-Illustration by Annie Quintano
There was nothing Ms. Gant would like better than to take the hours between three and four and carefully guard them for herself as a time when she could take her tea in the backyard amidst the flowering lavender, as seasons allowed. But today, and likely tomorrow it would be impossible.
The blood they had found on her doorstep –found by accident when the UPS man who delivered her package and happened to have been a retired policeman- caused enough concern and suspicion that Chief Schutters and the three nice young detectives, barely out of high school she imagined (herself being this side of sixty) had wrapped the front porch in bright, yellow police tape.
She insisted she didn’t know how the blood got there and most certainly had no idea whose it was, much less why the blood drops ran the entire length of the old porch which wrapped around the cottage. The trail of blood ended just below the bedroom window which once belonged to her brother, Frederick. Frederick was no longer there for reasons she seemed unable to explain to Chief Schutters who stood with his felt fedora shoved high and back on his head revealing a pencil lodged over his ear, another in his hand as he stood poised to write, if only Ms. Gant would be forthcoming.
She had lived in this cottage for the past forty three years and witnessed the slow deterioration of the building during which time she, along with the house, aged. Her body grew less strong, less able and her mind was given to periodic lapses and thus she became unable to maintain the house, nor, some would suggest, herself.
The village had tried to condemn the house and young Philip Rainer who coveted the property had created assorted lies and half-truths, substantiated them by forged and phony documents, all in an attempt to sway the town meeting in his favor so that he might seize the property from Ms. Gant.
At just such times as these town meetings, Ms. Gant was somehow miraculously able to overcome the ravages of age that left her so frail and would bellow refutations and angry slurs and some very vile accusations his way, all the while swinging her cane so wildly that those seated in the folding chairs around her ducked this way and that to avoid any inadvertent blows.
With an explosive huff of disgust, and having said her piece, she would leave the meeting and angrily trod home, refusing a ride offered her by Randolph Mirer, a nearby neighbor who drove a blue pickup truck as if he was still the young farmer he had been some fifty years ago. Once home she made her way to the kitchen, to the kettle, to that tin of the dry black loose leaves with which she would brew the tea that would re-establish her equilibrium, her sanity and the sense that the world was good.
Now, with her home increasingly wrapped in wads and wads of yellow tape, she was denied access to the white and blue porcelain tea pot, the tea cozy that had once belonged to her favorite Aunt Violet, and thus was she cut off from everything that made her life make sense.
The three detectives –all of whom seemed to merge together as one to her-sandy hair cut too short, faces so young they seemed always clean shaven without the benefit of a razor, and suits that floated liberally about their torsos though the sleeves were a few inches too short divulging tattle-tale grey cuffs-wandered through her cottage in search for whatever it is that policemen usually search for.
Because the detectives all merged into one, she offered them only one chair upon which to sit. She felt a certain motherly inclination toward them. Her dear neighbor Meena Shetty, knowing of Ms. Gant’s inability to get to her kitchen, brought over a thermos of hot chai, the milky sweet brew of which she was so fond. Ms. Gant offered it to “the Three” at the same time, explaining as best she could the origins of tea in general and Meena’s tea in particular. “It was all wrestled from the English, you know, this huge continent of India. It was over tea, Assam, I think or Nigiri, or maybe it was over salt, or cotton.” She closed her eyes in momentary befuddlement. “You know, the bald headed dark little man half naked spinning away at the cotton. And that is how it came to be: Meena with her thermos of chai.” She was oblivious that it made Meena visibly uncomfortable to be spoken about as such, or to have her country relegated to an obscure tiff over cotton or tea with Gandhi. But she bore it all gracefully because of her affection for her long-time friend, Ms. Gant, whom she so hoped to one day bring to India for a visit.
Ms. Gant settled in after flitting about absent-mindedly to enjoy the hot milky brew and confide in the three young men toward whom she felt such a strong urge to be forthcoming.
“Frederick was a terrible bossy, irritable, unhappy curmudgeon” she had admitted. “He wouldn’t let me do a thing. Virtually locked me up. Oh, not with a key or anything like that. With those eyes! Those mean, threatening eyes of his challenging me to defy him. I had to, you see. I had to first get rid of those eyes. Shut them. Rather permanently, don’t you know? That’s the only really efficient way” she whispered leaning in towards the three who, rather than choosing lots for the one chair, had remained standing. “Otherwise he will just wake up the next day with those ‘don’t you dare’ eyes of his. It had to be permanent you know- over and done!” She moved her hand as if dusting them in finality. Finished with what she considered a sufficient amount of sharing to set the matter of Frederick’s murder straight, once and for all, she sat back comfortably.
