Off Your Block

Savage Mystery ~ First Place
Cara Brezina


Photo Credit: CJS*64/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“So this all started with a fairy house?” Vanessa asked, skepticism and perhaps a hint of derision in her tone.

“No, not in the least,” I assured her hastily. “Well, maybe. An idea for a fairy house. There was a cavity at the bottom of the root mass of the fallen tree that formed this little triangular recessed nook. It would have been perfect for maybe a table and a couple stools. All biodegradable material, of course. Bark and twigs bound together by grapevine, maybe a woven coaster as a rug…”

I shut my mouth. I wasn’t winning her over with my interior decorating schemes.

“Here, look.” I tugged on the leash to bring Penny to a stop and located a picture on my phone. “See what I mean?”

“Hmmm.” She peered at the image of the fallen tree, a magnolia in the courtyard of my apartment building. Cicero, her pitbull mix, pulled at his leash and whined. Vanessa and I were dog friends. Our dogs had fallen in love at first sight—despite both parties being neutered—and we’d established a routine of walking the dogs together after work.

“I’m still not clear on how this leads to you turning up with a black eye gabbling about Toby jugs,” she said as we continued down the sidewalk. “I looked them up on the Internet. Those things are awful, Russ. What happened, did one of the fairies punch you out after you tried to install a Toby jug in his house?”

“Ha. Ha.”

It had really all started a couple nights ago, I told Vanessa, with a storm that brought a spectacular lightning show, torrential rain, high winds, sustained peals of thunder, and a freaked out black lab quaking underneath the covers of my bed. I immediately noticed the downed tree in the courtyard when I stepped outside the next morning.

Seen from the bottom, the roots of the tree splayed up and outward in a vertical semicircle, forming a hollow partially nestled into the ground. Penny and I were both intrigued by the possibilities. Fairy abode, I thought.

Excavation, she thought.

“Penny!”

I made a grab for her as she began to dig in the gooey mud, then froze in place as my hand tightened around her collar. She’d uncovered an off-white curved contour of an object buried a couple inches down.

A shard from a shattered skull, my imagination supplied.

A second glance revealed that the object was perfectly circular and coated with glaze. I scrabbled down and drew out a medium sized flat bottomed bowl of handmade pottery. I turned it around in my hands, trying to figure out a scenario in which it had ended up underneath tree roots.

Penny was still digging.

“Enough, girl.”

She didn’t listen, and I failed to stop her before she thrust her snout deep into the mud.

“Penny!”

When she emerged, she was triumphantly clenching the remains of a boot in her jaws.

I didn’t attempt much forensic work on the pair of boots other than observe that the soles were probably a bit larger than my own size eleven, but I made some interesting observations when I washed the bowl. The bottom was decorated with a black pawprint, and the artist had signed and dated it. Tara Pratt, 1999.

The Internet informed me that Tara Pratt was a multimedia artist living in Houston, but she’d graduated from Copley College close by my neighborhood in 2001. From the photo on her Etsy page, she looked more like a CEO than the burlap-clad sort of person I’d pictured working a potter’s wheel.

“Yeah, I did sell dog bowls back then,” she told me over the phone. “At rummage sales, school fairs, going door to door. Anything to earn a buck for tuition.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember if you ever sold one at my building?”

“I doubt it. I sold so many of them, so long ago.”

I mentioned the address, and there was a moment of silence. When she spoke again, there was an edge to her voice.

“Does the name Maria Fosco mean anything to you?”

It was my turn to fall silent.

“Oh, my,” I finally said.

“Exactly.”

Vanessa broke into my account. “The woman can’t be that bad, really.”

“She can, indeed. Her first complaint against me came the day that I moved in. The movers were being too loud.”

Maria Fosco had lived on the top center apartment of the building for more than thirty years. Her hobbies were cosseting her pair of Yorkies and amassing grievances against neighbors.

