Sunday is quiet, with few customers. I wouldn’t mind more so that I could stop thinking about the two women. My thoughts chase each other round and round and I cannot, for the life of me, make it stop—or make sense out of it.
It doesn’t help that Zeke is as preoccupied as I am…when it’s time to close, our usual routine takes twice as long as we each forget a step and have to go back. I flip the sign but forget to lock the door. He takes the little bit of money we have made and puts it in the bank bag but lays it on his desk while he checks the door and has to lock it. I find the bank bag when I come back downstairs to turn out the lamp on his desk. It’s a comedy of errors but no one is laughing.
We call Daniel and Gary to cancel our session for that night since we are not up to teaching when our heads are in a whirl. They are horrified by the situation and completely sympathetic to our request. Neither of us feels like cooking nor going out to eat so we end up having sandwiches for dinner. After flipping through all of the channels twice, Zeke sighs and turns off the TV.
“Ok, this is not working. Let me get my notebook and your spreadsheets and let’s see if we can make some sense out of this before we go crazy.” He stands and heads over to the computer room as I refill our wine glasses.
He puts his stack of papers on the coffee table and begins to spread it out. We both look at the documentation: the alibis, the motives, Mike Johnson’s altar and John Robert’s preposterous Yule ritual that Paul has given us a copy of.
“Instead of trying to figure out from all of this who did it, let’s go at it backwards. Pick someone, anyone and let’s show how he—or she—committed murder. If we can’t prove it conclusively, we’ll set them off to the side and pick the next one and do the same thing.
“Guilty by process of elimination?” I sip my wine. “It’s as good a method as any. I wonder if this is how Paul does it?”
He opens his notebook and turns to a clean page. “Ok, there’s some people who simply could not have done it. We know that they have an alibi.”
“Right. You couldn’t have done it because you were here with me. And I couldn’t have done it because I was here with you. Of course, we might have done it together…”
“And we do have a belladonna bush in our backyard. And we have a motive. But we did not make a trifle and we were nowhere near the Schmidt’s house on the day in question.” He grins at me. “I think we can put our names on the top of the list for ‘Not Guilty’, don’t you?”
“I like them there. I think we can also put Daniel and Gerald on this list. No motive at all, unless it’s to get revenge for not including same sex couples in the Great Rite?”
“There might be some reason we don’t know about. I don’t know if they have an alibi, so let’s not put them on the list just yet.” He pauses and then writes a name. “Not that it helps us too much, but I also think Mike Johnson can be on the ‘Not Guilty’ list because he was already dead by the time John Robert ate the trifle.”
“But I thought you said it might have been made earlier. He still could have made it.” I point out.
“Why? He didn’t know about Shelly and Lord Kiss My Ass until that Monday, the day they both died. Unless there was some other reason we don’t know about, there’s no evidence to suggest that Mike killed him. And even if Mike did make the deadly dessert, how did it get to John Robert? How would anyone else have known that it was meant for him and taken it to him? Don’t you think someone would have told the police if Mike had asked them to make sure John Robert got it?”
He has a point so I let him put Mike on the list after our names.
“In detective stories, the murderer is either the most obvious person or the one you’d swear it was impossible for them to have done it. So who falls into either of those categories in our lovely group?” I ask.
“Well, the most obvious would be Dorie. She has plenty of motive, apparent opportunity, and not much of an alibi since we have no idea if she made that damned trifle or not. The kids being with her would not be conclusive either way; it’s not far-fetched to think that they would lie for her.”
“And she for them, if it comes to that. Maybe they’re all in it together.”
“Conspiracy theory. I like it.” He starts a new list on the facing page. I can see that this one is titled “Guilty”.
“On the other hand, we have her own personality and character. Or the lack thereof. Zeke, she is one of the most non-corporeal live humans I have ever met.”
“Oh I agree, but maybe that’s just a cover, or maybe she got a bit of her own back for once in her life. The whole things smacks of elusiveness and shadows.”
“And there is her apparent affair with her dead husband’s business partner. Strong reason indeed to do away with the inconvenience of a spouse who won’t give you a divorce. And none of that messy court stuff.”
“So she starts the list of those who are very likely to have fatal cooking abilities.” He writes her name and then leans back, looking even more thoughtful. “Speaking of spouses, suppose Shelly Johnson wanted to switch hers—and John Robert wasn’t having any of that?”
This is a startling idea. Suppose she had? “Well, she did do a lot of cooking for her priestly lover. Or is that loverly priest? There is belladonna so temptingly close by. You think it was sort of, ‘If I can’t have him, no one can’? or something else?”
“If she had wanted to be Mrs. Schimdt and he had turned her down, would she have been angry enough to kill him for it?”
