Tuesday Afternoon Murder Club is a fun project that I’m working on, a lighthearted story set in a retirement village. I’m going to publish the story as a serial, so stay tuned for more episodes. You can find Chapter One here.
Chapter Fourteen – Pruning and Planting
Zara was kind enough to come to Eleanor’s house that very afternoon. Eleanor had texted her that morning, when she hadn’t been able hadn’t been able to access the footage on the video recorder in her office. Not phoned, mind you, she thought, texted. Zara didn’t answer phone calls, a habit she found very strange. Why have a mobile phone if one didn’t accept phone calls? Of course, she knew the answer to that question. These days, mobile phones could be used for all kinds of purposes, such as accessing the internet, taking photographs, and, of course, texting. Kathy had had to show her how to text, back when Joe first got a mobile phone, and had written her several of the confounded messages which she hadn’t been able to answer. These days, Eleanor was quite proficient with texting, but still preferred to phone where possible. Just look how far we’ve come, she thought. Our telephones have evolved to the point that we don’t like to actually use them as telephones.
“Thank you so much for coming dear.” Eleanor told the girl as she opened the door. She was surprised. Zara didn’t have her normal black eyeliner on, and her hair had been dyed a few shades lighter, a chestnut brown, rather than her usual severe black. She was also wearing it loose, instead of her usual severe hairstyle. “Oh, you do look really quite lovely, my dear. Your hair suits you so much better like this.”
Zara ducked her head, and put her hand to her hair self consciously. “Do you like it? Judy convinced me to do it, just for the drama production. I might go back to black after it’s all over, I’m not too sure.”
“Oh, it really is so lovely. And you’ve changed your makeup, too?”
“Yeah, I have to go and try on my costume this afternoon, so I thought I might as well get into character.” Zara smiled, and Eleanor thought once again that she was a remarkably pretty young girl.
“Well, will you have a cup of hot chocolate?”
Zara shook her head. “I’d better not stay long. The costume lady is a bit of a bi- ah, I mean, she’s a bit difficult sometimes.”
Eleanor smiled, and led the girl through to her office. Zara sat down at the computer, and tapped at the keyboard. “So you say you heard someone in here last night? Let’s have a look, then.” She pulled up the image of the office on the screen, then wound back through the tape. The office, pictured in the little video box on Eleanor’s computer screen, was in darkness, with nothing moving. Then, all of a sudden, on screen, the light clicked on. Eleanor gasped, audibly. There, on the screen, she could see Daryl standing in her office, with his hand on the light switch. There was no question that it was him. He was wearing pyjama pants and a grey t-shirt, and was looking in the direction of the video camera. As the recorded image played forwards, Daryl glanced around the room, then moved to the filing cabinet. He opened the cabinet, and rifled through, pulling out something that Eleanor couldn’t quite see, as it was off the bottom of the screen. “That will be my paperwork,” she muttered. On screen, Daryl seemed jumpy, glancing regularly towards the door. He tucked something under his arm, and moved to the computer. He switched it on, and sat down at the chair, typing in the password. The camera was angled more towards the computer than the filing cabinet, so she could see exactly what he was doing, although she couldn’t make out what he was looking at on the computer screen. Zara clicked a few times, fast forwarding through the video. Daryl sat at the computer for about five minutes, before standing up, switching off the computer, and then leaving the room. After a brief moment, he opened the door again, turned off the light, and was gone.
“Gotcha,” Eleanor whispered under her breath. She had to admit, there had been a few moments where she doubted her own suspicions about Daryl. Yet, here was proof, plain as the nose on her face. The man was planning to steal from her, if he wasn’t already doing so. The scoundrel.
With a few simple clicks, Zara copied the section of video that showed Daryl in Eleanor’s office. She attached the video to an email, and sent it to Judy’s email address. “Oh, Zara my dear, I can’t thank you enough,” said Eleanor, as the girl stood up to leave.
Zara paused for a moment, as though making up her mind. “Then, Eleanor, can I ask for a favour?” Her face coloured a deep pink. “Do you think you could invite Joe to the opening night of the drama production? I would like it if he was there.”
Eleanor suppressed a laugh. She remembered the awkwardness of young love, and how serious the smallest gestures seemed. “Of course, dear. I’m sure he would love to come.” She reached forwards and patted Zara’s shoulder. The girl seemed relieved.
“Thank you, Eleanor. I want him to be there, it’s just that I don’t want to ask him myself, I don’t want him to think that I want him there….”
