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Dust to Dust: Mystery Short Story

IN THE September 11 ISSUE

FROM THE 2021 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by V.S. Kemanis

This story has never before been published.

Boots firmly planted, Lucy Pitts gazes east from the summit and declares to the newly risen sun, “There is no better place than this.” Below the hilltop of dry grass, her two-point-five acres abound with California natives: manzanita, thimbleberry, madrone, bay laurel, and live oak. Rooted like another wild native, the century-old redwood structure unashamedly shows off its mossy shingled roof.

West of the house, oaks partially obscure Lucy’s view of the chicken coops and organic garden. “The Stretch,” as she calls the leveled area, is about half the size of a soccer field cut lengthwise, buttressed by a retaining wall. Now, starting her second summer at Three Bounty Lane, the garden is thriving, richer for her infusions of organic waste and mulch. Furthest west, around the curve of the hill, a trio of non-native eucalyptus trees borders the top of the driveway. Despite her naturalist leanings, Lucy resists the movement to clear cut these “invasives.” They’ve been here forever, and their aroma is divine.

“Thank you, Daddy. Thank you, Mamma,” she whispers to the heavens. “Thanks also to Grandpa, maybe.” She met her Texas grandparents only once, when she was four. A few vivid images remain. An interminable car trip from cool, foggy Berkeley into endless heat and emptiness. Along the way, curious strangers stared, their eyes ablaze with hostility. Grandpa’s eyes, the same, Grandma’s a bit softer. Lucy clinging to Mamma, confused and scared. Daddy, on the car trip home: “We can’t live anywhere but Berkeley.”

Ten years ago, they were astonished to learn, against all expectations, that Grandpa forgot to disinherit Daddy. Long after Grandma died, the Texas oilman lingered to the age of 99, leaving astronomical worldly wealth to his only living son. Retired and leading a quiet life, Daddy and Mamma, then 76 and 81, respectively, weren’t inclined to change their lifestyle or manage all that money. Mamma died a year later, and Daddy stayed on in their little stucco house in the Berkeley flats, growing despondent and frail. His health paid the price of hard living in the hippie years, the activism, the dabbling in drugs, the packs of Kools when smoking was cool. Lucy changed her life to care for him, giving up her career as a high school biology teacher. Meanwhile, they entrusted the family wealth to a financial manager.

When Daddy passed, Lucy knew how to spend her inheritance: Charities. Children, Animals, the Environment—and plenty left over to indulge her passion for growing things. The Berkeley damp and fog stunted her garden in Daddy’s backyard. Sunlight was needed. She moved here, to the other side of the Berkeley hills where the fog doesn’t roll over from the Bay.

“Are you crazy?” Lucy’s cousin, Jerome, wasn’t impressed when he first visited, the week after she moved in. “At your age, you want to live on this hill?”

“For gosh sakes! I’m a healthy 52, not 92!”

Jerome was still out of breath from hiking up the twisting pathway through the oaks. He’d parked his car in the notch next to the mailbox, not daring to drive up the precipitous, narrow driveway. Lucy had warned him. One false move and the car would go over the cliff. The single narrow space at the top is taken by her own car, a petite, preowned Toyota Tacoma pickup. It’s still a trek to the house, west end to east, but it’s level through The Stretch.

“You’re strong,” Jerome agreed. “But, I’m wondering,” he glanced around, “what’s the attraction in all…this?” They’d just entered the kitchen through the “backdoor.” Lucy usually left it open with the rusty screen door in place to keep out bugs. The odd layout placed the kitchen closest to the top of the footpath and the real front door on the far side of the house. Jerome’s roaming eye dropped to the cracked and chipped linoleum squares, which may have been a do-it-yourself home improvement, circa 1980. “I think you can afford something in better condition.”

