Death by Conscience
Posted: 08 September 2008
Word Count: 7741
Summary: Everybody in the small eastern-U.S. seaboard town knew Ivy Holmes, or thought they did, until she died. Her daughter suspects she was murdered, the medical examiner knows she was, but he doesn't know why. This gentle woman's past caught up with her, and the results were deadly.
Death by conscience
by Gordon Arnold
Ivy Holmes was dressed in a beatific smile – a tribute to the undertaker’s skill and devotion – as she peeked through the wreaths of flowers smothering her casket.
“That’s not how Mom looked when I found her,” Lexis Jensen whispered to the sheriff as they stood beside the coffin. “Someone or something frightened her to death. Can we talk? Maybe later this afternoon, out at my place, away from the crowd.”
Chuck Morgan was within putting distance of retirement after 30 years as sheriff. For anyone but Lexis, he would have sloughed the job off on his deputy. But he had been friends with Ivy for more than a quarter century. He couldn’t walk away from her only daughter now.
“OK, Lexis. I’ll be there a quick as I can after lunch,” he promised
In the meantime, he skimmed over the ME’s report again. There was no strong reason for Ivy to be dead at this particular time. Nor did there appear to be a strong reason for her to be alive.
“Look, Chuck, we’ve known for the last three years now that Ivy had a bad ticker. She could have gone at any time,” Greg Coombs, the ME, reminded him over lunch. “Why now? Who knows what triggered the heart attack. That’s what did her in, but she did take quite a whack on the head when she fell. My best guess is that at some point in her life, probably a long time back, Ivy’s heart muscle was badly strained and it finally just gave out.”
The medical examiner jumped at the sheriff’s invitation to ride along and talk to Lexis. He’d had his eye on the pretty young widow for the last couple of years. And as a medical man, he didn’t believe someone could be frightened to death. There had to be more to it.
The silence in the squad car was broken only by the rhythmic whump-whump- clack of the windshield wipers as they carried away the autumn drizzle oozing from thick grey clouds scudding in off the ocean.
As the 15 miles to Lexis’s farmhouse clicked by, Chuck Jordan tried to think of who might want to harm Ivy Holmes. Ivy had lived in the district for 30-plus years. The image of Ivy as she stepped off the express bus from Chicago with young Lexis slung over her hip, one beat-up suitcase between mother and daughter, was still vivid in his mind
A ‘Nam widow, Ivy kept a picture of her late husband Danny – a smartly turned out young Marine captain – on the counter of the small flower shop she started soon after her arrival in Cape Jefferson. An autographed picture of Danny in combat gear graced the fireplace mantle in her home.
There had been suitors over the years, the sheriff knew, but to the best of his knowledge, all of them had been gently rebuffed. It was like Ivy didn’t want the attention of another man, not after Danny. That had never seemed quite natural to the sheriff, but he let it go. That was her business.
To his mind, Ivy could be an attractive woman when she tried, but it would be stretching a point to call her pretty, unlike her daughter. She had always dressed modestly, used makeup sparingly and often badly, according to his late wife, and kept her mousy-blonde hair a lot shorter than many of the men he knew. He guessed the flower shop didn’t make a lot of money – how could it in a little town like this – but it made enough to support Ivy and her daughter. And Ivy was religious about putting the day’s receipts in the bank each night before she went home. That he knew of, there was no out of town connection for Ivy – relatives or friends. At least, she had never taken holidays very far from Cape Jefferson.
Chuck Jordan, in short, could think of no reason anyone would want to kill Ivy. He was still puzzling over the motive problem, scarcely noticing that the drizzle had eased up, as he turned down Lexis’s driveway.
Lexis Jensen rose from the large double swing on the front porch, and ran to meet them, favouring her left leg ever so slightly, her shoulder-length dark curls swinging gently in the early-afternoon breeze. Ben, her eight-year-old son, remained on the porch.
“Thanks for coming by, Chuck,” she said as the sheriff gave her a fatherly hug.
“Sorry about your Mom. Ivy was a real fine lady,” he said. “You know Greg here.”
“As far as Greg can tell, Ivy died of a heart attack. She’s had a problem for quite a while, you know. Why do you think someone or something might have caused that heart attack. Are you up to telling me about it now?” the sheriff asked, steadying Lexis’s arm as he led her back to the porch.
Lexis shooed Ben into the house, and motioned for the men to sit down. The sheriff eased himself onto the swing beside her. The ME preferred to stretch and display his muscular body against the porch railing.
“Mostly, it was the way Mom’s face was frozen in absolute terror when I found her,” Lexis began.
“You’re sure that wasn’t just pain from the heart attack?” the ME interjected.
