Fiction: Second Place

A short man with a battered suitcase slipped into the Cumberville Inn and waited silently at the reception desk. When he finally stirred, Miss Prindle, the inn’s owner, nearly fell off her seat. For all she knew, he could have been standing there an hour, blinking behind his huge black-rimmed glasses.

Quiet as a mouse on moss


, she thought.

Maybe he's a mute.


He wore a dusty medical jacket and a green wool cap rolled down to his bushy brows. His hairy arm reached over her desk and signed the register while she fiddled with her bracelet charms. She pushed the room key across her desk and sat back with her shoulders against the wall. Without a word, he turned, picked at the rear of his pants, and hurried up the stairs.

Miss Prindle had operated the inn for thirty years. She lived in a small apartment behind the reception desk where she monitored everyone’s comings and goings. When the guests were out, she rummaged through their rooms and then told everything to her best friend Millie. Millie was brassy and forward, not like Miss Prindle who fancied herself a reserved, polite, and proper lady.

Early the next morning, Miss Prindle picked up the heavy receiver of the big black telephone that was ringing on her desk.

“Got any gossip?” asked Millie. “Anything surprising?”


“I’ve worked at the inn so long, nothing surprises me,” said Miss Prindle. “And I don’t gossip. I just tell you what little there is.”

“You got to talk more to your guests,” said Millie. “That’s how I find things out. Everybody likes jabbering, especially about themselves.”

“That’s not my way. I don’t want to get too close.”

“Squeezing information from you is like wringing out a dry rag. You got something to tell or not?”

The little man came to Miss Prindle’s mind, but what was there to say? She searched her memory elsewhere for something interesting and made the most of it. “I nearly filled the inn last weekend with a group for the Annual Gem and Mineral Swap. They came from all over Maryland, as far as Scaggsville. They towed in cases full of sparkly stones and showed me amber nuggets filled with petrified beetles.”

“Well that’s something,” said Millie. “This week, I got a full house for the Nephrology Convention. I had to put out my no-vacancy sign. Folks from all over the world filled my rooms. A turban-headed doctor from Nairobi or was it Nanking spoke perfect English to me and gibberish to his three wives.”

“Millie, you win. Nothing much happens at my place.”

After Miss Prindle set down the phone’s receiver, the little man hurried out the door. His ape-like arm carried a half-open suitcase secured with a leather belt. She peeped through the window slats as he picked at the rear of his pants again. Then he hopped into an old station wagon and rumbled off.

Wiggles like a reflection in a fun-house mirror like he ain't got bones. Is he a sideshow clown? Are they props hanging out that suitcase? There ain't no circus in town.

In the registry book on the desk, she squinted at his scratchy signature.

Zenhopper? What kind of fool name is that?

Her finger started dialing Millie’s number again, then stopped midway.

I got to find out more.

She tiptoed up the stairs to his room, fumbled for his room key, and began to insert it. Just then, her mind filled with images of his magnified eyes and wiggly posture. She saw him flapping his hairy arms and hooting like a chimpanzee. Miss Prindle’s skin turned white and every patch shot up with goose pimples. She stifled a scream as she pulled her hand from the doorknob and wiped her key and fingers with a handkerchief.

On the way to the reception desk she nearly tripped over a small object on the stairs. “What the dickens?” she muttered, hunching over a metal scoop that protruded from a bulbous wooden handle. “Must have fallen out of his suitcase.” She kicked the object down the stairs and teased it behind her desk with a ballpoint pen. Then she closed the door to her apartment behind the reception desk and took a hot bath.

Meanwhile, Zenhopper returned to the inn and tiptoed past the empty desk and up to his room. He had finished his work in quick time. After shaking out the jumble of instruments from his suitcase and arranging them in an organized row, he sighed at an empty space on the floor, the missing object.

Later that day, in the inn’s basement, Miss Prindle stuffed a load of towels in the washer. The windowless room was dank, dim, and lonely. When the washer stopped sloshing, she reached for the wall-phone and called Millie to bring her up on things. But as usual, Millie interrupted her before she could have her say.

“Lots to tell,“ blurted Millie. “I was driving along minding my business when I spied a child in the car ahead, behind the wheel! I followed him to our church, but when he got out the car, he was no child, just a little man wearing a dirty lab coat, carrying a medical bag with instruments dangling every which way. I parked and hid behind a tombstone. I caught him snooping!”

“Snooping? In the cemetery?” gasped Miss Prindle, pressing the receiver hard to her ear. “Then where’d he go?”

“I don’t know exactly. I got distracted looking through his car window. Full of junk, tubes, wires, and magazines. All I could make out were the gold letters on a black book—

The Use and Care of Organs

. But he don’t look like no doctor and that ain’t no doctor car.”

“Organs?” choked Miss Prindle. “Is he digging for body parts? Selling them on the black market? Millie, there’s something I should have told you. Brace yourself—he’s staying here at my inn. You got to come over and see this dreadful thing behind my desk. It’s got to be one of his instruments, some kind of metal probe. He must be hauling unspeakable things in that medical bag. I should have grilled him when he signed in, but I couldn’t get my lips moving, he rattled me so. And Millie, it’s the most disgusting thing—he’s always picking at his bottom. I think he’s trying to upset me.”

“You been keeping all this from me with that devil running loose in your inn? You ought to be ashamed! Find out as much as you can before I get there. And don’t let him escape.”

Miss Prindle collapsed in a folding chair. She lined up her thoughts, shuffled them, and twisted them upside-down. Everything added up to trouble. She imagined shining scalpels, foot-long needles, probes, and pinchers scattered around the upstairs room. In the bathroom, kidneys swam in the claw-foot tub, lungs gasped for air on the tiled floor, and hearts sparked on electric wires that dangled from the shower head.

