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Fiction: How are the mighty fallen

Janie Redfern had taken a header from her attic window onto the flagstone path below.

BY MARY JANE MAFFINI | JUN 11 2012

“Is Janie dead?” Pete Redfern’s voice faltered.

The policeman in the well-cut, grey pinstripe suit regarded Pete with flat, narrowed eyes. So much for the rumpled stereotype of fiction. His suit may have been snazzy, but the detective had a face like yesterday’s oatmeal and, clearly, a suspicious mind. He also looked vaguely familiar. But if you’d taught third grade in the same town for 35 years, everyone does.

Still that detective was not my concern. My old friend and neighbour was. I patted Pete’s bony shoulder.

Pete whispered, “But couldn’t she have survived?”

“We can’t confirm anything, sir.” The detective displayed an annoying lack of emotion.

Pete glanced at me for confirmation. As usual, he had his hearing aids turned down.

Janie Redfern had taken a header from her attic window onto the flagstone path meandering between the Redfern home and mine. You bet she was dead.

Pete, her husband of 40 years, seemed not to comprehend. He sat hunched on the front steps, surrounded by dozens of scattered daffodil bulbs and the jagged remains of my favourite china mug. The property was jammed with police, ambulances, media vans and, for some reason, a fire truck.

I eased myself onto the steps beside Pete and gazed into his sad, brown eyes.

Such a gentle soul. Best to avoid details like pulverized skull, shattered spine and massive blood loss.

“Let’s go, Pete. I’ll make you tea and shortbread.”

I stood and leaned toward the detective. “As you can see, it’s an incredible shock to him. He’s still recovering from a near-fatal stroke two years ago.”

Pete struggled shakily to his feet. “How can I live without Janie?”

I didn’t let myself say, “You poor lamb. You may learn to smile again.” Couldn’t give this investigator the wrong idea. Pete had been through enough without Janie stirring the pot from the great beyond.

We crossed the Redferns’ neatly raked yard, Pete lurching with his walker and me with my rubbery knees. We crunched over my lawn, strewn with ruby maple leaves and tiny fronds from the locust trees. My leaves were a bone of contention between Janie and me. She didn’t have deciduous trees, so why should she have leaves? I’d paid little attention. If it wasn’t trees bothering Janie, it would be Shostakovich booming from my stereo. Or the colours of my patio furniture. Always something.

Pete barely made it up the front stairs. Why hadn’t I ever thought to have a ramp installed? Of course,  Janie would have raised hell if I’d put in a ramp for Pete while she refused to mar the traditional lines of her home.

I fought the urge to fuss. Pete wasn’t a child. He was in shock. I kept my mouth shut and served up tea and my special shortbread, warm from the oven. Pete’s favourite.
Pete didn’t say much beyond thank you. I hoped his mind wasn’t on the investigation outside and whatever gruesome jobs were required before what was left of Janie headed to its next destination.

The police were not done with Pete. Too soon, the oatmeal-faced detective reappeared, ready for tough talk.

Everyone knows they look to the spouse first. I intended to squash that notion before it created difficulties for my friend. Pete could no more harm Janie than he could fly to the moon.
Of course, there were red flags. Pete had been the manager of our local bank branch, so the police might be forgiven for thinking he was used to stretching the truth. Pete had not succeeded as a banker, as Janie liked to say. Perhaps because he never mastered the fine art of duplicity.

Oatmeal-face belatedly introduced himself as Detective Inspector Surly. “You’re the neighbour?”

“Dorothy MacLaine.” Surly? I recalled a swaggering young bully back in the seventies.

“Right. How did they get along?”

“How did they get along, Miss MacLaine?” I used the flinty tone honed by years in the classroom.

He didn’t like it much.

You learn so much while teaching. Not only to produce daily plans and run a tight schedule, but also to predict who will behave how and who you can count on.

I waited.

Finally, “Miss MacLaine.”

“Like any other married couple. Officer Surly.”

“Any signs of stress or conflict?” He added, “Miss MacLaine.”

“Heavens no, Officer Surly.

“Detective Sergeant Surly.”

“I spend most of my time in the side garden, Detective. The Redferns keep their windows open. I have never heard their voices raised.”

True, although Pete would never raise his voice. As for Janie, she just relentlessly chipped away at his spirit. Like poisoned taffy, she appeared sweet, but was bound to do you harm. Pete took it to heart. Especially since the stroke robbed him of his job. How could he withstand his wife’s soft barbs? Janie was always right, in everything. Poor Pete could be the poster boy for Stockholm Syndrome.

