by Gail Farrelly
Enjoy this never before published Thanksgiving mystery short story, and watch for another one on Monday!
Sally and Tom Clarkson thought they were born to the manor. The problem was – they weren’t. In fact, they were poor as church mice, always living over their heads, always in debt. Now that they were in their forties and there had been no change for the better in their financial condition, they decided to do something about it.
For many years they had been waiting for an inheritance from Tom’s Uncle Charlie. They’d be getting a nice chunk of change when Uncle Charlie bit the dust. That might not be for some time though. He seemed to be quite healthy for an 88-year-old. He had poor eyesight and almost-nonexistent hearing; he walked with a cane as a result of a stroke he had suffered five years ago. But other than these few medical issues, he was fairly healthy – too healthy in the view of Sally and Tom. And he still had all his marbles.
The last time the Clarksons hit him up for a loan Charlie had refused, reminding them that they hadn’t repaid the two prior ones. Sally and Tom were furious. It was unacceptable that they were forced to pinch pennies, while this dinosaur lived a life of luxury. They decided that he had to go and they would give him a little push and Thanksgiving would be the perfect day to do it. There’d be a lot of potential suspects around, as Charlie always hosted a huge Thanksgiving buffet supper at his home.
He always said he liked the idea of a casual supper, served buffet style in the evening rather than a traditional formal sit-down dinner in the middle of the afternoon of the holiday, more relaxing for everyone. His staff prepared a sumptuous buffet of cold turkey, stuffing, salads, a cranberry soufflé, fruits, fresh breads and mouthwatering desserts. It was a command performance and all the relatives and friends were expected to attend. And of course they did. Who says no to a multimillionaire?
Every Thanksgiving for the last few years Sally had been fixing a plate for Charlie from the buffet table. Because he was on a cane, that was hard for him to do himself. This year she’d be doing that again. She’d be fixing Charlie a plate all right. And the food would be topped off with a little powdered pesticide laced with arsenic. Yes!
On Thanksgiving Day the Clarksons were in a good mood as they chatted to each other in their leased Lexus on the way to Uncle Charlie’s. They didn’t think about the fact that they were planning to end a life, they just focused on the fact that they’d soon be beginning their own life of wealth and luxury.
They were stopped at a red light when Tom averted his eyes from the road ahead and looked at Sally. He said, “Now remember, and don’t overload Uncle Charlie’s plate with the pesticide. A little dab’ll do it.”
She sighed and gave her hubby a mock salute. “Yes sir.”
He gave her a slight smile. “Well, we don’t want to make him suspicious, y’know.”
“Yes, yes, we’ve gone over this a dozen times.”
He banged his hand on the steering wheel. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just that if one little thing goes wrong, the whole plan falls apart.”
Sally ran a hand through her frizzy brown hair and then rubbed his pudgy arm, trying to calm him. “Nothing’s going to fall apart. That’s why we had the dress rehearsal at Uncle Charlie’s a month ago, remember?”
“And don’t worry. I’ll be sure to be at the end of the table with the full plate when you call, just as we planned.” She winked. “I’ll just have to duck into the pantry and use the shelf space. Can’t juggle everything, y’know, when I have to answer the phone! Sure is convenient to have that nice big pantry there. It’s bigger than the average kitchen!”
Soon they reached Charlie’s house/mansion. They got the next-to-the-last space in the huge circular driveway. “Looks like a full house,” remarked Tom.
Sally smiled. “Perfect, lots of suspects,” she said.
“Agreed,” Tom answered, as they headed for the house.
The tall lanky Charlie, slightly stooped, was at the door to greet them. Tom shook his hand, while Sally hugged him, saying that she’d be fixing him a plate as usual. He smiled his thanks.
When Charlie moved on to the next guest, the Clarksons headed for the living room. “Did you notice,” Sally whispered, “that he’s wearing that same New York Yankees cap he had on last time?”
“Yep,” Tom answered. “He’s a diehard fan.” He paused. “But I guess his mother never taught him that it’s impolite to wear a hat in the house.”
“Or maybe that lesson was so many years ago he’s completely forgotten it,” Sally said, adding, “What I don’t understand is, why he doesn’t buy himself a hat that fits. That one looks like it’s about two sizes too big. You’d think that someone as rich as he is would buy clothes that fit.”
Tom nodded agreement, but actually he was grateful that Charlie wasn’t overspending on clothes. That meant a larger estate. Yippee!
When they reached the living room, they got themselves some white wine and mingled with the other guests. They forced themselves to engage in the kind of idle chatter typical among people who only see each other once or twice a year. Was it his imagination, Tom wondered, or was boring Uncle Ted even more boring than usual? He felt like gritting his teeth as he feigned attention to Ted’s drivel. Then it was on to gossipy Aunt Jane, who didn’t veer from her usual agenda. Amazing, thought Sally, the amount of gossip that woman can hold in her head and then spew out to a captive audience.
Mercifully, after a short time, it was announced that the buffet was ready and the guests began to stream into the dining room. Not Sally and Tom though. They bided their time.
