Nobody could blame Charley Crompton for wanting to kill his wife. For years, she’s made his life hell, but poor old Charley has always been too meek to stand up for himself. One night they have a terrible fight, loud enough for Mrs. Williams next door to hear every word, and the argument is followed by eerie silence. The next thing Mrs. Williams knows, Charley is digging up the peach tree in his backyard and burying it again. When Mrs. Crompton doesn’t reappear, Mrs. Williams has only one thought on her mind: Mrs. Crompton has been murdered.
When the local sheriff knocks on the Cromptons’ door, Charley answers holding a bloody ax. As the circumstantial evidence piles up, the police are forced to decide: Is Charley Crompton a cold-blooded killer? Or has he simply lost his mind?
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About the Author
Fish died February 23, 1981, at his home in Connecticut. Each year at the annual Mystery Writers of America dinner, a memorial award is presented in his name for the best first short story. This is a fitting tribute, as Fish was always eager to assist young writers with their craft.
Read an Excerpt
By Robert L. Fish
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Robert L. Fish
All rights reserved.
"And the fights! Oh, the fights! Ah, the fights!" Mrs. Williams said piously, leaning forward, her ungainly flowered hat almost toppling, her small china-blue eyes intent upon the young sergeant's unrevealing face. "Awful! Awful!" She paused significantly. "Especially the terrible one they had the night before last—Wednesday, it was," she said, and paused again, almost breathlessly. "The night she disappeared," she added meaningfully.
"Disappeared." The sergeant started to write the word down on his lined pad and then stopped halfway to end it in a wiggly squiggle, culminated in an almost vicious dot. He wished, not for the first time, that he had chosen a different line of endeavor for his life's work; he had a strong feeling he knew what was coming.
"Disappeared. That's what I said," Mrs. Williams said sharply. "She hasn't been seen since—and that's disappearance, isn't it?" The edge of poorly concealed disdain tinged her voice. "And then that man trying to tell me, when I went over to borrow a cup of sugar—"
"You were out of sugar," the sergeant murmured politely, and carefully printed the word SUGAR on his pad. He hated busybodies of all types, but particularly those like the woman facing him, and not merely because they caused the police a great deal of work that almost inevitably was pointless. He wondered how life must have been in those delightful days before neighbors-within-earshot. Beautiful, without a doubt.
Mrs. Williams's little chin hardened. Her eyes defied him to attempt avoiding the responsibilities of his office with such flimsy tactics. Her well-tended hands clasped themselves more tightly about her purse, as if it might not be safe in this world of predators, even here in the local police station.
"That man was trying to tell me," she went on inexorably, a juggernaut not to be stopped, "that she was out shopping. Before eight in the morning, when the stores in town don't open until nine!"
The sergeant made a series of little 9's to border the mutilated DISAPPEARED and the intact SUGAR.
"And she wasn't home all day," Mrs. Williams declared flatly, "because I was watching. And then, this morning, I went over again, because I was worried about her, and he comes up with an entirely new story this time, about how she suddenly decided late last night to visit her sister. Which is a bit strange, since she doesn't have a sister and I know that for a gospel fact!"
The sergeant carefully printed NO SISTER on the paper before him, boxed the words neatly with his pencil, and began shading the enclosed parallelogram. He kept his eyes from the rather pretty face of the woman across from him. At the moment, she wasn't all that pretty.
"And how could she possibly have gone away in the middle of the night the way he said—without my hearing, I mean?" Mrs. Williams demanded. "My house is the only one nearby and I'm sure, if Mr. Jenkins had come for her in his taxi—or even if he drove her to either the train or the bus station—I would have heard."
"I'm sure," the sergeant said, and added under his breath, "at any hour, day or night," and he made a series of tiny loops to border the shaded box on his pad. They intertwined with the curved 9's very nicely.
Her blue eyes studied the expressionless face across from her and then dropped to the artistic caligraphy on the pad. Her jaw tightened dangerously, but she kept her voice under control as she brought up her heaviest artillery.
"And then last night," she said, her tone almost vicious, "after two in the morning, he digs up one of the small peach trees in the garden, and then, fifteen minutes later—or maybe a half-hour, no more—I can hear him out there replanting it. And her gone—disappeared—more than twenty-four hours! Now," she said, her tone, her angle of incidence, her entire bearing daring him to downgrade her testimony, "what is your smart-aleck answer to that, young man?
Does it make sense for a man to dig up a tree in the middle of the night, and then replant it a half- hour later? Does it? Well?"
The sergeant laid aside the pencil with a certain sense of reluctance and for the first time really studied the woman facing him. The spiteful expression spoiled what he knew might have been beauty under different circumstances; the faint sneer disgusted him. But he couldn't deny the substance of her arguments.
"No," he admitted in his drawl. "No, it doesn't."
"Well! I'm glad you finally realize it, young man. And the money was all hers, too," Mrs. Williams added, almost as an afterthought. She was quite aware that the statement was anti-climactic, but she definitely wanted it included in the record of evidence.
"In the safe-deposit box with her jewels. The money that bought the house, even though everything is in both their names. You wait and see," she added, leaning forward again. "He'll be having it up for sale within a week. He never did a day's work since they married—if he ever did one before, which I seriously doubt!"
