Murder Will Speak
By B.K. Stevens
Art by Linda Weatherly
“It’s not about the money, really,” Rose Crane said. “Mostly, we’re just concerned about our mother.”
“Yeah, we’re really concerned about our mother,” Glen Kramden said. “It’s not just about the money, mostly.”
You could pretty much tell they were sister and brother—same sandy-colored hair, same pale blue eyes, same rigorously straight nose, same smoothly oval face climaxing, abruptly, in a squared-off chin. Both looked around forty, both in good shape, both fashionably dressed.
“But you are upset by the changes in her will,” Miss Woodhouse said. Nothing fashionable about her—almost six feet tall, big boned, lean, black-gray hair pulled back hard and caught at the nape of her neck with a thick blue rubber band, boxy beige suit, zero makeup. In my opinion, though, she had Rose Crane and Glen Kramden outclassed.
“The changes in the will are symptoms,” Rose said, “of problems that obviously go deeper. Until two months ago, Mother was fine. Oh, she got depressed after Father died—they’d been happily married for over fifty years. She felt lonely in that big house, all by herself. That’s why she moved to AdenHarbor.”
Professor Woodhouse looked up. She’s built on a smaller scale than her daughter and wears her hair in a long gray braid, but they have the same strong, sharp features. “AdenHarbor,” she said. “The nursing home.”
“The west wing’s a nursing home, yeah,” Glen said. “But Mom’s in the east wing. That’s a retirement community, for people who’re healthy and not at all—well—you know.”
“Not at all what?” Pushing her safety goggles on top of her head, the professor set her soldering iron down on a small table laden with key rings, hoop earrings, brass knobs, belt buckles, and sink weights. “Not at all senile? Is that what you meant? Why would you hesitate to say that word?”
He gulped. “Just went blank, I guess.”
The professor looked him over. “A disturbing lapse in one so young. You should consult a physician. Little Harriet, I seem to have misplaced my pliers.”
“Here they are.” I scooped them up from the basket of power tools at her feet. We sat in the sunny parlor that serves as the office for Woodhouse Investigations—the professor in her rocking chair, Miss Woodhouse behind her big mahogany desk, Rose and Glen and I in sleekly polished captain’s chairs. I handed the professor her pliers, and she pushed her goggles back down and started soldering a belt buckle to an earring.
“At any rate,” Rose said, “Mother’s first year at AdenHarbor went well. Glen and I take turns visiting her—one of us sees her every month—and she always seemed alert and happy. Then, two months ago, she started spiraling downward.”
“It happened after the director died,” Glen said. “Hal Aden. Mom thought the world of him. One day, he keeled over in his office—managed to call 911, but then he passed out, died a few hours later. Well, he wasn’t so young himself. And he was a drunk.”
“That’s too harsh,” Rose said. “Yes, everyone knew he kept a bottle of crème de menthe in his desk and took a drink now and then, but whenever I talked to him, he seemed perfectly sober.”
“Well, he was a character,” her brother said. “The Southern gentleman type, with a thick drawl. And he was dedicated. He had this tape recorder he carried around, no bigger than a pocket calculator, and he was constantly recording reminders about ideas for new activities, replacing light bulbs, like that. Remember, Rose?”
She looked impatient. “Yes. Well, his death hit Mother hard. And last week, when I visited her, I saw alarming changes. She speaks oddly, dresses oddly. I was so concerned that I asked Glen to see her right away.”
“That’s when she told me about her will,” he said. “Before, she’d left everything to Rose and me, split down the middle. Now, she’s leaving it all to AdenHarbor.”
“I see,” Miss Woodhouse said. “Her estate, I take it, is considerable?”
“Yes,” Rose said. “Our parents started their own real-estate company and did very well. That makes Mother a tempting target. We’re afraid she’s being drugged, or improperly influenced in other ways. Hal Aden was a good man, but his niece runs the place now, and—”
“His niece,” Miss Woodhouse cut in. “Not his wife?”
Rose shook her head. “He never married. Luci started working for him last year, as assistant director. I don’t think she did much; I think he gave her a title so he could give her a paycheck. Luci’s pleasant, but she’s weak and—well, dim. She probably couldn’t devise a scheme herself, but somebody might persuade her to go along with one. Or perhaps somebody’s acting without her knowledge. Given the sudden changes in Mother’s behavior, I think we have grounds for suspicion.”
Miss Woodhouse braced her hands against each other, tapping her chin lightly. “I agree. First, we should have your mother examined by a physician not affiliated with AdenHarbor.”
“We’ve already asked her,” Glen said. “She turned us down flat.”
“Then I’ll visit her,” Miss Woodhouse said, “and explain why you’re concerned. I’ll also interview Luci Aden and—”
“Nonsense!” The professor pushed her goggles up again. “Just what, Iphigenia, would that accomplish? You’d merely put the culprits on their guard, making them subtler in their machinations. As for speaking to Thelma Kramden, I doubt she’d listen. No, this situation calls for an undercover operation.”
