Fish In The Trees
By J.E. Seymour
J.E.Seymour lives in a small town in New Hampshire and writes for the local newspaper in addition to polishing works of fiction. This is her first published story.
I know you think being a woman police officer must be exciting, but there aren’t a lot of really interesting stories to tell, this being a small town. I’ve been a cop here for twenty years now, and in all that time it’s been quiet, real quiet. Except for that time, maybe ten years ago, when we had an actual murder. The thing is, we never would have had a murder if it hadn’t been for the flood, and the fish in the trees. I suppose I better start at the beginning.
Every town has one of those interesting folks, the kind who ride a bicycle down the middle of the road and swear at the tourists. We had ours, here in Liberty, New Hampshire, population roughly 1,500. Far enough north to avoid the invasion of flatlanders that plagues the southern part of the state. Ned Fellowes was our town eccentric. He wasn’t a bad sort, just given to drinking a bit much. He lived in a big old house on a dirt road that was always on the verge of falling down. The house, not the road. He rode around town on an old three-speed bike, generally with his fishing pole balanced precariously across the handlebars. Nobody paid a lot of attention to Ned. He was a loner, always had been, didn’t have any friends or family. People said he’d gone a bit odd in the head since he came back from the war. The big war, WW2. He did some kind of special stuff, secret stuff. Somebody once said he'd actually seen Nazi treasure troves, somebody else hinted that he’d stolen some for himself, that he was living on the proceeds even then, 40 years later. He certainly had no other visible means of support, but he didn’t really need any. He’d buy flour and canned beans occasionally, and that was about it.
So the whole town was pretty much used to seeing Ned coming and going on his bicycle, even that spring, the year of the hundred-year flood. Our small town had never been much concerned about flooding until the state decided that they wanted to control the flooding further down the river, where the big cities were sick of it. Of course it meant that our town had to move a bit, relocate further away from the river. They figured we wouldn’t care. So then in goes this big levee, that’s what they called it. Just a fancy word for dam, really. It was ugly, but we didn’t have to look at it all that much. Down in the flood plain they put in a recreation area, with picnic tables and a sand beach. A little further upstream was some pretty good fishing. That’s where you could find Ned most days, with his hook in the water, either standing in the water or sitting on the edge, shaded by the pine trees that grew right down to the river.
Well, that spring it rained. A lot. We got 12 inches of rain in May, and the flood control dam started in doing its job. The river started backing up behind the dam, and backed up further upstream as well. Pretty soon, all you could see of the recreation area was the picnic tables floating among the tops of the pine trees. It was somewhere in among all this rain that Melissa Collins came into my office in the town hall looking a bit soggy, but also looking worried. She worked in the bank, and her dark blue polyester suit was wet.
I got awkwardly to my feet, my old wooden desk chair is broken, and if I tip back too far it’s hard to get up. “What can I do for you, Ms. Collins?”
“I’m real sorry to bother you, Chief, but I haven’t seen Ned Fellowes in a week or more. He generally comes in every week to get some cash out of his account, his social security check goes in automatically, you know, but anyway, I haven’t seen him around town either.” She looked out the window for a moment, as though she might see him riding down the street.
I thought for a moment. I hadn’t seen him around myself. “I tell you what, I’ll go up to his house and see if he’s okay.” I smiled at her as I picked up my trooper hat and perched it on my freshly trimmed hair. I’ve always worn my hair short; I just find it easier to care for and more professional. I patted my sidearm, a six-shooter. Back then, I still carried one of those revolvers, though I never fired it in the line of duty. I headed out and got into my truck, well, it was really the town’s truck, and it was what they call an SUV nowadays, four-wheel drive and all. I needed that four-wheel drive to get out to Ned’s house that day. The rain had turned his old dirt road into a swamp. I pulled up into his driveway, or what passed for a driveway. It was so overgrown with weeds that you could hardly see the gravel that had once been there. His two-story colonial was largely hidden by overgrown trees and bushes, and the grass had long since given over to weeds and even raspberry bushes. The house itself had been white at one time, but it had faded now to a sort of chalky gray. The windows were dirty, and I couldn’t see much inside the house as I approached the kitchen door. I’d never been in Ned’s house, although I’d been by here before, going out hunting further down the road. I paused on the rickety steps to bang on the screen door. The wooden inner door was closed, but I didn’t even want to open the screen for fear it would fall off its hinges. No answer. I mostly expected at this point to find Ned dead in the bathtub or something, just another old man dying alone. I carefully opened the screen and tried the old-fashioned knob. It wasn’t locked. I pushed the door in, fully expecting a spooky sort of creak. Nothing. It glided silently on apparently well-oiled hinges, catching for a moment on a wrinkled rag rug. The house was dark, curtains drawn throughout, everything coated with dust. Every flat surface within sight had stuff piled on it. Magazines, newspapers, junk mail, clothes, books, boxes, tools. A sudden movement to my right made me jump and reach for my revolver, but it turned out to be a cat. I’d never known Ned had a cat. The yellow tabby approached me, rubbing up against my legs and meowing loudly.
