I’m holding off on publishing any of Aunt Jenny on the web until I’m a little more settled in my search for a publisher, editor or agent. Still, I want to give potential readers an idea of where the story is going and what it’s like, so I’ll be publishing various pieces about the world, the story, the characters and their history.
As I’ve mentioned, Aunt Jenny and the Delayed Quest is the story of a retired librarian and teacher who finds herself caught up in an heroic journey to a land of adventure on a quest that has always been her destiny. Such quests not only transform the lives of those who set out upon them, but of those they leave behind. Here’s a glimpse at our tale from that perspective.
Lieutenant Miller of the Winston Police arrived at Windgate Cottage to find Gus Statler, the campus security officer for the Winston Academy for Girls, waiting for him with a bespectacled blonde teenager, probably one of the school’s students.
“Okay, Gus, you’d better read me in. What’s up?” he asked, taking out his notepad.
“So, Lieutenant, you know about the missing student? Alexandra Levin? Well, sir, it looks like she’s not the only one missing. Ms. Jennifer Winston, the resident of the cottage here, appears to have vanished with her.”
“Yes, sir. That’s the best description we can come up with.”
“Miss Smith and I. She discovered the second disappearance and the evidence connecting the two.”
The Lieutenant turned to the girl, taking full note of her for the first time. She was, on the whole, rather nondescript—a school girl in the Winston Academy uniform, straw-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, eyeglasses that he could only assume were as unfashionable today as they would have been when he was a kid. “And you are?” he asked.
“Sandy… Sandra Ann Smith, sir. I’m a junior at the school, and kinda Aunt Jenny’s—Ms. Winston’s—IT person. I take care of her computers, network, phone and stuff, and I installed her doorbell.”
“Yes, sir. It’s a virtual doorbell. It rings on her phone and lets her answer the door from anywhere in the world. It has a camera and she can see who’s at the door on her phone.”
“I see, and this is important?”
“Maybe you should start at the beginning.”
“Okay. You know that Sasha—Alexandra Levin—went missing sometime on Tuesday, May Day, right?”
“Yes. I took the official missing person’s report myself, yesterday, from the headmistress.”
Winston, Massachusetts, is a small town, with a small police force, so Lt. Miller found himself wearing many hats. Today he was the closest thing they had to a detective, and yesterday he’d been doing morning desk duty.
“Well, she’s part of Aunt Jenny’s Friday Book Club, and I hadn’t seen her—Aunt Jenny—since Sasha disappeared. That’s not unusual, not seeing her for a couple of days. She retired about a year ago, and we still see her walking around campus, or for things like Book Club, but not every day. Anyway, I didn’t know if we were going to have Book Club, because of Sasha, and besides I promised I’d install a new backup disk in her NAS—so, I skipped out on study hall and walked here to see her.”
The lieutenant paused in his note taking and nodded for her to continue.
“Well, I got here and rang the bell and she didn’t answer—which is really odd ‘cuz like I said, it rings on her phone, and she can answer from just anywhere. I was kinda wondering if she was okay, and besides I had the disk to install, so I let myself in.”
“You have a key?”
“Oh, no sir, I used my phone. I have an app. It lets me manage her net and IoT devices. I can do most stuff from anywhere I have net access. But you can’t actually install a new disk without being there. Well, I could have added more cloud storage, but the idea was to expand the local storage. I use a 3, 2, 1 backup scheme….” She paused. “But you don’t care about that do you?”
“I don’t think so. Is it pertinent to the disappearances?”
“No, sir, just that I used the app to get in. And then later to check the video logs. But I’ll get to that. You want it all in order, right, sir?”
“So I went in. Nothing looked outta place. I saw a handbag and a book on the kitchen table and and some stuff on the table in the corridor, but I didn’t recognize them, not yet. I’ll get back to them. All in order. Anyway I took the disk back to her office. It’s down the hall, across from her bedroom. I was about to add the disk when it started bugging me about her not answering the doorbell. Maybe the system was down. So, I went and checked the video logs. They go back three days. Well, they’re backed up, so I can recover anything that was ever recorded, but without going to the backups, it’s just three. Right—you don’t need to know this, do you?”
