Authors: Anna Drake
High Stakes, A Hetty Fox Short
Copyright 2015 by Anna Drake
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents, either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used, fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE PHONE RANG at about eight that Saturday morning. Calls that early were rare in my life. So this one set off instant alarm bells. I dropped the edge of the quilt and snatched up the receiver.
“Grandma. Grandma.” It was my grandson. “You’ve got to come over quick!” The concern in Hugh’s voice gave further rise to grim thoughts.
“Yes, of course I will. But sweetheart, can you tell me what’s wrong?”
My heart rate slowed a notch. Chaos was the name of Hugh’s gerbil, a recent addition to my dear daughter’s family. And in spite of myself, I felt a small smile forming at the corners of my mouth. “What’s wrong with Chaos, dear?”
“He got out the door. You gotta come over. Help me find him.”
“Of course, I’ll be right there. But may I speak with your mom first?”
“Yeah. Just a sec. Mom?”
Megan came on the line. “I’m sorry about this. Hugh insisted we call you. He’s convinced you’ll lead us straight to the gerbil.”
I’d recently spent my days snooping around a murder case that had occurred near my house. But I was miles away from being a serious detective. And tracking a gerbil that had broken free from a house would be a serious challenge. The things were so small. They could hide anywhere. “No pressure, right?”
Megan chuckled. “See ya’.”
As I replaced the receiver, Andrew Peters, my resident ghost, materialized opposite me. Tall, with dark hair and dark eyes, Andrew looked much as he had all those years ago
before he’d been killed in a tragic car crash. His death had left me floundering for years.
“I couldn’t help but hear,” he said. “I should come with you.”
“Absolutely not, I don’t want you flitting around outside my daughter’s house. What if she sees you? Or worse yet, what if one of her neighbors spots you? And Hugh doesn’t need to be worrying about ghosts. He’s way too young for that.”
“Hetty, I’ll stay invisible. I promise no one will see me. Plus, I move more quickly than you do. I can get into places you can’t. The odds of your catching that gerbil increase if I’m with you.”
I shook my head.
‘Don’t decide against me,” he protested. “If you don’t locate Hugh’s gerbil, you’ll disappoint that grandson of yours. I don’t think you want to do that. You’re facing high stakes here.”
I sighed. He had a point. “Okay, but you don’t make a habit of going over there. And for Pete’s sake, make sure no one sees you. Not Hugh. Not Megan. Not the neighbors.”
He shot me that smile of his that had so touched my heart when I was young.
I smiled as best I could. And debate over, I rushed to the kitchen, grabbed my purse, and headed for my car.
Hendricksville is a small town of about three thousand people. It’s located along the banks of the Illinois River, about halfway down the state. I live on a high bluff which overlooks the river and the lowlands on the other side. That’s the side my daughter lives on. And firing up the car, I pointed its nose her direction.
Megan’s house was located amid a couple of blocks of old Victorian houses in a small, but charming part of town. With their bright colors, the homes were like a rainbow tucked in among tall, arching trees. The lawns here were generous, the grass carefully trimmed.
As I pulled to the curb, I found Megan on her front lawn with her nose stuck beneath one of her large lilac bushes. My other grandson, Jeremy, was about to turn one. He sat in a stroller behind her. Hugh was dropping what I assumed was gerbil food on the grass. I climbed out of my car and was almost halfway to my destination when Hugh spotted me.
“Grandma,” he cried. His arms waved wildly. Then, dropping his packet of food onto the grass, he rushed across the yard, crashed into my legs, and wrapped his arms tightly about me.
I bent over and hugged him back, relishing the scent of his freshly shampooed hair. “Don’t you worry,” I told him. “We’ll find that little stinker of yours.”
Hugh backed up, his dark eyes catching and holding mine. “Chaos is not a stinker. He’s my best friend.”
I stifled a laugh. “I’m sorry. Of course he is. Now, hadn’t we better get on with the search?”
Hugh nodded and hand in hand we walked toward Megan. Even involved in a desperate search for a missing pet, my daughter managed to look lovely. But then my deceased husband’s height and his rich chestnut-colored hair, both of which she’d inherited, might have had something to do with that.
When we reached the spot where Hugh had been dropping food, he let go of my hand and returned to his efforts. I bent over and kissed Jeremy on the top of his head. Then, I strode on to my daughter. “Where should I start?”
She smiled, but looked worried. “I think we’ve got our yard covered. Why don’t you check the lawn next door? I’m sure Mrs. Rasmussen won’t mind. The only problem is that the thing is so fast he could be halfway to Mars by now. You may have to expand your search.”
“No problem,” I said. “And keep the faith. He’ll turn up.”
She nodded and offered up another smile. “Thank you for coming.”
Mrs. Rasmussen maintained a large flower garden at the front of her house. The heads of zinnias and Shasta daisies and a few daylilies bobbed gently on the light, morning breeze. The colors were gay, the sight welcome. A bee buzzed among the blossoms briefly in his hunt for pollen. He busily stuck his nose into a bloom or two before speeding off. I shuffled forward and started feeling my way through the mass of plants.
After several unsatisfactory minutes of pushing flowers first one way and then the other, I spotted a small stick lying in the grass near me. After grabbing it up, I began shoving it into the bed and beating the ground. I hoped to frighten anything hiding there out onto the grass. But for all my effort, I came up empty handed.
I next poked the stick under several yews along the home’s front foundation. Failing with that effort, I turned my attention to a small rose bush at the corner of the house. But I had no better luck there, either.
Straightening, I glanced around me. Front lawns stretched away on either side. I sighed. It would take a mass of people to cover all this ground. But seeing no further possible hiding places on Mrs. Rasmussen’s place, I moved on to the next yard.