This is what two million will get you nowadays, she could have said, or about five thousand in 1920. The acreage is the attraction. Any other buyer would raze the structure and build anew. Three Bounty Lane was originally a summer cabin for wealthy San Franciscans in the Roaring Twenties, not meant for year-round living. Rays of sunshine slice the interstices in the exterior, and the house can get mighty chilly in the winter. But the large hearth in the living room keeps Lucy cozy enough. She doesn’t want to change a thing. Charm and challenge.fireplace

Despite her cousin’s skepticism, he thoughtfully refrained from taunting, “I told you so,” during their recent phone call. “It’s not so bad,” she reassured him—and herself. So far, she’s been spared most of California’s Triple Threat: earthquakes, fires, and mudslides. But a rare heavy rain in late spring caused a tiny mudslide from the slope near the top of the driveway. She shoveled the mud herself.

“You think we need a retaining wall for that slope?” she asks her Golden Retriever. Tilting her head down, she meets Golden Lady’s warm brown eyes. “‘No,’ you say? This place only needs our love.” An appropriate thought for Loving Day.

She gazes out to the horizon another minute and says, “C’mon, Lady. Time to get back.” They’ve honored this occasion with a brisk walk to the summit, to commune with her parents’ spirits in the glory of the rising sun. June 12 is a special day to pause, remember, and send a prayer of change to those who still can’t see beyond the surface. Lucy’s parents, besides the immediate superficial contrasts, defied every societal expectation. Mamma was five years older than Daddy, four inches taller, and had a Ph.D. to his B.A.sunrise

Lucy is nearly six feet tall, like Mamma. Sturdy, long legs take her swiftly down the hill, Lady heeling gayly. The day promises to be beautiful and temperate, perfect for her morning workshop. Three ladies are coming today, Delia, Lois, and Carmen. A few men have taken her organic gardening classes, but most are women with school age children. Carmen defines her own category: single, a public servant who works graveyard shifts. Lucy’s morning classes are an after-work activity before her bedtime.

Near the front door, Lucy stops at the large patch of native lupines, wild rose, and monkey flower. “They’ve spread so nicely.” She stoops to pick a few, but Lady is impatient, whimpering plaintively. “I know! Breakfast time. I bet Dylan and Dusty are waiting.”

In the kitchen, the Siamese-mix sisters each take a leg, rubbing and meowing in anticipation. Lucy puts three bowls down and delights in their pleasure, heads bobbing, jaws working. She turns to the window ledge, pours a cup of sun tea from the glass jar, and toasts a piece of wheatberry bread, adding butter and homemade elderberry jam. This recipe is the best, perfect for her jam-making workshop in the fall.

#

Carmen lingers after the others have gone. They stand on the garden path between the nascent red leaf lettuce bed and the fenced chickens. A sudden squawk erupts from a smattering of gentle clucks, spurring them toward the house, away from the unpleasant odor of the coops.

“I wanted to ask you something, Lucy.” They stop in the edge of sunshine before entering the shade of trees. A hot gleam glances off the crown of Carmen’s head, her thick black hair slicked into a ponytail. Lucy tips her head down to find her eyes, but Carmen is distracted, unbuttoning the left breast pocket of her plaid shirt. She pulls out a small plastic sandwich bag. “Do you know this species of plant?”

Lucy holds the bag by its closure and examines the contents. “A hillside gooseberry. Ribes californicum.”
“It’s very pretty, but so many spines! On the branches and berries.”

Lucy hands it back. “Scary looking berries, aren’t they? They’re edible, but I would leave them for the hummingbirds. Other varieties of gooseberry make wonderful jams.”

They walk under the oaks, and near the kitchen door; Lucy asks, “Would you like to come in for tea?”

“That…would be nice.” Carmen hesitates. “But I have errands to run.” She places a hand on Lucy’s bare upper arm and says, “Thank you.” Turning away, she flies down the footpath, ponytail bobbing.

Touching the imprint of Carmen’s hand, Lucy watches the zigzagging figure as she darts through the trees, gaining distance, becoming ever more elusive.

