The Aquacizers Murder Club

There is great pandemonium as the Aquacizers pursue the murderer at The Brand New Beginnings Band concert. The murder is solved and the ladies go back to the swimming pool.

XII

The murder is solved:  the Brand New Beginnings Band concert and the end of our story

The Brand New Beginnings Band plays a concert twice a year at the auditorium in the Universalist Church, one of those large antiseptic spaces with cushioned seats and adequate acoustics. There are usually about fifty people in the band and a few hundred in the audience – no one counts but the place always seems about right – everyone fits. Although none of us plays an instrument, we try to attend the concerts since Charlotte’s husband is one of the conductors. The band is rather good, depending on your listening experience and what you’d expect since anyone who thinks he can play is welcome to try. A few of the players were music professionals once, before they got old and retired. They’re all very focused and lively.

We aquacizers plus one – Frances has come – sit together at the concert, front and center. Safety in numbers, I guess. The tension among us is palpable, as if we each had a special grandchild playing her first tuba solo, instead of a murdering acquaintance playing a glockenspiel. By the time we’re all here, most of the band members are in place, blowing out their horns, tapping on their drums and rumbling on the tympani, practicing a phrase from Sousa or Gershwin, laughing at each other’s jokes. Adele Monk hasn’t appeared yet.

“Lily, did you see who just came into the room?” asks Letitia.

“No. Where? Who?”

“To the left of us, in the front row.”

“How weird. What is Candy doing here with her brood?” I watch as she gets the children settled, one on either side and the third half-asleep in the stroller, and wonder how she’ll keep them quiet during the concert. Of course, if the band plays loud enough maybe no one will be able to hear Wally yell.

“She just lost her brother,” growls Harriet. “Why doesn’t she show some respect and stay home?”

“Maybe she’s here to taunt Adele,” says Letitia.

“Or take revenge,” suggests Frances.

“Maybe Candy doesn’t intend to stay long with her unruly kids, maybe just long enough to do something awful,” says Harriet.

“There must be a plainclothes policeman here somewhere,” says Clare. “Keeping an eye on Adele. Making certain she doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

“Yeah,” says Charlotte. “For sure. My husband promised it.”

“Let’s not worry then,” says Jeanette. “There won’t be any violence, the proper authorities are already here.”

“But where is Adele?” I ask.

The sound man, an old geezer from the church, turns on the mike and it squeals like an out-sized wild pig; we jump in unison. Which is when Adele chooses to appear on stage behind her glockenspiel. She looks down at her music, up at the conductor who is arguing with the geezer, out at Candy and her children, and then-finally – at us. We all glare at her.

She still wears a red wig, but her face doesn’t seem as lined, and she’s wearing an excessive amount of eye makeup so that her eyes are large and dangerous; her expression is terrible. I shudder. I’ve never done that before. To be seventy and shudder for the first time is unsettling.

Adele turns back to her music as the band quiets, waiting for Charlotte’s Ollie  to appear and conduct. Finally, Ollie walks out and nods to the audience, a broad smile across his face as everyone applauds and the band stands. He gives a short military bow, then turns back to the waiting instrumentalists who, at his signal, sit in broken unison. He taps his baton on the music stand in front of him, and everyone readies their instruments. Adele raises her glockenspiel hammers. Ollie lifts his arms, and we’re off on a rousing rendition of  “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

We keep watch on Adele through the next four selections, almost as if we expect her to turn her glockenspiel on its side, and – lo and behold – it’s a machine gun, it’s been one all along, and she’s shooting up the audience, beginning with us. She must be aware of our communal glare, but she doesn’t look at us again. She just looks at the music and hammers away, smiling when she taps out an especially clever phrase.

I look over at Candy who’s staring at us. Is she sizing us up to make sure we’re not a threat to her intentions, whatever they are? Probably. That’s what she’s done ever since her mother died. Her intentions never made too much sense to me, but I can understand why a bunch of old ladies, an Aquacizers Murder Club, for God’s sake, might alarm her, hanging out around her children, catching her off guard at the drugstore.

It’s while I watch her, some time into Bernstein’s “On the Town” medley, that I begin to think about Bustamenté again. Why did Candy come to see her on the day of Winsome’s murder? It made sense that Adele would visit Bustamenté to buy an alibi. She already almost owned the big vet. It made sense that Blue Hair couldn’t remember who had visited that day because she didn’t know what Adele looked like. Not in disguise. The visitor had to be Adele, not Candy.  And yet, Blue Hair assured me it was Candy.

That was when I had my epiphany.

What if it was Candy who had come to buy an alibi? What if Candy was the killer, first of her mother, then of Albert and Bev? What if she had been the real embezzler from the beginning and what if what Blue Hair heard as threats from Adele were also declarations of innocence? What if Adele had come back in disguise to try to convince Winsome of her innocence? We don’t know that Winsome didn’t know who she really was. They seemed to have gotten close. Winsome would be the easiest to convince, if there was any doubt at all. And even Blue Hair had admitted there was some.

The music ends. While Ollie introduces Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys,” I start a rumor on one side in Frances’s ear and on the other, in Letitia’s: “Adele isn’t the murderer. Candy is.”

I know I’m taking a chance because, after all, I could be wrong. But no, I know I’m right. I look over to find Candy, and I spy only two sleeping children. “Where’s Candy?” I ask as Ollie signals the downbeat for the “March of the Toys.”

“She took the youngest to the bathroom,” says Letitia. “It’s okay. She’s not guilty of anything but being a mother.”

“No, no,” I whisper, panicky now as I try to explain. “I found out this morning that it was Candy who visited Bustamenté after Winsome was killed. It was Candy who wanted an alibi, not Adele.”

“Are you sure?” says Frances. “Are you certain it’s Candy?”

“Oh, come on,” whispers Harriet. “She’s a mother. She wouldn’t kill her own mother. She wouldn’t kill her very own brother, no matter how awful he was. You’re just overwrought about this whole thing, Lily.”

“Hush. I’m trying to hear the music,” breathes Charlotte.

“We jumped to conclusions. There’s no reason to think Adele killed anyone. She didn’t even do the embezzling. It’s Candy who did it. Her brother and mother tried to protect her and her children by blaming it on Adele.”

“Are you sure?” asks Letitia.

“Of course not. But sure enough so that I want to check that Candy’s gone to the bathroom and not the back stage.”

Harriet gives me a quick nod and heads up the aisle to the back to look in the bathroom. Frances, who is the most confident of all of us socially, heads for the stairs to the stage with Clare in close pursuit. While the band plays on, they creep up the right stage stairs and slip behind the curtain. Adele, suddenly aware of them, stops playing her glock in amazement. Then continues. The “March of the Toys” is her big number and it’s time for her solo.

The rest of us sit impatiently listening to Adele’s spritely glockenspiel solo, waiting for godknowswhat to happen next. The band burnishes the solo with a rollicking flourish and applause overwhelms all of us. It’s time for intermission. Waving her program high above her head, Harriet sprints clumsily down the aisle to us. “She’s not there,” she shouts. Most of the audience, those still sitting and those making their way to the back for refreshments, ignore her. She’s clearly a nutcase and most of us have seen lots of her kind by this time in our lives.

“Watch and shout if you see Candy,” I tell Letitia. “Maybe she’ll go around back and down the left stage stairs.” She nods. I can see excitement forming in little beads of sweat across her forehead. Charlotte and I make a dash for the right stage stairs. Adele has disappeared behind the curtain with the other percussionists.

“She’s back here somewhere,” Frances tells me when I catch up to her. “She was standing here behind Adele when we came for her. I don’t know what she was going to do. Anyway, she’s still here back stage; we lost sight of her when all the musicians came back.”

“Is there a door to the outside? There must be one.”

“The cops have that staked,” says Frances, grinning. “She’s not going anywhere.”

“The kids,” says Charlotte. “She won’t leave without the kids.” She whips the curtain back and stares down from the stage. “They’re still there. Letitia!” she shouts. “Watch the kids!”

“And Adele,” I ask Frances. “Where is she?”

“I think she’s afraid of us, poor thing. She’s mixing with the musicians to avoid us. Clare’s looking for her.”

I can see her now: Clare following Adele through a labyrinth of black-skirted-and-slacked, white-shirted musicians.

“What was Candy wearing?” I ask Frances.

“What else?” she answers. “Black slacks and a white shirt.”

“Let’s separate and look for her.”

“What will we do with her when we find her?”

Frances shrugs.

She and I begin to move quickly around the back stage, each of us taking a section. It’s a big space and, in addition to fifty musicians, it’s filled with scenery for an upcoming production of “Music Man.” Everywhere Candy’s gone, she’s knocked things down: pieces of the town square, the basketball backboard, the whole town library and everyone has to scramble over and around them. We can almost follow her by tracing the path of destruction.

Worse, after just a few minutes everyone looks like her; it’s a band of Candys. If she plays an instrument, she can pick up a horn and sit with the rest and we’ll never find her.
Letitia is the first to spot her, stage front and center, fiddling with a horn, signaling to somebody, oh yes, to her kids, signaling to them to come join her.“Watch out for the kids,” Letitia shouts.

Moments later, they’re scrambling onto the stage. Wally screams and beats double-fisted on as many drums as he can get to, while his little brother throws one of his old-fashioned tantrums. The girl clashes the cymbals together like a skilled percussionist. The loudest I’ve ever heard. It’s as if this had been the plan all along – children running interference for their murdering mother.

The band members try to stop them; poor Ollie stands precariously atop his conductor’s perch, waves his baton and yells; women try to cajole the children, their mewling voices mixing with the percussion. Candy laughs, picks up a horn and blows a Wagnerian howl.

While the band is tumbling all over itself to stop the chaos, the audience crowds to the edge of the stage to watch. Is this part of the program? Or is something going wrong? Candy puts down the horn and with her youngest child wailing at her side, picks up the glockenspiel, raises it above her head, and as Adele comes out to stop her, throws it as hard as she can at the woman – who goes down, clutching her instrument, her red wig askew, her costume jewelry flashing, her scarlet nails clawing at the air. Clare grabs the toddler and Charlotte tackles Wally. Frances grasps Candy from behind and the two of us hold her, while the little girl, suddenly bewildered and trailing a cymbal behind, comes over to be near her mother.

The police take charge, thank God. Candy is in cuffs and the kids, still bleating, have been placed in the capable hands of lady cops. The band wanders around the stage, righting chairs, music stands and instruments. We, a sorry bunch of old women, the Aquacizer Murder Club, limp off stage and up the aisles to be interviewed while hundreds of other old people stare and wonder why we’ve made such a fuss on such a lovely night for a concert.

“So many crazies, and I think they’re all from Garden Path.” “I’m certain of it; I recognize some of them.” “Remind me never to move there.” “Poor old ladies; they’ve all gone bonkers.” “Must be something in the water at that park.”

