Fiction writing doesn’t have the flashy award shows like movies and music. But there are awards for writers that are just as meaningful to them as any Oscar. In the mystery genre, some of these awards–the Agatha, Derringer, Edgar and Macavity–include a category for short story. I am posting “Miscalculation,” my eligible short story here in the hope that it will reach a larger audience. If you enjoy the story, please keep me in mind when filling out your ballots. Thank you!

 

Miscalculation

(published in Santa Cruz Noir, Akashic Books, 2018)

by Vinnie Hansen

When the “Guitar Case Bandit” whipped open his case at the teller’s window, Molly’s mouth fell open. The black case on her counter was built for a ukulele, not a guitar! The media were such idiots—this had to be the fifth bank robbery in a month, and they still didn’t have the details right.

Two other tellers froze on command—Susanna and Amber—as well as the loan officer and branch manager. Molly forked over the bills, placing the final band of twenties in the ukulele case. “There you go, sir.”

Her heart hammered with the thrill of it all. The elusive bandit right in front of her!

“Thank you, Mo . . . .”

Maybe he was going to say “Ma’am.” The robber was noted for his politeness, or at least that’s what the Sentinel reported. Or maybe he read her name from her pin.

The guy gave every teller plenty of time to look him over: black Fedora, Bucci sunglasses, and red ascot pulled over his lower face. Molly couldn’t help staring.

The Guitar Case Bandit had been holding up community banks and credit unions in Santa Cruz County for the last year and yet he’d strolled right in here unheeded, even with the sign on the door prohibiting caps and sunglasses.

“Aim those baby-blues somewhere else, dollface.” The man snapped his case shut.

A telltale mark on the case clasp caught her eye. She’d seen this ukulele case plenty of times. Her knees quivered like a jellyfish. She stared into the robber’s eyes. Dollface.She blushed.

He snapped his fingers like a six-shooter, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and strode out of the credit union.

Molly’s life of serving John Q. Public for fourteen dollars an hour walked right out the door with him.

~~~

Molly played her ukulele every Saturday with Sons of the Beach at the harbor mouth. Her new favorite instrument was her Rick Turner Rose Compass C-Tenor. This weekend, she couldn’t wait.

Smoothing Friday’sSentinel onto her kitchen counter, she reread its crime coverage. In his usual modus operandi, the Guitar Case Bandit had walked casually from her branch. He’d crossed the street into a hedged parking lot where the police patrol never spotted him. No street camera picked up a departing

car with a likely driver. Possibly he had an accomplice or had hidden inside a vehicle. Molly couldn’t tell if the speculation came from the police department or the newspaper.

The bandit had made off with an “undisclosed amount of money.” But Molly knew the figure. Through the grapevine, she’d heard the other sums, too. A cool million total.

The police sought the person of interest shown in a grainy photograph, age about 50, height about 5’10”, weight 170. Gosh, that’s practically the same as me, Molly thought, I’m just two inches shorter.

“Everything about him was average,” the paper quoted the other teller Susanna. Ha!

Molly sniffed. Susanna always dressed like the boat salesperson she used to be before the economic downturn. But if Sue had been the least bit observant, she would’ve said something about the ukulele case. After all, Molly had introduced Sue to the instrument. Once Susanna spent a single morning playing

at the Sons of the Beach group, she’d been hooked. Molly sniffed—not that Susanna had ever hired her for uke lessons.

Well, at least she’d kept her cool, Molly gave her that —better than Amber. Little drama queen had hyperventilated and required treatment from an EMT.

Still, Molly was miffed. She’d described the gun as a modern piece, no revolving chamber for the bullets. The reporter hadn’t bothered to quote her. The story didn’t mention the weapon at all.

The article ended with the hotline number.

They haven’t caught him yet and they aren’t about to—unless he chooses not to cooperate with me. Molly packed her songbooks in her canvas tote bag and slipped on her wedged sandals and glass pendant that matched. Dress for success.

 

She strutted down the Harbor Beach breezeway, a bounce in her step.

The Sons of the Beach congregated outside in front of the Kind Grind café, up to a hundred at a time.

Susanna stepped right in Molly’s path. Her glittery sandals sprayed sand and startled the gull pecking up crumbs from her gluten-free muffin. “You look like the cat who ate the canary.”

Leave it to Susanna to use a cliché.

Sue brushed off her low-cut Hawaiian sundress. “Did you remember more from the bank robbery?”

“Nothing new to report.” Molly jammed her music stand into the sand.

Susanna inspected her. “Tangerine nail polish? What’s going on with that? A date?”

Molly glanced away toward one of the walkway benches. A bag overflowed with plastic leis, brought by the bandleader.

“Want a lei?” Molly asked.

“Sure.” Susanna frowned and tailed her.

Molly sighed. “Stop following me. I like privacy for my lays.”

“I swear you are in some kind of mood this morning.”

Molly threaded along the circumference of the thickening crowd, mostly ukulele players, but also a keyboard, a mouth harp, and a bass. A black fabric case for the upright bass sprawled over a cement bench. A ukulele case rested on the same, but its bright blue fabric sported a design of a topless woman

cradling a strategically held uke. Molly lifted the bass case. Nothing buried.

She passed the drummers and the mandolin player, circling toward the harbor side of the beach where more experienced musicians grouped, the exclusive part of the ring where she never ventured. The guys over here sacrificed a view of the water for a view of the backsides of the female volleyball players.

She stopped in front of Rudy Carmona, and his agile fingers quit dancing along the frets of his koa wood instrument. Abalone shell gleamed around the sound hole.

“Well, hello there.”

In Levi’s and a muscle shirt, he looked anything but average. She ‘d never dreamed of talking to Rudy Carmona. Of course, in point of fact, she hadn’t yet spoken.

“You’re looking fine this a.m.” His dark eyes revealed nothing. Behind him sailboats glided from the mouth of the harbor, off on dolphin and whale adventures. Molly blinked nervously. Up close he even smelled good.  “What can I do for you?” he asked.

“So you ditched your ukulele case?” she stammered.

He lifted his brows and strummed three quick C chords and then a B: dah dah dah-duuuh.

Was he mocking her? Molly flushed again.

He dipped his cleft chin toward the bench. “Right there. Behind the bass.”

“The blue one?” she asked.

“You like it?”

“What happened to your usual case?”

Rudy Carmona sighed and scanned the crowd. He nodded to a hula dancer named Linda.

She was possibly the Linda he’d had a fling with, although hard to tell—every other woman in the group was named Linda. “All those black cases look alike,” he said.

Molly pinned him with her eyes, the way she did with a customer bearing a questionable I.D. “That’s why people mark them.” She could smell her own lavender essential oil, and she knew he must too.

He took hold of her arm. “We’ll discuss this at break.” He whispered in spite of the din of the others warming up. He leaned close to her ear. “On my boat.”

Her heart did a soft shoe to the tune of “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China.”