“I thought about that at first, Greg,” she replied. “But I’ve been an ICU nurse for 10 years. Trust me. I know the difference between fear and pain,” Lexis replied.
“OK. Point well taken,” Greg conceded.
Lexis composed herself, and forged ahead. “Now, you might think I’m being ridiculous, but Mom’s behaviour has been, well, to say the least, peculiar for the last little while. She was getting more and more uptight, for no apparent reason, jumping at the slightest, unexpected sound, snapping at people when I know she didn’t really mean to do it.”
“Did she give you any indication of why?” the sheriff asked.
“No, and that was strange too. We used to talk about everything, Mom and I. But Mom just got more and more secretive,” Lexis said.
“Can you think of anyone Ivy might have quarrelled with, or problems with the business, or something like that?” the sheriff pressed on.
Lexis shook her head. “No. The funny part is, I think Mom had a secret admirer, and that’s what was making her tense. It started about six weeks ago when mom got this strange bouquet. There was no name on it, but it was like she knew the sender from the choice of flowers. When I dropped in after work, she was sitting in her big easy chair, sobbing, trembling, muttering to herself that it couldn’t be him, not after all these years.”
“Do you have any idea who she meant?” the sheriff asked.
“No. I tried to tease it out of her with talk of a secret beau, but she just told me to ignore the rambling of a tired old woman,” Lexis said.
“When Ben stopped off at her house on the way home from Little League practice a week later, he found his grandma sitting in the chair and clutching a new bouquet, talking to herself. ‘But I had to do it, don’t you understand. I had to. You left me no choice.’ Over and over she repeated this, like she was in a trance. I don’t think she even knew Ben was there. Scared the daylights out of him, it really did. Poor kid was so freaked out he ran all the way home.
“It was about this time that I began seeing the light go on in her attic late at night. It’s just like a lighthouse beacon shining through the gap in the trees there. One day, when I asked her what she was doing there, she got really upset, told me to quit fussing about her so much.”
The next mysterious bouquet arrived a week later, this time at the flower shop. “Jodie – that’s her new helper – phoned me at the hospital. Said mom had locked herself in the back office, and she could hear her pacing back and forth, moaning. ‘There’s nothing there. I was such a young fool.’ Mom closed the shop early that night and went home, straight to the attic. I could hear her sobbing, but she refused to come down when I knocked, so I went home.
“I hope I’m not wasting your time with all this, but I’m sorta scared. More for Ben than myself.” She glanced from the sheriff to the ME.
“Not at all Lexis,” Greg replied. “Just curious, since I’ve only been in town a few years, was your Mom always a florist?”
Ivy nodded. “For as long as I can remember.”
“Doesn’t it strike you that sending flowers to a florist is a bit strange? Rather like sending the proverbial coals to Newcastle, I should think,” Greg said.
Lexis hadn’t thought of it that way, but agreed that it did seem strange.
Bouquets kept coming for the next three weeks, all of them different. “And with each arrival, Mom got more and more agitated. The final bouquet arrived the night she died. Mom was almost hysterical when I dropped by her house after supper. I gave her a good stiff shot of brandy to settle her nerves, tucked her in and went home to look after Ben. I should have stayed, or made her come home with me.
“I thought I saw a light in her bedroom, briefly, about 9:30, but it went out after a few minutes. When Mom didn’t show up to open the shop in the morning, Jodie called me. As soon as I could find someone to cover for me at the hospital, I went out to the house to see what was the matter, and that’s when I found her.”
The bedroom lights caught the medical examiner’s attention. He had put the time of death about 12 hours before he saw the body. Dead women don’t turn out lights, he muttered to himself.
“Well this is certainly a puzzling tale, Lexis, but I don’t see how flowers from a secret admirer would frighten someone to death,” the sheriff said.
Pacing up and down the porch, Greg Coombs was developing a hunch. He asked Lexis what had become of the bouquets.
“Mom gave them to me and told me to get rid of them, but they were so pretty, and so unusual, I just couldn’t throw them out. So I’ve started to dry them in the shed out back.”
The medical examiner asked if he could see the bouquets. “Flowers have always been a hobby of mine. I put myself through college working in a greenhouse, and my undergrad minor was in botany,” Greg shrugged in answer to the sheriff’s puzzled look.
At Greg’s request, Lexis arranged the bouquets on the kitchen table in the order in which they arrived. The first was a mixture of lemon geraniums and monks hood. As she spread the others out, the ME poked away with his pen at a mixture of yellow lilys, black roses, balm of gilead, coltsfoot, meadow saffron, biberry, wild licorice, hop, orange lilys and some bay leaf among the flowers in the bouquets. You wouldn’t find all of this readily in a small-town florist shop, he mused as he jotted down notes for each bouquet.
