5-minute mysteries

By: Ken Weber, author of the Five-Minute Mysteries series (Firefly Books Ltd., 2003)

Author: Canadian Living


5-minute mysteries

By: Ken Weber, author of the Five-Minute Mysteries series (Firefly Books Ltd., 2003)

Entertain your family with these three five-minute mysteries excerpted from the Five-Minute Mysteries series by Ken Weber.

Read a story, then click the "Solve the mysteries" link at the bottom of the page for the mystery questions and solutions.

Why granny doesn't retire
Sometimes, at the end of a long day, Alice would agree that maybe her kids had a point, that maybe she should quit. Certainly she didn't need the money; Morty had left her with a portfolio that did a lot more than keep the wolf from the door. And she had to admit that all the traveling kept her away from the grandkids more than she liked.

Still, there were so many reasons to keep going. Like pride. She knew her children avoided telling their friends what she did — after all, how many seventy-two-year-olds make a living as a private eye? But the grandkids, they thought it was cool. She loved the look in their eyes when they showed off Granny Alice to their friends. And the truth is, every time she got close to the idea of packing it in, something would make her dig in her heels. Like that young snot at the attorney-general's department who wasn't going to renew her P.I. license because of her age. She'd put him in his place, because she knew the regulations said nothing about age limits.

Then there was the whole boredom thing. Alice had never been a back porch type to begin with. She couldn't sing, hated cruises, and sure wasn't going to be another blue-hair parked in front of the slots at Vegas. Morty always said she had a brown thumb, so gardening was out, and both bridge and golf she found dull. The action part was okay with those two, but for each minute of action, everybody spent another twenty prattling on about it.

All other reasons aside, however, the bottom line for Alice was that she was very good at what she did. And being a granny gave her an edge. Take the case she was working on right now, the missing lady from California. From the interview this morning with the Mackilroy woman, Alice knew she'd found her. Well, maybe not in flesh and blood, but it was obvious this Torrey Mackilroy knew something.

"You and Pauline Ortona were best friends in high school, weren't you?" That was Alice's opening gambit with Torrey Mackilroy after showing her P.I. license. Torrey had been slow to answer, but that was natural enough. In Alice's long experience, everybody was edgy in a circumstance like this. All Torrey did was nod and then look at the telephone on her desk as though it might rescue her. Alice had anticipated — correctly, as it turned out — that the phone wouldn't interrupt them. She'd cased the place before and concluded that Torrey was a not-very-busy insurance agent in a not-very-busy insurance office.

"Pauline Ortona hasn't been seen in a very long while," was Alice's next move. "Her aunt, the one she went to live with in California when her mother died ... she's convinced that Pauline's gone missing, but can't get the Santa Barbara police very interested, so that's where I come in. One thing I'm doing is canvassing all her friends, past and present, to find out where she might be. Naturally, you're high on my list."

Until then, Torrey Mackilroy hadn't said anything more than "yes," when asked her name. And all she had done in response to the "best friends in high school" question was nod. The nod gradually turned into a slow shaking back and forth when she was asked the whereabouts question.

"No idea," she said finally. "Sorry, none. The last time I saw or talked to Polly ... I guess it's got to be ... I don't know how many years now. Ever since we finished high school and she left Eugene to live in California. Her Mom died right after graduation, and ... yes, I guess there were a couple of phone calls the first year or two. One letter, maybe. But nothing since I got married and moved here to Jackson and that was fifteen years ago."

She raised her head, looked straight at Alice. "Sorry, I can't help you," she said. She offered a polite lips-but-not-the-eyes smile and shook her head again. Alice waited for more, but when the silence threatened to become awkward she put down her card with the usual "please call me if ..." request and left. It was almost lunchtime and, although the interview had got her adrenaline up, she decided to have a salad at a nice, quiet restaurant she'd seen a few streets over. It had big tables, so she could take the yearbook in with her.

