You—You Killed Him
It started and ended with the garden hose, but there was a murder coiled up in the middle. Dad Wells was sprinkling his flowering petunias, his bare feet comfortably tickled by the lush carpet of green grass between the rock-bordered beds. His pointed goatee matched the whiteness of the cumulus clouds boiling up this hot June forenoon. His eyes held the blue of the sky they invaded.
The fragrance of nut-brown baking loaves wafted across his neatly trimmed hedge from the bakery and gave him visions of yellow butter and red strawberry jam. But these tantalizing notions were abruptly cut off by a terrible, gurgling scream that rang out on the morning air from the shipping department of the bakery across the alley.
Dad dropped the hose and seized his wide suspenders with shock. Goose pimples sandpapered his legs, though the thermometer on the side of his little white bungalow stood at ninety degrees. That cry was paced to the terror of sudden death.
He was running now. Across the gritty alley and in on the cool concrete where the orange and black trucks hauled away the fresh loaves. He heard a scrape in the shipping clerk’s office, the clatter of something falling, then a deathly silence.
His throat felt tight, but he forced himself to go on in and have a look. The back of his neck crawled. Old Jonathan Bibb lay on his back in a crimson welter of blood. A twelve-inch mechanic’s adjustable wrench had crushed one side of his bald skull into an awful, unliving shape. The killer had slipped out through the back door of the office, which stood a few inches ajar.
Jonathan’s big green cash box stood open. Dad knew it should be full of bills and silver from the drivers’ collections and on its way to the main office upstairs. He kicked it out of the way under the desk and stooped to feel Jonathan’s pulse.
The throb of life had been stilled forever.
Someone gasped behind him, and Dad turned mechanically. Red Zyler, the long-armed mechanic of the bakery fleet, stood with his big mouth open. He stood looking at Dad, his eyes accusing until he could stop his wide yellow teeth rattling enough to blurt out:
“You—you killed him.”
Dad moistened his lips. “I wouldn’t hurt Jonathan. He was my friend.” Shaking, he picked his way around the sprawled corpse to the phone and asked the operator to call headquarters, there’d been a murder. When he looked up again, a slim fellow in white duck slacks was standing in the open door gulping and backing away, pointing at the dead man. His black eyes were sprung wide by terror. His thin shoulders shook under an open-necked, silk sports shirt.
“He’s dead, ain’t he?” he demanded. “I’m after the money. What’ll I do when I have to go back up to the cashier without the money?” He turned and ran, shouting out a general alarm.
Dad tugged desperately at his white goatee. He wanted to form a mental picture of the room before the others came stampeding in and mussed it all up. Jonathan had been a fanatic on good housekeeping. The inside of his office was varnished perfection. It shone, except for his own blood. Someone must have nicked his gleaming paint somewhere, Dad thought. His repair kit is turned over. That patching plaster is all mixed up among his nails, screwdriver, and other tools. Wouldn’t his neat soul suffer if he could see such confusion as that?
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This Looks Bad For You, Old Fellow
The wide garage floor filled as if by magic with clacking-tongued bakers and office help. The superintendent of the bakery tried vainly to control them, but it was no use. They ignored him. When Captain Carson walked in a few minutes later he had to beat his way through them to the door where Dad was trying to keep the murder room free of stampede.
Carson cleared the track efficiently and let the doctor and coroner inside. He looked over the dead man and his tomb a few minutes, then started jabbing Dad with saw-edged questions which brought a bead of nervous moisture to Dad’s upper lip.
Dad told his story simply and directly, mentioning how Red and the clerk from upstairs were the first to arrive. How fifty others working in the building at the time had just as much chance at the dead man as they had.
Carson scratched his facts down in a ragged notebook. “Red, where were you when this happened?”
“Under that truck over there. Had the pan down. Someone crossed the floor. The scream came a minute after that. By the time I could get loose and crawl out, Dad Wells was leaning over Jonathan and he was dead.”
Carson grunted and pointed his cedar pencil at the slack-clad office clerk. “Marty, where were you?”
“I’d been in the office all the time, until I came down after the drivers’ money and found Dad Wells and Red here. That’s all. I beat it.”
Dad edged around where he could stoop and get a quick look under the bread truck Red said he was working on. The engine crank pan was not down as the mechanic had said. It was covered evenly with a coat of road dirt and grease. Why had he lied about it? The wrench that did the job belonged to him. He had a big family of freckled youngsters to feed, too. That took a lot of money.
Dad listened hopefully. But Carson couldn’t get another one of the employees to admit they’d heard the scream or knew a thing about it, until after Marty had stormed the length of the building popping off his big, loose mouth.
Carson elbowed his way through the wide garage doors where two trucks could drive abreast and across the alley to the hedge, which skirted Dad’s little domain.
“Look here.” He pointed back through the open doors to Jonathan’s office in the shipping room. “Dad, you could see pretty well what went on all the time in there.”
It was a statement of fact.
“Why, yes. I was interested in the business. Nice bunch of folks over there. They all waved and said, ‘Hi, Dad’ and ‘Hello, Granpa’ and the like.”
“What does a man of your age live on?” Carson demanded suddenly.
“I saved some when I was younger. It’s enough.”
