The Mystery of Martha Munch (A short story)



A/N: This is a story I wrote under the prompt of a poetic mystery. It only half fits, but it's great literature. You can find daily writing excerpts at my tumblr, which is @graphtersawyer, a.k.a. graphtersawyer.tumblr.com. Enjoy!


Melissa Munch was a forty five year old single mother. She was an accountant. The detective knows that. Her husband died from carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in their home with the gas on. He was survived by her and their daughter, Martha Munch. The detective knows that as well. The name sounds like someone one would heard about in a children’s fantasy show, complete with rainbows, unicorns, and other make beliefs.


Missing kid, his partner, Mar, says.


Missing kid? the detective asks.


Yep. Fourteen year old Martha Munch.


Slender figure, he notices to himself. Foul play?


We think she stabbed the mother. Fingerprints add up.


Motivation?


We don’t have one yet, but hospital records suggest abuse.


She can be tried as an adult.


Mother’s don’t hit their children. They’re not supposed to, anyway. He’s never met a mom who did. Or maybe he’s just never met a mom he knew who did. It’s hard to know people in a world of fake smiles and compliments, after all.


Sick world, eh?


Yeah, Mar.


Martin Lively-- Mar, the detective calls him-- says that for every case. It seems they’ve been getting more gruesome as of late, but the detective has yet to figure out why. He wants to. His father always says one needs to find the crux of a problem before finding the solution. He’s an ethicist, so it’s always best to assume correctness (even when the man puts his kid’s hand on a hot burner).


Sick world…


The detective rubs a calloused hand over his face. He needs to find the girl. If he finds the girl, he solves the case.


Two people have seen her. The man who runs the convenience store three miles from the house has seen her, and the detective has seen her. He watches the girl scamper up a rusty fire escape ladder, probably to squat in the apartment. He feels like a creep, eyes gluing themselves to day-old CCTV video of a woman who was a girl crawling into a dilapidated apartment building.


He turns away. The detectives thinks he’s seen her before in the police station. Neither or her parents had criminal records, but her face brings a sense of deja vu. The type one feels when eating their favorite pastry for the umpteenth time.


Her eyes, from what he’s collected from pictures, are like two cups of black coffee (did she smell like coffee?); her hair is a chocolate brown. Both features compliment her rich mocha skin. He can’t remember the last time he’d seen skin so lustrous.


He finds remnants of her in the apartment. His black and white toned saddle shoes crunch over candy wrappers and torn out pages of books. There’s a putrid smell, a confluence of urine and mold. He sniffs. Definitely urine and mold. The detective wanders through the suite. He wonders where the girl is now. Will she come back?


The detective blinks twice. He always does that when he’s not quite sure of what he’s seeing. In front of him, is a little girl with a swollen closed eye that must be coffee and puffed up plum lip.


Hi, she says, calm. Why is she so calm? Does she know who he is? Does she know why he’s here?


Hello. He holds a hand out to shake it.


She obliges. Martha Munch.


I know.


She sighs. It’s a boring name, the name Martha. A simple name for a simple girl who does simple things. Martha’s in the Bible too. She’s the sister of Lazarus, the man who was raised from the dead by Christ Jesus. Martha, she paused, was a killjoy. Wouldn’t let her better sister, Mary, have a good time with Jesus.


The detective nods.


Do you believe in God?


Yes. Do you?


I suppose I do. He seems quite real, after all.


Does he?


I don’t much like questions. She takes a seat on the floor and clears her throat. Please excuse my weird speech. It’s a product of my upbringing and too much Emily Brontë.


His eyes go to the bed-bug ridden couch. The small, thin, brown creatures creep all over the stained brown furnishing.


Do you have a badge?


He flashes it.


And you’re a detective?


Yes.


Okay.


They became friends of sorts.


He tracks her down. He buys food. They talk and eat.


It’s different.


The detective likes her. She’s a question he needs to answer.


He rents an apartment.


Martha Munch is gone again. The detective doesn’t know how he let her slip. Holding onto a spirit like hers is like trying to catch a salamander in a stream with one’s hands. The sliminess of such an action being with her. Martha’s abrasive to say the least, he’s found. Her words cut like paper, small but powerful, stinging.


