The Elusive Key

Other submissions by MoulinP:
If you want to read their other submissions, please click the links.
The Enigmatic Door (Mystery & Cozy Mystery, Book Award 2023)
The Embezzlement Ledger (Mystery & Cozy Mystery, Writing Award 2023)
Book Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Book Cover Image
Logline or Premise
His partner’s life at stake. No dilemma. This time he has to go.
First 10 Pages

Chapter One

“Mary, what on earth is on this book?”

Mary, feather duster in hand, regarded her husband, Florian Fooks, reforming outlaw. He eased the pages apart. His face took on a look of disgust. Life was hard enough for him being hardware store proprietor Joseph Crane, without a saboteur in his midst.

“This is a catalog. Belongs in the store. What are my customers gonna think if it’s welded shut by …?” He broke off, his face screwing up in disgust. “I don’t even know what this is.” He demanded an answer. “Mashed potato?”

“We’re the parents of a baby learning to feed herself. Haven’t you noticed? Everything is covered in food these days.”

Fooks leveled a glare in her direction, watching as she continued to dust the mantle shelf above the fireplace in their living room. She stood on tiptoe to reach the top of the clock. “If the catalog belongs in the store, why is it here?”

“I brought it home to check out the latest developments.” Fooks bent his head over the page,

scratching at the hardened lumps of potato. “I can’t have my customers see this. What will they think?”

“What’s the catalog?”

Fooks grunted.

“Excuse me?”

Fooks scowled at her. “Safes.”

Mary bit her lip, amusement dancing over her face. “In the four years you’ve sold hardware, exactly how many customers have bought a safe from you?” she asked, tongue in cheek.

He threw daggers with full force at her. “Not the point. Still part of my range,” he mumbled into the book once more.

A moment later, she said, “Samuel’s letter is still here.”

Fooks glanced up. Mary held the envelope he’d tucked behind the clock.


“Yeah, I know.”

“Are you ever going to open it?”

Fooks chewed his lips. “Hmmm, when I’m ready.”

His partner, Tobias Swan’s desertion was still a sore point. While he and Mary were away on honeymoon, Swan’d disappeared with a mysterious woman. Fooks was devastated to find him gone on their return. Tobias Swan, or Samuel Martin, as Bronze Canyon thought of him, left a short note with the sheriff. A woman called Caroline Fairfield offered Swan an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. He gave no further explanation other than he was going to Boston to take up the opportunity, telling Fooks not to worry and he’d be in touch when he got settled. At first, Fooks vowed to go to Boston but one thing and another stopped him.

Fooks bent over the book again, inspecting the page for more edible imperfections.

“You do know this might be important?” Mary said.

“Yes.” Fooks kept his head down, his tone icy.

“I expect he’s wondering why you haven’t replied by now.”

“He’s aware of the hazards mail out here runs.”

“I think things are improving. I get letters regularly from friends in San Francisco now.”

“That’s San Francisco.” He added, through gritted teeth, “Nearer.” He dropped his head again.

Their previous attempts to talk about this had ended in sharp words. He didn’t want a repeat. I’ll open the letter when I’m good and ready.

Tobias Swan and Florian Fooks were partners since childhood. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then. Including being notorious bank and train robbers. A status which would continue to define them, although both turned their backs on a life of crime. Now trying to be law-abiding citizens living under assumed names. Their experiences together meant they were closer than brothers.

“Perhaps I’ll open it for you.”

Her thumb found the edge of the seal and she paused.

His head flew up. Fooks bounded to his feet, precious catalog tossed carelessly aside. He crossed the distance between them in a flash and snatched the letter from her.

“I’ll open it.”

He took a deep breath when he read the address, written in Swan’s distinctive, untidy scrawl. Aware of her eyes on him, he growled, turned the envelope over and tore it open. Mary moved aside to give him some privacy, but his hand shot out, pulling her back.

With a further deep breath, he slid out the single sheet of paper. Didn’t take him long to read.

Dear Joseph. Everything is good for me here. Settled in real well. Hope you and Mary are well and married life suits you. Don’t worry ‘bout me. I’m doing good. Samuel.

“Here.” Fooks thrust the letter at her and walked away.

“He sounds well.”

“What was the point? I don’t know any more than I did a few moments ago.”

“He’s thinking of you.”

“Yeah.” He wasn’t convinced.

Mary hesitated. “You have an address now.” She ran her thumb over the embossed picture of a mansion. Underneath it read: Ardmaddy, Waltham, Boston, Massachusetts. “You could go and find him.”

“How can I leave you and Susan? Then there’s the store.”

“I’m sure we’ll manage.”

“Not the point.”

“You went away before when Susan was born. I was fine.” Mary smiled pleasantly at his scowling face.

“Still not the point.”

She moved forward, but stopped. The conjured-up baby’s cries echoed around the house. Instead, Mary regarded him meaningfully. He glared back, hands on hips. Who was going to go? Stand-off.

