Ring Around the Rooftop
Jasper Holt patted his pocket to make sure the ring box was still there, then pushed open the door to the rooftop pool deck. He hitched up the oversized picnic basket in his other hand and walked outside.
The rooftop space was the main reason Jasper had signed the lease at the Barton. He could pay hundreds less a month for about the same square footage at another building.
But Jasper had a reason to be at the Barton: Monica.
He smiled to himself, thinking of his girlfriend’s lovely face as he hauled the picnic basket to the edge of the roof.
Monica loved the city skyline at dusk, as the lights came on. She was the kind of girl who pulled the car over to watch the sunset play across the sky. She was beauty and laughter and sweetness, everything Jasper wanted in his life.
He took out the picnic blanket and spread it out, imagining her smile when she saw what he’d prepared for her.
Jasper took out the champagne and strawberries. He set up the crystal champagne flutes. He put the speaker dock next to the basket and slotted his phone into it with his romantic playlist queued up. The sun was low on the horizon. It was almost time.
Jasper placed the ring box on the ledge of the roof behind the basket and went to find the girl he hoped would soon be his fiancee.
Ten minutes later, Jasper led Monica out the door onto the roof. Her eyes were closed and her smile spoke of giddy anticipation. He led her to the picnic blanket, noting with annoyance that one of the champagne flutes had fallen over. At least he hadn’t poured yet.
He turned on the romantic playlist and got on one knee. His heart pounded. He reached for the ring box.
Jasper whirled to look behind him. The ledge was empty.
The ring was gone.
Letty Carson ran a hand through her short brown hair and sighed. The phone had been ringing off the hook all day.
Did every single resident have a complaint?
Only her second day as temporary building manager and Letty wasn’t sure if she wouldn’t rather move back to the job at her old building. At least there the tenants weren’t so fussy. Collecting the rent could be a challenge, but their expectations were low.
She picked up the phone. “Barton Towers, this is Letty speaking.”
She grabbed a pencil to take notes. As expected, it was another resident with another petty complaint.
This time it was an undusted floral display outside the elevator on the fourth floor.
“Yes ma’am. I’ll take care of it. Goodbye now.” She set the phone down.
Last time it was a flickering light bulb in a poolside changing room on the roof. She’d sent Nick from maintenance to fix it.
Before that it was a complaint about a missing makeup compact. Then a tenant who insisted she heard animals in the walls. Then a tenant angry that kids were dropping things from the roof into the plants on her balcony. Then a complaint about noises at night. And then, and then, and then…
She went to the supply closet to fetch dust cloths and spray. Before she had the closet door shut, the phone rang again.
“Barton Towers, this is Letty speaking.”
A voice shrieked at her in a panicked garble of unintelligible words.
“Ma’am, you’ll have to slow down, I can’t understand you.” Letty put the dusting things down and picked up her pencil. “I’m sorry. I meant sir. Sir, can you repeat that?”
She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. A resident was calling from the roof, claiming Nick had stolen a valuable item. He was going to call the cops if she didn’t get up there immediately.
“Stay where you are. I’ll be right up.”
Letty dashed to the elevator. Nick from the maintenance department had been the first person to introduce himself to her at this new job.
He’d walked into the office with a shy grin. He pushed his long hair out of his face and pressed a flier into her hand. “I’m Nick. I have a band. We’re playing Friday. You should come.”
He started to drift out of the office, but stopped. “Oh, and I work in maintenance. If something needs fixing, I’m your guy.”
The introduction had smoothed her first day and made her feel just a little bit at home in the fancy building.
The elevator finally arrived and Letty got on and punched the door close button.
She did some deep breathing as the elevator rushed to the top of the building, centering herself.
The doors opened and Letty stepped out onto the roof. A quick glance toward the pool told her they were alone. No swimmers splashing, or sunbathers packing up their towels and oil.
Nick stood near the edge of the roof with his hands out to his sides, palms up. He swayed slightly, as though hearing an internal melody. Letty wondered if he was composing a song about an accusation on a rooftop.
Next to Nick were a young couple. The man was dressed for a day on the deck of a yacht, complete with boat shoes. His perfectly gelled hair set off his beet red face.
