Authors: Krista Davis
I walked into the hotel hosting the conference and located the meeting rooms. I was looking for my contact when I heard a familiar voice say, “You cannot take these minor incidents too lightly. Make no mistake. Divorce can trigger murder.”
I slipped into the room and watched from the back. I had been right about the voice. Wolf Fleishman? What was he doing here?
Wolf and I met when he was investigating a murder. We had dated for a long time but our relationship had come to an abrupt halt. Only a few months ago, I had unknowingly interfered with one of his investigations. I had learned my lesson, though, and planned to steer clear of police investigations in the future.
The audience broke into applause. Wolf left the podium and a guy stepped up to the microphone and thanked him. He announced a fifteen-minute break between sessions. Walking along the perimeter of the room, Wolf spotted me and headed in my direction. Hundreds of lawyers rose to their feet, some stretched, others rushed by me.
Wolf broke through the crowd, gently took my elbow,
and escorted me out of the meeting room into the crowded lobby. “What are you doing here?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing. Since when are you an expert on family law?”
“I wish I weren't. I've been called to too many domestic disputes. They can be very ugly. Hey, I'm glad I ran into you. I was going to give you a call. What do you know about a place called The Parlour?”
“It's a tearoom. Elegant, yet very comfortable. You would love their baked goods. Are you going to take tea?” I grinned at the thought. Wolf's passion for food kept him a little heavier than he would like to be.
Wolf groaned. “Sounds like a ladies' place.”
“Only if you think tea and cake are for women. And, by the way, that would be fine with me because it would mean more for us. I think they have takeout if it's too girly for you. But Alex was there yesterday, so maybe it's like quiche. Real men do take tea?”
“Trust me, I won't be eating their food anytime soon. Neither will you. It's being closed down. Some guy died from botulism poisoning this morning, and his next of kin says he ate at this Parlour place yesterday.”
My father-in-law is insane. He takes the temperature of the water before he pours it over the tea. And he refuses to use tea bags. Plus, he calls the tea “liquor.” I think he's gone fruity! He reads your column. Please set him straight?
âBiting My Tongue in Bagtown, Maryland
Dear Biting My Tongue,
You could learn from your father-in-law. Teas require different temperatures. In general, the darker the tea the hotter the water should be. And the correct term for brewed tea is liquor.
My throat constricted. “So did I. And a lot of other people! They hosted a charity auction.”
Wolf studied me. I could see the fear in his eyes. “How do you feel?”
“Any uh, gastrointestinal discomfort?”
I grinned at his embarrassment in coming right out and saying what he meant. “No. I'm perfectly well, thank you.” I grabbed his arm. “Wait a minute. The guy who died, what was his name?”
“Robert Johnson. You know him?”
“He died?” My voice broke when I spoke. I weaved a little bit as it sank in. I hadn't expected that. I thought the doctors would find Robert had a mysterious illness and would be able to help him.
“Soph? You okay?” Wolf placed his hands on my upper arms as though to steady me.
Robert this morning and called the ambulance. I can't believe he died.”
“I'm sorry. I didn't know he was a friend of yours.”
“I hardly knew him. I'm just so shocked. He had botulism poisoning? I thought people didn't die from that.”
“They tell me it depends on how much they ate and how soon they got help.”
Velma would be devastated. What a bizarre turn of events.
“Maybe I should get you some coffee.”
“That's sweet, but I'm okay. It was just so unexpected. I can't believe they're closing The Parlour. His sister-in-law said he felt sick yesterday.”
“Hopefully they'll find the culprit in his kitchen, but it's a major public health issue. We don't want more people getting sick. They have to close the places he ate until they find the source.” He stared over my shoulder for a moment. “Still seeing Alex?”
His eyebrows jumped ever so briefly. “I have to get back to work. If you feel even the slightest bit ill go to the hospital right away. Okay?”
I assured him that I would.
Wolf sighed and cocked his head like he pitied me. “Take care.”
What was that about? I watched him walk away, turned
abruptly, and slammed into Alex, who spilled his jumbo-size coffee on the pretty brunette I had seen him with at The Parlour.
“I'm so sorry!” I gushed.
She brushed her ivory suit with one hand, holding her own coffee in the other hand. Alex's drink had a good bit of milk in it, but I suspected that the suit was ruined.
Alex fetched paper napkins from the coffee stand and handed them to her.
She wiped her skirt and looked up at me from under her long bangs. If looks could fry, I would have sizzled.
Alex, dressed in a well-cut suit with a white shirt and a burgundy tie, apologized to her profusely.
