A GHASTLY SHADE OF GREEN
By Sharon Love Cook
Martha Pemberton placed the dirty dinner plates into the dishwasher. She held onto her right hip as she straightened. That nagging twinge was always worse toward evening. Doc Moss had insisted she resume her walks now that the snow was gone and something resembling spring had arrived in New England. She went into the TV room where Harold was dozing in his La-Z-Boy recliner.
“I’m going for a walk, dear,” she told him. “Have you seen Chauncy’s leash?”
Harold continued snoring while Chauncy, the poodle, sprang to his feet.
“Yip! Yip! Yip!” He danced in circles on the kitchen tiles. Mrs. Pemberton grabbed his leash from the broom closet. She attached it to his collar and the two headed for the door.
Outside, she paused on the neat front lawn. The period before dusk was her favorite time of day. Everything slowed down; life’s urgencies didn’t seem so pressing. Even the air felt softer. She gave the leash a tug and started down the sidewalk.
The twilight walks were a springtime ritual. Often she paused to admire a neighbor’s tulip bed or flowering dogwood along the way. The greetings that passed between her and the neighbors were brief but pleasant. Years ago she’d known everyone on the block. As secretary of the local garden club, she’d gotten neighbors to participate in events such as the window box and holiday wreath decorating contest. Back then, families lived in their homes for decades. Mrs. Pemberton had witnessed the generations growing up. Now it seemed as if a house was merely a way station. The ink was barely dry on the deed before the residents were eager to move on.
Soon she approached a row of newer homes. The developer had bought the land with its three existing houses, now victims of the bulldozer. The new residences contained every gewgaw known to contractors: turrets, Palladium windows, multi-decks, and four-car garages. Mrs. Pemberton stopped outside one of the model homes and peered through the elongated front window. Inside, she spotted a TV screen so big it could serve as a movie drive in.
As she stood transfixed by the massive screen, Chauncey scampered across the manicured lawn. Before she could reel him in, the dog lifted his leg on what looked like a putting green. “Naughty boy!” she whispered, averting her eyes from the house. She tugged the leash and scurried away.
Before long, Mrs. Pemberton found herself in the neighborhood’s older section. She slowed her pace, careful of her footing on the uneven sidewalk. The overgrown roots of the old maple trees had caused the concrete to buckle, making navigation treacherous. Years ago, the city had announced plans to replace the sidewalk. Unfortunately, that had involved cutting down the trees.
Mrs. Pemberton, an opponent of this reckless action, had found an ally in Loretta Fairbank, a wealthy widow from the neighborhood’s older section. The two had attended hearings at city hall where the town engineer peevishly explained how the city could not pour new sidewalks without removing the maples. Spunky Mrs. Pemberton had threatened to chain herself to a tree if this went forth. While her threats had not endeared her to city hall, they had impressed Mrs. Fairbank. The two had remained friends.
Now Mrs. Pemberton spotted a police cruiser pulling up before the Fairbank house; she quickened her step.
A thin, middle-age woman stood on the sidewalk hugging herself in the chill April twilight. She waved frantically at the cruiser.
“Are you the neighbor who reported the robbery?” Sheriff Don Dunbar asked from the police car. From the corner of his eye he spotted Mrs. Pemberton approaching. He winced. Martha Pemberton considered herself an amateur sleuth. She often called the station to offer opinions on various cases. Although the sheriff humored her, he would never admit her tips had proved valuable in solving several difficult cases.
“I called, Sheriff,” the woman said. “I’m Ms. Bixby and I live there.” She indicated a white Cape-style house next door. “It’s about Mrs. Fairbank,” she said. “That’s her house, over there.” She pointed to a handsome stucco building with a faded red tiled roof. The house was partially visible through a long row of evergreens separating it from its neighbor. “She’s elderly, you see, and I have no idea where she is.”