“Great idea,” I said. I love undercover operations. It’s the only way I get out of the house. Supposedly, I’m Miss Woodhouse’s apprentice, but that usually translates to filing, making tea, and scrounging up craft materials. At this rate, I’ll never become a real private detective. “I’ll volunteer to help with water aerobics or whatever, chat with Mrs. Kramden, snoop around, and before you know it, we’ll figure everything out.”
“Admirable ambition!” the professor cried. “I commend you for responding to my proposal with such alacrity. Unfortunately, volunteers seldom penetrate the inner workings of the places they serve. And Mrs. Kramden is unlikely to open her heart to one so young. No, someone close to her age must take up residence in AdenHarbor, insinuate herself into her confidence, and observe employees closely and constantly.”
I’d never seen Miss Woodhouse turn pale before, but she sure turned pale then. “You can’t be suggesting, Mother, that you—”
“Can I not?” the professor shot back. “I can. I do. Do you doubt my competence?”
“Certainly not,” she said hastily. “But I know how you hate to leave the house, and how you abhor the thought of nursing homes, or anything resembling them.”
“True—because I know you intend, ultimately, to shut me up in such a place.” Snapping her goggles down, she jammed two key rings together. “Oh, you’re clever. You make some trifling sacrifices and tend to me docilely for a decade or two, all to lull me into complacency so I’ll suspect nothing when the men in white coats show up. Do you imagine, you nasty girl, that I have failed to penetrate your plans?”
Miss Woodhouse wilted. Much as I love the professor, she can be brutal to her daughter. I don’t know much about it—nobody tells me much—but nearly twenty years ago, the professor had some sort of nervous breakdown, misbehaved in public in spectacular ways, lost her tenure as a classics professor, and insisted Miss Woodhouse leave the police force and break her engagement. That’s when Miss Woodhouse started her private detective agency. The professor still bullies her, and Miss Woodhouse still just takes it. Why? I don’t know. And while the professor’s mind is as sharp as ever, in some ways, she’s—well, unusual.
“Fortunately,” Professor Woodhouse continued, “since I have never been deceived about your perfidy, I have made it my business to stay informed about all nursing homes within a sixty-mile radius of Annapolis. AdenHarbor has a program for potential residents. The Getting-to-Know-You Weekend—that’s its cloyingly cute name. People arrive on Friday and leave on Sunday. It is now Tuesday. That, Iphigenia, gives you time to make arrangements.”
“Just a minute, Miss Woodhouse,” Rose said. “Your mother’s going to investigate?”
Miss Woodhouse rubbed her forehead. “That seems to be her wish, yes.”
“We won’t pay for that,” Rose said. “We want a professional private detective.”
Glen lowered his voice. “Maybe it’s the best way to get Mom to open up. Think about how weird she’s been acting. Those two might hit it off.”
Rose hesitated. “All right. But Mother follows local news closely. She’s often spoken of Woodhouse Investigations—that’s why we came here. If she hears a Professor Woodhouse is visiting AdenHarbor, she’ll get suspicious.”
“Then I shall pose as little Harriet’s grandmother,” Professor Woodhouse said. “My name shall be Maria Teresa Fiorenza Russo. I have long dreamed of being an Italian grandmother; now, I shall fulfill that ambition. Mamma mia! I’m-a gonna have lotsa fun with this one, you betcha!”
She’d fallen into some bizarre accent, some new-to-the-planet blend of Italian and Swedish and God knows what else. I put my hand over my eyes. This wouldn’t be easy.
Looking more optimistic than I felt, Glen strolled over to the professor. “That’s pretty,” he said. “Linking all those doodads together—it’s cool. What’s it gonna be? A necklace?”
She tossed a large sink weight into the air and caught it smartly. “No. My creation is, as you say, pretty. But its purpose, I assure you, is not merely decorative.”
Miss Woodhouse worked hard the next few days—making calls, cashing in favors, using computer codes she probably shouldn’t have, and, judging by the results, doing some quiet late-night forgery. By Friday, Maria Teresa Fiorenza Russo had a Social Security number, an impressive bank account, and reservations for a weekend at AdenHarbor. And I had a cover story: My grandmother and I had moved here from Cleveland; I had a master’s in history from Case Western and a teaching job at SirIsaacNewtonAcademy. That’s a stretch for someone who in fact has an associate’s in office administration from CuyahogaCommunity College. At least I’m really from Cleveland. If someone asked me about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I’d be ready. If someone asked me about the War of 1812, forget it.
On Friday morning, Professor Woodhouse strode downstairs, magnificent in a long black silk dress, a black lace mantilla, and the biggest crucifix I’ve ever seen.