Adele goes back to her place to finish playing the concert. The glock is only a little bent and she compensates. We meet with the police who confirm that Candy is the one they wanted all along. They thank us for not letting them botch it. I think they’re kidding, but I can’t be sure.

_______

In conclusion….

We’re unusually silent at our next aquacize, as if the social energy that ties us together has lost its zest. The case has been solved.

“You know, we’re pretty amazing,” says Letitia finally. “We solved a murder; we helped seize a murderer. Not bad for the first time out.”

“I hope you’re not suggesting that we do this again any time soon,” says Jeanette.

“I think we‘re all due a long rest,” says Maude. “Did Clare say to change sides?”

“Left side,” Letitia and I say together. We’re doing rocking horse.

“You’re going to tell us everything you’ve found out, Lily, when you and Letitia went to The Nutty Irishman with Adele. What did she tell you?”

“What did you have to drink?” asks Maude.

“She treated us to daiquiris,” says Letitia. “Strawberry and lime. They were sublime.”

“Oh, my,” says Jeanette.

“As we’d surmised,” I pant, breathless from rocking horse, “Adele came to the Garden Path in disguise to get to know Winsome and to convince her that she, Adele, was innocent. That meant she also had to convince her of Candy’s guilt. That was the hard part. How do you persuade a mother her daughter is the thief and not you?”

“That must have been a project,” says Charlotte.

“Not that hard given Candy’s record,” says Jeanette.

“Candy killed her mother when Winsome confronted her about the embezzling and threatened to go to the police.”

“But in the beginning, why did Winsome and everyone else think Adele did the embezzling? Why not Candy?” asks Harriet.

“Toy soldier,” Clare sings out.

“What did she say?” asks Maude.

“Toy soldier,” Letitia says.

“Candy was just a volunteer at Puss’s Emporium. To help her mother out, she said. But really she was helping herself out, and it wasn’t the first time. She did have a record,” I report.

“Candy’s oldest was a baby then, and all the elderly ladies thought she was just the cutest. Adele, on the other hand, wasn’t a very nice person.  You know how we felt about her, and with us she was even pretending to be someone else! Polly. A nice person.”

“The kind of person who buys other people daiquiris,” murmurs Maude.

“No one really likes Adele,” I continue, ignoring her. “So it wasn’t that hard for Candy and brother Albert to frame her, with a little innocent assistance from Winsome.”

“I would have bet on Candy’s innocence over Adele’s any day of the week,” says Harriet. “Shows you just never know.”

Everyone is silent, contemplating the sinful ways of human beings. Clare calls out “the other side,” and we all follow suit.

“So, did you have more than one daiquiri?” asks Maude.

“Oh, yes,” says Letitia.

“Many more,” I report.

“What I don’t understand is why Candy killed Bev and Albert,” says Harriet, slashing at the water haphazardly.

“Albert had never forgiven Candy and her mother for not vouching for his innocence in the embezzlement,” she explains. “Candy had promised him little or no jail time and then he got a longer sentence than Adele. She’d double-crossed him and sent him off to prison in her place.”

“But as much as he hated his mother and his sister and blamed them for everything, Albert was never a murderer. Just a creep and a thief,” I add.

“Jacks,” Clare calls.

“What did she say?” asks Maude.

“Jacks,” several of us respond. We begin to jump so vigorously we don’t notice someone has come poolside. “Good morning, ladies,” says Burridge Fowler.

“Good morning, Burridge,” Jeanette and Clare say both at once.

“I wanted to thank you for solving Winsome’s murder. It makes me happy I can tell you. I brought you all some early Gravensteins.”  He puts a paper bag-full on a table.

“Thank you, Burridge. What a sweet thing to do,” says Jennifer.

“You’re such a gentleman, Burridge,” Clare adds.

“They look delicious,” exclaims Harriet. “I think I’ll make you a pie.”

“Why that would be wonderful,” Burridge blushes. “Just fine. But you don’t have to. You ladies deserve every apple and then some. Just help yourselves.”

“They’re beautiful apples,” says Charlotte. “Good apples for pies,” she adds.

“Everyone jig,” says Clare.

“So go on, Letitia. Lily. Why did Candy end up killing Albert and Bev?”

“Albert and Bev knew that Adele was around. They’d heard her threats to retaliate, and she’d just gotten out of prison,” says Letitia.

“When Winsome was murdered, they assumed Adele had done it,” I continue.

“So when Albert caught sight of Adele, he panicked. He figured she’d be out to get him next,” Charlotte guesses.

“Right,” says Letitia.

“Hula hoop,” calls Clare, and we all begin to hula.

“At first he and Bev were going to run,” I say, “but poor Albert came up with a scheme instead: why not just confess that he’d help frame Adele? He could go to the police and tell them everything. He’d get time served and Candy would go to prison. Adele would be grateful for his help and willing to forgive and forget.”

“But someone, probably Bev, had already told Candy that Albert caught sight of Adele at the swimming pool. Candy went to see her brother, hoping, probably, to incite him to do something about the woman before it was too late. Maybe she could get Albert to murder Adele, whatever….”

“Albert’s planned confession didn’t sit well with her.”

“And so,” says Charlotte, guessing again, “she figured she had no choice but to kill Albert and Bev.”

“Oh, my,” says Maude. “It’s all so complicated, isn’t it?”

“Lovely hula hands,” sings Jeanette, trying to change the subject which isn’t, and never has been, to her taste. Everyone joins in humming. “Graceful as the birds in motion, Gliding like the gulls over the ocean…” Gradually, the humming fades but we keep hulaing.

“Why in the world did she come after Adele at the concert?”

“By then the police were closing in, she didn’t care anymore. She just wanted to make Adele’s life hell. Or at least that’s what I think. What do you think, Letitia?”

“I think she never gave up, I think Candy thought she’d come out on top until the last minute. Somehow she was going to make it look like Adele was threatening her life, not vice versa. Her kids would help save her. It would all be fine.”

“What about the kids? What’s going to happen to them?” asks Harriet.

“They’re with their paternal grandmother,” Letitia answers, “who, as it turns out is soft, warm and sticky sweet. It’ll all be okay.”

“To the wall for knee bends,” calls out Clare. “Let’s get on with it.”

The Aquacizers Murder Club

A frightened group of old women, the Aquacizers Murder Club almost disbands again.

XI

The Aquacizers Murder Club almost disbands again

The next morning at aquacize, no one does much but paddle and hang off the side of the pool, while we tell them everything that’s happened. Polly isn’t here, of course, but she hasn’t been arrested either. The kindly policeman explained to me this morning when I called to ask that there was no hard evidence against her. Impersonating someone else in an old folks park hardly constitutes murder. Albert and Bev had friends in the drug business and their deaths more probably had to do with that than with a vendetta by a nutty embezzler.

“Oh, sure,” says Harriet. “He can talk. He doesn’t even know her. What if she comes? She’s late sometimes. What will we do? I refuse to exercise next to a murderer.”

“I don’t think she’ll come,” murmurs Clare. “Whether or not she’s a murderer, she’s been pretending to be someone she’s not, and that’s pretty scary. She knows we’re on to her.”

“She won’t come, Harriet,” says Jeanette in a soothing voice. “We’ll probably never see her again. What we must do is get on with our lives and forget about this whole affair.”

“I think we should exercise,” says Charlotte. “We’ll all feel better if we do what we normally do.”

“The evidence against her is overwhelming,” says Maude, who clearly has no intention of exercising, since she’s left her hearing aids in and is keeping her head well above water. “I think we should try to finish the job and bring her to justice.”

“I agree,” says Letitia.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I saw their bloody bodies. I don’t know that I want anything more to do with any of it.”

“I’m so glad I wasn’t with you,” says Maude with a shudder.

“You’re both wimps,” says Letitia. “The Brand New Beginnings Band concert is tonight. You know how proud she is of her performance on the glockenspiel. She’ll be there, I’ll bet. She won’t come back here, but she’ll be there. They need her and they don’t know she’s a murderess.”

“So what are you suggesting?”

“That we out her there, maybe in front of everyone. That we confront her and bring her down before she kills again.”

“Who else do we think she wants to kill?” asks Maude.

“Maybe Candy. Maybe she wants to destroy Puss’s Emporium. Remember, she threatened everyone, according to Della.”

“That’s terrible,” says Clare. “Do you really think she’d burn down the store?”

“The cats,” moaned Letitia. “All those wonderful cats.”

“Let’s all calm down,” says Jeanette. “Why don’t we go sit in the hot tub and talk. That might help.”

And so we do. Seven of us, stuffed in.

“What did you and Polly do yesterday?” I ask Charlotte once we’re settled and basking.

“I had her in my house – I shudder to think – and my grandson came over with his computer, and we looked up Candy. I thought at the time we were having a pleasant time, but now, omygod, that woman was in my house…. I actually shared my favorite orange blossom tea with her. Then she had to go, I guess to do the murders.”

“Did you find out anything interesting about Candy?” asks Letitia, in hopes of changing the subject and calming poor Charlotte.

“Yes, yes. It was there in black and white so I guess it was all true. Oh my dears, our Winsome had such children!!”

“What did you learn, Charlotte?”

“Candy has a criminal record, would you believe it? Ten years ago, she served a jail sentence. She has no husband because he’s in prison, too. It doesn’t speak well for our dear departed friend, does it? First, that terrible Albert. And now his sister.”

Hot water bubbles up around us; a cool breeze ripples across a flower bed. The groundskeeper is mowing somewhere. “Anything else?” I ask.

“Nothing important. That was enough.”

“Oh, dear,” I suddenly remember. “I forgot to go back to Puss’s and pay off Bustamenté yesterday.”

“Murder can be distracting,” Maude says. “Don’t worry, Lily. What can she do? You’ll pay her when you get there again.”

“So how can we out Polly? Do we just have to wait for the police to jail her?”

“We don’t want to upset the band. They’ve practiced hard. And no matter what we think of her, the band needs her glockenspiel. They’re playing a “Florentiner March” that’s full of bells,” says Clare.

——-

We all murmur in agreement. There’s really nothing we can do. So we sit and stew and worry instead. We’ve lived long enough to know that justice isn’t that common a thing. What if Adele Monk gets off scot free!

Since Letitia has a new cat to tend to, I ask Maude to go with me to Puss’s Emporium so that I can finish paying off Bustamenté. I have to admit that I’m feeling better, having no mystery to solve and no murderer to look for. I can spend some time among the used bric-a-brac, teflonware and whatever else their thrift shop has to offer. Maude stays a few minutes at the front of the store contemplating Lucre Lucy and talking to the clerk in charge.

I wander over to look for Bustamenté. She’s nowhere to be seen; I wonder if she’s heard about Albert and Bev and is staying out of sight. I wonder if Adele has talked to her since the murders. But why would she? The truth is out and the police probably have a tail on her.

