by Sharyn Kolberg
There are actors on Law & Order who appear only in the first five minutes of the show. They’re pushing a disabled child in a wheelchair or coming out of a 24/7 donut shop or taking their dogs for a late-night walk. They stop suddenly and scream. They’ve seen a dead body. I read once that these actors, never to appear again, have formed a club. I’m not an actor, nor have I ever appeared on Law & Order, but I could be a member.
I find dead people.
My name is Cookie Sneiderman. People occasionally hire me to do things or find things for them because I own a concierge service called Allow Me. But they don’t hire me to find missing persons or solve murders. I am just one of those people who seem to randomly stumble over deceased individuals. It feels like they seek me out, which I know is preposterous. My friends and family also think this is preposterous, and frequently beg me to be more careful about where I step.
It happened again last week. I was walking along the footpath in Saxon Woods Park, a beautiful area full of clearly marked hiking trails. Not too strenuous, but hilly enough to make a big girl like me sweat bullets. I was thinking this would be a perfect setting for me and my dog, if I had a dog, when I practically tripped over a man’s sneaker in the middle of the trail. I kicked it aside, walked a few more steps and saw another sneaker. That really piqued my curiosity. I looked around. Where would a man without shoes go on a hiking trail?
Next question: where would he go without pants? Because a few steps farther on I spotted a pair of jeans snagged on a bush. I was moving quickly past curiosity into concern. What would come next? A belt? A shirt? A hat?
It was a corpse, face down in a pile of leaves, wearing a tee shirt and nothing else.
Needless to say, I didn’t recognize him. I couldn’t think of too many people I would recognize from the back, butt naked from the waist down.
My initial instinct was to turn and run. I didn’t want to have seen what I was seeing. I didn’t want to have to call an ambulance or notify the police or text my mother “found another one!” Why did this keep happening to me?
Too bad I didn’t follow my initial instinct. Instead, I inched closer and bent over to make sure the guy wasn’t breathing. Unfortunately, gravity took over; I lost my balance and fell right on top of him. Good thing he was already dead, as my considerable weight would probably have suffocated him. To top it off, the trail, which had been empty a few minutes before, was suddenly full of people, gasping at what they thought they were seeing. One couple actually had a dog, and, like the dog I would have had if I had a dog, it was barking and sniffing and making a ruckus. And even though I am not a police officer or a private detective, I knew that the dogs, their owners, the looky-loos, and I were all destroying a crime scene and ruining any chance of collecting evidence.
I was trying hard to hoist myself off the body, but the ground was muddy and the leaves were slippery.
“Can someone give me a hand?”
For a couple of seconds, there was silence, except for a few snickers and one wise guy who started applauding. Apparently, these people were all perverts who assumed the man on the ground and I were knocking boots in plain sight.
Finally, someone reached out a hand. I grabbed it and managed to pull myself upright. The crowd gasped again when they realized the half-naked man in the muck was not moving, and probably never would again.
I was about to gush out a thank you to my rescuer when I saw who it was—Detective Bronwell Mendez of the White Plains Police Department. Better known as Brownie. My friend and my nemesis.
“This can’t be happening,” I said.
Brownie instructed the crowd to back away from the semi-naked man. He turned to me and said, “Don’t move a muscle.”
He pulled out his phone, called his chief and explained the situation. I heard him mention my name and watched his cheeks redden and irritation spread across his face. He put the phone back in his pocket and turned toward me.
“Why, why, why did it have to be you?” he asked. “Can’t I even take a simple Sunday hike without running into you, not to mention a corpse?”
“Brownie,” I said, trying to maintain a modicum of dignity, “I’m not happy to see you either. I came out for a short walk, and I literally stumbled onto this pantsless dead guy . . .”
“Are you telling me you don’t even know this person? Then why were you clinching his corpse in broad daylight?”
“You know what, Cookie? Let’s not even start this right now, okay? I called for backup so let’s wait until they get here and someone more objective can take your statement.”
“Someone more objective?”
“Yeah. Someone you haven’t lied to a million times.”
I couldn’t say I blamed him, exactly. I had skirted around the truth by not disclosing certain facts that had turned out to be important evidence in solving a murder or two. Because even though I wasn’t a private detective, I wanted to be, and I found it difficult to mind my own business when it came to the bodies I’d stumbled across.
