by Joan Leotta
Enjoy this never before published Thanksgiving Mystery Short Story. Pumpkin Pie recipe at the end of this story.
I hate turkey. So, it is easy to understand why Thanksgiving’s meal is not my favorite. The idea of giving thanks for bounty is great. I simply do not see the point in overstuffing one’s self with dry turkey meat and stale bread stuffing along with cranberry juice reduced to a can-shaped gelatin. I’m allergic to corn. Worst of all is the dessert. My taste buds find pumpkin pie to be nothing more than a soggy blob-of-an-attempt to recycle a perfectly lovely jack-o-lantern.
The only time I ever enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal was back in college when I ran a special on the First Thanksgiving on the local NPR station, working alone. Handling technical and on-air duties myself, while a long set of classical music blared out to my ten or so listeners, I savored a peanut butter sandwich.
My survival tactics at this meal are to fill my plate with mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and any salad or greens that find their way to the table. While the others verbally swoon about the food, I keep my focus on the next day—Black Friday. The day after the wretched meal, my entire family executes a coordinated Black Friday shopping excursion. It’s togetherness, shopping, and saving money—a lot of fun.
I long ago gave up insulting my family by eating peanut butter at the table or bringing an alternative main course (What’s wrong with ham?). I do bring an alternative dessert—I call it a second dessert. Usually it’s brownies. No one can refuse chocolate so they accept it. The others add it to their plate of pie. I eat my piece in lieu of that awful pie. Two years ago, my cousin Alfie’s new, much younger wife, Nina Marie, insisted that she start bringing it instead of “burdening” Aunt Mabel with dessert duty. I noticed that folks started taking bigger squares of brownies once Nina Marie started making the pumpkin pie.
Last year, our family’s Black Friday shopping was cancelled. The family spent the day at the hospital. The ones who survived, that is. Everyone except me got sick. I was the one who raced up and down the halls making sure everyone was being cared for properly.
They started getting ill late Thursday evening. Two ambulances and my mini-van got us all to the nearest emergency room. Elderly cousin Alfie was sicker than the rest. After a few hours, Alfie succumbed. On Friday, the doctor announced it was botulism that felled Alfie and sickened all the others—all except me. Nina Marie, Alfie’s much younger third wife, was the first to recover early Friday. She then joined me in watching and giving moral support to the others.
The doctors said it was botulism, but something about Alfie’s case made them bring in the police. They and the police began asking every one of us to list what we had eaten. Something in Alfie’s made them suspect foul play. They were very interested in what I had eaten and why I wasn’t sick. They also questioned Nina Marie closely as to why she was so much less sick than the others. The police began to focus on the pumpkin pie. I had not eaten any. Nina Marie had eaten pie, but had taken only a small piece. Maintaining her svelte figure demanded eating very little, Nina Marie told us. I went back to the house, accompanied by a police officer. We gathered samples of all of the food served (just in case).
In short order, the hospital lab found the botulism in the pie, the same strange strain that had felled Alfie. The police found it very suspicious that I didn’t eat any of the turkey, gravy, dressing, cranberry sauce (jellied or fresh with orange), or pumpkin pie. A certain Inspector Jeffries seemed actually offended that my Thanksgiving Day meal consisted of salad, plain mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, and a brownie. He kept saying, “Who does not like pumpkin pie?”
Thankfully, Aunt Mabel, host of the meal, woke up from a drug-induced sleep and assured him that my odd meal selections and refusal to eat pie were normal. She kept moaning, “No one has ever even gotten sick at my dinner before. This is so embarrassing.”
On Saturday, the lab determined that the specific powerful botulism to blame came from a lab like the one where Alfie’s much younger wife, Nina Marie, worked. She became the number one suspect. After all, she stood to be grateful for a large inheritance due to the poor old Alfie’s Thanksgiving Day death. They pulled her away from her funeral preparations for questioning.
