William Burton McCormick’s story “Cleopatran Cocktails,” from our March/April 2018 issue, is offered here in its entirety. We’re willing to bet you’ve never encountered a fictional crime more original than the one you’ll find in this tale! The author is a former recipient of a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship.
by William Burton McCormick
I stare at my reflection in the jewelry case’s glass. I’m not a young woman anymore. Lines in the forehead and under the eyes. A bit jowly at the cheeks. A middle-aged face, if I’m honest. Well past time to do something with life.
Bob Beamon’s leap lasted twenty-three years before being broken.
Roger Maris’s sixty-one home runs made it thirty-seven years.
Dan Marino’s passing yardage a mere twenty-seven.
I could never break an athletic record. I’m terrible at sports, as much as I love them.
Beneath the case’s glass, on a lavender silk pillow, lies the Tabatskaya Necklace: a string of pearls conservatively valued at thirty million dollars. The third most expensive in the world.
So, here we go.
I glance over at this room’s lone guard. Ronnie’s away from his station, at the museum window, as he always is on school days at this hour, waving down to his wife and son in the convertible. Her name is Joyce, the boy Jonathan. Ronnie introduced me last week.
A before-school tradition. Very sweet.
And it gives me an extra thirty feet.
I pull the hammer from my purse, smash the glass, seize the necklace. Alarms go off. People scatter. They don’t know I’m unarmed.
Ronnie sees me. Shock in his face. The exhibition security is designed to keep thieves contained, each exit accounted for. Automatic iron doors descend over the windows and stairwell.
But I don’t wish to leave.
I run towards a washroom. Not the ladies’, but the handicap and baby-changing facilities. A sole-occupancy bathroom. No stall. No surprises.
Ronnie is closing fast.
The race is on.
The Statue of Liberty, at 225 tons, is literally the biggest gift in history.
A record that’s lasted 131 years.
I can’t lift fifty pounds, can’t afford even an Amazon gift card.
The Thuggee strangler Behram killed 931, the last in 1840.
A murder mark still standing 177 years later.
I could never harm someone.
That Russian woman, Mrs. Vassilyeva, who bore 69 kids.
Twins, triplets, quintuplets at every birth.
The final set born in 1765. 252 years.
That much time in labor?
Forget it. I would rather harm someone.
World records all.
None even a millennium old.
Ronnie won’t pull the gun, it’s there for defense, intimidation. He’ll try and tackle me. But I’ve made the washroom. One small toilet. No interior walls, no stalls. One bolt to keep out the rest of the world.
I latch it. Hear Ronnie pound on the door.
He doesn’t carry any keys. He’ll call the office on the ground floor. Probably five minutes to find the janitor. Three more to bring them up in the security elevator.
I lower the diaper-changing platform, withdraw the Styrofoam cups, rubber mortar, and plastic safety scissors from my purse. I remove the two heavy packets of vinegar from my ill-fitting C-cup bra. Clip the packet ends with scissors. Pour the liquid into the Styrofoam cups.
Cutting the necklace string, I slip the pearls onto the changing platform.
Crush them to dust with the mortar.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Germany, formed in 1743.
The longest-running musical group in history at 274 years.
And you thought the Stones were old.
Swedish newspaper Post-och lnrikes Tidningar established 1645.
I can’t write a word in another language.
The Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan company of Japan, founded in 705. 1312 years.
A family-owned hotel for fifty-two generations.
Thirteen centuries of operation is impressive. . . .
Millions upon millions of man-hours.
I’ll eclipse them all today.
As Ronnie beats on the door, and alarms blare outside, I brush the pearl dust into the cups, let it dissolve inside the vinegar. My stomach knots and I feel a little dizzy as the priceless powder disappears within the murky liquid. Somehow, I forgot a spoon. I stir with my finger.
Then I drink the first cup.
And the second.
Most would gag at this much vinegar, but I’ve practiced months for this. . . . The vinegar is acidic, the pearl remnants a natural balancing antacid.
No mistakes. I’ve waited millennia.
The door latch turns. Ronnie has obtained a key.
Only one more cup to drink.
One morning in 41 B.C., to impress her lover Marc Antony with her wealth,
Cleopatra VII of Egypt dissolved a single great pearl earring in vinegar.
By historian Pliny’s account, the pearl was worth ten million sesterces.
Estimated value today?
Fifteen million, five hundred thousand dollars.
Antony and Cleopatra shared the drink. An aphrodisiac.
The most expensive breakfast in history.
A record that lasted 2,057 years.
Ronnie throws open the door. Gun in his hand. A custodian and another guard at his side. They see the cups, the empty packets, the bare necklace string. Their eyes fix on the mortar. Confusion covers their faces.
I down the last cup.
Thirty million dollars for breakfast. None will ever think of little Janet Millsap as a listless, unemployed divorcee from Panama City, Florida, again. One whose life will pass unnoticed by history.
Now, friends, look upon the woman who surpassed Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile. As none has in two thousand years.
Today, forever, a record-breaker!
I lick the last of the pearl solution from my lips. Cleo was right. It is an aphrodisiac. Where is my Antony?
Somehow, I doubt poor Ronnie here is in the mood. . . .
Copyright © 2018. Cleopatran Cocktails by William Burton McCormick