The wind howled through the gravel road. A drenching rain poured from the black heavens as the clock neared 11:00. The early March day was as cold as the depths of January. Along each side of the seldom-used road was a forbidding line of trees growing more fearsome in the nighttime shadows. If you could hear beyond the cry of the wind, the sound of a pack of hungry wolves howling would have caught your attention. Along this road, a lone traveler walked. He wore a long coat common of his era, the 1920s. He pulled his coat tight against the wind and drenching rain, and walked ever faster, fearful of what could be lurking in the shadows. He was quite muddy and wet, as a result of the rain. He was tired, cold, and wanted to do nothing more than go to bed.
That’s when a small glow from the bend ahead attracted his attention. He walked faster, hoping against all odds that the glow was from the lights of some building that could provide a respite from this horrible, horrible rain. The light grew stronger, until he found his prayers answered by a dark and dingy inn that was emitting the light he saw. Above the doorway was a sign that once said “Maple Inn” but now just said “ ap e nn” because the ‘M’, the ‘l’ and the ‘I’ were faded beyond recognition. There were windows, too, on the south, north, and east sides, but none on the west, where there was a solid wall covered in vines. He rapped quietly on the door, but no one answered. He rapped again louder, and still no one answered. Finally, he banged on the door as hard as he could.
“Let yourself in and stop that banging!” an ancient, gravelly voice called out. The traveler opened the door, only to find himself confronted by a host of characters.
Directly across from him, there was an evil-looking old bartender with balding gray hair, milky blue eyes, and an evil leering grimace. At the far back corner table, a fortune-teller was sitting and continuously shuffling a pack of ornate cards. She was dressed in flowing, dirty pink material, and wore a bandana of the same material around her dark brown hair. Across the room at the front table meant for two, a young man was sitting. He seemed to be about 26, and was alternately staring out into the pouring rain or into his still full glass, looking completely depressed. At another table, two flappers were lounging around with expressionless faces and a smell of ash, as they were smoking cigarette after cigarette, for cigarettes were not yet known to be unhealthy, and were indeed considered to be the opposite. Finally, at the bar, two elderly men were talking. They each wore long coats, ratty old hats, and an evil glare on their faces.
The traveler carefully walked across the little room, and sat down at one of the stools at the bar, only to find himself the victim of hostile glares from everyone in the room.
“Who are you?” one of the old men barked rudely at him.
“Oh, nobody,” the traveler answered in a completely friendly tone.
“What are you doing here?” the ratty old man barked again.
“I was going to Jonstown when my car broke down,” he answered. The old man grunted in reply, and then turned back to his drink.
Everyone was silent, and the traveler thought he could detect a note of tension in the air. Every now and then, one of the other people glared at him. Something's not right here, the traveler thought. No one’s speaking, and everyone’s glaring at me and at each other. It's like they want to shove a knife in my back, hide the body, and get back to their normal evening. Everyone is just so hostile and rude. And it also seems like someone will snap at the tiniest noise, everyone is so tense. I wonder what's going on. That's when he caught the bartender muttering to himself. He could just make out some of it.
“Nothing's been the same since Sal…” the traveler heard.
“Who is Sal?” the traveler asked, in a completely friendly, completely concerned, and completely naive voice.
That question was received with another round of nasty glares from the other people in the room. No one answered, and there was silence for nearly a minute. Suddenly, the fortune-teller stopped shuffling her ornate set of cards, which the traveler believed to be tarot cards. She turned over the Queen of Coins and The Devil, and began to speak in her gravelly, ancient voice with a hint of a southern drawl. The bartender open his mouth to protest, but closed it.
“I figure that this storm is pretty bad, so we’re gonna be stuck here for awhile, and this man deserves to know what's going on. No one really knows what happened, but I will try to tell you to the best of my abilities about the event that occurred today. As you should know, this morning was a beautiful day, as beautiful as Venus herself. Sal seeing the lovely day pleading with her to go outside, slipped out of her grandfather’s inn,” she said, indicating the bartender, who was struggling to not show emotion at the tale of his granddaughter’s disappearance. She continued with the tale, now indicating the flapper all dressed in peacock blue.
“Diane here had decided to be depressed outside for a change, and said she saw Sal slip through the woods, but didn't think anything of it. You see, Sal knows every inch of these woods, and all the things in them. She knows how to make jam from the wild raspberry patch deep in the woods, she knows where the dangerous swamp that's deep as heck is, and she knows how to properly take the sting out of the painful stinging nettle that can leave you angry, screaming rashes for a week. Why, she even challenged a black bear to a beehive for the honey. She hardly got a scrape, and she got the honey, too.