After a few minutes Tom headed for the bathroom, while Sally hit the buffet table in the dining room. She took her time fixing a plate for their host. When she was finished, she checked her watch and moved to the end of the table. As planned, her cell phone rang in her shoulder bag. She gave out with a loud sigh for the benefit of those around her and then headed out to the pantry to answer the phone. She put the plate on a shelf and reached for her cell phone. She said hello, listened for a moment, said a quick, “See ya later,” and then hung up.
Now for the piece de resistance, she said to herself. She pulled the Tupperware container of pesticide from her over-the-shoulder purse, opened it and sprinkled the contents over Uncle Charlie’s dinner plate, which she temporarily put back on the shelf. She was ready to roll, or so she thought. She planned on thoroughly washing the Tupperware container a little later, before they left the house, but for now she just wrapped it in a few paper towels and shoved it back into her purse. Sally paused to admire her handiwork. The pesticide mingled nicely with everything else on Charlie’s plate. She congratulated herself on a job well done.
The congratulations turned out to be premature, for a minute later she was startled to see a cop in uniform enter the pantry. He was blond, with a buzz cut. He looked like a kid. At first she thought it was a joke. Too bad, at least for her, that it wasn’t. With gloved hands he grabbed Charlie’s plate from the shelf and said, “The Police Lab will be interested in this.” He handed the plate to another young cop standing outside the pantry. Then he turned back to Sally and introduced himself. He explained that the cops were there today, since Charlie believed he was in danger.
Sally was in shock and didn’t say a word. That is, until the cop continued, “You’ll have to come downtown with us, Ma’am, your husband too.”
Then Sally saw red. She sputtered, “What? Is it against the law to fix a plate at a buffet table?”
Sally felt her knees go weak. She wished she could sit down, but unfortunately there were no chairs in the pantry. She retained her bluster, though, saying, “You can’t prove a thing.”
Soon Tom Clarkson was on the scene, positioning himself next to his wife. “What’s going on here?” he said. He looked ready to throw a punch.
“Everything is under control, Mr. Clarkson,” the police officer said. “I was just saying we need you and your wife to come down to the station and answer some questions.”
“Yeah, like why you guys thought you could get away with killing me.” Now Uncle Charlie had joined the fray, limping into the pantry and standing beside the cop. He glared at Sally first, then at Tom.
The police officer said to Sally, “Mrs. Clarkson, you mentioned proof. We have the proof all right. Charlie saw to that.” He pointed to some canisters (at least they looked like canisters) on one of the top shelves in the pantry, then he continued: “Think sportscaster Warner Wolfe’s line, LET’S GO TO THE VIDEOTAPE. Thanks to Charlie and his hidden camera system, we have the whole thing on tape. In fact, he has cameras set up throughout the whole house. We’ve been monitoring them today in the den on the second floor. Special attention to the one in this room though.”
Sally laughed derisively. “Oh, please, I find that hard to believe. Charlie’s a technophobe, that’s a fact. Good grief, he still uses a rotary phone.”
Charlie stared at Sally and said. “Guilty as charged. Once upon a time I was a technophobe, but no more. Haven’t told anyone about this yet. My cap served as a cover-up. You see, a couple of months ago, I went to a research hospital in The Netherlands, had surgery and got myself a bone-anchored hearing aid.” He removed his oversized baseball cap and pointed to a tiny boxlike mechanism behind his right ear. “This thing is called a sound processor,” he said.
He grinned when he saw that Sally and Tom looked stunned. He continued, “Big improvement. Went from being almost totally deaf to having pretty good hearing, at least in the right ear. Right now they can’t do anything for the left ear. too much damage from the War.” Thank goodness for small favors, a sullen Sally was thinking.
Charlie was quiet for a moment, then shrugged and continued. “My hearing isn’t perfect, but it was good enough to hear you guys –” he pointed an accusing finger at Tom and Sally – “planning my Thanksgiving demise a month ago when you were here for dinner. You were in the pantry for so long I suspected something was up. I eavesdropped right outside and was shocked to hear a murder plot in the making. Heard most of the details. The next day, I hired a security consultant to set up the cameras. Went to the police too.”
Tom was seething. His face was red and sweaty. He gave Charlie the stink eye and said, “This is ridiculous, there’s no truth…” Sally signaled for him to stop talking and then barked, “Shut your big fat yap. Didn’t you ever watch Perry Mason? We shouldn’t say diddly squat without a lawyer.” Tom looked annoyed, but he did shut up.
The Thanksgiving gathering broke up a short time after the police left with the two perps in tow. Charlie was disappointed that his party ended early, but he understood. The presence of police does tend to put a damper on things, he figured. He was sad to see two of his relatives hauled out of his house by the police, especially on Thanksgiving. On the other hand, he was grateful that they hadn’t succeeded in their evil plot to bump him off. He had been given a new lease on life and he intended to milk it for all it was worth.
He’d start out by making the best of what was left of the evening. The movie Home Alone was on tonight, one of his favorites. He loved seeing two bungling bad guys getting outsmarted by a kid. Of course he was no kid. But he, too, had outsmarted two bad guys today. He’d be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that it felt pretty darn good.
Yep, he had learned a valuable lesson this Thanksgiving – he wasn’t too old to cut the mustard anymore.
More of Gail’s short stories, and many others, can be found in our Terrific Tales section.