“But they were having sex on the same day he died. Did she just happen to have the berries, or was the holiday coupling a ruse to lull him into a false sense of security?”
“Good point. I don’t think I’d climb back into bed with someone I had disappointed in a big way, especially if it was the kind of disappointment that makes a person really angry. I’ve never enjoyed angry sex.”
“But maybe John Robert did…?” I also can’t imagine making love to someone that you have given sufficient cause for them to perhaps hate you. “Or maybe it just was his power over her that she did it anyways, knowing that it would be all she could have of him? You know, if this is all I can have, then I’ll have it and …”
“Kill him later? Maybe.” Zeke picks up his glass for a sip of wine. “She could have done it. Maybe she found out that he was also screwing around with Jane and Rhyssa? So there could be motive. She certainly had access to the poison and correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t she strike you as the kind who makes preserves?”
“But what if John Robert wasn’t the intended victim?”
“You mean your suggestion about Laurie trying to kill Mike with sweets?” He looks at me and I nod. “That makes it even more of a puzzle. How did the trifle get to the Schmidts’ house? And why? Laurie had as much chance as Shelly to pick the belladonna berries and I suppose she could have frozen or canned them. But why wait?”
“Hoping he’d change his mind? And then, when he didn’t and she was running out of time for an abortion, she used them?”
“Maybe. I suppose Shelly might have gathered up any of the sweets in their house to take to John Robert. She might have even thought that Laurie made it specifically for him, since Shelly certainly did. But wouldn’t she have said something about it? Even just mentioned it casually? I don’t know how much Paul has asked any of them about it.”
The phone rings and I answer it. “Hello? Wow, Zeke just invoked you.”
My lover mouths “Paul?” and I rattle my head up and down as I listen to him talk to me.
“Dorie is awake and responsive, but still weak.” He tells me.
“Really? That’s good. Is she able to talk, to tell you what happened?”
“Not yet, but we do have the blood work back. Can the two of you stop by my office so that I can bring you up to date?”
“Oh. Yeah sure, when? Tonight?”
“Not necessary—your store is closed tomorrow, so come sometime in the morning, once you’re up and had your breakfast, if that’s all right.”
“If I can wait that long to hear the results of the lab tests. I think we can be there in the morning.” This time it’s Zeke whose head bobbles.
“Good, see you then.” And he hangs up.
“So who woke up enough to answer questions?” Zeke demands as I put the receiver back on the cradle.
“Dorie. But she’s not talking, apparently. Don’t know if she can and won’t or if she can’t.”
“But they’ve gotten the results of their blood work?”
“Yep but not a clue from the cop. I guess we’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning to find out what esoteric Pagan poison they ingested.”
“Who said it was esoteric or Pagan? It might have been plain old rat poison.”
“What a nasty thought. Shall we continue with our sleuthing?”
“I thought we might stop here, as there is new evidence to add to the pile. Is there something else we can do that will pass the time until we can talk to the coppers?”
I make a suggestion and he approves. And it does indeed pass the time most admirably.
We are up and eating that suggested breakfast rather early since we both want to know, badly, what the blood tests have shown. It will make a difference in which names end up in what list…especially if we get a third Pagan-related poison to add to belladonna and mistletoe. I pass the time by listing all the various herbs that can cause at least one of their symptoms and am chagrined to realize that there’s quite a few. Including Zeke’s suggested rat poison.
After safely ensconcing the Demon Spawn upstairs, we head down to the police station. We had thought about taking Vader with us, but since we have no idea how long—or where—we’ll be, it seemed better to leave him guarding the premises, even if it’s just the living level and not the whole house.
When we walk into Paul’s office, it looks like a drug bust all over his desk. There are pill bottles lined up and he’s pouring some of them out. He greets us, waving us into the chairs nearby.
“Glad you all could make it.” He puts the pills back into the bottle and closes it up. “How do you like Dorie’s medicine cabinet?”
I point to the desk. “You mean all of that is hers?”
He nods. “Oh yes. And she takes ALL of them faithfully since they all showed up in her blood, in varying levels.” As he continues to explain, he holds up the associated bottle. “She’s diabetic, got high blood pressure, takes an antidepressant, and is on several pills for irritable bowel syndrome. Including one called Donnatal that is Phenobarbital and atropine. Remember that, you’re going to hear it again.”
“And wait, it gets better.” He pulls a file over and flips it open, leafing through the pages until he finds what he’s looking for. “The blood results from both of the women and not quite what you would expect from either.”
We both make gestures of “get on with it, we’re listening” and he continues. “Laurie Bradford. She is borderline anemic, not surprising in a pregnant woman. Her red and white blood cell counts were within norms and she doesn’t have an infection. She was also showing signs of having gestational diabetes but that is not a problem.”
