Chapter I. The Aquacizers Murder Club is formed to investigate the murder of Winsome Smythe.
Winsome Smythe’s body was found on the stone walk that leads from Rose Thorn Lane to Blue Plum Road. She had been ambling home from a Garden Path Village aquacize session, just as she did every Wednesday at the noon hour, though on this day she may have picked up the pace since she was planning a special lunch for her daughter who was to arrive at 1:00.
I know the walk well. I ride my bicycle down it almost every day to go from one part of Garden Path Village, an elder park of modular homes, to another. Winsome was found just where the path turns towards Blue Plum, where a row of mostly red rose bushes line the walk on the left and a young plum-tree stands on the right, with a thriving rock garden of hens and chicks immediately after. Burridge Fowler’s house is on the other side of the roses, but I’ve never seen him outside, even though the roses do look well cared for. On the other side there’s a long wall with two or three small windows, not the kind of windows anyone looks out, just the kind that let in a little light. Straight ahead, where the path turns, is Clare’s house, but she wasn’t home; she was still at the swimming pool. Apparently, no one witnessed the murder.
Winsome told us about the special lunch at aquacize, how she and her daughter had been at odds, and how she was looking forward to clearing the air. She had nearly an hour to prepare some fancy sandwiches; she’d baked her celebrated apple crisp earlier that morning.
It had been a quick, efficient killing, a stabbing by someone who knew where the heart was in the human body, even a pudgy seventy-something body like Winsome’s, and aimed for it. We’d all heard about the tragedy by mid-afternoon. Word travels quickly around Garden Path—door to door, telephone to telephone, even e-mail to e-mail. An unusual number of residents wandered around the periphery of the murder scene for the remainder of the day—gray-hairs with walkers and canes, the bald, the merely thinning and the dyed—pausing on their daily walk or bike ride, studying the police cars that almost formed a cordon around the murder scene, and the policemen moving among the neighboring houses asking everyone, and blushing when it was someone especially decrepit, “Did you know Winsome Smythe? Did you see anybody? Where were you? Do you know why anyone would want her dead? Did you?”
Two days after, on Friday, nine of us, aged sixty-eight to eighty-eight, are back at the swimming pool doing our usual schedule of exercises. Spread out in the shallow end like bobbing flowers, we show some signs of wilt. However, our leader, Clare, has been bouncing about in the water for eighteen years, and looks good for someone just turned eighty-six. I remember Winsome had laughed, “If it works for her, why not for me?” Sad that it hadn’t. Clare’s sometimes assistant, Jeanette, has been at it nearly as long and is even older and probably the best looking woman in the pool with her wonderful wound up silver hair and china doll skin. I hadn’t wanted to join the aquacizers; at a mere sixty-eight, it was too much like owning up to being old, but Clare and Jeanette are less saggy and lined than I am, so what can I say?—after a few weeks I felt as if I were one of them.
On the other side of the pool in the corner, Harriet, in sunglasses and a black tank top to keep the sun’s burn at bay, is talking to anyone who will listen while she flexes her right leg. “Someone mentally ill, somebody really sick, must have done it. She couldn’t have had any enemies, and who would try to rob an old woman in a bathing costume? She wouldn’t have had a cent with her.”
It’s hard to imagine why anyone should have wanted to murder Winsome. She was elderly like everyone else in Garden Path Village. Her years were already numbered. Why would anyone want to dispose of such an ordinary old woman on a sunny summer day before her time was really and truly up? We expect death—we’re dropping by the wayside one by one—but murder belongs on TV. It doesn’t make any sense here.
“Have you heard any more about what happened?” Clare murmurs in Jeanette’s direction in her flat thudding British accent. She’s slender except for a bit of paunch, but her voice is heavy. “Opposite side. Flex,” she calls out, and the words drop into the water like stones.
“Nothing. Isn’t it awful? So unlikely. She was such a nice woman.” Jeanette says, Letitia, at the shallow end, wiggles her left foot at me. “Lily, did Clare say to switch sides?”
“Yes,” I respond, flexing on the left side. We always begin by flexing our right legs; then we make circles from the knee and the ankle. Then the left side. Again. Flex….
“What?” asks Maude.
“Left foot, Maude,” I yell. She doesn’t bring her hearing aid. It’s expensive and if it got wet, she surmises, the only sound she would hear from then on would be a gurgling one.
“She was going home to make lunch for her daughter,” Harriet continues.
“Yes I remember,” Charlotte says, forgetting to move either leg while she tries to recall a two-day-old conversation about sandwiches and pastries. “She wasn’t sure whether to do smoked salmon or barbecued oysters. She was still talking to herself about it when she hurried off.”