~~~

The group had barely finished their opening song, “All of Me,” when Sue tapped Molly’s freckled arm. “What is going on with you and Rudy Carmona?”

“I’m going on his boat at coffee break.”

“You?” Susanna’s eyes stretched wide. “And Rudy?”

“Want to chaperone?”

“You can’t be serious?”

“If we’re not back for the second set, call me.” Molly followed the band into “I’m in the Mood for Love,” but her friend could only stare.

~~~

Rudy’s sailboat, the Karma II, occupied a middle berth on N Dock. The dock gate clanked shut behind them and they started down the slippery composite, which had replaced the old wood after the 2011 tsunami. The dock still creaked and swayed.

Rudy offered an arm to help her into his craft.

“Should we go below deck?” she asked. This was his secret lair, maybe all the money mounded on a table—his bed right next to it. She was shaking.

Rudy, who hadn’t said one word since they opened the gate, shook his head and led her to two beach chairs at the stern. Their brightly striped fiesta pattern surprised her.

“Sit.”

Molly settled into the low-slung canvas.

Rudy crossed his strong arms over his chest. He stared off at the view of the Crow’s Nest, a two-story watering hole on the side of the harbor’s mouth. A seal arced out of the water, took an airy breath, and swooshed back down, leaving a small ripple.

“So where’s your old case?” she asked.

“Gave it to Goodwill.”

“And a man ‘about fifty, height about 5’10”, weight 170’ happened to buy it?”

“Get down to business,” he hissed.

She touched her lower lip. “We’d make a great team.”

~~~

“You better tell me what’s going on here.” Susanna had taken her chair and sounded even more bossy than usual.

Molly shook her curls.

“Where’s Rudy?”

“I left him winded.”

Sue’s thin eyebrows tried to fly up, but Botox froze them in place.

“Don’t get excited.” Molly smiled to know something Susanna didn’t—Susanna who strutted around the credit union like she intended to branch manager before the year was out. “This has to stay very hush-hush.”

