The Aquacizers Murder Club

VI
At Puss’s Emporium where the plot thickens

Letitia and I go to Winsome’s last work place the next day before we go to aquacize to see if we can learn anything new about her. Because Frances and I have no cat, I’ve never shopped at Puss’s Emporium. Housed in an enormous warehouse, or at least much larger than you’d expect since its sole concern is cats, it’s a store, thrift shop and adoption agency. On the outside it’s plain, but the inside, as it turns out, is something else.

The door meows when we open it. Letitia starts to giggle, but I give her a poke in the ribs and she stops. She stops because we’ve come up against a mammoth plaster tabby sitting just inside the door and washing one paw with a huge pink tongue.

For a few minutes, we pay homage to the beast, nervously admiring its penetrating green eyes and Cheshire grin, trying to avoid stepping on the very long tail that curls around in front of it. It’s so real it almost twitches. We’re both aghast at the counters and tables that stretch out in every direction, many of them with smaller versions of the cat at the door. Three customers are in view: one is studying the labels on bottles of vitamins, lining them up on a table according to their potency, I guess, looking for the best for the least; another is contemplating buying a scratching post a foot taller than herself; a third is studying knitted feline sweaters. We head for a counter where a sales clerk stands, filing her nails. I could make a witticism, something about claws, but I resist the temptation.

“Good morning,” Letitia says. “We’re from Garden Path Village.”

“Good morning, ladies,” she says, putting away her file. “We have a number of customers from there, and some generous contributors to our thrift store as well. How may I help you?” She smiles broadly, her bowed red lips framing her exceptionally white incisors.

“We were friends of Winsome Smythe. Did you know her?”

“Only as a customer. After she left her job, she continued to buy all her supplies for her cat here. When Eurydice died, we held the memorial service right in this room.”

“Oh, dear,” Letitia murmurs. “I wish I had known about you when my dear Petunia died.”

“I’m so sorry. How long ago did she pass away?”

“Oh, nearly five years ago now. I’ve never been able to bear the thought of getting another.”

“I know what you mean. The loss can be so devastating.”

“Yes. Oh, yes.”

“Was it quite a large service?” I ask, hoping to get back to the subject of Winsome. “I mean the one for Winsome’s cat?”

“Yes. It was,” she replies. “We had nearly forty people.”

About as many as for Winsome, I think.

“We heard Winsome had been pursuing a lawsuit against the party responsible for Eurydice’s demise,” says Letitia.

“That’s my understanding, but I’m not that familiar with the case, you see, being only a casual acquaintance of Ms. Smythe. If you walk over to the thrift shop”—she raises an arm jiggling with twice-owned bracelets to point across the wide expanse of the warehouse to the opposite wall where items that are appropriate to people are just visible—“you’ll find her dear friend Della. I’m sure she can answer all your questions.”

“Della was the one who was at the memorial service,” I remark, as we wind our way towards her. “The tiny one with the big blue hair who thought Winsome was wonderful.”

“She’ll be sympathetic,” says Letitia, reassured.

Della’s metallic blue hair winks in the window light, like a star that’s lost its moorings as she skitters from secondhand ladies hats to a counter of feline-inspired knick knack. “Della,” I call out. She stops and stares at us, puzzled, then smiles a sweet, confused smile. “Yes?”

“We heard you speak at Winsome’s memorial at Garden Path. We were friends of hers.”

“Of course. I remember you. You were seated near Winsome’s daughter. Please, I hope you’re not angry because she thinks someone in The Garden Path was the killer. I certainly don’t think so. Not at all. It’s a very nice neighborhood, not the sort of place murderers reside. Winsome often told me how kind everyone was. Why, we even talked about my coming to live with her someday. After my husband passes, of course.”

“As you can imagine, we were upset by Candy’s accusation. We want to prove that we had nothing to do with the murder.”

