The Sisters Strange
A web exclusive Charlie Parker novella
Eleanor Towle poured away the cold coffee and washed the cups. I caught her glancing at my reflection in the glass of the kitchen window, watching, appraising. If her brother was anything like her, regardless of his eccentricities, he would be a force to be reckoned with. She was an intriguing woman.
Of course, she was also a liar, if only by omission, but nobody’s perfect.
I was listening carefully while she worked at the sink. I’d been listening ever since I entered her home. It’s harder for a person to remain quiet and unmoving than one might think, especially if they’re trying to monitor a conversation going on elsewhere in a house, but I’d picked up no signs of another occupant. Eleanor Towle seemed to be alone.
“What do you do for a living, Ms. Towle?”
“I’m a waitress at Phil’s,” she said. Phil’s was a grill house up on Route 16. I’d passed its billboard on the way to the Towle house. The sign read Phil Up at Phil’s!, a gag so worn even Goodwill wouldn’t have accepted it.
“Do you enjoy it?”
“What do you think?”
“I’ve no idea. That’s why I asked.”
She set the cups upside down to drain, dried her hands on a dishtowel, and turned to look at me, her arms folded.
“No, I don’t enjoy it,” she said, “but it’s a job, the tips are okay, and they were real understanding when my mom was sick.”
“Are you going to keep working there, now that she’s gone?”
“I haven’t decided. Egon and I have talked about selling the house. I’d like to move away from here. Ossipee hasn’t brought me much luck in life, Egon neither.”
If they sold the house and split the proceeds evenly, I guessed they might come out with $100,000 each, give or take. It wasn’t a lot, not if she was hoping to make a new start somewhere else.
“What exactly did your brother and Raum Buker take from this man Kepler?” I said.
“Coins. I told you.”
She sighed. “No, not ‘just’ coins.”
“I’m not following you.”
“Look, most of them were coins as you or I would understand the term – you know, gold or silver, Roman or Greek, the kind you’d find behind glass in a collection – but one wasn’t.”
“What was it, then?”
She shifted uneasily on her feet. Now we were closing on the truth, or some version of it.
“It was Celtic,” she said, “made from potin, before the time of Christ. The coin was discovered in Essex, but might have come from elsewhere in the British Isles, or may not even have been made there at all. It’s hard to say, because it doesn’t look quite like anything else from that time or place.”
“It’s an alloy of bronze and tin.”
“To a museum or collector, sure. But this particular coin was special, or so Egon said, though it didn’t look like much to me, not at first.”
“You saw it?”
“Yes,” she said, but she sounded uneasy.
“What was so unusual about it?”
She sighed deeply for a second time, as much to buy time as anything else, while she debated what to share and what to exclude. There could only be two reasons for evasion: either she was scared, or she was trying to throw me off the scent. I thought the former was more likely, but that didn’t entirely preclude the latter.
“Look,” she said, “early British coins are fairly standardized. From what Egon has told me, they’re based on gold and silver staters introduced to the British Isles by traders from Gaul, because you imitate what you see, right? That’s why some of the first British money has representations of Philip of Macedon on one side, and maybe a charioteer on the other. But then, as you go on, you find the coins becoming more distinctive, with images of creatures, real and imaginary. It could be that the local shaman or chieftain was smoking something and had a vision, so that was what he wanted put on his coins. It makes them interesting, even unique in cases.”
“And what was on the coin Egon showed you?” I asked.
“A beast,” she said. “No. A demon.”