“Yuck, oysters” mutters Polly. “Maybe her daughter was the culprit.” Anyone who could hear her pretended not to.
I like listening to all these heterosexual women chatter. I’m the only lesbian here. At first I was afraid they would talk incessantly about their husbands, living and dead, and all their progeny and great progeny, which always makes me feel odd-woman-out. In my day, lesbians didn’t have children. My partner, Frances, is popular, but I know it would be hard for them to imagine her a husband. I find that I can become invisible in a crowd like this. But mostly they talk about arthritis and forgetfulness; “Dancing with the Stars” and their bowling scores; the weather; their neighbors. The sun is shining; the sky is clear and deeply blue and from across the green lawn, beyond the tennis courts, cheers go up as someone scores in bocce ball.
“Rocking horse,” Clare calls out. We all begin rocking back and forth, forward on our right feet and back on our left.
“What did she say?” asks Maude.
“Rocking horse,” someone repeats for her.
“What are you doing, Letitia?” I ask, making sure the woman’s not bent over the water for some unpleasant medical reason.
“There’s a bee on its back. Likely poisoned by the chlorine. I’m trying to save it.”
I like Letitia. Straight as they come, maybe even straight-laced, but unmarried and as odd as I feel.
“Just don’t let it go,” says Polly. “I hate bees.”
“Jog again,” Clare calls out.
“Did you save the bee, Letitia?” I ask.
“I’m afraid I was too late,” she responds, not jogging since it hurts. Letitia, out on her Harley Davidson, was run down by an errant SUV a few years ago, and at seventy something is still trying to come back from her injuries.
“It was a good turnout for potluck last night,” says Jeanette.
“Yes,” responds Clare. “Everyone wanted to hear about Winsome. Jumping Jacks,” she adds, and we begin slicing the water with our feet and arms.
Harriet, her murmur breaking up with jacks, talks to Jeanette about her husband. “The home seems to be a good place for him,” she says. “I think. Sometimes he likes it. Sometimes he hates it. Bud has Alzheimer’s. Until a few weeks ago, he was the spindly round-faced man in a soft hat stumbling down the sidewalks who looked like someone Dr. Seuss wrote.
We finish jacks and begin knee bashers, lifting our left knees and elbowing them with our right arms. Then vice versa. Clare has to count for this one: “Right. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Left. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8…”
“Will there be a memorial service for Winsome?” asks Charlotte of no one in particular when we’ve finished and are jogging again.
“I’m sure there will be, but I guess in the case of murder it’s more complicated,” says Jeanette.
“Hula hoop,” says Clare. We hula in the water.
“Someone should try to figure out who killed her,” I say.
“The police are working on it, I’m sure,” says Clare.
“They were around all day yesterday taking fingerprints and looking for clues. They even fingered through the hens and chicks,” Polly reports. Not easily embarrassed, she spent more time on the scene yesterday than the rest of us.
“Lovely hula hands,” sings Jeanette and everyone begins humming along. “Graceful as the birds in motion, Gliding like the gulls over the ocean…” Gradually, the humming fades but we keep hulaing.
“Her daughter must have been horrified,” says Charlotte, a shudder in her voice. “I think she had to identify the body.” Charlotte is German and spent her late teens working in bombed-out Leipzig. She’s actually stumbled over bodies, something the rest of us, not even the most long-living, have ever done.
“I think Lily’s right,” says Letitia. “We should try to figure out who killed her and why.”
“Jog,” says Clare. We all begin jogging again. “Toy soldier,” she says.
“What are we doing now?” asks Maude.
“Toy soldier,” several of us call out, and begin marching, straight-armed, straight-legged.
“We wouldn’t even know how to start,” says Jeanette.
She’s usually right, I’m sure she probably is now, but I’m beginning to feel stubborn about it. “Sure we would. Everyone here reads detective novels.”
“Books aren’t real life,” says Charlotte.
“Sometimes they’re realer than real life,” says Letitia. We march silently.
“Crab,” Polly calls out. “There’s a crab coming this way.”
We look across the water to poolside. “She’s right,” says Letitia. “There’s a crawdad headed this way.”
I hadn’t believed it when they told me crawdads were coming to the pool. It had to be kids, probably someone’s grandkids, bringing them from the pond to the chlorinated pool, I said. But there it is, a crawdad moving in our direction and straight through the wrought-iron fence.
“Yuck,” says Polly, her eyes snapping like the eyes of an unbalanced sophisticate in a silent film. I’m fascinated by her, and not at all certain she belongs here. A retired nurse, she wears a big brick red wig at seventy-lord knows what and her fingernails are pink with perfect pinker orchids emblazoned on each finger. Even at the pool, she wears heavy makeup to disguise a face where the last lift seems not to have worked and everything is reversing itself. Her only endearing characteristic is that she loves music. She plays the piano and sometimes the organ, and she’s the new glockenspiel player in the Brand New Beginnings Band, a position she’s very proud of “even if it is a band of elderly amateurs.” Not a very kind thing to say since Charlotte’s husband is its conductor.
