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A Pint of Murder
A Madoc and Janet Rhys Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Doubleday & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"Aunt Aggie, are you all right?"
The old woman on the floor retched again. The body jerked in convulsions, then was still. Agatha Treadway died as she'd lived, despising Marion Emery.
"She seemed okay at suppertime."
Marion wasn't being much help. She sat huddled on one of the dusty green plush chairs in the front hall, shivering in a baby-doll nightgown that was ridiculous on her lanky, middle- aged figure and in any case a bit optimistic even for July, although summers in eastern Canada are much milder than tourists are apt to expect.
"What did she eat?" snapped Dr. Druffitt. He was feeling, not for the first time, a powerful urge to land his wife's cousin a hefty blow across the starboard mandible.
"J-just the usual."
"The usual what? For God's sake, Marion, try to make sense for once in your life."
"Hell, Henry, how do I know? Something out of a jar from the cellar. String beans, I guess it was. And bread and butter and tea, same as always."
"Did you eat the same things?"
"I had a cup of tea and some bread and butter, that's all. I'd grabbed a bite at the Busy Bee when I got off the bus, knowing there'd be no hope of a decent meal from Auntie." Marion's shrug turned into a shudder. "Henry, she's not really dead, is she?"
"Here, cover yourself up." The doctor snatched a faded tapestry scarf from the hall table and slung it around the woman's thin shoulders.
"Of course she's dead. From the look of that kitchen floor, I'd guess food poisoning. She probably woke up with stomach cramps and came downstairs to mix herself a dose of baking soda, then it really hit her. Any of those string beans left, eh?"
"I don't know."
"Then go find out, can't you?"
"God, Henry, don't make me go back there again."
But Marion Emery was used to doing as she was told at the Mansion. She dragged herself off the chair and slumped down the drafty, dark hallway, looking every minute of her forty- six years, Dr. Druffitt herding her along like a snappish old collie. As they passed through the swinging door into the kitchen, they heard a rapping at the back door.
"Now who the hell is that?" Sidling close to the wall in order to avoid what was on the floor, Marion went over and snapped on the outside light. "Oh hi, Janet." She betrayed herself as a foreigner by pronouncing the name to rhyme with "gannet."
Janet Wadman herself, like a good New Brunswicker, used the gentler "Jennet." She looked as gentle as her name, though in fact she could be crisp enough if need arose. Her peach-blossom cheeks were the sort to show dimples if there'd been anything to smile about, and her baby-fine hair had turned to a soft, curly nimbus in the night air, showing bronze-brown glints under the naked overhead bulb.
Janet was the younger sister of Bert Wadman, who ran the farm next door, the Mansion's only neighbor out here on the hill. She was clutching a challis wrapper around her, a dainty rose-printed thing designed for a pretty woman, which Bert's wife, Annabelle, had given her a year and a half ago when Janet had gone away to an office job in Saint John. She'd loved the robe then. Now its roses were a trifle too exuberant for her pallor, the pattern too sweet to go with the more mature set of her mouth.
"I couldn't sleep," the purple smudges under Janet's dark gray eyes suggested she hadn't been sleeping for some time now, "and I heard the doctor's car drive in. Is she bad?"
Henry Druffitt had a mean streak in him. He stepped away so she could see into the kitchen. "What do you think?"
"Oh my God! What was it?"
"Henry says food poisoning," Marion answered for him.
"But that's crazy! She—I'll get a bucket of sawdust, eh?" Clenching her teeth, Janet ran for the woodshed. She had to get away from there long enough to pull herself together. When she came back a few minutes later, outwardly a bit more collected and carrying a galvanized pail in her hand, she found the others sniffing at a preserving jar they'd taken from the ancient high-domed electric refrigerator.
"They smell okay to me," Marion was saying.
"You can't go by that," Dr. Druffitt replied. "This would be botulism. It's far deadlier than ordinary food poisoning. Home-canned string beans are dangerous breeding grounds because of their exceptionally low acid content. Aggie ought to have known better."
"But Auntie canned them herself," Marion argued, "and you know how fussy she was."
"I also know she was eighty-seven years old. At her age she could slip up for once, couldn't she? Anyway, I'm going to send this jar down for analysis by the morning bus. I ought to take a sample of the stomach contents, too, I suppose. Get me a spatula and an empty container with a lid to it."
Janet had begun scattering sawdust over the mess on the floor, being careful not to get any on the old woman, whom she'd dearly loved.
"Couldn't you hold off till I got a specimen?" snapped the doctor.
"No, I couldn't." It was none of his business why. Janet wasn't going to tell anybody, ever, about that last time she'd gone out with Roy.
She'd been feeling queasy all that week, then she'd developed a stitch in her side. She'd thought she must have picked up a bug of some sort, and that it would go away if she kept working and made believe it wasn't there. But the pain had gotten worse.
