The Babysitter Mystery: Short Story

Eileen Hendricks sent me this William Ard short story that appeared in Today’s Woman, June, 1953.

The Baby-Sitter Mystery

By William Ard

Now, you wait right here,” Helen Driscoll said and when five-year-old bobby nodded she entered the neighborhood grocery store. It was a Saturday evening in October, when the dusk gathers quickly.

A few moments later the boy moved out of the light shed by the store window and came to stand in the half-dark of the quiet deserted block.

A woman turned the corner and stopped in startled surprise; the upper half of her body inclined forward, and stared at him in disbelief. Then she looked around before returning her attention to the boy.

She wore a small brown felt hat, a shapeless brown cloth coat and carried a large brown purse. The only mark of remembrance on her dill face was a pair of close-fitting metal –rimmed spectacles.

She walked forward, passing the boy slowly and glancing down at him. When she saw the alley she stopped. It was not really an alley but a narrow space between two nearby apartment buildings that reached back into darkness. The woman turned back to the little boy and spoke to him, her head bobbing urgently. The boy listened to her for several moments and then began nodding. Her hand went to his elbow, leading him toward the alley.

But there the boy halted. The woman tugged at his arm and the boy twisted his body and hung back. With sudden movement she swung him into the alley entrance before her.

She worked hurriedly at the catch on her purse, got it open and plunged her hand inside. The hand returned with a long bladed kitchen knife.

The woman’s arm rose above her head. There was a terrified scream and from the store another woman’s body rushed towards her. The two of them — the one with the knife and the mother- -fell to the ground away from the boy, withering and rolling over and over, the mother clawing wildly, the other struggling to get free with a quiet almost calm determination.

The mother felt thumbs against her throat, cutting off her voice, gagging her, and in the moment she relaxed her grip the other women climbed swiftly to her feet, retrieved her purse and ran from the alley. The mother, moaning not out of her own pain but out of her fear, crawled to the boy and picked him up, rocking him gently, still unable to understand fully what had happened in just three short minutes.

Then heavy footsteps sounded in the alley and the mother and child were bathed in glaring light. A tall blue coated form loomed over them. It was the boy who said, “The lady tried to hurt me.” The police man put up both arms beneath the boy and stood up with him. Helen Driscoll climbed unsteadily, her voice breaking. “What good are you? Where were you?”

“Don’t” he said softly, knowing how she felt now. “The important thing is the boy. Your boy’s okay lady.”

The police ordered and ambulance and reported the attack. When an intern certified the boy was not injured, the officer accompanied mother and son home, after he and the radio patrolman returned and scoured the alley again with their flash-lights. It was O’Hara, the policemen, who found the key case.

Two keys dangled from hooks. One, which bore no inscription, was for a door with a timber lock. The other key was very small and very thin, the kind used to open mailboxes in thousands and thousands of apartments. “There’s nothing else here, O’Hara” the radio patrolman said.

“Except these keys,” said O’Hara. The other man grunted. “Everybody’s got keys.”

“But somebody hasn’t got these.”

In the same city, Ralph and Ann Flood were getting ready to go to a dinner party. The Floods could not remember a night to which they had looked forward to more than this Saturday in October. On this night, for seven years, Ralph’s firm had given a dinner dance for employees. It had been at the first one that Ralph, young salesmen only months out of the navy, had met Ann, an equally unattached brunette, who was a secretary to the boss of Dwight Williams, Inc. Six months later they were married.

And tonight, seven years and two children later, the Floods’ boss Dwight Williams, would rise from his table in the hotel ambassador’s grand ballroom and announce to three hundred assembled employees that Ralph Flood was the company’s new general sales manager and assistant to the president. Every time they glanced at each other tonight, Ralph and Ann broke into sudden irrepressible grins.

As she dressed, however, Ann thought back on the seven short years, and found herself unexplainably frightened. It was almost they had been too good. She was distracted by the thought that theirs was a storybook marriage too good to be true. There was no conflict, no drama, no tears. Instead there was a husband who was a lover, a wife who was a mistress.

