Monday, 4 May 2009
A BIT ON THE SIDE - by Anna Harris
A big welcome to Talkbacker, Island Girl, all the way from Oz...
A BIT ON THE SIDE
Marjorie Bradley indignantly eyed the men digging over garden beds across her vast expanse of lawn through the full length conservatory windows.
“I am feeling a trifle overwhelmed today with these workers here,” she continued stoically, “but nevertheless we shall forge ahead with...excuse me for a moment, would you, dear?” Raising her walking stick, she rapped on the glass. “You there, yes you, man with the blue shirt; mind that plant, it’s extremely rare and very expensive.”
Erica presumed the polished mahogany stick was for show rather than balance because during the course of the afternoon, her elderly aunt had only used it to draw attention to areas of specific interest in her garden or to shake indignantly at workmen.
“Silly man,” she said, turning back to her niece, “wouldn’t know a Cypripedium reginae from a Narcissus pseudonarcissus. One can find an answer to almost anything by reading, and of course, there is simply so much enjoyment to be found in literature. That chap has most likely never picked up a book in his life.”
Erica’s father, Marjorie’s brother, was an editor and had instilled the same love of the written word in her. She only hoped she didn’t appear as pompous as her aunt.
Gary Pfeiffer, Erica’s junior colleague plumped a cushion with his fist, knocking his small tape recorder onto the floor in the process and the old woman cast a menacing look in his direction. Erica knew that look well, her father often employed it to intimidate cocky apprentice journalists into toeing the line.
Marjorie disappeared into the body of the building to fetch afternoon tea, glancing back only to let Gary see and acknowledge her resentful scowl.
“You reckon I should go with her?” he asked, stuffing the tape recorder into a pocket.
“I don’t think that was what the looks are for, Gary. She’ll be fine on her own, I’m sure.”
The cosy glassed-in room offered an unimpeded view of the acres of sculptured topiary and well-manicured gardens, now in varying forms of disarray at the rear of the sizeable estate but Gary was not as comfortable in the stately surroundings as his colleague.
“This old place creeps me out,” he said, looking from his watch to the open heavy wooden door behind him and back again. “And she creeps me out. It’s the way she looks at me.”
“Don’t stress, it’s all cool.” Erica wasn’t about to lecture about the courtesy her aunt was used to, and expected, from visitors.
“But it’s not, is it? You know what old people are like; they treat everyone like idiots. And their houses smell.”
“Oh, that’s just lovely, that is. What a classy bloke you are.”
“Class my arse, Erica, just because you’re related to the old biddy, don’t go getting all uppity. You normally would’ve got the story by now and we’d be back at work getting on with the job, not hanging around humouring the old duck and eating scones with fucking jam.”
“I don’t actually like scones and I don’t much care for your language, either,” said Marjorie quietly from the doorway, making Gary jump. “My my, Mr Pfeiffer are you always this nervy? I believe that one should remain composed at all times and have always considered it a sign of weakness to act otherwise.”
She placed a wide tray laden with a pot of tea, three cups and a large plate of lemon slice on the low table between the sofas and set about serving out the sugar cubes with small silver tongs.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“Would you care for homemade lemon slice, Mr Pfeiffer?” she said, ignoring his feeble apology. “I know that Erica will most likely forgo the treat. We women like to watch our weight, don’t we dear?”
Erica resisted the food, partly because she wasn’t hungry, but mostly because her lean aunt had always had a way of putting her in her place while she was growing up. She was pleased she’d lost the puppy fat from all those years ago but knew the comment was an underhanded reminder.
“Now then, where were we? Ah yes, I was telling you about my friends. I suppose I should fill in a few gaps for you. That would help with your little story, wouldn’t it?”
“The bit about how you came to meet Stanley would be good,” Erica prompted.
“Oh yes, Mr Thomas, very uncouth man, that one. Just thinking about him makes me positively ill. And besides, I feel I should be supervising those workers; they’ll make such a mess of my lovely garden if I’m not outside to show them where to work. Forgive me, please; today is not one of my better days.”
“No, no you’re fine. But you were about to tell me about Stanley Thomas?”
“Horrid, crass man,” Marjorie shuddered. Erica noted she was looking at Gary, who was contentedly stuffing a second large helping of lemon slice into his mouth, but wasn’t quite certain who she meant.
“Mr Thomas was a common denominator in all our lives,” she continued. “A friend had mentioned his name in passing as a chap who operated a little handyman-type venture; one of those no-questions-asked, cash-in-hand sorts of enterprises. Well, he was on the pension, you see, so any little bit on the side was always welcome.
“Do have another lemon slice, Mr Pfeiffer.” She offered Gary the plate, passing it sideways without making eye contact. “In fact, he would often say so without pretension. ‘I never says no to a bit on the side; a bit on the side never goes astray’ he would laugh. Just like that.”
Erica dared not look at Gary who, she knew, would pick up on the innuendo. “And Stanley Thomas, he did some work for you on the side, Auntie?”
