Please enjoy the second chapter of my Young Adult series book 1, The Red Coat, a Sophie Collins Mystery. Sophie is my version of a modern-day, young Nancy Drew.
Book 2 — The Secrete of Trail House Lodge — coming soon.
Some time later, Sophie was awakened by noises coming from the dumpster behind Johnson’s Department Store. She peeked out through the flap and watched as trash bags fell over the side of the dumpster and landed in the deepening snow with soft thuds. The box of plastic hangers flew out of the dumpster. It glanced off the edge of the dumpster and landed in the snowdrift at the bottom of the dumpster, scattering the hangars silently in the snow.
Who or what was doing this? Sophie puzzled.
Just then, a frazzled blonde head popped up in the middle of the dumpster belonging to a frantic looking woman with dark smudges across her forehead and black mascara streaks down her face. Sophie couldn’t tell if the woman was angry or crying when the woman threw her hands in the air and yelled, “Errrrrrr! I give up!”
Sophie watched through the slit in the flap as the frustrated woman chinced up the belt on her tan coat. Muttering something that Sophie couldn’t hear, she flipped her tangled mass of hair over the fur collar of the coat and threw her leg over the side of the dumpster. She jumped down, landing on the side of her ankle as the four inch heel on her right sude boot snapped off.
“Ow! Son. Of. A. Bitch!” she squawked and muttered other unintelligible words, grabbing her ankle and rubbing it.
The woman pulled her good leg up under her and tried to stand. She tried once, twice, and three times with no success. Sophie began to wonder if she should try to help. However, that would mean leaving her now warm cardboard home and letting in all the cold air she was trying so desperately to keep out.
“Oh shoot,” Sophie mumbled, “I can’t let her freeze.”
Putting the red coat around her shoulders and tying the arms in a loose knot across her chest, Sophie untied the string and pulled the box flap back. The makeshift stick latch slipped out of its hole and dangled precariously as she crawled out into the snow-covered alley.
The woman had not noticed Sophie, the snow muffling her steps until she touched her shoulder. The woman jumped and let out a squeaky scream.
“Are you all right?” Sophie asked.
“Do I look all right?” the woman snapped, and tried to get up again.
“I’ll be glad to help you up. Here, give me your hand.” Sophie extended her hand to the woman.
“I’m fine. I do not need any help from your kind,” she said, slapping Sophie’s hand away and noticing what Sophie was wearing. “You have my coat on. Take it off! Take it off this minute! Give it back!” she demanded. “You have no right to it!” She was practically screaming at Sophie now.
“Your coat?” Sophie asked, surprised and backed up. “Lady, I found it in the dumpster where someone threw it away. Anythin’ in the dumpsters is fair game and belongs to whoever finds it … and I found it.” Sophie stated smugly, as she squatted down on her haunches, enjoying the spectacle as the woman struggled to get up again.
She’s gotta lot a nerve demandin’ I give her this coat. Probably some highfalutin society type who don’t know nothin’ ’bout bein’ cold. She’s gotta a mighty fine lookin’ coat on, so what’s she need this one for? Pretty selfish, if you ask me.
“Well, that coat is mine. Now give it back!” the woman demanded, letting out an unladylike grunt as she fell back in the snow.
All the woman’s screaming had alerted old man Johnson, who stormed out of his back door.
“What the hell’s going on out here?” he demanded, scowling from Sophie to the woman.
“She fell out of the dumpster,” Sophie said, standing up and brushing the snow off her backside.
“That filthy, little person has my coat and I want it back!” the woman yelled, pointing a shaking finger in Sophie’s direction.
“Sophie, where did you get the coat?” old man Johnson asked, walking over and picking up the side of the coat.
“Found it in the dumpster. Right there, in that one,” Sophie said, pointing to the dumpster behind the woman.
She’s got her nerve calling me ‘filthy.’ I’m no such thing! Sophie scowled at the woman.
“Well, now,” old man Johnson drawled, looking back at the woman, “what makes you think it’s your coat?”
“Check the pockets. Check the pockets,” the woman repeated, her teeth beginning to chatter. “I have receipts and a theater ticket in the pockets. Look! Look! You’ll see. It doesn’t belong to her.”
Old man Johnson stuck his hand in the right-hand pocket of the red coat. Looking at the woman, “There’s nothing in this pocket. I’ll check the other one.” He stepped around Sophie and checked the other pocket. “Nope. Nothing there, either.” He looked at the woman.
“Well, she must have thrown them away. The receipts aren’t important, but the theater ticket is irreplaceable. It was the last one for Saturday’s performance at the Bijou. I must have it.” The woman was nearly in tears now. “It’s an anniversary present from my husband.” Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks, adding to the mascara streaks already there.
Old man Johnson walked over and helped the woman up. “There, there. Let’s all go inside and warm up while we try to sort this out,” he said, holding the woman up as she wobbled on the other four inch heeled boot through the backdoor of Johnson’s Department Store. Sophie followed slowly, debating what to do about the theater ticket she was fingering in the pocket of her old coat.