“We really must. We insist on saving our reputations,” Letitia joins in.
“Yes, yes. You poor things. I understand. What can I do to help?”

“Could we go somewhere and talk?” I say. “You were her dearest friend and we need to know much more about her.”

“Come with me,” she says, excited by her sudden importance, taking us with her to a corner of the room where three ivory-enameled chairs and an unstable table await us, as if she had known that two visitors, not one and not three, would show up this morning. A glass coffeepot half-filled with water sits on an old-fashioned hot plate nearby. We each pull up a chair; Della passes around the unmatched china cups, then pours. “We only have Lipton right now. I’m so sorry. It’s my fault. Usually, we have all the herbal teas, but I haven’t been able to find the time to shop since it happened.”

“The murder.”

“Yes. The murder.” She dunks a tea bag in each of our cups and shudders, her hair trembling like cotton candy. “It’s so awful. I can’t believe dear Winsome is gone.”

I listen to her intonations carefully and curse my unresponsive ear. Is she really grieving? I can’t be sure. “Tell us, Della. Had she gotten any threats? Do you know of anyone who might have wanted to be rid of her?”

“Oh, no. She was such a nice lady. No one would have wanted to hurt her.”

“Not even the man whose foxes killed Eurydice?”

“You mean Burridge Fowler? He’s a terrible man I don’t doubt, but I can’t believe he would do such a thing.”

“Still, with her death he’s rid of a lawsuit.”

“Yes,” she said, drawing the word out, staring into the bottom of her teacup as if it held revelatory leaves instead of a shapeless teabag. “He did hate her. And she hated him. Eurydice had been with her for many years; it was hard to forgive a man as heartless as Fowler.”

“Do you think Candy was talking about him when she said the murderer was a resident of the Garden Path?”

“I don’t. I remember Candy laughing about the old man. She thought he was harmless. I would have expected Candy to blame it on her brother or her sister-in-law. Have you met them? They’re gruesome people. I can’t imagine who else she’d suspect. Everyone else is quite respectable, in fact, just so so very nice.” She pauses to catch her breath and remove her tea bag from the water. Letitia and I follow suit and deposit the soggy bags on a pink-flowered saucer in the middle of the table.

“Tell us something about you and Winsome. How long were you friends?”
“I was thinking about that just yesterday. Eight years, I think. We became friends when she came to work here.”

“Why did she leave? You must be about the same age as she was, and you’re still going strong,” I say, watching the woman fidget. She’s uncomfortable when she’s still. People like Della don’t retire. But I wasn’t sure that people like Winsome did either.

“She was forced out when the scandal happened.”

“Scandal?” Letitia exclaimed. “How in heaven’s name could there be a scandal in a place like Puss’s Emporium? And how, why, would Puss force out someone like Winsome?”

“I know. It does seem extraordinary, doesn’t it? At any rate, it wasn’t her fault.” She sighed and took a long swig of tea. “It’s a sad story. Someone, one of the regular employees as it turned out, was embezzling funds.”
“That’s terrible.”

“We discovered it one late afternoon just about this time of year, five years ago now, I guess. She was stealing the money from the state grants we get to help support the pound. She got found out because she was also taking it from our donations.”

“You mean taking money from the donation kitties?” asks Letitia. She’s ahead of me; she’s already figured out that the cats scattered around the store are collection cans or, I guess, kitties.

“Yes. You see, we have morning volunteers and afternoon volunteers. The morning group counted what was in the kitties when they quit for the day and left a tally by each one. The afternoon volunteers counted what was in the kitties again and made a total tally for the day. Then they deposited all of it in Lucre Lucy and closed up for the day.”

“Lucre Lucy?”

“The big cat by the door. She’s also a bank.”

“Oh my,” said Letitia, tittering, trying not to laugh out loud, her eyes tearing up.

“She’s very secure,” Blue Hair murmured. “There’s a combination lock behind her eyes.”

“The big green eyes,” I said.

