Millicent Harkness knew she was the very best gardener in the county, so why did that snivelly Tessa Rogers always win first prize for exotic hybrids at the State Country Fair?
It couldn’t be borne. Milicent knew something was up. Tessa was pulling a fast one somehow, cheating. She had to be. Milicent was determined to find out exactly how she was producing those fabulous roses.
So with the same meticulous care that she took in the raising of her flowers. Milicent laid out a cunning plan to uncover the truth about Tessa Rogers. Her plan worked — unfortunately for Milicent.
Tessa Rogers and Millicent Harkness had been neighbors for nearly 30 years and had moved into their pretty homes as young brides. Millie, as her friends called her, had managed her life and her husband with great aplomb and efficiency; Tessa hadn’t.
Millie was devoted to her luxuriant roses and spent her time out in the garden in a series of spectacular picture hats; Tessa had spent her time with her hands in oozy muck, making pots she then baked in her kiln.
Millie’s dear departed Frank had been a mild, loving, and compliant husband, but Tessa’s Hubert had been anything but. For years Millie and Frank had been kept awake by the ruckus of Hubert having one of his tantrums.
Hubert’s tantrums involved a lot of shouting, throwing of furniture, and slamming of doors. Tessa never made a sound. Not ever. But sometimes Millie would see her hanging the washing the next day in long sleeves and dark glasses…
Of course, Millie never did anything. She never crossed the fence to offer Tessa her help or go to the sheriff. You didn’t do that in those days. You minded your business and kept your nose out of your neighbor’s lives.
This went on for years and years until one day, Hubert upped and ran off with some busty blond teller from the post office two towns over the Georgia state line and was never seen again. And wasn’t that a seven-day wonder!
The whole town buzzed with the news, but Tessa was quite unperturbed. Millie thought that she actually seemed to bloom into a sort of middle-aged prettiness, and a few of the town’s older singles were eyeing her.
Tessa wasn’t interested. Three months after Hubert left her, Tessa went on vacation to Italy. On her return, she had a magnificent greenhouse built on her grounds, right next to her pottery kiln.
She then stopped making vases and started cultivating roses, which upset Millie to no end. Millie LOVED roses, and she was by far the greatest regional expert, so it was a personal affront when after just four years, the novice walked away with the blue ribbon for a splendid new hybrid she’d named the Goldy.
Millicent was sure it was a fluke, but the next year, Tessa did it again, presenting a lovely salmon tea rose with fluted petals she’d whimsically named the Hotdog. Millie was relegated to a humiliating second place.
The third year, Mille was sure victory was hers. Her own hybrid was magnificent, with huge, perfectly furled blooms and velvety vivid orange petals. It was perhaps a little showy, but Millicent wanted to catch the judges’ attention from the start.
To her eternal chagrin, Tessa modestly presented her own effort: The Hubert Rose. The Hubert was breathtaking, and its small but perfectly formed blooms presented a soft shade of bluish lilac shading to palest gold at the base.
The exact color, Millicent thought venomously, of a fading bruise… Now Millie had had enough. Something was going on. At the prize-giving, Millie walked up to the irritatingly modest Tessa and asked her outright:
“How do you do it? The subtlety of color, the configuration… What’s your secret?”
Tessa smiled sweetly. “Oh, Millie, it’s just beginner’s luck, really!”
But Millie pressed her. “No. Seriously. What?”
Tessa looked flustered by Millie’s rudeness and answered: “The composting. A special blend…You know, a little of this, a little of that…and my secret ingredient.”
What’s the secret ingredient?”
Tessa waved her hand vaguely and smiled mysteriously. “Love, lots of love, and a sprinkle of ashes.”
Ashes, love! Really, Tessa was getting more annoying by the day. Millicent was determined to ferret out her secret. She concocted a cunning plan, and the first step was to become Tessa’s new best friend.
Millie wooed Tessa with thoughtful little gifts of fresh-baked scones and jasmine tea, invited her to join her bridge club, and never — ever — mentioned roses. To her delight, the shy Tessa responded.
Soon Millie was popping over to Tessa’s any time of the day and had the run of the house. The one place she wanted to investigate was still barred to her: the mysterious greenhouse out back, next to the old pottery kiln.
Then one day, Tessa dropped a golden opportunity into Millie’s lap. She was going to Jacksonville to spend the day with her sister, and that would allow Millie to investigate that mysterious greenhouse to her heart’s content.
As soon as Millie saw Tessa leave, she sneaked over through her backyard and into her neighbor’s. She was irritated to discover that Tessa had a stout padlock on the door. Then a brilliant idea struck her.
“People with glasshouses, Tessa, shouldn’t throw stones,” she crowed.
Millie picked up a series of smooth pebbles lining one of Tessa’s flower beds and lobbed them at the greenhouse, smashing several adjacent glass panes. She kicked at the aluminum strut she’d exposed until it buckled, then eased her thin body through and into the mysterious greenhouse
Millie looked around and had to admit she was impressed. The interior was a veritable green jungle, fragrant with the perfume of thousands of blooms, vibrant with life.
“I need a greenhouse, too,” said Millie, who’d always rather enjoyed doing her work on her roses in plain sight of the admiring neighbors. “I really do!”
She walked through to the center of the greenhouse, where an ample work table held a series of plants in their respective pots. One of them was an orchid unlike anything she’d ever seen, and another was a tiny rose bush, just unfurling its first blooms, of an uncanny pale violet that verged on true sky-blue.
Millie ground her teeth together. Another prize winner! Viciously, Millie swept the pot off the table and watched in satisfaction as it smashed into the ground, “There! That takes care of that!”