“Now stop that,” she drawled in what had to be a North Carolina accent. “It wasn't
Oh! The nerve.
fault that they were right behind me in a crowded lobby. But it did annoy me that they made a pretty couple, both with dark brown hair and more fit than I would ever be.
“Elise Donovan, this is Sophie Winston,” Alex said.
She extended a hand and when I shook it I realized that she wore the sapphire I had bid on.
“What a lovely necklace.”
“Thank you. It was a gift from Alex.” She resumed wiping her skirt.
It wasn't as though Alex and I had an understanding of exclusivity, but at that very moment, I wasn't as sorry as I might have been about her ruined suit. I shifted my gaze to Alex, who didn't appear embarrassed about being caught with another woman. Was that his military training? Buck up and never show your discomfort?
“Elise was married to my law partner in Charlotte,” he explained. “Their son, Kevin, is going to live with me and go to school here this year.”
His sentence was ordinary conversation, yet so fraught with innuendo that I was taken aback. Wasn't she married to his partner anymore? Hadn't school started weeks ago? Had her son been with Alex that long but I hadn't known?
And why on earth would he be moving in with Alex anyway? This could mean only one thingâwe weren't dating anymore. We'd had some nice times together. I just wished he would have told me.
I smiled as sweetly as I could muster. “Are you coming to the cocktail party at the National Museum of American History?”
Alex nodded. “I'm looking forward toâ”
“Sweetheart, you've forgotten that we're having dinner with Kevin.” Elise looked me in the eyes and added, “Just the three of us.”
I was stunned. I recognized a barbed jab when I heard it. Ohhh, this was not a nice woman. The truth was that Alex and I weren't so close that I would make a fuss. If he had moved on, I would wish him well. But I had a sneaking suspicion that if Elise was showing her true colors, their relationship wouldn't last very long.
“That's a pity. Alex and Kevin would have enjoyed it.” Determined to take the high road, I added, “Nice meeting you, Elise.” I walked around her and went in search of the conference organizer.
For the next two hours, I pushed Robert's death and Elise out of my mind and focused on the details of the special events I had been asked to plan. In a way, they were easy money. I had done them so many times for other groups that it was almost like having a week off. Cocktails at the museum tonight. A guided tour and luncheon for spouses at the Capitol tomorrow. And finally, a gala dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Potomac River.
On the lookout for Alex or the dreaded Elise, I left the hotel. I had plenty of time to walk home, change shoes, and let Daisy out before driving to the museum. But on my way, a small crowd blocked the sidewalk in front of The Parlour.
Martha consoled her regulars, assuring them she would reopen as soon as possible. I made my way to her.
“I'm so sorry about this.” Whispering, I asked, “Has anyone else reported feeling ill?”
“No. Not at all. Not that I've heard of, anyway. I'm horrified.”
A tall gentleman with the same kind of erect military bearing as Alex joined us. His gray eyes sized me up like a mountain lion on the hunt. At first glance I thought he was bald, but soon realized that he shaved his head. He wore glasses shoved partway up his forehead.
“Sophie, this is my husband, Max. What did you find out?” she asked him.
“They're testing the contents of Robert's kitchen and his trash first,” Max said. “It could be anything. It could even be something from a grocery store, which might mean a national outbreak. But apparently the most likely source is improperly canned foods.”
“Robert doesn't really seem the type to be canning food,” I said. I omitted my thought that it would more likely be takeout. “Can food that spoils in the refrigerator develop botulism? You know, the stuff that starts to look like a science experiment?”
They turned blank faces toward me.
Max shook his head. “I don't think so, but I haven't researched it enough yet. I think it has to be oxygen deprived.”
Martha consoled another lady who begged to buy some macarons
on the sly
. “I can't do
. I could lose my business license!” Martha exclaimed.
“But it's my bridge club. I was counting on the macarons.”
“Martha.” Max uttered only her name, yet his tone carried layers of warning.
Martha looked worn out. Her hair was swept up. Her makeup was perfect. But deep furrows accentuated worry lines between her eyebrows, and her mouth puckered tightly as though she was struggling to keep it all together.
In a voice so soft I could barely hear it, she said to the woman, “I'm so sorry.”
The woman left in a huff, prompting Max to hiss, “This will be the end of your business.”
Martha rubbed the side of her forehead with three fingers but showed no other reaction to her husband's unhelpful observation.
“He's a single guy. It was probably something canned he bought at the grocery store,” I said. “What a rotten break when you work such late hours and you've put so much effort into The Parlour. I'm sure everyone will come back as soon as you reopen.”
Max's piercing eyes snapped to me. “Late hours? The Parlour isn't open in the evening.”
