“Folded up in a sofa bed?” Ginny stared. She bent over, leaned in, and reached under a cushion.
“Tidy ending, don’t you think,” Charlotte nodded her own answer. “Innovative. Never would’ve thought of it as a weapon, actually, a sofa bed. I mean a Murphy bed, maybe. I could see rigging one of those in a way it would fall out of the closet and knock someone senseless if you knew when they were coming. But a fold-out from actual furniture? Never would have considered the suffocation angle. Or the mangling.”
Ginny frantically threw cushions on the floor and tugged at the metal apparatus of the bed. “It’s Raymond,” she said.
“So like him,” Charlotte said. “Raymond. Since his wife died, he makes his bed up every morning while he’s still in it, slipping out with the final tuck.”
“How do you know stuff like that?” Ginny asked, looking up.
Ginny knelt on the floor to get a better angle on the sofa.
“Fiona will be pleased,” Charlotte said, remaining aloft. “We’re right on schedule. Victim down, clues unfolding.”
Ginny sputtered as she pulled at the bedding and reached inside. “Raymond’s dead.”
“Right, just like he’s supposed to be,” Charlotte said. “Our pseudo-murder victim. Must have drawn the short straw, so to speak.”
“Drew a lot more than a straw,” Ginny said in a barely audible voice.
* * *
They met one another as the only attendees of an early evening event at the Rutland Free Public Library, billed as a discussion of why mystery novels have their own section in libraries. Instead, it was a lecture, “Mystery Fiction vs. Literary Fiction,” set up like an athletic competition with brackets and seedings, but actually a somewhat snooty look at why reading mysteries is sometimes referred to as a ‘guilty pleasure,’ mystery fiction not quite measuring up as real literature.
The entire presentation was so off-putting that they left en masse and introduced themselves to one another in the parking lot, hastily agreeing on the need for recovery libations at a downtown bar and grill. The boisterous conversation and bonding over murder had led quite naturally by the end of the evening to the formation of a mystery book club.
They called themselves the Scurrilous Six:
Fiona Graham, redheaded Golden Age mysteries junkie, ran her own business as a landscape architect.
Rina Lubovik, short, stout, roughed cheeks, professional artist, originally from Romania, had learned English by watching detective shows on American television.
Leo Moreno, semi-retired investment consultant, was a devotee of Marilyn Stasio’s NYT crime column and had thought the library lecture would be useful as a betting matrix for the NCAA basketball tournament.
Charlotte Pace, divorced real estate broker with brassy humor, had gravitated to thrillers because her profession provided the perfect plots: a cutthroat business, houses to die for, paying the price, killer listings.
Ginny Skinner, retired nurse, white hair mostly in a bun, had started at the age of ten on Earle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Lame Canary because she owned one.
Raymond Sutter, attorney and widower, had begun reading mystery fiction during the hours he spent at his dying wife’s bedside and welcomed the group’s companionship.
For a year they met at members’ homes once a month, rotating the choice of books, frequently pairing different types of mysteries such as a police procedural with a psychological suspense, a classic with a Scandinavian noir, hard boiled with over easy.
Wanting to do something special to celebrate the group’s first anniversary, Fiona came up with a suggestion: “Let’s murder someone.” They were meeting that evening in Rina’s home, and Fiona proposed her idea with such vigor that Ooster, Rina’s English Beagle, jumped onto an end table with his front paws, barking and spilling Raymond’s glass of burgundy.
Rina rushed over with sopping cloths. “Sorry, sorry,” she said, wiping energetically. “Ooster naughty. He prefers full-bodied malbec.”
She patted Ooster down.
Rina’s living room was furnished in faded-elegance. One of her own massive canvasses, a painting of a steel blast furnace, hung on the wall beside fragile wooden icons. Worn Oriental rugs on the polished hardwood floor competed with Target shags, and delicate china figurines rested on the plastic end tables.
“So. Let’s take a whole weekend and live out the experience of committing and solving a murder,” Fiona said.
“Whose?” Ginny asked.
“One of us,” Fiona said.
“I don’t think that’s legal,” Raymond said. “Just, perhaps, but not legal.”
“No, this is really possible, I’m serious,” Fiona said. “We find a place for a weekend retreat, like cabins or a conference center, a setting with woods and water and plenty of creepy things and hiding places. We did it once for a bridal party I was in, you know, the girls-before-the-wedding thing, and it was fabulous. Killed off the bride-to-be’s disapproving mother-in-law-to-be.”
“Killed the mother-in-loo?” Rina asked.