He had been expecting someone different. The detective had been expecting a sweet fourteen-year-old with eyes one couldn’t help but drink. He’d been right on the latter.


Martha? he asks. I brought some food.


The detective, she drawls, peeking out of the hallway of the new apartment. Her face is painted pretty (Not that she, on her own, already isn’t plenty pretty): red lips, sparkly green eyelids. An emerald green dress hugs her slender figure, revealing a heavenly bodice that his eyes have never graced.


Where did you get the clothes?


You’re not very smart for a detective.


The detective feels his face heat. I brought food.


I’m going out.


To do what?


Not that’s it’s your business… I’m going to a coffee house.


What for?


To read some things. She’s never this bashful.


He thinks that her tone hides a blush.


She licks her lips before biting the bottom one, slowly releasing it. I’m going to read something. I’ll be back later.


Can I come watch?


I suppose. Wanting for an audience is a pastime many people like myself enjoy.


Why does she talk like that? He drops the bag of umami scented take-out and runs to get her coat. The plush cashmere fabric sliding it on her effortlessly, as if they’d done it every day of their lives.


Detective, you flatter me. She smiles. Her smiling is like a candle being lit, at first small, but it grows as the smile lasts. It melts him, calls him.


He wonders why she burns so bright. It’s a mystery to him, one he wants to spend his whole life solving.


A small touch is all it is. It’s how they start.


He sits on the couch, pretends to watch a show on the television.


She peeks at him out of the hallway like usual.


He sighs, becoming bored with the lackluster entertainment.


She sucks in a breath. Is she going to say something? Martha ambles over to the sofa, lowering herself to the polar side.


They say nothing.


Inch by inch, minute by minute, they come together like magnetic snaps, punctuating themselves with firmly pressed contact.


Soft curls tickle his prickly chin. What’re we watching, she whispers.


A detective show.


And I thought I was the narcissist.


You are.


She chuckles. If you say so. She leans into him.


Loving her is a crime. The detective doesn’t mean it in the poetic way either. It actually is one. A crime he’s not sure he’s willing to commit, no matter how much he wants to. Not yet, Martha.


She sighs, irked. Must you always address me that way?


Yes. He will until the day he can call her wife. Until then, it was Martha.


Years come and go like a glimpse of a shadow at four in the morning when one isn’t paying attention. The detective has done just that. He never thought he’d get married. Now, he’s twenty eight with a wife of eighteen, not uncommon depending on the milieu.


She squeezes his hands. Why are they so rough? Martha asks. Their eyes attach themselves. He drinks in the coffee gaze.


I dunno, he mutters, not sure that he wants to share the story of a man who loved fire more than his family.


She sighs. Fine. Don’t tell me. She grins. Can’t we? It feels I’ve waited a lifetime, forgoing other advances to--


Don’t go Brontë or Shelley on me, Martha.


You mean wife.


Mrs. Humbert.


Mrs. Humbert? she marvels. I like it. Has character.


It’s your character.


Mmhm. She closes the already small gap between them. Mrs. Humbert Humbert. You’ve the weirdest name. It’s why I call you Detective.


He nods.


Be with me? I’ve never… She turns her gaze down.


Neither have I.


Really? She turns to look up at him, her height being only at his chest height. Shall we solve the mystery, Detective?


Elementary, my dear Martha.


People are talking, asking. People at the detective’s work ask him where he got the purplish blue bruise from. They whisper wispily. He snaps a picture to better see the damage,


Bar fight? Bill asks.

Nah. He and the wife are probably into some kinky stuff, Mar suggests. They’re partners. They defend each other.

Probably cheated, Liv says.

He wouldn’t. Mar stiffens.

Liv’s right. Bill sighs. He cheated.

He cheated.

Nods all around.


The detective sinks into his desk chair. He doesn’t cheat. It’s not his style. He rubs against the darkening bruise below his right eye on his cheek (it’s hurts); he mutters sorry, but doesn’t know for whom the apology is.


Mar comes over, calls his name. Hey.

Hi.

Stuck it to you, huh?

I didn’t cheat.