“I suppose there's always work to do. I saw someone inside last night.”
The muscles in Martha's neck tightened. “You must be mistaken, Sophie. I was home with Max last night.”
My best friend insists on leaving the tea bag in her tea as long as possible. Like half an hour! I think that's crazy. I steep my tea for 2â3 minutes. Who's right?
âLight Tea for Me in Steep Brook, Massachusetts
Dear Light Tea for Me,
You are partly correct. The proper steeping time depends on the tea and on your preferred flavor. Your friend, however, is way wrong. Allowing the tea to steep too long only results in the release of more tannins and may result in a bitter flavor.
Uh-oh. Had I stepped on a sensitive spot? “Maybe it was the cleaning crew.” I tried to sound soothing.
“It was probably Callie. She's always forgetting something.” Martha didn't meet my gaze.
Her husband snorted. “I don't know why you keep her. You shouldn't have such irresponsible employees.”
“Callie is a talented baker, not a mess crank.”
Alex was former military, too, but as tidy and precise as he was, Max made him seem like a lazy slouch. Granted, the situation was grim, but I wondered if Max could smile.
I had to get going or I would be late. “Lovely to meet you, Max. Martha, I hope you'll let me know if there's anything I can do.”
“Thank you, Sophie.”
I walked away but overheard Max say, “There's nothing anyone can do about this mess.”
I hoped Max wasn't always so full of doom and gloom. At home, I let Daisy out in the backyard, swapped my flats for heels, patted Mochie, and let Daisy in again. I locked up, hopped in the car, and negotiated the traffic into Washington.
The cocktail event at the National Museum of American History was a huge hit. I had guessed that lawyers would be particularly interested in history. I must have been right because they turned out in droves. By seven o'clock most of them had gone off to dinner, and I spent half an hour wrapping up before heading home.
I pulled into my garage wishing all events would go that well. My feet ached from the high heels, though. When I stepped into the covered porch that joined the garage, I stopped and stepped out of the shoes. While I was bending over, a warm wet tongue licked my cheek. Startled, I jerked away before I realized that Francie's golden retriever, Duke, was standing next to me.
“What are you doing here, sweetie?” I picked up my shoes and shrieked when I saw a shadowy person on the porch.
“Finally! Where have you been?”
“Francie? What are you doing out here in the dark?” I flicked on the tiny starlike lights overhead and realized that Velma was with her.
“It was peaceful in the dark. A little cold, but considering the day we've had it was nice.” Velma sniffled and blew her nose in a hankie.
“I'm so sorry about Robert.”
“You heard, huh? Velma has been walking around like a zombie. The death of a loved one is always hard.” Francie looked over at her friend.
“It was so unexpected,” Velma said. “I knew he was seriously ill when I saw him on the gurney, but it never crossed my mind that he would die.”
“Would you ladies like to come inside? I think I could rustle up something to nibble on.”
The two of them struggled to get to their feet. Velma carried a good-sized Vera Bradley bag with her.
I unlocked the living room door, and Daisy greeted us all with excitement, especially her pal, Duke. I let them play outside for a bit while the rest of us settled in the kitchen.
“What would you like, ladies? Hot cider, maybe?”
“Scotch. Have you got any Scotch? I could use a stiff drink tonight.” Velma opened her bag, pulled out slips of paper and a fragile paper rose, and set them on the table.
Like magic, Nina appeared at the kitchen door. When I opened it for her, Daisy and Duke dashed inside.
At the commotion, Mochie lifted his head and yawned.
Nina stopped cold when she saw Francie and Velma. “I guess you already heard about Robert. Velma, I'm so sorry.”
“Would you get them some Scotch? I'll put out a few goodies and build a fire.”
In minutes, a crackling fire warmed my kitchen. Scotch had been poured in Waterford Irish Lace double old-fashioned glasses for everyone except me. It wasn't my preferred drink.
Given the odd pile of items on the table, I thought maybe I should stay alert. For all I knew, the two sweet old Peeping Toms had begun pilfering, too. I made a bracing cup of hot tea for myself with sugar and milk.
A quick raid of the fridge produced hard-boiled eggs, leftover plum tart, and a lovely brie. I popped a frozen baguette
in the oven to warm, topped the brie with chopped pecans and apricot preserves, and slid it into the oven next to the bread. I cut the eggs in half and mashed the yolks with mustard and mayonnaise for deviled eggs. A quick sprinkle of paprika and I arranged them on a large platter, along with the warmed brie and black grapes. I sliced the baguette on a diagonal and tossed the pieces into a basket lined with a napkin.
