Never Say Dye (A Sibyl Potts Cozy Mystery, Book 3) (4 page)

BOOK: Never Say Dye (A Sibyl Potts Cozy Mystery, Book 3)
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“I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.”
(Joseph Addison,
The Spectator
.)

Chapter Seven
.

 

“Are you sure the lettuce was washed thoroughly?” Mr. Buttons called from the dining room.

“Everything's good.” I smiled and shook my head as I tossed the salad. Mr. Buttons had been agonizing over the details of the dinner for most of an hour. I had tried to assure him multiple times that the guests were bound to be glad simply for a nice hot meal. Despite my best efforts, I eventually had to send him to set the table so I could move in the kitchen without tripping over him.

“How about the sauce?”

I sighed. “Just stirred it.”

“The pasta?”

“It's all under control.” I had grown accustomed to Mr. Buttons’ need to micromanage things. I could imagine him in a chef’s hat barking instructions at staff.

“I'm sorry if I’m being a bother, Sibyl,” Mr. Buttons said, as he hurried through the door to check the sauce, wiping the oven surface with a washcloth to clean away any tiny drops of sauce, whether real or imagined. “That confounded woman doesn't let anyone near the kitchen. Thank goodness it’s her day off. This is a novelty, albeit a messy one.”

“Not at all. It's nice to cook under instruction. Who knows, I might pick up a thing or two.”

“We can only hope,” Mr. Buttons muttered under his breath. “Should we use the linen napkins?” he asked in a louder voice.

“Paper would be better, I think.” I knew Mr. Buttons normally would not consider paper napkins, but in this case, we were dealing with the ghost hunters and had no idea of their table manners. Further, we were serving spaghetti and garlic bread.

Before Mr. Buttons could argue the case for a nicer table setting, the sound of a small crowd echoed down the hall. I pulled out a package of napkins and placed them on top of the plates as Mr. Buttons rushed past me.

We exchanged a round of greetings as I set the salad, and Mr. Buttons hurried to finish his place settings. It was not long before we had the group settled in and eating.

“I can't remember the last time we had a real meal,” Michael, one of the ghost hunters, said. He leaned over and jabbed their leader with a finger. “Hey, James. I promise no one is going to steal your plate. Slow it down before we get traumatized by Alex doing the Heimlich maneuver on you.”

“Why would Alex be the one?” James asked, wiping a mess of spaghetti sauce off his face, while at the same time fighting a losing battle to get a mass of noodles the size of a baseball in his mouth.

Michael simply rolled his eyes. Typically, Alex remained silent.

“Let me get some more of these for you,” Mr. Buttons said as he collected the discarded paper napkins, and wiped down of a pasta blob that had escaped onto the table. I refilled two wine glasses, while James, Michael, and Ken ribbed each other over dinner.

“My goodness, Sibyl, I've seen better table manners from wild hyenas,” Mr. Buttons whispered as he threw the napkins in the trash. “Don’t they teach basic etiquette anymore?”

“Obviously not,” I said, trying not to smile at Mr. Buttons’ expression of shock and horror.

Mr. Buttons washed his hands and gave me a long suffering look.

“Look on the bright side,” I said. “The tablecloth is vinyl.”

“I don't know if I should be celebrating your foresight, or lamenting it.” Mr. Buttons armed himself with a washrag, and stuffed a second in his back pocket for reinforcements.

“Well, we won’t be washing pasta sauce out of Cressida’s starched linen tablecloths,” I whispered as we walked back into the dining room.

The group seemed to have settled into eating now that their initial excitement had calmed somewhat. I looked around the group of four men. They seemed nice enough, normal even. It was hard to see one of them as a murderer. Yet, my only suspects were the four men before me, as well as Dorothy and her son, Frank.

“How are you guys doing?” I asked as I set down the drinks, watching as Mr. Buttons flitted around the table cleaning up napkins, and then adjusted the symmetry of the tableware.

“I'm perfect, thanks,” Ken said between mouthfuls of garlic bread. “My compliments to the chef.”

“Well thank you very much.” Mr. Buttons stood up straight and smiled. “Sibyl and I make a pretty good team in the kitchen, I dare say.”

“You guys made dinner?” James asked as he scooped up a small mountain of spaghetti noodles and transferred it to his plate.

“That we did,” Mr. Buttons said proudly, seeming to have forgotten his aggravation as he basked in the praises. “Oh, it was no trouble, really. I certainly enjoyed it.”

“That explains why it tastes so good,” James said. “I was sure when we came down and saw spaghetti that we were going to be choked on garlic and pepper.”

Michael nodded. “And semi-raw meatballs.”