“Lexis, did your Mom ever talk to you about the language of flowers? You know, that secret Victorian language of love and hate used to send discreet, and sometimes not so discreet, messages.”
Lexis shook her head. “I don’t understand,”
“Let me give you an example,” Greg explained. “Let’s say your boyfriend behaved atrociously on a date – got drunk, or made a pass at another woman. He might, according to one version of the language, send you a bouquet of humble plant, clotbur, henbane, bee ophrys and hazel. From that, he’d expect you to understand that he was embarrassed by his loutish behaviour and wanted you to forgive him.”
“Well, I’ve dated a few guys who should have sent me something like that,” Lexis laughed. “But I’ve never heard of any such thing. The closest I ever came to discussing any language of flowers with Mom was when I was trying to decide what kind of corsage to get my date for grad. It wouldn’t surprise me if mom knew that sort of stuff, but she’s never talked about it with me.”
The medical examiner cautioned that the language of flowers could be somewhat imprecise, but there was no mistaking the intent of Ivy’s bouquets. They were a blunt threat. “When you arrange them in order, here’s how I think you can interpret that message, Chuck.” He handed the sheriff the piece of paper on which he had been jotting notes.
Bouquet 1: I have found you at last. Beware, you face a deadly foe
Bouquet 2: Justice shall be done
Bouquet 3: What ever happened to our love
Bouquet 4: You destroyed us both
Bouquet 5: My soul and my flesh have been tortured for too long
Bouquet 6: I will kill you, and then I will rest for eternity.
“We’re talking murder, here,” the ME said. “Those flowers are filled with hatred, bordering on insanity. Whoever sent these bouquets has at best, a fragile hold on reality. He blamed Ivy for all his troubles, and he was out for revenge. I think it’s safe to guess that at some point in her past, he knew her really well.”
“Lexis, I’m sorry to do this to you, but I think you’d better plan on postponing Ivy’s funeral for a couple of days while we look into this,” the sheriff said. “Can you think of anyone around these parts who would know something about the language of flowers, besides Ivy, and Greg here.”
“Not today,” she said. “A few years ago, although it was a bit before my time, probably the entire faculty and student body at Chicken U could have told you.”
The sheriff smiled at the way she spat out Chicken U. Just like a Marine’s daughter, he thought. Chicken U was known formally as Krevport College. It had been founded by a group of wealthy businessmen at the height of the Vietnam draft, for the sole purpose of giving their sons straight As, helping them to dodge the draft. Less than a year after the troops pulled out of Vietnam, and the sheriff was among the last to go, the college was closed and sold to a group of nuns.
After a few moments of silence, the sheriff spoke again. “So are we agreed? It doesn’t look like anyone Ivy knew around here would send her the flowers, or want to harm her. What about your dad? I know he’s been dead since some time during the war, but did Mom ever mention anyone who might be holding an old grudge against him?”
Lexis shook her head. “No, Mom didn’t speak about him very much. Once, when I was really young and pestering her about why I didn’t have a daddy like all the other kids, she took me on a bus ride, out west to some small town in Wisconsin. She took me to the cemetery, we stood outside the fence, and she pointed to a gravestone. ‘There’s your daddy. He died a hero defending you and this country. Don’t you ever forget it. And don’t question me about him again. It hurts too much.’ And then we came home, and that was that.”
“I’m sorry, that must have been rough,” the sheriff said. “Tell you what. You know my deputy, Hal Foster. He’s still got some good contacts with the Marines. If I can use you phone, I’ll call him right now. It shouldn’t take him too long to track down your Dad, and we can go from there.”
In the time it took them to finish the coffee Lexis had brewed, Hal Foster was back on the phone.
The Marines had a Private Danny Holmes, 21, stationed in San Diego. Lieutenant Danny Holmes, 35, was stationed in Berlin. But there was no record of a Captain Danny Holmes serving in the Marines during the Vietnam War, or at any other time.
This was not what the sheriff wanted to hear.
Lexis’s shoulders sagged when the sheriff told her. “I don’t understand. How could that be? Who’s in that picture that Mom worshipped all these years? Who is my Dad?”
The sheriff clasped both her hands in his. “I’m sorry to say, Lexis, but I think the question now becomes ‘Who is your Mom?’”
The sheriff called his deputy back. “Okay, Hal, your next job. Get some prints off Ivy and run them for me, see if the Canadians will give us a hand, too. Whatever you turn up, come meet me with the results at Ivy’s place.”
After he hung up, the sheriff turned to Lexis. “We’ve got to take a real good look around your Mom’s place.”
