The memorial service of Winsome Smythe
The memorial service is crowded. If she’d died in any of the normal ways there might not have even been a service. Not that many people who live in Garden Path Village knew Winsome, and probably even fewer outside did, but the murder has made her popular. As we enter the clubhouse, Polly is garbling hymns and sad sentimental tunes: she usually plays ’40s ballads and ’50s pop, hasn’t a reverent bone in her body, and loves to perform.
Letitia and I are sitting together, when we see the other ladies enter the room and case it, looking for Winsome’s daughter. When she finally comes, we all silently hurrah. Three kids in tow, she moves quickly to the front of the room, dressed in black, her eyes lowered. A puffy minister with bulbous eyes and permanently puckered lips, appears as if from nowhere and shakes her hand. Clearly, she’s never met him before; she’s rented a clergyman and this was all she could afford.
The service is some kind of traditional nondenominational mix with all the usual Biblical passages and hymns, mortuary morsels I imagine Winsome herself had only heard at funerals. A few dozen of us, mostly residents of the Garden Path, stir uneasily when the rotund preacher asks if anyone has anything about Winsome they’d like to share. A tiny woman with big blue hair rises from her chair in the first row. “I worked with poor, poor Winsome at Puss’s Emporium where she was employed for many years. She became one of my nearest and dearest, and her cat, too, who, isn’t it just like the way of the Lord, died only a little while before her. How she did adore her darling Eurydice.”
Clare stands up next to tell everyone what a good neighbor Winsome was, and how dedicated an aquacizer.
There’s an awkward silence that Polly decides to fill. Sitting at the piano, gazing at the notes she’s made and put on the keyboard, her voice is husky with emotion (none of us knew she cared that much): “Winsome and I both loved cats. Perhaps she did a little too much.” She coughs and picks up a glass of water.
Finally, Candy tries to speak, holding a toddler tight with one hand, hanging onto an older boy who pulls and yanks on her with the other, both of them struggling to join their sister who’s gone to listen at the coffin in case her grandmother is still alive. Oddly like her brother, Candy is round-faced and dimpled, but she’s probably no more than ten pounds overweight, a normal person without tattoos and with rosy cheeks and strawberry blond hair. “My mom wasn’t a happy person,” she says. “A lot of bad things happened to her—like they say bad things happen to good people. She grew up in a family of drunks. From a very early age, she chose cats over human beings and devoted her life to their care.” The girl is trying to lift the lid off the coffin, talking to her grandmother at the same time as Candy speaks; one voice intermingles with the other.
“Grammie, are you in there? Are you going to go see Eurydice? Grammie, can you hear me?”
“She raised me and my brother working with cats. Believe me she was never paid very much, and she’d come home crying lots of days with sad stories about cats and kittens. She had feelings; she was a real sensitive person. I tried to make her feel better, I really did. I helped out whenever I could—bookkeeping at the pound, nursing runty kittens back to health. It’s so awful she died the way she did. Living here was the first time ever she felt happy and safe.”
The boys finally pull Candy all the way to the coffin where she grabs her girl by the scruff of the neck and yanks her away from her grandma’s side. The toddler begins to bawl, and everyone waits patiently until Candy gets back to her place with all three in tow. Standing there, her eyes flashing, her face grim, she looks out at us. “Why did you have to go and kill her?” she shouts over the wailing of her child. “Whoever you are!”
The preacher bustles to the front of the stage looking alarmed, then signals to Polly to play and she lights into “I Come to the Garden Alone” in waltz time while we all look at each other, wondering which of us Candy thinks did it.
Outside, after the service, we give our condolences to the poor woman. For the moment all we can think to do is to make generalities. Certainly, none of us is ready to interview her about the murder, except for Maude who seems to have missed everything that just happened. “My, my,” she says by way of introduction, “what wonderful children you have.”
“Thank you,” snuffles Candy. One of the wonderful children has gone back to howling, but she persists.
“I’m Maude Honniger. I only knew your mother casually I’m afraid, but she was always gracious and sweet to me. I had no idea that she cared so much about cats.”
