The first day in my new profession would have been a joy if it hadn’t been for Lionel’s god-forsaken pond. Viewed with twenty-twenty hindsight, I wished I’d been at my day job.
My elderly arthritic friend, Stephanie, lived in a townhouse on Queen Anne Street in the historic center of Annapolis. For six decades she’d tended her delightful garden. Since ladder-climbing was no longer in her repertoire, she had hired me to prune her Japanese Maple.
I was up on my ladder, reaching further than I should have, to lop a branch chafing another when Steph called to me. “Penny, could you come down a moment and meet my neighbor?” I performed the surgery and backed down the ladder.
Her neighbor was Lionel Fielding, leaning on an antique fence between the two yards. My first thought was that he might become another client. But when he asked for help with his garden pond, I balked. From where we stood, the pond looked worse than the most dismal day-old Navy coffee I’d ever seen: a miserable collage of decayed leaves, twigs, and blupping bubbles. If there were critters in that swamp, they’d have needed sonar to find their way because they sure as sugar couldn’t see a thing. Whatever talents Lionel had, pond-keeping wasn’t among them.
He pointed to a small fat frog fountain sitting at the edge of the pond. “That thing has been spewing for years,” he said. “Until this morning.”
“I’m very sorry, Mr. Fielding. I don’t do pond-work.”
“Most landscapers work with ponds,” he grumbled. His elegant gray hair, button-down collar, and rep tie marked him as a wealthy retiree. You had to have money to live in this part of Annapolis.
“Miss Summers,” Lionel implored in his cultured New England accent, “I appreciate that ponds aren’t a specialty of yours, but it wouldn’t seem that finding the problem would require a degree in hydraulic engineering.” He wore the hint of a smirk. The minor matter of a frog fountain on the sick list seemed to be a major inconvenience.
In spite of my six years in the Navy, water and I don’t get along. Swimming pools are bad enough, but ponds that refuse to let you see into them? I couldn’t go there. There’s a good reason for my discomfort around water. My little brother Ted drowned in a swimming pool when he was five while I was supposed to be watching him instead of burying my nose in The Secret Garden. Lakes and ponds and pools scare the jeans off me. At the Naval Academy, we had to swim, but for me, each time, it took every ounce of determination I could muster. Fortunately, my ship was never torpedoed so I never had to do the abandon ship thing for real.
“Could you at least have a look?”
Lionel, in spite of his irksome persistence, reminded me of my late lamented Grandpa Jack, for whom I’d have done anything. You could do it, he prodded from beyond the grave.
With that nudge, I knew I should just find the damn pump and get rid of whatever blocked it. No big deal, right? Steph and I went to the alley and around into Lionel’s yard.
“Okay, Mr. Fielding. I’ll try to find your pump.” I took a deep breath and dredged up what little moxie I could.
Seeing into the pond was impossible, so I knelt at the edge and willed my hand below the surface. Like Nancy Drew in the stories I’d read twenty years ago, I was in a very wet and very dark cellar without a lantern. I braved the slimy critters that had to be in there and pushed dead branches aside. I swept my arm in a circle through decaying leaves. Nothing. I moved to my left and reached deeper, my tee shirt sopping, my arm and shoulder now within reach of invisible jaws. More of nothing.
I shifted to the right, reached even deeper, and swung my arm in a wider arc. My dread gauge moved from yellow to red. More leaves—a submerged branch—then—cold flesh! Panic came roaring. I yanked my arm out and scattered soggy leaves in every direction. My heart pounded.
“There’s somebody in your pond,” was all I could stammer. “Dead.”