That summer, Atlanta cooked over low heat.
Detective Pectin suspected foul play. We all did, from the moment that one of the Strawberry twins – was it Mary or Sherry? – turned up missing at her long-anticipated ballet recital, which is to say that she didn’t turn up at all. Around the same time, the Rhubarb boy – Franky I think he’s called – was making a polite telephone call to the Strawberry residence. Harry picked up. Franky, who had been hoping to talk to one of the girls, spent ten crucial minutes mumbling over gracious how-d’y-do’s. Eventually Harry asked him nicely to stop being so damned obsequious, and so Franky spilled the beans over why he was calling in the first place. It was an awkward situation, he began.
It seems Sherry or Mary – the other one from the one who wasn’t at the dance recital, in any case – had been slated to meet Franky out by Lake Allatoona for a secret kind of rendezvous. Harry hadn’t been informed; so far as he was concerned, she was studying kinesthetics with her friend Cinnamon. But the rendezvous had been planned out weeks in advance, Franky and the Strawberry girl had rented a cabin, and there was no friend named Cinnamon anyhow. Franky would have known, surely. The missing girl shared everything with him, and besides, kinesthetics wasn’t a subject they taught at Chamblee High School. Harry was always the last to know.
To hear Ms. Lemon, the Strawberrys’ live-in maid, tell it, Harry’s face got red as a beet when he heard about that. But the Rhubarb boy says the old man’s voice was dead calm when he asked why, exactly, Franky was choosing that night to impart this delicate information.
Well, sir, because she’s late. Twenty minutes, to be precise. You know ___ry’s never late, sir.
Harold Strawberry had to admit this was true. Neither of his daughters had ever, to his knowledge, missed an appointment in the entirety of their young well-ordered lives (the line being tied up by Franky’s awkward fawning, he had not yet received the news about the recital). And did the boy know where she might have been detained?
Franky was hoping to hear it from the old man, to be honest. He was hoping, awful as it sounded, that the girl had been bitten by a sudden flew. High fever, and…. Harry was sorry to say that she hadn’t. He thanked the boy for letting him know and hung up the phone.
Ten minutes later, the call from the police finally came through. Even so, it wasn’t long before they found the bodies. They’d been hulled and halved, according to Dietrich Sugar, who discovered the remains in back of their pecan grove, which ran right up alongside the Strawberrys’ own. They were bleeding from some unknown source; when the forensics people loaded them into the body bags, they had released some of their juices, leaving bright-red prints on their identical torn white dresses. This was a red herring in the case for a long time, but Detective Pectin eventually came to the conclusion that their confluence of dress had no real significance. They’d simply both had the same idea at the same time, as twins often will.
There were discolorations in the skin of one that suggested she had been kept in a freezer, or some very cold place at any case, for some time prior to her death. It was impossible to identify, at this point, which of the twins was which, their bodies had been so mangled. Their underpants were missing entirely, though the forensics people couldn’t find any concrete evidence of rape, nor any concrete evidence against it. Bizarrely, it seemed that the bodies had been handled with sterilized metal tongs, dipped in water hot enough to leave permanent marks on the girls’ skin.
Most significant, in the long run, was the fact that the bodies weighed no more than eighty pounds by the time they were discovered. The true meaning of this puzzling oddity wasn’t realized until Franky Rhubarb was stopped by police on his way back to town, to be questioned initially as a witness only. That all changed when they, detecting the alcohol on his breath, popped his trunk as a formality and discovered several jars of a gelatinous red liquid that wasn’t immediately identifiable as blood. Once they’d made that connection, of course, it wasn’t long before they matched it up with the missing girls.
For a feverish few hours, it seemed that Franky Rhubarb was the prime suspect. Then it came out – Sherry’s friend Cinnamon was the first to say it, I think – that Mary had been going with Stanley Sugar, Dietrich’s nephew, behind Franky’s back. Moreover, she had noisily and publicly broken it off with Stanley in the halls of Chamblee High on the very afternoon of her disappearance. Suddenly, Franky’s culpability didn’t seem so certain.
While investigating the Stan Sugar connection, Dt. Pectin brought some other strange secrets to light, secrets that had been kept sealed for nearly as long as the two families had been living alongside one another. First, there was the fact that the Strawberrys’ live-in maid, Ms. Lemon, had prior to her residence there been under the employ of the very same Dietrich Sugar who had discovered the bodies in the first place. She claimed to have been witness of many secret encounters, not only between Mary and Stanley, but between Stanley and Sherry as well. It wasn’t until she’d walked in on Dietrich and Mary – then barely a familiar face at Chamblee High, mind you – that she’d been canned by the Sugars. How much of this information had changed hands when, a week later, Harold Strawberry had hired her remains a matter of contention.
Following this new evidence, Dt. Pectin ordered another autopsy to be performed on the girls, to be looking specifically for DNA evidence linking them to either of the Sugar males. This was all within a day of the discovery. What he found was shocking: both girls showed trace evidence suggesting recent (and apparently discrete) amatory encounters with not only Stanley Sugar but with Franky Rhubarb as well. However, there was no evidence of force being applied.
Most shocking, however, were the revelations that followed this re-opening of the forensic investigation, specifically having to do with the long, curled silver hairs discovered pasted, with the victims’ own tacky blood, to the breast of one and the stomach of another. The hairs were found irrefutably to belong to Ms. Lemon herself. No statement was give regarding how this obviously crucial bit of evidence was passed over the first time round.
Needless to say, the new suspect was zested and juiced in questioning. Without actually denying her part in the crimes, she has remained oddly quiet, almost graceful under the slow boil of the steadily warming weather. Harold Strawberry insists that her reticence is just stubbornness, that she be put to trial at the earliest possible date. He is, understandably, impassioned by grief for his two young daughters.
Dt. Pectin, however, suspects the lady might be keeping silent for a different reason. He’s seen the way her eyes lock, through the two-way mirror, with those of the grieving father. Complicit in their bubbling hatred.
On the other side of the glass, Harry’s gaze hardens, cooling slowly. Ms. Lemon’s in a jam.