Authors: Arlene Sachitano
Aiden finished his burger while Harriet was just picking up the second half of hers. He wiped his hands with his paper napkin and dropped the rumpled remains on his empty plate.
"I know better than to try to tell a determined group of quilters what to do, but I have to say it. Go home. If you hurry, you could still make the last ferry of the night. Let someone else figure out what's going on."
"But, mijo, that would leave Lauren on her own. She's been questioned by the police,” Connie protested.
"So? You guys don't even like Lauren."
Carla looked from Mavis to Harriet and then to Robin, waiting to see who would refute the statement.
Finally, Mavis spoke. “Lauren doesn't make things easy for herself. And she does seem to take issue with Harriet. But that being said, she's part of our group, and the Loose Threads don't abandon a member who's in trouble."
"So, don't abandon her. Can't you support her from the safety of Foggy Point?"
"I don't think we're going to figure this out if we aren't at the folk art school,” Harriet said. “I feel like there's something right in front of us, but we're not seeing it."
"Well, be careful. And don't break into anyone else's office.” He slid out from his end position in the booth and stood up. He pulled several bills from his wallet and tossed them on the table. “I've gotta go check on some patients. Can I come by for a cookie later?” he asked Harriet.
Mavis looked at the others. No one changed expression, so she assured him he was welcome as long as he didn't come too late.
"Tell me again how the schedule works tomorrow,” Carla said when he was gone.
"In the morning, the teachers will each give a lecture on some aspect of embellishment,” Robin said. “Ray Louise is demonstrating dry needle felting. And I think Patience will teach a session on fabric painting with oil sticks. Marla Stevens is going to talk about dyeing thread to match your fabric. There are a few more, but those are the ones I'm interested in. Two sessions will be going on at the same time. We have a complete list back at the Tree House, by the phone."
"After lunch, the teachers will have stations set up in the classroom so you can try the techniques,” Mavis added.
"It's kind of nice to have a break from sitting in front of a sewing machine all day,” Robin said.
Harriet wished she'd spent a little more time with her machine. Her half-rectangle quilt top was barely started. She was going to have to do some late-night stitching if she wanted to have something for the show-and-tell on the final day of school.
There was a fresh bouquet of wildflowers on the table in the entryway when they arrived back at the Tree House. A clear plastic garbage bag full of clean towels sat on the floor.
"I've got to work on my quilt,” Harriet said.
"Me, too,” Carla chimed in. Harriet felt a small stab of guilt for keeping her from class today.
Harriet had chosen a pale-blue fabric to build her quilt around. She was trying to decide whether to use a pale pink with irregular, multicolored dots on it or a tone-on-tone medium pink that would move the quilt in a brighter direction. If she used the bright pink she would probably add white to the mix. If she went with the pale pink then an off-white or yellow would work better. The trouble was, she liked the lighter pink
the white but the two weren't going to work together.
Carla laid her fabrics out on the opposite end of the dining table; she was using a coordinated floral print series and emphasizing the star shape created by the half-rectangles. Harriet's layout would emphasize the curved look of the space between the star images.
Harriet decided she would have to make a sample block with each color combination. She was about to start cutting the two alternatives when the phone rang. Connie answered, and after a brief conversation, she hung up and turned to the group.
"That was Nancy from the front office. She asked if we could empty our wastebaskets into a garbage bag and put it on the front porch for pick-up in the morning."
Mavis and Robin started setting their hand stitching aside.
"Don't get up,” Harriet said. “I could use a break. If no one minds me going in their room, I'll gather everyone's garbage."
No one objected, and she took a bag from under the sink and started up the stairs. The work wasn't difficult, as most people had no more than a couple of tissues and a few scraps of fabric in their wastebaskets.
She hadn't seen Lauren downstairs, so she tapped on her door a few times but received no response. She tried the knob, and when it turned easily, she went in without another thought.
The room was dark, but the light from the hall gave enough illumination for her to find the wastebasket and bring it out to her waiting garbage bag. It felt heavy, but a crumpled paper towel obscured whatever was in it.