As they were climbing into the patrol car, Greg stopped. “Hey Ben, you want to ride in a po…lice car?” He whispered to the sheriff. “Just in case I’m right and there is a nut case on the loose, we should keep the boy close to us.”
The sheriff turned the lights and siren on for Ben’s benefit, then gunned the car out of the driveway. Less than 100 yards down the road, he swung into Ivy’s place. Her driveway snaked its way through a small orchard of mature apple trees and ornamental shrubs, stopping in front of a rambling 19th-century house. Its California Arts and Crafts style sat in sharp contrast to a landscape peopled by Cape Cod variations, but Ivy Holmes thought it was perfect. She bought it cheap, and told the sheriff it reminded her of home.
Greg Coombs had never been to Ivy’s place, and he envied the isolation she had achieved. At the same time, he realized how vulnerable she had been.
Ben was hesitant to climb out of the patrol car and go into the house with them. Grandma’s house had always been so warm and inviting. Today, without grandma, it seemed spooky and hostile.
Chuck Jordan took a quick stroll around the house and yard. With the intermittent drizzle for the last 24 hours, he didn’t really expect to find anything, but procedure was procedure.
Lexis and Greg were waiting for him in the kitchen by the time he had finished his exterior inspection. Ben had settled into the big leather couch in the den, from which he clicked on the wide-screen TV. The sheriff knew the TV was there only for Ben. Ivy rarely watched it. When she wanted to relax, she preferred classical music, which came from an elaborate stereo system concealed behind the colonial hutch that stood against the far wall of the den. The sheriff stepped across the room, flipped open the hutch to confirm the stereo was still there, and closed it.
He returned his attention to the kitchen, where he noted that Ivy had added a few new colonial pieces to her collection. Any one of the kitchen chairs alone, the sheriff knew, would set him back at least a couple of pay cheques.
“Anything look different here since you found Mom?” the sheriff asked Lexis.
“No. This is the way Mom always left the place. She was a real neatness freak. I just wish Ben had inherited some of her neatness genes.”
She led the men upstairs to her mother’s bedroom. The furniture here was also colonial. Maybe Ivy was doing a little bit better than she let on, the sheriff thought, wondering if a similar thought had crossed a murderer’s mind as well.
The sheriff couldn’t see that anything had been disturbed in the room, but he asked Lexis just in case. “Well, aside from stripping the bed and putting fresh linen on it, after the ambulance took Mom away, not that I can see. I took the bedding back to my place to wash.”
Before the sheriff could ask any more questions, they heard a car in the driveway. The sheriff’s deputy hopped out and dashed up the front steps.
“You’re not going to believe this, Chuck, Ivy’s dead,” the deputy panted.
“Take it easy, Hal. We know that she’s dead,” the sheriff replied.
“No, you don’t understand. I’m sorry, this is just so weird I’m getting ahead of myself here. According to fingerprint records in Canada, Ivy’s been dead for a little over 30 years. At least, the person we know as Ivy has been dead for over 30 years.
“No. Let me try that again. The fingerprints from Ivy Holmes match the fingerprints of an Irma Moodry in Canadian justice system computers. She was picked up in a small-time drug bust in the early 70s – a couple of joints – they wouldn’t even bother with it today. About 18 months after that, she was murdered. That’s all the details I could find out for now.”
The sheriff looked at Lexis. Poor kid, he thought. In the past couple of hours, she’s found out the man she grew up thinking was her father never existed. Now she finds out the woman she thinks is her mother has been dead for three decades. And I’m probably going to wind up making things a lot rougher for her before we get to the bottom of this, he sighed.
“Given the fingerprint match, we’ve got to say that the woman we all know as Ivy Holmes is in fact Irma Moodry,” the sheriff said. “Next, we’ve got to find out why the computer thinks she’s been dead for 30 years. I’d say it’s pretty obvious Ivy, or rather Irma, has been hiding from someone, or from the law, or both. The question is, why.
“I’m real sorry to have to do this to you, honey. But think carefully. Can you remember anything Mom might have said or done, from any time in your life, that might give us a clue. Aside from your dad, was there any topic out of bounds?”
Lexis choked back sobs as she tried to replay her life. “Well, there was that time when I snuck into the attic when I was about 12. I was looking for a Halloween costume for school. Mom caught me trying to open this old wicker trunk, and chewed my ear off for an hour. She told me if I ever went into the attic again, I’d be grounded for the rest of my life. The next day, Mom changed the lock, and I’ve never been in the attic since. That was 20-odd years ago. Mom was just so vehement about it.”
“There must have been something in there that worried your Mom a lot,” the ME interjected. “Why else would you see the light in there almost every night for the last few weeks?”
