|DEATH BY DICTIONARY|
by Gloria Alden
Oxy fumbled for the phone and opened one eye to see who was calling at this ungodly hour. Her dad. Damn! What does he want now? “Yes, Dad,” she mumbled with eyes closed. “What do you need?”
She yawned and listened. “Yes, I know. I’m sorry Mr. Parker’s rooster woke you up.” So you had to call me and wake me up, too? She thought and made a face as she listened to his grumbling.
“Why don’t you have Austin talk to him?” She held the phone away and shook it in anger. Like I don’t work, too? She wanted to screech at him.
“Not a good idea, Dad. You can’t go on someone else’s property and shoot their rooster.”
She listened to his rants a while and then sat up. “Dad, I’ve got to get ready for work. I’ll stop by on my lunch break and talk to Mr. Parker.”
“Damn! Damn! Damn!” she muttered. “Why do I always have to be the one to pacify him? Why can’t he ever call Austin, the favored son?”
Oxy started getting ready for work. Both her decent scrub pants needed washing so she dug an older pair out of the closet. Too tight, she thought. I’m eating too much. It’s the stress of dealing with Dad. She found a top to go with the pants, one that didn’t look too worn.
Oxy didn’t have a good relationship with her father. Never did. She hated the name he’d saddled her with. Oxford English Dickinson. Being an English professor who loved the Oxford English dictionaries was no excuse for it. She didn’t know why her mother agreed. She’d died soon after her brother was born when Oxy was only five. Until she went to school, she didn’t realize what a horrible name it was. Austin Amherst Dickinson wasn’t much better, but at least Austin wasn’t such a bad name. No one ever made fun of him. She’d shortened Oxford to Oxy, but at school “Oxy the Ox” is what the kids called her. It didn’t help she’d been a little plump. Her name was probably why she’d never had a boyfriend in school. At thirty-five, she still didn’t. Male friends, but never a boyfriend.
Pouring coffee and creamer in a travel mug and grabbing a piece of unbuttered toast, she went out to scrape snow and ice off her car windows before heading to the vet clinic where she worked as a veterinary tech. That was another thing her dad didn’t like. He wanted her to get an English degree and eventually teach college. He wasn’t happy about Austin going into law, but had accepted that much better than Oxy’s choice of career. He didn’t like animals and never let her have a pet. She wanted to be a veterinarian, but he refused to pay for her education so she’d got a job as a waitress and worked her way through school as a vet tech. She got to work for animals and wasn’t in debt for large student loans. Before driving off she briefly thought about going to her dad’s and getting it over so she could eat her lunch in peace.
Pulling into her dad’s drive, she noticed Mrs. Partridge’s car wasn’t there. Her father’s cleaning lady worked mornings. She glanced at her watch. Almost lunch time. There were faint car tracks in the snow so maybe she had to leave early.
Oxy dreaded talking to Norman Parker about his rooster. She’d always liked him and his wife, Dottie. Especially since they had a dog she could pet and love. Both Dottie and Rags were dead now. It was too bad the friendship her dad and Norman used to have had deteriorated. You’d think two widowers about the same age would be good company for each other, but she realized it would be hard for anyone to be friends with dad for long.
Norman Parker was heading for his chicken run so she walked over. “Hi, Mr. Parker. How’re the hens laying?”
He smiled at her, his blue eyes crinkled in a tanned face. “Well hello, Oxy. I haven’t seen you for some time. How’s it goin’?”
She returned his smile. “Okay, I guess.”
“Still workin’ at the animal hospital?”
“Yes. I’m on my lunch break now.”
“After you talk to me about my rooster, right?”
She gave a short laugh. “Yeah. How did you know? Your rooster must have got the message since he’s not crowing.”
“Your old man called me ranting and raving before I was out of bed. Said he was going to sue me for disrupting the peace. Said someone would be here to talk about it. I assumed it’d be Austin.” He grinned at her.
She rolled her eyes. “He doesn’t like to bother Austin. Thinks his job’s more important than mine. Besides, Austin already told him he doesn’t have a case.”
“I know, but your dad’s getting up a petition.” Norman looked worried. “He’s going to get all the neighbors to sign it claiming my chickens are a nuisance.”
