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Alex Peres Mystery 4 - Murder Came Second.docx
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Chapter 4

Cindy looked very attractive and professional in her “Boston” clothes. I noted that both Choate Ellis and Cassie gave her an appreciative once-over as we walked toward the plane. It made me feel like I was escorting a movie star. We gave each other a light, and decorous cheek-to-cheek hug, and she climbed into the cabin with a gallant assist from Cassie.

“Safe trip,” I said to no one in particular.

I watched as Cassie fired up the starboard engine and then the port and taxied to the runway’s end. The small plane hurtled back toward me along the runway and cleared the ground just as it passed in front of me. Gaining altitude, Cassie waved and began a slow turn back over the bay to aim them toward Boston’s Logan Airport.

Sighing, I walked to my car. “Fargo, why were we not born rich? Or at least rich enough to fly a plane like that all over the place?” He shrugged and sat down in the passenger’s seat, ready to leave. I think he considered airplanes strange noisy cars that were best avoided.

I decided to stop by on the way home and see what Mom was up to on this nice morning.

I found her lopping branches off an old forsythia that bloomed magnificently every spring and then grew wild every summer.

She straightened up and eyed the shrub warily. “One of these days it’s going to reach out and get me. Hello, my darlings.” She kissed me as she petted Fargo. “And how are we this morning?”

“Well, we just saw Cindy and Choate Ellis off to Boston on Cassie’s magic carpet.”

She gave me a mother’s look. “So you are on your own for a few days.”

“Yeah.” I started picking up forsythia clippings and shoving them in the plastic bag nearby. I thought about my conversation last night with Cindy. I was delighted she’d “confessed” and thought it boded well for anytime one of us had to be away in the future. I thought about my own chimera and wondered if I could muster up the courage ever to discuss it. The thought of that conversation was really beginning to bug me.

Mom stopped work, laid the clippers on the wall and then sat down beside them.

“You seem a bit quiet this morning, Alex. Everything all right?”

“Oh, absolutely, thanks. Yes, I’m fine. I was just thinking. Apparently, Cindy’s had this little bugbear that has been chasing her around. Last night she told me about it. She felt greatly relieved afterward and was glad to realize what it was. Just silliness, really, but something that got bigger and bigger in her mind. It wasn’t really a problem, you know, but I think we’ll both be easier, now it’s in the open. She had this nutty hang-up anytime either of us traveled.”

Mom patted the wall beside her, inviting me to sit down.

“And you have a little bugbear chasing you around, but you can’t talk about it?”

My mother knew her child.

“Well, yes.” I told her of my fear that I would disappear as an individual if Cindy and I lived together. In the bright morning sun, it sounded a helluva lot sillier than Cindy’s problem, which I had treated rather lightly.

Mom was silent a moment and then said, “I don’t know that I’m the right person to talk to. I know that for years I felt I had gone from being my parents’ daughter, to being my husband’s wife and then my children’s mother. My marriage was not a glowing success, as you know and frankly, I never really felt like ‘Jeanne the Person’ until after your father’s death.”

Nothing about my father had been a glowing success in my mind, either. He drank heavily but not happily. He was scathingly sarcastic. He was dissatisfied with his job as a supermarket manager, but not enough to do anything about it, and maybe he was depressed. God knows it had not been a joyous house in his lifetime.

When I was twelve and Sonny fourteen, Provincetown got the edge of a violent, fast-moving hurricane. If that was the edge, I would hate to have seen the middle. To this day I can remember the terror and helplessness I felt. Mom, Sonny and I spent the night glued to the radio, at least in some way attached to other people. Daddy Dearest spent it glued to the Scotch bottle. The next morning was drizzly and windy, but the worst, the trusty radio told us, was over.

A neighbor’s tree had been a casualty, bringing wires down with it and partially blocking our driveway. After watching the wires for some time, our cold, hungover father pronounced the wires dead and went to pull them and the limb away from the drive so he could go to work. Standing in a puddle, he lifted the branch, did a nightmarish, seemingly endless little tap dance and fell dead on the asphalt, some thirty thousand volts having gone through his body.

I looked at my mother. “Did you ever miss him?” I hadn’t.

“Oh, generically, yes. Of course I was stunned and appalled at his death. But feeling as if I had lost half myself? No. I vowed I would bring you and Sonny up to be your own personalities, and I managed to do that, although you each scared me half to death on occasion.”