“Yes, the in-law, though loo works too. Murder committed by the female priest who was officiating,” Fiona said. “Whacked her with an altar candlestick. Should have seen the glint in her eyes.”
“Who caught her?” Charlotte asked.
“Solved by a bridesmaid channeling Jane Marple, sneaking around the premises and listening in on conversations,” Fiona said. “Helped that we were all semi-smashed, including the victim–made her seem almost human.”
“The dead woman was almost human?” Leo asked.
“No, she wasn’t really dead. We drew cards for who’d be the murderer, who’d be the victim. Jack of diamonds, ace of spades. They acted it out. The two who’d drawn those cards. The rest of us were the detectives. Somehow, though, the possibility of having been murdered woke the woman up to what a shit she’d been to the bride.”
“Well, OK then, I’m seeing the possibilities,” Leo said.
“But how would we actually do the deed, and who’d get killed?” Charlotte asked.
“We’d draw lots for the victim and the murderer, then let it play out,” Fiona said, “unknown to the rest of us. The two of them would figure out how to carry it off. Drowning, strangulation, disemboweling. Nothing too messy.”
“Sure,” Rina said.
“The victim pretends to be dead when we find him or her, and we spend the rest of the weekend solving the crime,” Fiona explained. “Because it’s one of us, we’d actually have the murderer among us, working against us.”
“What fun,” Charlotte said.
“The only one who gets left out of the crime-solving is the victim,” Fiona said. “But he or she could do red herrings and such.”
“I can see means and opportunity,” Leo said, “but what about motive? What was the motive of that priest?”
“Interesting,” Fiona said. “The bride was an immigrant, and the groom’s mother wanted to block her path to citizenship. Really.”
“Some of you, quite frankly, I could imagine killing,” Ginny said, looking slowly around the room. “But not all of you.”
“That’s the point of the investigation. To find a motive,” Fiona said. “And the point of the killing, to have one. All of us are outspoken on a few things, right, pisses somebody else off. Quite frankly, I’ve thought some of our conversations about books might lead to murder.”
“How could the victim and murderer possibly make a plan without the rest of us knowing about it?” Raymond asked.
“We can work on details, but my thought is that we’d start the retreat with lunch on Friday, if everyone could get there,” Fiona said. “We’d draw the lots, which would all be blank except the ones designating killer and victim. Their slips would include a time and a meeting place, somewhere in the vicinity of where we’re staying,” Fiona said, “We’d have the rest of the day and evening to move around freely, getting together for dinner, but allowing those two the space to meet at their allotted place. We’d all have to agree not to try and watch or follow someone to figure it out. The murder would be committed by breakfast on Saturday, and we’d have until brunch on Sunday to solve it.”
“Who’d make up the lots? That person would know the meeting time and place too,” Raymond said.
“We’ll find an objective third party to set up the draw,” Fiona said.
It was obvious from the silence that wheels were turning with evil intentions.
Leo went around the room, quietly offering refills. When he returned to his seat, a wide-bottomed upholstered chair with wooden arms, the right arm fell off the chair as he sat down.
“Sorry, sorry,” Rina said, flustered. “I can fix.”
“No problem,” Leo said, sliding to the other side of the chair. “I’ll rest only my left arm.”
“That arm would make a good weapon,” Charlotte said. “The chair arm.”
“Or the blast furnace,” Ginny said, admiring the large watercolor of Rina’s on the wall. “Now that could do a major singe.”
“Well, sure,” Raymond said. “The arm would be for a female killer and the blast furnace for a man. The choice of weapon is going to reveal the gender of the murderer and narrow the field right off.”
Rina stood up, clapping her hands firmly together. “All a continuum, masculine and feminine. Where we are, here or here, not from what we do or even what we see. They don’t always divide.” She pounded her bosom.
“So, guys, really. We’re getting a bit sidetracked here,” Charlotte said.
“Not totally,” Fiona said. “Those are exactly the kinds of issues we’ll confront in solving the crime, especially given the capacity for deviousness of everyone in this group. To whom do the clues point and why?”
“You know,” Leo said, “I think this thing could work. My former company has a cabin up in the Green Mountains that they use for entertaining customers, employee gatherings, officer doings. Three stories, plenty of bedrooms, isolated, on one of the lakes. Just what you’re talking about, Fiona. Smell of pines, trails through the woods, wildlife scat, lake water lapping, misty mornings.”
As they began to divvy up assignments, it became official that the group would celebrate its first anniversary by staging, committing, and solving a murder, one of the few times they had agreed on anything.
Ginny stayed a few minutes after the meeting to help Rina clean up. As they were walking out to Ginny’s car, she complimented the lavish red, yellow, and white tulips blooming along Rina’s sidewalk. Rina proudly pulled a large yellow tulip out of the ground and held it up.
