Authors: Medora Sale
“No sign of any tea,” he said. “Someone said that she put it on the table, but I didn't see it there.” They all began to look around the room, frantically eyeing the numberless little tables in it.
“There it is,” said Clara in a silky tone. Harriet noticed the white spots on her temples and realized that she was very angry. “Sit still. I will get it myself.” In the awkward silence that followed, the whole group watched her progress over to the drinks table, still set up, although the bartender had left long since, where her tea sat in the corner, probably cold and unappetizing by now. Harriet realized that everyone was settling in again and that if she were to get away, it was now or never. She started after her hostess at a brisk pace.
Halfway to the table she saw Clara von Hohenkammer pick up the cup, touch it experimentally to her lips, and then take a swallow. Almost immediately a gargling half cry bubbled out from between her lips. She clasped her hands to her chest and clutched it, letting the cup tumble to the floor, then took a step toward the table as if for support. She reeled against it and fell heavily to the ground.
For a moment, everything froze. Harriet stopped, bewildered, and then ran toward the fallen actress. At the same time, Veronika von Hohenkammer shrieked, “Mamma,” and launched herself across the room. She knelt down, grasping her mother by one shoulder and trying to turn her over in a futile effort to help her up. Just as Harriet reached them, a gray-haired man in evening dress materialized from somewhere, took Nikki firmly by the arms, pulled her to her feet, and without a word pushed her in the direction of a woman who had followed him. He crouched beside the actress, picked up her wrist, and then looked up at Harriet. “Here, give me a hand to get her turned over,” he said sharply. “She's a big woman.” Harriet knelt down beside him, and the two of them gently moved Clara onto her back. Her body shuddered with jerky convulsions and then was still. The man bent over her, his shoulders heaving with effort as he tried to bring breath back into her lungs. Finally, he sat back on his heels, exhausted. Harriet shivered. Clara's face, in a horrible parody of blooming health, was a brilliant pink. Her would-be rescuer shook his head and said, “Did you see what happened? I was on the other side of the room and didn't notice anything until she gasped.”
“She drank the tea in that cup,” said Harriet, pointing to the cup on the floor, “made a gasping noise, clutched her chest, and then fell.” She shook her head in bewilderment. “That was all. It happened very fast.”
He kept one hand on Clara's wrist as the other searched her neck delicately for a pulse. “Well, there's not much I can do for her, I would say,” he murmured half to himself. “And I don't particularly like the look of things.” Then he spoke in a louder voice to the room in general. “Has anyone called for an ambulance?”
“I did,” said a guest standing in the doorway. “They'll be right here, and the fire department rescue squad. Who's her doctor?” he added. A buzz of voices answered him; someone gestured at the man still bending over her.
“Was it her heart?” murmured Harriet softly.
“Not very likely. She was as healthy as a horse.” His reply was as low pitched as her question. “Besides, that's not what a heart attack looks like, believe me.” The doctor glanced around at the people who were standing about, awkward and silent, and said to Harriet, “Do you think you could find a sheet or something to put over her? And get everyone to move out of here? The dining room will do.”
Harriet nodded. She headed out the door, not sure where she was going, and found herself beside Klaus Leitner. “Can I help?” he asked quietly.
“You can tell me where to find something to cover her with.”
“How about a tablecloth? I think they're in this thing,” he said, opening a massive antique linen press in the dining room and pulling out an enormous white linen tablecloth.
Harriet took the cloth. “And one more thing. Could you move everyone in here? The doctor wants them out of the way.”
Before she had finished her last sentence, sirens screamed up to the house, and the fire department emergency resuscitation unit appeared. The last thing the guests saw as they meekly filed into the dining room was the doctor in quiet consultation with the rescuers, pointing at the cup and shaking his head.
There were seven people standing uneasily in the dining room, looking awkwardly at one another, wondering what to do. The lively blonde, now considerably more subdued, said, “I am Kirsten Muller, and I work at the Geothe Institute. Perhaps we could introduce ourselves to each other and all sit down. I know I am very tired.”
At once there was a polite rush for the table. Harriet found herself in between Klaus Leitner and a man she hadn't met. Bill MacGregor leaned on the back of his chair and announced, “There's an urn of coffee on the sideboard. It smells done, and there are cups and things set out. Anyone else want coffee?” Six people rose and scrambled to get cups; Harriet sat and waited. Perhaps she had been the only person to notice exactly what had happened to Clara von Hohenkammer, but she was not anxious to try whether the coffee had the same effect on people that the herbal tea had. She smiled at the gentleman next to her and settled herself in to make small talk until something else happened.