The yearbook: now there was a coup! Anybody could have done the interview she just did with Torrey, but getting the yearbook? Imagine some big, burly, male private eye doing what she did yesterday: going into James Polk High in Eugene, Oregon, breezing through the security, and talking that suspicious librarian into letting her take out their one and only copy of a yearbook! Grannies can do that, Alice knew. The sweet old lady shtick hadn't failed her yet.

She opened the yearbook to the page that had led her to Torrey Mackilroy. She was Torrey Gallant then: "Better Known As: Tall T; Activities: Fashion Club, Student Council, Math Team; Favorite Saying: "You guys seen Polly?"; Usually Seen: Corner booth at Lubo's with Polly Ortona; Aim: Professional Designer; More Likely: Painting the booths at Lubo's."

Pauline Ortona's bio on the facing page showed a somewhat prettier girl. "Better Known As: Polly; Activities: Drama Club, Student Council, Cheerleader; Favorite Saying: "Hey, T, can I borrow your math notes?"; Usually Seen: Corner booth at Lubo's with Torrey Gallant; Aim: Actress; More Likely: Lubo's star waitress." There were a number of notes and scratches and graffiti in the book that Alice had ignored at first, but a second run through turned up a pair of neatly drawn intertwined leaves, under which was written "TG—PO Buds Forever."

Looking over a too-large Greek salad at the photos of the two girls, Alice reflected on the phone call she'd made after the library visit. There were six Gallants in the Eugene book. Not only did she score on the second call, but Torrey's mother had filled in the blanks without missing a beat: "Yes, Torrey's my daughter. Name's Mackilroy now. Lives over in Jackson with her husband. They've two lovely young girls." And then, after some mutual exchange about the joys of grandchildren, Mrs. Gallant had freely supplied the necessary phone number and address.

"Now there. Let a young male P.I. try doing that on the telephone!" Alice caught herself, realizing she'd spoken out loud. Tapping her fork, too. She'd done that kind of thing quite a bit lately. Her ruse with Mrs. Gallant — it had worked before — was to pose as a volunteer for the alumni committee. And why wouldn't a sweet old lady be doing something like that? Quite simply, there were some things that seventy-two-year-old grannies could do far better than other investigators. The Ortona case was proving that fact yet again. No, Alice thought to herself, there were just too many good reasons to stay on the job. "Now," she was speaking out loud again, loud enough to turn a few nearby heads in the restaurant, "now to get to work on Torrey and find out when she really last talked to Polly."

Excerpted from Five-Minute Mysteries #2 by Ken Weber. (Copyright 1996, 2003 K.J. Weber Limited. $14.95) Published in Canada by Firefly Books Ltd. Reprinted with permission. Click here to find out how you could win all three books!)

Safety inspection
If my mother is right and it's true that bad things always come in threes, then my day was down the tubes by midmorning already. To start with, I got to work late. Not my fault, but according to Mom the three bad things are never your fault; they just happen to you. Anyway, I got stuck in traffic on the Lion's Gate Bridge.

Arriving late meant that all the other inspectors had picked their assignments by the time I got in, so I got stuck with Ace Bagshaw. We have a new supervisor at the inspection branch, and he has this theory that first-come, first-pick will get the staff in early. It works, too. There's no way anybody would choose a Bagshaw construction site, yet we all knew someone would have to go to one today because of the carpenter who died there yesterday afternoon.

Let me tell you a bit about Ace. Of all the contractors the Workplace Safety Board deals with, Horace “Ace&" Bagshaw is the only one who can make the entire inspection branch gag in unison. We're not exactly popular on a lot of construction sites, but he really hates the WSB. With Ace, putting one over on us – or on the works department or the hydro people, any government department — is like a duty! Doesn't help, either, that he's got this fat, red face with little piggy eyes and a gut you could park a car in. Anyway, that's Ace, so you can see why getting him on my duty sheet was the second bad thing of my day.

I got to the site at 10:05 that morning, just in time to be interrupted by the catering truck — which actually turned out to be a bit of a break. One thing you can be sure of at a construction job like this — it's a complete redo of a hundred-year-old house, three stories — is that a coffee wagon will draw in the entire work force. So from my car I got to eyeball the whole group. Five of them, including Ace. Should have been six, but yesterday afternoon a carpenter had pitched off a narrow ledge that ran along the front of the third story. He died in the ambulance.

