by Bill Pronzini
I had been in the backyard no more than two minutes when Roger Telford’s bald head popped up above the boundary fence. It was hardly a surprise. Very little that goes on in my neighborhood escapes notice by Telford and his wife Aileen. To merely call them nosy neighbors would be to do them an injustice. They are the quintessential, prototypical poster children for nosy neighbors-sly, sneaky, suspicious, intrusive, rude, and annoying in the extreme.
“I thought I heard snuffling and growling noises over there,” he said. “Don’t tell me Suzanne has let you buy a dog.”
“All right,” I said, “I won’t.”
“Is that mutt yours?”
“He’s not a mutt. He’s a Rottweiler mix. He belongs to the Lindemans, next block over.”
“Well, it’s a good thing he doesn’t belong to you. Aileen and I don’t like dogs, especially big dogs. Messy. Always digging things up. Bark all the damn time.”
“George doesn’t bark much.”
“George? How do you know his name?”
“It’s on his collar tag.”
“Well, it’s a stupid name for a mutt. What’s he doing in your yard?”
“Visiting,” I said. “There’s a loose board in our back fence that I haven’t gotten around to fixing yet.”
“What’s that he’s chewing on?”
“Well, it looks like a bone . . . yes, by golly, that’s what it is all right. A bone.”
“Damn big one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bone quite like that. He carry it in with him?”
“No. I gave it to him.”
“You did? Where’d you get a bone like that?”
“Out of our freezer.”
His face wrinkled into an expression resembling a contemplative basset hound’s. Telford likes to believe he is a deep thinker. His wife likes to believe she is too. They labor under this self-deception because they’re both writers of a sort. He concocts texts on how to fix this or that around the house and she writes cookbooks, her magnum opus being The Sublime Purple Vegetable: Eggplant Delicacies from Around the World. They both work at home, giving them ample opportunity to pursue their alternate joint career of meddling in other people’s business.
“Is that where all those packages came from, too?” he asked at length.
“Jammed into your trash can this morning.”
“Roger, I’m surprised at you. You usually employ more subtle means of snooping than pawing through garbage cans.”
“It wasn’t me doing the pawing,” he said indignantly. “It was one of those other damn neighborhood mutts. Caught it dragging one of the packages out when I rolled my own can out for pick up. I chased it off and put the package back into your can. That’s when I happened to notice all the others.”
“Very good,” I said. “Very inventive. You ought to give fiction writing a try.”
“It happens to be the truth. So why did you throw out all that good meat?”
“It wasn’t good. Not anymore. Venison, mostly, that one of my coworkers gave us last year.”
“What was wrong with it?”
“Freezer burn,” I said.
“It’s a phenomenon that takes place when you leave things in the freezer too long. Surely you’ve come across references to it while researching those books you write.”
“I know what freezer burn is. But the packages I saw were mostly thawed.”
“Well, of course they were. I took them out of the freezer and put them into the trash can last night. All except the bone for George. Freezer burn doesn’t bother him.”
Telford did his basset hound impression again. To avoid watching him at his mental labors, I looked up at the sky. It was a nice evening, clear but a little too crisp to sit out on the porch and read. I sighed. Autumn was almost here. The leaves on the maple tree were already starting to turn.
“What was all that noise coming from your place last night?” Telford demanded. He never asks; he always demands. “You don’t make noise like that cleaning out a freezer. Late, too-went on until after eleven. Sounded like power tools.”
“It was,” I said. “I was working in the basement.”
“Completing a project.”
“What kind of project?”
“A private kind.”
“Big secret,” Telford said peevishly. “You had the shades closed over the basement windows. Matter of fact, you’ve had most of your curtains and shades drawn the past couple of days.”
“Must have been frustrating for you, not being able to look in with your binoculars.”
“You think I’d spy on you with binoculars?”
“I know you would. I’ve seen you doing it.”
