“The truth,” Ben sang, his baritone quavering against the eighth notes. “I only want the truth, it’s all I want from you, it’s true, it’s doable if you are fully present, it’s pleasant, it’s—”
Larkin set down her glass of spiced wine. She wrote Is truth pleasant? on a yellow legal pad. Ben, at the end of both his breath and his tether, watched her.
“Is something wrong?” he asked. “I know it’s pitchy.”
“It’s off-pitchy,” Ed said, from his seat at the piano. “Pun intended.”
“Drink,” Ben said, picking up his glass of water. He was forgoing wine, wassail, and nog until the rehearsal, workshop, or whatever-it-was when Ed and Larkin met with Ben and Mitchell to go over the newest pages of Ben’s opera-in-progress, was over.
Larkin sipped her wine, which tasted of ginger and cloves. Mitchell, from his seat by the fireplace, raised a tiny crystal glass of single-malt scotch. Ed, whose intent towards wordplay had prompted Ben to invent the drinking game, had tea. The four of them—Ed, wearing a Fair Isle sweater that matched the violet in his Black skin; Larkin, wearing a worn-out hoodie that was the same color as her long, dark hair; Ben, wearing floppy plaid slippers and a thermal shirt with Naughty printed on the front in red sequins; Mitchell, who had zipped the majority of the Nice shirt behind a sleek fleece pullover—had been working together for a little over a month. Their games had gotten better. Ben’s opera hadn’t.
“What do you think, love?” Ben directed this question towards Mitchell—who deflected, as he always did, with “I think you’re doing very well.”
“So why am I off pitch?” Ben asked. Larkin could have answered him; her legal pad was already filled with notes like where is the melody and I have never heard these intervals before and I’m not sure anyone has. But whenever any of them hinted to Ben that his opera might lack a certain musicality, he reminded them that he wasn’t writing a musical.
So Larkin and Ed sat, silently, sending glances to each other like flares, until Ben said “This is a real question, not a rhetorical one.”
“It could be that you just haven’t learned it yet,” said Mitchell, from his corner. He was halfway through his scotch, and this was the closest he’d get to giving Ben any actual criticism. The two of them were about to celebrate their fifth anniversary.
“How could I not have learned it?” This time Ben’s question was a retort. “I wrote it.”
Larkin and Ed were about to celebrate five weeks of dating, give or take—and Ed, after another rapid passing of glances, took the responsibility of responding. “The human voice,” he said, “the human brain, really, works on a system of heuristics. We fill in the patterns we expect to find. When I hear you sing this melodic line, I hear your voice automatically working to create consonant intervals instead of some of the dissonances you’ve written.”
“It’s not a melodic line,” Ben said. “That is the whole point. The dissonances are written with intent.”
“I know,” Ed said, carefully, “but—”
He looked at Larkin. She looked at her legal pad. Then she looked at Ben and told him the unpleasant truth.
“It sounds like your brain is trying to rewrite the music,” Larkin said. “Maybe towards what it should be.”
“There is no should in creativity,” Ben said. “Sondheim didn’t should.”
Larkin looked towards Mitchell, who raised his glass. The two of them had joked, after one of the previous rehearsals, whether they should drink not only every time Ed made a pun, but also every time Ben referenced Stephen Sondheim. They hadn’t mentioned this to Ben, of course. Larkin hadn’t even told Ed, but she saw him sip carefully from his mug of peppermint tea and suspected he had figured it out on his own.
“Why don’t we take a break?” Mitchell asked. He took the stage manager role, when the four of them gathered in Ben and Mitchell’s mansion to listen to Ben sing his way through the opera. Sometimes Ed sang, when the part called for a tenor. Larkin had tried singing alto, the first time they gathered—and after commenting that she had never seen so many notes packed into a single measure, was quickly promoted to director.
Which was fine by her. She liked directing. Larkin had always been good at helping people solve problems. It was one of the reasons why she had decided to become a private detective. The other reason, of course, was that detective work paid better. Only the best theater directors were able to earn more than the average private detective, after all—and Larkin was pretty sure she could do at least an average job of solving mysteries.
