MURDER ON SUSSEX


By Anne Skalitza


"Get in the car now, damn it! You're going to be late!"

The harsh voice, besides dropping a few F-bombs, quieted the incessant robins that morning, and made the residents on the Sussex Avenue cul-de-sac sidle up to their open windows. Word had it that the man yelling was the deacon, a man of dubious religious affiliation and the father of a teenage boy, Jake. Poor kid, the group of fine, upstanding citizens thought, shaking their heads. That family bought the house only a few months ago, and now the deacon seemed like he was hitting the end of his rope. Well, teenagers were a trying lot, they reassured themselves. But what came next sent the People On Sussex (as they agreeably referred to themselves) into a tizzy.

"I want Mom!"

"Damn it! She's gone and there's no way she can help you. I'm in charge now."

"Yeah, and it's all your fault!"

A car door slammed. A scream from the teenager. "It's broken! My finger, it's broken!"

Those who lived nearby and could see past the leafy trees and abundant shrubs, observed the father shoving his son into the car and zoom off.

Slowly the People On Sussex edged out of their houses, several on the pretense of walking their pets, and an ever-expanding group gathered in the sole empty lot on the street. They stood hunched over, lest anyone passing by on the main thoroughfare see their faces.

"Did you hear that? That poor, poor child!"

"Poor child, my foot. I'll bet you dollars to donuts that Jake's one of those ruffians, toilet papering our trees at Halloween."

"And it's that expensive, quilted kind, too."

"Well, a deacon shouldn't be using such language. What is this world coming to?"

"What's her name. You know, the wife. Berrie? Terrie? She sure has her hands full. Or did, it seems."

"Wonder where she is?"

"Well, did you hear what that boy said? 'It's all your fault.' What could that mean?"

"Come to think of it, I haven't seen Terrie come or go in the last few days."

"I saw the deacon at the recycling center. Had liquor bottles he threw into the bin. Made such a racket! And it wasn't red wine, either. You know, that sacrificial drink."

"Sacramental. He must be an alcoholic."

"That would explain him stumbling around outside the other day. And would you believe he had a shovel in his hand? I'll bet two-to-one he's on drugs, too. That happens a lot, you know. Religious or not."

"A shovel? Drugs and drinking? And she's gone? I'll bet he went and did her in."

This comment was met with a collective gasp and a few women pressed their hands to their heaving bosoms.

"Someone should call the police."

Cassandra Winters' voice rose above the others. "No, not yet."

All talk stopped and the group stared at the tall, lanky woman. She was known among them as that single person who probably had an IQ in the brilliant range, the way she always had her nose in a book and her hair resembling Einstein's. Some said she was a retired librarian, but a few insisted she was once a clown in a traveling circus. Wasn't she the one who wore that clown costume at Halloween, scaring the kids away from her doorstep? Right now, though, the Matter At Hand was of utmost importance, so they listened to what she had to say.

"I'll go over there and see what's going on."

The People On Sussex all nodded in agreement, glad to let someone else do the dirty work and wasn't that nice of her to offer, even if she did look a bit batty.

Cassandra slipped away, her thin form maneuvering through the thick growth of evergreens that lined the Katsberg's property. She stood among the branches and waited, plucking pine needles from her shirt and graying hair. Her heart beat fast in excitement, the most excitement she had in a long time, if ever. Oh, there had been that young man on a mini-bike who decided their cul-de-sac was great fun to roar around in. No one took action but she. Cassandra planted herself in the street, daring him to run her over. He raced around her several times, got bored, and left for good. With pride she had waved to her neighbors who huddled in the empty lot as she went back inside her house, peace once again restored to their street. But no one thanked her that day; they had just stood there with their eyes wide.

Twenty minutes later, the silent watchful group heard the rumbling of the Katsberg's only vehicle, a white mini-van, before they saw it screeching back around the corner from Main Street. A few of the more timid ones backed away from the others and hightailed it to the safety of their triple-locked doors and double-paned windows.

