I’m doing something a little different today – posting a full story right here on the blog. It’s my entry for a short story contest at the blog Things I’d Rather Be Doing, which calls for writers to update an old fairy tale as a piece of modern crime fiction. I kind of walked into this one late, and it’s maybe not as polished as I’d like, but I think it’s fun and worth a shot. So, without further mumbling from me, here it is!
“Han and Greta” by Blu Gilliand
The house was brick, which was a surprise considering a carpenter lived there. It seemed to Grimm that it would be in the union by-laws: Woodworkers must live in wood houses. Support the brotherhood and all that. Putting bread on a bricklayer’s table? Hell, it almost came off as lazy.
He knocked on the door, which opened before his knuckles had time to make contact twice. A woman stood there, a nice looking woman with distress seeping from her eyes. Her hair, blonde, flew away from her head in places, like she’d been running her fingers through it instead of using a brush.
He flashed his I.D., nodded. She squinted at the big, shiny badge.
“Please come in. My husband called you. He’s in the kitchen.”
She pointed at a room to the right of the foyer. Her hand was full of a drinking glass; the glass was half-full of something amber eating away at a couple of ice cubes. Scotch, Grimm guessed. And here it was, not even lunchtime yet.
“Do you think you can find them?”
“That’s the plan,” he said. She nodded, took a long pull off the glass.
He shook his head and walked into the kitchen. The carpenter sat at a table, his hands clasped around a steaming coffee cup like he was trying to choke information out of it. The table was a rough slab of hard oak. Probably he’d built it himself.
About time he did some work around here, Grimm thought.
The man looked up. “You Peter Grimm?”
Grimm flashed his I.D. again. The carpenter motioned to the chair across from him. “Have a seat,” he said. “I’ll get her to get you some coffee.”
“She’s already offered Scotch,” Grimm said.
“It’s not even lunch, she’s boozing,” the carpenter moaned. “What’s that gonna help?”
“Not passing judgement,” Grimm said. “Just letting you know she offered.”
The carpenter sighed, took a sip of coffee, and looked up at Grimm. His eyes were the red-rimmed, exhausted eyes of a man who’s gone three rounds in a staring contest with Hell.
“My children,” he said. “Someone took my children.”
Grimm asked her to join them at the table, as she was the one who’d last seen the kids. She brought pictures of them to the table. They were twins, cuter than their names, lucky for them. They were his, not hers. She was the second wife.
“Tell me what happened.”
“We went for a walk,” she said. “In the woods yesterday. They love to explore. He was working, and they were bored, so I took them out. We followed a trail, one we always follow. It goes down to the river. They kept running ahead, going around bends where I couldn’t see them. I’d holler for them to stop, to wait. They did, but they kept getting further and further ahead. They got so far ahead I couldn’t see them or hear them. I kept yelling, but they were gone.”
“Did you see anyone else around?”
“No. I followed the trail all the way down to the river. They weren’t there. I came back up the trail, yelling the whole time. It was dark when I got home. I could barely talk.”
“Did you check the woods around the trail?”
“Some,” she said. “I was afraid to go in too far and get lost. There’s not a lot around here. I keep telling him we should move, this is no place to raise kids, but he wouldn’t listen. We should be in the city.”
“The city,” he said. “With the gangs and the guns. My kids were safe here.”
“Really?” she said. “You still say that?”
“You always say they’re going to get lost. They know these woods like their own hands. Only you make them stick to the trail. Before you, they are all over the place. They still know the woods. I know they’re not lost. That’s why I know someone took them.”
“Has there been any contact from anyone? Ransom notes or demands?”
“Nothing,” he said.
He thought for a moment. Looked at the photograph. They were ten, with bright, quizzical eyes. He didn’t think they were lost, either. He turned to her.
“Take me to where you last saw them.”
What he really thought was that they were hiding from her. He guessed this because of the way the two parents approached the situation. She was annoyed, angry, a little embarrassed. He was distraught, angry, a little desperate. It seemed to him that the kids were trying to prove a point, and she knew it, and didn’t like it one bit.
She walked ahead of him, refreshed glass of Scotch in manicured hand, leading the way. The carpenter wanted to come, too, but Grimm told him to stay. In case the kids showed up. Really, though, he just wanted to get her alone, see what else he could get out of her.