“Again, I don’t think so. If we do, we can come back to this. What did you see?”
“Well, it started with Aunt Jenny leaving in the morning. On May Day. She had Rudy and Big Tom with her. Those are her dog and cat. They go on walks with her. She left at about nine thirty—9:27 AM, really. The next recording was an hour and a half later. It was the letter carrier, Pat, who had a package to deliver. Pat agreed to meet Aunt Jenny up the hill at Windy Hill Farm. That was Pat’s next stop, and near where Aunt Jenny was when she answered the door.”
“Over her phone? At about 11:00?”
“10:58, actually. The next recording is only five minutes later. Sasha shows up and knocks on the door. I only configured it to notify Aunt Jenny if the doorbell was rung, not for every time the camera detects motion. Maybe I should… Never mind. So, when no one answers, Sasha curls up in that chair over there. Aunt Jenny’s got really comfortable lawn furniture. We often have Book Club out here under the trees.”
The lieutenant took a moment to give the chair the once-over, then motioned for Sandy to continue.
“The next log is triggered by Sasha setting her book down, just before Aunt Jenny comes into the picture. Aunt Jenny’s carrying the package from Pat, and they all go into the house. There’s no cameras in the house—well, her iMac has a webcam, but I put a sticky over it. So, that’s the last recording with either of them in it. But after watching the videos, I realized that it was Sasha’s handbag and book on the table, The Oracle Glass, by…” Sandy sighed. “But you don’t need to know that.”
“Is that when you called Gus?”
“Almost.” Sandy paused and bit her lip. “I shoulda called him, or you, right away, but I poked around a little more. Well, I didn’t poke. I didn’t touch anything after that, but I did go check the stuff on the sewing table in the hallway and the things on the kitchen table. Aunt Jenny opened the package in the hall, and Sasha laid down her stuff in the kitchen, and then they disappeared. Then I called security. Should I have call the cops… the police instead?”
“Maybe, but one or the other was certainly the right thing to do,” Miller answered. “Is there anything more?”
“Nothing important. Well, maybe. There are a couple of pieces of paper along with the box. One of them looks like it was written in code. I wasn’t going to touch anything, so I’m not sure.”
“Okay, and you, Gus, what do you have to add?”
“Well, as you know from the Headmistress, Sasha—Miss Levin—wasn’t back by Lights Out on Tuesday, so we—the school—started looking into it Wednesday morning, but we couldn’t do a formal missing person’s report until yesterday, 48 hours after she was last seen. We were focused on Miss Levin, and no one took note of Ms. Winston’s absence until Miss Smith called me. That’s not too unusual. While she and her family are important to the school and the town, she is retired, and the Estate isn’t part of the school, even though the Trust owns them both.”
Miller nodded. “So, what did you find when you got here? Did you go in? Touch anything?”
“Yes and no. I went in. Like I said, the Trust owns the cottage, and I work security for the school and so the Trust, so it’s not trespassing, but it could be a crime scene, so I didn’t touch anything.”
“I wouldn’t recommend going in uninvited normally, but with one or two missing persons involved, I’ll buy your reasoning. I suspect the Chief would agree.”
“I did see enough to convince me that some of what’s in there might be evidence, so I called you. Legally, I can enter and give you permission to look around, but I don’t want to do anything on my own.”
“Good man. Shall we check it out then?”
“You’ll need to stay out here, Sandy—Miss Smith. Entering to do your IT thing can be assumed to be authorized, but now, while we investigate…”
“I understand, sir.” Sandy sat down in one of the lawn chairs and amused herself with her phone while the two men went into the cottage.
Gus guided the policeman through the house, pointing out the book and handbag that Sasha had been carrying in the video. Miller went through the bag and found Sasha’s wallet, ID, and money.
