The Home of Gifts
by Ian Anderson
The last few days had been long, and all Mark Sands wanted to do was finish his report and go home. He sat alone looking over the same notes, hoping somehow that he’d missed something, and tried to ignore the fire in his back.
You believe me, don’t you Mark? The question echoed through Mark’s brain a hundred times, and the old man’s face beamed at him. In twenty years of detective work, never had he been taken in by a lie. That’s why the report wouldn’t write itself. He could tell, with faultless accuracy, if someone was telling the truth. Yet, how could anything the old man had said be true?
So Mark went back to the day he had met him. He laid the facts out one by one. They always told the truth no matter how cold.
* * *
It was a windy September day. The clouds swept past in an endless succession, and the heat from the month before was cast away. Fall began.
Mark had been surprised when he saw the address that had been called in: 401 South Glenmerle. The house was a block west of his apartment. He was even more surprised by the house itself; it towered over him as he got out of his car. How had he missed such an imposing place so close to his own? It bothered him that he hadn’t noticed it, that he could be surprised by something that might as well have been in his own backyard.
His hat tumbled from his head as he climbed the porch steps, and when he turned to chase it, he was met by a wrinkled face.
“A fortunate bounce,” the mouth, the smiling mouth, had said as the old man handed Mark his hat. “Do you have business here, Detective?”
Mark hadn’t replied. How...?
“You’ll excuse me. I’m rather nosy. You live a block to the east, correct?” Mark watched as the old fingers fumbled with a key and finally opened the tall door to a long hallway. “I make it a point to know my neighbors.”
“Then you can help,” Mark said. He followed as the man shuffled into the house. “Have you seen this young man?” Mark produced a picture from an inner pocket and held it out.
“Let me see, where are my glasses?” Mark saw them on the hall table but hesitated to help. One couldn’t be sure if help was always welcome. “Do you see them?
My glasses, Mark thought. Mark picked them up and handed them over.
“Thank you. Yes,” the old man’s response was quick after glancing at the picture. “Yes, that’s Patrick. Patrick Hall, I’m sure of it.”
The eyes, thought Mark, the eyes were yet clear and young despite the need for correction. Even with a body that might fall apart any moment, the eyes were alive.
“And have you seen him?” asked Mark. “He’s been missing for two weeks.” Mark watched the eyes. They studied the picture and a curious smile made its way across the face.
“Yes, I’ve seen him since then.” He looked up at Mark and handed him the picture. “He’s here. But you knew that, or that he was seen coming here.” Another smile slowly worked itself on the corners of the old mouth, not an unkind one. “Why else would you have come?”
A sharp brain, too.
“That’s right. A neighbor saw him enter here. And a friend, a close friend of Patrick’s, knew he’d planned to come.”
“Jonathan,” a chuckle from the throat escaped the old man. “Patrick was apprehensive about Jon.” Then, as though the matter of Patrick had been settled, he turned from Mark and shuffled into a front room.
“If you’ve seen him, Mr....” Mark paused and listened to the noises in the next room. Boxes were slowly being moved, drawers opened and closed. Mark raised his voice. “When did you see him?” A chair squeaked across the floor. “When did he leave?”
The old face popped out around the doorway, and Mark stepped back. “He’s still here. I saw him today.” He went back to rummaging and Mark followed.
It was a study lined with built-in bookshelves. A desk squatted in the corner by a bay window that overlooked the porch.
“Ah, here it is!” From an upper shelf the old man pulled down a blue box that was big enough to hold a watch or a small knife. “Like I said, Detective, I make it a habit to know my neighbors. You are an angler, no?”
Mark reached out for the chair near him, his legs shook and it was a moment before he could respond.
“Yes, I love to fish.” It was more than love; Mark went days when all he could think about was fishing. Casting the lure hypnotized him, calmed him, quieted the thoughts he wrestled with. “No.” Mark shook his head. “Patrick, where’s Patrick right now?”
“Patience.” Mark watched as the gnarled fingers of this odd man, this man whom no one knew but who knew everyone, opened the box that was the color of a summer sky. “I thought you might enjoy these.”
The lures were beautiful. In fact, they were part of a set Mark had coveted for a long time, an expensive set. Instinctively, Mark reached out for the box, his heart already accepting the gift.
Suddenly, the picture of Patrick reminding him of his business, Mark pulled away and turned to look out the window.
“Patrick’s family reported that in a call from this house on the night of the tenth, a man alleged to be Patrick, but the voice was not his.” Mark turned, his composure regained. “Do you know anything about that call?”
“I do,” the old man was looking down at the box, dusting it with his hand. “It was Patrick who made the call. He sat at that desk there.”
“Yet his own mother would know her son’s voice.”
“Yes, she would.”
“And you said he’s still here?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Where? He’s been here two weeks and he won’t go home?”
“He’s here. You’ll have to trust me, Detective. And yes, he came of his own will.” The blue box was now on the desk and Mark fought the urge to look at it.
“I need to search the house. May I?”
The old man placed his fingers on the box and did not respond immediately. His eyes followed his index finger as it traced the edges of the cardboard.
“If I don’t give you permission, you can’t search my house, correct?”
"A search warrant won’t be difficult to obtain based on your statements.”
“Of course. By all means, you may search” — he paused and opened the box — “if you take the gift.”
He was looking at Mark now. He looked into his eyes, making his own search. But for what? Mark thought.
Mark’s heart beat in his ears and his hands wanted desperately to snatch the box and hide it away in his coat pocket. “Nonsense.” He would control himself. “If I have to get a warrant, I will.”
