Crime, Stories

The Man with the Flask by Karen J Mossman

People-watching is something I’ve always done.I enjoy seeing them interact in a way I never could.

One incident sticks in my mind and it happened when I was a young woman back in the nineties.

In those days I felt like a silent observer who lived on the cusp of society. An outsider that nobody spoke to.

Of course, things are very different now and I no longer think of myself as a freak.

This particular chilly March, I sat on a bench in the market square to escape the four walls of my room.

A man in a navy-blue woolly hat approached me. He carried an old-fashioned shopping bag. He just sauntered up and took a seat beside me.

The bench creaked as he settled. My fingers gripped the metal armrest as I kept my head averted. Why had he singled me out? No one usually approached me.

It was all I could do not to turn to him. The last thing I wanted was to invite conversation.

From the corner of my eye, I saw him reach into the shopping bag at his feet. He produced a flask.

 “Would you like some tea?” He unscrewed the top and poured steaming liquid into the cup.

He’d got my attention. A warm drink would have been welcome as the cold seeped in through my coat.

“No, thank you,” I said politely.

 “Oh, go on,” he coaxed, and held it towards me.

I licked my lips, and my hesitation was all he needed.

He broke out into a friendly smile. It changed his face and made him appear even more affable and friendly.

“I know you want to. It’s just tea. Please, be my guest.”

He unnerved me. It was not as if I could leap off the bench and run away.

“Okay, thank you.”

His smile turned intense, as if it delighted him I had accepted.

The hot sweet tea thawed my insides. A welcome relief from the afternoon chill.

“It’s a pleasant spot here,” he said conversationally. “I come here a lot and have seen you.”

I nodded, sipped some more, and passed it back. I let him talk and didn’t offer any conversation. In a strange way, I felt flattered. But even I wasn’t that gullible.

The tone of the one-sided conversation warmed to his newfound friendship. He made it feel like we were old pals passing the time of day, except, only he spoke.

A young couple stopped in front of us to snatch a kiss. He nudged me, and he sniggered.  “Oh, to be that in love, eh?”

I said nothing and shifted sideways. There was something not quite right with him. He was too friendly, too overbearing.

 Uneasy at the way he had latched on to me, I decided it was definitely time to leave.

“I have to go,” I told him, and climbed down from the bench without waiting for a reply. For a moment I thought he would follow and was grateful when he made no attempt to stop me.

Snatches of conversation weave the stories of our lives. I catch them, juggle them, and string them together to write an article or a work of fiction. My words tell of happy, normal lives. Magazines and newspapers buy them, and editors know my name. They like what I do. That makes me shine. It isn’t bad for a girl that nobody wanted.

In the children’s home, they named me The Slug. They picked on me every day. Life was hard.

Somebody believed in me and a lady who was just like me arrived one day. She took me to my forever home and gave me back my self worth.

I rewrote my article on bullying five times and sold it to three newspapers and two magazines. I’m still proud of that one. 

I saw him again, the man with the flask. In fact, I saw him several times over the next few weeks.

 He wore different coloured ribbed hats, and offered tea to other girls.

They smiled and chatted; sucked in by his effortless charm. Some even went off with him.

Luckily the man had forgotten about me. Like many others, he didn’t notice I was there.

The more I watched him, the more uneasy I felt about what he was doing.

I had a living to make, and it took me all my time to research and write. I rarely watched the television or read the newspapers. But a photograph of Rachel Quimby caught my eye in a newspaper.

 I recognised her because I dropped my book one day. She raced over and picked it up. With a smile, she handed it to me.

“There you go.”

When I saw her again, she sat with the man with the flask.

A nice girl like that, friendly by nature, would be perfect prey for him.

Not like me. I don’t mix with people well. I prefer my own company. So, going into a police station was just about as daunting as it got.

The steps were a mountain for me to climb to get through the door. As luck would have it, somebody exited and it enabled me to slip inside.

I walked unseen to the man at the desk.

“Excuse me,” I said.

His eyes fixed on me, and he did a double take. I’m used to people doing that. The second look is when they realise I’m not a child.

“Can I help you?” he asked as he peered down at me.

I swallowed, took a deep breath, and said, “I know who murdered Rachel Quimby.”

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