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Princess Party

            A dozen little girls in cheap glittery princess crowns chased each other around the Dewart’s back yard while their mothers stood on the deck sipping iced tea and chatting. Shawn was the only man present. And he didn’t like iced tea. Despite Samantha Dewart’s insistence that everyone had to do what she said since this was her house and she was the birthday girl, Shawn’s daughter, Jenine, seemed to be having a good time, and Shawn supposed that was all that really mattered, but even so, he was hot and bored and counting down the minutes until he could buckle Jenine into the truck and leave. The shrieking from the yard and the shrill laughter from the deck were giving him a pain behind his eyes. A few of the mothers had made an effort to talk to him, but Shawn’s sour mood had made interacting with him a chore and he had quickly been excluded from the general pool of conversation.

            “Well, hey, another man.”

            Shawn turned his gaze away from his daughter’s pony impersonation, which was creating quite a stir out in the yard, and saw a tall, grinning man in cargo shorts and a baseball cap standing next to him on the deck with his hand extended. He had a bottle of beer, which he must have brought with him, in his other hand. Shawn shook the man’s hand and said, “Shawn.”

            “Arthur. We just got here. That one there is mine.” He waved his bottle in the direction of the laughing, screaming mob on the lawn, but Shawn couldn’t tell which girl he meant.

            “Mine’s the one galloping and neighing,” said Shawn.

            “Pretty girl,” said Arthur. “So how’d you get stuck with mom duty, dad?”

            “Mom’s got a migraine,” said Shawn. “And grandma has allergies. So that leaves me as the birthday party escort.” He dumped the rest of his diluted iced tea into the grass and balanced the empty glass on the railing of the deck.

            Arthur jerked his thumb in the direction of the mothers and said, “This isn’t really our crowd. Wanna go inside?”

            “Inside the house?”

            “Yeah,” said Arthur. “I’m good friends with Ray Dewart.”

            “Is Ray home?”

            “Nah,” said Arthur. “Business trip, I think, but he wouldn’t mind us relaxing inside where it’s cool. He’d want us to.” Arthur was already crossing the deck to the sliding glass door, opening it, stepping into the Dewart’s kitchen. As Shawn followed, he looked over his shoulder at Shannon Dewart, but she was in the midst of a story about her most recent car accident, and if she noticed the men going into her house, she didn’t appear to mind. Arthur closed the door behind them, muffling the two generations of feminine noise outside.

            “They keep it like an igloo in here,” said Arthur, setting his empty beer bottle in the sink. “But hey, they can afford it and it sure feels good on days like today, yeah?”

            The two men walked through the kitchen and into the dining room where a large table was set with pink plates and forks and decorated with balloons, streamers, glitter, and piles of fake jewels and chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.

            “Where are we going?” asked Shawn.

            “Living room,” said Arthur. “Ball game should be on by now.”

            The living room was spacious and comfortably furnished. A picture of a lighthouse being struck by lightning hung very straight on the wall above the massive television. The gauzy green curtains hanging in the living room’s picture window were closed and they cut the bright sunlight just enough to cast the room in a strange midday dimness. Arthur selected the correct remote on the first try from an arsenal of six on the glass coffee table, but he had barely begun to flip through channels in search of the baseball game when he shut the TV off again, sat forward on the couch next to Shawn and said, “Have you seen Ray’s office upstairs? You’ve gotta see it.”

            “Why?” asked Shawn.

            “I don’t want to ruin it,” said Arthur. “You just gotta see it.”

            “Maybe I should go back outside and check on Jenine,” said Shawn, rising to his feet. “She might get worried if she sees I’m gone”

            “Nah,” said Arthur. “They’re too busy having fun. They don’t even know we exist right now. Come on.” He stood up and walked through the living room, into the front hall, and around the corner calling back, “Shawn, c’mon, you’re gonna love this.”

            Shawn sighed and followed Arthur’s route through the living room. When he rounded the corner, Arthur was at the top of the stairs waiting for him, grinning down at him with his hands on his hips. Shawn hesitated, then mounted the stairs one at a time, wishing he was outside accusing the school board of favoritism with the moms.

            “This way,” said Arthur, and he walked down the upstairs hall to the last door on the left. Shawn almost turned and went back down the stairs and out through the kitchen to the deck and the iced tea and the moms and the high-pitched racket of excited little girls, but instead he followed Arthur down the hall to the door to Ray Dewart’s office. Arthur jiggled the doorknob and muttered a few curses. “OK,” he said. “Locked.” He turned and smiled at Shawn. “But I know where the key is.”

            “Hold on,” said Shawn. “Really, don’t-“

            But Arthur had already disappeared through another door back up the hall. Shawn stood still for a moment, sensing another fork in the road, but a thumping, sliding sound prompted him up the hall after Arthur, and there, as he stood in the doorway, he saw Arthur on his hands and knees at the foot of a massive four post bed in the Dewarts’ master bedroom, examining a section of carpet that had been hidden beneath a heavy wooden chest until he had pushed it aside. “Here we go,” said Arthur as he plucked up a flap of carpet and exposed a tiny hatch in the floorboards. He produced a small knife from his pocket and, after a minor struggle, pried open the hatch with a creaking, splintering noise.

            “Arthur, don’t,” said Shawn.

            Arthur, his brow furrowed in concentration, reached down into the hatch and rummaged around under the floorboards for a few moments before extracting a rusty ring of at least thirty different keys of all shapes and sizes. He held them aloft and jingled them at Shawn in triumph. “Now I just have to read the coded etchings on the keys to find the right one for the office,” said Arthur. “We’re almost in!”

            Shawn crossed the bedroom to the window. He parted the blinds with his fingers and looked down on the back yard. The little girls were still running after each other, but their energy seemed to be flagging. He couldn’t hear them at all now. Jenine had somehow acquired a few huge purple stains on the back of her dress. Shawn saw her stop and look toward the deck with an expression of concern for just a moment before another girl skipped past and said something to recapture her attention, and then she was off again.        

“Shawn,” said Arthur, kneeling next to the open hatch in the floor with his cap tilted back on his head. “Small setback. The key to the office isn’t here. The good news is that this one,” he held up a long, silver key between his thumb and forefinger, “will get us into the attic, and one of these two,” he pointed to two stubby bronze keys hanging next to each other on the ring, “will get us into the safe that contains the combination to the lock on the other safe, which contains the key to the office.”

            “You got all that from the etchings on the keys?” asked Shawn.

            “Ha ha. No. Let’s go.” Arthur hopped to his feet and hurried back out into the hall.

            “Arthur!” Shawn all but ran after him. “Arthur, wait!”

            Arthur, heading down the hall away from Ray’s office, past the top of the stairs in the other direction, stopped and turned to face Shawn.

            “What’s your daughter’s name?” asked Shawn.

            “Which one?” asked Arthur. “I have tons of them.”

Before Shawn could protest, Arthur ducked through another door on the right side of the hall, keys jingling, eyes shining. Shawn felt dizzy, but he followed, and as he did, he felt the distance between Jenine and himself bulging and swelling, and he wondered if he’d ever be able to retrace his steps.