“Where’s Bustamenté?” I ask a volunteer staff.

“She’s in the office with a sick cat,” the staffer replies. I retrace my steps and head for the door of the veterinary examining room. “Hey,” says the staffer. “You can’t go in there. She doesn’t like that.”

I shrug. I know she’ll like my sixty dollars; she’ll have to put up with me.
When I push the door open, I’m surprised to find the big vet sitting on the edge of an examining table, tears running down her swollen red cheeks, her shoulders shaking. “Hey Bustamenté,” I say. “I’ve brought you your money. Are you all right?”

She reaches out with one hand for the money, and I hand it to her.

“About time,” she mutters.

“Do you have a problem?” I ask. “You must have heard about Albert and Bev. Your friend Adele has been real, real busy.”

“I didn’t bargain for any of this,” she says. “I should’ve told her to get lost.” She sniffles. “Just get out, will you? I didn’t do anything wrong. I just told her what everyone else was doing.”

“Yeah. Sure. I’ll bet you also promised her an alibi the day of Winsome’s death,” I reply. “She throws something at me – I think it’s a blood pressure gauge for cats – and I duck out the door and head for a table in Blue Hair’s section covered with bric-a-brac, most with a cat theme. I’m studying salt and pepper shakers with linking tails when Blue Hair appears at my side.

“Say,” she says in a half whisper, “I remembered who came to see Bustamenté on the day of Winsome’s murder.”

“And who was that?” I ask, humoring her. The details are just distracting now.

“It was Candy. I thought and I thought and I’m sure – it was Winsome’s daughter, Candy.”

What is it that bothers me? I’d assumed until Blue Hair’s declaration that it was Adele. Of course. She had Bustamenté on her payroll. If she needed an alibi or some information, the big vet was there to help. So why did Candy and Bev show up instead, and what did they want? I spin around – believe me old ladies don’t often do that – and head back to find Bustamenté. I’d never asked her much about her relationship with Candy. But the big woman has leapt down from her examining table and made a run for it. She’s gone. When I ask where, the volunteer answers with a smirk that the tough vet wasn’t feeling well.

The next post will bring out mystery to a startling conclusion when the Aquacizers Murder Club attends the Brand New Beginnings Band concert.

The Aquacizers Murder Club

A revelation and another murder!!!

X
A revelation and another murder

Letitia turns out to be a great help. She has an old friend on the staff of the Press Democrat and he sits us down in front of a row of computers with all their archived files, and even helps us to go straight to the right place.

“Jeeze,” I murmur. “She looks familiar, don’t you think?” We both stare at the photograph, trying to put it together with someone we know.

“Can you enlarge it, Pete?” Pete zooms in and the picture begins to make sense. The face isn’t lined, not yet; the hair is black and pulled back into a chic updo; the makeup emboldens her cheekbones and her eyebrows arch. Bustamenté was right. She looks like some movie star playing the role of the Puss Emporium’s embezzler.

“Substitute some red, blowsy hair; change her eyebrows and soften the angles of her face; add a few lines there, and there. And who do you have?” asks Letitia. “It’s amazing. It’s Polly, isn’t it?”

“Which could explain the unspoken exchange between her and Albert.”

“Did she do it?”

“You mean murder Winsome?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I suppose she must have, mustn’t she? Why else would she pretend to be Polly, except to get close to Winsome?” I’m almost ready to call in trumpets.

“So what do we do now?”

“Well, first, let’s be sure we have real evidence that she did it.”

“She had the opportunity. She was right there. And in disguise – it looks as if Winsome never even recognized her.”

“Right.”

“The disguise proves a lot in my book.”

“It’s circumstantial. But it sure suggests guilt. You’re right. At the very least, she’s a ‘person of interest.’”

“She’d threatened everybody.”

“Right. Do you think Albert is on the run?”

“If he isn’t, if he wasn’t sure it was her yesterday, maybe not. I think we’d better warn him.”

———

We’ve exhausted ourselves by mid-afternoon when we get to Albert’s trailer on Paradise Court. After we’ve warned Albert, should we tell the police about Polly’s disguise? Should we let them know that, or more than that? After this many years, why hasn’t Agatha Christie given us a clue? Why does Scotland Yard listen to Miss Marple, and the police not listen to us? We know that in most murder mysteries, the police aren’t particularly bright. Given that, should we tell them everything we know?

At least, we’re certain about this one thing – we need to warn Albert and Bev that Adele has been found out: within the next 24 hours she’ll be especially dangerous. We’re feeling a little bit smug. The jerk is about to discover that old ladies are effective investigators, that they’ll  try to save even the likes of him in their unyielding pursuit of justice, and that in the future he’d do well to be more respectful.

The place looks the same as the day we first came except that there’s an angry wind whipping up the weeds around it; the something metal that rattled before is banging a tin can tattoo now. Black clouds are leaning over the place and it’s going to rain any minute. The car is there, but we don’t hear the pit bull.

“I think something’s wrong,” I almost whisper as we get out of the car. Letitia hobbles over to me, leaning into her cane every few steps, staring down at the pock-marked ground to avoid a pratfall into a hole or a nasty stumble into a dog pile.

“Let’s just get this done,” she says. “It’s so awful here.”

We walk over to the door. “There’s no dog,” I tell her. “Something’s wrong.”

“Oh, Lily. Really. Just knock.”

I do. Once. And again. “They’ve got to be here. I don’t think they have the money for a second car.”

“Give the door a push,” says Letitia.

“Why should I do that? Let’s forget this part and go get a cop.”

“Lily, give it a push. Maybe they’ve already run. That’s the only way to find out.”

I do as she says – God knows why – and, surprisingly, it swings open. And, not surprisingly to me by then, I glimpse the two of them, Albert and Bev, in a loose pile half falling from the couch and a rusty pool of blood around them as if someone hit a ketchup bottle with too much force and “plop,” there it is.

I shut the door before I can see more.

“They’re dead, Letitia.”

“What?”

“They’re dead. Let’s get out of here. Fast. Find a policeman.”

“What do you mean they’re dead? You mean Adele was already here? We’re too late?”

“I guess. Just start moving towards the car. Let’s go.”

“Oh, shit. Are you sure? You’re not making this up to frighten me?”

“Move it! Fast! I don’t want to be here anymore.”

I guess she moves as fast as she can, but it seems to take forever for her to crab back to the car. Just like one of those crawdads. I almost hate her. Even though I’m a child of the violent sixties, and once sang songs of protest in the faces of cops, I suddenly love the idea of the police and can hardly wait to find a uniformed officer with a night stick, a gun and a pleasant smile.

In the next post, the aquacizers try to deal with more murders. And with their new knowledge of who the murderer is!!!

The Aquacizers Murder Club

The investigation heats up at Puss’s Emporium!!!

X

The investigation heats up at Puss’s Emporium

On the way to Puss’s Emporium the next morning, Letitia suddenly remarks, “What do you make of Polly?”

“Are you talking about her occasional rant against the Aquacizers Murder Club or the way she and Albert stared at each other?”

“Did they?”

“Oh, yes,” agrees Maude from the back seat of my little souped-up PT Cruiser. “It was very odd. He couldn’t see her when he first came because she was facing the other direction. Then, she turned around, and he looked frightened. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Sort of. I didn’t think he looked frightened so much as surprised. Like he hadn’t expected to see her. Like he knew her from somewhere.”

“Fran told me that she thought Polly was creepy,” I say, as we turn into the driveway at Puss’s Emporium.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Letitia mutters. “We can’t figure out who murdered Winsome, so now we’re going to make up stories about people. I think you’re both angry because she wanted to put a stop to everything, and we’re having too much fun being nosy.”

I suspect Letitia is the angry one because she missed the look that passed between Polly and Albert. It isn’t evidence to her because she didn’t see it herself. We, or the police maybe, will find the killer and if Letitia hasn’t been personally involved in finding the damning evidence, it won’t matter if he’s the murderer, she won’t believe it. I’m glad Maude is here. Maybe she’ll be more alert and reasonable than my usual partner.

I park. We sit in the car for a moment while Maude adjusts her hearing aid. “Now, remember, Letitia,” I say. “We’re here to talk to Blue Hair, not Petunia.”

“Who’s Petunia?” asks Maude.

“A cat she’s fallen in love with.”

“Oh….. let’s do go see the cat first, and then we can talk to Blue Hair.”

Amateurs! I think to myself. Slowing the investigation for a cat!

Maude has clearly been here before; she isn’t surprised by Lucre Lucy and she knows exactly where to find Petunia. Exasperated, I follow Letitia and Maude down the aisle to Petunia’s station. Old ladies annoy me, but what can I do? What if Blue Hair sees us and leaves? Did that occur to either of my associates? I’ll bet not.

While they stroke the cat and plan for its future, I notice the vet from the other day jotting down numbers by her donation kitty. I have an inspiration. “Hello,” I say, smiling at her as warmly as I can. “I guess we may be adopting Petunia.”

“Good,” mutters the vet. Clearly she’s not feeling chatty.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name,” I say.

“No reason you should know it.” I look hurt and I guess she remembers the customer is always right. “It’s Bustamenté.”

“Bustamenté. My, that is unusual. While we’re here, I just wondered – did you know Adele? She used to be a vet here.”

“Yeah, I remember Adele. What’s it to you?”

Really not chatty. Rude and not chatty. “She and I used to be friends. Actually, we went to college together years and years ago. Even though, I admit, she’s much younger than me-you wouldn’t guess that, would you? I went to college quite late. (I’m over-complicating my story; tripping over every word. If she finds me silly, maybe she’ll talk.) Anyway, I thought it would be fun to see her again. If she’s still around.”

“Well, if you know her that well then you know she’s not exactly popular here. She wouldn’t be hanging around the place.”

“No. But you strike me as the kind of person who keeps up old friendships.”

“Yeah.”

“So you’re seen her recently. The two of you had a drink together, something like that?”

“Yeah. And as I said to her, it’s all for a price. You want to know something I know, you pay for it. That goes for vet info, and reports about what I see and hear.”

“Understood,” I say and hope she’s cheap. I’ve never paid anyone off before. It’s thrilling but at the same time frightening because the woman’s a block of stone and she could fall on me and that would be the end, “So you report your sightings of cops and flaky old ladies to Adele. For a price.”

“Yeah,” she says again, but smiling now. She likes that word. “Flaky.” A volunteer has taken Petunia from her cage and the girls are handing her back and forth, talking to her, oohing and ahing. We both watch them for a few moments. Then she says, on the defensive suddenly, “I don’t think she murdered Winsome, if you want to know. I’d never work for her if I thought that.”

“Oh, sure. I would never suspect her of murder either. But she may know who did it.”

“She thinks it was Albert.”

“Good choice.”

“Yeah. Anyway, what do you want to know?”

“Do you know where she lives? Do you have a phone number? How do you contact her?”