She smiled and continued. “I don’t think your fear is entirely without reason. I seem to recall that one or two of your lady friends were a bit suffocating, and one so narcissistic, I was afraid she might destroy you. But, fortunately Cindy is none of the above. And you know, many people live out their lives together quite contentedly. I doubt you will ever lose yourself, Alex, but you could lose Cindy if you don’t discuss this. Maybe you need to continue living apart for a while—or forever—but you need to be doing whatever you do consciously and by design, not by default.”

I loved my mom.

Then I went to find my brother. I was worried.

I found him in his office, also worried.

“What do you think about that Withers woman?” he asked abruptly. “Is she crazy? Alcoholic? What?”

“I think she told the truth as she saw it, and originally I thought it was that she was upset, tired and drunk and just had a realistic dream she thought actually happened. Now, I’m wondering.” I told him about Hercules.

“Oh, hell. Mildred has a house out near Harmon, doesn’t she?” He got up and filled his coffee mug from the carafe behind his desk. I noticed his hand was slightly shaky. Obviously this was not his first cup. “Want some?”

“No. Yes, Mildred lives out that way. Why?”

“Earlier this morning I stopped by Aunt Mae’s to drop off some big bags of potting soil I picked up yesterday for her. I knew she was at that convention thing, but some high school girl is keeping the shop open for her, so I knew the garage would be unlocked. I saw Harmon’s truck at the cottage and walked over. He had apparently brought over some lumber and paint for some project, but when I found him, he was sitting on the deck, holding Wells in his arms and crying like a baby.”

I jumped up in alarm. “What’s wrong with Wells? Did you get her to a vet?”

Wells was Cindy’s adorable young black cat, sweet and affectionate, complete with tuxedo front and a white chin that looked like a dab of whipped cream. Cindy would be heartbroken if anything were seriously wrong with her.

Sonny held up both hands. “Nothing is wrong with Wells. I think she was just comforting Harmon for the loss of his rabbits.”

A few years back, somewhere in his wanderings, Harmon had found a pair of baby bunnies, obviously orphaned. He’d brought them home and managed to raise them into healthy pets. They were actually kitty litter trained, and lived in the house in cold weather. Now, they were outdoors in a large, grassy pen, complete with a cozy doghouse in case of rain.

“What happened to them?” I changed my mind and helped myself to coffee. This pet thing was turning into a nightmare.

“Harmon got home late last night. Something had broken into the pen, and they were gone. He looked all over—no rabbits. Poor bastard, he kept mopping his face with this grimy handkerchief and sobbing, ‘They’re all I had, all I had.’ He damn near had me sobbing with him.” He sipped his coffee.

“My God, the poor man! Sonny, what the hell is going on here? This all makes no sense. We aren’t alligator country.” I swallowed some coffee and no longer had any doubts why Sonny’s hands were shaking. A jail inmate forced to drink it would swear his civil rights had been violated . . . and win.

Sonny shrugged. “I don’t know. First the trouble was more or less downtown, now maybe it’s out near the ponds. All we need is this thing to grab a kid.”

“But no one has seen the alligator! Is he really there? Could it be a super big coon? Maybe he’s rabid or something?” I lit cigarette four, and Sonny motioned for the pack.

“That’s a great comfort. Now which do we want most, a six-foot alligator or a giant rabid coon?”

“I try. Say, Sonny, what did you think of that cardboard ‘message’ of Harmon’s, signed by ‘Al?’”

Sonny laughed. “I think some guy named Al broke up with his girlfriend and wants her to get her stuff the hell out of his apartment. What did you think?”

“I thought maybe some kid named Al was keeping a bunch of stuff for a buddy, and Al’s mother told him to clean up his room or she’d bring in a backhoe, so Al wrote a note to his pal.”

“Another good possibility. Believe me, I did not call the DEA. However, I did spend a long time on the phone just now to a fellow down at Mystic Marine Aquarium. Very helpful. He said if the gator is here, someone had to have brought him. No way could he have wandered all the way up here. Secondly, like all cold-blooded animals, the gator doesn’t need to eat a lot frequently. He can live on water birds and small animals for a long time, depending on how big he is and how good the hunting is. Thirdly, he’s probably been as scared as the rest of us, and if he finds a friendly waterhole, he’ll lie low. At least for a while. Maybe nab the occasional Canada goose or small dog or cat. But eventually . . .”

“You’ll have to tell everyone to watch their pets and children.” I stubbed out my cigarette. “Sonny, you must!”

Sonny shook his head. “Wrong. Alex, I can’t issue some frightening, horror-filled warning all over town, based on the disappearance of a couple of pets and the dream or delusion of a drunken woman who may also be emotionally disturbed. Every fool in town who owns a gun is already sitting on the front porch waiting for a gator to stroll by.” He mimed raising a rifle to his shoulder and firing.

