Authors: Lora Roberts
MURDER CROPS UP
I was eating a Tompkins King apple and admiring my article about winter-blooming hellebores in the latest issue of
when Lois Humphries came to visit me the first time.
I didn’t realize, when I saw her make her way down the driveway to where I sat on the front porch steps, soaking up the unseasonable warmth of a sunny mid-November afternoon, that her visit would precipitate a whole load of trouble on my head. I thought the worst thing on my horizon was the absence of Paul Drake, the Palo Alto police detective who owns the house in front of mine. Lois gave his house a glance as she went past it, and I could see her mentally comparing his larger, professionally painted bungalow with my rickety cottage.
She saw me sitting on the porch and let herself in through the gate that divides my portion of the driveway from Drake’s. I shut the magazine, keeping one finger in to save my place, and set down my apple core.
“Hello, Liz. So this is where you live?”
“This is it.” I regarded her with misgiving. At the community garden where I had a plot, Lois was the person who volunteered for jobs requiring a talent for bossiness and a thick skin, since other gardeners inevitably resented being bossed. Her presence on my doorstep could only signal that she’d figured out I wasn’t doing my share, and she had a plan to fix that. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“I just hope you’ll consider it a pleasure when I tell you why I’ve come,” she said ominously, pinching her lips together at the end of the sentence, as she always did. She was a thin woman, somewhere between sixty and seventy. Her hair was thin, her lips were thin, and I suspected her mind had no extraordinary width either.
“Well, why don’t you tell me?” I stood up. “Would you like to come in?”
My dog, Barker, was eager for her to come in, judging from the whines and barks that came from inside the front door. Barker had been out with me earlier, frisking through shafts of sunlight, harrying squirrels up the redwood trees. Then, unable to resist a cat washing her nether regions on the sidewalk in front of Drake’s house, he’d jumped the fence for a closer look. I’d put him inside as punishment.
Lois looked at the door apprehensively. “No, thanks. Your dog sounds dangerous."
“Oh, he is.” I took wicked pleasure in fostering Barker’s image as a rough, tough doggie. He is big, black and white, and rambunctious, but the danger he poses to most people is the usual canine fault of injudicious sniffing.
“We can handle this out here.” Lois withdrew a clipboard from her big bag. “As you know, the work day is tomorrow.”
“I got the garden newsletter. And I saw that you’ve volunteered to organize the gardeners to do maintenance jobs.”
“That’s right. I would have called you,” Lois continued, “but your phone number isn’t listed in the community garden roster.” She held a pen, poised over her clipboard, ready to write down my number.
"I don’t have a phone."
“Don’t have a phone!” Lois found this too incredible to believe. “No one can exist without a telephone.”
“I can.” I didn’t tell her that I did have access to a phone. Drake lets me receive messages at his number, which I’ve given to all the magazine editors who might want to get in touch with me. Maybe it’s a little cumbersome, but I like it. “What did you want to tell me?”
Lois sniffed. “I just wanted to make sure you’ll be at the work day tomorrow.”
“I planned to come. Do you need volunteers so badly you go looking for them?”
“I wouldn’t have to beat the bushes if Rita would just bestir herself,” Lois retorted. “She thinks everything will go smoothly without any organization. I don’t know what the city pays her for.”
“They don’t pay her much.” I knew how much the garden coordinator made because I’d thought of applying for the job when it fell vacant shortly after I’d become a community gardener a few years ago. At that time I didn’t have a fixed residence; in fact, I lived in my VW bus. And by the time I’d become a homeowner, the job had been filled by a peppy young woman named Rita Dancey, who was pleasant and enthusiastic on the rare occasions we saw her at the garden.
“She took the job, so she should do it.” Lois drew herself up. “And instead, I have to spend my time making sure enough people come to get the work done."
“Well, I’ll be there in the morning.” The garden had provided me with a good portion of my sustenance during the years I lived in Palo Alto in my bus. I hadn’t really given back what that was worth. I didn’t go to meetings or potlucks, rarely showed up at work days. I weeded the paths around my plot and kept it neat, but I felt guilty over my lack of communal participation. Thing is, I’m just not a potluck, all-one-happy-family kind of person.
“You haven’t shown up in the past. I want to make sure that gardeners who haven’t been helping out join us to do their share.”
Lois always spoke with the firm assurance of those who know they are right, but there was an extra measure of satisfaction in her voice.
“I’ve said I’ll come.”
“I’m sure you will, Liz.” She smiled at me in triumph, as if she felt power over me. “People who don’t attend might get talked about. And if people started talking about you—well, I have it on the best authority that there’d be plenty to talk about.”
Astounded, I stared at her. For a moment she looked uneasy, then she pinned her firm smile back into place. “So be sure to get there early,” she instructed. “I have a very special job for you to do.”
She turned around and marched back up the driveway, through the gate that closed off my yard from Drake’s. Behind me, Barker escalated his whining, anxious to get his nose into the visitor’s crotch before it was too late. By the time I thought about letting him out, Lois had gotten all the way up the drive.
I sat back down, but I couldn’t recapture the simple pleasure I’d felt before Lois’s visit. If her purpose had been to make me feel paranoid, she had succeeded. Because she was right. For one reason or another, there was plenty to gossip about where I was concerned.
I carried the
into the house without glancing again at my byline. I put the apple core in the compost bucket. My kitchen, immaculately clean, with the blue glass bowl I’d found at a yard sale for a dollar catching the last amber rays of sunlight, didn’t cheer me as it usually did.
In the living room, I put the magazine into a clippings file in my desk, which occupies one corner of the small room. A couch sits at a right angle to the fireplace, with a comfy chair across from it, next to a small table stacked just then with library books.
