Chapter 29 – Seeking a Murderer is Berry Dangerous

Tuesday passes and so does Wednesday, without any word of Laurie.  The thought crosses my head that I may actually be more concerned about her than her own stepmother is, but perhaps I’m selling Shelly short.  We don’t hear anything from Paul, so there’s apparently no leads at all.  I cannot imagine where she is, to be hidden this well…and still be alive.

He’s managed to make the hunt nationwide, in case she actually drove…or was taken…out of state.  Her picture shows up each night on Zeke’s evening news and they mention that she’s pregnant, playing on the public’s sympathy to encourage reporting any sighting.

Zeke and I talk about it, about where she might be and how this ties in with the deaths.  It may only be that she is fleeing prosecution for her father’s death although John Junior continues to be most reticent about what happened when Mike died.  He has still not even breathed a word of her presence there that night, even when asked about the pie.  His story is that they fought; he knocked Mike out and left him laying at the base of the altar.  He persists in denying the burial and has no idea how the pie got there.  He’s consistent, at least.  It irks Paul.

But whatever the reason, her vanishing act has me worried.

The store is busy enough on Saturday that Zeke has been helping me most of the day—and even though we’re approaching closing time, I’m still preoccupied enough that it takes me a little while to realize that Rhyssa has come in and been wandering around.  She sees me acknowledge her presence and comes to stand near the register, waiting to speak to me.  I finish up with my customer and that is the signal for her to move up to the counter.

“Mattie, do you have a few minutes?  I’d like to talk to you.”

“Not really, but we close in 45 minutes.  Can you wait until then?  I can give you my undivided attention after I get the customers out.”

“Sure, no problem.  I’m sorry, I know you’re busy.  I can wait.  I’ll go sit in the conservatory?”  She asks and I am saddened at how fragile and unsure she has become since Yule.  I nod and she walks off.

The time flies by quickly and it’s actually a few minutes after our official closing time before the last person has paid for their chosen items.

As we close up, Zeke and I try to figure out what Rhyssa will have to tell us.  Maybe she’s seen Laurie?

I wait in the dim quiet hallway as my beloved puts the day’s take of money into the safe upstairs.  I prefer not to face whatever is about to occur by myself.  Vader wants to guard each of us and settles for standing in the middle of the stairs with his head swiveling back and forth like he’s watching a tennis match, trying to keep us both in his line of sight.  His unease is finally alleviated when Zeke comes back down and we head into the conservatory.  This is familiar ground so the Devil dog leads the way.

It’s just as well that we walk in quietly as Rhyssa has fallen asleep in one of the easy chairs.  I glance over at Zeke but before we can decide how to wake her without scaring her, the dog handles it.  He goes up to her and puts his cold, wet nose against her leg, then licks her.  She must be used to her cat waking her in a similar manner because she doesn’t jerk awake but simply opens her eyes and looks around.  It’s clear that she’s momentarily forgotten quite where she is but then she gives a little shake and sits up, becoming aware of us.

“Sorry.  I haven’t been sleeping well and it was so…peaceful in here.  I just closed my eyes for a moment…I guess that moment has been more like an hour, hasn’t it?”  She smiles wanly.

Cleansing has definitely worked.  Hooray.  I’m hoping that I don’t to do it again anytime soon.  We sit down in nearby chairs to talk with her.

“I’m here because I’m hoping you all can help me decide what to do” she begins.

We glance at each other.  I’m definitely going to start charging money for making decisions that other people can’t.  I just hope I don’t have to show some sort of certification or license to do so…I’m not sure that I make the best decisions for me so this sudden power is not welcome.  And I can tell that Zeke feels the same way.

Rhyssa shifts a little and resettles in her chair.  “You know I’ve been doing some community service as part of my sentence for…touching John Robert and messing with the crime scene.”  We both nod.  “Well mostly it’s cleaning and doing laundry.  I’m working at the women’s shelter and they need the rooms ready for clients.”

Paul had mentioned this to us; frankly, I think it’s a good idea.  Maybe Rhyssa will come to learn that there are all kinds of abuse and what John Robert was doing to the women in his life qualifies.

“I get to talking to some of the women there.  And I was thinking, maybe it would help Dorie to, well, you know, get over John Robert, if she helped there, too.  She might be able to talk about stuff with other women who have been through ummm abuse.  Because I think she is, uh was being abused.”

I couldn’t agree more.  But I’m not sure how to approach the idea with her.  I don’t know if Rhyssa is aware of Dorie’s past…casually talking to other abuse victims may not be sufficient to help.  I’m thinking professional counseling would be a really good idea but that’s even more awkward to suggest.

