Charles wasn’t meant to take the files on Mrs. Conway’s insurance claim out of the office, but he did it anyway. He tucked them into his briefcase and kept an eye on their manila edge as he sucked at a chocolate malt in that drugstore down on 49th. He was supposed to catch the 5:40, supposed to be home in time for dinner, but he figured Mrs. Conway’s claim needed that chocolate malt as much as he did.
House fire was what they were calling it, an accident, a passing driver flicking a lit cigarette into her garden. Foxgloves and dahlias bubbling and curling under the heat, the wooden porch cracking in half and smoke choking the chimney. “Don’t give her more than you have to,” Charles’ boss had said, frowning down at the contents of his mug. “We need the money.”
Malt half-gone, Charles peered at Mrs. Conway’s spreadsheet. He was decent at his job; he could tell when something didn’t add up. He just had this feeling.
5:40 came and went, and he still hadn’t figured out what was off about the whole thing. Now he would be late and his wife would frown at him, her eyes dulling in disappointment as she hitched the baby further up her bony hip.
Mrs. Alberta Conway was a WWII widow, her son grown and apathetic, stopping by on Thanksgiving instead of Christmas. He was fit to work, fit to wed, and he didn’t have time for his rheumatic mother.
Mrs. Conway didn’t work. She kept her garden blooming and her pantry full of preserves. It was clear that she hated her son, or hated who he’d become. An easy kind of hatred, one she could stir into her morning tea. One of the side effects of Charles’ job was that he had fostered a knack for understanding old people, for seeing how pieces of the past were more frustrating than soothing, something to cut away instead of cherish.
Now, the inconsistency was clear.
In their meeting that morning, Mrs. Conway had told Charles that she hadn’t been home when the fire happened — she was in town, catching a late theatre show. But, despite the July heat, she’d been wearing a pair of long gloves, tucked under the sleeves of her dress, and she’d winced when they shook hands. And, as she left, he’d seen a flash of white at the edge of her purse, a brittle tube reading ‘—rn ointment.’
Charles huffed, the edge of his mouth curling upwards. “New York’s own Bertha Mason,” he muttered, reducing her claim to zero dollars and zero cents, wondering if he had the detective’s phone number at home. Sucking at the dregs of his malt, Charles capped his pen, his signature dark and sharp under the yellow light.