This time Eleanor allowed herself a small laugh. “Oh Zara, I think Joe would be quite happy if he knew that you wanted him there. But don’t worry, I won’t tell him. And perhaps we can all go out afterwards for a hot chocolate? If your mother won’t mind. She can come too, of course.”
Zara impulsively ducked forward and gave Eleanor a quick hug. “Thank you.” Eleanor patted the girl on the shoulder, feeling really quite pleased.
Another busy day, thought Eleanor, as she walked to the dingy little cafe down the road, ready to meet the gardener. It was a spectacularly lovely day, and she felt rather annoyed that she couldn’t enjoy the simple beauty of the sunny garden. Well, hopefully today would help her to get to the bottom of this business with the gardener, and then she could relax and enjoy the sun. When she had told Judy that she was meeting with the gardener, she had warned Eleanor to be careful. “I don’t like the look of him, he seems shifty. And if he thinks you’re on to him, he might be dangerous.” Eleanor sniffed disdainfully. She was sure she could handle the nervous, pimply young boy.
At the cafe, Jordan was already sitting at a table, his cap pulled low over his face. Good, thought Eleanor. At least he wasn’t late.
When Eleanor sat down opposite to him, the young gardener looked up at her, brow creased with worry. “Oh, Mrs um, Eleanor, please, I really don’t want any trouble…” he stuttered.
“Just call me Eleanor. And, young man, not another word until I’ve ordered a pot of tea. The tea here is really rather satisfactory. Do you drink tea, Jordan?”
“Oh. Um, yes, I do actually.” He blushed a deep red. “My gran likes tea, so I learned to drink tea with her. Sometimes the fellas tease me about it…” he trailed off.
“Well, young man, a wise choice of beverage. Tea it is. And I believe we’ll have some lunch as well. The soup here is rather nice, but for a young man such as yourself, perhaps a sandwich would be better.”
“Um, no. Soup is fine.” Jordan hung his head, with the air of a dog that had just been scolded. Clearly guilty of something, Eleanor thought.
The gum chewing waitress came over to their table, smiling at Eleanor. Eleanor dictated their orders, and she wrote them down. “Where’s your boyfriend today?” She asked Eleanor, with a wink.
“Who? Oh, Roger. He’s not my boyfriend.”
“That’s too bad. He’s a nice man. Handsome, too, for an old guy.” She grinned at Eleanor and glided off to the kitchen. Eleanor sighed. For all her impudent questions, gum chewing, and apparent laziness, the girl was a good waitress. She’d never got an order wrong, and she made the tea herself, Eleanor could see. It really was a good cup of tea.
It only took a minute for a pot of steaming tea to appear on their table, and Eleanor poured them both a cup, and added milk. “Soup won’t be long,” the waitress called over her shoulder, as she walked away.
“Now,” said Eleanor, after she’d taken the first sip of her tea. “Why don’t you tell me everything?”
The story came out in fits and starts, as Jordan stuttered and mumbled his way through. Eleanor kept having to ask him to speak up.
“It turns out, he has not completed any horticulture course at all, let alone one at a prestigious college,” Eleanor related later that afternoon at Judy’s house. The whole group was assembled. Judy had just poured tea for everyone, and was standing in the kitchen doorway. Maude and Barry were sitting on the sofa, with Giles nestled cosily in between them. Vince sat in the armchair next to Eleanor’s, “Well, he told me that he had started a horticulture course, but only got as far as the first semester.”
“Well I never,” said Maude, covering her mouth with her hand. “Although to see the way that boy works in the garden, it’s clear to see that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”
“Well, that’s true. He told me that had been planning to study, but, as you all know, there aren’t many opportunities for studying here in town. Most young people move to the big city to study at University, or horticulture college, if that’s where their hearts lie.” Eleanor’s grandson Joe was, in fact, living on campus at the university in the city. It was not far at all, but really too far to travel there every day.
“You should have seen the poor boy,” Eleanor continued. “He really was rather distraught. I had to lend him my handkerchief. He told me all about how he had lied to Willoughby to get the job. He’s very lucky that Willoughby didn’t phone the college to check.
“It turns out, the poor boy is really rather close to his family. His gran is ill, and he didn’t want to move away, even just to the city, to get work. He had also just met a girl, someone who he’s madly in love with, it would seem. And so, he took the risk. He told me that he even managed to buy a fake certificate online, which he showed to Willoughby at the job interview. He thought he’d be able to learn on the job.”
