things. I's all too happy to help you," Joe says, white teeth shining from his black face. Noah helps her into the cab of the truck and fits his thin body in beside her. He is careful not to let his body touch Bernice. She wonders if this is because he's from the south where Joe's a native of Chicago.
Joe continues to carry on a conversation until they enter the studio apartment that's four blocks from where Bernice works. The men carry the heavy objects in first while Bernice carries in her clothes. Noah at last says his first words as he puts down a box and turns to Joe. "I'm sure hungry." Joe stops and appears to be thinking. "Miss Bernice, we won't take no money for moving you, but I'm a hankering for one of those hamburgers from Jack's Bar and Grill," Joe says, pointing down the street.
"Of course that's the least I can do is buy you lunch. I'll be back with food and beer in a minute," Bernice says, grabbing her purse and hurrying out the door.
"That's what she thinks the guy that fries hamburgers there is the slowest guy in town. Now this will give me plenty of time to make it to the appliance store," Noah says.
Forty-five minutes later, Bernice rushes into the apartment. "Thank goodness you're still here I thought I might have to eat all this by myself," she says, holding bags of food and drink. "Sorry it took me so long but the guy who cooks at that bar is the slowest man in town," she says as she glances around. A few boxes are in the kitchenette, the small closet is packed with her clothes, a small table with chairs and a single bed and dresser fill the small room. Her eyes stop when she sees a new 19" color television on a stand. "Where did that come from?" she asks pointing at the television,"
"Everyone who works at Baby Love Supply chipped in. Instead of sending flowers, we thought you'd enjoy this more. Even Hank the postman chipped in. He says you the kindest, sweetest person he ever knew."
Bernice hurries to arrange the food on the table, anything to be busy and keep the tears back. They sit around the small table and eat hamburgers as they laugh at meanness jokes, and for the first time in her life she eats and laughs with only men. Thank God mother is dead. This would have killed her.
"It's only temporary," Bernice whispers to herself as she takes her seat at the information desk. It's her second week and she looks down and rubs her forehead when she sees Mr. Cranston enter the front door. I can't stand to see that cocky look every time he walks by. Why, why does he do this to me? I've never done anything to deserve this. Doesn't he understand I have no control over my phobia?
The depression of her mother's death wears off faster than she thought it would. She now has time for long walks, going to the movies, shopping and to think. And for the first time in her life, she has time to pity herself. Anger bursts forth when she remembers how her mother had controlled her. It was mother who had chosen her friends, her hairstyle, and clothes. When she disobeyed, her mother would always become ill and need her care. Her life now should include half grown children and a nice husband and home. She should be able to travel, have some nice clothes, eat out and join clubs and have friends outside of work.
Men had been only a big disappointment. Her father had left her and Mother to fend for themselves when she was three and Mr. Cranston now is doing his best to ruin her life. Mother had robbed her of life and money by pretending to be an invalid. Now she wonders if it is too late to get some of that back. It's not only Mother who had controlled her life, but also the fear of elevators. She is now free of Mother, but where can she go to be free of elevators?
The rain pours outside as Bernice finishes her breakfast. "What an awful Saturday!" she says to a small sparrow that is hunkered down outside her window. "At least I don't have to go out today." She climbs back into bed, picks up the remote control and turns the television on.
"Welcome to What is New in Chicago, and I'm your host, Samuel Sweet. Today we're meeting with Dr. Phillip Owens who helps people with phobias. Dr. Owens, you've written a book, "They're Not Your Fears," Sweet says, as he holds a book up.
"I want to let the audience know that I started to read this last night and I couldn't put it down. What fascinating stories of people you've helped or I should say, cured.
Now as I understand, a phobia is caused by a fear in a former life. By hypnotizing and taking the afflicted person back to a former life, you learn what causes his or hers fear.
Dr. Owens nods. "Once he or she understands what had happened in their previous life, and that can be many lives, the person with the phobia is able to understand that it's not their fear, but the fear of a soul in a past life."
"You make it sound like a soul is used over and over again," Sweet says.
Again Dr. Owens nods. "Of course the soul is used many times, what a waste it would be to use it only once." Dr. Owens looks sternly into the camera. "Something happens at the time of death that frightens the soul so badly that when it is used again, that fear is carried over."
"In your book you tell of a man being terrified of kittens. Now that's hard to believe. But you say that in a former life the man had died from falling off a ladder in a barn while trying to rescue a kitten in the haymow," Sweet says.
"Yes. As a boy in one of his former lives he was reaching for a kitten when he lost his balance. The kitten, not the fall and landing on a pitchfork was what he remembered." Dr. Owens says, smiling. "When he realized it wasn't his fear, but the fear of a boy who died fifty years ago, he lost his fear of kittens. He now takes care of kittens from the SPCA."
"Before we go to our commercial, let me give you contact information where I can be reach if anyone in our audience would like to be free of their phobia. You'll be here at the Chicago Hilton today until Tuesday then you'll go on to Detroit.
Dr. Owens adjusts his glasses and looks into the camera. "Yes, today drop by and I'll try to see as many of you as I can. You can also call and make an appointment at 555-6767 for Monday or Tuesday. Sorry, Sunday I'll be busy with church and friends."