Oxy touched his arm. “I’ll talk to Dad. I don’t think the neighbors would sign it even if he did pass one around.”
“I don’t know, Oxy. Even if people don’t always get along with him, they respect him more than someone like me, who worked as a truck driver. Sometimes my hens get out and get in his garden. He might have a case against me there.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Parker. It’ll all work out,” she said.
“I hope so, Oxy. It’s time to feed and water my chickens. I’m a little late getting out this morning.”
Oxy left him to walk next door to her father’s house and was almost there when she saw a little red car pull into the driveway. She stopped and waited to see who it was.
“Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go,” Edith Marble sang as she headed for her last delivery with insulated bags for hot and cold meals for clients on her Mobile Meals route. Of course, she didn’t have to cross a river and it’d been years since her grandmother had passed on, but tomorrow was Thanksgiving so she always enjoyed singing this song. “The horse knows the way to pull the sleigh through the white and drifting snow.” She grinned. Well no horse and sleigh, but there was drifting snow. They’d always sung that song on their way to grandma’s and grandpa’s house when they were kids so many years ago. She’d sung it to her own kids, too, and wondered if Gerald or Mandy sang it to their children. She’d have to ask them when they came for dinner tomorrow. Her grandchildren were teenagers now so they probably wouldn’t take their noses out of their phones. “Over the river and through the woods, oh my, how the wind does blow. It bites your toes and stings your nose, for this is
Thanksgiving Day.” She turned the heat up a little. The wind had picked up and snow was drifting across the road a little. She was glad for a car and not a horse and sleigh.
Edith got out of the car well bundled against the chill. When she saw the woman standing on the walk watching, she called out “Mobile Meals,” and then got out a hot meal and a bagged lunch. She smiled at the woman as she approached. “I’m Edith Marble, and you must be the Professor’s daughter. How’s he doing today?”
Oxy shrugged. “I just got here, and haven’t been in yet, but if he’s anything like he was at five o’clock this morning when he called complaining about Mr. Parker’s rooster, than he’s not in a very good mood, which is not unusual.”
Edith smiled at her. “He can be a bit cantankerous,” she admitted. “Does lots of complaining about the meals I deliver like it’s my fault they’re not to his liking. It’s a wonder Mrs. Partridge puts up with him.”
“I’ve been wondering why she isn’t here now,” Oxy said. “Maybe she finally got fed up with him, although I know she needs the money. She once admitted to me it was the only reason she stayed. Want me to take his meal to him so you can get going?”
“No. It’s my last delivery today, and I want to wish him a Happy Thanksgiving,” Edith said.
“To which he’ll most likely reply something on the lines of ‘bah humbug.’” Oxy grinned.
“Dad,” Oxy called when she walked in the back door. Her dad didn’t answer. His supper and breakfast dishes were in the sink waiting for Mrs. Partridge. “Dad,” she called again and walked into the hall. Still no answer. Maybe he was in the bathroom. She started into the library and stopped. The large bookcase holding his complete set of sixteen Oxford English Dictionaries plus other reference books had toppled over. Her father’s legs were sticking out from underneath. She rushed over, squatted down and tugged at one leg. “Dad! Dad!” she said. There was no movement.
She became aware of Edith Marble lowering herself next to her. Edith started moving the pile of books off his head and Oxy joined in. When as many books as possible were removed from him, they tried together to move the bookcase from his chest, but it was too heavy. Edith felt the artery in his neck and looked at Oxy. Without Edith saying anything, Oxy knew he was dead. She continued looking at him. How many times she wished she could hit him on the head with one of his dictionaries. And now it had happened. Her eyes rolled upward. Should she thank God for taking her father? She supposed that wasn’t something she should do. She stood up.
“Well, Dad, I can’t say I’m sorry you’re dead. You made my life miserable, and I must say you had a fitting death. Wherever you are now, I hope you’re sorry for the way you treated me.”
Edith listened and wondered before going to the kitchen phone to dial 911. She asked Oxy if there was anybody else who should be called.
Oxy shrugged. “I guess my brother. I’ll do it.”
