by Margaret S. Hamilton
This short story was originally published in November 2016 on the Writer’s Who Kill blog.
On New Year’s Eve, Lizzie Christopher and Nick Cameron walked up the front walkway of the historic Cooper farmhouse. White lights outlined the tree branches, and a wreath decorated with silver ornaments and blue organza ribbons hung on the front door. “Blue for the new year,” Lizzie said. “My shop staff outdid themselves helping Christina select furniture and draperies for her old family home. I can’t wait to show you how well it turned out.”
Christina Cooper, resplendent in bright blue satin, her blond hair pulled into a side bun, held court in front of the fire. Nearby, a harpist played a medley of Broadway show tunes. Though she, like Lizzie, was in her late forties, Christina managed to appear ten-years younger. As they exchanged air kisses, Christina said, “Lizzie, I’ve received so many compliments on the house.” Christina introduced three older men who stood with her: Brendan Reilly, George Slezak, and Judge Charles Harbison. “These gentlemen were my parents’ closest friends and had a major influence in my life.” She pulled Lizzie aside and murmured in her ear. “I’m so glad you came. I’m uneasy with the three men here.”
Lizzie stammered a response. She and Nick accepted champagne flutes from a passing waiter. “How nice that you could join Christina,” Lizzie said, as she raised her glass to the guests.
“The party was their idea, to welcome me back to my family home,” Christina said.
Lizzie and Nick excused themselves to admire Christina’s Imari porcelain and Chinese rugs.
Fifteen minutes later, Christina announced dinner, and walked with the three men into the dining room, ahead of the other sixteen guests.
Lizzie found her place card between Judge Harbison and George Slezak. Seated for a three-course meal, Lizzie scanned her menu. Lobster bisque and beef fillets with mushrooms, followed by apple pie, cheeses and fruit for dessert. She fingered the heavy Georgian silverware and looked for Nick, who sat near Christina at the head of the table. Candles flickered in tall candelabra and small arrangements of white roses and blue spruce lined the center of the heavy white linen tablecloth.
Sipping her water, Lizzie remembered something Christina had told her. As a twelve-year-old orphan, Christina had requested permission to live with her grandmother in the Cooper family home. Judge Harbison had ruled that Brendan Reilly, the guardian designated by her parents, would be responsible for her. Under the supervision of the estate executor and trustee, George Slezak, the farmhouse and its contents were sold. Brendan Reilly soon separated Christina from her grandmother and packed her off to boarding school. When she turned eighteen, Christina learned that nothing was left of her parents’ estate. She remained bitter and resentful, suspecting that the three men had appropriated her inheritance. Thirty-years later and now a widow, she had purchased her family home, determined to establish a new life for herself.
Judge Harbison turned to Lizzie. “Christina told me your shop supervised the renovations and designed the interiors for this place.”
“Yes,” she replied. “We drew inspiration from her beautiful collection.”
“Her parents always threw a New Year’s Eve party with an oyster bar. My colleagues and I insisted that she continue the tradition.”
Two waiters served lobster bisque, followed by a third waiter with a platter of raw oysters in their half-shells. Lizzie recoiled when she saw vivid green and red snake tattoos on the waiter’s wrists. Smiling in anticipation, the judge filled his plate with oysters. He squeezed lemon juice over each one before lifting it to his mouth and slurping it down.
Lizzie turned to George Slezak, who sat on her left. He, too, enjoyed a plate of oysters, as did Brendan Reilly, seated at the foot of the table. Perplexed, Lizzie wondered why none of the other guests had been offered oysters.
Her sinuses throbbing with the onset of a headache, Lizzie stirred her bisque without eating it. Scraping the mushrooms off her beef fillet, she ate a few small bites and picked at the accompanying roasted potatoes, green beans and carrots. The judge ate and drank with gusto, while George Slezak consumed everything on his plate and talked investment opportunities. Lizzie stifled a yawn and waited for dinner to end.
