Authors: E. Joan Sims
Tags: #mystery, #sleuth, #cozy, #detective, #murder
Copyright Â© 2001 E. Joan Sims.
All rights reserved.
Thank you to Emory University Hospital School of Medical Record Science, the Medical Mission Sisters of the former Holy Family Hospital of Atlanta, Georgia, and to Dr. Cynthia A. Moore, M.D., Ph.D.
To the memory of my parents, John and Sara Sims,
with love, gratitude, and admiration
Father Barnard could not sleep. His head ached, his pillow felt like a concrete block, and for some reason the new mattress his grateful congregation gave him last Christmas was no more comfortable than the hard cot he had slept on as a chaplain in the army. He tossed and turned until his bedclothes were wrinkled and twisted, but sleep would not come. He wondered why. It was so unlike him to have insomnia. And even though he usually boasted of a hearty digestion, his dinner of corned beef and cabbage was a sour memory that hovered, a dull burning pain, somewhere between heart and stomach. What was wrong, indeed?
His day had been a pleasant one, beginning with the christening of a chubby baby boy. The proud parents were a couple who had grown up in his church. He had watched as their puppy love developed into the lasting devotion that he had sanctified in a marriage ceremony two years before, and he was proud and happy to bless their new son.
It had been a lovely serviceâfull of happy tears and laughter, and he remembered with a smile the warm sweet smell of the child. He felt his body relax and his mind slowly driftâfloating through memories. Suddenly he recalled the thin, dry, hands of the old man grasping his with a strength that only the dying can muster.
Father Barnard sat bolt upright in bed and wiped the perspiration from his face. He fumbled about for the carafe of water his housekeeper always left for him on the bedside table and poured a glass, spilling half on the front of his pajamas before he got it to his mouth.
The old man! That was itâbut surely as a priest he had done nothing wrong? It was God's will: He giveth and He taketh away. A time to live and a time to die, that was what Father Barnard always preached. It was the old man's time, and Father Barnard had merely gone to his hospital bedside at the request of a man in his parish to save his friend's immortal soul. Where was the harm in that?
Oh! But those ancient eyes: so pale a blue they were almost clearâa window into a soul in pain.
The old man had no family. His wife was gone, and they had no children. There was no other immediate family, or so the parishioner had said. “He is alone. I am his only friendâhis dear friend and companion. My wife and I love him like a father. We don't want him to die without your blessing.”
Father Barnard shook his head in bewilderment. What was wrong with saving a soul? Besides, the bedside conversion assured the old man a Catholic funeralâthe one Father Barnard had scheduled for ten o'clock tomorrow morning.
He put down the water glass and slipped back beneath the covers to close his eyes once again. He began a silent entreaty for sleep, but the old man's eyes appeared unbidden behind his own eyelids. Against his will he recalled the sharp pain as the yellowed, unkempt nails dug into his arm in a desperate attempt to hold on to life. And sleep eluded him once more.
Ah, funeral food. I'd forgotten how tasty it truly is. And so many dishes to choose from! The aluminum folding table in William's shabby dining room almost buckled under their weight. Big platters of crunchy golden fried chicken, watermelon rind pickles, spiced crabapples, and cole slaw competing for space with creamy potato salad, deviled eggs, and pickled okra. Casseroles galore, from green beans and mushrooms to sausage and grits. Plus at least four jewel-toned congealed salads quivering with mandarin oranges, Bing cherries, bananas, and enough miniature marshmallows to float a boat.
William had been nearly eighty-two when he died. Since most of his friends were at least that or older, some had been too ill or infirm to attend the funeral so they'd paid their respects by sending this food. A few had even attached little cards to the sides of their dishes. Mother said it was so they could get their containers back, but I think they were staking claim to their particular gastronomic specialty. Surely no one but Amby Tucker could be responsible for the tender ham baked in Coca-Cola gravy.
The same for Ouida Prine's meringue-covered banana rum pudding and Mary Agnes Hammond's golden lemon pound cake. I could understand why. Each dish was a masterpiece. The cake was so moist and delicious I would be tempted to fake my own death just to get access to a slice.
I tried to look dainty and abstemious. The truth was that we had skipped breakfast and I was famished.
My elegant little mother watched me like a hawk as I filled my plate to the brim. She excused herself from a conversation and sashayed over to offer a gentle whispered reproach.
“Paisley, darling, a lady never makes a pig of herself, especially in front of friends and family.”
With the skill of a ventriloquist she managed to say this while smiling sweetly in the direction of the twenty or so people crowded in the tiny house.
“These are friends of yours, not mine,” I replied. “And what little family there is here was William's not ours, and he's dead.”
“Don't say âdead,' dear. It's so common. Dear William has âpassed away.'”
“Dead's dead in my book, and I'm alive and starving.” I waggled my plastic fork in the direction of the buffet. “Have you tried that green bean casserole? It looks like something you'd find at the bottom of a garbage disposal, but it tastes delicious.”
“For heaven's sake, Paisley!” she hissed.
“Speaking of heaven, weren't you just a tad surprised to see a Catholic priest officiating at William's funeral? I almost wet my pants.”
