*Not your average publishing company

Ruskin’s Mulch

The Narragansett Coast Guard Towers mark the point where bayshore becomes seashore. The great granite manse once held out hope to seafarers in peril. It now stands in stony silence as a backdrop for serving surf-and-turf to well-heeled diners and a landmark for directing day-trippers to the beaches and points south. Take Ocean Road through the great stone arch that spans the towers and follow it almost due south as the gull flies. You’ll pass nautically themed condos and kitschy restaurants as you head toward Point Judith Light, and along the way, if you aren’t watchful, you might overlook a section of Ocean Road where twelve-foot hedges and six-foot stone walls dating back a hundred years and more block out prying eyes while protecting private interests bunkered in exquisite multi-acre properties. But even in Rhode Island, there is still a light – like the beacon of the trusty Point Judith Light but infinitely greater – that periodically dispels even the most baleful darkness.

Along Ocean Road the sea breeze blows constantly, creating a wild cacophony from nothing more than air worrying leaves. On any given day, hard-eyed gulls glide aloft, over the water, patrolling for schooling fish, returning fishing vessels, or shore-strewn detritus. Callous waves beat against a narrow band of sand and rocks before granite cliffs rise to manicured lawn. A low cyclone fence hides behind glorious lilacs, humble primrose, and prickly ground-hugging hollies – all clinging jealously to topsoil. Moving in from the fence-line, taller sassafras, swamp oak, silver maple, and beautiful, lithe silver birch hold their ground even as they flail in the wind. As you approach Ocean Road, taller specimens gain firmer footing – white oaks and maples with tall, stout trunks – yet well above ground level, even these are in constant motion. Below this thrashing churning canopy, the sentinel hedges and walls define a calmer more curate realm in which proud rhododendrons and climbing ivy hug masonry.

On this particular Saturday, an optimistic chorus of robins, goldfinches, and mourning doves could be heard just overhead but below the treetop tempest. The pipers suddenly paused, acknowledging the quick rasping caution call of a solitary raven strutting across the lawn. The old wise-eyed one had spotted a black rat-snake winding along the base of the arborvitae hedges that enclose the Humes’ estate. Just then, Santander Hume, clothed in slippers and silk kimono, emerged from his driveway to check his mailbox. His jet-black hair seemed at odds with his leathery yet almost translucent skin.

“Mr. Hume, isn’t Ruskin your landscaper?” A disembodied voice called from across the road.

Hume reached into his mailbox and pulled out his mail.

“Ruskin?” The voice persisted intrusively.

“Who are you?” Hume looked up, eyes unfocused as if searching for a buzzing mosquito.

A nondescript man in a URI baseball cap and shorts crossed the street toward him. His hat says Rhode Island but everything else might as well say Iowa, Hume mused. A scarecrow, Hume thought, well-stuffed with hair the color of straw. The man’s shape suggested more vegetable than animal – apple or even potato. Hume put on a pained smile. “Oh, yes, Ruskin Landscaping. Yes, we use them. We’ve used their services for the last three, three and half years,” he said, ready to provide a faint-hearted recommendation – ideally faint enough to discourage this farmer from contracting with him and potentially detracting from the quality of service on his own property. “We’re satisfied with him – uhhh – for the most part.” Retrieving several pieces of mail, he continued under his breath, “I suppose his attention to detail is often lacking . . . He could be more responsive to specific instructions . . . could be more consistent in performance of his duties . . . Is that the kind of service you’re looking for?” Closing his mailbox, he looked up at the man who had now crossed Ocean Road and stood with hand extended.

“Bill Barnes.” The bland man smiled. “We’ve lived here five years already and I don’t think we’ve ever met in person.”

“That’s how most people meet, isn’t it – in person?”

“I see you and your wife coming and going. Getting your mail, turning into your driveway, disappearing behind your hedges.” Barnes leaned forward with an exaggerated smile, his hair falling in his eyes as he pushed his hat back on his head. “Pleased to finally make your acquaintance.”

Aw, shucks, Andy! “They’re Emerald Green arborvitae, the best variety for a privacy barrier. Ideal for disappearing behind, actually.” Hume saw escape was impossible without shaking the odious man’s hand. He looked up with a pained smile, buying time with more faint praise. “I think you’re just as well off picking a landscaper at random.”

“You act like you haven’t seen the news?” Barnes looked puzzled. “Ruskin was arrested.”

“So, I’ll have to find another landscaper, is what you’re saying?” Hume’s eyes moved back and forth between the man’s eyes and his outstretched hand, watching for an opening to escape the hand.

