When “Puzzle Pieces” started playing, I nearly lost it. The big concert was fast approaching, and the song kept playing non-stop on grocery store loudspeakers, over the radio, on boomboxes at the beach. I thought I could escape it in my own inn. Despite the frenzy over Maxine performing for the first time in a decade—and in our tiny town, of all places—I’d declined to buy a ticket or join the general giddiness.
“Ivan, did you leave the stairwell radio on again? Go turn it off.”
He gestured at his mop and said, “Little busy right now.”
I sighed and trudged up the stone stairs. The radio on the landing sat silent. From inside a guestroom, I heard some humming, a faucet being turned off, and then “Puzzle Pieces” being belted again.
I ran down the stairs. “It’s someone singing!” Ivan barely looked up.
“You checked her in, right? What’d she look like?”
“Uh, red hair, maybe 40s-ish?”
Well. Was international phenom Maxine staying in my inn’s 3rd best room?
Right then, the mystery guest descended the stairs. Ivan’s description had been good. She sure did look like Maxine.
Tentatively, she mentioned she needed to get dinner, and did we have any recommendations? She kept looking back and forth between Ivan and me, trying to figure out how we were related. Siblings? Dating? It’d take quite some guessing before she could land on the truth: coworkers each thoroughly disinterested in the monotony of our town.
I invited her to come join us for dinner. Ivan shrugged and followed us outside. The guest paused, crouching down to peer at a mama cat calling for her lost kittens.
I led us to a taverna on a side street near the main square. There were plenty of empty tables—we were quite early for dinner. I placed a simple order for the table: fish and salad and wine.
“I’m Katerina, by the way,” I offered. “And this is Ivan.”
“Yes, Ivan checked me in. I’m Mathilde.”
So she was at least claiming to not be Maxine. Ivan furrowed his brow, evidently thinking along similar lines, altogether more engaged than usual.
“What brings you to Greece? And to my inn?”
“I wanted a seaside holiday,” she said brightly. “It was actually pretty hard finding a place to stay—nearly everything seemed to be booked up.”
“It’s nearly never this packed. It’s just because of the big concert tomorrow.”
I’d never want Mathilde on my poker team. She went red immediately, then said with forced casualness, “Oh, a concert? That sounds nice, what concert? I might go.”
“Maxine’s performing. First time in a decade.”
I decided to let Bad Liar Mathilde off easy. We kept chatting, about seemingly easier topics. I ordered more and more carafes of wine as night descended.
Our waiter’s shift ended. His replacement shrugged into one of the restaurant’s aprons, then plugged in a portable radio. He turned it on with a click and briefly assaulted us with static. Then the inescapable strains of “Puzzle Pieces” tinnily streamed out.
At this, Mathilde let out a hiccup and buried her head in her hands. I coaxed the story out of her, and it sure took some coaxing.
Mathilde was Maxine’s sister. They performed as children and were set on making it big together. As they grew up, they started bickering, normal teenager stuff. One night, Mathilde angrily decided to sit out the performance, a variety show the next town over. An agent happened to be there watching her nephew and signed Maxine on the spot. The kind of thing that never happens, until one day it does.
“Jeez, Mathilde. So do you go to all of her shows?”
“No! We haven’t been in contact with her since her career took off. She’s always been too proud—our whole family is, actually. You have a misunderstanding and don’t talk for a while, then the years go by and it seems to get set in stone.”
She stared into the dregs of her wine glass. “This is the first show of hers I’ll have ever gone to. I’ve always wondered what it’d feel like. Peeking at what my life might’ve looked like.”
I said, “You have to really do it.”
“Don’t just watch and imagine. You’re all the way here already. Get on that stage tomorrow. Sing ‘Puzzle Pieces’. We heard you. You totally could.”
Even with a wine-headache starting to throb, I could tell this was what Mathilde had hoped to hear. She started throwing out the weakest excuses.
“Do people do things like that? Besides, Maxine has her signature tiara. How can I get a tiara in time?”
“I can take care of your tiara, no problem.”
“Isn’t this a crime? I don’t want to languish in Greek jail.”
I snorted. “The jail here is nice. It frankly has a better ocean view than your room. Okay then, glad we’re decided.”