“I’ll get him,” says Letitia. She struggles out of the pool and, limping across the cement cautiously, moves into position behind the crawdad until she can pick the creature up, its panic-stricken limbs moving aimlessly. I know it must be screaming even though we can’t hear it.
“It’s so big,” she says. “I’ve never seen one so big.”
“We used to hunt them when I was a kid in Kansas,” says Harriet. “We’d have them for dinner.”
“Irish jig,” Clare calls out. And we all jig while Letitia takes the crawdad to the fence and puts it out on the lawn, pointing it in the direction of the pond. She comes back with a self-satisfied expression on her face. She may have lost the bee, but she’s saved the crawdad.
“I wish someone would find out who murdered Winsome,” breathes a breathless Jeanette. “It’s so awful. I’m scared to death.”
“We’d make a peculiar bunch of detectives in a mystery novel,” says Harriet.
“The Aquacizers Murder Club,” laughs Polly, and everyone laughs along.
“It’s ridiculous, Lily, Letitia. I don’t see how we could even start,” Charlotte says, her German accent turning her declaration into something authoritative, final. “We don’t even know if there were fingerprints on the knife. If there were, they’re probably solving the crime at this very moment.”
“If there were I think they would have arrested someone by now,” says Letitia, who’s given up the jig and is staring out at nothing in particular with her pale blue eyes. “At least we could try remembering everything we can about Winsome. Maybe we know something the police don’t.”
“Kick your heels up in back,” Clare calls out and closes her eyes as she begins to kick.
“A crow’s after the crawdad,” Harriet calls out. “Shoo crow.”
“Looks like it’s too late,” says Jeanette. There are two crows now, taking turns, jabbing at the armored crustacean, celebrating crawdad flesh with ear-splitting caws.
Letitia shakes her head helplessly. “I tried,” she says.
“Yes, you did,” I respond. She’s like a tomboy in junior high, I think. Letitia used to be a Girl Scout and then a Girl Scout leader. Same thing. We all believe that we’re still young at the same time as we complain about our physical ailments. I’ve watched us. Everyone is like me. We see ourselves young, the way we used to be, even though we know differently.
“The crows have given up; it’s too hard to crack. But the crawdad’s not moving anymore,” reports Harriet.
“So let’s try remembering Winsome,” suggests Jeanette. “What do we really know about her?”
“We know that her murderer is more likely someone from the outside, some crazy that wandered into the park,” suggests Polly. “And if that’s true, we’d better leave it to the cops.”
“Actually, we don’t know anything of the kind, ” Charlotte says thoughtfully. “Old people can kill too.”
“I don’t think a mad man from outside the Garden makes sense,” I say. “Almost no one except occasional children and a few cats come in here without permission or invitation. Why would a mad man? Someone would have seen him. And why would he stab poor Winsome? I think it had to be someone she knew.”
“We know,” says Jeanette, “that she had a daughter and a son. I don’t know where the daughter lives. Somewhere on the other side of town, I think. The son seems to have been a problem until recently. I have no idea where he lives but it’s close by.”
“He’s a royal pain in the ass, from what she told me,” says Polly. “Maybe not in those words,” she adds, seeing shock surprise Jeanette’s sweet face.
“Albert Smythe. Drugs and drink. I don’t think she said, but it sounded like he’d done prison time. He lives in a trailer somewhere just the other side of Fulton Road, I think.”
It comes back to me now. A week ago, maybe two, I remember Polly talking at length with Winsome about her children. “So she didn’t much like poor Albert?”
“Not much,” she says, her smoky voice turning brittle. “But when all was said and done, she still thought her children were superior.”
“Something just came back to me,” says Clare. “The substitute postperson made a mistake and put Winsome’s outgoing in my box. That was maybe a year ago. There was something for her son that looked like a check. It stayed in my mind because she’d complained about him so much and it surprised me that she sent him money. The address was Paradise Court. I remember that because it seemed such an odd address for someone like him.”
“A trailer on a court called Paradise,” Letitia remarks. “That shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“Jog again,” Clare calls out. “Let’s do our hand paddles. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8,” she counts and we slap the water with alternate hands. “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,” she counts rapidly, and everybody makes quick little waves in front of themselves. That gives me time to think. I’m not really convinced that we could solve the mystery of Winsome’s death. We’re a passive bunch, we don’t even complain when the temperature of the pool goes north, and except for a two-hour dessert potluck at the end of the summer, most of us don’t do anything together but exercise.