“You see, they are plastic,” Rina said. “You know, just, I put them out for my friends.”
Ooster squatted and peed.
The retreat began at high noon on Friday, mid-May, with Leo delivering, as promised, a secluded three-story log cabin near the Green Mountain National Forest. The property offered mountain and lake views from every room, high-end furnishings, five bedrooms plus an enclosed sleeping porch, three and a half bathrooms, industrial kitchen, requisite rustic fireplace, 70-inch wall mounted television with DVD and XBox, horseshoe pit, and side sheds stocked with canoes, bikes, balls, nets, rackets, and wickets. The cedar walls in the massive den held a taxidermist’s dream of horned animal heads.
Spontaneously, most of the group, not knowing in advance what their roles would be, had brought along relevant props—bows and arrows, red dye, rope, cuffs, chains, bottles with crossbones, fishing hooks, duct tape–to supplement the natural assortment of tree limbs, kitchen tools, power trimmers, and other prospective weapons readily available on the cabin’s property. Charlotte unloaded a bag of cement from the trunk of her car.
Each person had a separate bedroom except Raymond, who had chosen the sleeping porch. Leo took the third floor loft, Ginny and Charlotte bedrooms on the second floor, Fiona and Rina each a room on the ground floor at the opposite end of the cabin from Raymond.
While eating lunch, a buffet sandwich and salad bar provided by Rina, Fiona reviewed the agreed-upon activities. Lunch would be followed by the lots drawing, supervised by Emma Rae Spradling, Fiona’s business partner. The afternoon was free to enjoy the retreat and/or plan a murder. In the evening, the guys would grill and there’d be a DVD offering, “The Name of the Rose,” honoring Umberto Eco, who had died the previous year. Ginny and Charlotte would organize Saturday’s breakfast at 9, followed by the retreat’s focus: And Then There Were Five.
“Is it too early for a gin and tonic?” Charlotte asked.
Ignoring murmurs of interest, Fiona pressed on with the introduction of Emma Rae Spradling for the drawing of the lots. Emma Rae resembled Julia Child and sounded a bit like her, cheerfully but assertively issuing directions in a high-pitched, lilting voice as the group assembled before her in the kitchen, glasses empty. Fiona explained that Emma Rae was present with the sole purpose of supervising the lots-drawing and would leave immediately afterwards to survey markets for high altitude plants.
Emma Rae lifted a wicker basket above her head like a priest preparing for Eucharist. She intoned, “Form a line, file by the basket, collect one envelope, and return to your room to open it.”
“Lord have mercy,” Ginny said.
As the line formed, Emma Rae shuffled the envelopes. “Murderer and victim are designated by colored dots on the lots, red for murderer and purple for victim,” she explained. “Those two lots include a specific time and place for the relevant parties to meet, concoct the crime, and leave clues for solving it. As FionaFiona has explained, the murder is to occur before breakfast on Saturday morning, and you will have twenty-four hours to solve it. Are there any questions?”
“What if the murder isn’t solved by then?” Raymond asked.
“Then you’ll all get belladonna berries in your cereal,” Fiona said. “Sherlock’s favorite poison.”
“But that would mean we’d all die,” Charlotte said. “And the victim would get killed twice.”
“Step along sharply,” Emma Rae instructed, raising the basket again above her head and motioning the line forward.
* * *
Charlotte’s piercing scream attracted the remaining group members
No cereal was served, with or without belladonna berries, because there was no breakfast on Saturday and no brunch on Sunday. A massive spring snowstorm had arrived during the night on Friday, accompanied by freezing temperatures. When Charlotte and Ginny had met in the kitchen to begin Saturday’s breakfast preparations, they felt an icy draft coming from the sleeping porch and had gone to check on Raymond.
. Rina vomited, Charlotte transitioned to hysteria, and Ginny, who’d served twenty of her R.N. years as an emergency room nurse, calmly took charge.
“ I was able to assess his condition,” Ginny said. “Deceased. I won’t go into the details at this point, but his neck was involved.”
She made the 911 and necessary follow-up calls.
“At least an hour before emergency services and law enforcement can get here,” Ginny said. “No cell phones or texting or any communication. Please. What I told them, you heard. We’re a book club, meeting on a weekend retreat. Someone apparently walked onto the porch and snapped the sofa bed shut with Raymond in it, we presume asleep.”
The snowstorm at a 4,500-plus altitude had blanketed the highway and subsidiary roads, leaving the already isolated location barely reachable.
