Lizzie dashed into the Parish Hall as the storm broke, and joined her friend Colleen at the rear of the gathering.
“What’s going on? I’m here to pick up my apples and recipe for the Ice Cream Social pies.” She mopped her wet face with her tee shirt. “Ultimate Frisbee practice was called for lightning, so I had a last minute kid pickup.”
“Lizzie, nice of you to join us,” the rector’s wife said. “We can finally get started with our pie crust making demonstration.” She turned to the woman standing behind the serving counter in the parish hall kitchen. “I’m pleased to introduce Rowena Wentworth. Rowena studied pastry making in Paris, and is making final preparations for her home-based cooking school in town.” She led a round of tepid applause.
“Rowena is your decorating client, isn’t she?” Colleen asked.
“Yes, a very demanding one. We did the window treatments in her kitchen to match her brand-new collection of French copper cooking pots, which still had the price tags on them.” Lizzie fumbled through her purse for a tissue.
“No love lost between you and Rowena?”
“None at all.”
Rowena smirked as she asked for a volunteer to be her assistant. Lizzie slipped behind a pillar out of sight. The rector’s wife called on Mary Sparrow, Lizzie’s neighbor and a champion vegetable gardener.
“Mary, why don’t you assist Rowena? You have the reputation of being the town’s best baker. I’m sure you’d like to learn something new from Rowena.
Mary glared at the rector’s wife and joined Rowena in full view of the assembled audience. Mary, who was short and every inch a sparrow, looked up at Rowena, looming over her in full raptor mode.
Lizzie leaned against the wall and squeezed water out of her hair. Rowena slashed with two knives as she cut butter into the mixture of flour and salt while she lectured about the chemistry of pie crusts. “We’re going to be using a combination of ice water and vodka in the dough. The alcohol prevents gluten formation, so important to avoid in a first-rate crust. It’s all about hydrogen bonding, you know.” She turned to Mary. “It’s time to pour the ice water and vodka into the mixing bowl.”
Mary frowned and gripped the countertop with both hands. “I’m a Methodist and plain old ice water is good enough for me. I want nothing to do with your fancy vodka.” She stormed out of the kitchen and slammed the rear door of the Parish Hall.
Rowena’s face turned red. “Well, I’ll add them myself.” She poured the two liquids into her mixing bowl, combined the dough, and patted it into two blocks, which she wrapped in plastic wrap. “There we are, all done. Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour, while you’re peeling and preparing your apples for the filling.”
She pulled a glass bowl of pared and chopped apples towards her. “And now we’re going to fast forward to the apple pie filling.”
“I don’t think so,” a woman said as she stood up with a group of friends. “We’re here because we’ve agreed to bake pies for the Ice Cream Social, not attend cooking school. Give us our pie apples and we’re out of here.”
The crowd burst into excited chatter. Colleen poked Lizzie. “Insurrection in the ranks. Don’t you love it?”
“No, not when it humiliates the rector’s wife. She’s determined to put Jericho on the foodie map with gourmet pies at the Social. She even ordered refrigerated pie apples from the farm stand. Did you take photos for your Jericho Journal story?”
Colleen nodded. “I need to get home and write my piece. I’m going to grab my apples and go. Want to carpool down here Friday morning with our pies?”
“You bet. We can load everything in my van. Traffic is going to be a nightmare.”
Lizzie signed for her box of pie apples, declined Rowena’s offer of a small bottle of vodka, and headed for the parking lot.
Mary Sparrow stood next to the dumpster in intense discussion with Sam Cooper. Lizzie heaved open the rear door of her van. She’d seen Sam around town, shooting his face off about his new greenhouse business, something to do with heirloom vegetables. Mary was a local expert who maintained a personal bank of specialty vegetable seeds.
“That’s my final offer,” Sam said. “I need your seeds to grow quality vegetables. The local restaurants have been after me to supply them, and now Rowena wants heirloom vegetables for her cooking school.”
“Forget it, my seeds aren’t for sale. I grow vegetables for my own use, and give the rest away to friends and the local Food Pantry. I’m not selling seeds to you, and I’m not selling produce to Rowena. I’ve already told her that.”
