Retired schoolteacher Fran Valentine and fifteen-year-old student Donna Fairley were sitting on Fran’s front porch when Sheriff Lucy Valentine stopped by. Lucy climbed out of her cruiser, put her hat on, and sauntered up the dark sidewalk to join them under the porch light. “It’s Saturday night, ladies. Why aren’t you two out on the town?”
Donna giggled. Fran said, “Why aren’t you? You kids think you have to work all the time these days.”
“Kids?” Donna said.
“She means me,” Lucy said, pulling up a chair. “Because she’s my mother, she thinks I never grew up. And that she can still tell me what to do.”
Fran smiled and nodded toward Donna. “Here’s a young lady who can educate us both,” she said.
“Educate us how?” Lucy asked.
“Donna here is a whiz with words. Show her, sweetie.”
The teenager’s face went dead serious. “Did you know,” she asked, “that ‘dreamt’ is the only word in the English language that ends with ‘mt’?”
The sheriff raised her eyebrows. “I would never have dreamt such a thing.”
“And ‘skepticisms’ is the longest word that alternates hands when you type.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Lucy said. “When I type, I alternate two fingers.”
Donna looked confused. “She really does,” Fran said. Then: “Lucy, Donna’ll be helping out after school at the new library, when it opens.”
“That’s good to hear. By the way, it’s on schedule. The construction crew’s finished digging, and they’ll be ready to pour the foundation Monday morning–”
A shout interrupted them: “Sheriff!”
All of them turned to see Fran’s neighbor, Jerry Briggs, hurrying toward them in a robe and house shoes. He said his friend Ace McGee had just phoned, begging him for twenty thousand dollars. He figured Ace had been gambling again, and owed the wrong people. Briggs also said Ace had told him, on the phone, “Sorry I can’t speak louder–I have deafophobia.”
“Deafophobia?” Lucy asked.
“That’s what he said. And he told me I was his last resort. I think he’s in big trouble.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I didn’t have that kind of money. Then he disconnected.”
“Just like that?”
“Yep. I heard somebody there with him. In fact I think someone else made him hang up.” Briggs paused a moment, then added, “Sounded like they were in a car at the time.”
“What made you think that?”
“I heard a guy say, real gruff, ‘Turn north at the next light. Then go all the way to the end of the street.’”
Everybody mulled that over. Finally the sheriff looked at Fran and Donna. “You two are the language wizards. What does that mean, deafophobia?”
“There’s no such word,” Fran said. “And I bet Ace knows that. He’s smart–I think he was trying to give Jerry a clue.”
“What kind of clue?” Jerry Briggs asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“I do,” Donna said. All three adults turned to look at her. “Mr. McGee works at the funeral home, right?”
“I think he meant ‘taph,’ not ‘deaf.’ Taphophobia.”
“What?” Lucy said.
Donna appeared to be deep in thought. Then she sat up straight, her eyes wide. “The place where they’re building the new library. Isn’t it at the end of a long street?”
“Yeah–the north end of Hamilton. Why?”
“We need to get over there,” Donna said. “Right now.”
Ten minutes later the four of them, along with deputies Malone and Wilson, were standing at the darkened construction site for the municipal library. The sheriff and deputies, flashlights in hand, had hauled a sweating and terrified Ace McGee up out of the foundation hole, and Fran was untying his hands and feet. Waiting and handcuffed in the back seat of the sheriff’s patrol car were two hard-looking men in business suits.
When the gag was out of his mouth Ace looked at his friend Briggs and said, wide-eyed and breathing hard, “They were gettin’ ready to shovel dirt on top of me. You saved me.”
Jerry Briggs shook his head. “All I did was tell the sheriff.”
“But you must’ve figured it out. From what I told you on the phone.”
“She figured it out,” Fran said, pointing to young Donna.
The teenager’s face reddened. She said, with a shrug, “I like words.”
“So what does it mean?” Lucy asked her. “Taphophobia.”
For the second time that night, everyone turned to look at Donna.
“It’s the fear of being buried alive,” she said.
John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 250 different publications, including The Strand Magazine, AHMM, EQMM, The Saturday Evening Post, Mississippi Noir, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. John is also a three-time Derringer Award winner and an Edgar nominee. His sixth book, Dreamland, was released last year.
Copyright © 2017 John M. Floyd. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.