She managed to look furious and nonplussed at the same time. My mother would be sixty-two next March, but in her stylish Castleberry knit suit she displayed a figure some teenagers would envy. Her handsome face was still smooth and relatively unlined, with fine high cheekbones and lovely brown eyes. A cloud of silver white hair was pulled back from her forehead in a chic French twist, and the Sterling family pearls gleamed on her slender neck. I was proud of her. It was obvious at this moment that the feeling was not mutual. I was definitely in the doghouse.
“It's apparent that you have let that place alter your vocabulary as well as your behavior. You are quite a different person from the proper child I raised.”
She squared her slender shoulders and marched off in the direction of a tired-looking woman with adult acne. I recognized her as William's second cousin.
By “that place,” Mother meant New York City, where my daughter, Cassandra, and I had lived for the last ten years. In spite of what Mother would like to think, Cassie and I had been happy and as well mannered as it is prudent to be in the mean streets of Manhattan.
When my husband, Raphael, disappeared, my parents begged us to come back to Kentucky and live with them on Meadowdale Farm, but I had reluctantly refused. It was not that I didn't want to go home. I yearned desperately for the safe refuge of my childhood after the tumultuous life I had led in Latin America. But I knew I needed to break free of the past and make a new life for Cassie and myself. If I stayed on the farm or in our hacienda in San Romero, I would never stop listening for a familiar voice, or looking for a beloved face. Rafael Luis Alberto DeLeon had vanished without a trace. He had to be dead. After all these years, I was sure. Almost sure, anyway.
I finished off a fried chicken wing and surreptitiously licked my greasy fingers.
“Hallo, Paisley Sterling. You're lookin' mighty good, sugar.”
Joseph Thomas Roth had lost a considerable amount of hair since I last saw him. His voice sounded greasier than my fingers felt.
“Nobody but a gal from New York City would wear pants to a funeral in Lanierville. But you sure can pull it off.”
“Well, well, Joe Tom. I see you haven't changed at all.”
I flicked a crumb off my smart black linen jacket. It was the top to the designer outfit that cost me more than I would care to admit.
“And for your information, it's a pantsuit. I wore it to keep you from looking up my dress like you used to when I was a little girl.”
“Too bad! It would be a lot more fun now.”
Joe Tom was the only child of William's first cousin. He was a pain in the butt when we were twelve years old and I was sure thirty years hadn't changed him a bit. He peered wickedly over his little John Lennon glasses and looked me up and down. Joe Tom must have thought he looked sexy. I thought he looked overheated and myopic. I hated married men on the make, especially sweaty, bald, married men. It was time to remind him of that little fact.
“How is your wife? Did she pick out your tie? I just adore purple dinosaurs.”
He straightened up and quit trying to look down the front of my blouse.
“My little girl gave it to me. She picked it out herself. Caitlin was three last week. She loves your Bartholomew the Blue-eyed Cricket books. I bought her every last one of them.”
He smiled and I warmed up a bit. After all, what author wouldn't be pleased to hear that?
Joe Tom pulled a plastic sleeve of photographs out of his pocket and proudly showed me pictures of an overweight toddler with his eyes. She was stuffing birthday cake into her greedy little mouth. Our other childhood friend whom he had married straight out of high school was not in any of the pictures.
“What happened to Missy?”
Joe Tom's face took on a mottled flush. An oversized chameleon trying to hide on a plaid tablecloth came to mind.
“Missy left me,” he mumbled. “Good riddance, I say. She was always jawing at me to quit the liquor store and go back to college. But Daddy wouldn't let me. He'd always planned for me to take over so he could retire; then he died. Left me no choice. Damn place makes too much money, Paisley. I woulda' been a fool to let it go. Missy was a fool to let me go. She'll really be mad when she finds out Cousin William is gone and I'll inherit this little hovel. She always wanted to move her mother into town so the old lady could be closer to us. She used to say this place would be perfect.”
He guffawed loudly. A soggy piece of chewing tobacco shot out of his mouth and landed on my buffet plate. My appetite vanished abruptly as I stared at the little brown chunk on my potato salad.
“Fixed up, of course,” he continued. “A hog wouldn't live in a pen looking like this. But then, her mother was a hog.”
Joe Tom grabbed a slice of buttermilk chess pie with his fingers and took three enormous bites. As he swallowed in one big noisy gulp, my stomach gave a decidedly nervous turn and I began to deeply regret my own gluttony.
He flipped through his little plastic packet and pulled out a bathing beauty shot of a blonde with a terrific figure and a greedy little mouth.
“Things always turn out for the best,” he assured me. “Look at the little honey I got waitin' at home for me now.”
I dutifully studied the photo for a moment and then looked up to see my own beautiful daughter angling over to join me. She was just a little younger than Joe Tom's new trophy wife. His jaw dropped as he caught sight of Cassie. I was not going to let this small town Lothario lust over my baby. I put my unfinished lunch on the table and handed him a plate of deviled eggs.
“Here, try some of these. They're great.”