I ushered them back to the inn before Mathilde could snap out of her trance. I ducked back outside, ripping off a concert poster from the community bulletin board a few doors down. I studied the image of Maxine and the tiara that never left her head. She had worn it as a lark one show, and then never again was seen without it. It was a constellation of rubies and topazes, no subtlety whatsoever. I already had all the materials I’d need for a pretty good dupe.
Most of my relatives think I make jewelry. But as a gemologist, I care less about the making, and more about the knowing. Give me any stone and enough time, and I can tell you exactly what it is. I’d always loved the journey from first suspicions, then running tests and gaining big leaps in confidence, and then the final, unshakeable certainty. I’d left that world behind upon inheriting the inn from my grandfather, but how I missed that certainty.
I still had plastic jewels from my past life, where I’d mock up how museum exhibitions would look. I’d used these a few times to craft gifts to delight my young nieces. I pulled some out, sifted them a few times through my fingers just to feel their weight, and set to work.
The sun started streaming in. I awoke with a start, still stiffly seated. My soldering gun was safely unplugged, and I gave a silent thanks that my instincts hadn’t eroded. Two tiaras sat, fully cooled, on my desk. My first one was tentative, lopsided after my months away from my workbench. But my second one was serviceable, even beautiful.
I set off towards the castle ruins overlooking town, the concert venue. Trying to shake off sleep, I bought a frappe along the way, the kind tourists never seem to develop a taste for. The bitter coffee granules dissolved on my tongue.
Hundreds of stairs separated me from the summit. I arrived flushed and fully awake, and was greeted by a scowling Nicholas, the site’s groundskeeper.
“Well, if it isn’t Katerina, joining us humble townsfolk. Don’t you tell all your guests this is a tourist trap?”
“I guess I just felt like learning some local history,” I said sweetly.
Nicholas took my money with narrowed eyes and started his tour. He soon grew animated with his love for the ruins.
“This place naturally makes such a good performance venue. With just a few light adjustments, we’re able to make the most of it. Like this semicircle of weeping willows, which we planted as a makeshift green room area. And here, this patch of stonework makes a lovely audience arena.”
I chanced a question. “I don’t suppose your landscaping also allows for a perfect nook for security guards?”
“We haven’t had much need before. I often staff higher-profile events, like tonight’s.”
My intel secured, I clambered down the stairs and back to the inn. I knocked on Mathilde’s room with orange juice and a tray of pastries. No movement inside—the jetlag was probably getting to her. She finally cracked open the door as my knocks grew more insistent.
“Morning! I checked out the venue for us—everything’s going to work tonight.”
She yawned and groaned. “Good god, I thought we were just riffing last night. We can’t possibly.”
From under the tray, I flourished the tiara. “We must. Look, it’s ready.”
The tiara’s accuracy seemed to mesmerize her, dispelling her protests.
Mathilde promised to meet up with me before the concert, and I sent her out with a list of excursions for the day. I worked on routine errands for the inn but privately marvelled at my mounting sense of anticipation. When was the last time I’d felt anything like this?
We left the inn in our finery and walking in flats, as I’d cautioned.
The crowd was mostly families—parents who loved Maxine growing up, and their teenage children, vicariously excited. The sun still had two hours in its shift, but the heat of the day had already broken.
The crowd’s anticipation kept building and peaking, building and peaking. Finally, the band started and Maxine strode onto the makeshift stage, already belting. I got beers from the refreshments table and passed one to Mathilde. “Enjoy, but remember, we have a mission here.”
Nine songs later, Maxine thanked the audience for coming. “It’s been a long time since I’ve performed, but I missed this energy so much.” She feinted leaving for good, taking a break before the encore.
I jumped up. “We gotta move.” I tucked the tiara under Mathilde’s arm as we hastened towards the back of the stage. “It’s a little disorienting back there. Walk all the way around the weeping willows, and you’ll see the steps to the stage.”
Nicholas stood in the zone between the audience and backstage. He was wearing his best stab at a security uniform, a black dress vest. All I needed was to divert his attention for a few minutes.
“Cool job, Nicholas.”
“Well, yours was taken. Looking down on everyone from your little fortress inn.”
Mathilde had started to slip past, but at this, she darted back to my side. “Hey, don’t talk to her like that.”