And a mother. That, Ann knew, was the root of it. A husband, a daughter- Jean, aged five-and a son-Johnny, age six months. It was too good to be true. That’s what she thought about sometimes, without wanting to, naturally, she would never talk about it with Ralph. That, Ann knew, would be asking for something to happen.

It was 6:10 PM, and she looked like anything but a storybook princess as she traced around the apartment in a slip, tucking Johnny in his crib, casting an eye on Jean’s lamb chop and baked potato.

And then the telephone rang.

“Will you get that, please, honey?” Ralph called

He’s busy, Ann thought, striding on her long legs to the phone. But as she reached it she was smiling, thinking that’s how husbands are, and it struck her as funny. Everything that happened tonight has a glow to it. Nothing could go wrong.

“Hello?”

“This is Claire, Mrs. Flood. I won’t be able to make it tonight. I’m awful sorry.” And then began her elaborate explanation. “Its awfully short notice, Claire,” Ann said dismally, ashamed that she practically had to beg. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Flood. I called all the girls I know who could take my place. They’re all busy.”

“Yes” Ann said.

“I’m really terribly sorry, Mrs. Flood.”

Ann put down the receiver and sat staring at it, feeling a little cold, wishing she could be angry.

“Don’t you feel alright mommy?” Ann looked up to see her daughter watching her with deep concern. “It’s nothing Jean,” she said managing a smile.

Slowly Ann stood up and walked down the hall. Ralph, tall and slim in shorts, was standing before his dresser, putting a new lace in a black shoe.

“Claire had news. She can’t make it tonight.”

Ralph looked up at his pretty wife in astonishment.

“We haven’t got a sitter, darling. The one I reserved four weeks ago isn’t coming.”

Ralph laughed. “Don’t be silly. We have to have a sitter,” he announced and went on lacing the shoe.

“Ralph, look at me. It’s six-fifteen on a Saturday night. There are no sitters. The agency is closed. On Saturdays they stay open until six. For emergencies. We had ours fifteen minutes late.”

Ralph gave up on the lace and came around the bed to her.”I hear everything you say, Ann,” he told her, his hands resting on her slim shoulders. “But somebody in this city is going to sit for us tonight.”

Ann shook her head, letting him lead her down the hall. “There won’t be anybody on Saturday night.”

Still holding her next to him, Ralph picked up their leather address book. “Where have you got them listed?”

“Under B,” Ann said. “For baby-sitter.”

“Dwight Williams’ greatest secretary,” Ralph told her. “Lets see, eight prospects here. My lucky number.”

“Eliminate three,” Ann said. “Claire and Elise, and Bertha. One twelve-hour pass, one marriage, one back to college.”

Ralph released her and she sat down, lighting a cigarette against a long session.

“What’s the matter, daddy?” Jean asked.

“Can’t get anyone brave enough to stay with you,” he said. “You bite.”

Ann dialed and waited. She let the signal sound ten times before she hung up again. Nor were the next two numbers answered. The fourth was Miss Gobel who informed her, a little tartly, Ann thought, that she was engaged for the night. The fifth and last, name on the list was just leaving for a job.

Ralph came over and cupped his hand under Ann’s chin, making her look at him. “Ann, honey. It’s only six-thirty. We don’t leave until eight. …” His voice stopped and she looked up to see him studying her address book.

Clipped to the B page, was a folded paper. He pulled it loose, opened it and read the small tight script. His face wore a broad grin as he handed the note to Ann. “Typical Flood luck.”

“Let’s see,” Ann said doubtfully, trying to remember what the paper was.

She read it again the note she had filed without a second thought. ‘I’m an experienced baby-sitter looking for employment.” It read. “I’m new in this city and saw you in the park today. If you need a sitter please call me. Mary Smith.” Below it, in the same careful hand, was a telephone number: “Trent 4-5678.”

Ralph watched Ann’s face as she folded the note. “What are we waiting for? There’s our sitter.”

No Ralph. Baby-sitters don’t put notes in mailboxes. Ifs she’s reliable she should list herself with an agency or mention a reference.”

“She probably is with an agency,” said Ralph. “She’s just trying to pick up a customer that she likes, that’s all. After all she says she saw you in the park, didn’t she only just moved here?”