“As you can appreciate, Erica, there are always things to be done on a property this large. For instance, how many times did I hear that old water pump down yonder splutter and cough, only to see your dear uncle when he was alive, God rest his soul, marching resolutely down there with nothing more than a spanner in hand and a determined look upon his face. “
“So Stanley came out here to fix the pump,then?”
“Originally, yes, then as time went by I gave him more about the place to do. He lacked your uncle’s fine manners, of course, but I found Mr Thomas to be quite an able handyman. And he so enjoyed my lemon slice.”
Suddenly turning her attention to the only other person in the room, she asked, “What do you make of it, Mr Pfeiffer?”
Gary looked up, unprepared, spluttering his mouthful. He mumbled something unintelligible, which the women both took to mean he approved but before he could swallow enough to speak clearly, Marjorie had already moved on. “The success is in the filling, you know. The recipe calls for condensed milk, egg yolks and lemon juice but I’ve found the best cooks add a few extra ingredients to a recipe and it’s that which often gives a dish added zest. It’s those little deviations that make all the difference to my cooking. Mr Thomas thought so. He would always ask me for lemon slice whenever he worked for me.”
“He spent quite a bit of time here, Aunt Marjorie?”
“I’m not mechanically minded so I trusted him to see to any necessary maintenance. I did wonder at times if my house was going to fall down around my ears; all those repairs. If you’re asking if he took advantage of my purse, I’d have to say, most likely.”
“You began to think all the things he found to do may have been excuses?”
“Erica, my dear, not even the NASA space program has that much trouble with their equipment.”
“Not that it was ever really about the money, mind. He was not the sort of man to waste time ripping off little old ladies for a pittance in pocket money. He had bigger fish to fry, as they say. It was when he propositioned me that I knew he was a bad egg.”
“He asked you to marry him?” Gary looked up, suddenly interested.
“The last time I looked at a dictionary, Mr Pfeiffer, propositions and proposals were two entirely different things.”
“So what was he after?” said Gary, wiping an errant crumb from his chin.
“Oh, young man, don’t be so naive. He was after my body.” Gary spluttered and coughed on his food.
“Would you like a glass of water, Mr Pfeiffer?” When he continued to gape, Marjorie ignored his deer-in-the-headlights expression and went on, “Yes, you did hear me correctly. Sexual gratification; surely you modern young people are aware of such things?”
Erica came to her colleague’s rescue as he madly fumbled in his pocket for his tape recorder. “I don’t think Gary was expecting you to be so…candid.”
“He wants to get out more then.”
“If it wasn’t the money…I would’ve thought…I mean…” Erica grasped for a tactful way to phrase the question.
“Have you not been listening to a thing I’ve been telling you?” Marjorie snapped, her composure floundering. “He was trying to get me into bed. I’m beginning to see why you’ve never had a long term relationship, Erica.”
Erica was clearly struggling to get on top of things with her feisty relative. Apart from experience and seniority, both she and Gary knew Erica had been handed this particular task because of her connection with Marjorie, and ‘til now she’d been tip-toeing around the woman’s sensibilities. It was time for someone less personally involved to take up the reins.
“So Stanley wanted to get his rocks off and you wouldn’t be in it,” Gary blurted. Erica cringed.
“I grew up in an age where respect and morality were held in high regard, and you, young man, are an abomination to well-bred society. That means, Mr Pfeiffer, that you are very rude.”
“Actually, it’s Constable Pfeiffer, Mrs Bradley, and I think we’re over the butter-wouldn’t-melt routine. We know you killed Stanley Thomas, that’s why all the uniforms are out there digging up your grounds. We just need to know where the body is and how you did it.”
Stunned, Erica turned to face him with an incredulous look. He was either going to get an immediate confession after four hours of side stepped issues or her Aunt Marjorie would take exception to his brusque manner and they’d fail to get the evidence they needed to tie up the case.
“That crass excuse for a human is indeed interred in my garden, Constable. I chose to ignore the indecent suggestions Mr Thomas frequently made. Although I knew he was serious in his intent, I said nothing in return that he could possibly misconstrue. I don’t let other’s vulgarity disorient me.”
She stared distastefully at Gary. “It would have been quite convenient to have had our working relationship continue in the same manner - until the discovery that he had physically accosted one of my friends. It simply would not do to have the objectionable creature on the loose anymore.
“I’d read that many herbicides and weed killers are relatively tasteless when combined with strongly flavoured ingredients, and they don’t come too much stronger than lemon, do they?” she said, indicating the remaining slice.
Erica watched her colleague’s mouth gape as realisation dawned on them both, and knew her own face must be registering the shock.
“Oh don’t worry, Constable Pfeiffer, this batch only has half the quantity of poison as the ones I fed Mr Thomas. Poison is wonderful thing – so quick. If you call the emergency line now, you might just be able to save yourself.
“Now Erica dear, if you’ll allow me to walk back out to the garden where those wretched people of yours are digging up my beds, I’ll show you where I buried the other ghastly cretin.”
She held the glass door open and stepped outside. “Isn’t it amusing how silly rude men will scoff their just desserts? Mr Thomas loved my lemon slice, too, so I gave him exactly what he wanted - what he was always after - some lemon slice. Oh, and a little bit of poison – just a little bit on the side.”