by Margaret S. Hamilton
Here is another entry in our Father’s Day Mystery short story contest–while not a winner, all the stories were great so we wanted to share some of the others with you as well! Watch for more this week, and check out those already up.
Lizzie and Nick’s trio of standard poodles charged the back gate, barking and wagging their tails. Lizzie put down her pruning shears and glanced at her husband Nick. “Who’s there?” she called.
“It’s us, Mom. Open up, before the dogs tear down the fence.”
Nick tossed Lizzie his key ring. She nudged the dogs aside and unlocked the gate for Claire and Phillip, her daughter and Nick’s son. They were both high school students and day camp counselors. They wheeled their bikes inside the garden, pulled off their helmets and knelt down to cuddle the dogs.
“Why’d you lock the gate?” Claire asked, devoured by poodle kisses.
“Recent house break-ins around town,” Lizzie said, relocking it. “What have you kids been up to? There’s water and lemonade on the porch table.”
Claire wiped her face on her tee shirt. “Give us a minute and we’ll tell you.”
Lizzie and Nick, both widowed and newly married, joined the kids on the cottage front porch. Claire and Phillip slumped on the couch and kicked off their sneakers.
“The garden looks great,” Phillip said. “Are you guys sure you don’t want to be on the tour?”
“I’m close to one of my campers, Susie,” Claire said. “Her dad isn’t around, so she asked me to run in the Sports Camp Father’s Day Ten K race with her tomorrow. Phillip and I rode our bikes around the course, checking it out.”
“What do you think? Challenging or easy?” Nick asked.
“Some of both.” Claire chugged a glass of lemonade. “It’s downhill from the start until after the loop around the cemetery, then it’s a steep climb back up to the top of the College Green. Coach Jerry will have police stopping traffic for the runners when they cross Main Street.”
“The ring road around the edge of the cemetery usually isn’t open,” Phillip said. “We checked in with the caretaker before we rode our bikes on it.”
“That was thoughtful. They don’t need every jogger or dog walker in town thundering through the cemetery.” Nick said.
“There was this guy who yelled at us,” Claire said.
“Who?” Lizzie asked.
“Some angry old man who lives down a dirt road beyond the cemetery. He shook his fist at us and waved his cane. He startled me, but I wasn’t scared.”
“That’s Ed Hanson,” Nick said. “He’s lived back there forever. He’s harmless.”
“Old guy, bushy gray hair, kind of stooped?” Lizzie asked.
“I’ve seen him around town,” Lizzie said. “I wonder if anybody looks out for him.”
“You can ask Miss Betty. She knows everything about everybody in town.”
“Back to the road race,” Phillip said. “Are you guys still working?”
“I’ll be with Lizzie at the half-way point water station on the back college lane. We’ll follow the last runners back to the finish line,” Nick said. “Lizzie will have a golf cart for anyone who needs assistance.”
Claire chortled, “You get to drive a golf cart? That’s amazing. Coach Jerry won’t let any of us touch them.”
Lizzie grinned. “Yup, Coach gave me my driving lesson this morning, including a three-point turn. I have a race official’s vest and walkie-talkie, too.” She stood up and stretched. “And I’ll be photographing the runners as they run down the back lane.”
Father’s Day dawned cool, dry, and sunny, perfect road-race weather. Claire and Phillip took off on their bikes, while Lizzie and Nick walked the dogs over to the campus.
Lizzie picked up her golf cart and chugged up the back college lane. She spotted Miss Betty standing in her driveway, gripping a snow shovel and push broom. She wore her usual garden club tee shirt and cargo shorts, her white curls trapped under a sun visor. “Hey, Miss Betty, do you miss winter?”
“Do you expect snapping turtles on the back lane today?”
“One of my neighbors spotted Old Trudy yesterday. We expect her to cross the lane today and head into the green space. We removed boards from the fence so she could get through.”
“She’s a grand old girl, with a dinner plate-sized shell, harmless unless you get too close. She’ll hiss at you before she bites. She’s a common snapper; their bites aren’t as bad as the alligator snappers in the South.” Miss Betty thumped her snow shovel on the ground. “I’m looking for her now, and all my neighbors will be out during the race. We don’t need the runners interfering with her.”
“What’s the snow shovel for?”
“Just to give her a nudge in the right direction. She’s usually pretty quick, hot to lay those eggs and skedaddle back to the lake.”
Lizzie laughed. “Thanks for the heads-up.” She met Nick at the end of the lane.
“Yes, but not happy about it.”
They set up a folding table with a huge orange water container and stacks of paper cups. Lizzie propped her feet up in the golf cart and described the snapping turtle scenario.
“Should we alert Coach Jerry or change the race course?”