I know the trick, pop in, grab the dough and then leave town. Whoever heard such a bunch of bull? But what if it was true? Wouldn't that be wonderful! Bernice clicks the television off when she hears a knock on the door. Opening the door she sees Mrs. McGregor standing in a wet raincoat. What a pleasant surprise, come in and I'll make coffee. What brings you out on such a nasty day?" Bernice asks, pulling her bathrobe around her.
"Don't bother yourself. I'm on my way to visit my sister in the hospital she had her gallbladder out yesterday," Mrs. McGregor says, glancing around the small room. "Why you're as cozy as a little bug." Bernice nods. "I not be standing here watering your carpet, must be on my way. The man remodeling your old apartment found this box under the floorboards in your mom's closet. I thought you'd want it," She hands a small metal box to Bernice. "I hope it contains a million dollars," Mrs. McGregor says, and bids farewell then hurries out the door.
Bernice looks at the box she has never seen before in her life. Why would her mother have hidden it under a floorboard? And why place a small lock on it? Maybe it belongs to the former tenant. She examines it for a name or an address, but it has only rust spots. A screwdriver easily breaks the lock. Going over to the bed, she slowly opens the box and gingerly takes out pictures and letters and a receipt book and lays them on the bed. The pictures catch her attention first. They're of a man and a small girl who appears to be two. The man smiles as he holds the child. I don't know the man or toddler. This must have belonged to a former renter. She feels a little guilty invading someone's privacy, as she continues to look at pictures when one of them catches her eye. It's her mother holding the child. With shaky hands she turns the picture over of the man and baby. Written on the back, Andrew and baby Bernice. Andrew was the name on her birth certificate under father's name. It was her father! A few minutes pass before she can take her eyes off the picture. With shaky hands, she reads letters that are from her father. They are full of his love for her and telling of the money he sent for her birthday, Easter, and Christmas. She picks up a small account book where her mother kept a record of the money he'd sent to care for them, one thousand four hundred dollars a month. But the year Bernice graduated from high school the account book and letters ended.
But I never saw the money.
In the bottom of the box is a small obituary notice of her father's death. Andrew Allen Clem, 132 State Street, age 68 passed away yesterday after a long illness. He practiced law at Larson, & Larson and Clem law office for thirty years. Born Jan 11, 1919 he graduated from Oak high school 1937. He graduated from Chicago law school in 1942. He served in the Army from 1943- 1945. No service, burial will be a 2:00 pm at Eternal Rest Cemetery.
What a short obituary. No family listed. Why wasn't her name listed as family?
She knows nothing about him except what her mother told her. Were they all lies? Bernice throws herself on the bed and weeps for the father she never knew.
By eleven o'clock, the walls of her small studio apartment start to close in on her. The room is stuffy, and her mind spins with questions. She dresses in slacks, a sweater, and puts on raincoat on to go for a walk. Her lungs breath in the fresh air crisp and clean, but her mind won't clear. Why did mother lie? What did she do with the money father sent?
She enters an empty playground and sits on a swing to rest. Slowly, she swings back and forth and thinks. Her mother said she had been at work while she was at school. Now she can see clearly that her mother had seldom worked, and had made that up. From a young age, her mother had taught her to never question, but to obey. Had mother run father off because she was so controlling? Had mother ever loved her or had she just kept her around so she'd have someone to control and take care of her? She leans back in the swing and closes her eyes. 'Why didn't you come and help me Father, Daddy, Dad, Papa? I don't even have a name for you," she whispers.
She opens her tearstained eyes and through wet eyeglasses, she remembers a vision of a man standing behind the chain link fence. She then remembers in grade school, she would see this man watching her on the playground. At the time she knew she wasn't to talk to strangers, but once she'd talked with him about horses. They both loved horses. She pulls from her purse the picture of her father and gazes at it. It's the same man. She realizes that her father had watched over her while she was little. But why didn't he tell her he was her father?
Bernice walks through the downpour of rain and thinks about her life. The more she thinks the more she doesn't like who she is. She has been a doormat to many people. But whose fault is it? It's hers. First her mother then Mr. Cranston, and she never protests.
The nice finish last or not at all, she thinks, as she looks around. She is standing in front of a Chicago Hilton hotel. She looks through the glass entrance at the clock inside. It's two o'clock. She's been out in heavy rain for two hours. Hungry and tired, she enters the lobby to look for a place to eat.
The lobby is empty, but from out of nowhere a well-dressed middle-aged man approaches her while she is cleaning her glasses.
"You're here because of a phobia," he says, gently taking her arm and tries to escort her to a back section of the lobby.
"I'm sorry, but I was going to get a something to eat," Bernice says glancing in the direction of the café. Not knowing why she follows him.
"Now you know that's not true. You wish to get rid of a phobia so you can have a happy, normal life." He opens a golden door. "Come in, there's nothing to fear." Entering the room, Bernice realizes the man is Dr. Owens from the morning television show. This is such a strange day. Maybe subconsciously I headed here to see if Dr. Owens could help me. I just don't know I'm so confused.
"Well yes, I do have a phobia that controls my life. But I don't know if I have enough money to pay for treatment."
Dr. Owens interrupts. "Did I ask for money? Do you think people would trust in a doctor who blows into town, stays a few days and leaves? Of course not, that's why I don't charge anything now. By Tuesday evening if I've helped you with your phobia, you pay me whatever you wish."
"I can't believe people will pay you later," Bernice blurts out.
