Katrina Monroe's The Rack
Note to self: Cats are assholes.
Ever since the incident with the last guest, Dahlia has been… distant. She stares for long periods into her reflection in her water bowl and refuses to let me brush her. I should have known that to try to make friends with a cat.
She’s spent most of the day prowling the catacombs of DCP headquarters. Her yowls echo through the vents every once in a while, as though taunting me.
I consider venturing out into the “real world.” Finding “real people” to talk to.
And then I laugh.
I have an appointment today, and I spend the morning preparing. Kelley Kaye is coming and though she looks delicate in her pictures, I’ve been warned not to underestimate her.
I only left for a minute to fill a pitcher of water. Not to give Kelley, of course, but to fill an empty space on an end table. Set dressing.
When I return, pitcher in hand, I find Miss Kelley Kay reclining languidly on the Rack. She blows feathery bangs out of her eyes and winks.
She’s a sneaky one.
I get rid of the pitcher and welcome her to my library, though she seems to have made herself at home without me. Obediently, she spreads her petite limbs for me to slip into leather cuffs. She’s dainty; her feet barely reach the end. Warnings whisper in my head not to underestimate her size, but I can’t help wondering how much force it would take to crack the little woman in half.
Not much, I imagine.
“Comfy?” I ask.
She grins and nods.
“Then let’s get started.” I push the wheel a quarter turn, easing her arms up. “I’ve always imagined being a teacher is its own special kind of torture. Nothing like what I could achieve here on the Rack, though I’ve tried. What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you as a teacher?”
Her eyes betray her cool demeanor. Probably didn’t realize the extent of my knowledge. Silly thing.
“My first year, I taught Summer School. I was 22 years old, nowhere near the pillar of strength and intimidation you see before you now. I had to leave the class for a minute to make some copies, and I returned to find one guy trying to light another guy’s T-shirt on fire,” she says.
I snicker. Ah, memories.
“That was the last year I taught Summer School. After about five or six years of intense Trial by Fire in a more figurative sense, I’d morphed into someone I KNOW students would (did) think twice before pulling shenanigans like that.”
I consider recreating the moment for her, but Sue made me promise no more fire play. Instead, I turn the wheel again.
“Look at that. You’ve grown!” I say. “Is your character, Emma from Death by Diploma, more a reflection or a caricature?”
Kelley grunts as she tries to readjust her small frame. “Emma is more self-aware and universally aware than I was at her age, but she doesn’t know she is. If that makes sense. I guess she’s a little bit of a wish. They all are. If that makes sense.”
“Sure, dear. Complete sense.” I snicker as I turn the wheel once, hard. Her body almost lifts from the board. “Does this hurt?”
“HA. This is nothing. The Head of my English Department had a WAAAY bigger table than yours. Made of petrified mahogany. Oh, wait…I was Head of the English Department…”
I grit my teeth and yank on the wheel. Something under the table comes loose, but I ignore it. “How about now?”
Her face is red and blotchy. “Hm. Maybe it’s pinching. Just a little. Nothing I can’t…handle. Didn’t you hear me the first time? I taught HIGH school, for Christ’s sake. For twenty years.”
True. Some of my high school teachers were some of the toughest bitches I’d ever met. Mrs. White from C. Leon King High School, this one’s for you and your crone-like nails that stabbed the air as you cursed the word, “ain’t.”
I keep one hand on the wheel as I lean over Kelley’s face. In my stalking—er—research, I discovered an unabashed love for Harlan Coben. A love she shares with an acquaintance of mine. Unlike my friend, however, Kelley made contact with him. I ask, “Think you could get my friend a date with Harlan Coben?”
I see a lie forming at the back of her mind, but I jiggle the wheel and she makes the smart decision.