“Miss Betty and her neighbors have the situation well in hand. They’ll hustle Old Trudy across the lane.” Lizzie drank a cup of water. “I forgot to ask her about Ed Hanson. Remind me to do that.”
Lizzie’s walkie-talkie crackled to life. “Runners to the start line for the Ten K.” And five minutes later, “Runners take your mark,” followed by the sound of the starting pistol.
“How long until the first runners get up here?” Lizzie asked.
“Twenty-five or thirty minutes, though the pack will have thinned out by then.”
Nick and Lizzie filled cups with water, ready for the runners to grab. Miss Betty waved an all-clear signal.
“We’ll wait until the last runners have passed, right?”
“Yes, unless we’ve got a runner in distress who needs transportation to the first aid tent.”
“Hey, here come the twins with their dad. They’re keeping up with him, too.” Claire and Phillip had told Lizzie about the twelve-year-old boys, who were talented athletes. Lizzie cheered as they rounded an orange cone, and took off back down the lane.
The runners arrived in clumps, many of the dads pacing themselves to run with their kids. Lizzie was pleased that the girls were keeping up with the pack, long legs flashing beneath their running shorts, pony tails bouncing. A group of campers without dads appeared, counselors monitoring them from the rear.
Two young men circled the orange cone and started back down the lane.
“Huh, they’re too young to be parents and too old to be campers or counselors,” Lizzie said. “I wonder about those two. They’re wearing the same race tee shirts that the counselors have.”
“Sports camp graduates? Or local residents crashing the race?”
“They’re carrying something in their nylon drawstring backpacks. That’s odd. Most runners carry car keys in a pocket and that’s it. The counselors are running with cell phones and first aid kits in their packs.”
She heard police sirens in the distance. “Uh, oh, I hope all the runners made it safely across Main Street. That’s the only time they’ll be near traffic.”
“I’m sure all the runners have made the crossing. I’ll head into the green space and see what those two guys are up to.”
Coach Jerry appeared, following a group of dads and daughters walking the course, laughing and picking wild daisies. Lizzie smiled. It wasn’t always about winning. She snapped a photo of the group; the girls slowed down and posed for another one, hugging their dads. “I’ll send the photo to Coach Jerry and he’ll get it to you girls. Have a great day, all of you.”
Coach Jerry took a call on his walkie-talkie. “Lizzie, how about giving me that golf cart? We’ve got some trouble at the back of the cemetery.”
“Of course, all yours. It’s not one of our kids or dads, is it?”
Jerry’s tone was grim. “It’s Ed Hanson. He’s hurt, but somehow made his way down the dirt road to the cemetery. The counselors on trash detail at the end of the race found him.”
He jumped into the golf cart and roared down the college lane.
Lizzie heard a terrified scream from the green space. “Aaaah, it’s a huge turtle.”
She raced to the opening in the fence, waving to Miss Betty to follow her into the morass of brambles and weeds.
The two young men, one tall, one short, inched away from a large and irate snapping turtle, her sharp beak open, chunky claws pawing the ground.
“You two idiots get out of here,” Miss Betty said. “That’s Old Trudy, and she wants to lay her eggs. This is designated green space, not a cut-through for road race cheaters.”
“That’s a snapping turtle? It’s going to bite my toes off!” the tall one screamed.
“Nonsense,” Miss Betty said. “I’ll block her head with the snow shovel, and you two get back on the lane.”
“You should chop her head off with that snow shovel!” the short one yelled.
“You’ve got no respect for an animal going about her business. Now get lost,” Miss Betty said, brandishing her snow shovel.
“We’re not leaving without those backpacks,” the tall one said. Old Trudy hissed as he tried to grab the packs.
Lizzie had the Jericho police on speed dial. “Why don’t we wait right here until the police arrive? You’re trespassing in the green space, and don’t look like parents or counselors. This race is for campers and their dads.”
“Our kids didn’t want to run with us,” the tall one said.
“I don’t believe you,” Lizzie replied. “You’re not part of the camp. You can explain everything to the police.”
“We’re getting out of here,” the short one said. They started moving toward the fence. Miss Betty stood in front of the opening, armed with her snow shovel. “No, you’re not,” she said.
They glanced in the other direction. The green space was an impenetrable maze.
Lizzie heard Claire calling. “Mom, where are you? Where’s the golf cart?”
“Lots of excitement this morning,” Lizzie said, as Miss Betty stepped to one side to let her climb through the opening in the fence. “How’s the race going? Want a cup of water?” She smiled at Claire’s camper. “And this must be Susie.”
A man in a Marine Corps tee shirt and shorts stood with the girls.
“Susie’s dad turned up as a surprise. He asked to meet you,” Claire said.
“How wonderful. Are you home for good?”