“They charged him with putting six people through a woodchipper and mixing their remains into the mulch he’s been spreading on his clients’ properties.” Barnes watched Hume’s face for reaction.

Hume gave a weary sigh. “Well, then, I shouldn’t recommend him, should I. Good day, sir.” He drew his bundle of mail up to his temple feigning a salute, then in one motion brought it down to his side parrying the man’s proffered hand. He disappeared behind his Emerald Greens.


Hume entered the kitchen from the garage and called out. “Dahlia! . . . Dahlia! . . . Have you heard this thing about Ruskin?” He paused with mail in hand and listened for any sound that might reveal his wife’s whereabouts.

Dahlia Hume appeared at the far end of the kitchen, leathery in stylish pink tennis set. She removed her visor and shook out her short brassy blond hair. “It’s on the TV: ‘Breaking news: Narragansett gardener and handyman, Randolph Ruskin charged with killing six and disposing of their bodies in a woodchipper before mixing the remains into the mulch and compost that he used to landscape local properties.’” Standing at opposite ends of the kitchen, the Humes exchanged tense stares.

Finally, Santander Hume placed his bundle of mail delicately on the cook-prep island. “You realize what that means, don’t you, Peaches?”

Dahlia, tossing her visor onto the breakfast table, crossed the room and took an oversized coffee mug down from the cabinet. She poured herself a large cup of coffee and held the steaming mug in two hands as if drawing strength from its warmth. She lifted the mug to her nose, inhaling the coffee’s aroma and raising her pencil-line eyebrows. “Well, Sunshine, that explains why our hydrangeas look so damn glorious this year.”

Santander Hume stared at his wife. “No. Well, yes, but . . . it means that we might have . . . fingertips and . . . bone chips . . . and human foie gras in our flower beds.” He paused for his wife to appreciate the weight of his statement. “Do you think the folks at Hicksville PD have had a case this interesting in their lifetimes? They’ll be itching to pull out their notes from the last sheriffs’ convention. They’ll want to bring out every new piece of equipment they’ve ever bought and never used. And they’ll probably end up wanting to tear up our dwarf spruces or our forsythia!”

“Over my dead body.” Dahlia continued to peer over her coffee mug but turned to look out the window across their lawn toward the water.

“Over how many other people’s dead bodies,” Santander muttered under his breath. “Bloody amateur.”

They were interrupted by the doorbell at the front of the house.

“Chuckles, dear, if it’s the police, just keep saying Ruskin, Ruskin, Ruskin. We’ll just let them tie anything they find to Ruskin,” said Santander. “That’s what they’re already thinking. They’ll go away happy and never think twice about us.”

“Is there any threat to us?” asked Dahlia in a hushed tone?

They paused at the entrance to the center hall leading to the frosted-glass front door. Santander held Dahlia by the shoulders. “Only if they have some way of dating what they find earlier than Ruskin’s employment. Otherwise, everything just looks like fertilizer and gardening supplies.” The hushed tones of their whispers floated through the house as indistinct murmuring. The two began walking down the hall to the front door.

“But the acid would have turned flesh and bone into ooze, right?” Dahlia whispered, “Sulfuric, not hydrofluoric, right? There’s no chance of anything traceable? No bone, nothing left?”

“That’s what makes this Ruskin business to sophomoric – amateur hour. With the sulfuric, everything dissolves and washes away – even DNA. Everything but the noble metals, gold and platinum.”

“So, jewelry.”

“Uh, yes.”

“But everything else, gonzo. No trace.”

“We know that,” Santander whispered, leaning in, “But the boys who did the deeds might not know that. They paid us the big bucks to make sure there would never be any traces. It’s always the stupid ones who get nervous.”

“Who exactly are we dealing with these days?”

“Patriarca Senior passed in the ‘80s. Junior ran things in the ‘90s. Now we deal with Carmen.”

“The Cheese Man.”

“The Big Cheese, yes.”

“But what’s the worst they might do?” Dahlia lowered her voice further.

“They might put us in a witness relocation program.”

“The feds would want to relocate us?”

“I’m not talking about the feds. I’m talking about relocation to a landfill or a concrete slab.”

“Oh. How ironic.”

