The Great Cookie Case
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
NYC Short Story Challenge #1
"The Great Cookie Case"
By: Jenna Dickson
Prompt: Mystery/Honor System/A Stenographer
Rachel hurried down the sidewalk gripping her stenography case close in an attempt to thwart the cold wind from ripping it away. Spying the entrance sign ahead, Rachel dove through the door with a sigh of relief. Stopping to reposition her case, Rachel finger combed strands of her long auburn hair away from her face and looked around the conference center.
High vaulted ceilings with large windows, and local art gracing the walls. True to every conference center she had ever worked at, tacky patterned carpet flowed down the hallway and into the adjoining conference rooms. She did have to give this conference center some credit, however, for the live plants blooming near the windows, rather than the usual dusty plastic ones she often encountered.
This was to be her home for the next week as she worked to caption the keynote speakers for the annual children’s fundraiser, called, unimaginatively, “For the Children.” Despite the name, it was a good paying gig. Plus, it would be more exciting than recording the endless divorce cases she has been stuck with last week.
“Oh good, you’re here!” a young woman about her own age approached in a flurry, her curly brown hair flying in all directions, “We’re starting early, did anyone tell you? The keynote at noon had a luncheon he didn’t want to miss, so we had to move everyone up half an hour. Then one of the cameras went down this morning, but they fixed it on the fly. It’s a bit chaotic at the moment, but we’ll get you set up right away. I’m Paula, by the way, assistant event coordinator.” She told Rachel all this in a rush as she led her down the hallway.
Paula steered her into a conference room that had been converted for the event to feature a large stage with a podium at center. Enormous screens flanked the stage. Monitors in the corners would feature her work, as the closed captioning of the speeches broadcasted to the audience. The audiovisual crew would save the broadcast as part at the official recordings of the event.
Weaving through rows of chairs, they approached the production hub. The room was a flurry of last minute activity as everyone scrambled to prepare for an event that was suddenly a half hour earlier than planned. “And look at that! The flower arrangements have lilies, when I clearly asked for hyacinth. What a disaster!” Paula motioned towards the cocktail tables set up in back with an air of frustration.
Rachel glanced at the gorgeous flower vases and shrugged noncommittally. “Those arrangements won’t do at all. Assistant coordinator means if anything goes wrong, it will be my fault,” Paula told her with a strained smile as she motioned Rachel into the familiar set up of monitors and switchboards. “I’m all set here,” Rachel told her reassuringly as Paula’s eyes strayed towards the faulty flower arrangements.
Nodding abruptly before whisking away, Paula was soon replaced with the audiovisual crew as they shared hurried introductions and helped Rachel set up her stenotype machine. They finished confirming all the settings just as the first speaker approached the podium. Soon, Rachel was lost in the steady cadence of transcribing and the feel of her fingertips on the keys. She effortlessly transcribed the speech using the shorthand method she had trained for, and perfected over the past few years freelancing her services.
The early start caught up with her around mid morning. She managed to sneak out between speeches to run to the bathroom and grab a sorely needed cup of coffee. The local scout troop had a table in the hallway and was selling pastries and sweets. The cheap, boxed coffee was served in Styrofoam cups. A sign proclaiming the suggested donation price for the items was written in colored marker and displayed behind the table. Rachel accepted her coffee from a cub scout with green marker still on his face and added in a doughnut for good measure. “It’s for the kids,” the scout told her proudly.
Suddenly, music swelled from the conference room as it proclaimed the imminent start of the next speaker and she rushed back to her station. Rachel had to hand it to the assistant coordinator, despite the hectic start, the speeches were all proceeded perfectly on time.
It wasn’t until the third day of the event that the true trouble began. Rachel walked in to see Paula and the troop’s scout leader standing in front of the snack table, muttering over the treats. “Uh oh, are we out of doughnuts?” Rachel joked as she approached. “Someone’s been stealing,” Paula informed her seriously, “The troop was twenty dollars short last night.” Rachel smothered a smile when she realized that both the troop leader and assistant producer were viewing this as the gravest of ills. “How could someone do this? Do people have no honor anymore?” Paula exclaimed, “It’s for the children!” Rachel made noises of appropriate sympathy and outrage before quickly making an excuse and escaping to the familiar confines of her workstation.
Unfortunately, Paula followed soon after. She was clearly outraged. “How could someone do this?” she repeated as she leaned against the switchboard. Behind her, in the conference room, lights flickered crazily in all directions. “Maybe don’t lean on the switchboa-“ Rachel was cut off as Paula threw up her hands in exasperation. “We can’t let this go unpunished!”
“Well, the treats were just for a suggested donation,” Rachel reasoned, “It’s not like it was actually stealing.”
“Everyone knows that a suggested donation price is the price you actually pay! Only terrible people that don’t support charity would ignore the suggested price,” Paula told her darkly.
A shrewd look suddenly came into Paula’s eyes. “I bet it was one of the keynote speakers.”
“A speaker?” Rachel repeated in surprise. “I heard two of them complaining yesterday about the food we served at lunch. Bet they thought they could take something better from the scout table. I’ll get to the bottom of this,” Paula promised as her eyes turned inward in deep thought. She suddenly sat up straight with an idea. Behind her, the stage lights flashed like they were at a rave. “I’ll ask a few leading questions during this afternoon’s Q&A session,” Paula told her, “You make sure to write down every single word…and make note of anyone that seems shifty.”