“Hey kitty, where’s your daddy?” I reached down and rubbed the cat’s head, wondering when the poor thing had last eaten. It continued to meow in a loud voice, and I figured I was going to have to take it to the animal shelter in Laconia.
There were dirty dishes in the sink, further evidence that the man hadn’t been planning to go away. Heaven knows my sink is always full of dirty dishes, but I’ve got two little kids and a husband. We seem to generate more dirty dishes than I can keep up with. The cat followed me as I went into the dining room. Same basic story as the kitchen. The simple pine table was barely visible under piles of papers, newspapers mostly, some magazines. I glanced at them, just out of professional curiosity. American Rifleman, Field and Stream, The Wall Street Journal. I was beginning to wonder about Ned. Maybe he did have some money squirreled away somewhere.
I went slowly through the rest of the house. His bedroom was on the first floor, had probably been a parlor at one point. His bed was neatly made, tucked in tight. No telling how long it had been since he had slept in it. The bathroom was spartan, an old pedestal sink, claw foot bathtub, old-fashioned toilet even. No body in the tub, no sign of any trouble. I went upstairs. It was fairly obvious from the condition of the stairs that he never used them, except as extra shelf space. I had to walk carefully to avoid slipping on magazines or tripping over boxes. The rooms up there were filled with furniture covered with sheets. The dust was thick enough up here that I actually left footprints in it. I couldn’t see any others though. I finally decided that he wasn’t here, and I went back downstairs to check out the barn.
I got another surprise when I pushed open the big doors of the faded red barn. Parked in the aisle was a vintage Mercedes, maybe from about 1950. It was partially covered with a canvas tarp, as though someone had been here before me and took the cover off just enough to see what was under it. Despite its age, the car was in beautiful shape. Not even any dry rot on the tires, and the beige paint wore a coat of hand-rubbed wax. I pushed the sliding doors open wider and moved further into the barn. It was rich in smells, the musty smell of ancient hay, a slight scent of diesel and wax, and that old barn smell, just a hint of wood and pigeon droppings. Every space was full of junk. Old furniture, bicycles, two or three lawnmowers, an equal number of snow blowers. Ned must have collected this stuff over the years, just buying new ones when the old ones wore out. No telling what we were going to have to do now. I had no idea if Ned had any relatives, or if they would be interested in any of this stuff. I turned to head back out, and nearly fell over the cat. I scooped the tabby up and stroked its fur as I walked.
“What are you going to do now, kitty?” It broke my heart to have to haul such an obviously nice animal off to the shelter. He or she purred in my arms as I approached my truck. I set the cat in the vehicle and sneezed. When I got back to the office I brought the cat in with me and set it down on the floor. “Hey Bill, can you come here for a minute?”
Bill Curry peeked around the door frame of his office. “What can I do for you, Chris?” He was a big guy, fairly average looking, except for two things: an extraordinarily round head, almost like a balloon with a face on it, and even at 24, his face still sported freckles.
“You like cats?”
“This is Ned Fellowes’ cat. I went out to his house there to see if I could find him. No sign of him. Somebody needs to take care of his cat, I hate to take it to the shelter.”
“I’ll run across the street and get some food if you like, ma’am.”
“Okay.” While he was gone I sat at my big wooden desk and wrote some notes. I figured the next thing to check out was the fishing hole.
Unfortunately, it was under about 20 feet of water at the moment. But had it been when Ned disappeared? I found it impossible to believe that he had sat there fishing while the water rose around him, it hadn’t been a flash flood by any means, but perhaps he had died of a heart attack or something and his body had simply been covered with water. It would float though, wouldn’t it? There’s a puzzle. Would it float or not? After Bill got back with the cat food I headed out to look in the general area. I wouldn’t be able to get near it, but I thought there might be something, anything that would give me a hint. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get anywhere near the normal river banks. The water was so high that I had to stop at its edge a good half-mile from the usual parking area. I stood on the crest of a small hill and stared down at the water swirling around the pine trees. Nothing. It was muddy brown, like coffee with cream in it, and all manner of stuff was floating on the top. Pieces of wood, bright white pieces of Styrofoam, what looked like an old blue plastic tarp, a yellow road sign, just junk. Nothing that gave me a hint about where Ned might be. No sign of his bike either, although I certainly wouldn’t expect that to float.
