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and red herrings and pairs

By Lori LamothePublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 10 min read
Photo by Daniel on Unsplash

Eleanor Vickers knew the slippers were a message and not the kind she was used to. They were stone gray in a classic style with rubber soles. The gift had appeared two days earlier, wrapped in a brown paper box in her cubby at the Warwick Public Library during Secret Santa week.

She hadn’t signed up for Secret Santa week but she initially took it as a sign of goodwill from a coworker. Still, the gift unsettled her.

If the slippers were disturbing, the puzzle was . . .downright odd. Like the first gift, it had appeared that morning in her cubby, wrapped in brown paper with her name written across the front. She didn’t recognize the handwriting but, to be fair, that fit with the Secret Santa vibe.

Gift #2 was as harmless as the first. Under the title “White Christmas” a lovely rendition of a holiday scene beckoned invitingly. At 1,000 pieces, the nearly all-white puzzle would certainly prove a challenge and Eleanor started on it as soon as she got home.

It lay partially finished before her on the kitchen table. She had assembled the border quickly but then the trouble began. The pieces in the center fit together—no problems there—but they didn’t match the cover painting. There was a house but it bore little resemblance to the one on the box. For one thing, the windows were larger and a cupola appeared to be missing.

Well, she thought as she poured herself a hefty glass of wine, it was probably a factory error. She took a long swig and went back to the puzzle, fitting the pieces together more quickly now.

It took her another three hours to finish. She put the final piece into place and sat there gazing at the result.

Her own house lay before her.

It wasn’t a photograph but an expertly rendered painting of the rambling Victorian she’d lived in for the past 21 years. The white brick chimney, the wraparound porch, the single candle in each window. There was no difference she could find, even after studying the puzzle for a solid 30 minutes. It was a perfect replica, right down to the wreath over the front door—which she had only bought a week ago.

What could it mean?

Eleanor looked at the puzzle, then at her empty wine glass. An idea struck her and she didn’t like it one bit.

She was. . .boring. The sort of woman people imagined shuffling from room to room in a bathrobe. Watering houseplants, straightening knickknacks, plugging away at jigsaw puzzles.

Of course people thought that. She was a librarian! She'd had no choice. And she had gotten used to her new life with its familiar rules, its well-worn routines. Her new name.

She didn’t like to be mocked though. That the gift-giver knew something of her past was out of the question. She had been careful—insanely careful—to the point that this was the result. She was a caricature of normalcy, a poster girl for the mundane.

That may be true but she was going to put a stop to the antics. The idea that the gifts were the work of more than one person, a group of mockers, flickered across her brain but she dismissed it. The methodology spoke of a loner, a person who operated stealthily and trusted no one.

Well, she would route them out. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t infiltrated before to uncover a villain.


“You’re cheerful today.” Candace Smith flashed her a toothy grin as she loaded the returns onto her book cart.

Eleanor smiled back as she deftly lifted her boss’s coffee mug off the check-in desk. She was careful to pick it up from the bottom so as not to smear any prints. Gloves would have been better, but that would be too obvious. “I’m on my way to break room,” she said breezily. “Let me get you a refill.”

Candace couldn’t hide her surprise. “Oh, wow, thanks.”

In 21 years, Eleanor had never gotten anyone a refill. Or gone on breaks, for that matter. She knew she was upending her persona but it couldn’t be helped. She had her kit in her purse and wanted to get everybody’s prints by the end of the day. The gift boxes had been wiped clean but there might be something on the puzzle she had missed.

Candace lumbered off behind the cart and Eleanor slipped the empty mug into a Baggie then stashed it in her purse. She was passing the FIC L-M-N aisle when she heard her name.

His back was to her and he was bent over his laptop. His long, greasy hair fell over his shoulders as he typed while talking quietly into a headphone.

Kyle Althusser. His hunched form mesmerized her.

“…said I couldn’t check anything out until I paid the full amount,” he was saying, “I mean, seriously?”

She edged closer and peered at his screen but couldn’t make out the words. She’d left her reading glasses on the desk. She had slipped.

A few elderly patrons stopped reading their newspapers. A pink-haired girl gave her a dirty look.

“. . . targets the underprivileged. . . stops people from educating themselves.”

The phrases ricocheted around her brain. There was no doubt who he meant. It was obvious Kyle had some type of vendetta against her. Which, she silently added, was wholly unjustified. He owed $785.37 in fines for an unreturned (aka stolen) copy of The Prisoner of Azkaban. Who was he to flout the system?

Clearly, Kyle was her Secret Santa friend (Not) and had undertaken an insidious psyop designed to break her. To throw the comfortable life she had built for herself in her face.

“You!” she roared. “Get up!”

He whirled around, recognized her. “Are you kidding me?”


He stood. His acne-covered face was a mix of fear and contempt. “You’re stalking me over library fines? I was, like, 10. I don’t even have a job. How am I—”

“Shut up.”