Carson jerked a thumb. Two uniformed men started working in around Dad’s flowerbeds, his green shrubs and fruit trees. Carson himself walked slowly along the broomlike stiffness, of the privet hedge, his red neck arched, looking down. Then he snapped forward.
“Here it is, boys. What kind of flower do you call this?”
Dad started, his old knees shaking inside his checkered poplin pants. Wedged back under the drooping branches of the hedge was the green till from the cash box. It was significantly empty.
“I didn’t do it,” Dad said lamely “There wouldn’t have been time to come back here before Red showed up. Besides, I didn’t leave him.”
Red shifted his long arms. “I reckon you could have made it. It took me some time to get loose from what I was doing and get out. You could have run back here to the hedge, easy.”
“This looks bad for you, old fellow,” Carson said. “You’re too old to hold a job, starving along on the skimpy interests of your savings. You saw Jonathan handle that money day after day. Finally it got to be too much. Want to tell us about it?”
Dad felt his heart swell as if it would pop his chest. This stupid cop. Didn’t he have any sense at all? How could he associate murder with my philosophy of life? My love of the beautiful. To Carson, all people were as much alike as paving bricks.
“I won’t speak further without counsel. Am I to consider myself arrested?”
“Well, practically. Maybe you had better come along.”
Dad looked around the white cottage with its border of green shrubs and his heart died within him. He’d never dreamed of leaving it as a common criminal.
“Wait a minute, all of you,” Dad said. ”I forgot to shut off my hose a while ago. And I’d like a last look at my double petunias before I leave them forever.”
They followed him through the gate to the flowerbed he had been watering when he heard the death scream. The brass lawn nozzle lay sizzling in the grass, a fine silvery spray of cold water catching a miniature rainbow from the sun. He stooped to retrieve it and swung it on them in a slow arc. The dashing spray sounded like a rainstorm on a canvas tent as it swept across their trouser legs.
It he wasn’t in such danger he could have cackled with glee the way they sprang back as if the clean water were a flamethrower.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I’m not so chipper as I used to be.”
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The Truth In Less Than Hour
Dad slowly followed the cop to the bakery. In the alley, he turned to take his farewell of his little home.
“Captain, some person in this group wants an old man to give up the last years of his life to pay for a crime he didn’t commit. If you’ll let me line this crowd up along the side of this bakery in the hot sun, I’ll have the truth in less than hour.”
Carson permitted himself a sour grin. “Go ahead. It’ll take nearly that long for the coroner and fingerprint men to finish in there.”
There was some muttering at this. Dad heard remarks like “sunstruck” and “crazy with the heat.” He was sorry for the innocent, but he was on trial for his life. Unless this experiment worked, well—the chair has no respect for gray hair. Strangely, he thought, how sweet life is to the old. Those with the shortest time to live hang on with the fiercest grip.
Dad pattered up and down the line of scowling, sweating, and cursing people. Girls held up their purses to keep the hot glare out of their eyes, and the men assumed various attitudes. Some were as stoic as Spartans, others as fretful as children. Hot tar dripped out of a spout, and the asphalt shingles on the alley sheds curled in the blistering breath of the sun.
He waited for about fifteen minutes, and knew he couldn’t go on. He couldn’t bear to have people suffer like that. He stopped in front of Red. If he couldn’t bluff the truth out of the killer now, he might have to pay for his failure with his life. He gulped:
“Red, why did you lie about the grease pan on that truck? You didn’t even touch ‘it.”
Red looked around as if he’d like to dart away.
“I got rattled, I guess. I was hiding out under there, resting a little on my creeper. Had a party last night.”
“So you heard me walk in and then heard the scream?”
“Yes, I distinctly heard somebody go by. I had my head down against the concrete. The heels cracked hard and fast on the cement.”
Dad laughed and pointed down. “And me bare-footed? I didn’t make as much noise as a mouse when I went in there. You’re lying again. You—”
“I didn’t kill him, I tell you. I swear I heard someone walk through there.”
Dad glanced down at Red’s wrinkled pants legs where the water he had sprayed there was dried up now by the sun. It was now or never. He plunged to his knees, but it was the cuff of Marty’s duck slacks he seized with urgent hands.
“Look here,” he cried to Carson. “It’s setting hard already. This patching plaster. He upset Jonathan’s repair kit. Some of the plaster fell down his leg and lodged in the cuff of his pants.”
Marty cursed and jabbed suddenly at Dad’s twinkling eyes with braced thumbs, but Carson grabbed him roughly by the arm. “Cut it, Brother.”
Dad raised his eyes in thankfulness and looked across to his flowering little home.
“If you’ll look up in the bakery office where Marty works, you’ll find a till missing where he hooked it from another cash box. He planted it in my hedge before the murder. He looked through the garage and couldn’t see Red under the truck, so he thought the place was empty. He’d heard him when he came through.”
Carson jerked Marty toward his prowl car. “But, Dad, how did you know it was him? Why not some of the others?”
“Because I’d kicked Jonathan’s cash box out of sight under the desk to get it out of the way. When Marty comes in buggin’ his eyes, what does he say? ‘What are they going to do to me when I go up without the money?’ How did he know any money was gone unless he was the one who killed old Jonathan and took it for himself?”
~ The End ~