According to my supervisor's phone interview with Ace last night, a proper safety rail was in place around the ledge, and, since nobody had seen the man fall, nobody really knew what happened. I could see the rail from my car. It appeared to be the right height. Just a single two-by-four about waist high, but that's all the safety code calls for. It was braced properly. Double-nailed, too: I could see the nail heads gleaming back at me in the sunlight.

What Ace had said to the supervisor was right, though. To make my measurements I'd have to go up through the inside of the house, and then crawl out one of the third-floor windows onto the ledge, just like the carpenter must have. I got out of my car before coffee break ended. Might as well go present myself to Ace, I thought, and get the third bad thing over with. He didn't disappoint. "Well, lookee here! Figgered one a' you people'd show up by now,&" he said before I had even opened my mouth. "What does a little girl like you know about construction? Yuh don't look old enough to tell a hammer from a pinch bar.&"

I forgot to mention that Ace doesn't like women, but that's probably no surprise. In fact nothing he said was unexpected, but I must have been a bit tense, because I almost blew it right at the start. "And where's your hard hat?" he bellowed. "This is a construction site! Don't yuh know any better?"

A really dumb move, but fortunately I still had my car door open, so I could swing around to get my hat in a manner that looked liked I always did it that way. Or so I hoped, but the smirks suggested I didn't quite carry it off. Ace, meanwhile, seemed to have accepted the inevitable.

"C'mon, let's get this over with," he said, running his hands up and down on either side of his enormous stomach. "I'll show yuh the ladders inside, and yuh can crawl up there on your own. See whatever yuh want. We're goin' back to work."

In my wildest dreams I wouldn't have expected Ace to climb the ladders with me, but it was reassuring to know I could go up without him.

"This job's been nothing but delay and delay." I noticed that he didn't look at me when he talked. "Sully — he's the guy that di — ... fell? He put the rail up there hisself four weeks ago and two days work — two days — that's all we get in up there — on the whole job! — before that cursed strike. A month my equipment sits here and nobody works! Confounded unions! Then all that rain we had. Thank God that's over. And now Sully ... fifteen years he's worked for me!"

Ace continued to mumble on about delays and the continuing problems of contractors as he walked away. I was glad to be free of him. Mounting the ladder, it occurred to me that I'd have to talk over the "bad things in threes" idea with Mom. I guess forgetting my hard hat was the third one, but I wonder if three things really count when you get one really good one in the middle. You see, even before I climbed the ladder, I knew I'd uncovered a huge safety violatio-n. Whether poor Sully died because of his own carelessness or because of Ace's probably won't come out till the inquest, but I know there was no rail there when he fell.

Excerpted from Five-Minute Mysteries #2 by Ken Weber. (Copyright 1996, 2003 K.J. Weber Limited. $14.95) Published in Canada by Firefly Books Ltd. Reprinted with permission. Click here to find out how you could win all three books!)

The worst kind of phone call
"'Mom, there's been an accident.' That's what she said." Laura Pascal was speaking to Karen Tarata but kept her eyes fixed on the road as they sped along Milldown Parkway. It was 1:00 a.m.

"So when she said she was all right, it didn't register at all." Laura continued. "Not until she told me the third time. You'd think she'd have the sense to start a midnight phone call with 'I'm OK' and then tell me. Look at me! I'm still shaking!"

"You sure you don't want me to drive?" Karen asked.

Laura shook her head.

Karen stared out the passenger window for a moment before sayin-g, "At least she called you. If you hadn't come over to tell me, that call from the police would have been my first inkling. Come to think of it, that's just how the policeman started too ... 'Mrs. Tarata, there's been an accident involving your daughter.' And, you know, even though you'd already told me no one was hurt, I could feel ice pour into my stomach when he spoke."

The drive continued in silence, both women reflecting on the accident and on their relationships with their teenage daughters. Laura Pascal was tense, anxious. She held the steering wheel firmly with both hands and continued to focus completely on the space of light the headlights of her car opened before them. Karen Tarata was equally upset, but her nature was more secretive and her body language more contained.

