Friday, September 19, 2014

My Encyclopedia Brown-esque Mystery

I used to love Encyclopedia Brown books as a kid.  If you aren't familiar with them, the basic idea is each story comes in two parts: the mystery and the solution.  The solution was at the back of the book, so you could read the mystery, try to figure it out, and then flip to the solution.

I thought I'd try to make my own mystery.  Today, I present to you: The Mystery of the Phantom Coffee Person

His name was Matthew.  He was tall, witty (in a humble sort of way) and unnervingly handsome.  Once a week, he visited Starbucks to work on his blog, which was so brilliant only two people read it.
He had chosen Starbucks not because the coffee snobs despised it, although that was reason enough, but because he hated coffee.  Put enough milk and sugar in it to make it taste like ice cream, and he could manage to choke it down, which is what Starbucks excelled at.

It also made him feel important when he ordered.  The long list of drink-jargon gave him the cache of a VIP.  After emotional setbacks, he'd add another word or two to his order.  What had started as a "tall latte" had (after a painful review of his groundbreaking novel) grown to a "tall, nonfat latte" and finally (following an unfortunate medical diagnosis) to "tall, nonfat, vanilla latte."

One thing puzzled him, however.  Every time he entered his Starbucks, there was a cluster of objects on the table nearest the door.  It didn't matter what day or what time, the same constellation of objects were always there in the same positions.

There was:
  • ·         Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, placed farthest away from the door
  • ·         The UCSC Extension course catalog, sitting across from the book
  • ·         The coffee cup, always placed on top of the course catalog
  • ·         A small canister of "Renesse," whatever that was
  • ·         A tan bag with handles, perhaps a purse or small tote bag.

The mystery of the Phantom Drinker perplexed him for hours, detracting from his usual job of making the world a brighter place.  Was the Phantom Drinker an employee of the coffee shop?  One of those freelance HR workers who interviewed candidates at Starbucks?  A hit man who got assignments in drinkable form?  One of those perpetual college students who took a couple of courses a year, but never wanted to graduate?

The questions haunted him.

He considered lying in wait to catch the Drinker.  He considered leaving a message.  One time, wondering how the Drinker could possibly still be reading Rushdie after all these years, he left a card for his groundbreaking, mind-blowing novel on it.  The card disappeared; the objects never changed.
Finally, waiting in line one day, one of the coffee shop workers stood next to him, cleaning the baked goods cabinet.  In a rush of desperation he turned and asked.

"So, what's the deal with the person whose stuff is by the door?" he said.

The employee turned back to look at the Phantom Drinker's spot, and then answered...


Imagine you're flipping to the end of the book.

She's not a ghost!  She's been projecting an image of herself by using a mirror so the boat never reaches the shore!

Huh?  I always got the page number wrong when I flipped to the end of the Encyclopedia Brown book, ruining the solution to a different mystery.  Now imagine you went back to check the page number again and flipped to the correct page.

There was a false compartment in the wooden shoes! 

What?  No...  Oh, page 117!  Right.  Gotta see someone about my dyslexia...

"Oh, her?" the employee said.  "Yeah, she's homeless.  She kinda lives in the parking lot.  She's got a van she lives out of."

He remembered her, then.  The chain-smoking woman with the black, down vest and short, grey hair.  She wore giant sunglasses over another pair of reading glasses and walked with a painful slouch around the mini-mall.  He'd seen her sitting in all those chairs and tables scattered around that nobody else sat in: in the corner beside Safeway, in front of the closed Fro-Yo.

The things she left on the table weren't clues.  She wasn't really choosing courses or reading a novel.  They were just placeholders.  She was marking her territory.  "This is where I sit.  Don't sit here."

It was his turn to order.  "Tall," he said, "Nonfat, vanilla latte."  Then, after a moment, he added: "extra-hot."

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