Nicholas sneered. “No friends in town, so only tourists defend her.”
I found my voice again. “Mathilde, go, I can take care of myself. Please, go. What exactly is your problem, Nicholas?”
“You escaped for your fancy art capital and then still had to come crawling back here. You think we can’t tell that you drip with disdain for us?”
I noticed Mathilde slip past the weeping willows. I also seemed to glimpse Ivan, army crawling under some hedges? But my thoughts were in a million places. I trusted neither my senses nor my ability to have this loaded conversation.
“Look, I didn’t come here to fight. I’ll leave now.”
I took my seat, alone now and with considerably less relish.
Mathilde rushed on stage, hastily wedging my tiara on her head. The audience applauded rotely, naive to our swap.
The band started playing. Mathilde’s mouth froze in the shape of the opening for “Puzzle Pieces”. Shoot! We hadn’t discussed what exactly would be on the setlist—I’d just assumed it must be Maxine’s signature song. The band played a few more notes then trailed off as Mathilde failed to join in. The crowd murmured uneasily.
Where had I heard those notes before? A memory fluttered in of singing happily in the car with my grandfather. One of the few English songs he knew. I stood and shout-sang, “Country roads, take me home!” An instant look of relief from Mathilde, who started singing the campfire classic with confidence. I watched a shower of emotions wash over her face. A lifetime of wondering and regretting condensed into nervousness and disbelief, before giving way to triumph. She’d long suspected and now knew how this life could feel. The certainty lit her up entirely.
I relaxed into enjoying the music. Compared to Maxine’s trademark rasp, Mathilde sounded ethereal, untouched, like the years since childhood had never passed. I ached thinking of how good they must’ve sounded as a pair.
Then a gasp from the crowd as, to their eyes, another Maxine walked onstage. I could tell the difference: this one oozed stage presence, and her tiara would be—But wait, the tiara was funny. It didn’t catch the setting sun at all, and she kept having to reach up and adjust it.
The sisters eyed each other. Cautiously, Mathilde reached out her hand, and slowly, slowly, Maxine grabbed it. Maxine took a steadying breath and seemed to make up her mind. She leaned over to share the microphone that Mathilde was holding.
A tap on my back. I spun around to see Ivan brandishing a third tiara. Ivan himself looked worse for the wear. He was covered in burrs everywhere—hair, clothing, some even clinging to his little leg hairs. But he was grinning broadly.
“I got us the tiara!”
I stared at it, not trusting my eyes. These were decidedly not plastic jewels.
He faltered. “You know, at dinner. You two were saying how important the tiara was.” He must’ve gone into my workroom, then swapped out Maxine’s tiara while she was in the green room.
Mathilde had worried that going on stage, trying out her could’ve-been life, would count as a crime. I’d laughed that off. But holding this heavy rack of jewels, this suddenly felt a lot more borderline.
“We need to return it,” I said haltingly.
“What, and have me get scratched up by those hedges again?”
I started to explain. “No, there’s a section of weeping willows. It’s actually much easier to get through…” I trailed off, staring at the thousands of gem faces. All the possible futures, close and far, seemed to spin around me.
Three tiaras: one just for practice. One that was good enough. One defining and instantly iconic. But we’d mixed them all up. Fake and real, manufactured and meant to be, all lay in a tangle before me.
I felt delirious. It was impossible to think properly up here. I grabbed Ivan’s forearm. “Hey, let’s head down.” We started down the many steps in the steadily descending dusk, taking care not to trip.
There were so many places the tiara could go next. In Mathilde’s suitcase as the only tangible souvenir of the day everything changed for her. Back in Maxine’s hands with our sincerest apologies. On the police chief’s desk as they issued our sentencing. On the landing in my inn, catching each new day’s sunlight a little differently. What to do, what to do?
From above us, the swelling chords of “Puzzle Pieces” started up and filled the air. The sisters sounded just as good together as I’d suspected. I kept fingering the tiara, imagining the jewelers who’d cleaved meaning out of each bit of rock. All the possibilities, slowly winnowing down to this. Every piece in its place.
Criteria: I wrote this for a short story competition. The story had to be a crime caper, include a gemologist and landscaping, and have less than 2500 words.