Authors: Ritter Ames
Comfortable in an overstuffed chair, Kate glanced around the small cottage and imagined herself swaddled in a tea cozy. Chintz covered the furniture, and cat figurines posed on small shelves and across the narrow windowsills. It completely clashed with the streamlined kitchen work area at the Nethercutt mansion. She wondered about the incongruity but didn't have much time to think further as Mrs. Baxter bustled in carrying a tray of cups and a tall stainless steel carafe. A rich coffee aroma filled the crowded room.
"I must apologize." Mrs. Baxter passed a sugar bowl and tongs. "Normally I would offer tea and scones, but…after…"
Kate's words rushed, "No, I should be the one apologizing, showing up here today of all days." She set the sugar bowl next to her cup and saucer, and then wrapped Mrs. Baxter's hand in her own. "I had such a horrible ordeal with the police yesterday, I think I needed to find someone who could help make some sense of it all. But like you, tea is anathema to me. When I couldn't sleep last night, I chose warm milk for the exact same reason you brought coffee. Oh, I'm rambling. I should never have come."
Mrs. Baxter used her free hand to pat Kate's. "Nonsense. You're entirely right to be here. How else to get to the bottom of this silliness? Hauling everyone into the station like common criminals! They
me. Of course my fingerprints covered the house." The snowy head shook in indignation. Mrs. Baxter pulled free and took a tissue from her peacock-blue dress pocket.
"I didn't mind the printing," Kate said, savoring the unusually nutty flavor of the coffee's rich blend. "Like you, however, I did feel uneasy having to defend myself. I had no motive to kill Amelia."
The cook's mouth formed a straight line. "Isn't that the truth? Like the woman's heirs haven't been itching to grab their inheritances for years. And, of course, Sophia blamed Miss Amelia for Mr. Daniel's death."
"Oh, yes." Mrs. Baxter added two sugar cubes to her own coffee and stirred. "For the past year, Mr. Daniel's heart condition had been worrying everyone. His poor doctor had a devil of a time trying to get his medicine stabilized. But Miss Amelia tired of our Vermont winter and decided it was imperative they go to Washington in time for the cherry blossoms and another few days to jaunt around Georgetown searching for
. Followed it all up with the silly homecoming party. Completely wore out the poor man's heart. He died the same night, as if…Well, I hate to mention anything that hints of gossip, but it was…" Mrs. Baxter motioned Kate closer, lowering her voice, "Almost as if Amelia had planned the whole thing as a kind of…a send-off."
While Mrs. Baxter's hesitant speech and affected actions suggested discomfort at the revelation, Kate couldn't miss the light that gleamed deep in the woman's eyes. Mrs. Baxter's bitter words echoed the comment Amelia made the day she died about widowhood versus divorce. Had Amelia said it more than the one time? The words had come right after Mrs. Baxter's departure for the store, but had the cook actually left? It would have been easy for her to stay out of sight in the hall and overhear the conversation. Did she really know something about Mr. Daniel's death that threw a shadow of suspicion on the murdered woman? "Did the doctor tell them not to go?"
"Not exactly." Mrs. Baxter took an exploratory sip of coffee. "But it's no secret whatever Miss Amelia wanted, Miss Amelia got."
"Did anyone in her family resent her for being controlling?"
"Resent her?" Mrs. Baxter laughed so hard she had to put down her cup. "They didn't resent her. They
"Except for Mr. Daniel." Mrs. Baxter took a ladyfinger from the cookie plate. "He adored Miss Amelia. Even after ten years of marriage, he wanted to do whatever made her happy. Infuriated his son and daughter. Would you like a cookie, dear? I made them fresh this morning."
Kate accepted a melt-in-the-mouth butter cookie from the plate and planned her next question. "So, did you begin working for the Nethercutts once they returned to Hazelton?"
"I've always worked for the Lane family. That's Miss Amelia's maiden name," she explained. A well-fed calico sauntered in, melding beautifully with the surroundings. "Ah, Lady Puss, you're gracing us with your presence, I see."
"What a beautiful cat."
"Yes, a gift from Miss Amelia." Mrs. Baxter leaned down to scratch the cat's chin. "Rescued from one of the backyard trees, and she didn't have the heart to call the animal shelter."
"You've been a longtime friend, then?"
