“The bastards. The insufferable, low-life—shithead bastards!”
Eliza was pacing the room, back and forth and back again near the window, too upset to sit still. Eric knew it’d be a while before she was calm and seated. News of a malicious murder on television didn’t have an effect on her; they oftentimes became plot inspirations for the novellas and graphic novels that paid her bills. Nothing would be written about crimes against her family unless she could solve them first.
She suddenly stopped and faced her brother. “Any suspects?”
Eric had been sitting in silence for so long that he needed to clear his throat to speak.
“They’ve arrested Dave.”
Her eyebrows knotted together. “Dave? David Westfore—you think he robbed your house?”
“You heard him at the bar the other night,” Eric said. “He’s been after me for weeks.”
Eliza smiled and resumed her pacing, the clicking of her black-leather pumps offsetting the sound of the clock on the wall. “And here I thought he was all talk.”
Eliza was chewing the inside of her lip as she walked, an absentminded thinking habit of hers. Eric watched her with his head craned uncomfortably upwards, both because his current state of depression had him slouching severely in his chair, and because Eliza had always been much taller than him, ever since his disappointing puberty growth spurt had failed to catch up to her.
She looked at her brother again, her pendulumic movement gradually slowing down. “Did David confess?”
Eric shook his head.
“So they haven’t located the—”
She paused. “I guess it makes sense. He’s one of the only people who knows how important it is, and how much it’s worth. Never trust a pawnshop worker, I guess Dad was right to say.”
Eliza slowed to another stop and watched Eric’s chin sink to his chest. She paused again. Then she walked cautiously over to him and hesitated by his side. He was still, waiting, curious as to what she would do. Eliza was not one to mistake for a “people person”; her shoulder was never one to cry on, and it was a very rare and special man to ever find a comforting embrace in her arms. That did not mean she couldn’t recognize its value.
She withdrew her hand from where it had been clasped in the other behind her back and, after a third pause, placed it on her brother’s shoulder.
Eric lifted his head to look at her. She smiled. “It’ll be all right,” she said.
He nodded, his dismal gaze returning to his lap. She gave his shoulder a squeeze, then planted a quick kiss on the top of his head. “The guest room is all set up for you. Will the detectives still be there in the morning, over at your place?”
“Yeah, probably…” He let out an irritated sigh and ran his hands over his face. “Dammit, they probably will be. Messing the place up, touching all my stuff…”
“Well, my apartment is your apartment, little brother,” she said. “I’m going to sleep. I want to stop by in the morning, before they ruin all of the evidence.”
“No, Eliza, please. Don’t—”
But she was already down the hall. “Goodnight!”
Eric sighed again before he went into the kitchen for a beer. While her spirit was never one to be hired by the many rules of the legal system, Eliza Hedges always happened to find herself amidst any local crimes. Like a second job, only one that she didn’t get paid for. Her passion for her family was equaled only by her eye for seemingly hidden clues. It was what kept her useful, kept her sane. Seeing what others didn’t kept her busy. It made her different, and gave her direction.
As Eric cracked open his beer and brought the bottle to his lips, he wondered if anyone would know who he was without sharing her last name. It was for this reason he hoped, partially as a joke and partially as petty selfishness, that she would never get married.
Eric entered his apartment and was immediately irritated by the noise of insensitive rummaging through his things—in the kitchen, by the sound of it. He’d just cleaned the place a week earlier, top to bottom; he even paid to have the carpets washed. Now it was to be disorganized by a handful of officers with dirty boots and no care for the aesthetics of his apartment.
“As though being robbed didn’t suck hard enough,” he said, hanging his now-useless keys on the hook by the door.
A man poked his head around the corner and smiled at Eric. “Hey, bud. Any news?”
“Why would I have news, Shane?” Eric asked. “You’re the cop, you should be telling me news.”
“News on your compass, or whatever. Since it’s not here and Dave hasn’t admitted to it yet, I thought you might have misplaced it somewhere. Thought it might be at Eliza’s, or something.”