“She didn’t even mention references.” Ann said.

“Come on now, Ann. Call her. She’s probably right by that telephone, a perfect sitter, just waiting to come over here.”

Ann just looked at him. They really did have to have someone. Feeling compelled against her will she turned and dialed.

A woman answered.

“Is this Mary smith?”

“No. She hasn’t come in yet.”

“Would you give her a message? Please tell her to call Mrs. Flood.” Ann said. “The number is Boulevard five-three-seven-seven-three.”

The woman repeated it. “Alright” she said.

“She’s got to get home soon.” Ralph smiled.

Watching him Ann knew he was sure again that the Flood luck would hold. Mary Smith would come home in a little while and she’d be free to come here. It was right out of a storybook.

“I want Claire to stay with me,” Jean said.

“So do I, darling. Come on; let’s see how your dinner looks.”

The dark haired little girl followed her mother into the kitchen.

In the police station of that precinct, at twenty minutes before seven, Officer O’Hara was talking earnestly to the man in plain clothes behind the desk.

“… And all I’m saying is that she’s not going to walk in here and giver herself up. She’s out there,” O’Hara said, “walking the streets with a knife, hunting another kid victim. We should be looking for her right now.”

“Sure, O’Hara. I’ll tell the lieutenant and he’ll tell the captain who’ll tell the inspector. The first thing you know, the commissioner will assign five thousand cops to this precinct so we can pick up a women in a brown coat who’s probably on an train two hundred miles from here.”

Detective Sergeant March held up his hand to stop another protest from O’Hara. “Listen,” he said, “what happened tonight was an assault with a knife. The point is, you didn’t have a homicide, O’Hara. That makes a world of difference. If she’d killed that kid then the net would be out for sure. But not just for an assault. You know that.”

“You mean we just wait around until some child is murdered?”

“Take it easy with me, O’Hara. You’re not the only father in the Police Department.”

“It happened on my beat,” O’Hara muttered.

Marsh nodded. “If she’s like the rest them she’s got the blood up.” He tapped his head. “That’s the way the knifers are. They sit quiet for months, even years. But always carrying the knife. Then something happens like tonight. She’s out walking around and, wham, there’s a defenseless kid right in front of her. A sheep cut off from the flock. She attacks him and then she’s off to the races.

“There’s no stopping at one, O’Hara, no more than an alcoholic can stop at one drink. She’s on a binge, thirsting for more. She’s going to want to kill so badly that she’ll get careless. And then we grab her.”

“Sure, ” O’Hara complained. “Right out of the book, isn’t it? She’s going to play right into our hands by being careless when she goes after some poor kid –“

Marsh’s hand slammed the desk. “That’s the way it is!” he shouted. “If you think there’s any other way to get her, then go do it. Here.” He picked up the key case O’Hara had found. “There’s your clue, O’Hara. Not a fingerprint on it. Go on, start walking every street in the city and find the door it unlocks!” He stopped forcibly.

O’Hara stared at the leather thing in his hand. “Mind if I keep it until you need it?”

“Why?”

O’Hara’s smile was wry. “It’s the only contact I have with her.” He looked up. “I don’t feel much like walking that beat tomorrow. Seeing those people –“he turned and left.

O’Hara opened the door to his apartment building and searched in his pocket for his key. He got it in his hand and stood still more several moments, looking at the row of mailboxes against the wall. He walked over to them.

Each mailbox had, of course, its own lock. Above them all, in the center of the unit that help them, was a master lock and directly below was an elliptical trademark with the name Marcato mfg. Co. within it. Then off on the far right hand corner of the master lock he found a seven digit number.

O’Hara took the key case of the alley from his pocket, opened it and looked at the thin mail key. It was smooth and blank. He turned it over. Etched thinly on gleaming new metal was a five digit number, 5301-7. Below it, in thinner letters still, was “Hart Co.” inside a diamond. He looked at his own key—the oval trade-mark was there.

O’Hara returned to the lobby door again. This time he was walking fast.

