Authors: Susan Bernhardt
Tags: #Cozy Mystery
Cozy Mystery by Susan Bernhardt
While Kay attends a Christmas tea at Hawthorne Hills Retirement Home, a beloved caretaker dies from an allergic reaction to peanuts. When the official coroner's report rules the cause of death to be accidental, a small group of residents suspect foul play and call upon Kay to investigate.
Kay uncovers sinister plots of fraud, revenge, and corruption at the Home. During this season of peace on earth, good will to men, additional murders occur. Despite multiple attempts on her life, and with the support once again of her best friends, Elizabeth and Deirdre, Kay continues her quest for bringing justice for the victims.
Kay's first Christmas in Sudbury Falls is an unforgettable one, with equal amounts of celebration and danger. Tis the season to be sleuthing!
Murder Under the Tree © 2014 by Susan Bernhardt
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
14878 James, Pierrefonds, Quebec, Canada, H9H 1P5
Cover Art © 2014 by Cora Graphics
Edited by June Diehl
Copy edited by Lea Schizas
Layout and Book Production by Lea Schizas
eBook ISBN: 978-1-77127-633-7
First eBook Edition *November 2014
Sunday, December 21
Bing Crosby crooned
I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas
over the sound system as we sat waiting for Sarah Moeller in the lobby of Hawthorne Hills Retirement Home. My best friend, Deirdre, and I watched the caretaker, Les Hollings, perched on a ten foot step-ladder trying to figure out why a string of lights near the top of the twelve foot bedecked Christmas tree wasn't working.
My name is Kay Driscoll. This was my first Christmas in Sudbury Falls, having moved here in the spring with my husband, Phil. Two months ago, during Halloween, I had uncovered a murder conspiracy woven in the thriving ginseng industry here in northern Wisconsin. Sudbury Falls had begun to ease back into its quiet routine. I had gotten back to my normal life of volunteering as a registered nurse at the free clinic and getting ready for the Christmas holiday. But, little did I realize, something sinister again lurked on the horizon of this unassuming little town.
“Hey, Les, you're putting those lights on upside down, that's what's wrong,” a dashing older gentleman called out. He wore a wool suit, plaid bow tie, and a big smile.
“Right, that must be it. Thank you, Martin!” Les replied, aiming a smile at Martin below. He looked back toward the string of lights. I noticed him lean in to fix his gaze on a particular light in the string. They remained off, but I saw a light turn on in his eyes when he glanced down a second time, then smiled again.
“Anytime,” Martin said. “I'll have to train the next guy when you leave us after the holidays. Think of all the work you're making for me.”
“Yeah, I'm sure going to miss everyone here.”
“Les, coming to tea?” asked a bright-eyed elderly women.
“Wouldn't miss it, Anne. Save me a seat.” He winked at her. She blushed almost the shade of her red dress and smiled from ear to ear.
I saw Les deftly pop a tiny light into the unlit strand. The string of lights lit up, twinkling like the rest.
A round of applause was given as Les descended the ladder. He gave a threatrical bow and waved. Martin clapped his hand on Les’ back and gave him a knowing smile.
Deirdre's friend, Sarah Moeller, came around the corner. Slight in build with narrow shoulders and snow white hair, her gentle features formed a warm smile of welcome when she saw the two of us. “Deirdre, Kay, so glad you could make it. What's the commotion about?” Sarah had on the same gray cable knit cardigan that she wore the first time I met her, when she was still living at home. That was a little over a month ago. She gave us each a hug.
“The caretaker just fixed the lights on your beautiful Christmas tree. I've never been to Hawthorne Hills before,” I said. “It's lovely. The sprawling grounds, the tennis—”
“Oh, Les. We all love him. He lifts everyone's spirits. We'll be sad to see him go.”
“It's great to see you, Sarah.” Deirdre stood up and gave her a hug. “Thanks for inviting us. So tell me, how do you like living here? Made many friends?”
“Quite a few. Lots of interesting people. It’s not like being at home. But my children thought it best if I came here to live after Margaret died.” Margaret, Sarah's friend, had been involved in the ginseng conspiracy and been one of the unfortunate casualties before those responsible could be brought to justice.
Sarah led us into the dining room where a string quartet performed holiday music. Christmas trees with twinkling white lights, silver bells, and tinsel on every branch decorated the room. A large mahogany table stood near the front, with a long, white table runner along the top. Two women, who must have been in their mid-eighties, sat on either end of the table with a silver tea service in front of them. People queued up and were handed a lovely bone china teacup and saucer. When I reached the front of the line, one of the women asked, “What kind of tea would you like, dear? Earl Grey or Sugar Plum Spice?”
After choosing the latter, I had my hand grasped by Martin, the gentleman from the lobby. He placed it in the crook of his arm and led me to a spot at the table. I wondered how many women had spilled their tea carrying it in one hand while taken to their table by Martin. “Enjoy your afternoon,” he said with a smooth smile, and then winked.
A three-tiered server filled with a variety of sandwiches and savories, warm scones, and a mixture of pastries, cookies, and other sweets stood on the table, along with glass bowls of clotted cream, lemon curd, and preserves. A small gift box sat at each setting. I peeked inside, while I waited for Deirdre and Sarah and discovered a beautiful, sparkling, glass snowflake ornament.
I looked up and Les entered. Across the dining room, two younger men in sweaters wearing name tags and a third in a work uniform similar to Les', waved him over to their table. After Les sat down, the four dived in and ate heartily, the food disappearing like magic.
Sarah and Deirdre stopped to speak with some women at a table next to the tea station. Deirdre was tall, slender, and ridiculously beautiful. She had a figure I could only dream about having. Her ash blonde shoulder length hair was streaked with gray, contrasting with my short pixie style hair that I had let go natural after years of dyeing it. Deirdre was fifty-three, two years older than I, and lived next door to me.