“Would anyone like to say a prayer?” Ginny asked. No one did. With help from Leo, she covered the entire apparatus and its contents using several bedspreads.
Gathering in the den, Fiona offered hot beverages and toast, Rina built a fire, Leo passed around blankets, and the snow resumed. Ginny encouraged the group “to talk, to go over things, debrief, express our feelings, have a wake for Raymond. What’s absolutely essential is that we remain together, in one space.”
Someone in this room is a murderer, no one said.
“Let’s begin with who drew the dots,” Ginny said.
“I was supposed to be the murderer,” Fiona said in an unusual voice for her, subdued. “And Raymond, the victim. I’d brought a baggie of blueberries, which do resemble belladonna berries. They’re lethal as hell.”
Fiona shook her head before continuing, now speaking rapidly. “We concocted the plan in about a nanosecond when we met at the canoe shed by the lake. Raymond keeps a bottle of pure cranberry juice at bedside that he sips to ward off chronic urinary infections. I mashed the berries, pretended to put in the liquid while you all watched the video, and hid the baggie in his fishing tackle box that was in the corner of the sleeping porch.” She pointed to the porch.
“That was your clue,” Fiona said, “plus the empty bottle turned over, and my absence during the film. I went back to the porch later, to confirm everything. He said he was taking an Ambien and calling it a night. About eleven.” Fiona grabbed at the neck of her sweatshirt. “It’s gone badly wrong. I’m so sorry.”
“Shit,” Charlotte said.
Rina wrapped an arm around Charlotte. “Good for you to say. Ginny told us. Say how you feel. Like shit.”
“No, not me,” Charlotte said. “Raymond. Raymond’s a shit. Was.”
“Tell us,” Ginny said, with a hint of enthusiasm.
“He left me in bed,” Charlotte said, “his side made up, spread tucked over the pillow, just leaving me naked on the other side, and off he went, as if I wasn’t even there or if I were, he couldn’t care less. Got me to his house to start with under false pretenses. Claimed he wanted to put the house on the market. God, what a fool I was. I’d planned to drop out of the group, then the retreat idea came up, and I wanted to do that before I resigned. Silly me. I wanted to be Nancy Drew and solve the murder.”
“You still can,” Rina said. “Sure.”
“Motives for murder,” Ginny said, speaking slowly. “Love…lust…lucre…loathing.”
“So I have three of the four,” Charlotte said. “No love lost.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Charlotte,” Fiona said. “Raymond was slick, a consummate philanderer.”
“You slept with him too?” Charlotte said, surprised.
“No, not in bed, but seduced, yes. God, I needed the job, my business has sunk in the economy. He was the fiduciary for an endowment that supports beautification projects in the state. I’d bid on a new series of riverside parks, a million and a half project. More than a year’s work. But I lost. To one his construction cronies.”
“Isn’t it possible you’ll still get it?” Charlotte asked.
“No, I think it’s a done deal. Sure as hell didn’t want to spend a weekend with him, but we’d already put plans for this retreat in motion.”
“State connections, he has, yes,” Rina said. “My paintings, the blast furnaces, for the traveling exhibit, to all state capitals. Important history of our country. How they looked, what they meant to people, for jobs, for steel industry. At my opening, you all come, Raymond too, for reception. You are nice. Committee comes, from Montpelier, they choose the canvasses that will travel. They like. But I hear, him, Raymond, he talks to head of committee, he lies, he says work reviewed by critic from New York, ‘Powerful, yes, but Rina Lubovik’s work is derivative. American artists were doing these urban industrials in the 1920’s.’ My paintings are original, fresh, other reviewers say, but too late. Raymond push forward Mariah Compton, paintings of big faces with round eyes. Mariah not construction crony, she sleeping crony. Raymond hole ass.”
“What an interesting configuration,” Ginny said, then added, “Is there anyone here who is grieving for Raymond?”
Heads slowly shake.
“I can only add to the pile,” Leo said. “Divorce case. Raymond represented the husband on a contingency fee. My daughter Steffi’s a CPA, and she worked for the wife’s attorney. Millions at risk. The judge gave it all to the wife. Every cent. Raymond made nothing. My daughter spent months on the case–financial records, tax returns, meeting with officials in remote locations, waves of obfuscation by Raymond, assets cleverly concealed via shell corporations on several Caribbean islands. Steffi uncovered the lot. After the settlement hearing, he threatened her when they wound up alone on the same elevator, some nonsense about rituals in the Caribbean where females are sacrificed, dying under mysterious circumstances for defying males and upsetting the natural harmony of the universe. Steffi said ‘Oh, well,’ but she also made notes and called me afterwards.”