“Right here,” she said. They had just come out of a bend in the trail. Here the trail ran straight down a steep slope and curved out of sight about fifty yards away. They’d gotten ahead of her, running down a hill she couldn’t navigate in heels. Gone around the corner and stayed gone.
“How far from here to the river?”
“I don’t know,” she said around another gulp of Scotch. “Half a mile? A mile? A long way.” She wiped sweat from her forehead at the thought of it.
“You went all the way to the end?”
“Yes. As I told you. Went to the river, came back, hollering for those little brats. They always do this kind of stuff.” She lowered her voice, sharing a secret between the two of them. “I don’t think anyone got them. I think they’re hiding. I think if we wait until dark, they’ll come back.”
“Well, they’ve already spent one night in the woods, right? So that’s no guarantee.”
Another long pull off the short glass. “Yeah. I guess so.”
“Why don’t you go on back and wait with him? I can follow it from here. See what I can see. Maybe they’ll be back.”
“Maybe,” she said. She finished off the drink, slivers of ice sticking to the sides of the expensive glass.
“Might want to lay off the drinking,” he said. “Could be a long few days ahead.”
“Well, thanks for the advice,” she said. She tipped the glass again, tongued the ice chips into her mouth as if to say, I’ll drink what I want, when I want.
He shrugged and began walking down the hill.
Where they were, it was dark, and warm, and smelled of sugar, and they were terrified.
Greta had called the thing they were in a big birdcage. Han said it looked like a stripper cage. He’d seen them in a video, this rock band wailing away while girls danced in a couple of cages like this hanging above the stage. They sat in it, side-by-side, backs pressed against the cold steel bars, every movement causing the thing to pendulum slowly back and forth.
“Stop moving it,” she hissed. “It’s gonna fall.”
“Maybe it would break,” he said. “We could get out.”
“She would hear it and come in here,” Greta said. “Come and get us.”
“She’s not going to do anything,” Han said.
“She’s going to eat us,” Greta said.
Han wanted to say “No, she’s not,” but he couldn’t. Because that’s what the lady had told them she was going to do.
Your mommy doesn’t know it, but I’m going to fatten you up and eat you up.
She’s not our mommy! Greta had cried, but the woman had turned from them and gone into the other room, where the sounds and smells were coming from. Pots and pans rattling. A squeaky oven door opening and closing, opening and closing. Pounding and scraping and the whirr of a blender, all of it underscored with the lady’s flat, toneless singing:
Patty cake, patty cake, Greta and Han
Put ‘em in a cake as fast as I can
He hugged his sister closer. “Don’t worry. I’ll save us.” But he was only ten, and he didn’t know how.
In the other room, someone knocked on the door. The other sounds stopped. They heard the woman plunk something down on the counter. She opened the door and poked her head inside, a shaft of light slicing through the darkness to illuminate her doughy face, mismatched eyes and horrible crooked nose.
“Not a word, my pretties,” she said. “Be so still and so quiet now.” She held a finger, impossibly long and many-jointed, to her lips and smiled, showing blackened teeth as pointed as shark fins. She slid out of the light and pulled the door tight.
Greta began to cry.
“It’s someone,” Han said. “Someone come to help us.”
But it wasn’t.
“Surprised to see you here,” the old crone said.
“I’m surprised to be here,” the carpenter’s second wife said. “But I had to be sure.”
“Sure of what?”
“That they’re gone. My husband called someone. A detective. He’s out there now, snooping around in the woods.”
“He didn’t follow you, now did he?”
“No, I sent him the other way. Down the path to the river.”
“Good, good. Well, there’s nothing to see here, anyway.”
“You finished the- you finished it?”
“Told you I would,” the old woman said. “They’re sleeping now, in the arms of Mother Earth.”
“What does that mean?”
“Dead,” the old woman said flatly. “Dead and buried and gone, gone, gone.”
“You don’t need to know. And you don’t need to be here. Scoot on back to your house, now. Enjoy your husband, without the troublesome noise and interference of the children. Enjoy his money and his attention.”
“What are you doing in here?”