Miss Prindle grabbed the phone again. Her finger raced around the rotary dial. She panted into the receiver, “Sergeant Blansey. Get here quick. You got to lock him up before he escapes.”



“The Monkey Man!”


At Zion Methodist Church, Lenny Zenhopper had crouched all morning in a tight wooden chamber filled with dust and clutter. It would take a week for most repairmen to patch up the inner workings of Zion’s organ; it would take Lenny only a day and a half. Others would have to dismantle countless pipes to make a clear path to the mechanical devices, but Lenny’s small build allowed him to swing with ease from the chamber’s ceiling joists and dance lightly around the electric connectors, wind blowers, and pneumatic pistons. He shined his flashlight here and there as his double-jointed body snaked around the pipe work. With special tools, he crimped metal hoses, twisted flanges, and burnished the vibrating reeds of oboe, trumpet, and piccolo pipes.

Zenhopper stuffed his ears with tissue to protect them from squawking pipes, and he rolled down the wool cap to protect his head from low ceilings. But nothing could protect him from splinters. The organ chamber was made of rough wood and an hour didn’t pass without a splinter pricking him. One in particular was pestering his rear. In the privacy of the chamber, he lowered his pants, twisted like a pretzel, and picked at the irritated patch of skin, but he only chased the splinter deeper into his butt cheek.

Back at the basement, Miss Prindle hid behind the washing machine and clutched her chest. Overhead, guests came and went. Every footstep made her shiver. She listened for the light steps of the Monkey Man and gathered her courage. She’d trap him in his room. Maybe fight him. She grabbed a broom handle and swished the straw end in the air, then turned it around and tapped the wooden handle to the cement wall. She’d never clobbered a guest before. She stepped onto the first stair tread. The phone rang. Her heart stopped.

“There ain’t a thing to worry over,” said Millie. “I just got word from the secretary at Zion. That man’s fixing our organ, tuning the pipes. He’s an expert, come all the way from Baltimore. He’s no mute. He’s the quiet type. I’m going to bring him one of my special peach pies, baked one this morning. What he’s been eating all this time?”

“Mercy,” said Miss Prindle. She puckered her lips and let out a whistle. “And I thought he was nothing but trouble. Truth be told, he’s been an easy guest. He even prepaid the bill. Yes Millie I’m sure he’d love a pie. I need to hang up now. The sergeant’s on his way. I got to set him straight after all this foolishness I talked up. When my heart stops pounding, I’ll give you an earful. My lips will be flapping till midnight.”

“Find out why he picks at himself so much.”

“Oh Millie. The things you want to know. I’m not getting that personal with a paying guest.”

Miss Prindle folded towels and tossed her head from side to side. She imagined swaying with the choir as the restored organ played cheerful hymns. Then she frowned.

I'm a Christian woman. I shouldn't have judged Mr. Zenhopper by his spooky looks. He's a proper gentleman, maybe a Methodist like me. When he returns, I'll hand over that odd instrument and offer him some home cooking. We'll talk. Then I'll have plenty to tell Millie, nice things.

Miss Prindle glanced at her gold wristwatch.

I'll take a quick peek before he comes back.

With these thoughts in her head, she clicked off the light switch, hoisted the laundry basket, and tramped up the basement stairs toward Mr. Zenhopper’s room.

Zenhopper relaxed in his room. He had neglected to remove his cap and the wads of tissue stuffed in his ears. When he stretched out on the bed, his stomach growled then the splinter acted up. He nibbled on a cheese cracker while he stripped off his work clothes and dropped his underpants in front of the closet door mirror. The splinter remained out of view. He surveyed the row of tools and picked up a Phillips head screwdriver. After unscrewing the six mirror fasteners, he laid the mirror on the floor and straddled his reflection. One hand aimed the flashlight beam on his rump while the other investigated the sore spot.

Miss Prindle set down the laundry basket at Zenhopper’s door. She assumed that he was at church putting the finishing touches on the organ pipes. But if he gets back early, these fresh towels will be my excuse. She knocked three times, a professional habit.

Zenhopper’s stuffed ears did not hear the knocks or the turn of the key.

The door creaked open. Miss Prind1e’s eyes wandered across the open suitcase and past the assortment of probes and instruments. Then her eyes widened on a hairy hand probing the cheek of a man’s woolly ass.

Zenhopper shifted around and looked up with his thick glasses that magnified his blinking eyes. An orange cracker dangled from his lips, white tissue sprouted from his ears, and checkered underpants bunched around one ankle. He shined the flashlight beam on the plucked splinter and offered it to Miss Prindle as if to explain.

She screamed and clawed her way down the stairs.

He threw on clothes, snatched up tools, and scrambled after her with his suitcase banging behind.

She cowered behind her desk and searched for a weapon—Zenhopper’s missing instrument. She hurled it—crack! He grabbed the back of his head and flew out the door.

A car door slammed and an engine roared as Miss Prindle got up and staggered over the thin trail of blood that led to the street.

Just as the Monkey Man escaped, the patrol car pulled up with Sergeant Blansey and Millie inside.

Miss Prindle pointed a trembling finger to the old station wagon, squealing away in the dust.

Millie held up a pie. “I baked him a cobbler. Where’s he off to in a hurry? When will he be back? Why are you out of breath? Is that blood? Is he hurt? You hurt? Tell me!”

For all Millie’s questions, she did not get one answer. Miss Prindle could not describe a single detail about the disgusting guest from Baltimore. She tried and tried, but her lips only spit and sputtered. They could not form one sensible word. At last she gave up, and part of her mind closed up forever without a trace of memory.

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