Brownie hated that. He always said that even if it turned out I was right about something, I put myself and others around me in danger. There were other reasons he hated my being involved in a case he was on, the most personal being that it inevitably brought out the old Cookie-Brownie taunts we’d suffered since high school. His fellow officers were especially fond of making tasteless pastry references at every opportunity. I didn’t like our confectionary connection any more than he did.
I tried to explain that I hadn’t been having what my mother might call “sexual intercorpse”; it was just me being my usual klutzy self. But, as had happened before in my dealings with Brownie, he wasn’t really buying my story and suggested I save the explanation for my formal statement downtown.
I was straining to come up with a snarky reply when a Bullmastiff broke loose from its owner, loped over to the body and started sniffing all around. Before anyone could regain control of the dog, it had managed to use its powerful head to turn the corpse’s face in our direction. I finally got a good look at more than just the man’s bare bottom.
I recognized him immediately.
It was Binny Rempson, who, up until two weeks earlier, had been my noxious next-door neighbor.
Binny Rempson was one of those people nobody liked. He didn’t come to any of our block parties. He never contributed to school fundraisers by purchasing wrapping paper from Mr. Breyer’s boys—which made sense because he wasn’t the type to buy gifts for anyone. He once called the police on me at 5:00 in the morning because my garbage cans were waiting for collection in front of his property instead of mine. There were rumors he had poisoned Elijah Murphy’s dog for barking too loudly, but Elijah couldn’t prove it. No one in my cul de sac was sorry to hear Binny was relocating.
When the moving vans arrived and he actually left the block, the neighbors lined the street to wave goodbye. If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought it was a beautiful gesture. It was really a sigh of collective relief. But I couldn’t imagine anyone on my block hated him enough to want him dead.
I couldn’t say the same for his relatives, however. I’d run into his stepdaughter Mary a couple of weeks ago. She was visiting Binny with her two bratty sons, ages 12 and 14. I’d met the boys a few times, too. They were braggers, both of them. How great they were in sports, how many pancakes they could eat at one sitting, how many amazing snakes they’d added to their collection.
The boys were playing softball in the street and almost broke my windshield as I pulled into my driveway. When I yelled at them to pay more attention, Mary came outside to see what the commotion was.
“What’s the problem here?” she asked.
“The boys need to be more careful with their aim,” I said. “They just missed my car.”
“You should be more careful about where you’re driving,” she said. “And besides, I told them to aim for my stepfather.”
“You mean his house?
“No, I mean my stepfather. The bastard.”
I blurted out the only response I could think of: “Well, I’m sure deep down he loves you and the boys.”
“There isn’t anything deep down, and if there is, that’s where it should stay,” she said. “How would you like it if somebody ripped your birthright from under your feet?”
“What do you mean?”
“This was my mother’s house. Shoulda come to me and my kids when she died a few months ago, but he stole it from under our noses. Said she didn’t leave a will. I don’t believe it. David’s trying to find a lawyer we can afford to help me figure out how to get what’s rightfully mine.” David was Mary’s husband, a body builder-slash-accountant I’d never met. I’d heard rumors he’d recently lost his job due to some financial shenanigans, but as far as I knew, it was just gossip.
Mary looked back at the house, then took a deep breath. “Binny thought he was smart, but he’ll get his, you can be sure of that,” she said. She screamed at the kids to get in the car, and I watched as they drove off into the sunset.
I got home after several hours of telling the police the same story over and over. I told them about following the trail of Binny’s wardrobe and tripping over his body. I told them everything I knew about Binny Rempson, which wasn’t very much. They asked me lots of questions about my fellow cul-de-sackers and their relationships with Binny. I even told them about Mary and her boys and her feelings about the house. They seemed to be interested in what I had to say. Unfortunately, I’d learned from previous experiences that when you’re being interrogated, the cops don’t really let you in on what they find interesting and what they don’t.
Brownie was being particularly dismissive and arrogant; he kept saying I wasn’t telling him everything. But for once, I was. Maybe he just couldn’t believe I would be hiking in Saxon Woods. I’d never been the hiking type, but I was trying to turn over a new leaflet, as my mother would say.
I couldn’t wait to get home and heat up the leftover Italian food waiting in my fridge. As I pulled into the driveway with eggplant rollatini floating through my brain, I spotted Elijah Murphy walking a dog down the block. I trotted over to greet them both.
“Elijah, is that your new dog?”
“Yep. This is Rudy. He’s a Basenji mix. They hardly bark, you know. I didn’t want anyone bellyaching about this one. At least we know Binny Rempson won’t be complaining anymore. I’m glad he’s out of that house, but we don’t know what kind of dog-hater could move in next.”