Mar blushes. Okay. He doesn’t believe it. He thinks that the detective cheated on his wife and deserves it. Mar’s a nice guy. His heart is more gold than the Abu Dhabi Christmas Tree, lightening situations and loads as frequent as he breathes. If Mar thinks he did something wrong, who is he to disagree?

The detective nods, more to himself than his friend.


He would apologize tonight.


He would apologize and buy her sweet cherry wine and chocolate coated strawberries that she loves. He’d give her a foot massage and play Sade. He needs to. He needs her.


Maybe he’s a pyromaniac. The detective wouldn't put it past himself. His masochistic tendencies with his combustible were boundless.


The detective holds a cold pack of ice to his cheek and gazes at the display he’s just woven together.


On the floor is a silver bucket filled with cylindrical ice cubes and a bottle of her favorite wine. Beside that are the strawberries, complemented by an array of take out Chinese food (he can’t cook). She’ll like it, he tells himself.


He hears the door unlock and tenses.


Her heels click on the floor. She calls his name.


The detective throws the melting, precipitated ice pack into the kitchen and reveals himself. Hi, Martha, he says, finding himself excited to see his burning flame.


She smirks. What’s all this about?


I wanted to apologize.


She drops her bags on the floor by the sofa. She does this everyday when she comes home from wherever she goes during the day (she doesn’t have a job). That’s sweet. She walks up to him, standing on her tippy toes to peck a kiss onto his pointy nose.


He smiles (it hurts slightly).


They drop to the carpet.


Martha rests against him, humming a tune he’s yet to figure out.


What did you do today?


She sighs. Not much, I suppose. My poems.


Did you go somewhere to read them? He likes when she lets him come along to watch. Her voice is dulcet in an unironic way. It’s silky smooth like a ribbon running through a dress loop yet loud and commanding. He imagines the voice of a siren or enchantress.


No, I went to see a friend.


About your poems?


Her head cocks to the side, nose scrunching. Oh, yeah. She pauses. Yeah, I went to see a friend about my poems.


Editor?


Nah. She relaxes against him again.


You should publish your poems.


She shakes her head. You know, Martha starts.


The detective waits for her to finish, but she doesn’t. What do I know?


Nothing. She sucks on a strawberry.


He’s realizing now that he doesn’t know much about his Martha. She talks a lot, but not about herself. She talks about Jenny at the mango flavored library and Sarah from the yeast scented bakery and Lolita at the stale aired school for special needs children she volunteers at (everything was smells and colors for Martha).


Did I tell you about what Jenelle and I talked about today?


Jenelle?


You know… Jenelle. He doesn’t, but she goes through friends like a three year old goes through lollipops. It’s fast and sticky. Anyway, Jenelle told me her Mom bought her this crappy toaster as a wedding present-- she just got married.


Cool.


She nods. And I told her--


How was your dad? He needs to know something. He’s been in the desert called Martha for forty days and nights.


My dad?


He hums an affirmative.


What do you mean?


What was he like?


Quiet. Brooding.


And your mom?


She shrugs.


It’s amazing how fast she goes from talking more than the president’s press secretary to as wordless as a static television. The white noise she exudes leaves him awestruck ast times.


The detective has never been so stuck on a case. He’s been on the mystery of Martha for nearly half a decade now. The only thing it’s brought him are grey hairs, scars, and a flame he’d allow to engulf him before burning out.


He freezes at a whispered utterance that doesn’t sound like any language he knows (African maybe). Martha, he calls. Martha where--


Detective, she says. Her hair’s red now. She dyes it. He forgets why. Martha smiles, throwing her phone on the sofa to wrap her arms around his neck. What’s up?


Who’re you talking to?


What?


Who were you talking to?


She blinks. Wanna hear a poem I wrote?


He’s glad she lets him read things now. He loves poems. She writes song too.


Roses are red, she starts. Violets are blue…


Violets are purple, he interrupts.


She smirks. Nothing ryhmes with purple, silly. She drags him into their bedroom.


Hirple does-- and so does curple.


What’s curple? She unbuttons his shirt.


He pushes her hands away playfully, feeling a grin appear on his own face. Hindquarters. Buttocks. He cups hers. It’s firmer than a memory foam mattress. He won’t say it wasn’t a factor when he married her, won’t say it’s why their engagement wasn't so short.


