by Gary Hoffman
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
“Now don’t you worry any, dearie. I’ll have you back in sprouting form in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” Bertha Vincent told the sick looking begonia sitting on a bench in front of her. She took a pinch of her super, but secretive, plant food from an old coffee can and sprinkled it around the base of the plant. She picked up her favorite watering can, still bearing the black stencil on the side, “Sparkles, The Premier Watering System, Pitts., Pa, Patent 234125,” and gave the plant a generous drink. “There now, you should start feeling better before noon.” She patted the side of the pot.
Bertha stepped from her small greenhouse, a place housing several plants being rehabbed. Everyone on Human Island knew they could take problem plants to her and, most likely, she would nurse them back to health. The chill in the morning air reminded Bertha of approaching winter as she looked out over the bay, smelled the salt air and heard the waves colliding with the rocks on the shore. She was in love with her house and its location.
The house was built on a small island in North Bay, one of the two ports gracing Human Island. It was constructed by Captain Victor Vincent, her great uncle and a ship’s captain whose fame dotted the entire coast of the New England. Bertha figured she got her botanical ability from him ? Uncle Victor brought plants back from all parts of the world. Victor House was a showcase for plants that could survive the New England climate. She pulled her sweater closer around her to keep in her body heat.
Her phone rang. Hurrying into her kitchen wasn’t necessary because by the time she got there, the answering machine picked up and recorded a message. She pressed the red button. “Bertha, this is Andrew. Is Megan over there? She went for a walk last night and hasn’t returned. Please call me. 582-4491.”
Bertha’s heart beat a little faster as she dialed the number. The line was busy. On her way out the back door, she put on a heavier coat, sock hat and woolen neck scarf. She rode her three-wheeled bicycle across the bridge connecting her island with the larger island. Once across, she fired up her 1946 Ford Coupe and started down the Beach Road towards the village of Crescent.
She thought about her first meeting with Andrew a few months back when Megan, a niece Bertha helped raise when her parents were killed, paid a surprise visit. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce Bertha to Andrew, Megan’s fiancée. There was a red flag flying around Andrew, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She was sure Will Rogers would retract his statement if he ever met Andrew. One thing that bothered her was their age difference ? Andrew was more than twice as old as Megan.
Andrew had also made a feeble attempt at identifying many of the plants around her home, but the only thing he got correct was ivy, but got the varieties wrong. Now they had returned for a visit before winter set in, but Andrew insisted they didn’t stay at her house, but rented a room At the Cross-eyed Pelican Bed and Breakfast in Crescent.
“We had just returned from a fabulous dinner at Marty’s. I sat down in that comfy chair by the fireplace and dozed off. When I awoke, this note was on the table saying she was going for a walk.” He handed the note to Bertha.
“Have you notified the police?”
“Of course. I waited until midnight thinking she may have just gotten lost or something, but when she didn’t return, I called them.”
“Have you walked anywhere around the village?”
“All over it. I was out all night. I talked with everyone I saw but no one has seen her.” He sat down and covered his eyes with his hands. “This is so unlike her.”
“Yes. Yes, it is,” Bertha said as she tapped the note on the back of her hand. “I think we should go look again. Surely someone saw her.”
There was a knock on the door. “Room service.”
Andrew opened the door. “Yes, come in. We were just leaving.” He went to the bedroom and returned wearing a dark navy pea jacket. It then occurred to Bertha he was not wearing his favorite sports coat with the leather patches on the sleeves. Apparently, Andrew saw her eyeing him quizzically and answered her question. “I came back once in the middle of the night because I was hungry. Our hosts provided us with snacks of biscuits and raspberry preserves and I managed to drop a large glob of raspberry preserves on my jacket. Well, you know that stain would be impossible to remove. I guess in my frustration with the situation and ruining my favorite coat, I removed it and flung it in the fireplace. I know it was an impetuous thing to do, but it is done now. Shall we go?”
Bertha said nothing, but headed for the door. Once outside, Andrew suggested they take his car and drive around as much of the island as was possible. “That’s a good idea,” Bertha said, “although we can probably do that in less than an hour. There aren’t many roads on Human Island.”
Andrew’s car was a new Lincoln Navigator. “Nice car,” Bertha said.
