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Authors: Ann Ripley

Summer Garden Murder (6 page)

BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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“I agree,” said Martha, trudging along while rolling two suitcases. “Why'd he move into this kind of neighborhood? Isn't there some way you could persuade him to leave? Introduce a few big city rats into his garage or something? Otherwise he'll be here forever, ruining your lives.” She flipped her long brown hair and sniffed. “That's the beauty of living in a city, Ma. People are not so close—only when it's mutually agreed that they should be.”
“Spoken like a true city lover,” said Bill, grinning at his eldest daughter. “And now, when we go inside, I guess we'll put in that mysterious call to Chicago, Martha. I can hardly wait.”
8
L
ouise was directing the girls in sorting the laundry, trying not to be too obsessive, but still worried that the casual Martha might try slipping whites in with the colored clothes. Bill was outside on the patio, his cell phone clasped to his ear, pacing back and forth. He was talking to Jim Daley.
Martha heaved a pile of sand-laden shorts and shirts into the washing machine and said, “This is today's equivalent of the suitor visiting the father in his study and asking for her hand in marriage.”
Janie gave her older sister a bland look. “Do you think Dad will say yes?”
Martha poked Janie in the ribs and then hugged her, as they both laughed. Louise smiled inwardly. This camaraderie was a good sign, she thought. The sorting done, they went to the kitchen to put away the groceries.
Martha said, “The big question is where will we get married? I have to sort out the possibilities.”
“You need a list, Martha,” said Janie, at her officious best. Louise wondered if Janie was using the task as a defense against the highly emotional announcement that her sister was to be married. “I have just the thing: a yellow pad. With a yellow pad,” she proclaimed, “I can organize your entire life.” She opened a kitchen drawer and retrieved a lined legal tablet and a pen. The two sisters settled down at the dining room table, while Louise went and lay down on the living room couch. Looking out the big living room windows, she saw that Bill had collapsed into a patio chair, one leg straddling the arm, and was laughing heartily at something Martha's intended was telling him. A minute or two later, he was through with the call and in the house. He looked at Louise and raised a finger. “That is one helluva guy. He's going to call back in a few minutes, Martha. Wants to talk to you about the wedding plans.”
“So I guess that means you gave them your approval,” said Janie, in a clipped voice. It had been a surprise to nobody that Bill Eldridge approved of Jim Daley. He'd expressed it every time he saw the young man or even heard of his latest ambitious exploit. Janie turned to Martha, impatience creeping into her voice. “Come on, Martha, that's all settled. Now we have to start planning this wedding, because it all has to happen in a big hurry, and the rest of us have things to plan, too.”
Martha gave Louise a quizzical look. Louise answered with a shrug. This wedding news wasn't going down well with Martha's younger sister.
 
 
Janie watched her sister rummage in the refrigerator for a couple of sodas. She sat at the dining room table, back straighter than usual, trying valiantly but not too successfully to convince herself to not cry. To not be ruined by Martha's news.
But it was hardly fair. Janie had a serious boyfriend two years before Martha, and now look what had happened! Why did age have to make all the difference, gaining Martha more respect with her parents, especially her father, who admired the way she took everything to heart: cities, poor people, even the refugees that she'd worked on behalf of during one summer internship abroad.
Janie shoved her long blond hair back from her face. It was as if she were just the pretty face in this family, even though she was as book-smart as Martha, maybe even smarter in math and science.
She had been going with Chris Radebaugh for three years. And though they never said it to each other, she was sure that someday they'd marry.
Why had she been born later? Why wasn't she planning her own wedding, now that Chris was halfway through college and she was about to begin?
But no, her parents would balk at that, even though Chris' mom, Nora, was totally cool and would understand. Even his dad, Ron, would accept it. It was her folks who would balk, and Grandpa and Grandma Eldridge, who were so traditional that they couldn't accept anything that was out of their limited suburban Connecticut experience.
She raised her head and stared out into the woods. What if she and Chris just kicked over the traces and ran away and got hitched? After all, they both were adults now. Then she dropped her head to hide a tear that came to her eye. No, she couldn't do that to her sister. It was Martha's moment. She'd be a good sport and help plan the wedding. Even though, knowing Martha, there wouldn't be too much fanfare to it. Maybe they would get married in Chicago's City Hall, for all she knew.
With an effort, she composed her face so that by the time Martha returned with two icy glasses of soda, she looked the picture of sisterly serenity.
 
 
Seeing the girls take charge of wedding details, Louise joined her husband in their bedroom, where she began the unpacking of the suitcases. Bill came up behind her and put his arms around her. “How do you feel about our firstborn leaving?” he said. “Come on, tell me the truth.”
She turned in his arms and gave him a long look. “Bill, the girl left in body and spirit when she went away to college.”
“You're right. With those urban internships and semesters abroad, she hasn't even come home for much more than a week or two.”
“I'm worried about how Janie is taking this.”
“I don't know, but I can guess—a little jealous and a little sad. She'd probably like to make it a double wedding.”
“Heaven forbid,” exclaimed Louise. “Janie's only seventeen—”
“Nearly eighteen,” amended Bill.
“But I think you're right. She's upset at the news.”
“Do you think this Jim Daley is going to be worthy of Martha?”
“I thought you'd already answered that question.”
Bill bowed his head until his chin touched her forehead. “Jim's different than the other young men she's dated. He acts much older than his years. I have a suspicion that he's never thought of himself as a child, but only as a man. I hope he has some fun in him. It's always good to have a sense of humor, especially in those moments when your life may be going to hell. Overall, though, I like him very much.”
Louise laid her head on Bill's chest. “So do I. And I think she's just as serious as he is. Even when she was very young, she acted like an adult who had some kind of responsibility for the world. My guess is that they'll go through life taking everything very seriously.”
“Think of them there in Chicago. They'll be immersed in politics and loving it.”
She broke away from his embrace. “You're distracting me. I'll never get these suitcases emptied. And then I'll never have time before dark to see how the back gardens have fared without us.”
“I'm sure Sam tended them just as well as you would have,” said Bill.
As she was gathering up a handful of articles meant for the bathroom, they heard the front doorbell. She set the stack down again in the suitcase.
Bill frowned. “More neighbors come over to discuss the missing Peter Hoffman?” He went down the hall to the front door as Louise trailed behind. She hoped her always polite and gregarious husband wouldn't be excessively gregarious, but would plead some excuse such as post-vacation fatigue if it was a neighbor just come to chat.
Instead of a neighbor, though, she heard the resounding voice of Detective Mike Geraghty echoing down the hall. “Bill,” said the detective, “George Morton and I came by to have a word with you and Louise.”
An unexpected thrill of fear passed through her. But why should she be afraid of the police? This must be a perfunctory visit, just so they could tell their superiors that they'd covered every single person in the cul-de-sac on the matter of Peter Hoffman's disappearance.
When she arrived at the door, however, the expression on Mike Geraghty's red, embarrassed face told her otherwise.
 