Lizzie dabbed her mouth with her napkin and pushed back her chair. Thirsty, she grabbed her empty glass and worked her way through the milling guests to the kitchen, curious about the catering arrangements. Why had only the three men—the lawyer, guardian, and judge—been offered oysters? Were oysters in short supply or had the three men ordered for themselves?
Nick followed her into the kitchen. “What’s up, Lizzie? Feeling okay?”
She drank a glass of water. “A headache. And curious about the oysters served to the three men.”
“Christina was also offered oysters, though she declined,” Nick said. “One of the waiters brought her a sealed bottle of water. I don’t think she ate anything on her plate.”
“She’s unusually tense tonight, probably remembering how the three men controlled every aspect of her life.”
Lizzie walked around the kitchen, filled with dirty dishes and empty serving platters. “It looks like the catering crew is gone.” She frowned. “That’s strange.” She looked up at Nick. “This whole evening’s been odd. Can we slip out?”
“Shouldn’t we stay to give Christina emotional support?”
“I don’t feel well. Will you find our coats? I’ll thank Christina and join you at the back door.”
As jazz pianist played in the living room, she slipped through the throng of guests and murmured her apologies. Alarmed, Christina asked if the food had made her ill. Relieved to learn otherwise, she squeezed Lizzie’s hand and wished her well.
Nick helped her pull on her heavy winter coat. Leaning against the wall, she kicked off her heels, and thrust her feet into sheepskin-lined boots. “Let’s go home and celebrate the new year by ourselves.”
“Peaceful and quiet,” Lizzie said. “A good omen for the new year.”
A Jericho police cruiser passed them and stopped. Lizzie sighed. “What now?”
Officer Bethany Schmidt ran down her window. “Lizzie and Nick, we need to talk. How soon can you get down to the station?”
“What’s up?” Lizzie asked. “We left the teenagers asleep at home.”
Bethany’s face was grim. “We’ve got multiple deaths, all guests at Christina Cooper’s party. We’re questioning everyone who was there.”
Lizzie took off her dark glasses and stared at her, open-mouthed.
Bethany spoke into her shoulder radio. “I’ve alerted the dispatcher that you’re on your way.”
Lizzie and Nick headed for home to drop off the dogs.
“So I was right,” Lizzie said. “Something was off about that party. I wonder who died last night.”
“We’ll find out,” Nick said. “Try to remember everything you noticed.”
Lizzie left a note for their teens, and assembled sandwiches to take with them. She suspected that they would be with the police for hours.
At the station, Lizzie and Nick wrote their statements about the dinner party. Lizzie supplemented hers with everything she could remember about her frequent conversations with Christina, particularly her obsession with untainted food. Lizzie had recommended a reputable food market that sold organic produce and meat.
“Who were the victims?” Lizzie asked, sipping her coffee.
Bethany opened her notebook. “Three men—Brendan Reilly, George Slezak, and Charles Harbison. They were all found dead in their cars, two in front of Christina’s house and one at his home down in the city.”
Lizzie leaned back. “Of natural causes? That’s a remarkable coincidence.”
“The medical examiner suspects poison or contaminated food,” Bethany said. “We’ve talked to the other guests at the party, and, other than hangovers, no one suffered ill effects from the dinner.” She checked her notes. “Several people noticed that the three men were the only ones to be served raw oysters at the meal.” Bethany looked at Lizzie. “Any idea why those three and not the rest of the guests?”
“The judge mentioned New Year’s Eve parties Christina’s parents used to host with an oyster bar,” Lizzie said.
“Did the judge or the others seem surprised that they were the only ones served oysters?” Bethany asked.
Lizzie shook her head. “From my perspective, they considered themselves more important than the rest of the guests. Christina told me that the party was their idea.”
“Don’t forget Christina was also served oysters, but declined,” Nick said.
“Interesting.” Bethany made a note. “Did you meet the caterer? Or the wait staff?”
“No one was in the kitchen when we left the dinner table,” Lizzie said. “It was filled with dirty dishes. I wondered if Christina had hired a separate cleanup crew.”