Detective Shane Dawson stepped around the corner, trying to look casually at his notes. But he glanced up at Eric at least twice more than was appropriate. Eric knew exactly what was coming. It was useless to resist.
“So, uh, is she with you today?” Detective Dawson asked. “Eliza, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” Eric lied. “My compass was definitely here, though. I never took it from that cabinet.”
Detective Dawson cleared his throat and flipped again through the little notepad in his hand. “Considering what you’ve told us about it, it’s a shame you’re not out using it.”
“I have a GPS in my car. And I hate camping.”
“So what do you have such a fancy compass for then, huh?”
Detective Dawson didn’t flinch at the sound of something breaking in the other room. Eric didn’t either. He just made a grimace that sang of his angered acceptance.
“It was my dad’s,” he said. “It’s all he left me.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Detective Dawson said. “Eliza’s told me about your dad. Great man.”
Eric heard the sounds of Eliza’s footsteps in the hallway before Detective Dawson did, but neither could miss the sound of her voice.
“Mr. Hedges was a great man. Cold, stern, logical.” She smiled and stopped in front of the two men. “An inspiration.”
The young detective’s smile of childlike glee at the sight of her was quickly replaced a man who is suave, collected, and charming. With a wink, he said, “Clearly he had some influence on you, Eliza.”
She smiled, for his sake, then nodded towards the living room. “Is that were it happened?” she asked Eric. “Is that where you kept it?”
“You mean the compass?” Detective Dawson asked.
Eric sighed. “Yeah. That’s where it was.”
“Can’t buy a new one?” the detective asked, trying to be optimistic.
Eliza shook her head with a small eye-roll. “Of course not. Despite that it is worth hundreds on the market, it’s worth far more in sentimental value because it’s one of those meaningful male role-model gifts that is both impractical and bordering on the homoerotic. Oh, don’t look at me like that, Eric. All the man gave me was a few detective novels and a bitter feeling of abandonment at his untimely death. He’s lucky I didn’t become a stripper.”
Eric swallowed back his frustration. “Aren’t we all.”
“I’m not,” said Detective Dawson.
“Choosing to ignore that,” Eliza said as she stepped around him. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Actually, uh…” Detective Dawson stopped her from entering the living room with a hand on her arm. “I, um…I can’t let you in there.”
She blinked at him in astonishment for a moment, then donned her most flattering smile. Eric turned away. He didn’t need to watch this.
“Shane, why not? I just want to look. You know how curious I am.”
The detective was all stern condolences. “I can’t, Eliza. I can’t keep letting you into crime scenes, I’ll get in trouble.”
“It’s never been a problem before. Come on, Shane.” She lifted her hand to give his bicep a flirtatious squeeze. “I just want to take a peek. The room could use a woman’s eye.”
“I can’t disagree with you on that, as far as the furniture is concerned.”
They shared a laugh at Eric’s stylistic choices as though he wasn’t there. He rolled his eyes and let them laugh.
“But no, Eliza,” Shane said. “You can’t. I’m sorry.”
Eliza's only detectable movement was her calculating eyes narrowing on Shane's face. Eric was expecting her to lash out with some cleverly phrased, adjective-packed insult that even Shane Dawson wouldn’t fully comprehend until he’d had the time to sit on her words for a few hours. But to his surprise, and to the detective’s surprise, she gave a tiny, pathetic sniffle that rattled both of the boys worse than if she had suddenly burst into a tantrum.
“Has Eric ever told you about our father?” she asked with a pensive voice. “About how he died? About the compass?”
Detective Dawson could barely move enough to shake his head. Even Eric was frozen in his place. Sentimentality was not Eliza’s forte; he was skeptical.
Eliza looked at her fingers that twisted nervously around one another. “Our father was a private, fighting in the Middle East about ten years ago. He was one of the first to go over after Nine-Eleven. He came back with his best friend, Private Huston Stone, and they were inseparable for years.” She laughed, shaking her head and wiping her eyes with the butt of her palm. “Mr. Stone was at our house for dinner more than he was at his own. Remember, Eric?”
