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Mystery Most Traditional Cover Agatha nominee story A Good Judge of Character .JPG

Agatha Award Finalist for Best Short Story




June put the cat carrier on the floor by the counter. She was relieved because Samson just kept gaining weight and June was not getting any younger. Samson meowed begging to be released.

“Ever since I picked him up from here this morning he’s been so skittish.”

The girl pulled the earphone out of her right ear to answer. “It’s to be expected that a cat will be skittish at the vet.” The girl spoke as if it were a great effort on her part, then she snuck a peek at her phone when it buzzed.

June wondered if the young girl behind the counter was being difficult or if she really didn’t hear a word June was saying. Kids these days, they barely listen to a word anyone says anymore. If they don’t hear it on their phones, they’re not listening. 

“I don’t mean he’s been skittish here, I mean he’s been skittish since he came home from his procedure. I was so nervous leaving him here overnight. I was afraid something like this would happen.”

The girl came around the counter and knelt down next to the cat and started to make cute little noises. She opened the case to let Samson out, but he retreated deeper into the carrier.

“Come on big boy. You can do it. Let’s see how handsome you are.”

She reached into the carrier and gently pulled the big orange tabby into her arms, but not for long. Samson untangled himself and jumped to the ground. He scooted to the back of the room and hid under a chair leaving little damp paw prints along the way.

“And that’s another thing. He’s been leaving paw prints everywhere.” June pointed to the ground.


“Oh, for goodness sake. Right there.”

The girl squinted, tilted her head. Then got closer to the floor. “Oh, yeah, I see them now. Well, that’s common also. Cats sweat through their paws. It’s summertime, and let’s face it he’s at the vet, he’s going to be nervous.”

June rolled her eyes. This girl wasn’t listening.  “Can I just see Dr. Roberts, please?”

Snapping her gum, the girl looked up his schedule on the computer. “He isn’t free for another hour. Would you like to come back?”

“No, I’ll wait right here.” And June did just that.

When she finally got to see Dr. Roberts, she explained the whole thing again and Samson was no friendlier than he had been earlier. June was able to scoop him up, but as they approached the examination table, Samson leapt from her arms and back to the corner leaving a fresh trail of wet paw prints.

Doctor Roberts watched Samson cowering under the chair and then looked back up at June. “Yes. I see what you mean, but cats are naturally high-strung. They are always on alert. Being nervous is their nature. I’m sure Samson’s unhappy to see the vet’s office again. He just had his procedure yesterday and is in no rush to repeat it. Sometimes spending the night away from home upsets them, too.”

“I suppose you’re right.” June grudgingly had to admit that the doctor was no more helpful than the ditzy girl at the reception desk. “I don’t know why he would be that way at home. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a side effect of the anesthesia or the procedure. As long as he’s fine, we’ll run along. Now, if I could just get him into the carrier.”

After several unsuccessful attempts, Dr. Roberts left her to the task on her own. He had another patient waiting.

Once they finally made it home, June brewed a pot of coffee as she waited for Hazel to arrive for their afternoon cup together.

Hazel rushed in, all flustered. She slammed the newspaper down on the countertop and looked expectantly at June. “Have you heard? I can’t believe it.”

June would have none of it. “What are you yammering on about?”

Hazel had been June’s best friend for seventy years, but she still thought the woman was a drama queen.

“I’ll tell you what I’m yammering on about. Walt VanPatten’s body’s been found in the gazebo. Tonight’s performers were setting up their equipment about to do a sound check and lo and behold they found him. Dead. Right there.”

“Dead? Now, why would he go and die there?”

“I don’t think he planned it that way, June.”

“Walt was in fine health. I don’t understand. What happened?”

“He’s dead is what happened. He had a big gash on the back of his head. Sheriff thinks he was murdered.”

“Murdered? Well, if that isn’t the most exciting thing that’s happened to this town in the last fifty years.”

“June, really. Sometimes I wonder if you have a heart.”

“Are you telling me you liked him? Nobody liked Walt. Does it mean I think he should’ve been killed? No, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it, either.”

“You’re right about that. Walt wasn’t a nice guy. I heard even his wife didn’t like him. In fact, rumor has it she’s having an affair.”

“Honest, Hazel, don’t spread rumors about the dead.”

“I’m not. His wife is very much alive.” Hazel was very pleased with herself.

“Still, it’s unbecoming.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Contrite, Hazel concentrated on adding cream to her cup.

After their coffee, they moved from the kitchen to the front porch to prepare for their weekly dinner party. Every Thursday night of the summer, a different band performed in the gazebo for the pleasure of the community and to take their minds off the heat. Since June’s house was right on the town square, she had front row seats. Her large front porch could accommodate all of her friends and everyone brought a dish for the pot luck.

Jerry and Barbara arrived first. Barbara was all abuzz with the news of Walt’s death.

“I know no one liked him, but without his money most of the businesses on Main Street wouldn’t exist. Even Jerry’s accounting office is half owned by Walt.”

Jerry nodded his assent. “He was a necessary evil.”

Phil and Theresa, who were on their way up the steps, overheard them. Phil said, “I wonder how this will affect all these businesses.”

Theresa, who worked at VanPatten’s office, had the inside scoop. “I heard that in many cases he had partnership agreements with rights of survivorship. That could mean good things for the businesses on Main Street.”

Everyone sipped their lemonades and considered what Teresa had just said when Samson stuck his nose out the front door and ventured on to the porch to greet the guests. One by one he sniffed. Once he was satisfied, he moved on to the next guest.

