Brushstrokes of Intrigue
Third Coat: The Last Christmas Party

A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Squash"
Originally featured on 07-03-2007
As part of our series "Breakfast Serial"

Harvey stared up at the old building; the cinderblock was crumbling and one of the rusted, broken gutters was dangling down from the roof. The place looked like it hadn’t been used in years.

He crept to the stained, cracked stairs and quickly climbed them. The sign on the door in front of him read “Golden Poppy Restaurant Employees Only” and for a moment he considered trying to find another way inside. He certainly hated it when customers at his store ignored those signs and stormed into the backroom in search of a bathroom or water fountain or an item that wasn’t on the shelf. Why did they always seem to think we were hoarding things in the back? Harvey thought, not for the first time.

After another moment of deliberation, he grabbed the knob. He expected the door to be locked but it opened easily with the hinges creaking. He took a step inside but then stopped.

What exactly are you doing here? he asked himself. You were just nearly killed from being in a high speed car chase! Isn’t now the time to call the police?

After I find Ms. Rogers and make sure she’s okay, then I can call the police or better yet, forget this whole thing and head back to work. If I hurry, I can still make the last couple of hours; I told Travis to straighten out the spray paint section but that kid never seems to listen. I’ll just-

There was a loud bang and Harvey jumped. He turned around and smiled sheepishly; it was just the door slamming shut.

All of a sudden, a familiar smell filled his nostrils, a smell Harvey knew intimately: paint. As he descended down a narrow hallway, the odor grew stronger.

From the light filtering through the dirty windows he saw he was in a small room that appeared to have once been used for storage. What looked to be a fresh coat of paint — seashell white from what he could tell in the dim room — covered the walls. Harvey smiled. Whoever had done the work knew what they were doing.

He noticed a paint can on the floor and leaned down to look at it. The label said MA Paint; it was a brand he didn’t recognize. This paint is so smooth, he thought as he stepped closer to the wall, so rich; but we don’t carry it at Ted Fryer’s and I’ve never even heard of it.

To the left was the kitchen and he walked through the hanging strips of grimy plastic and inside. This room was also being painted. Odd, he thought, why would someone be painting this decrepit building?

Suddenly, what sounded like a muffled scream pierced the quiet. Harvey tensed. Could that have been Ms. Rogers?

He rushed to the kitchen door and peered through the murky window. Several dusty tables and chairs were stuffed into a corner and like the other rooms, this one had paint rollers and cans scattered throughout.

Harvey thought the place seemed familiar somehow. When he noticed the large stone fountain in the center of the room, he realized he had been here before. This was where, about ten years ago, the store had held their Christmas party. It was actually the last party the store ever had.

Harvey almost hadn’t gone that night; because the store closed early, there were a few boxes of supplies he hadn’t been able to get to and he wanted to stay and finish up. But thanks to the urging of Maxwell Anderson (who rather uncharacteristically told him to “loosen up, paint isn’t everything”), Harvey had reluctantly gone.

And for the most part he had had a nice time. The food was good and he was finally able to get Mr. Jonesmore, the store director alone so he could discuss an expansion of the paint section.

It was a very pleasant evening, that is until McGregor, who at that time was the Assistant Manager, decided to begin dancing. He had gotten pretty loaded and he and an equally bleary-eyed Peggy from Bookkeeping had started cutting a rug on the small, makeshift dance floor.

As McGregor attempted some kind of move that was later described as a cross between the Moon Walk and the Monkey, he crashed into Maxwell just as he was going back to his seat with a full plate of teriyaki chicken and a large Bloody Mary.

As the food and drink splattered all over his butternut squash-colored sweater, it was as if time stood still. Everyone seemed to stop what they were doing to stare at him. He gazed down at his clothes and then, as if he had been stabbed, started screaming.

McGregor mumbled an apology and grabbed a napkin and tried to wipe some of the food off, but that only seemed to make things worse. Still shrieking, Maxwell ran to the bathroom. About an hour later, with his sweater now bearing a large pumpkin-colored stain, he emerged. He said his goodbyes and, refusing to shake anyone’s hand, left the restaurant.

That was the last time Harvey or anyone else from the store had seen him.

 

Harvey was about to go into the dining room when he heard a man talking. He sounded upset and Harvey opened the door a crack.

“What do you mean? So he wasn’t picked up?”

Because there wasn’t a response, Harvey assumed the man was on the phone.

“So you’re telling me he got away?”

Harvey thought the voice sounded familiar and he slowly slipped into the dining room. With all the furniture pushed to the side, he felt very exposed. A creaking floorboard startled him and he bolted for the fountain and crouched down behind it.

“Where are you now?”

The man sounded like he was on the other side and Harvey, hoping to get a glimpse of him, started making his way around it.

“I don’t care about your car! Just find him!” There was a beep and the man sighed. “Don’t you go anywhere,” he said with a laugh and just before Harvey could get a look at his face, he turned and walked away. A moment later he heard a door close.

Harvey quickly stood and walked around the fountain. There, like the first time he had found her, was a tied up Ms. Rogers. A piece of masking tape, also with that MA logo, Harvey noticed, covered her mouth. She was very pale and her eyes were moist. They widened when she saw him and he quickly removed the tape.

“Oh, Harvey!” she said loudly but instantly lowered her voice into a whisper. “I’m so glad to see you! I knew you’d find that paint sample.”

“Ms. Rogers, are you okay? There was all this blood…”

She started crying. “No, I’m fine, it wasn’t my blood. I’m so sorry, Harvey.”

“Sorry for what? What’s going on? Someone hits me in the head and I wake up covered in blood and then some car starts chasing me and now this. I mean, I took the afternoon off, what’s this all about?”

“Harvey, I’m so sorry to get you involved in this. I met him a couple weeks ago, he said he was starting a new business and needed some help. I was desperate for work and he told me he just needed me to do one thing and get you to come to that house. He offered me a lot of money and I guess I should’ve known it was too good to be true. But today when I found out about the other girls, I tried to get out of it, I swear!”

“Wait, what other girls?”

Harvey followed her eyes. Slumped in a shadowy corner were two young women; several bandages covered their arms and legs.

“I didn’t know what he was up to, Harvey, I promise I didn’t!”

“Ms. Rogers, who are you talking about?”

“Harvey, so glad you could make it.”

Harvey froze and slowly turned around. There, grinning and holding a jagged paintbrush handle, was Maxwell Anderson.

“Welcome to my new paint store.”

Read More By Tim Josephs

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