Rachel opened her mouth to protest, but the audiovisual crew suddenly arrived and was thrown into a state of panic as they took in the effect Paula’s backside had caused to the stage lighting. Paula stood up from leaning on the switchboard and gave Rachel a knowing look. “The close captioning transcripts might be the key evidence we need to solving this case. Take special care this afternoon,” Paula cautioned her before turning on her heel to leave. “What’s going on with the stage lights?” she asked one of the crew in passing, “Make sure you fix it! We can’t have problems like that springing up during a speech you know.” Rachel stifled a laugh at the look on the crewmember’s face as Paula marched away.
That afternoon during the Q&A session, Paula, as promised, asked the keynote speakers a series of odd questions. Did they believe in the unspoken values of honor within our society? Did they have a fondness for sweets? Despite herself, Rachel found that she couldn’t help but mentally sort through the emerging clues as she typed. Professor Vernon seemed particularly enthused about her love for chocolate.
She almost lost her place on the keys when she noticed the presence of crumbs in Dr. Sternopolis’ beard when the camera zoomed in for a close up. Dr. Linon went off onto a long-winded discourse on honor and the code of ethics within their profession that had Rachel suspicious. It was entirely too long winded for her liking, perhaps because he was feeling guilty? She dutifully made a note in her transcript and carefully recorded everything he said for later review.
Paula found her at the break and insisted she print out record of the transcript immediately to scour for clues. She mumbled feverishly as she went over the text with a highlighter. “As assistant, this falls on me if anything goes wrong. I can’t have this on my record if I want to be a lead event planner one day,” she glanced at Rachel to explain with wide eyes, “Can you imagine if word was to get out that someone was stealing from the children’s fundraising table at a fundraiser for children?”
Stomach rumbling, Rachel left Paula to her perusal of possible evidence and headed for the treat table for another coffee and doughnut. She would never tell the overzealous Paula, but the salad they had served at lunch the other day had been truly dreadful. Berating herself for not eating healthier as she stood waiting in line, Rachel watched the busy table absentmindedly. The small boy from the other day, the green marker now gone from his face, was at the table again, along with five or six other boys and the troop leader. She watched as a boy, no older than eleven, took money from hungry donors and handed out pastries. When it was finally her turn at the table, she had convinced herself to have a bagel instead and told the scout to keep the change.
Rachel meandered into the staging room to enjoy her coffee in peace. She was most surprised to walk in and see Paula already in the room. The assistant coordinator was accosting Dr. Sternopolis by the water cooler. “You’ve given me all the clues I needed to solve the case!” Paula informed Rachel proudly as she approached the scene, “He’s already admitted to taking three cookies yesterday!”
“I thought they were for the speakers!” the doctor stuttered in the face of Paula’s zeal, “Usually that stuff is free for the speakers, I just assumed. I was running late and hadn’t had breakfast yet.”
“It’s a fundraiser for the children!” Paula proclaimed.
“Look, I’ll pay for the cookies. And donate a bit extra,” Dr. Sternopolis said hurriedly as he pulled out his wallet, “No need to blow things out of proportion here. I am a doctor, after all.” Paula accepted his fifty-dollar bill and profuse apologies with righteous authority. Rachel shrugged apologetically as the doctor caught her eye. He left the room in a hurry.
Paula crashed into Rachel with an excited squeal. “Mystery solved!” Paula proclaimed as she stepped back to beam at Rachel, “All because of you! Your transcript had everything I needed. The doctor’s fondness for cookies was right there in writing. Then, I had the cameraman play back the close up footage you had noted, and sure enough, crumbs on his beard! Everything fit. I didn’t even know stenographers still, like, existed, but here you are - and solving a mystery to boot! I’ll definitely be hiring you again for all of my events. I bet next time we meet, I’ll even be a director!”
Smiling at the dubious praise, Rachel allowed herself to be towed along as Paula dragged her to the troop’s sweet table. The troop leader was overjoyed when he learned that Paula had solved the missing case of the cookie money. Tallying up the new total, the troop leader finished with a frown. “That’s odd,” he said, “We’re still $10 short.”
“What?” Paula asked sharply, “That can’t be right. We caught the culprit.” Frantically, Paula watched as she made the troop leader count the money again.
Stepping back, Rachel watched as the small boy, who had green marker on his face the first day, sold a brownie to a customer. He had to be no more than ten years old, with an angelic face and blonde bowl cut. She watched as the little boy handed over the brownie, and then took the cash and put it right into his pocket. Rachel stifled a grin. She interrupted Paula and the troop leader from counting the money for a third time. “Perhaps your scout over there might have some of that missing cash,” Rachel told the troop leader as she nodded in the boy’s direction. “Not Ronnie!” the troop leader exclaimed in dismay.
The small boy was pulled aside and asked to empty his pockets. Ronnie pulled out ten singles and started crying. “You said it was for the children,” he said between sobs, “And I’m a child!” The troop leader smiled gently and kneeled down in front of the small boy. “It’s okay Ronnie, a simple mistake. You’re right, you are a child, but this money is to help children that are sick. Remember?” Teary eyed, Ronnie nodded and wiped his nose. Paula stood behind with her arms crossed in stern disapproval.
When the troop leader reached for a cookie from the table and handed it to Ronnie, Paula opened her mouth to protest. Rachel quickly elbowed her. “Go sit over by the window there and calm down,” the troop leader consoled the small boy. “Okay,” Ronnie agreed with a noisy sniff. He took his cookie to a nearby chair and plopped down morosely.
The troop leader stood up to face them with a wry shake of his head, grinning. Paula was speechless as she processed this turn of events. “You know what?” Rachel announced grandly, “I think this deserves a celebration!” She pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her purse. “I’ll take a dozen doughnuts for us to share, and a couple cookies too. It’s for the children, after all.”