by Cheryl Hollon
The story features two characters from Cheryl’s Webb’s Glass Shop Mystery series, Jacob Underwood and his mother Frances. It has never before been published.
“I see a dead woman.” Jacob stood against the chest-high glass wall that surrounded the roof-top bar of The Canopy. He lowered his new binoculars, then pointed down at a white pillared arbor overwhelmed by red bougainvillea vines. It stood across the street from the Mediterranean-style Vinoy Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida.
His mother, Frances Underwood, put down her margarita and joined him at the overlook. She didn’t question his observation. Jacob was a high-functioning autistic teenager diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He held a responsible job as a stained-glass restoration apprentice at Webb’s Glass Shop. He didn’t prevaricate. He stated facts.
“I don’t see anything.” Jacob pointed then handed the binoculars to his mother. Frances was pleased he liked his 18th birthday present. He stooped to scratch the soft ears of his service Beagle, Suzy.
Frances peered down. She had left court early – not a common event with her demanding schedule.
“The dead woman is slumped on the bench nearest to us.”
The late afternoon light deepened the shade beneath the overhanging blooms. “Jacob, I can barely see her from up here. Maybe she’s homeless and hiding.”
“No. She’s too well dressed.”
“Why do you think she’s dead? She could be asleep.”
“Her chest isn’t moving. Her face is grey.”
“Okay, only you would notice details like that.” Frances dialed 911 and reported a non-responsive woman. She described the location as one of the benches in the arbor located in North Straub Park on Fifth Avenue North.
She turned to Jacob. “I’ll pay up, and we’ll go down and direct the EMTs. Seconds are critical.” She pulled her wallet out as she waved down their server.
Jacob scooped Suzy into his arms and quickly followed his mother down the four flights of stairs instead of waiting because The Canopy Bar had the slowest elevator in town.
Out front, they ran through the sidewalk bistro tables, then raced across the street into North Straub Park. The arbor was another hundred yards to their left, and they covered the ground quickly.
By the time they reached the arbor, Frances heard the distant wail of the siren making its way toward them on Fifth Avenue North.
She walked closer to the victim – mid-thirties woman wearing a grey, tailored, trouser suit, soft grey blouse, and red stilettos with red soles. She was curled into a fetal position on the bench nearest Beach Drive. The victim’s red designer handbag lay a few feet in front of the bench. An EpiPen® lay among the spilled contents.
Frances waved the driver down and pointed to the arbor. Jacob held Suzy close to his chest and stood in front of the victim. The emergency vehicle parked and two EMTs walked over lugging their black first responder trauma bags. The first technician looked at the woman, then asked Frances, “Do you know her?”
“No, there’s no billfold, either,” said Frances.
The first EMT looked at the victim then gave a tiny negative shake of her head at her partner. No hope. They started to work.
One of the parking valets of the Vinoy Hotel stood at the other end of the arbor smoking. It was easy to identify him, he was wearing their distinctive livery – newsboy cap, pedal pusher pants tucked into black and white argyles. The name on his shirt was Tom.
“Hello, Tom, I’m Judge Underwood from the Juvenile Circuit Court. Can you help us out here? Do you know this woman?”
“I’m on break, lady. It’s the only time I can smoke.” He dropped his cigarette onto the cement pad and twisted his foot on it. He walked over a few steps closer to the rescue scene then lit another cigarette.
Frances followed, “It’s important.”
“Yeah, I know her. She’s a real pain. Reported me to my supervisor for too many smoke breaks. None of her business.”
“And?” probed Frances.
“Her name is Deborah Cowley. She’s some big shot in downtown real-estate development. She lives in one of the mansions around here. She walks by here every Wednesday for a meeting with the Mayor. I think he’s afraid of her, too.”
“Really? Mayor Rick Baxter? I’m surprised he’d take time away from his frenzied campaign…” Baxter was in the middle of a tight re-election race that was too close to call.