It was the old man’s turn to stare out the window, the afternoon light glowing on his face. A child on a tricycle passed by. She waved at the house and rang her bell.
“No. A warrant won’t be necessary, Detective. I give you permission. Search.”
Mark stepped into the hall and the old man called him back.
“You should know that you’ll not find exactly what you’re looking for. Patrick won’t be found. However, there is another young man here. Though whether he can answer your questions is another matter. He’s been ill and hasn’t been able to speak.”
“Is Patrick alive?” Mark reached for his gun even though nothing about the old man suggested any sort of danger. But the facts...
“Very much alive. He simply doesn’t wish to be found at present.”
Mark turned once more into the hall.
“Do you consider yourself a generous person, Detective?”
The question stopped Mark at the foot of the stairway, and his heart began to beat at his ears, this time as though it meant to explode his eardrums.
“I’m not sure how that relates to anything.” Mark’s hand squeezed the bannister, and he didn’t turn to face the presence that was nearing him.
“It relates to the lures, Detective. The lures you want, but will not accept.”
“Yes. I’m a generous person.” The silence that filled the hall prompted Mark to fix his eyes on the second floor landing and repeat, almost to himself, “I’m a generous person, a very generous person.”
Mark waited, his back still to the old man.
“Sorry I’m prying. But what was the last gift you gave?”
Mark spun and faced the old man. The small wrinkled body was impossibly still, Mark observed. His clothes hung on him as though they were three sizes too large.
“A very expensive one, to my niece.” Mark smiled at the thought, smiled that he could throw this fact at the ridiculous pile of wrinkled flesh that questioned him. “It was her eighth birthday and she wanted a doll house her parents couldn’t afford.” Mark continued up the stairs.
“How old is she now?”
Mark froze. “She’s... she’s... What’s it to you?” He clenched his jaw. “Why all the questions about me? I’m here for Patrick!”
“Of course. My apologies.”
“Now, if you’ll wait in the study, I won’t be long. And you might as well prepare yourself for a trip to the station.”
Mark turned his head and watched as the old man moved cautiously to the hall closet for his coat. He draped it over his arm and sat down just inside the study door. Mark could see his black shoes from where he stood.
“What kind of elderly man is this?” Mark muttered as he walked upstairs. “He hides people who want to be here, tries to give strangers gifts, and wears black converse basketball shoes.”
The search was brief. Only one of the five rooms upstairs, including the attic, had anything in it, the ill young man Mark had been told he would find. When Mark entered the room, the youth rolled over and smiled at him, then fell asleep.
Mark studied the face — the red hair, the pointed ears, the freckles covering the flat nose. it wasn’t Patrick, and it wasn’t anyone he’d ever seen. He slept contentedly.
“Sleep now. I’m sure I’ll have questions for you later.”
The other rooms were empty; even the closets contained nothing, only dust and cobwebs. As Mark searched each one, he noted the way his footsteps echoed off the walls and the way his shadow crawled over floors and through doorways; he shivered and picked up his pace.
Finally, Mark headed downstairs. The old man stood ready in the hall, his hands in his pockets. “Is Samuel resting?”
“He is. How long has he been here?”
“Not long. A few months.”
“Do you have everything you need?”
“No, glad you mentioned it.” Mark watched as the old man retrieved an accordion folder from a lower drawer in the desk. He couldn’t help but look at the blue box, but as soon as the old man turned around, Mark headed for the front door.
He’d seen him look, the old man had, and he tapped the box with his fingernails and smiled to himself. He was humming as he walked past Mark. Mark rolled his eyes.
* * *
It was a twenty-minute drive to the station. The September evening was cold, and Mark’s heater clunked as it tried to blow warm air. The only other sounds were the old man’s somewhat labored breathing and the tires rolling on the street.
“Why do you suppose you didn’t take the lures?”
“Why does it matter?” Mark gripped the steering wheel, and his knuckles alternated red and white.
“I want you to have them. I imagine you would enjoy them.”
And he would. Mark saw the two lures in his mind’s eye. Original Rapala Swimmers from the 1940s. He’d seen the booklet that came with them. Why didn’t he take them?
“You would like to be able to receive them, wouldn’t you?”
“It seems as though you’re trying to bribe me. Is that what this is, a bribe?”
The old man chuckled. “I think you know better than that, Detective.” Out of the corner of his eye, Mark could see him smiling at his hands. “I know September isn’t the best time to fish, but—”
“You have the right to be silent.”
“Is this an arrest?”
The words had come out wrong. Mark looked out his window and adjusted his grip on the wheel. “No.” Not yet, he thought. “Just, you don’t have to talk to me.”
“You don’t understand my kindness.”
“I don’t understand a lot of things about you.”
The old man laughed. “Do you want to be a generous person, Detective?”
“You assume I’m not. I told you about my niece.”
“Who doesn’t want to be generous?”
It began to rain.
Neither man spoke; they listened to the swish of the wipers, the drops on the hood and roof of the car. Street lights flashed on, shining an orange light at regular intervals.
Mark pulled into his parking spot and intended to help the old man out, but when he tried to get out himself, his back seized and began to spasm. He sat with his feet on the pavement and waited for the pain to stop.
“Let me help,” a wrinkled hand reached for Mark’s shoulder.
“I’m fine,” Mark spat in reply. And even though the pain still shot up and down his spine, he made himself stand and walk. “Come on, we’re getting wet.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Ian Anderson