White Roses For Her Wreath

July 21, 2012

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Beker stared morosely at the hole in the ground.  There just yesterday had been an  unexceptionable Blanc Double de Coubert, a shrub rose with pure white flowers and a heavenly scent but prodigally available in any garden supply store, not even obliging a visit to a greenhouse.  He specifically chose easy roses because he only pottered, but he preferred to seem majestically endowed with gardening savvy, and the Blanc Double de Coubert did that for him among his generally unknowledgeable neighbours.  Had it been one of them?  If so, he felt the culprit was likely too benighted to replant it correctly and could finally kill a virtually unkillable rose.  For the first time in the years since he and Carol had retired to this part of town, he cased his neighbours’ fencing to see how easy it might be to search their gardens.  Not that he couldn’t just spend $13.99 ($6.00 mail order) and get another plant.  But that wasn’t the point.

What are you doing? asked Carol, coming out to him with some iced tea.  There’s going to be a murder here, he said.  Carol checked herself; on the odd occasion in the past that had been more than a turn of phrase around Beker.  Someone has already begun to torture an innocent plant and is undoubtedly about to seal its doom, he continued, pointing to the hole.  Stole a rose, huh? she said, with what Beker considered some callousness.  Look, he said, it’s a bad idea to let vandals get away with things, leads to a more serious class of crime.  How do you know? asked Carol.  Lack of respect for living things, said Beker, we were all plants eons ago.  He who kills my rose, kills me.  I thought they wanted it alive, Carol said.  Then she decided it was time to get on with the laundry.  Later, she realized that leaving Beker alone was, as usual, a mistake.

After Carol went into the house, Beker started his garden-to-garden search.  A few blocks down at Frank Fuseli’s, over the back yard fence, he could see another hole in the ground.  It was large, clumsily dug.  Had Frank or Elizabeth seen it yet?  How big a garden did this vandal mean to furnish?  He decided to knock and see if anyone was home.  As he walked up to the porch, he noticed that the blue box was overflowing; must have forgotten to put it out last time.  He knocked on the front door and found himself waiting an awfully long time.  The porch light was on, during the day.  He knocked again, just to be sure they were out.  Faintly first, then more loudly, he heard someone approaching the door.  The person who opened it a crack was a stranger to Beker.  She was blonde and in a dressing gown, but with none of the allure that such a description might imply.  

I’m sorry to bother you, Beker said, I’m looking for Frank.  The blonde seemed to be thinking, more about Beker than about responding to him.  Oh, she said finally, he’s not home right now.  I guess with Elizabeth? Beker asked.  Yes, they’re both out, said the woman.  Then, because she could see that Beker was not a stranger to them, she said, I’m housesitting.  They went away for a few weeks.  Antigua, I think.  She pronounced a long u in Antigua.  Elizabeth would have been horrified.  Do you know when they’ll be back? asked Beker.  Well, a couple of weeks, she said.  Will you be housesitting the whole time?  Beker asked.  Yeah, sure, said the blonde.  Are you a relative? asked Beker.  Look, I’m busy, the blond said, I have to go.  Wait, said Beker quickly, wanting to get more out of her.  Maybe I can show you something in the back yard.  You’ve been robbed.  What? she asked, startled.  Yeah, come and see.  Reluctantly, the woman followed Beker to where there had once been a lilac bush that Frank had planted two years earlier, before the clouds had begun to gather around his mind.  Beker had tried to tell him that a lilac set tight into the corner of an otherwise bare but meticulously kept lawn did not a landscaping plan make, but he said it was just the beginning.  Oh, she said, you mean the bush.  Yeah, I know about that.  Really, said Beker, when did you notice it?  She seemed suddenly confused.  I don’t remember, yesterday I think.  Maybe the day before.  Her voice lost the slightly conciliatory tone it had had, and became irritated.  Look, she said, I told you I’m busy.  Now leave me alone.  She stomped back into the house and shut the door sharply.