Five blocks from the precinct house, at fifteen minutes before seven P.M on this Saturday in October, Steve Rojek, the janitor, was polishing the recently installed mailbox in the dim foyer of a four story walk-up building. The address was 122 Wilbur Avenue.

Rojek lifted his head at the sound of knuckles on the locked front door. He turned to see a woman standing there, shifted his polish and rag and opened the door. “Forgot your key?” he asked.

“I lost it,” the woman said, walking past to the stairs.

“Wait,” he told her. “I’ll get you another one.”

She waited stolidly until he returned, holding a new brass key for the front door.

“How about the mail key?” he asked.

“I lost it.”

Rojek made a face. “That I have to send away for. And fill out a form,” he told her. “You’ll have to sign it when I get it.”

She took the key and went upstairs to the third floor. Following the custom of the house she walked to the coin telephone on the wall. Above the box, on the yellowish plaster, were several scribble messages.

No one knew when the custom of recording calls there began, only that they must check the wall constantly for no one could predict when old Rojek would appear with his soapy water and mop. When he did, the messages disappeared.

The woman stood on tiptoe and read her name. “Mary Smith. Call Mrs. Flood. Boulevard 5-3773.” She peered suspiciously at the name again.

It came back to her in a rush. The tall young woman in the park. The baby carriage. The little girl with the long black hair who had spoken to her and then run back to her mother.

The man in the candy store had supplied the name and address. Impulsively she had written the note and dropped it in their box.

The woman opened her purse, deposited a coin and dialed.

Across the city the telephone rang in the living room of Ralph and Ann Flood’s apartment. Ann flood was in the bedroom, scrutinizing the stockings she would wear tonight, if and when they were going. Jean flood was eating her dinner in the kitchen alcove, baby John was sleeping in his crib and Ralph Flood was walking toward the living room for a cigarette.

He lifted the receiver and said. “Hello?”

“This is Mary Smith.”

“Oh. How do you do, Miss Smith! Are you free tonight?” He asked persuasively. “We’ve run into an emergency and found your note.”

“I can come. What time?”

“Swell! We would like to leave before eight.”

“All right.”

“Have you got the address?”

“Yes,” she said and hung up.

“Ralph,” Ann called “ask about references.”

“She’s already hung up,” Ralph said.

“Oh Ralph.” Ann’s face clouded with uncertainty. She shook her head.

“Now stop it,” her husband said. “If Mary Smith were some dangerous character do you think the police would let her run loose? She’d be crazy to go dropping notes in people’s mailboxes. Come on, let’s dress. This is our big night, remember?”

Ann looked into the kitchen at her daughter.

“Is Claire coming to stay with me mommy?”

“No dear. There’s another lady coming and you have to promise to be a very good girl for her.”

“I will,” Jean said. “I’d rather have Claire though.”

O’Hara had left the precinct house and gone home but he had not stopped working. He had one clue, a key, and he knew where it had been manufactured.

“Hart Company?” O’Hara asked into the mouthpiece of his telephone.

“Yes. This is the watchman. Who’d you want?”

“I want to speak to someone in charge.”

“Then you want John Larson. His number is Oliver 29734.”

O’Hara hung up. Behind him he heard the voice of his wife, Kathryn.

“What’s wrong, Tom?”

“Hello, darling. Sorry I’m late. Got stuck down at the station.” He began dialing the Larsen home.

“I gave the kids their dinner,” she said. “I’ll warm yours now.”

A teen ager answered and told him that her father was bowling tonight. At the Leewood place on Fairchild Avenue, she reported.

“Leewood Alleys,” said a bored voice on the phone. O’Hara could hear a rumble and the sharp thunderclap as pins were struck.

“I want to speak to john Larsen. Can you page him?”

“Page him? What do you think this is a hotel?” the man hung up.

O’Hara stood for a moment, his jaw set in an angry line. Then he replaced the receiver on the cradle of the phone.

“Tom! Where are you going?”

“Bowling” he said. “Keep my dinner warm.” The door shut behind him.