The doorbell rang again. At the far end of the hall, the morning sunlight that usually reflected off the Emerald Green arborvitae through the frosted glass of the large front door was eclipsed by some large, round obstruction. In Santander’s mind’s eye, he was immediately transported back to a city street. He had gone in the early morning to avoid retail crowds, to talk business. Up and down the street, delivery trucks were double-parked as drivers off-loaded fresh produce, meats, and seafoods to the shops and restaurants along Atwells Avenue. The front door of Tanto Formaggio Fresco was propped open. Santander walked through, dodging a hand truck stacked six feet high with blocks and wheels of cheese. The man behind the display case looked up from a clipboard scowling as if ready to chase him out. Santander said, “Carmen.” The man nodded toward the front display windows through which Santander could see a rotund man outside on the sidewalk dressed in khaki shorts and a yellow golf shirt. He seemed to be surrounded by a half dozen mixed nuts – two characters in suits who looked like they’d been up all night, a smaller wheel of cheese wearing a neon bowling shirt, and an older man in a velour jogging suit with a bad toupee. Carmen was less than six feet tall, but he gave the impression of being every bit as wide as he was tall. He was not big boned. Rather he gave the impression that his skeleton, his circulatory system, his musculature were all grossly overburdened. His fingers looked too small for his hands, his hands too small for his arms, and his arms too small for his body. As a result, his arms, his wrists, his hands, his fingers bent smoothly, continuously, rather than articulating visibly as bone-to-joint-to-bone. He was a walking, talking Michelin man – a living wheezing wheel of cheese.

Hume ducked out the door, dodging another hand truck, and approached him. “Carmen.”

“Hmmm. Yup.” He turned toward Santander. Carmen held in his chicken wing a small plate of cheese samples. He slipped a wedge into his mouth, inclining his neck to reach his hand. He looked off into the distance, and then pointed to the cheese he had just tasted, nodding his approval. He handed the plate to someone on his right who disappeared without Santander catching any sight of him. Carmen focused on Santander. His chin, cheeks, and forehead all seemed to press in around his eye sockets. “Hhm. You the guy who worked for Juniuh? Hh-hm.” He came off as charming and physically pained at the same time.

“Yes, Hume.” He looked into Carmen’s small eyes, knowing that the transition between Junior and Carmen had not been smooth but it had been unarguably final.

“I love cheese,” Carmen announced. “I feel like when I meet someone for the fuhst time I must intvoduce myself by saying – I love cheese. I love cheese.” He nodded smiling.

Santander felt like he was being examined, inspected like today’s catch. “They call you ‘The Big Cheese’.”

“It’s not vevy cveative of them, is it?” He smiled down at Santander. Santander picked up on a slight accent that he had only heard in Rhode Island – Cvanston for Cranston, Pvovidence for Providence, Vhode Island for Rhode Island. “What can I do for you, Hume?” He looked around. “Don’t wohhy, they can’t get any decent vecordings of us out hehhe.”

“I just wanted to know if you would be having any need of my services. I assume you understand what services I provided to Junior.”

“As I understand. We both dabble in the application of micvobiology.” He glanced at the store window next to him. “You see that Sviss cheese. The bactevia used to make that particulah cheese, pvopvionibactevia,” he gave a little laugh, “is lactose intolevant. The holes in the cheese are the evidence of the little bugguhs flatulence.” He turned to Santander and smiled, seemingly as broadly as his face would allow. “Youh services, o masteh of catabolism, will continue to have value to me as long as the output of youh work is as bland and indistinct as Velveeta.” He smiled a pleased smile.

“Great,” Santander replied. “And I assume your guys know where to reach me.”

“Oh, I know where to veach you.” He nodded softly and slowly. “I know where to veach you.” Another sample plate appeared around his right side. He grabbed it in his rounded paw and bent his head down breathing deeply, closing his eyes blissfully.

“Sandy?” Dahlia’s voice brought him back to the front hall. “Santander?”

He was staring at the darkened frosted glass of their front door. “Looks like Carmen’s come for a personal visit. Or one of his family, anyway.” Santander bit his lower lip. They began to walk slowly toward the front door, their footsteps echoing. Halfway down the unlit hall, Dahlia turned to face Santander and draped her arms around his neck adoringly. She whispered dreamily, “Whatever happens, I will always remember you in your thick black rubber gloves and your goggles, your respirator . . . wrangling those 55-gallon drums . . . It’s such a turn-on when you handle things.” She gave him a mischievous smile. “I’m ready to deal with whatever might come along. My handyman.”