Conversation from another dimension, Beker thought.  Being “out” becomes some weeks in Antigua, “housesitting” means no interest in looking out for the garden, or in setting out the recycling, or even shutting off the porch light in daytime.  Maybe she’s just dim, Beker said to himself.  He decided that, to visit the next neighbours, perhaps he needed to go round the side of Frank and Elizabeth’s house where their big bay window was.  He looked in as he passed slowly, and saw the blonde standing by the sideboard in the dining room.  She was examining the mail, circulars, what looked like letters to the householder and a magazine in a pile.  She slapped the last unopened envelope down angrily.  Shit, she said loudly enough for Beker to hear, when the fucking hell is that thing going to get here?  Patience, patience, a voice answered her.  It’s snail mail and you know it’ll be registered anyway.  Beker couldn’t see the owner of the voice; it was male and deep-throated.  The old lady keeps asking too, said the blonde sullenly.  The voices toned down, and became inaudible.

Beker tried to remember where Elizabeth would ordinarily be.  Frank was usually at home now, on disability.  Elizabeth still had some mindless sales job, what they promoted to sales associate when they wanted to pay you only on commission.  How would these people have gotten in, if they weren’t legitimate?  Beker could think of a lot of ways.  He decided to check the garage, which was detached from the bungalow.  He knew that, while Frank had always locked the big garage doors, the little side door only looked like it was padlocked.  Frank had lost the keys, so now the lock was set to look good from a distance, but really, all you had to do was get close and you could see it wasn’t tight.  Beker had noticed it the last time he had come to their house.  

Inside the garage, Beker got a shock.  In the corner was Frank’s lilac and his own Blanc Double de Coubert.  Their roots were packed in earth-filled plastic bags.  Ready to go where?  Now, if he were with Carol, she would say he should call the cops.  He could hear them now:  So, your friends went on holiday without telling you?  Tsk, tsk.  And you found a couple of plants in their garage ready to be transplanted and you think one of them is yours?  Got your name on it, does it?  No?  It’s a rare plant, is it?  No?  We’ll get right on it.  Beker sighed and started for home.

In the kitchen, he rummaged about and found his thermos and was just finishing packing his sandwich and chocolate bars when Carol came up from putting in a load of laundry.  I’m going for a hike, he said, reaching for his best Canon.  Maybe I’ll find the guy who took my rose, but anyway, I’ll get a good walk and some shots out of it.  You’re always wanting me to get more exercise, he added virtuously.  Carol’s eyes narrowed; she knew Beker.  Have you got your cell phone? she asked, then watched him as he sauntered off down their street.

Beker headed for the Fuselis’.  In the garage, he left the door open a tiny crack, enough to look out, and started to wait.  He wished he’d paid more attention to the stories the CSIS spies brought back, but it’d never seemed worth it.  He’d only been a cypher clerk in the department, in a room full of cypher clerks.  And they only wanted to boast anyway; he wasn’t even sure they really went anywhere, because didn’t the guys who did never talk about it?  But these guys did talk about stakeouts.  Had a lot more equipment than a camera, a bag of sandwiches and a thermos.  Beker knew if it lasted all night, he’d have to think up something to tell Carol.

After dark, the only light in the house seemed to be in the basement.  Beker could just make out   the basement floor through the low narrow window on the garden side.  Time for a better look.  He slid out and crouched close to the ground.  Christ, this was going to mess up the arthritis in his knees.  But the flickering shadows meant someone was there, so he approached the window, pressing close to the wall.  When he looked down, he was surprised.  Frank and Elizabeth were sitting in pyjamas, Elizabeth facing a glowing computer screen.  They were on Skype, and a young man was talking.  Frank bobbed his head, almost frantically, and Elizabeth said yes, yes,  you were supposed to send it, did you send it? loudly enough for Beker to hear.  Another short, inaudible exchange, and the conversation was over.  Good night, dear, said Elizabeth, and added, Frank, say goodnight to our son.  She needed to remind him who he was.  God, thought Beker, he had known the Fuselis long enough to know their son was a rare sighting in their home, and his arrival never boded a happy visit.  He remembered a shouting match in the house that he had once overheard from the sidewalk, with Frank screaming that he’d never get another penny, when would he ever be a son, and the young man with the blood-suffused face who strode out of the house and drove away with screeching tires.  He was a lawyer offshore somewhere, don’t tell me Antigua, thought Beker.

Beker was about to tap on the basement window when he pulled back quickly as a large hand reached out and grasped Elizabeth’s shoulder.  Good job, rumbled the deep voice.   OK, thought Beker, now he had even less to tell the cops.  The Fuselis weren’t in Antigua but safe in their own home?  Except Beker was sure they weren’t safe.