It still gave me a thrill to look at that chair and realize that I could sit there that evening, a lamp turned on to give light to my page, and read until I was sleepy, whenever that was, and go to bed in a real bed, and get up to make breakfast in a real kitchen. I had had all these amenities for a year now, but I never took them for granted. Living in the bus had taught me a lot about simplicity, about traveling light. But I wasn’t sorry to have moved inside.
The only thing I’d been sorry about, before Lois came by, was Drake’s absence. I had taken him to the airport the day before. His father had been stricken out of the blue with aplastic anemia, and Drake was needed not just as a son, but also as a potential blood and bone marrow donor. All day, the sight of his ancient Saab parked in the space behind his house had given me a sense of dislocation—it was Friday, Drake should have been at work, but his car was home and he was in Seattle. I had had difficulty settling and had accomplished little all day, and then the mail had brought me the always-welcome experience of seeing myself in print, and for a time I’d forgotten that I wouldn’t be seeing Drake that evening.
We were good friends as well as neighbors, but our relationship had been changing in the past few months. In fact, just thinking of it as a relationship was a major step for me; my first impulse is to back away from any emotional tie or commitment. Drake was changing that—he was changing me, whether I wanted to change or not.
Now I missed him more than I wanted to. As well, I felt a certain amount of relief at the interruption of his relentless courtship. I meant to take a clear look at what was developing between us, and see if it was something I wanted.
Barker dogged my footsteps through the house until I dished up his nightly portion of Active Chow. My chow took the form of a baked potato, topped with garlic chives and parsley from the raised beds in my yard, and the added luxury of grated cheddar and plain yogurt. I brought my current book, Charlotte Brontë's
to the table with me.
For once fiction couldn’t take me away. Instead, my mind began turning over Lois’s words, wondering what lay behind them.
The whole incident had seemed unlike her. Lois was sometimes abrasive, but she didn’t usually resort to underhanded methods like blackmail to get her way. She had been told, she’d said, that there was plenty to talk about regarding me.
I didn’t think of myself as a fascinating topic of conversation—a woman in my mid-thirties, living frugally and quietly with no telephone, no TV, who kept to myself and liked it that way. However, I had more than once been involved in violent death, through no fault of my own.
It was that, I supposed, to which Lois referred. Other gardeners might not want someone around who is known to have lived in her car for a time, to have been suspected of murdering a dear old lady who was her benefactor, and then to have encountered murder again, not that long ago.
I could only hope that my tidy garden, my weed-free path, spoke up for me. I hoped that people engaged in the common task of nurturing and sustaining would have no inclination for sensational gossip.
Lois, though, was prepared to believe the worst about me, and to make everyone else at the garden do so, too, unless I did as I was told. And that was what I couldn’t figure out. If she’d denounced me at a committee meeting, got me booted out, it would be more like her steamroller approach to issues. What had made her decide to use the threat of making me notorious to twist my arm? Perhaps the same someone who’d filled her in on my sins had put her up to using them against me.
I finished my baked potato, no wiser than I’d been when I’d started eating. I cleaned up the kitchen and then was free to build a fire, using logs I’d dragged home from downed trees along San Francisquito Creek. I watched the green flames for a little while before going back to
I couldn’t concentrate on the travails of the Luddites, no matter how much I sympathized with them. I kept thinking of the garden, always before a refuge for me, a place of almost sacred importance. I didn’t know all the gardeners, just the ones whose plots ranged with mine.
Though they had their quirks, I couldn’t imagine any of them stooping to petty intimidation.
Who, among those gentle, plant-nurturing people, had it in for me? I wanted to know, and I meant to find out.
The community garden behind Palo Alto’s main library was usually a cheerful place. Spread out on a few acres near the library, the haphazard patchwork of garden plots had a rustic charm, punctuated by withered cornstalks and the purple heads of unpicked artichokes. Silvery fava beans pushed up through rich brown soil. The ancient smell of vegetative mold filled the air, effectively blocking the exhaust fumes of traffic on Embarcadero Road.
But although the garden looked mellow, the vibes were anything but. The cool air didn’t seem very fresh. People formed small clumps, talking in undertones instead of mulching their paths and fixing the fence that encircled the site.
I put down the posthole digger and pushed back my hat—a gaudy flowered straw that had been marked down at the Thrift Mart to $1.98, well within my meager budget. The bandanna I wiped my face with was also a Thrift Mart special, old and soft and comfortable from my first day of possessing it. I took off the hat and wiped my forehead, too. Despite the temperature, I was sweating.
“Hey, Liz!” Bridget Montrose waved at me and charged in my direction, her youngest child tucked under her arm for quick movement. Moira didn’t particularly like that. She wanted to be down, exploring on her sturdy toddler legs. “I hoped I’d see you here.”
I put my hat back on and smiled at Bridget, who radiated normality in the thick atmosphere. “Hey, Biddy. I went by your house on my way here, but no one was home. I was going to offer you a ride over.”
Bridget grinned. She had dressed for the work day in old sweatpants that made no secret of her ample hips, and an Addison Elementary School sweatshirt so covered with paint stains that its original blue was visible only in stripes. Moira was far more chic in cute kiddie overalls—much cuter than the adult version I wore—and a ruffled T-shirt. The only girl in a family of rambunctious boys, Moira got ruffles from every direction.
“Corky had a soccer game at eight this morning. After that, I went by your house.” She blushed a little. “I peeked in your garage window and saw your gardening tools were gone, so I guessed you’d come here. That’s when I remembered about the work day.” Bridget glanced around and lowered her voice. “I’m just putting in an appearance. Sam’s at a karate tournament, and there’s also a work day at Mick’s preschool. Emery is tearing out his hair trying to figure out how to do it all. I’ve got to get back to help him out.”