Lexis couldn’t find a key to the attic, so the sheriff called for his deputy to join them. Hal leaned down in front of the lock, fiddled with a ring full of picks for about 30 seconds, and the lock popped open.
“Bet you didn’t learn that in police college,” the ME grinned as he stepped into the shadowy room, looking for a light switch. Even though it was still afternoon, the one small window which faced Lexis’s house was not enough to illuminate the room.
Lexis was first to spot the wicker trunk in the middle of the room, its clasp undone and the lid partly open. She fell to her knees and opened the lid. There was a grey envelope from the flower shop on top of a pile of newspaper clippings. “Pookie. This is for your eyes only,” a message on the cover read. Lexis slipped the envelope into the pocket of her slacks, hoping the sheriff and ME would not notice.
Both men noticed, glanced at each other, but said nothing.
The next couple of inches in the trunk consisted of a pile of yellowing newspaper clippings, which had been disturbed quite recently. Lexis pulled out the largest clipping, and smoothed the top half of it on the floor. It was from the front page of the Winnipeg Star. A huge black headline screamed across the top of the page:
HOCKEY STAR GUILTY
Murdered wife and baby girl
in brutal winter crime;
used blizzard to cover tracks
Three pairs of eyes were riveted to the article.
“Phil Moodry, a rising defensive star in the NHL, was found guilty today of murdering his wife and 11-month-old daughter,” the article began.
“The jury took only 40 minutes to reach its verdict after sitting through three weeks of evidence. This was Moodry’s second trial for the crime. The first trial ended in a hung jury.
“Moodry was sentenced to 25 years in prison with no hope of parole, the maximum sentence the law allows.
“It was clear from Justice Joe O’Connor’s attitude that he regretted Parliament’s decision to end capital punishment in this country.
“What made the trial so unusual is the fact that the police still have not found the victims’ bodies.”
Lexis and the sheriff stopped reading at this point to unfold the rest of the page. They gasped as Lexis’s picture leaped out of a time warp. There could be no doubt about Lexis’s relationship to the beautiful young woman on the newspaper page, with her wholesome butter- melting smile, long black curls and sparkling eyes.
The sheriff let out a long, low whistle and looked at Lexis, who was staring at the picture in disbelief. A caption identified the woman as Irma Moodry.
“Well, I guess we know what happened to the missing victims, now,” the ME said.
“That now leaves us with three basic questions,” the sheriff added. “One. Why did your mom disappear from Canada? Two. Was she murdered here? Three. If so, by whom? If we can answer one and two, number three should be a lot easier.”
They returned to the article in silence.
“At the first trial, the jury heard evidence of blood stains found in the trunk of Phil Moodry’s car, but this was not considered conclusive enough at the time for a conviction, and the trial ended with a hung jury.
“Acting on an anonymous tip, police again searched the couple’s comfortable suburban home in southwest Winnipeg and found, concealed in the false ceiling in the basement, a ball-peen hammer covered with blood and hair.
“Forensic analysis showed the hair matched Irma Moodry’s, and that of her infant daughter, Haley, court was told.
“From the positions of the blood and hair, police concluded that Phil Moodry had killed the baby first, smashing her head in before turning to his wife to smash her head in.
“In the hands of flamboyant prosecutor Vaudeville Joe Beaudry, this was enough to seal Moodry’s fate with the jury.
“The veteran prosecutor, known for his showbiz theatrics at trial, saved this evidence for last. Then, pacing in front of the jury, he pulled the hammer from under his robes, and raised it over his head. Without warning, he swooshed down with it, intoning for the jury. ‘And this is how he smashed the baby’s head in.’ He raised the hammer again, and swooshed down again. ‘And this is how he crushed the life out of his wife.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I implore you. The very souls of Irma Moodry and baby Haley cry out for justice.”
The article continued for a full column, highlighting the sordid details of the crime, and giving a brief biographical sketch of the couple and their volcanic marriage.
Phil Moodry had come to Winnipeg to play for the Manitoba Vikings, a young NHL team. Good looking and charming, he had an explosive temper on and off the ice. Irma Donnelly, an orphan just out of high school, was a finalist in the Miss Manitoba pageant considering a career in modelling when she met Moodry. They were married three months later.
Together, the couple opened a flower shop, and had a baby girl.
Two neighbours were called to testify at the trial. Sofia Green was first to take the stand.
“They started off like such a nice young couple. But soon you could hear them yelling and screaming every night, there were dishes, and pots and pans thrown, just the most gosh awful clatter, she told the jury.
“A couple of times, the day after a fight, I would invite Irma over for coffee. She was black and blue from head to foot, and once I noticed one of her teeth was chipped. But she insisted it happened when she fell down the basement stairs.
