By Andy Betz
“Hello. My name is Katherine Adams.”
It was my reserved opening. Neither abrupt nor capricious, I remained steadfast in my resolve to make a singular opening. I made discreet inquiries about her idiosyncrasies and decided to discard such second hand information and decide for myself.
“I read your ad in the trades about sharing your loft. I am prepared for the financial cost and have a collection of references from a variety of upright and outstanding local citizens who can vouch for my character.”
I kept my composure while extending my portfolio for her to scrutinize. She did not seem as interested in my forwardness as one would expect. I silently counted to ten before retracting my paperwork, but not my offer.
“Have you the ability to resign yourself to a myriad of unusual occurrences, without explanation or reason, all while composing yourself as you currently are?” Hers was an unusual question rationalizing events unexplained as normal circumstances. Most potential lodgers would exit after hearing her response. A few might inquire further. Only I would weigh the advantages of residing in a locale so centrally situated among hundreds of thousands of available library patrons forming the foundation of my bibliothecary career and research endeavors.
“As long as the spectrum of expectations runs the gamut equally from what you desire in a lodger to what I desire in a landlord. If you can say, yes, then so can I.”
The ball was in her court, so to speak. Her eyes scanned me from head to toe. She inquired about a husband, children, pets, or musical instruments. I informed her that I have no inclination toward any of the preceding and would be very unlikely to establish an interest in the very near future.
My words must have spurned her to action for she rose gracefully from the comfort of her recliner and extended her hand.
“My name is Julia, Julia Thompson. I find you reasonable and worthy of the position of cleaving both the financial and social responsibilities of residing within. I am very happy to accept you as my lodger.”
I remained composed, but could not control a small blush radiating across my cheeks. Julia took notice, but did not comment.
Her mannerism held a protagonist’s appeal as she methodically began watering her blooming houseplants, so well-situated, occupying the vaulted loft, so readily recipient of the city’s periodic rays of warmth and light.
She returned to speaking rapidly moving toward a peroration. “I am currently employed as a consultant to a man in need of one who presents me as a courtesan to those who could not appreciate the difference. I will entertain guests here as the former, but never the latter.
Scandals originating from impropriety are the death knell for convergent thinking. I wish to abate such irregularities in their infancy. I hope you share my, shall we say, my official communique.” I easily agreed to her terms.
For the next hour, Miss Thompson invited me to discover which piece of furniture in the parlor I would call my own. I took a liking to a particular Victorian spoon-back armchair covered in canary yellow velvet with nightshade arms and a burnished nickel trim. It was garish, but extremely comfortable. Julia inquired if I was prone to afternoon tea or coffee.
“Coffee, black.” Such a simple response.
When she returned, she returned carrying a quaint silver plated tea set currently defiled with hints of Arabica and Liberica all adorned with the accouterments of a bygone era. From the moment I reached for a lady finger and my cup, I knew I had made the right decision.
In the morning, I awoke in a rather comfortable Murphy bed made with high thread count sheets, more pillows than I am accustomed to, and two quilts designed by a seamstress of dubious skills.
The light flowed from the adjacent dormer window across my face beckoning me to rise against an equivalent force applied by the quilt to remain comfortably kipping.
I looked across the space mentally measuring the dimensions and finding the area as spacious as I required. The closet built into the wall most likely adjoined Julia’s on the other side of the wall. I could hear her stirrings and decided to permit her entrance to our shared bathroom. My new found charity permits another thirty minutes of light sleep for me.
The aroma of a hearty breakfast decides the sunlight’s victory over the quilt’s challenge. I rise, don my robe, and make my way downstairs to the kitchen to find Julia preparing a continental serving, light in calories and fast in delivery. I devoured my half of the grapefruit and then nibbled on a slice of toast sparingly covered with a hint of oleo. The strawberry garnish completed the meal. Julia smiled knowing another habit of mine was simpatico with hers.
I bathed, dressed, and made myself presentable for the day (Saturday) ahead. Julia asked me to attend the shopping with her and then pick my brain (such an unusual colloquialism) during a cafe lunch. How could I refuse?
By the time we finished grocery shopping, we searched for a cafe with exterior seating. Julia ordered for the both of us and monopolized the conversation.
“Katherine, could you explain exactly what you do for a living?” Julia had her sunglasses on to hide her eyes diverting their attention to random events in close proximity. From what little I learned in a single day with her, she was listening very carefully.