“He hasn’t talked to me since that first time I wrote—he’s big, big time now, and I guess super busy—I tried to get him to blurb this book and one of his myriad assistants thanked me for writing, but the answer was, basically, no way. Plus I think he’s married, if that’s something that makes any sort of difference with your friend. Plus he is SUPER tall (he signed a book for me at a Bouchercon in Vegas), in case your friend might have a hard time reconciling the…fit. I mean, my husband is 6’5”, but Harlan is just…wow. Skyscraper tall.”
I offer to make Kelley skyscraper tall, which she declines.
“I insist,” I say and turn the wheel.
She cries out, only to bite it back.
Don’t fight it, darling. That’ll only make it worse.
“Do you think being a teacher before being a writer helped or hindered you?” I ask.
“Being a teacher was the ultimate help to me, both as a writer and a parent. As far as the writer part, it’s been 20 year’s worth of observing and eavesdropping, but here’s the cool part—no one ever questioned the fact that I was there, they looked up from their desks or their groups and they expected me to be there. Amazing access. And here’s something people who don’t teach may not know: if you’re not looking directly at students, they think you can’t hear them. They will not shut up, it’s true. Try it.
“Just so you’ll lay off that crank for a minute, I’ll tell you a fun eavesdropping story. The line became the first in one of my early short stories, and it’s going to have to make an appearance in Chalkboard Outlines Book 2.”
She’s bluffing. I stroke the wheel.
“I mean it! Don’t yank that thing one more millimeter if you wanna hear the story!”
I shrug and turn to my Cabinet of Curiosities. “Speak,” I say.
“Okay, that’s better. I also taught Community College in Grand Junction for a few years. The college is right down town, so students walk everywhere for lunch. I stopped at Subway, and was waiting in line at the soda fountain. The two students in front of me are talking and laughing, so I employ my cloak of invisibility by averting my eyes to study my choices in potato chips.
“They were talking about their weekend exploits, and I didn’t hear anything interesting or even unusual until one of them started talking about her slutty roommate. ‘She called him Cody,’ the girl laughed, ‘because she was in Cody, Wyoming when she screwed him, and she couldn’t remember his name.’
“You know what’s pretty sad? If that situation was about a nineteen year old boy instead of a nineteen year old girl, it wouldn’t even register. Huge double standard, I know. Crazy.”
While Kelley’s lost in her story, I withdraw a bright pink cat-o-nine-tails. The leather strips are short, like my guest. I spin and slap the table beside Kelley’s face, just kissing her cheek with the tip. “POP QUIZ! Since you were an English AND Drama teacher, and you’ve been so bold as to have a character in Death by Diploma quote Shakespeare, name the play that this quote comes from—no cheating!—and maybe I’ll give you a reprieve. What devil art thou that dost torment me thus? This torture should be roar'd in dismal hell…”
“C’mon, Kat. You’re gonna have to do better than that, pulling out a paltry, pitiful R&J reference. I mean, even my seven-year old knows that one.”
I raise the cat-o-nine tails and while Kelley’s frightened gaze is trained on it, I kick the wheel hard enough to spin twice.
“OW! What th’? HEY, what’re you doing? That hurts. Jesus. I thought…OWwww. Okay, okay.” She sighs. “It is Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, but that knowledge is really pure luck on my part. Sounds like Othello speaking to Desdemona, or it could be Hamlet talking to his psyche or his father’s ghost, or Macbeth talking to his knife. See, I know a lot about the storylines and themes of all of Shakespeare’s stuff, but aside from several more well-known quotes (“to be or not to be…”) I know this one is Romeo and Juliet ONLY because I taught that play to freshmen for about ten years. Really I can’t just pull them out of my...hat, like Leslie does. Most English teachers can’t really do this either, except for with plays they taught or maybe the ones they acted in in college. (The only one I directed was The Winter’s Tale, .and that was back in ’98 or ’99, so I probably only retained a skosh of that one in my grey matter. Aging sucks.)”
“Luck?” I laugh. “You’re a terrible liar.”
I nudge the wheel again.