“MaryAnn Bellows, who lived on the other side of the Moodrys, presented similar evidence to the jury. Miss Bellows added that once, she had to drive Irma Moodry to the dentist because all of her teeth had been smashed out. Another time, she took her to the hospital’s emergency ward with a broken arm.
“And none of this was reported to police, the prosecutor asked the witness.
“What’s the use? You’re a man. You wouldn’t understand. You can’t get the police in this town to take wife beating seriously,” Ms. Bellows glared at the prosecutor.
“Vaudeville Joe had no comeback, but from the nods of the three women on the jury, they understood the problem.
“Mrs. Bellows final testimony appeared to sicken the jurors as she described taking the shrieking baby, its left leg dangling like a rag doll, to the children’s emergency ward.
“Dr. Jack Golden testified to the broken leg, and said little Haley, had she lived, would have always had a limp.”
“I’m sorry, Chuck, I just can’t go on,” Lexis said, burying her head in the pile of paper.
“That’s OK. I think we’ve seen enough to realize why your mother felt she had to hide,” the sheriff said. “If the animal had been convicted down here, Ivy wouldn’t have had to spend her life in hiding. On the other hand, down here, the DA might have had to produce the bodies – not always so in Canada.”
Lexis wanted to take the wicker trunk home. “I’ll try and read some more tonight, Chuck,” she promised. “I hope you’ll excuse me for now, but this has been a real roller coaster of a day for me.”
Ben was reluctant to leave his grandma’s wide-screen TV, but eventually his mom and the sheriff convinced him. “Oh, all right,” he huffed, picking up a small paper bags from beside the couch and taking it with him.
Chuck saw them to the porch. “Take care, Lexis. I don’t think you and Ben are in any danger, but lock up good just in case. Hal will swing buy on his patrol later tonight if he can.”
Even with all the doors and windows securely locked, a sense of unease hung over Lexis and the house as she prepared supper. The kitchen routine soothed her a bit, but she had a nagging feeling something wasn’t right. After watching a couple of Superman reruns with her son – Ben grumbling all the while that they were better on grandma’s wide-screen TV – she sent him to bed, and tucked him in a few minutes later.
Back in the kitchen, she dragged the trunk over to the table, and dug into a handful of clippings. After three quarters of an hour, she knew more about her parents’ rocky marriage than any child, whatever age, should know. “Mom, how could you be so naive,” she whispered. “It sounds more like a marriage made in hell than in heaven.”
The house groaned and crackled as hard-driving rain replaced the afternoon drizzle. Lilacs swished against the windows, like unwanted visitors. Lexis was not, by nature, a nervous person, but after the day’s revelations, she jumped at every strange sound, becoming more and more convinced she was not alone in the house.
“You’re just being silly,” she scolded herself as she stood up to make a pot of rose-hip tea. As she returned to her chair, she remembered the envelope she had stuffed into her pocket.
“Pookie. Mom hasn’t called me that since I was four years old, she smiled, recalling hours spent cuddled in her mother’s arms as mom tried to rock away the pain in her left leg.
Gingerly, she opened the envelope, taking care not to rip any of the contents. She unfolded the letter, surprised at how new it felt. She took a sip of her tea and began reading.
“Pookie. I know this is kind of rambling. Please forgive me, but I am not a writer. If you are reading this, I’m probably dead. Your father, Phil Moodry, did not kill us in Winnipeg. But that’s about the only thing he didn’t do to us. Everything you’ve read in these newspaper clippings I’ve saved is true, and there’s a lot worse that a sense of decency kept papers from reporting in those days. I’m not sure I even want to tell you about it now. What you do have to know is that your father, Phil Moodry, found us, I don’t know how, and he intends to kill me.
“That was the message in those bouquets. But I don’t think anyone in town would have believed me if I’d tried to tell them. So I didn’t. Your father was a master at the language of flowers. He was a brilliant and charming man, but dangerously mentally unstable, as I found out too late. Obviously, I don’t know at this point whether your father will succeed in killing me, I just know that he intends to try.
“He is extremely angry that he spent 25 years in prison for murders he didn’t commit. And he seems to have acquired some sort of illness in prison that he’s blaming me for, and he no longer cares about his life. He was always dangerous. Now he’s doubly so. Be careful.”
Lexis was so absorbed in the letter she didn’t hear the basement door open, nor the footsteps gliding across the kitchen floor.
“I guess I probably broke quite a few laws setting your father up to go to jail. I just didn’t know how else to protect us from that animal. I figure at the very least, I bought you 25 years to grow up without harm, and that’s all that really matters to me. In fact, we’ve had a few bonus years.”