“What do you mean, not a problem?” I am afraid that the answer is not one I want to hear. What I do want to hear is what else was in her blood.
“The decision to abort the fetus was made for them. Laurie lost the baby early this morning.” He sighs. “The doctors tell me that it was inevitable considering the results of her blood work. She had nearly lethal levels of Phenobarbital and atropine in her system.”
“You mean Dorie’s pills? The uh…Donnatal?” I ask the obvious question.
“Oh yes, for she’s taken them for years and on the maximum dosage allowed, which has lots of warnings about overdosing and things to watch out for. And I agree with you, that’s the most obvious choice for how they got it. But that’s not what’s wrong with Laurie.”
“If that’s not it, what then?”
“Well, because of all the Pagans running around in this little drama, I insisted that the lab check for every possible chemical that is not part of human blood. That took a little more time, but those results came back just this morning. When I talked to you last night, I figured the Donnatal was our source for the poisoning.”
“But it wasn’t.” Zeke isn’t asking, he’s stating it.
“It was, but that’s not the problem with Laurie. Those two were sufficient to make continuation of the pregnancy questionable anyways. It seems that on top of those, she also ingested a sufficient dose of mentha pulegium to cause spontaneous abortion.” He looks at us expectantly. I’m not pulling up an English translation of that last item.
Zeke, our garden expert and resident speaker of Latin plant names, gets it. “Oh shit!” He turns to me. “That’s the fancy horticultural name for pennyroyal.”
And that’s all he needs to tell me. Lethal, dangerous even in small doses and I won’t carry the oil in the store at all. But anyone with an Ebay account can buy all of it they want; it’s not even that expensive online. I also limit the amount of the leaves I will keep on hand—and I make the customer explain very clearly why they want it before I’ll sell it. I’ve lost sales because of that insistence. On the other hand, I’ve never had to tell the police why I sold the dead person that particular item.
Paul gives us a moment to digest this and then continues. “Losing the baby is the least of her worries. You know pennyroyal also causes liver and kidney damage and Laurie is not in stable condition. The doctors refuse to say whether she’ll die or not. ‘We just don’t know at this point, we’re doing all we can’ is the most we can get out of them. And she’s still comatose.”
I think we can move Laurie over to the “Not Guilty” list, at least for John Robert’s death. Although if she got the pennyroyal herself, it may just be a bizarre coincidence that she took it the same time…someone poisoned her. Is that someone Dorie, who also took a dose, knowing her body would tolerate it…or was someone hoping to make it look like an overdose for Dorie and happened to catch Laurie as well?
“Paul, any idea how they both managed to be poisoned?” I ask, hoping the answer will clear the fog we’re working in.
“The lab is checking the food that was on the table, as well as stuff that was sitting around. The gifts of food did not stop with Schmidt’s death. Apparently everyone is bringing casseroles and sweets for the bereaved widow, especially now that she doesn’t have her children to cook for. They want to make sure that she doesn’t get more insubstantial than she already is, I guess.” He grimaces. “We’ve got the lab trying to match up the blood work chemicals with either Dorie’s Donnatal pills or phenobarb and atropine that were separate but put in together to make it look like the pills. I don’t even know if we can do that. Rob is a shaman, not a wizard—although he’s doing his damnedest to isolate the necessary chemicals and compare them.”
We both flicker a smile of acknowledgement at the reference to Rob’s Paganism but agree with the difficulty he faces. I’m not sure that it makes a difference. How they got it would appear to be the more important thing that what form they received.
As if he’s reading my mind, Paul speaks again. “The only point for this possible exercise in futility is to narrow down the method of delivery so that we can perhaps use that to narrow down the suspects. If it’s Dorie’s pills, we figure out who had access. If it’s not, we try to find out who had the separate components. Both of those meds require a doctor’s prescription and phenobarb is a narcotic, so they really keep track of where the pills go. Assuming it’s not street drugs. Her son certainly had access to those, but no way of getting them into any of their food or drink that night. Unless we find it’s something that was poisoned some time ago, like peanut butter or something like that. You know, food you might not eat right away.”
“But Paul…” I stop. He raises his eyebrows and nods for me to continue. “Atropine has to be stored away from light and in an airtight container. If you cooked it, it would give off nitrogen oxides—and they are poisonous as well. It also isn’t very soluble, so putting it into something liquid wouldn’t work. I think.”
“Let’s ask Rob. If he doesn’t know, he’s got the computer for all this.” He stands and motions us to the door. We all walk down to the lab, but no one talks as we’re all trying to fit this together. It’s like a real life version of Clue—who did it, where and with what weapon—or in our case, which poison. I’m not enjoying this game.