Laura was the first to break the silence. "The car, apparently, is a write-off." It was the first time either of the two women had mentioned the vehicle. "It ... it ..." Her reluctance to deal with the details was more a factor of her own fears than worry that she might upset Karen. "It rolled twice after going through the guard rail so they must have been going pretty fast. Thank God for seat belts."

"It was the Maleski girl? Cara? Her parents' car, right?" Karen spoke without looking away from the passenger window. "I don't know whether it's the accident that's making me say this, but I've never been entirely sure about her."

Laura nodded at the road. "Going to the dance at Milldown High was her idea, but to be honest, Karen, I don't think our girls needed much persuading. You know ..." For only a second, she broke her driving concentration and looked sideways at her passenger. Laura wasn't sure whether to continue with her thought. The two women were neighbors, not really friends, but had been drawn together more than once in the past because their daughters "hung out."

"No matter how I try," she carried on, "I can't understand their social pattern, these girls. My Allie, she's seventeen, and, you know, the grad dance last month was the first time she went on an actual date. You know, where the boy actually knocks on the door. Comes to pick her up. And then brings her home again!"

There was another silence, then, still looking out the side window, Karen said, "Liberation." There was another pause. "It's the first stage in liberation. The first thing you do when you're set free is act like your oppressors." Laura turned away from the road again, this time with new interest. Here was a facet of her neighbor that she'd never encountered.

"And because males cluster in groups and take on a group personality, that's what girls do now, too. From what you told me, that's probably what caused this whole thing tonight. Your Allie and that Cara, and Jenine – who was the fourth one? The Lotten girl from one street over? — the spat with that group of boys in the parking lot would never have turned into an incident if they weren't acting as a group. Individuals back down, walk away. Groups fight. Imagine! Girls being asked to leave a dance. There's liberation for you."

Just ahead, the lights of Milldown were visible on the horizon. Laura slowed to obey the new speed limit.

"But Allie told me they left without a fuss," she pointed out. "It was when they were on their way back home — they were about halfway she said — that they saw headlights coming up behind them and recognized the boys' car. So — maybe it was Cara's first instinct; who's got judgment at that age? — she speeded up to get away and ... well ... you know the rest."

Karen not only turned away from the passenger window, she shifted completely, so that her body was facing Laura. "And you bought that story?" she said.

Excerpted from Five-Minute Mysteries #3 by Ken Weber. (Copyright 1996, 2003 K.J. Weber Limited. $14.95) Published in Canada by Firefly Books Ltd. Reprinted with permission. Click here to find out how you could win all three books!)

Why granny doesn't retire

Question: Why is Alice convinced that Torrey Mackilroy has talked to Pauline Ortona recently?

Solution: Torrey and Pauline were very close friends in high school, close enough to warrant quite an amount of comment in the yearbook biographies. Alice is struck by the fact that despite such an intense friendship, Torrey is not the least bit curious when approached by a private investigator. She doesn't ask what has gone wrong, why Polly is missing, how she is, what she'd done, etc. — all natural questions one might expect. The only reason for that, Alice surmises, is that Torrey already knows the answers.

Safety inspection

Question: How does the WSB inspector know this?

Solution: When the WSB inspector sat in her car observing the construction site — particularly the two-by-four safety rail Sully had allegedly put up around the third-floor ledge — she noted that the nail heads used to install the rail were gleaming back at her in the sunlight. If the railing had been put up four weeks before, and was untouched (except by rain) because of the strike, even galvanized nail heads would not be gleaming by this time. They would be rusted or at least oxidized. The inspector quite rightly suspects that this is a very recent installation, probably one that took place after Sully's death.

The worst kind of phone call

Question: What in Allie's story does Karen Tarata not believe?

Solution: Allie told her mother that the girls recognized the boys' car when they saw headlights coming up behind them. In the dark, it's not possible to identify a car when its headlights are shining toward you.

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5-minute mysteries