Authors: Susan Breen
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Susan Breen
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover design: Tatiana Sayig
Cover images: Shutterstock
For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider,
every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.
Maggie Dove wanted to be a beacon of light. She dreamed of being the sort of person who made others laugh, calmed crying babies, soothed wild dogs, inspired hopefulness. She wanted her life to be about something grand, yet every blessed thing that happened seemed designed to bring out all that was petty, cranky and small in her middle-aged self.
Take her neighbor, Marcus Bender. Maggie knew, intellectually, that he wasn't an incarnation of Satan. He was just an annoying man. He was the sort of man who blew all his leaves onto her lawn each fall. He drove too fast down her quiet street, and once, when she had to jump out of the way of his car, she saw him laugh. He put a soccer net right up against her property so that every time his kids missed a goal, the ball went flying into her rosebushes. All of this, Maggie recognized, was insignificant. Petty. She tried to ignore it. She wanted to ignore it, and she might have succeeded had Bender not gone after her oak tree.
Maggie loved that oak tree. Her father planted it when she was a girl. She'd climbed on it. Her daughter had swung on its branches. She put ghosts on it for Halloween and lights on it for Christmas. Maggie loved the graceful shrug of its branches; she loved watching its little flowers unfold into leaves. She loved the little pods that floated over her lawn in the fall. Mostly she loved the way the tree linked her to her past and future. She would come and go, her daughter had come and gone, but the tree was as close to eternal as she was likely to see anytime soon.
Bender wanted her to move the tree. That was the sort of man he was. He thought you should move trees. It blocked his view of the Hudson River. He'd gone to considerable expense to remodel his house, which was the old Levy house, home of Maggie's best friend growing up. He'd transformed the quiet little colonial into a Spanish-style atrocity that looked like it had a dungeon in the basement. He had an art studio on the top floor, though he wasn't an artist. He was a lawyer, but he had an artistic bent and wanted to paint studies of the Hudson River, and he didn't want those studies blighted, as he said, by her oak tree. Blighted!
Maggie said no.
He offered her money. He had a lot of money and was willing to use it to get what he wanted. He seemed genuinely surprised to find there was a person in the world who didn't care about what Bender wanted.
“We'll work this out, Maggie,” he said, grinning at her in that wolfish way he had. He was a very good-looking manâathletic, muscular, tanned. He wore suits to work and his broad chest bulged against the constrictions of his shirt. Winifred Levy, who had once been Maggie's neighbor, but was now confined to a nursing home because of Parkinson's, was convinced that the source of Maggie's anger was sexual desire, a conclusion Maggie thought so far off the mark, she didn't even argue about it. She wasn't attracted to men who were like steamrollers. She liked gentle men, and gentle people. She loved her small town on the Hudson River and the people she'd grown up with and she loved that tree. There was no amount of money he could pay her to make it worthwhile to cut it down. She didn't want to fight about it; didn't want to talk about it. She just wanted to live her life and enjoy her tree.
Then, one April morning, Maggie went outside to see if any new leaves were starting to form. She loved those wispy little clusters that blossomed for a short time each spring, but as she neared the tree she was struck by a sharp odor. She saw a strange dark puddle at the base of the tree; bent down to sniff it, and her nostrils burned. Poison. Bender was poisoning her tree. Maggie called the police and they came over, and were sympathetic, but there wasn't much they could do. They had no proof it was Bender. After the police car went away, Maggie went over to Bender's house, certain he'd been watching the whole scene and laughing.
She pounded on his front door, which had been taken from a castle. Literally. It was like something you'd find in Disney World, or England. It belonged in front of a moat, not a small street in Westchester, New York, she felt, and when he opened the door she was stunned to see behind him a cavernous hallway paved with stone. In its earlier incarnation, when her friend Winifred's family had owned it, it had been a 3,000 square foot center hall colonial.
“Stay away from my tree,” she'd hissed. She felt anger burning her face.
“I know how important that tree is to you,” he'd said, speaking soothingly, as though talking her down from the roof. “There has to be a way we can work this out. I want to do right by you, Maggie. Maybe if I made a donation to charity. Do you have one already set up? For your daughter?”
She'd felt herself gripped by a sensation so severe she could only compare it to giving birth, but without the payoff. Had she a gun she would have been severely tempted to shoot him, but in that moment, all she could do was hurl her words at him. Her last words to Bender were, “Don't you ever set foot on my lawn again. Not you, or your wife, or your children, or I swear to God I'll kill you.”
Stalking back to her house, she'd paused to pick up a rock. She brought it inside and took a seat by her window. If he dared! If he dared to come near her tree again, she would throw it at him. She wanted to strike him in the head. She wanted to mark him, so forever after he would have a scar. She wanted to shatter that smug visage of his. She sat there for hours, watching, waiting, hating. She didn't even have dinner. She didn't move. She watched the sun set. The sky darkened and it was night, and then she felt afraid.