“I mean,” Larkin told Mitchell, the two of them standing on either side of a granite-topped kitchen island, “I’d like to be the best private detective in Pratincola, Iowa someday.”
“Good for you,” Mitchell said, slicing a wedge off the kind of cheese that had a rind on the outside and veins on the inside. He offered the wedge to Larkin, along with a fresh glass of fragrant wine from the copper kettle kept simmering on the stove. “Because there’s something I need you to solve.”
“A murder?” Larkin might not have responded so impulsively if she had eaten the cheese before sipping the wine—her third glass, but that was only because Ben had mentioned Sondheim five times that afternoon.
Mitchell slid a sleeve of water crackers onto the cutting board next to the cheese. Then he opened a container of imported dates. “No,” he said, taking out a two-pronged fork that was slightly bigger than his index finger. Larkin would have used a regular fork, or maybe one of those toothpicks with the bit of plastic on the end if it were a special occasion. “Just a mystery.”
“Okay,” Larkin said, trying not to sound disappointed. “Probably better for everyone that way. Fewer dead bodies.” She really shouldn’t drink any more wine until she ate at least two more wedges of cheese.
“No bodies, per se,” Mitchell said, “but Ben has informed me that he has already given me plenty of clues about what he wants for Christmas.” He passed Larkin a fork-pronged date. “And if I don’t figure it out, our relationship is effectively dead.”
He said the last part in Ben’s voice, or at least Ben’s inflections—Mitchell would have made a decent actor, if he hadn’t decided to make an indecent amount of money in Cedar Rapids business development—and Larkin accepted both the appetizer and the assignment. “All right,” she said, “so what were the clues?”
Mitchell sighed. He was older than Ben, passing off his former hairline as a high forehead, smoothing his worn knuckles with what Larkin assumed was a very expensive hand cream. “If I had any idea what the clues were, I might be able to solve the mystery myself.”
“So that’s why you’re hiring me,” Larkin said.
The corner of Mitchell’s mouth quirked, turning him from older man to silver fox. “I’m asking you,” he said. “As a friend.”
Larkin, who had lived in Pratincola for just over four months, needed friends as much as she needed money. “All right,” she said, raising her glass of Christmas-flavored wine. “Larkin Day is on the case.”
The lights flickered. “Is your house, like, programmed to do that?” Ben and Mitchell’s home did a lot of things, many of which continued to surprise her. The floors were heated, for example. So were the toilets.
“No,” Mitchell said. “I was expecting weather, but not until later this evening.” Then he said—not to Larkin, but to the kitchen in general—“Immediate forecast.”
“The next hour is likely to include freezing rain with winds as high as 29 miles per hour.” his kitchen responded, in a voice that suggested that one of his appliances had trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Stay indoors. Large, dangerous hailstones may make driving difficult.”
The lights flickered again. “You’ve gotten used to Iowa weather, I assume?” Mitchell asked.
Larkin hadn’t—but if she was going to be a Pratincolan, she needed to start acting like one. “It’s just another storm,” she said. “It’s not like we’re going to be stuck in your gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere with no power and no phones and, like, the bridge going out.”
“The bridge won’t go out,” Mitchell said. “But it freezes before the road does.”
“Ben says we might need to spend the night,” Ed said, when Larkin returned to the music room. He looked like he liked the idea. Larkin couldn’t tell if it was because Ed was looking forward to spending the night with her, or whether he was looking forward to spending the night in a house with heated floors and talking appliances and a canister-shaped device that could travel from room to room at will. They could call the robot, if that was the appropriate thing to call it, and it would orient itself towards the sound of their voices. Then it would beep and chirp and bring them snacks.
It could bring them anything, really. Just because Ben and Mitchell had filled its head with chocolate squares and pretzel sticks didn’t mean there wasn’t room to cram anything else into its interior. If Larkin were going to leave clues for someone to find, she would start there.
“Artie,” she called out. A confident chirp came from another part of the house, and Larkin responded to the unspoken question. “Music room.”