“I have taken a position as a bibliothecary as my primary employment and that of a researcher for those who are in need of one. Eventually, I expect to open a discrete business in which I may find myself either in a cooperative effort or something diametrically opposite to your earnings. I hope we find ourselves equally lingering in the former as well as the latter.”
Julia never even altered her composure before she made her next inquiry. “Katherine, I would like to hire you on a daily basis to assist in a conundrum I have inserted myself within. Would you be interested in a temporary employment position that makes use of your distinct skills?”
Since she did not raise suspicion from onlookers, both real and imagined, neither did I. I offered a single yes to her inquiry expecting her to divulge details while walking home.
Julia never was one to disappoint. Our walk only proved this postulate.
“During the last month, a young woman disappeared both from her family and her engagements. The police have few details, but they do have a single suspect, Mr. Theodore McGuire, her last beau. The two dated for months before her disappearance. My client is her father. He desires a thorough investigation of Mr. McGuire, beyond that of what the police poorly began and indifferently left unfinished. He believes Mr. McGuire killed his daughter and has disposed of her body in such a manner so as to make it invisible to modern detection methods.”
I interrupted to ask if the authorities searched Mr. McGuire’s house, carriage(s), workplace, and other holdings. I also wanted to discover if the suspect had at least one surveillance team watching his every move.
Julia gave me a Cheshire Cat smile when she continued both her narrative and walked home.
“The authorities have Mr. McGuire under constant watch. They have searched all of his properties both legally and illegally (Julia paused to let this sink in). Mr. McGuire works from home during his house arrest and indulges himself in the newly found activity of chopping firewood.”
I simply must learn the origin of this peculiarity. “Does he have a wood stove or a fireplace?”
Julia responded emphatically with a “no”.
“Has someone tested the ax for blood?”
“Every time he uses it, the police require him to leave the ax outside. They give him a new one so he may indulge his hobby anew each day.”
“Are there any changes in Mr. McGuire’s attitude or actions that differ from the recent past?”
We were almost to the loft. Julia kept the pace, despite my questioning. “According to her father, Theodore finally succumbed to her insistence that he embraced a vegetarian lifestyle. Previous to meeting her, he exclusively ate at a variety of steakhouses and pubs primarily catering to carnivores. Now, he no longer purchases any meat products, despite her absence or insistence.
It was much to think about. Julia left a file with the details of the case before she began to dress for her meeting tonight with the father of the missing young woman. While not ever asked, I took it upon myself to walk to Mr. McGuire’s home and verify as many of the details as facts as I could. I had nothing to lose.
By 11pm, Julia returned, absent her client, as she promised during our first meeting. Her gown screamed the glitz and glamor a faux courtesan would require. The rest of her, hair, makeup, shoes, and smile displayed a seasoned actress. I sat in my canary yellow chair, quite comfortably with the Cheshire grin on my face. At first, Julia ignored my look and began to change to more comfortable clothing. However, combined with my silence, she could no longer bear knowing that I knew something she did not.
I almost laughed when she stormed back into the parlor with neither her robe or gown on. So incensed at my smirk, Julia stood in front of me, barely clothed, ready to scream should I not divulge my information promptly. I silently counted to ten in hopes Julia would also.
I almost thought seven when she composed herself and found a place in her favorite chair. The fact she sat there scantily attired did not disrupt my narrative of my investigations.
“When you departed earlier this evening, I took the liberty of walking the blocks to the home of Mr. McGuire, perhaps to ask him his side of the story, perhaps not. I did find him at home finishing another athletic display of lumberjack skills. He had two new cords of wood cut, split, and stacked for no use of his own. I watched him leave the ax and wave into the encroaching shadows of dusk to the plain clothes officer watching him. Mr. McGuire took his liberty to go back into his home for his dinner before retiring for bed. I did not speak to him, but I did ask the detective a few questions. He indicated Mr. McGuire’s activities occurred every day for the past month. Each morning, he has a load of newly hewn trees delivered and each day he takes the hours it takes to cut, split, and stack the wood contained within. The detective has orders to remove the wood for analysis. He states such lab work and manpower never reveals any new evidence. He is puzzled as to why a single man would do the work of three men without pay or incentive. I thanked him for his time and walked home, arriving only a few hours before you.”
Julia arose toward the bar and poured a shot of single malt whiskey for the two of us. I must have begun blushing again when she leaned over to deliver the drink. I kept smiling for I was not finished, but only interrupted, in what I had to say.