In the Flood apartment two things happened at once. The mantel clock sound eight signals just as the doorbell rang. Ann Flood, tall in a chartreuse strapless gown that turned her very dark hair to jet, strode hopefully down the hall, paused a second before the door and opened it.

She found herself looking at a fifty-year old woman in a brown hat and brown coat who gazed out at her from metal-rimmed close-fitting spectacles.

“Miss Smith? Won’t you come in?”

The woman halted just inside the door and looked around her. She unbuttoned her shapeless coat and then waited for Ann to lift it from her and hang it in the closet.

“Would you like to put you bag in here?”

“I’ll hold it,” the woman said.

“Miss Smith,” Ann began a little hesitatingly, “I’m very grateful to you for helping us out on such short notice…”

Ann stirred restlessly in the face of the woman’s phlegmatic silence. Ann stopped, her head inclined toward the woman, beseeching her, if she wouldn’t speak, at least to acknowledge that there was a conversation.

“Do you have any references, Miss Smith?”

“Yes,” the woman said, “I have references.”

Ann sighed and sat back. Of course she had references. They were in her bag.

That’s why she kept it in view like that.

Turning her head Ann saw little Jean standing uncertainly in the doorway, her eyes locked with the sitter’s.

May I see the references, Miss Smith?”

The woman looked back at Ann slowly.

“I don’t have them here. They’re in my room.”

“Oh.” Ann wondered what to do now.

Ralph entered the room—burst into—tall, grinning, and immaculate in his dinner jacket. He seemed to radiate an irresistible glow of good cheer.

“Daddy!” Jean cried.

“My biggest fan,” he said with infectious warmth, walking to the woman. “How do you do, Miss Smith?”

Ralph turned to Ann. “Well? You and Miss Smith all straightened out?”

Jean, encouraged by the presence of both parents, came into the room and looked at the stranger. “I go to school,” she said.

Whether it was the young voice or what Jean had said or Jean herself, Ann could not be sure. But she was aware that Miss Smith’s eyes showed the first interest.

“Nursery school,” Ann explained with smile in her voice.

“I used to teach,” the woman said in a monotone. “In a nursery school.”

“Really? Where, Miss Smith?”

“Ohio.”

“Oh? Have you given it up?”

“Ann,” Ralph said, “I hate to break into your little chitchat, honey. But we’re so late—“

She looked up at her husband, her eyes wide. Seeing him there, his eyes shining, his cheeks flushed, she felt the full force of the excitement in him and stood up. “Will you get my jacket?” she asked him. The baby’s teething,” she said to the sitter. “If he wakes up just try to comfort him. I guess that’s all you can do.”

“All right,” the woman said. jAnn turned to jean. “Good-by, darling. Be a good girl for Miss Smith, won’t you?”

“Why can’t Claire stay with me,” the little girl asked. “I like her better.”

She came to her mother and Ann stooped low to hug her. Then Jean turned to her father who swept her aloft and held her to him. “So long, squeak. Get to bed soon.”

“Will you kiss me good night when you come home?”

“Cross my heart. One kiss now and one when we come home.” He let her down reluctantly. “All set?” he asked Ann.

“Yes” she said. “It won’t bother you, Miss Smith? The baby’s crying I mean?”

Ann didn’t know why she’d felt compelled to ask.

“No,” the woman said. “What time will you come home?

“We’ll try to be early. And here’s the number of the hotel where we’ll be at if you need me—“

“Come on, Ann.”

Ralph opened the door, let her through, smiled again at his daughter and the baby-sitter standing side by side in the foyer and closed the door behind him.

O’Hara was not going bowling when he left home. He was going to the Lee wood Bowling Alleys. As with most people innocent or guilty, the sight of a policeman in uniform brought anxiety to the face of the thin young man behind the cashier’s desk at the alleys.

“I called you before about a man named John Larson,” O’Hara said quietly.

The cashier swallowed.

“I didn’t know it was you…Why didn’t you say…. “You got any idea which company he’s bowling for?”

“Company?”

The cashier nodded. “Tonight’s the industrial league tournament.”

“There wouldn’t be a team from the Hart Company?”

The other man brightened.

“Sure. Alley thirteen. Why didn’t you say he was bowling for Hart?”