Old man Johnson opened the door to his office and helped the woman to a chair. Sniffling, she wiped her face with the back of her hand, smearing the mascara streaks across her cheek so now it looked like she was wearing war paint.
“Thank you,” the woman said and immediately glared at Sophie as she entered the room, stopping just inside the door.
“Come on in, Sophie,” old man Johnson coaxed. “Have a seat and warm yourself up.” Smiling at her, he pulled out a chair and motioned for her to sit down.
Cautiously, Sophie inched her way over to the chair and sat down on the edge, extremely uncomfortable with the whole situation.
This woman’s a real piece o’ work. She might even be an escapee from a psycho ward. Sophie thought cautiously watching the woman.
“Now,” — old man Johnson turned to the woman — “tell me what’s going on.”
Her hand shaking, the woman, pointed an accusing finger at Sophie. “She … she stole my coat, and I want you to make her give it back!” Her voice cracked. “It’s mine, mine, mine. I want it back.” She pounded her fists on her knees like a petulant child.
Sophie stared wide-eyed at the woman, wondering if she was going to have some kind of seizure. Yep, just as I expected, a real piece o’ work.
“Now, seems to me, Sophie here said she found it in the dumpster. I’ve never known Sophie to lie about anything. So how do you suppose it got there?” He searched the woman’s face, noticing her eyes dropped to study her shaking hands.
“How should I know?” the woman shouted, throwing her hands up in the air, tears starting again, adding new streaks to the mascara.
“So, you didn’t throw the coat in the dumpster?” old man Johnson asked again, patiently.
“NO,” the woman shouted! “I told you; I did not put the damn coat in the stupid dumpster. Don’t you understand English? NO, HELL NO!” the woman shrieked, her face turning purple.
Sophie looked from old man Johnson to the woman and braced herself to run for the door in case the woman went off the deep end, which now seemed extremely likely.
“Calm down!” old man Johnson commanded the woman, his patience wearing thin. “If you didn’t put it there, how do you suppose it got there? I see the coat you have on is one from our new Contessa line, did you buy that today?” he asked,.He watched the color drain from her face making the mascara streaks more pronounced.
The woman looked down twisting her hands together and swallowing, “Yes,” she said, barely audible.
“What’s that? I missed that,” old man Johnson waited.
“Yes, I bought it today,” she said, louder still twisting her hands.
“What did you do with the coat you were wearing when you bought this one?”
Sophie leaned forward, almost slipping off the edge of the chair, straining to hear what the woman was going to say.
“I left it in the dressing room,” she whispered, her eyes closed in resignation. “I left it in the damn dressing room! Is that what you wanted to hear?” She looked up, her eyes narrowed to slits; her brow formed a V in anger that disappeared when she started talking.
“My husband, Councilman Morsey, had a massive heart attack this morning, and I was in a hurry to get back to the hospital to show him the anniversary present he had bought me before he went into surgery.” She paused and glared briefly at Sophie before continuing.
“My darling Hustus was scheduled for heart bypass surgery this afternoon and,” she paused and sniffed. “And I wanted to show him this coat I’d bought with the money he had given me for our anniversary before he went to surgery.” She finished breathlessly not realizing she was repeating herself.
She looked down, twisting her hands nervously before she took a deep breath, “He … he didn’t make it.” Tears bubbled up and spilled down her cheeks. “He was gone before I got back. The doctor said there was nothing they could do.” Tears flooded down her face as she buried her face in her hands. Uncontrollable sobs shook her shoulders.
Old man Johnson pulled his chair over beside the woman’s and put his arm around her shoulders, gently rocking her as she sobbed. Looking at Sophie over the woman’s head, he motioned for her to hand him the box of tissues setting on the table next to her.
Sophie handed him the box then scooted back on the chair seat, contemplating what the woman had said.
So, if the theater ticket and the new coat were both anniversary presents, why was the old coat so darn important? It made no sense to make a fuss over it if all she wanted was that stupid ticket, Sophie reasoned.
Sophie fingered the ticket in the pocket of her old coat again as she watched old man Johnson and the woman, wondering if she shouldn’t just give the coat and ticket back. She didn’t need all this drama, and she worried she’d been gone way too long. Someone could have found her box.
No. I’ll give her the stupid ticket, but I’m keeping the coat. It was in the dumpster and fair game … and I found it! she though smugly.
Sophie straightened up in her chair, ready to open her mouth when she felt a sharp prick on her finger as she ran it on the ticket again. She pulled her hand out and saw a drop of blood forming on the end of her finger.
Sophie immediately popped it into her mouth, tasting the rusty iron tang of the blood. Pulling her finger out, she examined the spot where the blood was forming again. It was more than a prick, more like a small slice. Paper cut. She immediately dismissed it, sucking on her finger again watching old man Johnson and the woman.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” old man Johnson consoled the woman. He paused, “This throws a different light on things. If you left the coat in the dressing room, I’m sure one of my sales people would have taken it to the lost and found. They would not have thrown it in the trash.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be more specific about this, but I’m sure I left it in the dressing room.” The woman sniffed, reaching for another tissue. Her eyes hardened as she looked at Sophie over the top of the tissue, blowing her nose. I’m damn sure not tellin’ him I told the sales clerk I didn’t want it and to get rid of it, she thought. Softening her face and smiling, she turned back to old man Johnson.