“Mama’s the chuck wagon.” He tried his double-dimpled beam, hoping the effect would work on Mary this time. Usually doesn’t. She’s somehow immune.

“Only at night now. And that’s not a hunger cry. That’s an I’m-awake-and-I-want-to-know-what’s-going-on cry. Something,” Mary swatted him with her duster. “Pappies are ideally suited to undertake.” She stood on tiptoes and smacked a kiss on his cheek. He went to grab her but she skipped away. “Besides, it will be good practice for tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? What’s happening tomorrow?”

“I’m going to Cheyenne to the Millinery Convention. I’ll be gone all day,” Mary said, ruefully. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten?”

Fooks growled. Seemed such a long way off when he’d agreed to take sole charge of their daughter for an extended period. “No, I hadn’t forgotten.” He flashed her a false smile.

Susan cried again. This time more insistent. When Mary raised an eyebrow, he glowered. “Okay, Susan. I’m coming.”

Mary’s smugness as she disappeared into the kitchen didn’t go unnoticed. He stalked in the direction of the baby’s bedroom.

Susan was already sitting up.

Fooks chuckled. “Hello, sweetheart.” She raised her arms and squealed. He pulled her out of the crib and settled her in his arms, relishing her smell and the warmth of her body. He smoothed the baby’s mop of brown hair, lighter than his own. “Mama says you want to know what’s going on. Is that right?”

He carried her back into the main room. Mary had left Swan’s letter on his desk, and he picked it up. “This is what’s going on, a letter from your Uncle Tobias.” He read the few words again. “You haven’t met him yet,” he said, in a regretful murmur.

Susan reached for the letter, but he held it away. If this proved to be the last ever communication from Tobias, he didn’t want Susan crumpling it up. Despite her protests he dropped the letter back onto the desk.

“Mama thinks I oughta go see him. How can I go and leave you and Mama, huh?”

Susan played with the lapel of his vest and remained silent.

“What d’you think? Should I go?” He kissed the top of the baby’s head. “I really need to know if he’s okay. Y’know how impulsive he can be. The trouble he can get himself into without me.”

Fooks groaned.

“Aw, who am I kidding? He’s a grown man, Susan. He’s capable of taking care of himself.” Fooks pulled a face. “Yeah, worked out well in the past, didn’t it? Remember Denver? How he got himself arrested ‘cos he tried to save a soiled dove from a beating? Got himself thrown in jail and who got him out? Me. That’s who. There’s me risking life and limb to rescue his sorry ass, and the woman isn’t even grateful. Play acting but it looked real enough to me.” He shook his head. “Wonder what play this woman. Caroline Fairfield is starring in? I’ve heard the name from somewhere. Just won’t come to me.”

Chapter Two

Where on earth is she? She was on my lap. “No!”

Fooks frantically searched around for Susan. He’d settled down to read the latest copy of Scientific American, in the wing-backed chair, waiting for Mary to come home from the Millinery Convention. She was late, he was tired and his eyes closed. Howling, he searched everywhere, even in improbable places. Under cushions, in cupboards, on his desk, under the sofa. Where had Susan gone?

“Lost something?”

Fooks’ head snapped around, hair falling forward over his face. Mary stood in the doorway of Susan’s room, arms folded and smiling knowingly.


Mary took pity on him. “I’ve put Susan to bed.”

“Oh, sheesh.” He pushed his hair from his eyes and climbed to his feet. He sank into the wing-backed chair, leaned forward, and pressed his hands over his face. “For a moment there I thought…”

“How did today go?” Mary asked, wryly.

With a groan, he slumped back in the chair. “Easier leading an outlaw gang.”

Mary crossed the room. “Is that why Susan is in a different dress to the one I put her in this morning?”

Fooks growled. His face soon changed when she slid onto his lap. “Hello,” he said. Her hand went to his cheek, and they kissed gently. His arms tightened around her when their kiss deepened. When it ended, he reluctantly let her go.

She stroked his cheek. “You’re tired.”

“I love our little daughter, Mary, but I hadn’t appreciated until today how demanding she is.” Mary nodded in understanding. “She crawls away so fast. Coulda done with eyes in the back of my head.”

“When she starts walking then where will we be?”

Fooks grunted. “Won’t be long. She’s already pulling herself onto her feet.” He sighed contentedly. “She was clingy. Every time I tried to put her down for a nap, she’d cry.”

He glanced at his desk where his latest Florian Fooks story, The Fake or Fortune Mystery, lay unfinished. Mary followed his gaze. Part of his grand plan for rehabilitation was writing the truth behind his outlaw life. When, or if, his real identity became common knowledge, he wanted public opinion on his side. Judging by the reaction to his stories, he was well on the way to achieving it. “Didn’t get anything done I planned to.”