“Why the hell didn’t you ask me?” O’Hara said and turned away toward alley thirteen.

“Which one is John Larson?” he asked a man on the bench. The man, like the cashier, looked troubled.

“John,”he called to a round-faced man at the scoring table. John Larson glanced up, saw O’ Hara and came over quickly.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’ve got one of your company’s keys,” O’Hara said.

“Can you trace it back to the mailbox it fits?”

“Maybe it depends on the number of your key.”

O’Hara showed him the key case. Larsen nodded.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Our new model. The fifty-three stands for the year. The oh-one means it’s the first one of the line and the seven lock fits.”

“You can tell me the address of the mailbox?”

“It’s possible. Like I say, this is a brand new model. Not too many of them have been sold.”

“Get your hat and coat then,” O’Hara told him. “We’re going back to the office.”

“I’m in a tournament, Larsen protested. “I can’t leave here.”

O’Hara pushed his face close to the other man’s.

“A kid came near being killed this afternoon. This key belongs to the suspect. I’ve got to grab her before she tries again.”

“Are you ordering me to go with you?” Larsen began.

“I’m here as a guy to who has two kids. I’m talking to a guy to whose daughter I spoke on the phone.”

“To hell with the bowling,” Larsen said then.

“Let’s get a move on.”

Fifteen minutes later O’Hara stood in Larsen’s office at the Hart Company.

From a file Larsen took a folder labeled “5300.”

He opened it.

“Oh-oh,” he said

“What’s the matter?”

“Our sales department did a better job than I thought. Look at this stack orders for the city alone.”

“How many are there?”

“Must be fifty addresses,” he said slowly.

“We’ll have to narrow it down,” O’Hara said

“The addresses in the general neighborhood. Do you know the streets around fourteenth and ember?”

“Pretty well.”

Five minutes passed as they worked. Finally Larsen looked up. “The grand total of two, he said.

“There here,” said O’Hara. He took the sales orders and laid them face down on the desk.

“Okay,” O’Hara said.

Where do we go first?”

Larsen looked at the address.

“One Twenty-two Wilbur Avenue,” he said.

They left the building, flagged a cab and sped to the address. As they entered the house O’Hara looked at his companion in dismay.

“There isn’t a mailbox here.”

“Must be,” Larsen said.

“We sold them one. They didn’t throw it away.” He looked through the glass door.

“There it is in the hall. I’ll ring the janitor.”

“Wait,” O’Hara said, they key case in his hand. He walked toward the door apprehensively, inserted the key and turned it gently.

“This is the place!” he breathed.

“You’d make a lucky gambler,” Larsen commented, following.

“Now.” He counted off the shining metal boxes. This is number seven. Try the key here.”

M. Smith,” O’Hara said, reading the name.

“That doesn’t tell us if it’s a woman.” He put the thin key in the lock and twisted it. The lock opened and the small door came out on its hinges.

“This is it!”

“What’s the trouble?” It was Rojek, standing in the hall at his door.

“Who is M. Smith?” O’Hara asked authoritatively.
“Miss Smith? Three-C. What’s wrong? The janitor asked.

O’Hara had already begun climbing the stairs, Larsen directly behind. At the door marked 3-C the policeman halted and listened. Then he straightened and knocked. A moment later he knocked again gently. O’Hara tried the knob and the door opened. He took a cautious step and halted, holding his breath in order to hear someone else’s. He located the light switch and flicked it on.

“Gone,” O’Hara groaned.

The room was empty of any possessions beyond the meager furniture put there by the building owner.

“What are you going to do?” Larsen asked.

“Do? Give up and go home. The detective work is out of my line. I’m just one of those cops meant to spend his life in harness, pounding a beat till arches cave.”

O’Hara edges his way despondently past the other man, down the dimly lighted thin- carpeted hall, past the coin telephone.

“Come on,” he called “This is a dead end.” He watched Larsen turn and come down the hall.

“What’s the matter?” Larsen asked. “What are you staring at?”

“What that on the wall behind you? Above the telephone?”

Larsen looked around. “People writing notes to themselves about, looks like a — Holy Toledo!”