He smiled. “Until next time. I’m in the Reserves, and was called up. Susie understands that when I leave, I won’t be gone forever.”
Susie tugged his hand. “Come on, Dad, we don’t want to be the last ones across the finish line.”
Lizzie hugged Claire. “You’re missing Daddy today, aren’t you?”
She shrugged. “Sure, but I’ve got good memories. Susie’s got a great dad. She’s so lucky.”
Lizzie, Nick, Claire, and Miss Betty stood guard until Jericho PD Officer Bethany Schmidt rolled up in her squad car. “What’s the problem, folks?”
“In there,” Lizzie said, pointing. “We have two ringers who don’t belong in the race. They left their backpacks under a log about the same time we heard the police sirens. And Old Trudy is busy laying her eggs so you won’t be able to retrieve their belongings for a while.”
“Got it,” Officer Schmidt said, ducking through the opening. “Okay, you two, what are you up to?”
“Nothing,” the tall one said, “Just enjoying the road race.”
“What’s with you people?” the short one asked.
Officer Schmidt said, “We’ve got an injured old man on the other side of the cemetery, telling us that two runners attacked him and stole his money and his grandfather’s pocket watch. Maybe you thought he was easy pickings on race day and that you’d blend in with the race crowd?” She pulled two sets of handcuffs off her belt. “We’re taking a ride down to the station, and you can explain everything.”
She pushed the two guys through the fence opening and herded them into the rear seat of her car. She put on her flashing lights, waved, and headed out.
“Do you think the backpacks are safe?” Lizzie asked.
“As long as Old Trudy is right there,” Miss Betty said. “I’ll keep watch. As soon as she heads back towards the lake, I’ll let the police know they can retrieve them. Then we’ll nail the fence boards back up until next year.”
Phillip joined Lizzie, Nick and Claire in the finish line area. “Coach Jerry wants to meet with all the counselors and parents involved with the race. Something about imposters?”
“We spotted two guys wearing race tee shirts who didn’t look like dads or counselors,” Nick said. “The police picked them up.”
“Coach said there were two missing tee shirts and drawstring backpacks,” Phillip said. “They must have grabbed them from the table on Friday afternoon.”
Officer Schmidt pulled up in her patrol car. “Gather round, folks. I’ve asked Miss Betty and her friends to join us.” A group of women beamed and waved from the back of the crowd.
“As most of you know, we’ve had a rash of burglaries around town during the past two weeks. We’ve asked people to be on the lookout for unfamiliar cars or vans, with no luck. Miss Betty and members of the Garden Club have been hard at work, preparing for the upcoming House and Garden Tour. They spotted two young men jogging around town. We suspect they’re our burglars, though we won’t have proof until we can obtain the bags they stashed during the race. We’ll also have Ed Hanson look at a photo lineup.” She paused. “Anybody know where they live?”
One of Miss Betty’s friends, wearing a battered straw hat, spoke up. “I do. They’re house sitting in one of the big houses in the historic district. I heard one of them is the owner’s nephew.”
Officer Schmidt said, “If Ed Hanson identifies them, they’ll be charged and released today. Be on the lookout. They may be stealing valuables and stashing them around town until they can retrieve them.”
“The Garden Club is on it,” Miss Betty said.
The next morning, Miss Betty’s crew applied the finishing touches to a large garden while Lizzie photographed it for the tour website. As Lizzie stepped into a grove of spruce trees at the rear of the garden, she heard the tinkle of breaking glass from a neighboring house. She motioned for Miss Betty and the others to join her, cautioning them to be quiet, while she called 911 and whispered her location to the police dispatcher.
The group moved through the adjacent yard and spotted an open kitchen door with a broken glass pane. Lizzie slipped into the front yard, while the others fanned out around the back and sides of the house. Lizzie stood at the base of the driveway waiting for the police. Miss Betty covered the front door, gardening shears in hand.
Lizzie heard a side door next to the garage open. She checked the street for the police, then tiptoed up the driveway and stood under a tree. The jogger robbers dashed down the driveway. Lizzie popped out and took their photo. “Gotcha!”
“Hello again, guys. Lizzie and Miss Betty caught you in the act.” Officer Schmidt and her partner handcuffed the two, and guided them into the cruiser. Her colleague took off, while she walked up to the house.
“Ladies, thanks for all your help. I’m happy to tell you that this morning we recovered Ed Hanson’s belongings from the sports bags left in the green space. Ed identified the two men as his assailants.”
The Garden Club crew returned to their tasks. “All in a day’s work, Lizzie,” Miss Betty said as she pulled out her clippers. “We’ve solved the mystery, Old Trudy is back in the lake, and now it’s time to get this garden whipped into shape.”
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