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Molly Masters Series

Death of a Gardener

Death of a Gardener

Chapter 1

Enjoy Your New Home

The car was approaching my house. Though my back was turned to the road, the sound of that particular automobile had become all too familiar. Bits of gravel crunched between asphalt and whitewall tires as the baby-blue Buick puttered past my property at five miles an hour, the piercing eyes of its overweight, polyester-clad driver would be surveying my home and gardens like a lioness on the prowl.

I held my breath and didn't move, hoping against all odds and logic that she wouldn't see me kneeling by the garden at the side of my house. Or would mistake me for a lifelike lawn ornament. Or, just this once, might see fit to leave me alone.

No such luck. The engine stopped. A moment later, a car door opened, then slammed shut, and I heard the deep, almost masculine voice of Helen Raleigh call, "Oh, um, excuse me? Molly Masters?"

She always addressed me by both my first and last name. Next she would introduce her own full name, as if it were possible for me to forget the former owner of my house. Then she would tell me she "just happened to be driving by." This despite the fact we lived on a cul-de-sac.

"Molly Masters? It's Helen Raleigh."

Helen had driven past my house at least once a day since we bought this property three months ago. She always stopped every time she spotted me. I had dubbed these encounters My Visits From Hell...N.

Gripping my little dented spade, I grimaced and rose. If only I had a can of roach repellent in my hand.

She strode across the lawn toward me. In upstate New York's sauna-like June afternoons, it was a mystery to me how she could tolerate full-length slacks and long-sleeve outfits, yet I never saw her wear anything else.

During one of her numerous attempts at prying for personal information, she had let on that she was forty-five. This made her just nine years older than I, but she seemed to be from a different generation—in a different galaxy.

She was wearing a garish pantsuit, with splashes of yellow, red, and green in posy-like shapes spattered across her wide body. It looked as though she were wearing the seat cushions from patio furniture. Yet, as always, my eyes were drawn to the world's least flattering hairdo. Dyed jet black and curled under, it reached only midpoint to her ears. The dark, bristly hair along the nape of her neck had been trimmed close to the scalp.

She neared. Waves of sickeningly sweet perfume emanated from her body. She flashed a nervous smile and said, "I just happened to be driving by, and I—" She froze, staring at the grass. She bent down and yanked up some green, leafy plant. "This is a weed, you know." Her lips curled distastefully as she held it out to show me. It was less than two inches tall, even if you counted the threadlike roots.

"Well, Helen, even though I'm not a botanist, I can tell that isn't a blade of grass. However, it is approximately the same shade of green, and it blended into my lawn quite nicely. That's my entire criterion for whether or not a vegetative substance gets to stay put."

Her eyes widened and her thick, blood-red lips parted in a small gasp at my lackadaisical attitude. Annoyed, I decided I might as well try to egg her into a full faint. "Now dandelions, for example, get yanked. No matter how often Jim mows, those pesky dandelions keep popping up their heads. I suspect they give one another high fives when our backs are turned."

Helen stared at me; her sharp features blank. Beads of perspiration dotted her forehead and her cheeks were flushed. Uh-oh. Maybe she really was going to faint. She was something on the order of five-eleven and two hundred pounds. If she passed out, my thin, five-six frame was not going to be able to support her, let alone steer her into shade. I considered suggesting she get out of the direct sun, but was afraid she'd take that as an invitation to plant herself inside my home.

She tightened her fist and stashed the tiny weed in her pocket. No doubt she intended to have it analyzed to determine if we'd been fertilizing the grounds properly. "You shouldn't have any dandelions. But don't worry. I scheduled a lawn service."

"You what?"

"It's the same company that I used for the past two seasons, and they're first-rate. They should be here in a few days."

"You had no right to do that! This isn't your yard!"

"I realize that." She scanned the side yard as we spoke. I gripped my spade with both fists as if it were a samurai sword. So help me, if she pulled one more thing out of my yard, I'd whack her knuckles.

"This is a full acre of land," she went on. "Somebody has to take diligent care of it. I hope I didn't cross the fine line between being helpful and imposing."