He made a noise in his throat not unlike the one George had made when I had given him the bone. “Damn late to be using power tools,” he said. “Kept Aileen and me awake. Must’ve kept Suzanne awake, too.”
“I doubt it.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“She wasn’t here.”
“What do you mean, she wasn’t here?”
George seemed to have grown as bored with the conversation as I had. He’d been lying on the grass with the bone propped between his forepaws, gnawing on it. Now he stood up, took a firmer grip with his teeth, shook himself, and trotted off toward the back fence.
“What’d you mean, Suzanne wasn’t here last night?”
“Just what I said. She’s not here today, either. That’s why George was allowed to visit and why I felt free to give him the bone, in case you’re wondering.”
“Where is she? Where’d she go?”
“Away,” I said.
“Away? When? Where?”
“Two days ago. On a trip.”
“The hell you say. I was home all day Sunday. Aileen and I were both home, and we didn’t see either of you leave.”
“I know you try to keep tabs on everything that goes on over here, Roger, but now and then you do miss something. Now if you don’t mind, I have things to do in the house.”
He called something after me, but I closed my ears to it. Silence and privacy, in my neighborhood and on my property, are rare and precious states to be retreated into with all dispatch whenever possible.
I was in Suzanne’s bedroom closet, taking articles of her clothing off hangers and folding them into Teflon bags, when the telephone rang. Aileen Telford, predictably enough.
“Howard,” she said in her nasal voice, “where’s Suzanne?”
“Suzanne is away. As Roger has no doubt told you by now.”
“Well, I need to talk to her. A question for my new book of parsnip recipes. Where did she go?”
“Visiting who? Where?”
“Her sister, if you must know. She’s been ill.”
“Suzanne is ill?”
I sighed. “Not Suzanne. Her sister.”
“I didn’t know Suzanne had a sister. She never mentioned her to me.”
“She seldom speaks of her. They’ve never been close.”
“Then why did she go visit her?”
“I just explained why. Her sister is ill. Family duty.”
“When will she be back?”
“I don’t know. It might be a while. A long while.”
There was a deep-thinking pause before Aileen said, “Where does her sister live?”
“Duluth. That’s in Minnesota.”
“I know where Duluth is. What’s her sister’s name and phone number?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“What? Why can’t you?”
“Suzanne doesn’t want to be disturbed. She doesn’t want her sister disturbed. You calling her up would qualify as a disturbance.”
Another pause. At length she said in sepulchral tones, “Howard, I don’t mind saying that Roger and I are a little concerned.”
“About Suzanne’s sister?”
“Why should you be concerned about Suzanne?”
“All sorts of funny things seem to have been going on over there the past few days. That’s why.”
“You think so? Define funny.”
“You know what I mean. You can’t blame us for wondering-”
“Can’t I?” I said, and hung up on her.
When I came out through the front door with another cardboard carton, Telford was standing at the base of the porch steps. More accurately, he was hopping at the base of the steps from one foot to the other as if he had to go to the bathroom. I had witnessed this behavior many times before. Coupled with the gaudy yellow sweatsuit he was wearing, it meant that he was about to head off on his morning jog-and-snoop around the neighborhood.
“What’s all this, Howard?” He waved a hand at my car in the driveway, the back seat and trunk of which I had already filled with other cartons and plastic bags. “You’re not moving out, are you?”
“And deprive you of a prime surveillance object? No such luck.”
“What’s in all those boxes and bags?”
“What do you suppose is in them?”
“Looks like it might be clothing and stuff.”
“Brilliant deduction,” I said. “Clothing and stuff is what it is.”
“What’re you planning to do with it?”
“What I usually do with rummage. Take it to Goodwill.”
“Rummage, eh? Seems like a lot.”
“It is a lot. Obviously.”
I carried the last carton to the car and put it on the passenger seat. Telford followed, still hopping.
“Mostly your stuff?” he asked then.
“No. As a matter of fact, it’s mostly Suzanne’s.”
That produced a frown. “How come?”