Her pillow-like lips press against his. A smack of a kiss. I love you. Another kiss. It’s simple, detective, she starts again. Roses are red. Violets are blue. Everything is simple. Simple yet true. Black and white, you see… is the definition of me.


Cheesy, he breathes.


Very. She kisses him again.


Who were you talking to?


She pulls her own shirt off. Says they’ll talk later.


Martha won’t speak to him. She’s mad. Says that if he comes into the condo she’ll call the police and say he raped her. That he’s been raping her since they met when she was fourteen. That he’s been hurting her, squeezing her breasts when he tells him to stop and hitting her with a hardcover book when she protests.


Amazing how he’s the only one with scars.


She calms down (always does). Says he can come in. that she’s sorry for overreacting. She gets like that sometimes. He agrees, saying they all do. All is well again.


Martha hums.


What song is that? He asks.


One my dad used to sing.


How does it go?


You won’t get it. The corners of her mouth curve downwards.


He nods, respecting the answer.


What about your father? You never talk about him.


There’s not much to discuss.


Is he alive?


Quite, he ricochets.


Where does he live?


Far away from here.


She shoots him an incredulous look.


Victoria, Canada.


Her eyebrows rise. Are you Canadian?


No. He’s not canadian.


Then why is he there? She flips through a page of her Ted Hughes book. She says he’s a great poet. He understands what it’s like to be a lover, to be a victim of love. The detective hates to think that he’s made her a victim. A victim of his desires. She wanted it to, he reminds himself. He reminds himself of this everyday, but he’s yet to convince himself to believe it, his own analytical mind working against his sanity.


He works at the University of Victoria.


As what?


An ethics professor.


She scoffs. Really?


Yes. Why so surprising?


He approves of us?


He doesn’t know of us, of me. He and his mother left under the cover of a foggy night. He remembers that night, the first of his last days with his mom. She died of an unknown illness, having dropped dead in the kitchen one night with an implied thump. He found her after coming home. He’d still been in the academy then. My little sleuther.


If my dad were still alive--


You don’t know my dad. She doesn’t know him. He’s evil.


He’s ethical, I’m sure. She smiles, trying to pull hilarity out of the moment, he presumes.


He’s crazy.


I doubt he’s--


He’s crazy, Martha. Nuttier than a jar of peanut butter. Lives his life in a psychedelic haze plagued with implausible ethical theories, pyromania, and a skewed sense of morality. The detective clenches his fist. Why is he getting so mad?


Is he a good teacher? she queries.


The best.


Cool.


He takes a breath, trying to calm himself. Could you turn the nonchalance and apathy off for a second? He pinches the bridge of his nose. I can’t right now.


Okay. She rubs his forearm in an attempt to comfort him. Martha’s not good with touch or emotions. The detective learned that long ago. She shuts down. She either makes everything a nineteenth century joke or shuts down.


He wishes she had an inbetween, something that makes her normal. His wish will never be granted. The detective licks his lips, accepting the moisture.


My dad, she starts, my dad was a smoker. He always had cuban cigars. My mom smelled like peaches, and it’s so weird because I can’t find her perfume brand, tried everywhere.


Thought you hated her.


She sucked. She was explosive. And that’s, apparently, all there is to it.


Some people are simpler than hydrogen. They’re as simple as stars in the sky and soft, rubbery, plastic-like hand turkeys. The detective has a feeling Martha is like that. She’ll be easy to figure out once he gets the pattern. He just needs a clue, a starting point. A runner’s gun.


He sifts through endless papers. Why doesn’t she write electronically? The poems aren’t much. They’re nothing special:


He smelled like cuban cigars and whiskey.

She had chocolate hair and smelled of peaches.

Their daughter dances with the Devil in the pale moonlight,

Stepping on the piano keys of Aphrodite,

Running through Hermes’ breeze,

Stopping in the arms of Athena,

But tuning out the wisdom like the thumb and index finger stifling a flame.

She burned, but she didn’t rise like phoenix.

He choked on his own goodness.

Their daughter remains, crumpled in a cream dress and smudged with crimson clay.


He smiles. She’s an open book. Fire. Fire is what she is.


Smile is a fire. Frown is a dark room. Hot to the touch. She’s his doom.


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