The woman clinging to his arm was the definition of dainty. Her flimsy sundress swayed in a faint breath of breeze. But her huge eyes and heart shaped face radiated distress.
Letty pasted on her most professionally reassuring smile and approached. She put her hand out.
“Letty Carson. I’m the manager.”
“Jasper Holt. This is Monica.”
“How can I help you, Mr. Holt?”
Jasper broke away from Monica and angrily accepted the handshake. “You can call the police. Your janitor is a thief.”
“I’m sure we can figure this out,” Letty said.
“Figure it out? What’s to figure out? He stole my –” Jasper broke off and gave the girl next to him a pained glance.
Letty nodded for him to continue.
He gave an angry sigh, but then composed his face and turned to Monica. “Can you cover your ears?” he said gently.
She shrugged and put her hands over her ears and closed her eyes.
Jasper leaned closer to Letty. “It’s a diamond engagement ring. Three months salary. So don’t give me any bull about figuring this out. I want my ring back. I want him fired. And I want an apology. And then maybe – maybe! – I won’t call the cops.”
Letty nodded slowly, taking in his words. She ignored the implied threat and concentrated on the feelings behind the words. She could hear the fear hiding under his anger.
This was not a petty complaint. This was a man with a real problem. It was dressed in better clothes, but it wasn’t that different from her old residents avoiding her when they couldn’t pay rent.
They didn’t want their kids to be homeless, and the man in front of her didn’t want to lose his girl. Both faced a threat to their love, to their heart.
She looked him directly in the eyes. “I’ve got this.”
He blinked and took a half step back. “Ok, then.”
Letty rubbed her hands together. “First things first. I need to talk to each of you in private.”
Jasper’s eyebrows rose.
“I don’t want your recollections to shade each other’s memories.” She put a hand out and gently tapped Monica’s arm. “You can put your hands down now.”
Monica dropped her hands to her sides and idly swished the thin material of her skirt. She shot a glance at Jasper. His face had cooled to a watermelon pink instead of the earlier red. Monica’s shoulders relaxed.
“You can have a seat over here,” Letty said, indicating a deck chair, “And Nick, would you sit over there please.”
The two went to their separate seats. They were still close enough to talk if they raised their voices, but Letty would hear if they did.
“We’ll be over here.” Letty led him to a pair of deck chairs near the pool. Like the others, they were now far enough away that soft voices wouldn’t be overheard.
They sat facing each other. Letty took several calming breaths, deliberately letting her muscles relax into an upright but not stiff posture. The kind of posture that conveys confidence and inspires trust.
“Now, please tell me everything from the beginning.”
“When we got out here, the ring was gone. Your janitor was the only one here. So it had to be him that took it.”
“Hmm. And before that? How long was the ring on the roof?”
Jasper thought for a moment. “It was only ten or fifteen minutes.”
Letty nodded, waiting for him to continue. He pursed his lips, then took the cue.
“I came up here to set things up just before sunset. I wanted everything to be perfect. I brought Monica out just as the sun was going to slip behind the hills.”
“Did you have the ring on you at the time?”
“No, I didn’t want her to feel it on me if she hugged me. I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. So I left it up here. There was nobody out here, so I thought it would be safe.”
“Was there anyone else on the roof when you arrived? That is, when you first arrived to set things up?”
“There was a group leaving. They seemed upset about the changing rooms. But they were gone before I started to set up.”
“Could they have returned? Left something behind?”
Jasper shrugged. “I mean, I guess it’s possible.”
“And where exactly did you put the ring?”
“On the ledge behind the picnic basket.”
“Was it on its own or in a container of some kind?”
“A ring box. A velvet ring box.”
“Let’s go look at the area.”
Jasper walked to the spot where he’d set up his picnic blanket. Letty walked a few steps behind him. She kept a sharp eye out for hiding spots that might conceal a ring box.
“Show me exactly where you left it.”
Jasper led her across the picnic blanket and pointed to a spot on the ledge at the side of the roof. Letty inspected the area.
The ledge was about knee height, and a foot wide. The top of it was a smooth concrete with a shimmery finish from the tiny grains of quartz in the material. She leaned forward and could see the row of balconies on the floor below.
