Zenith (2012)

Zenith slipped inside the house, her face hidden behind a scarf, her hands clutching a tiny package. Taking no notice of the oddly shaped mound by the sofa, she weaved her way up the winding stairs to her bedroom. There, she unveiled her face and set her treasure on the bed. Kicking off her shoes, she wriggled out of her stockings and joined the package on the hard mattress. There was a scrap of tape marrying the flap to the body of the envelope. With glee she emptied its contents and began to count.

Downstairs, the mound began to groan and twist, with dreadful movements. A pale hand appeared, and then another. Two feet appeared also, dressed in black woolen knits. Looking less like a mound and decidedly more human, the figure rose from its place by the couch. From beneath a black hood peeked an ashen face. It was a man. A stern man. His expression made even more grave by his heightened suspicions. The air grew heavy with his aura as he moved towards the old staircase. It made little noise under his slow, careful creeping, and it was not until he had reached Zenith’s door that the floorboards made any noticeable complaint.

But again, Zenith noticed nothing, her fingers flying faster with each moment. A light knock, twice–three times! All failed to break her concentration. Only when the door began to slide along its arc did she suddenly awaken and snatch up her ill-gotten gain, stuffing it back into the package. In a brisk move she grabbed a novel from  the shelf and hid the money between its pages. Lying back on her pillow, she pretended to read. “Foolproof!” she thought, smiling, as a dark shadow fell across the bed.

“It’s been over a quarter-hour since you’ve sneaked into the house, and you’re still in your street clothes?”

Zenith peered over the book with a sickly sweet expression.

“How is that your problem, Cassius? I’m enjoying this book too much to put it down.”

“A rather untimely hour for reading, is it not?” Cassius replied, a grimace on his face.

“Why, it’s only 10 o’clock, or thereabouts …”

“On the contrary, young lady, its approaching half past 1 in the morning and I’d like to know exactly where you’ve been.”

“W-where I’ve been?” the girl stammered, trying desperately to think up some story. “Why, at a friend’s house!”

“A friend, eh? I’d like to know which mother in this town would tolerate such a late night visit.”

“Well, I wasn’t at the house so late,” she added. “I left at a reasonable hour, but the buses were all either full or late, so by the time I got one…”

“Zenith!” the man cried. “Stop this nonsense. Where would that many people be going so late at night? Come, come–I’m not a fool. Where have you been, really?”

“I just told you.”

Cassius stared at the nineteen year old girl with a look of pitiful wonder and angry disbelief. He was sure that his sister lied regarding her whereabouts, and he was not a little curious about the package she had clutched in her hands. He thought to ask about it, then changed his mind.

“One lie will only lead to another,” he thought. “But truth wins in the end. I’ll wait.”

Zenith’s shoes, still lying where she had removed them, caught his eye. That was unusual, for Zenith was as neat a girl as they come. Even the fact that she would lie on her bed with her coat and town dress was rather shocking.

“Pick up your shoes, Zenith. And I shouldn’t like to see what frightful germs you’ve taken to bed with that coat and dress!”

“Oh! I’m so sorry Cassius. I guess I’ve been carried away by this delightful story!”

A wry smile spread over Cassius’ face as he eyed the book’s cover. “I never thought you would find calculus to be so captivating,” he chuckled, taking the book by the corner from his sister’s hands. As he did so, the little package was freed from its hiding place and fluttered to the floor.

Zenith was horrified, not only by the fact that she had grabbed the wrong book, but because the envelope now lay in plain sight on the floor. But Cassius hadn’t noticed it, for his eyes were fixed on the pumps and Zenith’s clothes. Quickly, the girl sat up and unbuttoned her coat, allowing it to fall back on the bed after freeing her arms.

“No, child!” come the slightly hoarse protest from Cassius, who dropped the book and pulled the coat off the bed along with Zenith, who succumbed to a strange fit of coughing as she tumbled onto the floor.

“You’re tired,” her brother said, “or you wouldn’t be so scatterminded.” To the closet went the coat, and the hard heeled shoes to the rack. Zenith’s nightdress hung over the armchair, where she had left it that morning. Cassius snatched it up and handed it to the bewildered girl.

“See, you don’t even sense your surroundings. Here, change into your night-clothes and get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Zenith took the dress and watched until her brother left the room, shutting the door behind him. An evil grin crept across her face as she reached under the bed and set up, triumphantly, with the package.

“Fooled him!” she thought.

Opening her dresser drawer, she hid the money among her clothes. Tipping back to bed, she blew out the small kerosene lamp, and drew the drapes shut.