#

Twenty minutes later, preparing lunch at the kitchen counter, Lucy falls into a daydream, seeing the women’s faces, Carmen’s foremost, hearing the echo of their chatter. She pivots to the fridge, and “Oh!” Her hand flies to her throat. A man is on the other side of the screen door, looking in.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“You startled me! I didn’t hear you come up.” Belatedly, Golden Lady trots into the kitchen, ears pricked. Lucy strokes the dog’s head down to the collar and grabs it, a gesture of reassurance and restraint.

“Very sorry, Ms. Pitts. I should have called, but I didn’t have your number.” His voice is stilted, almost robotic.

He knows my name. But of course, it’s on the mailbox. “How may I help you?” His face is pixelated by the tiny squares of the screen.

“Maybe you don’t remember me? Clay Mortenson.”

She takes a moment. “Yes! Mr. Mortenson.” Still, she can’t picture him in that conference room, almost two years ago. Maybe if she opens the door…

Now inside, he offers a thin-lipped smile, more of a grimace, an application of nervous pressure, top lip to bottom. The expression is familiar, but not the thinning hair, grown to collar length with spikey strands stuck variously across a high forehead. Maybe she wasn’t paying attention to him that day. Six people attended the closing: Lucy and her attorney Stella Ackers, Mr. Mortenson, his attorney, a representative from his bank, and a real estate broker.

Papers and signatures galore, checks flying, a mortgage payout to Mortenson’s bank, the balance to him. An exciting day for Lucy, who, even on the most ordinary occasion, will glean the substance of a person’s character before noticing the physical details. This man, a little older than her and about her height, exudes a recognizable essence. His shoulders curl forward, shrinking him an inch, a posture of self-protection or concealment.money

He glances around the kitchen and along the floor. “Looks just the same.”

“Yes. I haven’t done much.” An awkward silence. Lady is calmer, sitting on her haunches, tongue hanging, tail sweeping the floor.

“Your dog…?”

“Meet Golden Lady. Not much of a watchdog, is she? Never barks at strangers. Would you like some sun tea?”

He looks where she indicates and says, “No, thank you. I just came to…”

“Take a trip down memory lane?”

“Kind of. It’s an anniversary of sorts.” He falters and stumbles on a word.

Lucy’s guard softens. The man seems out of sorts. “Why don’t you come in for a minute?” She motions toward the living room.

He nods and precedes her outstretched hand. “I always loved this room,” he says as they enter.

The living room is the most impressive room of the house, with its broad stone hearth and redwood rafters running horizontally under a high, peaked ceiling. The visitor’s eyes dart warily to every surface and corner. They sit in easy chairs, opposite each other. The couch is already occupied by the cats. Dylan lifts her sleepy head for a half-lidded glare at the intruder. Lady, the straight-spined sentry, dutifully sits at Lucy’s feet.

“Quite a few animals,” Mortenson says.

“Got to have mousers, as you must know. This place attracts field mice.”

He emits a snort, possibly meant as a chuckle. “I imagine the animals are good company too, for a woman living alone.” His pitch rises, making it a question.

No need to confirm the obvious. He was the sole title holder who sold the house to the current, sole title holder. To be polite, she sweeps a glance at her animals and says, “Just me and my girls. So, you were saying it’s an anniversary?”

“Yes.” He clears his throat. “You might remember the disclosure statement at the closing?”

“All five hundred pages of it!” She laughs. Lady’s tail sweeps the carpet. Dusty stretches her front legs and opens her jaws in a cavernous yawn.

“That’s California law for you.” He looks down at his feet. “One of the disclosures was about a substance on the land.” His head bobs up, and he levels a stare. “Human remains.” She pulls back, involuntarily. Quickly, he adds,
“Ashes, from a cremation,” and looks down again.

Lucy relaxes. This is no surprise. At the time, the disclosure added to her affinity for the property. Only months before, with Jerome and his family, she sailed out on the San Francisco Bay and scattered her father’s ashes. If she’d known she would buy this place, she might have saved his ashes for the garden. Dust to dust, life from death.

“A family member?” she asks now.

“My mother. It was this week, five years ago, that she died.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. So, this is a pilgrimage, in remembrance.”