“How come what?”
“How come it’s mostly her things you’re getting rid of?”
“She doesn’t have any use for them any longer.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means she no longer has any use for them.”
“Why doesn’t she?”
“You’ll have to ask her when she gets home.”
“I’m asking you.”
“You’ll be leaving frustrated, then. My answer is that it’s none of your business.”
Telford showed up again that afternoon, shortly after I returned home. I’d left Howard J. Bennett & Associates, Income Tax Specialists-i.e., one hardworking CPA and two junior partners-early to do some shopping. I was unloading the trunk of the car, with the garage door still open, when all of a sudden there he was breathing down my neck. Quick and silent, like a sneaky ghost.
“What’s that you’ve got there?” he said. “Is that paint?”
“Your ratiocinative powers are amazing. Did you deduce the contents from the words ‘White Latex Paint’ on the can, or was it some other clue?”
“What’re you going to paint?”
“My workshop, if you must know.”
“Didn’t look like it needed painting, the last time I saw it.”
“Well, it does now. There are marks on two of the walls.”
“You know-nicks, scrapes, stains.”
His eyes narrowed. “What kind of stains?”
“Now what kind of stains would there be on workroom walls?”
“You tell me.”
“Splatters of wood sealant, varnish, that sort of thing. You can’t do woodworking without splattering now and then.”
“Splattering,” he repeated, as if it were a nasty word.
I took the other item I’d purchased out of the trunk and closed the lid.
“What’s that?” Telford said.
“Well, now, let’s see. It’s shaped like a bowling bag, it’s the size of a bowling bag, and it even resembles a bowling bag. Could it be a bowling bag?”
“You don’t bowl.”
“How do you know I don’t?”
“You’ve never said anything about it. And I’ve never seen you with any bowling equipment before.”
“I used to bowl regularly before I met Suzanne. She thinks it’s a silly game.”
“So do I. Where are your ball and shoes?”
“I haven’t bought those yet.”
“Then how come you bought a bag?”
“I liked the looks of this one.”
“Seems ordinary to me. How come you decided to start bowling again?”
“For the exercise.”
“In spite of what Suzanne thinks, is that it?”
“She doesn’t have a say in the matter.”
“Why doesn’t she?”
“Because she doesn’t,” I said.
At a few minutes past midnight, I switched off the living room lights and went to peer around a corner of the side window curtain. The Telford house, as much of it as I could see looming above the boundary fence, was completely dark.
I gathered up the parcel I’d prepared, made my way through the kitchen to the utility porch, and let myself out into the backyard. The night was clear. There was no moon, but the stars were bright enough to enable me to navigate. I crossed to the gardening shed, removed a spade, and carried it into the rose garden. In the shadows between two of the larger bushes-a pure white damascena and an orange floribunda, two of Suzanne’s favorites-I dug a hole in the soft earth, fairly deep, and buried the parcel. Then I replaced the spade and hurried back to the house.
I wasn’t absolutely sure, but when I glanced at the Telford house I thought I detected movement behind the open window to their upstairs bedroom.
The next day was Telford-free, miraculously enough, until six o’clock. I was out front then, watering the lawn, when Aileen appeared, out for her daily constitutional. Roger had his morning jog-and-snoop around the neighborhood, she had her evening walk-and-snoop. You had to admire their methods, the well-coordinated way in which they covered their territory, marching off at different times of the day in different directions to bother people, like a crack stealth commando team.
She came my way in her quick, choppy gait and stopped on the sidewalk a few feet from where I stood. If her husband resembled a basset hound, Aileen’s breed was fox terrier-small and wiry with angular features and a long, quivery nose that always seemed moist and shiny, perfect for poking into places it didn’t belong.
“Well, Howard,” she said, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Suzanne.”
“But I have. She called last night.”
“Did she? And how is her sister’s health?”
“So then she’ll be coming home soon.”
“Possibly not,” I said.
