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The body in the backyard, p.1

The Body in the Backyard, page 1

 part  #1 of  Abe Investigates Series

 

The Body in the Backyard
 

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The Body in the Backyard


  Story copyright September 2017 by Hollis Shiloh.

  All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without written permission from the author. All characters and events are fictitious, and any similarity to real people or events is coincidental.

  Cover art by Bayou Cover Designs. Image content is being used for illustrative purposes only and any people depicted in the content are models.

  Proofreading by Carol Davis (http://caroldavisauthor.com/a-better-look-editing-services/).

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  About the story:

  Clarence Collin is pushing up daisies—in Abe's bed of zinnias!

  When the caustic critic of a TV gardening show winds up murdered in Abe's well-groomed backyard, both Abe and his hunky-but-irritating neighbor Gregory might be on the suspect list.

  Abe starts amateur sleuthing in self-defense...and to spend time with Gregory. When the two green thumbs look into their neighborhood's dirty little secrets, who knows what they'll dig up?

  A cozy gay mystery

  51,000 words

  The Body in the Backyard

  by Hollis Shiloh

  "Now, that is exactly the sort of garden we don't want in the neighborhood. Bringing down the entire tone of the place!" Abe Arnett's tone was snide, and his nose was in the air. Abe was a fussy-looking man in lavender trousers wearing gardening gloves. He and his nearest neighbor, the widowed Mrs. Winona Winters, faced one another over the fence, gossiping about the garden competition—and the late entry that was Gregory Gallop.

  "I told him, permaculture is not a real word. It's not a garden, it's just a mess. Weeds and bugs. Ugh!"

  Winnie clucked in sympathy, her eyes dancing. She was a merry young widow, some would say not at all sorry to be one, and she enjoyed gossip even more than her neighbor and friend Abe.

  "So, he had the nerve to sign up for the competition?" she prompted, watching him closely.

  "Not only the nerve, but the gall to say he'd beat my garden! Can you imagine?" He cast a fond eye back over his neatly regimented zinnias. "Speaking of which, do you want me to come over and help you with your dahlias?"

  "Oh, no, I've got Rick coming over this afternoon to...help."

  Abe raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" he said, chilly-voiced. "I'm sure you'll get quite a lot done. Together. The two of you." He sniffed.

  She smoothed her hair back, looking very self-satisfied. "He's quite the expert. I'm always quite satisfied."

  Abe huffed. Rick Radford was a gardener who worked regularly in the neighborhood, mowing and landscaping. He had a reputation for fertilizing quite a few ladies, as well. Whatever role the apocryphal milkman had once held, local gossip said that Rick now filled. Rick was a very handsome man—all those bulging muscles, the dark tan, the arrogant dark eyes. He was quite the fantasy, bending and straining in one's garden. Unfortunately, he was quite straight.

  If Abe were being honest with himself, he'd have had to admit that, even if Rick had been gay and interested, he'd still have been too shy to do anything about it. He hadn't exactly been outgoing or adventurous since the divorce. That didn't stop him from being a bit jealous of his friend.

  After a moment, Winnie changed the subject. "But can't you talk to the rules committee? Isn't there something about only traditional gardens—flowers and things, rather than...all that weedy mess?"

  Abe shook his head dolefully. "No. I've checked. He's quite within the rules—although, believe me, we'll be changing them if I have any say in the matter!"

  It was doubtful whether he did, but one could only do one's duty and kick up as much of a fuss as possible at the next garden club meeting. He would, of course, sacrifice himself to that task. Someone had to maintain some standards around here.

  He glanced over at the neighbor in question. When Gregory Gallop had first moved in, Abe had been quite intrigued. He might not be a Rick Radford level of handsome, but there was always something to be said for a man who knew his way around a garden. Gregory had dark hair and dark eyes, a sturdy build and average height, but he carried himself with a confidence that Abe, a man who had always had to fake his own confidence, could only envy. And he had a very nice profile.

