by Margaret S. Hamilton
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
Flags started disappearing on Flag Day, June fourteenth. Mostly Stars and Stripes, with a few maple leaves to celebrate Canada Day, and a tricolored French flag, flown in anticipation of Bastille Day. On her usual early morning dog walk, a week before the Fourth of July, Lizzie Christopher saw that her Jericho, Ohio neighborhood was stripped bare, not a flag left flying.
A black Mini Cooper tailed her through the quiet streets. Lizzie ducked under the spreading limbs of a pin oak tree and fished out her phone. Pulling her three standard poodles close to her, she crept around the tree trunk and snapped a photo of the driver. She tucked the phone back in her pocket and continued her walk.
The black car nosed into the curb. A long-legged blond woman climbed out and approached her. She wore Bermuda shorts and a matching tee shirt, her face hidden behind over-sized sunglasses.
“Lizzie Christopher, I’d like a word with you.”
Lizzie yanked back her lunging poodles and tucked her sunglasses into the neck of her tee shirt.
“Have we met?” Lizzie eyed the black car, memorizing its Illinois license plate.
The woman pulled her sunglasses on top of her head. “I’m establishing an office in the local business park, and I’m looking for a first-rate cleaning service.”
“Didn’t the leasing agent give you a recommendation? I suspect many of the tenants use the same company.”
“Oh, he did. Someone told me your cleaners are the best in town, but they’ve been in trouble with the police.”
“Who told you that?”
“One of your Main Street colleagues.”
Lizzie stared at the woman, sure that she was lying. Her cleaners, the Flagg triplets, were honest and reliable. She didn’t believe that they had been investigated by the police.
What did the woman really want? Lizzie fished a business card out of her cell phone case. “Here’s my card.”
The woman ignored her outstretched hand. “Are your cleaners thieves?”
“Sorry, I don’t discuss my employees with strangers.”
Lizzie resumed her walk.
The woman followed her. “All right,” she said, handing her a business card.
Lizzie squinted and held it at arm’s length. It listed only the woman’s name—Dawn Petrovsky—and a phone number with a Chicago area code. No business affiliation. She slipped the card in her pocket.
“Tell me why the police executed a search warrant for the Flagg farm,” the woman said. “I don’t hire criminals.”
“Ask the police.” Lizzie turned around and walked toward her home. She stopped at a cross street to call Officer Bethany Schmidt, whom she had assisted on several local cases.
“A woman named Dawn Petrovsky followed me on my morning dog walk. She told me that my shop cleaners, Wendy Flagg and her brothers, were in trouble with the police. I consider that malicious gossip.”
“I know who Dawn Petrovsky is, Lizzie.” Bethany paused, then asked, “Are you and your husband having marital problems?”
“Not that I know of. Should I call him and ask? What does Dawn Petrovsky have to do with my marriage?”
“Oh, Lizzie, just yanking your chain,” Bethany said. “Dawn Petrovsky is a Chicago-based private investigator specializing in matrimonial disputes. She checked in last week, to tell us she’s working for a Chicago client on a divorce and child custody situation in Jericho.”
“That sounds bogus. Dawn told me she was setting up an office in Jericho. What’s she really doing here? Mind if I check with the leasing agent in the office complex?”
“You’re like a dog with a bone, you never let go,” Bethany said. “I’ll give the agent a call.”
Lizzie hurried home with the poodles, wondering what other surprises the day held. Jericho had settled into its summer tennis, golf, and gardening mode, the disappearance of homeowner’s flags a major topic of conversation.
Bethany Schmidt leaned against her SUV at the top of Lizzie’s driveway. “Need to talk right now, Lizzie. Got a few minutes?”
“Sure thing. Any news on the flag thefts?”
“Yes and no,” Bethany said.
They sat on the cottage porch, and Lizzie poured iced tea. “What’s up?”
Bethany pulled out her notebook. “You’re familiar with the antique flags in the town library?”