Before she could stop herself, she had him in a Hapkido wrist lock. “You think you’re a tough guy?" The words tumbled out of their own accord. “You think you’re a big man sending gifts to demoralize me so I’ll waive your fines?”

He struggled to free his wrist. Unsuccessfully. She hadn’t slipped that much.

“Incel loser.” He spat the words.

Rage boiled up within her. “You have no idea who you’re messing with.” She pulled him closer and said in a low voice. “I was in Peshawar with Bin Laden. One more gift and I’ll kill you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Sweat broke out across his upper lip.

She released his hand and shoved him away from her. “Get out,” she hissed, “and don’t ever come back.”

He grabbed his laptop and ran, nearly breaking the glass door in his mad dash to reach the street. Eleanor retrieved her purse and headed for the break room. No need to dust the mug now but she wanted to collect herself. No one moved as she passed. The pink-haired girl gave her the finger.

When she got back to the check-in desk, Candace was waiting for her. Eleanor braced herself. Of course she would be fired. Of course it would be quick.

“I need to talk to you.” Candace tried for a toothy grin and failed.

Eleanor followed her into the back room, the room where it had all started. She looked past Candace at her cubby. A box wrapped in brown paper stood inside. It hadn’t been there when she’d gone to the break room. Kyle couldn’t have put it there. And Candace had been in the stacks.

Maybe her past had caught up with her. After all these years, they had found her in spite of her impeccable opsec (not counting the Kyle incident). Maybe the first two gifts were red herrings to get her to lower her guard.

And the third—she could only imagine what was in the third box. A bomb. A poison envelope. Something that would put an end to the hiding. Forever.

“I don’t know how to say this,” Candace began. “I feel just awful.”

Eleanor fought the urge to grab the package and examine it. Instead she said in as controlled a voice as she could manage, “There’s nothing to feel awful about.”

Candace’s face went crimson. “After you, uh, went on break. . .it came to my attention that a certain, um, rumor was circulating. That you were, um, intimate with. . .a notorious person. In the past.”

From what Eleanor could tell, the package was taller than the others, a little thinner. Let the woman just fire her and be done with it. “Spit it out, Candy.”

Her boss inhaled deeply and pulled herself up to all her 5’2” inches. “Everyone’s saying you took a shower with Osama Bin Laden. You know, the terrorist.” she blurted. “None of us believe it, of course. It’s totally ridiculous. But I felt you had the right to know.”

Eleanor stared. Candace stared back. The ticking of the wall clock became audible.

“I need to go home.” Eleanor fitted the package snugly under her arm and grabbed her wool coat. She left her scarf and gloves behind.

“Of course.” Candace was nodding like a Bobblehead. “I understand. Take all the time you need.”


With a vicious swipe of her hand, Eleanor sent the puzzle flying onto the floor and set the box onto the kitchen table. The same block letters graced the top. She removed the wrapping and 0h-so-carefully lifted the lid.

A copper bird feeder glowed under the light of her Tiffany chandelier.

She fell back into a chair. Swiped at her eyes with her hand.

Not a bomb. Not poison or an encrypted zip-drive. Not even a pair of binoculars. She fumbled in her purse, past the fingerprint kit and Candace’s ziplocked mug, to pull out her cellphone.

She still knew the number after 21 years.

“You’re not supposed to call me on this line.” The gravelly voice sounded wary. “Please tell me you’re at least using a burner.”

Eleanor spoke in a rush before he had the chance to hang up. “Listen,” she said, “I want to go back into the field. Immediately.”

Silence. Then, “It’s been a long time.”

“Did you ever find anybody better than me?”

Another pause. “No.”

She seized upon the word. “Well, then!” she nearly shouted. “What’s the problem?”

He exhaled slowly, coughed. Still a smoker--no surprise there. “It’s not safe for you anymore. You know that.”

Please. I’ll go anywhere. Anywhere.

“All I’ve got is ----," he said grimly. "It’s abominably dangerous there right now.”

“Yes!” Eleanor punched the air in her neat, cozy kitchen. “I’ve still got all my old passports. Everything’s up to date. How soon can I leave?”

A final, excruciating pause, the longest of all.

“Actually,” he said. “I’ve already booked your flight.”

She heard the triumph in his voice. The lying, manipulative cad. After two decades, he knew her better than she knew herself. She should give him a piece of her mind for what he’d done but there was no time. Her flight left in four hours.

By the time he phoned back on a secure line, she had dragged her suitcase from the closet and was throwing clothes into it. She was about to snap it shut when the gray slippers caught her eye.

They were neatly lined up beside the bed, right where she’d left them that morning. Eleanor bent down and carried them over to the wastebasket.

Good riddance, she thought, but something stopped her as she was about to drop them in. She gave them a once-over and walked back to the suitcase. Gently, she laid them between the night-vision goggles and the bulletproof vest.

She was going to need them.

Short Story

About the Creator

Lori Lamothe

Poet, Writer, Mom. Owner of two rescue huskies. Former baker who writes on books, true crime, culture and fiction.

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