“Yes. Anyway, one day Winsome volunteered to do two shifts when one of the other girls couldn’t make it.”

“Not something that happens very often?”

“Oh, no. We have very faithful staff. Our ladies are all devoted.”

“So Winsome noticed the morning numbers had been changed when she helped with the afternoon totals?”

“Yes. Or at least at her station. She couldn’t be certain about any of the others, of course. She didn’t say anything. I think she hoped she could double-check the other tallies before she reported it. She was worried that one of the volunteers might be guilty of stealing a few dollars to make up her rent or pay for food. We’re an impoverished lot here, you know. We live mostly on social security checks and gifts from our children.”

“Oh my goodness, yes,” said Letitia. “It’s so hard to make ends meet these days, isn’t it?”

“Yes. And it was no easier then.”

“How much money do you typically take in with the kitties each day?” I ask, wondering why anyone who embezzled would also go about committing such petty theft.

“It varies, of course, but total, probably about one hundred and twenty-five.”

“A day?”

“Yes. It does add up, you know. The thief was collecting a few hundred dollars a week, leaving enough so that it looked like donations were down. This was in addition to the embezzled money, of course.”

“How did Winsome go about investigating?”

“Clumsily, I’m afraid. Her son, Albert, was working as a security guard at the time. One of his many attempts to go straight. She assumed his experience would make him an expert on criminal matters, and besides, bringing him in would help their relationship—which has never been good.”

“So Albert figured out that it was happening to all the kitties. Then figured out who it was and asked for a cut,” Letitia surmised.

“Yes. I guess it was obvious he’d do something like that, but none of us had any idea… and of course not Winsome. And when he confronted the criminal, he also found out about the embezzlement so his demands grew. All this time, he assured his mother that everything was fine. He’d found the culprit and it was, as she thought, someone who needed a few dollars and didn’t know where else to turn. He never named her, of course; he was too compassionate to do that. Suffice it to say, he claimed the guilty woman was a volunteer with a sick child. Poor Winsome passed the week asking all of us how our children were.

“It was about then that the manager discovered the discrepancies in the embezzled accounts and the real culprit was called on the carpet. As I understand it, she denied everything, and she blamed everybody—Winsome, Albert, Candy, not me, thank God. She got three years and was out on parole in two. Albert Smythe was sentenced to five years; he got out on parole just a little while ago.”

“And they fired Winsome.”

“Oh, yes. They really had no choice, and she was very bitter about it. But all has been forgiven. You heard we had Eurydice’s funeral here?”

“Who was the guilty party? Where is she now?”

“Her name was Adele Monk. I don’t know what became of her. She wasn’t one of us. I mean she wasn’t a volunteer or a saleswoman. She was a veterinary nurse in the pound area. None of us really knew her well.

“Why was she stealing? She must have been earning a reasonable salary, certainly more than most of the employees at Puss’s Emporium.”

“I guess it wasn’t enough. She was a hateful person. I never trusted her around the cats, nurse or no, but we kept an eye on her. The open floor plan here is good for that.” She opens her arms and takes the whole Emporium into her embrace. Somewhere, on the other side of the great room, I hear what I suppose is one those half-breed Siamese cries, not that much different from a baby’s cry.

“A Siamese?” I murmur.

“Lily,” Letitia exclaims. “That’s no Siamese. That’s Candy’s boy. She’s over there in the cat pound. I see her.”

“I’ll be darned.” I want to express myself more coarsely but feel constrained by tea cups and blue hair. “You’re right. We’ll be right back, Della. Please wait. We have more questions.”

She stutters something in return and Letitia and I zigzag past counters and tables towards someone we’re sure is Candy, the two oldest children in tow and a manila folder in her hand, talking to a wide woman in a white veterinarian’s jacket. “Candy!” I yell, as politely as I’m able. “May we speak with you a minute?” She turns on a dime and makes for the door. I leave the hobbling Letitia behind and trot (I no longer run), nearly knocking up against the burly veterinarian who, for some reason, stands, arms akimbo, blocking my way. By the time I get out onto the parking lot, Candy’s gunning the motor, though I’m sure she hasn’t had time to seatbelt the kids in.