"What would you give to be rid of your phobia?" Dr. Owens asks, leading Bernice to a soft, comfortable chair.
"I guess anything," Bernice says.
"I ask only for what you can give, and I've never been disappointed. Come, sit, and let me hypnotize you," he points at a chair. "Have you ever been hypnotized?"
Bernice shakes her head. This whole thing is crazy, but it doesn't cost anything. What do I have to lose?
"Because you're new to hypnosis, don't let this frighten you. You should remember everything, but if your phobia is too frightening, your mind will refuse to accept the memory, especially if the trauma happened in childhood. In that case I will need to put you under more deeply. When you come out of hypnosis, I will tell you what caused your phobia, and you'll be cured."
"How long will this take?" Bernice asks.
"No longer than thirty minutes."
"And I won't be afraid of"….
"You don't tell me your phobia, I tell you," Dr. Owens says, as he stops her in mid-sentence. Dr. Owens takes her raincoat and she snuggles into the warm chair, and watches as Dr. Owens swings a small bobble on a chain in front of her. His soothing voice telling her to relax enters her ears and she feels a calm come over her body and mind. She's tired and quickly falls into a hypnotic trance. For a while she can hear his voice asking questions, but when he asks about elevators the fear is too much. Everything turns black and she hears or remembers nothing. When she awakens she feels refreshed and a calm tranquility fills her body.
"My dear child you did have a bad one. Have you ever ridden an elevator in your life?"
"No, even as a small child my mother couldn't get me on one." How did he know it was elevators?
"It's not elevators you're afraid of but deep, dark holes. In a former life, as a child an older very jealous brother threw you down a deserted well. Frightened and in pain, you called and waited for help. You died there and they never found your body. That's why I had such a fear of hitting the bottom of the elevator shaft. I believed I was going to die down there and no one would find me. Oh, that poor little girl. What an awful way to die.
Dr. Owens takes her hand and leads her to the lobby where they stop in front of an elevator. No panic fills Bernice's body or mind, as she looks at the elevator door. The door opens and leaving Dr. Owens behind, she calmly enters. "What floor," a man in the elevator asks. "Top floor," Bernice says. Without panic she rides the elevator up and down a few times.
"Dr. Owens, how can I ever thank you," Bernice asks, a thrill going through her.
"Just be good to yourself and stand up for your rights," he says, helping her on with her raincoat. What a strange thing to say, stand up for your rights. Bernice floats across the lobby that is now full of people. She wants to shout to each one that she can ride in an elevator. But if she did, what would they think of a person who yells out, "I can ride in an elevator!"
She's anxious to get home and telephone Linda. She stops in front of the Emery Hotel. Isn't this the one that has the restaurant on the top floor that looks out over the city? Still hungry, she takes the elevator up to the restaurant and orders an expensive bowl of hot soup, the only dish she can afford. The view of Chicago is lost in the heavy rain, but to Bernice it's lovely.
It's late when she enters her cozy apartment. The day had been like a roller coaster with its ups and downs, much like the elevator. But it has been the best day of her life. She calls Linda to tell her the news, but gets her answering machine. Gingerly she places the picture of her and her father under the lamp next to her bed and lies down to look at it. Gee, Dr. Owens looks so much like my father. Sleep overtakes her.
Monday morning, Bernice stands in front of her bathroom mirror brushing her teeth, "Mr. Cranston, I've worked here for almost nineteen years. I believe I've been of service to this company, and we need to discuss what's going on between the two of us. It appears you're the only person who hasn't been satisfied with my job performance."
Bernice spits toothpaste into the sink, and then looks back at the mirror at her uneven teeth, then continued. "I know I embarrassed you in front of the Anderson brothers, and for that I apologize, but I'm now cured of my fear of elevators". She pauses then repeats, "Cured of my fear of elevators." She loves saying that, thinking that, and remembering riding in one yesterday, and she's looking forward to being in one today. This morning she hopes to find Old Crab face alone and confront him. Surely, he has a heart and will be happy that I'm free of that phobia.
"I, Bernice Ann Clem, will no longer be a doormat for people to wipe their feet on," she says, to the new Bernice in the mirror. It's not until she's digging around in the closet for a pair of shoes, she remembers she'd left her galoshes at the Hilton Hotel. I was so excited I forgot them. I'm sure the hotel placed them in the lost and found. I'll get them after work. Now I have to wear the granny shoes.
Bernice glances at the picture on the side of a shoebox. It's a picture of the ugly black oxfords her mother gave her years ago. She hates the shoes, because the heels give her extra height, and she believes they're made for grandmothers and older nuns. But unlike her normal flat shoes, they kept the snow out. She grabs the shoebox, takes out the granny shoes and puts them on.
A light snow fell on Bernice as she hurries to work. In her mind she rehearses what she's going to say to Mr. Cranston, and also she can't wait to see the expression on Linda's face when she tells her about Saturday. A wind gusts tugs at her coat and she tucks a thermos full of coffee closer to her body. She brought her coffee and lunch to save a few pennies, but after today maybe she wouldn't have to, because she's determine to get back her old salary, or she'll look for another job. Now able to ride an elevator she isn't afraid of changing jobs, and she'll talk Mr. Lee and other staff into giving her a good resume. She hates to change jobs and leave Linda and other friends she now has something she never had before, pride and confidence in herself. She'd spent Sunday making a list of her good points and bad. Being truthful she realizes she has many good points, away more than bad. Her biggest problem she listed was letting people take advantage of her. She's now determined to change that starting with Mr. Cranston. Whatever Dr. Owens did to her Saturday it has changed her life and she now likes herself.