Santander bent down to kiss her, barely tapping their lips. She smiled, and hand-in-hand they resumed the march to the front door. He reached for the handle and paused just as the outline of a forearm and the edge of a hand created darker shadows on the door, followed by a flattened nose and a pair of unseeing eyes probing the depth of the frosted glass. Suddenly, the glass morphed like a kaleidoscope, with triangles of light bursting through the center of the imposing shadow and then at twelve, six, three and nine on the clock. Two turning shapes resolved out of one. Santander and Dahlia gave each other quick glances of tentative relief, knowing at least it was not the Cheeseman in person. Santander pressed the latch and pulled back on the heavy door.

A matching set of Barneses stood on their front portico. “So-o-or-ry!” Bill Barnes cried in exaggerated apology. “Don’t mean to take up your whole day. But when I told Mitsy I had met you this morning, she said she had to make you a batch of cookies!” He nodded his head toward a shorter, rounder, more pear-shaped version of himself – straw-colored hair, golfer’s tan, plate of cookies in hand. “She’s a maker and taker. She just had to make ‘em and take ‘em right over to you.” Bill looked from Santander to Dahlia. “And here’s Mrs. Hume?”

The Humes stood open-mouthed.

“Awkward silence – uh-oh!” Bill Barnes filled the void. “I can be a lot for some people.”

Dahlia raised her hand to cover her mouth. Santander swallowed and regained his composure. “Dahlia, this is Bill Barnes from across the street. And – and this is his wife? Mitsy . . . who baked us some cookies.” Santander looked back and forth between the three faces. Dahlia raised her head and smiled a pained smile.

“That’s so nice that you went out of your way to bake us cookies, but we don’t eat – we give all our business to the Girl Scouts. We really don’t eat cookies. Maybe you can keep them – you know, such a generous offer and not have to follow through on it – get all the credit with none of the cost. Our gift to you. That’s a lovely plate.” Dahlia turned to Santander. As if the Barneses could no longer hear her, “What do you say to people from across the road?”

Santander tried to rescue her. “Please forgive Dahlia’s babbling. She’s in shock hearing about our landscaper possibly spreading human remains around our property willy-nilly – without it being fully decomposed,” he smiled. “Terrible.” He looked again around the three other faces and continued. “Thanks again, but we really don’t eat . . . these.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Both of us, BMIs under 22.”

Bill raised his hand, “Confession: BMI of 30!” He shook his head. “I’m just husky.” Nodding in the direction of Mitsy, he continued, “I’m sure Mitsy isn’t over 25 herself, but a lady doesn’t talk about such things.” Mitsy’s shorts and tank top belied Bill’s chivalric comments. “But sharing is caring, breaking bread – it’s the neighborly thing. It’s the first thing Jesus did everywhere he went – and I guess one of the last, too. It seems Jesus couldn’t go a chapter without eating with someone, asking what’s for breakfast, telling someone what to eat, how to eat. The whole idea of communion, right, Mitsy?”

Bill looked over at Mitsy, who nodded emphatically. “Eat and meet. That’s how we roll.” Another dead pause followed. Apparently eager to change the subject, Mitsy spoke anxiously, “I love your house. We could never really see much of it from across the street, what with your monstrous hedges and all. But we were so glad to be able to move to such a nice neighborhood.”

Dahlia looked at Santander, “Neighborhood?”

Santander answered her in a low tone, “Well, technically, yes. They live in our neighborhood.” As he said the word “neighborhood,” both he and Dahlia squelched an involuntary laugh.

Dahlia continued talking in a low tone as if only Santander could hear her. “I never think of it as a neighborhood. I never spend time outside our Emerald Greens. I think of it as . . .”

“A sanctuary?” Bill Barnes offered, re-inserting himself in the conversation.

“A retreat,” Santander answered. “A grotto, hideaway, . . . our palisade.”

Mitsy spoke up. “Seems to me if you don’t mix with your neighbors, it might as well be a crypt.” She giggled and swallowed hard.

Dahlia and Santander glanced at each other.

Before anything else was said, an unmarked police car entered the driveway, followed by a cruiser, a police van, and an SUV marked “K-9.” They filled up the circular driveway in front of the door. A woman in a burgundy blazer emerged from the unmarked car and approached the Humes and Barneses. Uniformed officers got out of the other vehicles and began unpacking equipment and donning light blue hazmat suits. A German shepherd leapt from his vehicle and snapped to attention next to his handler.

The woman called out as she approached, scanning the four at the door. “Mr. and Mrs. Hume?”

“That’s us,” said Dahlia, lifting a palm.