While Oxy called her brother and the vet clinic telling them she wouldn’t be back today, Edith went to look at the scene again. She wondered how the large bookcase toppled over. It was an old house, and she could see the floors slanted away from the wall the bookcase had stood on, but why now? She walked closer and noticed three holes in the wall about the height the bookcase would be. She checked the back of the bookcase and saw tips of three screws sticking out. Obviously there were screws holding the bookcase firmly against the wall. What caused them to fail now? She wondered.
Edith returned to the kitchen. Oxy had started a pot of coffee and was washing the dishes.
Sheriff Braddock and his large sized partner, Deputy Roland, arrived before the ambulance. He raised his eyebrows when he saw Edith Marble. “Not you, again! What are you doing here?”
“I deliver meals to Professor Dickinson on Wednesdays,” she said. “Mobile Meals.”
Sheriff Braddock let out a big sigh. “So where is he and what happened?”
“He’s in the library. You’ll see when you get in there.” Edith led him to the library with Deputy Roland following close behind.
Sheriff Braddock’s eyes took in the scene. “An unfortunate accident, I see.”
Edith shook her head. “No, I don’t believe that. I think it was a planned accident.”
His forehead furled as he stared at her. “And just what makes you think that?” He asked with a sarcastic tone.
Edith walked to the wall and pointed at the three holes in the wall and then moved to the back of the bookcase still lying across Professor Dickinson’s chest and pointed at the short points of the screws still pointing out. “It looks like someone loosened the screws holding the bookcase in place on the wall. All it took was for him to remove some books to cause it to fall forward onto him. And maybe someone to help a little, too,” she added.
Sheriff Braddock rolled his eyes slightly and said to Deputy Roland, “Let’s get the bookcase off him.” Together they managed to move the bookcase back up against the wall, and it started to tip forward again.
Edith peeked around them and saw all three screws sticking far out. She nodded. “You see what I mean now, don’t you?” she said.
Sheriff Braddock rubbed his chin. “Hmmm. I suppose they might have worked their way out, but it’s highly unlikely, I’m thinking. It probably could have been done anytime and just been an accident waiting to happen. Roland, move that table over here to hold the bookcase up.”
“I think it was done sometime early this morning,” Edith said.
He gave her a skeptical look. “So you have second sight, too?”
“Nope, I’m just observant, but then I came before you.”
“Okay, give. What makes you think that?”
“Well, there were light tire tracks in the snow, partially covered from snow flurries we’ve been having, in front of Oxy Dickinson’s car. She arrived just before I did.”
“She couldn’t have been getting ready to leave instead of coming?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. She was talking to Mr. Parker, the neighbor, when I came.”
“Still doesn’t mean she just arrived.”
Edith thought about that and what she’d heard Oxy say to her dead father.” “Well, I suppose she could have come earlier, and then came back. The tracks in front of her car are partially snow covered unlike the ones behind her car. You could talk to the neighbor. He was outside taking care of his chickens so he would’ve noticed if she was coming or going, I’d say.”
Sheriff Braddock turned to Deputy Roland. “Go next door to the neighbor’s and ask him to come over so I can talk to him.”
After the deputy left, Braddock asked Edith, “So just how well do you know this guy?” He nodded at the Professor lying with books scattered around him.
“Not well. He was a cantankerous old man, rude to the woman, Mrs. Partridge, who came in to clean mornings, and always grumbled about the meals I brought.” She shook her head. “As if I have anything to do with preparing them.” She didn’t mention what Oxy said after discovering him dead.
The coroner arrived and Sheriff Braddock was busy in the library when Deputy Roland returned with Mr. Parker.
“So what happened to Dickinson?” Norman Parker asked as he walked in the door ahead of Deputy Roland. He jerked his head towards the deputy. “He wouldn’t tell me anything.”
“Dad had an accident. He’s dead,” Oxy said.
Edith watched Mr. Parker’s face. He looked more shocked than guilty. Of course he’d had time to put on an act, if act it was.
“What kind of an accident?”
“The big bookcase in the library fell on him,” Oxy told him.
He frowned. “A bookcase fell on him? How in the hell did that happen?”
Oxy looked at Edith. “I overheard Mrs. Marble telling the sheriff she thinks someone loosened the screws holding the bookcase secure against the wall.”