“How does it hear you?” Ed asked. “Is the entire house wired? What does that even mean? I feel like I just said that because I heard it in a movie somewhere.”
“This whole house is like a movie,” Larkin said. “A mysterious mansion, a threatening storm, a series of clues that have to be uncovered before someone gets murdered.”
“The only thing getting murdered in this mansion is tonality,” Ed quipped, as the snack canister rolled its way into the room. Larkin watched its sensor flick first towards Ed, then towards her.
“It’s me, Artie,” she said. “I want to see if Ben put anything in your head.”
“Why would I put anything in Artie’s head?” It was Ben, back in the room, with his enormous water bottle and his even more enormous opera score.
Larkin pressed the button that opened Artie’s cranium. “Because Mitchell says you’ve been leaving him clues.” There was nothing inside Artie except the kind of snacks that were only sold at grocery stores named after fictional explorers.
“About what you want for Christmas.”
“Oh,” Ben said, smiling with understanding. “Right.” He reached into Artie and pulled out a single piece of black licorice. “And did Mitchell ask you to figure out what those clues were?”
“Yes,” Larkin said, smiling right back.
“You know,” Ed said, “you could just tell him what you wanted—”
“No, no, no!” Ben said, popping the licorice into his mouth and sucking the residue off his fingers. “Then it wouldn’t be any fun. Not when I know my husband is so clueless—”
He paused, glancing meaningfully at Ed.
“Pun intended?” Ed asked.
Ben uncorked his water bottle. “Well, we know somebody’s paying attention,” he said, as he and Larkin drank. “Not Mitchell, though. He had to hire a detective.”
“I’m not getting paid,” Larkin said. “Mitchell was very clear about that.”
“It may be the only thing he’s been clear about all afternoon,” Ben said, and this time his voice flickered along with the lights. Something was troubling him. Something true. Something unpleasant. Something dark, and—Larkin saw it in Ben’s face, right before the lights went out—effectively deadly.
“You should ask him,” Larkin said, keeping her voice light, as she and Ed sat together on the piano bench while Mitchell and Ben rustled up flashlights and candles. The house had emergency bulbs built in, of course, safely illuminating the walls and corners. Their phones had flashlights built in as well, if it came to it—but Mitchell was a Boomer and Ben was a romantic, and so they had each gone off in search of their preferred lighting source. Larkin and Ed had remained, Larkin scooching close enough to Ed for their arms to brush against each other every time one of them breathed.
“Ask him what?”
“What the clues were.” Larkin took a cookie-butter-flavored cookie out of Artie’s head, which could not close until both the power and the Wi-Fi came back on. Mitchell had suggested they eat anything inside Artie that might spoil. Ben had reminded Mitchell that they could always transfer everything from Artie’s head to the kitchen refrigerator, which had backup power. Mitchell had reminded Ben that they would have to carry each individual item by hand, since Artie’s wheels were no longer functional. Larkin had watched the two of them argue with each other, and wondered how much of it played into the game they were playing. She wondered how much of the game was serious, and whether Ben’s game was more serious than any of them suspected.
“You think he’ll tell me?” Ed, who was better about following directions than Larkin was, had selected the sliced prosciutto.
“He likes you,” Larkin said. “Everybody likes you.”
This was true. It had become even more true in the past two months, after Larkin had solved a murder and Ed had saved the day. Now Larkin was hoping Ed could help her save this one—and, if the two of them got lucky, they could spend the night sleeping side-by-side in one of Ben and Mitchell’s guest bedrooms.
Not that her relationship with Ed was purely physical, of course. It had barely been physical, up to that point. They had kissed, like, once. Twice, if Larkin counted the kiss she had given Ed right after she had turned a murderer—her first murderer—into police custody. But Larkin never counted that kiss. It had been spontaneous. For a kiss to mean anything, it had to be planned in advance.