I had to ensure that the police understand Pete could not have killed Janie. But they wouldn’t just talk to me. They’d question everyone who knew the Redferns. I couldn’t be the only person to wonder why Pete put up with her. Would someone hint that perhaps he’d finally snapped? I simply could not have this meddling Surly come to that conclusion. Not on my watch.

“How would you describe their relationship?”

I lowered my voice. “The man’s had a terrible shock and he’s not well. He’s probably at risk for another stroke. Let’s talk in the kitchen.”

Two minutes later, Surly accepted his own flowered mug of tea and plate of warm shortbread. “You were saying about their relationship … Miss MacLaine.”

“They were very close.” Far too close for Pete’s mental health. “And they had a quiet life this past two years.”

The detective inclined his head toward the living room where Pete was sitting, staring at a lamp. “Did he need a lot of care?”

Naturally, he’d be speculating whether Janie contemplated shuffling poor Pete off to some hideous nursing home. As of course, she had been.

“Not really. He’s able to manage around the house and he keeps a lovely garden. He just can’t handle stairs.”

“They share a bedroom?”

“There’s a bedroom on the main floor. It used to be Pete’s office. Mr. Redfern sleeps there and I assume Mrs. Redfern did too. They had a full bathroom installed after his stroke.”

“Do you think that renovation created stress?”

“Not for Pete. Janie took care of everything. Mind you, the contractor was stressed. And the workers.”

“In what way?”

“Well, there was never an activity she couldn’t find fault with.”

“Really? Was her husband bothered by that?”

I waited.

“Miss MacLaine.”

I’d made my point.

“You can drop the Miss MacLaine now.  And no, he didn’t pay attention. It was spring and he’d been concentrating on some seedlings. She’d only pull him into disputes if she needed him to say ‘My wife is always right’.”

“Possible bad blood with the workmen?”

“They were glad to get finished.”

“Could one of them have come back and …?”

I wasn’t prepared for that. “You mean returned and pushed Janie from the attic window? Ridiculous. They would have to walk past me.” I pointed through the French doors toward my own side garden refuge. “Pete was setting out his daffodil bulbs in the front. He’d have seen anyone. As you can observe, both our back yards have a ten-foot fence separating us from the houses in back. It’s behind that tall cedar hedge.”

“Quite a barrier,” he said.

“Trouble with the neighbours years ago. Janie demanded it.”

He squinted at the second story windows of the homes behind the fence. “What kind of trouble?”

“Children’s toys on the sacred Redfern lawn and wandering dogs, if memory serves.”

“And is there still bad blood?”

I shook my head. “Those families moved away years ago.”

By now, it should have been clear that neither hapless workmen nor bitter neighbors could have done Janie in. I couldn’t stand by and have them be suspected.

“And where were you, Miss MacLaine?”

“Right there, listening to classical music and reading the brochure about special-interest courses at the university. Last year I took Shostakovich: A Surprising Agent of Change. This year I’m considering The Emotional Significance of Pre-Columbian Artifacts.”

Surly said, “Huh.”

The brochure beckoned from my garden table, next to my powerful little portable stereo.

“And you saw no one?”

I met his eyes. “I brought Pete some tea and suggested he take a break, but he was keen to get those daffodil bulbs in.”

“Did you notice anything unusual?”

“Just Pete puttering around while Janie swished in and out. She was flustered because the Palmerston Players wanted her father’s army uniform for an upcoming production. She needed to locate it in the attic.

“She was involved with the theatre?”

“Yes. Involved in the whole town.” I had a rush of images: Janie pushing a rival’s layer cake to the back of the St. Sebastian Parish Fall Fair table, Janie rising on yet another Point of Privilege at our community association AGM, and her relentless stage-whispered comments about fat people and their cost to society. I stemmed the thoughts. Janie’s reach was long and ambitious. Few escaped.

“You sure she went upstairs alone?”

“No question about it.”

“And where was Mr. Redfern?”

“As I said, puttering with his bulbs.”

“Are you sure you could see him clearly?”

I sighed, “Absolutely. Come outside and you’ll get a better idea.”

I peered back toward the living room where Pete sat still, bony and white-faced. I stepped through the French doors with Surly and pointed. You could clearly see the scattered bulbs where Pete had stood. In the distance, police tape fluttered gaily behind parked emergency vehicles.

The detective glanced at the brochure. “You were reading and listening to music. Maybe you missed something.”

