Something in the Waterby Charlotte MacLeod
Although real murder is never a laughing matter, Charlotte MacLeod makes the fictional kind more fun than anyone else. Her latest outing with Professor Peter Shandy, New England's famous horticulturist and homegrown hercule Poirot, takes us to the Maine coast, a world of stormy seas and verdant gardens where dark and bright are strangely mixed... and where secrets… See more details below
Although real murder is never a laughing matter, Charlotte MacLeod makes the fictional kind more fun than anyone else. Her latest outing with Professor Peter Shandy, New England's famous horticulturist and homegrown hercule Poirot, takes us to the Maine coast, a world of stormy seas and verdant gardens where dark and bright are strangely mixed... and where secrets abound. Peter Shandy has journeyed northward alone to escape his wife Helen's all-female house party and to go in search of some mysterious lupines - glorious great spikes of bloom that are reportedly growing where conditions should make their existence impossible. He takes a room at a quaint old inn in Pickwance, Maine, and is awaiting a serving of Indian pudding in the dining room when the town's most disliked citizen, Jasper Flodge, keels over, face first, into his chicken pot pie. Foul play is soon suspected - especially since everyone in Pickwance feels that while Jasper never finished his main course, he got his just desserts. Shandy, however, is more intrigued by another enigma. He has located the lupines at an ancient farm owned by Frances Hodgson Rondel, a woman of great age and fixed opinions. Her plants are inexplicably lush, her hens are in glowing health, and she herself is as spry as a woman of forty. Could it be something in the soil - or in the bubbling spring that Miss Rondel guards from prying eyes? And whose voice did Shandy hear shouting threats as he came up the nearly impassable drive? Just as an unidentified element is making Miss Rondel's lupines bloom with incredible splendor, an unknown someone is turning love and hate, greed and lies, into fertile ground - for murder.
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Something in the Water
A Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"HOW THE FLAMING PERDITION does she get them to grow?"
Thus mused Professor Peter Shandy, horticultural hotshot of Balaclava Agricultural College in rural Massachusetts, temporarily transplanted to Bright's Inn at Pickwance, somewhere along the stern and rockbound coast of Maine. He was here for two reasons, the first being that his wife had taken it into her head to entertain certain friends of her youth at what sounded to Peter like an extended pajama party. Having made his token appearance as cock of the walk, he'd obliged Mrs. Shandy and her guests by taking himself out from underfoot and finding someplace else to roost pro tem.
The "she" in his unspoken question was the second reason for his being here. Helen's boon buddy, Catriona McBogle, first to arrive at the party complete with sleeping bag and fuzzy bedroom slippers with pussy-cat faces on the toes, had suggested that he take a ride up to see Miss Rondel's lupines while she herself made merry with his beloved though sometimes over-gregarious Helen and the rest of the quondam girls.
Frances Hodgson Rondel, to give the lupine expert her full name, had been amenable to Professor Shandy's visit. He'd met her that morning, almost hidden among arrogant cone- shaped panicles of bloom that shot straight up, four, five, six feet and more from great mats of exquisitely cut, mysteriously green foliage. To have called their colors breathtaking would, Peter felt, have been like calling a Stradivarius a fiddle. They ranged from whites that he thought might look about right on an angel's wing through delicate pinks, innocent baby blues, from fugitive pale yellows like the feathers on a confusing spring warbler to suave apricot, to blatantly trumpeting burnished gold, to regal purples, to reds that Titian might have been able to paint if he'd had the northern lights to dip his brush into.
Peter had a keen and careful eye for color. He'd brought forth in his greenhouses hybrids that had won him much acclaim and quite a lot of money as a horticulturist. But he knew now, in his heart of hearts, that here on this starved, rocky fragment of Maine coast, Mother Nature had made a monkey of him.
No matter, he had not yet begun to show these unlikely giants who was who. He'd be here again tomorrow morning as soon as it was decent, his gathering bags at the ready. It was getting on into July now. Peter had noticed on the way up from Massachusetts that those stately legumes for which certain stretches of Maine roadsides are justly famed were starting to go by. Now was the time for action, and here surely was the place of all places. Miss Rondel couldn't quite see what he was so wrought up about but she'd been quite ready to grant him permission to take what he pleased, once she'd found out who he was, where he'd come from, and who'd sent him to her.