“Fortunately, she likes animals a lot more than people,” I said. “Penny is my saving grace, in her eyes.”

I’d never knocked on her door before. I came bearing an offering of pastries bought from the bakery around the corner. Her home health aide showed me into the living room.

“Of course I remember buying that dog bowl,” Maria told me. “I special ordered it from that art student, but it took the girl three tries before she got it right.”

I nodded in commiseration. I’d heard the same report from Tara Pratt.

“What happened to the bowl, do you remember?”

She looked at me over her glasses dubiously.

“It’s right there.” She pointed toward the kitchen.

“That’s not possible!” I blurted out.

Her dog bowl, although similar to the one I’d unearthed, was smaller and darker brown. It was also decorated with pink hearts surrounding the paw print.

“But…” I brought out my cell phone and showed her an image of the bowl. Her face softened.

“Oh, that poor little girl. That was such a tragic loss.”

“What happened?”

“Her little beagle puppy was stricken with parvovirus and died. Milo never even had a chance to grow up to drink from that bowl.”

“Was this about twenty years ago?”

Her eyes narrowed. “How did you know?”

I thought that it was pretty obvious that the girl, Caitlin, had buried her beloved pet in the flower bed and planted the magnolia as a memorial. No way, according to Maria.

“Watts would never have allowed it, not even for a sweet little girlie like her. Plus, all those magnolias by the building were planted at the same time. That tree wasn’t planted special for Caitlin.”

Upon reflection, Maria was right. Our landlord probably wouldn’t have allowed his tenants heat or running water if it wasn’t required by law.

“You know what happened?” She rapped her knuckles on the coffee table. “Derek Gillespie. No good ever came of that kid, but he had a good heart. He did odd jobs for Watts and he was probably the one who planted those trees. If Caitlin had asked him to bury Milo under a magnolia, he would have done it for her.”

As I was leaving, Daniela, the home health aide, followed me out to the landing. She glanced back nervously toward Maria’s apartment.

“Would you mind if I came down and took a picture of the bowl?” she whispered. “I’m a contributor to Off Your Block. I think this would make a great local history piece.”

Off Your Block was a local news site. It was notable mainly for the ferocious slugfests found in the comments section for each story.

“Um, sure.”

Daniela carefully arranged the bowl and the pair of rotted boots on a table in front of a sunny window in my apartment as if she were a curator at the Met. She thanked me profusely after taking a dozen pictures, and I walked her to the door.

When I looked back toward the window, one of the boots was gone.

“Penny!”

I retrieved the reeking boot and told her that she’d make herself sick chewing on that particular delicacy.

Less than an hour later, my doorbell rang. I took no notice. Usually, it was food delivery for one of the other apartments.

The ringing persisted. I finally went over to the intercom.

“What?”

When I opened the door, I was perplexed to find that my visitor was a teenage boy. He introduced himself as Connor and asked if he could see the artifacts.

“The what, now?”

“The artifacts, you know?” He held up his cell phone. I saw a picture of the dog bowl and boot under the headline: “Storm uncovers unbelievable artifacts.”

“Right. Wow. This way.”

I’d put the boots in a plastic bag and hung them up high by the back door. I brought them down for Conner to examine. His eyes darted from the boots to the bowl and back again.

“Can I borrow them?” he finally burst out as if he’d been working up to the request.

“Why?”

“For— for a school project.”

“What kind of project?”

He bit his lip. “Uh, science. Or maybe history.”

“But it’s summer,” I said in confusion before realizing that whatever reason he had for coveting the artifacts, it had nothing to do with a school project.

I told him that I’d consider it if he brought a note from his teacher.

“Probably a dare,” Vanessa put in.

“Knock on a stranger’s door and attempt to obtain their newly-discovered dog bowl by chicanery? It’s not the sort of thing teenagers do today.”

We’d reached my building, and I could see the prone magnolia next to the walkway.

“Hey, want to come in and see the spectacle?”