“Rhyssa, I agree with you that Dorie was abused.  But I think that she has to seek out help on her own for it to work.”  I am hedging and I know it.

“Maybe, but if she just came and helped out at the shelter, maybe she’d realize that she needs to talk about it.”

“Maybe so, but how would you get her to want to help there?”  Practical Zeke.

“That’s where I was hoping you could help.”

“I’m not sure how.  We’re not particularly friends with Dorie.  And since it’s been made very clear to us that she holds us responsible for her children’s current living situations, any friendship we might have had is definitely no longer there anyways.”

“Uhhhhh, yeah.  I hadn’t thought about that.”  She is chagrined.  “I guess it wouldn’t be a good idea for you all to mention it.”

“Probably not.  On the other hand, you could always bring it up in conversation with her, sort of plant the idea?”  I suggest.

“Er, ah, well.  Actually, she probably doesn’t want to see me either…since I am at the shelter only because I ummm, you know…”

Good point.  And we are at an impasse.  And I still think some serious couch time with a licensed headshrinker is about the only way to help her.

We sit in silence for a few minutes and then Rhyssa shatters it.

“I had even gone out to the house the other day to see how she was doing, but Laurie told me that she just doesn’t want to talk to anyone at all.”

“Laurie?!”

“Laurie Bradford is at her house?”

Zeke and I talk at the same time.  The reaction startles her, but Rhyssa answers us both.  “Oh yes.  She’s staying there until she can find an apartment of her own.  Since Laurie is carrying Dorie’s grandchild…it’s just natural.”

Yes it is.  What is not natural is that Dorie has not let the police know that Laurie is with her.  And safe.

But is she safe?  A nasty thought comes to my mind but I’m not going to say it out loud in front of Rhyssa who cannot keep her mouth closed.  I don’t even dare look at Zeke lest he blurt it out.

But he does show that he is blessed with an uncommon amount of common sense as he asks her, “So when did Laurie move in with Dorie?  I thought she was still at Mike and Shelly’s.”

“Well, I said something about her being there and she said that she had been spending more and more time up there, so it made more sense to just move in then to keep driving back and forth.  She and Shelly don’t get along and it’s not like Shelly is her mother anyways.”  She pauses and seems to be recalling the conversation in her mind.  “I don’t think she actually said when.  Since Sunday, for sure.  I was there on Tuesday and the cars still had snow on them.  She’s been driving Junior’s, you know.”

Yes we do…which means Dorie lied, actually and willfully lied to the police on Monday.  What else has she lied about?  How do I get Rhyssa out of my house so that I can talk about this with Zeke and try to figure it out?  I’m still very carefully *not* looking at him but I can sense that he’s on my wavelength.  Thankfully, Rhyssa is apparently oblivious to the rising tension since there is no way I’m going to explain this to her.

She also apparently decides that we’re of no use as a way to get Dorie down to the shelter.  Rising out of the chair, she hugs us each in turn.  “Thanks, I guess I’ll have to think of something else.  I hadn’t really thought about…Dorie not wanting anything to do with ummm you guys.  Probably better not to push it.”

I quite agree.  We walk with her and let her out, locking the store up behind her.  Then and only then do we turn to look at each other.

“Hoo boy.  Dorie lied.  Big time.”  Zeke says it first.

“Yes, she did.  I would like to know why, since there is no real reason I can think of for not letting the police know that Laurie is alive and safe…assuming that she is indeed safe with the widow.  I am really interested in what else she’s lied about.”

“You said ‘safe with the widow’ and all I can think about is black widows…and how very poisonous they are.”  Zeke stares at me.  It’s like the Universe has stopped, just for a moment, to let us stand in the clear pure center of stillness and consider the idea of Dorie as the murderer, something that has not really occurred to us with quite this sense of “oh yes she could have”.

Poisonous widows, indeed.  Dorie benefitted enormously from John Robert’s death and not just in the monetary sense.  But she is so unsubstantial…how on earth could someone with such a complete lack of presence, such a…vague and indecisive person…plan and carry out what is clearly a premeditated and most assuredly cold-blooded murder?  Shadows can’t hurt anyone…can they?

We don’t have to talk to coordinate our next action.  We both start up the stairs, heading for the phone.  Zeke gets there first.  His legs are longer than mine.

“May I please speak to Detective Dobson?”  He reaches out and pulls me against his body and I wrap my arms around me…seems like we’re doing this a lot lately and not just because we like each other but as a human reaction, seeking security.  “When do you expect him back?  I see. Can you ask him to call Zeke Taylor at his earliest convenience?  It’s very important.  Yes.  Thank you.”