There were several moments' silence. The sergeant made the first move, bringing his considerable bulk to his feet, indicating the interview was over. He waited as she came to her five-feet-two-inches of height, looking up at him defiantly.
"I'll take the matter up with the sheriff, ma'am," he said.
"I should certainly hope so, young man," she retorted coldly, studying him once again with eyes that were quite unimpressed. Then she marched from the station house, the fur piece about her neck seeming to hurry to catch up with her.
"I suppose we'll have to check it out," the sheriff said wearily. "I don't know too many people in this town—most of my time is spent over in Bellerville at the county seat—but I do happen to know Charley Crompton. The idea of him doing away with that battle-axe he married is simply ridiculous. If he has a temper, I've never seen it. He's a mouse. If it was the other way around, I might believe it. But Charley! Impossible. At any rate, it's just a rumor from that nosy woman at this stage."
He glanced up at the husky young sergeant. "I don't suppose you've had time to do anything about it yet?"
"Well," the sergeant said, considering, "old Sol Jenkins—he's our taxi here—he didn't pick her up, last night or any other time. He laughed and said he didn't believe she ever took a taxi in her life. They cost money. And if Charley drove her, or if she walked across the fields to the station, nobody caught either the eight o'clock or the midnight train, and that's the last one. And the ticket men at both the train and the bus station don't remember her on any train or bus in the last two days, afternoon or night."
"What about this Mrs. Williams's husband?" the sheriff asked. "Mr. Williams? Does he confirm or deny it?"
"There is no Mr. Williams," the sergeant said. His tone commended the shade of Mr. Williams for his wisdom in being the nonexistent spouse of the meddling Mrs. Williams. "She's been a widow over four years." He shook his head. "She's only forty, but I think she's been forty all her life. Doesn't have anything to do all day except sit on the telephone or write letters to the editor of the Bugle. She's a feminist. I gather she even had Mrs. Crompton all worked up on the stuff."
The sheriff smiled. "But not your wife?" he said.
"Not yet, at any rate," the sergeant said, and grinned back.
The sheriff's smile faded. "Any other neighbors?"
"About a half-mile away, the nearest. Those two houses stand all alone at the end of the road. Around a curve from the others, as a matter of fact. They're pretty isolated."
"I see." The sheriff drummed his fingers and then looked up. "What about that statement regarding money?"
"Well," the sergeant said slowly, frowning, "the money was Mrs. Crompton's—is hers, I mean. Everybody in town knew that, but if every man who marries a dollar or two killed his wife for it, we'd be in real trouble. And as far as Charley Crompton telling that busybody neighbor of his that his wife was out shopping, or visiting a sister that doesn't exist, I don't see where he had a duty to tell her anything. If it had been me, I'd have told her my wife was off to Timbuktu, and let her make something of it."
"That's just what she's been doing," the sheriff pointed out. "Still, a man replanting a tree in the middle of the night—well, it seems rather—"
"I know," the sergeant said unhappily, and sighed. "We'll have to look into it a lot deeper, I know."
The man who opened the door of the large old-fashioned house was a nondescript person with thin brown hair pasted against his head and large brown eyes swimming behind thick lenses. He was dressed in slacks and a sweater, neither impressive, and carried a hatchet in a hand one finger of which was heavily bandaged. A honing stone had been tucked under his arm to allow him a free hand with the latch. He took the honing stone from the pit of his arm and allowed the two implements to dangle; they seemed to weigh down his thin arms.
"Hello, Sergeant. What can I do for you?"
"Hello Charley. Actually, it was your wife I'd hoped to see."
"Well, you can't," Crompton said apologetically. "She isn't here. She's gone away."
"Oh? To visit her sister?"
The smaller man turned his head to stare reproachfully at the house across the road, and down a bit from his. His eyes came back to the patient face of the sergeant.
"Her brother. She has no sister."
"And his name and address?" The sergeant produced a pad and pencil.
"Brown. John Brown." No muscle moved in Crompton's thin face, nor did his hesitant voice reveal anything. He sounded as if he were repeating something by rote. "I don't have his street address or telephone. Chicago is all I know."
"John Brown, Chicago," the sergeant repeated genially, and wrote it down, not at all perturbed. He looked up from his pad. "I say, Charley, would you mind a lot if we went inside to talk. I mean, standing here in the doorway ..."
"Do you have a warrant to enter these premises?"
The young sergeant was surprised. He managed to turn his expression into one of slight hurt. "A warrant? To visit an old friend for a few moments? Although," he added, considering it, "I suppose one could be arranged, but it seems a bit foolish."
Crompton's thin lips compressed. He hesitated a moment and then, with a shrug, led the way inside, laying the hatchet and hone on a shelf in the entranceway and continuing into the living room. The sergeant picked the hatchet from its resting place and followed. He lowered his bulk into a chair and studied the instrument in his hand, touching the edge gingerly.
"Quite sharp," he observed.
"I like my tools in order," Crompton said evenly, and continued to watch the other man through his thick glasses.