Norman Parker was silent thinking and then shook his head. “Ornery as he was, I can’t see someone doing that to him.”
Oxy shrugged and swallowed. “At least you won’t have him complaining about your rooster anymore.”
Her voice quavered a little making Edith think she might’ve had more feelings for her father than she was letting on or was she guilty and now sorry?
Mr. Parker sighed. “That problem’s been solved. Someone came in the night or very early this morning and wrung Henry’s neck.”
Edith and Oxy stared at him with mouths open.
“I take it Henry was your rooster?” Edith said.
He nodded. “Raised him from a chick. He was close to ten years old. Old for a rooster.”
“And you’re sure it wasn’t some animal?” Oxy asked.
“No. You’re a vet tech. You can look at him if you want. He’s lying outside the chicken coop. I didn’t want to upset his hens.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Parker,” Oxy said and went over and hugged him.
Edith glanced at Deputy Roland to see what he thought and saw a soft smile on his face. Good Lord, Edith thought. Is the Deputy attracted to Oxy? She sized up the girl. A little overweight, but not obese by any means. Short dark hair sticking out in all directions from the knit hat she’d pulled off. She did have beautiful eyes, blue with dark lashes. Nice skin, too.
Edith’s attention went to the back door as it opened. A young man came in and stomped his feet on the mat by the door. His eyes went to Oxy. “So tell me more about what happened to Dad? Why’s a sheriff’s car here?”
“Austin, I told you a bookcase fell on dad killing him.”
“Yeah, yeah, so why the sheriff and I take it a coroner since there’s a medical examiner sticker on the back of the car behind the ambulance?” Austin Dickinson asked.
“Edith Marble noticed the screws holding the bookcase in place were loosened.”
He turned to look at who his sister had nodded at and looked more puzzled than ever. He shook his head. “You don’t look like a detective,” he said to her.
“I’m not. I deliver Mobile Meals on Wednesday’s to your father. I’m sorry for your loss. It must have been quite a shock.” She sized him up. He didn’t seem to be grieving. Hadn’t even asked to see his father, but then it might be a macho thing not wanting to show any emotion.
All eyes turned to the door when it opened again and Mrs. Partridge, the cleaning lady, came in. No one spoke, but only stared at her.
“What happened? Why are all of you here and an ambulance and a sheriff’s car? Did someone shoot the Professor?” she said in a rush running all her words together. Her eyes went to their faces waiting for an answer.
“Mrs. Partridge, we’re all surprised you came. When you weren’t here when Oxy and I arrived, we thought maybe you’d quit or something. We all know Professor Dickinson would be hard to work for,” Edith said. “The Professor had an accident. He wasn’t shot.”
“Oh. Did he fall down the stairs? If I hadn’t felt a little sick this morning, and had come at my normal time, I could probably have saved him.” She put her hand to her chest and moaned.
“Would anyone like a cup of coffee?” Oxy asked.
Everyone said yes and sat down at the table as Oxy poured cups of coffee for each of them and put cream and sugar on the table.
Edith looked at them. One of them – well, not Deputy Roland, of course – was most likely the one who loosened the screws.
Oxy? She admitted to not getting along with her father. Edith watched her and noticed her shy looks at Deputy Roland before glancing away when they made eye contact. Somehow Edith didn’t see her as a murderer. She supposed people who loved animals as much as she did could be a murderer, but for now she wasn’t going to consider Oxy.
Edith looked at Austin. He still hadn’t gone in to his dad. Of course, maybe he didn’t want to see his dad like that. She wondered about Professor Dickinson’s will. Who’d benefit? Who made it out? Could his son be the executor of his will? Would that be legal? She didn’t know, but it didn’t seem as if it would be ethical.
Her eyes went to Mr. Parker. He loved his rooster, but enough to murder his neighbor over one old rooster? It didn’t seem likely especially since he’d just found his rooster dead? Or did he just find him dead? It must have been alive when her father called her. Still whoever loosened the screws on the bookcase had to have been in the house earlier. From what she’d heard, Mr. Parker wouldn’t have been a welcome guest in the house, so whoever killed the rooster probably did it to place blame on Mr. Parker, she thought.