He seems relieved that she understands. “Yes. I don’t want to be a nuisance, but may I…?”

“Visit the site?”

He nods. “I brought something of hers to bury there. A small pendant.”

An interesting ritual. Lucy feels no similar urge with respect to her father, but maybe that’s because she has a freedom Mortenson lacks. She can sail on the bay whenever she wants, but his mother is part of a property he no longer owns. What’s the harm, letting him push a trinket into the ground? Her ground. “By all means, go right ahead.” She stands, prompting him to do the same. She’s anxious to end this.

“Actually, it’s a locket.” He pulls the item out of a pants pocket. “With a family photograph inside.” He opens it and exclaims, “Oh!”

“Something wrong?”

“I-I meant to—I was sure I put the photo inside.” He looks up and into the distance. “I suppose I could just…”

Is this really so important to him? “Come back, then, another time.”

“Really? You’d allow that? I’d be grateful.”

“Certainly. My pleasure.”

They go outside, Lucy and Lady following him to the top of the footpath. He stops abruptly, turns to her, and stutters, “M-may I have just a brief moment today?”riverwalk

“Oh, my goodness, of course. You’d like a private moment. Go right ahead.”

“Thank you.”

“Nice to meet you. Again. Go right ahead. No need to say goodbye afterward.” She looks down the hill, searching the gaps between the trees, trying to glimpse a car parked near the mailbox. Nothing. Could he have driven up and squeezed in next to her pickup? She can’t see the west end from here.

He notices and says, “I parked on the main road. Didn’t want to take your spaces.”

“All right. Very good.”

“Don’t want to bother you. Maybe I should come back on a day you’re out?”

“It’s no bother. I’m always here, except to go shopping. Either way, just walk up and have your ceremony.”

“I appreciate it.” He gives a quick wave goodbye, heads toward the chickens and the garden. She follows at a distance, but he disappears around the curve of the hill. So, the ashes aren’t in the garden? The west border, under the eucalyptus, might be a logical spot. Wherever he’s headed, she can’t discreetly follow. Rude.

Mildly unsettled, she turns and goes back inside.

#

Home from shopping, Lucy pulls the Toyota Tacoma into the notch for a mail stop. The bed of the pickup holds a few gifts she bought for herself and Lady: a hammock swing and a doghouse, assembly required.

Standing at the mailbox, Lucy hears, “Hello, there!” Her neighbor Magda is walking up the lane, headed home.

Magda stops and says, with a sunny smile, “Beautiful day.”

“Certainly is. Great day for gardening.”

“Doing some landscaping too? Your contractor just left. Let me know if you like him.”

“Hmm. I haven’t hired anyone.”

“A man walked down your driveway, not twenty minutes ago, when I was starting out.”

A thought connects. “Clay Mortenson. Yesterday I said he could come visit his mother.” She laughs. “I mean, his mother’s cremated ashes. But you probably know about that. You were neighbors for, what, twenty years?”

Magda nods. “I rarely saw them. Middle-aged man and his mother. They always paid their dues but never came to the meetings.” Magda hosts the Homeowners’ Association meetings for their private cul-de-sac. “I knew the mother died but didn’t know about the ashes. So, that was Clay Mortenson today?”

“Must’ve been.”

“Now that you mention it, I could’ve been fooled by the long hair. He’s skinnier too. And his clothes were dirty, like he’d been working. Probably just got down on his knees to pray, right?” She smiles hopefully.

“I said he could bury a small memento. A locket.”

“How sweet of you. Strange, though, to bring such a large duffle bag. I thought he was carrying tools, you know, like a contractor or landscaper.”

“Did he park here?” Lucy motions to her pickup.

“Nope. He just walked down the lane. Probably parked on the main road.”

“That’s what he did yesterday.” But how odd.

Magda focuses on Lucy’s face and says, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to raise a red flag. Makes perfect sense he’d want to visit.”

“Right,” Lucy agrees, thinking she’ll give him a call, just to be sure.