“Buongiorno!” she exclaimed. “Harriet, my spicy little meatball! You ready to help me start my vita nuova?”
“You don’t have to talk like that, Professor.” With every word she spoke, I died a little. “My grandmothers don’t talk like that. Nobody I’ve ever known talks like that.”
“Bambino!” She flung an arm up and out. “You so cute. Don’t worry. You and me, we molto buono.”
Miss Woodhouse stood by the door, spine rigid, and handed me her mother’s trunk-sized suitcase. “Mother, if you begin to feel uncomfortable—”
“Impossibile!” And then the disguise fell away. “But I warn you, Iphigenia. This is the first time I’ve left you alone in this house in almost twenty years. No wild parties. No liquor, no dancing, no stains on my carpets. I want you in bed by nine thirty. And you are not to see or speak to That Man. Do you understand?”
That Man was Lieutenant Barry Glass, the fiancé Miss Woodhouse had cut off so abruptly so long ago. He’d never married. He still waited, helping Miss Woodhouse with her cases, hoping that someday, somehow, she’d come back to him.
Miss Woodhouse nodded, once. “I understand, Mother. Good luck.”
“Buona fortuna!” Maria Teresa Fiorenza Russo cried, and we were off.
From the outside, AdenHarbor looks like an overgrown mansion, white and sprawling, with a wide front porch offering a dazzling view of the Chesapeake Bay. The lobby has a nautical air—not all that unusual for places in Annapolis—with powder blue walls, hardwood floors, white crown molding, a spectacular staircase with white spokes and railings, plus watercolor paintings of sailboats, autumn woods, the bay in winter.
Luci Aden looked tiny behind the oversized desk in the director’s office; the framed prints of horses and hunting dogs didn’t suit her, either. Probably, she hadn’t redecorated since her uncle’s death. She was in her late twenties, with small facial features and long, light brown hair. As she shook the professor’s hand, she nodded quick little nods and twitched her mouth into quick little smiles.
“Welcome, Mrs. Russo,” she said. “I’ll show you and your granddaughter around.”
“Buono!” the professor said. “This place—belissimo! What you think, Harriet, my petite pepperoni?”
God, how I just wanted to leave and never come back. “It’s nice, Grandma.”
The professor put her hands on her hips. “What you talking, ‘grandma’? Always, you call me ‘Nonna.’ Santa Maria! What’s gotten into you, my sweet stromboli?”
I winced. “Sorry, Nonna.”
Luci’s mouth twitched. “If you’d rather see our west wing—”
“No, thanks.” I understood why Luci thought the nursing home wing might be a better fit. But Thelma Kramden was in the east wing, so that’s where we went.
As she led us through the library and two sitting rooms, Luci described activities ranging from book clubs to bowling leagues. We entered the dance studio and saw two staff members, a man and a woman, guiding five gray-haired women through slow, graceful movements. Four women wore white blouses and swirling flowered skirts; the fifth wore purple pajamas and a black hooded jacket. Thelma Kramden, I thought, remembering what Rose Crane said about how her mother was dressing. Thelma is marginally overweight but looked strong and vigorous, with a vibrant complexion and quick, dark eyes. While the other women moved in easy harmony with each other, she jerked her fists up and down, swinging her hips, bending left and right. I’m pretty sure I’d seen those moves in a YouTube video about sixties dances; I think it’s called The Monkey.
“You’re doing great,” the male staff member said. Thirty or so, he looked like a miniature bodybuilder—barely five feet four but muscles like you wouldn’t believe, with arms so toned they barely seemed human. “Now, at ‘all the glory,’ lift both arms high. Then bring them down in an arc, like this. For ‘all the strength,’ do three slow bicep curls. Make ’em count, ladies—make ’em count! Then—oh, hi, Luci. Ladies, you’re on your own.”
Both staff members joined us, and Luci introduced them as Earl, the fitness coordinator, and Grete, the arts coordinator. Grete, about forty, was tall and slender, with large, intense blue eyes. She grasped my hand tightly.
“Harriet, it’s so caring of you to keep your grandmother company today,” she said. “And Maria, you picked a great weekend to get to know us. Our annual talent show is tomorrow night. Sound like fun?”
“Christopher Columbus!” Professor Woodhouse exclaimed. “More fun than a barrel of biscotti! These ladies—they in the show?”
“You bet,” Earl said. “They’re doing a dance routine, using moves from our Weekday Workout class. We’re getting ready for tomorrow’s dress rehearsal.”
Four of the women fluttered their arms up and down as the CD player blared Bette Midler’s voice. Detaching herself from the group, Thelma came over to us.
“Giuseppe Verdi!” Professor Woodhouse said. “They dance so graceful, like gondolas in Venezia!”
“Like gondolas in Venezia!” Thelma echoed. She ran around us in a circle, flapping her arms clumsily. “And I’m flying higher than an eagle! I’m like an eagle!”