“Oh, yes,” says Candy, swiping at her nose with a tattered tissue. “They were such a joy and a comfort to her.”
“Do you really think that someone here in the park was to blame for your mother’s death?”
“Yes, I do. She had ongoing arguments with more than one person here.”
“Yes, I’m afraid it was always about cats. You’ll have to excuse me, ladies. My ride to the cemetery is waiting. Thank you so much for coming to the service and for your friendship to my mother.”
“You’re welcome, dear,” says Harriet and several of us murmur our assent. Candy heads for a car that’s waiting at the street corner, its motor humming, its headlights aglow. The oldest children beat her there; they know the driver.
“Who’s driving?” I ask.
“I can’t tell,” says Clare.
“It’s Beverly,” says Letitia.
“No, it’s the same car. A Ford Escort, dented on the right fender. I remember it. It’s her all right.”
“Not so he’s visible. Candy’s getting into the front seat and the driver is a woman.”
“Well, maybe when it comes right down to it, they don’t hate each other as much as the Smythes said. At least not when it comes to burying a mother.”
We examine some evidence from card aisle of Walgreen’s Drug Store.
After Candy’s swift departure from the memorial service, a bunch of us gather on the lawn outside the clubhouse to listen to Frances run down a list of card senders who—you never know—might also be murderers. Frances works at our local Walgreen’s. The biggest part of her job is hustling Hallmark cards for people who need to send the very best. I’d asked her to look for suspicious remarks or attitudes by Garden Path residents buying sympathy cards for Candy. Uniquely suited to this work, she collected some surprising information.
“Burridge is worried that Candy thinks he’s the guilty party,” Frances begins. “He wanted a card that would reassure her that he’d never have taken a knife to her mother. I told him he didn’t look like a murderer to me, though I’d never personally known one. After I found him the perfect card, not too pious but reverent and neighborly, I asked him if anyone had ever accused him of murder before, and he said yes, it had happened, though he’d never been brought to trial. It seemed that another neighbor of his, many years ago, had been stabbed to death with garden shears after an argument over the behavior of the neighbor’s cat. Cats are apparently a great problem for him. Anyway, the similarity of circumstance had spooked him.
“Do you think he did it?” asks Clare.
“I don’t think so,” Frances responds. “But, as I told him, I’ve never known a murderer.”
“Who else seemed odd?” asks Polly.
“Well, mostly the customers for a sympathy card were you, and I guess none of you seemed especially odd.” She smiled. “The other person who seemed peculiar to me was Della Coombs. She’s the woman who talked about Winsome’s work at Puss’s Emporium.”
“I thought she was strange,” says Letitia.
“She exclaimed over Winsome’s many virtues for a very long time. From what I’ve been told, Winsome didn’t really have that many good qualities. I mean she was okay, but not the best friend of cats everywhere, and as honest as Abe besides.”
“Not as honest as Abe certainly,” says Polly.
“Why do you say that?” asks Letitia. “Did she lie to you about something?”
“She did. She said her children were beyond reproach and accomplished besides.”
“We all tell that lie sometimes,” mutters Maude. “It doesn’t really count.”
“I don’t really have anything new about anyone else,” says Frances. “I know Candy, although we’ve never been able to talk because her children take too much watching. She’ll probably come in for thank you cards for all of you. When she does, I promise I’ll try to interview her.”
“Wonderful,” says Letitia. Everyone nods and murmurs agreeably and we part, having decided to continue the conversation at our next aquacize.
Frances and I are seated comfortably at home, me with my Guinness and her with her Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon, when she says to me, “You know who was truly peculiar at the drugstore? Polly.”
“There’s something furtive about her. Also something not very nice. It wasn’t anything she said, I guess. Maybe it’s that awful wig. I just don’t like her.”
“Hmmmm,” I ask, “what kind of card did she pick out?”
“One with a lot of flowers and lace and Godly verse. Not what you would expect.”
In the next post a visit to Puss’s Emporium where the plot thickens!!!