I realized Elijah might not have heard about Binny’s sudden demise.
“Hmph,” he said after I told him the whole story. “Can’t say I’m sorry Binny is dead. He fed my Ernie poisoned beef, you know.”
“We don’t know that for sure, Elijah. Nobody saw him do it.”
“Oh, Binny did it all right. Too bad I couldn’t convince the authorities it was him. If I could’ve proved it, I would have made sure Binny got the death penalty. I sure would have.”
Sadly, you can’t get the death penalty for killing a dog. Could that fact have turned Elijah Murphy into a revenge-seeking pantsing vigilante? I probably would have pursued this line of thinking further if my phone hadn’t rung right then. I said a quick farewell to Elijah, fished my phone out of my pocket, and read the caller ID. My mother.
She was calling about my finding another body. I really couldn’t argue with her statement that “enough is too much already.” She’d been informed about it via the grapevine that ran across the Florida/New York border (the states in between didn’t count, according to my mother). She’d also heard there were problems with the Rempson estate, such as it was, and wanted an update on the status of the house. Apparently, she’d been told that although Mary’s mom had not left a will, Binny had. And he bequeathed the house to some distant cousins in Belarussia. “Why would anyone leave a house to someone in Belarussia?” she asked.
I assumed she meant Belarus, but she could have meant Brussels. Or Belfast. Or Buffalo.
She said she was “asking for a friend” but her questions and her intimate knowledge of the situation sent shivers up my spine. She wasn’t thinking about moving back up here from Florida, was she? And right next door? I had to find out what had happened to Binny Rempson and how to settle his estate—the sooner the better.
The minute I hung up, my phone rang again. This time, it was Brownie.
“Hey, Charlene,” he said.
Uh oh. No one called me by my real name unless I was in trouble. It made me want to go stand in a corner and suck my thumb. Even my mother, who used my full name—Charlene Annette Tallulah Sneiderman—when she disapproved of my behavior, didn’t resort to the whole megillah often. Thankfully, Brownie only knew the Charlene part, which was bad enough. What kind of trouble was I in now? What could I possibly have done?
“We need to talk,” he said. “I’ll come by your place at 5:00. See you then.” He didn’t even wait for me to say yes or no, he just hung up.
When Brownie pulled up in front of my house, I invited him in for a glass of iced tea, and we split a Danish. He grunted a few things about the weather and asked about my mother. I gave him one-word answers; I was anxious to hear what he had to say.
“Look, Cookie,” he finally said, “My chief read me the riot act about finding you at the scene with another dead body. He doesn’t believe it was just random. Please, tell me something that will convince him you had nothing to do with this.”
“I don’t know how to make this any clearer,” I said. “I was walking along, minding my own business, when I tripped over this guy. I didn’t know it was my neighbor until I saw his face—at the same time you did.”
Brownie looked skeptical, an expression I’d seen on so many faces over the years. I could almost hear people thinking: “You’re way too out-of-shape to do that.” “I can’t believe you’d even try to do that!” “Are you sure you should be eating that?” (A category unto itself, but a story for another day.)
Brownie got up to leave. “Let me know if you have anything else to tell me,” he said. I promised I would, but I couldn’t imagine what that might be.
Early the next morning, I heard distinct thumping sounds coming from the Rempsons’ driveway. A little snooping wouldn’t hurt, would it? It was time to put out the garbage anyway, so I gathered up my bags and stepped outside, only to narrowly escape being sideswiped by an errant softball badly thrown by one of Binny’s grandsons.
“Hey!” I yelled, “Watch where you’re throwing that ball!”
“Hey yourself,” the eldest boy yelled back. “Stop getting in the way of our games!”
He came over to retrieve his ball, jumping over a group of small cloth bags sitting in the shade on Binny’s lawn.
“What’s in the bags?”
“Nothing. Just a couple of snakes our mom wants us to get rid of. She says we have too many, so we’re going to give them to another collector we know.”
“Is your mom here?” I asked.
“No, we’re waiting for her to come pick us up. But our dad is.” He turned to face the house and screamed at the top of his lungs, “Hey Dad. That neighbor is here again.”
A tall, muscular man stepped out onto the front porch, holding the cutest little Yorkie in the crook of his arm, a bright pink bow around her neck. They both looked me over for a minute, then the man came striding quickly toward me. He stuck out his free arm and shook my hand. “Hi,” he said. “I’m David. Mary’s husband. You must be Cookie, the neighbor. This is Fancy, the dog.” Fancy licked my hand in greeting.