I cut the leftover plum tart and placed the slices on vintage china dessert plates with white centers and pale green rims with a touch of gold around the edges. I carried a little crystal bowl of whipped cream for the plum tart to the table and found that Nina had very thoughtfully put out plates, forks, and pale green napkins that matched the color of the dishes.
The Scotch must have loosened Velma's lips because the second I sat down, she slathered a piece of baguette with brie and held it in her hand while she pronounced, “Robert's death wasn't an accident.”
I nearly choked on my tea.
“I knew it!” Nina was so excited that she almost spilled her Scotch.
I tried my best not to appear skeptical or to belittle them. It wasn't uncommon for the bereaved to second-guess everything that had happened, sometimes even blaming themselves. It was a time when people asked
who could have?
Too many people lived with secrets about their health, and more often than I would have expected, about things they had done in their lives.
As sweetly as I could, I said, “Botulism isn't exactly a handy means of murder. I think it's highly unlikely that anyone slipped Robert some botulism on purpose.”
“But that's exactly why it's so diabolically clever. No one would ever suspect it.” Francie selected a little cluster of grapes.
“Why on earth would you even think such a thing?” I asked. “You'd have to plan far ahead, intentionally can something poorly, and then convince the person to eat it. I'm sorry, Francie and Velma, I don't think so.”
Velma raised her eyebrows. “Why did you ask me if my sister's name was Rosie?”
I'd forgotten about that. “Robert said the word
to me. But I could have misunderstood. He could barely breathe, let alone talk.”
Francie's eyes sparkled. “You didn't misunderstand.”
Velma snapped her fingers and pointed at me. “He was trying to give you a message. What do they call that? Dying utterances or something?”
One by one, Velma held up items from the pile on the table. “A pretend rose tattoo, a withered dried-up rose, a rose made out of the pages of a bookâ”
“I want to know how they made that. It's so cute!” Nina peered at the paper rose.
“Where did you get these?” I asked.
Francie swallowed a bite of the tart. “From Robert's house!”
“So he had some roses. Maybe he liked roses.” I sat back and listened.
“We went over to his house when the health department was collecting specimens. We found these on his rolltop desk.” Velma produced scraps of paper from her bag. She read aloud.
You will see my face in still waters,
And hear my voice in the wind.
I will curse you eternally,
A reminder that you sinned.
“Eww. Do you think he got that from a book or something?” Nina asked.
“Just listen.” Velma picked up another one.
In your darkest hour
You have created
Your own miserable abyss
And the devil awaits you.
Nina gasped. “Maybe he liked dark poetry.”
I admit I was a bit taken aback, too. “Were these on his desk as well?”
Velma nodded. “You see? Someone had it in for him.”
Suddenly, I didn't like that she was holding the small wisps of paper in her fingers. I retrieved a plain paper bag and some non-latex gloves. Handing them to her, I said, “Slip these on. Let's not get your fingerprints all over them.”
The color drained from Velma's face. She dropped the paper she was holding. “You mean these could be real threats?”
“Isn't that why you showed them to us?”
“Well, sure. But I don't knowÂ .Â .Â .” Her voice faded. “Suddenly it's all very real. Do you think this person murdered him?”
Nina poured herself another Scotch. “Of course! Those are clearly threats.”
“Come on,” I said. “It seems very unlikely. Kind of like giving someone the flu and hoping that person would happen to die from it. Stabbing Robert with a knife would have been a sure thing and required a lot less planning.”
“It would have been much messier,” Francie observed. “Poisons are a rather tidy means of dispatching someone. And so much harder to track. After all, don't many of our neighbors have some kind of poisons in their homes?”
“I don't!” Velma recoiled at the thought.
“Really?” A sly smile worked Francie's lips. “You have no medicine that could kill in a large dose?”
“That doesn't count. Everyone hasÂ .Â .Â . I see what you mean.”
“And that doesn't begin to include all the lovely poisonous plants in our yards.”
“You're beginning to worry me, Francie.” Velma scowled at her.
Oddly enough, that seemed to please Francie. “I've always had a fascination with poisons. Though I rather suspect that botulism isn't actually a poison per se. But it would be a very clever way to kill someone because no one would ever suspect that it was intentional.”
“Are there any more of those weird notes?” asked Nina.
Velma slipped the gloves on and read aloud again.
You can never escape your past.
It chases you wherever you go.
Until the day when at last,
You collapse from the weight of your woe.
“Why do you think these had anything to do with him saying
?” I asked.
Francie waved her fork at Velma. “Read her the one that gave us chills.”
Roses are blood red
Now I bid you adieu.
Rosie is dead
And so are you.