I stuffed an egg in his mouth. The squinty little eyes above his red bulbous nose widened in surprise. With enormous restraint, I resisted the impulse to laugh at his clownish appearance and bid him a polite farewell. Mother would have been proud of me.
Cassie was headed toward the dining room but I got to her first. I pulled her out of the side door onto the little back porch.
“Mom, I'm starving. Why did you bring me out here? I've been trying to get away from that dreadful Mrs. Dibber for the last forty minutes. Please let me have one of those deviled eggs at least.”
“Ugh, you definitely won't like them. That food has been sitting out for hours. All kinds of strange people have picked over it. No telling how many germs.â¦”
I put a hand over my mouth and tried to stifle the sound, but she heard.
She laughed with delight. “You burped! You little pig. You've been stuffing your own face and now you won't let me eat because that old letch is grazing at the buffet.”
“Just wait till he's gone,” I begged. “It won't be long. He's William's heir apparent. I imagine he came just to see if there's anything he wants among William's sorry little belongings. He'll be gone soon. There's nothing of value to keep him here.”
Cassie looked down from her height, a good four inches above my own meager five feet six.
“You're going to have to get used to the idea that I'm a big girl now. I can take care of myself. You must think I've never handled his type before.”
She sneered at Joe Tom's wide backside through the open door and went back into the house without another word. She was right. Things were changing. I had better get used to it even if I didn't like it. I guess I would always miss a tiny little hand grasping for mine and the warm feel of chubby arms around my neck. Once a mommy, always a mommy.
The fresh air outside felt good after the stuffy confines of the run down little house where William and his wife, my cousin Abigail, had lived for the last forty years. From the outside, the tiny cottage already looked abandoned and forlorn. The clapboard siding was in dire need of scraping and painting, and the gutters were full to the brim with dead leaves and twigs. The windows were so dirty on the outside they were opaque, like cataracts in old eyes.
Abigail had died suddenly six months ago, and William “passed away” two days ago. Both events had taken us by surprise. William was in his eighties and had two minor heart attacks in the past, but he was doing quite well. Abigail was fifteen years younger than her husband and had never been sick a day in her life.
Abigail was my mother's first cousin and her best friend. Each girl was the only child of older parents and had been like a sister to the other. I knew that Mother missed Abigail terribly. I missed them both. They were the only “aunt and uncle” I had ever known.
William's next-door neighbor was Ernest Dibber. He lived with his wife and five children in a house as small as my cousin's little cottage. The children were grown now and lived away from home, but it must have been a zoo when they were young and constantly under foot. Abigail told me once that the kids fought so much she was afraid they would kill each other.
Ernest and Sue Dibber had been quite visible all day. The couple reminded me of the nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat, but in reverse. Ernest was tall and bulky with a broad, fleshy face and squinty little eyes that almost met at the bridge of his nose. His wife was also tall, but definitely not bulky. Her cheap flowered dress hung loosely over a bony frame, her rough-skinned elbows poking out like knobs below the short sleeves. Her long, faded-blond hair was arranged in tight little constipated knots over each ear, accentuating the flatness of her plain and colorless face. I avoided looking into her eyes. There was something dark and shifting behind the pupils that made me shudder.
When we arrived that morning, Sue stiffly informed us that she and her husband had taken care of everything. They had arranged the funeral service, selected the coffin, and planned the splendid feast I had just enjoyed. I had to thank them for that, but I was somewhat surprised at their involvement in William's affairs. They were, after all, only neighbors, whereas William was survived by two cousins besides Joe Tom, and then there was Mother. She and William had always been close and after Abigail died Mother was his only emotional support. It was unfortunate that she had been visiting a college friend in California when William was taken ill. He had been forced to depend on someone else.
I peered through the rickety fence that separated William's backyard from that of his neighbors. Dibber's lot was overgrown with weeds and strewn with broken pieces of old toys and empty tin cans. A dilapidated doghouse and a couple of badly chewed plastic water bowls seemed to have no present owner. Just in case, I moved cautiously as I squeezed through a space between rotten boards. I don't know why I was playing the sneak. I guess I was curious because of the contrast between the Dibber's neatly manicured front yard and the disarray of the back.
I stepped gingerly over the debris and around several piles of dried animal feces. Before I went any farther, I decided to make sure there was not some ravaging beast sleeping in what was left of the doghouse. I bent down and looked inside the dark interior. The putrid odor of decaying flesh almost knocked me down. As I staggered back, I grabbed onto what was left of the roof to keep from falling. A shingle crumbled away in my hand and the rest of the rotten structure fell off in a cloud of dust to expose the sad and sorry sight inside. The carcass of a medium-sized dog lay decaying under a thick blanket of swarming flies. They buzzed angrily at being disturbed. Before they settled back down I saw a piece of rope tied around the sunken neck and deeply embedded in the reddish fur. The other end of the short tether was nailed to the floor. The dog could not have been able to move more than a few inches. When the flies shifted again I could see deep scratches and dried bloodstains on the wood where it had pawed frantically in a desperate effort to escape. It was obvious that the poor creature had been left to die of starvation and thirst.