“I leave messages with Lucre Lucy. Under her left front paw. I’ve only done it just the one time, after you were here. The only time we got together was at The Nutty Irishman. There was a guy in there who seemed to know her real well, so I figure she’s living nearby. She had a daiquiri and I drank a martini. Any other details you want, honey? Remember the cost goes up with every detail.”

“A few more. All she asked of you was to let her know when we came into the store, and who we talked to, just that?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t have a picture of her, do you?”

“No, but you’re the detective. Go to the library; look in the newspapers – January 2005 – that’s when she got sentenced. I remember the picture. She looked like some kind of movie actress. I bet everyone who saw it thought, ‘So sad, she doesn’t look like an embezzler.’”

“What did the two of you talk about, besides what she wanted you to do?”

“That’s all, lady. No more. Show me your money.”

“How much did she pay you?”

“Sixty dollars per old ladies’ viewing. And that’s what I expect from you. Sixty dollars for every Adele viewing. Don’t give me some sad story about your social security check being late.”

She must have seen me wince. I don’t walk around with that much money, but I rummage around in my pocket-book to demonstrate my good intentions. “How about you give me cash with my credit card?”

“How about you bring me in the money this afternoon?”

“Okay. And you just keep on telling her when you see us, okay? We don’t want her to suspect a double cross.”

“Yeah, sure. I don’t have a horse in this race, lady.”

Maude and Letitia bring their acquisition over for a last report from the vet before they sign adoption papers and walk out with Petunia. They stand there with sappy expressions on their faces, waiting for the chunky vet and me to finish. “Can you tell us if there’s anything we should know about Petunia’s health?” asks Letitia.

“She’s had all her shots, been spayed, given her monthly dose of Advantage. She’s in great shape. Let me get her medical records to take with you.” She goes over to the wall and begins going through the filing cabinets. I gaze across the floor, looking for Blue Hair. Letitia follows my eyes, and we both spot her sitting at her tea-table. There aren’t any customers around.

“Could you hang onto Petunia for just a bit?” Letitia says, limping over to stand next to the vet. “Maybe just put her back in her cage? I’ll be right back. We have to talk to someone and I don’t want to make my girl nervous.”

“Sure. She’ll be waiting for you.”

The three of us head for Blue Hair, who’s glittering like a disco ball, and seems to be expecting us. There are four chairs and four tea cups at her table this time. “It’s so good to see you again. I’m sorry I had to run out the other day. If we don’t take our breaks when they come up, we lose them.”

“It was our fault for not coming back directly,” says Letitia. “But I fell in love with a little cat, and today I’ve come back for her.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m so glad for you. It’s Petunia, isn’t it? Such a sweetie.”

I let them carry on for a few minutes. I know better than to try to change the subject in a place where cats are as important as God and cuddly as babies. Eventually, Letitia stops cooing and introduces Maude. The three of them sing one more anthem of praise to cats, and especially Petunia, until, finally, Letitia is ready to get down to business.

“Something terrible happened to us yesterday, Della, so we decided we had to carry on our investigation. You’ll never guess who showed up at the high point of our aquacize?”

“Oh, my. I’m such a bad guesser.”

“Albert Smythe showed up, that’s who.” Della’s eyes get very large and she shakes her head in disbelief.

“We have to get Winsome’s murder solved,” I add. “It’s just too awful to have madmen like Albert coming poolside to mock and threaten us.”

“Oh, I am so sorry. It must have been dreadful. As I said before, I’ll do anything I can to help you. He didn’t accuse someone at the Garden Path of doing the murder, did he?”

“No, mostly he just said we should mind our own business.”

“Oh, my. It sounds as if he’s afraid you’ll find something incriminating and he’ll go back to prison. ”

“But it’s so hard to believe that he’d kill his own mother,” moans Maude. “Did he make any threats when he was sentenced?”

“Oh, I don’t know, dear. I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t go to an affair like that. I never heard that he did, but Adele Monk, such an eccentric woman she was – she came in here before she was put away and threatened everyone. I mean the whole place. And Albert. And Winsome. She was a very scary lady, I tell you.”

“You mean she came into the store and shouted threats?” I ask. I think Blue Hair tends to exaggerate.

“That’s exactly what I mean. Scared us all to death, I can tell you, but she left before the police could come get her. I was the one who called 9-1-1, but she was out on bail and they didn’t try to catch her. I think they thought she was loony, but not really dangerous. Hah!”

“Have you seen her since she got out of jail?” I ask.

“No. At least I don’t think so. There was one day last week when I thought I saw her hovering around Lucre Lucy, but I have a powerful imagination and I probably just made it up. I haven’t been able to look at Lucy with the same fondness since the whole thing happened.” Our faces accordion into more creases than usual. “I know it seems odd, but Lucy has always seemed almost alive to me. I thought she was the funniest, sweetest thing. But since the scandal, she’s always seemed a little threatening. Like she cooperated in a crime, you know.”

“Hmmmm,” murmurs Letitia for all of us. “Have you seen Albert since he got out of jail?”

“Yes,” said Blue Hair thoughtfully. “Say, would any of you like an old-fashioned oatmeal cookie? I made them myself and just brought them in this morning. They’re low sugar.”

We all explain that we’re not the least bit hungry and no, thank you.

“Okay. But let me know if you change your mind. I really should have put them out. Your question was about Albert, wasn’t it? Whether I’ve seen him here. He came by to see Winsome a couple of weeks ago. That’s the only time, I think. His wife was here once talking to Winsome. Somebody else came by to see Bustamenté the day of the murder. I can’t remember who but I remember because we heard about Winsome’s death the same afternoon. Then Bustamenté had a visitor and I  remember I thought it was odd to see anyone calling on Bustamenté on that particular day.

“Who’s Busta-whatever?” asks Maude.

“The broad-shouldered vet,” I say.

“Try to remember who  she came with. It could be important,” says Letitia.

“I’m afraid I’m having a senior moment. I know it was the same day Winsome was killed… we hadn’t found out yet. It was someone I know, but I didn’t really think too much about it. Whether it was Candy or Bev or who…. There were customers here and….”

She frowns with the effort to remember, stands up, and ambles over to a plastic bag full of cookies on the counter, takes them out and methodically arranges them on yet another flowered plate, then brings them back to the table. We all watch, as if we’re hypnotized, as if her answer will mean something if only she comes up with it, but really, we haven’t a notion of whether it matters who came to see Bustamenté. One-by-one, we each choose a cookie.
“Well, I’ll let you know if I remember, I’ll call, but at this moment….”

“Could it have been Adele Monk?” I ask.

“I don’t think so but I suppose it could have been. Oh, dear.”

“Please do call if you remember,” says Maude.

“Tell me,” I say. “What do you know about Bustamenté?”

“Not much, thank goodness. She’s way over there and I’m here. I can tell you she’s rude and mean, and the only living creatures she’s fond of are cats. Not a soul besides. But I suppose we should just be grateful that for the cats’ sake….”

“Does she have friends? How well did she know Adele Monk? If she was here then, did she play any part in the scandal? Does she know Albert and Bev?”

“Oh, dear. Please. Give me a minute. I don’t know about Adele, but I guess she must have known her because she came while Adele was still here. She was a sort of assistant vet. I don’t think she had anything to do with the scandal, and I don’t know if she knows Albert or Bev, except that Bev came by to see her that one time.”

“Does she have friends?”

“Like I said, I think she only has cats.”

Among the three of us, we can’t think of another question. Blue Hair doesn’t want us to leave. She hopes we’ll tell her something to repay her for all the information she’s supplied us. Isn’t that the way gossip is supposed to work? Isn’t it a form of sharing? You tell me, I’ll tell you? Like everyone else, she doesn’t take us very seriously as investigators. Not surprising, probably. To our benefit, probably. We walk back over to the adoption area to get Petunia. Bustamenté is waiting for us, impatiently tapping her fingers on the counter. Must be lunchtime.

“Hey, Bustamenté,” I say, after the kitten has been passed into Letitia’s eager, outspread hands. “Did someone come to see you on the day of Winsome’s murder?”

Bustamenté looks at me, shaking her head, tapping her pencil. “What did I tell you? I only give up information for a price.”

“I already owe you more than I afford. It’s a simple question. Just remember, I can rat on you to Adele, and then what will you do? Where will you run and hide, Bustamenté?” It’s all bluster. Letitia and Maude look at me like they’ve never seen or heard anything like it, and they probably haven’t outside of the movies. I’m especially proud of “rat on you..” The words feel strange in my mouth, but I’ll bet I can get used to them.
“Oh shit,” says the muscle-bound veterinarian. “Just be here with the money this afternoon.” She puts down the pencil and glares at me. “Bev Smythe came one day, I don’t know which one.She came to ask me the same questions you did about Adele Monk. I told her exactly the same thing.”

“Did she pay you?” asks Letitia.

“No, she just scared me. Bad,” says Bustamenté. “She’s no little old lady.”

When we’re back in the car, I tell the girls what I learned earlier from the veterinarian, and we bicker over the $60 and whether a murder club of old ladies should recruit someone who’s frightening to keep the costs of investigating low. They finally agree to pay me half the money. “You could have gotten the same information for less,” says Letitia. “I would have scared the bejeesus out of her.”

“So what do you make of everything?” asks Maude.

“We need time to think,” I say.

“Poirot’s ‘little gray cells?’”

“Exactly.”

“So maybe tomorrow at Aquacize?”

“Sounds good. This afternoon, I’m going to the library to see if I can get a copy of the newspaper that reported the Monk woman’s sentencing. Bustamenté says her photo was a beaut; she looked like a movie star.”

“I want to come, too,” says Letitia.

“Can you bear being away from your kitten?”

“Elizabeth can watch her.”

“Oh, sure,” I say and make a mental note to do the newspaper business as fast as possible. Poor Letitia. Elizabeth indeed.

In the next post, the aquacizers are shocked when they see Adele Monk’s photo. And someone else is murdered!!!

The Aquacizers Murder Club

The aquacizers are threatened at the swimming pool by Albert, Winsome’s terrible son.

VIII

The aquacizers are threatened

Later at the pool, after telling my story, I realize how absurdly I acted. How did I become so obsessed with murder? Am I so bored in my old age that I have nothing to do but frighten mothers with small children?

“Now, now,” says Letitia. “Any of us would have done the same.”

“We’re all a little crazy,” says Harriet. “Maybe we should give this project up. Maybe it really is dangerous. I don’t like the idea of a murderer waiting to strike again.”

“Neither do I,” says Jeanette. “If you want, Lily, we can go to the police and tell them everything we know. Maybe it will help them, even though I do think our information seems awfully disjointed. But I think we’d do better go back to doing the things we do best.”

“Like what?” asks Letitia.

“Like exercises!” barks Polly. “Like going to Jeanette’s wonderful Bible studies. Like taking walks. You’re making fools of yourselves.”