"All my life, dear. My mother was the family cook. My father tended the automobiles. I was scullery maid, pastry assistant, and childhood friend, whichever was appropriate to the moment. Miss Amelia had to let everyone go after her parents died, what with her getting married and living abroad. But once she remarried this last time to Mr. Daniel, and returned to Hazelton, I was the first person she called."
"Sounds like she thought a lot of you."
"Of my talents, you mean." Mrs. Baxter gave a brisk nod. "Knew I learned beside my mother, and Miss Amelia always adored her cooking. We needed more help around the place, to dust and straighten everything, but Miss Amelia was tight regarding daily people. Only had a crew come in once a week."
Here was a new angle. "When were they last in the house?"
"The Friday after Mr. Daniel's funeral." Mrs. Baxter sighed. "A lovely service. The minister did Mr. Daniel right, though the Nethercutts' idea of church attendance was to do little more than send in the tithes they wrote off on their taxes at year-end. But, I never knew a man better than Mr. Daniel, and he deserved every fine word spoken over him."
Okay, the cleaning people were out unless one of them had a key. Made a wax impression at some time? Was anything taken? She couldn't remember hearing anything like that in the police station, but Sophia said something the day they'd met. "Did the officers mention missing items when they interviewed you?"
"I was traumatized over finding the body." Mrs. Baxter answered in non sequitur fashion, her drifting gaze showing a mind firmly elsewhere, across time and space to the previous day, standing once more in the deadly parlor. Kate shivered as she watched the age-spotted hands shake at the memory, and return the cup to its saucer.
"Such an agonized expression." Mrs. Baxter's eyes glossed over. Her right hand covered her own face at temple and cheek.
Kate recognized the signs. Mrs. Baxter was revisiting a trauma to which the cook had never meant to return and now couldn't forget. She tried to switch the subject, but Mrs. Baxter blazed on, apparently past any diverting effort. Her need for exorcising the memory remained too great to easily overcome.
"Miss Amelia had been in tremendous pain, clutching her middle. I'll forever associate the smell of vomit with the poor woman," Mrs. Baxter recounted. "Overpowering, I tell you. I grabbed Mr. Walker's arm. He was her attorney and just arrived for an appointment. If he hadn't helped me to a chair I think I would have fainted dead away. Oh!"
Kate patted Mrs. Baxter's hand in sympathy. She remembered what the lieutenant had said the night before about the body's discovery. While she knew it was unreasonable and unfair, she wished the attorney had seen Amelia first and stopped this poor woman from stumbling onto the sight.
Mrs. Baxter shook her head. "Mr. Walker took charge. We saw him ringing the front bell as Mr. William and I drove up. But, of course, Miss Amelia never answered the door herself. I called from the car window, and he walked around the back to come in with Mr. Thomas and myself."
"You mean Amelia's son," Kate clarified. "Why didn't he let the lawyer inside?"
"Couldn't hear the door chimes out in the garage." Mrs. Baxter's gaze drifted out the window, toward the mansion, and her voice grew softer. "Mr. Walker made all the necessary phone calls. It seemed mere seconds before the police arrived, though likely much longer. Time's tricky like that. Thank goodness Mr. Walker hadn't given up and left. Everyone fell to pieces once Miss Amelia was discovered."
Silence reigned for several seconds. The coffee had gone cold, and Kate gathered the cups and saucers, returning them to the tray. "It must have been devastating. I'm truly sorry."
"We were close as children you know." Mrs. Baxter stared vacantly out the front bow window. "Gave me all her hand-me-down clothes and toys. Always thought of me first whenever she got something new."
"She was a dear friend."
Mrs. Baxter's head pivoted sharply, and her gaze bore into Kate's. "Most people don't realize that."
Kate was at a loss, wondering where to lead the conversation. She thought of Danny. "I met Miss Amelia's grandson right before I left that day. He seemed to really like your cookies."
With a snort, Mrs. Baxter topped off the cups with hot coffee from the carafe. "He just had the
"Well, he is a teenage boy. I don't have one myself, but I'm told they eat like herds of horses and grow nonstop."
"Oh, Danny's growing all right." Mrs. Baxter pursed her lips, like she would let go of a secret if the right question was asked.
"I don't understand."