The letter went on to explain how the police had bungled the first investigation, how she had to point them in the direction of the hidden hammer they were supposed to find in the first place, for the second trial to have a chance of getting a conviction.
“I had to slice your finger, and mine, to get enough blood to leave traces in the trunk of the car and smear on the hammer. Then I had to pull a few of your hairs out by the roots to stick on the hammer before I hid it. Oh, did you cry. I’m sorry I had to hurt you, Pookie, but it was the only way. It’s the only time I ever deliberately hurt you.”
Ivy’s letter (Lexis could not bring herself yet to think of her Mom as Irma) detailed their escape to the U.S., how they nearly perished in a savage winter blizzard as she tried to hike an old bootlegger’s trail across the Manitoba/North Dakota border, how the physical ordeal damaged her heart muscle, how they were rescued by members of a hippy commune in North Dakota.
“Those folks were good to us, Pookie, and I would have been happy to stay there for a long time. But by spring, I was afraid their drug use and drug dealing would bring the law down on our heads, and I couldn’t risk that. We hitchhiked to Chicago – there was nothing unusual about hitchhiking in those days – and took a bus to Cape Jefferson.”
After a couple of more pages of details about the early struggles in Cape Jefferson, the letter concluded:
“Pookie, there’s one last thing I want you to do for me. Burn the contents of this trunk. This isn’t how I want Ben to remember his grandma.”
“I wouldn’t want to be remembered as a witch who stole 25 years of a man’s life, either,” a voice behind her rasped, its breath hot on the nape of her neck.
Lexis stifled a scream as the voice behind her commanded “Don’t. You’ll wake up the boy. Stay seated.”
Lexis wiggled around in her chair to get a better look at the man behind the voice.
About 60. Tall, maybe 6’3” or 6’4” if he could straighten up from his stoop. Iron grey hair. Stringy grey goatee. Hands and face, the only part of his body showing, were emaciated. Bone almost poking through skin. Black eyes smouldered, sparked hatred from sockets hollowed out deep in his face.
“Who are you? How did you get in here?” Lexis demanded, having registered in her first glance enough information about the man to terrify her. Stay calm, she ordered herself. This guy could be dangerous, but stay calm.
“I think you know who I am. I’m your father,” the stranger replied. He ignored Lexis’s gasp. “Getting in was easy. I just walked in and waited in the basement while you were off with that fool of a sheriff moaning over the death of that worthless piece of trash you called a mother.”
“You killed Mom.” The words just shot out of Lexis before she could stop them. She regretted it at once. It was a dangerous thing to say, but she just could not help herself.
“Did I now?” The rasping voice came back. “Or was it her conscience? There’s a lot of that going around these days, you know,” he laughed hysterically. “Just three months ago, Vaudeville Joe, that charlatan of a lawyer who prosecuted me, had an attack of conscience and took a flying leap off the 25th floor balcony of his apartment. His life ended with a splat, not the swoosh he used to end mine. The sound of that splat was the sound of his conscience in action. Twenty five years is a long time to take out of a man’s life when he’s done nothing to deserve it.”
A quick glance into the smouldering eyes told Lexis it wasn’t safe to bring up the abuse she and her mother had suffered. Stick to something neutral, she told herself. Keep him talking. As long as he’s talking, he’s not going to kill you. “Mom said you were an expert in the language of flowers. How does a man wind up interested in something like that?”
But Phil Moodry refused to be drawn into that conversation.
“So how did you find us after all this time?” she probed.
“Sharp eyes, and a bit of luck. I’ve been working as a janitor in the QE2 in Montreal for the last seven years, it’s the only job I could find after I got out. I saw you walking through the lobby at that nurses’ conference three months ago. At first, I thought it was Irma, but then I knew it had to be you. The resemblance is so strong. I nearly lost you when you took off for the weekend with that doctor, but when I realized you hadn’t checked out of the hotel, I just waited for you to return.”
Lexis blushed. The doctor had been her first affair since her husband died, and she didn’t want anyone to know about it, least of all this vile stranger.
“I got your address from the registration desk, and simply followed you back to Cape Jefferson, hoping you’d lead me to Irma.”
Lexis felt a twinge of guilt. If it hadn’t been for her, Mom might still be alive. Mom had, in fact, been worried about her going to the conference.
“Yeah, you’re right. I see what you’re thinking,” he rasped. “If you’d stayed home where you belonged, your mother might never have died. That was the trouble with your mother too. She never understood what her place was either. That’s why we fought all the time. I had to make her understand. A man has a right to do that. So you see, it’s really your fault your mom is dead. And who knows, maybe her conscience gave her a little nudge. It’s not my fault. She deserved to die. She had to. She was a thief who stole time, a thief who stole my life. Just because we had a few minor quarrels was no reason to put me away for 25 years.