“You sure are!” Earl said. “A powerful eagle, soaring high!”
“You’re like a swan!” Grete said. “A beautiful swan on a crystal lake!”
“Yes, like a swan,” Luci said. “A really pretty swan!”
Naturally, I thought. Thelma changed her will, leaving AdenHarbor a fair-sized fortune. They don’t want her changing her will again, so they let her do whatever she wants and praise her for doing it.
Thelma halted in front of the professor. “Am I like an eagle?” she demanded. “Or a swan?”
Professor Woodhouse shrugged. “You like a fish outta water. This music, it no right for you. Or maybe you not so much a dancer. Maybe you and me, we put together a different act.”
“Not so much a dancer!” Earl sounded shocked. “Thelma’s a fantastic dancer. She can’t leave the act—she’s our star!”
“Yes,” Grete agreed. “But if she’d rather do something else, fine.”
Thelma considered, then pointed at the professor. “I’m doing an act with her.”
“But you’ve gotta stay in the dance act, too,” Earl said. “I worked so hard on it.”
“Don’t pressure Thelma,” Grete said. “Luci? Whatever Thelma prefers, right?”
“Absolutely,” Luci agreed. “Well, I’ll show you the pool next.”
“Luci, dear,” Grete said, “why not take Maria to her apartment next, so Harriet can drop off the suitcase? She shouldn’t have to keep lugging it.”
Luci looked startled. “Oh, gosh. Sorry. We’ll go to the apartment right away.”
Earl took the suitcase. “Do things in any order you want, Luci. I’ll drop the suitcase off. Just give me the master key.”
Luci reached first into her jacket pockets, then into her pants pockets. “Oh, gosh—I don’t have it. It must be in the office. I’ll go look for it.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll find it.” He smirked at Grete and walked off.
When we left the dance studio, Thelma tagged along. Eventually, we came to a room with a sign reading wellness supplies. A short, wiry woman sat at a desk, using a box cutter to slice open a carton of latex gloves. Her pale green smock was rumpled, her frizzy gray hair looked like she’d forgotten to brush it, and her nose looked swollen; but an elegant diamond bracelet glittered on her left wrist. Behind her loomed a chaotic jumble of walkers, privacy screens, canes, a rack of smocks, braces. She smiled briefly.
“You must be Maria,” she said. “Welcome to AdenHarbor.”
“Grazie,” Professor Woodhouse said. “Bontà mia! You got lotsa fancy stuff here. What your name, honey?”
“Well, my name’s a mouthful,” the woman said. “It’s Polyxena. So most folks—”
“Ah, Polyxena!” The professor’s eyes shone. “Fairest of all the daughters of Priam and Hecuba! She captured the heart of Achilles, she survived the fall of Troy—only to be sacrificed at the hand of Neoptolemus when the ghost of the lover she betrayed demanded her death as the price of winds to waft the Achaeans home!”
Polyxena looked at her uneasily. “So most folks just call me Polly,” she finished.
The professor’s shoulders jerked back.“Polly? So grazioso! I can say that name, no problema.”
“No problema!” Thelma repeated joyfully, kissing her fingers and tossing them upward.
Luci twitched a smile. “Polly’s our head nurse. If you need medical supplies, just ask her.”
“Right,” Polly started, then grabbed a tissue from the right pocket of her smock, sneezed noisily, and stuffed the tissue into her left pocket. “Sorry—can’t shake this cold. Anyway, I also dispense medications. We keep them all locked up here. That way, folks get exactly what they need, and nobody’s tempted to share or swap. Don’t give meds away, don’t gather meds up—stick to your own, I always say. So Maria, please give me all your meds.”
“Sì. I do that pronto.” The professor reached into her purse, pulled out a quart-sized blue bottle, and smacked it down on the desk. “Cod-liver oil. Ever since I a bambino, my mama give me one spoonful in morning, one when I go beddy-bye. My poor mama morta now, many years, but still I take it, just the same.”
“Fine.” Polly rummaged in her desk for a full minute, found a label, filled it out, and slapped it on the bottle. “And your prescriptions?”
The professor lifted her hands. “Prescriptions? I not infermo. You take cod-liver oil, you no need nothing else.”
“Amazing.” Polly walked to a large metal cabinet and jammed the cod-liver oil in amid uneven rows of bottles and boxes. “Well, if everyone stuck to cod-liver oil, we’d avoid certain—problems.” She turned to Luci, sharply. “Right?”
“What?” Luci said. “Oh. Problems. I guess so.”
“No problema,” Thelma said, not so joyfully this time.
Peering around, Professor Woodhouse pointed to a door at the rear of the supply room. “What’s that?”
Polly looked over her shoulder. “Oh. That’s our Resting Room.”