"Danny's into plants and…things." Mrs. Baxter moved her lips, almost like a fish. "Things
"Yes, I noticed the greenhouse, and a lot of teens are into natural foods."
"Not that kind of organic." Mrs. Baxter took a sip of coffee, then raised the plate and offered another cookie. Kate held up a hand, smiling her thanks-but-no-thanks, and the older woman continued, "Oh, he claims he's just growing flowers in the greenhouse, and carts around those bottles of supplements. Always trying to get me to take some of them hocus pocus pills. But he can't fool me." She leaned closer again and whispered, "I've smelled marijuana smoke on his clothes."
Interesting. The daily headlines screamed about rising teen drug use.
Look at all the Ecstasy stories
and the date rape drugs. Roofies.
The thought made Kate want to run to find the twins and lock them in their room until they turned twenty-five. "Did you ask Danny about it?"
"No need." The well-nourished cat returned and performed a graceful leap into Mrs. Baxter's ample lap. "Miss Amelia smelled it, too. Recognized the nasty smell from the days she dealt with her ne'er-do-well son, Thomas. In fact, the bum dropped by that afternoon because he wanted to get more money off his mother."
"I thought Thomas came to check over the car for Danny," Kate prodded.
Mrs. Baxter sniffed. "The man doesn't mind getting his hands dirty, that's for sure. Could have told Miss Amelia he wasn't a good influence on Danny. Not my place, of course."
"What happened when she smelled the marijuana on Danny?"
"Miss Amelia took her grandson by the ear and marched him right into the study." Mrs. Baxter gave a decisive nod. "Even with the door closed their yelling came through. Then the boy slammed out of the house a half-hour later."
"Exactly what day was that?" Kate asked.
Two days before Amelia's murder.
"With them yelling, did you understand any of what they said?" Kate prompted, feeling creepily voyeuristic despite this being a mission of self-preservation.
As her hand stroked the purring cat, Mrs. Baxter's face took on the same self-satisfied expression the feline wore. "I could only pick up the stray word, but I definitely heard 'lawyer' and 'inheritance.' Both of which were in Miss Amelia's voice."
STACKED IN YOUR FAVOR, LLC
KATE MCKENZIE, PRES.
Friday afternoon, April 9th
WORDS TO STAY ON-TRACK:
"The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication."
— Cecil B. De Mille —
GOAL(S) FOR THE DAY:
Need to get in touch with Jane—ship enters Port of Miami, Sat. a.m.
Trade info with Meg—find out what she learned at lunch.
Take meat out of freezer to make cheeseburger potatoes for dinner.
Call Keith—see if he'll be home during his afternoon break to talk.
MOST IMPORTANT—Take girls for ice cream or my name is Mud!
Despite Hazelton's tiny, bucolic aesthetics, lunchtime along Main Street was always a busy place, with steady, brisk trade. A tour bus stood in the parking lot of Molly's Café, its passengers offloaded for food and a stretch. A nearby auction meant droves of antique hunters prowled the shops. Kate wasn't sure which direction to head after leaving Mrs. Baxter's but felt she needed to find someplace that seemed normal.
Like the Book Nook.
Saree Modine was a Jamaican transplant by way of a New Orleans marriage. She'd arrived in Hazelton after her husband, Marcel, a professor of art history, gained a position at nearby Bennington College. Her bookstore and coffee bar, as eclectic as her life's journey, boasted cheerful ambiance, comfy chairs, offbeat inventory, and the best hot drinks in town. Kate found it instantly charming, and the special kinship the women shared for why they'd moved to the area created another bonus. When Kate asked how the couple adapted to the Vermont climate, a blush had colored the young woman's café au lait cheekbones, and Saree had said with a giggle, "We be newlyweds forever, we keep livin' here, no? Nothin' better for stayin' warm than keepin' those sheets dancin' these cold northern nights." Kate vowed then and there to spend all her free time in the shop with the upbeat, curly-haired sprite.
The van's clock read nearly one o'clock, and Kate looked forward to more than a haven from conflicting thoughts and theories. She hoped a bite of lunch and cup of caffeine might settle her stomach as well.
In the store entry, a poster on an easel displayed a smiling shot of Kate. She grinned and read the announcement for "A Night with an Organizational Expert." Months earlier Saree had asked her to speak on spring cleaning and clutter-busting and scheduled the event at what had seemed far into the future.