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Short Story

Crucifix

A young receptionist yawned as the phone rang behind her. The receiver sat black and blocky. She released it and put it up to her ear with a soft click. Its wire tangle of tight spirals clacked on the desk. 

I

A young receptionist yawned as the phone rang behind her. The receiver sat black and blocky. She released it and put it up to her ear with a soft click. Its wire tangle of tight spirals clacked on the desk. 

“This is the Milwaukee Art Museum. My name is Natalie Beck. How can I help you?” 

“***9**wnk…” 

“I’m sorry, one second, I can’t understand you.” Natalie fiddled with the wires.

“Hello? When do you close?”

“Hello?”

“Hello, when do you close?” The voice repeated.

“9 PM.” 

“What time is it now?”

“8:30 PM.”

“Thank you.”

The receiver sent out the dial tone. She gazed at it and shrugged. “They hung up.” She replaced it and turned to her computer. 

Her cell phone buzzed. Her fingers flew to its off button, but she couldn’t resist a glance at her phone screen.

It was her dad sending her photos of their boat outing last week. She stashed it in her purse. As she plopped it on the desk, a handle broke. She wrinkled her nose at the shabby thing and wondered what time H&M opened the next day—twirling and untwirling the now detached strap of her purse around her fingers.

An icon popped up on her computer. Tossing the strap in the garbage, she scrolled the mouse wheel up and down and pressed print. She looked over the document, a dialog box appeared. Refill PrintCartiage2. 

The door opened. 

A man with a medical facemask, hat, and sunglasses stepped over the threshold. He took long strides. He placed his hands on the desk and cleared his throat.

 Natalie looked up at him and flashed him a smile. “Hello sir, how are you doing today?”

“One ticket, please.”

“Sure. I would like to inform you. The museum is closing in about nine minutes.” Natalie smiled. 

“I am aware.”

“The security guards will give you the heads up and will close up after you.”

“Thank you.”

 With a satisfying rip, she released it from the black printer. “Here you are,” She drew back a bit. A Clorox wipe canister sat next to her. 

He nodded and took his ticket. Saying nothing, he bent the cardstock. Then he turned to stalk off into the museum. 

She threw on her cardigan to guard against the early spring air. It was the nicest one her mother had given her last Christmas, a soft pink cashmere. Humming a melody by the Supremes and with a small spring, she stood from her chair. Double-checking over her workstation, she threw on her beanie and gripped her purse to her chest. 

The stars sparkled above the lake as she walked away. Admiring the wings which stretched out before Lake Michigan like the building was a bird ready to take flight. A fierce wind blew her hair into her face. Shaking her eyes free, she dove into her car. 

II

Natalie rolled up to her house. Turning out the headlights, she gathered her things. She made quick work of her walkway and unlocked her apartment door. Sighing in relief, she pried her shoes off, throwing them into a random corner of the room with a satisfactory clatter. Going right to the kitchen, she washed her hands and opened a La Croix with a swift crack. Kicking back the drink, she closed her eyes. 

She flicked the lights onto their dim setting and sat down, tucking her legs underneath her. The Tv turned onto a local news program detailing the rise of small-scale boaters in Milwaukee county. Her eyes drooped.

Her phone rattled and lit on the table. She sat up.

 Caller ID: John Walter. She rolled her eyes but accepted the call. Her hair kept falling in the way and she pushed it back as she brought the phone up to her ear.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Natalie?”

“Mr. Walter, What can I do for you?” She pushed back another stubborn strand of hair.

“Have you left work yet?

“I just got home.”

“Oh, I see. I hate to ask you this. I know it’s already 9:00. I left my ID at the art museum. I’m already at the airport. Would you go back and get it for me?”

“Sir, forgive me for the asking, but could I pick them up on Monday? It’s really out of my way.”

“That’s a No-go. I need to have them, and right now. I’m counting on you,”

“Alright, I’ll pick them up for you.” Natalie rubbed her eyes.

“Get them from the safe. The code is 900845. I owe you big time for this.”

Natalie rolled her eyes and tapped her foot. “Don’t worry about it,” what an asshole.

“Okay, so the plan is, go back to the Art Museum, get my ID from the safe, and then drop it off at my front door, then my wife will take my ID and do the last leg.”

“Why can’t your wife get the ID?” unbelievable.

“I’ll give you overtime?”

“Time and a half?”