“Begone, foul beasts! Back to the shadows of fast food and delivery pizza from whence you came,” Ken said dramatically, brandishing his fork at James like a cross in a bad horror movie. James hissed and pretended to shrink away.

“You've been harassed by the cook?” Mr. Buttons asked. “You should have said something. It would have been dealt with.”

James waved one hand in the air. “We're used to it. You have to roll with it in our line of work. We aren't popular with some religious circles, despite being faith-based paranormal researchers.”

“Most of them are nice enough,” Ken said. “There are just some extra hardcore nuts out there who think it's their mission to harass people different from themselves.”

“That woman is as nuts as they come,” James said with open distaste, getting surprised glances from his more laid back crew.

“I'll have Cressida talk to her,” Mr. Buttons said.

I was horrified that Dorothy was causing them so much trouble. I knew the woman had disliked the fact that the ghost hunters were staying, and she disliked the fact that they were investigating. Still, I had no idea Dorothy would be so unprofessional.

James gave him a thin smile and shook his head. “Trust me. I've dealt with her brand of crazy all my life. It would just be kicking a hornet’s nest. No telling what kind of drama you'd get mixed up with.”

Michael agreed. “Bad vibes. We've seen worse anyway. In one town we had this one person try to sabotage our equipment.”

“My poor monitors,” Ken said. “They poured soda on two thousand dollars worth of thermal imagers and HD motion cameras. Like those can be replaced at Target or something.”

“Yes, Sue had a fit over that one,” Michael said, before his face fell. The four hunters gazed back down at their food, their good humor clearly drenched by the memory of recent events.

“I'm sorry, we should have asked before.” Ken looked over at me with a saddened expression. “How is Mrs. Upthorpe?”

“They say Cressida will be fine soon.” I smiled at him. “I'm sorry. I wish it was the same for Sue.”

James reached across and patted Ken’s arm. “Sue wouldn't want us crying over her.”

Ken stabbed a tomato and studied it on the end of his fork. “It doesn’t make what happened to her right, though.”

“Was she with your group long?” I asked.

“She and James actually started our team,” Ken said.

James nodded and then sighed deeply. “We've known each other since grade school. She and I started the group right after high school, though we didn't get serious about it until about half way through college. We had dated off and on all through then.”

“They were better off than on, though,” Michael said, earning himself an annoyed look from James. “Well, you were. Every time you two got together, it was constant fighting. You guys were awesome together as boss and manager. Not so much as a couple.”

A forced smile crossed James’s face. “Fair enough. We made better friends than we did a couple. It was us against the world, or so it felt. It was a complicated relationship.”

“Do your folks still blame her for turning you to the Dark Side?” Ken asked as he dabbed the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin.

“I don't want to talk about them.” James rose from the table. “I’d better go over the readings. See you guys in a while. Thanks, Sibyl, Mr. Buttons. Thanks for the meal. It was awesome.”

I watched James make his way toward the stairs. Mr. Buttons almost pounced on the sauce covered plate and half empty glass to clear them away, and then scooted toward the kitchen.

“Now you did it, Ken,” Michael said, his voice filled with concern, as he watched their leader retreat. “Now he's going to be broody the rest of the night.”

“I'm sorry. I wish I could do something to help,” I said, earning some fleeting smiles from the remaining trio.

“It's all right. We're all on edge because of what happened to Sue,” Michael assured me.

I looked at the three of them. “Do you know anyone who might have wanted to hurt Sue?”

Michael shrugged. “No, not Sue of all people. Most people who don’t like our job at least liked her. She could make friends with almost everyone. She usually did damage control when we met up with groups who don’t like what we do.”

“Other than that horrible Dorothy,” Ken said. “Sue tried really hard to be nice to her, too. I don't know why she was so nasty. But she really is a hateful old bat.”

“Ken!” Michael poked him in the ribs. “Shush!”

“Well, she is,” Ken said. “She said we do the devil's work.”

Michael shook his head. “She’s harmless enough. Not much different from others we've met along the way, right? No need to call anyone names.” Michael turned to me. “Sorry. Ken doesn't mean to badmouth the staff. It’s just been a hard week for all of us, losing Sue. She was as close to an angel as they come. No one would have wanted to hurt her. There's probably another explanation. Who knows?”

The three thanked me for the meal and went to hunt down their companion.

“Well now,” Mr. Buttons said from the doorway, looking no less troubled. “What are you thinking about this?”

I shrugged. “We’re no closer to finding the suspect, and until we do, Cressida could still be in danger.”

 

 


You cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a wre
n
.”
(
William Henry Hudson,
Afoot in England
.
)

Chapter Eight
.