“So, for Sal, the woods normally held no danger. Diane watched her go some ways, and then saw the unthinkable. A hand was clamped around her mouth, and the owner of that hand yanked her away. Sal tried to scream, but only a muffled sound like that of a squeaky shoe could escape her mouth. Diane screamed, and summoned everyone from the various places where they were relaxing to the inn.
“Here at the inn, we found a note on the table asking for money in exchange for Sal’s captor to return her. The strange thing is, the bartender here has no money. So we’ve been sitting here ever since, afraid to anywhere else, for fear that someone will try to hold us ransom, too.” As she finished her tale, a thunderclap boomed across the sky, blocking out every other sound. However, if you could hear well enough, maybe you would catch the sound of a faint wailing over the howling wind and pouring rain.
“How horrible,” the traveler said with typical naive sympathy. “I’m so sorry.” The bartender grunted in reply to him. The traveler ignored him, though, and went on.
“We should try to figure out who took Sal. I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes books, so my sleuthing skills are pretty good.”
“Easier said than done,” the flapper dressed in velvet red said with a distinct sassy New York accent and a high contempt for anyone this naive. “It could have been anyone who did it. They could be far away by now.”
“Actually, I have a reason for why someone would hold Sal for ransom,” the fortune-teller said, leering at everyone.
“What?” the traveler asked. The fortune teller flipped over the Queen of Coins, the Wheel of Fortune, and Death from her ornate pack of cards.
“The reason Sal lives with the bartender, her grandfather, is because her parents died awhile ago from pneumonia. Because of that, she has inherited a small fortune of 100,000 dollars. Somebody kidnapped Sal and knew of this, and was after that enormous sum because they needed the money that Sal had, and was trying to take it from her.”
“Sal has 100,000 dollars?!” The flapper in red asked, shocked and greedy.
“Yes” the bartender replied. After this statement, everyone gasped. $100,000 was more money than they could imagine in this run-down place. No wonder someone kidnapped Sal.
“And who would know that Sal had that inheritance?” the traveler inquired, oblivious to all the people drooling over the thought of $100,000.
“The only people who would know are Rutherford, Diane, Charles, and Ruth,” the bartender responded, gesturing first to the old man who barked at the traveler earlier, then to the flapper in blue, then the young man, and finally to the fortune-teller.
“Well, let's interview them, and maybe we can find out who did it,” the traveler suggested, not knowing that this kind of logic was not as easy in real life as it was in novels. Every other person in the room stared at him, each somewhat confused and somewhat amused that anyone could be this stupidly naive. Ruth, however, looked at him like it was actually a good idea.
“You know, that could work,” Ruth half-cackled from her chair. “Let’s ask them what they were doing and what motive they could have to kidnap Sal. I know I was here with the bartender, here, so it couldn't have been me. Diane, what were you doing when Sal was taken, and what motive could you have he'd?” Ruth leered at her in her unsettling voice, turning over three more of her freakishly accurate tarot cards. This time, she revealed The Lovers, The Wheel of Fortune, and The Devil.
“Well, I used to live in New York City,” she began, rather frightened by Ruth. “About a year ago, though, my boyfriend and I had an argument one night, and that's when he began to see another lady behind my back. Eventually, he broke up with me, but not before his new girl started saying nasty things to me, and spreading rumors about me. I left and went here, because my reputation was in tatters, and I would be talked about and laughed at wherever I went.
“As for what I was doing when Sal got kidnapped, I was sitting on one of the stumps and smoking in the east side of the cleared lot out back. Suddenly, after Sal had gone a little way into the eastern part of the woods, I saw a hand clamp over her mouth and jerk her away. I screamed, raised the alarm, gathered everyone here, and we’ve been sitting here ever since. If you don't believe me, ask Zoe. She was on the other side of the lot with me.” Zoe, the flapper in red, nodded to show it was true.
“I see,” Ruth commented, offering no other opinion except turning over the Jack of Coins and the Wheel of Fortune from her card deck. “Charles, what motive could you have had, and what were you doing when Sal was taken?”