Eric knew that she wouldn’t be lying for no reason, so he kept his mouth shut. Mr. Stone was at their house most nights, but the alcoholic adulterer was never invited to the dinner table. Their mom had seen to that.
“It was fifteen months after they returned home that…that it happened…” Her face reddened and the tears that glistened in her eyes began to tumble like scattered diamonds down her face, catching in her trembling lips. “They were on their way to the Adirondacks, for a hunting trip. But the car…” Her words were snatched away by a short sob, and when she recovered, she said, “They lost control. They crashed into a ravine, and—and—”
She closed her mouth and shook her head, frantically wiping tears from her face. Detective Dawson was reacting as anyone would to see a distressed damsel in such a weakened state of mourning. Eric didn’t know what to make of this performance; there wasn’t the slightest trace of insincerity, but she hadn’t even cried at their father’s funeral.
Detective Dawson muttered some words of comfort and gave her upper arm a loving rub. She drew a shaky breath with closed eyes, then nodded.
“Mr. Stone gave my dad the compass before they left, to hold onto. He said it was important that it remain safe, and there was no one else he trusted more. Before they went hunting, our father trusted it to Eric.”
With a light sigh of awe she plucked a framed picture from where it hung on the wall. There were two men in uniform before a desert backdrop, grinning behind their enormous aviator sunglasses. The man on the left had the distinct features of Eliza—dark hair, slender limbs, a round little nose. The man on the left had a burly disposition squished into a small package; his head barely reached his friend’s shoulder.
“This is them,” Eliza said. “That’s him, our dad, with Private Stone.” Her eyes became suddenly more analytical, and thus more familiar to Eric when she added, “I don’t remember Dad being so tall…”
She heaved one more shaky sigh, one that threatened another onslaught of tears, and put a hand on Detective Dawson’s chest.
“Could you please get me a glass of water?”
“Of course, yeah,” the detective said, thrilled to fulfill any deed that might make her happy again. “It might be a minute—the kitchen is a mess.”
He hurried off to the kitchen and Eliza wiped her eyes dry on her hands. “Perfect.”
She cleared her throat and collected her bearings, swelling into her usual confident form like an inflatable decoration coming to life. All signs of remorse were erased as she tossed the picture lazily to her brother and strode into the living room to inspect the burgled cabinet, which stood wide open like someone selling watches out of their coat lining. After a moment, she moved across the floor get a better look at the footprint left near the door. There was only one solid print, crusted with the grey from dried sludgy soup of snow and street grime; the rest only partially remained as they led into the room. She squatted down expertly in her heels, knees together and perfectly balanced, to examine the remaining physical evidence of the thief.
“What the hell was that?” Eric asked when she was close enough to whisper to. “Your little scene, what the hell was that?”
“Shane’s a chivalrous guy, especially when he thinks it will impress me,” she said. “Coupled with the touching story of Dad and his war buddy…poor guy didn't stand a chance.” She smiled and shook her head, still looking at the print. “Considering that women are famed for forming cliques and being materialistic, men are very predictable in camaraderie and their gifts. Even in books and movies.”
“What are you even talking about, Eliza?”
“Come on, Eric. Aragorn and his sword, Harry Potter and his cloak, Dexter and his Code—you and your compass fit right in. Women give intangible gifts, like eye-color or protective love. You can’t put a price tag or a personality on that, so who cares?”
“You’re the worst.”
“Just look at this thing…” she muttered. “Incredible!” She suddenly laughed, shaking her head at the footprint like it was a dog walking on its hind legs. “He probably didn’t even know he was leaving any footprints. We always have to be aware of what we leave behind, and who we leave it for.”
She smiled at him, pointing at the footprint. “You realize what this means, don’t you?”
Eric shook his head. “No.”
She raised her pointed finger to his face. “You said your cabinet was cleared out, except for the top shelves. It was decided, then, that the culprit must have been in a hurry.”