The deacon pulled into his driveway and climbed out of his car. Cassandra launched herself out of the bushes and fell into his path. The saintly man spewed a string of expletives.

Straightening up, she brushed part of an old bird's nest from her sleeve and said, "You curse better than me and you're a holy person."

The deacon's icy blue eyes flashed. "Holy person? Where'd you get that from?"

"You're a deacon, so –"

"My first name is Deacon."

Cassandra blanched at her mistake, thinking how a good detective would know that.

"Cassi, right?

"Cassandra."

"So why were you hiding in my shrubs?"

"I wasn't hiding. I was merely coming through them. I heard screaming and crying this morning and thought you could use some help."

Deacon crossed his arms and leaned against the van. "Jake's a teenager. He wouldn't listen. I got angry. So what? He banged his finger against the door. The nurse at school took care of it." He cocked his head to the side, frowning. "Why would you think I needed help?"

Cassandra decided she needed some back-up on this. "Well, we thought you needed help," she said, waving her long arm toward the empty lot. "It bothered us."

Deacon strained his neck to see around the shrubbery and saw the group of People On Sussex huddled together. "What the –"

Cassandra tapped him on the shoulder. "Where's Terrie?"

"Excuse me?"

"Your wife. We haven't seen her around lately. And she's the one who usually drives Jake to school. And we heard your son shout that it's all your fault that she's gone."

Deacon ran his hand through his mussed-up brown hair and shook his head. "Everything's fine! Terrie's away."

"Where?"

"Damn it! If you need to know, she's at her sister's. Now get off my property or I'll call the police."

Cassandra held up her hands. "We just wanted to know, that's all."

"And you'd all find out that she's away." He shook his head vehemently, waved her off, and stomped into his house, shutting the door so hard the ground under the People On Sussex shook.

Cassandra held her head high as she walked back to the group. "Deacon says his wife is away at her sister's."

A slightly built man with a bald head and a salt-and-pepper goatee prodded her arm with a dirty finger. Cassandra flinched. Barry Vanderstein was the resident junk miser whose collection of rusted-out machines filled his yard. It was rumored among the People On Sussex that he had been a self-made millionaire who lost everything in 2008 and ended up moving into the rundown Delmonte house. His neighbors tolerated him since he did odd jobs for them at cut-rate prices.

"You go ring his doorbell," Barry said to Cassandra. "Bring him one of your peach pies, you know, the one we always smell this time of year but you don't give us any." He paused, eyeballing her accusingly. Cassandra's heart beat a bit faster. She was supposed to offer pies to the neighborhood? Why didn't she know that? Why was she born without the manual to life? Next time, she'd make sure she hand-delivered a slice to each person.

Barry cleared his throat. "Anyway, tell him you're putting the pie on the windowsill in his kitchen, for when his wife gets back. Then you can take a look-see."

Cassandra agreed since she loved a good mystery. "I have one in the freezer. I'll warm it up and bring it over there now."

The group nodded like a bunch of bobble-head dolls and Cassandra rushed off to do her duty in the name of all that was good and right. This would definitely help elevate her status on the street. While she waited for the pie to defrost in the oven, she peeked out her window and she noticed the People On Sussex clustered even closer together, their heads bent forward, talking, and occasionally looking toward her house. She sighed, thinking how she thought she'd make friends by moving to a small neighborhood. Well, at least now her sleuthing skills from reading mysteries reared its head and she was going to do something about it. Maybe, just maybe, the People On Sussex would warm up to her.

Within twenty minutes, she marched back past the still-gathered group and rapped hard on the Katsberg's side door, which she calculated led directly into the kitchen, or at least near it. As soon as the door opened, she dashed inside, not giving Deacon the chance to shove her back out.

"Pie for you and Jake while Terrie's away."

"So, you believe me now?"