“Mr. and Mrs. Hume, Detective Emily Carvalho.” She flashed a badge. “I’m leading the murder investigation into the Ruskin case. Your property is now a related scene of interest in a criminal investigation. We suspect that your landscaping may contain evidence of certain criminal activity perpetrated by Randolph Ruskin. As you may have anticipated, we found your name on Ruskin’s work schedule. Did any of you witness Mr. Ruskin visiting this property anytime in the last,” she referred to a black notebook, “thirteen days? And would you be able to confirm the dates of his visits and whether his work on those dates included spreading mulch or compost?” The detective looked from face to face.

Dahlia spoke first, “Yes, I saw Ruskin last Tuesday and the Tuesday before. Ruskin was here and Ruskin brought his mulch on both occasions – definitely.” Dahlia smiled broadly.

Bill Barnes eagerly raised his hand, as if waiting to be called on.

“And you, sir?” said Detective Carvalho, nodding to Barnes.

“Bill Barnes. Yes, I also saw his truck here last Tuesday, and his truck clearly had a load of mulch.”

“Alright, Officers Oliveiro and Hirsch?” She looked around for her team. “We’ll need statements from these two.” She looked at Dahlia, “Mrs. Hume, would you mind finding suitable places for these officers to write up your statements?” They exchanged nods. “Thank you.” She turned to Santander. “Mr. Hume, would you be able to show me around your grounds, especially where Mr. Ruskin is charged with performing maintenance?”

“I’d be happy to. There was always something odd about Ruskin.” Santander turned and led the way through the front door, down the center hall. He muttered under his breath, “Yes, never completely comfortable around Ruskin.” Cavalho followed closely. Mitsy stood alone at the front portico holding her plate of cookies.

After some seconds, Mitsy followed after them. With trepidation, she began to close the massive front door slowly, like you would close a bank vault, but trying to make as little noise as possible. She moved along the darkened hallway, taking in the décor, head bobbing from chandelier to Degas statuary, Louis XIV bombe commode to Hopper watercolor. She passed opposing archways – on one side the living room and opposite the formal dining room, where Officer Hirsch, tall and muscular, and Bill Barnes, neither tall nor muscular, sat at the long walnut dining table. Her neck swiveled to the right as she passed the open double pocket doors to the den where the large mahogany desk made Dahlia and Officer Oliveiro look like Dresden figurines. As she turned back to her left, Mitsy jumped as she saw something move out of the corner of her eye. She was startled to see a shadowy figure tiptoeing alongside her carrying a plate of cookies and staring directly at her – a seven-foot mirror with gilded frame. Mitsy breathed and then continued. At the end of the hall, she gasped as she passed from the hall of shadows into the breakfast room, suffused with light. She faced a wall of glass looking across the gardens to the water. And then she glanced to her right. Her knees buckled and she involuntarily uttered a low throaty moan as she gazed into the spacious kitchen with its Italian tiled backsplash, copper range hood, and industrial side-by-side fridge and freezer. Regaining her composure, she followed Santander’s course out through the French doors to the backyard patio. Mitsy put her plate down on the large round patio table and took a seat, looking around. “I’ll just take a seat here,” she said to no one in particular. Noticing a uniformed officer with clipboard in hand off to the right of the table, she addressed him, “Cookie?” The Officer smiled wanly at her and gave a faint shake of the head.

Gazing out from the patio, Mitsy saw that a swarm of police personnel in blue hazmat suits had scattered to the far reaches of the seven acres, bending over flower beds like so many big blue bees – looking for signs of human remains instead of nectar. The K-9 unit started their sweep at the southeast corner and now worked its way through the plantings outside the fence that bordered either end of the tennis court. They had all begun slowly working their way back toward house.

“Oh, this is nice!” Mitsy exclaimed. Turning to the officer, she asked, “Have you ever seen such a nice house? A tennis court . . . a greenhouse . . . and such a huge, lovely garden . . . and of course the ocean view. I never knew there were such nice houses in our neighborhood. And this patio – it must be fifty-sixty feet wide and thirty feet deep. And this,” she motioned overhead, “is this a Pergamam, pergolum?” The officer glanced over at her quizzically but said nothing. “Oh, ok, no talking to the officers. Right.” Looking around, she continued talking to herself, “Parsimmon, purgatory, parabola, . . . pergamos.”

Bill emerged next with Officer Hirsch. The Barneses begin a flurry of chatter, each one talking over the other.

“This house!”

“Gorgeous, isn’t it?!”

“Just the landscaping would cost more than our whole house!”

“You could fit our house on this patio!”

“What do you think he does for a living – family money? Ooh – here comes Dahlia.”