Her glasses steam over the instant she enters the building. When I get the money I'm going to get laser surgery and throw these glasses away.
"Well, at last you're here. When the Anderson brothers from the Outdoor Patio Company get here, send them up to the roof," Bernice hears Mr. Cranston in back of her say. Her glasses clear enough, she sees him heading towards the elevator. Now is the time to get him alone and have it out. "Mr. Cranston can I speak to you for a minute?" she calls after him, but he keeps walking towards the elevator.
"Mr. Cranston," she yells louder. She knows he hears her, but he doesn't pause for a minute. That little toad is going to hear me out if I have to chase him to the roof. She drops her lunch and thermos on the desk, and hurries towards the elevator, but before she gets there, the elevator door closes. Does that creep think it's this easy to get away from me? I'll take the other elevator. The elevator to the left is also going up, she waits.
It takes a while before an elevator comes down, that's all right because the fight in her increases. By the time she reaches the top floor her angry is boiling. She climbs the short flight of steps and opens the door to the roof. Snow covers the roof and she sees Mr. Cranston's foot prints in the snow. She follows them until she finds him standing at the edge of the roof with a tape measure in his hand. He's measuring the width of a large metal box that contains the phone connections to the many offices below. When he stops to write down a number, Bernice speaks. "Mr. Cranston. I want to talk to you."
Before she can say anymore, he puts up his hand. "I have nothing to say to you."
"Well I have plenty to say to you." Bernice says, feeling her face get warm.
"You don't get it?" Mr. Cranston says a dark cloud comes over his face he shakes the tape measure at her. "I can't stand you and there is no way in hell that I'm going to put up with you. Now I can add harassment to your file, and Mr. Lee and Mrs. Cranston aren't going to be able to save you this time. You're fired! Now get the hell out of my sight." He turns his back and stands his short stout body on his tiptoes, measuring the height of the box.
Bernice starts to leave. He can't talk to me that way. Who does he think he is?
Anger and an old instinct kick in. As a young girl, when other children teased her about being a stick, she'd lower her head and run at them hitting them in the stomach. Most of the time she could hit them hard enough to knock the wind out of them and then they'd leave her alone. She lowers her head and runs her thin, five-foot eleven-inch body towards Mr. Cranston. He turns to see her approach, and her head hits him in the chest. He teeters back and forth for a second then starts to fall backward.
Raising her head, Bernice sees fear in his face. Instantly she realizes he is too close to the edge of the build and is falling backward. She grabs for his lapel, but gets his silk necktie. The tie slips quickly through her hand and she watches in terror as Mr. Cranston falls backward over the edge of the roof. A terrifying scream fills her ears and she wonders if it comes from her, but realizes it comes from Mr. Cranston. Looking over the edge of the building, she sees his body on the sidewalk. In shock, she stares as the fresh, white snow turns a bright red around Mr. Cranston's head.
It was an accident! I didn't mean to kill him. I must run! Yes, I'll go home and say I was never here, only Mr. Cranston knew I was here. Run Bernice run. Bernice runs. The elevator door is open and she enters. By the time she reaches the information desk, she's calmer. The surveillance cameras are at the front and rear entrance. The tape shows me coming in. She looks at her watch and sees less than ten minutes has passed. Her legs shake and she trembles all over. She feels someone removing her coat, and when she looks around she sees Mrs. Cranston. Mrs. Cranston hurries to a small closet behind the information desk, then removes her own and hangs the coats up.
"Quick, sit down behind the desk." Mrs. Cranston demands, as she grabs two empty foam cups from the trash and places them on the desk. She grabs the thermos Bernice had put on the desk and pours coffee into each cup.
"Here you left your purse on the roof where do you normal keep it?" Bernice points towards a drawer in the desk and then it hits her. Oh, my God, she was up there when I killed her husband. She was in the other elevator going up. She saw me kill her husband!
"Oh God, what have I done?" Bernice whimpers.
Mrs. Cranston grabs Bernice's shoulders and shakes her. "Get a hold of yourself. Now sit there and pretend we've been visiting. Let me do all the talking."
Bernice sees a flurry of police cars, and an ambulance flash by the front door.
"Take a deep breath and let it out slowly, because the show is about to begin," Mrs. Cranston says. Bernice sees Mr. Lee and a policeman entering the front door, and they're slowly approach the information desk. Mrs. Cranston speaks up so the men can hear her. "Well do you know how hard it is to get a gray pair of shoes? They just don't make gray shoes."
Mr. Lee breaks into her conversation. "Mrs. Cranston we need to talk to you. Would you mind stepping into one of the offices?"
"Mr. Lee it's rude of you to barge into my conversation."
The policeman steps forward. "Please we really need to talk to you."
A frighten look comes over Mrs. Cranston's face. "Do you have bad news?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so it's about your husband."
Her face relaxes. "Stan, why he's up on the roof measuring for a recreation room he wants to build. Craziest thing I've ever heard of, but if that's what he wants it's all right with me," she says casually.
"Please come back in one of the offices," the policeman pleads.
Mrs. Cranston looks around the empty lobby, her face shows fear. "Tell me here where I can be next to my friend."