Cassandra distractedly said, "Oh yes," while her eyes took in an immaculate kitchen that smelled of bleach, her eyes watering. If that wasn't damning evidence, Cassandra didn't know what was. Did he clean up after whatever he did to his wife? Did he force that poor child to clean up too? Cassandra prided herself in her keen sense of detail. It helped her solve many an Agatha Christie before the end of the story.

She brushed past Deacon and placed the pie on the counter. But there was the matter of burden of proof, and from what she saw, it was just a modern kitchen that gleamed. No pills in sight, no bloody knives stuck in a butcher block or on a magnetic strip. Just a coffee machine and a microwave and a four-slot toaster on the counter. Not even stains in the porcelain sink.

"Oh damn," she said. "I have a hurry call."

"A what?"

Cassandra did a slight jig. "I need to use your bathroom."

Audibly sighing, Deacon led her out of the kitchen to the family room. Cassandra's eyes took in everything. Here, too, everything sparkled. The nap on the ugly dung-colored rug stood at attention, recently vacuumed. A quick peek out the back sliding glass door showed a large deep hole in the middle of an overgrown yard. Her hand rested on her cell phone in her jeans pocket, ready to pull it out to take a photo, pretending to answer a text message.

Deacon cleared his throat. "The bathroom," he said, waving his hand toward it.

Cassandra inwardly sighed and went in to the small room, shutting the door. Carefully she opened the medicine cabinet. Toothbrushes and soaps and disposable razors, all in its packaging. She looked under the sink. Cleansers and towels and more bars of cheap soap, the kind that irritated her skin. Nothing in there worth reporting back to the People On Sussex. She flushed the toilet and ran the water. As she opened the door, she found herself face-to-face with Deacon. He peered around her into the bathroom at the still neatly hung and perfectly dry towel on the rack. With a sinking feeling, she realized her mistake. She should have used the towel.

"Thank you," she said, brushing past him. "Hurry calls are the worst! Such timing."

Deacon didn't answer but followed her to the side door. When she got outside, the door shut abruptly behind her and she heard the click of the lock. His voice, though, came through loud and clear. "Bitch. She'll get hers one of these days."

Out of breath, Cassandra reached the small gathering, and held onto the nearest pin oak, her hands shaking and her legs like rubber.  "He knows I was snooping. I heard him say, 'she'll get hers one of these days.'"

Kate Helmsworth, a short pudgy woman with close-set eyes who walked her cat, Mittens, in a stroller, snapped, "So what. Did you see anything?"

"It was too neat and clean and smelled of bleach. No one is that tidy. Anyone know if he has a cleaning service?"

Steve Goldin, a grey haired man clutching a metal walker, adjusted his dentures. "Nope. And I live next door. All I ever see is them coming and going. Only a few of that kid's friends but that's it. Bet they're in the witness protection program." A few nodded in assent to this. After all, this gentleman should know what he was talking about. Wasn't it said that he had been a private investigator for an insurance company? Or was he the one who had been a clown?

Cassandra ignored his pronouncement, considering him delusional ever since he told her she looked cute. "One thing that's interesting," she said. "I did see a big hole in the backyard. I was going to take a picture with my phone but he was breathing down my back."

Kate Helmsworth frowned at this, her eyes studying the tip of her pug nose. "What'd he want to do that for? He has so many trees and bushes already. Looks like a damn jungle."

Cassandra shook her head. "I doubt it was for a tree. It was rectangular."

"There you have it. For a body," a young woman said, adjusting the baby she held on her hip. A collective gasp rose from the group. They knew her as that wife of the good-for-nothing husband. She was probably planning on offing him and knew all about that stuff.

Cassandra looked back over her shoulder. Maybe the tall junipers blocked his view of them. Unless he was up on the second floor.... Wasn't there a shadow that moved in the window? A shiver ran through her, pumping her adrenaline. "I've got to think about this but he's probably watching. I'm going to walk over to Dave's Garage, see if my car's ready. You might as well all go home," she said, waving them off. Like a flock of geese, the group dispersed in all directions. Now that a murderer was surely after Cassandra, none of them wanted to be involved anymore. It was time to get back to walking their pets and talking to their plants.

