Trooper Mark Chapman pounded the backspace key several times, deleting the misspelled word on the report he was struggling to finish. It was the tenth DUI arrest he’d made in four days, and already he was sick of the constant paperwork. He was new to this assignment, having graduated from the Trooper Academy in Sitka a couple months before.
He looked up from the report as an elderly woman opened the door and stepped into the office. She looks baffled, he thought. Maybe she’s lost.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” He rose from his chair as she walked towards him.
“Yes. Yes, I think you can.”
The gray-haired woman took a chair next to his desk and looked at him intently with clear blue eyes. Not drunk, thought Chapman. Something’s going on, though. He sat back down in his chair.
“Well, what can I do for you then?”
There was a long pause as the woman held Chapman’s gaze. It went on so long that Chapman began to think she’d forgotten why she was there.
“Are you looking for the Social Security office, ma’am?”
“Oh, no. No, I’m in the right place. You’re a State Trooper, aren’t you?”
“Well, I’m in the right place. I’ve come to… I’m here to… “
“Would you like some coffee or water, ma’am? You look kind of peaked.” Inwardly Chapman hoped she’d refuse. By this time he was sure she was there to report a neighbor’s barking dog or some other nonsense.
“Water would be nice, young man,” she answered. Stifling a groan, Chapman filled a cup with water from the cooler and set it on the corner of his desk where she could reach it. He noticed her hand trembling when she picked it up. Parkinson’s he thought. Just like mom. Bet she’s got dementia to go along with it.
He waited as she sipped the water, never taking her eyes off him. The skin under the collar of his blue uniform shirt began to itch. He glanced at the clock on the wall. He had two hours to get to Soldotna. I’ll be pushing it to be on time, he thought. Fishing traffic’s pretty high in Cooper Landing and Sterling.
Minutes passed as the woman sipped her water without speaking.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry. I have to be at detachment headquarters in Soldotna at two o’clock for a meeting. If there’s anything I can help you with, please tell me. I have to leave soon.”
“Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry. I can come back another time, though I’d rather not.”
“No, no ma’am. I’m not trying to brush you off. If you have a problem, please tell me and I’ll do everything I can to help. It’s just that I can’t miss that meeting. So, please, tell me why you’re here.”
“Well, it’s about the key,” she said.
“You lost your key? What? Your car key? House key? Did you lock your key in your car?”
“No, no. Not that. It’s about the key to the padlock. I found the key again and I remember what it’s for. Sometimes I can’t remember. You know, those senior moments they laugh about? This time I remember and I came to tell you.”
“Okay, good. I’m glad you didn’t lock your keys in your car. So what about this padlock? What’s the padlock on?”
“It’s on the bomb shelter. Well, actually it’s a storm cellar, but Gunter always liked to call it a bomb shelter. A place to hide when the Russians bombed us.”
“Uh, huh. Where is this bomb shelter, ma’am? At your home?”
“Oh, no. No, not in Moose Pass. In Oklahoma. Southern Oklahoma. There’s no town for a hundred miles around, but I can point to it on the map if you want.”
“Ma’am, Oklahoma is way out of my jurisdiction. This is Alaska.”
“Well, I KNOW this is Alaska. I’m not stupid.”
“Ma’am, I didn’t mean to imply that you were. I’m sorry. It’s just that I can’t do anything about something in Oklahoma. I really have to be heading for Soldotna. Why don’t you walk downstairs with me and you can tell me about this key on the way?” Chapman stood, put on his trooper hat, and walked to the office door.
“Well, it’s a long story, Mr. Chapman. And I really want to tell it while I can remember. I can’t always remember it, like I said.” Chapman took the old woman by the arm and guided her towards the elevator. Normally he would have taken the stairs, but he didn’t want to chance her falling. That would be a ream of paperwork right there, he thought miserably.
“So, tell me about this lock,” he said as they waited for the elevator.
“Yes. The lock. It was my granddaddy’s. He gave it to me just before he died. Beautiful old brass lock. It had ornate scrollwork on it. You just can’t find those kind of locks any more. Nowadays it’s just stamp, stamp, stamp out those plain old locks. No craftsmanship to them. No craftsmanship to anything anymore.”
The elevator doors opened and Chapman let the old woman enter first. Then he jabbed the button for the first floor, and waited as the slow hydraulic mechanisms gently lowered the car. As the doors slid open and they stepped out, Chapman turned to the woman and said, “Ma’am, why don’t you come in and see me the next time you’re in town. And bring that padlock with you. I’d like to see it.”
“Oh, I can’t do that,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone can find it. See I gave the land to the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries Organization and they flooded it. Made a nice place for migrating Sandhill cranes to winter.”
“Ah. Well, then. Umm… Okay, well, you drive home carefully. These roads are slick when it’s raining. If there’s anything I can do for you in the future, you just let me know, all right?”
“There is something, young man You can listen to my confession.”
“Your confession? Well, there are several churches in town. Maybe a pastor would be the best one to hear your confession.”
“I’m not talking about coveting or idolatry or thinking lewd thoughts. I’m talking about murder. I locked Gunter in that cellar with my grandaddy’s padlock back in 1953 and I never let him out.”
Chapman spun on his heel and looked at the woman. He reached over her shoulder and punched the button to summon the elevator again.
“Let’s go back up to my office, ma’am,” he said. “What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t say. You never asked. It’s Ellie. Ellie Riddles. But, what about your meeting?”
“Never did like those old stuffed-shirt meetings, anyway,” said Chapman, ushering Ellie into the elevator car once more.