Before he could respond, Mrs. Pemberton’s fluty voice rang out in the still air. “Yoo-hoo, Sheriff Dunbar. What seems to be the problem?”
He reluctantly alighted from the cruiser and watched Martha Pemberton approaching. She held a jewel-studded leash tethered to a small fuzzy-haired poodle. The dog’s fur was the same color as his owner’s hair: mauve. The poodle maintained a shrill staccato bark until Mrs. Pemberton admonished, “Chauncey, hush!”
When the creature fell silent, Sheriff Dunbar said, “I’ve got this under control, Mrs. Pemberton. Routine police business. No need to interrupt your walk.”
She ignored him and addressed Ms. Bixby. “I noticed you looking at Mrs. Fairbank’s house. I hope nothing is wrong.”
“I’m afraid so,” Ms. Bixby said. “Earlier I was alerted by Mrs. Fairbank’s dog barking in the backyard. That’s when I noticed her basement door was open. She’d recently had a gazebo built out back. I figured maybe one of the workmen had left the basement door unlocked and Wally, her dog, got out.”
“You mean Monty,” Mrs. Pemberton said. “His name is Monty.”
Sheriff Dunbar turned to Ms. Bixby. “Did you go inside the house?”
She gave him a rueful smile. “I was reluctant to go in alone. That open door frightened me, so I called my son, Preston. ” She shivered and tugged at her sweater.
“Go ahead,” the sheriff said. “What did you find?”
“We entered the house together and climbed the basement stairs to the kitchen. There we called to Mrs. Fairbank but got no answer. We decided to check upstairs.”
“And did you?” Mrs. Pemberton asked when the woman hesitated.
The sheriff turned abruptly. “Mrs. Pemberton, if you don’t mind, I’ll ask the questions.”
“My son and I went upstairs,” Ms. Bixby continued. “When we got to the bedroom, we saw the mess. Drawers were turned upside down with everything on the floor. That’s where I spotted the empty jewelry box thrown on Mrs. Fairbank’s bed.” Her eyes widened. “And no sign of Mrs. Fairbank.”
“What did you do then?” Sheriff Dunbar asked, his tone patient as he scribbled on a notepad.
“I called the police from the phone in her bedroom.”
Mrs. Pemberton sighed. “What a shame. Loretta had some lovely heirloom silver along with ancestral jewelry. I’ve told her more than once it should be locked away in a safe deposit box.”
“Thank you for your input, Mrs. Pemberton,” Sheriff Dunbar said, snapping the notepad shut. “Now I’d like to speak to Ms. Bixby.” He turned to the woman. “Have you see anyone on Mrs. Fairbank’s property lately, anyone lurking about?”
She shook her head. “There were the workmen, of course, but they finished the gazebo days ago. This neighborhood isn’t what it used to be. Old Mrs. Fairbank was so trusting. Anyone coming to her door selling something, she’d let them into the house. Not only that, I caught her wandering outside in March without a coat. The old dear needed skilled nursing care.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Mrs. Pemberton said. “Loretta had Monty, a fine companion. Together, they managed.”
“I only wish I’d called her son earlier,” Ms. Bixby said. “And now she’s missing. She may have wandered onto the salt marsh behind her house. Those bogs are like quicksand.” She took a tissue from a pocket and wiped her eyes. “I hope we’re not too late. God knows what’s happened to the poor thing.”
“What about the son?” the sheriff asked. “Where is he?”
“Elliot Fairbank is director of an oceanographic institute in Cape Cod,” Mrs. Pemberton said. “He’s a busy man. Loretta never liked bothering him.”
“Do you have his address?” Sheriff Dunbar asked, looking at the two women.
“I do, sheriff,” Mrs. Pemberton said, elbowing Ms. Bixby aside. “It’s at my house, if you want to drive me back.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Pemberton. Please wait at the cruiser while I lock up over there.”