"Your husband fell from the roof."
"Oh, Stan, is he hurt?"
"I'm sorry, he was killed instantly."
A scream pierces the quiet entrance and bounces off the walls. "I must go to him,' she says, trying to run for the front door.
The policeman and Mr. Lee grab her and hold her back, "He wouldn't want you to see him like this," the policeman says. Her strength gives out and sobs shake her body as the men carry her back to the chair next to Bernice.
"Officer Jackson will take you home."
"Yes, please I want to go home." She turns towards Bernice and in a mournful and shaky voice says. "Bernice I don't want to be alone. Please, come with me? It would be such a comfort to know I have a friend like you with me." Bernice, still in shock, nods but thinks, Friends I've never shared two words with you before in my life until today, but also I've never kill anyone.
Mr. Lee and the officer help Mrs. Cranston into the police car as she hangs onto Bernice's hand sobbing, "Oh my poor darling Stan," Bernice sits beside her, bewildered and stunned until the car stops in front of a lovely two-story brick house. The policeman and Bernice help the weak and weeping Mrs. Cranston up the stairs to the front door.
Mrs. Cranston pauses her weeping at the front door and looks at the officer. "Thank you officer Jackson, you've been so kind, I'll be all right now. I'm sure you need to get back to the force,"
The officer tips his hat and returns to the police car.
They enter a large foyer where Mrs. Cranston kicks off her shoes and heads to the bar in the living room. She fills two glasses from a crystal decanter. A smile crosses her lips. "I can't believe he's dead. How I've waited for this day."
She removes her coat, tosses it on a chair, and twirls her short five foot six inch, stout body around the room. She grabs the drinks and hands one to Bernice, but stops and studies Bernice's face. "Are you all right?"
Bernice pushes the glass away, "Sorry, I don't drink."
"Well drink this for medical reasons, because you look sick." She forces the drink into Bernice's hand then twirls a few more times around the room, "Me I feel
Bernice takes the glass and sips the liquor. It burns her throat but warms her insides and calms her shaking. She looks up, "Mrs. Cranston, do you plan to blackmail me? If you are I don't have any money."
Mrs. Cranston is in the process of swallowing, chooks. A spray the liquid bursts from her mouth. "Miss Clem I do believe you're confused."
An expression of desperation crosses Bernice's face. "By now you know I killed your husband. Aren't you angry?"
Mrs. Cranston threw back her head and laughs. "Yes, I saw you give that head punch to old Stan and saw him loose his balance and fall. Where in the world did you learn to head butt like that?"
Bernice gives a blush, and mumbles "When I was young I'd get angry at boys who teased me about my looks, but if I butted them in the stomach, I could knock the wind out of them. But I never intended to kill your husband. I guess I lost my mind."
"At first I couldn't believe my eyes. I wanted to cheer for you," Mrs. Cranston says, as she walks over to her purse on the bar, and takes out a handgun. Bernice freezes in fear. Is she going to shoot me?
"He started cheating on me before our wedding cake turned stale," Mrs. Cranston says, as she removes the bullets. "So when I learned he was going to be alone on the roof I knew the time was right," She walks over to a drawer and places the gun and bullets inside. "I left his car lights on all night so the battery would be dead, and I'd have to drive him to work in my car. I told him I needed to use the restroom, so I walked in with him so the surveillances camera would show us coming in together. I even looked at the camera so it would be a clear picture of me."
Mrs. Cranston fills another glass from the decanter and motions to see if Bernice wants more, she shakes her head
"Did you know if you stay close to the wall the camera couldn't see you? Staying close to the wall I made it outside and got a large brim hat from my car. I wore it into the building so the camera would show another woman coming in." Mrs. Cranston took another swallow from her glass. "I then took an elevator to the roof and hid behind a vent, and made sure the large brim hat blew away with a gust of wind. When I heard you come out on the roof, I thought it was the Anderson brothers and all my plans had failed." She stops talking and looks into Bernice's blank face.
"Don't you get it? I was out there to kill Stan and hope to blame it on one of his old flames, he has many."
"So you're not angry that I killed him?" Bernice asks.
"My darling girl you were my life saver. Don't you understand you did a job for me that I didn't know if I could have done?
Mrs. Cranston green eyes flash, and her shoulder length black hair bounces around her attractive face as she waves her drink in the air. "I worried that the Anderson Company would come too soon. What if the gun wouldn't go off and what if Stan knows of my plan and overpowers me, or how to get rid of the gun after I kill him."
Mrs. Cranston sits down on a footstool in front of Bernice and takes her hand. "I'll always be grateful to you for what you did. Now we have alibis and can cover for each other if there's any questioned about what we were doing at the time of Stan's death. And this is what we have to work on, because our answers must be the same". Mrs. Cranston walks over to the fireplace and lights a roaring fire.
"Now that we're friends, call me by my given name.
"What is your given name?
"Bernice the same as yours, didn't you know? That's one of the reasons Stan hated you. With the same name you'd better call me by my nickname, Bee. Now give me your shoes."
"Most people don't wear granny shoes so there's a chance they can match them with the prints on the roof. I'll give you a pair of mine that are too large for me. You can wear them home,"
"Didn't you leave any footprints in the snow?" Bernice asks.
"I stepped only where the wind had blown the snow away, and you dropped your purse by the door where there was no snow, so picking it up I left no footprints."