Rob is glad to see us, although not for the reason we are there. Paul asks him about the atropine, telling him what we’ve talked about. Rob walks to the computer terminal and starts typing, pulling up all sorts of information.
“Well, first off the atropine in Donnatal is not straight atropine. It’s atropine sulfate. Which IS very soluble and not quite as temperamental as the straight stuff. It could have been put into something prior to that night. Say, as much as 2 or 3 weeks. But it is listed as being very bitter, so I’m not sure how they wouldn’t have tasted it.” He clicks and reads, looking for more details. “Phenobarb also has a nasty flavor to it. Hmm, this is interesting. It causes a loss of taste when it’s ingested.”
“So someone who takes Phenobarbital might not taste other things?” Zeke asks. Rob keeps scrolling down the screen, reading as he goes.
“Someone who takes a Belladonna alkaloid/Phenobarbital medicine—whether capsules, extended release or elixir—like Donnatal. It’s considered one of a long and depressing list of severe reactions that require immediate medical care.” He looks up from the listing on his monitor. “And most of the victims’ symptoms match up almost textbook perfect with the others. But Dorie–”
“How does the pennyroyal fit in?” Paul throws out the next question, interrupting whatever Rob was about to say. He types the word into his search field and watches the results come back.
“Tchk.” A noise of annoyance? He highlights a word and clicks. “Well, pennyroyal has a camphorous smell, according to this, and is the smallest member of the mint family. So Laurie might not have noticed the bitterness of the other drugs if she was drinking say, mint tea with lots of sugar. I just can’t get over all the healing uses this site says it has. Of course it’s a herbal remedy site, not a medical one.”
I shudder; I have always read up the pharmacopeia of the herbs I sell to ensure that they really are safe for human consumption. In fact, I try to only stock herbs that are considered “safe for human consumption” because I figure some customer somewhere is going to indeed eat them. It’s a slightly higher cost which I happily pass on to the customers, considering it worthwhile to prevent stupidity wherever possible.
The ones that are dangerous and really shouldn’t be eaten, like pennyroyal, I keep locked up and have those legal forms for. Like I’ve said, I wouldn’t stock the oil if they gave it to me for free and I could sell it for more per pound than gold. It’s websites like this that give me the greatest heartaches. No warnings, just line after line of cheery, “here’s how to use this”. Children, just because you see it online doesn’t mean it’s true or the complete story.
Apparently Rob agrees with me as he adds some more keywords to keep his results within the medical effects of the herb. What he finds there doesn’t seem to alleviate his unhappiness. We wait while he reads through the listing. He sighs and turns to us.
“It has been used medically but basically this says, ‘don’t’. No regulation, no idea of what the side effects can be, no idea of what harm it can do to pregnant women or small children, strongly advised to consult with your medical professional before taking it. And there is no registered pennyroyal drug with a recognized trade name—like the Donnatal.”
“And it causes so much other damage that it doesn’t seem worth it to take it for the few things it has been used for.” I comment, reading over his shoulder. “I think we’re back to the original question, Paul. How did they get poisoned?”
“I agree that we know what. How is a very good question. Suggestions?” He looks at all of us. “Even the lab guy?”
Rob laughs. “Oh, I get to play detective too?”
“Yes, because you know the ways it could have been delivered and which ways are not possible with the drugs involved.” Paul smiles back, but no one is really happy.
Zeke speaks first. “We have to work at it from two points—either someone outside of the house gained access somehow and planted the drugs into some food that would be eaten eventually, or someone in the house added it to a common meal, knowing that there would be serious effects on themselves.”
“You mean either of the women did it. Or someone completely separate, who might have been trying to kill Dorie…but got Laurie as well. We don’t know if the pennyroyal was given to Laurie without her knowledge.” I can tell that the men hadn’t thought of that angle.
What if Laurie had finally worked up the nerve to take the pennyroyal I had told her was so dangerous? Was she that desperate to end the pregnancy? I cannot imagine feeling like that. I wish I had the choice. Zeke is obviously in tune with my thoughts since he reaches over and rubs my back, soothing me out of the sadness. He pulls me against his chest and wraps his arms around me. We stand there, trying to make sense of it all.
Rob breaks the silence. “Well, the levels of Phenobarb and atropine sulfate in Laurie Bradford’s blood would have probably ended the pregnancy anyways. The pennyroyal just sort of pushed things over the edge. She’s really lucky to be alive. And oh, yeah—Paul. I started to tell you this before we went over to the pennyroyal.” He pulls out his notebook—apparently this is a standard police issue item, since they all have one. He flips through the pages.
“What?” Paul quirks his eyebrows, watching his coworker intently.