So Larkin stared soulfully into Ed’s eyes—the first step in the plan, after the preliminary steps of unzipping her hoodie and unponytailing her hair—until Ed started laughing. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
Ed wasn’t able to get to his part of the plan until they had gotten through another hour of opera workshop. Ben sang so fervently that the candles went out; Larkin finished off the entire package of cookies. Mitchell sat in his leather armchair, interspersing continuous comments on how good Ben’s opera was (it wasn’t) with occasional glances at the window to see if it was still hailing (it was).
“You’re going to have to stay here until morning, I’m afraid,” he said.
Larkin was in no way afraid of this. She gave Ed her most seductive smile, fluttering her eyelashes flirtatiously and lowering the zipper on her hoodie another few inches. Ed laughed, again. She liked it when he laughed—the way it relaxed his face while simultaneously crinkling it up—but it didn’t seem like the kind of step that would lead towards the kind of kiss she wanted. Maybe they’d get to that after Ed got the clues out of Ben.
But Ed reported, after the rehearsal had ended and he had followed Ben into the basement to get more candles, that Ben was unwilling to cooperate. “I’m on to you, Ed Jackson,” Ben had said, the two of them using one of Mitchell’s flashlights to navigate the darkness. “You’re just trying to get me to tell you what I told Mitchell so you can tell Larkin.”
“Which means we don’t have any new clues,” Ed said, tilting his head close enough to Larkin’s for them to speak sotto voce.
“Yes, we do,” Larkin whispered back. “We know that the clues weren’t written down. Ben told them to Mitchell.”
“So we can stop looking inside robot heads,” Ed said, his voice tickling the inside of Larkin’s ear.
“Yes,” Larkin said. “But we might want to ask the robots a few questions.”
The first question was directed towards Mitchell. “Does your house, like, record everything?”
“What do you mean?” Mitchell was chopping scallions. Larkin was helping, in the sense that she had taken a scallion out of its produce bag and handed it to Mitchell. The rest of her senses had been handed over to the mystery.
“I mean,” Larkin said, “your kitchen knows when you ask it for a weather update. That must mean it keeps track of what you say.”
“Ah,” Mitchell said, scooping up the scallions and scattering them over a hot skillet. He had lit the gas stove with a long wooden match, and was now using it to prepare supper. “Yes, our conversation is being recorded,” he said, mixing the scallions into the garlic-butter mixture that had just started to brown, “or it would be, if the Wi-Fi was currently working.”
“So we could access those recordings somewhere,” Larkin said, “and find the clues Ben gave you.”
Mitchell turned down the burner and turned his attention towards the palm-sized slabs of beef that Larkin already knew must have cost more than her shoes. “Not necessarily. Smart home devices may record everything, but that’s only so they can process the data for key commands.”
“Like the weather command,” Larkin said.
“Exactly,” Mitchell said. He put the beef on the skillet with his bare hands. Then he washed his hands carefully, with soap. “Any data that does not contain a key command gets discarded.”
“Which means the data with key commands gets saved,” Larkin said. She handed Mitchell a dishtowel. “Why?”
“So they can analyze it,” Mitchell said. “How quickly the command was observed, how long it took for the device to respond, how the device handles the same commands spoken by different voices. Whether the device responds to an item that isn’t a key command, or whether the device misses a command.”
“How would the device know if it missed a command?”
“You say missed command,” Mitchell said, as if that explained everything. “Then it checks what was just recorded for what might have been missed.”
“Aha!” Larkin said, just like a real detective. “Then it does keep the old recordings!”
“Not forever,” Mitchell said.
“Nothing is forever,” Ben said, entering the kitchen as if he had been waiting for an opening. “Recordings get erased. Relationships end. People lie and then they die.” He picked up the two-pronged fork and stabbed it into a piece of simmering garlic.
“Ben,” Mitchell said, “that’s hot.”
“I don’t care,” Ben said. “I’ll burn my mouth. It’s not like I’m going to be using it to kiss you any time soon.” He turned to Larkin. “Did you know that my husband asked a detective to figure out what I asked him to get me for Christmas?” He waved the fork around, circling dangerously close to Mitchell’s cheek and Larkin’s décolletage, before stabbing it into the cutting board. “Oh, wait, you did! Because you’re the detective.”
