“I saw her drop what looked like a hundred dollar bill as she climbed out of her car and rushed into the office building.”

More than 60 people from around the state wrote short stories, very short stories, in response to that opening line. Ben Odgren, the children’s librarian at the Rockport Public Library, wrote this year’s winning entry in the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance annual Crime Wave Flash Fiction contest.

Odgren said when he read the opening sentence, he just had this feeling that the person doing the observing knew the person being observed.

“I had it in my head that this person was almost waiting for her to show up back at her job. From there, I had to think, what is the most interesting way that this can end? What is this person’s relationship to her to make it interesting, to make it as much conflict as there can be? Well, there is not a lot of conflict in what I wrote, but you can imagine there might be after the story ends.”

Contestants had just 500 words in which to spin their tale. James Ziskin, author of the Ellie Stone Mysteries, wrote the opening line and selected the final winning entries from a short list of 10, culled by the MWPA. For his story, Odgren has won a scholarship to attend the MWPA Maine Crime Wave conference in June.

It was Odgren’s first try submitting to the annual contest. “This year I was like, ‘I’m going to give it a shot,’ and yeah, I did OK,” he said self-deprecatingly.

All in all, his story took him about four hours to write. Odgren, who lives in Hope with his wife and two children, has previously self-published a middle-grade fantasy novel and is at work on a crime novel he hopes will find a publisher. Is it hard to write a crime novel in a town as picturesque as Rockport? “There is not a big seedy underbelly around here as far as I can tell,” Odgren conceded.

Her Warm Brown Hair

By Ben Odgren

I saw her drop what looked like a hundred dollar bill as she climbed out of her car and rushed into the office building.

The car was plain and she was not. Her hair was a warm brown, almost red, pulled up in a messy bun. She wore a long black coat that went past the back of her knees by an inch. A lime green handbag swayed in her right hand. The car was an uninspiring beige you wouldn’t take a second look at straight off the lot.

Neither looked out of place on their own, but put them together and that was a different story. I knew it wasn’t even her car. The way she parked it – skewed just so – not used to something so boxy and unresponsive.

I scroll the dial of the scanner I’d kept in my own car for the last month through the high-use frequencies until I hit police chatter. A small bank seven blocks away had just been robbed. Suspect was a woman. Getaway vehicle a sedan, cream or maybe beige. Bystanders not sure.

It was beige. I was sure.

I look at my watch. One o’clock on the dot. She robbed a bank on her lunch break and got back to work on time.

I step out of my own car and onto the sidewalk. She must have been driving fast because I can hear the high-pitched pings of the engine cooling off the closer I get to the sedan. I crouch, fishing the bill from where it landed beneath the car (a Corolla) with the tips of my fingers. The bill is bright green with stiff corners, fresh from the register.

I pocket the bill and head for the office building. Swing open the double doors and walk through the lobby, heading straight for the elevator. Each floor holds offices owned by different companies, mostly for their marketing and accounting departments.

Inside the elevator I press the button for the sixth floor – the accounting department for a line of organic cleaning solvents. The elevator doors open and I wrinkle my nose. It certainly smells that way.

At the end of the hall is a heavy walnut door. I open the door and walk right in. The woman sits behind the desk. Her warm brown hair is down and loose around her shoulders. The black coat hangs on a rack with the lime green handbag. She looks up at me and smiles.

“Hey, honey,” she says. “This is a nice surprise.”

I reach into my pocket and pull out the bill. Her smile fades. I place it on the desk and slide it toward her.

“Mom,” I say. “Where’d you get that car?”