I called my boss and pled life-threatening, debilitating illness. She seemed skeptical that I was about to succumb to death by diarrhea, but I was beyond caring. Her skepticism was the least of my concerns.
I made myself a cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table, my mind spinning. I half listened to the activity at the front of my house while I went over what I knew and contemplated what I might have done to bring it all down on myself.
I kept coming back to the same thing. I had to have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or rather my house had been. For some, inexplicable reason, Oscar Greenbottom had flung himself onto Ralph the Gnome and somehow ended up on my doorstep.
But that was just too weird. He certainly hadn’t walked over. The blood-drops along my bushes seemed to prove someone else had been out there. Maybe Oscar and another one of the thieves had fought and Oscar had been shoved onto Ralph. But that would mean…
My eyes went wide. Mrs. Mouskawitz! Ralph had been at her house. Unless the thieves had carried the gnome to the house behind me and Oscar had fallen onto it there… Since the bloody yard ornament was currently rotting in a bathroom closet there, it seemed the most likely scenario.
But that wouldn’t explain how Oscar had ended up at my house.
The other option was if Oscar met Ralph next door. Which meant, he would have died in Mrs. Mouskawitz’s yard.
I needed to go next door. But I didn’t want the cops on my front lawn to see me. I’d have to wait until they were gone. With my nerves buzzing like a giant hive of bees, I made a second cup of coffee and formed a plan.
As soon as the street was quiet. I was going to slither next door on my belly and try to figure out how Oscar Greenbottom had died.
A couple of hours later, there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find the young cop who’d dragged me back from the house where Ralph lay in gory splendor. “Hey,” I said to him.
He frowned slightly, looking at me as if he was sure I was the most hardened criminal but he just couldn’t prove it. “Sarge wanted me to tell you to stay in the house. No visitors. He’ll get in touch in the morning.”
I nodded readily, not intending to listen anyway. “How long am I on house arrest?”
“We’ll get back to you on that, Miss.”
I didn’t like it but figured I didn’t have much choice unless I got myself a lawyer. I didn’t want to jump that particular shark until it was necessary.
No point making myself look even guiltier than I already did.
I looked past him, to the yellow tape wrapped around my porch. “Is that really necessary?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is.”
Sighing, I nodded. “Okay. Thanks.” I closed the door, wanting to smack myself on the head. I’d thanked the cop for making my house look like a crime scene and trapping me inside. But it could be worse, and probably would be once they found Ralph.
Speaking of the gnome…
I watched the last cop car pull away from the curb and then went to grab my phone. If Mrs. Mouskawitz or Pooping Penny were secretly killers and came after me, I wanted to be able to call 911.
I slipped through the door in my kitchen, which led to my scrubby-grassed backyard and closed the door quietly behind me. I hadn’t forgotten Sergeant Maxwell’s promise to keep a watch on my house. Since I hadn’t seen a car sitting at the curb, I didn’t know where he’d stashed my babysitter.
I glanced toward the house behind mine and frowned as the morning light glinted off metal and colored plastic. There was a squad car parked at the house. Listening carefully, I heard voices.
They were searching the house. It wouldn’t take long for them to find Ralph. I needed to hurry.
I started jogging toward Mrs. Mouskawitz’s backyard, stopping at the end of my house to check the street before bounding past a small group of evergreens and jumping the short picket fence into her yard. Landing in her grass was like hopping onto a down-filled pillow. The grass was lush and green and free of all the ugly weed-type things that dominated my yard.
I made a mental note to ask her who she hired to maintain it. I might hire them to do mine.
That is, if I wasn’t wearing an ugly orange jumpsuit with the letters DOC on the back.
A shrill barking went up from inside Mrs. Mouskawitz’s house. The frilly beige curtains of one window started dancing as a tiny nose and a pair of beady black eyes bounced repeatedly into view. I mentally shushed Penny, worried the cops behind me would hear her causing a ruckus and come looking for the cause.
I jumped straight up into the air, clutching my chest as my heart tried to escape its bony bounds. Mrs. Mouskawitz stood just behind me, her yellow-gray hair swooping away from her face as if she’d just come from a wind tunnel.
Catching me looking at it, she smiled, showing a crooked set of yellow teeth. “Do you like my hair, dear? I just had it done.”
Since the style brought to mind the tail fins of a 1957 Chevy, I had to swallow hard before opening my mouth and lying through my teeth. “It’s lovely.”
She nodded, patting it carefully. “Do I know you?”
“I’m Dee. From next door?”
“Hello, Dee. Do you live around here?”
I pinched my lips closed, knowing that any explanation I made at that point would just be wasted air. Instead, I nodded. “I was wondering if I could see Ralph.”