“To the wall,” says Clare, and we head for the sides of the pool.
“I wonder,” I say, “if her daughter found out about her death when she came to lunch, or before.”
“Climb the wall,” Clare calls out. And we all climb it, crabbing up so that our feet meet our hands.
“I don’t think she came,” she adds as she pulls herself up the wall. “I told the police that she was expected. They said they’d call her.”
“Tell us what else you can remember about her, Clare,” I said. “Did her daughter visit her often?”
“Candy. That’s her name. Yes, she did. Maybe twice a week. There were grandchildren too. Three I think.”
“And her son, did he come?”
“I’ve only seen him once or twice. He’s covered with tattoos,” she adds, with the mischievous smile of someone who shouldn’t have been peeking from behind a curtain but was. “Knee bends,” she calls out.
“How long have you lived across from her, Clare?” asks Jeanette.
“Maybe five years. We were neighbors but we were never close. I was surprised when she came to aquacize because she seemed to avoid getting involved in Garden Path activities. Her only real interest seemed to be cats.”
“What else do we know about the son?” asks Letitia.
“His tattoos say a lot,” says Polly.
“Remember our last session in the hot tub?” Harriet asks. “I think Clare, Jeanette, Winsome and I were the only ones there. Winsome said her son had eloped and wasn’t that wonderful because she had no money for a wedding and neither did he.”
“Are we speculating that her son killed her?” asks Letitia.
“Oh, I hope not,” murmurs Jeanette. “Wouldn’t that be awful?”
“It’s awful no matter how you look at it,” Charlotte declares.
“Leg lifts,” Clare calls out and begins to count, “Right leg, flex. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8….”
“Would you like to go looking for the son?” Letitia asks me in a quiet voice. “It might be dangerous if he knew who we were and what we were doing….”
“It might, but we can be smart about it. I was going to say that as a rule murderers don’t go around killing harmless old women so we needn’t worry, but I guess in this case that rule doesn’t apply.”
“No, but you’re right. We can be careful and smart. I’ll bet a guy like Albert Smythe won’t expect old ladies to be looking for a murderer. He’s sure to think we’re dumb and hapless. We’ll have to come up with a cover story.”
“Do you want to take your car, or mine?”
“Yours is less memorable, don’t you think?” I drive a red PT Cruiser and she drives a white coupe of some uninteresting vintage.
The leg lifts always seem to last a long time. Clare is intent, staring off into near space, feeling everything stretch—every muscle, every tendon, every ligament. I lose count. Finally, she’s ready to move on. “Side bends,” she announces.
We reach up, curving our arms, a bunch of graceless ballet dancers bending together in the water and the water lapping listlessly around us “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8….”
“Bicycle,” she says finally. Clutching the sides of the pool, we let our bodies float to the surface and begin to pedal.
“You know who I wonder about?” asks Charlotte of no one in particular.
“Remember how mad she was at Burridge? Burridge Fowler? And how angry he was back at her? He lives right where her body was found.”
“What was the argument about?” asks Jeanette.
“He had foxes living under his house and they killed one of her cats.”
“I remember,” Polly murmurs.
“Clare, you and I could go see Mr. Fowler on council business,” says Jeanette. Clare and Jeanette belong to the Garden Path council.
“I’ll go with you,” says Maude, working out beside Clare now, reading her lips.
“Good,” says Jeanette.
“What will we say?” asks Clare.
“He’s an expert on something, I don’t remember what. As soon as I remember, we’ll ask his advice about it,” Jeanette muses.
“Bicycle to the side,” calls Clare.
“His roses,” says Maude. “He’s famous for his roses.”
“Yes. Yes. You’re right. I’ll explain that I want to start a rose garden, that I’d like his advice.” says Jeanette.
“Are you really planning to?” asks Maude.
“Start a rose garden?”
“Good Lord no. When would I do that? I’m much too busy.”
“Bicycle to the other side,” Clare calls.
We finish aquacize with shoulder rolls and neck rotations, then we stand on one foot and stretch out on the water, balancing like clever swans, grateful for the support of the water and the warmth of the sun.
“So on Monday we’ll exchange information,” says Clare. “Be careful,” Jeanette says. “You’re crazy,” says Charlotte. “Let the police do it,” says Polly.
“Give yourselves a hug,” says Clare and we all do, proud of being aquacizers, fond of ourselves, feeling much the same as Winsome had on Wednesday, our elderly skin moisturized and glowing, our plans taking form as we leave.
On the next post: Chapter 2. We visit Albert and Beverly Smythe on Paradise Court and almost meet our end.