Fine line? More like the Grand Canyon, in this case. "Nobody schedules lawn services for someone else's property just to 'be helpful.'" My voice was nearly a shout. "You're obsessed with this place. You've got to stop this!" I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Everything would be all right. I would cancel the lawn service. I would try to locate a friend or two of Helen's in the neighborhood and ask them to please convince her to seek therapy. Immediately.

"You've got to let go of this place." As I spoke, she knelt and used my watering can to rinse off her hands. "By the way, there was concentrated fertilizer in that water. If it's half as effective as the label claims, wash thoroughly the moment you get home. Otherwise your hands will turn green." I had to get her to leave. Soon. She had moved into a condo a few miles from here, at the center of Carlton, our small suburb of Albany.

Helen ignored me and stared at the upturned soil. "You're planting something? Did I forget to tell you that this is the perennial garden?"

"No, you didn't forget. But you see, this used to be the perennial garden when it was your house. It's my garden now, so I'm dumping in bulbs and seeds all willy-nilly. I like to be surprised by what grows."

Wide-eyed, she searched my face. "I do hope you understand how much work I put into this property. I bought this place with the proceeds from my divorce. It was the first thing I ever owned on my own. I simply can't stand to see it go to ruin, just like my marriage did."

"I do understand, but it's not 'going to ruin.' Furthermore, you need to understand that this property doesn't belong to you anymore. So even if I did opt to allow it to 'go to ruin,' that would be my right."

She brushed past me to the spigot and, without asking permission, turned on my hose, rinsed off her hands, then focused the spray onto my newly turned soil. "This will encourage the roots to grow deep," she said.

"Hmm. Well, that'll be a trick, since I deliberately planted the bulbs upside down. I'm helping my daughter with an experiment for next year's science fair." None of that was true, but I was now determined to make this visit as unpleasant for her as it was for me.

She bent down and pointed. "Is that a pumpkin plant?"

"Yes, my son is—"

"You can't put a pumpkin plant this close to flower bulbs!" She straightened, clicked her tongue, and frowned as she scanned my handiwork.

"Why not? Do flowers and pumpkins belong to hostile political parties?"

"You know, Mrs. Masters, I would prefer you not dig up this flower bed. I spent months putting it in." She made a parting-of-the-seas motion with her arms. "This area is xeriscaped, height- and color-coordinated to perfection. The front garden could use some work, but this side garden is my pride and joy."

"And I'm sure your 'pride and joy' will look very nice alongside the tennis court we're putting in."

Her jaw dropped. "You never said anything about putting in a tennis court! I forbid you to do that!"

With effort, I stopped myself from shouting: Are you nuts, lady? In fact, we couldn't afford said court. I'd told her that just to annoy her—but that was beside the point. "Listen carefully to me. This is my property now. If my husband and I decide to re-landscape, we will do so."

She twisted the nozzle shut with so much force I half expected her to wrench off its head. She dropped the hose, leveled a finger at me, and shouted, "I had higher bids on this house than yours! I allowed you to buy it because you told me you weren't into gardening!"

That was true. My husband's "temporary" assignment in Albany was well into its second year. We'd been living in a small, rented house, when my mother called and told us about this place, a few blocks from theirs, listed at almost fifty thousand less than market price. But I was reluctant to buy, believing that would make my plan of someday returning to my beloved home in Boulder all the more remote. So when we met Helen Raleigh at the Open House, and she went on ad infinitum about the property's "flora"—not to mention the grassa in the lawna—I admitted we weren't into gardening. Then we bid below her asking price. To my complete surprise, she accepted it.

She spun on one heel of her canary-yellow pumps and marched back across my lawn. "I'm talking to Sheila Lillydale, right away," Helen called over her shoulder. "She's a lawyer. I'll sue you for breach of promise."

I watched for a moment to see if she was just going to move her car to the other side of the cul-de-sac where the Lillydales lived, but she drove off and turned toward downtown.

Was there such a thing as "breach of promise" regarding real estate transactions? In any case, it was unfortunate she would bother Sheila Lillydale, of all people. Sheila had a feisty energy that I appreciated. But I had yet to decide if she was merely hard to get to know, or just plain didn't like me. On the other hand, my daughter had a crush on the Lillydales' son, who was a nice-looking nine-year old. He was growing into the image of his dark, broad-shouldered dad.