John Sanders lay in bed, staring at the ceiling of his one-bedroom, concrete-walled, upper-floor, southern-exposure high-rise apartment and listened to the hum of the air conditioner. He didn't really need to have it on. The fierce temperatures of this unseasonable September heat wave had died rapidly with the sun, and the room was getting chilly. But the constant noise was soothing and cut out the clash and roar of sound that rose up from the street. And now, with four days off and no progress in the case and weeks and weeks of lack of sleep behind him, he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, too tired to sleep. He tried to blank out his thoughts, concentrating on the hum of the air conditioner, until the shrill scream of the telephone dragged him back from the brink.
“John. It's Ed. You asleep? Sorry . . .” the voice on the other end was calm and not at all contrite.
“Jesus, Dubinsky, do you know what time it is? Yes, I was asleepâI think.”
“Yeah, well, something came up.” He paused a second. “Sinclair and Beech are supposed to be on, but Sinclair has food poisoning. One too many chicken-salad sandwiches. Anyway, he's not going anywhere tonight.”
“So what's up?” Sanders was sitting on the side of the bed by now, yawning.
“Some woman died at a party. Her doctor called it in.”
“Someone knife her?” he asked, yawning.
“It's not that kind of party. You know, respectable, all that crap.”
“Don't bother. Tell me about it in the car. I'll see you downstairs in ten minutes.” Like a zombie, he headed for the shower. By the time Dubinsky got there, he would be showered, dressed, awake, and mean as hell.
Sanders stood in the living room with Dr. Alexander and stared at the white bundle by his feet. The doctor gave him a second or two to take in the situation and then started his terse recital. “You see that cup lying on the floor? No one has moved it, by the way. It was supposed to be some kind of tea. She drank it, convulsed, and died rapidly.” His eyes were glittering slightly with excitement, Sanders thought. Was he upset or merely enjoying the drama of it all? “I got to her pretty quickly, but she died as I was trying to resuscitate her. Do you want me to uncover her?”
“No, I'll do it,” said Sanders, carefully avoiding the cup and delicately picking up the covering between thumb and forefinger. “What's this? The tablecloth?”
“Looks like it. It was all they could find, and I wanted to cover her up before people got hysterical.” Sanders pulled back the cloth and noted the flushed face. “Smell her mouth,” urged Dr. Alexander. “That was when I decided something was very wrong.”
The sickly, bitter, almond-like smell lingered about the body, clear and unmistakable. “Christ,” muttered Sanders. “Cyanide.”
“That's exactly what I thought. I've never run into it beforeâmy patients generally don't go in for poisoning themselves or each otherâbut it looked to me like a textbook case. So I left the cup exactly where it was, covered her up, and sent everyone into the dining room.” He was rocking back on his heels now, looking animated and pleased with himself.
Sanders backed away and looked carefully around. Nothing in the immediate vicinity seemed to engage his attention except for a small piece of crumpled paper sitting under the table on the otherwise-pristine floor. Almost automatically he picked it up delicately between thumb and forefinger and slipped it into a plastic bag in his pocket. “What did you mean by everyone?” he asked, turning back to the doctor. “Who's in that dining room?” Sanders jerked his thumb back through the door.
“Six or seven people, I guess. The rest are upstairs.”
“Her two daughters are up there with my wife, I think. And maybe her son-in-law is there, too. Everyone else who was still at the partyâand I don't know them all, by a long shotâis in the dining room. She had help, too. A housekeeper and maybe other people. You'd have to ask someone who knows the household better than I do.” He paused for a second. “Actually, her nephew is in there. He should know.”
“Thanks,” said Sanders absently as he looked around the room, taking in the furnishings, the flowers, the candles, the well-stocked bar. “But maybe you could tell me what you know. The victim was a friend of yours?”
“Yes . . . well, more my wife's friend, and my patient.”
“Was she suffering from some illness?”
“Good God, no. She was about the healthiest patient I've got.”
“Clara von Hohenkammer,” said the doctor, and then began to spell it for him.
“And she lived here? This is her house?”
“Yes. But I'm not sure you'd say she exactly lived here. She spent at least half the year in Munich. She was here only for the spring and summer.”
