by Frederick Ramsay
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Margo Fairchild cheated at golf. Not during the yearly tournament at the country club where it would not go unnoticed, but other times, in her twice weekly rounds with her friends, for example. Bernice, Mavis and Grace were women she’d known since High School. If they suspected anything amiss with her score, they never said so. Margo, in turn, assumed (correctly) that they, as she, had adopted their own set of rules and scoring systems. In any event, Margo had a low handicap which, in turn, meant she would never win the club championship. It never occurred to her that if she cheated in the other direction – inflated her scores – she might, on a good day, win the Digby Country Club Cup, an honor she had coveted for years.
Her covetedness not-with-standing, cheating was Margo’s only character flaw as far as she knew and should not have had anything to do with what happened to her friends on Christmas Eve. Indeed, had she not mentioned something about it to Arnold Farnum, nothing would have. But, giddy from a half bottle of Merlot and Arnold’s undeniable charm, she had done so and the rest is, as they say, history. Well, what passes for history in that part of the country!
In passing, it is worth noting that Arnold did not celebrate Christmas. He’d declared repeatedly to any and all that he never had and never would. It wasn’t a Scrooge thing or even a Grinch thing. Arnold simply believed the holiday season was a sham, a time of medically dangerous over-eating, phony bonhomie and ridiculous spending to buy presents for people you wouldn’t otherwise give the time of day. Hypocrisy, he’d declared. The whole shebang was another example of society sinking into a morass of hypocrisy and by God he’d have none of it. To him, hypocrisy was anathema which some might say explains what happened next.
It would not be in his make-up to overlook flawed character in anyone, even someone he’d come to admire. So, after he’d recovered from his shock at hearing the bombshell Margo dropped about her irregular golf scoring, he naturally wondered what else she might be capable of. With that thought in mind, and then meditating on it at length, he had an epiphany of sorts.
Two months before Christmas, he wrote the Internal Revenue Service inquiring about rewards paid for turning in tax cheaters. He’d heard it might include a substantial percentage of the monies recovered. It seemed reasonable that the psychology involved in cheating at golf would transfer to tax returns as well – a fact he thought he’d read somewhere, perhaps in the Scientific American. He couldn’t be sure of that, however. He did mention Margo’s name in passing.
While he waited for what he hoped would be a windfall addition to his income, a sort of Christmas bonus you might say, the pilot light in his office space heater inexplicably blew out, allowing a large amount of propane to escape into the immediate environment and surrounding rooms. Now, everybody knows that bottled gas has an additive that creates an annoying odor and makes its dangerous presence in the atmosphere obvious. You may ask, then, why didn’t Arnold notice the smell? And you would be right to do so.
Unfortunately, we will never know as Arnold, only an occasional smoker chose that precise moment to light up. The subsequent explosion blew out his entire store front. Very little of Arnold could be found intact in the rubble either inside amongst the shattered furniture or with the shards of glass and brick-bats outside.
In the meantime, Margo had had some serious second thoughts about what she had let slip and tried to call Arnold at home, failing to reach him, at his office. It would be another three hours before she learned of his tragic but, for her, convenient demise.
That should have been that, but the wheels of government, while they may grind slowly, do grind inexorably. Arnold’s inquiry to the IRS, previously only one of a thousand crank letters, suddenly escalated to IMMEDIATE: ACTION REQUIRED when the news of his violent and suspicious death. How could he not have smelled the gas? Agents were sent to Digby to investigate.
IRS men drifted into town like bank robbers in a B Western. Hoping to fit in with the locals, they shed their navy blue suits, white shirts, and red ties and donned jeans, flannel shirts, and ski parkas. Then they joined the lunch crowd at the Dixie Diner.
The G-men, as they came to be called, were mostly city people and did not realize that Digby was a small, segregated town. Not segregated in the Brown vs. The Board of Education way, but in the way of small towns generally. Folks sorted themselves along social status, ethnic background, and years of tenure in Digby. The folk at the Dixie Diner “made” these four white men wearing brand new flannel shirts and identical L.L. Bean parkas the moment they walked through the door.
Harvey Nunnally retrieved visitor’s menus from under his cash register and led them to a table in the corner. Visitor’s menus had what Harvey referred to as his “city prices.” All the items listed were otherwise identical to the regular menu but, the prices were scaled upwards, some substantially. The IRS agents did not seem to notice, thus confirming their status as strangers and therefore, people not to be trusted. Nunnally stood by waiting to take their order. As luck would have it they all ordered breakfast. Had they wanted the stuffed pork chops, he would have been in trouble. The chops, in spite of four weeks of diligent refrigeration, had turned. Nunnally had spent several minutes that morning wondering if he could grind them into sausage. His cook, who ate at Denny’s down the street, rolled his eyes.
The men consumed their eggs oblivious of the attention they attracted from people around them, most particularly one man who occupied an adjacent booth. At first he seemed to ignore them but as their conversation rattled on, he snapped open his copy of the Digby Daily and made a show of being absorbed in its contents. In fact, he had his ear tuned to the talk behind him. He knew a good play when he heard it and these men were reading him the whole script. After his fourth coffee refill, he stood and signaled for his check.