Back in the garage, he called Carol and said not to wait up for him; he’d ended up taking a bus to Gatineau Park and would find a motel so as to get up early and get some sunrise shots.  Carol’s long pause meant she didn’t believe him.  Let me know what motel, she said, finally.  And be careful.  When are you going to remember you’re retired?

After an uncomfortable night on some large bags of soil mix, Beker was happy to get up early.  Chomping on chocolate for breakfast, he decided the best thing was to wait by the grey Canada Post drop box, where the mailman refreshed his load.  He knew Luke, a side-effect of Carol’s tipping every Christmas, and his own mornings in the garden.  Hey, Luke! he said as the familiar, lanky man came into view.  Hi, there, said Luke, what you doing up so early?  Taking some morning pics, said Beker, holding up the camera he wore cross-body.  Any mail for me?  Just a sec, said Luke, and pulled out the large ring of keys that opened the drop box.  He filled his bag, and flipped through the packaged envelopes.  Yeah, lots, he said, if you like flyers and begging letters; how many of those charities you signed up for anyway? he asked as he handed them over.  Oh, I’m a popular guy, laughed Beker, tucking them into his jacket, but I can’t compete with my friend Frank.  You know Frank Fuseli, right?  He and Elizabeth live over there, on that crescent.  They must get a ton every day!  Naw, can’t say they do, said Luke.  Mostly the Alzheimer’s Society.  Not even flyers from the travel agencies? asked Beker.  Their son lives in some hot spot, like Antigua or someplace, and they’re always talking about visiting him.  They even told me yesterday they’re expecting a letter from him today.  Oh yeah? said Luke, still organizing his route, well I can tell you it came because I’m carrying a registered letter for them.  Here it is, he laughed, reaching into his bag and holding up a fat envelope he already had.  But not Antigua, the Cayman Islands.  Has to be signed for — maybe he’s sending them tickets!  Can I touch it for luck? asked Beker, laughing too and squeezing the envelope, feeling the unyielding stiffness inside.  Maybe it’ll bring me a son who sends me tickets to the Caymans too!  Luke twitched it away from Becker and tucked the envelope back into his bag.

They separated as Luke moved to start his route, and Beker walked back in the direction of the Fuselis’ crescent.  Finding a new spot inside the vestibule of one of the stacked townhouses across the street, he saw Luke eventually re-appear, visiting one porch after another until finally ringing the bell at the Fuselis’.  The blonde was there quickly this time, probably looking out for the mailman.  Luke evidently wanted the addressee, and after a pause, Elizabeth appeared, half-pushed by the blonde.  Even from his hiding place, Beker could see the tension in Elizabeth’s body, her jerky motion in signing for the letter.  A few minutes later, the man came out with Elizabeth, pulling the door locked behind them.  He held her elbow firmly and steered her quickly to a car parked three houses down, (did they think parking in the Fuselis’ driveway would attract attention?), and waited till she was seated before he crossed quickly to the driver’s side.  Beker grabbed some shots with his camera as the man got in, slamming the door and pulling away quickly.

Now there’s only the blonde and Frank in the house, thought Beker.  He thought he knew where the man and Elizabeth were going and didn’t doubt they’d be back.  How much longer did Frank and Elizabeth have to live?  Would the blonde deal with Frank right away?

Suddenly, there was a loud crash from inside the Fuselis’ house.  The front door flew open and Frank came running out, pyjamas under a flapping dressing gown.  He waved a knife stained with red.  Help, he yelled, help!  Beker rushed up to him, trying to get his attention.  Frank, he shouted, Frank!  What’s happened?  But Frank seemed ready to attack Beker, holding the knife high.  Wait! said Beker.  It’s me, Frank, it’s me, Beker!  Frank focussed on him,  and immediately his face crumpled into tears.  Oh no, oh no! he moaned.  Beker took his arm, shocked at his state and wondering how much was due to the disease, and Frank released the knife, dropping it to the ground.  Beker left it where it fell, so as not to disturb any fingerprints.  He couldn’t leave Frank alone, but he wondered if going inside with him, returning to capture, would bring on more hysteria.  But there was Elizabeth to think of.  Frank, he said, want to go home?  It seemed to be the right thing to say.  Frank perked up and said, yeah, let’s go home.