Peter had already taken a few soil samples, with Miss Rondel's amused permission. He would mail them off first thing tomorrow to his friend Professor Ames, for analysis in the college laboratory. He'd asked Miss Rondel what she used for fertilizer and received only an enigmatic smile by way of answer; he suspected a tea made of well-aged poultry manure. So far he'd spied no more than three hens at Rondel's Head, but those three were the size of young turkeys, with flaming scarlet combs, feathers that shone like the Golden Cockerel of legend, and expressions of smug self-satisfaction on their haughtily beaked faces. He'd be willing to bet they never laid anything less impressive than jumbo-sized eggs with double yolks.
Miss Rondel herself was no inferior specimen. She stood maybe five feet seven in her ragged sneakers without the hint of a stoop, although the deeply engraved lines in her face and the knotted veins on the backs of her hands gave evidence to the passage of years. Nor was corroboration lacking. After having checked in late the previous afternoon, he'd asked Elva Bright, the innkeeper, if she happened to know the lady who raised the lupines.
"I ought to," Mrs. Bright had replied. "She went to school with my grandmother."
Elva herself, as everybody but Peter seemed to call her, was a grandmother several times over. Peter had deduced this from sundry remarks he'd heard her exchange with some of the local people who'd come to supper last night and to breakfast this morning, from photographs stuck up around the cash register, and from the unblushing bud of sweet sixteen or thereabouts who waited on tables in shocking-pink stirrup pants and a demure flowered blouse and addressed the innkeeper as "Gram."
So Miss Rondel must be far advanced in years, despite her upright carriage and vigorous movements. Maybe couples married young around here. Maybe this was the kind of place where families intermarried to the point where an infant could become another's great-uncle practically in utero. Maybe it was something in the water. Peter finished the last bite of his excellent chicken pot pie and looked around hopefully for the coffee and Indian pudding that he dimly recalled having ordered some while ago.
He'd been late getting back to the inn, having made a wide swing along the coast after leaving Miss Rondel and stopped to bird-watch. Dinner or supper, depending on where the eater came from, was just about over. Only two others were left in the dining room. One was the neatly dressed old man whom Peter had noticed last night at that same table over in the far corner; the other a big loudmouth who'd come in just after Peter; though a clutter of used china on the various tables indicated that business had been brisk enough earlier on.
The loudmouth had shot a hopeful glance at Peter, got no response, and settled for joshing the young waitress, whose name seemed to be Thurzella or something in that general vicinity. She'd endured his uncouth japeries without comment until she'd finished clearing a nearby table, then remarked that there was only one helping of chicken pot pie left and Mr. Flodge had better order fast if he wanted it because if he didn't, she sure did. It showed the sort of cad Flodge was, Peter decided, that he'd forthwith demanded the pot pie and was now wolfing it down as though he feared Thurzella might be scheming to snatch it away.
The old gent in the corner had set down his coffee and was watching in unconcealed awe as Flodge shoveled in the chicken and peas with the speed and efficiency of a well-oiled robot. Portions at Bright's Inn were generous to the point of overwhelming; Flodge was hardly more than halfway finished when, abruptly, without sound or sign, he pitched forward and landed face-down in his plate.
His hand jerked, smashing his water glass to the floor. Thurzella dropped a trayful of stacked plates, let out a shriek that no operatic soprano could have bettered, and made a grab for the stricken man's back hair. It came away in her hand.
"Granny! Granny, quick! Jasper Flodge fell in the gravy and his hair came off."
"Hush, Thurzella, it's only a toupee. Come on, Jasper, get up out of that before you drown yourself in the gravy. Don't just stand gawking, Thurzella. Go get something to clean up this mess."
Mrs. Bright threw the toupee disgustedly on an empty chair, took Flodge by the back of his shirt collar, hoisted him to a sitting position, and began swabbing at his face with a napkin. "Professor, I don't like to bother you—"
"It's no bother, Mrs. Bright." Peter was already out of his chair and at her side. "Let's have a look."