“Kay, remember the woman in the red dress that we saw in the lobby,” Deirdre said when she got to the table. “Her name is Anne Niven. She's a mystery writer. She lives here at the Home.”
“Interesting. Did she say what type of mysteries?”
“I wonder if she'd speak at our next mystery book club meeting.” I looked over at Sarah, now sitting down. “Sarah, everything's lovely.” Now that they were both here, I took a smoked salmon and a roast beef finger sandwich off the tray.
“Kay, your husband must be looking forward to being off of school for the holiday,” Sarah said.
Phil was studying to be a luthier, learning to handcraft guitars. “He is. Phil's winter break starts in a couple of days.”
“He's a musician, right?”
“Yes. His new jazz band is having their debut New Year's Eve.”
“At Gatsby's. Mike's in the band as well. The show is all he talks about,” Deirdre added. Mike was Deirdre's husband and spiritual partner. He worked as an acupuncturist and reflexologist out of their home.
“It's been a long time coming.” I bit into the roast beef sandwich. I couldn't taste anything but the horseradish. My eyes watered and every square millimeter of my nostrils burned.
I looked around, and Martin caught my eye. He stood at the next table, his teacup lifted as in a toast. He noticed me looking and returned my smile. “Sarah, the gentleman who showed us to our table seems quite personable.”
“Oh, Martin. He is. He's a professor emeritus of English Literature at the college. And you should see what a great dancer he is. Last Saturday evening we had a dance...”
All of a sudden, a noisy disturbance came from the other side of the room. I looked over and saw Les stand up, knocking his chair over backwards, clasping his hands across his throat. “Help! Al—” he cried out.
Al? Who was Al? His face swelled, turning a dark shade of red as he gasped loudly for air. I could see his chest heaving. I knew I had to get over to Les, fast.
Alarmed, the man with the similar uniform sitting with him yelled out, “He's choking! Get Dr. Lee!”
A tall, red-haired girl serving the tea ran out of the room. Workers came out of the kitchen to see what the uproar was about.
I quickly sprang from my chair and made a beeline in Les' direction. I knew he wasn't choking if he could call out.
The uniformed man proceeded to attempt the Heimlich maneuver on him. By the time I reached Les, he had dropped to the floor, twisting and squirming, gasping for air. Tears ran down the man's cheeks.
Les' wheezing had weakened, then his body fell still. The uniformed man stood back as I felt Les' carotid artery. Nothing. He wasn't breathing either. Deirdre came over, a look of panic on her face as I started doing CPR, trying to revive him. By this time, the dining room was being cleared out by the staff. I heard some of the residents crying when they went by.
Deirdre started to do the rescue breathing. After two rotations she came up and said, “Kay, this isn't working. His silver cord has unraveled.”
I looked over at her, then continued the chest compressions. “Silver cord?” I asked as I worked.
Deirdre gave two breaths. “His silver cord has broken, untethering his spirit from his body. It's too late.”
I started the next set of chest compressions. “Keep going. Keep trying.”
Deirdre muttered, “It's impossible now for his spirit to come back to his body.” She stopped.
I was on my knees over Les for a couple of minutes longer doing both the breathing and chest compressions, until Dr. Lee and a woman with red fleshy skin came into the dining room with a defibrillator. After what seemed like ages, alternating between the defibrillator and CPR he said, “I think it's time to quit.”
I looked up at Dr. Lee. He volunteered each month at the free clinic. He glanced at his watch and said, “2:15 p.m.”
The woman wrote down the time on a tablet she had in her pocket, then she looked over in the direction of the kitchen staff. She seemed unphased by everything, as if everything was rehearsed. She must be accustomed to seeing death here at the retirement home. However, she was probably not used to seeing it among the service staff. She turned and looked over the top of her glasses at Dr. Lee. “I'll call the police and ambulance.
“Thank you, Nancy,” Dr. Lee said.
I sat back on my bent legs, and kept my eyes on Les. Why hadn't the ambulance been called already? And why the police? It must be some small town policy. I was lost in thought for a moment, until I heard sobbing. I looked up over towards the man who had done the Heimlich, standing close by. His trembling hand covered his eyes.
Dr. Lee put an arm around the man's shoulder. “Viktor, this is Kay Driscoll.”
“Viktor, you did your best trying to save Les,” I said.
Viktor, still shaking, wiped tears from his eyes, looking at me.
I felt bad for Viktor. “He was a good friend?” I asked.
He nodded. Then he left the dining room.
“Dr. Lee, is Nancy the head nurse here?”
“The retirement home director. We have a new resident nurse, but she's out today. Poor Les. I have to find out what happened to him.”
“All I know is that he and some of the others employees were inhaling food like there was no tomorrow, and then he stood up with his hands around his throat as if he were…” I stopped my train of thought when I glanced over at the serving tier at Les' table. I hadn't noticed when I hurried over. It was over three quarters full. It was almost empty before. Their first serving tray must have been replaced with a second one.
“Choking,” the doctor said.
“Right. But I knew he wasn't choking because he could speak. It had to be something else. Heart attack, allergies…poisoning?” I shrugged my shoulders.
“Poisoning?” Dr. Lee gave me a look with his almond shaped eyes that couldn’t completely hide a touch of reproach.
Nancy came back into the room. “Did Les have any food allergies that you knew of, Nancy?” I asked.
Nancy looked at me, then pushed up her eyeglasses, and looked over at Dr. Lee. “Nancy, this is Kay Driscoll. She's a registered nurse over at the free clinic. Kay, Nancy Reinhardt.”