You'd think -- you'd hope -- that with the Federal Five up to their knees in pig poop on the Widow Harbibi's ranch, Hardyville could settle into a nice, peaceful period. We could maybe take our time to get to know our new neighbors and help rebuild the blown-up greenhouse out at the Emma Goldman Arts Co-Op and Biodiverse Living Center.
And we definitely were moving in that direction. (Meanwhile, in the absence of sufficient facilities at the co-op, nearly every house in Hardyville held a small crop of medical cannabis plants; the herbaceous aroma drifted throughout the town.)
You'd also think we could take the time to keep an even closer and more wary eye on the activities of Señor Gael Roberto Carolina, who continued to inspect our humble town with a gaze that seemed only to build high-rise hotels and calculate figures containing many zeros. And yes, we did keep our eyes on him. That was easy. He was quite visible around the town, often with the beautiful Mirabelle on his arm and son Tonio devotedly at hand.
But both our dawning peacefulness and our most rightful wariness got rudely interrupted by, of all things, a crime spree.
No, I'm not talking serial killings, rapes, daring daylight bank robberies, or attempts to impose taxes. Nothing as outrageous as that.
The crimes were petty. Little pilferings. Minor evidences of trespass here and there. Petty vandalisms. The kind of thing your communities in the real world might take for granted, but rarely happen here in property-respecting Hardyville.
The blooms were nastily nipped off the nasturtiums that the owners of the Bon Mot ice cream parlor had so painstakingly coaxed into life (against long desert odds) to beautify their patio.
A delicate beaded bag, Victorian vintage, disappeared from its case at Goodins Second Time Around.
Grouchy, who usually had eyes only for the gun side of Grouchy's Guns & Liquor, noticed one day that a few pint bottles of Captain Morgan's Rum and sloe gin seemed to have walked off his shelves.
And one evening a visiting tourist returned to her car after a restroom stop, only to discover her purse open on the seat and her cash gone. It was only $45 and change. But still.
Most of the crimes, other than the shoplifting, happened at night when no one was around to see. And these were hardly the sorts of deeds for which you'd hire a security guard or sit up all night with a shotgun. So they went mostly unreported and thoroughly unsolved.
They were simply disturbing. And not respectful.
* * *
Ah, yes. I see you already have a suspect. Who in Hardyville best falls into the category of "not respectful"?
Well, of course there's the Young Curmudgeon. But he wouldn't be likely to steal a Victorian lady's delicately beaded reticule, now would he?
No. Those who were already in on the Gossip Net suspected -- naturally -- Jennifer Carolina.
Jennifer Paris Rosamund Tiffany-Wannabe Carolina labored grubbily by day stocking the shelves of Lyons and Yale Good Foods. By night she slept, unsupervised -- and in her own sorry opinion unloved, unappreciated, unwanted, and woefully underpaid -- on a cot in the back room of the store.
One day brother Tonio, on errands for their mother, rounded the end of an aisle and found Jennifer kneeling there, stacking family-sized cans of tomato soup. He watched her grasp each can as though it were a Sisyphean boulder, lift it with a sigh from its corrugated container and, with vast, ponderous, long-suffering effort, slowly set one atop another on the bottom shelf.
She heaved a larger sigh and put the can she was lifting back into the box. "Hiii, Tonio ..." she said in her best Marvin the Paranoid Android tone.
"I heard you were working here now."
"Yeah. I'm working. And they aren't paying me aaaanything."
"Well, like not enough to actually buy anything. I'm thinking I should, like, report them to somebody or something. It's not even minimum wage.
"I don't think they have minimum wage around here."
"Yeah. I know. And it's not faaaair."
"Well, the way I heard it, things could have been worse for you."
She glared at him.
At that moment, Dora-the-Yalie poked her golden head around the other end of the aisle, waved, and called "Hey, Tonio! Good to see you!" She shot a significant glance at the soup boxes sitting in front of Jen, but kept going without another word.
"Ugly old bat," Jen muttered, grudgingly stacking one more can, then stopping as soon as Dora was safely out of sight.
"Dora? Ugly? Old? You're kidding."
"Well, she's mean, anyway. But not as mean as the other one. That wrinkly old man." She crumpled her face in an imitation of lines and toothlessness.
"You mean Nat Lyons? You mean the guy who rescued you off the toilet and gave you a job and a place to stay?"
She blushed. "He shouldn't have told people that. See? That's mean. Besides, he makes me sleep on a cot. A stiff, smelly old cot."