“The county crime scene unit is still processing the kitchen,” Bethany said.
“Christina implied that the three men stripped her parents’ estate and left her penniless. Could it be perceived as her revenge killing?” Lizzie drummed her fingers on the table. “I’m not buying it. Serving the three men oysters was too blatant a gesture.”
“I’d like your opinion on possible poisons,” Bethany said. “You were involved in solving at least one poisoning case, and we’ve had several more in the past year.”
“Poor Mary Finch,” Lizzie said. “She drank vodka laced with monkshood.”
“The medical examiner will screen for aconite, but Mary’s death happened soon after ingestion.”
“Contaminated vodka shots would fit the timeline,” Lizzie said. “Did other guests mention if vodka was served?”
Bethany checked her notes. “Yes, at midnight.”
Lizzie shifted in her seat and looked at Nick. “The raw oysters are an obvious source of poison.”
“Paralytic shellfish poisoning,” he said, in full physician mode. “Unusual, but it fits the timeline for two of the deaths. The city medical center recently had a case come into the emergency room.”
“Amanita mushrooms,” Lizzie said. “Not long ago, George Baxter ate them and died. Afterwards, the Garden Club had a lecture on identifying poisonous mushrooms.” She frowned. “Though I remember that the timeline for death is about six hours.”
“That would fit the third victim, who managed to drive back down to the city before he died,” Bethany said.
“What about the catering staff?” Lizzie asked. “I saw a van in the driveway as we arrived.”
“We’re still looking for them,” Bethany said. “How many waiters do you remember?”
Lizzie counted them off on her fingers. “Two male waiters, each one serving half the table. A third guy served the oysters. I assumed he did double duty in the kitchen.”
“What did the third waiter wear?” Bethany asked.
“A white jacket and black slacks, the same as the others,” Lizzie said. “Except the sleeves of his jacket were too short. I noticed his wrists and forearms were covered with snake tattoos.”
Bethany jotted down the details.
“Did you ask all the party guests these questions?” Lizzie asked.
“Yes,” Bethany said. “We also know you were the first guests to leave.”
“I had a headache and wasn’t particularly hungry.” Lizzie paused. “What about Christina?”
“Lawyered up and not saying a word,” Bethany said.
The following week, Bethany dropped by after dinner.
“Any progress with the three deaths?” Lizzie asked. “It’s been the talk of town. Everybody’s afraid to eat mushrooms or oysters, or even drink vodka.”
Bethany sat down and opened her notebook. “The three victims made credit card deposits to a catering company down in the city. The caterer’s usual staff was stretched to the limit on New Year’s Eve, so they scrambled to hire hourly workers, who have conveniently disappeared. The workers were paid in cash, and no one seems to know their names.”
“All the cooking was done in the catering company kitchen?” Lizzie asked.
“Correct,” Bethany said.
“So the food must have been contaminated in Christina’s kitchen, just before it was served.”
“That’s our assumption,” Bethany said. “You’re three for three on the poisons used—monkshood in vodka shots served at midnight, amanita mushrooms during the main course, and paralytic shellfish poisoning in the oysters. Each poison caused one victim’s hideous death. And each poisoning method has been in the local news.”
“Surely you don’t suspect Christina,” Lizzie said.
“She still maintains her innocence. Christina was never alone during the party, and denies being in the kitchen that evening. She claims the three men wanted to throw the party in her parents’ memory.”
“There were no toasts or affectionate speeches during the event,” Lizzie said. “When we arrived, Christina told me she was uneasy about the three men. Do you remember that she suspected that they stole from her parents’ estate?”
“Yes,” Bethany said. “It was in your statement.”
“Would the three men have had access to the poisonous foods? That’s a real stretch.”
Bethany promised to keep in touch.
During the next week, Lizzie invented excuses to call Christina, who had been told not to leave town. Convinced that the contaminated food had been meant for her, Christina planned to lead a solitary life until the case was solved.