“And I’ll buy you lunches for a month when I get back.”

“Yeah, I’m leaving now, no problem,” Natalie checked the clock. It was half-past nine. It was also dark out.

“You are a-maz-ing, Natalie! I owe you big time.”

“Yep, I’ll text you when I’ve finished,”

“Bye,” She hung up. A gust of air blew out from her mouth, a tortured sigh. Ignoring her work shoes, she pulls on a pair of ratty sneakers. Her keys cooled her hand as she shut and locked the door behind her.

III

 Richard Graham cleaned a crucifix with a small brush. The crucifix glittered under the fluorescent lights of the museum’s archives. It was made of solid gold and brass. There were three semi-precious stones on each of the four ends. Or at least there was. Out of the 12, there were only five stones left. The rest of them were missing.

Richard had steady hands trained by almost a decade of working with fine antiquities. His name tag at his chest read Historian.

The ceiling soared high and clear above him. Its magnificent arches were cradled like he was sitting as the yolk in an egg. Sheets of paper stacked neat and color-coordinated surrounded him like small skyscrapers.

Richard looked at the empty inlays where rubies and sapphires had once lived. He imagined where the stones were now. Perhaps they were in the hands of thieves or buried under the debris of a disaster. 

What rivers it might have crossed since 119AD. What tragedy must affect a human’s mind to commit to ignorance and defile a priceless work of art.

He pushed up the glasses on his face. Despite the long hours, his research notes were almost complete. His Ph.D. candidacy paper was perfected, save for a few gems. Chuckling to himself, he hefted the cross up to eye level. A dark figure reflected in the shiny surface of the cross and blocked the light from the hallway. Richard turned his head, the corners of vision registering a person.

“Put your hands up.” A voice said behind him.

“Don’t look at me. Look at the floor,” The voice said.

  “I’m putting my hands up now,” Richard pushed down a blast of fear. There was the door. Get to it now. It’s just right there. Not far at all. 

“Don’t look at me. Look at the ground.” The man said, and Richard’s blood went cold. A steel click devoured all other sounds in the room. A drip of cold sweat descended his back.

“Listen, if you want my wallet. You don’t have to do this.”

“Give me the crucifix,”

“The crucifix? What?”

Both of them turned toward a short slam of a door, a gasp, and the sound of objects clattering.

IV

Natalie pulled into the parking lot, leaving her car directly in front as she ran inside, now in sneakers. The light switches had small led lights which reacted to her movement. The lights turned on automatically as she walked through the tall building, past the galleries. She was using the pads of her fingers to trace around the walls. Adjusting her air pods, she took one out. The wind whistled across into the lake and went up the walkway to the art museum. 

“It’s not supposed to be this dark inside of the museum yet,” Natalie said to herself. Her iPhone buzzed as she lit her flashlight app and checked the time. 9:48 PM. 

Ducking to John’s office, she removed a painting from the wall with great care. There was the safe, which revealed itself, just as he had said. Natalie rechecked the time, 9:50 PM. She opened the safe.

A manilla folder sat with John’s ID underneath a handgun and a stack of cash. The handgun was sleek and deadly-looking.

Clearing her throat, she took out her AirPods and placed them on the desk behind her. The cash rustled against Natalie’s hands as she flipped through them. She cleared her throat and put them back down where she found them. Nudging the gun off of the folder with her knuckle, with agonizing slowness, she released the folder from its trapped state. 

The manilla folder yawned open in her hands, and Natalie accepted the offering of ID. Working around the damaged strap, and almost dropping its sleek faux leather, she opened the mouth of her purse. 

Music echoed in her AirPods in her ears as she replaced the painting. Pushing on the unlocked door, she shrugs it forward. It clicks into place. Secure, finally, now she could go home. She texted Mrs. Walters. She was on her way.

Taking a shortcut back to her car, Natalie goes back in and heads to the archives. A muffled noise echoed up the hallway. She took out her AirPods. There was the sound of voices from beyond. The words were still indistinguishable. 

“Hello?” Natalie whispers, her heart pounding. Her eyes were glued to the door handle, which was slightly ajar. She looks into the archives. The door slammed open with more force than she had intended. 

A handgun. Two men. The man she had sold a ticket to pointed a gun at Richard, the resident Ph.D. candidate. They looked at her. Their eyebrows drew up.