“What a sweetheart Samson is.” Barbara bent down to pet the chunky tabby.

“I have to say I’m happy to see him so relaxed. He hasn’t been himself all day. He spent the night at the vet’s and came back a nervous wreck.” June bent down and gave him a scratch behind his ear. She was relieved to see that Samson’s wet paw prints were nowhere to be seen. She had her baby back.

Samson transitioned from sniffs to encircling each leg, finishing off each victim with a good leg rub before moving onto the next person.

“Samson, stop that. You’re leaving hair on Jerry’s pants.”

“Oh, that’s alright. I don’t mind.” Jerry said. He was a true animal lover and wouldn’t let a few cat hairs ruin his night or his clothes.

“That reminds me.” Barbara said. “I heard from Nancy, who heard from her sister who works at the sheriff’s office that when they found Walt’s body, the back of his suit jacket had a lot of animal hairs on it.”

“Well that’s easy to explain. There must be squirrels all over the gazebo.” Phil said.

Barbara kept going. “Not really. Sheriff says that they found no hairs in the gazebo. You know that Walt was one impeccable dresser. Not a thing out of place. Sheriff thinks he was killed somewhere else and then moved to the gazebo.”

“Wait a minute. Doesn’t Walt have a dog?” Theresa asked.

“No, his wife has a dog. He’s known to hate Vivian’s poodle and would have nothing to do with it.” Jerry said.

“Well, I wouldn’t be too happy with my wife or her dog if she were having an affair,” Phil said.

June made the rounds with the lemonade pitcher. “That’s just a rumor.”

“I don’t think so.” Hazel looked over her shoulder. “I heard that Kevin Roberts was seen leaving that new French restaurant up Route 26 with Vivian last weekend.”

“Kevin? As in Kevin Roberts? Our friend? My vet?” June was shocked.


Kevin Roberts made his way up the steps, waving to his friends as he reached for a glass of lemonade.

Out of the corner of her eye June saw a flash as Samson ran off the porch like a bat out of hell. All that remained were his wet paw prints on the porch floor.


Thursday, December 15

She could have been sleeping, were it not for the gaping gash in the back of her head and the bloody stone next to her limp body.

Sheriff Mike Riley stood alone on the shore of the near-frozen lake. At his feet, Sister Elaine Fisher lay face down, ice crystals forming around her body where it met the shoreline. The murmuring water of the nearby stream imparted a peacefulness at odds with the scene. In the waning winter light, he paused ankle deep in the snow illuminated by the beat of red strobe lights.

Murder seemed so extreme. The villagers would be baffled. Murder didn’t happen in sleepy Batavia-on-Hudson. An occasional stolen bicycle, some were paid off the books, but that was hardly worth mentioning. Lately, there had been a handful of amateur burglaries. Murder was another story altogether.

But there was no denying it. Elaine’s body was there before him, lifeless on a cushion of snow at the edge of the lake.

Sheriff Riley ran his chapped hands through his salt and pepper hair. A knowing person might have noticed that he used this motion to disguise a quick brush at his cheek, to eliminate the one tear that slipped through.

He feared this day, the day his lazy job would bring him face to face once again with the ugly underbelly he knew existed even in a quiet place like Batavia-on-Hudson. Mike Riley wasn’t afraid of death. He was afraid of the transformation a village like this was bound to go through after an act of murder.

He cried for Elaine; though he barely knew her. But also, he cried for the village that died with her that morning. A place where children still wandered freely. A village that didn’t lock doors, and trusted everyone, even the ones they gossiped about. Now, inevitably, the villagers would be guarded around each other, never quite sure anymore if someone could be trusted.

He thought he could already hear the locks snapping shut in cars and homes as word of the murder got out. Mothers yanking children indoors, hand-in-hand lovers escaping the once-romantic shadows of the wooded pathways, and old ladies turning into shut-ins instead of walking their dogs across the windy bluff.

Sheriff Riley steeled himself not just to confront the damaged body of the first murder victim of Batavia in over seventy years, but to confront the worried faces of mothers, the defeated faces of fathers and the vulnerable faces of the elderly.

He squatted in the slush, wincing as his bad knee rebelled, and laid his hands on Elaine’s rough canvas jacket, two-sizes too big—one of her thrift shop purchases, no doubt. As reverently as was possible in the muddy snow, Mike Riley turned over her body to examine the face of a changing village.

Sister Elaine had no one left, she had no known siblings and of course, no spouse or children. Only Agatha Miller, her childhood companion, could have been considered next of kin. How Elaine had tolerated her grumpy old friend was a mystery to everyone.

The sheriff knew that Elaine’s death would rock the community. Even a relative outsider like Mike understood that Elaine had been an anchor in Batavia. Her kindness had given the village heart, and her compassion had given it soul. No one would be prepared for this.

Mike knew from experience that preparation for death eases the grief. You start getting ready emotionally and psychologically. You make arrangements. You imagine your life without someone. But Mike also knew that when the time comes it still slaps you in the face, cold and bracing. And you realize you were only fooling yourself. Then somehow, in short order, work becomes demanding, bills need to be paid and something on the radio steals a chuckle right out of your throat. For a brief second you realize that there are moments of respite from your grief and perhaps someday those moments will expand and you may be able to experience joy once again.

But for now, Elaine’s death will be a shock. No one had prepared for her death, let alone her murder.


Excerpt from Winter Witness by Tina deBellegarde.

Copyright 2020 by Tina deBellegarde. All rights reserved.

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