Louise closed the book review section and looked above her half-glasses at her husband. He was a pleasant sight, thin face and lined brow relaxed, handsome in his white dress shirt and Sunday dress sweater. The family had been to church, had breakfast, and since then had burrowed into the Sunday papers with a delicious disregard for time. He looked up from the sports section as if she had sent him a telepathic signal. He grinned and looked at his watch. "I can always tell when my time is up. You want us to help now in the yard, don't you?"
Still in her blue church-going dress, she gave her husband a conciliatory smile. Despite his protestation, he liked yard work. She said, "You're right. But it won't take us long, dear. And then, if Janie has her homework under control, we can go to the movies."
Janie, sprawled on the floor, reading the funnies, said morosely, "I wonder what other kids are doing this afternoon. Going to the Smithsonian maybe, or a concert, or just being left alone to do their homework in peace. . . ."
Bill got up and, passing Janie, reached down and unceremoniously tousled her blond hair. "Grumble, grumble. Other kids are probably just like you: at home and buggin' their parents. C'mon, Janie, time to suit up for our big leaf-spreading project. Get on your most disreputable clothes."
Janie changed to her new jeans jacket and tan pants, Bill to his tattered chinos and lumberjack shirt, and Louise to her usual yard uniform, Japanese garden pants, boots, and heavy wool sweater. They went out into the crisp, sunny November day and surveyed the backyard.
"Oh boy," said Janie, "this place has turned into a graveyard for old leaves. I'm glad we're getting rid of them. The neighbors will begin to talk. What other mother on earth would swipe other people's leaves?" The big tan bags stood against each other at angles, like a platoon of slightly drunken soldiers.
Louise was all business now. "Here's what we need to do: There are about twenty-six bags here. Bill, can you take six bags--be sure they're oak leaves--to the front yard? They'll be just enough to mulch the rhododendrons and azaleas. Do that first, will you, darling?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Bill, bowing a little. "Whatever you say."
"Good. Then Janie and I will start dragging the rest to the back corner, where we will dump them. Except, Bill, will you also take two bags with oak leaves and put them near the addition, because we need to mulch the little hollies I planted along the west edge."
"Your wish is my command, ma'am," he said. He walked off, dragging a bag of leaves in either hand as if he had the Katzenjammer Kids by the scruffs of their necks.
Janie put her hands on her hips and looked at her retreating father. "Ma, why does he always tease you about gardening? What is it, anyway? Why doesn't he just do it? He's
Louise gripped a bag firmly and said, "Don't worry about it. Men tease when they can't think of what else to say. He really loves working in the yard, but I can't see him standing here like Wordsworth or Shelley or somebody, going on about it." She looked at her frowning daughter. "After all, darling, your father is a political scientist, not a poet." She began dragging the bag of leaves. "Come on, let's get on with it."
Janie followed her like an unhappy puppy, her mouth turned down, her brow furrowed with the same kind of wrinkles her father had in his forehead. "That's another thing," she said, trailing behind her mother. "I think he's more than just a State Department foreign service officer. I think he's doing something secret. Don't you ever think that?" She looked at her mother with her chin held defiantly high.
Louise stopped and looked at Janie. "Let's you and Dad and I talk that over carefully one of these days"--she grimaced--"but not today. I'd like to get this job finished first."
Janie dropped into a thoughtful silence as one by one they took the bags to the rear corner of the yard.
Louise herself was panting with the effort. "Gosh," she said, "I think these are heavier . . . although I don't know why. It hasn't rained or snowed since we brought them here."
Bill, carrying a rake, joined them, and they quickly moved the rest of the bags.
"Now comes the fun part," said Bill. "Come on, Janie, let's empty the bags. Louise, you do the raking. Try to keep the leaves in a neat, high pile." He looked at his wife through the corner of his eye and said, "I'd estimate a five-foot-high pile, which we will undoubtedly achieve in this little corner of the world, will--given the proper incantations and phases of the moon--disintegrate into about four inches of mulch."
"Exactly. You're such a good helper you can kid me all you
want. But this probably will solve our water problem. We'll never have another puddle out here. And try to avoid stepping on that dessicated plant out there--I want to save it."
Bill and Janie started upending the bags, Bill working quickly, lifting them effortlessly and throwing the contents in Louise's direction.
Then they all saw it and heard it at once. Two thuds, as two plastic-wrapped objects flipped through the air to the ground near their feet.
"My God, what's this?" said Bill.
"No wonder these bags are heavy," complained Janie. "They've mixed trash in here . . . what . . . what are
these things?" She reached down quickly and picked up one of the packages, holding it like an unwelcome present. "Gol, this looks like an arm!" she cried. "But it can't be an arm--but heavy.
And this one . . ." She picked up the second package.
"Janie." Bill barked it. "Drop it!"
She stopped and stared at her father. "Gee, Dad, just because someone puts some old meat or something in with their leaves . . ." She glared at her father.
Louise ran over to Janie and took the package from her. She dropped it on the ground and turned her daughter's shoulders toward the house. "Janie, please go in the house. Just go. Dad and I will take care of this."
Janie's eyes had grown round and terrified. She jerked out of her mother's grasp. "No, Ma. Don't do that to me. Don't act as if I'm a baby. I've already seen something; I've got to see the rest." She looked at her father. "After all, Dad," she added, "it's my yard, too."
"All right," said Bill, "but stand well back." Janie and Louise backed up a few feet through the rustling leaves, as cautious as if he were investigating a bomb. "Now let's all try to keep calm while we figure this out." He knelt down and picked up the longer package with his gloved hands and gently felt it. "Let's be sure what we're looking at first. It's probably just . . . a ham bone, maybe." He made a face. "Lots of plastic wrap . . . you can see that." He carefully unpeeled the outer layers of plastic until they could all see through the remaining layers a flesh-colored object with large, dark smears on it. Bill sniffed, then pulled back in revulsion.
He put the object down quickly and looked up at Louise. His voice was very low. "Louise, let's go in and call the police. And Janie, whether you want to or not, I want you to go with your mother into the house."
"What is it?" cried Janie. He stood up quickly and swayed a little, his mouth contorted as if he were going to spit. "Let's go," he muttered. "We've all seen enough." He hustled Louise and Janie through the leafy woods and back into the house, the warm, friendly house with its strewn newspapers and empty coffee cups.
Excerpted from Mulch by Ann Ripley. Copyright © 1998 by Ann Ripley. Excerpted by permission of Crimeline, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.