Mystery / A tobacco shop / An urn / 959w
Flash Fiction Challenge 2017 Round 2 Entry
“They only took this kind?”
Amstutz offers me one of the cigars in question, because “It might help you understand why he would do it,” he says. With steady hands he cuts the cigar. I notice his knuckles are heavily scarred.
He hands me a Puro D’Plata Series 2, one hundred percent Nicaraguan, with flavors of milky coffee, leather, and cream. That’s what he explains to me, at least. I fill my mouth with the smoke, but I don’t detect a note of anything.
“Think of the flavors,” he urges me. “See them. Then you will taste.”
“Couldn’t I make it taste like anything, then? If I just imagine it? What if I want it to taste like my bubby’s chocolate cake?”
Amstutz gives me an unimpressed look. “A cigar is a journey. You have the map.” And he taps his skull with a finger.
It’s definitely too mystical for me. I refocus. A single Puro D’Plata goes for fifty bucks, and the night before, someone had broken into Amstutz Tobacconists (“since 1949”) and made off with five boxes of twenty-five. Like any wise purveyor of fine goods, Werner Amstutz has an insurance policy. But surviving the war, he had told me, did not incline him to letting wrongdoers escape justice. That sentiment I can relate to.
I begin with the standard question. “Any disgruntled relatives, sir?”
“No. I have no more family in New York.”
“Friends would not be friends if I did not trust them.”
We’re standing in the store’s humidor, a room lined floor-to-ceiling with boxes of cigars, their foil caps glinting red and gold and green. It smells of damp earth. I suck in another mouthful of smoke and take stock: nothing upset or disturbed, so the perp made a quick, premeditated beeline for his target. He took only this specific kind of cigar, and none of the other rare, expensive types in the store – suggesting the Puros are significant in some way, to Amstutz, or the perp, or both. And the perp had picked the lock. The lock is one of a kind, Amstutz had told me earlier. Made in Europe.
All of these facts would indicate a symbolic crime. Something petty or vengeful or both, meant to salt an old wound. Symbolic crimes are frustrating, because there are always gaps I’ll never be able to fill in with logic. But now I have to ask:
“Who do you think did this?”
The proprietor considers my question as he lights a slender cigarillo and brings it to his full lips. “One of my customers, maybe. Or a competitor, most likely. Do you taste the charcoal yet?” He looks meaningfully at me.
When I round the front counter, I notice a fleck of silver on the floor. I pick it up and offer it to Amstutz, who examines it carefully. “This is foil from one of those,” he says, pointing to the cigar in my left hand.
“A Puro? Are you sure?”
“They are the only ones with silver foil.”
“So, the perp smoked one in here?”
“Or mishandled them, damaged one.” He looks disgusted.
I note that each cigar on open display is positioned so that the label on the cap is perfectly centered. They are also arranged, across the room, from the darkest to the lightest wrappers. It’s all extraordinarily elegant, and I see in this the obsessive pride with which Amstutz had built his business from nothing seven years before. Without this place, he’d said to me after telling the story, what would have happened to me?
“There’s nobody you can think of who would want this specific kind of cigar?”
Then, I notice a small white urn, maybe porcelain, sitting on the counter next to the massive book of sales. Its lid catches my eye; it isn’t askew, but the pattern on it isn’t aligned with the pattern on the body, breaking the flow of the carving. A conscientious person like Amstutz wouldn’t leave it in such a state.
“Who is this?”
Even though the urn is out of sight behind the counter, Amstutz knows what I’m indicating. He pauses, and then says, “A friend. Magnus. He was with me in….” He doesn’t continue. I’m not ready to ask what role he, a German-born American, had played in the conflict that had left such a deep scar on us all.
“Magnus died only last year,” Amstutz continues. “We held the funeral in this room. He was the one who taught me about all this. This trade, this art.”
“May I?” I ask carefully.
He nods. I pull again on the Puro, and this time, as the smoke sighs against my palate, I begin to taste something like warm leather, or chocolate. Then I open the urn, look inside, and lift out the stub of another Puro. When I hold it up, ashes clinging to the burned end, Amstutz’s mouth starts to quiver. I know that I don’t have to ask any more questions.
After a few moments, he reaches out and takes the stub from me with yellow-stained fingers. Gently, he brushes the ashes of his dead friend into his palm. “We made many enemies,” he says. His forehead collapses into furrows. “Impossible to say who is responsible.”
Family, friends; I had not asked about enemies, because most people don’t have real enemies.
I still want to know: why the Puros? And why this week, this year? But I know that there’s nothing more to say. So I hand Amstutz my cigar. He abandons his cigarillo in an ashtray and settles the Puro comfortably in the corner of his mouth, staring at his upturned hand. They’re grim, symbolic crimes. But sometimes they solve themselves.
I leave him to his journey.
Okay! Red on Yellow got me a good amount of points in round 1, and if I accumulate enough in this round, I’ll move on to round 3. So here’s this entry.
I read so much about cigars on the websites of high-quality tobacconists that my first draft of this went WAY too deep into the flavors imagery. I managed to pull back from that indulgence after a few rounds of revision, and try to focus on a story. I definitely went with easy (predictable?) uses of the location and object, but I ended up fairly happy with it.
Another first person; I want to do a more omniscient third sometime soon. And I’m not sure if the ending works. It feels a little forced.