I didn’t know Polly had been going to Jeanette’s “wonderful” Bible studies. It strikes me as odd somehow.

“I did try talking to her,” Jeanette says. “To Candy.”

“What happened?”

“She was very sweet. She didn’t say anything about feeling threatened. Just that she wanted to be left with her thoughts of Winsome for a while. It’s hard to mourn your mother when you have three lively children to care for. She wanted time. Without her mother’s old friends swarming around her.”

“I say, let’s give the poor woman a break,” says Charlotte.

“Go to the wall,” calls Clare. I’ve only just finished telling my story and we’re already almost through with our routine.

“Knee bends,” calls Clare. And here we are again, dropping gracefully into the water and rising up again while we mumble to whoever’s nearest our arguments for or against the Aquacizers Murder Club.

“I don’t think we should stop investigating anything,” I say to Letitia.

“Of course not,” she responds.

“You’re not quitting?” Maude yells at us.

“No,” I yell back.

“Good!” she shouts. “What are we doing now?”

“Plié,” calls Clare.

“Plié,” Letitia says to Maude.

Everyone is silent for a few minutes. That doesn’t happen very often and when it does it’s almost religious, all these old women doing something in unison, silently. A mockingbird makes up a new song, the water is lit up with midday sunlight. Then it all suddenly turns shadowed and cool as a something crosses in front of the sun.

“A bunch of frumpy flowers, all right. Wilting, too, I’d say.” The voice is rudely, terribly male, and familiar besides. I look up, blinking at the blurred form of a big man backlit by the bright sky, and then he laughs, the image clears, and I realize with a start that it’s Albert Smythe.

“My God, Albert,” I say. “Couldn’t you have called first or something?”

“You didn’t. Why should I?”

“Everyone,” says Letitia. “This is Albert Smythe, Winsome’s son.”

Murmurs go up all around: “Hello.” “We’ve heard about you.” “We’re so sorry.”“Miss your mother.”

Then everybody’s quiet again until Clare says: “Leg raises. Right leg.”

Albert Smythe is looking straight down at Letitia and me. “Do you have some particular reason for your visit?” asks Letitia.

“Yeah. I do. I want all of you to stay away from me and my sister. Got it?”

“Yes,” Letitia says in a big brave voice. “But I’m not sure why, Albert. You didn’t kill your mother, right? And neither did your sister. So what are you worried about?”

“None of it’s your business, ladies. My old lady ain’t your business.”

I look across to the other side of the pool to see what the other aquacizers think. They’re all in profile, staring ahead, not looking at him, their legs going up in unison to Clare’s count. All except Polly who’s facing the other direction to block the sight of him completely. I don’t blame her. Even after a shower and with a clean flowered shirt that oddly matches his tattoos, he’s a sight to behold with his bulging stomach, his shiny face and bald pate.

“I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable, ladies. God, you are a sight—wheezing and kicking, sagging and slumping. What a bunch.”

“We don’t mean to offend you, Albert. If you’ve finished threatening us, why don’t you leave?” says Letitia.

He doesn’t reply immediately, and while I don’t think repartee is his strong suit, I look up to find out why. That’s when I discover him staring at Polly. And Polly staring back.

“We wouldn’t mind if you left now, Albert,” Letitia says again.

“Yeah, yeah. Just remember what I said. I’m going. Be careful, ladies. Stay away from us. All of you!” He turns on his heel and walks away. For a few minutes, we all forget about aquacize, we’re so glad to see him leave. We just lean back on our respective walls and gently jab at the water.

“What a jerk,” says Harriet. “He makes me want to keep working on the case. Poor Winsome. She couldn’t have deserved a son like that! And if he killed her….”

“I agree. Let’s keep on working on the investigation,” says Jeanette.

“Why? Just because that idiot mocked you?” asks Polly.

“Maybe. Well, why not. He made me angry! I don’t like being threatened,” says Charlotte. “I agree. Let’s keep looking into this thing.”

“I’m with you,” says Clare.

“You’re all crazy,” mutters Polly. “If you want to keep at it, I guess you can. I hope it’s harmless. But, for God’s sake, don’t do it just because of that bastard.”

“Not such a bad reason, really, says Charlotte. “What would you and Clare like to do next, Jeanette?”

“What if we see if we can make any connection between Burridge and Albert Smythe? I didn’t remember until  now when I saw Mr. Smythe, but sometime ago I saw Burridge and him talking together on Rose Thorn Lane, close to where Winsome met her end. I didn’t think of it before because I’d never seen Albert and it seemed so inconsequential when I didn’t know who he was.”

“Another lead! We’ll talk to Burridge again this afternoon,” says Clare.

“Wonderful.” For the first time I think we might actually solve this case. “Letitia, what if we go back to the Pussy Emporium and talk with Blue Hair some more.”

“I’ll go with you,” Maude exclaims.

“And I,” says Polly, “or rather Charlotte and I, will see what we can find out about Candy. I think there may be more going on there than meets the eye.”

“I think you’re right,” says Charlotte. “My son’s a computer geek. I’ll bet he can find out if there’s anything online to know about her.”

“I thought you wanted nothing to do with any further investigation,” murmurs Letitia in Polly’s direction.

“Oh, what the heck,” Polly mutters. “I don’t want to be left out.”

In the next post the investigation heats up at Puss’s Emporium.

The Aquacizers Murder Club

The Aquacizers Murder Club ponders the evidence. We witness a violent encounter between Lily and Candy Smythe at Walgreens.

VII
The Aquacizers Murder Club ponders the evidence. We witness a violent encounter between Lily and Candy Smythe at Walgreens.


The members of the Aquacizers Murder Club are deeply impressed with our story. Harriet’s dark eyes lighten up; Clare forgets where she’s at in the exercises again and again; and a frustrated Maude moves to be near Letitia so that she can catch every nuance. By the time we finish telling our story, we’re at the wall for knee bends.

“It does sound less and less like Burridge did it,” says Jeanette, rising and falling like a ballerina at her bar.

“But don’t count him out yet,” says Polly. “Winsome’s old problem at Puss’s Emporium probably has nothing to do with the murder. That was years ago.”

“True,” says Clare. “And besides Winsome’s daughter seems so certain the murderer is someone who lives here in the park. That would mean Burridge, I think,” Winded from talking through kneebends, breathlessly, she calls out “Plié.”

“Blue Hair doesn’t think Candy thinks he did it,” remarks Letitia.

“And who does she think Candy thinks did it?” asks Polly, with a rusty chortle, adjusting her feet for the plié, and gazing into the warm blue sky as she bends gracefully into the water.

“I don’t know. I think she’d like it to be Albert.”

“Sounds right to me.”

“It’s too obvious,” says Charlotte.

“This isn’t a mystery novel,” retorts Polly. “The most obvious suspect could very well be the guilty one.”

“It’s too bad Candy won’t talk to any of us,” Jeanette murmurs.

“What?” asks Maude. “Have we changed feet yet?”

“Change feet,” calls Clare.

“It’s hard to think about anything except this awful murder,” exclaims Harriet.

“But please, please try to remember the Brand New Beginnings Band is playing Sunday night,” says Polly. “We want a sizeable audience.”

“Polly’s glockenspiel is one of the highlights,” says Charlotte.

“Maybe Candy would talk to you, Jeanette,” Letitia suggests. “You haven’t tried, have you?” Jeanette is clearly the most gentle-mannered of all of us. It comes from her church training, I suspect.

“Not really. I’ll give her a call if you like.”

“Please do,” says Letitia. “I can’t imagine she’d think you were one of the enemy.”

“If Candy really thinks someone in the park is the murderer but doesn’t know who, I can’t imagine she’ll talk to any of us,” remarks Polly. “She’ll be too afraid.”

We all bend in the water quietly—lap, lap on the sides of the pool. Mockingbirds dialogue above us; a mallard drake comes in for a landing at the nearby pond with a female bird in close pursuit. We’re all trying to imagine anyone we know murdering Winsome.

____________

There are days I  pick up Frances at Walgreens when the store is like a carnival. Small brown children dash everywhere, chattering to each other in English while their haphazard mothers call out to them in Spanish. Teenagers lounge in cosmetics, looking for the longest eyelashes, the plushest maschera, the coolest color for their cheeks and nails. Old people patrol the aisles looking for bargains. In the greeting card section they get their daily hugs from Frances, sympathy for the sicknesses they must address and deaths they must mourn, and enthusiasm for the births, confirmations, graduations and marriages they’re expected to celebrate. Pop music from a concealed radio makes everything bounce.

When I come to the Hallmark aisle, Frances is bent over the 99-cent cards, helping someone blond who’s trying to thank as many people as possible at as low a cost as she can. I stop short when I see it’s Candy. I don’t want to scare her away. Her daughter is clinging to her, looking up at Frances who, I’m sure, has already had a conversation with her about her age, her favorite color, and her best subject in first grade. The toddler is standing up in a stroller and banging on it with a toy his mother must have bought him for the job. The other boy is farther down the aisle listening to sound cards, and putting them back in the wrong slots. I try to calm myself. Frances knows enough to ask the right questions if only she will, but what if she won’t? If I go to the aisle next to where they’re talking I might be able to hear what they’re saying. Frances has a hearty voice. If I’m very careful…. I skitter over, trying not to attract the attention of one of the friendlier employees who always wants to talk about how I am, how she is.

“Do you think this will be all right? I can’t afford much but I don’t want to seem cheap,” Candy worries.

“I think it’s a very tasteful card. Just right. Don’t you worry. No one looks that closely at thank yous. Most people don’t even remember to send them. They’ll be impressed that you thought of them at all.”

“Thank you,” sighs Candy. “It’s all so stressful.”

Frances looks down the aisle towards Candy’s other son who’s laughing and dancing to the chicken song on a greeting card. “What’s your boy’s name?” she asks. “He’s got so much energy.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Candy says, and turns to call to the kid, “Wally! Put that card back now and come over here. I want you to meet Grandma Fran.”

So Frances has already become “Grandma Fran.” That’s good. She’s won Candy over, granted, at some cost to the merchandise.

“Wally, I want to talk to you,” says Grandma. I hate to think what she’d rather do to him as I watch him trundle towards her, expectant, a little anxious. “Wally, if you can make sure all the cards that play music are in their right slots, so all of the same kind are together, your mother will give you a reward. Am I right, Candy?” she asks the bewildered mother who would have had to buy Wally something anyway to get out of the store without a tantrum.

“Grandma Fran is right, Wally. Do you think you can do it?” The boy nods gravely and wanders back up to the card section to begin his work. I can see he’s worried he’s been had.

“Thank you, Fran,” says Candy. “I know they’re out of control sometimes, but they mean well.”

“It’s hard being a single mother,” says Frances. “I can remember how it was when I got my first divorce.”

“Oh, it is. It is hard. Not that my husband was ever any help.”