Julia took her shot as her male counterpart would. I mimicked her with my shot. I did not mimic her stamina after finishing. I could hardly breathe for having no experience with such beverages.
Surprisingly, Julia set her glass on the table and came forward to assist me in my moment of distress. However, her regimen for medical assistance did not include what I would consider standing operating procedures. Julia held me up and laid a very large kiss on my lips. Between the potent potable and her aggressiveness, I could not breathe, but I did not remove myself from her grasp. It only took a few seconds for Julia to finish and break away leaving me quivering as before. I eventually sat down on my chair seeing Julia do the same on hers. I did not expect her actions, however unwelcomed at first to have such a lasting effect upon my person. It was all I could do to compose myself while still gazing at her near nudity. It is at this time I deferred to her intrusive, albeit enjoyable actions and began intently listening.
“I believe you were about to remark that the reason Mr. McGuire was so preoccupied with chopping large volumes of wood, was that he had to work up an appetite (now she smiled at me) so as to consume nearly 115 pounds of meat before it spoiled, or was discovered. Would that be correct Katherine?”
Julia was correct. She also was retiring for the night. I almost expected an invitation to join her in her spartan chamber of sorts. All I received was a posterior view as she departed for the night.
I currently have mixed feelings concerning the sum of today’s events. I arose earlier than usual with my mind cluttered with the events of last night. I did not expect Julia’s performance to throw my normal routine into such disarray. Was she under the influence of a narcotic? Did she find a reason to test my resolve as a condition of the employment she previously spoke? Whatever her motives, Julia has her life and I have mine.
I did not find Julia in the loft, but I did find her note.
Please learn all you can about arsenic, potassium cyanide, ethylene glycol, atropine, and strychnine. Please return no later than 6pm to dress (formally) for dinner. I am expecting guest(s) tonight and your attendance should prove helpful.
Without fanfare, I proceed to the reference section and begin my tasks of verifying what I speculate to be true and investigate the gaps between. I will officially begin my librarian duties here tomorrow, so today will be the last day I have, uninterrupted, to begin my research.
Within five hours, I have created a ledger holding the names of Julia’s suspected (suspected of what?) poisons, the signs of exposure, the routes of exposure, the doses (both acute and chronic) for sickness and death, the causes of death, the biochemistry of organ failure, and the means of detection. It leaves me troubled why anyone would want to store such horrific poisons of lore.
Soon after, I returned to the loft in advance of Julia with ample time to dress. I opted for my simple red gown with matching makeup. By the time I finished, almost as a coincidence, Julia arrived attired in a nearly matching outfit in all respects including color.
I found her presentation suspicious, but charming in that imitation, or its close proximity, is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.
“Katherine, quickly, take and don this wig. In this way, under the glow of an adjacent gas light, we might be construed as nearly identical.”
I received the wig and turned toward the mirror to adjust its setting upon my head. Indeed Julia was correct in that, unless either of us spoke or frequented a source of immense illumination, all without a formal letter of introduction would swear a statement of our indistinguishability with the proper authorities.
In addition to ensuring our identical presentation, Julia entrusted with me two small, sealed vials of the apothecary type.
“Do not reveal either vial until I ask you to do so. Promise me Katherine!”
Such forward advances upon my good nature could only make one think I auditioned for the role of the disingenuous sister stifled for reason yet unknown to the audience.
I gave Julia the benefit of doubt and steeled myself for the entrance of additional characters of mystery.
The first to tap upon the brass door plate was that of Mr. Joshua Ames. Julia took it upon herself to escort Mr. Ames up the stairs.
I stood in a pose Julia so often strikes, while awaiting a formal introduction from my armchair. Mr. Ames demonstrated his good breeding and manners by bowing to me while stating his name. He saw something was afoot with our attire, but did not give in to the obvious verbal temptations.
A somewhat awkward twenty minutes passed as Julia spoke of my discretion to events and evidence, whether spoken or presented. Mr. Ames, already familiar with Julia’s eccentricities began his tale of the disappearance of his daughter, Maggie, and suspicions of her abductor, Mr. McGuire. He spoke of his age and his hopes during his few remaining years. Mr. Ames desired grandchildren in which he might spoil and dote on them endlessly. He came to Julia and I in the expectation of resolution. We, apparently, were his last hope.
It was then that Julia asked me to pour a snifter of brandy for the three of us. Such fine spirits usually are a premonition of fine results yet to come. I certainly hope for as much.