Sparse gray brows lowered on her crepey brow. “Ralph?”
“Your yard gnome? I’m thinking about getting one for my yard and I wanted to check him out.”
“Oh, yes, Ralph. Of course dear. Come along and I’ll show him to you.” She tucked her arm through mine and marched me toward a gate at the side of the house. “I don’t believe we’ve met. Do you live around here?”
Biting back a sigh, I opened the gate, gently nudging her through ahead of me. “I do. I’m Dee. I live next door.”
She clapped her hands together, a look of pure delight on her wrinkled pixie face. “Oh how fun! I was just telling my nephew that I wished someone would move into that house. It’s been vacant for so long.”
“Yes. But not anymore.” I told her with a smile.
She nodded, a confused look filling her gaze.
She blinked two times and then grinned. “You know about Ralph? He was my very first beau.” She sighed wistfully. “Such a handsome fellow. He had a wonderful green thumb.”
And now he had a green bottom. “Is that why you named your garden gnome after him?”
She cackled, nodding enthusiastically. “Would you like to see him?”
“I would. Thank you.”
She tucked her arm through mine again and, a grin brightening her small face, led me to the corner of the house and stopped, looking down. The smile slipped away as she eyed the torn-up mulch and rutted grass. “Oh no!”
“What is it, Mrs. Mouskawitz?” I asked.
“Ralph has gone walkabout again.”
I pointed to a round indentation in the mulch. “Was that where he stood?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “He loved it there. He’s been there for quite a while now.”
“Has he disappeared before?”
“Once or twice, yes.” She frowned. “If you ask me, I think he’s sweet on the angel at the Bonds’ house.”
I twisted my lips to keep from grinning. I’d seen that angel. She was formed of chipped and painted concrete and stood in the middle of their sprawling front flower beds. “You don’t say?” My gaze slid along the scraped and dented siding above the rumpled mulch, halting on the broken window two floors above.
“I do.” Mrs. Mouskawitz shook her head. “Naughty Ralph. I guess we’ll just have to wait for him to come home. I can introduce you then. She turned to me, her smile reinstated. “Would you like tea, dear?”
“That would be nice,” I told her.
She clapped her hands again. Her lips turned downward for a beat. “I’m sorry, have we met?”
I pointed to the window above our heads. “Mrs. Mouskawitz, how did your window get broken?”
She followed the direction of my pointing finger and narrowed her gaze. “Oh my, when did that happen?”
When indeed. “You weren’t aware you had a broken window?”
“No. Oh my goodness!” She clamped a pair of cold, bony hands over my arm. “I’ve been robbed.”
I patted the hands, which were much stronger than they looked. I was pretty sure I was going to have bony finger bruises around my arm. “Let’s go inside and take a look, shall we?”
Her head started to shake in a negative way. “I need to call PoPo.”
“We’ll do that. For sure, Mrs. Mouskawitz. I’ll call them myself. But let’s just take a quick look around and figure out if anything’s missing before we call them. Then we can give them a list of items that were stolen when they get here.”
She thought about my suggestion for a beat and then nodded. “Okay, dear. That makes perfect sense.”
It did, didn’t it? I was kind of proud of myself. I took her arm and lead her around back again. It made sense to stay out of sight of any possible watching police on the street. At least until I saw what I needed to see upstairs. Then I could claim my elderly neighbor called asking for my help and I was honor-bound to help her.
I wasn’t exactly proud of how good I was getting at being devious. But when one discovered a talent, one should pursue it, right?
Unless that talent was strictly illegal. My antics were definitely borderline. But, strictly speaking, since I was innocent of everything the police thought I’d done, in theory at least, I wasn’t breaking any laws.
As we entered the over warm, brightly lit home, Penny trotted over to me, tail wagging in a friendly way. I was shocked to see a crusty brown substance staining her tiny chin. “Did Penny hurt herself?” I crouched down and scratched her throat so she’d lift her head. The staining substance surrounded her lips.
“Oh no, dear. That’s dirt. She’s been rummaging around in the mulch.” Mrs. Mouskawitz bent down and plucked the little dog off the floor, kissing her between the eyes. “She’s been a naughty girl when she was supposed to be doing her business. Haven’t you pretty girl?”
Penny’s tail whipped manically back and forth and she wriggled happily in the old woman’s arms. She obviously didn’t feel chastised by being called naughty.
I couldn’t help wondering, though, what Penny had been digging for.
Mrs. Mouskawitz fixed a bright gaze on me. She smiled, happy to have a guest. “How about some tea, dear?”