The rector’s wife carried a box of apples into the parking lot. “Mary, dear, you forgot your apples. Rowena tucked a small bottle of vodka in the box, in case you change your mind and want to use her recipe.”
“Not likely,” Mary said. She climbed into a friend’s car, and they drove away.
The rector’s wife sighed. “What a fiasco. Rowena is furious. She didn’t realize I would be distributing copies of her pie crust recipe to the participants. She considers it proprietary information for her cooking school students. And I imagine she’s got a cookbook in mind, too.”
“Pie crust is pie crust,” Lizzie said. “I’ll do my baking as promised, and I’ll call Mary and offer to pick up her pies Friday morning.” She put a towel down on the front seat of her van, and turned the key in the ignition.
“Hey, Lizzie, I need a word.” Sam Cooper knocked on her window.
Lizzie ran her window down and turned off the engine. “Yes, what is it?”
“You’re Mary’s friend, right?” Sam asked.
“Mary is my neighbor, and I consider her a friend.”
Sam leaned on the window, chomping on a mouthful of gum. “I’m desperate to buy her seeds. Everybody in town raves about her tomatoes, beans, and melons.”
Lizzie gripped her steering wheel. “Mary makes her own decisions.” She fired up her van and yanked the shift into reverse. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have a family to feed at home.”
Sam glared at her, inches away from her face. “You’re a local business owner. We’re supposed to help each other.”
“Mary’s seeds are none of my business.” She ran the window up and sped away.
Friday morning Colleen added her pies to Lizzie’s, each packaged in a cardboard box. They detoured up the back lane bordering the college campus to pick up Mary Sparrow’s pies. Lizzie parked in front of her tidy red brick bungalow.
“Come on, the kitchen door is around back,” Lizzie said. She guided Colleen through Mary’s extensive raised vegetable gardens. They circumvented the tomato patch and rounded the corner. Lizzie knocked on the screened kitchen door, called for her, then pulled it open and entered the kitchen. Mary lay on the floor, wearing her apron, her mouth contorted in a grimace, a streak of dried vomit on her cheek. Flies buzzed around her head.
Lizzie knelt and checked her carotid pulse. She was dead. She looked at Colleen and shook her head. They went outside, and Colleen called 911.
Lizzie burst into tears. “It’s that gourmet pie crust. Did you see the small brown bottle on the kitchen table, with the overturned glass? It looks like Mary finished off the vodka after she baked her pies.”
They heard car doors slamming and then Officer Bethany Schmidt’s voice, talking to her partner. The police rounded the corner with two EMS medics.“Lizzie, not another dead body?” Officer Schmidt tolerated Lizzie’s amateur involvement in local crime investigations. “Please don’t fret. I want you and Colleen to go home until I can come by and take your statements. Leave your pies for the crime scene people to check for contaminated ingredients. You’re all part of the big apple pie project, aren’t you?” She spoke into her radio.
“What did you touch?” Officer Schmidt asked.
“Just the door handle and her pulse. That’s all.”
“Nothing,” Colleen said.
“Come on, Colleen, let’s get out of here,” Lizzie said. “All that hard work baking pies and Mary dies for her efforts.”
Lizzie put lemonade and water on the terrace table at her home, and sat down with a pad of paper. “Okay, what do we have on the situation?”
She wrote Mary’s name in the middle of the page, and drew a box around it.
Colleen laughed. “Is this how you solve a crime? With a pad of paper?”
“It helps me think through all the facts.” Lizzie tapped her pen on the pad. “Let’s talk about Rowena. I know her as a very demanding decorating client. So exacting, in fact, that the shop staff asked that we not do any more work for her.”
“Why’d she move to Jericho? She made it perfectly clear last night that she’s too good for the place.”
“Her husband John grew up here. He inherited the family home and wanted to live here half the year when he retired. He’s a good guy. Nick plays tennis with him.”
“So he passes muster with your husband.” Colleen toyed with a piece of shortbread.
“Homemade? Any extra ingredients I should know about?”