The idea was that Tessa would believe that some boys, vandals, had broken in and destroyed her beloved greenhouse. Inspired, Millie started walking around, smashing and crushing any plant she found particularly attractive.
Then she noticed a bookshelf in a corner, holding nothing but three large crockery pots. The pots were neatly labeled “Goldy,” “Hotdog,” and “Hubert.” The secret ingredient! It had to be.
Millie eagerly reached up and swung down. “Hubert.” She dropped the pot unceremoniously on the ground. Pottery shards scattered, and a spray of the contents followed.
Ashes? It looked a lot like very fine ashes. Curious, Millie crouched down and carefully sifted a small pile through her fingers. There was something mixed in… Millie brought out a hard, smooth object.
A tooth? Millie brought the thing closer. It was a tooth, a human tooth. Millie’s heart started thundering wildly. Tessa had human teeth mixed in the ashes she used to fertilize her roses.
She was trembling with fright; then, she heard an ominous sound. Someone was opening the padlock on the greenhouse door. Frozen with terror, Millie watched as the door swung open and Tessa walked in.
“Millie!” She cried, “Whatever happened!”
Millie looked around at the circle of destruction, the crushed plants oozing sap, the smashed crock at her feet. “Tessa! I heard a noise…I came over…It looks like someone broke in…
Oh dear,” cried Tessa, tenderly lifting the remnants of the violet rose, ” I shall have to start all over again!”
Millie made sympathetic noises, then realized she was still clutching the tooth. She carefully opened her hand and let the grizzly object drop to the floor.
“I’m so sorry,” Millie said, “Some wild boys… They ran out when they saw me coming.”
Tessa wiped her face and left a streak of rich loamy dirt on her cheek. “Millie, I need some tea, and so do you.”
Millie squirmed. “Honestly, Tessa, I don’t want to intrude; I should be getting home…”
Please, Millie, I need your support. Let’s have some tea and call the sheriff. You saw the boys; you’ll have to talk to him
Talk to the sheriff? Millie felt panic start to swell in the pit of her stomach. What would she say? Then it came to her: Keep it simple. She heard glass break, came over, saw some boys run away.
Millie followed Tessa into the house and sat at the kitchen table while her neighbor made some tea. “There!” Tessa smiled, placing a fragrant, steaming cup of tea in front of Millie.
“The best thing for nerves, my mother always said,” she said. “Hubert hated tea. He was a coffee and bourbon man.”
Millie took a greedy gulp of her tea. “Frank liked coffee too. And mint tea. But he didn’t drink a drop of liquor.”
Tessa sighed. “You know, when I walked into that greenhouse today, it brought it all back. Hubert, smashing my pots…”
“He did that?” Millie stared at Tessa with sympathy.
“Yes. When he didn’t smash me, he smashed the things I loved. Hubert was a sad man, very sad.”
Milles was surprised. “That’s very generous of you, Tessa, after the way he treated you and left you…”
“We shouldn’t hold grudges against the dead, Millie dear. It’s not Christian.”
“Hubert is dead?” Millie gasped, “When? How did he die?”
“Why, ten years ago.” Tessa smiled sadly. “But he went peacefully.”
“But…I thought he ran off…”
“Well, of course! I wasn’t going to tell the sheriff I’d poisoned my husband, was I?” laughed Tessa, “But I must say, it feels wonderful to finally get it off my chest.”
Millie was feeling dizzy. “Poison?” she gasped. “You killed him? But the body? The blond in Kingsland?”
“Hubert never cheated. I would have been over the moon if he’d left me. No, Hubert was a devoted man in his own way.”
“The body…You buried it?”
“Oh no, silly! Those always crop up! Don’t you watch ‘CSI’? I burned it in the kiln and put the ashes in a crock. The one you smashed.”
“Oh no,” whimpered Millie, “No! It wasn’t me…Those boys…”
Of course not, dear, drink your tea; you’re so nervous!”
Millie obediently sipped at her tea. “The secret ingredient…It was Hubert?”
Tessa smiled happily. “You ARE clever! Yes and no. First, I used Goldy and Hotdog’s ashes.”
“Goldy? Hotdog?” asked Millie confused.
“My dogs. Goldy died of old age 12 years ago, and Hotdog was run over. I couldn’t bear to bury them, so I cremated them in the kiln. That’s where I got the idea for getting rid of Hubert’s body.”
And why ashes in the roses? I’ve never heard of that.”
“I went on vacation to Italy after Hubert died to clear my mind. Anyway, I went to Pompei, and the people who live around the area have the most amazing plants. They told me it’s the ashes in the soil.”
“Ashes…” Millie was getting woozier and woozier. “Ashes?”
“Well, very special ashes, the ashes of the ancient dead. I brought back a little bag, and when that was finished, I remembered Goldy and Hotdog and Hubert…”
You came back… You didn’t go…Jacksonville…”
Tessa smiled brightly. “I forgot my cell phone. Wasn’t that lucky? Now don’t worry, Milicent, it won’t hurt a bit.”
Late that afternoon, Tessa returned from her visit to her sister in Jacksonville to find her greenhouse broken into and her dear friend Millie’s cell phone lying on the floor. Millie had apparently tried to dial 911.
The sheriff believes that Millie had interrupted whoever had wreaked havoc on Tessa’s greenhouse and that the person or persons involved had made an end to the poor lady.
Millie’s body was never found, despite the sheriff’s best effort, and Tessa was devastated. The next year she took her fourth consecutive State Fair first prize with a rose she’d named the Magnificent Millicent in her dear departed friend’s honor.