Mystery Short Story: "The Key"

by Earl Staggs

This story was originally published in Mysterical-e, Summer Issue, 2009.

A slightly built elderly Chinese man stood at his cash register, methodically counting receipts for the day. The bills were easy, but picking up the coins brought pain to his arthritic fingers. He took his time, stopping to massage them from time to time.

He glanced at the ancient clock over the front door of his store. Nearly eight-thirty. Maybe she changed her mind and would not come back. No, he felt sure this one would come. She seemed more determined than the others. More desperate.

Ten minutes later, he finished counting and made entries in his book. In twenty minutes more, if she didn’t come, he would close up and go to his room in the back.

The old man turned his head and looked back to where a five-inch-long black key dangled from a nail on the wall behind him. A barely visible pink glow emanated from six thin red bands encircling the key’s shank.

He nodded and muttered, “She’s coming.” He’d hoped she would change her mind.

Through the wide display window of his storefront, he saw headlights turn into the parking space outside. The car stopped, but its headlights stayed on for several moments. When the lights finally went out, he watched the trim, blond woman in her late thirties get out of the car and walk toward his door. Her steps were tentative at first as if she might change her mind and not come in, but then quickened.

He spoke back over his shoulder as if the key understood. “She’s here.”

Beth Gibson hesitated with her hand on the door handle. Once more, she questioned whether she could go through with it. Yes. She had to. She took a deep breath, opened the door, and entered the Lake Falls Gun Shop.

The gaunt little man with sparse strands of gray hair across his scalp and a wiry goatee stood behind the counter just as he had on her first visit when she filled out the permit application and paid for her purchase.

“Ah, Miss Johnson,” he said as she approached the counter. “You’ve come back.”

She forced what she hoped was a casual smile. “I was afraid I might not make it before closing time. I’m not too late, am I?”

“Not at all.” He reached under the counter and brought out a square white cardboard box. “I have your purchase right here. Your application went through with no problem.”

“I’m glad,” she said. A wave of relief flowed through her. The false identity documents had worked.

“If you’ll just sign this.” He placed a form on the counter before her and held out a pen.

Beth almost reached for the pen with her right hand, but caught herself and took it with her left. She had practiced signing her assumed name hundreds of times with her left hand.

As she leaned forward over the paper, she felt his eyes on her. She had the same sensation when she was here before. He seemed to not simply look at her but through her, as though examining her, seeing inside her, and knowing what she was thinking. No. She was imagining it. It was only her fear reflecting back at her, the fear she might make a mistake. She had planned and rehearsed everything she would do and say to avoid mistakes. She took great care to sign “Alice Johnson” and slid the paper back toward him.

The old man pushed the form aside and opened the box. “With each purchase, we include a lesson in proper use and care. Would you like to do that now?”

She stared down at the Smith and Wesson .38 in the box and shook her head. “That won’t be necessary. I’ve had experience with guns before.” It was true to some extent. She made several visits to a firing range close to home during the past month to get a feel for loading and firing a gun just like this one.

“As you wish, Miss Johnson. You’ll be needing cartridges, I assume?”

“Yes. Of course.” She avoided eye contact with him. When he turned to a shelf behind him, she glanced around to distract her thoughts from her nervousness.

“That’s an odd key,” she said.

He turned back to her with a small brown box in each hand. “Yes, it is,” he said.

“It looks quite old. Is it a relic of some kind? Does it actually open anything?”

He grinned and spoke softly as if enjoying a private joke. "The key opens many doors, Miss Johnson.”

She turned her attention away from the strange key, deciding it was nothing more than an old keepsake. “Are those the cartridges I need?”

“There are two sizes,” he replied. He placed the two boxes on the counter in front of her. “These cartridges come fifty or a hundred to the box.”

“Fifty will be plenty,” she said. She could have said she only needed two. One for him, one for her.

He left the smaller box on the counter and turned to replace the larger one on the shelf. “We encounter a great number of doors in life, and the ability to open them is essential, don’t you agree?”

What a curious thing to say, she thought. Another time, she might have wanted to know more, but now she only wanted to take her purchases and leave. She had spent more time here already than she had planned. “How much for the cartridges?” she asked.

He turned back to her. “Strange, isn’t it, that we confront so many doors in life? Behind each one, a different path to take and a different destination to reach, yet we must choose and open only one each time. If we could open doors and see what lay behind them before choosing, we would make better choices, don’t you think?”