What was David doing there? Binny had already moved out; the house should be empty. I decided to take the direct approach and just ask.
“Yes, Binny did move out, but as you’ve probably heard, Mary’s mom didn’t leave a will. Which means he automatically got the house. When he died, we found his will, which named some obscure relatives as his heirs. We’re contesting it. I’d like to sell the place, but this is where Mary wants to raise our boys.”
David shifted the Yorkie to the ground and we both watched as she ran back into the house.
“The boys and I came over to do some final cleanup,” he said. “Seems Binny left a few things behind when he moved.”
A softball whizzed by my shoulder. I wanted to find out if David had anything more to say. I also wanted to get out of the range of those balls.
“I wonder,” I said, “I’ve never seen the inside of the house and I might know someone who’s interested in buying.” God forbid. “Think I could take a quick peek?”
“I don’t see why not. Follow me.”
David was in a talkative mood as we walked through the house. When I stopped to admire the heavy old-fashioned wooden desk that was the only piece of furniture in an otherwise empty room, he explained that, like the house itself, it had originally belonged to Mary’s mother. Binny had decided it was too big to move to his new apartment and had “graciously” offered it back to Mary. David was trying to figure out if it was worth moving the heavy piece.
“Binny hardly ever used this desk. He was a landscape architect, you know. That’s probably why he was in Saxon Woods when he . . .passed away: he’d been consulting about trails and walkways for a new park in Putnam County. Maybe he needed some inspiration.”
That explained what Binny was doing in the park that morning. It also explained why his lawn always looked so much better than mine.
David’s phone rang and he stepped outside to answer it, which left me alone in the room with the antique desk, practically inviting me to open a drawer or two while he was gone. David had probably searched it already, but what if there was something he had overlooked? Something that would point Brownie in someone else’s direction and get me off the hook? A quick peek wouldn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, the drawers were old and sticky. I pulled at the first drawer. After a few yanks, it opened, to reveal nothing. Same with the second drawer. I tugged at the large bottom drawer. It wouldn’t budge. My stubborn streak kicked in; I was determined to get it unstuck. I knew I only had a few minutes. I crouched down and, using my considerable weight as leverage, pulled as hard as I could. Nothing. I pulled again. This time, the drawer flew right out of the desk, propelling me onto the floor and landing me on my butt.
I peered around the corner of the desk. David must not have heard my fall; he hadn’t come back into the room. When I looked into the fallen drawer, I discovered that my heavy pulling had unhinged a false bottom, spilling out its contents, including some legal-looking paperwork.
And a small shiny black pistol.
I grabbed the papers and was scuttling away from the weapon when I spotted Fancy, the pink-bowed little Yorkie, prancing toward me. She was followed closely by Rudy, the barkless Basenji, followed even more closely by Elijah Murphy, his owner. Both dogs jumped right into my lap and started licking my face.
Elijah came to a screeching halt when he spotted me behind the desk. “What are you doing down there?”
“Ummm, nothing really. I found some things in a drawer—” I was interrupted by David coming into the room. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him speaking.
“Where’d you go, you little rat baby?” he said.
Was he talking about me? People had called me a lot of things over the years, but never a little rat baby. Oh wait—he was talking about the Yorkie. Elijah turned around and was about to say something when Fancy snatched the papers I had been holding. Rudy grabbed the gun in his teeth and ran back in the direction from which he’d come. Fancy thought that was a grand idea and gave chase, papers held fast in her mouth. Elijah ran after them, leaving me on the floor for David to find.
Which he did.
He looked down at the now empty drawer sitting on the floor. “What the hell have you been doing in here?” He reached down and hauled me up easy as pie. I guess you never know when being a body builder will come in handy.
“Nothing. I just gave the drawer a tiny tug and it popped open . . .”
“Why were you tugging at my drawers?”
I started to laugh at the picture that invaded my brain, but stopped when I saw David’s face. Apparently, he was not in the mood for joking around.
We were both startled by noises in the hallway. I could hear Fancy yapping away and Elijah trying to coax Rudy to drop what he had in his mouth. David ran out into the hallway to see what was happening.
I followed close behind, heart pounding.