Thelma snickered. “Some resting room. That’s where they park the stiff when somebody croaks. They don’t want to roll it through the lobby, so they hide it until the undertaker’s van undertakes it away. Nobody’s supposed to die at AdenHarbor.”
“Well, people don’t,” Luci said. “That is, yes, eventually. But everyone does, eventually. It’s not—”
“Your uncle died at AdenHarbor,” Thelma pointed out.
Luci winced. “Yes. But he wasn’t old. That is, he wasn’t young, but he didn’t die because he—”
“He died on Thursday.” Taking a crumpled greeting card from her jacket pocket, Thelma stroked it affectionately. “And just before he died, he sent me this, because it was one year since I came to AdenHarbor. I got the card on Friday. That’s today.”
“Well, it’s a different Friday,” Luci said. “But yes, he always sent residents cards on their one-year anniversaries.”
Thelma looked up. “My card was special.”
“Absolutely,” Luci agreed. “Because you’re special. I just meant he always—he—well.” She squeezed out a smile. “Who’s hungry?”
The dining hall is more restaurant than cafeteria, with linen-draped tables and waitresses wearing crisp white shirts, shiny red vests, and trim black slacks. Earl and Grete, already seated at the largest table, waved us over, and we sat down and examined the menu cards. Some dishes were predictably bland, but there was gazpacho as well as chicken soup, crème brûlée as well as rice pudding.
“You have to meet our chef, Mrs. Russo,” Luci said, and sped off to the kitchen.
I pointed to a large raised platform at the far end of the room. “What’s that?”
“The stage for tomorrow’s talent show,” Grete said. “I hope you’ll come. We’ve got some amazing acts. Just look at the props—that’s the Chamber of Mystery for Irving’s magic act, and the balcony’s for Harry and Myrtle’s Romeo and Juliet scene.”
“The balcony’s looks shaky,” Earl said. “Myrtle doesn’t need another broken hip.”
Grete smiled a small, tight smile. “The balcony’s fine. I checked it.”
“Luci should check, too,” he said. “She’s the director. If there’s a lawsuit—”
“Luci doesn’t need to check,” Grete cut in. “I’ve checked. And let’s not talk about lawsuits during lunch. Maria, how’s the menu?”
Before she could answer, Luci returned with the chef—roughly the same age as Earl, but about eight inches taller and at least fifty percent cuter, with an olive complexion and curly black hair one endearing inch too long. Luci’s eyes glowed with adoration; her mouth had gone slack.
She wasn’t the only one who admired him. “Paesano!” the professor cried. “I just know you Italian!”
“Greek and Brazilian, actually,” he said, shaking her hand, “but very glad to meet you. I’m Roth. I hope you like the menu.”
The professor pursed her lips. “Così così. Grilled salmon, lamb medallions, those very nice. But where’s the pasta?”
“We have pasta often,” Roth said. “On Monday, I’m making tortellini with—”
“But Maria leaves on Sunday,” Thelma said. “We need pasta sooner. The special dinner before the talent show—make that all pasta.”
“Giada De Laurentiis!” Professor Woodhouse exclaimed. “That sound delizioso!”
I probably didn’t really hear Roth sigh—he was obviously holding back. “You asked for a luau tomorrow, Thelma. Everything’s bought—the kitchen’s bursting with pineapple and mahi-mahi. And I’ve got half my prep done.”
Thelma pursed her lips petulantly. “I don’t want a luau now. I want a pasta night.”
“Sorry. It’s too late to change.” He turned to Luci. “Right?”
“Absolutely,” Luci said, “I guess. Unless Thelma really wants—”
Thelma started banging her fists on the table—not loudly, but not softly. “Pasta,” she chanted. “Pasta, pasta.”
“Luci, dear,” Grete said, “we mustn’t make Thelma unhappy.”
Luci looked anguished, forced to choose between displeasing the woman whose money she coveted and the man she clearly liked. I could almost feel sorry for her, if she weren’t such a ridiculous little ninny. She turned to Roth. “Would you mind?”
“Yes, I’d mind,” he said. “It’ll mean extra expense, extra work. And Thelma’s being unreasonable, and it’s a mistake to give in when people get unreasonable. But if you say I have to, I will.”
“Please don’t put it that way. But I’d appreciate it if you’d—”
“Luci,” Earl said, “you’re the director. Take a firm stand.”
Unable to speak, Luci looked at Roth and nodded.
“Fine,” he said, anger quick in his eyes. “I’ll chop up the roast suckling pig and stuff it in ravioli. And I’ll try a piccata style mahi. But what the hell do I do with all the breadfruit and poi?”
“You’ll think of something,” Luci said. “You’re so clever. You—”
“And I’m shorthanded,” he went on. “Ray quit last week, Fran’s out sick, and I don’t have any volunteers today.”
“I’ll help.” The words just came out; I hadn’t planned them. “I’d like to volunteer here, to be near my grandmother. And I’m a pretty good cook.” That was a lie. I make a passable tuna sandwich. Not much else.