 

Mr. Buttons and I were sitting in my cottage, waiting for the test results. The lab had told Mr. Buttons they would phone through the results that morning. We had been waiting for ages, but as yet, there was no word. Mr. Buttons decided to do a tarot reading.

“I have a new set of cards,” he announced, pulling a blue velvet package from his coat pocket. “It’s the Thoth deck.”

“Mmm,” I said.

Mr. Buttons shuffled the cards, a look of concentration on his face. He pulled cards, one by one, and set them on the table until fifteen cards were facing up. “On no, the seven of cups,” he said. “That means deception, lying, promises unfulfilled.”

I was about to point out that any murder would be surrounded by deception, when Mr. Buttons’ phone rang. “Don’t forget to put it on
loud
,” I said.

Mr. Buttons answered the phone and set it to
loud
, and put it on the coffee table between us. We both bent over it. “Hello,” a disembodied voice said. “This is Malcolm Briggs with FDIS. We ran the tests you sent and found a foreign chemical was indeed present in the hair dye sample.”

Mr. Buttons and I exchanged glances. The voice continued, “We found a potent parasympathomimetic alkaloid, specifically, nicotine, in the sample.”

“Nicotine?” Mr. Buttons repeated. “Like the stuff in cigarettes?”

“Precisely,” the voice said. “It’s far more harmful than the general public realizes, especially when absorbed through the dermis.”

“Oh, I see. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. You will receive an official report of the findings in the mail within ten business days.”

Mr. Buttons ended the call on his phone and looked at me. “Have you heard of nicotine being poisonous when absorbed through the skin?”

I shook my head. “No, but I don’t know anything about it. I’ll get my laptop.”

I returned with my laptop and opened it on the table between us.

“Who would put nicotine in hair dye?” Mr. Buttons asked me, clearly perplexed.

“Someone who knows a little more about science than the rest of the world,” I said. The search proved easier than I had expected. I read aloud. “It says here that nicotine is rapidly absorbed, and is one of the most deadly poisons known to humankind.”

Mr. Buttons peered over at the screen. “That’s amazing. I never would’ve thought that nicotine could be fatal.”

“Well, according to this, it definitely is. It says that just thirty milligrams – what’s that? A third of a teaspoon? - absorbed into the skin can be fatal.” I hit the back button and went back to the google list of sites.

Mr. Buttons reached across and pointed to the third one down. “Try that one,” he said.

“Okay.” I clicked the link entitled,
Unflavored Nicotine Liquid Vapers
.

“What is a
vaper
?” he asked me.

I shrugged. “No idea. I know as much as you do. Wow, look at that!” I pointed to an image of a bottle on the screen. “Anyone can buy it; those ten milligram bottles are only twelve dollars each, and they are 99.9% pure liquid nicotine. It would take less than half a teaspoon of the stuff to kill someone.”

“A dime shaped drop,” Mr. Buttons said.

“Okay, let’s find out more about these
vapers
.”

Mr. Buttons tapped the screen. “There.”

I clicked the link and pulled up an article about the topic. “Okay, it says that
vapers
 is the term for people who use e-cigarettes, personal vaporizers, or electronic nicotine delivery systems. Have you ever heard of electronic cigarettes?”

Mr. Buttons looked bewildered. “No, I haven’t, have you?”

“I did hear something about it a while back on the car radio, but I didn’t know what it was. It says here that all three methods of delivery avoid tobacco and use nicotine as their base, along with substances such as propylene glycol, glycerin, and flavorings. This e-liquid is referred to as
juice
, and the consumer chooses their own level of nicotine.”

“Well, we found the poison,” Mr. Buttons said, “and it’s readily available for anyone to buy. If one of the ghost hunters, or Dorothy, or her son, Frank, are one of these
vaper
people, then they had the weapon of choice in their hands, so to speak. What do we do now?”

My head hurt from information overload. “Well, if Blake sent the sample to be tested, then the detectives should have the same information by now. I’ll call Blake and tell him what we found out, just in case the detectives don’t share it with him.”

Mr. Buttons shook his head. “How do you know the detectives had the sample tested? Blake had to go to Sydney, and the detectives could well have put it on hold – who knows? I really think you need to call the detectives direct, Sibyl.”

I was about to protest, when I saw that Mr. Buttons had turned pale. I sighed and reached for my phone.

The call was answered immediately. “Hello, you’ve reached Detective Roberts,” an irritated voice declared.

“Hi, this is Sibyl Potts, from Cressida Upthorpe’s boarding house.”

“Oh, yes. Is there something I can do for you, Miss?”