I unlocked the gate and let Penny off her leash. Vanessa followed suit with Cicero.

“So maybe it’s a weird dare for a teenager,” she conceded as we entered the courtyard. “But do you have a better explanation?”

“Ah. Wait until you hear what happened next.”

The doorbell rang. I tensed and hoped that it was just somebody else’s food delivery. Once again, the caller sat on the button.

Instead of buzzing them up, I went outside to the gate in the courtyard.

I expected the same pudgy teenage boy with the unfortunate skin. Instead, it was a pudgy teenage girl with a spray of freckles across her face. She introduced herself as Olivia and asked if I was the guy who’d found the buried stuff.

“I was wondering if maybe I could borrow the artifacts. My brother’s really into local history, and he’d love to see them, but he’s sick.”

I probably would have assented without a second thought if I hadn’t already had another visitor trying to finagle the objects away from me.

“I’ll certainly consider it, but I’m a little busy right now. Maybe you can give me your email address and I’ll get back to you?”

“That clinches it,” Vanessa said. “Definitely a dare. The first kid failed, so Olivia came along to see if she could do better.”

We were standing by the hollow below the root mass of the tree. Vanessa was attempting to restrain Cicero from diving into the churned up ground.

“Did you dig any deeper, see what else is down there?”

“Well, no. I didn’t really want to find the bones of Caitlin’s little puppy.”

“Good point.”

“Anyway, I still say it wasn’t a dare. I haven’t gotten to the part about the Toby jug yet.”

Midnight, and Penny began barking, deep and resounding.

Penny never barks. I half fell out of bed, threw on a robe, and followed the sound of her voice.

As I staggered to the back of the apartment, I became aware of a second voice, this one thin and human.

“Good dog, good doggie, be nice…”

The back door was wide open, and a figure was sprawled on the floor in front of my kitchen cabinets. Penny had him at bay. The intruder scrambled to his feet when he saw me and rushed for the door. Penny sprang past him, and he pitched over onto my back stairs. I dashed forward as he regained his footing. Penny bounded toward me in excitement, and my shins met her flank. I toppled.

“Ow, ow, ow…”

“So that’s how you got the black eye,” Vanessa surmised.

“Yeah. Probably from the edge of the door. The intruder was gone by the time I got to the stairs, but I know who he was.”

I waited for a gasp of anticipation. I was disappointed.

“One of those teenage kids. Gotta be.”

“Well, yeah,” I said, nettled. “But I have proof. He dropped his cell phone in his tussle with Penny, his unlocked cell phone. The name’s Connor. Connor Gillespie.”

“Okay. As I said, one of the teenagers.”

“With the last name of Gillespie. Just like Derek Gillespie, the one-time handyman who planted the magnolias.”

Maria Fosco sounded bleary when I called her around eleven the next morning.

“Maria, yesterday you hinted that Derek Gillespie got into some sort of trouble. Do you happen to know the details?”

Her voice became more animated now that she had the opportunity to dish out dirt.

“Yeah, the kid was arrested for breaking and entering a house here in the neighborhood. Terrible thing. He stole a whole bunch of valuable collectibles and they were never seen again.”

“Do you remember the name of the person he robbed, by any chance?”

“Of course. Arlene Voss, a lovely woman. She still lives around here.”

I brought up the online newspaper archives through the public library and confirmed that Maria’s account was partially accurate. Arlene Voss had reported a robbery twenty years ago and accused Derek Gillespie of stealing her prized Toby jug and several other collectible toys and curios.

The Toby jug was a bizarre piece shaped like a rabbit’s head, with its ear functioning as the handle of the vessel. I couldn’t imagine a teenage boy breaking in to steal it any more than I could understand the recent adolescent interest in possessing the dog bowl.

Derek denied the crime, the police could find no proof, and the items were not recovered. But my eyes fastened on one final detail, an unproven claim made by Arlene Voss. The police had found footprints in the soil outside the broken window. She was convinced that they had been made by Derek Gillespie.