Morning came all too soon, and with it the smells of maple sugar oatmeal and lightly buttered toast. Zenith dressed slowly, knowing what awaited her downstairs. She brushed her thin blondish hair into a respectable bun, and frowned at the pale, blue veins in her arms. A black and white shirtwaist with a straw hat. There, the outfit was complete. She stepped into her pumps, then made her way down the stairs.

Cassius spun ’round and ’round in the kitchen, trying to keep the toast from burning as he stirred the porridge and chopped the fruit. As his sister entered, he bowed low with a grand smile, and pointed her to a seat. Puzzled by the cheery welcome, she sat down rather stiffly and began to eat. He joined he shortly after, and the two ate in silence.

Zenith didn’t dare speak, lest she break her resolve to keep her plan and activities secret. The package seemed to be burning a hole through her heart, and she was sorely tempted to removed it from its new hiding place. Tucked inside the front of her blouse, she knew her older brother wasn’t likely to look for–much less find it–there. Still, the thing felt as though it were on fire, but she was content to dismiss it as a light case of heartburn. She ate in haste, then got up and drew on a spring jacket. Cassius watched without a word until she took up her umbrella and purse, and headed for the door.

“A little early to be running errands, is it not, sister?”

Zenith’s face coloured slightly, but she continued to the door. “The earlier, the better,” she said, casting a contemptuous look at the black book in Cassius’ hand. “You yourself have said that a day started early is a day more productive.”

“So I have,” agreed the young man. “But you forget the clause.”

“Clause? What clause?”

“I said, ‘a day started early with the Bible, Zenith. Won’t you join me for a little devotion this morning?”

“Cassius, we’ve been through this before.”

“But Zenith, it’s been ages since you’ve joined me. What have I done to make you hate religion so? If you’d pay it some mind, perhaps you wouldn’t be so restless and prone to trouble!”

“You haven’t done anything, brother–nothing at all. You make religion quite attractive, actually. I have … uh … my own issues with it.”

“Like what?” Cassius asked, sensing an opportunity. “Tell me.”

“Well,” Zenith began. “I guess it goes back to the year I was twelve.”

“Ah!” A ray of understanding shone from her brother’s eyes. “Yes, it … it was very hard on you, I remember.”

“I’ve over it know,” Zenith said, sharply. “Pining about it won’t bring either of them back, and neither will reading that mythic tragedy called the Bible.”

“Zenith!”

“It’s a wonderful book, but just not for me anymore. Have a nice day, Cassius. I’ll be home for dinner if I’m not detained. Much love, as always.”

Cassius face again took on a grave look, as he was naturally a man of few outward feelings. Inside, however, he was nearly in tears.

“I love you too, Zenith. Take care, and be safe. I’ll be praying for you.”

The thin slip of a girl disappeared through the open door and shut it firmly behind her.

Outside, she glanced at her watch. Time was running out. She must hurry if she were to dispose of the funds before the owner became aware of the loss. With unusually large steps, she make her way to the jeweller’s. A large sign hung over the door, sending tremors of rage up her spine.

“Closed, is it! Well, of all the unlucky things.” Wheeling around, Zenith marched across the street to the employment agency, which she found, to her dismay, to be closed also. She tried building after building, but it seemed that the whole town had gone on holiday. Spotting a woman on the street corner, she decided to enquire.

“Madam! May I ask why every shop and office is closed today? It’s not a weekend, or a holiday.”

“Haven’t you heard?” the tall woman replied, scribbling in her notebook. “Over five thousand dollars were stolen from the Hoffman residence, and another thousand has been reported missing from the Towne Bar and Grille. All shop and business owners have been summoned to an emergency meeting with the mayor. That, uh, is all I can say.”

Zenith’s eyes grew wide with surprise, but she said nothing. Thanking the woman, she hurried back down the street. The woman, dressed like an ordinary civilian, eyed Zenith as she left. “Young woman, about twenty years old; slim build, narrow faced with green eyes and blondish hair, speckled with brown. About 5′ 6″ in height, wearing black skirt and white blouse, shirtwaist style. Straw hat; very nervous personality; seemed alarmed by news of the reported theft and town meeting,” she muttered as she continued to scribble in her book. An officer approached her.

“Ms. Greene! Have you found any suspects?”

“Just did, Mr. Gunstler–first truly suspicious character I’ve seen all mornin’, though I do have quite a list ‘ere,” the woman replied. “I must say, your plan to work out of uniform for this job works wonders. No one seems to think I’m up to anything!”

“Ah, good, good. That’s exactly what I wanted. Go to the town hall now, with your findings. If you do stand here much longer, someone WILL suspect!” the officer laughed. “I think we may just solve this one, this time.”

Ms. Greene and Mr. Gunstler suddenly stopped laughing and met each other’s gaze. Both of them smiled, not sure exactly why.

