by Gail Farrelly
This original mystery short story includes a name chosen by a Left Coast Crime participant who won in an auction the chance to have a name of their choice featured in a short story. The winner was Maeilyn Tacoma. Keys to the Kingdom is dedicated to the real Ralph Tacoma with best wishes from author Gail Farrelly.
It all started a few months ago on a Sunday when I was sitting in church. That’s when I got the idea for how to commit the murder. A perfect murder–or so it seemed.
The subject of the sermon was “Keys to the Kingdom,” and the preacher was exhorting us to pray, do good works, and be generous of spirit. She claimed that those three actions would unlock the pearly gates.
But my thoughts turned to another kind of keys. Those on a computer keyboard. Keys that could be laced with a carefully chosen set of pathogens (most folks call them germs) that would quickly send someone to an early grave. I work as a lab assistant at a pharmaceutical firm in Westchester, New York. Getting the poisonous substances wouldn’t be a problem. Choosing the victim wouldn’t be a problem either. My hubby, Stan Sakowsky, advertising executive by day and computer nerd by night (and weekends too!), fit the bill.
I had brought up the possibility of divorce a number of times, but he said “no way,” that his religion wouldn’t allow it. Besides, he thought it might be the death of his 94-year-old mother. She, by the way, is as healthy as a horse. She lives in deluxe assisted living accommodations in Miami and seems to have a much better social life than her son.
I could have divorced Stan, of course, but that would have been expensive and time consuming. Murder was so much cheaper and faster.
We were both 28 when we had married 24 years ago, and for about 15 years we had been fairly happy. Not anymore. We now had very little in common and lived mostly separate lives. I crave action, excitement, and new adventure in my life. He was satisfied watching television and playing computer games. Once he got home from work, he settled his overweight body on the couch or the computer chair and that was it until bedtime. He didn’t seem to care that the lack of exercise only contributed to his heart condition. Well, that was his problem. And it made my plan easier, because he’d be especially susceptible to the pathogens on the computer keyboard.
“Sally,” I told myself that Sunday in church, “you’ve served your time, 24 years of it. Now it’s time for you to be free.” Fleeting thoughts of Ralph Tacoma, my hunky next-door neighbor–my divorced neighbor, I should add–lingered in my brain. A Robert Redford lookalike, he had never made a real move on me, but he had passed some flirtatious glances in my direction. If I were single, those glances would develop into something more, I was sure of it. He was ten years younger than me. But so what? Being a cougar could be fun. Right up my alley. Unlike my hubby, I’m always open to new things. Cougaring didn’t scare me one bit. I had kept my figure; my weight was just about right for a five foot, three inch woman. I sported the latest fashion in clothes; and thanks to Clairol, my shoulder length hair was still a rich brown, the color it was when I was 20.
A short period of mourning for my dearly departed hubby, and I’d make a move on Ralph Tacoma. If I needed something to push me forward, I just closed my eyes and dreamed about what it would be like to be in Ralph’s well-toned arms and run my fingers through his full head of blond hair. It was graying a little bit, but that only added to his overall attractiveness and maturity. Yum!
Yep, Stan had to go. And he had to go soon, I reasoned. Otherwise I had the feeling he might bore me to death. It was him or me. No contest.
Shortly after that ‘kingdom’ sermon I started to work out my plans. An empty nail polish jar would be perfect for carrying home the pathogens, and the nail polish brush would be just the thing for applying the deadly mixture onto the computer keys. Given his heart condition, Stan would probably be dead within a minute or two. Anyway, before he had time to call for help.
There were two other things to be considered. 1) I didn’t want to be there when it happened. 2) I did want to appear shortly after, so I could clean up the evidence. Some special anti-bacterial wipes from my lab should take care of things. I knew that, after a six-hour exposure to the air, the pathogens would no longer be dangerous, but they would leave evidence of their presence. A little elbow grease and the proper cleaning supplies should do the trick, I reasoned.
I studied Stan’s schedule and decided on THE day. A Thursday, because that’s when he always came home at noon to work on a weekly newsletter for a long-term top client. He needed about six hours with no interruptions to complete it. He’d been doing this for years; he was totally predictable.
I planned on coming home at my usual time, scrubbing away the evidence, and then calling the police. After that, I’d be well on my way into Ralph Tacoma’s arms.
Ah, as Robert Burns once said, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley,…do they ever!
A Thursday, the day of the deed ……………..
The first part of my plan went smoothly. “Nail polish” (Ha!) applied to the computer keys. Check. Empty bottle of nail polish thrown into a stream near my home. Check.
An uneventful day at work. Check.
But all hell broke loose when I arrived home at 6:30. Not in my plans was the ambulance parked in the driveway. Uh-oh.
I rushed into the house and headed for the den, scene of the action.
A body was on the floor, with two paramedics working on it. Not a dead body though, since one of the paramedics (he looked like a 14-year-old) shouted ecstatically, “He’s breathing. Shallow, but he’s breathing.” Oh goody.
More shocks to come. When I got a better look, I saw that it wasn’t Stan at all. Stan didn’t have that trim physique, those muscular legs. This body belonged to my neighbor, Ralph Tacoma. Handsome man of my dreams, Ralph Tacoma. Yikes!
“What happened?” I screamed.
A voice came from behind me. Stan’s voice. “They don’t know yet.” He sighed and then continued, “I found him like this a few minutes ago. He was unconscious and foaming at the mouth. I think he may have been poisoned.” He shuddered, then added, “Hopefully he’ll come out of it, though. At least the paramedics think he will.”
I had eyes only for the body on the floor. I looked at Ralph, shook my head from side to side and said, “It wasn’t supposed to be you.” Thinking about this moment later, I fervently wished that I had kept my mouth shut.