The trio broke up, going their separate ways. Sheriff Dunbar approached the Fairbank house. He gingerly moved around the flower beds and side-stepped a wide border of bright green mulch. As he walked, he talked into a cell phone, reporting his findings.
After he’d secured the house, he joined Mrs. Pemberton at the cruiser. Before getting into the car, he said, “If you don’t mind, ma’am, the dog rides in the back.”
Mrs. Pemberton hugged the poodle to her. “Chauncey gets nervous riding in strange cars.”
“Ma’am, please. It’s regulations.”
Grumbling under her breath, Mrs. Pemberton deposited the dog in the back. Then she slid onto the front passenger seat. “What will happen to poor Monty?” she asked, gazing back at the house.
“I’ll speak to Animal Control,” he said. “Let’s wait until we know for sure what’s happened to Mrs. Fairbank. For all we know, she could be out visiting.”
Minutes later they pulled up in front of Mrs. Pemberton’s gray-shingled house. She got out and scooped the poodle from the back seat. “Do you want me to go in with you?” Sheriff Dunbar asked.
“Gracious, no. Harold would collapse if he saw a police officer at the door.” With that, she took the dog’s front paw and flipped it up and down in an approximation of a wave. “Chauncey, say bye-bye to the nice sheriff.”
Sheriff Dunbar looked away. “I’m waiting, Mrs. Pemberton.”
Five minutes later she returned, a sheet of paper in her hand. She eased herself onto the cruiser’s front seat. “Here’s Elliot Fairbank’s address and phone number,” she said, handing him the note. “But before you call, I have a request.”
“When you go back to Mrs. Fairbank’s house, make sure you dust her bedroom phone for fingerprints.”
He stared. “Why would I do that?”
“Because you won’t find any. You particularly won’t find Ms. Bixby’s prints, and yet you should. After all, she claimed she used the bedroom phone to call you. I’m willing to wager she forgot to take her gloves off after looting the jewelry box. If she called from the bedroom phone as she said she did, her prints should be on it.”
He rolled his eyes. “A lack of fingerprints isn’t enough to incriminate anyone, Mrs. Pemberton. Why don’t you leave the police work to me?”
“Oh, there’s more, Sheriff. For instance, did you notice how Ms. Bixby mentioned Loretta in the past tense? She said, ‘The old dear needed skilled nursing care,’ as if she knew Mrs. Fairbank was already dead.”
“I’m sure that’s a slip of the tongue.” He started the engine, hoping his passenger would take a hint.
She continued. “When you get back to the station, run a check on Ms. Bixby’s son, Preston Bixby. I believe he’s got quite a record.” Before he could respond, she said, “And while you’re at it, get one of your men to dig around in the gazebo, under the new mulch beds.”
“Why should I do that?”
“Loretta Fairbank was president of the garden club for years. She would never have bought artificially colored mulch—and such a ghastly shade of green.”
The sheriff sighed. “If you’re through, Mrs. Pemberton, I’ve got to file a report at the station—”
“Believe me, sheriff, I was suspicious of that woman from the beginning.”
“What woman is that?”
“Why, Ms. Bixby, of course. I was onto her the minute she claimed she was alerted by Monty’s barking in the back yard.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“It’s simple, sheriff. Monty is a Basenji. They don’t bark.”
Sharon Love Cook is a cartoonist, columnist, short story writer, and novelist. She writes the popular Granite Cove Mystery series. Granite Cove is a “sleepy fishing village” based on Gloucester, Mass., Cook's hometown. She now lives in nearby Beverly Farms with her husband and assorted cats.
The author’s latest novel is PHANTOM BABY, a “triple-A tale of adultery, addiction and abduction” published by Martin Brown Publishers.
Her short story “A Marriage Made in Heaven” was published in omdb! in October, 2011.
To read our review of LAUGH ’TIL YOU DIE, Book #3 in the Granite Cove series, please click here.
Copyright © 2017 Sharon Love Cook. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.