“Yeah, but he never misses his meeting with Crowley. She must have something nasty on him the way he sucks up to her. He’s waiting right over there.” The valet pointed across Beach Drive to one of the teal umbrellas in front of 400 Beach Drive, a famous seafood restaurant. “It’s a standing reservation for the two of them.”
Tom tilted his head toward Mayor Baxter who was on his phone with two martinis in front of him. “She also had another yelling match with Squirrel Dan.” Tom dropped his cigarette and twisted it out. “Sorry, I got to get back to work.” He sprinted back to the hotel forecourt before Frances could utter another word.
When Frances turned back to the activity at the arbor, a crowd had gathered adding more volume to the general buzz. She spied the back of Dan Martin, known to locals as Squirrel Dan. He was walking away from her with his bag of peanuts, calmly feeding his little friends as he headed towards the marina.
“Sir.” He kept walking. “Excuse me, sir.” Still walking. “Dan!” she shouted sharply. He stopped. “Did you see anything here?”
The lean weather-beaten man turned to face her. Bald with piercing blue eyes, his clothes were worn but clean. He cradled an open bag of in-the-shell unsalted peanuts in his left arm and held several nuts in his right hand.
Dan bobbed his head in the direction of Mayor Baxter. “Ask him. He thinks he knows everything.”
Then he handed a peanut to the first squirrel in a queue of three. Each waited their turn, took a nut, examined it, stuffed it into its mouth, and then scrambled out of the way of its fellow beggars. Dan wandered away toward another group of chittering vagabonds.
Jacob stood with Suzy’s leash triple-wrapped around his hand. “This is not a medical casualty.”
“It must be,” said Frances, “There was a used EpiPen® right beside her handbag,”
Jacob stooped and peered closely at the pen. “Half the fluid is still showing in the viewing window. She didn’t inject herself with a full dose.”
Frances raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t notice that.”
“With her pen out of reach and a broken phone,” said Jacob, “she wouldn’t be able to save herself after a reaction started.”
“What broken phone?”
Jacob pointed to a few tiny shards of glass not far from the handbag. “A powerful lady would carry a fancy phone. Someone smashed her phone. It cracked into shards like yours did last summer, and it is gone.”
“I completely missed that. It prevented her from calling 911.” Frances looked at her son. “You’re extremely good at this.”
A flickering smile swept over Jacob’s face and then vanished. “She’s been sick.” He pointed in the same direction as Suzy’s motionless stare. A pool of vomit lay a few yards away from the bench.
Frances put a hand over her mouth. “Now, I feel sick.” She took a deep calming breath. “Hang on. Why is she here? If you had a meeting with the mayor, why would you make a detour here?”
“Someone who knew about her regular meeting asked her.” Jacob looked towards the street. “What could be so important to delay a meeting with the Mayor?”
“What’s happened?” Mayor Baxter appeared beside Jacob. “Is that Debby?”
Frances stepped forward. “Yes. That’s Deborah Cowley.”
“Was it her peanut allergy? She was fanatical about carrying her EpiPen® along with a fully-charged phone. Where’s her phone? We were going to discuss the peanut vendor. She wanted him banned.”
Frances wrinkled her brow. “You can’t keep people from making a good living. This is a great location. He would leave only if he couldn’t get enough walking traffic to his cart. Is she’s that sensitive?”
The mayor palmed his forehead and nodded his head. “She has a dreadful airborne peanut allergy. Last week, she jogged by the Paul’s Peanuts cart while he opened a new bag, and she had to use her pen and go to the hospital.” He pointed to the vendor a short way down the block. “Apparently, even though she was yards away, the wind blew the debris towards her and triggered the reaction.”
“Did she confront him?”
“She threatened to sue him for endangerment, loss of income, legal fees, and her hospital bills.” The mayor glared.
“I don’t think that was reasonable. The vendor barely scrapes by as it is – we disagreed. Paul has been an exemplary merchant and adds to the quirky ambiance of the downtown waterfront.”
Jacob looked across to the ancient cart with a crudely painted Paul’s Boiled and Roasted Peanuts sign. “Let’s ask him what he saw. He’s been there the whole time.”