This lawn belonged to Lester and Sadie Potter. If Mrs. Rasmussen’s lawn was gay with bright, colorful flowers, this lot was free of nearly any place for a gerbil to hide. I’d just poked my stick into a lone forsythia bush, when the front door of the house swung open to reveal Mr. Potter.
He was a tall, handsome man with graying hair, who stood inside his door in a blue dressing gown with suspicion written large on his face. “May I help you?” he asked.
I smiled up at him. We’d met once. He obviously didn’t remember. But that was fair enough. Although I knew his name and that he was principal at the high school, I couldn’t recall other details about him. But then I’d met a lot of people over the course of the past few months.
“I’m Hetty Fox,” I said. “Megan Langdon’s mother? I’m just tracking down an escaped gerbil. My grandson’s.”
“Oh,” he said, a look of relief flooding his face. “That’s fine then. Carry on. And good luck to you.”
He swung the door closed, and since his yard contained nothing more interesting than the bush I’d already searched, I shifted my efforts over to the next lawn. This one belonged to people I’d never met, so a part of me hoped they wouldn’t think me a trespasser and call the police. But squaring my shoulders and remembering Hugh’s distress over his missing gerbil, I carried on.
This lot was heavily planted. There were all kinds of wonderful hiding places here for any tiny thing. I almost wished I were a gerbil myself. Running around in this yard on such a glorious day and leading my owner’s family on a merry chase might be all kinds of fun.
I’d just finished prodding the third bush and was heading for a nearby bed of hostas, when I failed to see a root sticking up from the ground. Since I was moving forward at a pretty good clip when I fell, I slid for quite a ways, sort of like a baseball player sliding face first into home plate.
But rather than coming up safe, when my forward momentum stopped, I found myself nose to nose with a corpse.
Instantly, my breath came in great gasping gulps. My heart pounded loudly in my chest. Suddenly, I found myself scrambling backwards. Then, I shot to my feet and screamed.
Because of its small size, Hendricksville police protection is provided by the county sheriff. And Detective Daniel Oberton heads up the investigative unit of that department. A large man, he fills nearly every space he occupies, which that day seemed to include this generous-sized front lawn.
“Hetty,” he said, nodding in my direction.
I was pleased he seemed so friendly. When I’d helped Oberton with his last investigation, he hadn’t exactly welcomed my involvement, but he hadn’t carted me off to jail, either. Apparently in a department as small as the sheriff’s, extra hands sometimes proved useful
n those belonging to a rank amatuer like me.
“Good to see you again, sir,” I said.
He let his gaze drift over the rest of our group, which included Megan and Hugh and Jeremy along with homeowners, Phillip and Gloria Benchley. Meanwhile, the corpse remained well hidden beneath the draping evergreen boughs. And with Hugh standing right there among us, it was a fact for which I was exceedingly grateful.
“Chaos is a good gerbil,” Hugh told Oberton, apparently in an attempt to clear his pet of any blame in this unexpected disaster. “He’s never run away like this before.”
Oberton smiled. “I’m glad to hear it, son.”
Hugh blushed and grabbed his mother’s hand. Jeremy, still in his stroller, chomped on a plastic teething bone and watched everyone gathered around him with the kind of fascination only infants can display.
We were in a loose circle located about two yards from the tree which concealed the dead body. Oberton and his fellow detective, Clyde Warring, a slim, intense man, faced the tree. The rest of us stood opposite them.
“So,” Oberton said, turning his attention to the adults, “did anybody know the victim?”
“I did.” Megan said. “His name is Calvin Mazor. He is… ah… he was a janitor at the high school.”
“And you knew him how?”
“We were members of the same church.”
“The First Methodist on Waymouth Street.”
“Did he have a family?”
“There’s a wife. Her name’s Blanche. I’m not sure what their address is.”
“Thank you. We’ll track that down.” He glanced for a moment at Hugh before addressing Megan again. “Will you be available later if I come up with more questions?”
“Sure. I’m almost always home.”
“What about you, sir,” Oberton said to Phillip Benchley. “Do you have any idea why the deceased was found here in your front yard?”
Benchley, a small, balding man, sputtered around for a minute before he managed to get a full sentence out. “No, sir.” He puffed up his chest. “I’ve never seen…, I mean, I’ve never encountered that man before.” He glanced at his wife.
“Don’t look at me,” she said. “I’ve never had anything to do with a man by that name.”
Then, we all turned to watch a state police van pull up to the curb. If Hendricksville is small, so is Weaver County, and it has a budget to match. There’s no way county coffers could afford to staff a forensics team. So the sheriff department had to rely on the state to do that job.
Oberton waved at the folks in the van before turning back to us. “You good people are all going to have to get out of here. This lawn is a crime scene. Those folks are going to want to examine every blade of grass. And we’d rather do that without you good people leaving traces of yourselves around, any more, at lease, than you already have.”
“But my gerbil,” Hugh protested.
Oberton smiled down at him. “Don’t worry, son. If we come across it, we’ll see he gets home safe and sound.”
“Thank you,” Megan said. She slipped an arm around Hugh’s shoulder. “Come on. We’ll hunt for him in the back yards.”
Oberton scowled. “I’d really appreciate it, ma’am, if you’d limit your search to your own yard. We’re going to be doing a little hunting of our own. And there’s no telling yet just where it will lead us.”
Megan shook her head and folded her arms across her chest. “If you say so.”
With that we all parted company. Once back home, Hugh took himself off to investigate the hedge on the south side of the lawn. With him safely out of earshot, I asked Megan if she knew anything more about the murdered man.
“Not much,” she said on a heavy sigh. “He sang in the choir and helped keep the church in good order. He was handy, always fixing one thing or another.”