The long nose twitched. “Why not, if she isn’t needed in Duluth?”
“She may be staying on there just the same.”
“For how long?”
“What’s that? She’s never coming back?”
“Indefinitely doesn’t mean never, Aileen.”
“Why would she stay in Duluth?”
“She likes it there. More than she likes me, I’m sorry to say.”
“Are you trying to tell me she’s left you?”
“I’m not trying to tell you anything.”
Another twitch. A scowl. “I don’t believe Suzanne would give up her home, everything she owns, on a sudden whim. That’s not like her.”
“I didn’t say it was sudden.”
“I still don’t believe it.”
“You don’t know her as well as you think you do. Or me, either.”
“Well, in your case, that’s for sure.”
She turned and strode off, muttering, “I knew it. I knew it!” just loud enough for me to hear.
I finished watering, then sat on the porch steps to bask in the evening quiet. I hadn’t been there five minutes when the other Telford came marching up my front walk. Direct assault mission, it turned out-an unusual tactic for him.
“Up late again last night, weren’t you, Bennett?” he said without preamble.
“So it’s Bennett instead of Howard now, is it?”
“Very late. Long after midnight.”
“If I was,” I said, “you and Aileen must’ve been, too. Just a couple of night owls.”
“What were you up to, digging in your rose garden so damn late?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Binoculars weren’t enough for you, is that it? Now you’ve gone high tech and bought an infrared scope for better night spying?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“No, and I’m not going to. What I do on my own property day or night is no one’s business but my own.”
He sputtered noisily, like a faulty gas-powered lawnmower. “You won’t get away with it, Bennett.”
“Get away with what?”
“We’ll see to that, one way or another. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Will you?” I smiled at him. “I like puzzles myself. Great time-passers.”
“Sifting through all the many possibilities, looking for pieces that fit together to form the true picture. Very stimulating, mentally.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No,” I said, “of course you don’t.”
“More rummage for Goodwill?”
Morning. My open garage. And the Telford fox terrier at it again.
“That’s right, Aileen.” I said. “More rummage for Goodwill.”
“All of it Suzanne’s, I suppose.”
“You can suppose anything you like.”
“Getting rid of everything of hers. Because you claim she’s not coming back.”
“I made no such claim.”
“I don’t believe she went to Duluth. I’ll bet she doesn’t even have a sister.”
“A bet you’d lose. She did and she does.”
“So you say.”
“And what do you say, Aileen?”
She jabbed an accusatory finger at me. “I say she never left. I say you did something to her.”
“Such as what?”
“Something unspeakable. You won’t get away with it.”
“Roger implied the same thing last night.”
I placed the last of the Teflon sacks in the trunk of the car. That left only the bowling bag. Aileen seemed to notice it for the first time. Her nose twitched and her teeth snapped together.
“That bag,” she said. “What have you got in there?”
“It’s a bowling bag. So there must be a bowling ball inside.”
“You told Roger you didn’t own a ball.”
“Did I? He must have misunderstood.”
I picked up the bag by its handles, hefting it.
Aileen gasped and drew back. “That stain on the side. It looks . . . wet.”
I said, “You’re imagining things,” and swung the bag inside the trunk.
Another gasp, louder.
“Now what’s the matter?”
“It didn’t thump when you put it down. It . . . it . . th..”
“Bowling balls don’t squish, Aileen.”
“I know what I heard!” She was backing away now, her hands up as if to ward off an attack. Her face had assumed the color of the flesh of her favorite sublime vegetable. Her eyes literally bulged.
“Now what could I have in a bowling bag,” I said, “that would make a squishing sound?”
She said something that sounded like “Gaahh!” and fled.
The doorbell rang at seven that evening. Two men in business suits stood on the porch outside, one dark and heavyset, the other fair and loose-coupled. The dark one said, “Mr. Howard Bennett?”
“Yes? What can I do for you?”