“So what, Eliza?” he said miserably. “Dave is already in jail. We’re still not any closer to…to getting it back…”
Eliza, unfazed by his hopeless concern, continued her inquisitive analysis; “Doesn’t it seem weird that someone would start at the bottom of the cabinet? You’ve got a lock-box and that hideous safe up there—wouldn’t it make sense to secure those and worry about your useless little knickknacks after? What did you keep down there, anyway?”
He shrugged. “Some movies, I think an old stereo. Some crap mom cleared out of the attic, I think some of Grandma’s old trinkets.”
Eliza’s jaw dropped. “He took her things too and you didn’t think to report—never mind. You didn’t answer my question. Shouldn’t he have grabbed the lockbox and the safe first?”
“I guess,” Eric said. “But—and maybe you should consider this, too—I’m less concerned with some freaking idiot’s thought process than—”
“But that’s the whole point!”
She suddenly grabbed his shoulders and shook him with impatience. It was times like this that her superior height seemed particularly intimidating.
“Eric, the culprit wasn’t stupid, he was physically incapable. Look at the footprints! Size ten shoes, obviously, but look at the print. Right near the toes—doesn’t it look odd to you?” She pointed again. “Different? Lighter? Like the same amount of weight wasn’t applied there as the rest of the foot? There’s the ball of his foot, closer to the middle. What, did he have six-inch toes? No, we have to assume his shoes were too big—probably stuffed with tissues at the end, or something.”
“So what, Eliza?”
She raised and dropped her arms in exasperation. “A foot smaller than a size ten would never be on a guy as tall as David Westfore, who could have easily reached the top shelf of your cabinet. So what does that mean, Eric?”
Hesitantly, Eric said, “Whoever made the footprints…was short…?”
Eliza nodded slowly, encouragingly.
Eric suddenly gasped, eliciting an excited grin from his sister. Breathless, he said, “They’ve got the wrong guy…”
Around 9:30 that Thursday night, a young man named Huston walked up the rickety stairs to his apartment and, with the usual extra jiggle of his keys in the lock, went inside. He dropped his tattered denim jacket on the edge of the recliner near the door and turned on the light. He looked around to make sure the landlord had stopped by to finally fix the leak that had been dripping disgusting bath water from the apartment above. For the decayed state of the building, his floors were actually not too terrible; the same apparently could not be said for the apartment above him.
He was about to turn right back around and march down to his landlord’s office, where he would deliver an ultimatum in regards to the growing puddle on the floor, when he noticed someone standing by the window. Before the army, he would have been frightened. Now he was immediately enraged and ready to defend his meager belongings—until he realized the person was a woman, a silhouette against a backdrop of freshly falling snow out the window.
“Who the hell are you?” Huston asked. “What do you think you’re doing here?”
The woman was standing in red high heels with her hands clasped against her lower back. She smiled at him and said, “Hi. You must be Huston Stone.”
“I’m not going to play any games with you,” he said. “Tell me why you’re here, or get the fuck out of my apartment. You don’t look like a robber, but I don’t have anything valuable so if you’re looking to nick something you can just forget it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “Mostly I’d agree. I don’t need an extensive weight set or a collection of guns that could arm the entire building—”
“Yeah, I’ve got a lot of guns and I’m really strong,” he snapped. “So get your ass out of here before you see a little of both those things.”
The woman was not threatened. She smiled again and said, “My goodness, all the ladies must flock to you. I didn’t come here for any of that. Or for you.”
Before he could ask what she was there for, the woman drew one of her hands from behind her back and held up his father’s compass. The lights from the street glinted off of it’s glass front and illuminated the side of her self-satisfied face.
She returned her hand and the compass behind her back. “I’m not here for you. The police will be, but I wanted to talk to you first.”
“Gimme that compass,” Huston said. “I don’t care if you’re a woman, you’re going to give me that compass or I’m going to beat your ass—”
“I’m Eliza Hedges,” she said. “You stole this from my brother. I want to know why.”