“Of course.”

Molly extracted her ukulele from her tote and began to tune. “I talked to him about a business deal.”

“Like something at the bank?” Susanna asked.

“Exactly.”

~~~

The Sons of the Beach wrapped up with their traditional morning finale, “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” Molly hustled into the thick coffee aroma of the Kind Grind. She never ordered a soymilk chai here without thinking of the employee who’d been raped and locked in the refrigerator. Or the

infamous killer of two local police officers who’d worked here. It didn’t make sense. How could two horrific crimes be connected to a quaint coffee shop? In Santa Cruz? At the ukulele beach?

She sat over to the side and peeked around the wall to watch Susanna look around for her. Eventually Sue gave up and strode off rolling her cart full of gear.

Molly rubbed her chin, wondering if she’d settled for too little with Rudy. She’d started at 50 percent.

“No can do.” Rudy had kept his gaze on the pilings as if watching a cormorant sunning.  His playful manner had evaporated.

“Are you in a position to negotiate?” she’d asked.

“Thirty-three percent. And that’s it.” Rudy sliced his hands through the air.

As she sipped her chai, Molly divided the loot by three in her head—simple math, but amazing how many people resorted to a calculator. With the cash she could pay off her condo. Maybe take that trip to Paris.

Her job didn’t used to be so bad, but now the people who came into the credit union were mostly seniors who distrusted computers and still used checks, or the lonely who sought free coffee and someone to talk to.

Her phone vibrated. Molly checked the text message. Rudy must have gotten her number from the SOB site where sheadvertised her uke lessons.

Come to boat tonight. Work out details.

She snorted. Fat chance.She wasn’t getting on a sailboat alone with Rudy Carmona in the dark. As nice as that might be. Her mind drifted a moment before she responded: Maybe TTYL.

Molly drained the last of her chai, packed up her rose compass, and walked out into the salty breeze. A volleyball hottie soared vertically and slammed a spike. Yes!

~~~

“Where did you disappear to at the end?” Susanna’s indignation blared over the phone.

Molly drummed her fingers on her kitchen table. “I didn’t know you were waiting for me.”

“Right. We only walk to our cars together every single week.”

“Sorry.”

“I swear since the holdup you’ve been acting like a prima donna.”

“Do you still own a gun?” Molly asked.

“Of course.” Impatience pinched Susanna’s husky voice. “Just went out to Markley’s Range last weekend.”

“Can I borrow it?”

“Why? Are you going to shoot Rudy Carmona?”

“I wouldn’t waste a bullet. He’s probably slept with twenty women in Sons of the Beach. I’m not that big of a fool.” Quiet on the other end of the line.

“Do you even know how to hold one?” Susanna finally asked.

“It’s just for show.”

“What are you getting yourself into?”

“It’s nothing. Rudy wants to meet again on his boat and I don’t trust him.” Yeah, even if her body tingled at the prospect of meeting him again. Even in the light of day sitting on the boat with him, the smell of him. . . . Maybe she could persuade Rudy to take her into the privacy of the cabin, suggest a little

addition to the bargain.

“Are you still there?” Susanna asked.

“So what do you say?” Molly pressed.