As they approached, the peanut vendor frowned. “I’m not answering any questions from you lot.”
Jacob tilted his head. “I haven’t asked anything.”
“I saw the EMTs working on her. I can’t say I’m sorry.”
“Hello, I’m Judge Frances Underwood, and this is my son Jacob. He found her.” She extended her hand, and he reluctantly wiped his hand on his apron and shook her hand.
“Hi, I’m Paul. Still not sorry.”
“But that’s a horrible way to die,” said Frances. “You wouldn’t want anyone to suffer that way, would you?”
“No, I wouldn’t wish that, but she made life a misery for us regulars. Especially me and Dan.”
Jacob frowned. “I saw him near the arbor. What was her problem with him?”
“Dan thought he was the reason she was going to talk to the Mayor. Dan always carried around an open bag of peanuts. She has filed a petition for the city to ban feeding squirrels and birds in public parks.”
“That’s extreme,” said Frances.
“That wasn’t Dan’s only run-in with the city. He was a medic in the Iraq/Iran war, but he couldn’t pass the test to be a paramedic because of his impaired breathing.”
Frances turned around to the sound of footsteps on the patio.
“Jacob, don’t tell me that it was you that discovered the body?” Officer Joy Williams approached Frances and Jacob pulling a notebook and pen out of her back trouser pocket. “It’s my lucky day that you’re at the scene. We’ll get this resolved in minutes.”
Jacob flushed from throat to ears.
Officer Williams inhaled a breath. “It looks like she was trying to stay out of sight.”
“No. She inhaled peanut dust and got sick,” Jacob said. “She staggered to the bench, fumbled with her EpiPen®, and probably tried to call 911. Her killer came, broke the phone, then took it.”
Officer Williams shrugged. “I know mysteries attract you, but this is most likely a medical fatality.” Officer Williams approached the EMTs who had started chest compressions, provided oxygen, and had transferred the victim onto a backboard. She had a few words with them while they loaded Deborah into their vehicle. The second EMT climbed in the back and continued to give the victim CPR as they drove away all lights flashing and the siren blaring.
The bougainvillea drooped lower over the arbor and seemed to mourn its recent visitor.
Officer Williams returned to the bench and stood staring at the discarded EpiPen®. “It doesn’t appear like the shot worked. Okay, clever boy, you’ve probably been here for fifteen minutes. What have you found out?”
Jacob inhaled a deep breath. “There are four possible suspects. First, is the parking valet. This is his favorite smoking spot, and Ms. Cowley threatened to get him fired for leaving his post so frequently. Second is the owner of the peanut wagon. Deborah had an attack last week when he was near her while she was jogging. The third would be Squirrel Dan. He was in the area, but he seems to go to great lengths to protect his right to feed peanuts to the park squirrels.”
Jacob formed a wry smile. “Mayor Baxter for being a roadblock. I think she was a threat to his re-election.”
“So not really a suspect, then.” Officer Williams looked at the Mayor, the vendor, the valet, and finally at the rapidly receding back of Squirrel Dan. He was hobbling away in earnest.
Jacob raised his binoculars and turned to look as well.
“It’s Dan!” shouted Jacob. “There’s the lady’s red cell phone in his back pocket.” He handed the binoculars and Suzy’s leash to his mother.
In the same instant, Joy and Jacob sprinted down Fifth Avenue North towards the shore of Tampa Bay. Officer Williams matched Jacob’s pace step for step. She looked sideways and frowned her discouragement but couldn’t spare a breath to tell her teenaged friend to stop.
Inching ahead at the last moment, Officer Williams tackled Dan then efficiently cuffed him, read him his rights, and called in for support.
Dan lay sobbing face down on the grassy verge next to the sidewalk. “I didn’t kill her. You can’t arrest me for her allergies.”
“You will be charged. You knew she would die with multiple airborne peanut exposures,” said Officer Williams.
Frances hustled up to the scene. Jacob took Suzy from his mother. He nuzzled Suzy against his shoulder. “He didn’t murder her, he simply didn’t save her.”
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