By Friday she'd felt downright awful, but Roy had been planning a big smash to celebrate his birthday, and she couldn't bear to spoil it. For the past several months, Roy had been giving her every reason to believe his happiness depended on being with her. There'd been hints from certain of their coworkers that she wasn't the only girl who'd been led to think so, but naturally she put them down to jealousy.
So she'd had a bottle of champagne chilled and waiting when he came to pick her up, and had taken a few sips herself in the hope of quieting her stomach while he and her roommates drank the rest. Then they'd gone on to the restaurant, and the minute she got inside and smelled the food, she'd had to rush outside again and disgrace herself all over the sidewalk.
To make matters worse, a couple of chaps Roy knew had come along just then. She'd been too wretched to hear what they were saying, but she could guess what the laughter was about. And Roy had been furious. He'd shoved her into a cab, given the driver five dollars and her address, and stormed off.
Whether she'd managed to convince the man that she wasn't drunk but sick, she'd never know. In any event, he'd dropped her at a hospital emergency ward and driven away without offering to help her inside. She'd managed that somehow by herself and gone through the nightmare of getting admitted when she didn't know where she was and could hardly remember her own name for the pain. Roy hadn't even sent a get-well card.
It wasn't that he hadn't known about her ruptured appendix. As soon as she was able, Janet had sent word to the office. The boss's secretary had come right over on her lunch hour with a bunch of flowers, and been sweet about telephoning Annabelle and Bert. Alice and Moira had dropped by a few times after work and at last Janet had gotten up courage enough to mention Roy's name. Moira had given Alice a look and Alice had blushed and said, "Oh he's fine. I'll tell him you said hello," and that was the end of her great romance.
Only Janet wasn't the sort who could turn her feelings on and off like faucets and that was one of the reasons she couldn't endure the sight of that kitchen floor. She got out the mop and filled her pail with hot soapsuds, and fished out a tissue to wipe her tear-wet cheeks. "And furthermore," she sniffled angrily, "you can analyze till you're black in the face, but you'll never get me to believe Mrs. Treadway let those beans go bad."
"Who's the doctor here, you or Henry?" Marion retorted. "If Auntie didn't, then who did? That's one of her jars, isn't it? God knows I've seen enough of them."
"Yes, I know. She bought twelve dozen of each size the day she got back from her honeymoon, and never broke one in her life. She was so proud of those jars." Janet brushed away a last tear and went on swishing suds over the kitchen floor. Mrs. Treadway had been proud of her linoleum, too.
"Well, Aggie was long past her threescore and ten," said Henry Druffitt in that fretful voice which was one of his several unpleasant characteristics. "Her faculties weren't what they had been."
"She was sharp as a tack and then some," Janet insisted. "Marion can tell you that."
Certainly the niece had been here enough times to judge, though the aunt had done all she could to discourage Marion from inviting herself. "Sucking around after money," had been Mrs. Treadway's acid and wholly accurate estimate of this familial devotion, both in and out of Marion's hearing.
"Besides," Janet went on, "she knew perfectly well how careful you have to be about canning snap beans. Rank poison if you let the air get at 'em, she'd say. You've heard her, Marion."
Dr. Druffitt wasn't paying any attention. He wrapped his specimens in a clean cup towel and stuffed them into his black leather satchel. "Marion, I suppose you'll want to come back with me. Get your clothes on while I phone down to see if Elizabeth has the spare room ready, eh?"
"But you're not going off and leave Mrs. Treadway here on the floor?" cried Janet. "It's not decent!"
"Can't see where it's going to make any difference to her now," the doctor grumbled. "All right then, one of you help me carry her in on the dining-room table. I'll send Ben Potts up first thing in the morning. No sense dragging both of us out of a night's sleep."
He slid his hands under Mrs. Treadway's armpits and turned her on her back, letting the arms flap loose. Marion cowered away, but Janet bent and took the thin legs. This couldn't be doing her incision much good, but it was the last service she could perform for her old friend and that was what mattered.
Marion did summon up enough enterprise to go ahead and switch on the light over the dining-room table. As it shone down on the doctor's head, Janet couldn't help noticing how bald he'd gotten since she saw him last. Henry Druffitt was getting on in years. His wife must be middle-aged, too. It was hard for Janet to think of Mrs. Druffitt as being any age at all. She'd had the doctor's wife for a Sunday-school teacher, and always pictured her like the church steeple, rigidly upright and pointed in the proper direction.
Infallibility wasn't the husband's long suit, though. Henry had stepped into his father's practice after barely scraping through medical school, and hung onto it mainly because he'd had no competition until the new highway put the county hospital within practical driving distance. Now his patients preferred to take their more serious ailments to a place where diagnosis was more reliable and prognosis less dependent on a sound constitution and a hopeful disposition.