“I know what you mean,” says Frances. “And now you have to deal with the death of your mother. Do you have any other family, Candy?”

“Just my brother.”

“Was he at the memorial service?”

“No. He and mom really hated each other. He said he was no hypocrite so he wouldn’t go.”

“Even so. His own mother?”

“I think he just didn’t want to leave his beer and a ball game. But his wife came to the graveside.”

“That’s good.”

An old man with one of those metal, hospital supply canes, is trying to look at diuretics where I’m standing, but I have no intention of moving.

“It was something. I don’t like her. I know you’ve heard about her. She’s a lot like him. But she’s right, we should be sticking together now.”

“You say that like there’s something to be afraid of. You’re all okay, aren’t you? You don’t think whoever murdered your mother would go after you?”

“Oh, I do. I do. Albert and me.”

“Excuse me,” growls the old man, raising his nearly lethal cane at me.

Wisely—but helplessly—I hop into the aisle. Candy looks up, sees me and, as fast as I can say “excuse me,” to the scary old man, her face reddens to a color I remember from Albert’s not dissimilar visage. “She’s one of them,” she cries out to Frances. “She and her friend are snooping around, I don’t know what for, but they’re everywhere. I can’t go anywhere and they turn up.”

Hyperbole, I think.

“Wally,” she calls to the boy who’s already lapsed and is playing “Heartbreak Hotel” over and over.“ You’ve done enough. Come on. I’ll get you some candy on the way out. Thank you, Fran. I’m out of here.”

Frances glares at me. “I would have told you all of it. You didn’t have to spy. Now, look, we’ve lost her.”

I ignore her and head down the aisle after Candy. “Candy,” I almost yell and people begin to stare at the old lady who’s chasing a mother and her kids to the cash register. “We’re just dithering aquacizers, not murderesses. Who do you think is after you?”

Candy stands in line, resolutely looking at the two people ahead of her. Her daughter is staring wide-eyed at me and clinging to her mother again. Wally thinks it’s a game. He likes it.

“Please,” I say in softer tones now. “Let us help you. We can be part of your defense against whoever you think is after you and Albert.”

“Please,” says Candy. “Just go away.”

“Yeah,” say some kids behind us. “Let her alone, lady. Let her be. What’s wrong with you?”

“Go way!” yells Wally.

I leave the line and head for the outside and Candy’s car. I’ll catch her where there’s not so much audience.

The poor woman comes out of the store, sees me and shakes her head in despair. But since I’m an old lady and she’s younger and fitter, she decides to risk going for the car. Gathering her brood around her, she comes straight at me.

“Candy,” I take a wild leap out of her path,. “Are you afraid of Adele Monk?”

She stops, and pulling her children even closer, asks, “What do you know about her?”

“Your mother’s friend, Della, told us about her. How she robbed Puss’s Emporium, and Albert tried to blackmail her and testified against her when she got caught. Along with your mother. That’s all we know. We don’t know her. We’ve never seen her.” I’m breathless from running and trying to say as much as possible as fast as possible.

“Look,” says Candy. “Della is a big mouth. Always was. You and your silly aquacizers are not only a pain in the ass, excuse my language, but you’re helping the killer. So stop, now. Please. Let the police handle it.”

“And let you keep running?”

“Yeah. You’ve got it. Now go away, old lady.”

“Go away,” yells Wally. “Yeah, you go,” yells his sister. Full of righteous menace, the teenagers from the store head our way to see what’s happening. I smile weakly and move away from the car. “Be careful,” I say.

“You too,” Candy says, laughing weakly as she stuffs the children into their seats one by one. She backs up without looking and roars off. Seems to me the killer isn’t as dangerous as Winsome’s daughter.

In the next post the aquacizers are threatened!

The Aquacizers Murder Club

Today the plot thickens when Lily and Letitia question people at Puss’s Emporium where the dead woman worked.

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.

The Aquacizers Murder Club

A memorial service is held for Winsome. Candy accuses someone in the Garden Path of the murder of her mother. We look at other odd behaviors.

IV

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.”

“About cats?”

“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.

“You’re kidding.”

“No, it’s the same car. A Ford Escort, dented on the right fender. I remember it. It’s her all right.”

“Not Albert.”

“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.”

V

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.”

“Polly? Why?”

“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!!!

The Aquacizers Murder Club

In the hot tub on a foggy, cold day, the blossoming detectives discuss Burridge Fowler’s possible guilt.

III

The investigation continues in the hot tub with an examination of the motives of Burridge Fowler.

Unfortunately, on Monday the fog is just lifting and the temperature in and out of the pool is cool.

“Burrrrr,” says Clare. “It’s cold. But maybe it’ll get better.”

“I don’t think so,” says Jeanette.

Polly checks the temperature. “It’s only 82,” she says. “Let’s get moving.” She begins jogging vigorously. “Come on. I want to hear more about the investigations of the Aquacizers Murder Club.”

I had already told the story of Letitia’s and my visit to Albert and Bev. Letitia, who’s often late, hasn’t shown up yet. Harriet is uncharacteristically silent and jogging hard in her corner of the pool. Maude and Charlotte probably won’t be here because of the weather.

“Flex your right leg,” says Clare. I begin to work at it, my goose bumps becoming more prominent. I wish for jumping jacks. Now.

Letitia appears, walking slowly to the edge and looking down at me. “I just got a phone call,” she says.

“From who?”

“Candy. Winsome’s daughter.”

“What did she want? Why?”

“She said Bev warned her that we might come by and she wanted to tell us not to.”

“That’s weird,” is all I can think to say.

Letitia carefully takes off her robe, removes her earrings, and puts on a pair of  black rubber shoes especially designed for pools. Everyone is waiting to hear what else she has to say. She steps into the chilly water.

“This is terrible. I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand it.”

“Just get in here, flex your right leg and tell us about the phone call.”

She walks into the water chest high, shivering as she goes, and when she speaks her voice has gone wobbly with cold. “Bev told her we’d come nosing around and practically accused her of murder. She wanted to warn us that she had children and she wanted no part of old ladies thinking they could find her mother’s murderer. We’d better not show up at her house. Period.”

“I thought Albert and his sister didn’t get along,” says Harriet.

“Maybe they’ve transcended their differences because of us,” I respond. “Touching, don’t you think? She didn’t mention the money, did she?”

“No. Not a word.”

“What money?” complains Polly.

“The money Winsome willed to Albert and Candy.”

“There wasn’t any money. Was there money?” asks Harriet.

“It’s rather clever of Bev really,” I think aloud. “To keep Candy from talking to us, and at the same time make certain that she never hears about the money.”

“Rotate your right leg from the ankle,” Clare calls out. “Do you think Winsome’s daughter-in-law did it?” she asks.

“It sure seems like a possibility,” says Letitia, not rotating, just standing still, shivering.

“What money?” asks Polly.

“It’s made up money. Don’t worry about it,” I respond.

“So what happened with Mr. Fowler?” Harriet asks.

Jeanette laughs. “We decided that he probably did it,” she says, and then interrupts herself. “Clare, I can’t stand this. I think we should all go to the hot tub. There aren’t that many of us.” She looks around and counts. “Just six.”

Clare doesn’t seem to hear her. “Rotate from the knee,” she says.
“The hot tub. I say we go to the hot tub.”

“I’ll second that,” says Harriet.

“Good idea,” says Letitia. “I’ll go turn it on.” She leaves the pool much faster than she came in, then limps to the switch, while the rest of us make our way to the tub, each as quickly as she can, careful not to slip, not to break a bone.

“It’s 104 degrees,” says Polly.

“God be praised,” says Letitia.

“So tell us about Mr. Fowler,” I say before Clare has time to find her place across from me. We’re six in the tub now, evenly spaced and comfortable at 104 but not with enough room to exercise, although I know Clare wants to and we will.

“We can do flex and rotate in here,” she says. Soon we’re flexing and rotating, looking more like a flower than ever, I’m sure, with the emergent sun lighting up the bubbles churning up around us. “Jeanette will tell you the story of Mr. Fowler.” She closes her eyes and concentrates on her movements.

“The three of us went to see him on Saturday afternoon. I called ahead and told him I had been admiring his roses for what seemed like forever, and that the council was thinking of buying some special rose bushes for the front of the clubhouse and wanted his opinion. He was deeply flattered; I could hear him preening on the phone.

“As it turned out, Maude had some real questions for him because she’s having trouble with rose wilt. So we were well-equipped. We could have asked questions about roses for hours, but the murder had to come up. We were in the back of his house near the patio, looking at his flowers. The path was only a short distance away with yellow police tape circling the place where Winsome was found. Maude was the first to say something. Clare and I were too busy being polite.

“It’s so awful to have to speak of it, she said, but is that where poor Winsome was found? That’s the spot, he answered. Hope they don’t keep the ribbon there much longer. I don’t much like being in CSI. Poor Winsome, sighed Clare. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt her. She was such a nice woman.

“Burridge grunted something that might have been a yes, and took us to look at a white rose that needed more sun but since there was a large maple that shaded it in the afternoon he didn’t know what to do. Always so many problems, aren’t there? I said. I saw a way to get back to our subject, you see. I hear you had foxes living under your porch for a while. The babies must have been a delight to watch. I hope they didn’t make a mess? No. No, he responded. There were those that wanted to make them a problem. But they weren’t a problem, not at all. Cute little rascals, he added. I think he genuinely loved those foxes.

“Weren’t they after the ducks though? asked Maude. Fewer ducks would make a better world, he said. To be fair, he was within waddling distance of the pond and I believe they made a mess in his yard from time to time.

“I heard they killed a cat, Clare said to him, looking as innocent as a child.

Hah! he answered her. That was your Winsome. That stupid cat. Cat’s not supposed to be outside here. She didn’t care. The fox fed her babies good on that cat, I can tell you. And then that good for nothing woman tried to sue me!”

“I didn’t know that, I said, genuinely surprised. So things had gotten that bad. I hadn’t realized. How awful! I really did sympathize with him. It’s not as if you bought the foxes and put them there, I said.

“Right. That’s what I tried to tell her.”

“What happened with the lawsuit? asked Maude.

“Nothing yet, he said. Now that she’s gone I hope they’ll be calling it off.

“How long have you been dealing with this, Burridge? I asked, looking sympathetic.

“Way too long. Way way too long, he responded. I had to hire a lawyer with money I don’t have. Nasty, all of it. No, I’m sorry, my dears. I won’t miss Mrs. Smythe. Not at all. That’s what he said.”

“But that doesn’t mean he did anything like kill her,” says Letitia.

Clare grins and starts to bicycle in the hot tub. “I guess we should have talked about how we were going to handle everything before we went to visit the man. Maude can be a little deaf to nuances sometimes.”

“Yes,” says Jeanette. “She blurted out the question without a moment’s hesitation. Nothing. She just asked it.”