“Well, I was trying to separate the atropine sulfate measurement and in Dorie Schmidt’s blood work I got some weird numbers. So I tested for both the sulfate and pure atropine. She had significant levels of the sulfate, which I think is due to her medication.” He is reading his notes and finds the numbers he is looking for. “But she also had measurable levels of pure atropine. Probably not enough to kill, but still there. Why would she have taken the atropine at all?”
Good question. Do we have two separate poisoners at work or just one who is willing to skirt the ragged edge of disaster—and possible suicide—to throw suspicion off of themselves?
Paul’s cell phone goes off and he steps out of the lab to answer it. Rob takes advantage of this break to let us know that Josh is still doing great, which is a piece of good news that I really need to hear. We’re still talking about his various projects when Paul comes back in the room.
“Zeke, Mattie? I have to leave and I think we’re pretty much up to speed on this from both sides. I appreciate your coming down this morning and I’ll talk to you all later, ok?” Whatever the call was about, he’s –well, not upset, but highly emotional and I can feel it coming off of him.
Zeke and I exchange a look and agree that we’ll head out now. We say good bye to Rob and exit the building in time to see Paul pulling away in a police cruiser—headed towards the hospital, if that’s where he’s going.
We head home to Vader, who is happy to see us as usual. He’s guarded us well and I reward him appropriately. My devil dog isn’t spoiled. Much.
Zeke pulls out his notebook. I sit down next to him and watch him list the questions we have running through our brains.
“I thought if I put them all down, we might come up with some the police haven’t, which might shed some light on things. On the other hand, this may just be an exercise in futility.”
“No, I think it’s a good idea. Organizes them a bit. And we might ask a new question. Anything is possible.”
I leave him there, writing as fast as he can get the words down. I go into the kitchen and look around while trying to decide what it is I am after. I finally pull out a wine glass and then realize that it’s still not even lunch time. I decide to put the glass back and since the cabinet where it belongs is next to the phone, I get to answer it when it rings.
“Mattie, can you come down to the hospital now?” I am surprised to hear Paul’s voice, full of urgency and worry.
“Of course. Alone?”
“No, of course not. Bring him. Room 129 in the ICU. As soon as you can.”
“We’re on our way.” I hang up to see Zeke on his feet and bringing my coat.
“Hospital?” I’m not surprised he knows.
“And don’t spare the horses, according to Paul.”
And he doesn’t.
He drops me off at the door and goes to park the car. I start back to the unit and am greeted by what Paul refers to as a “uniform”. The officer takes my arm and leads me into the room, where Paul is standing next to Laurie Bradford’s bed.
“Zeke is with me, he’s parking the car.” Paul nods and gestures me over to the bed. I pull off my coat and he takes it from me—and promptly hands it to the other officer. He lays it on the back of the bedside chair as Paul heads out, I’m guessing to find Zeke.
At the door he pauses. “Mattie, Laurie woke up a little while ago and has asked for you. She’s asleep now, not in a coma. At least that’s what the staff says. Any idea why she wants you?”
“To apologize for doubting my word on pennyroyal? I don’t know.” And I cannot even imagine any reason why she would.
I pull the chair up next to the bed and sit down. I look at Laurie; so pale, so still and hardly breathing. It is not right for a child, someone whose life has barely even begun, to be this close to death.
In just a few moments, Paul comes back with Zeke, who walks up to stand behind me. “So what’s up?”
“Laurie wants to talk to Mattie. In fact, she refuses to talk to anyone else.” Paul shrugs and looks at Zeke. “I don’t suppose you can do your voodoo and find out what happened?”
He makes a face…squinted eyes and pursed lips that indicate a strong distaste for the whole idea. “I don’t know. I don’t usually read people. I’m better with inanimate objects.”
“At the risk of sounding rude, I’d prefer not to wait until she’s dead so that she is inanimate.”
I interrupt this appalling conversation. “At the risk of being rude, just because she’s asleep doesn’t mean she can’t hear you. Stop it.”
Both men look abashed. And apologize, one after the other.
Zeke lays a hand on her blanketed leg and closes his eyes. I can more feel than hear the rumble of his “om” as he concentrates on whatever images he may receive.
And as if she has indeed heard the men talking or maybe it was my voice since she wants to talk to me, Laurie stirs. Her eyes flutter and open. I reach for her hand and when she turns to face me, I can see the moment when she recognizes me.
“Mattie?” So quiet I can barely hear it, but I take her hand and reply.
“Laurie, Paul says that you wanted to talk to me.” I wait.
She nods slowly and a tear rolls down her face. Her hand is clutching at mine and I am dismayed at the weakness of her grip.
“You were right.” A breath, barely more than a sigh. “You were right and I was so stupid to think that you weren’t.”
I was afraid this would be about the pennyroyal. Looks like I was right.