Beth needed to get out of there. The old man was getting more bizarre by the minute. Besides, she had a schedule to keep, and listening to an old fool go on about philosophical nonsense was not on it.

“Oh, I’m sure that would make life easier,” she said. “How much will that be for the cartridges?” She opened her purse and reached inside.

“With tax, the total would be ten dollars and twenty-two cents, but I’ve already emptied the register of change, so let’s make it ten even.”

She handed him a ten dollar bill. “If you’re sure.”

“Quite sure.” He placed her purchases in a paper bag. “It seems a shame you have to pay for the whole box anyway.”

Beth felt a flush come over her. What did he mean by that? Nothing. He meant nothing at all. Everything he said was strange. Still, she wanted to get away from him as quickly as possible. She picked up the bag and turned to leave. “Thank you,” she said as she walked to the door.

He didn’t respond, but she felt him watching her and it made her feel uneasy. She had to get a grip. She had planned this too carefully, and there would be no problem as long as she stayed focused.

The old man watched her leave his store and hurry to her car. He turned to the key on the wall behind him and saw it begin to brighten again. When the glow had grown to a full red aura completely surrounding it, the key began to fade, slowly but with a steady lessening of color and shape. Within a few seconds, it became more and more indistinct until it faded completely, leaving only the bare nail on which it had hung.

The old man turned to look out the window of his store in time to see the taillights of Beth Gibson’s car disappear from view.

He smiled.

Beth drove for an hour, precisely on the speed limit, before the rain started. She had calculated how long it would take to get to Charden Park and included time for sleep. She’d planned to sleep for four hours, but the rain would slow her down. She’d have to reduce her speed and adjust her schedule. The rain continued in a steady downpour, but not hard enough to make her pull over.

How ironic, she thought. It rained the night she met Mark. He seemed such a gentleman to share his umbrella and walk her to her car. That’s how it began. Within two months, he moved in with her and her two sons.

Mark came into her life two years after her husband Jim died. Raising two boys alone was hard on a single woman, especially one who had vested her entire being in her marriage and her children. Mark was so understanding and supportive at a time when that was exactly what she needed. The boys needed a father figure in their lives and she gave herself to their relationship completely and without reserve, just as she had to Jim.

A month later, Mark was gone and so were the trust funds set aside for the boys along with her own money and jewelry.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Detective Wallace told her. “If he forged your signature on the power of attorney, it’s the best forgery we’ve ever seen. Unless we can find him and somehow prove he did what you claim he did, I’m afraid we’re helpless.”

The police never found him, but the private investigator Beth hired did. She had Mark’s address and his daily schedule. At seven-thirty in the morning, he would leave his house and go to his country club to play golf. She would be there to say good morning. And goodbye.

She continued driving even though fatigue threatened to overtake her. To maintain her focus, she concentrated on the metallic clicking of her windshield wipers. Their rhythm matched her heartbeat. She’d never noticed that before.

Thump. Click. Thump. Click. Thump. Click.

Two hours later, the rain came harder and Beth looked for the rest stop indicated on her map. There. Just ahead. She checked the time. She’d lost thirty minutes to the weather. No matter. She’d deduct it from her sleeping time.

She pulled into the rest stop entry road and looked for a good place to park. She found it just past the picnic area. Another car and a van were already parked there. Other people taking a rest. People did it all the time, especially in bad weather. She pulled to the far end of the parking area and stopped. She reached to the back seat for her umbrella and hooded parka and made a quick trip to the ladies room.

Back in her car, the strain of not having slept for eighteen hours weighed heavily on her. She hadn’t slept well since Mark disappeared. Bad enough he cleaned out her bank accounts and took the jewelry inherited from her grandmother, but the trust funds were for the boys’ education. How could anyone be so cold and callous to steal from children their guarantee of a future?

Detective Wallace had not been optimistic. “The jewelry, you said, was mostly gold and diamonds. The gold is probably melted down by now and the diamonds removed from their settings and sold separately. Virtually untraceable, all of it.”