He stood up and turned to the window. “Hercules was older than God. He probably is lying peacefully under a bush somewhere. A dog or coon got the rabbits. Period. I do not,” he continued slowly, “plan to be the person who single-handedly bankrupts Cape Cod this summer. There wouldn’t be a tourist left any closer to the Cape than Taunton. We have beefed up all our night shifts. All our squad cars are carrying thirty-thirty rifles and making extra runs by all the ponds we can see from the roads. Everyone has extra-big flashlights, and if any foot patrol person is carrying a forty-five in their holster, I’m pretending not to notice it. Everyone is looking, looking, looking. They’ll shoot if they have to. It’s all I can do, Alex. The Chief agrees.” His shoulders sagged.

I felt sorry for him. “You’re probably right,” was all I could think to say in farewell.

Reaching Nacho’s desk, I picked up Fargo’s leash to lead him away from the gourmet deli in her file cabinet. Nacho was busy on the computer, but turned her head to say, “He had three potato chips, two small pretzels and a cup of water.”

“Thanks.” I led Fargo slowly away, head, ears and tail down, a dog obviously in dire need of sustenance. “Listen, Barrymore, you had breakfast at home and a nice little snack with Nacho. Cut the starvation act.” He trudged on, an abused animal if ever I had seen one.

We made it to a park bench without my having to carry him. I sat down. He flopped. “Listen, Fargo, it’s think time. It seems to me, we’ve been hearing a bunch of sobs and moans and people saying, ‘They were all I had,’ or ‘He was everything to me.’

“Now to me, that means they needed these animals a lot, but even more, it sounds like the animals needed them to care for them. As it stands, these people are stuck with nothing that needs them. And that’s an awful feeling. Agreed?” He whuffled what might have been reluctant agreement.

“So what needs a lot of care? A baby, right?” No reply. I continued. “Now Harmon would love a puppy.” Fargo looked up and gave a half wag. Sometimes I still called him my good puppy. “But a puppy wouldn’t be right for Harmon. He needs something he can leave overnight when he goes out on one of the fishing boats or beachcombing after a storm. And Mildred is a cat person.” The word “cat” got to him. He sat up and looked around alertly, ready for play, a chase, even supervised socializing, whatever worked.

“No, Fargo, I’m thinking in terms of kittens.” He was still looking. “Let’s go. You won’t like where we’re going, but you can stay in the car.”

As we turned into the vet’s driveway, Fargo curled up in a tight ball, getting smaller and smaller as I parked. I opened my door. “I won’t be long, you stay.” He closed the one eye he had cracked open.

Entering the vet’s I saw that Victor was chatting casually with his office manager and a kennel boy. Good, I wouldn’t have to wait.

“Hey, Alex, what’s up? Where’s Fargo?”

“In the car, he’s fine.” I explained the purpose of my visit.

“You’re a good sport, Alex. That’s a great idea. Let’s see who’s got some kittens.” He walked around into the waiting room, where a large bulletin board took up most of one wall. He looked over a number of the notices pinned there, then removed one.

“Here we go, Alice Pennington. She takes very good care of her animals. She felt Melody deserved to have one litter and will have her spayed as soon as the kittens are placed. I believe Melody produced seven beauties. Let me call Alice and see who’s left.”

Four were left—three females and a male. I departed the vet’s with two of those cardboard carriers, several samples of kitten food, and two booklets on the care of kittens, with a note penned on the front: Be sure the kittens visit a veterinarian by Sept. 1, for booster shots and to arrange neutering.

Alice Pennington was glad to see me. The kittens were now almost nine weeks old and full of energy. I picked out a sweet little tiger female and the gray and white male for Harmon. I figured a gray and white male might have been too reminiscent of Hercules for Mildred. For her I chose a sweet-faced calico, thinking a gentle female might also be better than Hercules in the affection department.

Alice gave a little moue, followed by some very unappealing baby talk. “Poor little tabby-kit is going to be left all alone and by her lonesome, isn’t her? Oh-hh. Poor babykins. Poor little orphan kitty-pooh. And, you know, Alex, it’s really easier having two. They entertain each other.”

I knew I was being sweet-talked, but what the hell? I popped poor little tabby-kit into the carrier. I proffered Alice a twenty-dollar bill, which she made one weak gesture of declining, but then reached for, returning to normal-speak.

“Thanks, it’ll help with Melody’s spaying bill.”

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