“STOP! Stop. Jesus Christ. Okay, okay, FINE. I have a book. The secret is this book I have, called Shakespeare’s Quotations. Yes, ow, yes. It’s indexed by play or sonnet, and also by subject. When I want Leslie or Emma to call up a quote about laziness or ambition or whatever…bam! I go to the L’s or the A’s and the enchantment happens. My Line Editor, Cassie Cox AKA Captain Fabuloso, has a Master’s Degree in Shakespeare, so maybe she could do what Leslie does, but me? That’s the magic of making characters have whatever the hell skills I want them to have, including the perfect Rolodex of Shakespearean references whirring around in their cerebellums. Are you happy now? I look weak, and you’re just way too busy with your sadistic playhouse to see the truth. Leslie would kick your ass. Emma would eviscerate you. Bet on it.”
“A cheater and a liar.” I lean in close enough to kiss her ear. “And I don’t take kindly to threats.” I withdraw a pair of tweezers from my pocket. “I’ll have your nose hairs for that.”
“I would tell you that that hurts, but I’m a brunette, so for me it’s just another morning in the mirror,” Kelley says.
“You missed a few.” I check that the wheel is secure before clutching Kelley’s head and begin plucking hairs, one by one. “Just go to your happy place. In fact, describe it to me.”
With each pluck, Kelley’s body jerks. Tears stream down the sides of her face, pooling in her ears. “Okay, I’ll go, but not because of the nosehair thing. Like I said, that’s just daily pruning. Three happy places: sitting on the beach with my sons and my husband, reading a book while they all boogie board. Crawling into bed, which other than when I’m on the beach is the only time I can do this, and reading a book. And sitting on the chair in the corner of my bedroom, AKA My Office, and writing a book. That’s my dad, Bookseller extraordinaire, in the picture. You’d better be gentler, or he’ll make you pay, and if you haven’t figured out what a Daddy’s Girl I was by now, his vengeful ghost will clarify.”
A photograph flutters from the pocket of her jeans. Good thing I don’t believe in ghosts.
“Feeling cozy yet?” I ask, releasing her head. “What makes a mystery cozy anyway? Sure, I may think of death as comfy loveliness, but others may not agree.”
“Oh yeah, if cozy readers come to the Rack, it’s in the dark of night with a mask on. Cozies are Murder Lite, not a lot of blood or gore. Death described over a cup of tea. Pinkies up. Plus not so much of the badass Police Chief who breaks the bad guy’s pinkies just by lookin’ at ‘im sideways, more like Angela Lansbury as the librarian, finding the guilty note scribbled on the back of a late notice. People have to read a cozy to start recovering from their clandestine visit to this bloodbath. It’s like the shot of brandy they need to wash the coppery taste out.”
Murder lite? I shrug. I was considering a diet.
I drape the cat-o-nine-tails across Kelley’s throat. It wriggles delightfully as she gulps.
“I have a feeling I know the answer already, but I have to ask—is your novel your way of confessing to heinous fuckery from your teaching days? No need to hide,” I say. “We’re all friends here.”
“Oh, no. No way. No confessions here. You can crank that thing up so tight it flies off the table and takes my arms with it. And it’s not you I’d need to hide from.”
I grin. “If you insist, dear.”
I kiss Kelley’s forehead. Salty. Sweaty. Delicious. With one final glance at her body intact, I throw the wheel like a sea-captain in a storm. Her ankles twist the wrong way and her shoulders jolt with a sickening pop.
Kelley Kaye's screams join Dahlia’s mournful yowls. Music to my ears.
Kelley Kaye taught High School English and Drama for twenty years, but her love for storytelling dates back to creating captions for her high school yearbook. Maybe back to the tales she created around her Barbie and Ken—whatever the case, the love’s been around for a long time.
Kelley is married to this amazing man who cooks for her, and they have two funny and wonderful sons. She lives in Southern California
Her novel, Death by Diploma is hot off the press! Get it here.