“Mr. Ames, when you met me, you insisted at that time, you were in good health, even for a man of your age. Now you speak of a declining constitution. Have you taken a turn for the worse?”
“Yes, Miss Thompson, I recently have been diagnosed with a heart ailment requiring frequent use of the medicine digitalis. My physician prescribes my dose and sells his own compounded mixture. Rest assured, it is of the finest quality.”
“I do believe you; however, I do have a question. What would happen if a young lady, such as myself or Miss Adams here, mistakenly imbibes in your medicine by mistake?” I saw Julia’s hand motion to reveal the hidden vials.
“Well, from what my physician indicated, the medicine would have a detrimental effect. Including that each dose is designed to match my weight, it could be fatal to the young lady in question.”
“Would that include your daughter?” Or should I say, “Your expecting daughter?” With that, Julia placed in front of Mr. Ames all of my research from earlier today. “From what I understand, few people conduct so much research in poisons and purchase a treatment for digitalis or atropine, unless then intended to use both.”
Upon seeing both vials, Mr. Ames became incensed.
I was not aware of the temperament of Mr. Ames, nor of his agility. Within a second, he rose and swung his walking cane at the only light source in the room, namely the candlestick holder. In that instant, the shadows from the street that encroached upon the room finally breached the proverbial portcullises, making all visible distinctions difficult at best.
He also rushed for the vials in Julia’s possession. In the struggle, she dislodged both corks, spilling the contents of each onto the floor. I ran toward the fray with the brandy bottle held high. I have never found myself in such a melee, but under the conditions, I found it improper not to be so involved.
I smashed the brandy bottle across the skull of Mr. Ames, rendering him unconscious. Two of the local bobbies entered the loft, as if waiting for this very moment to do so.
They secured the formerly violent father and removed him as quickly as they appeared.
I stood bewildered among the myriad of small, white pills littering the floor like confetti as if a New Year’s celebration concluded in its festivities, only to begin anew as chambermaid’s duties.
Obviously, the script for tonight was just that, scripted. Julia went to great lengths forcing the actions of Mr. Ames, but not the motives. I was bewildered once again.
Julia asked me to sit upon my chair and listen. She raised her sifter and insisted I do also.
“My dear Katherine, tonight was indeed a spectacle fit for the small theaters catering to the fast-paced world of murder. I will fill in details making the analysis of tonight complete.”
“First, Maggie Ames is not dead, but she is bearing a child. She is also recovering from digitalis poisoning, safe from further harm. Her future fiancé, Mr. Theodore McGuire, wanted to marry her against the wishes of Mr. Ames. The latter decided to harm, but not kill, his daughter and blame her disappearance on the former. Mr. McGuire hired me to make inquiries (first), then distracted Mr. Ames (next) by agreeing to play his role in the charade. This purchased the time I required to investigate the location of Miss Ames, the health condition of Mr. Ames, and his intent before notifying the police of his activities.”
“Second, with Mr. McGuire under suspicion, Mr. Ames could find a better choice for a husband, one of higher class and distinction, for his daughter by removing the stigma of illegitimacy by hiding the newborn in his own household until such time as an official incorporation or adoption would be possible. Only with his recent diagnosis of a heart ailment made this timetable of Mr. Ame’s carefully planned construct easier to conduct and finalize.”
I had to ask, “What was in the vials?”
“My dear Katherine, the pills on the floor are both labeled as digitalis and atropine (as a hydrochloride salt) as per the apothecary who compounded each. In reality, both are merely quaint confectionaries sans any ill effect. Only a true poisoner would recognize the guildsman’s markings, thus igniting the full fury of a true poisoner. The rest was all theatrics to sell the story.”
Now I drank the contents of my snifter. Julia did likewise.
My evening finished without a kiss, only a busy dustpan and broom.
That is until the morning unveils yet another new adventure.
Bio: The works of Andy Betz are found everywhere a search engine operates. Andy has written many great things that have been posted to The Yard: Crime Blog, including, “Water” with Jaysa Brown, “The Less You Have, the More It Hurts To Lose It”, “I Knew Her as Tigist“, “How My New Life Began“, “Et Tu“, “Senny” with Dounia Saunders, “Oleander“, “The Best Advice I Ever Got“, “If I Ask Your Opinion“, “As the Sun Sets“, “Walter,” “The Saddest Lies“, “By Morning”, and “Nicole and Julia: Death at Poolside”. He has also been interviewed.