“If I go along with this hare-brained scheme, I swear you better cough up every sordid detail of what you and Rudy have going on.”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”

~~~

A stiff ten-knot wind in the harbor had every rigging chiming. Below the halo of a single dock light, Rudy unlocked the gate. It clanged behind them. He put his hand right on the small of Molly’s back.

“Pretty dark out here,” Molly murmured.

“There aren’t any other live-aboard’s on N dock.”

Molly snaked a hand into the pocket of her wrap. The butt of the gun steadied her nerves.

Rudy helped her over the boat’s edge.

She turned toward his locked cabin door. “It’s a bit chilly, right?”

“Romantic, though,” he murmured. “Out here with the sound of the sea.”

Romantic.Molly swiped a loose curl from her forehead. She took a seat again in his fiesta chair. Rudy crossed the deck holding two fishing rods she hadn’t seen before. He hovered by the outboard, adjusting a couple of levers.

“What are you doing?”

“Thought we might do a little night fishing,” Rudy yanked the starter. Molly struggled up from the chair. “I’d stay seated,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to lose your balance and fall over.”

Rudy yanked the rope again. When the engine caught, he adjusted the choke. “What’s the matter, dollface? Thought you liked fishing expeditions.”

Molly calculated her options—riding out to sea with this man or pulling the gun now. The stink of the engine made her stomach churn.

“You know two can keep a secret if one is dead,” Rudy whispered in her ear.

In spite of everything, his breath stirred Molly right down to her tangerine toenails. She pulled the weapon from her wrap.

“What are you planning to do?” Rudy chuckled. “Shoot a gull?”

She leveled the barrel at his chest.

“Take your finger off that trigger,” Rudy said.

“Hey, I have the gun . . . I give the orders.”

In one move, Rudy twisted her wrist, took her gun, and knocked Molly out of the chair. She tumbled to the deck, scraping her bare knees. His weight fell on top of her and an embarrassing sound squeezed from her body.

“Now I have the gun, sweetheart.”

As Molly struggled to rise, blood trickled down her calves. He kept the gun trained on her as he eased the boat out of its slip.

They burbled out of the harbor, through the channel, past the riprap of the jetty, past the lighthouse, and into open water. Molly shivered. Her thin dress was meant for seduction not sailing. Although it didn’t seem like Rudy intended to hoist either her dress or the sails.

A pod of dolphins broke the surface of the open water off the bow. Molly swallowed. Dolphins are good luck, she told herself.

The boatslowed and bobbed in the swell. On the starboard side, the distant lights of the wharf and Boardwalk winked through the fog.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Molly said.

“Oh no you don’t.”

“So here we are,” said a throaty voice.

Molly snapped her head toward the sound. “Susanna!”

“Hi, Molly.” Sue was elegantly coiffed even here. She wore latex gloves and held a gun that looked like the one Rudy had used at the bank.

Molly gulped.

Sue pointed the gun at Rudy first.

“Now wait a minute, dollface.”

“Didn’t you call her that, about two minutes ago?” Susanna waved the gun back at Molly. Molly shrieked. Sue snorted. Then she returned her aim toward Rudy. “You were going to negotiate with this pink-faced idiot? Thought you could charm her pants off, huh? Have her join our little venture?”

Rudy moved in toward Susanna. “Doll, in case you haven’t noticed, I have Molly’s gun in my hand.”

“It’s not loaded.”

The cold wind whipped hair into Molly’s eyes. “Sue, you gave me an unloaded gun?”

“Hey, you said yourself it was just a prop.”

Rudy pulled the trigger. An empty click.

Susanna fired her gun straight into his heart; he keeled over without another word. Straddling his body, Sue shook her head sadly. “So average. Like I said.”

Molly’s heart exploded. “You’re the accomplice?”

“A little hiccup happens to be lying here,” she said to Molly as she slipped the weapon into her waistband. “Let’s tie some weights on him and get him overboard.”

“Fifty percent?” Molly said.

“Of course.”

They pulled fishing line and scuba weights from a deck box. It took the two of them to wrap him tight and hoist his 170 pounds, plus the weight belts, over the side. He sank like a stone.

Cackling, Susanna launched into the first few bars of “Octopus’s Garden.” “Wish I had my ukulele now.”

Molly shivered. “But we’re stuck out here.”

Susanna stopped singing about wanting to be under the sea. “Hah! I know this boat better than he did. Who do you think sold him this wreck?”

Molly bobbed her head. Of course.

“Now about that deal . . .” Sue scratched behind her ear.

“Yes?” Molly’s teeth chattered.

“Here’s your 50/50, dollface.” Susanna drew the gun back out of her waistband. “You can either go overboard voluntarily, saving me some work, or I can shoot you first.”

“I thought we were friends.”

Susanna tsked. “Seriously? Me, friends with someone who never advanced beyond teller?”

“You can keep all the money.”

Susanna laughed. “How very generous of you.” She gestured with the barrel of the gun toward the water where Rudy’s body had disappeared.

Dripping with misery, Molly looked at the waves roiling below. “But why, Sue?”

“Any woman stupid enough to trust Rudy Carmona deserves to die.”

A swift jab with the gun sent Molly flailing backward. Icy shock surrounded her. She gulped salt water and then bobbed to the surface.

Above her Susanna waggled her fingers and launched into a deep-throated rendition of “Under the Boardwalk.”

Molly treaded water, her wet wrap tugging her down. The distant lights taunted her. Never much of a swimmer, she took a floundering stroke.

The boat turned and putted toward shore, wagging its stern at her. The water’s phosphorescence lit the scrolled lettering on the stern: Karma II.