O’Hara was beside him, reading the messages aloud.

“Marry Smith. Call Mrs. Flood. Boulevard five-three-seven-seven- three.’ ”

“What do you think?” asked Larsen.

“Another dead end. Probably weeks old.”

“But suppose it isn’t?”

O’Hara reached for the directory on a chain beside the telephone. “Flood,” he read. “Ralph Flood, Fifteen Garth Road.

“The address for this number.”

“Let’s call him.”

“No,” the policeman said. “If this Mary Smith is there we don’t want to give her any warning. “Let’s get out there–”

“She’s there,” O’Hara said without any emotion.

“I think so too, Larsen said. “I think we ought to call. Fifteen minutes might be too late.”

“No,” said O’ Hara again. He could not explain why he was afraid to call Ralph Flood’s house.

“The Flood’s had left the apartment, sped across town and gone through main arch of the hotel ballroom. Only fifteen minutes had passed but they had been swept up in the warm gay Mardi Gras excitement that surged in the place from the moment they entered.

“They all know, darling,” Ralph said to her. “Dwight’s moved up the time for the announcement since the cat’s out anyway.”

“Oh?”

“He’s going to tell them fifteen minutes. Ann,” he added a catch in his voice.

Ann turned to see waiters moving around the edge of the floor, arranging buckets of champagne for the toast that would follow Dwight William’s announcement.

“Ralph, is all this really for you and me?”

“It’s like the stories you stop believing when you’re sixteen…. What’s the matter, Ann? What did I say?”

“Nothing.”

“ I felt you shiver, honey. It must be that gown.”

She made herself smile at him, something she had never had to do before. The feeling — she refused to call it premonition — had begun before he had spoken.

“Well are you two children finally going to sit down?”

Ann turned at the sound of a familiar voice and looked down into the sunny smiling face of Laura Williams who sat next to the empty places that were Ann’s and Ralph’s.

At that moment Dwight Williams came up, took Ralph by the arm conspiratorially, assumed that Ann was with Laura and moved away with him.

“We came very close to not getting here,” Ann said.

“Not getting here?” Don’t be ridiculous.” Laura laughed gently.

“I’m not. Our sitter brushed us off at exactly six-fifteen,” she said.

“The traitor! What did you ever do?”

Ann looked at the other woman and found herself giving in to the urge to tell someone. “I found a sitter,” she said.

“On Saturday night? You’re a magician, Ann.

“None of my regulars would have been available on a Saturday.”

“She isn’t a regular. I’ve never had her before.” Ann’s eyes searched her friend’s face.

“From the agency?” Laura asked

“I-well, I don’t know very much about her at all. She just left the note in our mailbox. She was a teacher,” Ann added in a rush, in Ohio.”

“Oh,” Laura said doubtfully.

“I know I shouldn’t have taken her.”

Laura smiled. Shrugging her shoulders.

“ I’m the last person you should be talking to tonight, Ann.”

“Why?”

“Oh, we had some excitement in the neighborhood late this afternoon. That’s not quite the word I wanted to use.”

“What happened?”

“Well,” Laura said, Keeping her voice light, “I got it from my delivery boy, He showed up about an hour late with groceries and full of this story about a woman who was shopping in the store, had her little boy with her, but to get shopping done with, she’d parked him front.”

Ann nodded.

“Well, she kept glancing out at him and he was fine. And then about a minute after her last look, he was gone. She dashed and saw him half way up the block. Except”… Laura said, ”that now there was someone with him, pulling at his arm. When the mother got there,” Laura said quickly, “The little boy was being attacked with a knife. The mother saved him and the boy is all right, thank the Lord. But the woman got away.”

“The Woman?” Ann asked suddenly, summing that the someone in the story had been a man.

Laura nodded.

“But my delivery boy said the police will find her. Probably the whole department’s out looking for a woman in a brown coat tonight — Ann! What’s the matter?”

Ann was on her feet, holding the back of her chair, Laura’s face swimming below her. “A woman in a brown coat.”

“What is it Ann!”