She continues, her voice thin but stronger. “I thought that if I got the pennyroyal tea, it would just…get rid of the baby but not have all the side effects that the oil has. It tasted so awful, I could barely swallow it. And then I started throwing up…” Her voice trails off. She takes another shallow breath and keeps speaking. “Did I lose the baby?”
She doesn’t know? And I have to be the one to tell her? I glance around and realize that Paul has gone to the door and is motioning…and I am reprieved as a nurse comes in to check on Laurie. I stand up so that she can attend to the patient.
“Am I still pregnant?” Her voice is louder and getting a little strident. The nurse leans over, adjusting the IV and looks into her face.
“Miss Bradford, let me get the doctor so that he can talk to you about your condition. You had us worried, that’s for sure.” She walks out quickly and I am hoping that this will be sufficient and Laurie will be willing to wait for her answer.
“What does she mean, worried? And why won’t you tell me if I’m still pregnant or not?” Definitely getting stronger and more upset. I weigh the stress of not knowing against the certainty of knowing and I’m not coming up with an answer.
Zeke saves us. “Laurie, what do you remember about the other night, when you drank the tea?”
She looks puzzled and her next question verifies this. “Why, what happened? I mean, other than I’m in the hospital now?”
“Did Dorie drink any of your tea?” We know that she didn’t but he’s skirting the issue of poisoning.
“No, of course not. Why would she?” Laurie looks at each of us. “What is going on? What has happened? Is something wrong with Dorie?”
She either really has no idea, or she’s the best actress since …
The doctor comes in the room and we don’t have to reply to her now. He does medical things, checking her eyes and taking her pulse. She tolerates this for a few minutes and then pulls her arm out of his grasp.
“Why won’t anyone answer me? What the hell is going on?” The fear is strong even though her voice is weak and the doctor realizes it as well as we do.
“Miss Bradford. Laurie.” He begins. “You were brought here in a coma with what appeared to be symptoms of poisoning. I am sorry, but yes, you have lost your baby. There was no way to do anything about it. We couldn’t stop it.”
I watch her face as he tells her this and I would swear that I see a flicker of relief. I am so astonished by this glimpse of satisfaction that I don’t pay much attention to what is being said until Laurie almost shouts.
“Dorie?!? What do you mean, she was also poisoned? I wasn’t poisoned, I drank pennyroyal tea.”
“Ahh, yes you did, but the bigger problem was that you had also ingested extremely high levels of Phenobarbital and atropine sulfate.”
This has shocked her into silence and she lays there, her eyes huge and round. The doctor continues, seemingly oblivious to the effect this has had on his patient. “You might not have lost the baby with just the pennyroyal but since there were other things in your blood, well. They worked together to cause spontaneous abortion.”
He finally notices her horror. “My dear, you are young and assuming you return to full health, there is no medical reason why you shouldn’t be able to get pregnant and carry to term in the future.”
She focuses on the words that also caught my attention. “What do you mean, assuming I return to health? Do you mean I’m not going to get better? Am I going to die?”
“I don’t think so, now that you’ve come out of the coma.” He pats her hand, trying to calm her. “That had us bothered but now that you’re awake, the odds have gotten much better. We will continue to monitor you and we will be testing kidney and liver function to see if they have recovered from the pennyroyal, which causes the most damage. So it’s a little early to say for sure. If there’s damage…” He trails off. “If there’s kidney or liver damage, it will depend on how much and if it will resolve itself over time. The human body is an amazing thing and can really do a lot of its own healing, given the chance.”
The three of us try not to look at her while she digests this. I’m still not real sure why she wanted me here and I’d rather be almost anywhere else at this point. I can’t avoid her when she calls my name.
“I need to talk to you. Just you.” She points at the men—police, medical and my own beloved. “Not them. I want them to leave the room so I can talk just to you.”
“I guess so. Doctor?”
“That would be all right.” He finishes making notes in the chart at the foot of her bed. “Try not to tire her out and young lady, take it easy. We’ll be able to see the monitors at the nurse’s station so if you get too excited, we’ll be back in here faster than you can imagine.”
She nods and looks back at me. “I have to talk to Mattie.”
“Ok, they’re going.” I glance at Paul who looks unhappy but then barely nods and heads towards the door.
As Zeke passes me, he hugs me and I can feel him drop…his cell phone in my pocket. He whispers in my ear. “Just press send. I’ve got it sent to call yours and I turned down the volume.”
And out loud, he asks for mine. “Mattie, I forgot my phone. Can I borrow yours?” And I hand it to him.
As I sit down I slip my hand into the pocket and feel carefully for the button I’m supposed to push. I have no idea if this scheme will work, but I’m willing to try. I wait a moment or two as the doctor follows the others out. I push the button and shuffle around as I sit back down in the chair, hoping that the sounds I make settling down will cover the dialing and ringing.