For the first time, Roth looked at me directly. Did I imagine it, or did his anger soften? “Thanks, but you should get your grandmother settled.”
“That won’t take long. I’ll come back afterwards.”
“See?” Grete said. “Problem solved.”
“Not really,” Roth said. “I’ll still be here past midnight. But it will be a big help. Thanks, Miss—”
“Harriet.” I did not flutter my eyelashes. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
He went back to the kitchen. “Roth’s a pain,” Earl said. “You need someone to handle these staff issues for you, Luci. You should appoint an assistant director.”
Grete bristled. “She will, Earl. When the time’s right, Luci will appoint the right person. We shouldn’t discuss it now.”
“We’ll discuss it Monday,” Thelma said, “at the staff meeting.”
Nobody looked happy, but nobody objected. So Thelma even attends staff meetings, I thought.
Grete cleared her throat. “Luci, don’t forget we’re meeting at two, so I can help with the cleaning supplies inventory. I’ll get things organized in advance. Just give me the master key.”
“Sure.” Luci reached first into her jacket pockets, then into her pants pockets. “Oh, gosh. It must be in the office.”
“No, I’ve still got it,” Earl said, and handed it to Grete.
Just as our meals arrived, Polly joined us, sneezing wretchedly, not feeling up to anything but chicken soup. Too bad. The food was amazing. After lunch, Luci showed us to the guest apartment—almost spacious, definitely upscale. Maybe the professor would actually consider moving here, I thought; maybe then Miss Woodhouse could finally have a life of her own. But no. The professor would never leave her neat, narrow old house in Annapolis’s historic district. It was hard even to imagine her anywhere else, even for a weekend.
She seemed content, though, as I hung five more long black dresses in the closet and put things in drawers, and she and Thelma strolled off to Weekday Workout. I raced to the ladies’ room to freshen my makeup, then headed for the kitchen. Luckily, Roth assigned me simple tasks such as chopping onions and seeding tomatoes, so I could fake my way through. We didn’t chat constantly, but I worked in a casual reference to my recent breakup with my boyfriend, and he worked in a casual reference to his divorce. Good—both single. Decks cleared.
Leaving tonight’s dinner preparation to a lanky young man named Barnard, Roth ransacked the room-sized freezer for ingredients, focusing on concocting dishes for pasta night; occasionally, he’d ask me to taste something. Frankly, I didn’t consider the breadfruit parmesan a complete success. But I could honestly say that adding toasted coconut took tiramisu to a new level. The only awkward moment came when he asked about my grandmother’s favorite pasta dishes. Since I’ve never seen Professor Woodhouse eat pasta, that was tough. Flailing, I suggested penne with olives and onions. He added chicken basted in huli huli sauce, producing something oddly delicious.
At five, I took off my apron. “I should check on my grandmother. Will you really be here past midnight?”
“Probably. I still have the ravioli to do, and I have to figure out how to work poi into the antipasto.”
I offered to help again in the morning; he said he couldn’t impose; I insisted; he grinned and gave in. Excellent. Time to find the professor. I tracked her to Creative Crafts and asked Grete how things were going.
“Maria’s so enthusiastic.” She smiled, just barely. “But I’m afraid she doesn’t grasp the concept for today’s project.”
I’ve yet to meet the concept Professor Woodhouse can’t grasp. “What’s the project?”
“I got some lovely wooden frames,” Grete said, “so people can decorate them with pretty things—paint, buttons, sequins—and give framed pictures of themselves to family members.”
“Sounds simple. What’s the problem?”
She looked at me compassionately. “Come see.”
At a small table, Thelma was smearing a tenth or maybe a twentieth coat of black paint onto her frame. Professor Woodhouse had left her frame untouched. Instead, she’d cemented three two-inch stacks of buttons to the glass.
She looked up happily. “Harriet, my tiny tortellini! How you like what I make? It’s a present for Miss Luci.”
“That’s sweet,” Grete said. “But shouldn’t we get those stacks off the glass and glue them to the frame? With all those buttons on the glass, how will she see the picture of you?”
The professor looked puzzled. “This not a picture frame. This a key rack. See?” She held it up. “Miss Luci, she sometimes not sure where she left her keys. Now, she put this on office wall, hang keys on little button hills, always know where to find them.”
“She’ll always find them,” Thelma said, grinning. “No problema!”
Grete smiled thinly. “Very creative. But the concept was to make gift picture frames. Well! Time for cleanup.”
I helped shelve supplies, then watched as Professor Woodhouse strode off to dinner, arm in arm with Thelma. The professor’s plan seemed to be working—Thelma seemed charmed. Did that mean she’d open up about what was going on? God knows, I thought. And would the professor be okay, spending a night away from home? Presumably, God knew that too.