Nina Marie used her one phone call to reach out to me. She had ignored me at the table, but now that the tables were turned…Oh, did I mention I’m a lawyer? I practiced divorce law in a large firm until all of the unhappiness got to me, and I set up an antique shop. I started by specializing in selling off old heirlooms no one on either side wanted. Nina Marie tearfully pleaded for me to take her case.
“Criminal law is not my specialty,” I pleaded.
Maybe she was not as dumb as her appearance at table had indicated. (Short skirt, long lashes, tight top, full pouty lips, fawning all over the homely Alfie.) My shop was indeed my weakness. I tended to buy more than I sold.
“Don’t you want to hire a crack criminal lawyer with your inherited largesse?” I asked.
“I think it will look better to a jury if a family member believes in me to defend me. That is, if the case gets to a jury. I’ve heard a lot of cases are settled now in negotiation with the DA. You negotiate every day in your business. I trust you to do the research and get me a good deal. Maybe even help me get entirely off.”
Duly flattered, I agreed to meet with her. In the privacy of the lawyer-client area on Sunday, I asked the all-important question. “Did you do it?”
She smiled. “No. Why would I? Alfie made me sign a prenup with murder as one of the reasons I could not inherit.”
Then she brought a new aspect of the issue to the table. “Your friend, Gary, did the work on the prenup and will. I know Alfie thought about trying to get some free law advice from you, but he wanted these documents kept private.”
I gulped. Gary was more than a friend. We’d suffered through undergrad and then law school together. Very together until an acrimonious break-up. I shifted in my seat, remembering that last Halloween Gary and I had tried to bring our dead relationship back to life. However, it remained a ghostly, ghastly memory.
Nina tapped her perfect nails on the table to re-direct my obviously wandering attention.”Did you know that you were Alfie’s favorite cousin?”
I did know. I also knew, thanks to an indiscreet moment on Gary’s part, last Halloween, in the event of Nina not being able to inherit for whatever reason, I would become Alfie’s heir, lock, stock, and bearer bonds.
My silence spoke volumes to the very astute, Nina Marie.
“No one but Gary and I know that you knew.”
“Know what?” I blustered.
“What the police will find out in a few days–that you inherit all if I can’t. If the botulism is proven accidental, and I get off, I’ll share with you in the form of that fat fee. If Gary lets them know you knew…well, you will become the prime suspect in his murder. ”
Nina Marie usually made little purring noises when she talked, but this last item was delivered with claws-out sharpness. If she didn’t kill Alfie, who did? I needed a moment to think.
She tapped her bright red nails on the table again. “Well? Gary, as the estate lawyer will put up my bail later today. Come over to Gary’s on Monday evening, and we can work on my defense.” A pout was forming on Nina’s lovely face. I could hear the pout scrunching the lines of her impossibly botoxed lips.
Being somewhat of a coward, I agreed. Her arraignment date was set for the following week, December 5. I scheduled a meeting with the DA for Tuesday, December 2, right after the reading of the will. I spent the rest of that Sunday and all day Monday thinking about Gary, Nina Marie, and poor old Alfie. I recalled while we were in law school, Gary had an internship in law school with a Shenandoah Valley food-canning firm (apples) and had participated in defending them against a lawsuit over of all things, botulism!
I rang the bell at Gary’s downtown apartment penthouse at precisely seven on Monday evening.
Nina Marie was there, but rather more happily ensconced next to Gary on his green leather couch than one might expect for a grieving widow.
Gary motioned for me to join them on the couch in front of the TV. He had the station tuned for the later Monday night football games. He brought out assorted snacks and put a selection of craft beers in a designer style tub on the floor next to the coffee table.
I didn’t waste time. I boldly, perhaps foolishly, accused Nina and Gary of planning Alfie’s demise.
“I can’t defend you, Nina. You guys were in on this together. Gary actually put the bug in the pie so to speak. You knew I wouldn’t eat any. You are counting on me being the focus once the will is released on Tuesday.”