She looked wildly toward the floor. The dancers were frenzied crazily leering Mob. She couldn’t find Ralph.

“Wait Ann!”

She moved away, pushing people aside she saw again the woman in the brown coat. She felt the coat under her fingers as she lifted it from the woman’s shoulders and hung it carefully in the closet. She saw them standing there — the woman and Jean — side by side in the foyer. The door closing in her face again.

“Can I help you Madame?”

“Phone — telephone.” She spoke thickly to the waiter.

Ann sank into the small chair and threatened to topple forward. She lifted her head, removed the receiver and put her finger on the dial.

She held the receiver to her ear and listened to the tripping metallic sound. Another. A third time. A fourth. It sounded again and again and again. Lifelessly she held the receiver away from her.

Across the city, the second time that evening, the telephone bell rang in the Floods’ apartment. The eighth signal was choked off as the receiver was lifted.

“Hello?”

“Who –“ Ann’s tone was faint.

“My name is O’Hara,” the voice at the other end said. “But if you’re calling Flood’s apartment, this is it.”

There was a silence. “This is Mrs. Flood,” she sobbed.

“Oh! This is Patrolman O’Hara, Mrs. Flood.”

“My children –“

“Everything’s all right here now. I’ll convince you of that by putting your daughter on the phone. Hold on a minute.”

Ann waited eyes closed. Then, “Hello Mommy! Are you dancing with Daddy?”

There’s a policeman here. He’s going to tell me a story. He –“

Ann Flood laughed and cried and talked at once. “Jean! Oh, Jean, darling!”

“The Policeman wants to talk on the telephone, Mommy.”

“We were changing the little tyke’s diaper when the phone started,” O’Hara broke in. “That’s what took me so long answering.”

“We? She’s still there?”

“Your sitter? She just got taken out of here, Mrs. Flood. By ‘We’ I meant Larsen.”

“Oh.” Ann’s head was reeling. Her children were safe. Miss Smith was “taken out of here.” A policeman with a marvelous voice was changing John’s diaper with a man named Larsen.

“I-I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t seem to talk. I’m afraid I’m crying.”

“Well it is all over now, Mrs. Flood. She won’t ever be near your children again. Tell me, did she say anything to you about being a teacher?”

“In a nursery school.”

“Yes. I found a letter in her purse. A school in Ohio. She was applying for a job and they turned her down. They’d checked on her,” said O’Hara softly. “That’s something you should have done. She’s got a record of cruelty to a child that goes back ten years.”

Ann was silent. Then, “How did you ever find her?”

O’Hara allowed himself a smile. “That’s a long story, ma’am. Long and lucky. I hate to think what would have happened if that telephone bell would have startled her.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Ann told him, “We’ll be right home.”

“No hurry,” he said. “Enjoy yourself now that you’re out.”

“You’re-How am I ever going to thank you?”

“Why, I don’t expect any thanks,” O’Hara said, surprised at the idea. “But there is something you can do if you would.”

“What is it?”

“You could call up a woman named Mrs. Driscoll. She has a little boy. I’ll give you her number. Just tell her that this time O’Hara was there. She’ll understand.”

“Yes, O’Hara.” Ann said affectionately. “I think I do, too. We’ll be home right away.”

Ann replaced the receiver and turned to see Ralph walking toward her quickly, a question on his face.

“Were you calling home, Annie? Is everything all right?”

She stood up. “Yes, my darling, everything at home is all right.”

“What’s the matter, Ann? You sound so strange.”

“I’ll tell you about it in a moment,” she said, putting her hand on his broad palm.

“Come on,” he said.

“Dwight’s just getting ready to tell everybody the good news.”

She walked along with him, smiling up at his eager face. Dwight, she thought, doesn’t even know our good news.

One Response to “The Babysitter Mystery: Short Story”

  1. Quantina Says:

    Did this really happen? If so that’s kinda messed up how the police wanted basically to find a little kid murdered before really trying to do something about it. I think it is cool though how the police officer and the man who was in the tournament took the time out to help the man who was in this big tournament took the time out to help find this cruel lady. But most of all if this wasn’t a real case it is some out there like it and this is a good example of it.

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