At that moment, the blonde appeared at the door, her hands as red as the knife.  I’ll call an ambulance, Beker said.  No! she blurted.  I’m fine!  It’s just a small cut.  The silly fucker… she stopped, changing to I mean he dropped a plate on the floor and I got a cut trying to keep him from hurting himself with the knife.  She was next to him now, and trying to pull Frank away from him.  Frank began to wail.  Look, Beker said, let me help him in.  I’ll just help him in, and he began to walk Frank toward the door.

The blonde noticed the knife and quickly picked it up, following Beker and Frank through the door and closing it behind them.  It was a small bungalow, and from the front hall, Beker saw through to the kitchen.  On the floor were indeed the shards of a large serving platter.  Had he thrown it trying to escape? or to protect himself?  Frank had begun to cry again.  They’re going to kill us, they’re going to kill us, he choked out between sobs.  Beker sat down with Frank on his living room sofa.  No one’s going to kill anybody! said the blonde, sucking on her cut hand between words.  He’s just confused, you can see he’s sick, he’s lost his mind, she said, apparently trying to recruit Beker to the idea of herself as concerned friend.  We just want to help him.  By telling me he’d gone to Antigua? asked Beker.  The blonde hardened immediately.  Then thought better of it.  Look, she said, you’re right.  I just didn’t want him bothered when I told you that.  But I need some help to settle him.  Help me get him upstairs to his bedroom.  Beker recognized that now she wanted her unwelcome helper where she could see if he tried to make any calls.  And if she got him to stay till the man and Elizabeth got back, he’d become a hostage too.

Sure, he said, and turned to Frank again.  Frank was looking at him imploringly.  He took the keys, he said, he took the keys and flew away.  It’s ok, Frank, Beker said.  It’s ok.  Beker knew he didn’t mean the lost garage door keys.  Let’s go upstairs, he said.  You can lie down and rest.  Beker put his arm around Frank’s shoulders and urged him up, and then, holding him still, the two men slowly walked to the stairs and up them.

The blonde dropped the knife in the kitchen and picked up a dish towel to wrap her hand and followed them nervously.  His bedroom is over there, at the top of the stairs she said, but Beker, who knew where it was, passed by the door, saying, I think he wants to pee, I’ll take him to the bathroom first.  Come on, Frank, he said, we’ll make you comfortable.  The blonde paused as Beker took Frank through to the tiny bathroom.  Beker’s back filled the doorway as he gently pushed Frank ahead of him, saying, you just sit there Frank, sit on the toilet.  Will you do that?  Frank nodded somewhat confusedly.  Don’t move, said Beker quietly, hoping fervently Frank would follow orders.  Then, still filling the doorway, he quickly reached his hand around the door handle, setting the lock from the inside, and pulled the door closed, leaving himself outside.  Then he rattled the door handle, and said excitedly, Good grief, he’s locked himself in!  We have to get him out.  He might hurt himself!  He’s sick!  Behind him, the blonde seemed stunned, unsure what to think.  Look, said Beker, not giving her time to think, I know where Frank keeps his tools!  We can find a hammer or something to break the lock.  Let’s go downstairs, he said, and herded her along the little hallway back toward the stairs.  Come on, come on, he said urgently, his workshop is in the basement.  The blonde hesitated only a moment and then followed him, as he knew she had to.  She’d think Frank could be left where he was.

Beker was taking the stairs down as quickly as he could, ignoring his complaining knees, but not so quickly as to outstrip the blonde.  He wanted her with him.  At the bottom of the stairs, he turned the handle of the door on the right, walking into a neat and well-appointed woodworking shop, not used much now.  Here it is, he said, and started rummaging among the tools.  She came in, watching him.  Look, never mind, she said, he’ll get himself out soon, I’m sure, probably thinking her accomplice would get him out.  But he could hurt himself, said Beker, hammer in hand.  He turned and deked around the blonde, and before she could react, he had closed the door on her.  This time, the lock worked from the outside, as Beker knew it would because Frank had told him that he never trusted repairmen not to steal his tools.  It was his security measure.  Beker had set the lock when he turned the handle to go in.  With the screams of the enraged and now trapped blonde behind him, Beker started back up the stairs.  He swore again at his knees; he’d have to get some cortisone shots after this.