Lizzie shook her head. “A gift from a grateful customer. We’ve eaten it all week without a problem.”
Colleen chewed and swallowed. “Rowena got herself invited to a Garden Club meeting. She stood up and announced that she wouldn’t tolerate deer, rodents or rabbits in her garden, so she planned to fill it with toxic plants. All kinds, the usual foxglove, larkspur, and lily of the valley, plus hydrangeas and rhododendron. She used a mail order source for monkshood to plant around her ornamental pond and waterfall.” Colleen shook her head. “Nasty stuff. I’ve always called it wolfsbane.”
Lizzie stared at her. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Could Rowena be Jericho’s answer to Lucretia Borgia?”
Colleen sipped her lemonade. “She’s got no motive. As long as she doesn’t kill any dogs or cats wandering in her yard, the gardening sisterhood stays away from her. I alerted the appropriate people not to include her yard on the Garden Tour.”
Lizzie jotted a note on her pad. “Rowena dispensed small brown bottles of vodka to the pie bakers who didn’t already have some. The rector’s wife said something to Mary about it.”
“And that was the bottle you saw on Mary’s kitchen table?”
“Yes, though I have no idea why Mary would be tempted to drink it.” Lizzie drew a line on her pad connecting Rowena to Mary. “Would you run through the whole list of toxic plants in Rowena’s garden? I’ll ask Nick to try to match the characteristics of their poisons with Mary’s symptoms.”
“Being married to a doctor has its uses, doesn’t it?” Colleen said with satisfaction.
Nick researched the list of toxic plants and focused on monkshood, which he characterized as the perfect poison, undetectable in a standard blood test. He relayed his findings to Officer Schmidt, who forwarded them to the county crime lab.
Lizzie and Colleen stood under a tree at the Ice Cream Social. Despite twinkly lights strung in the trees, and a succession of bands performing in the gazebo, attendance was down, the mood subdued. People lined up at refrigerated trucks for an individual serving of ice cream, and selected a sealed packaged brownie, cookie, or cupcake. Extra police lined the Green, with an EMS unit standing by.
“My kids have been talking about the Social for weeks, whether to have so and so’s chocolate layer cake or blueberry pie,” Lizzie said. “I can’t believe we’ve been reduced to pre-packaged baked goods. So much for putting Jericho on the foodie map.”
She and Colleen moved to the end of the Green, away from the food truck activity. Decorating clients came over to thank her for email updates on their orders.
“You anticipated this, didn’t you?”
“I never attend a big public gathering without having the shop assistants cover for me ahead of time.” Lizzie grabbed an errant soccer ball. “Keep it away from the crowd, kids.”
“I know Mary was a widow,” Lizzie said. “Did she have children or other family?”
“I asked around the garden club,” Colleen said. “She had a son, Roger. He used to appear and ask for money from time to time, but no one has seen him recently.” She spotted Rowena approaching. “Here comes trouble. I suspect she didn’t like the article I wrote.” Colleen headed for the gazebo.
Rowena stalked up to Lizzie. “The county crime scene investigators dug up my beautiful garden. They suspect that poor woman was killed by poison in the small bottle of vodka I supplied. I had nothing to do with it. You can tell the rest of this gossiping town exactly that.”
Lizzie stared at her. “It’s my understanding that you’re the only person in town growing toxic plants, including monkshood. Nick learned that soaking the leaves and stems of the plant in vodka would be the ideal medium for the poison. The county crime lab is still testing the vodka bottle we found on her kitchen table. Who else has access to your garden?”
“I have a professional maintaining my flower beds. Unlike you, I don’t run around town with dirty fingernails, wearing gym clothes.”
Lizzie glanced down at her shorts and tee shirt, and clenched her fists. It had been a long day. “I’m sure you shared that information with the police. The time frame was too short for you to have prepared the monkshood poison and given it to Mary, unless someone else was your target.” Lizzie locked eyes with her.
“Just stay away from me,” Rowena snarled. “Don’t think you’ll be getting the decorating contract for the rest of our home. The kitchen window treatments are flawed, and I’m going to return them.”