He'd brought along his own napkin and water glass. He wetted the napkin and sluiced it over the gravy-streaked face. The eyes were half open, the lids didn't flutter. Peter slapped the unconscious man between the shoulder blades, performed the Heimlich maneuver, finally picked up one of the stainless-steel table knives that Mrs. Bright kept polished to a mirror finish and held it close to the gaping mouth. Not a breath clouded the shiny surface. He glanced up at the innkeeper and she looked back at him.
"Better call the doctor, hadn't I, Professor?"
"And the constable, or whoever you've got for police around here."
As Peter stood by the lifeless body and wondered what in Sam Hill to do next, Mrs. Bright made a beeline for the front desk, where the telephone sat. Thurzella came in from the kitchen laden with a mop, a pail of water, a broom and dustpan, a roll of paper towels, and for some reason, a little pink-handled dish mop.
"Didn't the pie set right with you, Mr. Flodge?"
She reached for the messy plate. Peter stayed her hand.
"Leave it alone, Thurzella."
"But why? He won't want it now, all squished up like that."
"No. No, he won't want it now, Thurzella. Shouldn't you be doing something about that broken glass before somebody steps on it?"
The girl didn't seem to hear; she was staring down at the man who'd done her out of the chicken pot pie. "He's dead, isn't he?" she said at last. "I've never watched anybody die before. It's—scary, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's scary." She was only a kid, after all. "Here, why don't you go back to the kitchen and make yourself a cup of tea or something? I'll sweep up the glass. We ought to leave the table as it is until the police come."
"But why, Professor? It doesn't seem right just to—"
"I know," said Peter, "but that's the way they—watch it!"
He managed to catch the girl before she landed among the shards and ease her into a chair at the next table, where she wouldn't have to look at the frightening huddle that had so recently been Jasper Flodge. Then he called over to the silent man in the corner.
"Sir, could you come and keep an eye on this young lady while I pick up the broken glass? She's not feeling too well."
"Neither am I."
The man stood up, however, leaning heavily on a thick blackthorn cane, and labored himself across the room. Peter felt sorry that he'd bothered the poor old coot. Once the man managed to reach Thurzella, however, he proved competent enough. He lowered himself carefully into the chair next to her, pulled out, of all serendipitous objects, a dainty Victorian silver smelling bottle with a blue glass liner, and held it under the fainting youngster's nose.
"This was my mother's," he explained a trifle self-consciously, "and her mother's before her. Being somewhat subject to dizziness, for reasons I shan't bore you with, I find it a useful thing to carry around. Take a good sniff, Thurzella, it will clear your head."
She sniffed, coughed, sneezed and began to cry. The man handed her a fine linen handkerchief, ironed to a gloss, white as a snow goose's breast. "There, there, you'll be all right. Perhaps this kind gentleman might bring you a drink of water?"
An aluminum pitcher and a trayful of clean goblets had been left on a serving table over by the cash register. Peter went over and gave the pitcher an experimental slosh to see if there was still any water in it. There was, not much, but enough. He filled one of the goblets and carried it back to Thurzella.
She was still sobbing into the beautiful handkerchief. The elderly man was quite sensibly sitting silent and letting her cry. He took the goblet from Peter and offered it with the same Old World punctilio as he'd provided the handkerchief and the smelling salts. Thurzella gulped a few times, blew her nose, dried her eyes, and took the water, making a clumsy business of getting the goblet to her lips. It did the trick, though. By the time Elva Bright got back from her telephoning, the granddaughter was on her hands and knees under Flodge's table chasing stray chips with dustpan and brush while Peter wielded the broom.
The innkeeper was scandalized. "Give me that broom, Professor! You're not forking out good money to sweep my floor for me, not that I don't appreciate your helping. I've had the devil's own time getting hold of anybody, but it's finally fixed that they're sending the emergency wagon over from the Narrows to pick him up. Dr. Bee's promised to go take a look at him once he gets there. The doctor says it was most likely a heart attack, which wouldn't surprise me one iota, considering the way Jasper lived. So I guess it's all right to clean him up and make him halfway presentable, at least. He'd hate to be seen at the hospital with his face all gaumed up and green peas coming out of his ears."
"And his hair off," added the elderly man with a perfectly straight face. "Were you able to reach Flodge's—ah—housekeeper?"
