The Last Meal
by Gary R. Hoffman
Light reflected off the bluish-silver scales of the piranha as he swam the perfect rectangle of his aquarium for the umpteenth time today. His name was Rommel, and he made a quick move to his attacking place when Detective Walt Simpson came too close. Even when he was fed, he hid so as he could devour his food as if he were in the wild.
“You three were the only ones in the house today,” the detective said to the three people standing in front of him. “One of you has to be the killer of the General.” The General was still sitting in his wheelchair, but slumped over with his head on his chest. His frail body looked like a skeleton.
“Who wants to start with their activities of today?”
The three looked at each other.
“I guess I will. I’m Joe Abbey.”
“What is your position here?”
“I’m a gardener. Groundskeeper, actually.”
“And where were you today?”
“I was mowing down by the guesthouse. A belt broke on the mower, so I went into town about noon to replace it. Before I left I came up to the house to grab an early lunch.”
“You actually chose to come up here and eat her food?” Anna said while pointing at Helga.
“Yeah, she cooks a pretty good meal, if you’d ever stay around long enough to enjoy it,” Joe said. He then looked at the detective. “I didn’t get back until a little after four.”
“What took you so long?”
“The John Deere dealer in town didn’t have the belt. They had to send over to Halleyville for it.”
“And what did you do while you waited?”
“First, I went over to the Dixie Dawn Café and got a cup of coffee and a piece of pie.”
“Didn’t get enough food here to fill you up?” Anna said. She looked at the detective. “Told you the stuff was bad.”
“Just wanted some dessert,” Joe said. “After that, I went to see an aunt of mine I haven’t visited in a long time.
“No alibi problems there,” Simpson said. He then looked at the two women. He chose the younger one. “What do you do here?”
“Most everything,” she said in a haughty tone. “ I’m Anna, the General’s personal assistant.”
“And where were you today?”
“I was gone all day. I left a little before nine this morning and didn’t get back until four-thirty. One of the things I had to do was drive into St. Louis for some books the General wanted.”
“Couldn’t they be shipped to him?”
“The General was an impatient man. He didn’t want to wait for the mail or UPS to do their job.”
“You have any other errands?”
“Sure. He never let me get away without doing several things for him. I picked up one of his old dress uniforms at the cleaners and a pair of shoes from the repair shop.
Simpson looked at the older woman. “And who are you?”
“Helga, the cook. I have cooked for the general for sixteen years now.”
“And what did you do today?”
“I served the General lunch at noon, just like every day. I picked up the dishes around two, as always, and figured he was sleeping. No one was allowed in this room between one and two. According to the general, that was 1300 hours in military time. He was very suspicious of the number thirteen. When we had dinner parties here, he would not sit at the same table with twelve other people. He would have made the thirteenth, and he wouldn’t do that. He avoided anything to do with the number thirteen.”
“When I picked up his dishes at two our time (1400 his time), I saw he'd eaten only about half his lunch. It was only when I came back at three to feed the fish I realized something was wrong. We feed that fish at three every day,” Helga said with a curled lip. “That thing gives me the willies.”
“It was probably her crappy vegetable-beef soup that killed the General,” Anna said.
“My soup is very healthy.”
“You wouldn’t know healthy if you tripped over it.”
“Okay, one of you strangled the General between one and two o’clock when no one was supposed to be in the room. I’m arresting you, Anna, for this crime.”
“What? I was gone all day. How could I have done it?”
“How could you have known Helga served the General vegetable-beef soup if you hadn’t come back before she removed the dishes? You had a perfect time window to commit the crime during the thirteenth hour."
Gary R. Hoffman was born at an early age. Five years later, when he was five, he started school, which lasted a long time. A college education supposedly taught him how to teach, but the only thing he really learned was that no one can teach a person how to teach. The teaching gig lasted twenty-five years, until he got tired of the federal government thinking they had the answer on how everyone should teach. He quit and went into business for himself. Later, like all good Midwesterners, when he retired, he moved to snowless Florida and started writing. He has had over 400 short stories, essays, or poems published or placed in contests. So far, so good.