Beth tried to relax so she could sleep. She thought about the boys and their father together in happier times. They were devastated when a sudden heart attack ripped him from their lives. In their desperate need, while Mark lived with them, they quickly became attached to him. Mark’s disappearance struck them nearly as hard as the loss of their father. Children shouldn’t have to suffer so much heartbreak in their lives. She could not repair the damage to the boys as long as Mark was alive. Timmy and Danny were staying with their grandmother now, but soon Beth would be home and they could begin to rebuild their lives. She thanked God for her mother. Without her mother’s help, she wouldn’t have survived any of it.

She pulled her cell phone from her purse and brought up the alarm clock feature. Once she’d set it for three and a half hours, she decided to check the gun. Might as well load it now and be done with it. When she reached into the bag expecting to feel boxes, she was surprised to feel something hard and metallic.

She brought her hand out and stared at the strange black key she’d seen back at the gun shop.
She hadn’t seen the old man put it in the bag. And why would he? Was it a token he gave to all customers? She turned it over in her hand, expecting to see the store name and address. There was nothing on the key except six faded red rings around the shaft.

She tossed the key onto the passenger seat and proceeded to load the gun. When that was done, she returned the gun and ammunition to the bag and stowed it under the seat.

She picked up the key again, still dumbfounded by its unexpected appearance. She didn’t understand it at all, but she was too tired to think about it any longer. She forced herself to relax and closed her eyes. She’d feel much better after her nap and could finish her journey.

The rain stopped by the time Beth reached the outskirts of Charden Park, and the morning was sunny and fresh. She’d made it by seven o’clock as planned. The map she printed from the internet lay on the seat beside her. She was ten minutes from Mark’s house. She knew he’d be drinking coffee now, waiting until seven-thirty when he’d leave for the country club and his scheduled golf game.

Beth wondered what Dee would be doing. It all became clear when she disappeared the same time as Mark. Dee knew about the trust funds and about the jewelry. She should. She and Beth were best friends. Dee arranged for Mark to meet her seemingly by chance and begin a relationship. They planned it and pulled it off together.

Beth drove to the housing development and quickly found their address. She parked just past the house and walked back. She wore the parka with the hood up and held the gun tightly in her right hand inside the pouch pocket in front. She rang the doorbell and waited.

When Mark opened the door, his first expression was surprise. His second was disgust.

“Beth, what the hell are you doing here?”

Beth smiled. “I came for a visit, Mark. Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Beth, you have no right coming here. I’m not going to invite you in. Go back home where you belong.”

Beth brought out the gun. “Oh, I don’t think you mean that, Mark. I think you want me to come in. Why don’t you just step back, and we’ll all have a nice visit.”

Mark stared down at the gun. When he raised his eyes, Beth saw his fear in them. When he stepped backward, she moved inside and closed the door behind her.

“Where’s your partner in crime, Mark? Where’s my good friend, Dee?”

Mark stuttered, trying to form words. Beth saw perspiration on his upper lip, panic in his eyes.

“She. . .she’s not here,” he finally managed to say. “She’s visiting her sister.”

“That’s too bad. I’m sorry I won’t get to see her again. We were best friends, you know. But, of course, you know. You knew everything about me, thanks to her.”

Mark ran his fingers through his hair, then wiped the perspiration from his lip. “Beth, please. Let’s talk about this. We can work something out.”

“There’s no way you can talk away what you did to the boys, Mark. You can’t fix what you put them through.” She raised the Smith and Wesson to chest level and held it in both hands. “And there’s no way I can fix anything as long as you’re alive.”

Beth pulled the trigger and Mark catapulted back against the wall. A circle of blood formed immediately on his chest. His eyes glazed over and his mouth dropped open. He tried to speak, but only a gurgling sound came out as he slid down the wall to a sitting position on the floor. His head rocked back and forth, banging the wall behind him twice. Then he slowly slumped down on his side. His eyes and mouth were still open, but she knew he was dead.

A sudden scream startled Beth. She jerked her head toward the top of the stairs to her right and saw Dee. Mark lied about her not being home.

“Ohmygod, Beth! What have you done? Mark! Mark! Ohmygod!”

Beth moved her gun and aimed at the screaming woman.

“No, Beth, please don’t. He. . .he made me do it. It was all his --”

Beth squeezed the trigger and watched the woman who had once been her best friend topple forward and tumble down the stairs. She landed three feet from where Beth stood.

A cordless phone rolled from Dee’s lifeless hand. Beth picked it up and heard a voice on the other end say, “Hello? This is the 9-1-1 operator. Are you still there? We heard shots. The police are on their way.”

