The Tell-Tale Diary

by Susan J. Illis


October 12, 1963

Brring. Brrring. Brrring.

Barbara swatted at her bedside table, hoping to stop the insistent ringing.

Brrring. Brrring. Brrring.

Her hand finally connected with the alarm clock and she pulled it close, squinting at it. 7 a.m. As she awoke, she realized it was Saturday. The annoying sound was not her alarm, but the telephone. She rolled out of bed, stumbling over yesterday’s shoes as she ran to the living room.

She plucked the phone off its receiver, flinging herself onto the couch. “Hullo?” she demanded, thinking, This better be good to let the phone ring twenty times.


Recognizing the voice of her boss, Stanley, Barbara shifted from anger to concern. He had never called her at home on a weekend before. He had never called her at home, period.

“Stanley? Is everything all right?” She reviewed yesterday afternoon in her mind, worrying about what she may have done wrong.

“Listen, Barbara, I’m sorry to bother you at home on the weekend.” His voice was smooth and deep, like the richest hot chocolate. “But I need to ask you a favor.”

Barbara’s heart leapt into her throat. What kind of favor? Was he finally going to acknowledge she was capable of far more than secretarial duties? “Of course. Anything.” She gulped, realizing she sounded desperate. “What do you need?” Stop, Barbara, she told herself, He’ll get the wrong idea.

“Do you remember the Lydia Hunter collection we received about six months ago?”

Of course she remembered the donation. She’d typed the accession record and thank you note, and although she’d never admit it to Stanley, she’d been intrigued by the collection of papers donated by a well-known socialite. Particularly because she’d been rumored to have had an affair with a former senator.

But not wanting to seem too eager, she said only, “Er, yes, I know the one you mean.”

Stanley’s voice tightened as he spoke. “Well, there’s been . . .” He trailed off, then took a deep breath and regrouped. “The donor, or rather, the donor’s family has requested that a few items from the collection be returned to them. And they’d like them as soon as possible.”

“Okay, I’ll do it first thing Monday morn—”

“No, today.” Stanley interrupted. “They want the materials as soon as possible. Do you have plans for the day? If so, can you change them?”

Leaning forward, Barbara groped around her coffee table until she found her cigarettes and lighter. Taking her time to perform the rote actions, she pulled a cigarette out of the pack and lit it, inhaling deeply. She’d worked in the college’s special collections since she graduated three years ago. Despite her degree and the time she’d worked there as an undergraduate, as a woman, she was considered only for a secretarial position. She’d persevered, despite the low pay and her over qualification, in hopes that her abilities and intelligence would be recognized and she’d be considered for a professional rather than administrative role. So far, she seemed to be just digging deeper into a rut, watching younger, newer employees—all male, of course—get hired and promoted. And not knowing her background, they treated her as the slightly ornamental, but probably not very bright, clerical help who always made sure the documents were typed and the coffee was fresh.

Was this her big chance?

“Barbara?” Stanley’s voice rose with impatience, leaving the rich dark chocolate tones behind. “Are you there?”

She coughed as the first nicotine of the day hit her lungs, then exhaled slowly. “Yes, I’m here. So you want me to go in on a Saturday and remove items from a collection?” Spelled out like that, it sounded unethical.

She heard a rustling noise, followed by Stanley’s own light cough. He cleared his throat and continued in lower tones. “Listen, I’d do it, but I can’t get away. There are just a few things, and Lydia’s family really needs them back. I’ll give you both Monday and Tuesday off . . .”

“That’s not necessary. If you need me to get something, I’m happy to do it. What do you want me to pull?”

“Only a few items.” Stanley’s tone seemed almost wheedling now. “They want any photos with Senator Stoker, and a diary they think she may have kept.”

“Diary?” Barbara couldn’t stop her exclamation. Why would her family take her diary?

Stanley’s voice dropped to a whisper. “They’re not even sure it’s there, or that a diary exists, but they want us to look for one.”

“Doesn’t she know?”

