Authors: Stefanie Matteson
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Murder at Teatime
A Charlotte Graham Mystery
For My Father
Charlotte Graham stood on the landing and waved goodbye to her friend Stan Saunders. At her back was the base of a hillside on a spruce-covered island off the coast of Maine. In front of her was the channel that separated the island from the mainland, its swells crowned by whitecaps. With her white skin, black hair, and tailored white blouse and black suit, she looked as natural against the gray water and rocky shore as an elegant, long-legged sea bird. Now in her early sixties, she was still as regal as ever: the prominent jaw with its wide, generous mouth, the broad-shouldered figure that was so well-suited to the starkly tailored fashions that were her trademark—these were attributes that had borne the years lightly. The glossy black hair, once worn in a famous pageboy, was now pulled back in a tight chignon, but no one could have mistaken the brisk, stylish stride that was as much a part of her image as her clipped Yankee accent. One of the most famous movie stars of her day, she was revered by the American public not only for her talent but also for her courage. In an age when studio makeup men had turned starlets into look-alike glamor girls, she had forbidden them to tamper with her heavy black eyebrows; in an age when female stars could be either clotheshorses or sexpots, she had fought bitterly for substantial roles, and had gotten them; and in an age when a few wrinkles spelled the end of a Hollywood career, she had gone on to triumph on Broadway.
Which is what had brought her to this rugged island. For the first time in years she had nothing to do. As of Memorial Day she had been replaced in
The Trouble With Murder
. She had asked to leave: for two years the show had been her life and the Morosco Theatre her home. But the longer a show runs, the more difficult it is to keep fresh, and she had had enough. For the moment. The critics had hailed her performance “the triumphant conclusion of a brilliant career.” Conclusion like hell. For the last twenty years the critics had been prophesying the twilight of her career. But she’d always proven them wrong. One had once cracked that her career had been recycled more times than a reusable soda bottle. The truth was, she needed to work. She didn’t know anything else; she wasn’t happy doing anything else. She would prove them wrong again. Meanwhile, she was treating herself to a much-needed vacation with her old friends Stan and Kitty Saunders.
It was a desolate spot to pick for a retirement home, she thought as she watched Stan guide his boat around the flank of the island. But it was ideal for Stan, who in his retirement was making a name for himself as a seascape painter. She had been friends with the Saunders for more than forty years. They had met on Cape Cod, where she and Kitty had been playing in summer stock, and Stan had been playing bohemian artist. Kitty and Stan had later married and had a family, forcing Stan to trade in his brushes for a more lucrative career in public relations. But he had never given up his dream of becoming a full-time painter. Now he was back in the same place he had been forty years ago. For that matter, so was Charlotte, though she had been there many times before: trying to find work—it was the chronic plight of the actor.
But she wasn’t going to think about it now. Something would turn up—it always did. She looked up: all she had to think about now was getting to the top of the hill. Stan and Kitty’s house was on the west end of the island, but Stan had dropped her off on the landing because she wanted to see the Ledges. The Ledges was the garden for which the island was famous. Not a garden exactly, but a network of winding stone-stepped paths and terraces sculpted out of the rocky hillside overlooking the channel. Rustic shelters and lookout benches were perched here and there for taking in the view of the harbor. Kitty had insisted that arriving via the Ledges was the only way to get the full flavor of the island. The Ledges was the life’s work of a man named J. Franklin Thornhill, a professor of economic botany and an amateur landscape architect, who spent his summers in a cottage called Ledge House at the top of the hill.