He stalked off. Larkin zipped her hoodie all the way up to her neck.
“Well,” Mitchell said, “someone’s in a mood.”
“It’s the holidays,” Larkin said, even though she was pretty sure it wasn’t. “Everybody gets stressed out around the holidays.”
“I just wish I knew what he wanted me to get him, so I could go buy it and we could stop arguing over it,” Mitchell said. “Last year he wanted that snack robot, and even though we already had a mini-bar in the lounge and a mini-fridge in the billiard room I went ahead and bought it for him.”
“You have a billiard room?”
“Of course.” Mitchell pressed the flat of his thumb carefully against the top of each beef medallion.“I mean, it’s really a game room.” He flipped them over and began drizzling butter-garlic-scallion sauce over the cooked sides. “With a pool table.”
“And it’s not, like, connected to the lounge by a secret passage or anything, right?”
“Of course not,” Mitchell said. “Any self-respecting engineer puts his secret passage in the library.”
The next step was, of course, to meet Ed in the secret passage. This step had to wait until after supper, during which Ben sloshed his way through all of the alcohol he had refused to consume all afternoon—Larkin wondered why Mitchell appeared unconcerned, until she realized that Ben was much more interested in using his glass to gesture dramatically than he was in drinking from it—and Ed tried to save the day with questions and quips. The power came back on shortly after they sat down, increasing the electricity between the husbands. Ben, shooting sparks; Mitchell, fraying.
“I wish you’d just tell me what I’ve done wrong,” Mitchell finally said, when he stood to clear their plates. It wasn’t meant for Larkin and Ed to hear, so they tried not to look as if they were trying to listen.
“That’s the problem,” Ben said. “You don’t even know what it is.”
He sat, one slippered foot on the edge of the burgundy-and-gold upholstered chair, and took out his phone. “I’m going to check my messages,” he said, as Ed and Larkin helped Mitchell with the dishes.
“You don’t need to do that,” Mitchell said, as Ed looked for a place to put his empty water glass. “The two of you are our guests, although I’m afraid we’re not being very good hosts. Is there anything I can do to distract you from what you just saw?”
Larkin asked herself what Mitchell wanted. She couldn’t give him the solution to his mystery, but she could give him the opportunity to show off. “We want to see the secret passage,” she said.
“All right,” Mitchell said. “I’ll take you to the library.”
The secret passage, as Mitchell explained, was meant to be found. It was a bookcase door that Larkin opened by pulling on a faux book titled The History of Secret Passages.
“There it is,” Mitchell said, ushering them both inside. “Feel free to look around. The exit door leads to the lounge, but you won’t be able to open it because it’s currently blocked by a Christmas tree.”
He closed the entrance door behind him, leaving Larkin and Ed bookended by darkness.
“I feel like we should be helping with the dishes,” Ed said—whispered, really, even though the passage wasn’t secret enough for them to need to be quiet. “Mitchell has been feeding us all day.”
“Yeah, I know,” Larkin whispered back. Her plan to spend a romantic night with Ed had not accounted for cookies and dates and cheese and wine and olives and grapes and nuts and the best steak she had ever eaten and steamed asparagus and pan-fried sweet potatoes and a slice of fruitcake soaked in brandy and a tiny cup of espresso. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted Ed to see her with her pants off, at this point—but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep her pants on. “We’ll help by solving the mystery,” she said, to take her mind off the unpleasant truth of how much she had eaten.
They walked slowly down the passage. It was hard to tell where they were going; Larkin tried to move the mansion around in her head so she could get a sense of where they were. Then they stopped—Larkin placing a warning hand on Ed’s shoulder—because they could hear Ben’s voice.
“Yeah,” Ben said. “Yeah. He says I’m being a baby.”
“We must be outside the dining room,” Larkin whispered.
“He didn’t really say that.” This was a different voice, coming out of Ben’s phone’s speaker.
“That’s Shawnta,” Ed whispered. Shawnta, who worked at the Cedar Rapids Public Library and sang occasional solos with the Pratincola Concert Choir, was one of Ben’s best friends.