“Look what she did to me. Look at me. You’ve no idea what those animals in prison will do to a man if they think he’s a child killer. Yes. Look hard. You’re a nurse. You must know. I’ve got AIDS, and that’s all your mother’s fault, and your fault too. If it hadn’t been for your lies, I wouldn’t have been in prison. Now I’m going to be dead in a month.”
The last rant had exhausted Phil Moodry, and he leaned on the table for support, his eyes engulfed in flames. At that moment, Lexis doubted he even knew where he was. She felt her professional training abandoning her, replaced by a rising sense of panic.
Then, just as quickly and silently as he arrived, Phil Moodry was at the kitchen door. “Just remember, my dear, your conscience will always catch up with you in the end, even if someone needs to give it a nudge,” he rasped. “Maybe your Mom’s conscience had a helper.”
Lexis gasped as he swung his right arm over his head, and brought his hand down with a swoosh. “And a whoosh went baby’s head.” The arm went up again, and swooped down again. “And a whoosh went his wife’s head. And splat went the lawyer.”
Phil Moodry went loping down the driveway into the pounding rain and the night, swooshing his right arm through the air, cackling to himself.
Lexis locked the kitchen door, hurried around the house to make sure all the other doors and windows were still locked. She tried to phone the sheriff. The line was dead. Knocked out by the storm? Or by Phil Moodry? She didn’t know.
Lexis wished she had a gun. She grabbed Ben’s baseball bat and ran upstairs to his bedroom. She pushed his dresser in front of the door, and settled herself on a chair at the foot of his bed, between the window and the door. Towards dawn, she fell asleep, dreaming of North Dakota blizzards, still gripping the baseball bat.
Lexis awoke to loud banging on her front door. She pried her fingers loose from the bat, and looked out the window. “I’ll be right down,” Chuck,” she yelled to the sheriff. She pushed the dresser away from Ben’s door and hurried down the stairs.
“Are you OK? I got worried when the phones went out last night. They’re still out over most of the county this morning,” the sheriff said.
Lexis told the sheriff about her visitor while she made coffee for both of them.
“But did he admit outright to killing your mother,” the sheriff asked. “Did he admit outright to frightening her, or even to sending her the threatening flowers?
“No,” Lexis conceded. “But he left no doubt that he was responsible for her death, and it sure sounded like he pitched that Canadian lawyer over the balcony, too.”
“I’m sure you’re right about him, Lexis. But the DA would have a devil of a time getting a conviction with what we’ve got,” the sheriff said.
Lexis then told the sheriff about the letter from her mother.
“It would certainly give him a motive for killing Ivy, wouldn’t it. Maybe I should just bring him in and have a little chat with him.” The sheriff banged his right fist into the palm of his left hand to punctuate the threat.
Lexis flipped on the morning news as they were finishing their coffee. “That’s him.” She gasped, as a head shot of her father flashed on the screen, and she turned up the volume.
“Police in nearby Orson county are investigating what appears to be an early morning suicide.
“The victim, Phil Moodry, is known to have served 25 years in Canada for a double murder,” police say. “It is not clear at this point how he got across the border. Homeland Security is investigating.”
“It appears Moodry climbed up on top of the bridge trestle crossing Old Mill River. Just as the north bound freight was thundering across the bridge, witnesses say Moodry dropped down in front of it. He died instantly.”
Lexis switched the TV off.
“Just goes to show, there’s no accounting for what drives people,” the sheriff shrugged as he shoved away from the table. “He’s not a problem to us any more, but now we’ll never know for sure. Did he, or did he not, kill Ivy?”
Just then, Ben popped into the kitchen, clutching a brown paper bag. “Hey Mom, can you clean this off for me, please.” He pulled a ball-peen hammer, smeared in blood and hair, out of the bag.
‘Ben, where did you get that?” Lexis demanded as the sheriff reached for the hammer.
“That nice old man gave it to me yesterday at grandma’s. Said his work with it was done. Said he wouldn’t need it where he was going,” the boy replied.
“What nice old man?” the sheriff asked.
“You know. The one with the grey beard,” Ben said. “He looked a lot like that guy on TV.”
“Where did you see him, Ben,” the sheriff persisted.
“I told you. At grandma’s. He watched TV with me while you guys were in the attic,” Ben said, afraid he was in trouble for taking the old man’s hammer.
“Honest. He said he didn’t need it any more. Honest. He said his work with it was done. I didn’t steal it. Can I keep it Mom, please. Please mom. Please…………………………..
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