Lizzie nodded. “Wendy Flagg told me that she and her brothers had arranged to have their flags on permanent loan to the library a few years ago. I suspect the library paid to have them conserved and framed before they were displayed.”
Bethany sipped her tea. “Someone stole the antique flags last night or early this morning.”
“Turned off, with the rear door lock taped open. The thieves walked in, removed the three framed flags, and left.”
“The parking lot by the rear door is screened by tall bushes. A couple of cruisers patrol at night, but the officers are focused on the business district and the bars on the edge of town.”
“So the library’s insurance company owes the Flaggs a big payout,” Lizzie said.
“Unless they can prove that the Flaggs stole their own flags.”
“No way. They’re honest people.”
“How well do you know the Flagg family?” Bethany asked.
“I know Wendy better than her brothers. She cleans the shop twice a week, right after we close or first thing in the morning. She has a key and the alarm code. Her brothers wash the windows and shovel the sidewalk in winter.”
“Any question about their honesty?”
“None. Wendy has a huge customer waiting list. She only takes on new clients with a personal referral. She’s been with Lavender Cottage Interiors for years. We’re lucky to have her.”
“So you would rule them out as suspects,” Bethany said.
Lizzie frowned. “Dawn Petrovsky told me the police searched the Flagg farm, but didn’t offer any details.”
“I can’t comment other than to tell you that none of the Flaggs has ever been charged with a crime,” Bethany said.
“But you’ve investigated them.” Lizzie gazed at Bethany over the rim of her glass.
Bethany shifted in her chair. “If we receive a tip, we have to follow up on it, regardless of the reputation of the accused.”
“Somebody stole the flags and wants the Flagg siblings charged,” Lizzie said. She swirled the ice in her glass and pondered the situation. “I wonder what Dawn Petrovsky is doing in Jericho. It’s a stretch, but she might be connected with Chad Rivers. They’re both from Chicago. Have you heard of him?”
Bethany shook her head.
“He’s a leisure community developer I met recently. He told me he’s interested in restoring an old farmhouse in the area, but refused to give me its location. I suspect he has a bigger project in mind. I have a meeting scheduled with him this afternoon.”
Lizzie knew the townspeople were outraged to see the local farms turned into housing developments. “I haven’t heard about a new development. I scour the minutes of the zoning and architectural boards in the Jericho Journal every week, plus the list of current real estate transactions in town. That’s how we learn about potential decorating clients. New homeowners, and our real-bread-and-butter, new construction.”
Bethany stood up. “I’ve asked the Flagg family to meet me at the station. Wendy knows you’ve assisted the police in solving several cases and requested that you attend.”
“Do they need a lawyer?”
“Not at this time, but you might talk to Wendy about that option.”
Lizzie dropped by the library on her way into town. The librarian showed her large photographs of the three missing antique flags, a rare and valuable 1820 American flag with twenty stars, and two Ohio flags, one a swallow-tailed Civil War cavalry guidon, and the other a 1902 adoption of the state flag.
“So that’s why the Ohio flag has the unique burgee shape,” Lizzie said. “It’s based on the Civil War flag.”
The librarian smiled. “Because of our display, every schoolchild in Jericho knows the story of our state flag.” She showed Lizzie a framed sales receipt from 1976, when Josiah Flagg had purchased the three flags to celebrate the triplet’s Bicentennial birth on July 4, 1976.
When Lizzie pulled into the police station she found Wendy Flagg and her brothers deep in discussion with Lizzie’s attorney, Paul Battelle.
Wendy wrapped her in a hug. “Lizzie, thanks for getting us a lawyer. We’ll pay Mr. Battelle. We have to prove that we didn’t steal our flags from the library.”
Lizzie shook hands with her brothers, Randy and Bobby.
“Hey, Lizzie, we’re the red, white, and blue Flagg triplets. Get it?”