A uniformed officer fluttered about the cottage and the back yard. As they poked in the garden she stood up and went to the window. Ms. Gant shook her head at their misdirection watching them search as if it would turn up Frederick’s body. She turned from the window to the three detectives. “Oh, no you see. They’re looking in the wrong places. I couldn’t upset my garden. My lovely lavender. But Meena didn’t mind about hers. She had already harvested the coriander, and the eggplant –aren’t they a lovely shade of purple? -so digging there wouldn’t upset anything and we planned anyway to plant stinging nettles on top. Now, nettle tea is good for asthma, you know but we had no intention of harvesting it in case all the nasty cigar smoke of Frederick had seeped upwards from him in his little grave into those roots and then right into the leaves. Are you sure you don’t want to sit.” She chatted on. “You know you mustn’t whisper a word of this to Chief Schutters. He’d be so upset.”
Detective numbers one, two and three were smiling with amusement. Number one remarked, “I don’t quite believe you, Ms. Gant. The records say Mr. Frederick was a rather large man and if you don’t mind me saying you are rather small.”
“Oh, thank you so much. But have you seen Meena? Quite an ample woman she.”
Detective #1 found Ms. Gant’s account particularly incredible and thwart with improbabilities. He crossed her off his list of suspects. “Not so quickly” Detective #2 had advised him. “You’d be surprised what little old ladies – even sweet ones –are capable of.” He sweated profusely and wiped his brow repeatedly always taking the time to neatly and carefully fold his handkerchief eight times over until it was a compact little bundle.
“They could be covering up a suicide, you know. Those church ladies would find such an event criminal and inexcusably sacrilegious. They might well disguise it as a murder to save face.”
“To save face?” Detective #1 repeated, continuing in the vein of incredulity.
The three of them busied about the room and then left to find Chief Schutters with their full notebooks and disagreeable faces.
“I told them everything,” Ms. Gant confided in Meena as she poured the last of the tea.”
“Well, you did what you had to do,” Meena remarked understandably. Meena poured the last drop of tea and moved out onto the porch where the detectives huddled in a busy cluster.
“I am going next door to bring back the last of the chai and my fresh baked cardamom cookies – can I bring you gentleman back anything?”
They appeared a little skeptical and somewhat off-balanced. “Well, yes…er, no. But we do wish to speak to you, of course, upon your return.”
“Oh, most certainly,” she responded and left. They waited: the three detectives and Chief Schutters on the porch buzzing nonsensically at times about the game last night on TV, the serial killer who plagued the next county over, the terrible increase in the cost of food and now and then, as if choreographed, they would glance at their watches, and then over toward Meena’s house.
“I best check on Ms. Gant, I suppose,” offered Chief Schutters, a somewhat befuddled, wide-eyed man. “When I last checked she seemed to have developed quite an irritated cough – I guess from all that endless babbling of hers – and she also asked me if I couldn’t bring her an Alka Seltzer.”
When Chief Schutters reentered the parlor, little Ms. Gant was no longer seated in her brown wing back chair. “Ms. Gant, Ms. Gant?” He called about and then approached the bathroom door. He knocked gently “Are you alright in there?” He checked assuming she had tired of waiting for him to bring her the Alka Seltzer and went to fetch it herself.
He waited, then knocked again a bit embarrassed by what might be seen as intrusiveness. He was not at all sure about just how sensitive and patient it was required of him to be. So he waited and he waited long enough that Ms. Gant, who had exited the house while the detectives chatted, had met Meena at the end of Davis Court whereupon they took off in Meena’s yellow Volkswagen bug and headed for the highway.
The local papers had a grand time of it, though the county Police Commissioner was anything but amused now that the old women were AWOL. They began to dig up the gardens: the rich loam under the leggy lavender where they would find nothing but the slow moving fat earthworms. And then they dug at the rocky clump of soil under Meena’s nettles. The three blond detectives would stand expectantly watching the men with the shovels. To no avail. They had not found the body.
Ms. Gant was a sweet old lady, to be sure, and really the same could be said of her dear friend, Meena Shetty. “He was such a nice young man.” Ms Gant would often say to Meena of the detectives referring perhaps to one or to all three. And Meena would nod over a cup of tea they shared on the Veranda. They decided then, that it would be sweet to send a postcard to them at the local police station back home.
The card arrived. It pictured an elephant bejeweled with circles of white about his eyes and chalky red and yellow streaks about his gravely skin. He bore a hat, of sorts, with gold fringe about it. “Greetings from India!” it exclaimed in a scroll of white script across the face of it and the Hindi characters beneath it. Chief Schutters shook his head at the card in disbelief and consternation and handed it to Detective #1 who read it out loud.
“Greetings boys! Thank you for all your trouble. We are well as we hope you are. The chai here is so delicious!” Signed Ms. Louise Gant and Ms. Meena Shetty. “P.S. you might try digging under the nettles in the front yard.”
-Written and Illustrated by Annie Quintano