“Police officers.” They held up badges in leather cases. “My name is Pilofsky. This is Detective Jenkins. We’d like a few words with you, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said, “though I can’t imagine why.”
“All right if we come inside?”
I led them into the living room. Jenkins said, “We’ll get right to the point, Mr. Bennett. We’ve had a report of suspicious activity concerning you and your wife.”
“Ah,” I said. “Now I understand. The Telfords. I should have known they would call you.”
“Why is that?”
“They’re the people for whom the phrase ‘neighbors from hell’ was coined. Sneaks and snoops of the worst sort, and melodramatic to boot. They’ve been insufferable since Suzanne was called away unexpectedly several days ago.”
“Where is your wife, Mr. Bennett?” Pilofsky asked.
“Visiting her bedridden sister in Duluth. I told the Telfords that more than once.”
“Is she coming back?”
“Of course. As soon as her sister’s condition improves.”
“Mrs. Telford claims you told her your wife was leaving you and staying in Duluth permanently.”
“Then she misunderstood me. Just as both of them have persisted in misunderstanding a series of perfectly innocent incidents.”
“Suppose you give us your version of those incidents.”
I obliged at some length. Jenkins took notes.
Pilofsky said, “You didn’t address the issue of the ‘wet and squishy’ bowling bag.”
“Oh, that. Aileen Telford has a hyperactive imagination-she’s a writer, you know. The bag wasn’t wet. It was merely stained. And there was nothing in it except an old bowling ball of mine. She heard what she wanted to hear when I set it down.”
“Where are the bag and ball now?”
“They went to Goodwill with the other rummage,” I lied. Actually I had pitched the bag into an industrial dumpster not far from my office when no one was looking.
Both of them nodded and Jenkins made another note.
“So you see,” I said, “it’s all just a tempest in a teapot.”
“So it would seem,” Pilofsky said.
“Be all right if we had a look around?” Jenkins asked. “It’s your privilege to say no, naturally. We don’t have a search warrant.” The implication here, of course, was that they could just go get one if they felt it necessary.
“More than all right,” I said. “Be my guests. I have nothing to hide.”
I conducted them through the house, top to bottom. They were polite and respectful, but quite thorough in their probings. They exhibited particular interest in my newly painted workshop and the rest of the basement, examining my tools and even looking inside the big Amana freezer. Naturally they found nothing incriminating. There was nothing for them to find.
From the basement I took them outside, where I unearthed the hideous ceramic bird sculpture I had buried in the rose garden. “I did it on a whim,” I said. “I’ve always hated that sculpture, and with Suzanne away . . . well, I just couldn’t stand to look at it any longer.”
“Why bury it?” Pilofsky asked. “Why not just chuck it in the trash?”
I said sheepishly, “To be frank, I was covering my backside. I thought that if Suzanne noticed the sculpture was missing and became upset, I could always dig it up and pretend it had been misplaced.” I sighed. “Now that I have dug it up, I suppose I might as well put it back where it belongs. It was a foolish notion to begin with.”
Before they left, Jenkins asked for the name, address, and phone number of Suzanne’s sister in Duluth. I provided the information, saying, “Please don’t call her there unless it’s absolutely necessary. I’m sure you understand.”
“We just need it for our report, Mr. Bennett.”
“Then you’re satisfied that this has all been a misunderstanding?”
“Not to mention a waste of the taxpayers’ time and money.”
“I suppose it’s too much to hope that the Telfords will be satisfied too.”
“If we are,” Pilofsky said meaningfully, “they’d better be.”
Neither member of the Snoop Couple bothered me the next day or the morning of the one following. I saw neither hide nor hair of either of them, in fact. But that only meant that they had changed their tactics from overt to covert. They wouldn’t be satisfied, no matter what the police had said to them, until they saw Suzanne, hale and hearty, with their own eyes.
Which is why, on the following morning, I drove off whistling.
The three p.m. flight from Duluth was on time. Suzanne was waiting with her bag when I pulled up to the curb at Arrivals, scowling at her watch even though I wasn’t even a minute late.