Huston stared at her, too stunned for a moment to speak. Not one to be at a loss for words, Eliza continued:
“My dad was as tall as I am now—just like you and your dad.” She glanced down at his feet. “You had the police fooled by your wrong sized sneakers.”
Huston narrowed his eyes at her. “I just got back from the war. I can’t afford a better pair of shoes, yet.”
Eliza was sincere when she said, “Thank you for your service, Huston. No one can thank you enough for what you’ve given to this country.”
“Give me the compass—”
“Tell me why and I’ll let you have it.” She shrugged. “I mean, you’ll still go to jail, because nobody robs my brother and gets away with it.”
“It’s mine!” Huston shouted. “I took it back because it’s mine! I was in Iraq, my dad gave it to yours to hold onto, and your dad gave it to your dumbass brother to—”
“Whoa, there,” Eliza said. “You’re already getting arrested, let’s not heighten your punishment.”
“Your brother wasn’t meant to have it!” Huston continued. “Before they left for their hunting trip, your dad gave it to your brother, and then they died, so I never got what I was promised! What the hell is that look for? Are you making fun of me?”
Eliza shook her head. “No, I’m sure this is all very emotional for you, Huston. I’m just…confused.”
“What, should I speak slower?”
“Don’t patronize me. I’ve just always wondered why they wouldn’t bring a compass on a hunting trip.”
“Because it’s valuable—it’s sentimental!”
Eliza’s eyes fluttered with frustration. “Oh my god, men and their things—okay, well, was it passed down through your family or something? If so, it’s in amazing condition. It looks like it can’t be more than ten, fifteen years old. And my brother had it for most of that.”
“No, my dad bought it at a pawn shop in Kuwait.”
Huston’s face softened into an expression Eliza recognized. It was one her father used to wear when he spoke of his comrades in the war, one that filled Eric’s face when he thought about the compass, one that Shane and his fellow officers shared when they reminded each other of the brotherhood of their work. It was one that spoke of true meaning, of what it meant to share something with someone. It spoke of important moments that change a man’s perspective on himself, and on the world.
“Our dads were drinking one night, when they passed the pawn shop and went inside. When they woke up the next day, they realized that they had bought a whole lot of crap from the place, and the compass was a part of it. The guy selling it obviously didn’t know what it was worth, and neither did my father until they came back. He was going to throw it out, but my mom convinced him to bring it somewhere first, get it appraised. After that, she really tried to sell it. Instead, he left it to me.”
Eliza waited for him to continue, but his eyes lowered to the floor like a curtain falling on a dark stage. The room was filled for a moment with the silence that hovers over an audience before they burst into applause.
“That’s it?” Eliza suddenly asked. “Your dad got drunk and bought it? That’s what happened?”
Huston’s face turned red. “You wouldn’t understand! It’s what he left me!”
“Oh for shit’s sake—hang on a second…” She set the compass on the windowsill and drew her cell phone from her pocket, pressed two buttons to send the distress text to Shane, then took the compass in her hand again, her sharp eyes boring holes into Huston. “Your dad left you an expensive toy that neither you nor my brother will appreciate. And he acquired it in the same way that frat boys acquire a Garbage Plate on a Saturday night. You know, I would actually use this, but instead it’s wasted on you idiot boys, clinging to the meaningless mementoes from absent fathers.”
“My father was a great man—”
“Your father was a selfish, self-entitled, alcoholic vet just like mine,” she snapped. “He used to crash on our living room couch so your mom wouldn’t see how drunk he was, and not once did he mention you. Just his wife, and how he was always pissing her off on purpose. Giving away a compass that would have fed your family, or at least had you wearing right sized shoes. That would do the trick, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t it bother you that your dad didn’t think to sell it to provide for you? No, Huston, your dad was not a great man, and neither was mine. Only my dad still made time for us—at least for my brother.” She looked at the compass, now with her eyebrows knotted in disdain. “He was there for my brother. So am I. Can’t fault the guy for that.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about!” Huston sputtered. “You—you’re just mad because daddy didn’t love you! Lemme guess, do you moonlight as a stripper?”