“Megan insisted we get it. I thought it was a bit much, but she can be very persuasive.” He started the car and headed north on the Beach Road. “One thing I need to tell you, Aunt Bertha, is that Megan and I were married last week. We eloped. She was going to wait until she felt the time was right to inform you, but I think you should know now.”
“Well, this is somewhat of a shock. I was hoping to attend your wedding.”
“You know Megan when she got her mind made up.”
In forty-five minutes, they were back in Crescent and had circled the entire island. They talked to anyone who would do so, but no one had seen Megan or anything that was out of the ordinary. “Let’s go to the police station,” Bertha suggested.
Dory DeCarlis was chief of police on the island. She was thirty-eight years old, never married and had the stocky body of a pulling guard on a football team. All the years Bertha had known her, Dory’s glasses never fit right. She was constantly having to push them up on her nose.
“Any news?” Bertha asked.
“Not really,” Dory said as she pushed her glasses up on her nose. “I talked with both the guys who run the ferry to the mainland and neither one of them saw her, so she didn’t get off the island that way.” She looked at Andrew. “Any reason she might have taken a private boat away from the island?”
“None that I’m aware of.”
“One of the other options and I’m afraid not a good one, is that she decided to go swimming and got out too far or caught in a rip tide. In either case, it might be days before we know anything.”
Andrew flopped in a chair, buried his face in his hands, and began making small weeping noises. Bertha patted him on the shoulder.
“Sorry I don’t have better news to report,” Dory said.
Bertha and Andrew spent the rest of the day walking around Crescent and checking the area immediately behind the village. Nothing turned up.
That evening, Bertha was returning to Victor house and running all of the day’s events through her mind. She suddenly put on the brakes and did a u-turn. At one point, Andrew had referred to Megan in the past tense. He either thought or knew she was dead.
There was a payphone two blocks down from The Cross-eyed Pelican. She rummaged through her purse to find enough coins for a call. “Andrew, this is Bertha. Dory just called me. They’ve located Megan’s body. I’m home now, but I’m going to head back into town as soon as I get a few things done.” There was silence on the other end. “You still there?”
“Yes, I’m still here. This is just so unbelievable. Thanks.” The line went dead.
Bertha returned to her car and only had to wait less than a minute. Andrew came rushing from the B and B, and started driving north through town. She followed with her headlights out. Andrew pulled into one of the island’s cemeteries, and she pulled off to the side behind a clump of scrub pines. She watched as he walked a few feet from the road with a flashlight in his hand. The light stopped for a few seconds and then returned to the car. When he was gone, he took a side road that would take him to the north Beach Road and sped right past Bertha.
After doing her own search of the cemetery, Bertha headed back to Crescent. She went to Dory’s house and woke her. “I think you need to arrest Andrew for the murder of Megan. He’s probably at my house now. I’m sure he realizes by now he’s been tricked.”
Early the next morning, Megan’s body was exhumed from under a coffin that had been buried the day before. “Why would Andrew do something like this?” Dory asked.
“Money. Megan’s parents left her very well off.”
“So what made you suspect him?” Dory asked, pushing her glasses up on her nose.
“I guess the thing that set it off was his referring to Megan in the past tense. Then there was the thing about his sport’s coat. I’d bet there wasn’t raspberry preserves on it, but blood. Then when room service came in and he went to the bedroom to get a different coat, I noticed the bed was unmade, but he said he had been out all night.”
“Good police work,” Dory said.
“Do you know what happened to poor Megan yet?”
“Doc Weatherby says she was shot. He probably took her out in the wilds so no one would hear the noise. You ever know him to have a gun?”
“Not really, but they can be obtained too easily.”
“Amen to that,” Dory said. “Anything else that made you suspect him?”
“I guess the crowning glory really occurred several months back when I first met him. Megan brought him to Victor House. He could tell ivy from an oak tree, but with all his pretense about being an educated gentleman, he didn’t know Irish Lace from Butternut when it came to varieties of ivy. No truly educated gentleman would make that simple mistake.”
“Glad I’m not passing myself off as an educated gentleman,” Dory muttered.
“Pardon?” Bertha said.
“Oh, nothing. By the way, how’s that begonia doing I brought you?”
“I haven’t really had a chance to check on it, but I’m sure it’s doing marvelously.”
“I’ll just bet it is, Bertha. I’ll just bet it is.” She pushed her glasses up on her nose.
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