I glanced at my watch. It was not quite two o'clock. That gave me just over an hour until my children would be home from elementary school.

Somehow my momentum for gardening had been lost. It took the last few drops of my gardening enthusiasm and acumen just to turn off the spigot and return the spade and watering can to the garage.

This truly was a nice house, though not the Taj Mahal its former owner seemed to believe it was. The siding was colonial gray with maroon trim, tastefully accentuated in the front with red brick. The gardens, while difficult to maintain, were lovely. Again, though, we weren't talking "0 Garden, My Garden!" here. No one, other than Ms. Raleigh herself, had ever given this particular acre of grass, maple trees, and a few flower clusters much more than a passing glance.

The temperature descended into heavenly cool air as I stepped down into my basement office. This was the location of my business, Molly's eCards, for which I designed humorous greeting cards. My earnings were enough to fund a family vacation to Hawaii last summer. After having paid for construction of the office, this year we'd be lucky to afford a weekend in Poughkeepsie.

My office entrance featured oak and glass French doors. Two window wells afforded me small, semicircular views of the sky. A built-in, walnut-stained pine desk ran the entire length of that wall. I had a major and minor light table in the back corners of the room. Having two permanent drawing surfaces gave me the luxury to move to a second drawing when one I was currently working on wasn't going well. Plus, the floor was linoleum and my office chair had wheels on it, so I could propel myself from one table to the next with one good shove, which entertained me when neither drawing was working.

I got right to work at my major table on a cartoon about dealing with difficult former home owners. My real-life experiences give me much of the material for my greeting cards. My reasoning is, since you can't rid your life of unpleasant experiences, you might as well find a way to laugh about—and profit from—them.

In my cartoon, a couple, carrying boxes as they enter a gate, are staring in horror at a rowdy group having a party at the far side of a swimming pool. One of the partiers calls to the couple: "Didn't the former owners tell you? We own half of your pool. But don't mind us. Enjoy your new home."

As I worked, I pondered once again why Helen had sold the house in the first place. She'd explained to us that she was forced to sell because the mortgage payments were too high for her income. Yet it seemed to me that the extensive surveillance operation she ran on our house was what prevented her from earning full-time wages.

I finished the cartoon and now tried to decide what to do with it. Most of my revenue came either from clients with yearly contracts for a set number of cards per month, or from unique one-time eCards, or even faxable cards. I decided I could categorize this as a humorous card for someone was in the throes of having to move.

I scanned my card and started to convert it to my computer when my wireless went down. Or maybe technically my modem went down. I wasn't great on high-tech lingo, only at four-letter words when my computer and/or equipment didn't do what I needed it to do. I rebooted the computer, reset the modem, and refreshed my attitude by grabbing the phone. This would be a good time to catch my best friend, Lauren, at home alone, when Tommy Newton was unlikely to answer. Having had more than my fill of bickering with Helen Raleigh, I wasn't up to my usual verbal sparring with Tommy.

Though Tommy, Lauren, and I had been in the same classes during our school years, our relationships had grown increasingly complex over the last two years. Tommy was a police sergeant. Lately he was all but living with my best friend, right next door to my parents. Somehow, the proximity and peculiar combination of authority figures made me feel as though I needed to use a secret language and hand signals to converse with Lauren.

The line crackled as she answered. "Jeez, Molly. What's the matter with your phone? I could probably hear you better if you just shouted out your window."

I smiled. I could picture Lauren standing by her phone, most likely in her kitchen. She had straight, shoulder-length brown hair, a round face, with an absolutely stunning smile. "Probably so, which might answer why my wireless isn't working well, ever since we moved to—"

A loud bang from outside startled me. "Did you hear that? It sounded like a gunshot."

"A car must've just—"

I leapt out of my chair in alarm as a dark, furry shape fell onto the clear plastic cover of my office window well. Had someone just shot a cat?

Then I screamed and dropped the phone. Just outside my basement window, Helen Raleigh collapsed in front of my eyes. Her head was twisted to the side, her face inches from her hideous black wig.

© Leslie O'Kane


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