They appeared to be having a container gardening contest on this side of the building. Every balcony was crowded with potted plants. The thicket of green gave the balconies the appearance of patches of jungle jutting out from the building.
She jerked back up when Jasper let out three loud sneezes. He took a step back from her and held his hands in front of his face.
“Oh sweetie, is it your allergies?” Monica called across to him. “I have tissues if you need one.”
Jasper glanced at Letty with a question in his eyes.
“Go ahead,” she said.
Letty inspected the picnic basket while Jasper busied himself with sniffling, wiping, and nose-blowing. She was soon satisfied that the ring was not in the basket or among Jasper’s things on the picnic blanket.
She motioned for Jasper to rejoin her in the deck chairs where they’d begun. “What else can you tell me about the ring box?”
“It’s black velvet. About this big.” He gestured with his hands, making a small lopsided cube. “It cost a lot.”
“Did anyone else know you had it?”
He shook his head. “Only the salesman at the jewelry store. I haven’t even told my mom I was going to propose.”
“Ok. I’ll talk to Miss Monica now. If you could just take her place and send her over here.”
“You won’t spoil the surprise?”
“Of course not.”
A minute later Monica sat on the edge of the deck chair, twisting the hem of her skirt between her fingers.
She looked up through her lashes at Letty, a small hopeful smile on her lips. Letty could see why Jasper was so smitten.
Letty considered her first question. “Was this your first time on the roof of the Barton?”
Monica shook her head. “No, Jasper brought me up here on our first date. We’d had such a nice evening, neither of us wanted it to end. But I didn’t just want to go up to his place. Not on a first date. So he suggested the rooftop deck.”
“Have you been up here since that time?”
“Sure, a few times.”
“Was there anyone on the roof when you got here today?”
“I didn’t think so, but my eyes were closed. But then Jasper started yelling at—”
The door to the roof banged open, interrupting Monica’s words.
An older woman strode through the door, her hands closed into fists. “Which one of you was it?” she demanded.
Letty stepped forward. “I’m the building manager. How can I help you?”
The woman turned her glare on Letty. “I spoke to you earlier about the kids dropping things onto my plants.”
“Mrs. Ames. Yes, of course.”
“And what have you done about it? Nothing.”
Letty opened her mouth to respond, but Mrs. Ames thrust out one hand, opening her fist to reveal an object. Letty leaned forward to see what it was, but Mrs. Ames closed her fist around it again.
“This piece of trash nearly killed my Mimosa pudica, also known as the shy plant. I’ve been babying it along for a year, and it was finally about to bloom. Then this thing comes falling out of the sky and ruins all that hard work!”
She slapped the object into Letty’s hand. It appeared to be a brushed gold clam shell. Letty turned it over and realized it was a makeup compact.
“Now which one of these miscreants is responsible?”
“I’m afraid none of them were, but I might know who this belongs to. It was reported stolen earlier today.”
“I don’t know whose it is and I don’t care. I just know that someone owes me for my Mimosa pudica.”
“I’m sure we can figure it out once I have a chance to talk to the owner.” She gave the woman a gentle smile and began to usher her back to the door. “I will give you a call as soon as I know something more.”
The woman huffed but turned and left.
Letty went back to where Monica was watching with wide eyes. “Now where were we? Oh yes, was there anyone here when you arrived?”
“I didn’t think so at first. But then Jasper started yelling at your janitor. So I guess he was here.”
“Can you tell me anything else that might help?”
Monica shook her head.
“Ok. You can join Mr. Holt.”
Monica had started toward her boyfriend when Letty thought of another question. “What’s Mr. Holt allergic to?”
“Cats,” Monica said over her shoulder.
Letty motioned to Nick to come and join her at the deck chairs.
He sat, shoulders slumped. He pushed his long hair out of his eyes and gave her a glum smile. “I didn’t steal anything,” he said in a soft voice, “not that I can prove it.”
“No, I don’t believe you did. But you might have seen something.”
Nick raised his eyes to meet hers. She could see hope warring with bitter experience. A line from an old Social Distortion song popped into her head. She could picture Nick going to look for a job with no experience, looking at the holes in his jeans and heading back. Nick was so young. Had he even heard of Social Distortion?
Letty blinked, shaking off her reverie. “Was there anyone on the roof when you got here?”
“No.” He paused and looked into the middle distance. “Well, no other humans.”
Letty raised an eyebrow.
“There was Loki.”
“Loki? The Norse god of mischief?”
Nick smiled. “Pretty good name for a cat, isn’t it? Oh, and I think he was responsible for the light in the dressing room. It wasn’t burned out, it was just loosened. And Loki sat there watching me mess with it, with just the smuggest smile on his little kitty face.”
“A cat sabotaged the changing room light?”
“I mean, I think so. I guess I can’t prove it.” He frowned again, seeming to remember his current predicament.
“But no one else.”
“Could anyone have been hiding in one of the other changing rooms?”
Nick shook his head, sending his long hair flying. “No, I had to check each one to make sure I found the right lightbulb. They were empty.”
“And did you see anyone on your way up?”
“Do you know whose cat Loki is?”
Nick shrugged. “I see him around the building, but I don’t think I’ve seen him with anyone.”
“Hmm.” Letty thought for a minute. It seemed that she was about to solve several of the day’s mysteries.
She made up her mind what to do next, and turned apologetically to Nick. “There’s one more thing, and I hate to do it. But could you turn your pockets out?”
Nick sighed but stood up and started taking things out of his pockets. Keys, wallet, phone, a few crumpled band fliers, a lip balm.
He lifted injured eyes to hers. “That’s it.”
Letty threw a glance at Jasper and Monica, making sure they’d seen the performance. They had. She nodded at Nick.
“Ok, you can put all that back.”
She left the dispirited musician and walked to the couple. “Wait here a moment while I check on something.”
They stared after her as she strode away and left the roof.
On the floor below, she walked down the hall, mentally measuring out where each unit lay in comparison to the roof. Finding the one she wanted, Letty knocked on the door.
A tall slim man in a cashmere sweater opened the door and looked down at her. “Yes?”
“Letty Carson. I’m the building manager. Would you mind if I looked on your balcony for just a moment?”
The look he gave her was intermingled disbelief and distaste, but he opened the door wider.
Letty wiped her feet on the carpet in the hall before stepping inside the beautifully decorated apartment. The clean lines of the furniture were accented with a riot of fronds and leaves of houseplants.
The balcony was the same as the interior, but even more lush. She slid the door open and stepped outside.
Above her, she could hear a murmur of voices, followed by a volley of sneezing. She must be on the right balcony.
She went to work looking inside each pot. At the fourth one, she reached inside and straightened up in triumph. She put her find in her pocket and went back inside.
“Thank you so much, you’ve been a big help.”
Letty hurried back to the roof.
Jasper sneezed four times as she walked through the door. Monica held out another tissue to him.
Just behind the couple, Letty spotted the gleam of a pair of feline eyes.
She went to Jasper and drew him aside. He held the tissue over his nose and his eyes were watery.
She made sure their backs were to the others and drew her find out of her pocket and presented it to him.
Jasper’s eyes widened. “Who? Where? How did you?”
“It wasn’t Nick,” she said. “But I think the culprit is close by.”
He looked at her in confusion. She inclined her head to a spot just behind him. Jasper turned around and saw a cat sitting on the picnic blanket, a smug look on its face.
“Thank you for finding this.” Jasper sneezed again. “But now I need to get away from that thing.”
“Why don’t you two go down to your unit. I’ll tidy up, up here.”
He nodded. “Thank you again.”
After another sneeze, Jasper shoved the ring box into his pocket. With a last nod at Letty, he took Monica downstairs.
Letty closed the door behind them and looked at the cat sitting on the picnic blanket. Loki stared back, then casually lifted a paw and gave it a lick.
In one day, Loki had been a thief and a saboteur, a plant-killer and a noise in the walls. Letty motioned to Nick and nodded toward the cat. He nodded back.
From both sides, Letty and Nick closed in on the furry little avatar of the god of mischief. Soon the little thief would become something new: a beloved companion.