  Then he had started talking about sustainability and fossil fuels and how nobody should grow lawns. It had gone downhill from there. Abe had never liked being lectured, and the impassioned new neighbor very clearly meant to shake up the neighbor—starting off by tearing up all his sod and planting a bunch of strange things instead.

  Abe kept his flowers neatly arranged in rows. Nature was messy and greedy, always trying to take over. Things belonged in orderly rows, well-behaved, and sometimes sprayed to within an inch of their lives. He shuddered at the thought of the wild man next door, his impulsive plants vining out of control...probably pollinating one another wildly.

  The suburbs were a positive hotbed of sex and intrigue, which he would not have suspected five years ago when he first moved out here. Then, still grieving his husband of six years—the divorce had been unexpected and acrimonious—he had not known what to do with himself. It was all very well to say he would enjoy the respite from the world they had once shared, and not fight over the friends that had once been theirs, or wince every time he walked past a restaurant where they'd shared a date, breaking his heart anew every time he remembered some familiarity. But when it came down to it, he was miserable and out of his comfort zone. Abe hadn't the least idea how to be a suburbanite.

  The garden club had come to the rescue: it was an excellent way to meet the neighbors. They had given him the gardener's information—Rick still did his lawn every week—and, really, the only cost was a modest yearly membership fee, and the slight bother of planting and caring for some flowers. He'd chosen zinnias because they had an interesting name.

  The garden competition had gotten his competitive juices flowing, but really, Abe did not expect to win. He knew very well he didn't have a green thumb, and probably paid more to keep his flowers alive than most people did for an entire year's garden supplies. But it was interesting, and fun, and even his efforts seemed miles better than the hippie weirdo next door, who really did offend his every instinct. Well, aside from the purely physical instincts. But one couldn't have everything, and if one's enemy (Abe had already determined they were going to be enemies) had to be rather attractive as well as annoying and deeply wrong about everything, it was simply a cross one would have to bear.

  Before the appearance of the rival who had gotten his dander up, Abe had not been very interested in the competition, aside from whatever gossip it might bring and the fun it would be to troop around through neighbors' yards and peek at all their gardens. (There had been talk of incorporating a wine tasting, which could only make the whole thing a raging success.) But he had not been particularly bothered about the competition itself. Now, however, if Mr. Thinks-He's-So-Green Gallop should score higher than Abe on any part of the garden competition, why, Heads Would Roll.

  He would have to put in more zinnias. Or perhaps Radford could do it, if he could get the popular gardener to take on that chore for him as well as the mowing. He sighed internally. Why did Rick Radford have to be so entirely straight? It was such a waste, although he was sure the ladies of the neighborhood would disagree.

  "Did you hear who the guest judge is going to be?" asked Winnie.

  "No, who?" He leaned forward, not even trying to affect blasé disinterest. Names had been bandied about, certainly, but if she knew anything for certain, he wanted to hear it.

  "Well, Rick overheard Julia talking to Mrs. Crumpets, and she said they've got that garden sh
ow expert. Clarence Collin, you know, from Clarence Gardens? It must have cost a fortune! But, oh, we'll definitely have some news coverage if he's the judge!"

  Abe's eyes widened. The gardening expert from television? Oh, he would definitely need to make room for a few more zinnias! Clarence was a botoxed, gleaming-smile expert with his own half-hour show about gardening. He was a local, but he'd recently been picked up by HGTV, where he would have a bigger budget and better everything, to make half-hour shows to fill in around the regular house-hunting shows about beachfront property and such. Abe hadn't watched his local show much, although he remembered the articles about the show being picked up and the slightly smug face of the host himself, smile gleaming even on newsprint.

  Abe liked to subscribe to all the papers and would tell anyone who listened that he was helping to Save the Press. It was his one conceit, he thought, and anyone could be forgiven one. Really, though, the state of journalism should be encouraged, and someone had to do it. Even the local papers deserved his subscription, although he sometimes winced through dangling participles and misplaced articles, and those awful pun headlines.