“Now what, since our pet cop isn’t in?”  I say to him.  I hadn’t thought of what to do beyond telling Paul.

“We could ride out to the Schmidt household and see how many cars are in the driveway…maybe even knock on the door and see who answers it?”

“And get shot for trespassing?  Which is highly likely, given how Dorie feels about us at this time…”  I am not about to play detective, no matter how tempting it is, just to know who had the nerve to send John Robert to his just rewards.  One can only hope they are the just rewards.

“Yeah, I know what you mean.  Damn, I wish Paul had been in.  I don’t know if I can sit here some unknown amount of time until we can talk to him, not knowing if Laurie is still…alive.”  He is absent-mindedly rubbing my back as we try to come up with a plan of action.  “Any ideas, anything at all?”

“What about Eric?  Or Sara—umm Lilith?  I don’t know if Dorie would want to see Eric, but surely she’d like to see her own daughter?”

“Uhh, I think that’s part of the foster parent thing—I don’t think Sara can go home, even if she wanted to.”  He reminds me.  Damn indeed.  I had forgotten that aspect of it.”

“Okay, who hasn’t alienated Dorothy Schmidt that is also still talking to us?”  I’ll bet it’s a really small list.  Like no names at all.  Zeke surprises me.

“How about Daniel?  Maybe he and Gerard could take some rainbow cookies out to Dorie?”

I smack him for the rainbow comment but I have to admit, it’s about the only option we have.  But how do we explain our reasons for asking them to go?  They haven’t had the fun of the front row seats like we have and I have no idea how much of the saga they are aware of.  Furthermore, it’s not right to send them in as decoy detectives, so to speak, since we have no way of knowing how safe it really is.  I wish Paul had been at the station.

“Did you hear that?”  Zeke asks me.

Before I can say no, I realize what he’s talking about—there’s someone knocking on the door.  Vader takes off, down the stairs, with us close behind.  This time I win and so I get to be the first to see Paul Dobson standing on our porch, like we conjured him up.

I unlock and open the door and he steps in.  “The duty officer radioed me that you had called and asked to talk to me—said it was important.  So he figured I should know about it sooner rather than later.  What’s up?”

Okay, so it wasn’t magic.  But I am so glad he is here and that we can turn over this news to the real detective.

“Dorie lied to you.  Laurie was there on Monday when you called.”  Zeke goes straight to the point.

The startled look on his face is clear enough that Zeke answers his unspoken question.  “Rhyssa stopped by the house on Tuesday and Laurie answered the door.  She came over here to talk to us about getting Dorie down to the women’s shelter and told us about it then.  She left, oh about 10 minutes ago.”

“Damn, damn damn.”  Understandable, but really an understatement of his anger.  “I wasn’t able to go out there myself and so I sent a couple of uniforms out Tuesday afternoon with explicit orders to find Laurie.  I even made sure that they had a warrant to search the house if they needed to.  Mrs. Schmidt let them in without it and there was no sign of Laurie.  There was only one car in the driveway.  Which by the way was not John Junior’s, since they had a description of that as well.  Damn!”

“Do you suppose she left because of Rhyssa?  It’s pretty well known that she will mention anything to anyone.”

“Probably.  So where is she now?  Did she hide out somewhere near and return after the police showed up, or is she really gone now?  I doubt that I can go back into the Schmidt’s with nothing but a feeling to go on, even if Mrs. Schmidt is more…ummm accepting of intuition and psychic knowledge than your average homeowner.”

We all look at each other helplessly.  No great ideas spring to my mind.  And I’m not hearing that marvelous “a-ha” of complete comprehension from either man, so we’re stuck…at least for now.

“Paul, what if…well, what if Dorie is the murderer?”  Zeke asks first.  Somehow, that clear statement triggers a different thought for me.

“What if it’s Laurie that’s the murderer?”  Both men stare at me.  I try to explain.  “Well, she certainly had access to the belladonna bush.”

“Motive, Miss Marple?”  Paul grins at me but rapidly grows serious again.

“For molesting Sara?  So John Junior would have the money to take care of her and their baby?  Maybe she heard about Dorie’s lost child and in a sympathetic state, decided to remove John Robert as a favor to her soon-to-be mother-in-law?”  Any of those reasons sounds good—and plausible.  No evidence at all, but that’s not my job.

The one whose job it is steps up to the plate.  “If that’s the case, how do we prove it?  Where did she make the trifle?  Shelly should have noticed if she made it at home.  And Dorie, John Junior and Sara would have certainly been aware of her making it in their kitchen.”