Harriet gingerly picked up the corner of the paper towel between her thumb and fore finger. The bottom of the container was filled with what looked like a large pile of cooked spinach. She dropped the paper towel and pulled Lauren's door shut, taking the waste container with her downstairs.
"Look what I found in Lauren's room.” She lifted the paper towel aside and tilted the basket so Mavis, Connie and Robin could see without getting up. Carla came over and stood beside her.
"What on earth is that?” Connie wondered.
"Looks like Lauren's been cooking her own greens,” Robin said.
"Marla talked about dyeing with plant materials the first day of class. I told Lauren about it. Maybe she was experimenting,” Mavis suggested.
"That looks like the flowers on the front table,” Carla said in a matter-of-fact voice.
"You're right,” said Harriet. She lifted the basket closer to her face. “Look, you can see pieces of flower stem."
"Anyone home?” Darcy called from the entryway. “I have to spend another night here, so I thought I'd come by for a cup of tea before I go back to the motel.” She set her purse on the coffee table. “What are you doing?"
"Just being snoopy,” Harriet answered. “I was taking the garbage out, and I found something weird in Lauren's can."
"Oh, weird garbage, that's right up my alley.” Darcy smiled. She had a reputation in the Foggy Point area for her ability to find DNA on discarded objects, a skill that was largely due to her tolerance for picking through noxious garbage.
She looked into the can. Her smile faded, and a ridge formed in her brow.
"Did anyone touch this stuff?” she demanded, looking at each of her friends. Everyone looked at Harriet.
"I just picked up the paper towel. By the corner,” she added.
"Did your fingers tingle or anything like that?"
"No, nothing. I barely touched it."
"Set it down, gently,” Darcy ordered in a firm voice.
Harriet did as instructed. “What's the matter?"
"Maybe nothing, but I don't like the looks of this stuff.” Darcy had her cell phone out but couldn't get enough of a signal to complete her call. Mavis directed her to the phone in the dining room, and Harriet listened as she made a series of calls.
When she finished, she came back to the great room; no one had moved.
"We're still waiting for the final test results,” she explained, “but it looks like Selestina was poisoned with aconitum, a plant whose common name is monkshood or wolf's bane."
"I can see where this is headed,” Mavis said.
"You're sure no one touched this?” Darcy asked again.
"No,” Harriet assured her. “I'm the only one, and I didn't touch the plant stuff."
"Go wash your hands with soap at the kitchen sink, just in case,” she directed, and Harriet complied.
"Aconitum is a very potent poison,” Darcy continued. “There are stories in the literature about people being killed by casual contact with the plants, but most experts believe it needs to be concentrated, and even then it probably needs to come in contact with broken skin.
"Whoever did this to Selestina almost got away with it—most of her symptoms mimicked coronary artery disease. But she had a few that didn't make sense. She had numbness in her extremities, and her pupils were contracted. Still, if it hadn't been for that moonlighting pathologist I told you about, they might have gotten away with it. He suspected poison. One of the nurses pointed out her thimble finger was irritated. Again, that might not have been noticed in a woman who had arthritis in her fingertips and squeezed her finger into a metal thimble in spite of it. But once they suspected poison, they started looking for a delivery point."
"So, someone cooked poison plants and put the juice in Selestina's thimble?” Connie asked.
"That's the long and short of it."
"But where would someone get the plants? Wouldn't they have to bring them along when they came?” Robin asked. “That would be pretty premeditated."
"No, unfortunately,” Darcy said. “Monkshood grows all over the northwest in the hills. In fact...” She walked over to the bouquet of wild flowers. “...this flower right here...” She pointed to a green stem with lavender bluebell-like blossoms on its stalk. “...looks like it might be monkshood."
She removed a latex glove from her pocket, pulled in onto her right hand and carried the vase over to set it on the floor next to the wastebasket.
Everyone was standing in a circle staring at the two containers when the Tree House door opened and Detective Ruiz entered, followed by Officer Weber.