Not of Bender, who was, after all, just a thoughtless man who would get what was coming to him one way or the other, but of herself. She felt something had changed inside her. That because of him, because of what she'd said to him, she was less than what she had been. She was letting hatred get the better of her. She looked at the rock that she'd been clutching in her hands all these hours, and she felt sick, and got up, and set it on her desk.
She stared out at the tree for a long time that night, admiring its elegant lines and thinking about all the joy it had brought her. She watched its graceful dance under the moonlight. She thought how many times she'd hugged it, pressed her face against its sturdy, ridged bark. She felt something inside her unclench. She felt peace and closed her eyes for a bit and when she opened them, an hour or so later, she noticed something lying under the tree. It was too dark to be sure, but it looked like a doll. With an orange dress. She put on her sweater and sneakers and picked up her flashlight and went outside and that was how she discovered Marcus Bender, dead, lying under her tree, manicured fingers stretched toward her house as though pleading for help.
Bender looked small. The man who had occupied nearly every waking moment of Maggie's life for the last few months now looked compact and insignificant, like something discarded. She rolled him over, thinking to do CPR, but there was no question of restoring him to life. He was rigid. She didn't know what to do; didn't want to leave him alone on the lawn, but needed to get help. His house loomed in front of her, lit up like a ship on the ocean at night. She yelled for his wife.
No movement. Nothing, and so Maggie took off her sweater and put it over his face, thinking to protect him, and then ran into her house and called the police, except that in her nervousness she accidentally transposed the digits. So she wound up with the pizza parlor instead.
“You can't be wanting a pizza so late, Mrs. Dove,” Joe said. “What's up?”
“Something terrible's happened, Joe,” she whispered, because it didn't seem right to speak loudly. “Something's wrong. Marcus Bender is dead on my lawn.”
She could almost feel Joe snap to attention. He volunteered for the ambulance corps and had served two tours in Iraq. “Are you sure he's dead?”
“Yes, I felt for his pulse. And he's rigid, but I moved him. I know you're not supposed to, but I couldn't leave him with his face in the dirt. He's got blood on his lip,” she added.
“That's okay, dear. That's okay. I'll get the police. They'll be there in a minute. You stay inside.”
But she couldn't stay in her house. Not with Bender lying defenseless on her front lawn, and so she went back outside. She crouched down alongside of him, thinking to keep him company, not sure what else to do. She was surprised to find herself crying. She'd hated him so much and now he lay before her, so vulnerable. He looked frightened, as though whatever killed him came up on him suddenly. But of course it would have. He was a relatively young man, only in his late 30s. Not a man who should be dying. She supposed he'd gone out for a run, though she'd never seen him running before. He had on a bright orange shirt that reflected light. Almost as though he wanted to draw attention to himself.
“What were you up to?” she asked. “Why did you want me to see you?”
Automatically she looked at her tree, poor little oak that looked ghostly in the moonlight.
No, she would not get mad at a corpse. She shut her eyes and said a prayer and waited for the police, who should be there any minute. The police station was only a few blocks away. Where was Noelle? She looked at his blazing house. She looked up at the moon, which hovered above her, all pale white and sickly looking. Like a voyeur. Like a ghost or one of those balloons that followed you around. Her daughter had been terrified of balloons; they never could have them at parties. Juliet thought them secretive. She was such an imaginative child. So full of stories and light.
Maggie's legs hurt from crouching, but she couldn't bring herself to sit down on the lawn. This wasn't a picnic. Neither could she stand. Then it would look like she was going to kick him and she didn't want that to be the first thing the police saw when they pulled up. Where were they?
How unnaturally quiet the village was tonight. Where were the teenagers racing up and down Main Street in their cars? Where were the trucks on Broadway, the muted TV noise from the other houses nearby? Even the trains were silent. Her street was a dead end, so there was never much traffic, but you could usually hear the Van Dornes arguing or Mr. Cavanaugh playing his piano. Even the peepers were struck dumb, the little frogs' insistent racket stilled. Something they did when danger approached.
“Is someone there?” Maggie called out, for suddenly she felt the presence of someone else. A presence right out of the edge of her hearing. She tried to concentrate. She smelled honeysuckle, a sickly and indecent aroma. She felt, rather than heard, someone else's heartbeat. A coyote? she thought. They came here sometimes, but in packs, and they moved around. A dog? But no, she felt a human presence. She remembered a fact she learned when she used to write mysteries, that a person poisoned by belladonna could develop a heartbeat so loud it could be heard from several feet away.
“Who's there?” she called out. “Noelle?”
She felt anger and hatred, but wasn't sure if it was coming from inside her or outside. Maybe what she was feeling was the malevolence she'd felt toward Bender. Maybe all that evil was taking shape outside her, now that Bender was gone. Maybe something inside him had now been transformed into something malevolent. Something destructive. She wanted to run back into her house, but refused to do it. Never give in to fear. Something she told her Sunday School students all the time, something she believed. So she stood up, ready to face what was coming, and heard the distinctive sound of a large creature crashing in her direction.