While she waited for the butcher to wrap up a pot roast, Lizzie wandered through the vegetable section in search of Yukon Gold potatoes. She stood next to a young man stocking the display bins. He pushed up his sleeves to reveal his tattooed wrists.
Lizzie gasped. The third waiter who’d served the oysters. She moved towards the onions. Should she confront him or notify the police? She pulled out her phone and texted Bethany Schmidt that she’d found the third waiter working at a local market.
She took a deep breath, and clutching her bag of potatoes, approached him. “You were the waiter who served the oysters on New Year’s Eve.”
He continued to stack sweet potatoes. “What’s it to you?”
“I just texted the police. They’ll be here any minute.” Lizzie edged away.
He opened a box of yellow onions and dumped them in a bin. “I’ve got nothin’ to tell them.”
“You do realize that three people died after the party? One from contaminated oysters. That makes you an accessory.”
His face flushed and hands trembling, he put the empty box under his cart. “Lots of strange stuff happened that night.” He wiped his sweaty forehead with his arm. “I’ve got a juvie record. I was afraid to talk to the police.”
“Did you see anyone tamper with the food?”
He lifted a box of purple onions to the top of the cart. “Judge Harbison hired me to serve the oysters to him, his two friends, and Ms. Cooper. The judge threatened to tell my boss about my juvie record unless I did what he told me.” He piled the onions in a bin.
“The night of the party, the judge gave me a white jacket to wear, and the platter with the oysters. His oysters had lemon wedges tucked inside the shell. The ones for Ms. Cooper had a parsley garnish, and Mr. Reilly’s were sprinkled with paprika. The rest were plain for Mr. Slezak.”
“Did Christina take any oysters?”
“Ms. Cooper didn’t want any, so I served hers to one of the other men. Not the judge, though. I thought he’d be angry at Ms. Cooper for not taking any.”
“And then what happened?”
“After I finished serving, I wiped off the platter and serving spoon and left them on the kitchen counter. I found a hundred bucks under the seat of my truck, like I was promised. I tore out of there, stopped to throw the white jacket in a dumpster, and headed for home.”
“Who was on the catering crew?”
“Two waiters and a grouchy old woman who didn’t speak English. Maybe she was Russian?” He picked up another box. “The old woman drank from a bottle of vodka and refilled it with something from a smaller bottle Mr. Slezak gave her, before he took the big bottle out to the bar in the living room.”
“The mushrooms?” Lizzie asked. “Small brown slices in a wine sauce, poured over the beef fillets.”
He put another box on top of the cart. “Yeah, I saw Mr. Reilly hand one of the waiters a small plastic container. The waiter heated it up, and spooned the sauce on a piece of beef. Ms. Cooper didn’t want any meat, just vegetables. I remember the Russian woman made her a separate plate.”
“You’re sure the two men in the kitchen were the men you served oysters?”
“Slezak’s a lawyer. He represented some of the guys in juvie. The judge told me the third guy was Reilly.”
“And you have no idea of the waiters’ names? Or the Russian woman?”
He shook his head.
“Was Christina Cooper in the kitchen during the evening?”
“I didn’t see her.”
Bethany Schmidt arrived and escorted him to her SUV for a ride to the station.
Bethany called Lizzie the next day. “This case gets crazier by the minute. The tattooed man, Jess Fowler, is telling the truth. One of the guests, who arrived late, saw the judge hand Jess the platter of oysters.”
“You’re still looking for the Russian woman and two waiters?” Lizzie asked.
“We are, as well as the sources of the oysters, mushrooms, and vodka.”
“Perhaps Christina had proof that the three stole from her parents’ estate and was ready to make her allegations public.”
“If the three victims wanted to silence Christina, there were much easier ways to do it,” Bethany said.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Lizzie asked. “Harbison, Slezak, and Reilly each planned to kill Christina, but instead, succeeded in poisoning each other.”
“Crazier things have happened,” Bethany said. “It’s still an open case, the first, and I hope, the last for the new year.”
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