They chat a while longer, ending on a high note, an invitation to Magda’s Independence Day barbeque. But Lucy’s mind is stuck on images of Mortenson—or a stranger—lugging a large duffle bag.

She drives up top, parks, and without unloading the pickup, rushes to the house. She used to lock the doors but gradually started to forget, and now she always leaves them unlocked. For one thing, the push buttons in the wobbling doorhandles are easy enough to jimmy. She’d need to upgrade them, but what’s the point? She feels secluded and safe, untouchable. Anyone wishing to do her harm would have to tackle an exhausting climb by foot or a treacherous drive bordering a precipitous drop. She doubts she’s worth it.

Feeling slightly silly, Lucy rushes through the house. Everything is in order. Her material possessions are few. No jewelry or silver or fancy electronics. Nothing a burglar would want except…There is one thing that would bring a good price, if a thief realized its value. She goes to the tiny room that serves as her office. On the wall, the glass display case is untouched, the prize within: Grandpa’s antique rifle with ornate flintlock, reportedly almost two hundred years old. Every time Lucy considers selling it, she hesitates. She doesn’t need the money, and Daddy was emotionally attached to it. Despite estrangement from his parents, he derived comfort from boyhood memories of his father’s booming voice, relating tall tales of pioneer survival, Great-Granddaddy Pitts slaying wild animals and felling big game for the family.

While in the office, Lucy pulls out the closing file. Surely Mortenson’s phone number is recorded here, but she finds only the lawyers’ contact information. Who to call? Mortenson’s attorney wouldn’t likely divulge his client’s whereabouts. Lucy’s lawyer, Stella, is the one to call, but it’s awkward. Lucy resolved to resist any urge to try again. At her age, she should know. People come and go, intentions are transparent or misread, relationships gel or dissolve before taking hold. Lucy’s dream of a partner, here on the hill…How embarrassing. Why did she say those things?

But this is business. She taps in the number of Stella’s law firm. A receptionist answers and forwards the call.

“Lucy. How are you?”

“Good, great, really. I love the house.”

“Excellent.” Stella’s favorite word. “How can I help you?” So formal.

Lucy details the encounters with Clay Mortenson. “I’m thinking of calling him but don’t have his number. Do you have it? Do you think it’s wise to call?”

“You have every right to tell him to get lost! Hold on. I know where to find his number. Hopefully he hasn’t changed it.”

The line goes silent for a minute, allowing Lucy’s doubts to rise. She’s not sure she mentioned every strange detail, the ritual with the locket, the duffle bag, the uncertainty, even, that Clay Mortenson is the person Magda saw.

Back on the line, Stella says, “Success! No email, but a home address and number.”

Lucy writes it down and thanks her, but Stella can detect the underlying anxiety. “Shall I call for you? I’d be happy to do it. Sometimes it’s best, coming from a lawyer.”

“Oh, thank you for offering, Stella, but no. I can handle it.”

“Okay, then.” A heartbeat. “It’s nice to hear your voice. I’m glad you like the house.”

“I’m glad too.”

#
Lucy delays, thinking it’s best to wait until after dinner. Mortenson could be at work, whatever his work might be, and she doesn’t want to leave a message.

She busies herself with chores. At six, she tosses organic scraps to the chickens, returns to the kitchen, and spoons out dinner for Dusty, Dylan, and Lady. The cats do their usual dance, the rubbing on Lucy’s calves, meowing, and little pounces before she sets their bowls on the floor. Lady is nowhere to be seen. In a distracted moment this afternoon, Lucy opened the door for Lady and failed to leash her. Now, she’s worried. She goes out the kitchen door and calls from the patio.

“Lady! Golden Lady! Dinnertime! Come on, girl!”

She’s all but given up when Lady trots gleefully toward the house from the garden path. “Where have you been, my Lady? And what’s that?” Wagging her tail in glee, the dog drops an object at Lucy’s feet. She picks it up and gives a little shudder. “Digging for bones when I have a good dinner waiting for you?” This one is about ten inches long with a slight curve to it, probably from the deer skeleton they found, high on the hill. On the way inside, Lucy deposits the bone in the flowerbed.

The cats are gone, leaving their empty bowls behind. Lucy enjoys a minute, watching Lady as she wolfs her food. Then it’s time to think about her own dinner.

She cooks, eats, cleans up.

Goes to the living room. Picks up a novel. Puts it down.

Going on nine o’clock, she calls.

“Hello,” he says.

“Mr. Mortenson?”

“Yes.”

“This is Lucy Pitts.”

A pause. “Sorry, I didn’t catch the name?”

“Lucy Pitts, at Three Bounty Lane.”

“At three…oh yes. How are you?”

“Fine, thank you. I’m calling, just to make sure it was you this afternoon, on my property.” She’d rehearsed that part. My property.

“Me? At the house?”

“On the property, near the top of the driveway.”

“I don’t understand. You’re not sure it was me you saw?”

“I wasn’t here at the time. My neighbor saw someone on the driveway. I’m assuming it was you, coming to pay homage to your mother.”

He makes a sound, not quite an answer.

Abandoning the failed euphemism, she says more bluntly, “You wanted to visit the site of your mother’s ashes.”

Silence, then a sharp, snorting laugh under his breath, not unlike the sound he made during his first visit to the house. “Your neighbor must have seen someone else. I didn’t visit my mother’s ashes. When—?” He stops short, as if taken, mid-sentence, by a reconnecting synapse. In a softer tone, he says, “I take it you aren’t pleased that someone was up there.”

“Well, frankly, no, not pleased. I can understand the need for a tribute or a ceremony, but I’d prefer not to have
any more visits like this, especially when I’m not home.”

“Yes. Yes, well, I assure you, that wasn’t me today. Unfortunately, this may be a recurring problem for you. People who aren’t familiar with the lane occasionally wander up the driveway by mistake. When you approach from the south, it looks like a continuation of Three Bounty Lane.”

“I can see that.”

“We even had to call a tow truck once, when a car nearly went over the edge. You might want to consider putting up a gate.”

“That’s an idea.”

“Sorry you had this problem.”

“Yes, well, as long as you don’t plan to—”

“Enjoy the house. Very nice talking to you, Ms. Pitts.”

“Thank you.”

“Goodbye, then.”

“Bye-bye.”

Click.

In a state of dissociation, Lucy wonders if the man is a liar or a con artist, pretending not to know what she meant. Perhaps he’s mentally ill. She should have noted the signs, the first time. On the phone, that same laugh, but his voice projected a different personality. Self-assured, haughty, then inexplicably apologetic. She was about to ask what had changed his mind about the locket when he all but hung up on her. Now, she will never know.

#

Two in the morning, eyes wide open, moonlight in the window. Lucy swings her legs over the side of the bed. On her floor cushion, Golden Lady lifts her head. “Want to go out?” Lady is game. Lucy wraps herself in a robe and steps into her espadrilles. “Come on.”

Outside, the night is warm, artificial light unnecessary. A gentle breeze carries a heady mix of fragrances risen from the earth, primrose, sage, and eucalyptus. On the patio, Lucy sits on the bench of the rickety picnic table. She should replace this relic, a Mortenson holdover.

“Sit. Atta girl.” Lucy strokes and scratches Lady as random thoughts tumble and flow. “We forgot to unload the pickup, didn’t we? Later today…” They’ll assemble the new swing and doghouse, the two of them, alone together on this hill.

Lucy is stronger than this. Why should that man concern her? Life and death, ashes in the soil, in the sea. The slow stretch of Lucy’s life unfolds in jumbled images, the students, friends, and lovers who have come and gone, the pain and joy she has felt. Stroking Lady with one hand, she drops her head into the other and runs it over the spongy cushion, cranium to nape. Mamma gave her this tight steel wool. For years, Lucy wrestled with her hair before settling on the easiest way to deal with it, an even half inch. Growing up in Berkeley, although there were others like her, she stood out, tall, awkward, different. Subconsciously, she realizes now, she closed herself to
relationships that would set her even farther apart.

“What am I doing up here?” Her cheeks are wet as she gazes into the opening between the oaks. The sky displays a bright miracle of moon and stars. “We’re stardust, Lady. Did you know that? You and I, just bits of stardust.”
Under Lucy’s hand, Lady’s spine stiffens and her ears prick. Lucy follows the line of her attention. Far below, through the trees.…“You’ve got to be kidding,” Lucy whispers. Starting in the notch, climbing slowly up the driveway, a light bobs and flickers. Someone is walking up, flashlight in hand. The light disappears behind trees blocking Lucy’s view of the upper drive and the west end.

Heart beating in her throat, Lucy whispers, “Come on, girl.” Inside, she heads for the phone in her office. This has gone too far. As she dials 911, her eyes go to the glass display case. In a steady voice, she reports a trespasser, gives her address, and hangs up. She has no idea how long it will take the County Sheriff to get here. Will the deputies be confused by the lay of her land? Will they walk or drive up? She can’t stand the thought of Mortenson out there, poking around. It has to be him. Who else could it be?

“We’ll just go see if he’s still there.” Again, Lady is game.

She’ll take a large flashlight to blind him, and…yes, why not? She opens the display case and removes the antique, surprised at its weight. A useless weapon, but he won’t know. Give him a good scare.

Out on the patio, Lucy juggles her awkward load and considers how to take him by surprise. Keep the light off until the last minute, but how? She threads her left hand through the hole of the flashlight’s handgrip to hang it on her wrist. This way, the barrel of the rifle rests in her left palm. Pressing the butt of the stock into her right shoulder, she can quickly turn on the flashlight with her right hand and return that hand to the stock.

Tiptoeing, Lady heeling, Lucy passes the chickens, rousing a few clucks, and traverses The Stretch to the curve of the hill where a glow emanates. His flashlight.

She hears footsteps and something else. Shoveling? “Here,” a male voice.

At Lucy’s side, Lady growls.

“Shh!” the man rasps and turns off his light.

Quick! She takes five long strides, presses the button, directs the beam, aims the rifle.

Amazingly, Lady rediscovers her territorial instincts and dashes forward, barking wildly.
“Clay Mortenson! Get off my property!”

Trapped in the beam, he shields his eyes. But where is Lady going? Her instincts are out of whack. She ignores Mortenson, halts behind him, and sounds off in a frenzy.

A man steps out of the shadow. Lucy redirects her flashlight and rifle. He raises one hand. With the other, he gently sets a shovel on the ground. “We mean you no harm,” he calls out. Lady’s bark lowers to a growl.shovel

“Who the hell are you?”

“Clay Mortenson.”

Lucy is dumbfounded. She turns her flashlight and rifle on the man who sat in her living room, two days ago. “Then who is this?” He doesn’t answer.

Clay speaks for him. “My brother Larry.”

“Clay and Larry. How dare you come here like this!”

Red lights flash in the trees, and headlights illuminate the hill as a police cruiser comes up the driveway. Behind the Mortenson brothers, partway up the slope, lies a large duffle bag next to a mound of dirt.

“What’s in that bag?”

The sheriff’s car stops in a wedge of space in front of Lucy’s pickup. They’ll have to back it down later. No way to turn it around up here.

“What is that?” Lucy demands. She has to know, even if…“Are you digging up your mother?”

“No,” says Clay.

Two officers step out of the cruiser, guns drawn. “Freeze!” Deputy Sheriff Carmen Anaya bellows the command.

“Not our mother,” Clay says. “It’s our father.”

Lucy lowers her rifle.

“You okay, Lucy?” Carmen yells, keeping her eyes on the men.

“I’m fine. I’m glad you’re here. But,” she directs her next thought to the brothers, “I may have one of your daddy’s ribs, up at the house.”

#

Lucy and Lady return home after spending three days with Jerome and his family. Dusty and Dylan give her the cold shoulder for leaving them alone with kibble and water. “I’m sorry, girls. I couldn’t face the upheaval.”

In the kitchen, investigators have loosely replaced the cracked linoleum squares, without gluing them down. She steels herself and lifts one to find…confirmation of the brothers’ story?

They told authorities a gruesome tale of their physically abusive father and battered mother, who’d finally had enough. The senior Mortenson, sluggish and hungover, didn’t see it coming. Leaning on the kitchen counter, he got the butcher knife in the back, between the shoulder blades.knife

The Mortenson boys, then teenagers, cleaned up after mom. Get him away from the house, as far as you can! The west end. They couldn’t dig into the roots under the eucalyptus trees, so they went halfway up the slope at the top of the drive. The kitchen was another problem, buckets of blood soaked into the poorly finished wood floor. The boys glued the linoleum squares on top.

If anyone asked, they said that Dad left them, whereabouts unknown. There weren’t many questions. Mortenson was a perpetually unemployed ne’er-do-well. The mother had inherited the house and later transferred title to Clay, the son who lived with her. The younger son, Larry, moved to Oakland where he lived a haunted life, plagued by guilt. Fears of erosion and mudslides obsessed him and came to a head after the recent deluge. Banking on his resemblance to Clay, he posed as the former owner. The locket ruse was his cover story in case he needed to come back, to fix up the site. Clay didn’t know of his brother’s visit, but quickly figured it out when Lucy called. He tried to warn his brother off, but instead, became alarmed about the exposed skeleton. Larry had managed to get only part of it into the duffle bag, the day Magda saw him.

Lucy anticipates an update momentarily. Carmen is on her way over.

On the patio, Lucy greets the deputy sheriff when she emerges from the footpath, strong and fit. The climb doesn’t wind her. She wears jeans and one of her signature plaid shirts for this afterhours official visit. They sit at the picnic table.

“I don’t know how you do it,” Lucy says, “working graveyard shifts.” It dawns on her. “No pun intended!”

“I could change my hours. I have the seniority. But the interesting stuff happens in the middle of the night.” Her eyes twinkle mischievously. “Like the Mortenson brothers.”

“Everything makes sense now, but I’m kicking myself for being fooled.”

“Don’t go hard on yourself. The family resemblance is striking, even their voices and mannerisms. They’re only fourteen months apart in age.”

“Do you think one of them did the deed?”

“So far, their story checks out, but it’s been more than forty years. We can’t prove who murdered him, and the brothers have no criminal record.”

“Good mamma’s boys?”

“Right! They were only 15 and 16 when it happened. Their confessions alone prove criminal facilitation or tampering, but they were juveniles. The D.A. might let it go. But you could press charges.”

“What, trespassing? Grave robbing?” Lucy chuckles. “I want this over with, and I don’t think they’re coming back.”

Lady pushes out the screen door and comes to sit at Lucy’s feet. “One more thing,” she remembers. “That paperwork, disclosing human remains on the property. I don’t think Clay meant his father’s skeleton! Where did they sprinkle their mom?”

“I can show you.” Carmen turns, points, and gets up. “They told us where.” Lucy follows her to the flowerbed near the front door.

They stand over the flowers and look down. “The mom didn’t want to be anywhere near her husband,” Carmen says.beautiful flowers

“No wonder my blooms are so vibrant! But…oops. This is where I dropped daddy’s rib. I don’t think she’d appreciate that!” They laugh, and Lucy turns to the door. “Would you like to come in for a glass of sun tea?”

“Yes, I would.” Today she has the time.

“Maybe you can give me your opinion on my idea for a new kitchen floor.”

Carmen smiles and follows Lucy and Lady inside.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors.

California native, New York transplant, V.S. Kemanis writes the Dana Hargrove legal mysteries and award-winning short fiction, widely published in magazines and anthologies. Look for her newest story this fall in the forthcoming anthology Autumn Noir. Visit www.vskemanis.com.

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