On the way out of the airport I said, “It’s good to have you home, dear.”
“Horse apples,” she said. Her favorite epithet, and one I’ve always loathed. “You were probably wishing I’d stayed away a lot longer.”
“That’s not true.”
“Of course it’s true. Well, you may get your wish. If my sister’s condition doesn’t improve over the next week or so, I’ll probably have to go back there again.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Horse apples. Don’t try to deny you’ve liked living alone. All that freedom to stick your nose in a book and neglect your chores.”
“I’ve never neglected my chores.”
“Not when I’m around to prod you into doing them. I don’t suppose you did everything on the list I gave you?”
“Ah, but I did.”
“Finished building the new table for my sewing room?”
“In one evening.”
“Took everything on my rummage list to Goodwill?”
“Yes, dear. Plus some odds and ends from the basement.”
“Painted that ugly workshop of yours?”
“All four walls.”
“Cleaned out the pantry and the freezer?”
“And the refrigerator. A good thing I did, too. There was a honeydew melon hidden in back that we bought weeks ago and forgot about.”
“It must’ve been rotten.”
“It was,” I said. “Squishy, in fact.”
“Mmm,” she said. “Did you do anything else besides loaf?”
“Oh, I had some fun with the Telfords.”
“Fun? With those busybodies?”
“We played a game.”
“What kind of game?”
“Actually, it was one they made up. I never would have thought of it myself. But I learned the rules quickly and even invented a few of my own.”
“Mmm. Who won?”
“How nice for you,” she said, and let the subject drop. She never has had any interest in my small triumphs.
When we arrived home, I made a point of parking prominently in the middle of the driveway and helping Suzanne out of the car. The Telfords had been sitting on their porch. They both scrambled to their feet when they saw her, their necks craning, looking like a pair of ungainly, agitated geese. I waved at them cheerfully. They ducked into their house without even waving back.
After I finished the dinner dishes, I sat on the front porch to watch dusk settle over the neighborhood. The evening was warmish and dusk is my favorite part of the day-quiet, peaceful, a contemplative time. Lights showed in the Telford house, but there was no sign of either Roger or Aileen. For the first time in as long as I could remember, all their window curtains were drawn and none of them were fluttering at the corners. It would be a good long while, if ever, I thought, before they resumed their spying on the Bennett household. After years of abuse, the prospect of protracted peace and privacy was a heady one.
The screen door banged after awhile and Suzanne came out to plop down next to me. “Why are you grinning?” she demanded.
“Was I grinning? I didn’t realize it.”
“What were you thinking about?”
“Oh, this and that. Possibilities.”
“I don’t understand you, Howard. Sometimes I wonder what possessed me to marry you in the first place.”
Before I could frame a response, George, the Lindemans’ Rottweiler mix, came trotting around the corner of the house. Suzanne let out a little screech that caused the dog to stop and flatten slightly with his ears back.
“Don’t worry.” I said. “He’s harmless.”
“Harmless? An ugly brute like that? How did he get into our yard?”
“There’s a loose board in the back fence-”
“Loose board? Why haven’t you fixed it? What’s the matter with you? A beast like that, running loose. There’s no telling what kind of damage he’ll do. Get rid of him! This instant!”
I got up and went down the porch steps. George’s tail began to wag. He came over and licked my hand.
“And don’t come back until you’ve fixed that board. You hear me?”
“Yes, dear. You don’t need to shout.”
“Horse apples,” she said. She went back inside and slammed the door behind her.
I said, “Come on, George,” and led the dog around back and across the yard. He didn’t want to leave. He stood looking up at me with round, eager eyes, his tongue lolling. I leaned down and patted his head.
“I don’t have anything for you tonight, boy,” I told him. “But I might have something in the foreseeable future. You never know. Life is full of possibilities.”
Then I shooed him out and went to get my tools so I could pretend to fix the loose board in the fence.