“Well then, what a perfectly stupid thing to do,” said Judy, sniffing disdainfully. “It is apparent to the blindest of people that the boy has not studied horticulture. Why, just last week, I saw him weeding a patch near the pond. He’d pulled up about a dozen snowdrops that were about to flower before I managed to stop him.”
“Oh, and I saw him last week over by the library,” chimed in Vince. “He asked me what a particular plant was. It was a rose bush. Now what gardener doesn’t know a rose bush?”
“I saw him the other day carefully watering a patch of weeds,” said Maude.
“And, of course, Willoughby is on to him now.” Eleanor continued. “She suspects he is not the professional that he claims to be. The poor boy was distraught. He thinks he is going to loose his job, and if I know Willoughby, he’s not wrong. He is also worried that she’ll have him charged with fraud for faking his credentials.”
“Yes, I wouldn’t put that past her,” said Judy.
“So that’s why he’s been sneaking around, mostly trying to stay unnoticed and avoid Willoughby. The poor boy. What kind of work opportunities are there in this town for a young man with no qualifications. He’ll have to move to the city. It does make me rather sad to think of him leaving his gran and his girlfriend.”
Judy had a faraway look on her face, as though she was concocting some kind of plan. Eleanor knew that look – it usually led to trouble. “Well now,” she said, “let’s think about this. Now that we have this information, what exactly are we going to do about it?”
She looked around the group. Judy was not the only one thinking about the poor gardener’s dilemma. Vince had a thoughtful frown on his face, and Maude pursed her lips in concentration. Barry was helping himself to another biscuit, and Giles was snoring softly and snorting in his sleep. But on the whole, everyone seemed to be thinking about the situation. Apparently the Murder Club had decided to help out the poor young, misguided gardener.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” said Eleanor, as everyone finished their cups of tea. “I have some proof of Daryl being in my office. Judy, may we use your laptop?” Judy pulled out her computer, and opened up the video footage of Daryl rifling through Eleanor’s filing cabinet. The little group peered short-sightedly at the small screen, watching the full five minutes of footage.
“Well, that’s pretty difficult to dispute,” said Maude. “To be perfectly honest, Eleanor, there have been moments when I thought you were being slightly paranoid. But this is very clear evidence that the man is up to no good.”
“Oh yes,” chimed in Barry. “Did I tell you that man is helping me out with my finances? Daryl, I believe his name is.”
Eleanor frowned. It was really too much, taking advantage of someone like Barry. Some days she thought it was a wonder that the man remembered to wear pants. “Perhaps, Barry, you should get your accountant to check anything that Daryl recommends before you make too many changes.”
“There’s been another development,” she continued, and told the group about her missing silverware. “What’s unusual is that all of the spoons are missing, and only a few of the other things. I don’t understand why the thief, which I’m presuming is Daryl, wouldn’t take the lot.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Maude, “But perhaps they are more valuable if he is selling them off piecemeal? There is a demand for silver spoons and the like on ebay. Perhaps that is what he is doing? Selling them off bit by bit?”
“That would make sense, I guess. I can’t imagine why else he would be doing it.”
Eleanor sighed. Either way, her beautiful silverware set was gone, sold off piecemeal to the highest bigger. She felt particularly sad about the loss.
“Well,” she said thoughtfully. “I guess it doesn’t matter now. Only just over a week until the drama production is finished, and then we will enact the plan, and I will be rid of Daryl forever, that horrible, terrible man. If only we had been in time to save my silverware.”
The next day, Eleanor and Judy put the group’s carefully formulated plan into action. Judy was in the throes of final preparations for the drama production’s opening night, but luckily she had plenty of spare time and energy to carry out the small plan. A more forthright person may have called it meddling, but as Eleanor was herself involved, she preferred to think of it as ‘a charity project’. The two ladies visited a few carefully chosen residents of Tranquil Waters, those who were well known to be conduits of information. Eleanor thought of them as the main branches of the grapevine, but she also noted that a less kind person would say they were notorious gossips. They had decided to tell the truth, but with a few omissions, such as the fact that young Jordan had lied so blatantly when he was applying for the job.
“I’ve heard that Willoughby is on the warpath,” Judy mentioned casually over a cup of tea at Joan’s house. “It’s such a shame. The boy is still learning, you know. It takes years of practice and experience to be a good gardener. But no, Willoughby’s having none of it.”
“I’ll be surprised if he isn’t fired soon, if something doesn’t change,” chimed in Eleanor.
“Well, you can’t really blame the old battleaxe, can you?” said Joan, raising her eyebrows. “The boy is rather hopeless! Did you know that he sprayed a bed of pansies with weed killer, over near Mr. Jones’ house? Killed the lot. He thought they were weeds!”