When I got back to the office Bill cornered me as I walked through the door. “There’s some stranger here to see you, Chris. He’s cooling his heels in your office.”
“Okay.” I smoothed out the wrinkles in my green uniform, and used a tissue from my pocket to wipe some of the mud off my black shoes. Never know who might be in there.
When I walked into my office, a twentyish man with a sharp nose and eyes set too close together turned his head to stare at me. He got to his feet, finally, as though he was in shock.
“Uh … I was just waiting for the chief.”
“That would be me.” I took off my hat and hung it on the coat tree in the corner. “What can I do for you, Mr.?”
“Uh, Fellowes, Monty Fellowes.” He didn’t offer his hand. “I thought, um, you’re Chris Powell?”
“That’s right, Christine Powell, but everyone calls me Chris.” I had a feeling, based largely on the last name, that this would have something to do with my missing person.
“What can I do for you?”
“Um, well, ah, I.” He looked quickly around the room, and then walked over to shut the door. “I came because I haven’t heard from my dad’s cousin Ned Fellowes in over a year. I just thought it would be good to check in and say ‘hi,’ you know, just see how he’s doing.”
“Really.” If I had seen this kid around town before now I would have remembered. Still, perhaps he was keeping in touch with Ned by letter. Stranger things have happened.
“I couldn’t find him.”
I sat down in my chair and stared at the young man. He shifted in his chair. “You like cats, Mr. Fellowes?”
“Yeah. Your, what was it, your cousin Ned? He had a nice yellow tabby. It needs a home.” I had to call it an it because I had forgotten to check whether it was a male or female.
Monty made a face that led me to believe he didn’t like cats at all.
“Well, anyway, Mr. Fellowes, the reason the cat needs a home is because nobody can find Ned. It’s not just you that hasn’t heard from him.”
“Have you been out to the house?”
I looked out the window. Sure enough, there was one of those yuppie-style four-wheel drive vehicles out there. With mud on the wheels. Okay, maybe he had been out to the house. Maybe he was the one checking out the Mercedes. I looked back over at him. I didn’t like this kid at all. Still, what could I do? Run him out of town?
The young man cleared his throat. “So what do I need to do to have him declared dead?”
“What?” That caught me completely off guard. “He’s only been missing for a week or so.”
“But he’s obviously missing. He hasn’t been to his house. He hasn’t cared for his cat. He hasn’t picked up his mail or taken out his social security money.”
“Are you the next of kin?”
“I’m guessing I would be.”
I would have been guessing that too. I frowned and stared at the kid. “Did he leave a will?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well,” I said, hunting through a drawer for a form, “You can fill out a missing person report.”
He frowned at that.
“Nothing else we can do. At least not until a body turns up.” The kid nodded and took the form, got to his feet. “I’ll bring it back.”
Now at this point I suppose you folks are thinking that I must have been stupid to not have this all figured out. Of course this kid killed the old man, of course this kid stands to inherit the fortune, come on, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Well, maybe to you it is, but you have to remember, I’d never seen a murder before. Besides, it wasn’t as if the body was right there, with a bullet in the head.
So we had to put up with the kid hanging around. Still no sign of Ned. The weather was finally getting better anyway. Melissa Collins was driving me nuts too, showing up in my office every other day to ask about Ned, to tell me about the pesky kid that was bugging her about Ned, to suggest that the kid must have knocked his cousin off. I figured Melissa had been reading too many mystery novels.
I went back out to Ned’s house about a week later to check up on things and was surprised to find the yuppie-mobile parked in the driveway. I knocked and Monty opened the door as though he’d been waiting for someone.
“What can I do for you?”
“Can I come in?”
“I need to have a look around. I probably should have been more thorough the last time I was here. I want to make sure old Ned isn’t at the bottom of the cellar stairs or up in the barn hayloft or something.” Old Ned’s body is what I really meant, but I was trying to maintain hope.
Monty frowned. He did that a lot, apparently. But, frown or no frown, he stepped aside and let me in.