“Funny you ask, we were talking about that just a few days ago. I don’t, actually. But your dad tried to bring one to my house, once. Talked all night about how he was going to run away with her and leave your mom behind. He didn’t mention you then, either. Do you think he was going to take you along? That’s a sitcom worthy car ride."
Huston’s face was boiling over with rage, and the moment she stopped talking he flew at her, screaming, “Give me the compass!”
Eliza didn’t flinch. When he was close enough, she simply raised her other hand and aimed a spray straight at his eyes from the canister she’d been hiding behind her back. He screamed and fell to the ground, clutching his face with both hands, trying to scratch the burning pain from his eyes.
“As though I’d go into a criminal’s house defenseless,” she said, calmly. “Especially one trained in armed combat. It’s hornet-and-wasp spray, much more effective and dangerous than mace. The police should be here any minute now—yup, they’re pulling up, now. By the way, the last bit about your dad and the stripper was a lie. But I am pretty certain he cheated on your mom.”
When the police finally entered the room, Huston was screaming degrading obscenities at Eliza from the floor while she clutched at the windowsill for support, her wails of self-defense lost in crying hysterics.
Eric was passing the time in his apartment by cleaning up the mess the police had made. He was excited to hear his sister was safe—though he was certain the “sobbing fit” she was throwing upon the police’s arrival was less than genuine—and, for the best news, he was going to get his compass back.
The moment he heard her footsteps in the hallway he rushed over to meet her at the door. She was surprisingly cavalier, not her usual state of calm boastfulness she usually had when she’d outsmarted the police at their own jobs.
“Did you get it?” Eric asked. “Where’s the compass?”
“Can I sit down, first?” she asked, handing him her coat and crossing to the couch. “Have you cleaned up the kitchen yet?”
“I’m trying, but those cops left a god damn mess. Why were they even here so long?”
“To make it seem like they were doing something,” she said. “That should be obvious. They only cared so much in the first place because of Dad.”
“Come on, Eric,” Eliza said. “The media cares as much about a celebrated local vet’s stolen memorabilia as much as you do, and because the memorabilia in question was very, very expensive. Unfortunately for Detective Shane Dawson and Co., the trail ended with David Westfore, so they were desperate to find something else in your apartment. Maybe a motive, or some way to incriminate you in all this…they were trying to make bricks without clay, so to speak. And by the way, I’d steer clear of the bars from now on, if I were you.”
“Because David has a lot of friends, and if you thought he hated you before...”
She finished her sentence with raised eyebrows and a descending whistle.
Eric swallowed the fear of that scenario and waited for her to finally deliver his compass. She busied herself with her phone, then returned it to her pocket. She looked out the window at the icicles that had grown overnight. She looked at the coffee table, where the picture of her dad and Private Stone now rested. She looked up at her brother, standing before her, trying to mask his impatience and failing miserably.
“They recovered some of Mom and Grandma’s old things too, you know.”
He sighed impatiently. “Great.”
“They're waiting at the station for you to pick them up. You should swing by there, bring them home.”
There was another long moment of silence as she waited for him to absorb that. Finally, she took the compass from her pocket. Eric reached for it—and she held it away from him.
“I got it back,” she said. “But not for you.”
Eric’s hand dropped to his side. The look of defeat that had been so prevalent on his face recently returned in a quick wave, like a sudden surge in the tide on the beach.
Eliza laughed. “You’re not even going to fight for it? I’m definitely keeping it.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll give it to my son or daughter, someday.”
Eliza rose happily to her feet, then tossed the compass in the air and snatched it into her fist. She didn’t hesitate this time to place a loving hand on his shoulder.
“I promise you, Eric,” she said, “this compass means a lot more to me now than it ever did to you.”
She kissed his forehead, pocketed the compass, took her coat and walked out of his apartment, leaving Eric with his empty cabinet and his empty hands.