At home, a thin, freckled Cassius busied himself with his work as an architect. He had drawn many plans in his short life of twenty-seven years, and his work was well know throughout the town for its quality and precision. He was skilled beyond his years, after taxing his cool, grey eyes ’til they were weak and blurry in order to support himself and his sister during the seven years since their father’s death. Their mother had passed on long before, when Zenith was only six. All these things floated through his mind as he tried to figure out what had gone wrong with his sisters.

“It must be her lack of a mother. She’s hardly known the touch of  motherly compassion and gentle restraint, only the firmer virtues from father and I.” He paused to draw another line. “But I don’t understand why she would become so deviant still. It’s not as though we’ve been unkind to her. On the contrary, she’s been rather …”

Cassius looked up, started, from his work.  A sudden icy feeling crept up his chest and into his arms and fingers. That word–it hit him like a bout of apoplexy. He couldn’t finish his work as long as it appeared before his eyes!

“Spoiled!” he spat out, as if to cast the thought far from him. “Why, I’ve spoiled the little brat! Father used to be so kind, yet strict with us, and everything was okay then. And then I turn the tide with my doting! I let her have her own way too often, and left her too much time to fantasize while I do the work of breadwinner and housewife! How could I have been so foolish? “

Placing his head in his hands, he tried to pray, but found he could not. Moments later, the telephone rang.

“Mr. Warner?”

“Speaking.”

“I didn’t see you at the meeting. What happened?”

“The meeting? What meeting?”

“You weren’t informed? Six thousand dollars were stolen last night, and the mayor has ordered all business owners to record a description of each customer they serve for the next week to see if we can match the amount to a suspect.”

Cassius’ heart jumped into his throat, though he couldn’t imagine why. “Well …who do they suspect?”

“There are a few in mind, but the top suspect is described as a young woman, about twenty, slim build with a narrow face, green eyes and blondish hair …”

Cassius barely heard the rest of the man’s chatter. “Zenith?” he thought. “My Zenith?”

“That’ll be two-hundred dollars worth of costume jewellery, Ms. Warner, along with the five dress suits for two-hundred and fifty.”

“Thank you very much,” said Zenith. “I needed these right away.”

“I guessed as much,” said the jeweller, “or you wouldn’t have tracked me and my wife all the way down to our house to get them, in spite of the shop being closed today.”

Zenith merely chuckled as she handed over the money with ease, oblivious to the long hard look the jeweller’s wife gave her. The woman, a seamstress, had taken the meeting seriously, and as soon as Zenith left, she made an entry in the log:

“Zenith Warner. $450 dollars for clothing and jewellery. Matches top suspect description perfectly.”

She showed the entry to her husband, who’s eyes grew wide with terror. Taking the money from the till, he placed it by itself in a small case. “I won’t be held responsible for stolen funds, if that be what they are,” he whispered.

On the street, Zenith hurried along to her next destination. She knew that she would have to take her leave sooner than planned, but she was ready. Approaching the employment office, she rapped twice on the door.

“Come in,” called a gruff voice. Zenith opened the door and stepped inside.

“Is it finished?” she asked. The attendant did not reply, but instead stamped a piece of paper and handed it to her.

“That’ll be one hundred dollars.”

The girl handed him the money, took the résumé, and left. As soon as she was out of earshot, the attendant took up the phone and dialed the bookkeeper’s office.

“John, make a note: $100 paid by Zenith Warner for pre-arranged resume writing service. Matches that top suspect description.”

Zenith sped through the town, making purchases. Fifty dollars for a suitcase. One hundred dollars for toiletries and other household odds and ends. Four hundred dollars for an evening train ticket to the next town. By the tine she arrived home, she had spent a total of eleven hundred dollars.

Standing on the front step, she quickly unbuttoned her blouse and dropped the envelope with the remaining funds inside. Just as she finished rebuttoning her shirt, the door flew wide open.

“Zenith! There you are. I’ve been looking all over this town for you, and was about to call the police when I heard your steps.”

Stepping past her brother into the house, she headed for the stairs.

“Sorry about that. I did warn you that I might be detained.”

A frown replaced the man’s first smile as he stared straight towards his sister’s chest.

“It’s interesting that you used the word, ‘detained’.”

Zenith’s eyes caught fire. “What do you mean by that?” she demanded.

“I mean you’re a disgrace,” Cassius replied, his voice sounding as cold as he felt. “After all I’ve done for you … given to you … suffered for you! This … this is all you could do in return.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zenith said, trying to remain calm. “Look, this is just …”

“Ridiculous?” Cassius suggested. “Yes, I think as much. It is ridiculous that an honest, hardworking citizen who has nearly blinded himself and broken his health to feed, clothe and educate a fine little girl would end up with a wretched, thieving woman for a sister.”