It was difficult to take in what I was seeing: Papers, wet with dog drool, scattered everywhere. David and Mary, having a tug of war with the pages on the hardwood. Mary’s two boys standing stock-still, fear in their eyes. Elijah, backed up against one wall, a squirming dog under each arm.
And Brownie, spread-eagle on the hallway floor.
Beside him lay a 3-foot-long snake with reddish-brown patterned skin and yellow cat-like eyes. And a neat but deadly bullet hole in its triangular-shaped head.
“Brownie! Brownie!” I knelt at his side. “Are you okay? Are you shot?”
“I’m not shot.”
“Were you bit?”
“Bit? By whom?”
I pointed to the dead snake beside him. “By that,” I said. “That’s whom.”
Brownie took one look at the reptile and leapt to his feet.
He slid the gun out of my hand.
I didn’t even remember picking it up.
Mary’s eldest spoke up. “It wouldn’t have bit him unless it thought it was in danger.” He turned to stare at me, the fear in his eyes replaced by hatred. “Why did you have to kill it? We were going to bring it back to the woods and let it go. It wasn’t supposed to hurt anyone.”
Mary spun around and faced her older son. “Be quiet, Alton. Don’t say another word.”
The younger boy, a skinny replica of his brother, was in the beginning stages of a full-blown crying jag. Mary turned to address him. “And you too, Dalton,” she said forcefully. “Now go outside and wait for me in the car.”
Brownie turned to face Mary. “I’m sorry about your snake. But I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you down to the station. And your boys as well.”
When my doorbell rang later that night, I wasn’t surprised to see Brownie standing there. He’d promised to come by as soon as he could get away. He didn’t have to. He didn’t owe me any explanations, but he’d promised so I knew he would. We sat at the kitchen table, sipping iced tea. This time we split a slice of cherry pie.
“Brownie, what the heck happened in Binny’s hallway? It’s all a blur to me. I ran in and saw you and the snake on the floor and the next thing I remember I had a gun in my hand and I thought I’d killed you and . . .”
Brownie took my hand. “Slow down,” he said. “Take a breath and I’ll explain from the beginning.”
I gave myself a moment to calm down and Brownie started again.
“It was the boys who killed Binny Rempson,” he said, “although they never meant for him to die. They took a copperhead from their collection and followed Binny into the woods. They knew he was afraid of snakes. The plan was to threaten him with it until he agreed to give their mom the house. Things didn’t go as planned. They threw the reptile at Binny and it started crawling up inside his pants. Apparently, he went kind of nuts, ripping off his clothes until he could finally get the pants off, but the snake had already bitten him. You know anything about copperheads?”
“Not really. Are they poisonous?”
“They are, but they’re not usually deadly. What the boys didn’t know was that Binny was highly allergic. He went into anaphylactic shock and had a heart attack, and that’s what killed him.”
“What will happen to the boys?”
“Don’t know. Right now, they’re home with their parents until the DA decides whether to charge them with anything.”
Wow. I felt sorry for Binny, sorry for Mary and sorry for Alton and Dalton, misguided though they were.
“But what happened in Binny’s hallway? Why were you on the floor? What were you even doing there?”
“I came by your place to tell you about Binny’s autopsy. I heard a commotion coming from Binny’s house, ran in to see what going on, slipped on one of the pages on the floor and landed flat on my back. From what I can piece together, David and Mary were fighting over the papers Fancy had in her mouth and Elijah was wrestling with Rudy for the gun. Alton, or maybe Dalton, thought Elijah wanted to buy the house, so he brought the snake inside to scare Elijah away. When I fell, Alton-Dalton dropped the copperhead, Rudy let go of the gun, and you picked it up and shot the snake.”
“Yup. A clean shot through the head. Good job, Cookie.”
I noticed he was back to calling me Cookie. “But why were David and Mary fighting over the papers on the floor? What were they?”
“Sarah Rempson’s will. She left the house to Mary after all.”
“Does Mary want to sell it?” I asked, Mom-induced spinal shivers appearing again. “Just asking for a friend.”
“Mary wants to stay right here. David wanted the house to go to Binny’s long losts. He planned to swoop in, buy the house from them, flip it, and make a huge profit behind Mary’s back. Apparently, Mary got wind of David’s plan, so now he is out of luck and so are old Binny’s alleged relatives.”
I lost my bearings for a few seconds while that sunk in. Mary living right next door. With the boys. And their softballs. And their snakes.
Even so, I couldn’t wait to tell my mother.
© 2022 Sharyn Kolberg All rights reserved.