Tonio sighed. Better to change the subject. Or maybe just step out of Jen's river of venom. He scanned a shelf across the aisle, grabbed a package of pasta, and started away. "Well, see you later, okay?"
"Have you talked to Dad?"
"I said 'have you talked to Dad?'"
"Yeah. A lot, actually." Tonio took a few steps back. He knew he shouldn't say it, but he couldn't quite help himself. "He's going to give me a job with Delaval Enterprises. Later this month, he says, as soon as the budget comes through. And he's going to help me apply to colleges ... in Europe."
Jennifer scowled and turned away. Fiercely, she thumped several fistfuls of cans down on the shelf. "I bet he doesn't," she muttered as Tonio started to turn away again.
That made him mad. He strode back to his sister's side. Glancing around to make sure nobody was watching, he hissed, "Look, Jen, just because you screwed up and made him mad enough to throw you out doesn't mean he's a bad guy. He's been darned good to me. When are you going to get a clue and realize you're responsible for your own behavior? When are you going to realize that things you do have consequences?"
"Things like what?"
"You know what."
"I didn't steal that necklace from Mirabelle. I didn't."
"Yeah. Sure, Jennifer. You didn't steal the necklace. You didn't rob that lady's purse. You didn't kill all the flowers at the Bon Mot. You haven't ..."
"I didn't steal that necklace!" Jen shouted. Then she looked around guiltily. When nobody appeared at either end of the aisle she repeated in a stage whisper, "I didn't."
Tonio sighed. "Yeah. Okay, okay. You didn't. Sure. See you later, Jen."
She scowled after him. "You know," she called, "if everybody already thinks I'm bad, there's no point in being good."
Tonio just kept walking.
* * *
If everybody already thinks you're bad, there's no point in being good.
One morning, Dora drove into the parking lot at Lyons and Yale Good Foods and discovered that the filigree grille over the back window of the office had been bashed in with a rock. The grille had been more decorative than protective, in any case. The window behind the grille lay in shards, some in the dirt and pavement outside, more on the floor within.
As early-rising store workers arrived, they peered into the office and onto a scene of destruction. It would be wrong to call the destruction "mindless." Someone put a lot of thought into it. Filing cabinets lay on their sides, papers scattered everywhere. The culprit had smashed desk drawers and strewn their contents everywhere. Copier ink defaced the sofa and chairs. Words not mentionable in a family column were carved deep into desks and drywall.
The intruder had tried -- and failed -- to smash open the store's safe. But as Dora, Nat, and the representatives of their insurance company sorted through the mess, they discovered a petty-cash box and a lot of personal effects missing.
I should probably try to create a little suspense about whodunit. But what's the use? Jen Carolina's fingerprints were -- literally -- all over the crime (despite her many sloppy attempts to wipe them out). So were her footprints -- in the dirt below the window, in the ink on the floor, and in inky blots down the walls where she had climbed out and headed back to the storeroom.
The insurance company investigator traced her trail from the back door of her storeroom-bedroom, through the window and back again. And Nat and Dora found a few missing items -- though not the cash box -- hidden near Jen's cot, behind crates of paper towels.
Jen herself hadn't even tried to make an escape. She was right there, snoring, with depleted bottles of rum and gin shattered around her cot, when the nastiest of our two sheriff's deputies, Emin Borgo, handcuffed her and dragged her off to jail.
"Good riddance," Dora snarled, as Borgo strong-armed the hangover-stricken, pea-soup-faced girl past the store's employees. Everyone watched as Borgo thrust Jen into the back of his squad car. The way she looked, he'd probably have a nasty cleanup job to do by the time he drove her the few blocks to the Hardyville jail.
Surveying the damage, the usually kind-hearted Dora grumbled to Nat. "Stupid. Not just destructive. But stupid. I mean, I understand why you felt we had to give her a chance, Nat. But ..." she gazed at the landscape of ruin and hatred "... the girl isn't just vindictive, destructive, and a complete unforgivable ingrate. She's hopelessly stupid -- doing all this, then curling up to sleep on the crime scene like a baby who's tired after playing."
Nat, looked around, even more wearily. It was hard enough, running a horse ranch and a store, too. And doing it all when you were well past eight decades. Nothing could make an old man ready for this.
"Don't worry, Dora," he sighed. "If you and the others 'll do the cleanin', I'll gladly give Jennifer Carolina 'zactly the lesson she's asking for."
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB -- saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to Oliver Del Signore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.
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