“Well, he as good as said it,” Ben said. “You know how he looks, sometimes. Like I’m the youngest, neediest man in the world.”
“Does the shoe fit?”
“I’m not wearing shoes,” Ben said. “Only these old worn-out slippers. I want Mitchell to get me a pair of those heated slippers, you know, the kind that you plug into the wall every night, for Christmas.”
Larkin looked at Ed. “Is that it?” she whispered. “Heated slippers?”
“Of course,” Ben continued, “I can’t ask him for heated slippers until he figures out what I really want.”
“What do you really want?” Shawnta asked.
Ben laughed. It was not a nice laugh. “I can’t tell you! The walls have ears.”
“Right,” Shawnta said. “Your entire house is, like, wired for eavesdropping.”
“Plus,” Ben continued, “Mitchell has Larkin on detective duty, like he thinks I’m going to murder him if he doesn’t get it right or something.”
“Like I’d ever say that out loud.”
That gave Larkin an idea.
“Do you have your phone?” she whispered, to Ed. “Can you text Shawnta?”
She would have done it herself, except Shawnta wasn’t one of her contacts. Instead, she dictated:
Larkin and I are in Ben and Mitchell’s secret passage.
Please ask Ben to text you what he wants Mitchell to give him for Christmas.
Ed had added the please.
Then please let us know what he tells you.
She watched Ed as he sent one more text:
It’s no fun watching Ben and Mitchell fight. Trust me.
She waited. Then she heard Ben’s phone chime with a new notification.
“Ooh,” Ben said. “Shawnta, you delicious maven of information management. Sure, I’ll text you.”
They waited, again. Then Ed’s phone lit up—and chimed twice.
He’s going to do it
Hold for more info
“Excuse me,” Ben said. They heard him stand up. “Is someone texting in the secret passage?”
“Why is your phone set to sound?” Larkin whispered.
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Ed whispered back.
Larkin, whose phone was nearly always set to silent, hadn’t considered what might happen if Ben realized that Shawnta was acting on their behalf—but it happened very, very quickly.
“Did Ed and Larkin ask you to solve their mystery for them?” Ben said, loud enough for both the secret passage and the speakerphone. He was moving, his slippered feet slapping against the dining room floor, his voice carrying throughout the house.
“I’m sorry,” Shawnta said, her voice crackling as Ben traveled. “Ed said he hated seeing you and Mitchell fight.”
“We’re not fighting,” Ben said. “We are deciding, once and for all, whether we love each other.” That was loud enough for Mitchell to hear it, in the kitchen.
“Mitchell loves you!” Ed called out, from the passage.
“You know that!” Larkin echoed. It seemed like the right thing to say, even though she wasn’t at all sure whether it was true. How would Ben know if Mitchell loved him? Why did he think Mitchell didn’t? What had happened between the two of them, and how had she missed it?
“You two are not helping,” Ben said. He was in the library, now, his voice a few feet away. There was a thump. A grunt. The sound of something being dragged across the hardwood. “Pun intended, as Dr. Ed Jackson might say.”
“What was the pun?” Ed whispered.
“Now I’m going to have a drink,” Ben said—and then both his footsteps and his voice disappeared.
Larkin turned on her flashlight and made her way to the bookcase door. There was a hand-sized hole that allowed her to push the faux book out of place, triggering the latch that opened the door—but the door itself was blocked by an enormous wing-backed chair. That was what Ben had thumped and grunted and dragged across the floor.
For a minute, Larkin was relieved. She didn’t really think Ben had murdered Mitchell; she’d never really thought Ben would. But she hadn’t expected Ben to shut them inside the secret passage. Of course, she hadn’t expected there to be a secret passage—or an impenetrable storm, or an impassable bridge, or an insoluble mystery.
“Are you going to leave us in here forever?” Larkin shouted, through the hole in the door. “We’re just trying to help!”
There was a flash of light, somewhere in the library; an imperceptible electronic chirp.