Cassandra decided to make her way across the empty lot to the street behind it, rather than passing the Katsberg house to Main Street. From there it was only a short distance to the car repair place.

Dave himself came out, shaking his head, a dirty rag in his hand. "Not ready yet. Sorry 'bout that. I got backed up. Come back later today."

Cassandra sighed, hating to be without her car in case of emergencies, which in her life, there weren't any, but you never knew. "It's okay," she answered. "I have things to do at home anyway." She retraced her steps and let herself into her cottage through the back door. Before she headed up to the loft where her office was, she poured herself a mug of strong coffee. No cream, no sugar. She decided she'd do some online investigating about the Katsbergs. Deacon seemed crazy and who was to say he couldn't be a murderer? Maybe he had a rap sheet. And now he could be after her. She shuddered but told herself that this was a bit of excitement, just like in one of the earlier M.C. Beaton novels where the middle-aged Agatha Raisin unwittingly solved mysteries and she wasn't even a detective.

With her steaming mug in hand, Cassandra made her way up the narrow stairway to the tiny room. She settled into the ergonomically correct office chair and powered on her computer, just as she heard the sound of the front door opening and closing. Her feet held the chair still so it wouldn't make noise with the wheels. Footsteps came closer to the stairs. Hadn't she locked the doors? She knew she did; she was careful that way. How would Deacon even know she was home? Her car wasn't in the driveway and he couldn't have seen her enter her backdoor. Bet he knew how to pick a lock and thought he'd lie in wait for her to get back. Anger overcame fear and welled up inside of her.

Cassandra slipped off her loafers and slowly got up so the chair wouldn't move. Several planks of polished mahogany were stacked against the wall, waiting to be hung for shelving. She grasped hold of one of the planks and made her way to the top of the stairs. The staircase curved, so Deacon wouldn't be able to see her. She held the plank high over her head and as soon as he rounded the corner, she brought it down hard. Too late did she realize who it was.

"Oh dear God," she breathed, as the handyman, Barry, tumbled down the oak steps. Clutched in his hand was the spare house key she had given him, so he could hang the shelves. She hurried down the stairs, grabbed the key out of his still hand, and pocketed it. Within five minutes of calling the police, two officers stood in her living room while the first aid personnel examined Barry. After what seemed like an eternity, they shook their heads. The People On Sussex gathered on her front lawn, craning their necks to see the commotion through the open door. Kate stood on a tree stump, craning her short neck, and reported to the crowd a blow-by-blow description of what was taking place inside.

"I must have left that door unlocked," Cassandra said to the police, her arms hugging her chest. "He just let himself in." She shook her head. "I thought it was Deacon Katsberg."

One of the officers asked, "Why would you think that?"

Throwing her hands up she blurted out, "His wife is missing! And look in his backyard. There's a big hole!" She pleadingly looked over at the People On Sussex and said, "I told you all what I heard him say about me, right? He called me a bitch and said 'She'll get hers.'"

This time, though, no one nodded in agreement. In fact, they collectively pulled back. Kate jumped down from her perch on the tree stump and scurried away. Cassandra wasn't one to cry, but she found her eyes welling with tears. She swiped at them with the back of her hand and firmly told herself that her neighbors weren't worth it.

A voice, deep and booming, called out, "Excuse me?" It was the same one that spewed expletives that morning at Jake and then Cassandra. Deacon made his way easily through the retreating crowd and stood on her tiny porch, his hands in his pockets, his blue eyes sparkling. He took in the scene before him, then smirked at the nosey woman he swore would get hers one day. "That hole you're referring to is for our dog, Aggie. She was sixteen years old and piddling all over the house. Vomiting too. She died in her sleep. Jake is naturally upset. He blames me for not taking her to the vet soon enough."

Cassandra sputtered. "What about Terrie? Where's she?"