I don’t hear anything and Laurie apparently doesn’t either. She is watching the door and when it closes, turns back to me.
“Mattie, I think Dorie tried to kill me.”
Well, that’s a show stopper. And how do I respond? I don’t have to, as Laurie continues.
“I wasn’t going to try the pennyroyal but she said it would be okay if it was the tea and not the oil. I tried to tell her what you had said, but she just said that…well, that you don’t know everything.” She looks abashed and I can only imagine what John Robert’s widow had to say about me. “She told me about being pregnant before she got married and how it had ruined everything, how she couldn’t get an abortion either…”
She pauses and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. But there is one thing I would really like to know so I ask that. “Laurie, did you still want the abortion?”
“Yes! Well, sort of. I mean, I could feel it moving and was getting used to the idea of having a baby. John said we’d get married, but then he got arrested so I just didn’t know what to do. And Dorie was so nice, asking me to come over whenever I wanted…She seemed to really understand what I was going through.”
Which I did not. Do not. Why am I here? And then Laurie tells me.
“So I think she used the pennyroyal to try to kill me because I saw her picking berries off that bush by Dad’s altar—the nightshade plant?”
This wins the show stopper award. I can only hope that Paul and Zeke can hear this because I don’t think it would hold up in court on just my saying “She said”.
“Did she know that you saw her?”
“Oh, I told her I had. I mean, I didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. I just mentioned it, oh I guess it was at the Samhain Ritual, that I had seen her in our yard right after the ritual at Mabon, picking the berries. I wanted to know if she would teach me how to make jam.” She stops to take a breath. I wait for her to rest. She is so pale, so obviously weak, but she continues. “She went all white and looked scared. I thought maybe it was because she was like, basically stealing. But she told me that she was going to see if she could get seeds from the berries to grow the plant herself. It’s really pretty and the berries are a great color.
It wasn’t until later on that I found out it was poisonous. I had sort of forgot about Dorie picking them. Until they arrested John and he said it was because he had the same stuff as had killed his dad. He told me that lots of people in the coven could have done it since we had that nightshade bush. That’s when I looked around online and found out about the berries.”
“And so you think Dorie made the trifle that had belladonna in it?” I ask it straight out. I’m not subtle.
“Maybe. Is it true that she’s here in the hospital, too?” She begins to fidget.
“Yes. She was also poisoned, but not with pennyroyal. She also had the Phenobarbital and atropine sulfate in her blood, like you.”
“Atropine sulfate? Isn’t that the same thing as…Mr. Schmidt died from?” She is getting more upset and I am not sure how to calm her. I’m not sure how much I can tell her, what Paul doesn’t want me to let her know…but I do answer the question.
“Not quite. It’s s different form, but yes, they are both from belladonna.”
“So why was Dorie poisoned, too?”
A good question and I’ve been asking it. But if she tried to kill Laurie and was used to taking Donnatal, this may be a ruse to only look like ‘someone is trying to poison’ her. Although that doesn’t explain the straight atropine unless that was the way she was trying to cover it up.
“You won’t let her come in here, will you?” Laurie sounds like the child she truly is. She gets shriller and more upset with each word that follows. “I don’t want her in here! She might try it again! Promise me! Don’t let her near me!!”
And that outburst is obviously enough to set those monitors rocking because here comes another nurse.
“Miss Bradford, you need to rest.”
“Not until I know that I’m going to be safe! Mattie, tell me!” She is rapidly heading into hysteria. “I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die!”
“Laurie, I promise. Dorie won’t come in here.” I hope. I will tell Paul even if he heard all of this. And while we’re talking, another nurse has come in and she puts a needle into the IV and within seconds, the drug hits the bloodstream. Even though she’s still struggling, whatever it was is inexorable and Laurie’s eyes flutter and flicker to a close. I can tell that it is not a restful sleep as she is still fidgeting, although that is also slowing down.
I push the chair back up against the wall, pick up my coat and turn to leave. As I get to the door, I look back once more at the unconscious girl, finally still and asleep. I wonder where the truth lies…in this bed or in Dorie’s. Because it’s still possible that Laurie has not told me the real story. I keep picturing that weasel in its rabbit skin disguise…she is someone who likes to have secrets…what has she not told me?
The men greet me in the hallway.
“Well, that trick with the phones was an interesting idea. Too bad we could only hear about one word in five. Um, up ‘til the end, when she was pretty much shouting and we could hear at least the tone of it out in the hall. Just exactly what did she say?” Paul is looking grim, as well he should.