“Oh wait,” Ed said, “I get it. That’s the pun. He’s going to keep us from helping.”
“Not when Larkin Day is on the case,” Larkin said.
The light flashed, again. The chirp chirped.
“What is that?” Larkin pushed her cheek as close to the door hole as possible until she caught it in her peripheral vision. Artie, the snack robot, in some kind of docking station.
“Why is Artie chirping?” Larkin asked. This time Artie chirped more confidently, swiveling its robot eyes towards the secret door. She turned to Ed. “Do you think we can get it to push the chair out of the way?”
“I don’t know,” Ed said. “It sounded like the chair was so heavy that Ben could barely move it.”
“I don’t want to break their robot,” Larkin said. She tilted her face again, to see as much of Artie as possible. “Are you capable of pushing a chair?”
The flash. The chirp. Maybe Artie was.
“Artie!” Larkin said. “Secret passage!”
The robot undocked itself. It rolled carefully towards the secret passage door. Then it stopped, flashed its little red light over the wing-back chair, and beeped sadly.
“It’s okay,” Larkin said. “You’re still our favorite robot.”
“Our tea,” Ed said, each word loud and distinct.
Artie made the confident chirp. Its eyes swiveled towards the door.
“Don’t say anything,” Ed whispered. “Tell me when it’s eyes close.”
Larkin watched. “Okay,” she whispered. “I think it’s gone back to sleep.”
“Our slippers,” Ed said, as before.
Artie made the quiet chirp. Its lights flickered but did not open into eyes.
“Are you listening?”
“I think it’s programmed to activate whenever it hears the R sound,” Ed said.
“No,” Larkin said, remembering her conversation with Mitchell. “It’s programmed to save the recording.”
Are you free
i could be
The reply was from Larkin’s best friend Anni, whose texts never contained capital letters even though it took extra work to decapitalize them. It was a necessary distinction, Anni had explained. It separated texting from other forms of communication.
At that moment, Larkin was only interested in forms of communication that might have been stored within a canister-shaped recording device.
This is for a mystery, Larkin texted.
a murder mystery
It could be, Larkin texted. Then she added the winking emoji. Probably just a regular mystery tho
Larkin and Anni had agreed, when they first became friends, that they were allowed to make jokes about the mysteries Larkin solved. Especially the ones that involved murder. It was a necessary release, Anni had explained. Something to do with the heart rate tracker she wore on her wrist and all of the other metrics she continually managed.
I am in a secret passage with Ed. Larkin added the heart-eyes emoji.
Can you look up the instruction manual for the SmartHome Friend
And tell me how to access its stored recordings?
Artie’s brand name was printed across the bottom of its docking station. Larkin could have downloaded its instruction manual herself, but she didn’t have time to read a 150-page PDF on her phone. Anni would be able to scan the text and pull out the relevant details faster than—
larkin it is very easy
say “play stored recordings”
“Play stored recordings,” Larkin said.
Artie did not respond.
it erases its stored recordings every day at midnight
“Play stored recordings,” Larkin said again.
and it only records for five seconds after it hears its wake word
“Artie,” Larkin said. “Play stored recordings.”
Its eyes began to glow.
“Artie,” the robot said, in Ben’s voice. “Bedroom.”
“Are you going to be there?” Ben’s voice, again.
“Our friends.” That was Mitchell. “And anyway—”
Ben: “Aren’t going to be helpful then—”
Mitchell: “Art is hard. I can see you’re working—”
Ben: “Harder when you don’t—”
Mitchell: “Aren’t happy with it then keep working—”
Ben: “Our marriage is based on truth.”
Ben, again: “Are you going to be honest with me?”
Larkin turned to Ed. “I think I know what Ben wants.”
“Good,” Ed said, “because I just texted Mitchell to get us out of here.”
Artie continued to play its stored recordings as Mitchell and Ben worked together to carry the chair back to where it belonged. None of them were as revealing as what Larkin and Ed had already heard, but it didn’t matter—the answer had already been revealed, and all Larkin had to do was present her solution.