 
“Coffee?” offered Louise. Mike Geraghty was fond of her strong Chemex-brewed coffee.
“Love it,” said the big detective, nodding his white-haired head. “Best coffee in town.”
“I know you take it with cream,” she said to Mike, looking straight into his marble-like blue eyes. This was the man with whom she had worked on half a dozen crimes, sometimes with his approval, sometimes without. Thanks to her, Geraghty's reputation for solving murders was tops among Fairfax County detectives. Other officers reportedly rewarded him by calling him the “Blue-Eyed Wonder.”
George Morton was another matter. Morton, a dark-haired, good-looking man, had an athletic body that unfortunately was set on a pair of short legs. He reminded Louise faintly of a clown in a circus, and each time he re-entered her life, she had to get used to his faintly comic appearance, especially since it clashed with his hyper-serious demeanor.
Morton looked somewhere behind Louise, so that she nearly turned around to see if someone were in back of her. But it was merely the self-conscious policeman's way of avoiding eye contact. He said, “I take mine black.”
Bill seated the policemen in the living room and asked Janie and Martha in the adjacent dining room if they'd mind moving their wedding planning to Martha's bedroom. Bill, too, must have sensed the two law officers were here for more than a few casual questions.
“I suppose this is about the fact that Peter Hoffman's missing,” said Bill.
“ 'Fraid so,” said Detective Morton. “But let's wait for the coffee before we get into it.”
Minutes later, Louise joined the group with the coffee. She sat down and took a big sip of the dark liquid from her own cup, then said, “Well, do tell us what you want to know.”
Geraghty glanced quickly over at Morton. “George, please let me handle this,” he said. Morton nodded his assent. Mike Geraghty had always been the boss of this two-man team. Why was he acting as if Morton were sharing his command?
The big detective sat forward on the couch, a small pad of paper and pencil clutched in one hand. He tapped the pad against his knee with each pronouncement: “Peter Hoffman's missin', you know that. He's released from the hospital Friday, the third of August. He shows up at the Radebaughs' party on the fourth. He's seen about the neighborhood—”
Morton elaborated: “At the Sylvan Valley Swim Club tennis courts, the grocery store, a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria—”
“—right up until Sunday evening, the twelfth,” continued Geraghty. His hand was quiet on his knee. Morton had disturbed his rhythmic tapping. “Phyllis Hoffman forgives him one night, I guess, but reports him missin' Monday noon, August thirteenth. So that means he's been missin' now five days.”
Morton turned his brown-eyed stare onto Mike Geraghty. “Tell her about the tip we got today.”
Geraghty stared down at the carpeting and heaved a big sigh. He looked over at Louise and said, “We got a phone call today, about how they'd seen you diggin' in your garden last Sunday evenin', the twelfth.”
Morton waved an objecting hand. “Not evening, more like midnight.”
“Yeah,” amended Geraghty, his face flushing an even darker red, “about midnight. Of course, you were at the beach then, so somebody might have identified someone else as you, Louise.”
Bill said, “What the hell are you talking about, Louise in the garden at midnight?”
“Bill,” said Louise, putting out a restraining hand. “As a matter of fact, I was in the garden that night around midnight. I drove home to get my script. It was one of the nights you and the girls were away on the fishing trip. I wasn't digging, only checking the soil to see if Sam had watered the azalea bed.”
“The coincidence sure is significant,” said Morton.
“Coincidence?” She laughed. “You can't be implying that I did away with Peter Hoffman and buried him in my garden.” She laughed. “No, tell me you don't mean that.”
Nevertheless, the thought made her breathless, and she sat back and tried to regain her composure. Her eye caught movement, and she saw her two daughters standing in the living room doorway, listening to everything.
Bill fastened his gaze on Geraghty. “Mike, how could you think that my wife is involved in Hoffman's disappearance? After all that Louise has done for you, it's an insult.”
“That's for sure,” echoed Janie. She stood, arms akimbo, with her strong, tanned legs wide apart in a defensive stance, looking as if she were ready to throw the detectives out of the house. She caught a rebuking glance from her father and dropped her hands to her sides, but her hands were still curled in fists.
Detective Morton's voice was louder now. “Hey, let's not gang up on me, folks. All Mike and I want to do is to have the right to dig up your garden.”
“Which garden?” demanded Louise.
“Specifically, the one that lies out back a ways and a little to the west.”
“The azalea bed.”
“Yes, I guess so. Is that the one you were digging in that night?”
“I told you I wasn't digging, Detective Morton. I was feeling the ground to see if it was dry or not.”
BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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