“Can you have her give me the coat now, please. It doesn’t belong to her. It’s mine and I did not intend to leave it behind, but I was so upset about my husband, I just forgot it,” she cajoled as she placed her hand pleadingly on his arm.
Old man Johnson turned to Sophie. “What about it, Sophie? Want to give the coat back?” he asked quietly.
Sophie looked from the woman to old man Johnson and back again, eyeing her suspiciously.
No, I’m keeping the coat she decided.
Sophie watched the woman’s face turn to a stone cold mask that chilled Sophie more than below zero weather ever could. She looked at old man Johnson to see if he had noticed, he hadn’t.
Straightening her shoulders, she took a deep breath, “No, I’m keeping the coat. It was in the dumpster so that makes it fair game. I found it, so it’s mine. Now…” Sophie snuck a glance at the woman, “if she wants that ticket, I might be willing to make a deal,” she told old man Johnson, not looking at the woman.
The look on the woman’s face had frightened her a little, but not enough to keep her from trying to make a sweet deal for herself.
The woman jumped up from her chair and lunged at Sophie, “No! That is my coat and you will give it to me, NOW!” she shouted her face turning a purplish red.
Old man Johnson grabbed the woman’s arm before she reached Sophie and pulled her back to the chair and shoved her down. “SIT!” he commanded.
Here it comes. I’m outta here. Sophie was out of her chair and halfway out the door when old man Johnson hollered for her to stop and come back. She hesitated and turned around slowly, watching old man Johnson and thinking he certainly didn’t move like an old man. I may have to think of something else to call him. She smiled to herself.
“I’ll tell you what, Sophie. You give the coat and ticket back, and, I’ll give you a brand new one in your size, and you can pick it out.” He gave Sophie a strained smiled. “Come on. What do you say?” old man Johnson cajoled his hands still on the woman’s shoulders.
Sophie cocked her head and studied old man Johnson for a minute before moving back to the chair. “Okay. I think that would be a fair trade,” she said, watching as a hateful sneer briefly played across the woman’s face and then was gone. “And I get to pick it out, right?” She looked up at old man Johnson.
“Yes, Sophie. You can have any coat in the store you want.” Old man Johnson sighed and released his grip on the woman’s shoulders. No sooner had he lifted his hands than the woman jumped up.
“Give it to me! Give it to me, NOW!” She started toward Sophie again, but old man Johnson grabbed her arm and jerked her back.
“Sit down! She’s going to give you the damn coat.” He growled at the woman. “I’ve had just about enough of your attitude. Put your butt in that chair and sit still. If you don’t, I’ll keep the coat and ticket myself and call the cops and have you hauled in for trespassing.”
Sophie smiled inwardly. Serves you right. An overwhelming urge to stick her tongue out at the woman struck Sophie, but she decided against it.
“Oh no, please, I am so sorry. It’s just that it’s been a very bad day for me. My husband’s surgery, his dying, and all, you must understand. I mean her no harm; it’s just that I must have the coat and the ticket. They are so very important to me now,” she pleaded, placing her hand on old man Johnson’s arm again. He picked up her hand and thrust it back at her.
Sophie watched the display through narrowed eyes. Something’s fishy here. Don’t know what it is, but it’s beginning to smell like three-day-old garbage. What’s so darn important about this coat?
Sophie stood up and threw the coat in the direction of the woman. Snatching it up in mid-air, the woman wadded it up into a ball, wrapping her arm protectively around it and glaring at Sophie.
“Where is it?” the woman demanded, sticking her other hand out palm up. “Where’s the ticket?”
“Geez, lady. There’s no need to get your panties in a bunch. I said I’d give it back,” Sophie drawled, deliberately taking her time to reach her hand in her old coat pocket to retrieve the ticket. Her hand brushed against the little black and silver object as she pulled the ticket out.
“Here’s the darn ticket!” she snapped as she pitched it toward the woman. The ticket fluttered in the space between the woman and Sophie. The woman snatched it up before it could settle on the floor.
“There. You’ve got your coat and ticket. I think it’s time you left.” Old man Johnson pointed at the door. “Also, I would like to suggest you think twice before setting foot in Johnson’s again. We can do without your business.”
The woman left in a huff, slamming the door behind her. Sophie and old man Johnson looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Well, now, Sophie, you come by in the morning and we’ll get you that new coat,” he said, holding the door open for her.
He watched her go, wishing he could say something that would make her come inside. There’s that daybed in the room next to the break room that would be perfect for her. He closed the door, the plan he’d been forming in the back of his mind moved to the front.
Trudging through the ankle-deep snow back to her box, Sophie noticed it had started coming down again. She moved the trash bags aside, crawled in, and pulled the flap closed, securing it with the string wrapped around the stick that she had poked back in place.
Klein’s must have dried an extra load of laundry. The slight aroma of laundry soap lingered in the air, and the cold had not totally returned as she snuggled under the old quilt she’d brought with her when she left Trenton.