On my way out, I stopped at the Wellness Supplies room, where Earl leaned over Polly’s desk. “C’mon, Polly,” he said. “The whole staff’s in the Alice in Wonderland skit. You’ve got just three lines. You can learn them.”
“I’m not worried about learning lines.” Polly checked a list, opened a bottle, and poured an inch of brown liquid into a small plastic cup on a tray. “But I won’t play that character. It’s inappropriate.”
Earl sighed. “Be a good sport. The committee decided you’d be perfect as the caterpillar, because you’re so short.”
Polly looked at him coldly. “You play the caterpillar.”
He thrust his shoulders back. “Be that way,” he said, and stalked off.
I smiled awkwardly. “Hi, Polly. My grandmother forgot to pack her hand lotion. Do you have something she can use?”
“Sure.” She stood up—too quickly, bumping against the tray. The tray flipped up, the plastic cup flipped over, and the brown liquid splattered onto her smock.
“Damn!” Ripping off her smock, she grabbed the tissues from its pockets and mopped up the sticky globs dotting the desk.
“Sorry,” I said. “Can I help clean up?”
“It’s done, it’s done.” She stuffed the smock in a laundry bin, pulled a pink smock off the rack, put it on, and filled its right pocket with fresh tissues. “Look, I’ve gotta get evening meds ready. I’ll bring some lotion when I bring the cod-liver oil. Okay?”
“Thanks. I hope you feel better tomorrow, Polly.”
“I might,” she muttered, focusing on her list again. “About one thing, at least, I just might.”
I drove to Woodhouse Investigations and found Miss Woodhouse in the living room, dusting. Not that anything needed dusting. I’ve never spotted a speck of dust anywhere in that house; I think it stays away out of fear. She wore a bathrobe and had a towel wrapped around her head. Poor thing, I thought. Without her mother here, she’s so disoriented that she’s showering in the afternoon.
She wanted details about everything that had happened at AdenHarbor—every word, every gesture, every facial expression. Finally, she sat back.
“Mother’s doing well,” she said. “I wish I’d made as much progress. I checked on all the employees at AdenHarbor—not a criminal record in the bunch. And I tried to get an autopsy report for Hal Aden. Unfortunately, no autopsy was done. I talked to his doctor, though.”
“Why check on Hal Aden?”
She shrugged. “Mrs. Kramden’s decline seems linked to his death, and his death seems odd. He was sixty-three. And yes, his doctor says he was a moderately heavy drinker, but he seemed in good health. Mr. Aden’s sudden death from respiratory failure surprised him, the doctor said, but he saw no reason to be suspicious. And the niece didn’t request an inquiry. By the way, when the nurse opened the medicine cabinet, did you notice any liquid morphine?”
“I didn’t notice anything,” I said, “except that the cabinet was a mess—the whole supply room was a mess. Why do you ask?”
“Only because liquid morphine has a bluish color. Crème de menthe does too, and that was Hal Aden’s drink of choice. And a morphine overdose can cause respiratory failure. But it’s probably nothing. You did well today, Harriet.”
“Thanks.” I hesitated. Miss Woodhouse and I have never socialized. But I hated to leave her alone in that house. “You know, I don’t have plans tonight. Let’s grab some dinner. I know a place near the city dock that has fantastic crab cakes.”
She smiled briefly. “Another time. I need to catch up on some things tonight.”
“Paperwork? Do that tomorrow. It’d be fun to—”
“Thank you,” she said, “but I’ll probably go to bed early. Oh, I left some envelopes on my desk. Could you mail them?”
What a shame, I thought, watching her sprint upstairs. Her mother dominates her so completely that she doesn’t even feel up to going out to dinner. In the office, I noticed bright bits of things in the wastebasket. Packaging for Rose Petal blush, Misty Midnight mascara. Professor Woodhouse must’ve used those for her Maria Teresa Fiorenza outfit. That was the only possible explanation, since Miss Woodhouse never wears makeup.
On Saturday, I showered, fussed with my hair, decided my black silk blouse wasn’t too dressy, spent fifteen minutes on makeup and ten choosing earrings, and still made it to the AdenHarbor kitchen by seven. Roth was already there, already fuming.
“Just look,” he said, pointing to the massive stainless steel counter. “When I left, this place was immaculate. Now, all this stuff—ketchup, tuna, soy sauce, maple syrup, pickles. What the hell was she trying to make?”
I winced. “Thelma?”
“Must be. The security guard just lets her wander—nobody’s allowed to make Thelma follow the rules. So I guess last night she wandered in here. And I don’t dare complain. Luci would fire me.”
No she wouldn’t, I thought; she has the hots for you. But I just nodded sympathetically and helped him clean up. About eight, Luci stopped by, looking vaguely concerned—Luci always looks vague—and asked if we’d seen Polly. We hadn’t, so she left. I decided to check on Professor Woodhouse. She sat with Thelma, whispering, sketching things on her paper placemat. When I approached the table, she flipped the placemat over.