Natalie gasped and dropped her purse onto the ground, her phone and the contents of her purse spilled out of it toward the man with the gun. She trembled. 

The man glared at her for a split second and then turned his hand toward her.

Richard took his chance. Leaping at the man, he wrestled with him for the gun. Their limbs tangled, and the nose of the weapon. Her tilted up. Richard bared his teeth, and a wild look illuminated his eyes. 

Natalie looked on in horror, fear coursing through her veins. What do I do? She dove for her phone. Her palms ached as she gathered her purse. Getting back on her feet, she looked up. 

He kicked out and shoved a cloth-covered box toward her. It glided across the floor like a ballerina in the Nutcracker. Natalie stopped its trajectory.

“Take the crucifix!” Richard shouted at her.

“Get- upfh,” The shooter mumbled, clawing at Richard.

“What?” Natalie asked.

“Take the crucifix!” Richard shouted again. Natalie paled and clumsily grabbed it and the soft bed of cotton padding surrounding it. She clutched it and her purse like a newborn infant in her arms and ran for the exit. 

The gun popped. Natalie’s blood curdled as Richard’s scream tore the air. Her breath caught in her throat.

V

She stumbled and kept running. Navigating the tight stairwells of the parking garage, Natalie spots her car. It’s the only one in the lot. Digging through her purse, she clicks her keys, and the car snorts in response. 

The door slammed shut, and Natalie had to use two hands to put the key in the ignition, the way her hands trembled. The parking garage opened out into an empty intersection. There are five different ways,  and she drives south. Her hands fumble her phone—moonlight streams in through the windows.

“This is 911. What’s your emergency?”

The road lifted from the ground. Orange steel beams framed her eyes and over the Hoan bridge. Behind her, a sleek car tailed her closely. Pressing on the gas, she glanced at the car behind her and her dash. 

“Hello, my name is Natalie Beck, and there is someone following me in my car. I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum,”

“Where are you?”

“I’m on the Hoan bridge,” Natalie said. The car behind her bumped her, and her phone dropped from her hand. They were the only cars in the middle of the bridge.

On Natalie’s left, there was the open lake water. To her right, there were covered mounds of some industrial facility. She rubbed her neck, a sharp pain shot through her back. 

She screamed in frustration. “I just want to go back home!” Her foot pressed the gas pedal against the floor. Slowing down, she turned out from the bridge. Her eyebrows knit together as she turned and felt the left side of the car lift. The wheels bounced as they met earth again. With a drift and a screech, the car answered her sudden stomp on the brake. Before her, a gravel parking lot bordered a pier. A yellow sign and locked chain-link fence separated her from a marina of boats which shimmered in the light of the full moon.

The sleek black car pulled up. Pulling on the handle, she got out of her car. She gathered the gold cross, tied it into her purse, and climbed the fence. Dropping down onto the other side, she ran down the pier, her steps echoing on the tin material below her. The pier pitched and moved. But, her feet were sure, and she jumped onto the familiar-looking small boat. 

She searched for the keys in the boot of the first boat. No luck. She jumped out and tried another boat for its keys. No luck. The man was getting closer to her. She could hear his footsteps crunch on the gravel before the pier. She dove into the last boat and felt for the keys. Success. 

She entered the key into the lock and started the roaring engine. It spluttered, angry at being woken up and forced to work so late in the night. She untied the boat from its spot and angled the fast-moving speedboat into the lake. He stared at her, shouting obscenities. The full moon above revealed the fervor of his anger in the form of clouds of spittle and eyes bulging and nearly white. She sailed into dark lake Michigan. The wind pushed her hair around her face. She tucked the stray strands behind her ear. The echoing sound of her assailant grew softer and softer as she grew further from the shore.

VI

She goes out past the lighthouse. Standing, she shouts at another boat sailing by. It’s a bright spotlight trained on her.

“Are you Natalie Beck?”

“Yes,”

“We are the coast guard. Please allow us to invite you onto our ship for a chat.”

“Okay,” Natalie Beck said. A ladder bounced against the side of the Coast Guard’s boat. She sat on the ship wrapped in a blanket, and between sips of chamomile, she recounted the story.

“While we found tire tracks at the marina, we did not find any men around with that description.”

“Oh. So he’s still out there?”

“Yes.”

“Ma’am, I hope you understand, but you’ll have to come down to the station with us.”

“I’ll come with you.”

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