“Everything okay, Mr. Fish?” Darlene asked. Darlene lived in hope that someday she and Mr. Fish might be…well, something…an item, as they say. If Fish was aware of Darlene’s fantasy, he never let on. He had no intention of either changing the relationship with the personnel of the Dixie Diner or his lifelong commitment to remain single. As for company, he maintained a perfectly satisfactory arrangement with Frannie Balkus. Frannie owned the saloon over in the next county, one that also featured pleasures of another sort upstairs for her special clientele.
“Fine, Darlene. Everything was just dandy.” He gave her a dollar tip and left the diner. He had things to do before that clot of revenue agents started moving.
Margo spent the day at the country club lunching with her friend Bernice. Margo had been Maid and then Matron of honor at all three of Bernice’s weddings and Bernice had reciprocated at Margo’s first. The second she’d skipped because the groom at that one had been Bernice’s second and she felt it might be awkward. At any rate, because of that and a lifetime of familiarity, they had a lot in common and that is why after forty years, they remained friends and confidants. Margo did not mention Arnold. Bernice had had eyes for him and Margo did not know how close he might have been to becoming Bernice’s number four before the unexplained explosion removed him from her dance card, so to speak.
When Margo returned home she found a note pinned to her door. It happened to be attached to the back screen door, still in place even though there was no need for a screen door in the middle of December. It struck her as meaningful that the note had been pinned to this door and not out front. Only people who knew her well knew she almost never used the front door. Clearly, whoever left this note knew her. She detached and unfolded the note. It read:
‘Ms. Fairchild Important I speak to you as soon as possible.’
Well at least the writer did not write ASAP. Margo disliked acronyms.
‘It is a matter of life and death.’
Oh, really! She didn’t like clichés either. What on earth could be a matter of life and death in Digby?
‘Please meet me at the State Theater, the three o’clock matinee, third row from the rear. Two in from the aisle. I will be holding a large tub of popcorn.’
Surely this must be a joke, a hoax, a flimflam, a flummery, some demented person’s idea of a prank! Tub of popcorn indeed. Besides she’d already seen the film at the State.
‘Do not ignore this request I beg you.
Urgent Elf? One of Santa’s helpers with an enlarged prostate? She folded the note and tucked it into her handbag. What she needed was a bracer and a lie down. The half tumbler of brandy had the desired effect and she slept peaceably until two forty-five when she woke with a start and an uncontrollable urge to go to the State Theater. She must have dreamt about it or some deep movement in her subconscious drove her. Why else would she be gathering her things and heading out the door?
As it turned out, the State had changed its feature and she had not seen this new one – well, actually it was a re-run of While You Were Sleeping. Buzz Klotz, the owner of the theater had to economize. Movie goers weren’t what they used to be and old films rented cheap, the older, the cheaper.
She bought a ticket and crossed the lobby. She couldn’t remember if she or Urgent Elf was to buy the popcorn. A tub of hot buttered popcorn might not sit well with the after effects of the brandy so she took a pass. Once in the gloom of the theater she took a seat away from the one she’d been instructed to occupy and waited to see who showed up. She imagined one of her friends would appear somewhere and laugh at her gullibility. The big screen flickered and came to life with the cartoon. Images of conspiratorial penguins and gullible polar bears frolicked across it. She settled back in her seat, eyes alert to any movement on the second seat in, and third row from the back.
At ten past three, a man slid into the third seat in, third row from the back. He had a tub of popcorn. Urgent Elf had arrived. Margo thought he looked vaguely familiar but in the flickering shadows, she couldn’t be sure. She stood and sidled over to the third row from the rear and sat. “You must be Urgent Elf,” she said, softly so as not to disturb the other two movie goers who shared the State Theater that Wednesday afternoon.
“Elmer Fish,” the man said. “I can help you.”
“Do I know you?”
“Maybe. I know you. You are Margo Fairchild and you live at thirteen thirteen West Evergreen Street.”
“That’s no secret. What do you mean, you can help me?”
“You spoke to Arnold Farnum earlier and revealed something to him. That has led the Internal Revenue Service to want to review your taxes.”
“I’m sorry, but none of this is making any sense. Why would the Internal Revenue Service be interested in my taxes?”
“Shhhh, shhhh!” People near them tried to shush them.
“Because Arnold wrote them suggesting that since you cheated at golf, you probably cheated on your income tax returns as well.”
“No, actually it’s a proven fact. People who cheat at golf are high risks to cheat on their taxes. I read that somewhere. The Scientific American I think.”
“Well, I don’t. My taxes are prepared for me by Graybill and Potts. That’s Judge Horace Graybill’s son, you know. Very reliable.”
“He’s a putz like his old man, but that is not your problem. Your returns are your business. I only mention them in the light of the fact that because of you, the IRS has invaded the town. Who knows where they will turn when they are finished with you. The whole town is potentially at risk here.”