“What question?” asks Letitia.

“You didn’t kill her, did you Burridge?”

“Omygod,” I exclaim, wondering if a bunch of detectives can survive that kind of candor.

“What did he say?” asks Letitia.

“Well, he laughed, of course. He wasn’t going to say if he had. He looked at her like he was amazed that she would ask, but he was angry too.”

“And then,” says Clare, “he gave us his alibi, how he was inside his house reading the paper and hadn’t any idea what was going on outside his window. Bicycle on your right,” she adds.

“And he made the mistake of asking, ‘You don’t really think I could be a murderer, do you?’ We looked at him and thought about it, and that bothered him more, I think, than if we’d said yes. Before we could say anything more, he excused himself and went inside. We thought maybe to lawyer up.”

“So,” says Polly, bicycling energetically on her right side opposite me in the hot tub, “we already have two suspects: Bev Smythe and Burridge Fowler. I think, ladies, you’d really better leave it to the guys in blue. You might stumble on the real killer and get hurt.”

“I think we’re making real progress,” says Letitia. “I hope someone will volunteer to talk to Candy. There’s a memorial service tomorrow afternoon. She’s certain to be there.”

“As long as it’s not you doing the talking,” I smile.

“I’m to play the piano,” says Polly. “I’ve been put on notice by the management who told Candy about me. Not much money, but every bit helps.”

“Bicycle on your left,” says Clare.

“Why don’t Clare and I try?” asks Jeanette. “She already knows Clare, and I’m such a harmless looking person.”

“I’ll join you,” says Harriet. “I’m sure I’m every bit as harmless looking as you and I never ask awkward questions.”

In the next post, we attend the memorial service for Winsome Smythe – and more is revealed!!!

The Aquacizers Murder Club

Lily and Letitia search out Albert and his wife, Bev, and almost meet a sorry end.

II

We visit Albert and Bev Smythe on Paradise Court and almost meet our end.

Letitia and I decide to drive out on Sunday when the police will have finished questioning Winsome’s son and when, on the proverbial day of rest, people like her son and daughter-in-law will likely stay in bed until noon sleeping off hangovers. Frances wants to come, but her boss at Walgreen’s needs her to begin organizing Hallmark Halloween cards, a holiday that’s over two months away – but that’s the way retail is today.

I take my time walking over to Letitia’s house where I am certain she’ll be waiting outside watching birds. No one I knew had ever been inside her house, and her housemate Evelyn was someone none of us had ever laid eyes on. “What if she doesn’t exist?” Harriet asked one day. “She’s there,” replied Jeanette. “Some of us have seen her. Not lately. I guess she’s just a recluse, poor thing.”

It’s Letitia I felt sorry for. If there is an Evelyn, and I’m still not sure there is, she never goes anywhere with Letitia. She has no social energy, and so Letitia, who loves small animals, interesting people and motorcycles is pretty much on her own.

“We’ll case the place first,” she suggests as she rises to greet me, leaning on a mahogany cane instead of a walker. The walker would probably make her seem more frail, I think, and besides she’s dressed too neatly. Her cardigan is too expensive and too clean. Her slacks are neatly creased. I’m wearing green jeans and sporting a purple sweat jacket. I just hope we look doddering enough to seem harmless.

“Absolutely,” I respond. “And we still haven’t decided on our cover.”

“Yes. I’ve been thinking. It’s probably a bad idea, you know—to lie. Not morally sound, I mean.”

“It’s for a good cause. We may catch a murderer.” We climb into the car, an easy task for me but a difficult one for her.

“Not likely. I keep worrying, Lily, are you sure we’re not just satisfying some nasty curious itch?”

“I suppose we could be. But you make it sound like one of the seven deadlies and I don’t think it is. We can hardly go out, introduce ourselves, ask for a cup of tea and interview them: ‘We were just curious—did you kill your mother?’ You’re getting cold feet, aren’t you?”

She drives slowly through Garden Path where the speed limit is 15 mph—which gives a driver ample time to think about where they’re headed and whether there’s really any reason to go there. “About our cover—we could be missionaries from a local church,” she suggests, as she exits the Park and heads out on to the busy roadway.

“You think they may want to repent?” I respond.

“Or sellers of cemetery plots.”

“Worse. From my own past experience lying, I think we should make our lies simple so that we don’t have trouble keeping track of them.”

“I had no idea you were an experienced liar.”

I ignore her. “We should just be who we are, friends of Winsome’s, full of sorrow and sympathy for them.”

“Who happen to be nosing about? They’ll like that, won’t they?”

“No, of course they won’t, but it’ll make them slower to tell us to ‘Get lost.’ Look, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Whether or not they had anything to do with the murder, we can assume that they’ll want any money Winsome might have left. Right?”

“You know she didn’t have money. It’s not kind to speak badly of the dead, but she was a whiner, and what she whined about most was having no money. She wanted her children to look after her in her impoverished old age. I think her daughter was even paying her ground rent.”

“Which is why her children will be doubly pleased when we tell them what she told us one day at aquacize—that she planned to leave a substantial sum of money for each of them, and that she thought it would come as a total surprise because they were sure she had nothing.”

“She never said anything of the kind.”

“Of course not. But to get on with it. As I recall, she said she wanted to be remembered kindly. And we, being fond of her, wanted him to know so that the money can be collected and shared, so that no policeman can abscond with it, or sibling run off with it and the other never even know about it.”

“I like that. I knew there was a reason to bring you along on this trip. But if he has any sense at all, won’t he wonder why we didn’t go see his sister first? She hasn’t got tattoos and a criminal history. Wouldn’t a couple of old ladies prefer to alert a sweet daughterly mother of three and not some delinquent who, dollars to doughnuts, would never tell his sister if he found the money first?”

“Simple. First, there’s no reason we should know that his sister is any better daughter than he is a son. We’ve never seen him until now, and even now his appearance doesn’t ring our alarm bells. We’re decomposing old ladies. Secondly, we don’t like to drive any more—you can’t hear very well and I can’t see—and he lives closer by. That’s why we didn’t go to the sister.”

“They’ll want to be rid of us so they can race to the house and try to find the money, or some notice of it.”

“Yes, but they probably won’t be able to get in. Last I saw, the police had cordoned off the house as well as the murder site.”

“We can let them know that, of course.”

“Maybe. It’s only right that we do.”

“So there will be no reason for them to rush off, but how will we get them to converse with us? Young harum scarums of that kind don’t like to chat with people like us, you know.”

“We have information that they want.”

“Like the location of the money?”

“Not the exact location. Just some clues. A bottom drawer in the basement. Her underwear drawer. But really, where would an old lady like Winsome hide a bundle of cash? Where would you?”

“I flatter myself I’m nothing like Winsome. I wouldn’t give the man a dime.”

“How about the cookie jar?”

“Does she have one?”

“I don’t know; you don’t know. I’ll bet they don’t know either.”

“What do we hope he’ll say?”

“Well, it wouldn’t do us much good to hear his alibi. I’m sure the police are already checking that out.”

“I’d like to get him to say something honest about how he felt about her. We should look for motive.”

“I’ve got my trusty tape recorder in my jacket pocket. All I have to do is click it on.”

“Ohmygod! What if he sees it?”

“He won’t unless he frisks us. Dear god, I hope it won’t come to that. I’ve practiced with it. Don’t worry.”

“Oh, sure. She’s wired and she asks me not to worry.”

Letitia drives like my sister with whom I’ve never liked driving—alternating the accelerator and the brakes in a continual slow—go—slow—go. She must have been traumatized by her accident. Whatever the reason, I’m glad when she spots a makeshift flower stand on the corner of Fulton Road, and says, “Let’s bring flowers.”

Not something your usual detective would do, I think, but something old women might. She pulls up at the stand and we buy a cheap  bouquet of carnations: red, white and yellow. Soon we’re following Google’s directions to Paradise Court, turning left on to Angels Smile Road and then right on to Purgatory Lane. The area is only recently country and not yet quite town. There may have been mostly  trailers here ten or twenty years ago, but now the land is more expensive and a richer class of tenants have built small houses on large lots of dry scrub. Three heifers, their teats swollen with milk, are hanging out under a willow tree in one yard; in another, horses are swaying lazily in the afternoon sun and thinking about whatever it is horses think about. A black and white cat is patrolling a fruiting vineyard; children are jumping on a trampoline, shooting up into the air like springy-legged young animals. No trailers. We thought Albert Smythe must live in one but perhaps we were wrong. Maybe he hasn’t any tattoos. Maybe he’s a good guy whose mother never understood him. How sad it is, I think, that she’s no longer alive to enjoy a day as beautiful as this one.

Paradise Court is a short loop at the end of Heavenly Lane with two trailers and a bunch of scrub oak. Letitia stops the car short of turning on to it. “I thought there would be houses closer by, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I did.”

“Are we certain we want to do this? What if he did kill his own mother?”

“Then we really have to do it.”

Letitia sighs. “This is crazy. Let’s go be crazy.” She turns on to Paradise Court and drives slowly to where the sun-blanched trailers stand. Something metal is loose on one of them and rattles in a meandering breeze. She pulls up next to a rusted Ford Escort of no particular color. “Someone must be here,” she murmurs. She turns the motor off and we sit there, uncertain of our next move. The place reminds me of a B movie I must have seen. I know there were bodies in it; there were always bodies. In the car trunk, buried out back behind the trailer, down the road in the woods.

“I’ll go see if someone’s here,” I say, and pick up the flowers. No bodies, I remind myself. The body’s already found.

“Yes, please,” she says.

When I slam the car door shut, a dog begins barking. Undoubtedly vicious. Probably a pit bull. Maybe this is a foolish idea. “Shut up, if you know what’s good for you, you godforsaken mutt!” shouts someone inside the nearest trailer. She sounds more dangerous than the dog. For an instant, I turn on my heel and look back at Letitia whose face has paled to paper white. Visions of knife-wielding, tattooed perps are rushing across my eyes, and I’m ready to fly to the car and be off. But I stop short, walk to the door, and knock before there’s time to conjure up more.

The dog barks louder; the woman yells louder; I knock louder. Finally, a gap-toothed bleached blond with a big face opens the door and scowls at me. She’s put the barking dog in another room but I still have to shout to be heard over the noise. “Mrs. Smythe?” I say and lead with the carnations. I don’t wait for her to say yes or no. “We’re friends of your mother-in-law’s. We wanted to extend our condolences and tell you something we thought you should know.”

“Albert! Hey, Albert, wake up,” she yells towards the back of the trailer. “Somebody’s come with flowers.” She turns to me, grinning now. “That’s so sweet of you, dear,” she gushes and takes the carnations in both hands. “Please come in. I’ll get him up.”

“I have a friend with me,” I murmur.

“The more the merrier,” she says, laughing at her cleverness and, I guess, pleased for the diversion we are about to provide.