“Actually, yes. Mr. Buttons and I think that both of the bottles of hair dye that hurt Cressida and killed Sue were injected with liquid nicotine.”

“Nicotine?” the voice parroted, with more than a note of incredulity.

I pressed on. “Mr. Buttons had the bottle of hair dye that Cressida used tested, and they found a high concentration of nicotine. Pure nicotine absorbed through the skin is fatal.” I took a deep breath. “There is even a syndrome named Green Leaf Tobacco Sickness, which workers get by harvesting wet tobacco leaves without skin protection. Nicotine is harmful to the touch. It’s cheap, easily obtainable, and deadly in the smallest of drops.”

“I understand your concern, ma’am, but that just seems highly unlikely and rare, if anything. Hold on one moment, please.” A few moments of silence followed, and then there was a shuffling sound. “Hey, Henderson. This lady thinks the natural death at the boarding house and the other woman’s skin reactions were both intentionally caused by someone using nicotine as a poison.”

Laughter erupted in the background. “Like the stuff in cigarettes? I highly doubt it. The doctor even said it was allergies.”

“They just won’t leave it be. It’s bad enough they got that Sergeant to make us investigate.”

“It’s your call, Roberts, but I just don’t think that’s likely. Even if nicotine is fatal like they claim, who would know that? I didn’t; did you? They don’t have any scientists or surgeon generals renting any rooms, so who are we looking at as a suspect if there actually was a crime?”

“That’s what I don’t know.” More shuffling sound assaulted my ears. “Hello?”

“Yes. I’m still here,” I said, unable to keep the irritation caused by overhearing their conversation out of my voice.

“Ma’am, do you have a perpetrator in mind?”

“A perpetrator?”

“Yes. If you’re so certain that someone is intentionally doing this, it would help to know who you suspect.”

“Oh. I don’t have a clue.”

“That’s the problem, ma’am. If there is any actual evidence that can both help us find a suspect and prove that a crime has in fact happened, please do make sure we know about it. Then, and only then, can we take steps to solve this case. I’m sorry.”

“Sure you are,” I said under my breath, as I ended the call.

Mr. Buttons patted my shoulder. “Didn’t go too well, did it?”

I sighed. “You could say that. I’ll call Blake now. He’s likely in court, but I’ll leave a message.” I found Blake in my contact list. Actually, he was on my Favorites list, so I held the phone at an angle so Mr. Buttons couldn’t see - I didn’t want to be teased. I pressed the green phone icon next to Blake’s name.

To my surprise, Blake answered at once.

“Blake, it’s Sibyl. I thought you’d be in court.”

“I’m on a short break. How’s everything going? Is Tiny okay?”

I rushed to reassure him. “Yes, yes, Tiny is fine – he’s having a good time. Blake, I’m here with Mr. Buttons. Mr. Buttons took a sample from the hair dye Cressida used, and sent it into a lab for testing, and we’ve just got the results.” I ignored the choking sound on the other end of the line, and continued speaking. “The results showed that pure nicotine was injected into the hair dye. Apparently nicotine is deadly in small amounts when put on the skin, so that’s what poisoned Sue and Cressida.” Blake’s silence worried me, so I added, “About half a teaspoon of the stuff could be fatal, because it’s absorbed in such high concentrations through the layers of the skin.”

I waited for Blake to speak, and when he did, his tone was none too happy. “So, you and Mr. Buttons sent off some hair dye sample to a lab, and found it had high concentrations of nicotine?”

“Yes,” I said. “I just phoned the detectives, but they didn’t believe me.”

Blake sighed. “Sibyl, you should’ve contacted me before you contacted the detectives.”

“But -” I began, but Blake cut me off.

“Sibyl, do me a favor. You and Mr. Buttons, stay out of this from here on out.”

“But -” I said again.

“I know you want to help and figure out what’s going on, but let the professionals handle it. I’ll talk to the detectives myself and make sure they start looking into this. Don’t worry, Sibyl. I’ll make sure we find out what’s going on and what happened to Cressida and Sue.”

I was frustrated, but he was talking sense.

“Sibyl, I did send the hair dye to the police lab, so I’ll call them and get them to send the results straight to those detectives. Just make sure that no one else dyes their hair, and if you find any bottles of hair color, call Constable Andrews at once.”

“Okay, thanks, Blake. I’ll tell Mr. Buttons what you’ve said.”

“Please do. And Sibyl, I have to make sure it will hold up in court once we do figure it all out. If it eases your mind, I’ve been dealing with criminals for a long time; they always make a mistake. Before, during, or afterward, they all make a mistake.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK: Never Say Dye (A Sibyl Potts Cozy Mystery, Book 3)
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