“Oh, well the poor boy really does have a lot on his mind,” said Judy, with a theatrical sigh. “His grandmother is sick. And he does love his granny so very much.” It was a masterful stroke. Everyone at Tranquil Waters thought the world of their grandchildren.
“Oh, so sad,” said Joan. “It would be a shame for him to loose his job. Perhaps we could just give him a little advice here and there?”
“Oh, what a good idea,” said Eleanor, in a brightly innocent voice. “I’m certain that you have lots of good wisdom to pass on to him, Joan.”
Joan frowned. “But I did hear a rumour that the boy is selling drugs. Are you sure that he’s not a drug addict?”
“Oh, no dear. He’s just a nervous young man, easy to mistake that kind of behaviour for something sinister, but I assure you, the boy is certainly not a drug addict.” She caught Judy’s eye and smiled.
The two finished their tea, and said their goodbyes.
“Now, Eleanor, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Joan, as she was seeing them out. “What’s going on with you and Roger? I hear you’ve been having lunches together, and of course, you went to Clara Worthington’s dinner party with him. Are you an item?”
Eleanor was caught off guard. “No, of course not. He’s just a nice man, and I enjoy his company. That’s all.”
“Oh, I see. Of course, I would normally never ask such an intrusive question, but Clara has been making eyes at him, and I wouldn’t want her to be embarrassed. She’s very keen on him, you know.”
Eleanor smiled, and patted Joan’s hand. “Thank you for the cup of tea, dear. Now, we really must go.”
By the fourth person that they visited, not even Eleanor wanted tea. Clara offered them home made biscuits and a glass of water. “Oh, these are lovely Clara.” The biscuits were Anzacs, Eleanor’s favourites. The ladies chatted about all the goings on around the village, and finally, Judy managed to mention the young gardener.
“It’s such a shame that he’ll probably loose his job,” Judy was really getting into character by now, practically wringing her hands with anguish at the fate of the poor young man. “And with his grandmother so sick. He’s so devoted to her, you know.”
“Oh, but what to do?” exclaimed Clara. “Of course, I feel sorry for the boy, but one simply can not be allowed to trim topiary in such a haphazard manner.”
“Hm. If only there was someone who could teach him to trim the topiary bushes correctly,” said Eleanor dryly. It had been a busy morning of gossiping, and Eleanor was tired. She wanted nothing more than to sit quietly in her lounge room on her own for a while, perhaps with a good book.
“Oh, my late husband and I always had topiary bushes,” said Clara. “I hate to blow my own trumpet, but I am very good at trimming topiary. I could teach him.”
“Oh, what a very good idea!” exclaimed Judy. Eleanor used all of her remaining strength to stop herself from rolling her eyes.
Finally, Eleanor and Judy were able to extricate themselves from the conversation. “We’ll see you at the opening night of the drama production Clara, won’t we?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. By the way, Eleanor, I had been meaning to ask you. Will you be going to the drama night with Roger? There is some talk around the village that you have been seeing one another. You know, romantically?”
Eleanor sighed. “No, Clara, we are just friends.”
“Oh I see. I’m sorry to be so indiscreet, it’s just that I have a friend that is interested in Roger. Romantically. I wouldn’t want her to make a fool of herself, you know. Well, if you must know, it’s Joan. You know how she can be.”
“Well,” said Judy, on the way home, “that ought to do it. I only hope the poor boy is a fast learner, because there is an avalanche of advice headed his way very soon.”
Eleanor laughed. “Are we doing a bad thing, Judy? Meddling like this?”
Judy shrugged. “Who knows? We can never really know what results our actions will have, can we? All we can do is try our best and hope that everything works out in the end.”
“Ah, Judy. I hope you’re right.”
“Well, let’s let things take their course. I need to get back to preparations for the drama.”
“And I need to go and sit down for a while. Do you still have much to do, Judy?
“Oh, not really. The posters are all up. The tickets are being sold at the library. Apparently we’ve already sold most of our opening night tickets, can you believe it? Then there are four more nights, and we’ve got good sales for those as well.”
“Oh, that reminds me. I must get a ticket for Joe. Zara has asked me to invite him.”
“Lovely. She has been really rather wonderful, that girl.” Judy paused. “It is all going well, overall. I just have an overwhelming feeling that something is going to go wrong. Is that terrible, Eleanor? Do you think it’s a premonition? Or is it just nerves.”