“You signed off when they were installed, and your credit card was billed for the amount due. Call the shop and schedule a site visit with our installer. Or, there’s always EBay.”
“Hard as nails aren’t you Lizzie? John thinks so highly of your husband. How in the world did you snare him?”
“It must have been my inspired cuisine.”
Rowena choked back a response, her face red with anger.
Their husbands joined them. “John, how nice to see you,” Lizzie said.
Nick acknowledged Rowena with a nod.
“I’m sorry about your gardening friend,” John said.
“Mary was a gentle soul, who grew delicious vegetables. I’ll miss her.”
“Hey Mom, heads up.” Lizzie grabbed a Frisbee whizzing by and threw it towards a vacant section of the Green.
“Well,” Rowena said, “I’ve told the police and I’ll tell you, I had nothing to do with that woman’s death. How dare she confront me about cooking food with alcohol? It’s a standard ingredient.” She sniffled and turned. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I can’t stand people staring at me with their accusing eyes.”
Groups of shrieking children ran towards a limbo contest on the blocked-off street. Officer Schmidt joined them. “Just the folks I need to see for an update,” she said. “Nick, thanks for alerting us to the possibility of monkshood poisoning. The crime lab just identified it as the substance Mary ingested from the vodka bottle.”
“Rowena wouldn’t poison someone who confronted her,” Lizzie said. “She’d just as soon squash Mary like a bug. Rowena wants to swim with the big fish in town.”
“Any other suspects you’ve heard about?” Officer Schmidt asked. “You and Colleen seem to know everything about everybody.”
“Only their interior décor and gardens,” Lizzie said with a smile.
“We’ve tried to locate Mary’s son Roger,” Officer Schmidt said. “We didn’t find his contact information in Mary’s house. Do you know his whereabouts?”
Lizzie shook her head. “No idea.” She paused. “I thought of something else. I suspect Mary left a small estate, with one exception. She harvested the seeds from her heirloom vegetables every fall and stored them for the next year’s planting.” Lizzie raked her fingers through her hair. “I know people approached her about sharing the seeds, or selling her produce. She gave vegetables to her close friends, including our family, and donated the rest.” She frowned. “It’s a stretch, but what if Mary was killed for her seed bank? Sam Cooper cornered her the other evening and demanded that she sell him her seeds.”
“Good suggestion,” Officer Schmidt said. “We’ll check it out.”
Lizzie and Nick pulled out their flashlights and walked Colleen home after the Social, down the deserted back college lane. They heard the tinkle of breaking glass as they passed Mary Sparrow’s house.
Lizzie stopped. “Hey, somebody’s breaking into Mary’s house.”
Colleen called 911. “Yes, we’ll wait at the driveway. No, we won’t attempt to stop the intruder.”
She hung up and sighed. “So much for a citizen’s arrest.”
A police cruiser roared down the narrow lane on silent approach, lights flashing. Two officers joined them.
“Nobody’s come out,” Lizzie said. “We heard them on the side of the house.”
The police officers pulled out their flashlights and headed up the driveway, with Lizzie, Nick and Colleen following.
“Police, drop it! Hands in the air.”
“This is my home. You can’t arrest me.”
Lizzie’s eyes widened. “Mary’s son Roger? What’s he doing here?”
The police escorted a scruffy man in handcuffs from the house.
“This is my mother’s house. I’ve got a perfect right to be here,” Roger said.
One of the officers held a large file box under his arm. “Is that Mary’s seed box?” Lizzie asked. She turned to Roger. “You were stealing your mother’s seeds.”
“I’m her son. They’re mine now.” Defiant, he stuck out his unshaven chin. “I’m not saying anything else.”
“This house is a crime scene,” one of the officers growled. “You can tell us the whole story down at the station.”
Lizzie lay awake the rest of the night, as she pondered Mary’s death. She called Colleen before breakfast and proposed an expedition, curious about Sam Cooper’s greenhouse operation.
Colleen picked her up and handed her a sheaf of papers clipped together. “Here’s a copy of my notes, and the feature article I wrote when he moved here. He says his name is Sam Cooper, but I couldn’t find any background information on him. It’s as if he didn’t exist before he moved here.”