Beth panicked and ran out of the house. She heard sirens before she reached her car. She climbed in, started the engine, and pulled away at high speed. At the first street corner, a police car raced in front of her and slid to a stop, blocking her way. She thought about backing up, but when she turned to look, two more police cars were careening toward her. She dropped the gun to the floor and raised her hands to her face and cried.

The next six months flew by in a blur. Glimpses of what happened after the shooting were only snippets in Beth’s mind. Her mother suffered a severe stroke when she learned of Beth’s arrest. The stroke left her paralyzed and speechless, and she had to be placed in a nursing home. There were no close relatives to take her sons, so they were named wards of the court and placed in foster homes.

“Elizabeth Gibson,” the Judge, a matronly woman in a black robe, was saying, “you have been found guilty on two counts of premeditated murder and will be remanded to the state penitentiary for...”

The Judge droned on, but Beth was not listening. She ran her hands through her short hair. She’d kept it long and blond for Mark because he liked it that way. Now it was cut in a standard prison bob in her natural brown. She stared at the floor and thought only of what she’d done. How could she let her hatred and thirst for revenge drive her to kill? She’d even deluded herself into believing she did it for her sons.

She realized now she’d been driven by her own humiliation and shame for being so vulnerable and weak as to let herself be taken in and swindled. She lost only money and jewelry to Mark and Dee, but now she had thrown away everything that really mattered. Her sons had lost both their father and mother. What would happen to them?

The Judge’s voice suddenly changed, and Beth looked up. Sitting behind the bench now was the old man from the gun shop. Her mind swam in confusion.

She struggled to make sense of it as the old man raised a gavel and brought it down again and again.

Tap. . .tap. . .tap. . .

She squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, she was sitting in her car and it was still raining. Beth looked around in the darkness. Had it been a dream? Had she imagined it all? No. It was too real. She went to Mark’s house and used her gun. She spent months in jail, suffered through her trial, lost her mother, her sons. The losses and the pain were too sharp and indelible to have been a dream.

Tap. . .tap. . .tap.

Beth turned toward the sound. A figure stood beside her car, his hand still raised from tapping on her window. She squinted through the rain-streaked glass and saw a man in a uniform.

“Highway Patrol, ma’am,” he shouted through the rain. “Are you all right?”

Beth fumbled to turn on the ignition and pressed the button to lower the window.. “Yes, I’m. . .I’m fine,” she said. “I was only resting my eyes.”

“Sorry to disturb you, ma’am,” he said, “but it’s not a good idea to sleep in your car. I suggest you go on down the road a few miles and find a motel.”

Beth felt something in her hand and looked down. The key. She had fallen asleep with it in her hand. The old man’s words came back to her.

“The key opens many doors. . . behind each one, a different path to take and a different destination to reach. If we could open doors and see what lay behind them before choosing, we would make better choices. . .”

Beth looked at the key in her hand once more and rubbed her face with her other hand, then ran her fingers over her short brown hair. She didn’t exactly understand what had happened and yet, in a way, she knew. She looked out at the man standing in the rain. “That’s okay, Officer. Thank you, but I’ll be going home now.”

The officer tipped his hat and told her to drive safely before he walked away.

Beth laid the key on the passenger seat and saw a faint pink glow begin around it and grow to a bright red. Then it began to fade and within seconds, the key vanished.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

The old man sat on a stool in his store with his elbows on the counter and his chin resting in his cupped hands. The store was completely dark, and the sign in the window said “Closed.” The clock over the door read five minutes past two.

Before another minute passed, he felt the familiar glow behind him. He turned in time to see the key reappear on its nail.

He smiled.

All photos are by Margaret Mendel.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section in Kings River Life and in our mystery category here on KRL News & Reviews. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. And check out our new mystery podcast which features mystery short stories and first chapters read by local actors!

Earl Staggs earned a long list of Five Star reviews for his novels Memory of a Murder and Justified Action and is a three-time Derringer Award winner for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. He invites any comments via email at earlstaggs@sbcglobal[dot]net and invites you to visit his blog site.


  1. Earl,

    Just read your story with great interest. Very original !

  2. Thank you, Jaqueline. Glad you,liked it. It was different from my usual stuff. but fun to write.


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