"Oh, he hasn't had any for five months or better. The last one didn't find it lively enough around here in the wintertime, for which I suppose a person can't blame her. That's why Jasper's been eating here so regularly. He hasn't been able to strike it lucky again, if that's what you'd call luck. This is a fine way for me to be running on, I must say, with him sitting here dead. Thurzella, hadn't you better skite along home? Your mother'll be wondering what's happened to you."
"No, she won't. She and Dad are over at Aunt Sara Ann's. Uncle Ira's birthday's next week, you know, and Aunt Sara bought him a bunch of old Greta Garbo tapes for a present. Tonight's his bowling night with the crew from the mill, so she invited Mum and Dad over for a sneak preview. They'll be hopping when they find out what they've missed. Can't I stay with you tonight, Grammy?"
"Now, Thurzella. You know your father will have fourteen cat fits if you're not in bed when they get home."
"But I'm scared to walk home in the dark."
"Er—" Peter cleared his throat. "Does she have far to go? I could run her home in my car."
"Lord, no, Professor, it's just down the road. I'll take my flashlight and go with her if one of you men wouldn't mind waiting here till I get back, in case the wagon shows up."
"I can wait," said the elderly man. "Waiting's about all I'm good for these days. Perhaps Professor—I'm sorry, sir, but I don't know your name."
"It's Shandy. I teach at Balaclava Agricultural College down in Massachusetts. Go ahead, Mrs. Bright, I'll stick around and keep him company. Assuming you care for any, Mr.—"
"Withington. Claridge Withington. I've done some teaching myself, in years past. Am I right in thinking that you're the Shandy who hybridized the portulaca Purple Passion? Not to mention the famous Balaclava Buster rutabaga."
"M'well, yes, I suppose you could say so, though my friend Professor Ames did most of the work. You're not by any chance the Claridge Withington who writes for the Lupine Ledger?"
"Dear me, don't say you've actually read some of my pieces?"
"Oh yes, I always do. So does my wife, I believe you've quoted her once or twice. She's curator of the Buggins Collection at Balaclava and has written rather extensively on the Buggins family."
"Helen Marsh Shandy, of course! A lady I greatly admire, if I may say so. Well, well, this is indeed a small world. Your wife is not with you, by any fortunate chance?"
"No, she's entertaining a houseful of her old friends and I'm under orders to make myself scarce."
Peter found it odd to be making small talk in the presence of a possibly stiffening corpse, although he'd experienced a similar phenomenon often enough with some of his early-morning classes. He wondered whether Jasper Flodge hadn't better be laid out on the serving table in order to prevent any awkwardness about getting him stowed into the emergency wagon. It would hardly do to voice his perturbation now, he wouldn't be able to manage the job alone unless Mr. Withington's cane turned out to be a collapsible gurney. Which wouldn't surprise Peter much, all things considered.
Anyway, the Narrows, in whatever direction it might lie, must not be any great distance from the inn if Mrs. Bright thought the wagon might arrive before she got back. Unless she was planning to drop over to Sara Ann's en route and watch the movie. Maine people, as Peter had learned on a previous visit, did tend to step to the music they heard, however remote and far away.
"And what brought you here, Professor Shandy?" Withington was asking. "Pickwance has its devotees, of whom I am one, but it's hardly a Mecca for tourists."
"That in itself would be reason enough," said Peter, "but in fact I came because our friend Catriona McBogle suggested that I'd be interested in seeing Miss Rondel's lupines."
"Of course, the lupines! I haven't seen them in recent years myself, for obvious reasons, but I have vivid memories of how spectacular they used to be. Are they as gorgeous as ever?"
Excerpted from Something in the Water by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1994 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Probably the slowest paced of the Shandy novels. It was still well written and the evil mastermind was a bit of a surprise. I did think the last couple of pages seemed a little rushed. Though explained well enough to be clear, it probably could have benefited from another couple of pages of set up for the arrest. My biggest complaint: No Thorkjeld Svenson, my favorite character. The hardcover was well formatted with only a couple of noticeable spelling/grammar mistakes.
I can’t express how much I enjoy Charlotte MacLeod’s stories. She creates characters that invite you into their quiet life while they hunt for who did it. Her style makes me think of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries.