Mr. Darcy smelled the fire before his mistress did, and the teacup poodle barked. Gladys Pemberton used the camera’s tripod to brace herself as she stood, sniffing the air. It was difficult to see anything at this hour, and her eyes weren’t what they used to be. Still, one must be responsible. If there was a fire in the park she should notify the authorities straight away.
“Come, Mr. Darcy,” she said, tugging the leash. “Let’s investigate.” She stowed her tripod in her camera bag before turning her back on the garden, adjusting her overcoat while she trudged back to the road.
Chance Park was quite pleasant, Gladys had decided. The roads were well lit, and frequently patrolled by the local police. The Chance Park Snatcher was all the media wanted to talk about, but Gladys was never one to panic easily. She had her pepper spray. She would not go missing like the others.
Gladys helped Mr. Darcy over the railroad tie at the edge of the paved road and clambered over it herself. He sniffed the pavement and renewed his barking, and she hushed him. A splash drew her attention, and she remembered there was a small pond nearby. She followed Mr. Darcy across the street.
There was a fire on the beach, she discovered, and a man in the pond. Mr. Darcy broke into excited yapping, and Gladys frowned. There would be no speedy retreat to the bus stop now, the swimmer had stopped and was looking at her. Well she couldn’t not be polite, she reasoned. She led Mr. Darcy down the narrow path to the small beach.
“I’m terribly sorry about the disturbance,” she called out. “Mr. Darcy smelled your fire. I’m afraid he’s a bit skittish about it.”
The swimmer broke into a smile so wide Gladys could see his teeth. “Just surprised me, that’s all,” he called back. “Don’t worry about the fire, it’s safe.”
Gladys looked, nodding as if she knew about fires. She didn’t. “I see,” she said. For a moment she thought she saw … a wallet? A belt? No, that was an oddly shaped piece of wood. “Well done.” Something, however, was not quite right. “Young man,” she asked, looking around the beach and then back towards the swimmer. Mr. Darcy sniffed all around the firepit, growling. “Where are your clothes?”
“Um,” he said. Gladys waited patiently. “It’s embarrassing,” he admitted.
“Nonsense,” she said. “I was young once. Who left you stranded? Is that your car parked in the middle of the path by the fountain?”
The man in the water stared at her with an unreadable expression for a long moment. “A fraternity,” he finally said, smiling sheepishly. “It’s my initiation. When the fire burns out I have to run to my car naked and drive back to the college. They took my clothes.”
Such shenanigans, Ms. Pemberton thought to herself. Oh, to be young again. “What school?” she asked.
“Kent Community,” he replied, and Gladys frowned.
“Impossible,” she declared. Mr. Darcy barked, scratching at the sand. “Kent Community College has no greek societies, young man. I know, I’m a student there.”
He waited a moment and then slapped the water so hard it made her jump. Mr. Darcy spun in place, yelping. “Dammit!” he cursed, splashing more water. “They said they were Delta Kappa Pi.”
The dog continued barking, keeping his nose to the ground by the firepit. “Mr. Darcy, hush!” she said. “This young man needs our help.” Gladys tried to comfort the poodle while she clucked a sympathetic tongue at the man in the water. “What’s your name, son?”
He looked miserable now, crouching in the lake for what had turned out to be no reason at all. “Um, William, ma’am. Bill. Bill Gardener.”
“Well I am Gladys Pemberton,” she said, “and this is Mr. Darcy. You should count yourself lucky. The media has been warning everyone about the Chance Park Snatcher. You could have been abducted.”
“What about you?” he asked, ducking to his chin in the water to warm up as a light breeze drifted over the water. “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Goodness no,” she said. “Nobody wants an old curmudgeon like me. I have a photography assignment due, I was across the street taking pictures.”
He tipped his head, looking over her shoulder to where she had come from. “Of what?” he asked.
“A garden,” she said. “In the woods. I found it quite by accident. There’ s no path, but it’s lovely. Built up in beds like dominoes, each with a different flower. Someone looks after it, I know, because there’s a fresh bed all newly raked.”
“You were taking pictures of it in the dark?” he asked. Night had fallen quickly — she couldn’t see his teeth anymore.
“Of course not,” she said. “The assignment was to photograph a stationary subject at different times of day. Today was dusk. Anyway,” she continued. “I know how to help you.”
“How?” he asked.
“I am going to leave my overcoat here on this big rock,” she said, setting down her bag and taking off the coat as she spoke. “And then I am going to walk back to the bus stop. At least you won’t be naked getting back to your car.”
“You don’t have to,” he said, shaking his head. “I can run pretty fast.”
“Nonsense,” she said, taking a pen and notebook out of her bag. ‘This is my address,“ she said, tucking the paper into the coat pocket. ”Simply have the coat cleaned and returned to me, and we’ll be straight.“ She picked up Mr. Darcy, adjusted her bag, and waved at the stranded young man in the water. ”Enjoy your evening,“ she called over her shoulder as she climbed through the rocks and up onto the road.
“Thank you,“ he called after her. He had eyes only for her coat, and the slip of paper in the pocket. ”I definitely will.“
Tanya L. Schofield lives in central Georgia with a white dog and a black cat – one of which she is allergic to. Her work has appeared in both 10Flash and AlienSkin magazine. She is the Assistant Editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles, and blogs regularly about her writing process at Blogging in the Dark.