“Not here. Where can we go that’s private?” I keep moving away from the room and the palpable sorrow of Laurie Bradford, wanting nothing more than to get out of this hospital. And out of this whole situation.
Zeke follows me and Paul makes up the rear guard. I reach in and close the phone, handing it back to my shadow. I walk almost blindly down the hall, stopping when I reach the end of the corridor. Zeke gently pulls me to the right and we enter the hospital’s chapel.
The quiet solitude relaxes me. I breathe deeply and without any thought drop into the lotus position. Zeke also assumes our meditative pose, but not directly across from me as usual—he leaves room for Paul to match up a knee with each of us, down on the floor. He also settles in and I am pleased by how easy this is for us. It holds the promise of better times together which I want and even need at this point.
Within minutes, we are breathing in unison, slowly and surely. I feel the knots of frustration and fear break up and leave. I am aware of Zeke almost subliminally making the “om” sound. I am mildly startled to realize that Paul is as well. I can only assume that it is their past college ties that allow this synergy, this simple and yet profound connection we are sharing. I breathe again. Both men wait, patiently watching me—and breathing with me. I let go of the energy of all that high emotion I just went through and look at them.
“Short version?” I am ready to talk.
“Sure.” Paul pulls out his notepad. Somehow this familiar gesture reassures me. We will figure this out.
“She said that Dorie was the one who suggested the pennyroyal—in order to kill her because Laurie saw her picking belladonna berries.”
“Really? Actually saw her stripping them off the plant?” Zeke asks with a certain amount of disbelief in his voice.
“Saw her and told her so. But didn’t think it was murder, just stealing.”
“And if had just been stealing…why would anyone steal them?” Paul wonders.
I tell him. “To grow the plant in one’s own garden.”
“But if it was to have them for a certain dessert with a certain recipient…”
“You’d be horrified to think that someone had seen you do it.” I tell him. “And you’d try to figure out a way to prevent them telling anyone else about it.”
“But why did she wait until now?” Zeke is trying to put this all into order.
“Because Laurie didn’t mention it until a month later and she needed time to plan something? Because two deaths close together would have been treated with even more scrutiny? I don’t know.”
“Ok, what’s the long version?”
“Well, really not much more than that. Laurie had more or less resigned herself to carrying to term. Dorie played on her ignorance and desire to get back at me for not giving her the pennyroyal when she had first asked me. Dorie also told her about her child, how it had quote ruined her life unquote and apparently told her that the tea would work and didn’t have the side effects of the oil.” I take a breath and then forge ever onwards. “And John had said that he would marry her, but after his arrest she wasn’t sure if that would happen. So it seemed like a good idea at the time. She didn’t seem to think that Dorie had really been poisoned, wanted me to verify that she was indeed in the hospital. And she made the connection between the atropine that killed John Robert and the atropine sulfate she had ingested. ‘Isn’t that the same thing?’ she asked me.”
“So what set her off? We could see the monitors and you had better believe the nurses were scrambling.”
“She insisted that I promise her—like I have that kind of power here—that Dorie would not come near her. She was getting more and more upset, kept saying she’d try again, to keep her out of the room.” I shrug. “So I promised. And the nurse gave her something to go to sleep with.”
Paul stands up and then gives me a hand up, leaving Zeke to unfold by himself. Which he does, as gracefully as ever.
“I will assign someone to guard her. She is either the next victim or the main suspect. Whichever it is, she is going to be watched by an officer of the law.” He leaves the chapel to make it so.
I turn to Zeke. “Think we can go home now?”
“Actually, I’m hoping we can go to Dorie’s room and talk to her about gardening.” His innocent face doesn’t fool me. He wants to talk to her, but it’s not about horticulture. Not strictly, anyways.
We go back out into the bustle of the hospital in time to see Paul position one of his uniformed officers in front of Laurie’s door—as well as the back of another going down the hall, probably to take up duty at Dorie’s room.
“Paul, can we talk to Dorie?” Zeke doesn’t beat around the bush, not even the nightshade bush.
“Sorry, old friend. That’s my pleasure. I’m going to ask Dorie about the nightshade and if I somehow end up getting a confession, I can’t have civilians there. It’s got to be purer than pure in order to stand up in court. No possible suggestion of any irregularities, like witches working magic. Not that the judge believes in all that stuff, but it’s known that Dorie does, so you might have done something to coerce her.” He gestures eloquently at our matching expressions of outrage. “Oh go on. You know what I mean. Don’t pretend that you don’t understand what I’m talking about. And I want to tell you, you all have been more help than you can know and I thank you, but—“
“Get out of the way and let you do your job.” I say, smiling to show that we do indeed understand.
“Please. Believe me, I will let you know what happens. Maybe you’ll even get to read about an arrest in the papers.”
We say our good-byes and head home once more.