Eleanor slipped her hand through her friend’s arm as they walked. “It’s just nerves, Judy. Everything is going to be fine. You are the star of the show, and you will do a wonderful job. Don’t worry, my friend. And I’ll be in the front row, watching proudly.”
Three days later, Eleanor walked to the library. She looked around as she walked, noticing the wonderful transformation that was taking place in the garden. Hedges had been trimmed neatly, there were new plants in the borders, and there was not a weed or a straggly dead flower to be seen. She spotted Jordan standing by the topiary bushes, watching carefully as Clara pruned them. Eleanor was impressed – Clara was indeed very good at pruning topiary bushes. She had managed to repair the damage that Jordan had inflicted previously, and had the bushes looking neat and symmetrical. Jordan looked up as Eleanor walked past, and caught her eye. Eleanor smiled at the boy, who excused himself and ran after her.
“Eleanor, excuse me, please wait. How did you do all of this?” He gestured around where they were standing. Clara was continuing to prune the topiary bushes. Mr. Selzer, one of the few Tranquil Waters residents who could still kneel, was on his knees planting seedlings alongside the path. Further down the path, Eleanor could see another two people, working away at the garden. The rosebushes had all been expertly pruned, so presumably not by Jordan, and there wasn’t a weed in sight. “The strangest thing of all was that yesterday, Mrs. Willoughby came out of her office and walked around for a bit. Everyone just stopped what they were doing and went about their business like normal. Mrs. Willoughby thought I’d done all the work myself.”
Eleanor suppressed a smile, and tried to make her expression as neutral as she could. “What makes you think it was me?”
“Eleanor, I’m sure it was you. A couple of days ago I was on the verge of being fired, and even I could tell that the gardens were a mess. Now they look wonderful, and Mrs. Willoughby even patted me on the shoulder yesterday, and said, ‘nice work’.”
Eleanor chuckled. “That’s high praise from Willoughby, too. All I did was circulate a bit of a rumour that Willoughby was out to get you, and also that you were very fond of your Grandmother, who is ill. The residents did the rest themselves.” She lowered her voice and frowned at the boy. “But here is the deal, Jordan. Here at Tranquil Waters, you are surrounded by keen gardeners with a wealth of experience and knowledge. You must take this opportunity to learn all that you can from them. Ask questions, listen to their advice. I also want you to enrol in a course part time, so that you actually do get your certificate. You can’t carry on in a lie all of your life.” She paused, looking sternly at the boy, who was wide eyed and nodding nervously. “If you don’t do this, then I will have no choice but to tell Willoughby about your deception. If she finds out, then loosing your job will be the least of your worries.”
Jordan blushed. “Yes ma’am, Eleanor. I’ll do all of that. And thank you very much, I’m so grateful to have a second chance.”
She stopped using her stern voice, and switched back to her normal, cheery tone. “How is your gran, Jordan? If she is well enough, why don’t you bring her down for a visit? I’m sure everyone would love to meet her.”
Jordan spoke shyly. “Well, actually, I was thinking of bringing her to see the drama, Hello Dolly…. She said she would like to see it.”
“Oh, that’s a lovely idea.” Eleanor patted the young man on the shoulder. “Now, no more sneaking around, do you hear me?”
When Eleanor was finally at home, settled at her kitchen table with a cup of tea, she phoned Joe. She was very glad that her grandson was not one of those young people who would only communicate through text messages.
“Oh, yeah, I’d love to come and see Judy’s play,” he said, when she asked him. “Um, that’s the one that Zara is in, right?”
“Oh, yes dear. I didn’t know if you knew or not. I’m sure she’d love it if you came to see. Shall I get you a ticket for the opening night?”
“Yeah, thanks Gran. That would be great.” They chatted a little about how things were going at University, and then Joe said he had to run. “Can’t wait to see you soon. Thanks for the invite Gran.”
Eleanor felt the usual warm glow that she felt after talking to Joe. He was such a good boy, she thought. She sipped thoughtfully at her tea, thinking of all the events of the day. Suddenly, her mobile phone rang, startling her.
“Good afternoon, this is Eleanor,” she answered.
“Oh, hi Eleanor, this is John.” She recognised the voice of her accountant. Unusual, she thought, as the man very rarely contacted her. If there were ever any questions about her finances, she usually got a phone call from his receptionist, a lovely lady called Maureen.
“Hello John, what can I do for you? Is everything ok?”
“Oh yes, all fine Eleanor. I just wanted to contact you personally, because there has been some unusual activity on your account. We’ve had some requests in regards to your investments.”
Eleanor felt a sudden chill run down her spine. Daryl.