“Wait, you’re not saying that those boots—” Vanessa broke in.

“Exactly, Watson. Derek Gillespie steals the Toby jug and other goods. Then he hears about the footprints and decides to get rid of the boots. He’d just helped Caitlin bury her poor little puppy, so he knows where there’s a large, deep patch of soft soil where he could bury them very easily, never to be seen again. Are you with me?”

She didn’t say no.

“Then, twenty years later, his nephew Connor Gillespie reads about the boots resurfacing and figures out what happened. He tries to get the boots away from me, first by asking, then by breaking in. I’m sure he got a copy of the master key for the building from his uncle. It should have been easy—just sneak in the back door and grab the boots. But Penny heard him come in, and I’d moved the boots down to my storage locker in the basement anyway. They stank.”

“Russ, have you reported all of this to the police?”

I hesitated.

“Not yet. I’m not really sure what to do about Connor. I don’t really want to see the kid arrested for being loyal to his uncle and maybe sort of stupid.”

“But considering what you told me about the boots—”

“I haven’t told you all of it yet,” I said hurriedly. “The name Voss sounded familiar to me. And this is why.”

I showed her a note on my cell phone: the name Olivia Voss, along with her email address.

“Connor Gillespie wanted the boots so that he could keep them buried for good. Olivia Voss wanted them so that she and her grandmother, Arlene Voss, could take them straight to the police.”

Before we parted, I promised Vanessa that I’d talk to the police the next day. But as it turned out, it was unnecessary. That morning, a breathless Off Your Block article linked the boots to the unsolved robbery. The police were examining the evidence.

Flummoxed, I went down to my storage locker. The boots were gone.

The cased was to remain unsolved. The police determined that the rotted boots did not serve as sufficient proof to link Derek Gillespie with the robbery.

I changed my dog walking schedule and route. Within a week, however, Vanessa caught up with me.

“Hey,” she said, too cheerily, as I strode grimly through the park.

“‘Sup.”

The silence stretched between us. I was the first to crack. “So, what’s the deal? What’s your connection to Arlene?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” she said unconvincingly.

“You were the only one who knew were I’d stashed those boots.”

“Ok, she paid me five hundred bucks.” It came out in a rush.

“Huh?”

“She saw us together in the courtyard that day, and approached me wondering if I thought you’d be willing to give her the boots. I said that you’d already refused two people, so she asked if I’d be willing to help her out. Russ, do you know how much I owe in student loan debt?”

I didn’t have anything to say to that.

“Anyway, I thought you’d want to know the last few details of the story. You almost got it right. But Olivia actually wanted the boots to stay buried, too, as it turns out. Arlene Voss wasn’t Olivia’s grandmother. She was her step-grandmother. Big difference. Arlene Voss threw Olivia’s mother out of the house on her eighteenth birthday and refused to let her take along several items with sentimental value that had belonged to Olivia’s real grandmother.”

“Such as a Toby jug?” I put in despite myself.

“Exactly. Olivia’s grandmother had used it as a vase for flowers. Arlene Voss put it in a locked display case. So Derek Gillespie volunteered to reclaim the goods.”

“Breaking and entering runs in the family.”

“Apparently so. Anyway, I’m glad you didn’t report Connor to the police. It’s refreshing to meet someone who’s willing to forgive.” Her tone was insinuating.

“He didn’t profit from his crime, though.”

“Neither did I, in the end. Arlene’s son visited me yesterday. He told me how his mother’s mentally ill and not competent to handle money. Asked if I’d consider returning the five hundred bucks.”

“And you agreed?”

“I wasn’t feeling great about the deal anyway. So, back to our usual dog walking routine tomorrow?”

I watched the dogs romping. Cicero lunged for Penny’s throat. Penny knocked him violently to the ground. They looked ecstatic.

“Sure, sounds good to me.”

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Cara Brezina is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. Email: borealisblue[at]gmail.com