A hallway led from the kitchen to the back of the cottage. Part way down there was a small sewing table, and at the far end stood a full length mirror in an antique wooden stand.
On the table there sat a cardboard box, a bit of twine, and an outer brown paper wrapper addressed to Jennifer Winston, Windgate Cottage, Winston, Mass. Next to the box was an antique jewelry box, and two pieces of paper, one a full letter-size sheet, the other a small folded note.
“This tray fits so snugly into the case, that it might constitute a false bottom or hidden compartment,” observed Miller.
“And this folded letter would fit in nicely,” added Gus.
“No sign of any other contents.”
They unfolded and read the letter:
I owe you a tremendous apology, one I was too ashamed to make in life. This box, and what it contains should have been your inheritance all those years ago, when my Aunt Jenny, your great-aunt, died.
It seems so petty now, but I was always jealous of you, of how close you two Jennys were. That jealousy made me do a shameful thing. As Executor, I should have passed this on to you, but you were away at school, and at first I told myself I’d just hold it until you returned on break, but then, as time went by, somehow I decided to keep it for myself.
Joseph’s job took us out west, and I took it with me. I almost gave it to you when you married your young doctor, but ‘forgot’, or so I told myself, and left it behind. When your Doctor Tom took sick, and you were so good and selfless, caring for him, I could not bring myself to admit how petty I had been. The guilt only got worse with time, and so, coward that I am, I am sending it to you in my will. The package has been kept by the lawyers since shortly after the Towers fell, and they have instructions to find you, if you are no longer at Windgate when I die.
Aunt Mary, November 15, 2001
“Nope, I don’t think this was in the hidden compartment. It’s a cover letter for the whole thing,” said Miller.
“I agree. That means that either the little note was there or what was is gone along with whatever valuable inheritance the box contained.”
They opened the note and found that Sandy had been right. It consisted of just eight nonsense words, seven on one line and one more on a second line followed by the letter J.
“That’s a little short to be the secret contents.”
They continued to search the house and found nothing that looked out of place for the home of a widowed retiree, her two cats and a dog. The back door and all the windows were latched from the inside. Anyone who left would have had to go out the front door. They went back out to speak with Sandy Smith.
“So, can I get a copy of the videos from the doorbell?” asked the policeman.
“Me, too, if that’s okay, Lieutenant.”
“I was just downloading them to my phone so I could send them to you both. And I noticed something odd.”
“Yes, the last few videos are Pat delivering more mail, a policeman ringing the bell, and then us arriving.”
The men nodded.
“But between them and Aunt Jenny and Sasha going in there’s another one that I skipped earlier. There aren’t any people in it. These things get triggered by extraneous movements sometimes: a really heavy wind swaying the trees, birds and animals, passing cars. That sort of thing. I figured it was just one of those.”
“But it wasn’t?”
“No, what triggered it was the movement of shadows cast by some light inside. The lace curtains blur the shadows too much to know what they’re shadows of.”
“But they are odd somehow?” asked the lieutenant.
“Only in that they exist. I’ve never seen shadows there to trigger the camera before, and, well…” she pointed at the open cottage door, “there are no obvious lights to cast the shadows.”
All three stood quiet, looking through the door, across the kitchen and down the corridor to the mirror. Not a light or fixture to be seen.
“So I played it with the sound on. Here, listen. It’s a little muffled, but I enhanced it…”
“No!” cried a woman’s voice after a second, followed immediately by a thumping sound, as if someone stumbled or tripped, but no large crash of them completely falling down.
“What the Hell?!” came the voice of a young woman or teenager.
“Langui—” the older voice started and was cut off. Fifteen seconds of silence followed and then the clip ended.
“Do you recognize the voices?” asked Miller.
“Yes, sir. That was Aunt Jenny and Sasha.”
“And the door was closed?”
“I think so, sir, that rectangle of light has to be the window in the door, and the lace curtain over it. And shadows of someone moving inside.”
“And none of the subsequent videos show them leaving?”
“No, sir. They just vanished.”