Letitia is struggling to get out of the car, and before I get to her succeeds in standing. Leaning into her cane on one side, nearly falling to the other, she waves to and fro like grass in a wind. Smiling tentatively, she says, “She seems friendly. Is the dog okay?”

“I hope she’s gone to throttle it,” I respond. We make our way to the door and tentatively step over the transom into the shadowed, musky interior of the trailer. It smells of cheap whiskey and stale cigarettes, but Letitia and I had come prepared for a stench. We aren’t ready for Albert who stumbles into the living room, pulling his pants up over his white fleshy belly. His thinning hair sticks up like a nimbus around his round stubbly face. His eyes are small; they might be mean too, but they’re hard to make out. His tattoos—there are many of them, mostly of scantily clad women, snakes, swords, eagles—cover his arms and shoulders and trail across his hairy chest like an angora scarf. It’s hard to imagine him giving poor Winsome a hug or laughing at the bad jokes she would sometimes tell. It’s far easier to imagine him killing her. Of course, I think, he didn’t come from the womb this way. Once he was small and his round face was dimpled with childhood. Then he grew. How horrible it must have been for Winsome to watch him grow into a huge sweaty bald man. Even more horrible to watch his skin erupt into the cartoons that make his arms and neck seem warped, the art gallery of a lunatic.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m Smythe. Who’re you?”

“Mr. Smythe,” I begin….

“Nice posies, ladies. Nice of you to bring them. But you must know that me and my old lady weren’t exactly close.”

“Really, Mr. Smythe. We didn’t know that. I’m Lily Barry and this is Letitia Waters.”

“Yeah. Howdayado,” he reaches out his hand, and we take turns shaking it. It’s limp and damp.

“Hey, you idiot,” his wife says, returning from somewhere, I guess the kitchen, “Have them sit down. Can’t you see one of them’s a cripple? Show some manners.”

“Yeah, sit down. My apologies. Sorry we’re not done up for visitors.” He waves in the direction of a yellow couch covered with newspapers on one end and a balled-up shirt nestling like a lost animal in a lair of dog hair on the other. We move some of the newspapers and squinch down into the space.

“Would you ladies like some tea or coffee? Put on your shirt, Albert. You ain’t that handsome.”

Albert grins at us—he has fewer teeth than his wife—retrieves his shirt and pulls it over his head.

“No, thank you,” says Letitia. “We just ate lunch.”

Thinking all the time: “I’ll have something—coffee maybe. I don’t need cream or sugar.” I’m afraid that if we don’t eat or drink, we’ll have to leave before we learn anything.

“Yeah. Good. Coming right up,” she says and starts to head for the kitchen.

I click on the tape recorder. “Mrs. Smythe…”

She stops at the kitchen door.

“No, no. Bev. Call me Bev.”

“Bev. She was so happy, Winsome was, about you and Albert getting married.”

“Her death must have come as a shock even if you didn’t get along with her,” says Letitia.

“She and I would have gotten along okay,” says Bev. “It was her and Albert that had the problem. I’ll go get your coffee. You want some, Albert?”

He nods absently. He’s trying to study us but he keeps blurring over with hangover.

“Mr. Smythe, we thought you should know something your mother said to us a few weeks ago,” Letitia announces, smiling sweetly at him. Then, realizing that he doesn’t recognize his name when he’s “Mister,” she tries another approach— “Albert?”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“Well, we were in the same aquacize group as her,” she begins.

“What’s that?”

“Water aerobics. Exercises in the swimming pool.”

Albert begins to chortle, and haphazardly slaps at his knees.

“Is that so funny?” Letitia says, rising to the bait.

“I was just picturing you ladies all half-naked, especially my old lady, bumpin’ and grindin’ together. Good God, what a sight you must be!”

Letitia’s face is reddening. I don’t want either of us to get knifed. “We didn’t come here to amuse you, Mr. Smythe,” I declare. “I can see that we should have gone to your sister with our information.” I stand up. “Come, Letitia.”

Bev appears in the kitchen doorway with two mugs. “Jeezus Christ, Albert. You’re the stupidest bastard. Why did I marry you? Excuse my language, ladies, but he’s such a jerk. Please stay. Albert, apologize, you idiot.”

Albert blinks. “Yeah, sure. I was just kidding. I’m sorry. You ladies don’t have much of a sense of humor,” he adds glumly.

“Please sit down again, ladies. We’re glad to have you here. It was a shock losing Winsome. He’s been drinkin’ ever since he heard. Forgive him. I don’t know why because Winsome was such a lady, but her boy just came up crude.”

Letitia stops struggling to stand up and I sit back down and smile gratefully at Bev.

“You said black, didn’t you, Lily? Can I call you that?” She reaches out to me with a chipped mug decorated by a buxom blond advertising Lucifer’s Garage.

“Yes, of course.” I’m praying silently that the cup isn’t as full of contagion as it seems. Something is growing around on the inside where the handle joins it. When I was young I would have assumed I’d survive it if I’d even noticed, but my constitution has grown more delicate with the years.

“Now, what were you trying to tell us, Lily? Letitia?” Bev says sweetly. “Did I say that name right?”

“Perfectly,” says Letitia cooly. She’s still angry.

“A few weeks ago your mother said aloud to the whole group that she intended to leave a sizable legacy for her two children. She thought they would be surprised since they had no idea she had any money.”

Bev is looking at me quizzically. I can see her trying to think. Why would Winsome have left anything to Albert? Why would we want to tell him about it? Why hadn’t we gone first to his sister?

“That’s what she said, huh,” growls Albert. “A few weeks ago I asked her for money, just a loan, and she said she didn’t have a cent to her name. How come suddenly she’s got something?”

Letitia and I shrug almost in unison. “We wouldn’t know,” Letitia says softly.

“Why would you come here?” asks Bev. “Why not his sister? She was her mom’s baby. Nice clean girl with kids. Why’d you come tell this loser?”

“It’s embarrassing,” says Letitia, “but neither of us really likes to drive anymore. I can’t hear too well and Lily can’t see all that well. You were close by. Winsome’s daughter is a longer drive.”

“And besides we didn’t know anything about either of you,” I add. “Winsome never said much except that none of you got along.”

“She got it right there,” mutters Albert. “And Candy hates my guts almost as much as my old lady did.”

“Where is this money?” asks Bev.

“We don’t know,” says Letitia.

“She never said,” I add. “We thought you would know where she might hide a sum of that kind. We don’t know her house or her habits but we figured you would. Maybe her bank, maybe under a mattress, maybe a cookie jar?”

“Look ladies, I hope the old lady left me something. She owed me. But you gotta understand, she hated me. She let me in her house once, maybe twice. She loved her damn cat more than me. Bev called to tell her when we got married. I guess she was happy about that. But I don’t really give a damn.”

“Mr. Smythe!” exclaims Letitia, horrified. “You make it sound like you’re happy she’s dead!”

“Are you hard of hearing, lady? I don’t care. I don’t give a rat’s ass if she’s dead or alive. I just don’t want to have anything to do with her.”

“Poor little boy,” says Bev, mocking him. He glares at her and his eyes get so small they almost disappear. Not a happy marriage, I think, but maybe they deserve each other. “I wanted him to make peace with her,” Bev tells us. “It seemed to me that she had a lot of making up to do since she put him in jail the last time. It was way past pay back time.”

“Winsome put Albert in jail?” I ask.

“Not to wash Albert’s dirty linen in front of you ladies, but you did bother to come and tell us about the money. He’s been in trouble from day one. When she needs something she uses him, and then she throws him away like a snotty kleenex. You’d never think he was her own flesh and blood. Yeah, I don’t think she was exactly a mom. She was a bitch, excuse my language, and I’m glad to see her go, especially if she really did leave him something. If she did, maybe I can begin to get him straightened out.”

I can almost hear Letitia thinking the same thing I am—maybe Albert didn’t do it. On the other hand, Bev….

“She didn’t seem like a bad sort of person,” I say, hoping to egg her on. “She was always very pleasant.”

“Oh, yeah. Real nice. You think Albert’s language is bad. You should have heard her talk to him. Or about him, that was worse.”

“Not to us.”

“No, no, of course not. Not to you. But to me and him. I’m sorry, ladies, I’m sorry to disappoint. But she was not a nice woman. It’s good for Albert she’s gone.”

“If you felt that way about her, why did you call her to tell her about the wedding? She was so, so happy about it.”

“I was hoping that she’d be different now that I’d gone and married her big bad boy. I thought she might have changed for real this time. But then we saw her…some people just don’t change.”

We? When did “we” see her, I wonder.  If I can just be clever enough…. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “She seemed so thrilled about the marriage when she talked to us on Wednesday, just before she was killed. So you and she had an argument that day?”

Bev stares at me. I can see it’s occurred to her that we may not be as harmless as we look. “Okay, ladies, that’s enough. Thanks for telling us about the money. Albert and me have things to do.” She gets up and, as I raise my coffee cup to my lips, she takes it. Her fingernails are torn, as if she’s been in a fight.

Letitia decides to take the hint. “Yes, we must be off, too. Mustn’t we, Lilly.”

“Yes. I guess so,” I say. I’m having trouble hiding a grin—I’ve gotten a rise out of Bev. Nevertheless, Letitia is right. Bev and Albert are scary. We must be off. Quickly. Letitia is already at the door, dangling her cane over the door sill, searching for the ground below.

“Here, let me help you,” I say, pushing past her, stepping down onto the ground and taking her by her free hand. “Thank you for the coffee.” I look up. Bev is glaring down at me. She’s a big woman, she could take me in a dimestore minute. Because of Letitia’s condition, we have to move slowly to the car; I can feel her elbow quivering as I take it and guide her over the rubble. Next time, I think, I’ll look for a younger, fitter partner. Bev is still in the doorway, her big face contorted with a frown, watching us. She’s trying to remember exactly what she said. I begin rehearsing what I’ll say to her if she comes after us. “What we heard wasn’t enough to convict you,” I begin. I won’t mention the tape recorder, of course. “We’re every bit as harmless as we look,” I continue. “Don’t worry about us.”

“Well,” said Letitia as we drive away. “You almost got us killed.”

“Not nearly,” I reply. “But I did upset her, didn’t I?”

“Do you think she did it?”

“Chances are good,” I respond, digging out the tape recorder. After a quarter-mile of silence, I rewind a bit of the tape, and play it with the volume on high. “But when we saw her…. some people just don’t change,” plays back. We can hear the dog panting at the door in the background. “That’s good, hey?”

“Yes,” she smiles. “Why don’t we go get a better cup of coffee at Starbucks?”

“Wonderful idea.”

“I think we should both be careful,” she says. “I mean keep our doors locked. Keep an eye out.”

“Yeah. Probably.”

On our next post:  The investigation continues in the hot tub with an examination of the motives of Burridge Fowler!