“Sit down, all of you,” she said. Mitchell took the wing-back. Ben took the overstuffed armchair. Ed looked around for a third chair, and ended up sitting on the middle step of the library ladder.
Larkin began pacing. It seemed like the kind of thing a detective would do, in a not-quite-manor-house, not-quite-murder-mystery. “What does Ben want for Christmas?” She paused, every few steps, to stare at whichever man was closest. Ed stifled a laugh. Ben narrowed his eyes. Mitchell stared back, and Larkin held her gaze until he finally blinked.
“If you asked Ben to circle an item in a catalog,” Larkin said, remembering too late that people no longer did that, “he would pick a pair of heated slippers that you can plug into the wall.”
“We have heated floors,” Mitchell said.
“Not when the power goes out,” Ben sniped.
“Be quiet, both of you,” Larkin said. She paced another few rounds, stopping at intervals to stare. Ben stuck his tongue out. Ed blushed. Mitchell didn’t blink.
“What does Ben really want?” she asked.
The trouble was that she couldn’t remember the intervals, not even after hearing Ben fail to sing them earlier that afternoon. His opera wasn’t working—and Ben knew it, and Ed knew it, and Larkin knew it, and Mitchell knew it.
But Mitchell was the only one who wasn’t saying it.
So Larkin sang.
“The truth, he only wants the truth, it’s all Ben wants from you, it’s true, it’s doable, he wants it for his present, even if it’s unpleasant—”
“It’s all I’ve ever asked for,” Ben continued, picking up the aria where Larkin had misplaced it, “and if I take you to task, it’s only that I’m lonely for the man who used to only speak the truth.”
Mitchell applauded. Then he sighed. “Your opera is terrible.”
“I didn’t tell you because I thought it would discourage you from figuring out how to make it better.”
“What you did was even more discouraging,” Ben said. “I felt like you weren’t taking me seriously.”
“I take everything you do seriously,” Mitchell said. “Why do you think I asked a detective to help me figure out what I had missed?”
“Why didn’t you ask me?”
“Because—” Larkin watched Mitchell decide to tell the truth. “You say things without saying them, and you assume I understand them, and when I don’t, you give me that look.”
“Like I’m the oldest, neediest man in the world.”
The two men looked at each other, an entire story shifting between their eyes.
“Well,” Ben said, “I don’t mind needing you if you don’t mind needing me.”
Mitchell reached out a hand towards Ben, who reached back. “I’ve never minded.”
“You know,” Ed said, as he and Larkin were unwrapping fresh toothbrushes in Ben and Mitchell’s guest bathroom, “you got it right from the very beginning.”
“What do you mean?”
“The answer was in Artie’s head all along,” Ed said, smiling. “The robot butler.”
“It’s always the butler,” Larkin said.
“No,” Ed said. “It’s always Larkin.”
Then he kissed her. Larkin didn’t know if he’d planned to—it didn’t seem like sinks and toothpaste would have been part of his plan—but it didn’t matter anymore. She’d gotten what she wanted. They all had.
Enjoy this story? Consider supporting our magazine with a small donation.
All donations will go towards paying authors for new stories, or website upkeep to ensure our stories remain free to read.
Nicole Dieker is a writer, teacher, and musician. She began her writing career as a full-time freelancer with a focus on personal finance and habit formation; she launched her fiction career with The Biographies of Ordinary People, a definitely-not-autobiographical novel that follows three sisters from 1989 to 2016.
Dieker writes the Larkin Day mystery series. She also maintains an active freelance career; her work has appeared in Vox, Morning Brew, Lifehacker, Bankrate, Haven Life, Popular Science, and more. Dieker spent five years as writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money.
Dieker lives in Quincy, Illinois with the great love of her life, his piano, and their garden.
Copyright ©2022 by Nicole Dieker.
Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.
We believe in paying writers professional rates. We also believe in not hiding stories behind paywalls. These two beliefs are, unfortunately, at odds with each other. However, your support today could help us continue our mission.
We respect your privacy. We will never sell your information. You can unsubscribe at any time.