“Baking,” the old woman said. “I have a sweet tooth.”
“Don’t you like anything but gingerbread?”
“Oh yes,” the old woman crooned. “Yes, yes, yes.”
“Got a drink?” The carpenter’s second wife held up her empty glass.
“Milk,” the old woman said. The carpenter’s second wife rolled her eyes. “Sorry, but it’s all I drink. Goes good with the sweets.” She bent and opened the oven. The door screeched. She brought out a baking sheet covered with gingerbread.
“How about a bathroom, then? I’ve had three of these – “ Again, she shook the glass. “- and I need to go.”
“No bathroom,” the old woman said. “Go use your own. Get back, before that detective you so stupidly led into the woods gets back and wonders where you are.”
“You are a fool,” the old woman said. “And you are keeping me from my sweets. Now get out.”
“I paid you good money.”
“Yes,” the old woman said. “You paid me good money to kill your husband’s children. And that I’ve done. I owe you nothing more, not a drink of milk or a pot to piss in. Now go!”
“Don’t yell at me, you crazy old hag!”
“What’s that now, dearie?” Her voice had gone flat again, and cold as a stream in winter.
“N-nothing,” the second wife said. “It’s been…a long day. I’m sorry. I’m going now.” She moved to the door, but the old woman moved faster, slamming the door with the disjointed, wiggling fingers of her free hand. The other hand had been filled with the thick wooden handle of a long, gleaming knife.
“You don’t want to be yelling,” the old woman said. “This is my happy place. My gingerbread house. You don’t want to come in here and spoil it.”
“I have your money. I’ve done the job. I want to be left alone.”
“Yes. You will. I will.”
“Will you, now?” The mismatched eyes narrowed. “I don’t know. You bring a detective into the woods. You come back here to make sure I’ve done the job. How many times will you come back? How many chances to be followed? To bring others here, and ruin my gingerbread house?”
“None. I promise. I won’t ever come back.”
The old woman held the knife up. The sharp point twinkled in the light. “I don’t believe you,” she said. She took in a great, gasping breath and tensed, ready to bring the blade down. But the door burst open, and the air filled with a popping sound, and the woman looked down to see two bright blooms spreading on her chest.
“Drop it,” Peter Grimm said.
She hissed, a horrible, sandpaper rasp of pain and anger, and took a quick step toward him. He fired again, putting one through her throat. She fell, landing on the open oven door, which tore loose from its hinges and crashed to the floor. Her head and shoulders flopped into the oven. Hair and fabric began to blacken, then burn.
“Oh thank you, thank you!” the carpenter’s second wife cried.
“You’re under arrest,” Peter Grimm told her. He pointed at the open window. “She was right. You are a fool. You talk too much. Maybe because you drink too much.” He took out a pair of handcuffs, tightened one around her wrist and latched the other to the refrigerator door. “You’re also way too easy to follow.”
He grabbed the old woman’s ankle and yanked. Her head hit the floor with a thud. The smell of burning hair made the detective and the carpenter’s second wife cough. He grabbed a bowl from the counter, ran some water into it, and dumped it over the old woman’s smoldering head.
“You can’t prove anything,” the carpenter’s second wife said.
“Here, here, in here!” Two voices, small, frightened, urgent, coming through a closed bedroom door. Grimm walked over, raised his gun, kicked the door in. Saw the cage, suspended by rusty chains from an exposed beam. Saw the two kids from the picture. The boy looked over him, into the kitchen at the woman cuffed to the refrigerator.
“You,” the boy said. “You do talk too much.”
They all went back to the carpenter’s house, Peter Grimm and the carpenter’s second wife and Han and Greta. The carpenter wept when his children walked through the door. He seemed neither surprised nor sad to see his second wife in custody.
“She never liked them,” he said. “I was going to leave her. I never should have been with her.”
“It’s okay, Poppa,” Greta said.
“Yeah, Dad,” Han said. “Don’t sweat it.”
Grimm left them to their reunion. Got on his cell phone and called for someone to come and take the carpenter’s second wife to jail. Told them to send the coroner to collect the dead old cannibal woman from her gingerbread house.
When he went back into the house, he found the carpenter’s bar and poured himself a Scotch.
– End –