“Why, because of me? I should think they are at risk because of tattle-tale Mr. Arnold Farnum and his baseless accusation. Point your finger in the right direction please.”
“Well, that is only part of the problem, see?”
“No, I don’t see. By the way, what’s you middle initial?”
“L. for Leonard. Look –”
“Elmer Leonard Fish. Now I understand.”
“You do? Good.”
“Urgent Elf. You see?” Without thinking, she helped herself to a handful of popcorn.
“Excuse me? See what? I don’t think you are grasping the concept here.”
“Sorry, I was a little confused there for a minute. You should stop signing your notes with just your initials, though.”
“And don’t leave out the periods or the comma. It’s very confusing.”
Elmer Leonard Fish stared at Margo for a moment, closed his eyes and shook his head rapidly. “Look, your friend, Arnold, turns you in to the IRS. Then he mysteriously dies.”
“Mysteriously? I thought he blew himself up in a gas leak.”
“What’s that to do with me?” Margo felt icy fingers closing around her heart. It might have been caused by what Urgent Elf was saying or it might have been the after-effects of the brandy and popcorn. She couldn’t be sure which.
“Okay, look. The speculation is, somebody clonked old Arnold on the head and then blew out the pilot light. When there was enough gas in the air, he or she set it off.”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t me. Are you suggesting it was me? It wasn’t me. I was miles away when that awful thing happened. Besides, Arnold was a friend of mine.”
“Here’s the scoop, lady, and don’t interrupt me anymore. You made two phone calls to Arnold that afternoon, one to his house and then one to his office. I checked. Mildred at the phone company is a friend of mine. A telephone receiver, if it’s one of those old models like Arnold had because he was too cheap to spring for a decent set, will create sparks – little ones to be sure – but sufficient to ignite the gas. You see where this is going?”
“No. What has his telephone to do with me being a murderess?”
“You called his home. No answer. ‘Aha,’ you say, ‘he’s in the office. Now I call there and blow him up.’ It was Brilliant.”
“You don’t think…the police don’t really…”
“Yes and no.”
“Yes and no? What’s that supposed to mean? They either do or they don’t.”
“Normally, that would be true, but you see the Internal Revenue Service slipped into town and that’s got everybody edgy.”
“Yes. Look, when the federal government comes snooping around, when they believe they have evidence for a major felony, a homicide that might have been intended to cover up the facts about a tax cheat, well, you know our police department and DA’s Office. They just assume the G-men know something they don’t and act accordingly.”
“Before? The word is that they did find Arnold’s right hand in the mess inside and it had a lit Marlboro in it.
Somehow, they figure, Arnold missed the smell.”
“He never was very good with odors. My land, the times he’d show up at a party and in need of a bath, well…”
“So, there you go. Now all we have to do is get the Feds out of town and you’re in the clear.”
“How can we do that? You said you could help.”
“If we could throw the IRS a bone or two.”
“A couple of tax cheaters.”
“Oh. I don’t think I know anyone who does that.”
“Sure you do.”
“But I don’t.” Margo felt her head spin.
“What about the article in The Scientific American?”
“You said you weren’t sure you read it there.”
“You want me to turn in my friends?” Margo tried to sound shocked.
“Friends, enemies, old boy friends, exes, I don’t care, but yeah.”
“And your intention, Elf, do you mind if I call you Elf? Your idea, I should say, is to give up some presumptive tax cheaters in order to give the IRS the bone and get them out of town?”
“I’d rather you called me Elmer.”
“Sorry, you signed your name Urgent ELF and that’s who you are. I’ll drop Urgent.”
“O…kay. Anyway, you’re right, that’s the plan. I need a couple of tax dodgers.”
“And you think I should do that for you because if I don’t, I’m facing a possible murder investigation?”
“Yep. And don’t forget the jeopardy you’ve put the rest of the town in.”
“I don’t care about the rest of the town. What have they ever done for me? However, the murder thing could be embarrassing.”
“Arnold expected a reward?”
“Yes, I believe he did.”
“Well, it seems fair. After all –”
“After all my sweet patoot. We split 60/40. Since I would provide the names, I get the sixty.”
“You’re the one in deep kaka. I get the sixty.”
“Elf, this is not negotiable, but okay, 50/50.”
“Do you have something to write on?”
“Bernice Riverton is in my golf group. I think she told me about the article you mentioned as a matter of fact. Isn’t that funny? I’d forgotten that. But, I don’t think she reads The Scientific American. It must have been Vogue. We all had a good laugh about that. Do you suppose she might be thinking about doing the same thing? Then, there is Grace Dinwiddie and Mavis Graybill. She’s married to…um…you know who, and that could lead to a mother lode of folk. But –”
“I get immunity.”
“I can arrange that. By Christmas Eve I guess some folk are going to get a little extra something in their stocking this year.”
“Ashes and switches, Elf.”
“Lumps of coal.”
“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, Elf. Now, I would like to see the end of this film. I love Julia Roberts.”
“That’s Sandra Bullock.”
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