Sanders thought of the sticky, muggy heat of the day and commented that Toronto seemed to be an odd place to choose to spend your summers in.
“She also owned a summer place near Bala, and she spent the hottest part of the year there,” said the doctor. “I suppose you'd have to say she didn't use this house much, really. May and June, I think, and then September and October. Or part of it.”
“I take it Mrs. von Hohenkammer had money.” Alexander nodded. “Anyone else live here? Did she have a husband?”
“No. She was a widow. She had two daughters. One lives in Toronto with her husband and kids, the other one lives at home, I think. There's a housekeeper, and a nephew. They all sort of live here, too. Her husband died three or four years ago, maybe longer. My wife would know. They were old friends from Clara's early days in Munich. I'm sorry. All I really know about her is that she wasn't sick and never took pills, but liked to get a physical checkup twice a year, once here and once in Munich. Insurance against something creeping up on you, I suppose.”
Sanders nodded. “Did you see her drink the tea and collapse?”
The doctor shook his head. “No. One of the other guests saw it and told me about it. She was giving me a hand. Seemed to be a sensible young woman, but you can never tell.” He jerked his head in the direction of the doorway. “She ought to be in the dining room right now.”
“Perhaps you could point her out to me,” said Sanders, and yawned. He looked down at the white-shrouded heap on the floor. “Is there somewhere in the house where I can talk to people?”
“Just a minute.” Dr. Alexander walked across the hall to the dining room and opened one half of the big double doors. There was a murmur of voices, and Alexander returned. “The study is probably the best place.” He led the way toward the back of the house and pointed Sanders toward the small book-lined room.
“And who was your eyewitness?” Sanders asked Alexander as the doctor turned back toward the staircase.
“Thin,” said Alexander. “Long dark hair. There aren't that many women in there. . . . You shouldn't miss her. She's one of the better-looking ones.” He leered at Sanders. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go up and see how my wife is coping with the girls.” He bounded up the stairs, two at a time, apparently unaffected by events or the hour.
Sanders walked into the study, noting with a doubtful frown the half-sized leather couch and matching chair, the big desk in the corner, and the round table on the other side. Entirely too cozy and comfortable. And cluttered. He shoved back the round table and heavy chairs, picked up the only straight-backed chair in the room, placed it in front of the desk, and nodded critically at his arrangements before moving back to the door. “Dubinsky!” he yelled impatiently. His partner's head appeared from the doorway of the dining room. “What in hell are you doing?”
“Getting statements from these people,” said Dubinsky. He sounded profoundly bored.
“Get someone else to do that. Didn't I see Ryder around here somewhere?” Dubinsky nodded. “Let her do it, fast, so we can get rid of most of them.” Dubinsky nodded again and headed for the living room.
Having effectively cleared the hall and study of distractions, Inspector Sanders stalked over to the dining room. He pushed open the door and stopped. There, dead in front of him on the other side of the table, sat Harriet Jeffries, looking characteristically poised and gravely interested, chatting to a prosperous-looking man in evening dress. Sanders scanned the crowd. No one else in the room remotely fitted Dr. Alexander's description; that put him in the impossible position of having as his principal eyewitness a woman who induced in him such a turmoil of conflicting emotions that he felt reduced to frozen immobility at the sight of her. He swore under his breath and seriously considered turning around and going home again. They could all stew in there in their black ties and expensive dresses until Sinclair stopped throwing up and came back on duty. Harriet glanced across the table, saw him, and coloured slightly; she stood in response to his abrupt gesture beckoning her and walked, erect and almost stiff, over toward him. She closed the door carefully behind her. “For chrissake,” he muttered, “what in hell are you doing here?”
“You don't have to look so horrified to see me,” she said coldly. “I was invited. I do sometimes get invited to parties, you know. I'm considered quite an attractive addition to social occasions by some people.”
He raised a hand in a gesture of truce. “Sorry. I didn't mean to put it that way. It was a shock seeing you, that's all.”
“Well, at least I expected to run into you under the circumstances.” He grabbed her by the arm and began to push her along the hall. “Where are you taking me?” She sounded distinctly irritated.
“To the study,” he said grimly. “I want to talk to you.” He steered her through the door with one hand on her waist, reached back with the other hand and shut it firmly, and then leaned back on the solid wooden panels to keep it from opening again. He released his hold on her, and she stepped back. “You look tired,” he said. Her thin face was pale; her green eyes had dark smudges under them.