“My precious prosciutto!” She kissed me on both cheeks. “You come check on your old Nonna? That so nice! Well, me and Thelma, we both fine. You go away now.”
“What’s this?” I reached for the placemat.
She slapped my hand. “That for our psychic act, for talent show. It’s surprise. You go back to kitchen, stir oatmeal.”
You don’t argue with the professor—I learned that long ago. So I went back to the kitchen and found ways to keep busy. At nine forty-five, Roth turned off the stove.
“I’d better get into costume,” he said. “Dress rehearsal starts at ten. Why don’t you take a break and watch?”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I’ve still got lots of meatballs to roll.”
“Take a break, Harriet.” He walked over, put his arms around my waist, and untied my apron. It wasn’t an embrace, but it was intimate; it made me take a quick, sharp breath that I hoped he didn’t hear. “You’re working too hard. And I’d like to find a way to thank you. Are you coming to the show?”
“Yes,” I said, hoping.
“Then maybe afterwards I could buy you a drink to show my appreciation.” He paused. “Well. Not just to show my appreciation. Would that be okay?”
“It’d be fantastic.” I have a gift for understatement.
He walked away, and I gripped the counter for support. The most adorable man I’d met in years actually seemed to like me. And if we get married, I thought, I’ll never have to learn to cook.
In the dining hall, people rushed about, checking scripts, carrying props. I spotted Luci in a wide-skirted blue dress and white apron—Alice in Wonderland, obviously; I spotted Earl wearing rabbit ears and sporting an oversized pocket watch; I spotted Grete in red dress and gold crown, carrying a scepter that looked like a rolling pin encased in gold foil. Then the professor seized my wrist. She wore a long silver cape decorated with felt stars and a top-heavy, multicolored turban fashioned from towels.
“Harriet!” she cried. “My cute cannoli! We need a curtain, a wall, something people can stand behind. What you think we should use?”
“I’ve got an idea,” I said, and headed for the Wellness Supplies room.
A bored-looking nurse sat in Polly’s place, trying to open a carton with a nail file. The desk was even messier than usual, covered with stacks of papers. “Isn’t Polly here today?” I asked.
“She must be,” she said. “Her car’s in its usual spot. But nobody can find her. So I’ve gotta handle deliveries. Plus she must’ve decided to reorganize order forms, but she left a mess, so I’ve gotta straighten up. You need a pill?”
If I’d said yes, would she have just given me one? “No, I need a prop. Could I borrow a privacy screen?”
She looked at the screens—white plasticized fabric stretched over wheeled metal frames, used to give patients an illusion of privacy while doctors do embarrassing things. “Gee, I don’t know. They’re medical supplies, sort of.”
“It’s for Thelma,” I said.
“Thelma?” She sighed. “Sure. Take ’em all.”
I chose one with a rip in it. If it got damaged, I wouldn’t have to feel too guilty. When I wheeled it to the dining room, the professor looked delighted.
“Che bello!” she exclaimed. “But Irving, he do his act now. Quieto!”
A man with thick ice-white hair stepped onto the wooden platform. He called Grete onstage and pulled a stream of colored scarves from her ear. He called Earl up, asked him to pick a card, and made a fool of him. I looked at the audience and saw Roth wearing a bright green jacket, an oversized bow tie, and a green top hat. So he was the Mad Hatter. Anyone else would look silly in that outfit, I thought. But Roth—well, okay, he looked silly too. But he still looked good.
“Now,” Irving said, “the Chamber of Mystery! Now, I shall transform a human being into a stuffed duck! For this illusion, I’ll pick a volunteer at random. Bertha! Come on down!”
Bertha, a spry gray-haired woman in a spangled housecoat, threw her hands up in surprise. I know how this works, I thought. Bertha’s his confederate. And the Chamber of Mystery, a closetlike plywood thing, is in front of a curtain. Obviously, it doesn’t have a back wall; maybe Irving’s rigged mirrors to make it look like it does. Bertha will enter the chamber, Irving will close the door and wave his wand, she’ll slip behind the curtain and set a stuffed duck in the chamber, he’ll open the door, and we’ll all gasp. Then Irving will shut the door and wave his wand again, and Bertha will toss the duck backstage and step back into the chamber. It’s a good trick.
Bertha stepped onstage. “First, I must hypnotize you,” Irving intoned.
As he waved his wand, Bertha lifted her arms, zombielike. “Now,” Irving commanded, “enter the Chamber of Mystery!”
Slowly, rocking back and forth, Bertha approached the Chamber of Mystery. Slowly, she opened the door. And Polly’s body tumbled out, her pale green smock stained with dark, wide splotches of blood.
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"Murder Will Speak" Copyright © 2013 B.K. Stevens with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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