Bee takes the granny shoes over to the roaring fire and drops them in. The fire dies a little then blazes up. "Now let us get down to business. Our stories must match."
Bernice's body aches with exhaustion and her mind is full of information she and Bee have rehearsed. Getting out of the taxi, her smile disappears quickly when her toes scream to be released from Bee's shoes that are too small. She hurries up the steps, but forgets about the pain in her feet when she sees a policeman sitting by her front door.
"Don't know if your remember me I'm Officer Jackson. I drove you and Mrs. Cranston home this morning. I know it's late and you're tired but can I come in for a second?"
Confusion fills Bernice's mind as the officer steps back so she can unlock the door.
What should I do? Why does he want to question me this soon? Bee said they wouldn't ask questions until tomorrow.
"I'm really tired so please make it quick" Bernice says, as they enter the apartment. "But I don't understand what you'd want with me."
"We have to cover all the bases it's part of our job," Jackson says, his eyes scan the small room and stop at the open closet door. Walking over to the closet, he picks up the shoebox that contained the ugly black oxfords. "Are these the shoes you wore to work today?" he asks.
"Of course not, I'm just getting home, I wore these." Bernice says, sitting down she pries the tight shoes from her feet, then quickly slips on her bedroom slippers so he won't see her red squashed toes.
"Why do you have this empty shoe box?"
Bernice wants to yell out do you have a search warrant? But would that make her look guilty? "I'm a collector of boxes, but had to toss most of them when I moved into this apartment. She walks over to the officer and takes the box from his hand. Glancing at the picture of the shoe on the side of the box, her heart sinks. Then the new Bernice kicks in.
"I remember my mother use to wear this kind of shoe. Now officer I'm very tired."
The officer looks over at the shoes she had removed. "Detective Conner said to bring in the pair of shoes you wore today."
"Yes, he's in charge of this case. Do you know him?"
Bernice gives a nod as she holds out the shoes to the officer. "Yes, it's a small world."
A chill runs through her as she puts on a flannel nightgown and climbs into bed. Sleep envelops her and drifting off she thinks does Bee know that I had a fear of elevators? I must not let anyone know I'm cured, not even Linda.
Next morning Bernice returns to work. They always say a murderer returns to the scene of the crime. She thinks as she looks around. Hanging her coat in the closet she turns around and bumps into Detective Conner. "I didn't expect to see you here. Did you catch Dr. Osterland?" she asks.
"No, I'm afraid I'm here because of the murder of Mr. Cranston."
"Murder, I thought it was an accident. Everyone believes he slipped and fell off the roof," Bernice says, trying to act shock.
"We discovered another person was up on the roof with him when he fell."
"Oh, poor Mr. Cranston," Bernice says, as she hurries to her desk. I've got to keep calm and watch what I say, and not look guilty. "So there was a man with him?"
Detective Conner didn't respond to her question. "I understand you worked as his secretary for a short time. What can you tell me about Cranston?"
"I guess he did his job. I'd see him around town with other women. Being Bee's, I mean Mrs. Cranston's friend, I never told her about his cheating. Bless her heart she loves I mean loved him so much. Oh, dear, did a jealous husband pushed him off the roof?"
"This wasn't a man on the roof with him but a woman. Do you know of a woman who hated him enough to shove him off the roof?"
Bernice shook her head and looks down at the floor.
"I understand he has given you reason to be angry. He took away any pay raise you ever received and demoted you to this position," Connors says, pointing at the information desk.
"Detective Connors, are you saying I killed him?" I can't play this cat and mouse game much longer.
"You were a suspect, but then I learned of your fear of elevators from your friend Linda Snapple and the Anderson men told me of you panic attack in the elevator a few Monday's ago."
"Yes," Bernice blushes and looks away. Relief comes over her. "Since a small child I haven't been able to get into an elevator."
"Mrs. Snapple says you were climbing the twelve flights of stairs each day."
"Even if you were in excellent shape you couldn't climb twelve flights, murder your boss, and make it back down the stairs in eight minutes." Connors says.
Bernice shakes her head.
"And I brought back the shoes you were wearing yesterday."
Connors pulls out a shoe from a paper sack and looks at the heel. "This isn't the shoes the murderer was wearing," he says. "Strange, you and Mrs. Cranston wear the same size shoes. Miss Clem I have to tell you that if it weren't for your fear of elevator I'd believe that you murdered Cranston. You had the best motive. I know I'd want to kill someone who treated me like that." Bernice is afraid to look into Conner's face, and tries to keep her face away from his view. She believes her guilt is showing.
"Did you see any other person in the building that morning?" Connors asks.
"Yes, when Mr. Cranston got on the elevator a woman in a dark suit and a large brim hat got on the other elevator, but I didn't see what floor she went to and I didn't see her leave the building what with the commotion."
"Sorry about your boss and I'm sorry we couldn't find Dr. Osterman. My guess is he and who ever killed Mr. Cranston has skipped town by now."
Bernice sat in the limo with Bee. She admired her for the calm cool nerves she had through out her husband's funeral. Now that it's over they're sitting outside Bee home.
"I want you to know that I'll be taking over the company now that Stan is gone. I want you to be my secretary and advisor. I'm going to be a little rusty at first so I appreciate any help you can give me." Bee says.
"I remember you working with your father years ago when you finished your business degree," Bernice says.