"What have you got?” he asked Darcy.
"I think we've found the source of the poison that killed Selestina Bainbridge.” She pointed at the wastebasket. “Don't touch it,” she warned. “It looks like someone cooked a batch of plants down to make a concentrated liquid. It's anyone's guess how much of that concentrate might still be in these plants. We'll have to send these to the lab and test them, but I don't think there's much doubt."
"Where did you find this?” Detective Ruiz asked the group.
The women looked at each other. No one wanted to be the one to seal Lauren's fate.
"It's not a difficult question,” Ruiz prompted.
"It was in Lauren Sawyer's bedroom,” Harriet said in a quiet voice.
Ruiz let his breath out. “And where is Miss Sawyer?"
"I don't know."
"Please, don't play me."
"No, really—we don't know. She didn't come to dinner with us. The last we heard she was going into Angel Harbor with some other students."
Detective Ruiz nodded to the patrolman still standing near the door. “Let's find her,” he said.
Weber stepped onto the porch, pulling a radio from his belt as he went. As he went out, Patience came in. She was wearing a faded pair of black cotton knit pants and an oversized lavender T-shirt with the Angel Harbor Folk Art School logo stenciled on the back.
"I'll need to question your client as soon as possible,” Detective Ruiz said to Robin. “I trust you'll let me know when she makes contact.” He handed Robin a business card. “Officer Weber will stay with the evidence until the lab picks it up."
The ruddy-faced young officer came back in and took up his post in front of the evidence, and Detective Ruiz left.
"Does he really think Lauren would be that stupid?” Robin wondered. “Clearly, someone planted that wastebasket.” She curled the first two fingers on each hand in the universal hand symbol for quote marks when she said planted.
"The local lab guy will test the basket, and if we're lucky he'll pick up some prints that will tell us something. If there are prints, and none of them are Lauren's, that will help."
"What's happened?” Patience asked. “I was in the office when the policemen came."
"It would seem we found the poison that was used on Selestina,” Mavis said. She explained the series of events that ended with the appearance of Detective Ruiz.
"My goodness,” Patience said. “Why would Lauren want to poison Selestina?"
"Lauren didn't poison anyone,” Connie said.
"Someone did,” Harriet had to point out.
The local forensic lab people arrived and, using something that looked like Aunt Beth's antique ice tongs, picked up first the wastebasket and then the vase of flowers and stowed them in large plastic boxes. Darcy explained that the boxes weren't ordinary household storage boxes but were made from a hardened low-sodium plastic that wouldn't contaminate the contents.
"I'm going to the lab,” she said and picked up the coat, purse and keys she'd dropped on the coffee table earlier. “We probably won't know anything before tomorrow."
Mavis walked her to the door with the usual admonishments to make sure she got enough rest and remembered to eat.
"Shall I put the kettle on?” Connie asked.
"I could do with a cup of tea,” Patience said.
Mavis went into the kitchenette, pulled a plastic container of homemade lemon sugar cookies from a shelf under the counter and began arranging them on a large plate. Connie set two boxes of mixed tea bags on the table and distributed mugs. Patience, Robin and Harriet took places at the table. Mavis brought the cookies and Connie poured hot water. Carla handed out napkins then perched on a stool at the island.
"Patience,” Harriet began, “do you think it's possible that one of Selestina's friends decided to spare her the indignity of dementia?"
"What are you talking about? Selestina didn't have dementia. She was as sharp as you or I. What gave you the idea she had dementia?"
Harriet was confused. Tom had been very clear. “I was talking to her son...” she began.
"Is Tom telling that story again?” Patience asked, a look of righteous indignation on her face. “Last year the school barely broke even, so Tom got this idea he could build assisted living apartments that were geared toward the arts. Someone had talked to him about how much money he could make if he turned the school into a multi-level senior care facility. He's been trying to convince Selestina she had some kind of dementia ever since."
"Wouldn't that be pretty easy to disprove?” Robin asked. “All she'd have to do is have an evaluation. Do you know if she owned the property herself?"