© 2011 K R W Treanor
“A parking lot full of suspects, and no way to shake the alibi of any of them,” Police Chief Paxton Cole grumbled. “I had to send them all home.” He stared at the view-screen of his digital camera and sighed heavily.
Geneva Bradford filled a coffee mug and pushed it across the counter. “Not a parking lot full, come on: there’s only space for eight cars at any one time at the Herbarium,” she said, briefly looking at the image that had depressed her friend.
“OK, but eight is still too many. They all look so sweet and innocent, how’m I going to figure out which one of the garden club members is the thief? I can’t use the old rubber hose trick, people don’t like hearing about little old ladies being worked over.”
“I don’t think I want to hear how you know that, Pax,” Geneva said. “Can you somehow reduce the suspect list by cross-checking one story against another?”
“Amazingly, I thought of that already. I did a chart of who saw who when and it still leaves a ten minute gap around one-thirty, just big enough so that I can’t single out any one person and lean on her a bit harder. That ten minute gap would allow for whoever stole the pomander to hide it and get back before anyone was the wiser. It’s too big to go in a pocket, and I searched the ladies’ handbags: at their invitation, I might add.” He scrolled to another photo and swung the camera around to Geneva.
“I can’t think why Claude had such an expensive thing on display openly. You’d have thought he’d put it in a locked case,” mused Geneva, looking at the picture of the heavily-embossed silver pomander. “Scottish Georgian silver is very collectible; I’d kill to have some in my shop.”
“Claude isn‘t the most practical person I ever met,” Pax said. “I had to download this picture from the Silver Society’s website. He says he hasn’t updated his insurance in years, so he won’t get much in compensation if I don’t find his bauble for him.”
“That lets out insurance fraud as a motive, at least,” Geneva said.
“Apparently it was a last-minute impulse that made him bring out the pomander to show it off; that wasn’t on the program, “Pax said.
“Aha, you didn’t say that before. That almost certainly means that this was a spur of the moment theft; there’s no way the ladies could have known the opportunity was going to arise. Which probably also means that however the pomander was disposed of, that was a last-minute idea, too.”
“The ladies all arrived within five minutes of each other. Several of them car-pooled, which means I have eleven potential suspects among eight cars. They all went to the green house to hear Claude’s talk on medieval herbal remedies. He showed them the pomander and told them all about how such things were used by the wealthy to put nice smells between them and the stinky outside world. This particular one sat on the desk of a 17th century Procurator, noted for his unforgiving nature, Claude tells me. After the talk, the ladies wandered about and sniffed and scratched to their hearts’ content, and met again at 2:00 for tea and scones and a Q & A session.”
“Where was the pomander after the display?”
“Claude put it back in what he calls his ‘consulting room’, that little cubby-hole off the main shop. He was in and out of the shop tending to the ladies’ questions for the next hour. I guess I should be grateful he had closed the shop to the public for the garden club’s visit; otherwise I’d have suspects from all over the state.”
“Of course you searched all the cars and found nothing,” Geneva said.
“I wouldn’t say nothing—you’d be surprised to know who had two joints in the glove box and who had a nip of vodka in the map pocket. But none of the cars had the pomander, and we checked out the few possible hiding places in the car park and surrounds. Because of the size, we figure whoever snatched it had to have taken it somewhere off site, maybe down the road a mile or two. Given Claude’s location in the rural part of town, there wouldn’t be that many handy hiding places that an elderly woman could access easily and quickly.”
“Don’t let Margaret Liversedge hear you say that, Pax,” Geneva said. “She prides herself on being in good shape for her years. Last year I helped her harvest crab apples and she can still climb a tree like a cabin boy up the ratlines.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t seriously count Margaret as a suspect, but I have to be seen to be even-handed.”
Geneva scrolled back to the photo of the parking lot again, then asked, “Pax, who owns the green Renault?”
The chief consulted his notebook. “Elva Jackson. She’s an out-of-town friend of Marie Dupont.”
“You can arrest Elva and tell her there’s an eye witness to her leaving the parking lot and returning a few minutes later,” said Geneva. “And there he is now.”
Pax looked over her shoulder. “I don’t see anybody.”
“The cat, Pax! Claude’s cat Culpepper: he’s asleep on the hood of the Renault. The only reason he’d have chosen that car over the seven others is that it’s warmer—its engine has been used more recently.”
“I can’t tell someone there’s a cat witness!”
“You don’t say he’s a cat, you say one of the employees can testify that her car was driven away at approximately one-thirty, returning about eight minutes later. Then you search hollow trees and gaps in stone walls on the right-hand side of Bayberry Road between the herbarium and Reddy Street, and I think you’ll find the pomander.”
“Why the right-hand side and why that particular stretch?” Pax asked, standing up and settling his hat firmly.
“The left hand side is fenced pastureland with no obvious hiding places, and after Reddy Street you start to get houses and barns and therefore potential witnesses. If she’s from out of town she wouldn’t have much time to find a secure hiding place, and she’d want to be able find it again easily after the hooraw dies down”
“You can’t beat local knowledge,” Pax said. “We’ll see if you’re right.”
Geneva waved him on his way and got back to her own work. “I hope Claude learns a lesson from this,” she said to her own cat, Toby, who had draped himself decoratively across the counter in her antique shop.
“Na-oh,” commented Toby, rolling over to suggest that his belly needed scratching.
Just before closing time, Pax rang Geneva. “In another time and place, we’d be planning a witch-burning party. Your guess was right; I found the pomander in a rotting tree stump at the side of the road, just before Reddy Street.”
“They mostly hanged witches, or pressed them to death—but I’m happy to forego any of the penalties, Pax. Claude was pleased, of course?”
“Yes, and apropos of pressing, he refused to press charges. Claimed it was his own fault for being careless with his treasure, and promised to have a wall safe installed for the future protection of the pomander. I let Elva go after a severe lecture. It was a crime of impulse and opportunity and she was already regretting it. I can’t see any point in tying up the courts for such a matter. The country is infamous for our high proportion of imprisoned citizens, why should I add to it? Especially a little old lady who’d probably be dead of old age before her case came up.”
Geneva smiled. “A very practical and merciful outcome, Pax. How about you and Alice come and share a pot of chilli with me to celebrate—that is, if you have no more pressing engagements?”
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