“Did you ever find a home for that cat?” he asked as I entered the house.
“We’re letting him live at the station.” I’d finally checked and confirmed that he was indeed a he. I headed for the door at the far side of the kitchen, the door I assumed would lead to the cellar. I was right. I pushed the switch at the top of the stairs; it was one of those old-fashioned kind, the push button kind. This was an ancient house. I made my way slowly down the stairs, leaving Monty standing at the top, still frowning.
The cellar smelled of dirt and oil. The furnace was old, forced hot air, looked like a giant octopus, all these stove-pipe arms going off in a million directions. No room for a body in the furnace, not even chopped up. This was an oil burner. I kept looking around though, hoping I’d see him somewhere. No sign that the dirt floor had been freshly dug up anywhere. I sighed and headed back upstairs. The barn next. I’d already seen the house, but a quick glance before I headed out the door told me things had changed. The piles of magazines and papers were gone. The table was clear. The sink was empty. Monty had been cleaning.
“You living here?”
“Yeah, I figured while we were looking for him.” He paused. “You know, just to be close at hand.”
“Don’t you have a life? A job?”
“I took some vacation to get this sorted out.”
“Okay, whatever.” I headed out. It didn’t look like things were a lot different out here.
This time I did a thorough search of the old barn. It was a beautiful building, all hand-hewn beams, about three stories high. The roof was sound, no water damage. Ned had taken care of it, obviously. Again, it surprised me that this old man everybody thought was crazy and penniless would take such good care of his property. It surprised me that he had the money to take care of the property. Seemed to me I remembered there being a bit of land connected to these buildings too, maybe a hundred acres or so. Up here in the middle of nowhere it didn’t have the value it would have had down in the southern part of the state, but still. It was all grown up in trees, what used to be farmland. The timber alone would be worth a pretty penny. It was finally starting to feel like something might have happened to Ned. Like somebody might have wanted him dead. And the number one somebody would be good old Monty. Still, you can’t charge somebody with something you didn’t know happened. We didn’t even have a body.
I walked slowly back out to the truck. A quick glance over at the house revealed Monty watching me from the kitchen window. A window which was now clean enough to see through. Monty was taking over.
As I drove back towards town, mulling over what was starting to look obvious, but wondering where I was even going to start, I was nearly run right off the road by an old Volvo. Melissa Collins was behind the wheel, looking like she was ready to kill someone. I shrugged it off. She wasn’t breaking any laws, just driving defensively.
Monty was the only person I knew who would benefit from Ned’s death. There wasn’t any will that anybody knew of. I was starting to get discouraged already, and I still didn’t even have a body.
That afternoon I decided to check on the water level behind the dam. I went up to the recreation area first. The water was about half as high as it had been. Not completely cleared yet, but getting there. Of course, the park rangers were going to have a lot to do when the water finally did go down. The picnic tables were all stuck in the tops of the pine trees. Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. It seemed odd that they had just gotten stuck up there instead of floating downstream. Of course, I didn’t even want to think about what the restrooms were going to look like.
There seemed to be other things stuck up in the trees too. It was almost as if the pine trees had acted like a filter, catching all sorts of stuff that was floating and holding it in their branches. I would have liked to get closer. It suddenly occurred to me that if Ned had been caught by the flood, if his body had been caught by the flood, he might be caught up there in the trees too.
I headed for the fire department now. It was all volunteer, but there was usually somebody hanging around, washing the engines or whatever. Sure enough, Tim Reilly was there.
“Hey Tim,” I called as I entered the low brick building.
“Hey Chris. What can I do you for?”
“You folks have a boat, don’t you? For water rescue?”
“Can I borrow it?”
“Gee, Chris, I guess you’d have to ask the chief. I’m not in charge.”
It was the next morning before I managed to arrange the use of the boat, complete with the chief himself, Bucky Perrault. I figured that was probably a good thing, because I wasn’t all that handy with boats. I was sitting in the front, staring at the trees with a pair of binoculars. I’d already checked my life jacket several times, but I pulled on the straps once more just to make sure, as Bucky laughed at me and spit some tobacco juice over the side.
“What are we looking for, Chris?”
“What would he be doing way the heck up there?”
“Fishing.” I only said that because I noticed, as we got closer, that the pine trees were full of fish. Not just fish, other things too, like water snakes and frogs. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, not knowing what Ned would look like after all this time, if indeed he was caught up there in the dense branches.