“She probably missed all the attention she usually gets.” As a rule, Mary took Susan with her to The Hat Shop and a procession of ladies stopped by to coo at the cute baby.

“Making do with Pappy today musta been hard,” Fooks said, kissing Mary’s fingers. “How was the Hat Fair?”

“It was a Millinery Convention,” she said, nose in the air. “And it was great. I could have spent several days there, admiring all the new creations. I ordered far too much. At least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing the hats of Bronze Canyon ladies will be the best for miles around.”

“I’m glad you had a good time.” Fooks played with her fingers. “Luke stopped by. Said you’d asked him to check on me.”

“I did not.” Mary was indignant. “I simply told Papa you’d be on your own with Susan all day. I thought you might appreciate someone else to talk to for a while.”

“Hmmm. He seemed to think I’m taking a trip back East soon.”

Mary raised an eyebrow at him. “Aren’t you?”

Fooks scowled. “I haven’t decided yet.”

Mary eyed him knowingly. “I won’t hold my breath.”

Fooks frowned at her. “D’you really think I would go and leave you and Susan, like that?” He clicked his fingers.

Mary put a hand on his chest. “No, but I do know how concerned about Samuel you are. Especially the way he left and the lack of explanation he offered.”

Fooks grunted. “Yeah, I’m gonna have words with him.” He glanced away and then back. “I don’t know, Mary. I have responsibilities here. Tobias is a grown man and entitled to make his own decisions in life. He can be pretty stubborn at times, and I’m not sure he’d appreciate me going to Boston. Seem like I’m chasing after him.”

“Now you have an address you can write to him.”

“Yeah, I might.” He pushed back a stray lock of hair from her face. “I missed you today.”

“Did you miss me? Or my diaper wielding skills?”

“Your diaper wielding skills are of course unsurpassed.” Fooks deepened his dimples. “But I’m pretty sure it was you I missed.”

Mary kissed him. He settled her cozily, trying for something more ardent when Susan cried. He kept Mary close, chuckling. “How does she know?”

“I’ll go. I should settle her properly for the night.” Mary patted his chest, smiling coyly. “And then as you’re tired, we should turn in ourselves.”

Aware Fooks watched her walking away, Mary felt lucky. She’d lost her baby fat easily and was back to her previous trim self. In her smart business suit, she presented an image of the astute modern businesswoman she was. And had been before she met Fooks. Once they married, convention said he should have insisted she give up her business. He’d never do that to her. If anything should happen to him, she would always have her business to fall back on. She was fortunate to live in Wyoming. Here women had significantly more freedom than their sisters in surrounding states. They had the vote for one, and property rights even after marriage.

Would he go all the way to Boston? He was worried, but the decision remanded a difficult one. If he left Bronze Canyon, recognition always a constant danger. Perhaps safer to write to Tobias.

Mary turned in the doorway of Susan’s room. His smile was uneasy. He couldn’t go on like this. He needed to make a decision.

Sooner than either of them thought, a decision would be made for him.

Mary opened the front door early the next morning and blinked in surprise to see the sheriff of Bronze Canyon, Washington Turner, standing there. “Is he in?” Wash asked

“Yes, he’s giving Susan her breakfast.”

Wash followed her into the kitchen. His lips creased ruefully at the vision of domestic bliss. The notorious outlaw Florian Fooks, feeding his baby daughter her breakfast, was a sight to behold.

It was delicate work, requiring patience and guile. Patience to wait as the baby gummed her oatmeal. Guile to be alert for the opening mouth and fill it once more from the loaded spoon. Fooks appeared entirely suited to the role. He glanced around at Wash.

“Hey Wash. What brings you here so early in the morning?” He turned back to his daughter, ready for when her mouth next opened.

“This.” Wash became serious and dropped a newspaper on the table in front of Fooks, tapping a section.

Fooks glanced at the small headline. Mary read over his shoulder. Time stood still as they read:


The spoon fell from Fooks’ hand and clattered to the floor.

Susan whimpered at the sudden cessation of her breakfast. Her face crumpled.

Fooks snatched at the newspaper. His chair crashed back onto the floor. He swallowed hard, reading quickly.

“This paper is a month old. It doesn’t say if …” Fooks stared at Wash.

Susan’s fists pounded the tray of her highchair. Mary pulled a disgruntled Susan into her arms.

“Mary, I have to go to Boston. Right now. I’ve really gotta go this time.” He showed Mary the newspaper.

“I can see.” She hugged his arm, glanced at him in concern and frowned. “This is a Boston newspaper. How—”

Wash rolled his eyes. “Craig and his easterlies. Got a delivery yesterday. He spotted it when he went through ‘em. Brought it to my attention.”

“I need to go.”


Jennifer Rarden Mon, 24/07/2023 - 21:42

I love the trueness of life with a kid. And great start for the rest. I'm definitely interested in reading more.