“That’s odd, you’d think he would have been in business somewhere else, or worked for a commercial operation.” Lizzie read the scant information. “Do you think he’s growing marijuana? I remember that he applied to be one of the Responsible Ohio commercial growers.”
“The town council and college administration made sure that didn’t happen. They didn’t want a marijuana farm less than a mile from town, state-sanctioned or not. The police swing by his place on a regular basis, to ensure that all he’s growing is vegetables.” At a red light she pulled out her tablet. “I grabbed a few photos while I was interviewing him, but nothing good enough to publish in the paper.”
Lizzie skimmed through the photos and sighed. “Nothing that looks incriminating.” She directed Colleen down a private driveway near the greenhouse. “I have clients who live up the drive, but they’re away for the summer. We can park here.” She looped her birding binoculars around her neck.
“Doing some bird watching?”
“No, good cover while I’m snooping around town.”
Colleen grabbed her camera, and they walked up the rutted dirt road to a cluster of greenhouses. Lizzie pulled her behind a ramshackle wooden fence.
“Look, that’s Roger Sparrow.” Lizzie pointed to a figure in a greenhouse, watering flats of seedlings. “The police must have released him.” She scanned the greenhouse with her binoculars. “What’s that behind him on the table? It looks like plant material soaking in a tall glass beaker.” She handed the field glasses to Colleen. “Take a look. Want to bet it’s vodka?”
Colleen focused the glasses and nodded. “I wonder if Roger also works for Rowena. I doubt that Sam Cooper can pay him fulltime wages.”
A Mercedes SUV bumped up the dirt road and pulled to a stop next to the green house. The driver tooted the horn. Roger turned and waved before he turned off the water faucet and coiled up the hose.
“It’s Rowena,” Lizzie said. “I’m guessing Roger lives here and works for Rowena part-time. Roger would have planted the monkshood in Rowena’s garden and could have supplied Sam. Sam wanted to get his hands on Mary’s seeds.” She smiled. “We’ve just connected all the dots.” She tapped Officer Schmidt’s number on her cell phone, and left a detailed message, ending with a question. “How did Sam Cooper know about Rowena giving out small bottles of vodka to the pie bakers?”
They waited for Rowena to pull out, and walked down the road to Colleen’s car.
Lizzie put her phone on speaker for Officer Schmidt’s return call. “Lizzie, you already know the answer to your question.”
“Nothing in Jericho is a secret?”
“The only place to buy vodka is the State Store. We interviewed the owner, who remembered selling a large bottle to Rowena for the pie crust project. Sam Cooper was also in the store, and overheard her plans. He also bought a bottle. We’ve pulled a warrant to search the greenhouse and bring Sam in for questioning.”
Colleen was promised an exclusive for her help in solving Mary’s murder. Officer Schmidt met with her, Lizzie and Nick. “Thanks for your help, everybody. We found a small brown bottle filled with vodka in Mary’s trash can. The bottle on the kitchen table was laced with monkshood and had Sam Cooper’s fingerprints on it. Sam made the switch. Poor Mary used it to make her pie crust, and decided to finish off the bottle.”
Officer Schmidt continued. “We’ve got Sam for first degree murder, and Roger for second degree murder for supplying the monkshood from Rowena’s garden. We ran Sam’s prints, and discovered that he’s wanted for questioning in a suspicious death in another state. Another poisoning. That seems to be his specialty.”
She turned a page in her notepad. “We found a copy of Mary’s will. She left her small savings to the Jericho Food Pantry, and her seed bank to the Garden Club.”
Colleen smiled. “I’m sure the Garden Club will put the seeds to good use.”
“Do you think we’ll ever be able to have home-baked pies at the Ice Cream Social?” Lizzie asked.
Officer Schmidt sighed. “Let’s wait till next year before we make a decision.”
Margaret S. Hamilton is a member of Sisters in Crime and Guppies, Mystery Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. She has published short stories in Kings River Life and the Darkhouse Destination Mystery! Anthology. She also writes a traditional mystery series. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.