"I told you. She's visiting her sister." Deacon took out his cell and punched in numbers, then held it out for her to listen. The computer recording stated the date and time, and then Terrie's voice came on, saying that she missed them and would be home soon. Cassandra's normally ruddy complexion became a white sheet and her legs gave out. Deacon watched her slide down to the floor, her mouth moving wordlessly, her eyes wide and staring. He turned on his heel and stalked off.

An hour later, as the afternoon shift of the hospital came on duty, Deacon Katsberg sat next to his wife's bed in the intensive care unit, the respirator making its steady shushing noise as it helped Terrie breathe. He counted five lines running from various parts of her supine body, her eyes closed, and according to the doctors, most probably by tonight it would be forever. His mind drifted back to two days ago, when he had replaced her heart meds with similar-looking aspirin. As soon as he saw her lips and fingernails turn blue, he drove her to the emergency room, taking a circuitous route. When he finally brought her into the hospital, he claimed they had been out driving and were nearby when she had an attack. And when the blood tests results came back a half-hour later, he told the doctors that he had no inkling she hadn't been taking the right meds.

Tapping his fingers on the bed rail, he thought of how that insurance policy he took out on her, was several years ago. Who was to know she'd develop heart problems right after that? Luck of the draw. His dear wife, Terrie, was such a noble person, he'd say after she died. She didn't want anyone to be bothered by her illness, especially their sweet son, Jake. He'd tell them that she made him swear not to tell anyone. And he'd repeat the story he had formulated: That the recording of her voice was from a year ago, recently rerecorded from the landline, the way she advised him to do if her health ever turned for the worse. This way the date and time stamp were recent. Deacon reached for Terrie's hand, noting that the camera monitored everything for the staff to see, and lovingly caressed it.

As he got up to use the bathroom, two officers strode into the room and read him his rights. While he was being handcuffed, he spat out, "Attempted murder of my wife?"

Behind the officers, a woman with a name tag he couldn't read, came in with her arm around Jake's shaking shoulders. "I'm a social worker with the state," she said, glaring at Deacon. "Your son broke down at school after you left and told the nurse that he saw you toss his mother's heart pills the other day and replace them. When he looked in the garbage, he found this." She held up an empty aspirin bottle. "He was afraid to say anything. We called his aunt's house and your wife wasn't there. So we called around and found she was admitted here."            

Jake's face was swollen from crying and his index finger sported a splint. He lunged toward his father but a police officer held him back. The boy screamed, "You did this too! You killed Aggie and now mom! It's all your fault!" He wrenched free and sunk into the chair next to his mother's bed, his head down, sobbing.

The next day, the People On Sussex, minus Barry (whom they missed, since now they had no one to do their repairs. Yet they already planned a clean-up committee for his junk-filled yard), and minus Cassandra (who was being evaluated in the psychiatric hospital and finally making friends. In fact, there was an Ivy League-educated woman who introduced her to the other patients, even her imaginary boyfriend). Steve Goldin, the man with the walker and loose dentures speculated that Cassandra had the hots for that Deacon Katsberg. After all, she was the one who nice-as-you-please walked over to his house that day, and knew exactly where his kitchen was. The young mother with the good-for-nothing husband agreed Deacon must have spurned Cassandra's advances and made her angry enough to want to kill him. Another neighbor wondered where poor Jake would eventually end up after foster care. Probably in jail, Kate Helmsworth said, seeing that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Then she bent over the stroller she was pushing and petted her cat. One thing the People On Sussex agreed on: All they were trying to do yesterday was mind their own business, there on the once again quiet cul-de-sac, Sussex Avenue.



Anne Skalitza is a freelance writer with many short stories and essays published in magazines, anthologies, and online. Ms. Skalitza's short story "Centerfolds on Fire" was published on omdb! in July, 2014 and "Marble House" was published on omdb! in August, 2011. 

For more about Anne and her take on life, visit www.anneskal.wordpress.com

Copyright 2015 Anne Skalitza. 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!

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