“Barbara.” His tone was sharper now. “The Hunters have given a lot of money to the college. It will really behoove us to do this small favor for them.”

“Of course.” Barbara agreed, though her heart wasn’t really in it. Everything about Stanley’s request—not to mention his behavior—seemed wrong. “May I ask why?”

“Why what?” Stanley’s voice tightened.

“Why does her family want the diary and photos?”

There was a long silence. Hadn’t he asked? “They’re helping a reporter from the Gazette write a story. Listen. I’ll be out most of the day at my son’s football game, but if you could bring those things to my house this evening, that would be great.”

Stanley rattled off his address, which Barbara pretended to write down, though in truth, she knew it by heart. She wouldn’t admit how many times she’d walked by the stately stone house just off campus, daydreaming about the day she might be able to afford such an elegant home, instead of a garret apartment a train ride away.

After hanging up, Barbara dressed quickly. She’d had her hair done after work yesterday, which saved time. On a Saturday on campus, she probably wouldn’t encounter anyone she knew, save a few students who would be dressed more casually than her. She quickly pulled on a pair of slacks, blouse, and cardigan, then grabbed a jacket and slipped on her flats. She skipped down the stairs to the street level, stopping at the coffee shop on the ground floor of her building.

“Good morning, bellissima!” exclaimed Nico, the owner of the coffee shop. “Why you up so early on a Saturday morning?”

Barbara wrinkled her nose as she handed Nico some change. “I have to go to work.”

“Library on a Saturday? You becoming boss lady?”

She gave him a rueful smile, remembering her faint hopes of less than an hour ago. “No, I doubt it. More like my boss thinks a single woman has nothing better to do on a Saturday.”

“You no let him take advantage of you, beauty.” He winked as he handed her a Styrofoam cup of coffee. “Go get ’em, tiger!”

Barbara left the coffee shop with a smile on her face, as she always did. Nico had a way of making her feel better, even when she didn’t know she needed a boost.

She kicked through the dry leaves that had fallen overnight on her walk to the train station. The morning was cool, though it would probably warm up later. When she got to the station, she remembered the trains ran less frequently on weekends, so she bought a newspaper and sat down to read while she enjoyed her coffee.

The screaming headline made her choke on her coffee.


Scanning the article for the germane facts, Barbara learned that Lydia Hunter had been murdered late the previous evening when leaving a party at a downtown hotel. Although the police were trying to dismiss her killing as a random act of violence, the reporter speculated that it was related to her alleged affair with Senator Stoker, who had resigned amid scandal last year.

Stunned, Barbara folded the newspaper and stuffed it in her bag, understanding now the urgency to remove Lydia’s diary from the archives, however wrong it was.

Did Stanley think she wouldn’t read the newspaper? Had he deliberately chosen her because he thought she was so gullible? Now Barbara understood why he’d specified that Lydia’s family wanted the items from the collection.

Even though she wasn’t an attorney, a policeman, or even—due primarily to her gender—an archivist, she knew that what Stanley was asking of her was unprincipled. On many levels. And she suspected her boss had deliberately chosen her to be the fall guy.

Using her sleeve to swipe unbidden tears, Barbara cursed herself for being so naïve, so eager to please Stanley, who obviously thought so little of her. She gave a tremulous smile to a couple eyeing her curiously, rising as she heard the train approach.

The trees with their riotous leaves of crimson and gold were just a blur as the train sped through towns and suburbs, Barbara barely noticing the beautiful scenery as she tried to decide what to do. Was Stanley turning the diary and photographs over to a reporter, as he claimed? Mrs. Hunter had donated her papers to the library, and now that she was dead, could her family even request them back? Perhaps as her heirs, they could, but based on Barbara’s limited knowledge of wills, it seemed they could not get them back immediately.