“Maybe they were.”  We pause a moment to consider that idea.  Then I continue.  “Maybe she takes home-ed classes and could have had access to the school’s kitchen?”

“You know, it could be either of them—or both.”  Zeke points out the obvious.  “Trifle is actually better if made ahead of time so there’s a 2 or 3 day span of time, maybe even 4 or 5 days, when it could have been put together.  It probably wasn’t made that day because it would have been remembered.”

“So who gains the most?  Who had the most reason for killing John Robert?” I ask.

“It looks almost like a tie…either of them would have benefited.  Dorie immediately, but Laurie could certainly have counted on something in the long run.  Especially with the baby.”  It’s Paul’s turn.

“But Laurie doesn’t strike me as someone who plans for the future, indeed plans for anything that is nebulous at best.  If she did it, there must have been an immediate reason, some problem that his death would solve right now.”   Zeke pauses thoughtfully.

“Oh gods…what if Laurie did make the trifle, but not for Sara’s father…but for her own?”  I am not happy with that line of thought, but what if…?  “Because he wouldn’t sign for the abortion?”

“And somehow it went up to the Schmidt house, and John Robert ate it by accident?”  Zeke follows the line.

Now we all really stare at each other.  Did Dorie plan to kill her husband and succeed or did Laurie plan to kill her father but end up killing her High Priest instead?

Paul leaves us with plans to go back to the station and talk again to the officers who had gone up to the house, hoping to find something new that would offer a course of action for him.

Somehow we manage to put together our dinner, each of us wrapped up in our thoughts.  We are both thinking so hard that I can almost hear Zeke’s and I’m sure he’s aware of mine as well.  I’m so preoccupied that I forget to put any food into Vader’s dish until he nudges me.  Feeling guilty, I also throw some of his beloved liver treats on top as “condiments” and that mollifies him.  He doesn’t give me too much of a hurt look as he digs in.

We pretend to watch TV but by 11, we both give up and head to bed.  I have actually managed to fall asleep when the phone rings.  Zeke answers it and with each sentence, I get more and more awake.

“Yes.  No problem.  WHAT??!!  HOW?  (he pauses) She WHAT!?!  The hell she’d do that for?  (he pauses again, hearing the explanation) Okay, so she went up there.  Then what? (another pause) Called 911?  What for?  They what!?!?!  BOTH OF THEM?  Dear gods.  (a longer silence, as he is obviously getting a longer explanation with some details) Ahhh shit.”

By this point, I am so alarmed that I am shaking Zeke’s arm, trying to get him to tell me what’s going on, but he just shakes his head and catches my hands between his arm and body.   He reaches out and pulls me against him.  Apparently we are coming to the end of this conversation…

“No, that’s okay.  Don’t hesitate to call anytime, let us know if there’s anything we can do.”  And with that he hangs up.  He wraps both of his arms tightly around me and I begin to fear what he’s going to say.

“That was Paul, of course.  Shelly Johnson went up to the Schmidt’s this evening with some idea of bereaved widows sharing their sorrows.  When she got there, lights were on and cars were in the driveway but no one answered the front door.  So she walked around back and looked in the kitchen window.  Dorie was home and so was Laurie.”  He pauses and I nudge him, watching his face.  I get the distinct feeling this is not going to be pleasant.

“They were home, all right.  Both of them passed out on the floor.  Shelly called 911 and the ambulance crew broke down the door.”

“Oh gods!  Are they…are they, ah ok?”  I am horrified.

“Paul doesn’t know yet.  They pumped their stomachs and are doing blood work.  It’s being treated as poisoning since the EMT’s noted that there was food on the table, only half-eaten.”  He sighs.  “Both of them are comatose but the doctors think they’ll both live at this point.  Depends on how soon they come out of the comas.”

“Zeke, if they were both poisoned…then…”

“Yeah, it would look like neither one is our murderer.  On the other hand, maybe one was trying to get rid of the other and somehow got poisoned as well.”  He sighs again and this one is so deep, I know that there’s something more he has to tell me.  “Mattie, Laurie is bleeding and…well, the doctors expect her to lose the baby.”

I can’t help it.  I begin to cry.  Even if Laurie didn’t want her child, to lose it like this is dreadful.  And that assumes that she even lives to find out she has miscarried.

Zeke holds me tight until I stop, kissing and murmuring to me, comforting me as sweetly as he always does when I am unhappy.  Even Vader joins us, leaning up against my back.  The two of them manage to get me calmed down and we all eventually settle into a restless sleep.

I dream of berries and babies, none of it good.

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