“Thieving?” Zenith echoed. “Why, Cassius …”

“Zenith, don’t even start with it,” her brother hissed. “I’ve had enough of your lies. You did steal that money they told me about. You’ve got it all right there in your blouse.”

“What? How did you–”

“If you just look in a mirror,” Cassius interrupted, “I’m sure you’ll see.”

Zenith stepped off the stairs and glanced in the long mirror hanging on the wall. Sure enough, there were the bills poking out from their hiding place. In her haste she had missed a button, revealing the badly worn, torn envelope and its stolen treasure. The pretense was over. Part of her secret was out and there was no hiding it. Red-faced, she turned to her brother.

“So, what are you going to do about it?” she asked.

“Do? There is only one thing for me to do.”

“And that is?”

“Turn you over to the police,” Cassius replied. “That is, unless you decide to do it yourself.”

“You–my brother, would turn me in to the cops?”

“Not if you do it first.”

“Wait–I should give myself up?”

“Yes.”

“You’re crazy!”

“Crazy? Perhaps. But it would be even crazier for you to keep on digging a pit for yourself.”

Zenith looked at Cassius for a long time. “Okay, she said, finally. “I’ll go to the station …um, first thing tomorrow morning.”

Cassius nodded, reassuming his grave expression. Entering his study, he took out a work assignment and shut the door. Outside, Zenith quickly gathered her things, ran up the stairs and prepared for bed. Slipping under the covers, she blew the lights out and waited. After several hours, she heard a weary Cassius trudge to bed.When she was sure that he was asleep, Zenith got up, dressed, grabbed her packed suitcase and hurried down the stairs. She unlocked the door and pulled it shut behind her, looking back only once at the big old house.

“It’s now or never,” she thought. “I don’t care what anyone says. I want to be free. Free as a bird to have fun and live it up, the easy way. The Bible is all well and good, but I don’t believe it when it says one has to work hard to live well. Cassius makes money, but look how hard he works to get it–when it could be so easy and we could buy so much more! Honesty doesn’t pay … really …”

Zenith continued her self talk as she headed for the train station. She became so absorbed with her thoughts that she never noticed the shadows gathering around her, the near silent footsteps, or the click of the adjusted trigger. By the time her mind registered the explosion, she had already been hit–just three feet short of the station door.

“Some call the police, ambulance, quick!” shouted the station master, unbuttoning Zenith’s shirt to look at the wound. As she did so, a tiny, bloodstained package fell to the ground, which the woman quickly seized with a plastic bag. The emergency crew arrived within minutes; the paramedics scooping up a barely breathing Zenith and the police offerings crowding around the station master and her suspicious find. Counting the money, they found four thousand nine hundred dollars–the exact difference between the amount stolen and the spending reports they had receive earlier that evening.

Hardly anyone paid a moment’s notice to the Hoffman boy and his friend, the son of the bar owner, who had taken the law in their own hands. All minds were on Zenith and the mystery solved.

It was half past midnight when the paramedics arrived at the hospital and rushed the girl in to the waiting doctors. From the ID papers the police had found in her luggage, they located a number an dialed.

A sleepy Cassius answered the phone with obvious displeasure at the interruption to his rest.

“Hello? Who calls at such an untimely hour?”

“I’m calling from the paramedic squad–you’re wanted at the hospital.”

“The hospital!” Cassius exclaimed. “You must have dialed the wrong number.”

“You’re Cassius Warner, ain’t you?”

“Well, yes …”

“Well then, there’s no mistake, sir. Your sister’s here and in bad shape–critical condition they say. Uh, the doctor thinks you’d better come right away.”

“Why, my sister is right across the hall, in bed!”

“Sir, unless you have two sisters name Zenith Warner, I’m more sure that she is in the emergency room than you are that she is in bed.”

Hit with sudden panic, Cassius became fully alert. “Okay, I’ll be right there!”

Throwing on his clothes, he dashed out of the house and into his car, taking off at toward the hospital. As he arrived, he was met by the doctor in the hall, who took him aside, gently.

“Mr. Warner, please … have a seat.”

“Doctor, where is she?” Cassius demanded, ignoring the request. “What happened? Can I see her?”

The doctor took Cassius by the hand and led him to the chair.

“There’s been a shooting, Mr. Warner,” the doctor said, slowly. “Apparently your sister was planning to leave town on the 12′ o clock train, but some, who recognized her as a suspect for theft, no doubt, decided to take care of the matter themselves.”

Dazed, Cassius stared at a small crack in the wall. “Is she going to be all right?” he asked, in a tiny voice that was far from his.

Taking a breath, the doctor’s cheeks puffed with air, then deflated. He placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, son. She took a hit to the main artery. I’m afraid there was nothing we could do.”

As Cassius sat in stunned silence, the clock struck 1.