"Oh? It's a shame it's so stained, then. Other than the honed edge, of course." The sergeant peered more closely. "These brown blotches, for example ..."
"They're blood, if you want to know," Crompton said abruptly. "I cut my finger yesterday while I was honing it."
"Fingers do bleed like the devil," the sergeant admitted, and placed the hatchet on the floor beside his chair. He looked about the sunlit room and nodded. "A nice place you have here, Charley. I envy you. My wife was saying just the other day how small our house was getting, with two kids here and another on the way. But it's so hard to find a house near enough to the station house not to spend a week's pay on gas, or one that's a decent size any more. A house for sale, that is." A sudden thought struck him. "I don't suppose—well, I don't suppose you have any idea of selling, do you?"
There were several moments of silence as Charley Crompton appeared to gauge the man seated across from him. A mantel clock above the fireplace filled the quiet with a loud and steady ticking.
"I might," Charley Crompton said at last.
"You're sure your wife wouldn't object?"
"No." It was a flat statement, expressionless. Crompton seemed to feel that the discussion had taken enough of his time. He came to his feet. "Well, sergeant, I'm rather occupied, and if that's all the business you had in mind ..."
The sergeant rose dutifully and smiled.
"If there's any possibility of the house being up for sale in the near future," he said, "I don't imagine you'd mind greatly if I looked it over? We're really interested, you know." He turned and walked into the kitchen with Crompton on his heels. "Say! This is a nice-sized kitchen. My wife puts a good deal of store by the kitchen. Me, I'm more fussy about the cellar and the yard, the places I spend most of my free time." He opened a door, saw brooms, and closed it. He opened another door. "Stairs to the basement, eh? Do you mind?" He flicked a light switch without awaiting permission, and descended with the smaller man right behind him. He stood and shook his head forlornly. "What a damned shame! What happened to your nice concrete floor?"
"Line under it burst," Crompton said in a rather constricted voice. He cleared his throat. "Line from the sinks over to the septic tank. Had to dig it all up and replace an elbow."
"Tough luck," the sergeant said sympathetically. "Guess contractors weren't much better in those days than they are today. But, other than that, it's a nice dry cellar. Gas heat, too, I see. Well, let's take a look at the back yard, while I'm here. I'm sure you won't mind."
They climbed the steps and walked through the kitchen to the back porch and the enclosed yard. One of the peach trees did, indeed, list slightly, and the fresh earth packed about its base was cleared of grass, reddish-brown in color, like a bad bruise. But the sergeant had been expecting that. What he had not been expecting was to see a second peach tree lying on its side beside a deep excavation, its root ball wrapped in canvas, or a third with a hole begun at its edge and a shovel thrust into the soil there. He glanced at his host.
"Trouble with your peach trees?"
"Tree roots need air," Crompton said. His voice was unnatural, as if he, too, needed air. "My own idea, but it's a valid one. I dig up trees and replant them quite frequently. I—" He paused a moment, eyeing the sergeant as if pleading for belief, and then continued, "It's the truth! They really do, you know. Need fresh air, I mean. They're living creatures; they can't stand not having air. The branches and the leaves get their share, but that's not enough." He shook his head, and behind his thick glasses, his eyes were impossible to interpret. "It's the roots, you see. That's the important part! They need air. It's the truth."
He leaned back, balancing himself on his heels, a trifle breathless, staring at the excavated peach tree and the dark hole it had left behind in the earth.
"A few more hours," he said as if to himself, "and the roots will be fine. Ready to bury again."
The large young sergeant sighed and turned toward the gate leading to the street and his parked patrol car.
"I'll probably be back again," he said conversationally. "I'm sure you won't mind. I'm really quite interested in this house."
"Are you trying to tell me Charley Crompton is a nut?" the sheriff asked. "The last thing from a nut! He's pulling our leg. A policeman shows up at his house and asks where his wife is, and he doesn't even ask why! And that mound in the basement, and that hatchet bit! Cut himself honing the thing the day; before, and he's still walking around with the hone the day after!"
"It really was blood, I suppose? Not ketchup, or paint?"
"It was blood, all right. The same type as his. We don't know his wife's type; she never gave anything away, not even blood."
The sergeant turned and paced the room, his large hands locked behind his back, his face grim. He paused and faced the sheriff. "And he did have a bad gash under that bandage. I think. I'd have preferred to believe him if he didn't." He shook his head, frowning. "More than ten days, and we're where we were when we started. Even further behind, in fact. He's having fun with us, I tell you!"
The sheriff bit at an outcropping of fingernail. "You got your warrant, though, didn't you? I spoke to Judge—"
"Oh, we got the warrant, right enough," the sergeant said darkly, and dropped into his chair, putting a knee against the edge of the desk. "And we dug up the cellar floor. And all we found was an elbow."
"An elbow?" The sheriff sat more erect.
"A plumber's elbow," the sergeant said grimly. "Exactly as he told us. New. We dug another three feet down, too, down to solid rock—just in case. She certainly isn't buried there, I can tell you that."
Excerpted from Moonlight Gardener by Robert L. Fish. Copyright © 1971 Robert L. Fish. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Moonlight Gardener
- About the Author