Annabelle Wadman was down at the hospital now, having surgery for what the older ladies of Pitcherville still referred to as "female complaints." She'd known for some time it would have to be done, and had timed the operation for the summer holidays, when her children could stay with their grandparents not far from the hospital, and be spoiled rotten.
Annabelle would be going to her folks, too, to recuperate and be close to her specialist for postoperative checkups. Originally they hadn't planned for Janet to come home and keep house for her brother. Molly Olson and some other neighbors from the village had promised to come up and lend a hand, and anyway Bert took off to be with his wife and the boys every chance he got. After her own illness, however, Janet had welcomed any excuse to get away from Saint John and Roy.
According to Annabelle, it was Dr. Druffitt's fault she needed the operation. He'd delivered her first baby and she'd never been quite right since. The doctor claimed it had simply been a difficult birth and nobody could have managed better. Janet, knowing her sister-in- law, was inclined to side with the doctor on that one though of course she'd never dare say so because she loved Annabelle in spite of everything. But she knew for a positive fact that Dr. Druffitt had to be wrong about Agatha Treadway's having killed herself with her own cooking.
The old woman's persnickety ways had been a family joke ever since Janet could remember, and long before. Those jars could no doubt be sold as antiques these days, but there wasn't a chip or a crack in any one of them. Mrs. Treadway had never used a sealer ring more than once, and she'd no more have fooled around with halfway methods than she'd have danced the black bottom on Sunday. She even used to boil the tongs employed to lift the scalded jars out of the preserving kettle. If those string beans had gone bad in the jar, then it wasn't Agatha Treadway who'd put them up, and that was that.
But if she hadn't canned them herself, then she'd never have eaten them. Forty-odd years ago, Mrs. Treadway's husband had opened a commercially processed tin of tomatoes with a patent can opener of his own invention, eaten its contents, and died. From that day on, the widow had bought nothing from any grocer except flour, sugar, salt, and tea. She'd gotten milk and eggs from the Wadman farm, churned her own butter, and made her own sourdough bread. She caught fish in the pond now and then, or ate home-cured bacon the Wadmans gave her, but mostly she lived on what she grew in her own garden.
When she got too old to tend her own plot, she'd been glad enough to accept fresh fruits and vegetables for canning from any neighbor who chose to share them with her, but nobody, not even Janet's late mother, had ever got her to taste a bite of cooked food after Charles Treadway died.
Yet Agatha Treadway had been fond of the Wadmans, fonder than she'd ever been of her own kin. She'd outlived both her brothers. For blood relatives, she had only the two nieces, Marion and Elizabeth, plus Elizabeth's daughter Gillian and grandson Bobby. Marion she'd openly scorned. Elizabeth Druffitt hadn't set foot inside the Victorian ark Pitcherville called the Mansion for fifteen years and more.
At least Marion's faithful treks up from Boston had kept her in the will. "She'll get her fair share," old Aggie had scoffed. "God knows she's worked hard enough for it." The half that was to have been Elizabeth's before the big fight would go to Gilly Bascom, the Druffitts' only offspring.
Not that there could be much left for anybody by now. Charles Treadway had run through most of a sizable lumber fortune financing his crazy inventions. The widow had been dipping into capital for years, to keep the Mansion from tumbling around her ears. Whatever she'd had, though, would stay in the family because Agatha had always believed in sticking by your own whether you could stand them or not.
It was going to be a lonesome old summer out here on the hill with Mrs. Treadway gone and Bert away so much and only Julius the cat for company. Janet gave the wet mop a final rinse and hung it back in the cellarway. She got a clean hand towel out of the drawer by the kitchen sink, wet and soaped one end of it, then went to the dining room and gently sponged the face and hands that were already like waxworks. She went upstairs for a clean sheet, a nice one with a crocheted edge, brought it back down, and spread it over the tall, still form on the dining-room table.
There was nobody here to help her. Marion had gone off in the doctor's car without a backward look, much less a tear for dear old Auntie. That didn't matter, Janet was crying enough for both of them. Her brother Bert would feel awful, too, when he found out. No sense in waking him tonight. One thing about bad news, as their own dead mother used to say, it could always wait till morning.CHAPTER 2
"Janet, could you spare me a slice of bread?"
"Come on in, Marion," sighed Janet. "I'll warm up the teapot."
This was ten days after Agatha Treadway had been laid to rest, and Janet was beginning to wish she'd stayed in Saint John to nurse her sore belly and her broken heart. Watching Roy parade his new love couldn't be any more irksome than fetching and carrying for Marion Emery.
Bert, who didn't find neighborly hospitality onerous since he wasn't the one who had to cope with their new star boarder, was getting a good deal of amusement from Marion's staying on at the Mansion. "Hi, how's the heiress this morning? Found the hidden millions, eh?"
Excerpted from A Pint of Murder by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1980 Doubleday & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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