Lizzie smiled. “Of course. Sometimes Wendy refers to you as ‘Red’ or ‘Blue.’” She had never seen the triplets together. Strawberry blond hair, bright blue eyes, and freckled skin identified them as siblings.
She shook hands with Paul Battelle, who had a leather folder tucked under his arm.
“Lizzie, thanks for calling,” he said. “I did some quick research and have information to share with the Flagg family.”
Bethany ushered them into a conference room off the lobby. “Folks, nobody’s under arrest. We’re after information.” She opened her notebook.
“Randy, Wendy, and Bobby, you were at home last night, correct?” Bethany asked.
“We finished cleaning the offices and shops by nine,” Wendy said, “and headed home for a late meal and bed.”
“And none of you left before morning?”
“That’s right,” Bobby replied. “We installed the electric gate across our road last year. The security camera records all cars going in and out.”
Bethany nodded. “We checked. Two vehicles in just after nine, and out again this morning around seven.”
“Why’d you put in the gate?” Lizzie asked.
“When the nature preservation people bought the other half of the lake and installed a gate, they suggested we do the same. They’re a bird sanctuary, and want to keep visitors out at certain times of the year,” one of the brothers said. “We’re also tired of deer and duck hunters trespassing on our land.”
“And land developers,” Wendy said. “That Chad Rivers never lets up. He sent surveyors to our farm without our permission. And then the county sheriff turned up with a search warrant and drug dogs. Who reported us for growing marijuana? Maybe Chad Rivers?”
The lawyer cleared his throat. “May I offer an update on the Flagg property?”
Everyone agreed. Bethany took rapid notes.
“The Flagg farm is outside the town limits, under county jurisdiction,” Paul said. “A lawyer claiming to represent the Flagg family filed for a zoning change from farmland to residential, concurrently with applications to build thirteen single family dwellings, plus a community pool, lakefront deck and dock.”
He looked up. “The Flaggs have assured me they have no wish to develop their farmland and are, in fact, making arrangements to deed it to the same nature preservation society that owns the other side of the lake, with lifelong tenancy for the three of them.”
“We didn’t know anything about a development on our land,” Wendy said. “How can somebody decide to build on our farm without our knowledge?” Her eyes teared up.
“Wendy, we’ve got a lawyer now,” Randy said. “Mr. Battelle will figure it out.”
“Chad Rivers must be behind this,” Lizzie said. “He talked about restoring a local farmhouse, but I sensed I wasn’t getting the whole story.”
She looked at the Flaggs. “Did he approach you about selling the farm?”
“Several times,” Wendy said. “He was disappointed to learn that we own the house and land mortgage-free, and pay our taxes on time.”
She frowned. “Rivers is anxious to get his hands on our farm. The three of us talked this morning about the theft of our flags from the library. We think Rivers is trying to damage our reputation. We’re bonded and insured for our business. If we’re charged with the theft, we’ll lose our insurance coverage.”
“Interesting,” Lizzie said.
“There’s more,” Wendy said. “Before all this nonsense with the land started last year, Chad Rivers was after our antique flags. He sent us a letter telling us that the flags were his, they’d belonged to a relative before they were stolen in 1976. He claimed to have a document proving that his relative owned them.”
“How did he find out that you owned them?” Lizzie asked.
“An article in the local paper,” Wendy said. “That’s when we figured out they were valuable and loaned them to the town library.”
“What does the theft of the flags have to do with Chad Rivers trying to acquire the Flagg farm?” Bethany asked.
“We thought maybe Chad Rivers wanted the antique flags, not our land,” Wendy said. “But it turns out he wants the flags as a symbol of his proposed development of our farm. Thirteen houses for the thirteen original states.”
Lizzie turned to Paul Battelle. “Please tell me the deed to the land is still in the Flaggs’ names.”
“It is.” He handed Bethany a copy. “That was the first thing I checked.”
“I suspect Dawn Petrovsky works for Chad Rivers,” Lizzie said. “The librarian identified the photo I took of Dawn this morning. A library staff member found Dawn lurking near the library rear door yesterday, before the antique flags were stolen. They found her behavior suspicious.”