As it turned out, he looked like a pile of old rags at first. Like some old clothes or something that had gotten stuck up there. Bucky was all for going right up to him and trying to climb up and pull him down, but I wasn’t so sure this little boat was stable enough to do that. Besides, it looked to me like Ned might just be a tad decomposed, and I preferred to leave that sort of thing to the experts. I called the State Police when we got back to town.
So now that I had a body, I was pretty eager to know if I had an actual murder. I went out to the dam with the State Police forensics unit, watched as they worked on the problem. Of course, nobody would say if he died of natural causes at that point. No obvious signs of foul play, no rope around his neck, no bullet holes.
It was fairly late, and I was thinking about dinner when Melissa Collins came into my office yet again.
“Did you arrest him yet?”
“That Monty character, the guy who killed Ned Fellowes.”
“Look, Melissa, we don’t know if anybody killed Ned. Maybe Monty just showed up at the same time his cousin disappeared. Maybe it was just a coincidence.”
“Right, and maybe fish always swim around in the tree tops.”
“I have to wait until we get the autopsy results, at least.”
“That will take forever.”
“Actually, we should get the preliminary results fairly quickly.” I looked closely at her now. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes red. She looked like she might have been crying. I couldn’t figure that out. She sneezed, and I handed her a tissue. I have allergies myself, and always keep a box handy.
“You’ll let me know, won’t you? When you arrest him?”
“Everybody will probably know, Melissa. This is a small town.”
When the preliminary results came back, they showed no sign of violence, no sign that Ned had been murdered. The coroner guessed it was probably a heart attack, he’d have to do a little more to be sure, but that was what it looked like.
I shook my head. “No, Melissa, it wasn’t poison.”
She looked even worse than she had before. This time, two days later, I’d come to her house. “It was a heart attack, Melissa.” I was sitting in a blue velvet chair, with a cup of tea balanced on my knee.
She was sitting on a wildly-patterned couch, leaning forward. “No, you don’t understand. He killed him. He told me he killed him. He admitted it.”
My ears perked up at this. “Who admitted it?”
“Monty of course, right before, uh, well, he told me he did it.” She got to her feet. “I have to ask you to leave now, Chief.”
I narrowed my eyes and stared at her. What was going on here?
“I have something to do.”
“Okay.” I set the tea on a small table and got up. “I guess I want to go talk to Monty anyway.”
“Uh sure,” she said. “I am so sorry to run like this, but I have to go.” She absolutely darted out the door. I stood for a moment, just staring. Seemed like it would be a smart thing to follow her. Just to see what she was doing, you understand.
She drove pretty quickly up to old Ned’s house, fast enough that I would have pulled her over and given her a ticket if I hadn’t been following.
When I let myself in, she was wrestling with Monty. Or Monty’s body. He didn’t look very lively. What I didn’t understand was why she had practically told me what she had done. I cleared my throat and she wheeled around.
“Chief.” She dropped Monty, or at least the half of him she had been holding. He hit the linoleum with a thump, and I noticed the blood.
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. I came here to question him, to find out why he killed Ned. I found him like this.” She smiled in a sort of queasy fashion.
“Why were you moving him?”
“I thought it might look bad, you know, my being here, him being dead. I was just, well, oh, I don’t know.” She shrugged and then burst into tears.
I handed her a tissue. “You kill him, Melissa?”
“He killed Ned, he wanted Ned’s money. I loved him, Chris, I loved that old man.”
“Melissa, he didn’t kill Ned. Ned died of a heart attack.”
“He killed him, he told me he killed him, he laughed about it.”
“He didn’t. What happened? Did you threaten to kill him? Did you frighten him into telling you he’d killed Ned?”
She just shook her head. I took her arm and led her out to the car, quiet as a mouse.
As it turned out, Melissa had killed Monty. She’d held Ned’s old shotgun on him and got him to confess to killing Ned. I guess Monty figured he’d just tell her anything and she’d let him go. Instead she gave him both barrels in the chest. Seems that Melissa knew about Ned’s money, and she had actually been working on him, getting him to trust her, hoping to live with him, share his small fortune, emphasis on small.
Melissa ended up in Goffstown. That’s where the women’s prison is. I kind of thought she might end up in Concord, at the State Hospital, but they found her fit to stand trial.
Ned’s stuff went to some other distant relative, who didn’t really want any of it. Fortunately, the land sold quickly to a local, who still allows hunting on it.
We’ve never had another flood like that one, never had another murder either. I hope it stays that way.
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