"Yes, I worked there a short time before I married Stan. My father was old fashion, though a woman's place was in the home. He left the company in Stan's control when he died. He should have left it to me. Now it's my turn to run the company and make it more productive, so will you be my secretary and advisor?"
Bernice nods. "Will I get my old pay back?"
Bee takes an envelope from her purse. "I almost forgot. This is the back pay Stan cheated you out of. It would be too much trouble to put it on the payroll, so I'm giving it to you with a bonus."
Bernice slowly opens it, inside are ten one thousand dollar bills. "This is too much!" She hands the envelope back.
Bee reaches over to Bernice's purse and tucks the envelope inside. "No that's the beginning. As my assistant you'll be making three times the salary you did working for Stan, and of course yearly increases." Bee looks kindly towards Bernice. "We can't have you riding the elevator so I'm moving my office down to the main floor to the large conference room. I'll tell everyone the old office holds too many painful memories."
Bernice pays off the hospital and Mrs. McGregor and with the thousand left, she heads for the hotel to send Dr. Owens the rest of the money. Afraid the police might find out she was cured of her phobia, she had postponed paying his bill. She approaches the desk of the Chicago Hilton. "Could you please give me the forwarding address for Dr. Owens in Detroit? He was here treating people with phobias two months ago."
The clerk gives her a dull look then looks through the register. "Sorry I don't know of any Dr. Owens. We rent rooms and have conventions. Was he with a convention?"
"No, he had a little office back there in a room with a golden door." Bernice looks back at the row of doors, all painted red. "Did they paint the doors?"
"Lady, you've got us mixed up with another hotel."
Bernice looks around. It's the same hotel. Same floor plan, but the furniture is more modern and the carpet has a colorful design. When she was here last it was a marble floor. She remembers hearing the click of her heels when she left the hotel and her shoes squeaking when she came in. What's going on? Dr. Owens resembled the man in the picture with her when she was a baby. Had she a dream so real that she cured herself? Afraid she still had the phobia she took the elevator to the top floor. No, she was cured and has no fear of riding in one. What's going on? Am I losing my mind?
"What a bitch!" Linda says, as she and Bernice exit a meeting with Mrs. Cranston. "I thought her husband Old Crab face was bad, but she makes him look like a saint."
Bernice smiles, "I think Old Crab face liked to look at your legs more than Bee does." They giggle.
"Oh, I almost forgot there's an old gent who wants to talk to you. He said he'd wait until you were out of the meeting," Linda says pointing to the lobby.
This is enough to set Bernice's fears off. Even though six months ago the police had put the death of Mr. Cranston on the back burner: and the newspapers said a woman in a big brim hat had done the murder, and there were the ones who though he'd slipped and fell, still any change in routine causes her stomach to knot and her underarm deodorant to give out. Walking to the lobby she tries to stay calm.
Sitting in a chair with the light from the window shinning behind him, is a man in his early seventies. He smiles when she approaches.
"Bernice, I'd know you anywhere, you look like your father," he says standing.
"Do I know you?" Bernice asks.
The old man motions for her to sit next to him. "I'm Jake Larson, a friend of your fathers. We practiced law together."
"Sorry, I know nothing about my father. Maybe you can give me some answers," Bernice says sitting down. "Why didn't he come to see me? Why was he out of my life?"
The old man leans forward in the chair and looks intensely into her face. "Where do I begin?" He pauses. "I don't mean to speak badly about your mother, but compassion and caring for other people weren't her strong points."
Bernice nods. "I know what you mean."
"I should have been here sooner and talked to you when your mother passed last October. But because of health problems I was in Arizona and didn't hear about her passing until last month." Mr. Larson stops to catch his breath.
"Mr. Larson, I want to know everything about my father. There are too many unanswered questions that have eaten away at me for years."
Bernice tells him about the metal box and knowing her father lived only miles from her, the money he sent and the pictures of them together.
Mr. Larson thinks a minute. "When I met your father he was a very confused man. He had married your mother believing that was the answer. When you came along he was delighted with you. He loved you. You were the apple of his eye. The year before you were born, he started working as a lawyer at my dad's firm." Jake stops and looks off in the distance as he searches for the right words. "Your father and I fell in love," he stops and looks into Bernice's face. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
At first she doesn't, but soon realizes what he's saying. She stands and starts to walk away. No, you don't Bernice. You, a murder can't look down on a homosexual.
"I'm sorry but you caught me a little off guard, please go on," she says returning to the chair.
Mr. Larson takes a breath mint from his pocket and offers one to Bernice, who shakes her head. He pops one in his mouth. "Old habit, we're led to believe you can win a jury with a nice smelling breath. Like I said your father and I were very much in love. But this was the late forties and you didn't go around telling people you're gay."
"Were you and father together when he married mother?" Bernice nervously asks.
"No, we didn't get together until shortly after you were born. We made a mistake that we always regretted." The old man's face became serious. "You were almost two when my dad made your father a partner in his law firm. He even made your father a partner before he made me one. Your father was that good a lawyer. He had the heart and soul of a lawyer, me I became a lawyer to please my dad." Mr. Larson stops and tears welt in his eyes his voice crack a little. "We were celebrating his becoming a partner, when your mother along with a few of her church friends bolted in on us."
"My mother never went to church," Bernice says.