Officer Oliveiro appeared in the door followed by Dahlia, who joined the others at the table. The three exchanged smiles.

Gingerly, Mitsy asked, “What do you call this?” Holding her forearm close to her body, she points upward to the pergola with its brightly colored canvas sails.

“You mean a pergola?” Dahlia asks.

“Yes,” Mitsy snapped her fingers. “That’s the word.”

As Detective Carvalho returned with Santander in tow, a party of blue worker bees swarmed to the area that Carvalho and Santander had just vacated. Santander and Detective Carvalho joined the others at the table. Snapping her notebook closed with one hand, Detective Carvalho announced to the group at the table, “With Mr. Hume’s assistance, we have already identified at least two sites that appear to contain the contaminated mulch – human remains consistent with Ruskin’s activities – that we were looking for. So, we are going to bag up the mulch in question from those locations for transport to our new forensics lab.”

Santander looked knowingly at Dahlia. “Around the Rhodendron catawbiensa at the northwest and southwest corners of the house.” He looked back at the Detective. “That variety is susceptible to fungal infection if you let the exposed roots dry out. I’ll need to get those beds mulched as soon —.”

“Mr. Hume.” Carvalho broke in crisply. “This is an active murder investigation scene. I’m going to have to ask you not to cross the yellow crime scene tape that’s been put up where we are removing the alleged human mulch.” She stared at Santander waiting for confirmation.

“Those root balls are over one hundred and fifty years old! It would be a crime not to –.”

“Mr. Hume.” Carvalho held her stare. “Do you understand me?”

Santander sighed, “I suppose.” He looked back at Dahlia. “It was the logical place if you wanted to hide something in the mulch – such a crude technique of disposal,” he said, directed at her in a low tone. “They knew what they were looking for. They found it. Like I said earlier.” He winked at Dahlia.

Carvalho nodded to Officer Oliveira, who moved away to join other police personnel. “We’re almost done here, folks,” the detective announced. “Mr. and Mrs. Hume, again, we’re sorry for the inconvenience. You’ve been very helpful. We will finish up the bagging of the mulch from the rhododendrons. We’ll complete the sweeps of the other beds that Ruskin spent time in the last couple weeks. We have an officer checking the greenhouse for any compost that might be contaminated – another of Ruskin’s methods. We may contact you with further questions. If you see anything unusual, call us. Here’s my card. And if anyone tries to contact you on behalf of Ruskin – perhaps to try to retrieve evidence – we’ll want to know about that. OK?”

“Certainly,” Santander nodded, taking her card, tapping it on the table.

Carvalho looked at Bill and Mitsy. “You know you’re both free to go, right?”

Bill spoke up, “Oh, no. We wouldn’t leave our neighbors and friends, the Humes. Not at a time like this.”

“Don’t feel you have to stay . . ,” Dahlia offered.

Santander got up and started toward the kitchen doors. “Maybe a little music will help,” he said under his breath and disappeared inside the French doors, “To drown out –.” He disappeared impatiently into the breakfast room. A moment later, a soothing voice came from all four corners of the yard. It increased in volume until it seemed everyone in the yard could hear, “This has been ‘A Celtic Sojourn’ bought to you by the Ford Foundation, Worthington Lumber, and NPR, National Public Radio.” The blue worker bees waggling through the flower beds stood up, looked toward the patio, and applauded appreciatively, like some coordinated hive dance. “Next up: The Swing Hour. Today’s feature: Bobby Darin. To start us off, something from Bobby Darin and the Rinky-Dinks. This is ‘Early in the Morning’.” Swing music began to play throughout the yard, ebbing and flowing with the blustery wind.

Well, you’re gonna miss me. [You’re gonna miss me.]
Early in the morning [Early in the mornin’.]
One of these days, [One of these days] oh, yeah.

“This just gets nicer and nicer!” exclaimed Mitsy.

“Yes, what could be nicer than a murder investigation?” said Dahlia.

“But we’re here for you,” said Bill. “Whatever time it takes. That’s what neighbors do. My sister’s watching the kids, so – no problem on our end.”

“Boy, it does just get nicer and nicer, doesn’t it?” said Santander.

In a cavern down by a canyon
Excavatin’ for a mine,
There lived a miner from North Carolina
And his daughter, chubby Clementine.

“We attend First Baptist of Narragansett,” said Mitsy, nervously. “Do you have a church home?”

Santander shook his head.

A’took the foot bridge, way ‘cross the water
Though she weighed two-ninety-nine.
The old bridge trembled and disassembled . . .