I shrugged. “There were other people around. The Stanton twins are eight today. The birthday party’s on the front lawn. Mrs. Stanton was watching the kids and her boys were watching Pete.”

“Why would little kids be paying attention to him?”

“He always gives the twins something from his vintage dinky toy collection on their birthday. He had their gifts on the steps, in matching gift bags.”

I’d made a trip to Dollarama to pick up those gift bags. Janie had forbidden Pete to give away any of his collection.

The detective raised a thick eyebrow.

I matched his eyebrow raise. “Naturally, you’ll interview Mrs. Stanton.”

He glowered. Things were not working out the way he wanted. “And after that?”

“I did observe Janie leaning out the window before she fell.”

“What was she doing at the window?”

“She was spying on me.”

That got his attention.

“I’d talked about splitting some of my hostas and lining the walk with them. There’s too much shade here for much else.”

I pointed toward the garden beds and the hostas I’d already planted. “Janie always had to know what was going on. I imagined she’d needle me about the way I looked ‘with my rear end’ in the air. She’d already insinuated the hosta project would be one of my gardening failures.”

“Maybe she was depressed.”

“Depressing, yes. Depressed, no. And she didn’t intend to harm herself if that’s what you mean. She leaned too far out, and the window frame gave way. Not suicide. Not murder. Not vengeful contractors or long-departed neighbours with grievances. Janie’s death was caused by her miserable personality.”

He wasn’t ready to abandon the idea that Janie had been helped out the window, with Pete the obvious villain.

Luckily, Pete had an alibi. I might be a biased witness. Mrs. Stanton and her gaggle of shrieking eight-year-olds were not.

He had a new idea. “You didn’t like Mrs. Redfern.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“She disparaged your efforts, bothered you.”

“All that and more.”

“Perhaps you slipped through the back door and followed her to the third floor?”

“Sorry. Didn’t.”

“But you can’t prove that.” I caught a flash of victory behind the pale nasty eyes.

I stared him down. “Why would I have to prove it?”

“People saw the husband, but did anyone see you?”

“I am not in the habit of bumping off people who annoy me.”

“So no one then?”

“Well, Mrs. Mayberry may have. Afternoons she’s often on her bedroom balcony.” I pointed to one of the houses behind the fence. “She’s been tracking a pair of cardinals. You could check with her.” In fact, Mrs. Mayberry was still watching through her binoculars, obviously transfixed by the drama. I waved. She waved back. I imagine Janie’s plunge was more riveting than the cardinals. “She’d love to talk to you.”

He turned back to me, tried again. “So, the Redferns. Trouble in the marriage?”

“Trouble in the wood frame, more like it. Have you been up to that attic?”

“Of course,” he said, a bit miffed. “We checked the scene.”

“It must be over a year since I was up there. Janie press-ganged me into taking some junk to a charity bazaar. Even then I told her she needed to do something about that rotten window frame. Water was seeping in and it was just a matter of time before there was major damage to the house.” I smiled sadly. “But Janie was not one to take advice. And who could imagine such a freak accident?”

I could almost see the moment when he bought it. A slight lessening of tension in his jaw, followed by a relaxing of his posture.

I could have predicted that too. It was according to plan.  As was everything else.

I knew I could count on the Stanton twins to keep an eye on Pete and the gift bags and on their mother to be diligent.

I knew you could set a clock by those cardinals, every afternoon at two. Mrs. Mayberry never failed to be there to watch. They didn’t disappoint.

The contact with my theatre friend had been riskier. Still, that morning I’d subtly planted the idea that Janie intended to get rid of that uniform today. That had paid off. I didn’t need to resort to Plan B.

I expected Pete would turn his hearing aids down, as usual.

But mainly, I had counted on Janie. She detested Shostakovich’s Ninth and I had blasted it at top volume. Janie was the only person besides me who heard it. I knew she’d never resist leaning on that crumbling window sill to complain about it. Did she witness the triumph on my face when the rotten wood frame gave way? Did it dawn on her during those long, slow seconds what was happening?

I hope so. She should never have decided to place Pete in a nursing home. Really, that would have been a crime.

And now for my next plan. Naturally, I’ll give Pete time to recover. I’ve waited 40 years for him. What’s a few more months?

Mary Jane Maffini, who lives in Ottawa, is the author of three mystery series and is a charter member of the Ladies’ Killing Circle. Her short stories have been published widely and have won three Arthur Ellis awards and the Agatha award.

PUBLISHED BY
Mary Jane Maffini
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