“She was certainly in a hurry to get out of here,” I say to Letitia and the veterinarian, who are standing near the door scowling at each other.

“Can you blame her?” asks the woman. “She’s just lost her mother in the most gruesome way, and you’re chasing her down with impertinences.”

“With what?” asks Letitia.

“We just wanted to ask her a couple of questions,” I mutter at the vet.

“We might have been of some help,” Letitia adds.

“That’s not how I heard it. She says you want to play detective, and she figures the cops can do that, she doesn’t need little old ladies in trench coats and Dick Tracy hats trying to interview her when she’s grieving.”

“We had no idea she felt so trod upon,” Letitia says sadly. “We were dreadfully fond of her mother. We were all in the same aquacize group every week, you know. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We just wanted to be of help to Winsome’s daughter. Of course, the police will take care of the Dick Tracy thing.”

Letitia sighs and begins stroking a mournful calico cat who’s been reaching out towards her with one paw, mewing pitifully.

“We would never have guessed she would be here so soon after her mother’s death,” I say, following Letitia’s lead. “She was so distraught at the funeral. Poor Candy. Trying to walk where her mother walked, talk where she talked, trying to gather together all the memories of her mother’s past.

“What a sweet cat,” I add. The cat is purring. “You should adopt her, Letitia. You’ve wanted another cat for so many years. Her cat died,” I explain to the stern vet.

“Did you know Winsome?” Letitia asks sorrowfully, gazing into the eyes of the woman, a hint of a tear on one cheek, as she scratches the eager feline behind one ear.

“Of course,” growls the vet. “She used to come all the time. I think she was trying to clear the name of her son.”

“I didn’t know,” I say. “I had no idea. I mean I knew she worried about him, but he blamed her for everything, you know.”

“Yeah, well he’s just a jerk. He’d blame her if she airlifted him to heaven on her very own wings.”

“I’m glad you’re helping Candy, just as you helped her mother,” I say. “You’re a good friend.”

“Yeah, well, of course I am,” the woman shifts uneasily from foot to foot. “Candy’s here a lot, and I do what I can.” She isn’t used to compliments. “An aquacize class, hey? Does it work? I’ve got a bad back and so far no one’s been able to help me. I’ve tried five chiropractors and an acupuncture guy. I’m not much good at doing exercise by myself. Nothing seems to help.”

“You should come join us. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. 11 a.m. No fee. We’ll pretend you live in the Garden. Are you fifty-five yet? (She was sixty if she was a day!) Come anyway. No one will know the difference if you wear shades and hat.”

“Maybe I will,” the woman says, happy to be younger and more generous than she was only a few minutes ago.

“Please believe us,” says Letitia. “We didn’t mean to bother Candy, and we’ll be very careful not to upset her again. And thank you for being such a good friend to our friend Winsome.”

“Hey, are you interesting in adopting Petunia?”

“Oh, my goodness. Is that her name? What a coincidence. Yes, maybe.” She looks back at the cat, her face suddenly soft and glowing. “I’ll come back. We’re late; we have to go.”

When we got back to our tea-table, Blue Hair is gone. “Why do you think she left?” Letitia asks me as we leave.

“She probably told us more than she meant to,” I reply. “Either that, or it was time for her lunch break.”

“And why was Candy here?”

“To get employment records—her mom’s, maybe.”

“Or Adele Monk’s.”

“Maybe she wants to clear her mother’s name too. Maybe she was with Bev yesterday because she wants to clear her brother’s name?” I speculate, then add, “It’s time to aquacize. Let’s go share.”

In the next post the Aquacize Club ponders the evidence and Lily has a dramatic encounter with Candy Smythe at Walgreens.

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