  Gregory Gallop, that waste of space, probably eschewed regular newspapers as a waste of trees and got all of his news off of...of Facebook! Or perhaps Global Hippies Intolerantly United. He amused himself with that thought for a moment, then returned to the moment and Winnie's small, pleased smile.

  "I surprised you," she said.

  "Yes, you did indeed! I wonder if it's true?"

  "Of course it's true! Rick heard it!"

  She sounded very possessive of Rick, he thought jealously. As if the two of them were an item in more than the sense of Rick's usual conquests. He eyed her interestedly. Would Rick take well to that? Perhaps he didn't know—or perhaps he didn't mind being linked closely with a rich young widow, who was more carefree with her money than perhaps her investment counselors would have counseled.

  And would she take well to the knowledge that Rick was seeing at least one other woman at the same time, quite possibly more? I'll not be the one to tell her, thought Abe as guilt plucked at his conscience. It was all very well to take a delight in gossip, but not if it actually hurt anyone.

  And—well—he quite liked Winnie. She was a pleasant neighbor, and she'd been kind to him when he'd first moved in, talking to him before anyone else had bothered to notice he existed. So, he would never wish to wrong her; of course not. But...it was said that Winnie could be quite jealous. It was said that her husband had been cheating on her, and she'd found out not long before his unexpected (and much lamented, of course) death. It was quite a sudden death, and there was no shortage of insurance money.

  Of course, by the time he'd learned all of this, he already considered Winnie a close friend, and didn't pay it any heed. Idle gossip could be pleasant, and then it could be the other sort—cruel.

  Anyway, it was hard not to sympathize at least a bit with a jilted spouse. He'd been there. He hadn't done Lenard in over it, but the thought had crossed his mind pleasantly more than once. No, divorce was the way to go—but he was still not about to spread or believe any unfounded accusations about Winnie. (People were probably just jealous: she was young and lovely, and very well-off.) Nor would he tell her any tales, though, just to be on the safe side.

  He parted with Winnie at the fence and headed back towards his house, glancing once at the disarrayed yard that was his neighbor's project. He shuddered a little. On the other side, Larry Lockwood was chopping aggressively at a hedge like it had done him a personal wrong. He scowled at Abe before going back to his work with more vigor than ever.

  Larry was a hard-eyed, brittle-looking man with a bitter look to his face, as if he was always angry. He did his lawn work aggressively, and liked to give Abe the stink-eye. He had a reputation for brawling with his drinking buddies, and had the sort of squat, muscular, angry body that probably packed quite the punch. Abe avoided him whenever possible.

  Larry's wife, Lorraine, was a loud woman who did not think it was right for a "man of his age" not to be married (and, clearly, she meant to a woman). She grew lovely roses, and they never dug up their lawn and planted weird things instead, which should have endeared them to Abe. But they had been very unwelcoming when he moved in, and had never warmed up for him. He was certain they didn't want "his sort" in the neighborhood.

  He hurried inside now to get away from the aggressive chopping from Larry and, on the other side, the sound of more digging from Gregory, as he hummed a little tune.

  Happy as a clam, thought Abe sourly. While he brings down the entire tone of the neighborhood!

  Then he wondered if he was being a bit too harsh. Certainly, the man got on his nerves, but he didn't want to be like the Lockwoods, so quick to judge and make a newcomer unwelcome.

  But that's not the same at all, he decided. I can't help being gay, but Gregory certainly could help turning his backyard into a mud pit!

  "I STILL SAY HE SHOULDN't even be in the competition," complained Abe, trying to keep an edge of desperation out of his voice. Nobody was listening to him. The gardening club meeting was being dominated, as usual, by the round-bellied, cardigan-wearing, retreating-haired favorite of all the female members.

  Hannibal Hughes (who was quite proud of being named after the man who'd marched elephants across the Alps) loved nothing more than to talk about himself and his continuous battles with aphids as if they were like the Battle of the Bulge. Heroism and peril in great valiant campaigns. It was true that Hannibal was approximately the same age as most of the members—in his late sixties or early seventies, and hale and fit for his age—but he did not strike Abe as nearly the Adonis that he seemed to appear to the women watching him now with rapt attention.