Gary smiled. “If you keep quiet, Nina Marie will go free, and I won’t tell that you knew about being the alternate heiress. You will fork over half of the money you inherit within a year, if they still declare murder, and Nina Marie gets off lightly and will be ready to take off with me to Brazil. You’ll still have enough dough left to shore up that sorry little shop of yours. If Nina Marie gets off, the fee Nina promised will take care of you, and we might even add enough for you to take a trip to find new antiques in Europe or the Far East or wherever you choose. We all know you love shopping.”
“If not, I will tell them I remember telling you about the bequest last Halloween at a party we both attended.”
“But if they still think it is murder, why blame me over Nina Marie or you?”
Gary stood up and loomed over me. “I will also tell that you knew about the pharmaceutical firm case at my old employer. Last month, when I stole some of their supply, the same type used at Nina Marie’s lab, I dressed like you–wig and all. I even left one of your monogrammed sweaters at the scene. My experience playing female roles at my all-boys high school came in handy. Anyone who studies the tapes will say it was you. No one would ever believe it was me. And everyone knows you had a built-in alibi for not eating pumpkin pie.”
I was afraid if I spoke, I would explode.
Gary filled in the silence. “You have until midnight tonight to decide.”
There was no real decision. Either Nina got off and the death became accidental or I was the scapegoat. I choked on a potato chip, said good-by, and stumbled out of the door. It was only when I was in my own car, two blocks away, that I breathed a sigh of relief and allowed myself to smile.
When I got to the police station, in a room with a female detective who worked with Lt. Jefferson, I took off the mic I was wearing. I gave the police the SD card. I had also sent the recording of my conversation with Nina Marie and Gary to my own computer and phone. Even though the police evidence lab had the original recording, I tapped out directions to my smart phone to send the recording of Gary’s and Nina’s little plot to Lt. Jefferson, the lead detective, and to the DA. Gary had forgotten about my technical experience in the college radio station and NPR studios.
Thanksgiving has taken on new meaning for our family. Thanks to Alfie’s money, I now host the entire family. We dine at a restaurant so each person can order what he or she likes best. I order ham. We have dessert back at Aunt Mabel’s where an array of pies—apple, sweet potato, and pecan—have joined our former standards of brownies and pumpkin pie. Aunt Mabel once again makes the pumpkin pie herself. She has a killer recipe.
Killer Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from several sources
You can use a graham cracker or other cookie crust pie if you want the crust to be crisper.
Or you can do what I do, which is to bake the crust for five minutes, then let cool before adding the filling and baking the entire pie.
1 crust, homemade, from a package, regular, cookie or graham cracker 15-ounce can pumpkin puree 2 large eggs 1 large egg yolk 2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon molasses 1-1/2 tablespoons of ground ginger 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 1 cup half and half 1/2 cup whole milk–I use one percent most of the time and it seems to work
Heat the oven 375°F.
If using graham cracker crust or cookie crust bake it for 10 minutes then remove and let cool in the refrigerator while you make the filling.
Whisk the pumpkin puree with the eggs, egg yolk, and brown sugar. Stir the grated ginger, cinnamon and ginger spices, salt, and pepper into the pumpkin mixture. Add the cream and milk and whisk until smooth. Pour into the crust.
Bake for about 50 minutes at 375°F, or just until set. Check after 30 minutes and tent with foil if the edges seem to be browning quickly. Stick a knife into the center before you take it out. If the knife comes out clean and you perhaps have a crack in the top of the pie, the filling is sufficiently set. Cookbooks say filling will continue to “set” after the pie comes out of the oven but I don’t like to take chances.
Refrigerate the pie after it is just cool to the touch. Let cool for at least two hours before slicing
Serve with whipped cream or ice cream. Why not? You’ve already eaten so much, a few more calories won’t hurt.
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