From her vantage point Charlotte could see little more than the evergreen-studded hillside and the pink granite steps that marked the beginning of the path. Taking a deep breath of sweet sea air, pungent with the scent of rockweed, she set off toward the steps. After the pitch and roll of Stan’s boat, the rocks under her feet felt very comforting. Manhattan suddenly seemed far, far away. Beyond the first few steps, the path took on the character of a wild rock garden. Lichens and mosses in various shades of green and gray clothed the rocks and tree trunks. Sheep laurel and low-bush blueberries, whose greenish fruits were already beginning to turn, nestled among the ledges. The woodsy scent of the blueberries, overlaid by the resiny scent of the balsam firs that blanketed the hillside, hung heavy in the warm afternoon air. Smell was said to be the most evocative of the senses, and surely no other sense could more keenly call to mind a time in which one was something else, maybe something better. For Charlotte, the smell of blueberries evoked memories of picking blueberries on Cape Cod with Stan and Kitty years ago. She remembered their innocence, but oddly enough had little recollection of her own.
Perhaps she’d always been cynical. Kitty’s dream had always been to live with her family in a little white cottage surrounded by pink roses and a white picket fence, to greet her husband at the door at six with a martini in her hand and two charming children clinging to her skirts. If Charlotte had ever dreamed of a little white cottage, the dream had long ago been sacrificed to her career. Along with a few other things, like children. She had no regrets, but she sometimes envied Kitty the neatness of her life. Everything at the right time, in the right order. Smooth sailing all the way. How harmonious (if maybe a bit boring) to have had only one husband instead of four. Even though she’d had plenty of time to get used to it, the number—
—still offended her sense of order. She blamed her marital history on her Yankee heritage: her Yankee sense of propriety kept driving her back to the altar, and her Yankee sense of independence kept driving her away.
As the path ascended the hillside it became more shady. Ferns sprang from crevices in the granite slabs. Rustic cedar-log bridges crossed mossy rivulets that cascaded down the hillside. Pitch pines clung to weathered crags, their trunks dwarfed and gnarled like bonsai by the wind. Through the branches she occasionally caught a glimpse of the harbor. She could hear the rumble of engines as the boats came and went. Just as she was beginning to get winded, she saw a path leading off to the first of the shelters, a cedar pavilion built into the face of a huge granite bluff, like the shelter in a Japanese landscape painting. A few minutes later she was sitting in a wooden chair, her chest heaving. She was in good shape for a woman of her age, but she wasn’t used to climbing cliffs. The view was every bit as spectacular as Kitty had led her to believe. The shelter seemed to be suspended in the air above the channel, the sides and roof forming a frame in which the harbor and the town of Bridge Harbor hovered between sea and sky in a nest of green hills. To the west lay the mansion-dotted shoreline that had once made Bridge Harbor the queen of summer resorts. To the east lay the bay, stretching away toward the horizon, its low-lying islands blending into a mass of soft, slate blue. Beyond the bay lay the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, and beyond that, the shores of Spain. She was reminded of the opening lines of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay: “All I could see from where I stood/Was three long mountains and a wood/I turned and looked the other way/And saw three islands in a bay.”
After resting for a moment, she headed back to the main path. Stopping for a moment on a little bridge, she looked out at the streamlet that flowed between the walls of a fissure in a granite outcropping. At the foot of the outcropping, she could see the slipperlike sac of a pink lady-slipper growing under a huckleberry bush. Then she noticed another, and another. They were all over the place. They were now so rare it was unusual to see one, let alone dozens. She loved the sac with its delicate veins and its deep cleft. Stepping off the path for a closer look, she noticed a glint of blond out of the corner of her eye. She caught her breath. Pushing back the undergrowth, she felt her stomach contract. Hidden beneath the boughs of a juniper bush overhanging the streamlet lay the dead body of a golden retriever. The dog’s head rested in a pool of vomit. The soft reddish-gold tendrils of fur were already beginning to dry into a stiff, brown mat. His lips were lined by white froth, and his protruding eyes were ringed by a circle of red. “The poor thing,” she said to herself. Kneeling down, she felt the dog’s stomach, which was already beginning to swell. He’d been dead for only fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, she guessed. Gently, she ran her hands over the body. No wounds. Maybe he had died of some disease, but she doubted it; it looked as if he’d suddenly been taken ill. Maybe he had come to the streamlet for water.