Usually her commute on the train seemed endless, but today, when she was dreading arriving on campus, it flew by. When she disembarked at the station, it was fully light outside and some of the morning’s chill had dissipated. Her low heels clicked on the sidewalk as she hurried to the library. Usually she felt a thrill upon entering the venerable old stone building, but today she felt furtive as she let herself in through the side staff entrance. Glad that she didn’t encounter anyone as she took the elevator to special collections on the fourth floor, she reminded herself she shouldn’t feel as though she were doing something wrong. She was following her supervisor’s direction.  

The door to the closed stacks slammed behind her, echoing eerily. Barbara shuddered as she made her way to the area where unprocessed collections were kept. She knew exactly where the eleven cartons of Lydia Hunter’s papers were shelved. She’d planned to survey the boxes in the stacks, but the area felt chilly and forbidding. She stacked one box on top of the other to carry to her office.

The unaccustomed quiet unnerved her. Despite being a library, the space was usually filled with the sounds of ringing telephones and hushed conversation. She turned on the radio in her office to a classical station.

The first box provided immediate results, though not the kind she expected—a deed of gift, signed by Lydia Hunter, stipulating that the collection should be sealed until ten years after her death. A quick glance at her watch confirmed to Barbara that it had barely been ten hours since Mrs. Hunter’s death. She sighed, putting the deed of gift aside to photocopy, although she suspected it would have little effect on the family’s determination to pillage the collection.

She sorted through the contents of the first box, finding lots of interesting material—scrapbooks from Lydia’s high school and college days, invitations and souvenirs from dances and football weekends—but no photos of Senator Stoker and no diaries.

The second box held different, but equally interesting, contents. Correspondence, including love letters from various spurned beaus, and memorabilia from her courtship and wedding to Robert Hunter. She switched the first two boxes for the third and fourth, realizing how much she enjoyed the search, despite the reasons for it. The third box yielded immediate results: a stack of loose photos of Lydia with Senator Stoker. They were hardly incriminating. Most included other socially prominent people, taken at very public events—ballets, operas, dinners, etc. Nonetheless, Barbara completed separation sheets and set the photos aside. Barbara removed a few more photographs from the fourth box; Lydia and Senator Stoker traveled in the same social circles and managed to get photographed together frequently, presumably due to her beauty and his former political prominence.

Barbara almost didn’t even open the spiral bound notebook in the seventh box. It didn’t live up to her leather-bound, hand-tooled diary expectations for a wealthy woman, but as she skimmed the contents, she understood why Lydia may have wanted to disguise the nature of her journal. Not only did it confirm her rumored affair with Neville Stoker, but it hinted at the scandal which had led to his surprising decision not to seek reelection. Her heart thumping in her chest as she read it, Barbara knew she’d hit the motherlode. Her search through the remaining boxes was perfunctory; she’d discovered what Lydia’s family was so eager to conceal.

But what to do? Flouting her boss’s clear directions would result in losing her job, she knew, but she also knew what he asked her was at the least unethical, and quite possibly illegal. Unless he planned to turn the diary over to appropriate authorities, which she doubted. Absorbed in her own musings, Barbara was slow to notice the phone ringing. Knowing it could be only one person, she answered with trepidation.

“Barbara? Stanley here. Did you find anything?” Now his voice was rough, completely unlike his normal chocolatey tones.

“Well,” Barbara realized as she spoke that she’d made up her mind. “I found several photos, but no diary.”

“Are you sure?”

Quite sure, Barbara thought, secure in her decision. She launched into a lengthy description of the other archival materials she had seen, until Stanley interrupted. “Well, that’s all very interesting. Do you think you can bring the photos to my house this evening? I’ll be home around 7.”

“If you like,” Barbara tried to make her voice light and ditzy sounding. “I could take them straight to the reporter.”

“Reporter?” Stanley’s voice rose in both volume and tone.

“You said you were collecting the items to give to a reporter?”

“Oh, yes, of course. Reporter. No, my house is best. 7.”

And with that, he hung up.