Mrs. Partridge sat down at the table. “I can’t believe he’s dead. I’ve worked for him such a long time. It’s going to be hard to find another job like this one,” she said. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, although Edith didn’t notice tears.
“You got along with him quite well, I take it,” Edith said patting her hand.
Mrs. Partridge nodded saying with a little laugh. “Oh, he could be grumpy, but we understood each other, we did.” She smiled. “He was lonely you know and enjoyed having my company, such as it was.”
Edith noticed Oxy staring at her. She glanced at Edith and rolled her eyes. Edith bit back a smile and looked at Austin. He was staring into his cup of black coffee without drinking it seemingly unaware of the conversation going on.
Oxy rummaged in a cupboard and found a package of chocolate chip cookies, which she opened and placed on the table. “It’s not much of a lunch, but it should tide everyone over for a while.”
Deputy Roland smiled at her. “Thank you, Miss Dickinson.”
She smiled back. “Oxy,” she said. “Just call me Oxy. Everyone does.”
Edith noticed him beaming at her. He wasn’t going to be objective about her in solving this murder, she thought. Not that she expected him to solve any murder. She looked at Oxy and realized she was attracted to him, too.
Edith stood up and asked Oxy, “Which way to the bathroom?”
When Oxy gave her directions she headed there stopping first to look into what seemed to be an office. Going in silently, she looked at the papers on top of the desk being careful to move them with a pencil. Under the newspaper lying on top was the Professor’s list of things to do. One of the things brought a smile to her face. Ah, ha! She thought.
When she returned and sat down at the table again, she looked at Austin.
“This must be hard for you,” she said with a kind smile.
He looked up at her and shrugged. “Sort of, I guess. We weren’t close in a normal father son type of way.”
Edith nodded. “That happens all too often. Since you’re a lawyer, did you make his will?”
He looked startled. “Absolutely not! That wouldn’t be ethical. Before you ask me, I don’t know who did, or who he left anything to. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he left everything to the college. It would be something he’d do.”
Edith looked pleased. She’d already ruled him out, but wanted to make sure she was right.
She turned to Mrs. Partridge. She placed her hand on Mrs. Partridge’s. “It must’ve been a blow to find out Professor Dickinson was letting you go after all the years you put in here,” she said kindly.
Mrs. Partridge sputtered. “But he didn’t. Where did you get that idea? He was pleased with my work.”
Edith didn’t say anything more just watched her face.
Mrs. Partridge’s eyes darted around and then she started crying. “I put up with so much with him over the years. You have no idea the verbal abuse he heaped on me. Nothing was ever good enough, and then to tell me he wouldn’t need me anymore. He’d found someone else who would work cheaper he said would do a better job. No one else would be willing to dust all those damn dictionaries every week.”
Edith found her eyes misting up. The poor woman, she thought. Life isn’t always fair.
“Did you kill Henry?” Mr. Parker asked.
Mrs. Partridge nodded. “I’m sorry. That was much harder than unscrewing the bolts and pulling the bookcase over when the professor was pulling out one of his dictionaries.”
Oxy went to Mrs. Partridge, knelt down beside her and hugged her, comforting the older woman who had worked long and hard for the Professor.
Edith looked at Sheriff Braddock standing in the doorway scowling at those sitting at the table.
“What’s going on in here?” he asked.
“Mrs. Partridge just admitted to what happened.”
Austin stood up. “Her rights weren’t read to her. I’m not a defense attorney, but I’m hiring one for her.”
Oxy smiled at her younger brother. “Good for you, Austin.”
Sheriff Braddock scowled at the two of them then looked at Edith Marble. “Want to tell me about why you accused her?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t exactly accuse her. Come with me.”
She led him to the office and showed him the things to do list where he’d written “Fire Mrs. Partridge. Write her a check for $50.00.”
She looked at Sheriff Braddock. “Fifty dollars after working with such a difficult person for years and years. Do you blame her?”
He shrugged. Life isn’t always fair, is it? I would’ve found that eventually you know.”
“Of course, you would have. You’re a good sheriff,” she said smiling up at him.
He shook his head and gave her a little smile. “You did save me some time in cracking this case, though. Thank you for that.”