  Hannibal waved the concern away grandly. "I'm sure he'll be no competition at all for your zinnias, Arnett," he said gruffly. "Now, back to the aphids. As I was saying..."

  "Oh, but weren't you going to tell us how you managed such a catch as Mr. Clarence?" Mary Mink clasped her hands in front of her soft pink sweater. She was a fluttering sort of woman who always wore skirts and had a penchant for silk scarves tied over her curly gray hair. She grew an excellent herb garden, pretty as well as useful, and maintained a water feature that was the envy of the neighborhood. Abe halfway expected her to win the competition, and he could not begrudge her the laurels. She made excellent lemon cake, and he had never heard her be unkind to anyone.

  Next to her, Fiona Fairchild, a shapeless woman in brown who was knitting furiously while she listened to the aphid news, harrumphed loudly. She was as unfriendly as Mary was pleasant, and made halfhearted attempts to grow zucchini and tomatoes, often with little success, though these were supposed to be easy vegetables for beginners to cultivate. Not that he would know—he'd never grown anything but zinnias.

  Abe was fairly certain she would not have been there if not for Mary. He recognized something about Fiona. He was nearly certain she was a lesbian, warped by the world into hiding what she would rather not admit. She was deeply and gruffly devoted to Mary, but kept to herself a great deal. She had a mannish stride and looked uncomfortable in even slightly feminine clothing, and she did not trust anyone easily.

  Abe could not begrudge her that. Had he been born a few decades earlier himself, he might have found himself in a lifelong closet as well. But her feelings for Mary were not as secret as she thought—except perhaps to Mary herself. He felt rather sorry for Fiona, and never laughed about her crush on Mary. It was dreadful to have a crush on a straight person. He'd been there himself a time or two.

  Thank goodness the new neighbor was such a whack job. There would be no notion of crushes this time!

  Hannibal cleared his throat officiously, basking in the admiration from Mary and several of the other ladies. "I just called him up," he said importantly, puffing himself up and looking as though he was going to start bragging about his war efforts. ("Called in the whole battalion!" Abe could imagine him saying.) "At first, h
e didn't want to listen, but then when I told him where we were...well...! He said he wouldn't miss it for the world."

  Most of the ladies muttered in admiration. Fiona pressed her lips together and knitted a little harder.

  "Why would he care about us?" said Abe, his curiosity pricked despite himself. He always had been a nosy old thing—and Lenard had reminded him of that. Often. "We're hardly a very big gardening club, and he moves in much richer circles nowadays, doesn't he?"

  Hannibal glared at him, annoyed at the reminder of lack of greatness. "We're a quite respectable gardening club, young man." He adjusted his glasses and gave Abe a hard look. (4F, unfit for duty, no doubt.)

  Gardening club was the only place in the world where Abe would be called 'young man.' That was not at all the reason he still attended faithfully. Not at all.

  Abe straightened his spine a bit. "You must admit we're a small club," he insisted. "Why, there are only twelve of us on the best of days!"

  "Thirteen," said a voice at the back of the room, a gruff, laughing sort of voice. As one, the gardeners turned. Abe's heart sank at the sound of his adversary, his bête noir, his...his scourge!

  "I've decided to join," announced Gregory Gallop, his eyes dancing as he inwardly laughed at Abe, no doubt taking great delight in showing him up. Abe glared back as, around the room, a chorus of fluttering enthusiasm greeted the fit younger gardener.

  He cleaned up nicely, too, the jerk, thought Abe. Gregory's wild hair was slicked back neatly, and there wasn't a speck of dirt showing. He'd been grubby up to his rolled-up sleeves the last time Abe had seen him. Although, where had he gotten that outfit? It had to be older than he was. Even Fiona seemed more interested than not in their latest member. Then Abe realized Hannibal was scowling at the man in the ancient tweed suit, who somehow made it look young and nearly fashionable.

  "I'm sure we can always use more gardening club members," said Hannibal, looking as though he'd rather eat some of his enemy aphids.

 
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