"Not after that day she didn't! The embarrassment was too much for her. She divorced your father and got a court order that he could never see you again."
Bernice sits on the edge of her chair. "She couldn't do that."
"You have to understand the situation that this put your father in. Your mother said if he tried to ever see you, she'd tell the whole town that her husband was a homosexual and worked with homosexuals. This would have ruined not only your father's career, but also destroyed dads and mine. Do you understand now why your father was out of your life?"
Bernice nods her head. "There's no doubt in my mind mother would have carried through with her promise."
"Bernice I was with him many times when we watched you play. We were at your high school graduation, of course hidden in the back of the room. When your father was so ill he'd beg me to drive him over to Baby Supply Company, just to watch you come out of work at night."
"But why didn't he come up to me then and tell me he was my father."
"Fear that you would turn on him. He didn't know how you felt about him. He also didn't know what your mother had told you."
Bernice feels emptiness inside. "I didn't know. I wish I had," fades across her lips. "I must get back to work, would you let me take you to dinner? She asks.
"Maybe some other time, this evening I have an engagement with an old friend." He gave a sigh of relief. "Bernice my dear, I'm so happy I came to see you and didn't mail this to you." He pulls an envelope from his brief case and hands it to her. "It's something your father wanted you to have. I promised him on his deathbed that after your mother passed I would give it to you. Inside are photos and a cashiers check. He wanted it to be more, but having cancer for so long the medical bills took most of his estate." Mr. Larson's stood, gave Bernice a kiss on the cheek and a broad smile and starts to walk away.
"Mr. Larson, what kind of law did my father practice?" she calls after him.
The old man slowly turns around. "Why he always handled cases for people accused of murder, and he was the best."
Bernice feels like she has the wind knock out of her. She sits down and after a minute she opens the envelope and takes out the cashiers check for eight hundred and eighty eight thousand dollars.
Bernice goes to her office to be alone while she studies the pictures. Her hands shake as she removes the pictures from the envelope. Gingerly she sorts through and studies pictures of herself as a baby and up to age two. After that the snapshots were taken from a distance. They were of her doing normal things in her life In the back of the stack she finds pictures of her father as a young boy. He has a thin body and a large head, just like she did at his age. She glances at the picture of him graduating with fellow students from high school, in law school and in the army. The back picture is large and covered with a sheet of tissue paper. Slowly removing the paper, in the corner of the pictures she reads, "Jake, you're the love of my life. Love you always, Andrew" It must have been a photo dad gave to Mr. Larson. Slowly she pulls the tissue back and looks. The picture is of her father, but her father looks like Dr. Owens. "Father," she whispers, "You have always been with me."
Detective Conner sits holding his head when Jackson walks in. "One hell of a farewell party wasn't it last night," Jackson say.
Conner nods. "Did you show her the picture of Dr. Osterland? Was that the same guy who was treating her mother?"
"Yep, she said it was and happy to hear he is dead and wouldn't be killing off anymore old people."
"Here I spent years trying to find him and put him out of business, and a heart attach does the job for me," Conner says putting his hand on a stack of files. "Well I can close this one and put it in the dead files."
"Can't get over that Miss Clem," Jackson says.
"What do you mean?
"I remember her being downright homely with stained teeth, thick glasses and skinny and shapeless body." Jackson stops "Now she's lovely. Something you'd ask out. How could she change that much in two years?"
Conner leans back in his office chair, "I knew she was the one who pushed her boss off the roof, but I couldn't prove it. I followed her around for almost a year trying to find her riding an elevator, no luck. She did receive money from her father's estate, and her former boss's wife gave her a better paying job. I'm happy her life is better she deserved that, but I also wanted to close that case before I retired."
"What makes you think his wife didn't give him a push?" Jackson asks glancing through the Cranston file.
"Don't know what she was up to but the foot prints in the snow weren't her. She wore a size seven shoe, Miss Clem a size ten. Also someone left the identical footprint in the snow in front of the Cranston house. I believe that was from Miss Clem's shoe, remember you spotted them when you took Mrs. Cranston home."
Yea, it didn't dawn on me until I saw the prints on the roof that they were the same, and before we could get back to get a copy of the prints, the snow had melted. But what did she do with the shoes? Without the shoes or finding her riding in an elevator I never had enough evidence to have a case."
Jackson threw the file down. "Don't let it get you down. Forget about it and enjoy your retirement. I hear you and the wife are going on a cruse to Spain."
"We leave tomorrow for Spain. We catch the ship called the Emerald of the Sea from Florida at eight tomorrow morning. Conner says."
"With your wife being in a wheel chair will you have any problems getting around on the ship?" Jackson asked.
"No, it's a small ship and everything is wheel chair friendly and they have lots of elevators.
Bernice looks around her large well-furnished condo she had purchased and furnished. She walks over to the trash and tosses in her old eyeglasses. With her new laser eye surgery she no longer needs them. She glances in a mirror and smiles showing her recapped teeth. Her hair is professional done and she's put on a few pounds with the help of diet and plastic surgery, and she likes what she sees. She has a vacation coming and she has decided Spain will be her first visit. She picks up the tickets and once more checks to see if they're real, she reads passage for one on the Emerald of the Sea. She flies to Florida tomorrow and at eight in the morning and takes the ocean liner to Spain. She's going to have a wonderful time. And she'll be able to ride the elevator without worrying that someone she knows will see her.