Suddenly Stan was staring at me and saying, “What do you mean It wasn’t supposed to be you.” Now His face was red and he was screaming, “Just who was it supposed to be? Only two of us live in this house.” That got the attention of the paramedics, who looked up at me and then at each other. The female one shrugged.
I made a pathetic attempt to make up for my blunder. “What I meant was: what was he doing here anyway? At our place.”
Stan looked slightly mollified, but not much. He still looked angry, frightened, and fidgety. He said, “Ralph called me on my cell at about 11 and asked if he could come in and use the computer for an hour or so. His was broken. I told him okay. I had changed my plans anyway and wouldn’t be home until 6 or so. And he had a key and all. No problem.” Stan paused for a moment, then added, “Well, at least I thought there’d be no problem.”
Just my luck. Predictable Stan had chosen the wrong day to be unpredictable. Wrong from my point of view anyway.
Having hooked up an intravenous line and completed an initial assessment, the paramedics were suddenly more communicative and seemed very interested in our conversation. The female one was writing on a yellow pad. She looked up and said to Stan and me, “We’ll transport him to the hospital in a few minutes. We’ll get some oxygen going first.” She paused. “Detective Blackstone should be here any minute.”
She no sooner had the words out of her mouth, then there was a knock at the door. Stan admitted the visitor.
Detective Blackstone had a commanding, businesslike presence. After the introductions, he said to Stan and me, “Sorry folks, I’ll have to ask you to leave. I’ll check in with you later. We have to find out what went on here.”
“We’re being kicked out of our own home?” Stan asked.
“For now, yeah, sorry.” The detective said. “We have to bring in the CSI folks. Treat it like a crime scene until we know more. Could be an accident, could be something else. We’ll be glad to arrange a room for you at the Hilton.”
“Make that two rooms and you’re on,” said Stan. He gave me an angry look that was tinged with just a little fright.
Knowing that I had already stepped in it, I remained silent.
But Stan’s response told me that the cat was out of the bag.
Double trouble. My intended victim was still around, while my potential boyfriend was on his way to the hospital.
Double trouble? Fuhgeddaboutit. Make that a triple. I figured it was time to add 1-800-lawyers to my speed dial.
Friday and beyond, the aftermath of the deed ……………..
I figured right.
When I was a kid, my mother always warned me that my big mouth would get me into trouble one day. Mother knew best.
Those six words: It wasn’t supposed to be you. What was I thinking when I said them, right in front of Stan and the paramedics? Obviously, I wasn’t thinking. At all. As I had suspected, the paramedics (tattletales!) relayed my words to the police, and I really think that was what started them looking at me as a murder suspect.
Well, actually attempted murder, since Ralph Tacoma (his good health and fit condition saved him) made a complete recovery from the poisoning. And by the way, he never returned to the house next door. He hired people to clean the house and move his belongings. Now the house is on the market. I suppose that having your next-door neighbor try to kill you is a bit of a turnoff. My guess is that he was never sure why the whole thing happened or whether the perp was Stan or me. Understandably he just decided I’m outta here. I heard a rumor that he moved to Fiji.
I was stupid to utter those six words but I was smart enough to lawyer up as soon as I knew I was a suspect. At first the detectives thought Stan was the perp (they theorized some sort of love triangle); but after an investigation, they concluded that even if he had motive, he probably lacked the means. He, after all, had no easy access to pathogens.
After an exhaustive investigation (including lots of interviews with friends and neighbors), the detectives concluded that I had both the means and opportunity to plan this kind of murder. They felt I had a motive too, once the state of my marriage was taken into account and they had moved on to thinking of Stan, not Ralph, as the intended victim.
I took advantage of my right to remain silent, an especially good move when the detectives summarized their evidence a few weeks later: not only those six words I had so foolishly uttered in front of the paramedics, but also traces of my workplace pathogens on the computer keys, an empty nail polish bottle from the manicure set in my home (the bottle, with trace residue of those same pathogens, having been found by two kids playing in that stream not far from my home). Then there were the boxes, hidden in the pantry, of those super duper cleaning cloths from my lab.
It was all circumstantial though. When the prosecutor charged me with the attempted murder of Ralph Tacoma, I could have chosen to go to trial–and might have mounted a successful defense. As I told my lawyer, “There’s no reason in the world why I would have wanted to harm him. They can’t prove motive.”
But he reminded me that they didn’t have to prove motive. Then he looked me in the eye and said that they might have been able to make a strong case that it was my husband that I was out to get.
After lots of negotiation and with the advice of my attorney, I decided a “No Contest” plea was the way to go. I was given a sentence of two years. Not bad. After all, I had survived a sentence of being with boring Stan for 24 years. Serving two years in jail should be child’s play.
Six months later ……………..
So here I am in prison, with plenty of time on my hands to repent. Or not. The chaplain has stopped by several times, trying to persuade me to attend Sunday services. Bad idea! That’s what started this whole mess, y’know–reflecting on the keys to the kingdom. Enough already.
The good news is that I’m rid of Stan; our divorce was finalized last week.
My life here isn’t that bad. At least it’s not boring. I have a job in the prison library and am learning a lot. Who knows? Maybe I’ll learn how to turn my life around. I don’t dwell that much on the past. Instead, I think of the future.
Sometimes, though, I can’t help but daydream about what life could have been like if sexy Ralph Tacoma hadn’t flown the coop and if I had been able to persuade him of my innocence.
The worst part of this whole deal is that I never did get a chance to try out that cougar thing. Not yet anyway.
But never say never. Hey, the librarian here at the prison is younger than me but kinda cute. I think he likes me. And not just because I always volunteer to work overtime.
He’s no Ralph Tacoma.
But then who is?
Check out more of Gail’s short stories in our mystery section.