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Charlie's War
About the Author: John M. Floyd’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is also an Edgar nominee, a three-time Derringer Award winner, and the author of eight books.

A light snow was falling as Charlie Reardon left the diner and made his way down Madison Street. He stopped at a sidewalk bench at the corner of Madison and Belmont and sat down, his elbows on his knees and his eyes on the building across the street.

Two minutes later an old blue Ford pulled up to the curb twenty feet away and cut its engine. A tall redhaired man in a watchcap and overcoat climbed out of the car, cupped his hands to light a cigarette, and strolled over to the bench. Charlie glanced at him, then went back to staring at the now-darkened windows across the road. It was almost six o’clock. Streetlights were flickering to life, halos of yellow in the mist.

“Rosie sent me to look for you,” said the tall man. “Where’s your cell phone?”

“Battery died.”

“I figured. Also figured I might find you here.”

Without turning, Charlie said, “You a mind reader now, Morgan?”

“Only if it’s a weak mind. Yours is easy. It’s snowing, by the way.”

Charlie smiled, and pictured his brother-in-law smiling too, around the cigarette. And turned to follow his gaze.

“That’s where it all started,” Morgan said, solemn again. “Ten years ago today. Right?”

“Wrong. That’s where it ended. If you remember, it started five miles north.”

They turned together, to face each other. The snow was coming down harder now.

“I remember,” Morgan said.

Charlie sighed. What Morgan didn’t remember, because Charlie had never told him, was that what happened all those years ago in that building across the street almost didn’t happen at all. When Charlie Reardon walked here from the other side of town that day, it wasn’t because it was his idea. It was someone else’s. It seemed to make sense, at the time.

This was a place of memories, yes. Good and bad. But it was also a mystery.

Ten years earlier

11:50 a.m., November 19, 2009

Charlie sat on a carpet of fallen leaves at the edge of a city park in the 1800 block of North Madison, half a mile from his childhood home. He was leaning against the trunk of an elm tree and watching the front entrance of the shop next door. Beidelman’s Fine Jewelry. What he didn’t know was that someone was watching him. If Charlie had been more careful about watching the store he wouldn’t have attracted attention, and if he’d been smart enough to know he was being observed, he’d have stopped watching the store. But, although Charlie Reardon had been accused of a lot of things in his twenty-three years, he’d never been accused of being careful. Or smart.

As a result, he looked up from his study of the comings and goings of Mr. Beidelman’s customers and pushed back the bill of his baseball cap to see a uniformed policeman standing over him, thumbs hooked in his gunbelt like an Old West sheriff.

“What’s your name, son?” the cop asked. Though there probably wasn’t a dozen years’ difference in their ages.

“Joe Smith,” Charlie said.

“And what are you doing?”

“I’m sitting under a tree.”

The cop—his nameplate said COLLIER—cocked his head like a puppy Charlie had once owned, as a boy. But he didn’t recall the puppy narrowing its eyes and scowling.

“You been sittin’ there almost an hour, Mr. Smith.”

“Want me to move, so you can rake these leaves?”

Patiently, Officer Collier said, “I want you to answer me a question: You thinking about buying a ring for your girlfriend, maybe? A necklace for your mother?”

“What are you talking about?”

Collier shrugged. “Just wondering. Seems you been looking at that jewelry store there, all this time.”

Charlie squinted at the building. “That’s a jewelry store?”

“That’s what the sign says.”

“I didn’t notice.”

Behind him, somewhere nearby, a dog yapped, a see-saw creaked, a baby cried. It was a nice day, warm for November, and the park was crowded. An older kid shouted something and another answered. Charlie wondered why they weren’t in school.

“Is that yours?” Collier was pointing to a battered duffel bag on the grass between them.

This story appears in our DEC 2020 Issue
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