“Did you read that as a serious threat?” Ginny asked.
“I actually did,” Leo said. “Weird as it sounds.”
“Because Raymond killed his wife,” Ginny said in a steady voice.
“You’ve talked to the sister, too?” Leo said.
“I have, and I’ve confirmed everything Helen told me,” Ginny said, leaning forward. “Rosella had cancer, breast cancer metastasized to the bone, and she was terminal. But she was also fully alive, still active and involved, definitely not on her deathbed. Didn’t need hospice care. That story about his reading mysteries while spending months as a caregiver is just bullshit. He did administer painkillers, especially in the night, when she was miserable. And she died in the night, of an overdose. But Raymond claimed he administered a standard dose by injection, and in her confused state, Rosella took a massive dose orally, on her own. Helen tried, but nothing was ever proven or even seriously questioned.”
“What did he have to gain since she was dying anyway?” Fiona asked.
“According to Helen,” Ginny said, “The estate was being seriously eroded by nursing and other health care costs they were paying out-of-pocket because Raymond didn’t want to be there 24/7.”
“Some wake this is,” Charlotte said.
“Means, motive, and opportunity. We all have them,” Ginny said. “Every one of us had access to that sleeping porch, as well as the strength and dexterity to close up that bed. And now it’s evident that we all had a reason. Who would’ve thought? Raymond in our midst, pontificating for months about mysteries, and all the while he was behaving quite badly.”
So who? Which one of us committed the murder? Isn’t that the question we came here to answer?” Leo said.
“It could be any one of us.” Ginny stated the obvious as she looked around the group. “Living up to our name, scurrilous.”
“Aren’t we leaving someone out?” Leo said. “Another major player?”
“Ah,” Ginny said, light dawning. “You’re right. And then there were seven. At the lots-drawing.”
“Emma Rae? She just came to help us,” Fiona said. “Knew the area, figured out where to have the killer and victim meet. She set up the envelopes, administered the draw, and then she left. That’s it.”
“The two of you are the company,” Charlotte said. “You needed that park project to survive—you admitted it. Financially, but also for long-term prestige. Parks throughout Vermont. It would make your reputation. And with Raymond out of the way, you can re-bid.”
“If only,” Fiona said, dismissively.
“You suggested we play this game,” Rina said. “Ooster barked.”
“To celebrate and parallel our reading interests,” Fiona said. “Come on, we all agreed to play the game as you call it.”
“When we took our envelope, Emma Rae held the basket up, high, so we all had to reach for our lot,” Charlotte said, demonstrating. “She made us line up, like school children. Before we drew, she pretended to mix up the envelopes, but I think she was putting them in the order that you wanted. So you and Raymond would get the dots.”
“That’s preposterous,” Fiona said.
“You came out here beforehand with Emna Rae to look at the set up,” Leo said. “I arranged for you to have the key. When we chose our rooms, you said, ‘one guy up and one guy down,’ and Raymond couldn’t do stairs because of his knees. You knew he’d be on the porch.”
“And you know all about poisonous plants. I’m guessing you had more than blueberries in your poison kit,” Ginny sad. “That was your plan. Pretend to kill him with the blueberries, really kill him with something else, slow acting. Probably in that flask of whisky I saw by his bed along with the cranberry juice. You’d put it in during the retreat, he would drink it sometime, maybe not all of it here. Dies next week or after. The Ambien and the sofa bed were serendipitous.” Ginny said. “Or maybe not. Maybe the sofa bed was Plan A all along.”
“Aren’t you clever?” Fiona said, with a hint of sneer. “What an assembly of detection. And fiction. Not to mention that every one of us will have our DNA on that sofa bed. We all went in there when we were choosing rooms. Charlotte and Rina made up the sofa bed, Ginny opened it with Raymond inside, Leo helped her cover it up with the bedspreads.”
“You’ll never prove a thing,” Fiona said.
Sounds of sirens and approaching vehicles interrupted the conversation.
“I am up last night,” Rina said. “Much snow falling. I take photographs. Special camera I have, for my work. Take pictures in dark. I use for my paintings, later. Many pictures I have. All over cabin, looking outside, from differnt angles. I give to police. They like.”
My publications include short fiction in THE AMERICAN LITERARY REVIEW and the MID-AMERICAN REVIEW, and a mystery novel DEBITS AND CREDITS published by Mainly Murder Press. I teach a mysteries class, “Crime Fiction: Classic to Contemporary,” for the New Dimensions adult education program at Colorado Mesa University. I have also taught at Texas A&M University and have a Master of Fine Arts degree from Bennington College.