He fumbled for his cell phone, punching in 911, hoping he could get help before Elizabeth and her captor returned.  He was sure there’d be a crime to investigate when they did.  He gave the operator the Fuselis’ address and said it’s a home invasion, it’s a home invasion before ringing off.  He could hear the blonde’s muffled yells, so he went to the TV and turned it on loudly enough to drown her out to anyone approaching the house.  Good grief, they had it set to the shopping channel, non-stop talk.

He stood by the picture window, hoping the cops came first because he would be no match for a man with probably a gun and a hostage.  But it was the car with Elizabeth and the man which slid to the curb first.  Elizabeth got out slowly, as though very tired.  The man was quickly by her side, pulling her.  For him, too, the climax was coming.  They walked up and onto the porch, the man close behind Elizabeth who held the house key.  From the front door, down the hallway, Elizabeth could see into the kitchen, and the scattered shards of platter on the floor.  Oh no, she said, startled, and moved quickly toward the kitchen.  Beker saw his chance and stepped from his living room corner, swinging the hammer straight and hard into the man’s face.   With a scream, he sank to the floor, and Beker thought better safe than sorry, and swung again, connecting with the man’s cheek.  Well, that made a face not even a mother could love, he thought.  He better have a gun or I’m screwed.

Jesus, are you a maniac, said Carol.  What on earth made you think you could take on a pair of killers?  Oh, the blonde too? asked Beker, sidestepping her question.  I thought just the guy had done time for manslaughter.  They were sitting in the police station, waiting for another in the series of interrogations that Beker was undergoing.  Accomplice to intended murder makes her a murderer too, said Carol.  What I want to know, said Beker, is where their son dug up those two.  Carol laughed — in a garden somewhere, you mean?  Not for the first time, Beker was glad he had married Carol.  No, no,  he said, maybe he was lawyering for the mob with money there?  I wonder if the cops will tell me.  The police regarded Beker with deep suspicion even if the man had indeed had a gun in his pocket.  And the photos of his uninjured face that they needed for identification came from Beker’s shots of him getting into the car with Elizabeth.  Beker had even set his camera to video mode when rushing over to help Frank, so they had the whole incident on record.  The video was surreal because of the camera’s cross-body position, but the sound was fine.

But seriously, said Carol, how did you know it was their son who hired them?  I mean, he’s in the Caymans and his parents are asking him to send back the safety deposit box keys he took from Frank.  He only sent one key, I only felt one key in that letter, said Beker.  Elizabeth says he told her he took them both for safekeeping, but really, I think he didn’t want them removing the contents without his knowledge.  Ok, continued Carol, he sends them one of the keys back, so now they loot the box of the only valuables Frank and Elizabeth have, the jewelry collection Frank’s mother left him.  What’s the point?  Why not just loot the box himself?   Because he’s going to need an alibi, particularly if we’re talking murder.  Why were you so sure they’d be killed, Carol interrupted.  No disguises, said Beker; they’d moved in.  And their son would want the rest of whatever they had to leave.   In for a penny.  And who knows, maybe Frank and Elizabeth were savers.  They fought with their son over money.  The jewelry probably wasn’t enough for him, but enough to want it, maybe need it if he’s got debts to bad guys.  He could think it’s already his since his father might not be long for this world.  Elizabeth also says he got very upset when she told him they’d already put in their respective wills that it goes to the Alzheimer’s Society.

So sending back the key would help prove he was in the Cayman Islands when Frank is discovered knifed to death, and Elizabeth disappears? asked Carol.  Yes, Beker said, people would think she released Frank from his misery, and then went off with the new boyfriend that she emptied the box with.  Their son could get control of the estate if Frank were dead and his mother gone who knows where.  But where is she really?  Feeding the Blanc Double de Coubert and the lilac shrub.  The double transplant means the earth can be dug wide, like a grave, and the mature plants can seem to have been there a while.  No one would guess, even if they noticed turned soil around the plants.

But the son, Carol returned to her question, how did you know it was the son?  And don’t say, who else would know about the safety deposit box, because old people could easily offer that information themselves if they were desperate to pay off their captors.  True, said Beker.  Remember Frank tried to tell me his son took the keys and flew off back to the Caymans?  But anyway I knew it was their son earlier, when he had no reaction although he must have seen the man who never said goodbye behind his mother during that Skype call.

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