“The tall blond woman in the little black car?” Wendy asked. “She’s been snooping around town, telling my customers I’m being investigated by the police.”
“She accosted me this morning with the same story,” Lizzie said. “I told her I don’t gossip about my employees.”
“By the way, Lizzie, Dawn did rent an office on a short-term lease in the business park,” Bethany said.
“If she’s a Chicago private investigator, why does she need an office in Jericho?” Lizzie asked. She checked her watch. “I’m meeting with Chad Rivers in an hour. Bethany, would you like to look at fabrics for your kitchen today?
You could sit in the shop office with the door closed.”
“You’re inviting me to the shop? Sounds like a plan.” Bethany grinned. “I’ll lock the office door, silence my phone, and hope I don’t accidentally overhear your conversation with Mr. Rivers.”
Lizzie stood up. “Let’s get started. Flaggs, are you working today?”
“We’re several hours behind,” Wendy said. “Officer Schmidt, will you keep in touch?”
Bethany nodded and walked them out.
Lizzie thanked Paul Battelle as she left.
“Any time, Lizzie. I’ve had it with these developers walking all over our residents. My gut tells me Wendy and her brothers didn’t steal their flags.”
“I just thought of something. The Flaggs don’t clean the library, do they?” Lizzie asked.
“No, they haven’t been inside since the antique flags were displayed last year.”
“That’s a relief. No fingerprints.”
Lizzie selected several fabric books and put them in her office as Bethany Schmidt slipped in the rear shop door. Bethany clicked the office door lock as Chad Rivers entered through the front door with a portfolio, Dawn Petrovsky behind him.
“Mr. Rivers, how nice to see you. And Ms. Petrovsky, hello again.”
“I see you have a library poster of my antique flags in the window,” Rivers said. “Such a shame the Flaggs stole them from the library.”
“Perhaps,” Lizzie said.
Dawn roamed around the shop, rattling the door knob on the closed office door. “I need to get in.”
“Why?” Lizzie asked. “My office has confidential customer files, so I always keep it locked. Why do you need to search my shop?”
“We’re here to talk to Lizzie,” Rivers said. He unzipped his portfolio and propped a rendering of a residential development on the display easel. “What do you think?”
“Very nice,” she said. “Based on our last conversation, I assumed we would discuss a farmhouse renovation.”
“The Flagg farmhouse is part of my lakefront project, thirteen single family homes with entertainment space in the farmhouse.”
“And how would my shop be involved?”
“You’ve done similar projects. I want the farmhouse converted into a meeting and catering facility. We’re going for an upscale second home market.
“What’s your proposed construction schedule?”
“Our goal is to have the foundations poured and houses framed before winter. We’ll be on the market by spring, after your shop stages the finished houses.” Rivers walked over to Lizzie. “Let’s shake on it. I’ve checked you out. You’ll be an integral member of my team.”
Lizzie stepped back. “I’ve checked you out, too, Mr. Rivers. You don’t own the Flagg farm, so your plans are premature.”
“No worries, the three Flaggs will be charged burglary, felony theft, and insurance fraud. They’re going to prison.”
Bethany Schmidt opened the office door. “You’ve got that wrong. Mr. Rivers, we’re taking you and Ms. Petrovsky in for questioning while we obtain a search warrant.”
The police found the three antique flags in Dawn’s business park office, with every single flag stolen from local residents in the past two weeks. After Dawn’s fingerprints were found on the library door lock, she was charged with burglary and felony theft. Chad Rivers was charged with grand larceny and fraud, with other charges pending.
Flags returned to their owners, the entire town turned out on the Fourth to wish Randy, Wendy, and Bobby Flagg family a happy fortieth birthday. The triplets stood at the front of the gazebo on the Town Green wearing matching stars and stripes shirts, as the band played “Happy Birthday,” accompanied by fireworks.
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