“I have always loved to gamble,” he confessed. “I played poker, blackjack, craps, you name it. I was good, too, for a time. I was wealthy, wore mink coats, and had a penthouse apartment. But my luck began to turn after a while. I squandered away all of my money trying to win at gambling. Eventually, I was broke. I couldn't face my father and tell him what I had done, so I sold almost all of my things and fled here. As for today, I was in my room at the south end of the building, trying to take a nap, when I heard Diane scream that Sal had been kidnapped.” Ruth merely grunted, nodded at Rutherford to tell his story, all the while turning over the King of Coins and the Wheel of Fortune.
“I was a successful businessman in New York City,” he started. “I had a lovely wife, was a chief executive, and had a luxury lifestyle. One day, my wife had a son. Over time he grew up and began to get ambitious. He started to climb up the ranks in my company and wanted to take over from me as CEO by giving others the impression that I was senile and unfit to lead my company. In private, he was truly nasty to me.
“The one thing that kept me there was my wife. Unfortunately, she grew sick and died in the same pneumonia epidemic the Sal’s parents perished in. My son was now nastier than ever, threatening me with all manner of things, and so I left. I spend most of my time reading, and today was no exception. I was in my room on the west side of the building reading, when I had to use the restroom. I heard Diane scream in the process of doing that, and headed downstairs immediately after I finished my business.”
Suddenly, Rutherford’s words were cut off by a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder as the electricity went out. Every single person in the room screamed. There was absolute pandemonium. Lighting flickered repeatedly, illuminating the room with an eerie white flash. And then, right after that, thunder boomed like a ton of dynamite going off. Finally, the bartender managed to get the electricity back on. Something wasn't right, though. And then people realized what happened. In the middle of the table was a note. It said:
“Dear Thomas, (for that was the bartender’s name)
I hope this letter finds you well. You must leave all of Sal’s inheritance in front of the door tonight at midnight exactly, or your precious Sal will die.
At this, the bartender’s expression melted. He began to sob, crying for his granddaughter. Everyone else was unsure and scared, because a murderer was coming here for a large sum of money exactly five minutes from now. People began to panic. Suddenly, Ruth cackled.
“I know who took Sal,” she said.
“Who?!?” everyone cried.
“It was Rutherford!” Right on cue, lightning struck, and everyone gasped.
“It had to be him,” Ruth started. “It couldn't have been me or Diane because we both had other people to prove our alibis. It could have been Charles, but we didn't see him go downstairs, and he is in the south bedroom, so if he attempted to climb out his window to attempt the crime, I would have seen him through the window. Because Rutherford was in the west bedroom, he could have climbed down the vines covering the bottom part of the wall without being seen, snuck around through the woods to the east side, grabbed Sal, and climbed back up to his room, using the restroom excuse to explain why he didn't come downstairs immediately when Diane screamed, thus giving him time to climb back into his room through the window. The main thing he lost when he had to move here because of his ambitious son was money, so ransoming Sal could have given him the equivalent of his fortune back.”
“Excellent reasoning, Ruth,” Rutherford said in a smooth malicious voice. “I did do it. When I said I was reading in my room, I was actually climbing down the vines below my window. I went around through the woods to the side Sal was at so I wouldn't be seen by Zoe and Diane. I captured Sal to get the ransom money to recreate my former fortune and success. And if I succeeded, I knew I would have all my former happiness and success back. That's the one thing I want more than anything. However, I see no reason why I should show you where the girl is. After all, I still haven't seen my money.”
“I will never give you that money,” the bartender shouted. Just then, there came a wailing from the woodshed. It was enough like the howling wind to be overlooked, but with so many people so alert and tense, everyone heard it. "To the woodshed!" was the cry, and everyone raced towards the woodshed. The bartender unlocked it with the key at his belt. Sal ran towards him, crying "Grandpa! Oh, Grandpa," and the old bartender hugged his granddaughter tightly. Then, Diane remembered something. "Rutherford is still in the inn!" she cried. Everyone rushed to the inn, only to find him gone, and a stray dollar bill drifting in the wind out the front door.
“He found her inheritance!" the bartender shouted. "After him!" They all chased him down, helped by the trail off fallen dollar bills and the fact that he was slowed down by his money bag. They caught up with him when he stumbled, and he dropped the bag of money. They got it, though Rutherford got away. Everyone walked back to the inn slowly. The bartender was having a happy reunion with his granddaughter, the mystery was solved, and the traveler with the broken down car was given a free room for the night by the bartender, for starting the solution of the mystery that took Sal.