With hours to kill and remembering her grandmother saying, “In for a penny, in for a pound,” Barbara decided she may as well thoroughly examine the Lydia Hunter papers. Experiencing only minor guilt, she flipped through the correspondence, taking notes on the location and subject of significant letters. Then she typed a letter of her own and sealed it in an envelope. When it was time to leave for Stanley’s, she placed the photos she’d gathered into a flat box and with a final slight pang, wrapped the diary in acid-free tissue and slipped it in her purse.

Stanley’s wife, Gwendolyn, answered the door. Usually, she was warm and friendly, but this evening, she ushered Barbara to his study without a single pleasantry. A fire roared in the fireplace, despite the evening’s warm temperature, and Stanley sat facing it, a tumbler of brown liquid in his hand. Barbara hoped it was watered-down cola, but when she saw his bloodshot eyes, she realized it was probably whiskey.

She took a tentative step toward him, proffering the box. “I brought the photographs . . .” As she spoke, she swore she could feel the diary in her purse, throbbing like Poe’s tell-tale heart.

“Only photographs?” a rough voice asked, and Barbara spun to her left, noticing for the first time a man standing in the shadows of the dim room.

“She couldn’t find the diary.” Stanley said.

“Did you look?” the other man demanded. Barbara suppressed an eye roll.

She stuck her hand out, introducing herself. “I’m Barbara Strajnach. Pleased to meet you.” 

The man took her hand in a beefy, sweaty handshake. “Ralph Plato.” He gave no explanation for his presence there, and Barbara resisted the urge to wipe her hand on her trousers.

“I’ll look on Monday.” Stanley said, his expression telegraphing to Ralph Barbara’s probable incompetence. She should be insulted, but right now, she was far beyond caring about Stanley’s opinion of her.

“You said there might not be a diary.” Barbara reminded, but both men ignored her.

“You can leave the photos by the fireplace.” Stanley directed.

Barbara took an unconscious step back. She could feel the heat of the fire from where she stood, and she was transfixed by the flames. She couldn’t help but imagine the corners of the photos curl as flames licked them. She looked from Stanley to Ralph and back again. Both men had beads of sweat above their upper lips, whether from the fire’s heat or nerves.

“Um, I’ll just leave them here.” She put the box down on an end table next to Stanley’s chair.

“That’s fine.” When Stanley turned toward her again, she searched his face, looking for clues, but he just looked drunk—bloated, glassy-eyed, belligerent.

She backed farther away, stumbling over a hassock. “Well, if that’s all, I guess I’ll be going.” She turned and fled, not even waiting to say goodbye to Gwendolyn. She could neither get the sight of that fire out of her mind nor shake the conviction the photos would soon be in it. As the diary would have been, had she left it with Stanley.

On a Saturday evening, the streets were thick with students, going to parties or returning from dinner. There had been a home football game that afternoon. Judging from the exuberance of the students, the College must have won.

She hesitated only a moment before entering the drab, one-story brick building at the edge of town. But once she was inside, she felt renewed determination and approached the reception desk in the brightly lit lobby.

The officer who had been quoted in the article about Lydia Hunter’s murder wasn’t on duty, so Barbara left the diary to be given to him. She explained to the receptionist what it was, without divulging why she had it, certain the officer would contact her as soon as he received it.

On her way to the train station, she dropped her letter of resignation in a mailbox, squaring her shoulders as she walked into her future.


© 2016 by Susan J. Illis

About the author:

Susan Illis earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Pittsburgh. She has worked as an archivist at several different institutions, including the Heinz History Center, Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton University, and, since 2007, the Society of Mary, United States Province. She also does consulting and contract work. A Pittsburgh native, Susan now lives in Atlanta with her husband and two daughters, both of whom love writing, history, and using primary sources.

2016 Archives Short Fiction Contest

Winning Entry:

"Family Stories" 
by Marcella Huggard

Honorable Mentions:

"The Backlog"
by Christine Borne


"The Tell-Tale Diary"
by Susan J. Illis


"Night Memory"
by Jona Whipple