I realized she’d already forgotten about the broken window. “I’d love some. Can I use the restroom?”
Mrs. Mouskawitz settled Penny on the floor and wiggled her hand toward the hallway leading to the front door. “Down the hall. I think I have some cookies left. You like oatmeal I hope. They’re not homemade…I can’t see well enough to follow a recipe anymore. But they’re very good, none-the-less.” She wandered off toward the kitchen, still muttering to herself, and I hot-footed it toward the stairs I could see off the entranceway. If I was very lucky, I'd find something that proved Oscar or his cohorts had been in Mrs. Mouskawitz's house.
I didn’t even make it upstairs. A series of muddy footprints led across Mrs. Mouskawitz’s slate entryway, heading for the stairs. I wondered if the thieves had entered the home thinking it was empty and then discovered the old woman was home and rushed upstairs to hide.
I smiled at the thought. They could have come face to face with the elderly homeowner and she’d have greeted them like best friends…only to forget them thirty seconds later.
I followed the muddy prints up the carpeted stairs to the hallway on the second floor. Once there, they diverged in two directions. It looked like one thief went one way and the other took the opposite direction. I headed for the front of the house first, figuring that would be the room with the broken window.
I knew as soon as I opened the door that I’d found the right room. A cool, fall breeze wafted through the room, filling it with the crisp, memory-inducing scent of burning leaves. As I glanced around the smallish bedroom, my heart sank and my pulse spiked. It was a mess. Every available space was filled with boxes, pieces of furniture, TVs, computers, and other electronics. The long dresser at the side of the room was almost entirely covered with pieces of jewelry, crystal, silver and coins.
The double bed held an assortment of furs and expensive glassware. The closet doors were thrown open and I could see more boxes, many of them unopened as if taken directly off store shelves, filling that space from floor to the empty clothes bar.
I swallowed hard as I realized what I was looking at. Mrs. Mouskawitz’s spare bedroom was filled with the thieving ring’s stolen goods.
Surely she wasn’t the mastermind?
There was a very narrow pathway to the broken window. I followed it to the window, picking my way through a broken lamp and what looked like pieces of a shattered vase beneath the window. A small chair was tipped backward to one side of the window, its wooden back dug into the drywall as if someone had hit it and shoved it through.
I realized I was looking at the scene of a scuffle. A small amount of blood painted the ledge in front of the broken window, and a thread from some kind of clothing fluttered from a shard of glass that still remained in the window.
Looking down, I saw the sparkle of broken glass in the mulch around where Ralph had been standing. I grimaced as a picture formed in my mind.
A fight, a fall, a gnomish impaling.
My stomach roiled. At least I’d figured out how Oscar had died. Now all I needed to do was figure out how he’d gotten to my doorstep.
“Dee? Are you all right, Dear?” Mrs. Mouskawitz' voice drifted up to me from the lower level.
I hurried out of the bedroom and down the stairs.
Mrs. Mouskawitz was standing in the entryway, her expression vague but pleasant as usual. “Oh there you are. I wondered where you’d got off to.”
“I was taking a look at that broken window. You really need to get it repaired. There’s quite a breeze coming through there.”
She frowned. “Broken window? I didn’t know…”
I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. “I can call a repair company if you’d like…”
A tall figure moved down the hall and stopped next to Mrs. Mouskawitz.
I blinked, my heart pounding with alarm. “Oh. Hi. What are you doing here?”
Nick Bednick gave me a neutral look. “Hello, Dee.”
I stared at him for a long moment, daring him with my gaze to explain his presence there. Mrs. Mouskawitz wasn’t going to be any help. She turned to the undependable Mr. Bednick and frowned. “Hello. Do I know you?”
Nick’s gaze found mine and he smiled. “I’m your neighbor, Mrs. Mouskawitz. Nick Bednick.”
I arched a brow. “So that’s the name you’re still going with?”
He looked genuinely surprised by my statement. Obviously, he was a practiced liar. “Of course. It is my name after all.”
I was done accepting Nick Bednick at face value. “And I suppose you’re still going with the neighborhood watch excuse?”
“I am in the neighborhood watch.”
“Yeah. I just bet you are. While you’re watching the neighborhood, do you by any chance scope out other houses and help yourself to their stuff?”
He frowned, insulted. “Dee, I’m sorry about leaving you alone earlier…”
“Are you?” My fists clenched at my sides and I had to make a conscious effort to unclench them. I took a deep breath, glancing toward the elderly woman between us. She still had that vague smile on her face. I observed her for a moment, wondering if anyone could really be that clueless and survive on her own. “Mrs. Mouskawitz, whose stuff is that in your spare bedroom?”