“Mitsy is a professor at the university,” offered Bill. “We actually moved here for her job.”

“Adjunct professor,” inserted Mitsy. “And we didn’t move here just for my job. There’s Bill’s sister, and – You know, this song is really offensive!”

Hey, you sailor (ho, ho) way out in your whaler
With a harpoon, your trusty line,
If she shows now, yell ‘There she blows now’,
It just may be chunky Clementine.

Santander and Dahlia looked at each other and then at Mitsy and Bill. “Well, I suppose,” answered Santander.

You may be gone,
You’re not forgotten.
Fare thee well,
So long, Clementine

Just then the phone rang inside the house. Dahlia headed for the door to grab the kitchen phone. At the same time, Detective Carvalho sprinted to catch up with her at the door. “Extension?”

“Hallway.” Dahlia motioned to the doorway leading to the living room.

Carvalho jogged to the commode in the hall. “Go ahead,” she called back after reaching the extension.

Dahlia answered on the fifth ring. “Hello?”

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear,
And it shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe,
And he keeps it, ah, out of sight.

Dahlia could be heard, “No cause for concern. Everything’s under control. The police are here doing their investigation, but we can talk when they’re done. Not that there’s anything to talk about.” She hung up.

There’s a tugboat, huh, huh, down by the river don’tcha know,
Where a cement bag’s just a’droopin’ on down.
Oh, that cement is just, it’s there for the weight, dear,
Five’ll get ya ten, old Macky’s back in town.

Dahlia and Detective Carvalho emerged onto the patio. “Mrs. Hume? What was that about?”

“That was a specialty cheese shop up north. We get lots of imported cheese from them, lots. Deliver to us regularly. They must have seen something in the news. That’s why they just wanted to know . . . if they needed to deliver any more cheese to us.”

Detective Carvalho raised an eyebrow. “A cheese shop up north? Formaggio Fresco by any chance?” She nodded confirming and making notes in her small black notebook. “Did Ruskin have any contact with anyone at this cheese shop, to your knowledge?” The Humes looked at each other and shrugged.

And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor.
Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?
I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry.
Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown.

“Mr. Hume, before we search the greenhouse, do the contents belong to you? Or would they be Ruskin’s?”

“Technically they’re mine. Ruskin brings in most of the supplies, stores them there, charges us for them, no doubt. I think you’d probably say they’re technically ours whether we ever laid eyes on them or not. I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘ours’.” He turned his chair so that he wouldn’t have to twist to address the detective. “When Dahlia and I were young, I did a lot of work in the garden and the greenhouse. But recent years, I’ve learned to just enjoy the results.”

Now that Macky’s back in town!
Look out, old Macky’s back!!

The worker bees among the flower beds in unison stood up, faced the patio, and applauded the end of Mack the Knife.

As if on cue, the old, wizened raven landed on the lawn between the patio and the flowerbeds. He held something shiny in his beak. He paced in a circle, turning as if showing off his treasure. And then looking squarely at Detective Carvalho, he dropped the object, flared his hackles, and, uttered three rasping soul-piercing calls: “Hraww, hrawww, hrawwww!” He then turned into the wind, lifted himself into the air, and ascended to the peak of the greenhouse, watching. Officer Oliveiro walked over to examine the object, and picking up with a pencil, she moved it into an evidence bag.

“Detective,” said Officer Oliveira, “I think this is a MedicAlert bracelet.”

Carvalho walked over where Oliveiro stood and leaned down to peer at the object. She saw a thin bracelet bearing the Rod of Asclepius on one side and an ID number on the other. “Run it.” Oliveiro strode away purposefully.

Santander looked puzzled, “I don’t know what they’re running it for. Medic Alert only has codes engraved for blood type, allergies, and conditions.”

“Maybe forty years ago, Mr. Hume,” Mitsy spoke, smiling. “But now you can pull up a person’s complete medical history and next of kin from a MedicAlert ID – instantly. Mr. Hume, . . . You look flushed. I . . . I think you’re hiding something.”

“Mitsy – that’s rude!” Bill exclaimed.

“Must be a trick of the light,” replied Santander. “Why would I be . . . probably one more of Ruskin’s doings.” Santander looked at Dahlia and muttered, “Silly woman.”

Mitsy sat up in her chair. “Excuse me?! I am not a . . . silly woman. I’m the mother of two beautiful, bright children, a leader in my church, an ed-u-ca-tor.”

“You don’t want to get her mad,” said Bill quietly, slouching down in his chair.

“I’m shaking,” said Santander, sweat now beading on his forehead.

“You know, Mr. Hume, I may bake cookies, but that does not define me. That’s a capability, not a limitation. And we came over here out of goodwill, neighborly good will, to be nice and offer friendship and, and support. In the words of our nation’s greatest poet, Mr. Bob Dylan, ‘I don’t want to classify you, deny, defy, or crucify you. I just want to be friends with you.’ And you’re making that very difficult. You’ve been very . . . unpleasant.”

“Someone got a gold star in public speaking,” Santander smiled over at Dahlia.

Detective Carvalho paused, listening.

“Missy, Mitsy, Muffy,” Dahlia shook her head slowly, as if uncertain. “I don’t think giving birth qualifies you to cast aspersions on Santander. That dog over there probably qualifies on that same basis.”

“Mrs. Hume, with all due respect,” Mitsy began, “you and your husband have spent more than some people’s lifetimes, judging by your cadaver tans and snide comments, doing nothing to contribute in any way to society. I bet that dog does more for the community than you do, more than you’ve probably ever done. And I suspect that you and your husband have secrets that you’d rather not have exposed to the light of day.” She stared at Dahlia and then Santander. “Something’s fishy.” All eyes were now focused on Mitsy. “What did your husband mean by ‘such a crude technique’? Does he know better ones? Who was on the phone – some cheese importer who was concerned about delivering cheese to your house while the police might be here? One thing I do know is that people who routinely dispose of organic matter like bodies use sulfuric acid, which dissolves everything but precious gems and unreactive metals – silver, gold, and the platinum metals — ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum. Tell me I’m wrong. Call. Me. Silly.”

Somewhere beyond the sea,
Somewhere waiting for me,
My lover stands on golden sands
And watches the ships that go sailin’.

“Mrs. Barnes,” Santander stared fiercely as if to drive her backward with his eyes. “The world. Is a more beautiful place. Today. Because of me.”

It’s far beyond the stars.
It’s near beyond the moon.

“Mr. Hume,” said Mitsy, beginning to quiver, “don’t you know the gates of hell will not prevail?”

Shaking, Santander began to speak in a quiet voice that steadily elevated as his face reddened. “I am so sick of listening to your simpering niceties! You have no clue the things I’ve seen, the things I’ve done, the way I’ve done them! No idea how the world really works. And every time – every one of them – deserved it! These guys don’t go after the average joe on the street. They go after guys with dirty hands. And I only dealt with ones who got in BIG trouble! I removed the WORST of the WORST! The world is a better and more beautiful place because of ME!” Santander, now standing, turned to look at Dahlia, who stared back in shock. The hive turned with one mind and stared in silence – except for Bobby Darin.

Somewhere, beyond the sea,
Somewhere waiting for me . . .

Standing at the edge of the patio, Detective Carvalho reviewed her notes. Officer Oliveiro approached her with the bagged bracelet. The two talked briefly in low tones, and then Detective Carvalho approached the table.

“Folks, we found something very interesting,” announced Detective Carvalho. “We’ve been able to trace this bracelet back to a Simon Brillstein.”

“Another of Ruskin’s victims?” said Santander unsteadily.

“If he’s one of Ruskin’s victims, that would mean Ruskin began killing by the time he was in seventh grade.” Carvalho looked up from her notebook. “Simon Brillstein disappeared nineteen years ago.” Detective Carvalho looked squarely at Santander. “Any idea how this bracelet ended up on your property, Mr. Hume?”

I know beyond a doubt, ah,
My heart will lead me there soon.

Santander Hume was silent.

Detective Carvalho looked up to the peak of the greenhouse, where the old wise one was joined by a second old bird. “You know they mate and nest for life. I bet he’s been here about as long as you have. He probably feels like this is his property.”

We’ll meet (I know we’ll meet) beyond the shore.
We’ll kiss just as before.

Carvalho stepped up to the table. “Santander Hume, you’re under arrest. Suspicion of accessory to murder.” The detective nodded at Oliveiro, “Cuff ‘im and stuff ‘im. Read him his rights.”

Officer Oliveiro motioned for him to stand. She cuffed him behind his back and grabbed him by one arm.

And never again I’ll go sailing.
No more sailing.
So long sailing.
Bye, bye, sailing.

Doug Brown lives in Grove City, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Susan. Doug is not your typical fiction author, having taken a 40-year pause from writing fiction. He holds the Katie Lehman Award for Fiction. Recently, his fiction has appeared in “BarBar” and “Half and One” with additional pieces accepted for future publication. Doug holds degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: